Losing Heart Among the Tall

By A.M. Dellamonica

A.M. Dellamonica is at it again! The thrilling adventures of Gale Feliachild and Captain Parrish continue in a series of prequel stories that offers to take us deeper into the fascinating world of Stormwrack.

When the crew of the Nightjar find a merman of the fleet wounded and stranded in the ocean, Gale’s sister, Beatrice, is forced to take a back seat while Gale and Parrish work to find out who would assault a member of the nation of Tallon’s intelligence service. They soon discover a plot that could shake the foundations of the fleet and Beatrice might be the key to preventing a catastrophic disaster.

Nightjar was four leagues out from the nearest land when one of her riggers spotted the merman. A weakly thrashing glimmer of silver scale on the choppy, sunlit sea, he had flaxen hair, blue glazed eyes, and a harpoon through his chest. When they brought him aboard, he was trying to swim west sou’west, toward Tallon.

A biggish octopus slid off him as they raised the body, dangling by one tentacle before dropping into the water and vanishing into a petulant, inky swirl.

“Bring stanchleaf,” Royl ordered quietly. There was no saving the merman, but they might hold death away long enough to haul him home to report in. But the fellow spared ’em all the effort. Gasping red foam, he clutched at Royl’s jacket.

“Yacoura!” he gasped. Then a shudder ran from his head to the tip of his fanning tail, the last thrill of life going out of him.

Damn and thunder too. “Belay the stanchleaf,” he said. “Cover the body and get him below. Try not to wake our guest, and get me Parrish.”

“The lady’s up, Kir,” a crewman said.

It was true: Beatrice was yawping at the huge corpse, clutching her baby daughter to her chest.

Royl got to his feet, brushing fish off his hands, and wondering if she would start to shriek. He had known the woman for thirty years—she was his employer’s sister—and she had the temperament of an overheated kettle.

“What did he say to you?” she demanded as Royl approached. The baby was sleeping; she kept her voice low, but it cut like a garrote.

“Yacoura,” he said. “It’s the Tallon word for heart; he’s a Tallman, sure.” And probably a spy, he didn’t add.

“Murdered. This is the sort of thing I’ve been talking about,” she said. “This reckless plan of yours—”

Her sister, Gale, turned up before she could get to full steam. She had the first mate in tow.

Beatrice gave Parrish a glower that he missed, possibly by design, as he bent over the body. “He’s dehydrated,” he said. “He’s swum a long way, with no fresh water.”

“Ain’t drying out kilt him,” Royl said.

“No.” He went through the shells on the belt at the merman’s hips, finding and setting aside a flute and a wet-ember, a clam-cracking knife and a sewn kerchief identifying the corpse as Bertran of the Tall, ranked Special Seaman.

“That all he’s got?”

“Seems that way.” Parrish examined the shaft of the harpoon, then rolled the merman so he could look at its point. “Handmade, I think. Nothing distinct about the craftsmanship. He was shot some distance from here, due north of this position.”

Beatrice scoffed. “You can’t tell that from looking at him.”

“No, Kir,” Parrish agreed. “But the currents to the south are warm and the hammerhead sharks are migrating. Tens of thousands of them. A bleeding man couldn’t have safely navigated—”

“How far might he have come?” Gale interrupted.

“I’ll have a look at the charts,” he said. He bowed slightly, the formality all for their guest, and vanished below.

Her arms being full of baby, Beatrice nudged Gale with a foot. “This is going to be trouble.”

“Everything’s trouble, ’Trice. Question is, how much?”

“That identification says Special Seaman, doesn’t it? Does that mean anything to you, Captain Sloot?”

“It means Tallon Intelligence,” he answered.

“Maybe it’s trouble, but at least it’s convenient.” Gale was trying not to smile: Beatrice was irked enough. “Since we were headed to the island anyway.”

This was meant to be Royl’s last cruise; he was turning the ship over to Parrish and retiring on Tallon. The three of them had been planning for the handover for more than a year.

Beatrice had invited herself along on his homeward voyage. She was iron-set against Royl quitting, or against Parrish himself, perhaps. She had been clanging away ever since she came aboard: You can’t leave Nightjar in the hands of a pretty boy; Parrish is too young to manage the crew; Gale needs watching, her life’s too dangerous to send her sailing with a pup.

In three weeks a-sea, she’d managed to annoy the hell out of her sister and reheat a guilt Royl had thought he’d cooled with reason.

If she’d made Parrish doubt himself, there was no sign of it. The boy put on a shell when challenged, like a hermit crab; he withdrew into perfect, apparently affable courtesy. Every time Beatrice had turned that furious gaze on Parrish, you could almost hear the clink as it bounced off.

