This is the story of how Sean Finian O’Brudhear – magician, card sharp, 3-Card Finian dealer extraordinaire, cutpurse, purloiner, obtainer, and lover of pickles – came to the city of Gearford in Antiford.
But first, lets us harken back a few years to a time not too very long before Sean Finian’s birth, when his father, Dougal O’Brudhear, sailed off from Nyxiana to Manenlande and had his heart stolen away by the lovely Miss Maggie Mickle.
Dougal O’Brudhear was a merchant from Nyxiana, as were his parents before him and their parents before them, and so on until you run out of O’Brudhears. The O’Brudhear clan were well established and respected in the merchant community of Nyxiana, and it was simply assumed that Dougal would follow in the family business.
And follow he did, albeit much sooner than anyone had expected. When Dougal was a young man, his father set out from Nyxiana in the transport airship Wailing Banshee carrying a load of fine Nyxianan craft goods, bound for Manenlande. His wife, Dougal’s mother, went along to keep her husband company through the cold nights en route, as had been her occasional practice ever since Dougal attained his majority and no longer had a need for full-time mothering.
Bound for Manenlande they were, but for all intents and purposes, they might just as well have sailed right off the edge of the planet Orr, for neither they nor their crew nor the Banshee were ever seen or heard from again.
Fortunately, young Dougal, an industrious but occasionally improvident lad, had forgone the last voyage of the Wailing Banshee, opting instead to stay behind in Nyxiana to raise hell with the lads and go through the motions of holding down the business end of O’Brudhear Imports and Exports. Also fortunately, O’Brudhear Imports and Exports was in the finest of fiscal fettle and Wailing Banshee was nicely insured by the underwriting firm of Makem, Takem, Chatham & Cheatem, LLC. With the underwriting settlement, there was enough in the company coffers to enable the purchase of a new airship. Not the best ship, mind you, nor the shiniest or newest or biggest, but a serviceable military surplus vessel, which Dougal named the Wailing Banshee II and converted to commercial use by removing most of the armaments, expanding the below-deck cargo compartments (at the expense of the crew quarters, but Dougal didn’t plan on having much crew), lowering the hull superstructure, and generally tidying up its aspect to reduce drag. Although not the prettiest vessel at the docks, Wailing Banshee II was capable of respectable if not dazzling speed and carried a reasonably profitable amount of cargo.
The Banshee II was, in short, a decent enough ship, capable of getting to and from Manenlande before the cargo rotted. On a good day, that is. If the ice didn’t run out.
Dougal hired a skeleton crew, the bare minimum required to sail the airship, then he filled the holds with fine Nyxianan craft goods and set course for Manenlande, where he was destined to meet Miss Maggie and be smitten.
O’Brudhear Imports and Exports owned, de facto if not de jure, the Nxyiana/Manenlande trade route. Dougal’s father had made a good living selling Nyxianan craft goods in Lilithia, then importing Manenlande cod and giant royal crabs into Nyxiana on the return trip. His services benefited both countries. The Lilithians loved high-quality Nyxianan crafts, and the hotels and upscale bistros serving the tourists in Earraigh Corcra provided a ready market for the quality Manenlande seafood. But on his maiden passage to Manenlande in his new ship, this fine plan hit a snag.
The four-day trip from Nyxiana to Lilithia went off without a hitch, despite headwinds slowing the Banshee much of the route. As usual, due to the ship’s lack of a condenser, Dougal was forced drop down to sea level to stop, take on sea water, and de-calc the boilers while enroute.
(Dougal vowed to someday get the Banshee a condenser so he could recover boiler steam and run fresh water in the boilers the entire trip, which would eliminate the need for costly and time-consuming de-calcing, important when hauling fresh iced seafood back to Nyxiana.)
