Monday, October 12, 2015

Cricket Boy: Chapter Thirteen: The Crowded Sea

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

When Trew woke the next morning, he heard the desperate music of crickets. He’d forgotten to ‘feed’ them.

Trew remembered everything that Compass Mate had been so pleased to explain. With dread in his heart, Trew pulled on his uniform and approached the cage. He knelt down, unlatched the top of the cage, and stuck his hand inside.

That wasn’t too bad. He could handle the feeling of them climbing and exploring so long as he didn’t look at them.

If only this were the lone step to feeding them. Trew remembered what came next: making a Glow in red or orange or yellow. He was on War in his facet chain. Trew hadn’t tried to make a Glow with this facet, but he didn’t think it would be that hard. Red and War seemed friendly with each other.

Trew started the Glow. It felt sputtery and faint, but it came across as red.

The sound from the cage changed at that instant.

The crickets that weren’t already exploring Trew’s hand rushed for that Glow. They piled on top of the others, many crickets deep in a tight ball surrounding his hand. Then they began to eat. Some of those tiny teeth scraped at his skin. A thousand thousand tiny scratches…

He just managed to keep the Glow from collapsing. Trew found maintaining his silence among the hardest things he’d ever done.

It hurt, his hand hurt, his facet felt like it was being ripped away in tiny portions. His body and his mind sang out for relief.

He kept his hand inside and looked away, at the hull. He could feel a coppery taste in his mouth. He’d bitten his lip or something. He was bleeding.

Trew hadn’t thought he was particularly susceptible to pain. He was.

He didn’t know how he was going to manage this for an hour every day, splitting up the torture between the morning and the eve.

He felt every cricket try to burrow for the source of that Glow. Not a one tried to escape through the opening. What they wanted was already in the cage with them, centered around Trew’s hand.

The crickets intensified their climbing of each other. They all wanted to be in the center of that ball, as close as they could get to the Glow.

The weight pulled Trew’s hand deeper into the cage until his fingernails brushed against the lower bound. He didn’t feel wood. He felt metal, circles he couldn’t see in bronze and iron and a few in silver.

This was where he had hidden almost all of the coins from Father’s gift.

Trew would dread this twice daily task, but he needed these crickets as much as they needed his Glow. Compass Mate had ordered him to keep them alive, but he would carry out the order because they kept his tiny pelf safe.

Trew knew that his cabin had been entered. Someone had left a half-cask for him which was filled with a little more gawgrie every day. He was supposed to pour some into his water. He left it. Maybe he could barter it when he found he needed something.

It wasn’t just the cask, though. Trew thought his belongings had been searched. By whom he didn’t know. But no one had disturbed the crickets or the treasure they kept safe. That allowed Trew to smile a little. They didn’t just trouble Trew, they bothered everyone.

He wondered if some sneaking person had searched everything in this cabin, then stared at the box of crickets before shivering in revulsion. Red crickets…

For that security, Trew had to be willing to sacrifice something. Or endure something, like this pain.

After Trew thought he’d sacrificed enough of his facet, he ended the Glow and some crickets began to fall out of the tight ball they’d formed around his hand.

He didn’t yank his hand out as was his inclination. There was a secondary task he needed to complete, replacing what he’d kept in his oddments pocket.

Trew started hunting for a few of the wooden coins. He pushed the crickets around. He felt many of the metal coins and one that he thought was made of stone. He couldn’t find what he wanted. There were a lot of crickets in this cage. Pushing crickets out of the way was like trying to stack dry sand, the whole edifice crumbled with every new scoop.

He was getting a little frustrated before he began locating the wooden coins. He kept at it until he had five. He thought there could be a few more in the cage, but they could rest with their stone and metal friends.

He pulled his hand out and brushed off the crickets that still clung to him. He thought about his oddments pocket. He’d have circles and wood covered. Maybe he could beg some string off Arkwright again. But little bits of metal, small stones, the different shapes one should keep handy… Those were in short supply on a ship. He’d have to keep peering around. Or make friends with a Carpentry Mate or Hull Mate or whatever title the Commander had saddled that person with.

