Losing Heart Among the Tall

A.M. Dellamonica is at it again! The thrilling adventures of Gale Feliachild and Captain Parrish continue in a series of prequel stories that offers to take us deeper into the fascinating world of Stormwrack.

When the crew of the Nightjar find a merman of the fleet wounded and stranded in the ocean, Gale’s sister, Beatrice, is forced to take a back seat while Gale and Parrish work to find out who would assault a member of the nation of Tallon’s intelligence service. They soon discover a plot that could shake the foundations of the fleet and Beatrice might be the key to preventing a catastrophic disaster.

 

Nightjar was four leagues out from the nearest land when one of her riggers spotted the merman. A weakly thrashing glimmer of silver scale on the choppy, sunlit sea, he had flaxen hair, blue glazed eyes, and a harpoon through his chest. When they brought him aboard, he was trying to swim west sou’west, toward Tallon.

A biggish octopus slid off him as they raised the body, dangling by one tentacle before dropping into the water and vanishing into a petulant, inky swirl.

“Bring stanchleaf,” Royl ordered quietly. There was no saving the merman, but they might hold death away long enough to haul him home to report in. But the fellow spared ’em all the effort. Gasping red foam, he clutched at Royl’s jacket.

“Yacoura!” he gasped. Then a shudder ran from his head to the tip of his fanning tail, the last thrill of life going out of him.

Damn and thunder too. “Belay the stanchleaf,” he said. “Cover the body and get him below. Try not to wake our guest, and get me Parrish.”

“The lady’s up, Kir,” a crewman said.

It was true: Beatrice was yawping at the huge corpse, clutching her baby daughter to her chest.

Royl got to his feet, brushing fish off his hands, and wondering if she would start to shriek. He had known the woman for thirty years—she was his employer’s sister—and she had the temperament of an overheated kettle.

“What did he say to you?” she demanded as Royl approached. The baby was sleeping; she kept her voice low, but it cut like a garrote.

“Yacoura,” he said. “It’s the Tallon word for heart; he’s a Tallman, sure.” And probably a spy, he didn’t add.

“Murdered. This is the sort of thing I’ve been talking about,” she said. “This reckless plan of yours—”

Her sister, Gale, turned up before she could get to full steam. She had the first mate in tow.

Beatrice gave Parrish a glower that he missed, possibly by design, as he bent over the body. “He’s dehydrated,” he said. “He’s swum a long way, with no fresh water.”

“Ain’t drying out kilt him,” Royl said.

“No.” He went through the shells on the belt at the merman’s hips, finding and setting aside a flute and a wet-ember, a clam-cracking knife and a sewn kerchief identifying the corpse as Bertran of the Tall, ranked Special Seaman.

“That all he’s got?”

“Seems that way.” Parrish examined the shaft of the harpoon, then rolled the merman so he could look at its point. “Handmade, I think. Nothing distinct about the craftsmanship. He was shot some distance from here, due north of this position.”

Beatrice scoffed. “You can’t tell that from looking at him.”

“No, Kir,” Parrish agreed. “But the currents to the south are warm and the hammerhead sharks are migrating. Tens of thousands of them. A bleeding man couldn’t have safely navigated—”

“How far might he have come?” Gale interrupted.

“I’ll have a look at the charts,” he said. He bowed slightly, the formality all for their guest, and vanished below.

Her arms being full of baby, Beatrice nudged Gale with a foot. “This is going to be trouble.”

“Everything’s trouble, ’Trice. Question is, how much?”

“That identification says Special Seaman, doesn’t it? Does that mean anything to you, Captain Sloot?”

“It means Tallon Intelligence,” he answered.

“Maybe it’s trouble, but at least it’s convenient.” Gale was trying not to smile: Beatrice was irked enough. “Since we were headed to the island anyway.”

This was meant to be Royl’s last cruise; he was turning the ship over to Parrish and retiring on Tallon. The three of them had been planning for the handover for more than a year.

Beatrice had invited herself along on his homeward voyage. She was iron-set against Royl quitting, or against Parrish himself, perhaps. She had been clanging away ever since she came aboard: You can’t leave Nightjar in the hands of a pretty boy; Parrish is too young to manage the crew; Gale needs watching, her life’s too dangerous to send her sailing with a pup.

In three weeks a-sea, she’d managed to annoy the hell out of her sister and reheat a guilt Royl had thought he’d cooled with reason.

If she’d made Parrish doubt himself, there was no sign of it. The boy put on a shell when challenged, like a hermit crab; he withdrew into perfect, apparently affable courtesy. Every time Beatrice had turned that furious gaze on Parrish, you could almost hear the clink as it bounced off.

If she weren’t so determined to have her way, Royl might have dredged up a wisp of sympathy for her. There was nothing wrong with the woman’s mind, far as he could tell, but being so high-strung made people, especially her sister, dismissive. Beatrice and Gale came from a nation that looked unfavorably on histrionics. The women of Verdanii were expected to be forbidding, resolute—leaders, fighters, great thinkers, and above all, calm.

Before Beatrice had arrived, Royl had been imagining this last voyage would go by all too fast. He’d been bracing for the sweet pain of farewell, the inevitable drift of adjusting to life ashore. Instead it had been long arguments, emotional blackmail, the baby crying for hours on end.

It was almost a relief to be sailing into port with a harpooned intelligence officer.

