Bone Jack

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Reading the Lessons of Master Senja Does not Mean Learning the Lessons of Master Senja

Captain Younes kept an eye out for instances of drama, when he could manage it. It made his job easier if people remembered him in dramatic ways. Standing near the helm in the stern of the ship, his wide hat and long coat dripping with rain, he watched the thick weather. The Riot creaked under him in the lively way he’d grown so comfortable feeling. Then, imperceptible except to those waiting for it, the nose of the ship dipped. His lips flicked, not a smile but the footnote to one.

Some seconds later, he glanced left. A feather-touch of warmer wind brushed his cheek. Hardly warmer and hardly long enough to notice it, but he noticed. He peered in the direction he’d felt it. To a careful mind, the grey grew some little bit paler.

“My compliments,” he said aloud to Tyro. “To Mr. Dantzari, and please have him summoned on deck to accompany me.”

“Aye, sir,” Tyro said, disappearing through a hatch belowdecks.

Captain Younes strode up the ship to stand in the bowsprit. Ben sat there, squinting into the rain ahead. Someone or other sat with him.

“Sir Benedict,” Captain Younes said, touching the brim of his cap in salute. He stared into the rain. The air warmed, and if it could be measured in lengths it would have warmed by microns. Younes could feel it, and he grew impatient.

“Damn it, where is that squirrel?” Captain Younes said. He turned around to look for Tyro. “I gave orders to bring him here.”

Captain Younes stopped talking. Itzal resolved out of the background. He’d been sitting with Ben. They were playing dominos. Itzal waved with two fingers.

“I can’t find the squirrel, skipper,” Tyro said, coming forward from somewhere. “Nothing can keep that lad in tethers, no better than snakes and lizards. Oh, look here, skipper, here he is.”

“Yes,” Captain Younes said. “Thank you, Mr. Tyro.”

“Right,” Tyro said. “I’ll be over here, then, eh?”

Less cheery than before, Captain Younes turned back out to the prairie. He could accept the results, even if the means didn’t please him.

“This sea,” he said, “has been called the flattest place on this world. Over the time it has been here, the roots of the razor grass cause the earth to settle like liquid as featureless as liquid.” The wind kicked up at that moment. Captain Younes smiled to feel the wind-blown rain thin to a spray. “No sea is without its sinkholes. And those that have the knowledge to understand them have the knowledge to exploit them.” Captain Younes said.

As he did, the weather cooperated, which pleased him. The rain ceased. The clouds whitened. The greyness that had filled the world any further out than a couple miles paled to a whiteness swiftly thinning to clarity. The strengthening wind gusted the thickest clouds away, leaving the sky overhead white-grey and the light diffuse. The sun flickered like an ailing lamp behind silks, a white spot behind the clouds. Mists still hung in tendrils about the grasses.

The horizon felt peculiar. As long as they’d been in the Razorgrass Sea. It had been a steady thing, always a featureless line at a constant height in every direction.

Now, it was too high. The sensation was eerie, like the world curved the wrong way. What was occurring was a dip in the ground, about circular, and a hundred miles across. It dipped so gradually that it hardly effected the course of ships, but it dipped for such a long time that, at the center, the elevation was more than a hundred yards lower than the edges.

In the middle of the peculiar dip in the Razorgrass Sea, two spires rose from the lingering mists. They would not have been visible on a clear day from the usual elevation of the Razorgrass Sea. In effect, whoever had built them had hidden what they had built.

“Behold,” Captain Younes said. He was one of those sorts who could say things like “behold” and it was all right. “Behold,” he said. “Here you see the much disputed sunken city. Legendary ruins seen by only those few that know the way.”

He had more to say, but left a bit of pause for effect. He hadn’t expected anything in the silence except a gust or two of wind with a suggestion, at least, of excitable expectation. Someone else nearby had a different idea.

“Oh, I rather wish you wouldn’t,” said someone who Captain Younes didn’t at first think would be Itzal. Snapping around to look, Captain Younes found Itzal looking back. Itzal’s face expressed a variety of things. He had the slightly irritated dizzy look of anyone who’d played Ben Mouse at any game for more than an hour. He also had the bluish-lipped paleness that went with sitting for hours in a slight rain—no matter how stoical, one would always get cold. More than anything, Itzal seemed by his mild frown to want to show that he did not find Captain Younes amusing right now.

“Ha,” Ben said. “Double.” He clicked a tile into place.

“I know where we’re going,” Itzal said. “I’ve been wishing not to go there for hours. I’m sorry to interrupt, but I haven’t got much interest in even pretending to foster some kind of excitement about entering the territory of the Tsar of the Dry Sea.”

Itzal slapped a tile into place in his game with Ben. It was the only sound in the few minutes of silence. Everyone nearby seemed surprised, and only Ben seemed to like it.

Captain Younes stared at Ben, presuming the slandersmith had told Itzal their destination. “I never told him,” Ben said, guessing what Captain Younes was thinking.

