Captain Fancyknickers and the Murkrat Irregulars

Paul Tuttle Starr


My Dearest Zech and Sela,

Though it’s been only two weeks since I left you to serve in the Irregular Fleet, it feels like months. I hope you are well, and that you are flourishing under your grandmother’s care.

I’d gotten so used to the steady winds of high-district Anh Thaluzi that I’d forgotten just how noisy a smokestone envelope is! It groans and grates, and the sound all night long makes me think of my days as an ensign in the citadel navy. I was barely older than you, Zech! Such memories.

The whistle for first watch sounds a full hour before dawn, and failure to muster lands you in the brig for a week. I’ve a mind to institute full murkship discipline when I arrive home for leave, which, winds and rotors willing, will be only a few weeks after you receive this letter.

It’s been exhausting serving aboard a murkship again, but you’ll be happy to know your mother hasn’t entirely forgotten her trade. Admirals Lamorra and Gardani are masters of the murk. Admiral Lamorra was once Lady Lamorra, you know, a woman of the court like me, and of course you remember Admiral Gardani—he dined at our table at the citadel ball last year.

You’ll be disappointed to hear that there’s been little action since I joined the fleet, though our flagship, the Black Kite sent a warning shot across the bow of a Chruzan frigate that was nosing around a few days ago, which I’ll admit was exciting. Starting tomorrow I’ll be taking command of my own vessel, a little scout-corvette called the Murkrat. Not a very distinguished-sounding name, but I’m told she’s a fast ship, with rotorgems not half a year old and a smart crew to boot. To be honest, I’m utterly terrified, but you’d better not tell anyone I said so—I’ll deny every word!

You are both the dearest and best parts of my life, even now. Mind yourself, and treat your grandmother with the utmost respect. She has done us all a great favor by taking you in. It is thanks to her and her alone that you remain in polite society. You must give her the respect and gratitude that she is due—and I know you will.

With all the love in my heart,

—Your Mother, and, somehow,

Captain Lesha Varezi

***

“Look, it’s not that I’m regretting the decision,” said Rem Agosti, now most of the way through his evening’s brandy ration. “It’s more like, I turned down a captaincy in the citadel fleet because I hated the politics—” Below them, the corvette’s smokestone envelope groaned with the movements of the dense, shifting gas that comprised the murksea.

“And now—” prompted Aza, one thin eyebrow raised. Agosti did enjoy the odd verbal tête-à-tête with her, but Aza could be maddeningly obtuse, and tonight was not proving to be an exception, to Agosti’s dismay.

“And now it’s more political than anything I dealt with aboard any citadel ship, I’ll say that much.”

“Not the adventure and excitement you were hoping for?”

Agosti rolled his eyes, chagrined. “I’m not some doe-eyed ensign fresh from the academy. I know what murkship duty is. But, sure, I thought it would be a little more… or a little less… what it is.”

“Poor dear. Are you bored?” said Aza lightly.

“That’s not fair,” said Agosti. “You’re a shipthief—there’s always some kind of intrigue to be gleaned or sabotage to be done. You answer directly to the admirals, you don’t have to care about the ins and outs of a single ship’s crew, and you’re never bored. So don’t lecture me about boredom. Anyway, that’s not the problem at all.” Agosti looked left and right in what he realized was a near-parody of a checking-for-eavesdroppers motion. He said nothing more.

“Oh, this must be good,” said Aza, her eyes widening with glee.

“Look, I’m not supposed to say anything—” Aza’s face was a portrait of insufferable delight. “—but I’ve got orders from Admiral Lamorra to take command if our newly-minted Captain Varezi’s not up to the job.”

“Oh, that. I knew that.”

“How in the—”

Aza looked at him flatly. “Do you honestly believe I would have the job I do if I couldn’t even keep track of our own fleet’s politics?”

“I see your point.”

“I suppose she gave you a note to that effect?”

Agosti nodded. “Admiral Lamorra said she’d heard that one of the Southern Warfleet captains was making noises about a ‘new acquisition,’ and that they might make a play for one of the corvettes.”

“Mm. The Warfleet, eh? Hard to imagine they’d risk that kind of bad blood for a corvette or two.”

“All I know is what Lamorra told me, and that she stuck me with this.” Agosti patted his breast pocket, where the sealed orders were tucked.

“How nice for you!”

Agosti rolled his eyes. “Yesterday after the gunnery drill a group of sailors came up to me and started muttering about how they thought I should be running the ship. That Captain Varezi had never known a hard day or a rough action in her life. That she didn’t know above from below.”

“And this is all somehow the captain’s fault,” said Aza flatly. It was often very difficult to tell when she was being sarcastic.

“No, it’s not her fault. But you can’t blame the crew for not respecting her straightaway. And now I’ve got the burden of deciding when to relieve her. And I’m thinking I may have to.”

“You can’t blame them? I think you can. She is the captain, after all. Some people—don’t hush me—might point out that her rank means she doesn’t have to earn anything at all.”

Agosti winced his eyes shut and turned away in frustration. “Sure, we have to follow her orders. But real respect has got to be earned.”

