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 the story-teller had grown up in Lensa or the North. Since the fables it had become truly massive, built around and 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 against the railing.
“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 as well, but Crane was Crane, tall and bony and wrapped against the elements in a stolen black stormcoat. “Did we not devise some infernally clever moniker for him? After our last... encounter?” Crane’s long hands tightened on the rail and the blue veins threading his pale skin bulged like flooded canals.
“Don’t remember,” Gilchrist said, still watching the ship deck rather than their destination. He was the dark and wiry antithesis to Crane’s lanky build and sallow skin. His messed black hair hung 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 gaze 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. Shall we return below decks?” Crane straightened his long frame and gave the Lighthouse one last look. A smile stretched his face. “I think perhaps a final rehearsal is in order,” he said, “before the game is afoot.”
Gilchrist nodded. He 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.
“It seems our inevitable 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. “And down here they don’t care what happens in Brask. If he’s heard any news from the north, it’ll be 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 passed them on the way to their quarters and did not try to mediate.
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.
“I thought someone should be keeping an eye on the mermaid,” Serena said, patting the tank. “She’s fine. Still sleeping. Still beautiful. Don’t you think she’s beautiful?”
“My key,” Gilchrist said flatly.
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. “As should be expected of an islander. One would have to develop a quick hand to avoid those 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 to Serena over his shoulder, locking the door behind them.
“They had sugar,” Serena explained, running 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 Doge 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 Doge has since rewarded him with a title, a tower, and the leisure time to pursue his stranger hobbies. May no man call the Doge of Lensa ungenerous.”
“I remember the nickname,” Gilchrist said. “Cassius of the Blasted Ass.” His mouth grinned without his meaning to. 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. The scheme was in motion.
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 Doge of Lensa’s leaping dolphin, and left 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 across 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 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.” He spread his arms to his sides. “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 followed, closing 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?”
“To bring a northman to tears,” said Crane.
The magistrate nodded eagerly and hurried away, feet sliding in the sand. Gilchrist ran a finger under his eye and Crane laughed, but with an edge. They ducked back inside the darkened tent without speaking.
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 the spaces under her eyes were mottled purple in a way the makeup 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.”
“Scandalous, really, how aquarium tanks are so rarely designed for comfort,” Crane said, peering down through the iron bars. The beach was blurring below them. “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 Doge’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, the breathing tube snaked up through one corner, and so 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 the Lighthouse had certainly never been hauled by cyclopes. It was close-fitting and mason-cut, and the floors were veined marble crafted by the Doge’s best architects. Gilchrist and Crane 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 a ceiling set with gas lamps. There were no windows, but one of Lensa’s more famous murals had been recreated on the far wall.
Crane stretched one 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 gaze 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. “As though 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 in silence.
“This tastes terrible,” Serena finally 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 he let go.
“Ouch,” Serena hissed, rubbing 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 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 wearing 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 lounged 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 lighthouse 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 Doge 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, 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 out at the sea again. “Crane had an inside man. We got out. When we got out, Cassius had the rest of the holding 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 the shard of her hipbone under her skin.
“I think that 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 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.”
“That’s 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.
Morning came quickly. Crane woke earliest, retreating to the most secluded corner of the chamber for his ritual. Serena had seen such things on the islands, the blood and the bowl and the incense, and she wasn’t bothered.
“We’ll need the luck,” she yawned to Gilchrist, stretching both arms over her head. Crane would have never called it luck.
Gilchrist helped her into the prosthetic, and by the time it was sealed against her skin Crane was ready with the powders and pigments. The scales that had rubbed off were returned to their silver lustre. Her skin returned to ghostly translucence.
“Truly unnerving,” Crane said. “Are you entirely certain your mother was not a sea sprite?”
“Never asked her, did I.” Serena looked across to Gilchrist and grinned.
“And I trust your sleep was adequate,” Crane said solemnly.
“Trust,” Serena said. “How was yours? Did you dream about me?”
“I never dream,” Crane said. “But if I were to sublimate, it’s entirely possible you and your lovely fins would make an appearance.”
