Chapter 24: The Priestess, the Vagabond

Southern Citadel Tower, southeast of Central by many, many miles

Apata opened Rhia’s eye again, for the umpteenth time. The sphere of muscle and jelly-like tissue rolled in its socket. The girl was out like a candle in a typhoon. The silver rimming her irises was still there, and some innate, childish part of Apata held onto the denial of hardship’s presence.

As if by checking on her once more, I’ll find her healthy as a mule. Just as I would be after moving a ship against wind for forty-eight hours. Apata shook her head. Rhia was a powerful anamri, but she had the fine, surgical control of a recently gutted fish. And so it was often that she found herself fighting against her own power.

Compensating for sending the ship too far this way by sending it back the other, forcing things to slow as she pulled them toward her instead of just making the speed a healthy one in the first place.

And that, unfortunately, is what has lead us to this blasted room in this blasted place. If Rhia woke up—when she woke up, if Apata had anything to say about it—there would be teaching to be done. Rhia, the boy from Taegan, Ryker, and his ward Wren, all needed to learn what they were doing and how they were to go about it. Even Fawkes would, if he stopped clutching at the notion that practicing with anam would ruin him.

Fye. I’m not supposed to be taking up the mantle of Soulmistress until my hair goes grey and my skin goes sallow, I’m not!

But the thought of anamri as powerful as Rhia and Wren knowing nothing about their art, that was…

Mortifying.

She stood and hobbled over to a small shelving unit that contained poultices aplenty, grabbing a few and mixing them. Apata reasoned she was as cranky as the Soulmistress the now because she felt like the Soulmistress had. Mostly she just felt like sand was packed into her sinuses and the spaces between her bones. A plight enough to make anyone cranky. The poultices she’d chosen were odiferous ones—if the healers here were trained she was a Lord residing in the Glass Aisle on Effre—from these, smelling salts could be made.

She sat back down next to Rhia, mixing a tincture from the poultices, waiting for the telltale clumping and peering through a window—they were high enough up for an actual window in the fortress wall and not just a slit—and watching the…

…by the Restful Hands, why would these folks be ratcheting up their drawbridge the now?

♦♦♦

On-board the Wayward Soul

Oliver Fawkes bent his embouchure against the mouth-organ he’d palmed and blew, his long, strong musician’s fingers dancing against the square openings on the opposite side of the small instrument, playing a melody that seemed sad, loathful and angry all at once. If he was being honest, that was also how he felt. When Reyxald and Shiesta, the school staff and the hirelings had shown up, he’d been upset. Worried. He’d expected magic from Atlas, not the spirits-and-sages kind, the thieving-and-conniving kind. Said magic did not manifest, though it appeared that Atlas was trying and failing to make it do so. Atlas had surrendered when he saw who was pursuing them. Surrendered. Just like that. As they were being led to the ship, he kept shaking his head and looking off into the distance, grumbling angrily as if negating the offered plans of an illusory conversation partner. At one point, the man had snapped “if you won’t shut up, I won’t be able to find a fix for this,” staring at Fawkes all the while.

Fawkes hadn’t said a word. The head of the group from the school—Fawkes had taken to thinking of him as “stache-face”—mumbled quietly about a group of perfect specimens. The rest of the school mages had tittered with aristocratic laughter. Fawkes had never felt a stronger desire to hit anyone who wasn’t Atlas. Or his father.   

Ryker and Wren had been split off from the rest of the group by the hirelings from the outlands and about half of the anamri high magi from that undertow-spun school.

And now, the trio of centralites—Atlas, Rip, and Fawkes—were in the brig of The Wayward Soul.

There was a surprise in finding out that the magicians of the school had a ship large enough for a brig. And, as far as surprises go, that a bunch of highbrow mages gave said ship such a stupid sea-name.

The Wayward Soul smelled of mildew, of birdshit—there were an inexplicable number of gulls down here, both standard and sawmouthed varieties, for no discernible reason—and lastly, of unwillingly wet person. After finding out that the travelers had no money, Reyxald had forked over a fat purse to see the the thieves from Central clapped into debtor’s chains. Fawkes cut from the small rectangle and sung, in a shaky alto,

“To the worms,
They said,
To the worms with you,
To the worms,
The worms!
Dunno what I should do,
So I toss in my cot,
And clang on my cell,
And sweat the whole night through–”

“Ollie, I appreciate the fact that you’ve got a hobby, but would you kindly shut the hell up?” Atlas hissed. Fawkes kept his face stony, but on the inside, he wore a shit-eating-grin a mile wide.

“Why, did you accidentally come up with something productive?”

“No, but the racket isn’t helping much. Or at all.”

