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BLACKTHORN: SPIRES OF MARS
The online serial novel
by I.A. Watson


Chapter One * Latest Chapter * E-mail Us


14.     THE LURE OF THE SIREN

    The prevailing winds and currents of the Amazonis Sea changed by season. On a planet with two moons that had been artificially brought nearer by the Ancients and granted disproportionately heavy tidal pulls that made for unpredictable sailing and some tricky navigation. The effects averaged out just north-east of the middle of Mars’ largest water-mass, where the clockwise currents of the trade routes eventually shunted most of the flotsam and jetsam into the wide, ever-changing floating island of Tortugos.

    Many centuries ago now, corsairs seeking to avoid the attentions of the First Men had recognised the advantage of a shifting floating base. The whole mass had been purged with fire half a dozen times by one or other of the Sorcerers that ruled Mars, but it always came back.

    The rising storm pushed Blackthorn’s borrowed pirate ship towards the shambling wreckage-mass at close to forty knots.

    Tybald tan Throg stood at the prow and watched the approach. “If you say anything is ‘ahoy’ I will hurt you,” Ysilde nim Loret warned her brother.

    “Sis, will you relax? You’re safe now and this is the trip of a lifetime. Can you imagine what everyone’s going to say when we get back and tell where we’ve been?” Tybald laughed out loud. He turned to the rebel warrior who’d brought him on this mad voyage. “You know, Blackthorn, when we first met I thought your war against the First Men didn’t stand a chance. Now I don’t care. I want in!”

    I’ll rid this world of First Men for you, brother, Ysilde silently promised the young man. David and I will all Mars free. I may even live to see it.

    The town of Tortugos was naturally a ramshackle affair. Hundreds of old boats were pinned together, each rotting hulk supporting the next. A whole community of traders, taverns, marketplaces, fisheries, shipyards, and more taverns had accumulated like dirt on a scab. One old ship with a high lookout tower had even been converted to what looked like a chapel to the Ancient gods.

    On the perimeter of the detritus were timber wharves where working ships could dock. Most of the berths were full at this time of year; winter on Amazonis was a time of crippling sleet and zero visibility. As windtide turned to winter more and more crews found warm bunks ashore with the welcoming sea-wives of Tortugos.

    Around half the ships were vessels like the Casus Belli, fast raider boats that could be courier one moment, smuggler the next, and warship the second after that. Most of the other craft were captured prizes being refitted or demolished depending on their value.

    “This place smells even worse than Blackmarkt,” Aria declared as the stench of rotting fish and dead seaweed reached them. “The reason the First Men allow this place to continue is so Mars has somewhere to send all its foul stenches!”

    Oglok sniffed the wind and declared that there were Mock-men on Tortugos.

    Aria’s nose wrinkled more. “I can tell,” she said grimly.

    Numar brought the ship in leeward of a sprawling spur that contained, from the odours of it, nothing but glue factories. Thick flocks of seagulls rose and wheeled around the incoming vessel.

    Men on the banks came to catch mooring ropes. It wasn’t clear if they were affiliated with Numar or if this was just Tortugos etiquette. The repaired grav-bars held the ship ready until the vessel was anchored.

    “What now?” asked Captain Numar sullenly when the docking was complete.

    “Now you find me Captain Korzan,” Blackthorn told him. “Then you can go rethink your life.”

    Oglok was vigilant for any attempt at reprisal as they departed the Casus Belli, but his bulk, his angry gaze, and a six-foot long vibra-hammer deterred unpleasantness. Tybald chaperoned his sister, solicitous of Ysilde nim Loret in this lawless place. Aria shifted her configurable dress into something of a darker colour with a more local pattern but decided that an eye-patch would be too much.

    Blackthorn had Numar guide them through the tangled shanty-town. There was no street plan, and almost no streets. Life was communal here. Walkways strayed through broken cabins that were people’s homes. Dwellings were built atop each other, with convenient short cuts pounded through wooden partitions. At least half the buildings included an old sail-sheet as one wall. A uniformed soldier, even one with a Mock-man towering beside him, attracted no comment. An unfortunate fellow who accosted Tybald to barter for Ysilde and Aria’s affections had a bad day though.

    “Where are we heading?” Blackthorn asked Numar.

    “Korzan’s in port. His Siren of Ammon was anchored at the Mermaid’s Wharf. Most likely he’ll be drinking or whoring at the Sign of the Waterworm.”

    “Is that a hostelry?” Ysilde whispered to Tybald.

    The tavern in question proved to actually incorporate one of the hundred-foot-long creatures in question. A gigantic skull formed the unusual entrance to an otherwise standard Tortugan building pinned together from various defunct vessels. The interior of the bar was filled with the same drinking, brawling throng that seemed to be everywhere on the island.

    “A volunteer please, Oglok,” requested General Blackthorn.

