Childe hated crowds. And he loved to admit it. It wasn’t that he hated people, though – on rare occasions, he even interacted with others. But crowds, something about being trapped in a herd of people felt to him like being crushed in the gizzard of a giant chicken. The whole experience was hot, sticky, confusing, and often filled with sand.
“Tickets and passport, please,” asked the disgruntled guard at the end of the dock. Somehow, the young man looked even more uncomfortable than Childe, sweating in his silly purple uniform and frilly yellow shoulder pads. Childe pitied the poor man. Forced to stand in public wearing that and having to talk to strangers for hours on end. Some people, he reminded himself, were truly doomed.
He fished around his pockets and came up full-handed. The haul yielded three crumpled receipts, five coins of varying value, a blue button, a tiny clear pouch holding some red residue, two seeds, and a mint coated candy. He popped the mint in his mouth and tried again. The guard looked at him impatiently, but Childe shrugged him off. “Almost got it, just a moment.” After what felt like a day, he finally got hold of the ticket deep in his abnormally spacious pockets. At the same time, the ship bellowed its final boarding call.
“Mister… Widdershins?” asked the guard, squinting at the tiny text. “May I see your passport, sir?”
Childe rolled his eyes and produced the silver pocket watch from his waistcoat. Immediately, the guard’s eyes widened in recognition. “Oh! I beg your pardon, doctor, please, right this way!”
To Childe Widdershins, there was no greater joy felt than in the moment he escaped the sweltering crowd. Finally, he was aboard the Wax Wind. Here, it smelled not of sweat and feet but of the cool autumn air mixed with coal dust. As was his custom, Childe did a brief survey of the deck, noting all its landmarks and features. Everything was beautiful. A botanic garden bloomed at the stern, strange plants and insects sprouting from the wood into weird, hellish architecture. At the bow, the glass half-dome of an observatory bulged out like an elegant tumour. Even the wood he stood on was storied, probably harvested from some ancient oak to be cut into identical, perfect planks. Above were the balloons, of course, which cast the deck in perpetual shadow. The propellers drowned out all the birds, and everywhere sweated luggage-laden blue suited attendants, desperately ushering the crowd below deck in preparation for lift off.
Suddenly, the ship jolted beneath him, and a plume of acrid smoke exploded from the chimneys on the ship’s sides. They were picking up speed. Instead of indulging the attendants, Childe hobbled his way back to the starboard deck. There were still passengers struggling to board, and he intended to drink in their misery. Parking himself at the deck’s lip, he set down his bag, leaned on his cane, and took in the view. He looked at the abyssal sky above and the pink clouds of sunset. He drank in the nostalgic mood of small-town Clementine, which had little more to its name than the port he now stood in. And he observed the crowd.
Of the rest of the travellers, Childe saw a young woman dressed as an old man and a peasant dressed like a king. He watched the girl with the terrified eyes next to a man who pretended to be her father. And he noticed the woman watching them. A movement, a lady with pink hair had just pushed what looked like a birdcage off her cart. She tried to make it look like an accident, and she succeeded. Seemed no one noticed her sleight of hand, certainly not the boy on the opposite pier who already stood to help. Behind her, a man tried his hardest to blend in, and a woman tried her best to stand out. Still, she found herself all but invisible. It’s alright, thought Childe. He noticed her. He noticed everything, especially the drunk who trailed behind the depleting crowd. The horn blared again and the Wax Wind began to accelerate. It seemed the long voyage would prove to be an interesting one.
A faint sound of footsteps and the subtle scent of aftershave. Childe spun around to face the gentleman, approaching in his blue attendant’s uniform. “Doctor Widdershins?”, spoke the Attendant in a curiously deep voice, “Welcome aboard the Wax Wind. I’ve been sent to collect you and bring you to your room.” The uniform, Childe noted, was poorly tailored. The arms were a little too short, and the gut a little too wide. And, on closer inspection, he noticed that the man sported a realistic glass eye, which rolled slower than his natural one. As a result, the man looked somewhat cross-eyed.