“Birds make racket. I make music.”

“If that’s what you want to call it.”

The third and final person in their cell, Rip, let loose a noise somewhere between a groan and a growl.

An awkward silence followed, the only sounds were the odd bird’s cry and the steady drip drip drip that could be heard in a wooden vessel getting on in years. No matter how well it was sealed, wood was simply not meant to be put on water. Not in the form of a boat at least. They sat that way for what felt, to Fawkes, like a quarter of an hour. Which meant it was probably around a minute and a half.

“So, have the two of you figured a workaround for the lock? I know I’ve been asking one for about an hour now, but I keep hoping for a miracle nonetheless.” Rip asked, breaking the silence and getting antsy as well as angry.

“Like I said. I don’t have one yet. If someone had palmed his lockpicks instead of that gods-damned harmonica–”

“Why would you assume I was able to? The only thing you’ve ever seen me steal is a necklace. And this is a mouth-organ,” Fawkes retorted, shaking the instrument at his brother.

“You have a thousand pockets, just like I do, you testicle-brained dolt. They searched me in… places while they gave you a pat for blades.”

“I suppose you’re right. The best thief has the most prominent reputation. Just like the best hitmen show up in all the newspapers. ”

Fawkes paused to watch Atlas’s face grow angry and cold. It gave him a small gratification, like a tiny payment for all the emotional pain he held Atlas responsible for on his part. “Say, though, how long do you think it would take you to pick this lock right now? Still think you’d make better time?”

“I can’t. Pick. The lock.” Atlas responded through teeth grit hard enough to squeak. Each word was a despondent growl. Full of crashing anger and cascading a small bit of sadness in diminuendo.

Fawkes smiled and feigned a scratch at the back of his neck. He’d slipped one of his standard lockpicks through a loop where his vest met his collar, and brought the whole ring of them out from underneath the garment. Then he crouched in front of the door. Thank the gods it’s a warded lock. I don’t think I could set tumblers by ear with these birds shrieking the whole time.

He put in his lockpick, or, more accurately, the least ornate on a keyring full of them. An amateur or layman would call the things skeleton keys, but in reality they were just key shaped pieces of metal slender enough to wiggle around inside a warded lock, to bypass the obstacles inside and trip the internal latch. The thing that could open any door was the thief handling them. In less than two seconds, there was a telltale chunk. He withdrew the pick and put his eye to the keyhole. He could see light spilling through from the other side. Yep. Open.

“Our friends at the school of anamri don’t seem to care much for expensive security measures,” Fawkes said, swinging the door slightly ajar. Just enough that I can check to see if anyone is waiting to brain us on the other side.

It was a common misconception amongst the landlubbers of Bakkaj that a ship’s brig had jail bars. In reality, it was just the shittiest, smallest room on a ship. Jail bars would flop a sailing vessel over faster than a red-shores whore on Novus Night.

“You petty little son of a—” Atlas whispered. Fawkes cut him off with a wink.

“I’ll be here all week.”

♦♦♦

Southern Citadel Fortress, Tower Medical Ward

The pounding on the doors started shortly after Apata watched the drawbridge raise. The door itself was shaking against a strong length of spare rigging rope she’d pilfered from Rip’s ship. She’d tied it in a quadruple coil and hidden it underneath the fold of fabric over the belt at her waist. She’d cut a length of it when she saw the bridge raising, and tied it to a support beam and the door’s knob so that it was taut. The folk outside the room were yanking at the knob and cursing.

And these Mjimeri thieves go on and on about how pockets are the only right way for hiding things. Apata snorted. She briefly considered tying a rope to the beam and rappelling down the wall. Then she nixed it, knowing that she had neither enough rope or a way to carry Rhia for that particular method of escape to work. She didn’t know the girl very well, but she would be hands-damned if she would leave a patient to die. There was another rattle and a series of curses in a nasal, fluid language she didn’t know. That’s the strange thing about curses. You can always tell when they’re being aimed your way.

There was a short bashing noise. Apata glanced at the door and saw the glimmer of a blade sticking through the wood. Nothing for it. She ran for the bed and pulled Rhia onto her shoulder in a medic’s carry. The girl’s torso and head were hanging by Apata’s rear end, and her legs were hanging down Apata’s front side.

With the lifting done, she returned to the window and stepped bodily onto the precipice. Another axe blow landed with a sharp thunph! Apata inhaled deeply and exhaled. Right then. Densify hard bones. Strengthen muscles. Thicken blood? No. Just add breath. Pad soft bone with blood? Might be a good idea, that. She felt another wave of weariness cascade over her, watched as the vitality in her arms faded inward—her hands and wrists becoming shaky, paper-skinned, and old-looking while her shoulders, core, and legs surged with added strength. She gave one last flashing glance backward to see half of an angry man’s face, and then she stepped off of the precipice, falling through the open air.

