Curiosity’s Kindling – Chapter 2

The sound of splashing water, the dim glow of a gas lamp’s light.

”How ya feelin’, luv? Still sore?” Said Tobias with a silly grin as he poured water over Hazel’s head with a small bucket.

It was a rather large bronze tub which he had found left on the Laurette’s hold, undoubtedly left there by one of its many owners. And it was quite a commodity, even if all they had was sea water.

”It’s still flowing out…” she muttered with a pout, avoiding his gaze.

The sun had already vanished by the time they recovered from their wild rutting, which was quite an advantage for them to make their way back to the ship unseen, as they were both soiled with unmentionable fluids, and Hazel couldn’t quite walk normally.

”Well, I hadn’t gotten a good shaggin’ in a while so, stuff tends to pile up in the pipes.” He wouldn’t lose that smug smile he had been sporting for a while.

Hazel had been strangely shy after she came back from her afterglow; evading his gaze and speaking in short phrases and a soft voice. And even more strangely, seeing this new meek side of hers actually had more effect on him than any of her blunt advances, enough for him to be the one to offer giving her a bath to wash out the stickiness.

”A’ight, close yer eyes a moment.” and with these words, he slowly poured a bucket of water on her head, after which she shook around like a dog.

He would pour yet another bucket, although this one directly onto the tub before getting in himself in, as he too had his share of stickiness.

”Aah…. nothin’ like a good soak to shed away the tire.” said Tobias as he sank in, his feet reaching up to where Hazel was.

”Pity we can’t heat it up; brass an’ bronze melt away like wax. Once met this bloke who had been a servant on some rich sod’s manor, and said his master had a coal-heated bathtub. I reckon that must ‘ave burned more coal than the Laurette on full throttle.” he added as he washed himself.

However, as he looked at Hazel, he saw her gazing away, at the open star-studded sky visible from one of the windows.

”Oi, bird, ya okay.” Tobias reached for her shoulder in concern; it wasn’t like her to suddenly space out like that.

”Haaah, it’s nothin’. Just thinking about things. Remembering of the days when Suzu could move around, and we didn’t have to worry about picking enough pockets to buy a decent piece of bread.” with those words, Hazel turned to face him, her expression was like that of an impoverished lady, thinking of all she had lost; grim and resigned.

*Splash*

Tobias was about to say something, but a childish water attack hit his face before he could. And upon clearing his face and spectacles of it, he could see Hazel sporting a toothy smile at him.

”Heh, sorry, don’t mean to douse your good mood. I just have these outbreaks now and then.” She said with that same grin and she moved towards Tobias’s side of the tub.

”Don’t sweat on it, luv. We all ‘ave our share o’ skellies in the coat hanger. Ain’t like I’ve ever been o’ any good standin’.” replied Tobias as he cupped his hands and poured a bit of water on her. He hadn’t noticed it before but her skin had more than a few traces of long-gone scars.

”Are you sure?” asked Hazel as she backed her round bottom towards Tobias’s crotch, ”I know of SOMETHING that’s got some real good STANDING here, y’know.” she added, playfully stroking Tobias’s half hard with her buttcheeks.

”Oi oi, don’t overstep y’self, birdie. Imma not some studhorse who can keep it on day in and day out.” Said Tobias as he lifted her up; it didn’t cease to surprise him just how little she weighted.

”Aww…..” she made an overplayed sad face,  with puppy eyes too boot.

”We’ll bone when we both in the mood.” While it was pretty clear she was just teasing, Tobias decided to play along.

The smile Hazel was not sporting wordlessly stated ”I always am.”, again, she was just teasing.

But this time, Tobias countered back.

”Ah-!” quickly turning her front towards him and bringing the nub of one of her modest breasts to his mouth, Tobias gave it a short suckle; playfully kneading it with his teeth. This took Hazel off guard, causing her to let out a moan she would’ve otherwise held in.

”And while a life o’ nevah-endin’ buffin’ and bumpin’ is paradise to many, Imma workin’ man; shag twice a day and next mornin’ me body’s gonna be knackered up and will getts nothin’ done.”  he said, releasing her nub and and putting Hazel down in front of him, ”So it ain’t that I don’t wanna, just gotta do what me gotta do.”.

She looked much more womanly with her hair soaking and hanging down.

”O-kay!” and with those words she vaulted out of the tub, splashing water before shaking her body like a dog and splashing around even more, ”See ya in the morning, then.” she said as she covered her body with the same thick cloak she had sported out in the streets and walked away to the ladder down.

Tobias would lay back into the tub as he looked at the tiny patch of wet footprints she had left behind.

”Not bad every once in a while.” he thought, stretching his legs. It took him a moment to realize he was smiling.

With Hazel gone her way, and the night still rather young, Tobias set out to do something, so upon drying himself up and redressing, he headed to his workshop; a few ideas coming upon him.