“And you’re saying you’d have earned it by now.”

“No! I mean, not necessarily.” She was trying to trap him with the logic of his protest, and she was succeeding.

“Then I suggest you shut your mouth before you say something you’ll really regret,” Aza said, the hint of sardonic humor that had previously colored her voice now entirely absent.

***

Dusk was nigh. On this, their third day on outbound watch patrol, cruising a clear mile to the south of the main fleet as it escorted the merchant barques of the Anh Thaluzi Trade Guild, Agosti had noted that Captain Varezi’s orders had continued to be followed sluggishly and with obvious rancor, and the snatches of the crew’s mutterings would have almost sounded mutinous but for their sheer sloth and apathy. Coddled highborn bint—barely knows a murkmast from a maypole—lucky we're in the calm—gods below help us if anything interesting happens. The captain herself seemed unaffected by this, but Agosti didn’t know her well enough to be certain of that. To him the obviousness of their contempt would have been as insulting as its content, insofar as the crew didn’t even take her seriously enough to worry about what punishment they might incur.

But now on this cool Eighthmonth evening, Agosti had called the crew to assemble, and so the twenty-three crew members of the Murkrat were lined up on the deck. The orders he’d gotten from Admiral Lamorra seemed unduly heavy inside the breast of his uniform. The crew was not coming around, he feared.

"All crew accounted for, Captain Varezi," said Agosti.

"Thank you, Mr. Agosti.” The captain regarded the crew. They were a diverse assemblage of murkers, with slightly more men than women aboard. There were a handful of paler faces—whose ancestors hailed from the southern continent, probably—but most (the captain’s included) had the kho wood-brown skin most common in Anh Thaluzi.

"I imagine you think your mutinous chatter and childish insults are having some sort of effect on me. That it's somehow hurtful or embarrassing for me not to be taken seriously by the slime-stupid murkers this ship has the misfortune to be crewed by. I would encourage you to rethink this assumption.”

She strode down the line of crewmen and women as she delivered her invective with eyebrows arched and tone deliberately mild. She wasn’t young—her children were nearing marrying age, as Agosti recalled—but her fine features had aged well, her stride had the spring of youth in it, her eyes were sharp and quick, and she seemed as fit as any aboard the Murkrat. The crew’s prejudice, and his own, suddenly seemed irrational.

"Some of you may think you know how I came to serve in the Irregular Fleet. I assure you, whatever you believe to be true, you may now assume it to be wrong. That said, if you imagine I feel any obligation to disabuse mistpigeon gossips of whatever idiot notions they might hold, you are again incorrect. You might be interested to know that I have been scorned at the highest levels of Anh Thaluzi society. Archdukes have laughed at the mention of my name. Ladies who once swore they were my truest friends have denied ever knowing me. I am a grand, sad joke in company politer than yours could ever be, and my own husband, for whom I gave up my commission in the citadel fleet, is rotting in a cell for his theft from the citadel coffers, while I try to keep from my children from the common knowledge that their father stole from the crown to pay for his whores.” Captain Varezi closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “So tell me, do you suppose your muttered insults can compare to any of that?”

The crew was silent.

“Of all the nobles and murkship captains in Anh Thaluzi, Admirals Lamorra and Gardani were the only ones who deigned to come to my aid.” Lesha took a breath, and paused her pacing in front of one of the murkers. "So." She looked him in the eye. "Whose esteem do you imagine I'm looking to earn? Yours?”

The murker—Raku—held her gaze. “No.” The lack of a “captain” was conspicuous.

"Indeed not. So In the service of the Irregular Fleet, I expect to run the tightest, quickest, meanest scout corvette the murksea will ever see. My orders will be followed on the bounce, or I promise to all the gods below that I will have you lashed to the mast whereupon I will beat the nine hells from you. Am I being at all unclear?”

“No, Captain.”

“‘No, Captain,’ indeed.” Captain Varezi stopped at the end of the line, turned on her heel, and raised her voice. “That said! So long as my orders are followed and this ship does her duty, I don’t much care what you think of me, or what you say.”

Agosti had expected some sort of dressing down when Captain Varezi ordered him to assemble the crew, but this particular address was running far afield of those expectations.

The captain continued. “In fact, perhaps we should clear the air right now. I’ve been fortunate enough to overhear a few of the kinder things you lot have been saying about me, but I think I’d like to hear them all.” She had paced all the way to the far end of the line of crewmembers, some ten paces aft of where Agosti stood. She turned on her heel and looked the final crewman dead in the eyes. “You there. Stoch. What was it, again? Fancy court-coddled… gods, what was the word, again?”

Stoch shook his head. “N-no, I—”

“Oh, you said it. And I’ll have you say it again, right here, good and loud, where everyone can hear, or I’ll tie a rope to your ankle and dangle you in the mist ’til you grow gills and speak Murkfolk.”

“…Fancy court-coddled gash…”

“Louder, I say!”

“Fancy-knickered court-coddled gash!”

“There, that’s more like it. That one’s got a nice pornographic ring to it. Next, Khaya! I recall some choice words from you—something about sooner having a mistmilk-addled something-or-other for a skipper than my humble self?”

