Metal rails shook thunderously as the transcontinental eastbound pulled into the seaside station. Sergeant Marcus could see the train was in desperate need of repair. Beside him he could feel his charge trembling. She had tried to steal something very valuable, and very dangerous. It would probably cost her her life, depending on the mercy of Judge Commander Willem. The judge was not known for mercy.
The train car had been emptied, by order of the Royal Authority. The commuters were cordoned off, the line growing more congested with each passing minute. They were clearly aggravated, Sergeant Marcus tried to disguise his sense of unease. He had with him eight guards, good soldiers who would perform their duties, but even they wouldn’t stand against this crowd for long.
His charge was a was a young woman, with chocolate skin and smile like sunrise. She had smiled when they first arrested her. Then she began to cry. Even now she shook with fear. Marcus had no idea if she was eighteen or thirty five. But she was peaceful enough, hopefully his day could proceed without incident. His family could not afford another demotion. If things went poorly he might even be let go, an reality that had become common among the department of late.
They stepped aboard moments after the train rattled to a halt. Marcus handed a chain and bolt to Corporal Jennings, Sara as he knew her some evenings. Suddenly the train car shook, and Marcus was nearly thrown off his feet, and instinctively looked over at his charge, she jumped as if spooked by his glare. “Jennings, after this is done I want the name of that conductor.”
When there was no immediate reply he looked beside him to see Corporal Jennings had gone, “Corporal.” He stuck his head outside the doorway in search of the corporal. When he stepped back in a mere second later, his charge had disappeared. His heart attempted to climb up and out of his throat, and it was only with great effort that he was able to keep it inside his chest. In panic he shouted, “Corporal…”
“Yes Sergeant,” Corporal Jennings stepped briskly in front of him.
“Where did our charge go?” Sergeant Marcus removed his cap and wiped a line of sweat from his forehead.”
“I didn’t see, Sergeant.” She appeared to be just as frantic as he was.
Marcus growled, “Has anyone seen where our charge has gone.” There was no reply from any of his officers. Steeling himself, as a gentleman must in such circumstances, he stood tall and examined his surroundings. She could had run along the train tracks, but would not want to remain visible for long. Going into the city would give her a number of escape avenues, but it would also mean having the full resources of the city guard at his disposal to find her. Then he looked out to the ocean.
A handful of ships were spread across the bay, but there was one that stood out. Most people had heard of her, she was called the Resilient. Her captain was retired admiral, Lord Burrows, who’s wealth allowed him to crew his own private converted dreadnaught. The vessel no longer carried any armaments, but instead had become something of a floating city.
It was known to stop in and trade with every significant port along the coast, usually just enough to maintain their stores. Her passengers were afforded every conceivable amenity, and the envy of high society.
“Jennings, commandeer a way to that ship, make sure it’s large enough for all of us.
“Of course Sergeant, right away”, Corporal Jennings saluted and set about at a jog. Minutes later she waved them down to a nearby pier. Nine Officers crowded onto a sturdy looking skiff, as they pushed off Corporal Jennings asked, “Sergeant, why do you think they’re aboard the Resilient?”
“Call it a hunch, Corporal.” Going into the city would be suicide, we’d find her eventually. If you could choose any ship out there which one would it be?”
Corporal Jennings scanned the bay, “I don’t know, maybe one of the fishing boats, something I could possibly buy passage on.”
“Perhaps,” Sergeant Marcus smiled, “But you’ be taking a risk, some of those vessels could belong to smugglers, or illegal slavers, either could present a fate worse than the crowns noose.”
“The crew of the resilient would almost certainly catch her.”
“Agreed, but I still think it presents her best option. Shall we test my theory or do you suggest we change course?”
This was one thing Corporal Jennings liked about the sergeant, he often sought her opinion and took it seriously. “I believe your theory has merit, Sergeant, and I support your judgement.”
