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Somewhere in the Bay of Bengal
The deck plummeted. Anders Kiersted, captain of the Danish trading vessel Pelican, braced himself behind the helmsman. "Steady as you go, Kris."
The helmsman said nothing, just continued to fight with the rudder in the stormy seas.
Anders closed his eyes briefly in prayer, then said, "Not Ran, not Neptune, not even the Devil is going to keep me from getting this old bucket into port," he ended with a growl.
"Captain! On the bow!"
Anders opened his eyes to see a huge wave that looked higher even than the mast. He brushed the helmsman aside. "Hold onto something!" Driving straight into the wave would flood the ship and sink them for sure. There was just one chance. Anders spun the wheel. Just a couple of points would do it, and they would climb the wave at an angle, instead of driving through it.
With a rush the wave was on them. The stem-post bit into the wave, and then they were climbing, like a shot fired from a cannon. Much faster than he'd expected, they reached the top and the ship fell like a stone.
As they fell down the face of the wave, the main mast itself seemed to shift significantly, up and down. Then they were in the trough that followed the wave, and the ship smashed into the water. The whole ship shook. Something was wrong. He felt it in the helm.
The carpenter came running up from below, "Captain! Captain! We're leaking. I think we've cracked the keel."
Bank of Grantville
"You been flying lately?" Coleman Walker was leaning on the corner of Marlon Pridmore's desk.
The question was definitely not what Marlon was expecting. "Sure, Coleman. Almost every weekend, especially when the weather is good. You want to go up for a ride, or something?"
Coleman grinned. "Now why would I want to do that? No, it's about this thing I have on my desk. Come on."
Together they walked into Coleman's office. There was a packet of parchment, beribboned and stamped with wax. Marlon considered the document. "What is it? Somebody trying to buy us out?"
Coleman sat down in his leather chair and motioned for Marlon to sit. "I'm not really sure. It comes from someone named Cornelius Holgarssen, who represents something called the Merchant Bankers of Copenhagen. They're making noise about some kind of financial agreement with us. But they will negotiate only with you. They want to meet on their own ground, and they want you to bring your airship."
"I haven't really heard any rumors about Denmark lately," Marlon said. "Do you have any idea what they really want?"
Coleman picked up the document and flipped a couple of pages, then found what he was looking for. "They say it's something about establishing common guidelines for financial transactions, but that's just fancy double-talk. It could mean almost anything. It doesn't really sound like enough to drag somebody in person all the way to Copenhagen."
"Coleman, how long do you think this meeting of theirs will run? You know it's going to take a while just to get there."
"I don't know, Marlon. But the bank, and Grantville for that matter, can't afford to alienate any of the parties in Europe right now."
"Are they offering enough to make it worth our while?"
Coleman handed the papers to Marlon. "Yeah, I think so. I really think you should go."
Marlon took a couple of minutes to look over the highlights of the request, and stood up. "Reva'll enjoy the chance to get away for a while. And my trainee, Manfried, seems to be working out pretty well. I was about ready to cut him loose, and let him try it solo. Now's a good time. When do I need to be there?"
"They've requested you to attend a meeting on the first of December. I'd say give yourself three weeks travel time, so that would give you about three weeks or so to get ready and to close up anything you have on your desk here."
"There's no telling how long I might be gone. It seems down-timers can't buy a pair of shoes without haggling for a week."
Coleman laughed. "Take all the time you need, just don't fall out of your balloon and forget to come back."
Marlon came out of the office, and went over to his wife's station. "Reva, you busy? Let's go get some lunch."
Reva shook her head. "You know very well that it's a good hour and a half after lunch time. If I let you, Marlon, you'd spend all day at a restaurant wasting time."
"Yeah, I know. But there's things we need to talk about, and I need a cup of coffee."
Reva leaned forward and put her elbows on the table. "Now just exactly what was in that fancy message that got you and Coleman tied up in knots?"
"It's a request for a meeting with a bunch of money people in Copenhagen. They want us to come out and do some business. You've been wanting to get away for a vacation anyway, and they asked for us by name. They want us to take the Upwind, but that doesn't surprise me. Everybody wants to see it. Coleman thinks that there's more than to it than that but he's not sure what. You feel like going?"
Marlon knew that Reva always loved travel, even with the uncomfortable carriages and bad road conditions. She'd loved new places all of her life.
"When do we have to be there?"
Marlon loved watching her eyes light up at the thought of going somewhere. "The papers request my presence on December first. Coleman thinks it will take about three weeks to get there. We'll have to figure out how to bring the Upwind along. And I haven't got all of that thought through yet. Heck, I haven't even really got a finalized hauler arrangement."
The food arrived, and they took a moment to eat a bit before continuing. Marlon said, "Coleman thinks it may all be just an excuse to see one of them newfangled flying machines. Still, they're talking about a lot of money, and some agreements we could really use. Seems like a lot just to see some flying thing. What do you think we need for the trip?"
Reva considered. She was always the one to organize their various excursions in the past. "Well, I don't want to sleep in the dirt this time, so you better find some way to get us off the ground while we're traveling. And I don't want to walk the whole way either."
