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[One of four interweaving storylines, each set in one of the surviving cultures - more or less aligning to Earth, Air, Fire, and Water - with a "lost" fifth tribe to be revealed. This is our introduction to the people who survived by taking to the seas.]
The winds were against them. Everything was against them here. If Remo was a superstitious man, it might have worried him.
Grabbing a line, he hoisted himself up on the rail, balancing deftly with the swaying of the ship. They'd spotted their destination leagues ago, but that wasn't what had made the men go silent. There was nothing to be heard but the creaking of the lines, the lashing of the waves as Almenara’s Grace sliced them through. Not even birds flew here. In the Shallows, only dead men stirred.
They'd all felt it, the moment that they crossed from the old sea into the new. Even the ship groaned. She knew this wasn't a place for her, knew that men had once stood deep below them and looked up to the sky. Maybe they were there still. Homes and palaces, shops and schools, great monuments and wondrous machines, all now silent, now drowned. There was only the lapping of the waves, the pull of the sails. Only the sea knew what truly slept beneath their feet.
"Blighted dirt farmers. I hate the Shallows." Hamrin was at his side, arms folded around the cloak in his arms. The first mate was twice as wide as any man who sailed the seas, but few walked lighter on the deck. "Not a place any sane man should be."
Remo smiled down at him. "And who said we were sane men, old friend?" He leapt from the rail and joined Hamrin on the deck.
"Nest spotted a patch of black gold to the east."
Hamrin handed him his cloak, faded black and deeply hooded, a dark robe for dark work. As Remo threw it around his shoulders and strode to the forecastle, the men they passed donned cloaks of their own. Even Hamrin had managed to find one that didn't strain too terribly across his middle.
"Nothing to trouble us. We're heading north."
"And we'll be gone before the cloud reaches us? This place is bad enough without having to sail through blood."
Remo turned and clapped a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "It's not blood."
His friend remained unconvinced. "Didn't say it was man's blood, blood like yours or mine. That's earth's blood. Storm cut her all to pieces and she still ain't healed."
He was right, in a way. Their ancestors had mined these waters for more than food. They'd drilled deep into the seabed, sucked crude oils from their mother's veins. Some said that's why she'd grown so angry, why she sent the Storm to wash them all away. Their drills had gone too, leaving the wounds open, letting black poison spill to the surface. It still drifted here and there in upon the water, in sticky clouds that were best avoided.
"Any dirt they sell us is bound to be tainted."
"It's a good thing we're not just after their dirt, then." Starting up the stairs, Remo looked down at him. "See to docking preparations."
"Can Savannah come?"
"Only if negotiations sour. Wouldn't hurt to have her ready, though."
Hamrin grinned. "Aye, Captain."
Remo mounted the forecastle alone, flicking the hair from his eyes as the wind took it. Ahead, the horizon was jagged, broken by the spirits of old towers rising from the sea. Once men and women had lived in buildings that scraped the sky, so numerous that they had taken up all the land and had to build upward. The Great Storm had changed all that.
She had come at them from all directions, bending winds at every corner of the globe, birthing floods, typhoons and hurricanes that laid all but the tallest towers low. So great was her wrath that the earth itself trembled and the sea became one with the sky. At least that's what people said, what the songs remembered.
With even the ground turned to waves, he supposed it would be better to be on a ship. Some had been able to navigate between the worst of it. Others had been set adrift on newly formed islands, gathered up by those who happened past. Most of it had been luck, though he didn't imagine life was particularly pleasant in those early days. But it wasn't until they returned to land that they knew the worst of it.
Those who had survived on the shores welcomed them readily enough. People set out, left the sea that had cradled them, determined to find their families. All they found, though, was death. The pox spread like fire. The people had no defenses, didn't know how to fight it. More died and the wisest among them returned to the sea. Some died still, carrying the sickness back onto their ships and skiffs, turning them to floating coffins. In the years that followed, those who weathered the disease roamed on their own, keeping to small bands, trading with others only warily and at all costs avoiding the shore. Then had come The Unsinkable Queen, an unnamed and unknown captain who had gathered ships to her as easily as scooping water into her palm. She grew her fleet, gathering even the smallest ships and rafts, and none who sailed with her ever grew ill. They had eventually built the Floating City, lashing together the surviving old war ships, cruise liners, adding a mishmash of floating scrap until it an island unto itself. Her daughter had reigned after her and her daughter after that, all the way down to Almenara, whose banner he flew on his mast.
