Virday, 25th of Foundation, YD180
“You have enough able-bodied crew,” said Francois, “there is no need for this.”
Knell drummed her fingers on the clean, steel arms of the chair, looking up at the tiny lights set into the ceiling. Less of a cave and more of a hole, this obsessively clean chamber in the rock, full of carefully stacked equipment of uncertain purpose, lit only by the constellations of miniscule bulbs embedded in the uneven ceiling.
“The Clawtorn alone-”
“Wainwright is off the table,” Knell said, watching as Francois attached a clear glass ampoule into an ominous, dark hypodermic device the length of her forearm. “I ask you to do a week’s work in three days, I’m going to pay the extra.”
“Honour even among pirates.”
“I don’t like debts.”
“Prudent. This will hurt.”
Knell clenched her teeth as the needle entered and suppressed a shudder at the cold, sucking feeling of the extraction.
“I’m told bites are easier,” she said, grimacing.
“Not for me,” he replied, in a tone that cut off any inquiry.
He packs the ampoule away, a little red bauble.
“One from each of the crew, except Wainwright?” Knell said, uncertain, as she rubbed her arm and climbed out of the chair.
“Yes. And the money, of course.”
“Can’t blame you. I’ve never seen so much done in three days.”
“It will suffice?”
And, Knell thought, we get to keep whatever the owners left behind.
Francois had given her a folder with his findings – notes in his steady yet scratchy hand detailing his best guesses about the curious devices in the gunship.
She waved, dismissively, as she left the room, and sent the next member of the crew in. She’d spent the last three days wondering the best way to offload that hostage and get a look at Allbright Spire – the psychosurgeon had never said how close she had to be, where in the tower.
Knell shivered, strolling back to the Rustbucket. Had she lived there, once? Her lip curled into a sneer.
Just fucking wait – I’ll turn out to be a dragonsdamned princess who wiped the memory of her cruel noble parents.
The idea made her nauseous as much as it amused her.
“I need a drink,” she declared, sitting at the grimy brushed-steel bar and resting her elbows on it. The tapster gave her a pointed look from beneath a bushy unibrow.
“You’ve just paid Francois, haven’t you?”
“Yes,” Knell said, leaning back and raising her brows.
“So a half-pint, then.”
“No, a full pint,” replied Knell, wondering what this woman cared for how much blood she’d given.
“If you’re sure,” said the tapster, pulling a pint.
Stumpy took the stool at her left, Rikker on her right, rubbing his arm with a scowl.
“Can we go somewhere without Vampires next?” He said, pointing out a bottle to the tapster before turning to Knell. “Nothing but trouble.”
“We can try,” she replied.
Rikker snorted. “Yeah, I suppose that’s all. Suckers’re everywhere.”
“You were ready to worship them, back in Towerpeak,” Knell said, arching a brow and sipping her pint.
He shrugs. “People tend to pray when their back’s against the wall.”
“You were on a fucking skyship!”
“Well,” he shrugged, “they have some scary guns on that tower. Seemed like we’d have a better chance getting away if they thought we were on-side.”
“Noster seemed pretty into it.”
“Noster had a little shrine in her berth,” he said, sipping his drink. “You didn’t know she was born at Towerpeak?”
“Tend not to ask my crew those kind of questions, Rikker,” she said. After a pause: “Sober.”
“Suppose now’s the time, then,” he said, grinning offering his glass. Knell tapped hers against his.
“What now, anyway? You have a plan?” He asked.
“Pretty simple. We have the money to get Wainwright a doctor, so we’ll leave him in Moonbend to be treated. I’ll take the gunships to Allbright and ransom the kid. We’ll offload those who don’t want to work in the Legion, sign up…” she trailed off.
“And then take care of some other business.”
“Why’re we joining the Legion, really?” he said. “We can dump the monk in Moonbend and get back to life as usual.”
“Because I don’t want to run and I don’t fancy fighting her. Besides, she’d kill me in my sleep.”
“She’s only one woman, Captain-”
“I fought her, however briefly, Rikker. She can beat me. I don’t know that I can get a shot sooner than she can stab me,” Knell replied, taking a deep draught. “And like I said – in my sleep.”
“As you like, Captain,” said Rikker, shrugging. “You don’t have to fight her fair, you know.”
“I’m not risking crew for this.”
“You’re happy to risk crew for anything else-”
Knell’s fist slammed the bartop.
“Fuck you, Rikker. We all take risks when we go raiding,” she snarled, jabbing a finger at his face.
“Don’t you dare, don’t you fucking – “ she struck the bar again – “dare to tell me I risk their lives for nothing. You’ve been doing this longer than me and you should damn well know better.”
The tapster loomed into view, and Knell almost jumped to her feet.
