THE SHIP WAS oak and so the men were iron. According to Captain Bracey, where increasingly the Royal Navy, seeking to make their ships of iron it led to their producing men of wood. Bracey was a sailor. His crew were skilled men, good men, where every able seaman, despite his lowly (if honest) rank knew ships, knew the wind, and certainly knew the sea. “This new navy? Just damn labourers,” he said. “Eh, Sir William? Eh? What do you say, sir? Eh?” The Honourable Sir William Augustus Frederick Van Keppel KCB, in full rig, feathers and star, with his last post that of commodore, outranked Captain Bracey. But Bracey had post, it was his ship. Here and Bracey was the Lord God Almighty, and Sir William would damn the man that said otherwise. ‘Bomber’ Van Keppel had a reputation as a fighting seaman, with every line and crease of his face darkened by powder burns as harsh as any tattow. Yet he also had something that Bracey did not, Sir William had tact. The navy was changing, he knew that. He welcomed it indeed. That Bracey did not was as obvious from the way he ran and crewed The Thelassa, as it was from every other word he spoke.
Privately, Sir William thought Bracey to be quite, quite mad. But fighting mad. Navy mad. This was likely the last posting Bracey would enjoy, and it was not Sir William’s wish, certainly not his place, to upset the captain of The Thelassa. He banged the table in encouragement, “Bravo, Bracey. Bravo!” He turned to the midshipman whose turn it was today to attend to table. “Boy, the pie. The pie!” The third of the three diners, Mr. Wyld of the Royal Society, watched the exchange with a wry smile. Not a passenger, still he had no exact shipboard duties. This was not his first voyage by any means, and the traditions of the Royal Navy were not new to him.
“Aye-aye, sir,” Charles Bullen already on his feet, and with knife in hand, obeyed. Upon the captain’s silver the pie was of real pastry, a foot across, and in the shape of what every good sailor knew to be King Neptune. There were tiny onions in a fat bacon sauce, and a mash of vegetables flavoured by whatever witchery the cook, Soup Bowl, kept secret. Soup Bowl was a favourite of the captain’s. The contents of the cook’s chest were as sacred as Bracey’s personal rutter, and Sir William served a still-steaming plate could not remember such an enticing feast as he enjoyed now, not when three weeks from harbour. The young man having served those there, retreated a step.
Bracey did not look at his food, but instead at the midshipman. “You are close-hauled on the port tack, Mr. Bullen,” he said. “You are beating up channel with a nor-easterly wind blowing hard, with Dover bearing north two miles.”
“Sir,” Bullen straightened.
“The wind veers four points and take you flat, aback. What are your orders, sir?”
Charles Bullen hastily dredged his mind for the answer. It was Bracey’s way to spring sudden problems upon his midshipman. This midshipman had come to expect them and had, unlike his peers, come to relish them. He expected to be examined for lieutenant on their return from Australia and could expect no better preparation than this. It was not an opinion shared in the lower wardroom, but Bullen had a sharp and mathematical mind.
Contenting himself with the pie Mr. Wyld paid no more mind to the ragging of the midshipman. His thoughts were already elsewhere. A famous cartographer, he did not so much explore as go where others had gone so far as to plant a flag, leaving him to find out what it was the flag was planted upon. Often this resulted in he and his party roaming in places the explorer had not, since for the most part such men went in wibbly-wobbly lines with no regard for what might lie about them. That he might also produce accurate maps of more civilised lands was by the by. Certainly, to the Lords of the Admiralty who, if their cruder maps were replaced by prettier ones that included battery, big rock, and noteworthy landmark, were not about to complain about the expense of providing a berth for such a man as Wyld. It only meant moving a lieutenant out of his cabin after all. Since The Thelassa had two lieutenants aboard (and additionally a commodore being taken to his command) that meant that neither of the lieutenants enjoyed the luxury of their own room. Yet each still stood far higher, beyond the great examination, than the young man being quizzed now.
THE LARGEST HABITABLE single space on The Thelassa was that used by the passengers, those that had the means or the influence to take a cabin anyway. It surprised, not to say irritated, many of those passengers to discover that the common space they enjoyed vanished at night. Their cabins were formed by great panels put in place for their privacy on the sounding of bells. Bells rang frequently aboard The Thelassa. Or rather, a bell. A brass affair that reached each nook aboard, or whose order was carried by midshipmen to their station. The nanny bell, as it had come to be called, would be answered by a bustle of sailors that would enter the space, erect the divides and leave the passenger’s servants to see to the cots and chests, the furnishings and all else that made the cabins so created more habitable. By day, as now, the panels were concealed against the wall, and the passenger’s furniture arranged as they preferred in the communal area. The conflict between servants to secure the best place, especially by the great length of panelled window that stretched to the rear of the cabin, was especially valued.
As passengers their food was what they had brought aboard, seen to by the same personal servants for whom such work had become degrading. Many of the passengers that had secured a berth here thought it cramped, the jolly wheeze of it all had long rubbed away. The enforced mix that would normally have been expected aboard between the professional middle class, the army officer travelling to his post, the factors of John Company, and the occasional member of the nobility, was not to be found on The Thelassa. Here, so many of the passengers were of such quality that the passenger deck was known as Buckingham Palace to the crew.
It was not that there weren’t other passengers. Just that those passengers had to make do with messing with the pensioner-guards and their families (who were after all passengers too). The life of indolence, space, and comparatively good food seen to by those who quietly enjoyed a certain wealth was the envy of the whole of the ship’s company.
“I’ll tell you what, Robey old boy, decent tuck here?” the dashing and heroically handsome Lord Jack Thomas Loxley was dressed for riding. He tapped a crop against the heel of one gleaming boot. Between each his quiet little servant rubbed the mark away with a monogrammed chamois.
“You’ve said the same every day so far,” Major the Lord Horatio Robley, Loyal Loamshires Guards of Horse (Rtd). He stood in the stance of a man always ready for action, thumb hooked behind holster, free hand raised so that his batman Lance-Corporal of Horse Scrunt, Loyal Loamshires Guards of Horse (Svd) could see to his cuff. Major Robley, as he preferred to be called in that damn-your-eyes-old-soldier-no-time-for-titles-but-don’t-forget-I-have-one way he preferred, was quite aware of the benefit of a good cuff, but he considered it beneath a gentleman to understand their working. Engineers weren’t proper soldiers, and Major Robley would not tarnish the cavalry’s reputation by knowing anything about their oily business. “The princess is a cold fish, Loxley old boy.”
“They didn’t call me ‘Blazer’ at the old school for nothing, Robley.”
“That was because you wore one in tails week, Loxley.”
Loxley feigned not to hear Major Robley’s last comment. They had both attended School, big ‘S’. School, rugger, fencing, fagging, even the odd class but nothing too taxing. Theirs was not an education that favoured brains. Nor indeed, literacy. “I mean to say…” he said, and the pair of rogues shared again a familiar moment.
Here aboard The Thelassa were all the great beauties of the age. Loxley had said as much to Robey. Robey not finding any exaggeration in Loxley’s words wondered momentarily if his, well, not friend, had been taken to fever? Yet here they were. Henrietta the daughter of Viscount Hedersett, from the Herefordshire Hedersetts. In that they owned most of Herefordshire. Debutante, a rose in her first bloom. She should have been Loxley’s absolute type save that he was a man that sought to assail tall walls and risk mighty breaches. In his mighty britches. There was a chill warmth, a flashing intelligence, a keen awareness of all that, that frankly frightened him off. There was no more eligible young lady in all the Empire, and there she was. Grinning at him. Like a…
“What are they called, Robey old boy? Big teeth, terribly grim, yet attractive in a powerful way?”
“Tiger. She’s a tiger.”
Ignoring the pair, Valeriya Tolstoy stood looking out at the window and the setting of the sun. It was rare to see such a sight, but the wind favoured it tonight and so by happenstance there was a poetry to the ending of the evening. Her exact heritage was a secret, though it had been clear that she was a woman of quality from the top of her vast snow-leopard chapka to the curl of her boots. Nearby, and Lady Victoria Marlborough studiously ignored the Russian too. Both were known in their countries for the deep flame of their hair. Previously unique, marked, it was a matter of pride in each of them and something that was regularly commented upon.
There was a scandal to Lady Victoria. No one commented on it. Nor on the more pertinent fact that whilst very definitely a lady of superb breeding, she had also brought shame to her family. She was convicted for transportation. Her presence here was not of her choice. And woe betide any dashing sprig of a captain, daring stallion of a major, or crusty pie of a colonel that thought to dally with the hostile Lady Victoria.
“What about the redhead?”
“The frozen one, or the dangerous one?”
“Doesn’t much narrow it down, old boy,” said Robey. For himself he was not about to make a fool of himself with such society ladies. Few men could seek to outshine the damnably handsome Loxley, and fewer still could hope to be more foolish. Robey would wait to see which mare attracted Loxley’s groom, and only then tighten his saddle for the gallop. Bored, he found egging on Lord Jack passed the time. “Ivan has more of the looks.” which was true enough. If the Hon. Miss Hedersett with her blonde girls and dazzling choice of garments was the sun, Valeria was the moon. Bright, brilliant, mysterious.
It would have been an easy matter then for Loxley to throw the dice and make his mark with one of them, though probably not Miss Hedersett who, again, frightened him a little. Robey would back him, Loxley knew. Robey was a top-drawer sort of fellow, army of course, so probably a rotten shot. Second drawer then. No, what confused Lord Jack Loxley was the presence of Princess Shouzang.
At least equalling Miss Hedersett and the icy Valeria in beauty, the Chinese princess seemed to be made of the fine porcelain that he believed gave the country its name. Her face apparently without expression she pointedly ignored her two gentlemen admirers. If he had been present the princess would likely have been engaged in conversation with Lord Blyth Penprose of Goldsithey. Blyth’s broad shoulders and deep tan offended Loxley, who prided himself on both from his lifetime dedication to the lordly art of big game hunting. The princess, a Chinese honorific that held no more station than any English milord, could be surprisingly cordial, and certainly she was graceful. In the absence of Blyth she spoke instead with Queen Astrid. Astrid, Robley and Loxley ignored. The woman wore exactly the same dress as had Miss Hedersett only two days before, and which the Hon. Henrietta had discarded as being unfashionably so-very last-England. Her hair grew out rather than down, she farted like a clergyman and she was very, even Princess Shouzang would allow, intense. Intensely charming, was the more precise phrase she used. It was not that Queen Astrid was often here, just that when she was no one felt quite up to explaining why she shouldn’t be.
Loxley had travelled often aboard ship and for the life of him he could not remember encountering even one other of good breeding. Seven, including he, seemed positively greedy. He did not include Astrid in that number. He suspected she wasn’t really a queen. Finding the troublesome job of choosing one of the three great beauties of the age was taxing upon his patience, Loxley instead waited for the sugar to finish melting into the glass being prepared for him by Potty. He took it with a slight purse of his cruel lips. Seeing he was being inhospitable within sight of the ladies, he whispered quietly to Major Robey, “Green fairy, old boy?”
“Not since school, Loxley.”
THE GUNDECK DIRECTLY beneath the weather decks was as wet as anywhere aboard The Thelassa. One could never entirely escape the sea no matter where one went aboard. Here where the whole of that deck was given over to the second class of passengers clothing steamed on lines strung its whole length. With Buckingham Palace occupied by half the unmarried nobility of the realm the gun deck was fully occupied. The Pensioner-Guards were quartered here along with their families, and so too were any and every other passenger taking passage aboard that did not wipe their bums with brocade, and who could tie their own laces two goes out of three. “Lost again, milord?” as the ship’s cook, the cheery figure of Soup Bowl took his duties as faithfully as he did his dress. There was no cleaner sailor in the whole of Britannia’s Navy and with the chance of such good nosh The Thelassa’s entirely unnecessary complement of powder-monkeys earned their keep scrubbing pans. The ship’s kitchen was the smartest place on The Thelassa. Despite the many aboard, Soup Bowl oversaw every aspect involved in feeding them. From the top down, he would work his wonder over the leftovers. The wardroom ate a lot of meat, the convicts meat soup. The passengers enjoyed quite a lot of what lay between. There were still two beef in their stalls. And they still had the pigs after that.
“Quite so,” said Lord Blyth. For a man so clearly used to travelling he never did seem to be able to find his way about ship. Mealtimes and bed-time he always seemed to find himself, turned about again, on the gundeck. The thick sauce smelled delicious, the beef cooked slow from the ribs used for the wardroom the day before was as good as anything Blyth could remember. To one side of the great pot three men looked resignedly at the hard biscuit they were once again enjoying for their supper. “Not got the rhino?” said Blyth, some concern in his voice. “Bless you, milord. The Herr Doktor don’t eat no meat. Nor that pair, Abram and Stilts. Abram’s not like you sir, he’s a gent down on his luck,” Soup Bowl dipped a ladle for the next in line. “And Stilts? Well, as you can see, he’s proper short.” Then lowering his voice, Soup added conspiratorially, “They’re all them new types, them vegetablists. No meat. There’s a few aboard. So, they gets biscuit-avec.”
“Lost again, milord?” as the ship’s cook, the cheery figure of Soup Bowl took his duties as faithfully as he did his dress. There was no cleaner sailor in the whole of Britannia’s Navy and with the chance of such good nosh The Thelassa’s entirely unnecessary complement of powder-monkeys earned their keep scrubbing pans. The ship’s kitchen was the smartest place on The Thelassa. Despite the many aboard, Soup Bowl oversaw every aspect involved in feeding them. From the top down, he would work his wonder over the leftovers. The wardroom ate a lot of meat, the convicts meat soup. The passengers enjoyed quite a lot of what lay between. There were still two beef in their stalls. And they still had the pigs after that.
“Quite so,” said Lord Blyth. For a man so clearly used to travelling he never did seem to be able to find his way about ship. Mealtimes and bed-time he always seemed to find himself, turned about again, on the gundeck. The thick sauce smelled delicious, the beef cooked slow from the ribs used for the wardroom the day before was as good as anything Blyth could remember. To one side of the great pot three men looked resignedly at the hard biscuit they were once again enjoying for their supper. “Not got the rhino?” said Blyth, some concern in his voice.
“Bless you, milord. The Herr Doktor don’t eat no meat. Nor that pair, Abram and Stilts. Abram’s not like you sir, he’s a gent down on his luck,” Soup Bowl dipped a ladle for the next in line. “And Stilts? Well, as you can see, he’s proper short.” Then lowering his voice, Soup added conspiratorially, “They’re all them new types, them vegetablists. No meat. There’s a few aboard. So, they gets biscuit-avec.”
“Weevil, mostly. Don’t let the poor dears hear me say that.”
The Thelassa rolled, and so unexpectedly that Soup nearly lost four portions of passenger supper, or twelve of convict soup. Even on the gundeck the sound of distant thunder rolled across the heavens. Lord Blyth set the food down hurriedly. A man so long tanned, so well beaten by a distant sun, still he went visibly pale.
“Excuse please,” said Herr Doktor Werner Frederick Puffendorf. “What is this?” he held up something small that had fallen into his hand from his biscuit.
“Barley,” lied Soup.
The Thelassa rolled, and so unexpectedly that Soup nearly lost four portions of passenger supper, or twelve of convict soup. Even on the gundeck the sound of distant thunder rolled across the heavens. Lord Blyth set the food down hurriedly. A man so long tanned, so well beaten by a distant sun, still he went visibly pale. “Excuse please,” said Herr Doktor Werner Frederick Puffendorf. “What is this?” he held up something small that had fallen into his hand from his biscuit.
“Barley,” lied Soup. “Ach, good.” ooOOoo
THERE WAS ROOM enough for everyone, for everyone had lived before in rooms far smaller, then all crowded together with their families (if they had been fortunate). The deck was divided by the sort of heavy gates that bespoke of a navy that was not unused to taking prisoners. Prisoners meant captured ships. Captured ships meant prize money. The Thelassa would take no prizes, and its complement of prisoners was already full. They were also restless.
“Please sir,” said young Jed Euston. “I’d be ever so grateful if I could be let out for a moment.”
Corporal Badger was the worst of the pensioner-guards, and he knew it. He had not survived twenty-four years, much of that fighting, to fall for any of the convicts nonsense. He was not about to risk losing the ship to them for even a moment. He would let Corporal Coffin set them out to walk the common deck if Corporal Coffin so pleased. Which he did, Badger knew. “Back off, scalliwag,” said Badger. His cronies levelled their muskets. It looked to be a long voyage since both the guard-sergeants were of the smartly-done variety, and not above knocking down a sloe eye or an insubordinate eyebrow. There would be no amusing themselves with the women or, for example, the handsome youth that was clearly willing to barter for a few extras.
“Step back, boy,” a pair of hard eyes said from the dark.
“And you can fuck right off too, Monday,” said Badger, “Or I’ll have you in chains. Bracey loves to stripe a man’s back, double dollops for heathens too.”
“Sir, I shouldn’t be here. Please, sir. There are some wicked, terrible people here,” Jed lowered his voice, “It ain’t Christian, sir. Ain’t Christian at all.”
“Name me names, boy,” Badger bent down so they could share quietly.
“I can’t peach, sir!”
“Then you’ll suffer till you will,” with which he pushed the youth backwards so that he collided with the ratty thief that called himself Mouse. Doc Henry looked on but refused to become involved. Badger spared a hard look for Jed, then turned about, ignoring them all. “Make sure you’re loaded, private. Any of them act the pudding put a goolie in the loudest. They’ll learn.”
When Badger’s boots had finally retreated Mouse returned to Jed what the youth had lifted. Twenty-four inches of sword-bayonet.
“Don’t be a fool, boy,” said Monday. “It won’t need that. Say your prayers. Something bad is coming.”
“Sure, but we’re convicts,” an Irish voice mocked them all from the dark depths of their confinement. “Bad is all that is coming.”
Monday knew different. His voice rumbled deep in his chest as he chanted the prayer, a dark finger tracing a circle on the low ceiling above him. The sound rose, the sound fell, even in the depths of The Thelassa the convicts heard the thunder that answered him.
THE WEIGHT UPON him was almost unbearable. The air was both too thick to draw and too thin to be breathed. With each short, desperate effort he had to fight to top another stair. Kettle-drum deep the sky rumbled, it was too dry in a ship that never was. There was no rain, why was there no rain?
“Is you having difficulties with your acceptables, sir?” the voice was one used to cross battlefields quicker than horses. “Is that being you, Lord Blyth? Coffin, help the gentleman, smartly now!”
“Mufi!” snapped Corporal Coffin. “You heard the sergeant.”
“Bloody damn did Corporal,” the lowest ranking there jumped to support Lord Blyth. “Is it the drink, sir? Bloody terrible the drink,” he added for SNCO ears.
Thunder rolled closer now, and seemingly buffeted by it The Thelassa bent to port. With Mufi for support Lord Blythe was able to reach the narrow corridor that abutted one side of Buckingham Palace.
“Hang about, sergeant…” Coffin said. Then to Lord Blythe, “You don’t want to go in there, sir.”
But Blyth did. Damning all their eyes, feeling the fever upon him, he fumbled with the small door, desperation only adding to his difficulties, and the knob slipping about his palm in a weakening grip. He heard Mufi say, “Sergeant Landless, maybe what the bloody damn corporal says…”
“Shut your damn cock holes,” barked Landless, “Speak when you have the given and express permission to do so! Pukka sahib gentleman present, do as he bloody says, or so help me I’ll deduct the cost of the iron crow you’ll need to get my shiny boot out of your shitty bumhole from your pay!”
Barely able to stand under the weight of Lord Blythe, Mufi staggered as Corporal Coffin took hold of the knob in the hook he wore as one hand. From his waist he drew a pistol. Lord Blyth bent as thunder came closer, spilling he and Mufi to the rolling deck. Coffin barged in, followed by the sergeant.
There was no one there, not a soul and the great rear windows that made a three-quarter curve about much of the line of the stern were smashed.
A triumphant wind half banged the door back in their faces. Water broke over the deck. If there was thunder it was drowned by the sudden fall of the rain. The world beyond The Thelassa vanished.
Still though, and even above the terrible assault of the storm, they heard the explosion from deep below. Dulled as it was, they felt it beneath their booted feet.
PUNCHED IN THE chest Jed was hardly aware of landing, his world such a noise as to herald the end of days. There was heat and his ears were the first to come to, a searing pain that saw him try to rise, only to stumble, to almost fall upon Doc Henry who was already turning over bodies, trying to find the worst of the injured by what dim light there now was. There had been a flash, but as if through threaded fingers. Where there had been guards there wasn’t even a mist. The great gates were buckled inward, but still intact. Jed saw that Mouse had crawled over and with shaking hands had gotten open the great padlock.
“ ,” said Jed.
“ , ,” the towering form of Jackson Monday yelled, but Jed heard only the ringing of a charnel bell.
The ship he now realised was all wrong. It was bent over to one side so that the unconscious or the dead slid slowly to press against one wall. A red lantern came closer and bent against the low deck a mountain of a man, bare of chest, could be seen. Jed saw him yell at Jackson Monday, and between them, either side of the gate, one heaved whilst the other pushed. It gave just a little, before from the further parts of the deck the dreaded Michael Finn came to lend his own strength. Together the three of them made short work of the gate so that it fell aside just as Jed’s hearing returned with an almighty pop.
Doc Henry spied where Monday had been laid open in a long cut, and hastily tore up his blanket to bandage the injury
“Quickly now,” the strongman was shouting.
Jed dashed for the opening, first one through and up the steps.
THE PASSENGER DECK was ghastly in the ruin that had been made of it. Miraculously untouched, Soup Bowl still stood where all those about him had been killed. Blood sheathed his normally perfect apron and uniform, he stood, aghast, not even bruised.
“My brother,” a voice, beautifully cultured, demanded to know. “Where is my brother?”
Soup did not know. Here and there he spied those that had evaded the worst of whatever had happened, noticeably his friend Miss Fox. Staggering from the surprise of it more than any injury, Soup picked his way to her even as the ship, listing, was buffeted from without by further crashing shocks. Soup felt responsible for those here. They were here for his food after all. No great leader he shouted at Miss Fox to try and organise things, even as feet came running into the ruin of the deck.
“The convicts,” Soup was surprised to find himself glad that they had been freed. Few of them deserved such a death, and surely death had been glutted enough today?
“DO AS YOU’RE damn well told, Skuse!”
Hex Skuse, who had in no way intended to disobey such a direct order, had only suggested that as his station in such times was the captain’s gig then it might be correct for him to take Bracey there? At the sharp tone from the midshipman Hex only straightened to knuckle the band of his hat. He had sailed every sea there was to sail and under captain’s fair and captain’s foul, and not thought any different of any of them. He knew a young gentleman quailing under pressure and knew Bullen well enough to recognise that this was a duty laid upon him by higher authority. He waited for the much younger man to turn away before running barefoot across the panic of the deck, and to the side. There below and the second smallest of the ship’s boats was already in the water, and liable to be crushed against the heavy sides of The Thelassa. Hex took a pinch of the salt he carried in oilcloth in one pocket and cast it to Neptune. This was no natural storm.
Hex had Bracey quickly roped and slung over the side, using every ounce of authority he possessed to demand the seamen kept to this duty. Once more he looked up hearing the protest in the rigging, and worse the main mast. The Thelassa, gutted, was dying. Listing badly, and only by what little fortune remained not broad onto the waves. The sky was too close. It was too dark, too early. There was an anger there, a hatred, and Hex ran through his habits in recent days until assured that it was not he that had by idleness or misfortune angered the ocean. Bracey was lowered from sight, and Hex, sure-footed despite all, jumped to where he could spy the descent, three sailors fighting to keep the captain from further battering. Hex swore, and swarmed over the side, using the ropes to prevent him missing the jolly boat altogether, aware of how much of a hand he wasn’t when it came to the rigging.
There were two others aboard, and a good deal of luggage. Hurriedly he freed Bracey and set him as safely as he could. Hex knew weather, and Hex knew the sea, and he knew better than most about boats, and this one was not long for the world unless he did something immediately. It angered him that he could afford no more time to take on others, but the risk was too great and the storm too terrible, especially in such a small boat. Besides, he had been entrusted with the captain, and Hex was a man that understood duty.
Whatever the tone of one snotty midshipmen might imply otherwise.
THE DECK RISING, the storm snatching at them, what people there were tried to cross the weather deck without any real idea as to where it was they were going. In company with others Miss Fox had gathered, Soup more experienced with the sea looked here and there until he spied Bambenga. “There,” he shook Miss Fox’s arm. “Over there!”
“With me,” Miss Fox led. Two of those souls with her violently caught up by the wind and vanished. Those nimbler on their toes kept their feet, so that with Soup bringing up the rear they crossed to where he had briefly spotted the fierce, similarly tattowed pygmy.
ONLY BY HEROIC effort and a remarkable skill had the jolly boat clawed its way free of The Thelassa. Now thrown across the ocean, Hex had managed to not only avoid the worst of the horror but had by some means contrived to run before it so that he had been able to raise the small sail. It was a feat of incredible seamanship that no one there to witness it would ever truly appreciate. Now able to make Bracey more comfortable, Hex was at a loss at what to do for the captain. Clearly in a bad way as Bracey was, Hex was forced to ask those he had saved if there was anything they could do?
“Scusi?” the neat little man that sat in a shelter of his luggage seemed not to understand. There was something both curiously handsome and terribly ugly about him, thought Hex. he then considered that they hadn’t been at sea that long yet and so turned to the other. She was taller, striking in that horsey, haughty way that the upper classes seemed to breed to, and had such a mass of bright red hair that now drenched she seemed to barely possess the strength to lift it. Their clothes a ruin, frozen, neither was at all impressed with having had their lives so skilfully saved. The wind punched the sail, Hex cursed as he trimmed it and asked the same question again, before adding, “Sir, ma’am, you were first aboard any of the boats, and we the first away. Surely, you’re medicals, or something?”
“Eh, what?” the woman barked, and against which the sail settled as the wind went to have a better go at quieter prey. “What? What did he say?” this to the other passenger, who inclined his head politely but otherwise offered no translation between the social classes.
“Captain Bracey, ma’am? He needs attention. Do either of you have the medicals?”
“The medicals? Speak up, man!” Lady Victoria Marlborough nudged Pietro Piccini in the ribs. “What does he want, eh?”
“Vuole sapare se sei un dottore, mia signore,” Piccini explained.
Lady Victoria being an English woman of quality, of breeding, and very much not enjoying their now very much smaller boat, pointed at Bracey. “He’s hurt,” she said. The demand in her tone was clear. “Where’s the surgeon?”
Hex busied himself with the many duties he now decided needed doing. He did not look up, he made no eye contact. As much as was possible he became a part of the boat, which he thought was quite possibly how he was viewed anyway. He sensed Lady Victoria staring at Captain Bracey, then at Piccini, then back at Bracey.
Finally deciding that if no one else was more capable a surgeon than she, Lady Victorian condescended to use all her medical experience to examine the captain. She peeled back his lips, and not liking the look of his teeth raised one leg to see to the fetlocks. “Broken,” she said with a shake of her head.
“Can we set the bone, ma’am?” Hex tried to remember anything medical. Being a sailor a visit to the surgeon was always something no man willingly engaged upon.
“Not much point really,” said Lady Victoria. Normally anything injured in her experience would be shot about now. Fortunately, Lady Victoria did not hold with guns.
