A Mighty Fortress – Snippet 30

HMS Destiny, 54
Off Hennet Head,
Gulf of Mathyas

Someone from the planet humanity had once called Earth might have described it as “Force Six” from the old Beaufort scale. Ensign Hektor Aplyn-Ahrmahk, the Duke of Darcos, had never heard of the Beaufort scale, but he had been at sea for almost five of his fourteen years. Well, thirteen years and nine months, since his birthday was next month. And to his experienced eye, the eleven-foot waves, with their white foamy crests, and the high humming sound whining through the stays were the product of what a seaman would have called either a strong breeze or a stiff topsail breeze, which still had another four or five miles per hour to go before it officially became a near gale.

Hektor suspected that most landsmen would have found the ship’s motion, the way she leaned to her canvas and the flying spray bursting up around her cutwater as she drove hard, rising in showers of diamonds when the early morning sun caught it, alarming. In fact, there’d been a time — though he couldn’t really remember it now — when he would have found it distinctly so. Now, though, he found it exhilarating (especially with his stomach so freshly wrapped around a breakfast of toasted biscuit and well-sweetened, raisin-laced oatmeal), despite the sharp, icy teeth of the wind, and he clapped his gloved hands together and beamed hugely as he looked up at the reefed topsails and topgallants, then turned to the senior of the two men on the wheel.

“How does she feel, Chief?” he asked.

“Well enough, Sir.”

Chief Petty Officer Fhranklyn Waigan was closing in on three times the youthful ensign’s age, and Hektor was about as junior as an officer got. Once upon a time, all of three or four months ago, he would have been referred to not as an “ensign,” but as a “passed midshipman” — a midshipman who had successfully sat his lieutenant’s examination but not yet received his commission — since he legally couldn’t be granted a full lieutenant’s commission until he was at least sixteen years old. The new “ensign” rank had been introduced as part of the Navy’s enormous expansion, and the fleet was still in the process of getting used to it. But if Waigan felt any exasperation at being interrogated by an officer of Ensign Aplyn-Ahrmahk’s tender years and lack of seniority he showed no sign of it.

“She’s takin’ a bit more weather helm nor I’d like,” Waigan added, “but not s’ much as all that.”

Hektor nodded. Any sailing vessel carried at least a little weather helm when she came close to the wind, and at the moment Destiny was close-reaching to the east-northeast on the starboard tack under single reefed topgallants and topsails with the wind out of the south-southeast, just over three points abaft the beam. That was very close to close-hauled for HMS Destiny; Hektor doubted they could have edged more than another point or so closer to the wind, and damned few other square-riggers could have come this close.

Of course, it made for a lively ride, but that was part of the exhilaration, and even with her reduced sail, the ship had to be making good close to seven knots — well, over six and a half, at least. That was an excellent turn of speed, although she could probably have carried more sail and shown a little more speed if Captain Yairley had decided to shake out the topgallant reefs and press her.

Not that he’s likely to do anything of the sort without a damned good reason, Hektor thought with a small, inner smile. It would never suit his fussy worrier’s image!

The truth was that Hektor recognized just how fortunate he’d been to be assigned to Yairley’s command in the first place. And not just because of the captain’s abilities as a mentor in tactics and seamanship, either. Hektor doubted there could have been a better teacher in the entire fleet for either of those skills, yet as appreciative as he was of that training, he was even more grateful for the time Yairley had taken to teach one Hektor Aplyn-Ahrmahk certain other, equally essential skills.

Despite his present exalted patent of nobility, Hektor Aplyn had most definitely not been born to the aristocracy. His was a family of sturdy, hard working merchant seamen, and young Hektor’s appointment as a midshipman in the Royal Charisian Navy had represented a significant step upward for the Aplyns. He’d hoped to make a decent career for himself — the Charisian Navy was really the only one on Safehold where a commoner had an excellent chance of rising to even the highest ranks, and more than one man as commonly born as he had ended up with a knighthood and an admiral’s streamer, when all was said. He could think of at least a half-dozen who’d earned baronetcies, and a least one who’d died an earl, for that matter. But he’d never dreamed for a moment that he might end up a duke!

