Hook 'em up, carve 'em true,
Strip 'em down, guts to skin.
But always pay the Lady her due,
Or will come for you!
It was the stench of Bloodharbor that hit you first.
Like a gut-punch that took the wind right out of your sails.
The stink always got inside you, making you feel like you'd never get it out.
A noisome reek of opened leviathan bellies, dripping entrails you could crawl through, and weeks-old offal sticking to the cobbles like gory mortar left to rot in the sun. Mix that with the shit of ten thousand scavenging seabirds and the piss of the Slaughter Docks' bloodied workers, and it was a smell strong enough to turn even the strongest stomach inside out.
You could wear a bandanna soaked in enough rum to souse the Bearded Lady herself, and it'd still get you.
Yes, it was awful, butloved what it represented.
It was the smell of prosperity, of a plentiful catch, and monster bounties earned.
A red tide meant people with coins in their pockets, ready to spend them all in the quayside taverns, gambling dens, and fleshpots, all of which paid a cut of their takings to Sarah.
Prosperity, yes—by the Bearded Lady, it was just the worst smell in the world.
Her small landing boat eased out into the sludgy water, its passage through the deepening evening lit by a storm lantern swaying from a wrought-iron tentacle at its bow.
Seated in the back of the boat, Sarah draped her hand over the gunwale and let her fingertips carve a path through the fatty layers on the water's surface, drawing undulant spirals that rose and fell with the red tide.
“Even for you, that's pretty damn reckless,” grunted Rafen, sweating as he leaned back and forth on the oars. Rafen was an old salt of the islands, with a craggy face weathered by ocean spray and hard winds, and a keen mind the rum hadn't managed to take the edge off. He was, by turns, her conscience and right-hand man, and had seen pretty much every dark nook and cranny Bilgewater had to offer.
“How so?” asked Sarah.
“There's ripper fish and flaying lampreys lurking just under the surface.”
“Scared I'll get my fingers bitten off?” replied Sarah.
“Can't pull a trigger without your fingers.”
“You worry too much, Rafen.”
“That's my job, to worry about the things you don't worry enough about.”
“Like this boat ride out to the Moon Serpent?”
“Exactly,” said Rafen. “I have a saying, and it ain't steered me wrong none since I heard it at my papa's knee. If it smells bad, leave it damn well alone, you idiot!”
Sarah shrugged. “Pretty much everything smells bad out here.”
“Maybe so, but that don't change the truth of it,” said Rafen, glancing over his shoulder into the mist rising up from the water, where the Moon Serpent lurked like a dark secret. “The sea has an evil cast to it this night. Feels like hungry eyes are looking up from the deep.”
“Your bones talking to you again?”
“You mock, but I been listening to 'em for more'n forty years now, and I'm still alive, ain't I?”
“Let it go, old man,” said Miss Fortune. “It's a Captain's Requiem, I have to be there. And if I have to be there in this ridiculous getup, then my second in command has to be there too.”
Said ridiculous getup consisted of a—literally—breathtaking whalebone corset of cobalt blue and golden lace beneath a gloriously long-tailed scarlet frock coat. In addition, she wore linen breeches of pale cream tucked into heeled boots of polished black leather with silver kraken buckles running from ankle to knee.
An absurdly impractical outfit, but in a gathering of captains it didn't do to look anything less than obscenely wealthy. A poor captain was a weak captain, and like every kind of predator, Bilgewater reavers would ruthlessly prey on the weak.
Rafen hadn't escaped the need to smarten up, either, and—under duress and threat of a demotion—wore a borrowed suit of sealskin leather, a scaled waistcoat whose buttons threatened to split from the fabric with every pull of the oars, and a stovepipe hat with a pressed tentacle headband.
“I might have to be there, but that don't mean I got to like it,” said Rafen.
“True, but I need you to watch my back,” said Sarah. “Aligh had a large crew, and with him dead every captain will be circling like a wharf rat in heat. Last thing I need is his old crew going over to a rival captain or falling in with the likes of the Jackdaws or Butcher Blades.”
“Aye, there's that,” begrudged Rafen. “Lot of powerful captains'll likely be here to see Aligh off to the Bearded Lady, but do you really trust all of them to abide by the Truce?”
“Not even a little bit,” said Sarah, opening her coat to reveal a pair of exquisite ivory-handled pistols holstered under each armpit. “But it's not like I'm going in unarmed.”
“They'll take those off you, sure as eggs is eggs.”
“Please, you think they're the only weapons I have?” she said, tapping the side of her head.
“Fair enough, but this still feels like a risk.”
“It surely is, but what's life without a little risk?”
“I'll remind you of that if this all goes under fast.”
Sarah grinned. “If it does, I promise you can haunt me from our watery grave.”
Rafen made a quick sign of the horns over his heart and shook his head, but returned his effort to rowing. He'd made his point, and Sarah had made sure he knew better than to press her when her mind was made up. Besides, she knew he was right, and there was nothing more irritating than a man who believed he was right.
But in deference to Rafen's words, Sarah lifted her hand from the surface of the water and flicked the scum from her fingertips. Something toothy broke the surface where it landed and the old man raised his eyes in a told ya fashion.
Behind her, the ramshackle crags of Bilgewater shimmered in the fog, flickering anthills where people—her people—lived upon the flotsam and jetsam the ocean provided. Its structures clung to the rocks and mountains of the island chain like persistent barnacles that neither storm, Harrowing, nor the occasional probes of Noxian war-barques could ever entirely dislodge.
Like Sarah Fortune, Bilgewater was a survivor.
Sincedeath, she'd fought the unquiet spirits of the Shadow Isles and survived countless attempts on her life. Consolidating her rule over Bilgewater had been a messy, bloody affair, and her grip was still as shaky as an apprentice rigger on their first climb of the ropes. But she was still alive despite the venom—and firearms—aimed at her for putting her head above the parapet.
“Ship ahoy,” said Rafen.
Sarah looked past him to see a looming shape emerging from the rising mist.
Much like its former captain, the Moon Serpent was an old, unsubtle ship; broad in the beam and glowing with the dim light of dozens of hooded lanterns hanging from its many masts. The brigantine's reinforced timbers were thickly caulked and carved with scales like a snake. Crusted salt in the grooves shone silver in the moonlight, and though its sails were still furled, Sarah knew they were woven from shimmering white cloth that must have cost Aligh a small fortune. Its ramming prow figurehead was a fanged serpent forged from the melted-down cannons of his enemies.