The fall took an instant. The fall took forever.

Her hair whipped into her face and then upward as she plunged down, clutching Rhia to her shoulder as best she could. To an onlooker, the act would have made her look like a woman eager to taste her ankle bones.

As it stood, Apata felt a brief flash of weightlessness, suspended in—or more accurately descending through—the air between the citadel window and the ground below. She saw men and women in in ornate robes, probably some sort of servants.  She saw the tops of trees, saw their already stolen Jesuine being dressed down of its cargo by the crew of another ship, newly docked, and then the stony soil rushed up to meet her. Apata landed feet first, feeling the whole of her anatomy creak under a feat it genuinely should not have survived.

The force of her fall and the inertia it caused made her shoulder slam into Rhia’s stomach. The result of that was an instantaneous release of the contents therein, spattering the ground at her bare feet and the back of her arisaid with the reeking remains of Rhia’s own reprehensible stew.

Around them, the small village that rested within the citadel was achingly sealed. Squat, square shelters had their curtains drawn and their lights doused.  Folk had gone into their homes and barred the doors at the sight of a raising drawbridge—only reasonable of course—but it certainly left crowd cover as a thing to be desired. It looked like a town abandoned in a single second: market stalls were still stocked with goods, and metal-grated braziers were still chuckling with merry flame. Some even spat grease from now-burnt fish. The only people walking in the open were guardsmen, and traders from… somewhere. The men and women had some of the most ornate clothing she’d ever seen. It looked both beautiful and durable, which meant it was either created through expensive labor or…

Enhanced with anam and alchemy. By the restful hands, will we ever catch a break?

Apata crouched to one knee in a tangle of brush with a quiet curse. Rhia stirred, giving a groan of pain. To Apata’s surprise, the girl spoke. “Whe-where am I?” Her voice was soft. Slurred. When she came fully awake—or as awake as she could under her condition—she started to struggle.

Aye, and if she’s strong enough to thrash, she’s sure as shite strong enough to walk. Apata dropped her onto her back with a brief rustle of the bushes surrounding them.

Rhia looked up at her, her expression one of dim horror. She grasped at her clavicle, where the ornament on that strange necklace normally rested, and found nothing. “Where is my—”

That was as far as she got. Apata covered her mouth tightly and hissed to hush her. “If you’ve not noticed,” she said, in a soft conversational tone, as whispers always carried further on the hunt, “we aren’t in the godsdamned ship. Your magic trinket is safe and sound, but we’ve more pressing matters.”

The sound of footsteps grating against gravel punctuated her tirade.  

Damn.”

Apata peeked from the bushes. Three guardsmen were heading their way.

♦♦♦

Aboard the Wayward Soul

Fawkes was struck by the opulence of the ship. Outside of the shit-crusted brig, it was a walled vessel, with halls and rooms, each set aside by its own bulkhead. The engineering involved in balancing all the rooms, all the weight, so that the ship wasn’t hurled into the sea by an off kilter mast…

Fawkes screwed his eyes shut and shook his head to clear it of the childhood memories peeking through.

His father had been a deep-sea fisherman. He remembered the knots and the rules with his senses, if not with his mind.

He looked up as Rip finished speaking.

“So we’re agreed. I’ll ready the Jesuine. Atlas will get the stragglers. You… do whatever you want.”

“Find Wren and Ryker?” and ask them how they managed to bounce out of the livyatan’s maw.

Rip sighed, looking at him as if she wished he would’ve forgotten their names. “If you must.” The words were a song of resignation, like Rip was taking to the field she felt she would die on. There’s something to check in on. Wonder what the story is between her and those two.

The trio split up, and Fawkes meandered about the halls of the ship for almost an hour, doing his best to avoid the crew and the magi from the school.

Once he heard a duo of sailors cursing at each other in the harsh, clipped tones of the Southern Isles, around a corner and growing distant.

He decided that hall was not one he would travel down.

At another intersection, Fawkes narrowly avoided a magi acolyte who was reading a book while walking by slipping behind a crate of ship’s biscuit as the woman meandered by.

He was bewildered by the fact that he hadn’t seen hide nor hair of Wren or Ryker.  I mean, a ship is a finite area. It’s not like they dropped out of reality. The thought gave him brief pause. Was it? I hate magic.

He was so caught in his own head that he almost missed a figure propped up against the wall in bloody repose. He stopped. Looked to his right. It was Ryker.

