The day the Relegated Heir stepped off the Isle of Edonomee for the first time in ten years was also the day he became, bewildered, frightened, and barely keeping his feet beneath him, the Unexpected Captain.
Weather good, the corvette, Radiance of Cairado, picked up speed as she left the dock. The zee, pitch black and merging seamlessly into the shadows of Neath-roof, felt a lot larger than it had done on land. The waves were tipped with the zee-colour apocyanic.
The Graceful Courier, who had delivered the letter from the Wolfstack Harbour Authority (...REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT CAPTAIN VARENECHIBEL IV HAS PERISHED AT SEA STOP AS HIS NEAREST RELATIVE...), was watching him carefully as they stood on deck, but without the sort of expectation that the Captain had learnt to associate with punishment for a misstep. Neither spoke as behind them Edonomee faded and was lost from sight. The Bitter Exile – only exiled no longer, and the Captain wondered briefly as to what his name ought to become – was in his own cabin, keeping his expectations to himself.
Zee-bats were hanging from a cable overhead. The Unexpected Captain crossed the desk restlessly and tried to ignore them as their heads swivelled in unison, watching him. The childhood fear of something under the bed came back to him abruptly. His skin prickled.
'Serenity,' a Respectful Zailer said as she approached him. 'Let us show you to your cabin. At this latitude we may get caught up in the Wax Winds – we're too far north to worry about real damage, but they can be unpleasant all the same.'
The Captain glanced at the Graceful Courier, who was looking away, out to zee, then back at the Zailer. 'Very well, thank you,' he said, and let himself be ushered downstairs.
Time was more fluid onboard than it had been under the Bitter Exile's strict watch, and the journey seemed to stretch impossibly long. 'Edonomee was further west than we'd expected; the trip back will take a couple of days,' a Grizzled Crewman had informed him as he'd brought in the Captain's supper: red slabs of fish meat and slender black mushrooms in Greyfield's sauce.
'Further west...?' the Captain said, hesitantly. Edonomee was not so insignificant as to have not been marked on the map at all, surely?
The Crewman nodded and grinned and shrugged, clearly eager to get back to whatever he'd been doing. 'Not too far. Would've been trouble if you'd ended up in the Pillared Sea, eh? Or will end up, we should say.' He laughed, and the Captain laughed, desperate not to let on that he had understood nothing of the conversation, but with a sinking feeling that the Crewman knew anyway.
When the Crewman left, before starting to eat, the Captain tucked the intriguing snippet into his shirt pocket.
Over the next two days the Unexpected Captain spent most of his time sitting on his bunk, in his cabin, feeling like luggage – if particularly fragile and valuable luggage. He kept a single candle lit, which made the air smell faintly of grease. He could have lit more – there was a whole box of them, and several empty lamps, but the Bitter Exile had only ever let him have one in his room back on Edonomee, and the thought of the Exile coming in and starting to yell made the Captain's gut churn unpleasantly. The majority of the zailers kept their distance from him, or cast their eyes down and stepped aside if proximity was unavoidable. Everyone, from the Iron Republic to the New Khanate, knew of Captain Varenechibel IV and his merchant-army fleet.
Outside wax dribbled down the window pane. The constant purr of the engine did little to block out the slap, slap of the zee on Radiance's hull. The Unexpected Captain thought of zee monsters he'd read in pulp fiction furtively borrowed from Edonomee's servants, moving far below. Bound sharks with twisted skeletons and unknown organs, and albino morays with bright red eyes. Or onboard – snuffers, masquerading as zailers, their masks the faces they'd peeled off their last victims.
Any one of the crew could be a snuffer.
The Unexpected Captain moved a little closer to his single candle. It flickered but didn't go out.
When, at last, the Graceful Courier came down to the Unexpected Captain's cabin to tell him that they'd sighted Alcethmeret and would reach her that afternoon, the Unexpected Captain could not tell whether it was relief or dread he was feeling in the pit of his stomach. The knowledge that he was a captain at all, and not just of Alcethmeret, an Esathozheise-class dreadnought, but a veritable fleet of smaller ships, had not yet sunk in. He did not know how to be a captain. He did not even know how to steer a ship. The memory of his father, cold and white and very tall, standing in the bridge of Alcethmeret, felt like it belonged to another lifetime altogether.
