The air … smelled.
Emily was dimly aware, at the back of her mind, that someone was knocking on a wooden door. And yet, it didn’t seem important. She wasn’t even entirely sure where she was. The ground was shifting beneath her, sending up alarm bells she couldn’t quite hear. And yet …
“Emily,” a voice called. A male voice. “Wake up!”
My original intention was to have Emily have a nightmare, which would do double duty as a brief recap. I did that before, so I decided she deserved a more sedate waking this time <grin>.
Emily jerked awake. She was on a ship, she recalled; a merchant ship that did double duty as a warship, when the seafaring states went to war. And she was heading to Beneficence. And Casper was dead …
“I’m awake,” she managed. She opened her eyes. Her stomach muttered rebelliously. “I’ll be along in a moment.”
“Good,” General Pollack said. His voice was so close that she looked around in alarm before realising that he was on the far side of a wooden door. “Come meet me on the quarterdeck when you’re ready.”
Emily nodded to herself as she heard the sound of his footsteps striding away. She was, as far as she knew, the only woman on the ship, although General Pollack had told her stories of young girls who’d run away to sea and somehow managed to conceal their gender for decades. Emily wasn’t sure how that was possible – she’d seen the crew quarters and their complete lack of privacy – but she was prepared to take his word for it. She might have tried to run away too, if she’d thought it possible. And, perhaps, if she’d had any stomach for seafaring. She’d been on the boat for five days and she still felt seasick.
It would be very difficult for a young girl to conceal her gender in such circumstances, although it might be possible if she was very careful. There are only a handful of cases that I know about in the Royal Navy – but, of course, those were the ones who were caught. A girl who established herself as a reliable hand before being discovered might be able to rely on her fellows to keep her secret.
Obviously, Emily isn’t even trying.
She sat upright, glancing around the cabin. It belonged to the captain, who’d flatly refused to let anyone else give up their sleeping space to the young sorceress, noblewoman and war heroine. Emily would have been more impressed if she hadn’t known that the captain had moved into his first mate’s cabin, who in turn had displaced the officer directly below him … she shook her head, telling herself that she should be grateful. The cabin was cramped and smelly, despite the gilded wooden bulkheads, but it was private. She’d seen the way some of the sailors – and officers – looked at her when they thought she wasn’t looking.
Swinging her legs over the side, she stood, careful not to bang her head on the low ceiling as she slipped on her shoes. Sleeping in her clothes made her feel icky, but there was no way she’d wear a nightgown, let alone sleep naked, on the ship. She took some water from her canteen and splashed it on her face, then examined her face in the mirror. Her hair was a mess – she hadn’t had a chance to take a hair-growth potion back in Farrakhan – and her face was pale, dark circles clearly visible around her eyes. She looked distressingly like a raccoon – or, perhaps, someone who’d come off worst in a fight. Her shirt and trousers looked unclean, as if they hadn’t been washed for a few days. The only real consolation was that most of the crew looked worse.
We should have teleported, she thought, as she felt the deck shifting beneath her feet. Her legs felt wobbly, just for a second. I could have teleported us both back to Cockatrice and we could have crossed the bridge there.
As a general rule, the dead are brought back to Beneficence via sea – the sea being an important part of the city’s life. In this case, Emily and the General travelled to a port five days from the city and boarded Willow there.
She took a sip of seasickness potion – it wasn’t strong enough to provide more than minimal relief, but anything stronger would have impaired her mind – and headed for the door. General Pollack had insisted on taking his son’s remains home via ship, despite her objections. In hindsight, Emily told herself, she should have asked to remain at Farrakhan with Sergeant Miles or even asked the sergeant to prolong her apprenticeship for an additional couple of weeks. But she hadn’t.
I was in two minds about cursing Emily with sea-sickness. On one hand, it’s a reasonable weakness; on the other, it seems a little pointless after a while. I was pretty seasick the first time I went on a large ship, although that faded soon enough. But a wooden sailing ship would be considerably less stable than a cruise liner.
The smell – too many humans in too close proximity, mingled with salt water – grew stronger as she pushed her way out into the corridor. She could hear chatter coming from far too close to her, but she couldn’t see anyone. A metal grate, set within the wooden deck, led down to the lower decks. The sailors would be down there, she knew; the night crew would be trying to rest, even as the day crew went to work. She wondered, absently, why some of the crew were talking. They’d be keeping their comrades awake.
Or maybe not, she thought, as she walked into the next compartment. They’ll be so tired they can sleep through anything.
