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A Flight of Thieves

Sky Ships Book 1

Author(s): David Bridger

Victoria has spent all of her sixteen years in a secluded palace on Ben Nevis Island under the protection of King Henry, who is one of the three original robots programmed by the ancestors to rule the flooded planet Earth. She's safe there, but her family and their intelligent clockwork servants treat her like the tomboy child she used to be—and sometimes still is. She yearns to fly away in one of the great iron airships, to see the world and become the person she's meant to be.

But the world is a dangerous place. Air pirates prowl trade routes and slaver fleets cross the oceans to raid unprotected islands. The Royal Navy is building up to a war footing under its own steam and Henry's old friend the Lord of Ireland is accused of giving safe harbour to pirates. Suspecting his advisors have deliberately isolated him, Henry asks Victoria to board the Royal Airship Elizabeth with him disguised as her robot footman and fly over the sea to meet the Lord of Ireland. Victoria jumps at the chance for an adventure and they take to the skies together.

Excerpt


Chapter One
Victoria smiled at the tall robot footman striding toward her along the upper eastern gallery.
“Good morning, Princess.” He inclined his head as he swept by. “Doctor Q requested anyone who sees you to relay the message that your sled is repaired.” He turned the corner into the north wing.
“Thank you,” she called after him.
That was quick. She’d hauled her sled to the palace workshop yesterday evening and found the doctor stripping down a steam engine pump. He always made time for her, but twelve hours to replace the fractured runner was better than she’d dared to hope.
Sunlight pierced the clouds above Ben Nevis Island, bounced back off the new white blanket of overnight snow, and lit up the polished parquet floor of the gallery. She squinted into the dazzling brilliance, and her heart thrilled at the thought of all the clean slopes waiting for her out there, until the dark bulk of the Royal Airship Elizabeth emerged from the cloud base and blotted out the sunbeam as it sank towards the island.
She scowled up at it. Ordinarily, the arrival of an airship would likely herald someone bearing gifts and stories of adventure in far-off lands. But today’s was no ordinary visit.
Today, her sister Anne would fly across the sea to Ireland on her first solo royal duty, while Victoria would stay behind and seethe with frustration as the magnificent vessel shrank to a tiny dot before it disappeared into the distant sky.
A familiar, slow step-slap-step-slap footfall sounded from around the corner.
Sir Bisque Falls, Master of the Household, Creepy Biscuit to the princesses for as long as they could remember, and the most unpleasant human being either of them had ever met.
She was in no mood to be polite to the miserable old man today, so she opened the nearest secret panel and slipped into a passage behind the wall. Twin pinpoints of light pierced the dusty darkness from the next panel along, where someone had bored tiny holes through the pupils of a portrait’s eyes to allow a view of the gallery outside.
Victoria and Anne had started exploring when they were very young and had discovered spy portraits like this one in dozens of passages throughout the building. Somewhere back in the long forgotten history of the palace, someone must have been very paranoid.
Creepy’s footsteps approached her hiding place.
She waited for them to pass by, but instead they came to a sudden halt and she tensed. Had he seen her?
“Sir Bisque.”
She relaxed. It was only Nanny B calling to him.
“What do you want?” Creepy’s nasal tone was always at its most unpleasant when he spoke to a robot.
Nanny B’s steady footsteps approached and stopped. “Has there been a decision about which of the princesses will fly on the Elizabeth today?”
What? Did Nanny know something she didn’t? Victoria felt her way along to the eyeholes and watched for Creepy’s response.
“Not that it has anything to do with you, but Prince Peter made his decision weeks ago and nothing has changed since then. Go about your business.”
Victoria’s shoulders drooped. Everyone knew how desperately she wanted to see the world, while Anne was quite happy to stay at home. But Father stood firm on the subject, and Mother supported him. Anne was the older sister, so she would perform this first solo royal duty.
Psh! Victoria was sixteen to Anne’s seventeen, and there wasn’t even a full year between them. Every summer they shared the same age for two months. It hardly qualified as a difference at all.
“Can’t you ask him to change his mind? Anne is uncomfortable with heights. Victoria is better suited to this trip.”
Creepy closed his eyes and exhaled heavily, which Victoria recognized as a sign that his patience was exhausted.
Nanny B probably knew his ways well enough to recognize the danger too, but she continued stubbornly. “Sir Bisque? Won’t you talk to the Prince?”
