GEM EXCHANGE by Kevin O’Brien
“In his poem, ‘To a Mouse’, Robert Burns wrote: ‘The best laid schemes of mice and men / Go often askew’ (translated from his Scottish dialect). Fortunately, the Dreamlands offers no dearth of possible allies, if one makes the right connections.”
—The Dreamlands for Dummies, by Aislinn Síle
The Dylath-Leen excise agents glided the catboat alongside the Leng black galley. That had been a condition of this meeting: Differel Van Helsing could arrive in the city by whatever means she chose, but she had to use an official harbour boat to approach the galley. It had been devilishly difficult to convince the Prince of the city to lend her one without telling him why, and in the end she had to promise to do him a favour sometime in the future. She just hoped it would not be too onerous.
She stood up and watched the rope ladder approach. When it reached her she took hold of it and let it pull her off the catboat as it continued on past the galley. She hung from it for a few moments, suspended over the harbour waters, as it stopped swinging, then planted her bare feet on the lower rungs and climbed up to the deck. As soon as her head rose above the gunwale she spotted three turbaned satyrish Leng Men waiting for her, each grinning with their wide frog-like mouths full of blunt teeth. She couldn’t help noting that they were armed with cutlasses and large killing knives.
She paused and laid an arm on the gunwale. “Permission to come abroad,” she said in her British contralto.
The middle crewman, most likely a boatswain, bowed deeply, but with a sarcastic air. “But of course, My Lady Elissa.” If anything, his companions’ grins grew broader.
Ignoring them, she climbed over the gunwale, and when she stood before them she raised her arms up to shoulder level out to either side and spread her legs. The two end crewmen came forward and frisked her none too gently, nor with proper decorum, and she gritted her teeth as they fondled her bosom and backside.
Finally they stepped away to either side. “She’s clean,” the one on her right stated.
“I even washed my hair,” she quipped with a Cheshire Cat smile as she brushed a long stringy grey lock out of her face. But as she expected, the boatswain gave her a puzzled look, not getting the association.
Another of the Leng Men’s conditions for the meeting was that she come unarmed. They had originally demanded that she arrive naked, but she refused, and did so again when they offered to allow her to wear undergarments. Finally they agreed to let her have a chemise and trousers, as long as the former was tucked inside the latter, which had to be as nearly skin-tight as comfortable, and she wore no boots in which she could hide a knife or pistol. She even left her glasses behind, but they weren’t really necessary since her Dream-body had perfect eyesight. She suspected though that the frisking was more to confiscate her “gift” than to make sure she kept her word.
Of course, even if she had agreed to being nude, that would not have divested her of her two most powerful weapons. She felt her Wakiya, Eleanor d’Aquitaine, with whom she shared an empathic bond, soaring above the city, awaiting her command, and she could call her greatsword Caliburn at a moment’s notice.
“Welcome aboard the Raubtier,” and the boatswain bowed again, though not as deeply. “Come with me.” And he turned away.
The crewmen that flanked her urged her on, and she followed their leader towards the stern. She was familiar with the layout of a black galley, but there had been only one other instance when she had seen one this close, and she had been a prisoner at the time. They were based on the design of the ancient Greek trireme, and so had three banks of oars on either side, but they were larger and had numerous early modern features, such as bow and sterncastles. As their name suggested, they were painted entirely black, including the sails and brass fixtures. They were powered mainly by their oars, which allowed them to go anywhere at any time, but they also had two masts with square sails to provide extra speed. And they were well armed. On board this vessel she saw numerous ballistae lining the gunwales of the main deck, and scorpios at the corners of the sterndeck above the sterncastle. She had little doubt the bowcastle had scorpios as well, or that the galley was equipped with a ram, and she suspected it probably also had a forward-projecting Greek fire siphon. Sitting between the aft mast and the sterncastle was a mangonel style catapult, and she had glimpsed a second sitting between the foremast and the bowcastle. She wondered if it kept shantaks for aerial assault on its cargo deck. She reflected that black galleys were much like Elizabethan privateers, able to operate as merchantmen or raiders depending upon the opportunities that presented themselves.
One feature she could not miss was the foul stench that arose from below deck. She knew its source: the oars of a black galley were manned by Moonbeasts, who could row longer and faster than any human crew. Fortunately, they never left their private areas unless the galley came under attack, or to participate in a ship-boarding or shore raid. What she couldn’t tell by observation was whether the hull had been saturated with space-mead. Many galleys were, but not all; in this case, she hoped not.
