Characters interact with the the world around them in many ways depending on the circumstances into which we throw them, but illustrating the nature of a personality can be tricky in the reader’s first introduction to a significant player on the stage of a story. In The Wake of the Dragon, one of my own favourite characters makes an entrance that defines him as much as any of his subsequent actions to the point that I couldn’t resist including a couple of his lines in the book trailer for this story. As a matter of fact, I liked his nature well enough to decide that he’s going to appear very significantly in my next Steampunk story as well, although it isn’t actually a sequel.
Mister Bale is First Mate on a pirate airship captained by Captain Bonny. The pirates have just comandeered a shipment of opium under the cover of storm’s edge, an act of insanity for most airships but business as usual for Captain Bonny’s crew. As we fly away into the darkness of night with heavy cloud cover, we get our first look at Mister Bale’s approach to most situations.
One man staggered leisurely amidst the diligent deck hands, casually swigging rum from a flask in one hand while smoking a pipe with the other.
The captain nodded to him as he approached.
‘Who’s piloting?’ the captain asked his first mate almost absently, gazing into the skies of dawn.
‘Morgan Sir,’ the mate replied. As the name was spoken, the captain looked directly at his first mate. Only the shadow of a doubt altered his assured tone.
‘Can he control the ship at storm edge?’ As if to punctuate the question, the airship dipped suddenly and then lifted into a current that hurled the craft free of the storm’s murky depths as effectively as a balloon would bob in a tub full of water. Riding the unstable decks was instinctive. The men kept their knees bent and a rope to hold onto close by.
As the ship steadied to no worse than edge turbulence, the mate handed the bottle to the captain and answered confidently.
‘He’s got the way of it Sir, and Browning’s with him.’
The captain nodded and took a swig of rum.
‘Is he drunk?’ The captain’s question was as matter of fact as the reply he received.
‘Not as drunk as me Sir.’
Again, the captain nodded. The first mate began to pry open one of the crates, still sitting on the deck.
‘What are you about man?’ the captain asked. ‘Storm edge is no place to open it, you’ll see the cargo ruined or lost in the wind.’
‘Just a smidgeon Captain Bonny Sir, I hear tell that chasing the dragon when the winds are blowing can send you right into another world!’
‘Mind your pipe don’t light the rum and send us all into another world,’ the captain answered gruffly as he handed back the bottle. The first mate finished scraping a few golden crystals into his pipe and nodded as he took the bottle, transferring it to his coat pocket away from the pipe.
‘Secure that crate Mister Bale, that’s an order!’ The captain reached to push the lid down forcibly. ‘Then you can take this crate down to my quarters. Can’t sell a crate with an opened package, can we?’
Mister Bale looked the captain in the eye, just noting the subtle wink. Bale smiled just as cunningly.
‘No Sir Captain Bonny Sir, I reckon we’ll just have to keep this one for private use. Pity that.’
Captain Bonny smiled more openly as he watched the back of his first mate recede down the stairs to stow the crate in his quarters as ordered. The thought of riding the winds while chasing the dragon, the euphemism the Chinese people used for the diversion of smoking opium, appealed to his adventurous spirit almost as much as the chase they were winning now as the ship increased the distance from the active storm clouds and the remnants of the city’s smog wafted away from the deck, allowing clear morning air to blow in his face.
Bale had been right, as usual. Morgan did know the way of it, the way to pilot an airship through the air currents so that the pockets of turbulence would thrust the ship away from the storm rather than suck it back into the low pressure. It required a particular instinct and an affinity with the air spirits to accomplish time after time, rather than just by luck as had been the case the first time the captain had won his life by following that instinct.