“Y-yes, captain.”

“Oh, do go on. I insist. Else beatings, torture, et cetera.”

Evidently understanding the futility of resistance, Khaya raised her voice the first time. “I’d sooner serve aboard a mistmilk-addled murkfolk privateer’s scow than any vessel captained by you, Captain!”

“That’s more like it!” bellowed Captain Varezi. And on and on it went, down the whole line of twenty-three, each man and woman aboard forced to shout their worst insults at the Murkrat’s captain until her bizarre appetite for verbal abuse was satisfied.

Finally she stood in front of Agosti. “And what of my first mate?” she said, eyes narrowed in speculation. “Surely he’s none too pleased with his current post. So what’s he said about me, I wonder.”

Agosti straightened. “Nothing, Captain!”

“That’s certainly not true. Though to your credit I never did hear you agree with the crew’s idiotic gum-flapping. So where were you, I wonder, when you cursed your luck to be placed aboard this ship with them, and me.”

“Captain, I only ever said—”

“Go on…”

“I only ever said that respect must be earned!”

“Hum,” said Captain Varezi, her lips pursed. “I think that’s the first wise thing I’ve ever heard spoken aboard this most foolish of ships.”

“Thank you, Captain.”

Varezi ignored him. “Respect must be earned,” she repeated, “but as I am the captain, I am owed first and foremost your obedience. And I will have it, or your suffering will be long and loud. But let us agree, at least, that respect must be earned.”

She breathed in through her nose. “I really am partial to Stoch’s nickname. Until such time as I earn your respect, you may content yourselves to call me Captain Fancyknickers. Every time you say that name, I’ll know I have yet to prove myself worthy of respect in the eyes of my crew, and you’ll know I know. Agreed?”

There was silence in response.

“I said, agreed?

“Yes, Captain!” finally came the motley and unsynchronized response.

“Captain who? Smartly, now!”

“Yes, Captain Fancyknickers!”

“That’s more like it! Now get back to your posts and be quick about it, or I’ll feed the lot of you to the blacksharks!”

The crew scattered, trotting back to their posts with expressions ranging from irritation to bemusement to barely-concealed mirth.

Captain Varezi turned to regard Agosti with an eyebrow raised in mild amusement. “That goes for you too, Mr. Agosti.”

“Aye, Captain.”

“Captain… ?”

Agosti managed to stifle his groan of dismay. Was she really going to make him participate in this farce? “…Captain Fancyknickers.”

The captain nodded and turned on her heel, leaving Agosti to his thoughts and tasks.

***

The cabin boy informed Agosti late that evening that Captain Varezi desired his presence, so he buttoned up his uniform and hurried over. He was unwilling to let the envelope containing the contingency orders to leave his person, and it felt hot and heavy in his breast pocket as he strode toward the captain’s stateroom, boot-soles knocking noisily against the stonewood deck planks. There was little activity above decks at this hour, save the quiet shifting of the men and women on watch.

“You wanted to see me, Captain?” said Agosti.

“That’s right,” she said in clipped tones. She glanced at the cabin boy. “You may go,” she said, gesturing to the door.

“Yes, Captain—er, Fancyknickers.”

Captain Varezi looked on mildly as the boy closed the door behind him, she turned back to regard Agosti, and in a short few seconds, her entire affect changed.

Her shoulders relaxed and she smiled what seemed to be a genuine smile, not one of the large vocabulary of wry smirks and lip-purses she’d deployed over the course of the day. “Hells, what a day, eh?” she said.

“Er—Yes, Captain F—”

“Ah, you needn’t.” She waved him off before he could complete the now-mandated insult. “Not in here. Equals, aren’t we, more or less?”

Agosti was so taken aback by this that he didn’t know exactly how to respond. He defaulted to reflexive agreement. “Ah, yes.”

“It’s just a fluke that I’m captain and you’re first mate, honestly. But then who can guess at the motivations of our intrepid admirals’ personnel decisions?”

Agosti smiled a smile he hoped was relaxed. “I-indeed.”

“I suppose I should apologize for that performance earlier.” She laughed. It sounded almost nervous to Agosti’s ears. “I was at my wits’ ragged end with them, you know?”

“They haven’t been exactly welcoming,” said Agosti.

“I’m sure you had the same problem when you were new to the fleet.”

“Ah, er, yes. Well, something like it, when I was leading a gunnery team aboard the Black Kite. I still haven’t gotten my own command, so…”

Captain Varezi held up her hand. “Say no more, I understand. I just wanted to say, Mr. Agosti, that I know I’m lucky to have as efficient and skilled a first mate as I appear to have in you. I hope you’ll bear with me until the crew comes around.” She paused, then nodded, as though reflecting on the words she’d just spoken and finally finding them sufficient.

“Yes, sir. I certainly will, sir.”

The captain sat down at the stateroom’s small desk, and looked down over a chart that was spread out there. “So the Irregular Fleet, all nine ships of us, is escorting the Anh Thaluzi Trade Guild. Business as usual. But the Guild has led us further south than they’d originally said they were going to, and I’m worried about those Warfleet rumors. I know one of their captains—a man named Arrod.”

