299, Fourth Month, 13th Day
You can tell an old airshipman their aft pumps are shot. That their lines are leakier than a sieve. You can tell them that the Traveler’s curse is on every valve that twists, every shaft that spins. That their core is ready to die. That their hatches won’t shut, their portholes won’t open, and half the ship smells like a duster’s crotch. That it’s just a matter of time before the last bit gives, crumbles apart, and you just start falling.
You can tell them. But they don’t hear a gods damned thing. I can tell you that for certain, Father’s an old airshipman. Only thing they ask, the only thing they care about: when can we get back in the air?
Captain says: We’ve got work. Airborne tomorrow.
I damned near spit out my cigar, angry as I was.
Captain says: You don’t sound excited.
Of course I wouldn’t sound excited. Cleaning up Jonas’ messes while they wander around port for a few weeks? Peddling their ‘services’ to nobody buying. I don’t know what favor my pop owed old Captain Ed, but it had to have been paid by now. At the start, I told the bastards it would take a crew of a dozen at least three months, at best. My father says I can do it in one. Then Ed comes and says ‘tomorrow’? Yeah. Excited.
I do like I should, I tell the truth. Not happening, I say.
Captain asks, Why not? Job won’t wait, the skies beckon, time is running out— or some shit.
I tell him all of it.
Captain asks, How long would it take?
I tell him, like I already told him. Months, I say.
Can she fly? he says. Same old question.
Yes. Assuming I can patch her together by tomorrow, but she’ll be—
So she’ll fly tomorrow?
Airshipmen. Too much wind in the ears. I tell him his Apotheosis will be slow. That she’ll need somebody to watch after her. An engineer.
I’ve got an engineer, old Ed says.
I keep my mouth shut.
You fly? Captain asks.
Well enough, I say.
You want to fly her? Captain asks.
What’s the job?
A lead on a shard. A big one. And word has it, the Passerine rock went dark.
I’m not licensed for Guild work, I say. Just been getting the rigs around the shipyard. Trickiest part, you ask me.
Captain says, That’s all we need. Have us put together by tomorrow morning, and you can get us there. Vogtland and back. You ever been? he asks.
So I guess I’m a pilot now.
Jonas held Markus’ journal up to read it in the light coming through the porthole. “So I guess I’m a pilot now,” Jonas said, delivering the line in his gruffest voice. Unable to contain himself, laughter bubbled up from somewhere deep. “Who in the twelve hells writes this shit? I mean. Markus was one of the stranger beasts, for sure, but— I mean— This is just precious.”
“I’m pretty sure he didn’t write it with the intent of some asshole reading it like a fucking mummer’s play.” Deirdre said, sorting through the deceased pilot’s footlocker.
Jonas cleared his throat, and flicked his eyes across the tiny writing once again. “You fly? Well enough, I say,” he recited, putting on his most grizzled airshipman. “I’ll be damned if it doesn’t read like a Soot adventure. Hey— Hey hey— That’s not a bad idea—”
“Don’t even think about it.”
“What? Come on. It’s no use to him now.”
“You’re not sending in some kid’s— some dead man’s journal to Soot on the off-chance they’ll pay for it.”
“I’ve read worse in there. And what better way to honor his memory? Markus, uh…” Jonas looked at the cover of the journal, then thumbed the first page open. “Van Lew… Lewd? Whatever— Markus here, immortalized forever. Alas, the venerable poet, gone too soon.” He flipped the journal back to where his finger had held his place, and barked a laugh. “Maybe clean up the grammar, add a little punctuation… a dash of sexual escapades, just to keep the pages turning… I know this is going to sound like a crazy fantasy but every word of this story is true—”
“To that end, is it alright if I use your name? I mean, the stories are supposed to all be true, but I guess we could come up with a good pseudonym for you. Wouldn’t want to make a name for yourself.”
“Fuck off. We did not— Not that it’s any of your business, but we didn’t do anything.”
Jonas gave a nod of comic proportions. “Uh-huh. Maybe… Deedra? No, too close. Dorie? Hmm, not ribald enough. Ooh, no— no— Give it that Ostie flair, eh? What do you think about ’Devara?’”
“Gods dammit, Jonas. Are you going to look or not? I’m not the one who’s used to rooting through someone else’s things.”
