Leopold Briar waited patiently at the council entrance. Around him, opulent furnishings and richly woven tapestries led the way to the secret interiors of the building, guards heavily encase in armour standing in pairs at every entrance. The spectacled clerk in front of him flicked through a few scrolls of parchment.
"Leopold, did you say?" the clerk inquired again after completing his findings.
"Briar. That's correct."
"Yes, Leopold Briar." He leafed through several of the parchments to his left, before lifting one out and steadying it in front of him to look at it through his spectacles with studious intent. "Captain Briar," he read clearly aloud, "The Airship council wishes you to know that your admittance to the council meetings has been suspended" - immediate agitation rose within Leopold - "on account of suspicious behaviour concerning affiliation with Tiboriellan Royalty in August of last year. Motion carried forth by Admiral A. Manslow on March 17 of this year. Yours, A. Manslow of the Airship Council. Here's the seal."
Ignoring the wax image of a crowned hawk presented to him, Leopold leaned forwards and said "Look, that's utter nonsense. That's outrageous..."
"It's not up to me, Captain"
"Emperor Vinaskus is an old friend, and his daughter, held captive..."
"Captain, I'm afraid I must interrupt!" the clerk shouted, before calming himself again. "I'm a clerk. If you have a problem, take it up with the council."
"Well, perhaps I will, I daresay". With this, Leopold began moving with serious intent down the corridor. The clerk had just stood up and leaned out over the desk (he was not very tall) to call out for the guards, who were just that moment raising their pikes, when a voice rang out from behind them.
Everyone faced the tall, thin and well-moustached man that had just emerged from a side-door. Leopold recognised him immediately - with some relief - as Captain May of the Stormwind, an old friend that had been his fellow officer on The Jackdaw, becoming Leopold's first-mate after being beaten to the position of Captain. After a year, he was offered the chance of captaining a newer, more advanced military vessel, while Leopold met Maze a few months afterwards.
"Etwin," Leopold called out, "Would you help me out? The council starts in half an hour and that curmudgeon Manslow - he's always had it in for me - has barred me from entrance."
May sighed. "With, I'm afraid to say, a council majority vote."
Briar stopped altogether. Half-broken, he replied. "Sorry?"
"I voted in favour of you staying on board, but..." May looked about him. "Look, I'll skip this week's council. Can we have a talk over some port? I've a new house near the market - it's only a short tram-ride away."
Briar consented forlornly, and the two went off in silence together.
May's living quarters were not strictly a house. They were part of a large building that had the market district on one side, but in fact offered high-up views of one of the larger Galabrian parks on the other. The rooms allotted to him, however, took up two floors of the building and were thus certainly the size of a house - and a large one at that. May led Leopold into a tall room of red furnishings, two old sofas, book-cases filled with atlases and cultural guides (as well as the odd old-fashioned yarn), and a large iron-framed window.
Leopold seated himself and looked out over the brooks, flowers and contours of the park. May went to a nearby cabinet, taking from it a decanter of port and, placing a round glass next to Leopold, poured him a more than reasonable amount.
"There you are old chap" he said kindly.
"Thankyou" Leopold muttered in return, still disconcerted.
He sipped generously while May poured one for himself and sat down. Then, looking out over the park again, he said:
"Look, Etwin. You know me better than anyone. Damned well better than Manslow. You'd know that if I was helping Vinaskus, it was nothing more than a favour for an old friend, and that all this tension between Tiboriel and Galabria of late has nothing to do with me. I was unaware..."
May was raising his hands in compliance. "I know, I know" he insisted. "I believe you. You believe in the Galabrian empire more than anyone, I know that. And if I may jump on some suspicions, so do nearly all the members of the council. Probably Manslow too."
Leopold gazed at him, bewildered. "Why then?"
May sighed. "I think it's you." Before Leopold's eyebrows raised too much, he hastily added "Look, no offence, old chap, honestly. But think about it; every one of those Captains in there, myself included, have pride in their presentation, and are captaining well-armed vessels that display the very pinnacle of Galabrian military technology, manned by hardworking Galabrian men in uniformed ranks. Then you..."
