It pooled ankle-deep on the deck, moving in little eddies around our feet every time we moved. A slow, dank current of it flowed silently down the forecastle stairs in wispy trails, then down to the main deck where it pooled again before draining out the scuppers and down the hull to the ocean. But no matter how much fog drained out, there was always more. Made me itch to grab a broom or mop and get it all off the deck, only I knew it wouldn’t do any good. There was plenty more where that came from. All around us, in fact.
I was at the front rail near the bowsprit, the very forefront of the ship. A lantern threw yellow light that clung to the deck behind me but didn’t penetrate more than a dozen feet or so. All I could make out was more fog pooled on quiet, black, still water. The ship’s prow barely made a ripple as we cut through the water without a sound. We’d been forced out into the Channel; coming back towards the English shore had a forbidden feel. We weren’t welcome here in England anymore. You could feel it.
The mist had a way of dampening sounds, so that I kept looking back to make sure that everyone else was still there. I could see the rest of the quarterdeck that Faith, Sands, and Avonstoke shared with me, but the rest of the ship was lost in the haze.
Quiet should have been good. We were prowling in enemy territory. I’d given the orders for silence myself, but now the heavy feel of it was making my skin crawl. I thought the darkness was starting to show a little gray in it, at least, as if dawn might not be that far off.
“Justice,” Faith hissed from behind me. “We’re too far in!” “Shh,” I said, craning my neck to listen for signs of other ships, or possibly the English shore. England used to be home, before the Faerie took it and shrouded it in this bloody fog. Now it was enemy territory and there was no telling what changes the Faerie had wrought to it.
“Too far in!” she said again. I was supposed to be captain, but one of the problems with having my older sister on board was that she’d never taken orders from me and wasn’t about to start now. Didn’t matter if I was a captain, admiral, or a bag of rutabagas.
Faith looked unnatural in the eerie yellow light, with her white London dress and her long ash-white hair. No pants for her, despite being at sea. The Faerie might have conquered London, but they hadn’t made much of a dent in Faith’s sense of propriety or fashion. At least she’d forgone any hoops or a bustle.
She stepped closer, her dark eyes wild with panic. “You know the strain it takes for Sands to keep the shield up. He’s going to collapse if we keep him at it.”
I pushed my weather-beaten wide-brimmed black hat back on my head to peer up at her. She had to be prettier and older and taller. Life’s not fair.
“What about you?” I snapped. “Do you feel anything? Anything at all?”
Faith’s lips went tight. “No, same as the last time you asked. If I felt anything, don’t you think I’d tell you? Everyone keeps call ing me a magician, but that’s all they can tell me. You don’t learn magic as much as feel it, but I don’t feel anything! I’m about as close to singing fish into a hat as raising a shield! You have to take us back!”
I shook my head. “You know we can’t do that. They get one ship across the channel and it’s all over.” I turned my back on her. She made a smothered noise behind me and I could sense her frustration.
The worst part about Faith’s warning was that she was probably right.
Sands looked an absolute and unmitigated shamble. The man’s face, when I glanced back again, despite myself, was covered in sweat though he shivered in the cold damp. His black coat and tails were spattered with salt, and he’d lost his hat. His cheeks showed two day’s growth around his blonde mustache and goatee and his blonde hair stuck out in all directions. His eyes, a startling emerald green under normal conditions, now shone like cat’s eyes or undersea lanterns, washing the forecastle deck and our boots with lime, eldritch light. He stared out over the water, looking for dangers most of the us couldn’t even see.
The Faerie invasion force had put up the mist to keep us out, of course. The Outcast Fleet stayed on the edge of the mist, where the rest of humanity couldn’t reach us, but venturing further in, like we were doing now, was like taking out a rowboat into a monsoon.
My ghost eye, which helped me see through Faerie magic, allowed me to penetrate the first line of defense: the illusions, or glamours, as the Faerie called them. Dark flocks of predatory birds, specters gliding on top of the ocean’s surface, that sort of thing. It was enough to scare the crew into a wailing froth and I was just barely holding that fear in check, constantly reminding them that the glamours weren’t really there. The only person not showing any fear was Avonstoke and I had him to thank for bolstering the crew. Without him, I’d have a mutiny on my hands for sure. I looked back to where he stood, supporting Sands.
