Above the Mississippi
From the Journals of Athelstan Grey
By
Teel James Glenn
Copyright 2018 by Teel James Glenn

Chapter One:
Above the Mississippi

“Tarnation, Althelstan,” my aunt said to me as she looked out the window of the forward lounge, “I do believe those ships are coming off the river after us and mean us some harm.”

I found my Aunt Minerva’s statement to be inconceivable. For any criminals to risk an attack on a great state-of-the- art airship like the Pride of Prussia, traveling a thousand feet above the great muddy Mississippi seemed beyond any logical reality.

Yet, there they were three sky-sloops, lifting off the river and moving upward steadily toward us. There were figures holding onto lines on their decks and I could clearly see harpoon-grapple guns mounted on them. There could be little doubt that they were intent on piratical activity.

“There’s no way they should be able to match our speed,” Baron Von Burton, the burly Austrian millionaire said. He, like we others were seated at the Captain’s table in the empty grand salon area of the great airship. We were two days out of New Orleans heading to Montreal on the secret inaugural flight of the luxury flying craft. It had a twenty-man crew and only we seven special guest passengers.

“Certainly it should not be able to match us without Merlinian magick,” Captain Leblanc said as he dabbed a napkin at the corner of his mouth. “So there is no reason for alarm at all, good folks.” He stroked his long mustaches, smiled and rose slowly. He was the image of a stalwart sort of fellow and I knew he had served in Afghanistan in the last conflict in the Royal Air Corp before taking service with the Austrian flying company. “However, if you’ll excuse me I should return to the bridge to monitor the situation.” He gave a salute to Herr Von Burton and left the seven of us to look out the window as he went aft to the stairs which would lead him to the control gondola below us.

“I must agree with the Captain,” the Austrian owner of the airship said. “You see, Lady Camden we have the latest in Merlinian advances in our engines by agreement with your Queen, as well as vacuum tanks; no way those little ships can reach us. It is the best of old world magicks and science.”

“There are more magickal powers in the world, Herr Burton,” Chichua, the ambassador from the Mexhican Empire said. He was a tall brown skinned statesman with long black hair going to silver dressed in long ceremonial robes that were brightly colored yet dignified. “That little island’s magicks are only one of many shades of magick,” he continued.

It was said in an even, patient tone with no challenge yet I felt it was my turn, as a peer of the realm to speak up for Albion, even if my world travels meant my private beliefs agreed with the ambassador.

“The Albion Empire has flourished these many years with state approved magick,” I said. “The official Merlin is descended by nomination directly from that first, great, original Merlin, Mr. Ambassador, so—”

“Oh horse-apples, Athelstan,” Aunt Minerva said with her typical bluntness. Though she had lived in England for near forty years she was as American as a dime novel. It was that very ‘charm’ that had captured my Uncle Toliver’s heart for the former Miss Minerva Strump when he saw her sharpshooting act in a Wild West show during an exhibition at Hyde Park.

Their twenty-five years together had been as blissful for them as it had been chaotic for my blue-blood minded family when she ruled the roost as Lady Camden after marrying him.

When my uncle passed—killed in the same train crash that took my parents from me—it was Aunt Mini that raised me, sometimes in ways that were the horror of my relatives.

“You know Ambassador Chichua is darn right, them varmints must be using some sort of other magick trickery in them craft, maybe even some of the Aztec kind.”

“The power of the Gods is not trickery,” the ambassador’s male bodyguard, Eztl said. He and the female Jaguar guard might have been carved from teak, both with sharp cheekbones, searching ebony eyes and long slicked black hair held back with leather bands on which was embossed the Jaguar symbol of their status. They had feathered cloaks over their shoulders and facial tattoos that both announced their rank.

“Oh you marvelous hunk of hero,” Aunt Mini said with a smile, “I didn’t mean any offense.” She was dressed in a scarlet dress with royal blue trim and a feathered hat that had a big enough brim to shade a small group.

