Nobody would meet Yadin’s eye, but that was fine. They didn’t understand what it meant to be a captain, to make hard choices. He paced the deck, hands in the pockets of his coat. He’d kept it on despite the muggy heat, because it made him look the part of captain and because the crew needed to know there was still somebody in charge. He was the captain now: the chain of command was clear. Some of the men weren’t happy about the alchemist being at the helm, but they were scared and emotional. They’d thank him when he brought the ship home. The thrice-cursed coat made him sweat like a pig in a cook pot, though; he’d sell his soul to the birds for a bath filled with fresh ice.
They’d been hearing gull calls for almost a day: home was close, he knew it. They’d been in sight of the city itself before the fog rolled in, its lights like a constellation floating above the inky midnight waters. After two godsdamned years, he’d see his Betej again. (And his child—a son? He didn’t know. They’d set sail before he knew.) He’d kiss her and call her “sugarcane,” then have a nice long bath, then kiss her again, and they’d screw until the bed broke, then he’d have another damn bath. Then he’d put on his clothes, saunter straight through the great wooden gate at Heron Hill, hand in his resignation, have one last bath for good measure (salt, salt, the endless bloody salt… it was in his hair, his eyes, carving little white roads through the lines of his already sweating hands and the chiseled notches of his tattoos, making him itch), then start his own clinic, raise his kid right, and never think about going to sea ever again. Hells, he’d probably think twice about crossing a canal. Maybe move the family inland, to Nahaj Kral or one of the Garden Cities. Betej had always wanted to, but Yadin had worried about one of the old volcanoes blowing its top. This whole mess had left him less afraid of fire—there were worse ways to go.
The waters around Hainak Kuai were usually easy sailing, but the Fantail had suddenly hit a fogbank he hadn’t seen coming, and the strong tailwind had fallen away to nothing. It had come upon them out of nowhere, and the weather wasn’t right for it: too warm. You’d sometimes get whorls of mist over the surface of the water this time of year, but this was something else. It was dense and clinging, which made it hard to see much except shadowy silhouettes of the crew. They’d been in sight of the lighthouse when it came roiling up over the gunnels, but now the light was nowhere to be seen. The smart money was on waiting it out, but there were other concerns.
There was no water left, nor food. Well, that wasn’t quite true: there was water, and there was food, but they were in the hold, and the hold was off-limits. The crew had nailed the hatch shut and piled barrels of grub food atop. A few men had protested, because they hadn’t seen…
They hadn’t seen it. How quickly it had spread. A single broken vial of the stuff. Lots of food down there, of course. The rations, the water, and the…
The ship had set sail from Gostei with twenty men, and there were only nine left. Even with all those double shifts, sleeping no more than four hours a night, they struggled to make the cutter sail true. Exigencies of command: unavoidable, no sin in triage. The expedition’s backers would understand, everybody would get hazard pay, and the crew would thank him for getting them out of a difficult situation in one piece. The admiralty had sent them deep into Suta looking for botanicals with “military applications,” and by that metric, the journey was an unmitigated success. They’d found the vials in an overgrown ferro-tech lab, deep beneath a ruined city of white stone. Ancient electric lights had come on and the screens had spoken to them, but their translator had been less than useless. He was dead now. Well, not dead, but…
A moan came from belowdecks. By Luz of the Field, by Crane of the Sky, by Dorya of the Deep, this was a disaster. He toyed with the worry beads in his pocket.
Elvar, the bosun, shot Yadin an evil glare. Elvar was a big man, with a mop of sandy-blond hair, armor grafts on his forearms, and a mouth full of iron teeth. Northerner, from… well, the North. Geography had never been Yadin’s strong suit. There wasn’t much worth investigating up that way anyway: snow, cannibals, steel cults, engineers. Worthless stuff. The savages didn’t even know alchemy, though they were always trying to crack it. Elvar’s metal teeth’d gone to rust in the salt air, of course, but he didn’t seem to care. He glared at Yadin. His hand wasn’t on his knife yet, but there was something about his poise, pent and coiled like a snake.
Yadin took a step forward. He needed to assert authority, but violence would lead to violence, and the crew could ill afford more casualties. He needed to take a more subtle approach: he tapped his foot on the deck once, twice, then he began to sing. He’d been a choirboy when he was younger, but fear and decades out of practice left his voice stiff and crackling.
