Thursday, September 24, 2015

Cricket Boy: Chapter Ten: The Training Book

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

Trew felt like he hadn’t slept at all when he got up the next morning. He dressed and made his way through the below-decks labyrinth. When he arrived on main deck, he said nothing, not about the sick man in the skiff or his nighttime adventures in rope climbing.

“Morning, Red. You hear about the skiff yet?” Sprocket asked. He looked tired, too, but his voice was animated.

Trew had more than heard. He shrugged, though.

Sprocket and Black took turns filling him in. They had already heard a rather complete outline of the story.

“But who is he?” Black asked, nodding to where the rope came over the railing.

He also looked poorly, which completed the set. None of the Boys had slept. Trew had been thinking ill thoughts of himself. He wondered about Sprocket and Black, though. Nerves? Excitement? Doubt?

“No one knows. He hasn’t spoken,” Sprocket said, like an expert.

Trew knew that Sprocket was correct. The man in the skiff might never speak and could barely open his eyes. Everyone was just waiting for him to die, which still embittered Trew.

Couldn’t someone with some skill try to help the man? Trew was useless, but not everyone on the Fortress was.

“I heard from one fellow — the one who spoke with us last night,” Sprocket started to say.

“Chesty,” Trew volunteered.

“Right. He said that the man in the skiff had been kidnapped from Twobay.”

If a story that Chesty told turned out not to be half-rot and half-invention, Trew would eat a handful of his red crickets.

“No,” Black said. “He was on a merchie, but got thrown overboard after he contracted sun spots.”

Sun spots. Is that what those pustules were?

But why would a merchie be hauling around a skiff? That story was perfect rot. “Who said that?” Trew asked.

“Cautery Mate. Not very nice, he isn’t. He still smelled drunk.”

“You talked to him?” Sprocket asked.

“Nah. He said it where I could hear.”

Black was someone who could probably hide wherever he wanted. He seemed like he could just disappear.

Trew covered his mouth with his hand, but he still yawned. His stomach also protested its hunger. His next meal wouldn’t come until noon. All of his day’s rations were due then. He’d have to remember to keep some for tomorrow morning. Hunger was almost worse for Trew than lack of sleep.

Sprocket noticed. “I’ve been yawning, too. I couldn’t sleep with a dozen dozen clocks tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick.”

Trew had been irritated by the music of his crickets, but they hadn’t kept him awake. Trew didn’t explain his own sleeplessness.

“Clocks are bad, yes. Sparrows, though, they never shut up,” Black said.

Trew yawned again.

He wondered why all of these little troubles handed to the Boys made a hubbub, more and more the later it got.

“None of you sleeping?” Compass Mate demanded. He still moved around without making noise. He and Ship’s Mate were like spectres: here then gone, nowhere then popping up behind.

“Sorry, sir…uh, Mate,” Trew said in a rush.

Sprocket and Black made similar apologies.

“Bah. Sleep boys otherwise we’ll give your cabins to the geese we’ll pick up in Byswater. Live geese, fifty they say, and horrible noisy.”

He was enjoying himself this morning. “You squandered your time to sleep. Now it’s time to work. The book says we start with Glows.”

There was a book on how to scare Boys — or ‘train’ them? Trew wanted a copy of all Mate’s tricks before he used them.

“All of you been to Prime, right?” Mate asked.

“Yes, Mate,” they said.

“So, first topic, what’s facet?”

An examination. Why not spear them with a question or two? Would ‘I don’t know’ get him a smile or a clout to the head?

“You.” Mate pointed at Sprocket.

“My parents said it was how we knew that the world loved us. It’s how we make this ship move, for example.”

Mate frowned. He looked to Black.

“The facet loop, right? Life, Death, Strengthen, Weaken, Bluff, Enlighten, Breeze, Current…”

“No,” Mate said.

“Oh,” Black said.

A nod to Trew meant he had to try and fail now.

“I don’t know what it is, but I can always smell it, that little tingle in my noise when someone has put some facet about.”

Mate shook his head. “No, no, and no. Let’s try an easier question. What’s a hand?” He nodded to Sprocket.

The Boy held up his right hand.

“Pick up that rope on the deck,” Mate said.

Sprocket did.

“Hands in your pockets.”

Sprocket dropped the rope and stuffed his hands away.

“Now pick up the rope.”

Sprocket’s eyes went wide. “I can’t.”

Mate snapped his fingers and the rope began to rise and drift toward him. “I can.”

