Ghara, or The Moonstone Isles, 1151
Island air hung heavy, hot and wet, like a dog's breath. Paeon Arrin Solomon Seward mopped his brow. Hairless though he was from the crown of his head to his toes, the heat clung to him. He could not imagine how uncomfortably it swathed his colleague, whose body was as hairy a bear's, and whose beard hung so full and matted on his face it looked as though a weasel had crawled up beneath his chin and died there. Seward smirked over his silent joke. It likely smelled that way as well, but the paeon suffered no stench in his famulus' presence, having long ago seared his nostrils to impuissance with the fumes of this potion and that. Perhaps, he mused, this was part of the reason they had forged such a successful partnership.
“Clayton Cole ain't got no soul,” the hunter croaked, “him hungered so him ate it.”
“What are you going on about?” Seward glanced up from his alembic to squint at Clayton, who leaned against the hull wall, polishing his pistol. Below the Skorpius' deck, bags and barrels of foodstuffs had been cleared away from a stern-end corner of the storeroom, that the paeon might have some sheltered space to tend his brews. There, he labored by lamplight while the crews of docked Bisolkian cogs went ashore. His sanctuary stayed serene by day, while the sailors plundered and patrolled, save for the creaking of the hull against the shallows—and, at present, the awkward tune of Clayton Cole's diddy.
“Some say it were the price o' fame.” The rugged man grinned, pausing in his own endeavor to meet his paeon's gaze. His two front teeth were missing, but his whiskers obscured much of the gap they left behind them. “So when him owed, him paid it.” He breathed a laugh and bent over his gun again. “Li'l song the moonies done wrote for me. Awright, innit?”
“Mm,” Seward hummed, “It has a hook.” He lowered a lens over his eye from the contraption belted about his head, and propped a tattered notebook up before him. With one side of his face grotesquely magnified, he gave the impression of some disfigured circus-fiend, like the freaks paraded about by the Chimeral Order in their traveling shows. Frauds and charlatans they were, without respect for the True Sciences pursued by paeons of the Leminscatus.
Clayton whistled his tune again through the hole between his teeth, then set his gun aside. “Get me dear sweet wife t'sing it to me every night.” At the sight of his associate's features so comically distorted, he snorted. Thereafter, he rose, and ambled over to a shelf laden with munition.
The paeon rolled his eyes. “You name her your 'wife,' my friend. She is an islander.” He skimmed his notes while he spoke. “What will you, bring her back with you to Skystead? Lock her in a tower and father children on her so she cannot flee?”
“She is me wife,” the bear-like figure grunted. He seemed insistent, resolute, so Seward offered no more chiding. Instead, he poured over the reagents spread out upon the table: tiny dishes packed with brightly-colored powders, arranged chromatically in rows. He selected a container filled with grey-green dust, screwed off its top and took a pinch. He removed the lid from his cucurbit, sprinkled his selection into the mixture churning within, and then sealed the apparatus once more. “Don't yeh say another thing like that,” came his famulus' warning. Clayton set darkly to folding up a paper powder packet for his gun. “She shan't think nothin' 'bout running when I show 'er home. I know tha'--and you don't know 'er none.”
“You're right,” Seward allowed. “I don't.” The substance before him had gone from brown to russet and was steaming like fresh city cessflow in the winter. Clayton sniffed, then wrinkled up his nose. His bootfalls thumped heavy on the floorboards as he crossed the room to load his pistol.
“Not near enough.”
“What,” Clayton ribbed, “Yer gonna stink the Moonies out their holes?”
“Something to that effect,” said the paeon, turning a page in his notebook.
“'Slike huntin' rabbits: wish they'd scurry out in th'open. Could chase 'em down proper.” Clayton licked his lips as he slid his ammunition packet into his flintlock. “I got a hunger, waitin'.”
A smile, equal parts wry and understanding, stretched the paeon's pinched feature, drawing pale skin taut over his bones. He winked his magnified eye and lifted the lid from his lamp to light a taper for his alembic fire. “You and every Bisolkian boy here looking for his glory. Recklessness, recklessness.” Seward clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth and bent low to start a flame at the base of his retort. “The downfall of so many with great promise.”