He snapped the cover back into place on the cage. The crickets seemed sated and fat, whether on his facet or his flesh he wasn’t sure. His hand had a nibbled look to it.

These little red monsters were doubly carnivorous, eating his body and strips of his mind.

He thought he could be late so he ran out of his cabin. Trew was coming to know the dark hallways of the Fortress. He didn’t get lost on his way to the ladder, which was a first. He climbed the stairs onto the main deck and saw rather solemn Oddfellows, a group of Mates and Men doing little to nothing.

Yes, they were near where the skiff was tied up.

They were, as a group, looking down at the skiff.

Trew felt a heaviness in his chest. He moved slowly over to the railing. He had an idea what this meant. That they weren’t ignoring the skiff today meant…something had happened.

Something final.

He tried to get a good view down to the skiff. He had to crouch before he saw that the ill man in the skiff no longer breathed at all. His illness had taken his life.

What he saw was horrible and just as he expected.

Then Trew looked at the Men and Mates. From this angle, Trew could see ashamed, downcast eyes. Trew knew the look: guilt. They could have done something, but had done nothing. Now they cared when none of them could do the slightest thing.

All of them shared in this death and realized it. The Commander might have given them orders not to help for fear of disease, but they all now felt something from their neglect.

Trew thought that a few of them prayed. Trew heard references to Sail, Anchor, and Storm. That was Sea Guard. He heard Spinner, Weaver, and Cutter again. He still didn’t know what that was. Trew thought he heard Bread, Wine, and Fish. Trew didn’t recognize those facets or how to use them.

Trew could add Sail, Anchor, and Storm to his loop. Those he understood and could come to make useful.

He wouldn’t though. Not yet.

He wouldn’t just say the words, either. He didn’t think the Men who prayed got much comfort from their prayers. Words spoken now were a poor replacement for deeds not carried through then. The guilt came because it wasn’t enough just to do the right things. These Men and Mates owned their omissions as well, the futures they could have, but hadn’t, created, because of orders or fear or whatever comforting lies they told themselves.

The Men and Mates found the lesson was hard to look at, especially when it resembled a diseased, dead body.

The Commander stomped through the gaggle and looked down when he paused at the railing. “Dead is dead. Cut ‘er loose, Ship’s Mate.”

As frigid as an icehouse, his words stopped everything on the main deck. He had ordered no help for the man they’d rescued. Now he’d ordered them to abandon the dead to the Purple Sea.

Trew said nothing, but his mind was roiled. He wondered if the Commander had said something similar when Black and Trew had taken their plunge into the Sea. ‘Leave ‘em. They’re dead.’

Trew found his fingernails, digging into his palms, were making an even bigger mess of his hand. What the crickets hadn’t damaged, he was. After all, he had been the one abandoned by this facet-damned creature yesterday.

The men at prayer stopped muttering. No one spoke. The Commander had gotten plenty of attention with his order, but it didn’t seem to be the kind he wanted.

“Mate?” the Commander asked, annoyed. “Now, if ye please.”

“Aye.” The Ship’s Mate came to the railing and pulled out a knife. Three slashes and he’d made quick work of the line. There was just a tiny noise as the cut section snapped away from the railing. The Fortress was moving forward. The skiff would fall back.

Trew closed his eyes a moment.

He had no prayer to offer, but he did have some brief memories of the dead man. He thought of the terror in his eyes last night as he faced up to an incomprehensible truth. Trew hoped he would never know when he would perish, especially not with enough warning to have it eat through his sanity.

Perish… That word.

Trew realized he did have a prayer to say for the dead man. “We perish, each alone,” he whispered, hating the sentiment.

They weren’t facets he was invoking, powers that he was attempting to develop or refine. These words were an uncomfortable truth, a hateful one.