“By the Bearded Lady, I always forget how big it is…”
“She's a beast sure enough,” said Rafen as the brigantine's cold shadow fell across them.
“How in the world did a tight-fisted miser like Aligh pay for this?” said Sarah. “That cheapskate bastard never paid a kraken if he could spend a sprat. I heard he skipped out on his dues to the ocean, never so much as a drop of rum or a copper coin for the lords and ladies of the deep.”
“And ain't that yet another reason for me to turn us around and not set foot on its deck,” said Rafen. “If even a bit of that's true, then this here's a doomed ship. The ocean needs its due, any captain worthy of the name knows that.”
“I gave a hex-carbine to the waters off White Wharf after claiming Jakmunt Zyglos's bounty.”
“I remember,” said Rafen with a resigned shake of his head. “You promised that weapon to me.”
“Decent craftsmanship too. Wasn't a Fortune Manstopper, but it was pretty nice.”
“Now you're just being cruel.”
“A queen must be cruel only to be kind,” said Sarah with mock affectation, as Rafen eased the boat up to half a dozen others moored beneath a wide cargo net strung from the gunwale. The glossy hull of the Moon Serpent rose up like a black cliff and dark silhouettes moved through the lamplight high above.
“She's sitting high in the water for such a big ship,” said Rafen, nodding toward the mottled green tide lines on the ship's black hull as he tied the boat up with a loose slipknot.
“Her holds will be empty and most of the crew will be ashore getting three sheets to the wind on whatever cheap rotgut Aligh left them for his wake,” said Sarah.
“Lucky them,” said Rafen, pulling the oars in from the rowlocks and securing them along the gunwale. “You sure about this?”
Sarah rose and took hold of the cargo net, tipping her head back.
“Not really,” she said. “But when given the choice of going forward or back, aHand over hand, Sarah and Rafen climbed to the Moon Serpent's deck. once told me that it's always better to go forward, so let's go.”
A pair of unsmiling twins in leather breeches and scaled shirts took Sarah's guns and Rafen's marlinspike dagger as soon as they clambered over the gunwale. Both women were heavily muscled and angrily sober, no doubt wishing they were ashore partaking in Aligh's wake-rum instead of forming a skeleton crew for a bunch of captains who would, like as not, dance a jig to see one another dead.
One of the twins wore a helmet made from the skull of aand matching patchwork armor of boiled shells, while the other had a face covered with tattoos of unblinking eyes. When the latter grinned at the sight of the gun-dame forged pistols, Sarah saw her mouth was filled with teeth prized from a razorscale's jawbone.
Sarah followed them as they made their way to the raised foredeck, and marked which of the three chests they put the confiscated weapons into—cannonball dent in the right side.
An enormous bronze cannon sat on a carved ebony gun carriage just in front of the chests. The weapon's flared muzzle was sealed with wax, and the sail-shrouded body of Captain Aligh would be entombed within, pickled in rum, vinegar, and camphor for its journey to the bottom of the sea.
“Shame to send something so beautiful to the deep,” said Sarah. “The cannon, I mean.”
“Aye,” agreed Rafen. “A finer thirty pounder I've yet to see, but it's tradition, and you don't go messing with traditions, right?”
“Right…” said Sarah, turning her attention to the broad-shouldered figure standing immobile next to the ship-wrecker. “Lady help us if we ever buck tradition, eh?”
He was swathed in a robe of iridescent scales with a wide-mouthed fish-head hood ringed in razor teeth. He carried a tentacle-wrapped billhook, and Sarah immediately knew him for what he was.
“A rare honor to have a serpent caller at a Captain's Requiem,” she said.
“Amazing what enough gold krakens can buy you, eh?” replied Rafen.
Within the jagged hood, the serpent caller wore a mask of perforated coral over the lower half of his face, while his eyes and forehead were obscured by a dried-out squid's body with crudely cut eye-holes through which the priest surveyed the gathered captains.
The wide deck was thronged with a host of Bilgewater reavers in all their finery: long coats, polished boots, tall hats, and archaic pieces of armor that would drag them straight to the ocean floor if they fell overboard. Sarah saw a wealth of gold and silver sigils and medals, Buhru fishhook amulets, and lucky talismans to honor the lords and ladies of the deeps.
Some captains she knew from fighting or drinking—often both—and some she knew only by reputation.
They, of course, all knew her.
With her blood-red hair, creamy skin, and confident swagger, Sarah Fortune would be a hard woman to miss in any circumstance, but on this ship she was a wild rose among poisoned thorns.
“Quite the gathering, eh?” said Rafen.
“Nothing like death to really bring people together,” said Sarah.
Rafen nodded and said, “Now I know how a fat waverider feels when it finds itself surrounded by a pack of hungry longtooths.”
Sarah shook her head. “You have it backward, old man. I'm the longtooth here.”
Rafen didn't reply as Sarah marched to the ship's centerline and back, adjusting each stride for the motion of the ship's deck. Just as every pistol had its own unique character, so too did every ship; its own way to crest the tides and heed the wind. She moved with the anchored ship's roll and sway, letting the creak and groan of seasoned timbers tell their secrets from her boots on up.
“A shallow-riding wallower,” she said. “Surprising for such a wide-beamed vessel.”
“I like 'em broad in the beam,” said Rafen, instinctively adjusting the width of his stance.
“So I heard.”
“Not as nimble as a cutter,” said Rafen, ignoring her jibe, “but I'll wager a bottle of Myron's Dark she'll hold you tight to her bosom in rough seas.”
“That she will, Rafen,” said a slender woman dressed in a long coat of pale blue, with gold edging at the cuffs and bronze fringed epaulettes. “She's a grand old dame, right sure. Sank Darkwill's Glory and even poked a few holes in the Red Noxtoraa before the Mudtown fogs closed in and saved its cursed hide.”
A salt-stiffened bicorn flopped at a rakish angle on the woman's shaven head, and the state of her eyes—two poached eggs wobbling in a bowl of fish soup—told Sarah she'd been hitting the rum hard already. Her skin had the waxy, yellowish complexion of someone only recently returned from a long sea voyage.
“Captain Blaxton,” said Rafen. “I heard you were dead.”
“Rumors of my death fly around Bilgewater with every sunset,” said the woman. “And with them, men weep, and their wives curse the morn of their disproving. I assure you, I am in the rudest of health.”