Almost, he thought, looking at the slain man. Four crewmen trotted to, bearing a ten-foot length of sail. Royl bent, helping them wrestle the merman onto it, all of them struggling with the slippery weight of his tail. A grim job, sure.

“Leave the harpoon where it is,” he ordered. “His people will want to examine him.”

They raised the canvas, lifting him as if in a hammock, carrying the corpse off below and leaving Royl, Gale, and her sister standing around the empty space where it had been. The ocean slapped at the ship’s hull, trying to fill the silence between them.

Finally Royl turned back to Ginny, the helmswoman: “Resume for Tallon,” he ordered, and stalked off after Parrish and his charts. He left the sisters to fight, or not, over why this obviously meant he had to stay aboard Nightjar until his legs wouldn’t hold him and his mind no longer ran ahead of the wind.

 

Dawn brought them to the deepwater harbor at the edge of the Tallon Shipyards.

Home. Royl could make out the dry docks, the riggers, the sailmakers’ quarter. Standing well back from the water was an ugly brick plug of a building where the spellscribes worked, enchanting unbreakable masts, wheels that could hold a course without a navigator for a time, and figureheads that called out in the fog or the dark whenever a vessel came within sight of their carved, painted eyes.

The Yards were the one great sight of his birth island, a long stretch of busy industry as far as the eye could see, men and women assembling the bones of cutters like the one he’d been sailing these past thirty years. The ships of the Tall were famous. Many a great ship of the Fleet was Tallmade—Constitution, the Cardeshi rep ship and seat of the government, came from the Yards, and so did the fastest ship on the Nine Seas, Courser. The poor doomed frigate Gulietta was a Tall’s ship, as was the craft that sank her, the stolen pirateer Bleedlove.

Tallon’s greatest pride and joy, though, was Temperance.

Temperance. The Yard’s terrible favorite child, a pirate-sinker, a shark clad in stonewood and scripped with the spell that broke the Piracy’s back a century earlier. Temperance’s captain needed only fix his mind on a ship and speak her name. With that, the enemy split and sank.

Viewed objectively, Tallon was a nation of no great distinction, but Temperance was the flagship of the Fleet: It was a ship of the Tall that led the navy into battle.

Sloot had been home maybe ten times in thirty years. Twice it was to bury his parents; once it was to defend himself against a paternity charge, a claim that the night of his mother’s funeral he’d gone carousing and ended up fathering twins. The other visits were all refits for Nightjar: a new mainmast, ten years ago, a rudder just eighteen months earlier.

Home looked different now he meant to stay. The old shipyards made his chest swell with warm, fluid emotion, grief and expectation both.

The Yards had shrunk over the past two lifetimes, since the advent of peace. But there was life in them yet. Their crews repaired old hulks and made pleasure craft, made housing for Fleet personnel, floating farms, scout ships and infirmary ships. And even now, some nations commissioned warships. Just in case.

One such project was tied up in pride of place, a long frigate, almost completed, with an inky, mussel-shell exterior and living sails of batwing. The design was one favored by pirates in the days before the Fleet. Royl would have bet it was a commission from one of the islands that had been a haven to such raiders in the past.

“Bandits in port,” Gale murmured, handing him a cup of hot coffee. “And a dead spy.”

“Aww, the old pirates got their teeth pulled for ’em eighty years ago.” He said it without conviction. “Fleet put ’em down good enough.”

Temperance did,” she said.

“Hmmm.”

“I don’t see your girlfriend, Royl.”

“Matille? She will’ve seen us signaling for harbor patrol and gone home, I imagine. She knows it’ll mean a delay.”

Gale nodded. “Speaking of the patrol, there they are.”

A detachment of harbor police was waiting as they tied up. The head of the detachment was a Tallman of about thirty, short, with blue-black hair and the well-built chest and shoulders of a man who spent hours each day swimming in the sea. He came aboard at their invitation, snapped a salute, and let his eye take in Royl’s civilian crew. No comment, of course.

“Major Gasparin,” the officer introduced himself.

Royl danced through the salutes and protocols as fast as was polite, presenting Gale, Parrish, and Beatrice before taking the major below and showing him the body. It was in the cold room, but merfolk always went off spectacularly. The smell of rotten fish was eye-watering.

Gasparin didn’t flinch. “Have you a trunk that would hold a body? I’d like to get him off the ship quietly.”

“He’s too large,” Parrish objected.

“This will help,” Gasparin said. He produced a fluted blue fin, covered in glowing spellscrip, and put a match to it. As the spell that had made Bertran into a merman burned, his body reverted, shrinking to normal size, growing pale legs. “There. Even a barrel will do now.”

“Won’t be dignified,” Royl said.

“He would understand.”

They had old wood crates that would hold the corpse, but . . . “Garland, have someone empty my blue steamer.”

“Aye, Captain.” The boy disappeared aft.

“How many people know about this?” Gasparin asked, voice low.

“That he died? Everyone aboard Nightjar. That his dying word was ‘Yacoura?’ Just us four.”

“The heart,” Gasparin said. “Your crew will have to be quarantined. No shore leave. As for you four . . .” He chewed his lip.

“If you want to quarantine the Lady Beatrice, fine, but take Gale Feliachild to speak to your superiors,” Sloot said. “I’m home to stay, and if the Furies have made off with the heart of the Tall, you’ll want Gale’s help. The security of Temperance is Fleet business as much as it is local. “

Gasparin put up a hand, as if pained, but he didn’t argue—not with Royl’s logic, and not with his suggestion that the most important inscription in the making of the Cessation of Hostilities had been pilfered.