Trew wondered if he could ever make those words untrue. Could he save people thought unsalvageable?

It was as good a desire as any.

Trew opened his eyes when he heard unhappy sounds from the Men. He looked at them. They were looking at the Sea. So Trew knelt down again and looked through the balusters.

The line tethering the skiff to the Fortress had fallen into the water and disappeared. That was as expected. Trew looked in the distance. The skiff should be a mile back or more.

The vessel wasn’t there. Trew looked closer to the Fortress. Odd, but the skiff was very close. It had fallen back only somewhat and it was keeping pace as the Fortress’s new shadow.

Trew saw Men crossing themselves. Some were back to their prayers. More than one said the word ‘cursed.’

“Back to yer stations. Put yer ogles on yer work,” the Commander said before he swayed away.

The Mates busted up the clump of Men, but they had less success with the gossip and the muttering about omens.

Mate got the Boys off to a quiet spot of the main deck. He wanted to continue their lesson on Glows.

It didn’t go well. Trew’s was sputtery again, worse than when he had a horde of crickets feasting on it. Black made nothing happen. Sprocket’s Glow seemed to pop.

“Yer ogles on yer work,” Compass Mate said. “This storymandering will rot out the ship.”

They were all frazzled. But timid Black was more so than Trew and Sprocket.

“What’s an omen?” Black asked.

That took some courage.

“Never heard the word?” Mate asked.

“No, Mate.”

Mate nodded. “Saylors see everything.” He looked at all three Boys. “Everything. They have such a small world to observe that they notice every change. A frayed line on a signal mast is bad. A fellow given to drink or idiocy is worse. A death on ship, or near ship, is worst of all. The string of problems in the last few days makes them unhappy.”

“What problems?” Black asked.

Had he not noticed?

“The engine working poorly. Yer dip in the Sea. A visit from the Kraken. Finding that skiff where it shouldn’t be and a man dying of something everyone fears.”

“Aye.”

Trew noted that Mate hadn’t exactly defined why the Men feared an omen. They feared that the chain of terrible occurrences would continue into the future.

Trew didn’t bother to fill in that detail. It would just trouble Black.

The lessons resumed, but poorly. Mate often looked to the water where the skiff was. He never stopped speaking about the signal mast or the signals the ship used or how facet was used to make the correct Glows. He just wasn’t focused on them.

He didn’t stop looking when he had Sprocket show off a green Glow that held well. Or when Black got his to work or when Trew finally got the sputter out of a blue Glow.

He was distracted, but he didn’t head off for his other duties or desires. He sat with them through dinner.

“Some of the last peas we’ve gotten from the True World. Enjoy it ‘cause it’ll be gone soon,” was his sole comment.

He continued lessons in the high heat of the afternoon as the Boys struggled to remain awake while digesting their portions of turnip cake and pease porridge.

Trew paid attention to the others on the deck, too. The quiet muttering grew through the afternoon. He heard the skiff renamed the Following Skiff, which wouldn’t knock down its reputation at all. There was always at least a few sets of eyes on it from somewhere on the main deck.

Mate found new topics and exercises for them well into dusk. He was waiting for starlight, he had said more than once.

Trew thought it more likely he wasn’t letting any of them out of his sight.

The day prior had scarred Mate more than it scarred Black and Trew. Trew doubted it was directly because of what had happened to Black and Trew and more likely from some threat whispered by the Commander. That facet-damned creature was hobbled but still terrifying.

Then again, maybe Mate believed in omens, too.

Trew pondered that for some time as he tried to memorize the signals. They were starting with the common tongue before they tackled the High symbols.

“It’s scarce dark enough, but let’s move. Ye’re shivering, I’d ken. Let’s get started on our night lesson.”

Trew was all for stretching his arms and legs.