Jonas shrugged easily. “Henner wanted a story for a Telling. And this is mine. Unless you’re looting the poor chap, I think we’re done here.”
“It’s supposed to be your own Telling, Jonas.”
“Sure. And my Telling of dear Markus is going to be that one time I unearthed literary gold. All the more poignant that I discovered it posthumously, eh? Bishops love that kind of sap.” Jonas snapped the journal shut and put a hand up to lean on a wall hook. He brought the back of the other hand up to his forehand, as if suffering a fainting spell. “Had I known our yardie-turned-pilot could spin such a yarn—” The hook came out of the bulkhead, having succumbed to years of rot. “Whup. Um—” He returned the hook to the wall, balancing it carefully within the new divot. “As good as new. Well, then— Shall we… Oh.”
With a labored sigh, Deirdre took the last article of clothing from Markus’ trunk. She held up a knitted vest and heard something crinkle in its breast pocket. From the pocket she retrieved a small envelope sealed with a dollop of fresh wax. On the front, it read ‘Markus Van Lierde.’ “Damn it,” she whispered.
“Shit,” Jonas said. “Is that it?”
Deirdre dipped her chin in solemn affirmation. “Farer’s Leave.”
299, Fourth Month, 15th Day
You can tell a yardie he’s a fool. A fool for leaving off. A fool for letting liars bend his ear. A fool for not listening to the rumble in his gut. But you can’t tell a yardie a gods damned thing. A yardie like me has to climb up a tree and fall, breaking every branch for his kindling, before he thinks to pick up an axe.
This yardie’s a fool. Pa said don’t trust the sharder, or his crew. They’ll say anything, he said, do anything to get their rocks. Connive and conspire, then leave you to hang. My father dealt with hundreds of sharders since the war’s end. Shipyards full of sharding ships, or the pieces of those that make it back. Never mattered how dire, he always said, “Make the deal up front. With enemies or friends. Especially friends.”
Captain says, We got word on a shard in the Vogtland.
Turns out, that was a truth stretched thin. Instead, there’s rumor. Rumor that some old frontier nobleman is knocking on death’s door. Says the deader had a shard that he’ll need to part with once he’s sought his own horizon.
But that ain’t been the job to date, has it? No. Says that before we get down to business, we have to find some kid. Some fucking Vogtlander dirt-farmer whelp.
I ask, For why? And how? What’s a bumpkin know about finding a shard?
But lips are tight, captain and crew. They don’t even know where the kid is. Every saloon on every uncharted village we touch down says they heard stories. Not of the kid, but his pops. Seems the dad was in the war. Something of a folk hero out here. Everyone’s gotta story, everyone just goes on and on, but nothing about the kid.
The yokels say he’s just in the next village, just up the cowpath. He ain’t. I’m thinking I should have dealt, made case for my pay up front. The job’s only good if we find a fucking shard, and there’s no shard unless we find this dumbfuck kid.
Only thing keeping me here is the girl. Gods be damned. Something about this girl. Words don’t sing, and the pen doesn’t write. Makes a man want to climb trees.
This fool yardie’s gonna fell that tree. Or fall off it, leastwise.
“A bird,” Henner stated disapprovingly.
“A bird?” Deirdre asked. “Who is honestly going to buy that?”
“That’s what we sell,” Captain Mied said, rubbing his eyes with his palms.
“Not the most enticing of wares, cap’n,” Jonas quipped.
Deirdre was not convinced, either. “So, what’s the story? We, the Apotheosis Break, lumbering along as we do, happened to overtake an— an— albatross?”
Gert piped up. “We don’t gotta be specific about the kind of bird—”
“Yes, we do. Because if it were a sparrow, it would’ve just left a stain. A gull might’ve left its beak in the glass. But for a bird to make it through the weather-pane and somehow kill a crewman? Someone’s gotta ask. The least of which would be his next of kin when they get his Farer’s Leave in the post.”
“There’s plenty of big birds.” Gert offered. “Don’t have to be an albatross. Vultures, condors, eagles… Some giant eagle.”
“An eagle,” Mied affirmed. “More eagles this side of the Himhocks. Less so the giant wastelander variety, but it could fly.”