On arrival in Valon, Dougal off-loaded the goods from Nyxiana at a tidy profit to wholesalers, but when he tried to purchase seafood for the return trip, he was told there was none available. Recent storms around Manenlande had severely curtailed fishing and crabbing in recent weeks, resulting in a smaller harvest and higher prices than Dougal thought the Nyxianan market would bear. And this was the story from every fishmonger he visited. Not wanting to return to Nyxiana with an empty hold, he needed an alternate plan.
“Drat, drat, drat and double drat,” he said, when yet another fishmonger informed him about the dearth of available fish and crabs.
“Do you like pickles, sir?” asked the fishmonger.
“Of course, I like pickles,” replied Dougal. “Everybody likes pickles, but what does that have to do with fish, other than the fact that the lack of seafood in this charming port has put me in one.”
“Well I was just asking, sir, seeing as how you need something to fill your ship so you’re not deadheading it back home with no cargo. How about pickles?”
“Pickles? And where might I find an adequate quantity of quality pickles?”
“Other side of the island,” the fishmonger told him. “The best pickles in all of Orr are to be had in Adelon on the other side of Manenlande. Pickle-making is an art in Adelon, and there is no shortage of product available. The best is Mickle’s Pickles. Their Gosh-a-Mickle Dickle Pickle is about the best pickle anyone, man or Yeti, ever sank teeth into, and they make a pickled fish that will, if you will pardon the expression, knock you out of your knickers. Just ask for them anywhere in Vaurus, but grease your request with a nice gratuity because folks won’t be wanting to tell you anything on account of how telling you might leave less pickles for them.”
And so, after slipping a fiver of gratitude to the fishmonger for his advice, Dougal found himself en route Adelon, sailing in search of that perfect pickle – the Gosh-a-Mickle Dickle Pickle.
A day after leaving Valon, Dougal brought the Wailing Banshee II into the airship dock in Vauraus and left the crew to tie her off while he jumped off the ship and headed out in his quest for pickles.
When he reached the landside end of the dock, he looked up and saw a large sign on the side of a building across the road –
Puckering Good and Crisp to the Last Pickle
Home of the Gosh-a-Mickle Dickle Pickle.
(Ask about our pickled fish)
The possibility of pickled fish intrigued Dougal. Fish that did not require anything more than a top coat of ice for the return trip to Nyxiana might be a real enhancement to the bottom line.
“Excuse me,” he asked a passing dock navvy. “Would you know how I could get to that company?” he said, pointing at the sign.
“Nah, I don’t recollect exactly,” the navvy replied. “I’m not really a pickle person.”
“Would this help you ‘recollect’? Dougal said, and he flashed a fiver in his palm.
The navvy took the fiver from Dougal’s outstretched hand and pocketed it. “Why yes, it does seem to help knock loose the old cobwebs. It’s starting to come back to me now. I have a recollection, but it is a dim one . . . not at all clear . . . . I’m not from around here, you know . . . . “ and his voice trailed off as he extended his hand to Dougal again.
Dougal frowned, but he put another five in the man’s hand.
“Now I remember,” the navvy said, gesturing toward the very same building on which was painted the Mickle’s Pickles sign. “That building right there is both the factory and the office for that there pickle company.”
“Are you quite sure?” Dougal asked.
“As certain as I can ever be about anything other than my name. Thank you, governor. Enjoy your pickles, but leave some for the rest of us.”
And away he sauntered, pleased with himself for having taken an airship captain for not one, but two fivers.
Dougal surveyed the building in question. Located across the road from the airship docks in the midst of an area dedicated to light industry, it was an unremarkable, single story, brick building The two sides he could see – the front and the left side -- were windowless. There was a single door in the front, and the brickwork on the left side was painted with the aforementioned advertisement. But the painting was weathered, and the previous signage advertising MacAdams’ Airship Grease (“Once you have tried MacAdams, no other airship grease will do”) was showing through. There were numerous air vents on the roof to vent the fumes generated by pickle preparation. The air, Dougal now noticed, was redolent of the jaw-tightening aroma of pickles, pickles and more pickles.
