Once Tilda’s giggles had died away, Nell was finally able to ask; “Is she… alive again?”
“Oh, goodness, no.” Tilda chuckled, covering her mouth. “Corporeal manifestation, quite temporary.”
“I am ‘ere and can ‘ear you, fuck’s sake,” the rat grumbled. “Am I meant to be grateful about this?”
Sneering, she sipped the tea. Said nothing else, clutching the hot cup in her paws.
“I don’t expect you to show it,” Tilda said, smugly.
“Why are we doing this?” Nell asked, glancing to the silent Malorn.
“Yeah,” the rat chimed in.
“Because you are haunting the ship,” Malorn said, gaze turning from the rat to Nell. “And I expect you want your ship ghost free, Captain.”
“Right! So can you just get rid of her, Tilda?”
Tilda shook her head. “Not unless she wants it. Very fresh, very animated soul here – likely fed by the ambient magics of the ship.”
“Yeah, I’m ambient!”
“I really wish,” Nell said, “That people would stop using words I don’t know.”
“Alright. The magic of the ship seems to have kept- actually, what is your name?”
“Penny the Pirate?” Nell sniggered, in spite of herself.
“Chew on you, slicker.” Penny snarled. Nell had to admit a growing respect for the rat’s foul mouth.
“The ship,” Tilda continued, “Must have sustained Penny’s spirit in a way very close to her living mind.”
Nell was about to ask, but Tilda held up a hand. “No, this will not turn into a lecture about the working of souls. The point I’m making is that Penny is still aware enough that it would be wrong of me to treat her against her wishes,”
“But she’s dead-” Nell started, when the empty cup shattered across her temple.
“It was a good throw,” Malorn noted, picking a piece of ceramic out of Nell’s head, surprisingly gentle with the tweezers.
“I want to throw her overboard,” Nell growled, white-knuckled in her chair.
“A wise choice, but the navigator is more valuable. This will hurt.”
Nell hissed at the antiseptic’s touch, gripped the arm of the chair and tried to focus on the chandelier.
“She’d best keep Penny in that fucking skull until I say otherwise.”
“You’re certainly settling into command,” Malorn said, absently.
“I-” Nell frowned, winced, tried to keep her expression neutral while Malor bandaged her. “I was responsible for some younger kids, where I lived. Had to be bossy to keep them safe, sometimes.”
Malorn straightened. “That should heal in a matter of days.”
Nell rubbed the bindings gingerly, and nodded.
“But you think I can do this?”
“You can learn,” Malorn replied. “‘Bossy’ won’t work on professionals unless you back it up with strength of arms.”
Nell stood, hand on the desk to steady herself. “Can you back me up?”
“To a point. But you must learn, in that case. If you fail with my support, it reflects poorly on the House.”
Nell didn’t have much to say to that. If you have a family, is it that important? Should I even be jealous?
“Alright. So I get better at running a ship. How do I do that?”
“I’ve never captained a ship.” Malorn said, brows raised.
“This is another joke, isn’t it?” Nell said, evenly.
“No. I’ve never captained a ship nor lead soldiers. I simply deliver messages. My family are the soldiers and generals.”
“But you must have picked something up from them!” Nell caught her voice rising again, pushed it down.
“I know how to talk to people, mostly.” He paused. “In my own way.”
“You said bossy wouldn’t work, so what would?”
“Respect and understanding.”
“Okay…” Nell sank back into her chair. “So I just have to talk to them. Find out what they want.”
Malorn shrugged. “Cynical but effective. I think you’re cursed.”
“A baseborn child, not merely given a ship, but a uniquely talented crew suitable to run it?”
Nell frowned, cried out at the stab of pain from her wound, shook her head.
“I’m just lucky. Too lucky?”
“Tilda is remarkably tolerant and understanding. Perhaps that is just her, but your conduct so far wouldn’t fill anyone with confidence. Yet she still seems willing to navigate – either she likes you, or she has another motive.”