“I am sure that Lady Camden was not attempting to disparage our deities, Eztl,” the ambassador said with his own smile. He invoked a friendly uncle with his manner. “It is just her quaint American way of speech.”

“Yes, quaint,” Eztl’s Jaguar female counterpart, named Nenetl said coldly. She, like her partner, had elongated earlobes from which dangled Jade orbs, and also had a gold ring in her nose. She was dressed almost identically to Eztl in male Parisian style clothing but in bright colors that somehow served to make the two of them seem all the more barbaric. Her clothing, however, did nothing to conceal her athletic female form just as her words did not conceal her contempt. “Americans are quaint,” she added.

Now it was Aunt Mini’s hackles that started to rise. I saw her eyes narrow as I prepared to try and smooth the waters but was saved from having to do so when the ambassador’s pretty wife Izel called out with real fear in her voice.

“Look! Those little ships are getting closer!” She hugged close to her husband.

Indeed the three sleek craft were rising swiftly from the muddy brown river below. They spread out and paced the massive airship.

Beyond the three craft, on one side of the Mississippi, were the vast open plains that were the Confederacy of the Original Nations; a brown sea of movement on the horizon to the west was surely part of the endless herds of bison that roamed the interior of the continent. On the Eastern bank were some scattered white trading settlements.

Bloody wars had cost both nations many lives but with Aztec backing the C.O. N. had stopped European encroachment at the Mississippi and it had become the border with the110 year old United States of America.

“What is to be done, Herr Burton?” the ambassador asked. He kept his voice calm and pulled his wife closer, but his eyes showed real concern.

“I do not know,” the burly Austrian said just as a clanging bell sounded somewhere in the interior of the great airship.

“What is that?” the ambassador’s wife asked with a trembling voice.

“A sound to general quarters, Frau,” the steward that had been serving us said as he quickly stowed some crockery. “I must this time leave you to assume my post.” He added as he raced out, “you will be fine here.”

Suddenly we seven were alone in the forward lounge of the great craft.

The Ambassador’s party had all but forced their way on with a special request through the governor’s office to catch the flight. “We must be in Montreal to greet Crown Prince Edward when he arrives. Bad weather delayed our trip from our home and even a fast steamer will not get us there in time.”

Chapter Two:
Borders!

As we sat there the noises of the ship in crisis sounded louder from the depths of the great airliner as the skeleton crew prepared to battle the air pirates.

“How could the American government allow such lawlessness?” Baron Von Burton scolded as we watched the ships rising slowly and inevitably toward The Pride of Prussia.

“There is lawlessness in every realm,” Ambassador Chichua said with deep sadness. He had moved away from the window and taken a seat, the image of calm and deportment. Even I, from another kingdom and who had been in the presence of kings and peers felt pride at his deportment. “It is why it is so important that I meet your Prince, Lady Camden.”

“How so, Mister ambassador?” I asked. I was fascinated watching the airsloops as they approached like stalking predators but tore my eyes from the to face Chichua.

“Because, Baronet Grey,” the Mexhican nobleman answered me with deliberation, “recently pirates have boarded several of my country’s ocean going ships—in international waters—and killed many of the crews, stealing the cargoes. I carry a treaty to present to your prince to address the issue. It is the hope of our government that, in exchange for the protection of the vast Albion navy I am empowered to offer several trade concessions. Among them is a site for a naval base in our southern regions that I know your navy has desired for decades.”

“My husband has long sought to bridge the enmity between your empire and ours,” Izel said. She stood by her husband, a hand gently resting on his shoulder as if drawing strength from him, though I suspected he was actually drawing much of his calm and strength from her.

“The Azteca Empire do not need help,” the male Jaguar said. He had a cold sheen to his eyes as he turned from the window after looking at the approaching skyships. The pirate craft were now clearly visible in the mirrors set outside the lounge windows to provide views of the skin of the Pride for guests.

“Our warriors…” The bodyguard began.

“Are not sailors, Eztl,” the ambassador said. “The sea going skills of our people have long been lagging behind their other abilities.”

