Anaroo is an airship slave, destined to spend her days running on a treadmill, winding the great springs of the Scarlet Albatross. When a storm threatens to sink the ship, Anaroo and her fellow slaves seize the opportunity to escape. Now, at last, she can go home.
However, the airship nearly sank for a reason—violent unrest among the island kingdoms below. The world is changing and the surviving inhabitants of the Scarlet Albatross will need to cooperate to survive. Anaroo and the slaves form an uneasy truce with the strange collection of ship’s officers and passengers, none of whom are what they seem.
Together, the mismatched crew will take the Scarlet Albatross on the most harrowing flight of her career—through storms, pirates, bloodshed, and war. In the end, none of them may be able to go home.
The Refugees series is related to the Guild of the Cowry Catchers series and occurs immediately after the events in those books. However, Albatross is a suitable entry point into the world of Panamindorah. You can enjoy this book even if you’ve never read any other Panamindorah novels.
You can get the audio early, as we create it, by subscribing at the $10/mo level on Patron. As of this posting, about half of the book has been released there. The regular audio book will be available from Audible.com in about two months.
Chapter 1. Blood in the Scuppers
I am Anaroo of Kwarla-conch and the Defiance. I will destroy those who chained me. I will return to Maijha Minor. I will find my way home. Anaroo began the mantra even before she opened her eyes on the dim, pitching world.
Panic. Anaroo sat still and breathed. She’d taught herself to do this—not to cry out, or flail, or begin asking stupid questions of anyone near her. She was huddled against a wooden wall, straw beneath, scratchy woolen blanket tucked up to her chin, otherwise naked. A lantern cast barred shadows across her blanket, and male voices muttered somewhere beyond it. A cell. A dungeon? No, that wasn’t right.
The broken patchwork of her memory seethed, throwing up useless connections. That drumming was not rain on jungle leaves. It was…rain on deck? On sails?
I am Anaroo. I am Anaroo. I will not forget my name. Not again. Never again.
She moved and was instantly conscious of the leather and metal collar. Slave collar. She wanted to tear it off. She was dimly aware of having tried to do so many times before.
One wall of the cell was nothing but bars. Two grishnards stood in the corridor outside, unlocking the door. The room gave a sickening pitch, and one of them staggered. The closed waste bucket, bolted to the corner of the cell, made an unpleasant sloshing noise. I’m on a ship. But that didn’t seem quite right.
Airship! Not the first airship, either. The second? Third?
“Easy, Stripes. There’s a good girl. Easy now.”
They are talking to me, she realized with a flash of shame and anger. She started to say something, then snapped her mouth shut. Sometimes, when Anaroo reached for one word, an entirely different word emerged. But I am getting better. Didn’t I speak to Needles a few days ago? The faun with the purple feathers? And he answered me, so I must have made sense. I am getting better. Each time she woke, the pieces fell into place a little faster. Best not to let the grishnards know.
Across the cell, another form stirred, another zed. This is the cell for females, Anaroo remembered. The males are next door.
The grishnard overseer gave her the sort of encouraging smile that one might offer to a dumb animal or a small child. He held out a piece of dried fruit. “There’s a good girl. It’s your shift, my dear. Up you get. Don’t make us use the lead. You know I hate to use it. Come on. You’ve had a good dry sleep, but it’s time to do some work.”
Anaroo drew both hooves beneath her and stood up, dropping her blanket. She had been naked for so long that she hardly thought about it anymore, and her tribe had never been particular about clothing. Her stomach growled, but she did not take the proffered fruit. Am I a child to be trained with treats? The grishnard overseer did not press his offering, but moved back swiftly to give her space to walk ahead of him in the corridor. I believe I have kicked that one before.
Anaroo noticed that her cell-mate gave her a wide berth as well. Perhaps her, too. The other zed slave took the offered fruit meekly from the second overseer. She moved with the downcast look of a faun born into slavery. Anaroo lifted her chin. Did I ever walk like that? Surely not.
Without further prompting, she moved down the shadowy hallway, past the bars of the second cell where the males slept, towards the short flight of stairs at the far end of the hall. She remembered the place now with perfect clarity. We sleep just beneath the forward deck…near the capstan. That drumming sound is rain. We’ve been flying through a storm for days.
She climbed the crazily tilting stairs and pushed the hatch open against a gust of wind and cold water. Ship’s lanterns gave only faint illumination fore and aft in the stormy night. The air felt chilly. Anaroo wanted to close the hatch and go back inside, but she had a dim memory of being dragged to the capstan at the end of a metal pole. So she came all the way out onto the deck, followed closely by the overseer, then the second zed slave and, finally, the assistant.
The capstan stood just forward of their hatch—a large, revolving cylinder that wound the great springs of the airship. Six of the ten slaves were chained to the bars of the capstan at any given time.
Anaroo’s stomach growled again. Maybe I should have taken the fruit. Lightning lit the deck, and thunder boomed across the sky. The silhouettes of grishnard sailors leapt briefly into focus, moving about with lifelines. Is the ship in danger? They were certainly tearing along at a tremendous pace, the wind howling like an animal in the rigging. Darts of rain stung across Anaroo’s face, and the storm seemed to be getting even thicker.
The grishnard overseer urged her to the capstan, where the shadowy forms of other slaves leaned against their horizontal bars. She thought she sensed agitation in his movements as he unlocked one of the shavier fauns and clicked the shackle around Anaroo’s left wrist. She stared at the hated chain. I will destroy those who chained me. I will return to Maijha Minor. I will find my way home.
Crack! A noise even closer than the lightning made everyone jump. The ship gave a sudden slewing motion and began to fall off the wind. A sail has parted, thought Anaroo. Or the storm has carried away a spar or a mast...or the rudder.
Voices shouted in the darkness. Feet went pounding over the deck. The faun slave who had just been unchained dropped to all fours to keep from falling as the ship tilted more steeply.
Everyone looked up and towards the mainmast. Everyone except Anaroo. She grabbed the capstan bar with both hands, watched as the overseer turned instinctively towards the crisis…and kicked him in the belly with both hooves.
If the overseer made a noise, it was completely lost amid the storm. He dropped to his knees and Anaroo’s second kick caught him in the temple. Then she was down beside him, reaching as far as her chain would allow, scrambling frantically around his jerking body for the keys. The faun who had been on all fours was trying to help her, and the assistant was leaping forward with a cry, and all the while the deck slanted more steeply.
A sword flashed in the assistant’s hand, but too late! The slaves were on him, kicking and hitting and biting. Someone was choking him with their chain. Anaroo felt the key, cold and wet between her fingers. She jammed it into the lock at her wrist, and the click seemed to reverberate through her whole body. I’m free!
* * * *
Blood ran past Marlie’s nose into the scupper as another body slammed into her. Cold rainwater mingled with the warmth as it gushed through the opening over the side of the airship. Marlie tried to wriggle away, but she didn’t dare stand up. The warmth seeped through her clothes, across the skin of her upper body, and into the fur below her waist. The Scarlet Albatross was listing so far to leeward that Marlie was lying more on the bulwark than on the deck.
One of the sailors who had landed on top of Marlie was not quite dead, and his heart pumped bright crimson in spurts past her face. The weight of his body had forced her tail and one arm through the scupper, and she struggled to draw them back into the ship. In the flashes of lightning, Marlie glimpsed the hooves and paws of the slaves and crew, scrambling over the crazily tilting deck. This is no place for a little ocelon. Between cracks of thunder, she heard the clang of swords, the bellows of combatants, and the cries of wounded.
Stop fighting and take the helm. Someone, anyone! Marlie looked away from the deck, through the scupper, and felt her heart clench. She should have been looking at the horizon. Instead, she could see straight down to the heaving, white-capped waves. The ship is going to roll.
The Albatross shuddered as her ballast shifted. The alarm bell rang wildly, abandoned by whoever had released the clapper. Marlie knew she had not overestimated the gravity of the situation when she glimpsed the quartermaster, crouched atop the ship’s only pegasus. Another sailor had attempted to jump up behind the quartermaster, but they were too heavy. The three of them lashed for a moment in the air—a whirl of feathers, flailing arms, and flying tails. The animal’s wings beat madly. It was shrieking and bucking, and then the quartermaster bludgeoned the sailor loose. He fell with a scream, and the pegasus struggled upwards into the dark sky.
That’s it, then, thought Marlie. If the officers are abandoning the ship, she’s finished. I need to get to a lifeboat, and I need a weapon. She’d already made a perfunctory search of the sailors’ bodies, but now she did so with greater attention, cold fingers fumbling through pockets and coat-linings. Not so much as a mending knife. Wyvern piss.
Marlie tried to rise, but the bodies made it difficult. The deck was almost vertical. She hissed in frustration as her paw slipped through the scupper again, and she scrabbled for a moment, hands reaching for anything, fingers closing on the fur and flesh of the dead. She was glad she’d kicked off her boots earlier as her claws splayed and caught, gouging little furrows in the wood of the bulwark. She had a sudden, absurd mental image of Lucius Creevy, the first mate, lecturing her on the difficulty of sanding away claw marks.
