Council Of Fire – Snippet 19
There’s been some sort of working
“Tell me what you make of that.”
There was no sea-monster this time, but a single ship–a merchantman, cutting steadily through the chop; sunlight reflected cheerily from its metal fittings. The strange thing was that Namur was sailing in rough water with a dark, overcast sky, several hundred yards away.
“I think it’s flying a Jack, Admiral,” Pascal said, lowering his spyglass. “Of course, it could be a ruse.”
“It doesn’t appear to be a man-o’-war. But . . .”
“The weather. I have no idea, sir. I cannot explain it. Of course, I can’t explain mountains in the sea or sea-monsters either. I don’t know if we can catch her, given the weather we sail under.”
“We shall try,” Boscawen said. “Turn us about to follow.”
The other ship might have been able to outrun them but seemed uninterested in making it a chase; it put on no extra sail as Namur approached, but rather changed its point of sail so that the two ships were on the same heading, a few dozen yards apart. There was a cheer from the main deck when Namur broke out into sunlight. It was the first blue sky they’d seen in several days.
“Welcome aboard His Majesty’s ship Namur, Captain Fayerweather,” Boscawen said. “Your name is quite apt.”
“Well, sir,” the man replied. “It’s a nom de guerre, of course. Real name is Toombs. Charles Evan Toombs, of Salem. My honor to meet you, sir.”
Boscawen tilted his head. “I see.” He gestured to a seat in the cabin. Pascal remained standing in the doorway.
Fayerweather was almost the perfect image of a prosperous sailing-man; his hair was cropped fairly short and clubbed into a queue, his clothes were plain and well-worn but of decent quality, and he had donned a dark-blue coat and a beaver hat, holding it in the crook of his arm in deference to the station of the man who now entertained him.
“My lads started calling me Charlie Fayerweather some years ago, Admiral, because where I sailed the weather was usually fine. Of course, that’s the sort of thing that can get you burned as a witch back in my hometown.”
“Still? I thought that practice was long since abandoned.”
“I’ve not been back to find out.” He smiled, showing a fine set of teeth–too perfect, perhaps not his original set: curious, given the expense of such a thing. “I mostly ply the routes down here, carrying this and that, and making a decent living.”
“And always under fair skies.”
“Aye, most times. I know most of His Majesty’s vessels in these waters, Admiral, and I confess I’ve never seen you here; but I do know your name.”
“I am gratified,” Boscawen said. “We only just arrived.”
Fayerweather sat back in his chair. “Well, now, sir, that’s interesting; because I had heard that we’d not be seeing much traffic from the old country anytime soon.”
“Why would that be?”
“Things have changed, Admiral Boscawen. There’s been some sort of working, I’m certain of it.” He lowered his voice. “I saw when I came aboard that you have a blackbird in your crew. You’d be best served to get him off your ship as soon as possible, if you value your safety.”
“A . . . ‘blackbird’?”
Pascal cleared his throat. “I think he means Gustavus, My Lord.”
“A black man,” Boscawen said.
“I’ll not have them on my ship. The blacks have a secret cult,” Fayerweather said quietly. “Particularly on Saint-Domingue up north. The cult has a lot of names, but the most common one is vodou . . . They want to kill all the slaveholders and have a special hatred for whites. They called on their demons and spirits, and–something happened. They all know it. They can feel it in their souls.”
“Our Gustavus is a Christian,” Boscawen said. “And as far as I know he has not been in contact with the slaves in Saint-Domingue.”
“They all know,” Fayerweather hissed. “This isn’t something benign like my little knack–though that‘s become much more reliable since the change. This is much, much bigger, Admiral. You’ll see. Put that blackbird in a little boat if you must but put him off your ship.”
“I don’t take kindly to being given orders, Captain,” Boscawen said angrily. “And I don’t believe in vast plots involving people who never met each other and are involved just because of their race.”