Then again — his amusement dimmed — he’d never expected to have his king die in his arms, or to live with the knowledge that his monarch had received his fatal wound fighting to protect him. Never anticipated that he would be one of only thirty-six survivors of the entire crew of King Haarahld VII’s flagship. In fact, three of those survivors had eventually died of their wounds in the end, after all, despite all the healers could do, and of the thirty-three who hadn’t, eleven had been so badly wounded they would never go to sea again. The odds that he might simply have survived that level of carnage, far less remained on active duty after it, would have struck him as tiny enough on their own. The possibility of his being adopted into the House of Ahrmahk, of becoming legally the son of Emperor Cayleb himself, would never have occurred to him in the wildest delirium. And, if anyone had ever suggested the possibility to him, he would have run screaming in terror from the prospect. What could he, the son of a merchant galleon’s first officer, possibly have in common with the royal family? The very idea was absurd!

Unfortunately, it had happened. Probably, in the fullness of time, Hektor was going to come to consider that a good thing. He was perfectly prepared to admit the possibility — he wasn’t stupid, after all — but his immediate reaction had been one of abject panic. Which was why he was so grateful he’d wound up in Destiny. Sir Dunkyn Yairley was scarcely from the rarefied heights of the nobility himself, but he was at least related, albeit it distantly, to three barons and an earl. More to the point, he’d taken pains from the outset to personally instruct young Midshipmen Aplyn-Ahrmahk in the etiquette which went with his towering new aristocratic rank.

Starting with which fork to use, Hektor reflected, grinning again as he remembered how the captain had rapped him sharply across the knuckles with his own fork when he reached for the wrong one. I thought sure he’d broken them! But I suppose —

“Sail ho!” the hail came down from the lookout perched in the
mainmast crosstrees, a hundred and ten feet above the deck. From there, the horizon was almost eleven and a half miles further away than it was from deck level, and on a clear day like today, he could undoubtedly see that far.

“Two sail, five points to larboard!” the lookout amplified a moment later.

“Master Aplyn-Ahrmahk!” a closer, deeper voice said, and Hektor turned to find himself facing Lieutenant Rhobair Lathyk, Destiny’s first lieutenant, who had the watch.

“Aye, Sir?” Hektor touched his chest with his right fist in salute. Lathyk was a tall man — tall enough he had to mind his head constantly under the ship’s deck beams — and he had a short way with slackers. He insisted on proper military courtesy at all times, especially out of extremely junior officers. But he was also a fine seaman, and he didn’t (usually) go out of his way to find fault.

“Get aloft, Master Aplyn-Ahrmahk,” Lathyk said now, handing him the watch spyglass. “See what you can tell us about these fellows.”

“Aye, aye, Sir!”

Hektor seized the telescope, slung its carrying strap over his shoulder, and leapt nimbly for the ratlines. Lathyk could easily have sent one of the galleon’s midshipmen, but Hektor was glad he hadn’t. One of the things he missed, thanks to his recent promotion and appointment as Destiny’s acting fifth lieutenant, was that no lieutenant — not even one who was really a lowly ensign — was allowed to race his fellows up and down the rigging the way mere midshipmen could. Unlike many of his fellows, Hektor had been born with an excellent head for heights. He’d loved spending time in the tops, and laying out along the yard, even in the roughest weather, had never truly bothered him. Scared him sometimes, yes, but always with that edge of exhilaration to keep the terror company, and now he went scampering up the humming weather shrouds like a monkey-lizard.

He ignored the lubber’s hole when he reached the maintop, hanging from his fingers and toes as he climbed the futtock shrouds around the top instead, then swarmed on up the topmast shrouds. Wind whistled chill around his ears and burned cold in his lungs, and his eyes were bright with pleasure as the shrill whistle of one of the sea wyverns following the ship, perpetually hopeful of snapping up some tasty tidbit of garbage, floated to him.

“Where away, Zhaksyn?” he asked the lookout as he reached the sailor’s dizzying roost. The lookout was perched on the crosstrees, one leg dangling nonchalantly between the weather hounds, one arm wrapped around the foot of the topgallant mast, and he grinned as his eyes met Hektor’s.