Gods. How are you even alive?” Fawkes asked. He estimated the Taeganese boy was his age, but the bruises and pressure cuts currently gracing his face made him look like a corpse twice as old as Fawkes was. He sat against the wall of the mid-deck, legs out in a haphazard tangle, forearms on the floor. His head was tilted back, nose bleeding freely, but he was breathing. Fawkes blinked. “Are you recovering from a beating by sleeping with your eyes open? Is that something people from Taegan do?”

In response, Ryker simply coughed and tilted his head forward. Then he snorted. Then he spat. Something small and solid bounced off of the ship’s deck with a tack. It sounded like a pebble, which meant it was probably a tooth. His breathing gave off the same notes as chains rattling against a sheet of metal.

Winds and seas. What have I gotten myself into?

“Where are the others?” Ryker said. The words were a breathless grunt.

“Split up. They sent me to look for you and Wren. What in the livyatan’s wake happened to you?”

“Wren slipped her ropes. Pulled me away.” He winced. “The crew noticed us. She was cutting my ropes and she bolted. Tried to find her, but they got closer first. They made a grab for her. I didn’t want them to. They did anyways.”

“How did you get caught?”

“I think the ropes they tied us with were warded.”  

Fawkes blinked. “That’ll do it.” Warded ropes were restraints designed specifically for anamri. They alerted another magic user by way of a burning sensation when magic was used to snap them. The most dangerous part of the restraint was that they were as innocuous as regular ropes. There was no way for an anamri to know if they’d be up against one of their own with more skill, and so most played it safe.

Fawkes snorted. The first thing he, Atlas, and Rip had done was untie their ties.

Rule one when trussing up a thief. Never let the knots anywhere near their teeth.

Fawkes looked down to see that Ryker’s hands were still tied, and blinked in shock. He should be dead. He should be a corpse dancing a jig through a whale’s stomach. He should not be spitting teeth on the mid-deck. What in the world is he? He crouched and started to untie the knots that wrapped around Ryker’s wrists. The rope fell away in short order. “Thank you. If my hands hadn’t been tied I would’ve won that fight. How did you get out of them?”

“A sore set of teeth and a childhood at sail.”

“You’ll have to teach me. It’ll help with situations like this. Which happen to me regrettably often.”

Fawkes nodded and got to his feet. “I sort of figured when there was no rabbit or cloud of layered clothing around. Come on.” He clasped Ryker’s outstretched hand and pulled him up, bracing the other boy’s arm around his shoulder. The boy grimaced when Fawkes’s side came into contact with his own. He felt a grating flexibility where there should have been rigid bone. Yep. Those ribs are broken. Aloud Fawkes said, “I cannot believe you’re conscious.”

“We have a saying on Taegan.”

“Oh?”

“The best fishing rods are carved from the hardest branches. We don’t back down from those who try to hurt family. Not ever.”

“Wouldn’t a rigid fishing pole be prone to breakage and just be generally awful?”

“I said Taeganese men don’t back down,” Ryker grimaced again, interrupting himself with another pained cough. “I didn’t say we were smart. What about men on Central? How are they on courage?”

They turned the corner, coming across a burly man with rather scarred knuckles. He had a sailor’s tattoos and a smile that bespoke a lifetime of contracting and recovering from scurvy. He had a soft double chin, but the rest of his body was hardened navy man. Fawkes blinked. Opened his mouth to speak to the man, and then shut it again. He gave Ryker an almost conspiratorial whisper.

“Well I sure as hell didn’t want to find out this way, I can tell you that much.”

He looked at the larger man. “Who in the wake’s name are you?”

“I’m a friend of Reyxald’s. Makin’ arrangements for your sorry arse, actually.”

“What sort of arrangements?” Fawkes asked.

“The price of rental.”

“I assume it’s a high one?”

He lowered Ryker to the floor. The man had a pugilist’s honor at least, to let him do so. Fawkes sang a single word. “Mistake.” And punched the man in his fruits.

Or. Tried to.

The man chuckled. “Aye, tha’s for certain. I’s a euncuch lad.”

“A terrible shame, not knowing a woman’s warmth.” Fawkes said. He didn’t know the first thing about touching women himself, but assumptions could be made.

“I find a good brawl pretty satisfactory, I do.” The man said. He kicked Fawkes in the face.

♦♦♦

Inside the Citadel walls

Apata kept herself low, kept her breath steady. Kept Rhia underneath her and quiet as best she could, by clamping her hand over Rhia’s mouth. “Alright, lass. In a moment I’ll need you out of the bushes. Distract those guardsmen while I find a way to deal with them.”

Rhia’s brow knit together. “H-how do I do that?”

“Flirt with them, curse at them to rile them up, flash your breasts. Whatever you wish, so long as they do not notice me.”