 

Royl’s hometown was planted in a neat grid around the Yards and, far as he could see, it hadn’t hardly changed. The houses were little walk-up boxes, neat as cadets and just as uniform: red brick, white trim, arranged on straight streets. Individuality was measured in teaspoons—a lacy curtain in this window, a scavenged figurehead mounted as a fence post there. Every mailbox was stenciled with the name and usually the rank—almost all Tallfolk were in service in one way or another—of its residents. A few of the boxes were ornamented with depictions of medals: awards earned for everything from outstanding craftsmanship to good sailing.

Major Gasparin had sense enough to take some of Royl’s advice: He’d sent Gale and Parrish off to talk to his commodore. What he lacked, alas, was the nerve to confine Beatrice to Nightjar. When Royl came ashore she was on his heels, a determined expression stamped on her face.

“Why’d you let her go alone?” she demanded.

“Gale ain’t on her own.” A feeling like loss pierced Royl: He’d wanted to take his time, stepping off the ship that had been his home for thirty years. To say good-bye before he headed uphill to Matille and began to forget.

“The boy can’t replace you, Sloot,” Beatrice said. “You must see that.”

“I had an eye out for seven years, Kir, and isn’t anyone suits as well. He’s devilish clever, he knows the sea and he understands people. He shares Gale’s mad delight for chasing new birds, admiring odd rocks, and meeting peculiar folk. Not to mention for capers, on-the-spot justice, and the rare drop of mayhem.”

“You promised to stay with her.” She slapped a hand down on the gatepost of his mother’s house, blocking his path, as if stopping him from crossing the threshold would make him abandon his plans and march back to Nightjar.

Sloot laid his weathered hand on hers. Beatrice was taller than he, and looked little like her sister. Gale had the iron hair and whippy build that came from years spent outdoors, chasing bandits and climbing mountains. Beatrice was soft, regal and voluptuous, more so now that she’d had another child. She had a shine to her that was half the glow of pampered good health and half the constant popping fry of nervous energy.

“I promised to care for her,” he said. “Sending her off with a bright, fit companion, one she likes, one she trusts—”

“What can that boy know of the world?” Beatrice pulled away.

“More’n you think,” he said.

“Is that so?” A hunger there, he saw, a gleam. Convince me.

“You’ve been away from home for too long, Kir,” Royl said. “Garland’s past ain’t mine to share.”

He opened the gate and walked through. He could have kept arguing—he knew he was in the right—but right or no, he felt guilt.

“You’re being selfish,” Beatrice threw at his back, twisting the blade, and then Matille opened the door and rescued him.

 

How to describe Matille? Few reckoned her beautiful, Royl knew. She was short—remarkably so, almost short as a child—and she had one of those button-eyed doll faces, with a sharp nose. Her lips were so tight and pursey they looked stitched.

She had spent her career in the Fleet Watch, nosing into the inevitable petty corruptions that proliferated within government. A bribe here, a maddenflur smuggling scheme there, nepotism, cadets cheating on exams. She’d made enemies and survived a dozen attempts on her life.

It was Matille who had investigated Parrish, brokering the agreement that tossed him out of the Fleet when he became the sacrificial lamb in a big political scandal. It was she who’d thrown the boy clear of the brig and into Royl’s net. She had probably meant for it to come to this all along.

Matille’s gift, inborn to some degree and honed by magical inscription, was to see into people’s souls, to gauge any spiritual or moral rot within.

As Royl stepped into his childhood home, the girl who’d grown up next door was standing amid the plaster wreckage of a low wall that had run from door to staircase. Most houses on this quarter were built to a standard plan and many had this wall removed already: The idea had been to make their entrances more private, but in fact it just made the ground floor seem cramped. Royl’s ma had been one of the few residents who genuinely liked it.

“You didn’t knock this out yourself, did ye?” he asked.

Matille grabbed his hand, dragging him to the steps and running up three so they were nose to nose. Then she kissed him. “Got some lads in. They’re joining up the master bedrooms, too.”

A crash upstairs punctuated this.

“Who’s this?” Matille was looking over his shoulder at Beatrice and the baby.

Royl said: “First of the hareem. You know you haven’t been the only—argh!”

He’d forgotten—he always forgot—how much she liked to pinch.

“Lady Beatrice of Verdanii,” he said. “Gale’s sister.”

The women regarded each other, Matille exuding the polite implied warmth of a longtime criminal investigator, Beatrice rebuffing like a haughty cat.

Royl left them there, ambling clear of the atmosphere and looking around the house. It had seemed tiny when he left as a boy. Now, after so many years in Nightjar’s cabins and crannies, the ceiling seemed to yawn away, mansion-far, distant as the sky. Could he live in so much room and stillness?

Ma’s treasures had been cleared off the mantel and wrapped in napkins to keep the dust off them. Beyond them, through an open door, was the garden. Matille had seen to that too. Every strip of weed was ripped out, the soil turned, and the smell told him she’d ordered manure mixed into the bed. It waited, rich and ready for planting.

A muscled woman with a shortsword was kneading bread out there, keeping the dough out of the dust, no doubt.

