Chapter Twenty-Six: Another Word For King

On the edge of the Lucent Sea

Fawkes had the strong desire to vomit then sob, though, the other way around would have been more probable. Atlas’s “well, shit” was delivered with a sudden and sharp delivery of the letter t, followed by a heavy exhale.

Would Atlas have left him? Again? For a brief moment, the sounds around him, once clear and focused, shrunk to a subtle buzz. Immediately following it, Fawkes’s vision blurred and swam in front of him, sending all the reds and greens of the world into a murky, muddy tint that he quickly swiped away with the back of his hand.

“And what in Mother Blood’s supple bosom were you planning, boyo?” Apata’s entire body shook, her fists clenched tight and neat against herself. Though Fawkes had been enjoying the soft curves pressed snug against his side, he couldn’t say he much liked the startling waves of rage pouring off her now.

“I still don’t understand why everyone believes me moral.” Atlas’s voice turned from jumpy guitar strums to dark, low notes. Fawkes looked up and noticed Atlas staring at him, if only momentarily, before those green eyes shifted from sorrow to stone again and drifted back to Apata. “More importantly, who are these people?”

Atlas lazily gestured to the prisoners they’d acquired tied to various posts on the ship. Apata had put them all to sleep.

“The people we fought. You know, the ones you left us to die at the hands of?” Rip this time, the usual smooth flow of her voice bubbling in indignation.

“Apata gave them dreams of blue. Dreams that taste like rotting flowers,” said Wren as she skipped across the deck, stopping abruptly to hop over a loose board, doting wet nurse Ryker close behind, his hands flying up each time Wren so much as lifted her big toe.

“Relax,” Atlas said. “We were both planning on rescuing you.” His brother glanced over at him, and Fawkes noticed the way Atlas’s eyebrows narrowed, ever so slightly.

“Look me in the eye and say that,” Apata challenged. Her wounds from the fight only moments before made her body droop to the side, but her stance hung not like a limp rope but more like a dangling, battle-worn sword.

He shifted and faced Apata as the side of his mouth twitched. “Apata, to leave you, a capable medicine woman, those two bizarre yet charming Northerners, a talented captain, and my long, lost brother,” Atlas shook his head and sighed, daring not to look over at Fawkes. “How could I live with myself?”

Raging storms, Atlas really hadn’t intended to come back. Fawkes heard it, like he heard everything. The lies sung straight through, a bitter dagger through Atlas’s bullshit.

It made Fawkes want to shout, tenno! if only to see the hurt on Atlas’s face when he remembered that the ancient Solitian word for king had been exclusively used by both of them in regards to their father. All because Oliver Fawkes the First had come home one night, drunk like usual, and proceeded to beat respect into them, told them to call him tenno. And they did, but only when Fawkes’s father promised something and never followed through. Tenno might mean king in another language, but to Fawkes and Atlas, it meant liar.

But Fawkes didn’t. Couldn’t. Instead, he pictured shoving his mouth-organ straight up his brother’s—

“He’s right.” Rhia, who had been silent for much longer than Fawkes thought possible, shuffled forward, her eyes darting from Atlas to the whorls of the wooden planks. “Two anamri against an army.” Rhia paused, a small sigh brushing against her lips. “It wouldn’t have been worth it, so we had to bide our time.”

“Hands-damned and woebegone, what have you done to her?” Apata asked, shoved Fawkes away, and tottered forward. Though she stumbled for the first few steps, she settled on becoming a sturdy blade once more and motioned to Rhia. “The lass is practically your bleeding heart. What? Did you bed her?”

Fawkes wondered, if only because just moments before Apata had been pressed breast against side to him, what it would be like to “bed” the Highlands woman. True, he hadn’t yet mastered the art of love making, even if Twyla had been more than willing to teach. Pleasure sounded nice, and Fawkes wondered how Apata would breathe, how she would sound, and if he could replicate or even improve that fantasy.

Rhia’s face flushed a blazing scarlet, so deep and true that it crept from her clavicle all the way up to her ears. “If you think I’d ever give my devotion to him, the Highland people must be as mad as they say,” Rhia countered and tugged at her necklace.

Atlas snorted.

“Well, no use in harping on past events,” Atlas said. Rhia’s eyes grew as large as Fawkes’s father’s Anftian prayer globes. She opened her mouth to what Fawkes assumed to be a rebuke but was cut off by Atlas. “Shall we proceed, or are we going to stand here all day discussing who I have sex with? If we don’t leave now, we might never have a better opportunity.” He pointed to the ships emerging from the flames then gestured to the prisoners behind Fawkes.

“Atlas has a point. Back to Central seems logical,” Rip said and folded her arms with all the grace of a silver falcon. “Though, to hell with this crowd. There’s no way in the six seas I’ll be running with the lot of you for much longer.”

