Duke Forecastle - Part 22
Admiral Harping’s cadre of trusted officers had gathered themselves in the kitchen, of all places. Fawksull found them lurking in the near darkness, seated upon butcher’s blocks and barrels of dried plums.
The Governor led them instead to the privacy of his sitting room, which was just outside his chamber of office, and had a lockable door on it. Eagle Keys didn’t have many troops, or even servants, but with a Ruler’s silent order he roused two pairs of stabbers out of the palace barracks and stationed them at either end of the outside hallway, to discourage the curious.
He hung a yellowish powerball in the corner, and lit some actual candles for good measure. There still wasn’t much light in the wood-paneled room, but he decided against a fire in the hearth.
From his office, he retrieved a set of porcelain cups and a decanter of kava, and set it out on the low tea table. This wasn’t a night for tea.
The captains muttered their introductions, but Fawksull had already met them before and during dinner. Cat Harping kept them subdued and in line, emplacing the four of them side by side on the leather sofa. She and the Governor took the overstuffed velvet chairs.
“They know Chequer wasn’t, uh...quite the man he’s made out to be,” Cat had said to him on the way to the kitchen, “but please, Fawksull. Don’t be disrespectful. He was a good Navy man. Remember that.”
The captains, three men and one woman all with the salty, gaunt Signamancy of seafarer warlords, looked over the tea table at the Governor. They were still in their blue formals, sitting at attention, afraid to relax in front of the Admiral. Or maybe they were afraid of what he was going to say.
Fawksull’s own Signamancy had softened a bit with the comfort and easy boredom of his present life, he knew. He leaned forward in his green velour dressing gown with his hands on his knees, and looked them over.
“When they were getting ready to launch Unsinkable II,” he began without preamble, “I rode out from the city of Forecastle to pay my respects to the Admiralty and the Queen. At that time, I was the only non-seafarer warlord that Seaworld had, although I, uh...hear you’ve gained a few more since then.”
He smiled, and a couple of the captains politely chuckled.
“I certainly didn’t know they planned to put me aboard her. I thought it was more likely I was going to be disbanded...”
In Fawksull’s head, his service with the Royal Navy had been compressed down to a few vivid images: his days of imprisonment in his cabin, the awkward, drunken meals with Chequer, climbing the rigging and taming the bird, seeing Unsinkable II slip below the waves, his first sight of the quakken below the water...
But in the telling of it, he somehow unpacked whole trunks full of particulars and details.
Cat helped him; she remembered many things he hadn’t. Sometimes her recollection of events conflicted with his own, which made him wonder about the reliability of memory at all. It was disturbing how easy it was to forget things, to conflate details, to mix up the order of events, to misremember even what you yourself had said and done.
It took him most of the night to explain everything up through the big battle and the sinking of Her Majesty’s flagship. The discovery of the double eagle’s special, and how he’d used it, seemed to baffle the captains. They couldn’t make sense of the idea that the bird could be both a blessing and a curse, both good Luckamancy and bad.
“How could it be a Seaworld unit, yet still curse you?” said Captain Geech, a tan, angular man with white eyes. “Its sense of Duty ought to prevent that. Shouldn’t it only bring you good luck once you tamed it, and apply bad luck only to the enemy?”
Fawksull shook his head. “No. But I didn’t really understand at the time, either. It took a game of dice to show me. But that came a bit later...”
In the hour before dawn, he found his tiredness replaced by a strange sense of focus, as if he could view the past through a porthole, and simply describe what he saw there.
The captains’ questions had gradually stopped coming, but their attention never wavered. Even after so many hours, they still sat tensely at the edge of the sofa, their eyes upon the Governor as he described the game of bunco with Carrack, the crippling of Double Eagle, and the sinking of the Anchorbar man-o’-war.
“When I reached the main deck, I’d gathered up a stack of eleven stabbers with me,” said Fawksull. “That was more than we needed to deal with the boarders. But it took us too much time. By the time we’d—”
“Pah. It was barely enough, as I remember,” interjected Cat. “You’re playing down your part again, Fawksull. Your stack took down two dozen or more. And you were wounded.” Several times now, the Admiral had accused him of minimizing his own role in the story.
“I wasn’t trying to be humble, Admiral,” he said with a shrug. “More the opposite, if you must know.” Cat had been below and incapacitated at the time, but she was right; that sword fight had been the hardest and nastiest of his life.
It’s just that he wasn’t particularly proud of it. He gestured to his waist. “I took a cut across the hip,” he admitted. “One came at me from behind. I think it would have been a crit, but the eagle spent a point on me without my ordering it. I think that’s what happened. Its Luck went down to seven, anyway.
