A THREE-MASTED square-rigger with iridescent green sails that shone by day or night, the Flying Mantis was a fast and lucky ship. She sailed the Border Sea of the House, which meant she could also sail any ocean, sea, lake, river, or other navigable stretch of liquid on any of the millions of worlds of the Secondary Realms.
On this voyage, the Flying Mantis was cleaving through the deep blue waters of the Border Sea, heading for Port Wednesday. Her holds were stuffed with goods bought beyond the House and illnesses salvaged from the Border Sea’s grasping waters. There were valuables under her hatches: tea and wine and coffee and spices, treats for the Denizens of the House. But her strongroom held the real treasure: coughs and sniffles and ugly rashes and strange stuttering diseases, all fixed into pills, snuff, or whalebone charms.
With such rich cargo, the crew was nervous and the lookouts red-eyed and anxious. The Border Sea was no longer safe, not since the unfortunate transformation of Lady Wednesday several thousand years before and the consequent flooding of the Sea’s old shore. Wednesday’s Noon and Dusk had been missing ever since, along with many of Wednesday’s other servants who used to police the Border Sea.
Now the waters swarmed with unlicensed salvagers and traders, some who would happily turn to a bit of piracy. To make matters worse, there were full-time pirates around as well. Human ones, who had somehow got through the Line of Storms and into the Border Sea from some earthly ocean.
These pirates were still mortal (unlike the Denizens) but they had managed to learn some House sorcery and were foolish enough to dabble in the use of Nothing. This made them dangerous, and if they had the numbers, their human ferocity and reckless use of Nothing-fuelled magic would usually defeat their more cautious Denizen foes.
The Flying Mantis had lookouts in the fighting tops of each of its three masts, one in the fore peak, and several on the quarterdeck. It was their task to watch for pirates, strange weather, and the worst of all things — the emergence of Drowned Wednesday, as Lady Wednesday was now known.
Most of the ships that now sailed the Border Sea had incompetent lookouts and inferior crews. After the Deluge, when the Border Sea swept over nine-tenths off Wednesday’s shore-based wharves, warehouses, counting rooms, and offices, more than a thousand of the higher rooms had been rapidly converted into ships. All these ships were crewed by former stevedores, clerks, rockers, counters, tally-hands, sweepers, and managers. Though they’d had several thousand years of practice, these Denizens were still poor sailors.
But not the crew of the Flying Mantis. She was one of Wednesday’s original forty-nine ships, commissioned and built to the Architect’s design. Her crew members were nautical Denizens, themselves made expressly to sail to the Border Sea and beyond. Her Captain was none other than Heraclius Swell, 15,827th in precedence within the House.
So when the mizzen-top lookout shouted,“Something big … err … not that big … closing off the port bow … underwater!” Both Captain and crew reacted as well-trained professionals of long experience.
“All hands!” roared the mate who had the watch. “Beat to quarters!”
His cry was taken up by the lookouts and the sailors on the deck, followed only seconds by the sharp rattle of a drum as the ship’s boy abandoned his boot polish and the Captain’s boots to take up his sticks.
Denizens burs out from belowdecks. Some leapt to the rigging to climb aloft, ready to work the sails. Some stood by the armoury to receive their crossbows and cutlasses. Others raced to load and run out the guns, though the Flying Mantis only had eight working cannons of its usual complement of sixteen. Guns and gunpowder that worked in the House were very hard to come by, and always contained dangerous specks of Nothing. Since the toppling of Grim Tuesday fourteen months before, powder was in very short supply. Some said it was no longer being made, and some said it was being stockpiled for war by the mysterious Lord Arthur, who now ruled both the Lower House and the Far Reaches.
Captain Swell climbed onto the quarterdeck as the cannons rumbled out on the main deck, their red wooden wheels squealing in complaint. He was a very tall Denizen, even in stockinged feet, who always wore the full dress coat of an admiral from a very small country on a small world in a remote corner of the Secondary Realms. It was turquoise blue, nipped in very tightly at the waist, and had enormous quantities of gold braid on the shoulders and cuffs. Consequently Captain Swell shone even more brightly than the green sals of his ship.
“What occurs, Mister Pannikin?” Swell asked his First Mate, a Denizen as tall as he was, but considerably less handsome. At some time Pannikin had lost all his hair and one ear to a Nothing-laced explosion, and his bare skull was ridged with scars. He sometimes wore a purple woollen cap, but the crew claimed that made him look even worse.
“Mysterious submersible approaching the port bow,” reported Pannikin, handing his spyglass to the Captain. “About forty feet long by my reckoning, and coursing very fast. Maybe fifty knots.”
“I see,” said the Captain, who had clapped the telescope to his eye. “I think it must be … yes. Milady has sent us a messenger. Stand the men down, Mister Pannikin, and prepare a side-party to welcome our illustrious visitor. Oh, and tell Albert to bring my boots.”
Mister Pannikin roared orders as Captain Swell refocused his telescope on the shape in the water. Through the powerful lens, he could clearly see a dull cigar-shape surging under the water towards the ship. For a second it was unclear what propelled it so quickly. Then its huge yellow-gold wings suddenly exploded ahead and pushed back, sending the creature rocketing forward, the water behind it exploding into froth.
“She’ll broach any moment,” muttered one of the crewmen to his mate at the wheel behind the Captain. “Mark my words.”
He was right. The creature’s wings broke the surface and gathered air instead of water. With a great flexing leap and a swirl of sea, the monster catapulted itself higher than the Flying Mantis’s maintop. Shedding water like rain, it circled the ship, slowly descending towards the quarterdeck.
At first it looked like a golden, winged shark, all sleek motion and a fearsome, toothy mw. But as it circled, it shrank. It’s cigar-shaped body bulged and changed, and the golden sheen ebbed away before other advancing colours. It became roughly human-shaped, though still with golden wings.
Then, as its wings stopped flapping and it stepped the final foot down to the deck, it assumed the shape of a very beautiful woman, though even the ship’s boy knew she was really a Denizen of high rank. She wore a riding habit of peach velvet with ruby buttons, and sharkskin riding boots complete with gilt spurs. Her straw-coloured hair was restrained by a hairnet of silver wire, and she tapped her thigh nervously with a riding crop made from the elongated tail of an albino alligator.
“Wednesday’s Dawn,” replied the Captain, bending his head as he pushed one stockinged foot forward. Albert, arriving a little too late, slid along the deck and hastily tried to put the proffered foot into the boot he held.
“Not now!” hissed Pannikin, dragging the lad back it’s the scruff of his neck.
The Captain and Wednesday’s Dawn ignored the boy and the First Mate. They turned together to the rail and looked out at the ocean, continuing to talk while hardly looking at each other.
“I trust you have a profitable voyage to date, Captain?”
“Well enough, Miss Dawn. May I inquire as to the happy chance that has led you to grace my vessel with your presence?”
“You may indeed, Captain. I am here upon the express command of our mistress, bearing an urgent dispatch, which I am pleased to deliver.”
Dawn reached into her sleeve, which was tight enough to hold no possibility of storage, and pulled out a large thick envelope of buff paper, sealed with a knob of blue sealing wax half an inch thick.
Captain Swell took the envelope slowly, broke the seal with deliberation, and unfolded it to read the letter written on the inside. The crew was quiet as he read, the only sounds the slap of the sea against the hull, the creak of the timbers, the momentary flap of a sail, and the faint whistle of the wind in the rigging.