They followed the captain out from the dark tunnel and Natch’s heart stumbled.
“It’s even bigger than Sapphire City,” Natch said under this breath.
Ralla tutted. “Very well couldn’t be, now, could it?”
To Natch’s eyes, it was. The thrufare that laid out before them seemed to stretch on and on, until Natch could hardly see the end. Perhaps he would have been able to find it, if not for the scores of people. And none of them milling about, not like in Sapphire City. The people here were mostly men. The women he could see were all tall and muscular and easy to mistake for a man from behind, especially with everyone’s hair tucked under leather caps. They all had somewhere to be. Carrying crates or unidentifiable large metal pieces. Pushing or pulling a cart, loaded down with boxes and bags and scraps. Yelling at one another. Their words – plenty obscene – mixed with the steam and smell of coal in the air. He glanced at Ralla, to see if she was hearing it, too, and caught her looking up and down and everywhere with her mouth hung open. Natch looked away quickly so he didn’t embarrass her. Anyway, he wanted to look up and down and everywhere, too. Mostly up.
Airships lined the thrufare, and their balloons reached to the sky. Twice as tall as any building back in Bay Gardens, that was for certain, and they must have been taller than the buildings in Sapphire City, they just had to be. Perhaps the airyard wasn’t bigger than Sapphire City, but Natch could see with his own two eyes that it was taller.
The balloons themselves were explosions of color atop the metals and woods of the airyard and their ships. The one they were passing now on their left had a canvas made of the most peculiar blue, bright and somehow dark at the same time, and all over an intricate swirling design had been painted. By hand, it looked like, but how long would it take someone to paint a balloon that big? And then there was the one on their right, stripes of every color marching around and up. Some were wide and open, the ship below a swarm of activity. Other balloons hung loose and limp from a mechanical arm that swung out over the ship.
Great nets hung over the balloons, so heavy looking Natch wondered how they didn’t stop the balloons from inflating altogether. They wrapped around the inflated canvas snugly and kept the balloon connected to the middle of the ship. Other ropes came out from the bottom of the balloon to the edges of the ships, and those ropes were so close to the fires he couldn’t believe they didn’t catch. Seeing balloons in the air, from the safety of the ground, was very different than seeing them up close. His excitement was turning to something else, something gritting and sour.
“There doesn’t appear to be any passenger ships here,” Ralla said into his ear. “Or other passengers.”
In a way, Natch had noticed. He’d seen that everyone else on the thrufare was busy with work, anyway. He just hadn’t taken the next logical step. I would have, he thought, drawing himself up, if I hadn’t been so busy myself.
Captain Partil said, turning to face them as he walked. Ralla’s cheeks colored just the slightest bit. Clearly she hadn’t thought he’d be able to hear over the din.
“This is the Shipping Thrufare. Nothing but crates and barrels. Passenger airships land over there.” He gestured vaguely. “Nothing but cargo among these lots. No one’s licensed for paying passengers.”
Ralla gripped her skirts and began to look around suspiciously. She never could stomach breaking the rules.
“It’s very generous of you to take us up, Uncle,” Natch said a little too loud. “Mother wants to hear everything once we’ve returned.”
Captain Partil gave him a sly smile from under his walrus mustache and continued walking. While Natch hadn’t noticed that there had been no passengers, he had noticed that everyone around them had been far too busy to glance at them, much less to really look with any sort of suspicion. Still, reminding Ralla of the plan was enough to get her to release the death grip on her skirts and relax her jaw.
“Here we are!” Captain Partil said. He stopped and turned, waving an arm with a flourish that almost knocked the leather cap off a passing engineer. “The Fregata!”
If the Fregata had been the first airship they had seen, Natch would have been impressed. Only it wasn’t. They had passed by a dozen or more airships. Taller airships. Cleaner airships. Younger airships. The Fregata’s balloon was only about half the size as the other ones. It was striped red and white with polka dots. Except the polka dots had no pattern, and all were different shades of red and white and cream, and Natch realized that they weren’t for design but patching up holes. The ropes around the balloon and the ship looked more frayed than any of the other ships they had passed, and after a few seconds he found that these, too, had been patched up. The wooden deck looked dark and dingy, and the woman carved at the front appeared to have lost her nose at some point.
Ralla leaned in closer to Natch, and he hoped she didn’t hear his breath catch.
“It’s quite…well…it’s small. Er. Smaller than the others.”
Captain Partil smiled at her, as though there hadn’t been any sort of hesitation in her voice.
“All the better for speed. That’s what I specialize in, you see? Express delivery.”
“And you’re sure something like this can get us there?” Natch asked.
“My dear nephew and niece, the Fregata could take us to the moon if I asked her nicely enough. I don’t think we’ll have any trouble making it to Seattle. Come along, then, children! The skies are impatient.”