Serena’s mouth twisted around a smile. She started breathing rapidly, in and out, very shallow. Gilchrist pulled the lid from the tank. The glass was chilled. The water would be cold. Serena’s breaths came faster. Crane delicately slipped a darkened lense under each of her eyelids. Her waxen body was shivering.
“Time,” Gilchrist said.
“We’re immersing you now,” Crane announced. He picked her up from one side and Gilchrist from the other. She was heavier with the prosthetic. They positioned her carefully over the tank. Gilchrist mouthed down from three, watching her black eyes, and then they plunged her under. The cold bit at his fingers. Crane gave a sympathetic shiver.
“Colder’s better,” Gilchrist said, sliding the lid shut.
“I can’t profess to envy her,” said Crane.
Gilchrist threw the shroud overtop and they carried the tank out into the hall. Another boy was waiting to show them to the audience chamber. Two armored giants hulked behind him, stripping off their gauntlets. They lifted the tank like bird bones.
The spiral stairs were wide and flat and splashed with watery morning light from the narrow windows. Crane was uncharacteristically silent, only snapping abuse once when the guards maneuvered the tank too quickly. The audience chamber had an arched entrance carved with runes, some architect’s idea of an homage to the Lighthouse’s original builders.
The magistrate was waiting again. “Ready?” he asked. “Did you pass the night well? I’m having a pool cleared out, we’re netting all the fish. Unless. Would she eat them?”
“We can discuss such details once the sale is finalized,” Crane said. “Which it currently is not.” He brushed the magistrate away. The small man smoothed his hair, looking slightly offended, then flitted over to direct the guards inside.
“Was it a good omen this morning, Crane?” Gilchrist asked, pausing.
Crane rubbed the fresh scab on his arm. “I believe this is the first time you’ve ever inquired, Gilchrist.”
“Well.” Crane clapped him on the shoulder. “At least you passed the night well.”
Gilchrist snorted. They followed the tank inside.
The Baron was seated in a high-backed iron chair, pulling off a pair of gloves, but he stood up as they entered. He was still a large man, broad-shouldered, with blonde hair hanging lank curtains around his hard face and gnarled lip. The silk gloves flapped to the floor and Gilchrist, and Crane saw they were spotted with blood.
“Welcome,” the Baron said, picking at a dry red sliver under his thumbnail. “The mole rat over there says you’ve got something for me.” He massaged his wrist and grinned. His teeth were filmed yellow. “Ever flayed an ape? Strong little brutes. Beautiful pelt, though.” His eyes alighted on Gilchrist. “They howl almost like men.”
“I’ve never had the pleasure,” said Crane. The tank settled with a thud, and the Baron’s guards stalked back around behind him. Gilchrist bowed just slightly, then lifted the shroud.
A slab of light from the high window bisected the tank, illuminating a ripple of silver scales, a perfect white shoulder, a drifting halo of near-iridescent hair. The mermaid stirred sluggishly and opened both jet black eyes. One of the guards gave a surprised grunt.
The Baron hopped down from the plinth. Age had bent his spine but he moved quickly, coming to crouch in the front of the tank. His tongue worked against the split of his lip as he stared. “Bugger me,” he said. “Bugger me, I never thought I’d see one.”
“Brask’s sewers run deep,” Crane said. “One can encounter all manner of oddities in that aqueous labyrinth.”
The Baron looked up sharply. “Brask. One of my old bastard’s wives was from Brask. She told me all the stories. How they come up to the canals at night. How they fuck sleep-walking boatmen.” He gave a thick laugh, still incredulous. “Blood and shit of a god. A mermaid.” He peered close to the glass, gaze narrowing, and the black eyes stared back unblinking. He ran his meaty hand overtop of the tank. “Best fakery I’ve seen yet,” he said.
Gilchrist’s hand tightened inside his pocket.
“It’s no trick,” the magistrate protested. “I searched for a tube, like you said. And, I mean, look at her. How could she be anything else?”
The Baron stared long at the tank, and Crane and Gilchrist saw for the first time an unfocused quality to his eyes, a faint gray fog. “I want her to be real,” he muttered, folding his scarred hands together. “She does look real.”
“Forgive us, gentlemen, but the mermaid’s eyes are not accustomed to sunlight.” Crane picked up the shroud. “I would rather not cause her unnecessary pain.”
