Aboard the ghost ship Nine Lives there are the living, the dead, and a great many cats. And Jourdain, who likes to sleep in the observation nest, body caught somewhere between ship and stars—between everything. He half-sleeps, and half-dreams of a city he can almost taste, smog and sweat and endless endless streets alive with celebration. Then, with a shiver he’s not felt since he was beaten to death behind a theater ten years ago, knowledge crawls up his spine and into his half-conscious mind.
“Napoleon is dead,” he whispers. And as if the words are a spell they send the cats nestled around his legs and over his lap scurrying away into the rest of the ship. One, Pirate, a tux with a black patch over his right eye, turns back briefly, balanced weightlessly at the edge of the nest, and hisses before dropping out of view.
“Napoleon is dead,” he says again, and this time he feels something in his chest, a swelling of emotion—joy and anger and fear—and he springs up and over the edge, barely catching the ladder as he half-climbs, half-falls down to the deck.
Around him the sea of stars shines, the Nine Lives cutting a path through the black, aimed at nowhere-in-particular and getting there leisurely. On the deck the living go about their tasks with a calm efficiency, lost to the rhythm of sailing the still void, and the dead stand in circles playing hacky sack. Jourdain slips among them, careful not to disrupt their work or games. Being half-ghost means he borders all their worlds without fully belonging. He makes for the wheel and the peacock-bright uniform of Captain Mary.
“Sea’s an orgy of cheese-all-to-do today,” she says when he glides to a stop beside her, always somehow aware of his presence regardless of how quiet he is. “See anything interesting up top?”
“Napoleon is dead,” he says again, the words with each speaking becoming something new and dangerous.
Mary sucks in a breath like she’s sprung a leak, then turns the wheel hard. The ship banks, the living out on deck swaying and shouting their alarm, the dead cursing the louder as the hacky sacks strike the deck or, worse, go sailing off into the sea.
“Isn’t that a ripe fig of a thing to happen?” Mary cries as the ship lurches, splashes of void like cold oil spraying the deck. “Now let’s see, let me think, where was that freeze dried hell of a planet again?”
It’s all Jourdain can do to keep his feet under him, and he’s spared answering anyway as Nebula, a prissy Siamese probably more interested in a steady perch than in helping, leaps onto Captain Mary’s shoulder and purrs something into her ear.
“Right!” Mary shouts, wrenching the wheel the other way now, and Jourdain resigns himself to sprawling ass-over-eyeballs onto the wood of the deck. “Three left on Centauri and the color of stale urine.”
The ship is straining so hard it sounds like the wood will splinter and leave them all to drown in the void, but even as their course moves in line with their new destination, two galleons, flying naught but naked poles, appear from the warp with a flash like lightning dead ahead, one scorched and shuddering and the other now close as spit and banking hard away from Nine Lives to avoid a collision.
“Now we’re somewhere-bound,” Mary shouts, cackling at the chaos.
From the deck, Jourdain can make out the sneers on the other ship’s crew. They’ve arrived too close, flogging the Rules of Proper Sailing like it was getting off on the rough. It’s turning opposite Nine Lives, though, pulling alongside, the hulls now so close a person could jump across.
And someone does.
Jourdain sees skirts fluttering, bare feet pumping air. All along the other ship their crew is armed and carnivorous, eyes glued to the figure making mockery of the thought of falling into the void between ships between stars between life and death and something even worse. And then they’re landing, stumbling as momentum takes them all the way to the space above Jourdain before they stop.
“Hi,” they say, nodding, eyes gold skin burnt umber hands clutching the monarch of all pissed off Maine Coons.
Jourdain opens his mouth, almost-but-not-quite managing words, heart hammering his chest like it has something to prove.
Cannonfire rends the moment, splinters of Nine Lives peppering the deck, untold damage below, but not so much that when Captain Mary screams for weft the ship doesn’t shudder, the wake intense enough to lift the parallel ship hull-over-mast and lost to the void.
And they’re away, weaving the warp of the universe somewhere-bound, that somewhere the Homeworld, the seat of the Emperor of All Things Louis Napoleon III-and-a-half who is dead dead dead and so full of wishes Jourdain can taste them half-an-everything away.