“Nor did you,” Itzal said to Captain Younes. “You asked about the weather to Gurinhiru, but that’s not a real place. It’s a magical sinking island from a fairy tale. None of your crew did either. No one had to. We’re going to Khuurai Dalain, where Galzuu Khan holds court. The Khan who some call mad, and some call blessed, and none cross twice. Galzuu Khan who claims to be inheritor of an ancient lineage that ought to rule the entire Great Basin. Galzuu Khan with his dubious reputation as one of these types that’s already got legend sloughing off of him like so much blood-soaked spider webbing. I know where we are, and I know who rules here.”

Another quiet spell followed his speech. Itzal consulted the dominos between himself and Ben.

“He’s not all bad,” Captain Younes found himself saying. Then, frowning, he shook his head like waking himself from dreaming. “You rather ruin dramatic moments, Mr. Dantzari,” he said.

“Tell me all about it in the afterlife,” he said.

Probably, all of Itzal’s reading of legend and modern novels colored his opinion of Galzuu Khan, who entered into stories usually as a whispered threat. If you wanted to get people off your back, and you had the right relatives, all you had to do was threaten that you had an uncle in Galzuu Khan’s good graces and people would get off your back. They knew that you were probably full of manure, but always calculated that it was safer not to take the risk.

That was the stories. And those hadn’t made Itzal as nervous as the histories. A book called The Peoples of the Prairie, he had first read about Galzuu Khan’s claim to be the one true king of all Khans. Khan above Khans. The Khan. Itzal only started learning about Galzuu Khan’s methods of gaining control over the other Khan’s in a book called Warlords in Peacetime: The Warmonger’s Shop Never Closes. It had been about maintaining power without enemies to unify against, and Itzal hadn’t liked any of it.

Perhaps the crew of the Riot had read the book, though probably they had more of the legends. Either way, the emotional climate on the ship tended to rattle somewhat. In spite of meeting no obstacles during the long, slow descent toward Khuurai Dalain, Itzal felt on edge. And so, it seemed, did the crew, in spite of Ben’s frequent assurances.

“Galzuu Khan and I have been on good terms these past years,” he said, watching the sailors run up his standard—a rather astonishingly intimidating looking mouse over crossed scimitars. He had brought it with him so it could fly out under the flag of the Riot—a dancing skeleton all on fire. “I did him a good turn,” Ben went on. “He’ll send out a guard of honor when he sees my standard. You’ll see.”

With that, Ben went below decks.

“Any part of you feeling any part of that smells of old halibut?” Tyro asked Itzal.

“I’m too distracted by the smell of pickled herring to notice the smell of halibut,” Itzal said.

They wouldn’t have long to wonder about it. If anyone in Khuurai Dalain had a halfway decent telescope, they’d have had a clear view of the Riot since the ship had reached the lip of the wide hollow. More than likely, they had a better than halfway decent telescope, and Itzal considered breaking the Bone Jack strong suggestion against gambling to bet that a contingency of vessels had already set out from Khuurai Dalain to greet them. They had only to wait to discover what intentions they’d have.

The Riot kept up a good clip, helped just a breath by the shallow incline of the ground.

Itzal spent the wait in the fighting top. He couldn’t stick it out on the deck where everyone vibrated with agitation. In the fighting top he could be a distance away from the worst of it.

He watched the spires come closer. They at first looked like they must be fairly tall. They’d grown a great deal and showed no signs of slowing. They must be spectacular things to behold from the bottoms of them.

“How are your eyes, squirrel?” asked Seabird, the sailor with the seabird tattoo. Seabird was on lookout.

“Not as good as my hands,” Itzal said. That made Seabird laugh.

“Can I use that one? Probably good on the lassies, d’you think?”

Itzal blushed. He hadn’t thought of that.

Still chuckling, but noticing Itzal’s discomfort and so dropping the issue, Seabird went on. “I just want to know if you see the sails a’coming.”

“Which way?”

“We often say ‘where away’ when sailing.”

“Why’s that?”

“I never asked,” Seabird said. “The sails are a’coming right up our gullet.” Seabird gestured straight ahead with his black-stubble chin. “Can you see ’em?”

“I can’t,” Itzal said.

Seabird nodded. “Nor did I think you could. They puts me up here for me eyes, see. Some o’ the best eyes in the Great Basin, and you’ll find I’m far from prevaricating with that one.”

“I well believe it, sir,” Itzal said.

“Well, thing about having eyes like mine is you never knows how long to give it between when you sees the sail, like, and when you shouts out that you’ve seen it, if you see what it is I’m a’wrestling with.”

“You mean to say if you shout out a warning too soon then the ship might beat to quarters too soon and, I don’t know, grow bored and unruly before any action’s to be had, at which point discipline’s already fallen apart,” Itzal said. “Whereas if you leave it too long, there won’t be time to prepare properly.”