When Marlie managed to get both paws under her, she was grudgingly impressed to see Captain Ackleby up on the quarterdeck, still struggling with the wheel, while Creevy and two other sailors held off slaves on the narrow stairs. Perhaps all’s not lost.
Clang, clang, clang! went the useless bell. Slaves and sailors shouted back and forth—angry words, carried away by the wind. The ship’s gears made a hideous grinding noise as Ackleby struggled with the wheel and levers that controlled the flaps, rudders, and inner mysteries of the Scarlet Albatross.
Where are the rest of the sailors? They should be on the quarterdeck, helping to deal with the slaves.
A long groaning creak issued from amidships. Oh, no. Marlie glanced down through the scupper just in time to see one of the light-gas dinghies fall out of the Albatross directly below her. Most of the crew appeared to be aboard. Marlie was no expert on airships—a deficit she now deeply regretted—but she didn’t think the dinghy had been intended to carry so many passengers. The other dinghy is on the windward side of the ship—probably at too steep an angle to launch. So they all tried to fit into this one.
To her horror, Marlie saw the light-gas dinghy—which should have floated gently towards the water—skew sideways. Its parachute failed to deploy properly in the high winds. It bounced once and then flipped. The sailors’ screams were lost to the storm as they fell. In a perverse bit of irony, the dinghy then lurched upwards, free of her cargo, and buoyant. She sailed away into the night sky, a little ghost ship.
Lightning lit the deck again, and out of the corner of her eye, Marlie caught a flash of metal. Her head whipped around just as the deck plunged back into shadow. Marlinspike? She was almost certain she’d seen it…sticking in the planks, perhaps four paces away, where it must have fallen from someone’s hand or pocket. Marlie cursed the lightning for spoiling her night vision. She crouched amid the dead bodies again, her entire being focused on the spot where she thought she’d seen the spike.
One good look. Then I grab it and run for the lower decks. Maybe I can figure out how to launch the other dinghy.
She was so intent that it took her a moment to realize the Albatross was leveling. Marlie had had one paw on the deck and one braced against the bulwark. Now, suddenly, both paws were on deck. A moment later, Marlie could no longer see the ocean through the scupper. She glanced towards the quarterdeck in time to see the captain, the first mate, and two surviving crew members make a dash for the door of the stateroom cabin behind them. Now! Now, while the slaves are distracted!
Marlie’s cat eyes had adjusted. She could see the marlinspike, and she ran for it. The spike had stuck more deeply into the planks than she’d expected. It was slippery with rain and perhaps blood. Marlie tugged wildly in the darkness, listening to the scramble of slaves trying to stop the sailors, a resounding boom as the stateroom door shut…and then a voice, quite close. “Move, and you die.” A blade pressed against her cheek.
The voice was low and gravelly, but Marlie thought it was female. Without moving anything other than her mouth, she said, “I’m the ship’s healer. You need me.”
Her attacker sneered. “You’re no healer.”
Marlie struggled to control her flinch of surprise. She risked twisting to get a look at her attacker. As she’d suspected, it was the tall zed—the one with the mismatched eyes. Her stripes were impenetrable black across her sharp-boned face, but the white skin between was flecked with blood. “No healer,” she repeated. “Whether we need you remains to be seen.”
Chapter 2. Marlie
Their leader might not think Marlie was a healer, but the other slaves certainly did—four shavier and another zed. They marched her to the dispensary, where she treated their wounds at sword-point. One of the shavier was dying, although Marlie didn’t dare say so. Her keen ocelon’s nose told her what their duller faun noses could not—that his bowel had been nicked. There was nothing she could do, except ease his pain.
The zed leader—the others called her Anaroo—would accept no treatment from Marlie. She washed and bandaged a cut on her forearm by herself, and she insisted that the others identify any medicine that Marlie gave them before using it. “If you don’t know what it is, don’t take it from her,” she growled.
The others only half-listened. Marlie took this as a good sign. She’s only marginally in control of them. But she didn’t dare try to poison anyone, and she hoped that the dying shavier would last until morning, so as not to appear suspicious.
Back on the main deck, the slaves tied her to the capstan where they had previously run in endless circles. The rest of the crew were either dead or barricaded in the captain’s stateroom. Marlie saw no sign of either of the ship’s two passengers. She assumed that they, also, were barricaded in their rooms.
Anaroo left the bodies of two dead faun slaves and three grishnard sailors on deck. The fauns were laid out neatly, while the grishnards’ bodies were looted and left in a pile. Anaroo clearly understood enough about airships to know that she should not simply throw them overboard. The ship was already sailing light. With no pilot to correct her and no counterweight available, any change in her buoyancy might make her unstable. Marlie gathered that two more slaves had fallen overboard in the fighting.
That leaves six faun slaves, four grishnard sailors, two passengers…and me.
The Albatross seemed reasonably steady in the air, although she was merely running before the wind to gods-knew-where. The lightning had ceased, although rain was still coming down in sheets. The slaves were spreading out to loot the ship, and someone finally put a damper on the cursed alarm bell. They’d found the stores of food and rum, and she could hear their joyful cries on the deck below.
Marlie’s stomach growled. Rations had been cut several days ago, and it had been hard to snatch meals since the storm began. She curled up on the treadmill. The wood smelled foul, even in the rain—too much urine soaked into the planks. She lay there for a long time, listening to the chatter of the slaves and watching blood mingle with rivulets of rain.
One of the dead fauns was a shavier—a pegasus shelt, with a feathered lower body and tail. He’d had green and gold feathers, with hair and ear-tufts to match. The sword thrust that had killed him had also sheared away great swathes of green feathers, which were now blowing around the deck, sticking to everything. The other faun had been a zed like Anaroo—a zebra shelt, with black and white stripes that extended from her lower-body fur, over the skin of her upper body, along her arms and hands, over her face, even into her hair.
All of the sailors had been grishnards—griffin shelts, with golden fur below their waists; paws; and long, tufted tails. They were the dominant species in the archipelago of Wefrivain. Marlie was an ocelon—an ocelot shelt. Her pupils were slitted, and her darker skin and fur were covered with stripes and spots. Ocelons were a small species—just chest-high to the average grishnard and shoulder-height to most fauns.
Marlie forced herself to examine the tangle of arms, furry flanks, bloody paws, and tufted tails. She caught sight of a pale, bloodless face amid the pile—long, auburn hair, dark lashes. She sighed. Ostrich. A silly nickname. She racked her brain for his real name, but could not remember. He’d been young—not more than eighteen. He’d flirted with Marlie, though she’d ignored him. He was forever bringing her sweets when they docked. Marlie fixed his face in her mind. She resolved that, if she got out of this alive, she would add him to her sketch book.
* * * *
“Wake up, you slit-eyed bitch! You poisoned him! You poisoned—!”
Marlie barely registered the hoof-kick to her midriff before someone was hauling off her attacker. In the bright morning sunlight, she blinked up to see an enraged shavier faun, his deep purple tail-feathers fanning behind him.
Anaroo shoved him back. The zed had stolen a longbow and quiver of arrows. She was almost as tall as the bow, taller than many grishnards, and she towered over Marlie, as well as the shavier faun. “She didn’t poison him.”
“She did! He’s dead!”
“He had a belly wound,” said Anaroo. “He got drunk, fell asleep, and didn’t wake up.”
Probably the best thing that could have happened to him, thought Marlie, although she didn’t dare say so.
“But she treated him,” protested the shavier, less forcefully this time. There was a hitch in his voice.
“He had a ruptured bowel,” muttered Marlie. “No one can treat that.”
The shavier was crying now. “Why didn’t you say?”
“You had a sword pointed at me.”
“Go get yourself something to eat,” said Anaroo to the shavier. “No rum this morning.”
“Don’t tell me what to do,” he snarled, but he moved away.
Marlie sat up, wincing at the bruise where he’d kicked her. Her rumpled clothes were stiff with half-dried blood. “Thank you.”
“You didn’t poison him,” said Anaroo, but she continued to stare at Marlie suspiciously with her odd eyes—the right eye brown where a black stripe crossed it, the left eye blue with a white stripe. At last, she dropped a twist of salted meat onto the deck in front of Marlie, who resisted the urge to snap it up like a starving rat. She took the meat deliberately and chewed slowly. It was not enough, but even a little food would make it easier to think. Anaroo handed her a quarter-full water skin.
Marlie looked around in the bright morning sunlight. The other fauns were clustered around the quarterdeck bulkhead amid the dappled shadows from the sails. They were no doubt waiting to attack the captain and crew, as soon as they made an appearance. The bodies of the dead were beginning to stink.
Most of the fauns had stolen clothes from the sailors’ lockers and now looked much like their dead counterparts in sailcloth and leather and linen. Anaroo, by contrast, had chosen to remain naked, save for a long, red coat and a bit of rope around her neck. She was so small-breasted that she could have been mistaken for a boy if she’d put on clothes. Like all of the slaves, her head had been shaved at the beginning of the summer, but her hair was growing back now, and she had a veneer of black and white curls.
