Swords in the Fire
By Dan Edelman
Aeon Song sends its condolences with Pure Harmony.
“Pure Harmony,” Omen muttered, staring down at the two men on the garret floor, the pistol and the machete. He loathed that Western religious drivel. Particularly when uttered with a Myriadian accent. He blinked away a woozy mix of sleep and ale and head knock, looked at the blood dripping off his palm, and cursed. Worse than usual. But while he’d been shot at before, he’d never actually been shot.
Sweat prickled, then washed over him. The garret was damned cold. And his bed empty. Just as well, he supposed. Whatever her name was, she needn’t be involved in this. Rain dripped from the casement. In the brittle metal predawn, shreds of fog dangled above the ship lights on Trilly’s broad lagoon. More lights dotted the desperately named Silvery Strand curling to the north. Down near Shucker’s Point where the looming hood of Trilly’s caldera fell into the sea, smoke danced, belly-lit orange. Something burned.
Omen’s ears rang. His head throbbed. He snapped his hand, whipping ribbons of blood across the floor, then wiped his palm on the duvet, cursed again. Aeon Song, less than a year in the Myriad Isles and already the gang of fanatics felt entitled. Rodonovan was right: respect had gone extinct in the Myriads. Trust with it. Unity. And maybe any chance their people had of ever returning to their land.
Omen had been born on the Swansea, hopping from island to island on ships violent with Western weapons. He’d had been raised with contempt for landlubbers, who were witless and gutless and harmless. But Aeon Song, Elijah and Ezekiel Folk and their band of zealots, were none of those things.
He wiped his knife on the duvet too. No frills titan steel blade, black gyke-skin handle, worn just right. Rodonovan had given it to him on his first raid. It will be the simplest things that you learn to love and need. The blade’s waterproof black gyke sheath stuck half out from under his pillow where he always kept it while he slept, on land or sea. He slid the knife in, held a hand back against the gash in his scalp.
Arrogant bastard, whispering that in his ear before trying to take his head.
Someone pounded on the door. Out came the blade, but he went to the heavy teak door anyway, perhaps wrongly confident that no assassins’ allies would knock. He swung the door, stepped back, the room dipping nauseously, ready for anything, he told himself.
Lucy Loganberry held a lantern in one hand and her robe shut in the other. Behind her blonde head towered Thamlin Pouten.
“You’re naked,” Lucy snapped, squinting into the dark. “Client below complained about rude noises. And I see rightly so. One of them bodies isn’t Tonia, is it?”
That her name? Omen said, “No. Morning, Tham.”
“Lookin’ like someone split your skull,” Pouten said. He held double-barreled broadbores in each hand. “That your pistol and machete?” He chuckled. “Hard to believe someone wants your head.”
Omen twisted the knob on the nearest sconce. “Imagine that.” With the sigh of gas, old bone light bloomed golden over garish red wallpaper and two bodies clad in black. “Who’s running the docks? Basil?”
“Yuh,” Tham said. “Basil Lumens. But don’t blame him though. Twisted Wrist is all blowed up.”
“Ugh, Omen,” Lucy said, forgetting her robe to cover her mouth. “Look at my rug.” She stared at the two bodies, then at Omen. “I said look at my rug, Omen. I dislike your eyes on my tits when you’re bleeding like a harpooned seal and dead bodies everywhere. Who are these two?”
Omen shrugged, sheathed his blade, and snapped his bloody hand again. He was bleeding like a harpooned seal. He pulled the mask off the first body, nearly along with his head. “Oops,” he said. “Huh. Huh. Look, Tham.”
“Fargo Caves. T’other’ll be Scratch Dabby, I `spect.”
“And speaking Western gibberish these days,” Omen muttered.
“Damn it, Omen,” Lucy said, “why are Cyphus Piptillion’s dead pogues bleeding all over my inn? Why are they on Trilly at all?”
“I don’t know,” he lied. He eyeballed the balled-up towel left over from… Tonia’s stay, then sauntered over to the bathing room for a fresh one.
“My inn,” Lucy said. “The Twisted Wrist is burning and now my inn. Rodonovan’s first mate. Rodonovan’s island. Is Piptillion taking my island?”
Omen turned up the sconce next to the dimpled mirror over the basin, placed his knife on the green marble vanity. His black hair was tarry with blood. He dipped his head. His hair swayed over the basin, and he wrung it out. He was landside only because he’d been politicking with one of the Mayor of Black Tombs’ so-called ambassadors, looking for open access to Oriel Bay for the coming storm season. Which had not gone well because the Mayor was an arrogant arse. “Well,” he said, watching his thin lips dance and his thick eyebrows bump above blue eyes, “the fire near the Point. The Twisted Wrist you say? Blown up?”
“How could you not hear the explosion?” Lucy said. “The entire inn is awake.”
“The merits of ale, I suppose,” Omen released his hair, flicked his fingers in the basin. “Half the ship was at the Twisted Wrist,” he said, wrapping a towel around his head to conceal his dread. An island swipe? Piptillion? No. Aeon Song wants Trilly? No to that too. They wanted him, his head.
“As usual,” Lucy said, “but you get what you pay for. Hags and watered-down ale and no security. No security. I have security—“
Omen held up his hand. Blood rolled down his forearm. “Lucy,” he said, gestured toward the bodies. “Security? How many dead at the Twisted Wrist?”
“How should I know? The constables shut the Strand down.”
“All. All are dead.”
The three of them whirled at the low voice.
“Sin,” Omen said, holding his knife yet again.
“I locked the door,” Pouten said. But a locked door meant nothing to the likes of Sinister Van Dyke, who drifted around the leaking bodies with nary a glance. His black gyke-skin longcoat shimmered in the sconce light, and the tattered leather-wrapped pommels of the two scimitars strapped to his back jogged with his dancer’s roll. He undid the towel and tipped Omen’s head to gingerly examine his scalp with black gloves. “Thamlin, please, go to the bar, retrieve Jester Dan before he surpasses a reasonable level of stupefaction. Be sure he has his apothecary bag. Send up Uriah too, if he’s there yet. Thank you.”
“Uriah Bloodangel is landside?” Lucy said. She glared at Omen.
“A precaution,” Sin said, his voice low, smooth as fresh cream. His trim black beard arced under high cheekbones over which nestled dark eyes and, with his mustache, framed a small mouth tailored, it seemed for murmuring promises. His hair, dropping over his shoulders in a tight tail was blacker than his clothes.
Lucy was shaking her head, hands on hips, robe precarious. ““Bloodangel is no precaution. When he’s off the ship, with his little crew, it means nothing but trouble. I want all of you out of here before Piptillion blows my inn up.” She was possessed of that erotic beauty gracing older womyn who chose independence over dubious comfort. Late thirties at least and landside since her husband died in a Taelemonite ambush near the Bitten Atoll.
Sin pointed to the machete. “They wanted enough of Omen uncharred to make a point. But you make the point: you ought to evacuate your inn now.”
“They?” Lucy said. “Piptillion? He’s a lunatic, but he’s not crazy enough to make it personal with Rodonovan. So then who is ‘they’? Omen? What is he talking about?”
“Lucy, I dislike your eyes on my sea snake when I’m bleeding like a harpooned seal.”
“Snake?” Lucy said, a dangerous smile blading across her face. “Sea slug maybe. But maybe it’s just cold in here. Tell me what’s going on.”
Sin tossed Omen his breeks and shirt. “We must go, Lucy,” he said. “Piptillion’s pogues have crushed the constables and are heading this way.” She glared back at Sin, who stood a half head taller than Omen, but weighed the same, longcoat and all. “You tars keep secrets and people get hurt. People are dying. Rodonovan has responsibilities to the island.”
The chill of the room was creeping under Omen’s flesh. Rodonovan hadn’t given up yet. “Let’s get back to Helldiver’s Ghost.”
“That may be difficult,” Sin said.
Lucy’s head shook.
“Half the ship,” Omen said, anger too crept beneath his skin.
“All of the Twisted Wrist,” Lucy said. “Lubbers are dying. How’d those pogues get their explosives past the dock master? Lumen’s men are too sharp.” Her head swung between the Omen and Sin. “Even Cyphus Piptillion doesn’t go after lubbers. You sailors have secrets.”
Piptillion was a headache, he was noise as usual; Aeon Song was the real problem. Esther. Esther was the real problem. The room door opened.
“When you said a head wound, Tham, I thought you meant a gash, not the entire head.”
“In there, Jester Dan,” Pouten said. “I’m going back downstairs.”
“Oh. Greetings, Omen,” Jester Dan said tramping into the bath. He pointed a gold-wrapped finger at Omen’s crotch. “Not much I can do for that, I’m afraid. I’m a sailor, not a sorcerer.”
“Just sew me up and let’s get back to the ship,” Omen said, pulling on his breeks. “My boots.”
“Yes, well, that may not be so easy,” Jester Dan said. His curly blond hair dangled and trembled. “Uriah says he can hold the inn for a bit, but Piptillion’s men are rolling down the Strand by the score, and they got FABs all over the lagoon now. Getting back to Ghost just the few of us, well, we better move now, Sin…”
“Damn, damn,” Lucy said.
“We’ll get back,” Omen said.
Jester Dan flipped his hair, opened his bag. “Greetings, Miss Lucy. As usual you are the apex of splendor.”
“And you’re an arse,” she said. “How soon before Piptillion’s pogues are here?”
“We were not prepared for war,” Sin said.
“Damn. Damn it! Omen, the Burning Bones are supposed to protect us.”
Jester Dan pulled a straight razor from his bag and shaved the hair around the wound. “Not too bad. Just bloody. Any whiskey in here?”
“None that isn’t already working on my head,” Omen said. “Just clean it with water. Lucy, Rodonovan will make good on this.”
“How do you make good on spilled blood? With more spilled blood?”
Jester Dan dabbed the gash with a wet tip of the towel, then deftly threaded a fine needle. Omen gritted his teeth each time Jester Dan poked the needle into his scalp. “Beautiful, beautiful,” Jester Dan said, tying off the stitch. “Landside’s much better than trying to do this during a typhoon.”
