Fic: The Pirate, The Professor, and the Ruin of the Empire (Snupin, PG-13) 1/2 Title: The Pirate, The Professor, and the Ruin of the Empire Rating: PG-13 Word Count: 13,260 Summary: Britain is in the grip of the Emperor, while the rightful ruler Lord Albus hides in exile in Scotland. Small bands of pirates form some opposition but it’s going to take a spectacular strike to bring the Empire down for good. Thanks: drachenmina for the fabulous beta. Notes: Fantasy Fest entry (yes, a little late), from this prompt: Steampunk universe. R is an airship pirate. S is a scientist/inventor. S is kidnapped by R's crew. Love/hate relationship forms between R and S. S ends up helping R's crew escape capture from "evil empire of doom". Bonus if S joins with the crew in the end. Thanks, mystery prompter. I had fun!
The Pirate, The Professor, and the Ruin of the Empire
The Imperial airships drifted slowly across the darkening skies, their engines reduced to faint drones by distance. The clouds behind them were tinged pink, catching the last glimmers of the dying sun. There was the occasional rumble of an engine as a car rolled past, its brass valves hissing, but it was otherwise quiet around the Imperial Palace. Dark domes rose against the sky while lamps were being lit under the ornate arches. Built in the Indo-Saracenic style, the palace was an imposing tribute to the wealth of those that ran the Empire. To those who lacked that wealth, it was an obvious target.
Captain Remus Lupin, along with the most trusted and – more importantly – most sneaky members of his crew, was crawling on his belly through the tall grass that bounded the palace gardens. Faint rustlings to his sides and back were the only clues that his men were still with him. A cricket chirped briefly in front of his nose before springing away. An owl floated over them; a real one, not one of the whirring clockwork ones the Royal Post used to carry letters.
Finally reaching the edge of the long grass Remus found himself behind a sweetly-scented japonica bush, only the neatly-trimmed lawn stretching between him and the palace itself. The bush suddenly shook beside him and his first mate, Sirius Black, crawled through.
‘Kingsley says there’s one guard by the western corner,’ he whispered, ‘and also that he can take him down with no problem.’
Remus nodded. ‘Have him take the guard’s position as discussed. They don’t change until midnight so he shouldn’t be noticed.’
Sirius acknowledged this and disappeared again. Moments later Remus made out the bulky silhouette of Kingsley Shacklebolt against the ornamental hedge before the man was lost again in the growing gloom. As expected, Remus heard nothing above the ensemble of crickets playing nearby but soon Sirius was back with the confirmation that it had all gone smoothly. They followed Kingsley’s route, pressing close to the privet until they were under the elaborate stone arches that formed the outside of the palace. A pillar provided a useful cover while Sirius expertly jimmied open a window and then the two men were inside the Imperial Palace.
‘How the other half lives,’ Remus murmured, eyes adjusting the darkness inside.
The room was incredibly ornate, the merest glimmer of light from outside reflecting from a myriad of mirrors and polished gilt. Everything shone, even the fabrics. Sirius whistled lowly.
‘Even my mother’s house can’t compete with this,’ he said quietly. ‘Do you think they’ll notice if we pinch anything?’
‘We don’t have the time,’ Remus warned, though he eyed the objects in the room hungrily, ‘or the carrying capacity if we’re going to make our plan work.’ He opened the door a crack, checking the corridor beyond it. ‘Come on.’
Their objective was next door to the room they had chosen to enter by. The information they had obtained indicated that it was possible to enter the room of their target by way of a concealed door between the two. The door was easily found, despite being concealed as part of the wallpaper. Remus bent to squint through the keyhole, only to be met with darkness. He was just going to have to chance it.
‘Find something to conceal him in once we’ve got him,’ he muttered to Sirius before taking a firm grasp on the doorhandle.
It opened outwards and, to his relief, behind a tapestry. He slipped through and pulled the door mostly shut behind him, hoping Sirius wouldn’t make too much noise at his task. He peered around the edge of the tapestry to find himself in a magnificent workroom. Inventions, both completed and not, filled the room, littered across polished wooden benches. The lighting was dim, emanating only from two oil lamps which both sat on the central workbench. Across the bench lay a mechanical snake, her interior workings partly exposed as nimble fingers teased a spring back into place inside her.
Remus had his first view of Professor Severus Snape, the Emperor’s favourite inventor, and was struck breathless at what he saw.
