The two Blackguards approached the White’s door, the younger rhythmically cracking the knuckles of his right fist nervously. The Greyling brothers stopped in front of the door, hesitated. Pop, pop, pop. Pop, pop, pop.
The elder brother, Gill, looked at his little brother, as if trying to emulate their commander’s sledge-gaze. Gavin hated it when Gill did that, but he quit popping his knuckles.
“We gain nothing by waiting,” Gill said. “Put that fist to use.”
It was early morning. The White usually didn’t emerge from her chambers for at least another two hours. With her declining health, the Blackguard were doing all they could to make the old woman’s last months easy.
“How come it’s always me who—” Gavin asked. At nineteen, Gill was two years older, but they were the same rank, and they’d been elevated to full Blackguard status at the same time.
“If you make her miss it because you’re arguing with me . . .” Gill let the threat hang. “Fist,” he said. It was an order.
Scowling, Gavin Greyling knocked on the door. After waiting the customary five seconds, he opened the door. The brothers stepped inside.
The White wasn’t in her bed. She and her room slave were praying, prostrate on the floor despite their age, facing the rising sun through the open doors to the balcony. Cold wind blew in around the two old women.
“High Mistress,” Gill said. “Your pardon. There’s something you must see.”
She looked at them, recognizing them immediately. Some of the nobles and luxlords didn’t treat the youngest of the full Blackguards seriously. It was a judgment that cut because it was partly deserved. Gavin knew that even a year ago, he wouldn’t have been promoted to full Blackguard at seventeen. But the White never treated him like he was beneath anyone. He would gladly die for her, even if someone told him that she’d die the next day of old age.
She broke off her prayers, and they helped her into her wheeled chair, but when the old room slave waddled over to close the balcony doors on bad hips, Gill stopped her.
“She needs to look from the balcony, caleen,” Gavin said.
Gavin wrapped the White in her blankets gently but efficiently. They’d learned exactly how much delicacy her pride would stand, and how much pain her body could. He pushed her out onto the balcony. She didn’t complain that she could do it herself. She would have, not long ago.
“In the bay,” Gill said.
Little Jasper Bay was resplendent below them. Today was the Feast of Light and Darkness, the equinox, and it was turning into one of those autumn days one hopes for: the air chilly, but the sky blindingly blue, the waters calm instead of their normal chop. The bay itself was conspicuously underpopulated. The fleet was still gone to fight the Color Prince at Ru and stop his advance. Gavin should have been there. Instead, he and three others had been sent back by skimmer on the eve of battle to report the fleet’s disposition and plans.
Surely by now, the battle had taken place, and all that remained was to wait to hear whether they should rejoice in their victory or brace for a war that would tear the Seven Satrapies apart. Thus the White’s prayers, Gavin supposed. Can you pray about the outcome of an event after the fact? Do they do anything then?
Do they do anything, ever?
The White waited silently, staring at the bay. Staring at nothing, Gavin was afraid. Had they interrupted her too late? But the White trusted them; she asked nothing, simply waited as the minutes stretched out.
And then, finally, a shape came around the bend of Big Jasper. At first, it was hard to get a sense of the size of the thing. It surfaced a hundred paces from the high walls ringing the entirety of Big Jasper, which were lined with people jostling one another to see. The sea demon was visible at first only by the wake it left, plowing waters to the left and the right.
As the sea demon came closer, it sped up. Its cruciform mouth, half open, swallowing the seas with its ring-shaped maw and jetting them out through its gills along the whole of its body, now opened full. With each big gulping pulse, its mouth opening wide now, water splashed out to the sides and back in great fans every fifty or so paces, then as the massive muscles contracted, the water behind it hissed with churned air and water.
The sea demon was approaching the seawall that protected West Bay. One galley was making a run for a gap in the seawall, trying to get out. With how fast the sea demon moved, the captain couldn’t have known it was precisely the wrong direction to go.
“The poor fool,” Gill muttered.
“Depends on if this is a coincidence or an attack,” the White said, eerily calm. “If it gets inside the seawall, they might be the only ones to escape.”
The galley slaves lifted their oars out of the water as one, trying to make as little disturbance on the seas as possible. Sea demons were territorial, but not predators.