Agosti nodded. “I’ve heard the name. Still, I can’t imagine they’d try anything serious. It’s true they’ve been working with the Chruzan lately, but...”

“Mmm. You’re probably right, but I’m not so sure. He has a history with our admirals. He actually competed with the Irregulars for the Anh Thaluzi mercantile security contract years ago, and it’s always galled him that he didn’t get it. I knew him in passing, then. Haven’t seen him in years, of course, and I doubt he remembers me, but...” she trailed off.

“There’s so little to be gained from an attack, though. He can’t strike at the tradeships, that would be professional suicide. And he can’t seriously hope to engage any of the Irregular Fleet ships.”

Captain Varezi shrugged. “You’re right, of course. But there are the rumors he’s got a new ship of some sort, and he knows the vagaries of this part of the murk very well. I don’t know. It seems like it could be an opportunity for him. Perhaps I’m just paranoid.” She took a moment as though casting around for something else to say, but seemed to come up empty-handed. “Well. I suppose that’s it, then. You may go, Mr. Agosti. Just tell the crew to stay alert, hm? Humor me.”

Agosti straightened. “I will, sir. And thank you,” he said, before turning to leave.

He closed the door to the stateroom behind him, but something made him pause and turn around. There was a sliver of light knifing through a slight gap between door and bulkhead, and Agosti found himself walking back up to it and peering through the gap. Gods below, what the fuck am I doing, he thought to himself. This did not stop him.

Through the crack he saw the Captain sit at the small table. The veneer of bonhomie she’d greeted him with sublimated into a pall of utter exhaustion. She slumped, combing her fingers through her hair, and looked very small.

***

The sun at dawn cast a skim of red-pink light over the top layer of the murksea as it crested the horizon. This was the moment when the sheer yawning vastness of the murk was most evident, with half the sun’s light lancing near-tangent to the world’s curve through the mist like a needle though skin, the other half skipping over the surface. It was in that liminal moment that the interface of sea and sky was least distinct.

Agosti had never seen the water-seas of the far south, but the idea of them was deeply unsettling. Imagine it—a sea of liquid, liquid as one would drink. It had to be like sailing through mud, or glue. And no murk-powered rotorgems, either, but only the wind to push you, on actual, literal sails. Totally absurd.

Such thoughts chased themselves through Agosti’s idle mind as he manned the Murkrat’s helm. There was little else to occupy him as he and the rest of the early morning watch guided the ship back toward its scheduled rendezvous with the rest of the Irregular Fleet. They’d completed their scouting route and were returning with their valuable cargo of intelligence—that is to say, nothing of note.

At the very edge of visibility in the dim-but-brightening light Agosti thought he could make out the silhouette of another murkship—no, two? Just when he was about to call for the sailor on lookout to double-check the sighting, he heard a voice—Khaya’s—cry out.

“It’s the Black Kite!” shouted the sharp-eyed Khaya. But it couldn’t be, the ship ahead was larger even than the Irregular Fleet’s flagship, with smoother lines and a more modern profile.

“That’s not the—” Agosti started to say.

“No, behind whatever that brute is.” And sure enough, the nose of the ship behind the big dreadnought belonged to the Black Kite, upon whose decks something was obviously in the process of going wrong.

In that moment of dawning comprehension, a scarlet flare rocketed up from somewhere on the Black Kite.

“Red flare! Gods, she’s been fucking boarded!” shouted Khaya.

“Can’t be,” said Agosti, shaking his head slowly. “Maybe they launched the wrong flare. Let’s come alongside and get a better look.”

Agosti started to turn the wheel to bring the Murkrat about, when a fierce voice bellowed from behind him.

“Wrong flare my fancy-knickered ass!” Captain Varezi shoved him bodily away from helm and spun the wheel in the opposite direction, hard. The ship shifted palpably beneath them. “You might imagine the crew of the Black Kite is as stupid as this one, but I know better. They’re not idiots over there, and they didn’t launch the wrong flare! They have been boarded, so we need to make ourselves scarce!”

“But—”

“This is not a fucking conversation, Agosti!” the captain snapped. “Get some hands on the ballast pumps and get me some speed! Go!”

Agosti felt his face go hot with anger, and his right hand reached for the orders in his jacket. He felt the seal on the folded paper between his fingers. His eyes went up to the red flare, now flickering as it descended, then sparking erratically as its combusting material met the strange chemistry of the mist.

The odds that the lookout had fired the wrong flare were not good. The captain was right. It was a simple task.

“Agosti! Gods, man, get a move on! Khaya, Aro, get the aft guns crewed and cocked—fire at anything that pursues. Stoch, take the glass and get to the watchbasket, call out anything you see—”

The captain continued to bark out orders as Agosti scrambled to his feet, heart sinking at his own incompetence. “Yes, sir!” he said belatedly. She didn’t seem to hear. He sprinted fore to the nearest hatch, heaved it open, and slid down the ladder to the pump-room.