The man’s dark eyelashes were curved downwards as Snape concentrated on the task in his hands. A tiny screwdriver balanced between his slender fingers as he made minute adjustments, twisting even smaller screws into place. Brass scales, each only half the size of a man’s smallest fingernail, were expertly fixed into place until the exterior was as smooth as it ever had been. If not for the fact that he had previously seen the mechanical interior with all its pistons and valves Remus would have believed it to be a real snake lying asleep across the workbench. The silver scales were lent warmth by the oil lamp nearby; the same gleam reflected in the sharp eyes that were examining the creature for any mistake in the workmanship. Apparently satisfied, Snape stroked one finger down the back of the snake’s head. A hiss of steam escaped from the open mouth and emerald eyes – probably real emeralds, Remus decided, enthralled by the sight – were suddenly illuminated from within. The snake’s head rose to stare at Snape, who stared calmly back. His fingers made a final examination of the scales, smoothing them into place, before he lifted the creature from the bench and placed her on the floor. She shimmied her body in one long ripple before sliding off in the direction of the door. The hissing and clicking were barely audible now and she barely made a clatter as metal scales slid across marble floor.
‘Do try not to get under Crabbe’s feet again,’ Professor Snape called after her.
The snake failed to even raise her head in acknowledgement, vanishing instead down the corridor.
‘Stupid contraption,’ muttered Snape, packing his screwdrivers away into a neat case and lining them up carefully in size order. ‘Then again, machines are only as stupid as the men who program them…’
Remus was fascinated, listening to the man’s husky voice and watching him move easily around what was obviously a very familiar room. The captain could appreciate genius and capability when he saw it. The workroom itself was a madman’s design of polished wood, gleaming brass and tortured glass. What looked to be a dozen different inventions overlapped each other in the corner, one creation’s pistons spilling into the cogs of another. Wires stretched between two devices that Remus was sure couldn’t be related. He slipped out from his hiding place while the professor’s back was turned and drew closer to the man on silent feet, cat-like in his tread. He had pulled the cloth and bottle from his pockets, readying for the pounce. Snape was studying an array of levers on the wall. All of them seemed to be part of an enormous device, the purpose of which Remus could not fathom. He crept closer, only to suddenly realise that his reflection was clearly visible in front of the professor.
Their eyes met in the polished brass of the device and Remus cursed inwardly. Snape’s eyes narrowed and his hand darted towards the worktable before him but Remus was already moving. He grabbed Snape from behind, one arm curling around the thin torso and the other bringing the draught-infused cloth to the professor’s face. Snape thrashed in Remus’s grip, the chisel he had snatched from the worktable clattering to the floor as his fingers lost control. The sleeping draught worked quickly, reducing the professor to violent twitching before he finally slumped unconscious in Remus’s hold. Remus kept the cloth in place a little longer to make sure, holding the limp body against his chest. Finally convinced that Snape could not possibly be shamming Remus manoeuvred him easily over one shoulder and crept out with him to where he had left Sirius.
‘What on earth is that?’ he asked, seeing the length of fabric in Sirius’s hands.
‘A carpet.’ Sirius shrugged. ‘Only thing I could find to wrap him up in.’
Remus rolled his eyes and began laying the insensible body out on the provided drapery, wrapping him like a sausage. Soon he and Sirius had Snape slung between them, looking for all the world like a piece of the furnishings. That part of the mission accomplished they hurried out, hauling the professor none too gently through the tight fit of the window frame. Kingsley was still in his position, his hat tilted low over his eyes. He grinned when he saw them, teeth flashing as he lent a hand to their burden. Soon they were creeping back through the garden, near invisible among the shadows.
Once they were back on ship and some way from the palace Remus assigned Sirius the task of awakening their ‘guest,’ which inevitably meant a call of ‘wake up, sleeping beauty’ and the dumping of half a pail of water over the unconscious man. The professor responded as could be expected: spluttering into reluctant wakefulness which quickly morphed into alarmed fury on seeing unfamiliar surroundings and finding manacles on his wrists. In fact he let loose with quite the torrent of invectives that should never have passed the lips of a gentleman, finishing with: ‘where in the Devil’s own hell am I and what manner of blackguards are you?’
Remus, despite his piratical profession, considered himself a polite sort of fellow and found himself quite taken aback by the vehemence of the man’s tirade.
‘If you asked with a more civil tongue you might find yourself furnished with an answer,’ he said calmly.