Gunfire snapped, then ripped along the tight streets below. Omen watched some lights slicing across the lagoon. Fast attack boats, hunting or defending, he didn’t know. Still too dark to see standards. Could be Piptillion’s FABs; but other corvettes and corsairs were anchored in the lagoon—or had been—and Omen knew of half a dozen dreadnoughts and even a juggernaut that had been anchored outside last night. None flying Piptillion’s Sea Dragon, but…
He saw no weapons fire on the lagoon. “Have we any FABs on the water?”
“Rodonovan moved Ghost outside the lagoon,” Sin said. “A scow is waiting for us at All’s End.”
“Rodonovan fled?” Lucy said. “Nice.”
“Doesn’t want Ghost trapped in the lagoon,” Jester Dan said. “Common sense is all.”
“Protecting his arse is all.”
Omen snatched the shirt, ready to defend his captain, when the sky lit hell orange and the air seemed to bulge with a bellowing WHUMP. Windows shattered along the Strand and the inn shook violently. To the north, ferocious flames whipped the air, spitting sparks and gouts of black smoke. An even stronger, closer explosion nearly knocked them all to the floor. Fiery streamers arced into the lagoon, and screams of panic and pain laced about the roar of fire and building collapse. Omen left his shirt unstrung, belted his knife and two pistols, none of which should’ve been allowed on Trilly last night. “Lucy, everyone out of the inn.”
“We’ll get slaughtered on the Strand,” she said. “It’s too narrow.”
“More will live down there than in here, Lucy. Move.”
“Damn you and your secrets,” Lucy said as Omen steered her out of the room. She wrenched free of his grip. “Let me be. I remember when you were just a little turd, swaddled and crying. I remember your mother.”
In the crimson-and-emerald velvet hallway luridly lit by gas sconces, throngs of inn guests boiled out of their rooms.
“The service stairs,” Omen said. Rodonovan had once given him a small picture, a trick of the West. A womyn summery dark and dressed in a sarong of countless fine stripes of countless colors staring straight at him from beneath heavy brows. Her eyes were blue crystals lighted by a soft challenge that embarrassed him still long after he’d tossed the small wonder into the Swansea.
The three sailors and Lucy pushed through a door into the perpetually dark alley behind the inn. A fine rain bristled the air, and larger drops fell from the eaves. Rats scurried away from the fire, scuffling and cheeping between stinking trash barrels. Gunfire reverberated between the inn’s windowless backside and the near vertical remnant of the dead volcano from which Trilly was formed, called the Wall, soaring skyward not six feet away. A cold breeze crashed through the dense growth furring the cliff face.
“We should move easily back here all the way to All’s End,” Sinister said.
“I’m not leaving,” Lucy said.
“The inn’s not safe anymore,” Jester Dan said.
“It’s called Lucy’s Razzle for a reason,” she said. “Everything I am is in there. And I want to keep some of it.” She looked at Omen. “You sailors know nothing about building, about having anything solid. You sure don’t own the ocean you live and die on. You keep your gods bedamned secrets, I’ll keep what’s important to me.”
“I’m not sure we’re safe at All’s End either,” Jester Dan said. Omen gave him a couple of eyebrows that made him shrug.
“It matters little to me,” Lucy said. “Luck, Omen. Luck, Sin. Luck, Jester Dan.”
“And me?” A dark bald man moved toward them from the alley between Lucy’s Razzle and the stables next to it. He too was in all black: black mail shirt and breeks, black mustache, black skin.
“You never needed no kind of luck, Uriah Bloodangel,” Lucy said, disappearing inside her inn.
Sin nodded. His black hair wore a dusting of rain beads.
“They’re everywhere,” Uriah said, his southern Swansea accent clipping his words, adding urgency despite his air of casual annoyance. He wore four pistols in holsters strapped two to a side down his torso and carried a Western rifle, what they called a pump-action sabot loader. A bandolier of fat shells hung over his shoulder. “Piptillion and others. A lot of them. I suspect the scow won’t be waiting for us.”
“At least not in any condition to sail,” Omen said. “Where are your men?”
“Dead. They fought well. Trilly is lost. Aeon Song has built quite an alliance in just a year.”
“Which way then?” Jester Dan asked.
Uriah’s head shone with sweat and rain, his emerald eyes shone with something else.
“Up,” Omen said.
The four men moved south for a distance, passing the tobacco shop, vintner, haberdashery, baker, and the Jiggery Bones, chased by the echo of chaos. Without missing a step, Uriah put four bullets into two rifle-wielding pogues who leapt from an alley between a butcher and bookshop.
When Lucy’s Razzle went up in an earth-shaking fireball, Omen pushed away Lucy’s edgy grin. The gunfire had fallen into the regular cadence of mop up and execution. The drizzle thickened into a real rain.
Aeon Song would have to pay.
Omen saw the rhomboid piece of slate marking the trail a moment before Uriah said, “There.” Shrouded in broad waxy leaves, the muddy trail took them up the cliff face at a steep southerly angle. Water sluiced off the leaves and snaked in runnels past their boots. The sailors grappled with slick mud for about a hundred yards before worn hardwood slats embedded in the trail allowed them some purchase.
The trail ended at a low bunker of granite blocks. They piled in and sat on the low bench running along three walls, breathing hard. The rain hushed on the bunker’s roof, drooled in mercury strands from the top of the slit. Gunfire cracked below.
Another Western wonder, a cannon, blocked most of the view, but Omen could still see the FABs running the lagoon. Even through the rain, Omen now saw Piptillion’s Sea Dragon sigil on their prows. Four towers of smoke climbed skyward from the Silvery Strand, melding into a grey-brown cloud. Bodies marked the street like letters scrawled intermittently on the wet cobblestone. Dragons of fire from open gas lines battered the air, along with gunfire and cries of fear and the wounded and dying. People ran south on the Strand toward Alls End, followed by Piptillion’s pogues. Their plan was obvious now. He saw no scow from Helldiver’s Ghost. Then he spotted one of Piptillion’s corsairs, Something Wicked, blocking the lagoon’s mouth. The audacity stoked his anger.
“How’s your head?” Jester Dan asked.
“I don’t know if it’s the ale or the bullet, but I’ll be much better once I poke a couple of holes into that bucket.”
“We shouldn’t linger,” Uriah said.
“Piptillion just drubbed us,” Omen said. “Piptillion. Chased Ghost, killed our men, and killed how many lubbers?”
“This is not Piptillion’s work,” Uriah said.
“But it’s my fault,” Omen said. “And I’ll have a taste of blood. Pull the covers off those barrels, Jester Dan.”
The cannon came from the Accord in the Seven Valleys, far, far west across the endless dirt. Political gifts and Omen knew these twin-barreled cannons well. Bunkers likes these had been built on all the islands under Rodonovan’s protection back when it seemed the so-called First Nations of Taelemone were fixing to invade the Myriads to end what they called pirate raiding. But they lacked the will to wage a war on the water, despite their overwhelming numbers, and the incursion never happened. The bunkers remained.
There were two low, square openings in the back of the bunker. One led to a small room packed with a cot, dry tack, and stacks of loaded magazines, rectangular, long like old map books.
“Think they’re still good?” Sin asked.
“They’re dry,” Omen said. “Can’t hurt trying.”
“Unless one of those shells misfires, jams, cooks off,” Jester Dan said from the doorway.
Omen and Sin took one magazine apiece and fixed them to the cannons. Omen sat in the worn fire control seat and chambered a shell in each cannon. Sin sat in the secondary gunnery seat.
“Bring me around, Sin,” Omen said, gripping the simple dual handle and trigger mechanism. “Bring me around. Thirty clicks, up five.”
Sin pumped the hand cranks. Omen stopped him at twenty-eight clicks. “Back three, up one.”
As soon as Something Wicked nestled within the twin sets of concentric circles and crosshairs, Omen loosed a volley.
Twin tongues of flame and a massive report. Omen grimaced against the pressure in his ears. Two smoking casings clunked onto the bunker’s stone floor.
And two silver spouts tossed into the air close to Something Wicked’s starboard side as a smoky double yellow starburst erupted at its waterline. Little figures scurried over the corsair’s deck.
Omen cursed. “Up two clicks, Sin.” His comrade complied and Omen fired again, bellowing with the cannon. Something Wicked’s foredeck disintegrated. “That’s what I mean.”
“Nice,” Sin said. “Let’s be moving.”
“Here come a couple of FABs,” Jester Dan said.
“Their guns can’t reach us.” Omen fired another two rounds.
“But their sea wasps can,” Uriah said. “You bloodied Piptillion’s nose, Omen. We best leave.”
“Not enough. Half our crew, Uriah. All of your men.”
“There will come a time to collect blood.”
Lucy’s sour expression phantomed past. “The time is now. I’ll finish that rusted tank. I’ll have my blood.”
“I see them,” Jester Dan yelled, hands over his ears. “Both FABs, two wasp boxes each. Better hurry.” He took steps toward the second low passage.
“You wish to sink Piptillion,” Uriah said stonily. “But, Omen, that will not sink the reason that the brothers Folk are doing this.”
“Are you disobeying your First?” Omen said.
“I am saving our lives.” Uriah pulled Omen out of the seat with a hand of steel on his shoulder. Another steely hand stayed Omen’s hand from grabbing his blade. “You’re angry,” Sin said, slowly easing up on his leader’s wrist. “Rightfully so, but you misdirect it. The Folks make their living that way.”
Omen wriggled his jaw to pop his ears. He could almost hear his head thrumming. “Let’s go.”
“Lead the way,” Uriah said.
“After you.” Omen pushed Jester Dan toward the second passage. “Now.” Jester Dan grabbed the top of the opening and swung himself through a silver curtain of rainwater. Over Jester Dan’s howling descent, Omen said, “You next, both of you.”
Sin and Uriah eyed each other but complied. Omen took one last look at Something Wicked. The smoking wound looked far less the bloody nose than suited him, and he considered pumping the last of the rounds into Piptillion’s junk bucket, but the whoosh of ripple-launched sea wasps ended his rumination.