“We can learn, my lord.” The jaguar’s tone was short of a direct challenge, reverential but obviously passionate about the subject. “There is nothing the people of the Sun can not learn and conquer.”

“Yes, my proud guardian, I too believe this” Chichua said, “ but in time. It is now I worry about. Now we can—both our peoples—benefit each other.”

“That is the way of the world, Mister Ambassador,” Aunt Mini said. “The way it should be anyhow; with the Mali Empire pushing into the Atlantic and the Russians trying to chew their way across Asian territories it is too small a world for an ‘every man for themselves’ attitude.”

“Just exactly so, Lady Camden,” Chichua said. “And no good can come, for either of our homelands to squabble over minor things when free trade and exchange of ideas would enrich both out peoples.”

“But, my lord,” Eztl insisted, “If you let the Albion’s in the door of Mexhico they will force-“

“Enough, Eztl,” the ambassador said quietly but sharply. His eyes barely narrowed and he never looked at the bodyguard but there was steel under his words.

“My lord,” the jaguar bowed stiffly. It was as a neat a dressing down as any colour-sergeant ever gave a trooper in Crimea and more eloquent for its brevity.

There followed an uncomfortable silence and for a moment I thought the ambassador and his guardian might come to an open argument but then the female Jaguar called to us, “They have launched the grapple harpoons!”

The moment after the woman warrior’s pronouncement the great liner shuddered with the impact of the boarding grapples. The pirate craft were directly under the airship now and the sound of their diesel winches pulling them snug to the ship was clearly heard over the Prussia’s own engines which labored against the new drag on its side.

“What is to happen?” asked the baron with a sudden shrill tone to his voice. “Surely the crew…”

“I believe you stated it was only a skeleton crew, Herr Von Burton,” the ambassador said with a calmness to his voice. “And I would imagine not equipped for armed conflict, certainly of this level of involvement.”

“But who will protect us? “The baron asked to no one in particular “What if these bandits wish us violence?”

“I can’t imagine they wish much else,” aunt Mini said with her usual bluntness.

“Though profit is usually what that sort wants this here aerial stagecoach is pretty slim pickings for bushwhackers.”

“Surely husband,” Izel said, here voice cracking with fear, “these bandits will not dare to molest us!“

“I am afraid, Mrs. ambassador that those sort of men will dare anything.” I tried not to frighten the lady, but it was time to face the hard reality to prepare for what was to come after. “If they are willing to attack a ship of this size in such few numbers. They must know it is a civilian craft and that the ship is under-staffed.”

“How could they know that?” the Austrian owner asked. “Are you saying they knew this was a test flight?”

“Possibly,” I said absently as I assessed my surroundings for possible weapons—my Webley and sword cane were in my suite at the other end of the ship with my luggage and I was sure things were going to get exciting in short order. “And we must consider the fact that they knew exactly who would be on this ship.”

“But how so?” Von Burton asked. The corpulent owner was pacing now, back and froth from the window to the table with constant glances towards the companionway the steward had run through. “Our exact departure time, even the week of the flight was kept secret to get the jump on any competitors.”

“Yet the agents of our government in New Orleans found out,” the ambassador said, grasping my train of thought, “and with very little effort, I might add.”

“Precisely,” I pointed out. I moved to a sideboard and pocketed a number of nicely balanced steak knives intended for table settings. In the mirrors out the window while I watched a dozen raiders transfer from their snug little craft to The Pride of Prussia like nimble monkeys.

“But what could they want?” The flustered owner of the Prussia mopped his profusely sweating brow. “If they knew this was a test flight they must have known we have no gold or other valuable commodities on board.”

“Perhaps not gold as such,” I said coldly, “but you do have ‘commodities’ of great value, Baron.”

“What do you mean, Sir Althelstan?” Izel asked me.

“I am afraid to say your husband and yourself, madam,” I pointed out and saw her wince. “And Herr Baron as well. Each of you would be worth your weight in gold to rogues if you were to be held for ransom.”

Chapter Three:
Battle in the air

“I suppose I’m a pig in a poke, nephew?” Aunt Mini said.

