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Whistling Shell

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There's a tune the Cannoneer likes to whistle, whenever we're in sight of the bright green jewel-box of Aestival, or the darker swamp forests of the Sea of Autumn. Not so strange; the other zailors liven up in the air of the Calumnies too, and they all look forward to gathering crates of greens when we sail into port at Mangrove College. But the Cannoneer whistles that same tune when we're under the hand of the Iron Republic, cutting the prow-light to hide from Unfinished pirates and Republican dreadnoughts. The hot wind smells of coal and coffee today, the factory-engines billow foul smoke, and the air flutters with a snowfall of voided paperwork thrown carelessly out the windows. My first time here, I picked up one of those paper scraps from the deck: a torn infernal contract in writhing black type, stamped by a few administrators with glyphs that I didn't care to study. The crewman who's keeping the deck free of cinders and glimfall today also picks up these scraps of paper and gathers them up in a brass bucket to use for firestarters. "They do take awful quick, most of 'em," she says. "They'll singe your eyebrows off. Some don't burn at all, though."

But there's the Cannoneer whistling, a slip jig that bounces and shrills on the higher notes. He's polishing the heart-metal armature of the new forward gun, a job he doesn't entrust to the rest of the crew. Not that any of the crew want to touch that shining horror of a weapon, which emits a dull, hungry growl.

"Nearly done, citizen?" I ask him.

He doesn't hear, but when he catches sight of me in his peripheral vision he straightens up with that familiar grin. "Hello! Did you want to speak with me, captain? I don't hear much out of that ear, I'm afraid. Always try me on the left side, if you don't mind!"

That explains his jovial but incessant shouting, actually: half-deafened by bombs and guns, he no longer knows how loud he sounds. I move closer so that he can keep my lips in view. "We'll be pulling into the harbour soon. I don't care to engage those Unfinished Men off the port side, as they're easy enough to evade with the lights out. But we might pass a Behemoustache off Port Carnelian."

"Oh, lovely! Thank you, madam!" The Cannoneer is always delighted to have a chance to shoot at the zee-beasts instead of fleeing, and the Behemoustache is one of his favourites, even though he says they're not very challenging. "What a lovely day! Not going anywhere near the Fathomking's Hold later, are we? I could get you that Fluke-Core you've been wanting..."

"Soon." Even armed with the Cannoneer's evil ordnance, I hate the thought of squaring off against a Lorn-Fluke, ramming the ship and screaming its star-speech madness. It makes me want to hang over the side and puke like a lubber. But the colossal irrigo core of the beast is worth too much, to some people.

I have to turn away from the weapon, which seems to watch me. "What do you know about that gun your friend wants to build? The lady here in the Republic."

He blinks, as if this description could suit any number of people he knows. Then: "Oh, d'you mean the Artificer?"

"Yes."

"Well, the cost of ammunition is...I shouldn't say! No doubt it'll be a great blaze of rarefaction when the thing goes off—she's absolutely demented, it's marvellous—but you wouldn't use it every day. Did you want to hunt Mount Nomad?"

"Dear God, no."

"Of course, of course. Then you shan't find much use for the Icarus in Black, I expect. This beauty will do all you need," the Cannoneer says, rubbing the polishing-cloth coaxingly over the armature. Careful not to touch the star-metal itself with his bare skin. Even the Cannoneer has some caution. "Anything else? I have lists, if you—"

"Nothing else," I interrupt him. Once he starts in on his lists, that's half my day gone. But I do have a serious concern that I wish to discuss in private. Two such concerns, perhaps. "Would you dine with me tonight, in my quarters? Cook has some fancies available, if there's anything you have a fondness for..."

"Oh, no thank you!" He's still smiling. He always refuses with that smile, a little flustered. "I don't eat much! But I do have some novel ideas for the pneumatic ratsender, if you could get me a few to practice with."

God only knows what those novel ideas are, but it's safest to keep the Cannoneer well-occupied. I wouldn't like to see what he's like when he's bored. "Next time we're at Wolfstack. But I am in earnest, citizen. Even if you don't eat much, I should like to have you at my table this evening."

"Oh." The grin falters for a moment, apprehensive, but then it flickers back to full wattage. He shrugs. "As the captain wishes! Thank you, madam. But don't put Cook to any trouble, please. It would be quite wasted on me."

"Six bells, then." The Bandaged Poissonnier would feel slighted if I didn't let him make a fuss, I know, so I plan to leave the meal-planning to his discretion.

"Six bells. Have a pleasant time in port, captain!"

"At the Iron Republic? I always do," I reply dryly, and head belowdecks again.