It’s a race, and the prize is anything your heart desires. Well, anything that the Emperor decides you’re allowed to desire. Jourdain remembers in fits and starts, the awe of standing near the throne, seeing the world drop away over a horizon as distant as dreams. Remembers a hand on his shoulder, whispers of seductive nothings in his ear, touches trailing lower and lower. It’s like he’s hearing those whispers again now, the promise of something that he hopes this time won’t end with his body broken and alone.
He’s not sure if others are hearing the same whispers, the same pull toward Homeworld. He is sure that once the news breaks the warp will bulge with traffic as every ghost ship aims itself in the same direction. For the Emperor is dead, and only a ghost ship can ferry him to his final rest, to the Heart of the Universe, the eternal reward that opens only to the powered will of a dead Emperor. And for the crew that carries him to his final rest, a single wish each, bound by ancient law and the fickle interpretations of the Emperor, yes, but enough to make a person rich beyond measure, or answer the desperate yearning of a half-dead heart.
They lost three crew and a handful of ghosts through the hole in the hull. Jourdain stares through it as it slowly repairs, wiped away by the sandpaper tongues of a dozen cats.
“You say you can sail?” Captain Mary asks the new arrival, who has introduced xemself as Beri xe/xyr/xem short for Tiberius short for none-of-your-fleece-soft-business. “And you’re running?”
Running is a destination aboard Nine Lives, and they’re all of them getting there at different speeds. Beri shrugs and bends to scoop up the Maine Coon rubbing at xyr legs, who has been introduced as Butler, full stop.
“I’ve been sailing since I got shot dead ten years ago,” xe says and Jourdain can feel a piece of himself resound like a struck bell to hear it.
“You’re half-ghost,” Mary says, and spits out the hole. “That why those ships were keen on you?”
She means did-they-want-you-for-parts or maybe how-long’s-it-been-since-you-slept or even you-poor-poor-bastard. But Beri just shrugs again, action automatic as sin.
“They’re part of the Flagless Fleet,” xe says, and xe means that’s-all-I-need-to-say because it is. Everyone knows the Flagless Fleet, void-eyed doomsayers who believe the universe a tapestry every ghost ship out wefting is marring the perfection of. They follow a Master Weaver who preaches there’s a pattern meant to be followed through the warp that will somehow allow them all to transcend to a higher plane. But first they must wipe it clean of the clutter ghost ships have introduced, which incidentally means wiping it clean of ghost ships, as well.
“And the cat?” Mary asks, gesturing toward Butler.
“Ended up on board by mistake, like me. And, like me, didn’t much care for it. We helped each other out.”
“Well, we’re somewhere-bound and fast,” Mary says. “But what with the damage we’ll need to stop soon for supplies and fresh milk. Make your call then, but we can always use more hands. You can bunk with Jo, seeing as how you’re both halfs.”
Jourdain winces despite the joy running through his veins because it’s clear she figures the stereotypes are true and okay he’ll bunk up with most warm and willing flesh but it’s not like all halfs are as hot for it as he is and he knows her ignorance reflects on him, Captain to ghosthand, giving all halfs this bad name.
“Why the speed?” xe asks, and Jourdain can’t keep the words in any more, blurts them out like the worst come hither in the void.
“Napoleon is dead.” His words are red-hot and blushing, and Beri takes them without blinking, without gasp or suck of breath or outward sign at all save xyr eyes dilate wide and black like a sudden eclipse.
Captain Mary glares warning, the cats all pausing in their repairs to join in. Beri isn’t crew, not yet, so xe doesn’t need to know their business, especially when it’s something so big. Jourdain tries one of those shrugs Beri is so expert at but all it earns him is a new hiss from Thundarr, a gray Persian, before everyone gets back to what they were doing. The hole closes, fixed enough for the moment, and Captain Mary stomps off toward the deck. Beri, meanwhile, puts Butler down and takes Jourdain’s hand, leads him like xe knows exactly where they’re going.
