The bright green and blue light of Isasal slipped behind a wayward cloud, but the crowd of midnight revelers danced undeterred around Vasili on the airship’s top deck, bathed in the soft glow of a hundred oderic lamps.
A string quartet sawed into a triumphant waltz. Vivid suits and resplendent gowns crowded the forecastle dance floor of a luxury airship. Fearful of catching a stray elbow, Vasili stood stock-still as the figures glided past in a line. Ostentatious, colorful feathered masks streaked and blurred, moving in time to the music in seamless, choreographed pageantry, always turning before Vasili could focus on any one face.
But two of the dancers were recognizable with or without their masks. At the end of the line, hand in hand, danced Deirdre Vara and Jonas Semmler.
Jonas and Deirdre never said they could dance! Vasili thought in wonder. Heads turned, and Vasili sensed he was not alone in his awe.
The music reached its zenith. Jonas pulled Deirdre close in an elegant, sweeping motion. The two embraced and their eyes locked upon one another from behind feathered masks. Then Jonas sprung Deirdre outward while reaching a gloved hand to the sky to strike a final pose. The crowd of dancers parted and a muted applause replaced the thrum of a cello. Jonas startled at the sudden attention and gave a slight bow from the waist, then clapped toward Deirdre. She folded her hands in front of her and averted her eyes. Red tinged her cheeks below the feathered mask.
Jonas waited a beat before curving a hand around Deirdre’s waist to escort her to a secluded section at the starboard rail. As bright as the starlit sky, a sea of towering buildings and arched viaducts floated silently below. Over the wind and the excitement, Vasili heard a cluck of Jonas’ tongue. “Oh, my dear young miss,” he said, the orange feathers on his mask buffeted by the headwind, “did the bishop forget to teach you how to curtsy?”
The boy bubbled with excitement. Where did you two learn to dance like that? That was incredible!
Deirdre risked a nervous glance over her shoulder, then scowled back at Jonas. “The bishop said to blend in. Not do whatever that was.”
“He’s just jealous he doesn’t get to play this part anymore,” Jonas said. The music started up again. Vasili wanted to ask Deirdre for a dance, but Jonas beat him to it. He bowed and offered his hand. “I’ll throttle back this time, yeah?”
Deirdre smoothed the sides of her sequined gown. Her green eyes glinted from behind a band of azure feathers. “What the hell is keeping him? I’m freezing up here, and these gods-be-damned shoes—”
Jonas let his hand drop and he pulled at the collar of his jacket with the other. “I’d offer my coat, but you might find it more sweaty than to your liking. Three layers in summer? What year is it, anyway? 291?”
“Oh you poor thing.” Deirdre stuck her lower lip out. “Next time, you can wear the gown.”
“The tailor didn’t bat an eye when I told him that flashy getup was for me. Besides, I’ve pulled it off before…”
Something passed over the back of Vasili’s mind, like a hand hovering close over skin. He vaguely recalled Jonas wanting to send him to a tailor.
“Gods damn it—” Deirdre scanned the deck. “Gert is slow, but never this slow.”
Jonas shrugged. “He’ll be along.”
Gert? Vasili asked. Don’t tell me that Gert dances, too? I just have to see that!
A gigantic domed airship rose into view off the starboard bow. “And the Edith’s Grace is already making her southern approach to the theatre district. Don’t you think we—”
Something prickled the back of Vasili’s neck. He turned to find a number of young men in form-fitting suits and colorful masks making their way to the rail. Jonas proffered his hand again to Deirdre. “For now, the wolves are circling. Shall we blend in?”
Deirdre sighed and at last took Jonas’ hand. “One dance, you said. Just one.”
Vasili’s guts roiled. The oderic lights on the top deck briefly guttered and drew the attention of those taking a break from the merriment. Jonas and Deirdre paused mid-step. The lights intensified, and the rest of the party took notice, one by one shielding their eyes from the glare. The violist missed a note, the music slowed, and the quartet ceased playing altogether. A pensive silence settled while the dancers looked to each other in confusion. The lights flared ever brighter, sending long shadows down the planks of the deck. Vasili joined in the confusion. What’s happening?
Glass shattered and the world plunged into darkness. Someone shrieked. Vasili desperately tried to blink away the night blindness. Jonas? Deirdre? he called out.
Another jolt wracked Vasili’s stomach. Something mechanical groaned deep within the hull. The airship gave a shudder before taking on a starboard list. A multitude of cries sparked panic among the crowd of well-dressed nobles. Vasili stumbled and caught himself on the rail. Deirdre and Jonas took the pitching of the deck in stride, their feet splayed wide and their chins up as they scanned the deck. The yacht shuddered and dropped precipitously before catching itself with a jolt.
“How does Gert figure out a way to ruin every— fucking— party?” Jonas said.
“Did you feel that?” Deirdre said. “Something is starving the core.”
“How hard is it just to hit a light toggle?” Jonas threw his arms up. “I can’t believe—”
“This wasn’t the plan. We have to get down there.” Deirdre started toward the grand stairway leading beneath the deck.