THE THELASSA DIED. It only remained for the breaking corpse to be dragged to its grave, but still it was dead when the last of those aboard to make it to the weather deck were being ordered aboard such ships boats as remained. Still, though they stood between a veritable Charybdis and Scylla, voices were raised in argument.
“That boat has heathens in it, Mr Obilar!”
“My dear, this is not the time!” Ned protested. The faithful Enoch, one leg within the longboat waited for the last of the household to come aboard. He was too polite to insist, though Hecate Obilar’s servants Berrybrown and Porc looked ready to swarm back upon the ship if their mistress had need of them. With his raven tucked protectively inside his coat Ned Obilar was in a quandary of loyalty and sensibility.
A voice boomed between thunder from a speaking-trumpet, “Cast away, Mr Bullen. You have your orders, sir!”
“The commodore, ma’am,” Midshipman Bullen tried to urge the steely Mrs Obilar onwards. Only moments remained, and he was about to order the boat crew to enforce his orders. Already it was descending towards, even as it was near swamped by, a sea that angry at the attempt for anyone to escape its hunger seemed to redouble its efforts to claim them.
Mrs Obilar opened her mouth to protest only to find that face swallowed by the mouth of the speaking trumpet. “Abandon ship!” Sir William’s amplified voice destroyed Hecate’s will to resist with its hard learned, and near paramount, ability to command men. Mr Bullen jumped aboard having made sure all others had done likewise, and saluting was lost in the next swell.
“I believe that the clock stands one minute to our own escape being in the nick of time, Sir William,” Mr. Wyld bellowed in the commodore’s ear. Whatever Sir William replied was lost in the storm.
ORDINARILY, AWAY FROM officers, petty officers, masters mates, and now even commodores, and Bambenga would have been happy. The captain’s gig was not his usual station in the event of The Thelassa using its varied collection of boats, but it had been the closest. Now without a soul in the world trying to make him understand that the deck needed scrubbing, there was a storm, and one that took much of Bambenga’s considerable talent with boats to better. Or rather, ride. Only a fool battled nature, and it was a dead fool that fought with the ocean. Those that had helped him get the gig into the water had become its passengers. It was a coincidence that one of them he regarded as a friend. It was helpful that another had arms like stockings crammed with cannonballs and who, after only moderate, if mimed, instruction had taken to rowing like an admiral took to cake. No, all of that Bambenga could have born with good humour. No, it was the singing.
He had rescued a circus troupe. His friend Miss Fox, the strong man, a young… whatever the young did in circuses? And a gentlemanly looking man who conducted them all in endless renditions of Rule Britannia. It was very cheering. It was very cheering for them. Less so for Bambenga, who unable to row worked the tiller and grinned his terrible, toothy, smile. Mostly he grinned his terrible, toothy smile at the leopard. Because of course it was a circus, so there had to be a leopard.
“I wanted an elephant,” Miss Fox had pointed out as if that made everything properly sensible again.
The muses, still with freedom found, Shall to they happy coast repair. Blest Isle! With matchless beauty crown’d, And manly hearts to guard the fair...
Bambenga couldn’t follow half of what they were singing, but he was pretty sure what bit came next.
ON A SIXPENCE the waves turned impossibly upon the long boat. Already overladen and with but half an experienced complement of oarsmen it was only the midshipman’s quick instinct that had him throw himself at the tiller with the stout man he had already put to post there. “Oars, ship oars!” but if his hard-won experience as a sailor told him what to do, the authority of his voice failed him. The wind having turned with the waves it ripped and snatched at Mr. Bullen’s words so that perhaps a third of the oars were saved. The wave bore the turning long boat along with it and now there was only prayer, and those prayers came in curses, hands whitened as they clung to whatever part of the boat offered itself. Midshipman Bullen seeing his brave tars sheltering the passengers that had been saved, it brought a proud lump to his young throat, “Fine my fellows, Britannia, Britannia it is that rules the waves. Remember now, this day we men, we men of oak and…” But his words withered as the long boat overcome, went under on the starboard side. To midshipman Bullen’s shock he saw a number of his charges sucked free of the boat even as it righted momentarily. “Oh God,” he howled in shame, “Oh God above!”
One of his charges swarmed to the side, calling out even as he stripped off his duster coat, “I’ll be back for that,” the man yelled at Charles Bullen before, and to the astonishment of all, he threw himself into the terrible waters.
In the excitement a raven burst into the air. Caught, it was tumbled over before righting itself and with new purpose struck into the concealing rain. “Follow it, midshipman,” a sickly voice scrabbled at his ears.
A HAND THAT felt as big as his head caught hold of Karl Meagher and dragged him from the chains. Chains that had tangled about Meagher and bound him to the more resolved of the corpse-leavings clotted amongst them. God Almighty from His Throne had sent forth His angel! A further wave broke over him. He called out, fearing to be dragged back once again to the Devil’s watery grasp, but the sound was lost to the beating horror of the storm. “Pater Noster,” he begged. Another wave and above it the rolling protest of thunder. Meagher rallied himself, spitting seawater as he filled his weak lungs. He felt The Lord, he rejoiced in The Lord. Now his voice beat back the storm, it rose above the fury. “Qui es en caelis!”
The Strong Hand of His Angel lifted Meagher Up High. “Laudem Dei!” the two words gave his weak and mortal frame strength. It was as if he was born aloft by a great, strong hand. Much like the one that held him now. His grey hair stuck to his hollow face, Meagher with a rare and triumphant smile turned within that grasp.
A great beetroot of a head stared back. One of the eyes was white and wild. A jaw that could crack nuts. Urgent, shouted concern, “Are you alright there, Father?” “Can you not feel Him, Michael?”
“Sure we can, father,” Mickey Finn shouted back the lie.
“The Lord is with us, Michael. We have been given deliverance!”
“Right you are, father. Would the lord,” the words lost he tried again, “Would the lord be giving us those crabs too, father?”
One arm wrapped in the chains from where they were secured high above, feet planted on the broken teeth of what must have once been a deck, Mickey Finn hugged Father Meagher hard to his chest. They were hardly out of reach of the storm, and certainly not the crabs. Crabs that not only clung to the chains but which, where they weren’t torn free by the waves, were thick about Meagher’s feet and shins. The good father rolled his eyes but did not faint. Weak as the holy lamb he might be, but he had the heart and bollocks of a prize bull. “They are the Devil’s lobster, Michael!”
“Are they, father?”
“Leviticus 11.12, Michael. They are unclean. Was it not some saint or other that defeated the lobster, cast it down, and was proven the holier because of it?” Michael was not at all sure. Michael was not in truth a religious man, but he was Irish and that made him closer to god than any English bishop. Michael feared no man, but he feared god. And like any man of sense, he avoided those few things he feared. But he tried, for Father Meagher he tried, “Was it Jesus, father?” “Jesus, Michael?”
“That cast down the lobster?” The storm caught them. Meagher was lifted from his feet, and Michael cursed as he slipped a foot of chain that left him barely balanced on one knee, “I’m sorry, father. I’m not sure I can be saving us both.”
“I’ll miss you, Michael,” Meagher’s great, powerful voice answered, “And I’ll pray for you, you can be assured of that,” misunderstanding absolutely what it was that Mickey Finn intended.
The dark weight of the storm was broken by a weak light, from above and within the wreck the pair clung to. Michael darted a glance to where in the previously impenetrable bowels of the wreck they had happened upon he saw a number of figures, well-lit by green lanterns. “Father, there’s a light.”
“That would be the Lord our God, Michael.”
“Right you are father,” Michael had to shout into the priest’s ear, “And he looks to be a Chinaman.” Neither man could hear what was being said to them, but Mickey Finn knew trouble when he saw it. Everything tended to be trouble, because Mickey Finn was trouble. He couldn’t understand it himself, he was such a good boy. Father Meagher often said so. “You,” he tried to make himself heard, “Yes you, the feller with all that hat on, and the rope and shit? Yes you, you can fuck off!”
Crabs having eaten his trousers were now beginning on Father Meagher’s legs. He had not the strength to fight them, nor would he for surely all things were God’s will. Nonetheless, “Has the Chinaman seen us, Michael?”
“He has, father.”
“Did you call out to him, Michael?”
“I told him to fuck off, father. I think I can reach the rope that’s been thrown at us. That was a grand throw, father. You have to admire a throw like that. If there was a rope thrown for two good souls to catch a hold of, that was the very rope right there.”
THE SMALLEST OF The Thelassa’s boats was the dinghy and this one rowed by a single seaman, Able Chimes, was crowded with not only the persons of The Honourable Sir William Augustus Frederick Van Keppel KCB but his sea chest, package, reliable clock, and a substantial crate sealed and banded in good iron. The presence of Wyld too made the situation not terribly worse in consideration. Yet Sir William was a leader of men almost without peer. When Sir William said dilly, you dillied. When Sir William said dally, you dallied. When he said to do neither, no skylarking, back to work, kill all Frenchmen, you did it. And when he said row, row faster damn you, row like an Englishman? Why then the little dinghy skipped across the waves no matter their size or inclination.
“It doesn’t matter you see, Wyld,” he explained. “Don’t matter at all. We’re being pulled somewhere, tide is all wrong, wind is being damnably odd, so best thing is to go there.”
“Quite so,” said Wyld who, soaked, seemed hardly to care.
The little boat skipped up a wave taller than Portsmouth’s Round Tower until at its apex the commodore whipped out a glass, broke wind like a champion bassoon, and declared in the matter of his navigation, “Land, egad! Land!”
“Well done, commodore,” said Mr Wyld. “You are a fine sailor, sir.”
Sir William was aghast, sailor? He was an officer of Her Majesty’s Britannic Navy. A sailor? The man was clearly a fool. If Sir William had wanted to be a sailor, then he would have rated as seaman. The fact that he did not should go some way to indicating that it was the duty of every naval officer to ensure that beneath them lay those who could sail.
It was a magnificent piece of navigation however, that much he granted.
MORE MEN HAD died crossing rivers in the high season than any amount of poison everything and bitey everything else, in Baxter Nettle’s experience. Water was life, but it was also the enemy. This was worse than any river, but not nearly as terrible as it was for Wylie. Wylie was his mate, his pal, but Wylie didn’t swim and what he was mostly doing now was drowning. The current was terrific. By luck Baxter had caught a hold of Wylie’s arm and now had him under the shoulder, but in that moment, they had been swept away from the boy Bullen’s longboat. Worse, the sea was taking a breath. Taking a firmer hold of the terrified Wylie, Baxter managed to shout, “Take a deep one, brother.” Desperately he filled his lungs.
WITHOUT ANY POSSIBILITY of warning his arm broke in the first collision and so, dire as his circumstances were, Clayton Wilkes was damn glad to feel it. Already pushed to the limits he was in that mad, bad place of adventure. Thrown overboard from the longboat he had felt not despair but the quickening of the heart. The old heat, the savage passion. Life or death, and always in death there was that one last branch of life, and he seized on it now. The pain was exquisite, pain was living, pain was one good arm finding a great, solid ring where there was no good reason to be one and hooking himself firmly about it. Rain, he had never loved rain so much as then. Except perhaps that time when he had fixed up young Rawley with the Paper Lady of Brahmuptura, and the silly arse had caught fire. “Beat you, beat you again,” he laughed, swallowed water, coughed it up violently and almost lost his hold entirely.
“‘Ello,” said a small voice. It was a wonder it could be heard at all. Indeed, Clayton Wilkes saw it before he heard it. A wet little drip, a nervous looking scrap of nothing, that had both arms about the sling of Clayton’s service belt. This spit of nothing heaved and to the undoubted surprise of each had Clayton up and out of the water, only a slope of old and pitted stone down which the rain water ran. They were on a ridge, a wall, something over the other side of which the waves smashed to spray down on them, but certainly beyond them. “Did you know, your arm is hurt, it din’t half look funny?”
Clayton laughed out loud. Then winced. And only then did he allow himself to swear in a dozen languages, none of which he spoke. But you didn’t need to read a tongue to curse in it, and so he did. At volume.
WHAT OARS REMAINED had been redistributed, and the longboat noticeably less laden Midshipman Bullen enjoyed considerably more control than he had for all the long hours of that night. Upon the very knotted end of his own endurance it was duty rather than will that kept him at the tiller. Passengers pressed down between the oarsmen were showing themselves now. Bullen had ordered them together and tight hours before, for the help of any landsman this night would have been no help at all. Worse, more likely. He blinked against the rain. “By god,” the young man said, then again louder still. “Wilkes, take over. Keep her steady I tell you, tidily now.”
“Aye aye, Mr. Bullen,” Wilkes, a seaman far better in times of trouble than indolence took post. Freed, Charles Bullen picked his way nimbly across benches, oarsmen and soaking passengers alike. The storm could still be felt, but now more distantly if about them in shape some monstrous horseshoe. From the pocket of his pea coat Mr. Bullen fetched out a spyglass. It was calmer here, rotten, but calmer nonetheless. The long boat would have cut handsomely through these waves had it the oars and the rested hands to do so. One foot upon the bow, the midshipman compensated for the motion of his small command. “It is, it is, land. Land,” he did not turn around but felt the passage of those behind him so that he snapped, hard and angry at all to be still, never once taking his eye from the glass. “It’s a mountain, by God. We’re in a bay, I can just make it out. Wilkes!”
“Aye, Mr, Bullen?”
“Wilkes, keep it steady, there’s a light. By god, there’s a light. Ready at my orders there Wilkes. I won’t be wanting to repeat myself now.”
“Aye aye, sir!” this said with a noticeable glee. The slip from ‘Mr’ to ‘Sir’ Charles was too wearied by his exertions and too elated by his discovery to take issue upon.
The current hadn’t just pulled them under, it had propelled them as swiftly (and quite as dangerously) as when Baxter had misjudged the Rocky Death Pass and gone bum over head a hundred hard yards of drop and stony pain. Twice now they nearly smashed into what could have been arches before being thrust into a pitch tunnel that had sucked them harder than a Wawabawabengo so that they shot to the surface in such surprise that momentarily even Baxter forgot to curse. And the Wawabawabengo could have a man’s brains out of his ears in two shakes of a Bengamawama’s tail.
It was Wylie that caught hold of the roots, the great fat leaves that made slippery ropes, and up which with a shove from Baxter he was able to scramble. Something large nudged at his leg experimentally. “Crickey Wiley, return the bloody favour won’t you?” said Baxter as he got one leg out of the water.
Wylie managed to turn and pull hard enough so that they both rolled over the matted weeds. Like a raft it bobbed, rising and falling beneath them. A stumpy head as thick as Baxter’s thigh jumped from the water. He saw ring upon ring of spiny teeth before it slithered swiftly back, it’s prey just beyond reach. The rain better than fog to befuddle the eye, still both men were in no doubt as to what they had seen. A bloody great lamprey, an eel maybe. They felt the raft of the weeds bounce as it pressed up from the other side.
“Hey Bone Man,” said Wiley. “Hey, making a lot of sense now.”
Baxter picked himself up, pulling a hat from where he had managed to stuff it in his gun belt before jumping into the sea, “What are you yacking about?”
“Why you boys left England. Too wet.”
They stepped up on what seemed to be firmer ground. There was a canopy, even if only a yard or so higher than their heads. The rubbery little jungle gave them some shelter from the rain, but Baxter could tell it was always wet here. He drew a heavy knife and prodded one of the thousand or so tight little nuts clustered about what was, he guessed, giant bloody seaweed. The nut flared open. A hundred tiny fronds, rippling yellow and blue, tiny tendrils like a living flower. It closed against as quickly as it had opened. Thick about them but moving stealthily away the floor of the weed was carpeted with miniscule crabs.
Moving inward the pair were free of the wind, Wylie now with Baxter’s. There were more than a dozen varieties of weed, some as thick as young trees, others fine as hair that grew upside down, roots tangled in the canopy and trailing leaves penetrating the raft bed. They chopped nothing, just moved it aside and then back again behind them.
“Think I’ll get me the fire on, Bone Man.”
“Right you are,” said Baxter. He banged out the wet from his hat, “Crab for supper it is then.”
CREATURES FROM THE deep stared at the longboat as, uncertain of the waters, it went aground a short pistol shot from the shore. The beasts, their horribly luminous eyes perfect circles and all a part of their torsos ran at the boat, catching hold of the bow even as Mr. Bullen seized upon the cutlass he had brought with him. His pistols in such weather he did not trust to. A number of the passengers pulled themselves over the side, one colossal black convict (one of only a few likely to have made it so far) helping others free of the longboat. A raven landed on the tiller, then hopped to the shelter of a passenger’s coat.
In the face of the sword’s point the monsters backed away, but indicating that all aboard had best come ashore, and swiftly. With half his compliment already complying Charles had little choice but to follow. Wilkes said something behind the midshipman and he, with the surviving sailors splashed to their waists over the side. Westcott, Pride, and old Roper joined the young man with unshipped oars in hand. “At your orders, Mr. Bullen. Just give us the word, sir. And we’ll be at ‘em!” There were growls of ascent.
“Don’t be a fool, Wilkes,” said Charles Bullen testily. “They have hostages.”
The horrors with their softly lit eyes scarce gave the sailors another look, and one indeed had caught upon the arm of one passenger, a tall, broad-shouldered fellow that held his head in both hands. A gentleman if Charles remembered correctly. The midshipmen hurried ashore, his duty plain.
The ‘monster’ however had other ideas. It seemed to twist its body sharply one way, and then reaching up, pulled free its head. Beneath, and immediately wetted greying hair framed a face which, though gaunt, was most certainly that of a man. “Hijo de puta, Blythe?” it said to the pained gentleman passenger.
The man he had caught hold off immediately broke free, fists raised. “Garvin!”
“Blythe? It is you? I’ve not seen anyone I knew for ten years now!” with which the de-headed sea-monster caught up an astonished Lord Blythe in a very latino hug of welcome.
“Stand easy, Wilkes,” said Bullen.
IT WAS THE swearing, the shouts, the curses made by a brave man in pain that knew a stiff upper lip was for the presence of ladies, gamblers, other ranks, and the rest of the riff-raff that was not that hard defined ‘them’. It was enough of a warning for the convict, warned and wary now to let the oar he rode take the brunt of the impact. Already seen by those he had heard, Henry was caught up and dragged free to lie alongside the man who swore still, albeit quietly. He shivered, he coughed, but what felt like solid land and his spirits rose once more to morose. It was dark still here, the dark of the storm.
Mouse clapped the older man on his shoulder, inadvertently feeling the top of the stripes he had been given years before. “Doc, gent has got a busted arm.”
“Has he, you say?” Weary to his soul Henry nonetheless turned to where Clayton Wilkes was making a show of lighting a cigarillo one handed. It was ruined by the sea, and the matches were beyond hope, but it made for a brave show. Henry dragged himself over, “Steady there, this is going to hurt.”
“Do your worst, old man.”
Henry grinned. That was very kind of the fellow. Oh, Henry knew his type. All hearty charges and buggering the chambermaid. Poor bloody foxes. Not that he had exactly been otherwise himself, once. “Prepare yourself, sir.”
Wilkes raised one eyebrow. The wind he noticed had died. Poor bloody wind, he thought. Better it than me. “Thank’ee doctor,” he said. “Oh,” said Henry grimly. “I’m not a doctor.”
“Any longer,” Mouse chimed in.
IN THE LIGHTENING dark the storm, angry at their escape, thundered behind them. The crate very large it was also fortuitously buoyant. Riding it was a narrow, bearded man who could barely swim and certainly not sail, not that he had a sail. Still though the crate propelled itself against a tide that threatened to take them back to the mouth of the harbour he had spied an hour before in the darkness. Archie banged on the roof of the crate. It was raining, the wind was appalling, but a storm it was not. In comparison to the long night he had endured this was the Serpentine.
“Keep going,” he said, “There’s a shore, big cliffs. I’m quite certain there will be breakfast. Breakfast, Mulciber? Fatty bacon, chops, kidneys, not a pease pudding to be heard of. On, Mulciber, on my friend! Never more shall you dine upon a bucket of fish heads, I promise you.”
Legs pushing against the water where they protruded below the crate, Mulciber propelled them onwards.
THE ROCK WAS not slippery where it ought to have been. Nothing pooled. Mouse thought he could feel the rain and the more presumptuous of the waves being sucked away as swiftly as each might settle. He first knelt, then flattened himself entirely, first an ear, then his nose, before finally he turned his head in each direction as if he might see what it was his instincts were telling him was there. They were on a very large piece of rock, it might be an island, in which case it was narrow for such a thing. Or so he supposed. It didn’t concern him. He didn’t care. He forgot the thought, too wrapped up in the first one to worry at the second. Second thoughts could wait.
“Are you ill?”
“No doc,” said Mouse, though he wasn’t at all well. He was both terribly bruised and felt somehow terribly bloated. His ached abominably. The cold was the worst, soaked to the soul even the dying wind made little cuts in his spirits. “How’s the toff?”
“Not a break, a fracture, bad sprain maybe.”
“Doc, where are we?”
“Some blasted rock in some bloody ocean. Not Rio, I’ll warrant you that much.”
There was something else, Mouse was missing something. He could feel the spaces below him. Long, like pipes, he could feel them in the sounds he heard. He did not like being nagged, least of all by himself. Moving to the better shelter offered by a sudden rise he found a reprieve from the wind between two of the five great boulders that ran in descending size where it joined the rocky ground. Each was far bigger than a mouse, even a Mouse. Doc Henry went back to help Clayton Wilkes who seeing that someone was about to offer him help hurried to avoid that happening. They came together between the largest of the two boulders and there shivered violently as warmth returned enough to remind them how ferociously cold it still was.
“IT’S A LEG, commodore. There, see it? It’s mostly what seems to be breaking up the storm out there. A giant shin laid flat along line of the rock, with the foot bent as if it had been kneeling,” Of the rest of the titanic figure above and anything beyond that knee, Mr Wyld could not begin to imagine. He handed the glass back he had borrowed from Sir. William. The commodore taking it, inspected it also before agreeing with a grunt.
“A scrap less than three miles, I’ll wager,” said Sir William, his eye adjusted to the nautical. “A good size for a harbour,” he allowed.
“Then how big must that leg be? At three miles I can make out it’s toes!”
That was certainly a question. Sir. William turned immediately to where the newly arrived Midshipman Bullen had managed to give his report. “Calculation, Mr. Bullen. Leg, size.”
“Aye aye, sir,” from his bulging pockets Charles fetched what he needed for the mathematical exercise. A night lost to a stormy sea was no excuse in the Royal Navy for a lax mind.
THERE WERE NOT what could be described as handholds, footholds nor anything that a cat, nor even a goat might have made use of. A cat burglar would have suffered difficulties, and a goat burglar sounded more like something they called something else in the naughty gentleman’s clubs back home. Personally, Mouse would have long since given up trying to get from the higher parts of the toes to the higher part of anything else, only Mr. Wilkes was very keen he should try harder, and Mouse had never been very good at saying no. “It’s really hard, it’s smooth, it’s metal,” he called down, then louder because those below had not heard him. The foot, of which he could see only the sole from atop the toes, was perhaps forty yards high. There were creases, but nothing that Mouse could really beetle-climb up. “It can’t be done,” he said.
“It’s bronze,” Wilkes called back.
“I can’t climb up, it can’t be done. Can I please come down now?”
“Think of the scrap value, eh doctor?”
“Still not a doctor.”
Up jumps a crab with his crooked legs, Saying ‘You play the cribbage, and I’ll stick the pegs’. Singing, blow the wind westerly, let the wind blow. By a gentle nor’wester, how steady she goes.
The strongman was indefatigable at the oars, his brother the clever-looking fellow with a voice that curled out over the water. The lad simply sat, hardly joining in, but Miss Fox was as all a’cheer.
Up jumps a dolphin with his chuckle head. He jumps on the deck saying, ‘Pull out the lead’. Up jumps a flounder so flat on the ground. Saying ‘Damn your old chocolate, mind how you sound?’
She was looking forward to the bit about the whale, though it seemed odd that the king of the sea was the herring. She had eaten herring. It hadn’t been especially kingly. It was just such a lovely day, she thought. A bit of excitement, a shame about all the sinking thing of course, and then a bit of drama on the high seas. All to song. For a moment she wondered where Nox had gone? He had definitely been aboard when they had made their bid for life, for freedom. Then somewhere between actually getting aboard and travelling very far he had simply not been there. Sadly, Miss Fox would admit that Nox had something of a problem, but she was pretty sure that she hadn’t pitched him over the side because of it. Delilah purred. It might have been Delilah. “Who’s a naughty kitten then, eh?” she said, tugging the leopards ear down over one eye and giving it a good scratch. “You’re a naughty kitten, aren’t you? Yes, you are, yes you are!”
The day was bright. The sea frightfully choppy, but nothing like the night before. And there was even a view. A giant leg that made a wall. And people, one that stood calmly, one that was hardly there at all, and another that waved as if embarrassed. “Bambenga, should we rescue them?”
The pygmy, dark skin crossed with tattow, cocked an ear. That same grin. That same slight shrug. Nox would have sorted him out, Nox understood his talky-talky. “Rescue, them? Over there? People, I think they might have been on the ship?”
The strongman hearing this bent to his oars, but he couldn’t do steering. Soon the whole boat was pointing and cheering at their steersman. Slowly, the gig turned.
Let no man despise the secret hints and notices
of danger which sometimes are given him when
he may think there is no possibility of its being real.
THIS WAS A very good place. It was nothing like what he had been promised. He had been promised that he would go to hell. Once, when they had been very hungry, four of them had gone to the Ragged School up on Limehouse. Limehouse had been something to fight over. There where they built and set to rights boats and barges iron could be found. Plenty of it too, enough bolts and other scraps that a sack bucket was always worth rhino from Tiny Todger, the blacksmith up at Whitechapel way. He was wet, he was cold, but he was always bloody cold. And all along the muddy sand that the sea was leaving behind were treasures. He blinked. Ragged School.
They had been hungry, and they had crept in, knowing that the teacher was no such thing but the bad tailor at the good address ten streets over. They had eaten. And they had been told they were bad. They would go to a bad place when they died. The tailor had said he could help him. With his little hands, with his blinking eyes. Panting like a ribbon dog. But this wasn’t a bad place. This was the place where mudlarks went. And Cawber was a mudlark.
The spoony-cove was not. Cawber knew him. Had seen him, back on the ship. At first and he and other cubs, kidwys, and kinchen had banded up. Lots of people on the ship liked children. And people what liked children, Cawber knew, were not people to be trusted with children. Not ten minutes before Cawber had plucked a knife from the sand. Now he used it to prod the savage to make sure he wasn’t dead. When the body shook, turned over, and vomited the sea Cawber caught up red hair in his hand and made ready to saw the fellow quiet again. It would be a mercy, after all. If he wasn’t dead, then he smelt dead. Back on the ship he had smelt dead too, this red-headed Scottish-man, this savage, with the funny hands, that told everyone he was good at doctoring, that was the only convict that had his own room on the whole ship. Well, hole, below, because of the stink and what the other convicts had promised the pensioner-guards would happen to him if he stayed.
“I wouldn’t like to interrupt such deep thoughts,” the body said, all a bit posh like, if savage-posh, “Only found together as we are here, do you not think it hasty to be having the eyes out of the first person you find?”
“Ain’t got my chiv at your eye, savage,” said Cawber. “Aye, no, you sweet child. I was talking instead to Wee Douglas?”