    The Mock-man grabbed the nearest drunk, roared in his face to sober him, then pointed him to the Earthman.

    “We’re looking for Neremus Korzan,” Blackthorn enquired.

    The pale-faced drinker nodded frantically. “Over there. That corner.”

    “My job’s done then,” Numar said hastily. He didn’t want to earn the pirate-chief’s ire for delivering Blackthorn to him.

    The General shouldered through the crowd and approached the recess where Captain Korzan and his cronies drank and toyed with a sufficient handful of bar-girls. When the pirate spotted Blackthorn he heaved the doxy off his lap and leaned forward suspiciously. “You!”

    “Me. We need to talk, Korzan. It’s serious.”

    A range of emotions played across the pirate’s florid face. At last he turned to his mate. “Everybody out.”

    The entire bar cleared.

    “Impressive,” Aria approved. “Perhaps it was worth coming here.”

    Captain Korzan gestured for Blackthorn to sit across from him in front of the hearth.

    “How’s the hand?” the General asked as he took his place.

    “Tells me when there’s a storm coming,” the pirate replied. “I’m thinking one’s just hit.”

    “It’s the season for them.”

    Korzan sipped from his tankard to win him time to examine Blackthorn’s companions. He knew Oglok far too well; the Mock-man had been aboard the Siren to ensure her captain kept to his bargains the last time Blackthorn had sailed these waters. He remembered Aria also; beautiful but uncanny and far too dangerous. Tybald and Ysilde were new though, clearly well-bred, not yet seasoned travellers, and far from home. Korzan slipped the maiden an approving wink.

    “I can’t take you back to Albus at this time of year,” the Captain warned Blackthorn. “The weather…”

    “I’m not going to Albus,” the General interrupted. “My next destination will be Arcadia or Diacria, en route for Phoenix Landing. I’m sure someone here will sell me passage.”

    Korzan drank again. “You never did tell me what you wanted on that haunted rock. Or why you made me take you there.”

    “That rock turned out to be the remains of a long-dead Harmony Spire,” Blackthorn answered. “We don’t know what happened to it, or to any of them that fell. You got to sail us there because you came recommended by a gypsy with the splendid name of Erlich Dubious Nanzak – or so he claims.”

    “Nanzak! What did I ever do to that old smuggler that he would set you on me?”

    “Nanzak owed me for getting him out of Lord Ruin’s arena. He’s been very helpful since then. The gypsies go everywhere, right across the First Men’s borders, and they get into everything. Nanzak’s doing his part to free Mars.”

    The Captain looked uncomfortable. “We heard about what you did at Chryse. A few of the survivors you got out are here. One really good carver and a seven-fingered engineer who can do wonders with turbines and a girl who knows glass. They don’t talk much about their time in the Sorcerer of Fatal Laughter’s Forges.”

    “I don’t blame them,” said Aria tersely. She glanced at Oglok, whose entire family had perished in that industrial hell. The Mock-man’s absolute silence was telling.

    Blackthorn leaned forward. “Chryse was a start, but it was only the beginning. I’m not whipping up support for some desperate last hurrah against the First Men. I’m not trying for a quick win. I’m planning for a comprehensive win.”

    Tybald chipped in. “I know it sounds crazy, until you dig down into the detail of it. But there’s a whole infrastructure coming together quietly and carefully. The smiths who got out of Chryse have a guild now and they’re supplying rebels all over Mars. The Runners travel the trade-routes for intelligence. The gypsies smuggle supplies. Even nobles like my father are considering Blackthorn’s cause. I don’t claim to know all that he’s got in hand, or the full extent of his resources, but I have seen him – seen him – face down the Sorcerer of Night and leave the First Man curled up clutching his balls.”

    Nanzak’s eyebrows rose. “Now that would be a sight,” he admitted. “These waters, the Amazonis, shore onto both Night’s Elysium and the Black Sorcerer’s Arcadia. So we have the Ghost Fleet of phantom ships sailing our waters bringing silent death and the Black Armada of killer dirigibles prowling our skies. Either one will end a cutter they don’t recognise as theirs.”

    “That’s why I came back here, or one reason at least,” said Blackthorn. “Admittedly, the other was to hide out from Lord Erebus till his crotch stops aching and he can get back to his corpse brides, but mostly I wanted to sign you up for the revolution.”

    The pirate choked on his beer. “Me? Why should Neremus Korzan play rebel? I plan to pillage my way to a comfortable retirement and end under a warm wench as I pleasure her to my dying breath.”

    “And you might,” admitted Blackthorn. “You’re probably pretty smart except for not keeping deals with me. More than most here on Tortugos, more than most on these waters. Let me ask you this though: how do you think those others will end?”

    Korzan paused. “Pirates rarely end well,” he admitted.

