Duke Forecastle - Part 25
Gun whales, said Hashtag’s Guide, were enormous gap-mouthed beasts that looked like very big fish with half of a ship’s mast strapped to their spines. They were blue, black, or gray, or sometimes white. They were not quite fish, as they breathed air and prefered to stay close to the surface. The book said that if you managed to hunt and harvest one, it would feed an entire crew for several turns. But it also warned that the damage your ship took from fighting one would not be worth what you saved in upkeep.
The “mast” part of the beast was a long twist of bone, as thick as a man’s chest, which fired Shockmancy bolts just like any naval beam weapon. Although anchored to the spine, the “gun” jutted out a little in front of the creature’s head, allowing the gun whale to stab its opponent and shock it directly, even underwater.
“Ours was black,” said Fawksull. “It fired on us immediately, as soon as we entered the hex it was in. It took us a few moments to work out what had happened, actually. The bolt missed us, but narrowly. We assumed it was an Anchorbar ambush; we’d been expecting one for days. But no ships were visible. Have any of you ever encountered one?”
Captain Chesapeake raised his hand.
“What did you do?” asked Fawksull.
“Launched boats and pooned it,” said the man. “It tore up our sails in the meantime, and we were lucky that was all. They’re a hazard.”
Fawksull nodded. “That’s what you’re supposed to do. That’s what I intended to do. As soon as the lookout had sighted the beast, I ordered the one good boat we had left put into the water.
“But as they were readying the launch, I glanced up to check on the eagle, and noticed that its Luckamancy reserve had fallen back down to zero.”
The Governor cleared his throat. “I, uh, belayed my own order,” he said. “The eagle had saved us from a hit. I think perhaps it was still following its previous orders to protect the ship in battle. Thinking back on that battle, I realized that we now had an opportunity to refill its reserves by firing wildly. So...that’s what we did.”
“Fawksull,” said Cat, “it was a good idea. You didn’t know.”
“Well,” shrugged the Governor, “it seemed sound, anyway. It worked. We maneuvered within the hex, not allowing the beast to close with us. When it fired, the eagle made sure it missed. When we fired, the eagle absorbed our potential hits as points of Luckamancy. Just as before.
“We had it outgunned, of course, so the process went in our favor. But it took us hours. Gun whales are crack shots. It usually fired true, but we didn’t always. Five, ten, fifteen points...slowly climbing as the sun moved across the sky and our sailors worked the ship in a big circle.”
“So...what went wrong?” asked Captain Penny.
Fawksull grimaced. He took in a breath through flared nostrils, and sighed it out. “I got greedy, plain and simple. I kept us at it all morning, until the bird’s reserve was full.”
Penny shook his head. “I guess I don’t see the problem.”
“It flew off,” said Cat.
There was a long silence in the sitting room.
“That’s what they do,” said Fawksull. “It’s right there in Hashtag’s. You all know it. If you get one, you’re supposed to care for it until it decides to leave, giving your ship a ‘blessing.’ But that’s not a blessing!” He pounded the arm of the chair, lightly. “It’s just a bit of your own Luckamancy that it returns to you, after filling up on your misfortune! It stays until it’s caused your ship enough grief to fill its reserves, and then it’s off. Off to spend your luck on getting meals and keeping itself safe, or whatever eagles do. I’ve even thought perhaps that’s how it causes more eagles to pop.”
He could recall the awful moment. He’d been looking at the bird’s points, as he did each time they fired. Its reserve was at 29/30, and he had been standing at the command post and staring up through the mizzen rigging, to see it finally reach full capacity. He’d been eager to be able to leave the hex at last.
Instead, all the points vanished in the flash of wild Shockmancy. Even as spots still burned in Forecastle’s eyes, the eagle cried out a double-throated screech, and it took to the air.
He ordered the bird back. It didn’t heed him. The disbanded thing didn’t even look back at the ship, as it flew away to the west, and vanished.
“But it was tame,” said Penny, frowning.
“Not after that, it wasn’t,” said Fawksull. “It just left us. I don’t really know how, or...or why. Nor did I have much time to think about it. Because just as I watched the eagle leave the hex, a blast from the gun whale shot the mizzen mast above me clean in half.”
Cat made him skip over the skirmish with the gun whale, which Double Eagle more or less won. The frigate limped away from the fight with none of her masts fully intact, and only two move remaining on the turn. Her food stores were full of salted blubber, and her captain himself wanted to blubber.
“We’d been following a northeastern course,” said Fawksull, “swinging out wide and hoping that we could slip beyond their scouting range somehow. “I don’t know what made me turn to the west, other than some heartsick desire to chase after the bird.”