“Hey! Stop!” Jonas closed the distance and gripped her arm. “Leave him. If this boat is going down, we’re done here.”
“We’re going down?” An elderly lady shrieked. “He says we’re going down!” Her cry radiated outward and the crowd took up her shouts.
Jonas did his best to ignore the panic. “We need to be up here— right here— when the Break arrives.”
Deirdre wrenched her arm away and ripped off her feathered mask. “We aren’t in free fall. There’s still time to save these people. And maybe your own damned hide as well.”
Jonas sighed and patted the top of his well-oiled hair. Vasili became aware of a new source of light slowly rising above the deck. The bow dipped and the ship eased into a right-hand bank to avoid an enormous tower that loomed in front of them. Vasili could no longer contain himself. Go help her, he shouted at the man in the dark. You have to help her!
Jonas shook his head, took a moment to slick a lock of hair into place, then relented. “Gods damn it. Fine!” He followed Deirdre through a set of broad double doors.
Fur, feathers, and wild eyes emerged at the top of a flight of steps. Jonas held a bright rod aloft and shook it until the light brightened enough to illuminate a spacious, carpeted grand staircase. A number of couples ascending the dark stair peered up at him, burgeoning panic in their eyes. Jonas waved them on with his rod. “Everything will be alright, folks! Come up! Come up! Plenty of fresh air and cocktails abound!” More frightened gentry stumbled past while Jonas bulled his way down the grand stair.
Jonas swam through the ascending passengers with Vasili fighting to keep on his heels until they caught up with Deirdre. Skysailors in blue-striped shirts and white caps waved their lanterns in the darkness and urged the well-dressed passengers to make for the lifeboats on the top deck. More than once, Jonas and Deirdre were told they were going the wrong way, but no one made an effort to stop their descent.
The broad staircase ended in a vast chamber with a glass-domed ceiling and a polished wood deck. Tables with white tablecloths full of fine porcelain and silver cutlery had been abandoned, and a stream of nobility were making for the steps. The ship pitched to a steeper angle and the wine glasses and pitchers were the first to topple and shatter. Beyond a set of open curtains, Deirdre found another ladder and moved further down into the ship. Jonas lingered in a room filled with green-velvet tables long enough to snatch a roll of multicolored ceramic coins, but when the ship rumbled and pitched further, a lone shout from Deirdre encouraged him to speed on. They moved down another deck and the flow of terrified passengers ebbed until the three were alone on a utility level. They halted atop a broad landing above a pitch-black companionway.
“I’ll have you know,” Jonas said. “I’m only doing this so I can hold it over Gert’s head.”
Deirdre’s eyes glowed green. “Is the antechamber fore or aft?”
“My preparations were more of the dancing variety, truthfully.”
“You had the schematics, Jonas. You’re the fucking engineer!” Deirdre’s voice reverberated down the corridor.
“Right, because every engineer is supposed to be—” The ship shuddered and a row of nearby pipes rattled violently. “An airship is an airship is an airship.”
“Fore or aft?”
“Down!” Jonas said.
From the companionway below came a muffled cry and a metallic crash. “Open up in there!”
“See?” Jonas wore a greasy smirk.
Deirdre gave Jonas a disgusted look, then swiped the light cylinder from him and moved down the companionway.
Vasili hurried to follow. Wait for me!
“You see? Always trust your instincts, kiddo,” Jonas said. “You know what happens when you trust your instincts?”
“You end up dead, Jonas.”
The shadow passed over Vasili’s mind again, and a chill crept down his spine. Thoughts bubbled forth before slipping from his grasp, as if he had been awake for too long. Something is… off. I don’t feel right. He blinked and wiped at his face. At the end of a long corridor cluttered with twisting pipes and stem valves, three of the yacht’s crew members were struggling to unseal a hatch. One man repeated his call through the sounding pipe. “Open up! We just want to talk!”
Jonas snorted a laugh over his shoulder. “No, my dear young miss. Trust your instincts, and you end up the gods damned hero.”
When Vasili looked at Deirdre, he expected to find anger, but instead saw tears welling in the dull green light. Deirdre? Are you okay? He followed her gaze to see Jonas’ shadow against the pool of light at the far end of the passageway. The engineer’s distinct silhouette awoke a cold and harsh realization within Vasili. You died. Jonas, I watched you die. How is this possible? How did I get here? Deirdre followed Jonas down the corridor, and Vasili with her, nearing the odiry antechamber.
Jonas called to a group of skysailors in the clipped accent of the gentry. “Gentlemen! What seems to be the problem?”
“Sir? Sir, you shouldn’t be—”
Jonas cleared his throat. “Your orders were most clear, gentlemen. Women and children first. What in the twelve hells are you still doing here?”
An older skysailor touched the brim of his cap. “Sir, someone has barricaded himself in the odiry. If we could just—”
Jonas sliced a hand through the air. “There’s no time. The passengers on the top deck need your help evacuating, and you don’t need six men to open one door. I will stay behind. Topside! Now!”
