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PRINCE OF OUTCASTS

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER TEN:

 

City Palace, Darwin
Capital city of the Kingdom of Capricornia
(Formerly Northern Australia)
October 21st, CY 46/2044 A.D.

 

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Pete!” Lady Fiona Holder said. “Wake up!”

The accents of the vanished American West were still strong in her voice, despite forty-six years in and around and across post-Blackout Australia and all the seas that bordered it; she’d been born in a trailer park in what was then the dry eastern part of Oregon.

She supposed it was still dry and still had cows, though it was part of the High Kingdom of Montival now, which was an absolute kick in the head on the infrequent occasions she thought about it. Outsiders often mistook her range-country twang for faded Southern Gothic, and for sure when her temper frayed, you could still hear an echo of the conga line of deadbeat stepdads who’d passed through her mom’s trailer all those years ago. Years, decades, whole worlds ago. They’d spoken a uniform dialect of genuine Toothless Cracker Appalachio-Methhead, though by now she supposed there weren’t many left who knew or cared about the regional variations. She’d taken off at sixteen and never looked back. As best she knew, her mom, a onetime Hustler model, had sucked the big one a couple of years later in the great die-off after the Blackout. The Change they called it back there.

Not back home. This was home now. Had been for the longest time.

Sir Peter jerked his head up in the bamboo lounger and closed his mouth, reaching for the tall cool glass of Saltie Bites Lager at his elbow.

“Not sleeping. Just thinking,” he said, but his voice was thick with the granddad nap she’d caught him at. “Worried about Pip. She’s all we have left of Jules now.”

“You were on the nod, Pete. Don’t shit a shitter,” she said, conscious that her own worry was making her snap.

Lady Fiona—universally known as Fifi, though only the favored few called her that to her face—was in her sixties, with just a few streaks of golden corn-silk color left in her shoulder-length white hair. Her figure, still very trim for her age, worked well in the national dress of Capricornia—khaki shorts, slip on leather sandals and the blue sleeveless vest favored by the kingdom’s iconic sheep shearers. Her face had the leathery reddish tan of a blond who’d spent much of her life on the tropical oceans and her hands were covered in thick calluses that would never go away. Neither she nor her husband favored the broad-brimmed hats with dangling corks you saw everywhere on the streets of the capital. Instead they made do with the Capricornian Salute, a hand waved in front of the face to move the flies along. An act performed so often it became as natural as breathing.

Her husband was at least a decade older, with thick white chest-hair showing over the top of his vest. More hair than he could boast of up top. Pete had gone egg-bald some time ago, a hard thing for a man as quietly vain as him. He had so enjoyed his earlier, virile legend as Cap’n Pete, greatest of all the mighty Salvagers. Fifi knew he was ‘at least’ a decade older, but other than that, Pete could not say. He’d always been vague about exactly when he’d been born. Not that he was reluctant to specify, but the years were never the same twice. He was adamant though that he was a born and bred Tasmanian, which made of him a natural republican. He was forever teasing the King about it.

“Hmmmph,” Fifi said, and took another pull at her gin-and-tonic.

The umbrella-set rooftop terrace was part of the city palace of the Birmingham dynasty of the Kings of Darwin; currently the residence of the first of that name, generally known as JB to the peasantry, whose interests he routinely favored over those of the gentry. At least according to the gentry. JB was pretty much their friend, certainly their patron in the older, wilder days, and definitely an ally now. He was also older and balder and even more wrinkly than Pete. In Fifi’s opinion that was all just camouflage, though. She had never met a man put her more in mind of a crocodile drifting along with only the eyes and nostrils showing. Not that she took Pete’s act too seriously either. He might present these days as a harmless-granddad-sitting-in-the-shade, but together he and his old mate the King were the richest, most powerful old bastards in this part of the world. They were far from fucking harmless.

Nor was she.

Fifi freshened up her drink from the fixings on a small occasional table next to her lounger. The ice was fresh, as it always was at the City Place and she wondered, as she always did, what mad bastard adventurer had been dispatched to some snow-capped mountain far, far away to retrieve it for her drinking pleasure. She walked to the balustrade, resisting the urge to ask Pete if she thought Pip would be okay. Despite his protests he really was half asleep in the late afternoon heat and besides, she knew she would just be flapping her gums to stop her fears and her guilt running wild off her tongue. After all, were it not for ‘Aunt’ Fifi, Lady Pip would be ensconced at the Court of St James under the wing of the current King-Emperor. In Winchester, on that cold rainy patch on the other side of the planet, safely bored out of her pretty head, not tear-assing around the islands east of Java and north of Lombok.

