We began with a bit of die-rolling practice, as our gallant crew of bloodthirsty cutthroats aboard the Fortune Hunter spotted a cargo ship among the clouds. It was the Santa Maria, flying under the flag of the Duchy of Irontree-Dragonrock. Even before they ran up the Black Flag, the cargo ship turned tail and fled. So naturally, they gave chase.
With James Blackpaw at the helm, they caught up in only an hour or two, and he even managed to jink the entire ship just enough to dodge a desperate long-range shot from the Maria’s stern cannons.
Then it was time to fire the forward-mounted lightning cannon. Tiberius Thunder had been tinkering with it to extend its range, so they didn’t need to close in any further once they reached small cannon range. He was certain of that; mind you, he hadn’t actually tested it or anything…but hey, who’s the expert on electrical engineering, anyway? And of course it worked. Didn’t do a whole lot of damage, but it slowed them enough to cut across their prow and let them have a broadside to the face. At that, the Santa Maria struck their colors and surrendered.
The NPC captain was classy enough to show them the cargo manifest as soon as they got on board…though it neglected to mention the hidden compartment full of strange artifacts — statuary, tapestries, hanging scrolls and a lacquered cabinet — from a far-off and near-legendary land called China. Apparently, the captain and crew were required to leave the ship while these were loaded; they didn’t even know what they were carrying.
Although unable to decide how to dispose of The Chinese Artifacts, the rest of their haul was worth enough that they could now afford to dock at Isla Aether and register for the Cultural Arts Festival. They found a berth between a circus ship, the PT Bridgeport, and a somewhat earthier ship called the String of Pearls.
The festival was a fun time; there were highbrow theater ships performing Shakespeare, band ships…even the Ophelia, where they were selling cylinders of their latest songs. The PT Bridgeport’s main tent was set up in a nearby market plaza, but the sideshow was aboard the ship.
It wasn’t much of a sideshow — the Mammoth Man was a misbegotten, seven feet tall and stocky and covered with real fur, but the elephant ears were leather and the tusks were carved from wood; Chondu the Mystic, Master of Snakes had only one snake, and it had been heavily dosed with laudanum; and the Snow Fairies were just a pair of albino twin teenage girls (though quite small for their age), who were clearly not there by choice and quite miserable.
After the show, Tiberius went to the circus tent to speak to the Captain and Ringmaster about buying the two girls. In the middle of the conversation, the Bridgeport’s bosun arrived and pulled the Ringmaster aside; after they conferred, the latter gave Thunder a look, then came back and agreed to discuss the matter on the Fortune Hunter the next morning, say…10:00?
That evening, the Fortune Hunter opened its onboard casino, the Lucky Strike Lounge, providing a congenial atmosphere for gambling and drinking, while Randolph Ash played mood music on the small stage. Later that night, Tiberius was on watch when he heard a faint thump and some scrabbling on the hull. Looking down, he saw the cloaked figure of one of the twins, Ivy Jolie, trying to climb to the deck. After he helped her up, she begged for asylum, and for help to rescue her sister Holly, who was about to be sold to the String of Pearls. She said she’d been setting up an escape plan, but so far it was only good for herself, and she couldn’t use it until she’d added in provision for Holly.
After determining that Ivy was in good health (and expressing some consternation at her lack of coloring — he’d never seen an albino before), Blackpaw gave her a place to sleep. The next morning, he awoke Captain Swan with some freshly-brewed coffee, which the Captain knew always meant there was a problem.
So everyone was up and ready to meet the delegation from the PT Bridgeport…but nobody showed up. Scanning the circus ship with a telescope, they noted that there was nobody on deck, nor in the rigging. The ship looked deserted. After conferring together, the PCs decided that Tiberius and Randolph would go over to have a look, while Dr. James and the Captain would hang back and observe.
On the Bridgeport, there were subtle but unmistakeable signs of violence. Someone had boarded, captured or killed the crew, and cleaned up the scene — while the ship was in port too; no small achievement.
While pondering their next action, they heard footsteps coming up the gangway, and several people emerged on deck. Their leader, “Lord Sintallon,” was casually wiping blood from a dagger and lamenting his having had the albino twins in his grasp, only to pass them on before realizing their value. His automaton butler, Catherwood, was offering supportive comments, but broke off when he caught sight of Thunder and Blackpaw.
After heaving an exasperated sigh and muttering “witnesses,” Lord Sintallon greeted the PCs jovially and engaged them in conversation. He mentioned “the girl who escaped this ship last night,” and once he was certain they knew who he meant, he and his men attacked. The transition from genteel banter to brutal violence was immediate and total. Perhaps more frightening than this was that Sintallon drew no weapon; he attacked with fists alone, clearly keen to take prisoners.