Exactly one year and one day after my wife falls overboard and goes to the unchained, I receive a letter from the man who killed her.
Requiem is moored at mast in the Boneyard when the postgirl throws the envelope up onto his deck. She calls up: “Letter for you, ma’am!” and I stir in my chair on the fo’c’s’le, swearing at the dawn light and knocking over last night’s whisky. The bottle rasps back and forth on the unevenness of the deck, finding its space in the world again, and I bend down for the letter.
I recognize Émile’s insignia right away, watermarked into the fine paper. When I open it, a new lantern mantle wisps from the envelope down onto the deck, as fine as fresh cobweb. I scan the words, but none of it really sinks in. The inarticulate twist at the bottom of my belly only gets worse. It isn’t like I ever expected that cold-hearted bastard to send condolences, but this is inhuman even for him.
Of course Émile would wait until the precise moment that Requiem and I are almost grounded with the weight of unpaid bills before sending me another job. I don’t think he does this sort of thing on purpose. He doesn’t have enough blood in him to care about anything other than the spiteful aristocratic face that stares back out of his gilded mirror every morning. No, the devil touched that one while he was still in the womb. Or touched his family going back seven generations. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that he will turn up precisely when you don’t want him to, invite himself inside, and proceed to wreck whatever’s left your life. That’s what did it for Christie, and it is what’ll kill me if I’m not careful.
He’s written ‘I hear that you may need this’ at the bottom in his own sickeningly perfect handwriting. And the worst thing about it is that he’s right. I do need his damned charity if I’m ever going to get Requiem off the ground again.
It takes me the whole rest of the morning to figure out that I have no other choice. The Boneyard is at its best in those first few hours of thin sunlight, before the ghostmurk starts blowing in off of the sea and they light the ugly green soulfire lanterns along the promenade to drive it back. It is dead quiet then. Early enough that most of the junk-pickers are at work, sifting through the latest wrecks dragged out here to die. The washed-up live-aboards who insist, a little too angrily, that you still call them ‘captain’ are all sleeping off their hangovers in the bellies of their punctured and grounded little airships, shifting restively through half-remembered dreams of flying. Which is all just as well because I don’t want their company. Not never and certainly not now.
I take some small grain of pleasure in crushing Émile’s fine letter into a ball and pushing it into the very bottom of my pocket. Then I crack the casing on Requiem‘s soulfire lantern and begin the work of replacing the old mantle.
The whole assembly hasn’t been used since the Sandcutter Run two months ago. Even then I only lit it so the rich owners standing on the airfield would think they were getting their money’s worth, and I extinguished it the second we rose through the cloud and they dissolved into the nothingness below. And why wouldn’t I? There hasn’t been a geiststorm on the Sandcutter Run for twenty years now, and no one there pays you enough to keep the lantern burning for the full run anymore.
I haven’t even so much as checked the components since then, and it stubbornly repays me now by refusing to light every time I strike the bones, even with the new mantle in place. I pretend I’m not doing this for Émile’s sake. Pretend I’m not going to take his dead-woman job. But I spit curses at that blond bastard’s name the whole time I’m working. Break up the hangover by imagining all the ways I’d ruin his life if I had all his money and all he had was a sixty-year-old lantern ship long since past its prime.
When the marshals turn up, I hear them from halfway across the Boneyard—squabbling over Requiem‘s bones before he’s even decommissioned. It doesn’t even matter which of the unpaid bills on my desk they’re coming for. If I had the money for any of them, I would have already paid. But when I look over the gunnel I see Émile’s man coming as well, quiet and smiling, and I know what all of this comes down to.
I can take a job no better than the one that killed Christie, or I can abandon my ship. Let the marshals drag Requiem away and tell Émile’s man what his master can do with his money. I can spend the next ten years of my life scraping by in the gutter of the capital, tugging at the coats of rich women as they come by and begging for their charity until the cold finally takes me, bitter and unfinished, out into the geiststorm to be with Christie and the rest of the unchained. Locked together in a miserable death that wouldn’t be so different from our marriage, but now with no more minds of our own than rabid dogs. Throwing ourselves up against the edges of the world and burning ourselves on the soulfire that the living light against the geists, over and over again, until the Great Inventor finally puts his hands around everything that is, was, and ever will be, and rolls it all up like a carpet.