'Will you come up on deck with us?' he asked the Graceful Courier, half because the Courier had both a genuine smile, an apparently unending bank of knowledge whilst not seem to mind stupid questions, and half because the Captain was hoping to avoid being alone with his cousin, who would have to emerge from his cabin at some point, if only to board Alcethmeret.
'Of course, Serenity,' the Graceful Courier said with a gentle tilt of his ears, and stood back to hold the door open. For the first time it occurred to the Unexpected Captain that the Courier was not an employee of the Harbourmaster, but one of his father's private couriers – his own, now. The knowledge struck him, hard. As they climbed their way up to the deck he wondered, somewhat irrationally, whether he could find an excuse to keep the Courier aboard his ship, at least until he found someone else to ask stupid questions of.
Zailers bustled about them and the Captain and the Courier stood out of their way as best they could. They watched the approaching Alcethmeret, so large that as its two enormous funnels came into view, lit from below by little red deck lights, the Unexpected Captain thought at first they must be part of an island his father's – his ship was docked at. Then Radiance of Cairado sent up a flare and the sudden burst of red light startled the Captain, and he jerked back from the railings, half expecting Unfinished Pirates to descend out of nowhere – but the black sea around them was empty, save Alcethmeret. The black Neath-roof above them remained silent, the false stars invisible beyond the brighter light of the flare. Ears burning with embarrassment he stared out at the oily water to avoid having to see any of the crew's faces.
Alcethmeret didn't send up an answering flare, but on the navigation bridge a bright light blinked out what was presumably a message, a language entirely foreign to the Captain. As the flare died and darkness returned to the zee Radiance continued onwards, adjusting her path to pull up alongside Alcethmeret's towering hull.
A tiny breath of wind stirred the Captain's earrings, making them jangle.
* * * * *
Two months after the Graceful Courier became the Adroit Secretary, the Unexpected Captain invited him to dinner in his cabin.
They ate delicate crab and laver soup, with steamed, sweet cockles and fungal bread for main course, over which the Adroit Secretary talked about official matters. ('We've finished the latest map, Serenity, but considering that our zee-bat reports Visage in the south-west, when it shouldn't be anywhere near here, we suspect another edition is in order...' and: 'Alcethmeret's course has been adjusted to dock at Mount Palmerston, to stock up on fuel; this will increase journey time by three days, but considering the other option is Gaider's Mourn...').
Over dessert, solacefruit sorbet and Darkdrop coffee, the Secretary moved on with the conversation. ('Your gunnery officer, the Prim Lieutenant, has been arguing with the Amicable Maza again. We caught the end of it – it was very charming...' The Captain laughed, and the Secretary smiled into his drink. 'The Fierce Swordswoman is insisting we go to the Mangrove College,' he said. 'She says the crew have been on the open zee too long and could do with a break – and we agree, though we suspect she may have been swayed by the rumour that there is an astrologer there about to move to the Tomb Colonies, who means to sell his equipment. And it is, after all, your sister the Erudite Archduchess's birthday soon.').
Afterwards, in the drowsy lull that follows a large meal, and before he could talk himself out of it, the Captain asked the Secretary why he was afraid of the Arrogant Nobleman, whose father captained the dreadnought Eshoravee. The Secretary stiffened.
'Serenity, it is not a pleasant story,' he said.
'We do not ask for the sake of amusement.'
The Secretary did not reply, and for a few seconds, the Captain wondered whether he had overstepped. The comfortable quiet between them was gone and he turned his head, flustered, unable to meet the Secretary's eye. A clink-clink noise was coming from the window where, outside, frost-moths were beating at the glass. On a table below sat the Captain's shrine to Salt, that his cousin had always forbidden back on Edonomee and he'd only recently had the courage to set up, discreet as it was.
Outside, in the water, something floated face-down.
'No, Serenity, we know that.' The Captain looked up and saw the Secretary cradling something in his lap, twisting it about his delicate fingers like ribbon. It glimmered darkly against his skin.