Avonstoke was tall, a Court Faerie like the stern and uncompromising Faerie marines. But Avonstoke wasn’t stern, not by a long shot. The average Court Faerie was slender, with high cheek bones and angular features in a way that was disconcertingly in human. But Avonstoke wore it better somehow, more mysterious
than inhuman, and with that kind of height and broad shoulders, he took the breath of every woman around him. I found him endearing, distracting, and exasperating in equal measures, but he’d become a sturdy support, my rock when things got danger ous, like now. His eyes, like the others of his kind, were pale gold, without any pupils. They were an echo of my ghost eye, a solid black marble in my left eye.
That ghost eye also allowed me to see the visions that really were out in the mist. Dark shapes cresting the water, ghost ships, an enormous bat-winged shape far overhead. But only Sands and I could see those, and neither of us mentioned it to the others.
“Ghosts,” he muttered when another of the ships went by. “Intangible?” I said, keeping my voice equally low. “So, they can’t hurt us?” Avonstoke and Faith were close enough to hear, but I trusted them to keep their mouths shut.
Sands turned his glowing cats eyes to me and shook his head. “Probably not.” There was the hint, like always, of France and other unfamiliar places in the lilt of his voice. “Ships, or other things, caught by a vortex and wrenched free of their place in time. If they are ghosts to us, or we are ghosts to them, I cannot say. Now they move through when, as well as through where. Let’s hope they are not close enough in the fabric of time to reach us. Years spent in the mist would leave you quite mad. I should know.”
I wanted to ask more, but now wasn’t the time. He turned away, peering out into the fog with those luminous eyes. What we were really worried about were the vortexes. Dark twisters, like supernatural tornados, that threatened either to tear us to pieces or pull us entirely out of the world we knew. One false step and we could be ghosts ourselves. Or we could just be dead.
Even as I watched, another black tornado lurched out of the mist, moving far too quickly for us to avoid it, and battered itself against Sands’ shield. The shield, which, through my ghost eye, I could see as a soft green shimmer around the ship, rippled under the impact. But it held. It was all eerily silent and unreal. I felt no sign of the impact under my feet, which was even more unnerving.
But Sands shook under the impact, as if he had been hit directly. Avonstoke’s grip on him was the only thing that kept Sands from falling.
Faith wasn’t wrong. The little blonde man couldn’t take too much more of this.
I could see back to the rest of the ship, which was a far cry from a comfort. Every face that peered back was tight with sullen fear, watching me, or Faith, but mostly watching Sands, our only magician.
Except Sands wasn’t a full-fledged magician anymore. Since passing his mantle to Faith, his powers had been slowly fading. To make matters worse, Faith, his replacement according to Father’s plan, didn’t seem close to taking his place.
I gnawed my lip.
The air was still, the rigging quiet, the splash of water soft, while we all struggled not to breathe too loudly. Everyone was listening hard enough to make their ears bleed. The ship itself made barely a creak under my feet. No scent of land came with the bare excuse for a breeze, even though I knew we had to be close. The chill off the water was like something off a grave.
A Prowler crew member ran up to report, knuckling his forehead. “Foretop lookout is seeing branches, Ma’am.” “Branches?” I said, raising an eyebrow. The man blanched, his greenish skin going visibly paler, but nodded. “Yes, Ma’am.” Sometimes I forgot the reverence the Faerie from Father’s domain, most of our crew, regarded our family. If they only knew. I opened my mouth to get a better explanation, but by then there was no need.
“There!” Faith said, pointing. “What’s that?”
The mist parted to reveal a tree growing up out of the water, craggy and black and dripping with lichen and slim. The trunk was easily as wide around as the Specter was long, with branches angling up in all directions, long, jagged shapes that disappeared into the fog.
The tree was festooned with bodies.
There were dozens of them, all very dead, hanging from the branches on nooses. They’d been tall when alive, and not at all human, with great horns on their heads, white or black hair, gray skin, and talons on their hands and feet that immediately remind ed me of the Soho Shark. The talons swayed, very gently, though there wasn’t any breeze. Drops of moisture dripped down into the water with a morose and solitary dripping sound.