“Stop.” The Baron’s eyes had come clear. “Throw a cloth over so she can suck from an airbladder? Or slip out a false bottom?” He rose to his feet with a clicking of joints. “No. In fact.” His finger whirled in the air, then towards his guards. “Drag that over here.”
Crane and Gilchrist did not look at each other as the guards wrestled the great iron chair off its stand. Rusted metal scraped granite, and the noise carved the marrow from their bones, shivered the floor. The guards heaved and hauled. Serena shifted in the tank, face angled for a moment towards Gilchrist. He watched impassive as the chair clanged down on top of the lid. The sound reverberated all through the room.
“We want her to stay put, don’t we?” The Baron clambered up and took a seat on his inverted chair. His grin was feral. “Now we’ll just wait a while. Hold them.”
“Cassius, is this really necessary?” the magistrate demanded, as the armored guards seized Crane’s arm and Gilchrist’s shoulder, prying them away from the tank. The Baron spat at him in answer. Gilchrist finally looked at Serena and found her looking back, ebony eyes impenetrable. He began to mouth the numbers.
There was no clock in the audience chamber. The bodyguards held Crane and Gilchrist like living vices while the magistrate fluttered between them, still apologizing. Crane’s face bore an amused smirk. Gilchrist’s was carved wood.
The Baron thumped his feet on the lid. “Who are you?” he demanded. “The pair of you.”
“We are purveyors of the exotic,” said Crane. “Not entirely unlike yourself.”
Gilchrist’s lips formed two hundred. Serena’s expression was blind behind the lenses.
“You’re hard-stomached men,” the Baron said. “Bringing a girl in here to drown. Maybe you aren’t entirely unlike myself.”
“We’re men of business.” Crane shrugged irritably against the guard’s fingers. “Why would we risk our credibility on such an easily-penetrated deception?”
Two hundred and twelve. Gilchrist could see Serena’s face changing color, mottling through the makeup.
“That I don’t know, merchant.” The Baron swung himself down and paced the length of the tank. “Maybe you knew. Somehow. That my mother was from Brask.” He stopped and turned. “Maybe you thought I would leap at the chance.”
“While we escaped with your silver? To where?” Crane half-laughed. “You and the Doge control the ports. Once you uncovered us, you’d have us black-flagged at any dock from Colgrid to Lensa.”
Two hundred and twenty, or else twenty-one.
“Bugger me,” the Baron hissed. He knelt down in front of the tank and pressed his face against it. His tongue left a wet trail along the glass. The mermaid recoiled slightly. Gilchrist’s hand moved in his pocket, felt the polished handle of his knife.
“I’d prefer that carnal endeavors do not feature in our contract of sale,” said Crane. His eyes flicked to Gilchrist and he shook his head in fractions.
The Baron threw up his hands. “Does she sing?” he demanded.
“For us,” Gilchrist said. “Too many in here.” The count thrummed through his head. Serena was drifting now, nothing in her limbs.
“A matter of trust,” Crane said simply.
Serena’s eyelids were quivering. Gilchrist saw a vein in her neck he’d never noticed before.
“Then get the hell out of here, mole rat,” the Baron said, clapping his hands together. “And you two, get your ugly hands off our guests. Put the damn chair back.” The bodyguards crossed the room. Gilchrist was barely aware of it, he couldn’t take his eyes from the tank. The chair crashed to the stone floor and the Baron swore.
Serena had shut her eyes.
“Leave it,” the Baron snapped, as the guards struggled to turn the chair upright. “Go down with the mole rat. Make yourselves useful. I want the pool cleared. I want it widened. Get a mason.” His face was fevered, manic. His cut lip flapped with his tongue.
Gilchrist had seen drowned men, their skin bloated with the water. Gulls had eaten their eyes out.
The bodyguards trooped out the door, dwarfing the magistrate between them, and Crane threw the bolt. Gilchrist came to the tank on unsteady legs.
“Now let’s hear her,” the Baron said, smoothing his greased hair. “Let’s hear the sea-bitch.”
Gilchrist’s knife drove up under his jaw like a thunderclap. The Baron fell back, a gurgling wet shout, and then the tank overturned. Glass spiderwebbed as it cracked against the stone; water gushed. Serena rolled limp into the puddle. Gilchrist saw her hands tremoring.