The men needed no encouragement to drop their battering implements and file past. Deirdre crossed her arms, giving Jonas a look of disapproval as the metallic footsteps echoed down the corridor. The engineer’s eyebrows danced, and he turned around to open the sounding pipe. “Knock, knock, chief. The skies are clear.”
Jonas listened as a distraught, muffled voice responded from the other side of the hatch. “Ha! Deir— You’re not gonna believe this—” Jonas paused to listen. “Shit.”
Rapid steps came from the end of the corridor. A crewman jogged back into the light and gave a stiff bow to Deirdre. “Miss. My apologies. Please come with me. Women and children first.”
“Oh, heavens no, I could not,” Deirdre said in an overt high-born accent.
The crewman drew close and offered an elbow for the escort. “Ma’am, you needn’t be afraid—”
“I must insist, every man for himself. I will assist our Lord— um—” A mechanism rattled on the other side of the hatch.
“Ma’am, an airship is a warren of steam channels and sealed hatches. It’s no place for a— Say, you got him to open up the—”
Jonas’ fist cracked the skysailor in the jaw. His head bounced off a pipe with a reverberating clang before his body hit the deck with a flat thud.
“A gods damn moment!” Deirdre threw her hands up and ripped a glove off. She stooped and pressed a finger to the man’s neck. “If you had given me two seconds, I’d have had him walking away without a brain injury.”
“Darling, you’re the most stunning thing on this ship tonight. And you’re gonna get me killed.” Jonas snatched a leather mask from a locker and dropped it on the unconscious crewman’s chest. “Put this on.”
Deirdre glowered at Jonas before donning the goggles and respirator.
The final latch unlocked with a clank and odeum spilled out of the edges. The odiry! The dust… I need a mask. Jonas reached for the hatch. No! Wait! Jonas ignored Vasili’s pleas, and the hatch swung open.
Light from the odiry spilled across the antechamber, illuminating a rack of odeum masks hanging on the opposite bulkhead. Vasili shot forward and reached for the nearest one, but his hand only passed through it as if it were made of smoke. What? He reached out again, but his fingers once more slipped through the oiled leather to feel the wood backing of the locker. An illusion. Behind, Jonas shouted Gert’s name through the hatch. What is this? Vasili screamed, then began to choke. Why won’t you listen?
When neither Jonas nor Deirdre acknowledged him, Vasili began to panic. His lungs burned, and the edge of his vision shimmered. His ears filled with the sound of rushing liquid and Vasili could feel his heart try to beat its way out of his chest. They can’t hear me. Where am I? What’s happening to me? He spun with another question on his lips when the open hatch revealed the scene in the odiry.
A shorter, pot-bellied man dressed in a greasy, sleeveless white shirt stood in the entryway. He tugged at his goggled mask by its trailing hose and revealed a rosy-cheeked face with a thick, bristling mustache dripping with sweat. Over Gert Karnaugh’s shoulder, Vasili saw the problem with the quieted reaction chamber. Whether by accident or by violence, a pair of legs in a skysailor uniform were sticking out of the intake manifold of the spherical core.
Gert’s eyes were wild with desperation. “You gonna stand there, or are you gonna fuckin’ help me!”
“He told me… he said that I was the most stunning thing in the sky that night—”
Vasili faded into consciousness, dimly aware of Deirdre Vara’s hushed voice.
“But there was something… different. I can’t explain it. Jonas was never… out of character. But neither was he ever really in. He only ever played himself. You knew him best. You know.”
Bishop Henner Mayhew made a sound in agreement. “What happened next?”
“You were there,” Deirdre chided.
As Vasili stirred, he felt a cold, unforgiving surface beneath him. Where am I? Who?… He rolled over and pried his eyes open. The infirmary of the Apotheosis Break coalesced around him. Deirdre and Henner stood nearby, engrossed in conversation, while he lay on an operating table.
“Our Father delights in details. Besides, I’ve only heard this from Jonas’ perspective, which we both know could be colored by… Micky?”
Vasili propped himself up on an elbow and felt an ache roll through every muscle. He swung his legs over the side of the table and blinked the sleep from his eyes. Did I fall asleep here? How did I… He blearily looked about the cabin.
Deirdre strode to a rack of instruments and selected a device with three hoses and several metal attachments. “You had us worried, Micky. How are you feeling?”
“My name is…” The name caught in Vasili’s throat. I am Vasili Mikhailovich. But they don’t call me that. They call me… Micky. Short for Mikhailovich. The past day’s events returned along with the feeling in his arm. I’m on a ship. My father’s old airship. And we are… “Where are we?” His voice emerged raspy and dry.
“You’re safe now, my son,” Henner said.