Cawber felt tiny claws grip his filthy, golden scalp. He had a healthy respect for rats. Down where he came from it didn’t do to piss away the neighbours. Besides which now that savage was talking, however queer, he didn’t like to stick him. The boy Cawber blinked and vanished the knife. “Lor mister,” he said with suddenly big eyes, “I’m all small and hungry and ever so frit of rats.”
Noxious Felix now free, picked himself up. Wee Douglas jumped to land on one shoulder before wriggling into the safety of what passed for a coat on Noxious Felix. He said, “Aye well then, you golden-haired scamp with your follies and your japes, why don’t you settle here and let Uncle Nox have a good look around and see what there is to be having?”
“Lor mister, what a gent!”
“Aye, once maybe…”
“And you’ll protect me, proper?”
“You’re nought but a wean, and I won’t be having the harm coming to a wean, rest assured,” said Noxious, feeling noble.
“Even from them?” Cawber pointed. There was light in the sky now and the clouds had been hurled away from shore. All the while they had been talking the sea had retreated until now it was a good musket shot distant across the muddy sands, themselves spotted and marked with treasures, almost certainly from The Thelassa. Inland and the sand was rippled, it made walls. The nearest wall was blooming colourfully. Flowers, or something like flowers. It was not the new blues, the purples, the yellows or the pinks that now covered the nearest berm that Cawber was pointing to however.
Rather, it was the shapes that they silhouetted now. Humped or hunched, somewhat shaped like a man, mostly not. A good dozen that held long poles and walked in an ungainly fashion down the dune towards them, then easily across the wet sand on broad, flat feet.
Spying a handle Noxious seized on a cutlass and dragged it free of the sand. “Away behind me, wean,” he said softly. “Right you are, mister,” golden-haired Cawber agreed. He looked around. If the savage could occupy the monsters for two minutes, three, he reckoned he could make it away easily.
SMALL ENOUGH THEY could be eaten shell and all, cooked in the right leaves in the right glowing ends of the right bulbs, the crabs were food. “It’s about all you could say about them,” Baxter had said. He and Wylie had not cared to press on further. The rain had stopped, and the wet canopy had become steaming shade. They had dipped Baxter’s kerchief in the puddles drying on the raft bed to drink. Now they stood much where they had started. Aware now of the movements under their feet they tried not to move any more than they had to. Baxter pushed back the brim of his hat with the barrel of his pistol. The percussion caps were fine, but the powder had been sludge that he had cleaned out with only moderate irritation. They had a knife, and a good parang, and both were proper blades. He still considered himself an Englishman, but back in the old country knives were for butter.
From the edge of the tangled raft of weeds they could make out the shore a hundred or so yards away. Great, wet flats of sand studded with flotsam and as far again away the start of glistening dunes. Well beyond that and cliffs. The sea was as calm as any good bay and they just make out where far away some sort of barrier made it a harbour.
“Hey, Bone Man,” said Wiley nodding at the water. The tide out and it was a drop of six odd feet. Their raft was now on legs, the thicker stalks holding up the impenetrable mess of the varied seaweed, or so they supposed for everything under their feet was a celebration of colour. Every inch the tendril flowers Baxter had spied hours before. Wiley swung his head over the lip. “Goes on a bit, Bone Man. Then jungle again. Stinks too.”
“Weed jungle above, stinking weed jungle below. Nice. Also, boat,” eyes screwed up in the shelter of his hat, Baxter pointed to where indeed crossing the harbour was a boat in the same colours as they had seen on The Thelassa. Baxter polished his knife on the seat of his trousers and angling it to his forehead flashed the sun at the distantly pulling rowboat. Other than the bloody smell, the weeds had been alright. Plenty to eat, shelter, crabs, water. Could have been worse, he supposed.
MIGHTY CORNELIUS ATKINS The Man Mountain, rowed, if hardly proficiently, then at least tirelessly. This he enjoyed. This was better than life aboard ship. If they had to row to Australia, then so be it. He was the very man to do it. The very man. Though the boat was not large still everyone gave him room. Even the leopard. Now that he, brother William, the Euston boy, Miss Fox Queen Of The Jungle, and Bambenga had been joined by Mouse, Doc Henry, and one Clayton Wilkes the boat was almost dangerously overloaded.
“Look, a flashing light!” said Miss Fox. “Hove to port side Bambenga my old matey!”
“Starboard,” said Bambenga, it was a linga word. Knowing what it was to argue with Miss Fox he steered towards the light he had himself seen five minutes before. It was becoming difficult to manage the boat with so many aboard, and any more would not improve that. He kept his most worried, impressive grin in place. It was lucky he knew what he was doing, else they would all be seeing who could swim.
“Eels!” said Miss Fox.
THEY COVERED THE ground easily. Rag people of canvass and tar just short of the sand where they fanned out on sandals fixed to the lids of small barrels. Noxious could see now that the humps were baskets and bags, sacks and boxes all taken from a dozen ships or more. Thin hands emerged from heavy sleeves. There were knives, hooks, and something jagged that he did not know the name of but suspected ended in ‘gutter’. The closest tugged back a trailing length of filthy silk from across her face, and said, “You, merde de voyage, put that putain spada away. That’s my spada.”
Noxious straightened himself in the face of the threat. He raised his chin and looked the woman back hard in the eyes, “Absolutely,” he said. “I cannot think what I was doing,” and gingerly he reversed the cutlass and held it out to her, hilt-first. “One thing, and it is a big of a big thing, the boy? The wean? Here? You won’t be harming him, will you?”
“We don’t eat children,” the woman, noticing the language, made more of an effort.
“Awch, that’s great,” said Nox. Then, “When you say, ‘don’t eat children’.”
PLUNGED FORCEFULLY UNDERWATER she could not remember the fall, only realise that she had done. Her boots already too big and too loose she kicked them off, struggling to right herself, to recognise it was light and the water salty. There was no great storm, she had not died, she could only swim at all because the last time she had been thrown into a river she hadn’t died then either. Brutally she broke the surface, went under, rose and coughed, thrashing like a dog to not do that again.
There had been thunder, and The Thelassa had lurched like a lushington. People had outdone one another in lip stiffening. She had swiped the absinthe. A crashing, a smashing, and Astrid still thought they must have collided with another ship, or somehow the back of the boat had been driven upon rocks. Then now, and here, and panicking like a cat the soldier, one of the stupid men that thought the other women were horses, tried to learn how to swim, having left it rather late to do so. Queen Astrid tried to take hold of the oaf, only for him to fight her off in his rising panic. He caught her a nasty one about the ear with a frantic elbow, so she dug him in the kidney, and almost had his eye but it was difficult when his pocketbook and watch were dragging him down.
There were similar noises not far away, and Astrid saw the Muskovite Valeriya try and support Henrietta, only to have her darted from her grasp by a sluggishly rolling wave. Herself hardly the confident pike, the princess still caught her, and had the strength to keep her, but there too and the Rusky had to pitch in to help.
“Cease the dribbling,” Queen Astrid threatened Robley, “Cuff me again and I’ll geld you proper.” Robley scared of drowning, was terrified of drowning with his bollocks cut off. One of Astrid’s feet touched bottom. She laughed, Robley squeaked. The Muskovite was on her knees, soaked on wet sand. The princess had Henrietta about the waist.
There were boats on the sand, a mad confusion of boats, and people in red caps were splashing through the water to help them.
ON LOW STILTS huts clustered together, joined together, parted or slouched, like so many drunkards only staying upright because they had yet to all fall down. Everything Cawber saw had come from a boat or, in two cases, mostly still was. Sailcloth knotted or woven together was already being rolled up about the outermost sides of the shanty shacks, a good dozen in total, or certainly a bit more than he had fingers. He hid in the dunes. No expert on sand, which was after all just posh mud with all the mud washed off, he slid slowly down so that every minute or so he had to crawl back up again. Out on the flats about as many people as there were huts were picking through and picking up the best of the treasures. Twice as many again were to be seen under, and now in the shanty shambles. Half of them were children, and of those none looked like boys. For the most part they were clean, but only clean in that way that rain made, and of which until this very morning there had been a very great deal.
Now without so much as a cloud in the sky it was becoming hot. Cawber had barely left the Thames, let alone London until sent to Bristol for transportation, so Cawber had never really known hot before. Sticky, yes. Hot, like this? Never. He wasn’t sure he liked it. That wasn’t true. He did know if he liked it or not. And the sun was still short of noon.
Beyond the shanty and he could see cliffs, but they were not close, and the roll of the dunes covered any hint of what lay at their base. Anyway, what he saw closer-to was far more interesting. In nets strung between and of a part with the shanty cluster were treasures. Hooks and bolts, planks, hats, a cage, many bags already looking fit to fall apart, boots, bottles and anything that could be found on a ship, and everything else that it would be a surprise to find there. These were mudlarks. He was a mudlark. It was wet at night and hot during the day. Treasures just plain planted themselves on the beach, which was mud-flattish enough. And they had two big pots that gleamed like the glass he had seen once, that which had been all that remained of the windows in Cooper’s after it had been burned out. Pots that smelled like food.
He had clearly been a good mudlark and gone to where the good mudlarks went when they died. He was glad he couldn’t go back and tell the other mudlarks about it; there might not be enough to go around.
“IT MIGHT VERY well be something of great value, my dear,” said Archie Collingworth. His notably younger wife waved him on with her fingers. Their deliverance by boat from the tragedy of The Thelassa did nothing to mitigate her unhappiness at their new life in Cape Town being so cruelly interrupted. “I will check, shall I?”
The crate was large, sturdy, but with slats on each side. It also had an awful woman sat with her back to the rearmost side where it faced the sea. She had a hat made from a rolled-up flour sack and trimmed her toenails with her teeth. Seawater alone could not have cleaned those feet. And looking at her it had certainly had a very good go. Seeing his puzzled, nervous self, she said, “It’s mine. I found it.”
“See here, surely it has been washed ashore. I think it unlikely that by coincidence it should be yours, miss?”
“Queen, Astrid. They call me the duchess. On account of my incredible poshness,” she stood. As if by some magicians trick she twitched at a hidden string to reveal herself as a person of worthy, if surprising dignity, “And it is mine. It might be jewels. Or cake.” Her voice changed to some music hall mockery of quality, “Heff anuvver slice orf cake, vicaaar?”
“How do we know the crate is yours though?” feeling Mrs Collingworth’s gaze, Mr Collingworth rallied weakly.
“It’s not,” said a broken voice from the crate. Two words, well enunciated.
“He’s right,” said Queen Astrid, “I cannot think what you mean by wishing to steal this poor man’s home.”
Archie Collingworth blustered, “No, but you said…”
Then again from the crate, “Lady Duchess?”
“My good man?”
“Your hat. Your rolled-up sack of a hat. I need it.”
Queen Astrid whipped it off and began to stuff it through the nearest of the slats. “Me Marykin will get itself a chill. I will need it back, you understand?”
“I am sorry,” said the crate. “That is unlikely.”
That being the case then, “You,” she said to Archie, “Man here needs a coat.”
“Oh, give them the coat Archibald,” Mrs Collingworth snapped. “It’s far too big for you anyway. Good God, that woman has mice in her hair!”
They were distracted however as down the beach ran a rather plain man with an armful of clothing and worry. He drew up by them, he apologised, he introduced himself as Archie.
“But that’s your name, Archibald,” said Mrs Collingworth.
“I think we should go now, dear.”
“I think that is for the best,” said the crate.
“I don’t want to go, my good man,” said Astrid, all haughty.
“Please,” said the crate.
She shrugged. She didn’t really care, “Right you are, old chap, old feller. H’its time for h’tea and muffin any how so it is.”
Only when alone with Archie Boffin did Mulciber say, “Did you get shoes?”
“Big, wooden ones.”
“Clogs. You took too long.”
“Sorry about that,” said Archie, and meant it.
THE TOWN WAS all of a piece. There were places outside the whole it was true, but in the main and for perhaps a mile from port to starboard one could cross from one side to the other without having to touch the high sand. Not that anyone of good sense would wish to, for with so much of the place on stilts, on poles, raised about stumps or clinging to great fingers of a hard, pitted, almost-rock under the lowest decks and never quite in the sun it was wet, rank, and entirely foul. Close to the lower edge of the town was a quayside, old, cracked, and from which jutted a single short pier. The tide came in twice a day, sometimes three, and one of those swallowed that quay, and that was why the town had been raised up.
It was colourful, Jacoby had to give it that. Also, he loved the whole stilts thing. A definite five-footer (and certainly no shorter) he had not been the shortest person on the Thelassa by any means. There had been children. And a pygmy. What hadn’t been lime-washed had been painted. Painted whatever colour the paint to hand had been. He really had to admire too what people couple could do with practically anything, when anything was all they had. If ships and boats had come to blows then their grand melee would have looked something like this. Huts and rooms, buildings with jutting roofs, clung about central posts like bunches of grapes and between which where another building did not lean then there were bridges and walkways, ropes and rigging. Sailcloth was everywhere. So too streamers, flags, and much bunting. It was impressive, if one was into that sort of thing.
Jacoby ‘Stilts’ Noone was not.
Behind it all rose cliffs, thick with vegetation and high, high above, close to those cliffs, were fat, ugly looking birds too far away to really make out with any more certainty. Stilts was in company. He had fallen in with a band, a ‘pandy’ they called it, of two men and a woman in absolutely smashing tight little coats, britches, stockings and thickly starched neckerchief. Each possessed a tight wig, good shoes, and all of them were still only part paid for. Now one of them, still with admirable dignity, had stalked back to their home, in the Arks, which was definitely not here, in nothing but his long underwear.
Stilts preened a little, Stilts twirled his new hard glass cane in one hand and tossed the dice with which he had taken the clothes in the other. He was a dandy, here that was a very real thing. People fought because they were dandies. People were judged for being dandies, by better dandies. Although from he stood now Stilts couldn’t see anyone else dressed as were the dandies. Mostly they looked like peasant bloody fishermen. At first, he thought his clothes rather splendid, because they were all of silk. Now he noticed that silk was the commonest cloth there was.
“What’s for fun?” he asked his new friends. He couldn’t bring to mind their names. That would have meant they were better dandies than was he. And Stilts wasn’t having that.
“Mock pretenders, smack about some fops?”
“Break some glass?”
“Look bloody fantastic?”
“How about,” said one utterly forgettable dandy, a close personal friend of Stilts, “We go and see what the oaf Leather has to say about these naifs?”
“Naifs!” the dandies chuckled.
“Who do they think they are, eh?” Stilts said, to the agreement of his friends.
THE PIPE GLOWED as she drew on it, expelling smoke to add to that already thick in her booth. So spare was she that if Frau Piquet ever felt hunger then it seemed more likely the souls of clowns or the tears of children would find themselves upon her plate.
The rooming house was the only one of its kind in Port Mercy, and its business was certainly those from beyond Port Mercy. And today business was good. All in black, Frau Piquet - pronounced in her case to rhyme with ‘wicket’ - looked at Henrietta Hedersett with dark little eyes. She dipped her free hand into a bowl to treat Kostbar to a wriggling centipede. Kostbar, a fat spider with a velvet bow about its thorax, played with the treat almost sulkily. “Zo,” said the frightful woman, “You want a room?” she rolled the last word.
“My gel does,” Mrs Brattle put herself purposefully between them. They had followed the other quality, trusting in the noses of others. Like them, Mrs Brattle and Henrietta dripped on the floor.
“Zo. But see, you are not the first. It seems that some of you are having the better of it in finding such as a room. But let me see her.”
“I will do no such thing,” Mrs Brattle’s glare might have blistered the red panels that made up Frau Piquet’s booth.
“Zer is only the one room I have left to give, you fine people are not the first given up by the sea today. Let me see her. Or sleep on the beach?”
With a harrumph Mrs Brattle brought the Hon. Henrietta into the light of the single fish oil lamp, her arm wrapped protectively about the young woman’s shoulder. “She is a precious and delicate flower.”
Henrietta would have sworn that the shadows from the lamp reached out towards her, or maybe it was because she had stepped closer. This Frau Piquet looked dead to her. She rather admired the decor too. The hallway and the booth with the panels from some lost stateroom. The French lamp, the chaise longue behind her upon the long Turkish rug, all of it hiding the fact that this was, like everything in the town, a shack. Sturdier than most, but a shack nonetheless. She loved Frau Piquet had done to the place. Once Mrs Brattle was asleep a girl could really have fun here, Henrietta was sure.
“Ach, so beautiful. Zer room is yours. Zo many quality, I trust you will have no trouble settling zer bill?”
“What a wonderful little thing,” Henrietta bent forward and to the astonishment of Mrs Brattle tickled the fat spider under its mandibles. It seemed to purr. “Oh, money do you mean? Pater deals with all that sort of thing. I’m sure Mrs Brattle has a purse just bulging with pounds!” she did not notice how Mrs Brattle reddened at that. Or chose not to.
“Zat will not be a problem,” said Frau Piquet.
Henrietta clapped her hands together. It was just like something out of Rymer and Prest’s Varney (though personally she still preferred Lord Ruthven). She would be terribly frightened, she was sure. “Tell me, Frau Piquet. Are all your rooms only for the quality?”
“Some, ja. And zer Prussian gentleman. A very proper junker, ja?”
Mrs Brattle took the foot-long key offered her. Inspecting its complex teeth for some complaint but finding none, she took her young charge by the elbow and firmly away.
“WE DON’T GET to eat a lot of meat,” said the woman. Her name was Alondra. There was no fire under the cauldrons, or rather there was but nothing had been set on fire. Wood, whilst not exactly diamonds, was too good to burn. No stones made a circle about the blaze, because stone was rare, proper stone, stone made from rocks. Once there had been an expedition into the verde, Nox had been told, that had returned with sacks of rocks. No one really knew what to do with though, or at least as Alondra explained it.
No, the fire came from a black ball the size of Nox’s two clenched fists. It was growing more cherry red by the minute, and the mudlarks were watching as intently as they did the bubbling in their ornate cauldrons. One had dead fish in it, the other what they called fiddles. Long strands of… Nox wasn’t sure. It was like rice when it was half cooked towards making a decent pudding. Long strands of fiddle then. It was made from a weed, it seemed. There were beds of the stuff not far away. Food for anyone that cared for it. “Not that most of them,” Alondra emphasised the last word, “do.”
They had made Nox sit a short distance from the fire. He had offered to help, promising he was a decent cook, but the considered opinion of the mudlarks was that if Nox got too close to an open flame they might all risk an explosion. “And if I smell this bad,” he said, “Just imagine how I’d taste?”
“You’re a spy though,” said Alondra. Nox couldn’t place her accent. It wasn’t Scots. Every other word sounded as if from an unfamiliar language. “A spy, we know. From the others, you’re from the Petticoats.”
“You’re confusing me with my great-uncle Hamish, now there was a man for the petticoats.” His stomach growled, “Is there a chance that I can maybe try a bit of those fiddles that no one else would have a care to be wanting?”
“Not much point really, amigo,” and Alondra raised a finger to where one of the men now fetched out a long, very pointy sort of knife.
THERE WAS A crowd. If there were some hundreds in the town, then some hundreds had come to where now, in what passed for a square, a raised platform boasted only a single great post. Weather hardened, chains hung about it, climbing towards which now came Captain Leather. Taller than most, ungainly even, his great belly was held by a sash and his great bicorn fell to his ears. His beard tangled it was streaked with grey. He wore four pistola and a chopping-tipped hanger, and nearly hidden in one thick hand could just be made out a kitten. The crowd were not silent. Some called out a halloo, most continued as they had been. None made fun of the almost-comical looking ogre of a man.
“Does he think he is a pirate?” said Princess Shouzang of the Yunnan Province. Chen was uncharacteristically silent. It was not that Chen would ordinarily have answered what was, after all, a most rhetorical question. Rather, the subtlety of her servant’s silence was of a degree unfamiliar to her. “Speak,” she ordered.
“He, he is a pirate, princess. He has a reputation. But it has been many years. You were not born perhaps.”
Princess Shouzang then noticed something about the crowd. There were pirates there too. But not like that pirate. Men and women that lounged about with sneers and sloppy smiles. In hats and with rapiers. They thought they were pirates.
They were aping pirates. They were what they believed pirates to be. Even Captain Leather that stood now on the platform and looked down at the faces that slowly turned towards him, even though Chen said he was a pirate, was dressed and acted in a manner another would consider to be piratical. But why? Most of the people looked like fishermen the world over. Some seemed marked by red caps, true but otherwise they were people. In the main the women were darker than the men, whereas the men were from everywhere. Not all, but for the most part. The townsfolk did not seem especially taken with the idea of piracy. Somewhere, somewhere else did therefore. This was a performance, a pantomime.
Chen rudely disturbed the tranquillity of her observations, “Jiangsi!” he said with most uncharacteristic emotion.
LATER AND HE could not have accurately described the emotion that had overcome the mudlarks. Fear, awe, wonder perhaps? Wee Douglas had slipped from under Nox’s coat, doubtless far too hot where now the sun was up. As was its habit the rat sat on Nox’s shoulder as the Scotsman first hastily scanned the small shanty, and then let out such a fart as to celebrate the vermin’s presence. The mudlarks fell to their knees.
“Quick Douglas,” said Nox in a whisper, “was that you or the flatulence they’re a’fearing? Only I have but the one of you, but jars inside me of the other.” He moved outside of the circle, aware he was being watched, careful in case the ground should cave in under him in the manner of his walk. “I’ll have that,” he took the juicing knife, and with it stabbed at the knots tying two of the nearest nets. “And that,” he chose a large portmanteau from the clutter now on the sand. “And that,” a badly stained carpet bag. Lastly a hat of baggy felt that he used to tip his brief friends a goodbye. When angrily they began to rise he held out Wee Douglas again until they stopped. In such a manner, with a threatening rat, did Nox begin his escape.
“You’ve only gone and found me stuff,” Cawber simpered from where he had crept down to the treasures. Blinking eyes and golden hair. “God bless you, guv’nor,” with which he picked at the nearest and the shiniest.
“Have I? And which way now, wean?”
“Well sir, you can go that way,” Cawber pointed towards the dunes. “Where there’s ghosts.”
“And the other way?”
“Not ghosts it is and walk we shall until finding some measure of civilisation we shall repair to the finest, open air, pie shop. And there we shall eat our fill,” said Nox. At Cawber’s urgent squeak the Scotsman whipped about, Wee Douglas raised high. “I warn you, I warn you all, fetch yourselves not to follow. I,” he said in an all-too unconvincingly threatening voice, “Have a rat.”
THE GREAT PARASOL half concealed her from the crowd, but The Titan Cornelius (the) Colossus was far taller than most. So too with his body that of a mighty Greek god, and the eyes that never seemed to quite focus no one wanted to stand within reach of him. It was obvious that he would break you. Or anything else he wanted to do. Atkins The Man Locomotive (The Human Machine!) was clearly a man of will, and that will pressed to action, that action would be impossible to resist. There was nothing anyone could do if Cornelius Atkins had a care to act, and now what he cared to do was watch.
It has not taken much to convince him to follow others to this place. Not long on land and he wished to be where others were also. Besides which, where there was a crowd, there was an audience. But now someone else had the ring, and Cornelius was curious enough for that not to matter. He watched as the tiny woman walked up the shipwreck steps, the great parasol held for her. She seemed old, though looked younger than her manner suggested. Her face was pinched, white, she was a genuine albino. The big pirate and the little Chinese woman were not alone. Near them, arriving with them, now moving through the crowd for them, were a baker’s-dozen of more Chinamen. A woman too, this one dressed in charm where the pirate and the albiness were just plain dangerous. Cornelius Atkins knew all about dangerous. He knew how to be dangerous. He knew what it took to make a man water his britches. It was an act, backed up by an occasional example. He couldn’t see anyone acting up there. He doubted they needed to set many examples.
It was the woman that spoke, she with the blond ringlets and the big, crooked smile.
IF THIS WAS the sort of person to do well, Meticulous Browne thought, then this was the place for Meticulous Browne. He did not care to think any longer on the terrible journey here from what had already been an unpleasant voyage anyway. It was a warm day, and these were warm people. Hands held about the wings of his waistcoat, his fingers flexed. He watched in interest to what blondie had to say from her stage.
“For our naif I will speak their thieving tongue entirely, creo?” to a pleasant laugh below. This was a crowd that was used to being entertained. Fed too, Browne noticed. “Hello, my new friends from British land. You have mostly been given up by the sea. It happens. Look around. Mostly the men have been so. Mostly the women have not. Alas, we are cursed! Alas!”
“Alas!” from the crowd. A chuckle.
“A little anyway. So, hello. Welcome. We hope you have many useful skills, many great talents. We hope you can fish, to sail boat. To make, to mend. If you have too much lujuso ideas otherwise, well then we suggest you fuck off now!” Laughter again, genuine too Browne noticed. “This is Port Mercy. Finest jewel in all Parquet. Elsewhere it is all laws and sneering. There is over there,” she pointed to where set aside from the hardened shanty town was a crescent of houses that anyone might have seen as a better address in any city of England, “Beyond there, anyway,” she tittered, “Is la cloaca. The great bumhole of Parquet. Here, we are Port Mercy. We dance, and we sing, and yes too we fuck,” more cheers, “There, there lies the Delves. As we are one bailiwick, they are many. Or up there, she pointed to where the cliffs faded with distance, “There my friends, there is the Looms. And who would aspire so high, eh?”
The crowd booed and cheered, unsure which way to go. Many shook their fists.
“But here, here is Port Mercy. We have few laws, though we follow the buccaneer code,” said Blondie, but now the crowd did not laugh, some indeed rolled their eyes. Browne frowned. He knew hard working hands. He knew families. He knew people that, perhaps something odd here and there, that were otherwise the lumpen drays you would find anywhere, and he saw that here. But also, something else. The townspeople were not all enamoured with the pirates. Not that he saw any, other than a few dressing-up, and Captain Leather.
“And of course, to show you mean that, the wig!” Blondie took from out of sight a very long, very horsehair sort of wig. One of the Chinamen brought a small stool, using which the woman draped it over Leather’s hat. Drawn to the woman, no one in the crowd had noticed someone new being brought up to the stage. This man looked here, and there, but made no overt move to escape.
“Oh, deary ducks me,” the blonde woman made a show of her feigned surprise, “Is this a bad person I see here, and now to be chained to the mast?”
Meticulous Browne rather thought it was.
IT LOOKED SUITABLE for witches, that mast, and The Lord knew Father Meagher had seen at least two on The Thelassa. It had been His good judgement that had sent the Wrath upon them. But there was no doubt in his faithful heart that it had been the witches that had set a fire to the powder magazine. The circus whore with her devil leopard, a clear familiar. Also, the little devil amongst the pensioner-guards, the heathen from the land of the witch mountains. The Lord had shown them to Kael Meagher.
“Would that feller chained to that old mast be English, father?”
“I’m sure that’s so, Michael.”
“That’s great!” Mickey Finn dug into the cup of tiny shellfish he had taken from a man that had so many he was probably glad not to have to carry another one. Lots of vinegar. They had been dragged from a watery death by Chinamen and left in a small wet room, but one that had benches and a bottle of the good stuff. So, whilst Father Meagher had prayed Michael Finn had done the duty with the drink and slept the sleep of the just. They had been caught upon a wreck, the remains of an English ship called the Resolution. Most of it had been taken to build a palace somewhere, but the round bit at the end had been made into a house by the Chinamen. The Chinamen had a boss, and that boss was Captain Leather. A giant bastard of a bastard if ever Mickey Finn had seen one. And that was great too. They had given him another bottle after rowing them both ashore on the morning. A crate of the stuff had been given up by the sea. They were top fellers, and now Leather was being bad to an Englishman. “What is it do you think he did, Father?”
