Wednesday 30 June 2021

Deepwater King - Chapter One

And hump day rolls around once again! I swear someone is pressing the fast forward button, how are we heading into July tomorrow? To perk you up, it's my turn on the Deepwater King Blog Tour today and I get to share chapter one with you!  This is the second book in the trilogy, so don't read this if you haven't yet read Monstrous Hearts.



It was only when the Coastmaster

It was only when the Coastmaster turned to remonstrate the old man struggling to load the Siegfried’s voluminous trunk that Arden Beacon seized the moment and made her escape.
She sidled behind the wheels of the automobile — a thing callously ostentatious in this wild country — and walked off with such a laboured pretence of a casual stroll that it could not be seen as anything but. With each step she feared Coastmaster Justinian’s realization that she was not waiting patiently for him, but had instead slipped his leash.
A sharp turn at a bluestone wall, and then Arden was free. Out of his sight she felt overcome with relief, and had to lean against the salt-scored stones and gulp chilly air before she
felt remotely whole again.
Had it been so long since she wasn’t confined like a criminal under house arrest that she didn’t know quite what to do with herself? This was the first time since she’d arrived in Vigil that Mr Justinian had allowed her out of the Manse, his huge family estate that overlooked the small, coarse coastal town. The instinct to make a sudden getaway had come with such an awful slug of panic she’d almost been inclined not to move at all.
Hadn’t he told her it was dangerous, hadn’t he told her . . .?