Trew knew a few tricks like that, but less showy. Maybe he should have used one of them when he was asked.

“You have a body and you have a mind. You have hands, fingers, arms, a heart, lungs, legs, and all the rest. You can use them to do what you want, what you need, what the Fortress needs.”

Trew nodded.

“You can lift with your hands or your mind.”

Trew saw the evidence. He didn’t know how that snapping thing worked. He always had to touch something to make his facet work.

“Your mind can do many things. Answer questions and remember problems you need to solve, yes, but it can pick up a rope for you. That skill is but one of thousands we refer to as facets because we know that there are different parts of the mind you can train up. One part will help you remember. Another will allow you to execute that belt-looping trick that Cricket Boy used yesterday on the dock.”

Trew flushed. Mate had seen, noticed, and remembered.

“Sparrow Boy wasn’t wrong about the facet loop, it’s important to what we do, but it wasn’t the answer to the question I asked. With training, and care, you can push your mind, or your will, to grow things, set fire to them, push them with wind, wither them, fix them, lock them, almost anything.”

Trew had heard some of this before. He hadn’t known that this was what Mate wanted from him.

He had a little experience with some of these facets, but only a little. Prime got someone ready to learn from the masters in his field, whether the overseer of a peach orchard or the owner of a foundry or the Compass Mate on a ship.

“My job is to train your body and your mind. I'm going to put muscles on your scrawny bodies and I'm going to have you looping through your facets until you can send a Glow up the signal mast. Later on, you’ll learn to power a ship's engine and fire off a ship’s facet cannon.”

Trew grinned.

Mate noticed. “You will sweat. You will bleed. You will curse me, the Commander, the planks of the deck, and everything you can see with your eyes.”

Trew found he was still excited. Anything to make up for his foolish mistake in the dark the prior night. He wanted something new to occupy his mind.

“Each of you has a facet loop you were taught in Prime or by your parents. Don’t change it. You may need to add to it later, but today you aren’t changing a bit of it.”

Mate finally looked serious, like he was no longer saying something for the sheer joy of savoring an apprehensive face.

“Yes, Mate,” Trew said. Black and Sprocket were a second late echoing him.

“Mark me well. I’ll be wroth if you screw up today what you spent years learning. Don’t do it now, not when I’m in charge. You need to work out how to make a Glow with each link in your facet chain. If it’s Grow, I want a green Glow. If it’s Breeze, I want a glow in white or yellow. You will not skip links in the loop, you will not drop a facet out of your loop.”

Trew didn’t know any of that was possible. Maybe that was why Prime had shown them so little. It didn’t want them to err at a young age. Trew was ready to learn more, learn harder. “Yes, Mate.”

Black and Sprocket chimed in later. They didn’t seem as caught by the idea. Black seemed more troubled.

“We’ll start easier today. Grab something from your oddments pocket, something small, a bit of string or a piece of bark.”

Trew had plenty in his pocket.

Black looked stricken.

Trew brought out two bits of string and snuck one into Black’s hand.

Black should never sit down with someone to cheat at cards. He’d lose every wooden coin he had.

“So, step one: know what link you’re on. Don’t say it out loud. I don’t want your chain fooling with someone else’s, no mixing and matching the loops. What a disaster that would be. But put the facet in your mind. What color would it be, the natural color? Grow would be green.”

Trew was on Praise. His loop wasn’t all that long, he thought, but it was mix and match, some from Prime, some from working in the peach orchard, some from Father, plus a few things he’d put inside from his friends. It was kind of a mess.

Praise. What color would Praise be?

Trew blushed from Praise. So the Glow would be red. He nodded.

Trew looked to Black and Sprocket. They were struggling.

“Don’t look to me for help,” Mate said. “It’s the color you associate with the facet. Not what I would associate.”

Sprocket nodded. Black was slower to respond and fairly unsure.

Which made Mate dubious.

“Apply the facet to the bit of oddment. You’re not doing anything to the string or the bark other than making it emit a Glow. It shouldn’t move, it shouldn’t catch on fire.”

Trew opened his hand and looked at the string.

He wanted it to Glow red.

He’d seen Glows on the signal mast and above the Purple Sea last night. He knew what this should look like.

Then the string in his hand Glowed red. It was a pitiful amount, barely visible in the full sun of the morning.

“Good, it’s small but it’s something,” Mate said. His eyes swiveled to Sprocket and Black.

