There was no point in trying to take in the scenery from a steam coach. The carriage rattled along in a shroud of smoke at high speed, but very low comfort. Each passenger fought his own private battle with motion sickness. The window seats were given to those who lost.
Despite the noise, smell, and shaking, Mayport Titus slept. He had made good his exodus from Ramshock’s Academy for Young Gentlemen without detection by his personal watchdogs. Rest was necessary for the final leg of his journey. Somehow, he managed to get some before being jolted awake by the conductor’s shout. Mayport grabbed his carryall pack. He had no idea what the man was saying, but felt he’d come far enough from Surat to get well and truly lost. The overcrowded coach gave little room for him to move. He tumbled from the side door, narrowly avoiding his own luggage being thrown down from the roof.
He grabbed his bags and scrambled well-clear of the carriage’s tracks. Smoke and steam poured out of the engine, engulfing him in grime. The gears screamed, and the carriage thundered on its way.
Mayport hunkered in the tall grass and weeds until the dust had settled and he felt certain of his solitude. Only then did he get to his feet and examine the guidepost at the deserted crossroads.
Several bits of scrap metal had been fashioned into signs and fixed to a stone pillar. The squiggles were quite beyond his understanding. During his travels that intimidation had begun to wear off. He needed numbers, and found them clearly marked, directing the way to a farm village. Mayport stood there calculating distance and time. It would be foolish to change his plans so late in the game, and yet an opportunity stood before him.
He shook off his nervous hesitation and took up his bags once more. The difference in destination was only a few miles. The sun was high and bright, so he turned his back on the village road and marched off into the countryside.
Mayport wanted to keep a straight face and be dignified, even with only the rabbits to see. Instead, he found himself smiling, then laughing as he hurried along. The rolling hills were fresh and green and welcoming of his hard-won delight.
All across the pastures he saw cows making good use of the grass. In the distance, vast swaths of reeds rose up in a disordered jumble. Only a few houses were ranged about, but he knew somewhere a warehouse must exist. He had only to find it from ground level.
The first evidence was a plume of white, rising up to meet the clouds. Looking down into the dells, only then did Mayport realize his mistake. Above the trees of a distant park rose the banners of a European-style building that looked more whirligig than domicile. Mayport stared, finally realizing the miles he had to cover.
At least with the banners plain before him, he had no fear of losing his way even if the sun set. His bags were only three, but seemed to grow heavier as the afternoon wore on. Though he thought longingly of the comfortable village behind him, he stiffened his resolve and stayed on his chosen route.
He tramped over a pasture, dodging cowpies as he went. Wheels rattled from the direction of the road, and dust rose up like a pale shadow. Men on a pony cart rushed along, crying out as they went. Mayport ducked into the tall grasses near a stone fence.
A cow looked at him with benign curiosity as he huddled in the lee of the fence. Mayport laughed. “You would hide too, if you didn’t speak the language.”
The cow stepped closer to him. Its bulk hid him from the men on the road. He gathered handfuls of clover to keep her content while he waited.
“I haven’t done anything wrong,” he said. “It’s not running away if you mean to go right straight home again.”
The cow seemed disinclined to judge harshly where clover was concerned. Mayport kept company with her until he had his wind back, and had cooled down a little. Then he had to wait longer when the cart returned along the village road.
The cow turned away without comment and made her way to a path that linked the fields. Mayport took his bags and followed behind her when he saw that the path lay in the direction he wanted to go. As the sun made ready for its afternoon exit, he was glad of something more than the sight of the warehouse to guide him over the uneven fields.
The cow knew what she was about. As they went along together, more cows came from the fields and joined the afternoon procession. Mayport did the best he could to stay off the muddy path, but his shoes grew soggy anyway. Eventually the path turned away from the banners Mayport sought. He said goodbye to his companion and went on his own way. As the sky put on its red and gold, the warehouse lit up as though a new star was housed within.