    “And why are you pirates?” demanded Princess Aria. “The loot? The ale? Not for the personal hygiene products, I can tell. Aren’t most of the people clinging to life on this floating midden here because they have nowhere else? No future? No place? No hope? I;m not interested in helping criminals, Captain Korzan, but I would have every citizen of Mars free, safe and fed, with a home and a hope. And I think perhaps you would too.”

    “I’m too old and too sinful to still have a heart, princess.”

    Blackthorn shook his head. “I don’t think you are. The pirates of Amazonis would be a great asset in the struggle to come, Korzan, and they listen to you. Where you lead they’d follow – eventually. We have the villages and the towns, the craftsmen and the traders, the sages and the scavengers. Why not the freebooters too?”

    The pirate leaned back, shaking his head. “No. No. There’s no profit in it, no reason. No sense at all. Why should I? Why would I?”

    “Because it’s right,” Blackthorn said.

    The Captain cringed. “Last time it was just me fingers,” he declared. “What are you coming to mangle now?”

    “Sometimes things have to get broken so they can be fixed right.”

    The pirate slammed his empty mug on the table. “Belay this!” He stroked his braided beard. “I need time to think. To sober up. I need time.” He stared across at Blackthorn. “Come back tomorrow. Get some rooms. The Bosun’s is clean and secure. Let me think!”

***

    Ysilde stared out of the leaded-glass windows of what had formerly been a ships sterncastle and was now counted as a luxury room at the Bosun’s Arms. The high chamber afforded a view over the turbulent sea beneath the storm-wracked sky. Rain flurries spattered the panes.

    “Homesick?” Tybald asked his sister.

    “No. Missing…” Morningstar. “Just thinking.”

    “It’s a lot of years since we spent any time together, isn’t it?” the lord’s son reflected. “Not since we were tiny children running round the inner court and driving people nuts.”

    “I suppose so. And Newsam threatened…” The maiden fell silent. Newsam had died when the raiders had seized her. The romantic cunning plot to escape with David and save the world had gone sour as the old steward’s breathing ceased.

    Tybald guessed why the pause. “You are alive, Ysilde. Whatever was done to you can be mended. The future those evil people tried to steal from you is yours again. Newsam, Jechin, all of them, they’d be glad of that.”

    It was dark out. The room was lit by a pair of storm lanterns that swayed slightly as the whole floating island was pushed by the winds. “I didn’t expect you to come for me, Ty,” Ysilde confessed. “It’s… stunning, really. I didn’t think I was… that much to you.”

    “My beautiful sister?” Tybald smiled. “Kind, gracious, full of dreams, full of care for people? How could I not chase you to the ends of Mars?”

    “To the Sorcerer of Night himself,” the girl shuddered. She remembered the First Man’s icy touch as he’d completed the Interlock Incantation upon her while Blackthorn, Aria, and Tybald wrestled with nightmare.

    A flash of lightning lit the horizon. Ysilde thought she glanced silhouettes of ships but dismissed it as an illusion of the storm.

    “I’d never have managed it without Blackthorn, Aria, and Oglok,” the lord’s son reflected. “They’re like… legends come to life. Blackthorn was actually born on old Earth-that-was!”

    “Ty, wouldn’t it be good if this war with the First Men they’re planning never had to happen? If there was another, cleaner way of stopping the Sorcerers?”

    “Of course. But there is no such way. Only through a coalition of…”

    “But if there was? If you could make some terrible sacrifice and save everything, achieve everything General Blackthorn was striving for with one bold stroke, wouldn’t you? Whatever it cost you?”

    “I suppose I would. But Ysilde…”

    The lightning flashed again. The maiden’s head jerked towards the window. “Ty… I think there’s something out there!”

    Tybald joined his sister at the window. “What? Where?” The rain lashed harder now, leaving runnels down the thick glass, making it hard to peer out.

    “At sea.”

    “I can’t make anything out. It’s impossible to see anything in this downpour.”

    Ysilde trembled. “I didn’t exactly see them. I felt them.”

    “Felt what?”

    The lightning struck again, a bright crackle this time that impacted with the topmast of a junked trader and set the spar burning. The thunder followed almost at the same time. The storm was right overhead.

    And this time, in the flash, Tybald saw the ships: fifty, a hundred pale galleys defying the winds, closing on the island. In the brilliant lightning glare the vessels were slightly transparent.

    “Ghost ships!” Tybald gasped. “The Lord of Night’s Ghost Fleet has come to Tortugos!”

***

CONTINUED in Chapter 15: Tide of the Ghost Fleet
in which the Sorcerer of Night's undead navy comes to Tortugos and eight thousand souls must die.

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Original concepts, characters, and situations copyright © 2012 reserved by Ian Watson. Key characters and concepts from the Blackthorn works of Van Allen Plexico copyright © 2012 by him. The right of Ian Watson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved.

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