Soon sweat dripped from Agosti’s brow as he and half the Murkrat’s crew complement toiled away belowdecks, alternating between working the buoyancy envelope’s vacuum pumps and cocking springcannons, all the while heeding Captain Varezi’s orders as they came down the speaking tube from the helm.

“Rudder left an eighthturn, straightening on my mark! And—mark!

The ship rolled left, then right as Captain Varezi turned the rotorstones around their axis and Agosti set the rudder to match her directions.

“If you can sink that corvette behind us, I’ll give each sailor on the gunnery crew a full ounce of quartzliquor!”

“You heard the captain! Get that springcannon loaded!” screamed Khaya. “Thread the shell!”

“Rudder straight—” called Agosti up to the helm.

“Ready on that gun—” came the captain’s voice.

“Ready—” Khaya’s voice again. “Loose!”

The sharp crack of a loosed springcannon echoed belowdecks, followed by the distinctive whistle of the spinning shell it fired. There was one silent, almost peaceful moment before Agosti heard the cheers of the gunhands.

“Good shooting,” said the captain. “Now let’s run while there’s running to be had.”

***

After twelve more hours of flight, and for the second time in as many days, Captain Varezi addressed the assembled crew of the Murkrat.

“The Black Kite has been captured, and with it, we must assume, Admirals Lamorra and Gardani. We, meanwhile, seem to be aboard the only ship in the fleet to have escaped with her hide intact. You may direct your thanks on that count to Khaya and rest of the gunnery hands, whose fine marksmanship may have saved all our lives.”

Khaya smiled faintly. “Thank you, Captain F—” she hesitated for a moment, eyes flicking over the rest of the crew, the moment made suddenly awkward. “—Fancy… knickers,” she finally finished, the crisp professionalism of the first words out of her mouth gone limp and glum by the end.

Captain Varezi seemed not to notice. “So I imagine we’ll have to figure out what to do. It seems obvious enough to me, so no doubt you’ve already guessed. Eh, Mr. Agosti?”

Agosti stiffened as the captain put him on the spot. “Er—yes?”

“Our course of action, Mr. Agosti. If you’d be so kind as to explain it to the poor slow dears,” she said, gesturing to the crew.

“Ah—honestly, Captain, I have no idea.”

“Ah. Well, I suppose I can do it myself then. The nasty piece of work that captured the Black Kite is the Tenthmonth Mistral, under Captain Tienmore Arrod. Arrod’s the chief rabblerouser of the Southmurk Warfleet, and splits his time between piracy and mercenary work. The Mistral’s his latest acquisition, and apparently it’s made him bolder than he should be.”

Agosti cleared his throat. “Er, I thought the Warfleet were allied with us.”

“During the the Chruuvan blockades, the Irregulars and the Warfleet shared a side, but we’re far from allies with them. Arrod’s always had his eye on acquiring—one way or another—the Irregular Fleet, and apparently he’s given up on the political angle. Our job is to make his decision seem less attractive.” Captain Varezi smiled pleasantly. “He was badly lamed during the blockade, but he’s still got one of the finest tactical minds in the murk. You can be sure he wouldn’t have made such a bold attempt unless he thought it would succeed.”

“So!” she continued, “We’re going to board and cripple the Mistral, capture her captain, and ransom him for the return of our flagship and her masters.” She snapped her heels together, raised her eyebrows, and looked over her crew again. “Any questions?”

***

“This is madness,” muttered a stout sailor named Braga as he, Agosti, and the entire balance of the of the Murkrat’s crew (minus Aza and Captain Fancyknickers herself) set about their strange task.

“It’s unconventional, I’ll give you that,” agreed Agosti as he stood behind Braga with a large brush and a bucket of thick stonegrease. Braga jammed a length of oilcloth into the small seam between deck and wall, then backed away from his handiwork, whereupon Agosti knelt down to slather the rags with grease.

“Don’t tell me you’re gonna haul out the ‘so-mad-it-could-work’ line.”

“Aza signed up for it. Have you ever known her to pick the losing side?”

Braga shrugged. “Just because a shipthief doesn’t think a plan’s mad doesn’t make it not mad.”

“I noticed something about this ‘mad’ plan of our captain’s,” said Agosti. “The only crew it puts in any real danger are her and Aza.”

This earned a guffaw from Braga, who seemed content to let that stand for his skepticism.

“I’m serious. We’re mistproofing the center cabin—not particularly hard at only a few spans’ depth. We’ll all be fine. Only the captain and Aza will be risking mist poisoning abovedecks. If they fail to get Aza onto the Mistral, we’ll know, and we can run the ballast pumps ourselves to get out of the murk. We’ll probably be captured, but even then we’re just sharing the fate of the rest of the fleet.”

Braga grunted. “Mad’s mad,” he muttered, shoving another length of cloth into a seam in the deck plating.

“Look, consider this: If she pulls it off, our Captain Fancyknickers will have captured the southern murksea’s most dangerous dreadnought with a crew of twenty-three on a fucking corvette. You’ll have been witness to what will certainly go down as a legendary reversal of fortune, to say nothing of being one of a handful of sailors that the entire Irregular Fleet will owe their skins. If she doesn’t, well, you’ll spend a few weeks in Arrod’s brig. Failure for her, though, means death by mist poisoning or possibly execution—or did you not consider that?”