“He is an Englishman, Michael.”
“Ah, right you are father,” What a place this was. Mickey Finn beamed.
WHO WOULD WEAR a fur busby in this heat? Hussar cap, topped with a scarlet tassle and not a one worn straight but tilted rakishly towards one eye. Nor too would the pelisse, more braid than heavy silk cloth, be thought by most to be ideal, but then these were women and men that dressed in the softest fish leather britches when wet so that they might dry that extra bit tight. All five were dressed alike, their rapiers all of the same design, save for their boots. Their boots, they explained, were by tradition at their own expense., And so it was a matter of honour to make those boots magnificent. Who would dress so? Who would admire the butter yellow of the tunic and pelise?
Why, Major the Lord Horatio Robley for one. It didn’t bother him that three were women. He was indeed rather of the opinion that cavalry britches should be rolled out further, if the examples he craftily spied now was the example to go by. It was lucky that Loxley wasn’t here, the chap would have been a complete embarrassment.
“Milicio, you say?”
They recognised what he was. Although each were simple milicio, two had been officers themselves in the wider world. There was only one capitan for each milicio, and it was status beyond any captain elsewhere that each enjoyed now. They were part of the milicio Tesoro, sworn to the fabulous Duquesa Leonor Tesoro. They had duties, of course, and about them they went with their long, ever improved, pistola-grande. But upon their own fun the rapier was enough. They were here on the business of the delightful Duquesa, but that business was their own to know. Here in Port Mercy they were peacocks staring at pigeons, and pigeons feasting on a drunkard’s vomit at that. They ignored the odd insult from the picaroon. They would see to such things later, and away from the immediate eye of Captain Leather.
“What has that fool actually done?” Major Robley asked.
The nearest of the milicio made a dramatic shrug, whatever it was he would be guilty of it. Captain Leather was known to be fair.
“PROFESSOR GENERAL ADMIRAL Pope Bishop!” the Goorkha was delighted to see that his friend had not drowned. The professor was indeed looking well, something here was agreeing with him.
“Good day to you, Ganji,” said Professor Thadeus. Ganjku looked positively piratical, he thought. Then correct himself for here that meant something very different indeed. Nonetheless, in company with his longarm the goorkha had a cutlass, several nasty looking knives, and at least two pistols. He hushed the smaller man, nodding towards the stage after explaining, “The big man is the ‘Jack’ here, or ‘Jacque’, but I think the former. He is in charge. He is also the wig, which makes him a judge. There is a code hereabouts. I have no idea what it is, but this seems to be something more serious.”
“The man,” the woman with the mess of blonde hair was saying, “Has been making fake with us. This coin,” she held up a bag, “is snide.”
“Zoot the oars!” Called out a drunk.
Nonetheless, the professor noticed that where until that moment there had been a jolly air about this open court, that had been supplanted by one of… nervousness? How interesting. A good number in the crowd looked up towards the cliffs. The professor did not.
“A mad fool,” said blondie. “A good bene-fake takes more time and effort than it can pass for. If it’s a good one even, which we all know it ain’t. And we don’t fuck with the coin, what don’t we do, ninos y ninas?” there was a guilty, rumbling sort of agreement to that. More glances upwards. “I am sorry, Captain Leather he didn’t hear you?”
This time there was stamping, and shouts of agreement. It rose to where everyone in the crowd, noticing they were not agreeing as loudly as their neighbour, hastily made to remedy that. Professor Thadeous fetched out his crowded notebook and licked the end of what remained of a pencil.
Blondie waved them silent. “Better, no snide. Remember that. We have coin. They give it to the quality, the quality live well, and so pass it into the Delves. The Delves must eat and has to get what is given up by the sea, so we get it. Each salis wears away, eight times to eight smaller bits. No one can hoard it, or at least,” a small joke the professor did not pretend to understand, “Almost no one.”
It was joke enough for the crowd, who released from the awkwardness of their telling off, howled.
ARMS CROSSED, HEX watched what looked to him to be a rather mild form of ship’s justice. Had this been at sea there would have been none of these theatricals. He said, “Begging your gentleman’s pardons.”
The commodore continued looking at the quarter-deck stage, himself ruminating of what it all meant. He had seen courts and laws that would have turned a Frenchman to God. Wherever the Pax Britannia was maintained there had been Sir William.
“What is it, Skuse? Well now, speak up!” Mr. Bullen said properly.
“Clearly, you’ll have noticed it, but there is a songbird upon that cut mast they have in use as a post?”
They had not, but it was not the business of Royal Navy officers to notice things, they had seamen for that. “Much as we admire your attention to the wildlife, Skuse, is that the most important thing we are witnessing here?”
“It’s wood, Mr Midshipman, sir.”
“An ornament, Skuse. Something doubtless set there ornamental.”
“I’m sure you’re right, Mr. Bullen. Only, it flew there not five minutes ago.”
The crowd nearest them turned to hiss them silent. Blondie still had much to say, “Leather, elected to captain by the Mercy, wig in keeping with the accords, and with the interests of the crew foremost takes a very bad view of one that would see snide in this town. Who would wish forty days of rain? Who wish our proud fleet of houses to be blown away?”
“Sounds correct,” Sir William said sternly. That was that then. This Leather was in the position of law and authority laid down by the local articles. “Bravo, sir!” he called out.
Bullen waved his hat, “Indeed, bravo!”
“First time to the offense of the crew, a flogging. Come before us again,” said Blondie, “And it’ll be the keelhaul.” The shirt was torn from the man’s back, and one of the Chinese flicked out a cat o’ nine tails.
“Merci, Port Mercy! Captain Leather appreciates your attendance that justice might be done and be seen to be done. If any naif here gathered wishes to receive a bounty based upon their arrival, come here once the flogging is done,” she opened wide her arms, and bowed, “My name is Blondie, and I’ve been your trompette today. Remember, last day of the paz del mar after the grand fiesta. Tomorrow you might rest, but after that,” she wagged a stern finger. “After that, and we expect to see you back to your labour. Merci, thank you, and gracias all.”
A GLOVE ON the edge of a platform, and Samuel Hellmor did not approach closer. Dry now, he stood out in his stained shirt and dark trousers, a jacket suited to the rainy climate of England and a crowned hat that at least shadowed his eyes as he looked slowly about himself. The higher he was in Port Mercy the less there were of the terrible beasts that had come to haunt his dreams. None of the horrors were to be seen, but a woman walking towards him caught his eye that little too long, then looked away a little too quickly. He was unhappy at that. He was a trader in spices, not a bad man by any means, but spice trading meant travel, and a trader in a strange port was often seen as easy meat by the fouler elements.
Sam knocked his cane against his boot. He stood and made to move away only to turn sharply about so that of a sudden he was walking at the woman. She had not the stained tan of everyone else in Port Mercy, nor that milky coffee mix of those born here. Washed ashore at some point, probably English.
“I wonder,” he said, having been willing to risk an overabundance of suspicion Sam had not wanted to simply start a battle with a stranger in a fresh land. She had turned as if to go by him, one hand out of sight, Sam reckoned four fifths of those that had been on The Thelassa would not have been surprised by the knife that drifted back on the next step. Slow so as not to warn anybody, least of him presumably. He poked his cane into the stomach and rapped her hand as she bent over. Those nearest had seen the motion, had stopped to watch.
The woman shouted, “What are you doing?”
She was a citizen, he was not. Sam too looked astonished, “My pardon, miss. I must be unmannered still from my recent wrecking. Forgive me. You seem to have dropped a knife?”
“That’s not mine,” and with which she pushed into the knot of people that had gathered on the walkway.
“I wouldn’t,” a young man, red-capped and stinking of fish warned off Sam. “Take anything further,” his accent was west-country. “You boot here, and Leather will have you gutted.”
“Boot? Kill her?” Sam was aghast. “I’ve never killed anyone in my life! But where was she from?”
“Delves somewhere,” the fisherman frowned. He shrugged.
TWO BRIGHT RED wheels and a pea-green sign (that showed a pair of linked hands) were hardly needed to announce the stall that the Sablet sent down each day to Port Mercy. Today, theirs was the only enterprise to so appear, and Clayton Wilkes did not think the young woman that occupied the shade cast by a fixed umbrella was expecting the day to be a busy one. Indeed, judging by the pale, almost translucent slats of the crates stacked by her she was buying far more than she was selling. Mostly from a pair of quite the filthiest women Clayton had ever clapped eyes on. He adjusted the rather dashing sling he wore for his passing injury.
“Mudlarks,” she said with a cheery nod. “Don’t trust a word they say, mon-sewer. Still,” she held up the bell from The Thelassa, “Good brass, can’t complain.”
“You can sort out most anything I should think?”
“You’re a naif. I get that. Listen, I’m a Sablet. I do for Sablet. Now I’ll take a guess and say that what you think you’re seeing here is someone taking scrap given up by the sea. And you’d be right. But,” she said, clearly enjoying herself, “You’re not a mon-sewer that turns his nose up at trade? May wee?”
“Certain-mon,” Clayton joined in the mongering. Foreign lands? Strange places? Trade, fixing? He beamed, having exhausted his frog anyway.
“You see Port Mercy and you think, this is scrappy-pirate land. They probably don’t know about anything much more complicated than a kite. Kippers for coins. What ho gents, pass the shiny beads?”
“Glass shiny beads at that,” Clayton was enjoying himself.
“Glass we got. Glass we know. Well, not us. But Sablet gets what is needed up in the peritus. Look,” she bent forward. “See, you’re not one of the putain grejo that live here. This ain’t right for you. You’ll monger here, but with what will you monger? Sablet isn’t some rag and bone merchant. She’s the only one that knows how Trengrove made what he made. Marvels, mon-sewer. Marvels. You want to be a grejo in the sand and pretend you’re a pirate? Most of the grejo will think you’re a fool if you do so. So, you help yourself. But you ever make it to the Obscures, then look for the shops. Same sign,” she tapped the pea green with the two clasped hands.
“I might well do that. The Obscures?”
“First journey is always the hardest. Start at the Arks. First one through the cloaca. Piss before you shit, mister.”
NONE OF THE three had been born here. They were all men for a start, and so almost without exception that meant they had been given up by the sea. Where others over the weeks, the months, inevitably the years, found their place, learned a trade or put to use one already possessed, that could not be said for everybody. Between them the three men had one eye, and two hands, but none possessed two of either. They looked old, but everyone looked old when they were no longer young. There was nothing in the middle. Young, old. They were beggars and were the first that Alasdair Montgomery had seen in the brief time he had been here.
Each had a big, bold knife with two spheres for a cross-piece. Ballock knives, and they clearly meant something.
They had all suffered at the hands of a tiger. And that had been them done as sojars. Oh, they claimed to have been present at one of the many battle of Por Ahi - if, as they said, it hadn’t been for people like them everyone would be talking moon language now.
“A tiger?” said Alesdair. “Aye, a tiger is a big, ferocious beastie, I’ll grant you that.”
“Clever too,” said the first of the three, the others nodded. This one had the eye. “Smart as paint, though you’d never know it, seeing as how it speaks only some heathen tongue.”
“Is this ‘heathen tongue’, that of a tiger?” Alesdair made a growling noise in illustration.
“One of them Indies ones,” said eye,
“As you’d expect,” said hand one.
“Being as it’s a tiger,” this from hand two.
It was not the sort of story any experienced beggar might use to elicit sympathy. Too elaborate, Alesdair thought. He had known a beggar back in the blessed, rainy heather of his beloved Scotland (or to be exact, the sooty bustle of the town) called Mother Agie, who had palliarded pennies by renting a baby off one destitute or another. She hadn’t told a story, just held the baby and wept softly. Neither could he see what benefit there was from making the fool of him. He nodded, “Aye, if you say so. A tiger. A talking tiger.”
“Dressed well too, all considered. I mean, out there everything rots. Just does. Sag splits, glass don’t do too bad, metal though has to be scrubbed regular. But the tiger was in a blue robe. Very gentlemanly. And a pillbox hat. But with a tassel.”
Alesdair pictured this, “So, a tiger in a smoking jacket and hat?”
“He did have a pipe,” hand one recalled.
“Well, you would not want such lovely fur to be smelling of your pipe now, would you?” said Alesdair with admirable politeness. “And would this tiger be local?”
“Lord no, sir. Sojars don’t go to sojar here.”
“Sometimes,” Eye corrected.
“Sometimes, true. Mostly not though. The moon men come through the verde. They can’t sail from the moon winds here, can they now? That’d be daft!”
“Switzer paid us off proper though,” said Eye. “And thankfully, here in Port Mercy where the coin is taken in for room and pitch, it is held in common for those as has signed on to the crew. Good purse for hands, better still for eyes.”
“Shame about the hands, and the eyes though,” said hand two.
“There is that. And nowhere near enough to have it fixed by the peritus.”
Alesdair nodded. It was all getting too much. He bid them all a good day, then went back about his business.
“IS THIS NOT then Australia, sir?”
It was not, but Professor Bishop understood what Gurung meant. Or what the little man thought he meant, or rather what it was that he ought to mean. “Would you care to expand upon that, Mr. Gurung?”
“We were sailing to unknown land, and we have arrived in unknown land. It seems to me, and I am no brainy-mister like your good self, that by my own eyes it seems that even those who were destined for other destinations are possessed of a romantic soul.”
“Bunch of damnable adventurers,” said Thadeous Bishop with a snort. But that did not rob the truth from the point.
“Already the soldiers do what it is that soldiers do. The adventurers keenly seek adventure. I am wondering what it is that chose us all. There is no accident in our lives.”
“There is no fate, Ganjku Gurung. The gods are dust.”
“Respectfully, I disagree. For a journey to what I am told was a place of dust and terrible hard times we were a very strange cargo. Of lords and ladies, salute them all and the gods very much bless Queen Victoria, we have an abundance. Of learned men our marching pack is content. I find it very curious. That is all.”
Professor Bishop understood. He clapped a hand on Gurung’s shoulder, saying, “Such matters are best left to learned minds. Since I doubtless have the most learned mind here, I will take up that burden from you.”
That was not quite what Gurung had meant. But he trusted Professor Bishop who was a very clever man, and he had the chitty from university to prove it.
IT WAS THE hat. Abram had never known a hat like it, had never wanted a hat so badly as he wanted this hat now. There were other hats, and they too were admirable enough, but the tall tilted crown, the left-bent brim, the three bands, broken mask, the patch, the… it was superb.
There had been other hats, Abram knew. He had dallied with one hat or another throughout his life. But he had never loved a hat, not like he loved this hat. He might have told a hat he loved it, but that had only been to get it into bed. Which thought disturbed even Abram. Where had that come from, he thought? The head that the hat wore was bigger than Abram’s, but he had the idea that it was the sort of hat that would fit anybody if they wanted it badly enough. That hat, and its two companions, turned to look at Abram who, already looking away, went towards rather than away from the trio. Running away was for fools and fawny-thieves.
The three, a man and two women, were dressed alike even if not in a uniformed fashion. There were the hats, of course, and what hats they were. Individual boots and in two cases not from the same pair. Sashes and belts, colourful shirts and laced britches, and lots of cheap jewellery, wood often, bone and shell. Everything but the hat was frayed, patched, comfortable but for scarecrows otherwise. Everything but the hats, and the rapiers, and the pistols. Each boasted one of each, and no two was alike. Indeed, if the hats were unusual, then the pistols were positively unworldly. Long or short, they differed, but each gleamed and even their triggers were not necessarily in the same place. Each had a bulbous rear and a straw-thin muzzle. In each case they were worn tucked behind a purse on the belt, like a sporran in two cases, and like everything hung with scraps of this and little trophies of something else. One had a parrot. The parrot he could care less about. If he had been asked, Abram would have admitted that, yes in all likelihood, the picaroon almost certainly, probably definitely, had faces and hair, and all the rest of it. None of which he noticed. If they had faces, they wore them on their heads. And they were wonderful.
The picaroon watched him go by. Abram wished he had someone else to dolly the stones to, but when out of sight he opened his fingers to see what riches such important people had possessed. A diamond, pearls? A musket-ball. And a coin, singular, about two bits. “Oh well that’s not right,” he said. “They’ve got less than me.”
He felt guilt about that. It took him a minute or two to work out what that meant, but he got there in the end. Turning sharply about Abram made to find the hats again. When instead something found him.
NOW BECOMING WORRIED, Bambenga had begun to mourn his friend. At least he would celebrate his life, and if there was anywhere a sailor might celebrate then Port Mercy was not a bad choice. If you didn’t danza, and you didn’t jug, then you had better have an instrument otherwise you would be treated by the grejo, the locals, as odd as someone who wouldn’t eat fish. Hoping to see Nox washed up battered but well, Bambenga had found himself sat on the quayside. A circle had formed on the quay and everyone was taking their chance to take the danza. Bembenga had too when with a cheer on their part he had allowed himself to be dragged to where, facing another, they had competed. A hard battle and savage loss, and Bambenga was cheered as well as if he had been the victor. It was true that most there were drinking, but the drink was running low and no one was much inclined to share anyway.
Danza? Jug? They spoke the linga here. It had a big frame of English about it, with sticky bits of French and Spanish but if that was the case everywhere on this strange harbour, even if the frame changed, Bambenga would get by better than most. His tattow spoke better of him than any extra inches and here at least it was pesker, sails, and the noddy that occupied them.
They had given him a red hat. He rather liked it, he was even a little flattered. It was the mark of the pescador, the fisherman. Here that meant a very brave fellow. Plenty of fish were always given up by the sea, from the great currents of the captive tides. Other things too. The eels most often, sometimes a merwif, occasionally something far worse. The pescador were romantic figures, fighters and dancers. And they wore the red hat to show it. There had been battles here, or the rest of Parquet had been rotten, or despotic, the words got a bit confused in the linga. Anyway, then, the pescador had fought sojars, and milicio, barricading off the cloaca and starving half the rest of the place out.
He mimed where the linga grew short.
“Away?” that caused a debate. If there was anything a pescador could argue about, it was the sea. The harbour certainly, the changing but captive currents. There were great flues, traps, tunnels and other things littering and overgrown on the harbour bed. Made of coral, or something similar, the word coralline didn’t really mean anything to Bambenga. What was true was that it was hard to get out. Occasionally they made it with the largest of the boats, and then when it was worth the risk, the riches of whales for example. Bambenga knew well that the sea gathered everything and thrust it here, a lover losing the eye of his paramour ever more desperate with gifts. But there was a chance, not easy, to hit the circulo current that would whip a boat about the island.
Thence to where?
That was another argument. To be wrecked somewhere in the verde, most agreed.
Bambenga sniffed. The pescador recoiled. A smell came upon them. Three dozen men and women shouted out, some called for cutlass and hanger, for the war harpoons. But Bambenga all smiles called out in delight. Where the smell of Nox went, somewhere close Nox must be. Leaving his new friends for the now. Bambenga followed the smell until he found an unhappy looking Nox. “Everywhere I went, they made me go away,” he said. All day he had been at this. “They said I stank of William Lane. So, he must be pretty stinky.”
Bambenga kicked him.
And in Aka they rattled away at the events of their day.
AN EXCITED ENOCH positively bustled back to where the Obilar’s were sat forlornly together. Ever cleanly shaved, reliable, faithful Enoch. Ned had readily enough found a day’s labour working on the unending task that was repairing nets. He was a rod and line man but knew enough to pick up the task quick enough to have earned enough of the wooden salis coins to see he, the wife, and all three servants just this side of starvation. Enoch though seemed positively chipper, and he had returned in company with a terribly thin woman who seemed to be all smile and mad hair. “Mr. Obilar, sir!”
“Enoch, you have a guest?”
“Margaret Wounding,” the woman seemed positively delighted to meet Ned, pumping his hand furiously as she introduced herself, “Peggy Wound, please.”
“Sir,” Enoch too polite to leave them seemed in urgent need of bladder relief.
“Do you believe in the good book?” Peggy said, “And if so, do you have one about you?”
But Ned did not. Theirs was lost along with their baggage and dunnage at sea. He himself was not a strong man, and whilst Enoch had assisted him to the deck, Berrybrown and Porc had saved only the most immediate of Mrs Obilar’s luggage. They sneered now, Porc already having managed to find a very long knife he seemed amused by everything about Peggy. “I am not a great man, Mrs Wounding.”
“Senorita,” she corrected automatically. She covered her disappointment well. “I suppose that will keep you safe from the Archimandrate, and the Opium Bishop both.” She laughed at such small mercies. Then to Ned’s frown, “Of course, you are new here. I’m afraid faith has rarely endured being given up by the sea. In the Obscures, the Orthodox under their Archimandrate are, I’m sure, awfully holy,” her expression did not seem to regard them favourably, “And the Bishop is no bishop at all. I’m afraid you will find few churches here in Parquet, Mr Obilar. Beyond, I cannot say.”
“I have strayed myself,” admitted Ned. “I am cursed, you see.”
“Aren’t we all?”
A shake of the head and Ned felt unable to share his burdon with the earnest woman. “So, there’s just the Orthodox really?” he worried a little at that. Catholicism thriving in isolation did not sound like a good thing. Peggy did not seem to have suffered too badly however. Sometimes Ned could feel the good in people, and he felt that Peggy Wound tried very hard. “I am glad you have your faith, it must be a comfort.”
More laughter, “I am not of their church, Mr. Obilar. The Orthodox are not the largest of what is admittedly a small pond of the faithful here. We, Mr. Obilar, are the Society of Friends.”
Ned was astonished. “Quakers?”
THREE TYPES OF pipes played along as two drummers hit the beat for the fight. A whistle made the melody. Somewhere under the decks, and by the light of the medusa two men stood up one to the other. There was a circle there, made by drunks, and not a one with a solid button between them. It was low, nasty sort of place, and if none there had any coin, that was because the coin they had had was now Mickey Finn’s.
Father Meagher had decided that the medusa, the great jellyfish that bobbed and plucked at the spiders, that had at the slugs, that had at the shit of Port Mercy, were all God’s creatures. And as God’s creatures, sure but they hated him. It was jealousy, pure and simple. If he had known, he would not have come here. Even so he stood well outside, peering in through a hole made by the scum that watched the fight. Crabs he had suffered. He itched all over from an infestation of the mites, or spiders they called ‘picks’. Or so he chose to hear it. Any closer to the space under Port Mercy and he would have found out, he was sure, how dangerous the medusa were. “Enough now, Michael. Can you not see the poor man has had enough?”
“He might, father. He might. But has our crowd?” The crowd booed any such thing. “There you are, father.”
More sternly now, “Michael, do not tease the man. Think of your immortal soul. Fighting is one thing, torture another. Are you a Benedictine? Then end it now.”
“Oh. but father. I’m just treating the man to the holy trinity,” said Michael. Stripped to the waist, he lifted upright the last oaf to fight him on a wager. “He’s not done yet,” the thug swung twice, missing both times, “Did you see? Not done yet.”
“You mean God, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Michael?”
“I mean,” said Mickey Finn, “Head,” he smashed the oaf’s nose with his head, his hair wrapped in one fist. “Elbow,” a hard one to the stomach, helped down by the grip on the scalp, “And knees,” and he dropped the challenger down to twitch for the snails. Mickey Finn nodded, sheathed in blood, enough of it his own. “It does a man good to rid himself of violent thoughts, father.”
“It is, Michael. You must attempt it one day.”
“Witches then, father?”
“Witches, Michael. There is devilry here. And in mockery of God it lies upon the highest height.”
“Do we kill the witches, father?”
By no means, there should be trials. The sinners should see what became of witches. This was God’s work, and God walked in the light.
PROMISED ROOMS IN the Arks, the bailiwick that lay directly beyond the cloaca from Port Mercy, Ned having confessed himself to be a scholarly man it was suggested by Peggy that he visit the Gritos. Not so much one taberna, it was a sign that was planted outside the door of wherever had been occupied by the learned of Parquet. These the most educated, where education was something of the wider world, he looked forward to the sort frank discourse that would challenge his mind and free his wits.
Within and the tiny taberna seemed absent of any of the learned Ned had been expecting. Instead there seemed to be, crowded together, a lot of men and women with very good hair and very big shirts. Indeed, back home he would have thought the lot of them the sort of flopsy poets that warbled on about the mysteries of life, without ever having had to experience any.
“Sir,” one was saying to another, not meaning by any means so much as a syllable of respect in the single word he had used so far. “Sir, your objectivation of the promulent vis the esoterica of servitude towards the piscine and the trollop are, as Aeschines of Neapolis once famously declared, a bucket of piss.”
“Piss, sir? Piss!”
“Sir, a big bucket. Upon a plinth. Upon which is described in form hieroglyphic the ancient symbol for a massive arse. That symbol sir, is you.”
“You are, sir! When you yourself came here to espouse the third rebuttal of your own assay regarding the emancipation of imagination in the crayfish. Which, as all here know, is worthy of discourse by Diogenes himself. To whit sir, without speaking!”
“You lamentable cretin, sir. Diogenes was not silent, he dwelt in poverty. Indeed sir, he dwelt in a jar!” Spittle flew between the two scholars, and each had their hand upon a small dagger. Their peers roundly cheered or jeered them on. There was a great deal of wine.
“You dwell in a jar! You, sir. A jar of your own vapidity, you speculate of feculence. You, you…” he ran out of words. “...wanker!”
It was blood before supper and Ned hurriedly left. He had come upon many a scholar upon The Thelassa. He hoped they all liked very big shirts.
THE LIGHT WAS dim, which it being now two hours since nightfall was not unacceptable. It did not trouble the head like gas, nor did it stink like tallow. It did not need to be trimmed like a candle, something those about the table would have found perfectly acceptable as it was an excellent opportunity to play with the deck. And everyone had a deck. The trick was to find playing cards that matched in size so as not to give too much away. Giving too much away was also a part of playing the game.
The four suits were familiar enough, Selly Beechworth accepted. Or rather that there were four, and that they were numbered was a good enough start. The cards all had their value simply painted on the back of what, in all good taste, could only be described as filth. Cards placed down portrayed quite the painted orgy. There were even games where both the backs and fronts of cards were used to score points. It was doubtless because the cards were first and foremost, filth, that the suits were known as pizzles, clams, ducks, and chuffs. Selly did not doubt that if ever he should look to learn about the art of Parquet, then playing cards would feature rather highly. Many were positively antique.
He was still winning though.
He had been playing the jolly grateful naif. His new friends had been happy to oblige him in that. Selly had not lied when he had admitted that he had played once before. It had been no more than an hour after discovering he was not going to drown horribly, and thirty minutes after suffering the indignity of the clothes in which he might otherwise have done so. All he had saved from the only outfit to have survived The Thelassa was his weskit. There would doubtless be others somewhere in this primitive little desert island. As islands to be washed up upon went, this was now one of Selly’s favourites. There were oddities, he admitted. There was some science at work, he was sure of it. Even if nothing he could pin to a board or treat to the killing jar, perhaps.
Yet. “My friends, it is late,” he saw the quick glances. Others might gull them, more might bravo them down. Selly believed barely in the one and not at all in the latter. It did not play to the percentages. Here they jugged where before Selly had gambled. The word was still used, in just such situations as these. Clearly, there had once been so much daring, so much foolhardiness that they had had to use a new word in order to pin it down to actual games of chance. “And aren’t we all businessmen here? We have all made use of our trade. We have bid, and we have risked, and who amongst us did really take a chance on the cards?”
