“I met Wainwright six years ago, not long after Daffyd,” said Knell, steaming cup of tea in her hands. Fisk had refused, watching Cornelius with narrowed eyes and folded arms from her post by the door. Daffyd watched the steam rise, placid, and Rikker hunched forward in his seat like he was at a good show. “Back when I was just a monkey under Lensman,” she continued, “chasing bounties coz the Lezekim decided slavery in the northern Circle wasn’t fashionable anymore.”
Cornelius nodded, poured more tea, ignored Fisk’s penetrating glare.
“He was prisoner on one of the ships we raided. The runt of the litter,” said Knell, “and the rest of the captured Clawtorn were butchered, too dangerous to live.”
“And he was grateful for his freedom?” Cornelius said, with an inquisitive tilt of the head.
“He didn’t get it,” Knell said, “Lensman decided that being too good at this job would be bad for business. Slavers are easy pickings. So he dumped the prisoners in easy reach of more slavers and kept Wainwright as a… a witness, to tell the Lezekim factor that the bounty was earned.” She shook her head, lip curling with disgust. “He barely spoke a word of Trades’, so Lensman coached him to say enough.”
Cornelius sipped his tea, seemingly unmoved.
“So I got a few knuckles, Daffyd, Wainwright himself, and I had us a mutiny,” Knell said, with a fierce grin, “gave Wainwright the pleasure of slitting his throat.”
“Did he even understand?” Cornelius asked, expression betraying nothing.
“What?” Knell snapped, head whipping up from regard of her tea.
“You said he barely spoke a word of Tradestongue, and he had yet to be forced to use the phrase he was taught to parrot,” Cornelius said, mildly, “and you brought him to kill your then-captain. Gave him the pleasure,” he added, glancing at Fisk.
Knell was silent, fist clenching, loathe to admit she didn’t really follow.
“You, Orc – what was this Wainwright to your crew?” said Cornelius.
“A boarding expert and extension of the Captain’s hand,” Daffyd replied, without hesitation, “a ruthless and sadistic killer kept leashed until she deemed him a necessary evil.”
Knell stared dumbly at Daffyd’s broad features, betrayal cold in her belly.
Cornelius nodded, “I am thus disinclined to heal your pet monster, Captain.”
“That’s fucking rich,” snorted Fisk, “fucking decadent.”
“It would be kinder to kill him,” the magus continued, as if he’d heard nothing.
“Wainwright is my friend!” Knell almost yelled, rising to her feet, hand flexing in readiness to raise her weapon.
“How tragic, then,” said Cornelius, with a sincerity that made Knell sick, “for anyone to be your friend.”
Rikker stared fixedly at empty space, avoiding all eyes. Fisk’s dire gaze never left the magus. Wainwright’s fur stood on end and he looked from Knell to Cornelius, lost.
“Waste of fucking time,” Knell muttered, and gestured to the exit, “let’s go.” I’ll strafe this fucking dump with the prow gun on our way out of port, she thought, shoving the door open, breathing the foggy air of the ‘Sea in deep.
The rest of her crew stumbled out into the dusky red light, Daffyd leading Wainwright and Rikker watching over his shoulder, hand on his boarding knife.
“There’s got to be another healer in Moonbend,” Fisk started, though Knell wouldn’t look at her.
“No!” The captain snapped, turning on her heel, “there’s no fucking time, Fisk.”
“There have to be more Communers, maybe a Lybarim…”]
At the mention of that Infernal House, Wainwright hissed softly, rising into an offensive posture before losing his balance and lying pathetically in the dust of the street.
“Why don’t we have time?” Fisk asked, pleading.
“Because we’re going to be in a four way war,” Knell replied, a bloom of flame lighting the distant rooftops as if in punctuation, “Fucking think, yeah? There’s the fools that Blades’ stirred up, the vampires, the Quiet Man’s enforcers, and who is the big swinging dick in this part of the ‘Sea?”
