Prompted by redsixwing
sponsored by redsixwing and nanila
Word count 3,664 words.
Summery: Captain Francis Drake has rather surprising morning, while docked in Shanghai.
The RNV Exeter had been in skydock at Shanghai International for less than four hours when Captain Francis Drake received a call from the Britannic Consulate. Lt Greene was manning Comms while in dock, as thon had declined shore leave, and briefly appeared on screen to personally warn Francis of who was calling.
Francis chafed at the fact that in certain ports, some of her crew had to remain aboard, and legally on Britannic soil, due to local laws regarding gender and/or powers. But it was a sad fact of life, and while she might not appreciate the locals’ opinions, as long as their laws weren’t being forced upon her or her crew, she was inclined to respect them, at least on the shoreward end of the gangplank. But she was damned if she was going to like it.
The Britannic Consul was an older man, and Francis almost hit the ‘end call’ button at the sight of his still image. Not that there was anything objectionable about him really, he looked like Santa’s younger, fitter brother. But rather it was the fact that a call from him at this early hour had to be trouble.
Nonetheless, Francis squared her shoulders, and put on what she thought of her captain’s face, and tapped the accept button on the screen.
“Sir Humphry, to what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Morning Captain Drake, I trust your cruise went successfully?”
“Tolerably well, decent weather mostly, a few scuffles here and there. Nothing worth mentioning.”
The normally verbose Sir Humphry seemed to be uncharacteristically at a loss for words, Francis noted with an uneasy sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. The crew often commented on her weather sense, and right now, she felt like she was staring at a green-tinted sunset and a falling barometer.
“Sir Humphry... I’m sure you didn’t call me just to exchange pleasantries.”
“No Captain, I did not... but I am having second thoughts about the advisability of my initial reason for calling you and..”
“By George man! Spit it out!”
“I’m sorry sir...”
“No. Quite alright Captain. I’m prevaricating. Well, to cut a long story short, I find myself in a bit of an awkward situation and need your help.”
“The Navy is, as ever, here to lend assistance.”
“Ah..no...I’d rather this didn’t become an official matter. It’s more in the nature of a personal favour.”
Francis raised an eyebrow, and thought furiously for a second. She barely knew the Britannic Consul, but rumour had it he was a ‘by-the-rules’ man from a long line of civil servants. Of all the people she thought might ask her for a favour outside of the official channels, he wouldn’t have been on her list.
“Very well Sir Humphry, I promise to at least hear you out, off the books.”
“Thank you Captain. On the surface, it’s a simple case of the navy rendering assistance to a citizen of an allied power in a foreign port. But there are certain... complications... in this case.”
Francis frowned. Legally she was required to render aid, but she didn’t much like the sound of complications.
“Go on sir... these complications...?”
“Yes, well. The owner and manager of a travelling show troupe has gotten himself in a bit of a financial pickle. Through no fault of his own I hasten to point out, but the locals have impounded his liquid assets and are now cutting up stiff about permits, preventing him from working. From what I gather, it appears at first sight to be a case of the idiot failed to grease certain palms, then defaulted on a rental payment for his dock. So now he finds himself one step away from debtors’ prison and ruin.”
Francis tilted her head slightly, puzzled.
“Forgive me sir.. I fail to see how this concerns either of us. The laws regarding debts and the responsibility thereof are fairly clear. I don’t approve of the payment of bribes, but it’s legal in this country...”
“It’s my brother, or rather, half-brother.”
Francis stopped, surprised, and then scowled at the hapless bureaucrats image on her phone’s screen.
“You’re calling me, because your half-brother, the manager for a troupe of entertainers, is in trouble?!”
“Frankly.. yes...I’ve already spent the night using what resources I have to try and straighten out the mess.”
Francis raised one eyebrow in surprise.
“Your political influence has to be better than mine, Sir. But I question the appropriateness of using it in this case.”
“And yet, here we are. In reality, my scapegrace half-brother has earned the ill-favour of a certain highly placed personage. The official charges are just a pretext. I am at my wits’ end Captain, and you have a reputation for, shall we say, highly creative solutions? If he defaults on one more payment he’ll be arrested, my family connection will be exposed, thus I will lose face and by extension so will the Britannic government. I’m sure I need not outline the political implications of that.”
“I still fail to see how it’s my problem.. Whitehall might frown at the family connection, but couldn’t you just float him a personal loan. Surely you trust him to repay you?”
“I cannot, precisely because he is family. They keep us under close scrutiny here. If I tried to do that, Whitehall would know of it and I’d be exposed.”
