"Oh, right," said Jenna. She did not believe for a moment that Milo was messing with Darke stuff, and it annoyed her that he thought she would. Silently, she stood and watched Jem take the tar pan off the flame and very carefully walk around the edges of the doors to the hold, pouring a thin stream of glistening black tar into the gap between them and the deck. Soon all that marked the entrance to the hold were two inset brass rings and a thin line of tar.
To Jenna's irritation, Milo placed his arm around her shoulders and walked her along the deck on the opposite side from the harbor, away from the small admiring crowd that always gathered to stare at the Cerys. "I know you think I am a neglectful father," he said. "It is true, maybe I am, but this is what I have been looking for, this is why I have been away so much. And soon, safe passage and fair winds permitting, it shall be safe in the Palace - and so will you."
Jenna looked at Milo. "But I still don't understand. What is so special about it?"
"You will find out When the Time Is Right," said Milo. Blissfully unaware that his daughter longed to yell, "Why don't you ever answer my questions properly?" Milo continued, "Come, Jenna, let us go below. I think some celebrations are in order."
Jenna fought back the urge to kick him.
While Milo ushered Jenna below, Jem was looking doubtfully at the black residue stuck to the bottom of the pan. After some consideration, he tossed the pan over the side of the ship. Jem had not always been a lowly deckhand. He had once been Apprenticed to a famed Physician in the Lands of the Long Nights, until the Physician's daughter had fallen for his crooked smile and dark curly hair, and life had become a little too complicated for Jem's liking. Jem had left his Apprenticeship early, but he had learned enough to know that Darke Sealants were not the kind of things you wanted on board a ship. He stepped carefully over the thin streak of tar that delineated the line of the cargo hatch doors and went below to the sick bay, where he wrote out a notice for the crew informing them not to step on the cargo hatch door seals.
Deep in the cargo hold, the contents of the ancient ebony chest settled into the darkness and Waited.
Chapter 18 A Performance
Milo's celebration took the form of a highly embarrassing banquet held on deck, in full view of the quayside of Harbor Twelve. A gold-tasseled red awning was set up and a long table was placed underneath, laid with all manner of finery: a white linen cloth, silver goblets, golden cutlery, piles of fruit (not all of it real) and a forest of candles. Six high-backed chairs with what looked suspiciously like coronets perched on the tops were arranged around the table. Milo had placed himself at the head of the table, with Jenna on his right. Septimus was next to Jenna, and Beetle, suitably resplendent in his Admiral's jacket, was somewhat stranded at the far end, near to the sleeping Spit Fyre and occasional wafts of dragon breath. On Milo's left was Snorri, with the Night Ullr lying quietly at her feet and, next to her, Nicko.
Milo did the talking - which was just as well, as everyone else felt far too embarrassed to talk. On the quayside below an increasing crowd was gathering, observing the show with amused interest, rather as people will watch chimps in a zoo. Jenna tried to catch Septimus's eye, hoping for a sympathetic glance, but Septimus sat glowering resolutely at his plate. Jenna glanced around the table and no one would meet her eye, not even Beetle, who appeared to have found something very interesting to look at on the top of the nearest mast.
Jenna felt horribly uncomfortable; she was beginning to wish she had never bumped into Milo in the dingy cafe on Harbor One. But at the time it had all seemed so thrilling - being invited to Milo's ship, Nicko and Snorri's delight at being on board the Cerys, and the wonderful feeling, so welcome after the last grueling days, of being cared for, of sleeping in a comfortable bed and waking up knowing that she was safe. And then there was the excitement of Milo telling her that the Cerys was now her ship, though he had spoiled that somewhat when he later said that, naturally, it could not truly be hers until she reached the age of twenty-five, the age at which it was possible to register ownership. That was, thought Jenna, typical of most things that Milo offered - he always kept something back, in his control. A wave of embarrassment suddenly swept over Jenna. She was with three of the people she cared most about - Jenna excluded Snorri from this list - and she was making them sit through this performance, all because she had allowed herself to be carried away by Milo's attention. The banquet progressed agonizingly slowly. Milo, as usual, regaled them with his stock of sea stories, many of which they had heard before and which always seemed to end in Milo triumphing at the expense of others.