The sea demon passed the galley and kept going. Gavin Greyling expelled a relieved breath and heard the others do the same. But then the sea demon dove, disappearing in a sudden cloud of mist.
When it reappeared, it was red-hot. The waters were boiling around it. It veered out to sea.
There was nothing they could do. The sea demon went out to sea, then it doubled back, accelerating. It aimed directly at the prow of the galley, as if it wanted the head‑to‑head collision with this challenger.
Someone swore under their breath.
The sea demon rammed the galley with tremendous speed. Several sailors flew off the deck: some into the sea, one flying until he crunched against the sea demon’s knobby, spiky head.
For an instant it looked like the ship would somehow hold together, and then the prow crumpled. Wood exploded in shards to every side. The masts snapped.
The entire galley—the half of it that was left—was pushed backward, ten paces, twenty, thirty, slapping huge fans of spray into the air. The sea demon’s forward progress was only briefly slowed. Then the galley was pushed down into the waves as that great hammerhead rose even higher out of the water and kept pushing. Abruptly, the ship’s fire-hardened wood hull shattered like a clay pot thrown against a wall.
The sea demon dove, and attached to that great spiky head by a hundred lines, the wreckage was dragged down with it.
A hundred paces away, a huge bubble of air surfaced as the last of the decks gave way underwater. But the ship never rose. Flotsam was all that remained, and not nearly as much of that as one would expect. The ship was simply gone. Perhaps half a dozen men out of a crew of hundreds were flailing in the waves. Most of them couldn’t swim. Gavin Greyling had learned to swim as part of his Blackguard training, and that most sailors couldn’t had always struck him as insanity.
“There,” Gill said, pointing. “You can see the trail of bubbles.”
The sea demon hadn’t gotten trapped inside the seawall, thank Orholam. But what it seemed to be heading for was worse.
“High Mistress,” a voice broke in behind them. It was Luxlord Carver Black, the man responsible for all the mundane details of running the Chromeria that didn’t fall under the White’s purview. He was a tall balding man in Ilytian hose and doublet, with olive skin. What remained of his long dark hair was streaked liberally with white. Gavin hadn’t noticed him. A Blackguard, and he hadn’t noticed. “Your pardon, I knocked but got no response. The beast has been circling the Jaspers, five times now. I’ve given orders for the guns on Cannon Island not to fire unless it attacked. They want to know if they should consider this an attack.” The defense of Little Jasper was technically in his portfolio, but Luxlord Black was a cautious administrator, and he liked to avoid blame wherever possible.
What could a cannonball do against such a beast?
“Tell them to wait,” she said.
“You heard her!” the Black bellowed, cupping a hand adorned with many rings to his mouth. There was a secretary on the roof, one floor above the White’s balcony, holding a polished mirror a pace wide, leaning out over the edge to listen.
“Yes, High Lord!” The man hurried to flash the signal, and a younger woman replaced him at the edge, trying to listen without appearing to be listening to the wrong things.
The sea demon was now hugging the coast, swimming through waters so shallow its back was visible. It rammed through the portmaster’s dock without even appearing to notice it. Then it reached the far northern tip of Big Jasper.
“Oh shit.” The thought was everyone’s, but the voice was the White’s. The White? Cursing? Gavin Greyling hadn’t thought she even knew curses.
The people on the Lily’s Stem had lost sight of the beast as it had come in close to Big Jasper, and the sea demon was bearing down on the bridge before any of them could react.
The bridge floated at exactly the height of the waves. Without supports, the yellow and blue luxin formed a lattice that looked green. It had withstood battering seas for hundreds of years, the chromaturgy required to make such a thing now beyond perhaps even Gavin Guile himself. More than once it had served as a wavebreak for ships trapped outside the seawalls during storms and had saved hundreds of lives. The sea demon’s first, incidental contact with the bridge rocked the entire structure. It threw hundreds of people off their feet.
The vast shape slid along the smooth luxin for ten, twenty paces, then slowed, seeming confused by the contact. Its confusion lasted only an instant, though, as fresh billows of steam rose around it. The sea demon’s head plunged into the waves and it sped out to sea, its vast tail slapping the water beside the Lily’s Stem and sending geysers over almost the whole length.
