Knell woke to the gentle hum of the engine and the easy rhythm of Cerro’s chest. She reached out to flick on a lamp, filling the cabin with a warm orange glow. His breath on the back of her neck tickled and she needed to get to the drop closet, but she only wriggled deeper under the covers, closer to him.
Eventually she had to quit the warmth of the bed, but the cabin wasn’t much cooler.
She stepped lightly across the much colder, metal floor of the cramped drop closet, shivered on the seat, and washed herself up for the day ahead.
Or night, she mused, seeing the clock on the opposite wall as she emerged back into her quarters. She left Cerro to sleep – last night had to have been harder on him.
A pacifist and a prostitute, and I dragged him around a warzone all night. She thought, sweeping her locks from one side over the buzzed part of her scalp, self-consciously covering the crude patch-job on the other side, and sat in a padded chair at the foot of the bed. Part of her was glad he hadn’t turned out to be one of those concubine-assassins that kept popping up in chip novels.
He stirred. She threw a curtain open to reveal a clear night sky, groaned, and fell onto the bed beside him. His arm was around her before he was fully awake.
“Slept late,” he said.
“Yeah. At least I had nothing to do today.”
“The ship runs without a Captain?”
She grunted. “Does now. Cleared out the problem crew, and Daffyd will keep the rest in line.”
“Sounds like you ask a lot of him.”
Knell held herself still for a moment, and turned to face him. Opened her mouth to speak, and he stopped it with a kiss – but she held the thought.
“You ask me a lot of questions like that.” She said.
“Important questions.” He said.
“I do not know what it is to be a pirate, or a captain, or an exile. When you come to me for help, I can’t tell you what to do.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Do you really need to?”
“…I suppose not. But I’ve told you everything I remember about my life, everything I’ve done. I know so little about you.”
“And do you really need to?”
“That is getting annoying.”
“Perhaps you don’t like the answer.”
“It wasn’t an answer!”
“I didn’t mean that…”
She sighed, and sat up.
“Breakfast,” she said. “And then a tour of the ship. And I suppose I should see what the zealot and the imbecile are doing without supervision.”
“That is uncharitable,” Cerro said, softly. Chiding.
“It is.” She said, and started dressing.
After a long pause, he too began to dress.
“What happens now, Knell?”
She turned away as she laced her breeches, pointedly tugging them up tighter.
“We stay somewhere that won’t go insane for a week or two, sign on as privateers, and lobby for a posting in the ‘sea.”
“And I just come with you.” He said, flatly.
“Yrva’s clanking balls, yes, Cerro. You come with me, so you’re safe.”
“I was safe in Towerpeak.”
“Until Towerpeak stopped being safe.”
“Will Shaydensea be better?”
“Yes. I’ll be there with you.”
“You’re getting possessive, Knell.”
She buttoned up a vest in silence.
“Even if I was in another profession, Knell, I’m not to be owned.”
She strapped on the sheath of her new weapon, nestled across the small of her back.
“I know!” She snapped, turned to face him, hands on her hips. She let them fall limp at her side.
“I know,” she said, quieter. “I just don’t want to lose you, Cerro.”
He shook his head, moved to embrace her. His clothes still smelled of sweat and gunsmoke. She leant into him, hands tucked under her chin.
“I will stay with you until Towerpeak is safe, and then I am going home. You can visit me, like you always have.” He said.
“It’s a dangerous world, Cerro. If you can’t protect yourself…”
“I will be careful,” he said, conciliatory.
Knell stepped away, rubbed her eyes, and made for the door.
“Let me show you around, introduce you to some of the crew.”
The galley was crowded, a faint smell of sweat covered by sweet spices and rich meat, and a powerful dose of cleanser. The crew were subdued, but still the rumble of conversation drowned out all other noise. A few waved, or made sloppy salutes in Knell’s direction. A crewwoman whose name Knell couldn’t recall tried to make a lewd gesture when she saw Cerro, but Celridge, one of the potential mutineers, slapped her hand down with a warning look. Knell ignored it and spooned out two bowls of stew, handing one to Cerro and seating herself at the head of the table. Daffyd finished washing his bowl and loomed at her side, offering his seat to Cerro.
“Good stew,” she said. “Whose idea was this?”