She turned to Sarah and gave her an elaborate bow before offering her a hand.
Sarah took it and was instantly on guard. Despite Blaxton's drunken appearance and feather-light grip, she felt hard-earned calluses and powder burn ridges on the heel of her palm.
“Marla Blaxton, at your service, Captain Fortune,” she said, releasing Sarah's hand. “Recently returned from a year of raiding the Amarantine Coast, where the sea is clear, the sky blue, and the coastal settlements fat with more gold than a captain could spend in ten lifetimes.”
“How wonderful,” said Sarah. “Why would you ever choose to return from that?”
“Good times can only last so long, you know. The inhabitants of said settlements had some strange ideas about 'ownership' and 'not being dead'. Also, they were able to summon some curious mage-types who turned the sea and sky against me in ways I'd never seen before.”
“Ah, so you lost all your ships,” said Rafen.
“A few,” allowed Blaxton, waving her hand dismissively. “A temporary setback, Rafen. One from which I expect to bounce back any day now.”
“Perhaps with a new crew and a shallow-riding wallower of a brigantine?” suggested Sarah.
Blaxton laughed and said, “Anything is possible,” before giving her another bow and rejoining a group of captains gathered around a leaking barrel of rum by the foremast.
And Sarah's heart skipped a beat as she saw a face she recognised, an enemy face.
Rafen saw him too and gripped her arm.
“Remember the Truce,” he hissed urgently.
Sarah didn't answer, too focused on the man before her.
She pulled her arm free and strode toward him, keeping her face expressionless.
Blond hair, tied back in a rough ponytail, a loose strand hanging, just so, over his handsome, clean-shaven features. He looked up and met her gaze, the ice in his eyes frosting at her approach.
“Sarah,” he said, opening his arms to her. “Look, I know we—”
She didn't let him finish, hammering her fist into his gut without breaking stride.
He buckled like he'd been hit by one of the twenty-four pounder balls, and his handsome face met her rising knee with a sickening crunch of bone.
He flew back and Sarah pounced on him before he could rise, straddling him and reaching for her pistol before remembering it was locked in a chest next to the mainmast.
Cannonball dent in the right side.
Instead of shooting him, she hauled his head up by his collar and cocked her fist back for another punch. He coughed blood, and lifted a forge-crafted hand of whirring bronze cogs, leather straps, and clicking mechanics out in front him.
“Please,” he wheezed through a broken nose and a mouthful of blood.“Hello, Petyr,” she said. “I told you what would happen if I saw you again, didn't I?”
Captain Petyr Harker.
The last time she'd seen him, he'd been cradling the splintered, bloody ruin of his hand, the hand he'd always boasted killed the Crimson Blade.
Petyr, along with Captains Crow and Bragg, had conspired to strip her of her hard-won gains in the wake of her killing Gangplank. Both Crow and Bragg were now dead, one from a pistol ball to the head, the other with one lodged in his liver.
Her pistol balls.Walking out of the gunfight at MacGregan's Killhouse, she'd promised to take more than Petyr's other hand if she ever saw him again.
The Truce of the Sinking Soul was a long-standing tradition in Bilgewater.
More of an unwritten rule than a strictly enforced custom, but it allowed rival crews to gather without bloodshed when their captains attended the all too frequent funerals of old sea-legends.
That violent men and women would abide by such an archaic custom always struck Sarah as somewhat quaint, and until now she'd always kept it in the if it ain't broken... part of her mind.
An iron grip seized her right elbow and pulled her clenched fist back.
Rafen appeared on her left, dragging her off Petyr.
“Easy, captain,” he said. “Easy now…”
Part of her wanted to land another punch, but by the time Rafen had her back on her feet, the anger had gone out of Sarah. She'd made her point, and so let herself be pulled away.
“Upon our last descent,” said a rum-sodden voice in her ear. “All gathered heed this oath.”
“Peace be upon us all,” she repeated automatically. “No harm to body or soul.”
“No shot nor blade, no serpent nor spell,” added Rafen.
“Observe the Truce of the Sinking Soul!” finished Petyr, scrambling away from her.
Sarah let out a long breath, and turned to see who, along with Rafen, had pulled her off.
A hunched wretch in an expensive kraken-skin coat, fresh octopus-tentacle tie, and glistening stingray flat-cap that was well above the tattered sackcloth she normally saw him wearing.
“Thorne?” she said, shrugging off Rafen's touch.
“It's Captain Thorne these days,” he said, spitting a wad of expensive dried-seaweed tobacco to the deck and missing the polished toe of her boot by a finger's breadth.
Sarah laughed. “You? A captain? Since when?”
Thorne preened, looking like a powder monkey with a freshly stolen mango. “Got me a ship now, and a crew of hearty sea-rats off the back of what you done to Crow and Bragg.”
His breath was like a bucket of rotten clams. Thorne could parade in expensive clothes, but he could never change who he truly was.
“You always were a bottom feeder, weren't you?” said Sarah. “Now get out of my way.”
Thorne stood aside, and said, “Mark my words, Sarah Fortune, you'll get what's comin' to ya.”
“Promises, promises,” said Sarah, and in two quick steps she was standing over Petyr Harker.
She held her arm out and rippled her fingers, like she was flipping a coin along her knuckles.
“Can I give you a hand?” she said with a grin.
“Is that supposed to be funny?”
“It is funny,” said Sarah. “Look how I'm smiling.”
Petyr looked at her gloved hand through an eye that was already swollen and purple. Despite the obvious pain of his bleeding nose and winded gut, he grinned.
“If I give you my good hand, are you going to shoot it off?” he asked.
“I'm not planning to, but the day's yet young.”
He took her hand, and Sarah hauled him to his feet.
“Why are you here, Petyr?” she asked.
“There might not be a Corsair's Conclave anymore, but traditions need to be upheld, yes?”
“So I keep hearing,” said Sarah, glancing at Rafen.
She pulled a handkerchief from her coat and handed it to Petyr. He nodded gratefully and wiped the blood from his lips and chin before handing it back.
“Keep it,” she said, then nodded admiringly at his new hand. “Nice work. Doesn't look like Bilgewater craft.”
“It's not,” said Petyr. “Well, it is and it isn't. A new apprentice down at Bitterbelt's forge made it for me. Zaunite lad named Gysbert.”
