Arm of the Sphinx is the stunning second novel in the highly acclaimed Books of Babel series, following on from Senlin Ascends.
The difficulty with a disguise is that it must be worn
for some time before it hangs credibly upon the shoulders.
But if worn for too long, a costume becomes
comfortable, natural. A man always in disguise must
take care lest he become the disguise.
— The Stone Cloud’s Logbook, Captain Tom Mudd
The airship cruised from the hoary mountain pass on a current as cold as an avalanche. Its hull was like a longship’s, long and narrow, lacking only oars, with a carved hound’s head curling up from the bow. To a jaundiced eye, the ship recollected a rough coffin carried on the back of a laughing dog.
To the crew, it was but a frozen raft.
Swaddled in furs, they stamped about the deck like disgruntled bears. Wind strummed the rigging. The men said nothing. Forty barrels of rum sloshed in the main hold beneath their feet, seeping and sweetening the air with sugar cane and new oak.
The Cairo Hound was bound for the Baths, where rum fetched ten times the price it did in the capitals of Ur. In a few short hours, each of them would have half a year’s wages in their pockets and all the Baths to fritter it upon. But despite the coming payday and liberty, the crew was anxious. They were afraid to speak because, once begun, idle talk turned easily into nervous rambling, and then terror was sure to follow.
Pirates prowled these skies. Violent wind shears were not uncommon. Then there were the whims of the Tower ports to fret over. A safe harbor one voyage might be a shooting gallery the next. Only a few months earlier, cannonballs and fire had demolished one of New Babel’s more reliable ports. A crew could never be sure what sort of welcome the Tower would offer them.
And where was their captain during all of this worry? Drunk again, still drunk, always exquisitely drunk.
No, it was better not to talk. Better to stay stoic.
Far below, rough slopes gave way to a suburb of tents and then a shantytown of canvas and tar-paper roofs. Trains cut through the dense Market on tracks that ran from the Tower like the rays of a compass rose. The Tower did not look like it had been built, brick by brick, by human hands. Rather, it looked like something the world had begun to birth—a new crescent moon, perhaps—before surrendering the effort. The Tower loomed over the encircling mountain range. An imperturbable fog enshrouded its peak. Some romantics called this haze the “Collar of Heaven,” believing it marked the point where the Tower passed from blue sky into bleak, black space.
The captain always woke up mean.
He stayed mean, too, but there was an excess of meanness in his waking. Drunk or not, mean or not, the captain would still have to sign the manifest and dicker with the port master over the price of rum. He still had a job to do. They would have to draw straws for who would wake him. The boatswain trimmed straws from a broom and measured them on his palm.
Then the girl appeared.
She seemed to just materialize in the air near the grumbling furnace and the biscuit barrels. One of her arms snaked about the rope that held her; one toe of her boot touched the deck ever so lightly, like a bather testing a bath. She was beautiful—but not garish like those harlots in the pub who sat on your lap if you bought them a drink. Nor was she voluptuous like the sketches in the gentlemen’s books, nor handsome like the marble statues with robes no thicker than spilled milk.
She was beautiful like a doe in a glen: lithe, alert, and distant. Her hair was wild, her face small, her eyes bright. Her yellow frock had been hacked off at the waist, and her overlarge gloves looked like something a blacksmith might wear.
They did not all see her in the same instant. She mesmerized them one by one.
The bear-skinned crew of the Cairo Hound began to close on her with the slow, deliberate steps of men in a trance. With each step they took, she inched her way back up the rope and toward the gas envelope above. She did not seem nervous at all. The men found her poise captivating. They found it maddening.
When they could stand it no longer, they lunged after her.
She darted into the high netting, quick as a flash, and they crashed together beneath her, toppling the barrels and knocking one another against the singeing furnace as they grappled for the rope. As soon as one man began to climb, the others pulled him down. She tugged at her ears and stuck out her tongue. One crewman threw the water ladle at her. She nimbly caught it and threw it back t him.
They began to quarrel about who had seen her first, and who should go wake the captain, because now he definitely had to be awakened, and somebody had to do it, and where were the straws?
Their lively debate was interrupted by the tattoo of unfamiliar boots behind them.
The crew of the Cairo Hound turned to discover they had been boarded.
