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A Burial At Sea

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It was an awkward reunion: it could never have been otherwise. The naysayers, too fearful or too cautious to share in the great venture, left in an uneasy fellowship with the betrayed, the scatter of seawyrm chariots and clumsy tugs, submersibles and scows which could not follow where Armada went. They had watched as the city drew away from them into the Hidden Ocean, small and then smaller, until the dark smudge disappeared over the horizon and left them truly orphans. And then had begun the waiting, huddled like a raft of birds on a barren sea as the sun beat on the wrinkled skin of the ocean, locked in stasis.

And the Armadans, who had taken their leave alight with its dreams of greatness, faces already turned away, now limping back, shamefaced, the beast that drew them failing, citizens dead in mutiny and civil war, meeting their friends with a tale they did not want to tell.

When the cry went up the waiting crews could not say whether they were jubilant or terrified to see the masts and hulls, the familiar jagged outline of their home: the city before them wavered strangely, swelling and dwindling, and soon they realised it was becalmed. This was no eventuality they had foreseen, Armada’s flares a language they could not interpret – celebration? invitation? warning? How had it come to this, the steamer Pyrexian sent out as though to parley with a town of strangers?

The Armadans had faced them, words dying on their tongues, the scars of defeat too plain to see: it was a time of grief, of wariness, of questions unasked and answers ungiven, two factions merging again into something less than before.

They could at least bury their differences in labour. The avanc, now lifeless, a mountain of dead flesh down at the end of its miles-long chains to anchor the city for the hundred years it would take to decay; the city must be cut free to come back to the tarry smoking embrace of its steamers and tugs. Five points of anchor, vast and heavy, protected by hexes: teams of thaumaturges and engineers consulted and directed, assembled squads of divers and adepts to soften metal to the consistency of flesh and saw it though with naphtha torches in yawning wounds. The work was slow, but to see it begun, the come-and-go in the water, galvanised Armada’s citizens.

The gathering began as brute necessity: the crews of the tugs had husbanded their fuel, but still, to fire their boilers and haul Armada to navigable waters would take more than their reserves of wood, of coke, of oil: the city must make its contribution. At first it was no more than a rediscovering of old hoards, digging below the strata of soil in Croom Park to find long-abandoned piles of coke, searching out the hidden reservoirs of oil from each riding’s stores, the masts of ancient clippers felled like trees. Slowly it gathered momentum: an abandoned dhow cleared of its market stalls and broken up, a slum pulled down for its timber, disused buildings and ships torn apart to be fed to the boilers, the city consuming itself in its need to escape.

Then it fell on the citizens like a fever, a true scouring. They became giddy with destruction: this was not the organised celebration of quarto’s end, nor the ritualised abandon of the Long Night, nor the exuberant excess of the Unsown Harvest, but something uncontrolled and febrile -- brick hovels in Thee-And-Thine sledgehammered to be shoved into the sea, a Jhour factory ship, the Odradek, set afire to burn to the waterline, in Bask the stone effigy of a fish-god, prize from a long-dead temple, toppled from its pedestal and sent spinning into the depths. The Armadans reclaimed their identity side by side in a frenzy of violence, a pirate city once again.

No one could say whose idea it was first, the greatest scouring of all. A chance remark among the sweating crews who heaved the barrels from the hold? An envious comment from a Curhouse councillor, tossed about and repeated? The anguished cry of a parent whose child had been absent in the return? It did not matter: once spoken the idea took wing, circled and multiplied, until all raised their eyes to the Grand Easterly and saw in it, the epicentre of hubris and folly, a sacrifice of expiation that would set Armada free.

The primary chain, rooted in its hull; within, the stores of rockmilk and the engines, to tame and direct, fruit of decades of dedication and invention. Why leave the evidence to tempt another over-ambitious ruler in a century’s time, or two? As the scouring gathered pace the crews swarmed the flagship, carrying out furniture, weapons, valuables; at first the Garwarter men and women stood by, accepting the stripping as no more than their due, but as the mob swelled, seizing whatever could be carried and repurposed – decks broken up, wooden panelling torn out, the iron masts felled for reforging – then the residents themselves joined the frantic activity, dragging out swiftly-packed trunks, salvaging what treasures they could, the scientists in fumble-fingered haste to swathe and pack the delicate machinery of the compass factory.