“Noster,” Daffyd said. “In an effort to bribe the crew, she purchased lamb in amounts outside the agreed budget. Acting quartermaster Fisk decided it would be good for morale, and not to use it would be intolerably wasteful.”
“Well,” Knell said, as a chunk of meat dissolved in her mouth. “Enjoy your promotion, Quartermaster Fisk.”
Fisk, seated two seats down, stood and saluted. The crew pelted her with bread and chunks of carrot, jeering. She weathered it with grim patience, and Knell fancied this was far from the first time.
“Settle down!” Daffyd yelled.
“And extra pay for John. Outstanding work.” She said, glancing around for the cook. He raised his mug, saying nothing.
Knell finished her meal in silence, as Daffyd filled her in on recent events. Percy and Thousand Blades Smiling had almost come to blows, but were now the best of friends. The crew had taken to calling the other guest Stumpy, and Knell groaned around a mouthful of food. That kind of thing stuck.
“They are on the top deck,” Daffyd said. “Wainwright is with them. He and the monk appear to share an affinity for murder.”
“Fucking. Marvelous.” Knell said, dropped her bowl in the sink, and stretched. “Well, if they’re not dead yet, they won’t be soon. C’mon, Cerro, let’s introduce you to Harrow.”
She took a step to the door, stopped, and turned, thoughtful.
“Listen up, crew. This here,” she laid a hand on her lover’s shoulder, “is Cerro. Treat him with the same respect you do me. If anyone wants to cry favouritism, they’d be right – but fuck ‘em. His stay comes out of my cut.” There was a brief, cheerful chorus of assent.
“As for the other passengers – be nice to the monk, because she’ll gut you. Be nice to the tree, because he’s a simpleton. I am itching to hand out some proper reprimands, lads, don’t test me.”
Another ripple of ‘aye, captain’.
“Finally, I’ve made a decision about our way forward.”
All conversation stopped. This had their full attention, Knell thought.
“I’m planning to sign the ship up with the Throne Aerial Legion, and aim for a posting in Shaydensea-” A murmur of mixed dissent, curiosity, and elation. “-So when we next stop, we’ll renegotiate the charters and all contracts. I won’t force you to come with me in this, but I’d be damned happy to have you. You proved you were loyal during our night at Towerpeak. If the Dragon is giving us orders, then I’d want you all at my back.”
A ragged cheer went up, and Knell grinned.
“That went well,” Cerro murmured.
“Better,” Knell said. “Much better than I thought.”
“Hell if I know. Dinner was very good.”
“I meant, why was that better than you thought?”
“Oh,” she waved a hand. “Pirates hunting pirates is a hard sell. On the one hand, you almost always get to keep some good loot and you don’t have to worry about the authorities, ‘cause technically you are the authorities. On the other hand,” she held out her shadowy limb. “You’re subject to oversight, have to register takings, wait on wages, and you could get conscripted for a proper war.”
“It’s been a long time since there was a proper war.”
“All the more reason to be paranoid,” she said, opening the door to the bridge and stepping through.
“Quiet evening, Captain,” Harrow said, without looking up.
“A good one to you, Harrow. What’s our heading?” Knell said.
“Thought Farsight Commune was a good stop?”
Knell shook her head. “Too soon since last time. How about Measle?”
Harrow adjusted the controls. “Can do. Botanical Gardens?”
“I was thinking of the theatre, but Wainwright does love those gardens for some reason.”
“Considerate,” Cerro said.
“A happy crew is a fighting crew,” Knell said.
“Or mercenary,” he said, chuckling.
“Who’s the boy?”
“Cerro,” Knell said.
“Nice to meet you,” Harrow said.
“You reek of sex, by the way.”
Knell bristled, but Cerro only laughed.
“I’ll get Percy to look at the shower eventually,” Knell said.
“You should, what with these tight quarters.” Harrow sniggered.
“Are you asking us to leave?” Cerro said.
“Nah. Just a friendly reminder.”
“We’re leaving anyway,” Knell said, taking Cerro’s hand and dragging him away from the forward window.
“Righto. Come back with a drink and keep me company later.”
Knell lead Cerro towards the top deck.
“Is she… always there?” He asked.
“Yes,” Knell said. “Harrow’s never been satisfied with the body nature gave her. Spends her money on anti-agapics, psychosurgery, biomods…”
“That seems too personal a predilection for you to share.”
