"Something's not right," Noman said. He had, after a great deal of persuading, managed to get his hands on copies of the field reports from the scouts at Marsten. Relayed through the Watch's communication crystals and copied down by diligent military scribes the pages contained word for word reports on the demon activity within the city. He held those pages in front of himself as validation of his words.
"You'll need to be a little more specific than that," The Captain prompted. Once again Noman found himself in the Watch commander's sparsely decorated office. This time, unlike the last, Noman himself had requested the meeting.
"Have you read these reports?" Noman asked, gesturing with the papers.
"A copy of every report is forwarded to my desk as soon as the ink is dry," he told Noman. "And yes, I read each one as soon as I get it. But I'm obviously missing something so please, enlighten me."
"We should have seen something from them by now, strays leaving the city, raiding parties spreading out across the countryside, scouts if nothing else. Instead we get nothing... silence. They're in there, we know that. The scouts see regular activity at the walls and in the parts of the city that have grown past it. But they're notdoing anything."
"I doubt they're just sitting on their hands... or whatever passes for hands," The Captain said. "The lack of activity hasn't gone unnoticed, but you yourself said we may not see them do anything until they're ready to move." He leaned back in his chair. "It could be that we've gotten lucky and the demons can't come through the portal as fast as we thought they could."
"That would be awfully convenient," Noman said cynically. "The portal just happens to be small enough that we have the time to bring together the reinforcements we need? No, Airea wouldn't make that kind of mistake. They're up to something. The question is what, and it's making me nervous. We need more information."
"Well, unless one of your inventions is some sort of long range spying device there's no way that's going to happen. The scouts have already gotten as close as they dare."
"Then we need someone more daring," Noman snapped. "Someone... someone who can see over walls," he continued thoughtfully. "Someone like Bainbridge."
"What are you suggesting?" The Captain asked curiously.
"I'm suggesting we use one of the few advantages we have. The Headwind can fly right over the heads of the demons... they don't have muskets or arrows to shoot it down with, and if we do it during the day we'll have a good chance of flying over the city without encountering much resistance."
"What about magic?" The Captain asked. "They could still shoot you down with that, I'm pretty sure."
"Then we bring mages," Noman said. "Volker's been dying to show us how useful the mages guild still is. They wouldn't have to protect the Headwind for long, just enough for us to do a flyby and figure out what they're up to."
The Captain drew in a long breath and let it out slowly, giving himself time to think. "You'll have to convince Bainbridge," he said at last. "I won't order him to do something like that."
"Of course," Noman nodded.
"And if you do convince him you're bringing soldiers along, just in case. I don't want to take any chances."
"I don't think we'll need them, but all right. It won't hurt anything to have them along."
"And you have to convince the mages guild," The Captain added, "You're not going anywhere without at least some of them there to protect the airship."
"Understood," Noman nodded again. "Oh, and one other thing," he added. "I'd like to get an extra set of escorts so I can release Hatchet and Anara for something else."
"Not getting along with your minders?" The Captain asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Just the opposite, actually," Noman confided. "I want them to get a crash course on how to use Asmova's new exoframes. We're not going to be able to make nearly enough, but I've ordered two set aside for them. If those two are going to follow me into the crucible I want them to be protected."
"Oh," The Captain looked genuinely surprised. "Well, I can't argue with that."
"Just..." Noman held up a hand, "Just make it an order from you. I don't want them thinking I'm coddling them, or anything."
"Gods forbid," The Captain replied dryly.
"I'm serious," Noman said. "I want them to have no reservations about leaving me to a gruesome fate, if it comes to that. The last thing I need is foolish heroics on my behalf."
"You sound like you're expecting something horrible to happen to you."
"Oh, I certainly am. I've defied a goddess, Captain. Airea herself, the goddess of death. I'm not just expecting to die. I'm looking forward to it." The Captain raised his eyebrows in surprise at the comment. There was an awkward pause. Noman nodded to himself. "I think that's all, then. I'll let you know about the Headwind."
Bainbridge had finished transporting refugees just the day before, and the crew of the Headwind was enjoying a much needed rest from the constant airlifts. After some asking around Noman managed to track them to the Guttersnipe, a pub near the city gates. It was a popular place, packed with a mix of Marsten refugees and Redhurst factory workers.
The presence of two armed officers of the Watch went a long way towards getting him through the door and up to the bar. It also had the added benefit of thinning the crowd. A number of people surreptitiously made for the exits, nervous eyes on the Watchmen, but none of them were Bainbridge.
"Whatever trouble you're looking for, it isn't here," the barman cautioned.