Braga was silent as Agosti took his turn sealing the seam.

“She knew about Arrod’s new ship—I didn’t even know about that, and I’d been good-as-told about it by Admiral Lamorra. She’s mad, all right,” Agosti continued. “Mad to risk orphaning her children for our worthless hides,” he said, surprising even himself with his scalding tone. “And Aza—hah, Aza! What else is there to say? The greatest shipthief you’re ever likely to meet sabotaging the largest warship outside the citadel fleet, alone? I’d like to see another murk-sucker aboard this ship show half as much nerve.” He stopped his tirade for a moment and looked back and up over his shoulder at Braga. “Maybe think for a moment the next time you decide to opine about madness, hm? Lest you look like a gutless fucking ingrate.”

Agosti stood, shoved his brush spitefully back into the grease bucket, and had nothing more to say.

***

The weird density of the mist changed the character of sound within it. Even only a handful of spans beneath the surface—not half again a tall man’s height—the creaks and groans of the partially-flooded smokestone envelope were deeper, their timbre eerie even to the experienced ears of the crew.

Quiet had been neither ordered nor was it particularly called for, yet the crew was mostly silent. The Murkrat moved differently submerged in mist than she did on its surface, and the slight shifting of the craft around them in response to Aza’s murmured instructions were the only indications Agosti and the rest of the men and women closed up in the center hold had that the mad plan was proceeding apace.

Agosti found himself unable to think of anything other than Captain Varezi at the helm, sucking air through a makeshift snorkel the crew’d insisted she use, eyes shut tight and blindfolded with oilcloth to keep the mist from staying in her eyes long enough to have any of its protean effects on her sight or mind. There she stood in the oily olive-black of the nightmurk, steering the deliberately-hobbled tonnage of the Murkrat on nothing more than the whispered directions of a notoriously reckless shipthief and her own conviction that the correct response to an audacious enemy was to be still more audacious—Agosti thought of all this and boggled at the notion that Admiral Lamorra ever considered him to be Captain Varezi’s equal in any way.

With the Murkrat’s rotorstones immersed so deeply in the mist, they were able to generate more thrust than they did at saner depths, and so the corvette made good time as she slid quietly back toward her captive fleet. After an eternity or two—a quarter-hour or so in reality—the vessel slowed, and turned.

Agosti imagined Aza making the leap from the watchbasket to the grey-black hull of the Tenthmonth Mistral, the sharpened ends of her climbing hooks biting even into the dreadnought’s hardened plating. Was he imagining, too, the tchink sound as she made contact with the enemy vessel? Sound carried well through the murk, albeit strangely.

If he hadn’t misheard, then the Irregular Fleet’s most notorious shipthief was plying her strange trade at that very moment, first quietly sabotaging the Mistral’s rudder and rotor controls, then setting an alchemically-kindled fire at the great ship’s bow. Captain Varezi would wait a handful of clock-ticks for Aza to begin her tasks, then—

Tap, tap.

That was the signal. “Work the ballast pumps!” hissed Agosti. Speed was critical, now—the only chance to take the vessel would be during the confusion caused by Aza’s sabotage. Before the crew could board the Mistral, though, they had to lift the Murkrat out from her hiding place beneath the mist.

The crew that had been charged with working the pumps that would draw the mist out of the Murkrat’s buoyancy envelope were ready at the cranks—ten in all, cranks and crew alike—and started turning them madly, each one rowing with all his or her might at the two-handed devices. Reestablishing a vacuum in the envelope at such rapidity was an exhausting sprint, but the crew proved equal to the task. Agosti couldn’t help but regard Braga and Stoch with a weather eye, but they worked as hard as any. Perhaps harder.

The smokestone in the envelope groaned as the skin contracted around it, pressed in first by the pressure of mist, then air. They were breaking the surface.

“Steady…” murmured Agosti, peering out a porthole. He saw the dark blue of night, not the green of the murk. “That’s it! Move!”

The hatches at either end of the center hold were flung open, and the crew hurried up the ladders and out. Pairs made ready hook-ended ladders—normally used for traveling between vessels under considerably less duress, but useful here nonetheless—and rushed to get the hook end over the railing of the lowest deck of the Tenthmonth Mistral, which still rode several spans from the mist’s surface than did the Murkrat’s deck.

The task was quickly accomplished, and with relative stealth. Agosti was momentarily surprised with the crew’s performance, but then the admirals had never been squeamish about recruiting veterans of piracy.

“Up the ladders, now, and hurry,” said Captain Varezi. “Aza’s waiting.”

Agosti looked up as he waited for his ladder-mate to finish climbing, and indeed Aza was waiting, evidently checking the hook-ladders for good purchase as the little boarding party made its way aboard.

The decking of the Mistral was harder and darker than the Murkrat’s—which meant that it was very probably much older material, scarcer and more expensive. If the whole ship was constructed of such stuff, it was a prize indeed.

