Duke Forecastle, Part 9

Duke Forecastle, Part 9
The fact that there was air to breathe—that it was free and limitless and he could breathe all he wanted of it—was still surprising to Duke Forecastle many hours after he’d regained consciousness. He found himself taking it in through his nose and mouth, and feeling newfound joy in this most basic of all acts, this little miracle that everyone performs constantly.
He had nobody to share his joy with, though. He’d awoken in his quarters at dawn, alone, at the start of Seaworld’s turn. His body was whole, restored by natural Turnamancy in another simple everyday miracle of Erfworld.
But now the turn was over, and there was still no-one who could tell him what had happened.
“I guess I bobbed up to the surface and they fished me out,” he supposed aloud, just to hear the sound of a human voice.
That really didn’t seem likely, though. He was under the impression that almost every unit who went overboard simply drowned, unless there was a small craft in the water near them.
The Duke sat at his desk, staring out the window at the fleet. He knew enough about sailing now that he could tell they’d made poor progress today. The winds and currents both were unfavorable, and they’d ended the turn by passing through a squall hex that necessitated repairs among a few of the other vessels.
That storm was still visible on the southwest hex boundary. It provided a bleak backdrop to the sails and banners of the Seaworld fleet: a slate gray wall, punctuated by occasional yellow flashes of lightning. From here, he could see the the crew of the sloop Dogg clambering around in her mainsail with marlinspikes and twine, patching and sewing. Her sister sloop, HMS Lion was similarly stricken. Their jobs were made tougher by the choppy seas in this hex.
And then as he watched, there was a flash of blue light on the horizon. He stood up. That wasn’t lightning; there was enemy action!
Unsinkable II’s bell rang for general battle, and he could see they were hauling in the sea anchor in a hurry. On the far side of the hex there was one single-masted vessel, flying the burgundy colors of Anchorbar.
It was turning tail. As he watched, it took a moderate hit from the bowsprit beam of a Seaworld barque in hot pursuit.
But none of Her Majesty’s other ships could maneuver into firing position in the bare few minutes before the enemy ship successfully fled the hex. He sat back down, disappointed, and had to wonder what this encounter would lead to.
It was Anchorbar’s turn, and now they’d spotted Seaworld’s fleet. If the enemy had enough ships nearby, there could be a major battle here in just a few hours. But he knew the Anchormen wouldn’t show up in force unless they thought they could win.
The battle didn’t happen, nor did anyone visit Forecastle’s ward room. He didn’t sleep that night, but sat at his window, watching the distant lightning. Meaningless ragged shapes of clouds were visible in the moonlit sky. The sea rose and fell, as sleepless as the Duke himself, but the great ship bore the swells with only minor complaints.
He thought about the double eagle, trying to puzzle out its “Luckamancy reserve” special. Was it storing up good luck, by causing bad luck to the crew? Is that where its “blessing” power came from?
If so, then maybe the bird had granted him some of the luck he’d needed to survive and be rescued. Was it looking out for him personally, since he was the one who’d tamed it? Or had it been the eagle’s curse to have the rope break in the first place?
He didn’t know. And it didn’t look as if he’d get any chances to figure it out soon.
Eventually, the few stars he could see faded out against the gray predawn. He saw the tops of the fleet’s tallest ships glowing with orange sunlight (he’d mistaken this for a shipboard fire, the first time he’d seen the phenomenon). Signals were exchanged by flagmen from ship to ship, but he didn’t know the code well enough to figure out what they were saying.
The pre-turn maneuvers and formations the fleet followed were clear enough; the fleet would be changing course, leaving the hex in the same direction as the Anchorbar ship had fled.
Pursuing a ship with a head start was an iffy task at best. The book on fleet maneuvers in his little library talked about three or four different methods, and Forecastle believed he could tell which one Admiral Chequer was following.
The strategy amounted to keeping your slowest ships moving along your best-guess course, while spending extra move on a ship-by-ship basis, to poke into surrounding hexes. A ship with a couple of hexes more move would spend that slack by venturing into a nearby hex and returning, thereafter following course with the main fleet. Very fast ships either did this multiple times, or they followed the captain’s or navigator’s hunch and went more than one hex away before returning.
This method could cover a surprisingly large amount of ocean, because if you spent one additional move sailing around the perimeter of each hex in reconnaissance, then you had a chance to spot vessels (or new land) in all the adjacent hexes. The reason the fleet did not advance this way all the time was that spotting the enemy was not a certainty; weather and local conditions and certain countermeasures could keep ships in an adjoining hex from being sighted. And doing recon this way increased the chance that you yourself would be spotted.
So looking for trouble in enemy waters this way could carry a high price. It could spoil your tactical surprise, and if a lone vessel on a scouting foray ran into the Anchorbar fleet, then it might not survive to report the encounter.
Forecastle wondered if the little Anchorbar ship had been on such a scouting mission, or if it had simply been sailing alone and had the good (or bad) fortune to run into the greater portion of Seaworld’s entire navy.
Good or bad luck...was that the double eagle’s fault, too? Was the weird creature to blame for the Anchorbar ship’s appearance...or for its lucky escape? Or was he just looking to blame the bird for everything? Was he falling into the superstitions of the crew?
Perhaps. But perhaps he was finally catching on to what the seafarers could see all along. They’d thrown him overboard with such...grand satisfaction. Maybe he’d deserved it.