As if in answer, a ship like a massive papercraft bird soared overhead, familiar in form.
“Bollocks,” Rikker muttered, tapping the sheath on his belt nervously, “time to shove off, Captain? Take Wainwright to a port with a better class of healer?”
“Can we leave him in someone’s care?” Fisk asked.
Daffyd, silent ‘til now, nodded, “He is a liability like this.”
“There’s another healer out there,” Knell said, “has to be, but we have to get moving.”
She tried to ignore Wainwright’s soft mewling.
“He hasn’t been able to form words for a while,” Rikker said, pointedly.
“Just fucking wal-” Knell began, cut off by the report of a pistol.
Time stopped. Only that deafening boom and the wisps of gunsmoke eddying in the eldritch currents of the ‘Sea, the distant muffled sounds of conflict to contrast the frozen tableau of the three figures in the mist, and the corpse at their feet.
Daffyd holstered his pistol.
“This was a kindness,” he said, wearily.
Knell sipped the softly luminous brandy and winced, lost in the rumble of conversation. Artyom sat opposite, resting his chin on his hand, peering over the bottle with an expression of sympathy so perfect Knell knew it was engineered. It worked, even so.
“Tell you a secret, Knell,” he said in low, melodious tones, “he went out more bravely than I would.”
Knell snorted and said nothing.
“I’m serious!” He said, refilling her glass, “my family would kill me for pointing out that he and I were alike, in some essential ways – but Clawtorn like him don’t fear death.”
Knell sipped, squinted over her glass.
“I think Percy said something once about how nothing scares an immortal like the idea of mortality.”
He nodded, smiling grimly.
“Comfortable is complacent. I expect my ancestors faced death more nobly.”
Knell topped up his glass. “I thought your family were master liars, Artyom?”
“Ah, see through me, do you? Always knew you were meant for bigger things, captain.”
Knell grunted and took a drink.
“So, your papers – have you thought of a name for the ship?” He said.
“I can’t really decide now. Not after the day I’ve had.” She said.
“Fair, I suppose. I can set the wheels in motion without knowing – but try not to take too long.”
“As long as grieving takes,” she said, bitterly.
“I wouldn’t know,” Artyom replied.
“How do you keep running this gig when you can’t even do callous bravado right?”
“I take refuge in audacity. And drugs.”
“Willing to share?”
Artyom gave her a long, cool look.
“No. You don’t have time for the rehabilitation.”
Knell sighed, and drank, and stared into the glowing residue.
“Do you ever look at your life, and wonder how it go to where you are?”
“Eidetic memory, captain,” Artyom said, with a pained quirk at the corner of his mouth, “I can trace everything that I have done to be here.”
“Was it worth it?”
Artyom was silent, as the hubbub of the teahouse washed over them, and Knell wondered who else among the crowd had sat where she did now. How many of them had washed blood from their hands and kept going.
“That,” Artyom said, “is for history to decide.”
Knell snorted, “province of immortals, I suppose.”
“I’m only in my sixties, you know.”
“And six hundred years more ahead to make a difference.”
“Imperus willing,” he said, and Knell suspected a joke had just gone over her head.
She refused his pour, “I’ve had enough, I think.”
“I’ll get started on the papers. What are you doing in the meantime?”
Knell stood and stretched, checking the guns on her belt.
The crowd outside the great dome of the archive was divided into three parts, and Knell had an idea of the sides before she could hear the arguments. The Quiet Man’s enforcers didn’t have a uniform, per se, but as they stood in a line blocking access to the building the commonalities of their dress were clear. That and the hooded masks. Knell hoped living with secret police would make her revelation easier for the locals to swallow.
The other factions were less obvious, but Knell was sure one of them wanted to protect the library, if not the owners. The crowd with flaming torches dotted about was probably in favour of burning it all down.
Outnumbered enough for a little hope, she thought.