“We needed to lose them more than ever,” said Cat, meaning the Anchorbar fleet. “The next time they scouted us, they were going to see that we had no quakkens and no bird. N’r even a mast for the eagle to be hiding in. I agreed to the course change. We had to do something.”
“The bird wasn’t in the hex to our west, of course,” said Fawksull. “I mean, even then I knew it would be hopeless to try and track it down. But this island was visible from there! One more hex to the west. Just within our meager reach. And when we landed, there lay the ruins of a capital site. Our eagle,” he said slowly, weighting his words with meaning, “had left us a gift.”
“Oh. It was your blessing,” said Captain Eleven wonderingly. “Such an unbelievable stroke of luck, it had to be.”
“I thought that, too. In fact, I almost called the place ‘Eagle’s Blessing’ instead of ‘Eagle’s Gift,’” said the Governor. “But something suggested to me that the bird had led us here intentionally, knowing that this place gave us our only hope of sanctuary. No, my ‘blessing’ was something else...”
“Listen up,” said Cat sternly to her officers. “It was my idea that Captain Forecastle should defect from Seaworld. Mine. And he took some convincing, too. I tell you that in confidence, because I trust that you would do the same in our situation. It was a disgrace to the Royal Navy. But it was the only logical way to withstand the Anchormen, and have a hope of returning home with our intelligence. I expect you each to know the stakes when you command. Tradition and honor are our finest treasures. But heave them over the rail when their weight is sure to sink you.”
All the captains murmured their, “yes, Admiral”s and nodded gravely to her.
“My blessing—and it was mine, not the crew’s—came when I founded the city, and just after,” said Fawksull.
Scripture said that the Signamancy and configuration of a newly founded city follows the ruler’s inner desires. Fawksull couldn’t clearly remember the process, or how it felt. “I must have been thinking about our plans. We needed to repair Double Eagle and protect ourselves from the Anchormen.
“What popped here was an utterly imbalanced Level 1, with four fire catapults and their crews, a shipyard and twelve shipwrights, and almost nothing else. There were only a few buildings, and the stairs cut into the rock face. No gardens, no tower, barely a dock. This ‘palace’ was more of a warehouse. It was only much later, when we’d scraped together enough to upgrade to a Level 2, that it looked as it does now.”
He wasn’t bitter about the enormous amount of money Seaworld took for “protection.” But being a colony meant staying poor and weak, rarely expanding or upgrading, and that was a constant source of frustration to him.
“I was now the Ruler of a one-city side, with a small cliffside garrison of ranged defenders. Either we’d fight them off at sea, or they’d come ashore and conquer us with overwhelming numbers. Our odds looked better at that point, but they were still awful.”
He cleared his throat, eyeing his empty cup of kava and the now fully-brightened dawn sky. He had to hurry up and finish the story and set Cat and her captains free.
“I did not begin to suspect the real odds, though, until I thought to go down to Double Eagle’s brig and ask the Anchorbar prisoners to turn to Eagle Keys. They’d all refused to turn to Seaworld, but I thought a new side might be a different matter for them.”
He tilted his head. “All three of them turned. Readily. You’ve met Don Henley and Don Felder. Don Frye, the warlord with the mustache and crossbow...well, he fell to a raid by the Mermans, several hundredturns ago. He’d been my Chief Warlord, and my good friend.” He stared for a moment, thinking fondly of the big gruff tosser.
“They all said they turned because it was finally a chance to get off of a blasted ship and on to solid land for good,” said Fawksull. “They’ll still tell you that to this day. And I can certainly understand it; you’ll never get me on a long sea voyage again, either. But I believe that I was carrying a Luckamancy blessing, which made a certainty out of my clumsy, cursory attempt to turn them.”
Some of the captains nodded. Cat glanced out the window.
“Anyway, the short of it is, we now had good leadership for each stack running the catapults. The Anchorbar fleet scouted us, and then showed up in force that afternoon,” said Fawksull. “We rained fire down on them. Burned and sank all but two of their ships. The catapult I was leading...I swear, it couldn’t miss.
“A few dozen of the Anchorbar survivors in the water were captured by Cat, in command of Double Eagle. They all refused to turn to Seaworld, but they turned to Eagle Keys as soon as I asked. The eagle’s blessing was upon me. For one turn, it was as if I could do nothing wrong,” said the Governor, smiling and shaking his head. “I only wish it could have stayed.”
Fawksull’s day was busy. There were letters and papers from the Queen to read, with formal replies to write. He had to give a speech and dedicate the new ship they were gifting to the Seaworld fleet, in lieu of a portion of their tribute.
That evening, the Governor hosted a more subdued sort of dinner with the Royal Navy officers. His lack of sleep made him miserable, but he force-smiled his way through it again. Cat played at mocking him once more, but it was easier to take, now that he knew it was a show.