However bad he feels playing into every pumpfic sleaze fantasy, Jourdain still cries in pleasure as Beri’s hands enter him, xyr mouth crushing his. Ghosts can’t do this, can’t feel with the same razor intensity of corporeal flesh, and nons can’t know the bleeding edge between fresh-me-full-there-there-oh-god-there joy and the-dark-is-coming-undone-and-staring-at-me terror. But halfs …
Beri caresses Jourdain’s lungs, his larynx. Xe draws a half-real presence along the inside of his ribs and takes his heart in both hands to give it a squeeze. He comes, loudly, not really caring that they never did make it back to his bunk, just picked a relatively untraveled bit of hold.
They are surrounded by cats, yellow and green and seaglass and orange eyes all watching like they’re a spot of light on the wall, like they’re a is-that-a-moth-let’s-stalk-and-pounce-and-rend. But they don’t move in, just sway with the desire to act, mouths open to scent the ectoplasmic wisps that escape where skin pierces skin, like they’re just waiting to lick closed the wounds that have not been opened.
Hours or days or don’t-we-need-to-eat later when they are both puddles of afterglow, Butler steps forward, puts himself between them and the shine of cat eyes with a stiff finality, and the others peel away one by one until it’s only the one cat and Jourdain and Beri strewn upon the floor.
Jourdain half-dreams again, riding the pull toward Homeworld like a tether to a life fogged by a violent death. A life where an Emperor picked him out of his theater troupe to entertain in a different capacity, the stage a bed as vast as a ship, as soft as well groomed fur. There’s a swirl of intrigues he knows nothing of, a constant danger he wants to ignore for the grandeur of it, the novelty and fame and pleasure of being chosen by the Emperor.
An alley. People with clubs. The Emperor flitting onto a platform that lifts into the sky. That doesn’t have room for Jourdain. Blood. Pain. A life lost, but apparently with enough of a connection back to that moment, to that man who didn’t even watch what happened next. Even as Jourdain called, cried, screamed out his desire to live. A wish ignored, at least by the man he called to, that maybe became a connection only shared death could reveal.
Haverdash is a port of ill repute but perfect for ghost ships, who as a rule spurn legitimate locales. Captain Mary declares shore leave for a scant hour while she haggles full repairs and a refill of milk. Jourdain at first figures he’ll skip and spend the time with Beri on the ship but Beri slips out once the gangplank is down and, weaving through the crowds, casts a smile over xyr shoulder that says xe hasn’t made up xyr mind about staying on toward Homeworld. So Jourdain sets out as well, light as air and half as expensive, and finds a half-bar to drink in, spending his time pointedly not trusting himself to speak and so communicating only in longing looks and sly tongues and finding it no great inconvenience.
And of course when it’s a minute past his turn to buy a round, right after the money has changed hands but before the thanks-are-you-free-for-fifteen-minutes-of-humanely-raised-fun, the Flagless Fleet bursts in weapons drawn. And there are some things that flash through Jourdain’s head as he watches the carnage begin.
First: the Rules of Sailing the Stars might say that “Every ship needs a half and a cat,” but if the Flagless Fleet really gave two flying ferrets they’d probably make sure they met the quota some way other than kidnapping and extortion.
Second: for being a bunch of outright voidholes, why did it seem like every member of the Flagless Fleet worked out five hours a day and yet Jourdain couldn’t manage a half hour at the weight bench on Nine Lives? Did they sublimate being such rancid ticks into muscles through a gland only they possessed?
Third: there were still thirty-eight minutes before the Nine Lives had to leave and at this rate Jourdain wasn’t going to get drunk, filled, or fed. Which was supremely disappointing.
By the time the fourth thought begins to form, though, the swords have pressed close to Jourdain’s seat and he’s forced to act, moving forward, body a dance of frustrated death. He grabs through a Flagless hand and lifts free its blade, turning it bright-as-you-please on its former owner and opens a smile on their throat wider than any they probably wore in life. The others in the bar are just as brutal-kind, bristles full as they dispatch wave after wave. It takes a certain kind of desperate-stupid to attack a half-bar, though, and before long that fourth thought finally works its way into the unbloodied part of Jourdain’s mind.