* * *
Captain Padraic DeFord had crawled into a barrel of rum on the first day of the voyage and stayed there. A fleshy man with the mottled complexion of a newborn infant, he was at the point in his career where all other men were fools, the business was foolish, and the pay fit only for imbeciles. His men thought him tyrannical, but in truth he spoiled them. When he was a cabin boy, if he’d once made the sort of blunder his crew did on a daily basis, he would have been whipped till he bled. He wasn’t a tyrant; he was a parent stuck with a brood of dunces. And rather than improve, rather than rise to the challenge of his leadership, his men grew sullen and resentful. They slouched toward mutiny.
How the world had changed.
In the face of this, would any man of character blame him for indulging in a drink? He found that if he drank enough, he slept deeply and dreamed little. He could fall into bed the same as into his grave. Every morning was a resurrection; every evening was a death. It was such a pretty thing to come and go into the dark as one pleased.
This morning, he was rudely roused from his grave by something like an anchor chain wrapping about his neck and wrenching him from his cot and out of the wonderful dark.
Having long ago trained himself to nap with a pistol in hand, DeFord was quick to sight the figure behind the chain. He had just put his finger to the trigger when a thick arm knocked the barrel up, and the gun discharged into the cabin ceiling with an earsplitting bang. Wood dust and smoke stung his eyes. Sun beamed through the bullet hole, brightening the dark and giving DeFord his first glimpse of the man behind the iron noose.
But it was not a man. It was a gargantuan woman with short silver hair lying close to a square, stony face. He felt like he was looking up at an ox that was standing on its hind legs.
Captain DeFord gave the amazon a speculative kick, and in return, she picked him up by his arms and thumped him twice against the ceiling. The blows made the chain clang about his ears. When the pounding stopped, his spine felt a little shorter. Docile now with pain and shock, DeFord didn’t fight as he was dragged above deck, wearing nothing but his breeches and a tangled white bedsheet.
He was disappointed but not surprised to see his useless crew standing under raised hands. A girl in a ripped dress and a woman with brass plumbing for an arm held them at gunpoint, and confidently so. The realization caused DeFord physical pain: A trio of women had taken his ship. What further proof could one ask for? His men were conspiring against him. They hadn’t even put up a fight.
There was one other stranger: a lanky man in a long black coat. He looked as sturdy as a scarecrow. Yet, there was a coolness and a gravity to his expression.
“Ah, there you are,” said the scarecrow. “Captain DeFord, is it?” The man offered his hand. DeFord numbly shook it. “I’m Captain Tom Mudd. This is my crew. We have, as you’ve probably gathered, boarded your ship for the purpose of lightening it.”
“Don’t talk like you’ve come for tea,” DeFord said, his speech thick with sleep and the lingering vapor of rum. “Give me a sword, and we can settle this like men.” They were bold words for a man whose neck was in a chain.
“We’re not that sort of pirate,” Captain Mudd said. He leaned on his polished aerorod as if it were a cane and not a sacred tool of navigation. This lack of respect for the instruments of the profession told DeFord all he needed to know about this invader. He was not a seasoned airman. His crew of women suggested his last career had been as a pimp or a wifemonger. He was probably the sort of man who never worked very hard, never strove. He was lazy, cowardly, and smug. In short, this Mudd represented everything that was wrong with a generation.
“Oh, don’t pretend that you’re some sort of rare genius,” DeFord said. “A herd of cows wearing bells could’ve snuck past this lot.” DeFord scowled at his crew. They scowled right back at him. He knew it was dangerous to humiliate them in this moment of vulnerability, but he didn’t care. They were such a disappointment. “You got no one to blame but yourselves for this gutting!” DeFord told them.
“Come now, there’s really no reason to shout,” Captain Mudd said. “I’m sure your men are very hardy. In fact, in a fair fight, I have no doubt they would’ve given us quite a run of it. And we’re not going to bleed you dry. We just need a little of your . . . of your . . .” The scarecrow trailed off, his brow wrinkling and his gaze glassing over. He seemed entirely distracted, like a man listening to a distant strain of music. DeFord wondered just what sort of lunatic had gotten aboard his ship.
“Rum, sir,” the woman with the clockwork arm said. “They’re carrying rum.” The filigree that decorated the gleaming brass shell of her limb was fine enough for a woman’s locket, though the machinery that showed between plates resembled nothing so much as the black workings of a locomotive.
“Yes. We just need a little of your rum,” Mudd said, his attention recovered. “We’ll also take whatever food you have. Then you can be on your way. By this evening, you’ll be in port, paid and drunk, and this whole unfortunate business will be a dimming memory.”