All the Queen’s sailors would be on their way in another turn, after the Keys’ shipwrights had worked through the fleet. Then, things would fall quiet again. He would read and paint and garden, and walk the walls looking for enemy ships, and eagles.
That was a pleasant enough thought to drift asleep to.
The next morning, he was informed that the Admiral requested his presence at the city wharf. “Rather urgent, Govennah,” said his steward, setting down the breakfast tray.
Fawksull, sitting groggily on the edge of his bed, raised an eyebrow. “Enemy?”
“Don’t think so, sah. But she wants you now, says her aide. He’s in the sitting room.”
The “aide” was actually Captain Penny, who rose from the couch when Fawksull emerged from his suite. His face was stony.
“Everything all right?” asked the Governor.
Penny only shook his head.
“Rather you see it for yourself, Governor,” said the man. “Come with me, please.”
Fawksull bothered him several times for an explanation, as he followed the officer through the halls of his palace and out into the sunshine. Captain Penny maintained a stubborn silence.
“Can you give me a hint?” he begged, as they reached the grand stone steps that led to Eagle’s Gift’s harbor.”
“Rather not, sir.”
“One word,” said Fawksull. “Just give me a single word hint. Come on, Penny.”
They descended the first flight of stairs, in the cool morning shade of the cliff. At the first landing, there was a good vantage of the Seaworld fleet in port. Fawksull stopped at the stone wall and had a look down on the ships, but nothing seemed amiss.
Penny, who had descended halfway down the next flight of steps before noticing that Fawksull was lingering, climbed back up to the landing and stood beside him. He pointed down at the harbor with a rigid arm, and the Governor managed to trace his point to a single ship. HMS Double Eagle, dockside, flying the Queen’s blue pennants.
He squinted at her for a moment, unsure of what he thought he saw there. Was that a little tuft of brown on the main topgallant yard?
“‘Bird,’” said Penny dourly. “‘Bird’ is the word.”
There would be lots of goodbyes, formal ones. Seaworld loved her ceremonies and rituals, and she expected her colonies to dance in step with Royal Navy tradition. Fawksull would give one speech in the palace, another in the reviewing stand, and a third at dockside. Banners and bunting would be hung out. Honor guards would step and turn. Ships’ bells would be rung. Trumpets would toot.
And none of it would mean the slightest thing.
But in the pre-dawn hours of the third and final turn of the Royal Navy’s visit, Admiral Harping came around to Fawksull’s suite to say her goodbyes in private. And that meant everything in the world to him.
“There’s something I meant to tell you, Fawksull,” said Cat, sitting on the bed beside him.
She had taken his hand, was talking intimately and close. He felt the urge to kiss her, as he had done only once. Maybe she felt differently now than she had sixteen hundredturns ago.
But then, maybe not. And why make things awkward again? If she’d changed her mind, she could always kiss him. “What’s that?” he said.
She smiled, her hard and sea-worn Signamancy looking oddly lovely in the dim light of the covered yellow powerball. “Well. It was when you were retelling the story that I thought of it. About your dice game with Carrack.”
He made a painfully amused face. In light of what he’d been through yesterday, he shouldn’t be surprised the incident was still on her mind. “Yes?”
She touched his face, gently. “Come on. That was important. I realized something about that bunco game you played with him.”
“You didn’t cheat,” she said.
He wrinkled his nose, thinking of his orders to the eagle to rig each roll. “What do you mean? I cheated outrageously. That was the whole point of it.”
“No, but...you cheated yourself,” said Cat, her light brown eyebrows knotting up. “You made the bet with Carrack, and then rigged the game so that he would win and you would lose. You could just as easily have rigged it for yourself to win, and Carrack to lose.”
Fawksull didn’t know what she was getting at. “I suppose,” he said, frowning. “That really wouldn’t have been fair to him, though.”
Cat smiled and nodded at him. “Right. Exactly right. S’what I mean. Because then right after that, the broadside hit the ship. And Carrack was critted and croaked, while you were unscratched.
“I think his dice blessing did that. Paid him back with a curse, in the blast. And your cursing yourself paid off with a blessing. It balances out. If you had tried to cheat him in the game, he’d have lived and you wouldn’t. And then none of us would.”
Fawksull looked down at the rug and considered the idea for a moment. He wasn’t sure he believed it, but he couldn’t think of anything to say.
“See I always thought,” said Cat, “that I was alive because you are a clever man. But now I think it’s also because you’re a good one.”
She leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek, and stood up to go. “Love ya, Fawksull, you silly lubber. Don’t ever change.”
Fawksull supposed it was a good thing she had remembered the bet he’d made with Carrack, because he hadn’t thought about it for many hundredturns. And it turned out to matter.