His enthusiasm waned when he saw where Mate was taking them. The ship was small enough, but there was one place that was off limits to almost all. That’s where Mate directed them, to the Commander’s cabin. They were having a lesson in there?

Compass Mate steered them far away from the single door, which added to Trew’s confusion. Why come here at all if they weren’t going inside?

Mate put his hand on the wood that made up the exposed face of the Commander’s cabin. He pushed in some facet. A set of stairs grew out of the wall.

Trew grinned. He immediately thought of his favorite climbing tree in Gawgrie. If he could give it a set of winding stairs from the bottom all the way to the top…

How had Trew not noticed these stairs before, he wondered. Someone had to have used them prior to now.

Mate was slow to peel away the secrets, wasn’t he? Trew would find out, if he were patient.

“These are the steps to the helm deck.”

Mate pulled his hand away and the stairs disappeared back into the wall.

That was a lumping trick, one Trew wanted to learn.

“The helm is up there as is the compass. We’re fixed in a large, gentle loop this day and the next, until we work out all the kinks.”

That explained why he’d had more time for them.

“Ye may not come here without me. Ye will not spend time up here doing the problems I’ll set ye, either. The work ye’ll do sans compass, sans maps.”

This lecture sounded like one he’d either given before or received many times.

“How?” Sprocket asked.

“Facet. And brains. We’ll train you up in the one, but it’s your responsibility to provide the other.”

“Aye.”

Mate brought the stairs out again. He pulled his hand away, but the stairs remained. There had to be a series of tricks he wasn’t explaining.

Trew was the last one up the stairs. He was still marveling at that facet-work when he clapped eyes on the helm deck.

He was underwhelmed to say the least. There was a short railing, a helm, two copper-clad structures that Trew hoped were facet cannons, and four posts which supported a sun shade made of sayle. It wasn’t so useful in the twilight.

Trew had seen none of this from the deck, but he’d never gotten as distant as the bowsprit to look back. When one was farthest forward in a ship, one looked forward.

Mate said nothing further about signals. Up here, he was concerned with navigation. His lecture was rapid and fierce. Trew felt the details flying past him faster than he could accumulate them. He just knew he’d one day need to know how a compass worked when there was no true north to find in the Red World.

He didn’t understand what Mate said about the True World compass which spun in lazy circles as if baffled. He’d need to know all of his some day, but Trew felt like his brain was back in the deep red water of the Purple Sea, syrupy and panicked.

It got worse when Mate pointed at various things in the darkening sky, explained some of them, and began assigning slatework.

Math.

In all the books and flimsies that Trew had read, there was never any mention of math.

But Compass Mate — for as much as he resembled a bronze candlestick — was now talking with passion about stars, numbers, sextants, angles, and other things Trew had never heard of. Black didn’t seem nearly as baffled, but poor Sprocket looked as though his eyes were going to pop out of his head.

Trew was trying to work the third problem Mate had set but he couldn’t even see what he’d scratched onto his slate. He lit his hand in a yellow Glow. It was fully dark, but Mate was fixated on the red stars above.

Trew’s Glow opened his eyes.

“That’s it for tonight. Work that problem in the morning,” Mate said.

“Aye,” the Boys responded.

Trew shivered and yawned and moved through the dark halls underdeck. Without a word, they filtered into Black’s room.

The sparrows began to sing for him. “Shut up,” Black hissed.

He threw a tunic over their cage and that seemed to settle them down.

Trew sat on the cabin floor fairly close to that shirt. He noticed that the cloth was fine, finer than anything Trew owned. Trew didn’t know what that meant, but he found it interesting.

“Angles, who cares about angles?” Sprocket asked, taking the floor. The things he said, mostly mocking Mate, were quite funny. He was easy to be around when he was angry.

Black didn’t say anything, though he looked like he wanted to. He hadn’t struggled with the lectures Mate had given.

Trew had enjoyed learning a little about dead reckoning, but he was still thinking about that skiff trailing along behind.

“Superstitious lot,” Trew said.