“Hardly a fortune if the worth is your weight in gold,” I joked at her. She leveled her best ‘kill you with one look’ glare, but I was used to it so I was only mildly wounded.

“Our demise could be worth even more to my husband’s enemies than any money,” the ambassador’s wife said. Here husband stood to face her but she continued, “Were he not to sign the treaty with your Prince those enemies would be greatly pleased.”

“Hush, dear,” Chichua said. “I am sure that it is not the case, those who oppose the concept of the treaty, but they are loyal to the Azteca people. Besides, arrangements were made in the upmost secret after the incident with our ocean ship being delayed.”

“Secrets can be ferreted out,” Nenetl, the female Jaguar said as she doffed her jacket for freedom of movement. Her superbly athletic female form was even more visible as she rolled up sleeves of her shirt to reveal tattooed, muscular arms. She drew two obsidian daggers from sheaths on the back of her belt and it was clear she would use them expertly. “Men can be bribed or threatened to reveal anything, my Lord Chichua.”

“And was it not, my husband, your enemies that were likely to have sabotaged the ship so we would be too late in arriving in New Orleans and thus to be too late for the meeting into make it to Montreal?” The steel in the lady’s nature was clearer now though her manner and voice were still demure.

“I have to agree with the ladies, Mister Ambassador, “I said. “My aunt and I told no one of the Baron’s invitation or the actual departure time; and if anyone wished to kidnap the Baron it could have been done before we left the city much more easily—he had been in the city for over a month.”

“And such people could have made a talking-crystal call ahead to alert these pirates,” Nenetl agreed with me though from her tone I think it was reluctantly.

I was fascinated to watch the woman as she warmed up in preparation for what was surely to be a coming battle. She and her male counterpart explored the corners of the lounge and made sure that all the entrances from below where secured, though the light wood and canvas construction of such barriers made such actions just an inconvenience to any determined intruders.

The two jaguars next stretched and tested the footing of the carpet of the lounge. Their movements reminded me of some of the Sikh drills I had learned in my time Bombay.

“It does not matter who was or was not informed,” Eztl said in a deep, commanding voice as he stretched. He had stripped to the waist to expose a muscular torso covered in warrior tattoos. “We will not allow those bandits, for any reason, to get near you, Lord and Lady Chichua.” He brandished his two daggers and then, with a respectful nod waved to a corner of the room, “Please move to that alcove, it will be safer, my lord.”

He and the woman warrior made their way to the bulkhead door that lead to the main corridor of the ship. They had already blocked or sealed the access doors for the other companionways so that there was only one way into the salon. I was painfully aware that that also meant there was only one-way out for we who were in the salon.

The jaguars proceeded to tear up several tables and chairs from their floor mountings to improvise a barricade just inside the doorway. This barrier would act to funnel any attackers into a narrow space when they came through the portal so they could not spread out. It was a solid military stratagem though it put my mind to Thermopylae and the last stand of the Spartans so long ago. Not an allusion I wanted to dwell on.

“Eztl—” the ambassador began and I was not sure he was not going to apologize to the warrior but his wife stopped him with a hand on his arm.

“Let their destiny be fulfilled,” she said. The ambassador nodded and he and his mate began to chant softly. I was doing a bit of quiet praying myself.

Aunt Mini elbowed me. I looked down to see she had set her jaw and was holding a metal chair arm that she had pried off. She grinned and waved it like a tomahawk. I just shook my head and sighed.

The two copper-skinned warriors had removed their shoes for purchase and stood poised like bronze statues, almost in trance, as they faced the doorway. Outside, in the corridors of the great airship we could hear the sounds of violence; thuds, screams of pain and the clash of steel. There were, however, no sounds of gunfire.