I climb down off of the fo’c’s’le. The marshals are still coming, chattering like excited crows. Doubtless they’ll take Requiem to auction to pay for all my sins. Sell him like meat to someone like Émile Laurence. Another antique for his personal museum. Something to show off when his rich friends come to call. Oh, a charming example of the type. They were part of a more daring age, you know. When lantern ship captains flew by the seat of their breeches through Category Ten geiststorms. Just look at how close her soulfire lantern is to the envelope! It’s a miracle she’s survived this long without burning to a cinder. Maybe this one was even built before the Harrowing. Perhaps she even remembers the time before the unchained, before ships like her were needed at all.
Émile’s man is wearing a suit as silver-grey as factory smoke. He’s the same bastard that always comes to do Emile’s dirty work. Before he even has the chance to open up his mouth, I am holding out my hand.
“I want twenty-thousand,” I tell him.
He doesn’t even hesitate. “Done.”
We shake on it, and the marshals behind him finally stop chattering like a parliament of crows. They look at Requiem like someone has just snatched away their favorite toy. I can’t help but smile at that. Even if they do glance back over their shoulders as they go, like they are remembering the way.
The Wayward Star is already at mast in the vast green of the airfield by the time I get Requiem‘s nose to the wind and start to bring him down. And a grand old lady she is at that. Émile’s pride and joy, and the flagship of his not-insubstantial fleet of luxury cloud liners. Even from a thousand feet in the air she looks like a leviathan—pink and purple sunset melting on her silver flanks, bright as a freshly minted coin.
Rumor has it that Émile’s people are already at work building her replacement. One of those modern monstrosities—all chrome and ego and white paint. The ones the papers like to print big gaudy headlines about. They will never match the Star‘s patient and elegant beauty, no matter how well-worn her claret velvet or how tarnished her filigree. She might be almost as old as Requiem, but next to her he is a squat leather bag with a splintering wooden gondola slung underneath and an ugly lantern strapped to his prow—reminding everyone how the unchained are coming for us. How death is coming for us, should we ever drop our guard.
The handlers on the ground don’t even stir themselves until we’re almost down. Then they bundle Requiem to mast, bitching and complaining and sending petulant glances back over their shoulders. Most likely, they bully any woman who has the audacity to sail into their little kingdom here. I have known men like them all my life. Spent years watching Christie cause a fuss—yelling at them and getting us into trouble. Damned fool never did understand that while it might be fashionable these days for fine city ladies to marry each other in their silks and their sequins, women like us would always have to live by different rules.
Since she went to the unchained, these landings have gotten easier. Instead of ending up in a scrap with a half a dozen grizzled handlers in the middle of the airfield, I reward them with spiteful disinterest until they get bored and slink back to their hangers. This time, I’m so busy congratulating myself that I don’t notice Émile until his gaggle of rich drunkards start to call me over.
Émile doesn’t lower himself to shouting, of course. He just stands there, a stone at the center of a motley of fools, and watches me with lance-like eyes. Waiting for me to bow to his will. It’d be worth twenty thousand sovereigns just to see the look on his face if I take his money and stuff it where he won’t see it for a week.
I don’t think two human beings have ever smiled at each other less genuinely than he and I do now. I’ve heard a lot of people say he’s beautiful. Hair so blond it’s almost white and so fine that the breeze swims through it. Dark blue dining suit buttoned up as far as it will go and eyes steely sober amongst his den of drunkards. Personally, I’ve never been able to choke down enough of his ego to see it.
“Apologies about the wife,” he says, the moment he judges I’m close enough to punch him in the face.
Another little game for him to demonstrate his power. I dig my nails into the palms of my hands. “I was sick of her, anyway.”
Émile flinches. Perhaps on anyone else you could mistake it for embarrassment. On him it doesn’t look like that. It just looks, for a second, like he’s paying attention. Like he has found an animal that’s almost as malicious and spiteful as he is and has confused himself into believing it is trying to communicate with him.
“Good,” he says, his eyes already glazing back over. “I always took her for a shriek.”
