Captain Talis just wants to keep her airship crew from starving, and maybe scrape up enough cash for some badly needed repairs. When an anonymous client offers a small fortune to root through a pile of atmospheric wreckage, it seems like an easy payday. The job yields an ancient ring, a forbidden secret, and a host of deadly enemies.
Now on the run from cultists with powerful allies, Talis needs to unload the ring as quickly as possible. Her desperate search for a buyer and the fallout from her discovery leads to a planetary battle between a secret society, alien forces, and even the gods themselves.
Talis and her crew have just one desperate chance to make things right before their potential big score destroys them all.
"Treasure Planet for adults still slaps in this updated version with even stronger imagery and pacing, and greater attention given to the world-building as a whole."– Jo Ladziński, jowritesfantasy.me
"Combining the best elements of steampunk and space opera, placed in a lavishly detailed and imagined world, Flotsam will hold you firmly till the final page."– Cat Rambo
"Flotsam sucked me in and wouldn't let me go. R J Theodore is a fresh voice who will soon be on your must-read list!"– Jennifer Foehner Wells
The Docked Tail was as disreputable a place as any establishment in Subrosa that dared to call itself a restaurant. "Restaurant"—as though the food were not an afterthought to the watered-down ale served to sullen patrons at the long, ring-stained bar. One could, and did, count on poor service and little attention if they sat in the dimly lit booths along the far wall, across the expanse of wobbly legged tables that customers ignored entirely. Patrons either came for the drink and wallowed at the bar or came for the relative privacy and wallowed in the shadows. You certainly did not come for the cuisine.
The walk there calmed Talis's jangled nerves to some degree. She still felt the chill of horror at Jasper's death, but her heartbeat steadied and her mind cleared a bit with each step. This was not, she told herself, entirely unexpected. All the islands had their industries. Subrosa's primary export was trouble, and there was little reason to be as nonplussed by it as she'd allowed herself to become. Trouble was a long-standing partner of hers. It was not her master.
Talis slid into the empty seat of a booth opposite a slim, brown-skinned Cutter man with a precision-edged goatee and mustache. He was dressed down in a blue twill cotton jacket, the primary feature of which was an oversized hood, which he now wore pushed back, freeing carefully groomed hair that fell in loose curls to his shoulders along with five of the smoothest prayerlocks Talis had ever seen. Fingerless kidskin gloves revealed blue-painted nails and a series of tattoos down each finger. Enough to show they were tattooed, not enough to see what the designs were. But Talis already knew.
"I see you got your set finished, Talbot," she said, signaling to the bartender to bring them a round.
There was already a full mug of the pitifully pale ale in front of Talbot. The refill was a courtesy.
He held up his hands between them and splayed the fingers, as if admiring the ink work through the gloves. The alchemical sigils that strategically marked the backs of his hands, down to just above the bed of each fingernail, had cost him a small fortune. He was not the type to avoid dealing with alchemists if it gave him a shortcut to his heart's desires.
"Aye, I did. Just got back yesterday, matter of fact. You would've missed me had you come any earlier, you know."
"Lucky me. Try them out yet?"
Talbot wiggled his fingers, connecting first his thumb and forefinger, then thumb and middle, and so on to his pinky.
"Aye, I gave it a go."
He raised the mug of ale to his lips to draw out his tale. She raised her eyebrows as a prompt.
"Hard to say, really," he admitted, when he replaced the mug into its condensation ring on the discolored table. "When your fingers are as light as mine to start."
She laughed. "You were had."
His amiable smile soured at her jest. "This was the alchemist that helped me transition. They know their stuff."
Talbot was not among those who would go anything short of all the way. While others transitioned through surgery, or prayed long years for the intervention of one of Peridot's gods, he had gone to a Bone alchemist and seen to the process in the most thorough manner.
"Try something tougher, then?" she suggested, not wanting to put his mood off before she got what she came for. "Maybe the dock officer's safes?"
"Nah, I've done them." He looked thoughtful for a moment. "You're right, though. Need me a challenge to know properly. Wait until they're right healed. Fingers swelled up like corpses under the needle, and they still sting."