Sergeant Marcus nodded, “Corporal.” He then turned at waived at a handful of crew members, who were crowded against the Resilience railing, watching the approaching crown guards. A rope was lowered and each of the nine officers climbed up one at a time. Marcus was the first one up and for some reason half expected to find an arrow soaring towards his head. The idea was silly, this was a ship populated by some of the wealthiest people in the empire, at least that’s what most people believed.
Once aboard he scanned the passengers while his officers continued boarding behind him. What he saw surprised him, the people were not nearly as well dressed as he might have expected. Each of them appeared healthy, and were of every skin color Markus was familiar with, and then some. Their attire was in good repair, but of simple design and common material. In fact much of their clothing appeared to be made of sail cloth. He thought back to the moment they arrested the girl, and recalled that her clothing had been of a similar type of cloth.
“Jennings, I want you to stay close.” The corporal nodded, and Marcus went on, “You there,” he pointed to one of his officers, “Stay by the rail. And you”, pointing to another officer, “Stand at the top of that staircase.”
One of the Resilience’s crew stepped forward, “How can I be of service,” The crew member stole a quick glance as Marcus’s arm, “Sergeant.”
“Lord Gowan, if you will.” It was an embarrassment for a lord to hold the rank of Sergeant. Marcus was in fact very good at what he did, but he had made the wrong people unhappy, taking him from a lofty position at the palace, to the rather humble role of menial escort.
Menial, except for days like this one, where the best case scenario was a reprimand and three days of paperwork and interviews. Worst case scenario would be to replace his charge on the execution stand. He thought through his queries circumstance, her hands would still be manacled behind her back, it hadn’t occurred to Marcus to manacle her feet. Even so she would need to find a way of removing her bonds, something capable of cutting through imperial steel.
As he focused he heard the faint sound of metal grinding on metal, and the whine of a powered tool, barely audible over the ships engines and din of the surrounding passengers, all of whom had taken an interest in the royal officers. “You two, hold your positions, the rest of you, with me.”
Sergeant Marcus hurried downstairs and along the ships hallways, following the ever increasing sound of metal cutting through metal. They passed several doors until Marcus noticed one with a sign above it that said metal work. He kicked the door open and stepped through, his officers fanned through behind him. The rooms sole occupant was an startled old man, with a power saw on the bench in front of him. Marcus snarled at the man, “You there, what were you doing?”
The man looked around nervously and replied, “I’m a metal worker, your lordship.”
“And what were you just doing?” Marcus placed a hand on his weapon.
The man tilted his head, “Metalwork?”
It was then that Marcus noticed the room had a second entrance, he pointed to one of his offers, “You stay here.” The woman stayed as instructed and the remaining officers followed Marcus into the next room. It was the ships galley, a half dozen crew members in white aprons rushed around preparing the evening meal, none were paying any attention to the newcomers. Marcus moved through the kitchen to look at each of their faces, his charge was not among them.
There were doors to his left and right, two ways his charge could have gone, one as likely as the other. Marcus stood beside one of the cook and spoke into his ear, “Where do these doors lead?”
The cook was chopping carrots and did not stop as he said, “The one you came from is metal works.”
“I know that.” Marcus was growing impatient.
The cook sighed, still chopping away, “That one leads into the hall, if you will find the crew quarters, and if you go left there is a stairway that goes to up to the deck or down to the laundry, oh and past the stairway…”
“What about the other door?” Marcus was yelling now.
The cook shot him an irritated look, “That one leads to the mess hall.”
Marcus turned to his officers, you three into the hallway and split up, cover as much ground as you can and blow your whistle if you find her. Corporal Jennings, Corporal Stevens, follow me to the mess hall.
The mess hall was crowded, filled with boisterous men and woman enjoying a variety of fine spirits, there was no sign of servants and people appeared to be pouring drinks for themselves. Despite public access the bar was tidy and well stocked, it seemed that the passengers could be trusted to serve themselves responsibly.
Marcus looked around the room, scanning the crowd hoping to spot the fugitive. Then a cheer rose up from the crowd, all heads turned to the double doors opposite the kitchen, through the entrance marched Lord Burrows.”