“Bah.” The famulus holstered his gun and folded his arms over his chest.
“Mind that hunger.” The fire caught, and Seward straightened. Another pinch of powder, this time black, turned the potion purple and made it hiss. Looking pleased, the paeon affixed his flask to the distilling contraption and lifted his lens from his face. “I hear tell of brawling in the camps, you know? Chaos comes of boredom.”
“Aye,” Clayton grunted. “Brawlin' all the time. Little boys playin' war.”
“Well,” the paeon smiled again. He took a dropper from a bowl of standing water and uncorked another mixture on his table. “Is that not what we have all come here to do?” He drew up a measure of his potion into the instrument, and dripped it into a sample plate of island soil. The trial spat and steamed, and slowly filled the ship with smoke. All the while, Seward did not flinch.
Coughing, waving at the air, Clayton Cole covered his mouth and hurried to push open a nearby porthole. “Improver fuck yeh. Godsdamned brewbastard,” he spluttered. The smoke billowed out over the bay and clouded the storeroom's roof. Clayton ducked his head, gasping for air. His eyes watered, and leathery skin in the window between his shaggy hair and beard turned the color of beets. The paeon watched calmly. “'Swhat you come here for, may-be.” He hacked into his fist as he slid down the shipwall to sit beneath the escaping fumes. “I come—” A wheeze interrupted him; he thumped his chest. “Gah. I come t'get paid. T'do some killin'. An' because Bendtsen 'ssigned me to yeh.” A third time, he cleared his throat. “I come t'do a job, not t'play a game.”
“That was diluted by three quarters,” the paeon boasted. “What do you think? Effective?” His own skin was still as pale as ever.
“Aye, I'd climb outta me hole to come an' strangle yeh if yeh put that t'me again. Might be I still will.” The famulus laid his hand over his gun's holster, and slumped back against the wall.
“Excellent. Fret not about marks, my friend. The Emperor is paying handsomely for Lemniscate services, Bendtsen assures me—and moreso still, perhaps, if his 'treasures of myth' are found.”
That lit a spark in Clayton's dark, watery eyes. “What treasures,” he demanded, one bushy brow raised high above his other.
“His Majesty Rhymer Baergate is an eccentric man. He likes war. It keeps Bisolk at work—and the Lemniscatus besides. So for his own 'hunger,' you and I may count ourselves fortunate. But more than war, he likes his fantasies. Exotic lands and riches dotted through the waters of Middlesea.” Knurled fingers interlaced in his lap, Seward shifted in his seat. The waves swelled and the hull creaked. “Lost powers of legend. Brak-Ynt's forgotten horde. Lor Cinaril's legacy.” He smirked conspiratorially, and nodded to his colleague following this cryptic statement, stoking Clayton's curiosity as though he were spinning a tale for a child.
If the famulus detected his derision, he had either grown accustomed to it through the months of their partnership, or was intrigued beyond caring. The allure of treasures overwhelmed his pride, and he was too subdued besides by Seward's acidsmoke to anger. “Thought he wanted these isles fer the trade: ports n' metals. Where'd yeh hear all this?”
“Well, that is part of it, to be sure. The legends are hardly a secret. Men talk when bored, when disillusioned—even appointed officials.” The paeon untangled his fingers, took up his dish of ruined soil, which had gone gummy and black as pitch, and rose from his seat. Carefully, he edged around the table bearing his alembic to the window opposite his companion. Arrin Solomon Seward was built like a strawman, rawboned, with poles for legs about which his boots crumpled down to his ankles. His paeon's tunic hung about his frame like folds of loose skin, draping down over his belt. “Especially appointed officials.” He stuck a stick-like limb through the porthole to dump the bywaste of his experiment into the sea. It stuck fast to the plate, so he shook it, until at last it loosened and fell into the water. “Bendtsen keeps friends aplenty in Baergate's chamber since the Vornish campaigns, when I served under him directly. It is always advantageous to maintain associations with those of status.” He turned from the porthole with his dish. Black ooze still smeared its surface. He set it down upon the table and pulled a rag from his pocket to wipe his hands. “Some sources claim the Emperor's gone mad.”