“You’ll not gull me, Selly,” Isiah Cuts rose to his feet.
“Most certainly not. We are businessmen, and this is our trade. So rather than ruin a perfectly good evening let us divide our winnings equally. I stand a little higher, as you sought to hook me in, but no one loses much and we all might have enjoyed the evening,” and there was the charm. “After all, here in such splendid surroundings?”
Cuts sat down, bouncing the chair and disturbing the table. This? The only place for a real game between gentlemen in Port Mercy, was Lod’s. “You ain’t seen anything,” said Cuts. “Mercy? It’s a shit hole. It’s practically barbaric. There ain’t two specks of civilisation here no matter how much you dig that shit with a fork. Even the Arks is better, and that’s saying something. Now the Grails, there’s where a jug goes to show cards. One day maybe, the Looms. But that’s just pomp and balls, quality and new cloth. The Grails,” he sighed, and they all grinned.
“And the magic light?”
That brought howls from his new friends, and the threat was passed over, as Selly had intended. Cuts plucked a pearl from several in a glass flute. He covered it with one hand. The light was gone. Then uncovered, it returned. “Such magic,” he laughed again, face turning red.
“Science,” Selly was satisfied. The world continued to progress to the point where one day soon he might once again make a claim towards it making sense once again.
“Sure, science,” Cuts clapped Sully on the back, hard. “It just ain’t ours.”
IT WAS TOO much, too terrible, beyond understanding, beyond bearing! She had watched them sat about their little fires, passed by them in their awful tabernas, been drawn towards the circles where they took turns to dance, turns to tell stories, but where there had been people there had been… them. Her room could never be clean enough, and she had been certain no crack stood in the wall bigger than a knife blade, but as it seemed that as the fish oil in the little copper lamp had burned low so had the snails appeared. She had first seen them as a movement about her chamber pot. Her little boots she had snatched from the floor already frustrated by the interminable itching in her beautiful hair. That had been why these barbaric primitives had let them crawl about their heads, so she had heard. But not her, not Valeriya Tolstoy. She could bear fire and she could endure cold, but she could not suffer the devils with legs.
When the first of the jewelled little bodies dropped from the ceiling she had retreated to the furthest point of her cot. When from the frame itself they seemed to detach, Valeriya had to muffle a scream. She had seen war, she had seen death, she could not abide spiders. She saw the smallest of them dart up to, and then under the shell of one fat snail that appeared, almost drunkenly, from the lip of her chamber pot. Quickly she pulled on her boots. Already dressed, the great fur hat in hand, Valeriya fled her room at Frau Piques.
THE KNIFE WAS bone, so thin it was translucent where he could spy the tip from the corner of one eye. It was thin because it was sharp, that he could tell by the shave he was getting one side of his throat. The edge was angled in. Abram stayed exactly where he was, until guided by the need to move away from every little ounce of pressure, he was taken by weed rope stairs below. It was not as dark as he had expected. There was a soft glow from the far side where he saw the great bloom of a jellyfish lingering where scraps fell from above. Its tendrils were soft hairs. For something so beautiful he felt only disgust.
“The fuck you doing here?”
“Passing through?” said Abram.
“No one passes through Parquet.”
“And with such an oily diet too?” he said, with the result that Abram’s chin was teased high enough to force him to his tiptoes. “Easy there, missus. Easy…” he felt the clothes he had borrowed, not three hours before, turned over quickly by a practised hand.
NIGHTTIME AND IT was a long way from true darkness, save that anyone might venture to the ground, and under the ramshackle stilted mess of Port Mercy. The flags and bunting hung limp, long sundried. The little town was dreadfully still. Having no wish to go anywhere wet, sheltered, and certainly not dark Valeriya Tolstoy felt the old fear, the old vulnerability. She wished for a decent blade, or even an inferior one. There seemed to be many here in this Parquet, and as many who carried them. Indeed, if a cutlass or a hanger might draw the eye then for many the carrying of the rapier seemed, as they put it, to be perfectly rosey.
By habit, and by climbing a railing, Valeriya was able to tug down one of the longer, weather-washed streamers. With swift movements she swaddled her hair, and with the trailing edge tucked into the folds hid away much of her face too. It was warm, warmer than she would have liked. It was no great effort to climb back to the railing, to pull herself upon a spar and then use the slatted side of the building to reach its top. A child could have climbed it. She smiled, a grown up could have climbed it, she corrected herself. Children were monkeys. Thinking of children, she saw a number now, running lightly between the dark hides under each of the buildings. A long line of a dozen or more that appeared and disappeared in a moment. Badly dressed, bare legged, with knives, with scissors, with sacks and ropes. They were there, they were gone. Valeriya felt better for seeing them. The scamps. Out at all hours. Up to games and fun, doubtless. She loved children. Oh, to be so free, so full of life and innocence again.
She might have called out had she not seen someone that followed them. This one was not a child. This one was a man, sparse haired so that the moon caught where his crown now shone. He moved as if in a dance, without a partner, in a waltz where he held empty air. He stopped in that, he turned about. Then slowly he looked upwards.
“Zdravstvuite, young lady,” he greeted her. Hair long at the sides it reached to his shoulders. He wore Lavoisier lenses in a wire frame so that pale as was the man in the moonlight, his eyes were two dark discs. “Won’t you come down, and play such games? Oh, there is such fun to found.”
“Old chyort,” she called him a devil, “If I had a blade I would show you a game!”
He bowed, feathering his hands each side of his face in some curious genuflection. “The children, we have so many. So many. Girls, of course. Mostly girls. Mostly. What is one to pluck, one to serve? They are game birds, da? What Pargo called parjaro. What is it to cly fake a few? There are so many. Come, come, who will notice?”
The man fluttered his fingers again and stepped backwards, making to return the way he had come.
Valeriya stood, calling down, “You must not touch them, you must not hunt them. That is base, evil, begone now!”
And he had, already having lost his dancing pursuit of the children. Valeriya sat on the roof again, satisfied with her work that night. Why for long minutes she had forgotten all about the spiders completely. Up here and there seemed to be none. Tired, she yawned. She found a ledge and there lay down. A moment later and she was asleep.
THERE WAS POWER in a fire. He had made fires in the swamps, he had made fires of wet wood, and he had heard of ways to make fire with no wood. But fire from driftwood? That was easier than all of them. To make fire from nothing was not a talent Jackson Monday possessed. To walk to where further down the sand, on the beach opposite to where the fishing boats were drawn up and to borrow a little already there? Yes, that he could do. There were a number of fires, because there were enough people that slept there, all in little bands Jackson noticed, and undoubtedly to keep the thieves away. The fish, he corrected himself. Which here, in this place was everyone.
“I can hardly believe it,” Doc Henry said on removing the bandage he had himself bound about Monday not so long before. “I always knew I should have kept my mouth shut. Think of the lives that would now be saved, had I done so? My friend, I can see scarce a mark upon you.”
“It is faith, doctor.”
“Henry, please. Faith?”
“You might see it as such. There are spirits, Henry. They are many things, but they can be hateful to those that ignore them. Do you ignore spirits, Henry?” said Jackson Monday seriously.
“Only when the bottle is empty, my friend.” He shook his head, “Quite remarkable.”
In the fire could be seen the three bottles Mouse had found for them. Each had contained something different. A rolled mop of fish, another of tentacle, a third some variety of weed that had tasted of cabbage. Each had been pickled. Not content with that Mouse had also scared up a box of the local subsistence food, the tangled noodles they called fiddles. None of the three had been here long enough to tire of them, and all was a welcome change from the endless yesterday-soup of The Thelassa. Mouse had learned that the locals doused the fiddles in garum, a source made from the rotten, half-fermented guts of fish. It sounded awful, but he heard people argue over this kind or that, it was a genuine obsession. He supposed if all he ever ate were noodles then he might feel the same way. The box had flared brightly, if briefly when tossed into the flames, the oily package probably in future best kept for lighting further fires. Mouse stopped thinking about fiddles. Mouse got up and hurried about the fire. He hissed a warning so that by the time the creepers caught the light Jackson Monday had already stood, now waiting for them.
Enormous, the firelight reflecting powerfully from his black, muscled frame, he relaxed a little when he saw it was only children. “Have you no mothers?” he said in what he hoped was a kindly voice.
“Va te faire foutre, blackamoor. Who’d d’you think you are?”
“He think he’s Quaco putain Maroon!” catcalled another, “Soft in the head are you, ghost of Quaco?”
“It’s okay little girl,” Mouse normally so nervous, stepped towards them. “Are you lost?” They were all girls too. Dressed in scraps, and with bruises dark and scratches white on their Spanish-brown skins. Doc Henry too stood up from where by habit he had had a little vanish. He tried a smile.
“Choo taking the lala, papa?” The girl nearest to Mouse asked. Mouse shook his head, then noticing rather later than usual the flat knives, hooks, ropes and clubs he stepped back hurriedly. Children were always treated so abominably, he did not wonder they had to protect themselves. But not from him. And not by stabbing him. “Mr. Monday?” he said.
“Is it Monday, funny name,” said the second. “I think he’s just another bastard, I do. Got too old to be gamine long time ago. Looking like that? Thinks he’s fucking royalty.” The children’s mood turned at that, encouraging the girl. “Was matter, rich boy? On the run? Sister made queen? We saw her tits the other day,” this to hoots and titters. “Came down with the other quality-true, din’t she? All them princes and royals. All naked mostly. Time of the year? What’s her name?”
“Mawu, in’t it,” this from the first.
“Marchesa Mawu Liber!” the second. “Ooh, smarty. Pass the fucking cake, why di’nt you? Putain rich-boy!”
This was about as far from the truth as anything could get, for Monday. But he knew moods. He knew what was going to happen. He also knew that if a dozen little horrors had the wit, the will and the practise in sticking a knife into a man then one of them likely would. “You’d best go…” he rumbled.
“Leave them alone, Jackson,” Doc Henry protested.
“You too? Look at them. They’ve got murder there,” he snatched at the closest, lifting her free from the ground without any effort.
Doc Henry cracked Monday about the shoulders with the stoutest piece of driftwood in the fire. Surprised, Monday turned about only to have the smoking end jabbed threateningly at his face. “They’re just children, Jackson.”
“You don’t notice that they’re armed children?”
“I’m warning you.”
“That’s nice. A warning I mean. It doesn’t mean I’m going to do the same for you. I’ll break you, doc. Truly, in two.”
“Is he moony?” one of the game birds said to Mouse.
“We just got here.”
“Naif?” the game birds looked terribly disappointed. The first snarled and bored with it all the children faded away. Mouse didn’t want anything to happen to them, so he followed a short distance to make sure that going away, meant not coming back. Mouse didn’t want anything to happen to them, but he was doubly sure he didn’t want anything to happen to him either.
Mr. Monday walked right by him. Mr. Monday missed the children, but he went right on going.
THERE HAD BEEN enough parties in his time to know when one was over, and that was how the town felt now. Even in the dead-end of night there was barely a chill in the air, but still Lord Blyth had turned up the collar of his coat from habit. A short distance away a dollymop lay in the arms of that night’s patron, both paid up in what smelled of hard drink. Snails moved over them. In the open, here where the broken, spotted ground crossed the short distance between the shanty, the crescent, and the cloaca beyond it the snails were mostly safe from the spiders. Blyth watched as he waited by a pole, very much like a lamp post, but which topped by a smoke-stained globe glowed only dimly. By its feeble light, the adventurous lord saw a fish. The length of his hand it was nervous of the night, reflecting the soft luminescence of the globe. Importantly, it was a fish, and this was most certainly not the water. The water was very obviously where it was, in sight, and not here. “Quite extraordinary,” said Blyth. He wondered what could have happened to Garvin?
They had been on opposite sides during a fracas in the South Americas. Garvin had shot at Blyth, and Blyth had pinked him in the shoulder. It could not be said that they hated one another. Garvin worked for whomsoever paid him, Blyth had had his own interests to protect. But neither had they been friends, and under other circumstances the reunion would not have been a happy one. Yet Garvin had seemed genuine, and so Blyth had agreed to meet him here. After all, it was not like he had managed a bed for the night. He turned when he heard footsteps.
“Lord Goldsithery!” Garvin was exhausted, and in his hand there was steel.
Unarmed as he was, Blyth suspected some treachery.
He was right, but it was not from Garvin. A voice called out, “Ah now, boys, come see we have two mollies abroad and close to our Arks, hey?” the voice crossed to them from the direction of the crescent, and heralded five or six figures, all men by their gait, and each with a cudgel they looked happy to use.
A HALF-DOZEN of them ran lightly from the cloaca to skirt the far side of the crescent, there the ruffians the residents patronised might have seen them. They avoided the single smoky red light, the two gents and the ruffians that faced them there. They were not comfortable on the harder ground and disliked the sandier greatly. There was no terrible foul air outside the Delves. No sneaking fog that robbed a man of his breath, his memories, and then his life. Yet still every one of them wore a Sablet mask, a Trengrove lung, or in the case of the poorer two a simple storm hood, so that each had blank faces and giant, glassy eyes. Their hats were tied down, they wore scraps, the ghosts of clothing. Thin rope was wound about them, and they carried block, tackle, mantraps, hooks, blades and a goodly number of pistols. They were hated in the Grails and they were despised in the Arks. Yet they had slipped through the latter from their lofty little fortress, and they had come to Port Mercy where no one had any good right to expect them, and few could have known their desire. What greater purpose lay behind them they could not have said, certainly they did not even consider there to be one. They had stepped out and into Port Mercy between bells, the bells that made time in Parquet and which could rarely be heard at all here in the shanty town by the harbour.
The six ran to the roofs the moment they came to the town. Two broke bottles bought by proxy from the parfumer, and they shared the oil amongst them, rubbing in into bare arms and exposed skin. The medusa would be returning and in these flat, open, horrible places they would find it hard to escape them. Only for a moment did they pause, and then to check their powder.
The agitators in the Arks hid black powder in readiness for the revolution, but few dared carry the pistola. It was death in the Delves to carry a gun, but it was worse yet to be a Samson. So, if a Samson, carry a gun. Carry two.
One held up a tin box to one lens of his mask, shaking it, ascertaining direction. None moved otherwise. Port Mercy would be dangerous for them if they were spied. They had been promised they would not be, between the bells. But they hated promises, as they hated all those in Parquet. They loved rarely, and together they loved only Mozart. The Devil’s music, and here they went about the Devil’s work.
“What is that damned humming?” Lady Victoria Marlborough wanted to know. Her servant, Emma, slept on. Victoria badly needed a very good wash, and a great deal more clothes than just what she stood up in. Reaching out one toe she kicked Emma, then again when unusually the serving girl initially refused to wake. Then a third time before she would answer. “I am sorry, are you awake?” said Victoria.
“I am now. And thank you again for leaving me on that ship,” said Emma pettishly.
“I’ve already explained, I took the first of the little boats to leave because otherwise I might have drowned.”
“You really don’t see how astonishingly selfish that is do you?” Emma, realising there would be no more sleep that night stirred herself to the chamber pot.
“Of course, I do,” said Victoria. “You keep on saying that word though as if it’s meant to be a bad thing. I would have taken you in the boat too, but you weren’t there. We had to hurry, else I might have drowned. Me. You see. I am the innocent in all this.”
“Ha! It is an actual High Court judgement for that to not be the case!” said Emma, who went to the window and emptied the chamber pot, snails and all. Then collapsed, thrashed a little, and went still.
“Oh my god, Emma!” barked Victoria so loudly the door shook. “That might have been me!”
A masked face swarmed through the open window, a rope snapped about Lady Victoria’s wrist. Yanked towards her attacker she first stumbled, then fell. The mask made to jump on her with further coils of rope, only for the lady to kick him in the face. “Someone find me a bloody sword!” her powerful voice banged about Frau Piquet’s.
HE HAD DREAMED of a woman, and of snakes. The woman had been impossible, as if tied in the middle so that her great hips, thighs and breasts made circles beneath her wide face and the great halo of her hair. She had held two snakes, one by the tail so that its head rose behind her. She ignored the other which warned of the first (but drew only her ire for speaking at all). It had been his first dream here. He had woken to find Doc Henry and Mouse needing a fire. The children had left him angry. He had come to walk it off. Jackson Monday had no less reservations than anyone about this Parquet, but had the sense to assume it was better than conviction in Swan River.
The words were loud, the world being otherwise so quiet. There was a hiss of pain, and Jackson who never could stop running towards trouble hurried around the last of the town to see by the dim light of a great, round lantern one man facing four.
Closer, and seeing it was another from The Thelassa just made his mind up the further. There was further man on the ground, and not doing too well, even as the first with a rapier in his hand tried to keep four men at the point’s reach. Monday ambushed them, landing amongst the ruffians and knocking the first to the ground before driving his fist into the belly of the next so that he folded about Jackson’s arm like a coat carried on a hot evening. The man whose assistance he came to now easily knocked aside two of the cudgels and drove the point of the rapier into the shoulder of the closest. Then with such vehemence that even Jackson Monday was stilled, the man shouted, “Go!”
They fled, picking up their beaten and hurrying back in the direction of the crescent, perhaps the cloaca beyond. “I don’t like to see many against one,” Monday explained.
“Blyth,” he offered a hand. Garvin had been struck hard and quickly, and Blyth had swept up his sword. Having offered his gratitude he bent to do what he could for his former enemy, but it seemed to be little. Monday looked too, feeling for the places where the spirit would escape and wishing he could have an hour in a good swamp to find what he needed.
It was not the clubs that had done for the man, they had only finished what a bad one to the kidneys had started an hour before. “Blyth?” he said.
“You’ll be alright, Garvin. I’ve seen you worse.”
“Bastards, bastards. Using roaring boys, how pathetic is that?” Garvin made to laugh, but only bubbles of blood came to his lips. “I wanted you meet someone, Blyth. She showed me marvels,” the voice was very weak now. “I thought, I thought you’d see them too. You’d have liked her, the sweet hag,” the words dribbled away.
“He’s dead,” said Jackson. “I’m sorry you lost your friend.”
“He was an enemy. Isn’t that strange?” Blyth shook his head. He looked at the rapier. Serviceable, hardly ornate, but it would do. “I’ll keep this, I think.”
Jackson Monday held up a blue pearl as big as the first joint on his thumb. He came up with a handful of salis coins too, of various sizes. Blyth waved away any offer of a split. It would be light soon, and an end to such dark work as this.
WAKING TO THE words ‘a bloody sword’, Princess Shouzang instantly took in the scene. Expecting her enemies to come upon her at night she never slept well, but her hand fell emptily on the spot where she would have normally left her sword. Chen had begged leave to go about important business, promising her that by tomorrow he would have arranged tea with ‘One we must speak with, one who will be of benefit to us, to whom if we do not pay our respects will take it as an insult’. Given his reaction at the performance by Captain Leather, Shouzang was in no doubt who that might be. Much use did it do her now.
Jumping to her feet the princess continued the motion to spin gracefully, as on a pivot about her waist, to land one foot behind the ear of the masked creature that had slipped into her room. She had been assured that no one in Port Mercy would dare to enter this house uninvited. Either Frau Piquet had been exaggerating, or this was not something of Port Mercy. The mask knocked down, it fetched out a pistol. In the time it took for him to pull back the hammer the princess had bounced back from her attack and, closer to the door than the mask, ducked through it.
IT WAS SO damn late that it was damn early, and even Port Mercy had turned in leaving Major Robley to walk back to his room alone. He had not spent the last hour alone, for never let it be said that the Robley’s weren’t charitable when it came to the dollymops. The encounter with the milicio had left him damned panty, but the quick dance with the one-eyed woman with the white snail had barely served to mop the brow of that desire. So, when a woman of real quality emerged from the gloom he bowed deeply, showing a good leg, even if that meant the hairy man that accompanied her gave him a very hard eye. She paused, she inspected him, and said, “Eres un caballero?”
“Don’t have the tongue, sweet lady. Major the Lord Horatio Robley, late of the Loamshires, don’t believe all that you’ve heard.”
“The very one,” he straightened. She was unlike anyone he had seen in Port Mercy. Almost as tall as he, her silks shimmering, her hair piled high and lightly oiled. She was an absolute treasure, the smooth brown Mediterranean skin, the small jewels in her hair. “If I can be of any service, and I mean any service, then please don’t hesitate to call on the help of Robley. Described in The Times as ‘Almost certainly not to blame for the unfortunate events at Hastinapur’.”
“You are…” she sought for the word, “...’Ero?”
“Better, dear lady. I am a British Army Officer. Also, a knight. And a Robley to boot.”
“I am a cortigiana,” she said,
“Splendid. Whatever that is, we can sort that out later.”
She smiled and Robley’s world melted. His eyes slightly widened, his back that much straighter, he made to take her hand only for the hairy man to firmly move Robley’s aside. A Robley denied! Denied! Oh, how wonderful! “Sir Rob-er-ley, will you ‘elp me?”
“I have made a terrible mistake. A close friend made to me a present, but it escaped. I must ‘ave that present back, or it will go ill for me. It is somewhere ‘ere, I am certain. In this horrible place.”
“A Robley never fails. What is it?”
“A serpiente. Very white. Big too. I need it, Sir Rob-er-ley!”
There was a slight movement of air and they were no longer alone. “I say, hello there, I’m Loxley.”
“Bugger off, Loxley. Can’t you see I’m in love?”
“I heard it all, old boy. Oh, where did she get to?”
For whilst they bickered, the cortigiana and her hairy companion had vanished.
STRONGER THAN SHE looked, Shouzang caught up a chair in the corridor and broke it hard against one of the pitted stone walls. A quick stamp on the wreckage and she burst into the noisiest room to see Lady Victoria, fists raised, facing another mask and this one with a cleaver in one hand, a stabbing sword in the other. Shouzang threw one of the chair legs end over end at Victoria, who catching it nimbly turned to face the mask. “Didn’t know I had a secret Chinee lady, eh?”
The mask looked at each of them and backed off a pace. Seeing this both charged, clubs ready to jab and then catch but the mask bolted. It was through the window to vanish with the sound of sudden whirling and the snapping of rope. Princess Souzang scooped up the stabbing sword, lip curling at the state of it. Victoria claimed the cleaver, swishing it experimentally and conjuring to mind a few wrists of her acquaintance, grinned.
“There is another,” said the princess. “And we are not the only ladies of quality under this roof, quickly now,” whereupon she sprung for the door, through and away.
Victoria looked perplexed. “But I’m fine now, thank you.”
“Help her,” Emma demanded throatily.
“Yes, but you see…”
“Do as you are told Miss, we have all had quite enough of your nonsense for one night!” Emma rolled over, levering herself upright against the wall. She coughed and was violently sick.
“But Emma…” she drew the name out in a rare sulk.
“Miss Victoria, there is a lady in distress!”
“Hadn’t thought of that,” she said and jumped to it.
GOOD CANVAS TENTAGE that had crossed three continents, camp bed and stools, easel, and a range of preserved meats were the least of what Mr Wyld had in his capacious chest. Also, a story related from the California gold fields (mapped three years before the rush, genuine Wyld $1) told of an upset bear coiled below the top drawer, since that had been the last occasion anyone had been foolish enough to steal the chest. Propped along the collapsible drinks cabinet a shotgun gleamed. Wyld had heard that people were paying for rooms. He wished them well and hoped they had secreted the family jewels about their person, since if there wasn’t a decent hotel then bush living would do for him.
“You would be most welcome to stay, commodore?”
“Capital of you Wyld, wouldn’t inflict myself upon you. Snore, you see. Wouldn’t say no to another slice of that tinned pie if it’s going?”
Mr Wyld waved a hand as if it were nothing. Chap he knew in London, Stanford, supplied all sorts of clever stuff for the gentleman explorer. ‘Open a shop,’ Wyld had told him. And sell what, had been the reply, maps? “What do you plan to do, Sir William?”
“Taking in reconnaissance for the moment, seeing the way of the wind. Get a boat I suppose.”
“We need to know where we are before we can tell how to get anywhere else, surely?”
“True, true,” he set the last of the pie in the small pan designed for it. One part of a nest. “Plenty to lug around though. Normally have it all tied down aboard. You?”
“Ah, probably not best here. Or at least, here,” he waved at Port Mercy, in the hope doubtless that elsewhere hereabouts there would be something more civilised. “I have some seamen about, strictly speaking still on the duty list.”
“We should investigate, Sir William. Explore. Learn the lie of the land.”
“Find a decent hotel?”
THE IRON RESOLVE of a battery of 12lb cannon Mrs Brattle might well have possessed, but she was insufficient to bar the intruders from taking hold of Henrietta. The servant lay bound whilst the girl suffered to be held by two of the stinking masks.
Encountering no one else in the corridor, Shouzang almost made to shout out the alarm and might well have done so had she been in possession of a proper sword, and not the cheap impression of one she had now. Deciding to not play to the masks advantages, the princess instead went forward on softer feet, realising the room occupied by Henrietta must be the one who’s partly opened door had been decorated with the open jaws of a mantrap. It would have been a terrible affront to her dignity had Shouzang stumbled into that, of less importance it would have broken her ankle.
SAT ON A figurehead that overlooked the sleeping town it was a rarity for anyone to pass below, but none that did seemed to see the girl even though to Jed Euston she could hardly have been more obvious had she been on fire. Dark as a ripe berry she had none of the scars and marks that everyone else that had spent any time here seemed to have acquired. Lean as a whip, he reckoned she was as quick too. So, Jed approached her with a care to a snapping sound that might leave a mark on his face. And he was proud of his face.
It took longer this way, but by wriggling into a gap he had spied in one roof he was able to emerge a short distance later where no one had any right to reach unseen. If she was danger, then he spied a slippery rope nearby. Crouched where he was, he too could spy where momentarily a gaggle of children appeared along distant rafters before vanishing behind a brightly painted sail. Not wanting to startle her, he flipped the smallest coin he had fished so that it slid down the wooden shingles. Startled, she turned. There was a thick dagger in her hand, point down from the fist. Not a knife, not a bayonet, and actual stabbing dagger thick at the fingers to a point eight inches later.
“Hello,” he said. “I’m Jed.”
“Jimena,” she allowed.
It was awkward for Jed. He had a lot less grace than he had outright ballsy tosh. It didn’t feel like the time for tosh. “That’s nice, Jed Euston.”
There was quite a pause before the girl replied, “Jimena Miquelet,” she admitted. “You don’t look gamine? Too old to be a game bird. What are you?”
“Nothing really. Just on my own.”
“That’s funny. What about your papa and mama?”
The pain that crossed his face clearly startled the girl, who jumped up and dived off the roof. He made to follow and could have done so. But thinking of his mother only made him cuff hurriedly at one eye. By which time, he was alone.
BEING A WELL brought up young lady Henrietta had not been well versed in war. Ladies of good breeding and a decent education rarely were, and those of wit and the toast of society absolutely never. Her captors stank abominably. “Be careful there, not so tightly now,” she said, and quite rightly they slackened their grip. One made to place a sack over her head, but she refused so forcefully and with such a stare that the mask had the good grace to shuffle a bit, before stuffing it back about itself. Nonetheless, a rope was whipped about her, coupled to a block, and with a sudden jerk she neatly flew from the window. In a moment she was upon the roof where two more of the masks unfastened their complexity of rope and harness.