There was a snicker from one of the crew; probably Seamus, who had too much of a sense of humour at times. The captive’s eyes narrowed, focusing his fury on Remus.
‘If I had a more civil awakening,’ he spat, ‘I would be more inclined to think I was in the company of decent people. As it is, I can only assume you were all born in barns and brought up in muck.’
Sirius made a scoffing noise. ‘Like the factory slums you’re from?’ They had looked into Snape’s background as preparation for the mission and had been surprised to find him none too different from some of themselves. As a boy Snape had worked in the carpet mill in his home town, one of the boys who ran under the huge presses to remove any stray fluff and dirt before the heavy weights came crashing down. There were only two types of fluff-picker: the quick and the flat.
Snape’s black eyes turned their intense glare onto Sirius, studying him like some particularly distasteful sample under a microscope. A smirk slowly twisted the side of his mouth.
‘At least,’ he said in a silky voice quite different to his earlier enraged shouting, ‘I wasn’t so afraid of my own mother that I had to run away from home, Black. What’s there to be so scared of in an old woman?’
Seeing the almost apoplectic look on Sirius’s face, and knowing the man’s feelings about his family, Remus decided to intervene before the situation got nastier. Perhaps Snape would be easier to deal with alone, and after he’d had some time to calm down.
‘Take him to the brig,’ Remus ordered. ‘Maybe he’ll find his good manners in there.’
The professor let loose with more cursing as Neville, probably the most well-meaning of the crew if unfortunately the clumsiest, and Kingsley hauled him to his feet and manhandled him below decks. Looking over to his first mate, Remus wasn’t sure he liked the triumphant grin on Sirius’s face.
‘Do try not to let him goad you into murder, will you?’ he said casually. ‘It’d be an awful shame to have gone to all this trouble for nothing.’
‘If he watches his tongue,’ Sirius returned, ‘then I’ll watch my fists.’
There was something in the professor’s hands when Remus went down to see him some time later, and his dark brows were furrowed in concentration as he examined the object. As he heard Remus’s approach there was a quiet snap and the item was tucked back inside the man’s shirt. His head came up as Remus unlocked the door, eyes unreadable holes in that pale face.
‘Good afternoon,’ said Remus cordially.
‘Is it?’ Professor Snape’s tone was acerbic and Remus inwardly sighed. ‘I’m afraid I haven’t been granted much of a chance to appreciate it.’
‘I see your mood is no better,’ Remus commented.
That got him as sour a look as he had ever received, and that included those of his schoolmasters when Sirius had dragged him into the commission of some questionably ‘brilliant’ prank.
‘Forgive me, but when one is snatched from one’s workroom in the middle of the night by what I can only describe as despicable ruffians using an utterly substandard sleeping draught one is not generally disposed to good humour on waking. Particularly when that waking finds one in the most uncomfortable chains and undesirable company.’
Remus raised an eyebrow. ‘Substandard sleeping draught?’
‘Quite. Far too heavy on the wormwood. My mouth feels like a desert.’
‘Allow me to get you something to aid that.’ Remus went over to the door. ‘Ron, be so kind as to fetch some water.’ There was a muttered assent from the young man guarding the other side, though it sounded reluctant. Remus did hope that the boy wouldn’t do anything as uncouth as spitting in it (or worse).
‘I hope you aren’t expecting me to be overcome with gratitude,’ sniped the man behind him.
Remus worked hard to keep a pleasant smile on his face before turning back around. ‘Well,’ he said airily, ‘it wouldn’t do to have you die on us just yet, would it?’ He was disappointed when Snape failed to look suitably fearful.
‘If you are endeavouring to threaten me,’ said Snape smugly, ‘then you’re doing a piss-poor job of it. You wouldn’t have taken so much care in abducting me just to let me die once you got me onboard.’
‘There’s nothing to say we have to keep you comfortable though,’ Remus said harshly. The man was really grating on his nerves.
‘Goodness, I am terrified.’ Snape’s tone was flat and bored. ‘How long will it be before you ask them for the ransom and take me back?’
‘Ransom? Who said anything about a ransom? We aren’t doing this for the money, believe it or not. We prefer to … pull a cog from the Empire’s machine to see it falter, I suppose.’
Remus leaned back against the door as he spoke; watching curiously as Snape suddenly lost his composure and yanked on his chains.
