Friday, July 14, 2023

“The Vagaries of Losing and Finding” • by Travis Burnham

I’m a foundling who finds things. You can call me Isherwood, the name I gave myself, for foundlings are never given names. Once orphan, now bounty hunter, I live in the worst barrio of Belly Town, which rests, as one would expect, between the smooth, wide belly scales of the great flying dragon, Talvidian, upon which I abide.

One evening at cloudfall, just as the dragon gently dipped below the altocumulus clouds that would bring night on, I lay in my hammock reading Gent’s treatise on prejudice and injustice, Of Skin and Teeth. The book was an impulse purchase, written by an author I’d stopped reading long ago. There was a religious bent to his work that I didn’t care for—all about the divine copper hammer, Voldrock, that had bent and pounded Talvidian’s vast metallic body into shape. Still, I enjoyed the essence of Gent’s arguments.

Outside my barnacle apartment, the creak and sway of the rope bridge betrayed the arrival of visitors.

In the flick of a second I threw my book to the floor and had out my revolving firearm from beneath my pillow, its punch-dot scrollwork barrel trained on the door.

A knock.

A cold, imperious voice rang out: “You morons, do voldens ask permission from their rodent prey?”

The door slammed open and two brutes with broad flat teeth and dark skin entered and flanked the doorway. Heavy-shouldered and well-dressed, they were both armed. If they’d come to kill me it would be a short fight, and I wasn’t certain I’d be on the winning end.

The Lady Antok strode in the brutes’ wake and stood, imperious, flanked by her bodyguards. Her cumulus white hair, sharp teeth and midnight-blue skin fit her station. I lowered my firearm, but kept the hammer cocked.

She looked down at me, her lips curled in a sneer. Her voice was cold when she said, “I’m told you’re the best at finding lost things.” She gave me a top-to-bottom look. “Apparently it didn’t help you find your missing fingers and toes.” She flashed a withering smile that I wanted to smash in.

As an infant, poorly swaddled and abandoned on the steps of the Belly Town Orphanage in the dead of winter, I’d lost three left fingers, as well as all but the large digit of my right foot, to frostbite.

The Lady Antok toed Gent’s treatise as if it were a steaming turd. “You don’t believe in this claptrap, do you? A society of equality?” She gave a high, bright laugh. “Blunts are far too stupid to be equals with anything but algae.”

Not visibly bristling at her slur, I instead quoted Gent: “Prejudice is merely a mirror held to the oppressor’s inadequacies.”

The bodyguards moved forward with violent intent, but the Lady stopped them with a raised hand.

“So cute,” she said. “It’s like a parrot reciting verse.” Her eyes narrowed. “I’ve killed for less inflammatory words. Be happy you’re useful.”

“I’m happy to be of use.” And so I was. Breathing was my favorite hobby.

With all this discussion of my mortality, my mind turned to the pale, blunt-toothed indigenous natives to which the majority of my lineage belonged. They’d never had a chance against the dark, sharp-toothed usurpers. Then followed the same, tired litany of violence and oppression so oft repeated in history. 

The Lady Antok threw a daguerreotype and a clinking bag onto the scale floor beside my hammock. The photo showed an impeccably groomed girl, clearly a half-breed like me. I could practically read her history in her features: some bastard offspring from a noble dalliance. Kept hidden, now found and muddying the inheritance line.

I saw me, if you subtracted the pretty and polish.

“Your mixed breeding may provide an edge in retrieving, and then disposing, of this…” she waved a hand at the image of the girl, “…thing.” As if the whole situation were unclean, Lady Antok wiped her fingers on a silken handkerchief provided by one of her bodyguards. “You’ll receive the other half of your payment afterwards. Your discretion is mandatory.”

“I’m no assassin,” I said.

“How quaint. Morals.” She sighed. “Very well. Simply notify me by messenger bat and I’ll take care of the unpleasantries.” And she left, not bothering to close the door, or ask if I’d do what she wanted.

In the bag was more money than I’d made the previous year. It was the golden treasure I’d read about in the ridiculous faerie tales that had been my only escape from the horrors of the orphanage.


And so I searched, chasing the dragon’s tail, so they say, because that’s what I do.

I bought dark beers for the stevedores and algae mongers of the Lower Talons and chatted with the pale whores and pimps in the Ridgetown slums of the Upper Spikes. I bribed yellow-cloaked guards on the ridged steps of the Auble Temple below the fluttering flag of Voldrock.

But between every stop, as I gazed out at the cirrus and cirrostratus clouds scrolling by, my mind circled back to ponder Gent’s dream, of a society of equality riding on the back of the mythical Baermissur. I thought I’d killed those ridiculous dreams along with my parent-rescue fantasies when I fled the orphanage.

