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A Pleasant Night on Ichorous Waves

by Andrew Johnston 15 days ago in fiction

A tale from the Cavalcade of Rejection

"Ghost Ship" by Ishtaure.Dawn is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

There was no question that the blade resting in Cosette's hands was a genuinely unique artifact, a custom weapon from a far-removed time. Most swords sold by the antique dealers of the Maghreb were made from common iron that vanished beneath centuries of rust and rot, hastily ornamented and sold to unwary Europeans for fifty times their actual worth. This piece, on the other hand, was authentic Damascus steel – Cosette could tell that much as she ran her knowledgeable fingers along the distinctive patterns that ran the length of the blade. Authentic, too, was the ruby-eyed silver sea serpent that twined around the hilt, its hungry jaws eternally clamped around the tang. Each detail, each tiny etching and delicate feature, was the work of a master who had toiled at the ornament for untold hundreds of hours.

“Miss, is it desirable? You'll take it?” There was a hint of eagerness in the Algerian merchant's voice, an unfortunate failing for a hawker.

“It is a fine piece, and I most certainly can find a home for it.” Cosette rested the blade on the counter and fetched an oversized bag from the flounces of her dress. “Does monsieur take francs?”

“Surely, Miss.”

Cosette dug out a fistful of banknotes. “Twelve hundred. More than fair, given the uncertain pedigree.”

“But Miss, I-” The merchant drew in a deep breath. “...Yes, twelve hundred. It is fair.”

“There is something you mean to say, my good man?”

“No, Miss. No.” The merchant's fingers shook ever so slightly as he passed the blade across the counter. Cosette questioned her earlier appraisal of the man's demeanor – it was not eagerness but apprehension that she heard behind his words.

Cosette gingerly placed a healthy stack of notes on the counter. “There is, of course, the matter of the story?”

“Miss?”

“I presume I bought more than the sword for that twelve hundred francs. It also bought me the story of the sword. Don't deny that you have one, monsieur, I've yet to meet a hawker who can't give me a tale on every piece of wares in his shop.” Cosette flicked a few more banknotes onto the counter. “A bit extra. We'll make it fourteen hundred for the blade and the story both. Hmm?”

The merchant's eyes flitted between the pile of money and Cosette. “...It is not so pleasant, Miss. Maybe not a story for a proper lady.”

“I may not be as proper as you think, good man,” said Cosette.

“Very well.” The merchant held the blade aloft in both hands, letting the dusty light of the afternoon sun skim across the ornamentation. “It was the personal weapon of Emirhan Marangoz, most terrible of the corsairs.”

Cosette leaned in closer. “As in Barbary pirates?”

“Yes, Miss. He roamed the sea for twenty years, claiming wealth and lives freely. The Janissaries swelled with the ranks of his captives – thousands, maybe tens of thousands of them. Ten times the Christian powers tried to claim his head, and each time Marangoz sent the pirate hunter into the depths and took his ships and men as prizes. This weapon was made for him by a slave of special talents, and Marangoz repaid his artistry by testing the edge on his flesh, that he would never again make its equal.”

“And what became of this invincible corsair?”

“It was his own cruelty, Miss. His men despised him. The pagans in his ranks tried to curse and ensorcel him; the others turned to poison and sabotage. Finally, they took up their own swords and set upon him with all force. They claimed his eyes, his ears, his nose, his tongue, that even in death he could never again find his ship. They fastened him hand and foot to cannonballs and plunged him into the sea's heart with a heathen curse on his soul.” The merchant sheathed the blade and shoved it toward Cosette. “It was stolen by one of his killers as a trophy. But he never had rest while it was beneath his roof. When he slept, he could hear Marangoz moving beneath the waves, seeking what he had lost, lusting for vengeance even through his damnation.”

A wry smile crossed Cosette's lips as she rested her hand on the blade. “Superb. It was a pleasure doing business with you.”

There was a reedy figure waiting at the door of the merchant's shop as Cosette emerged with her acquisition. “So mademoiselle has found a promising object?”

“Indeed, Laurent, and at a bargain,” said Cosette. “The Revenant is ready? You've overseen the repairs to the boiler?”

“In ship shape.”

“And the preparations for our transient guests?”

Laurent smiled and gave the slightest of nods to Cosette. “As you requested, but I admit that I harbor doubts about the promptness of our visitors.”

Cosette drew the blade from his holster. “I have an excellent feeling, Laurent. I can sense it in my marrow.”

“Ah, but mademoiselle said the same after Tripoli.”