Marlie racked her brain for any bit of information she’d heard about this person. She’d only been with the Scarlet Albatross for a yellow month, and she’d rarely dealt with the slaves. On several occasions, their overseers had called her to treat minor injuries or to assess their overall health. She’d never been asked about Anaroo, although she had treated several injuries inflicted by her. She remembered the crew commenting that “the big girl’s crazy, but she sure can run.”
She didn’t look crazy now.
“Kellard...” said Anaroo slowly, drawing out the word. “That’s where I’ve seen you before.”
Marlie had thought herself prepared for anything Anaroo might say, but this took her completely off-guard. Her heart accelerated until she felt she would choke on it. How does she know that? How could she possibly know that?
Anaroo leaned in close. “Who were you here for…assassin?”
Marlie lifted her chin. “I am not an assassin.”
Their eyes locked for a moment. Finally, Anaroo straightened. “We are going to Maijha Minor. All the maps are in the stateroom with the wretched captain.”
“You want me to get them for you?” Because I’m not a grishnard…and not a faun…and not quite standard crew.
“Can you sail the ship?” countered Marlie. “Even if you have the maps, do you know how? We’re a little north of Haplag—a long way from Maijha Minor.”
Something dangerous flashed in Anaroo’s eyes, and Marlie said quickly, “I’ll see whether the captain will let me in. You have to promise that you’ll abide by any agreement I make with him. Otherwise, there’s no point in negotiating.”
“I promise nothing,” said Anaroo. She hesitated. “But I keep my word when I give it.”
Anaroo’s eyes narrowed to slits. “I want to know why you’re here.”
Marlie stared back at her. She tried to make her big green eyes look wide and guileless. “I’m an ocelon healer. I just want to get out of this alive.”
Chapter 3. Archery Contest
Mathias Kellard...personal assistant to Culowen Reza, the most notorious crime lord in Wefrivain. Anaroo had never met Culowen, but she had seen Mathias once when Gwain arranged a negotiation. Anaroo had come along as one of several bodyguards. Mathias was an ocelon—as cold a character as Anaroo thought she was ever likely to meet. This little girl...she was with him...as what? Assistant? Protégée? Marlie wasn’t exactly a little girl anymore.
Anaroo watched her closely as they walked up the stairs to the quarterdeck. She wasn’t surprised that Marlie didn’t remember her. Nobody ever remembered bodyguards. Marlie looked to be in her early twenties now. How long ago was that meeting?
Anaroo felt a moment of vertigo as the gears of her broken memory slipped and spun. She gripped the longbow more tightly, focused on the present. The weapon was well-made, and its weight felt comfortingly familiar in her hand—a bridge to the past, a hope for the future. I will destroy those who chained me. I will find my way home.
From the vantage of the quarterdeck, she could see that they were flying over calm, but windy seas. Tiny islands speckled the horizon. Anaroo spotted a waterborne ship far below.
“Captain Ackleby!” Marlie knocked hard on the stateroom door. “It’s Marlie! I’ve been sent to negotiate. Will you let me in?”
“They’ll get hungry and thirsty,” she told Anaroo. “But the captain had some provisions of his own—how much, I’m not certain.”
The shavier with the purple tail feathers—Needles—was muttering behind Anaroo. “We should try to take down the door. They might have tools that would do it.”
“Then go look for them,” said Anaroo, without taking her eyes off Marlie. When he was gone, she said, “Is there another way in?”
“I’ve already told you there isn’t.”
“What are you not telling me?”
Marlie’s spotted tail lashed behind her. She caught a quick breath and said, “I’m a tracker, alright? I was hired to search for stolen property aboard this ship. I haven’t found any.”
Anaroo opened her mouth to respond, but was interrupted by a shout from the deck. “Griffins!”
* * * *
Marlie had seen the fliers a moment before the fauns saw them, although she kept her face carefully blank. Two griffins with riders were beating up from the waterborne ship. The fauns watched them uneasily. Perhaps they were just scouts, having a look at the airship’s name. As they came closer, however, it became clear that they intended something more intimate.
An arrow sailed into the side of the Albatross, and a frightened babble erupted from the fauns as they hunkered on the deck below. Marlie crouched as well and pressed herself against the cabin bulkhead. She didn’t really think the archers would aim for shelts, but she didn’t want to test them.
Nothing about the ship’s motion changed, so the arrow probably hadn’t punched through to the light-gas bladders. However, the archers would soon be close enough to do so. Marlie did not know enough about airships to be certain how much light-gas they could lose before starting to sink, but she knew that a punctured bladder would cripple the ship. That’s probably the idea. Bring us down slowly with minimal damage so that the waterborne ship can engage the slaves and rescue the crew.
Instead of dropping to the deck, however, Anaroo put one glossy black hoof on the quarterdeck bulwark. She made a striking target with her black and white fur and skin, her red coat billowing around her.
The archers took the bait. The next shot came, not at the side of the ship, but at Anaroo. The arrow missed by an arm’s length and thumped into the wall beside Marlie, who yelped and attempted to become even smaller.
In one fluid movement, Anaroo plucked an arrow from her quiver and drew back the bow. There was a beat like a dancer’s pause—not hesitation, just practiced rhythm. Then the bow thrummed and one of the riders jerked backwards off his griffin, as though punched by an invisible fist. The griffin gave a wail that was audible all the way to the airship and dove after him.
The second rider shot almost immediately, but his arrow went wide, and this time Anaroo dropped the griffin instead of the shelt. Marlie had never seen such accurate shooting at such a distance. The other slaves probably hadn’t, either. They were cheering, chanting her name and pounding on the deck. If she hadn’t been their clear leader before, she certainly was now.
Marlie wondered whether the waterborne ship would attempt further measures. She doubted it, although the captain would probably report the incident when he made port. Most ships in these seas were merchants, and they only carried a few griffin scouts. Marlie tried to stifle her disappointment. What now?
Needles raced up the stairs to report that he’d found some tools that might be used to take the hinges off the captain’s door. He’d just begun work when the rider-less griffin came snarling over the side of the main deck. Anaroo got off one shot, which hit the griffin, but did not silence it. Then, at their backs, the cabin door flew open, and the surviving crew of the Scarlet Albatross charged out, roaring, to reclaim their ship. It must have been a cruel surprise when they found not a multitude of armed sailors from the waterborne vessel, but a single shrieking, hissing griffin, already dying with an arrow in its lung.
Chapter 4. The Captain
Captain Silas Ackleby was a trim little grishnard in his forties—fine-boned, sallow-skinned, and exceedingly freckled. He had light red hair—a color unusual in grishnards. He was the sort of captain who dressed down to his shirtsleeves more often than not and never said more than necessary. He was saying nothing now as Anaroo glowered at him over his map table and three other slaves paced around his cabin, randomly breaking things and stealing his clothes. The first mate and the two sailors who’d managed to take refuge with him were already on deck, chained to the capstan.
“We are going here.” Anaroo stabbed a long finger at the coast of Maijha Minor.
Ackleby pursed his thin lips. His hands were tied behind his back, but he kept them there so often that it looked like a natural posture.
“You will take us there, or I will kill you,” said Anaroo.
Ackleby said nothing.
“May I offer a compromise?” asked Marlie.
Ackleby shot her a quick, calculating look.
“Land the ship,” she said, “and go your separate ways. Let the fauns take the Albatross and make the most of what they’ve got. Cut your losses and walk away alive.” I’ll have to stay with the ship, of course, but if Anaroo’s only goal is to reach Maijha Minor, then we can negotiate.
“No,” said Anaroo and the Captain at the same time. It was the first word Ackleby had spoken since his capture.
“I will not abandon my ship,” he continued.
“We’ll never make Maijha Minor without a trained pilot,” said Anaroo.
The other slaves were watching in perfect stillness now. Marlie tried again, “Well, then, you’d both better decide where you’re willing to compromise.”
“No compromise,” said Anaroo to Ackleby. “You take us where we want to go, or I will begin taking pieces off your remaining crew. I will start with fingers and work my way up.”
“It’s hard to sail a ship without fingers,” said Ackleby. “Your lot can’t do it. We’ll crash into the ocean.”
“We’ll see about that,” growled Anaroo. Marlie was sure that she thought he was bluffing.
We need to refocus on what matters. “Why are the supplies running low?” said Marlie to Ackleby.
Anaroo drew a breath as though to interrupt, but seemed to think better of it.
“You haven’t been feeding them properly,” persisted Marlie. “Even the crew’s ration has been cut for the last few days. Why?” She thought she knew, but she wanted to be sure. She wanted the fauns to understand the situation. Marlie stared into Ackleby’s dark eyes, willing him to understand.
For a moment, she thought he wouldn’t answer. Finally, he said, “We have missed the last two supply stations. We were dangerously low even before last night’s…episode.”