“So people like me. Why is any of this a curse?”
“Everything has a price. Your good luck is going to run out if you don’t tread carefully, and the results will be disastrous.”
“Is this because of the oath?”
Malorn folded his arms, leaned against the doorframe.
“It would be foolish to rule it out. Perhaps there was more to Wormsley than was evident.”
“Why didn’t you say something sooner? Ow…”
“You need a better poker face, too.”
“Why didn’t you say anything!?”
“I assumed you’d discussed it with him, had a plan. You broke into the Spire ably enough…”
“That was with Teller’s hel-” She froze. “I left Teller with the guards. I didn’t see him in the prison…”
“Likely still on the ground somewhere, then. Or under it.”
Nell stood again, face contorted in such fury a trickle of blood escaped the bandages.
“You can’t joke about that! Teller was a selfish shit but they can’t have just killed him. He wasn’t that bad.”
“Who are you to say so? How dire was his crime?” Malorn seemed more interested than concerned, and why would he be afraid of Nell’s anger anyway?
“He stole a weapon. As a distraction for me.”
“Stormcaster, from a guard’s belt.”
Malorn was silent a moment.
“He is, very likely, dead, Captain.”
Nell rested her elbows on the desk, put her head in her hands.
“Why do you think so?”
“Because he was an armed thief. The simplest thing the guards could do was kill him. He was like you, wasn’t he?”
“Yes,” Nell said, in a small voice.
“There would be nothing to stop them. Allbright is not kind to the baseborn.”
Malorn stood up straight. “Look at me, Nell.”
She did, with watering eyes.
“You killed him. Whoever may have pulled the trigger, you gave the order.”
“I don’t care,” she snapped.
“That you killed someone, or that you killed him?”
“Stop saying that!”
“Silence changes nothing. This is one of the burdens of rule, Nell. Your commands may take lives, and the only one to truly profit is you.” He looked around the room, raised his hands in a sweeping gesture.
“His life paid for this ship. I hope you don’t intend to waste it. Dishonouring the dead is a foul thing.”
Nell shook her head, circled the table. “No. I need to see, at least.”
“We can check with the guards. They won’t have cause to lie.”
“It’ll have to be now.”
Tilda had taken over two cabins, facing each other. One was full of crates being carefully unpacked by ticking bones and long white fingers, the contents seemingly a collection of arcane tools. The other contained Tilda sat in an expensive-looking chair must have brought with her, talking animatedly to Penny. Hearing this in passing, Nell stopped and stared. Malorn carried on.
“What are you doing?” Nell asked, aware of her clenched teeth.
“Discussing options, Captain. “ Tilda said, brightly. “While you decide exactly what’s acceptable, I might as well start work on a vessel for Penny.”
“Fine, do what you have to,” Nell said, hurrying after Malorn.
A vessel, like the cat? Good idea, Tilda, why not give it guns and blades while you’re there.
She found Malorn on the dock, talking to a woman and man in heavy, decorated armour; blue and gold, stylized lightning bolts on the pauldrons. They looked haggard, though, like the mercenaries Nell used to see passing through town, yet much older. All three stood beneath a lamp-post, making bright specks of the drizzling rain around them.
The docks themselves were hardly quieter than during the day, but now it was lit by electric lamps hanging from the stalls and shanties, a few taller ones rigged up to illuminate makeshift streets.
As Nell approched, Malorn switched to Tradestongue and gestured at Nell.
“And this is Captain Lightfoot, inquiring of her missing crew member.”
The man inclined his head, the woman merely watched her with sparkling blue eyes. Both had iron-gray hair.
“Captain Lightfoot,” she said, after a moment. “I am Knight Commander Isolde. This is Sir Reynold. I understand one of your crew went downspire?”
Nell swallowed hard, nodded.
“Could you describe him?” She asked, as Reynold pulled a flat device from a pouch and prodded it, staring intently.
“Matches.” Said Reynold, and shook his head. “I’m sorry, Captain. Your crewman mishandled a ‘caster. Nothing anyone could have done.”