‘What? You fool; you have to get me back there! I don’t have time for this!’ Tendons stood out against Snape’s neck as he tried futilely to tug the heavy chains from where they were attached to the bulkhead.
Remus was taken aback by the unexpected fury. He forced himself not to show it, however, and maintained a steady gaze. Snape was fortunately exhausted before he could cause any serious injury to himself, slumping back against the planks with anger still boiling his eyes. Ron chose this moment to return with a mug of water, which he set just out of Snape’s reach and scurried off. Remus rolled his eyes and nudged the tin mug closer with his foot.
‘Don’t bother wasting it with any futile gestures of defiance,’ he warned, ‘you won’t be getting any more today. I might be inclined to bring you more when you are inclined to be civil.’
He was sure he could feel Snape’s gaze burning into his back as he left but had given up on minding at that point. The man was just too much hard work after a night spent evading the Imperial guards. Remus could understand some of it, he supposed, but did the man have to be quite so stubborn?
Well, he thought grimly, it’s a long flight back to Hogwarts. Two can play at that game.
‘Why are you such a miserable git, Snape?’
Remus stopped at the door on hearing Sirius’s voice, deciding to lurk outside the hold to see how the situation played out before interfering. It had been some hours since they had left the palace and Snape had been vehemently insisting he be returned home as soon as possible while remaining frustratingly close-mouthed about his reasons why, though he emphasised repeatedly that it was of utmost importance every time Remus tried to talk to him. While it was not strictly necessary for their plan to know his, Remus was becoming vexed as his own friendly overtures were rebuffed so abruptly. Let Snape get the interrogation from someone else – Sirius was certainly notable for being able to irritate people until they gave in.
‘Forgive me for being a tad tetchy,’ Snape said, his voice awash with sarcasm, ‘but I tend to take exception at being kidnapped.’
Sirius snorted. ‘A grown man like yourself,’ he mimicked Snape’s tone mockingly, ‘should realise that he will just have to accept that fact rather than throwing a temper tantrum like a petulant child.’
Remus peered through the small window set in the door. Sirius was crouched in front of the seated professor. Even in the dim light Remus could see Snape was glaring.
‘As a grown man,’ he shot back, ‘I have more important things to do than sit around in chains at the whim of a rabble of pirates.’
‘Important work for your Imperial masters?’
‘Perhaps I’m just eager to inform your dear mother where she can find her sadly wayward son.’
‘You -!’ Sirius leapt to his feet, towering over the other man.
Snape smirked. ‘And you say I’m irascible. You may wish to learn control of yourself, Black.’
Sirius, his fists clenched and breathing heavily through his nose, held himself back with a very visible effort. ‘What are you so anxious to get back for, Snape?’ he growled, looming over the chained man.
‘I don’t see how that is any of your business,’ said Snape softly.
‘I’m making it my business.’ Sirius’s hand smacked against the bulkhead at Snape’s back as he bent over the professor. ‘For starters, what’s that thing Remus says you keep fiddling with?’ His other hand darted to Snape’s shirtfront and was pulling at the object he found there before the professor could raise his own manacle-encumbered hands to stop him.
‘A watch?’ Sirius tugged at it, stretching the chain taut around Snape’s neck where it had been hanging. ‘Tick tock, tick tock, time’s a-passing, is that what you’re getting twitchy about?’
There was a sudden sound: flesh hitting flesh. Remus looked up in alarm to see Sirius standing bolt upright with one hand holding onto the other, having presumably just been slapped. Snape was still seated on the floor, arms curled in on himself as he tucked the watch back against the safety of his chest. His eyes were burning as he glared up at Sirius.
‘Get your filthy hands off what isn’t yours,’ he growled in a low, furious tone.
Remus managed to fumble the door open as Sirius took a menacing step forward with his hand raised.
‘Sirius!’ he barked. ‘Back on deck!’
Sirius stayed where he was for a moment, eyes fixed angrily on Snape, but he obeyed his captain’s orders and stormed out of the hold, brushing past Remus as he did so. Remus gave Snape one last look, catching the gleaming stare and returning it with one that was vaguely apologetic, before shutting the door and letting Sirius lock it.
‘I could have got it out of him,’ Sirius insisted as they headed up the corridor. He was fidgeting restless as he walked, tapping one hand along the wall.
‘Not by cruelty,’ Remus responded calmly, ‘and besides, I don’t think you would have. Not with him.’