"What about me?"
"Well..." May began, carrying on after a sip of port, "your first-mate is a demon."
"And a fine first-mate too."
"And last time I saw you, there was an elf too, andthat pig-man you have cooking your meals. You know how the Empire feels about treating hon-humans as one of us. Not to mention you're allowing women on board. That sort of thing isn't on, you know."
Leopold simply shrugged.
“I've never taken on a crew-man lightly. I trust every one with my lives.”
“That's just a start!” May declared. “There's your ship, big and ragged as anything, still runs on men carrying buckets of coal.”
“Now, now, lay into this raggedy old captain and his crew all you want, but I'll have to insist you stop there” said Leopold, laughing. “You're coming dangerously close to insulting the greatest ship in the Western skies.”
May laughed too. "It is a fine ship", he said. "Primitive, maybe, but after you sorted out the engine, propellors, wings, it really is something else."
"It is" Leopold agreed, a glint in his eye.
"But the Empire doesn't want something else. They want Galabrian."
Leopold's eyes sank. He saw May's point clearly.
"Well, if Manslow feels threatened by a slightly ragtag crew and ship, and an unintentional friendship with the enemy," he declared, "it's his bad luck."
Then he sighed, recollecting his fond memories of the rich warmth of the council-chambers, and the weekly meetings in which quests were handed out. Kidnapped princesses, missing treasures, these were the richly-rewarding orders of the day for a Galabrian captain, and gave a sense of relieving empirical purpose to Leopold after months of dirtier mercenary work in the outer-continents.
"I suppose I'll have to go to the Captain's Recruitment Office" Leopold groaned. "Cheap knock-off, they'll probably have me chasing a senator's cat in Wensleyville."
May looked with sympathy at his old friend for a few moments, before finishing his glass and speaking.
"Not necessarily" he said. "Another thing I forgot to mention is perhaps one of the prime pieces of reasoning behind your suspension. You still like adventure. I know you - you're never happier than when you have a far-off destination and a violin to play until you get there. But these are different times. After Tiboriel laid claim to that land up north, Galabria has been rallying defences towards it. The past year has been a time of war, and you're the only ship that's still gallavanting around finding anything else to do."
Leopold nearly spoke here, but May continued.
"Let me finish. As it is, the Stormwind is heading North too. But recently, I was given a quest by the council. I was going to use it as an excuse to get out of fighting, but seeing as you'll need the money far more than me... council law dictates that, if compromised by wartime duties, a captain can leave outstanding orders with another captain on the council, even one not in service. They of course probably meant retired, but I see no reason I couldn't hand it over to you."
Warmth filled Leopold's eyes.
"May, I would be forever indebted."
"Not at all, not at all." Leopold noticed for the first time here, something almost suspect about the flickering of May's eyes, and the faintest of waverings in his voice. "I'll sort out the paperwork."
"So what's the quest?"
"Oh, nothing much. A town, some distance to the east, is claiming to be terrorised by some unknown assailants. I have all the details written down here..."
Like most conversations with old friends, Leopold felt much more assured half-an-hour later after leaving May's than those nervous moments before. That fleeting moment of suspicion had been usurped by his confidence that he would complete his quest and restore the council's faith in him - unorthodox as he may be. He made his way back to the city centre, catching the mid-afternoon train back to the dock-yards, refusing to read or worry about the parchments in his hands, detailing May's quest, until the evening.
When he reached the ship, most of the crew had disappeared off into the city. Stepping past several of his guards, he unlocked the door to his quarters and placed the parchments on his desk.
'Well, that's the quest taken care of', he thought. Then his thoughts turned to his friends who had fallen over the past year. 'Now we just have to hope to goodness there are some worthy crew-members out in that city.'
There was one piece of confidence here. Right now, his crew were out mingling with the throngs of the city-centre. The arrival of an airship was a definite talking-point in Galabria, and no doubt word would be getting around that the prestigious, albeit maverick Jackdaw was settled for a week and looking for more hands. The Captain smiled and made his way back to the decking of the ship. If he was lucky, potential candidates may come to him.