Disclaimer: All excerpts contain some spoilers. This is an almost-finished manuscript with more typos than the final version. I reserve the right to change things.

The Cormorant

Refugees Book 3

Abigail Hilton


Chapter 1. Whileaway

Anaroo took aim at the stump 50 paces off. The little gun felt strange in her hand—cold and heavy, ornately filigreed. With flowers of all things. Anaroo felt certain that the reinforced metal handle was not merely decorative. She pulled the trigger anyway and was disgusted to see a spray of bark to the leeward side of the stump.

“Well, you hit it,” drawled Silveo.

“That does not count as hitting anything,” said Anaroo as she handed the gun back to him. Black smoke and an odor of sulfur hung in the air for an instant before being cared away by the sweet sea breeze. “The handle is solid brass, and the stock is reinforced. This is a club, not a distance weapon, Silveo. You are meant to brain your attackers after you fail to kill them with bullets.”

Silveo laughed. “I told Gerard the same thing. You did hit that stump though.”

“I grazed it. That doesn’t count.”

“It does with a gun.” Silveo began the process of reloading the cumbersome weapon. “If you graze someone with an arrow, it’s a flesh wound. If you graze someone with a bullet, you may shatter their arm.”

Anaroo grunted. “I could have pierced them through the heart with an arrow at that distance.” Her words were derisive, but she could not summon any real contempt. It was a beautiful late spring afternoon on the wooded cliffs overlooking the harbor of Whileaway in the Sunkissed Isles. The distant susurrus of waves mingled with bird song. The wind smelled of salt, loam, and pine. Anaroo could almost have shut her eyes and believed she was back on Maijha Minor. Except no one was hunting her here, and even old enemies were trying to be friends.

Silveo leveled the gun at the target, widening his stance to take the recoil on his diminutive frame. He was wearing clothes of undyed cotton, a straw hat, and just enough coal to protect his eyes from the glare. He was not trying to impress anyone, and maybe that was why she’d finally agreed to come up to the cliffs and try out the little guns.

It hadn’t hurt that Gwain wanted to come, too. He’d disappeared immediately into the woods with a net, a notebook, and wire cage slung over one shoulder. If he didn’t return soon, Anaroo intended to go looking for him. The Sunkissed Isles were said to be safe along the coast. However, they were full of strange creatures, and even locals avoided the interior.

“You grazed the leeward side,” murmured Silveo. “That’s because you expected the bullet to behave like an arrow—to be pushed by the wind. And maybe it is. But not nearly so much as an arrow…or a knife.”

Silveo pulled the trigger. This time, the crack of the gun was not accompanied by any visible change in the stump. Anaroo didn’t think he’d hit it. However, her attention was distracted by a rabbit that darted out of the brush further along the cliff. Anaroo scooped up her bow from the ground and laid an arrow to the string just as the darting creature paused, barely visible in the tall grass on the edge of the trees. Anaroo loosed the arrow and dropped the rabbit.

“Well, Gwain will have at least one specimen,” said Silveo as he started towards the stump.

“Nonsense,” said Anaroo. “That’s dinner.” However, after retrieving her kill, she wasn’t so sure. Anaroo joined Silveo at the stump, where she was surprised to find a lead ball buried in the wood near the top windward edge. “You did hit it.”

“I did. You could have done better with an arrow, but I couldn’t do better with a knife. Not at that distance.”

Anaroo had to agree. Foxlings were not physically suited to close combat, nor were they big enough to wield a longbow. Silveo’s knives gave him some recourse in a fight, but they worked best in fairly close quarters—across a room or a ship’s deck, for instance. They certainly weren’t weapons that could kill at fifty paces. Still… “I would still not want to rely on bullets in a real fight,” said Anaroo.

“Your advice is noted,” said Silveo as he pried the metal ball from the stump with one of his knives. He paused to glance at the rabbit, then did a double-take. “What in the hells is that?”

“Not a rabbit,” said Anaroo.

Silveo reached out to take it from her. “Right through the eye,” he murmured. “How in all these years have you never shot me?”

Anaroo gave a startled laugh. “You tend to get behind other people.”