Sirius gave him an odd, sideways look. He had known Remus since school, knew him probably too well in Remus’s opinion. The captain found himself almost squirming under the inspection.
Sirius half-sneered, somehow combining it with something to look horrified. ‘You don’t, you know, like him or something, do you?’
Remus stopped abruptly, gaping at Sirius’s back. ‘What? Where on God’s green earth did you get that impression from?’
‘Oh, “not with him,”’ Sirius turned, doing an exaggerated, hand-flapping repetition of Remus’s earlier utterance. ‘Do you think he’s that special?’
‘He’s … interesting. Different. Not like any of you lot, that’s for certain.’
Sirius scowled. ‘Don’t forget he’s one of them,’ he warned. ‘He’s not our guest, he’s our prisoner. And if I want to know his little secret, I will.’
He stalked off up the corridor, swinging himself back up on deck before Remus moved again. The captain eventually sighed and followed, knowing how hot and cold his first mate went at times. He joined Sirius at the rail, where they both stared at the fields passing below. A crazy quilt of jagged hedgerows divided the countryside they soared over. Remus followed the pattern with a lazy gaze and occasionally flicked his eyes up to glance at Sirius, who glowered at the transitory clouds that drifted past.
‘It doesn’t really matter what he’s worried about,’ Remus said. ‘We’ll just hand him over to Lord Albus as we planned and carry on like usual.’
‘Give him a nice surprise,’ Sirius agreed grudgingly. ‘It’s not everyday that you get one of the Emperor’s top men dropped on your doorstep with a ribbon wrapped round him, even if you are the rightful leader of Great Britain.’
‘Exactly.’ Remus smiled. ‘It might not bring down the Empire but it might put a smile on the old man’s face.’
‘A calculating smile as he figures out exactly how to put it to his best advantage, you mean.’
They looked at each other and chuckled, Remus nodding his agreement. Regrettably, their happiness wasn’t to last.
‘Captain!’ Ron yelled down from his position in the rigging. ‘We’ve got incoming Empire ships, two of ‘em!’
‘Damn! How soon will they be on us?’
‘Um …’ Ron muttered to himself for a moment. ‘Allowing for airspeed velocity and probable load-bearing capacity … that makes it a question of weight ratios…’
‘That new lady friend of his,’ Sirius muttered to Remus while Ron considered the question, ‘has really set him to improving himself intellectually.’
‘I reckon,’ said Ron, a look of panic suddenly striking him, ‘that they should be within range right about … now.’
A cannonball whistled through the air, narrowly missing Remus and Sirius as they ducked, and arced over the side of the Gay Wolf. The next one had better aim, clipping the ship’s rail and carrying a chunk of it away. The two Imperial ships came up fast, their artillery already firing a barrage. The Gay Wolf was soon battered back and forth by the concussive forces being hurled at her.
Remus could hear planks splintering in the side of his ship and cursed. If they’d gone through the sides – his heart thumped as he remembered what was in the hold.
‘Get those cannons going!’ he ordered. ‘See them off! Sirius, get this rabble organised!’
He dived for the hatchway, leaving the crew in the first mate’s hands. The boat lurched as another impact swung it on its ropes. Remus stumbled down the gangway, bouncing against the walls and only just managing to stay on his feet. The door to the hold was still in one piece and, as Remus reached it and tugged desperately, still locked.
‘Hell’s damnation,’ he spat, fumbling in his pocket and remembering he’d given the key to Sirius earlier.
Too much light was visible through the small barred window in the door. He pressed close even as the swaying ship nearly threw him from his feet, seeing a large hole in the planks though which the sky was a bright glow. Frantically peering around the hold he made out Snape beside a still-whole section of the hull, tugging wildly at the chains that held him fast to it. The ship yawed sharply, knocking Snape from his feet and sending him skidding towards the hole. Only the chains on his wrists prevented him from tumbling out of the yawning gap. He scrambled to his feet, but the ship was shuddering violently and pitched him to the floor again.
‘Hang on!’ Remus yelled.
He drew his pistol awkwardly, one hand anchoring him against the ship’s tremors, and shot the lock off the door. It swung open instantly, almost sending him plunging into oblivion. He hung on until the ship righted herself again then hurried over to where Snape was. He wedged himself against the bulkhead, pulling the key out from under his shirt where it dangled on its chain. Snape eyed it hungrily as Remus grabbed his wrist to unlock the manacle.
‘You’d better behave,’ Remus threatened, ‘I’m only doing this to save your life.’