“Well, thank you,” muttered Childe, turning back to face the draining crowd. The boy from earlier had left, running along the dock toward the dropped birdcage. He shrugged and hobbled toward the Attendant. “Lead on then.”
The Attendant took Childe’s bag and directed him through the large, ornate door on the ship’s stern. On the inside was one of the most gorgeous rooms he’d had the pleasure of viewing.
The circular dance hall was as lavish as it was large, with a beautiful muraled dome ceiling and marble floors. Oddly, trees and ferns sprouted sporadically throughout the room, and pink lanterns and incense-spreaders hung suspended from the ceiling on silver chains, suffusing the air with a thick, spicy scent. A single massive chandelier dipped from the center of the dome.
“Magnificent chandelier,” commented Childe.
“Oh yes, beautiful, isn’t it?” The piece looked like a spiralling waterfall of crystal, with a galaxy of candlelight suspended within. “It’s pure starling crystal. Would you believe it’s lit by a single candle?” Childe struggled to see through the chaos, the light refracted through a thousand-thousand prisms and angles. “They say starling crystals are among the most beautiful stones. They can absorb light into themselves, and shine on their own for even weeks afterwards. Very beautiful. And very expensive.” The attendant smiled slyly at Childe. “I’m sure you’ll have a chance to see it up close later.”
“Sure.” The doctor had already lost interest, and was examining the odd foliage around him. Taking a small knife from his pocket, he cut off a leaf and snuck it into his waistcoat.
The Attendant cleared his throat. “Now, if I may have your attention, sir. You doubtlessly already know, but we’re holding our departure ball here this evening, in celebration of our maiden voyage. It will be held here from nine to late, and we would be delighted to have you.”
“How would I already know that?”, he snapped, not looking up from the leaves. “I don’t even know where my room is and you think I’m versed in the intricacies of ship culture?”
The Attendant only smiled. “I apologize for assuming, sir. If you would be so kind to show up, however, we would be elated to have you.”
“Sure. Wouldn’t miss it for the stars,” muttered Childe, attention already scattering.
His eyes were set on the only other person in the room, a lady in a kitschy pink dress, about the same age as Childe. She too inspected the leaves with a furrowed brow, but seemed a little dazed, and moved slowly, as if she were underwater. Childe noticed that, unlike him, she was unsupervised and stood up to question her when he felt a firm hand grab his shoulder.
“Let’s continue,” said the Attendant. “The main passenger area is just through these doors. Please, follow me.”
“Do you always treat your guests so well?”, interrupted Childe. “It must be exhausting to personally escort every single passenger to their chambers.”
“Why, of course not. But you’re a distinguished patron, Dr. Widdershins. After all, it’s not every day we have the pleasure of serving one of His Majesty’s own magi. You’re an honored guest, doctor, and deserving of every luxury. Please, let’s continue.”
He let the Attendant lead him out of the dance hall, but made a note to investigate it later. The journey was long, he figured; there’d be plenty of time to look around.
Gas lamps lit the labyrinthine corridors of the passenger’s quarters with discrete light. It was clear the area was recently renovated; the wallpaper was new and the air smelled of plaster and wax. As if on cue, the Attendant spoke “These rooms were only recently refurbished, as part of our renovation efforts. As generous as Lady Porter’s donation was, the airship as she’d left it was hardly suited to the needs of commercial flight.”
The pair walked in silence for a minute before Childe saw it again. He’d paid little attention to the first plaque, but the second one piqued his curiosity. “So. I can’t help but notice the numbers.” The attendant startled at the mention, but immediately appeared calm again. Childe smiled to himself, interest growing as he traced the bronze plaque with his fingers. “What’s their purpose? Seems an odd choice of decoration.” They were rare, he’d only spotted two in so many doors. But here, at eye level beside a door, was the number 2 engraved on a small bronze plate. They were easy to miss, they blended right into the red wallpaper.
