copyright © 2017
for Murat and Ise and Papa Joe
with whom I hope to hit the open waters
Stede Bonnet’s black beard hung heavy from his jowls, dripping with salt water from the last breaker. “Should I go back and wheel her around, Pa?”
“Steady on, Stede,” said his father, Calico Sam. “You’ll own that right soon enough, but you’re not there yet.”
The Stormsong dipped over the sea’s next hill and speared her bottom half — bow to stern — through water and salt. When she came out to air on the other end, most of her crew coughed and sputtered behind her captain and first mate, who had braced for the wave on the front railing. Then the ship went through clear air until it hit hard water again, throwing some of the lesser-prepared to the deck.
Stede spat out a mouthful from where he crouched, adding his spray to the spray that filled the slate-colored air. His beard dripped again. He looked to his father.
His wiry salt-and-pepper beard was dripping as well, but white clumps and residues coated the hairy runnels where water had trickled over and again throughout his many seaborne years. Minerals and salt. That’s what they were. Deposits like the barnacles on the bottom of their ship. Stede had seen his father clean the ship, but his beard? He doubted if his father even remembered that he could do such a thing since mother had been taken -- she’d always been the one to push him to wash. Besides, his father seemed to don it, one more badge to set apart Captain Calico Samuel, a crystalline medal of honor welded to his very face.
“Hold,” Sam was saying, the salt crystals moving with his words.
A third breaker came out of that sea. Water washed over the deck again, roiling the loose mud clots, dirtying the water that soon left off and over. Slushes and gurgles washed out of a nearby hole in the freeboard, a hole Stede knew connected to one of the lower deck pumps. Water’s down there. “We gonna make it out, Pa?”
“Sudden storm lasts not three hours, Steady.”
“Yeah,” Stede said, “but we might not either.”
Sam scoffed again.
Stede stared into the tempest. He looked back at the lower sails, glad Dean had reefed them so early. Otherwise there might have only been shreds remaining. Stede looked south, or what he thought was south, and knew Cape Horn lay out there somewhere summoning winter storms to slay them. The cape connected to the Imperial Crescent and her shorter, brilliant folk, who—
A wave knocked him down and sideways across the fo’c’sle deck like another bit of loose cargo. He stopped up short as his back slammed into the beam holding the starboard anchor. He’d missed the spare slab of iron ore by mere inches.
“Pay attention, you damned pit-digging simian!”
Stede groaned. “Sorry dad.”
“Quit getting off in your own little world and get up here.” His dad yanked him up clean by the collar. “Get up.” He yanked. “Here.” And then lower, softer so the nearby boatswain couldn’t hear. “You hurt?”
“Nah.” Stede grunted as he moved. “I’m fine.”
Sam turned and shouted down to the one-hundred-sixty feet of main deck. “Almost out of it, boys, almost out now!”
Stede looked down the way his father’d called. Their ship was massive, boasting some of the tallest masts in the four seas, made to haul large loads of cheap cargo, the sort of merchandise those newer steamers ignored. Steamers were starting to show up for hauling the trinkets of the rich and inventions of the brilliant Crescers. But windjammers like The Stormsong? They hauled the basics. Iron. Timber. Stone and shade. Brimstone. Fire. Air and jade. The elemental things in life. Because of that, and because she carried no cannon, she could be sailed with as few as fifteen crew, though thirty was more secure in a storm. Stede’s father employed thirty-three men that he trusted with his life. But thirty-three men spread thin across and below one-hundred-sixty feet of main deck, a main deck making noise enough to snap Stede awake.
The men braced for the next boomer.
The Stormsong moaned and whined to her oaken core, a child woken long past bedtime. Her moaning grew as they ascended the sea, grew into the bellow of a giant torn between two demons’ holds.
Still they sailed.
“Can’t you weave something into it, calm it down?” Stede reached into his inner coat pocket for that brass spyglass, his father’s stylet. The weight of his own hanging in his pant pocket hammered against his thigh.
Sam guffawed and gestured to the sea. “Be my guest of honor.”
“Only the bards commanded the seas, and I don’t have one of those handy, do you?”
“Nah,” Stede said, “but surely there’s a weave we can discover? Something Nerari might have told you?”
“Nerari ain’t here. You’re were closer to the mark with, ‘Nah.’ The bards are dead, and the sea don’t give prizes to wishing. Tie in. We’ll see her through.”
His father squinted over the portside. “Spyglass.”
Stede handed it over, grinning like the village idiot, and waited.
But Calico Sam didn’t wield it by the big end to use it as a stylet. Instead, Sam extended the brass cylinders so that the two glass lenses aligned. He peeped through the hole. “Is it?” he asked no one in particular.
Another wave crashed in and nearly wrenched Stede’s grip away from the railing. When he stood aright again, he noticed his father’s stature, how his dad had withstood the last comber without the aid of rope or board, shackle or sword.
“Is it?” Sam asked again.
“Is what what?”
“It is!” Sam strode in large, booming strides across the fo’c’s’le deck and down the stairs. He hitched a thumb over his shoulder and shouted, “That’s our way, Steder. That’s the way through.” And then so the rest could hear. “Hang on, fellas, almost done!”
