“Ten thousand Gems.” Said Malorn, and almost without hesitating the clerk started scribbling.
This was the Olimak Embassy, apparently; a small office with a single desk, a clerk, and a row of shelves in the back, all decorated with the same sigil Malorn wore.
The clerk, a woman with shaven head, dark skin, and soldierly garb, handed a the completed scroll to Nell’s guardian.
“It’s too much,” she said, as they returned to the corridors of the Spire.
“Barely enough,” replied Malorn. “This will hire a skeleton crew, at best, but it is a start.”
“Is that meant to be funny?”
“Never mind.” Nell sighed. At least he wasn’t making fun.
They next stopped at a bank, which Malorn didn’t explain and Nell didn’t understand. This time the clerk – a man in expensive but worn clothes with bags under his eyes – handed over a satchel in exchange for the scroll.
“I’d tell you to be careful, carrying that much money around, but…” He trailed off, and Malorn nodded.
The towering Herald offered the satchel to Nell.
“This is advance payment for conveying me to my destination, Captain.”
Nell frowned, took the bag, and promptly dropped it with a pained yelp, landing heavily on top of her payment.
Malorn picked her up, then the money.
“I will carry it all, for now. You must hire a pilot, and a navigator, and an engineer.” He stroked his chin. “At least three regular crewmen, and six who can fight.” He glances down at Nell. “Can you fight, Captain?”
Nell grinned. “I can throw a punch.”
A ghost of a smile flickered on Malorn’s face.
“Good. Let us also purchase a weapon for you. I can teach you more refined technique. But first, a crew.”
“Where do you even hire a crew?”
They stopped before doors to an ascending chamber, and Malorn pushed a button on a panel at the side.
“In my experience, a bar is a good place to start.”
The bar’s sign was in writing, but Malorn read it – shockies. He wouldn’t translate. It was a crowded, and noisy – not just with the rumble of overlapping conversation, but with music played on instruments Nell couldn’t imagine. Not bad, though.
The lighting was milder than she expected, the decoration all dark wood and leather upholstery. Portraits hung on the walls; a variety of faces from peoples Nell had never seen before. Smiling, raising glasses, laughing.
Patrons brushed by her, by each other, balancing drinks for their tables and muttering ‘excuse me’, or saying nothing at all. Malorn was spared less glances this time, and lead her to a hurriedly emptied table. He stroked his beard as he sat, and spoke as Nell took a seat for herself, back to the wall.
“A meal, first. Then hiring.” He said, and as if on cue a pretty boy in black and blue uniform arrived, smiling, at the table. With pages of writing. Nell squinted suspiciously at the engraved tablets and hoped the boy, with his neck-length red hair and pale skin, would go before she had to admit it meant nothing to her.
But Malorn ordered in the Spire tongue, handed the menus back.
“You can still learn,’ he said. “With help. A necessary investment to spend your pay on a tutor.”
“Pay?” Nell sat up straighter.
Malorn looked at her, sidewise. “If your first job is your last job, I will be disappointed.”
“What’s your disappointment to me?” Nell shot back, and Malorn stared at her, something stewing behind those golden eyes. She shrunk back, but didn’t apologize. Malorn had become familiar, in his way, but that look – more than the supplicants – reminded her she was dealing with someone… other.
The food arrived quickly; thick pieces of fried potato, better sausages than Nell had ever eaten, and a mix of egg and rice. She wracked her memory as she ate for anything she had heard of the devas, something to help her stay on good footing with Malorn, but it had all been so distant at the orphanage. Rumour to most, religion to some – although everyone had left offerings before the shrine of the Dragon-Emperor.
The devas were gods that walked in human form. They were descendants of gods. They had murdered the gods and stolen their power.
She glanced at Malorn, his gaze impossible to follow, and decided his claim in the bedchamber was close enough to true, for now. Not that she’d rule out deicide.
They didn’t speak as they ate – Malorn didn’t waste time, and Nell realized how hungry she was. As soon as the plates were taken away (and Nell had studiously avoided the eye of the red-haired boy), Malorn stood.
“Now hiring for the escort of the Olimak Herald via the Nethership The Celebrant, Captain Nell Lightfoot.” He bellowed, in Tradestongue. Nell spotted the possible-owner grimacing behind the bar.
The hulking warrior had barely sat before people began lining up. Malorn produced paper and quill from his little satchel, and glanced expectantly at Nell, who glanced nervously at the rail-thin fellow with skin the colour of spoiled milk standing before her.
Perhaps he took it for assent, stepping forward.
“Jonah Frisse, engineer, ten years on the Bluenose before her captain turned traitor.”
“I…” Nell hated Malorn a little as she struggled for responses, “That’s… unfortunate.” She finished, lamely, and Jonah raised one pencil-thin brow.
