Spyder awoke sometime around dawn. Lulu was curled up next to him under a -blanket on a big love seat. Spyder looked around for Shrike, but she wasn'_nywhere in sight. Water was boiling on the little stove.
He got up carefully, trying not to wake Lulu, and went -outside. The stead_ind was wet and frigid. Spyder wrapped his arms around himself and went t_he bow where Primo and Shrike, in her heavy coat, were talking. As he rounde_he corner of the cabin, Spyder saw what the two were talking about. Anothe_irship was hanging twenty or so yards off the port bow. It was shaped like a_mmense black scorpion. A metal cable was slowly extending from the scorpio_hip's gondola, which hung from the end of the stinger.
"What's going on?" asked Spyder.
"According to Primo, they've been shadowing us all morning," said Shrike.
"What's that line they're sending over here?"
"A communication device," said Primo. "I believe."
"You don't know?"
"It's similar to devices I've seen, but I can't be sure."
"In any case, they'll be tethered to us. I don't like that," said Shrike.
"What's up, Spyder?" came a voice. He turned to see Lulu coming from th_abin.
"The neighbors want to borrow a cup of sugar."
"Holy shit," Lulu said, coming up behind him. "Are we happy about this?"
"I don't think we have any choice," said Shrike. "Spyder, not that I want yo_oing anything crazy, but would you go into the cabin and get that demon blad_hat Madame Cinders gave us?"
Shrike nodded. "It's wrapped in a silk scarf. If anything comes off that ship, I want to know we can kill it."
"We going Texas Chainsaw on the other blimp, too?" asked Lulu. She pointed of_o starboard.
"Spyder… ?" said Shrike.
"Another ship's coming out of the clouds," he said. "A burning heart wrappe_n thorns. It looks like a Christian sacred heart."
"It's the Seraphic Brotherhood," said Primo, "pledged to the archange_ichael. They're warrior priests."
"Are they approaching us?" asked Shrike.
"No," said Spyder. "They're just hanging parallel a mile or two away."
"There's others out there, too," said Lulu.
"She's right. I can see a half dozen other ships, but they're mostly jus_ots."
"Get the blade, Spyder," Shrike said.
He ducked back below deck and Lulu followed him.
"Lulu, I want you to stay in here," said Spyder. He stalked around the cabi_ooking for the silken bundle.
"I'm no cotillion queen, Spyder. I can take care of myself."
"Not when you're coming off junk."
"I wasn't that deep in this time."
On the kitchen counter, he spotted the bundle. "In any case, I'll feel bette_nowing you're safe." Spyder found a butcher knife on the stove and tossed i_o her. "But if anything with more than one head comes through the door, fee_ree to stick it."
"That's pretty much always my policy."
"That's my girl." Spyder grabbed his leather jacket and headed back onto th_eck.
"Your kamikaze girl outside? She's a sweet slice of honeydew."
"That she is."
When Spyder got back to the bow of the ship, the cable that had been spoolin_rom the scorpion had settled onto the port railing, clamping itself in plac_ith a single golden claw. A rotating disc had flipped open at the top of th_law and there was a grainy image of a young man flickering on a small scree_efore the wheel. The young man's face was cut through with snowy scan lines.
He wore a dark uniform of a severe cut (and marked with numerous medals an_ampaign ribbons) and a kind of silver ring around his head. To Spyder'_elief, he was clearly human. The young man and Primo were speaking rapidly i_ language Spyder didn't understand.
"Did I miss anything good?" Spyder asked Shrike.
"We're being offered a bribe," Shrike whispered. "The young pup doing all th_alking is Bel, the crown prince of the Erragal clan. One of the powerfu_ouses of the Third Sphere."
"What exactly are we being bribed for?"
"They know where we're going and what we're bringing back. They want th_ook."
"I'm guessing these aren't the kind of people Madame Cinders would have ove_o tell her troubles to."
"It's unlikely," said Shrike. "Did you bring the knife?"
"I've got it under my coat."
"Don't do anything until I tell you. For now, we're just playing a diplomac_ame. Primo is politely telling the prince thanks, but no thanks."
"What if he gets mad? Last time I looked there was fuck-all but water unde_s."
"Those other airships should keep him in line. The Erragals are powerful, bu_hey wouldn't want to be seen shooting an unarmed ship from the sky."
"Pardon me," said Primo, "but the young prince is becoming very agitated. _on't think that anyone has every refused an Erragal royal bribe before."
"Tell him we're on Hajj. Religious pilgrims can't accept bribes."
Off to the starboard side of the ship, the sky opened like a sunbeam slicin_hrough a cloudbank. A pale, sexless, beatific face appeared between the shi_nd the Seraphic Brotherhood's floating heart. The face was glowing, like _hild's dream of angels, and when it spoke, its voice was like thunder.
"Fuck me," whispered Spyder.
"I know that sound," said Shrike. "God's Army to the rescue."
"What are you talking about?"
All Spyder could hear was the echo and rumble of the transparent head hangin_n the cold ocean air. The voice and the size of the thing weren't what wa_ost awful about it; it was the utter blissfulness of its expression. Spyde_ad seen faces like that before—especially the eyes—when being analyzed b_ourt-appointed psychia-trists and being sentenced by compassionate judges wh_ent him off to juvenile work camps for his own good. They were th_nderstanding eyes of kindly folk who burned witches alive to save thei_ouls. But when Spyder glanced back to the prince, he saw that Primo ha_ropped out of the conversation completely.
Lulu emerged from the cabin, clutching the butcher knife to her chest. "Are w_ead yet?" she asked.
"Not so's you'd notice," said Spyder. He nodded toward Bel's image. The youn_rince's flickering face was creased with anger. He was clearly no longe_ddressing Primo, but the Seraphic Brotherhood's ghost representative. Th_hostly head nodded and calmly answered the young prince's furious chatter.
"The bribers are bitch slapping each other," Spyder said.
"That or arguing over who gets to suck our bones," said Lulu.
"We'll know soon," said Shrike.
"When you were sixteen, how many times did you picture yourself freezing t_eath while god and a big scorpion tried to decide who was going to eat you?"
"It's not god, Lulu. It's just some magic trick," said Spyder. "And the answe_s once every acid trip."
Lulu hunched her shoulder and went over to lead sit on a bail of rope. Sh_oftly began to sing: "Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war, Wit_he cross of Jesus going on before… " Spyder laughed at her.
"Quiet!" Shrike yelled. "Primo, before I push these fools overboard, what'_appening?"
"I believe, it's over, ma'am."
Spyder looked toward the beatific ghost head. It was fading from the sky. O_he bow railing, the prince's spinning disc was folding itself up an_etracting into the cable still hooked to the port railing.
"He's right," said Spyder. "Everyone's packing up and backing off."
"We got lucky," said Shrike. "Primo, set the course and come into the cabi_ith the rest of us."
"Come on, Lulu," said Spyder.
"I don't think I like that Christian soldiers song anymore," Lulu said. "_oved it when I was little, but I never thought about the words till now.
Doesn't seem very Christian singing about how fun war is."
"It's someone's idea of Christian."
"Not mine," said Lulu. "Don't let them play it at my funeral, okay? I wan_mazing Grace."
"I don't know that they're going to have Amazing Grace on the jukebox at th_trip club."