Work Header

Thicker Than Salt Water

Work Text:

It was nearing sunset. Uther Doul stood on the deck of the largest barge they had yet taken, sword in hand, staring down at the crewmen of the Heterodox who would not meet his eyes. There were corpses between him and the crowd — corpses of enemy sailors and Armada soldiers, spitted on the ends of pikes and charred by poorly-maintained flintlocks. They were human, mostly, with a small knot of khepri women huddling together, clutching little clockwork boxes and communicating in their silent language. He had ordered the crewmen not to speak, but short of murdering the khepri there was little Doul could do to keep them quiet. He let them talk, wiped the blood from his sword, and sheathed it. Wire rattled against wire down his arm as he did so.

The captain kneeled at his feet, his scalp laid open from a soldier's knife and his arm hanging useless and shattered. Sea birds screamed, and wounded men groaned insensibly. Below decks, there was still fighting — he could hear the crack of guns, curses and dying shrieks. The men of Armada were winning, of course.

"Surrender," Uther Doul said to the captain. "Surrender, and this will stop."

"Eat shit," the captain spat, mouth full of blood.

Uther Doul's blade was back in its sheath before the captain fell dead to the deck.

"Will the second in command step forward?" Doul cried. A woman with a tear-streaked face and an empty gun at her feet mumbled something into her ratted scarf that Doul could not hear. "Well, speak up!"

"She's below," the woman said, pulling the scarf from her face.

Then, a noise like a chorus of scissors, and screaming.

The crowd parted as she came clamoring up the hatch, her form obscured by a whirlwind — a rainstorm of blades and wire and ship-pieces, cascading into sharp-edged hands and limbs and gaping mouths. Behind her, the crew of the Heterodox swarmed and yelled war-cries in ragged voices.

"Golemist!" someone behind Uther Doul screamed.

She looked at him from the center of the army of knife-constructs, gestured, and they lumbered forward.

Uther Doul drew his sword and ran to meet them, but they were too many. They swarmed over him like waves — over the deck, over the boarding hooks and planks, and through the flesh of the soldiers of Armada.

There was a crack from behind him as someone on the roof of an Armada ship fired a flintlock pistol at the golemist. By some miracle, it struck her, passed through, and left a ragged hole as though the gunman had hit an image of the thaumaturge painted on a sheet of paper. She wasn't here — it was only some charm of hers that made it appear she was.

At her command, an entire barge's shipment of factory-made straight-razors and assorted debris marched in lockstep — and plunging in and out of the storm was Uther Doul, parrying every slouch and stroke of the golems, his blade everywhere at once. The thaumaturge's image stood on the deck, arms outstretched, ankle-deep in gore.

The sun dipped below the grey-green ocean, and the Brucolac stirred in his dreamless sleep. He flicked his tongue like a snake, tasted the air, lashed out and tore the heavy curtains from around his bed.

There were many tastes to an Armada sunset — dust floating through the streets of Dry Fall, salt and dying fish and industrial smoke. And below the ordinary taste of Armada air…there. Yes, there it was, sweet and familiar.


Shadows moved, warped, and the room was empty.

Blood had been spilled. A foul night for Armada, perhaps, but a fine night for Dry Fall.

They melted out of every shadow — the vampir, the masters of their haunted ships, and the Brucolac was at their head. They passed, and left quiet in their wake.

The battle was easy to find by following the taste of new blood, and — when they drew closer — by the ear-splitting screech of metal on metal and the panicked chorus of screams.

He found Uther Doul with his back against the metal wall of a scrap-iron steamer. He was cut all over — tiny, shallow cuts that showed as thin red lines — but they were superficial. His hands were white-knuckled around the hilt of his blade, and the sound of his machine's strange gears grinding down thrummed in the Brucolac's ears — an unearthly whine more felt than heard. His eyes were hard and watching the thin alleyway closely. Of course — Uther Doul wasn't hiding. He was waiting.

"What the fuck?" the Brucolac asked, without preamble. Doul did not turn to face him or even give any indication that he knew the Brucolac was there until he replied in measured tones.

"Golemist. And fifty crates full of barbershop cutlery and half a ship's worth of wires." That explained the screeching of metal, and the blood that ran red in the gutters around their feet.

"Why didn't you kill him?" the Brucolac said.

