The trip to the plains east of Goblinoster were both exhilarating and tense.
Staring over the edge of the Sky Bitch but keeping his eyes fixed on the clouds, Jeffrey realized that he had not been so close to his castle in a long time. In the grand scheme of his life it was really not that long - a little over two years - but after everything that had happened since his expulsion from Castle MineMineAllMine… two years stretched. Two years became an eternity.
Bracing himself against the railing, listening to Libby bark out orders to the crew behind him, Jeffrey sighed. Home. My bed. My bedchamber. My tower. My dining hall. My throne room. My dungeon. My kitchens. My library. My baileys, and walls, and moat, and horrible executing machine… all of it is gone. Or, at least, pretty gods-be-damned wrecked. Inhabited by… things…
Jeffrey reluctantly conjured an image of a Non sitting in his chair, eating his pie, wiping its mouth with his napkin, and sleeping in his bed. A Non with a crown on its head. It was, he thought, a surprisingly funny image… until the Non slowly morphed into Kierkegaard. He quickly shut the image down, hurling it out of his brain with unsurprising force. He couldn’t get rid of the shudder that followed quite so easily, however, and he tried to stunt it instead with thoughts of his wife… but they got clobbered by the heat of breath on the back of his neck.
Jeffrey spun, staring wide-eyed. The captain of the vessel stared back.
Libby sneered, looking Jeffrey up and down once. She seemed born to wear a captain’s uniform, even if it was a relatively plain coat with a distinct lack of officious buttons. “You’re on watch, stupid. Spot anything?”
Jeffrey gulped. “Uh… no, ma’am… nothing.”
“Just ‘cause I like Daena doesn’t mean you get a free ride,” she said, contemptuous. Her hands balled into fists. “We’re deep in enemy territory. Get your head outta your hairy ass ’n start looking.”
Though frightened, Jeffrey felt a twinge of irritation as well. Once upon a time, Libby had worked for him. She’d been his lead carpenter, true, and she’d never tolerated much crap, but back then she’d shown him respect. The kind of respect due a king. And he wasn’t much of a king, true, but… well… it sure beat her constant condescension.
But I bet I could take her, Jeffrey thought, arm muscles tensing. I’ve been training hard. Antonio said I had promise. Libby’s probably stronger than me, but she’s an undisciplined brawler. I bet I could show her a thing or two. Maybe then, she’d stop riding me so damned -
“OUT THE WINDOW!” Libby bellowed, cutting Jeffrey’s internal monologue short. She punched him hard and fast on the arm, forcing him to stare out the Sky Bitch’s glass front. “STOP FUCKIN’ DAYDREAMING WHEN SOMEBODY’S TALKIN’ TO YOU!”
Boots slapping the floor, Libby strode away. Jeffrey grumbled several choice words to himself, wondering if he’d ever share another civil word with Libby again. Then he remembered that he’d kept the details of her son’s death from her, and he decided he’d best just keep his mouth shut and avoid her as best he could. Yes, that seemed just fine, thank you.
“Heh, you got told,” Gok tittered from a few paces away. He too was on watch, balancing atop a crate to peer out the front window, and judging by his constant reports he was doing a much better job than Jeffrey.
Jeffrey didn’t say anything. Growling, he turned to stare out at the plains, determined to be the one to find their objective first.
The plains didn’t offer anything of interest for almost two hours. The Sky Bitch had been slowly prowling the skies for half a day already, fixedly avoiding the west as it skimmed close to the massive, almost featureless stretch of grass between its occupants former home and the ruins of Goblinoster. Accompanied by two rat-controlled dragons that glided high above the airship, the Sky Bitch was constantly on the lookout for flying Non, and the crew fretted over their inevitable appearance. It would take only one scout on patrol to bring the entire Non army down on Dragomir’s expeditionary force.
Mercifully, the Non did not find the Sky Bitch before a member of the crew spotted their target. Which is not, of course, to say that the Sky Bitch avoided trouble entirely.
Riding high in an observation bubble perched atop the Sky Bitch’s command deck, Morris was the first to see the telltale signs of the plain’s inhabitants on the horizon. His shouted word echoed down to everyone on the deck, both happy and triumphal, and Jeffrey let out a little groan of defeat. He couldn’t deny Morris his prize, though, as they’d all soon spotted the curls of smoke, and the Sky Bitch hastened to land at a safe distance from the cluster of moth-eaten tents.
Nodding gratefully from his wife as he emerged from her cabin, Pagan and Evangelina at his sides, Dragomir braced himself as the Sky Bitch thumped onto the ground with a sustained groan. Clutching his stomach as the landing gear descended and planted itself in the brown grass, Jeffrey wondered if Dragomir would call on him to accompany the party to their little parley. He was only slightly miffed, and mostly grateful, that Dragomir asked no such thing of him.
“Everyone else stay here,” Dragomir said, gazing askance at his shoulder as a rat climbed into view and settled into the fabric of his tunic. “We’re gonna go talk to ‘em.”
Her frown intense, Libby planted her gloved hands on her hips. “You sure you don’t want more backup? Only three people is a bad idea.”
Dragomir shrugged. “We’ll be fine. I have experience; Pagan’s got advice; Evangelina can cover the magic. Right, guys?”
“Right,” Pagan said.
“Sure,” Evangelina said.
“You ever gonna tell me how you got rid of that seal?” Dragomir inquired, cocking his head.
“I licked it off in a moment of passion,” Gok offered, making an obscene gesture. He shut up when several of the floorboards began to lift out of place around his feet, no doubt prompted by the orange glare in Evangelina’s baleful eyes.
Saluting, Dragomir led his small team off of the command deck and down to the boarding ramp, their faint footfalls echoing through the ship as the engine sputtered to a slow stop. Slumped over the railing, Jeffrey watched them walk slowly but confidently across the grass towards the sizeable camp, wondering how in the hell Dragomir would ever convince a bunch of zombies to join his war effort. Weirder things had happened, but… not many.