This seemed to surprise even Anaroo. The other three slaves began whispering.
“Why?” persisted Marlie.
Ackleby’s eyes flicked around the room. He was not a trusting person. As far as Marlie could tell, his only real friend was his first mate, and his only real love was this ship...and the poppy pipe in the bottom drawer of his desk. Finally, Ackleby seemed to come to a decision. “I cannot comply with your demand,” he said to Anaroo, “because I am not sure where we are.”
This took everyone aback. Anaroo scowled, and the muttering among the slaves grew louder.
“Starting five days ago, many of the lighthouses by which we navigate at night have been unlit,” he continued.
Marlie had already heard the crew talking about this. Unlike a waterborne vessel, airships did not usually anchor at night or choose a cove to hide in bad weather. They could anchor over land or shallow water, or they could drag a sea anchor, but it was tricky. Most captains preferred to dock at ports intended for airships. Because of weight restrictions, airships could not carry all the supplies for more than a few days’ voyage, and they resupplied every three to five days, often by sending a pegasus or griffin to passing towns. Our pegasus is gone, Marlie thought with unease.
“This happens sometimes,” continued Ackleby. “We sailed on, expecting to see familiar landmarks. However, multiple lighthouses across multiple islands seem to be unlit, and this is very unusual. In addition, we have passed many burning towns. Surely you have smelled the smoke.”
Marlie glanced at Anaroo. The ground was not visible from the treadmill. Still… Surely even dull faun noses could smell it.
“Without good landmarks or weather reports, we drifted off course and encountered the storm,” continued Ackleby.
Anaroo considered this. “What do you need in order to take us where we want to go?”
“To Maijha Minor?” Ackleby’s eyes darted around the room again. “Is that where you all want to go?”
The other fauns shifted uneasily. Marlie was certain that they had no interest in going to the dangerous game park from which Anaroo had obviously been taken. Maijha Minor might be her home, but it wasn’t theirs. Her hold on them—so strong a moment ago—seemed to weaken.
“Yes,” said Anaroo impatiently. “It is where we are going. What do you need?”
“I need to know where we are,” said Ackleby, and Marlie did not think he was bluffing. “We need supplies. We need a port.”
At that moment, Needles—who had apparently been industriously trying to take the door off one of the passenger’s cabins the entire time—burst in with a cry of, “I got one, sir!” The “sir” was directed at Anaroo, for whom Needles had apparently decided that “mistress” was too weak a title.
Needles was dragging a bristling foxling by the arm. She was one of the white ones and absurdly pretty, with golden eyes and a dense, fluffy tail. The foxling was wearing a blue linen dress and short coat—sensible traveling clothes for the fall weather, if a bit overly-frilled. She’d come aboard only a few days ago and hadn’t emerged from her cabin much. Marlie had seen her, but did not know her name.
Like ocelons, and other non-grishnard panauns, foxlings were considered second class citizens in Wefrivain. They were often even smaller than ocelons, and they were canids, so they had fewer species similarities to grishnards. They weren’t de facto slaves like fauns, nor had the new slave species laws affected them. However, employment opportunities for foxlings were limited, and they did not often rise into the upper ranks of society. Airship passage was expensive. None of the foxlings of Marlie’s acquaintance could have afforded the fare.
Nevertheless, Needles seemed certain that he’d captured a prize. “We can ransom her,” he said confidently. “All airship passengers are rich.”
Anaroo had an expression of distaste. Marlie suspected that she did not feel the same animosity towards foxlings as she felt towards grishnards. “What is your name?”
“Glossy,” muttered the foxling, and, after a moment, she thought to add, “sir.”
Probably raised on a dance stage, thought Marlie. So many foxlings were, especially the white ones, and they all had names like that.
“What can you do, Glossy?”
It was an odd question. Ackleby raised an eyebrow. Glossy fidgeted. Marlie wondered if she was someone’s mistress or worse, perhaps being shipped to her master. Glossy seemed to come to a decision. She raised her chin. “I’m a healer. I can treat your wounded.”
Anaroo gave her a gap-tooth smile. “A healer? But we’ve already got one of those.” She said it with such sarcasm that Marlie bristled all over.
Needles looked uncertain. “What do you want me to do with her, sir?”
Anaroo looked down at the map. “Take her back to her cabin.”
“Do you want me to guard the door?”
“No, but do put it back on,” said Anaroo mildly. “We don’t want our healer to catch a chill.”
Glossy kept her head up as she turned to go and jerked her arm out of Needle’s grip. He ended by awkwardly holding the door for her as she made her exit.
Ackleby spoke again. “We need supplies.”
At that moment, the ship gave a violent lurch upwards. Everyone reached for something to support themselves, and one of the fauns fell over. Marlie crouched and then gritted her teeth as the surge was followed by a stomach-clenching drop. Ackleby swayed, but did not fall. “We also need to adjust our course. You’ve been lucky to stay aloft this long without a pilot.” He hesitated. “And the springs need to be wound.”
Anaroo stood up from her crouch. “Well, then you’d better start running.”
As she pushed him towards the door, Ackleby said, “If you’re going to captain this ship, may I suggest you put on clothes?”
“I have sworn an oath,” she said, “that the next clothes I wear will be the skins of those who chained me.”
Marlie had to admire Ackleby’s composure. “The coat doesn’t count?”
Anaroo twitched her tufted tail. “I have not sworn to be cold.”
Chapter 5. Wait
Ackleby pushed the capstan with the four remaining members of his crew. One grishnard sailor, Lark, was limping badly. Anaroo finally allowed him to sit out, as he was only getting in the way.
Marlie wasn’t doing much better. She had to reach up to grasp one of the capstan handles. The first mate—a massive, dark-haired mountain grishnard—could have lifted her with one hand. Still, Marlie tried. Her arms were shaking, and she was drenched with sweat by the time they finally got the springs wound to Ackleby’s satisfaction.
When he left the capstan for the quarterdeck, Anaroo followed him. “Set your course for Maijha Minor,” Marlie heard her say. “If we pass an island where we can hunt for food, we’ll stop.”
No one spoke when Marlie left the capstan to have a look at the injured sailor, curled in a miserable heap against the bulwark. He was one of the young ones, perhaps twenty. Marlie was impressed that he had stayed to fight with the captain instead of fleeing with the others. His name was Jase, but everyone called him Lark, on account of his beautiful singing voice. Marlie had heard him say that he dreamed of becoming a minstrel, creating ballads about great adventures.
He doesn’t seem so enthusiastic now that he’s actually living one. Lark’s clothes were half-shredded. The slaves had kicked him repeatedly in the lower thigh, back and buttocks. A faun’s hoofed kick was nothing to sneer at, especially with the kind of leg muscles these fauns had developed. The sailor’s leg was so bruised and swollen that Marlie thought for a moment it was broken. However, upon closer inspection, she found the bone was sound. He’ll hobble for ten days at least, but he’ll get better.
Marlie watched the quarterdeck out of the corner of her eye. She didn’t think that Ackleby could sail the ship properly without his crew to adjust the sails and rigging. However, he made no further requests as he worked the levers and pedals around the wheel. He did say something quietly to Anaroo. A moment later, she gestured the other zed up to the quarterdeck. They were calling him Stubs, on account of his docked tail. He hadn’t corrected anyone. Marlie got the idea that none of the remaining fauns knew each other very well.
A moment later, Stubs came down to inform the three shavier that they were to dump the bodies of the dead.
“Well, thank the Firebird,” muttered Needles. “They stink.” Even the griffin’s body had been retained in hopes of restoring proper ballast.
“Are you sure?” asked another, a mangy-looking blue. “I mean, the weight…”
“We take on supplies all the time, don’t we?” said the third. He had green feathers, and Marlie had heard Needles calling him Hawthorn. “And the pegasus comes and goes. The weight can change, and the ship still flies.”
“The captain said to dump the bodies,” reiterated Stubs, “and Anaroo agreed.”
“You think we can trust the captain? He probably wants the ship to crash.”
“I told you—”
“Dump the bodies!” bellowed Anaroo from the quarterdeck. “Gods’ blood and brains! Just do it!”
Marlie and Lark watched without comment. Well, you’re right about one thing, thought Marlie. You certainly can’t trust the captain.
* * * *
They sailed through relatively calm air for the rest of the day. Twice, Marlie saw storm clouds on the horizon, but nothing broke overhead. Airships were delicate things, intended for short voyages in clear weather. This fall run was to have been the last of the season for the Scarlet Albatross. The first of the winter storms posed a serious threat, and many captains would not have taken a ship up at this time of year. Ackleby was a superb captain, but not usually reckless. Someone put a lot of pressure on him.
That evening, Lark was returned to his chains on the capstan, but Marlie was allowed to see to the wounds of the crew and then to re-dress the fauns’ injuries before being tied to the capstan herself (the chains were too large for her). There was a brief discussion of stripping the crew naked—an idea that filled Marlie with unease for several reasons. However, in the end, the slaves decided that watching the sailors foul their clothes would be more entertaining.