“Wait... no-one knows he’s your family, not even back home?!”
“Ah.. no... it would be a bit of a scandal if it became known. He’s.. well his mother went back home to America when she split with Father. He’s an American citizen, with an American father, which makes it a bit awkward. He can’t apply directly to the Britannic Embassy for help, and the American Embassy seems disinclined to assist. I suspect pressure is being brought to bear on them.”
Francis sighed, she hated politics... but she had to admit Sir Humphry had a point.
“Alright... I will see what I can do. Off the books, but I’m not at all sure what help I can be.”
“Thank you Captain... you just looking at the problem eases my mind. You’ll find his transport ship is docked at tower fourteen, over on the civilian side of the field from you. At least you don’t have far to walk.”
A half hour later and Francis admitted to herself that even if it hadn’t been a professional matter, she might well have taken a walk across the field. The airship Thaleia was an old Skycrane 600 cargo lifter... a flat bottomed design intended to land on any reasonably flat ground and discharge its cargo directly from the hold to the ground. Indeed the rear hatch was wide enough to drive a truck directly up the ramp into the hold.
Thaleia however, although she might have started her life the same as any other of her class, had evidently spent lot of time in a yard undergoing significant modifications. Francis’ first impression was that someone had draped an impossibly huge circus tent over the airship.
As she drew nearer she could see that the drapery and swags were in fact a clever bit of painting, giving the impression of three dimensional folds and gold ropes. She could also make out the lettering on the side of the ship, causing her to raise an eyebrow.
Evidently Sir Humphry’s half-brother was the manager for rather more than just a simple entertainment troupe, as the side of the Thaleia proclaimed it to be ‘Captain Reynold’s Travelling Circus and Wild West Show.’.
The real differences to the ship, however, didn’t become obvious until Captain Drake walked up in to the hold. The cavernous space had been divided at the midsection, and then subdivided horizontally into three decks at the aft end where Francis was, and two at the bow section, so that the aft mid-deck created a sort of mezzanine level.
Francis had entered through the personnel hatch located half-way up the curving wall of the airship’s flank, and found herself near the railed off edge of the aft mid-deck. The interior of the ship was a riot of colour and noise... cutting through which she heard the high whinny of a horse.
Surprised, Francis crossed over to the waist height railing and looked down into the lower deck area, one area of which she could see had been converted into stables. There were at least twenty or thirty horses in stalls below, pure-bread Arabians next to quarter horses, there was even a small handful of mules.
Movement overhead caused Francis to look up, and freeze. Far above her, bodies sailed through the air from fragile looking trapezes, making impossible seeming leaps with nothing but thin air below them, trailing broad lengths of brightly coloured silk.
As she watched ,one of the performers, a young woman in a peacock coloured bodysuit, leapt out into the air, and away from her partner. Francis’ breath caught in her throat; there was nothing for the woman to catch hold of along her trajectory. Her body arced through the air, apparently plunging to her death on the metal deck below.
At the apex of her fatal trajectory, her arms snapped out, sending forth a sunburst of yellow, red and gold cloth ribbons. Somehow, the ribbons slowed her velocity, so that she drifted down through the air, to land on her tip-toes in front of a tall man wearing a battered looking brown stock coat, over a dull red shirt and workman-like fawn trousers.
The girl, who Francis could see was of Asian descent, swept a bow to the man, her long blue-black hair almost touching the straw at his feet. Turning her back on the tableau below, Francis sought for someone to ask directions of. Spotting a small group of men sitting on some boxes playing cards she strode over.
“I’m looking for Captain Reynold.”
One of the men looked up from his hand of cards and snorted.
“Good luck with that Ma’am. The Captain’s been dead for 80 years now.”
Francis raised an eyebrow.
“I see... so who’s in charge now?”
“That’ll be his grandson, Malcolm Spencer. He’s on the Midway with that Chinese girl.”
“Sorry Ma’am, circus speak. Deck below is Midway... Spencer is the guy in the red shirt. Tall with brown hair.”
“Ah, think I’ve seen them. She was running through her act.”
“Oh, you saw that did you? Girl’s a natural. Damn shame she’s a jinx.”
The man to the man’s immediate left elbowed him in the ribs.
“Stow your gab Charlie, you don’t talk ‘bout folk to rubes.”
“Don’t act daft man, this shows gonna be gone by next week. All because of that damn girl and you know it.”
Francis backed away quietly, leaving the men to argue among themselves. A circus was a far different beast than a Navy ship. But she knew an unhappy crew when she saw one, and more often than not, when something or someone was labelled as a jinx it spoke more of a deep seated problem, usually one far removed from the ‘bad luck’.