“Bluenose was a Nethership?” Malorn cut in, and Nell thought he was looking for something. Jonah nodded, anyway.
“She was. I haven’t got the talent, but I’ve got the sight.” replied the lanky engineer. Malorn turned to Nell.
“Ten years is good enough for me,” she said. Malorn made a note.
“Aye, well, what’s the purpose? I’m not for signing on with a warship.”
“Trader?” Nell volunteered, and the engineer nodded, placated.
“You can’t miss her on the docks. Dawn, tomorrow.” Malorn said, and Jonah left with a nod. Back to his seat.
“I really think I needed to prepare,” Nell hissed, low.
“I don’t have time,” Malorn said, placid. “Learn from this. You seem a quick study.” His nod brought another applicant to the fore.
A hulking woman stepped forward, a brand on her forehead – the same as the sigil Malorn wore. She was tall, muscular, ginger haired, coppery-eyed. She spoke in an unfamiliar tongue. To Malorn.
“You will speak Tradestongue, Olim, and you will explain your presence here,” he said, tone cold.
The woman bowed.
“I am Olim Terezi, once servant of Olimak Lacuna, loyal agent of Great House Olimak. My mistress was dissatisfied by my service.”
“And your service was?”
“As a Bone, my lord.”
Malorn stared for a long moment, the corner of his mouth twitching like a restrained sneer.
“You will waste no more time.”
Olim bowed, and left unhired. Nell would ask, when this was done, but the next candidate had stepped forward.
She had skin oil-dark as Nell’s own and was probably only a few years older, hair hidden under a broad-brimmed hat with pointed cap, a dress with plunging neck and flaring, circular, short skirt. Nell thought she was carrying a sword, at first, but it was only an umbrella.
“Tilda Moreau,” she introduced herself, with a curtsy, silver hoop flashing from her nostril. “Necromancer of the Lemarchand School. I offer my services as navigator.”
Nell blanched inwardly. She’d heard of Necromancers; Magi who tampered with the dead.
“Thank you but n-” She began, but Malorn laid a meaty hand on her arm.
“Welcome aboard, Miss Moreau,” he said. “We intend to meet at dawn tomorrow, but you may feel free to inspect the ship later this evening.”
Tilda grinned brightly, curtseyed again, and returned to her booth where a steaming teapot waited.
“Why did you hire her?” Nell rounded on Malorn, his brows up and easy.
“Using a Nethership in any reasonable way demands a Necromancer to navigate. We were improbably lucky to find her,” he replied.
Nell knew the ship was a bit strange, and had a morbid look, but this was enough to make her recoil.
“But why?” It was almost a whine.
“Because a Nethership can jaunt through the World Without Sun,” Malorn said, watching Nell intently. “Time and space are irrelevant in the realm of the dead, giving the ship unmatched maneuverability – but without a Necromancer or someone gifted to navigate that world, you don’t know where you’ll emerge. Or if you’ll emerge.”
Nell was breathing fast, pressed into her seat.
“And I’m supposed to captain the fucking thing?” She said, annoyed at her own pitch and volume.
Malorn shrugged. “Do or die. You’re oathbound, now.”
“So I’m under a magic oath to captain a fucking ghost ship and if I don’t, I’ll die?”
Malorn shook his head. “No, that would be ridiculous.”
Nell relaxed a fraction. “So I can run?”
Malorn shook his head again.
“Nothing magical about the oath except the sword that will enforce it.”
Nell almost screamed, knuckles white on the table, but restrained herself, exhaled hard.
“I don’t think I like your sense of humour,” she said, finally.
Malorn shrugged. “Most people don’t notice it. I find it helps to bring a touch of levity to discussion of executions.”
Nell thought about it.
“Just barely.” She said, watching the assembled patrons watching them; the Infernal Scion and the baseborn stranger hiring a crew. “Makes it feel like you’d prefer not to kill me.”
Malorn gestured for the waiter.
“I’m a herald, not a murderer.”
“What about the Magus? You murdered her, they want-”
Malorn cut her off with a sharp look, sent the waiter away again with an order for drinks. Nell was too distracted to keep herself from watching him go.
“That was vengeance; sacred and proper. The penalty for your oath is only losing the ship.”
“As good as dying, depending on where it happens.”
Malorn kept speaking as the drinks were laid out – something smelling strongly of fruit.
“I expect Tansy Allbright will want to take her wrath out on someone.” He said, placid.
“Then I want to get onto my ship and out of here as soon as possible.”
“I’m not rushing my drink.”
“As soon as possible,” Nell repeated, and took a draught from her own glass. Sweet, bubbly, slightly acidic. “What is this?” she asked, with a grin.
“Strawberry cider,” Malorn replied. “A cousin of mine suggested it. Not for me, I don’t think.”