“A stolen ‘caster,” Isolde added, eyes narrow. “Perhaps not such a great loss, Captain.”
“No,” Nell said, numbly. “Not such a great loss.”
“Would you like us to release the body, for the rites?”
Nell shook her head, eyes squeezed shut.
“You have our condolences, Captain. Excuse us,” they flipped up their hoods, walked off into the rain with clanking steps.
The rain steamed softly where it hit Malorn.
“Food and sleep, Captain,” he said.
“Yeah. At least now, I know.”
As they walked back the ship, Malorn asked.
“Did you know him so well?”
“Not really, if I’m honest. We grew up together, he watched out for me sometimes, but so many faces pass through the workhouse… And so many get killed, you stop thinking about it.”
“Cruel masters?” Malorn asked, frowning.
“Not terribly so, I don’t think. But it was easy to have an accident with the machines, and the streets were never safe. Once a wizard turned up, looking to adopt a bunch of us. Then he wanted to buy some kids. Ma Mathers told him to fuck off, but for weeks after that people would go missing from town.”
“Well inured to death, then.”
“But I killed him…” She said, the end choked off.
“And you’ll have to kill again. Learn to make it count.”
“I won’t. Why would I, if I just carry people and goods? If I hire warriors like you?”
“Who gives the order might as well have swung the sword.” He cocked a brow at her. “And you grossly underestimate the dangers of trade in the open skies.”
“Tilda can get him back. She did with Penny.”
“It sounded like a confluence-” Nell glared up at him, cutting him off.
“It seemed,” he said, slowly, “like Penny’s circumstances were unique.”
“I’ll ask.” She said, as they arrived on deck.
“We don’t have time, either.” Malorn replied.
“You won’t be permitted to leave the Spire during the night. We leave too early tomorrow.”
“I am the Captain!” Nell snarled.
“And I am paying for your services. If I rescind my patronage, you lose everything. Do you think Tilda will work for free?”
“Fine. I’ll take another job! I can convince them I have the money and wait to be paid!”
“You have already spent some of it. Our debt collectors are heavy-handed.”
“Fine.” She said again, and went belowdecks.
She locked herself in her cabin. Lay on the bed. She might have cried herself to sleep, but she was exhausted. Her head hurt. And when she thought about it, she didn’t care overmuch about Teller. There was a pang of guilt, for getting him killed, but wasn’t that his fault, really? Of course it was. She’d trusted him to do a job, and he failed. He got himself killed.
Swatsdy, 3rd of Greentide
There was, in the end, precious little for Nell to do.
She stood on the covered bridge watching her crew go to work – or at least, the immediately useful ones. Mr. Frisse was somewhere in the bowels of the ship, having arrived an hour early and promptly set to tinkering with the occult mechanisms that kept The Celebrant aloft.
Nell had relaxed after the first round of tremors through the hull subsided.
Malorn stood to her right, arms folded, impassive. Nell echoed his pose – it seemed commanding enough.
Tilda sat at a horse shoe shaped desk beside the helm, charts and strange devices arrayed in front of her. The pilot, Harrow, spoke with her low tones, jargon Nell didn’t understand even when she could hear it.
Harrow turned with silver-toothed grin, her manatech eye clicking and focusing.
“Give the order, Captain,” she said. “I’ve not flown a beauty like this before, but I’m raring to go.”
Nell strode to the front of the bridge, stared through the windows at the endless blue skies stretching beyond the stormclouds, the sodden green fields below. The ship rocked gently in a spectral breeze, and Nell tried not to feel so small in the face of all the space and strangeness. She had to act like a captain.
“Take us out, Ms. Harrow.” She said, clutching Wormsley’s watch.
Creaking and slow, pale sails full of with a wind softly whispering with sourceless voices, The Celebrant curved out and away from the tower, up above the clouds with an eerie grace.
A mile out, she slipped through a hole in the world.