Remo fondly touched the scar on his cheek. It started above his left eye and whorled down his cheek, a double-ended fish hook that curved back on itself, encompassing all the world. He glanced up, watched the same symbol rippling in the winds above him. The hand that had carved it into his face had been deft and sure, gentle but practiced when it came to slicing flesh. He was too pretty, Al had told him. She'd show other women what would happen if they looked too long.
They looked anyway, though. With his long dark hair and shadowed chin, his corded arms darkened by years at sea, he could always get at least a smile, though none were foolish enough to make it more than that. It suited him, actually. Al was his queen and he was hers, simple as that.
His smile faded as the broken buildings loomed ahead. They rose out of the water at odd angles, ruins of towers that had once been said to scrape the sky, walls of broken windows gazing down at any who dared to pass between them. Rope bridges crisscrossed from one tower to the next, swaying empty in the morning mists. If Remo squinted, he could almost make out a banner hanging from the highest bridge, bearing the same mark that looped across his cheek. All who lived upon the water claimed allegiance to Almenara and those who had come before her – few were fool enough not to – but some were truer than others. The dirt farmers were no one's friends.
It was early, but they would be arriving with the sun. He'd waited as long as he could, just long enough to avoid a night docking that might panic their hosts, but he had promised to have the men out of here as soon as possible.
The first mate appeared beside him again, silent as ever in the morning mists. They seemed to rise from the buildings, slipping over the deck, an oasis of sticky heat in the wide, cool sea.
"Are we ready?"
Hamrin grunted, eyeing the buildings now passing to either side of them, the empty bridges crisscrossing overhead. "No. But everything's hidden. Even someone looking close will see we're unarmed. Not saying they'll believe it, though."
"They won't." Kale twitched his cloak around him, making sure it still hid the pistol at his side, the twin blades tucked behind his belt. "Nor should we believe it of them. But you don't knock on a man's door brandishing a gun."
"They're men now?" Hamrin at least had the good sense to keep his voice down.
Above them, Kale could see color creeping back into the world, brightly painted walls visible within the building's gaping eyes, gardens growing on the rooftops. There were garish skiffs anchored at the bobbing docks that ringed the lower levels, glittering strands of beads hanging limply from the bridges above. It might not be a pleasant existence, but the people of the Shallows had always found ways to preserve some life amongst the death.
The Fleet might have left land behind, kept away as any sensible person would, but there were always those who slipped through the cracks, who refused to let go of the past. Those who lingered in the Shallows made their living unearthing treasures from beneath the waves, capturing and filtering the clouds of black gold that most avoided and – worst of all – daring the trip to the nearest coast. The Floating City had gardens much like the ones here, but they were grander, terraced, ringing the city's outer walls like leaves on a tree. It took a lot to feed all the people left in the world and plants couldn't grow on water alone.
They needed dirt. They needed the dirt farmers. It was all part of a system. Someone had to be willing to do the unthinkable so others wouldn't have to.
A lantern flared to life on the docks ahead, the one ringing the largest of the towers. They might not have seen a soul, but Kale could feel them being watched. Surviving beyond the safety of the Fleet took a certain amount of shrewdness and no small measure of distrust.
"We seek scrap and earth!" he called into the mist. "Oil if you have it!"
The lantern swayed silently, the figure holding it no more than a shadow. Kale was about to shout again, before a voice called back, hoarse but strong. "The royal fleet is always welcome. Long may we serve the beautiful queen."
They were being mocked already, but there was a game to be played here, rules to be observed. If sarcasm were enough to break him, negotiations would be short indeed.