But he’d spent a month telling her these things about Vigil, and her thudding heart and acid stomach were evidence enough of the contempt she held for Mr Justinian, the man who was both the Master of the Coast and her employer. He had made it clear he wanted to be more to her, still. Arden shuddered.
Still, forced to endure his hospitality, Arden had observed Mr Justinian with a calculating eye and taken his measure. She discovered that foremost her host had a predilection towards causing humiliation. It delighted him to be petty, and mean; and so she had grasped the opportunity to be well away from him while his voice still remained fixated on castigating the poor elderly porter.
‘You fool, you’ll break every dish in that trunk! Put some backbone into it, guy, or I’ll have the Magistrate charge you with the damage . . .!’
Mr Justinian would be occupied for quite a while longer. Arden straightened her jacket and skirts and looked down a street undergoing some kind of market day. Market day was trading day in this town where even the dread sea-serpent, maris anguis, could find itself pickled in salt and up for sale with the lumpfish. The siren song of trade brought the coastal dwellers out of their hamlets and huts, hauling with them their spoils of the sea. A row of trestle tables fronted anonymous doorways. Each table was topped with the ocean’s produce laid out like a museum of grotesque curiosities. For every recognisable ichthy- osaur in a zinc tub filled with ice there bobbed something ghastly and incomprehensible; fish with ten eyes, a barnacle the size of a woman’s torso.
Arden set off, searching for the experience that would make her brief sojourn into freedom worthwhile, and instead found to her sinking disappointment that her host had not lied to her. Vigil was both grim and drab in appearance and utility. An oily yellow mist shrouded the slate roofs and slunk about the chimney pots, giving everything a murky air. The cold air had a burned and salty miasma, despite it having drizzled earlier. Arden startled at the tootling of foghorns as the fishing boats came into the harbour. People wore the odd uniform of the shore: salt-country linens dipped in flaxseed oil and fish-tallow, shirt-collars embellished in bleached thread, plain hogwool jumpers knitted thick and warm.
All this strangeness, but no real sense of blood. No impression of the power that eddied and washed through her own hot northern country like a tide of whispers, that great sympathetic connectedness with the manifestations of life. No Sanguis.
Blood was the great divide that separated the country of Lyonne from the wilder climes of Fiction. The talents that had once been so powerful in this land were now all but forgotten. Once upon a long time ago Arden would have found kin here, talented users of blood like herself.
Arden rubbed her hands, and felt the cut-coins beneath her soft leather fingerless gloves catch and tug from where they’d been newly sewn into her palms. Before the Seamaster’s guildsman had come into her Portmaster’s salty office with bad-news and orders wrapped up in a vellum scroll, she’d kept respectable employment as a lead signaller upon one of the busiest trading harbours in the world. She had been Sanguis Ignis, flame-keeper. Respectable.
But with a single request she had been sent south to this place where no ignis had been born for a hundred years. Nobody would share what she was. She would be at best a novelty come from far away. At worst . . . well. There was no bottom to that particular pit.
When Arden walked past one market table, a scarred, bearded man touted her in a foreign language. Old Fictish, the dying tongue of the shorefolk of these cold, grey southern oceans. Then he stopped, and stared.
Arden pulled her fine leather coat about her, feeling as much an outsider as she had at any time in her life. If she thought the Fictish people backwards, then they would see her as inexplicably strange, with her sun-embraced complexion, the bright colours of her clothing, and the waxed cotton of her skirt still creamy and un-stained by the oily coal that heated every rude little home here.
‘Roe for sale, madam, sturgeon eggs? Would you like a taste?’ he repeated in a passable Lyonnian.
‘I’m not buying anything today, I’m sorry,’ Arden replied, even though she didn’t even know what he was trying to sell her, for the mess in front of him was as unlikely to be caviar as it was anything edible. He shrugged, unconcerned with her dis- interest, as she was not quite his usual customer anyway.
There wasn’t much of a town centre to be had, and soon she found herself back on the waterfront again, where six feather-footed dray horses provided the counterweight to a pulley and a load bound for an overladen cargo boat. Arden stayed to watch at the marvel of such a thing, for in Lyonne’s capital city of Clay Portside a sanguis pondus could make a counterweight weigh whatever it had to, ten tonnes if needed, and no effort was required except a simple pulley. Just as she suspected, no blood here in the country of Fiction, no control over elemental forces, just pure labour.
From the waterfront she had her best view yet of Vigil clawing itself from the sea as a hillocky mess of factories and trade offices fronting a sheltering port. The region played host to fish- processing warehouses, one merchant hotel, and a clumping of lonely, ugly little houses with tiny windows. It had not always been so miserable and backwards, perhaps. At one stage in the recent past there had been an effort to modernize the town, for wires still occasionally strung between lamp posts, evidence of elektrifikation, that startling new technology. Yet on closer inspec- tion the wires hung lax and broken, the lamps in their curlicued galleries browned out, their internal globes grey with a fine ash from where the filaments had charred away.
A shout and Arden whirled about, expecting to have been discovered by her jailer.
Instead of Mr Justinian however, it was a rotund man with a publican’s medallion about his neck, fleeing his own establish- ment. Vigil’s lone merchant inn, the Black Rosette, was at three storeys high the largest building in town, ramshackle in stone base and tin cladding. The entirety of the ground floor seemed to have become a cross between a pub and charnel house, for whatever drama was going on inside the Black Rosette tavern, it caused not a few strangled shrieks and cries for mercy.