“Formori,” Mr. Sands intoned, his green eyes still blazing. “Leaders of the Faerie once, but all wiped out by the Seelie Court.” “Much to everyone’s relief, according to the stories,” Avon stoke said softly behind him. “The atrocities they tell are enough to make even a hag’s skin crawl.” His handsome face looked thoughtful and a little curious.
“Formori,” I repeated grimly. “Like the Soho Shark.” Sands looked confused and alarmed and I told him and the others, in as few words as possible, about our encounter with the Soho Shark and Victoria Rose. Just thinking about the two of them gave me shudders.
Mr. Sands whistled low. “The leader of the Formori was said to be missing one eye. A very dangerous individual, if this Soho Shark is the same person . . .” He frowned, lost in thought, while his hands plucked nervously at the brass buttons on his vest. He jerked with surprise when his fingers plucked one off completely.
“Damn,” the little ex-magician said.
I had Mr. Starling ready a few crew members with long poles so they could push us off from the tree, if necessary, but we glided slowly and silently underneath the long line of hanged Formori.
Immediately after clearing that grisly obstacle, however, someone shouted up in the topmast. I heard a grinding sound, then the sound of breaking wood and the snapping of lines as a piece of the topgallant mast went splashing into the sea on the starboard side.
“What happened?” I shouted, breaking my own rule of silence. “We hits a low branch, we did!” a gravely, squeaky voice shout ed back.
“Was anyone up in the gallants?” I shouted back.
“Don’t know, Captain!”
I leaned over the rail, calling to Avonstoke and Nellie down in the chains. “Have Wil check that wreckage and make sure no one is in it.”
“Yes Captain,” Nellie said. She called out in the soft and lilting Prowler language and Wil’s head broke the surface of the water. “What did you do that for?” Wil said after Nellie relayed my orders, but then he dove without waiting for an answer. Two minutes later he surfaced. I couldn’t hear his words, but Nellie turned and shook her head up at me.
“Thank Heaven for that,” Faith said.
I nodded in agreement, too overwhelmed with relief to speak. At least that much luck was with us.
There was a shadowy line of the riverbank on the port side now, with the gleam of white through the fog as the gentlest of surfs broke on the rocks.
“Shoaling on the far side!” Nellie called out softly.
I leaned over the rail, pointing so that there should be no con fusion. “Port?”
Nellie nodded. “Yes, ma’am. Port.”
“Pass along two points to starboard,” I ordered. The waiting sailor nodded and turned to pass the message.
A flurry of breezes came, luffing the main foresail immediately above us with a snap like the crack of a whip.
“Hear that?” Faith said.
I stared at her. The entire ship had heard it.
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “Not the sail. The singing.” “I don’t hear anything,” I said carefully.
She frowned. “It’s gone now.”
Then I spied what looked like not only a land mass, but a familiar one. The Girdler, a sandbank, which would put us in the Queen’s Channel. I let out a long sigh. It was incredibly gratifying to know that this much, at least, of English geography remained.
Suddenly, the mist cleared. Well, not cleared exactly, but became more penetrable. More normal, like regular old English fog and not some supernatural abomination. There was even enough breeze to catch the sails and I felt the Rachaela make decent headway for the first time in hours.
“Well done, Sands,” I said.
“Thank you, Captain,” he said. His voice sounded normal, more human than when he’d spoken under the strain of his spell, but utterly exhausted, too. He looked more normal now, too. Still disheveled, but more like a man than a magical beacon. The eldritch light had faded from his eyes. He smoothed down his hair, then took a rueful look at his vest and trousers. He took a shaky step and Avonstoke steadied him.
“Through!” Faith breathed.
We’d thought it possible, but hadn’t been sure. The Faerie could have had this stuff over the entire country for all we knew. But apparently not. That was worth knowing and information I had to get back to the rest of the fleet. Or what was left of it. Father had commissioned a dozen ships like the H.M.S. Rachaela, but they had been lost in the mist before I’d taken command. Now, all that was left was the enormous Seahome and a few schooners.
