Nell found Malorn in a cabin halfway across the ship, pressing one wide hand experimentally against the springs of a bed – the only other on the ship, as near as she could tell, every other cabin supplied with a hammock. He was turning as she opened the door, alert.
“Who and where?” He snapped.
“Captain’s cabin,” the words came out in a rush, Nell panting with hands spread to the doorframes. “A voice in the air.”
As he strode towards Nell’s cabin, he touched the nape of his neck. Liquid gold rolled over his head from the collar of his armoured vest, solidifying into a tight-fitting helm. He filled the doorway and glared around the office, silent and watchful.
Nell tried to copy him, slow her breathing, still her body, but it was like the murder in the bedroom all over again. On the edge of collapsing. Malorn broke the uneasy silence with the whisper of his sword, a blade of black glass with a single, wicked edge, and breathed one word: “Run.”
Nell stumbled and fled, tripping and rolling onto the top deck, into the shafts of evening sunlight through the Spire’s cloud. Breath harsh, body numb, she lay like a corpse on the dark boards of the deck. Staring up at the lazily flapping sails.
“Captain? Captain Lightfoot?”
Nell sat up fast enough to make her head swim, the fear all drained away. With enough speed to be suspicious – and Tilda must have caught her expression from her place at the top of the gangplank.
“I’m sure you remember me,” she said, with cheery smile. “Tilda Moreau? Your bodyguard suggested I visit…”
Nell shook her head.
“Malorn is…. my… um,” She didn’t know what word was appropriate. “He’s not my bodyguard.”
Tilda was quiet while Nell climbed to her feet.
“Ghost giving you problems?” She asked.
Tilda nodded. “Perhaps the ship itself is confusing my senses, but you practically glow with Sunless energies.”
“There was a voice,” Nell said, carefully. “From nowhere.”
Tilda grinned. “Unless you’ve attracted the ire of House Hulbrad, that is probably a ghost. And not a well behaved one.”
Nell shuddered. “I don’t know. It just… pointed out it can’t be killed twice.”
“Were you afraid? Very afraid?”
“Hm,” Tilda drummed her fingers on a little satchel shaped like a cat’s head, all covered in studs. Nell knew she’d been caught, but didn’t back down, folding her arms.
“Would you like me to deal with it?” The Necromancer said brightly, with a half turn, swinging a hip forward.
“I think Malorn has it.”
“While he seems a capable fellow,” Tilda replied, winking. “You won’t remove a ghost with a sword unless it’s been subject to my powers. Shall we?” She gestured to the hatch. “You can point out my room as we go.”
She turned and waved down the plank, boots making a distinctive sound on the boards as she joined Nell.
She was followed immediately by a ticking, tocking monster that almost drove Nell to gut-punch the taller woman; a creature of finely polished bone and silver inlays built in the shape of a man with barrel chest and slender limbs, the blank face crowned by a purple gem on the forehead.
“My valet, Rolfo,” Tilda said, brimming with pride. Nell noted the thing was carrying a great deal of luggage, and on closer inspection had two more arms to haul with. They were heavy cases, but the arms seemed so delicate.
It ticked softly, waiting for instruction. Behind it Nell could see smaller bone-things, twitching.
“Aren’t you going to say hello?”
Nell’s head snapped up quick enough to hurt, repressing a glare. “It’s alive?”
“Goodness, no! Poor Rolfo ran into a stray dog when I was twelve. I just couldn’t bear to let him go.”
Nell frowned, staring back at ‘Rolfo’.
“Must have been quite a dog. Was he your brother?”
Tilda’s laugh startled her – she’d been expecting something musical and ladylike, if she ever heard the Necromancer laugh, but the first sound out of her mouth was a snort followed by a stream of giggles.
Despite herself, Nell liked Tilda a little more for that.
“Rolfo was a cat. I have a feline chassis for his days off in one of th-”
The ship rocked, the two women stumbling to keep their footing. Rolfo swayed comfortably with the motion.
“Belowdecks, I think” Tilda said, adjusting her hat.