“OH. I’ll be rightly damned if I’m going anywhere with the likes of that liar.” Apata tilted her chin back and rounded her shoulders. “We don’t take kindly to betrayal, Atlas.” She said his name like Fawkes heard the orphans on the street spit after the privileged on tax day. “You have no idea what we’ve been through.”

♦♦♦

They’d been through hell, and it had started with Apata coming to save them from the mess they’d fallen into. Fawkes still couldn’t understand how he’d been captured. Again. But here he was, tied up along with Rip, Ryker, and Wren, just waiting to see who’d prevail, Apata or grandmother.

Apata swung a fist, a single finger blazing ocean green, that immediately connected with the old woman’s jaw. A jaw made from a material that looked and sounded like shattering glass. As the crack spiderwebbed along her face, grandma tangled her fingers in Apata’s unruly bundle of hair and threw her onto the ground, where Apata’s hip made a heavy thuonk. The old woman’s skin beneath softly glowed a steely silver, molten and ever-moving beneath the motley pieces of her face.

“A sheer disappointment, child. Have you forgotten all your training or are you simply bone-weak?” The hag lunged forward, the skin on her knuckles rippling before a series of claws burst forth, the ends as sharp as the razors Fawkes used to cut fishing line. The hag let fall her bone-blades and, thank the winds, narrowly missed Apata, whose eyes still glowed with that strange green hue.

Too close. Fawkes imagined he could almost feel the blade brush along his wrist—

Wait. Flying fish, he felt it. A sharp, jagged edge of something brushing dangerously close to his arteries.

“Hey,” he hissed and turned to see Rip sawing with vigor against his restraints. Moments before, she’d been tied up beside him, along with Ryker and Wren. Now, she was free. “Do you have to cut that close?”

“Closer, you say?” The captain pressed the blade heavily against his tender flesh, which only made Fawkes suck in more breath as he felt the sting of steel and saw the dribble of blood snake down his fingers. “Quiet, unless you’d like to interrupt their fight.” She jerked her head to where most of the attention had been drawn. The two women who’d been by Dervila’s side were now indisposed, finally having succumbed to Apata’s sleep song. Apata’s way of using magic was uncanny, beyond anything he’d seen before, and he’d seen so many people use the damned craft.

“Don’t forget about me,” Ryker said. He was beaten, yet the guy still had strength enough to speak.

“I’d never forget you, darling.” Rip smirked, making Ryker squirm. “And you, my sweet,” she said to Wren, who started humming a disjointed tune while picking at a most brilliant blue thread dangling from her overly long sleeve.

Fawkes looked back at the fight. It was only grandma and all the grace and fire that was Apata. The air hummed with energy, green sparks flew forth from Apata and Dervila’s battle. Silver sheen seeped out between the fissures in Dervila’s skin. Fawkes could almost recognize an allegretto tempo, as odd as that sounded, to the way they both moved, their bodies ebbing and flowing together in some sick, fast-paced harmony. One wrong beat and it would all be over.

“What’s the plan, love?” Fawkes asked, mostly to take his mind off the fight before him.

“Don’t call me love,” said Rip as she worked the dagger even faster.

“Okay, okay. Enough. We don’t need you blood letting me, lo—” Fawkes paused. “Captain.”

Finally, thankfully, the rope binding his wrists snapped in two, setting his hands free.

“Time to be useful,” Rip said, her voice rising as flame might when it wishes to meet the star-salted sky.  

“Er, sure—just have one question.”

Rip shot him a look similar to the look Twyla gave him whenever he’d joke about stealing her hidden stash of chocolate.

“Where in the livyatan’s undercurrents did you hide those daggers?” Fawkes glanced down at Rip’s chest, where her vest had come undone, and he had a particularly nice view of her cleavage.

Rip spun her dagger around so that the sharpest point of it bit into his chin and smiled. “Behave now. I don’t want to play the part of your mother, but I’ll teach you manners if I must.”

Fawkes gulped, regretted that, and subtly nodded.

Rip pulled her dagger away to watch the sheen of the sun on the blade. A smirk spread smoothly along her lips and she let out a subtle, yet merry chuckle, sounding strangely like sand over glass. “Once you’ve freed Ryker, help me with the rope.” She shoved her blade into his newly freed hands and made for the far corner of the ship.

“What rope?” he asked.

She sighed and pointed near the other end of the ship where a coil of the stuff sat against the side.

“What are we going to do with that?” Fawkes asked.

“Do you want these people to wake up while Apata is in mid-battle and overtake us all? We need to bind them while we have the upper hand.” If Atlas was the sound of a guitar, Rip was all fiddle, her body swift, her way of speaking swifter, her ball of energy reminding him, not for the first time, of Twyla.