Silveo turned the limp body over in his hands. It was a tiny deer. The animal appeared to be an adult for all its diminutive size—a mature male. It had no antlers, but two prominent fang-like incisors jutted well past its lower jaw. Silveo ran a finger over one thoughtfully. “Sharp,” he commented. “These teeth have a cutting edge. Gods, what a strange place. Dakar told us yesterday that she’d seen a hydra. I wish she’d stay out of the water.”

Anaroo’s eyes drifted past Silveo to the blue horizon. “Well, there’s a reason they don’t have wyverns here.” She tried to keep her voice neutral. She was long past wishing ill upon the strange little girl who had stolen her sanity for two years. However, Anaroo did not like wyverns and her acquaintance with Dakar had not changed that.

In Wefrivain, the Temple taught that the Sunkissed Isles were a place cursed by the gods. In these forsaken waters, shelts and animals lived short, brutal lives, constantly at war with monsters. They had shunned the gods and the gods had withheld their protection.

In reality, Anaroo suspected that the wyverns had had difficulty keeping a foothold in the Sunkissed Isles for a variety of reasons. Sea monsters were certainly part of that. These islands contained nothing like the warm, relatively shallow coral seas of Wefrivain. Whileaway had a considerable sandbar, creating a broad lagoon, but once that sandbar ended, the shelf of land dropped off abruptly into deep ocean. These were dark waters with icy currents from the colder lands to the north.

Large sharks swamp these waves and the long-necked hydra, along with many species of whales and dolphins, porpoises, leopard seals, and great turtles. However the apex predator must surely be the giant, flipped crocodile. Anaroo had seen one from the comforting height of the Cormorant. The beast had been sunning itself on an atoll, and she had not understood its size until one of the pegasus passed directly over it. The flipped crocodile was long as a small ship, with a maw that could swallow a rowboat. It could certainly end a wyvern.

The Sunkissed Isles also experienced frequent earthquakes. There were five active volcanoes in the region, all of them crowned in fog. The cloud forests on their slopes were considered particularly unsafe, and no one lived there, although many valuable materials were harvested during carefully defined seasons. Animals and plants in the cloud zone were even stranger than in other parts of the islands. Naturally, Gwain was already Campaigning for an expedition.

“I heard your child opened her eyes yesterday,” said Silveo with a twinkle.

“She did.”

“That must be strange for you.”

Anaroo resisted the urge to tell him to mind his own business. It was strange. Zed infants were born with open eyes. They were larger, too. The birth of this child had been easier than any of Anaroo’s experience in spite of all Glossy’s fussing. Anaroo had never looked pregnant—not what she would have called pregnant—and when the pains started in later winter, she had been certain it was too early.

The child—a girl—was born with hardly any effort. Glossy assured Anaroo that little leons were always so small with tightly shut eyes. Anaroo’s milk did not come, but Glossy told her this was common in such situations. “Your body thinks you miscarried,” she explained, “because a little zed would not be born until well into the spring. But this child is more like a leon, and she was ready to be born now.”

One of the hunti from the Anemone nursed the infant until she could be weaned to goat’s milk. Glossy cautioned against naming until the child’s eyes were open. “There’s a reason most panaun’s don’t do it,” she said. “There could still be something wrong. ‘Never name them until you can look them in the eye’ is the old proverb. It’s good advice.”

Anaroo had felt ambivalent about the child when she first learned of her pregnancy, but she hoped fervently that baby would not die now. It would break Silas’s heart.

 Anaroo had not shed a tear during the labor, but Silas’s eyes were streaming when she laid the infant in his arms. In his hands, really. How do panauns avoid breaking their children? Her own people would have considered discarding such a tiny infant. It could not possibly survive, could it?

Anaroo would not have dreamed of saying such a thing to Silas, however, and she approved of his devotion. Males and young females did much of the childcare in her own village. She had been a little afraid that he might expect her to play a role she’d not played in so long that it felt like a dream. However, with the ship thoroughly outfitted over the winter and safely at anchor in Holovarus Bay, Silas had had few responsibilities during the infant’s first yellow months. This was a good thing, because little panauns turned out to be far more work than little zeds.