Then, out at sea, it turned back again.
“Tell Cannon Island to fire!” the White shouted.
Cannon Island sat in the bay on the opposite the Lily’s Stem. The likelihood of the gunners there making the shot was remote.
But a slim chance at distraction was better than none.
The first culverin fired immediately; the men must have been waiting for the order. The shot was at least a thousand paces, though. They missed by at least a hundred. The island’s other five guns facing the right way each spoke in turn, the sound of their fire lagging behind the bright flash of it, the roar reaching the tower at about the same time they saw the splash. Each missed. The closest splash was more than fifty paces off target. None deterred the sea demon.
The crews began reloading with the speed and efficiency that could be only imparted with relentless training. But they wouldn’t get off another volley in time. The sea demon was simply too fast.
The Lily’s Stem had become chaos. A team of horses had fallen, panicked, and turned sideways with their cart within the confines of the bridge itself, blocking all but a trickle of men and women from getting out onto Big Jasper. People were climbing over and under the flailing, biting horses.
A stampede flowed out of the other side of the bridge, people falling, being trampled. Some few would make it in time.
“Carver,” the White said, her voice clipped. “Go now and organize care for the dead and wounded. You’re faster than I, and I need to see how this ends.”
Luxlord Black was out the door before she was done speaking.
Four hundred paces out. Three hundred.
The White reached a hand out, as if she could ward off the sea demon by will alone. She was whispering prayers urgently under her breath.
Two hundred paces. One hundred.
A second dark shape suddenly streaked under the bridge from the opposite side, and a colossal collision with the sea demon sent jets of water a hundred feet into the air. The sea demon was launched into the air, bent sideways. A black shape, massive itself but dwarfed by the sea demon, had hit it from below. Both crashed back into the water, not twenty paces from the Lily’s Stem.
The sea demon’s superior mass carried its body all the way into the bridge itself, shooting a wall of water at the tube and over it. The whole edifice was rocked by the force of the wave—but not shattered.
In a spray of water and expelled breath, flukes and a black tail surfaced. That tail smashed down on the sea demon’s body, and then the whale darted into Little Jasper Bay. Out, away from the bridge.
“A whale,” the White breathed. “Was that . . .”
“A sperm whale, High Mistress,” Gill said. He’d loved stories of the sea’s pugilists. “A black giant. At least thirty paces long, head like a battering ram. I’ve never heard of one that big.”
“There haven’t been sperm whales in the Cerulean Sea for—”
“Four hundred years. Since the Everdark Gates closed. Though some persisted for another hundred or—Your pardon,” Gill said.
She didn’t notice. They were all too engrossed. The sea demon was obviously stunned. Its red-hot body had turned blue and sunk beneath the waves, but even as the sea calmed from the aftershocks of the collision, they could see the red glow begin again. The waters hissed.
A swell of that big body underneath the waves, and it turned and began to move—chasing after the whale.
The White said, “That kind of whale is supposed to be quite aggress—”
Four hundred paces out from shore, another eruption of water as the two leviathans collided again.
Sperm whales had been the only natural enemies of sea demons in the Cerulean Sea. But the sea demons had killed them all, long ago. Supposedly.
They watched, and again the giants collided, this time farther out. They watched, in silence, while the rescue operations below worked to clear the Lily’s Stem.
“I thought those whales were usually . . . blue?” the White asked Gill, not turning from the sea.
“Dark blue or gray. There are mentions of white ones, possibly mythical.”
“This one looked black, did it not? Or is that my failing eyes?”
The brothers looked at each other.
“Black,” Gill said.
“Definitely black,” Gavin said.
“Bilhah,” the White said, addressing her room slave by name for the first time that Gavin remembered. “What day is today?”
“’Tis the Feast of Light and Darkness, Mistress. The day when light and dark war over who will own the sky.”
The White still didn’t turn. Quietly, she said, “And on this equinox, when we know the light must die, when there is no victory possible, we’re saved—not by a white whale, but by a black one.”
The others nodded sagely, and Gavin felt like a significant moment was passing him by. He looked from one to another. “Well?” he asked. “What does it mean?”
Gill slapped the back of his head. “Well, that’s the question, ain’t it?”