Dougal strode purposefully across the road and entered the front door, which he now saw had a sign stating “Mickle’s Pickles – Trade deliveries in the rear”.
He entered into a small reception and office area. To the left was a door with a sign that said “Kitchen – Tie Your Hair and Wash Your Hands,” more as a reminder than as an order. A display table laden with jars of pickles was adjacent to the kitchen door, and there was an unoccupied receptionist’s desk opposite the front door, with an office immediately behind the desk area.
Dougal looked over the display table. There were jars of just about every pickle Mickle’s Pickles made – pickled green tomatoes, pints of pickled peppers, pickled fish (“Hmmm,” thought Dougal, “I must try that one”), and of course the famous Gosh-A-Mickle Dickle Pickle, a colorful admixture of snow yams, blood-red winter beets and hot ice peppers.
Dougal was wondering whether he could get samples of these, when the door to the kitchen opened and in stepped the most breath-takingly beautiful woman Dougal had even seen in his life. She was as tall as Dougal, and her out-of-control, curly red hair said she was Yeti.
Tall and curvy, she had a figure that could stop an airship in its tracks.
Dougal was at once gobsmacked and smitten. He felt his heartbeat quicken.
“Hello,” she said. “My name is Maggie Mickle.” Her dulcet voice was as warm as a fresh blanket on a cold Manenlande winter night.
Dougal could tell his breathing had gone shallow, but he couldn’t do anything about it.
“Welcome to Mickle’s Pickles,” she said.
Now Dougal felt the perspiration popping out all over his face. Although he had been to Manenlande many a time sailing with his father, he had never experienced anything like the way he was feeling in the presence of this woman.
The woman extended her hand in greeting.
“How may I help you?”
It was too much for poor Dougal. He took her extended hand and fainted dead away.
Dougal came to, he did not know how much later. He was laying on a couch in the office, covered with a blanket with a moist washcloth on his forehead. It felt cool and rejuvenating, but not as rejuvenating as the presence of the woman who was holding his hand and fanning his face with a file folder.
“What did she say her name was?’ he thought. “Think, Dougal, think, damn it!”
The vision spoke – “Are you OK, Mr. . .. . Mr. . . . .” Dougal took that as his cue to speak. He hoped that he could.
“O . . . O’Brudhear, ma’am. Dougal O’Brudhear.”
He liked the way she smelled.
“Well, Mr. Dougal O’Brudhear, I am Margaret Elizabeth Mickle, but you can call me Maggie.”
“Maggie,” Dougal thought, sighing as he tried to recall how he ended up on the couch being cared for by such an angel.
“Where am I and what happened?”
“You are in Mickle’s Pickles, an enterprise of which I am the owner and proprietor,” she said. “And for some reason, you appear to have checked out and gone to ground when I came in from the kitchen and started to introduce myself.”
“Is this a common occurrence with you?” she asked. “Do I need to send for a doctor?”
“No. No doctor. I need pickles. Lots of pickles.”
“Lots of pickles?” she asked. “How many is ‘lots’?”
“Enough to fill the hold of that airship at the dock across the road.” Dougal had finally regained his voice and his confidence.
“I see,” Maggie said. “Let’s talk.”
And talk they did, talking of pickles, pickles and more pickles. Dougal sampled all of Miss Maggie’s pickles – the green tomato pickles, the pints of pickled peppers, the pickled fish, and the Dickle Pickles.
“I will take an assortment of each,” he said, amazed that he could even think what with the room filled with the soft scent of Maggie’s long, red hair. “Have them delivered to my airship tomorrow morning.”
“Will do, captain,” said Maggie, with mock obeisance as she shot him a faux salute..
“And my apologies for that little incident,” Dougal said. “I do not know what came over me.”
He turned to leave, but then he paused with his hand on the door. He knew full well what had come over him, and he decided he was going to do something about it.