The Duke watched the horizon as they sailed through a hex capped with black, wooly looking clouds. He imagined all of those sailors on all of those ships, looking to the proud Unsinkable II, and seeing her crowned with a screeching symbol of doom. The collective effect on morale across the entire fleet must be devastating.
There had to be something they could do with the bird. Ordering it to fly away from the ship was one option, but Admiral Chequer could do that himself if he thought it wise. So far, he hadn’t. As First Mate, Duke Forecastle still had a sense of the crew, similar to knowing what units he was stacked with. The eagle was still aboard. Everyone was well and accounted for.
The bird was a Seaworld unit now; they could just harvest it for food. But he imagined the sailors would see that as just as unlucky as croaking it in the wild.
If they sent a message home to Queen Eliteabit, she could disband the bird at will. But an icy feeling in the pit of his stomach followed that thought. A sailor croaking a double eagle would doom the ship. Would a ruler disbanding one doom the side?

He didn’t know how you could possibly figure out whether that was an acceptable risk. He didn’t know anything. About anything! What was he even doing here?
“Why am I still alive?!” he shouted to the window. Even the lowest garrison guard needed a purpose, a function to serve. He was a warlord, a leader! “What am I supposed to do?”
The heaving ocean beyond the glass held no answers for him. Its surface bulged and fell in foamy sheets of gray. They were sailing right into the storm now, with the day’s search nearly at an end. He hoped this was an isolated squall, because the fleet had the move left to pass only one hex beyond it.
Fat raindrops spattered against the window, and then torrents of rain washed over it as they entered the hex. The fleet had entered together in a shallow V formation, with Unsinkable II at the fore, so all of their vessels had been within his field of view. In the downpour, all but  the closest two ships blurred away to smoky gray.
He turned from the window, and sat down at his little rolltop desk. It was still late morning, but the light in the ward room had dwindled to the point where he needed to open his little powerball lantern. The ship lurched to port, as the riggers trimmed sail and the ship adjusted course to bear the gale. Bored and useless as he was down here, at least he was snug and dry.

His six-book library sat on the desktop, neatly arranged in alphabetical order by title and held tightly in their wooden nook. Snug and dry and useless, too. He needed to distract himself, to occupy his mind, but there wasn’t a single one of these books that he could stand to crack open and read again. Especially Hashtag’s.
Lightning from the window suddenly illuminated the whole room in a flickering flash. Before the boom came, the ship’s bell rang and another flash followed, and more. He turned back to the window and saw HMS Harbinger firing a full broadside of beams into the sheeting rain.

He stood and rushed to the glass, squinting into the murky distance. He could see the rest of the port-side line of ships now, because most of them were firing as well. Their sparks and flashes of light rippled along, defining a clear line of ships where otherwise he could not have made out so much as a sail or banner.
And to the northwest, a dimmer but similar line of sparks answered in white and blue, at least as long a line of ships as Seaworld’s own.

Two decks overhead, something struck the ship, and the window in front of Forecastle’s face cracked in half.