Cook and bodyguard both, Royl guessed. The government would have wanted to offer Matille a bit of security. She knew a lot of sensitive Fleet secrets. Come to that, so did he . . . at least for now.

“Where’re Gale and young Pureheart?” Matille had taken Beatrice’s measure.

“Off adventuring, where else?,” he said. “We fished up some trouble on the route.”

“No great surprise there. Kir Feliachild, let’s make you comfortable.” She led Beatrice through the rubble to a covered couch and sent Royl upstairs to discharge the carpenters so their noise wouldn’t disturb the baby.

He was tempted to leave them banging away. If it was uncomfortable enough, Beatrice might go spend the evening on Nightjar after all.

But when he came downstairs she was seated on the couch with every evidence of growing roots until she got her way.

 

Gale and Parrish showed up just around dinnertime, both in the obscenely high spirits that meant whatever they’d stuck their snouts in, it stank to the skies.

“It’s about what you guessed,” Gale said over soup. “The inscription for Temperance has been taken, and the mer detachment that was sent to retrieve it has all vanished, but for the fellow who turned up with a spear through his chest.”

“It’s happened twice before,” Parrish added. “Both times, they managed to retrieve it. Apparently the Piracy has made it a point of pride to catch and destroy the heart.”

“Three thefts?” Beatrice said. “Careless.”

Nobody bothered to respond. In a sense it was true, but the lady had lived a sheltered life. She’d forgotten how many things here were only possible until someone drafted the right spell. You could protect a vault from every physical threat and ward it to the skies: make it unopenable, make it invisible. But every bolt-hole had its weaknesses. People, usually. Corruption.

And the old refugees of the Piracy were masters of thievery.

“Intelligence’s plan at this point would be to mislay Yacoura,” Gale said. “To stop spending all this time and energy on efforts to protect it ashore, and hide it at sea. But to lose it they have to retrieve it . . . and if they retrieve it, it becomes dishonorable to just dump it somewhere. It’s a mess.”

“So the merman would have lost it on the way,” Royl said. “There’d have been a plan.”

“What do you mean?” Beatrice asked.

“You can’t go dropping something in the ocean and hoping for the best,” Gale said.

“The heart couldn’t just be lost,” Parrish agreed. “It would have to become famously, magically lost.”

“What if Gale loses it?” Royl asked.

“Gasparin and his superiors seem unreceptive to that suggestion.” Parrish said.

“Why?” Beatrice said.

“Perhaps they don’t care to accept outside assistance.”

“But ye’ll look for it, won’t ye?”

“Oh, we’ll look,” Gale said.

The two of them, woman and boy, gleamed at him like hounds on the hunt, and for just a second—even though he’d chosen this, even though it was right—Royl felt hurt, left out of the fun.

 

The baby screeched the night through, as babies do, and Matille made the most of their wakefulness.

They had given Beatrice the best of the bedrooms. This left the two of them in her childhood berth, the little room where Royl and she had first made love. It was like being a kid again: fumbling in the dark, giggling, trying to keep their voices down as Beatrice, alert and no doubt ill-tempered, paced on the other side of the hall, singing unfamiliar songs to her daughter and muttering.

Gale muttered too, Royl thought, when she was at her rope’s end. They probably picked it up from their mother.

“Why is she here?” Matille asked, after they had exhausted themselves and she’d curled her tiny body against his chest.

“Officially, to present the child to the Verdanii Allmother. Nightjar’s to take her after they drop me here.”

“And in fact?”

He kissed her palm. There was no sense lying to Matille. “To talk me out of this.”

She pinched him again.

“She’s afraid Gale will get killed when the guard changes from me to Parrish.”

“Aren’t you?”

“Their priestess has always said Gale would die by someone else’s hand,” he said. “Since birth, they said it. Destined, this Feliachild, for murder. I spent thirty years worrying over her safety and shooting at shadows and we’ve both gotten gray.”

“Now you’re worried out, is that it?”

“I’ll be to blame,” he said, “if I stay and I’m no longer fit. If I don’t pass her on, she’ll slip through my fingers. I was good for her for all those years, Matille; I kept the watch. But I’m not gonna be good, not for that life, not for much longer. She needs a younger man.”

“So I’m getting Gale Feliachild’s dregs.” She was teasing, but under it there was probably a current; being funny-lookin’, as ’Tille put it, had always left that little niggling thorn of sensitivity.

“I ain’t used up, woman, and I ain’t broken. Mebbe I am running from her death, a little, but I can still run.”

“Poor Beatrice, then,” she said, with a breathy laugh that reminded him, once again, of secret sweaty nights, two adolescents screwing in a storm of fear her pa would catch them. Her hand wandered downward. “Run for me, Royl.”

 

Next day, they had a visit from the Furies.

The five miserable and barely habitable rocks that had been the chief refuges of the Piracy had been among the last nations to join the Fleet. The question of whether to take them in—to forgive—had been the last great constitutional battle since the Compact was formed. Four of them—Isle of Fury, Isle of Gold, Passiona Libera, and The Brewpot—had barely reformed, taking to petty crime to sustain their economies. A fifth, Issle Morta, had gone the other route: eschewing slavery, becoming a nation of monks and penance, a place where the dead were serviced and the living were largely unwelcome.

The man who turned up at the door was no penitent. An elderly gent with a bejeweled cane and dagger-sharp, blood-red fingernails, he was dressed in a black suit trimmed in back with long feathers and cut to fit snugly, to imply he carried no weapons. His eyes were bird’s eyes—cold, unforgiving, and inhuman.