At least Fifi hoped she was still tear-assing around the...

“She’ll be fine, darlin’. She is her mother’s daughter.”

Pete had come up behind her, surprising her when he put his hands around her waist. He had always been able to do that, sneak up on her. There was a reason he had been the designated back tracker when they’d run salvage under the Royal Warrant. She placed her free hand over his and squeezed, sipping at the drink again. Not trusting herself to speak.

From here you could look out over Stokes Hill wharf and the busy port, a forest of masts from fishing smacks to the tall spars of warships and ocean-going merchantmen, stacked with their bowsprits stretching in over the pavement and the inset tracks of the freight trams.

A fair share of the hulls worked for their Darwin & East Indies Trading Co. Sailing from Hobart to Patagonia, Hainan to Zanzibar. Trading in wheat and wool and wine, sandalwood and copra, salvage steel and fresh-cut teak, rubber and gear-trains and swords and rice and rum, coffee and tea, hides and...

And once we shipped a dozen baby elephants to the Raja of Bali, and we had to catch them first. And then the fucking ship just disappeared and we had to do it all over again!

It was sundown, and just slightly cooler; they’d had a thunderstorm earlier, washing the air, the sign that the Wet was coming soon. Lightning flickered in the black clouds on the horizon, over the azure surface of the Arafura Sea. There was still a clamor of voices and a ratcheting of cranes and more and more bright lanterns, and a distance-softened surf-roar of voices and wheels from the streets beyond where late didn’t begin until well after midnight.

The silty wet smell, sometimes fetid with fish-guts or perfumed with spices and always seasoned with eucalyptus woodsmoke, made her think of voyages gone by. Back when it had been just her and Pete and Jules on the old Diamantina, the most successful salvagers and smugglers and all-around fortune-and-glory rogues afloat in the chaos of the years after the Blackout. Back then, this time of day, they’d have been down in the dockside pubs, the sort of place where you sat on your sheathed knife with the hilt coming out from under your right butt-cheek. So you wouldn’t forget it was there and could draw without bringing your hand across to your belt. Sitting amid caterwauling music and a fug of smoke that just started with tobacco, knocking it back and pretending to play cards and sniffing after the scent of an opportunity like sharks in waters full of tempting, juicy, bleeding toes paddling temptingly into range.

She’d seen this city recover from the terrible years, seen it change and grow and flourish like some brawling, bawdy child, a mutant mix of old and new, and she’d been part of that. Her children and grandchildren had grown up in and with it, grown into its bone and blood. The kids were even respectable, in a raffish here’s-the-deal-and-here’s-my-catapult sort of way.

But there are times I miss the old days. Even if there was a lot less lounging on teak decks surrounded by potted palms and bougainvillea. Though Jules did always love a g&t with ice when she could get it; I wouldn’t ever have drunk one except for her.

“Nostalgia’s a bitch, isn’t it?” Pete said.

She sipped at her drink, but couldn’t keep back a grin. It would have been surprising if they didn’t know each other well after forty-six years in each other’s pockets, plus Pete had always been smart. And one of those rare men who really knew how women thought, too, without letting his own—enormous—macho legend get in the way.

“I miss Jules,” she said. “And I worry is all. I promised her, Pete. I said we’d look out for Pip.”

“And we did. That’s why her father won’t talk to us anymore.”

Fifi sighed. The Colonel-designate of Townsville Armory had a serious pickle up the ass, but he had a point too...

“Did I do the wrong thing?”

He tugged gently on her elbow, turned her around. She was struck again by how much she was still attracted to him. After all of those years. And wrinkles. He was still such a good-looking man, as he never tired of reminding her. In his younger days he’d looked a bit like his fellow-Tasmanian Errol Flynn, though an increasingly scarred and battered version as time went on.  Flynn might have played piratical swashbuckling adventurers in the old movies.  But Pete had done it for real, starting well before the Change too, and those days had left their marks.

He grinned.

“You know who I miss?”

“Your younger, prettier self?”

She pronounced it ‘purdier’—exaggerating her accent, as she did when they were playing.

“No. I’m still pretty. But no, I kinda miss Shoeless Dan.”

Fifi snorted a mouthful of gin and tonic through her nose.

“Yeah, right. That’s why you let the sharks have him.”

“No, no. I let the sharks have him because the treacherous bastard tried to arsefuck us on that Sydney run for JB. That was just business. He fed us to the Biters, I returned the favor.”

“And? Now you miss him?”