Stede jogged past several dozen crewmen to catch his dad over the canting deck. “What’d you see?”
His dad’s boots stopped dead and he turned, bright cotton cloak whipping behind him like the end of a dishrag mid-wring. He grinned a wild grin. “Light.” He marched on.
Stede followed up the ladder and onto the quarterdeck. His father was already at the wheel and barking orders about sails.
“But dad, you really think the wind’s under ninety knots?”
“Boy, don’t ever question an order. On this ship in a storm, you’re crew or you’re jetsam. Got it?”
Stede nodded as Dean, the sailing master and his father’s friend, marched up.
“ Dean looked at Steed and sucked his teeth, then asked, “What were the orders?”
“Unfurl the big boys midship.”
“Yeah, captain. Jigger and mizzen staysails too?”
“We’ll shred the canvas. No. Mains, and fore-topmast for balance will do for now. But stand by the main-topmast stay for word from me.”
“Yup.” Dean was off and down the stairs barking at polecats and then climbed up the rigging himself.
They’d been floating nearly in place despite the way it felt on the swell of the sea. Stede couldn’t tell until the lowest, largest sails unfurled. Then they jerked ahead.
Sam was shouting. “—said come here!”
“What?” Stede ambled over.
“Hold the wheel.”
“I thought you said—“
“Hold the damn wheel!”
Stede held firm, two grips and two shaking wrists.
Clicks sounded from the spyglass as Sam extended each cylinder, largest to smaller to smallest. “Yessir, turn it more. . . Some more. . . Bit more, Steder. Northeast by East.”
“Why the pit not?”
“Compass is wet.”
Calico Sam laughed. “You expecting sand out here on the sea? Dammit, Stede, turn the wheel another two points portside.”
Dean was back now, glaring at the captain’s wheel, breathing hard.
They sailed toward that lighter spot, which grew lighter and lighter and larger and larger until the third hour came and the storm dissolved into thin air. The wind returned to a clean fifty.
“See there?” Stede said. “Deano? Raise the rest of the stay sails and tops.”
Yes,” Dean sucked in a breath sharp through his teeth and added, “Captain.”
“We lose anyone?”
“One of the mates, Asher. He—“
“We lost Ash?”
“No, captain, he lost that little rubber ball of his.”
“Good. Save us the racket. Keep going.”
Shouts and violent hand gestures filled their first ten minutes on the coast of the Imperial Crescent. After the storm had cleared, they had rested up and then turned a full one-twenty-three degrees toward the south. They’d made it to shore ready for a massive pickup, but as soon as they’d beached their longboats, a hoard of locals swarmed them. Thus the shouts and the gestures and the general bouts of spitting straight up in the air.
Sam and Stede greeted them in kind, and his father’s spit fell on Stede’s face.
The locals laughed: pirates were such uncivilized spitters.
Eventually the locals calmed down enough to defer to their Magister, who spoke in a cleanish trade tongue. “Some your brigand steal our good, Mr. Bonnet.”
“My brigands?” Sam asked.
“They from Sor’tego. They yours.”
“No no, that’s not how this works,” Sam said. “Just here to trade.”
“Trade? What trade? You see good to trade? Your brigand take.”
Though his father was staring at the Magister, Stede glanced around. Broken boards belied the fate of once-whole casks and crates.
“No,” his father said, “I don’t. Who’d you say stopped here?”
“Benito de Soto.”
His father swallowed. “See there, just because we occupy the same port back home doesn’t mean you get to blame de Soto’s work on me. I just wanted to trade.”
“Wait, what?” Stede asked. “It’s de Soto, dad. We can catch him.”
His father shook his head. “Forget it.”
“Are you kidding me?” Stede said. “He has mom.”
The Magister eyed them both.
“We’ll discuss this later,” his father said.
“No we won’t.” Stede looked at The Magister. “We can find him. We will find him.”
The Magister smiled and looked back to Sam. “You want trade more some day?”
“Of course, Keng,” his father said.
“Bring back good.”
“That’s not quite—“
“That deal, Sam-mule. Bring back de Soto booty from my people. I give you half. Except you wife. You keep all her.”
His father asked, “How many ships with him?”
“Five. Six. Who count ships these days? Too many ship. Too many machine. Too much war.” Magister Keng pointed to Stede. “You count, boy?”
“No, my boy can’t count,” his father said. “Couldn’t count the points of a dry compass.”
Stede sucked his teeth at a high hiss until his tongue clucked.
Dean stared at him. Pissed at him for borrowing the gesture. Stede rolled his eyes.
Dean still stared. Probably still pissed Stede was in line for quartermaster, since he’d been around his father longer than Stede had been alive.
Stede said, “We’ll get on it, Magister Keng.”
The Magister said, “You have no control over your ship or your son, Sam.”
His father turned beat red. “That’s not what’s happening here.”
“The boy thinks he can find his mother. He’s too young to know yet, some things can’t be found.”
“Yesterday, I stumble on emerald the size of a dog’s head. Some things find you.”
“Doesn’t keep them from hiding in the dirt for years,” Sam said.
“We’re pirates,” Stede said, “we’re made for adventure and discoveries. We’ll find Keng’s booty and mom all at once. What’s to whine?”
His father sighed. “We’d better get on it.”
