I will appreciate the shit out of anyone who reads this. Critiques are good, too. Thanks!
Crane and Gilchrist wove their way to the prow as the Lighthouse came into clear view. It looked like a castle dredged from the sea, base slimed with algae and heights crenellated by white gulls. The weathered stone edifice had stood for hundreds of years, hewn originally by gray-skinned Ettins or lumbering cyclopes, depending on if you grew up in Lensa or the North. Since the fables it had become truly massive, built around and built up and fortified against the waves. There was an excited clamor from those onboard who had never seen it.
Gilchrist had seen it. He eased his back to the railing with his dark eyes impassive.
“Ethereal, isn’t it?” Crane remarked. “As if pulled from myth. It’s unfortunate that such a magnificent structure rests under the ownership of so singularly unpleasant an individual.” Crane had seen it, but Crane was Crane. “Did we not devise some infernally clever moniker for him? After our last encounter?”
He gripped the rail, hands long and pale and threaded with navy veins. Crane was very tall and very bony and was wrapped against the elements in a stolen black stormcoat.
“Don’t remember,” Gilchrist said, still watching the ship rather than their destination. He was the dark and wiry antithesis to Crane’s lanky build and sallow skin. His mess of black hair was coarse with sea-spray and salt was collecting at the corners of his mouth.
“Then I postulate he will not remember us, either,” Crane said. “So much the better.”
“Where’s Serena?” Gilchrist asked. His eyes moved like clockwork from face to face on the crowded deck. They did not fall on her knotted sun-bleached hair or sharp chin.
“Seducing a sailor or scavenging from the scullery, I’d wager.” Crane straightened his long frame. “I suppose we should return below decks and prepare to disembark.”
Gilchrist adjusted his waistcoat and they started back along the ship’s length. Crew were milling around, filling flash pans and preparing the winches, but they removed themselves quickly from Crane and Gilchrist’s path with eyes averted.
“It seems our fate, Mr. Gilchrist, that our reputation precedes us.” Crane pulled open the soaked wood hatch. “I fear it may complicate matters.”
“It’s been ten years,” Gilchrist said, moving deftly down the ladder. “If he gets news from Brask, it’s about the riots, not us.”
They dropped into the swaying corridor to the sound of shouts unrelated to docking. The cook had pinned a ship’s lad by his ears and was bellowing about filthy islanders and the idiocy of opening the larder to any passenger, regardless how pretty. Crane and Gilchrist did not try to mediate on their way to their quarters.
At the door, Crane produced a tumbler from his sleeve and fit it into the custom lock. Cogs scraped and clicked against each other and the door sprang open. It was a cramped room made more so by the heavy glass tank shrouded in black cloth, the corner of which was now swiftly dropped by a slender girl with a sharp chin and sun-bleached hair.
“Ho, Crane. Ho, Gilly.” She smiled toothily and scooted onto the tank.
“How are you in here?” Crane asked sharply. Gilchrist’s hand went into his pocket and came away empty. His mouth thinned.
“I was watching the mermaid,” Serena said, patting the tank. “She’s fine. Still sleeping. Still beautiful.” She raised an eyebrow. “Don’t you think she’s beautiful?”
“My key,” said Gilchrist.
Serena’s smile shrank. She pulled the tumbler out of her waistband and lobbed it over. Gilchrist snatched it glittering out of the air.
“Quite a natural pickpocket,” Crane said. “I would assume the quick fingers developed to avoid snapping clams.”
“Don’t teach her any more tricks,” Gilchrist said.
“I suppose the fact that you’ve holed up here is unrelated to the cacophony in the kitchens?” Crane said, locking the door behind them.
“They had sugar,” Serena explained. She ran her tongue along her teeth. “So, when do we go up the tower?”
“Lighthouse,” Crane corrected. “Today, barring drastic delays. And our audience with the master will likely take place tomorrow morning.”
“How did he get himself such a big old tower?” Serena asked.
“By serving the Dogue of Lensa in a variety of unpleasant capacities,” Crane said. “From jailer to taxman.”
“To butcher,” Gilchrist added.
“To butcher.” Crane inclined his head. “In any case, the Dogue has since rewarded him with a title, a tower, and the leisure time to pursue his stranger hobbies. May no man call the Dogue ungenerous.”