The effort of walking from his carriage to the front door left him shaky.

“Don’t let him in,” Beatrice objected, but Matille swung the door wide and invited him to enter. Now the old pirate was sitting on a sheet-covered stool, perched between it and his cane, mastering his breathing and casting a lively eye on all Royl’s ma’s wrapped gewgaws, perhaps wondering, out of habit, if there was anything of value hidden in there.

“My name is Gregor Avenge,” he said at length, after the cook had brought in a plate of cookies and found an excuse to busy herself at the fireplace. “I have come to appeal to your sense of justice.”

Beatrice didn’t quite manage to hide a scoff.

“’Peal away,” Royl said.

The old man launched into a long and spellbinding recitation of the Piracy’s historic complaints about the Fleet: that Temperance had hunted their vessels long after the days of raiding were over—true enough, though never conceded by the government—that she had sunk an Isle of Gold ship full of wounded and widows—also true, though there were those who said Lucre had been put on the seas as bait. When she’d sunk, Isle of Gold had simultaneously shamed the Fleet and gotten rid of two hundred expensive dependents.

“The days of peace have lasted two lifetimes, and there is no call anymore for a ship-breaker,” Gregor wrapped up. “Our dead are owed some restitution.”

“Every nation that signed the Fleet Compact agreed to let bygones be bygones,” Matille said, in her lawyerly way. “No old debts, no reparations. The past to be left in the past.”

“With the threat of Temperance sharp and shining at our throats, what else could we have chosen?”

“Given your history, Kir, I should think you should be grateful for the Clean Slate Provisions,” Beatrice snarled.

“Ye gods, let’s not dive into constitutional law,” Royl said. “There’s no profit in gnawing at arguments that the government itself can’t chew. What is it you want from us, Gregor?”

The old man grinned. “My people have vowed, over the bodies of the Lucre’s slain, to have some justice. Clean Slate be damned, the day shall come when we get our . . . our heart’s desire, you might say. If it should fall your way, if it has fallen your way, the old freebooting nations would be grateful. Not just my people. Isle of Gold . . .”

“That dead merman got the heart of Temperance back from you,” Beatrice snapped. “You and your allies are offering to buy it and buy us, is that it?”

“That would be a breach of Compact,” the old geezer said, rising. “I would never bribe any of you, or threaten you either, for that matter,” he said. He let his long claw stroke the eggshell-delicate head of the baby.

To Royl’s surprise, Beatrice didn’t melt into hysterics or back down. She smiled, ever so faintly. “You haven’t the slightest idea who I am, Kir.”

Those avian eyes showed no doubt, nothing of humanity, but the old lips pursed a little. “Nor you I, I’m sure.”

“Oh, I know you,” she said, with that particular species of withering contempt that her people had perfected for use on incompetents, the corrupt, and people who abused the helpless.

He inclined his head. “Then you shouldn’t underestimate my reach. Verdanii is a big nation, but every land can be crossed.” With that, he tottered, cane tapping, to the door.

Nobody said a word until his carriage had gone off down the road.

“Well, well,” Royl said. “Merman’s stashed the heart, all right.”

“He’ll go after Gale now,” Beatrice said, mulishly hitting that one note again.

“Nah,” Royl said. “He’s overlooked her.” It happened a lot; in an effort to fend off the day when she’d be murdered, their parents had Gale scripped so she was beneath notice and hard to remember. When she wasn’t right in front of you, she tended to fade from your thoughts.

The cook folded her apron. “I should report in.”

“Are you all right, Kir Beatrice?” Matille asked.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Beatrice exploded. “Pirates at the door, uttering thinly veiled threats, and you, you old bureaucrat, you think having Sloot here in your bed matters more than . . . can’t you see the danger to my sister?”

“Actually,” Matille said, “I believe he threatened you.”

 

Gale and Parrish circled back their way in the dead of night, trying to slip in silently and instead making all those noises that make it comical and pointless: dropped shoes, bumping into each other in the dark, whispered, conspiratorial chuckling. Royl and Matille lay abed and listened as Beatrice confronted them, scolding her sister at length in their birth tongue, growing ever more frustrated by the unrepentant tone of Gale’s replies.

Royl slid out of bed and found Parrish in the garden, cleaning muck off his boots. He had a black eye and seemed cheery enough; he’d been troubled when Royl first took him on, but he’d found his peace on Nightjar. It was one of those things that made Royl immensely proud, that anchored him when he doubted his course. The boy had had his heart broke, but he’d mended him, he and Gale.

“The merman—Bertran—had the heart when he was speared,” Parrish said. “We’re pretty sure the Furies don’t have it now.”

“Think he dropped it in the deeps?”

Parrish shook his head. “He had a pet of some kind . . . a fish, maybe? It’s swimming around with it.”

“Might take a while then, to find it.”

“The Piracy is patient,” Parrish said. “The Tallon government’s problem is twofold. They get Yacoura back, honor demands they lock it up. Then it gets stolen again. It’s apparent the Piracy has been able to bribe someone with access.”

“Aye. So someone has to find the pet. One fish in all the ocean . . . how hard can that be?”

“They must have had some way of finding it.” Parrish said.

“And once it’s found, ye need to lose it.”