The secret is out. The secret is out and every Flagless ship that can fly is looking to steal itself a half before they make the weft to Homeworld. Which means, much as it pains his lust-curdled desires, he needs to get back to the ship before Captain Mary decides to push off without him.
He slips out the back, hoping the others don’t hold it too much against him next time he’s there. Halfway back to Nine Lives, though, he realizes that the conflict has spilled much beyond the bar. The sky above Haverdash is full, which isn’t new, but this is less a full of commerce-and-bright-rainbow-flags and more a full of fire-and-death-and-the-taste-of-despair. The Flagless Fleet is amassed, cannons blazing fiery colors across the canvas of the port, and it’s a rough-and-rumble collection of pirates and ghost ships and slumming nobles arrayed against them.
The streets are chaos, pure and simple, and Jourdain fights in a dance of blade and breath, weaving through pockets of blood and teeth and pride toward home, toward Nine Lives, which is still docked, still loading up on milk. He reaches the gangplank just as Captain Mary is ready to pull it up, and he turns back to see Beri steering shipward as well, no blades at all but foot and fist delivering clever quips in the form of broken clavicle and burst pancreas. He waits for xem, Captain Mary’s face a stormcloud but unwilling to leave without at least one half onboard. They arrive together, Butler sitting on the deck a step back from the Captain with a I-suppose-I’m-not-displeased-you’re-back look on his face as the gangplank swings free of the dock and Nine Lives rises into the mess above.
As a rule—and there are ever-so-many rules about sailing the sea of stars—ghost ships don’t have much in the way of weapons. They are built for speed, for ferrying the dead to where they need to be, not creating more of them. That said, they are not defenseless, and Captain Mary has something of a reputation as fiercely protective of her ship and crew. The moment they are high enough she takes Nine Lives not direct away from the fight but through it, the ship fluid and sleek, dodging cannonballs like raindrops that crash into Flagless ships instead, and by the time they’re through there’s a trail of wrecks and Captain Mary laughing manic and alive at the helm, guiding them far enough away to weft.
Jourdain, on the deck, watches wide-eyes the carnage while Beri calm-as-you-please bends and picks up Butler, scritches once under his chin, and looks around like the sky is full of sunshine.
The dead consider it a great adventure, their ghostly forms crowded around the ship’s railing. They are the casualties of war, the great diasporas left behind after worlds shatter and ports disintegrate and the victors sail off into the clear black dawn. Caught in the vast static, they cannot weft, cannot do much more than float and wail. And so an economy of ghost ships has risen. The price is always the same—keep the weft drives full of ectoplasmic juice and the ghost ship will deliver you to a planet still rich in life, where ghosts can linger happy until they pass on, with plenty to watch and haunt.
Some choose to stay on, though, giving to the drives in exchange for seeing the starry beyond, to sail the sea of stars until they fade entirely. Which beats the forced coercion of those like the Flagless Fleet, who sweep in after battles and harvest what unlucky dead they can, wring them lemon-dry-and-sour without a care or thought of consent or respect. Whatever the case, though, it takes a half to make it all work.
Jourdain stands before the weft drive purring like it’s drunk on nip and just found a sunny cushion. Beside it, a dozen cats lap at the fresh milk, flatulent-as-all-regret but flush and happy and ready to work. The captain might see to the steering, the crew might take care of the rigging and the sails, and the fueling might fall to whatever half was aboard, but all other functions of the ship—repairs and engine operations and the delicate dance between stars—are the province of the cats. In the engine room they rule, reclining on every surface, flicking tails at Jourdain’s presence but tolerating him for what he has to do.
With him there are five ghosts, mostly swarthy types with lots to give that he reaches into and pulls away enough to keep the weave going. It’s not sexual here, just functional, like drawing blood, and each ghost bares and bears what they can. The fifth, though, whisper-soft and flickering, is there to give the final drop. They don’t have to, are never asked to give until they’re gone, but it must be time and Jourdain gives a little shudder as the cats around him lick milk-smeared lips and watch pupil-wide as the ghost closes her eyes and waits.