She drew in her breath as she saw the coffin, mounted neatly on a wooden block. It was a simple design, with a name and a handful of runes carved into the wood. And yet, it was empty. Casper’s body had been blasted into dust, the remains drifting down towards the nexus point and vanishing. No spell she knew could salvage anything that was indisputably Casper. But General Pollack had insisted on taking a coffin home anyway. Emily didn’t think that was healthy, yet she knew everyone grieved in their own way.
Never having had children or siblings, Emily doesn’t quite grok any of this.
You’d think differently if you lost a child, she told herself. You’d want to believe that some of him had been laid to rest too.
A small book lay on top of the coffin, protected by a simple wardspell. Emily felt a twinge of pain, remembering just how many magicians and officers had written a brief farewell into its pages. Casper had deserved better, even if he had died a hero. Far too many others had already been forgotten, after dying in defence of the Allied Lands. No one, as far as she knew, had any idea how many soldiers and civilians had actually died. Most of them would only be mourned by their families.
Because common soldiers are largely worthless, as far as the nobility and sorcerers are concerned. That’s going to change, as firearms become more common, but for the moment it’s just a fact of life. Countless tiny heroics will be forgotten because they were done by a commoner. On the plus side, Gaius won’t be forgotten for a long time either.
She shook her head, then turned and headed for the outer door. A gust of cold air struck her as she pushed it open and stepped out onto the deck. Willow was rolling, gently, as she made her way along the green coastland, her deck shivering as she ploughed her way through the uneven waves. Emily felt her stomach twist and swallowed hard, promising that she wouldn’t throw up in front of the sailors. Her legs felt unsteady as she forced herself to walk towards the quarterdeck. Every movement felt, to her, as though the ship was on the verge of capsizing. She told herself, firmly, that her mind was playing tricks on her, but it didn’t feel very convincing. She’d never managed to get her sea legs.
Willow felt small to her, even though she’d been in more confined spaces. Emily couldn’t help thinking that she was tiny, compared to a ship on Earth. Ninety crew and ten guests, all crammed into her hull … she turned as she heard a shout, just in time to see a young boy scrambling up the mainmast and into the crow’s nest. The boy couldn’t be anything like old enough to shave, let alone go to Whitehall. It still surprised her, even now, to see children performing adult tasks. The four sailors who scrambled up to the forward sails dwarfed the cabin boy.
The Nameless World doesn’t really believe that childhood should be prolonged – kids start working as soon as they’re physically capable, even moving to more advanced and dangerous work fairly quickly. This wasn’t uncommon during the Age of Sail – Nelson joined the Royal Navy at twelve. Here, young boys are actually nimbler than their older peers.
Emily finds this rather disquieting, of course.
“My Lady,” Captain Rackham said. “Thank you for sharing my table.”
Emily – reluctantly – held out her hand for him to kiss, then withdrew it as soon as she decently could. Captain Rackham looked like a pirate, right down to the black waistcoat and the cutlass on his belt. He probably was a pirate from time to time, she knew; Willow was fast enough to catch and overwhelm anything smaller than a full-fledged warship, if there were no witnesses. No one would ask too many questions either. The Empire had worked hard to keep the seas clear of pirates, but it had been a long time since anyone had been in a position to patrol the waves.
Like many other traders from the Age of Sail, Captain Rackham (named for a pirate) has no particular qualms about a little piracy from time to time.
“Please, be seated,” Captain Rackham added. “My table is your table.”
“Thank you,” Emily said.
She sat next to General Pollack, silently welcoming the older man’s presence as she nibbled a piece of hardtack and salt beef. A midshipman – probably under contract to the captain – passed Emily a glass of lime juice, his eyes flickering over her face as if he were trying to memorise every detail. Emily braced herself, then drank the glass at one swallow. It was so sour that she hadn’t been surprised when the captain had told her that some of the sailors refused to drink it, even though it was the only thing protecting them from scurvy. He’d made it clear that he expected everyone on his ship to drink their juice, even if they weren’t part of his crew. It kept them safe.
The other passengers made small talk, making no effort to include her. Emily was silently grateful, even though she knew they probably considered it standoffishness. Her stomach left her in no state for idle chatter. She listened, saying nothing, as the passengers chatted about the war, bouncing question after question off General Pollack. Thankfully, none of them knew who she was. They’d be much more insistent on trying to open lines of communication if they’d known the truth. She might be in exile – technically – but she was still Baroness Cockatrice. Her word was gold.
One of my readers suggested that this was a little arrogant, if not OOC, for Emily. It probably does need revising. On the other hand, Emily’s word does carry weight – more, perhaps, than she realises. She could probably make the difference between success and failure for any number of business ventures, if she offered her verbal backing.