A man in an oily duffel coat staggered out of the warped saltwood doors, barking for reinforcements. In answer, three men ran in. An intense curiosity made Arden linger a moment. Not more than a breath later, the fight that had begun in the Black Rosette’s stifling interior burst its banks and spilled out across the fish-gut cobbles of the Vigil waterfront.
Two men, caught in a savage embrace. It was a hopelessly unequal combat, for one was bearish and older, armed with twelve dangerous inches of boning knife, the other a slighter man blinded by a bloody gash across his forehead.
The boning knife darted towards the younger man’s pale chest and snarled itself in the grey linen of its victim’s shirt. Tied up in threads the two men fell against a table burdened with a decapitated ichthyosaur head, narrowly missing the row of serrated teeth as the scuffle took them past the carcass, and in doing so they collected Arden, inconveniently in the fight’s way.
‘Oh!’ she cried, and struck the ground with her shoulder, felt her coat tear and a hot pain flower from her elbow.
The fall gave them all only a brief pause. The men were back at each other immediately, locked hand-over-hand around the boning blade while Arden rolled onto her back, stunned and breathless. Beside her the two brutes reached a violent stalemate over control of the knife.
Someone grunted a curse-word in Old Fictish. The older man took higher ground, rolled upon his opponent and pinned him to the cobblestones. The blade-steel blurred in the fringes of her vision before stabbing into a cobble-join inches from Arden’s nose.
‘Devilment!’ she cried out. ‘Watch yourselves!’
In that sliver of breath between his living and dying, the younger man’s head turned towards Arden. She met a pair of eyes from the distance of a hand span, and all she could see was dark iris in a bloodied face, inhuman almost, and yet . . . There was there a broken nobility that did not belong on a monster’s face . . . and a suffering  too,  of  the  kind  one only saw in children, or the carvings of salvagewood saints in poor-man’s churches. They were close enough to kiss. A second ago either one of them could have died from a blade through the skull.
The knife lay between them, the white bone handle splatted with blood.
An old dockworker’s instinct made Arden snatch the knife out of the cobbles and toss the blade away before either man could retrieve it. Then the demonic face was gone and the brawl was back up again, this time a thankful distance away. Arden picked herself up, chest cavity twanging with pulled ligaments and crushed organs, the fine leather sleeve of her only coat torn to shreds, the skin on her elbow pebbled with rash. The men continued to heave bloody-fisted blows at each other.
How could you have missed a bar fight? Arden scolded herself as she brushed away stringy intestines and grey pebbles. She should have known that dance in three acts all too well; the gust of hot, hop-heavy wind from the flung-open tavern doors, the roil of spilled bodies and flailed fists, and the denouement where someone came close to joining the lamentable list of tavern-deceased.
The younger of the combatants had clearly grown weary of this entertainment, taking only two more hard punches to the torso before turning the fight to his advantage. An upward thrust of hip, and he upended the bearish man onto the cobblestones.
Without a word to yield or surrender, the victor took to pummelling the snarling face of the conquered until a flap of skin sheared clean off the eye socket. Blood across the stones. Blood thundering through Arden’s arteries, for suddenly she could feel . . .
Sanguis? No, it was impossible. The talent was gone from here. It must be her panic, making her sense power where there was none.
Something small and wooden escaped the tangle. Not a weapon this time. A turned black mangrove-wood handle with a screw thread of brass, such as would prime the oil in a ship’s pilot-light.
The handle rolled several feet before bumping against the toe of Arden’s now woefully scuffed patent leather shoe. She was loath to touch it, for the handle’s owner was upright now, a demon-faced man, taller and more brutish than she had thought him at first, his pale chest working like bellows as the blood runnelled from the broken skin of his knuckles. She could not even tell the colour of his hair, for blood from his forehead now coated his scalp with a wave of sheeny black.
How quick the fight had been, how expedient, how unnatu- rally silent.
In Lyonne, police or militia would have crowded around the
scene in an instant. Strangers would have pulled the two apart. Shrieks and screams. Accusals might have been shouted and another fight start elsewhere, for in the big city such emotions were as infectious as a plague.
And she would not have been left to stand there unassisted in a state of fish-and-cobble-tumbled mess.
The street took on the hush of a sermon. The priest of this hard message spat blood from his mouth and indifferently wiped gore from his beard. He glared about at his witnesses, chal- lenging the other equally bestial fellows ashine in their waxed canvas and fishmongers’ overalls to step forward and make their claim.
Nobody spoke. They averted their eyes from him, and went back to what they were doing in the dreary marketplace before the necessary interruption that passed as a trade discussion in this place. A few adjusted the coin they were charging for their bloodied sacks of produce, scrawling higher prices on the slates before facing them outwards again.
Arden sighed at her own hesitations, then with a groan of effort picked up the screw-thread handle, and held it out to its owner.
‘I presume yours?’
His attention was upon Arden for less than a second, only long enough for them to acknowledge to each other that she was insignificant and he was grotesque. Despite the muck, she noticed his bearing at once. He was different enough from the locals that she understood why he might attract the ire of fellows naturally suspicious of differences. His body was raw-boned and spare, hewn by necessity. His bloodied beard was a lighter brown than was usual on these shores, and in danger of gingering. There was no sign of the pelt of full-torso hair which appeared to grow abundantly on the Fiction men as if in response to the bitter climate, or the barrel chest built to tackle a fully laden net of monkfish. Though his arms were unmarked, under the tatters of his clothes she spied tattoos blooming across his back and flanks, a pattern of blue fish-scale chevrons, as if he were a selkie interrupted mid-transformation, and had decided to stay on land rather than the sea.