The greatest entertainment of the Navy’s entire visit had come on the second day, when the Governor of Eagle’s Gift climbed the mainmast of his old ship with a bucket of fish, to try and rid the vessel of its avian pest. In terms of generating “Forecastle” stories to tell over the coming voyages, this would far exceed any of the insults they’d thrown at him at dinnertime.
This climb had been worse than the first one, by many times over. It took him at least two hours, with long pauses at each successive yard, before he reached the top. This gave the entire fleet of sailors time to row their boats in, or line up on the docks, to watch the spectacle. All of the Queen’s units and even his own people swarmed on and around the frigate, cheering and jeering.
And then, when he’d finally gotten within arm’s reach of the bird and triumphantly given it a fish, the stupid thing did not become tame.
He’d fed it fish after fish, talking gently and soothingly to it. After all of these turns, he couldn’t tell if this was the same bird he had once commanded or not. It seemed indifferent to him, impatient, snappish.
The crowd of tiny faces looked up at him from far below. Too far. He didn’t mind looking down on the harbor from much higher than this; there were even some masts of bigger ships nearby which still stood above the level of his head. But right now, with the top of the mast swaying even in the still waters of the harbor, he felt as if he would fall off the top of the world. He thought he’d just fall forever, never even reaching the deck or the water.
When he was out of fish, the double eagle screeched in disdain and turned away from him. He hung the empty bucket on a peg, and grasped the tip of the mast with both hands, looking down. He didn’t have the faintest idea what to do now, and didn’t particularly care to begin climbing down to discuss it.
He sighed. Maybe you had to be a member of the crew in order to tame the eagle. Its points used to show what ship it was crewed to, after all.
Well, he wouldn’t do that even if he could.
Perhaps the Queen could transfer the ship temporarily to the colony and he could try again? Or maybe he could order someone from Eagle Keys to turn to Seaworld and try it, then turn back if they managed to tame it.
After many minutes alone in thought, mostly with his eyes closed, he heard a shout from close below him. “Hey up, Governor!”
He risked a glance down. A rigger he did not recognize was clambering up the mast toward him. “Yes?”
The skinny, short-haired rigger was up and underneath him absurdly fast. He didn’t seem to want to climb up on the topgallant yard with the bird, though.
“Admiral says tell you: you’ve got to stand up and sing! No hands!”
He chose to watch the fleet sail east from the palace balcony alone, but for one companion.
“I don’t remember how to sail,” he told the bird, as they watched the little ships shrink to dashes of shadow in a bright band of morning sunlight. “If I ever really understood it. I just remember that it’s a smart way to use the wind. The wind blows a certain way, but you can sail whatever way you want to go by moving back and forth through it. Tacking. Jibing. Whatever they call it.”
One of the bird’s heads spared him a dubious glance.
“Yes, you know the wind as well as any seafarer,” said Fawksull. “And you know luck, too, which is like the wind. Good and bad, you can let it take you the way you want to go, if you take control, if you trim your sails the right way. It’s balanced. Cat’s right. You’re a creature of balance, you are.”
He stroked the unkempt feathers on its leg, just above the great talon.
“You knew I still owed Carrack something, even if I’d forgotten about it.”
Her Majesty’s First Expeditionary Fleet left the hex then. One by one, the little ships vanished into the glare. They seemed impossibly tiny, for something so dizzyingly tall. There was a lot of power in perspective.
“So what must the Titans think of this world, from their point of view?” he asked aloud. The bird ignored him.
He had done what Cat Harping had told him to, and paid off his bet to Carrack. The bet had been to climb up this very mast, on this very ship, and up to this very yard to sing. So if the eagle had returned here specifically, then that's what it must have wanted him to do.
After much soul searching and weighing the lack of alternatives, he’d stood on the topgallant yard and sung, “Titans Save the Queen,” without holding on to anything. Timidly, almost under his breath, he’d made it all the way through the first verse. He then took a deep breath, intending to belt out the second verse loudly enough to be heard from below. But something bumped the mast. His knees buckled, he reached for the mast and missed, and he fell into space.
He didn’t think he had lost consciousness, but everything in the moments after that became a blur. His first clear memory was finding himself sitting on the cold sandstone blocks of the city ramparts, high over the harbor. Above him sat the double eagle, perched upon the arm of a catapult.
He’d blinked at it, but he still could not see its stats.
It was still feral, still free. It had captured and saved him of its own volition. And since then, it had followed him whenever he left the palace.
“I hope you’ll stay around here for a while,” he told it now, out on the palace balcony. The Governor looked out to sea, where Cat and her ships had vanished. “But if you have to go, I’ll understand. I’m just glad we’re still friends.”
The eagle clicked at him with one of its beaks, and preened its wing with the other.
“Let’s find you some fish.”