“She probably won’t sleep unless she’s touching someone,” Glossy had told them. “Infant panauns are usually born with siblings and sleep nestled together. A singleton needs extra care from adults during the first year. Remember, a baby zed would still be in the womb at this point. You might consider just letting the hunti foster her…”

Silas would consider nothing of the kind. As soon as the child could be weaned to goat’s milk, he had her back in their cabin. They look turns wearing her in a sling around their bodies. Someone had to sit with her all night. It was a good thing that Silas’s attention was not needed elsewhere, because he leapt up at the baby’s softest mew.

And she did mew.

 Like a cat, thought Anaroo in private disgust. The child had paws and a tufted tail. Anaroo could see nothing of herself when she looked at the tiny, blind creature. The child’s hair and skin were the color of a dead fish. Again, the voice in Anaroo’s head whispered, Kwarla-Conch would not have kept this one.

However, as the yellow months passed, the infant’s skin darkened a little, and stripes appeared—first in her fur, then on her arms and body. Her hair came in curly and it was striped. Then, yesterday, she had opened her eyes. They were blue. The same blue as Anaroo’s left eye. “Well, hello,” Anaroo had murmured to her. “Welcome to the world, daughter. I think it is time for a name.”

“Zed mothers name the children on Maijha Minor, don’t they?” asked Silveo.

Anaroo looked at him suspiciously. “Clearly, I am not quite a zed of Maijha Minor these days.”

Silveo shrugged. “Obviously. You haven’t turned me into a pair of mittens yet.”

They’d backed off to about ten paces and Silveo was throwing knives at the stump. He passed one to Anaroo. She couldn’t get it as close to the center as Silveo’s, but she didn’t lose any over the cliff, either.

“Sometimes we let a male name a child,” she allowed. “If we like him a great deal.”

“And did you let Silas name her?”

Anaroo pursed her lips. “I named her. Amadae.”

Silveo grinned. “Now there’s a name for Silas Ackelby’s kid.”

Anaroo smiled and said nothing. Amadae had been the pseudonym for the greatest airship designer of Wefrivain’s history—a secretive person with enough money and patronage to remain a mystery. Most people called the inventor male, although some speculated that this person might have been female. Amadae had been a mad genius whose designs were sometimes eccentric, but always clever. The reverse ballonets pumps aboard Silas’s Scarlet Albatross had been modeled on an Amadae design. The Cormorant was said to have been his final creation. Some said he died in her.

“I wonder what he would have made of these guns,” mused Silveo as he sent another knife into the stump in a perfect line with his previous throw.

“Something destructive.” Something for grishnards.

“No doubt.”

The Cormorant had given most of its guns to Fang and the Defiance. She’d also given a couple to the Nightingale before they parted company. The guns made the airship much too heavy, and Silas insisted that airships were not for fighting.

“Do you like children, Silveo?” Anaroo was surprised at herself, but the words slipped out. “You seem to.”

Silveo considered. “I suppose I have some fellow feeling for them…living in a world where everything is too big.” He hesitated and continued more seriously, “Gerard says I never got to be a child. And I get to be one with them. Maybe he’s right.”

“Are you sure you’re equipped to raise a wyvern?”

To Anaroo’s surprise, Silveo said, “No.” There was a long pause and then he added. “I think she should stay with Belvedere and Mouse.” He cut his eyes up at Anaroo—that startlingly pale blue, like polished sea glass.

Anaroo flicked her tufted tail. “Is that why you brought me out here? To convince me to harbor your little monster while you go off chasing Leopaard Maijha with Gwain?”

Silveo shook his head. “I brought you out there to shoot guns. Which you are good at.”

“What does Gerard think of this plan?”

“Dead against it,” said Silveo cheerfully.

“You should ask Silas.”

“Silas will say yes, but you’re the one I’m worried about.”

Anaroo threw another knife. “Does Mouse know he’s staying?”

Silveo shook his head. “I’m waiting for him to ask. He will. He’s the only child aboard the Fang now that the ocelons are gone. He and Belvedere and Theseus have had a grand time over the winter. I can’t imagine a better place to grow up…or better company.”

“Do not patronize me,” muttered Anaroo.