The Secretary offered it and the Captain took the tale of terror very gently, feeling it chill his fingers as he held it. His throat tightened with the knowledge of what had happened.
'Serenity,' the Secretary said, very softly. 'It was many years ago.' The Captain nodded jerkily and leant over to put it in his desk drawer. He'd have to find somewhere better later, but for the moment that would have to do. He looked at the Secretary who smiled at him, a little embarrassed, a little uneasy. He was rubbing his hands together – trying to get the feel of the tale from his skin, the Captain realised.
Without thinking the Captain reached over and touched the Secretary's hands with his own, cradling them, white in grey. Immediately the Secretary froze.
'Our – our apologies,' the Captain stuttered, jerking back. His ears flicked, dipped, refused to rise. 'Please forgive–'
'Serenity,' the Secretary said, and leant forward to grab the Captain's hands in a firm grip. He was blushing, flushed pink across his cheeks and ears. 'There is nothing to forgive.'
The Captain looked down at their hands. His own, held tight, much larger than the Secretary's: broader, thicker, darker ('like a Clay Man,' the Bitter Exile had sneered).
Tentatively, the Secretary smiled, and the Captain smiled back.
* * * * *
He dreamt of the zee, blown into blustery waves, and vast statues rising from it. A citadel, now in ruins, before him.
He dreamt that he walked down to the engine room barefoot and fed the machinery fresh gull blood (surface-imported, bright, red, sticky).
He dreamt of black and not knowing if it was zee or roof or another, unknown darkness. The black peeled away, leaving only gant and the impossible scent of pine.
* * * * *
A white zee-bat watches him as it hangs from a shelf in his cabin. It ruffles its wings and flicks its ears. The window is in front of him. The layout of the room is wrong – the Captain realises that he is standing outside, looking in. The realisation is sudden, smoothly rational, and clicks into place like well-designed mechanics. He taps on the glass, hoping someone will let him in.
His reflection smiles, picks up the zee-bat, and eats it with hands and teeth. The zee-bat does not protest, but continues to watch him. Somehow it does not seem to be diminishing.
The Unexpected Captain woke up. His heart was racing and his muscles tense. The glim-light at the ship's prow illuminated his cabin so he didn't light a candle as he got dressed, trying to stop his hands from shaking. He left feeling as tired as he had done falling asleep.
The zailers he passed on the way to the galley were hollow-eyed, twitchy. They hadn't seen land in just under a fortnight. They hadn't been allowed shore leave for three weeks, when they'd filled the hold with coffee from Adam's Way, to trade for parabola linen in Irem. Varenechibel IV had made this run countless times, the Captain had been informed, refuelling at Khan's Shadow on the way and turning a good profit.
Except this time Khan's Shadow had not been where it was marked on the map. Alcethmeret's zee-bat could not find it. It had not been within five day's journey west, nor three day's journey north. South, they had found lilypads, and were forced to circle back. 'Varenechibel IV,' the Fierce Swordswoman had said, 'had a disagreement with the Governor a few years back. Best not to go there. We can still make it to Irem without refuelling, if we're careful. Don't worry.'
She was his First Officer and he trusted her fully, but as they turned North and zailed back into empty waters he had felt misgiving like clay in his stomach.
Five days later, four weeks after leaving the Elder Continent, the Unexpected Captain knocked on the door of the Secretary's cabin and found it empty. There were endless logs to be written, and reviews of equipment and crew, the organisation of maintenance and repair, the assignment of crew duties – and while he was finally beginning to be able to do these things himself the presence of the Secretary always made them twice as easy. Leaving the cabins the Captain went to the control room in the hopes of finding the Secretary there, but only the Fierce Swordswoman and the Clerical Maza were present, looking over some map scraps and talking lowly.
'Serenity,' they said politely as he entered. The Clerical Maza had spots of blood on her sleeves, like embroidered flowers. 'There was an accident in the galley,' she said, when she caught the Captain looking. 'No need to worry, just a few scratches.'
She tried to smile but it was strained. The darkness outside might have been as thick as soup, and just as possible to drown in. The Captain thought of the Tragic Cleric and his investigation into the death of Varenechibel IV and his sons. Someone had hidden an element of dawn in the cargo hold of his father's clipper, so the Cleric had gone west, to the Grand Geode.