“And one more thing,” he said. “If you are not in some way romantically entangled or otherwise engaged, would you like to have dinner with me?”
“If I say I would like to have dinner with you, will you then ask me to dinner?” she replied.
And so Dougal did, and Maggie accepted. And their fate together was sealed that very day, although neither knew it yet.
They dined together that evening, and they dined together on Dougal’s next trip to Adelon when he came to procure more pickles. And the next, and the next, and the next until Dougal O’Brudhear and Margaret Elizabeth Mickle became what was known in Adelonian society as “an item.”
This young couple, despite their cultural difference (He, after all, was an airship captain and trader, and she a maker and purveyor of pickles), were destined for matrimony, and matrimony they did. But we shall spare the reader the details of this, as a Yeti wedding is only slightly less complex in its pomp and ceremony as the selection and ordination of a minor pope and as such is beyond the scope of this narration.
So out of respect for our reader, we shall skip the matrimonial details, save for one of the more titillating tidbits, namely the Hjon-Maeli. You see, the fair Maggie had been betrothed shortly after her birth to a young Yeti man, the son of close friends of the family. Although the young man had turned into a profligate wastrel and ne’er-do-well, and although Maggie’s parents regretted having made the arrangement, custom said that Maggie was his and he was Maggie’s unless some protestor came forward to challenge the betrothal.
“Challenge him to a duel?” said Dougal on being told by Miss Maggie about the Hjon-Maeli. “To the death?”
The thought of that had an uncomfortable ring of permanence to it, and Dougal was starting to have second and even third thoughts, despite his feelings for the lovely Miss Maggie. It was looking as though this marriage might never take place, for Dougal was in no way a fighter, and this would be singularly deleterious to our story because no marriage and a deceased Dougal would have meant no subsequent little Sean Finian coming into the world. Dougal was starting to hyperventilate.
“But we are not savages, my dear,” said Maggie. “You can buy him off, sweetheart, probably for nothing more than some couch change and a few of cases of Sky Whale. Swing by Antiford and pick some up on your next trip.”
A bargain at twice the price, thought Dougal. He would have filled the entire hold of the Banshee with Sky Whale for Maggie’s reprobate betrothed if it would save him from having to engage in physical combat, so his very next trip, he stopped by Antiford and stocked up.
And then there was the matter of a dowry. Maggie’s parents expected one, and something more valuable than an airship full of ale.
“My condenser savings,” moaned Dougal to no one but himself.
But he paid it without grousing out loud, and the happy couple were eventually wedded, Yeti style.
Dougal and Maggie set up house in Vaurus, for Dougal reasoned it was just as easy to travel from Adelon to Nyxiana and back as it was to go from Nyxiana to Adelon and back. Pickle sales were never better, and the people of Nyxiana loved Mickle’s Pickles, especially the pickled fish and the renowned Dickle Pickle. Maggie had to put on a second shift at the pickle factory.
Dougal and Maggie settled into lives of quiet routine, until one day, when Dougal returned home from a trip to Nyxiana, Maggie told him something special.
And a few months later, on 43 Moghs in the Dodar of 1869, Sean Finian O’Brudhear was born to two proud and happy parents, Dougal O’Brudhear and Margaret Elizabeth Mickle.
“Isn’t he beautiful?” said Maggie, counting his appendages. “Too bad he doesn’t have a tail.”
“He is a handsome lad,” said Dougal, as he thought to himself “Thank god he doesn’t have a tail.”
And so began the perfectly normal upbringing of Sean Finian O’Brudhear.
His mother did not die in childbirth.
His father was not a abusive drunkard.
His parents were not killed by pirates.
He was never bullied by the neighborhood kids.
He wasn’t kidnapped by Tinkers and raised by savages.
And he didn’t run away from home at ten years of age to join an airship crew.
The best of all possible childhoods, and yet, Sean Finian O’Brudhear still ended up in a series of steampunk stories, of which this is but the first installment.