“Bring back booty.”
As he turned, his father nodded his head, twitched rather, towards some of the Imperial concubines and muttered, “You’ve got plenty.”
“What that you say?”
His father said, “That we’ll bring it back hot and minty.”
His father groaned. “In one piece. Whole.”
“Good. Good. Need lunch? Made fresh blackfish eyes.”
“All set. Gotta get back in the wind lanes.”
On the way back to the longboats, and as they rowed back to the ship, Stede asked, “So how will we take on six ships?”
“Maybe should have thought about that before you suggested this suicide rescue mission for a woman that’s probably not even with de Soto anymore.”
“You’re talking about my mom and your bride.”
His father looked old and tired. “Look, Stede, he probably sold your mother into the sex trade. She might not even be on our world anymore. Let it go.”
“Then we can find out where he sent her. We can punish him.”
His father’s eyes lit up at that.
“See?” Stede said. “You want this, too. Now how are we going to take on six ships with thirty-three men and a windjammer?”
“Only way we can, my boy. With style.”
“Dad, no offense, but you ain’t got any cannons and this ain’t a three-hundred crew brig or even a quick schooner. We’re just thirty or so able-bodies sailing around in a giant bathtub. Like sissy fat kids getting into fights with scrappy inmates.”
“Sailors or inmates?”
“Cannons. Hate ‘em.”
“I know. So how are you—“
“Keep them rowing, Dean.” His father lifted his legs and spun on the bench so that he faced backwards toward his son. “How many times do I need to tell you? Abner put that brimstone shortage in place for a reason. I trust him, and it’s bad enough using chunks of it for weaving. I’m not about to buy gunpowder. And even if I did, I ain’t cutting gun holes in The Song.”
“Get that. So how we gonna fight?”
Captain Calico Sam Bonnet whipped out his spyglass. “Is you a weaver or ain’t you?”
“You think stylets can take those cannons?”
“Pull out your dagger, boy.”
Stede did so.
“Hold it up to the light.”
His father touched the brass of the spyglass to the cold iron of the dagger. “Stede, for the last time, when we carry stylets, we carry cannons by our sides.”
They sailed south on that Crescer Magister’s recommendation and as Sam captained the ship, Stede fondled the dagger that hung in his pant pocket. Was there power there? In his stylet? A cannon’s worth?
His father’d been right — he himself had woven all sorts of dangerous amalgamations with the thing, unbinding the very principles of fire and water, urine and quicksilver, so that combined they might blend into something other. But from the slanting deck of a ship? Across the expanse of a sea? Let alone, in combat?
That was something else.
He’d never seen weaving in action outside the sparring room on deck and the training halls in the bowels of Mount Nowthin. Mostly Stede had used his stylet like a little magic wand, performing parlor tricks of dancing light for the street boys in Sequinov. Or making wooden boards float on the wind for the cute little girls of Heliopolis, the ones cleaned up in their Blithbon dresses before dancing the bright banners of warring houses around the Red Bag poles in spring, waiting to see whose line would earn favor for the next year. Of course, such tricks surprised them — many of them were ditzy chicks that couldn’t weave an ounce of air into a forest of wood. He could say that honestly because one of them had trained with him in Nowthin and had said as much. Stede preferred women like her — the ones who knew their fire from their brimstone and their iron from their lead.
But he was twenty-one. What the hell did he know?
In any case, you can’t fight a sea battle with floating boards and dancing lights, even though that’s all ships firing cannons appear to be from the shoreline. Truth was, in spite of all the time Stede had spent learning Weaving and the other arts in Nowthin’s halls, Sam believed more in the school of hard knots. They had sailed before Stede had tried any of the riskier combinations — duty called before training ended. And in this way, duty trained. It took both precision and a certain knack to perform complicated weaves like the fifty-percent fire and fifty percent water, and that kind of thing took time, guidance, and practice. Without control, Stede knew a Weaver could spontaneously combust or drown his lungs in the middle of a desert. And that was assuming you had pure bricks and vials of distilled elements to work with, not raw substances you happened to find in the wild. And certainly not pulling them onto the careening deck of a longship.
They’d set sail before Stede had learned to bring order to woven chaos and so set sail with the equivalent of a neutered well-wishing wand in his hand and a ticking time bomb in his soul. Stede turned the knife loose, letting it fall back into the cover of his pocket and listened in to his father’s commands.
“—past the mouth of those twin Have rivers by now.”
“Then how’ll we catch them?” asked Harper, first boatswain.
“Hope they hug the coast to stay out of sight. Might not be many as many coves around here as the Tetran Penninsula, but there’s damn sure more than that unbending Sicarian stretch.”
Three of the officers laughed.
Stede looked around, wondering what sort of inside joke he’d missed.
“Cut a line twixt the Bamboo Point and the tip of Neino and head for the Bat’s Jaws. They’ll hide in there, if I’m a betting man.”
“And are you a betting man?” asked Dean while pulling out two coins made of nickel.
“Nah, I’m holy as the Grand High Metropolitan.” Sam said. “But were I, I’d bet way more than two decks.”
“A simolean’ll tempt me,” Sam said.
“One per boat,” Dean said.
“WE GOT A WAGER!” Captain Sam shouted.