He dove headfirst through the opening. He splashed down in what had once been a steep, stepped route to a small hidden dock outside the lagoon, but was now a river of mud. The leaden march of rain on broad leaves drowned beneath the roar of multiple rocket impacts. A chunk of stone or earth slammed Omen’s back, driving his face into the mud. Sucking for wind, he skated on his palms and knees down the path until it twisted into a steep dive, tumbling him feet over head to dump hard on his back.
The clouds were swollen and smoky, spilling pewter nails into Omen’s face. He shut his eyes and waited for the end of the ride.
Which arrived abruptly, yanking a grunt from him.
Omen stood slowly, rubbed his arse. Muck fell from him in clots. He dabbed the sewing on his scalp. Skirls of scarlet curled along his fingertips. He wanted to vomit.
His three companions waited, dripping onto the warped and split planks. Open ocean battered the two barnacle-crusted stone pilings. Two more thumping explosions sounded above along with the heavy downpour of earth- and stone.
Rainy sheets dragged over ragged grey water. Amid that, low and raked and black as death, Helldiver’s Ghost, rocked with all guns on deck.
“Let’s go,” Omen said, leaping into the water.
* * *
He lay on his bunk, huddled about a mug of strong black bean, glad to be dry again and on the water. Helldiver’s Ghost rolled in the pre-storm, and a drowse settled over him. The corvette had set out as soon as the four of them had been hooked out of the water and now sailed south, black running for the Fiery Ring. The storm, a tempest really, required all guns be stowed, but it also provided cover. And the Fiery Ring was as good as a mother’s womb to any ship flying Rodonovan’s Burning Bones.
The cabin door opened, cleaving the soothing orange cast of the wood stove with stern white hall light. Mantra flitted in as the door closed, the flickering firelight flinging daggers of shadow off her meager frame. The drakonnier alit on Rodonovan’s massive shoulder, spreading oversized claws. The captain of Helldiver’s Ghost, named Prince of the Myriads, Sultan of the Swansea, or Rodonovan the Pirate depending on where you hailed from, sat in the fat leather chair between the bookshelf and the stove. His head towered above the backrest.
“Sei Javala says Jester Dan did a fine job on your head,” he said. For a man nearly a giant, chipped and roped with saber and bullet scars up to three decades old, tattooed like a Gossamer Islets whore, he spoke with the silken gentility of a well-heeled bard.
“Yes, thank you, sirrah. I’m sorry—”
“You should not have bedded Esther Folk,” Rodonovan said. “But you did, and so we must work with the consequences.”
She pursued me, Omen thought. Hunted me. But Rodonovan would be looking toward the future, not dwelling in the past among excuses and lost opportunities and bad choices. Omen said, “We kill Piptillion?”
Rodonovan shook his head. Mantra hooded her wings and strutted across the giant back to settle on the other shoulder, her scales shimmering. “If need be. He is merely a tool, though I suspect he thinks otherwise. If it was only Cyphus Piptillion we were dealing with, I would drown him and be done with it. Many would thank me for the favor. But he would never do such a thing on his own. I need to kill this at the root. These Folks would destroy any chance we have at an Islands alliance. Theirs is an agenda I don’t understand nor care about really; it’s Western nonsense, has nothing to do with us. And they have burrowed in like a diggery tick in short time, and eat like rotworms. Very industrious these Folks, this Aeon Song.”
What alliance? Omen wanted to scream. He’d been weaned on such talk. Rodonovan was not a man to wallow in dreams, yet, such talk had remained talk for all of Omen’s nineteen years. More fleets than was comfortable to consider preferred to cruise free than hoist their sails in Rodonovan’s name, despite his many regal monikers. “So how?” Omen said.
Rodonovan smiled, his dashed black beard warping like the rungs of a rope ladder up his jaw line. “We have a guest. And he has shared a tale or two and will share a few more after a bath.”
Omen looked up sharply. “It’s come to that?”
“The Folks have chosen loyal, loyal people. But I mean to know what they’re up to and I mean to know quickly.”
“Then let’s do it, sirrah.”
Rodonovan grunted and stood. Mantra’s wings billowed and she took to the air, flitting out of the room with trebling peeps. In one step, the captain loomed over Omen, long fingers gently touching along the fresh bandage on his scalp. “Sleep first. You’re twice hungover. We’ll meet later in the wardroom. I should like to have a plan to burn this diggery tick from our flesh.”
Omen slept until evening, awoke not refreshed but sore and queasy. The halls were desolate, portholes shaded for the black run. The few sailors he did see wore sooty expressions of shock, rage, and grief. Friends and family died that morning. Half the ship. Helldiver’s Ghost was near crippled until they could get to the Fiery Ring.
He slipped into mess just before the galley closed and choked down a heavy nut ale and the leftovers from the evening meal—overcooked sailfin tail, burned scrapings from the pan of potato fry, a pile of wrinkled peas—not so warm anymore. He had the clout but not the temperament to make Master Sully stay on in the galley and cook him something fresh. He ate alone beside a porthole, head thrumming with a hangover that had less to do with whiskey and bullets than with the burden of so many dead deck mates. He lifted the blackout shade, glimpsing the enraged Swansea. The mundane clash and clank of the scullery mates scrubbing pots and pans stole nothing from the yowl of wind bowling about the rain- and sea-lashed porthole.
He could almost see her name out there on the savaged water beneath the lightning’s zombie glow.
He had met her at Guileless Foxy’s Moonbar on the Chimbley. A moonless night and a starshower had set the ambience. That and a dram-pop or three of oak-barrel-aged whiskey. Omen rolled a pin bone between his teeth, spit it on to his plate. Whiskey. Ever the common denominator. Yet Rodonovan never suggested Omen remain onboard and away from the taverns and inns pebbling every dry sliver of land across the Myriads; the captain needed someone he trusted walking among the lubbers, tasting the winds of their moods, their concerns and intrigues.
She’d faded out of the candle-lit dark like a prowling ragfin and sat down at his table like an old friend. Her radiant smile moved Growler Jon and Turpin off to the bar with little protest. Who on Helldiver’s Ghost didn’t know Omen’s sorcery with the mollies?
“Barkeep, I need an ale and dram-pop. So,” she said, turning her gaze on him full bore, “you’re Omen Swords.”
How many mollies wanted him simply for his name, meaning they knew the Burning Bones, the power he wielded as Rodonovan’s first mate?
grunted, drowned his last dram-pop of whiskey, and called, “Make it two ales, Ben.”
He didn’t bother asking her name because, well, so what?
But she volunteered it anyway: “I’m Esther Folk.”
And of course he knew her name, which was, of course, why she gave it. She carried a little power herself. In her last name anyway. The power of the unknown, of rumor and implication.
“Which one are you wife to?” he asked. Elijah and Ezekiel Folk, known as fair but ruthless in business, overly cautious—no one knew what they looked like—but cavalier with their seemingly endless silver and responsibility assigned to new allies, everywhere but nowhere.
Esther’s chuckle was not pretty. But she was. Well, no, pretty was not the word. If there was a word, it was a dirty and sly utterance. Pretty was delicate and sharp, seemingly fragile. Even in the Moonbar’s near lightlessness, Omen could see that Esther Folk was none of that. Dark hair, dark eyes, dark complexion, curved like the ceremonial swords of the Blacksand Tribes. She was neither the bulbous round softness of a lubber nor the wizened hardness of a tar.
“While my brothers are overly discriminating as to who I associate with, they are neither so arrogant nor deviant as to think only themselves good enough for me.”
Two mugs and a dram-pop plonked down on the table. She paid with a casual flip of coins onto the Ben’s tray. Omen ignored the barkeep’s annoyed pause and took a deep pull from his ale. “How many Folks are there?”
“Oh, we’re invisible, yet ubiquitous.”
Omen waited her out. She seemed to lose interest in him while she slugged back her dram-pop, chased it with ale. She watched the starshower overlong, until Omen’s eyes drew up to the speckle and spray of light, dashed with occasional green streaks. “What’s up there?” she said suddenly.
“Who knows? More importantly, what’s in there?” he asked, pointing at her forehead.
Another homely laugh. “Oh, at this point I suspect nothing much different than what’s grinding about in there.” She daubed a finger on Omen’s forehead and traced it down to the tip of his nose.
The evening went on from there. And all of the next day into that evening too.
He returned to Helldiver’s Ghost on a blood-blush morning, Esther Folk on his lips and mind, an uneasiness massaging his gut. He had to chase Ghost down in a scow from Haunt Ginmiller’s Blue Crabs as it sailed the southern Slaughteryard. Not cheap, nor much fun, two days late for a captain who despised insubordination. He swore she’d learned only the merest trivialities from him; he said nothing of feeling exposed and vulnerable.
“And what do you now know of Aeon Song, other than the taste of one of its womyn?” Rodonovan had asked.
“Nothing,” Omen admitted. He cleaned heads and scrubbed the cookery for three weeks. He thought of her, Esther, in a manner he found disturbing. Womyn rarely distracted him beyond the bed, yet she haunted his thoughts. And the breezes over every chunk of rock they dropped anchor at carried whispers of the sullying of Esther Folk by Omen Swords, of Aeon Song’s terrible avenging of her and its humiliation.
Omen thought about it, but not much. He’d found such trouble before. And besides, the rumors all winked, for Aeon Song was extreme and given to bombast and little else so far it seemed. Until last night.
He pushed his plate away and took his ale to the wardroom. Rodonovan sat with Sinister, Uriah, and Jester Dan around an oval cherry table with a leather map of the Myriads for a top. Sei Javala, the ship’s surgeon, navigator, and captain’s unofficial advisor, was not there; probably tied up on the bridge tinkering with the storm. A small woodstove threw some light along with lanterns on the side tables. The windows were blacked out, otherwise you’d have commanding views port and starboard.
Rodonovan leaned back in his teak rocker and smoked a whalebone pipe; the others sipped brandy or ale. The captain wore a heavy white sweater with the sleeves pushed up over his giant forearms and brown suede breeks.
Omen made sure all were well and sat. Rodonovan wasted no time.
“Aeon Song and Piptillion have lined the Silvery Strand with gibbets and claimed Trilly for the Sea Dragon.”
“Everyone on the island,” Sinister said.
“What?” Dinner turned in Omen’s belly. Taking an island was one thing.
“I suspect even Cyphus is feeling a bit caught in the wake of these lunatics.”