The lion prowls the seas,
me lads, his wicked teeth
I know, but I’ve no fear,
I’ve got youse here, so sing
for hell and sing for home.
There was meant to be a call-and-response after each verse: Yeah nah yeah, sweet as, bro. Such a colorful expression: it meant Yes, no, maybe, we’re brothers, I won’t remember you tomorrow. The crew stayed silent. Elvar took a step forward. They’d never got on, even when the ship had been riding high—Elvar didn’t talk or dance or tell jokes. Elvar only watched and took notes in very neat handwriting in his little brown notebook and did exactly his duties and not one thing more.
A wet, choking cough reached out from somewhere below. Yadin could almost feel it in his own chest: thick, cancerous, oily. Pulmonary edema? Possible. No, no. This was no time for diagnostics. He brought his foot down harder on the deck, right on the beat. One two three, one two three.
The northern wind is cruel
and cold, she’ll rip the skin
right off your bones, so haul
away, don’t haul alone;
A voice cut through the muggy air behind him. Raspy, female: Ajat, the tall woman with the pale patches of vitiligo staining her dark skin. She spoke all the guttural island languages, plus a few more: Reo Tangata, Torad, Dawgae, and, uh… Northern. For a moment he almost lost the beat, wary that she might move to hurt him, but her voice turned into a pleasing alto harmony as they hit the last few notes together.
haul a line, haul on home.
Another moment of silence, and then he heard it. Hardly enthusiastic, but a ragged chorus of perhaps half a dozen men.
Yeah nah yeah, sweet as, bro.
He and Ajat went into the third verse, and another voice joined them, then another. Surprisingly good pipes for ruffians and thugs. The evil moans from belowdecks got louder and more insistent. Something had wiped out the people of Suta so long ago their names were lost to history and so completely that nobody dared settle there ever again. Something had turned their cities into charnel houses and their memory into smoke. When Yadin was a kid, they’d played make-believe and pretended they were valiant explorers in the Ghost Cities, cutting through dense jungle and climbing cloud-piercing towers. They’d never stopped to ask why the whole continent was silent; Suta belonged solely to the dead. He was furious with himself and his superiors and every single soul who saw the marble-white spires emerge from the mountains and got so interested in the whats that they forgot to ask about the whys.
The crew’s chant moved to match the awful groans of their colleagues. It was a song from the war, and most of them hadn’t had reason to sing it in a long time. Yadin had cut his teeth as a medic during the siege of Syalong Cherta, where they finally broke the Lion’s back. He’d hummed it to steady his hands while the bullets flew, and he hoped it would steady them now. Was it a trick of the mind, or did Yadin feel the wind in his hair? The fog hadn’t moved, but a pleasant chill ran down his spine. He scrambled for another verse. Had it really been ten years? But of course, it was a sea shanty: simple, repetitive, vulgar enough to turn the wind blue. The words came to him.
Them lion cunts, we’ll fuck
’em all, we’ll fuck ’em hard
and slow, we’ll fuck ’em up
we’ll fuck ’em down, we’ll fuck
the lion to and fro.
The whole crew was singing now except Elvar. He had death in his eyes, but it wasn’t the song. The North hadn’t been in the war—they’d vultured around the edges, taking slaves and sacrifices for their great furnace, but never actually picked a side. No, it was that the ship had lost its captain, the chaplain, the lieutenant. Beneath them in the chain of command was the alchemist, then the bosun. They’d lost them because Yadin had the parliamentary warrant to oversee sample collection, and somebody had mishandled one of the flasks—somebody curious, maybe, or just clumsy. The incident still sat ill with some of the crew, festering in their minds. Yadin hadn’t experienced quite this sort of hatred before, but he’d seen strains of it; he’d heard whispers. He couldn’t mention Parliament without Elvar spitting out “provisional”—the war wasn’t over, after all, it was just a decade since anybody had seen a Ladowain warship anywhere south of Dawgar, and they certainly weren’t coming over land; Hainak forces controlled the great bastion at Syalong Cherta. The desert north of the ancient chain of mountain fortresses was strewn with rusted tanks and acid-eaten armored cars, its cave networks infested with the ravening offspring of early-model artillery shells that had failed to detonate on impact. Every so often somebody would spot a Ladowain scout car patrolling outside the guns’ range and remember that the war wasn’t technically over, that resentment between nations was still festering after ten long years.