I stop my breath before it snags and hold it for a moment, pressing it deep against the muscles in my belly. I half-expect his drunk friends to say something, but they’re all smiling and chatting as though nothing has happened. Old friends, then. People who have been around for long enough to know him. When I let the breath go, I do it slow and careful.
“But the work ain’t any easier with only one pair of hands,” I tell him. “I trust your lordship has reasons for sailing one of his most valuable ships down the Gullet at the start of leaffall?”
Émile raises his eyebrows a fraction of a degree, doubtless so he may better look down his nose at me, his voice knapped sharp as a glass knife. “You think that I would have asked you here if I did not?”
This time his friends do stop talking. But they aren’t watching me, they’re watching him. A lot of them doubtless have more money than Émile, better breeding, more ancient and illustrious family history. In fact, most of them probably do. But that doesn’t stop them all looking at him like dogs watching their master’s switch.
“And that he has taken the proper precautions,” I go on, ignoring their worried glances. “I only noticed one other lantern ship on the airfield when I came down. At this time of year, a ship like the Wayward Star is going to need at least two more.”
“Eulogy is on site for repairs,” he says, flashing a snake’s smile. “And you shall not be needing your lantern, captain. The Wayward Star has been fitted with six of her own.”
This madman is going to get us all killed.
I turn my head and spit. “The Emmerainian ship they tried that on ignited her own gas bags at mast and killed half a dozen handlers.”
“This ship was fitted here,” he says. “By my own people. And will not.”
If anyone else had asked, I would have told them that fitting a liner with her own lanterns was suicide, but I have never known Émile to be certain about anything that won’t go exactly how he wants it. Hell, I don’t know. If anyone is finally going to put me out of business and send Requiem to the breakers, then of course it would be him.
“You know,” I say. “I’d heard that Hiron Justicae’s company has been working on something like that.” I outflank him for a moment there. Enough to see the slight twinge between his eyebrows. To know that whatever the hell he is up to here, his old rivalry with Hiron is part of it. I push my hands into the bottoms of my pockets, fishing for a cigarette. “What if I refuse? If I walk straight back to Requiem and leave?”
“Please.” Émile extends a hand. Dinner gloves only a fraction of a shade whiter than his skin. “Be my guest.”
Never seen a day of hard work in all his life, those hands. And here he is talking about going down the Gullet in autumn like it doesn’t mean a thing.
I finally find that cigarette and try to straighten it between my fingers. I say, “And the Wayward Star will sail right out of here without me.”
Émile’s smile gets worse. “And the man from the ministry will be satisfied that every attempt was made to cross with a lantern ship in tow, just in case. He will complain, but after an hour and a little brandy, he will agree that we must make the test now, before the Category Tens close in.”
Something pulls at the corner of my mouth. “Not so confident in your new toy that you’ll risk the big ones, then?”
I know the arrow has hit the mark when he curls his dinner glove into a fist, slowly and silently, at his side. At least if I’m going to die, I’ll do it remembering the look on this inbred bastard’s face right now.
I strike a match and then another, but the cigarette won’t light. “None of this was in the letter you sent.” I dare to turn away from him. To start walking before he has the chance to think of some viciousness to put me back where I belong. Before I have to suffer the consequences of pissing off someone whose fingernails are of more importance than I am. “I won’t do it for less than fifty thousand,” I say back over my shoulder.
Behind me, one of his motley splutters. I imagine Émile’s face twisting with rage and disgust, but when he speaks his voice is still perfectly calm.
“You will get thirty-five,” he says. “Be ready to sail at first light.”
I close my eyes, my jaw, my fist around that cigarette. Close up every part of me and screw it tight. Wrap myself around the image of Christie falling slow into the clouds with both her arms still reaching upwards. Like I could save her. Like I ever could.
“As you say, your lordship.”
I keep walking and strike the last match I have. When the wind smothers that as well, I tear the damned cigarette in half and toss the smoking ember down into wet grass.
That night it takes a whole bottle of whisky to put me to sleep. In the long and restless hours when I’m waiting for it to come, I stalk the airfield like a geist: stumbling around in a landscape populated by giants, the shadows of the four great airship hangers pressing great slabs of black on the moonlight.