A swollen silence, rain seethed against the portholes.
“Someone remind me why they’re here again?” Jester Dan asked. He wore a black leather vest over red blouse and red-and-black striped breeks.
“Their father used to run the outfit,” Uriah said, “but he was assassinated.”
“That’s the word used,” Omen said, swallowing hard. “Apparently Miller Folk was some kind of activist, pursuing some fundamentalist Western religious nonsense.”
“Harmony,” Rodonovan said.
“Pure Harmony.” Sin wore a black cable knit sweater and black breeks, same as Uriah. His long fingers clasped his chin like some delicate brazier for the fury simmering on his dark face.
“Who did the deed?” Rodonovan asked.
Omen shrugged. “Imperial troops, a vengeful ghost, a daemon bound by a coven of radical witches. Take your pick. There’s no shortage of rumor.”
Uriah whispered, “I’m inclined to believe a Western warrior I once spoke with. She—“
“She?” Rodonovan said.
“Spoke with?” Jester Dan said.
“She said that a Dagian Guard ‘removed him’ was her phrase, but no one could prove it because they only ever found Miller Folk’s head.”
“Nice,” Omen said.
“Aren’t the Dagian Guards a fabrication?” Jester Dan said. “Mandy lies?”
Uriah shrugged. The orange light of the woodstove danced over his bald head. “True, this warrior was a Mandaroy RAITH. But I have reason to believe her.”
“You’ll regale us with this reason some day?” Jester Dan said.
“You ought to get to the taverns more, Jester Dan,” Omen said.
“So what does that mean then,” Rodonovan asked, “that the Mandaroy, who wouldn’t take up arms to invade Taelemone against our enemy would take action against the Folks? Are we misplaying this then? Enemy of our enemy?”
“Can still be your enemy, Captain,” Omen said. “I’m not convinced that the Mandaroy are our enemy. And I sure don’t see Aeon Song, haters of the Mandaroy, as an ally. Ever.”
“I agree with Omen, Captain,” Sin said. “Aeon Song’s agenda here may not be too clear. But it is clear that the Folks are no friends of any Myriadians, nor anyone I would ally with out of expedience. With all due respect, Captain, I think you dismiss the Mandaroy too summarily. Their decision to stay out of the invasion of Taelemone might mean we don’t have the Westerners to push off our land now. It’s said that the Mandaroy RAITHs would’ve tipped the balance in favor of the Seven Valleys.”
“That is true,” Uriah said. “Their decision not to fight was one of ideology and not politics. Their doctrine is not to take up offensive arms.”
“Their hearts push blood as oppressed as ours,” Sin said.
“We should have agents in the Valleys courting the Mandaroy,” Omen said.
Rodonovan held up hands in concession, wearing a smile that held no mirth. “A fine topic for another discussion. But we’ve no time for tangents. You’re right, Sin. I ought follow my heart, which is telling me to ‘remove’ the Folks. Gentlemyn, it’s time to bathe our guest.”
* * *
The small storage room was dark until Rodonovan fired the lantern hanging from the bulkhead, revealing a figure slumped on a three-legged stool steeping in vomit. Its hanging head swiveled wearily to spy them askance with mild defiance slanting the eyes. Omen saw the bruising about the man’s dark face, the crust of blood rimming one nostril. Helldiver’s Ghost rolled pretty deeply; the man looked sick on top of his beating. Beside him were two large tubs. Omen knew that one held saltwater, the other fresh. They sloshed with the ship’s movement.
“How many were with him?” he asked.
“They totaled five,” Uriah said. “A probe, I don’t know what they hoped to accomplish. He gave up as soon as confronted. It bothers me.”
Omen nodded at Uriah. “He’s not one of Piptillion’s. He’s a lubber.”
“Was the chum on the floor a clue?” Jester Dan asked.
“A Westerner,” Sin said. “He refuses to give his name.”
“I can change that,” Omen said, enraged by the captive’s smugness beneath the seasickness, by his own hurting head. He eased his blade out of its scabbard.
“Hold, Omen.” Rodonovan towered over the man. “You talked generally of alliances. Care to elaborate?”
The man smiled with one side of his mouth, straightened up a bit, legs straddling the stool as far as possible given the lashes. Beyond his Westernness, he was a plain sort of lubber, thin, dark curly brown hair, brown eyes—sharp eyes—but you wouldn’t look twice at him. “We seek like-minded individuals.”
“What does that mean?”
“Those sympathetic to our
“And what is your cause again?”
“We, like you, seek to regain what was ours. We, like you, seek to make up for losses. We, like you, seek purity of environment in a moment of great tumult.”
“The armies of Legion are marching. The Pure War has started. The Great Changing is upon us.”
Omen frowned as if someone had farted. He had no tolerance for this Westerner’s drivel. “What alliances?” he asked.
Rodonovan snapped his head at Omen, then gave Sinister a glance. Sin put a restraining hand on Omen’s shoulder. Omen glowered at his closest friend.
“I have here four sailors,” Rodonovan said, “who would like nothing better than to express their anger upon your person. I, however, encourage a civil dialogue between like-minded individuals.”
“Yet my hands and feet are bound.”
“Your people killed everyone on Trilly,” Omen said.
Rodonovan held up a long finger to silence Omen, who gritted his teeth. “Where are Ezekiel and Elijah Folk?” the captain asked.
The man blinked up at the captain as if trying to make sense of the question.
“Why’d they send only five of you against our ship?”
The man showed nothing but queasiness.
“Other than Piptillion, who do you align with?”
“See, this is not a dialogue.” Rodonovan nodded at Omen, who stepped forward. The captive’s eyes darted toward the knife. Omen held the blade beneath the man’s chin, who lifted it defiantly. Omen slashed downward. The man jerked; his shirt fell open. Omen cut the foot lashings. “Stand up. Stand!”
The man eased to his feet, swayed. His mild defiance held steady.
Omen flicked the button holding the man’s breeks. He yanked them down, cut the man’s underpants, then yanked the ruined shirt off the man’s back. The captive straightened up, met Omen’s stare with dim extremism gilding his gaze.
“That’s something you don’t see very often,” Jester Dan said. “He’s been, well, de-hooded.”
“You should do something about this fixation of yours,” Omen said. But the man had been cut, permanently exposed. He had never seen such a grisly custom. And he’d been to the Deep East, Sei Javala’s home island of Echeche, where a knife was taken to just about any body part. Just about.
“Sirrah,” Rodonovan said pleasantly, “if you would please get into the tub.”
“And if I refuse?”
“Stupid question.” Rodonovan clamped a massive hand on the man’s skull and lifted him into the tub. The man kicked a bit on his way in, and Omen took a little pleasure in seeing the insolent poise shiver for the first time. “What is this?” the man demanded, spitting saltwater.
“Consider it an inducement,” Rodonovan said.
Sin and Uriah circled the tank, making their intentions to keep the man in there plain by their choice of weapons: leather-wrapped truncheons. Omen’s hangover drummed. He’d seen a bath one other time and had not enjoyed it. But this time…
They said a sea prickle invasion began pleasurably. And so it seemed. The lubber twitched and groaned, sounding like a two-copper back alley blow, but wearing a round-eyed expression of worry that Omen found disturbingly satisfying.
“Where are Elijah and Ezekiel Folk?” Rodonovan asked almost casually.
The man managed to shake his head, laughed. “The Folks. We’re beyond you. We are beyond you all.”
“Tell us where that is and we’ll get you into the freshwater before it really starts to feel, you know, good.”
“Pure. Pure beyond all of you.”
“Western bilge water,” Omen muttered.
So they waited.
Groans dipped imperceptibly at first into gasps and concerned eyes widened into trapped-animal fear. The lubber began to thrash, splashing water out of the tub, yelling to start, bellows of anger. The sailors backed away as one; you didn’t want even drops of the brine on your exposed skin. Sea prickles gathered in huge blooms, making deserts of warm costal stretches along the seas south of Echeche. They were a natural disaster, despised by local fishermyn, who were known to sacrifice much to their gods to end a plague of sea prickles. Sei Javala had cultivated this crop.
Omen backed out of the lantern’s light, so no one would see his eyes close. He far preferred killing his enemies to torturing them. And he actually thought it reckless to have even brought sea prickles to the Myriads. Should even a droplet fall into the Swansea… But no captain spoke seriously of destroying his tub full.
Rodonovan let the man scream for a while, let the begging creep into the screams, before he asked his simple questions again.
“Ezra! My name is Ezra!”
“Good, Ezra, now tell me, where are Ezekiel and Elijah?”
“Vermillion Grottos tomorrow night!” he screeched. “Mayor! They’re! They’re meeting the Mayor! At Foggy! Foggy Rock’s Drop! They’re there already!”
“That’s convenient,” Omen said. “Tomorrow night. What would the Mayor want with these lunatics? Alliance? He would align with these lunatics rather than the Burning Bones?”
“This is rather all too propitious,” Rodonovan said, then turned back to the thrashing lubber. “Why the Mayor of Black Tombs?”
“Red bud! Please!”
“Red bud? Ezra? Since when has Aeon Song been importing Western poison?”
Omen thought, drink was bad enough in the Myriads, but red bud? “There’s no money in it. Not enough for the Mayor.”
“Who else is involved—“
The lubber roared to his feet, clawing at his neck. Uriah stepped forward, truncheon up, but could do nothing before the lubber ripped his own throat open. Gurgling, he crumpled back into the brine, which quickly flushed red.
“Damn,” Omen muttered again.
“Well, that was disturbing,” Jester Dan said.
“What is disturbing is the meager satisfaction I will take in killing someone not afraid to die,” Uriah said.
Rodonovan turned to Omen. “Get someone to mop this up and set course for the Grottos.”
* * *
Helldiver’s Ghost dropped anchor under a sunset of bloody gold, tucked into a narrow inlet of the northern-most islet of Vermillion Grottos, which glowed like dying fire to the southeast. It was homeport to the Mayor of Black Tombs, the Gentlmyn’s Pirate, captain of the largest fleet of sails in all the Myriads.
