“Attention crew,” Knell said, into the intercom, “first thing tomorrow we start charter renegotiations. If you want individual contracts, let Daffyd know. I’m too hungover to deal with anything before then – so feel free to enjoy some ground leave.”
Knell yawned, stretched, and tottered back over to her bed.
“Going back to sleep?” Cerro asked, running a finger of Knell’s sparse library. All chip novels and other dross.
“No. No, I should eat and stay awake until a couple of hours after sunset, at least.”
“I expect there are good places to eat at this port.”
“There are!” she said, sitting up suddenly. “A few. Might as well enjoy tonight while I’m here – negotiations are always a headache.”
“And you mentioned botanical gardens…”
Knell flopped back against the covers. “I’m all for going for a walk – a short walk – and dinner, but the gardens are boring.”
“It would remind me of my birthplace.” Cerro said, straightening. He was wearing spare clothes from the crew, and Knell felt they served him better than his silken wraps and satin kilts.
“You’re going to need to justify that better, m’dear,” she said.
“I can go without you,” he said, mildly.
She considers suggesting otherwise, but Measle is a safe port.
“Never been here before, right?” she said
“No,” he said. “Similar cities, though I’m more familiar with local Communes. Do you want to tell me about it?”
“Walk and talk,” she said, dressing.
“Good idea,” he said, and waited for her to finish. Pointedly not watching, she thought.
Measle stretched out below the airdock in a patchwork of light and shadow. Thirty-thousand souls to call it home and nearly double that in people passing through, like Knell and her crew. The walls were high, made of smooth, gray stone, studded with watchposts. Knell and Cerro descended from the airdock outside the walls, down a sloping and somewhat rickety flight of stairs onto the ramparts.
“Popular place, the walls,” Knell said.
“Good view of the city, nice to walk around. The checkpoints are sealed up, only accessible from inside the wall.”
“But couldn’t someone sabotage their defenses?”
Knell shrugged. “Measle’s one of those places with a ruling council of Magi. Probably some dirty great sorcerous weapon ready to blast hostile ships out of the air hidden around here.” She paused as they reached the murmuring pairs and trios ambling along the rampart, the stone stairs to street level visible a few feet away. “Not like you to ask something like that.”
“I’m worried they might attack you. You are a known pirate, yes?”
“Yes…” Knell said, glancing up and down the walk. “But Measle has no navy, and they’re not a protectorate of any of the Spires. If you don’t have to worry about pirates attacking, it’s better for business to pretend you haven’t recognized them.”
Even as she said so, a passing guard in armoured uniform gave her sidewise look; we’re watching you, scum.
Knell threw him a lazy salute, took Cerro’s hand, and lead him down into the bustling streets.
They dined at a restaurant under a canopy painted with constellations, arranged in a ring around a wide, decorative pond subtly broken into smaller tanks. The host charmed fish, shellfish, and other beasts from the water in a complex dance; the chef killed and cleaned them mid-air with deft swings of sword and knife. Assistants finished the gutting and cleaning, laying the meat on beds of herbs and rice before serving, drizzled in sauce.
“So you grew up in a Commune?” Knell asked, as she cracked a popshell along its seam and prized out the steaming meat.
“You’ve never seemed so interested before,” Cerro said, sipping his wine.
“We’ve never had an actual dinner together before,” she replied.
“I suppose the noodle-cart’s midnight special doesn’t quite count,” he said, smiling.
“No. So tell me.”
Cerro turned his head to take in the show; the red, blue, and silver creatures leaping through the air, trailed by silvery arcs of water. Caught and flipped to a chopping block, mid-flight.
“I born in Ytslaw Commune, spinward ‘round the Wood from here. You know it?” he said.
“No,” she said. “Don’t often visit the Communes.”
He nodded. “My fathers-”
“Fathers?” she said, fork poised over a morsel.
He tilted his head slightly, cutting a lightly fried tentacle on his plate.
“Ytslaw has a small number of very talented Communers. Orod, the most powerful, drew from my fathers to create me. They carried me between them for nine months, they birthed me, they raised me.”
That’s fucking weird, Knell thought, but tried not to show it.
“Must have been expensive,” she said.
“We didn’t use money at Ytslaw.”
“I’ve heard the Communes often work like that. Everything bartered?”
“From each by their ability, to each for their needs.”
“For free?” Knell said, brow rising.
Cerro managed a thin smile. “Just so.”
“So how do you end up being a joyboy if you don’t need money?” she asked, around a mouthful of crab.
Cerro’s smile remained fixed.
“It hadn’t occurred to you I was more than that?”
“It’s a perfectly valid profession,” Knell said, mildy. “Just… seems odd you’d chose it, considering.”
“How much time have we spent talking?” he said.
Knell frowned. “Hours, I suppose, but I wouldn’t really call it talking, you just-”
“Ask questions,” he finished.
“And that’s part of the job?” she said, staring at her plate with less appetite.
“For me, it is. For those trained like me,” he said.
“Your fathers supported that?” she said, steering the subject away.
“They did. My great-grandmother was a soldier fond of the Patriot’s Maxim.” he said.
“Which is…” she said, suspecting the answer would bore her, but be safer.
“I am a soldier, that my child may be a diplomat, that their child may be a teacher, that their child may be an artist,” he said, with a cadence that was clearly echoing someone else.
“And you consider yourself an artist?” she said, and managed a smirk.
His smile seemed more genuine, at that. “Do you intend to tell me I am not?” he said, and sipped his wine.