This was why it was folly to brave the mist, but also why it had been so necessary. It was worth all the risk I’d taken just to know we could navigate it. Now we could attack the invasion forces, rather than just wait for them to make a move. One bold move here could outweigh months of ineffectual engagements.
“Land on the port side!” came the hoarse whisper from the main deck. “Crow’s nest reports land on the port side!” They were still relaying messages to avoid shouting. Good. We were in the Estuary proper, in the Queen’s Channel just as I thought. I tilted my head, listening hard, suddenly sure I heard something.
“Take him below,” I said to Faith, nodding at Sands. “Let him rest while he can.” As soon as we’d done our business here, he was going to be needed for the trip back.
She opened her mouth to say something, then stopped, her eyes wide as saucers. She heard it now, too. Sands looked around as well.
Voices. Another ship? Then I could see them. Three dark silhouettes of sails and rigging slowly sliding across the still water. Yes. More than one ship, it seemed. The largest looked big enough to be second or third rate, maybe, comparable to our ship. Only they probably didn’t know we were here because of the fog and our effort to remain silent. We might be out of the magical part of the Faerie mist, but fog was still fog. Also, the enemy ships, from what I could see, didn’t look to have anything like a full complement of crew on board.
I passed the word for the spyglass and it came in short order. The nearest ship showed me silhouettes that were unmistakably men. Normal men, not Faerie. English men pressed into service by the Black Shuck. Probably not even sailors, since the Shuck had run out of those.
That didn’t change what I had to do, because the ships’ holds would be filled with all manner of Faerie infantry. Enough infantry to get and hold a landfall in France. Even just a few could be too much for mundane forces and the Faerie would spread over the continent. The only thing stopping the Faerie from crossing and taking over the rest of the globe was the remaining Outcast Fleet. For three months, we hadn’t been able to penetrate the mist, but we’d easily thwarted an attempt at crossing the channel because the invading Faeries knew nothing of sailing. But we’d lost so many ships trying to raid the coast that our defense of the channel was stretched hopelessly thin. If the invaders realized that, we’d be in trouble.
Other figures, tall and angular, moved on the enemy deck. Court Faerie like many of my own crew, but in uniforms of dark leather and bone. The Unseelie Court. The Black Shuck’s people.
The Rachaela might have been outnumbered, but that wouldn’t matter as much if they were only partially manned and rigged. They barely had any sail up and all listed and wallowed uncertainly. They weren’t using the wind like we were; they were being towed by rowboats. Foolish. In addition, something had gone wrong with the towing ropes of the lead ship and a knot of the enemy, Faerie and human, were huddled around the prow, arguing.
Good. The Faerie still hadn’t learned any real seamanship. They’d never had the need before now, since all sailing in Faerie was done with magic. That was our only advantage and I was going to exploit it to the hilt.
“Oh God,” Faith’s voice came softly next to me. She and Sands were still here. She sounded like she was going to pass out. Or throw up. Maybe both. I had the same feelings when I’d been poring over maps and planning the engagements. I’d have them again, when I was looking over the lists of the wounded or seeing the damage wrought on my ship.
But now, all I felt was a sudden, thrilling rush. I could even feel a madcap grin crawl over my face.
“Oh God,” Faith said again. “Whenever you get that look in your eye, I know we’re going to be knee-deep in flying cannonballs right away. I hate cannonballs.”
“That’s why you’re taking Sands below,” I said cheerfully. “Go on.”
Of course, cannonballs could penetrate below decks, but mentioning that to my sister wasn’t going to make her feel any better. I could have had Avonstoke take Sands below, but I needed Avon stoke up here as much as I needed Sands and Faith out of the way.
Faith finally moved to go, and then stopped, glaring at me. “It’s unnatural, you know.”
“Of course it’s unnatural.” I turned and stepped past her to bring the spyglass to bear on the enemy ship again. “We’re at war with the bloody Faerie. Where have you been?”
“Not them,” she said stiffly. “You. You’re not supposed to be happy on the brink of battle. It’s unseemly.”
I waved her away, keeping my eye to the glass, too busy to bandy words with her now. But I could feel a delicious thrill rising in me at the prospect of action, unmistakable now that she’d pointed it out.