Sarah looked him up and down, taking in his tailored clothing, the well-fed cheeks, and the empty scabbard that looked like it might hold a fine blade. Whatever had become of Petyr after losing his hand, he'd clearly bounced back well enough.
“I keep wondering if I should have killed you back at MacGregan's,” said Sarah.
“I've often wondered why you let me live,” said Petyr. “Don't get me wrong, I'm glad you didn't kill me, but let's be honest, I'm just the sort of fellow to seek dramatic revenge in some stupidly elaborate scheme.”
Despite herself, Sarah laughed. “That you are, Petyr, that you are. But if you want the truth, I didn't kill you because killing you would have been Gangplank's way of doing things, and I always try to be better than he was.”
“And how's that working out for you?”
“It's a work in progress,” admitted Sarah as Rafen stepped between them, holding tin mugs hooked over his fingers in one hand, and a large bottle of rum in the other.
“Here,” he said. “If the Truce is holding, and we're not going to start killing each other, then we might as well have a swig of Aligh's rum, eh?”
Sarah passed a mug to Petyr before taking one for herself as Rafen poured them all two fingers of the syrupy brown liquid.
“Keep your powder dry and your cutlass sharp,” said Rafen.
“And the world will turn,” finished Sarah, and the three of them touched mugs.
Sarah tipped her head back and took a mouthful, wincing at the gritty, overly sweet taste.
“Oh, that's bad. That's really bad,” she said. “You sure they didn't put Aligh's body in the rum barrel instead of the cannon barrel?”
“Aligh was known for many things—being a cruel old bastard, a ruthless captain, and a seasoned killer—but one thing he wasn't known for was his largesse in vittles,” said Petyr, pouring the remains of his rum onto the deck.
“I didn't know you knew Aligh.”
Petyr shook his head vigorously. “I didn't. I mean, I knew him by reputation, of course, but it's not like I ever set foot on the Moon Serpent before today.”
“The man was an enigma,” said Thorne, sidling up to Rafen and holding out his own mug. “A regular man of mystery, but who cares about that? He's dead, and we ain't.”
Sarah shrugged and nodded to Rafen, who poured Thorne a generous measure.
“Aye,” continued Thorne. “There's none here gathered who knows much of the man. They say he never came ashore neither. Always sent one of them vicious twins. So, did you hear how he died?”
“I heard he was stabbed in his sleep by a cabin boy who'd taken one too many beatings,” said Captain Blaxton, arriving mug in hand.
Rafen duly poured her a measure.
“May all your lookouts be sober,” she said, taking a drink. “Ah, some of the good stuff.”
“That's what you heard?” said Sarah. “I heard he choked to death on a barb-squid that wasn't quite dead in his dinner.”
Rafen shook his head. “No, that's just what the cutters on the Slaughter Docks are saying. I heard it from one of the chandlers down the grottoes that he was so drunk he fell overboard. His pockets were so laden with gold that he sank all the way down, straight into the waiting grasp of the Bearded Lady.”
Instinctively, they all looked over the gunwale to the ocean far below.
The waters swirled around the ship, deep and black like a liquid mirror. She saw her wavering reflection, splintered by the water and lapping at the barnacled hull. Hard waves broke against the hull—the kind you saw when something large was coming up from below.
“Told you it had an evil cast to it tonight,” said Rafen.
Sarah let out a breath and tapped her left eye twice with her right thumb, an old sailor's tradition to ward off evil influences.
“Ach, he was an old man, maybe he just died,” said Sarah. “That's what old men do best.”
“Fog's rolling in,” said Blaxton, nodding out to sea.
A chill passed through Sarah as she saw the fog was coming in from the southeast; cold, clammy, and freighted with the smell of the deepest ocean trenches.
“Don't matter none how the old bastard died,” said Thorne. “All that matters is what happens to his ship and his crew. That's why we're all here, ain't it? Every one of us wants to claim that big prize, don't we?”
All four captains studied one another, each knowing that was exactly why they were here.
“No one ever found his serpent sigil, did they?” said Blaxton.
“His sigil?” scoffed Rafen. “Like as not, it's sealed away in that cannon with him. Doesn't matter anyway, no one pays any heed to a captain's sigil these days.”
“Maybe they should,” said Sarah. “Maybe there'd be a lot less bloodshed if you could just claim a ship and crew with the previous captain's sigil.”
“Scared of a little blood, are ya?” grinned Thorne. “Not got the stomach for it, eh?”
Sarah took a step toward him and said, “Truce or not, talk to me like that again and I'll show you how much stomach I have for bloodshed.”
“Didn't mean to go upsettin' ya, Captain Fortune,” laughed Thorne, exposing black teeth and rotten gums. “Just wondering how many of 'em here gathered would have even the slightest hesitation of trying to claim Aligh's crew if they could get their hands on that sigil…?”
Sarah looked past Thorne at the other captains gathered on the Moon Serpent's deck, wondering the same thing. Most of them were small fry, with crews that were too green to make a serious play for Aligh's ship, but the three drinking rum with her... Now that was a motley crew indeed, and any one of them might be a rival she needed to worry about sticking a knife in her back.
Before any of them could say anything in answer to Thorne's question, Sarah felt the deck shift underfoot, a slow roll and dip.
She reached inside her coat and pulled out a silver coin, flicking it over the side of the ship.
Thorne watched it tumble end over end to the waters, and for a moment she wondered if he might dive in after it.
“Why'd ya do that?” he said. “This ain't your ship.”“Someone has to,” said Sarah, as the Moon Serpent's white sails unfurled. “We're getting underway.”
The ship sailed eastward out of Bilgewater Bay, taking a gently curving route to avoid the many jagged reefs, treacherous sandbanks, and jutting wrecks that could see a ship foundered. The fog Blaxton had spotted had fully enveloped them now, and the ship sailed in an almost dead silence, interrupted only by the occasional shout between the skeleton crew.
Despite the awfulness of the rum, Sarah, Rafen, Thorne, Petyr, and Blaxton worked their way through the rest of the bottle. After a couple of shots, the sweetness became bearable, and Sarah felt her mood loosening.
With the bottle empty, Rafen threw it overboard and Sarah sent him below deck to find another.
The Moon Serpent sailed onward, deeper into the fog.
More theories as to how Aligh had died were offered, each more ridiculous than the last, and Sarah found herself wiping tears of laughter from her eyes as Petyr finished a preposterous tale of Aligh falling afoul ofand being led out to sea in a golden narwhal costume only to be carved up by in a tragic case of mistaken identity.