“Don’t any of you think you’re going to be paid! I don’t care what this mudbug says—” DeFord stopped, squinting as a thought occurred to him. “Mudd. I’ve heard that name before. Aye. Aye, I met one of your victims once. I bought him a drink because his story about you was so entertaining. He had the whole pub in stitches. Mudd the half‑a‑pirate. Mudd the clown. He said you came in under a cloud of gulls and fish guts, and then you, reeking like a chum bucket in July and covered in feathers, demanded a tenth of his cargo. A tenth! What sort of parsimonious pirate are you?”
The woman with the brass arm snorted.
“Thank you, Mister Winters,” Captain Mudd said. “Now, we’ll take two barrels of your rum, your pantry, and any black powder you have.”
“You didn’t say anything about powder before,” DeFord said.
“That was before you complained about my generosity,” Mudd said.
A harpoon crashed into the deck behind them. At the aft, an airship descended past the curvature of the Cairo Hound’s balloon. The emerging ship was encrusted with the warts of battle, age, and repair.
A pulley zipped down the harpoon’s cable and clunked against the deck. Captain Mudd turned to the crew of the Cairo Hound and said, “Gentlemen, the sooner you load my ship, the sooner I’ll be off of yours.”
The bear-skinned crew looked to their captain with black expressions.
The amazon pulled her chain from DeFord’s neck, and he gathered the white sheet about his shoulders and raised himself to as dignified a pose as he could muster, though the wind made him shiver, and he was still drunk. He addressed his men. “You wanted to humiliate me? Well, you’ve done it. But I am not humiliated because I stand here in a sheet on a ship given to a mudbug and his harem. No, I am humiliated to stand alongside of you. You will be a laughingstock if you indulge this man, if you give him one single drop of rum, of my rum!” DeFord beat his half-bare chest. “If there be one atom of self-respect or loyalty left in you, you will not aid this man. You will stand by me, your captain. You will refuse this injustice, or you will look for other work.”
Captain Mudd said nothing in his defense. He smiled at the berated crewmen, awaiting their decision. He hadn’t long to wait.
* * *
Pirates were as common as pigeons in the airstreams that circled the Tower. Many an honorable captain had been forced by a grim turn of fortune to stoop to piracy at one time or another. Some recovered their scruples as soon as their accounts were leveled. Of course, others who dabbled developed either a taste for the life or an inability to escape it. And then there were those shameless entrepreneurs who chose the bloody work willingly. They considered themselves a sort of ecological necessity: They were the wolves that thinned out the weak and old to the benefit of the herd.
Regardless of the cause, the life of a pirate was dangerous. The wealthy and powerful ringdoms regularly sent gunships to patrol the desert air. Infamy made the work of a pirate captain easier to undertake but more difficult to maintain. A wolfish reputation might soften a target, but it also attracted unwanted attention from military men eager to improve their own name. As often as not, as soon as a captain became the subject of a song or a limerick, he was welcomed to immortality with a mortal wound. One could try to maintain an innocuous or sympathetic profile, as Captain Mudd did, but subtlety was often lost on the sort of men who made their living at the end of a rope, lashed to a sack of combustible gas.
Truth be told, Captain Mudd and his motley crew were, for the most part, a toothless wolf. Their ship, the Stone Cloud, was a relic. What firearms they had were unreliable on their best days and decorative on their worst. The ship had one harpoon cannon on the bow that was incapable of launching a ball. If another ship decided to engage them, the Stone Cloud’s only reasonable recourse was to run. And run they had on more than one occasion.
According to Mister Winters, the ship’s first mate and the only seasoned aeronaut among them, the Stone Cloud’s previous captain conducted his piracy purely by boarding party. Captain Billy Lee’s crew of a dozen cutthroats would surprise a plump merchant ship, skewer her with a harpoon, draw her in, and overwhelm her while the startled crew was still tugging on their boots. It was a dicey business, and Captain Lee had lost and replaced many airmen during his command.
Under Mudd, the Stone Cloud boasted a crew of only five, including the captain. They were too few to swarm a deck, so they had adapted to survive. What they lacked in brute force, they made up for with ingenuity.
Captain Mudd had a talent for devising unorthodox ways to raid a ship. His crew, to their credit, followed his outlandish direction with hardly a squint.