“No trouble,” she said, pointedly, and Knell nodded, sullen.
“No,” she said, draining her glass and giving the impassive Rikker a sidelong glance as she stormed out.
Virday, 30th of Foundation, YD180
Knell glowered at the smoking streets.
“Another civil war,” she said, flatly. Rikker and Daffyd stood behind her, trailing ends of hair and clothes drifting oddly in the eddies of the ‘Sea. The view from the Death’s topdeck was less than ideal, but she could see enough.
“A riot, more accurately,” Daffyd said, hands behind his back, standing at attention. “The librarians do not rule Moonbend and the Quiet Man is not directly involved.”
“He’s never directly involved,” muttered Rikker. “That’s the point.”
“So what is actually happening?” Knell snapped, turning to face Daffyd, with Rikker looking on expectantly.
Daffyd shrugged. “There was a massacre attributed to the vampires in the library, and the population have turned against them. The Quiet Man’s enforcers are trying to keep it under control, but the citizens will not back down.”
“Why is it always fuckin va-” Knell snarled, and stopped. She pauses, looking over her shoulder the plumes of smoke around the dome of the Archive, the crowds like teeming insects when seen from so far.
“Where is Blades?” she asked, through gritted teeth.
“We have not seen her,” replied Daffyd.
Knell’s brow creased and she made for the hatch, longcoat sweeping behind her. I am not going to like what Percy tells me, she thought, and slid down the ladder.
She found the Rat in his berth – a former closet in the aft of the ship, equipped with a little bunk and many shelves for all his things; a variety of teapots, fragrant pouches of leaves, and more books than Knell thought she could read in a lifetime. Although, she admitted to herself, it might be easier for others.
He was sat on his bunk with eyes shut and legs crossed, but spoke first.
“A revelation, captain?” he said, and Knell was sure he was thinking about smirking, even if it didn’t show.
“What is she doing, Percy?” asked Knell, leaning against the doorframe.
“Serving her purpose, Captain.”
“Don’t muck about, Percy. Explain.”
Percy sighed, opened his eyes, sat more comfortably.
“I don’t expect you to comprehend all of our beliefs, Captain, but you understand the basics?”
Knell nodded. “Each monk worships a god from the pantheon except Mytherion, and you can tell them by their fighting style, their attitude. I can recognize Galathine adherents and Adjukant worshipers, but I couldn’t place Blades.” She paused. “Is she the exception?”
“Our purpose, however we embrace it, is to destroy vampires,” Percy said, as if oblivious. “Each one a warrior without peer, able to fight a dozen ordinary troops to a standstill if not massacre them. With what are we armed in this duty?”
Knell stood straight, tamping down on her mounting irritation. “I’ve seen swords and staves, mostly. Killing tools.”
“And by what means are vampires slain?”
“Among other things. How do you know the victim of a vampire?”
“Bite marks, if there’s even that much left.”
“What is Blades’ weapon?”
“A pair of needles…” Knell was beginning to understand and her guts turned to ice.
“We cannot fight all the vampires,” Percy continued, “We cannot simply face those who have ingratiated themselves into the community. Their evils are seductive, and they are often cunning. I was a warrior, Captain,” he looked at her with weary eyes “Thousand Blades Smiling is a murderer of holy purpose.”
“So she wanders around getting people to turn on vampires instead of killing them herself?” Knell was aghast. “She’ll kill innocents over it?”
“No one is innocent, Captain.”
“Look, fuck your philosophy for a minute,” Knell growled, “are you telling me I’ve been carting some deranged terrorist around all this time? Did she do this to Towerpeak, too? It was the slaves that turned there, they must be used to death by vampire.”
He shrugged. “You encountered her hunting Feidhlim, did you not? He was an affront to Mytherion. Perhaps she found a means to lure him out, perhaps she was just in the right place…”
“Fuck’s sake,” Knell slumped against the frame. “I don’t have time for this – I need a doctor for Wainwright, new papers, and to get our hostage out of here.”
“The riots are contained,” he said, “and so should not much interfere.”
“Fucking hope so,” she muttered.
“Does this mean we can skip the Legion, Captain?”
Knell practically spun on the spot at Rikker’s intrusion.
“What?” She blurted, eyes narrow.
“If Blades’ has gone mental you don’t have to worry about her demands anymore, right?”
“Right… yeah, well, minds are made up, ain’t they?”
Rikker gazed impassively for a moment, as if studying her face.
“Yeah,” he said. “I suppose they are. Artyom’s first, then?”
Knell sighed and nodded. “He’ll know someone.” She took a step, but whirled on the rat. “You had nothing to do with this, Percy?”
“My crusade is ended, Captain.”
“When I’ve dealt with this mess,” she growled, “you and I are having a long conversation.”