By the time Francis reached where Malcolm Spencer and the acrobat were standing talking, discussing the act judging by Malcolm’s swooping hand gestures, she was having grave misgivings about getting involved. The pair fell silent as she approached, watching her as she walked towards them with guarded wariness.
“Mr Spencer? Captain Drake of the Royal Navy Vessel Exeter. I was asked as a favour to see if I could assist you in any way.”
The pair exchanged a glance, an unspoken communication that Francis couldn’t read, and Spencer spoke, a midwest American accent turning his voice into a twanging drawl.
“You were, Captain? Well, that was mighty nice of someone...real nice. I don’t suppose you care to say exactly whom I should thank for that?”
“Ah... I gather the gentleman didn’t want his name associated with yours too publicly.”
Francis directed a significant glance at the girl, and as Spencer followed her look, he laughed.
“Aw shoot, don’t worry about Jaifeng. I’ve no secrets from her.”
Francis took in the way the pair stood, almost but not quite holding hands, and smiled fractionally.
“Very well then, your half-brother asked me to help. I gather I was his choice of last resort.”
“Huh, well ain’t that just like him. I ask him for the cavalry, and he sends me the navy.”
“Mr Spencer, the Exeter is a Royal Navy dirigible. If necessary, I can send in the Marines. Literally.”
Spencer laughed, a short bark of a sound, as if the mirth was surprised out of him, his lips twisting up at one corner as though the laugh left a bitter after-taste in his mouth.
“Alright Ma’am... although I’ll be damned if I know what you can do to straighten out this mess I’ve gotten myself in.”
“Well, first, perhaps you could tell what the trouble is in the first place?”
“Easy enough said... Jaifeng’s father. He wants her back and quietly married off in a hurry.”
“Two questions, who is her father, and why?”
“Who is easy, Zhou Jianren, governor of Zhejiang province to the south. Why.. is kinda harder to answer.”
Jaifeng spoke up, her English perfectly pronounced but with a lilting, almost musical, accent.
“It is because I inherited the family curse. My father wants me married before word can spread and he can no longer marry me for his advantage.”
Francis blinked slightly in consternation. Matters were rather more complicated than she’d been led to believe.
“A family curse?”
“It’ll be quicker to show you Ma’am. Jai, as we practised now.”
Spencer bent at the waist slightly, extending his arm and hand palm upwards at about knee height. Jaifeng stepped lightly on his hand, balancing on one foot, her arms out-stretched to either side for balance as Spencer straightened up, holding her aloft with his arm held out straight at shoulder level.
“Impressive... but I’ve seen strongmen before Mr Spencer.”
“It ain’t what it seems Ma’am, if you’d care to hold your hand out please.”
Puzzled, Francis held out her hand, palm upwards as Spencer had done, and gasped as Jaifeng Zhou stepped lightly, with all the grace of a ballerina, from Spencer’s hand to hers. Francis instinctively braced, and almost threw the girl into the air when her hand jerked upwards. She’d expected her to weigh far, far more than she did.
“Good Lord! There’s hardly any weight to you at all!”
Jaifeng had skipped slightly, hopping from one foot to the other as Francis had jerked her into the air accidentally, turning it into a graceful pose, before hopping off her hand to land between Francis and Spencer, facing Francis.
“It is said that my mother’s family can trace their ancestry back to the moon goddess Chang'e. The curse of lightness often skips generations, but always those who inherit it do so in their seventeenth year. My birthday was eight months ago. The day afterwards, I was practising for the regional gymnastics when the spring board threw me so high I landed among the audience seats. Luckily, the hall was nearly empty and father’s men told everyone to stay silent, less they be punished for spreading shameful lies about my family.”
Francis nodded in understanding. China did not have what one could call an enlightened attitude towards soups. Despite a rich cultural heritage full of stories of people with superhuman abilities. Or perhaps, she reflected, that was why, given that such people were usually not entirely, or even at all, human.
Having a daughter with powers would be regarded as a great dishonour. For a political animal like Jianren, it would be a disaster. One that he would hasten to ‘dispose’ of, by marrying her off as quickly as possible to someone he could trust not to speak of it. Jaifeng would then disappear from public life, probably never to be seen again if she was lucky.
Spencer spoke up, putting his arms around Jaifeng as she took a step back to stand against him.
“That’s where I come in. I’d met Jaifeng last year when we toured Shanghai last, she’d snuck in without her bodyguards. I caught her sneaking around and gave her the fifty cent tour of the place. I guess she fell in love with the circus first, and me second.”