As he drew closer he could see motion in the light, and hear the steady sound of working mechanisms. He climbed stiles and found gates, all the while seeking out the shape of sails or even an anchor post. Only when the sun had set completely did he give up hope of seeing such a thing.
He tried not to feel disappointed. As an unannounced visitor, he could expect little. If his assumed host wasn’t home, he had only himself to blame.
In his mind he began rehearsing his self-introduction. In his breast pocket was the weight of a thick letter he had been given to carry. In his youth, these fields and the shining house had seemed a kind of fairy tale, while his reality had been wholly his education. His friends from school were his only society, and even now offered the only help he might rely on.
Mayport didn’t think himself a sensible boy, despite all efforts to persuade him otherwise. At age eight, he had gone away to get his education. At twelve, his parents had been lost on the high winds. The bank had a representative at school to watch over him in the person of one Costor Achely, who had been no more than fourteen when his grandfather bestowed his first account to tend. Costor’s first goal in life was to make Mayport a man of means. Thus far, they had failed each other.
The moon rose full and bright as Mayport trudged on through the fields. He mounted the last stile between the pastures and the trees, then stopped to rest. He leaned against the wall, craning his neck back and back again to see if there was anything like a person moving inside the brightly lit house.
He set out across the grove of ancient trees, resisting the urge to turn back. Though he had neared, the noise of the tower seemed not much louder than it had at a distance. Windmill arms of metal and glass twisted and spun above the tree branches. Light and shadow cast ever-changing patterns as he went.
At last he came to a wide path of round, white stones. He could no longer deny the weariness in his limbs. But with every aching step his heart grew lighter, and some of his excitement returned. Mayport stood on the gravel and looked up at the house. The bottom stories were made of the local, sturdy mud brick. A few lights shone here and there. Only in the higher reaches did it become a vast, mechanical wonder.
He swallowed his fear and went up to the door. At the press of a button, warm bells rang out in welcome. Then, footsteps approached much more quickly than he expected.
A man in a smoking jacket of black and purple silk pulled the door open and opened his mouth to shout. He hesitated and then frowned. “Who are you?”
“My name is Mayport Titus. I’m looking for Jebediah Cully. I’m here to resolve the issue of this warehouse, and your disposition within the Titus Chocolate Company.”
In an instant, the man’s expression went from stormy to fair. “On my life, I never thought to see you here! What in the world has happened to you, poor boy? You’re up to your knees in mud, come in, come in.”
Cully stepped aside and soon had Mayport out of his muddy shoes and stockings. He was left to wait by the door while the captain hurried ahead to make a path. He looked around the place, astounded by the collection of oddities stacked all the way to the ceiling. Cases of trophies were crammed full of odd bric-a-brac that defied description. Bits of machinery and tools were mixed in with china figures and clumps of dried flowers. Between the shelves hung map weavings and painted star charts.
He leaned this way and that to get a better view of the ornaments. Deeper in the house he could hear Cully rushing to and fro. His legs ached, but he didn’t dare to sit when the floor looked made of dust and debris. He kept his mind off the cold in his toes by trying to figure out the strange pictures on the walls.
“I’ll have to write to that fool at the factory,” Cully called down the hall. “He’ll be afraid you’ve been carried off by kidnappers, or worse.”
“I’m here on my own business, so it’s none of his. What would be worse than kidnappers?” Mayport asked, amused.
“In his opinion, I would be,” Cully said. “What in the world are you doing here? You’re too young to have business of your own.”
“I’m not,” Mayport said, and frowned. Indeed, he wasn’t. “How old do you think I am?”
Cully laughed, a warm, rich sound that seemed to wrap around Mayport. “I really have no idea. It won’t matter way out here. You’re as near to the end of the world as you can get without falling off the edge. Why have you come all this way, my dear boy?”
“I’ve come to assess the value of this outpost, now that the British East India Company has given up and gone home. What is all this junk?” Mayport asked as he followed Cully’s nimble lead to the stairs.