'Are those of any use?' the Captain said, looking down at the map scraps. The Grand Geode was always in the same place. 'We didn't know we had them.'
'No use at all,' the Swordswoman said, and shrugged. 'We might be able to sell them to the University for a few echoes, but that's about it. They're older than we are, we reckon.'
The conversation withered and died, the three of them staring down at the papers on the tabletop. 'We spoke to the Amicable Maza this morning,' the Swordswoman said. 'He's been tinkering with the engine – the gods know what he did, but fuel efficiency is up and there should be no need for light rationing.'
The Captain couldn't help his small breath of relief. The thought of zailing without the prow-light, on the open zee – goosebumps appeared on his skin at the thought, and he forced it away. 'That is good,' he said, and meant it. The Swordswoman smiled, but only briefly. Her eyes were shadowed with dark bags. Her ears were low, as if weighed down with heavy jewellery, and slow to react.
Far below, in the pelegin depths, something moved.
'Do you know where the Adroit Secretary is?' the Captain asked. His question attempted casual, and failed.
The Swordswoman looked at him and frowned. 'We thought he was with you,' she said. 'He was here, but left about an hour ago.'
An irrational pang of fear in his chest. It was fine, the Captain told himself, as firmly as he could. The Secretary was probably down in the engine room, with the Prim Lieutenant.
'Go look for him, Serenity,' the Swordswoman said, with a fond look in her eyes. 'If we catch him here we'll hold on to him until you return.'
'And we will come with you,' the Clerical Maza said, getting up. 'We've been looking at useless maps for far too long.'
The Captain nodded, grateful. 'Thank you,' he said, and left.
The engine room was crowded, zailers forming little groups, some dicing, some swapping visions of the surface. Some were muttering discontentedly, and only a few stopped as they saw the Captain enter. A Goblin-Dark Zailer stroked an araby fighting weasel. Another was slightly too slow to hide his volume of unlicensed romantic literature. The Secretary was not present.
'Serenity? Are you in need of anything?' the Prim Lieutenant said, ever attentive, as he stood up from where he'd been sitting with the Amicable Maza.
'No – well–' the Captain said. 'Have you seen the Adroit Secretary? We were looking for him.'
The Lieutenant shook his head. 'Our apologies, Serenity. He hasn't been down here.'
Fear, like unexpectedly biting the inside of his cheek. The machinery sounded ominous, grinding. It occurred to the Captain that it would be very easy to fit bodies into the fuel hatch of the engine, the thought sliding into his head as if it had always been there. The Captain gritted his teeth and forced the thought back. Why should he be frightened? There were a hundred places on board that the Secretary could be. They'd been on the open zee too long. He was being paranoid. That was all.
'Thank you,' the Captain said, and left without another word. Silently the Amicable Maza followed him, as if switching places with the Clerical Maza. He lagged a few metres behind but making no effort to catch up.
The Secretary wasn't in the galley. 'We think we saw him heading to the deck?' one zailer offered, and picked a beetle from his fungal cracker.
On the deck the False-stars glimmered above. One constellation was in the process of rearranging itself. The zee was still, the surface smooth like butter, Alcethmeret's wake a long knife wound.
The Arrogant Nobleman stood at the railings, the only one present on deck. 'Serenity,' he called, as he caught sight of the Captain. 'There's something in the water, here. Look.'
Fear caught in the Captain's throat, choking him. Without thinking he went and looked over the railings, and as he drew close the Arrogant Nobleman lunged at him with a knife. A crack like lightning.
Moments later, as the Captain sat with his back pressed to the railings, eyes fixed on the knife – skyglass, he noted abstractedly – the deck seemed to fill up impossibly fast. Zailers gawked at both him and the body.
'A Jack?' the Swordswoman said, kicking the knife into the zee. It disappeared silently. 'Or just mad?' There was a note of fury in her voice and the Captain didn't dare look at her face.
The Clerical Maza was crouching beside him, hand on his back. 'Are you unharmed?' she asked. He nodded mutely, eyes sliding from her to the Amicable Maza, who was grimacing as he shook his hands.