Clayton grunted. “Everybody's mad now-days. So there's treasure or ain't there?”
To that, the paeon chuckled. “Everybody's mad, but some madmen have thrones to sit upon.” He turned his chair around and sat backwards, facing Clayton, with his legs draped over either side. “His generals say he hears The Stars calling to him, the voices of Gods whispering where he might find ancient powers hid in this locale or that.” Seward folded his hands on the chair's back, and set his chin atop them. “Lord-Admiral Larsen confided in me when I delivered his sailors remedy for the Lice Fever that the Emperor speaks of a place shown to him in dreams where the stars fall upon the jungle like rain, where a fortress sits high atop a fiery mountain with a golden city in its bowels, with which he could buy the world.”
“Piss on that.” The famulus scowled. “I had dreams about a golden cunt. Don't mean I'll be getting one.”
“You told me only yesterday that your wife's was the sweetest treasure. Have you had a change of heart?” Seward laughed. “Or perhaps you exaggerate a bit, my friend, mm?”
“Oh, aye. It is,” Clayton insisted. “Gold. But it ain't gold, gold.”
“Only gilded then?” The paeon rose again, turned his chair around and sat back before his table, where he peered into his slowly filling flask. Lips pursed, he set about capping reagent containers, wiping down his dropper and measuring utensils, and replacing each instrument and powder in its case. When all was set in order but one final container full of tiny crystals, he counted three and deposited them into the slowly distilling liquid. His potion turned as blue as ocean waves as they dissolved, then began to thicken. “What a shame. I could use a healthy measure of gold for brewing. The rich are so intent on hoarding it.”
“Oh, Improver fuck yer potions—an' yeh watch yer words about my wife.” Still seated on the floor, Clayton coughed and wheezed into his fist. He hocked up a glob of mucus, and spit it on the floor between his boots, then held up a meaty hand to his associate. “Help me up, will yeh, yeh great blasphemous bastard. Yeh've ruined me fer today, an' I had half a mind t'go huntin', too.”
“Blasphemous? It is not I who calls upon The Improver to pleasure herself with my brews,” Seward scolded. But he crossed the deck and took Clayton's hand in his own just the same. With surprising strength, he hoisted the bulky hunter to his feet. Clayton swept matted hair from his eyes; a few red boils bloomed on his cheeks. “I don't imagine that would serve the Goddess well,” the paeon said, studying those smoke-inflicted wounds.
“Waxin' holier-than-me while yer boilin' that sick stew.” Clayton rolled his eyes, but a smirk lingered on his lips. Neither he nor the paeon cared anything for gods. Gold was God, and fame his lover-Goddess.
“Mm-hm. Men pay well for that 'sick stew,'” Seward said, lifting a finger to poke at Clayton's boils. The hunter slapped his hand away.
“Aye, well. Blister Her Holy Womb, fer all I care.”
“Some things will certainly be blistered.”
“Fuck them Moonies, hidin' in holes, craven like hares. Damn me if they don't deserve it—though I rather kill a man by hand, meself.”
“All of them? Yourself? Why, what a feat that would be.” The paeon returned to his table, where he took up his notebook, flipped a page, and went searching beneath scattered documents and pouches for his copper-tipped quill. “And you are 'damned' already, I seem to recall,” he mused. “'Clayton Cole ain't got no soul.' Perhaps they'll make a song for me as well.”
A cackle burst from Clayton's smoke-sore throat, and ended in a fit of coughing. “Oh, that'll be a good one, eh,” he said as he cleared his throat. Another glob of spit met the floor with a splat. “Ol' Doc Arrin left the Isle barren, burned all the rabbit men.”
It was Seward's turn to laugh. “It's a start, my friend.”
“So long as they get the brunt o' yer burnin'. My lungs has had enough.”
“It was diluted. You will recover quickly. Drink some wine. Take some bread—but be quick about it. You said you had a mind to hunt.”
“What, now yeh'll want me cookin' yeh supper or some shite.”
