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Short Story • 4 Minute Read

Down Among the Dead Men

By Graham McNeill

Bilgewater's White Wharf had earned its name thanks to the layer of bird waste covering it from end to end, which was only to be expected at a resting place for the dead. Folk here didn't bury corpses; they returned them to the sea. A grave of the sunken dead hung suspended in the cold depths, marked by hundreds of bobbing grave-buoys. Some were merely name posts, while others were elaborate tomb markers carved to resemble rearing krakens or buxom sea wenches.

Lore

Bilgewater's White Wharf had earned its name thanks to the layer of bird waste covering it from end to end, which was only to be expected at a resting place for the dead. Folk here didn't bury corpses; they returned them to the sea. A grave of the sunken dead hung suspended in the cold depths, marked by hundreds of bobbing grave-buoys. Some were merely name posts, while others were elaborate tomb markers carved to resemble rearing krakens or buxom sea wenches.

Miss Fortune OriginalSquare Miss Fortune sat on an empty crate of Rapture Rum at the end of the wharf, legs crossed and a noxious cheroot dangling from her bottom lip. In one hand, she held a length of breathing tube connected to a half-submerged coffin floating low in the water. In the other, she grasped a length of frayed rope running through a rusted pulley block and tied to the coffin lid. Both her Impure Shots pistols were holstered within easy reach.

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Moonlight cast a weak glow through the mist rolling in from the sea, staining the water's scummed surface tobacco yellow. Cawing carrion gulls lined every swaybacked roof on the quayside, which was always a good omen. They knew better than any the signs of fresh pickings.

"About time" she whispered, as a shaven-headed man in a drake-scale frock coat emerged from the narrow, debris-choked alley. A pack of needle-toothed wharf-rats stalked him, hoping he was drunk and might pass out to become easy meat. The man's name was Jakmunt Zyglos, one of the Painted Brothers. Any corsair worth his salt had tattoos, but every inch of Zyglos was inked with clawed serpents, lovers' names, and a record of every boat he'd sunk, every man he'd murdered. His skin was as good a confession as any she'd known.

He marched purposefully along the wharf, but his eyes darting warily from side to side gave the lie to his confidence. His hand gripped a long cutlass with a shark-toothed edge that hung low on his hip. He too boasted a firearm, a stubby carbine with glassy pipes running the length of its barrel.

"Where is he?" demanded Zyglos. "You said you'd bring him."

"That a Piltover hex-carbine?" she asked, ignoring his question.

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"Answer me, damn you!"

"You first" said Miss Fortune, letting some rope out through the pulley and allowing the coffin to sink a little more. "After all, I'm not sure how long this breathing tube is, and you wouldn't want your brother to go without air, would you?"

Zyglos took a breath, and she saw the tension go out of him.

"Yes, damn you, it's from Piltover" he said, drawing the weapon and holding it out by the trigger guard.

"Pricy" said Miss Fortune.

"I guess you'd know" he sneered.

She let out even more rope. Bubbles of air escaped the now fully submerged coffin. Zyglos held up his hands, instantly contrite.

"Alright! Alright!" he pleaded. "It's yours. Pull him up. Please."

"You'll come quietly?"

Zyglos gave a bark of fatalistic laughter.

"What choice do I have?" he asked. "You sank my ships and killed all my men. You've sent my kin to the poorhouse or the gaol, and for what? A stolen hex-gun? A bounty?"

"A little of both and then some?"

"So how much am I worth to you, bitch?"

"Coin? Five hundred Silver Serpents Silver Serpents."

"All this mayhem for a lousy five hundred serpents?"

"It's not the money that's got you killed. It's the fact that you're one of Gangplank OriginalSquare Gangplank's sworn men" said Miss Fortune. "That's why I want you dead."

"Dead? Wait, the warrant says alive!"

"True, but I've never been very good at following instructions" said Miss Fortune, releasing the rope and the breathing tube. The coffin plunged into the darkness of the sunken dead, trailing a froth of frantic bubbles. Zyglos screamed his brother's name and ran at her, drawing his serrated sword. She let him get within spitting distance before drawing her pistols and blasting him with both barrels, one through the eye, one in the heart.

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Miss Fortune spat her cheroot into the sea and blew the smoke from each muzzle.

"Self defense" she said with a smile, rehearsing her lie for the bounty pursers. "Crazy fool came at me with that fang-sword of his. I didn't have a choice."

Miss Fortune bent to retrieve the fallen hex-carbine. She turned the weapon over in her hands. Too light for her tastes, but artfully made and absurdly lethal. The ghost of a smile twitched the corner of her mouth as she thought back to the warmth of the old workshop, the smell of gun oil, and the touch of her mother's hand on her shoulder. Miss Fortune sighed and shook off the memory before it turned sour. She threw the pistol out over the water, sending it down to the dead. The sea demanded its due, after all, and she'd not lied; the weapon was worth a small fortune.

She stood and strolled back into Bilgewater. She knew she ought to throw Zyglos' corpse into the water too, but the wharf-rats and the carrion gulls had to eat, didn't they?

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And fresh meat was a rare delicacy on the White Wharf.

References

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