Read Phoenix Burning Online

Authors: Bryony Pearce

Phoenix Burning

BOOK: Phoenix Burning

This book is dedicated to my in-laws
Pat and Charles Pearce, who live young.
With thanks for everything.

If I had to choose a religion,
the sun as the universal giver of life would be my god.


Toby was going blind.

He had long since lost edges. If Toby turned his head against the rope that held his forehead, he could see the blurred outline of the cathedral roof; nothing more than a smudge against a lighter background. Soon the sun would steal even that.

His vision would have been lost already, except that a cloud had built in the sky as they were being tied down and had blotted out most of the sunlight.

He had no idea how much time had passed; the only way to tell was by the prickle of sunburn on his naked chest and legs. That was nothing compared to the itching of his eyes. He would have given anything to blink.

The captain coughed. “How are you doing, son?”

Toby had to swallow before he could answer. “I’m OK.”

“We’re going to get out of this.”

“Sure.” Toby didn’t even try to look at his father. He was staked out just the same as Toby and the others: his forehead tightly bound, his eyes taped open and his hands and feet stretched out to either side.

They weren’t getting out of this.

The tape above Toby’s left eye was peeling slightly. Among the pain of sunburn, cramping muscles, biting insects, grit, sand and the agony of his vision being flayed from him, the peeling tape seemed the worst. He knew that if it would just loosen a little more, just a tiny bit, he’d be able to close his eye.

The skin on his cheeks was tight where his tears had dried. His ducts were empty now; not even the swimming of tears could protect his vision.

“Is Simeon still unconscious?” Toby strained against the ropes again and managed to gain a slight tilt to his chin. A trickle of blood wormed its way down his right temple.

“Must be,” Hideaki croaked. “He’s lucky. When he wakes up this’ll all be over. It won’t be long now, and if that cloud cover clears…”

“It’ll be seconds, I know.” Toby ground his teeth. After all he’d been through in the last few weeks, to end up here, like this. “Where do you think Ayla is?” If he had been able to close his eyes he would have pictured her.

There was the sound of a struggle and a shout, then a
cool shadow fell over Toby’s face. He gasped, relief surging through him.

The captain’s roar made him jump. “You! Leave us the hell alone.”

“I thought you said you could read this.” Toby leaned over Hiko’s translation of the map. Weak afternoon sun shone through the portholes to illuminate the paper. Beside them stood a small brazier loaded with combustibles they had pulled from the sea; in a couple of hours they would need to light it if they wanted to carry on working. There was already a smoke stain on the ceiling of the mess hall above their table.

read it.” Hiko tugged his new red scarf from his throat, the one that marked him as a true member of the
’s crew, and slammed it on the table in frustration. “That symbol is definitely
–” he bit his lip – “or possibly

“Why in all hells would any map say spiral
bird?” Toby slammed back in his seat and glared at the soot on the ceiling as if it was responsible for their problems. Polly hopped off his chair and squawked crossly.

“Toby’s right, Hiko.” Dee pushed her own stool back from the metal table and rubbed at the healing stab wound on her chest. “None of this makes sense. It’s sounding more like a bunch of crazy instructions for a board game than any map I’ve ever seen.”

Toby lifted Polly on to the table and then turned back to Hiko. “It’s been three weeks since we found the map and all we’ve got out of it so far is bizarre poetry.” He turned the translation so he could read from it. “Avoid the fast mist and take three swift turns around the white doom spiral … or possibly
.” He thumped his chair, making Polly jump again. “What’s a white doom spiral?”

“What’s a white doom
?” Dee shot back. She pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes and groaned. “And that’s just one of the lines – there’s a whole bunch of them equally as senseless. If only I could recognize one of the land masses, but nothing matches the Atlas.” She kicked the precious book where it lay discarded under the table. “I should burn the damn thing. It’s been near useless since Yellowstone erupted and the tsunamis destroyed the old coastlines. There could be a clue to the nearest mainland hidden in this text, but we don’t even know what language it’s written in.”

“Arnav thinks it could be related to Ryukyuan.” Toby’s back cracked as he straightened. He winced and
automatically tried to brush his hand through his blond hair. It had been three weeks since his head was shaved and old habits remained. He dropped his fingers. “Are you
you’re reading this correctly, Hiko?”

Hiko jumped to his feet. His left hand went to the cross-hatched tattoo on his right forearm: eight horizontal lines and eleven vertical. Tony knew it reminded him of his father. “I’m sure I am. My dad taught me before he—”

“You could be mistaken.” Dee touched his hand gently. “You were very young when he died and a lot of languages look similar. It’s easy to confuse one symbol for another.”

