Authors: Tom Banks
âJust tea, dear,' said Ms Huntley. âThat's the only kind of tea there is. Anything else is just leaves boiled in water.'
âHmmph,' said Cloudier, although she was secretly relieved.
The Captain was next. He leapt over the rail, and made the little balloon shimmy and shake.
âBy criminy, but it's hot, is it not?' he said, conversationally. Cloudier noticed that he had taken off his greatcoat, and was wearing linen britches. But the hat remained â albeit his second-best hat, his first having been stolen by his brother.
âIt is. And those drums â¦' said Cloudier's mother.
They all listened for a moment.
âThump-a-Dang-BonkBonk. Thump-a-Dang-CLANK Bonk. Thump-a-Dang-BonkBonk.
Ker-Dang-Bonk Bonk-DerDUNK' went the drums, as they had been doing ever since the Galloon had crossed the bay.
âI don't know,' said the Captain. âThey're insistent, for sure â but they don't sound like a threat, if you ask me. And besides, what can threaten us up here in the mighty Galloon?'
Cloudier was surprised to hear the Captain sounding relatively upbeat, but then perhaps he was confident that his bride's rescue was imminent.
âLet's go and see what my dastardly brother is up to now,' he said, and his face seemed to darken again.
âI think he must be heading for El Bravado,' said Ms Huntley, poring over a map as Cloudier began to pump hot air into the balloon above them.
âYes,' said the Captain. âThe Lost City of Silver. Legend tells of untold treasure just sitting there for the taking â though I suppose you'd need to approach by air to stand a chance of getting there. It's damn strange, as he's never shown the least inclination to wealth in the past. He's no pirate. Its power he craves, it seems, and poor Isabella of course.'
Cloudier looked at her mother, who rolled her eyes in an almost imperceptible way at the Captain's tendency to secrecy.
âHold tight, we're off!' said Cloudier, as the little balloon pulled away from the deck of the Galloon.
âIt's good to have you onboard, Harissa,' said the Captain with a smile. Cloudier just had a moment to think this a little strange, before they were away and over the rushing river, watching it plunge hundreds of feet over the cliff edge. The clouds of spray thrown up by the falls were surprisingly refreshing.
âTake her down!' cried the Captain over the roar of the falls. âHow close can we get to the waterfall?'
âWithin safe and sensible boundaries!' said Ms Huntley. âAnd do not roll your eyes at me, my girl!'
âOh, Mother!' said Cloudier. Calling her mother âMother' was something she was trying out. She was concerned it made her sound more like an old-fashioned school mistress than a world-weary but cultured young woman, but it was early days yet.
âPlease don't call me Mother,' said Ms Huntley. âYou sound like an old-fashioned school mistress.'
So that was that.
They descended away from the Galloon, where Abel was officially now at the helm, though Clamdigger was doing the actual steering. Its size never ceased to astound Cloudier â but she had to concentrate on flying her own little craft. The Captain's great legs took up a lot of the space in the basket, and her mother was perched on the little bookshelf where Cloudier kept her tiny library. This, along with all the safety equipment Ms Huntley tended to bring along since the small incident when Cloudier flew alone for hundreds of miles across a frozen landscape before landing in a volcano, left very little room for Cloudier to manoeuvre. But she managed to handle the burner, and the little string that controlled their altitude, with one hand. Another of Clamdigger's many recent improvements around the Galloon was a tiny little outboard motor-propeller for the weather balloon, so that it was nowadays not entirely at the mercy of the winds. Cloudier had the tiller of this little put-put engine in her other hand, and she used it to steer them towards the waterfall as they fell slowly towards the cliff face.
âWoah!' said Cloudier. âI mean â¦ how exquisite they are!'
She pointed at the waterfall, where little fishes, like bejewelled ribbons, were clinging to the rock face, and occasionally making heroic upwards leaps against the current. They seemed able to stick to the rocks like sticky tape, but nevertheless their efforts must have been exhausting.
âTinselfish!' said the Captain.
âBeautiful things!' said Ms Huntley.
âIndeed,' said the Captain, and the look they gave each other gave Cloudier such a shock that she didn't even think of writing a poem about the beautiful fish and their uphill struggle.