Walking through the boiler deck, which still was littered with more than a few of his crates; old projects, leftover materials and the like. He already had a good idea of what he wanted to do, and the night was just the perfect time, he just needed to check if he had what he needed, amongst other things.

~~~

”Ughyaaaaaaah…..” her yawn was a loud one, loud enough to wake up her bedridden roommate.

”You should not sleep in that state, sister. You could get sick.” Said Suzette to the still-naked Hazel, her disapproving face firmly looking towards Hazel.

”Mm, you’re right, although I’m feeling quite refreshed. Tobias was right; taking a bath every once in a while leaves you feeling fresh, like morning seabreeze.” Replied Hazel as she got inside her clothes.

”So, what did you find? Did he keep his word?” Asked Suzette, to which Hazel replied with an enthusiastic nod before speaking.

”Eyup! Rubellite Tourmalines…. I’m surprised he can say that and not bite his tongue.” Said Hazel as she put the Core that Tobias had previously returned in a small drawer under Suzette’s ‘bed’.

”His prospector friend will keep an eye out for them. They also said they’re not expensive so I’m sure Tobias will get them without fail.” she added, merrily omitting mention of Bowman’s identity or her wild back alley romp with Tobias.

”What about you? Will you be able to craft a Core out of them?” Asked Suzette as she raised an eyebrow.

”I…” Her words froze in her throat, ”Of course I can do it!” she wanted to say that out loud, but resurfacing memories of what Suzu had told Tobias and what Tobias had told her back made her stop for a moment and rethink.

”I believe I can.” she said after a short sigh, ”I’ll need first to see what does the original mineral look like, and pair that with a step of the Master’s notes and work from there.” she felt like she was still not being fully honest, but she was trying her best to be truthful.

”That is an odd answer from you.” replied Suzette, her expression turning to confusion. Hazel silently climbed on top of the small bench besides Suzu’s ‘bed’ that allowed her to be just at right height to hold onto Suzu’s hand.

”I’m sorry.” said Hazel while holding Suzu’s limp hand with both of hers, ”I lied to you, I fed you false hopes. All I wanted was for you to not feel sad, but in my stupidity I achieved exactly the opposite.” it took her a moment to realize she was crying, her tears bouncing off Suzu’s plates.

”It is okay.” Replied Suzette, her index finger suddenly moving, enough to strike a tear out of Hazel’s eyes, ”It was unbecoming of me to have complained to a stranger like him in front of you. I vented out my frustration on him, because I am a coward and I dare not to get angry with you as I fear you may leave, so I take that we are even.” a sad smile formed on her face, Hazel replied back with the same smile.

”Still-” Said Suzette as Hazel put her hand back down, ”You are growing fond this Tobias gentleman. You sound very happy when you speak of him or mention him.” she added.

”….!” it was a silent yelp, as her ears perked up and her cheeks turned the color of her hair.

”I-It’s not that way, he’s just handy to have around; he knows a lot of things, keeps the Laurette in tip top shape, and it’s nice to be able to move around the ship without hugging the walls and sneaking around.” her arms flailed around wildly.

”Fu fu…” against all prospects, Suzu chuckled, ”It is okay, he seems like a good person. Although it feels like he’s forcing himself to speak. Is he a foreigner?” asked Suzu.

”I don’t know, he talks weird. I never asked him.” replied Hazel with a bit of an ashamed smile, her mind suddenly drifting to their steamy lovemaking.

*Knock, knock* *Knock*

”Oi, Hazel, ya up? Need bit o’ a third hand for somethin’.” Shouted Tobias from the other side of the door following the knock.

”Speak of the Devil, and the Devil shall appear.” said Suzette in mild amusement.

Upon opening her secret door, she found Tobias clad in a rather complex face mask; about five layers of clothes covering his mouth and nose.

”Yo, what’s with the get up?” Said Hazel as she closed her door behind her.

”Gonna work on somethin’ really dangerous, and I could seriously use a pair of extra mitts in case I bodge it; if I’m gonna set the ship on fire, I at least wanna ‘ave ya coverin’ me bum when the water buckets fly.” He said with a serious expression, or at least that’s how Hazel imagined it as his face remained obscured.

”… Just what are ya playing with?” She asked, her ears twitching.

”Vitriol.” he replied, ”Like a bigger, pissed off cousin o’ Nitroglycerin, and the reason me ol’ flat got scorched. And still got that customer waiting for his order, so-” added Tobias, narrowing his eyes.

”A’ight, a’ight, I getcha. Still, why do you wanna do this big thing so late at night?” she cut him off with that inquiry.

”Cuz this one’s gonna make nuff nasty fumes to eclipse a sewer, and can’t work with windows open during the day. D’ya know what set off my last house fire? A bloody seagull, gettin’ in me workshop and knockin’ down some bottles. Was THIS close o’ lookin’ like Bowman.” he added as he handed Hazel five bundles of cloth, which he began wrapping around her head, covering it all but the eyes.

”Wear those eye covers of yours, they’ll come in handy.” Continued Tobias as  he began walking away, motioning Hazel to follow him, ”I’ll show ya how we’re doin’ it.” he added.

~~~

An assorted gathering of water buckets covered a side of the main corridor and an intricate alembic covering Tobias’ desk.

On the bottom of the largest filtering flask, a small mound of some powdery white substance piled up before a long course of odd shaped tubes and glass spirals.

”Is that salt?” asked Hazel as she pointed to the flask.

”Close nuff.” replied Tobias merrily, ”It’s saltpeter; oh holy powder, ye hath giveth us bacon and jerky all year ’round. And mayhaps ya should eat a pinch of it, luv. Aphotecarists say it can lower one’s libido.” he added with a wink, as he sealed the flask before turning on the alcohol burner under it.

”Hmph! Ya wish.” Replied Hazel while folding her arms, a grin no doubt under those face covers.

The fire would soon turn the saltpeter to a clear liquid, and Tobias would uncork the flask and add a fistful of small, sandy stones of a bright pus-yellow, and even through her cloth mask, the smell assaulted Hazel’s nostrils.

”Eww, smells like farts.” she muttered.

”Like the Devil’s own privvy after a bad Cholera outbreak, aye. An’ prolly will getts worse from now on, and ‘splosive.” Said Tobias as he resealed the flask, ”Just breathin’ on Vitriol isa ’nuff to set it off, plus, inhalin’ too much can burn ya from inside out. Hence the rag scarf, although even that won’t help ya in the long run. Folks who do this all day for a living become human jerky.” he added, watching the two components react.

Soon it was giving out intermittent flashes of light; a tiny, dancing flame wriggled at the flask’s base.

”… So, wadda ya want me do?” asked Hazel as she watched the flames dye the insides of the flask yellow.

”Nothin’ for now, just sit back an’ enjoy the fireworks. There be no real danger till the oleum starts to form.” said Tobias as he released a tiny glass valve, allowing the resulting gas to course through the many glass alembics leading into a large glass chamber, which was connected via some copper tubing to the end of a boiling teapot.