If she weren’t so determined to have her way, Royl might have dredged up a wisp of sympathy for her. There was nothing wrong with the woman’s mind, far as he could tell, but being so high-strung made people, especially her sister, dismissive. Beatrice and Gale came from a nation that looked unfavorably on histrionics. The women of Verdanii were expected to be forbidding, resolute—leaders, fighters, great thinkers, and above all, calm.

Before Beatrice had arrived, Royl had been imagining this last voyage would go by all too fast. He’d been bracing for the sweet pain of farewell, the inevitable drift of adjusting to life ashore. Instead it had been long arguments, emotional blackmail, the baby crying for hours on end.

It was almost a relief to be sailing into port with a harpooned intelligence officer.

Almost, he thought, looking at the slain man. Four crewmen trotted to, bearing a ten-foot length of sail. Royl bent, helping them wrestle the merman onto it, all of them struggling with the slippery weight of his tail. A grim job, sure.

“Leave the harpoon where it is,” he ordered. “His people will want to examine him.”

They raised the canvas, lifting him as if in a hammock, carrying the corpse off below and leaving Royl, Gale, and her sister standing around the empty space where it had been. The ocean slapped at the ship’s hull, trying to fill the silence between them.

Finally Royl turned back to Ginny, the helmswoman: “Resume for Tallon,” he ordered, and stalked off after Parrish and his charts. He left the sisters to fight, or not, over why this obviously meant he had to stay aboard Nightjar until his legs wouldn’t hold him and his mind no longer ran ahead of the wind.

Dawn brought them to the deepwater harbor at the edge of the Tallon Shipyards.

Home. Royl could make out the dry docks, the riggers, the sailmakers’ quarter. Standing well back from the water was an ugly brick plug of a building where the spellscribes worked, enchanting unbreakable masts, wheels that could hold a course without a navigator for a time, and figureheads that called out in the fog or the dark whenever a vessel came within sight of their carved, painted eyes.

The Yards were the one great sight of his birth island, a long stretch of busy industry as far as the eye could see, men and women assembling the bones of cutters like the one he’d been sailing these past thirty years. The ships of the Tall were famous. Many a great ship of the Fleet was Tallmade—Constitution, the Cardeshi rep ship and seat of the government, came from the Yards, and so did the fastest ship on the Nine Seas, Courser. The poor doomed frigate Gulietta was a Tall’s ship, as was the craft that sank her, the stolen pirateer Bleedlove.

Tallon’s greatest pride and joy, though, was Temperance.

Temperance. The Yard’s terrible favorite child, a pirate-sinker, a shark clad in stonewood and scripped with the spell that broke the Piracy’s back a century earlier. Temperance’s captain needed only fix his mind on a ship and speak her name. With that, the enemy split and sank.

Viewed objectively, Tallon was a nation of no great distinction, but Temperance was the flagship of the Fleet: It was a ship of the Tall that led the navy into battle.

Sloot had been home maybe ten times in thirty years. Twice it was to bury his parents; once it was to defend himself against a paternity charge, a claim that the night of his mother’s funeral he’d gone carousing and ended up fathering twins. The other visits were all refits for Nightjar: a new mainmast, ten years ago, a rudder just eighteen months earlier.

Home looked different now he meant to stay. The old shipyards made his chest swell with warm, fluid emotion, grief and expectation both.

The Yards had shrunk over the past two lifetimes, since the advent of peace. But there was life in them yet. Their crews repaired old hulks and made pleasure craft, made housing for Fleet personnel, floating farms, scout ships and infirmary ships. And even now, some nations commissioned warships. Just in case.

One such project was tied up in pride of place, a long frigate, almost completed, with an inky, mussel-shell exterior and living sails of batwing. The design was one favored by pirates in the days before the Fleet. Royl would have bet it was a commission from one of the islands that had been a haven to such raiders in the past.

“Bandits in port,” Gale murmured, handing him a cup of hot coffee. “And a dead spy.”

“Aww, the old pirates got their teeth pulled for ’em eighty years ago.” He said it without conviction. “Fleet put ’em down good enough.”

Temperance did,” she said.

“Hmmm.”

“I don’t see your girlfriend, Royl.”

“Matille? She will’ve seen us signaling for harbor patrol and gone home, I imagine. She knows it’ll mean a delay.”

Gale nodded. “Speaking of the patrol, there they are.”

A detachment of harbor police was waiting as they tied up. The head of the detachment was a Tallman of about thirty, short, with blue-black hair and the well-built chest and shoulders of a man who spent hours each day swimming in the sea. He came aboard at their invitation, snapped a salute, and let his eye take in Royl’s civilian crew. No comment, of course.

“Major Gasparin,” the officer introduced himself.

Royl danced through the salutes and protocols as fast as was polite, presenting Gale, Parrish, and Beatrice before taking the major below and showing him the body. It was in the cold room, but merfolk always went off spectacularly. The smell of rotten fish was eye-watering.

