In the bowels of the ship, a single light dangled from the ceiling, and illuminated the old, brown stains in the floor. Knell’s prisoners sat tied to chairs, nailed to the floor. Daffyd loomed just out of the light, as best he could, and Knell dragged up an empty keg to sit on, examining the human as she did.
The grime and rags didn’t disguise the wealth in her background; skin with a faint reddish hue, the scars of augmentations removed and cheaply swept over with low-budget regenerative salve. Military posture.
Knell grinned brightly at them, resting her forearms on her knees, leaning forward.
“You’ve got an hour,” she said.
The two remained silent. The Spriggan unnaturally still under the harsh light.
“Not before we kill you, mind. Just an hour to convince me you can pay better than our current employers.”
Hard stares. Knell sighed inwardly. Carrot or stick?
“Look, I’m as torn up about the shooting as anyone,” she continued, hand to her chest. “If I wanted to kill people, I’d be a soldier. Piracy is bloodless, if you do it right.”
“And what of the slow end your crimes engender?” The Spriggan said, a note of anger in his voice. “Starving from an empty hold or denied payment?”
“Ah, well,” Knell said, leaning back, “I can’t be held responsible for the vagaries of an unkind world. Maybe their people should take better care of each other, eh? Come now, your freedom in exchange for as much as your bosses are willing to pay.”
Silence again. The woman had leaned a little closer to the Spriggan, as best she could while bound. Knell glanced at Daffyd.
“You’re the spy, Scorchface, so who is she, I wonder? I’m sure you’re trained not to break. If trees can even feel pain, maybe they switched yours off. How about her, though?” She said, rolling up her sleeve, flexing the shadowy fingers.
“Captain Knell Blackhand, by the way,” she said, casually, standing to approach the woman. “And this hand of mine has a very special feature.”
“I have trained under Fortress-Sundering Fist,” the woman said, resolute, “I can endure any pain you inflict.”
Knell tutted, shook her head. “I don’t torture, as a rule. No, this is much cleaner. I reach into your head…”
She trained silky black fingertips over the woman’s forehead, who shivered unpleasantly, “and i crush the memories I don’t like.”
She glanced at the Spriggan, “Are you two… close?”
Something like a tear ran down his cheek.
“Impressively stalwart, really.” Knell said, and stood behind the woman, fingers drumming lightly on her mane of dark hair. “So! Are you ready to make an offer, or is she going to forget how you met? First kiss maybe?” Knell paused. “Bad example, perhaps. But you’ve both had a little work done, maybe a compatibility shift was in there.”
The woman was sweating now. Shivering. Knell didn’t blame her; the process wasn’t pleasant on her end, and it was very rare she excised anything worth remembering. Normally the threat sufficed.
“Get me back to Towerpeak,” the Spriggan said. “You win. Our handlers are there.”
“And who am I dealing with?” Knell asked, hands behind her back, jauntily stepping over to the Spriggan.
“You’re better off not knowing.”
Knell stared at the back of his head, thinking. Less burns here, like he’d faced the flames head-on. Brave one, she thought. But I’d break before anyone pulled me out of Cerro’s head.
She left the prisoners to stew. Left them bound, with apologies and a cheap service golem to give them water, and headed for her cabin with Daffyd in tow.
“Yeu,” he said.
“What? Me, what?” Knell said, without turning or stopping.
“Yew,” he said again. “The tree.”
“You’re not making sense, Daffyd.”
“Most talktrees are oak or ash. That one was yew.”
Knell rolled her eyes. “I’ll keep that in mind if we need to sell him to a lumber merchant.”
Daffyd rumbled assent. One of the saving graces of their working relationship is that the Orc didn’t get sarcasm. If he had his way, he’d probably speak Tock all the time.
“I’m sure you have inspections to do,” Knell said, arriving at the door of her cabin. The corners of Daffyd’s eyes crinkled, and he gave a curt nod that was an Orcish smile before trundling back up the gangway.
They didn’t have tusks, like their Troll parents, but Orcs that learned to smile like humans made people uncomfortable.
Knell’s cabin was office in front; a small desk, three chairs (her own a high-backed leather chair), a collection of pistols hung on the walls, and a glass case full of rubies small rubies. An antique reader sat on her desk, one of the stones already slotted. She sat heavily in her chair, hands behind her head, and leaned back. When her breathing slowed, she turned the chair a little and stared thoughtfully at her bedroom, the space taking up the back of the cabin behind a cheaply installed wooden wall. Picked up the ceramic card with Peaceful Sleep printed on it from her desk. Traced the cool surface with her left hand, staring at the looping text as it swam and shifted, only legible when she focused. Something they hadn’t been able to fix.
A knock at her door interrupted the reverie.
“Come in,” She said, feigning nonchalance.
Noster stepped in, rubbing her hands, brow creased. She’d taken of her sunglasses and her eyes were eerie, dark holes in her face. A tiny point of white at their centre was all that gave her nervous glances away.
“Don’t like the look of port, cap’n.” She said, licking her pale lips. “Sky’s abuzz with outgoing ships.”
Knell shrugged. “Superstitious types don’t leave port during Foresight.”
“Reminds me of wartime-”
“Everything reminds you of wartime.” Knell scoffed. “A drinking contest reminded you of wartime the other night, and you insisted life is war all the way to your bunk.”
Noster frowned, sharp teeth just visible as her lips pulled back.
“I know you have a heart, captain. Drop the act.”
Knell’s smile faded to nothing.
“I have a heart, aye, and that’s why I learned to catch myself listening to it. Too much money riding on this one to turn back for anything, Noster.” She said, voice hard. “We won’t need long, and we’re not known mercs.”