“No,” said Seward, locating his pen. He drew an inkwell out from a table drawer to dip it in. “I will need more of those bush peppers before I call this done.” He bent over the table to scrawl some notes in his book. “The purple sort, ripe as can be found. A kenning at least.”
“Well, that's a load, ain't it.”
“Fortunate you are just as skilled at hunting reagents as you are men or game. That is, after all, the job for which you're being paid,” the paeon answered, straightening.
“Right. As yeh will.” Clayton plodded across the storeroom to another table, stretched over it and pulled a linen sack from the shelf behind. “Might have brought a hound instead of me, if all yeh needed was a nose fer herbs and beetles.” His blisters left him slightly sour, and were the reason for his grumbling, though he knew the complaint held no truth.
“I brought you for your charming wit,” Seward said. “I should be hard pressed to find a hound who entertained me half as well as you do. Try to be back by sunset with them, will you. The Lord-Admiral appreciates promptness.”
“Aye. Like all Biskies: won't wait fer nothin'.” The famulus shouldered his sack, sheathed the sharpened dagger lying on the table, and set off down the passage formed by grain shelves and wine kegs. Seward watched him as he went. He sat in silence, listening to Clayton's bootfalls on the stairs and overdeck, and down the ramp onto the pier. That structure had been erected quickly, when Seward first docked with the Bisolkian navy nearly three years prior. He had brewed the cure-paint for the trunks of wide old sundri trees himself, that the fleet might more easily moor and come ashore.
Since then, he had sailed between the Moonstone Isles and the Lemniscatus of Skystead several times, each trip returning with new orders, new reagents, and new discoveries—and this latest time with a new famulus: an assistant granted only to senior paeons by Lemniscate decree. Clayton Cole had been Vays Bendtsen's favorite hunter. He was grateful for that allowance, he decided, as he bent again to inspect the alembic. Cole had come more accustomed to prowling city streets and rocky shores than jungle undergrowth, more acquainted with the duty of dispelling Bendtsen's opposition than that of collecting exotic herbs for his paeon's potions, but for all his boorishness, he had learned quickly enough. To have a bodyguard, besides, was wise when one went walking on the Isle. Moonies, as the Bisolkian troops had come to call the natives, hid as well as monkeys in the trees, and struck like snakes from their jungle tunnels. They fought from stealth, with darts and arrows coated in poisons the like of which even Seward had never encountered before the war. Cole seemed to smell them where they lurked, quite like the hounds to which he likened himself.
When the paeon peered out of the starboard porthole, and saw his assistant set foot on the sand, he turned portward toward a cabinet in the shadows. A lock kept it sealed. From his pocket, he drew the key that never left his person. It slid into its slot, and turned with a click. When the doors swung open, Seward squatted for the lowest shelf. He wiped the sweat-shine from his hairless brow, and adjusted his magnifying contraption, then began to pick through the rows of bottles lined up before him. Dozens there were, wrapped in leaves and leathers to insulate them on the stormy seas. He searched until he found a vial cold to the touch. Its wrappings came away as he lifted it to gaze adoringly at the nacre-sheen substance within. “Sweet nectar,” he sighed, prying loose its cork. In a single gulp, he swallowed it all.
The potion went down like omani sapwine, but burned like a blizzard in his chest. He clenched his teeth and hissed as as he replaced the empty vial. Lightning struck inside his mind. As he stood to lock his stores, he stumbled, and leaned against the table to steady himself. Already, glorious inspiration began to burgeon deep within him. Ideas crashed over him like waves, keeping rhythm with the swaying of the ship. “Yes,” he hissed and bit his lip.
When the cabinet was secured, he pocketed his key, and followed Clayton's footsteps through the shelves. At the base of the stairs, he turned around to pace back sternward, clasping his hands behind him. Up and back walked for hours, murmuring to himself, until his boot bit into a bag of grain. Old sackcloth, brittle and poorly sewn, split open, and its contents poured over the floorboards. When the paeon knelt beside it, he could see that it had soured. The handful he gathered turned to dust in his palms, and ran through his fingers like sand. The whole bag had gone the color of his acidsmoke.
For a long time, Arrin Solomon Seward sat on the storeroom floor of the Skorpius and laughed.