Tisday, 2nd of Foundation, YD 180
“It’s just… a bit ostentatious.” He said, lying on his belly, chin on his crossed arms. The ruffled satin sheets revealed the simpler mattress around the edges, their stark red clashing against his deep blue skin.
“Rather the point,” Knell said. “Pirates need to be fearsome, and theatrics never hurt.” She continued, stroking his back languidly with fingers of shadow, making him shiver.
“What happened to the real arm?”
“Ballsy one, aren’t you?”
He suppressed a yelp, and went very still.
“I lost the real arm when my ship was boarded. We won, but it was close.” She released him, straddling his waist, tracing fingertips with real skin on them over his tattooed neck. “I think, given the choice again, I’d hack it off myself and get a wider choice of replacements.”
“I don’t know how you can say that. I like my body.”
“I like your body. I’m not suggesting you cut anything off it.”
“And this is why you’re my favourite customer.”
“Better earn my custom, then,” she said, playful.
“Yes, Captain,” he replied, voice low, turning over.
Knell dropped a pouch of Gems into the waiting hands of the Madam, finished lacing her breeches, and stepped into the bright sun over the Sprawl. Hands on her hips, she breathed deep and took in the street: patrolling Savaan in full-face helms; a group of skymen laughing and chatting as they looked for a good place to spend their ground leave; a Troll with fur dyed garish colours, strumming idly on an enormous guitar while her human companion arranged a set of drums on the corner; delicious scents of fresh herbs and garlic from an open-air restaurant opposite. Knell took a step closer, avoided a rat carrying heavy luggage, paused at the low, gaily painted wooden wall, and instead turned towards the dock where her ship waited. A month in Towerpeak can be a pleasant stay for outlaws, but Woodshaw had already gotten in one fist-fight and Noster had gotten worryingly religious.
“Next time,” Penny whispered, “put me in a drawer or something.”
Knell touched the birdskull at her neck, hung from a cord through the eyesockets.
“Squeamish, Penny?” She murmured, with a smirk.
“No,” the rat replied, irritable. “Envious.”
“Not the only one watching, then. But it’s all useful.”
“One day I’ll get out of here and kill you.”
“Good luck,” Knell said, cheerily, and silenced the skull with a particular tap.
Knell’s Death was not, perhaps, a name with much gravitas, but Knell didn’t care. It was home and it was freedom. A last-generation skyship from a Spire shipwright; mag-lev plates and chained zephyr for propulsion. Nothing requiring specialized knowledge, nothing needing special engineers. Still had a little seaship charm about the sails, fins, and prow
She passed Daffyd at the top of the jetty, and he fell into step behind her. She laid a hand on the hull before turning to the gangplank.
“Call to leave, Captain?” He asked, quiet.
“I think so, First Mate. We have what we came for.”
“Milk run, you said.”
“Should be. Kidnap, and any extras we can carry.”
“Cash on delivery. Very compelling promissory note.”
Daffyd blinked, languidly, and leaned against the bulkhead when they arrived at the mess. Three crew were gathered at the end of the room, playing a board game. When they saw Knell, they scrabbled to clean up the detritus of a night spent onboard, bringing cheap booze from the city to make their own entertainment.
“Make it quick, Garrett,” she said, nodding towards the ranking gunner. “You’ll be able to afford a night on the town when we get back.”
“Very good, Captain,” he said, in a monotone. Knell rolled her eyes.
“You’re not in the navy now, Garrett.”
Knell didn’t reply. Collected a cherryskin from the potted tree in the corner and walked out. Daffyd followed her.
“Compelling?” He said, as they went upstairs and down corridors.
“Compelling? Oh, yes. Focused as you are chatty.”
Daffyd’s heavy footsteps stopped, and Knell turned to look at the hulking Orc, his craggy brow creased in thought.
“Never mind. Never mind that.” She peeled the ‘skin open and popped one of the bright red berries into her mouth. “Compelling, in that if they don’t pay, we simply give their location and identity to our captive, fly ‘em home, and head east with an equally fat sack of Gems.”
“Businesslike,” Daffyd said, nodding, following again.
“Right. Nothing personal.”
Harrow was already on the bridge, reading a trashy pulp novel, when Knell and Daffyd arrived. For the year Knell had her in the crew, Harrow had spent her wages on two things – anti-agapics and Captain Kain: Vampirate novels. She didn’t look up.
“Ready to leave, Cap’n?”
Knell leaned over the back of the captain’s chair, Daffyd taking up station silently behind her, and fished out her pocketwatch. Never stopped ticking, never needed winding, and never wrong. She didn’t remember where she’d picked it up.
“In about fifteen minutes, assuming the crew move quickly enough. Get on it, Daffyd.”
“Found her, Captain.”
Knell dropped her book and leaned forward, squinting at the display Harrow was throwing up from her implants.
A barge, held up by magnetic plates and tugged along by a repurposed fighter ship.
“Not exactly an exciting target, Captain.”
“Crew’re rusty. Low stakes are fine, for now.”
“How do you want to handle it?”
“Creep up on them.” Knell said, and hit the intercom. “Look alive, lads. We have a prize ahead. Gunnery officers to your stations, but don’t go loud until I say.”
“Aye, aye, Captain.” Garrett again. Knell sniffed and closed the link. His ramrod deal might’ve been appealing if he was prettier and if gunners had a hard job she’d respect him more.
Knell shook the thought and kept her eye on the target. Harrow descending with grace and care, the last visit to drydock really paying off, the controls an extension of her body. Knell’s Death dropped through cloud like a descending raptor, swung close to the ground to scare a score of birds from a copse of tall, tall trees, and just outpaced the tug in order to reach her.