“Copied,” said a man with a pocket-sized ledger in one hand and a fountain pen in the other. “Good luck, Captain.”
Wind died down way below forty knots after they passed Have, and a journey that should have taken ten days took twenty. Though caught in a calm, Sam chose to wait it out instead of going ashore, saying over and again, “If we’ve got no wind, they’ve got no wind, and they won’t want to dock within two-thousand leagues of the Crescent. If they do dock, we’ll have the wind before they do and catch a bit of water.”
“Change your bet?” Dean asked.
“Yes,” Sam said. “Let’s double it.”
“Fine I’ll take your sims. His too.” Dean pointed to Stede.
“Don’t bet,” Stede said.
“Sissy. Can’t sail. Can’t bet. What—“
“Dean,” Sam said. “Apologize to my firstborn son.”
“You helped me raise this boy. You’re practically his uncle. Don’t talk down to him, Uncle Dean.”
It was quiet.
Dean whispered something.
“What’s that?” Sam said. “What in the pit did you say?”
“Said this is bullshit, Sam. You know it and the rest of us knows it and Stede knows it too. You can’t just discover sailing talent down in your bones. Hell I stumbled on this job by accident, and I’m a tenured member of the Brigand’s Crowd.”
Stede said nothing.
“Quarter master? I love him, but come on. Give him my job and let me take the reins.”
Sam stood still.
Stede said, “I think it’s a great—“
“Shut it, kid,” Sam said. “Dean, you listen here and listen good. He’s shit now, you’re right. Everyone knows it. But have I ever – ever -- picked a wrong man on this crew?” He looked out at the rest of them, the quiet crowd of thirty-three. “Have I picked a wrong one of you?”
No one said a thing.
“One day this kid will sail unlike a single soul before or since.”
Dean leaned in and whispered loud enough for Stede to hear, but silent for the others. “Sam, listen. He can’t even weave a campfire, and he’s a brimstone weaver.”
Stede’s shoulders sank: that was true.
Sam said, “Time.”
“Give him time, alright?” Sam shouted at the crew.
So did Dean.
“Alright,” Sam said. “Now let’s see if the bastards dock.”
“For mom,” Stede said.
“Sure, kid.” Sam stared out into the void. “For your mom.”
Stede’s father had been right and wrong. He was right: the dark humored brigands didn’t want to dock. That didn’t keep six sims from slipping away on that bet — only one out of five ships stayed behind in the Bat’s Jaw cove, a little hundred-tonner sloop with a rapier-like bowsprit. The little sloop boasted more canvas than some schooners Stede had seen. “What we gonna do about that shank?”
“What do you mean, boy?” Sam asked.
“Looks like a pike or prison shank shooting out the bow. Look at it.”
“Shank it is,” his father said. “Sail over it before it nibbles at us with its fourteen little teeth.”
“Fourteen?” Stede asked.
“Looks like seven trapdoors portside to me.” Sam passed the spyglass. “Look that way to you?”
Stede looked and saw and nodded when he saw.
“So, fourteen,” Sam said.
He didn’t dare sass back, but he felt something molten accumulating inside him, something preparing to erupt. He bit into his cheek, a movement hidden behind black beard. With nothing else to do, he found himself fiddling with the knife.
“Bring us up behind that island, Stede.”
“This a kid’s puppet show?” Sam asked. “Wheel us around, I want them thinking we’ll keep going that aways.”
“And we’ll run her over like the Vekingers of old. Get me close.”
Stede commanded polecats to furl the topgallants in hopes to slow the Stormsong and buy time to compensate for the turn. He swung the wheel to pass west of the island, swinging it hard. They went from bearing southeast to bearing northwest in one great sloping slice of whitecaps. It took most of his strength to hold the wheel, and thus the rudder, at such a sharp turn, but Stede was his father’s boy, not a thin thing like his sisters back home in Soratego.
And then one of the largest ships at sea was turned and headed clean for the other side of the island.
On cue, the sloop ahead unfurled sails and headed quick west.
“Good,” said Sam. “They’re committed. Now switch.”
Once on the other side of the island, Stede’d have to turn starboard towards the island to catch the west wind. They needed more room, so he swung out west, turning port. “Ready for downwind turn, Dean?” Stede asked.
Sam raised his eyebrow.
Dean shook his head. “You know what Stede? One-eighty this tub.”
Stede took a breath. “Furl the spanker.
Dean passed the order. The sail nearest was tied.
Meanwhile Stede wheeled the rudder to starboard. “Square ‘em off.”
They obeyed. Wind passed right by the middle sails, parallel. Slowly the front sails turned and so pulled them forward and east, forward and east until the wind aft filled the others. With wind astern blanketing canvas, Stede freed The Stormsong to haul around for their starboard tack. Forward sailed filled, and Stede said, “Brace around.”
Dean had begun the order already, knowing it by heart, but nodded at the Captain’s son, ready to finish and ready to chase.
Polecat sailors unfurled it, and the wind bellied it out.
“Trim and keep course,” Stede said and Dean obeyed.
Sam’s grim bordered maniacal. He whispered, “Perfect.”
The north wind joined the west and they found more power. Sam grabbed the wheel and they sprinted toward the island’s end.