Gasparin didn’t flinch. “Have you a trunk that would hold a body? I’d like to get him off the ship quietly.”

“He’s too large,” Parrish objected.

“This will help,” Gasparin said. He produced a fluted blue fin, covered in glowing spellscrip, and put a match to it. As the spell that had made Bertran into a merman burned, his body reverted, shrinking to normal size, growing pale legs. “There. Even a barrel will do now.”

“Won’t be dignified,” Royl said.

“He would understand.”

They had old wood crates that would hold the corpse, but . . . “Garland, have someone empty my blue steamer.”

“Aye, Captain.” The boy disappeared aft.

“How many people know about this?” Gasparin asked, voice low.

“That he died? Everyone aboard Nightjar. That his dying word was ‘Yacoura?’ Just us four.”

“The heart,” Gasparin said. “Your crew will have to be quarantined. No shore leave. As for you four . . .” He chewed his lip.

“If you want to quarantine the Lady Beatrice, fine, but take Gale Feliachild to speak to your superiors,” Sloot said. “I’m home to stay, and if the Furies have made off with the heart of the Tall, you’ll want Gale’s help. The security of Temperance is Fleet business as much as it is local. “

Gasparin put up a hand, as if pained, but he didn’t argue—not with Royl’s logic, and not with his suggestion that the most important inscription in the making of the Cessation of Hostilities had been pilfered.

Royl’s hometown was planted in a neat grid around the Yards and, far as he could see, it hadn’t hardly changed. The houses were little walk-up boxes, neat as cadets and just as uniform: red brick, white trim, arranged on straight streets. Individuality was measured in teaspoons—a lacy curtain in this window, a scavenged figurehead mounted as a fence post there. Every mailbox was stenciled with the name and usually the rank—almost all Tallfolk were in service in one way or another—of its residents. A few of the boxes were ornamented with depictions of medals: awards earned for everything from outstanding craftsmanship to good sailing.

Major Gasparin had sense enough to take some of Royl’s advice: He’d sent Gale and Parrish off to talk to his commodore. What he lacked, alas, was the nerve to confine Beatrice to Nightjar. When Royl came ashore she was on his heels, a determined expression stamped on her face.

“Why’d you let her go alone?” she demanded.

“Gale ain’t on her own.” A feeling like loss pierced Royl: He’d wanted to take his time, stepping off the ship that had been his home for thirty years. To say good-bye before he headed uphill to Matille and began to forget.

“The boy can’t replace you, Sloot,” Beatrice said. “You must see that.”

“I had an eye out for seven years, Kir, and isn’t anyone suits as well. He’s devilish clever, he knows the sea and he understands people. He shares Gale’s mad delight for chasing new birds, admiring odd rocks, and meeting peculiar folk. Not to mention for capers, on-the-spot justice, and the rare drop of mayhem.”

“You promised to stay with her.” She slapped a hand down on the gatepost of his mother’s house, blocking his path, as if stopping him from crossing the threshold would make him abandon his plans and march back to Nightjar.

Sloot laid his weathered hand on hers. Beatrice was taller than he, and looked little like her sister. Gale had the iron hair and whippy build that came from years spent outdoors, chasing bandits and climbing mountains. Beatrice was soft, regal and voluptuous, more so now that she’d had another child. She had a shine to her that was half the glow of pampered good health and half the constant popping fry of nervous energy.

“I promised to care for her,” he said. “Sending her off with a bright, fit companion, one she likes, one she trusts—”

“What can that boy know of the world?” Beatrice pulled away.

“More’n you think,” he said.

“Is that so?” A hunger there, he saw, a gleam. Convince me.

“You’ve been away from home for too long, Kir,” Royl said. “Garland’s past ain’t mine to share.”

He opened the gate and walked through. He could have kept arguing—he knew he was in the right—but right or no, he felt guilt.

“You’re being selfish,” Beatrice threw at his back, twisting the blade, and then Matille opened the door and rescued him.

How to describe Matille? Few reckoned her beautiful, Royl knew. She was short—remarkably so, almost short as a child—and she had one of those button-eyed doll faces, with a sharp nose. Her lips were so tight and pursey they looked stitched.

She had spent her career in the Fleet Watch, nosing into the inevitable petty corruptions that proliferated within government. A bribe here, a maddenflur smuggling scheme there, nepotism, cadets cheating on exams. She’d made enemies and survived a dozen attempts on her life.

It was Matille who had investigated Parrish, brokering the agreement that tossed him out of the Fleet when he became the sacrificial lamb in a big political scandal. It was she who’d thrown the boy clear of the brig and into Royl’s net. She had probably meant for it to come to this all along.

Matille’s gift, inborn to some degree and honed by magical inscription, was to see into people’s souls, to gauge any spiritual or moral rot within.