“I will go about my business, and you will go about yours.” Creepy leaned forward to pull the hem of Nanny’s blouse free from the waistband of her long plaid skirt and removed a small metal key from its slot above her left hip. “Consider your place, Nanny, and don’t bother me again with your nonsense.” He held the key up before her eyes. “Come and find me later if you want this back. I’ll accept your apology then.”
Nanny B watched him limp away, and waited until he was out of sight before she fished a delicate neck chain from inside her blouse and unclasped an identical key from its pendant. She studied the portrait on the wall while she inserted the key in the empty slot and gave it a twist. “We missed you at breakfast. Your parents were wondering if you planned to join them for fencing exercise this morning.”
Victoria almost laughed out loud. Nanny knew about the secret passages? She’d known all the time that the sisters had been sneaking around in them?
Nanny’s bright blue irises flared wide for an instant and then shrank back into dark pinpoints as she focused on the spy holes. She made a noise that was a fair imitation of a woman clearing her throat and tucked in her blouse as she walked away.
When Victoria arrived at the gymnasium, her mother paused in her warm-up exercises with Anne and offered a sympathetic smile, but showed no sign of changing sides in the argument. “Don’t look so sullen, Vix. It doesn’t help, you know.”
“It’s ridiculous. When you and Father were young you went flying off around the world and had a fabulous time. Anne and I have been stuck here forever. The staff still treat us like children, and we’ve nothing to keep our minds occupied.”
“The world’s a different place now.” Mother clenched her foil between her knees while she shook her shining chestnut hair free and tied its long loose waves back securely again. “Pirates and raiders never strayed far from the Caribbean in those days, and certainly they never came this far north. We’re only concerned for your safety. We love you.”
“But now that there’s finally a chance to go somewhere and do something, Father’s sending Anne when he knows she doesn’t want to go and I do.”
Mother caught Father’s eye across the gymnasium, and they smiled the way they always did, as if the world around them had paused for a second, and they saw only each other. She blinked slowly and refocused on Victoria.
“He’s the Crown Prince as well as being your father. We all have our duties, and one of his is to ensure that protocol is followed. There are people out there who don’t wish our family well, who watch us like hawks and wait for weaknesses or faults to show in our behavior. Father isn’t being unfair to you. He’s looking after us.” She replaced her mask and turned back to Anne.
Normally, nothing soothed Victoria’s temper the way Mother’s soft American tones did. But today wasn’t a normal day. She pinned back her hair—deep red like Father’s but falling in long natural waves like Anne’s and Mother’s—and clipped on her dueling mask, then selected a foil from the rack and whacked its length against her calf while she waited for Father to fit his mask and square up to her on the mat.
The Elizabeth was mooring above the palace lawn, while her escort airship Triumph held position a respectful quarter mile away. Seamen and firemen swarmed down ropes outside the gymnasium’s full-length windows. Robots stamped back and forth across the snow, carrying supplies to the steam-driven hoist inside the base of the mooring mast.
Victoria focused on her opponent.
Father was the best swordsman in the family, but all of them wielded more skill than she did. Anne had inherited Mother’s subtlety and Father’s accurate speed, while all Victoria had going for her was strength and spirit.
Her first attack took Father by surprise and nearly threw him off balance, but he recovered quickly and touched a tip to Victoria’s upper arm as her foil flashed by. Her next angry assault went closer to its mark, but even as she rushed forward she suspected he might be luring her into a trap. She was correct. Another touch of light precision from Father, and that was two strikes.
She abandoned caution and threw herself at him, swiping air and forcing him backwards. They left the mat and danced rapidly across the floor towards the tall windows, blades clashing again and again. Breathing hard now, failing to penetrate Father’s assured defense, but unwilling to ease back even for a moment, Victoria tripped over her own feet and sprawled headlong on the floor.
A brief burst of laughter from outside penetrated the closed windows.
Father touched her shoulder with the tip of his foil, and she backhanded it away in a fury.
“Victoria.” Father seldom allowed anger to sound in his voice, but there could be no mistaking its presence now. “Go somewhere quiet and calm down.”
She shrugged off Anne’s helping hand and nearly stumbled again as she regained her feet and stormed out of the gymnasium.
 