“So you think I’m right?” Noster’s teeth gleamed in a feral grin of triumph.
Knell thought about Cerro’s hard jaw and soft eyes.
“I think I’m sick of Towerpeak, so it won’t stay our problem either way.”
“I’ll drink to that.” Noster nodded. “You’d imagine it feels like home, but the scorn off those Savaan…”
“Tell some prick she works for god and no one is good enough.” Knell agreed.
“We should sign on with Olimak next time we come here,” Noster grinned, taking one of the seats opposite Knell. “It’s pathetic, the way the locals scrape before ‘em. Wanting to join the big monster’s club.”
Knell laughed, finding the amber bottle and two chipped glasses under her desk, setting them out.
“Didn’t Percy say something about waiting for royalty to come to you?” She said, pouring.
“One of his parables, I think. How such-and-such a monk attained enlightenment. He likes to tell it after the one about the dragon and the knight.” Noster replied, picking up her glass.
“Mad rat and his ‘left-handed path’,” Knell sniggered, toasting her boarding chief.
“We should kick him off,” Noster said, clinking her glass, then gulping the liquor down.
With barely a sound, something took shape in Noster’s shadow cast upon the wall, and Knell watched in horror as a beast oozed out of the patch of shade. A cat, with fur black as night and luminous purple eyes, stalking into the room from nowhere. Knell was already standing and drawing her gun Her companion kept still, aware Knell was looking past her, and the cat ignored her. She pulled the trigger, bullet ricocheting off the floor and narrowly missing Noster. Now the cat was on the desk, in the moment between blinks, paw raised. Knell began to swing her fist, to strike it, but the creature was just out of reach. It hadn’t been until her fist passed by. Knell swore as the dissonance brought on a headache, interrupting her aim so the cat could lay a paw on her chest. Then it leapt into the shadow of the desk.
Knell forced her arm down. Compelled her white knuckles to release the gun into its holster. Noster was breathing heavily, hands on her knees.
“What the fuck was that?” Knell said.
“Dunno,” Noster shook her head. “Guarantee it was Hulbrad, though.”
Knell’s headache worsened. Hulbrad, the House of Apocalypse. Their attention was a black mark against any crew. Knell dug in her desk, emptied the chambers of the revolver on her right hip into a drawer, and loaded the gun with a single, dull bullet, coloured a bronze-brown like chocolate, from a hidden compartment.
She glanced at Noster.
The shayde nodded. “With you, cap’n.”
Halfway to the bridge, the intercom chimed.
“Hulbrad Yaga requests p-permission to board, captain.” Harrow said, cheerful.
Knell grimaced. “Top deck only,” she said into a nearby panel, and carried on towards the forward ladder.
The Hulbrad were already waiting when she arrived. Their ship seemed to be made up from silk and stiff paper, forming something like a bird with wings outstretched, like a paper sculpture that rippled here and there. It seemed to be caught in the same drifting moment every time you looked at it, regardless of how far you thought it had traveled. Her guests were three – the huge, black cat; a tall slim figure in a black suit and porcelain mask, and an elderly woman in a severe black coat, patterned with barely visible flowers in midnight hues. She grinned, mouth full of hideous fangs, and then simply smiled too-wide.
“Captain Blackhand, we presume?”
Knell grated her teeth at the voice in her head.
“That I am, cunning Hulbrad Yaga.”
“You keenly grasp the situation, I see.” The voice was that of a younger woman, oozing amusement.
“Tell me about your little trinket.”
Knell frowned, touching the skull hanging around her neck.
“It’s just an old ghost,” Knell said. “It knows some good routes, good hiding places,” she lied.
“A pilot or cartographer’s ghost, eh?” The chuckle made Knell shudder. “Or was it taken rather than collected?”
Knell frowned. “I don’t know what you mean, excellency.
“Sterling effort, but excellency is for Lezek. To be a ghost, this one had to have been living at some point – I wonder how the transition was made?”
“Sell it to me.”
She caught herself before she could stumble back. “Sell it?”
“Don’t get sentimental, captain, it ill suits pirates.. Ten thousand gems is more than fair.”
Knell narrowed her eyes. “Very generous. But I’d prefer to be sentimental about this rather than business.”
“The port is undergoing a quarantine of Necromantic artifacts.” The woman said, smugly. “I have volunteered to make confiscations. If someone else was to find it on you, why, they’d take it and fine you.”
Knell huffed. “Fine. Ten thousand.”
“Five,” Yaga replied, with glee.
Knell bit her tongue.
“Five.” And we get the fuck out of here. It’s not what we wanted, but it should only be a short wait.
The lanky creature in the mask produced a fine silken pouch from somewhere, and in a few strides stood to offer it to Knell, looming over her, the other hand outstretched for the skull.
Holding back her gorge, Knell took off the cord, unstrung the skull, and placed it in the creature’s hand. It handed her the gems, the pouch sealed with a ribbon reading 5000. Good enough a guarantee.
“Well, it has been a pleasure, deceptive Hulbrad, but we’ll need to get out of this airspace-”
“Yes,” she hissed, triumphant, as her valet returned. “You must land for an inspection and submit to quarantine.”
Knell swallowed hard. “Very well.”
“But don’t worry. They won’t hurry to search you.”
Another laugh set Knell’s teeth on edge.
A ream of fabric unfolded from the bird-ship’s side and laid itself on the deck like a tongue. Yaga and valet strode away into the ship, but the cat remained, staring at Knell, until it sank into the shadow cast over them by the Hulbrad dove. It soared away on a dark wind.