The boy gathered up the curls of mud he’d cut off his soles and broke them up, vanishing the clods into the garden beds rather than leaving Royl a messy pile. “Major Gasparin wants someone to do just that—they have a scribe who can cast some kind of Legend on it, to make it impossible to find. But it can’t be a Tallman who loses it.”

“You find out why he objects to Gale doing the job?”

“She’s out and about too much; the Furies might grab and torture her.”

That marrow-deep fear for Gale that had been so much a part of his life speared through Royl. “Same goes for you, I suppose.”

“More so, since I’m not inconspicuous. It is,” Parrish conceded, “a not unreasonable concern.”

“Lady Beatrice lives in seclusion. Get her back to her home on Erstwhile and everything’s golden. They’ll never find her there. It’ll even enhance the legend, won’t it? A mysterious Verdanii princess, hidden in a far-off land.”

Parrish nodded; obviously, he’d already thought of that. “If Gale asks her to do it, as a favor, she’ll insist on you staying as master of Nightjar. She doesn’t think much of me.”

“We’ll have to bring her ’round,” Royl said, but his heart sank. Easier to talk the wind out of blowin’.

 

Next day, Parrish and Gale made for Nightjar, bound to head out and find the heart itself. They left Royl with the unenviable task of explaining to Beatrice that they wanted a favor from her, of finally convincing her that she had to stop campaigning against his retirement and simultaneously help them with the hiding of the Yacoura.

He took her down to the market and put it to her as they walked.

She refused, of course. “Parrish can’t replace you. You and Gale been together three decades. Your experience—with her, with politics, at sea—”

“Gale don’t need experience,” Royl said. “She has plenty of that herself. She needs someone who can climb cliff faces and see without squinting, someone who don’t ache from the moment he climbs out of his berth—who bounces out of the damned bed, fer Lady’s sake.”

“Keep him on as her bodyguard, but—”

“Do ye honestly think I want to stand aside?”

“You’ve got your house and your girlfriend and your garden to tend. Your damned settled life.”

“That makes you and me the same,” he said. “Are ye sure it’s me ye’re angry at?”

She tossed her head, bouncing the baby.

He said to Beatrice, “You sail for a lady for thirty years. She takes you into her confidence, into her bed. You wind hooks into each others’ hearts.”

“Don’t make some big production of how much you care. You, with all your women—”

“Neither of us made a marriage of it, true. We aren’t either of us the type, for one thing. For another, the prophets have promised she’s gonna get slaughtered one day.”

Beatrice’s milky skin mottled red, a sign tears were near. “You were meant to see her to that end.”

“One day’s been long in coming, Beatrice. Time comes you start feeling old. One day another of your lovers, the girl you grew up with, she says, “Hey Royl, let’s go retire and go home. We’ll live in your mam’s old berth. I’ll hire a baker to make us fresh catchcakes and spikeweed salad every morning. We’ll live on our pensions and play with my grandkids.”

Now Beatrice was crying.

“Truth is, woman, I was surprised when I wanted to say yes. But that don’t mean I was itching for today. I was ready to be on Nightjar for one last sail, with my lady employer and my talented young mate, none of us quite ready to say good-bye. One final cruise. And ye—” He found himself angry. Ye’re ruining it, he wanted to say.

“Ye’re testing us,” he said. “It’s probably a good thing. I’m more certain now than I ever was.”

“You’re being selfish,” she sobbed.

“What’s selfish? Hanging on to a job I can’t do perfectly anymore? Staying while the dread grows, knowing it’s all gonna end in savagery and heartbreak?”

“Everything ends in heartbreak.”

“It eats at your judgment. It makes you timid. It won’t do.”

“That boy—”

“He can do it, Kir, I swear it. I trust him.”

“I won’t agree,” she said. “I won’t lose the heart if you stay here.”

“The Cessation of Hostilities—the peace of the Fleet–is worth more than your sister’s life.”

“Then it’s worth more than your cozy retirement,” she shot back.

“It’s you risking her, if you force us all onto this course,” he said, and retreated to leave her thinking it over.

But she’d got under his skin at last, he knew it, because when he went out and looked at the garden, his interest in buying seed had waned, and when he went back inside, Matille gave him a pinch that came to the edge of bruising.

 

Two days later, with nothing resolved and everyone stirred up, they made their way to Tallon’s Teeth.

The waters north of the island were shallow and well-jagged with the tips of sea mounts, a hazardous draft of ship-wreckers made more dangerous by the fact that the winds blew hard from the south. Unwary ships caught in those winds had found themselves flung up against the grinding knobs and outcroppings, or dashed against the shore itself.

The Teeth were a graveyard and a training ground for Fleet cadets learning to manage dangerous waters; there was a lighthouse, but three times a year they doused it so training craft could fight the wind and dodge the many ship-breakers. The Yards used the Teeth to test shipbuilding scrips, too, spells that warned sailors to steer clear of lurking rocks elsewhere in the seas.

At sunset, they had rowed out to a pair of curved, riblike rocks known as the Fangs—they jutted up like the teeth of a snake, and at low tide they were joined at the bottom by a short tongue of barnacle-crusted rock just big enough to hold a small house, had anyone wished to build one. The Fangs were scarred, at their tips, by the hulls of ships they’d torn to shreds.

One of them moved as they climbed out of the rowboat, a shadow that Royl made out, after a bit of a jolt, as an old vulture. Oily, black, and apparently amused, it paced on the tip of the Fang, watching them tie up, unload a long fishing net, and set up an inscribing table for the magician Major Gasparin had sent along.