“She’s had so much work done on her brain, it’d be hard to really offend her or make her feel betrayed. She doesn’t do fear, or sleep, and her anger is on a leash. She’d tell you all this herself, if you asked.”
Cerro went quiet. Knell decided not to press the matter now, but he was thinking loudly. It’d be nice to get his real opinion on something, for once. She liked him better when he was judging someone. Someone other than her, at least.
Maybe if he wasn’t right so often.
It was a cold night, and Knell shivered as she emerged from the hatch onto the top deck. A small space, maybe twelve metres long and six wide, ringed by a very low rail and slightly sunk into the hull. Knell had considered having a gun installed up here, but so far it hadn’t really seemed necessary.
“Captain,” Percy greeted her, with a nod, gesturing for her to join the little group. He, Blades, and the Crantiré currently known as Stumpy were sat around his hot-plate, a big pot of tea steaming into the night air.
Percy was tall, for a rat. Graying fur, shot through with lines of silver. Shrewd, alert eyes. Missing a finger from his left paw, and dressed in tight-fitting robes patched and repairs half a dozen times.
Blades sat to his right, on the opposite side of the pot, and Stumpy beside her. The Spriggan was staring up at the stars.
Cerro, smiling, took the offered space and glanced over his shoulder at Knell. She shivered again, and sat close to the drifting steam.
Percy took the green-enameled pot off the plate, and turned it up. Knell leaned forward, gratefully, as the wizened rat began to pour.
“You hide strange wonders in your crew, Captain,” Blades said. “Who could guess I would find him here?”
Knell shrugged. “Don’t know the value of theology, Blades,” she smirked. “That’s my problem.”
“Truly,” the monk replied, as if that was that. Stumpy was now staring at Knell. So like a child.
“You will need to learn, Captain,” Percy said, handing her a delicate cup of jasmine tea.
“Why’s that, Percy?”
He sipped his own tea, rolled his shoulders, and remained silent a moment.
“Thousand Smiling Blades believes you to be an agent of prophecy, Captain. In this, she demonstrates wisdom and ignorance in equal measure.”
Knell glanced to Blades, who was grinning.
“Prophecy is hope, and hope is a subtle poison, Captain. You would do best to ignore it, and listen carefully to Thousand Smiling Blades.”
“You aren’t making sense, Percy.” She looked to Cerro for confirmation, but he was watching Percy in the same way he’d looked at the Vampires. She sighed, dramatically.
“More all-powerful ancient creatures lurking in plain sight, then? More privileged glimpses of the secret history of the world?” She sneered.
Cerro shook his head. “It’s his philosophy that scares me,” he said. “Why haven’t you already killed him?”
“Why the fu-”
“Because heresies are often truths too fearsome to contain,” Blades said. “Pursuer of Blasphemies is terrible indeed, to accept these things as true.”
“It’s just Percy, now,” the rat said, quietly. Blades recoiled as if she’d been slapped, and said nothing.
“Do I need to understand any of this jabber? What’s the fucking prophecy, anyway?” Knell grumbled, blowing on her tea to cool it a little.
Blades sat straighter, recited by rote;
“Oblivion’s Hand will shatter the Gates of Death, yet leave them unbroken.
Oblivion’s Hand will sublime her wisdom of the sword, yet reach heaven by violence.
Oblivion’s Hand will seize the Throne of Want
And the world will end.”
Knell shook her head. “Bollocks.”
“See, even Percy knows it.”
Blades shrugged. “All refuse the call, at first.” She said.
Knell held up her black hand. “It’s a fancy prosthetic, Blades, not a… a divine mandate.”
“And yet you destroyed the Gate of Death,” she said.
“Fuck right off. I wiped someone’s memory.” She looked sidewise at the silent Crantiré, and felt a pang of guilt.
“Scripture is typically allegorical,” Cerro said.
“The value in the lie is in teaching you to see through it,” Percy said, sipping his tea.
Blades frowned. “Prophecy is prophecy. Not everyone can see the omens, is all.”
“That’s a common misconception,” Cerro said, warming to the topic. “A propensity of the mind to justify its beliefs by latching onto evidence…”
Knell tuned them out. Prophecy, philosophy, and the other p-word Cerro was interested in bored her. But it was nice to see him so excited to talk about something. She leaned against him, and followed Stumpy’s gaze up to the stars.