“I miss the fun we had because of him. In spite of him. The man was a perfidious arseclown, but he did put us onto some of our best scores.”

“So he could rip us off...”

“So he could try. And fail. He always failed. Because we were better than him. You, me and Julesy. Especially Jules. Remember when he thought he finally had us? And she just carved through his boys with those choppers of hers?”

The memory was both horrific and satisfying. Fifi shuddered and smiled, faintly.

“Well, as good as Julesy was, she raised Pip, and Pip is better. A natural. She’d have died a thousand fucking deaths at Court back in the Old Country, Fifi. But out there...” he waved at the slate grey sea under the dark wall of thunderheads, “you just know she won’t even get a scratch.”

Two burly guards in helmets and water-buffalo-hide cuirasses with the white-gray-orange Desert Rose of seven petals on their chests lounged outside the notional door to the dining room, with heavy Golok-knife choppers at their waists and the handles of asymmetrical war-boomerangs showing over their shoulders. They had identically tall rangy muscled builds and might have been brothers except that one was blue-eyed and weathered red and the other extremely black; both had their round shields hanging from the shoulder-straps and leaned casually on broad-bladed spears—the Capricornian military didn’t go in for standing to attention—but their eyes never stopped roving. They had the knack of good Palace guards though—making Fifi feel as though they purposely did not see her, which was good, given the enthusiastic groping she was receiving from her husband.

The door to the room was open wrought iron, and the whole space was really just a tall louvered roof supported on drum-shaped pillars of the same blocks of compressed and stabilized laterite that made up the palace. Bamboo screens between the pillars were overgrown with floribunda vines whose clusters of white flowers scented the air passing through.

One of the palace staff leaned her head out the doorway and jerked a thumb over a bare tattooed shoulder.

“Come on, your feed’s ready!” she announced cheerfully. “Better get a move on before JB scoffs the lot.”

Pete gave Fifi a pat on the ass to get her moving towards the chamber every crony of JB knew well; it held a long table suitable for dinner for twelve guests but it set for seven tonight, wicker chairs, and a slow-moving overhead fan driven from a windmill on the roof. When the breeze failed, wallah-boys were sent up to pedal stationary bikes hooked into the drive train. Globes of frosted glass lit by gaslights were suspended from the center-beam of the exposed roof trusses. The floor was the same openwork teak as the deck, and there was a mill-and-swill area fronting a fully stocked bar. A normal visitor would have marveled at the genuine antique bottles of wine and spirits on display. Fifi did not. She had salvaged at least half of them from the dead cities.

The open space in front of the bar was occupied now by sawhorses, and on them was...

“Fuck me purple,” Pete said reverently, and fished his bent spectacles out of a pocket in his shorts, putting them on and peering intently.

“Holy shit,” Fifi said, almost in the same breath.

The skull of the saltie was clean but still raw, smelling very faintly of seawater and decay. They both recognized it instantly, anyone who spent much time at sea in this part of the world would; also anyone who hung around the banks of the big tidal rivers, where the saltwater crocodiles were wont to lurk, erupting out to grab anything even vaguely edible... and it wasn’t uncommon for them drag full-grown water buffalo back in for a snack. The biggest ones had been getting bigger all her lifetime since the Blackout because it was so damned difficult to kill them nowadays. She’d seen one hung up in Port Moresby about ten years ago that was twenty-four feet long, and it had weighed nearly three tons. This one though...

Fifi had gotten very good at estimating sizes in a long career both larcenous and commercial. This skull was about four feet, maybe four feet and a hair. Nine times that to get the total length. The hide was draped over another set of sawhorses, and it was looking a bit moth-eaten. Shark-eaten might be a better way to put it, big semicircular bites taken out of the thinner belly-skin and almost certainly done post-mortem, but the overall length bore out her estimate: more than thirty-five feet, less than thirty-six.

“Glad I didn’t meet this one before someone turned him into handbag meat,” Pete said, awed delight in his tone; he’d always loved marvels, the stranger and more dangerous the better.

More than ten feet longer than the one we saw in New Guinea, and the mass goes up as the cube of the increase in length, so—

“It must have weighed...” she said, hesitating because the deduction was perfectly logical but made the thing the same bulk as a fair-sized elephant.

“About five tons, Lady Fiona,” another voice said.

Fifi wheeled at the thump of spearbuts on wood, and JB was there by the inner doors, grinning like an ancient baboon. He wasn’t the one who’d spoken, however. That was a stranger in an unfamiliar white linen uniform with a sort of naval look to it; tanned and fit, thirtyish, brown-haired and sharp-faced and unremarkable... except that his English was unmistakably North American, which you didn’t hear every day even now with trade picking up again.