Nothing happened for the first hour or so, which sent Hazel to the deepest pits of boredom as she sat on a nearby countertop. The only thing she couldn’t help but feel interested on was the obsessive, and borderline zealous, care that Tobias was putting into the whole procedure; carefully adjusting the valves and flames to ensure the right amounts were reaching the glass chamber.

Eventually, an oily, clear liquid began forming into the chamber.

*Thunk, thunk, thunk*

”Hello? Is there anyone on watch here? I demand the presence of this vessel’s Captain, or nearest ranked shipmate.”

Following the knocks, this strong-voiced request echoed from the far end of the dock.

”Bloody ‘ell, what now.” grumbled Tobias as he put down the tube he was holding, ”Wadda ya want? This ain’t no courier ship. Piss off!” shouted Tobias through the nearest window.

Right at the end of the dock ramp, a young man clad in a naval uniform stood as straight as humanly possible while holding a gas lamp in one hand and a long cane in the other. And the moment he noticed Tobias, he looked towards him and spoke.

”Sir, I am Midshipman Hadrian Hale, and by my authority as Imperial Officer, I demand your Captain’s presence immediately.” his voice carried quite an imposing din, despite further observation from Tobias revealing that he was at least ten years younger than him.

”That’d be me, I reckon. I’m the owner of this ship and I ‘ave no appointed Cap’n. What does the Navy want with me?” Asked Tobias through the window as he prepared to head out.

”Psst!” a soft whisper along with a tug on his sleeve called his attention to Hazel, ”Want me to scare him off?” asked Hazel as she quickly positioned herself as close to the floor as possible.

”Nah, I don’t wanna piss off a bunch o’ blokes with more guns and funding that common sense. Just watch the alembic and shout if anything looks bad.” he replied as he partially took off his cloth mask. She just gave a short nod in response.

Putting on his best no-nonsense face, Tobias walked towards the young mariner, who remained so straight and still one could’ve thought he was but a very large toy soldier.

His face still looked remarkably childish despite the determined frown he wore, and it was most likely the reason he had chosen to sport a sizeable set of sideburns; an intimidating appearance can go a long way.

”So, wadda ya want, grommet?” Asked Tobias as soon as they were face to face. It would take more than some facial hair and an uniform to scare him.

”Once again, sir, my rank is that of Midshipman, and I am here to request the relocation of your vessel to the docks on the eastern side of the bay. As a sizable number of warships will be mooring here for repairs and ressupply, and all docks on this side of the bay will be taken. Refusal to comply with this request could result in your vessel being confiscated as heavy fines or jail time to be impounded upon you.” the way he spoke made it clear he was just repeating some document he had memorized.

Tobias first reply was a snarky smirk.

”Sure do, can move ‘er out, but d’ya realize these ships don’t run on happy thoughts an’ good wishes, aye? Imma currently awaitin’ for me resupply of fuel.” he said without losing his expression.

He was lying his mouth off; while his fuel bunker was not full, it still had a good amount of coal left from the previous owner, and he had used a few of those to power his own stove, so they knew they were good. He just didn’t felt like getting pushed around so easily.

”Understandable, sir. The Navy is prepared to affont the costs of your fuel and whatever other commercial loss you may experience due to this relocation.”

*Flik*

With those words, the mariner pulled something out of his pocket and flicked it with his thumb towards Tobias with unerring accuracy; bouncing off the deck and landing right between his boots.

”W-” for a moment, Tobias thought he was being mocked, but as soon as he looked at the coin, he realized otherwise.

The coin had no crest or face; it was minted flat and was unmistakably gold. These were colloquially known as ‘Bargain Chips’, and were used by both army and navy to pay off spies, collaborators and other useful types they would rather keep quiet and happy. For Tobias, that was at least one week of being well-fed, and he couldn’t fight that. He took in a long breath, and spoke now in a far soft tone.

”Hm, I reckon this is checkmate, then. Well played, sir.” Said Tobias as he adjusted his spectacles, which had dropped down a bit as he hunched down to pick up the coin,”Can move her with what I ‘ave on hold, but me boiler’s corpse-cold right now, will take some time to getts her movin’.” he added, pointing to the ship’s smokestack.

”A fair argument, sir. You have until first light to be on your way, that will be about six hours in your favor.” Replied the mariner as he checked the time on his pocket watch, which Tobias gazed at with a certain amount of envy.

”A’ight then, will that be all?” Asked Tobias as he put his hands in his pockets.

”Yes, sir. I shall take my leave.” and with these words, the young mariner turned around and left, taking the lamp with him and leaving Tobias illuminated solely by the light coming out of the ship’s windows.

”Sheesh, that was some stuffy type.” he didn’t even notice Hazel standing next to him until she spoke. She truly had the gift of stealth.

”Mhm, anything going on back there?” he asked as they both headed back into the ship.

”I dunno, there was some yellow smoke coming out of the teapot, is that normal?” Asked Hazel as she looked up to him. Although the darkness probably didn’t let her notice his face had just gone white.

”Shite!” he cried out, as he darted towards the alembic, quickly putting his cloth mask on.

*Piiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii*

The teapot was whistling a yellow geiser, thick enough that it hurt his eyes.

”Bugger all, I didn’t use enough water.” muttered Tobias as he stepped carefully. This gas was heavier than air, so it would be safer to step carefully.

With a skillful swipe, he knocked the alcohol burner under the teapot into a nearby water bucket, closed a nearby valve and began to step towards the other burner, but it had already gone off, maybe ran out of fuel. Noticing this he choose to step out of the room carefully, only to find Hazel with an unusually guilty expression.

”I’m sorry, did I mess up something?” she asked, fidgeting.

”Nah, it was me who botched up the amounts, but it doesn’t look like a total loss either.” replied Tobias as he looked through the window. On the small flash he had set to collect the chamber’s contents, there were at least two fingers of a clear liquid.