‘Such noble intentions from a pirate,’ Snape drawled, ‘I may swoon.’
Another impact hit the ship, tipping Snape from his recently-regained poise and landing him against Remus. Remus could only grab the man closer as the ship rolled. At Snape’s sudden smirk Remus realised that the part of the man he had blindly gripped was perhaps not the most socially acceptable place to hold.
‘Or maybe not such noble intentions,’ Snape muttered, his own hand batting at Remus’s where it held onto his buttocks.
Remus flushed, yanking his hand away and hurriedly working at the locks again. The first one clicked open and he yanked it from the thin wrist. The ship rolled again but Snape gripped the bulkhead with his now-free hand to hold them in place. A few moments later and the other manacle was off and clattering to the heaving deck.
‘Come on.’ Remus pulled them both to their feet. ‘Let’s see what these idiots are doing to my ship.’ Stumbling, he hurried across to the wildly-swinging door.
‘Blowing holes in it, it would seem,’ Snape drawled, following.
They staggered up on deck together, gripping rails and rigging as the boat continued to pitch and toss. Thankfully the great steel lines that held the ship to its gasbag remained firm but wreckage was strewn across the deck.
‘What the dickens is going on?’ demanded Remus.
‘We’re getting creamed, cap’n!’ yelped a white-faced Ron Weasley.
‘It’s not good, captain,’ agreed Kingsley solemnly. ‘There’s two of their ships and they’ve got better firepower.’
A series of booms signified another round of cannonfire. The Gay Wolf shuddered horribly, jerking back and forth on her hawsers. Remus was almost thrown from his feet clear down the deck but found himself suddenly brought up short. He looked back to see an impassive Snape gripping the ship’s rail with one hand and the back of Remus’s shirt with the other. Sirius skidded across the deck as the ship righted herself again and dropped down beside the others.
‘This is ridiculous!’ he yelled. ‘I don’t know how but they’re reloading at least twice as fast as we can!’
‘How many men can they have working their cannons? Surely that would be too heavy for their ships to stay airborne…’
‘We’re going to get creamed!’
A quiet voice cut across their shouting. ‘They’re using Gambol’s clockwork cannons. Quite revolutionary – an almost entirely automated system. Loading, cleaning, firing; all more or less taken of.’ Snape smirked at them. ‘Of course, they still require a man to operate them by lever – one man for the entire row. He’s probably located,’ he raised his head briefly, examined the Imperial ship closest to them and ducked back down again, ‘there towards the stern on the port side. There’s a spyhole there. You could probably take him out with one good shot, and the mechanism too if you hit it hard enough.’
They all stared at him with various expressions of disbelief. Remus stroked his chin thoughtfully.
‘Oh no,’ Sirius cut in, ‘we can’t trust him. He’s one of them!’
‘Noted,’ said Remus slowly. ‘Professor, why would you be helping us?’
‘I’d rather not die, just yet.’
Remus shrugged. ‘A fair point. I suppose we aren’t doing any better by ourselves. Sirius, get down and get a cannon aimed at each ship at exactly the spot the professor pointed out. Kingsley, get the others primed to take out their rudders as soon as their defences are disabled. Mundungus!’ he barked at the man at the wheel. ‘Get her right in between those two and hold her steady!’
‘And me, captain?’
Remus blinked, apparently having forgotten Ron was still there. ‘You keep an eye on Professor Snape. I’m going below to co-ordinate the cannons.’
Ron immediately fixed Snape with a nauseating squint, which was presumably intended to be threatening. Snape returned it with a far more intimidating scowl of his own, to which Ron tried not to look like he was quaking in his boots. Remus hurried below decks. Sirius and Kingsley were already busying themselves with the arrangements. Remus stationed himself beside a cannon port, peering out at the Imperial ship there through a brass telescope. It was swinging closer and he was sure he could see the cannons loading up. He could make out the spyhole Snape had referred to: a small dark dot among smooth planks.
‘Three feet to the left of the first cannon port,’ he advised, ‘a foot or so higher.’
Sirius had seen it too, scowling even as he pointed it out on each ship to Seamus and Bill, who were manning the furthest-back cannons on each side.
‘Ready, captain!’ Sirius called.
‘Ready here too, captain,’ Kingsley boomed from further forward.
Remus peered out again. The cannonballs were going in…
‘Seamus, Bill,’ he commanded, ‘fire when ready. The rest of you, await my signal.’
