Some procedure for dining with an Admiral aboard his flagship existed. Forecastle was sure of that. On his tour of the ship he‘d noticed there seemed to be a procedure for everything in Her Majesty‘s Navy. However menial or mundane, each and every task had been ritualized.
But none of the books in his quarters pertained to etiquette, shipboard or otherwise. There was the book on navigation, and also one on fleet maneuvers and tactics that he‘d found fairly informative. Fascinating, even. It had filled him with ideas, and was the reason he‘d wanted to go out and meet his fighting units.
Another was a bestiary of aquatic and water-capable units, with descriptions of what horrible things they could do to your ship and crew. That one had kept him awake for the first night of the voyage. But fortunately, the book on signal flags and ships‘ livery had the opposite effect. Every time he read it, it put him right to sleep.
Finally, there was a two-volume history of Seaworld‘s conquests, with maps, details, and descriptions of her colonies. This pair of books had been commissioned by Queen Eliteabit at tremendous expense from a hired Signamancer. Copies of them popped with every vessel.
“Your deeds are writing the third volume in the series,” Her Majesty often reminded her Admirals. “Do see that there is a fourth, won‘t you?”
The thing was, even if he could have found a book on naval etiquette, he still wouldn‘t know how to act. The officers of the ship might have certain expectations, but did he count as one? Was he invited as First Mate? Or as cargo? What did Chequer want from him?
As it was, he tidied his royal blue woolen uniform with the gold epaulets and the brass buttons (Lord Dresden, the Royal Dollamancer, had created it for him for this mission), and simply sat quietly, staring out at the distant horizon through the iron frame of his one large window.
Just before six bells rang, a purser knocked on his door and let him know that it was time.
The meal was fish, of course. It was broiled in pork fat and garnished with lemon slices, and served on porcelain dishes from a fine silver platter. Forecastle couldn‘t have said what kind of fish it was, but only the best of the daily catch ended up on the Admiral‘s table.
He‘d seen what the crew ate and drank. Most of it came out of dry stores. Except for a pot of porridge or stew in the evening, almost none of what they ate was cooked. The rest of the fish they‘d hauled in from the dragline would either be pickled, thrown into the stew, or eaten raw. The ship was equipped with only one furnace for cooking and baking, because seafarers tended to fear fire. (One theory he‘d heard to explain the loss of the Vengeance Fleet was that Anchorbar was using some kind of flame weapon.)
Below decks, the units slaked their thirst mainly with grog; four parts water to one part of dark rum, with some cut lemons bobbing around in the barrel. Here in the Admiral‘s stateroom, though, the porters served claret and ice-cold mineral water.
So a cooked meal and wine was a real luxury. Forecastle tried to enjoy it and be grateful.
But the company...
They were five, seated at the little oak table: Forecastle, Chequer, Cat Harping, and two of the three helmsmen, Collier and Carrack. No-one looked at each other, and nobody spoke.
The only conversation came in the form of toasting. Without warning, Admiral Chequer would periodically look up from his plate, raise his crystal goblet and say, “Seaworld,” or “The Titans,” or “The Royal Navy” or “Admiral Brummel” or “Admiral Unsinkable” or “Commodore Amiga” or simply “Long Live the Queen,” at which point, the other four of them had to raise their glass, repeat the toast, and at least take a healthy swallow of claret. (He‘d gotten glared at for sipping. “That all you think of the Royal Navy, is it, lubber?” the Admiral had asked, causing Forecastle to drain his goblet hastily.)
The plates sometimes slid as the ship rolled, and the beverages sloshed around. Nobody seemed to notice. The other four crewmen ate their food mechanically, as if it were one more shipboard ritual that needed to be accomplished efficiently.
Forecastle sighed, feeling the wine in his head. “Why am I here?” he whispered very softly to himself as he exhaled.
Apparently, it wasn‘t soft enough. The admiral fixed his ocean-green eyes on Forecastle. “What was that?”
“Nothing, sir,” said the Duke. He immediately looked back down at his plate and scooped up a forkful of millet groats.
“Repeat it!” ordered the Admiral tersely.
Forecastle was compelled to obey. “I said, ‘Why am I here?‘ Sir.”
The question pertained to his sitting in this richly-ornamented stateroom at the table of a man who‘d invited him to dine here, but who wouldn‘t speak a word to him. A man who called him “cargo.”
But that same man took the question to mean, “Why am I on this mission?”
“You are aboard the Unsinkable II at the pleasure of the Royal Admiralty,” said Chequer. “They all agreed upon it. The Queen also agreed. I...” he said, taking his napkin into his hands and wiping away the grease from his fingers absently, ”disagreed. The fact that it was my flagship didn‘t make a whit of difference in the matter, apparently.”
“So they told me, sir,” said Duke Forecastle, looking disconsolately at his fork.
“But you want to know their reasons?” said Chequer. “They were less forthright about those with you, weren‘t they?”
Cat Harping and the helmsmen did not stop their mechanical eating, but they followed the exchange with their eyes. Over by the dining service, the porters stood back uneasily.
“Yes, sir,” agreed Forecastle.
“So. Did you learn anything today, Warlord?”
Forecastle took one deep, complete breath before he replied. “I saw the whole ship, Admiral.”
He set his jaw and nodded, thinking of all he had seen of the Unsinkable II. “And...she‘s a fine ship, indeed.”
Chequer scowled. “Who are you to judge? Would you know a poor ship if you saw one?”