The gangway was lightly scorched, as were Malorn’s clothes where no armour protected them – he’d been forced from the cabin, it seemed, and now stood defending the path. He didn’t turn around, but held up a hand to ward them back when they found him.
“Damned thing found cutlery,” he growled. “It isn’t safe for you here.”
He wasn’t as still as before, not as controlled. Was he afraid, too?
“Not to worry, sir!” said Tilda, glancing into nearby cabins. “Oh, this one. Hop to it, Rolfo.”
“What?” Malorn barked, unwilling to turn around – thankfully, as a barrage of plantpots, heavy books, and assorted knives sailed down the corridor in a pall of blue mist. His sword hissed through the air, deflecting the projectiles, burying knives in walls and letting the books strike him. One edge caught the gap between his bracer and elbow, however, and a tiny jet of flame sealed the cut. That explains all the scorch marks.
Nell crossed edged weapons off her list.
“Not to worry!” Tilda practically trilled. Nell wanted to step back to let her work, but that meant stepping closer to Rolfo. She stayed in front, pressed to the wall, watching as Tilda extracted a bird’s skull from her satchel. The lights seemed to dim, then rise around her as she gestured imperiously, wordlessly.
And the spectre of a rat, one eye socket blown revoltingly open, belts of knives all over her body, sailed from the end of the corridor like a streak of steam to hover in front of Tilda.
“How exciting! Doesn’t she look like a pirate?” Tilda clasped her fingers around the tiny skull.
“Piss on you, quiller.” Spat the ghost, her one good eye on Nell, the ruin of the left side of her face mercifully out of sight. Nell could taste those potatoes again.
“Definitely a pirate,” Malorn drawled, sheathing his sword and leaning against the wall, arms folded. His helmet melted away again. He definitely seemed calmer now, to Nell’s eye. Back to himself.
“Swivel on that sword, devilspawn,” the pirate continued, struggling in the air as if bound by chains.
Nell felt a wave of heat from Malorn’s direction at that.
“To what torment can you consign this one, Necromancer?” He asked, in a low tone. “Can you allow me to exact punishment myself?”
Tilda bit her lip, frowning.
“Tormenting the dead is unethical, sir Olimak.”
“By mortal standards.”
“Can we please get rid of the fucking ghost?” Nell snapped, before this turned into some stupid debate.
“Yes ma’am,” said Tilda, sweetly, and with a gesture the rat was gone – but the empty eyes of the little skull were filled with ominous blue light. “There, all contained. You can decide what to do with her as you please.”
She tossed the skull to Nell, and it bounced off her fingers and up towards her chin three times before she caught it.
“Thank you, Ms. Moreau,” Malorn said, with a curt bow – and a pointed glance at Nell.
“Thanks,” Nell mumbled, staring at the tiny glowing eyes of the skull.
“You’re very welcome. I shall check the ship for more later, but in the meantime-”
“-tea would be customary,” Malorn finished.
With a genuine smile at the Necromancer. Nell almost didn’t catch it.
The galley was almost familiar, and certainly comfortable for Nell. Low, sturdy benches bolted down. Heavy tables stained by years of use, so all-encompassing you’d hardly notice the marks were unintentional rather than pattern. The cupboards were an unfamiliar touch, filled with secure slots to keep things from rattling in turbulent flight, and the tea service was an unthinkable strangeness.
Tilda immediately replaced it with her own, and Nell eyed the delicate white cups, despite their flowery decoration, with intense suspicion of their origins.
Nel sat opposite Tilda, while Malorn dragged a chest from below up to the end of the table for his own use. The Necromancer set about whatever arcane machinations her collection of dainty devices needed to produce tea, and Nell drummed her heels on the floor.
“What am I meant to do with the ghost, then?” She asked.
Tilda shook her head, but Malorn spoke.
“This is customary, Captain.”
“You keep saying that.”
A flicker of a smile.
“Hire an etiquette tutor with your reading lessons, or contract a negotiator.” He said. “You won’t make it far in this business without the right face to present the world.”
“I am not buying a new face,” Nell replied. The idea seemed needlessly expensive, as well as strange.
“Good. It’s rarely worth it. But unless you learn the niceties for dealing with well-paying patrons, you’ll haul cargo for the rest of your life.”