Jaifeng blushed, smiling back over her shoulder up at Spencer.
“But it’s you I love the most.”
“All very touching, and I can see why you are in trouble. But I still don’t see how I can help.”
The couple’s smiles faded quickly, and Spencer nodded slowly.
“Truth be told, I can’t neither. That old son of a gun has got me boxed in real good. I can’t put on a show without permits, and they’re being refused on the grounds that some of my performers might be soups.. unofficially of course. Damnedest thing is, I can’t prove they ain’t, because some of them are... which ain’t never been a problem before provided I greased the right palms. But this time, I ain’t even got the right kinda ‘coin’ to make them look the other way now. Money’s nothing in comparison to the governor owing you a favour. So, I’m stuck. Can’t leave, because I ain’t got the money to pay my debts. Docking fees are eating away at what money I got left... and half of my acts have up and left, and I can’t even blame them because I sure wouldn’t want to be a blue-plate special stranded here.”
Francis frowned down at the deck plating, thinking of Lt Greene and others of her crew who were in a similar position, trapped aboard ship as they dared not brave the Chinese law waiting for them one step beyond the gangplank.
Just then, an idea struck her, and slowly she looked up, a smile creeping across her face like the promise of dawn breaking.
“Mr Spencer... your problem, as I see it, is that you are stuck in a port where you are not permitted to perform, and you can’t leave until you have earned enough money to pay your docking fees. Is that correct?”
“Good, I have one question for you. How much space do you require to set up?”
“Ma’am? Uhh.. well now... the main tent is 105 feet across all told, but that can be broken down so the six rings are in line instead of one big group. I guess.. it’s a question of how long is a piece of string kinda. But usually, we look for space around 750 square metres.”
“I see. Can you make do with less?”
“I suppose... if we can move the Thaleia to wherever. We can use her as a staging area if needs be. Why? Where do you have in mind?”
“Well, in something of an unexpected development, I find myself in charge of the one thing you need. To wit, a decent sized bit of sovereign Britannic soil. Where it would be perfectly legal for your people to perform, with my permission of course.”
Spencer looked at her in hopeful surprise and bewilderment.
“Uhh.. just what are you talking about Ma’am?”
“My ship, sir. Some of my crew have the same problem as your performers. But as it’s legally Britannic soil, you can perform aboard her.”
“I can’t quite see my people putting on a show in your mess hall Ma’am. No disrespect meant and all, but that’s a mite bit small for our needs.”
“Mr Spencer, the Exeter is an aircraft carrier... with a very large and very flat flight deck up topside. One I rather think you’ll find quite adequate to your needs. That is, if you think your people would have no objections to pitching your tent there?”
“Well, heck... no! It ain’t nothing but a short walk across the field. We can do it!”
“Mr Spencer, I think we’d best not take chances. If it’s all the same to you, I’ll request the Exeter be remoored at the next docking tower over and we can string a bridge between them. That way your people don’t even have to touch Chinese soil. Best we don’t take chances you know.”
“You can do that?”
“We’re the Royal Navy... you’d best believe we know our way around ropes!”
“Yes Ma’am! We’ll be short handed, but we’ll manage.”
“I dare say... but with your permission, I’ll see if any of my crew harboured ambitions of running away and joining the circus. I think if we are going to put on a show without the usual restrictions you’ve been labouring under, then by George, we’ll give them one that’ll really show them what’s possible once people stop being silly arses about who has powers or not. What say you?!”
“Ma’am.. I like the way you think! With your help, we’ll wow them for sure!”
“That’s the ticket Mr Spencer... and speaking of tickets. I’ll have my purser handle charging the locals admission. Then if the local authorities want to cut up difficult about that, they’ll be tangling with us instead. No disrespect meant to your father Miss, but a provincial governor is no match for the full weight of her Majesty’s government, and the officials here in Shanghai know it. They won’t want to get caught in that cross-fire.”
Spencer reached out, and taking Francis’ hand, pumped it energetically a few times.
“Thank you Captain! Thank you very much! You don’t know how much this means to me.”
Spencer let go of Francis, and spinning Jaifeng around hugged her.
“You know what this means? We can leave! You’ll be free!”
Jaifeng buried her face in Spencer’s chest, as a small sob escaped her. Francis retreated a few paces, giving the couple a modicum of privacy.
There was going to be lot of work to do first, and she was sure her Flight officer was about to have a litter of hedgehogs, never mind kittens, at the idea of turning his deck into a circus.
But it was so going to be worth it all!
Crossposted from: http://siliconshaman.dreamwidth.org/1235
comments so far over there.