The baby was back in town: ’Tille had agreed, grudgingly, to watch her.

Nothing was settled. Beatrice still insisted that if she were going to be Yacoura’s keeper, the price was Royl remaining aboard Nightjar.

Still, they had to retrieve the heart before they could truly blow themselves up to fighting over what to do with it. Gale and Parrish had retrieved the dead merman’s flute: Now Beatrice stood out on the edge of the tongue and blew a few notes on it.

Water churned. A tentacle emerged from the dusk-shadowed water, delicately resting on the pitted black rock. Octopus eyes followed. Then, without so much as a splash, the entire animal rose, stretching up on its legs and turning from red to milk-white.

A shaft of moonlight shone through it and Royl saw the heart of Temperance embedded in its cap. A beam of oak, wrapped round with steel, not at all heart-shaped, but covered with dense magical lettering, the smallest spellscrip he’d ever seen, letters of the magical alphabet, inked in deep blue.

“What’s meant to happen now?” Gale asked the spellscribe.

“The octopus can hide Yacoura . . . concealment and creeping are what its kind does best.”

“You’re going to trust this thing to an animal?”

“It’s incorruptible, unlike us. It will live, undisturbed, and guard the heart, unless summoned by the flute. Whoever owns it . . . she’s the only one who can summon it. But—”

“But?”

“One might still find her, of course, and the flute.”

“She lives pretty far off the beaten path,” Gale said drily.

“The major’s proposal is to cast a second spell, to wrap the Lady Beatrice in mystery.”

“How?” Beatrice asked.

“My inscriptions are rumor-builders. If I inscribe you, Kir, it would muddy any tracks the Piracy might use to follow you home. When people speak of Yacoura, they’ll say: ‘The heart is lost.’ They’ll say a beautiful woman carried it away to a far-off land and gave it to her newborn babe. They’ll say you are the spirit of Temperance, or that you were the heart and you were dragged to sea by a giant squid. The harder people look, the more the stories will pile up. There would be stories of failed expeditions, ruined ships, men gone mad. The truth will slide ever further away, leaving vapor and lies.”

“It sounds a little like the spell that makes you unmemorable,” Beatrice remarked to Gale.

Her sister grinned. “It’s gonna make you interesting, ’Trice. Mine just makes me forgettable.”

“So Yacoura vanishes,” Beatrice said. “But only until I come again and summon this beast.”

“Or your child does. Or her child does. That day will come,” the spellscribe said. “It always does. But it’s clear that if we leave Yacoura here, the Piracy will have it soon. They’re set on claiming it.”

“Well, ’Trice? Are you ready to become the stuff of legend?”

Beatrice turned to Royl and his heart sank. She hadn’t softened. The demand was coming.

If you sign up for another hitch on Nightjar because of that woman’s bullying, don’t ye plan to come back, Matille had said to him just this morning. I love you, Royl, but I came home to settle. I won’t wait, or pine; I’ll have someone in my bed within the year.

Before he could speak, Parrish moved.

He’d been playing with the fishing net all this time, and now he flung it upward, into the air between the five of them and the open sea.

There was a surge in the water . . . the octopus, dropping below the surface, jetting around the Fangs and down, vanishing from view as something nearby boiled up from the ocean.

It was the old pirate, Gregor Avenge—at least, it wore his guise. The thing that rose from the water was shaped like a man, but its skin was translucent. Royl could see human bones within its skin. There was nothing else: no eyes, no muscle, just the outline of a man and the shadow of the skeleton inside him. Jellyfish tentacles formed its hair and beard, and dangled from its hands and feet . . . the streamers, long drapes of them, also extended into the waters around the Fangs.

It had already thrown a harpoon.

Royl had been so wrapped up in Beatrice he hadn’t sensed anyone coming. But Parrish had been sitting back, watchful as one of the man-eating specters from the terrible island of his birth. Waiting to have his fate determined by the others, or so Royl had imagined, but really that was just the boy’s way. Royl had thought he had the coil of net because of some half-baked idea that they might need to catch the octopus. Instead, the ball of it, airborne, caught the harpoon point, tangling it and dropping the weapon harmlessly to the beach.

It’s the flute he’ll be wantin’. Beatrice looked to be working up a scream; Royl caught her hand, slipping as he scrambled ’round to the far side of one stony Fang. Gale, meanwhile, had pulled out her little one-shot pistol . . .

Seas, woman, he thought out of habit. When will ye stop carrying that little outlander popgun?

Gale stepped in front of the spellscribe, protecting him.

Standoff: They all stopped to look for advantage. Avenge drew another harpoon up from under the water. Parrish faced him empty-handed. Gale covered the scribe.

Beatrice turned, horror on her face. She opened her mouth to yell, to protest. To harry her sister off the field.

Royl covered her mouth. “He ain’t even looking at Gale!” he whispered.

It was true. It was Parrish who had flung down the harpoon, and Parrish who had drawn Gregor’s attention. The boy was so very eye-catching, after all, unnaturally so, and he was young, strong—the obvious threat.

He was standing between the monster and the wisp of a Fang where Royl was hiding Beatrice. Beatrice was clutching the flute. And Gregor was moving, gliding over the water, bringing the tip of the spear’s point to the throat of the undefended kid Royl meant to replace him.