And while Milo droned on, the ship's cook supplied a succession of overwrought dishes, each one more ornate and piled ever higher, not unlike the wigs worn by the officials on Harbor Twelve. Each dish was accompanied by a great flourish from the deckhands - now dressed in their evening white and blue robes - and, worst of all, a horribly embarrassing speech from Milo, who insisted on dedicating each dish to one of them, starting with Jenna.
By the time the dessert was due - which was to be dedicated to Beetle - the crowd of onlookers were becoming boisterous and beginning to pass comments, none of them particularly favorable. Wishing more than anything in the world that he could disappear right now, Beetle's ears glowed brilliant red as he watched a deckhand emerge from the hatch, proudly bearing the dessert aloft. It was an exceptionally odd creation - a large plate of something black and wobbly, possibly a jellyfish, but equally possibly a fungus plucked from the depths of the hold. Reverentially the deckhand placed the dish in the center of the table. Everyone stared in astonishment. With a shock they all realized that it looked like - maybe even was - a giant beetle boiled, peeled and laid on a bed of seaweed.
Milo was relishing the moment. Glass in hand, accompanied by sporadic clapping and whistles from the crowd below, he stood up to dedicate the dessert to Beetle, who was seriously considering jumping overboard. But, as Milo opened his mouth to begin his speech, Spit Fyre pounced.
It was a moment that Beetle would treasure for a very long time. Spit Fyre had woken up feeling extremely hungry and was not going to be fussy about what he ate. He thrust his snout past Beetle and sent his long green tongue snaking down the table. Snorri - who was still on edge - screamed. Milo leaped to his feet and ineffectively slapped his napkin on Spit Fyre's nose as the dragon sucked up the beetle jelly and then the napkin with a long, noisy slurp. But a beetle-shaped jelly and a scrap of fine linen were not going to satisfy a hungry dragon. In hope of finding something else to eat, Spit Fyre continued to suck and, with a noise like water going down the drain - but a thousand times louder - the finery on the table began to disappear.
"Not the goblets!" yelled Milo, snatching away the nearest silver goblets. A gale of laughter rose from the rapidly increasing crowd below. At the sight of his linen tablecloth disappearing into Spit Fyre's slobbery mouth, Milo dropped the goblets, grabbed hold of his end of the tablecloth and pulled. Cheers and some shouts of encouragement rose from the crowd.
No one else around the table moved a muscle. A flicker of a smile began to appear around the corners of Septimus's mouth as he watched his plate travel down the table despite Milo's best efforts. He glanced across at Nicko and, to his surprise and delight, he saw the telltale signs of suppressed laughter. And then, with a deafening whoosh, the entire contents of the table disappeared into Spit Fyre's mouth. An explosive snort erupted from Nicko and he fell off his chair in paroxysms of laughter. Snorri, used to a more serious Nicko, looked on in confusion as he lay on the deck shaking. From the quayside below, the answering sound of laughter spread like a wave. Milo regarded the wreckage of his evening with dismay. Spit Fyre regarded the bare table with disappointment. His stomach rattled with sharp things and he was still hungry. Milo, not entirely sure whether the dragon drew the line at eating people, grasped Jenna's hand and began to back away, pulling her to her feet.
Jenna snatched her hand away. "Don't," she snapped. Milo looked surprised and a little hurt. "Perhaps," he said, "we should find alternative accommodations for your dragon."
"He's not my dragon," said Jenna.
"Oh? But you said - "
"I know I did. But I shouldn't have. I am only the Navigator. He is Sep's dragon."
"Ah. Well, in that case you do understand that the dragon is subject to the Trading Post quarantine regulations? Of course, while it's on board - "