The problem was, it could throw a huge spanner into her scheme if she guessed wrong.
Her escort paused at the foot of one of the ladders leading up to the quarterdeck, and the boatswain gestured for her to ascend. None of them followed her, but they didn’t need to. There were only three ways off that deck: back down into their waiting arms, up to the sterndeck and a dead end, or over the side into the harbour. None were particularly appealing.
Once she reached the deck, she saw four Leng Men waiting for her, most likely officers. Three, most likely junior officers, stood behind the fourth, who sat in a padded chair behind a small round table with a tea service on a Lazy Susan. Behind and above them, more officers and crew stood on the sterndeck, either manning the tiller, watching the harbour for threats, or keeping an eye on her; they were probably the ones armed with crossbows.
She recognized the seated officer immediately: Dey’mun Teiron Bael. If black galleys were like old English privateers, dey’muns were like the Sea Hawks who commanded them, the only exception being that it was the Moonbeasts who called the shots. Still, the dey’mun commanded the Leng Man crew, conducted trade, decided when and where to conduct raids, and oversaw the general operation of the galley even as he worked to fulfil the mission dictated by his masters.
He grinned at her, but then Leng Men were always grinning about something. “Ah, welcome, welcome, My Lady. Please...” He gestured across the table to an empty chair. “Make yourself comfortable. Have some tea.”
She did as he requested. She had encountered him seven times before, and each time had given him ample reasons for regretting it, though a couple of them had been near squeaks. The last time he had run afoul of Eleanor, who had pierced him through with her talons and dropped him into the sea from a great height. She remembered being quite surprised when she heard he had survived, though seeing him now she realized he had paid a high price for his folly.
She filled a cup, and added milk and sugar, rotating the Lazy Susan to reach them. She wasn’t worried about drugs or poison; she knew he would prefer to take her alive to rape and torture to death, and if he drugged her before their transaction was completed he would lose big. While she had little doubt he would try to double cross her at some point, he would do nothing until he had what he wanted.
Speaking of which: “Do you have it?” he asked in a pointed manner.
She looked up over her cup. “That was a pointless question. Your men searched me and found nothing.”
“I assure you, they would not have confiscated it if they had.”
“Perhaps not, but I could not take the chance that they might try to keep it for themselves.” She set her cup down and buttered a slice of bread. From his expression, she noted that he had not considered that possibility.
He then gave her a grim look. “Is this a waste of my time?”
She swallowed her bite. “Certainly not. We both know that if you had the slightest suspicion that I would not play fair, you could claim me as a consolation prize. However, I am merely playing it safe. It’s here in Dylath-Leen, and I can produce it at a moment’s notice.” She took another bite and washed it down with a sip of tea. “I believe a more pertinent question is, do you have what I want?”
Bael held out his hand, and one of his officers placed a largish wooden cube on the palm. He held it against his chest, removed the top, and tilted it towards her to show her the contents.
Inside, on a bed of plush royal purple velvet, lay a round cabochon with a domed obverse, a flat reverse, and a smoothly bevelled edge. It was black but heavily flecked with red, and had a golden starburst in the centre. The sixteen arms were curved into shallow half-circles arranged in a counter-clockwise spiral, and the four at the cardinal points were long enough to reach the edge.
It was the Star of Kohrab, the most precious of the crown jewels of Celephaïs. How Bael had got a hold of it was still a mystery, but King Kuranes had instructed her to retrieve it by any means necessary, not solve that conundrum. She just hoped he would approve of the method she had chosen.
“Place it on the table.”
He replaced the top and put the box in his lap. “Not until I know you have what I came for.”
“Very well.” Now, Eleanor, she thought as she placed the cup and the half-eaten slice of bread on the Lazy Susan. “It will be here shortly.”
He frowned in confusion, but moments later the giant raptor let loose with a titanic scream that rent the air. Bael and his officers looked up and around with expressions of fear as the thunderbird rapidly soared scant feet above the tops of the masts. Differel held out a hand and a leather bag with a looped drawstring dropped into her palm. Meanwhile, Eleanor flapped her wings and rose up into the sky to return to her station above the city.