There were other dragons in different flight patterns, but none that carried societies built on equality. Were there? I gave a grim laugh at my own foolishness.

Finally, after breaking three fingers of a stooge in a Haunch Quarter alley some three days later, I had the name of a small drift boat, The Aerie Anthem, moored on the Docks of Lower Leg.

A slaver boat.


The docks would be quiet in the late evening, and I’d learned the dock guards’ shifts. Being alone, I’d use stealth and knowledge to get as far as I could. Boats bobbed and eddied in the air currents, their taut float bladders roped to the craft topside and below draught.

The Anthem was a small trabaccolo. With only three slavers left guarding it and the others on short leave sucking down quernum at the nearby pub, my narrow window of opportunity had arrived.

There was one general guard for the dock area. Two hits to Yozef’s skull and he crumpled. Muttering and trying to stand, he was easily tied up. He had a wife and two young girls at home. For the slavers I’d reserve no such mercy.

With no cover and no easy approach to the Anthem, the option of stealth had exited. I strolled up to the guards, a fabricated story on my lips. When the closest read the frayed fabric of my tale, I shot him low in the throat, then I spun to put a bullet through the left eye of the second. The third was fast enough to clip my ear and bury a second bullet in my shoulder, before I brought him down.

I looked up across the boat’s bow and the streets and lower docks were still empty. Firearms and bullets aren’t stealthy, so I had minutes at most.

There were eleven writhing sacks at my feet. Opening the third revealed my target.

“What’s your name?” I asked the girl, for she would have a name.

“J—Jo’asta.” Her voice quavered, then strengthened. “Jo.”

“Can you pilot a drift boat?”

She nodded. “I think so. I’ve piloted smaller craft.” Her gaze turned fearful as she looked past me.

The slavers were piling out of the distant pub. Lady Antok’s bodyguards were mixed in among them. She must have had scent lizards trailing me, not trusting a lowly half-breed to report his finding.

By then the cargo of the writhing sacks had disentangled themselves and clambered onto the ship.

As I wrapped my shoulder, I looked down into all those upturned eyes. Besides Jo, the oldest couldn’t have been more than twelve. It made me think, of all those years ago at my orphanage, the sea of our hopeless faces.

Could this motley crew really pilot a ship?

I threw my blood-stained bag of coins to the bottom of the drift boat. “My name is Isherwood. Find your way to Rib Town on the dragon of Qairsem. At the Noctilucent Pub ask for Fionnghall. Tell him I sent you. Repeat it back to me.”

Jo did.

My hands were slippery with blood, yet not so much that I couldn’t hold a knife or pistol.

The hawser that held the boat at dock was too thick to cut and the knot too complex to untie quickly, but the small capstan the rope was tied to was cracked and weathered. More than that, a large copper hammer leaned on the gunwale next to it. With five swings of the hammer, I left the capstan in pieces.

And for the first time in my life, I whispered a reluctant prayer to Voldrock.

I tossed the boat’s ropes free, and shoulder throbbing and legs rubbery, turned to buy the escapees time. The Lady Antok had been right to distrust me.

“Won’t you come with us?” Jo’s voice was tentative, edged with fear.

Dreams of leaving for another dragon? Perhaps even the fabled Baermissur?

For a moment, my mind filled with stupid dreams and second thoughts.

I turned and emptied my revolver at the advancing crowd. At this range, I was lucky to catch a slaver in the thigh and drop him. The rest scattered, advancing with more caution.

If I stayed, the best I could hope for was a painful drawn-out death at the Lady Antok’s hands.

Before I changed my mind, I leapt the gap to land on the deck of The Aerie Anthem.

I told myself I spoke just to bolster the children’s spirits, but said, “Let’s chase some dreams.”



Travis Burnham is an SF&F writer and science teacher. His work has or will soon appear in Far Fetched Fables, Hypnos Magazine, South85 Journal, Dream of Shadows, and Stupefying Stories of course, among others. Originally from New England, he’s lived in Japan, Colombia, Portugal, and the Marianas Islands, and currently teaches science at an international school in Malta. He’s a bit of a thrill seeker, having bungee-jumped in New Zealand, hiked portions of the Great Wall of China, and gone scuba diving in Bali. He’s got some novels currently looking for homes and can be found online at, or infrequently on twitter @Darwins_Finch


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Anonymous said...

Great world building! I want more.

Made in DNA said...

Was going to say the same thing. This is the kind of work I dig the most. This has to be one of the best so far.