 

Taking the port report at the Republic leaves me with a splitting headache, so after negotiating with the merchants in their doctrine-masks for a load of coffee, I take to my quarters. For an hour; the Republic isn't the kind of port where one likes to linger, and manoeuvring out of the tight harbour takes attention. The Carnelian Exile can handle it. I wish a safer port were close by, but it's the expensive hubbub of the Cumaean Canal to the north and the sinister Isle of Cats to the east. Rest in London. Won't be long.

I dress for dinner, in the one spider-silk gown I brought to zee with me, which is trimmed with whisper-satin from Polythreme, or so I was told in the shop. I have my doubts, as the dress doesn't whisper so much as sigh disconsolately now and then. That has its charms, or so I tell myself.

And I would rather like to be charming, for awhile. Even when I'm in London, these days I spend all my free evenings at home, sleeping off the nightmares. My housekeeper knows my townhouse better than I do, and welcomes me home as if I'm a guest, not the lady of the house. My old acquaintances from Veilgarden have scattered since last year; they love a funeral but they despise the tedious aftermath, and I haven't seen them since.

But charming, yes, tonight I will be charming. I pinch some colour into my cheeks and head for the captain's table.

The Cannoneer is on time at six bells, but flushed as though punctuality was a near thing this evening. He's come straight from the workshop, a space he shares with the Tireless Mechanic. The two seem to have a subtle rivalry that I don't understand; I would have thought they'd be great friends, a spiritual kinship from shared love of metal and fire. But they aren't.

The Cannoneer does a double-take at my spider-silk gown, looking both intrigued and alarmed, and tries to surreptitiously wipe some artillery grease off his hand on his sleeve. "Oh—ah, beg pardon, madam—I didn't realise we were...I can go dress for dinner, won't be long!"

"No, please, it's quite all right," I tell him. "I didn't expect you to be in evening dress."

"Really, captain, please—fifteen minutes or less, I promise!" And the Cannoneer takes off aftward for his quarters at a dead run, skidding as he takes the corner.

However he managed it, he reappears in fifteen minutes looking cleaner, his dark hair damp at the margins but more or less combed (apparently with his fingers, but still). He's changed his shirt and trousers, and is wearing an old but clean waistcoat I haven't seen before: double-breasted brown silk—can it be from the Surface?—woven in a scalloped pattern like fish-scales, such that it almost looks quilted. It has a bullet hole below the right armpit, but otherwise it's in fine condition. The grin is back, dazzling. "Just in time! Apologies, captain, I haven't sat down to any sort of table of quality since I left the University. How exciting!"

I'm pleased that he made the effort, and we sit down at the captain's table. "Was this at Benthic College? What did you study?"

"Oh, you know." It's one of those topics he likes to shrug past. "Infernal Rarefactions. What else, eh? I'm the type. A bit too much of the type! I found other people who appreciated my work, so it all turned out fine in the end, didn't it? All shall be well, and all shall be well."

"All manner of things shall be well," I agree. It's hard to picture him as an academic, even the maddened kind. My fingertips rest on the stem of my wineglass to steady it as the Poissonnier bustles over to decant some Morelways 1872.

"Parasite-mushroom sacs stuffed with grilled whale-cheese, mixed Whithern summer mosses, and thelodont roe," the Poissonnier announces proudly as he fills the Cannoneer's glass in turn. "After the sea-lily soup, naturally. Very light dinner, suitable for delicate digestions and constrained appetites."

I thank the Poissonnier, who brings out the soup. I don't eat like this every evening, but ever since the Brisk Campaigner came aboard with her expensive tastes, I've felt like the other officers deserve the same luxuries when they dine with me. These dinners are rare, and it dispels the darkness to have fare better than weevil-ridden ship's biscuit and bland lumps of megalops-flesh.

The soup is delicately spiced with mutersalt, enough to quiet the Cannoneer for a few minutes. I study him as I haven't had much chance to do thus far: he's always in motion, never sitting still long enough to be looked at, always shuffling his lists and yelling cheerful commands to the crew. Truth be told, I find that grin of his a bit unnerving, so I've been trying not to let my gaze fall on him for too long. But there's nothing wrong with his appearance: his nose looks like he's spent time in Feducci's prizefighting ring (possible), but he has a wide, mobile mouth and almond-shaped dark eyes that could be quite pretty. Scars on the knuckles, definitely from Watchmaker's Hill, two fingers missing on the left hand, probably from explosives.