It was colder up here, and the wind always grew fresher as one climbed higher above the deck. (That much was a known fact, although Hektor had no idea why it should be so.) Despite the exertion of his climb, he was grateful for his thick watch coat, heavy gloves, and the soft, knitted muffler Princess Zhanayt had given him last Midwinter Day. The main topmast head was almost a foot and a half in diameter where its upper end passed through the cap above the crosstrees, which helped support the topgallant mast, and it shivered against his spine as he leaned back against it, vibrating like a living thing with the force of wind and wave. When he looked straight down, he saw not Destiny’s deck but the gray-green and white water creaming away from her leeward side as she leaned to the press of her canvas. If he fell from his present position, he’d hit water, not planking. Not that it would make much difference. As cold as that water was, his chances of surviving long enough for anyone aboard ship to do anything to save him would be effectively nonexistent.

Fortunately, he had no intention of doing anything of the sort.

“There, Sir,” the lookout said, and pointed.

Hektor followed the pointing finger, nodded, and hooked one knee securely around the topmast head as he used both gloved hands to raise the heavy telescope and peered through it.

Steadying something the size of a powerful telescope, especially while one swept through a dizzying arc with the ship’s motion, was not a task to be lightly undertaken. The fact that Hektor would never be a large, powerfully built man like Lathyk didn’t make it any easier, either. On the other hand, his slender boy’s frame was filling out steadily into a well-muscled wiriness, and he’d had lots of practice. He supported the tube on his left forearm, swinging it through a compensating arc, and captured the pale flaw of the distant ships’ topsails with a steadiness a landsman would have found difficult to credit.

Even from here, the ships to whom those sails belonged remained hull-down. He could see only their topsails fully, although the tops of their main courses came into sight when both they and Destiny happened to rise simultaneously. Assuming their masts were the same length as Destiny’s, which would put their main yards about fifty feet above the water, that made them about fourteen and a half miles distant.

He studied them carefully, patiently, evaluating their course and trying to get some feel for their speed. His eye ached as he stared through the spyglass, but he neither blinked nor lowered the glass until he was satisfied. Then he sighed in relief, let the glass come back to hang from its shoulder strap once more, and rubbed his eye.

“What d’you make of ’em, Sir?” the seaman asked.

Hektor turned his head to arch one eyebrow at him, and the sailor grinned. It was unlikely, to say the least, that he would have been forward enough to pose the same question to Lieutenant Lathyk, and Hektor knew some of his fellow officers — Lieutenant Garaith Symkee, Destiny’s second lieutenant, came rather forcibly to mind — would have been quick to depress the man’s “pretension.” For that matter, he supposed a mere ensign had even more reason than most to be sure he guarded his authority against over familiarity from the men he commanded. Captain Yairley, on the other hand, who never seemed to have any particular difficulty maintaining his authority, would simply have answered the question, and if it was good enough for the Captain . . .

“Well,” Hektor said, “it’s still a bit far away to be making out details, even with the glass, but unless I’m mistaken, at least the nearer of them is flying a Church pennant.”

“You don’t say, Sir!” Zhaksyn’s grin grew considerably broader. He actually rubbed his hands together in anticipation, since the presence of the Church pennant automatically made the ship flying it a legitimate prize, waiting to be taken, and Hektor grinned back at him. Then the ensign allowed his smile to fade into a more serious expression.

“You did well to spot them, Zhaksyn,” he said, patting the older man (although, to be fair, Zhaksyn was only in his late twenties; topmen were generally chosen from the youngest and fittest members of a ship’s company) on the shoulder.

“Thank’ee, Sir!” Zhaksyn was positively beaming now, and Hektor nodded to him, then reached for the shrouds once more. He was strongly tempted to slide down the backstay, but the youthful exuberance of his midshipman’s days was behind him now — Lieutenant Lathyk had made that point rather firmly just last five-day — and so he descended in a more leisurely fashion.

“Well, Master Aplyn-Ahrmahk?” the first lieutenant inquired as he reached the ship’s rail, hopped down onto the deck, and made his way aft once more.

