Uh-oh. We have a runner. Thanks to some more to-ing and fro-ing with Gemma, who’s been hard at work developing Nadeen and her world, a few more ideas have popped up. Ones that might actually give us a story to play with. Look out.
After visiting Hanoi, supposedly to help French merchants, Rivière had taken the citadel and promptly given it back to the Vietnamese. It was an odd move, and his erratic, expansionist tendencies had continued from there. Everyone knew it wasn’t about helping his fellow Frenchmen – it was about preventing the British using the Chinese to secure the area’s coal mines.
And now this foray into the north of Vietnam was only getting more nerve-wracking as more and more rumours circulated of Chinese involvement – Nadeen supposed someone had to keep his strange actions in check. That said, rumour was that even the French government was becoming concerned with what he was doing. In fact, it seemed obvious to most people except Rivière that the locals would want to stand their ground sooner or later.
Now, as Nadeen stared across the Red River Detla towards a force of ramshackle ships over Ninh Bình, it seemed as though they were starting to do just that.
The ships looked like they were propelled by sails and held aloft with slow-moving rotors on the underside and rear. They shouldn’t be much of a match for the might of an ether-powered French airship. Nadeen squinted a little more, shuffling her goggles out the way a little.
They did have some really big cannons though.
She murmured a disconcerted noise and hopped down from her perch at the porthole. The call to arms was still ringing from the upper decks, but to look at her little gang of automatons down here in the bowels of the ship, you’d never know anything unusual was going on.
She didn’t concern herself with the questions around this expedition. Let alone any consequences it might have. She just had to keep the ship flying, no matter what.
She hurried to check the avionics, furnaces and cooling systems. Then she had a quick check to ensure the little automatons were doing their jobs. Every second that went by she felt herself bracing more and more for the inevitable impact of cannon fire.
Then the call came down the communication tube. Engines to half speed and halt.
She hoped this meant they weren’t going to get into a fight after all. It was hard to do her job with the ship rocking as it was hit.
She took the manual controls to bring the ship to a hover before going to the automatons in turn and tweaking their settings to maintain the ship’s elevation.
An odd, repeated knocking noise stopped her in her tracks. Number Six had slipped and was now trying to “wake” the bed frame itself. What did she even keep him around for?
Finally the ship drew to a stop, and she hopped back up to the porthole.
She wouldn’t need her telescope now.
There were seven ships in the approaching group, and the foremost one was already close enough that you could make out the crew scurrying around the upper decks.
Their ships as though they were wooden fishing boats from before the advent of ether, converted to fly using old engines. They looked small, old and fragile.
But any comfort this might have given Nadeen was lost when it drew up alongside them, a cannon level with the porthole she was leaning out of.
Instead of darting back into the relative safety of the engine room, she craned her head further out to look towards the top of her ship. She couldn’t make out what was going on, but it sounded like the ships’ commanders were yelling at each other. Negotiating.
After a couple of seconds of unsuccessfully trying to work out what was being said, Nadeen let her gaze drop to the horizon. If you ignored the ships hovering perilously close, the view would be breathtaking. They regularly were from up here, but the gleam of the Red River against the backdrop of forest greenery, the setting sun and the cliffside citadel of Ninh Bình itself was particularly eye-catching.
In that instant, she went right back to not caring about what was going on on the upper decks.
As she started to wriggle her way back inside the ship’s engine room, she realised she was being watched. In the cramped gloom in the other ship, just beyond the cannon aimed at her, was a boy. He was about her age and staring right at her, despite occasionally disappearing from view as the ships rocked in the breeze.
She greeted him with a sheepish smile. The thought that the order might be given for him to open fire at any second didn’t occur to her.
She tried to get back inside. She couldn’t move. Part of her belt was stuck on the porthole’s frame.
She struggled against it some more.
The boy kept staring.
“Nice view, isn’t it?” she offered, with a nod at the horizon.
He smiled and nodded, but it was painfully obvious he hadn’t understood a word she’d just said. Maybe he was just staring because of the colour of her skin. It had happened before. It was unusual to see foreigners here, especially this far north.
Having successfully made herself feel awkward, she felt a merciful tug at one of her boots. Number Six was finally making himself useful. Say what you liked about his inability to run an engine, he did try to look out for her.
The boot came away in his hand.
“Try again!” she yelled at her waist in the hope he’d hear.
She felt a cold, metallic grip on her foot and, with a single, strong movement and a grin at the disappearing face in the other ship, she was back on the engine room floor.
She thanked Number Six and set about trying to make sure the ship’s position was maintained.
Hours passed and still no new orders came.
Any tension Nadeen had felt when the other ships approached had long since evaporated, but now even maintaining their position was becoming dull.
Maybe she should have rigged Number Six so he could play cards.
She toyed with hopping back up to the porthole and seeing if that boy in the other ship wanted a chat. No, failing to get back into the ship had made an already awkward situation even more so. It would be even worse if somebody upstairs decided to start a fight too.
Besides, it wasn’t as if he understood her.
Maybe she could make a humorous little sign for the porthole. Or a blind.
No, that would be rude.
Besides, he was only doing a job, like her.
It suddenly dawned on her that maybe she should actually be doing that job instead of over-thinking what sort of social etiquette this particularly unusual situation might call for.
She listened at the communication tube. Nothing.
She plodded around the engine room, bored. Sighing and swinging her legs about weren’t helping. Everything was ticking over nicely and boredom was well and truly kicking in.
If Commandant Rivière was content to waste everyone’s time like this, she may as well enjoy the view in peace.
She stomped her way towards the vast cargo doors on the opposite side of the ship to her new neighbour. She punched a button to start them opening, grabbing an old deck chair she kept folded up nearby.
As the door lowered to form a platform, she stepped out into the evening light, set up the chair, and whistled for Number Six. He always made a great footstool.
The sun was slipping lower beyond the horizon. It was quiet enough that she could just about hear the murmur of people talking on the upper deck, despite the hum of the engines.
Which is what made the sudden voice behind her more of a shock.
In her surprise she scrambled to stand, kicking Number Six out from under her feet.
She turned to give her commanding officer a smart salute just in time to hear the crash of the automaton falling through the trees below.