Tonight’s hatred was different: right before him, front and center. He could almost feel Elvar’s dagger in his heart. He rubbed the tattoo on the back of his hand—a pig in a crate, an old sailor’s charm to ward against drowning. Ajat had given it to him—they’d gotten exceedingly drunk about a year back, and he’d let her go to work with a whining electric device she’d managed to smuggle out of the Vault, which she powered by plugging it into her own scalp. When he’d asked why a pig in a crate, she’d shrugged and said, “Pigs float.” It still itched on cold days, and he was worried the damage might be permanent. He’d get a proper fleshsmith to look at it back in Hainak. An electric needle? Gods, what strange things foreigners did.
No kings no more, no gold,
no thrones, no steel shackles
cold, we sail through hell on
frozen swell, and sing to
warm our souls.
Elvar took another step forward, his hand perched on the hilt of his dirk. He was close enough to smell now: salt and shit and stale rum. The sounds from below ceased, and so did the singing. The scrape of drawn steel cut through the night—metal weapons. Gods—Yadin didn’t know how to fight. He’d patched up a lot of men afterward, though, and he knew one thing: you got no winners when weapons came out, only the dead and the suffering. He drew his own pistol and raised it. It was long-expired, the grubs inside having starved weeks ago. He cleared his throat and—
“LIGHT!” shouted Ajat.
They’d almost missed it in the fog, to their port side. It was smaller than Yadin had imagined, its beacon struggling to pierce through the fog. He couldn’t even make out the lighthouse, but he didn’t care—just one little light changed the whole shape of the evening. It flashed on and off in short and long bursts. The codebook was with the captain, and talking to the captain wasn’t an option right now. It didn’t matter; the crew was hooting and hollering, cheering and crying.
In the midst of it all, Yadin made eye contact with Elvar. The homicidal intent remained, but then Elvar smiled. Slowly, with exaggerated care, he put the knife back in its sheath and looked toward the light. It would do, for now.
“Light the lamps! Drop anchor! Break out the oars!” said Yadin. He was the captain now, dammit. Well, acting captain. Same thing. The ship sprang to life around him. The Fantail itself was becalmed, but they could row the boats to the lighthouse and get their report in to Hainak. Somebody from Parliament could pick up the ship; somebody with quarantine experience, or failing that, a box of matches and as much liquid fire as they could carry. It was done. It was somebody else’s problem.
The sails were already trim, but they dropped the anchor to be sure. They put red filters in the lamps to warn of danger and strapped them along the gunnels. There was a single yellow lamp on the starboard side that Yadin didn’t remember hanging, but he had other things on his mind. When it was done, they dropped the boats. They only needed two, and Yadin made sure he wasn’t in Elvar’s.
Yadin was not a sailor: he hated the sea. He’d taken the job for his country, and because the little man with the parliamentary seal had offered a bigger number than he was willing to say no to. Nevertheless, the slap of oars on the glassy water filled him with immense pleasure. He hummed as he rowed and didn’t even complain about what the crush of oars against waves would do to his flawless surgeon’s hands (excepting the tattoo—wine could make men do strange things). He was going to go home, kiss his wife and call her “sugarcane,” and never leave land again.
The first shot took him just below the clavicle, perhaps an inch above his heart. He dropped the oar and tried to cry out as the grub began to do its vile work under his skin. The neurotoxins hit his nervous system, and he screamed. He knew in an instant that it was fatal, but he wasn’t dead yet. The thump-thump of borer fire came from the direction of the lighthouse—little wet blooms in the fog, glistening like morning dew, almost beautiful, if you could ignore the chattering of their sharp little teeth flying closer and closer. He drew his pistol and tried to return fire, but nothing came out. He fell backward into the dinghy. The other crew fell, or dived overboard, or reached for their own guns. The bottom of the boat was full of water, and Yadin realized that some of the grubs had hit their hull; the little bastards would go through wood just as happily as flesh. His mouth was full of blood. He rolled onto his stomach, then shrieked in pain as salt water rushed through the hole in his chest. The little lifeboat yawed, then broke in half. Yadin went under. Shots smashed through the surface of the water above him. His nerves burned, but his skin was so very cold.
As the red lanterns on the Fantail winked at him, they might as well have been a world away. The yellow lantern, too, blurry and indistinct through the surface of the water—odd, he still didn’t remember hanging that one. Elvar sank beside him, eyes sightless and jawline a ragged mess of muscle and bone. Yadin slipped farther down into the water, and darkness took him.