“Hush,” the voice was terribly common. There was something Tartar about it, or possibly Yorkshire. Either way, just dreadful.
“I demand to know who you are!”
Perhaps to his own surprise, the mask answered, “Samson. Now be quiet.”
“By no means. I demand you inform the British Consulate. You are not at all the type to lay hands upon me.”
“Listen, woman,” the mask drew back his hand in a slap.
“How dare you,” this was not at all like in the stories. “How very dare you! If you were to strike me there would be a gunboat here within the month. Now I don’t know how things are done in masky-masky land, but in England we respect the person of a lady.”
“Not in England,” the mask said back, but he did lower his hand.
Then things went very wrong.
THE LAST OF the masks to try and leave was forced to turn when tapped upon the shoulder. It stumbled so violently in its surprise that it barely put a hand to a pistol butt before it was stabbed neatly in the thigh, and once more and through the hand that it reached with. Falling fully back into the room it rolled aside, hissing and grumbling about the wounds so pitifully that Shouzang ignored the awful thing even as Victoria banged into the room, narrowly avoiding the trap that still snapped shut rustily with a bang, and a double puff of rust.
A meat hook, a short club, half a dozen knives, rope, hooks and three pistols, “Would a sword be too much to ask?” Victoria complained. “A dashing little sabre or two?” Then, “Where’s the gel?”
“Pistols?” said Shouzang.
“Well, quite. That rather shows them up for what they bloody well are, eh?”
There was a soft bang, then a thump, and two small, hard little hands on the ledge that quickly became the cold, hard eyes of Valeriya Tolstoy. She had seen only a little of what happened, woken from her rooftop vantage not long before. “Quick, do you have weapons?”
“Really? What sort of person use pistols? Why not sabre?”
Victoria was delighted, “I just said the exact same thing. Have a big knife.”
“Ladies,” Shouzang snapped.
They heard the scream.
Two of the masks lay awkwardly atop Frau Piquets roof. Whatever had been hidden before would now never be known, for both heads had suffered a quarter turn, and the skulls crushed. Henrietta, very wide eyed, quite breathless, stood very still as first to the roof came Valeriya, then Shouzang. The Russian deposited a hastily made sack upon the roof so that weapons spilled out, none of which especially suited her.
From below Victoria shouted up, “Is the gel alive?” not being one for climbing the lady had hurried downstairs in case any should be lurking below. Now outside she called up, “Good. Can you see the masks?”
“Da!” Valeriya pointed to where they could be seen hurrying away, moving at speed between the shanty roofs, with rope and cast hook, and almighty leaps. “Quick girl,” to Henrietta. “You be coming inside.”
“They’re getting away,” she protested. “Why don’t you shoot at them?”
“You must feel free to do so,” Valeriya offered a pistol up by the butt. But Henrietta shook her head with distaste. She had never fired a gun in her life! The Russian noblewoman collected them all together, There was no need for the silly things, and she would throw them into the harbour once this matter was concluded.
It was Shouzang who broached the difficult subject, “Please, what happened here?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t see. I haven’t yet turned around. There were screams and I think, I hope, that that’s blood I can feel right across my back.”
With some care they returned to the room. Of the masks they had injured there was not a sign.
How frequently, in the course of our lives, the evil
which in itself we seek most to shun, and which,
when we are fallen into, is the most dreadful to us,
is oftentimes the very means or door of our deliverance,
by which alone we can be raised again from the affliction
we are fallen into.
FINGERS THIN AS pencils moved over his face. They probed, they prodded, and Mouse woke himself up with a start. The fire was nothing but orange worms that crawled about the ashes. Doc Henry snored gently, wrapped in a blanket that he had not had when Mouse had gone to sleep, as far as Mouse could remember. “Rise up,” he squeaked. Then again, and louder. The sky reddening the day was waking, so Mouse kicked Doc so he would too. “Something’s coming,” eyes, a twitch of the nose, and Mouse scuttled away. Doc rolled over in his blanket and faded into something sandy. He heard the singing, something French. He peered out to see a beak approach along the sand. Also, the tide, that was still a good three yards out but becoming two.
It was the little girl that was singing. Doc didn’t recognise the song itself, but he had been around enough to think it something old, something he associated with Brittany. The girl was very young and led the beaked-thing by its hand, a glove whose fingers were probes, a blade, and two forceps. The peak was a mask of leather and glass. The creature was swathed in a black cloak and a black hat, and it was picking at the sand. At last something bit, and that something was snatched up to vanish inside the cloak. The only thing that broke the sobriety of the clothes was a large, silver medal that tied about the neck swung low to the ground with every step of the bent over figure. Doc Henry didn’t feel threatened. He would have remained unnoticed but for the girl. “Are you quite safe?” he said quietly.
“Oui, I am a goose.”
“And a very good goose you are too.”
“I am a goose that leads this to market. I am eight, and I have scissors,” she showed him. The masked man in black looked up. It hissed and muttered at the girl in French. “You smell like bloody hands, he say. He say, you are a fool. The wider world, he say, is an academic illiterate. You see? I say many words.”
“Is he an undertaker, a scavenger, I imagine he is dressed well to kill vermin?” said Doc Henry. Then he knew, he just knew. “He’s a doctor, isn’t he?”
“Non, he is cuervo, he is crow. You know doctor?”
“He is a doctor!” Mouse shouted, out of reach in any danger.
Doc Henry answered out of habit, “Was.”
“Then you know nothing, he says,” the girl looked bored with translating the steady buzz of low French that Doc Henry barely noticed now.
There came from the direction of the town, a shout, “Hey, halloo, yes you, bugger off!” Hurrying across the sands came Meticulous Browne, he stooped to scoop up a shell that he threw at the crow, and the crow scuttled away when it struck him. “That’s the ticket, away with you. Gone on, bugger off I said,” Browne closed the distance, waving his arms now so that the huddled figure and its girl protector fled the beach, the black cloak flapping like wings. Browne nodded, a little winded by the effort. “And worse I may be yet, the worst is not. So long as we can say ‘This is the worst’, King Lear. I was magnificent. Don’t pay no heed to the reviews, the bitches,” he said. Then, “Hello Mouse, is that you? I am glad. Let me take you to breakfast. There are olives, and fish oil, and some of yesterday’s fiddles. My treat.”
“This is my friend, he is not a doctor,” Mouse approached, pointing out Henry.
“Good lord, well we can always use not a doctor. Name’s Browne, Meticulous. Come with me, sir. For I have new friends that will shortly be less friendly when we have made use of their passing hospitality. And you Mouse, are you hungry? Shall we find cheese? There was some cheese. No cows here though, nor goats, nor ewes. Best not to ask. ‘This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen’, so best be off,” he turned to those waking at the commotion and the incoming tide. “Thank you, I’m here all week, pass the hat and pay the ticket. “He tipped his cap and was gratified when a small coin was thrown to land within it. “I thank you sir, you are a gentleman. My pardon, a lady, of great good taste. And now, alas, adieu!”
GIVEN THAT PORT Mercy had not wished to go to bed until the sun got up for work, Doktor Werner Frederick Puffendorf seemed to have the whole of the hour to himself whilst it tried to find its shoes. He liked the earliest of early mornings. The air was clear, correct. Daylight banished the spilt wine and sickness of the night before. Despite the raucous cacophony not only outside his window but in the room next to his own the Doktor had managed at least an acceptable amount of sleep. The spiders he had ignored. The snails he found only by their trails. His whiskers were armoured with tar against pests and from his luggage he had extracted a tight, leather bathing cap to keep his scalp from the irritation of the pests that seemed to be everywhere in this fetid pool of sloth, debauchery, and incorrect syntax.
He had taken the air, the good new air, stopping only to admire the crescent of houses that stood incongruously before the cliffside. It would have been rude to pry, he supposed. So, he contented himself with staring at the three-storey row, a number of houses in a curve and all made of the same creamy, slightly pitted rock that already he had ascertained was no sort of rock at all. Behind the crescent and was what had been described to them all as the ‘cloaca’. A great tunnel that led to the Delves, those other bailiwicks that by some means worked upon stolen light and captive water. Fascinating he was sure, but the smell? The smell was terrible. It was as if the morning reached through the great tunnel to remove the night there too, and unfortunately by expelling it about that great, wet hole.
“Stark, stark, stark, stark!”
Herr Doktor clicked his fingers to summon Gunther. The assistant, hair oiled down and teeth large and clean, appeared to crack his knuckles at his master’s pleasure. “Gunther, are you hearing that?”
“Oh ja, Herr Doktor,” Gunther as always taking great pleasure in everything.
“Do they sound… proper, to you I mean?”
“Zer proper, Herr Doktor. Zer proper, indeed.”
“I agree, Gunther. Gut Gunther.”
“Gunther is happy,” said Gunther.
Both men stood still to listen, and this time the voices came louder, and to the accompaniment of many feet. One moment the cloaca was dark, in new light it might have been painted upon the curious cliffs. The next and a dozen men ran into the new day, knees pumping, moustaches proud, small pigtails visible under their own tight-fitting leather caps. They wore athletic singlets and good, German shorts. “Stark, stark, stark, stark,” they chanted at each step.
“Herr Doktor is expecting this?” said Gunther, whose faith in the master was iron.
“Herr Doktor was not! We must follow, Gunther. We must follow immediately.”
“Ja, Herr Doktor,” who seeing the master hurry to keep pace with the strangers collected the bags and cases that neither of them had felt trusting enough to leave in their austere little lodgings.
DAYLIGHT, AND SOON then surely bedtime? Many cases of very decent plonk had been given up by the sea, so Selly Beechworth had heard, but most of that had already been sold on to the finer places, with the better prices. Now Selly sipped at his nightcap, the usual grappa, but at least an orujo which was the best to be had. The air was that of the sea and of the coffin beans being roasted. Able to meet the price by Frau Piquet Selly even had a room, which was the best way to avoid seeing one’s purse dribble away whilst one slept. He waved away the lines of the angler fish that were already reaching down for him, shooing away the children that held the hooked string and for whom thievery was play.
Not far away a man and a woman coughed violently.
Selly thought back over the last day. The marks on faces. The runny noses. Fit as most of the people he had seen were, there did seem to be a lot of illness about. Much as he hated to move once settled, he shuffled his stool a little further away from the offending coughs. A spider moved up his arm, already Selly was learning to ignore them. He had it in mind to go somewhere where the jug would be better, but for which he needed a decent pot… jug, he corrected. He only wanted to look the naif when it suited him to look the naif. The one followed the other. During the conversation over the jug the night before he had learned of ‘promissories’ which were the closest to banks here in Parquet. Not wanting to seem the innocent, he had not asked too many questions.
He scratched at an itch, crushing something small and crunchy doing so. It was daylight and the snails were all wherever it was that snails went to their beds. Selly rose from his chair, they were not the only ones.
THEY BENT THE knees. They bent the arms. Straight backed they bent at the body. Twenty times and then about, each man facing another, their hands pressed to hip and shoulder. Then in time each pushed precisely. Not to topple the other, but each to use the one as a wall to stress their fine muscles. Children nearby laughed, “Bessy rang, bessy rang, does your mama know you hang,” the chant grated on Herr Doktor, who had otherwise been admiring the men at their exertions. Not boys, but men. Fine, manly men. Not weak. Not poets. Strong. Stark! Stark, stark, stark! “About all day with other men, bessy rang, bessy!” but the disciplined fellows ignored them until, as one, they snapped upright for a firm stretch.
“Herr Doktor,” said Gunther, “Gunther is thinking that Gunther is liking this very much.”
“Ja, Herr Doktor, ja! Gunther is being quiet now.”
But if the noise had attracted the eye of the nearest of these fine men, the sharp command saw them snap about. The oldest of them, and none were younger than their middle years, hurried to where Herr Doktor stood. For a moment the fellow hesitated, mouth open ready to bark, before taking in the duelling scars, the clear eyes, the posture of Herr Doktor. Instead, he said, “Junker?”
“Ach, no,” said Herr Doktor. He was not in truth of the Prussian junker.
“So, ja, here,” the man’s iron lip curled beneath his fine moustaches, “This place, this weakness, ja, you are junker. We,” he raised clenched fists, “are junker. Ja?”
Slowly Herr Doktor nodded. Here they were junker. All the Germanic peoples. Upon the cheeks of the man he saw a fresh scar. His eyes widened. “You study, you use the sabre?”
“Not like the weak picaroon, ja. Nor the effete milicio. We are junker, this,” he punched his chest, “Is verbesserung.”
Chest swollen, Herr Doktor snapped his heels together, and was answered by the dozen in return. He watched as together the men picked up their knees, and in time ran back the way they had come. It was a wonder then. Beyond this weakness, beyond this salad of effete English lords and their milk cow ladies, were real men. German men, Junker! Verbesserung, improvement in the high German. Indeed, indeed! Herr Doktor Werner Frederick Puffendorf thought of the phrenological possibilities. The new science. He said, “I look forward to feeling their bumps.”
“Gunther too, Gunther thinks he would like that very much, Herr Doktor.”
COOKED IN THE DRUM drum it would keep there for the day and into the evening. Topped up, more grinds, more water, it would be the same coffin no matter when it was drunk. The same coffin, but here with the new day still painful, and Port Mercy asleep it was strong enough to strip the night from those that had their labour to go to elsewhere than this bailiwick. There were many places that served coffin. This Parquet seemed to live as much on the coffin as it did on the grappa. This was fortunate for those that gathered here now, for their sergeants did not hold with strong drink.
Not for these upstandings. The drama of a voyage denied, a disaster averted, a drowning saved. There had been adventures, and there had been peril. But that had been navy, and here on land as any proper soldier should want they were army again, not that they had been anything else, ships and boats notwithstanding. Corporal Coffin was about the business of Corporal Coffin. It was important business, as it had been aboard when Corporal Coffin had always been attendant to important Corporal-duties. Sergeants did not care to enquire as to what important duties Corporals went about doing as long as they were done. Coffin was certainly doing his duty ardently as he hadn’t been seen since they arrived here. All agreeing that the manner of their arrival was an army matter. Not a matter for civilians to concern themselves with. Or the navy, who were practically civilians anyway.
Sat on a church pew before which the coffin-maker had set up his stall, cheaper than, and away from, the sheltered cafes, none there thought to wonder at why or how a church bench came to be stood before the stilts and banners, the now limp bunting, the ramshackle welcome of this Port Mercy. It had been Acting-Corporal Mufi who had found the place. Also, breakfast, which was the same as dinner, albeit now cold. They had all eaten worse. They had all eaten better too, but that was the army for you. The goorkha Ganjku Guring ate his with relish. Despite the warnings they had been given Guring and Mufi were both well-armed, their muskets hardly unnoticeable.
Of the two sergeants, Pioneer-Sergeant Tiny Todgers had a very large sack, and a very bright axe. The axe was ceremonial. It was hardly to be considered a weapon, even though seeing it a pair of picaroon had agreed on that very point. Sergeant-of-Scouts Landless was not armed, other than with his very bright stripes and his magnificent beauties. Todgers had an impressive beard, a ceremonial beard, but even he had had to concede the point to Landless when they had first met, like two silent cockerels, their eyes flicking each about the other as they measured the inherent Sergeantcy of the other.
“The queen,” they raised the glass bowls in a loyal toast. Momentarily the discipline of each was tested as the new coffin cleared the ardent drink they had not had from their very souls. They twitched only slightly. All but for Mufi, who did not share in the temperance of the others and consequently had been armoured by several too many glasses of pot, a drink that made grappa seem like something better fit for officers, the evening before. Mufi went and fetched himself another bowl. Mufi could get very used to the coffin.
“Lads,” said Pioneer-Sergeant Todgers, “Now I don’t know about you, but that coin they gave me is not looking to last.” At that there was a murmur of agreement. “I also seem to have less than regulations say I should have. Anyone else noticed any… thievery?” They all had. Or rather, they hadn’t. “I am down to one of these here coins, what they call salis, or salt,” continued Rodgers. He did not approve of wooden money. He was not especially fond of wood anyway. He worked with metal. And often that metal was an axe. “Gurang?”
“Very much the same,” said the goorkha. “Mufi, lad,” Todgers pointed to the Indian that like Gurang had spent much of his military life with John Company. Just not all of it. Again, like the goorkha. “Certainly, sergeant,” Mufi saluted crisply. Then lastly to Landless, “Arthur?” “Cleaned out, Josiah.”
“He owed me one salis, sergeant,” explained Mufi. “I owned him one salis, Josiah,” agreed Sergeant Landless. “We need work. Proper work, soldiering work. I don’t know about you lads, but all I’ve seen so far are those perfumed Herberts in the hussar rig and cut. With the funny muskets. Women as many as men. That ain’t soldiering.”
“Chocolate box, soldiers,” said Gurang, who had heard the phrase in England and liked it very much. Especially as it seemed to convey what he had felt on seeing so many soldiers in England. Not those here, these all had the heavy tans of war, the burnt powder frowns of honour, the dead eyes of victory. He agreed with the sentiment certainly. Albeit, he missed horses. It took a long time to train a goorkha to the horse, and once there it was hard to get him back off again. Somewhere an enemy needed his town set alight. Gurang knew this, oh yes, he knew.
They stilled their banter when, from the direction of the crescent that fronted the cloaca they had been told of, came a curious figure. Tall enough, slightly rounded, in upturned slippers and a turban of such immensity it completely put its wearer in shadow. There was a jewel the size of a duck egg pinning colourful plumes to its front. Silks lay in layers, washed blue and deep red. And all that they saw before they got to the face, as they were meant to. The red beard was oiled, but the face, the face was hard. In the moment it had taken them to look at the hat, and the slippers, the jewel and the plumes, the newcomer could have cut all their throats and lined them up as sentries. The man wore the finery, it did not wear him. There was something very definite in his poise, in the way he walked. There was an air about him, something very palpable to all of them.
“Stend h’up!” Sergeant Todger’s voice woke everyone in fifty yards. The four soldiers were on their feet, one foot drawn back, thumb along musket, axe, or seam of trouser. The hard-faced man paused as he came upon the four soldiers. He opened his mouth to speak.
“Hets orf!” Sergeant Landless this time and a chorus of protests and shouts came in a dozen languages, mostly mixed, for the soldiers to go away. Barely muffled by wall or sailcloth the anger was palpable.
“Gentlemen…” the strange man nodded.
“Nossir!” Sergeant Landless objected.
“Sergeant, sir,” Sergeant Todgers tapped his arm.
“Work for a living,” Gurung had held rank once too, and knew the drill.
“We’re a right evil bunch of bastards,” Mufi grinned. It had been the warmest compliment his first officer had bestowed upon him and his comrades, those years now gone. There was the slightest shuffle as between he and the other three the gap between them widened by a little more than a vast and cavernous inch.
Yet the dark man in the turban only laughed. He tugged at the beard he reddened regularly. He said, “So, you are a bunch of right evil bastards, are you? And what does that mean exactly? Does that mean soldiers? We have work for those that would sojar. I am Barbosa. That is not my name, it is how I am known. And I am what they call here, a hawkwood. Here,” he dug into his sash. “Have coins.”
ONLY BRIEFLY HAD they considered making a camp on the beach. It was true that, whilst Miss Fox certainly was hoping her friends had also survived, together they presented a formidable threat. Very few people cared to make eye contact with the great slab of manhood that was Cornelius Atkins, there had even been mutterings of ‘Bessy Rang’ at the smartly mustachioed demi-god. If Cornelius could not help but intimidate then his brother William was in contrast all charm. Also, they had a leopard.
That night they had spent on the rooftops. The town raised on masts, crossed by ropes, and with half the roofs sailcloth it was difficult to imagine anyone more capable than they. Delilah never more at home than in a big tree and with a dripping kill, contented herself with what amounted to a big tree and the odd long stare at William Atkins.
Now assured of relative safety, Miss Fox had retrieved her stoutest boots from her crocodile skin bag. In deference to the sun a small black boater had also been retrieved. Breakfast was all the eggs. Breakfast for everyone else along the benches of the little taberna was rather tired looking fish and more of the fiddles. Cornelius Arkins had decided that they were not to endure dried fish and the local noodles, and so had convinced the little woman that had served them that there ought to be eggs. It hadn’t even cost them what little coin they had been given by Port Mercy to set themselves up. Every so often one of the gruja, the locals, made to approach, or pass by behind where they sat. Just as often Cornelius Atkins stared at them to go. Also, there was a leopard.
“I do not think my future lies in this place,” said William, his immensely cultured voice making even Delilah feel a bit common.
“The eggs taste funny,” said Cornelius. “And I don’t like it under there,” he nodded to where, shadowed by the sails drawn against the sun, a narrow space between walkways and building had been unable to catch the otherwise hostile sun.
“He has his funny turns,” William explained to Miss Fox. “They can lead to all sorts of adventure. Look, I’ll show you.”
A PLAIN TABLE and two simple chairs had been set up in the square that still boasted the platform and broken mast from where Blondie had spoken for Captain Leather. A very ordinary looking man sat at the table, dressed soberly, and who despite only a plain skull cap sufficient to keep the pricks from what remained of his hair sweated not a drop. He waited.
Twice now Samuel Hellmor had walked by the man, on the third time when he paused he was invited to sit. “English?” he said. When Sam agreed the man continued, first introducing himself as Senor Bonito. “Do you wish to earn coin?” he asked.
“You assume I need to.”
“Of course. I am sure many of the surprising number given up by the sea are perfectly able to see to their needs. But a room? Food and grappa for the day? Perhaps you are a man that enjoys a good purse, to spend on the finer things? Or even,” Senor Bonito suggested, “Things at all?”
It was true that like many that had survived The Thelassa, few had been able to save too many of their belongings. “Why do you say this to me?”
“Because you stopped. I recognise that you are the adventurous type. You are not of the heroic manner. Neither do you have the stickiness of the true rogue. Nonetheless, you stopped. They call me Senor Bonito. I come to Port Mercy some days, and the Needs on others. There are others like me, and they sit in their own ways, in different bailiwicks. We do so because where we take a slice of the purse for such work, a notable part of that slice goes to the Jack. Mui patron is someone that knows when people that have coin, have a task that needs accomplishing.”
“And your patron?”
“Is unknown to you, and nor will your searching for that identity be easy. I would not advise it.”
“A threat?” said Sam.
“You have the wrong person, I’m a trader.”
“Quite so. You monger. This is that. If for example you were to learn from me what jobs there were, and you brought a person interested in one to me, then you too would take a slice. Sometimes the cake is large, and a slice is still worth the eating. For example, in the Arks there is a singular dome set upon closed pedestals. I know for a face that if that were brought to Port Mercy one night it would be worth to the transportee a purse of one hundred salis. Likewise, Maude Buttons is hosting a ball next week, and she is being particular as to whom she invites, as ever. However, there were included for the usual reason several free entrades, invitations. Just one of these, and admittedly only one, would be worth fifty salis. Likewise, there is in the Obscures a toad, and that toad killed a man. The relatives of the man would pay for that toad to be killed, and his head placed upon the toad yards in the Needs. That one is very good. That one is worth a full two hundred salis, but clearly it is not an exclusive contract. All for example. Or there are simple things, for example in Port Mercy itself Mimi Drewn requires someone to hector for her, to protect her as she goes about a single night’s business. All in, and eighteen salis.”
“I hope you find people to employ,” Sam rose, and feeling the heat of the sun bid Senor Bonito a good day.
The sound of the saw harmonised with the buzz and drone of the insects, where here a number of the locals worked upon a wide set of steps. His face shaded by a hat of woven reeds he had acquired not an hour before, more comfortably dressed in a good-sized shirt of silk similarly gained, only the good corduroys and leather gaiters remained in company with his faithful satchel from his previous life. The professor found it curious how readily he always adapted to wherever he found himself. Already his thoughts were ahead, even if now, that also meant up. Up in an intellectual sense, a theoretical sense. Up in the interest of pricking at his thirsty curiosity rather than up where that would involve journeying in such a fashion.
Like so many that had enjoyed the means, Professor Bishop had secured a room in Frau Piques. Unlike some however, the relative sparsity it offered offended him not at all. A door, an inviting breeze, a good cot, and a bucket for both his effluence and for the snails that would attract. He was fascinated by what little he had heard already of life here. And here, Port Mercy, was considered rather wider-worldly too he had heard. Within, and life was both wetter and more worrisome, fascinating and interesting. Also, what were called the ‘Delves’ did sound to be of a more gradual up. Up was not to be countenanced; but neither was it to be ignored. Up was to be learned off, then put aside. Or preferably placed in a stout box, locked, and ideally then dropped in a river. “Lovely day, eh?” he said.
It had been on rising that the Professor had endured a good look at the cliffs. Port Mercy clung to their feet where those toes were wetted by the harbour. Vegetation, old and almost of a piece by his reckoning, covered the cliffs. Here and there he had spied a scar, a bare patch, a clearing that had caught the new light. Seeing that he had spied more. Lines, threads, and his suspicions were confirmed now where at the base of the cliffs steps began. The workers barely glanced up at him. The professor waited. He hadn’t the grace of many. Professor Bishop had studied many things, lectured on fewer still. People however he understood more in the abstract. He tried again, “I say, looks like a warm one?”
“Of course, signor,” the closest fellow, scarce more than a boy with a saw, was forced to answer. “Is always a warm one.”
“Clearing the steps, eh?”
“Si, signor. Else the vines and the...” he tried to think of a better word, then defeated use the vernacular, “Verde, it grow.”
“Jungle,” a woman, older, noticeably muscled, set down her boarding axe. “The verde is the jungle. Mostly it is,” she waved both hands to indicate how far away she meant, “Beyond. Beyond the caelum palace, beyond the wall. Up there,” she pointed, again with both hands.
“Si, up there is the Looms. Like Port Mercy is here. The steps are the Sceironian Way. The old way.”
“Well, I for one will not be climbing them!” the professor laughed as if at a joke. The woman managed a wan smile before returning to her labour. He instead peered at a bare path of the cliff, where with some effort they had cut down to the rock. Although it was not rock. A millipede as long as his forearm retreated into the intact foliage. The leaves, he noticed, were very large. Indeed, the waxy upper surface of what must have been a good yard thick of overgrowth protected what between the large leaves and the cliff was still a very wet place. Professor Bishop took from his bag a magnifying glass. Peering closer he frowned. Without taking his eye from the lens he fetched out forceps and tried to take a piece of the cliff for better examination. It resisted. In the spirit of learning he let the spot of light concentrated by the lens settle on the surface he had inspected, but it did not even darken. “The cliff,” Bishop said at last. None of those working looked up and so the professor continued alone, “is not stone. This cliff is made of what appears to be very old, very hard, wood.”
At last the woman answered, “Si signor, of course. All the island, is wood.”
EVERY BOAT WAS different, and now there were two more that had once belonged to The Thelassa. Mostly had belonged to the Thelassa, Cornelius Coffin corrected himself. He bit into the fig, one of several that remained and which he held in a silk bag in the crook of one arm. The previous night, when he had crossed about the crowds, Victoria had barely stopped in her hissing. Every bump, every jostle, every scrappy little urchin, wife, mother, and madly dressed fop had turned sharply away. Puzzled, then wary, and twice he had heard the word ‘mascota’ cast in his direction. The figs had been, as far as he could make out, cheap. He had bought twice the amount, sold half on to a young woman that had been heading towards the cloaca, and ended the deal with no less of the wooden coin than with which he had begun, and a bag of figs into the bargain.