“Flash my breasts?” Rhia whimpered.

“Be an innocent doddering fool of a girl then, just go!” Apata hissed back. She pulled the collar of Rhia’s dress and then shoved her from the shrubs by reversing the momentum. The girl quickly moved to her feet and—much to Apata’s surprise—attempted to speak with one of the men.

That’s good, it is. At least she has gumption, if not experience. Apata didn’t look back. She focused on flanking the men by sneaking through the brush.

“I’m, ah, hello there.”

A flurry of nasal, liquid syllables flew out in response to her voice. Then one of the men spoke. His voice was accented by strong consonants and soft vowels. “Is there not supposed to be two of you?”

“My, ah, friend left me to my own devices it seems.” The words were almost angry sounding, but to Apata’s ear they sounded like theater. Apata was a terrible liar. Which made Rhia even worse.

Another flurry of liquid syllables. Apata was passing behind the men now, and they were closing in on Rhia in a semi-circle.

“Some friend, hm? What say you help us find her? Pay her back?”

“And you’ll leave me alone if I do?”

“Yes. Just tell us where she is.”

Apata stopped to suppress a snort. Well, this is a fine moment of truth. She continued through the bushes, pushing past thorny brambles and uneven ground as best she could.

“I— I don’t know.”

“A shame. I thought she was in the bushes just behind us.”

Shite. Apata shot into a brawler’s stance, fists up in front of her chin and weight forward on the balls of her feet. She felt another in the endless series of exhaustive waves wash over her as she hardened her skin. She hoped Rhia hadn’t noticed any of the plants withering around them before. Doubtless the girl would blame herself. Now, if Rhia saw the plants withering, she would just be prone to wonder. The two men on either side of the leading man spun around and drew their bows, hissing in their unintelligible language.

But not cursing, mind.

The leader did a graceful about face and smiled. “No need for any animosity, girl. Sheista would present our island as a united front where it is not. I have no interest in handing you over to her.” He was short. About as tall as Rhia. His skin was the color of willow bark. He was a muscular man, and his face was clean shaven. Wrinkles reached out from the corners of his eyes like the cloying hands of time.

All of this put a rather humorous slant to the white dress he was wearing, the hem of which was splattered in mud.

“And how is it that I know to trust you?” Apata asked.

The two men released their bows. Apata winced, anticipating the mule-kick of flung arrows bouncing off of her skin. At least they’re not chisel points, by the infinite mothers. If my skin breaks now I’ll bleed like a stuck pig hung to drain. Said kick didn’t come. Behind her, gurgling sounds started to emanate from an unknown source. She whipped her head around, seeing two more men clutching at their throats, newly germinated fletching feathers wet with arterial blood. The men wore the ornate clothing.

Rhia shuddered. “People from the school. Dead. Just like that. For books.”

Apata  snapped her head back towards the lead native citadelian. He gave her a grin. She considered the risks for half a second. If they’d wanted to kill Rhia—or even her for that matter—they’d have done it. “Right then. Lead the way.”

♦♦♦

On-board the Wayward Soul

Fawkes took another punch to the stomach. The man hit hard. Hard enough to make his stomach gush wind like like a smith’s bellows. Like the air in Fawkes’s lungs was only good for making flat notes over an empty jug. He hit hard.

But not as hard as daddy dearest.

Fawkes snorted. His face was almost as bludgeoned as Ryker’s now. The Taeganese boy had stumbled to his feet, but he was swaying and pressing his weight against the wall of the ship. The eunuch slammed Fawkes into that same wall. Fawkes pulled his knees to his chest and kicked outward with both of his feet. The man stumbled backwards, and Fawkes fell to the floor, dazed.

Ryker chose that moment to act, lashing a bare foot into the side of the eunuch’s knee. The joint bent at an angle nearly perpendicular to the one it normally took. There was a sound like a water-soaked treelimb cracking in half. The eunuch went down, hard, and Fawkes stumbled to his feet, catching a glimpse of his leg. The man’s life at sea was over. Without an anamri possessing a level of skill bordering on godlike, even if the leg healed straight, the knee joint would never work again.

I wonder if Apata could fix that?

“There weren’t no honor in that. Not fair. Not fair not fair not fair.” The eunuch was losing himself to the pain. His voice sounded like the whimper of a kicked, stray dog. “Notfairnotfairnot–”

“The only people who complain about fairness in street fights,” Fawkes said, bringing down his boot heel on the man’s forehead, “are the people who lose.”

The end result was silence. Except for the ragged symphony created by the two men breathing. It might have been three, assuming Fawke’s boot heel hadn’t fractured the Eunuch’s skull, but that assumption was generous. The wood of the ship creaked with age, with the motion of the sea.