“So, Aza, where are we heading?” asked the captain almost conversationally.

“Top deck. Arrod’s got a lovely stateroom up there. I don’t get the sense he comes down very often.”

“Well, he wouldn’t, with that limp of his,” said Captain Varezi. “All right, murkers. Let’s be brisk about this.”

***

The distraction fire worked perfectly. The shouts of the Tenthmonth Mistral’s crew could be heard from the craft’s fore, and the Murkrat boarding party walked quickly and quietly up to the top deck.

The ship was a marvel. Agosti kept finding himself distracted by the elaborate linkages and transmission junctions that transmitted mechanical power from the rotorgems all throughout the ship. Such tooling was desperately expensive. There was nothing like it in the Irregular Fleet—not even on the flagship.

Agosti had been aware of Arrod, vaguely, and by reputation only. If this was the sort of vessel under the man’s command, no wonder he’d felt free to engage whomever he wanted with impunity.

“Here we are,” said Aza in a low voice as they crested the final ladder. The vessel’s decks got smaller as they went up. Now they were at the top deck, arriving there via the deck’s aft ladder.

“Shall we knock on the door?” asked Captain Varezi of Aza.

“Arrod’s two personal guards are on either side of the front door. We’ll have to deal with them first.”

“Well, I’m sure they’ll listen to officers like us, don’t you think? Aza, Agosti, you’re with me. The rest of you stay here. If you hear any of us shout, you come running. If any of the Mistral’s crew finds you, however, surrender immediately or you will be killed, and I will be annoyed. Now, let’s go.” The captain turned and began walking fore, with Agosti and Aza both having to trot to catch up to her.

This was all much less stealthy than Agosti was comfortable with while aboard an enemy ship.

Just as they were about to round the corner that would bring them to the front of the stateroom, Captain Varezi drew her saber, which came free with a hiss.

Walking ahead of her two escorts, the captain disappeared from Agosti’s sight for only a moment before he too rounded the corner—and when he did, he was just in time to see the captain flick a vicious blow with the flat of her blade to the gut of the nearest guard. He doubled over, by which time Aza had drawn her small springgun and aimed it at the other guard, who stood on the far side of the stateroom’s door.

Agosti went for his springgun just as the far guard reached up to pull the cord of an alarm bell. Aza fired her piece, the mechanical chak of the releasing spring vividly clear in the night air. The guard pulled—but came away with only the end of the pull-cord, clipped neatly free from its mechanism by the springgun bolt.

“Gods, this is tiresome,” muttered Captain Varezi. She knocked the doubled-over guard out with a smack from her saber’s pommel, then looked to the other one. “Do the reasonable thing and let us in. We’re not here to hurt anybody, or I would’ve gutted your comrade, don’t you think?”

The stunned guard went from wide-eyed fear to glum resignation with admirable speed. He reached for the stateroom door’s handle, twisted the mechanism open with a smart click, and slid it open. Warm light from the stateroom streamed through the doorway.

Captain Varezi gestured with her saber. “After you.”

The guard stepped inside, followed by Captain Varezi, her saber pointed casually at his back, followed by Aza and Agosti.

“Sir, we’ve—” started the guard.

A small, tired-looking man was buttoning his shirt in front of an ornate vanity, his back to them. “I know,” he said. “I assume it’s Lesha.”

“I don’t—who—”

“Lesha Varezi.” He turned, and squared himself to them, limping dramatically as he did so, body hunched. Small wonder that he hadn’t been part of the party that had taken the Black Kite. “And what do you know, so it is! Hello, Lesha. Aza.” He tipped a nonexistent hat.

Captain Varezi gave a small, tight nod. “Captain.”

“Oh, please. Tienmore.”

“Get your crew off the Black Kite, Tienmore.”

“But we just got there! I was hoping to stay awhile.” Tienmore Arrod had a reedy, sarcastic voice. It was hard to tell whether he was making a threat or a joke.

“I don’t much care what you were hoping for. I’ve taken you hostage and we’ll be trading you for the ship you so rudely captured.”

Arrod shook his head ruefully. “I knew I was in trouble when we couldn’t find you aboard Gardani’s boat. I was sure that lech would be keeping you close, but I was wrong, and here I am, paying the price.” He made a sweeping gesture with his arm.

“Yes, you are.”

Arrod shrugged. “The offer’s still open, by the way, Lesha. I’ve just struck a very promising deal with the Chruzan clans of the south. This fine ship is only the beginning. Times are changing. You could be on the winning side, for once.”

“That’s pretty rich coming from you, here, now.”

“The Irregulars have tied themselves to a dying regime,” said Arrod, his tone darkening. “We both know it. And they don’t even take you seriously, do they? I mean, they sent along that fair-haired first mate of yours to pull the rug out from under you at the first sign of trouble.”

Agosti’s eyes went wide. His mouth opened, but he couldn’t think of anything to say.

Captain Varezi glanced at her first mate. “Agosti? He’s been nothing but capable.”