Stayed on land for love, she thought ridiculously, then imme- diately berated herself, for who could love such a terrifying creature enough that he should return it in kind?
She had thought his eyes dark, but they were Fiction-blue. A common shade. Eyes that averted as he took the handle out of Arden’s hands, shoved it back into his belt and returned to the tavern to resume whatever conversations had perpetuated such a disagreement.
Not even a thank-you. His victim lay bleeding on the street, forgotten.

The fight might have been silent, but that did not mean it had gone unnoticed. Mere minutes later the person Arden had been trying to avoid before the fight made his unwelcome reappearance. He slid in behind her, exhaling a loud indignant rasp of breath in her ear. His voice followed, both sulky and whee- dling. ‘You saw the fight? It is the way things are settled here in Fiction, in blood and violence. The ignoble creatures of the Darkling Coast do not bargain with words, if they consent
to bargain at all.’

Then there it was, the male body pressing insistently against her back, pretending support, but hoping for the other thing too. A sharp stab of irritation made Arden grimace. She pulled away from him and affected a smile of bewildered relief, as if his appearance baffled her utterly.
‘Coastmaster Justinian, I’d wondered where you’d gotten to.’ ‘What happened? I said explicitly for you to remain close.’ ‘I’d thought you were following me, when I said I was going
to look at the market. Then I was lost in the crowd. I didn’t realize you were only instructing the old man, and not exactly helping him.’
His eyes narrowed. Peacock he might have been, but Mr Justinian was not stupid. There was hardly a crowd on a Vigil market day. Arden had evaded him. No mere accident had made her slip away while his back was turned.
‘You do understand you may call me Vernon, now? We are not strangers to each other.’
His hand slithered about her waist. The flinch was instinctive. Handsome he might have been, with his coif of pomaded hair and smooth chin, his height six foot by the old measure, grey eyes the colour of an institutional slate, perhaps some hint of a tan to his skin that a distant and more noble ancestor had begrudgingly gifted.
But something in the Coastmaster’s features was small and bitter. Snivelling. As if the world owed him more than the sizable portion he’d been given, and he resented any other soul who merely received a fraction of his advantages.
For a woman newly arrived at this town under the employ of the powerful Seamaster’s Guild, Coastmaster Justinian was the only thing close to an equal associate she had. Even though she was sanguis and he was not, they were both of them isolated aristocrats in a way, graduated from Northern tech- nical academies, degree-holders beholden to the great service Guilds that linked the two countries into one fraternal parlia- ment. It made a sort of sense that they should cultivate a professional partnership.

The man’s constant touching, well, that was merely a Fiction trait, was it not? Certainly, the cold weather made even bare acquaintances huddle.
‘. . . now you have made a fool of yourself by running off unaccompanied.’ Mr Justinian continued to scold Arden while steering her towards the row of trestles that made up the last of the marketplace stalls. ‘Fortunately you must only contend with appearing slovenly in public.’
She held the sharp tongue in her head that would have corrected him, I have seen more and bloodier dock fights than this one, and I’d prefer a hundred of them rather than one more day with you.
These things she would have said, if her position in Vigil was not so dreadfully fraught and insecure. Though she had taken her orders dutifully, coming to Fiction had meant abandoning her secure signaller’s position in Clay Portside. If she lost this one, she would be effectively over-specialized and unemployed. This was a bad position for a sanguis to be in.
So Arden kept her counsel, and stored the little nuisance in a mental glory box of accumulated offences.
Mr Justinian steered her back towards the main street with its row of trestles while maintaining his lecture.
‘. . . the worst of the reprobates operate out of that estab- lishment and upon these streets. See? This is why I have kept you in the safety of the Manse all this time, despite your obvious lack of gratitude. I have saved you from the worst outcomes that occur when men gather.’
‘They rather seemed more concerned with their own arrange- ments,’ Arden said, pulling away from him, and gladly so, for the Coastmaster’s hands were never content to rest upon her middle and had the unfortunate habit of crawling up towards the undersides of her bosom or the smallest part of her back. ‘My standing there was completely accidental.’
‘Oh, so you think yourself lucky for having escaped their attention?’ Mr Justinian said mulishly.
‘I do, in fact.’

