A thrumming sound rattled from fore to aft of the small vessel, it was the hammering of all of the mechanical men in the watch-works parts. Niccolo and Jehanjir had taken them off of their tracks, used for trimming the sails and running the masts, and put them to work pounding a single massive metal spar that would be used to anchor the dragon to the ship. Even with Higar's massive strength, it had taken painful hours to slide the spar through the center of the ship, and fasten it to as many anchor points as possible. Meanwhile Morwethe had been brewing a poison whose purpose was to intoxicate the giant worm, rendering it more susceptible to sorcerous persuasion. The last part of the desperate plan fell to Princess Chang herself, she fashioned a cunning misdirection spell, a more powerful version of the ones she used almost all of the time to move without being noticed, and another that would unravel the worm's will and senses. But it was still a desperate gamble, because the only way to administer the poison effectively was either to have it breath in the intoxicant, or drop it as a fluid into one of the dragon's eyes.
Jehanjir spent many hours marking down each of the dragons, and selected the one he knew to be the best target: young, weak, vain, and lazy in his habits. But even so, a single false move, or even mere bad luck, would be the end of all of them. There were several times when each of the tiny crew questioned the plan, but then, each would look up, and see how they were drifting farther and farther into the void, and sense, if not observe, the swirling figures that were waiting to feast on them.
None the less, the work grew less grim. Niccolo whistled, Albrecht recited poems, Higar would stop and do a more than passable jig. The princess turned out to have a sweet, if soft, singing voice, and they traded songs through out the hours.
After some conspiring between them, Morwethe and the princess sang a duet on a ballad that Morwethe had learned on Eo:
When I was a child and still at the nursing
my mother would tell me the debt that I owe,
give all a fair counting, a penny, a farthing,
and fair will your fortune where ever it blows.
Where, ever, it, blows.
When I was a youth and I saw a fair maiden,
she asked for blessing for blessing she showed,
she asked for a blessing, and gave an accounting,
By farthings to penury that I came to know
Came, to, know.
When I was a young man, and ripe for adventure
I went to the camps where circle the crows.
To give a fair country, a penny, a farthing,
To follow a banner and this way I go.
This, way, I, go.
When I was hot blood, I raped and I plundered.
the horseman did plow the furrow I sowed.
A faire of destruction, of all kinds for having,
Through ditches of flesh, there ran blood flows.
Ran. Blood. Flows.
When I was a soldier, and seeking my fortune,
A man came before me, with secrets below.
To faerie beneath us we rushed for the taking,
We left as high summer, but floundered in the snows.
In, the, snows.
In cavern aboding, we sat by our fire,
but stumbled to chasm, a
We entered to faerie, our lusts for the slaking,
We gathered our armor, and soon came to blows.
Came. To. Blows.
The battle came in time,
their rhythm beat our rhyme.
And their in spirit climes,
we found penance for our crimes,
Penance for our crimes.
beneath the skin of earth,
they took the gift of our birth.
So there our souls shall fly,
when it is our hour for to die.
For. To. Die.
When I was a vet'ran and weary of warfare,
I returned to the maiden, now taken her vows,
She gave a fair hearing, her heart all abreaking,
We married that morning her face all a glow.
All. A. Glow.
Now I lay dying my breath still like water,
And you are all finery, with fancy new clothes,
I give a fair warning, a penny, a farthing,
Not half of a county is worth your own soul.
Your, Own. Soul.
So listen to wisdom, and turn from the slaughter,
Avoid the fell spirits, and haunted burrows.
To give a fair country, a penny, a farthing.
Forgive more than trespass, lend more than you owe.
To give a fair country, a penny, a farthing.
Forgive more than trespass, lend more than you owe.
It had to be admitted that Morwethe's voice, while not as high and pure, was deeply resonant and hypnotic. After this they pestered Jehanjir to improvise and while Jehanjir disclaimed the quality of his poems, he rhapsodized as follows:
The diver searches the inner oceans to sight the perfect pearl,
while in heaven's fixed the scattered souls that ignite in perfect pearl.
The painter stares at celestial beauty, and to paint her skin so white,
he must mix rare alabasters to concoct a bright and perfect pearl.
Jeweler in happenstance to create a ring for high and haughty knight
works wire into a chain that binds his setting light, to perfect the pearl.
The solemn priest intones that marriage is now vowed by rite,
thus bans are printed, ancient and trite, in aligned and perfect pearl.
Before to bed a virgin unwed, the youth's passion is in roaring flight
so he descends, by whim and wend, because she incites a try at perfect pearl.
