The old ways

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It was going to be all about timing. That seemed appropriate, given Captain Praetus Holst's reputation and career, though her self-imposed demands for precision ordinarily related to matters such as prevailing winds, dock schedules and crew rotas. Falling short of her own standards would lead to frustrated passengers and potentially dismissal or demotion, but rarely anything more final.

Death rarely followed as a consequence of a slow journey. That's why, this time, she had to be more exact than she had ever been in her life. It would come down to seconds, she knew, and everybody had to know their role.

The sun was gone, dipped below the mountains two hours prior. An inky, moonless night blanketed the valley and the plateau atop the palace mesa. The Black Scree remained locked into its moorings on the dock, where it had been since Baron Lief had been arrested. The usual pattern of palace guards were patrolling, their presence light and casual even with the current tensions - the security was at the bridge to the other mesa, and on the ascent up. Threats were not expected from the mesa itself.

The crew had spent three days repairing The Black Scree after its ransacking by the King's Eyes, who had been true to their king's word and had torn it apart from bow to stern in search of evidence of conspiracy. They had found nothing, of course, yet the baron remained under lock and key within the palace. Holst had made the ship ready for imminent departure and the crew had been on a twenty-four-hour cycle of preparedness ever since. They had enough fuel to burn them all the way to Bruckin; all they need was their prized cargo.

Messages bearing the baron's seal had arrived in the first day, assuring them that matters would be resolved swiftly and with civility. Since then there had been no official word and no communication from the court, leaving Holst's crew increasingly fractious and impatient. They were at home in the air, not tied to the ground. The Black Scree strained at its bindings, as did her crew.

Rumours came down from the palace of ill treatment, and that the baron had been transferred from house arrest in his chambers to a cell in the dungeon.

Orders from the north had been to monitor the situation but only take action if it were absolutely necessary. Captain Praetus Holst had deemed it necessary.

The stars blinked calmly in the night sky. "Kinnean," she said to the first mate, "are we ready?"

"Everything is set." He didn't look nervous, or even excited. As always, he carried about him the air of a man who was there to carry out a job as efficiently as humanly possible, without imbuing it with any greater meaning.

She moved to the port side, away from the mesa's plateau, and leaned over the edge of the deck, to the ground several hundred feet below. Shinn, an old deckhand who had been with the ship longer than she'd been its captain, handed her a harness. "Captain," he said, nodding. She stepped into it and fastened it tight, clipping it to the rope that trailed down and out of sight from a ring on the side of the ship. Six of her crew were similarly rigged: Duffy, Paol, Feifer, Ombra, Resnick and Trouber. All of whom she had known for years and considered family, even if she would never admit as much to them.

"Prepare to synchronise clocks," she said, raising her wrist, upon which was her nautical watch. She held down a button on its side, then released it as she gave the order, watching the others all do the same.

"See you in fifteen minutes," she said to Kinnean, before mounting the rail at the edge of the deck and lowering herself down and over the abyss. The harness pulled at her thighs as she settled her weight into it, the rope taking the strain as the others joined her in space.

They began to slide, moving near-silently along the rope, which had been slung from the ship to below the edge of the mesa over the previous two nights. Picking up speed, the rope's course took them below the hulls of other ships, clear of the dock mechanisms, until they reached the cliff-face, where the rope was pinned into the rock. She attached a second clip to the next stage of rope and detached the other, continuing on her way. The rope's curvature meant an easy descent initially as they moved in the downward arc, the rope carrying them well below the edge of the mesa. It was impossible to see the seven of them sliding their way through the darkness from the top of the mesa, unless a guard was to lie on their stomach and lean right out over the edge.

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