He drank it anyway.
“I feel like I should’ve done this sooner,” Nell said, staring up at the figurehead. The Celebrant herself, maybe.
Malorn offered the merest shrug, standing back out of the drizzle that reached them from the Spire’s tame stormclouds. At his back part of the crowd was mumbling prayers, gesturing in his direction.
“Hard to imagine how,” he says. At a clink of his armour, Nell looked over her shoulder; one of the gathered worshipers had reached out to touch Malorn’s tasset, and now one of his hooves was planted firmly in the frail-looking man’s chest. The following kick – more of a shove, really – sent him sprawling into the crowd, and they wailed, they gnashed their teeth, and Nell almost fell over the edge as she stepped away from him.
“What the fuck was that?” She hissed, but Malorn was already walking towards the gangplank. The assembly were shunning the man he’d struck, and Nell suspected he’d broken ribs.
“He touched me without permission, and the rest were little better.” He said, expression calm.
“You could have killed him!”
“I could. I did not.”
“But he was so weak – how was that called for?”
Malorn adopted a familiar tone, like Overseer Brackhen reciting from the Book of Small Things.
“‘Think not of mortalkind as comprised of individuals; it is a beast with many faces, of vast size and dull intellect, disposed towards destruction of themselves and others. Therefore the crime of one is the crime of the whole, the punishment of one will serve for the many.’”
Nell didn’t answer, as they climbed the gangplank decorated with grinning skulls, because suddenly ‘fuck you’ seemed as dangerous as it was apt.
As they crossed the deck towards the forecastle, under the eerily billowing sails, she finally spoke. Finally calmed enough.
“I don’t agree,” she said.
“Good,” he replied.
“Ideas should always be tested.” He said. “Defiance is an opportunity to prove one’s strength. The only real sin is surrender.”
“Did you learn this in a temple?”
“Of sorts. You shouldn’t be concerned about it, really.”
“Because you are mortal. You cannot be expected to understand.”
Nell stopped feet from the door, almost stamped her foot like a spoiled child.
“I’m not stupid, you know. Just because I can’t read.” She said, on the edge of the snarl.
Malorn turned, hands up and open; between a shrug and contrition.
“I didn’t say you were. You may even be as clever as a human can be, but you are still only human.”
The blood of gods flows in my veins, Liandra Allbright…
“Fine,” Nell said, after a long pause. “But I’ll still try to understand.”
Malorn nodded, opening the door.
“Good,” he smiled. “Defiance.”
And, Nell thought, I might get an idea of how to kill you if I ever need to.
As they wandered down cozy corridors lit by blue light from red candles, set into skull-shaped sconces of which Nell was frankly starting to get sick, she recalled an earlier promise.
“You didn’t tell me what that was about, with Olim-” She started.
“No.” He cut her off, hesitated. “But I suppose I can, now.”
“What had they done?”
“I don’t know. I don’t need to. I trust my kin’s judgement.”
“Are you related?”
“No.” He said, coldly.
“But the name-”
“Olim are Invested with a measure of our bloodline’s power.” He said, cutting her off again, and she grumbled inwardly. “It makes them stronger, and more loyal to us. Indeed, betrayal wounds them both spiritually and physically.”
“So why weren’t they worth taking? They must have been useful…”
“No. Trust me in this.”
If in nothing else, she added.
The Captain’s Suite seemed bare, but beautiful – more dark wood, lighter patches on the walls where something must have hung, half-empty bookshelves and bare display cases, and an enormous desk with leather high-backed chair. And the bed, behind a heavy dividing wall, was as luxurious as Liandra’s bed. Once again Nell thought of the red-haired waiter, and dismissed it.
“Shall I leave you to it?” Malorn asked. “I should find my own quarters, unless you need anything here explained.”
Nell frowned, turning from running her hands over the bedsheets to face him. His head almost touched the chandelier of dancing skeletons above the desk, and not for the last time Nell cursed the morbid theme of the whole ship.
“I’m sure I can manage, Herald.” She said, but Malorn only smiled faintly.
“As you wish, Captain.”
When he was gone, Nell sidled over to the big chair, glanced around with half-lidded eyes, and settled into the cool leather. Arms on the rests – which, she noticed, were decorated with skeletal fingers. Ankles crossed and feet on the desk. She had not the weight to tilt it back, until she pushed with her feet. Staring up at the chandelier of dancing bones.
“Raise the mainsail!” She commanded, waving an arm.
“Cast off!” She said, with an imperious gesture, sitting up.
She turned, glaring at an imaginary subordinate.
“Don’t talk back to me, or you’ll walk the plank!”
“A bit late for that.”
The chair tilted back, fell, and Nell rolled to her feet, eyes roving around the empty room for the source of the voice, and finding nothing.
“Can’t hardly be killed twice.”