The Attendant responded “Remnants of the old ship, I’m afraid. Lady Porter was a strange one – your guess is as good as mine.”
“Sure. Just curious.” They passed another ten doors before he saw another, this one engraved in brass with the number 13. They seemingly had no order to their placement, or none that he could tell at the moment.
Suddenly, a strange idea dawned on him. “Say. You said these rooms were refurbished. What were they used for before? There’s an awful lot of rooms for a personal airship.”
“All sorts of things. Like I said, Lady Porter was strange. Most of them were empty or filled with useless stuff.” The attendant stopped to cough into his handkerchief before continuing. “She was probably a hoarder. If you want my opinion, sir, wealthy folk spend too much time feeding their own fancies. She probably had the rooms made on a whim.”
As the two walked deeper into the bowels of the skyship, piping and machinery began to creep into the hall, snaking their way across walls and ceilings. They rarely ran into other travellers. For all these rooms, Childe noted, there were few passengers. With the hallways empty, he felt like he was walking through the intestines of some massive beast. The sounds of the propellers, once deafening above deck, now sounded muted and resembled the gurgling of gastric motion. The red color didn’t help. And, as they walked, even the air grew warmer.
“I hope you’ll excuse the heat, sir – we’re currently passing over the engine room.”
Childe shook his head. “Excused. I love the heat. Can’t get enough of it after the Northern Isles, what five years ago?”
“The Northern Isles?” The Attendant looked taken aback. “I wasn’t aware you were in the war.”
The doctor huffed. “Oh yes. I’m not some frail old man, no matter how I look.” He noticed the Attendant eyeing his cane warily and smiled. “Yes, ever since the war. You really don’t appreciate heat until you’ve been deprived of it for a few months.”
The Attendant stopped abruptly. “We’re here.”
The door they’d stopped at resembled every other door, save for a small rusted plaque inscribed with the number nine. “You should already have your key. Supper will be served at seven. When you hear the meal horn, please proceed to the dining hall through the doors at the ship’s bow. Alternatively, room service is available for a modest fee – just pull the rope beside your bed and a maid will be with you.” The Attendant bowed low. “I’ll be leaving you now. I hope you have a smooth trip, doctor.”
He made a stiff about-face and marched back down the hall without another word. As Childe watched the man retreat, he frowned to himself and began calculating. The Wax Wind, gauged from his brief reconnaissance on deck, measured, at most, five hundred and twenty metres from bow to stern. He counted seven hundred and ninety-five steps taken from their entrance in the dance hall to the door of his room. By his reckoning, the journey measured around the fringes of six hundred and thirty-one metres. He’d had his suspicions, and the walk all but confirmed it. All the rooms. The numbering. A chill ran down Childe’s spine. He’d been here before. He needed to look closer.
But first, there was a more pressing issue to tend to.
The inside of Childe’s room reflected the outside, meaning it was claustrophobic and cramped. Everything about it was small, from the writing desk to the trunk at the foot of his bed. A quick look at his pocket watch told that it was now six forty-five, fifteen minutes to supper, and another two to the ball.
Childe threw his hat, cane, and overcoat on the rack and sat at the desk. Some rooting around his bag produced a small hand mirror, which he used to inspect the structural integrity of his massive, bone-white moustache. The moustache, which he considered the crowning jewel of his face, required near constant attention. He’d always fancied that he treated his moustache with the same level of devotion that he would his own child. Perhaps it was the fact that he never had any that fostered the obsession. Whatever the cause was, the end result produced a glorious feat of facial hair, its tips reaching past his cheekbones like great bull’s horns.
Childe took some time to carefully groom and wax his moustache before unpacking the rest of the bag. He removed a week’s worth of clothing, his books, and finally, a thin wooden box with no apparent seam or clasp. The former two were relocated to the trunk, but the box he hid beneath his mattress. Suddenly, a horn sounded. Suppertime. But supper can wait.
He stood up, adjusted his jacket, and grabbed his hat. Now that he was presentable, Childe Widdershins could begin his investigation.