Forecastle‘s lips went crooked. “I don‘t know, sir. Maybe if I saw one with the masts snapped in half, listing to port...covered in bird crap? I‘d call it a poor ship. But other than that...no, probably not.”
It was the barest thing, the Admiral‘s smile. But even that was like glimpsing some mythical beast unit that you‘d only read about in books. Cat Harping‘s smile was only a bit more generous, but she offered him one, too. And a chuckle as well.
Chequer leaned back in his chair. The little smile turned wry and pained. “What do you suppose happened to the Vengeance Fleet, Fawksull? What‘s your theory on it?”
For Seaworld, there was no bigger question than that. And for any Seaworld unit on this particular mission, the question loomed even larger. He cleared his throat.
“Well, obviously it was Anchorbar‘s doing,” he began cautiously, “but what were the means? I don‘t know, sir. I‘ve heard talk of fire weapons...?”
Admiral Chequer waved a hand dismissively. “Hearsay. Speculation. No evidence of it at all, from our intelligence. And our intelligence,” here he leaned forward and gazed meaningfully at Forecastle, “is actually a bit better than you‘d think.”
The Duke shrugged. “Well, sir...all I gather that we know is that the ships sank and our units drowned. The flagship went first, and must have gone quickly, since there was no message.” He did indeed have his own theory, developed in his ward room while reading that book on navigation. It was probably silly, but he might as well share it here.
He leaned forward to stare right back at Chequer. “If it wasn‘t a direct engagement, I can only think that it was a hazard or trap of some kind. Some terrible unknown hex type which destroys all vessels in it. A...reef or a whirlpool. Or an intermittent storm. Maybe the Anchormen knew about it, and they lured or goaded the fleet into the fatal hex.”
Chequer glanced at Cat Harping, then nodded. “Sensible as anything,” he said. “Tells us nothing, though, in the end. ‘The unknown cause of destruction was something unknown.‘”
Forecastle nodded. It was fairly frustrating.
Chequer fixed his gaze on his wine goblet for a moment, almost as if it had said something personally offensive to him. He snatched it up, put it to his lips, and drained it without making a toast. Forecastle wasn‘t sure what to do with his own glass, but he left it on the table. He definitely didn‘t need any more wine right now. He could feel the rocking of the ship a little too keenly.
Chequer raised his hand, belaying the conversation as a porter refilled his goblet. “Thank you, mister,” he nodded to the porter, “you are dismissed. You can clean later.”
The Admiral watched as the porters gathered a few minor items and exited the room. When they were gone, he leaned back and folded his hands on his chest.
“To talk of unknowns,” he said, “Her Majesty and the War Council did not tell you the reason you are assigned to the Unsinkable II as her nominal first mate. And they did not say so for one simple reason.”
Forecastle tilted his head.
“They do not know,” said the Admiral. He squinted and sneered, as if trying to find the humor in what he had just said.
This was not a possibility that had even occurred to Duke Forecastle. “I‘m...sorry? Admiral?”
“What I am about to share does not leave this room,” ordered the Admiral. Chequer delivered his commands so deftly; they never broke the rhythm of his speech. “The Admiralty recently acquired some quite remarkable intelligence, in the form of the complete vessel registry for the Anchorbar Navy.”
Duke Forecastle dropped his fork onto his plate. The helmsmen, who had said nothing all evening that wasn‘t part of a toast, suddenly both started babbling over one another. Cat Harping scratched her nose and looked amused. She must already have known.
The Admiral raised his hand again. Carrack and Collier fell back to silence, but both of them had their fists balled up on the tabletop.
“That is why we don‘t believe they have any secret weapons, Fawksull,” he said. “And they‘re not really so powerful as they might seem. Assuming we don‘t meet their entire fleet all at once, we ought to be able to hurt them sorely, with the navy we‘re bringing. But we did notice one peculiarity about their crews.” He took his napkin and absently folded it on his stomach. It was strange to see him like this, in a relaxed pose. He usually held himself like a statue.
“On every single one of their ships,” Chequer continued, “either the first mate or the second officer is not a seafarer.”
Forecastle‘s brow wrinkled and he shook his head. The Admiral‘s ever-so-slight smile returned again, as he watched the landlubber Duke and the two helmsmen struggling to digest this bizarre piece of information.
“Don‘t try to guess the reason for it,” Chequer said, after a moment. “The Admiralty hasn‘t deduced one. Duke Fawksull, you are assigned here based solely upon a superstitious and unreasoned guess. The War Council merely hopes that a rationale for you to be the first mate of the flagship will materialize at some point along the voyage.
“This, I am coming to realize, is not your fault. You do not wish to be here, and you do not need to be punished for it. In all likelihood you are a good man and a good warrior, and you ought to be serving Her Majesty. On land.”
“Aye,” agreed Forecastle, a little surprised to hear the word come out of his mouth. “Thank you, Admiral.”
“It was rather amusing to watch you struggle on deck,” said Chequer. “But you respected my sailors, and I don‘t think you‘ll do any harm. You are still not to act as first mate, but you may have the run of the ship if you like. If, in the course of your explorations, you happen to stumble upon a sensible reason for you to be here, do let me know.”
Forecastle smiled. “Aye-aye, sir.”
Chequer took up his goblet again and raised it high, waiting until everyone else had done the same. He looked around the table, meeting each pair of eyes in turn.
Then he snarled fiercely, “The Admiralty!” and downed the whole glass to his peers, and to himself.