I could take him to bed, I think, and forget all about the sweetheart Salt took from me. For awhile. Long enough, maybe. Something to tire me out enough that the nightmares can't reach me. The Mechanic isn't interested—I think he finds me too earnest, or too naive—and I'm afraid to find out if tomb-colonists can still...yes. One does hear stories, but I'm simply not very experimental on that subject. I haven't been at zee that long. The Cannoneer would do, if he's willing. I rather think he is; I've seen him watching me in odd moments.

When the mutersalt has worn off and we can speak again, over the stuffed mushroom sacs, I ask him more about himself. "Are you fond of the Iron Republic?"

"I have friends there. Well—yes, friends, I suppose," he says, putting his elbows on the table for half a second before remembering himself. He eats with the fork in his right hand, but manages the knife with his left in spite of the missing fingers. "Colleagues. Former colleagues. But I do rather like the Republic, I think. They appreciate an elegant bomb, you know! In fact—no, we shouldn't talk about that."

"Why?" I ask bluntly, growing tired of hearing him shrug off questions with that response. "What would happen if you did?"

The Cannoneer has his mouth full, but when he swallows, he says, "I'd have fewer friends."

"I'm no gossip, citizen. You may trust me. You've already said that you built enough bombs for clients that you were thrown out of Benthic College. Some of those clients must have been revolutionaries?"

He shrugs. His grin has dwindled to a nervous half-smile. "I suppose they must! I didn't ask questions—well, not about my clients themselves. I asked about payload and fragmentation and—"

"Then what of the Iron Republic?" His story is beginning to fall into place. "What use did they have for your bombs, as accomplished as you are in the art? As we all saw in the Campaign of '68, Hell has weaponry enough to swat London like a fly."

The Cannoneer stays quiet for the space of several heartbeats, the longest silence I've heard from him in response to a question. Finally, he says, "The devils were middle-men. They could pay me better than the common revolutionaries, so they did, and then they jacked up the price when they resold the bombs to the Calendar Council. The Calendar Council pays in souls, you see. But once the Council got wind of that deal, they weren't very happy. They tried to negotiate with the Brass Embassy directly—but the devils don't like to sell their own weapons abroad. The most masterful infernal designs...someone like me could reverse-engineer them."

This may be true—the Cannoneer's confidence is usually well-founded—and his tone is wistful.

"So the Council came to me, and I sold a few oddments to them. I didn't care very much about the money, but you can't go on building things without new materials!" He chuckles. "So the Calendar Council paid, and I cashed the souls in at the Bazaar, as one does. Well, now the Brass Embassy was peeved at me, and demanded I make full restitution of the souls they thought they should have got...'they're ours by right,' all that usual talk. Devils, eh?"

Indeed. "And you were ejected from Benthic?"

"Things got quite unpleasant for a few months! Quite unpleasant. I smoothed things over with the devils, because I prefer to work with them. They appreciate originality. The revolutionaries are always so concerned about whether their operatives will know how to set it off, if it's a new design. User error, and so on. So you have to build the same thing over and over, and the only challenge is finding out ways to make them smaller or less likely to be found in a Constables' search. Anyway. The anarchists were very cross indeed and there was nothing I could do to mollify them. They tattled on me to Benthic—I think it was them, anyway—so I left before the learned burly gentlemen from the registrar's office could encourage me to withdraw. I rather burned a bridge or two on my way out." He gestures with his fork. "You see why putting to zee began to seem so attractive?"

At no point in this whole story has he said a single thing about the victims of his lovingly-crafted bombs. Naval combat has its own code of honour, as Father used to tell me; enemy ships must be sunk or captured, but their crew then become men in peril, and the code of the sea (he meant the Surface sea) required the winning ship to aid them. And yet a bomb on land is very different from a torpedo on the zee: a bomb blast can easily deal out the true death, leaving its victims in pieces that ensure they will never leave the slow boat on the silent river. The Cannoneer had an academic interest, but shouldn't he take the danger and the consequences more seriously? Shouldn't he have had a better reason than the sheer joy of creating such weapons?

My own appetite is dwindling too, even though the roe gleams a deep cosmogone in the stuffed mushroom sacs. "Had you no loyalties to anyone?"

"Well—" He stumbles over the question. "We had such a tidy arrangement at first! I hardly thought I needed to choose a side. What's wrong with a diverse circle of friends? It's such a joy to build something terrible, you know—perhaps I can't explain it."

"Perhaps you can't." Not that I yearn to understand such things. I change the subject to business. "You remember the engine that the Mechanic wishes to build, of course?"

"Oh yes." Guarded enthusiasm. "A jolly fine thing to have, if he can actually build it."

"He needs a piece of the Dawn Machine. Or some...excretion of the Dawn Machine, or...I don't know what the thing is. An element of dawn, it's called. The Commodore down at the Grand Geode is willing to sell us one, at an exorbitant price that I refuse to pay. Fifty crates of supplies, vital intelligence, seven of my own crew."