“This is getting us nowhere,” Toby said. “We need a break.”

“Fine.” Hiko slammed his pencil on to the table so hard that it broke in two. Half rolled across his paper and stopped on a water-damaged section of the map featuring a series of smudged pictograms.

Toby sighed and retrieved the stub. “At least we know one thing.”

“What’s that?” Hiko snapped.

“If we can’t translate our copy, the
certainly can’t translate theirs.”

“That’s if they survived the St George attack.” Dee tried to catch Toby’s eye, but he refused to look at her. “Toby, you know the
could be at the bottom of the salt.”

“It’s not,” Toby said firmly. “We’d have heard.”

The door to the mess slammed open and the captain swept in, his compass swinging on his chest. “How are you getting on with this?”

Instinctively Hiko ducked behind Toby.

“It’s no good, Captain,” Dee said. “The map is useless without a key or some coordinates. We don’t have either. There’s just no starting point.”

“What about Hiko’s translation?”

Toby pushed the paper towards his father.

“What’s this?” The captain’s face darkened. “Is this a haiku? A joke?”

Toby shook his head. “It’s the translation. At least we think it is.”

“It is,” Hiko muttered.

The captain ran a hand through his beard. “If you’re sure, Hiko, then I believe you. But this is no good to us.” He tossed the page on to the table. “Toby, you’ve not been on deck for two days. If you’re willing, I need your sharp eyes and nimble fingers on the bridge. Hiko, you can keep trying to translate this gibberish if you want to, but you’d be more useful on deck right now.”

“Why, what’s going on?” Toby settled Polly on his shoulder, where she dug her claws into his collarbone.

“The solar array is ready. It’s time to lift it into place,
connect the electrics and set sail.”

Toby caught his breath. The
was going to be solar powered. The old boiler – her burning heart – would soon be redundant. Then he frowned. “Hang on – sail where? We can’t use the map.”

“You’ve tried long enough. It’s time to return to our original plan. Theo and Simeon are back from Bergen, they used the barter we got for the spare panels and so now we have everything the
needs for a long voyage. We’re going to sail where the weather takes us – further and deeper into the salt than ever before. We’ll find that island.” He pressed a hand on Hiko’s shoulder. “So we don’t have a map we can use? We didn’t have one before. It would have been nice to have a shortcut, but nothing worth having ever came easy. We’ll do this the hard way.”

Toby squinted as he followed Dee and Hiko on to the deck, the bright sunshine in stark contrast to the gloomy mess hall. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust then the changes that the pirates had made to the
came into focus.

“Toby, good to see you out in the fresh air.” Marcus swung down from the rigging.

“You’ve done so much in two days!” Toby looked up.
“You’ve already finished the retractable weather shield we designed.”

A tall pole rose over his head. Around it a series of curved metal panels made from hammered-out car bonnets hung like a skirt.

“How does it work?” Gingerly Hiko touched one of the panels.

“Like an umbrella.” Toby patted the metal and made it clatter. “If the weather’s bad, we’ll open it over the solar panels to protect them.”

“Bad weather will damage the panels?” Hiko looked alarmed.

Polly spoke up from Toby’s shoulder. “A severe hailstorm could crack the surface glazing of the panels.” She hopped on to Hiko’s shoulder and tilted her head, so she was looking him in the eye. “The connections will also deteriorate over time, allowing water to penetrate into the solar cells.”

Marcus smiled. “Don’t worry. They look fragile, but they can withstand fairly extreme conditions.”

The array of photovoltaic cells shone like oil in the bright light, reflecting the clouds that slid across the sun.

“Our own slice of sky,” Dee breathed.

“It’s perfect.” Toby hurried to where D’von and five of the crew were polishing the cells with their scarves.
The mirror sheen of them attracted him like treasure. He reached out a hand and D’von blocked him.

“I already polished that piece, Toby-who-knows-things. You keep your hands to yourself.”

Toby’s smile widened. “How’re you doing, D’von?”

“Better than slaving on the dock, that’s for sure.” D’von stretched. “I get breaks. It’s easy work.”

“Not for me.” Nisha sat on her heels and rested her hands on her pregnant belly. “My back’s killing me.”

“Won’t be so easy once we set sail, neither.” Peel was sitting bolt upright, plucking a gull. Every time he bent Toby saw the pain caused by the healing wounds in his shoulder and stomach. A cloud of feathers covered his feet and every so often one drifted across the panels, sticking like static to the glass covering the silicon. Naked bird carcasses were piled in a bowl in front of him.