“I remember the nickname,” Gilchrist said. “Cassius of the Blasted Cunt.” His lips peeled a grin. Serena laughed into her elbow the islander way.
“Rather less creative than our usual fare,” Crane said.
“Apt,” said Gilchrist. Up above them the pitons launched with a crack and caught with a thud and the ship began to reel itself to wharf.
They were the last to disembark. Serena stayed out of sight in the cabin while Crane found porters with broad shoulders and quiet tongues and pressed the last of the silver into their grizzled hands. The two boar-like men trooped onto the ship as it emptied and trooped off it with the sloshing glass tank hoisted on iron rods. Crane directed from the front and Gilchrist and Serena followed behind as they joined the procession on the beach.
There were only a few glances for their shrouded cargo—far more interesting sights abounded. Merchants were carrying cages of brightly-colored birds from the New World and one was holding the tether of an ape which had clearly had its fur dyed red. Another trader passed by with an enormous ruff-necked reptile draped over his shoulders.
“Is this what Carnival is like?” Serena asked. She had tied her shoes around her neck and was squeezing her toes into the wet gray sand. The porters were beginning to grunt.
“No,” said Gilchrist.
“But this is where it goes on.” Serena put a hand on her hip and looked over the crowd. “Lensa.”
“The city of Lensa is a league from here,” Crane said. “This is only the Lighthouse.”
Serena tugged the hem of her shirt and fanned it, grinning. One of the porters faltered at the flash of sunny skin. “I like it. Lots of people.”
“We’ll pitch here,” Gilchrist said. “Crane. Papers?”
Crane produced the documents with a flourish, sealed by the Dogue of Lensa’s leaping dolphin, and disappeared to present them. The porters gently lowered the tank and then went off down the beach to wait, massaging their shoulders. Gilchrist had brought a canvas tent, just large enough to cover the tank and provide some shade for when the sun rose high. He had to drive the pegs very deep, muscles all taut in his back, and Serena watched with interest.
“How old are you, Gilly?” she asked, splaying her hands in the sand.
Gilchrist said nothing.
“How old are you, Gilchrist?” Serena asked. She puffed air between her lips and a strand of hair fluttered off her forehead.
“Thirty-odd. No record.”
“You should go out to the islands before you’re too old,” Serena said. “The women will line up. They don’t mind that gypsy color.” She leaned her head back. “I don’t, anyways.”
Gilchrist finished with the pegs and waded out to wash the sweat off his face. Crane was there when he arrived back.
“Our inspection will be in an hour or so,” Crane said, stripping off his stormcoat. His pale face was beaded with sweat and the veins of his neck were bruise-blue. “I had forgotten the heat. Rather reminiscent of the New World, is it not?”
“It’s no Brask,” Gilchrist said, thinking of a city with perpetual rain and icy canals. His look was recognized.
“Brask is not going anywhere,” Crane said. “We need to focus on the matter at hand, Gilchrist. On the plan.”
“I know.” Gilchrist turned to Serena, who was now spread out on the sand with her eyes slacked shut. “Serena. Time to get the mermaid ready.”
Her eyes stayed closed but her mouth opened on a white smile.
The magistrate for Baron Cassius’ menagerie was small and balding, dressed in a wine-red tunic cut in the Lensa style and holding a water-rumpled book. Crane and Gilchrist bowed their heads as he approached and then offered the more informal handshakes now becoming customary among merchants.
“Documents seem to be in order,” the magistrate said, flipping the page and looking it up and down. “Now. What have you got, exactly? Don’t tell me it’s another ape, we have more than I could count in a lifetime.”
“Nothing so pedestrian,” Crane said, with a hint of affront. “What you are about to see in this tent requires no elaborate story-telling to excite the imagination. Suffice to say, after years of hunting through Brask’s sewers, we’ve at long last snared a living mermaid.”
Before the magistrate could form a reaction, Gilchrist opened the tent and pointed inside. The shroud had been cast off, and inside the tank was the sylph of a thousand sea-tales. Her skin was ghostly pale and her hair floated in tendrils around an exquisite face. Silver-gray scales sprouted at her navel, her hips, then thickened into a finned tail. The mermaid had dozed in the dark but now came awake, eyes opening jet black. Her tail flexed and rasped against the glass.
“Blood of a god,” the magistrate murmured. He crouched down in front of the tank.