"Well, I got an idea about that. I think I can cobble together a small trailer house for you. We could take that old gooseneck pole trailer and put that little 8 x 12 shed out back on it. I'll build a rope bed, and we can put our mattress on that. We'll have room for your foot locker, and food and everything. Then we can get that friend of Bernard's with his short wagon and horses. We put a fifth wheel connection in the bed of the wagon and we have our fifth wheel. You might even be able to nap as we go. And it will save us setting up camp every day."
"That sounds good. We could take a gas camp stove too. Why do you think they want you to take your toy?"
"Funny thing, they asked for it specifically. Seems it's a bigger celebrity than we are. We'll probably need to take a five hundred gallon propane tank too. Especially if we need to fly that thing more than one or two times. But if it helps to sell the deal, I don't mind flying around with them."
Merchant Bankers of Copenhagen Offices
Cornelius Holgarssen looked up from his desk as the door to his office opened. It was Eric, his secretary. "Yes, Eric?"
The young man appeared definitely nervous. "Sir, you have a visitor on his way up. I know you're very busy, but I'm certain you want to see him."
"Really? Who is it?" Cornelius was already straightening papers and removing his teacup. Eddie Cantrell called it "conspicuous consumption" to import tea, but what was the point of becoming wealthy if one didn't display that wealth.
"His Majesty, King Christian." Eric was practically vibrating. He was new to the office, and had not really been near royalty before.
"Nothing to worry about, son. His Majesty and I often consult. Please show him in, and then go get some tea. And make sure that we have those little berry tarts. I'm sure he would love those."
Eric hurried away. Cornelius arranged some chairs near a small table, and smoothed his doublet.
Eric opened the door, and bowed as Christian stepped past him. "Cornelius, how nice to see you," the king said.
Cornelius bowed, and then gestured toward the chairs. "Thank you, Your Majesty. Won't you sit?"
As they made themselves comfortable, Cornelius asked, "Your Majesty, what brings you out on such a beautiful day?"
"I'm concerned about this venture that you and your bankers have been involved in. I know you've already spent more money than you expected. And now you've invited that American pilot . . . ?"
"Yes, Your Majesty. We have been working on this idea for some time. You'll remember Rikard the shipwright? We inherited him from your flights project. He's in charge of the logistics. He's gathered a significant amount of material to build the airship, and has many versions of plans underway. Also we have started clearing for the foundation of the workspace, the hangar. Rikard has many serious questions, though, concerning airships. And we feel that only somebody with more experience can answer them. We believe that person is Marlon Pridmore from Grantville."
King Christian nibbled on his moustache, deep in thought. "So what exactly are your plans? And how old is this fellow?"
"Herr Pridmore is reported to be in his late fifties or early sixties. And I think you already know most of our plans, Your Majesty. We want to bring Denmark back to prominence in trade. We have the Baltic, and the North Sea, but we need to get goods overland to the markets of Europe, and we need to do it faster than overland travel can accomplish right now."
The king leaned forward. "But Cornelius, are you sure this is the best method? I already have an airplane. Can't it carry what you need?"
"Your Majesty, how much cargo can your plane carry?"
Christian shrugged. "I don't know, maybe a half ton. Maybe more. I'd have to ask the experts."
"I've read about airships in your encyclopedia, Your Majesty. Even the relatively small one that Herr Pridmore has constructed can carry two tons, maybe more."
"And what of the expense, Cornelius? Look what's already been spent in your failed attempts." Christian stood and paced toward the windows and back. "I can offer you a Royal charter and access to my workshop, nothing more. The clerks are already complaining about my extravagance. I don't want to risk it on something that won't pay off. Your Danish East India Company is already enough of an embarrassment. Five ships! In more than fifteen years, all we ever got back is five ships! I don't care that you're transporting items on other ships from England or France. We don't get any taxes on those. We need the money that trade brings in, we need it here, and your ships need to make port. The royal coffers will not be able to sustain that sort of project again, you know that."
"Of course, Your Majesty. We had not planned to request assistance. That's why we're operating through the Merchant Bankers of Copenhagen. This is not a Danish project, but speculative spending by the bankers."
King Christian strode across the room again. It was clear that the problems of state weighed heavily on him today. "I hold you responsible for the whole thing, Cornelius." With that, he opened the heavy doors himself.
He turned and shook his finger at Cornelius. "Don't mention any of this to that American until we have him safely here. I don't want to start a bidding war over his expertise. The French would love to get this kind of advance over the Germanies. And let me know when he's going to fly that thing. That will be really something to see."
Bernard Brenner was frowning. He was standing on the front porch of the home his family shared with the Pridmores. The late afternoon sun turned the front yard a deep golden brown, and two young people were at the gate, hand in hand. He couldn't keep silent any longer. "Hanna, it's time for you to help your mother with dinner. Herr Pridmore and his wife will be home soon."
Even that didn't break the two young people apart. Bernard could see his daughter look up into the eyes of Ulrich, the young man with her. He could see her adoring glance, and knew that his troubles were even more serious than he had believed.
Another moment of Hanna and Ulrich murmuring to each other, and Bernard cleared his throat more loudly than necessary. Hanna threw a worried glance at her father, then dropped Ulrich's hand, and hurried past Bernard, and into the house without a word.
Bernard looked at Ulrich for a moment. "Young man, I think it's time you and I had a talk."
Ulrich's face betrayed his worry. Silently he followed Bernard, sat when directed, and waited.