Fawkes stumbled over to Ryker, head swimming with pain. “Right then,” he said, pulling the younger man’s arm over his shoulders with his own series of grimaces. “Let’s go find Wren, yeah?”

“Callistae and Adrinae took her to Dervila’s quarters.”

“And these people are?”

“That way.” Ryker said, pointing.  

It wasn’t much of a journey. Because there’s not much left of the ship. If she isn’t near here, she isn’t on it. A morbid joke worked it’s way to the front of his mind. He struggled not to say it. Maybe Dervila is a reef-shark.

They took two right turns and they found a ship’s hold with a shut hatch. This area of the ship smelled of cut herbs, boiling tea, and strangely, of incense. The two boys crowded either side of it and pressed ears to wood in hopes to hear what was hiding behind the barrier.

“But I can’t.” A small girl’s voice. Wren’s voice.

“You can, sure as shite.” A Highlands accent, but old. If mold had ever made a sound, this was it. The woman with the forest colored godmarks, then. Why is she in the school’s ship?

“You will.” A mellow voice, with a sibilant accent like the shake of a hand rattle. Or a sea-viper’s rattle. That’s the woman from Kyok, then.

“You must.” This woman sounded like her vocal chords were covered in Edrian petrol jelly. Smooth. Silky. Poisonous. The Southerner.

“But Gula doesn’t want my blood.”

What could that mean? Gula was the rabbit, Fawkes knew, but otherwise the conversation wasn’t incredibly coherent. Fawkes felt like a conductor trying to direct a symphony while only knowing the music for one instrument in the orchestra. Or he was an unwitting lamb about to be sacrificed by a psychotic cult. And if he was a timid sacrificial lamb, his friend on the other side of the doorway was a pissed off sacrificial bull.

He looked up at Ryker, a few seconds too late. The boy was mid-motion, bringing his foot up to throw all the weight of his body into the sealed hatch. The wood cracked against the latch and swung away, and the pair were treated to the sight of Wren holding Gula. Her ankles were trussed to a chair, and she was staring, frightened, at an angry, geriatric woman from the Shifting Highlands. “You ladies make the arrangements. I’ll handle this.”

The Highlands woman turned, raised an eyebrow, and cracked her knuckles. Fawkes gave an internal sigh. Everyone from those islands seemed as likely to kick the shit out of him as to help him, and he’d had more than enough shit kicked out of him today.

Winds and seas, I hope Atlas is doing all right.  

Aloud he said, “Is there any part of this ship where people don’t menacingly shake their fists at you just for showing up?”

The woman sneered, revealing a set of yellow-brown teeth that looked strong as a jak-ox’s.  Her eyes, her god-marks, everything about her seemed to be at once sick and fortified. Something ancient, both sacred and wrong. Her breath sounded like the scissorfly ridden core of a flesh flower. All rattle and cut and hate.

Fawkes hadn’t even known old women were capable of such an expression. Hadn’t known a woman capable of sending out a feeling like this.

 Aren’t grandmas supposed to be all cookies and lullabies? Of course, his grandmother had been one of the single highlights of his childhood. No wonder Apata’s so cranky. The only thing she ever got from maw-maw was a knuckle sandwich and a kick in the ass. I don’t even want to think about what her dad was like.

“You’re right, lad, we each have a part of this ship where we’re supposed to be,” she said, voice dripping hate like a poison. “Yours is the brig.”

♦♦♦

Apata snorted in derision. Rhia mumbled something about her necklace. Atlas rubbed his eyes with his forefinger and thumb. The trio of citadel men had left them in relative private, in the ice-room of a shuttered fisher-butcher’s shop and home. It was brisk, but not freezing. Far from the ideal temperature for storing meat. Nothing smelled off, but that the meat had odor at all was a problem.

“How is it that you always manage to find the least likable element of a city by utter coincidence, lad?”

Atlas quirked a brow in response. “I found you by utter coincidence.”

“And by most accounts a royal bastard is far from likable.”

Atlas opened his mouth to respond, and then closed it, blinking. Frowning. Looking at her. Almost through her.

Careful, lass. Let’s not let them think of you as weak.

“How are we getting out of here?” Rhia chimed “I’m not a huge fan of wanton murder and war.”  

“Well. That’s, ah. That’s the troubling part. It appears my reputation has preceded me.” Atlas said with a wince.

“And what, by Father Earth’s dusty bollocks, does that mean?”

“It means we have to steal something. From Shiesta. Tonight.” The words came out as a resigned sigh, and Atlas broke eye contact. Rhia blanched. Apata felt fury mounting.