“I can’t figure the Mayor for aligning with these people.” Rodonovan stood on the forecastle staring toward the glitter of Vermillion spreading over naturally formed cavities and declivities, the tunnels and towers of the twilight-struck coral that was the Grottos. Mantra propped on his shoulder, murmeling.
The depth of Rodonovan’s vexation rang clear in his sudden thinking aloud. They’d hashed out ideas all last night over molasses jack and finely ground Vali Baji black bean, enhanced by a light Sei Javala conjuration. But this was the first misgiving the Captain had voiced, and it did little to quell Omen’s unease about all this. Omen had set their quickly wrought plan into motion before dawn, dispatching Growler Jon and a bag of coin by unmarked scow ahead of Ghost to contact One Ton Rollie in Vermillion.
“Perhaps the Mayor needs money,” Jester Dan offered.
“He’s the richest captain in the Myriads. That’s made it easy for him to stay unaligned.”
“Can’t be rich enough
“No,” Rodonovan said, turning from the vista, face lost in silhouette. Mantra cooed and stooped down to the headrail. “See, we don’t know enough about the Folks or Aeon Song to know what they’re negotiating with the Mayor.”
“It has to be power,” Omen said.
“A consolidation under the Mayor, meaning remove me. Possibly. Possibly. The Mayor certainly has shown no interest in flying his flag under mine. I suppose I can understand that. He’s an independent sort.”
“I’m inclined to believe the opposite,” Sinister said. “I think he is rather easily swayed by certain tongues. I do not trust Red Sky, the man’s self-interest is poison to our cause.”
“True enough,” Rodonovan said, “the Mayor’s first mate has a limited vision.”
“Not for cruelty,” Omen said. “He is as brutal as they come. His so-called ‘fire crew’ too.”
“Could be he is the Aeon Song’s access to the Mayor’s ear.”
Sin agreed with the Captain. “And Red Sky Magus has followers of his own in the Mayor’s fleet. And elsewhere. Beyond his fire crew.”
“Under the Burning Bones, I have heard,” Uriah rumbled.
“This is perhaps more complicated than we know,” Sin said.
“Then is it the right time to be doing this?” Omen asked.
Rodonovan arched an eyebrow. “I want to end this now. I don’t want to be hiding on the Fiery Ring wishing we hadn’t missed this opportunity while our future is given over to the caprice of Western maniacs. I had no doubt of your feeling on that.”
“Are we prepared for war with the Mayor?” Omen asked. He misliked being the target of the captain’s ire, which simmered below the surface like the earth’s blood that boiled out of gashes in the seafloor around the southern horn of Ammurau.
“I suspect everyone in the Myriads knows about Trilly by now,” Rodonovan said. “The Mayor cannot like the implication of that, nor misapprehend the ramifications.”
“But as you say, we don’t know what Aeon Song is about. The Mayor of Black Tombs and Cyphus Piptillion? That’s the core of a pretty disturbing alliance. They have aligned with no one in my memory. Who else has aligned with the Folks? And why?”
Rodonovan pushed away from the railing and walked toward the ladder to the main deck. Approaching clouds seemed to gather about his head. “The captains all have their own interests. Some align with mine, some do not. Many do not. But none want to see Westerners stringing up lubbers as examples. None.”
“No one will question our right to respond,” Sin said. “They will expect it.”
“Some will demand it,” Uriah said.
“Luck,” Rodonovan said, and he left them, Mantra darting up to settle on his shoulder.
The four sailors entered Ghost’s FAB bay as it flooded. Low lighting leapt about the bulkhead in frenetic chips. Sailors lowered the FAB into the rising water. Omen said, “There’ll be war.”
“So be it,” Sin said. “Any that would condone such deviance should not be flying a flag. The Mayor included. Perhaps this is a reckoning. A time to settle those who would never follow Rodonovan. A time to solidify his leadership.”
“That, Sinister, is grim.”
“I have never seen the pursuit of justice as anything less.”
Jester Dan frowned. “That poured out of your mouth like last night’s ale.”
Uriah grunted. Sin shrugged. He was not generally given to melodrama, and that too eased none of Omen’s disquiet.
Their FAB was outfitted more for the “fast” than the “attack.” They needed to be able to get out before the harbormaster had a chance to raise the Grottos Gate across Vermillion Harbor’s narrow mouth. So only the rear gun carriage remained aft; the fore gun carriage and sea wasp tubes had been removed.
Jester Dan piloted the black FAB tight along the shoreline, weaving easily among the jagged coral beds that protected most of the Vermillion Grottos’ coast from large-scale incursions.
Guards peered down on them at the harbor mouth as they glided between the two watchtowers. The mouth was wide enough to allow only a single corsair through at a time. Larger dreads and jugs anchored outside in open water. While Vermillion Grottos was the Mayor’s homeport, where he conducted his business, the bulk of his fleet dropped anchor at the naturally protected, heavily fortified, and much coveted Oriel Bay of Black Tombs Archipelago, his native island seven leagues south.
Jester Dan found a slip far from the rowdy glare of the always busy waterfront, but with a clear view of Foggy Rock’s Drop at the far end of the waterfront where the street narrowed to a promenade. It was the tallest hostelry on the waterfront, slathered in frightening bands of green and burnt orange and rusty red. It loomed over the harbor. “I know, I know,” Jester Dan said, “I’ll watch the boat.”
“You watch the watchtowers,” Sin said. “You watch Foggy Rock’s. And keep the cannon stowed and the jets turning until you hear otherwise.”
“How am I going to hear anything, Sin?”
“You’ll hear,” Uriah growled.
“And if harborwatch shows
“Bore them to death with your jokes,” Omen suggested.
“See, now that’s funny. And funnier still is how you’re going to get past the Harbormaster. All due respect to Rodonovan, this plan is, well, weak. He’s usually a bit more… careful. Aren’t we moving too fast?”
Growler Jon had returned to Ghost about a league off of the Grottos with good news. Not only would One Ton Rollie secure the party favors, but one of Jon’s sources had confirmed a very secret, very important “thing” going on that night. “We’re unarmed,” Omen said. “Except for this.” He lifted a heavy canvas bag.
“Right, no one will suspect the three of you of looking for more than a swig and bit of fig. Particularly when we anchored at Trilly, oh, just yesterday. And, oh, Trilly is no longer Rodonovans. Weapons aren’t the only thing the Harbormaster’s looking for, and One Ton has no say with the Mayor’s security. And who in the dry hells trusts Growler’s information? The Mayor could have us all arrested as threats to the peace. A few thousand silvers notwithstanding.”
“We’ll see,” Omen said, strapping the weighty sack of coin to his web belt, so it hung against his arse. Jester Dan’s concerns were stale already, risks considered and reluctantly accepted.
“Rough waters ahead,” Jester Dan sang, checking the belt feeds on the cannon. “Shoulda stood in bed, just stayed, the only swells to ride belonging to the maid…”
Omen, Sin, and Uriah left that poor excuse for a shanty and walked along the dock toward the lively waterfront, linking FABs and scows to the four corsairs open moored on the still harbor. None were unidentified. Two tars wrenching on a FAB flying the Green Hobgoblin of Glow Bob Nobbins immediately recognized the three sailors and traded a long, knowing look.
“One Ton will be at Dusty’s Wicked,” Omen muttered, feeling the first tendrils of urgency reaching from his bowels to tickle the throb in his head. The Hobgoblin was neutral at best. He eyed the rusted spike-and-razor-wire-topped iron fence separating the docks from the waterfront candied with tavern lights, laughter, and raucous music. Jester Dan was right: this was not a well-wrought plan. Assassination required a bit more malice aforethought.
The Harbormaster’s watch was a long, simple booth and gated arch arrangement at a break in the fence. Two armed men stood beneath hissing gaslights. Without hesitation Omen, Sin, and Uriah walked up to the weather-greyed booth. A third man wearing a double broad bore stepped from within. His braided mustache drooped past his couple of chins.
“Omen Swords, Sinister Van Dyke, and Uriah Bloodangel. Ought we simply shut the Grottos and call it a night?”
“Evening, Jeremany Walrus,” Omen said to the Harbormaster. “That won’t be necessary. Just looking for a drink or two, maybe a taste too.”
“Right, right. Check your weapons.”
Sin offered up a measly blade. Uriah stepped forward, yielding an aged pistol handle first, opening his longcoat to reveal nothing else. The Walrus tagged the two weapons and fit them into spaces on a wall of weapons-filled slots.
“Omen?” the Walrus prompted.
“All I have is this.” Omen lifted the bag of silvers.
“Don’t want that. What I do want is for you to get your taste and blow out of here. Do you understand me?”
Omen kept his face smooth. Didn’t like members of the constabulary period, much less when they talked down to him. “You won’t even know we’re here.”
“Oh, somehow I doubt that.”
Rankled, Omen refitted the bag of coin to his belt as they walked toward the main street. But then again, the harbormaster’s attitude, however sour, suited their mission, didn’t it? He checked his knife.
Dusty Wicked’s was a ramshackle little tavern tucked between a bakery and a cheese shop. Uriah sat on a rickety bench on the promenade just beyond the panting yellow glow of a faltering gas lamp while Omen and Sinister went inside.
Ignoring the sidelong and not-so-sidelong glances, they moved through the dim amber to stand behind the sloppy mass engulfing a stool at the far end of the bar, hunched over and clinging to a tankard of ale.
“Omen and Sinister,” One Ton Rollie said. “Been a while. Where’s that arsehole Jester Dan? I owe him a drink. And that war dog of yours? Uriah Bloodangel? Heard he’d been let slip.”
“Let’s get this done.”
One Ton unhunched himself and turned slowly with great effort. “You only visit when you need something.” He feigned hurt in his piggy eyes glittering from within bulbous folds. His dark hair lay like a flattened weed atop his head and his breath scraped from his wet-lipped mouth in slow drawls.
“You’ve been paid,” Omen said.
“That I have. Sorry about your crew. Heard Piptillion and these others were nailing lubbers and sailors alike to poles lining the Silver Strand. Can’t countenance that, can we?”
“You agree you’ve been paid?” Omen said, preferring not to have those horrible images served back to him from a mouth gouged out of that face.
Billowy cheeks drooped. “Out back, next to the rain barrel.”
“So the party’s on?”