The bishop smiled warmly at Vasili. He no longer wore his Vaantic clergy robes, but instead had donned the simple clothes of a laborer. He placed a gloved hand on Vasili’s shoulder. The boy stared at it and felt something strange with the grip. The bishop and his wooden fingers. The bishop who isn’t a bishop. Vasili glanced in fear toward Deirdre. The doctor that wouldn’t help save Jonas. She and Jonas tried to get rid of me. Tried to pay me off and leave me in Schultzwald. To die. They were stealing the shards from the Nevs. And then— And then—
“Micky?” Deirdre said. She wiggled two ends of the three-pronged device into her ears and raised the last toward Vasili.
“Don’t touch me!” Vasili recoiled from the bishop’s grip, slapped Deirdre’s hand away, and sprinted away. “Get away from me!” The memory of Schultzwald, the raiders, and the innocent people running for their lives flooded his mind. He skidded around a shelf and sent a set of metal cups flying. Liars! Thieves! Murderers!
“Gods damn it,” Deirdre said. “The fuck is wrong with you? Get back here!”
“Let him go,” the bishop’s voice trailed as Vasili darted out of the infirmary.
Disoriented and afraid of being followed, it took a moment for Vasili to get his bearings. He crept along as stealthily as he could, with what remained of his soiled, impractical livery catching on protruding pipes and valves. The Apotheosis Break was eerily quiet. The hum of the propellers and rushing liquid of the oderics had disappeared along with the jostles and rattling of flight. Why aren’t we moving? He shouldered past the sticking hatch and into his quarters.
The shabby haversack hung on a peg where Vasili had left it. Grab it and go. But curiosity kept him rooted in place. Vasili took the four short steps to the porthole and stuck his face against the dirty glass to look outside. Not far below, in a weather-beaten field, emaciated cattle grazed, the brass bells around their necks tinkling with each plodding step. Wrenching his head around the clouded porthole, Vasili could only see more livestock and a group of scraggly trees dimly lit by the mid-morning light. What is this place?
He waited for the span of two breaths, but could only hear the plaintive mooing of cows. They haven’t found me. Yet.
Vasili grabbed his bag from the bulkhead and stuffed it with his belongings. He left the soiled livery from the Schultzwald job on the floor. My lantern. Where is my lantern? He made a cursory search of the cabin before remembering that Gert had hung it in the pilothouse when he first got onto the Break. Vasili weighed the risk of retrieving it against walking home without a light. Mother will kill me if she knew I lost a lantern. He kicked through the livery again and found nothing. A lantern, and a whole bag of silver. Father forgive me.
Vasili tried to swing the hatch shut behind him but it stuck on the warped frame and refused to seal. He left it ajar in protest. Let the cats have it, Vasili thought. He stole down the hall and made his way toward the midship ladder, half expecting to encounter someone with each step. Father willing, I can get off the airship without anybody noticing.
And then what? Vasili hesitated at the ladder. Home? Back to Holtswood? They’ll ridicule me. Parnught. Mennel. That rat-faced Finn. All of them.
Vasili recalled catching Sal crying when he went to prepare for the Induction ceremony, and a wave of guilt crashed over him. The old innkeeper had such hopes for Vasili. She had poured her own aspirations into him, a grandson she never had. Little Vasili would sail the skies under the banner of the Empire, like his father before him. How can I look her in the eye again? Is this as far as I get? Is this the part I play? Vasili, the Bumbling Disappointment. Vasili of the Shallow Dreams. Vasili Who Is Not His Father.
Vasili stood on a ship full of those who knew Anton Mikhailovich, but he could not bring himself to believe a word they said. Thieves and murderers, the lot of them. What could they tell me, anyway? Nothing. Nothing but falsehood. A voice in his head told him otherwise, that every story had a kernel of truth. He stomped on that voice. I can do better than this. Than them. He shouldered his pack with renewed purpose. At least I know how to deal with Finn.
When he reached the top of the spiral ladder, Vasili peeked above the deck boards and found the pilothouse empty. He scurried around the map table, plucked his lantern from above the helm, and clipped it to his pack. Tarnished levers and dull knobs reflected his movements. There, now… where in the hells did we land?
A canvas, its ragged edges stained red, still obscured part of the view out of the forward portlight. The settlement the airship had docked at was ringed by a fractured stone wall and framed by tall mountain peaks. Newly built wooden homes lined wide, dusty streets, interspersed among black scarred rubble and ruined buildings. A handful of figures walked down the lanes, but for the number of buildings, Vasili expected more life. It looks quiet. And dry. He licked at his chapped lips and tried not to think of the distance between him and the roast chicken he ate in Schultzwald.
Vasili moved to a porthole that looked aft upon the top deck of the Apotheosis Break. Four mooring berths were marked along the wall, but theirs was the only airship idling at port. A crude sign constructed from corroded iron rails mounted to the top of the wall read: OSSWALD. Vasili pictured the maps pinned to his bedroom wall. I know where Osswald is. That can’t be. There is a huge mountain range between Holtswood and… His eyes narrowed and flicked to the snow-capped peaks looming over the town. I must be wrong. Maybe I can… Vasili listened to assure himself that nobody drew near.