Some time just after midnight, I find my way to where they are building Émile’s latest creation—a white and chrome elephant a thousand feet long. Its skeleton is almost finished, and it looks so delicate from down here that the ship doesn’t seem to have substance. Brittle as a spun sugar ghost.
Workers’ tools are scattered everywhere, but the whole place is filled up with kind of deep silence that has not been disturbed in a while. Looking at that bastard’s perfect suit and perfect skin on the airfield earlier, it seemed impossible that the rumors flying around about his company’s financial difficulties were true. But standing here in the hanger with the ghost of his crowning glory, my boots leave halos in the dust settled on the floor.
In reality, it doesn’t much matter whether Wayward Star sails away from here tomorrow and into wealth and glory as the prototype for the future, or whether she burns to ash out over the headland and Hiron Justicae snatches victory back from the hands of his old rival. Standing in that hanger underneath the ghost of the future, it all seems inevitable. No matter what I do now, some day not so very far from now, Hiron or Émile or another man just as rich and pompous as them will finally succeed at the impossible. They’ll build a big gas-lifted liner that flies with its own lanterns, and Requiem and I will be cut loose from our moorings and set adrift in history.
I take another swig from the bottle hanging like a pendulum in my hand and head back to Requiem and to my bunk. Whatever the future has in store for our kind, tomorrow we fly or we burn. And that’s as true now as ever.
Somehow I still make it up before the dawn, cursing and rubbing my face as the first few sunbeams stab my eyes. Perhaps it should worry me, but the truth is that over the last few years I’ve gotten used to flying with a hangover. The whole world all strange and curling at the edges. But this isn’t the Sandcutter Run and I can’t afford to take chances. I light the soulfire lantern as soon as I get up and just resign myself to what the sickly green light does to the pounding in my head.
When it’s lit, the rest of the world seems darker. Towering black clouds spilling like smoke out of the west and a sharp wind blowing in off of the sea—catching a thousand different red and brown and yellow leaves and scuttering them inland across the airfield. I stoke up Requiem‘s brazier until his envelope glows like a glob of polished amber in the dark morning and wait for the off.
Émile doesn’t keep us waiting long. Before the sun is even high enough to be lost behind the cloud, the Wayward Star is turned towards the wind and rising. She dives upwards like a whale, all smooth grace and silver beauty. I watch until she starts steering north towards the sea, then hurry to cast off our mooring ropes.
The air is so cold around the heat in Requiem‘s belly that he rises as fast as a soap-bubble, the wind buffeting us back and forth and making my hangover as miserable as it can be. I turn the furnace high, and we climb so quick that we pass the Wayward Star. Watch her fall away into the clouds below. Only when I find a more steady wind do I level off and bank us hard to starboard to get out of her way, leaning over the gunnel to watch her surface through the storm. The thick grey nimbostratus blisters and then breaks open, sliding over the mirror polish of her body.
Great Inventor, but she is beautiful. But old now. Growing old. Not quite all of what she once was.
I suspect that’s why Émile chose her for this little experiment of his. The skeleton of the ghost he’s building in that hanger isn’t designed to fit six soulfire lanterns inside her body. Worse than that: she’s been so thoroughly over-engineered that modifying her to carry them will take a lot of time and money. A hell of a lot. Assuming it’s even possible. There is a real chance that Hiron Justicae’s ambition will make Émile’s crowning glory obsolete before she even launches. Perhaps retrofitting the Wayward Star just before the autumn storms isn’t an act of arrogance but an act of desperation. Maybe Émile’s money is running out after all and the vultures are beginning to circle.
Great Inventor, let it be true! I hope with all my black and poisonous heart that his money and his friends all evaporate like spring mist and leave him with nothing. Shivering in the streets with calluses on his pretty little hands, begging for pennies from the fine ladies and gentlemen of the capital.
It takes me a long time to look away from the Star, to stop myself from reveling in daydreams of Émile’s downfall. Only when I do can I see the scale of what we were facing. From up here and this close to the ocean, the geiststorms are a roiling nightmare of charcoal-colored smoke spidered with green fire. A storm layered on a storm, squatting over the space where the horizon should be. And every single mote of dust in it is one of the unchained. Driven so mad by their own deaths that only the animal part of them is left—gibbering and screaming and thrashing stupidly against the soulfires we light to hold them back. Scraping at the windows of the world. I snatch at the rigging, at the side of Requiem‘s gunnel, at anything that will stop my world from being sucked towards that monstrosity like water through a plughole. Somehow, I manage to claw my way inside the cabin and get my hands onto the radio.