“She’s terribly cramped in there,” Crane said, crouching beside him. “You understand my request to bypass the usual wait.”
“Of course. Of course.” The magistrate straightened up and scanned the top of the tank for a breathing tube, but of course it was bare. He had known it would be from the moment he laid eyes on the creature.
“You wouldn’t believe the ruckus over it in Brask,” Crane said in a low voice. “Terribly unstable up there, though. It was in our best interests and hers to make the voyage south.”
“How long?” the magistrate croaked. “How long have you had her?” He put his face up to the glass and stared. Not a single bubble slipped from between the perfect lips.
“A month, now.” Crane rested his hand affectionately on the top of the tank. “More than long enough to know we’ve made an extremely valuable find.”
“Nobody will compensate better than the Baron,” the magistrate said sharply. “Blood of a god. I’ve seen skeletons, of course, but I was never sure…”
“That’s long enough,” said Gilchrist. “We don’t want a crowd gathering.”
“Of course,” said the magistrate. He shook his head and backed out of the tent, like the pagans of old from their idols. Gilchrist threw the shroud and closed the tent behind them. The magistrate was blinking in the sunlight as if he’d crossed over from an entirely different world.
“I trust you’ll find us accommodation for the night,” Crane said, slapping him on the shoulder.
“Accommodation?” The magistrate smiled vaguely, removing Crane’s fingers. “My good man, you’ll be at the very top of the Lighthouse.” His eyes went back to the tent. “Does she sing?”
“Transcendentally,” said Gilchrist.
The magistrate nodded eagerly and hurried away, feet sliding in the sand.
Crane retrieved the porters and the porters retrieved the shrouded tank. Their procession trudged down the beach, past the array of makeshift tents and exotic animals and merchants staring with undisguised jealousy. Gilchrist returned the stares and they quickly diminished. The sun was beginning to wade back into the sea, turning rust-red.
“The magistrate seemed quite taken with our merchandise,” Crane remarked. “I was very nearly embarrassed for him.”
“The Baron won’t be as easy,” Gilchrist said.
“Perhaps, perhaps not.” Crane shrugged. “They do say he’s gone mad.”
There was a lift cage at the base of the lighthouse, an iron mesh built to ferry cargo, and after showing the magistrate’s seal they were allowed inside. The porters helped slide the cage shut before departing, and then, with a gnashing of metal on stone, the clockwork machinery began to winch them up the side.
When they were halfway up, Gilchrist slid the top off the tank. Serena surfaced slowly, removing the breathing tube. Her face was pale and under her eyes was mottled purple in a way the makeups did not entirely account for.
“You did well,” Gilchrist said.
“I’ve held longer.” Serena stretched and her neck clicked. “But this box. Unh. Not comfortable.”
“Aquarium tanks are so rarely designed for comfort.” Crane peered down through the iron bars at the beach blurring below. “Scandalous, really. Have you kept the prosthetic intact?”
Serena wriggled the tail in answer.
“It truly is remarkable work,” Crane said, observing the splash. “The old man told me he once designed costumes for the Dogue’s children.”
“Anything looks good in the dark,” Gilchrist said.
“That so, Gilly?” Serena asked, mischievous. She gulped a mouthful of water and shot it out in a long wobbling stream.
By the time the lift lurched to a halt, evening wind was ruffling their clothes. Serena had returned to the tank, breathing tube snaked up through one corner, and she missed the view. Through the elevator cage Gilchrist and Crane could see far up the coast, away towards Brask, and far across the shifting ocean that separated them from the New World.
“Where to after this, Gilchrist?” Crane asked.
“Anywhere,” Gilchrist said.
There was a boy at the top to open the cage, and he shifted from foot to stockinged foot as Gilchrist and Crane carefully hoisted the tank. The stone inside had certainly never been hauled by cyclopes. It was close-fitting and mason-cut, and the floors were veined marble crafted by the Dogue’s best architects. They walked slowly to keep the tank level.
“Greetings, once again.” The magistrate was waiting by the door. “My apologies. I thought I had sent for porters.”
“No need,” Gilchrist said.
The magistrate’s eyed fluttered over him and returned to Crane. “I hope you find the chambers suitable. If any additional measures are needed for, ah, for your charge…” He gave the tank a longing look. “Send a pneumograph and we’ll have someone along very quickly.”