Hearing nothing but the dock workers, Vasili crouched below the broad navigation table and pulled open a cabinet door. It was jammed to the brim with rolls of parchment, large sheets of thick paper, and jumbled piles of scrolls. He flipped open a lacquered wooden box and examined an optical device with unusual cogs and notches before suppressing his curiosity and pushing it to one side. He pulled out a ream of maps and began flipping through them. Each sheet of vellum was covered in minute script, finely etched geography, and a thousand unrecognizable names. To Vasili’s relief, each cabinet had been labeled with a discernible region. Southern Oriens — the eastern continent. That’s broad enough. He shuffled to another side of the table. Montvaux Highlands. No. Southern Frontier… Close… Northern Frontier! Vasili paused to listen for movement before pulling another stack of charts from the cabinet. It did not take him long to pinpoint familiar Vogtland landmarks written in bold letters.
Schultzwald should be at the headwaters of the Contess… Vasili first located the river, then found Schultzwald before running his finger eastward. We must be… He remembered the captain order Deirdre to make for Heleberg Pass. Vasili continued east across tiny script detailing insignificant rivers, forests, and villages until his fingernail found another mountain range. To the north sat a larger dot labeled Osswald. Vasili backtracked to find Ostland and Vaasford, south of Schultzwald by a small margin. He blinked and ran his finger along the page. With a final indignant gasp, Vasili rocked back on his heels and shook his head. Holtswood isn’t even on the map! He spread the vellum across the large table, and his sense of scale shattered with the countless names and features arrayed before him. The maps of his youth had shown but a fraction of the detail as this single chart. I’ve flown two days from Holtswood. Over rivers, farms, towns, and across mountains. And I’m… He flattened the map out with a sweeping gesture, locating Osswald and tracing his finger further east into more forests and mountains. We haven’t even left the Vogtland. But I’m still weeks from home by horseback.
Peeking out the aft portholes, Vasili surveyed the top deck. One of the rear levitation booms appeared to be gashed open, though he could not quite see the extent of the damage from the pilothouse. Did the other ship do that? A shirtless figure prying a long steel bolt from the deck drew Vasili’s attention.
The man called Hash.
Hash hauled back and forth on the harpoon, his arms rippling with muscle. The steel sprung from the deck with a lurch, wood splintered into the air, and the pole clattered off the railing. He reacted with neither surprise nor satisfaction. He simply kicked the bolt aside and stooped to the next task. In the morning light, Hash’s close-cropped sandy-blonde hair almost disappeared. The tanned skin of his chest, back, and upper arms was strewn with tattoos. A raven stretched across his shoulder blades above a tapered dagger entwined in vegetation. Stars, a circus of animals, and phrases too small to make out covered his lower back. Hash paused to stretch and Vasili startled. He squinted at the bold ankh and accompanying script in the middle of the man’s chest. The words were large enough to see, but not printed in Common. Is that… Lissian?
When Vasili ran from Schultzwald’s Three Spruce Inn, he had almost been snatched by one of the raiders before running into the quiet man. Hash barely said a word. He cut those bandits down as if reaping the autumn wheat. Vasili shuddered. If I ever see Hash again after this, it will be a day too soon. The rational part of Vasili wanted to feel frightened and to hate the quiet man and his quick sword. He tried. He painted Hash as a murderer. A monster in the employ of thieves. But as he watched Hash coil a line, Vasili could not shake off a begrudging gratitude. He saved my life.
A clatter and a curse echoed up through an unstoppered sounding-tube. Vasili decided he did not have a convincing argument for rummaging through navigational charts. He stuffed the map back into the cabinet, descended the spiral ladder, sneaked through the crew corridor, and adopted his best casual gait before emerging onto the top deck.
The outside air smelled of dry, baked earth. The starboard moorings were tied to rusted iron cleats staked into ancient stone battlements atop the wall, and the lines slackened and grew taut with each methodical bob of the floating airship. The starboard boom and propeller housing jutted above the wall and stretched out over the town. Whoever had piloted had set them down nicely above the parapets. Vasili fought back a rude grin. Easier than furrowing some poor farmer’s midsummer yield. A narrow plank bridged the gap down to the walkway, rising and falling with the gentle motions of the airship.
The burly first mate, Gert Karnaugh, helped a longshoreman unstrap a barrel from the airship’s crane and roll it toward a heap of offloaded cargo. Captain Mied stood nearby, dressed in his worn sheepskin jacket. He ran a hand through his short hair and gesticulated to a worker dressed in a collared shirt, suspenders, and a bright red visor.
Mied stabbed a clipboard at the length of wall behind the dockworker. “Listen, chief—”
“For the last time, buddy, it ain’t up to me.” The man crossed his arms and shrugged. “No slip, no odeum.”
“And I’m telling you, I’ve been flying for the Guild near twenty years. There’s no such thing as an ‘expeditionary’ slip.”
“Empire’s lawman says so. Take it up with him. The dust goes through them, so it ain’t my problem anymore.”