“Wayward Star. Requiem. Was that on the forecasts this morning?”
There is a long pause filled with nothing but the hiss of static and the low keening of the wind.
“Requiem. Wayward Star.” Not the captain. A woman’s voice. One of the officers? “Yes. As you would know, if you had been at the briefing.”
We’re sailing into a living nightmare of the dead, and she wants to bitch at me for not getting up in the middle of the night to look at a second-hand weather report for a job that I didn’t even want.
My fist clenches around the receiver. “That is at least a Category Eight.”
“Nine, actually. Waning to an Eight by ten bells.”
Her voice sounds clipped. Cold, and far away from itself. It’s difficult to tell if that’s the distortion on the radio, or if she simply doesn’t have two feelings left to rub together.
I look out of the window and watch the storm roll in until it’s all there is. Every time I see the geiststorms, it’s the same. The realization of those hundreds of millions of dead, stretching all the way back to the Harrowing. Into the war that birthed the Harrowing. Each of them dying in violence and pain. Each of them howling in the animal agony of that moment forever. I wonder if I will recognize any of them when they get close. Whether my mother and my sister are out there somewhere, screaming in the storm.
“Requiem,” says the receiver. “Wayward Star.”
It is not the first time she’s called. I squeeze my thumb onto the transmit button until my hand shakes.
Why can’t I stop staring?
“Wayward Star,” I say. “Requiem. Get me Émile.”
“Mister Laurence is not on-board,” she tells me. “He and a few of his guests were taken ill last night. The airfield physician grounded his whole party this morning.”
I spit out an angry laugh at that. “Does the devil get sick? Can a virus attack another virus?”
“Requiem. Wayward Star. Can you repeat?”
The storm is rolling in over the swirling sea. I let it wash everything inside me cold and clear and hard, until I no longer feel anything at all. Nothing but a faint weightlessness of anticipation, as though I’ve been cut adrift.
“You heard,” I say. If I turn now, we could make it back to the airfield before the storm hits. “How many do you have aboard?”
“One hundred and twelve,” she tells me. This woman with the clipped voice. This stupid fool who is about to risk everything on the say-so of Émile Laurence and can’t even be roused enough to care.
I place the receiver carefully back in its cradle and head out to check the rigging. I can hear it humming in the wind, low and soft as the strings of a plucked harp.
The geiststorms play tricks on you sometimes. For a while, it almost looks as though we’re going to miss the worst. The Wayward Star slides through the tops of the nimbostratus as though she’s skimming across an oiled sea. Silver-white in the sun and aimed towards the Gullet—a thin sliver of still air between the roiling ocean and the mountains.
In summer, the sailing is smooth and blissful in the hot still air, and thousands of people bask on the specially constructed sun decks or lean over the railings and thrill themselves with a distant glimpse of the storms—crackling with green fire in the night. Even then a good captain will always double her watch and bring a lantern ship along, just in case.
But in the autumn? In autumn the whole thing just goes to hell. The west wind blows in from the ocean and shoves the storms right up against the cliffs. If it’s a good year, the bulwark of soulfire lanterns that runs for two hundred miles along the coast is only breached two dozen times over the course of those three months. In a bad year, those two dozen times coincide with captains still stupid or desperate enough to try and make the Gullet. Those unlucky autumns stretch out into a forever of red-gold leaves, grey skies, and dead bodies falling from the heavens all along the headland.
Soon it is past ten bells. We’re within a dozen miles of the storm, and it looks as though it has started to recede. The Wayward Star tacks in close to the mountains and turns slightly into the wind—the safest course for a ship of her size—and I take Requiem out until we’re about a half a mile off of her port side. If the geiststorm looked at us with its many compound eyes, Requiem would be nothing more than the tiniest firefly, glowing green and amber against the vastness of her flank.