"Blimey, that's steep," the Cannoneer says.

"Entirely too steep. The alternative...he is quite interested in purchasing the Memento Mori. He'd give us an element in return, along with other valuables." I finish my glass of wine and decant another. "Would you be terribly put out if I were to sell it to him?"

I have succeeded in shocking my Cannoneer. "But—I don't—is it not what you were hoping? Because with a few enhancements to the rest of the ship—"

"No, no," I interrupt. "It's a very...it's very effective. You did fine work, you and your colleagues." As these things go. The Cannoneer is always effective. "But engine speed and fuel efficiency are dreadfully important—"

"You've barely seen it in action, captain!" The Cannoneer is pleading. "Why, I could take the Tree of Ages with this and the deck gun! You wouldn't even need the Icarus in Black! Even in this little ship, I could get you the heart of Mount Nomad—with minor hull damage, of course, but survivable! It could be done!"

"I'm not some Chelonite monster-hunter, citizen," I say, sharper than I mean to be. "Taking Mount Nomad's heart is a fool's errand. I came to zee to make profitable runs of coffee and sphinxstone and sunlight, and if that dried-up old curator in Venderbight will pay for a Fluke-Core then I suppose I'll get it one. Somehow. But I want a Caligo-class soon, and I need an efficient engine to run it."

"I'll pay out of my own pocket for the element," says the Cannoneer, suddenly inspired. "Fifty crates of supplies, I can cover that out of my saved pay—I'll hire the extra crew, and as for the intelligence...well, I do still know people from the old days. They hear things. You can have both, madam, the Memento Mori and the Mechanic's engine! What a deal, eh?"

"I'll consider it." I wish for a few more grains of mutersalt, because this conversation has left me with a slippery feeling of guilt and disappointment. But all I have is this Morelways vintage, so I keep drinking, and ask him to tell me stories of Benthic.

He drinks too, and tells me of cricket matches with the Brass Embassy Ladies, and having to publicly punch the chaplain of Summerset after losing a match and a wager. He tells me how he lost his fingers, trying to demonstrate a fellow student's thesis that Congreve rockets could be used to deliver mail in London. (They can't be.) Debates in the campus public-houses and common rooms, a friendly rivalry with the Department of Venomous Rarefaction that had a comically high body count. Waking in his rooms after a trip playing chess with the boatman, only to find that he had less than ten minutes to get to an important oral exam. Successful experiments and failed ones, setting the Dean's gown on fire on three non-consecutive occasions. "He rather lost his sense of humour after that! I have no idea why. It only got funnier."

"It's just as well," I tell him, over the solacefruit sorbet. I'm getting a bit sloppy. "I'm very glad to have you aboard here, citizen. Have I ever told you that? But don't set me on fire, please. No matter how funny it is."

"Well, you always keep well back, which is what I told him to do..." The Cannoneer has brightened again after the tales and wine. "But yes, it was all for the best. All shall be well, and all shall be well—"

"And all manner of things shall be well," I say fervently, reaching for the carafe again and finding it empty. My clumsy fingers knock it over, a few dark drops spotting the tablecloth, and he reaches over to right the carafe again. His hand touches mine—it's his left, and the smooth stumps of the two missing fingers strike me as sad and endearing.

I might have straightway asked him to meet me someplace more private, but then I notice a familiar scar on his wrist, peeking out from under his shirt cuff. Years ago, my mother came home with a scar like that on her wrist and a load of nevercold brass. She'd got a good price, she told us, but the light was gone from her eyes. For weeks she wouldn't get out of bed, and when she did, she took up laudanum and prisoner's honey.

"Your soul," I murmur, tracing the scar on his wrist. It chills me. And yet I should have known. After spending years at Benthic and dealing with devils, it would have been remarkable if he'd managed to hang onto it. No wonder he felt free to double-cross his old contacts, no wonder he seems to think that explosives are a neutral hobby on par with fungal-gardening or collecting beetles. There's nothing left in him that would mind.

I meet his eyes, and I know that this dalliance won't make me forget my troubles. Too many things about this man unsettle me. I draw my hand back and pick up my napkin, folding it next to my plate. "Well. Thank you for a very pleasant dinner, citizen. I shan't keep you too late. Long day's zailing tomorrow."

He doesn't seem to understand what just happened, but he sits back as well. "Yes. Yes! Of course, right. Thank you very much, captain—a lovely evening, lovely dinner."

I see him to the door and watch him go for a second before I turn back to my own quarters. Time to sleep this off.