The husband forsakes his wife, astrayed by glowing night,
Sinking his lips in sensuous slaking his slight, upon the perfect pearl.
His voice sings these words, rising and falling, elaborating syllables to phrases, and extending the richer words to whole stanzas of music. It took several minutes for all the references to be grasped by all the listeners, but they knew bawdy even on first hearing, the question was merely which references were being made and when. Niccolo explained to Morwethe as an aside that a “pearl” could be a verb, meaning to dive for pearls. He recounted a time sailing on a sea when they had come upon some young men who tied themselves to dolphins that would drag them down to the pearling beds, where they would have only a minute to search, before rising slowly back to the surface. But then the amusements ended, and they broke to perform another round of preparations.
The lower mast was cranked in, the sails stripped and folded away, and every loose line or rattling bit was tied down or stowed away. The rainbow vessel had become as much a barge as a ship, waiting only the draft animal to pull it. There was a thumping as Niccolo, in unusually high spirits, whistled and wandered about, inspecting each join, lash, lock, and knot. Morwethe looked at him quizzically, and he simply said. “One way, or t'other, lady priestess, we shall depart soon.” Then, the waiting began again, as they knew the dragons still had closer to spiral in, like vultures over a dying beast.
In another corner, Higar and the astrologer played dice, with Higar often making clever runs that thwarted Jehanjir's careful strategy. The game they played involved an element of bluffing, and at this the astrologer was a complete failure, it caused Higar to giggle after each time. Jehanjir, however, betrayed no emotion, but merely would look up momentarily, as if committing something to memory.
At the aft of the hold, dimly glowing under the light of only two lanterns, Albrecht was lying in a hammock strung between two hooks, he was still gravely injured, though the salves seemed to help. He lolled his head to the side and looked down at the thin figure who was seated cross-legged on the deck below him, she was sorting through the sheets that held his drawings of the ship.
“I do not see how studying those is going to help you.”
“Art is a powerful kind of sorcery, it changes the mind and eyes, it is subtle in its working, but lasting in its effect.” She looked down on the page and puzzled over one bit.
“What is that?”
“It is a life-size fly.”
She squinted and looked close.
“There's a mouse in another page.”
Just then there was a scurrying figure across the aft of the deck, it shot across the open space quickly.
“A mouse? I hate mice.”
“Give me time and a page, and I will draw a cat. After a while, one of those will appear too.”
“Why haven't any flies appeared?”
“Because if you look there is also a spider. Since there was going to be spontaneous generation, I thought it best to give it some direction in my drawings.”
She looked up at him and sighed.
“You know, I was very disappointed in you at first.”
“Why is that? I do not remember making any promises or professions to thee, your highness.”
“You are so ordinary, it seems. And yet I look at you, and you have a pride, an arrogance, that surpasses all but the highest nobles.”
“I am just a bravazzo, making my way through the worlds, as my talent enables me.”
“Watching you fight, and I was certain that Higar was going to crush your bones and grinding you into the ground. He hefted his haul lightly from hand to hand as you would move a pen.”
“I have become accustomed to seeing the flourishes others make turn to fiascos when directed against me, and so best to stand with no fear and prepare to meet the onslaught head on.”
She stood up and rolled his tunic up a bit, examining the wound under the bandages. They were short on etheral water, so she was ginger with what she had to dab the edges and clean out the scab. She tilted her head back and forth, back and forth, pursing her lips as she looked. “Tis a bad wound, no one would demerit you for not being at the front of the fighting now.”
“This is the throw for one and all. If we can do it, we are, at least, back in the race. If we cannot, we might well die here, one by one. I would not wish to join the ranks of tales of long days a drift, creeping madness and despair overcoming us as the void invades our souls, and hunger eats our bodies to rot.”
He looked at her, “It is better a clean death and departure, than what the dragons have in store for us: consumed, compressed to a scale that when they find a place for it in their coat, sucks the soul out and churns it into shining torment.”
“You believe the stories?”
“I know them to be true.”
“Our dragons on Tianxian are not like this.”
“The ones in space are monstrous beings, and we, their food and material.”
Chang shivered again.
Observing her discomfort he picked up a drawing and turned it over.
“Here, we need a cat, or will need one.”
“How can we get one.”
“Can't you feel the summoner's power.”
“I can feel it, it courses through the ship, and draws breaths in and out.”
“Mice are not products of spontaneous generation, the flies, and spiders, yes. But the mice were summoned. I think, if I draw a truly felicitous feline, we will have ourselves, a cat.”
“I draw a little.”
Turning her around and placed his right hand over hers, inserting a piece of charcoal into it.
He guided her hand on contours.
