The Fallen Diadem
“Did you hear the news?”
The port was far from the sun, nearly at the limits of habitation. Night was nothing more than a flash of darkness to mark the passing of time. The sky itself was dark, as though a black dome crept over the world and we were nearly at the walls. If I laid still and stared up long enough, I could just make out the spirit-flies that swam through the sky and called themselves stars.
The Dontez had taken me far, far away from Port Pelagus with few questions asked. As ships went, I had thought it wasn’t very seaworthy. Not more than one of the seven sails had been unfurled while the land was still green and gusty. With no true keel beneath it, capsizing seemed like its only fate. There hadn’t been more than a stiff breeze for almost two weeks and the full mast had been deployed to soak up the shallow shift of air across the flat world.
“There’s a new Amaranth,” the sailor said.
That made me sit up. I knew the two sailors, I knew everyone aboard the Dontez and those two were particular gossips that seemed to flee the ship the moment mooring lines were tied and they had their pay in their pocket. I had understood while the towns were cities and there was surely women and wine to be found. To call our current harbor a city would be a joke. A few dozen fishermen lived in half-rotten shacks beside a building that stank like a tannery despite there only being a few goats meandering the lichen-slick rocks.
The listener scratched his stubbly and mole-ridden chin. “If the old one is dead, who’s going to hold off the Slan Family? The Slade Bankers have already set up shop in Port Pelagus, in Dragonbreak, even in Dalvurnia!”
The speaker twisted his lips and leaned out of the wan, oil lamp light. “Slan Family, Slade Family, all the Piedtriese are the same if you ask me. The new Amaranth though, they say it’s Lady West, the natural daughter of Lord West.”
“Then who killed Arnstein? He was a beast of a man in a fight. They say he slew two adult dragons at once!”
The speaker dramatically leaned back in till his cheeks glowed yellow. “Someone other than him made off with Vichtstein’s treasure; the diadem of the mad queen and slew him with it. Or so they say. If you believe the rumors, they say the Order of the Broken Concordant has been broken. Corpses as far as-”
“Why are the two of you sitting around?” the captain bellowed. He had a roll to his words that I had never heard before, but it always made it easy to know it was the captain yelling. All eyes turned to him as he marched over the gangplank carrying a huge bundle over one shoulder. He turned and kicked it off his ship, sending it clattering against the dock. “Come on, we’re heading widdershins. The oracle says we’ve got high tides for the next four days. We’ve gotta go before we’re stuck here again. You too Mark,” he ordered, and all the chit chat aboard the Dontez stopped. The men and I sprang to action untying the mooring lines and hanging lanterns about the edges of the ship. One of the men gave the dock a stiff shove and then we were to sea; as much as the water could be called a sea and not a maze of jagged crags just beneath the surface.
“Here, Mark, help me with these,” the captain said, and the two of us unraveled the bundle across the deck. He had bought harpoons and rope.
“Are you expecting to fight a kraken or something?”
The salt-and-pepper captain bellowed a laugh. “No, no, kraken don’t attack ships. If they get too close to the surface they get air sickness and go belly up.” That didn’t make me feel better. “This is for the dragons.” That definitely didn’t make me feel better.
“Can this ship even handle a dragon attack?”
“The Dontez? Of course she can! The trick is you have to tire the beast out first before it feels like turning around and biting at you. How’d you think we got all this oil? What did you think that godsawful smell was back there?” the captain asked, pointing to the already diminishing glow of the port. “We’ll be rich men if we can fill the hold with dragon fat. I hear they make scented soaps out of it for noble ladies nowadays, a gold coin a pound! Can you believe that?”
I hefted up some of the harpoons and rolled my eyes. “And how much do you sell it for when you get it?” I asked as he pointed to where he wanted the weapons.
“About three copper a pound, give or take. Depends on how much rot there is in it. Some refineries won’t take it at all, no matter the price, if it stinks enough to clog your nose. Have you ever seen a dragon before?” the captain asked, skirting around the men unfurling the sails.
“A few, yeah. Well, Earth Dragons anyways. I’m guessing you have something else out here?” I said as I walked over to the piled up mooring line. It had to be tied before someone tripped on it, and that fell to me.
“Here in the dark we’ve got Water Dragons. Rather similar. Bit sleeker than they are muddy, and they like to dive. Still big, fat, stupid, and dangerous,” the captain explained from the prow of the ship, watching the ripples of light around us. “Those empty barrels we’ve got down below? We need them up on deck and sealed tight.”