So that’s who the visiting frigate was, she thought.

It had vanished into the Capricornian naval docks when it arrived two days ago, and the security had clamped down harder than she’d ever seen before.

“Captain Richard Russ, Royal Montivallan Navy, officer commanding Her Majesty’s frigate Stormrider, my lady,” he said, with a slight bow and another to Pete. “Sir Peter.”

Her Majesty?” Pete said sharply.

Russ looked grim. “The High King was killed this spring. High Queen Mathilda is Queen-Regent until the heir comes of age.”

He indicated the woman beside him, who wore the same getup down to the fore-and-aft cocked hat under one arm. “My executive officer, Lieutenant-Commander Annette Chong.”

She looked a bit younger, also clever and tautly fit, and as if at least one of her grandparents had been Chinese despite her blue eyes—very much like the eldest of Fifi’s daughters-in-law, in fact. They were accompanied by another man, a bit younger and built like a really dangerous rugby forward. She felt her brows go up at the way he was dressed.

Like a playing card, she thought.

Tight sienna-colored pants almost like pantyhose, tooled ankle boots with upturned toes and golden prick spurs, a loose blue coat whose open dagged sleeves dangled past his waist, a black jerkin of suede leather with a heraldic device of a burning phoenix-like bird, and what she thought of as a pirate shirt all white billowy sleeves and fastened at cuffs and neck with black silk ties. When he swept off his hat as part of a formal-looking bow—the hat was a round blue silk cowflop with a rolled circle around the edges and a dangling tail—she saw that his head was shaved except for a long black scalplock over his right ear, bound with golden rings.

“And Sir Boleslav Pavlovitch Kedov de Vashon, of the Protector’s Guard.”

She stuck out her hand. The two naval types shook it; Sir Boleslav bowed and kissed it with an authority which suggested he was used to doing it. That was an interesting experience, the more so as he took a quick look at her cleavage in passing—discretely, but you could always tell.

Beside them JB looked like an old, disreputable devil; he’d been a heavy-boned muscular man, and now the bones were plain behind his spotted, parchment-thin skin and the scars that knotted it. Beside him stood Prince Thomas, very obviously his son and in his fifties, with his usual colored bandana around his rather long graying blond hair. He gave the Holders a careful nod; he’d known them all his life, of course, but now that he was grown he was a little cautious of the sort of buccaneering reprobate his father had always swum with. And he’d realized most of the stories they’d told him as a kid were true.

“Let’s get the roadkill out before it spoils dinner,” JB said cheerfully; he’d always liked a feed, even before the Blackout reputedly.

Living through that nightmare had made a lot of folks who’d managed it crazy where food was concerned, especially the ones who’d escaped the cities on foot during the collapse. Come Blackout Day not everyone was lucky enough to find themselves working on a survivalist super nerd billionaire’s yacht in San Francisco bay as a sous-chef (as she had), or safely out at sea on an old wooden sailboat beating south towards Sydney (as Pete had, on the Diamantina). And those who’d been in the air—well they were pretty much fucked weren’t they? Except for her friend, her comrade, her murderous soul sister Lady Julianne Balwyn, who’d survived when her flying boat came down hard on the Great Barrier Reef and crawled out on the beach already looking ahead and planning survival with style.

For that matter, making himself king and founding Capricornia wasn’t much more amazing than JB’s feat in simply getting himself and his young family out of Brisbane alive. There had been two million people in the city in nineteen-ninety-eight, almost as many as there were on this whole continent now, and damned few had managed it. Much less getting to the seething chaos of Darwin within a year, seeing what the place needed and providing it. Hordes of suburban refugees ended up as indentured laborers on some outback station all over the shattered continent, knuckling their foreheads to the stationmasters. Only one got to be King.

The staff took the remains out, and everyone sat. Fifi hid a smile at the Montivallans who very obviously looked to her and Pete to give them the lead. They’d probably been briefed on the unusually relaxed protocols in Capricornia but it was still doubtless a little unsettling to see the King grab a platter of barbecued Bangkok chicken thighs from a serving girl with a wink and start handing them around himself.

At that point Sir Boleslav took off his coat and tossed it to the staffer who already held his sword-belt and a severely plain sheathed hand-and-a-half longsword whose guard had the battering and filed-out nicks of serious use. Then he undid the ties at the neck of his shirt, letting it fall open to reveal more of the corded muscle there and a scar that looked as if someone had tried to slit his throat and come remarkably close to success.