I tap my fingers against the wheel and turn into the wind to match her course. The air is clear enough that I can just about make out the green headache glow of each of the lanterns on the headland as we pass. All the same, every so often one of the geists will make it far enough inland to slither around the edges of the sickly light pouring off the lantern on Requiem‘s prow. They turn putrid and plasmic as the light shreds their bodies into ether, and what little is left splashes like rainwater against the silver of the Wayward Star‘s envelope. Blasted into nothing by the wind.
Great Inventor, I swear that I hear it when the Star deploys her new lanterns for the first time. I feel it as a low vibration in all the mineral parts of my body and look out of the starboard window just in time to see the six cold iron cages slide out of her. They ignite one at a time, turning the faceless ether of the ghostmurk into a haze of green light. It’s so bright that I have to turn my head. Raise my hand to shield my eyes. Can almost feel my own shadow burning into me. And then everything goes black. I try to open my eyes, convinced that she has blinded me. The darkness glimmers and swims. The first thing that makes any sense is the green glow of Requiem‘s lantern. And the dark space where the Wayward Star should be.
Still is, I realize catching the faint reflection of our light on her hull.
But all six of her lanterns have gone out, and now the whole sky has darkened. I was right when I was standing on the airfield in front of Émile last night. We are all going to die out here for his folly.
Geists shred themselves around Requiem‘s light, and their keening howls melt into the single high note that the gale makes in the ropes. I step out of the cabin door and brace against the wind. Pull down my hood down against the spume of ether that’s turning the deck to slippery silver. Like moonlight on snail’s trails. I almost lose my footing twice before I make it to the lantern and twist the key to turn the flame as high as it will go.
Through the cloud, I can still just about make out the Wayward Star alongside. Every single one of her lanterns is dark, with only the faintest ripple of green fire every now and then to show that they were ever lit.
There’s only one time when a lantern fizzles like that. The mantles have burned up on every single one of them. It should be impossible. There are laws demanding the strict testing of all the components of a soulfire lantern, especially the mantles.
That thought drops through me slowly. Like watching a stone sink down into black water. I feel the muscles of my jaw ratchet a little tighter.
How old is the Wayward Star now? Old enough that the payout from wrecking her might begin to look tempting. Especially if you are provided with the opportunity to put the whole country in a panic about the dangers of fitting passenger liners with their own lanterns. Then, not only do you have the means to scupper all of Hiron Justicae’s grand plans, but you also have the sudden influx of capital to finish building your own white elephant.
Is that truth? In all likelihood, I’ll never know. But that’s the funny thing about when the other boot finally comes down: truth doesn’t matter any more. The only truth you need is that your response now is the same. It’s the only thing left that you can do. You do what you can to survive.
For a moment, I am back at mast in the Boneyard. Émile’s fancy letter in my hand, and something as fine as fresh-spun cobwebs whispering down onto the deck. I have just enough time to realize that whatever is wrong with the Wayward Star is probably about to happen to us, then Requiem wallows hard to starboard and nearly throws me over the railing and into the black ocean of the sky. I barely manage to catch hold of the rigging, and I’m so blinded by the squall that I have to close my eyes to drag myself back aboard—trusting that primordial sense in my body to know up from down when my eyes cannot. A geist scream slices within an inch of my ear as I come back up to my feet.
They’re breaking through. The lantern... If we don’t—
The rest of that thought is cut away. More of a feeling than a sound, like some part of me has crumpled in. I swipe the back of my hand across my forehead to clear some of the spume. Open my eyes just as the last of the Wayward Star‘s envelope folds and crinkles up with flame—not the sickly green of geiststorm and soulfire but the deep umber-red of burning gas. And then debris is everywhere around. Falling embers like standing under the first full meteor shower of the year.
I can’t even really hear the storm. I can’t hear anything at all. The Wayward Star‘s blackened skeleton folds in on itself as it falls, her bones already crawling with geists, swarming like grey insects. I scrabble and slither on Requiem‘s leaning deck, reaching for the lantern on his prow as its light flares and then dissolves into green and crackling haze.
Then everything becomes a chaos of darkness and fire and falling debris. A geist screams somewhere overhead, loud enough that I feel as though I’ll never hear anything ever again. Something hits me from behind like a wall, like a boom coming around too fast on a sail-boat. Requiem‘s scarred and slippery deck pitches sharply upwards towards me, and everything is obliterated.