Sprocket had just the faintest aura of blue around his bark chip.

“Faint, but acceptable. It didn’t smoke at all.”

“No,” Sprocket said.

“Keep using it. String is easier, though. Remember to snag some next time you’re around cut ropes, just short bits.”

“Aye, Mate,” Sprocket said.

Black tried and tried.

“Don’t strain. You’ll have a devil’s time getting your facet to cooperate if you’re angry or scared or anything. Take a pause, Sparrow Boy.”

Mate took the string that Trew had given to Black. He returned with a thinner filament.

“In your minds, you’re now on the next link. Don’t make the next attempt on the old link. One try, then you move on to the next facet in your loop. Prime should have beaten that into you.”

“But I didn’t get it,” Black said.

“Sparrow Boy, you can try that one when it comes back around on your loop. Get the next facet in your mind.”

Trew almost frowned as he considered his situation. Praise had sort of worked for him, but the next one… He didn’t know why he’d ever put Damn into his loop, but he had. Praise first, then Damn. What color was that?

Not red, not green, not white or yellow or blue.

Black, maybe. Could he make a black Glow?

He tried. The tan string became black and it seemed that his hand was filled with shadows even though the Red Sun beat down upon it.

“Good,” Mate said. “Black isn’t an easy one. Keep going, Cricket Boy, keep going. One attempt for each facet in your loop.”

Trew got red to work, finally. He got blue and yellow and purple — and a questioning look from everyone assembled in the class. Why was Lock purple in his mind? Trew didn’t know.

He continued through his facet loop and was well and truly sweating by the time he could smell dinner cooking. Oatmeal, Trew thought, not his favorite.

Black had some success with the colors green and yellow. Sprocket seemed to succeed about half the time with no rhyme to what worked and what didn’t.

Trew was making steady progress and his Glows were getting brighter. Not even close to what the Men on Watch could produce, let alone Ship’s Mate.

Trew wondered if they’d even used an oddment to make their Glows. He thought not. That would be harder still, wouldn’t it? What little facet-work Trew knew required him to touch something.

But Compass Mate had snapped his fingers and made a rope move. That was something else. Trew was excited to learn.

The Men on the main deck slowed in anticipation of dinner.

Mate noticed. “Enough Glow for now. Practice later in your cabins. A little string, one try per facet in your loop.”

Trew nodded, then looked to the line that was almost forming. Everyone seemed hungry today.

“Next topic,” Mate said.

Trew looked attentively at Mate, but his mind currently dwelt in his stomach.

“Have you wound all the clocks?” Mate asked Sprocket.

Trew saw that the idea had never occurred to him. “No.”

“Well, take each one out and wind it.”

“They’re the size of my thumb right now.”

“You could learn how to enlarge and shrink them, if we were that far long in facet-work, but that would damage them if you were clumsy. Best do it while they’re small.”

Sprocket looked baffled.

Mate enjoyed that. He turned to Black. “Have you fed your sparrows?”

Black stuttered back a no.

“I’ve arranged for you to work in the galley every other evening, scullery stuff I’d expect. Use your time there to gather up the turnip peelings and the tops, too, if you can get them. See if you can’t keep the sparrows alive.”

“Do they eat turnip tops?” Black asked.

“No one knows.”

Trew hadn’t seen Black look quite so dejected yet, as if Mate had ordered him to slowly murder each and every sparrow.

“If they don’t fancy turnips, we’ll try something else.”

Black seemed to lighten up after that.

“Maybe pick the goose bits out of your goose stew to feed them. They might prefer meat.”

Black just shook his head.

Mate looked to Trew.

Trew just said, “no,” before he was asked anything.

“Wanted nothing to do with them, did you?” Mate asked.

Trew wanted to agree with him. Instead he said nothing.

“Smart, Boy. Unfortunately for you, I do know how to feed the crickets.”

Red crickets? Maybe they drank blood.

“Yours are the simplest of all.” Mate was drawing this out.

Trew wasn’t going to appreciate the answer.

“There’s a hatch in the top of the box. You open it, you stick your hand inside, and use a gentle Glow for them. Just like you learned today. They prefer something in yellow, red, or orange.”

His hand…inside that box of red crickets. No, no. No.

“They subsist on facet, we think. Won’t eat anything else.”

Trew really did have it the worst.

“For h… how long?” Trew asked.

“Oh, twenty minutes in the morning and thirty minutes in the evening should do it.”

