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Ten Ways to Die at Zee

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Tim might be only a cabin boy on his maiden voyage, but he knows their Captain is the kindest lady. Who else would let the crew, afraid of the dark stones of Kingeater, have double grog portions? Drinking makes Tim feel lazy and warm and forget days of frenzied zailing, and he falls asleep quick, safe and snug.

He wakes up sluggishly; he wakes up to the Captain leaning over him with a sharp knife, and something horribly red smeared around her unsmiling mouth.

“Forgive me, child,” she says, “this place hungers,” and Tim never gets a chance to scream.

Why would anybody be afraid of this place? What silly creatures zailors are with their superstitions. Lena didn’t run away from her horrible finishing school to be a boring zailor. She wants to dance under Aestival’s pretty, pretty light.

There’s plenty of opportunities to slip away while they’re gathering supplies and preparing the ship, and she lies on pristine beaches and eats starfruit and feels very smug.

Later, on the zee, she feels stolen sunlight bubble in her blood like happiness, like joy. She watches her skin melt off her bones with delight and falls to the deck still smiling.

Adam cries and begs in the darkness of the hold, and nobody comes. He curses the day he went on leave in the Cumaean Canal. He shies from the scuttering rats that talk and wear clothes. He dreams of the bright blue sky.

When the ship arrives, the crewmen dragging him ashore seem almost ashamed. Even the soft greenish light of this place hurts his eyes after days of imprisonment. Veiled women take him to a gorgeous garden awash in scarlet, lock him into a cage, leave him alone.

When the bees come he screams until he forgets how to.

Marina’d rather not spend the night in the Chapel, but you don’t argue with your Captain on the zee, and the Captain wants to help the Navigator find his memories. She falls asleep on the narrow cot, and wakes up to a smiling priest standing over her bed.

“Your Captain needs you, daughter. Come.”

She walks with him through the twisting passages, into the room that smells familiar and coppery. The door clicks closed softly behind her. The Captain is not in the room. Three more priests turn to her, serene and gentle, and candlelight glints off their butcher knives.

The Shattered Citadel breathes despair into Nazir like no other terror of the zee did, its many eyes on him watching, waiting. The Captain leads them on, candles flicker, people die one after another, and it’s almost a relief when he slips and falls into amber.

Almost. He screams and screams and screams until liquid amber fills his mouth, his nostrils, his stomach, his lungs, covers his eyes. He can still see his mates leaving, green light through amber haze, and then darkness, and then nothing left to plead with.

He doesn’t die, and the mercy of insanity is not granted until much later.

The First Officer selects the seven of them personally; each one of them is called and subjected to a long, thoughtful scrutiny by her dark lenses. They stand at attention before the Captain, bewildered. The Grand Geode shines incandescent behind her back, throwing long shadows on the deck.

“It’s a great career opportunity,” the Captain says. “This is a naval base of good standing, and I was assured you’ll live rich, satisfied, glorious lives. Make me proud, my zailors.”

They salute her, a bit frightened and a lot excited, and only Leyla notices that the Captain won’t meet their eyes.

Miriam hates and fears Madame and her sharp safety pins more than anything else on the zee. She enters the cabin timidly, and Madame says, “Finally, you stupid laggard creature. Drink this.”

Miriam’d rather die than drink anything from Madame’s hands, but there’s no choice. She takes a sip of the bitter wine and wakes up pinned to the rack in the corner of the cabin. She can’t move.

“Excellent,” Madame says, “let’s begin now. You see, your Captain requires a special set of clothes…”

Her scissors part skin as easily as Miriam had always imagined.

It starts out so slowly. Slightly worse weather on the voyage, fogs plaguing them more often, snowstorms pursuing them past the Censor’s Arch. Sometimes the zee is like this.

She dreams about rain. She dreams about hail, about the staccato beat on dark pavement. She dreams about huddling in her childhood bed with lighting obliterating the world outside. She dreams of His presence, and she drinks in His anger, His suffering.

One night she dreams of the fire on the hill, and when she wakes up she rises like a thunderstorm, and gives her crewmates a benediction of His fury.

“Corbin,” she says, “what’s gotten into you? All this skulking, avoiding your fair share of work. Why d'you always smell of wax?”

She doesn’t know why she’s so nervous. They’ve been zailing together since they were urchins in search of fortune, and Corbin had always been moody.

“I’m just tired,” he says, and she sighs in relief, hugs him. She can hear his heartbeat, comforting and familiar… can hear it in his belly, not his chest.

She flinches backwards, too late to catch herself. The last thing she sees: a gnarled ruin of red flesh instead of a beloved face.

What a high honor it is, to zail South! Anna scurries around the ship, pulling, swabbing, and the river’s voice seeps into her arms, her legs, her mind, her soul.

Her crewmates talk to her in tongues. One eats a faceted apple and transforms into a crystal pillar, the other cuts himself open to talk to his bones, the third cries blood and rubies.

She holds out longer than most; o, how she longs to see the Presbyter! But when the ship sides are no thicker than paper she hears the river call her name, and takes its scarlet baptism.