All of them turned to look at the hull, roughly where they thought that Following Skiff would be.

“Aye,” Black said.

“I’ve never heard of a skiff following behind a bigger ship,” Sprocket said. “It should get some interest. It’s a great, lumping mystery.”

Trew nodded. It was.

“Omens, though, no, I doubt it,” Sprocket said.

“Do you?” Black asked.

“We’re not cursed. That skiff is,” Sprocket said.

But that skiff wasn’t so very far away.

The term mystery was just right. Everything about the ship now seemed dipped in mysteries, omens, and curses. And that was before one had to add in stars, math, and Glows.

“I want to know who let that broken hulk onto the ship,” Sprocket said.

“Who?” Trew asked.

“Chesty or whatever he’s really called.”

Black flushed at this topic.

Trew kept his tongue. He harbored no secret support for Chesty, but he’d made that clear before Black went asking him for advice. He wouldn’t come out and say that Black had been stupid. However…Black had been stupid.

Trew had been at least as stupid, he admitted to himself.

Their quiet awkwardness now proved that they both realized this, even if Sprocket did not.

“I’m never going to get what he was lecturing about tonight,” Trew said. “Angles, stars, and math.”

“Me, either. I’ll wind up dumber than Chesty…,” Sprocket said.

“I could help,” Black said, before he yawned. “I know this kind of math.”

“Would you?” Sprocket asked.

“Aye. But tomorrow night?”

“We’re all wrecked,” Sprocket said.

Trew thought that was a perfect term — and he still had to donate flesh and facet to a bunch of hungry crickets.

They agreed to meet the following night so that Black could help them with the mathematics. Trew vowed to himself that he would keep his eye on Black for everything else. Maybe exchange math lessons for Glow lessons.

Those damned crickets were going to make Trew a Glow master in no time.

Sprocket seemed to have made a similar decision to help Black.

Trew returned to his cabin and fed his crickets again. After, Trew tried to sleep, but the pain in his hand kept him awake for a time. The crickets were absolutely silent when Trew finally closed his eyes and fell asleep.

He dreamed this night of sinking in red water and of tentacles not coming for him.




When Trew came on deck the next morning, what he saw made him forget that he was tired and that his hand felt like it had been chewed by very tiny teeth. Trew saw the Men clumped together again. What was the skiff doing now?

Trew didn’t think he would like the answer. Chesty seemed to be the leader of this crush of people. If his fingers were in it, Trew didn’t want a taste.

Still, he observed. All these Men were staring over the railing. It was definitely something of the Sea or something riding on it.

Trew closed with the group but stayed a little apart. He crouched and managed to look out to the Purple Sea. He still couldn’t see what the Men saw. He could see the skiff in the near distance, but that wasn’t what they were looking at.

What was Chesty doing?

Trew had decided that Chesty had previously been named Trouble and been banished to the sea. It could be true. The Able seemed to find a new varietal of trouble every day to practice.

Today’s involved the Sea. Trew stared down again. He finally caught a glimmer of Glow from under the Sea. The glimmer looked like a fish. No, the glimmer looked like several fish racing around in the Sea.

Trew couldn’t take his eyes away.

That water was poison, as Trew well knew, so where had the fish come from?

Something happened in the water. The glimmers changed somehow. The Men also watching all this roared with cheer or anger, as the mood struck them.

Trew glanced up to the Men on deck. He saw a few of them exchanging coins, then Chesty produced three more fish from a canvas sack.

He rubbed a bit of the salt off them. It looked like he had raided the galley for its store of salt-packed fish. He handed one fish to each of three Men. All of the Men’s hands Glowed a little before they dropped the fish over the side.

Why would they waste food like that…

Trew was confused. He’d seen fish moving under the Sea, a place where fish couldn’t survive. He felt slow when he finally understood that the Men were animating the salted fish.