Then: the memory of the tale of terror, still in his desk drawer. The Arrogant Nobleman where the Secretary should have been. The knife. 'There's something in the water, here.'
The Captain lurched to his feet. 'The Adroit Secretary,' he said, and his stomach heaved. His hands shook as he leaned over the railings, searching the waters below. Blackness, nothing. He stepped back. 'He's missing,' the Captain said, forcing himself to focus on the blue eyes of the Swordswoman. 'The ship needs to be searched.'
The Swordswoman's eyes hardened in understanding, then turned. 'You heard the Captain!' she said, loud, above the restless chatter of the zailers. 'At least one zailer from each cabin search inside. You – the orlop. You, gunroom; you, wardroom. You five, storage.'
He tuned her out and walked a circuit of Alcethmeret's deck, taking in turns to search both the zee and behind the gun turrets, behind the stairs, in any nook he could find, and the Clerical Maza followed. Perhaps the Secretary was merely working somewhere quiet. Perhaps he would appear in a moment or two, utterly bemused about all the fuss. Perhaps he was lying dead somewhere. Perhaps the Arrogant Nobleman, before he'd killed him, had–
Afterwards, the Captain came back to stand by the hatch, alone except for the Maza. The Arrogant Nobleman's body was gone.
'Where is the Amicable Maza?' the Captain managed. 'We never thanked him.'
The Clerical Maza made a small gesture to the hatch. 'He went down to the engine room to help the search.' A pause. Her eyes were dry, but terribly sad. 'Serenity,' she said. 'I am sorry.'
'No,' the Captain said, and surprised himself with the force of his voice. 'We do not know, yet.'
The Maza did not reply, and something swelled in the Captain's chest, like a wave. Pain. The hair on the back of his neck prickled. It was not just the Maza who was watching him.
'What do you suppose we should do about Eshoravee?' the Captain said, just to end the silence.
'It is not our area of expertise,' the Maza said. 'But there will have to be an investigation on whether you were targeted deliberately, or if it was merely bad luck. And if it was deliberate it will have to be tied into the investigation on your father's death. We suspect Eshoravee will need a new captain either way.'
The Captain nodded. He'd known that already, of course. And there were zailers on Alcethmeret who were more loyal to the Arrogant Nobleman than anyone else, and he would have to replace them as well, if he could find them; the thought stuck in him like a splinter in the tip of his finger.
'Are you guarding us?' the Captain said. 'And the Amiable Maza?'
'Serenity,' she said, and seemed to search for an answer before settling with: 'Yes.'
The Captain closed his eyes for a long moment. 'Very well,' he said. 'But please tell us that we will not need a bodyguard for the rest of our life.'
Footsteps interrupted the Maza's answer and they waited without speaking for the Swordswoman to climb out from the hatch. 'Serenity,' she said without prompting. 'He isn't on board.'
A ringing in his ears. A white zee-bat on the cables. 'Then,' the Captain said, 'tell them that we're turning back.'
The Swordswoman's eyes snapped to him, incredulous. 'Serenity, we know that the Adroit Secretary was – important – but we cannot afford to lose time. The crew will not like it. Please reconsider.'
'No, we will not.' His hands were shaking; the floor beneath him felt insubstantial as he turned towards the bridge. 'We will not.'
'Serenity!' The Swordswoman jogged to catch up. 'Everyone is already on edge. Look at the Nobleman! You need to be in control, and currently your reputation is suffering–'
The Captain stopped abruptly and turned to her. He thought, in the corner of his mind, that maybe he was going insane. 'If our reputation,' he said, 'will suffer because we care for the lives of our crew, then it is not a reputation we want.'
The Swordswoman recoiled as if struck. The Captain bit the tip of his tongue, hard, and continued walking. 'It will be fine,' the Maza said to the Swordswoman in a low voice as they followed. 'The earliest the Secretary could have gone overboard was a couple of hours ago. A four hour round journey will not delay us significantly.'
'Very well,' the Swordswoman said tightly. 'But we shall not be the one to break the news.'