“Circles are life. Circles are life.” He intoned as he went from skeleton, to filled out image of a bristling cat, half seated, half about to move, with a vaguely weasel like cast to its shape and features.
Its eyes turned aside, as if looking at something intently, and its tail, while almost wrapped around its body, had the very tip in a kind of hook that suggested a twitch. One paw was drawn back, as if to strike, and it had a sharp sense of self-possession it its face.
“There, ” he said as he held her, “that will be a good cat for a ship.”
From above there was a call from Jehanjir. “It is time, our target dragon has begun to slither towards us.”
Princess Chang called back: “Only a dragon's appetites, will truly over come a dragon. He is afraid that he will be left out of the feasting.”
“You know this?”
“Of course I know this, he is as open as a book to me.”
On deck, it was already clear that the dragon was eeling towards them, the sparkle of light off his scales poking bursts of light against the black void, the slithering of his flight wrapped and coiled as if he moved around unseen eddies or shoals in the void. Where his head was could be seen, both because the large armored plates of his head reflected sunlight like polished mirrors, and there was a slowly growing red ember where his open maw gaped. It was a slow, ineluctable, progress towards them, lengthening slightly with each curl and turn.
“Dragons can't seem do anything directly.” Noted Niccolo. “At least we have more than fair warning of the coming collision.”
“This one has not taken the plunge.”
Morwethe looked out, and then asked. “For those of us who do not enjoy such wide acquaintance of these, ” she paused for sarcastic effect, “fabulous beings, what are you talking about?”
The astrologer spoke: “As I understand it, the life of an etheral dragon is of two kinds. One is to be a dragon lord, duke, or some other such. This involves flying out to the fixed sphere, gathering up its essence, and becoming almost all-seeing and endowed with the forces of ether. The other is to consuming souls, turning them into scales, and then, once a suitable battle dress is formed, bathing in some source of power, preferably a sun. There to become almost invulnerable to attack. The lords live only a brief time, and so do most of the others, because they tear each other to pieces. Only some few become great, and nearly immortal, terrors in space. They fear nothing but comets, and the leviathan.”
“The creature that roams the dark of space, which is larger and greater. It is said to be able to consume flocks of dragons as a bass fish opens its mouth to swallow a swarm of flies.”
The watched the twisting movement of their foe, and went to the places assigned: Niccolo at the wheel, the astrologer at the lever that would spring out the spar, Higar half way to fore, holding his maul wrapped in the chains that would be the tethers of the dragon. Morwethe near the midships, with one cannon loaded and mounted on a turing wheel.
And afore, Princes Chang and Albrecht. His task was to deliver the flask of poison, and then haul her close to its face, there to work her magicks on him, so that he might accept the bit for some small time. He had two pistols set, a rapier, and a main-gauche of clever design that was meant to inject poison. He had won it from a duelist who had surreptitiously employed it to win great stakes, his technique was to parry en forte, that is near the strong edge of his main blade and then using a draw cut of the poison dagger. It was capable of delivering a more concentrated dose through the point. They had exchanged words, a challenge was issued, a circle gathered round them. The duelist did indeed deliver a fell cut, but it seemed to have no effect on Albrecht, who promptly countered with a gauche mandible from the wrist across that took off the tip of the duelist's nose, who promptly cried for mercy kneeling on the ground. Albrecht had decided the greater mercy was to rid the seven spheres of him, and plunged the rapier into his back for a coup de grace.
Since then he had not used the weapon in any bout, fair or foul, but had carried it in reserve for the most exigent emergency.
He lowered his face and set his eyes forward, determination cast on his face like metal, and walked to the spar. He gripped with his gloved hands, wrapping his legs around the shaft, and planting them on two loops where the chains were strung through. And he waited for the moment when the spar would lunge forward, and he would use the momentum to catch the dragon by surprise. It was a delicate operation, because, of course, he could not get too close to Higar and his maul, so after dosing the dragon, it was imperative for him to get away quickly.
The dragon had moved directly in front of the ship and was advancing in whorls, like a streamer behind a spring dancer, its incredible length trailing behind it. From this vantage it was clear how young this one was, with only a few scales patched here and there, and a thinness of chest and limb, it was far thinner than the ship, and indeed not much rounder in girth than a mast of the ship. Its eyes glowed with hunger, though not with a bright intellect. It screeched in the ether, the wire like whiskers that sprouted from its head, wings, and legs waving like blood-red banners. Its body was a pale green, save where iridescent scales shimmered in the light. The closer it came, the less fear Albrecht felt, and the more a steely set filled his body. His gut had been roiled by gas and churning, but now, he felt like a wineskin filled with direst purpose.
