Jeanette stood in the shadow between the barrels and the tall figure. Her first reaction was to run, but there wasn’t a clear way out. She could pull out a weapon from beyond the sixth wall, but the figure would be on her before that could happen? Act like a really little girl?
“My name is Jeanette. I didn’t mean to do anything wrong, I’m sorry.”
The figure’s voice was deep, but it was female. “Well, Jeanette, you’re out here in the middle of the night where it’s not safe, looking very hard at my ship. I think that running out on your parents could be considered wrong, couldn’t it?”
Behind the woman, she saw two crows take flight. Thank goodness.
“I guess. I’d just never seen a ship like that before, so I had to see up close. I’m sorry.”
“And what do you think of her?”
“It’s beautiful,” and she didn’t have to lie.
“Aren’t you a charmer--for a rich girl.”
Yep, just an ordinary little girl--with a big jewelled necklace. So even if she wasn’t dangerous, she could be a hostage. Jeanette didn’t know what to do next, so she bowed her head. “I’m sorry,” she said for the third time.
“So maybe you’d like to see what she looks like on the inside?” This terrified her, even though a voice inside her said “Oh yes, please!”
“I don’t know--my Dada told me--”
“--not to go out by yourself in the middle of the night.” The woman bowed down to her face, and Jeanette could see that she was a black woman. (She was supposed to say African American, but this was a world where America discovered Europe, and there weren’t any humans at all anymore.) She had big dark eyes, a wide mouth and deep cheekbones. “I think you are too clever a little girl by half, and not as scared or regretful as you make out.” She pulled herself up to her great height. “So maybe we had better just wait for your rescuers to show up.”
It didn’t take long at all for her companions to arrive. Dr. Ransom stood there and said “Jeanette!” In that rare tone that meant she had tried his patience to the breaking point.
“Is this your spy?” The black woman asked.
Senhor Capoeira Capybara spoke up in a pleasant tone, “She is indeed. And if you are this ship’s captain, we are looking to hire a starship for a wild and dangerous mission.”
“She’s not for hire. Wild and Dangerous?”
“Perhaps we can discuss this aboard your ship? Perhaps ‘hire’ is not a word you like. I know Jeanette would dearly love to see the interior.”
She considered them. She was taller than her father but shorter than Lord Elphinstone. She was wearing a fur-lined cloak and shiny black boots, but not too much else was visible in the dark. She said to Terence, “If you are Jeanette’s father, you are conspicuously less well-dressed than your daughter. Might you be her servant instead?”
“If you are trying to gauge the level of our assets, I can assure you that we have enough to make entering into business with us worthwhile. You should be more worried about the insanity of our mission.”
In response, the woman took a step back and put a hand on the top of Jeanette’s head. It caused her to jump, which in turn caused her father to jump and Silvertyger to reach for his longsword. The woman smiled. “Very well, Jeanette, you’ll have the chance to see the inside of a real live starship.” She guided Jeanette along, just a little to close for comfort. The others followed without invitation.
Sparks were still leaching out from the ship’s sails and masts, and it seemed very large as they got closer. Although there didn’t seem to be locks or gates of any sort, the water of the ocean didn’t enter, and the ship floated on air.
The woman set foot on the gangway, and the ship lit up with a warm red glow. There were floating globes the size of ping-pong balls that seemed frosted with light. As the last of them walked onto the deck, and the crows alit on the railing, she turned to them and said, pretty theatrically, “Welcome aboard the Paradox Swan, O humans. I am Ngozi Makena Odile, The Pirate-Queen of the Night!” And in the light she could see that she had thigh-high boots and a kind of cloudy shirt, and a long sword-like thing at her hip that had two twisted snakes instead of a blade. Then Jeanette thought it looked like a DNA helix.
They all had the good sense not to look impressed, and that seemed to please Ngozi. She beckoned them to a hatch that opened by itself, and they walked down narrow stairs.
The captain’s cabin of the Swan was both large and handsomely decorated with carvings, though it was hard to say what it was made of: It wasn’t wood, metal, or plastic, and it admitted a low-level ruddy glow. There was also nothing separate in the cabin: a table extended out from the curved wall, and there was a bench around the edge of the chamber.
They all found places to sit, and Ngozi took off her cloak and said, “Now tell me of your wild and dangerous expedition.”
Grandmère spoke up. “We are looking for a place called the Redoubt. It may contain the mystery of what happened to the rest of our kind.”
“You all wear orchids, I see--and I think, immortal ones. Except for the birds.”
“No, those are gifts from King Oberon of Avalon.”
“The name means nothing to me.”
“The mark of our sodality is these,” said the orangutan, and held up her white gloves.
“Yet not all of you wear them.”
“They are our allies,” said Dr. Ransom.
“The Redoubt, then.” said Ngozi.
“The tales say that it is in a place called the Night Land--a place where time has made the sun go dark,” said Grandmère.
“Stars don’t go dark.” Said Ngozi.
“Making this a rather wild expedition,” said Diotima, slightly mocking.
Ngozi nodded. “And the dangerous part?”
“We are being pursued by a force called Deep Chaos.” returned Grandmère.
“That I have heard of,” said Ngozi. She got up and took a few paces around the cabin. She stopped. “Yes. Sufficiently wild and sufficiently dangerous. But here are my conditions. 1. When I said the Paradox Swan was not for hire I meant it. But I will sign an agreement giving you a share in MY expedition to the Night Land. 2. You will also sign on as contract passengers, which gives you no authority to command this ship, and limited advisory capacity. 3. Since my original plan in coming to Powhatan Shipyards was to lie here and use up our remaining credit balance until we got a commission, you will pay off my debts and pay for my repairs immediately.”
“How can you have debts and a credit balance at the same time?” The lynx asked.
“You clearly haven’t dealt with the Shipyards much,” answered Ngozi.
Lord Elphinstone threw a bunch of large jewels on the table. One rolled off and onto the deck. “Is that enough?”
Ngozi Makena made a great performance of not letting her jaw drop and counting the jewels. “Pretty much.”
“So how long will it take?” Senhor Capoeira Capybara asked.
“We can be gone by noon tomorrow.”
“That quickly?” Said Dr. Ransom.
“They’re scurrilous rascals, but there’s a reason why you come to Powhatan. In view of that, I’ll ask you not to leave the ship. I’m not going to hunt you down.”
“But my stuff’s at the hotel!” Jeanette cried out.
“Sorry, you should have thought of that before you went out spying.” Ngozi said coldly.
“You--you--nasty evil queen!” Jeanette said.
Ngozi slapped her across the face.
“You will not talk to your captain like that, child! Is that clear?”