Trew crouched again and craned his head over the side. He wasn’t wrong. Those dead lakefish were now swimming — swimming! — in the Purple Sea. Not only swimming, but fighting with each other. That was why the Men were so interested.

They weren’t chattering without purpose. They were discussing sums of money and the names of the three Men who’d been handed the salted fish.

They were sporting.

They were using facet to reanimate dead fish.

Trew found all his earlier curiosity turned to bile. This confirmed every terrible thing he’d ever thought of Chesty, the bellwether of this mob.

Strong hands plucked Trew away from the railing before he got stepped on.

“That’s enough of that,” Compass Mate said. “Do it again and the Galley Mate will have his hide scratched raw at the Commander’s order, I’ve no doubt.”

Chesty made to protest before he shook his head.

“Return what ye borrowed so that some of us don’t go hungry at noon.”

The Men didn’t protest, but they also didn’t return to their duty stations with any particular speed.

Trew thought that Compass Mate had earned himself some enemies just then. He’d known and done it still.

“Ye enjoy that?” Mate growled at Trew.

“No, not once I knew what they were doing.”

Mate softened a little. “Good. Now ye know what a bored Man might just do. Those fish were for our dinner today, not for someone’s jest.”

“Aye, Mate.”

“I’ll be back in three minutes. I need a word with Ship’s Mate.”

When Black and Sprocket straggled onto the main deck, Trew relayed what he’d seen.

Neither looked disgusted, rather more unhappy that they’d missed it.

Trew said nothing about his disgust with Chesty, the Men, and now Sprocket and Black. Trew needed friends on this Ship, even if they weren’t all that he hoped.

The only one who came out of the episode well, to Trew’s mind, was Compass Mate.

Ship’s Mate was on deck before Compass Mate returned. “A bunch of omen-foolishness. A bunch of pranking. I’ve use for idle hands, Men. It’s rope drill ‘til dinner.”

The Men who knew what this rope drill was seemed unhappy. The others were soon clued in.

There were unfriendly looks for Ship’s Mate.

He took this in. “I’ll decide what else we need to see in the afternoon. Maybe climbing drills up the signal mast. Maybe scrubbing down all the decks…”

Ship’s Mate waved his hand at the Boys. They were exempt.

Ship’s Mate set to work with the Men.

The Boys thought they had gotten the better end of the deal until Compass Mate carried up his own torture. The slates were back and so were the math problems.

As Trew set to work, he caught pieces of the rope drill. There were fifteen Men on the main deck, each set to work one of three ropes. According to the explanation given by Ship’s Mate, they had to attune their facet to each other and unravel the rope.

Arkwright had been doing something like this the day Black and Trew fell into the Purple Sea.

It didn’t sound easy now that Trew heard this explanation. It required little in the way of muscle, but any new facet-work was guaranteed to be tricky.

Trew wondered what utility this attunement would have for the ship. The officers of Sea Guard didn’t seem like they enjoyed wasting time.

Trew didn’t ask. He settled in and worked his problem. He tried one way. No, wrong. He tried a different way.

“Cosine,” Black whispered.

“Thank you,” Trew said.

That…worked.

He didn’t think he would ever understand how to grasp the computations demanded of him. Black seemed to have little trouble.

Mate praised Black and launched into a new explanation for Sprocket and Trew that made even less sense than the earlier ones.

After he baffled two of them, Mate set them a new problem and Trew had no idea of where to begin. It was much harder.

Sprocket gave up and startled doodling.

Black shifted his position so that he was closer to Trew.

He went slower through his slate-work.

Trew watched him make large numbers on his slate.

Black wanted Trew to see them and follow along.

Trew copied what he saw, then set to decyphering it. The Men of a Lighthouse couldn’t confuse a meaningful message any better… Hold on.

The mishmash began to look like something.

Black looked over and Trew nodded.

When Black returned to his work, his numbers were far smaller. He was working the problem for himself, not for Trew’s benefit now.

Trew knew how to get started.