“Thank you for repairing my sled, Doctor.” Showered, her hair brushed until it shone, dressed in warm outdoor clothing, and determined to put a brave face on the rest of the day, Victoria smiled at her favorite robot.
Doctor Q removed his magnifying eyepiece as he straightened up from a dismantled robot knee joint he was examining on the workbench. Clockwork mechanisms whirred beneath his workshop coat.
Victoria spied her steam sled standing by the back door. It gleamed with promise.
“There you are.” Anne maneuvered narrow passageways between machinery and benches and threw her arms wide for her sister.
Nanny B bustled along behind her, making exasperated robot noises and exchanging a courteous nod with Doctor Q while the girls hugged.
“I’m sorry,” Victoria said. She buried her face in Anne’s shoulder for a moment to hide her smile at Nanny B’s muttered complaints about Anne’s impending journey.
“Nothing to be sorry for.”
“I threw a tantrum, and it only made things worse.”
“I understand. I wish you could go instead of me. I wish it more than you do.”
“You’ll be okay. It’s only for eight days. You’ll be home a week before Christmas.”
“I know, but it’s all such nonsense. So what if the Lord of Ireland is harboring sky pirates? He’s hardly going to surrender them to me, is he? He won’t take me seriously at all. This trip is stupid and pointless.”
“What time are you leaving?”
“Four o’clock this afternoon. The airship people need one of the Doctor’s engines to pump the envelope full of new steam, or something.” Anne shuddered.
Doctor Q cocked his head. “Do they indeed? In that case, I’ll prepare for their request.”
A brief commotion drew everyone’s attention as an airship seaman supported an injured colleague with a bandaged head in through the back door. The uninjured man glanced around. “Is the doctor here?”
“I don’t need a doctor,” grumbled the other.
Doctor Q took his elbow and guided him to a chair. “What happened?”
He glared. “I certainly don’t need a robot.”
“Master-at-Arms Bell banged his head,” the seaman explained. “Captain Wade said he’s concussed and ordered him to remain at the palace until we return from Ireland.”
Doctor Q tried to remove the bandage, but Bell slapped his hand away.
Anne stepped in. “Come with me. We’ll find you a room and get you settled.” She offered her arm as he got back to his feet. “So the Elizabeth will be without a Master-at-Arms on this trip?”
Bell started to shake his bandaged head, but appeared to think better of it. “The Triumph’s Master-at-Arms will take my place for the week.”
Victoria laid a hand on Doctor Q’s forearm as he turned away. “Thank you again. I’ll take my sled out now and try not to break it again.”
Doctor Q gave a single nod. “We’ll see.”
Anne paused. “You’re going out sledding? Now?”
“I’ll be back before you leave. I’ve packed a lunch. I need to get some fresh air and, you know—”
“You want to get out of the palace for an hour or two to avoid seeing Mother and Father, because every time you open your mouth around them today you feel like a naughty child.” Anne knew her as well as she knew herself. “In that case, Nanny B will keep you company. You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Nanny?”
Sometimes Victoria imagined she saw emotions in the eyes of robots she’d known and loved all her life, and Nanny B was definitely one of those. In any case, her stiff body language suggested that snow sled rides would never feature on her list of pleasurable activities. Victoria let her off the hook. “No need for that. Thank you for your kind offer, Nanny, but I’ll be fine.”
“Nonsense. It’ll be fun for you both. I insist.” Anne pulled Victoria close and whispered, “Please take her off my hands for a while. She’s following me everywhere today and wailing all the time.”
Victoria managed to turn her snorting laugh into a cough. “Come on then, Nanny. Let’s go and have some fun.”
Nanny B shot a long-suffering glance at Doctor Q. Her grumbling became more audible outside the workshop when Victoria settled her on the pillion seat and tucked her long skirts up into the legs of her knickerbockers, and by the time they were chugging up the first slope her complaints were loud and clear.
Victoria hummed a lively tune in time with the rhythm of the small steam engine under her seat, adjusted her goggles, and ignored the disgruntled robot.
 