This is not sexual, either, but nor is it purely functional. Jourdain reaches into her and pulls, and it’s like drawing her inside-out so that she’s just a bit of energy in his hands, like he’s undone some cosmic math that made up a human and lacks the power to add her back together. There are no words here, just a desire to be done and the weight dropping from his hand through the metal of the engine. When it’s done he feels almost hollow, like he’s dropped a bit of himself in as well.
He leaves the cats to their sated hunger and goes to sate his own, finding Beri waiting as if xe knows what he’s been at and guessed his needs. They meet slower now than their first time, slower despite both of them leaving Haverdash frustrated. They enter each other, whole bodies slowly merging, hands and legs and everything until there’s no room between, air drawn into shared lungs and blood pumping through shared veins. When they come it is together, simultaneous, the whole sea of stars a single point of light exploding out into infinity, into a rush of bang-me-big-big-light-yes-flashing-now singularity.
When they coalesce beside each other it is breathless, already dreaming of a smiling emperor on a high-backed chair, a dazzling face under a bicorne hat. Behind him, Jourdain can see a vast city stretching as far as imagination, streets teeming with life and energy. It is a place that knows no war, no strife, no pain. It’s said that everyone dreams of the Heart of the Universe, but only the Emperor can enter it. Jourdain peers, though, and sees more people than there could be Emperors in a million universes. It’s said that only Emperors deserve the eternal reward of the Heart of the Universe, but it’s whispered that a wish might also buy entrance.
The warp around Homeworld is filling fast as Nine Lives arrives, Captain Mary all picture of obeisance to the Imperial Fleet sleeping on the surface, grounded in official mourning, tolerant of ghost ships only where tradition dictates, only where the Rules demand. They care nothing for the dead, even if it’s their former Lord-of-All-Skies-and-Stars. Already, schemes are probably birthing schemes among them, hungry for the blood of whoever next sits on the throne. For three hundred and twenty-eight years Louis Napoleon III-and-a-half has been Emperor of All Things and bright with war and dominion, keeping the weave flush with ghosts. Now that he’s dead his next-ofs will be keeping that tradition alive.
This close, the memories are returning fast and vivid. Jourdain remembers, fully alive, the deep lines on the Emperor’s face, the dark eyes, the wicked smile. He remembers the pleasure and the thrill of being chosen for the Emperor’s bed and the terror of being found by the Emperor’s enemies behind that theater ten years ago. But more, he remembers his friends from the troupe, the details of his life that his death had boiled down to only a rich sauce of his time with the Emperor.
“Napoleon is dead,” he says in quiet mantra to himself, a promise-mourning-hope.
The sky behind them crowds as they descend, but Nine Lives is first. The race is won, and the air is full of tension. There are stories of times when the planet became a battlefield of ships fighting to ferry the Emperor and claim his prize. Captain Mary is white knuckled at the wheel and the dead have all retreated below. Beri is out and prominent, though, Butler twisting between xyr feet. Jourdain points to the throne itself, to the great mountain from which the Emperor rules.
The air itself is throne room to the Emperor’s commands, his seat on a pinnacle of rock jutting out into open sky. Far far below, his subjects gather and shout, but their voices are lost over the distance so that the Emperor hears only the wind and his own thoughts and the sounds of the passing ships. In life Napoleon delighted in tossing political adversaries out into the judging yawn of distance and gravity. In death he sits, shimmering and pale, as if waiting for the court jester to arrive.
Nine Lives hovers below the confusion of ships still arriving, the bump and grind of a thousand vessels waving flags like bait for the Emperor here-here-come-get-the-tasty-release-of-ever-after. Jourdain can feel the massed desire of the other ghost ships that the Nine Lives fail, that the Emperor somehow refuse to board and pick one of them instead. Jourdain ignores them, steps to the edge of the deck, pushes down the gangplank, secured by sturdy ropes so that it juts erect into the sky. The cats are gathering to watch, Pirate going so far as to jump on the edge of the plank nearest the deck, tail poofed, head darting side to side. Jourdain walks past, out onto the edge of the plank, facing the nearing seat of power.
It’s like magic, the way that Napoleon looks up, his eyes holding every moment Jourdain ever forgot, that trauma and death ever wiped from him. They stare, suspended in time and ritual, and Jourdain can’t tell if their silence is guilt or grief or boredom or that neither of them know the proper words to say. All around their audience grips railings in hope and fear, waiting, waiting …
Jourdain reaches out his arms to the throne. “Napoleon is dead,” he says, and the spell breaks.