More figures were taking shape on the dock now, appearing in the windows above. They'd dropped sail, steering the ship in on the power of the grinding motor that Al's tinkers had welded to the stern. Remo trusted the wind more than he trusted the machinists and had never felt entirely comfortable carrying casks of flammable fuel on board. But the queen must have her flagship and she was fascinated with reviving any of the old-world machines that her pets could get their hands on.
Keeping his eyes on the dock, he leaned back toward Hamrin. "You stay here. Watch the ship. Keep your girl ready in case I give the signal."
"And what signal's that?"
"Let's go with screaming."
The crew moved to make landing, tossing lines over the side to their hosts. They kept their movements calm and their hands visible, but the people of the Shallows showed them no such courtesy. Remo spotted at least three that were clearly armed, two big men and one lithe, dead-eyed woman. That one he would have to watch. But this was their house, their rules.
Their dressed matched their city, faded and frayed, but patched with scraps of bright color. Up close he could smell the stink, old salt and just a hint of death. A grand door waited above the dock, as cheerful as anything in this place could be. Once, it might have been just another broken window, but the tapestries billowing there were bright and yellow and clean.
Between the armed guards an old man waited, a fringed pink cloak shrouding him from the morning chill. Beneath it he was hunched and gnarled, his dark leathery skin hardened to agelessness by years on the sea. If Remo squinted, he could see the scars on one side of the man’s face, lighter than the rest, the scaly, pitted ravages of the pox. This one had been to land, probably many times.
His arms clinked with heavy bands as he raised his hands in greeting. Gold, silver and jewels they'd dredged up from the old city beneath the sea, but no one came here looking for trinkets anymore. One cask of good, untainted earth was more valuable than any of it.
"Welcome, pirate!" the old man rasped.
"I am called Remo,” he called back. "Captain of the Almenara’s Grace, Admiral of the royal fleet of Almenara the Unsinkable, defender of all who sail her waters."
"Admiral, is it? And I'm a simple historian." The man barked a laugh. "Three may come. The rest stay. My friends will watch."
More faces were appearing in the windows above. Remo flashed them a smile before bowing his head. "As you say."
He chose two from the crew to accompany him – Cam, the sharp-eyed quiet boy who manned the crow's nest, and Marla who kept their stores. Marla would have the lists, with detailed descriptions of the items they were to claim if they found them. Beyond earth and oil, most of it had been dreamed up by the tinkers, specific bits of scrap that Almenara had promised them, pieces that they needed to complete their work. Remo had never studied those parts too closely.
In exchange they had brought oranges and spices, fine blades and jewels, anything that the People of the Shallows might find rare enough to be worth a trade. They had some of the tinkers' toys aboard as well, supposedly harmless but perhaps useful to their hosts. They hoped to trade wonder for life, a bit of smoke and mirrors for food and fuel. It was a shit plan.
When he swung over the side and hit the dock, it was the woman who disarmed him. She found the pistol at his hip, slid her arms around behind his belt to take his knives. Remo let her tug at him, smiling down at her. She would never be a beauty and bore pock marks like the old man's on one cheek, but it was her eyes that drew him, dark and empty and cold. She made no move to discard her own weapon, the wickedly curved sword strapped across her back. The hilt was worn, but the steel was sharp. He wondered how she'd come by it.
The others had divested Cam and Marla of their weapons as well, leaving them in a pile on the dock. The old man disappeared inside, leaving them to follow under guard. Before they passed between the billowing yellow curtains, Remo let his eyes roam up over the face of the building. There was death here, nothing more.
Beyond the curtains was a wide room, piled high with rusted scrap and broken relics, anything that whirred or clinked or gleamed. More of the People crouched among them, one biting at a charred skewer of shrimp, another polishing the barnacle-crusted frame of an ancient motorcar. He spied knives and cudgels at their belts, saw more than a few hands twitch toward their hilts.
The men in the inner room had guns. They stood behind a long wooden table, a pair of them flanking the ornate padded chair that the old man waddled toward. The guns looked older than the rest of the treasures, water-stained semi-automatics that might well have been crafted before the Storm. Might be they still worked, might be they were just for show, but he was taking no chances.