“Da,” he said, in English that had a slight guttural accent. “In County Chehalis, we have a saying: among friends, wear the collar open, drink deep and speak truth.”

“In this climate, you don’t need a collar at all,” JB said genially. “Get on the end of these bad boys. You got me this recipe book didn’t you, Pete? From that joint I used to like back on the old Sunshine Coast.”

Pete smiled and held up the back of hand to show off a thin, white scar; she wondered if he’d be pulling up his vest to show the one below his belly-button next.

“Got you the recipe book, samples from the herb garden, and sixteen stitches for my trouble when we ran into a scavenger band on the Noosa River coming out.”

“Pfft,” scoffed Fifi, snagging one of the bright yellow nubins of meat. It was crisscrossed by caramelized scorch marks from the grill and dripping with sweet chilli sauce. “It was barely six stitches and Julesy grabbed the herb samples because Pete’s botanically illiterate. He watered a plastic fern on our boat for three months before we told him what he was doing. If you’d trusted him to salvage your barbecue herbs he’d probably have brought you back a toilet deodorizer shaped like a plastic pinecone. We have to keep him off that Station we bought because the grass goes brown if he steps on the place.”

Captain Russ and Commander Chong shared a brief uncertain exchange of glances until both Pete and JB roared with laughter; Sir Boleslav joined in, booming as if his usual venue was under a bridge waiting for billy-goats Gruff.

“That fucking plastic fern,” her husband chuckled, “Man I was so proud when that thing didn’t die.”

The King used a linen napkin to wipe grease from his fingers and most of the smile from his face. Only a trace remained, but it did linger for a while.

“I reckon Julianne told me that story half a dozen times, and we laughed longer and louder with each telling,” he said, sighing out the last few words.

“To absent friends,” Captain Russ said, raising his glass.

“Absent friends,” they all replied.

Pete and JB clinked their enormous beer bottles lightly together. Boleslav killed his and reached for another from the bucket of ice; it nearly disappeared in his spade-shaped paw.

“So,” Fifi said, pointing her fork at the label—it showed a crudely-drawn saltie biting a fishing smack in half—“Does this have anything to do with that monster? And anything to do with Pip?”

More staff, who were never referred to as servants in this most unusual of Realms, arrived with the main course. Silver platters—salvaged from the reliquary of Melbourne Library, again by the crew of Diamantina—were piled high with seafood. Enormous, bright orange lobsters, freshly shucked oysters as big as your fist (which, frankly, made FiFi want to gag), sashimi-grade tuna, beer battered reef fish, garlic prawns, spicy mussels, long golden chains of flash fried octopus rings and—wonder of wonders—salt and pepper Dungeness crab; this last, a small miracle performed entirely for the benefit of their visitors.

Captain Russ blinked at the crab, deftly winkled some of the meat out and ate it.

“Wonderful,” he said. “My mother used to make it like this.”

The Montivallan knight was digging in with a blissful expression, casually cracking lobster-claws in his fist.

“Like a feast on my family’s estates on Vashon Island, Your Majesty!” he said to JB. “Only with new types of fish.”

Fifi had no idea how the royal kitchens had sourced the Dungeness crab. They sure as shit hadn’t Fedexed an aquarium overnight from the Pacific Northwest.

Just the King of Darwin working his mojo, isn’t it? she thought. Keeping the world guessing.

“It may have something to do with your young protégé,” Russ said to Fifi and Pete. “It certainly has a lot to do with that... crocodile thing.” He looked at the crab again. “Extraordinary.”

Oh, you hazarded the cruel seas and high adventure for six months to join us? Here, have a little reminder of home.

If there was one thing that you could rely on at the Palace here in Darwin, it was a good meal and a gentle reminder that they were walking with the King.

His Majesty started in directly as he tore open a crab claw and worked out the meat, stuffing it into a freshly baked baguette slathered with avocado butter:

“Captain Russ got the saltie up in the Ceram Sea,” he said. “He was following a Montivallan ship, the Tarshish Queen, Moishe Feldman’s boat. Feldman was being naughty.”

Fifi and Pete looked at each other. The Ceram Sea was where Pip had been heading, and had vanished off the face of the earth a length of time ago that was making them both profoundly nervous.

“We’ve dealt with him, and his dad too. Feldman senior was the first American... pardon me, Montivallan... in here since the Blackout. Moishe’s a chip off the old block; hard enough to crack fleas on and the devil’s own bargainer, but honest,” Pete said cautiously. “Likes seeing somewhere new as much as he likes a profit, and he really likes a profit. Bit of a blood desperado, when you come right down to it.”