âErp â¦' she said uselessly, and then had to jerk the handle of the little outboard motor sharply, as a shape came flying out of the mist below them. It was one of the FishTank's hooked cable-arms, searching for a purchase on the rock.
âNot meant for us, I don't think!' said the Captain, as they lurched away from the cliff.
âNo â but we should be careful nonetheless!' said Ms Huntley. âHere it comes!'
As the cable found a purchase on the mossy rocks, the rest of the FishTank came into view. They were so close they could hear the whirring and clanking of hydraulics as it hauled itself against the relentless current. It was a shiny thing, almost as beautiful as the tinselfish, its overlapping panels shining as it shrugged the water off. Almost before they had seen it, it was past them, as Cloudier had to flash the burner to bring them alongside again.
âISABELLAAAA!' the Captain suddenly yelled, making Cloudier and her mother jump out of their skins.
âMeredith!' snapped Ms Huntley. âI know this is hard! But if she were able to hear you, she would not be able to do anything about it. We must remain calm.'
âI have remained calm for many months, as my brother holds my beautiful bride against her will! How long can any man hold these things inside? I must save her!'
And to Cloudier's astonishment, the Captain seemed ready to leap from the balloon onto the FishTank, where he would certainly be thrown off by the current and dashed against the rocks below.
âUp, Cloudier!' called Ms Huntley.
âNo! Keep her steady!' said the Captain.
Cloudier, without so much as a moment's thought, brought the balloon up and away from the FishTank.
âCloudier!' said the Captain, aghast. But then he turned and saw the looks on the faces of his companions, and was quiet.
âWe can't let you blunder into a foolish accident,' said Cloudier's mother calmly. âYou will be no use to Isabella if you are smashed to pieces down there.'
She pointed down to the base of the falls, where the churning water and razor-sharp rocks meant certain death for anyone who fell in.
âNo, of course, you are right. We need a plan â¦' said the Captain. âThank you as ever, Harissa, Cloudier, my moments of â¦'
âEnough! When we are safe back onboard the Galloon, just the three of us, then you may say what you wish â¦' said Harissa.
âFour of us,' said the Captain. âIsabella will be there too.'
âOf course,' said Ms Huntley. Cloudier saw her look at her feet, as she did when she wasn't saying everything she wanted to say.
âLook!' said Cloudier.
The FishTank was almost level with them again, and was now very nearly at the top of the falls. But it had stopped, its two cables clinging to rocks right at the edge of the falls. In its back, where the dorsal fin would have been if it had really been a fish, an opening was appearing. It wasn't anything as crude as a hatchway â silver panels slipped over each other to reveal a circle, which irised open silently. A head poked out of the opening, while the silver panels rearranged themselves into a kind of dam to hold the worst of the water off.
âZebediah!' roared the Captain, and Cloudier saw his fists clench and his knuckles whiten.
Ms Huntley leaned over to Cloudier, and spoke calmly.
âWhat have we got that we could fire into that hole? A flare? Anything?'
âNo!' said the Captain. âPlease, my Isabella is somewhere within.'
As the Captain spoke, Cloudier saw his brother, who was the dead spit of him in almost every way, raise a loudhailer to his mouth.
âBrother!' he called.
âYou have no brother!' called the Captain, whose voice was so powerful that no loudhailer was necessary.
âErr â¦ I do. You! And Tobias,' said Zebediah.
âOh yes! How is Tobias, do you know?' called Meredith.
âFine, fine. Mother says he's doing very well. He's been promoted to regional manager!'
âGood! Good for him. But you do not have me as a brother. I am your mortal enemy, nothing more, until you release my bride, and make reparations for your conduct!'
âYes, I see â but no, I can't do that!' said Zebediah. It seemed to Cloudier that he was listening to somebody, or something, down below, in the main body of the FishTank. âI have to tell you â¦ I mean â¦ I want to tell you something. Merry?'
The Captain was visibly startled.
âI am not Merry to you! Only Mother may call me that!'
âYes, of course and Tobias! Regional manager, you say? Well, well.'
âYes! He gets the corner office, company steam wagon, the works.'
âHurrah for him, eh?' The Captain jerked himself out of a reverie again. âBut â you say you must tell me something? Make it quick, for my Galloon is not far off, and will make short work of you!'