When I remarked as much Von Burton said, “The crew carry no firearms; some airships use hydrogen as well as helium because of the greater lifting capacity, though we have only helium as we were able to avoid the more dangerous gas with the Merlinian vacuum technology that your country shared with my company under license.” The sweating Austrian listened to the clatter in the outer halls with increasing fear in his eyes, his breath coming in short bursts. “Still, the custom on all airships is not to use guns for one never knows—”

“Them fellas on the pirate ships must not have been sure what gas you were using, “ Aunt Mini said. “I guess that’s some good news.”

“So your Jaguars have a good fighting chance then, Mr. Ambassador,” I said as I observed how they had arranged the barricade. “If the crew is able to make any kind of dent in the borders then the numbers may not be so against them.”

“My guards, as all Jaguars, are the finest warriors in the world, bar none,” the Mexhican Ambassador said with real pride. His words were confident but I noticed he gripped his wife’s hand more firmly.

I did not bring up the, Iroquois, Sikhs, Gurkhas or Zulu warriors all of whom I had singular experiences with in the Crimea. Looking at the absolute concentration and superb physique of the two Jaguars I suspected they would be at least the equals of any those great warrior cultures.

The sounds of the skirmish in the bowels of the ship grew first louder, with savage cries and screams of agony, and then to fade. It was clear that one side or the other was winning and though there was no way to know for certain I had no doubt the hardened filibusters would easily overwhelm the airship’s crew. After all, the crewmen were hired for skill not savagery.

We did not have long to wait for Chichua’s boast about his warriors to be proven as the sounds of battle approached ever nearer.

Baron von Burton tried to flatten his bulk into the alcove where servers would normally have the tea service, and in front of which the jaguars had set up a second improvised barrier. The Austrian was wheezing his fear. He was sweating as if he were in a heavy rain.

The ambassador calmly placed his wife behind him in the alcove to shield her with his body. He was stoic and his breathing was even; he was truly a man to be admired and I felt he that his people were well served.

I attempted to step in front of Mini but my aunt would have none of it.

“I’m ain’t gonna hunker down and stare at yer behind while the fightin’s goin on, nephew,” she said. She waved her improvised hatchet and added, “Just see to yerself.”

I knew better than to argue with her so I turned back to the Jaguars just as the door from the corridor exploded inward.

Chapter Four:
Endgame

The air pirates that charged in were as motley a crew of cutthroats as one could imagine. They were a mix of all races though they were of a type-scarred and brutal to a man. They were armed with a mix of cutlass, kriss, short axes and knives.

The pirates could only enter the doorway two at a time and the improvised rampart did its job in keeping them from being able to spread to either side. Thus they were funneled forward where Eztli and Nenetl met them with lightning slashes in perfect coordination.

The two defenders were fearless and skillful and their defense against the concerted attack from the pirates was awesome to behold. The male jaguar would meet a pirate, dodge an attack and wound the man with a quick, painful slash then move on to the next attacker. Behind him the female would swoop in and finish the work, dispatching the fallen buccaneer.

The first wave of bandits dropped with barely any effort on the part of the Jaguars but others pushed in over the fallen ones in what seemed a never-ending rush.

The boarders seemed to be as fearless as the jaguars in the ferocity of their attack and skilled enough that the defenders could not contain them all. Soon each jaguar was working independently in meeting and felling the attackers in well rehearsed yet savage moves. It was both beautiful and terrifying to see.

Soon the deck was covered with gore and bodies, the flooring slick with death. The jaguar’s precautions of removing their shoes now proved to be useful as even the pirates were having difficulty staying upright.

Several of the brigands made it past the occupied jaguars and, sighting our little group in the alcove, came for us.

That was when the skills I learned from Aunt Mini’s old Choctaw friend Tall Eagle came in handy.

The steak knives were not weighted exactly as I would like a throwing knife to be but flew true enough with the energy I put behind them. The knives felled the first three marauders but the fourth dodged my throw and was upon me, cutlass in hand.

I came out of our alcove fortress to meet the pirate in the center of the salon. He was a broad fellow wearing ragged buckskins and with long, blond, braided hair that gave him the aspect of a charging lion.

He charged directly at me with a snarled challenge.