“That I wasn’t paid for,” One Ton said with a long, black-gapped smile. He turned back to his drink. “Now get your pogue arse out of my face.”
Omen led Sin through the tavern’s crusty little kitchen and out back to a small fenced yard reeking of rotting vegetables. Between a crumpled ashcan and brimming rain barrel, they found a splintered crate resembling the trash pile it sat on.
“Must be it,” Omen said, yanking on the lid. It came apart slat by slat, revealing the gleam that Omen reviled even while it quickened his pulse. He pulled out one and then another Western close combat antipersonnel rifle and leaned them against the remains of the crate. The short, boxy C-CAPRs fired slugs filled with flechettes and unidentifiable, but highly flammable, material that required the shells be kept chilled.
Omen handed a third C-CAPR to Sin, along with a sweating clip of shells.
“I’ve heard about these slugs.” Sin said, slapping the clip into the weapon. “How long will these be stable?
“I hope long enough to finish our work.”
Sin handed the weapon back. “Anything less Western? I’d prefer not to worry about being killed by my own weapon.”
“Here.” Omen handed him a belt of blades. “You want a pistol? It’s Western, but it looks fairly tame.” He flipped the weapon to Sin, put one in his belt, then adjusted both C-CAPRs under his longcoat. The Harbormaster might be game, but that didn’t mean everyone would just let him cavort around with a weapon in full view. He was in no mood to be stopped by any of the Mayor’s security. Particularly any of Red Night’s fire crew. No mood at all. “Let’s move.” They back through the tavern. One Ton was gone, some tables now empty. Eyes watched.
Uriah glided from the sparse shadow when Omen popped out of the alley and hailed him with a whisper. “Like the scattering of rats,” Uriah said. “We won’t have much time. This going to kill me before I use it?” He slid his longcoat off to sling the C-CAPR over his shoulder. He also took a pistol.
Omen shook his head in mock annoyance, real anxiety. “A couple of slack-jawed poltroons. Look, number of shells in that clip, that thing goes off, the whole hostelry will come down. So we’ll finish our job just the same. We’ll be martyrs in the name of a loftier good.” He started down the street, moving as quickly as he could without appearing rushed.
They moved toward the waterfront’s heart. Music tumbled from nearly every door to clash and wrangle amid the throngs of men and womyn costumed in every color and custom to be found across the Swansea. Smoke from kitchens and hearths tangled with the odor of ale and piss and bodies and sex and the ocean. Roars spiked from the gambling dens and clapping and hoots from the revues and a dull din from the rest of the taverns, inns, and hostelries. Vermillion Grottos was a popular place. Everybody loved the Mayor and his excesses.
Foggy Rock’s Drop loomed over the other buildings, lurid in color and wild curves & rows of brooding ice devils, a sort of bewildered fusion of Spiced Orient and ancient Lornland styles.
A milling throng spilled like guts from Foggy Rock’s oversized front doors onto the promenade of tumbled sea stone tiles where bards played lute and geeter and drums, and dice rolled and cards snapped on portable, blue felt-covered tables. Omen, Sin, and Uriah moved through the crowd, like a nail through a balloon. Some people hurried away, others simply stopped and stared.
“Not much of an element of surprise, eh?” Omen said.
“Haven’t seen but the Mayor’s people,” Uriah said, his bald head wearing a shred of reflected light. “Some other flags, all neutral or friendly. They mightn’t be interested in telling tales.”
“None of Red Night’s fire crew either,” Sin said. “None that I recognize anyway.”
“People can tell whoever whatever,” Omen said, Lucy’s face cementing his conviction. “I want there to be no mistaking who did this.”
Pushing through the threshold, they plowed across the floor packed four and five to a candle-lit table. Three hearths thickened air already rife with the low roar of drink-driven merrymaking and hectic music jangling from a small stage overloaded with furled-brow, sweating bards.
At the bar, Omen wedged himself between two sailors disinterested in giving up any space. One of them whirled on Omen with a fierce glare that withered in recognition. He skittered to the left, drawing a growl from a third patron, then scurried off. The other sailor stepped away expressionless, leaving tankard and half-smoked cigar.
With Sin and Uriah watching the floor, Omen hailed the barkeep. The rotund man, florid and scowling, fuzzy with muttonchops but otherwise hairless, leaned into the bar with elbows stiff.
“Mayor’s suite.” He dipped his head close to Omen. “Meeting is over. The Mayor is gone. They’re up there now sampling some of their, you know, stuff. I hear they have a bit of a deep love for that filth. And their people are everywhere, Omen. Everywhere. What they done on Trilly was as bad as anything the First Nations ever done to us.” He quickly pushed away from the bar, eyes sliding this way and that, and laughed it up with a tall, slump-shouldered sailor in need of further lubrication.
Omen cast glances in an easy arc around the room before heading toward the narrow staircase near the stage. “Fifth floor,” he yelled to his friends over his shoulder.
“The Mayor’s chambers?”
“It’s easy to defend,” Uriah said.
Passing the stage, the chaotic music banged on Omen’s head. “From the front door, maybe,” he said. He climbed the stairs rapidly, moving through the fourth floor threshold without hesitation. Sin and Uriah knew what he was doing and moved down a hall gilded with lamplight. The Mayor’s suite occupied the entire fifth floor, so any harbor-front room would do.
Uriah gestured toward one room directly below the suite’s center balcony. Sin pulled a small pouch from an inner pocket of his longcoat and flipped it open on his palm. He teased out a thin pin and unlocked the door in nearly a single motion. Pouch vanished and he eased the door open. Weapons peeked from beneath longcoats as they stepped inside. Uriah shut the door and relocked it.
The room was empty, as one would expect at that time of night. A single low lamp breathed a feeble glow. Beside a small bed neatly turned down, a worn satchel bearing the rampant basilisk of Rude Twain’s fleet slouched on a simple wooden chair. Omen drew the heavy emerald drapes to reveal the balcony and the harbor beyond. A brisk wind slipped into the room. The night sky was scabbed with cloud tatters, torn from cover hovering just a few leagues west. The watchtowers’ lights cast fire across the smooth harbor.
On the balcony, he heard music from above, movement. Maybe some laughter. He imagined two sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued Westerners, belligerent and gleeful, enjoying the fruits of their subterfuge, spun out on red bud and slaughter. His men, the lubbers who trusted the Burning Bones to protect them. Were they celebrating their conquest? Swiping islands was one thing, not a good thing, but something Omen understood, this… betrayal, though, this deviance, was something else. He surveyed the layout. “Uriah, you’re on that end. Sin, on that end. We go up, we go in. We kill anything that moves. You both head toward the front of the suite. Anyone coming to help…” He shook his head. “Clear the hall so we can get out.”
“Might be the Mayor’s people if the Folks are his guests.”
“Possibly. But between you and me, I don’t care. This needs to be as clear a message as possible: associating with the likes of Aeon Song just isn’t healthy.”
“Some might find that message a little terse,” Sin said.
Omen grunted. “It’s what Rodonovan wants, else we wouldn’t be here. These outsiders don’t belong on our islands.” He grabbed the edge of the balcony overhead and hoisted himself on to the railing. Sin and Uriah followed suit.
“That’s war talk,” Sin said.
“We didn’t start the conversation,” Omen snapped. Hanging over the waterfront, the wind licked at him, chilly and gruff. He reached up and grabbed two posts of the railing above, feeling the salt-spawned craters in the finish, seeing the rusted heads of worn bolts. “Don’t hesitate.” He hoisted himself, shimmying with arms only, to the top of the railing, which trembled and rattled along with the railing below.
The clouding night scythed around him as he swung over the railing. He barely noticed the railing jerking as it slipped a bit.
He landed hard, knocking his shin on a low stone table, and swept his longcoat open, bringing the C-CAPRs to bear on two figures dancing and laughing hysterically behind the wind-whipped drapes of the balcony’s open doors. Omen roared through the doorway into the room amid a wildly flickering firelight, startling Ezekiel and Elijah Folk, one wet and naked, the other wrapped head to toe in a shapeless hooded cloak of bloody crimson, darkly blotched. The hooded one squealed.
Uriah and Sin, weapons drawn, kicked into the anteroom. Omen fired both weapons. The force of impact flung the cloaked Folk backward in a swarm of white fire as the slug exploded. The shocking recoil sent Omen’s second volley a bit wide, twirling the naked one around. Omen saw the man’s face before he flipped over the disheveled bed.
“We’ve been set up!” he yelled. Weapons sounded in the anteroom, the sound of a door rupturing, then raging weapons fire. “It’s a set up!” He leapt over the bed and squatted next to the Mayor of Black Tombs.
The man looked as if a twenty-foot ragfin had taken a bite out of his left side. Except he was also on fire. Omen tipped a vase of roses on the massive wound, trying to quench the fire, but only succeeded in spreading it across the floor. Cursing, he rolled over the bed toward the hearth and dragged the burning crimson bed sheet from the other body.
Esther Folk’s eyes were hooded, slack, dimwitted, her dark beauty fogging. Stray flechettes prickled her neck and chin like coarse hair above a smoldering crater in her chest and belly.
When most people earned only a forced chuckle, she had made him laugh. Beside her head, the hearth’s tame flames seemed silly amid the growing wildfire as drapes and bed went up. Ludicrously, he felt silly.
They were set up. By Ezra.
Ezra. And Elijah and Ezekiel. And Esther. Omen’s next thought: get out.
“We’re killing the Mayor’s personal bodyguards,” Sin said, sliding back into the room. Blood washed down the side of his face, crawled around his mustache and beard.
“Half his fleet is trying to get into the suite,” Uriah said, on Sin’s heels. He fired his C-CAPR back through the doorway, tossed it away, pulled a pistol from within his longcoat and started firing. Smoke billowed in from the anteroom.
“We got worked,” Omen said, bringing his rifles to bear on the doorway. “Aeon Song played us.”
“I suggest we exit,” Sin said, moving to the balcony. His pistol was gone.
“Where? Back down? They’ll be waiting for us.”
“Yes, down,” Sin said, kicking the loosened railing once, “all,” then twice, “the,” and again, “way,” until it broke free of its anchors, “down.”
