“I’m assuming the cargo is below?”
He didn’t meet her eye, dark hair hanging over his face, staring at the pile of dust and steel that was his bodyguard.
“You killed her. Completely,” he said, sounding younger than he looked.
“Terrible shame,” Knell said, grip tightening, “but she didn’t give me a choice, did she?”
Fisk took the pistol and gave Knell an inquiring look.
“Grab him, watch him, and let’s go see his prisoners.”
Knell lead the way out and down to the staircase in the back, then gestured to the boy in his obvious finery. “You first. In case anyone would otherwise feel like taking a shot.”
The boy stared up at her for a long moment, blued-eyed, pale, until Fisk nudged his shoulder with the muzzle of the stolen pistol. His footsteps were heavy on the stairs, but it was a dull sound and carried poorly.
He stopped at the first exit, peering out into the corridors. “Is this it?” Knell asked, leaning by to see for herself. No sight, few sounds, and those were distant.
“I… think so,” the boy said, and Knell sighed.
“Nope. Let’s see what is here, anyway. Makes sense you’d be keeping ‘em in the belly,” she said, and left Fisk and the boy at the doorway.
Bloodstains and a few bullet-holes were scattered over the corridor and adjoining rooms; ammunition spilling from crates in one, rice in another, spare uniforms in a third. Few bodies and clean kills meant it wasn’t Wainwright. No more knights, which Knell couldn’t place as a bad sign or good. Satisfied, she returned to Fisk and the captive to descend deeper into the ship, down looser, rattling steps to the lowest deck. The engine room hummed ominously at their backs as they turned to face the heavy doors of the cargo bay, left ajar and unpowered. A dim rumble of voices crept through the aperture, and Knell waved her blade at Fisk; boy first, then you.
That she’d cover them was implied, but Fisk didn’t look happy as she pushed the child ahead, into the room beyond. No shouts, no gunfire, and Knell followed with her weapon outstretched, sweeping the blade across the room, eyes following the point.
The room was empty, and silent. Knell frowned and looked again for obvious Magic. Fisk caught it, though; “the engines, Captain,” she said. Knell understood; the engines dropped to a bare tremor and the sounds she’d come to ignore were gone. The ship was dead in the air.
“We win, then,” Knell said, slinging her weapon into the holster and crossing the room. She didn’t see Fisk relax.
The next room was what she’d been looking for; the smell hit her before she had to see a thing. With the engines powered down, ventilation was limited to key rooms – and a cargo bay wasn’t one of them.
They’d done their best. Buckets in the corner, all the filth collected in one spot – but they obviously hadn’t been given the opportunity to wash, huddling in dirty clothes in the corners of the room. A mix of humans and rats, a few with collars on their necks. One does his best to stand, cheeks hollow, sharp chin beneath a rough beard, and for a moment he holds a straight-backed posture before he cringes and falls, caught and held by a burly young woman before he hits the ground.
One of the captives was small and still against the back wall. Knell grimaced and held back the taste of bile when the sickly sweet odour reached her, ignoring the would-be slaves to turn her blade on her own hostage.
The boy was white as a sheet, and promptly threw up all over his shoes. Knell sneered.
“Oh, it’s so easy when you can sit high and mighty where you don’t have to see it, isn’t it?”
“Please, I did-” he coughed, retched, tears streaking his cheeks, “I didn’t know. They said we were carrying books and screws…”
Knell was about to retort, but caught Fisk staring at her.
“He’s just a child, Captain,” she said.
“When I was his age, I was-” Knell started, then frowned, shaking her head, “fuck it, he dies. Reparations.”
Fisk stood very still, knuckles white on the boy’s collar. He seemed to be resigned to his fate, staring at the floor, sobbing softly. Knell couldn’t stand to look at him.
“Aye, Captain,” Fisk said, her tone flat.
“Get him out of here. Get the crew,” Knell said, and turned her attention to the tall man and his collared companion who now approached. They were both limping, but his was worse.
Knell took an immediate dislike to him.
He spoke, but Knell didn’t know the language. “Trades, maybe?” she said. He nodded.
“I speak enough,” he said, “do we pay you or thank you, or die?”
Knell shook her head, “thanks is enough, but if you did have some funds to spare…”
“Keep this ship. Perhaps if you lead us safely to our allies in Auerstadt there could be more,” he said.
Knell shrugged, slinging her weapon. “The ship should cover us, to be honest,” she said. The engine alone is worth a fortune.
“But not enough to join the cause?” the woman said, staring at Knell with weary resignation. One of her eyes was missing; a clean and metal-lined socket where a Manatech replacement must have sat before she was put here. Something unclean seemed to be leaking from the seam near her nose.
Knell’s dark hand rippled and hummed in way only she could notice. No blood left to boil in there, but these things found a way.
“This is as much as I can do,” Knell said, in harsher tones than she’d meant to. “I have a crew to think about,” she added, but the woman seemed unmoved.
“We must be grateful for this much. Willem Strauss,” the man said, holding out a hand.
Knell shook it, once again grateful that she’d remembered a glove, “Knell Blackhand.”
“Your reputation precedes you. I imagine it can’t all be true,” he replied, with a weak smile tugging the corners of his lips.
The woman, staring at the weeping boy, muttered “it’s never all true.”
Knell shrugged. “Less than half, I imagine.”
Heavy footsteps presaged Daffyd’s arrival, along with a dour-looking Fisk and complement of crew. Blades trailed in behind them, cheek spotted with blood like a dusting of freckles. Knell turned, arms folded, and Daffyd offered a salute.
“Rikker is on the bridge, keeping it under control. All three ships are disabled and Harrow is blocking any distress beacons as well as she can, but the field will bring us close to the ground. Wainwright appears to have boarded one of the other vessels,” he said, in clipped tones. A few of the crew exchanged uneasy looks.