“Thank you,” Crane said. “And in regards to the audience?”
“Tomorrow. Ten bells.” The magistrate nodded. “The Baron sounded quite interested. As he should be, of course.”
“Of course,” Crane echoed. “A good evening to you.”
“Please don’t be late.”
The magistrate slid away and Gilchrist sent the boy scurrying after him with a pointed look. Once inside the doors, they set the tank down with a slosh and thud. The room was as large as could be expected, with an impressive bed nested by silk pillows and gas lamps in the ceiling. There were no windows, but one of Lensa’s more famous murals had been recreated on the far wall.
Crane stretched his arm. Gilchrist began rubbing a knot out of his shoulder. Serena came up spluttering.
“Room looks comfortable,” she said. “Help me out.”
Crane locked the doors and Gilchrist spread the canvas tent out to avoid incriminating wet footprints on the marble. Serena wriggled out of the prosthetic like some bizarre marine nascency while Gilchrist looked away, then clambered naked out of the tank.
“Better,” she sighed, wringing out her hair.
“In the interests of comfort, perhaps you’d like to remain in the nude,” Crane suggested. His wide mouth was smiling.
“Give me my clothes, Crane. Bastard.”
“I have only your best interests at heart,” Crane said, but he handed them over. Gilchrist’s eyes strayed only once, raking over the camber of her hips and tracking a bead of water down her stomach. Then she was dressed, still unearthly-looking in complexion but with the silver scales hidden out of sight.
“What now?” she asked. She wrapped her hair in an orange scarf.
“We wait,” Gilchrist said.
“And to aid in that, we drink,” Crane said, hefting a bottle from the small circular table. “Unless I’m very much mistaken, these are some of Lensa’s finest vintages.” He stabbed open the seal and splashed dark wine into one cup and then the other.
“Only two glasses,” Serena snorted. “Like mermaids don’t drink.”
“I’ll take it upon myself to imbibe like the barbarians.” Crane pushed the two glasses towards them and hefted the bottle by the neck. “To our continued success in the bestiary business.”
Glass clinked. They drank.
“This tastes terrible,” Serena said, considering the glass and licking her lips. She shrugged her shoulders, drained the rest.
Crane looked over at Gilchrist. “I suppose it’s only natural she drink like a fish.”
“Droll, Mr. Crane.” Gilchrist finished his drink and held it out for another.
He was still half-drunk when Serena woke him in the night. Her fingers were drumming a tattoo on his arm and he came awake grabbing them. The bones felt like rasping twigs. She swore at him and Gilchrist let go.
“Ouch.” Serena hissed and rubbed her fingers.
“What is it?” Gilchrist asked. He looked to the side and saw Crane sleeping in freefall, limbs cast out over the bedding. His nose was red.
“I want to see the light,” Serena said. “On top. Come on, Gilly.”
“You can’t be seen,” Gilchrist said. His mouth was thick.
“Then come stop me.” Serena slid out of easy reach and went to the door. She leaned her head against the wood. “Come on. Don’t you want to see it?”
“I’ve seen it,” Gilchrist said. Serena puffed a laugh into her shoulder and slipped through the door. Gilchrist reached mechanically for his coat.
“Mr. Gilchrist, the hour is unholy,” Crane mumbled. “Has our facade been compromised?” His one eye slitted open, roving around the room, then fluttered shut.
“Serena. I’ll handle it.”
Crane’s chuckle was half-smothered in pillow. “At long last,” he said, and then nothing else. Gilchrist’s bare feet slapped on the cold marble. He didn’t bother hunting his shoes in the dark. The door creaked only slightly on his way out, and then he went to the last staircase. The sound of late-night revelers tumbled down, and as he came up into the night air he had to shield his eyes against fiery orange darts.
“Ho, there.” Serena grabbed his arm, nearly bowling over a stout drunk man with a jangling belt. “Come to the rail with me.”
Gilchrist blinked his eyes clear. The signal light was raised above them, flicking sparks off into the night and obliterating the stars, painfully bright. A few small knots of people were against the rail, murmuring and laughing and passing drinks. They looked like living shadows.
“We’re dead if you’re recognized,” Gilchrist said.
“Crane says we’re dead if anything goes wrong tomorrow,” Serena said. She pressed something cold against his stomach and he realized she’d brought the last of the wine. “And I know how I’d rather spend my last night. Don’t you?”