Fire crawled across the ceiling, howling and spewing smoke, eating the dark wood moldings. The heat slashed and strangled. Men yelled, bullets whizzed by Omen’s head.
“Uriah,” Sin said, “go!”
The bald man from the Straits of Anemone emptied his pistol, dropped it, and without hesitating ran full speed off the balcony into the night.
“Go, Omen, go!”
Firing from the hip, Omen pumped slugs into the anteroom until empty. He spun and saw a knife dancing handle-over-blade on Sin’s hand. It zinged by Omen, a crisp flash amid the chaos. He didn’t bother to see its termination. He ran.
Icy blackness, veins of light. Wind.
Air pressed into his lungs. His longcoat snapped and plumed around him. He couldn’t stop whirling his arms and legs, scampering for the water beyond the promenade.
He went in not quite face first, the impact—a massive slap—drawing a shocked growl from him that he took deep into the water. He clawed upward, sucking air when he broke the oily surface. He clambered out of his longcoat, dumped the bag of silver trying to drag him down, and oriented himself. Dirty water fountained around him, the curt clap of gunshots planing the air.
Something burst in the water nearby. A moment later, amid a green-black boil, a head breached, spewing mist. The Mayor’s men crowded the edge of the promenade firing weapons; others tore along the docks, climbing into FABs and scows. “There,” Sin said, slipping from his longcoat. He pointed toward an FAB slicing a white fan from the harbor as it veered sharply around at the far north corner of the harbor, pincered in watchtower lights, chased by weapons fire and rockets. Omen saw Jester Dan at the helm and Uriah leaning into the turn, hanging on the gun carriage, ducking his head under the rain of a near-miss wasp strike.
The collective roar of FABs leaving the docks hid the crackle of weapons but did nothing to quell the bullets smacking the water all around them with carnivorous vehemence. Heavier weapons started shredding the harbor’s surface as FAB cannons were brought to bear. Instinctively, Omen and Sin dove.
Howling in his ears, and the zip of bullets burrowing past him, Omen kicked down and toward the center of the harbor, hearing his vulnerable laughter, seeing Esther’s gentle mirth and not-so-gentle desire, and unpleasantly aware that he’d have to surface at some point. Which came sooner rather than later when one of those bullets bit him in the shoulder, slamming the air from his lungs.
I will not drown, he told himself, not like some lubber. I will not. You kill my crew, set me up, then drown me like some gods bedamned rat lubber? No! He burst the surface, gagging. Thunderous pain exploded from his shoulder, quickly rendering his left arm useless. But he had other problems.
Two FABs bore down on him from across the harbor. In a blade of watchtower light, he saw the Green Hobgoblin whipping the air above one of them. And then he saw the smoky yellow flash of a sea wasp launch.
Two rockets whipped straight at him. Omen could do no more than jerk and hunch and have a simple single thought: death.
The missiles passed maybe a foot over his head with monstrous hissing.
One explosion chased the other, the concussion pushing through the water. The second FAB loosed its sea wasps and they sliced over the water and impacted somewhere behind Omen. He wheeled around and saw the flaming remains of four of the Mayor’s FABs and debris still cascading out of the night. Behind that, flames slapped over the crenellated roof of Foggy Rock’s Drop, hungry, manic.
The two Hobgoblins split off, cleaving the water. One exploded, scattering into a few fiery, flipping pieces skipping across the harbor. The other dodged a second missile strike from a corvette weighing anchor in the south corner of the harbor. The miss sent a frothy geyser skyward. Searchlights slashed from the corvette’s deck, the watchtowers, the Harbormaster’s booth, passing over Omen’s head. Heavy smoke drifted over the water and he couldn’t make out the flag hanging limply beneath the Mayor’s command standard on the corvette’s forecastle, nor could he see Sin or their own FAB. The hostelry fire cast flickering gold over everything.
The remaining Hobgoblin FAB slipped into the bay of its corvette. The bay emptied its internal berth with a blast of white water from the evacuation ports. Then its jets kicked open.
The Grotto Gate rose slowly out of the water like a leviathan of the polar oceans. Black iron, pitted and rusted and barnacled, hairy with seaweed and thorned on both sides with thick hull breakers, the Grotto Gate had been built for a siege by a people dead for ages.
Bullets continued to shred the water around him, and smoke rolled over the water now in greasy black billows. Omen dragged himself through the water, which had a pretty good chop going now with all of the activity. He kept himself moving toward the center of Vermillion Harbor in the hopes that Jester Dan would find him before another bullet or the jet of an enemy FAB did. He could tread water for days if need be, but not when he leaked blood like a two-copper hull. Not when scores of guns fired at him.
And where was Sin?
Over the chop, all Omen could see was the Hobgoblin corvette blowing for the Gate. Weapons fire arced down from the watchtowers into the corvette’s pilothouse, shattering it. The corvette answered with a volley of sea wasps that turned the watchtowers into twin flaming pyres.
The wound in Omen’s shoulder radiated pain to his fingertips, making every movement an agony. Vision wavering, strength ebbing, he imagined himself mired in the mud of the harbor bottom, bits clouding off his carcass as fish nibbled his meat.
Aeon Song did this. The Folks set him up and knocked him down. In grand but demented fashion. But it was not just about him. Was it? Elijah and Ezekiel lived while Ezra and Esther were… sacrificed. For what cause? How could you do that? To your own family?
The armies of Legion… The Pure War… The Great Changing...
All around Omen, bullets pulled ropes of water into the burnished air.
When the Hobgoblin corvette struck the Gate, its prow crumpled and ruptured, and the Gate canted with an ancient screech, dragging one of the millennia’s old watchtowers down in a wash of stone and burning timber that spilled over the crushed deck and into the harbor. Armed men tore along the breakwater, pouring weapons fire on to the corvette’s deck. FABs converged, pumping wasps into its exposed hull.
Other FABs sliced the harbor in haphazard lines, men scanning the water, weapons ready, and Omen decided he’d rather an anonymous bullet kill him, then have his last sight be some tar smiling down at him from the other end of a Western weapon.
Between two waves, he saw something bobbing in the water different from dead hull debris. He hauled himself toward it. “Sin,” he called, choking on water.
Omen reached the floundering object quicker than he thought he would. He grabbed Sinister’s shirt, and his head lolled back against Omen’s chin, a pall of red washing down the side of his face. Bullets still popped the water, but interest in killing the corvette seemed to have drawn most of the random fire away from them.
He hugged Sin to his chest and focused on keeping his friend’s head above water with his good arm. “We’re good,” Omen told him, pumping his legs in slow rhythm. “We’re good.” He laid back, Sin on his chest, and stared at the speckled sky through black swabs and sheets of smoke. Water howled in his ears, his own raw breathing. His exhaustion dulled his fury into a something aimless and gibbering. He picked a couple of stars and waited to sink.
They doubled, tripled, smeared, the stars; they danced behind the smoke lacework. Dizzy and sick, Omen found himself unable to ponder his life. He couldn’t connect anything to Rodonovan’s singular, lifelong pursuit of returning to Taelemone as a whole people. He couldn’t get past the pump of his spent legs, the tunneled bellowing in his ears, the death on the faces of the two people he’d murdered.
Water rolled over his face and Sin’s weight vanished. Omen grabbed feebly and then he was floating. It’s over, he thought, ov—
Whap! “Omen! You better reach deep. You better reach deep down.” Whap! “If you want Sinister to live, you best reach way deep. You need to man the gun, so Jester Dan can tend to Sin. Omen!”
Omen heard a lot of words. He shook his head, felt tendrils of water drooling down his face, saw Uriah Bloodangel glaring at him, looking every bit like his mythic namesake.
“Take the wheel, Uriah!” Jester Dan said from leagues away. “I’ll wake him up.”
Omen was moving again. Now he was sitting, mist battering his face in chill webs. Jester Dan appeared before him, his face as stern as Uriah’s. He rummaged around out of Omen’s line of sight and then flourished a startling needle connected to a clear bulb filled, no doubt, with one of Sei Javala’s wicked brassy-colored tinctures.
“What do you—”
Jester Dan flicked the needle into Omen’s arm. Radiating from the tiny prick, cool clarity, thin and brittle. He pulled Omen’s sopping shirt down. “Looks like the bullet passed through you, unless you took two. You hit elsewhere? Come on, Omen! Are you hit elsewhere?”
Omen shook his head; it felt like an anchor. He didn’t know if he’d been hit again. Or care really.
“You’re not bleeding much right now. Omen! Omen, you have to take the cannon. I need to control Sin’s bleeding.”
“He dies,” Omen said, blinking rapidly, nauseated, “and you join him.”
“So cute,” Jester Dan said, scuttling back toward Sin’s prostrate form.
“Hang on to your arse cheeks!”
Omen saw with euphoric lucidity Uriah at the helm silhouetted against fire, he saw the dead corvette, the Gate. The FAB climbed a massive flaming timber, leaping free of the water, sailing loosely like it might flip. Its jet wound out with an urgent wail. It clipped a Gate spike, sending its bow skyward. Omen gripped the gunwale as the boat stood on its tail.
A moment lasted an eternity before the FAB slapped down hard portside, nearly swamping. Uriah laid into the jet and the FAB squatted, rose on its foils. Soaked again, Omen struggled into the gun carriage, primed the twin belt feeds, pumped its pedals to make sure it rotated smoothly, and looked at Vermillion Grottos spread out beneath a sky lit orange by fire. Everything glassy and cold from Jester Dan’s potion. And everywhere, the Mayor’s flag and Red Night Magus’ personal standard: the Scorpion Fish.
An armada large enough to take an island.
Uriah took them toward the wall of fog.
“Where’s Ghost?” Omen yelled.
“Magus’ dreadnoughts found her,” Jester Dan said, working furiously on Sin. “She’s black running so we can’t hail her, but we’re to meet at the Dead Tower.”
A dozen or so FABs swarmed behind them, followed by two corvettes, two corsairs, and two dreadnoughts. Omen saw everything in brittle razor relief. He laughed, the gun carriage swinging. “We’re going where?”
But Jester Dan didn’t answer him. The Dead Tower was some three or four leagues out to the west. They might outpace the rocket-laden FABs, but not the larger ships. And until Jester Dan stabilized Sinister, their gunwale lights made them a fat target.
