What You Will
Act one, Scene one
"We'll be passing Illyria in thirty minutes, Captain Antonio."
"Thank you, Soames." Illyria already? At that rate, come the week's end, the silk we carried wouldn't just be in the markets of London, it would already be girding the backside of some rich man's mistress. Hell, this steamship set a cracking pace. I watched out my observation window as thin streams of clouds parted to show a turbulent sea, and the calmer, green and gold haze of the coastal strip. Just a sprinkling of snow on the hills, but at least today was clear.
How on earth had people managed in the days when the only route back to England from the Indies was by water? Over the Indian Ocean, beating round the Cape and sailing home only as fast as the wind would let you--it seemed another world, now.
I'd flown these routes before, back in the days when I was still a poacher. Plenty of rich pickings to be found. What did they call that trader my speedy little privateer took, these five years past? Phoenix; that was it. Phoenix, treasure-trove full of jewels the size of quails' eggs and spices so fresh you'd have sworn they were new picked. By God, we'd filled our purses that day.
Now that I'd "turned gamekeeper" I had legitimate cause to be flying over here but Illyria was still a name to bring out sweat on the back of my neck. I'd not dared to land there any more, no matter how lucrative a trade contract I'd been offered.
I guess I should have stopped flying then, when my pockets were full of Phoenix's profits. I could have given my Letter of Marque back to Her Majesty's men, then gone home and settled down, but the smell of the chase was always calling me and there was always another ship to hunt down. Tiger, my last prize was called. We fell on her out of the sun; might have got away with it if she'd hauled her colours and just let us strip her of her cargo, but it came to a fight. Nasty, brutal fight, and all--Count Orsino's nephew lost his leg and I was left a marked man. Set foot in Illyria and I was dead, the Count would see to that.
Still, I'd made a success of myself since those privateering days, making plenty of money to see me through a comfortable old age, once I'd had enough of flying, or it had had enough of me. All I lacked was someone to spend that time with.
I never was one for spending ages staring into my glass, although if I caught my reflection in the helm's polished brass I saw a presentable enough face looking back, and knew I'd still be counted handsome, despite the scar across my chin. The looks I got from the women of London, painted whores up to finest ladies, reassured me the wound didn't make a scrap of difference. Not that any amount of looking or sighing from them was going to make a scrap of difference to me as far as my affections were concerned.
Oh, I'd had my moments with men, but none of them had lasted long and I was still foolhardy enough to think that one day he'd come along, my soul mate, and I'd be made up. A man can dream.
"Sir!" Soames voice broke in on my thoughts again. He was a good first officer but it seemed he never let a man have time to think. "Starboard side--looks like some poor soul's copped it."
The wreckage stood out like a great wen on the coastline, half in the sea and half on the strand, but this was no seagoing vessel. "Bloody pleasure flyers," I said, and Soames nodded in reply.
I'd seen the like before--small, swift aircraft, rich men's playthings, damned capricious unless you had the touch with flying them. This one had clearly proved too much for her crew to handle. Still, it pulled at my heartstrings to see such a neat little machine ditched and half burned. Maybe the snow storms we'd been having had done for her.
"Looks like there's at least one survivor, sir." A small spot, crawling around the wreck, proved that Soames' eyesight was keen as ever. "Poor soul, he'll be frozen to death before anyone finds him. There can't be a village for miles."
"We'll land." Funny, that. There was no debate, no indecision on my part. I suddenly knew, for whatever reason God alone could tell me, that we had to go down and help. Illyria and my status there notwithstanding.
"Won't that delay us, sir?"
"Aye, but we've made good enough time to allow some leeway. Make it so."
Perhaps I was moved by memories of stories I'd heard as a child, how old Cloudesley Shovell had misread his bearings, got wrecked off the Scillies and been dispatched--or so my granny said--by an old woman who'd been more interested in scavenging than acts of mercy. I knew I couldn't leave anyone, assuming they survived the cold, to the mercy of the Illyrians; I wasn't sure they had any mercy to give. At least Soames didn't dare argue with me. The captain had spoken, and my word was law.
That tiny little speck could have been anything or anyone, you can't tell a lot from the height we'd been cruising, but it turned out to be a boy. No, he was much older than a boy; it was his state of shock making him look so young, so fragile. My heart near leapt through my waistcoat at the sight of him, honest to God.
I've never been taken that way before, not what the old maids call "love at first meeting", but even an old dog like me can learn new tricks. The young man could walk, miracle of miracles, apparently unhurt from the impact. Seemed he'd been damn lucky, picked up out of the wreckage unconscious by a local fisherman and cared for by his family, who'd dried him and warmed him and saved his life. Maybe I'd misjudged the Illyrians--at least some of them. His ship had got into technical difficulties, he said. She'd come down lightly but then--he didn't know how--she was all aflame.
"Maybe the fuel leaked and there was a spark?" He looked from me to Soames and back again, like a wild hunted thing.
Soames had shrugged at this, saying it might well have been. I'd still been too moonstruck to do much more than make sure the lad--Roderigo he said his name was--didn't die of shock, despite the warm coat we'd swaddled him in. Any other time I'd have given anyone who'd have listened the benefit of my opinion on small airships and why they crashed--particularly in unskilled hands--but suddenly I'd lost all interest. All that mattered was that Roderigo had survived.
What makes a man--a sensible, steady man like me who's seen a bit of life both sides of the law and come out the other side--turn into nothing more than a sentimental girl? You tell me, because I don't know the answer.
Roderigo had started rambling by then, asking about his sister. He'd come back to the wreck to look for her--where was she and why were we keeping her from him? It took an age to get him to understand we hadn't found any other survivors. It broke my heart to hear him calling for her.
"Viola! Viola! What have you done with her?" In the end we gave him a dose of laudanum to calm him down and I said I'd get him to the nearest town, to see if we could find his sister there. I wasn't hopeful--truth be known I thought we had no bloody chance of finding her alive--but it meant I could spend more time with him. Share a room. Share a bed, maybe; airmen often did, nothing meant by it.
Soames was lost for words at my decision but, as I said, my word's law. I told him his duty was to the cargo, not to me, and that he could pick me up next outward trip. I'd be at the refuelling point. I'm not sure he believed me, but I'd gone past caring. Wherever this lad went, I knew I had to be at his side, even if it meant heading further into Illyria and signing my own death warrant.