“But yes. We cleared the decks of more than a score of them, and lost five of our own.”
Fawksull paused for a moment. He looked each of them in the eye, in turn.
The fact that they were ship’s captains made a difference here. He knew they were picturing themselves in his place as they heard the tale, comparing their own ideas and their imagined decisions to his.
“I hope,” he said softly, “that you all are beginning to see the terrible implications of the Luckamancy Reserve, for a commander.”
They looked at him in respectful silence. A couple of them nodded, but he could see that they didn’t get it. Not yet.
“The eagle could have saved those stabbers as well,” said Fawksull. “I could have ordered it to do that. Instead, I let five units under my direct command perish.” He straightened his back a bit, gesturing with his hands. “When you lead your soldiers into a fight, you are trusting their lives and yours to Fate. But this was a different matter. It was my choice who lived, not the Titans’, you see?”
One by one, their faces went grim. Now they understood why he wasn’t eager to recall this part of the story. Being a warlord in battle was a joy, something they had all been popped to do. But rigging the dice, fixing your people’s fates as if you were a Titan...that was perhaps a heavier burden than they were ever meant to shoulder.
Nodding once, he took in a deep breath, and cleared his throat. “By this time, we had a small barque right alongside us, hooking in. Again, to port. Our wounded side. She saw the fight on deck, so she didn’t fire her beams. Didn’t want to sink us with Anchormen aboard. She only meant to send in more blades, to aid the capture. Behind her, I could see their other ships were breaking formation, closing in on us.”
Fawksull leaned forward and made a wry face. “The, ah, lubber warlord on the barque’s quarterdeck was so obvious that I almost took him for a decoy. He was in chain mail.”
He raised an eyebrow, and the tension in the room loosened a bit. The Seaworld captains shook their heads at one another and chuckled. Wearing armor aboard a ship guaranteed that you would drown, if you ever ended up in the water. Only a “Forecastle” would do that.
“I couldn’t worry about stealth at this point, so I ordered the bird to fly in and grab him, using its reserve special as needed. He had a mace, and he didn’t hesitate to swing it, but the eagle captured him anyway. That brought its Luckamancy down to five, though, so I suppose he would have hit it, and resisted the capture attempt.”
There were nods among the captains. Cat remained silent, watching them. The Governor took an absent sip of kava, and set his teacup back on its saucer.
“You know, I’m still amazed at how quickly the barque disappeared, after the prisoner was aboard. It seemed that I only turned around to order the armored man taken below, and the ship was utterly gone. I had to run to the port rail to see that she’d keeled over. Her masts were lying in the water, and she was still in the process of being holed by our three,” he held up three fingers, “friendly quakkens.”
He smiled, recalling the tinny sound of a distant ship’s bell, carried by the ocean breeze. “There were two ships in beam range of us by then, both of them three-masters, both a little bigger than Double Eagle. With only five points of Luckamancy left, all they had to do was to fire on us. But you know...they panicked. They sounded general alarm and hove to, signaling ‘converge’ and ‘cease fire.’”
Cat snorted. “You didn’t know those were the signals at the time. I’d bet you still don’t read numerary flags.”
“That’s true,” Fawksull nodded, “I just saw them regrouping. I took the opportunity to fire six or seven more wild volleys, while the Anchorbar ships pulled themselves into a tight formation. I got the eagle’s luck back up to around eighteen, I believe. Maybe nineteen.
“Of course, they knew we weren’t going anywhere. But they had also seen us sink two of theirs in rapid succession. And I don’t know if they knew about the eagle even by that point, but they could see we had three quakkens, and they didn’t want to approach us. So they huddled close together, and kept their beams aimed our way. They likely had a conference of some sort among the leadership.”
“I took full advantage of the delay, and I was beginning to think they would just let us keep firing until I’d filled up the eagle’s reserve all the way to thirty. But suddenly they let loose blasted us, all at once. Just a blinding, scorching volley of Shockmancy that sent crackles of light crawling through the rigging.”
He could picture it still, but he lacked adequate words to describe it. “Strange sight. We were unharmed,” he said, “but alarmingly, the eagle’s Luck now stood at six.”
The captains shifted uncomfortably. One of them let out a little involuntary grunt.
“I know,” said Fawksull. “To them, it still appeared we had gone unscathed. But one more such volley would sink us. And the fact remained that we were blasted to pieces, with our foremast gone. We looked vulnerable, and they would certainly want to try a few more times before giving up.”
“What did you do?” asked Captain Chesapeake, the round-faced man at the far end of the sofa.
Fawksull shrugged helplessly. “Attacked. With our only weapon,” he said. “I sent the eagle at them.”