She nodded, though the corner of her eye tweaked in sympathy. "You'll have plenty of chances, no doubt. Somehow folks keep walking around with heavy purses, however often you keep relieving them of the weight."
His famous smile flashed white teeth set with emeralds. Drinking overpriced, half-watered ale at least didn't stain like the dark stout Talis would have preferred. Sparkling green emeralds winked in the centers of Talbot's incisors, even in the low light. He'd spent as much money on his looks as on his tattoos. Especially after he finished his transition and finally felt at home in his bones. Everyone had some interest that they'd toss money into flotsam for, she figured, and couldn't help but wonder if he'd skipped any necessary maintenance on his ship in pursuit of beauty.
With Talbot's mood restored and a fresh pair of ales delivered to the table, Talis leaned forward to get to business. The bar was quiet this morning and, with no music, she felt as though her voice carried farther than she'd like. Probably her nerves. But Subrosa was never what she'd call quiet. This afternoon it was eerily so.
Talbot held up a hand before she could speak, though. His grin had lost some luster.
"I know what you're here to propose," he said.
He cast a glance around the barroom at the other patrons. One other booth, its occupant slumped and asleep. Three men at the bar, backs hunched and noses inches from the tops of their steins. The bartender studiously wiping glasses with a discolored cotton rag, trained on his work. All inattentive demeanors either sincere or practiced.
Talbot leaned toward Talis. Their foreheads nearly touched over the center of the table.
"Word's around, you're trying to sell something the wrong people want."
He didn't ask to see it, or about it. Just knew. All she'd said was that he should meet her at the bar, but he knew everything, like she'd proposed it all right there in her message to him.
"That's a bad item you got." He licked his lips and polished off the first mug of ale. "Anyone pays you for that and it's going to wind up taken from them and them out the price. Lucky if that's all they're short at the end of it."
Talis put her hands up, a non-threatening gesture. "Hey now, since when do we take things other people aren't trying to relieve us of? That's the business."
Talbot shook his head.
"What do you mean 'no'? You want to test that ink work, but here you won't cargo a stolen item. Out of Subrosa?" She laughed in disbelief. "I'd find more nerve on Silver Isles than I'm finding here. You even know what I'm asking you to carry? A tiny bit of nothing, except to the right buyer."
"I don't need to know what it is. I know it's drenched in problems. The authority that'd chase me down for it isn't one I'm going out of my way to invite aboard."
Talis couldn't believe what she was hearing. Didn't like the feeling that settled into the bottom of her stomach, cold and hard like she'd swallowed a cannonball. Here she was, so close to what ought to be a payday she could roll around in properly, but coming up with nothing but dead ends. She couldn't afford dead ends.
"The original contract to fetch this thing was a half-fortune. I can't walk away from that. I spent money and time—risked my neck—on fetching it. Made promises to my crew. Put off repairs on my ship to fund the salvage. I need a buyer."
Talbot thumbed one side of his thin mustache. He looked contrite but refused to say what she wanted to hear.
"Talis. You and me, we have a long-standing business history. But as a friend, I'm telling you to shed that thing. Put it in the nearest bin, or dump it out in the skies, whatever. But you wanna be done with it. Go and scrape up some more honest contraband."
She pursed her lips at him, then blew a short blast of disgusted air. "Subrosa's thieves have gone coward."
Talbot put a hand on hers. He seemed to want to say more. But she pulled away and stood.
She should stay. Get another cargo from him, get some news from around; there was always something to talk about here. Hells, maybe persuade him into giving her a loan. But between the dagger-point feeling in her gut and the panic in her mind, she needed to move. Wanted to be far away. Alone.
"Thanks for the drink," she said, giving him one last angry stare, childishly putting her problems on him for the moment. She willed him to change his mind.
"Hey now, I thought you were buying."
"Can't spare the coin. I'm broke till I sell this thing."
He made a face at her, but didn't say another word when she turned and stalked out of the dingy pub.