Lord Burrows was practically a legend, one of the most popular Admirals in the empire’s history. He had been instrumental in countless naval battles, and in later years he was a pirate hunter without equal. He made a small fortune in favors from merchants happy to pay for the benefit of his protection, and the crown knew how to reward it’s heroes.
His clothing appeared comfortable yet stylish, red wool tunic over a golden silk shirt. The Admiral noticed Sergeant Marcus almost immediately and made his way over, with his extensive retinue in tow. “Are you Lord Gowan?”
Marcus nodded, “I am, Lord Burrows I presume. It is an honor.” The sergeant snapped a crisp salute.
“Indeed.” Lord Burrows returned the salute. “I’ve just been informed of your presence. I’ve also been told we’ve spotted a stowaway, a young woman. She’s up on deck, wearing a red scarf. My lieutenant can lead you to her, Lieutenant Miller, if you would be so kind. “
A woman from his retinue stepped forward, “Of course Admiral. Lord burrows, please follow me.”
Sergeant Marcus felt a flood of relief, “Thank you Lord Burrows, you may have saved my life. Corporal Stevens, please stay here with Lord Burrows. Corporal Jennings, let’s go retrieve our charge.”
The sergeant marched excitedly behind Lieutenant Miller, who led them through the doors, down a hallway and up a flight of stairs to the upper deck. “There she is, Lord Gowan. We didn’t want to startle her, thought it would be best if we left it to you.”
“Yes, very wise. Thank you for your cooperation, and give Lord Burrows my continued thanks.”
The woman was seated on a nearby bench, facing away from them on a bench. Sergeant Marcus waled up behind her as quietly as he could, and placed his hand on her shoulder. Startled, the girl jumped and shot her hand towards Marcus’s throat. Marcus raised his hand to block just in time, if he had been a quarter second slower she would have crushed his windpipe.
Tears ran from her eyes when she realized who he was. “I’m sorry,” she cried, “Sorry sorry sorry please I’m so sorry. Please I’ll go peacefully I promise.”
Sergeant Marcus stood completely still and took several long breaths. At last the tension eased from his limbs and he said, “Let’s get back to the train.” He then raised his whistle and blew the all clear.
By they time they got back to the station the commuter crowd had breached the barricade and packed the train almost full. The conductor had at least had the good sense not to depart without him. Perhaps Marcus would let them off for their earlier mistake, or at least go a little easier on them.
Marcus was careful not to take his eyes for the girl for a single moment. It was unfortunate that they were surrounded by so many members of the general public, but there was no way around it. He didn’t dare risk trying to empty the train or wait for another, his charge had already proven to be resourceful and unpredictable.
His officers were circled protectively around them and each was vigilant as could be. They knew what would happen to them if the girl escaped once more. Marcus looked uneasily at crowd of civilians, keeping the girl in his peripheral. The doors closed and the train jerked as it eased forward. Marcus placed his hands on the girls shoulder and squeezed, as if to reassure himself she was still there.
Within moments they would be clear of the platform and Marcus could breath easy. Then he sneezed, and not just him but every one of his offers, and everyone around them as well, all sneezed in unison. And the girl was gone. Marcus blinked the water from his eyes and watched the platform blur out of view. The train was accelerating and an impressive speed, and Marcus wanted nothing more than to crawl back into bed beside his dear wife.
Back on the platform a girl with chocolate skin and a smile like sunrise looked up at Lieutenant Miller, “Thank you Lisa.”
“You’ll be lucky if you’re father doesn’t have you scrubbing the head for a month.” Said Lieutenant Miller. “The Admiral nearly had a heart attack when you burst into his office and told us you had the royal guards after you.”
“I ran into a bit of bad luck.” The girl bounced cheerfully, “And that Lord Gowen is very good at what he does. I’m sorry he’ll probably be fired because of me. Maybe we can offer him a job.”
Lieutenant Miller shook her head in resignation and gently laid her arm across the girl’s shoulder. Let’s get back to the ship.”