Two booms sounded in quick succession, deafening in the compact space below decks. The cannons jerked backwards against their ropes while smoke and shouting filled the lower deck. Seamus, never the quickest at getting out of the way, had been knocked to the floor with the recoil but Remus ignored him in favour of keeping his eyes on the Imperial ship that flew alongside. She had mostly evaded their shots so far but with careful targeting and Remus’s strict command she stood no chance.
The Wolf’s cannonball ripped through the wooden planks, filling the air with splinters as it carved a hole in the other’s side. Remus, watching through his telescope, saw the tangles of metal as the other ship’s guts were exposed. A quick look across to Sirius indicated that the other side had been equally efficacious.
‘Open fire!’ yelled Remus, eager to capitalise on the success. ‘All weapons!’
Thunderous booms reverberated through the entire ship and all possible thoughts were lost to noise.
The Gay Wolf made her escape easily after that, leaving the two Imperial ships crippled and weaponless. Remus watched from the stern as the airships dwindled into dots quite incapable of pursuit. He looked up as Snape came to lean against the rail next to him.
‘Not going to thank me?’ the professor asked.
‘I haven’t quite figured your motives yet,’ said Remus. ‘But as far as I can tell you did do us a favour, so thank you for that.’
There was a snort as Sirius joined them, hopping up to sit on the rail.
‘Well, I have no questions about his motives,’ he announced, ‘I don’t trust him. Isn’t it time we locked him back up in the hold like you’re meant to do with scum like him?’
‘The hold has a rather large hole in it currently,’ Remus informed him, ‘which makes it a bit too draughty to keep somebody in.’
‘He’ll have to hang on tight to something and hope he doesn’t fall out.’
‘Do try to remember that you are a gentleman, Sirius, and to treat people accordingly.’
‘You’ve not met what passes for a gentleman these days, captain,’ commented Snape, ‘especially the circles he springs from.’
Sirius jumped down off the rail, only for Remus to clamp a hand on his shoulder in restraint.
‘I warned you -!’
‘Tsk, Black, you really do make it too easy.’
Remus sighed. ‘I should hang you both over the sides by your ankles for the rest of the journey. Sirius, go and help shore up the damage. We’ll have to make for the nearest port. Professor, if you’ll come with me.’
Snape followed without a murmur, though his glance back at Black promised horrible things. Remus led him below decks again. They didn’t go as far as the hold, stopping instead at Remus’s own door. He opened it, gesturing for the professor to precede him in.
Snape regarded Remus’s homely cabin with a sneer. ‘What are you going to do: manacle me to your bed?’
‘I was hoping we could dispense with the manacles actually, if you’re inclined to be a little more co-operative.’ Remus regarded Snape quizzically. ‘Unless you’re trying to intimate that you actually want…’
‘Heavens above, no!’ snapped Snape, his head swinging round to glare at Remus. ‘I … that is … well, you’re a bunch of pirates and one hears things … and you’ve just moved me into your cabin…’
Remus almost laughed at the flustered expression. ‘This is the only cabin aboard the ship with a lock. I only hope that you will be enough of a gentleman not to vandalise it.’
Snape regained some of his composure, lifting his chin haughtily. ‘I believe you have investigated my background, captain. I am decidedly not a gentleman.’
‘I believe the measure of a gentleman does not lie in his inheritance.’
‘Spoken with the confidence of a man who has never had to negotiate the Emperor’s court.’
Remus couldn’t help but chuckle, and even Snape’s lips twitched.
‘Oh dear, are they that bad?’
‘His court is composed mainly of the most inbred aristocrats Britain can offer. You’ve never seen so many teeth and so few chins.’
Unable to help himself, Remus laughed out loud. Snape smirked and crossed the cabin to settle on the edge of the bunk.
‘I don’t know,’ Remus said eventually, ‘I have met members of Sirius’s family.’
‘Same people.’ Snape sighed, pushing long strands of hair out of his face. His sleeve fell back, revealing a ring of red and irritated skin around his wrist.
Remus let out a sound and caught Snape’s wrist, bringing it close to examine it. ‘From the manacles?’ He brushed a gentle finger over the abraded skin, tightening his grip and Snape tried to pull away. ‘I’m sorry. Here, let me – I’ve got something for that.’