"Relax, I'm not looking for trouble," Noman assured him. "I am, however, looking for a person. Artemous Bainbridge. He's the captain of the Headwind, that monster of a flying deathtrap parked out on the airfield. Know him?"
"The name is familiar," the barman allowed with a nod.
"Know where I can find him?"
"Why do you want him?" the question came from behind Noman. He turned to regard the questioner. The man had the look of nobility about him, though he was obviously dressing down to try to blend in with his companions. Even so he was better dressed than almost everybody else in the room.
"I want to ask him for some help," Noman revealed. "Do you know where I can find him?"
"Well that depends," the man said. "Is it him you want, or his airship?"
"I didn't know there would be a difference."
"Ah, but there is," the man smiled and held forth a hand, which Noman cautiously shook. "My name is Finley. I paid to build most of the Headwind, which means I own a controlling interest in it. Bainbridge may be her captain, but Heady's mine. So, if you want Bainbridge I can point you to him. If you want his airship, on the other hand, you talk to me."
"Then I guess you and I need to have a talk."
Finley nodded understandingly. He motioned to a nearby table and gestured for the barman to bring drinks. Once the two men had settled in Finley asked what it was Noman needed the Headwind for.
"I'm going to assume you know that what happened in Marsten is a full fledged Incursion," Noman started. "The army needs to act quickly to stop it, but we need information first. If we move too fast against a superior force we'll get wiped out. If we wait for reinforcements and waste an opportunity to attack it could be just as bad. Scouts on the ground can't get close enough, but an airship could simply fly overhead with a minimum of risk."
"You want me to fly my airship - my expensive, one of a kind airship - into the heart of an Incursion?" Finley scoffed. " Something tells me this isn't going to be as easy or as safe as you're making it sound."
"It'll be a far sight safer than trying to send some poor bastard in on foot," Noman countered. "And it has a much better chance of getting us the information we need. This could prove critical to stopping the Incursion."
"Relax," Finley told him. "I'm not going to say no. I just want to know honestly what sort of trouble my investment might run into."
"I can't say for sure," Noman told him. "We'll be going over during the day, so the demons powers will be limited. We're also bringing along mages and a compliment of soldiers to help with anything else we might encounter. But honestly? I think we can get over Marsten, see what we need to see, and get back here before anything can touch us."
"Hmm. We'll need to discuss payment," Finley decided. "I'll warn you now, it won't be cheap. There's the potentially dangerous nature of the mission, for one thing. For another the Headwind is the only airship available. Anywhere," he added with a grin.
"Payment? You're serious?" Noman objected. "And how much did you charge the refugees you brought here?
"Don't be ridiculous," Finley exclaimed. "I'm a business man, not a criminal. I would never demand payment for helping people who've lost everything. You, on the other hand, have the army's coin to spend, don't you? It's completely different."
"I don't think anybody around here trusts me with their money," he muttered. " But you know what I do have? The ability to order the Headwind seized. With a town full of inventors I'm sure I can find enough willing to fly it just so they can figure out how it works."
"You wouldn't dare!" Finley gasped, horrified at the thought. "I can have it off the ground and on it's way somewhere else before your men could get anywhere near it," he threatened.
"For all you know I already have men at the airfield," Noman said coldly.
"Her Ladyship-" Finley started.
"Is a Prince of Marsten," Noman cut him off loudly. "You think she'd turn away something that could help get her city back?" He snorted derisively. "She might be the patron saint of inventors around here but we've got a war on now."
"Y-you can't," Finley sputtered.
"I can," Noman said harshly, slamming the open palm of his hand down on the table hard enough to make the glasses jump. "But I won't," he growled, leaning back in his chair and taking a deep breath.
"You...? What?" Finley asked, brow twisting in confusion.
Noman ran a hand through his stringy black hair and let out the breath he'd been holding. "I'm going to offer you a trade. I suggest you take it. The terms are this: you allow the Headwind to fly over Marsten and I'll outfit it with a new boiler system that will practically eliminate your fuel costs."
"The Headwind's boilers are already as efficient as we can make them," Finley said dubiously.
"These are better."
"The installation will be free of cost?"
"That's right," Noman told him in a 'you're trying my patience' tone of voice.
"I'd like Bainbridge to look over the designs," Finely pushed. "If he says they're really better then the Headwind is yours to scout Marsten with."
"Fine," Noman snapped. "Wait, where is Bainbridge anyway?"
"Oh, he's over there," Finley pointed across the pub. "Under that table."
"Somebody's about to get a rude awakening," Noman overheard one of his two Watchmen snicker. He didn't disagree.