“It’s the Vogtland wilds!” Jonas added. “People will believe anything.”
“Excepting that the kid is a gods damned Vogtlander,” Deirdre hissed, running her hand through her hair. “Any idiot would know better.”
“A touch of impossible lends to the mystery, doesn’t it?” Jonas argued, grinning widely.
“C’mon,” Gert scoffed “These uncultured fucks still burn dusters at the stake. They’ll close the shutters at first mention of a giant bird.”
Captain Mied finally interjected. “I’ll worry about his kin, Deir,” he said, giving the young woman a pained look. “His Leave is mine to see to. Right now, you all have a job. And you need to focus on what needs done. It was a bird. More questions than that, you turn little Vasili over to me. I’ll set him straight.”
“If you don’t mind, captain, what of Markus’ Telling?” Henner asked.
“Right. Thanks, Hen.” The captain surveyed the room. “Everyone’s gotten their tale back to the good bishop?”
The crew each gave a sullen nod. “All but one,” Henner said.
“Gods damn it. If Cauderon’s not going to answer his pipe—”
“He already reported. A rather touching one. I wouldn’t have expected Markus would have sought out our odeworker but…” Henner trailed, then added, “Whenever you have the time, captain.”
The captain took a long breath and crossed his arms. “I’ll get back to you.”
299, Fourth Month, 28th Day
I figured it out.
I was talking with the odeworker, Caud. The pumps are beyond slow, and Jonas was nowhere to be found. It’s not that big of a fucking ship. Does he have something with Deirdre? No. No, of course not. She has given me every inclination she shares my thoughts. Deirdre has too much self respect to be swallowed up by that lazy idiot. No matter how charming his toothy grin can be.
Caud was talking. Strange fellow, but friendly enough. Everyone needs someone that talks the same language. Someone that ain’t Jonas-fucking-Semmler. Told me about how he got on. How the captain picked him up in the war. And as far as he can remember, he’s been with ever since.
Captain Mied picked you up in the war? I ask.
No, no, he says. Captain Micky.
Micky, I say. Micky, Mikhailovich. I heard the name so many times from these Vogtlanders it’s haunting my dreams.
The odeworker said yes.
Something is foul here. Ship’s falling apart, nothing’s ever done. Captain’s after a shard, but first he’s gotta find the son of the old skipper. Every village has its own story of this ‘Micky’. But every village is yet another fool’s errand. I’m thinking that someone doesn’t want this boy to be found. Thinking that this kid’s in for some trouble when the Break finds him.
Deirdre’s his niece. She has to know.
Deirdre sat at the top of the pilothouse ladder, vacant and glass-eyed. Broken glass from the shattered portlight above was still sprinkled on the floorboards, and the chill from the incoming breeze made her shiver. Jonas and Gert worked behind the pilot’s console.
“So much for Vogtlander hospitality,” Jonas quipped darkly around his cigar.
Gert only grunted as he helped the engineer lay Markus’ lifeless body to the floor. A sheet had been laid out to collect the body and detritus left behind by the harpoon. The first mate delicately wrapped the body covering the legs first, and at last the head. The fabric stuck up like a tent pole where the broken haft protruded from Markus’ chest. Gert sighed as he cinched the sheet closed with a tightly wrapped cord. “‘s a shame. Young kid like him.”
Jonas winced. “Young kid that asked a lot of questions.”
Gert shook his head, then grabbed the body by its shoulders and looked to Jonas to join him. “They all do that. It’s in their nature”
“Those assholes did us a favor, if you ask me,” Jonas said, wrapping his arms around the body’s legs.
“Yeah? We’ll see about returning the favor. Report them fuckers to the Guild. See what they say ’bout Markus.”
“By ‘favor’ I mean our share. And the Sharding Guild doesn’t care one whit. We’re in their stretch, Gertie. I say two favors owed us for not burning us out of the sky as well.”
Gert glanced down to the sheet beneath him. “Don’t make it right. Old days we had the common courtesy of a friendly ‘fuck off and die’. Now this. What the fuck happened?”
The two men shared a moment between them, then both hoisted the body in unison.
“All you old codgers found the easy rocks,” Jonas grunted.
“Still plenty to go around,” Gert said. “No need to go stickin’ each other quite yet.”