Silveo started to say something, then stiffened.

Anaroo followed his gaze past the stump to a brightly colored animal that came nosing out of the forest near the place where she had shot the tiny deer. The creature wasn’t much bigger than the deer. She thought at first that it was a bird. It appeared to have feathers and it was red and yellow. Its movements had the quick, jerky pattern of a bird. However, she saw no wings and, as the creature turned towards her, she was taken aback by a reptilian face, bald like a vulture’s above its ruff of feathers.

“It’s smelling the blood,” whispered Silveo without moving his head.

“I see another one,” murmured Anaroo.

The second creature had emerged from the woods further along the cliff, but rapidly joined the first. They raised their noses, sniffing. Anaroo placed an arrow to her string. “Gwain is going to wish he’d stayed with us,” she said and dropped the first bird-lizard where it stood.

To her surprise, a half dozen more of the creatures scurried out of the forest immediately, sniffing at the carcass and hissing. The one who’d been standing beside the fallen animal reared high on its legs, staring in the direction of the two shelts.

Anaroo felt a chill. She could have sworn the little monster looked directly into her eyes as it bared its surprisingly numerous teeth and came towards them at the speed of a summer snake.

“My turn,” said Silveo.

Anaroo was happy to give it to him. She took aim at one of the other creatures and pinned it to the earth. Silveo’s knife caught the charging bird-lizard directly in the chest. “Seven hells,” muttered Silveo as its thrashing slowed. “How many of them are there?”

Anaroo could no longer count the red and black forms whipping through the grass. They stopped now and then to scent the air, their lips lifting from their upper teeth and in a manner weirdly reminiscent of fur-bearing animals. “Gods blood and scales!” She was shooting them fast now, but the ring of creatures kept closing in.

“Should we climb a tree?” wondered Silveo.

“Some of them were jumping out of trees!”

“This is almost comical. They’re the size of squirrels. What can they really do to us?”

Anaroo wasn’t sure, but she didn’t like the look of those teeth, and the creatures seemed absurdly confident. In Anaroo’s experience, animals were rarely so confident without a reason. She shot one as it lunged at her and then used her bow to smack another away. “Do you suppose it’s too late to run?”

That was when Silveo pulled out the little gun and shot a bird-lizard in the face. Feathers exploded into the air, along with acrid smoke. The loud noise had a gratifying effect on the rest of the animals. They leapt into the air, shrieking, and raced pell-mell back into the forest in a red and black stream.

Anaroo and Silveo stood still for a moment. Anaroo was ashamed of how fast her heart was thumping. She was relieved to see from Silveo’s fluffed tail that he wasn’t as calm as he had sounded. At last, he moved forward and crouched over one of the carcasses. He raised it gently on the tip of a knife and sniffed. “I believe—” he began, and then Gwain emerged from the trees, walking fast.

He stopped to catch his breath when he saw them. “Oh, good! I was afraid you might have—”

“Encountered these?” asked Silveo as he waved the brightly colored carcass.

Gwain relaxed. “Viper birds! They must not be as dangerous as I’d been told.”

“You’ve been told about these things!” exclaimed Anaroo. “You might have said!”

“I’ve been told about a lot of things!” protested Gwain.

“They were fairly persistent in their attempts to kill us,” said Silveo. “Are they as poisonous as I suspect?”

“Quite deadly,” said Gwain. “Local archers use the venom on their arrows. They’re not usually so aggressive, but I found a clutch of eggs nearby. We should probably go. But first, have a look at this specimen!”


Chapter 2. Old Enemies and New Friends

“Gus!” Lucius Creevy turned with a smile as yet another old shipmate stepped out of the crowd and clapped him on the back. “It is so good to see you, mate! And I really mean it. What a bloody, crazy year this has been. What a place we’ve washed up, eh? Have you got a ship?”

Gus stood, grinning, to embrace his friend. “Westley Ives! So glad to see you in one piece. I think we could reassemble the entire crew of the old Nimble right here in this pub! Yes, I’ve got a ship.”

Wes laughed, shouting and calling over Gus’s shoulder to other old shipmates at the table. He kept a grip on Gus’s arm, though, and didn’t let him sit back down. “I heard a thing…about the Albatross.”