“Oh, certainly,” said Arrod. “But he has orders to relieve you of command and captain the—what was that little corvette’s name, again?—eh, it’s not important. Point is, he was to take it over at the first sign you couldn’t handle your duty. He’s probably still got the signed orders on him right now. Am I right, Agosti?”

“How—” stammered Agosti.

“Bah. You see, Lesha? The Irregulars are back-biters and ingrates to a one. Come ply the murk with me. You’re as wasted on these bandits as you were on your husband.”

Agosti felt a strange frisson of understanding run through him. Arrod’s “acquisition”—it wasn’t the Mistral, and it wasn’t any of the ships in the Irregular Fleet. He wanted Varezi herself. Arrod had risked losing the greatest ship he’d ever master for a chance at acquiring Varezi’s skills.

And after the last few days, Agosti could see why.

But Captain Varezi only smiled a pleasant, professional smile. “Sorry to disappoint you, Arrod. Now give us our ship back, or I will actually have to hurt you. And I won’t mind doing it, limp or no.”

Arrod gave another long-suffering shrug. “Have it your way. You’ll wish you’d agreed.”

“We’ll see,” said Varezi mildly.

***

Dawn had brought with it a new understanding of the vessel they’d boarded. It was unlike any ship of its size Agosti had ever seen. Its rotorgem engines were massive and numerous, thrust deep into the murk at the end of long, streamlined fins. It was fast—evidently fast enough to take even the Irregular Fleet admirals by surprise.

The Tenthmonth Mistral’s stateroom had been built to look like a southern-style cottage, scaled down to fit the constraints of murkship construction but otherwise cozy and luxurious. There was even a small box-garden in front of it.

“Gods…” murmured Agosti at the sheer impudence of the installation as he, Captain Varezi, and Aza looked out over the deck’s railing. “This ship really is hard to believe.” They were watching the steady trickle of one-time boarders climb back aboard the Mistral from the Black Kite. Captain Arrod was still in his stateroom, guarded by several of the Murkrat’s crew as collateral until the retreat was done.

“The Warfleet captains always did have good taste,” said Aza.

There was silence for a moment, before the Captain Varezi spoke up.

“Did Admiral Lamorra really give you orders to strip me of command?”

“She—I—yes,” managed Agosti.

“Not a light burden to load onto an officer,” said Captain Varezi. “I don’t envy you.”

“…Thank you, Captain,” said Agosti, having no idea what else to say.

Aza snickered. “I’d’ve taken over as soon as you started with that ‘Captain Fancyknickers’ stuff.”

Agosti slumped. “Gods, can we stop that now?”

Captain Varezi grinned. “I wonder.”

***

Agosti, Aza, and Captain Varezi were the last of the Murkrat’s crew to return to their rightful vessel. The weary, cautious eyes of the Murkrat’s Irregulars followed their progress down to the corvette, and when Captain Varezi’s boots hit the deck, there rose a ragged cheer.

The captain waved a tired wave and smiled a tired smile. “Well done, murkrats. Now get those ladders off and let’s show this monster the the way out, shall we?”

There was another, less organized cheer from the small crew, who despite their fatigue snapped quickly to following her orders.

Agosti shook his head in mild disbelief. She’d actually done it. “Not a bad day’s work for Captain Fancyknickers,” he said lightly.

He nearly staggered from the impact of the rough shove that followed—it was Braga, whose big shoulder rammed into Agosti’s chest, and whose hand then grabbed him by the uniform’s lapel.

“Watch your fuckin’ mouth, Agosti,” said Braga in a low tone. “Just you fuckin’ watch it.”

“Braga! I’m certain I didn’t just see you shove my first mate!” called out Captain Varezi from across the deck. “Surely you didn’t, as such an act would indicate a desire to breathe mist for at least a few hours,” she added as sort of casual observation.

Braga took his hand off of Agosti’s uniform. “No, sir,” he said simply, squinting at Agosti before returning to his work sullen as ever.

The captain came over to Agosti’s side, and the two of them watched in amiable silence as the crew prepared the Murkrat to get underway.

***

My Dearest Zech and Sela,

Life continues in the Irregular Fleet. The Murkrat saw a bit of action a few days ago. Nothing terribly exciting, although even a small amount of cannonfire is too much for my tastes. I vastly prefer open murk and long, boring watches, which since our little skirmish has thankfully been the rule.

You might be happy to know that Admirals Lamorra and Gardani have seen fit to make my temporary commission a permanent one, which is good news for all of us. I’ll be making arrangements for a new apartment in mid-district, closer to the university. I’m sure your grandmother will be pleased to have her household to herself again. Also, I’ve hired two tutors who will teach you in courses outside your regular study—one for saber, and another for murkship handling. I’m sure your complaints will be loud—please direct them to me, and not your grandmother—but you’ll be going nonetheless. I’ve discovered such skills can be surprisingly useful.

With all the love in my heart,

(And don’t you dare try to evade your tutors)

—Your Mother

Captain Lesha Varezi


 

Paul Tuttle Starr is a writer, editor, and translator who was tired of laboring in the freelance obscurity of the manga world. How editing boutique collections of genre fiction is supposed to represent a change in that regard is honestly anybody's guess.