“I do so love these trips to Vogtland.”
The men’s voices disappeared from the pilothouse with Markus’ corpse, but Deirdre remained behind. Having moored, the Apotheosis Break took on a strange, unsettling quiet. The doctor stared until the light faded and had nearly gone from the sky. The deep red stains on her sleeves had dimmed to black.
“Deir…” Her uncle put a hand on the young woman’s shoulder. “You okay, girl?”
“I tried, but…” She wrung her blood-spattered hands more tightly, and looked up to see Mied’s face wreathed in oderic lamplight. “He didn’t need to die.”
“There’s nothing you could have done. Nothing any doc could have. Those territorial Father-fuckers were planning on putting a harpoon through our pilot the second they saw our silhouette. Hell of a warning shot.”
“He didn’t have to die.”
Mied shifted his weight to his other leg. “Everyone has to die. I’m just glad it wasn’t you. I don’t bring you home, your mother— Hells, I might as well mail my own Farer’s Leave, then and there.”
Deirdre tried to laugh, but the sound that came out was weak. Instead, she wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. “What do we do now, uncle?”
“You let me worry about that. First things first: you have to move, sweetie. You can’t be blocking the ladder, yeah?”
“It’s rare, you know,” Jonas went on. “I don’t often get to have quite so much inspiration for my characters. Often, they’re just creatures of my invention. Constructed from thin air and then discarded to the next wind. But our dear Markus, well… It’s almost harder this way. Now I feel somehow… constrained.”
Deirdre frowned. “Let’s just get this over with, Jonas.”
The two approached a docked vessel. It looked to be an ancient cattle hauler, with a massive, patchwork balloon floating above, threatening to rupture at any moment. A wooden shingle had been hung out to show that the ship was hiring, and a line of candidates stood outside of its extended plank.
“Next,” the mate called for the next in line. A spindly teen walked forward, and the line followed.
Jonas grew bored in the span of a breath, and went on. “I guess that’s what makes our art different, isn’t it? The players on Darren’s Row just recite the lines. But we… we have to improvise. A shame that Markus wasn’t much of an inspirational character. How do you think I should play it? Bright eyed, headed out west? Strong and silent? Maybe a little something from his Soot stories…”
“—Get the fuck out of here. Get. You’re no sixteen. Come on, then. Next in line.” The teenage boy slunk off, ashamed of whatever had transpired. The line shuffled forward again. This time, an old grizzled deckhand stepped forward.
“Jonas…” Deirdre said, just above a whisper.
“Darling, how quickly you forget, it’s Markus.” Jonas’ eyes glinted in the hot sun. “I’m securing us passage on a ship out west. Adventure over the Himhocks!”
“Who is your Farer’s Leave addressed to?” Deirdre asked.
Jonas paused, then absently scratched his nose. “I never write one. Postage is expensive. And it’s just for greenies thinking they’ll ever see home again.”
Deirdre sighed. “If you ever do… If you ever write one, don’t expect me to deliver it.”
Jonas gave her an amused look while the grizzled airfarer stepped away in a huff.
“Next in li—” The mate spied the pair, and his eyes grew wide with surprise. He slapped the table and stood to greet them. “Well, I’ll be damned by all the Banished Gods. Jonas—Fucking—Semmler. I thought that might be you. How long has it been?” The man thrust his hand over the table in greeting.
Deirdre froze in place, the ruse fleeing from their grasp.
Jonas stepped forward to grasp the man’s hand, shaking it with aplomb. “Conrad, you old salty dog. What’s got you running this heap?”
“Heap? Heap?” Conrad put his hands on his hips with mock indignity. “This here’s my retirement, you prick.”
The men shared a laugh, then caught up while Deirdre and the rest of the line sat idle.
“Say,” Jonas said, glancing back at Deirdre as he jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “That kid you turned away… What was his name? I thought I seen ’im before.”
“No clue. Ain’t no sixteen, like he said he was. His face ain’t ever seen a razor, that’s for sure.”
Jonas reached into his pocket with a deft flourish before placing a few heavy coins on the tabletop. “I’m feeling generous today. I’ll stake him.”
“Stake him? What’re you sayin’? You know the kid?”