A distant voice, muffled by the fog, called out from the crow's nest.
“What did he say?” she asked, peering up through the rigging. She held on to the gunwale rail as her vision spun a tad. The rum was bad, but it was strong. Time to ease up.“I think he said 'Land ho!' or possibly 'Sand Lo!'” said Blaxton, bleary eyed from the rum.
Sarah blinked. “Sand Lo? Why would he say that?”
“I believe it's a traditional Shuriman greeting,” giggled Petyr, taking another belt of rum.
Sarah fought the laughter bubbling up from her gut as she heard the clatter of iron chains spilling off the deck, swiftly followed by the heavy splash of an anchor hitting the water.
“We're here,” said Thorne, spitting a viscous wad of tobacco into the sea.
Sarah peered through the mist, seeing a craggy spur of black rock rearing out of the water. Salt crystals glittered in the weak light of the stars.
“Moonshard Reef,” she said. “Why in the name of the Lady's Beard are we here?”
“Aligh always claimed he was part Marai on his mother's side,” said Petyr.
“Horse dung!” said Thorne. “The man's never even seen a Marai, let alone been birthed from one.”
“Makes for an exotic tale though,” said Blaxton. “Mystic origins, magical blood, that sort of thing. Kind of backstory every captain wishes they had. Wish I'd thought of it.”
The thumping of wood on wood halted further discussions, and Sarah turned to see the serpent caller hammering the raised foredeck with his tentacle-wrapped billhook.
In his other hand, he held a flaming torch that burned with a brilliant silver light.
“The sea is this world's cemetery, and its souls sleep best without monument,” said the serpent caller, his voice a grating hiss through the coral mask. “All other graveyards show symbols of distinction between great and small, rich and poor—but the king, the fool, the prince, and the peasant are all the same to the ocean. Now, fellow travelers of the Sea… heed my words, it is time to pay the ocean its due!”
“About damn time,” said Sarah. “Let's get this done and go home.”“I'll drink to that,” said Petyr.
Sarah and the other captains gathered before the wax-stoppered cannon as the serpent caller's eyes swept over them all. She felt the potency of the rum swimming around her body, and saw a number of the other captains swaying with more than the motion of the ship.
Where in the eight seas is Rafen?
She didn't want any more rum. She just wanted him here by her side.
The twins who'd met her and Rafen as they came aboard to confiscate their weapons worked a block and tackle over to the center of the deck. An enormous hook on a thick rope loop was lowered and secured to the lifting ring on the cannon just behind the oiled fuse.
“What a waste,” said Blaxton, tears streaming down her face.
“I didn't realise you and Aligh were close,” said Sarah.
“What? Gods, no! I mean the cannon. That's an Orban thirty pounder,” said Blaxton. “Probably one of only a handful left in existence. One hit from that would punch a hole clean through a Noxian warship from stem to stern. Crying shame to see it go to waste.”
Thanks to her mother's teachings, Sarah knew more about pistols and rifles than she did about the intricacies of ship-borne weapons, but even she had to agree the bronze cannon was far too good for the likes of a miserly soul like Aligh. Was that a final insult to those left behind, that his most beautiful weapon would serve as his tomb and never belong to anyone else?
Something niggled about that, though—a nagging feeling she was missing something.
Crab Hat secured the hook to the cannon, then she and her twin stood back as the serpent caller began to speak.
“Captains of Bilgewater, it does my heart proud to see so many of you here today,” he said. “The best and the worst, the scum and the cream of our city's reaver-kind.”
A few mutters went through the captains at so harsh an opening, but serpent callers were known to be touched by the Bearded Lady, and their ways were unknowable to most people.
“Our fair isles stand at a pivotal moment in their history, and many paths lead into the future, as tangled and inconstant as the many limbs of Nagakabouros, but I have seen the way forward! On many of these paths, I see the peaks and coves of the Serpent Isles ablaze, its people dying as our enemies close in. But on one path, one singular path, I see us proud, stronger than ever, a united people under a great leader!”
Sarah's brow furrowed. Yes, the serpent callers were a strange bunch, but this was beyond anything she'd heard any of them say before.
“You have gathered here to see Captain Aligh down to the depths, a man whose boots none of you were fit to clean. A man of vision, a man who knew what needed to be done!”
The twins began hauling on the pulley ropes to lift the cannon, their muscles bunching and straining as the rear end of the cannon, gun carriage and all, began lifting from the deck. The barrel tilted downward, and were it not for the waxed stopper, Sarah felt she could have looked right down its length to see Aligh's dead body.
“You all have failed Nagakabouros! You all have fought and betrayed one another, like Rat Town scum scrabbling over a copper sprat. None of you has the vision to raise a fleet like the ones of old and make Bilgewater ruler of the waves! You all throw your coins and your tributes into the water, and for what? For safety? A blessing? No, it's a sacrifice you're offering, a blood price for the ocean to lend you its wrath. But what does the ocean care for copper coins or the smallest fish of the catch? No, for Bilgewater to prosper, it needs a red tide of offerings!”
Sarah surreptitiously glanced around at the other captains to see what they were making of the serpent caller's lunacy, but clearly the rum had numbed them to just how insane this was. She felt eyes upon her and saw Petyr looking right at her.
He gave her a terse smile, and her unease ratcheted up several notches.
She saw he was easing, half-step by half-step, toward the gunwale.
Sarah looked back down the cannon barrel.
And then she knew.
She ran toward the raised foredeck, tearing off her hat and reaching up to pull out twin stilettos masquerading as hairpins. Each was a slender needle of blackened steel with a rounded skull-pommel, and she knew just where to stick them to kill a man stone dead.
“So I offer the sea your blood, your sacrifice!” screamed the serpent caller, tearing off his mask and hood so everyone could see him. So everyone would know who had brought them here to die.
Sarah saw a grey-bearded face, furrowed by old age and aglow with madness. A long scar bisected his leathery face from right eyebrow to left cheek, and the wisps of his beard were twisted into thin braids entwined with pearls and fishhooks.
His eyes were the eyes of a man who never paid a kraken if he could spend a sprat.
Who skipped out on the ocean's tithe on every voyage.
A man she knew from reputation and decades of bloody legend.
“Aligh, you treacherous bastard!” she yelled.
The twins saw her coming, but couldn't yet release the chains holding the cannon's rear aloft.