And Stede’s grin was crazier than his father’s.
Dean nodded. “Yeah, okay, pretty good job.”
On the north side of the isle, they were set to cut between a great spire-like island on their right and another distant island to their left, closer to the mainland coast, a mainland they couldn’t see but knew lay out there in horizon. Then, like a vision in the night, the sloop they’d named Shank carved a path across theirs, headed for open sea.
“They notice?” Stede said.
“Only if they’re looking for us,” Sam replied, “and the way they’re moving, I’d say not.”
“Boat like that’s meant to hug the coast. They’re sailing seaward cause they think we’ll go into the Bat’s Jaw to root them out.”
“That’s what you wanted, wasn’t it?”
Sam smiled. “Man can hope.”
“No prizes for wishing,” Stede said.
“Didn’t say I was a wishing. Said hope. There’s a difference. Dean?”
“Cut us a line to catch them.”
“Like a watery triangle.”
“Got you Cap. I got your meaning.”
“You really mean to run them over?” Stede asked when they had made their ship known.
“Sure. Why not?”
“What about the cargo?”
“They ain’t carrying any. Can’t hold what the other four can.”
“But what if they are? What’ll Kong think?”
“He’ll thank me for sinking them.”
“How are we gonna find the other four?” Stede asked.
“Shit, Stede, a ship in port’s worth three in the storm. Work this’n first.”
Work it they did, headed right up towards her broadside, and when the Shank started firing her seven starboard cannons at The Stormsong’s portside, Sam pulled out his stylet. “Weave some cover, boys.”
Stede’s eyes brightened.
Sam lead the call by pointing his spyglass aft and up, at the wind, and sang: “Lady Shallot wove the wind, inspiring—”
The wind itself unrolled before him like a great cloth. It hovered a few feet from his stylet, following its tip regardless of how fast or slow he moved.
He pointed the brass instrument at that slab of iron ore. “—into walls so foes were pinned in iron.”
The slab uncoiled like a spool unspun, forming a long thread of iron that snaked its segmented way over to his eyeglass, attached to the end, brass needle and iron thread, he stitched it quickly like sutures into the fabric of air. When finished, he pointed the amalgam at the sea. There it stretched out thin, the length of two ships.
The Shank’s second round of fire hit it, cannon balls slowed, and the air rippled like a sideways splash. And the cannon balls fell down into the sea, harmless.
Meanwhile, Dean had finished storyweaving a great fog of sparkling lights. Visibility turned to nothing and inside the fog, it looked as if more and more cannons were firing, though they owned none. He had his stylet. The fog and will-o-wisp flashes like phantom cannons without sound or shape or bite. Fog and light. Fog and flashes.
Stede managed to weave some air into another board. A feather board. Another damnable floating board.
“We’ll have to cut it sharp, Stede.”
Stede didn’t answer. He was poking his floating plank, making it spin on its vertical axis in midair, passing slowly by them as they sailed on.
“I don’t know,” Stede said. “Just feels right.”
“I said cut sharp. Wall don’t go on forever. We’ll only have cover so long, and I need some of that iron for later.”
Stede went to the wheel.
“Wait for my cue,” his dad said.
But Stede had already turned and was rubbing the giant windjammer ship against the wall of wind. It started to wear on her side with an awful grinding, howling noise, weathering the planks and protesting as if the wall itself had objected.
“Sorry,” he said and cut back.
Sam squinted, head moving like kids who watch landmarks pass on trains. He waited for the end of the line that was the wall. “Now!” he shouted.
Stede cut hard, and in under a minute, heard the couch of the Shank hitting Stormsong, the sounds of men screaming for deliverance below, deliverance from fickle brigand gods.
“Onward,” Sam said, grinning.
And the way he said it, the way he moved on without a second’s thought, unsettled some pillars deep in Stede. Men had just died. Men who had discoveries and adventures and treasure hunts of their own. Men who felt and dreamed and laughed.
Men who had taken his father’s bride.
Perhaps there was more to the story.
They sailed on out of the fog beyond the ruins of the sloop they’d cruised clean over.
Out at sea in a better light, they found out the Shank had shanked them — they hadn’t left Bat’s Jaw woundless. Those first seven shots had all landed true and they were taking on water. Sam’s orders came like buckshot, pumps activated, men hauling lumber, hammer fells and hot tar.
“Need shore?” Stede asked.
“Nah,” Sam said. “We’n patch her up at sea. Didn’t lose nobody, did we?”
“Yeah, but we’re sailing wounded.”
“Nah, just sailing. This is a part of it. Just cause you haven’t seen this side before don’t mean you know all there is to know.”
Patch it they did, and off again at a swift fourteen knots, south and south and south again, straight for the :TRENCH: threshold and the prison isle of Ingenutvag. They found warmer weather after a month of sailing and came five-hundred leagues south to the prison isle and passed it, the stench of rotting souls filling the ship with despair.
“Don’t end up there, promise?” Sam asked his son.
“I swear it,” Stede said.
A week of sailing later, another five hundred knots south-southwest, Stede thought he saw something through his father’s spyglass. He passed it to Dean who thought he saw the same, and they both knocked on the door to the captain’s quarters. Calico Sam was sitting in a lime-green robe spun of natural cotton, decked with blue bells that tinkled as he ate luncheon.