The Baron’s arm came for Gilchrist’s windpipe from behind. Gilchrist turned and dug his shoulder in, sprawling them both onto the slick floor. He saw in a jumble: Crane bending over Serena, the Baron’s groping fingers, water beading and racing down the side of the tank.
“Flay you,” the Baron snarled. Carmine bubbled out his lips. His throat bobbed, welling blood, and Gilchrist dug his fingers into its ragged hole. Pulled. The Baron’s hands thrashed, nails caught on Gilchrist’s ear. Their faces pulled close, close enough for him to see the raised brand of pink flesh that Gilchrist’s hair usually covered. Recognition pierced the Baron’s wild eyes.
“Bleed you out,” Gilchrist said. “Like a sheep.” The Baron kicked once, twice. Gilchrist shoved him away. He splashed. Bright tendrils curled out under his bulk and diluted pink in the water.
“Alive.” Crane’s voice came distant. Gilchrist braced himself on the Baron’s slumped back and hauled upright. He rubbed his neck. Blots of oil shimmered over his eyes, inside his skull.
“Alive but unwell, Mr. Gilchrist,” Crane repeated. “And you?”
Crane had eased Serena’s legs out of the prosthetic and wrapped her with the shroud. Her skin was corpse-white on the damp black fabric. Crane slipped one of the tinted lenses out from her eyelid. She twitched. He removed the other more gently.
Gilchrist crouched. “Three hundred even,” he said.
Serena’s eyes blinked open. Her whites were flecked red. She wriggled three fingers.
“Maybe,” Gilchrist said. “Maybe I lost a few at the end.”
“That was a truly remarkable performance,” Crane said. He mopped a line of sweat off his brow. “One to make you a legend on the islands, I imagine.”
Serena’s mouth shuttered open. Her chest heaved and she inhaled one long breath. Another. “Don’t remember it,” she murmured. “Never do.” For a moment her lungs were the only noise in the room.
Then the Baron’s hand smacked wet against the floor. Crane and Gilchrist turned. His chin was burrowed in his chest, squeezing the hole torn there. His breath whistled.
“The Doge hangs smugglers,” he said thickly.
“Pardon?” Crane said.
“The Doge hangs smugglers,” the Baron croaked. “The Doge will hang you.”
“I very much doubt that,” Crane said. “Who do you think sealed our trading papers?”
The Baron’s eyes became slits.
“Such a shame, after years of exemplary service. Squandering his money on twisted exhibition. Turning the ancient pride of Lensa into a glorified zoo.” Crane stood. “You understand better than anyone what one does with an animal that is no longer useful,” he said. “It’s hardly a wonder the Doge wished to euthanize you.”
The Baron sprayed blood and mucus over his chest. His mouth fished open, shut.
“A violent assassination carried out by vicious criminals with clear motive,” Crane continued. “Exchanged for official papers to carry us anywhere we wish. Apart from Lensa, naturally. May no man call the Doge ungenerous.”
They couldn’t know if the Baron heard the last words or not. His chest had stopped heaving, and his eyes were vacant.
“Doesn’t quite remove the sting, does it, Mr. Gilchrist?” Crane asked.
“Fractionally.” Gilchrist looked at the overturned tank. Water was spreading across the floor and would soon be seeping under the door. Serena sat up. Her face was still oddly slack, but her eyes were focused.
“How do we get back out now the tank’s smashed?” she asked. “I’m naked. And you’re bloody.”
Crane flexed his fingers. “A diversion of some sort, preferably.”
Serena grinned up at Gilchrist. “The zookeeper was up there last night,” she said.
“The zookeeper,” Serena repeated. She thrust her arm down inside the prosthetic and came up with a dripping ring of iron keys. They jangled in her fist and caught sunlight. Crane looked over to Gilchrist but lacked the usual remark. He took the keys. Serena was light as a bird but clung fiercely to Gilchrist’s back, wet hair draped over his shoulder.
Crane opened the door and then the three of them were gone, leaving the magistrate to find the Baron in his rosy puddle and his mermaid vanished back to sea.