"Her. She's hidden herself. If I don't keep these things chasing me, she'll just let them run wild over Armada." Uther Doul glanced in the Brucolac's direction this time, his expression unreadable in the growing shadow. One barge over, someone screamed and died; the Brucolac saw one of his compatriot ab-dead slip across a roof like a whisper and stop short, gazing down in what seemed like hesitation. "It's like fighting a thousand crazy fuckers at once, Deadman. Call off your vampir. — they don't stand a chance. Nobody does." He did not add except for me, but they both understood.

"Then fight them," the Brucolac said, laying a hand on Uther Doul's shoulder, feeling his pulse pound beneath his skin. "I'll go find your golemist."

The golems surged onto the iron steamer, the edges of their razors screaming against the metal walls and plate-armor of the boat, throwing up sparks. They flowed into each other, losing their human shape.

Uther dived without another word, the box at his side already whirring into life, and was lost in a cloud of whirling edges and bloodied debris.

The Barge was empty when the Brucolac arrived — or so it looked. There were no longer corpses on the deck, or at least there was not anything that as recognizable as a human or xeno body — the golems had seen to that.

The Brucolac closed his eyes. A younger vampir, one less used to the distracting presence of blood, would have been overwhelmed by the scent. But the Brucolac was not young. The presence of so much blood was a maddening temptation, but he steeled himself and blocked it from his mind. His forked tongue flicked out again, trying to pick out something around the blood and salt water and smoke.

Something else, there. Paper, and tar, and living breath.

The Brucolac leapt, and the deck was silent again.

It was not hard to find her. She was huddled behind a half-destroyed crate, murmuring something to herself in Ragamoll, jerking her hands like the conductor of an auto-orchestra. She had stuck pieces of paper to the floor of the barge with some kind of foul-smelling tar that left a cloying, acrid taste in the Brucolac's mouth when he tasted the air around him, and each one was drawn with a crude face — two dots for eyes, an uneven line for a mouth. After a moment, she noticed the Brucolac's presence and glanced up at him with resignation in her eyes.

"We could use you, you know," the Brucolac said. The woman looked at him in disgust, taking in his pale features, his sharp teeth, his snake's tongue.

"Shut up," she hissed. The Brucolac shrugged, and pounced.

She tasted so sickeningly sweet that he nearly gagged. Thaumaturges always did.

One could follow Uther Doul by the trail of gouges that the razor golems had left in Armada's streets. The creatures were destructive, if nothing else. The Brucolac found Uther Doul standing much where he had left him, ankle-deep in an inert pile of open razors. He had sheathed his sword.

"I see you killed her," he said. The Brucolac picked up a razor that's wet with Doul's blood and twirled it experimentally.

"She didn't put up a fight," the Brucolac said. Blood slid down the razor's edge and dripped onto his fingers before he tossed the knife away. "Sent all her fight down to you, I suppose."

"The Lovers will need to know what has happened, if they do not already. Thanks for your help, Deadman Brucolac." He bowed, a touch ironically.

Uther Doul left, and the Brucolac lapped the blood from his fingers, savoring the taste. You could tell so much about a man from the taste of his blood, and Uther Doul tasted like death and something else indescribable and intoxicating.

That was the first time that the Brucolac tasted Uther Doul's blood.

The people of Armada never forgot the razor golems. They did not know exactly who had saved them — no one had seen the Brucolac work, and getting close enough to watch Uther Doul battle the cloud of knives would have been suicide — but they all knew they had averted some great calamity. The crewmen who came to clean up the mess never spoke of it again.

Uther Doul, an occasional visitor to Dry Fall before, began to visit the Brucolac more often after that — to drink wine, sometimes, but more often to talk about politics and theory and, occasionally, to speak of his homeland. Through all their visits, Uther Doul called him by an honorific in his home tongue, and the Brucolac was always left awaiting the sun in his curtained-off bed, imagining Uther Doul's wrist open against his tongue and their lips pressed together until the Brucolac's fangs made him bleed. It was not hunger — no vampir in Dry Fall could claim to be hungry, not with the gore-tax in place. It was want.

He wondered if Uther Doul knew, and came to the conclusion that a live man would not visit a vampir so often if the thought troubled him.

When their friendship — their rivalry — finally came to a head, the Brucolac leapt into battle with wild abandon. If there was anyone in Armada who could make Uther Doul bleed, it was he — but he knew, under his bravado, that even he would not be enough to overcome Uther Doul, who was more force than man.