“You see this?” Mied shook the clipboard. “This says I don’t have to wait for a gods damned judge to get my gods damned fuel.”
The dockworker pushed his visor into his receding hairline. “First you say you’re but a humble merchantman, now you start waving Sharding Guild papers in my face. At least get your story straight.”
“Are you not the harbormaster?”
“Aye, and these are my docks, but I’m just following—”
“A dead boat at your docks is absolutely your problem,” Mied said. “I’ve got papers a-plenty. Take a gander and send word to the Guild if you need, but—”
“Save ’em for the honorable judge. ’Til I hear word from that puckered git, these barrels stay.” The harbormaster spun on his heel and marched off.
Mied grunted, then called after the harbormaster. “Already talked to enough gits today.”
The harbormaster laughed, but kept walking.
Vasili seized his opportunity. He cinched the straps, tightened his grip on his pack, and strode off the Break. The clatter of the gangplank drew the attention of the captain and the first mate.
“Good morning, Micky,” Captain Mied said. “Where are you off to? Hold on—”
Vasili tried to march past the men without a word.
“Micky,” the captain said, “I want to talk with you. Stop a moment. Micky, c’mon!”
Gert stepped forward. Vasili tried to sidestep the bigger man, to brush past in dignified silence, but he put a foot into the webbing of a cargo net, and instead stumbled around Gert with a few awkward hops.
“Gert,” Mied ordered.
Vasili lost contact with the ground mid-stride when a firm hand yanked him backward by his pack.
“Hey! Get off of me, you jerk!” Vasili struggled, but Gert held him at arm’s length.
The harbormaster paused to survey the ruckus. For a fleeting second Vasili thought had found an ally, but a congenial salute from the captain sent the man on his way.
“Calm down, son,” Mied said. “It’s a long fall. We don’t want to hurt you, or gods forbid for you to hurt yourself.” Mied nodded and Gert released the boy with a shove. Vasili pinwheeled his arms and nearly lost his balance before he righted himself. The pack made his movements awkward and he shot an angry glance at Gert.
The first mate only grinned through his bushy mustache. “Got you on the ground in one piece, boy-o. I’d say the captain’s owed a minute of your time.”
“I’m going home. And you can’t stop me.” Vasili looked between the two men with baleful eyes.
“The job still needs finishing, if you’d believe it. I want to make sure to give you what’s yours before you go.” The captain dug in one of his coat pockets and brought out a pouch. “Deirdre said you lost the silver in the scramble. You worked a job, and you should be paid, especially for your first gig. And I won’t let a gang of wastelanders walk away with your pay.”
Before Vasili could say a word, Mied tossed the purse at him. He bobbled the leather sack and almost lost it over the wall. Once Vasili’s fingers closed around it, he could feel a heft that had a similar weight to the one Jonas had given him in the tavern. So much coin. Are all skysailors so rich?
“Gods damned ridiculous,” the first mate said around the cigar between his teeth.
“Mister Karnaugh and I have a difference of opinion,” Mied said.
Vasili moved the pouch back and forth in his hands and marveled at the weight. “No.”
The captain gave his first mate an amused look. “No?”
Vasili held out the pouch to Mied. “I can’t accept this.”
Gert threw his hands up. “Fuckin’ kids.”
“Son,” Mied said. “If you were hoping for more, I’ve got some bad news—”
“This means I’m one of you,” Vasili shouted, his voice cracking. “If I take it. It means that you paid me f-for what you did. I wanted to fly on an airship. I wanted to see the world. I didn’t want— I didn’t want this.”
Gert’s blew smoke through his teeth. “The fuck you think it is we do, boy?”
Vasili stared the first mate down and clenched his fists. “Lie. And cheat. And steal. And murder!”
The men looked at each other in disbelief. Gert took a deep pull of his cigar, opened his mouth, but any biting retort was interrupted by Mied’s wry laughter. “How quick the skies sour them, eh, Gert? One day in the clouds and he’s green no longer.” Mied exhaled with theatrical relief. “It’s good we got the boy on the ground. Any longer and we might have returned him to his mother a brigand like us.”
Vasili’s simmering anger boiled over into embarrassment and rage and he considered making a run for it. His eyes flicked over the side of the battlement and he decided the fall would break both his legs if not his neck. Instead, Vasili dangled the pouch at arm’s length and let it drop.
The captain’s face darkened, but his voice remained composed. “Son, I want you to listen and listen well. You can call me whatever you wish, but there’s one rule I abide by—”
Gert snorted his amusement.
“Alright,” Mied said. “Maybe a few rules, but this one in particular. A captain, a ship, it takes care of its own. And that means that it sees its crew paid. You rendered a service, Micky, and you’ll be compensated. I don’t know what you’re on about but word gets around I didn’t pay you, I’ll have to answer to the Guild. Drop the coin in a Vaantic coffer. Throw it into a gods damned creek if you must, but it’s a long way home if that’s the way you’re headed.” The captain took a pull from his pipe, and when he exhaled he stabbed the iron-rimmed end at the pouch on the battlements. “If you want a meal and a roof over your head by day’s end, you’ll be wanting to pick that up.”