Bluebird was emblazed across the back of the barge. Rusting, rickety thing, with something like a shanty built on the flat surface. Half wooden shacks, half repurposed shipping crates lashed together. The passengers, crew, squatters… whoever they were, they’d seen Knell’s ship coming. Up on deck, some with guns and some with spears, and some just holding excited children close. A shaven, scarred Troll was carrying a rat on his shoulder, and Knell immediately pegged the proud-tailed rodent as the closest thing to a captain they had.
Some of Knell’s crew were on deck, or better yet in the boarding atria, ready to pour out and wash away the opposition. Keen eyes and other organs trained on the rat’s people. Watching the tension in their necks, the shuffling feet. The unsure but tight grip on their weapons. The ships were almost close enough to fire a pistol between when Knell hit a button. Stuck the colours; her personal sigil was a bell in a skeletal hand, white on black, skimmed out over the fins. At this range they were clear to everyone; lay down your arms, relax, surrender. The worst needn’t come to pass.
They got the message; guns down across the little floating village. The tug halting and swinging like a watch on a chain, the whole thing tilting a little in the chilly afternoon air.
“Out and in, crew,” Knell said, and there was a satisfying thud as the boarding atria rolled open to disgorge the fighting members of the crew. “Secure and search.” She added, a little uneasy about some of the recent hires.
She watched her crew fan out, could almost hear Daffyd’s booming voice order the poor sods in the shanty to gather together on what could charitably called a rooftop.
“Eyes in the sky?” She asked Harrow, standing up.
“Nothing in range, Cap’n. We’ve got an hour before any Kaeri patrols come by, and the Allbright’s lot were through yesterday, if scuttlebutt in port was to be believed.” Harrow replied.
“Pretty reliable.” Knell said, absently, and took a little gold charm from its hook on the bulkhead behind her seat.
“Think she’s still alive?”
Knell paused. Of course, Harrow saw more or less everything on the bridge. She clutched the charm in her fist – a seashell – and nodded. “I’m sure. Farsight won’t let us down.”
Harrow shrugged. Knell left. Strode out onto the dirty surface of the barge with her duster unbuttoned, the guns on her hips as obvious as her shadowy right hand. Tricorner cocked at a jauntier angle.than the Spire captain who’d previously owned it would ever contemplate. She climbed up to the rooftop where the passengers were waiting, surrounded by a few trustworthy men and Daffyd, hammer in his hands. Imposing for all his five feet in height, mostly because he was more than half as broad.
“Good afternoon, drifters!” She called, arms wide, in unaccented Tradestongue. Daffyd translated into a few likely tongues.
“Thank you for cooperating; my crew and I are really very pleased to avoid any bloodshed.”
“We have nothing,” the rat who’d sat on the Troll said, antique pistol in one paw, pricey eyeglasses folded in the other. “Nothing worth stealing.” Bristling right to his whiskers.
“And right you are, mister…?”
“Kurtz.” He said, beady eyes on hers.
“Mister Kurtz. Right you are. Nothing worth the taking, I’m sure, but you may be unwittingly harbouring someone we want.”
Knell scanned the assembled crowd. Clenched her teeth a moment. Sighed when they a few glanced at Daffyd mid-translation. A gift for languages, but the usual Orcish lack of nuance. Ah, well. Knell looked at Noster and jerked her head toward the crowd. Noster picked a person at random – a young man with hair that gleamed red in the sunlight. The captain drew one of her pistols, a fine custom revolver, and pointed it at the boy as he was made to kneel.
“Too loyal, friends,” she said, with a note of sorrow. The cat raising a paw, and these mice were smart enough for resignation as she cocked her weapon. “Too loyal. You clearly know who I’ve come for, and you’re very good at hiding. Why’s that, I wonder?”
Stony silence. The shaven Troll straight-backed, but aggrieved. The leaderly rat with his steely eyes. A half-burned Crantiré leaning against a human pocked with blight scars, his gaze that of a frightened child, hers accusatory.
Knell pulled the trigger. Noster swore about her boots and kicked the body over the side, ignoring the cries of anguish as it tumbled out of sight.
“My nav reliably informs me I can do this all day,” Knell said, fighting to keep the grin on her face when it wanted to follow that body down. “Who’s next?”
More silence. A cold knot was forming in Knell’s stomach. Noster looked about as happy, and Wainwright was grinning, the sadistic fuck. Daffyd was impassive, of course – no Trollkin had been shot.
“Don’t usually expect it to the be first chamber, do you?” She spun the cylinder. “Next one might be luckier, the first time.” She said, staring at the resolute faces of the crowd. Noster sidled up.
“I don’t like it, boss,” she whispered. “This reeks of Throne.”
“Cult at worst, Noster.” Nell muttered. She pointed her gun at the human with her Spriggan friend. Cocked.
The Crantiré’s eyes immediately cleared, and it stepped forward to block the shot with unmistakable purpose. Tall on wooden hooves, shaggy with autumnal leaves and vines. Bark burned black and foliage free up most of his left side. Not a Magus, Knell decided, and was happier for it.
“I’m the spy,” he said. “I’m the one you want.”
Knell thought on it a moment.
“Bring your friend.” She said. Noster and a visibly pleased Wainwright hauled them both away in chains.
The sun had sunk lower in the sky. A cold wind rolled across the assembly, and they shivered, all except Knell and Daffyd. Her duster billowing, she holstered her gun, rolled up her right sleeve to reveal the tenebrous length of her prosthetic roiling with darker shades.
“Right,” she said, drawing her left pistol again. “Line up to make this never have happened.”