Marlie thought this had more to do with their desire to avoid the first mate than anything else. Creevy had said nothing since they chained him, but he’d kicked off his boots, and he periodically flexed his claws against the deck. They were as long as a faun’s finger. No one wanted to be eviscerated while trying to undress Creevy. The other grishnard—a grizzled deckhand in his fifties named Marmot—didn’t look ready to roll over, either. The fauns kept well away from them.
That night, Ackleby insisted that they anchor. “We do not have a night pilot,” he said, “and I need to sleep. You cannot simply let the ship run before the wind, not at this time of year. We will end up in the sea.” He had located a rocky atoll, where he said the anchor would catch securely. It was a clear night, with all three moons nearly full in the sky.
Anaroo argued at first, but the other slaves were not backing her. Marlie was certain that they were worried about their prospects on a ship that they did not understand. Marlie was sorry that Ackleby could not have found a forested island on which to anchor. If he’d gotten low enough, most of the fauns might have run off in the night. They don’t want to go to Maijha Minor any more than the grishnards do.
In the end, Anaroo relented, and the slaves themselves lowered the anchor under Ackleby’s supervision. Marlie could tell they were getting tired. The excitement and exertion of the past day, combined with less sleep and more food than they were accustomed to, was making them sluggish.
Anaroo said something to Needles about taking water and food to Glossy. There’d been no mention of the second passenger, and Marlie wondered whether the slaves knew he existed. She was curious about this person, who’d never once emerged from his cabin and whose meals Creevy had always hand-delivered. Even the hallway that led to his room was kept locked, so Marlie had never gotten so much as a scent. She had heard Creevy refer to the passenger as “he,” and she gathered that the ducks in the hold were reserved for his dining pleasure. Could he have died during the storm? Hit his head, perhaps?
Ackleby was chained with his crew for the night. The grishnards could sit against the capstan, although the chains kept one hand above their heads. Ackleby and Creevy exchanged a glance as the captain lowered himself to the deck. After a moment, Creevy murmured, “Skipper…”
Ackleby gave a slight shake of his head. He dipped a finger in the blood oozing from a cut on his arm and traced a single grishnard character on the treadmill. “Wait.”
Chapter 6. A Legal Dispute
Marlie woke to the thump of running hooves. Dawn glowed along the horizon. The fauns were all on deck, shouting accusations at each other and gesturing wildly at something below them.
“You were sleeping!” snarled Needles, giving Hawthorn a vicious cuff on the side of the head.
“Stop that!” thundered Stubs. “We’ve got to unhitch the anchor! How do we unhitch it?”
The other faun was already trying desperately, but he couldn’t figure it out. Anaroo stood poised on the bulwark, bow drawn, but she couldn’t seem to decide what to shoot. At last, she shot three arrows in quick succession. Then more griffins than Marlie could easily count flashed over the sides of the Scarlet Albatross.
Marlie blinked. These aren’t ship’s scouts. The griffins wore leather and chainmail barding, and their riders had light armor as well. One of the griffins smacked Anaroo right off the bulwark as it came over the side. Her arrow was sticking in the barding near its shoulders. The griffin opened its beak as though to rip her head off, but the rider on its back barked a command, and the beast merely pinned her there.
The other fauns had been herded together against the railing, weapons slapped from their trembling hands by splayed claws. The riders hopped down and began tying them. “The keys are on that one,” called Creevy, jerking his head at Needles.
Their grishnard rescuers retrieved the keys, but they did not immediately unchain the crew. Marlie glanced at Ackleby. He wasn’t smiling.
A moment later, two more shelts came over the side on less heavily-armed griffins. One was a hunti—a hyena shelt, with gray and brown mottled hair and skin. He had gold earrings and a necklace of what looked like finger bones. The other was a lowland grishnard with a zebra-skin coat and a too-bright smile.
“Silas Ackleby,” drawled the grishnard. He had ruby earrings that flashed in the rising sun. His eyes flicked over the group chained to the capstan. “And Lucius Creevy! I cannot express my pleasure at meeting you again.”
“What are you two doing here?” snapped Ackleby.
“Freeing your ship from a slave uprising, apparently,” said the grishnard as he crossed the deck. “Aren’t you going to thank me?” The hunti came swaggering behind him, his brush of a tail flicking back and forth.
“Thank you,” said Ackleby stiffly. “Now unchain me and my crew.”
The grishnard stopped, almost nose-to-nose with him, a beam of the capstan between them. “Offer me money,” he murmured.
“I’ll give you my ransom,” growled Ackleby. “And theirs, too. You can gloat when my crew have had some water. The passengers must be half dead.”
The hunti was walking slowly around them. “You stink,” he said.
Marlie heard Creevy take a slow, angry breath.
“Offer me favors,” breathed the grishnard.
Ackleby’s mouth had hardened into a bloodless line. “You want something transported?”
The grishnard gave a low chuckle. “That’s a start. Keep going.”
“What do you want, Percival?”
The newcomer’s fist lashed out. He caught Ackleby in the belly so hard that he lifted him briefly off his feet. Ackleby staggered. He caught himself on the beam of the capstan with a white-knuckled hand. The grishnard shouted in his face. “I want to see you hang and your ship stripped and sold at auction, you thieving bilge rat! I want to kill every whore you ever bedded and every bastard you ever sired! I want to erase you!”
Percival’s fist lashed out twice more in quick succession. Ackleby, already white, dropped to the deck, his chains clanking.
Percival’s face had flushed crimson. “I lost my ship because of you!”
“So you turned pirate?” rasped Creevy.
The hunti spoke from behind him with perverse serenity. “Of course not, Gus. What my colleague is trying to say…with unnecessary punctuation…is that we have a letter of marque. We’re privateers, not pirates. You are on our list of wanted persons. Magister Tury of Port Anastar is exceedingly anxious to see you.”
Most of the hunti of Marlie’s acquaintance spoke with the thick accent of the Lawless Lands, but this one must have been raised in the crescent. His grishnard was flawless, even cultured. His speech made a strange counterpoint to his barbaric jewelry.
“Bounty hunters,” spat Creevy. “It suits you.”
“I’m going to enjoy watching you choke, Gus,” murmured the hunti.
Marlie straightened. She thought she understood the situation now, and her course of action seemed clear. Time to establish who is holding the ace. “I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t let you take them.” The privateers turned to look at her with vague distaste and a complete lack of interest. Marlie adopted as commanding a posture as she could manage while tied to a capstan bar. “I have already arrested them.”
Percival’s eyebrows rose. “And you are…?”
“Maijhan Sea Watch. I report directly to Captain Merriweather of Port Royal. I was bringing them in when the slaves revolted. They’re already Maijhan Sea Watch prisoners. You can’t take them anywhere until the Maijhan Port Authority has made a decision.” Marlie reached inside her shirt, fished in her smallclothes, and produced her carefully hidden medallion of office. She’d worn it against her skin since boarding the Scarlet Albatross. The risk was not insignificant, but she’d known she might need to prove her identity when the time came to act.
There was a catch, of course. She hadn’t precisely arrested anyone…yet.
Marlie could have kissed Marmot when he muttered, “She’s right, you know. Arrested them two days ago before the storm. Then the slaves revolted and everything turned upside down.” Marlie made a mental note to make sure Marmot got off lightly. He’d delivered his statement with the perfect combination of forthrightness and embarrassment.
The privateers looked taken aback. Marlie could tell that they wanted to fling her medallion over the side, but common sense made them hesitate. Port Royal had far greater clout than Port Anastar.
Marlie’s eyes flicked around the deck. You’d like to kill me and continue on your way, but if even one person here reports what happened, you’ll lose your commission and possibly your lives. Do you trust every one of your marines to keep your secret? Are you prepared to kill all of the surviving crew?
Marlie was fairly certain that the answer was no. However, her position remained precarious, since she was technically lying about the arrests. She was afraid to look at Ackleby or Creevy. The captain was in no condition to deny anything, curled up on the deck, trying to remember how to breathe. Creevy, though… She could feel him glaring at her. Keep your mouth shut.
Grudgingly, Percival said, “And what are you arresting them for?”
Marlie weighed her options and decided to take the low road. “Impersonating a grishnard.”
The hunti’s eyebrows rose.
“Silas Ackleby is a leon,” continued Marlie. “Lucius Creevy is an accomplice.”
Chapter 7. The Fine Distinctions Between Felids
The hunti’s name was Layjen. Marlie could tell that, while the privateers were still smarting at being cheated of their quarry, the revelation about Ackleby’s identity had gone a long way towards easing the sting. “I knew there was something unnatural about you, Silas,” purred Percival as the prisoners were unchained and tied hand and foot. “Everyone should have guessed with hair that color. A little flea-bitten, earthbound lion shelt. You’re not even an avian species. Whatever made you think you could captain an airship?”