Omen’s shoulder was numb, heavy. Working the gun carriage would be tough, but any chance they had lay with his ability to create obstacles for the corsairs and corvettes. Wind shushed through the carriage, chilling him, helping him focus. The pursuing FABs needed to close the gap for any effective sea wasp strike. Omen, however, didn’t need to be so close to harry them. He opened fire.
The twin-barreled cannon spit glowing rounds that helped him track his fire toward the closest FAB. Rounds arced into the water and walked right over its deck, tearing it up. The FAB fell away, veering, as Omen hoped, into the path of the approaching armada. He destroyed one more boat before sea wasps started blazing prematurely toward them. Plumes of water exploded into the air, short and wide port and starboard. Then the corvettes and corsairs opened their massive forward cannons nearly simultaneously, a massive drum roll banging off the fog’s tendrily underbelly.
The first volley detonated short, but shrapnel frothed the water in a manner Omen found rather disconcerting. He’d never been so focused a target of such firepower, and it would only take a few more volleys to dial in their distance. And but a single air burst to obliterate their FAB.
Uriah moved the boat in sharp evasive turns, and Omen maintained fire on the FABs, really just to keep them back. Sea wasps flared this way and that, bursting closer and closer, and rounds from dozens of small area cannons stitched the water all around them.
The fog bloomed orange and heat washed over Omen. To port, the water burned. Amid the flames, flotsam, bodies, and the prow of what might’ve been a dreadnought. Ah, Ghost was here.
“That’s it!” Jester Dan yelled. “That’s all I can do! Get us to the ship!” Uriah flipped the gunwale lights off, and Omen breathed out with huge relief when blackness descended. He stopped firing the cannons so the ships couldn’t track their fire. Lights immediately slashed the night, stabbing and sweeping. Volleys from the big cannons marched toward them, spit shrapnel in sizzling lashes. Omen abandoned the cannons entirely and slammed down the emergency release, dumping the carriage into the sea. The FAB rolled some and surged ahead.
He squatted next to Jester Dan and looked down at Sinister, a dark shape on the deck. “How’s he?”
Jester Dan may have shrugged in the dark. “He needs a real surgeon. Real quick.”
“How much farther, Uriah?”
“We’re at the Dead Tower, Omen. But I don’t see Ghost in this fog and we don’t have much time. For Sin or ourselves.”
Omen crab walked to the pilot’s seat and looked over the instrument panel. With no running lights, he saw only a black void, cut by searchlights. A chill spray swarmed over his face. The Dead Tower soared above the strobe of lights, vanishing into the fog, the ancient core of some forgotten island mount. The remains of a staircase climbed its sheer façade to a long-abandoned wreck of a lighthouse built by unknown hands.
“Go around,” Omen said. “Ghost must be on the west—”
A sea wasp exploded close starboard, slamming Omen into the port gunwale. He ended up on his arse staring at Jester Dan turtled protectively over Sinister.
“I told you this plan blew,” Jester Dan growled.
Omen pulled himself to his feet, the shoulder wound unpleasantly heavy, its damage implied in a far-off echo of screaming pain. Bullets buzzed overhead and some slapped the aft gunwale. A volley of cannon fire churned the water and chewed the face of the Dead Tower; a piece of shrapnel or rock tore up the fore gun carriage’s empty well. More ripped into the hull.
Curling around the Dead Tower, they confronted a grey-black wall of fog. “They’re on us,” Uriah said, looking back at the armada, a line barbed with light and fire. He looked irked more than anything else.
Omen offered no response. He’d grown up on the Swansea, had accepted that he could never really know it or control it, that it had no use for the likes of him. But now its indifference hurt far more than anything he felt now, than whatever ended up killing him that night.
He turned to scan the ashen blankness before them, thinking he would hold Sin when they took to the water. “Uriah!” Omen grabbed the wheel and jammed it hard to port with his gunshot shoulder, making him scream as pain seared through the tincture’s numbness. The FAB, nearly up on one foil, just missed the low prow of Helldiver’s Ghost only because the corvette was coming about hard itself to offer a broadside to the armada.
Omen growled in agony but steadied the FAB to keep Uriah from being flung overboard.
“I’m feeling kind of small right now,” Jester Dan said, head twisting back and forth between Ghost and Red Night’s Scorpion Fish armada. Omen cut speed to lower their profile and waited, growl diminishing to deep gasps.
Ghost’s dozen starboard gunports slid open simultaneously. With a massive whirring bellow, the rotary cannons opened fire. The sea wasp batteries launched, radiating yellow spears, turning Ghost into a hell-borne flower.
FABs disintegrated, and fireball after fireball hopped along the decks of the corsairs and corvettes and dreadnoughts.
Omen saw the forward FAX battery was coming to bear, most likely on the dreadnoughts. “We better duck,” he said, squatting down. The two stubby, vat-sized cannons stopped their tracking, ratcheted up and into a V, and belched.
Omen lost the slow arc of the two gigantic salvos in the smoke and darkness, gripping the gunwale until his fingers ached, thinking only that Rodonovan must truly be pissed off—or desperate—to use that piece of Western wickedness.
The salvos burst meekly compared to everything else that night somewhere above the dreadnoughts. An instant later, the true detonation.
An orange-yellow shroud spread over the armada, and the concussion pushed the FAB on the hump of a wave back toward Ghost. Heat lanced over Omen; much closer, and they would’ve been incinerated.
The rotary cannons fell silent. Serene ocean rush and the reloading of Ghost’s sea wasp batteries mixing horribly with the death of several ships.
Omen stood. His shoulder wailing, his head throbbing. Amid the conflagration, a handful of FABs and a flaming corsair fled back toward Vermillion Grottos. This was not the war he had hoped to fight.
* * *
The FAB bay was nearly empty, everyone out on watch. The lone FAB being outfitted for long travel had seen better days, but Omen was not about to take a newer hull from those who needed it more.
Aeon Song had gone to ground, along with Cyphus Piptillion’s entire fleet. It was rumored that the Folks had vanished immediately after the assassination of the Mayor, running in fear or moving East to further their agenda, whatever it might be, or heading West, their work done, taking Piptillion’s Sea Dragon with them. Omen believed a little bit of each.
“Soon as I make Taelemone, I’ll send word,” he said.
“I know you’ll try,” Rodonovan said. “But Sei Javala can’t conjure a secure hailing from that distance, and the last thing we want is for the usurpers to know you’re there.”
“They think I’m running. Everyone thinks I’m an assassin on the run.”
“Be sure there’s enough water,” Rodonovan said to the coxswain. Mantra swooped out over the bay, dragging her claws in the water.
“Maybe I should wait another week, see if the Folks surface somewhere around the Isles.” Omen flapped his arm, a recently acquired and annoying habit. Junk, he called it, shifted about in the shoulder. And he hated the sling, but Sei Javala warned vociferously of long-term problems if he didn’t let the shoulder rest.
“I want you gone before the Fiery Ring is hit,” Rodonovan said. The alignments were clear with few surprises. The Hobgoblin ended up flying its flag beneath the Mayor’s Triple Cross; the captain that had helped Omen dead when his ship rammed the Gate. Lucky for him. The Mayor’s fleet and allies outnumbered those who flew the Burning Bones some four to one. But Rodonovan had the oaths of the Kraken and Hammerhead, the Five Stars and Sand Panther, and critically, the fiercely independent Black Drakar, Red Moons, and Storm Wolf.
“I don’t like running.”
“You’re not running. You’re hunting.”
“If Aeon Song went West.”
“They went West,” Rodonovan said. “Besides I don’t like you the target of the largest armada assembled since the War of Jeneary.”
“Why not? It’s my fault.” Omen hated the way he sounded. “I should be sailing with you to Taelemone. Both of these armadas should be sailing against the usurpers in our—”
“Enough of your whining. And enough of your foolishness. There was never any chance of that. This war is necessary.”
Omen stared hard at Rodonovan. All of the meetings they’d taken in the aftermath of the Vermillion Grottos battle, the subsequent battles for the Pyramid Islands and Blustery Atoll, the defeat at Zero’s Edge, the deaths of hundreds of sailors in his name, Rodonovan gave no indication. “So that was really your plan? At Vermillion Grottos?”
“I seized an opportunity,” the captain said, meeting Omen’s sharpening gaze.
“An opportunity?” Omen said. “I murdered two people.”
“Well, I had no idea it’d be this easy. I thought once the Folks had been assassinated, we’d have to first convince the Mayor to go to war against us. The Folks’ subterfuge worked in our favor.”
“Our favor? Your favor maybe. I am a murderer. Sin almost died. Red Night Magus’ Scorpion Fish flies over Black Tombs now. And who’s ‘us’? Not me, I’m running. A handful of independents who’ll drop your standard once their interests are secured.”
“Now is not the time for this conversation.”
“No. The time was before you decided to tear up the Myriads.” Tear down my life. Esther watched him from his dreams now, face always distorted, sometimes slightly, sometimes radically, from the force of impact.
“You will see, Omen, how it is sometimes necessary to break down what needs to be rebuilt.” Rodonovan looked to Uriah Bloodangel. “You’ve chosen your men?”
Uriah nodded, pointed toward two figures coming down the gangway. “Two volunteers.” A smile barely tweaked Omen’s face, an easing of tension like false dawn.
Sinister and Jester Dan approached and dropped their gunnysacks. Sin, scimitars framing his drawn and pale face. He was somehow even thinner; he’d fought hard.
“I’ve always wanted to see the big lands, Captain,” Jester Dan said brightly, curly hair jaunting about his head.
Rodonovan arched an eyebrow. “I see. And Sinister, you yearn for the endless dirt too?”
Sinister cleared his ruined throat. His words came out like a low, slow grinding of stone crumbs: “I only wish to protect your son.”
Rodonovan nodded curtly and started for the gangway, Mantra settling on his shoulder with a warble. “You do that,” he said without looking back.
Omen jumped into the FAB. He had junk in his head now too. He didn’t watch his father exit. “Let’s head West,” he told his friends, intently double checking that he had his knife to hide the trembling in his hands and voice.