“Better,” Mate said, looking at Trew’s slate.

Sprocket almost growled. He started drawing an ogre on his slate. Trew assumed it was portraiture of their instructor.

Trew concentrated and got fairly far along in the involved computation before noise on the deck startled him into looking up.

One crew of men had started their rope on fire. Several of them raced for…something.

Two Mates — one of them that cruel-looking Galley Mate — dropped oddments over the side of the ship. Fountains of water lifted up in the air and extinguished the flames.

“See now,” Ship’s Mate crowed. “See that. That wasn’t anything near to atunement. If you ever want near a facet cannon, you have to unravel and re-ravel a rope as a team. Yer facet can’t set something delicate on fire. Ye’ve got to concentrate, bucks.”

The dispirited five went to clear the mess and fetch a new rope.

They paused and looked, as one, to what Trew hoped was the south-east. Otherwise he knew less about navigation today than he had yesterday.

Compass Mate turned to look.

Everyone did, like a ripple from one end of the ship to the next.

What was happening? The thought barely had time to make itself known before Trew felt it.

He felt wind, far stronger than anything he’d felt in Gawgrie. Trew stood. Sprocket stood. Trew helped Black to his feet.

The wind smelled of trees and leaves, maybe olive? Definitely not peach.

The Commander came on deck.

“Wind?” he asked no one. He fixed his eyes in the distance, perhaps looking for the Lighthouse he’d been ignoring.

“No one predicted a Rift. I might refuse to send signals to the Lighthouse, but I’m looking at their signals. They said nothing about a Rift. More the fools they are.”

He peered into the distance.

Trew swiveled to look in the same direction. He couldn’t see a Lighthouse.

The Commander turned away, glaring at everyone. “They’re on it. Late, of course. A damned ship has sailed through into Red World. Where was the warning? Why didn’t they have Fortress of the Sky in the air?”

Trew looked into the sky. He didn’t see one of the flying ships. Being on the Purple Sea was something, but flying above it would be far better. Not that he was uttering a word of that thought while on this ship.

“Damn. Damn.”

The Commander had realized something. It sounded like it portended poorly for all of them.

“This wasn’t predicted or scheduled by us but a ship knew it was opening…”

How, Trew wondered.

“The rumors are true. Those thieves, badgers, and skulks have really done it. They can open their own Rifts now.”

Trew felt the threat in those words. The pirates now had all the same tools as Sea Guard. All of them.

“Compass Mate, let’s have a new course,” the Commander demanded.

“Aye, Commander.”

“Let’s assume they’re using the wind for now. Twelve knots, I’d ken, not ten or fourteen. Let’s assume they’re closing with Last Sayle. Let’s get into their passage before they do.”

“Aye, Commander.”

Mate picked up a slate and began to work the problem. The Commander had just set a problem for Mate harder than anything Mate had set for them.

“Ah.” The Commander shook his head. “There’s the Lighthouse responding slower than the dead ring a bell. It’s the first bit of sense they’ve transmitted in a week, I’d wager.”

He laughed.

The Commander, wrapped in dirty sayle, laughed.

Trew doubted it would ever happen again so he committed the moment to memory.

“Aye, there’s one order I like. Course, I’ve already given it before they did. Slow, but not quite so foolish now, are they?”

“What was the order?” Sprocket asked himself, but not quietly enough.

The Commander speared the Boy with a glance.

“Ye’re curious. That’s not a bad thing. The Glow-boys on the Lighthouse say, ‘Investigate and report.’ Aye, with pleasure. Ship’s Mate, we can discontinue this rope drill for now.”

“Aye.”

“Later, we’ll give them the fifteen ways to polish the deck. Or the thirty-seven ways to work the signal mast. Whatever that fool book of Fitche’s said. For now, I want the main deck functional.”

In case of a battle. In case the cannons were needed.

“With me Boys,” Mate said. He took them up to the helm deck again. Trew was grateful for that as the view was better.