On one occasion, they had snuck onto a merchant ship under the cover of fog and opened a barrel of cooking oil on the deck. The natural sway of the ship distributed the slick evenly, and the next morning they invaded on spiked cleats while the unsuspecting crew skated helplessly about, trying very hard not to impale themselves on their own swords. On another occasion, Mudd’s crew had dropped several pounds of rotting fish onto a ship’s envelope and then boarded amid a horde of frenzied seagulls. They had once resorted to posing as a wounded vessel full of collapsed damsels. Their would‑be princes, who rode in on a barge of cured tobacco, helpfully lashed the two ships together and came aboard armed with decanters of brandy to revive the ladies from their swoon. The rescuers rushed to the sides of the fallen women only to be greeted by gun barrels drawn from under skirts.
“The rules of engagement,” Captain Tom Mudd explained to the irate captain who’d been duped by this ruse, “were invented by men who would benefit most from them.”
This philosophical pronouncement might’ve commanded more respect had it not been delivered by a man wearing a frilly bonnet.
The taking of the Cairo Hound had been simple in comparison. They had shadowed the ship since dawn. Once convinced their approach had gone undetected, they crossed to the Hound’s balloon by a rope ladder and used the netting to climb down to the gondola. Voleta distracted the crew while the captain and the others got into a favorable position. The rest was just talking, which the captain was quite good at.
With their supplies moved from the Cairo Hound, the mated ships decoupled and drifted apart.
Edith called to Adam at the helm on the quarterdeck, “Hard burn, please. Let’s see if we can’t find that southwestward current we came by.” Adam repeated the order and plied the lever that opened the flue to the heating element in the ship’s envelope. It didn’t seem likely that the Cairo Hound would follow them, but if they did, Edith wanted them to be the ones squinting into the sun.
Voleta watched the retreating ship for any change in course. Though she had recently baited and eluded a mob, she showed no sign that anything very remarkable had occurred. She balanced atop a rail and leaned over the vast drop, casually gripping a tether in a manner that made her brother Adam quite nervous. A grackle flew into view, and she marked the subtle turn of its wings. “The current’s shifted due west now,” Voleta said.
“It’ll do,” Edith said. She turned to Captain Mudd. He stood, straight as a stovepipe, staring at the Tower that dominated the sky. “Captain,” she called to him twice, the second time more sharply, but neither disrupted the intensity of his trance.
“Tom,” she said with a little softness. Concern had turned her dark eyebrows into a single, severe line. Thomas Senlin refocused on her face and smiled. “Where to, Captain?”
He was still uncomfortable with the formalities that Edith insisted upon. She would only call him Tom in private and asked that he call her Mister Winters in front of the crew. Mister was the title that first mates were due and was only reasonable, but Winters was the name of her estranged husband who had edged her out of managing her family’s farm and then refused to give her a divorce when she asked for one. Senlin couldn’t imagine why she would want to be constantly reminded of such a man.
In quiet moments, Senlin recalled the hours they’d once shared in a cage that was bolted to the face of the Tower. They had been frightened by the unexpected cruelty of the Parlor and confused by the abrupt camaraderie the ordeal inspired. But they had also been only Tom and Edith to each other.
It seemed a long time ago. That was before she had lost her arm and joined a pirate crew, before he had missed a reunion with his wife by a matter of hours and stolen first a painting and then a ship.
Standing before Edith now, Senlin couldn’t help but marvel at how, despite it all, their friendship had survived.
“I think we shall make for the Windsock, Mister Winters,” he said. “We have some rum to sell.” Really, they had little choice of where to go. The Windsock was the only cove that hadn’t turned them away.
“Aye, sir.” She nearly turned to spread the order but stopped short. She drew in close to keep her voice from carrying in the serene silence. Unlike the sea, with its crashes, howls, and tattooing waves, the air seemed quite a tranquil medium. “You were doing it again, Tom. You were staring off at the distance.” When his only response was a pinched frown, she went on: “If I can see that you’re distracted, the crew can see it, too. That worries me. Are you sure you’re all right?” Her clockwork arm, beautifully doused in sun, illuminated her face with a golden light.
“Yes, yes, of course.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “I was only—”
“Man overboard!” Voleta called from the balustrade. They turned in time to see a flailing figure in a white sheet plummet from the Cairo Hound. They were too distant to hear a cry if one was uttered, but the silence of the spectacle only made it grimmer.
No one doubted who it was.
Iren broke the moment of quiet reflection. “He was a bad captain.”
“But a worse bird,” Voleta said.