'We shall do it,' the Maza said, and clapping the Swordswoman on the back left the two of them alone.
Later they stood together in the bridge, the Captain at the wheel and the Swordswoman beside him. If he didn't look he could believe there was an eye in the water, watching him. 'Serenity,' the Swordswoman said, as Alcethmeret turned laboriously. 'We want to apologise for our earlier outburst.'
'No,' the Captain said, staring forwards. Empty waters ahead. No eye. The breath caught in his throat. 'You were right.'
'I will miss him. We all will.'
'Please,' he said, and his voice cracked. 'Please may I have a few minutes? If you're guarding us you can stand outside the door. But please let us have this.'
He could feel the Swordswoman's eyes on him but he didn't turn to meet them. 'We will be just outside,' she said eventually, and left.
The Captain shuddered out a breath and resisted the urge to crouch down, face in his hands where he stood at the wheel. Instead he went to stand by the window. He pressed his forehead against the cold glass.
Storm desired sacrificed life. Stone listened to those wounded in her name. Salt, the enigmatic, the traveller, wanted only secrets. The Captain thought back to Edonomee, and all of the places he had seen since leaving the isle. All of the people he had met.
The Captain held the secret in his mouth for a long moment before letting it go into the dark.
Slowly, the dial on the compass turned. Alcethmeret's hull groaned.
An hour and a half later the lookout shouted. Something in the water. A body – still alive.
A breath of wind. The pressure about the Captain's head – the feeling of being known – passed.
* * * * *
The Adroit Secretary was pulled up onto the deck half-frozen and raving mad. In the privacy of sick bay the Clerical Maza stripped him of his soaking clothes and wrapped him in blankets, and couldn't hide her smile as she worked. Close by, in the mess-room, there was the sound of drunken enjoyment as the crew celebrated with a barrel of mushroom wine.
'Well water,' the Secretary wheezed. 'The colour of fox fur and zee salt. They took its name and hid the name and the well water is in the zee – don't put me back – don't put me back–' He coughed, and accepted the tea the Maza handed him.
'We won't put you back,' she said, which seemed to calm him.
The Unexpected Captain looked on apprehensively. 'Is he... is he all right?'
'With all due respect,' the Maza said, 'no one is all right after a few hours in the zee. But he's not a drownie or crab-feed, so a few days of rest, good company and lots of light should be enough to bring him back to normal.'
Not entirely convinced the Captain nodded, watching from the corner of the room as the Maza folded away the wet towels and clothing. The Secretary had bruises on his face, from eyebrow to hairline, and a split lip. Three of his earrings were missing. His eyes were half-closed; he'd started to doze off.
'Thank you,' the Maza said, suddenly, her ears dipping down then up again. 'We had given up hope. Everyone had. We're glad we were wrong.'
The Captain blinked. 'We are sure any captain would,' he started, then remembered his father and closed his mouth quickly.
The Maza laughed. 'Even so,' she said. 'We would rather you as our captain than anyone else. Unexpected or not.'
The Captain blushed, and couldn't help a smile as his ears flicked in embarrassment. 'Thank you,' he said.
She went shortly afterwards ('we are certain there will be no mutinies tonight') with a knowing look in her eyes, leaving the Captain standing in the sick bay. The Secretary murmured something, indistinct. The hull creaked and groaned. As the Captain listened to it he thought that the ever-present grind and hum of the engine sounded different, somehow – kinder, more familiar than before, the sound of sanctuary in an inhospitable place.
The Captain sat down on the bed next to the Secretary, who startled awake, ears flat. 'Don't–' he blurted, then grabbed the Captain's hands as the Captain reached down to him, alarmed.
'Oh,' the Secretary said, suddenly calm, as he stared up into the Captain's face. 'We appear to be in a state of some confusion.'
'We are told you will be back soon,' the Captain said, and could not help but smile, chest aching in an odd but pleasant way.
'That is very good,' the Secretary said, very softly, and held the Captain's hands tucked under his chin. His eyes drifted closed. After a while he added: 'You came back for us. We didn't think you would.'
The Captain grasped the Secretary's hands tightly. 'Of – of course I did,' he said. The Secretary smiled.