”I’ll collect it as soon as the room airs out. In the meantime, can ya get to the boiler and fire ‘er up?” he replied as he wiped his spectacles with a rag.

”Sure do! Just lemme get a shovel.” Replied Hazel as she reached for a nearby hatch, which she opened and disappeared into.

~~~

Pile, shovel, boiler, firebox. Pile, shovel, boiler, firebox.

The blazes arose like the pyres of damnation below decks, but on the pilothouse, the gauges showed massive disappointment.

”How much pressure we got?” Asked Hazel though the voice tube.

”Fifty seven, barely. How much ya say she needs?” Replied Tobias as he checked all instruments once again. He was no seaman, but Hazel has given him a crash course on boating, and he was quite the fast learner.

”At least eighty for half, and a hundred twenty for full.” she said between shovelfuls, often pausing to wipe the sweat off her brow, ”The coal is not bad, but since it’s old, it takes too long to burn; she ain’t just not hot enough.” Hazel continued.

”……” Tobias did not reply, and he stayed quiet long enough for Hazel to think he hadn’t heard her.

”How strong is the linin’ of this boiler? Does she ‘ave a safety valve?” Asked Tobias as Hazel was about to talk back.

”She has the valve, yeah. But what are you thinking?” she replied.

”….” once again, silence.

”Oi! You’re not thinking of anything crazy, aintcha?” Asked Hazel as a sudden cold sweat ran through her back as she recognized Tobias’s scheming tone.

”Don’t worry, it’s not explosive, but it can burn hotter than the sun.” Said Tobias as he showed up holding a small pouch of black leather.

He poured a bit of the pouch contents on his leather glove-clad hand, it looked like tiny wood chips, but metallic. And immediately spread them inside the boiler.

”Cover yer eyes.” Tobias shouted.

*F-whoosh!*

Hazel did so, just as the chips ignited brilliant white. Indeed like the light of the sun.

”Shovel in! We must cover ‘em or else the effect will be wasted.” cried out Tobias as he grabbed a nearby shovel and began hauling coal. Hazel followed his lead.

”Just what is that thing?” she asked as she saw the bright lights disappear under the black wave of coal.

”Magnesium; a rare metal that burns easily, and like ‘ellfire. Some folks say it can even burn underwater, and yet it does not melt iron.” Explained Tobias as he put the shovel away, considering his work done.

”Sheesh, you have a trick for every occasion. Are you sure you ain’t a magician?” said Hazel with a smirk as she kept shoveling.

”I told ya back when we met, luv. There are many tricks inhabiting the inner linings of my sleeves.” Boasted Tobias as he wiped the steam off his spectacles, ”I’ll be back at the pilot’s house. As soon as we hit the ‘undred, I’ll shout at ya to start ‘er up.” ge added, Hazel replied with a sweaty nod.

Back at the helm, Tobias checked around one last time. Although the Laurette was not an ocean-going vessel, she was still equipped with a compass and a few other navigational commodities, as well as a sizable oil lamp. Everything seemed in order; he had already hoisted the anchor and undone the moorings, he just needed to steer her right as soon as she started. He checked the pressure gauge yet again.

”Bird, one ‘undred aight! She’s ready to run.” Shouted Tobias at the speaking tube as he grasped the helm, about as large as the room it was wide, and strangely enough, plated in copper.

”Gotcha! Moving to engine room. Steer to Standby.” replied Hazel as Tobias did as she instructed, setting the steering valve. This ship was made to be manned by at least a crew of three, so they both had to work double shift.

”On Standby. Ready when ya are.” said Tobias into the speaking tube.

Unlike the central docks where he was, that was mainly a civilian mooring, the eastern side of the bay was mainly used for loading and unloading of river-going boats due to its proximity to the delta that crowned the river’s mouth. And because of the river’s currents flowing outwards, getting there was harder than the way back.

”Throttle released! Shift to Slow.” echoed Hazel’s voice from the tube.

”Gotcha, going out.” he replied

*Hk-hk, krooohn*

Like a beast waking from ancestral slumber, the sternwheel slowly gyrated, propelling her forward. And almost as if to crown the moment with its presence, the sun was slowly peeking over the horizon.

”Full starboard, big guy. Get her in the open, she needs to stretch her legs.” Said Hazel as she made her entrance into the pilothouse. She was covered in soot from head to toe, and yet she still looked cute in Tobias’s eyes.

”Gimme a hand, would ya? Still a long way from me sea legs.” He replied as he rotated the oversized wheel to the right. The ship gently steering.

”So, where are we heading?” she asked, taking seat on a nearby bench.

”See those masts in the far distance? Eastern harbour. Not even a mile ‘way.” he pointed out, and Hazel climbed on top of a the currently-cold stove to see through the pilothouse windows. Far ahead, the silhouettes of many ships could be made out, barely, under a blanket of fog and smoke.

”We should be able to dock in there, refuel, and maybe grab some grub. Although all pubs on that side are cheap boozas with nothin’ but watery donkey piss. Brothels are good, tho.” Added Tobias as he set the course straight. He was starting to get the hang of it.

”Oh-ho!” Hazel hit Tobias in the shin with her butt as she let that giggle out, ”Thinking of paying for some unwashed tramp out there when you have lovely ol’ me right here?” she added, playfully.

”I dunno, I like me luvs not lookin’ like they just came out of a smokestack.” Said Tobias as he flicked the tip of her nose, wiping the soot of it.