“I hope the court cuts off your prick and publicly dissects it,” said Layjen. “I wonder if they’d let me add it to my little collection after they hang you.” He jingled his necklace.
Not a chance, thought Marlie, but she let the privateers enjoy their moment of victory.
Unlike grishnards, leons had a baculum—a penis bone. It was the only proof-positive way of telling the two species apart. While it was not illegal to do business in Wefrivain as a leon, it was certainly more difficult. Local laws varied widely. Some ports laid restrictions and additional tariffs on cargos transported by non-grishnards, and some merchants simply wouldn’t deal with them. It was a well-known fact that a cargo transported by, say, a hunti, was twice as likely to be chosen for random inspection as one transported by a grishnard.
For this reason, felid species similar to grishnards, such as leons and leopons, had a powerful incentive to pass themselves off as grishnards if they could get away with it. However, while being a leon was merely disreputable, impersonating a grishnard was illegal. The crime was punishable by branding at the very least. Some courts would hang them.
Grishnards, of course, took a dim view of public groping as proof of their species identity. Courts required a fair amount of proof before they would force an individual to submit to a physical inspection. Marlie had no doubt whatsoever that Ackleby was a leon. However, Captain Merriweather had never shown any interest in persecuting leons. If Ackleby hangs, it’ll be as a smuggler, thought Marlie. But that will be harder to prove, and the full extent will be impossible. We might have to settle for the leon charge just to take his ship.
“Can we offer you a few griffins to reach the nearest town with your prisoners?” asked Percival.
Marlie almost laughed. Nice try. “I’m afraid I must seize the entire airship. The court requires the ship as part of its case. Impersonating a grishnard is not the only charge. We believe these two are part of a large smuggling network. We may capture others before we’re finished.” She gave Percival a withering look, and he retreated quickly. Don’t tempt me, you jumped-up pirate.
“Naturally,” said Layjen. “We’ll keep the slaves, of course?” He spoke with only the barest hint of a question. “Surely you’re willing to leave us something for our trouble in rescuing you.”
Marlie hesitated. “I suppose. What do you plan to do with them?”
“Oh, we’ll sell them to a mine,” said Percival.
Without any mention of their previous behavior. I see.
“They’ll be dead before mid-winter, I assure you,” he continued. “The mine gets some work out of them, we get a little money, you get Silas and the Albatross. Everyone’s happy!”
Marlie, for whom happiness was a foreign concept, nodded. She had a sudden sharp mental image of Anaroo standing with one hoof on the bulwark, her bow drawn, and the red coat billowing around her. I will draw her like that.
“What about the two remaining crew?” asked Percival, now full of unctuous solicitude.
“I’ll want them all,” said Marlie, “although they’ll probably go free after questioning.” She made sure she said it loud enough for them to hear. Keep your mouths shut. Whatever you may think of me, I’ll treat you better than these privateers are likely to treat you.
That goes for you, too, she thought, as Ackleby and Creevy were trussed up for transport.
“Are you planning to let the passengers rot?” demanded Creevy.
“Of course not,” said Marlie. “Is there a master key to their cabins?”
Ackleby raised his drooping head and spat out a mouthful of blood. “False bottom of the dresser,” he rasped. His eyes met Marlie’s, and his lips gave a twitch that might have been a smile.
Gratitude...for keeping him out of the hands of the privateers? Possibly. However, Marlie’s intervention could not be more than the coldest of comforts to Ackleby. She had come aboard his ship under false pretenses, spied upon him with the intent to take his dearest possession, and now revealed a deeply personal secret to his mortal enemies. She could not shake the notion that there was something ominous in his smile as she went with Percival to retrieve the passengers.
Glossy opened the door when they knocked. She had clearly been expecting them and she had her little travel bag in hand. However, there was no joy on her face. She was composed, but ashen, as a marine led her away. Marlie did not like the situation at all. She promised herself that she would make sure Glossy actually reached her destination and did not end up the plaything of a privateer’s crew.
The locked passage to the second cabin proved unexceptional. Marlie identified a felid scent and a definite male musk. The cabin door itself did not open to their knocking or their shouted assurances of rescue. At last, they put the captain’s master key to the lock. Marlie noted, curiously, that this door had an optional lock on the outside. She tried to remember whether Glossy’s cabin had had such a lock. She didn’t think so.
Inside, they found chaos. Two fold-out beds had either been left open when the storm started or had come unlatched. One of the beds was in splinters where it had crashed violently back and forth against the wall during the ship’s gyrations. There was water on the floor, and sodden bedding everywhere, along with the jagged remains of a wash basin.
Marlie and Percival stared around the room. Glossy’s cabin had been in some disarray, but she had clearly done her best to keep everything battened down during the storm and had put things to rights as best she could afterward. The inhabitant of this cabin had made no such effort. The person also seemed to have vanished.
“Halloo!” called Percival, although it wasn’t a big cabin, and they could see everything from the doorway. A large porthole window in the far wall was shut tight, and Percival made his way gingerly across the floor to open it.
Layjen stuck his head in. “This passenger fell overboard during the storm or just before it,” he said without much interest.
Marlie frowned. “Then how was the door locked?”
Percival was looking at the water on the floor. “He probably fell out the window. You said the ship almost broached-to?”
“Well, then this passenger fell out the open window,” said Percival. “That’s why the room is so wet. Afterward, the wind or the ship’s movement slammed the porthole closed again.” He demonstrated with a jerk that closed the window.
Marlie supposed it was possible with a lucky swing. Percival picked his way back across the room. “Sorry, Officer. You can’t save ‘em all. You can join us for dinner, though. We have some excellent Serinese wine.” He continued more seriously. “Also…I can better-care for you and your prisoners on my own ship. We can talk about your plans for the Albatross tomorrow. I gather you’re a little out-of-touch with what’s been happening in the crescent lately?”
Marlie kept her expression neutral and said nothing.
Percival shrugged. “I’ll do my best to get you all headed in the right direction, but at least let my crew examine the airship for storm damage this afternoon. Most of my sailors have been on airships before; they know what they’re doing.”
Marlie decided this was not a battle worth fighting. Besides, she was out-of-touch and needed whatever information and expertise these privateers could offer. “I will accept your hospitality for the evening. Glossy can make her own decision, but I suspect she is most interested in a quiet, comfortable place to sleep. The prisoners are not to be mistreated.” She resisted the urge to ask about the slaves.
Marlie lingered a moment in the cabin after Percival and Layjen had gone. She was a specialist in scent-tracking—her native ocelon abilities honed to a fine pitch. Marlie had known that Ackleby was a leon from the day she met him. The evidence of her nose was not admissible in court, of course. But she had known.
She closed her eyes now and concentrated. She noted complex scents in the cabin. Urine and feces, but that was to be expected. A strong odor of wet feathers from the bedding, wood and pitch and tar… Marlie concentrated.
She opened her eyes and jumped. I might have tried looking first. In the sodden white bedding beneath her, she saw the faint outline of an enormous bloody paw-print. He cut himself on the broken dish. The passenger had to be either a large grishnard or… “Leopon,” muttered Marlie. She could smell it now—tweezing the scent apart from other scents in the room, sifting the fine distinctions between felid species.
Leopons were leopard shelts, and they’d been included in the new slave species laws earlier that year. They had only one large population in the islands—a family of criminals on the troubled, deeply corrupt island of Sern. The family was headed by an aging, but still dangerous patriarch named Culowen Reza—a person with whom Marlie had more experience than she cared to admit. Anaroo’s face leapt unbidden into her mind. Kellard…
Marlie shook her head and focused on the present. She was certain that the Albatross’s missing passenger had been a leopon, and this confirmed her deeper suspicions. You were right, Captain Merriweather. This has Culowen’s pawprints all over it…almost literally. He sent a personal escort. Just as well that person is dead.
Marlie picked her way back across the room and out the cabin door. The short hallway was partially open on her right, letting in sunlight and air. As she moved away, she heard a soft thump. Marlie glanced back. The cabin door was swinging gently. I must have brushed it, she thought, although she knew that she hadn’t.
Marlie’s scalp prickled. Time to get off this unlucky airship. Dinner with the privateers was sounding more and more attractive. At least they can tell me what’s been going on for the last few days.
Chapter 8. Contraband
“A faun uprising on Maijha Minor. That’s what we heard, and the unrest has spread to other islands. Might have been a good time to be away from home, eh?” Percival refilled Marlie’s glass. His golden eyes shone in the light of the cabin lamps.
“Of course, Sern has been having troubles all year,” said Layjen. He tapped the decanter. “This might be the last Serinese red you see for a long time.”
“Everyone keeps saying things are getting better,” said Percival, “but they’re not.”
Marlie nodded and pretended to sip her drink, conscious that she should not become too relaxed here. The ship was called Anemone, and she was painted a deep blue-green with gold trim and a bronze squid figurehead, its beak open to the sky, its tentacles curling up the bowsprit and over the prow.