In the seat Napoleon sits, smile wide and manic. The ship floats closer still and Napoleon rises to meet them, takes Jourdain’s hands and follows him onto the deck. The cats back up, fur on end, and create a half-circle around them.
Napoleon looks into Jourdain’s eyes, surveys his face, his body, mouth a curious little I’m-pretty-sure-we’ve-fucked-but-there-have-been-so-many grin. “You were one of mine,” he says, and then turns away, like that is all he ever needs to say.
Nine Lives, full now with intent, goes from somewhere-bound to somewhere-else-bound, speed rising with the altitude. The ships above seem to realize the game and create a corridor, conceding the match, aware that fragging the former Emperor of All Things from the sky is bad-form-to-say-the-least. Which means the arrival of the Flagless Fleet, fires already lit in their barrels, is clear as sin to Jourdain and the others on deck.
“Of all the finely-shredded-fancy-cheeseholes,” Captain Mary blasphemes, banking hard and directly into the mass of milling mariners. There’s a boom like hope evaporating and all the cats on deck hiss as one and disperse, back to their stations, their engines, their perches, their naps.
There is no other word for the hell that opens up in the sky above Homeworld. Worse than Haverdash, because there at least the object was run and hide, defend what’s possible but otherwise avoid. Here there is no avoiding. On one side the Flagless Fleet is opening fire, and on the other the Imperial Fleet is waking, weapons roaring to life. In the middle, every ghost ship worth its name is caught, and starting to suspect this was the game after all. At least for the Flagless, a plot waiting only for the death of an Emperor to hatch. To wipe every ghost ship from the warp in one fiery exchange.
Captain Mary steers them up even as most are choosing to take their chances asking the Imperials for protection.
“We’ve got to weft,” Beri shouts, the noise of the battle already riotous.
“We weft when we’re clear of the planet,” Mary responds, the ship shuddering under her guidance, dodging mast and sail and flaming death.
Napoleon looks on, still smiling, eyes gleaming the fight above, the planet below. His planet. He points toward the Flagless.
“I could clear the sky,” he offers, eyes turning to Jourdain. “If you wish it.”
The words almost leap through Jourdain’s lips, burst like blisters but for Beri’s hand on his arm, xyr head shaking in warning. He looks again into Napoleon’s eyes and sees the man who didn’t turn once to see what happened in that dark and crowded alleyway as he floated away to safety. Above, ships are already tumbling planetwise, but some are slipping through. The hunger curling the corners of Napoleon’s mouth into a predator smile that tells him he'd need to cleverly word any wish to hit only the Flagless and leave everyone else hale. And he’d need to forego his one wish, to give up on—
Jourdain swallows his words and grabs the Emperor’s hand, pulls him into the ship and down to the engine, the cats seeking to trip him with every step, him dancing between them while Napoleon slides right through. Without asking, Jourdain pushes a hand into Napoleon’s chest and pulls, ignores the outraged gasp, and extracts a handful of royal ghoststuff.
“How dare you?” the former-emperor-now-pissed-off-poltergeist demands. “I’m Na—”
“Napoleon is dead,” Jourdain says, and drops the ectoplasm into the weft drive. The whole ship rocks with the sudden power, and above, Jourdain can make out a fresh steam of curses from Captain Mary as the power rockets them faster than death.
There’s a shudder, an are-we-going-to-make-it-or-burn-to-dust moment where Jourdain isn’t sure what’s happening, but then the weft drive fully engages and they’re in the warp, whiffling through the tulgey stars, burbling.
It’s not a secret what makes a half. Take it in stages.
First: die. Shot, beaten, stabbed, dropped into the void to slowly starve or dehydrate or freeze or what, doesn’t matter, but death comes first.
Second: then not. There’s just waking up, and it’s like a hole has been plugged inside, like this new being is a ship half full of void but mended, never able to bail themself out.