He got about two steps before something flew past my right shoulder and bounced off his forehead hard enough to sending him flying off his feet to his the deck.

The chair arm ‘hatchet’ of aunt Mini clattered to the ground.

“I can do this, myself, Mini.”

“Can’t hog all the fun, nephew.”

A second buccaneer leapt over his fallen comrade and charged with a cutlass raised for a slash.

I dodged a vicious slice at my head that over extended the attacker then I slide in to deliver a solid English right cross that made a solid enough contact to sound like a gunshot above the screams of combat near the door.

The punch felled the blighter who was snoring before he hit the deck next to the ‘lion’.

I recovered the fallen pirate’s sword and moved across the space to join the jaguars at their improvised rampart.

Eztl was covered in gore, his two obsidian knives whirring almost faster than the eye could follow, his body dodging and spinning into the oncoming attackers. He was a god of war, growling like a great cat as he gutted and slashed pirate after pirate.

Nenetl was engaged with two intruders at the same time, one a tall black and the second a mixed blood native. Both men had boarding hatchets and swung them wildly. The warrior woman dodged the flailing hatchets and spun as if in an exotic dance, her twin blades flicking out to wound each of the attackers on the forearms before they could avoid her.

It was mesmerizing to see, with a savage grace that, as I watched was lethal. Nenetl ducked under one axe swing and drove her right hand blade up under the jaw of one attacker so that he dropped like a puppet with a cut string.

At the same time the second attacker moved on her but she sprang up and kicked hard with her heel, the foot slipping past his guard and connecting with his jaw. His head snapped back so violently it was clear he was dead even before he dropped.

My admiration for her skill had to stop there as a machete-wielding buccaneer charged at me flailing his blade wildly. I parried hard to my left, twisted my wrist and drove the cutlass in a thrust into the attacker’s throat, tearing a gory gash that sprayed blood into my face.

I wiped my eyes of the spray just as Nenetl took a serious cut to her right leg from a long bladed knife and she went down, twisting to kill her attacker with double slashes of her knives.

“May I be of assistance, m’lady?” I said as I sprang to her defense. A second pirate leapt at the fallen woman but I parried the downward cut and dispatched the pirate with a single riposte of my cutlass.

The fallen Jaguar said nothing at my action but continued to slash with her knife from her prone position at the lower limbs of attackers while stood astride her and cut and slashed at them up top. When there was a momentary lag I shifted to her left side while she snatched up a boarding axe to use as a cane and pulled herself partially to her knees to continue dodging and cutting with a single knife.

Eztl was bleeding from a dozen minor wounds but his vigor was not diminished as what seemed an endless number of pirates continued to swarm through the bulkhead. I moved up to help him block He and I fought side by side while the marauders continued to pour in the portal with a renewed ferocity.

There was no time for thought as I hacked and parried, falling into a rhythm with Nenetl and Eztl. We three seemed to sense each other’s movements, as many warriors though the ages had when fighting in concert. Eztl shot me a quick glance to acknowledge my presence, with, I think some approval, but Nenetl was focused entirely on the business of killing pirates.

And we did kill most of the pirates that streamed through the doorway. They were fighting men, driven by greed and savagery, but not disciplined as regular army and not as skilled as we three who were now one, united fighting force.

Gradually I became aware that there was no longer any sound of combat in the rest of the ship; it was then that I realized the ten pirates we were fighting were most likely the last of the raiders.

I was in hot engagement, sword to sword with a buccaneer but thought, “We might just win!” and that thought was my undoing; it distracted me so that I took the flat of a deflected blade to my temple.

I dropped, dazed, to stagger into and land on Nenetl but the pirate advanced on me. I had just enough sense left in me to try and protect the jaguar from the fatal blow I was sure would come next to kill us both.

Contrary to the myths, my misspent youth did not flash across the canvas of my mind, instead I was concerned that I had failed Aunt Mini. I felt most terribly sad about that.

Chapter Five:
Masks off!

I need not have worried about Mini.