Time slowed for Sarah, her heartbeat like the slow tolling of the bell upon the Widow's Manse whenever a ship was lost to the ocean. It felt like she was running knee deep in sticky guts in the carving bays of the Slaughter Docks.
“You're too late, Captain Fortune,” said Aligh.
He swept the torch down to the back of the cannon, and roared in triumph.
She pulled back her hand to throw one of her stilettos.
She knew she wouldn't make it.
The silver flame lit the oiled touchpaper.And the world exploded in a deafening blast of fire and thunder.
That she wasn't dead was Sarah's first surprise.
Her second was that the Moon Serpent was still afloat.
A cannon that big ought to have holed the ship all the way down to the ocean, and broken its keel.She couldn't hear anything, not really. Her ears were filled with a high-pitched whine, maddeningly shrill and muffled at the same time.
She rolled onto her side, wincing as she felt blood streaming down her arm.
A dull awareness of foggy, distant sounds coming from behind made Sarah turn her head.
A scene of utter carnage, worse than anything she'd seen in a long time.
And suddenly she knew why the ship wasn't sinking. The cannon had been primed with canister shot.
It was a load designed to shred and maim flesh, but leave a vessel intact, and it had worked its lethal power with horrifying potency.
Sarah's mad dash toward Aligh had carried her mostly clear of the wide fan of red-hot fragments, but the other captains weren't so lucky.
Men and women lay sprawled on a deck slick with blood.
Those closest to the gun were almost unrecognisable, transformed from living, breathing human beings into scraps of bloody meat. Shorn arms and legs lay scattered in gory heaps, and it was all but impossible to tell which limb belonged to which body.
But not everyone was dead.
Those captains toward the rear of the throng writhed in agony, bleeding from scores of deep lacerations and screaming the name of the Bearded Lady. Sarah could still barely hear them.
She saw Blaxton lying in a lake of blood, her fine blue coat cut to pieces, as if someone had given her a hundred lashes from a barbed cat-o'-nine-tails. Sarah couldn't tell if she was dead or alive, but she was lying very still. Thorne slithered out from beneath her, and with the luck typical of that lowlife, it looked like he'd escaped the worst of the blast using Blaxton as a human shield.
Rafen! Where's Rafen?
She couldn't see him, and could only hope that he'd found a way to survive.
He must have, he's Rafen. He survives everything, doesn't he?
Then her eyes settled on a figure lying sprawled against the railings, bloodied, but mostly unhurt.
He grinned, and hate filled Sarah as she knew that somehow, in some way, that smug, conniving sea-slug had known about Aligh's trap. He had to have been part of setting it up, a glittering, silver-tongued lure for captains who didn't know him well enough to send him packing.
Sarah saw the deck hatch swing open, and the skeleton crew that had sailed them out to Moonshard Reef emerged with long gutting knives to finish what their vile captain had begun. They moved as if in a languid dream, skewering bellies and cutting throats with sadistic relish.
Anger surged through Sarah, and she sat upright, blinking through tears of pain.
You're alive, damn it! Do something!
With that thought blazing in her mind, sounds rushed back and her vision cleared.
The screams of the dying drove her to her feet, and she swept up her stilettos once again.
Aligh stood far behind the smoking cannon, arms aloft and surveying his bloody handiwork with the eyes of a zealot. Sarah sprinted toward him again, but this time the twins rushed past their captain to intercept her.
She vaulted over the cannon, and hammered her boots into the face of the twin with the tattooed eyes all across her skull. Razorscale teeth splintered under Sarah's iron hard boot-heels, and sent the woman flying backward.
Sarah landed lightly and leapt to the side as Crab Hat swung a monstrous, fang-toothed club at her head. It smashed the deck boards to splinters, and Sarah rolled to her feet hammering her daggered fist into the woman's back. The crab-shell armor was hard and smooth and the stiletto slid clear without penetrating.
The woman wrenched the club from the deck and spun around, the weapon slashing just over Sarah's head. Her tattooed twin was back up, blood streaming down her face of many eyes, turning it into a hideous grimace. She held a pair of long punch daggers with razor-toothed sawfish blades.
She came at Sarah in a flurry of blows, elbows, and high kicks.
Sarah tried to parry and dodge, only barely avoiding each killing blow. She could hold her own in a fight, but she'd take a pistol over a pair of thin daggers any day. By the time they'd backed up toward the cannon, Sarah's shirt was soaked in blood and she was seriously reconsidering the wisdom of her plan to fight hand to hand.
From the corner of her eye she saw the armored twin winding up for another strike.
Two to one, this fight would only end badly for Sarah.
Tattooed Eyes slashed her dagger low, and Sarah grunted as it cut a line of fire across the side of her thigh. She dropped to one knee as a reverse stroke came for her throat.
She lifted her arm to parry, and the slashing blade cut straight through the fabric of her coat.
The impact sent searing bolts of pain up Sarah's arm, but the iron rods specially woven into the back of the sleeve halted the blade before it bit flesh.
Her foe let out a “Ha!” of triumph, but the grin fell from her face as she realised Sarah was unhurt.
“Gedian and Sons, Battle Tailors and War Clothiers,” said Sarah, and hammered her stiletto up through the soft flesh on the underside of her foe's jaw. Her eyes flew wide in shock, and Sarah saw the black needle of the blade behind her razor teeth as it punched up into her brain.
Sarah rose and kicked the dead body away as her twin screamed in anguish.
Stiletto versus war-club—bad odds. Really bad odds.
Sarah risked a glance behind her.
Cannonball dent in the right side…
This was her chance to even those odds.
The armored twin launched herself at Sarah in fury, her huge, toothed club rising up for a strike. The weapon slashed down in an executioner's arc, and Sarah dived aside at the last instant.
The iron head of the club smashed the chest behind Sarah apart. She spun inside the twin's guard and drove her blade into a gap between the plates of crab-shell armor.
The woman grunted and stumbled backward, tearing the weapon from Sarah's hand.
Sarah turned and began frantically searching through the shattered ruin of the chest, sweeping aside damaged knives, brass-knuckles, and iron-tipped cudgels.
“Come on, come on, where are you…?” she hissed, hearing the scrape of a club being lifted from the deck. A broken handle, a bent blade.
Had one of the twins hidden them somewhere else, hoping to keep them for themselves...?
No, no, no…
And then her palm closed on the smooth, ivory-handled grips she knew better than anything.
Sarah spun the twin pistols into her grip, and snapped the firing mechanism into place.