She found a clear space on the rail, away from the others, and Gilchrist joined her. The fire crackled above and behind their heads. The sea was ink-dark.
“You don’t like me much,” Serena said.
Gilchrist took a drink. His teeth knocked against the bottle.
“Because I remind you,” Serena said. “Remind you you’re not a snowface.”
“You act like a savage.”
“So?” Serena took the bottle back. “So? Maybe I act how people want. Maybe you should try. They’d like you more.” She paused. “You must hate it so bad. The animal man, he talked right past you. They always think Crane is the boss, don’t they?”
“I don’t care,” Gilchrist said, and he didn’t. He put his elbows on the rail and looked out and listened to Serena finish the wine.
“You and Crane aren’t merchants,” she said after a while. “Not even the shadiest kind.”
“Why are you trying to cheat the Baron?” Serena asked. “I mean, I like it. On the islands, we cheat. If you sell sham pearl to a wise trader, you’re a hero. But if you’re caught, oh. If you’re caught very badly, they make you swallow an oyster with twine attached.” She indicated the size with thumb and finger.
“Then they dredge it up your stomach like pulling a root. To carve out all the lies. Out your throat.”
“You’ve never been caught,” Gilchrist guessed.
“No, never have.” Serena’s shoulder slipped against him. Her fingers wormed between his on the rail, dark and ceruse-pale.
“We settle our scores,” Gilchrist said, looking at their entwined hands. “Me and Crane. We saw the opportunity.”
“You don’t like the Baron much.”
“Before he was the Baron.” Gilchrist’s hand scratched behind his ear. “He was a bulldog for the Dogue of Lensa. In charge of the port authority. He had an ichor for smugglers.”
“You’re smugglers,” Serena said triumphantly. Her smiled gleamed.
Gilchrist nodded his chin towards the dark ocean. “We were on our way to the New World. Ten years ago. We were in a hurry from Brask. Ship stopped in for supplies and Cassius had us raided.”
“Crane told me you went to the New World,” Serena said. “When he found me. I thought it was crabshit at first.”
“And the raid?” Serena’s face was close in the dark. She smelled like the wine.
“Put us in a pen and flogged for confessions,” Gilchrist said. “He did a few himself. He enjoys it. Same he does with the animals. They aren’t allowed to brand on suspicion, but he did it anyways. Enjoyed that the most.” Gilchrist paused. “There’s a scar on his lip like a little envelope. Told him I’d open it one day.” He looked across at Serena. “Bleed him out like a sheep.”
“You’ve done that before. Got those eyes.”
“I don’t know.” Gilchrist stared at the sea again. In the half-light he looked like a gargoyle, orange and black. “Crane had an inside man. We got out. When we got out, Cassius had the rest of the pen executed. Off the record. Put a knife on the floor and then murdered them all. Cited it as suppressing violent rebellion.”
The silence stretched out between them. The other couples and trios were drifting back down the stairs, bottles emptied.
“It’s cold,” Serena finally said. She moved his arm and draped it over her shoulder. Her head tipped against his neck.
Gilchrist let his hand find her hipbone, like shrapnel under the skin.
“I think you don’t like me,” Serena said, “because some snowface girl tore you up. In Brask?”
“Long time ago,” Gilchrist said. “Everything was a long time ago.”
“If I can’t count it in breaths, I don’t keep track of time.” Serena hooked her chin into his collarbone. His skin was flushed warm.
“How many breaths can you hold for?”
“Two hundred and eleven of these.” Serena pulled air in, out. “But the water was very cold. That helps.”
Gilchrist blinked. “Seven minutes.”
“You’re quick,” Serena said, reaching up to touch his head. “You have a difference engine in there?” Gilchrist caught her hand and redirected it. Her fingers trailed down his stomach. “Some of the men, they hold twice as long,” she murmured. “More space.” She felt for his ribs, palm flat against him. “But that box is so small. I kept looking at it. Wondering how I’d fit.”
“You fit,” Gilchrist said.
“Did,” Serena said. She kissed under his jaw. “And you? How many breaths can you hold for?” Their lips mashed together, raw with the cold, and then they were pressing each other against the rail. The signal fire crackled and spat them a shared shadow. The waves marched on below.