Before the image of her ‘helpless’ before an onslaught of filibusters had occurred to me there was a series of explosions, nine of them, coming one upon the other so quickly that it seemed like thunder in the small space of the lounge.

Simultaneously nine of the pirates did grotesque dances then dropped to the deck with neat bullet holes in each of their foreheads.

Eztl finished the tenth brigand with two quick slashes of his obsidian blade. Suddenly there was only the distant throb of the airship engines, the moans of dying men and the click of a hammer on an empty cylinder of my aunt’s New Orleans made pistol.

“Lady Camden!” the ambassador exclaimed.

“Aunt Mini!” I gasped as I stumbled to my feet and helped Nenetl up. “You brought Little Ruckus!”

Little Ruckus was the name my aunt gave to her favorite pistol, the one she had been using when she met my uncle.

“’Course I did, nephew,” she said as she revealed a holster strapped scandalously to her right thigh. “A girl ain’t safe no where these days.”

“Heavens, Frau Minerva,” the Baron rose from behind a pile of tables and blubbered, “why did you wait to use you weapon?”

“Weren’t no reason to,” she said as I limped over to her with the lady Jaguar hugged tightly to me, a feeling I found quite pleasant. My aunt made a point of looking at my temple then ripped off a strip of her own petticoat for a bandage for Nentl “Lest there ’weren’t no reason to till Athelstan decided to lay down on the job.” She fussed over the jaguar’s shapely thigh and smiled up at the woman “This little lady here and handsome there were doing just fine.”

Eztl came slowly over to our group now, his two gore soaked daggers held down at his side as if all strength had fled his arms and he could not raise them. His features were grim in the extreme, his black eyes shining with fatal fury. With his body covered in blood, there was a sheen of madness in those dark orbs. He looked like a pagan war god come to life.

“You have honored your ancestors,” Chichua said with awe. “Huitzlopochtli, God of war lives in your breath and bone.” The nobleman bowed his head and touched his heart. “I praise you; there will be songs about you Nentl, Baronet Grey and this battle. Warriors will sing it for many ages.”

I watched the interchange, made in English, I am sure for my benefit with an odd detachment. My energy, as I had found many times after combat, was spent and I was light headed. I leaned against a cabinet to steady myself.

My aunt had staunched the blood on the warrior’s thigh, having cut open the woman’s pant leg, exposing an attractive limb. I looked over and Nentl saw my glance. Her copper skin had faded to be a little ashen, but she gave me a radiant, if weak smile. I returned it.

We had a bond now that few who have not been in battle ever knew. And I now that the fray was done I found myself looking at her with new eyes. What I saw made my blood heat in a different way than combat had. Our eyes met and her smile told me she was thinking much the same thing.

The nobleman moved to place a hand on Eztl’s shoulder in a gesture of respect.

Some instinct in me, some premonition, caused me to turn from Nenetl. I saw something in the other jaguar’s posture as the nobleman reached to congratulate him. I grabbed Chichua to yank him back just as the obsidian knife in the jaguar’s right hand that flashed up to miss the ambassador’s throat by an inch.

Izel, the ambassador’s wife, screamed, drawing everyone’s attention.

Baron Von Burton, who had extracted himself from the alcove, stepped toward the warrior and held up a hand to cry, “See here!”

The jaguar spun and slashed at the Austrian, cutting him across the arm and outstretched hand. This caused the rotund man to fall backward with a scream of pain.

Aunt Mini jumped up but I stepped between her and the jaguar while still keeping my body on an angle to the ambassador.

“Eztl!” Nenetl screamed from the ground, trying to push herself up. “Are you mad?”

“I and the Tiacopan faction are the sane ones, Nenetl,” the jaguar said as he advanced toward Chichua again. “It is the idea of opening out land to white colonizers that is insane.”

“Then you are a traitor,” Nenetl hissed. She hopped in front of the ambassador next to Mini, who had picked up another broken chair to use as a club.