“Although there would be no shame in that.”
Tilda set the cups out, a little pot of sugar – Nell had never seen so much in one place – and a fat round teapot decorated with the same flowers as the cups; reds, blacks, hints of green.
“So we just drink tea and then deal with the ghost?” Nell asked. Tilda sighed.
“No business until the first cup is drained.” She said.
Nell frowned into her empty cup. What a waste of time!
“What brings you to Allbright, Ms. Moreau?” Malorn said, ignoring Nell’s sulk.
“Oh, I was employed to help a relative say goodbye to their families. Insisted we visit a cousin here before he’d move on, and once his spirit was at rest I heard there was to be a performance at the Spire so I stayed a few days more.”
“Ah. I’ve never cared for it, to my father’s dismay.”
“This was an especially niche performance, anyway. Even the people I left behind at Stallart Commune would have struggled.”
“Home, or simply a good fit?”
“Both! But an artist should travel.”
“Djuke Tamerlane is quite a recluse, I understand.”
“Aren’t Djukanim always the exception? You should pour, Captain.” Said Tilda, casual.
“Why should I pour, Mizz Moreau?” Nell parroted back.
“Because it’s your ship.” She said, primly.
Nell had never liked tea. A hot, sweet drink was always welcome in its way, but she never enjoyed it for its own sake.
“Guests first,” Malon said, as she pulled the heavy pot towards herself. Grumbling, Nell filled Tilda’s cup, then Malorn’s, then half-filled her own. Then dropped in enough sugar cubes to make it look fuller.
“Are you a patron of any arts, Malorn?”
“A small amount of my personal expenses go to my kennelmaster, and a troupe of musicians I favour.”
“Kennelmaster! Racing or hunting?”
“Hunting, of a sort,” said Malorn, and Nell moved uncomfortably in her seat.
“More of a cat person, myself.” Tilda said, stirring her tea, spoon chiming against the cup.
“Wollstone suggests we do not reduce people to their titles, but there is a grain of truth to them all. Olimak and our hellhounds, Necromancers and their cats…”
“A philosopher, too.”
“You’ve read Wollstone?”
Tilda made a face, like biting into sour fruit, and waved a hand as she sipped her tea.
“No, no. I deal with enough wearisome existential questions being an advocate. Why trouble myself off duty?”
Nell burned her tongue on her first sip. Endured five more minutes of the Magus and the deva talking over her head. She was about ready to yell “just fuck him and be done with it!” when Malorn set his cup down, folded his arms, and looked right at her.
“So. The ghost.”
“The ghost,” Nell said with audible relief.
“Well,” Tilda began, pouring out more tea. “I can simply banish her, if you’d like. We can also question her, or I can bind her to an item.” She paused. “For a large enough fee, I could fashion some bonework to house her.” She painstakingly spooned out sugar. “Bear in mind, I’ll be asking her, too. There’s clearly a lot of the person left, which means I certainly won’t force her into service.”
“But she’s dead,” said Nell.
“Yes, dead but not yet gone. You can do what you like with the carcass, but a ghost is still part of a person,” Tilda said, matter of fact.
“I suppose we need to ask her then,” said Nell. I was trapped once.
“Good!” She clapped, and set out a fourth place at her side, poured tea, and held out a gloved hand. Nell hesitated, handed over the skull.
A cool breeze seemed to drift over the table, drawing more steam from the drinks, and with a gesture like pulling a thread, Tilda dragged the ghost from the skull to sit on the bench.
Actually sit on the bench, as near as Nell could see. The ghost seemed equally surprised, staring at her hands, and Nell noticed a slight blurring to her edges like something seen in the corner of your eye. In a flash the rat reached out and picked up a silver spoon, then seemed to come to her senses with it halfway to a pocket. Glancing at the steaming tea, the faces around her, she slumped with an irritated twitch of her ears.
“You must be bloody joking.”
“Oh no,” Tilda replied, expression severe. “This is deadly serious.”
Nell stared in disbelief. Tilda’s composure cracked; she snorted, and giggled enough for everyone.