Mate had been waiting for some time to say those words. He enjoyed ordering someone to touch the crickets for almost an hour every day.

As for Trew, he hadn’t cried since he was very small, but he thought he could be forgiven for crying now.

All three Boys had forgotten their earlier successes with the Glows. Mate did know how to keep them humble.

“Last topic.”

This was the one that would see them kicked off the Fortress, Trew supposed.

“By tomorrow, I want you to know the path we’ve taken to sea. I also want you to know our approximate position — let’s say how far we are from one of the lighthouses. So you need to know which lighthouse and how many nautical miles.”

That was a killer. He knew they’d started in Twobay and sailed past Last Sayle, but after that…

“Can we see a map?” Sprocket asked.

“No.”

“How are we supposed to do this, then?” Sprocket pushed.

“Surprise me,” Mate said. “I expect substantial Glows from all of you by tomorrow morning. Get some more string if you need it. Practice — at least when you’re not trying to figure out our location.”

“Can we work together?” Trew asked.

“No.” Mate smiled when he said that. “Don’t forget your dinner.”

He walked away.

“How do we figure out where we’ve come from or where we are? He won’t even show us the map,” Black said.

Trew was considering the problem. It looked like Sprocket was, too.

“I’ll bet we can’t figure out the tools,” Sprocket said. “Not without his help.”

“I know,” Black said.

“I’ll also bet we don’t have to.”

“So we just guess?” Black asked.

Trew shook his head, but wondered what Sprocket was proposing.

“Is he the only one on the Fortress who knows how to tell our position?”

“No,” Trew said.

Sprocket nodded. “He’s in charge of the compass, but he’s not the only one who knows how to use it.”

Black let out a deep breath. “The Men, some of them might know.”

“Right,” Sprocket said. “The old hands might.”

Trew appreciated the idea. “We each pick a different one, ask nicely.”

“I’d like to compare the different answers to make sure we’re not far wrong tomorrow,” Black said.

Sprocket liked it.

“I’m going to talk to Chesty,” Black said.

“You think that’s a good idea?” Trew asked. “He’s a storyteller, a liar.”

“I don’t know anyone else.” Black walked off for the galley then.

Trew and Sprocket followed behind, but the topic didn’t reemerge then.

They ate together, but quietly. Life on the Fortress had to be different from what all three of them had imagined.

Trew’s eyes were on hard duty taking everything in. Compass Mate was up by the helm with three other mates, one of them Ship’s Mate. Trew hoped he would have the other faces and titles down soon.

All around them, the Men were indulging in their watered gawgrie more than their gruel.

“I’m going to find Chesty…,” Black said.

The dinner hour was still ongoing.

“You want him pleased to help?” Trew asked.

“Aye.” Black had a touch of suspicion in his tone.

“Let him drink in peace.”

“Oh, aye.”

Trew nodded. No one liked an interruption in a moment of happiness. That went doubly so for happiness in liquid form.

“Which one are you taking?” Sprocket asked.

Trew pointed to the Man called Jock.

Sprocket didn’t want to poach that one from Trew, that was clear from his face. “I’m going to pick out someone who doesn’t look so mean.”

“I have an idea,” Trew said. “That one is just right, I think.”

“This whole thing is foxey as a dead fish,” Sprocket said. “I guess I have a few coins I could slip someone.”

“You’re going to pay?”

“Aye. If I need to.”

Trew’s ideas for getting assistance were different from Sprocket’s. Hopefully Sprocket wouldn’t get himself in trouble later on if he was known to have coins on him.

“Do you…”

Trew turned his head and noted someone looming over them.

He stumbled to his feet.

“I’m told you can all make a Glow,” the Commander said.

Every Mate — and now the Commander — could move around noiselessly when they chose. Trew was getting tired of it.

Sprocket and Black got to their feet, too. There was much clattering of wooden bowls and cups.

“Yes, Commander,” he said with Sprocket and Black.

“Let’s see it. The color red, please, in your palms.”

Trew reached for his oddments pocket and a bit of string.

Compass Mate arrived, then. He bore the same red color as a boiled goose. “Ah, Commander. They aren’t doing colors on command yet. Nor without an oddment.”

The Commander’s neck seemed to retract his head back inside his cowl. “I see. Where did you get such a training programme?”

“The book they issued to me at my Shore School,” Compass Mate said.

He’d been in school at the same time Trew, Sprocket, and Black were?

“The training book? Fitche’s Book.” His tone was precisely even, not too curious nor too demanding.

