They sailed through darkness, in a storm birthed by a flash of light.
The world ended at the bow of a wooden ship, where a lantern was bolted. The lamplight danced as the wind —billowing and bellowing —tried to snatch at the flame in its glass cage. Just above, the white canvas of the ship's balloon rippled and churned like troubled waters. The rails were frost-kissed, and the deck was slick with ice.
Vincent Locklear's hands were only steady because they gripped the wheel. His breath left his lungs as tiny clouds of white mist, and frost clung to the fringes of his coat. By his feet, however, a small gout of warm steam puffed up, hot as a whistling kettle. The steam came from the boiler of the ship's engines below his feet, a trickle of what he had to use to keep the air in the ship's balloon warm.
His eyes did not look straight ahead. There was little to see besides which direction the sleet striking his head came from. Instead, he stared down at a compass set into a wooden panel. The needle pointed down at the middle of the deck and slightly to his left, as it had for the last four days since they entered the storm. At the end of the compass' arrow was a stylized 'S', and it worked even where he now sailed, well beyond the gravitational pull of the great isles.
Most people thought the 'S' referred to the Sun. Vincent knew better.
The wind surged, throwing Vincent's coat back and shoving him backwards. His feet pulled at his boots, straining against the magnets in the soles that clung to metal strips bolted on the deck. The safety wire still stretched from his harness to the nearby rails, but Vincent patted the clip to make sure it was secure.
They were a long way from the pull of an island. Untethered, someone could fall forever in the open sky.
His hand fell from the safety clip and slid into his coat pocket, reaching for his watch. It wasn't the first — or even the third — time he had checked it in the last hour. But there was very little to do as Vincent steered the ship through this storm. He opened the cover and watched the second hand creep towards the top, and the minute hand creep past the tenth marker.
Once the minute hand crossed the hour, it would mark the beginning of the fifth day since they entered this storm. A storm that didn't exist six days ago.
With his eyes on his watch, he nearly didn't see the hatch in the middle of the deck swing about like an unfolding book. A woman floated up from below the deck and caught the nearby rail with her hand. She clipped herself on, spun about, and planted her feet on a metal strip set into the wood. She fidgeted with her harness for a moment, turning away from the oncoming rain, and looked up at Vincent.
"Checking to see if I'm late, Captain?" Mercy Larkin asked. And to Vincent, seeing her on deck made the storm feel a little warmer. She tilted her hat to the side, partially covering the right side of her face. The brim covered her right eye, obscuring the ghost-white scar that ran in a straight line from her eyebrow to just above her chin.
Vincent was there the day she put that scar on her own face.
"Can't rightly recall you ever being late, Mercy," Vincent admitted, as he folded the watch and slid it into his coat pocket. "Not from the first day you enlisted, to the last day you were my lieutenant on the Hood. Seems being kicked out of the navy hasn't changed that."
Vincent found his hand fall to the sword at his belt, tracing a small medallion set into the scabbard. The emblem was a stylized thief's cowl, a memento of the ship he had captained until just three weeks ago.