”Blimey, don’t think no slag’s gonna do what she did on me.” He thought. He had managed to conceal it but feeling those soft buttocks, even on his leg, had gotten him half mast.

”So, is it worth gettin’ her to half speed, or should I leave it at slow?” Asked Tobias as he tried to get the conversation away from that track.

”I’d say no, we may have the coal, but not the freshwater, and it’s never a good idea to run an engine on saltwater.” Replied Hazel after a short ponder, Tobias just replied with a nod.

”Gonna go back to the fuel bunker, then. Don’t want the fire dying out.” and with this phrase, she headed out.

Tobias checked the gauges, as he hadn’t since she showed up. The sea was calm and there was barely a breeze. However, as the mists parted away, any possibilities of a quiet land leave went away with them.

”Duck, we got trouble. Don’t think we can squeeze in ‘ere.” Said Tobias into the speaking tube.

”Wadda ya mean?” she asked back.

”This place’s as crowded as a church gate on charity day; dozens an’ dozens of ships floatin’ around. And don’t even ask me on the actual docks.” he added as he watched the forest of masts and smokestacks unfold itself before him.

”Hm, guess Grommet Stuffy wasn’t bothering us alone. What can we do?” her voice became pensive.

”I’ll try to find us a ‘ole to fit into, drop anchors and try to think our next move. Howzat coal pile lookin’ down there?” Replied Tobias as he tried to find a safe path either around or through the ships.

”Enough for the way back, and only if we don’t actually let the boiler get cold.” Hazel didn’t sound too certain of that.

”Gotcha, so fuel is first priority, then-huh?” Something caught his attention.

Coming right towards the Laurette, there was a pair of men in a small rowboat, one of them waving a lantern wrapped in red cloth around, motioning him to stop.

”…. Looks like we ‘ave visitors. I’m putting ‘er on Standby.” he added before stopping the ship and heading out to the front deck.

A middle aged man with a neatly trimmed beard and sporting a port authority badge stood on the bow of the rowboat, manned by the burly dockworker on the back of it. The boat skid to the side of the Laurette as soon as it began stopping.

”Are you the Captain of this vessel?” began the man with the badge as he addressed Tobias, quickly pulling out a notebook from inside his jacket.

”Owner actually, but aye, Imma in charge of her.” Replied Tobias as he looked out of the boat.

”Do you have any cargo to unload? Passengers?” the port officer began his questions.

”Nope and nope. Boat’s me house. Was told to move it ‘ere.” Tobias added, the port officer writing it all down.

Finishing whatever he was writing, the port officer put the notebook away before producing what looked like a tiny wood block on a leather string, which he tossed towards Tobias. It had the number 306 carved onto it.

”When possible, please head north along the pier and follow the stream upriver. Show that number in the toll booth to not be charged any riverways tax. I shall be taking my leave; good day sir.” the tired way in which the port officer spoke hinted of just how tired he was of repeating that before he turned away.

”Hold on, can ya tell me what in bloody ‘ell is goin’ on ‘ere?” Asked Tobias in a rush,  the port officer sighed deeply before speaking. He looked like he wanted to give Tobias a ”I’m sorry, I have work to do.” answer, but his own tiredness and that of his oarsman made him hold onto this chance to have an actual conversation.

”Frankly speaking, we don’t fucking know.” began the port officer, curtly, ”Some Admiralty goons almost burst into our office with a paper from the Grand Admiral saying ‘We need the whole south-end docks, like, yesterday. Have this fat sack not-bribes and send them all to the east bay’, but the fools just don’t get the east docks are two thirds of the size of the south one, and the south was never precisely empty so…” he paused to breath after blurting out that mouthful of words, ”We tried sending everyone upriver, to the old shipyards, and this worked fine at first, until some mad merchant saw the profit in leaving all of his competence behind and forced one of the ships behind him to run aground, which caused the one behind it to crash against the first and wreck themselves; now the river is blocked until we clear out the wreckage. In the meantime we have what you see here, three hundred and fourteen ship, yourself included, taking up all the east bay, unable to move. And to put the shit crown on top, they say a storm is coming from the gulf.” an expression of sympathy forming on his face.

”Bloody ‘ell, so Imma guessin’ I got no chance of restockin’ coal, aye? Me bunker’s barely got ’nuff to power the stove on the pilothouse.” asked Tobias as his own expression became grim.

”Well, not quite.” said the port officer as he gave his beard a ponderous scratch, ”A lot of these ships sold their surplus fuel for either supplies or to have more speed upriver. Problem’s gonna be loading it up; all dockworkers and loaders were sent upriver to clean the wreck, and plus the Coalbreaker Guild couldn’t resist marking up the price, just to throw mud on the Admiralty’s face.” he added as he looked at his notebook.

”Boss.” suddenly, the oarsman spoke, in a voice like two millstones grinding iron.

The port officer looked back, noticing yet another, much older port officer looking at him from the docks with a ponderous expression.

”Alright sir, have a nice day.” and suddenly he switched to his polite persona before motioning the oarsman to start rowing. He still gave Tobias a smile that read ”Thanks for the break” all over.