“Aye.”

“I haven’t seen it. Bring it to me.”

Compass Mate disappeared belowdeck.

Those were silent, awkward moments for the Boys. Had they done something wrong? The Commander wasn’t looking at them and he wasn’t talking to them.

When Mate returned, he handed a book to the Commander.

The Commander opened it, and skimmed the words. He flipped pages at a rapid pace before he paused. His head seemed to protrude a little from his improvised cowl.

“Eighteen steps to get a Boy making a Glow?”

“Aye, Commander,” Mate said, becoming a little uneasy.

The Commander flipped more pages. “Swim underwater for five minutes, no breaths, just the use of some facet-work.”

“Aye.”

“Can you do it?”

“It’s a new requirement. I plan to be able to do it.”

The Commander flipped more pages into the book. “‘Demonstrate the workings of a facet cannon by involving the Boys in their operation and upkeep. Step one: assign the Boys to work in the ordinance locker and organize the cannon supplies.’”

“Aye, Commander.”

“Rule one on any ship I command, a Boy does not touch the firing block or any component of it.”

Mate was now fully uneasy. “I hadn’t heard that.”

“What did you say?”

Compass Mate realized his mistake. “Aye, Commander.”

“Correct, Mate, correct. ‘Light a fire in fifteen different ways.’ Fire on a ship is dangerous, Mate.”

“I believe the next requirement is thirty ways to douse a fire,” Mate said, no longer trying to defend the training scheme, just trying to defend himself.

“My favorite might be, ‘Catch a fish.’ That’s impossible in the Sterile Sea, there are none.”

“I know. That’s in a chapter for Real World training.”

“Raef Fitche is many things. Clever is not one of them.” The Commander closed the cover of the training book.

“I trust nothing he puts his name to. Indeed, I have no use for anything Fitche has written.”

While the book rested on the Commander’s open palm, it started on fire, an orange and red flame. He looked at the book until it was ash and cinder in his hand.

“I’ll tell ye how to train the Boys. Don’t need a Captain Fitche to write down lollpoop and idle fodder.”

Mate just stared at the Commander.

“Anyone have a need for perfectly fine ash? Very fresh. No?” He dumped the ash overboard.

Trew didn’t know what to make of all this. The things the Commander had read out sounded ridiculous. He was glad someone was paying attention to what Trew would learn. The Commander, though, seemed a little savage and a lot brutal.

“Today’s effort? Set them to work on their Glows. No strings, colors on demand.”

“Yes, Commander.”

“Tomorrow, you’ll teach them the signals. Not just the emergency signals, as that bit of ash recommended. Teach them everything now so they can begin to use it.”

The Commander moved away and still made no noise. Perhaps he only made that clunk noise when he chose.

“I guess the plan is changed. Be back here in an hour,” Compass Mate said.

He looked a bit shaken to Trew’s eye. Trew almost felt sorry for his having a rough time of it. Almost.

“Why isn't our Commander the Captain?” Sprocket asked. “I can’t think Captain Fitche is…”

Worse, Sprocket didn’t say. That was what Trew assumed.

“He’s hard enough, isn’t he?” Mate asked.

“Aye,” all the Boys said.

“Rumor is that his facets are good for a ship and a cannon. He lives for War. Others have facets better for Peace, for persuasion and lying.”

“Does he care?” Trew asked. “That he's a Commander and not the Captain?”

“Third election he was in. Third time he finished in second place. You want to ask him his feelings?” Mate asked.

Trew wriggled his head as fast as he could.

“My best guess is no. In War, he won't care what his rank is if he can fight. He's the man you want on your cannons.”

Trew wondered what Mate hadn’t said just then. In Peace he was what — not someone you wanted on your ship? Probably true.

“Will he train us?” Black asked. “Or pop up and examine us?”

“I don't expect it.”

So, yes, Trew thought. It was possible, even likely.

“The rumors say you stay away from him. He eats Boys for dinner and Landsmen for supper.”

So the Mates had been trading stories last night, putting together what they knew of their new Master and Commander.

“What about Mates?” Sprocket asked.

Mate shook his head. “Apparently he throws Mates on the fire in his cabin.”

Compass Mate waved off any more questions. “One hour until further Glow training. Work on your navigation problems until then. What path have we taken and where are we now?”

Mate went belowdecks promptly thereafter. He had been well and truly rattled.

XX

Continue to Chapter Eleven.

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