“Unseemly,” Faith said. “Especially for a girl.” She finally took Sands below.
I turned and leaned down over the railing aft of us and called down softly to the main deck.
“Password to Starling. Bring us about on the port tack. Ready a turn to starboard and ready the starboard guns.”
•M 12 N•
Justice at Sea
“Aye,” a barely-visible crewman called back. They rushed off aft.
“Swayle,” I hissed at the Faerie marine colonel, also on the main deck. “Have your people ready.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Swayle said. She nodded at her people, who began nocking arrows to bows and readying themselves at the rails. All the marines were Court Faerie like Avonstoke, tall, slender, with those same blank, golden eyes. Most of them looked severe, but Swayle had an expression so stern you could crack walnuts on it.
She pointed twice, without speaking, and another detachment of marines started climbing lithely up the masts to elevated positions, silent as wraiths. For all that the Faerie weren’t so great at seamanship, war was another matter altogether.
I looked back at the enemy ships. Amazingly, they showed no sign of having heard or seen us. The nearest of them were still arguing over the tangled tow rope. For once the mist was working in our favor, dampening sound.
Relieved of being Sands’ caretaker, Avonstoke came and joined me at the front railing. He didn’t say anything at first, merely stood there next to me, a comforting presence, tall and reliable.
The ships were still moving closer. Slowly, so slowly. I’d have to order the turn soon, but for now, we had everyone ready and our slow progress through the water only brought things into a better position for our maneuver. Better to milk our element of surprise for all it was worth. Only it sent my nerves jangling, knowing I could hear an outcry any minute, but holding, holding . . .
“Like an Avatar of Naval Warfare,” Avonstoke murmured, very softly, “watching as battle draws nigh.” He sighed solemnly and profoundly pained at the poetic sorrow of it all. “I wonder, perhaps,” he went on, “if an Avatar should have, I don’t know, a cleaner coat? Or a hat that isn’t quite so lumpy?”
“Shut up,” I said softly. “I love this hat. You, I barely tolerate.” A captain had to keep a certain level of aloof decorum, but I let a whisper of a smile come out. Avonstoke had a way of bringing that out in me, even at times like this.
He grinned down at me, a wild light in his eyes. There never really was any way of telling what he’d do next, a creature of mercurial urges with so many apparently random emotions that it wasn’t a matter of detecting them on his face so much as sorting them out. Did he think of that kiss we had shared as much as I did? Of course, that had been months ago and now things were different. I was his commanding officer. I couldn’t look at him that way anymore, and yet, I couldn’t quite forget.
If he was having any conflict with how he thought about me, I’d seen no sign.
The fog was breaking up even more, allowing me to see the full length of the Rachaela behind me. I made out Mr. Starling, my se ond-in-command, back on the quarterdeck. He was a burly Dwarf, completely bald except for a tall, startlingly-red topknot waving above him like a thin scarlet flag. His mustache and beard were equally red and his mouth, like always, twisted in a frown. He was also quivering with readiness.
The increased visibility meant that the enemy now had a clear view of us, too. Astonishingly, they still hadn’t called out any alarm, though if it was because they didn’t notice us, or simply didn’t recognize the danger, I didn’t know. It didn’t matter. No point waiting any longer.
“Bring us about!” I shouted, no longer worried about anyone hearing us. “Ready cannon!”
“It’s her!” someone from the other ship shrieked. “It’s Bloody Justice Kasric!” A clamor went up, both from the enemy ships and the rowboats down in the water. That, at least, felt good. I could feel that grin on my face getting wider.
“Fire as you bear!” I shouted at Render, another Dwarf and captain of the gunnery crew.
“Aye, Captain!” Render said. He signaled one of his gunner’s mates standing at the hatch, who would then signal the gundeck captains below. Then Render tapped both gun captains on the shoulder with his riding crop. Both the guns boomed, shaking the deck beneath my feet and throwing up two plumes of acrid smoke. The glyphs and sigils on the side of the brass cannon glowed a fiery yellow, then immediately started to fade. Extra enchantments to pierce Faerie protections, but also to keep the brass cannon from falling apart, since cold-forged iron couldn’t be used by the Faerie at all.