~~~

”-so that’s what we ‘ave.” said Tobias with a frown as he finished telling Hazel of what he had spoken with the port officer.

”No docks, no escape, no fuel and a storm on the way. Looks like some deity got up from the wrong side of the cloud, eh?” Hazel tried her best to keep up her good mood, it wasn’t working.

They both sat on the fuel bunker, pondering their next step. The boiler long gone cold.

”Just what do we have to work with?” she asked, looking at Tobias.

”We ‘ave money, for starters; Grommet Stuffy’s coin is worth a fat sack of silver, and me own purse ain’t by no measure starvin’. I also spoke with a few sailors from nearby ships an’ the coal price markup isn’t that big; somewhere ’round its winter price, which is still cheap ’nuff to fill this bunker three times over with the money at hand and still have more than ’nuff for food.” he said as he put his hand around his purse.

”Hmm…” muttered Hazel as she crossed her legs, lost in thought. And it took Tobias about a whole minute to realize he had been staring at her thighs, ”Do you have a map of the docks of sorts?” she asked, breaking Tobias’s stare.

”Y-Yes, lemme fetch it for ya.” Replied Tobias as he almost jumped away. Giving Hazel quite a puzzled expression,

However, by the time he was back, her expression had changed to one both sultry and sneaky.

”So, this is what we ‘ave-” said Tobias as he unfolded it on top of the small table he had been using as bench.

The city harbors were about as massive and sprawling as the city itself, which was already the center of industry of the region. Taking full advantage of its shape as an unusually enclosed pocket bay, the harbor was split in three massive quays; south, east and northeast, with the massive river emptying into the bay between the east and northeast ones, each of them connected to one of the three districts of the city, residential, industrial and gubernamental.

”We used to be ‘ere, on the residential quay, now we’re ‘ere, ‘ndustrial quay, and the river would go this way.” explained Tobias as he pointed to each place.

”Hm-” Hazel positioned herself right in front of him, ”What about the northeast harbor?” she asked, putting her finger on the map and her body maybe a bit too close to Tobias.

”That’d be the Imperial Docks; it’s a military place, we’d get gunned down by the batteries if we getts any close to the entrance.” Tobias noticed her advance, but he dismissed it as accidental; his mind too focused elsewhere.

”What about around the bay? If we head out, but stick to the coast, wouldn’t the Laurette be able to stay safe as long as we kept away from the sea?” she asked yet again, her breathing was causing for her plump rump to move up and down slightly.

”That would work, would, if the coast wasn’t full of jagged rock that would tear ‘er hull like a hot knife on butter.” He was starting to feel uncomfortable, albeit in a pleasant way.

”Is she doin’ it on purpose?” Thought Tobias as he displaced yet more of his mental focus to stop his flag from hoisting.

But suddenly, she stopped.

”….. What is this opening here?” she sounded much more focused than before.

Tobias moved to the other side of the map to have a better view (and avoid Hazel’s buttocks on his crotch), noticing the tiny canal that she was pointing to. It was on the very corner of the harbor, and it made a backwards L shape into the city, and around a marked building.

”That’s…. ‘Hashell & Townsend Millworks’….? Oh! Itsa one o’em floor packers.” he slapped his forehead in realization.

”Farmin’ used to be big ‘ere ‘fore they struck ore in the mines, there are still lots of old mills and abandoned grain silos around the less popular corners of the industry district.” said Tobias as he circled a few areas in the map, ”Problem be, this places date from the time ships still ran on sails and wind; the Laurette may be a bit too big to fit all the way in, and even if she fits, she may not be able to get back out. Wadda ya ‘ave in mind?” he asked as he looked back at Hazel.

”Would it be possible to get her close enough to haul some coal in? She doesn’t need to be IN the canal, just close enough so we take a boat and reach the dock platforms quick enough, or even land the stages of the boardwalk.” Hazel’s expression was that of someone with an idea.

”I dunno, but I can find out. I gotta deliver last night’s Vitriol and get us some grub, so I can take a sneak peek at ’em old mills an’ see if we can dock there.” Said Tobias, now sporting the same expression as Hazel, who replayed with a nod.

”Plus-” he leaned onto her, nimbly reaching for one of her buttcheeks and cupping it, ”I’ll be givin’ som’one who’d been askin’ for it a good buffin; that I promise.” added Tobias as he shot her a smile saying ”Alright! You’ll have what ya want” wordlessly. Hazel returned a similar one.