Then he heard a bell, and that was the signal that the spar was to be launched, it jolted forward and shot outwards as a lance before a rider, into the center of the helices of the dragon's flight, an invitation for the monster to coil around and around it. its loops went over him, like ribs of some vast theatre, and he could see the barb of its tail perhaps three ship lengths beyond the end of the spar. He waited until he felt the clamping shut of the gears, and then turned and ran back down the spar itself, cursing that already the visualization that he had in mind was ruined. He reminded himself of a lesson from his father, that in both art and war, never allow yourself to form to firm a picture, but search, instead, with probing hands, for the grain of scene or situation.
Instead, he dragon was directly in front of the sorceress, as she held aloft the tuning fork, which had attracted it, in this case, too well. Her arms were aloft half way in mid-spell, and Niccolo saw the dragon snap out its tongue and slurp her within. A rattle of anguish rolled through is body, and he clambered aboard the claw the dragon had used as counterpose for the strike, stabbing with his rapier into a vulnerable chunk of flesh.
The beast turned and lunged straight for him, head screaming down faster than a falcon on a terrified rabbit. Albrecht turned his main-gauche over to his right hand, abandoning the rapier entirely, and easily slid aside from its muzzle to deliver a piercing thrust into its lower right eye. He could see Chang, tossed about in the grip of its tongue. She was not struggling in the least, but instead methodically trying to place the tuning fork on one of the dragon's fangs, so that its resonance would be increased by the very target of the spell. Her face was not impassive, but it was hard to tell what emotions it displayed in the shifting and lashing.
“Get away!” She hissed at Albrecht. “The maul! The maul is all.”
Albrecht held there for a moment, paralyzed between desire to launch himself into the fray, and a small voice of sense realizing that putting the bit in was the whole purpose of their gamble. The frame of his vision was swung about by the turn and writhing of the wounded serpent, but he thought he perceived Higar, maul at the ready, nearby. Decision came to him and he leapt for the spar, grabbed a chain on the way by, feeling his shoulder nearly dislocated from its socket, and his guts nearly wrenched from his body, he twirled around and around the spar, nearly tangled by the chain.
He hauled himself on to it and began running down the deck, taking himself past Higar with all the velocity he could muster. He could not see, but could sense, the giant trembling as his deity wavered. Behind him the dragon coiled its neck in several revolutions chasing him. Albrecht's footing failed on some slick patch and he found himself sliding until he slammed into the step near the aft part of the ship. He had only a moment to turn over and see the princess engulfed down its gullet, and Higar slam home the maul crosswise.
The dragon bucked backwards, snapping its neck like a long braided whip, trying to pull loose from the bit and the chains. Higar, however, was having none of this, and he looped the chains around and around, at last securing them to the mast and snapping shut the giant iron lock that had been nailed in place to secure the harness of chain. The giant found his footing and pulled the lashing taut, bucking back the dragon's head and gaining command over its movements. The more the dragon tried to coil, the more the chains wrapped themselves around its neck, biting in and strangling it. Unfortunately the bulge that represented the princess was already sliding down into its belly, disappearing out of sight.
The captain began turning the wheel to tighten the chains and Morwethe fired a cannon-shot to force the bound creature to fly forward, away from the ship. The roars from the dragon were hideous, and rapidly shifted from having the sense of an intelligent being ensnared down to bestial cries of shock and pain. But tear forward it did, and the entire rig, dragon, harness, and ship, was snapped forward as it flew.
They sailed past the other twirling dragons, who snapped and lunged at the ship as it careened through, but to no effect. A few warning shots made them hold their place, hovering in anger and frustration.
Not unscathed, but they had escaped. On the deck Albrecht sobbed, and curled into a ball of pain, knees jammed into his chest. There he stayed for two sidereal days. Later when a bluish scale left the other side of the dragon's digestion, the size of an old jousting shield, they laid in next to him as he slept. He awoke, breathing in, and sat up.
It was Morwethe who sat vigil next to him, stroking his head and trying to calm him.
“She lives.” Were his first words.
Morwethe said nothing, but seemed to fight back a tear of pity.
The sound of his voice attracted notice, and Jehanjir spoke softly to Niccolo.
“Do not tell him that most who are imprisoned so, if indeed they do escape, are driven mad. If she is alive now, it is as if she were pressed between two great stones, crushing her very existence. Being consumed is almost a mercy after this.”
Niccolo nodded, looked at Albrecht, and decided that the most humane words to say, were no words at all.
Much later Morwethe had tried to speak to him, but all he would say were the same words as before: “She lives.”