She twisted and dived to the side, pulling the triggers in a storm of shot.
Crab-shell armor was proof against blades and hooks, but against gun-dame-forged weapons, the tattooed woman might as well have been naked.
Red-hot pistol balls blasted through her armor, and she toppled over the cannon, leaking vital fluids from more than a dozen neat holes.
Sarah rose to her feet and tensed as she felt the roll and sway of the deck change. It was a subtle change, almost unnoticeable, a change in the angle of the anchored ship's prow as the swell of the ocean shifted...
“Oh, now that's not good…” she said, as Aligh limped toward her, distraught at the sight of the dead twins.
“You killed them!” he cried.
Sarah fired a shot into each of his kneecaps. “That's for all the captains you killed tonight.”
Aligh screamed, writhing on the deck. He wept and feebly tried to swing his billhook at her.
Sarah easily batted it aside and jammed a pistol under his chin.
“Any last words?” she asked. “Now this really is your funeral.”
The deck shifted again, and a deathly silence fell over the ship.
Even the wounded seemed to recognize the strange quality of the darkness closing in around them as a deep rumbling sound rose up from the water.
Sarah sensed fearful tremors running through the ship's timbers.
“What's happening?” she demanded, jabbing the pistol harder into Aligh's throat. “What else did you have planned tonight?”“This is none of my doing,” wept Aligh, and despite his obvious agony, he laughed with the hysteria of a man who knew his time had come. “My bill to the sea is due. And you're going to pay it with me…”
Sarah had felt something like this in the bones of a ship once before.
Nine years ago, just north of Bilgewater and making the last, hooking sprint to the inner bay. They'd been returning from a bounty run up by Drakkengate and spotted a smuggler running a slimmed-down carrack out of the Ironwater coves, fleeing the Serpent Isles with treasures looted from a Buhru temple.
She still remembered the mournful rumble of the titanic serpent horns as they echoed over the ocean, and the terror as her crew watched an abyssal kraken rear up from the water to smash the carrack to matchwood and drag all aboard to their deaths.
The shift in the deck as the kraken had passed under their ship felt just like this.
She ran to the gunwale and searched the fog and ocean.
The sea swirled around the crags of Moonshard Reef, dark and keeping their secrets. No one knew just how deep it got around here, but any ship that sank out this way was never seen again, never washed up on the isles.
What's out there…?
And then she saw it.
Two hundred yards out, huge and unyielding, arising from the deep.
The vast dome of its helmeted head broke the water, twin eyes glowing with the orange light of a smelting furnace. The water boiled around it, frothed to madness by a dark miasma surrounding its wavering outline, and leaving an oily slick in its wake.
Its body was huge, encased in plates of corroded iron, looped with chains torn from countless sunken vessels. Across one shoulder it carried a colossal,, dripping with black water and garlanded with rotten weeds from the deepest, darkest abyss.
Sarah's mind refused to process what she was seeing.
This is impossible.
It was a dark legend come to life, a scare story told around the beer-soaked tables of the wharf-side taverns by drunken rakes hoping for a free drink. She knew its name, had even laughed at the impossibility of its existence.
But here it was, rising from the ocean with booming, ponderous strides.
The drowned tallyman, come to claim the ocean's due.
Even his name was said to be a curse.“ …”
The water exploded as Nautilus hurled his anchor at the Moon Serpent.
A tidal wave made stagnant and rotten by its time in the darkness washed over the ship, as the anchor crashed into the deck. It smashed clear through the timbers, and the ship tilted wildly to port as the impossible weight of it pulled it over.
Sarah fell against the railing and jammed her pistols home in their shoulder holsters as the ship tilted downward. Crew screamed as they slid down the angled deck or were thrown overboard. The anchor ripped clear of the ship's side, and the ship violently righted itself. Sarah looked up at the sound of splintering masts overhead. Silver sails billowed as the topmast and mizzen snapped like twigs, falling to the shattered deck to crush a dozen men or more.
She struggled to her feet, hearing the groan of a keel bending under stresses it had never been designed to endure. Caulked timbers split and geysers of black water erupted all along the length of the deck.
Sarah turned to Aligh, who clung to the bronze cannon that ought to have served as his tomb.
“You did this!” she yelled, as the looming shadow of Nautilus reared up from the water.
The carved wooden railing smashed to splinters as a massive hand, surely too large to have once been mortal, slammed down on the foredeck. Another swiftly followed, trailing a length of chain that slithered with a black, oily substance.
“He's not real!” screamed Aligh, his mind undone by the sight of Nautilus. “It was just a story!”
“He looks pretty damn real to me!” shouted Sarah over the cacophony of smashing wood, tearing sails, and terrified screams. Fiery heat washed over her as Nautilus hauled his bulk over the gunwale, and turned his infernal gaze upon her.
She felt the deathly heat of it crawling over her skin, its touch loathsome and invasive, as if the titan of the deeps could see into her very soul.
His titanic weight heeled the ship over again, and Sarah grabbed hold of the looped pulley ropes as the deck tilted crazily. The front of the cannon slid sideways as the block and tackle swung wildly and its knotted end strained to bear its colossal weight. The wooden pegs securing the wheels of the gun carriage in place creaked ominously.
Aligh pulled his way along the cannon toward her.
“I won't go alone!” he screamed. “If the ocean wants me, I'll drag you down with me!”
The man was a lunatic, like the crippled sailors raving in Bilgewater's alleys with a mind destroyed by the foulest rotgut. His fraudulent serpent caller robes had come loose, and dangling from his neck on a leather thong was a silver-and-brass sigil of three intertwined serpents.
Swinging on the pulley, Sarah tried to kick him away, but he had a madman's strength, clawing at her throat with his free hand. Cracked fingernails drew blood, and she struggled to find purchase as the ship tipped over onto its side, its port side now completely underwater.
Far above them, Nautilus drew back his anchor once again and brought it down like a colossal woodsman's axe.
Its unnatural mass sheared through the deck amidships, and Sarah heard the thunderous crack of the keel finally splitting. The vessel's stern rose up sharply, and the sounds of Aligh's screaming crew echoed in the mist.
On the ocean, we are all equal, went the old saying, but right now Sarah didn't give a wharf-rat's shit for those murderous, traitorous bastards.
Let them all drown.
The front half of the ship sprang up with the force of the blow, then slammed back down onto the ocean, tilting back upright as seawater poured into the bow section. The weight of it was dragging the prow deeper underwater with every passing second.