”Now, ‘elp me put one of the boats down.” he said as he let go off her butt. It had a feel like that of bread still warm from the oven.

~~~

Wind was starting to pick up a bit; the storm in the distance no doubt, but it was still manageable to row through it. Biggest issue was dodging all the ships floating around.

The old mill docks weren’t that far away, and as Tobias tied his boat to a nearby post, the realization dawned on him.

”It’s nowhere near as small as it seems, and it goes right along the wall.” he thought, hand under chin.

The mill itself was boarded off, in the distance, but the backwards L shape from the map was freely accessible and has more than enough space to fit the Laurette in, and it should be possible for it to leave if they reversed the paddle.

All looked as promising as possible, and with that thought in mind, he headed out to the city, or most specifically, his client.

”Oi, Duncan! You in ‘ere?” shouted out Tobias as he made his way into a large yet deserted apothecary.

For a moment, there was just silence, until a portly elderly man made his way out of the back room.

”Ah, Bancroft. I’m surprised to see you here. Have you come for one of my fine burn ointments? Or are you looking for any kind of exorcism supplies? I’m afraid I do not carry the later, although of the former I have plenty.” said the portly man as he worked something in a mortar he was holding.

”Blimey, am I such a popular bloke everyone’s talking about me?” Replied Tobias with a grin as he approached the counter.

”Not at all, it is just I am puzzled by your penchant for dodging the Reaper.” countered Duncan with a grin of his own, ”So, I take you have my Vitriol, yes?” he added, raising his rather sparse eyebrows.

”Yes I do, careful with it.” Said Tobias as he pulled out a tall wooden box containing a tiny yet squarish bottle.

Duncan said nothing back, he just took it, uncorked it and dipped some kind of stick in it, which changed color upon touching the vitriol.

”Very well, it is satisfactory.” Replied Duncan as he sealed it again and put it under the counter. His hand coming back out with a sizable pouch, from which he started counting silver coins.

”Actually-” Tobias interrupted him, ”Do you have any Magnesium at hand? I could take half my pay in it. Chips if possible.” continued Tobias as he brought his hand to his chin.

”…. Yes, I do. One moment…” Duncan always took long to reply, which Tobias could never figure why. He headed to one of the shelves on the back upon saying this, coming back with a tall glass bottle full of shiny metals chips.

”This is all I have for sale, but it will be two thirds of your agreed payment. Are you sure?” Asked Dunkan as he raised an eyebrow.

”Sure do, ran out of it and need it soon.” Replied Tobias with a nod. Duncan resumed counting his coins, put them on another smaller pouch, and pushed it and the bottle towards Tobias.

”Thanks for your business, sir. Always glad to have a provider who will uphold his deals no matter how much of his house in on fire.” Duncan shook his hand as he said this. Tobias couldn’t help but feel it a bit sticky.

With this, he turned around and headed for the door.

”Oh, I almost forgot!” said Duncan suddenly, ”That scoundrel, Atkinson was asking for you few days back; he didn’t look too happy and was even more rude than usual, so take care.” he continued in a cautionary tone, which paired with his age made him look like kind grandfather, telling a bratty boy to stay out of the woods.

”Will keep it mind, thanks for the warning.” And Tobias reacted just like that same bratty boy, heading to the forest anyway.

Trekking through the commerce district, Tobias mentally checked all the things he had already gotten; bread, bacon, cheese, jerky, bit of tobacco to feed the pipe, and some oil for the ship’s lamps. All he was missing was inquiring about the dreaded coal, which would take him to one of the seedier ends of the district, where the coal yard laid.

Massive sprawling installation, chock full of smoke, soot and dirt; the beating heart of the local industry, steadily fed by strings of mine carts rolling from the hills above.

”Yo lad, d’ya know where I can buy some coal in ‘ere?” Asked Tobias to a soot-stained, prepubescent boy that stood by the coal piles, sweeping around the same black dust he was covered in.

The boy stopped his sweeping, glad to take a very short break, ”Talk to my boss, Foreman Giles, over at that office. Once you pay, you’ll have it in your home by evening or so.” the way this boy spoke immediately made him look older.

”What if it is for a ship?” further inquired Tobias, the boy made an uneasy smile.

”Then I hope you have a good room booked, as it may take days to free a place in the harbor, no matter how much you pay. Still, talk to my boss, gotta get back to work.” replied the boy as he resumed his sweeping.

The ‘office’ the boy mentioned made the Laurette’s pilothouse looks spacious; a boxy wood building, containing a desk, an old hunchbacked man sorting papers and counting coins on it, and two Bowman-sized bodyguards with plenty of visible weaponry to discourage any would-be thieves.

”Residence, factory, workshop…. brothel?” raising his head from his paperwork, the gnarled old man gazed at Tobias with a stare that could pierce iron, reciting these words in a manner one could believe he was chanting a demonic incantation.

”Ship.” Replied Tobias dryly.

”Then have her grow wings and land on my yard.” the gnarled man jested, one of the guards even let out a snort, ”There ain’t no docks available, and I ain’t risking my lads to bring it all on a rowboat; not with a storm drawing close.” he added.

”I ‘ave a dock, and the contacts to ensure me ship will be on it when your lads arrive. The question is, can ya deliver?” countered Tobias defiantly.

”Where is she moored at?” said the gnarled man after a short silence.

”D’ya know the olde Hashell & Townsend Mills? I’ll have her docked on their old wharfs as soon as me engineer finished repairin’ the boiler.” Asked Tobias, feeding him a white lie.

”Ah, ol’ H&T, hadn’t heard that name in decades. They were decent folk.” the old man’s face seemed to brighten as he spoke. Had Tobias unconsciously brought him a good memory of old? ”Hmph, yeah, I can have the lads deliver it there. Just keep them in line as you need, as some young ‘uns think that old mill’s haunted. Pah!” he spit rather violently on a nearby spittoon. Tobias made a conscious effort to focus elsewhere.

”Then I’d like two hundred pounds of coal ready to move on me signal. I don’t ‘ave the ship there yet, and I don’t want them early lest some blighter tries to nick ’em. Of course, Imma payin’ first.” Said Tobias as he pulled the pouch he had gotten from Duncan, spilling the silver on the desk. The old man smiled, showing an array of golden teeth.

”I’ll have runner be there shortly, send him back when you’re ready.” Replied the old man as he got up from the desk to shake Tobias’s hand, a business smile upon his face.

”Old Giles!”

Suddenly a shout coming from outside. Causing both guards to reach for their weapons as they saw the approaching figure.

He walked with an odd gait, as if one of his legs was slightly shorter. The shirt and waistcoat set he was wearing would’ve looked quite classy indeed, if it wasn’t covered in patches and old brown stains. His pants following a similar fashion. But perhaps worst of all was his face, which looked like it had been punched until his cheeks receded, topped with a greasy mane and a sizable scar covering his forehead.

”You’re late for your payment again, old bastard!” he added as he approached the office, both guards making themselves known, ”If you think your walls and goons will keep you safe from the Gutrunners, it won’t take me long to show you how wrong you are.”

It took Tobias a moment to recognize this man’s face as it walked past him and towards the desk, reeking of alcohol.

”For once, I’m willing to take my chances, Atkinson. Try and see how well can your thug friends hold against the Coalbreakers and let’s wager on who splatters who on the cobblestones. You’re all nothing but overfed gutter rats.” replied the old man with a face that could only be described as ‘demonic’.

*BLAM!*

*Clik*

Atkinson punched the desk, toppling many of the coin piles. One of the guards moved behind him and put a gun behind his head, fully cocking it.

”This is not over, old man, we’ll-” However, his defiant rant came to an end when he realised who was standing besides him.

”…. Bancroft…” He muttered, seething with rage.

”Ya really ‘ave lost yer edge, mate. I could’ve shanked ya like a thousand times ‘ere, and you would’ve never figured who did it.” Said Tobias with his snarkiest smile.

”BASTA-ugh”

He tried to punch Tobias, but was slow amidst his stupor, allowing Tobias to duck and gut-punch him, followed by a haymaker to the face which knocked him right into the hand of one of the guards, who effortlessly restrained him.

”You motherfucker! Why are you still alive!? That ship was supposed to ruin you! Feed on your heart and soul!” he ranted on, blood coming out of his nose and a purplish-red bruise now showing on his face.

”I don’t believe in faery tales, limp dick. Or maybe that’s just the big guy upstairs paying you back for what ya did to me old man.” Replied Tobias without losing his smile.

Atkinson just squirmed and shook; trying to free himself from the guard’s grip to no avail.

”I’ll be taking me leave, then. I trust ya folks will take good care of him.” Said Tobias to the hunchbacked man as he walked away.