Marlie gathered that the ship Percival had lost in his competition with Ackleby had been an airship, but that had been years ago. Whatever financial troubles the privateers had gotten themselves into had obviously been resolved. The Anemone had a sumptuous dining cabin, with colored-glass oil lamps, a glossy, dark wood table, and lushly padded chairs. The cabin seemed worlds removed from the anxiety and hunger of the last few days.
“Of course, everyone with a score to settle has seized the opportunity,” said Layjen. “Some of the little holdings with bad blood between them have decided to start scrapping again, now that the kings of the Great Islands have bigger things to worry about. That’s probably what you’re seeing with the lighthouses—islands raiding each other and burning coastal villages.”
“And all because of this.” Percival slid something across the table, and Marlie stiffened. It was a book, hardly larger than her hand, bound in simple leather. Phonetic characters had been stamped onto the cover: The Guild of the Cowry Catchers.
“That’s contraband,” said Marlie.
Percival spread his hands. “I know! We took several crates of them off the last pirate we captured. We’ll turn them in to the Temple Police or a port authority when we get a chance, of course.”
Marlie looked at him narrowly. I doubt that very much. But contraband books were small quarry compared to what she was chasing. “I hear they’re more valuable than sweet-leaf right now,” she said with only a trace of sarcasm. Neither of the privateers looked surprised. You’ll sell them the first chance you get.
“Kind of interesting,” murmured Layjen. “We’ve noticed changes in the copies we’ve picked up over the course of the summer. People are adding to them—mostly to the jokes and pictures, but also to the ideas. It’s almost a living thing…”
“Well, unlike a living thing, it’s been difficult to kill,” muttered Marlie. The Maijhan Port Authority had burned copies of that book—both when it was still called The Truth About Wyverns and later when it became The Guild of the Cowry Catchers. She’d read it once, but found nothing earth-shattering. Of course the gods were predatory; didn’t everyone know that?
Apparently not. Revolt against grishnard authority and attacks upon the Temple had followed as the book’s popularity spread outward from Sern. The wyvern gods of Wefrivain might be brutal in their appetites, but they did keep hostilities between islands in check. Now, the forces that held the winds of war at bay were loosening.
Marlie had known all that. But a faun uprising on Maijha Minor was something new. Maijha Minor was practically in her backyard. She wondered how Captain Merriweather was handling it.
“…backlash against the new slave species laws,” Percival was saying. “When Temple Police tried to take the ocelons off their ships, the crews mutinied. The Temple has responded with more aggressive inspections, of course.”
Marlie’s attention heightened as she realized where he was going with this.
“I assume you are technically Captain Merriweather’s…?” began Percival delicately.
“I am technically his slave, yes,” snapped Marlie. And if you ask to see a brand, I swear I’ll dig out every skeleton in your sea chest and make you choke on them.
But Percival sensibly dropped the issue. There was a moment of uncomfortable silence. Marlie picked up the book and leafed through the pages to avoid looking at anyone. She glanced at the crude wood-cut images without really seeing them. Ackleby had never once asked for proof of ownership. He’d not even assigned her a nominal owner aboard the Albatross, although she had assumed he would vouch for her if they were inspected.
Marlie’s head began to ache as Percival launched into further details about piracy in the inner crescent. Did Anaroo know that Ackleby usually releases his slaves at the end of the shipping season? Probably not. I don’t think he tells them.
Marlie found a suitable place to interrupt, “Thank you for your hospitality. The last few days have been exceedingly taxing, and I must bid you goodnight."
Chapter 9. Complications
Marlie woke from deep sleep in the second watch of the night. She’d been turning her problems over as she drifted, and, somewhere in her dreams, she’d made a decision. I have to destroy the Albatross.
She didn’t want to. She could not explain her reasons to the privateers, and they might kill her if they found out. And then there was her mission itself. The ship was far more valuable to Merriweather in one piece. But we’re a long way from Port Royal. Can I maintain possession of an airship over…what? A red month? More? We’re half the crescent away, and this is storm season, to say nothing of wars, pirates, and local skirmishes.
I don’t know how to sail an airship. I could try to hire a crew on credit, but I’d have to depend on the honesty and goodwill of shelts I know nothing about. More likely, I’d need to find a waterborne ship to tow the Albatross all the way to Maijha. The privateers won’t do it. They’ll dump me and my prisoners in the first available port, and probably try to steal the airship on their way out.
That must not happen.
Marlie rose in the dark and dressed. Moving with feline stealth, she crept out of the passenger’s cabin, down the hall, up a flight of steps, and then cautiously up another flight to peek onto the main deck. She saw a hunti sailor on watch, but he looked relaxed, and presently he paced aft out of sight.
Marlie examined the situation. A rope ladder from the Albatross was lashed to a bollard on the Anemone’s deck. To her relief, she saw that the Albatross’s cargo cage was also on deck, anchored with nothing more than a couple of crates. The half-formed plan that had been stirring in Marlie’s mind blossomed into detail.
The cargo cage was designed to drop gently from the airship when weighted. When empty, it rose via a counterweight. Marlie eyed a lantern on the foredeck. Would the cargo cage still rise with only the lantern? Marlie was almost certain that it would. All she needed to do was push those crates off, put the lantern inside, unscrew it, and tip it over. By the time the cage caught fire in earnest, it would be in the belly of the airship just beneath the light-gas bladders.
All ships burned easily with their tar and oil-based paints. Airships were particularly vulnerable to fire, because light-gas was explosive. Unless the marines aboard the Albatross found the fire almost instantly, the ship would be beyond saving in a matter of moments.
As the hunti made another leisurely round of the foredeck, Marlie allowed herself to admire the Scarlet Albatross one last time. She hung above the Anemone in the light of three moons. Her red paintwork looked almost black in the low light, but her gold trim and gilded figurehead gleamed. Like the Anemone, the Albatross had two masts. However, airships required about twice the interior space of an equivalent ocean-going vessel in order to hold an adequate supply of light-gas. The ship’s size was deceptive—a thin shell filled with air bladders and containing only a small amount of space left over for cargo and crew.
The privateers had spread a few more sails to keep the Albatross riding steady at anchor, and the cloud of white canvas contrasted sharply with the red of the hull. The most noticeable part of the ship from this angle, however, was her keel—an enormous sweep of curving wood and gilded metal, ending in a keelhead figure.
The namesake of the Scarlet Albatross spread its polished wings above the Anemone, making the keel look almost like the flukes of a whale. The bird’s neck stretched out to a curling point of beak. The feathers were traced in bronze and gold leaf. Marlie thought privately that it looked more like a peacock than an albatross. Still, it was very beautiful. The ship’s lookout basket hung as though clutched by the bird’s beak. The keelhead looked small from down here, but the one time Marlie had been in the basket, the gilded bird had seemed larger than a griffin.
Marlie had always appreciated beauty, and, for one moment, she wavered. Just do it. As the hunti on watch padded out of sight again, Marlie darted from below decks and slipped across the open space to the deep shadows around the Anemone’s capstan. She crouched there, assessing the lantern, as well as the crates anchoring the cargo cage. She’d decided on the minimal number of movements necessary to accomplish her goal and was poised to spring into action, when a voice at her elbow made her jump with surprise.
“What are you doing?”
Marlie’s head whipped around. A small person was crouching in the shadows beside her. It took her a moment to realize that it was Glossy, dressed in dark clothes and boots, her fluffy tail wound with black ribbon, and a hooded cloak hiding most of her pale hair and skin. Marlie stared at her.
Glossy had requested dinner in her cabin. Marlie couldn’t blame her for wanting some peace and rest after the last few days. Until that moment, she would have bet her dewclaws that Glossy was in her room fast asleep.
Behind them, the pad, pad, pad of the night watch hunti approached the capstan. Marlie and Glossy froze, looking at each other, hardly breathing. Glossy’s irises were a deep copper-gold, but the pupils had dilated to pools of blackness in shadows beneath her hood.
When the hunti’s footsteps receded, Marlie hissed, “What are you doing here?”
“I asked you first,” snapped Glossy, her expression taut.
Marlie’s thoughts raced. The truth might work best. “I have to sink the Albatross,” she whispered. “There’s something very dangerous on that ship.”
Glossy’s doll-like face twisted in the moonlight, and now the expression was unmistakably horror. “No. No, you can’t.”
“I think the danger for us is minimal,” said Marlie, a little taken aback by Glossy’s reaction. “The ship isn’t directly overhead; she’ll come down over there—”
“No,” breathed Glossy. “You can’t because…” She stopped, steadied herself. “Please don’t. Or please wait. My son is on that ship.”
Chapter 10. Reversals
Marlie blinked. “Your what?”
“My child!” hissed Glossy. “My son. He stowed away in my cabin. I couldn’t afford both fares. Please…”
Marlie passed a hand over her face.
Glossy seemed close to tears. Her words came in a whispered rush. “He’s only eleven. It was my idea for him to hide. I left him on the ship because I thought maybe these privateers were looking for us. I didn’t know whether it was safe. Please…”
Marlie’s tail lashed. “Of course I won’t sink the ship with your kid inside.” She listened for the night watch, but he didn’t seem to be hurrying towards them.