As Royl stepped into his childhood home, the girl who’d grown up next door was standing amid the plaster wreckage of a low wall that had run from door to staircase. Most houses on this quarter were built to a standard plan and many had this wall removed already: The idea had been to make their entrances more private, but in fact it just made the ground floor seem cramped. Royl’s ma had been one of the few residents who genuinely liked it.

“You didn’t knock this out yourself, did ye?” he asked.

Matille grabbed his hand, dragging him to the steps and running up three so they were nose to nose. Then she kissed him. “Got some lads in. They’re joining up the master bedrooms, too.”

A crash upstairs punctuated this.

“Who’s this?” Matille was looking over his shoulder at Beatrice and the baby.

Royl said: “First of the hareem. You know you haven’t been the only—argh!”

He’d forgotten—he always forgot—how much she liked to pinch.

“Lady Beatrice of Verdanii,” he said. “Gale’s sister.”

The women regarded each other, Matille exuding the polite implied warmth of a longtime criminal investigator, Beatrice rebuffing like a haughty cat.

Royl left them there, ambling clear of the atmosphere and looking around the house. It had seemed tiny when he left as a boy. Now, after so many years in Nightjar’s cabins and crannies, the ceiling seemed to yawn away, mansion-far, distant as the sky. Could he live in so much room and stillness?

Ma’s treasures had been cleared off the mantel and wrapped in napkins to keep the dust off them. Beyond them, through an open door, was the garden. Matille had seen to that too. Every strip of weed was ripped out, the soil turned, and the smell told him she’d ordered manure mixed into the bed. It waited, rich and ready for planting.

A muscled woman with a shortsword was kneading bread out there, keeping the dough out of the dust, no doubt.

Cook and bodyguard both, Royl guessed. The government would have wanted to offer Matille a bit of security. She knew a lot of sensitive Fleet secrets. Come to that, so did he . . . at least for now.

“Where’re Gale and young Pureheart?” Matille had taken Beatrice’s measure.

“Off adventuring, where else?,” he said. “We fished up some trouble on the route.”

“No great surprise there. Kir Feliachild, let’s make you comfortable.” She led Beatrice through the rubble to a covered couch and sent Royl upstairs to discharge the carpenters so their noise wouldn’t disturb the baby.

He was tempted to leave them banging away. If it was uncomfortable enough, Beatrice might go spend the evening on Nightjar after all.

But when he came downstairs she was seated on the couch with every evidence of growing roots until she got her way.

Gale and Parrish showed up just around dinnertime, both in the obscenely high spirits that meant whatever they’d stuck their snouts in, it stank to the skies.

“It’s about what you guessed,” Gale said over soup. “The inscription for Temperance has been taken, and the mer detachment that was sent to retrieve it has all vanished, but for the fellow who turned up with a spear through his chest.”

“It’s happened twice before,” Parrish added. “Both times, they managed to retrieve it. Apparently the Piracy has made it a point of pride to catch and destroy the heart.”

“Three thefts?” Beatrice said. “Careless.”

Nobody bothered to respond. In a sense it was true, but the lady had lived a sheltered life. She’d forgotten how many things here were only possible until someone drafted the right spell. You could protect a vault from every physical threat and ward it to the skies: make it unopenable, make it invisible. But every bolt-hole had its weaknesses. People, usually. Corruption.

And the old refugees of the Piracy were masters of thievery.

“Intelligence’s plan at this point would be to mislay Yacoura,” Gale said. “To stop spending all this time and energy on efforts to protect it ashore, and hide it at sea. But to lose it they have to retrieve it . . . and if they retrieve it, it becomes dishonorable to just dump it somewhere. It’s a mess.”

“So the merman would have lost it on the way,” Royl said. “There’d have been a plan.”

“What do you mean?” Beatrice asked.

“You can’t go dropping something in the ocean and hoping for the best,” Gale said.

“The heart couldn’t just be lost,” Parrish agreed. “It would have to become famously, magically lost.”

“What if Gale loses it?” Royl asked.

“Gasparin and his superiors seem unreceptive to that suggestion.” Parrish said.

“Why?” Beatrice said.

“Perhaps they don’t care to accept outside assistance.”

“But ye’ll look for it, won’t ye?”

“Oh, we’ll look,” Gale said.

The two of them, woman and boy, gleamed at him like hounds on the hunt, and for just a second—even though he’d chosen this, even though it was right—Royl felt hurt, left out of the fun.

The baby screeched the night through, as babies do, and Matille made the most of their wakefulness.

They had given Beatrice the best of the bedrooms. This left the two of them in her childhood berth, the little room where Royl and she had first made love. It was like being a kid again: fumbling in the dark, giggling, trying to keep their voices down as Beatrice, alert and no doubt ill-tempered, paced on the other side of the hall, singing unfamiliar songs to her daughter and muttering.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2017/02/22/losing-heart-among-the-tall/

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