She wound her way through the murmuring mass of people, a mostly human and rat crowd with a few oddities scattered around. Shoremen and labourers, mainly, a few craftsmen and vendors, a knot of finely dressed types Knell took for either criminals or merchants. At least one person she passed had the edge of a Hulbradim tattoo creeping over their collar; an actor pretending to be a terrible spy to remind everyone the real observers have always been among them.
Knell had heard some Hulbradim could see or hear through those tattoos, and was willing to believe it. Maybe he’d be the better one to talk to, she thought, but I won’t deal with those creepy fucks until I have to.
At the front of the crowd, a short, stocky woman in a marshal’s duster was glaring daggers at a rat in a worn waistcoat and shirt as an enforcer looked on with professional calm.
“…vic institution with a proud history and noble purpose,” the rat explained, and Knell immediately pegged him as a teacher, “to burn the whole thing would be no better than… than,” his paws twitched as if he could pluck the argument from the air, “than burning a barn to remove the beetles.”
Duster blinked, slowly, and Knell guessed she was counting down to ‘draw’ in her head.
She spat toward the crowd, “It’s fulla bloodsuckers not being punished for murders,” she said “burn it down.”
“Burn it down!” a few gathered miscreants chanted, and Waiscoat looked like he might cry.
Knell simply slipped behind the rat’s back to the enforcer – she didn’t fancy pushing by Duster; people like her had Big Ideas about respect. The enforcer nodded a greeting, “Blackhand,” they said, voice distorted by a spell woven into the mask. Of course The Quiet Man’s goons knew who she was.
“Take it you have something relevant?” they continued, as the ringleaders continued to bicker, and tilted their head as if to look askance at the crowd, “Impassioned rabble-rousing is fine too; they’re not getting more riled.”
Knell followed their implied gaze, and shook her head, “you have ways, eh?”
The enforcer said nothing.
“I’ll just address the crowd then, shall I?”
“Give me a hint.”
“This whole mess is a fix – I know who the murderer is, and they’re not a Vampire.”
The masked enforcer remained impassive.
“We had some intel to suggest that,” he said, “so the testimony will be useful.”
“They’re some kind of… renegade Eotran monk, called Thousand Blades Smiling,” she said.
“A renegade monk,” the enforcer replied, and Knell swore she could hear their eyebrow go up under the mask.
“I know, it sounds ridiculous, but you know they hate vampires-”
“Right, but no vampires are-” They said, interrupting Knell and then stopping short to look over the crowd.
“Yeah, alright, I can see how that’s meant to work,” they said, “the Dellebronim did something similar at the Loomis Enclave.”
The enforcer stepped past her, touched something hidden near their throat, and spoke with a voice that echoed out over the crowd.
“Attention citizens and guests of Moonbend! The Archivist and their brood are no longer under direct suspicion of murder; you are advised once again to return to your homes and leave our investigation unobstructed!”
Waistcoat visibly sagged with relief, and Duster’s expression was inscrutable but for a faint air of contempt, but the crowd seem mostly placated; a ripple of conversation rolled through them and they begin to disperse save a few die hards on either side. And, Knell suspected, some tourists.
Duster sidled up towards Knell and the enforcer, who nonchalantly laid a hand on the butt of their pistol.
“You know somethin’?” She asked.
“Enough,” Knell replied, wary.
“Who killed ‘em?”
“That is not public information,” the enforcer cut in.
“Screw you,” Duster replied, and spat, “how’d she know?”
“They bought passage on my ship,” Knell said, hurriedly, before the enforcer could stop her.
Duster stepped back, looked her up and down, left arm taut like she was ready to pull steel or throw a punch.
“Guess you got some blame to work off,” she said at last.
“Guess I do,” said Knell, “you want to lend a hand?”
“As long as I get to pull the trigger,” she said, holding out her hand.
It was less a handshake, and more a polite grapple, and both women surreptitiously flexed sore fingers afterward.