"Surely not." Helen frowned. "Why on earth do you connect airships with pirates?"
The publican put down the glass he was cleaning and pointed an accusing finger at her. "There were that one not six months gone by. Landed here, ran up a lot of bills, stole a gentleman's daughter and, I heard, a wealth of jewels as well."
Helen attempted to hide her skepticism.
"What sort of 'jewels' did he supposedly steal?"
It was the publican's turn to look doubtful. "Why do you want to know?"
"If you're worried that I will be trying to steal the jewels," Helen said with more than a touch of venom, "I would point out that these valuable have supposedly already been stolen."
He looked as if he were mulling this proposition over. At last the publican decided it would be safe enough to relate more of the story to this potential pirate.
"I suppose that's true enough, but I don't want to think you're some kind of buttoner after me wealth."
"I'm an airship captain," Helen said drawing herself up to full height with more than a pinch of her father's temper. "I am not here to 'hoist' anything but my airship."
"You'd be nibbed in a trice if you were to try," the publican said, laying a finger aside his nose and nodding.
"Would I? It doesn't seem to have been the case with that pirate."
His face fell with dismay. "We learned from that misfortune."
Helen closed her eyes and sighed. "I am not a pirate. I do not intend to steal anything. My father and I are on our way to France with my pilot, Signor Romano."
"Over the ocean?" Another gentleman entered the conversation. From his attire Helen guessed him to be a coach driver. There had been three outside the inn when they arrived, walking from where the airship had been tethered.
"Yes, over the ocean."
"I knew a father and daughter pair of toolers, some said they were gypsies. Preyed upon folks all the way from Canterbury to London." The publican nodded sagely. "They were finally caught and topped proper. My brother saw them swing."
"I am not a gypsy or a 'tooler' whatever that may be." Helen felt exasperation taking hold of her.
"But the ocean's a very long way," the driver said, tutting at her. "Surely your little balloon cannot make it so far."
"Yes, of course it can. And it's not a balloon, it's an airship."
"I'm not saying you are a tooler, but you have to leave me the right to be suspicious. I have a family and a business to protect."
I understand that," Helen said, feeling her nostrils flare as she exhaled too forcefully, "But why suspect me?"
"I'd bet fair money it wouldn't make it," the coachman said with an irritating air of smugness.
"You will lose that bet," Helen said with a savage pleasure. "We have flown down from Yorkshire today."
"Yorkshire?" the publican said, shaking his head. "I think that's where that gypsy pair came from. Somewhere up north it were."
Helen closed her eyes. Why bother with this? Her father would be getting impatient and joining the argument. And that would be something worth avoiding. "If you want to bring the food over to our table when you have a chance, we'll gladly pay you in advance if that will set your mind at ease, sir."
"Oh, I didn't mean to cast aspersions, miss," the publican said waving his tea towel in his hand. "It just doesn't pay to be too gullible hereabouts."
"I'd lay some money on that," the driver said.
"How much?" Helen asked.
"Done." She shook the man's hand and returned to the table where her father sat. He appeared amused by her stormy expression but wisely waited to allow her to speak first.
"Southerners!" she exclaimed at last.