Then Mate squandered that gratitude when he set them back to their slates.

“If ye don’t figure this ‘un, next will be sewing drill. Forty new uniforms before you’re allowed your turnip cake and gruel.”

That focused their attention.

“No leaning on Sparrow Boy. Ye’ve a question, Cricket Boy, ye ask me.”

“Aye.”

“Good.”

Mate had his own slate out again. He checked it then laid it down. He set to working the helm, not caring this time that three Boys were watching every bit of it. How else would they learn?

Mate worked on his own solution and seemed to forget about his students.

Trew and the others forgot about completing their assigned problems. There was wind to feel and a pursuit in progress and the whole main deck in tumult.

There was a ship out there, distant at first, but the Fortress was closing with her.

Finally, they laid eyes on her. The new ship didn’t look like the Fortress. She had three masts, though many of the sayles were down and being stored. She moved sluggishly over the Purple Sea.

Slap-clunk, slap-clunk. The fearsome old man should have his name changed to Slap-Clunk.

The Commander arrived on the helm deck with his peering scope. It Glowed blue while he fixed his stare into the distance.

“Last Sayle pirates,” the Commander pronounced. “I recognize more than one of them by sight. Their knowing how to come and go as they please, that’s some fiercesome work.”

“Aye,” Compass Mate said. “There was a story the last time I was in port.”

“Aye,” the Commander said. “The secrets are out. There’s treason in Northguard for this to happen.”

That was a word that made Trew choke. Treason…inside Sea Guard. It couldn’t be possible.

“Should we adjust course?” Compass Mate asked. He glanced down at the bronze coverings of the cannons on the main deck.

The Commander jabbed his finger toward the signal mast. “The earlier courage out of Lighthouse Four has given way to cowardice from Lighthouse Three. I’ve no discretion, not after my tantrum, as they’re calling it, not unless I wish a court martial when we put into port. Captain Fitche would set one, too, I know it. I know ‘im. We served when I was a bleeding new Mate and he was a Boy in his third class. Dim and a little shite even then, hasn’t improved with age.”

Trew couldn’t have heard that. The hatred between the Commander and the Captain had started that long ago?

“Had we not been pottering down here dealing with this engine that won’t work, we wouldn’t have known. A little bad luck can give way to fair, can’t it?”

“Aye, Commander.”

“Even if they released me to do as I wished, I’d hesitate. New crew, too new. They’re just starting with the rope drill and not performing that well. I’m not letting them on a facet cannon.”

“The Mates could…,” Compass Mate started to say.

“I could use Mates for the work, but that would let me fire maybe two cannons. That ship is well crewed, I can tell. Our two cannons versus four or six. I do not care for wasting life and spilling Sea Guard blood.”

Trew closed his eyes a moment. He’d once been excited for battle, at least the kind in books and flimsies. Now he was grateful.

“Aye, Commander.”

Compass Mate sounded unhappy, not relieved.

“I wonder if that ship is the one that put this skiff in the water — and that man who perished. I would love to break it with our cannons then skim up the splinters for the pirate bounty. Fitche saw we weren’t manned for anything, not even making way on a calm day.”

He left without further comment.

Mate was quiet a moment. He looked and saw blank slates and Boys wrung out with emotion. His navigation lesson had been capsized.

“Go get your dinner now. It might be a difficult afternoon,” Mate said.

They left their slates on the helm deck. Trew listened as he stood in line. The Men were more exhausted from the mental effort of the rope drill than exhilarated by seeing a pirate ship. Others had increased their mutters about omens, curses, and bad luck. Some began to talk of doom, as in a ‘doomed sayling.’

Trew hoped not. The Sea was getting crowded with skiffs and Last Sayle pirates, but this was very much the place he wanted to be. Still, his hands shook when he picked up a bowl and a mug. Everyone’s hands were shaking.

XX

Continue to Chapter Fourteen

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