Some loyalists devoted themselves to rescue, but as the ecstasy of destruction spread more gave themselves over to the throng, dismantling the arching paddle-covers and iron wheels, hammering apart the great rusted engines, stripping away their shame with every cut and blow. And when all that was left was an ironclad shell, then came the ceremonious severing of bridges and ties, the uncoupling of the chains and girders of the ships encrusted around and the slow careful holing below the water.

It was a leisurely death, the water pouring into so great a space -- the empty holds, the open cells, the stripped-out staterooms and the raw passages, the council-room and the workshops, up and through; crowds gathered on vessels all around, lining the rails, packed onto lookouts or spars or watching from airships, savouring each tiny encroachment of the water, each barely perceptible cant or list with a patient morbid greed.

It was a public show, a theatre of humility, the great ship taking hours to sink and then to submerge, a death thoughtful and premeditated, until at last its great chimneys slipped below and the Grand Easterly began its descent, falling through the sea like a toy, from blue to black, to keep company with the creature it had conjured.

---

By the time the Brucolac mounted the mizzen-deck of the Uroc the moon was up, the masts and rails of his ungainly ship shining faintly with its nacreous energy. Even so high up the breeze was sluggish, the air heavy with smoke, the tang of chemical torches, gunpowder and brick dust, and on the vampir’s tongue the scent of fevered humanity. Across the other ridings intermittent fires still flared and shouts drifted through the darkness, but the well-kept streets of Dry Fall were quiet; by tacit instruction the riding’s inhabitants had held themselves apart from the frantic cleansing, the memory of their own destruction still uncomfortably sharp.

The space of water where the Grand Easterly vanished had already closed, the vessels that had surrounded it reknitting to erase all memory of the giant flagship, the cityscape already new. The Brucolac looked out over the newly-reconfigured skyline and his gut roiled with shame at the relief it brought him. The place of his torment, where the mark of his ordeal had burned indelibly into the deck, erased from being: to have it gone was balm to his pride and testimony to his weakness.

In the aftermath of the mutiny, still sunscored and raw, he had considered cutting his own ship free and taking sail by night away from the city which had seen him defeated, unmanned: but experience had taught him that Armada’s welcome to his kind was unique, and so, though he squirmed at what he saw in the faces of the Dry Fall faithful – unspoken compassion, tolerance, and a fear no longer wholly fear – yet he bent his neck to it. He had made no haste to refill the depleted ranks of his cadre; in time, when he offered the gift of haemophagy, awarding to the loyal and ambitious the privilege of his bite, he might look to the naysayers and to the others who would come, new citizens, men and women who never saw him blistering and twitching in the sun, never heard him choke and plead.

He felt it before he heard it, the tremor of footfalls on the warped boards of the companionway, and grimaced: Uther, tonight?

Uther Doul mounted to the deck and came to stand at a little distance by the rail. He had put aside his sword but seemed every inch the bravo still, muscles powerful under his charcoal leathers. His face was as expressionless as ever as he looked out over the city’s jarring new skyline and the absence at Garwater’s heart, but his discomfort was as plain to taste as the tang of his sweat: the locus of power, his station for so many years, gone to the bottom of the sea.

The Brucolac was in no mood to be kind. ‘Come to make me an offering of your loss?’

‘Better to be buried here.’ Doul’s voice was as calm as though he were making a report. ‘We’ll be under tow tomorrow, and fuel enough to make it near to land.’ Was there a flicker of grim humour in his words?

‘And all forgotten.’ The Brucolac looked at him narrowly. ‘You’ll be needing a new home.’

Doul shrugged, dismissive. ‘Lodgings are easy to find.’

The Brucolac hissed a laugh. ‘Not you. Your Council. What’s their new flagship?’ Garwater was under new rule, a council of men and women appointed by popular will, scholars and labourers, commanders and crewmen, punctiliously representative. The Lover was among them, a courteous space made for his opinions, but all knew it for the charade it was.

Argonautica. For the meeting-chamber.’ Doul nodded across the packed vessels towards his own riding. ‘The factory’s gone to the Redoubtable.’ A careful choice: Argonautica was a sizeable brigantine, impressive but not overweening, a signal of ambition brought to heel.

The Brucolac spat. ‘Meetings - fuck that. Curhouse may have appetite for endless poxy debates, but soon enough they’ll be begging for a new master.’ He fixed Doul with a hostile stare, face deliberately turned to the moonlight to illuminate his sunscorch scars. ‘Someone to take you up again.’ Doul said nothing, but he turned his back to look in the other direction, over the clustered masts of the Haunted Quarter to the moonlit ocean beyond. ‘I take it they don't want you there now.’