“There are definitely two of them, Sir — that we can see so far, at any rate. Galleons, ship-rigged, but not as lofty as we are, I think. They aren’t carrying royal masts, anyway. I make the range about fourteen or fifteen miles, and they’re sailing on the wind, almost exactly northwest-by-north. They’re showing their courses and topsails, but not their topgallants, and I think the closer of the two is flying a Church pennant.”

“Is she, now?” Lathyk mused.

“Yes, Sir. And as she lifted, I could just catch a glimpse of her mizzen. I couldn’t see her headsails, so I can’t say for sure that she’s got the new jibs, but she’s definitely got a gaff spanker. She’s wearing new canvas, too — it’s hardly weathered at all — and I think she’s big, Sir. I’d be surprised if she were a lot smaller than we are.”

Lathyk’s eyes narrowed, and Hektor could almost feel him following the same logic chain Hektor had already explored. Then the first lieutenant nodded, ever so slightly, and turned to one of the midshipmen hovering nearby.

“My respects to the Captain, Master Zhones, and inform him that we have sighted two galleons, bearing almost due north, distance about fourteen miles, running northwest by north, and Master Aplyn Ahrmahk” — the first lieutenant smiled slightly at Hektor — “is firmly of the opinion that at least one of them is a large, newly rigged galleon in the service of the Church.”

“Aye, aye, Sir!” young Zhones squeaked. He couldn’t have been more than twelve years old, which struck Hektor as absurdly young . . . despite the fact that he himself had been at sea for three years by the time he’d been that age.

The midshipman started for the hatch at a semi-run, then froze as Lathyk cleared his throat loudly enough to be heard even over the sounds of wind and wave. The boy peered at him for a second, huge-eyed, then hastily straightened and came to attention.

“Beg pardon, Sir!” he said, and then repeated Lathyk’s message word for word.

“Very good, Master Zhones,” Lathyk confirmed with a nod when he’d finished, and the midshipman darted away again. Hektor watched him go and remembered a time when he’d garbled a message, and not to any mere master-after-God captain, either. He’d been positive he was going to die of humiliation right on the spot. And, assuming he’d survived that, he’d known Captain Tryvythyn would give him The Look, which would be considerably worse, when he heard about the transgression.

I suppose it was just as well, the ensign reminded himself, managing not to smile as Zhones disappeared down the main hatch, that His Majesty forgave me after all.

* * * * * * * * * *

“So, Ruhsail, what do you make of her?” Commodore Wailahr inquired as he stepped out from under the break of the poop deck, and Captain Ruhsail Ahbaht, commanding officer of the Imperial Desnarian Navy galleon Archangel Chihiro, turned quickly to face him.

“Beg your pardon, Sir Hairahm.” The captain saluted. “I didn’t realize you’d come on deck.”

“Well, I hadn’t, until this very minute,” Wailahr said just a bit testily. The commodore was a solidly built man, his dark hair starting to silver at the temples. There were a few strands of white in his neatly trimmed beard, as well, but his dark eyes were sharp and alert.

He was accompanied by Father Awbrai Lairays, his chaplain, in the purple, flame-badged cassock of the Order of Schueler.

“Yes, Sir. Of course you hadn’t,” Ahbaht replied quickly, but his voice still held that same edge of half-apprehensive apology, and he looked so much as if he were planning to salute yet again that Wailahr found it difficult not to grimace. He knew he was lucky to have a flag captain of Ahbaht’s experience, but he did wish that, after more than three thousand miles and three and a half five five-days at sea, the captain would forget he was related — distantly, and only by marriage — to the Earl of Hankey.

“No reason you should have realized I was here, until I spoke.” The commodore tried (mostly successfully) to keep any exaggerated patience out of his tone and glanced rather pointedly up at the lookout whose report had summoned him to the deck.

“It sounds like it’s probably a Charisian galleon, Sir,” Ahbaht said in response to the hint. “The lookout ought to have sighted her sooner, but she’s still a good eleven or twelve miles clear. Still, she’s close enough for us to get a good look at her canvas, and she’s obviously got the new rig. She’s also carrying a lot of sail for these weather conditions, and she’s making straight for us.” He shrugged very slightly. “Given that almost all the armed ships cruising these waters have been Charisian for the better part of a year, I doubt anyone but a Charisian would be making sail to overhaul anyone she hadn’t definitely identified as a friend.”