Vasili glared in silence. He stared unblinking until a pleading voice in his head told him the captain was right. This is more than a boy from Holtswood will ever see in one place. Whatever coin rattled in the bag would help him to make it home, and then some. His mother would never accept the money, or commend his taking it, but the silver could take the edge from whatever perils he would face on the journey home.
His eyes brightened with a thought. The harbormaster mentioned a judge. A lifelong love of thrilling crime serials surged through him. I could spend this. Or this could be what I need to make an accusation.
Still red-faced, Vasili stooped to pluck the pouch from the battlement.
“Good.” Mied bobbed his head. “I’m glad.”
“Can I go?”
“By all means,” Mied said. “It was good to finally meet you, Micky. Safe travels and calm skies. Mayhaps our paths will cross again someday.”
“They will,” Vasili said. “Sooner than you think.” Vasili marched past while trying to avoid the first mate’s bristling mustache and dark eyes.
The heat from the exchange dissipated after a dozen steps. When Vasili reached a ramp that led down the wall and into town, he hesitated. He turned back to the Apotheosis Break and twisted his mouth. “Hey!” The skysailor watched Vasili in silence. “Hey! Did you really know my father?” Gert Karnaugh spit and stomped up the gangplank. Captain Mied could only stare at Vasili. “I asked,” Vasili repeated in an acidic tone, “did you know him? Or was that a lie, too?”
“You know, you look just like him, kid.”
“You haven’t answered my question.”
Mied smiled and followed the first mate beyond sight.
“Six, you said?” Euric Gestalt of the Ionean Order of Judicators sat straight-backed behind a desk, pen poised above a sheet of paper nearly overflowing with lines and lines of neat handwriting.
Vasili Mikhailovich could not believe his luck in finding a judge. The adventure serials he read told of wandering lawmen, the unshakable executors of the Empire’s justice that for two hundred years had brought order to the northern provinces and the far-flung west. As officiants for the empire they could mediate conflict, broker diplomacy, and on the rarest of occasions carry out an execution. However, the swiftness of their dispensed justice remained to be seen. For how long Vasili had sat answering the man’s questions, they should have already solved half a dozen crimes. So far the judge had yet to finish recording Vasili’s statement.
“Yes, other than Mister Semmler.” Vasili nodded for the hundredth time in the past three hours. He stared at where the eyes should have been on the helmet of the old suit of armor in the corner. The headgear looked impractical and ornate, with horns curving away from a face-plate that resembled a dragon’s head. “Six.” Vasili answered the same question he had been already asked. “The captain, a doctor, the mage—”
“A mage?” Judge Gestalt raised an eyebrow.
“Well no— I mean yes, they called him a duster, with yellowish skin. He’s the one who, uh—” The memory of the previous day’s events was blurry. I must have hit my head harder than I thought. Events felt out of order, or mashed together, and were laden with panic. “He could breathe in the odeum stuff like it was morning mist—”
“And their names?”
“Captain Edmund Mied,” Vasili said. “The first mate is called Gert. The mage— I mean, a man named Cauderon, he worked the engine room and was in town when everything happened, but I don’t know if—”
“Yes,” the judge said in the clipped accent of the gentry. “Who all went with you into the Nev’s estate?”
“Just the bishop and I. Bishop Henner Mayhew. Or at least that’s the name he gave me. When we went to the mansion he called himself a marquis. Marquis Eifir Wulfstan. W-u-l-f—”
“I have heard of no such marquis,” the judge said. He flipped between the papers on his desk as if corroborating what Vasili had said an hour prior. “But then, since the reparations, only the heralds can possibly know all of the ten thousand noble houses, new and old. Continue.”
“Uh. And like I said, Deirdre Vara is the ship’s doctor. It was her and— And Jonas. Jonas Semmler. He’s the engineer. He took me on a tour of the ship. And— And he and Deirdre, they met me in the tavern. There was another man,” Vasili said. “They called him Hash. That’s when— They were there when it all started. Just like I had told you…”
Judge Gestalt put his pen down and reviewed his stack of notes. He took notice of Vasili’s curiosity and shuffled the papers together with a poignant cough. “This raiding airship that chased you from Schultzwald. They didn’t follow you through Heleberg Pass?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Vasili said. “I mean, I don’t know. I got ill, and I think I— Well, I don’t remember much. I think I was poisoned. Probably the duster? I have these visions, you see, these dreams. They may have given me a sleeping elixir, or— “
“How many were on this other bandit airship?” Judge Gestalt folded his hands atop the stack of pages.
“I don’t know. A lot.”
“Estimate. Can you show me how many fingers?”
Vasili twisted his mouth at the judge’s tone. He quelled the petulant urge before it got him in trouble. “Several score. Maybe close to a hundred.”
“And this airship, the Apotheosis Break, you say they escaped these raiders?” Judge Gestalt stuffed the pages into a valise.
“I don’t remember. I just woke up this morning.”