âYou will not take any action against me while Isabella is onboard. I know that well enough, so your threats are idle ones. Just listen, for once in your life, to your younger brother!'
âJust say your piece!' snapped the Captain.
âShe â¦ I mean â¦ I will not tolerate being followed any longer. I have brought you here for a number of reasons, but one is because it is the one place in the world where your Great Galloon may not follow. Once I am at the top of these falls â which I will be in a matter of moments â your life and your ship will be in graver danger than they have ever been before. Your door is imminent. Do not follow me to El Bravado. I repeat â do not follow me to El Bravado.'
âMy door?' said the Captain.
âWhat?' called Zebediah.
âDid you say my door is imminent? That doesn't make sense.'
âWell â it's what the Pirate Queâ I mean, it's what I want to say. Make of it what you will.'
âWhere's my hat!?' called the Captain.
âWhere's my best hat? You stole it. Why aren't you wearing it? You never could look after things.'
âWell, it's a pirate hat, and I'm not a pirate. I stopped wearing it.'
âIt's not a pirate hat! It's a Captain's hat, you lowdown lubber!'
âBlack, three corners, red ribbon at the back â that's a pirate's hat in anyone's books. I gave it to the Pirateâ'
Cloudier was now watching Zebediah very closely, looking for any opening they could exploit. As the grown-ups argued about hats, she noticed a hand, holding a piece of paper, reach up from inside the FishTank and tap Zebediah on the leg. He flinched, then took the paper and read it. The Captain and her mother were looking at each other, aghast about the hat revelation, so didn't notice.
âDoom!' said Zebediah. âNot door. Your doom is imminent.'
âOh!' said the Captain and Ms Huntley together. âThat makes a lot more sense.'
âSo do not follow!' cried the Captain's evil brother. He ducked back down into the FishTank, and the strange portal closed behind him.
âHow dare he threaten me? Back to the Galloon, Cloudier. I have seen that parleying will get us nowhere. We must stop him once and for all.'
âBut what did he mean about the Galloon being unable to follow?' asked Cloudier, as she lifted the balloon away from the waterfall again and back towards the Galloon, which was still moored a half-mile or so behind. âWhat's at the top of the falls?'
âIt is certainly a strange landscape,' said her mother. âThe sharp, unnavigable rocks known as the Darts, with the river winding through them. Beyond that it's largely uncharted. But there's the myth of El Bravado, the Lost City of Silver, which seems to be driving Zebediah onwards.'
âBut the Galloon has been there before â we used to have a passenger who was born round here; young Perky Luffington. Dropped him off at home, just a few miles from here, years ago. The Galloon crossed the Darts then, no problem. I shouldn't like to crash into one, and we may have to stay lower than we'd like, but any talk of our imminent door is highly fanciful, even by Zebediah's twisted standards.'
âDoom,' said Ms Huntley.
âYes, of course.'
They floated for a short while in silence, as the roar of the waterfall fell away, and the thumping of the drums became audible again.
âI wonder what happened to old Perky?' said the Captain, almost to himself.
âHe may still be around here somewhere, but we'd have no way of contacting him. The chances of bumping into him are a million to one,' said Ms Huntley.
âYou're right, of course. As you always are,' said the Captain. It seemed to Cloudier that he and Ms Huntley gave each other another of what could only be described as One of Their Looks.
Stanley was, contrary to expectations, very much enjoying being held in the mighty fist of a tiger. Claude had not spoken again, and had gently closed his fist once more around Stanley's body so that there was no possibility of escape, but somehow Stanley understood that this was for his safety, rather than through any malice.
If only my friends could see me now!
Stanley thought to himself.
Rasmussen, or Clamdigger, or â¦
Stanley had decided not to wonder how Claude did that â it was either science or magic, and either way there was very little he could do about it. He looked up at the tiger, and saw that he was looking past Stanley, off to the right. Stanley followed his gaze, and saw the little weather balloon, returning to the Galloon. Its tiny engine popped and spluttered as it gained height, clearly aiming for the main deck. It looked to Stanley as if there were three people onboard. He waved, and shouted, but they were too far away, and probably focused on negotiating the outriggers and balloons that made any approach to the Galloon problematic.