Knell shrugged, “I just know what I like.”
“And you like piracy?”
“I like freedom,” she said.
“Doesn’t everyone?” he said.
“Doesn’t seem that way. Not the ones on the top.”
“Aren’t you at the top?”
Knell shook her head, stabbed at a slice of fish with especial viciousness.
“My crew agreed to be where they are. They signed the charter, they agreed on my captaincy, and they’re treated like equal partners in the enterprise,” she said.
“When you are left with one choice, are you really free to make it?”
“What do you mean?”
“How did you become a pirate?”
“I… had a ship,” she said, “and no desire to shuttle cargo back and forth, beholden to fat cartel nobs.”
“You could have been an independent trader…”
“They control all trade across the Circle. Look,” she said, “when a strike works, no one dies and we walk away with goods that can be sold elsewhere, the prize is usually insured, and we hurt the Spires.”
“Yes. Revenge, you said.”
“It’s bigger than revenge!” she said. And became aware that other diners had stopped, were looking at her with amusement, or surprise, or concern.
“It’s about ending their tyranny,” she said, quieter.
“You were content to support the tyranny of the Savaan,” he said.
“You do what you have to, to survive,” she said.
“And if the Spires demand that you kneel or die?”
“I’ll take as many of them with me as I can.”
“Sounds vengeful, Knell.”
“So?” she snapped, dropping her fork. “Vengeance is a virtue, according to the Infernal Houses.”
“Not like you, to fall back on theology.”
“Why the fuck are you doing this?”
“I’m trying to help.”
“Fucking stop,” she said, “because I don’t need it, not in this. We’re joining the Legion, no more piracy. Law-abiding privateers.”
“So freedom has limits…”
“Believe what you like. You can’t see inside my head,” she said, and stood up. Dropped a pouch of gems on the table, and stalked out.
Cerro didn’t speak to her the rest of the night.
The crew, assembled in the Galley, chattered and laughed among themselves as Knell entered. Everyone sitting or leaning against walls, as Harrow sat at the head of the table. Her manatech eyes clicked and whirred as she glanced around, the only real giveaway they weren’t real if you discounted the acid-green colour. Her skin was a healthy tan, with a suspicious sheen, and her face devoid of lines or wrinkles. Everything else was hidden under a tight-fitting flight suit with thick, metallic collar.
“Settle down!” Daffyd barked, as Knell stood beside him. The crew obeyed, in a trickle of quietening voices.
“Where is Blades?” Knell asked.
“Top deck, with Cerro and Stumpy,” someone called.
“Get her, please,” Knell said, glancing at the papers in front of Harrow. The pilot had a pen poised over the page, ready to go.
“Draft, edit, complete?” she asked, and Knell nodded.
Blades swaggered in behind the crewman who’d been sent for her – Teso, a Shade with dark tattos all over her pale face.
“Right, now we’re all here…” Knell said, “we’re renegotiating the charter.”
“Charter has two months left on it, cap’n,” Rikker said, from the forefront of the gathering.
Knell nodded. “Right. I’ll pay out the last shares anyone leaving is owed. Now,” she said, “it’s my ship, and I have seniority, so I’m once again putting myself forward as captain. It is my intent to sign the crew on with the Throne Aerial Legion as privateers. Charter to be negotiated in light of that. Anyone want to challenge me for captaincy, before we proceed?”
Then, very slowly, Taffer raised his hand. Staring Knell in the eye. His expression was hard, the muscles in his neck taut. Knell had to focus to keep from reaching for her weapon. Taffer licked his lips, thoughtful, and finally spoke.
“I nominate Daffyd for captain.”
The crew exploded into laughter, including Knell, as Daffyd stood impassive at her side. Blades seemed bemused. Harrow leaned over and whispered, “Crew tradition.”
“Right, good,” Knell said, still chuckling – as much from sheer relief as anything – and wiped her eye. “So, here’s the deal – we sign on as privateers, which means we receive a stipend of which everyone will get a fair share. Not quite enough to live on, mind, but…” She glanced at Harrow, who nodded. “Given that they’ll be paying me a captain’s salary, I’ll reduce my share in booty to that of any other crewman. Means everyone receives a minimum of three percent. depending on our numbers.”
She looked meaningfully at a charcoal-complexioned crewman, Astrid. “Given that some of us may not want to keep on the crew however good the money, now.”
Atrid sucked her teeth – the lower set made of a fine, silver alloy, set into an artificial jaw – and shook her head. “We need severance too, Captain. It’s in the charter.”
“I said you’d get two months-”
“It’s less than the charter says. We leave, we get our share of the last prize we took and enough money for a month.”
“We’ll need it, to buy passage to a dock where we’ll get hired,” another crewman added.
“Definitely out then, Yarrick?” Knell said, frowning.
“Record as long as Astrid’s,” he said.
“I can negotiate a pardon-”
“Not for all of us, and you know it, Captain,” he said, and shrugged. “Doesn’t mean I blame you, o’ course.”
“We don’t have the money to pay that all off right now, lads,” she said, hands out in supplication. Wainwright, half-asleep and obviously bored, pushed himself from where he leaned against the wall. Offering an envelope to Knell.
“Well, Captain,” he said with feline grin, “you know how can fix that.
“This is feeling coordinated, Wainwright.” Knell said, taking and tearing open the envelope.
“Not at all, cap’n,” he said, looking pleased, hands clasped behind his back.
Knell’s brows knitted as she struggled with the graceful handwriting, the long words.
And then she smiled to rival Wainwright.