He thought Doul might withhold the information, but no. ‘I've a room aboard the Vesontio.’

That startled a laugh from him. ‘Might find yourself a Dry Fall man after all.’ It was true, Garwater had been diminished in more ways than one: minute incursions at its borders, allegiances changing on one side of a plank bridge or a metal ladder to grant a neighbouring riding a vessel of newly-declared citizens.

Doul turned away from him, his expression unreadable. ‘Still harping on that tune?’

‘Why do you keep coming here?’ the Brucolac asked abruptly. An observer might have thought him irritable. He drifted closer, silently, towards Doul’s unprotected back. ‘You didn’t want me dead. What do you want from me now?’ Closer again, until Doul must have felt his chill within a hand’s breadth, serpentine tongue flickering out to taste him. ‘Forgiveness? Employment?’

‘No.’ Doul took a breath to say more, then let it out.

The Brucolac was close enough now to make out the dark lines of ash in the creases of his neck. ‘Punishment?’

Doul flinched minutely and at the pantomime of fear, this courtesy of pretence from a man who had manipulated him, tortured him, exposed him, the Brucolac swelled with rage. He grasped his shoulder roughly, and an image flashed through his head of the bewildering impossibility of their fight, Doul standing over him, sword in hand – but Doul gave himself mutely over to the painful clutch of the long-nailed hand, and the Brucolac was forced to reconsider. He’s stood aside today and watched his past drown; he’s adrift, and perhaps he’s here because I am the closest thing to a lodestar he has.

‘I don’t need your suffering.’ He distanced himself again, deliberate. ‘I’m three hundred years old, Uther, and I’ll live three hundred more, and three hundred after that; I’ll live until the story of the Scar is a legend, and then until it’s forgotten. One day I’ll stand here and no one else in the whole city who was there will be alive, and then I’ll tell the story.’

‘If anyone will listen.’ Doul’s resignation seemed genuine. ‘They want it never to have happened.’

The Brucolac smiled, unpleasant. ‘Carrying the weight of history on your shoulders?’

‘Once I thought I wanted to live forever.’ Doul’s voice was so quiet that even he could barely hear the dark amusement. It was an invitation, and an acquiescence. Haemophagy was a chancy infection, the transfer of the bacillus unpredictable: for some, one bite was all it took, while others the Brucolac might taste two or three times to no avail; in some it would never take. A gamble, and tonight it seemed Uther would lay down his stake.

‘Liveman.’ The Brucolac spoke the honorific in his hoarse voice, and Doul held out his arm, turning it over to expose the soft skin of his wrist. The Brucolac had not known thirst for decades, the willing tribute of his subjects ensuring his satiety, but the long-disused gesture returned the memory of thirst – the dark of an archway, belly griping with need, eyes above him narrowed in contempt. Before he could master himself he seized Doul’s arm roughly and let his teeth pierce the vein without finesse. Doul made no motion, perfectly controlled, but his truth washed over the vampir’s tongue: despair, exhaustion, a hollow loneliness, and under all the thinnest thread of desire.

It was not as he had imagined, too public, unceremonious, but in the thick air of the feverish night the blood ran ink-black in the darkness, slow as the beat of Doul’s heart, and the Brucolac let himself be slow in his drinking, lapping delicately at the trickle from his wrist.

When he was done he lifted his head and pressed a thumb hard on the twin points. Doul’s pulse beat under his skin, strong and measured. ‘You can wear a bandage, if you’ve anyone to see.’

Doul took back his hand. ‘Marks fade.’

The Brucolac smiled, fierce and unfriendly. ‘Not mine. Your marks on me won’t be lost.’ He leaned forward to print a bloody kiss on Doul’s cheek, then turned away to the cityscape once more in dismissal. After a while he heard him leave, heavy steps fading though the ship’s uncanny structure.

The story was plain: the Council would quarrel among themselves, and soon Garwater and Doul would find a new master, the board reset – but his own game was a long one, now advanced a step; all things considered, a satisfactory outcome. The Brucolac stood above his domain long into the night, the taste still on his tongue until the moon was set and all was silent except for the quiet slop of the waves, picturing the Grand Easterly, still falling through the inky waters below.

And in the morning the citizens of Armada awoke to a city newly-shaped, their past dropped to oblivion, and began the work of deliberate forgetting, Day One of the new era.