Differel opened the bag and dropped its contents into her other hand. It was a smooth sphere the size of a cricket ball, but while the flawless surface was as transparent as clear glass, the interior was filled with a conglomerate of golden and brass-coloured crystalline flakes.
“Voila!” She held it up on her fingertips. “One Crystallizer of Dreams, as ordered.”
Bael and his officers stared at it with expressions of awe mixed with lust, as if she had unveiled a real live buxom and curvy anime bimbo for their enjoyment. Still, she couldn’t blame them. A Crystallizer was an exceptionally powerful artefact. In the Waking World, it could send the possessor to other worlds and universes, including the Dreamlands, while in the Dreamlands it could allow a Dreamer to bring Dream-constructs back into the Waking World when she awoke, something that was normally impossible. Worse, it could allow Waking-artefacts to enter the Dreamlands unchanged, even if the technological restriction normally prevented it. She remembered a story of a gangster who had used one to bring Thompson submachine guns into the Dreamworld.
“That must have been some adventure acquiring it,” Bael barely whispered.
“It wasn’t without incident.”
He swiftly sobered. “Hand it over.” His officers placed hands on their cutlasses for emphasis as the crewmen on the sterndeck raised their crossbows and sighted on her.
She closed her fist around the Crystallizer. “Place the Star on the table.”
He frowned, a grim sour expression. “I need only order my men to shoot and you will be dead. Give it to me, and I will let you leave unharmed for another encounter.”
“That wasn’t our deal.”
He shrugged. “I’ve changed my mind. This seems more efficient.”
“And more profitable. A well-conceived plan.”
He nodded acknowledgement of her compliment. “You really have only two choices: surrender the Crystallizer and live, or keep it and die.”
“What guarantee do I have you will actually let me go?”
He grinned. “None, except my word. However, I can guarantee that you will die if you choose not to trust me.”
“There is a third option, you know.”
“True; if my men only wound you, I can claim you as well. Though, I warn you, once I am through with you, you will beg me for the release of death.” He actually chortled.
She displayed a Cheshire Cat smile. “Actually, I had something else in mind.”
Eleanor broke out of a stooped dive by snapping her wings open with an ear-splitting crash of thunder, stopping just above the harbour a few yards from the port side of the galley. She shrieked as she hovered as a kestrel, her wings sounding rumbling peals of muffled thunder as they beat to hold her aloft. Her feathers flashed with St. Elmo’s Fire from the static electricity they stored, as her rostrum glowed in anticipation of unleashing a lethal bolt of lightning.
Shouts of alarm arose from the main and sterndeck as crewmen rushed to man the ballistae and scorpios.
“I would order them to stand down if I were you,” she told Bael in a calm quiet voice. “She will defend herself contrary to my orders.”
He hesitated a moment, then gestured madly at his underlings. One blew on a whistle and the crew stepped away from their weapons, but they did not abandon them.
“Shoot me and Eleanor will blast you, even if I am still alive. That may even destroy your ship, but you will be dead in any event. Or, we can complete our transaction. The choice is yours.”
The look he gave her was pure vile hate, but after a short pause he placed the box on the Lazy Susan, and she did the same with the Crystallizer. He spun the turntable; she stopped it when the box reached her, and snatched it up before he could spin it again. As he examined his prize, she opened the box, dumped the Star into her hand, and placed it inside the bag, then closed it and draped the looped drawstring around her neck.
Thank you, Eleanor. The Wakiya shrieked, rose in the air, and veered around to gain altitude.
“Are we satisfied?” she asked Bael.
He watched as Eleanor disappeared into the sky, then he gazed at her. “For now.”
She started to rise. “Then, if you will excuse me.”
“Sit down and don’t move.”
She had half-risen, but the determined tone of his voice convinced her to obey.
He held out one hand and raised the other, with all five fingers open and spread. “Give me the Star.” Two of his officers moved to stand behind her as he ticked off a countdown by folding his fingers one at a time into a fist.