Percy nodded. “Not as long as that revelation has taken you, I hope,” the graying rat smirked. Knell smiled in spite of herself and kept moving.
“You’re with me, Rikker,” she said, brightly, and Rikker swore.
They disembarked into the warehouse not long after, Knell in the lead with Daffyd helping a bound and hissing Wainwright to follow. Rikker was practically armoured in bullets, bandoleers crisscrossing his chest. Knell glanced between him and Fisk, rolling her shoulders and swaggering through the doors to the street, “You feel a bit underdressed, Quartermaster? I feel a bit underdressed.”
“You won’t laugh when I have to mow down a pack of agitators, Captain,” said Rikker.
“No,” Knell replied, more quietly. “I won’t.
The streets of Moonbend didn’t bustle; no buskers or hawkers to be seen, locals scurrying to safety or gathered in close, heavily armed mobs on corners. Aside from gestured threats at Wainwright’s approach, no one bothered Knell and her crew as they crept toward the healer.
“Ain’t Artyom a doctor?” Rikker asked, as they crossed a more populous boulevard to the curiosity of cafe patrons.
“Wainwright won’t go near Lybarim doctors for all the gems in the ‘Sea.”
“Right. We’re just lucky there’s a Communer on the island.”
Knell paused at the end of a narrow alley, a little bronze sun hanging overhead from a washingline. “Someone did check that they’ll work on brains?”
All eyes turned to Daffyd.
“No. No one was dispatched to discuss this with the healer.” He said.
“For fuck’s sake,” Knell thumped the wall with her shadow fist and kept walking. “Why not, Daffyd?”
“Because you never ordered it, Captain.”
“I just assumed you all knew better!”
Rikker shrugged, “I didn’t know healers couldn’t heal things. Why would anyone else in the crew?”
“It’s not that they-” Knell started, and stopped, and breathed. “Never mind. Communers can’t all do everything and most won’t go near the brain. This might be a wasted trip.”
“And then we just ask Artyom,” Rikker said, cheerfully.
“Fuck off, Rikker,” Knell muttered, craning around the corner at the end of the alley to see a rust-coloured mushroom the size of a house, complete with twee round windows and a wooden door, bursting up through the rock and given a wide berth by nearby homes – an overgrown square in the middle of the tenements. “This is the place.”
The door opened to admit them on its own, revealing a cozy one-room home that reminded Knell of a midwife’s cottage she visited a few years back; lots of shelves and low tables covered in trinkets and baubles, jars and bottles and pots of herbs. “Ho there,” called the owner – a silver-haired man with bushy beard and simple robe, sitting at a desk strewn with paper and brushes. He turned to face them as they piled into the room, smiling in a way that felt detached, to Knell. The smile faded, though not completely, when he saw Wainwright.
“Hello, doctor…?” Knell said, holding out a hand. He stood, but didn’t shake.
“I’m no doctor. Call me Cornelius,” he replied, looking the group over. “What seems to be the problem?”
“Our friend,” Knell started only for Rikker to snort. She gave him a dirty look and continued, “took a nasty blow to the head and hasn’t been himself since, we were wondering if you could fix him up? I’ve got gems…”
Cornelius shook his head, gestured for them to find seats amid the bric-a-brac. “Sit down. Sit down. Tell me what happened and I’ll examine him afterward,” he said, lighting an electrical hotplate and setting a teapot upon it.
Knell shook her head, sitting heavily and resting her face in her hands. “We were boarded,” she said. “We don’t know if a stray bullet hit him or if it was a ruptured bulkhead, but he’s not been himself since. Ship’s medic says his brain can’t heal.”
“I see,” Cornelius replied, nodding, hands clasped in front of him as she sat. Daffyd stood beside the door, Rikker made himself comfortable on a huge cushion, and Fisk sat straight-backed on a stool. Wainwright crouched on the floor in front of Knell, suspicious, mewling softly.
“And you would like me to heal it, of course,” Cornelius continued, watching the pot. “I don’t accept money,” he added.
“Then… a favour?” Knell offered, brow creasing.
“Not quite. Tell me why he deserves it.”
“What?” Fisk almost barked, incredulous. Knell’s ill feeling only got worse.
“What do you mean, deserve it?” she said,
“I have no doubt this will be a difficult task for me. Make it worth my while.”
“We’ve said we can pay-”
“And I don’t need your money.”
“Just to be told why you should heal him?”
The only sound was the boiling water.
And then: “What exactly do we have to tell you?” Knell asked.
“Who is he?” Cornelius said, mildly, pouring strong-scented tea. “Is he worthy of healing, or is this a punishment he deserves?”
“That’s fucking inhuman,” Fisk said, bristling.
“Yes,” Cornelius said, meeting her eyes. “It is.”