Gus tried not to flinch, but he’d never had a cardplayer’s face. I should start wearing a sign: ‘Yes, the Albatross is at the bottom of the sea. I don’t want to talk about it.’

His expression must have been sufficient, because Wes changed tack immediately. “I’m just glad you’re safe, mate. We’ve all lost a lot this year. How about your prickly old captain? Surely he’s not still around…?”

“Silas is fine,” said Gus a little too curtly.

Wes gave him a funny look. Gus sighed internally. Silas wanted to keep a low profile with the Cormorant. She was valuable and, in certain ways, vulnerable. The teaming port of Whileaway was full of refugees from Wefrivain. The less talk about the Cormorant, the better. However, anyone who knew Silas Ackleby knew that he was unlikely to have survived the demise of the Albatross. And if he had, by some miracle, escaped, the only way he would be “fine” was if he were flying.

Wes’s eyes went round as he made the connection. “That airship?” he whispered. “That’s your ship? Gods’ blood, Gus; you do land on your feet. Or Ackleby does, at least. Everyone always said he was lucky, but Priestess’ sake!”

“Keep it down,” muttered Gus. “Are you looking for a ship, Wes?”

Gus had no intention of offering. Wes was a waterborne sailor. However, Gus would be happy to steer his numerous solicitors towards a worthy shipmate. Wes shook his head. “No, I am currently of the Merry Lark.” He grunted as another friend clapped him on the back and they both sat down. “Westley Ives!” someone shouted. “How did you get here! Tell us the story!”

“I’d rather have Gus’s story,” laughed Wes, but he took a drink and began talking.

Gus settled back with relief. A few moments later, he excused himself and slipped out of the pub. There’d been a time when he could not have resisted giving a full and detailed account of his adventures over the fall and winter. What a story it made! And maybe I can tell it someday to that same table of people.

But not now. Now, this busy port was too full of hungry eyes and just as many old enemies as old friends. Only yesterday, Gus had run into sea watch from Port Anastar while shopping for supplies. There had followed a very tense scene indeed. These people had issued a warrant for he and Silas’s arrest on smuggling charges last year. The captain of the local Sea Watch had taken things rather personally, as they’d nipped an enormous quantity untaxed cocoa pods right out from under his nose. Personal grudges notwithstanding, the trouble would almost certainly have been silenced by Culowen’s influence eventually. In the meantime, Silas and Gus had practiced the time-honored tactic of ‘avoid and ignore.’ Gus had never thought to run into them at a fishmonger’s stall, still less to see one of them reach for a weapon.

The laws of Wefrivain meant nothing in the Sunkissed Isles. However, local law enforcement had made it clear that they would not be settling disposes between refugees. If an angry sea watch official pulled out his sword and stabbed Gus through the heart over a bag of cod, no one was likely to get very excited about it.

Best to just not call attention to ourselves.

The Cormorant had made a good crossing from the Small Kingdoms in clear spring weather with little in the way of damage from wind and storms. Their crew had been handpicked from refugees in the Small Kingdoms—most of them with previous airship experience. Silas and Gus had had plenty of time to get to know them over the winter.

“We are going to replenish our food and water and then see what work we can find in the isles,” Silas had said. “In a year, if things have settled down, we’ll return to the crescent. In the meantime, we need basic employment.”

Unfortunately, there was nothing basic about an airship. There always seemed to be at least a few people staring at the Cormorant from the pier. Silas had anchored her well out in the harbor, and the weather was calm. But we’ll need to find a better mooring before winter.

So far, no one had been able to suggest anything. The port of Whileaway had a heterogeneous population of shelts and animals. In addition to every species common in Wefrivain, Gus had seen lemurs and a local felid called a fossa. However, none of the locals had ever seen an airship. It’s a good thing we can make our own light gas.

As he moved through the jostling market near the pier, Gus was surprised to catch sight of Percy. He was dressed in a blue and gold patterned waistcoat with a matching long-tailed overcoat and voluminous lacy neckcloth. His suede leather boots had gold-tooled cuffs. He’d worn his sword—an entirely reasonable precaution in a port full of beggars and pickpockets.