~~~

A soft mist-like rain. Not heavy enough to actually see it fall, but wet enough to soak up you clothes. No doubt the storm was approaching, and wet coal would be the same as no coal at all, plus the lost money, so Tobias hurried the way back through the maze of streets.

Unlike the other two districts, the industrial district was prone to remodelations; factories being enlarged or upgraded, making them take an additional block, and hence, having to close part of an existing street. Old, disused places also got blockaded and boarded up, lest beggars and street urchins make their homes on them. This had led to entire sections of the district to be practically a ghost town, not to mention quite labyrinthine.

”So, turn right in this chimney, then left and straight for two blocks, and right.” Muttered Tobias to himself as he walked, the familiar towering shape of the H&T Mills already visible.

”….” However, upon arriving back there, he found out he wasn’t alone.

A trio of raggedy scamps were waiting there, wielding shivs and old pipes. He didn’t recognize their faces, but they sure recognized his.

”About time you showed up, freaking four-eyes. The boss told us you needed to be shown what happens when you cross the Gutrunners.” said the tallest of them as he striked his left palm with the pipe he was holding.

”Oh? So he can’t come ‘imself, can he? That’s some leadership ya got there.” Replied Tobias with a smirk; he wasn’t easily intimidated.

”Keep talking, man.” but neither was this guy, ”That’s all you’ll be able to once you bones look like those of this brat here.” the ruffian added, pointing to his right.

What Tobias had thought was a pile of rags was actually a bloodied up body. And it wasn’t a big one either; it must’ve been the runner from the coal yard.

”So? You beat up some kid. Nicely done, team. Maybe in a hundred years or so you’ll be able to take on a real man.” Said Tobias as he walked forward, hands in his pockets.

”… You don’t learn about shutting up, don’t you?” The leader was getting angry. His two cohorts closing in.

”But I did learn to throw- CATCH!”

*Sprakl*

With a single hand movement, Tobias flung a tiny bottle towards towards the big thug’s face, shattering on impact.

”AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH!!” he wailed like a wounded animal as he reached for his face.

The other two tried to reach Tobias, but their reaction was slow.

”Ugh!”

He tripped one of them down and tossed the remaining one on top of the fallen one, as he ran towards the screaming leader, the flesh of his face now visible.

”D’ya like me Vitriol?” Asked Tobias mockingly as he pried the pipe of his opponent’s hand and landing a blow on his face.

*Tr-onk!*

*Splash*

His head bent back in a nasty way, which made him stumble into the dock and into the water.

”DIEEE!” One of the remaining two came at him with a nailed board. He managed to parry it, but not without the nails grazing his shoulder.

*Thunk! Crackle!*

Tobias riposted back, hitting him square in the shoulder, followed by another blow on the back of the head, which made an unsettling sound.

”What the fuck are you doing!?” with his second partner down, the last thug was losing his bearings.

”Imma putting ya in the dirt, like the worms y’ are.” Replied Tobias as he twirled the pipe around. Hitting the first one on its vitriol-burn face had sprayed him with a not too small amount of blood, ”So, what are ya gonna do, little mouse? Run back to your nest, or face the cat head on?” he added with a grin.

”Nah, I’ll wait for the dog.”

*Tlatch*

The moment the thug lost his fright face told Tobias tried to get out of the way, but it was already too late; he had been blindsided.

”You’ve really lost your edge, old boy. I could have shanked ya like a thousand times here, but doing it once was more than enough.” Said the voice behind Tobias as he felt something cold in his back, along with a sharp pain.

”Ughagh- you limp dicked…” He managed to move away, taking a swing at Atkinson behind him, but the damage was done, and the pain made him miss.

*Twank*

He swung the pipe again, the pain on his back was overwhelming, and his blow ended landing on a nearby wall.

*Thunk! Ak!*

Then something hard on the back of his head, which knocked his spectacles off him. He could still see, albeit not clearly. And they used this to kick him towards the wall.

”We used to rule this city, Bancroft. And keep worms like you under our heels.” Atkinson said, ”The Coalbreakers may be taking the stage now, but they too will be brought down, one corpse at a time.” and continued, he and his henchman circling around the fallen Tobias like a pack of lions on a wounded wildebeest .

”Heh, yer time’s over, mate. You’ve left the stage; kicked away by the new power, and will be squashed like roaches, until none remain.” it took much more than that to break Tobias, and yet he could feel his blood soaking the back of his jacket.

”Roaches always come back, yo.”

*Twack-Crackel*

”EEEAARGH!” Cried out Tobias as they smashed his shin and calf with a pipe strike. He was starting to cave in.

”But you know what? You’re not gonna see it happen.” Continued Atkinson as he stood in front of him, ”Because you’re gonna die, right here right now.” he said as he raised the pipe above his head.

For a moment, Tobias felt it; this was it, it was over. So as he closed his eyes and steeled himself for the blow, and single thought crossed his head.

*PWAM!*

However, he couldn’t quite discern it as there was a loud noise, one that wasn’t a pipe strike.

*Platch*

He couldn’t see what caused it, but Atkinson’s henchman had just hit the ground. His torso at least, separated from his waist.

”SHIT! What the f-”

*PWAM!*

Same loud noise, and now Atkinson’s guts laid spread all over the wall; his chest burst open like a firecracker.

”You really have a penchant for trouble, my friend.”

A large silhouette emerged from behind Atkinson’s corpse. Tobias couldn’t make out its details as the pain of his wounds was starting to blur his vision.

”What can… I say..? Trrrouble just… sorta finds me, hah…” His voice was not responding, and neither was most of his body. His mind shutting down because of the pain.

<CHAPTER 2 END>

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