Coffin had been a soldier, a proper one that let a horse do the hard work. Still though, as a soldier there was never really any concern about if you liked, or did not like, what you ate. You were bloody glad to eat at all. He did like figs though. They were about right for the price.
Port Mercy was lying about. No one was working that wasn’t tucked away in some close barn somewhere making noodles from weed, as far as Coffin could tell. But he wasn’t fooled. Here and there he could see the signs of some recent, big celebration. He had heard the storm was still close by, that the water inside the harbour was disturbed still. This, what he saw of Port Mercy, this was not typical. Two people at least he saw working. An old man with a face like brown tripe, and a woman whose strong arms were scraping the keel of one upturned boat. Nets were strung the length of the ground here, as far as the worn old quay a long stone’s throw away. Way at the other end someone he recognised from The Thelassa by his monstrous hooked nose was labouring at the nets. Coffin went back to watching the old man work on a boat, like some puzzle, fitting pieces together.
“Good day,” Coffin sat down beside the woman after scratching his bum with his hook. He tipped back the stiffened brim of his guards shako. He really needed to get some better clothes. He would have dumped the wool coat for a start but for now it was handy for the two pistols he had balancing each the other in the deep pockets. Everyone here seemed to dress in silk. They didn’t care if it got filthy, and no one seemed to wash it. Or if they did, it was a shameful display of poverty. It all got laundered somewhere, doubtless, “Fig?”
“Gracias,” the woman wiped her hands. “Thank you,” she sounded like a yankee. “Got given up by the sea in that storm, mister?”
There seemed no point to lying, so Coffin nodded, adding, “Given up by the sea?”
“The great deeps,” she said. “Or something like that, or so that culte would have it. That’s aristo stuff though. Not for us,” she took off her red cap and mopped her brow. Now that Coffin thought about it, a lot of people wore them. He asked why, “Pescador.”
“Have another fig. Pardon me, miss?”
“Pescador. Us. Fishermen. Women too. Lots like you, given up by the sea. If you can fish, or sail, you’ll get good labour. Long as you can fight.”
He tried to conjure up a picture of fishermen having to fence with their catch. He shook his ratty-faced head and laughed.
“Mister,” the woman said, “You want to listen. The storm has driven them mostly under the great weed beds. The jungle out there, covers a chunk of the harbour and against the sand flats. But soon it’ll settle and there’ll be eels. And mister, you do not want to fuck with an eel. Which you won’t, because you don’t have a red cap. And you won’t get one, because you aren’t good enough.”
“I’ll remember that, thank’ee.”
“‘Course, unless the merwif calls you. Then you’ll go and like as nuts is nuts you’ll be for eels.”
He rose, thanked her again, asking who owned the boats. Who were their owners, did crews gang together?
“No mister, all these? All these are Spyros’. Signor Garum. La gran salsa. But it’s the wife that has the power. She does the garum, see? Folk don’t get their garum, folk get right itchy. They had themselves a real revolution here once. Half century ago, or least that’s why it’s year cinquante,” then to his puzzled look. “Fifty. Year fifty. They likes the Frenchie for that stuff. It won’t last. Seas been giving up folk from Britain for years now. Mostly us Jonathans now. The lingas more English than dago or toad now,” she remembered what she had been talking about. “Fifty years ago. Real revolution. All started over garum. Garum riots! It all ended in that Vague Revolution. But we’re still here. With our boats. And our caps. So don’t crap in one cap, mister, or you crap in all the caps.”
The old man called out something Coffin did not recognise. The woman shrugged and went back to her work. Corporal Coffin left the last fig in its bag for her. People liked to talk to Corporal Coffin, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t generous with his fruit.
OUT IN THE harbour and the stern of the old Resolution seemed proof against the weather, not that the gentle lapping of the water and the days blistering sunshine had been anything to compare with the storm. The rearmost part of that ship, and it had clearly been there a long time, sat firm upon the beams and ribs that were all that remained of the rest of the ship. That was where Captain Leather, his wife, and their cheerful band of Chinamen made their home., And doubtless where any real treasures were kept also. But treasure came in many forms, and Clayton Wilkes if he had not been born with a silver spoon in his mouth had at least possessed one of brass. And brass was more useful than silver when it came to anything you had to use.
Loitering not far from the masted-square where Leather had shown himself to the newcomers, Clayton had simply decided, using his experience, where would he have put anything else? He did not suppose this was a place for hoarding. There was clearly some sort of fine balance between the different bailiwicks that made up this Parquet place. They needed one another, and until all returned to their labour that it was hard to clearly determine that balance.
This was his third attempt, and this time it was to watch quite the most yankee of Jonathans that Clayton had set his eyes upon. The man was tall, almost gangly, in a long-jacketed suit of clothes all made of the same silvery stuff, neither silk, nor wool, and certainly not leather. He wore a very tall, high-bellied topper. His cravat was held by a pearl as big as an eye, and which would have made for a dramatic replacement for anyone whose own they had lost.
Clayton caught hold of the arm of the next passer-by, asking, “Who is that flash cove?”
“That’s Nate Brandy, mister. He’s rich. One of the big puddings that has the industry in the Needs,” there was doubtless more, but the man pulled away, and Clayton was not about to make a scene. He hadn’t found any great storehouse, but he had a nose for people sometimes, and he reckoned Nate Brandy was a rogue. Doubtless a fine one, but a rogue nonetheless. That was fine by Clayton Wilkes. God only knew he had worked for a good few in his time.
IT HAD BEEN hoisted upon a spar so old it had become iron. The tide was a foot deep but neither of them were touching it, or the crabs that were making pyramids in an attempt to reach the dead body. Balanced easily on a cross-rope despite her considerable
boots, Miss Fox tapped her chin whilst William Atkins, his eyes dancing with mischief, picked at what could be found.
“It’s some sort of mad nonsense,” Miss Fox opined.
William disagreed, “It looks more like something ancient, venerable, the sort of thing widely respected amongst the better class of society. I suspect therefore a cleansing ritual, something handed down in degrees. Or perhaps this is a villain that had transgressed solemn pacts of fraternal majesty.”
“That’s what I said. You get all that because one arm has been bound so that it points towards the sea?”
“That and the fact that this villain has been cold-branded with some sort of trident symbol. As to his other arm, I cannot say.”
“Sorry about that,” Miss Fox reddened. “She’s just a big cuddly-wuddly kitten really.”
“Also, he isn’t from round here. See, clean hair. His skin has been oiled. Apart from the smell of his own fouling, he’s all perfumed. I don’t recognise the scent,” William pointed out each in turn.
“Cor, you don’t ‘alf speak proper,”
“Also, for a man of good breeding he is dressed very poorly, and carries no coin with him at all,” said William, one hand behind his back.
“Best leave him, eh?”
“I smell… adventure.”
“He isn’t going to be here long,” said Miss Fox.
William felt the great stirring in him. Mystery, the dering of the do. The old bugle call to his soul, “The crabs, the heat, the rising tide.”
“Yes,” said Miss Fox, her eyes darting upwards. “Them. We’ll go with him vanishing because of them.”
THE SUN HAD sucked Port Mercy dry. Wisps of cloud, snakes of mist, rolled up the cliffs until too far to see they vanished entirely. The air was had-been-wet. Now it was baking. A pan left too long on the fire and almost boiled dry. Maestro Piccini in sack suit and good hat, wondered at the hats he also saw, and thought he had been too restrained. The picaroon, he thought was what they called themselves, seemed to love nothing more than their hats, save perhaps for what it meant to be a picaroon. Whatever that might be. Here and buildings clustered like so many gross buds upon a cutback stem. Colourful cloth, scraps of silk in the main, brightened the day and where they caught the wind they also seemed to (and Piccini smiled at his imagination) attract it.
What fascinated the exact little man was that here, and this was clearly a place of low wealth and hard work, even here there were those that paid well to dress in their best. There were definite fashions to be seen, and these hinted at more where likely there were richer patrons to seek out. It did not astonish Maestro Piccini to have learned that by tradition the best tailors were Italian. That they were likewise ‘only good for puppets, and as fencing masters otherwise’ he had taken no offence at. That too was entirely true. He might as much have been informed that fire was hot, and the low heel simply without taste, so obvious was each statement.
He crossed a walkway where below it was still wet in the shadow and was barged roughly as he reached the far side. It was a drinking hole, or taberna. The sides had been opened to catch the new air, but there were few patrons for the day was still youthful. Within the open side of the taberna a very tall man and shorter, plumper woman took an interest in Piccini. Unfortunately, so had he that had barged the little Italian.
“Oh ‘ello, what has the spider shit from its web then?”
“Scusi,” said Piccini. The other fellow was bigger, but that was not unusual. A teetering wig had been whitened (but seemed to Piccini to be of natural hair). A coat of orange liberally covered in twinkling buttons. A stinking sort of shirt, glass-buckled shoes. Indeed, it was not only the shirt that stank. The fellow dabbed at where the sun caused his pancake white to bead. Sweat and Hungary water. He made to tap Piccini upon the chest with a blackened cane. The Italian stepped back with a dancer’s grace.
“Fucking funny little shitter, ain’t you?” the fop made to jab Piccini in the chest again, harder. Very hard, indeed.
The Italian seized upon the rapier that had been sheathed on the table between the two who watched the confrontation with such interest. He whipped it about, hand raised, point down. With it he touched the cane, en forte.
Nonplussed, the stinking fop backed a pace, then three away. He turned to where unseen by Piccini several of his chums watched from nearby. “Someone’s trying too Doggett, my darlings?” this to giggles. The fops still laughing they sauntered away.
With a grateful little bow Piccini returned the blade to the table. Three glasses stood there now and to one the tall man nodded, saying, “Join us, signore.”
PINNED TO THE good drawing board the notes and sketches for the map were protected by a layer of silk and a leather cover. For an hour now Mr. Wyld had been encouraging whoever went by to hold a stripy stick for him whilst he hared back to peer through the theodolite and make another notation. He was certainly laying down the roughs, and his own instinct for such things would doubtless prove true, but he kept on finding himself returning his gaze to the great cliffs.
“What ho, Wyld!”
“Sir. William, what do you make of this?” the gentleman from the Royal Society made to hand to the commodore his travelling telescope. Sir. William pulled out his own much larger example and sighted to where the top of the cliff could be made out. “I see crops.”
“Indeed. Now wait,” Wyld was pleased to have someone confirm his own observations. An accurate man, still he secretly he had wished that he too had been allowed to draw sea monstures of the dype upon his mappa mundi.
“Indeed, Sir. William. And kites that appear to have legs. You only see them for a moment, but they’re there. The crops, by the way, are grapes and coffee beans. Now I direct you further away. Watch with the naked eye for movement, the birds about the cliffs as you would rise up them. Seeing them, inspect them more closely.”
There were not many people Sir. William would have taken such direct words from. But the polite Mr. Wyld was a gentleman like himself, and a gentleman well regarded by the Admiralty. Sir William then had come to think of Mr. Wyld in the same manner as he would a fellow that shared membership of the same clubs, and even perhaps might have the means to propose him for another. One of the chaps. A skilled fellow too, not some wet behind the ears Lord, whose great-great-grandfather had come by the title from skewering a few Welchmen for a king a bit short of the old tin.
“Do you observe them, sir?”
“Egad! I do, sir!”
“Do you see the seal upon the bottle of the good port broken, sir?”
“I do not, sir!” Sir William confirmed, noting that there was indeed a good bottle in Wyld’s travelling hamper. It didn’t so much look unopened, as never to be opened.
“Would you confirm for me, sir, that what can be observed are a large number of birds. Birds that fly rather badly, and which appear from this distance to boast the heads and decolletage of healthy women?”
“Decolletage, sir? They are bare, sir! I must alert the crew not to peer upwards. Can’t be having that sort of thing this long into a voyage. Sir, I bid you a good day,” with which Sir William departed. Wyld made a few brief strokes with a pencil upon one of the many scraps that might make it to the main map. He had seen many strange things in his work, on his travels, and well knew that the strange soon became the commonplace the more it was looked upon.
“HELLO THERE, FATHER. I was just looking for the old witches,” Mickey Finn wiped the blood from his chest with a rag taken from the top of a barrel, one that served as a bar. It was not much of a taberna, little more than a room that night otherwise have been taken by a family with the coin paid to the Jack for his letting them. “And hearing that there’re fighting Irish to be found,” he added. “Although not here.”
“Have you seen any of the witches?” said Feather Meagher. “For I feel there is their devilry to be found.”
“Would that be the superstitious remnants of an aristo age, put aside by this new bright shining example of a glorious republic?” asked Mickey Finn’s new, and very worried friend. He had opened the taberna just on a bit of a whim, only to find out that he had a new protector in the shape of the Irishman. Being Irish himself, Behan had at first thought himself lucky. Now the nature of that being protected was becoming clear. So, he made himself helpful. “That old claptrap that was put aside by Drouais and the comite, their terrible nonsense burned back by the great body of laws that to this day means we are the very pinnacle of the enlightenment. Down with aristos. Boo to them, I say.”
“It might be, it very well might,” agreed the good father. “Though there’s a terrible big sense of that not having happened. Or at least, successfully?”
“Ah well, right you are father. That’ll be them enchantresse. Or then there’s the sacerdos of the culte,” he said it as ‘culty’. “Load of old nonsense, of course. Will you have a drop, father?”
The priest knocked the bottles to the floor. “I won’t, and neither will you, it is milk from Beelzebub’s pizzle! Put it aside, seek not to prosper from ardent drink.”
“Right you are, father,” Behan thought about what else he could do to raise coin. Not run a taberna, it seemed.
FOUR ARMS, KNEE bent, tongue prominent she danced with grace, and where every step she placed a foot, the night closed in around him. The scents were of burned cinnamon, her eyes were black and burned with stars. He trembled, terrified, unable to escape as the great heat came upon him.
“Where’d you get spat from, pequena?”
Gurung recoiled. Three women crouched about where he had fallen asleep, even he too tired to remain awake another moment longer. Hands damp with the dream he searched for and found his weapons. They had not been touched. Unlike what little coin he had had, all of which was now gone. “Please, please, begone!”
“Aw, don’t be like that,” none of them were young, and the shirts and skirts on each were rumpled from a hard, last night of celebration. Now it was back to work. Two had tiny hats pinned to their hair. The closest gathered her skirts to show where her stocking had been tied with a ribbon. Gurung jumped up, spilling her to the floor. “Oy, va te faire voutre, little bastard fucker!” she cursed him.
“Madam, I am not wishing to offend you, but…” the second of the two dollymops made to clout him about the ear, but Gurung easily turned the clumsy attack, “I do not wish to fight you ladies.”
“Fight us? Bets, go and kick some picaroon up,” the first picking herself up said to the third. Then to Gurung, “Little connard bastard. You’re going to get it now. Picaroon’ll scratch you, and you’ll squirm. I hopes you shit yourself, putain little fucker.”
Seeing there was simply no reasoning with the insulted dollymops, Gurung offered a short bow and hurried away. He did not fear these picaroon, but he had no care to shoot them down. He suspected that that would lead to flight and a hunt, and here he was hardly the most invisible of men.
“DAMN THIEVES!” HE swore. He had been in the rookeries of London and the dens of Rangoon. Once he had passed in disguise as the fifty-first of the fifty thieves, and still he had never been so blatantly robbed. And he had noticed nothing. How had he noticed nothing? Was everyone a thief? Was it what Sergeant Landless would call ‘cultural’, the sergeant’s explanation for anything no one understood. They called thievery ‘fish’ here in Port Mercy. They also called the British, and their descendants, fish too. If kindly, then Mufi had heard it was because that is what the first Britishers had said most of all when jabbered on at in damn heathen tongues, like French. If for less friendly reasons it was because the British were all thieves, according to those hereabouts who did not consider themselves British at all. That being the case, Mufi thought, Port Mercy was more British than Britain.
It was lucky that he had his own resources, and with which now he paid for a jug, even if that was what they called gambling. “They are all bloody bastard mad,” he said. Mufi had learned English as a boy, and from soldiers. He had been weaned in the mess and knew for a certainty that the god of England had three stripes up and the whiskers besides. He spoke very good English. Bloody damn bastard good English.
The jug when it came was cracked and patched. Mufi sat on the ledge the taberna made over the sands. It stank. In the Delves, he had heard, they had latrines. That had cheered him to hear. Not proper latrines unfortunately. Not a plank and a ditch, and a bloody damn native to wipe, but sturdy permanent latrines. Mufi thought that sounded wrong. Where did it all go? Here and they had a shit and mostly straight below. Not so far away three locals passed the time of day, their arses bare and over a walkway that had once been part of a poop deck. The tide would take it away.
Taking a drink Mufi glanced about himself from habit. Sergeant Landless didn’t approve. He and sergeant Landless went back to India. Sergeant Landless was the closest Mufi had right now to order, to be given orders. To hurrying up and standing still. To barracks, and orders, and clean lock, stock, and black-balled barrel. The world frightened Mufi without that.
“You want to watch yourself with that musket, sepoy.”
“Please sir, always damn careful with bloody musket. Have someone’s eye out, sir,” Mufi moved the gun a little. “Every bloody time too, sir.”
The man was the red of someone who had never become used to the sun, only burned slowly in layers. His voice was the bullying tone Mufi knew so well, someone who had been a big snake in a small pond somewhere else. It was bluff, and it was bravado, but that didn’t mean it was any the less dangerous. Mufi who had never disobeyed an order in the living memory of anyone that had enjoyed the authority to give him one, adopted his number one inoffensive pose. He clicked back the hammer on his musket too. Oiled and filed, worked and loved, it made not a sound. “Do you know who I am, sepoy?”
“I bloody damn don’t, sir.”
“That musket will see you hung, or worse, elsewhere than hereabouts. You know that?”
“Thank you, sir. I have damn well noted it.”
“Milicio won’t have you. Not with those manners. You hear of Black Bob Leakey?” “Yes, sir.”
That surprised the man, who bent his knees to settle himself more comfortably beside the soldier. Red he might be, but his shirt, sash and striped britches were cut well. Good boots too, made to the man. Mufi could learn a lot from a man’s boots. These were the boots of someone that used them a lot, but that had to polish up well. Up close and Mufi could see how they were scaled like a fish. This was a man who was looking for people. A man who had come to Port Mercy on a mission. A man who served another man. A man who said, “He was mentioned?”
“Yes sir, ten bloody years ago. Sir Robert Leakey. Dragoons. Lost at sea. Very big feet. Had to have bloody boots shipped from damn London. Hoby boots, sir,” Mufi nodded sadly. “Mr. Hoby is damn dead of course, sir.”
“Fils de pute,” the man swore, though he was clearly English. Or had been. “You get yourself to the Grails if you can, sepoy. Black Bob has a house in the Looms but houses are for sleeping, and Sir Robert takes his pleasure in the Grails. You want to serve? You want a patron?” he snorted. “Everyone wants a patron, sepoy. You not worked that one out, then you will. So, here’s a hand into the saddle. Black Bob, Sir Robert to the likes of us.”
“I might have to damn well do some soldiering first, sir.”
“No rush, sepoy. No rush. Just don’t bring that damn cannon with you. We can do better than that anyway.”
THE BOTTLE A confection, a wonder, it was no more practical than the common kind, though Pietro Piccini did not allow even the smallest sneer as his glass was seen to. Dressed more suitably, and in a style he had considered rather extravagantly, he was now longer quite so sure. Where anyone here cared to exhibit any sort of fashion, he managed to identify that glaring each at the other were the dandies, and the fops. The first were neatly, almost beautifully attired as much as their purse clearly allowed. Britches very tight, coat likewise and in a variety of tails. It was a measure as to how whilst keeping within certain expectations of style, they still sought to out-style the other. The fops conversely were a riot of blooms and ribbons, of great wigs, of exuberance, of daring. It was clearly a fine line, and one judged by someone. What was perhaps more noteworthy still was that to Piccini’s eye neither band were especially handsome. No one cared for personal looks, one was what one wore. Indeed, take away the garments, the paint, and the wigs and many would have been mistaken for ruffians. There were blackened eyes and fatted lips. And most held canes that would have served as especially useful clubs, whether to the hip or in some cases long as staffs. At them at least he allowed himself a curl of the lip. “They do not,” he sought for the words, “attain it?”
“Si,” said the taller of his two hosts, and one whom Piccini had quickly discerned spoke very little actual Italian at all. Not so his patron, who it seemed likely was generous to the Italian and so those who served him, or her, tried their hardest to be so. The second of the two, smaller, plumper, and somewhat younger seemed to be under no such handicap, though left it to her perhaps more senior companion to speak for them. “This,” he indicated the taberna, “is but Port Mercy. It is… a rude place. It is hot. It has sun,” English was not the fellow’s first language either. “They come here, the fops and the dandies, and they fight. Or they are but paraders, not true to the spirit of the divine they seek to emulate. For that, well, there is the Grails or, better yet, the Looms.”
“They are other places?”
“Si. Not like this… this, wretched place. It was ever awful, but in recent years, oh!” the taller man fanned himself, “So very… Britannico.”
“But not always?” Piccini tasted his wine. It was surprisingly good.
“Bodegas,” his host, noticing, thought to explain. “Not this common grappa.”
“You have grapes here?”
“Oh, in the Looms. Certainly,” he waved upwards as if they grew upon the roof. “Italiano, you see. It was our wave that civilised what was Spagnala.” Piccini waited for his glass to be refilled. He sensed that the fops and the dandies were fashionable, but that there was something higher, something most likely older. He waited for his host to continue.,It was clearly a speech he had made many times.
“Proper duello, fencing, not that French rubbish. Italiano! Was it not Rosee that gave the caffe to the people? The salone? Who started all these balls that are now so popular,” he looked about himself, “Not here, of course,” he made a small laugh. Piccini thinking it not even a small sort of joke managed at least a small sort of smile, a polite inclination of the head. “The condottieri, the assassinio, the duello, even the salone at which we gather! Was not Cesare Verri a true Italian? And though he was a… a…” he clearly sought for the word. “Revoluzionary? Revolalazary?”
“Rivoluzionario,” the shorter of Piccini’s two hosts finally spoke. He caught her eye, saw something mischievous there. He thought then, on looking between the two, that he understood at last. Seeing this, she smiled. She stood. Surprised by this her taller companion was forced to jump to his feet. He waited whilst she seemed to inspect their guest for a long moment, before nodding. She tapped the rapier that remained unsheathed on the table between them. “Keep that,” she said.
The man made to protest, “But padrona...”
She silenced him with a raised finger, adding for Piccini’s benefit, “Alscota…” then bent to whisper two words in his ear.
A PRACTICAL MAN, with a practical mind, Alaisdair Montgomery was not one to sit around starving whilst what coin he had was thieved away from him. He had taken precautions, yet still crossing the little town had seen him further down so that now he guarded what little remained close-held in the palm of one hand. It was only when with exquisite care he had opened his fingers to make a count that he had noticed that the coins had been rubbed a little smaller by his doing that. “Awch, damn and blast!” he swore. No one had taken his fish at least, three fine silvery fiends that had danced upon the rod he had borrowed from a very polite young man. It had been the only rod that Alesdair had come upon since arriving, the locals using nets. Also, swords, harpoons, and in one case a very large axe. “I rather liked him,” said Aleisdair, in the pleasant lowland accent of the civilised Scotsman.
“I’m sure you did,” the woman was sat at the base of a statue that fitted almost perfectly within the town. So perfectly in fact that the shanty crowded about (if not above) it, nearly hi it entirely from passing view. It should have been gloomy, but the statue raised above the sand on a shelf of the same curious stone from which it had been made, the squashed square was dry. She was carefully removing the nails from scraps of timber she had piled in a reed basket. This was her labour. Nearly everyone had their labour to attend to and for a while to come this would be hers.
Like most Alesdair had passed above the statue, but unlike many he had seen it below, and it had been but the work of a moment to swing down to the half-hidden space. The statue was that of a man with a very small face, in the garments of the turn of the century, and in whose hands was held a heavy book. There was an inscription on the base that he peered at now. “Qelque Chose De Significatif,” he read out loud.
“His final words, silly bugger,”
“Drouais. Him and his revolution, Silly bugger. Before my time. Ma mere said he was a silly bugger. And what did it do anyway?” she stopped to count off the nails she had separated so far, “The silly buggers are still playing revolution in the Arks. I was born there, I should know. Mon pere, he was a montagnard. Then the libertines got nasty again, I think. Probably Bonapartists. With their bees, I shouldn’t wonder. I blame the jacobins.”
“Key say, I don’t meddle. You want to help with nails? Worth a bit or two for your trouble?”
Alesdair sat down. He might as well occupy his hands for an hour or three.
IT WAS INTERESTING to see how many rooms there were crammed into Port Mercy. With seemingly as much up and across the lanes and streets were not only changeable but at times, to Meticulous, mythical. Having seen the risks of camping up on the beach, and finding Frau Piquet’s to be expensive, it had occurred to him to find out how everyone else lived. It seemed that they paid into the crew chest of Port Mercy. If there was a way to call anything in Port Mercy something piratey, then piratey it would be. People did pay too. They went to Captain Leather’s pandy, that seemed to be what people called a gang, and paid over their coin. Those that didn’t were chased out by their neighbours. It wasn’t ‘crew’ to not pay into the chest. Incredibly, no one thought twice about thieving coin, but not pay their dues? Maroon the bastard! And yet, mention any of this and the silly sods became embarrassed. Like a game they had long grown too old for, but which others still came to their house to play.
“Oh, la teatro!” Mme. Scrapetail was delighted. The cruel looking woman had evidenced nothing but suspicion at the sight of Meticulous Browne, not helped by Mouse hovering always behind him. Now she knew he was a teatrical that was entirely different. Mme. Scrapetail loved the teatro. Once a month at least she would put on her best hat, lace herself tightly into her most fashionable girdle, and parade to the Grails in company with many hereabouts to see the teatro. The Evantail de Plumes, the Trompette, the Athrodite less so, she added with a knowing nod, that Meticulous answered even if he did not share.
“So, is there a room perhaps?” he said, giving it the old ham.
“May wee! For a teatrical, one that can likely see us right in the teatro,” she nodded. “Two salis the week.”
Mouse prodded his friend, “There are women in there.”
“They sometimes might make use of a room,” said Mme. Scapetail.
“And so they should,” agreed Metti.
NIGHT CAME RELUCTANTLY, and not by stealth but by ambush. Port Mercy enjoying the good light and long shadows of evening saw the sun touch the horizon, only for it to fall as if then swallowed. Having spent the afternoon brushing their uniforms and smartening themselves up as best as could be managed, it was fortunate that from his great sappers sack Pioneer-Sergeant Todgers had been able to produce brush sets, iron, wax, blacking ball, housewife, beard tongs and neck-razor. Seeking by asking for Barbosa so it was that they found themselves on the doorstep of one house in the crescent. They knocked, then slammed sharply to attention as the door was opened. Sergeants Todgers and Landless, reporting (as it were) for duty.
In the doorway the achingly tall man topped even Todgers by an inch. Bald as a cannonball, a mouth that considered lips a luxury, and a turkey neck that moved up and down as it inspected each, the head perfectly still upon it, “Oui?”
