Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Cricket Boy: Chapter Six: Troublemakers

Cricket Boy is a multi-chapter fantasy naval adventure (Horatio Hornblower with magic!) I'm releasing on my website, among other venues.

What's it about?

Trew Gawgrie wants to go to sea. That means joining the Sea Guard and starting with the worst job, but he's a dreamer and won't be dissuaded. Sea Guard is a much harder place than Trew can imagine.

New to the story? Start with Chapter One. You can also read the story on WriteOn.

XX

The Commander broke his stare when Mate cleared his throat.

“Commander?”

“Spit it out.”

“Would you care to address the Boys on their duty to the Fortress?” Mate asked.

The half-turtle wrapped in a dirty sayle glanced at the Mate. Then he took his time respearing each of the invaders onboard his ship. “I’d better.”

He chose to settle his glare on Sparrow Boy, who possessed the only look he approved of.

“We're supposed to get four more devils by the time we put into Northguard for your land school. A waste, but no one listens to me, as we’re doing this entire sailing to train up seven Boys and a handful of Landsmen.”

Seven students in total? That was smaller than Trew's class in Prime.

“At least we’re seasoning up some Mates.” He glanced at Mate. “Your first turn with the Compass?”

“It is, Commander,” Mate said.

The man snapped his head downward, like he’d seen a morsel to fill his turtle-belly. “There’s that. Do well with the Compass and packing knowledge into these Boys and you can have the run of the Ship. Then everyone else will move up a slot. That’s how we’ll have Mates ready.”

Trew could smell that the Commander drank gawgrie, a brandy made from peaches grown by his Mother. He, to everyone's surprise, didn't like gawgrie all that much.

The Commander lost his thought while he stared at the Boys again, avoiding Trew as best he could.

“Fools. We’re all of us fools because we treasure Peacetime. We always expect it to last forever. We can barely scratch four years without something sailing in through a Rift we don’t know about. Too few ships about keeping the watch. Too few clever sorts assigned to the Lighthouses, too.”

He shook his head in disgust.

“New Men, Mates I’ve never served with. Boys who the breeze will wisk right away.”

He then stared at Trew’s face and arms. “I didn’t ask before, Mate.”

“Yes, Commander?”

“Bad enough the blue skin. You uncover any mystical tattoos, portentous scars?”

“Uh, no,” Mate said.

“You keep looking. Nothing ruins a Boy like a prophecy.” He shook his head and the sayle wiggled on his skull. “Yeah, I trained with a boy who had a portentous scar and a prophecy stuck to him.”

The Commander’s voice was bemused and grumbly.

“His mother was a real seeress, so everyone claimed, laid out a whole life’s plan for my friend. He was supposed to become not a Captain of the Sea Guard, but the first Admiral in eight hundred years. Harped on and on. My former friend was not a happy jack tar, let me tell you. He wound up skipping for a ship bound for Bermuda in the True World."

The True World.

Bermuda.

Trew had read the adventure flimsies since someone taught him an alpha from a beta. He smiled for a moment at the idea of sand and blue water and a yellow sun.

He wanted to go into the True World and see everything. The Academy at Calais. Rio. Panama. The Spice Islands. Real Dublin and Land’s End.

"He went pirate, last I heard. If I saw him, or any other pirate, I’d have to slaughter him. So, don’t get ideas, crazy or otherwise, Boyos.”

Trew believed the threat.

The sayle-covered commander — with, as Trew imagined, a turtle’s neck and belly — was quiet a moment. “Let me be as clear as I can. I want nothing special out of you. Just no orphans, no messiahs, no subjects of prophecy, no troublemakers. Ahh, especially that last one. In any class, there’s always someone.”

He looked at Trew.

“Troublemakers of every stripe we drop at the next dock, if we don't just drop into the Sterile Sea. Then you can grow potatoes for all the Sea Guard to eat."

Potatoes… Trew knew no potatoes had grown in the fields since before he was born, maybe longer. He kept staring at the Commander, not flinching at the words. He said nothing and felt all the braver for it.

“If the sea isn’t for you, you’re in no trouble. You’ve signed on to a short sailing. You’ll be in Northguard soon enough and you’ll have to sign the book there for the full commitment — or walk away.” He looked to Mate. "Can they all make a Glow?"

His left hand lit up in a bright blue light for a few seconds. The light disappeared, then his hand glowed white. Next, his hand glowed orange and red like a flame. Then his hand was just a hand.

"I'll check, sir," Mate said.

"You better Glow in all the colors, Boyos." His eyes cut over to Mate. "Lots to teach. Lots to learn. The Compass, some facets you need for the Ship. You’ll start on the signals, and working the signal mast, before we reach Northguard, if you have a dram of wit in your melons."

Trew thought the man was rambling. He wondered just what was occupying all of his thoughts, if not the ship.

"You’re somewhat lucky, with all this Peace. The Last Sayle pirates are broken at the moment and nothing from the Bone Navy has drifted in through a Rift in some time. You get better training, more thorough, during a stretch of Peace.”