“Right. They just disappeared. And this was before or after you were… poisoned?”
“I don’t remember. But I know what I saw. And sir, if I may, I can answer any questions you like, but their airship is leaving any time now. If you’re planning to—”
The judge held up a hand to stop Vasili’s pleadings. “And you, Warsley—”
“Wilisly, of course. Your father fought for the crown?”
“Of course,” Vasili said. “I grew up here in the Vogtland. In Holtswood. My father, Anton Mikhailovich, died when I was young and my mother raised me alone. Father was a hero in the war, he was a royalist through and through, and— And he was a good man.”
“Irrelevant. These men, though. You are certain they knew your father? That’s why they came for you?”
As the words poured for the second time from Vasili’s lips, the whole story sounded more and more far-fetched. Why would a crew sail to the edge of the empire just to pick up a farm boy? Not only because they knew my father. There’s countless others like me. Ones that fit into livery better, too. Captain Mied, however, said himself that Vasili’s father would feel ill around shards and that he had hoped Vasili had the same affliction. And how do you tell him that? ‘They picked me up because they thought I had magical shard-finding powers.’ That sounds even more like I’m just making this all up.
Vasili steered toward caution. “That’s what they said. They knew I lived in Holtswood. And that I turned fourteen and that—”
“I see.” Judge Gestalt relaxed into his chair and tapped the edge of his desk with the nib of his pen. “And do you have a way to corroborate your story?”
Vasili blinked in confusion. He furrowed his brow, opened his mouth, and closed it.
“Evidence? Do you have any evidence to prove your story?”
“Oh.” Vasili jingled the pouch of coin and set it on the judge’s desk. “This.”
The judge nudged the pouch with his pen and flicked his widening eyes to Vasili. He rose from his chair in a slow, deliberate fashion, gripping the edge of his desk to loom over Vasili. “Are you trying to bribe me, boy?”
“W-What?” Vasili shrank backward. “No! This is— No! This is what they paid me. This is more than I’ve ever seen in my life. And they gave it to me so I would disappear, and go home, and— and— and— This is my proof, judge! Look! Do you think someone like me walks around every day with a bag of silver?”
Judge Gestalt gave a thin smile and sat back down. He tapped his lips and looked out the tall window. The noon sun neared its zenith in the cloudless blue sky. Hurry up, Vasili willed. They’ll escape!
“You are certain of the vessel, son? The Apotheosis Break?”
“Yes, sir.” I was just on it!
“Unorthodox. But it will have to do.” The judge leaned forward to grab the pouch and weigh it in his hands. “You are aware of the legal processing and validation fee?”
Justice is the sacrifice of all, for all. Vasili recalled the refrain from his Last Judicator novels. He nodded.
Judge Gestalt counted out twelve silver and two gold Eschen marks and arrayed them in a neat row. Vasili winced each time a coin snapped onto the desk. The faces of dead emperors stared at him without sympathy. The thin, hexagonal gold coins were particularly striking, the yellow sparkling in the midday light.
“This transaction is binding, and your accusations hold you accountable in equal measure to those accused. Do you understand?”
What if I need that to get home? What if what I have left is not enough? Vasili weighed his decision, but in the end, he decided he must do what was right. Jonas’ family needed the judge’s services. “I understand, my lord.”
Judge Gestalt pushed the leather pouch back toward Vasili. He gripped the purse and winced. The desk held a considerable stack of coin, and what remained in the pouch made a pitiful comparison.
“State, then, for the record. Whom do you accuse?” Judge Gestalt looked upon Vasili with an intensity that almost pushed him off of his stool.
“Captain Edmund Mied and the crew of the Apotheosis Break,” Vasili said. I think.
“And of what do you accuse them?”
“Kidnapping. And stealing. And lying.” And for Jonas. The fallen crewman, betrayed and abandoned in the Three Spruce Inn of Schultzwald. “And murder.”
“Very well. Abduction, theft, and willful deception.” The Eschen judge pushed away from the desk and craned his neck to shout out the door. “Fredericks!”
The man awoke mid-snore to emit something between a choke and a cough. Fredericks filled the door frame and rubbed sleep from his face with a meaty fist. “Sorry, judge, I didn’t see the urchin come in. I’ll see to ’im—”
“That will not be necessary. I want you to see that my effects are stowed and transported to the docks with all speed and care. Dispatch a rider to Von Aster with orders to render aid to Schultzwald. Security, coin, food. Finally, commit this to record.” Judge Gestalt tossed the valise to the man. “Generate three copies. Stamped, dated, and affirmed. One for the archive, one to the address at the top, and one to my estate. I will carry them myself.”
“Right away, judge.” Fredericks yawned again. He read the paper with one hand as he buttoned his shirt with the other.
Vasili watched the disheveled sheriff depart. “Thank you, judge. These people must be brought to account.”
The Lord Judge Euric Gestalt stood and ran a palm across the front of his crisp uniform. “Justice will be done, my boy. Come. We have work to do.”