I turned. “Swayle!” Hardly had the word left my mouth than the deadly twang and hiss of loosed arrows snapped all around the deck as our marines fired. Screams from the other ship floated across the water. Swayle’s Court Faerie archers, unerringly deadly, would rack up as many casualties as the cannon by the end of this engagement.
Unfortunately, the enemy archers would be just as good, but we had a few moment’s respite as they recovered from their surprise.
But the gundeck below was still silent.
“Render!” I snarled. “Why aren’t they firing down there?” “Aye, Captain!” He shouted and rushed to the hatch. Ren der was still new, having taken over as gunnery captain after the previous one had been killed. He was alert, but still trying to compensate for both not having enough Dwarves to man everything, and the bloody slow process of passing commands from deck to deck.
Finally, the gun captains down there must have gotten it together because more cannon banged and the ship shuddered with even greater fury. More smoke drifted up into view off the starboard side and more screams came from the opposing ships.
One of the Goblins on our side, a little fellow named Chuck Chuck who had tufted bat’s ears and a bulbous nose, cackled merrily and a ragged cheer went up from my crew.
“Back the topsails!” I shouted. I wanted to slow our progress now that we were in prime firing position.
“Aye,” Starling shouted back.
Avonstoke, still next to me, clenched his hand.
I’d seen it before but hadn’t gotten used to it. This was shadow magic, and part of why Father had assigned Avonstoke to protect me in the first place. One instant, his hand was empty, the next, a dull-black scimitar blossomed in his fist. It looked like three feet or so of heavy, curved metal, but I didn’t think metal had anything to do with it. The material, whatever it was, trapped light rather than reflected it, a thing of shadow with an occasional glimmer of moonlight that hadn’t come from any sky above us. The edges shifted slightly any time I tried to get a good look at them, making the exact dimensions disconcertingly fluid.
An arrow shot out of the cloud of gun smoke, coming right for me. I ducked, but Avonstoke batted the missile with a flick of his sword. Seemed the enemy archers had recovered.
“Glad you’re here,” I said.
Then the musket ball shattered part of the rail two inches from my right hand.
I looked at the broken part of the railing. Two inches. Two inches in the right direction and I’d never use that hand again, regardless of Avonstoke’s protective intentions. I hadn’t even caught any of the ragged splinters, which were deadly enough on their own.
But for now, I was fine.
The other ship was still a skeletal gray shape in the mist, with shadowy outlines on something flat a dozen yards ahead that might have been sailors on a deck. Some of them must have had rifles, because that’s where the shots were coming from, but then a dozen more of Swayle’s marines fired and more of our cannon banged away, shaking the deck underneath my feet, and then all opposition stopped. Men were fleeing the rowboats and already two of the three enemy ships were listing. We’d have them demasted and sunk in a few more minutes and the enemy could do little to resist us. More Faerie were pouring out of the holds and jumping overboard.
We’d won the day.
I could feel the grin return to my face. The Black Shuck wasn’t going to get any ships across the channel today. If Sands was strong enough to get us back through the mist, we’d have dealt the invaders a bitter blow with relatively little cost to us.
Then the light wind tore the smoke barrier away and my grin died as I could better see what kind of damage we’d wrought. Just because we weren’t the ones paying a cost didn’t mean it wasn’t being paid.
But I kept my mouth shut and let the firing continue, despite the taste of smoke and ash in my mouth.
The Faerie weren’t going to carry their invasion forces across the English Channel. At least not soon.
We’d bought the rest of the world a few weeks’ reprieve, at least. After that, it was still anyone’s guess.
Faith came back out on the deck while the battle was continuing. If you could call it a battle. Mostly, it was our gun decks belching flame, smoke, and destruction and the other, smaller ships screaming. I could see in her face that it would be no use trying to send her below again. Her thoughts were as clear on her face as if she’d spoken them out loud. I can’t fire the cannon or shield us from vortexes in the mist, but I can stand with you here, now.
She stood, very close, both our hands on the rails, which trembled under our white-knuckled grip as the topside guns and those on the deck below continued firing, over and over. There was little that needed done by way of sailing, so Avonstoke came and stood with us, too.
Having them next to me helped, some, but it was still horrible. It was war.