I sighed and tried to tie the mooring line quicker. My fingers hadn’t yet gotten use to the rope tying and the hemp still rubbed my skin raw. Hoping I wouldn’t be chewed out for sloppy binding, I dropped the cord of rope and jogged over to the stairs down. Below deck had but one swaying lantern to see by, making shadows dance across hammocks and crates. I had to go digging to find the barrels.
Starting with the smallest, I brought it back out for the captain. He scowled at me. “No, no, the empty ones! That’s the brandy. No, wait, don’t take it back, give it here,” he said, hefting it against his hip to shake a few swigs of liquor into his silver-crested drinking horn.
I went back below, back into the dark, and fetched the big barrel. I grunted and waddled, hoofing it back on deck to set it next to the harpoons. I collapsed on top of the last one I brought out, my back coated in sweat. “Are we finally headed towards Dalvurnia?”
“Finally?” the captain asked, cocking an eyebrow at me as he stuffed a pipe full of tobacco. “This is as fast as we could possible go there, safely that is. Every inspector and informant in the city would be through all our business if we arrived without a haul. If you want to get there faster, pray we find a dragon quickly.”
I shifted to leaning on the railing as he sparked up his pipe. I stared into the water, seeing nothing but black mud. The Dontez cut through it easily enough, gliding around currents and eddies that belied submerged rocks beyond my sight. I couldn’t see the bottom. I couldn’t see where dragons would be hiding.
“Quite lonesome out here, isn’t it?” the captain asked as the activity on the ship slowed. Men stood here and there, at the ready to change the sails or twist the mast, but relying on the ruddermaster at the back.
“Is this what it means to be at the edge of the world?”
“Ah, we’re not at the edge yet. You can travel another day shadoward and still find cottages here and there. Just because we’re beyond the borders of kingdoms doesn’t mean we’re beyond the world or nothing. This here is the wallows of the Fish King is all,” the captain explained.
“The Fish King? Like, a king of fish?” I was too tired to be quick with the wit.
“No, no, no, didn’t your parents teach you anything? The Fish King, the one who took the throne after the First King!” he said, and only got my glazed eyes in return. He sighed. “Virgil sure sent me a strange one, didn’t he?” he muttered.
“That’s what the extra pay was for.”
He clapped his hands together, spilling a bit of ash across the deck. “Right, so, the Fish King, legend has it that after the First King died and vacated the throne, many an eon passed in the light of the First King’s Eye, and one day, a fish managed to flop out of the water and into the throne. This would have been long long ago when it was at sea level, not raised up above the city like it is today. Perhaps the diadems were found by the fish as well and their power wasted till they died of age to activate the Throne, but as it goes, one of them flopped up on the throne and was accepted as the king. So he then got his wish, just like anyone else would get in the years to come. But, as he’s a fish, there wasn’t much to go between his eyes. Naught but the instinct to gasp and flop around, smackin’ ‘imself against the throne.”
He swept his hand across the landscape. “So there we have it,” he said. “This is what you get when you use the power of the throne like a great big hammer to pummel the world like a big mud pie. Submerged chaos and enough depth here and there that life could change and further; some dry land too. The dirt had to go somewhere when he struck it afterall. There are even a few spots that no one knows how deep they go. We’ve never gotten an anchor line long enough to find the bottom.”
“And that’s where the kraken are?”
“That’s where the kraken are, aye. Also the dragons who like to go down and eat them,” he said, and paused to take a long drag on his pipe. “Bit of a waste of the throne’s power if you ask me. I’m more a fan of the Wolf King m’self.”
I slumped down till my chin was on the railing, my eyes unfocused on the twilight. “I knew a man who wanted to use the throne to cure disease, typhus specifically. He wanted to save lives, but he was insane.”
The captain glanced down at me without moving his head. “I heard of that man’s wish too. I also hear he’s dead now.”
“Captain!” one of the crew shouted. The man had run up to the very nose of the ship and dangled of the end by the mast line. “Dragon blow! Ahead to starboard.”
The captain whooped. “This is it boys! The quickest hunt of our lives! Let’s chase her down! Are you ready to slay a dragon, Mark?”
I couldn't see what the man had called out, no matter how much I squinted my eyes. Then it happened again; a huge plume of mist blew into the air and drifted away to a cloud of nothingness. A dragon the size of the Dontez had returned to the surface to chew its tentacled meal.
“Spears to the ready boys!” the captain bellowed as all the sleepers charged out on deck and the ship twisted atop the water to angle at the beast. Some forty, brawny men emerged to pick up the harpoons, grinning and cajoling each other. They tied knots into the rope to connect harpoon to barrel so fast it looked like a magic trick; wasting no time in preparing for the hunt.
“Charlie and Neeka will never believe me.”