The rest of their escorts formed up behind them, standing stiff and still as the old man took his seat. He drummed his fingers on the table, rings clinking together.
"So, Admiral, what have you brought me?"
Remo nodded to Marla, hooking his thumbs in his belt as his companion set their offerings on the table. There was no sense in asking where their seats were.
"Gifts from Her Grace's personal stores and clockwork wonders crafted by the Royal Machinists of The Floating City.”
"Clockwork." The old man clucked his tongue, picking up a tiny horse fashioned all of gears and springs. "Will clockwork take our boats to the forbidden shore? Will clockwork purify the earth, heal the flesh?" Setting the toy aside, he traced a spindly finger down his cheek.
Remo scratched absently at his own scar. "We both know I'm not here to barter. Take the gifts."
The old man ignored the threat, settling back in his chair. "Tell me, is this queen of yours as beautiful as they say?"
"You are quick to say so. Tell me, was it your loyalty that cut your pretty face, or her vanity?"
Remo leaned both hands on the table. "No more games. If you refuse to give me what I want, you know that I can take it."
The old man's smile was toothless and sickly sweet. "You would threaten good queen's men?"
"We may fly the same banner, but no true queen's man would make her dance on strings for a bit of mud."
"You are not the queen. And not dressed for dancing, I think." He sat back in his chair and drummed his rings on the table. "But men cannot live on salt and fish, this is true. Thirty casks of earth I will give you, good soil and pure, enough to fill your queen's city with green and growing things."
"Thirty?" Remo straightened. It was more than he would have hoped. "And what do you want in return?"
Again, the old man picked up the clockwork horse, tossing it across the table to land in front of Remo. "Toys we do not need. You will give us guns."
"Guns? Why would you need guns?"
Again, the old man grinned, sucking at his missing teeth. "To defend against pirates."
The very floor seemed to punctuate his words, rumbling beneath Kale's boots like the deep purr of heavy barrels being rolled across a ship's deck. The old man looked as surprised as he – they all did – but he recovered quickly.
"What trick now, pirate?"
"You tell me."
The old man barked a command and one of the men with the guns hurried from the room. The other shifted his weapon nervously in his hands as the woman and the two men from the docks formed up behind Kale and his men. Cam looked nervous, but he and Marla held steady.
Remo looked down at the woman and shrugged. "Earthquake, maybe?"
She grunted. "No earthquakes here. Not in years."
"Far off, then. Probably just an echo."
She didn't reply. The tremors had stopped, but the man hadn't returned. Remo looked the youngest of the gunmen, saw the way his eyes darted between the visitors, the way his hands tensed nervously on the barrel. Despite the old man's bluster, and with the exception of the steely-eyed woman, his people weren't fighters.
Remo caught the boy's gaze and held it, holding up his hands. "It's okay. We're all okay here."
"I say when we're okay," the old man snapped.
The outer room was silent, the sea beyond still. Kale breathed deep, counting the seconds, measuring the distance to the door. Waves might grow tall, but they would always break.
When they heard the first shot, everything happened at once. The boy whipped his gun up, leveling it at Remo's chest. One of the other men grabbed for Marla, but she ducked easily, sweeping a leg beneath the man and smashing his head into the table. The gunman opened fire, but Remo was already spinning away, dimly aware of the boy's scream of pain as the weapon backfired. He found himself in the path of the woman, her sword slashing just beneath his chin.
He leapt back. "Don't need any more scars, darlin'."
Her answer was a guttural scream, the sword arcing high as she charged him. She was stronger than she looked, more than enough to take his head off, but he hit the table and rolled aside, her blade burying itself in the wood. They stared at each other as she tugged, unwilling to give up her weapon. With an apologetic shrug, Remo punched her in the face.
"Sorry." He jerked the blade free as she crumpled, swinging it from side to side to test the balance. Not bad at all.