“As in, Shiesta the ruler of this island who lives in a nigh impenetrable tower, or some other, more sanely schemed upon Shiesta?”

“The ruler of the island.”

“Why?”

“She has a symbol of power that the other people on the island take very seriously. A badge of office she keeps on a chain around her neck. If we take it, and give it to Meurick—he’s the man outside with the really bad crow’s feet—he’ll be the head of the isle. Or so he tells me.”

“And what has you trusting a word that man says? He may not have killed me, but if he wasn’t a snake-oil salesman, I’ve never seen one.”

“You trusted Sheista?The woman who’s bedding Reyxald as we speak? A woman with a name that sounds like ‘shyster’? A woman with a fear of pockets?”

“What?”

“According to Meurick, Shiesta outlawed pants. She was afraid of assassination and said blades were too easy to hide in pockets.”

“Oh, good. So she lives in an impenetrable tower, uses sex for power, and she’s more nutty than a sack of acorns. Pissing her off is sure to end with none of us wishing we were dead, I’m right certain of it.”

“Either that, or we go back to Central. With the folks from the school. Including Mistress Dervila, the Abrugaeli medical liaison from Clan Kannach—who’s clan, you’ll note, your brother just declared war on.

“Shite.” That took Apata aback. As news, it was quite mixed. Caradoc is leading the clan now? That was certainly good. The clan is at war? That was arguably bad. And why do I know the name Dervila?

“I didn’t know my clan was at war. How did you know my clan was at war?”

Atlas coughed as if he’d been struck in the stomach off-guard. “I have, ah, sources. And I think you might see why I’m stuck between a rather large rock and a very sharp-cornered hard place.”

Apata gave him a questioning look, but then gestured toward an open window between the room they were conversing in and the door that Meurick waited outside of. She heard the Soulmistress’ voice. Something that was occurring more and more rarely these days. Things ain’t sitting right with the lad, but now isn’t the time nor the place.  

“Right. So we leave through the window?”

Atlas gave Apata a tight, thin-lipped smile. “We leave through the window.”

♦♦♦

On-board the Jesuine

Fawkes was trussed up much more tightly than Wren and yet much less tightly than Ryker, who was yet less tightly tied than Rip. The two boys had alternated between trying to break Wren free and fighting Dervila—the old woman from the Highlands—who had kicked whatever piss was left in he and Ryker out. Eventually they succeeded, but Dervila and her constituents were capable of things they hadn’t expected. Upon reaching the deck of the Jesuine Ryker fell completely over, and was unable to move, or even feel, his legs. Fawkes’s legs gave out shortly thereafter, and Dervila traipsed up the gangplank and re-restrained Wren. Then Fawkes. Then Ryker. After the restraints were good and tight, Callistae and Adrinae—the other two hirelings, though Fawkes didn’t yet know who was who—boarded the ship, and gave the two men a unique treatment. Piercing their skin with long, thin needles in places that made Fawkes’s, and he assumed Ryker’s, arms and legs go completely numb.   

Rip used the distraction to plan her moment to attack. It failed.

The captain had lost in rather spectacular fashion. The three women were making the seasoned sailor out to be a trapped kitten.  Rip was a hostage again, same as the other two. This lady makes Apata look like a parlor worker.

It was true. The fibers and sinews under Dervila’s shriveled skin were in constant, forced motion. An economical form of magic that remained in constant effect. It healed wounds. It hardened skin. It shifted youth and vigor around to the parts of her body that needed it like a trade route shipped cacao. That is not something a person should be able to do. The other two women were her underlings, and some of the folks from the school appeared to be lower in the chain of command still.

The worst part of the trio, though, was not the freakish way they altered bodies, but the reckless abandon seemingly allotted to them by their acolytes from the school of anamri. they had four medical apprentices, all of whom gave them blood and energy whenever they might need them. Dervila needed them quite often.  

Ryker, Rip, and Fawkes were bound to chairs on the upper deck of the Jesuine. They were in a rough triangle, and Wren, with her rabbit, was sat in the middle of the three of them. Fawkes himself was in a position to see the gangplank, and the plant-sea wall of the the citadel beyond. Dervila paced between the adults, every so often sliding the flat of a blade threateningly across the back of Fawkes’s neck, or plying it against Ryker’s ear, or softly pointing it into Rip’s cheek. She hissed an ultimatum at Wren. “Lass, you’ll give the rabbit your blood or I’ll take blood from one of your friends.”

“All of their blood.”

“And maybe some of their marrow as well.”  

Fawkes had to choke back a snort. A man could say what he would about serious outlaws. At least they knew something of how to sound threatening.

“I can’t.”