He hated that word, Peace. He despised it, Trew could hear.

"My style is hard and unyielding. You don't pick and choose here. Follow all the laws. You take all the lessons. You receive all the lashes you deserve. I don't believe in 'eat the meat and spit out the bones,' as many do.”

The man opened his mouth. This time Trew noticed something. The Commander had ivory teeth.

The old man of the Sea Guard gnashed them together.

Why hadn't he had them healed, Trew wondered.

“No, I feed Mates, Men, and Boys a good meal, more gristle than meat some days, but they have to eat all of it or stand away from my table. If this life is not for you, you’ll know by Northguard. In fact, you’ll tell me.”

Trew’s eyes wandered back to the Commander’s teeth. Then he glanced at the man’s draped leg, the one that slid. The Commander had ivory teeth and some kind of caster for a foot. Maybe he had no talent for self-healing. Father had smashed a finger and cut it off. He grew it back. Trew didn’t imagine it was that difficult.

“You don’t like me or Sea Guard, you can travel the seas in a merchant ship where there are fewer rules, fewer people yelling at you.”

Trew didn’t want to sail on a merchie.

“At the worst, I'll tell you I don't want you. I want good 'uns. I want Boys who want to be sailors. When I'm sure of that I'll promote ye and be glad to do it."

Trew could imagine the day. It would be a hard fight with Mate and this Commander, but he could imagine it. Trew could feel the breeze that would begin and the short speech and the promotion.

"Except if you're troublemakers.”

That burst the dream for Trew.

The Commander had his eyes burrowed into Trew again.

Trew didn’t miss the implication.

“Plenty of Commanders find trouble and pass it on to another Commander to deal with. Lots of recent history for that. Not me, no. I'm too old to break my teeth on trouble, Boys. So ye'll be good or ye'll be gone."

"I'll make sure of it," Mate said.

The Commander didn't offer a more charitable look to Mate. “That one.”

Mate and the Commander both looked at Trew.

Trew even saw the Commander pointing with his right hand. He had only three fingers. Or two because the thumb was rather a stub.

"You report if that one's skin gets any darker. Red world we live in. Blue means trouble, you know. He’s bluer than anyone who dared to go to sea in the Fortress before."

Trew's jaw tightened. He couldn't draw a breath. He’d endured plenty of horrible things from the turtle-neck, but this…

The Commander clap-slid away. "Sailing Night Supper is at seven bells, Mate. My cabin."

"Yes, Commander."

Mate stared at the rumpled mass of moving, dirty sayle. "That's my first time meeting Commander Darnwy. The stories they tell… He should be Captain of the Sea Guard now.”

Only if the world were ready to splinter into a thousand bitter pieces, Trew thought.

Mate tore his eyes from his leader and put them on his students.

“When he talks, you listen. But, we’re running behind."

Compass Mate made them grab their dunnage and pushed the Boys underdeck.

Trew had to rush down the tight stairs with his red crickets and without falling. Cracking his skull on day one would get him branded a troublemaker and left on the dock, Trew didn’t doubt.

Once below, Compass Mate begrudged them a tour. He’d pause, say a word like Galley or Hold, and point at a door or a dark corridor. He didn’t invite questions. His awe-inspired chattiness had been shunted to an unmarked grave.

Trew put together a map in his mind.

The food stores were here. The ordinance locker was there. The Mates had these cabins.

When they came to a ladder, Trew added that to his map.

Compass Mate descended first.

Trew was the last one down.

“Some of the Men are up there,” Compass Mate said, pointing down a dim corridor. He’d given up grunting single words.

Mate turned and rushed them through the dark. He didn’t falter. Somehow he knew the layout of this ship without being able to see much.

Were all Sea Guard ships the same, Trew wondered, or was Mate using a touch of facet Trew couldn’t detect?

“You lot are here,” Mate said.

There were four doors. Trew thought that the galley was directly above these cabins.

“You don’t need to share until the class grows a little.”

He turned to leave, then paused. “There’ll be casks in your cabins later on. They’re for your daily ration of gawgrie. You’re new to it.”

Trew wasn’t.

“Use a dram in your water. Don’t drink it straight unless you want the Commander to label you a troublemaker and drop you into the Purple Sea.”

Trew didn’t need advice on gawgrie. He could give it. Instead, he looked at the four cabin doors. How miserable would they be?

"Be back on deck for sailing in ten minutes. Don’t get lost, neither. You won't want to miss your first," Mate said.

"Yes, Mate," they all said.

Mate disappeared down the dark corridor. Trew thought he could find his way back to the ladder. From there to the main deck wasn’t so hard.

He turned around to see Clock Boy open a door first. Then Sparrow Boy selected another.

Trew and his cage of red crickets had the last choice.

He tried to think of how the galley was arranged above his head.

He moved toward the door on the end. His shaking hand almost missed the handle. He hadn’t realized that the Commander’ss words had inflicting this kind of damage.

Trew needed a few moments for himself.

XX

Continue to Chapter Seven.

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