JB laughed raspingly, almost coughing up a chunk of crab meat. “Takes one, eh, Pete?”

The Montivallan naval officers blinked at the exchange and went on: “We were actually chasing the two Korean warships. Who were chasing Captain Feldman,” he said. “He hadn’t actually done anything illegal. Not technically illegal.”

“We are bloody experts on being not technically illegal,” Pete said; which was true and a good placeholder too. “Koreans, eh?”

The Holders exchanged another look and JB nodded soberly to it. The gaslight danced on his liver-spotted pate, which was shining with sweat in the humidity. Post-Blackout Korea was a black hole; nothing that went in came out, and sometimes it stuck out a pseudopod and absorbed passers-by. That was a major reason nobody much went that far north, not even when tempted by the prospect of salvage in Tokyo.

Also while the surviving Japanese weren’t exactly utterly hostile—ships of the Darwin & East Indies Trading Company had touched there briefly a couple of times—the locals certainly didn’t like gaijin making free with their ruins, and they and the Koreans were mixing it in all the time. The three of them had discussed a salvage run amongst themselves more than once in the old days, and always managed to talk each other out of it. Their eyes went wider as Captain Russ explained what had been happening in Montival and how the Koreans had been involved.

“Montival isn’t going to let the killing of our High King go unpunished,” Russ said. “And we’ll have allies.”

“Kim Il Fuckwit is certainly getting big eyes, not just raiding the Japanese and the Chinese coasts any more,” Prince Thomas said. “We got complaints about that from the Luzon people at the Regional Security Conference. And more and more ships are going missing up in the Ceram Sea, beyond what the Suluk were always up to, the Timorese were on about it; we thought it was just their old blood-feud talking, but... I don’t know if there’s a connection but I don’t like coincidences.”

His father nodded vigorously and swallowed an oyster with a squeeze of lime, looking at the Montivallans as Russ went on:

“We’d found a couple of empty barrels floating with the Feldman & Sons mark and thought we were close on their track, just between North Sulawesi and Malaku,” Russ said. “Then we saw a little smoke. It was one of the Korean ships, burned to the waterline and breaking up. Firebolt, I’d say; the Queen has eighteen-pounder bow and stern chasers, and an eight-catapult broadside of nine-pounders and knows how to use it.”

The Holders both nodded, knowing what thermite could do to wood if you placed it well and the receiving ship’s damage-control wasn’t on their toes.

“The other one had foundered and turned turtle, but it was still floating even though the keel was awash.”

Wooden ships were extremely hard to really sink, as long as any air remained trapped in them at all. The material they were made of was inherently buoyant, after all. It took a full hold of water to pull them down.

“We took a prisoner, one of the Eaters they’d picked up in the ruins of Los Angeles, who was lying on the keel. He was the last one, and he’d gnawed most of the meat off his left forearm.”

Fifi thought for a moment before remembering the term Eater; in Australia they were usually called zed or Biters.

“He was mad... well, probably mad even before what happened, and dying. We gave him a little water and asked him some questions... they speak English, of a sort. All we could get was teeth, teeth, teeth in water. I thought he was talking about the sharks at first, there were plenty of those about.”

Cheong, his second-in-command, spoke: “I was looking at the hulk, trying to see what had taken her out. There was a chunk on the starboard bow that looked as if it had been ripped loose, deck stringers snapped and pulled out from the ribs and hanging knees. Not roundshot damage, I know that that looks like. This wasn’t anything I’d seen before. And we found this stuck in the wood.”

She drew a curved tooth out of a pocket; it was thick as paired thumbs at the base, and as long as her palm was broad. Fifi had no doubt at all it would fit right into the gap in the big skull’s grin.

“From the look of it, that damned animal bit a great big chunk out of the ship. Probably tried to get aboard—”

Fifi thought about the image that put in her mind and her eyes went still for a moment. Adventure was all very well, but...

“They can jump half their length out of the water like someone shot them out with springs,” she said softly. “Half of thirty-six feet... that would be enough to get right on the deck. And five fucking tons dropping on it wouldn’t help at all. Like a randy elephant trying to mate with the bows. They’d be fucked for sure.”

Pete waved a bottle of the beer. “This label’s based on something that really happened, too. Those jaws can shear wood like a hydraulic saw.”

The Montivallan nodded. “Then the weight on the deck forced it down enough that the water flooded her forward, maybe her ballast shifted and then she capsized. It wasn’t a very well-built ship and it had probably taken storm damage before then.”