She grabbed the table, tilting it up, and dumped the tea service into his lap. She raised it as he shrieked from the scalding, and two bolts slammed into it, the points penetrating through to the underside. Freeing her right hand, she summoned Caliburn, turned to her left, and struck the officer on that side with the table. She spun in the opposite direction and chopped at the other officer. She threw the table over Bael at the third officer and knocked him down. Then she charged Bael and overturned his chair, throwing him to the deck. He let go of the Crystallizer, and she chased it as it rolled towards the starboard gunwale. She grabbed it as another bolt hit the deck behind her ankles, dropped it down the front of her chemise, threw Caliburn overboard, and vaulted over the gunwale as another bolt struck the railing. She dropped feet-first into the harbour as she took a deep breath and wrapped her arms across her chest.
She penetrated a good ten feet before she stopped and started to rise again. Something took hold of her by the ankles and turned her around; it was a mermaid, and she saw six more of the shark-like sentients swim towards her from under the Raubtier as a seventh presented her with a scubapus. She exhaled and opened her mouth to allow the cephalopod to insert its funnel. It then wrapped its tentacles around her head, and when its sack body pulsed, foul-tasting air filled her lungs. The two closest mermaids took her by the wrists and sped away from the galley, dragging her behind them as the others surrounded them.
In short order they reached a boat that had lain a hundred yards off Raubtier’s starboard side. After one of the Mermaids removed the scubapus, she rose to the surface beside the metallic hull. She found a rope dangling over the side and hauled herself up to the gunwale. Bettie Stivic helped her over the side and onto the deck of the Dream Skimmer, a star-boat owned and operated by Team Girl, and presented her with a towel to wrap around her waist-long hair. A dozen cats were gathered around Bettie’s feet, and she spotted Eile standing beside the vertical main mast.
Differel heard a shout from the harbour. “Does this square us?” She looked over the side and saw the heads of all eight Mermaids bobbing at the surface. She gave them a thumbs-up; one waved back, and then they disappeared beneath the water.
As she wrapped her hair, she heard Eile shout, “Alright, people, let’s kick this pig!” She started to raise the mainsail of the Bermuda rig as the cats scattered to different parts of the boat. Differel quickly undressed, even stripping off her braies, and placed the Crystallizer in the leather bag with the Star, before accepting a robe from Bettie. She then hurried over to help Eile as Differel slipped it on. She felt the boat lurch forward even before the main sail was fully deployed.
She climbed the starboard ladder to the sterndeck and found Sunny manning the tiller. Beside her, sitting on top of a barrel, was a sable Persian, Commodore Skua Stormrider.
“Are you alright?!” Sunny squealed as she approached them.
“Yes, fine, and I have them both.”
“Report later,” the cat said gruffly. Despite his tone, like all talking cats he sounded like a Munchkin from The Wizard of Oz. “For now, take the tiller. Mr. Hiver, prepare to deploy the spinnakers as soon as we lift off.” The retired feline naval officer was professional to a fault and an unabashed authoritarian, but he knew his business, and woe to anyone who failed to show him the proper respect.
“Aye-aye, Capt’n!” Sunny saluted then sped off down the port ladder.
“Steady as she goes, Mr. Van Helsing.”
“Aye, Captain. What’s our speed?”
“Slow; we’ll increase once the main mast is rigged.”
“The galley is getting underway!” Shadow-Stalker stood on the starboard spur of the sterndeck, looking out over the harbour. She had stretched her lean smoky-black body so as to brace her front paws on the railing of the gunwale. Differel spared a glance and saw the oars moving as Raubtier pivoted towards them.
Looking forward again, she saw Eile and Bettie raise the Bermuda headsail. “Mast rigged, Captain.”
“Increase to half.”
She stepped back to the column the tiller was attached to and placed her hand on a lever set on the starboard side. “Half speed; aye.” She moved the lever on the annunciator to the “half” position on a gauge; moments later, an indicator light winked on.
“Answering half speed.” The annunciator triggered the control mechanism in the engine room in the bottom aft of the boat to increase power to the aether sweeps attached to the lowest part of the hull on the stern, which steered the boat and helped to propel it forward.
“Set throttle to three-quarter power.”
She stepped around the back of the column to the opposite side where another lever was attached. According to the gauge it was set at “90”. “Three-quarter power; aye.” She shifted the lever to “75” on the gauge as another indicator light blinked on.
“Answering three-quarter power.” The throttle lever directed how much power was fed into the boat’s keel and superstructure, which created a gravity-resist field that lifted it above the ground. It operated under the counter-intuitive principle that the weaker the field, the higher the boat would rise. She didn’t fully understand it, and she wasn’t sure the Girls did either. She only knew it worked, because even as she returned to the tiller the harbour began to recede beneath them. She simply chalked it up to the fact that the star-boat had been built in Fabulous Cathuria, and it utilized that land’s magical technology.