They could hear shouts beyond the door now, more gunfire and the clash of steel. His men could take the dirt farmers in a fight – they were better armed and a good deal more experienced – but numbers could still be their undoing. He had no idea how many inhabited these broken towers, and if there was one thing the people of the shallows had in spades, it was desperation.
Cam had finished off the boy with the gun and together they were taking on the men rushing in from the docks. One of them wielded a long metal rod thick as Remo's arm. It made a sickening thunk as it connected with Marla's temple, before spinning low to shatter Cam's shin. The young sailor gasped, but the old man had risen from the table, silencing him with a quick slash of his knife.
Three on one now. He'd had worse odds. Remo backed toward the outer room. There would be time to mourn his friends, but now it was time to cut their losses. If their hosts managed to take the ship, the rest of the crew would face far worse.
The outer treasure room looked abandoned, but it was impossible to keep an eye on every dusty corner. He backed up slowly, keeping the sword leveled on the old man as his remaining guards circled to the left and the right. One still brandished his stick. The other was apparently unarmed, but was large enough to be just as threatening. The old man seemed content to stand back and gloat.
"What now, pirate?"
"Now, I'd say you owe me a bit more than dirt."
His laugh was rasping, as he nodded to the big man. "That I do."
The man swung a meaty fist, but Remo was quicker, darting forward to slash him across the belly. He staggered but kept on, the momentum driving them both backward. The other man slipped behind him and tangled his staff in Remo's legs, sending him crashing to the ground with the big man on top of him.
He struggled to catch his breath, dimly aware of the fat fingers closing round his throat. But his eye was drawn to something beneath the heaps of broken treasures, a broken bit of mirror. It caught his reflection as he stared at it, the wide eyes and purpled cheeks were almost unrecognizable now.
But the old man wouldn't let him die, not yet. He squeezed in beside his muscled pet, leaning close to let Remo smell the rot on his breath. "What good are your trinkets now, pirate?"
He didn't hear the footsteps behind them. It was the gun he recognized, the whirring roar of it ripping through the walls. Bits of curtain fluttered down around them as the big man went flying off his chest, his face ripped open in a rapid hail of bullets. Remo rolled onto his side, instinctively covering his face. When he risked a glance, he saw Hamrin filling the doorway, outlined in the dawn. There was a turret on each of his shoulders, a big double- barreled beast of a gun that might have once graced the prow of a mighty ship. His friend had rigged a harness for it and was broad enough to wear what most men would have struggled to even lift. Savannah, he called her. Theirs was a love Remo almost envied.
Hamrin's bellow was drowned beneath her roar, but Remo saw the grin on his face. The man with the staff had fallen. The old man was scrambling over his treasures, dragging his leg behind him. Hamrin let the turrets spin down, watching him go with a bemused expression.
He offered Remo a hand.
"Thank you, old friend."
"Negotiations went well, I take it?"
Remo kept an eye on the old man, watching as he slipped and went down hard on a pile of silver plates. "Well enough." He spied his borrowed sword lying nearby. Picking it up, Remo slid it into his belt.
Hamrin snorted. "Leave it to you to bring a knife to a gunfight."
"Haha. How's my ship?"
"A little scarred maybe, but these farmers ain't got much more than rocks and sticks. We held them off easy enough."
Remo clapped him on the shoulder.
The old man was still struggling away on his wounded leg. Remo closed the distance easily, pulling him up by his collar. For all his rings and necklaces, the man wasn't heavy at all, little more than skin and bones. Savannah had shredded his leg to the bone, but still he grasped his knife in a gnarled fist. Remo dodged his slash with ease and twisted his wrist until it clattered to the floor.
"Earth and oil, old man. Don't make us tear this place apart."
None of them saw the woman staggering to her feet behind them, didn't hear the cocking of her gun until it was too late. Hamrin's chest exploded, but he threw out an arm, knocking Remo aside. The old man's knife was still within reach and Remo rolled onto his knees, sending it flying across the room to lodge quivering in the woman's throat. He kicked the old man away and scrambled to Hamrin's side.
The force had blown him backward, the life leaking out of him to pool amongst the rusted treasures. The harness strapped across his chest had been ripped through with all the rest. Savannah lay beside him now, Hamrin's shaggy cheek resting against the cooling steel of her barrel.