He was subdued, bound, and left for the ravages of the sun before his claws had broken the man's skin, even once.

After three mornings, the Brucolac was past thinking. It did not even occur to him to wonder who it was that ordered the citizens of Armada to cut his bonds and carry him back to Dry Falls, staying out of the sun and leaving him in the cool darkness of his own quarters, his own bed. It did not occur to him to ask who it was that came with fresh water and bandages so that his burned flesh would not stick to the sheets. And, blinded as he was, he did not even notice there was a man sitting at his bedside until a firm hand was laid upon his ragged scalp, tilting his head upwards like a nursemaid giving broth to a sick child.

"Drink," the Brucolac heard the man say, dimly. Something pressed against his mouth — warm flesh yielded against the Brucolac's cracked lips, and he lapped eagerly at the blood that flowed over his tongue. The Brucolac reached out blindly to wrap his hands around the other man's wrist and growled, deep in his throat, a half-animal sound of thoughtless pleasure. For a while, he was lost in pure sensation — every sun-seared nerve in his flesh screamed in protest when he moved, but the ecstasy of blood after three days of torture was impossible to resist. He twisted in silent agony, groaned in breathless joy, and finally fell back against his pillow with his sightless eyes closed, panting.

"I know…that taste," he managed. "Uther…"

But the man was gone, and there was nothing to do but lose the pain in sleep.

The Brucolac stayed in his chambers until the sight had grown back into his eyes and the burns had closed over to scars — three days. Much to his surprise, one of his spies was still alive, and he came to him on the third day with a message that was less news and more a plea for the leader of Dry Fall to explain what was going on.

He sent the man away with a desultory wave and opened his window to see the stars winking over a slowly jostling landscape that was unusually still. All of Armada had grown as quiet as Dry Fall. He tasted the salt air, slammed the window shut, and went into his study and received no more visitors.

On the next day, Uther Doul appeared in the entrance hall of Dry Fall's flagship, leaning against the riveted pillar with the same casual grace he always had. It was all that the Brucolac could do to prevent himself from leaping over the gallery railing and trying to tear out the man's throat. Some residual respect for his friend — and, though it made him sick to admit it, knowledge of what had happened last time he had tried that — held him back.

"You've got a lot of fucking nerve," the Brucolac half-hissed. "Coming here. I should—"

"Hush, Deadman," Uther Doul said, dropping back into his High Cromlech honorific — the same one that Uther Doul had thrown back at him with contempt before they fought, and had told him that his kind did not rightly deserve. "You've healed already."

The Brucolac clattered down the metal stairs to stand before Uther Doul and see his face closer. As usual, Doul was nearly unreadable.

"Why did you come here? Did the Lovers send you to bark at me, you fucking lapdog?"

"I came to tell you that there are still eleven of your kind left standing, and there's no longer talk of cutting Dry Fall loose now that we've turned around, just like you said we should. If you're still afraid of retribution, drop it." Uther Doul, he realized, was not wearing his blade — it was the first time the Brucolac had ever seen him without it. Again, he was tempted to leap on him, tear out his throat, toss his body over the side of his flagship for the eels.

"Why?" the Brucolac asked. "I know you must have ordered me cut down. There was no one else who would. But our coffers were full of blood when we went to war against the Lovers. You didn't need to come see me yourself." He almost added I'd rather you hadn't, bastard, but he found that he did not believe it.

"Because you wanted it," Uther Doul said, shrugging.

"Is that supposed to be some kind of fucking apology?"


The Brucolac watched Uther Doul, and realization dawned, searing as daylight.

"You knew!" the Brucolac hissed, clenching his fist until his claws dug into his bloodless palm. "All of this — the entire time — you knew—"

"Good night, Deadman Brucolac," Uther Doul said, and turned to go. The Brucolac let him.

The next night, the Brucolac left his chambers to walk the streets of Dry Fall and see how little had changed there. Now that he had proven to be right, the people of Dry Falls were returning.

Uther Doul was waiting for him when he returned to his flagship, with a bottle of wine in his hand just like always. The Brucolac almost sent him away, but then he saw the gash on his wrist, stitched up with a surgeon's thread. It was the deepest wound he had ever seen on Uther Doul, who killed men for a living.

He should have sent Uther Doul away, maybe killed him for everything he'd done.

Instead, the Brucolac swept past him into the depths of his flagship and left the door standing open.