Dean stared at the planks.
“Dad?” Stede asked.
Sam looked over.
“I think I see them.”
“Ho!” Sam roll-fell out from his large hammock, which nearly flipped him, and then he stomped both boots to the floor. Five booming steps he cleared the space in the quarters. “Show the way, boys.”
Stede pointed toward a cloud bank to the southeast. They followed that bank for a few hours, staying dead in front of the wind. Then—
“Found them?” Stede asked, getting up off a barrel he’d used as a chair.
Ahead, four ships, small as inkblots, poked out of the fog. Beyond them laid the black crags of Dynam.
“What are they?” Stede asked.
“Another sloop, that schooner and two brigantine, judging by their asses.” He slammed the spyglass against his palm heel so that it collapsed. “Those brigantine are gonna be a bitch. A big, nasty whoring son of a bitch, but we can get her done.”
“You sure?” Stede asked.
“Boy… I’m telling you—“
Stede put a hand on his father’s hair-covered arm. “Are you sure, dad?”
“Nope,” Sam whispered, “Never. But you was right about this trip. Even in the mouth of the cannon, I’ll weave their planks to ashes for what they did. You?”
“Do it or don’t, dammit.”
“Yeah, I’m with you.”
“Good,” Sam said. “Try out your brimstone tree this time. You struggle with wood.”
“I haven’t practiced on the ship. Plus I don’t know any higher ratios. Plus you said there’s a shortage. Where’m I going to get enough bri—“
“Shut it. We didn’t used to have sulfur mines once. Wove brimstone the old fashioned way. A pure source.”
“What’d you use?”
He pointed ahead to small storm clouds.
“Lightning?” Stede said. “You smoking quint?”
Sam grinned. “Dean?”
“Weave us some more rain.”
Soon Dean was calling up a sheet of sky and a spool of sea and weaving greater and greater storm clouds, pregnant with raindrops.
“Thought you said you couldn’t calm a storm,” Stede said.
“Can’t. Dean can’t neither. But we can both sure as shooting make them a whole hell of a lot worse.”
“Where you get the lightning?”
“Put enough water in air and the sky’s charges change. Where there’s storm, there’s lightning.”
“Won’t it hit the mainmast?”
“That’s the idea…” Sam started weaving another wind wall to their left and tethered it to the port side of the ship with lashes made of similar iron-wind fabric. On the other side, he called up a sheet of sea and made a sea wall — literally — and tethered it to the starboard with ropes that he had woven, ropes of salt water.
“Can we win?” Stede ask. “I mean it’s one on four.”
“One giant ship against four little guys,” Sam said. “How’s an oliphant do in a fight against housecats? How’s a gator fare with shrimp?”
“Gator fare’s pretty tasty,” Dean said. “Specially stuffed with shrimp.”
Sam laughed and slapped his back.
Stede said, “More like sending a dairy cow into a nest of asps. We’re just thirty able rated sailors, dad. I don’t care for cargo size — there’s near six-hundred crew between them, and we don’t have a damned cannon! Plus mom’s on board!”
“We’re fine,” Sam said. “We’re coming up on their asses. Two walls for armor. Took out one already. Two weavers can manage.” He was staring ahead at the four ships. “We’ll snag the sloop and the other three will continue on. They’re selfish, brigands are. They don’t work like a fleet. Once we got the small one down, we’ll keep picking them off one at a time until we sink or beach them all.”
Tension leaked out of Stede’s shoulders. “Oh okay. That make sense to you, Dean?”
“How we going to get mom out? Do we even know which one has her?”
“She’ll be with De Soto,” Sam said.
“How do you know?”
Sam said nothing.
They’d come right up behind the sloop and wounded her. Harp had grown their onboard lamps into a bonfire by weaving in fuel pulled from the wooden planks.
But they were less selfish that his father had guessed. Instead of leaving their sister ship behind, the other three had turned, and now cannon fire rained in at the Stormsong portside, starboard, and fore. Behind them floated the remains of the sloop, but the two brigantines on either site of the great Stormsong, and the raging winds and rain that Dean had woven, made for chaos onboard.
All the while, Benito de Soto’s schooner sailed circles around Sam’s sitting duck. Stede saw the name on the schooner’s side:
The walls of wind and water held up for a while, but six cannon to the left, six cannon to the right, the four swivel guns running circles around their front and their back and their front again was far too much for the wind walls to handle. Shots worked their way in and ripped holes through the ship.
Harp was working his same bonfire trick, growing the lamp on the portside brigantine into a blaze, when musket fire severed the place where blood and nerves and air met in his neck. He fell.
Meanwhile, Dean had dropped his drawers and pissed into a bucket. With fiery balls of lead flying all around his exposed manhood, he called up another sheet of rainy air and wove in a great reel of urine. He threw the amalgamation into the clouds over the starboard brigantine.
Acid rain began falling down on its men. They screamed. Their deck boiled. But below, their other crew went unharmed. One worked a cannon shot high over Sam’s defensive waterfall, where it struck the pole holding up the crossjack.
Splinters and canvas rained down on Dean and dropped him to his knees. The great beam followed and landed square on him, dropping him the rest of the way. Six bloody sims rolled out of his pocket onto the banking main deck.