“I didn’t issue you an order, sir. Just a piece of friendly advice, one crown’s subject to another. But I can see I’m not wanted here, so I’ll take my leave–unless you’re looking to detain me.”
Boscawen waited for long enough to see the man’s smirk begin to disappear, as if he suspected that he’d gone a bit too far with a Royal Navy officer; then said, “No. Get off my ship.”
“I would have offered to give you good sailing toward Jamaica,” Fayerweather said. “But I can see you can take care of yourself.” He stood and picked up his hat; the cabin was too low for him to put it on. He turned and found Pascal in the doorway.
“Pardon me, sir,” he said. Pascal hesitated, and then stepped out of his way. He exchanged a look with the admiral.
“Let it go, Lieutenant.”
“Aye, sir. I’ll see him off our deck, if I may be excused.”
Boscawen nodded. “And send Gustavus to me.”
“Attend to your duties, Lieutenant. Dismissed.”
I’m not going to throw him overboard, Boscawen thought. I just want to ask him a few questions.
His thoughts went to Frances again, wondering what she would make of any of this. At home, there would begin to be word of this . . . sundering, he supposed it might be termed; on the other side of the barrier they would wonder what had happened to the Americas.
Unless there is nothing on the other side of the barrier.
He tried to grapple with the idea that they weren’t cut off from Europe, but that Europe had somehow ceased to exist. Was there a difference? Frances would know–the abstract was much more her province than his. He would rather deal with wind and tide than symbol and idea. And something–something physical, he assumed–had brought about the sundering of the New World from the Old. Perhaps it was the comet, or perhaps it was something else. But he was damned if he was going to believe that a group of black slaves pulled down the sky and broke the earth.
Gustavus was at the door of the cabin, silhouetted against the bright sunny day outside; but not far beyond Boscawen could see the storm-clouds that surrounded Fayerweather’s island of good sailing.
“Come in, boy. Come in and sit down.”
The young man came in and sat tentatively at the edge of a chair. “Sir.”
“Tell me, Gustavus. What do you know of vodou?”
“Begging the admiral’s pardon–”
“It’s all right, Gustavus. You can talk to me without fear. I am not angry with you.”
“It is not that, my Lord. It’s just . . . vodou is a white man’s term. It comes from Bon Dieu, the French words for God. It is not what it is truly called.”
“Pray enlighten me.”
“In Barbados and in Virginia, Admiral, the black people do not call their religion by the white man’s word. They call it by the name obeah. It is from a word used among my people–my father‘s people, where I came from–for the man who made the talking charms and cured the people of their illnesses. That is the word that the slaves use for their practices, though only among themselves.”
“Apparently Captain Fayerweather does not know that word, Gustavus.”
“That man is not a good man, Admiral. I know I can be beaten for speaking ill of a white man, but he is a diabelero, a carrier of evil. I can smell it on him, and I am no trained obeah-man.”
“He is very afraid of blacks. He told me to throw you overboard–” Gustavus started back in fear, and Boscawen reached forward and patted him on the knee. “No, no, boy. You must not be afraid. I told him to go back to his own ship, though I had some thoughts about more drastic things. Something worse.”
“He is a bad man, Admiral.”
“Yes. Yes, I know. I smelled it too.” Boscawen smiled and laid a finger beside his nose. “He told me that the blacks, particularly the ones on Saint-Domingue, made the change in the world.”
“They are very powerful, sir, but I do not think that even the greatest of the obeah-men of Saint-Domingue could do . . . what we saw.” Gustavus closed his eyes for a moment, as if remembering the event.
“I did not tell him what we saw. As far as I know, only we and the people at the Place of Bone know how the ocean was torn apart by . . .”
By whatever did this, Boscawen thought. By whatever sundered the world.
After a brief silence, Gustavus said, “then you will not throw me into the sea.”
“No. Of course not. But I require you to tell me whatever you can about this obeah, and what it can do. There was a time not so long ago that I would not have believed a single word of it; but I think that time has passed.”