Third: look down. Notice the cat sitting there, tongue rough on new skin. Pick up the cat, now one life lighter for having given to a probably-unworthy-but-at-least-now-warm-and-yielding human. The conversion is not perfect—one cat life doesn’t quite equal a full human one—but it’s something, the sloppy mathematics of half-ghosts.
Fourth: pet the cat.
The map to the Heart of the Universe is made of need and the presence of a dead emperor, and so Nine Lives arrives finally without difficulties. Jourdain recognizes it, the crowded streets, the cars and people crammed into an endless metropolis. He’s dreamed this city, and they dock at the outskirts, are ignored whole cloth by the inhabitants, who are serious about the business of partying. Napoleon stands at the gangplank, taking it all in.
“You have wishes, then?” he asks, tapping his foot.
Captain Mary is first, eyes passing over the endless city and then resting on the former emperor. “Frag every vine-scratched-brother-huckster Flagless Fleet voidhole from the sky. Let them stand planet-side and halfless and catless and never know the freedom of the warp or weft.”
Napoleon nods, and it is so. Mary moves aside and the ship queues. Most, crew and ghost alike, ask to come with, into the city, to join that fray and sway forever, like him, and he nods them forward like heaven’s bouncer. One particularly bold ghost asks for a bag of wishes to carry with him, to carry forward long after the Emperor is a distant memory echoing through the Heart of the Universe. To him Napoleon leans in and with a sharp-toothed grin says only “no” and motions him on his way unfulfilled.
The cats all get tender fishes and the richest of milk and they’ll be farting happy and dizzy for days. Except for Butler, who slips from the ship and into the city, huge tail bobbing to the music of life and death.
Beri steps forward. “What’s beyond the city?” xe asks, like endless is just a lack of imagination.
“Every warp meets here,” Napoleon says. “Every fabric touches in this place and quilts outward, and so everything is beyond this city, every pattern imaginable.”
Beri nods, turns back to Jourdain. “You want to find a better one, out there?”
He thinks about the implications, that somewhere out there is a galaxy where he could fly free and fearless, would never have been beaten to death, would never have to deal with war or conquest or a sea of stars full of ghosts in need of rescue. A beautiful place he could explore with Beri, never sated but always happy.
He shakes his head. “Go well,” he says.
“I think I’ll go far, at least,” Beri says, and steps past Napoleon, turning to give the former Emperor of All Things a firm smack on the ass as xe goes.
Jourdain’s turn, and the possible wishes are stacking corpse-deep in his mind. He can have anything, can be full flesh again or Emperor of All Things himself or rich and famous or or or
Napoleon is dead. Is dead as dead and gets to rest forever at the Heart of the Universe, a paradise or as close to as life brings. But the rest of the dead, on Homeworld and Haverdash and every other place the void touches, they are dead as dead as well but must settle for the planets not yet cindered by war. And Jourdain is half-alive and gets a wish, just one wish.
“I wish the port at the Heart of the Universe will stay open to everyone,” he says. “Not just emperors or those they’ve allowed in.”
He doesn’t say so Nine Lives can have a new port of call, a place to bring the weary dead that will never fill and never fade. He doesn’t need to, because the words are clear as bruises on his face, his neck, his arms.
“Isn’t that a cheat?” Napoleon asks.
Jourdain shrugs a flawless shrug, the gesture saying everything he cannot with words. Isn’t it all a cheat? Wishes, and the granting them? Aren’t they all just ways of getting around the-way-things-are, which might be lightyears and lightyears from the-way-things-would-be-if-they-were-fair? Maybe it’s too much, and Napoleon will shape all the hope and pain Jourdain’s carried into a round final “no.” It doesn’t stop Jourdain from smiling, drawing up to Napoleon, and pressing his lips lightly to those he had known in full life, so that now he tastes them again, and can walk away. And it was so.
The ship lifts into the sky as Jourdain climbs into the observation nest. He’s bone-tired-and-sore-and-sorrow and he settles in as Pirate comes bounding over the side, and Nebula, and more cats still. And between their purring-warm bodies and between the ship and the stars and between life and death he half-sleeps and half-dreams of Beri dancing across an endless city toward the unknown, and his own journey, now closed, just beginning.