“You’ve got the measure of it,” Seabird said, and he smiled the smile of a man who had been meeting with trouble when trying to communicate the same. “Then there’s the other issue, see, that me eyes is good, but they ain’t always so good that I can see the sort of sail that’s coming absolutely perfect, not at this distance. These oncoming ones, as an example. I can see that the ships is tall ones, but I cannot make out what colors they fly. D’you see what I come up against here?”

“I do indeed, sir,” Itzal said. “It may be that they’re not at all the sort of ship for which you’d need to beat to quarters.”

“Mind, rare’s the time we don’t beat to quarters if we sights a sail.”

“Few friends on the prairies?” Itzal asked.

“Let’s just put it that we’ve more business competitors than we have allies and leave it tidy like that.”

“As you say, sir,” Itzal said.

“Leaving all that aside,” Seabird said. “We run a basic guarantee in this here stretch of land that whatever sails we see deserve at least caution.”

“You don’t trust Ben’s supposed friendship with Galzuu Khan?” Itzal said, privately advocating the doubt.

“I am sure that they have a right old time over drinks at whatever sort of soiree where they choose to hobnob. I shall never gauge a man in his choice of his personal friends,” Seabird said. “But I have never myself met the man. And I do believe I’ve delayed long enough. Can you see the sails now?”

“Do you know, sir, I do believe I can see something white over there. Perhaps.”

“That shall serve. You may find it more comfortable to put your fingers into your ears.”

“Thank you, sir,” Itzal said. He blocked his ears. Even doing so, it barely kept Seabird’s bellow from shaking in Itzal’s skull. Seabird warned that he’d seen a sail away forward. At his tone, Tyro below bellowed to beat to quarters.

It was a remarkable sight. The crew flurried around below. Hatches were battened down and canvas whipped off the ranks of ballistae protruding off both rails. They weren’t like ancient ballistae—not merely enormous crossbows. They were compacted and, using clever contrivances of levers and gears and pulleys, they had greater firepower than any ballista of a classical age ever had.

The prairie ships had once used cannon. After the first few prairie fires everyone agreed that some technology other than sparks-spewing explosives might do wonders for everybody’s health. Now most ships had ballistae and less firearms.

The crew prepared the ballistae. Ropes coiled away almost swift enough that Itzal might have thought they did so of their own volition. Daily chores disappeared like they never were. The Riot behaved like the crowd-of-men-on-a-ship version of a bowstring drawn too tight that had finally snapped.

Captain Younes ordered more sail, wishing to bring the encounter sooner. The great central wheel’s whirring rose to a pitch like a waterfall. The Riot’s speed and vibration shuddered higher under Itzal.

“What can I do?” Itzal asked Seabird.

“Keep out of the way, squirrel,” Seabird said from behind his cheery grin. “We’re starting our workday. Rest easy in the hands of professionals.”

“Thank you,” Itzal said. “I suppose I shall.”

Seabird timed his announcement of the sails fairly well, or would have on a more slovenly ship. Captain Younes, though, had the Riot well-tuned. Long before the other ships came even close to reckoning striking distance, a quiet fell again on the Riot, if not strictly a calm. The quiet vibrated, but in a different way than before the sails had been sighted. This vibrating quiet waited, ready to pounce.

Itzal climbed down to the deck. Captain Younes stood in the bowsprit, smoking a cigarette. The sails grew larger by the minute, and they only seemed to occupy a small part of his attention. He looked in every way a bored gentleman who couldn’t think how to spend the next few minutes while he waited for teatime.

Leaning on the railing, Itzal watched the sails too. It felt peculiar, this waiting.

“What’s your instinct?” Itzal asked. “About what Ben says about his relationship with Galzuu Khan.”

“I do not listen to my instincts,” Captain Younes said.

“Oh? Aren’t they useful in taking care of a ship like this?”

“Not as useful as clear thought,” Captain Younes said.

“I see,” Itzal said. He could understand that. “What do you conclude after all this clear thinking, in that case?”

“Do you really need to talk all the time?” Captain Younes said, turning his gaze on Itzal. Continuing the metaphor of the lazy gentleman, the look in the skipper’s face was the sort of look they’d give someone asking for money that both parties knew was destined for the horse races.

“No, not really, as we’re on the subject,” Itzal said. He turned to look at the ship. He’d never seen the crew so motionless. They seemed all to know their places, and they occupied them, and they waited. “All preparations have been made.”

“Yes,” Captain Younes said.

“And we can do nothing now but wait,” Itzal said.

“As his treatment of foot soldiers measures the worth of a war chief, what he does in idleness measures the man of action,” Captain Younes said. It made Itzal smile.

“That’s one of the few books I like,” Itzal said.

“You’ve read your Kenja?” Captain Younes said. “Good. Then you’ll understand when I ask you to kindly sew your lips shut and do not claw me in my use of my idle moment.”

“Doesn’t the next stanza say something about finding peace in the moment or something?” Itzal said.

“I have read Kenja,” Captain Younes said, taking a drag at his cigarette. “I have not mastered his lessons.”

“Right,” Itzal said.

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