A cat standing on the port-side spur yowled.
“There are harbour patrol sloops closing in to cut us off before we rise too high,” Skua said. “Decrease throttle to half power.” As Differel moved to comply, he jumped off the barrel and trotted to the edge of the deck. He gave a loud caterwauling howl, and every human and feline on the deck below stopped and looked up at him.
“Deploy the spinnakers!”
When Differel returned to the tiller, Eile saluted, and as she ran to the port side, Sunny sprinted for starboard and Bettie headed for the bow as the cats divided themselves into three groups of four and followed the women.
“Answering half power,” she reported as Skua returned to the barrel. She could actually feel the boat accelerate as it rose higher.
“Turn to port, thirty degrees.”
“Port thirty degrees; aye.” She pushed the tiller to the right a third of the way, then held it as the boat gently and smoothly turned towards the left. The sweeps looked and operated as rudders, except they interacted with the aether that permeated the atmosphere, although they could push against the air as well.
“Answering thirty degree port turn.” She watched as the Girls unfolded parachute-like sails on horizontal wing masts set in the port and starboard sides, and Bettie rigged two triangular sails on either side of the bowsprit. She knew from past experience that the spinnakers were the boat’s main mode of propulsion, while the Bermuda rig on the main mast was for guidance and the spritsails were for stability. The cats ran along the masts and spars and across the rigging as they helped to deploy the sails, oblivious to the fact that one slip and they would plunge into the harbour below, safety netting notwithstanding.
When fully rigged, the sails ballooned in the wind and she felt the boat jerk forward. The Girls and Bettie with the cats returned to the Bermuda rig to trim it to manoeuvre the boat to fill the spinnakers as fully as possible to get maximum thrust.
“Come to zero-true,” Skua said.
“Zero-true; aye.” She pulled the tiller back to the left until she held it parallel to the length of the boat and pointing at the main mast.
“Answering zero-true.” The boat stopped turning and straightened out, and ahead she saw they were now on course for the mouth of the harbour. At the same time she heard what sounded like bullets ricocheting off the bottom of the boat, and she realized they must be passing over the sloops, and that they were firing ballistae bolts at them. Fortunately the planking of Dream Skimmer’s hull was made from meteoretite steel alloyed with mithril, making the boat stronger than titanium but lighter than aluminium. Short of an armour-piercing shell made of adamantem, they had little to fear from the armament in the harbour below.
“The galley has lifted clear of the water,” Shadow reported.
“Bloody hell!” So, she had guessed wrong. A wooden hull saturated with space-mead would turn any vessel into the Dreamlands equivalent of a Waking World lighter-than-air craft. On top of that, the oars of a black galley were also so saturated, which allowed them to push against the aether as they could water. With sails fully deployed, Dream Skimmer could still outrun Raubtier, especially with the assistance of the sweeps, but that put her at the mercy of the wind, because the sweeps could not propel the star-boat fast enough by themselves, whereas the galley could go anywhere, wind or no wind, and the Moonbeasts were strong and tireless.
“She’s gaining on us,” Shadow reported, and Differel could see Raubtier rapidly close the distance. She spotted a heavy ram jutting forth from the stem of the bow and a suspicious pipe sticking out from the prow above it, which she assumed was the Greek fire siphon. The ram couldn’t hurt them, because the boat’s superstructure was as strong as the hull planking, though it could knock them off course and crush one of the wing masts, but Greek fire was a real danger. Only a few parts of the boat could burn, but the burning oily liquid could cook every living thing on board.
“Increase to flank,” Skua ordered; “reduce throttle to 10%. We need to get above that monster!”
Differel rushed to comply as the Girls and Bettie trimmed the Bermuda rig to try to get more thrust, but she knew it would take time for the boat to gain speed or altitude. In fact, with its current velocity she estimated Raubtier would be on top of them before they could even clear the harbour. At that point, they would have no choice but to surrender.
Eleanor; help us! She didn’t want to put her Wakiya in danger, but she couldn’t see any alternative.