Gently, Remo closed his friend's eyes and looked back at the woman. This was the cost of mercy. He had always been a fool.
Again Remo grabbed the old man, pulling him to his feet and pressing the sword to his throat. He nearly had to carry him to the door, pushing him before him like a shield as they stepped through the shredded curtains and looked out over the docks.
Dead men floated in the water – at least three of theirs for every one of his. Light's Grace stood largely untouched, the men on her deck staring down the sights of shotguns and rifles and pistols at those still bleeding on the dock.
But it wasn't the guns that held them still, nor Remo’s sudden appearance with a blade at their leader's throat. His men fixed their gazes on the water, the buildings, but the People of the Shallows had eyes only for the dawn.
Kale couldn't blame them. At first he had misguessed the hour, but no sun had ever shone so white, no sun had ever pulsed. It came and went, came and went, the clouds growing brighter and then dim. It reminded him of the beacons of the Floating City, the lighthouses kept by some of the more friendly shallows towns. But none of those had ever been big enough to blind the dawn.
The old man shuddered against him, his toothless mouth gaping in a wordless scream. The sound brought more faces to the windows above them and for one horrible moment Remo saw them outnumbered, realized that they had been all along. But none of them were paying him any mind. For once, their screams were not for him.
The old man raised his arms, shouting above them all. "It is time! They come!" He twisted in Remo’s arms to look back at him, sucking in a strangled breath with one last triumphant grin. Then he threw himself forward against the blade.
Remo leapt back, blood washing down across his boots. The old man fell, crashing down to the docks, splintering the wood beneath him before rolling and crashing into the sea. He sank quickly, pulled down by the weight of all his jewelry, his treasures. Another man leapt from the windows above, plunging beneath the waves. More were coming now, but their eyes were only for the sky, a maddened rush to throw themselves into the sea and return to the dead city below. A woman came running across one of the swaying bridges before throwing herself into the water. She aimed poorly, her head splitting like a melon on one of the brightly colored skiffs.
Food and fuel would have to wait. It was past time they were gone.
Remo ran down the docks waving his hands, shouting for the crew to pull away. Men leapt over the side to cut the lines, their weapons for the moment forgotten. There was no victory in this madness, no bounty worth the risk. Some of them had noticed the sky now, were standing, staring, forgetting to make haste.
The others were no threat now. Still some launched themselves into the sea, but others seemed content to sit… to wait. Remo didn't intend to find out why, to see what coming the old man had promised.
Running harder, he nearly stumbled over a small boy. He was scarred like all the rest, naked save for a ragged bit of cloth around his waist. Staring up at Remo, he blinked.
"The song. They're coming."
"Who?" He spoke before he could stop himself. Always such a fool.
There was something in the boy's hand. A box, a box with a coil of red wire snaking back across the dock. It disappeared beneath a tower of barrels that stacked against the building, ringing it round. There were barrels stacked on the other docks, he saw, piled against the other buildings. More red wire swayed above his head, worked into the rope of the bridges. There had been barrels in the treasure room, barrels beneath the old man's table.
There was blood in the water, but something darker too. The cloud of black gold had caught them up. It had been here all along.
"Go!" he shouted. Almenara's Grace was pulling free, but too slow, too late.
Looking back, he saw the boy staring still, his eyes wide and expressionless. As his people's cries grew exultant, he gave his little box a squeeze.
Remo dove beneath the sea as the force of it ripped outward, the foul water filling his lungs. He swam hard, making for the open sea beyond the town. Other men were sinking faster, great chunks of stone and steel hurtling past in fierce and bubbling clouds. Something struck his cheek and he felt the world twist sideways, caught a final glimpse of the surface above. Water wasn't supposed to burn.
But beneath him there was quiet, strange shadows on the ocean floor that might have been streets or shops or cars. Here was where men had lived, where children had played, forever preserved and forever beyond burning. Letting his eyes fall shut, Remo drank deep and went down to join the dead.