“Gull pie for dinner again?” Toby guessed.

“Shut yer face, Toby,” Peel snapped. “You’re lucky you’re gettin’ anything at all, what with all the damn trouble you caused me.”

“I thought Theo had brought in a load of supplies.” Dee looked disappointed.

“They’re for when we need ’em, not for when we’re so close to land we can slingshot birds from the masts.”

Toby swallowed. Callum was the one who had always
done the hunting – catching gulls and fish when there seemed nothing to be caught. But Callum was gone now, lost in Tarifa along with Harry, Carson and Dobbs.

“You’re thinking about Tarifa.” Polly hopped from Hiko’s shoulder and crawled up Toby’s arm.

“We all miss them, Tobes,” Dee added.

“Big Pad should be here, too. He’d have loved this.”

“You’re right, he would.” The captain appeared at Toby’s side and wrapped an arm around him. “Give Polly to Hiko and come with me.”

They walked together into the shelter of the empty steerage. “Time was I could rest my arm on your shoulder quite comfortably,” Barnaby grumbled. “Now you’re almost as tall as I am. When did that happen?” He released Toby and brushed his beard with his fingertips. “About Paddy – you can’t feel guilty. The minute he realized he was paralyzed, he knew he’d have to return to land.”

“But we just left him in Cobh.” Toby looked up at the furled sails. “After he saved my life.”

“With his brother. With money and supplies: a damn good pension.”

“It’s not the same.”

“I know.” The captain laid an arm on the gunwale. “Some sailors have left us and others we’ve had to leave behind along the way. You can’t dwell on each and 
every one. Just look where we are now. We’re going to
find that island

Toby tried to bring to mind some of the pirates who had left the
. Some had gone due to injury or pregnancy, others had tired of the sea and found safe ports. He expected their faces to turn in his thoughts but instead his traitorous memory fed him an image of Ayla in her salt-sodden boots and Peel’s old shirt.

“It isn’t just
we’ve left behind.” Toby touched Nix, the short sword that hung at his hip. “Do
think the
was sunk?” Toby couldn’t meet his father’s eyes. Instead he focused on the giant sunburst stencilled on to the central cells of the solar panels.

The captain paused, then said, “I think we’d have heard in Bergen or Cobh if the
had been defeated by Greymen, don’t you?”

It was true. The
was the terror of the seas; if the Greymen had defeated her, every harbourmaster would have posted the news.

There was no way Ayla could go with them to the island, no world in which the
could work together.

But he couldn’t stop thinking about her.

He had offered Ayla a place on the
and she had rejected it. She had taken the precious map and then,
when Toby followed, had knocked him unconscious and had him locked in the
’s brig. Although she eventually changed her mind and released him, he had almost been killed. And after all that, they had found out the history both of their captains had been keeping from them. Toby had no illusions. He had no future with Ayla; she was
through and through.

Toby knew he should hate her, but it was the memory of her kiss that really burned. That she had left the
only hours afterwards:
was the knife that twisted in his gut. He had trusted her completely and she had turned her back without even saying goodbye.

He clenched his fists.

The captain pointed Toby to a bollard and sat down on the one beside it.

“So you do think the
’s still out there.” Toby flattened his hands on his thighs. “I understand why you didn’t tell me about your friendship with Nell before, but—”

“You’ve questions about the past.” It was a statement, not a question.

“I’m not a child any more.” Toby’s voice was level, matter of fact. “I want you to be straight with me. No more secrets.”

Barnaby sighed. “What do you want to know?”

“When you escaped St George, you left without my mother. You didn’t wait for her. Why not?”

Barnaby exhaled slowly. “I went to collect you from school and Nell agreed to go and warn Judy who was working a security detail. I didn’t think about the fact that Nell would have to wait for Judy to leave her post before she could speak privately to her. All I knew was that when we reached the dock, she wasn’t there. My team got the
ready to sail –” his eyes were distant, staring down the past – “then we waited. I wouldn’t have just abandoned my own wife. Zeke – one of my engineers – kept watch for us in the harbourmaster’s office. When he called to say the Greymen were coming, we were forced to fire up the engines. I stayed in the crow’s nest till the very last second, hoping I’d see her running for the gangplank. She never appeared.”

“I don’t remember any Zeke.” Toby frowned.

Barnaby shook his head. “He never made it on board.”

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