“These women damn near frighten me.” Fawkes shook his head and brought his attention to Ryker, who presently was staring him down, and not in the friendliest manner.

“Hold still. If you scowl any harder, I might get nervous and slip. That wouldn’t be right for either of us.” Fawkes twirled the blade around a few times before he approached.

“Fawkes.” It was Wren this time. “Your dawn dips into night. Why can’t you try out the day?”

What the hell?

Wren brushed her rabbit so delicately that it almost appeared like she wasn’t caressing him at all. Though, that wasn’t true because the damned thing’s nose twitched with pleasure.

Grandma, her voice so cracked and caked with age that it couldn’t be Apata, growled and hissed with pain. Fawkes dared not look back, for fear of some superstitious sway over the situation. What the bleeding skies? Not like I’m Island Girl.

“It’s all right, Wren. Everything is going to be fine.” Ryker didn’t take his eyes off Fawkes as he said this, his voice shaking but with an underlying steel-strength resolve. Something in that protective tone of voice made Fawkes think of Camille, think of how far he’d go to hear her sing again or even chastise him. This of course made him think about her current condition and how much she needed protecting. How he needed the money to make that possible. What was he doing out here with these people, anyway?

Fawkes decided to skip the clever quip and made instead for the binding at Ryker’s wrists, all the while under Wren’s supervision. Her breath hitched in high, short notes every time he brought the blade close to Ryker’s skin, which was every gods-damned half-second, but it didn’t take long for Ryker to break free, even with his serious injuries. Dried blood left a delicate rusted trail down his forehead, into his eyes, and along his neck.

Thank the tides the ship wasn’t the biggest one possible. It creaked and groaned from its years of sea voyages, but it was fairly medium sized, making it possible for Fawkes to skip to Rip’s side in a dozen or so hops. His fingers immediately flew over the corded rope, as they both took hold of it and proceeded to bind the ship’s crew. Now that he thought on it, it was a good judgement on Rip’s part to untie him first. He’d be the best companion to help tie up the crew, since he knew complicated boating knots, and even if Ryker and Wren did too, Ryker was half-conscious and Wren, well, she was a tad distracted most of the time.  

As he worked, his attention slid towards Apata and Dervila’s battle.

No. More like Apata’s triumph.

Apata had raised her hand, finger shining brighter starbug green, her eyes even more so, above grandma, who cowered below her. The old woman’s whimpers escaped between yellowed teeth.

Wrong again. Not whimpers. Not at all. More like giggles, if you even could call it something so joyous.

“We are not that different, you and I,” grandma croaked, before she drove her claw straight through her own heart.

♦♦♦

“Which proves my point even more. We had no idea what you’d been through, but if we had, we’d have come to the rescue.” Atlas’s voice broke through the yolk of Fawkes’s daydreams, his memories dripping and sticking fast to his mind. His brother’s voice brought back the fact that Atlas, while they were busy fighting to stay alive, had been about to race safely back to Central with Rhia.

“Gods help you. You have no idea who you’re messing around with,” Rip chimed in, her fiddle accent fluid, yet tinged with the warning tone of a viola, and fluttered her fingers at Apata. “I saw the girl fight, and you’d better swiftly say your prayers, if you have any mind for a pleasant afterlife. Besides, I agree with her. I’ve known you awhile, and to see that you’d leave me behind… well, perhaps I should do the same for you.”

“Rip, believe me, we had every intention to hurry back. But what could two anamri do against the force of three separate enemies? Would you rather we die trying to rescue you or come back with reinforcements?”

“Still doesn’t change the fact, lad, that there was a chance we’d die at the hands of those three separate enemies,” Apata said and shook her head in disappointment. “Though, bravery hangs not on everyone equally, and honor among thieves isn’t a glue that holds as well as I’ve heard.”

“Are we all headed to Central, then?” Atlas settled next to the ship’s helm and brushed a knuckle over the lacquered wood. “We have one shared goal, don’t we? Get these people back to Central.”

“’Suppose.” Apata stormed, briefly stumbled, then righted herself in an attempt to, from what Fawkes could gather, smash those knuckles to dust. “Though, I’ve a mind to leave you stranded, like you were about to do to us.”

“Come now. No need to be sore.” Atlas chuckled and backed away from the wheel. He turned to Rhia, his voice shifting from picking at a guitar to strumming it by hand. “Be honest, love. Would we have left them?”