In the first few seconds of waking, I’m standing numb against the gunnel as Christie finally goes overboard. I’m hanging like a frozen breath in time, watching her plummet like a stone toward the clouds with both of her arms held out to me. I think I was wrong before. She realized in that moment what I’d known all along: that salvation was impossible, or at least well beyond the likes of us. When she reached out to me then, I don’t think she was asking me to save her. I think that she was asking me to fall...
I am lying on the deck. Every joint and bone in my body are as weak as matchsticks. When I bring my hand to the back of my head, it comes back covered in blood. A spike of nausea lances outwards from my stomach and I bring myself up, retching, to sit against the gunnel. All I can see is a grey-white mist of ghostmurk, smothering everything apart from the faint creaking in the rigging. Like a comfortable old chair settling back into place.
It’s difficult to make out most of the damage through the fog. Bad enough that I don’t immediately recognize the wreck around me as my ship. The Great Inventor only knows how we are still in the air and not tumbling towards the rocks like a tangled parachute.
Old metal groans towards the prow. Something remote in the hollow space of my brain recognizes that sound. The same as the morning that Émile’s letter landed on the deck, when all the Boneyard was as quiet as the ghostmurk is right now. It is the sound a soulfire lantern makes when someone opens the casing. I stumble upwards. Feel my way along the gunnel one faltering step at a time. My footsteps sound too loud in the still fog. I almost flinch from them.
I can see the shadow on his prow. It’s just in front of the lantern, reaching hesitantly into the last splutters of green light. Even as a shadow in the mist, there is no mistaking a geist for a living human being. Some part of your brain just won’t do it—refuses to, even though all the pieces are in place.
And the lantern is almost out now. It has its hands deep in the workings...
My voice is so loud that it rings. The geist pauses and for a moment nothing moves. Then she looks back at me, and something sticks hard in my lungs. My arm trembles on the gunnel, and Requiem‘s rigging groans in sympathy.
When she goes back to the lantern, I don’t try to stop her. I don’t do anything at all. I just hang there in the deep stillness and watch her burn her hands on the fragments of green fire, turning up the wick as high as it will go...
But the sound forces itself out of me too late. Even crippled and uncovered, the wick is long enough for the fire to flare into an agony of green light. It’s almost impossible to tell when my eyes manage to open again. Everything is swimming in a thick soup of stars and retina burn. Somewhere out in the ghostmurk, someone starts tolling a bell. The geist isn’t more than a shadow, standing in front of me and shredding into ether in the light, with both her hands held out to me.
I nod slowly, as though I understand, and reach out for her in turn. I can almost feel us both pitching over the rail. The dizziness of falling, until I realize that I’m not falling at all. That the geist has melted into nothing over me like hot wax and left me holding something as fragile as a breath in my hands. The whispery remains of a mantle.
Even in the swamp of fog I can tell that something’s wrong with it. That there was probably something wrong with it all along, just waiting for the fire to reveal it. I reach into my pocket with my free hand, fishing for something to contain the last charred fragments of proof, and laugh when I find the ball of Émile’s envelope wedged down at the bottom. I smooth it out carefully with the edge of my hand and tip the remains of the mantle carefully inside.
“Thank you very much, your lordship.”
Almost before the words are out of me, the lantern on the prow splinters and then shatters open, spraying out a long gout of green fire into the mist and stammering into nothing. I walk to the prow like I’m moving through a dream and turn the fuel tap all the way closed. The bell that’s tolling in the ghostmurk is closer now. Drawn in by the gout of green light. I see the lanterns first. Clean golden light spilling out of the gondola of a rescue ship.
My throat feels as though it’s full of cotton wool, but the other ship is already tacking back around towards me, the sound of raised voices echoing in the mist.
“We’ll bring you aboard!” one of the men calls across the chasm of fog.
“No!” I shout back. Letting the cold damp air spill full into my face. Tightening my hand on Requiem‘s split and ruined mast.
“Throw a tow rope across,” I tell the faceless man in the ghostmurk. I slip the envelope down carefully into my pocket before he is close enough to see. Rest my palm against the crumpled paper, as though I dare not let it go. “We’re not quite done here yet.”
Relics or not, there is still work to do.