“No more about Tripoli. That was always a gamble.” Cosette rested the blade over her sleeve. “The merchant would never have parted for such a fine article for such a pittance if he weren't eager to be rid of it.”

“Of course, mademoiselle. Forgive me for doubting you.” Laurent gestured to the docks. “Shall I escort mademoiselle to the Revenant? The passengers are eager for the entertainment.”

“And Major Dupont?”

“In an expected mood.”

“Then let's not keep the Major waiting.”

The SS Revenant was not the largest of propeller steamers – she lacked the full libraries and grand ballrooms of her competitors, though she did sport a piano and harpsichord in her sitting room and the wine hold was amply stocked – but then she did cater to a much more exclusive clientele than the standard liners. What she lacked in excess and opulence she made up for in sheer technological vigor, being swifter and more maneuverable than those other pleasure vessels. Cosette loved nothing so much as standing on the deck and watching the sun set beneath the waves, a glass of Burgundy chardonnay in her hand, as she contemplated the history of the waters. That evening was no different, save the antique sword perched beneath her other hand. Laurent had joined her that evening, minding the horizon with his old brass spyglass; the rest of the passengers were belowdecks impatiently enjoying their evening meal.

“The passengers shall be joining us soon, mademoiselle,” said Laurent. “Perhaps we should uncork the brandy? We can convince them of most anything when they're seeing double.”

“Oh, Laurent, alcohol is your answer to everything,” said Cosette. “You have the materials?”

Laurent nudged a satchel by his foot. “Indeed.”

Cosette rubbed the serpentine ornament on the hilt. “Then mind your post. We'll save the brandy for the end of the voyage.”

There was a clatter from belowdecks as the first of the guests emerged onto the deck of the Revenant. They were a motley collection – evergreen holdovers from the Ancien Régime, elites of the Second Empire, shady merchants who boasted of Medici blood but who likely earned their coin through exceptional banditry. They had only two traits in common: Tremendous wealth and a curiosity far exceeding that of their equals. The passengers had started the voyage in fine spirits, but days of tedium with only the occasional stop at a port town was clearly wearing on their demeanor.

Most of the passengers were at least holding their tongues but there was one among them who was not similarly cautious with his words. He had entered the ship wearing military regalia which he often sported during evenings on deck – all the better to amplify his glorious drunken lies of exploits during various revolutions and imperial campaigns. Cosette took him for a liar immediately, and suspected that he was a disgraced Bourbon noble who'd recast himself as a hero. She didn't dare question him on the topic, though.

The old liar was in a typical fervor that evening. “Mademoiselle, we must have a word at once!”

“Good evening, Major,” said Cosette. “A problem with your accommodations? The cuisine? I can arrange for adjustments at our next stop.”

“Don't patronize me, girl,” barked the Major, wagging a beefy finger at Cosette. “You damn well know the nature of my complaint, I've made it enough times.”

“Indeed you have, Major, and many times I've explained the situation.”

“I've paid sixty thousand francs for this voyage of yours. Sixty thousand, based on certain promises in your advertisement that you have entirely failed to deliver!”

Cosette raised a hand to conceal a grin. “Oh, Major, surely sixty thousand is not an excessive burden on a man of your status and wealth?”

“Besides the point, mademoiselle.” The Major glanced about at his fellow passengers, claiming their frustrations as his own. “I did not become a man of means by casting away perfectly good money, and there are many here who agree with me. Now, you made each of us a promise when we boarded this vessel. You promised us an adventure beyond the veil from which none return. You promised a meeting beyond. At the risk of being common, mademoiselle, you promised us ghosts.”

“So I did.” Cosette rested the sword in her hands. “And if, on returning to France, there is a soul aboard this vessel who feels cheated, I shall gladly offer a full refund. But only at the conclusion, monsieur. Until then, I hope you can remain patient.”

“Mademoiselle, a word?” Laurent lowered his spyglass. “I believe our company has arrived.”

All eyes on deck turned to the inky waters over the horizon. There was a ship, a strange craft, ringed in sickly green light – just a speck at first, but closing with unexpected speed. Cosette took the spyglass from Laurent and studied the new arrival. She had never seen its like so close – a great war galley, its guns little more than cylinders of rust, timbers blackened from age, rotting oars moving the vessel at a speed far beyond that which human muscle could possibly manage. No ordinary ship could stay afloat in such a state, and the fastest of galleys could not keep pace with the Revenant, yet this one was fast gaining.

“Superb.” Cosette returned the spyglass to Laurent and shouted for the crew. “Ease back, reduce speed.”

“Are you mad?” The Major pushed through the confused crowd. “You would allow it to close with us?”