The captain refused to muster any sympathy, and gestured to the room. “Get these people upstairs and into the quarters, so they can clean up,” she said, sparing the boy a glance. “And get him locked up somewhere safe until we decide what to do with him.”
“Ransom, obviously,” said a crewman – Potts. Daffyd nodded.
“The captain thought execution,” Fisk said, without emotion.
Blades took a step forward, needles in hand. Knell help up her palms. “Bit eager, there,” she said, but the monk only twirled her weapons around her fingers. “Ransom,” she said, “or the needles are for you.”
“Vow of Protection,” Daffyd said, “the child is an innocent.”
“No such thing,” Knell muttered, and waved a hand. “I gave an order, I want these people looked after.”
A chorus of ‘aye captain’ followed, and the crew set to their task. Knell watched Blades and Fisk help a sickly rat to his feet, turned on her heel, and went back upstairs, towards the bridge.
Hands tied, a line of Spire skymen knelt against the port wall of the bridge, a much larger and more complex affair than the one on Knell’s ship. A few of them were wounded, and two of the ten sat especially still, their uniforms stained with blood.
Rikker was standing over a crewman whose name Knell had never needed to know – Wesley, probably – and peering at the console with which that same man was tinkering. The rest stood a little straighter at Knell’s arrival, but she had to tap Rikker on the shoulder to get his attention.
He was holding up his hands as he turned, then relaxed.
“Should’ve known it was you, Captain,” he grinned, “I think we can fly this thing, just need to find the beacons and switch ‘em off.”
Knell nodded, and gestured at the prisoners. “We have to cut them loose, first. Land this somewhere near civilization and boot them out,” she said, “then we drop our new allies at a friendly port and hall this lot into Shaydensea.”
“No more Legion?”
“Have to offload all this stolen gear before we sign up, Rikker,” Knell said, “although the idea of handing this lot over for slaving…”
“It’d look good if we could prove it,” Rikker said.
Knell glanced around the room. “Anyone read Spire? Actually,” she held up a hand, “I’ll get Daffyd to do it. Anyone spare go secure any paperwork you can find.”
“It’d have to be ciphered, Captain,” Rikker said, leaning against a console.
“Ciphered Spire,” Knell said, shrugging. “Point is, there’s got to be some kind of evidence. And, Rikker, there’s at least one full-blood Magus onboard.”
Rikker’s face drained of blood. “Captain, if they fire off one spell-”
“They won’t,” Knell said, waving her hand. “But you understand that makes this an Inquisitorial case if we bring it to them, right?”
Rikker said nothing.
Knell wasn’t going to pursue it now. She glanced over the comms console and hit a few buttons.
“Harrow? Can you hear me?”
“Loud and clear, Captain.”
She caught herself sagging with relief.
“Wainwright sounds entirely too pleased with himself over comms from the escort. Haven’t sent a cleanup to either yet, but they’re quiet at least,” Harrow replied. “I can turn off the jammer if we’re sure all the beacons are disabled, and you’d better hurry. We’ll hit the ground within an hour at this rate, and there’s no telling who else might come through this airspace.”
“Work to do, then. Miss Viggs, I know you can fly this ungainly thing. Get us into range to board the other escort,” Knell said, “and the rest of you muster to board. They probably won’t put up a fight, but let’s be ready.”
The comms crackled again as the crew began to filter out, one staying with a gun trained on the captives.
Wainwright’s voice, pleased but ragged. “Captain are you there?”
“I’m here, Wainwright. You sound rough.”
“Railpistol, Captain. Put a hole in the ship. And my leg-” he dissolved into hacking coughs. “A few other bullets here and there, but I need a medic.”
“Belay that last order, Viggs. Keep us level,” Knell said.
Knell jogged into the corridor, shouting.
“Where’s Turpin?” She called, stopping her crew in their tracks.
“With the wounded,” said Daffyd, emerging from below.
“Get him into a dropsuit and over to the escort,” said Knell.
“Which one?” Daffyd said, still on the ladder.
“Ask Harrow,” Knell snapped, and shooed him down the ladder, following after to search for Fisk and the boy.
She found Fisk leaning against the door to the same office – on reflection it had been more of an office than a cabin – and her head snapped up. “The zealot is in there with the kid,” Fisk said, irritably. “says she won’t trust the crew with him.”
Knell swore and Fisk stepped aside as she banged on the door. A moment passed, and the door opened to reveal Blades with needles at the ready.
“Fuck’s sake, Blades,” Knell sighed, stepping past the monk who relaxed her stance.
The boy sat behind the desk, ashen faced, staring at the surface. A few drawers were open, papers and pens cleared from the desktop to the floor. “A tantrum?” Knell said, quirking a brow and glancing at Blades. The monk shrugged. “I too would be angry.”
“Alright kid – what’s your name?”
“Albert,” the boy mumbled.
“Progress. Albert what?”
“And to think,” Knell mused, “Allbright seemed less like scum than the rest of them.”
Albert glared at her. “This can’t have been done with my mother’s permission.”
“It’s sweet that you think so,” Knell said, smirking, then shook her head. “And a damned lie.”
“Believe what you want,” he muttered. “Are you going to kill me?”
Knell didn’t have to look to know Blades was tensing.
“No. You’re clearly more valuable as a ransom.”
He didn’t reply.
Before Knell could continue, Daffyd stepped into the room, panting slightly.
“Captain,” he said, “Turpin has been deployed and we’re coasting alongside the other escort now, but there’s trouble.”
“What trouble?” Knell said, turning, frowning.
“A ship approaching at high speed; Harrow says it’s the Herald.”