“It’s your father’s. I didn’t know what you’d want to keep, and he kept everything.” They came together to a kind of den filled with books and more trophies, cluttered desks, and a table that was already set for a meal. “Look in the trunk behind that screen, see if there’s something comfortable for you to wear.”
Mayport went quickly to change. There were pajamas and slippers of soft, gray cloth. He peered between the cracks in the screen as he dressed, taking in the captain as he read the letters of reference.
Mayport had expected the broad shoulders and work-hardened hands, the silver beard and sturdy frame. He had not imagined brown eyes full of amusement, nor the expressive mouth, so ready to smile. He began to relax, and put his hopes in Cully’s welcome.
The table was full of distractions, so Mayport hurried to present himself. Cully hardly glanced up from his reading. He merely waved Mayport on to enjoy the feast. Mayport smiled to himself, reminded of the so-absorbed professors who could sit for hours over a completely empty plate, now left behind at school. He pushed a few temptations into Cully’s range, then sat down and tucked in.
Dining at Cully’s table was an exercise in luxury. The velvet of the chair felt deep and plush enough to sleep in. Game meat was the main offering, but was surrounded by veggies and fresh, soft bread. Mayport lost himself in roasted rabbit, spring peas, and sweet, buttery rolls to the exclusion of all else. He followed that with a bit of a savory pie and tender okra. He marveled over the variety just long enough to taste it, then moved on to fruit pie.
“You have an appetite,” Cully said in an approving way. “I thought I would have to bully and harass food into so scrawny a boy as you.”
Mayport almost stopped shoveling down the berry pie to say he wasn’t scrawny. He kept his eyes down and the spoon working. Cully could call just about any man scrawny, by comparison.
“So you’ve made it halfway around the world and no worse for the journey,” Cully said. “Is that man Cane still hanging around as your chairman? He will have my skin if he thinks I somehow persuaded you to this mutiny.”
“I’m not sorry,” Mayport said. “He should have seen to my business before now. What are you doing out here, and what is this place? It looks like a stupa making a daring bid for flight. I thought you were stranded in the wilderness, not wallowing in the lap of luxury. I hope you can explain what you’ve done with the company’s assets.”
“You sound extremely resentful, young man,” Cully said. “If you have something to say, speak up.”
“Where’s my father’s ship? Not the one he crashed. The other one. The first one,” Mayport asked. “Father went off on his new best ship, and the other was left here, under your care. She hasn’t been seen in a port for quite some time. I want her back.”
“She was decommissioned before the war,” Cully said. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“The British East India Company lost their ‘disagreement with the local element’ last year,” Mayport said. “I was led to believe the first ship was lost in that war. Certainly, my father is considered dead and gone. He’s been reported as ‘apparently drowned’ but nobody says where or how. Two ships, two captains, all gone but you, and so I must demand answers.”
“You are very tired,” Cully said. “I should never have kept you up so late, but that you needed your dinner. Well, you’ve had it, so you should rest. On up the stairs three more turns, and there’s a room three doors down. It’s dusty, but you’ll survive. I was working, and I have to finish. We’ll speak again tomorrow when you’ve had time to reflect on what you’ve done.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Mayport said. “I’m not out here on my own. My friend is coming, and we want answers. It’s better if he doesn’t get the idea you’re trying to screw me. He can be very jealous about that sort of thing.”
“Bed,” Cully said.
That was the last word the captain spoke to him. He eventually gave in and went where he’d been told. He resisted sleep in a stubborn way by cleaning up a bit and ferreting out clean bed linens before he finally surrendered. As he lay staring at an unfamiliar ceiling, he wondered if all his efforts had been for nothing.
* * *
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Chocolatiers of the High Winds is a rollicking romance in classic adventuring style, punctuated with passion and sweetened with chocolate. The ebook edition collects all 50 chapters of the web serial that ran on circlet.com from 2010-2011, and also includes one bonus chapter featuring a new erotic scene between Mayport and Thiervy... and more chocolate!
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