“Shouldn’t we be getting back to the palace now, Princess?”
“Soon, Nanny. One more run and then we’ll make for home.”
Victoria was cold. She looked forward to sitting on the hot steam pipe below her bedroom window, warming her hands around a bowl of winter vegetable broth, and wriggling her tingling toes inside her slippers.
She checked her pocket watch. Half past two. Time for one last run and still make it back to hug Anne and watch her fly away into the setting sun.
It was time for the big one. The one she’d been daring herself to attempt yesterday before she snapped the runner. The one she’d been building up toward all day today. She gave the end of the frozen loch a wide berth and turned to the massive mountain that loomed over Glen Nevis.
They made a slow ascent, but the magnificent view from the summit was worth the effort. Victoria lifted her goggles and rubbed her gritty eyes.
Way over to their left, on top of Carn Mordarg, the palace windowpanes reflected a thousand golden glints from the low sun. The Elizabeth and Triumph were moored to adjacent towers beyond the building. To the south and west lay the empty ocean view Victoria normally enjoyed from her bedroom window. Virgin snow glowed all over Ben Nevis and shone from the other Grampian Islands to the east. It lay thick and inviting on the long, steep, smooth slope below them, all the way down to the sheer cliff at the bottom.
She replaced her goggles and lined the sled up at the top of the slope.
“No,” Nanny B said behind her ear. “No.”
Victoria’s shout was half-laugh and half-challenge as she gunned the sled over the ridge and raised the treaded roller.
She gripped her handlebars and screamed as they hurtled down the white mountainside. “Whooo!”
“Noooo!” Nanny B wailed.
It was as fast as she’d expected. Maybe even faster. Powdery surface snow and the polished runners of her sled combined to make them fly, and she hoped the dazzling white smoothness would be thick enough to protect them from rocky hazards beneath.
A quarter of the way down, sudden doubt flooded through her. They were going too fast. Way too fast. The icy wind froze her face and made her teeth ache when she breathed. The handlebars kept trying to rip themselves from her hands, and she wasn’t strong enough to control the sled. She hung on for grim death and fought the fear, while Nanny moaned in a long monotone behind her.
They were already halfway down, and she didn’t know if she could stop before they plunged over the cliff into the sea below. Her brave plan had been to lower the roller by degrees and drag out a wide sweep to bring them to a halt beside the cliff edge, but that seemed impossible at this terrible speed. If she dropped the roller too sharply they might somersault and crash before she could engage it. If she did it too slowly they wouldn’t stop in time.
Nanny stopped moaning and wrapped her strong arms around Victoria’s waist.
It was now or never. She lowered the roller towards the speeding snow. When it ploughed the surface crust she paused at that height for a few seconds, then lowered it again inch by inch.
Flicking her gaze back and forth between the descending roller and the rapidly approaching cliff edge, she managed to slow the sled down to a more manageable speed. Still too fast for comfort, but she might actually pull this off. Probably. Maybe.
Three-quarters of the way down the slope, she started to turn the sled in a wide arc, still lowering the freewheeling roller by degrees and gaining encouragement as it started to drag through the deeper snow. A hundred feet from the edge, she kicked the engine into gear and slammed the roller deep.
Snow slewed out in a solid sheet over their heads, and the sled churned to a reluctant halt only ten feet from the cliff edge. The steam engine shuddered, wheezed, and died with a loud ringing rattle.
“You naughty girl.” Nanny B clambered down from the pillion seat. She shook her skirts free and stamped six paces away through knee-deep snow. “You could have died.”
Victoria grinned. She didn’t know why, because there was nothing funny about what had just happened. Maybe it was a nervous reaction. Maybe it was simply relief.
“I don’t know what you think you’re laughing at,” Nanny’s eyes flared ice blue. “You were naughty as a child, and you get worse as the years go by.”
Victoria shook her head and grinned defiantly out at the ocean.
“Don’t you dare smirk when I’m telling you off!”
She turned on the robot. “No. Don’t you dare tell me off! I’m not a child. And I’m not your precious Anne, either, so don’t even talk to me.”
Nanny’s jaw dropped.
Victoria couldn’t help it. She burst out laughing at the ridiculous sight.
Nanny hitched up her skirts, swiveled in the snow and stomped away, following the cliff edge. “I’ll walk home.”
“You do that.” Victoria climbed off the sled and crouched to study the hot engine, wondering if she could get it going again.
A muffled squeak sounded behind her, and she straightened, expecting to see Nanny B blowing her top again, but the robot was nowhere in sight.
“Nanny?”
Silence. Innocent snow everywhere and wind whipping in from the sea, but no sign or sound of Nanny.
“Hello.” Victoria called once, twice, and stopped to listen for a response.
Nothing.
Oh, no! Victoria’s heart hammered, and her throat closed up so fast she couldn’t even swallow. Nanny must have fallen over the cliff, and it was all her fault. She’d been selfish and childish all day, and now she’d killed Nanny.
Her legs trembled as she followed the robot’s deep footsteps through the snow, carefully, testing each one before she trusted her weight in a new place. She had to know. She didn’t want to see her beloved Nanny’s body lying smashed to pieces on the rocks below, but she had to know what she’d done to her.


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ISBN (Print):
ISBN (Electronic): 978-1-62916-007-8
Genre: Young Adult
Date Published: 11/30/2036
Publisher: Taliesin Publishing

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