The Lightship ascended into the clouds. The Captain stood at the far end of the bow, the front of the ship. His peaked cap was pulled low over his eyes, as if to shield him from the blanket of cold vapour that was about to engulf all of them. The planks creaked as if in complaint at the rapidly cooling air.
It had been a hard voyage, the hardest since he had joined the Service. Weeks ago the 'Albatross' had cast off, by night, from the little port beneath the beacon at the end of the world - the great Gaast lighthouse - the last outpost of New Berlin. Sailing an uncharted ocean with a crew of three men would be near-suicide, he had told the council. Pleaded with them, even. Yet the ship had survived the dirty weather and massive, senseless waves. They had survived the loss of a foremast, which the sailors had desperately cut away and heaved into the ocean. They had survived. And now, at last, the sails had been taken in and they were in the air.
There was no denying, Captain Conrad thought, that the coast, from the perspective of sailing over the water, had looked splendidly picturesque, with its wide sweeps of vivid green foliage and mighty, towering mountains. But thousands of feet in the air, close by, the impression was different. The rock face was made up of ugly curling protrusions - like goat horns, he thought, or the tentacles of some aquatic animal twisting in torment.
A few yards behind him the stranger reclining on the tarpaulin covering the Captain's lifeboat yawned ostentatiously. Mr Hanna sat up and stretched his wiry limbs and silently observed the dark mountain the Lightship was ascending beside.
He reflected that the Captain looked a little too innocent to skipper a Lightship. The man had injured, angelic eyes and a thick mop of blonde hair, which, when hatless, had a tendency to form a duck's tail on the crown of his head. The whole effect was of a distressed schoolboy. Yet he had a hard-won reputation as the finest Lightshipman in the Service.
As Hanna ruminated the 'Albatross' was engulfed in cloud, plunging the ship into a gloomy half-light and covering everything with a dew-like moisture.
A discrete thump announced that Hanna had dropped onto the deck. The man ambled forwards through the murky light towards the Captain.
"How many years have you been on this old tub, skipper?" the stranger asked, filling the bowl of his pipe with tobacco from a leather pouch.
"Long enough to know non-service people should stay below decks, or at least out of the sight of people who are working. I have told you several times not to talk to me when I am on duty."
The Captain did not turn around. He did not care for the dark-haired interloper. This was a game they had played a few times. Conrad was bored of it.
Hanna used a sulphur-tipped match to light his pipe and began to puff merrily.
He said: "I feel cut to the quick. Although I might remind you that I am a member of your crew on this voyage. And I have a name."
The Captain turned and, through the mist and shadow of the cloud, met the stranger's eye. Hanna's smiling face was wet and gleamed dully. To Conrad it looked wolf-like, resembling the fierce vermin he had hunted on his Uncle's estate.
"Smoking is bad for the magnetic field, Mr Hanna. It's a very delicate mechanism. On a normal voyage that would get you thrown in the brig. Maybe even overboard."
Hanna put a hand on the bow rail and said: "How much do you know of these Mountains Captain?"
"Not much. I've heard a few tales, like anyone else. My mother told me they were cursed."
The Captain grimaced slightly at his choice of words. Something about this fellow made the skin crawl. Did the Council in New Berlin think that just because a chap has rooms in this place, and belongs to that club, and is handy with a sabre, that he was somehow trustworthy? And what the deuce did a "gentleman adventurer" actually do anyway? There was a great deal of the bohemian scruff about him.