“You will. There is something about you that we must learn, child, and we will learn it.”

As we are cliché villains from a pewter-pulp subscription story. Fear me. I am Highlands Maw-maw. These are my constituents, Koyoki Kickapoo and Southern Slander.

The magi acolytes muttered angrily as the trio flounced about. Fawkes didn’t know anything about the school, but he was starting to wonder if Central was in danger of a coup. This was an awful lot of power for three women to have. Rip had stabbed Dervila. Three times. The only evidence of the wounds were the holes found in Dervila’s age-worn arisaid. And she wasn’t even technically part of the school. If Stache-face was the leader, what the hell could he do?  

I mean, what all-powerful circle of godlike people with people ambitions wouldn’t try to take over a city? Come to think of it, why are these hooded idiots even listening to the old woman?

She required the acolytes be outside waiting, in the rain. In case any of the three adults managed to pull off a miracle and escape in the hireling’s direct line of sight.

Gotta hand it to Grandma. Her wits haven’t exactly wandered far.

Just then, one of the acolytes, a hooded man, yawned. It was a loud, bear-roar of a thing,  noticeable from a face kept still as a statue’s, a voice kept quiet as stone. Adrinae and Callistae followed suit.

That’s odd. They’ve kept silent for the most part.

And then Fawkes heard the whispers, soft and sweet, lilting and lulling, sewing themselves together into a song.

The light is fading slowly,
The air is still and dry,
The embers gutter lowly,
Hush child, dunnae cry.

He looked up. Apata was walking from the gate to the gangplank, her mouth moving in cadence with music that the whole world seemed to be singing. Her hair framed her face and trailed behind her, making her look like a wild spirit and a path of flame both.

The storm clouds broke on mountains tall,
Where old men brew their swill,
The beasts are stabled one and all,
Hush child, be still.

His eyes snapped to the citadel gates. The guards there were asleep, as if they’d just toppled over and started snoring. The song started growing louder. Fawkes realized that they had. Her voice was woven with magic. A type of magic he’d never seen before. It was more than simple illusion. It was as if she’d reached into the pocket of myth and pulled out a skill meant only for the fae of her homeland. Fawkes remembered what Atlas had said about her. Careful of that one. She’s as unpredictable as a wildfire, with the hair to match. The crewmen on the deck of the Jesuine started falling, but Fawkes could see the magic taking its toll. Apata’s eyes were normally a lively shade of grey. A grey to match the sea under a cloudless sky. But from his seat so distant, he could see a shimmer sprouting around her irises. Could see her heart thundering against the cage that was her chest. Everyone started as the sailor in the crow’s nest fell to the deck with a meaty splat.

But Fawkes wasn’t scared. He wasn’t worried. He wasn’t even tired. This, Fawkes thought, this is something I have to know about. As she crossed the gangplank, Apata continued to sing.

So we dance the dance of a day long gone,
Take buckets and douse the fire,
Stop and rest child, and do no wrong,
And let the night expire.

For her part, Dervila balked. The acolytes finally began to fall, some stooping to their knees as others flat-out bounced off of the deck. All of them were snoring as they hit the ground. Apata stood on the ship’s deck in full view.

“And who might you be?” the younger Highlander asked the older.

“You ought to remember, daughter of my soul’s own daughter.”

Callistae and Adrinae both hissed “Sister! Sister with the blood of promises!” in the blank, following tones of the brainwashed.

By the teeth of the livyatan, what does that mean?

♦♦♦

On-board the Jesuine

Apata stood still as stone. The words rang in her ears. You ought to remember. The ship creaked, and shifted. Apata hardly noticed. She didn’t notice anything but the woman standing in front of her.

The mother of my soul’s mother.

She did. She remembered the woman. She had met her once before, at the Rite of the Triune field. A ritual done at the first field of war she’d ever set foot on as a youngster. Where the threefold aspect of Mother Blood’s menace was worshipped, was called upon to make another in the line of Abrugaeli Soulmistresses. She remembered the chant. Croneland of coagulate, matron of fresh flow, maidland of blood unspent, where war is sure to go. Over and over. Faster and faster. She heard it reaching over the sounds of the citadel and the sea. She felt the cuts of sword and sickle, spear and knife. The bludgeon of a mace wound. The finger lost to an axe, and then grown back sea-storm blue. One pulled blow for each of the weapons that warriors of the Highlands wielded. So that she might know their pain. At least, the Soulmistress’s blows had been pulled. Dervila was the one that cut off her finger.

The old woman’s sickly brown smile split her fissured face. “So you do remember. Good. I’m glad to see you, young matron.”

Apata swung a fist that was hard as rock. The blue of its middle finger matched the blue of the sea.

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