Her anxiety made time seem to crawl by as the black galley ate up the distance with greater speed. It felt as if the thunderbird would arrive too late, but then she flashed past Raubtier, from port to starboard, and tore the fore sail apart. The galley’s crew rushed to man the ballistae as she wheeled around beneath the ship and rose up on the port side to shred the aft sail to ribbons. She stalled above the masts, then rolled and dove down over the bow, rolling onto her back as she passed the bowsprit and ripped the square spritsail off its spar. The crew on top of the forecastle managed to shoot scorpio bolts at her, but all missed.
But that barely slowed the galley down, and Differel felt her heart seize as the Leng Men opened a hatch in the deck and five shantaks flew out. In her opinion the ugliest creatures to fly through God’s skies, they resembled a cross between a bird, a dragon, and a pterosaur with an equine-shaped head. Three went straight for Eleanor while the other two came at them.
And Dream Skimmer had no armament.
“Take evasive action!” Skua barked. She pulled the tiller to the left, then pushed it to the right, but she knew the boat wasn’t able to manoeuvre that quickly. Eile and Bettie tried to trim the Bermuda rig to keep pace with her actions as Sunny retrieved her composite bow, but the Shantaks were too agile and fast, and they matched the turns of the boat exactly. One ripped the headsail off the main mast; Sunny fired at it, but only wounded it. Eleanor gutted one that was foolish enough to take her on talon to talon, but the other two chased after her to drive her off. She rolled, dived, wheeled and climbed, and tore the head off one with her beak as the other banked away. The last passed beneath the stern of the boat to attack the sweeps, but was deterred by their strong power fields.
Meanwhile, Raubtier manoeuvred to pass above them to drench them with Greek fire.
Eleanor! We’re out of time!
The giant raptor pivoted in mid-air and dove, the shantak right behind her. The wounded monster returned to take out the mainsail; Sunny took careful aim and loosed an arrow into one eye, penetrating to the brain. The shantak went limp almost immediately and dropped towards the water.
“Look out!” Skua cried. The one that had tried for the sweeps rose up past the transom, arched, and dove for Differel. She had only seconds. She summoned Caliburn, gripped it by the ricasso, and threw it overhanded as a javelin. Even as the monster reached the sterncastle, the greatsword pierced its heart. It jerked away from the boat as it convulsed, somersaulted backwards, and dropped out of sight.
She summoned the sword to retrieve it and turned towards Raubtier. It was nearly on top of them, but Eleanor hurtled towards the galley, her wings folded against her body. At point-blank range, she discharged a blue-hot bolt of lightning from her beak, which slammed into the bow and pierced clean through to the other side. She dove past without stopping or slowing down, and the entire bow erupted in a great explosion. Differel ducked out of reflex as Skua leapt off the barrel and he, Shadow, and the other watch cat fled the sterndeck. The bowsprit went flying as a crossbow bolt as the fireball consumed the forecastle and the last shantak, which flew straight into it by mistake. She desperately pushed the tiller as far to the right as she could manage to turn the boat hard to port to get it out from under the stricken galley, but some burning debris fell onto the main deck. The galley veered to starboard, listed, and almost immediately tipped nose-down and began to drop towards the harbour as the Greek fire spread up the hull as a flame up a matchstick, thanks to the space-mead in its wood. Once Dream Skimmer was clear, Differel returned the tiller to zero-true, and when Raubtier passed beneath them she pulled the tiller to the left to get back on course for the harbour entrance. Before it passed out of sight, she saw Leng Men and Moonbeasts leaping off the doomed galley, despite the fact that none were likely to survive the fall. She wondered if Bael could somehow live through that.
“Get that wreckage cleared away!” she heard Skua command, and the Girls and Bettie rushed to drag the burning debris to the sides and dump it overboard. Differel took a moment to dismiss Caliburn before she reduced the boat’s speed to full and increased the throttle to 25%, and spotted Eile and Sunny pull out a new headsail. She hoped that when the emergency was finally over, one of them could relieve her so she could dress and get a message to Kuranes.
Meanwhile, Eleanor performed loops and barrel rolls around the boat in pure joy, and she couldn’t help grinning at the Wakiya’s exuberance.
Thank you, Eleanor.
The thunderbird shrieked in reply as she drew up alongside Dream Skimmer to escort them away from the city.
NEXT WEEK: ANOTHER DREAMLANDS STORY BEGINS