“It is Chichua who is the traitor,” the male Jaguar screamed, “of our people, our gods! He would allow pale-skins to bring their might to our shores. Did we not drive off the conquistadors and their pale god? Did the jaguars not stop the Yankqui when they tried to invade and held them to the Texican territory? We jaguars are mighty and we need no help from anyone to fight sea pirates.”

He held up a blood-covered knife and pointed it at the ambassador. “When the damage I did to the ship did not delay us enough – when you learned of this airship that would get you to meet the pale-skin prince I new I had to stop you.”

“So you hired these thugs,” I said stepping fully in front of the ambassador. I did my best to draw his attention from the cluster of the others, including my aunt. “You would not have had more than a few moments alone before you departed, so you must have had something like this as a backup plan.”

I physically moved slowly away from the others, knowing his knives would not throw well and if I could keep him focused on me, perhaps I could find some way to tackle him. I doubted Mini had any more bullets for Little Ruckus, but if she could find a steak knife she was as good as I was throwing them. To be truthful, probably better.

“Did you plan to let some of these pirates past you to kill the ambassador, and then heroically save the rest of us?” I saw that my accusation struck home by the flicker of acknowledgement in the dark depth of his eyes. “Did they have orders to leave Izel and the rest of us alive? My aunt at least, I hope?”

He moved in a wide circle, attempting to get past me. I had set my cutlass down near the battle area and was completely unarmed, but out of respect for what he had seen me do he kept his eyes on me and was trying to get to the ambassador without having to face me directly.

“You would have saved some of us, eh?” I said. “And been hailed a hero? And made sure all the pirates who could connect you to this were dead. You were pretty confident in your ability.”

“You have to stop this, Eztl,” Nenetl said. She had surmised what I was doing and leaned against me, blocking direct attack to the ambassador. I caught her eye and realized she was prepared to throw herself on her fellow jaguar. I realized it was the only thing either of us could do to save the Mexhican nobleman. Unarmed either one of us would be cut to ribbons, but together we might entangle him enough for whichever of us survived to strike a fatal blow.

All this passed between us in a glance is a sort of warrior’s telepathy. I could only hope that Eztl did not have the same thought.

“Now you will all have to die,” the jaguar warrior said in quiet voice that was almost regretful. “And I will accept the shame of failure in this one act of protection as a small price to keep the honor of my clan intact in not having to deal with the colonizer’s incursions.”

He lunged to move past us and Nenetl flung herself at her former companion. He had anticipated it, however and turned back suddenly, his muscles tensed and sprang at the ambassador over her. The woman could not compensate with her wounded leg.

I could, however and I tackled him in midair. The two of us slammed onto one of the tables that had not been torn up for the barricade. Our bodyweight crashed through it and we hit the deck hard.

I was on the bottom and the wind was knocked out of me.

Eztl lost one of his knives on the fall but the other he used to stab me in the leg at the same time he elbowed me to the side of the head. I saw stars.

That gave the jaguar enough space to roll off me and get to his feet. He spun to face his lord but my aunt had stepped in front of Chichua. She raised Little Ruckas to point it directly at Eztl. He gave a cold laugh.

“You can not frighten me with your empty paleskin weapon,” he said. “I heard the click of the hammer on the empty chamber before and you have not had time to reload.”

“True enough,” Aunt Mini said. “The .36 slugs are gone, but this is a LeMat Special.” With that she pulled the trigger that discharged the shotgun shell in the chamber under the barrel.

The buckshot that was expelled caught Eztl squarely in the face, blowing most of his head off. The force of the gun rocked my aunt back so violently that she fell on her rump.

“Damn, cryin’ shame,” my aunt said as I helped her to her feet, “such a waste of a handsome face.”

We stood there staring at all the death around us for a moment while Aunt Mini reholstered the thirty-year old gun. Then she looked up at me, reached out and smacked me on the arm.

“Don’t stare at my leg, nephew—get over there and help that pretty Jaguar lady with hers, then we gotta figure how to steer this dang floating hotel!”

They don’t make them like my Aunt Minerva anymore.

And I suppose, for many miscreants in this wide world that is a very fortunate thing!