None of them—not he, not Parrish, not Gale—were afraid.

This was what he would miss the most, Royl thought, as Avenge lunged at Parrish and the revolver let out a pop—these little moments of perfect understanding. Parrish standing as bait and Gale, unnoticed, going in for blood. This sense of already having won, knowing they were going to pull it off yet again.

Rather than waste a bullet on the apparition in the water, Gale had shot the vulture sitting quietly on the Fang, watching them all.

A ripple went through Avenge, his bones wobbling as if set in gelatin, as the bird fell unceremoniously at their feet. Feathers hung in the air; the vulture gasped and croaked, flapping in a few inches of water. Weakening, Avenge nevertheless attempted to thrust the harpoon into Parrish’s throat. Parrish sidestepped, neatly avoiding the jellyfish tentacles, and picked it out of his hand. He turned the point on the bird, apparently thinking to put it out of its misery, and glanced at Gale, checking.

“Crossed! Cursed!” the bird croaked with Avenge’s voice, and then died. The skeleton wobbled again, collapsing into the sea, leaving a froth of blood-colored foam on the surface as the bones within sank to the bottom.

Gale reholstered her pistol. “Can we write this scrip now and get out of here? ’Trice? Please?”

Royl realized he still had his hand on Beatrice’s mouth.

He stepped back. “Apologies, Kir.”

“You are all of you stupid reckless foolhardy troublemaking children,” she sputtered.

“Understood, Kir,” Parrish said. It was nearly the first thing he’d said to her since she’d shown up and started pecking at him. “But the two of us can be foolhardy and reckless without Captain Sloot’s assistance.”

“I’ve taught him well in that regard,” Royl said.

“If you’d be so kind as to release him from his promise, I give you my word I’ll—”

“You can’t promise to protect Gale. She’s going to die horribly; it’s foretold, and you all know it!”

“Mortality is non-negotiable. And with respect to your prophets,” Parrish said, “your sister has already outlived virtually every other spy in the Fleet.”

Beatrice raised the little flute, looking for all the world like she was going to jam it into Parrish’s chest like a dagger. Then she let out a long breath and threw the pipe at the scribe. “All right, then. Start writing. I’ve got to get back to Royl’s place and feed my baby.”

 

Royl would have thought the inscription winding Beatrice’s fate into that of Yacoura’s would need to be written on her skin, but the scribe had taken a long veil of fine white silk and draped her in it before beginning to paint the lettering on its fabric, surprisingly big and drippy letters in an ink as clear as water, letters that vanished as the fluid dried.

Parrish sat nearby as he worked, watching in case Avenge reappeared. The octopus frisked and squirted from the edges of the Fangs, occasionally extending a tentacle to caress Beatrice’s ankle.

“What’ll it do when Beatrice returns home?” Royl asked. “Will it pine for her, do you think?”

“It’ll do octopus things,” Gale said. “Fish, hunt, play hide-and-go-seek with the heart. Maybe even find a nice octopus boy so it can settle down and raise heirs.”

“Ye think it’ll miss her?”

“Now and then, maybe. Then it’ll forget. Yacoura will be safe in its keeping, Royl.”

“For how long?”

“Until it’s time for it to be found, I suppose.”

“Until its time runs out.” Sloot’s chest tightened.

“Don’t go mourning what’s not yet gone.” She surprised him by kissing his cheek. “Listen, Royl, I’ve gotten you something. It’s—well . . .”

She handed him a heavy satchel, embroidered with Verdanii markings: leaves, vines, and flowers in heavy green thread.

“Seeds?” he guessed. “From Verdanii?”

She might as well have given him gold.

“If you’re going to garden, I’d have you be the envy of your neighbors,” Gale said. “Besides . . . they’ll help you remember. Now and then. Only as much as you like.”

He reached across and took her hand, one last time, and there was a second where he wanted to throw away honor, give Beatrice her wish after all, give up on this retirement madness. Stay on the course of his youth. Sail away, sail hard, until together they foundered.

“Finished,” the scribe announced. The letters on Beatrice’s veil shifted, roiling bright red, flame orange, bone white, and the gray of rock, mottling like coral before shifting so they once again took on the gossamer of the scarf itself, and were thus made invisible.

Beatrice tootled a few notes on the flute from under the veil. The octopus splashed one last time and vanished.

Rumors and half-truths whispered through the muggy air: Royl could almost hear himself, in a tavern, spinning tales: A veiled lady, betrayed by her first love, gave the heart to a monster. A lost princess of Verdanii, gone into hiding after pirates threatened to tear Yacoura from her chest, where it was keeping her alive after she’d been speared by her first love, that bloody duelist. A young mother, forming a baby out of clay with the heart of Temperance within, and raising it as her child in a faraway land . . .

They would spread, those rumors, multiplying and confusing the issue, a pall of sound and vapor to fog the truth.

Parrish rose from his seat beside the Fangs and helped first Beatrice and then the scribe into the rowboat. He and Gale took the oars. “Coming, Kirs?”

“Aye, Cap’n Parrish,” Royl said. He slung the bag of seeds over his shoulder and stepped into the boat, ready to return to town, just another old mariner with a store of tall tales about the past, with a good woman waiting at home and vegetables to sow.

 

“Losing Heart Among the Tall” copyright © 2017 by A. M. Dellamonica

Art copyright © 2017 by Richard Anderson

3 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!