Gus ducked his head instinctively and then cursed himself. Shipmate, he reminded himself. Not sworn enemy. Shipmate. And more than that, if we’re all going to be honest.

Percy had started wearing his old clothes again recently. Gus knew it was a good sign, but it made him nervous. Percy in ship’s linens with his empty sleeve and his gaunt face had seemed like a fellow sailor Gus could understand and with whom he had great sympathy. Percy in fine clothes with his head up and his sword at his hip was someone else—the prodigal son of Lord Bellwater, brother-in-law to the Haplagian king, with his title and his pedigree written into every careless look and movement.

Percy’s choice to play at merchant and privateer had always been just that—a choice, a way to pass the time. Such choices had always seemed like a slap in the face to Gus, who had spent his life living hand-to-mouth until he met Silas. His first ten years aboard the Albatross had been precarious as well. One poor decision about a cargo, one wrong move in a storm, one badly timed bidding war—any of these things might have ruined them. Only in the last six or seven years had Gus and Silas achieved some kind of security.

Percy had been born with security. He might hate his family. They might hate him. But he had never been in danger of starving and it showed in a thousand unconscious ways.

  Under ordinary circumstances, Gus would have been more likely to carry Percy’s bags than to speak to him, and their interactions before this past season had been far from ordinary. Silas and Percy had been friends long before they became enemies. Percy and Gus had not.

Gus tried not to think about that. He was happy for what Silas and Percy had. At least that’s what he told himself. If Anaroo doesn’t mind, I certainly shouldn’t.

Gus had to laugh as he thought of the conversation he’d had with Silas in the officer’s mess of the Cormorant a few days after the coronation party on Holovarus. They’d both been up early, eating breakfast there alone. The room was three times larger than the officer’s mess aboard the Albatross, but it still felt cozy, an echo of comfortable routines. Gus had screwed up his courage to address what he thought of as Silas’s obliviousness.

“Silas…I need to talk to you about Percy.”

Silas had stopped chewing. He had gone unnaturally still. Gus had assumed this was surprise.

“I know you want to make him your engineer,” continued Gus.

Silas opened his mouth with a look of relief and said, “Cobalt—”

“I’m not staying he can’t do it,” interrupted Gus gently. “One arm notwithstanding, Percy knows a powerful lot about gear boxes and airships. You’re thinking Cobalt can give him a hand, I assume. Two hands, I mean. Pardon the witticism. Because Cobalt wants to learn.”

Silas sank back in his chair, deflating a little. Gus couldn’t quite read the expressions that were flicking across his face. “You don’t think it’s a good idea.” Gus couldn’t tell if he was relieved or unhappy.

“I think it’s a fine idea as far as it goes,” said Gus, dreading what he needed to say next. “But Silas… Forgive me. I know you don’t think of these things. You don’t…see them. But… Percy is in love with you.”

Silas continued looking at him with an expression of perfectly blankness. Gus hadn’t realized until later what that meant—no jolt of surprise, just a cardplayer’s mask. He’d plunged on. “I know you don’t realize it, but Percy may think… He may get the wrong idea if you ask him to stay.” Gus adopted a patient tone and continued, “I know we haven’t always been friends with him, but he’s lost a lot lately. I won’t like to see him hurt. I don’t think you’d mean to hurt him.”

Silas looked back down at his plate and took another bite of food.

When he said nothing, Gus continued, “At least, talk to him about it. If he understands what’s being offered and what’s not being offered, then at least he won’t be disappointed.”

Silas finally smiled—a tiny little twitch of his lips that flickered and was gone. “Your concern is noted, Gus.”

Gus sat back with relief, his burden lifted. “You’ll address it, then?”

Silas rose briskly. “Yes.”

It was only as he was moving away that Gus’s mind finally registered the sum total of their conversation—those blank looks, the lack of surprise, that smile. “Wait a moment… Have you…?”

“Percy is moving into the guest cabin in the hold,” continued Silas. “It’s too far from the upper deck for most officers, but it’s close enough to the gearbox of an engineer. There’s an adjoining servant’s cabin. As you say, Cobalt has expressed an interest in learning about airships, and I think he will volunteer to be an assistant.”