In moments, nothing would remain on the surface.
A body slammed into the deck next to her; Aligh's tattooed daughter, the one with Sarah's stiletto still jammed in her brain.
Slicks of black fluid spilled from her mouth and swirled in her eyes.
With a groan of screeching metal, Nautilus reached for Aligh with a massive, corroded gauntlet. His crushing grip fastened on the treacherous captain's torso and pulled. Aligh held fast to Sarah with lunatic strength, as though they embraced like lovers.
She couldn't shake him loose.
“All because you wouldn't pay the damn tithe,” snarled Sarah, as Aligh fought to hold on to her.
“The ocean will take you as well as me!” he screamed.
“Not today,” said Sarah, reaching up and back to grip the skull-pommel of the stiletto wedged in the soft tissue under the tattooed twin's jaw.
She pulled hard, and the blade slid free in a welter of fluids.
“You want him?” said Sarah, reversing her grip on the weapon. “He's all yours!”
She rammed the blade into the side of Aligh's neck, driving it hard through to the other side. His head snapped back and Sarah's hand flashed out to catch a falling leather thong cut loose from around Aligh's throat. His grip spasmed, and the metal titan wrenched him back just as the deck hook securing Sarah's rope loop snapped.
The full weight of the cannon yanked on the block and tackle, lifting Sarah away from the weapon and Aligh. Swinging wildly above the sinking ship, she watched as Nautilus turned and sank back into the ocean, the screaming Aligh clutched in one iron fist.
The water closed over him, a trail of frantic bubbles following Aligh down as Nautilus returned to the darkness below with his bounty. As Aligh was dragged down, Sarah took grim pleasure in seeing the look of terror in his eyes at his fate; condemned to an eternity in darkness without so much as a pauper's marker to his name.
The Moon Serpent's prow rose almost vertically in the ocean, and Sarah swung on the rope to reach the jutting, serpent figurehead. Her booted feet caught the silver fangs, and she managed to remain upright as the ship slowly sank into the ocean.
With a moment's pause, she saw the back half of the boat was almost entirely underwater, with only a few sailors crowded in around the upright stern, so close she could likely have swung over to reach them. One of the survivors was Petyr Harker, and she felt bilious hatred rise in her gorge.
“I did tell you I was just the sort of fellow to seek dramatic revenge in some stupidly elaborate scheme,” said Petyr. “Admittedly, I didn't quite see it turning out like this, but at least—”
Sarah didn't give him a chance to finish, throwing the rope loop toward him like a lasso, and no harpooner had ever cast so perfect a throw.
The loop settled around Petyr's neck like a noose, but before he could lift it clear, Sarah drew her pistol and aimed upward.
“Say hello to Aligh on the way down, Petyr,” she said, and pulled the trigger.
The shot smashed the block and tackle straining to hold the cannon's enormous weight, and it immediately fell into the ocean. Sarah had a fraction of a second to savor the look of horror in Petyr's eyes before the rope snapped taut and wrenched him from his perch.
His scream was cut short as he hit the water and vanished into the depths as the cannon dragged him all the way down.
Standing atop the serpent figurehead, Sarah watched the Moon Serpent's stern finally go under in a swirl of foaming water and cracking timbers. The few sailors still clinging to the wreckage paddled frantically on the surface before the suction of the wreck finally pulled them down with it.
Looking down, she reckoned she had a few seconds at best before the prow did the same to her.
“Shame to send something so beautiful to the deep,” said a voice behind her, and Sarah smiled.
She looked over her shoulder to see Rafen in their landing boat, soaked to the skin and covered in cuts, bruises, and bites. The storm lamp on the prow bobbed like a welcome beacon of safety.
“Thank you kindly, old man,” she said.
“I meant the cannon,” said Rafen, carefully rowing toward her. “A finer thirty pounder I've yet to see.”
“Aye,” agreed Sarah, “but it's tradition, and you don't go messing with traditions, right?”
“Right indeed,” said Rafen.
“So where in the name of the Bearded Lady did you get to?” asked Sarah, “I needed you on the damn deck when everything went to shit.”
Rafen shrugged and said, “Went below to get another bottle of rum and ran into Aligh's crew fixing to get a-murderin'. They didn't take kindly to being discovered and tried to cut my damn head off. Managed to gut a couple with some borrowed steel, but had to jump out of a gunport before they shanked me good. Swam around to get our boat, getting feasted on by all that lives under the surface, thank you very much. But I'm here now, so do you want to get on board or are you planning to go down with the ship?”
“This ship's captain's already gone with her,” said Sarah, stepping casually from the figurehead to the landing boat.
With her safely aboard, Rafen rowed them away from the doomed Moon Serpent as the figurehead and its topmost mast finally went under in a swirl of bubbles, rope, and broken spars.
Sarah moved to the back of the landing boat, now seeing she wasn't the only passenger Rafen had picked up. A bloodied body in a lacerated coat of pale blue, gold cuffs, and frayed bronze epaulettes lay slumped in the landing boat's bilges.
“Blaxton?” said Sarah. “She's still alive?”
“Just about,” said Rafen. “She's a blowhard, but she didn't deserve to go down with scum like Aligh. Didn't feel right to leave her to drown, right?”
Sarah said nothing, too exhausted to do more than nod.
“So you going to tell me what in the eight seas happened up there?” asked Rafen.
“You'd never believe me,” said Sarah.
“I'm guessing it was you that sank the ship firing the damn cannon into the deck?” said Rafen.
“Wasn't me. What happened up there was all Aligh's doing,” said Sarah, with a look that told him not to ask more.
“Though I did manage to get this.” She opened her palm to reveal a disc stamped with three intertwined serpents of silver and brass.
“Aligh's sigil,” said Rafen.
“Might not mean much these days, but we'll see what happens when I show it to the rest of his crew, once they've sobered up.”
Rafen grinned. “Well, at least this trip wasn't a total waste of time.”
Sarah slumped in the back of the boat and watched as the rearing crag of Moonshard Reef began to fade into the mist. She narrowed her eyes as she saw a lone figure climb from the water and shake itself dry.
A hunched wretch in an expensive kraken-skin coat.
“Thorne,” she whispered. “It's always the bloody rats that make it out.”
“What's that?” said Rafen, mid-row. “Someone else made it out?”“No,” said Sarah, turning away. “No one at all.”