Cosette glanced back at the Major with a grin. “You've lost your nerve, then? The entertainment arrives at last – you wish to change your mind?”

The Major let out a tense grunt. “This had best not be a trick.”

The galley approached to boarding distance. From up close, the unholy glow was overpowering, tinting everything with a faint color of rot. Cosette signaled to Laurent, who set swiftly to work. From the satchel at his feet he produced a vessel filled with salt, which he poured in a thick oval around the deck. Next came an assortment of silver vials, bunches of wolfsbane, heathen totems of protection, and scraps of vellum inscribed with dead languages. He passed a few of the objects along to Cosette, who turned loose the sword just long enough to affix the protective objects to her garment.

“No one sunder the circle, please, this is for your protection.” Cosette drew a deep breath. “And don't let breathing slip your mind.”

A rotten gangplank slid of its own accord from the deck of the accursed ship and its owner finally made an appearance. Through the tangle of kelp that wrapped around his frame, he was faintly recognizable as something human. His face was a discolored skull covered over in a mask of bloated flesh, crossed by thready green and white lines. Bright rays of green light trickled forth from his empty eye sockets and oozed out from his dislocated mandible. Rusted chains dangled from each limb, holding his gait to an agonized shuffle. He spoke no words but emitted a constant chilling groan from the void within his body.

Most of the people on deck recoiled in terror at the disfigured thing before them, but Cosette and Laurent scarcely budged. “Congratulations, mademoiselle, you've landed an especially hideous one this time,” said Laurent.

Suddenly, the fiend lunged across the plank, bloated fists trained on Cosette. There was a faint flicker of light from the ring of salt and he withdrew, his groan shifting into something strangely forlorn. Again he advanced on Cosette, and again he was repulsed. It wasn't until his third attempt to breach the ring that the fiend lost his ferocity, arms hanging leadenly at his sides as the points of light that composed his eyes remained fixed on Cosette.

“Are we calm now? Good.” Cosette spun to face her audience. “Friends, I would like to introduce one Emirhan Marangoz, demon of the Mediterranean, terror of all Christendom, foe of all merchants, slave master of empires. Truly an evil brute – a highly skilled monster, perhaps, but no less a beast for his cunning and strength. And see now the fate that he met, placed upon him by the men who helped him pillage, capture and kill. Now a lost soul, tortured...and helpless before us.”

The fiend stirred slightly at the sound of his name but made no further effort to advance past the circle. Slowly the passengers drew nearer to the edge of the circle, gawking with terrified wonder at the specter. Laurent gestured for the passengers to halt, easing a silver vial from his belt.

“Even a demon deserves a moment of mercy, though, does he not?” Cosette rested the sword across her arm, presenting it to her audience. “Shall we set him free? Major...you've been most vocal. What's your preference? Shall we keep him bound to study and torment, or send him back to the depths?”

The Major nearly choked on his terror. “...Just be away with him.”

“Certainly.” Cosette turned and drew nearer to the fiend, Laurent close at her flank. “I believe this is what you wanted, Monsieur Marangoz?” She nudged the hilt over the ring of salt, just enough to allow the fiend to touch it. “Go on, claim it.”

Cosette focused all her mental efforts into resisting a tremor as the fiend reached for the blade. He let out a vaguely satisfied groan as his polluted fingers wrapped around the hilt, and for a moment the light in his eye sockets grew softer. Stepping back from the circle, he swung the sword at the rusted chains that bound him, the still keen edge shattering the ancient metal. As the cannonballs rolled away into the water, the fiend turned back to the gangplank and walked – finally free of his shuffling gait – back to his own vessel. Moments later, the creaky gallery faded from view, the rotten timbers blurring into the night sky until only the green glow remained, growing ever dimmer until there was only black.

“And thus it is done.” Cosette returned to the crowd. “Are you satisfied, friends? Major, have I fulfilled my promises?”

The Major, free of his terror and once again filled with bluster, approached Cosette with his chest out. “Mademoiselle, I have nothing to say that could eclipse what we have seen tonight.”

Cosette laughed to herself. “You know, we have longer trips planned, voyages to the Caribbean and the South China Sea.”

“I imagine you'll have little difficulty filling those voyages, mademoiselle,” said the Major. “But you'll remember my name, of course.”

Somewhere at the bottom of the ocean, a decayed set of bones finally ceased its rattling.

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fiction
Andrew Johnston
Andrew Johnston
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Andrew Johnston

Educator, writer and documentarian based out of central China. Catch the full story at www.findthefabulist.com.

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