He picked at the ruined sleeve of her coat. ‘Go buy a replace- ment for your torn coat and charge it to the Guild. Then we can leave this place. But don’t wander.’
I’ll wander off however I like, you insipid creature, Arden thought ferociously, her anger a physical pain that could not be soothed by her speaking the curse aloud, so remained inside her like a swallowed coal that did not cease to burn.

Arden picked in despondent indecision at the mess of fisherman’s clothing with gloves too fine for a village on the edge of nowhere, until her arms smelled of fishwax and linseed oil.
She had wasted so much time shut inside Mr Justinian’s decaying baronial estate, and at her first breath of liberty all she’d been allowed to see were street-fights and offal sellers. Despair – always so close and so suffocating – had fermented in her time under curfew. She had heard the domestic staff talk behind closed doors or under stairs. To them, Arden Beacon was not a professional guildswoman sent from the great ports of Clay Portside. She was merely produce fatted up for the eventuality of Mr Justinian’s bed.
‘A devil’s curse upon you, Mr Justinian,’ she said beneath her breath, tossing aside a scale-speckled pair of trousers, ‘and curse you, Mr Lindsay, for—’
The bronze flash caught her by surprise, stopped at once the bleak train of her thoughts. What imagination was that, her seeing such a thing in all these stained linens and thistle-cottons? Arden dug in deep again and disinterred her find – an odd, slightly sheened garment – out from the knot of unwashed rags.
She raised to the day a thing that in her hands made no sense.
A coat. A stout, utilitarian coat cut for a female worker of hard ocean climates. Not too long in the hem though; no loose fabric to foul a hurried journey up stone steps in a high storm. A thing rightly made of old canvas and felted wool, worn on a body until it fell to pieces.
But the fabric . . .

Arden had to rub the collar with her fingers, make certain her earlier fall was not causing her to see wonders. There was only one creature alive that could supply such a hide. Leather as bright as an idol’s polished head and with a crust of lumi- nescent cobalt-blue rings across the arms and yoke. Subtle grading to black when it hit the light just so.
She turned the coat around and her breath caught. She had not expected the fabled kraken crucifix, the terrifying pattern of a sea-monster’s crest. By all the devils of sky and blood, you’d have found its likeness only in a Djenne prince’s wardrobe in Timbuktu, not a filthy rag pile at the edge of the world, and yet here it was; hidden away with thrice-mended broadcloth trousers and sweaters that were more knots than knits.
Before Arden could inquire about the article, her benefactor already had his hand about the coat’s collar.
‘Let me put that aside for you,’ Mr Justinian said and, without asking, slid in between her and the table, ready to yank Arden’s prize away. ‘This is not suitable.’
Despite her relatively short stature, and the dark, fragile air of over-breeding about her, Arden was no pushover. Growing up within the labyrinthine map of the capital city docks, one learned in the hardest of ways those streetwise traits anybody needed to survive. She saw the snatch coming in Mr Justinian’s beady eyes before he made his move, and quickly secured the coat within her strong lantern-turner’s hands.
‘No, Mr Justinian. I wish to buy it for myself.’
‘These wares are filthy. Look at them. Fish-guts and giblets. You are required to own a new coat to work the lighthouse, not cast-offs. As Coastmaster of Vigil I will have a fine plesio- saur leather coat made for you and sent from Clay Capital.’
‘I am not fulfilling your list by this purchase, Coastmaster Justinian. This coat is for my –’ she doubled down on her grip ‘– personal use.’
‘I’m telling you, you do not want it!’
He yanked harder, with enough force to pull Arden off her feet had the trestle corner not caught her thigh. She wedged herself deep into the splintering wood and hung on for grim life. Her ribcage groaned from the earlier trauma, sent sharp currents of pain through her chest, but still she held on.
‘Let . . . it . . .’ ‘No, sir, no!’
They struggled for a while in stalemate, before he gave in with a hissed curse.
‘Keep the disgusting thing if you must,’ he said, tossing his end of the coat down. Arden heard the snarl under his disdainful words. ‘It is only a murdered whore’s garment anyway.’

Part of The Deepwater Blog Tour

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