Gus ignored Silas’s flow of trivialities. “What happened?”

“Percy could also use some help with his clothes,” continued Silas almost to himself. “I wonder if he would permit a valet... I might ask Needles to give Cobalt a few pointers.”

“Silas…” Gus was trying to keep the grin out of his voice and failing.

“Yes, Master Creevy?”

Gus rolled his eyes. “And here I was thinking that my poor, oblivious skipper was about to break his friend’s heart.”

“I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Does Anaroo know?”

That jarred Silas out of his complacency. “Yes, of course Anaroo—!” Now he was red.

Gus stood up, spreading his hands in a placating gesture. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of! I just didn’t know!”

Silas was licking his lips and glaring. “It’s not…” He tried again. “I do not feel that I need to explain myself to you.”

“You don’t,” said Gus meekly. I’m just your friend. Your only friend for years.

Silas shut his eyes, opened them again.

Gus wanted to say, “Congratulations!” But he didn’t dare. Silas was looking remarkable unfriendly. He smoothed his features with a deliberate effort and said, “I will make sure that Percy is not confused. I appreciate your concern, truly.”

That had been a season ago, before the baby came. Ama had consumed the entirety of Silas’s attention for the first half of the winter, and Gus doubted there’d been much bedroom frivolity of any kind. Silas did frequently visit Percy in the gear box, but when Gus walked past, he always heard them chattering away about the many surprises of this unique vessel. Percy was working his way through maintenance and repairs on a ship that had recently been a museum piece, so there was plenty to talk about. If he and Silas were greasing anything other than the ship’s gears, they were being remarkably stealthy about it.

Percy didn’t have much leftover energy, either, because he’d made it clear that he wanted to help with Ama. You’d never think a fellow who’d been fighting his way across decks for a living would be so gentle with a baby, thought Gus. The tiny creature could not seem to sleep without physical contact and constant motion. Glossy assured everyone that this would improve in a few yellow months. Gus wasn’t sure how anyone could forgo sleep for a few yellow months. He’d never much cared for infants himself. Children were so much more fun when they could chase a ball or climb a rigging.

Gus had figured at first that Percy just wanted to ingratiate himself to Anaroo. However, if that were the case, the gesture was utterly lost upon its intended target. Anaroo seemed to regard such behavior as entirely normal for males, whom, she assured Marlie, “Have highly developed paternal instincts.”

“Zed males, maybe,” Marlie had replied doubtfully. She repeated the story later in the dispensary to gales of laughter from Glossy and Gus.

“I think Anaroo actually believes she’s doing Percy a favor,” said Marlie. “Allowing him to…indulge his paternal instincts.”

“Oh, to live in a world where males just couldn’t stop themselves from providing free childcare,” said Glossy dreamily.

“But really,” Gus had muttered, “why is he doing it?”

Glossy patted his shoulder. “Maybe Percy just likes babies.”

“I’m serious.”

“So am I. Some people do.”

“I’m not sure he ever really got to see his own,” said Marlie. “I mean, I heard the Haplagian princess didn’t like him much.”

Glossy nodded. “Well, I don’t think he’s much interested in women, so I can see how that would be an unhappy match.”

Gus thought of saying something unkind, but restrained himself.

Glossy looked up at him. “You said Silas always missed him. For as long as you’ve known him.”

“Missed him and fought with him,” allowed Gus.

“So let them work it out,” said Glossy gently.

“I am,” Gus had muttered. “I will.”

During the brief, but perilous crossing to the Sunkissed Isles, when Silas needed all his wits about him, Percy had become even more adapt at whisking Ama out of the captain’s cabin on nights when she would not sleep. Percy had taken to wearing her in a sling across his chest, so that his good hand was free to comfort her or to grip railings. He would pace all over the ship during the small hours of the night, talking to her softly. He’s going to end up their cabin, Gus told himself. He’s going to end up in their cabin, and I should be happy for them. I am happy for them. I just wish I was better at talking to him.

The Cormorant will probably be written in 2019. Subscribe to my mailing list if you want to know the second it's published. Subscribe to the Patreon if you want to read chapters as I write them.