Sam shouted a guttural yell and sang “Swevenfall’s wind weavers needed some bread—“ to pull up a sheet of wind, and then pointed the spyglass at the nearest cannon. “Come on,” he said. “Come on now. SHOOT ME!”
The cannon across from him fired and as soon as he saw the light, before he heard the sound of the shot, he had already sang a line Stede couldn’t hear over the fire, a line that needed neither hearing nor speaking to achieve it’s cause — to call an element into the precision of the weave. The line was for Sam and for Sam alone to speak true to the origin on the weave: “Vetoed the yield levers, grew wings from lead,” he had said either aloud or in his mind and the lead cannonball had unraveled midair and attached to the end of his spyglass stylet as thread would a needle. He turned to his son. “See that?” He nodded skyward, hand steady, unyielding.
“What?” But he saw the flashes high above.
“There’s your brimstone.”
“What are you doing?”
“Going for a walk.” He wove the lead into the wind, attached the amalgamation to his bootheels, which grew dark grey wings. When he stepped, he levitated into the air. Unbounded from gravity, he took off running into the air where, now with the high ground, he began calling up salt from the sea and weaving it into the wood.
When the blend hit the crew of the brigantine, they turned to pillars of salt.
Still Benito de Soto circled, swivel guns now firing at the flying captain.
And still men fell around Stede as he looked on.
Lightning cracked overhead, and with it a truer thunder to trump the mock thunder of the cannon’s cry. Stede pulled out his dagger — a stylet woven from the iron scales of an ore drake, a drake that (he’d once been told) had been woven of iron and blood and soil. He pointed the dagger at that raging heaven pregnant with the darkness of storms, crying out in labor pains, crying out as her water broke. If he missed, if he called too much or called too late, he was fried where he stood.
He knew this.
And still at the next flash, quick before he heard the crack, he sang the line of the story: “Nowthin saw their pain. Called the Brynstan’s name.”
The lightning bolt changed course and he reeled it in like a violent boarfish. Stede rolled it out before him, guiding it into a sheet with his stylet, stunned it had worked.
“Now what?” He asked the dead around him. The men who faces he had known, whose families he had loved.
No time for that.
Winded waves shoved them closer and closer toward those black Dynam crags.
“What can I use?” he asked the wind and heard the cracking of the burning ship, the canvas spanker above him that had long caught fire. He remembered the line. “‘Flamvuur,’ called the flame. Pit: it came to tame.”
A ribbon of red flame attached to the end of his needle and, mindful of the meter, he tenderly wove the flaming thread in and out of the fabric of lightning. He dropped to his knees to hid behind a barrel as he continued, for it would take the better part of five minutes, this weave. He chanted that stanza over and over again: Nowthin saw their pain, called the Brynstane name. ‘Flamvuur,’ called the flame. Pit: it came to tame. He trembled as he guided the weave, delicate now, delicately.
Never before had he handled such a huge quantity of such violent, volatile elements.
A cry of the crow sounded from the nest. He looked up and it wasn’t a crow in the crownest, but his father sinking. Sinking. Holding his side with the hand that held the spyglass. And the brass thing fell into the sea toward his crippled ship. Still his father sank and the boat with him.
Stede finished and the weave looked like a small ball, white and red. He didn’t know what it would do, so he pointed it at the portside brigantine and willed it to fly thataways. It floated, calm and unquivering through what felt like silence to Stede.
It floated through smokes and sparks, splinters and sea foam until it touched the mainmast of the other ship.
The fabric of reality tore.
It was as if he saw through the sky and through the wood mainmast into another world. A burning world.
Fire and brimstone rent the sky in a great column. The stanchion of flames and electric sulfur hit the deck and the entire ship exploded beside the sinking Stormsong.
Clouds dissipated and a clear starry sky shone through.
The Black Joke sent a paring shot Stede’s way and hit instead the second boatswain’s mate. It quit shooting and floated, unevenly, southwest. Stede could clearly see the folks on the deck and locked eyes with an older woman.
His father was sinking slow toward the back railing of the quarterdeck, falling toward the lamplight, suspended nearly upside down with the winged feet that held him aloft. Stede grabbed Sam’s lime-green coat and pulled hard against the levitation weave until his father’ could lay down on the deck. He put his knee on his dad’s chest and removed those grey-winged boots so he’d lay still.
“You called down fire.”
“Dad stay there. Water and bandages first.”
“ Like shit. Look at -- Hey! Look at me, Stede.”
“So damn proud. Damn fine weave. Damn fine.” He was gasping and air was leaking out somewhere in his chest, as if he was breathing through two holes instead of the usual one. “School of hard knots works every time. Said you didn’t have it—“ he coughed hard, hacking, cleared his throat. “Dammit.” He cleared it again. “Damn. Didn’t have it in you, but I knew it. Knew that I knew that I knew it. You’re captain now.” His father looked at the sinking ship. “Joke’s on you,” he chuckled and hacked. “Black joke, haha.”
“I saw mom.”
“I wanted to kill that woman, once.”
Grinds and crunches sounded portside as the Stormsong collided with the first crags. Each passing wave joined a larger crag to knock a deeper hole in her side. More water rushed in.