Her captain took up the tale. “So that was when we decided to investigate the place all the gulls were circling. The crocodile... saltie, you say... was floating belly-up, bloated with gas. We were lucky, a few hours more and it would probably have sunk for good, the sharks were at it. We weighed it when we winched it up on a boom; just under five tons.”

Boleslav laughed harshly. “The ancient stories say knights slew dragons with sword and lance. That one, even if I were a bogatyr of old like Dobrynya Nikitich, I would be glad to use a catapult. From a castle tower, hey?”

Pete closed his eyes; for a moment she was worried the dinner and the wine had sent him off to sleep again. Then he frowned in a way she recognized; he’d been watching a movie of alternatives behind his eyelids.

“The Koreans were chasing them; Moishe wouldn’t have run if he thought he had a chance in a sea-fight,” he said. “So something happened to change the odds.”

“The saltie happened, to one of the Koreans at least,” Fifi added.

“Right. So Moishe whipped around fast and gave the other one a broadside, maybe it was damaged already too, and set it afire. It’s what I would have done in his shoes. Then he shot the saltie and ran for it, which he could do on a different course since they weren’t bracketing him any more. Which was why you lost him, Captain. He’s a tricky bastard, and he couldn’t be sure that the two after him were the only problem. Lot of places to hide, up in the Ceram.”

Captain Russ spread his hands. “We hope that’s what happened. I would really rather not have to go home and tell the High Queen that her eldest son was eaten by a giant crocodile eight thousand miles from home.”

“While we were cruising about nearby,” Cheong added.

“Giant accursed crocodile,” Captain Russ qualified.

“Accursed?” Pete asked. “You getting technical there?”

Fifi tensed. They’d both met things that couldn’t be explained by the pre-Blackout logic they’d grown up with, over the years. JB snapped his fingers, and called out over his shoulder:

“Hey, bring in those bolts wouldja? And the bracelet.”

Two of the staff came in. One held a pair of catapult bolts, and the other a covered tray. Fifi looked at the bolts with interest and Pete put his glasses back on. Both were the sort launched by a medium-weight military or shipboard catapult; one was broken off, and had a thick hardwood shaft with a hand-forged head, a three-sided pyramidal one heat-shrunk onto the oak. The other was solid forged steel, swelling to a four-sided point and with three brass fins brazed on the base and subtly curved to spin the projectile in flight. She’d killed a Biter in Sydney with a bolt like that once. Literally blew him to pieces.

Yeah, good times.

“The steel one is Montivallan made to our Navy specifications, and we think it was what killed the beast eventually. Manufactured in Corvallis, Donaldson Foundry & Machine marks. Almost certainly from the Tarshish Queen, Feldman & Sons buy from them exclusively. The other’s unfamiliar but we assume it’s Korean.”

He licked his lips, obviously reluctant. “And this was around the crocodile’s... arm. Forelimb. Whatever. Very close to where the Korean catapult bolt hit, it may have struck it in passing.”

The cloth was drawn aside, and instead of the macadamia and chocolate tarts they’d been promised for dessert, it held what was obviously an armband.

“Our chaplain advised us not to touch it if we could avoid it, Sir Peter,” Russ said quietly.

He crossed himself; so did Sir Boleslav, though from right to left rather than vice versa; Lieutenant-commander Cheong touched a small amulet, nephrite jade carved into a mandala. JB rolled his eyes; he was an old-fashioned atheist. But nor did he reach for the thing, FiFi noted. She had an aversion to the tub-thumping Christianity that had afflicted her childhood, but apart from that had never wasted much time worrying on such things. She had child’s faith in the Lord, and a lifelong conviction that He didn’t bother meddling in the business of anyone so far beneath him as her.

The Royal family—and the rest of the Holders—were Buddhists, which was common enough in Darwin, if not the rest of Capricornia. And Pete had always declared himself a Buddhist so lazy that he intended to pursue enlightenment when he got around to it in the next life... or three.

“I have to assume... very reluctantly... that the crocodile attacking the ships wasn’t an accident,” the Montivallan said gravely. “I have tried to think of some normal explanation for a five-ton carnivorous reptile engaging in a fight to the death with three armed ships. I cannot. Can anyone here?”

None of them spoke, or moved to touch the armband, and she noted the servant—sorry, the staffer—wore thick leather gloves entirely inappropriate for the local climate. The band seemed composed of some ruddy metal, probably aluminum-bronze cast from salvage. On it was a broad circle of some glossy black material, and inlaid on that was a three-armed triskele, with curved writhing arms coming from a central knot. The material was almost certainly fairly high-carat gold, but she thought she wouldn’t have tried to pry it out even when she’d been working salvage herself, rather than running the largest salvage company with Warrants to the dead cities of the Australian coast. The impact of the bolt had scored right across it, for which she was obscurely glad.