King Randor probably feels otherwise, she thought, ruefully.
General Pollack elbowed her, gently. “Eat more,” he warned. “We’ll be heading into land soon.”
Emily made a face as the midshipman placed a small bowl of stew in front of her, but tried to eat it anyway. It tasted faintly unpleasant, as if the meat had been cooked in vinegar. And yet, she knew she was eating better than any of the sailors. They were lucky if they got hardtack and salted fish. She’d seen a number of crewmen fishing during the voyage, trying to catch something to supplement their rations. Apparently, anyone who caught a fish was allowed to keep half of it for himself.
She glanced from face to face, reminding herself – again – that the Nameless World was strikingly diverse. Four merchants, one of them accompanied by his eldest son; three noblemen, who could presumably have used a portal and a lone man who said nothing, his eyes flickering everywhere. The merchants were chatting loudly about steam engines and what they’d do to shipping, once the first steamboats set out on the open sea. Emily couldn’t help noticing that the captain seemed vaguely affronted by the suggestion. Willow wouldn’t be able to compete if – when – the steamboats lived up to their promise.
As long as they have wood or coal to burn, she reminded herself. All this ship needs is a strong wind.
“Come,” General Pollack said. Emily looked down at her bowl and discovered, to her surprise, that she’d finished it. “We’re just rounding the headland now.”
Emily followed him, all too aware of eyes watching her as they climbed down the ladder and headed to the prow. The sailors might enjoy looking at a young woman, but the passengers were more interested in marriage alliances. General Pollack had had to explain that his charge was already engaged, much to Captain Rackham’s amusement. He was the only one who knew the truth. Emily would have found it amusing if it hadn’t been so annoying. Had they really expected that General Pollack would give them her hand in marriage?
My original intention was that everyone would know who Emily was, then I decided that Emily wouldn’t want to be publicly recognised. Having her pose as the General’s distant relative – on his side of the family – provides a workable cover story. Hardly anyone, in the days without wiki, could poke holes in the story without an insane amount of research. Captain Rackham knows the truth, but he’s the only one – keeping her identity secret means a bonus for him.
They think you’re his niece, she reminded herself. And your uncle would have considerable power over your marriage.
She pushed the thought aside as she joined General Pollack at the prow. A young lad was sitting at the very front of the ship, mounted on the bowsprit above the wooden mermaid figurehead. Emily couldn’t help thinking that he looked awfully unbalanced as he carried out his duties, but the cabin boy seemed to take it in his stride. He practically had the sea in his blood. Chances were, Emily recalled, that he was a sailor’s son, born and raised by the docks. Going to sea would have seemed natural.
“The captain is altering course,” General Pollack commented. He pointed a finger towards the shoreline. “What do you make of that?”
Emily frowned, holding up her hand to block out the sunlight as she peered into the haze. A faint smudge of utter darkness could be seen … a black cloud, hanging in the air over a distant bay. It was raining … wasn’t it? Underneath, there were jagged rocks and the remains of a building. A castle, perhaps, or a lighthouse. It stood on its own, completely isolated. There were no other signs of habitation. And yet, the cloud seemed to pulse, as if it had a malignant mind of its own …
A hand fell on her shoulder. She jumped.
“Careful,” General Pollack said. “People have been known to be … to be touched, even at this distance.”
Emily gave him a sharp look. “What is it?”
“It used to be called Roderick’s Bay,” General Pollack said. “Now, everyone calls it Bad Luck Bay.”
He lifted his hand, making an odd gesture towards the cloud. “Roderick was a sorcerer, perhaps one of the most powerful sorcerers in the world,” he added. “He was the lord and master of a small community on the edge of the Barony of Swanhaven. Thirty or so years ago, he vanished into his tower and started work on a new spell. A year after that, the tower collapsed into rubble and that thing” – he nodded at the cloud – “appeared over the remains. Since then, anyone foolish enough to go too close has suffered terrible bad luck. The community he ruled broke up shortly afterwards, most of its inhabitants heading south into Swanhaven. It was quite a scandal at the time.”
Emily frowned. “What was he doing?”
“No one knows,” General Pollack said. “But no one will risk going into the bay. Ships have been known to run aground on rocks that weren’t there before the … well, whatever he did.”
“And no one saw anything of him,” Emily guessed.
“No one,” General Pollack agreed.