What men still lived abandoned ship, clutching whatever jetsam they could before they jumped, or leaping toward a promising piece of flotsam.
“We need to get off the ship, Dad.”
“Nah, I think I’ll stay.” There he lay gasping with pulse heavy like his neck carried cannons by its side… pulse like a hammerfell, them… pulse like a stomp… a trip… a step… a dripping faucet stilled. Them memory of his pulse, once strong, hung by Stede’s side from his shoulders and he added the weight of Sam’s world to his own, a great weight by his side like cannons in tow.
He remembered the treehouse his father had built on Markland of The Blazing World. Build for he and his mother and the rest. They had come in the night with torches. They had come in the night with loaded guns. And in Georgia, loaded guns seldom showed up on account of the brimstone shortage. They’d taken his mother — Benito de Soto had been infatuated with the woman ever since the world piracy conclave of The Brigand’s Crowd, where she’d danced in the opening ceremonies for all of them before starting off with the speech on the place of women within the piracy ring. His father had said De Soto burned with lust for his mother and had stolen her away and then, in their comfort, Sam had refused to explore and discover and search for his mother. Stede had asked to stay on the move to be safe, so Sam had sold the house and they’d been on the Stormsong ever since. But Stede had asked for that only in hopes of finding Benito de Soto. Who was now sailing away. As Stede’s home for the last few years sank around them.
He searched for the spyglass and remembered its seaward fall. He grabbed the captain’s hat and abandoned ship. From the relative safety of a floating captain’s desk, he saw two things:
The Stormsong reaching the end of her last stanza.
And not to far away, off the bow, that same older woman staring at him from the safety of the Black Joke.
It was his mother.
She jumped off the deck of that ship and swam towards Stede, who was swimming towards Dynam’s crags to get away from all of the wreckage in the high tide and fire.
They met around the shoreline, and the boy passed out.
In the morning they woke in a hall of skulls. The tower of the Dymans, the skulls facing out, ever watchful of those who would invade their little peninsula. His mother stood over him.
“I’m sorry for what you’ve lost, Stede.”
“And you,” he said.
“What have I lost?” she asked.
“Dad,” he said.
“Your father beat me, Stede. I loved Benito.”
“Don’t say that,” he said. “Don’t you say that.”
“I didn’t want to be found,” she said.
“So dad was hiding you?” Stede asked. “It was just a wild albatross hunt for something he never planned on finding? It wasn’t a real discovery?”
“Doesn’t matter what he wanted,” she said. “You found me.”
“You hid,” he said. “I would have rather found a treasure map to your dead body and had to work through clues to find your grave. Get away from me.”
The Dynams attended him with bone broth remedies, cures made from the remains of betrayers. Stede grew strong, stronger knowing his gift now. He fiddled with his captain’s tricorne. Maybe he’d build himself a new ship and rescue some slaves.
A young pirate-in-training shadows his dad as his father chases down the man who stole his cargo. Confronted with cannons, the young pirate fears their tiny fifteen-man crew will die quickly, but his father shows him a magic more powerful than all the cannon fire in the world. The only problem? It's not iron and cotton the other pirate stole... PRAISE for Lancelot Schaubert :: “Schaubert’s words have an immediacy, a potency, an intimacy that grab the reader by the collar and say ‘Listen, this is important!’ Probing the bones and gristle of humanity, his subjects challenge, but also offer insights into redemption if only we will stop and pay attention.” — Erika Robuck, National Bestselling Author of Hemingway’s Girl “Loved this story because Lance wrote about people who don't get written about enough and he did it with humor, compassion, and heart.” — Brian Slatterly, author of Lost Everything and editor of The New Haven Review “I’m such a fan of Lance Schaubert's work. His unique view of things and his life-wisdom enriches all he does. We're lucky to count him among our contributors.” — Therese Walsh, author of The Moon Sisters and Editorial Director of Writer Unboxed "Lancelot Schaubert exhibits his talents in many forms from poetic verse to lyrical prose to musical compositions, all the while infusing them with charisma, passion, and wit. A true creative, Schaubert is one to watch in the literary world." —Heather Webb, author of Rodin's Lover & Becoming Josephine “Lance Schaubert writes with conviction but without the cliché and bluster of the propaganda that is so common in this age of blogs and tweets. Here is a real practitioner of the craft who has the patience to pay attention. May his tribe increase!” — Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove, author of Common Prayer and The Awakening of Hope “Lancelot was the kind of student every writing teacher hopes to have in her class: attentive, thoughtful, a bit quirky, and innovative. Since his time in my classroom, he has continued to impress me. He ‘sees,’ and his essays, poetry, and fiction are full of details that enable his audience to see. Bravo, Lance.” — Jackina Stark, author of Things Worth Remembering and Tender Grace “[He writes] characters with distinctive personalities, multi-layered, and unpredictable. [They have] natural voices, succinct and unique to each character.” — The Missouri Scriptwriting Fellowship "Schaubert's narratives are emotionally stirring with both a vulnerable sensibility and rawness to them. They take you on a journey full of open wounds, intimate successes and personal delights. His words have a calmness, a natural ease but the meaning is always commanding and dynamic." — Natalie Gee, Brooklyn Film Festival