He let go, going over to a drawer to take out some cream before dragging an old three-legged stool over to where Snape sat. This time Snape gave his hand willingly, letting Remus have first one then the other to carefully rub the cream in. Eventually the ministrations were done and Remus was left holding the long fingers within his own.
‘Are you finished?’ Snape said abruptly, yanking his hand back. ‘I have no wish for some romantic moment in which we sit hands entangled and gazing into each other’s eyes like … no, I won’t have it! Keep your filthy piratical intentions far away from me!’
Remus snorted, standing from his stool. ‘I think you spend a lot of time thinking about the company of men for someone protesting so vehemently about it.’
Snape glared at him. ‘Don’t you have a crew to shout at, captain?’
The damage was worse than Remus had thought. They would have to make for port immediately and hope that they got there before the poor Wolf gave up completely. And they weren’t even half-way to Hogwarts yet! Leaving the crew to do what they could for now, Remus called an emergency confabulation with Sirius and Kingsley in his cabin. Snape lurked in a corner, watching the discussion with shadowed eyes.
‘She’s not going to hold out to get us to Hogwarts, captain,’ said Kingsley, looking apologetic, ‘not without some serious repairs.’
Remus nodded. ‘How far do you think she can get us?’
Kingsley gave a shrug. ‘Maybe Birmingham, if we turn back now.’
‘Can’t we continue on?’
‘Only small ports between here and as far as we can get, captain. Too much chance of being noticed in a small port.’
‘Damn it!’ Remus slammed his fist down on the rickety table. ‘We can’t take the chance that more of them might be following us. We can’t lead them back to Hogwarts!’
Sirius and Kingsley exchanged glances, the latter smoothing a hand over his shaven scalp.
‘We’re going to have to leave the Wolf somewhere for repairs anyway, captain,’ he rumbled. ‘They won’t have the same ship to follow, at any rate.’
‘It’s more than likely they’ve got spies in the ports watching anything travelling North,’ said Remus gloomily.
‘Then don’t go North. Go straight back to the Palace.’
All three turned to stare at the previously-silent figure in the corner. Snape was perched on a barrel in lieu of any free chairs, crossing his legs and appearing quite unconcerned by the astonished looks he had just garnered.
‘Of course, you’d want that,’ Sirius sneered. ‘You want to go back to your friends and despicable Imperialist lifestyle.’
Snape favoured him with a withering glare before pushing to his feet and strolling to join them at the table. ‘It would certainly be the last thing they’d expect.’
‘Mice don’t usually march voluntarily into the serpent’s jaws,’ said Kingsley, though it was unclear who he was agreeing with.
‘But it doesn’t seem to benefit anybody but you,’ Remus pointed out.
Snape drew out the pocket watch that hung around his neck, flicking it open. Several silver hands gleamed against the face, the smallest of which moved at a speed one would have thought too fast for clockwork. Another hand moved erratically backwards and forwards, at times even appearing to pass through other hands in its progress. All in all, thought Remus, a most peculiar and eccentric timepiece. Snape studied it for a moment, making minute adjustments with one of the knobs.
‘You want to make a strike against the Empire,’ he said softly, ‘and if we get back there within the next … hmm … five hours we can do just that. There is … something that I have been preparing for quite some time.’
Sirius scoffed. ‘You expect us to believe you’ve been working against Riddle and his cronies this whole time?’
Snape shrugged. ‘Believe what you like,’ he said, turning the pocket watch towards them and displaying the inscription inside the case.
APWBD, from GG.
‘Lord Albus?’ Remus said eventually.
Snape nodded. ‘I realised you couldn’t be working under his direct orders – he wouldn’t have pulled me out this close, not now. If you don’t get me back there, you’ve royally stuffed up a lot of careful work and he really won’t be happy.’
‘How long have you been working for Lord Albus?’
‘…’ Snape stared at the watch pensively. ‘Years.’
‘Balderdash!’ Sirius snapped. ‘You’re one of the Emperor’s closest men.’
‘And it has taken me years to achieve that.’
‘You’re responsible for creating some of his worst tools. The mechanical policemen – those awful clockwork coppers who just won’t give up the hunt!’
‘Yes,’ Snape smirked. ‘Scores of men who can’t be killed, don’t need to stop to sleep or eat, and who can all quite easily be under my complete control.’
A chuckle came from Kingsley. ‘I think, professor, I am getting a glimmer of what might happen here,’ he said.
Remus sighed. ‘So we head for Birmingham,’ he declared, ‘and we see what assistance we can find there.’