I actually enjoy mentioning concepts and story hooks long before they actually come into prominence. You’ll recall that I mentioned the prospect of outright war – a resumption of the war – back in Infinite Regress – and introduced Master Grey in Work Experience. I have notes for quite a few stories, not all of them featuring Emily, that will follow up on these hooks.
Bad Luck Bay … well, we’ll be going there one day.
The mist hanging over the coastline grew thicker as Willow advanced steadily westwards, the captain and first mate barking incomprehensible orders that rang in Emily’s ears. Seagulls appeared out of nowhere, cawing to one another as they landed on the sails. The sailors cheered as the first bird touched down, then returned to their work. It was proof, Emily supposed, that they were nearly home, even though they’d been close to land for most of the voyage. No one in their right mind would want to set sail on the Great Sea, let alone the Roaring Depths. Very few ships that headed away from the mainland were ever seen again.
As of ‘now,’ there’s no way to cross the Great Sea.
But there is a third continent, Emily recalled. She’d seen the map, carved into the stone deep below Whitehall. What’s waiting for us there?
She smiled, despite herself, as she saw the pod of dolphins jumping through the waves, showing themselves briefly before disappearing back under the water. They didn’t show any fear of the boat, even though fishermen sometimes hunting dolphins. Perhaps they were trained … or, perhaps, they realised the large boat wasn’t a fishing ship, let alone a giant whaler. The sailors had told dozens of stories about men who’d set off to hunt the whales, only to discover that the whales could fight back. Without harpoon guns, hunting whales was a dangerous endeavour.
And that might change, she thought. What happens when someone invents a harpoon gun?
“Watch,” General Pollack said. The mist was growing stronger, gusts of wind blowing water into her face. “You’ll never forget this.”
Emily took hold of the rail and held on, tightly, as Willow started to roll alarmingly. She saw – she thought she saw – glimpses of rocks, just below the surface, visible for bare seconds before vanishing under the waves. They weren’t about to run aground, were they? She hoped – prayed – that the captain knew what he was doing. If worse came to worst, she told herself firmly, she could teleport off sinking ship …
… If, of course, she had time to cast the spell.
The mist parted, suddenly. Emily sucked in her breath, honestly awed, as Beneficence came into view. She’d seen the city before, from the shore, but this was different. Beneficence was perched on a towering rock, a strange mixture of buildings mounted on buildings that seemed to reach up towards the sky. Hundreds of people were clearly visible, climbing up and down ladders that went all the way down to the waterline, where they met tiny boats tied up by the cliff face. The sight took her breath away.
My general concept of Beneficence is a cross between Gibraltar, Manhattan and Malé – a mid-sized city perched on a large rock. It owes its independence to a combination of dangerous rivers and a thriving sea trade – blockading the city is impossible with the tech they have on hand. Perversely, that may change in the very near future.
Willow rounded the edge of the rock, then seemed to spin in place before lunging into a giant bay. The Caldron was immense, crammed with ships of all shapes and sizes; behind them, Emily could see ladders and steps that led up to the city above. It felt almost claustrophobic to her, as if it was both large and terrifyingly small; the water heaved and boiled, threatening to push the ship in all directions. The tiny beach on one edge of the Caldron seemed almost an afterthought. There were so many children playing in the sand that there just didn’t seem to be enough room. Their older siblings were scrambling over the rocks, scooping up crabs and dropping them into buckets. They’d make good eating, if cooked properly.
This owes a great deal to a similar beach I saw in Malé, in the Maldives. Pretty much the entire island is a cramped city, save for that little space.
“We’ll be the first off the ship, once we’re tied up,” General Pollack said. “Your bag will be delivered directly to the house.”
Emily nodded. She hadn’t brought much, beyond a change of clothes. Her staff and some of her other tools had been left with Sergeant Miles, who’d promised to take them back to Whitehall for her. There was nothing dangerous in her rucksack, certainly nothing of use to anyone else.
“Ah,” General Pollack said. He pointed towards the docks. “The welcoming committee.”
Emily smiled, despite herself. Caleb was standing there, wearing a long dark cloak. Beside him …
“Lady Barb suggested that your friend be invited too,” General Pollack said. He looked oddly amused. “I trust she will be a suitable chaperone?”
The fact that Emily and Caleb are in a relationship isn’t exactly a secret, but there’s a strong ‘what happens at Whitehall stays at Whitehall’ tradition. Here, with plenty of prying eyes, it’s better to have someone playing chaperone. It isn’t a perfect arrangement, as Frieda is also of marriageable age
“I think so,” Emily said.
“Very good,” General Pollock said. Willow bumped against the dock, a trio of sailors scrambling down to secure the lines. “Welcome to Beneficence!”