Rhia’s eyebrows bunched together, while she bit her upper lip. “We were going to come back. I swear, spirits rest my salt-tinged soul, I wouldn’t have left you.” She wouldn’t look at Atlas and instead clasped her hands in front of her as she glanced over at Apata, Rip, Ryker, Wren, even Fawkes. “I can’t go back. Not after what I’ve seen, what I’ve done. You must understand that this adventure we’ve committed ourselves to, I think very highly of it. I think very highly of all of you.” She sighed, unclasping her hands and letting them swing at her side, her exhale the sound that wind made between reeds. “I need to know more of this world. I want adventure. Central is… interesting, but in truth, I’m hesitant to return. The school,” Rhia spun to face some of the tied up prisoners, “is obviously tracking us, even if it’s because of him.” She looked up at Atlas through her bangs. “We’ve left a reputation behind, good or bad. It doesn’t matter which. A few people are interested and that isn’t going to stop them from running after us. But I think it unwise to revisit the area in which they reside. Rather, as I’ve already mentioned, I enjoy an adventure and would like to explore the other islands.” Rhia took a breath. Her voice strained from talking so fast, like she had used all her breath from blowing too hard on a flute. “And I’d like to explore them with you.” If Fawkes didn’t know any better, he could have sworn she’d focused her attention on him, if only for a half moment.

Wren gasped, small, yet pleasant all the same and lifted her rabbit up as she spun in a tight circle, just a churning, emotional whirlpool.

Ryker tugged at his neck and said, “Central is a hazard, but so is every other island. I’m not putting Wren in that position again. We need to stay as far away from danger as we possibly can, meaning I vote not for the destination but for lying low. And we need to get rid of those people we have tied up.”

“I for one can’t afford to go on side excursions,” Rip said. “Those sweet words are nice, but I have… an appointment with friends and I’ll be damned if I’m going to miss that.” She shrugged and smoothed her captain’s jacket, ones of the finest piece of clothing Fawkes had ever seen, with finely-woven Druishk cotton, star silver buttons, and hand sewn… winds, were those red spots along the lapels and coat tails rubies? Rip’s fingers were nimble as they brushed over the fabric, twitching as if they were lightning strikes. For the second time today, Rip was Twyla.

“Well.” Atlas leaned against the ship’s railing, an aristocrat’s level of confidence apparent in his body language, his tone, the words that dripped from his tongue. “Then how about this merry crew explores the islands, while Rip and I head back to Central? I have to check on a lead and return the prisoners.” It was something in the way that Atlas said this, in almost a near perfect monotone, that caught Fawkes’s attention.

King or liar, dear brother? Perhaps, Fawkes pondered, that’s why tenno meant both.

It was then that he made a mental note to go with Rip and Atlas, whether they knew it or not. “Let the two of us worry about the dangers of Central. You are all capable enough to survive without me, no?”

Apata snorted.

Ryker shrugged. “That’s all fine and good. I’d be okay with staying far from Central and from those people, but we don’t have two ships, only a single vessel.”

“Unless,” Rip lifted a single finger and tapped her chin. “We sail to Port Vagrant. Not easy to find, to be sure, but not impossible.”

“Port Vagrant?” Ryker asked.

“Absolutely not.” Fawkes couldn’t believe she just mentioned that piece of floating sea trash. “It’ll kill us.”

“Oh.” Rip’s flash of a grin was as quick as wine filling a glass. “Should have known, boy. You’ll have to stay on the ship then. You didn’t pass, did you?”

“Dawn is fragile.” Wren frowned and clutched her pet more tightly.

“Pass what?” Ryker slammed a fist onto the ship’s railing, an impressive fiery gesture, one that brought force and command to his presence. Until Rip whipped around and narrowed her eyes at him, turning Ryker’s authority to a wisp of smoke.

“I speak of a skills test, and I wouldn’t be surprised if all of us are lacking.”

“All of us?” Atlas chuckled.

Rip ignored him and continued, “Port Vagrant migrates from sea to sea and is a place that welcomes only those who are the very best sort of thieves, those who can weave lies and sew deception, those who may appear pure of intention, but are in fact the most masterful bandits in all of Bakkaj.”

Everyone looked at one another.

“I—uh,” Ryker said.

“What the lad is trying to say is what the hell are you going on about?” Apata translated.

“I think she’s trying to say that most everyone on this ship isn’t qualified for the expedition,” said Atlas.

Rip flashed a dagger sharp smile and said, “I’m saying you have to prove yourself, not spit boasts like school children.” Atlas burrowed his brow at that.

“Don’t pout, love.” Rip drew out that last part, slow and full of teasing. “What you must do is cheat the system. Prove that you’re an upstanding citizen, all while stealing whatever the damned sea crone has. Take from under her very nose. She knows that most who wander onto her godsforsaken island are intending to take what’s rightfully hers, so she’s made a few…” Rip delicately tucked her chin between thumb and forefinger and watched the gull-bloated sky, as if that might better help her happen upon the right word. “…preparations.”

“What exactly do you have in mind to steal?” Rhia asked.

“Haven’t you been listening?” Rip placed her hands on her hips and cocked an eyebrow. “A ship, of course.”

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