Glossy was breathing quickly, her eyes darting everywhere like a hunted animal. Marlie took a slow breath. “Alright. Here is what we are going to do. We are going to climb that rope ladder. You see it?”
“We are going to board the Albatross and find your son. If we are intercepted, your child will be our excuse for being there.” That’s a better story than mine. “On the way out, we will sink the ship. If we can’t safely set it on fire, we’ll puncture an air bladder. You will help me and cover for me if we get caught. In return, I will do everything in my power to get your son safely off the ship and both of you to your destination. Are we in agreement?”
Glossy’s eyes searched Marlie’s face. Then she nodded. Marlie felt a measure of returning optimism. Maybe this will be better after all. They padded across the deck, quiet as shadows, and began to climb.
The airship was lying as low as safety allowed, but it was still a long climb up a flimsy ladder at a deadly height. Marlie fixed her eyes on the keelhead gleaming in the moonlight and determined not to look down. The ladder would take them all the way up the side of the ship onto the main deck, not conveniently under the air bladders like the cargo cage. Bollocks.
When they were about halfway up, she thought to ask something that had been niggling in the back of her mind. “Glossy, was there much water on the floor of your cabin during the storm?”
“Did you have the window open?”
“Of course not. The water came in under the door.”
“Ah.” Marlie bristled. She remembered a thump. Just the wind. Ackleby’s smile. Just nerves. She’d almost convinced herself when they finally crawled over the bulwark onto the Albatross’s main deck and stepped on the body of a marine.
* * * *
Lucius Creevy had had worse days in his life, but he was sure he could count them on one hand. He was certain that Silas had had worse days, too. Though probably not since I’ve known him.
The Anemone had no proper cells for prisoners, so they’d been tied and placed in an empty storage compartment on the lowest deck. All four panauns had been confined together. Lucius had gotten only a brief glimpse of the room—small and completely empty—before their captors had left them in darkness.
He’d been so exhausted that he’d fallen asleep almost as soon as they were left alone. Neither his hunger, nor the fresh bruises from where Layjen had kicked him prevented Lucius from dropping into a deep, satisfying slumber.
He woke with a sense that it might be nighttime, although he had no way to confirm this. He heard the soft murmur of voices and recognized Marmot and Lark talking. One of his legs was numb. He shifted and felt the pins and needles of returning blood. His paws were bound painfully tight, and his mouth felt as tacky as fresh tar. He swallowed a few times. “Skipper?” This is no time to stand upon ceremony. “Silas?” And then, because he knew it would irritate him, “Lonnie…”
“What?” snapped Silas. His voice sounded hoarse. Lucius wondered whether Percival had had another go at him.
“How did we end up so popular with so many people?”
“How did you sleep so well tied in a ball?” retorted Silas.
“Just my excellent constitution.” Lucius tried to stretch, but his hands and paws were tied together behind him. “What’s the plan?”
“What makes you think I have one?”
“You always have one.”
Silas said nothing for a moment. “I did give them the keys to the passenger cabin.” Lucius could hear the faint note of smugness in his voice.
“I don’t hear any screams yet.”
“I doubt you will. I doubt it’ll keep them from hanging us, either.”
“You’re just tired and bruised. Did he break anything?”
“I don’t think so,” muttered Silas, “but it certainly hurts to move.”
Marmot and Lark had gone silent. Lucius wondered whether they were hoping to get out of their predicament by cooperating with the Maijhan Sea Watch. Not if they’re smart. Never bet against Silas. Percy learned that the hard way.
But Silas was being very quiet. You’ve lost your ship, and that’s taken the wind right out of your sails.
Lucius heard a creak along the passage outside. A soft light glowed from under the door. “Oh, thank the gods! They’re going to feed us!”
The faint illumination revealed Silas, lying on his side and glaring, his red hair sticking up in bloody patches, his color ghastly. “Feed us our own teeth, probably. Shut up and keep your head down.”
Lucius got a glimpse of Marmot and Lark, who appeared to have only their hands tied and were sitting against the far wall. Well, I can’t blame you for wanting to get some leeway on us. We’re having a run of ill luck at the moment, but just you wait.
There was the sound of a chain and a couple of bolts being drawn. Then the door opened. Lucius blinked, momentarily blinded by the lantern. He could tell that the person holding it was a hunti.
“Gus!” came a furious whisper.
Lucius’s mind cleared and his face stretched into a smile. “Padmay!”
Lucius modulated his voice and tried again. “Paddi, it’s good to see you!”
“It is not good to see you,” she spat. “You stupid, stupid…” He thought of Padmay as “she.” He couldn’t help it, even though anyone else would have found the pronoun ridiculous, including Padmay. Her rich, low voice had nothing female about it, but no hunti’s ever did.
“I am doing this once,” she hissed. “Once for old times’ sake, but you have to get out of here and disappear. Do you understand? Vanish. I have a jollyboat in the water alongside and two days’ worth of provisions. You shouldn’t need more than a watch to reach Blackevar. You should be there before sunup. Can you sail by stars alone? Please tell me you can.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Silas staring at him.
“Padmay,” said Lucius, with real affection. “It really is good to see you. Do you have any food on your person, by chance?”
Padmay rolled her eyes. She was slicing through his ropes with her belt knife.
Lucius could see that Silas was trying to square the circle of this exchange, but he’d finally gotten a bearing on one thing. “We’re near Blackevar?”
Padmay turned furious eyes on him. “Yes. Damn you to a god’s belly. It’s about two points to leeward—straight sailing.”
Silas said nothing more as she sliced through his ropes—far more roughly than she had with Lucius. “Easy there, sailor,” said Lucius, “Percy already used him as a punching bag.”
“I’d like to use him as a fishing weight,” retorted Padmay.
Silas sat up, grimacing. He tried to rise, sank back down, and Lucius gave him a hand up. It felt wonderful to move freely.
Padmay appeared to think she was finished, but Silas stabbed a finger at Marmot and Lark. “Them, too.”
Padmay and Silas glared at each other. They were about the same height, but Padmay was stockier and wider in the shoulders. Don’t hit him, thought Lucius, or I will have to do something I will regret. He glanced at the other grishnards. “Hey, Marmot, Lark, do you want to come or not?”
He was not surprised when Marmot stood up, but he was impressed when Lark did so as well—or tried to. He was still lame from where the slaves had kicked him. Padmay threw up her hands. “Alright. Fine. But you’ll run out of food and water faster. Just don’t get lost.” She cut them loose, and they all filed into the hall.
Silas was moving carefully. Lucius knew he was hurt, but there was something else—the way he flicked his ears when he was trying to concentrate on a scent without being obvious. Grishnards had a poor sense of smell, but leons had fairly good noses. They couldn’t match an ocelon or a foxling, but Silas’s nose told him a lot more than Lucius’s. The group had only taken a few steps down the hall when Silas stopped at a door and tried to peer into the barred window. Padmay sputtered.
“Silas…?” began Lucius.
Silas rounded on him. “We are not going to Blackevar,” he hissed. “I am going with my ship or nowhere. The four of us can’t sail her alone.”
“Ah.” Lucius felt that he should have seen this coming. With regret, he stepped smoothly up to Padmay, wrapped her in his arms, took her knife with a twist, and tossed it to Silas. Padmay snarled and tried to plant her elbow in his gut. She was strong and fierce, but so was Lucius, and he was bigger. “Paddi, dear, I’m going to have to put you in our room. I’m sure they’ll find you shortly.”
“I don’t want you to get into trouble. Say you came to feed us and it went wrong. That’s all.” He kissed her on the top of the head, shoved her gently, but firmly into their former prison, and threw the bolt. Her bellow of rage made the boards vibrate.
Silas slid the chain on the door and then turned to glare at Lucius. “Padmay?! Have you lost both taste and reason?”
Lucius bristled a little. “She’s a sweet creature.”
The door jumped on its hinges, and the sweet creature’s swearing came muted, but audible, from the other side.
“No wonder Layjen is holding such a grudge!” exclaimed Silas.
“Oh, I think it’s Percy—” began Lucius.
“Percy has the attention-span of a mayfly!” snapped Silas. “Layjen has been fanning this grudge, I guarantee it. Padmay is his favorite—” Silas couldn’t seem to decide what noun to use and settled for repeating the word. “Favorite. You think you can refrain from bedding anyone who wants to kill us between here and the upper deck?”
“She got us out!” exclaimed Lucius.
“She’s why we’re here!” Silas turned away, tufted tail lashing. “We’ll talk about this later. Now we need a crew.”
The fauns were in the next room. They had not been much beaten in body, but they certainly looked beaten in spirit. Their clothes had been taken again, and they were tied hand and hoof, curled up on the cold floor. They did not even raise their heads when the door opened. “Anaroo!” hissed Silas. “Do you want to go to Maijha Minor or not?”
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