“There’s one good thing,” Prince Thomas said thoughtfully. Everyone looked at him, and he went on: “It attacked the Korean ships. Which means our enchanted saltie isn’t enchanted with Kim Il.”

“A point, Your Highness,” Russ said. “We also spoke some local small craft, those long double-hulled things with the odd sail plan...”

“Prau,” Pete replied automatically. “Or proas.”

“They hadn’t seen the Tarshish Queen, or at least couldn’t describe her—I was surprised that any of them spoke English at all.”

The Capricornians all chuckled. “Lot of traffic through here,” JB said. “We’re the big entrepôt now. And our ships get all over. There’s ships from the rest of Oz too, come to that, and the Kiwis. From New Singapore too, and they speak English... well, Singlish.”

Russ nodded. “Ah, a lingua franca. They did say several ships of conventional pattern had passed through within the last few months; one of them was a three-master with a shark-mouth painted on the waterline—”

“Holy shit!” Fifi blurted; that was the Silver Surfer, Pip’s ship.

“They were quite cooperative... well, they were looking at our broadside... until we showed them the crocodile’s skull and the armband. Then they screamed—quite literally—something like Pulau Bintang Hitam!”

“And then Pulau Satem!” the other officer said.

“After they’d run around screeching and slapping each other for a while they hoisted their sails and made off southward as fast as they could, ignoring our hails,” Russ finished.

“Ignoring a twenty-four-pounder warning from our bow-chaser, too,” Cheong added. “Just kept right on, still screaming and gibbering.”

Pulau Bintang Hitam,” Pete said, and rolled his eyes up in thought.

They both had a nodding acquaintance with the many varieties of Malay current in the islands.

Island of Black Stars,” he translated.

Pulau Satem,” Fifi said. “That’s... Island of Devils, sorta.”

“Then we headed south,” Russ said. “We’d taken storm damage back in Westria... California... we had no current charts of the area, and we were almost out of water.”

“Battle damage also,” Sir Boleslav said; he’d been punishing the beer as well as eating heroically, without noticeable effect, but a smoky look came into his eyes. “In San Francisco Bay we fought these Koreans, together with Haida devil-pirates and Eaters in league with them. At Topanga, we were ready to fight them again except for the enchanted storm. I have not taken my share of the blood due for the High King’s murder. But I am young, there are years of the sword left to me yet.”

Captain Russ nodded, his expression similar for a moment: “We headed for Darwin as the nearest friendly port where we could get quick repairs, and information in our own language.”

Pete sighed. “We... the Darwin and East Indies Trading Company... do trade up that way. Some of the islands are civilized and you can do business; some are uncivilized and you can do business if you’re heavily armed. Some are just... not visited much. A few months ago, our niece Pip... Lady Philippa Balwyn-Abercrombie, well sort of an informal niece, the daughter of the co-founder of our company, Lady Julianna Balwyn-Abercrombie... she took a small barque up that way, the Silver Surfer. To try some of the places nobody else bothered, high risk, high reward.”

Fifi was sure Captain Russ and Lieutenant-commander Cheong caught the fact that much wasn’t being spoken.

“She’s very badly overdue. We’d be happy to give you all our commercial intelligence on the area, and any help our agents there can furnish; supplies, too... perhaps a supply ship to go with you.”

JB nodded. “The Stormrider’s being refitted in the Navy dockyards, triple shifts, double time for overtime. I’ll be sending some of my blokes along when she leaves. Wish I could send a ship, but we haven’t any to spare right now.”

Not now that you turned up some expendable, heavily armed foreigners to do it for you, JB, she thought. If you fell out the window dead-drunk into a shitheap, you’d come up smelling of hibiscus with a gold brick in your teeth.

“We are sending a fast courier to Hawaii,” JB added. “With dispatches and the Stormrider’s reports.”

The discussion went on for some time.

“God, Pete, I wish we could go ourselves!” Fifi said as they left the Palace gates and climbed into their open-bodied coach; green-and-black butterflies with six-inch wingspans were fluttering around the lanterns.

“Pip will be fine,” Pete said. “She’s as crazy as we were, but smarter with it. And she’s got her mum’s lucky choppers.”

They looked at each other again. And look how many times we came within a thin hair of getting killed in spite of all that, they both thought, and knew they shared the thought.

 

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