“Sure. Good hand. Little bit mouthy, but aren’t we all at that tender age?” Jonas’ voice purred, and he pushed the coins toward Conrad. “Let’s say you take him on. Everyone has the right to see the endless sands. But his name’s Markus, yeah? Don’t let him tell you any different.”
The bishop and the doctor stood at the edge of the portside loading hatch as the sun dipped beneath the horizon. A cross wind howled through the open hatch, buffeting the ship and swirling through the corridor before dying off.
“How many?” Deirdre asked. She hugged herself with one arm against the cold, steadying herself against the bulkhead with the other. “Like him.”
“Mm?” Henner looked up from his reverie. His loose cloak whipped behind him in the breeze. “How many?”
“How many like Markus. Their Tellings. The young ones, like him. How many have you received?”
Henner bobbed his head and took a deep, thoughtful breath. “Dozens. Hundreds. The war was… Well. More than I ever wanted to receive.”
Deirdre’s face darkened. “It’s hard thinking of him. I barely knew him. And now… now it’s hard to imagine his face. How do you keep them all?”
Henner looked to his feet and anxiously toed the footlocker. It did not budge. He and Deirdre were charged with removing Markus’ belongings from the ship, should any kin or judges come asking.
“They taught us as acolytes that a memory is a thing that can wear. Like a striking stone. Or a knife that you can never sharpen. The more you use it, the more you try to recall… You shouldn’t feel guilty. It’s natural, if that is what you are asking. The unimportant details go first. The minutiae. Their favorite food. Their favorite color. Then the way they walked. The color of their eyes. Their face. I suppose, in a sense, I cannot recall every person whose Telling I have received. But I do know their story. And from their story, I can recount much. An action defines a person as much as the face they wore. Perhaps more so.”
“So it is just our stories that make it to your All-Father. If they make it.”
“Just so. Assuming, of course, that I am still on the All-Father’s stage when the curtain descends.”
Deirdre was quiet a moment, then murmured over the light wind. “Who says any of us will be?”
“My dear, you’ve lived enough for someone twice your age. I’m sure that the All-Father will want to see your tale through to the end.”
“Is that the trick? Have a good enough story, and you’ll make it? Is that why Jonas wasn’t on shift, but Markus was?”
Henner shook his head, and disappointment sloped his shoulders. “I don’t know. What I do know, is that I’ve taken many Tellings of those like Jonas. They do somehow persist, the lucky ones… but the All-Father tires of a villain just the same. I’m sorry, miss… We are almost out of lake. May I?”
Deirdre brought Markus’ journal out of her satchel and handed it to the bishop.
“Thank you,” Henner said. He knelt down to place the journal into the locker before snapping the lid shut. “Markus van Lierde, I have received your Telling, and will carry it to the All-Father.”
Henner looked up to Deirdre, who nodded for him to continue. The bishop pushed the locker over the edge, and it toppled over in the evening air until it hit the lake below with a hollow splash. Deirdre watched the footlocker bob for a moment on the water, the metal hinges glinting one last time in the dying light, before it slipped beneath the surface and disappeared.
I am writing to inform you that your son, Markus van Lierde, was removed from my employ on the Apotheosis Break. He was caught fraternizing with one of my crew members in a fashion unbecoming an airshipman. I have released him from his contractual obligation, and will be continuing my flight without him as our pilot.
We have parted ways at Torwald with payment exchanged for time and services rendered. His stated intention was to seek other employment on a vessel bound for the Dead Span.
Edmund Mied, Captain & Sole Proprietor of the Apotheosis Break
Henner closed to the door to his quarters, then tried to spin the valve open for the light coil in his quarters. He heard a crunch, and the valve refused to turn any further.
“Well. That is lovely,” the bishop said to the darkening chamber.
He felt his way along the wardrobes and knelt at the bottom of the largest. He felt along a plain section of wood until something hidden clicked. The face of the wardrobe fell away and Henner brought out a small drawer, filled not with clothes, but instead trinkets. He produced a small bound book out of his sleeve and placed it gently among the items. In another moment the drawer was stowed and the unassuming wooden veneer replaced.
“Markus van Lierde,” Henner recited. “Born 279. Died 299. Markus van Lierde. Born 279. Died 299…”