They explained and were admitted. The corridor was panelled in exquisite woods, veined like marble, and wondrously scented. The nearest doorway banged as something threw itself at the other side, sending heat flaring from the cracks. Raw silk had been woven into rugs. In cages, whose bars could not possibly have held the occupant’s captive, three plump, white spiders eyed the visitors as they passed. Shown through another door, it was to a study whose single window gave only a very dark view outside, and that of a wet jungle. Barbosa, now in the formal attire of a gentleman some thirty years gone by, had replaced his extravagant turban with a more restrained example. Crossed on the walls were tulwars. On mantlepiece and facing shelves were glass jars. Neither of the two sergeants cared to inspect anything more closely. This was eyes straight and over the officer time.
“Sergeants. What do you know of the vitro sands?”
“All, bugger, for the knowing of, sir!” Todgers clipped the words.
“And the tortuga?”
“Only as much as we have been vouchsafed, sir.”
“Well, Captain Leather has indicated to me that there are signs of the second, within the first. You can’t miss the place. Go away from the town towards all the sand. Keep going. In there, signs of tortuga have been found., Good, solid, simple sojering work.”
“Work, paying of, sir?”
“Pay parade directly, the after of that doing, sir?” said Landless.
“Yes sergeant, and yes sergeant. You won’t want to do it yourselves, you’ll never manage it. We have no idea how many there are. Truly, it is rather beneath me, but Leather wants it done, and there have been a lot of freeloaders given up by the sea. See to it, would you sergeants? Let people know, not a bad purse. Clear it out, home for crumpets.”
“Sir!” both sergeants slammed their boots down so hard blood would have burst from the ears of lesser ranks. The clipped tones, the direct, lazy orders. This Barbosa was a proper gentleman-officer. He knew to tell the sergeants what needed doing, then let them bugger off to see to it being done without any Jack Pudding swanning around on a horse getting in the way.
Barbosa watched each man closely. His fierce features deepened, “I speak many languages sergeant, and sergeant. One of those is ‘officer’. Now, how is it this is said? Ah yes, carry on sergeant,” a savage smile, “And sergeant.”
THE GREAT GLASS pans were ready to be filled. It had taken most of the day to scrub them but with coarse sand, and good will, Soup had restored them. He had had a fine time of it. Now in pressed and laundered apron and clothes he felt positively delighted at the way the world about him gleamed. In a basket by the door were his clothes from the day, which by tomorrow would be returned clean to whatever degree of scent he required. Just like that. He was not sure where these launders were, but they weren’t in Port Mercy clearly.
For the first day he had worked. The raw dough of the fiddles already prepared they had pressed them out and hung them to dry. At a given point the fiddles were taken down, racks of them, and coiled to dry into a ball. Those balls were popped into reed-paper packages that were stamped with the ideogram used by his patron, Fen. People had bought the little packages all day. Having worked hard, Soup had asked why they did not cook with them? But that was not what they did, and it had taken an effort to get Fen to agree to let Soup try it. Thus the hard work of the day preparing for what was to come. His purse felt healthier, he was satisfied in his labour, and until he secured better rooms he was able to bed down with a number of the others that laboured for Fen in the hanging shed.
He looked up. Delighted, he wiped his face with a silk scarf that he let fall into the basket. “Fox?”
“I think so.”
“I would offer you some fiddles, but you must come by tomorrow for that.”
Already Miss Fox had enjoyed her fill of fiddles. She suspected however that a hungry day in Port Mercy might change all that. “It seems,” she said, “I am involved in adventure.”
“Oh, you can never tell with a leopard.”
“Adventure, you say?” Soup’s interest was badly hidden. “Is there a hero? Bold, daring, dashing? Will there be danger?”
“It is rather hard to say. He sounds rather heroic, in the very British manner.”
Soup made her promise to tell him all about it. He closed the lean-to alongside the covered stall where come the morning Fen Fiddles would be sold again. “They say he is a wizard,” Soup said. “Fen, that is. I think mostly he can make eggs disappear. But you never know, eh?”
It was dark once the sides of the lean-to had been dropped. It was easy to make their way to the nearby light where the shanty rose up again. On a ledge above the buildings worked by Fen’s labour was the old man’s house, but it too was shuttered and dark. “We aren’t allowed a light, around the sheds,” said Soup. “I was told it makes shadows, and you don’t want shadows around here. I know,” he held up a hand to forestall Miss Fox’s next question, “The sun, but that is different. And that is why they captivate the sun, which means nothing to me either. But shadows are bad. Because they get loose. Which is also meant to be not ideal. If anyone loses their shadow, then they have to catch it themselves or Fen will be unimpressed.”
“Does that worry you?”
“Worries the absolute hell out of everyone else that sleeps in the sheds, and they’ve all been here longer than I.”
THE TABERNA WAS clean, the mood was dirty. In her great, padded chair Eliza ‘Bone’ Box laughed uproariously at the jest the picaroon had made. It was a large building for Port Mercy. One wall was of the creamy, almost-rock that made up the quayside and the crescent of buildings out by the cloaca. What remained was wood, old spars and great baulks that made ribs overhead. Unlike so many of the buildings hereabouts it was solid, not made up of panels and sails where here at least, like the crescent and Frau Piques, a building was something built rather than sewn or patched together. The taberna sold the coffin of a morning and now the grappa of a night, whether the rotten pot or the common doxy that came by the cup. There was wine, proper labelled stuff from the Bodegas of Bodegas, whatever that meant to Archie Boffin.
He liked Eliza Box’s taberna. It was too hot, and it was too crowded, but that reminded him of the snugs in Bristol and Liverpool at winter, when business had been good and the smells of the great docks put those here to shame. He rubbed his hands together. He saw no one else here from the ship, not in here. You had to be friends of someone that had a friend inside. Unfortunately, you also had to amuse Miss Box, and Archie wasn’t a man that liked to perform.
Half those here could have been son or daughter to Miss Box, and certainly many seemed married. Or what passed for marriage here, which was a document, an accord. Or rather, an Accord. Archie had not seen much in the way of law, and even less of order. Things were admirably simple. But there were Accords. And an Accord was a solemn thing. He saw no reason to pretend he had not been given up by the sea, as the phrase went here. People were friendly enough, or at least to Archie. He nodded as two of his new friends told a tale about a third friend he had yet to meet.
Then came the dreaded moment. Her voice still all Nantucket, Eliza Box wanted a jest from the strangers. Most of the room looked at him. He wilted. This was to his mind the best place to be tonight. Just not at this precise moment. Running a hand through his beard, Archie dared not speak for fear that his voice would betray him. Yet the moment thinned out. He was attracting eyebrows. A lip pursed, here and there.
“Why does a man say as how he likes a woman to have large tits, and a tight arse?” Mulciber came to Archie’s rescue. The taberna, big and smoky, went silent. It was as if having made sure not to notice Mulciber, and forced to now, everyone waited for someone else’s lead. In his heavy coat, the hat, and the filthy flour sack that covered his face Mulciber would have been a curiosity, if folk were apt to be curious. There was something wrong in how he filled that coat. Something chilling in how he stood. He seemed to both fill the room and yet, by common and unspoken agreement, also to be absent from it also. People tried not to look at him. People got quite good at it, and quickly.
“Why’s that, Mr. Bag?” Eliza sat back in her chair.
“Because a man has a big mouth, and a small dick,” Mulciber’s cracked, broken voice answered. There was silence. Mulciber if he could dominate a room did not do it with his personality. Conversation rose again as people hoped that the thing-in-the-bag wouldn’t try and talk to them if they were already engaged. Mulciber bent low to croak in Archie’s ear. “Do they like us?” he asked.
“Yes, yes they do. Do you dance?”
“Mulciber does not dance.”
“Well, Archie does,” and where now fiddles, Breton bagpipes, and a small drum were finding their voices the room was standing for a jig. Archie did too, leaving Mulciber to fade back into the further recesses of the great room.
NAIF, HE WOULD ever be a naif until he had to stop asking questions, he supposed. But that would always be the case unless he did ask the questions. Which he had until someone had answered him, and that person plainly did not care whether William Atkins was naif or not. Or indeed, about anything much at all. “Up you get, chap,” William had Cornelius lift the funny little man upright so that the snails could be brushed off with a little more dignity.
“Black, lead,” the man managed. “Don’t,” he paled, “lose the lead.”
William dug about in a sack near to man, finding bottles packed in tightly compressed vine leaves. One had the top described and gingerly he peeled it back. Within there was scarce a drop of something colourless, but which smelled strongly of a brightly burning morning after a hard night on the drink. Which was rather poetic, William thought, though the sensation and the image persisted. The little man produced a glass probe with which he took but the faintest smear. With a deft movement of the hand he placed the probe inside one nostril, and loudly sniffed. “Gah!” a shout. Then, “Ah, nasty. Awful. Sobriety, who are you?”
“I’m still William Atkins.”
“You have a lovely voice, Atkins.”
“Let me refresh your mind,” William explained what he had found, and how he had been directed to this man. “Tom Fumb, they called you?”
“That’s not my name, that’s my profession. Street parfumer. Are you going to feed me to something awful? Are there tentacles? What is it with you people and tentacles?”
“No, not at all. But please,” William took the man by the hand.
Fumb visibly relaxed. The change was palpable. He grinned, then winced, then managed something in-between, before saying, “Thank Juno for that, you’re just a naif. You’re nothing to do with the culte at all. Load of old nonsense really. What do you know about the sacerdos, the sihr pearls? Do you know about the caelum at all? Do you even know who the true quality are?”
“Yes, and no.”
“Yes to which bits?”
“Not so much the nouns, if I’m honest. This symbol,” he showed the trident. “Is it to do with any of that?”
“Oh,” William rather deflated. He let out a sigh, “I was rather banking on you saying ‘yes’ then, you see?”
“A sort of rising sun with trident lines, yes. The true quality use that all the time. I’m not a proper parfumer though, so what do I know?” he said. Then, “More than you. Remind me, why am I talking to you?”
The strongman knelt. He could have shelled crabs in the small of his knees doing so. “Hello,” he said.
“I totally understand,” said the tom fumb. “An excellent point, and one well made. If I might just ask? Do you have any coin? I do sell at least the third-best wares to be had, and none better in Port Mercy right now. Oil to keep the picks from your hair? Boot scent for snails? A drop of nervous, to make an enemy think twice? Looking for nice dreams?”
“Perhaps later. Well?”
The little man rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. “Look, that symbol is the sort of thing used by someone that wants people to think it was the culte. Make things culte and everyone just nods and goes, oh, culte. Don’t want the silk stockings coming around at night to quietly tell us off. If you found that symbol, then it was someone wanting you to think it was mystic. Which it isn’t. Because almost nothing is. You want to know something, and I know this is going to upset you?”
William nodded, Frankly, anything at all would be welcome, though he accepted that as a stranger he had not really worked on the sort of trust the little man was looking for. “Please.”
“There is no magic. Even if you spell it different,” the tom fumb nodded sagely. He stood up, he picked up his sack. “I’ll be around. Buy something off me, and we might have a better talk.”
It was because of the war Parquet was engaged in. With the moon. There was metal here. Mouse had seen it, used for sticky swords and other things but he had to confess that when it came to the common things they used sag. “Sag,” he said, as that should mean something.
“Sag, probably called something else. Probably from the Roman. Lots is. It’s bone,” it had been a disturbing night and in the hope of a better day Mouse had found the smallest, driest place he could to hide and sleep and hope the world went away for at least six hours. When the crippled boy went by however he knew that he would enjoy nothing like a good rest until he made at least some sort of effort to help. The game birds of the night before had not persuaded Mouse that children were to blame for the evils that were visited upon them. This one was older than the children of the night before, nearly a man, but he still had only the one leg. Mouse borrowed some fish blood sausage, and together they ate in the shade. Not from the sleeping sun, but from trouble. The boy’s knife was made of bone. Or sag. Treated, thinned, compressed, bonded, by some process of some greedy family called Gilfallen. Not in Port Mercy. No one that could make that sort of coin lived in Port Mercy. Port Mercy was just awful.
“Why are we at war?” Already, Mouse noticed, he had said ‘we’.
“Oh, have been for such a long time. If it weren’t for the Principe we would all be talking moon talk now.”
“What they talk on the moon. They get here on nets of birds. I think. There’s been ever so many battles. But our warrior-prince always gives them a bloody nose, by Juno he does! You hear about it all the time.”
“He must be very impressive.”
“Oh yes, must be. Definitely. I’ve been here almost three years and I’m definitely, definitely sure he’s very impressive,” the boy said. “I’ve not seen him.”
“Yes, I understood that to be the case. Has anyone?”
“He lives in the caelum. The quality see him. That’s good enough for me. I’m a citizen. Would you warrant it? A citizen. A free man. Down with the aristos! Hurrah for the principe, Juno bless his mighty hands and brainy brow!”
They shared the last of the sausage before the boy, with surprising nimbleness, rose to his feet and hopped away with a smile and a wave. Mouse felt better for the conversation and waved a farewell in return. Then, “Did you lose your leg in battle?” he called after his passing friend.
“I gave it for the war effort,” came the reply. And then in the crowds, that like he were lagards from the recent grand fiesta, some celebration a few nights before, he was gone.
THE NIGHT HAD the air of the last night of the fair. There was dancing and, to varying degrees of talent (but always with enthusiasm), music. There were more women than men, and perhaps if The Thelassa had not suffered as it had then that might have become more balanced. It did not matter to Mulciber, for Mulciber was alone and thought that was always likely to be the case. Archie was his friend, but Archie did not suffer as Mulciber suffered. Taking himself as far from others as he could, Mulciber skirted about the crescent. There the buildings too stood aside from Port Mercy, most residential but amongst which he spied the comings of a good score that all went to a certain door. Mulciber was not here for doors. He was here to avoid doors. So too the light, for the crescent was lit by a series of pale globes, lambent in the shadow cast by the cliff. His eyes used to such gloom he saw the ruffians that waited where the light was not, presuming them to be waiting too for anyone that might use the same shadows.
The cloaca was lit at its far end. Forty, fifty paces perhaps and the arch that marked its end was rimmed with shifting, somewhat drifting lights. Mulciber slowly scratched inside his coat. It was difficult to see what the lights were, they appeared to drift, together and then apart, with trailing fronds below.
“Medusa,” said a big, brown sort of voice.
Mulciber turned, fists balled. There, and just inside the cloaca he made out the speaker. A darker shape within the dark tunnel. Mostly he saw the smell. There had been something terrible aboard The Thelassa and caged off from the other convicts as Mulciber had been still he had heard the other prisoners threaten the guards unless that stink had been removed. This was worse. Mulciber stepped back. The smell now it had reached out to him felt greasy even within his sack. It almost caressed him. “Good evening,” he said.
“They will find out, they will. How long before someone wishes to see under that frail disguise?” the voice was that of an actor, a great performer. Every word precise, every vowel rounded.
“It would not be the first time I was hated.”
“They will kill you.”
“They have tried before.”
“Not like this,” said brown voice. “They do not like us. They hate us. They
fear us. They are right to do so.”
Us? There was a lot of meaning in such a very little word. “There are others, or just you, and I?”
“Oh, we are not the invaders here. Though you, and I, came here from afar still our people were here far before them. Forced as we are to William Lane, the worst of us, the truest of us, deep down in the scuppers. You would do well to remember this. William Lane, lowest of all the bailiwicks, beyond the Arks and before the Obscures,” the brown voice fell away, the figure with it. But the smell? That cloying, terrible stench? That lingered longer. Taking the rearguard. Waiting, and only when Mulciber himself turned away did it drop back, though he would have sworn that briefly it followed.
He must find labour, Mr. Collingworth knew. Fearing a life of being remarkably bad at fishing he had discovered that far from there being neither taxes, nor bookkeeping, there was both. The Jack of each bailiwick took what he thought right from those who lived there, which wasn’t quite the same, Archie knew. There were laws, a great many of them. The whole of society, every part of it, had been visualised through the burning light of reason. Laws had been written to make, to preserve, to create that society. Wiping the world clean, they had begun anew and with the chance to birth that perfect society where each piece would fit perfectly alongside, each complimenting the other. It was called the great Parquet. There had been a committee. There certainly were laws. Just that people didn’t really bother with any of it. But certainly, there were bookkeepers. If there was one law that held true it was that an agreement signed, an accord, was binding. Almost no one was literate, and they used the bookkeepers. There was precious little of any of that to be seen in Port Mercy, save that the bookkeepers had a club here. Presumably because it was so far from their labour.
None of which helped now. They were hungry, they had become shabby, and only by some miracle had Mr and Mrs Collingworth not been robbed blind. The phrase in this case referring entirely to the victim, who never noticed a thing. At night they tried to keep awake, and away from the miscreants in their shanty town. They were on the far side of the town now, beyond even the beach where the truly desperate slept. Indeed, well away from anyone else only a single fire burned. Hungry, Mr and Mrs Collingworth stumbled to where two men sat and cooked spider over a smoky fire.
“Please, may we share your fire?” said Mr Collingworth.
“Sit down, crickey you look thin. Have some leggy-feller,” Baxter Nettlestitch offered up a stick.
For a moment Archie hesitated, then hunger got the better of him and he tore the spider in two, giving half to his disgusted spouse. “Thank you, sir.”
“Costs nothing. Place is crawling with supper. How you finding things?”
“It’s what you make it. You had a look around much? It’s like a crab claw, you noticed that?” with the stick Baxter drew in the sand. “See? Leg, sand, weed, town, cloaca, cliffs, pointy reef. Tip of the knife you ask me. This? This is just clinging to the side of whatever this place is. Port Mercy clings to the Delves, they say. Up top there’s the Looms, and they’ve got a wall there they tell me. Beyond that is jungle, the verde. And you know what’s there? What’s beyond it?”
“No, not at all.”
Baxter leant forward, clearly amused, “No, and nor do they. Can you credit it?”
“VA TE FAIRE enculer,” Boats swore. They were making their way to the room the two men shared with their new best ami, their amigo, Archie Boffin. Archie was such a pleasant, happy little man and he never interrupted, which was just fine by Boats and Petit Abel. Boats never went near the water, and Abel wasn’t French, but names stuck in Port Mercy. Names such as ‘Port Mercy’ for example.
“They will, they putain, putain, abso-putain-will.”
“Why, why do you all curse in French?” said Archie.
“Because, because,” Boats pinned down the word with a stubby finger, “Because, because… fuck the French. Fucking French. French, and their revoltings. Because when the French, them French, that Drouias? That Drouais, he, that Drouais, he made it all laws. Laws, him, Drouais. Half century ago. Bastard.”
“That’s why,” agreed Boats with a cry. “So, fuck the French. And putain the aristos! They hated the aristos.”
“Me too,” admitted Petit Abel.
All three paused as they walked. They had a hard think on the subject of aristos. Archie looked like he was having a hard think. Mostly he thought about not vomiting. They had been talking about vermin. How with the storm all the vermin had been driven into the Delves, or deep under the great weed beds. Soon they’d be back. More of them back. But he wasn’t to worry. The picks in his hair could be kept away with a good hat, or even a bad wig. The snails mostly ate people’s shit. The spiders mostly ate snails, mostly. Mostly, thought Archie. Mostly. Mostly. The more he thought it, the less meaning the word had. The vollies ate spiders, though some spiders ate some vollies. Whatever vollies were. Though they weren’t to be confused with pesker, which were fish. Fish from the harbour, not fish from Britain. Because fishing was thieving, and the British were all thieves. And then there were the medusa, which ate all of them. Sometimes people. He thought he had it all straight. Then he didn’t, “What was all that again, please!”
“Fuck the aristos!” shouted Petit Abel and Boats together. A short distance ahead a pair of figures in heavy coats and tricorned hats stirred at the sound. “There,” Boats pointed to where, in a tumble of others like it, was their room. The same clutter of what had been made into what was now, shaky and uneven like a stack of untidy boxes topped with tar and sailcloth. “Closest to us, cheap,” he winked.
“Citizen, what was that you said?” thickly accented, smothered by a scarf about the lower part of the face, eyes in the tricorn shadow.
“The aristos!” Petit Abel laughed, “Baiser les aristos!”
Drunk, Archie was scarce aware of what happened. Abel was knocked down, and when Boats made to intervene the man simply dropped, racked and screaming in pain. The two coated and hatted bravos kicked Petit Abel bloody, one holding an extraordinary carbine in a free hand. Both, he saw, wore rapiers.
“Hey,” Archie managed before a blade was drawn and held an inch from his eye.
“A lesson, naif,” the same accented voice. “Beware such language.” They moved away and were gone leaving Archie to do what he could for his new friends, however unsteady his hands might then have been. Boots shuddered, and in the passing of a moment stopped all signs of his apparent injury. “Bas de soie,” he said, only wincing now slightly, “Silk stockinged shits.”
IT WAS IMPORTANT, when one had an eye to fashion, to know when to flaunt it and when to subdue it, and if Stilts was already eyeing up the dandy way for now he was down to shirt and britches, shoes and neckerchief. He was not a dandy, not as it was understood here, quite yet. There was more to it than just the clothes, it was something one carried about, a status worn as tightly buttoned as the clothes. Many came out to act the part, then went back about their lives, but the real dandies despised these ‘paraders’ even as they preyed upon their purses. His new friends agreed with that, even if, he suspected, they were a bunch of shitty little paraders themselves.
They had walked the town looking for fops to fight, but it took a lot longer for a fop to put aside the trappings than it did for a dandy. Most being just paraders too most of them had their labour to go to come morning. Somewhere the true fops and dandies were to be found. But it wasn’t here.
It grew light, beautifully so, and the dandies with Stilts fled. Perhaps materialising from some other world, the medusa returned. Moving in the air to remain stationary the translucent bells of their bodies went from as wide as his stretched arms to as narrow as his shoulders. Scores of tendril thin tentacles fell to the floor, brushing it, catching at the spiders which seemed paralysed by the appearance of the medusa. In ones and twos they appeared until Stilts was surrounded, yet they did not come any closer, and he felt he would be safe if he let them be. Slowly they drifted out, and down, and away. Smaller varieties arrived, these more elongated, and these rose. Then a thousand, ten thousand specks that were the tiniest of all. And these, little puffs of light, blew on the gentle wind to where it took them.
For a moment Stilts stood there, watching the incredible display of coloured light move out and away from the town. Then he ducked, he even cursed, as darting by him went a fish, fully a yard in length, wide finned and striped, that dived into the tiny medusa so that Stilts could see its progress amongst them not so much by how the light caught its scales, as how those lights were extinguished by its progress. “Oh,” he said, “How sad.” But not so sad that he was going to interfere. Whatever the… flying… fish, was then it showed no interest in Stilts. And that was perfectly fine by Stilts, who was too well dressed right now to ruin it all by running away. Running never went well with the fashionable look.
WITH THEIR NEW riches they had been able to take a room at Frau Piques, albeit not a room each, and only for two nights to come. Seizing upon a broom they had cleaned it down, hunting down every spider it possessed. Rising well before daylight saw them scratching, and on donning their good wool uniforms it was to find them infested. It would be a mufti day, even if that meant shirtsleeves order. Beard and beauties fizzed softly to the new life within. Something would have to be done, and that something would never involve a full shave. Preparing for a day looking into what they had been told, of the offer of sojaring work, the last hours before morning instead saw them encounter the same cadaverous fellow that had admitted them to their patron only the night before.
“Word from the master, servant?”
“Drudge, I is drudge. Not servantio. Drudge. I am Donnola. I am a very bad man,” his shoulders shrank, his arms extended from his waist but only bent at the forearms.
“Steady on there, lad,” said Sergeant Todgers. “Not a servant, rank is important, we understand. What is a drudge then?”
“You are stupid naif. You do not know. Come, come, I have accoutrements for you. For your people. Your army. To see, to see. So, you know. What there is, si?”
“What there is see?”
“Come,” Donnola still fixing them with a lidless smile lead the way at a graceful glide across Port Mercy. He paused only once, and then to sniff at Sergeant Landless. He said, “You should take cinnebar. It get worse, here otherwise. You sojars, ai,” again the arms expressed the emotion, elbows once again pressed to the waist. Only when close to the quayside did Donnola lead them to a taberna, the sign marking it as the Boa. He knocked with a motion of his wrist and they were admitted to the sight of lazy repairs, and yawning mops within. Donnola spoke quietly with a young woman, her hair in a knotted cloth and her apron spotless. “Wait,” he said, drawing out the sound and emphasising the last letter.
Two of those cleaning vanished only to reappear some minutes later carrying a chest between them. Unlocked, it was thrown open. Within the sergeants spied hangers, boarding axes, a blunderbuss and a good ten heavy looking, if hardly new, pistols. Once more the labour returned, this time with a pole upon which hung a half dozen morion helmets, and three battered breastplates. “Accoutrements,” said Donnola. “Come here, with your sojars. And all returned,” one finger beat the last three words for emphasis. “Or top salis they will cost the loser, si? Si!”
THEY CALLED HER La Gascon. She called herself the Queen of Picaroons. She sat on a stool, feet planted wide and firmly, in a hat that could shade a small boat and with greasy sleeves rolled to her firm elbows. That shirt undone to a sash in which had been stuffed two of the curious pistola. La Gascon’s britches were very stripy and her boots very worn, but they did look like good boots.
She ate small lobsters from the point of her rapier, helping herself to more whenever the blade emptied. Not her small lobsters of course. Just as it was not her wine she drank, though she had drunk a lot of it. Grappa for the most part, for wherever she went it was to the feared shout of ‘Merde, La Gascon’ that ran ahead of her, and at which all the good wine was spirited away. Unlike the spirits, which had been left to whine. She farted delicately. She smiled her buttery smile. She said, “No, you have no hat.”
“I,” said Abram, “Can get a hat.”
“You have no blade!”
“A blade can be had.”
“Not bought, never bought,” La Gascon wagged a warning finger. “You cannot buy the elan!” The last came with a very gallic sigh. “And you have no,” she pointed to him, then to her, “Elan, as I say?” In reply he asked how he might acquire such elan, to which she smiled, saying, “When you are picaroon, you act picaroon. A picaroon gains a certain elan? Yes? Then to be picaroon, you must be picaroon. And if always a picaroon, then the picaroon true!” She beamed, “Such as I.”
“You thieve, you fight, with rapier I notice alone, and I scarce can begin to imagine what those guns are.”
“Pistola, our wands,” she added a little laugh. She twirled the little beard she did not have. “But first a sword, let the milicio give one up to you.”
“Does not everyone want to give to a picaroon what a picaroon wants? In their heart of willing hearts?”
“I doubt that.”
“Let them doubt that, they doubt aplenty. Now go, go, little naif fresh from the sea. I am hungry, and I am itchy, and I would break you if you take my eye. You are not filthy?” she said, and he replied truthfully that he was not. Another shrug, “That does not matter. And now, alors, begone, before I take my mastery of the blade and teach to you a lesson you shall not forget! Bon chance, little knave, you will never be rich, but nor shall you be dull. And isn’t life all the better for it?”
“Non, you do not. But you will. You will. Life, ahhh, it is so damn rich. And it ends, like that,” she startled the taberna as she banged the legs of her stool on the boards. “So, live it, look for it. You naifs, you worry, you think of home, but instead be marvellous, be…” she stood, startling Abram so that involuntarily he took a step back. She spread wide her arms, “Magnificent!”
It was morning. The dawn of a new day.
Allors! Our heroes washed ashore upon strange land, where everywhere they go the more they learn (and the more they learn the less they know)! So far, but the stink of Port Mercy sits beside them, but greater hopes and doubtless stranger things await them. For they are not pawns