How Firm A Foundation – Snippet 04


HMS Destiny, 54,

Gulf of Mathys


          “Well, Master Aplyn-Ahrmahk?” Lieutenant Rhobair Lathyk called through his leather speaking trumpet from the deck far below. “You do plan on making your report sometime today, don’t you?”

          Ensign Hektor Applyn-Ahrmahk, known on social occasions as His Grace, the Duke of Darcos, grimaced. Lieutenant Lathyk thought he was a wit, and in Aplyn-Ahrmahk’s considered opinion, he was half right. That wasn’t something he was prepared to offer up as an unsolicited opinion, however. And, to be fair, whatever the lieutenant’s failings as a wellspring of humor, he was one of the best seamen Aplyn-Ahrmahk had ever met. One might not think a young man not yet sixteen would be the best possible judge of seamanship, but Aplyn-Ahrmahk had been at sea since his tenth birthday. He’d seen a lot of sea officers since then, some capable and some not. Lathyk definitely fell into the former category, and the fact that he’d had an opportunity to polish his skills under Sir Dunkyn Yairley — undoubtedly the finest seaman under whom Aplyn-Ahrmahk had ever served — hadn’t hurt.

          Nonetheless, and despite all of Lieutenant Lathyk’s sterling qualities, Aplyn-Ahrmahk thought several rather uncomplimentary thoughts about him while he struggled with the heavy spyglass. He’d heard rumors about the twin-barreled spyglasses which had been proposed by the Royal College, and he hoped half the tales about their advantages were true. Even if they were, however, it was going to be quite some time before they actually reached the fleet. In the meantime youthful ensigns still got to go scampering up to the main topmast crosstrees with long clumsy spyglasses and do their best to see through haze, mist, and Langhorne only knew what to straighten out a midshipman’s confused report while impatient seniors shouted putatively jocular comments from the comfort of the quarterdeck.

          The young man peered through the spyglass, long practice helping him hold it reasonably steady despite HMS Destiny‘s increasingly lively motion. A hundred and fifty feet long between perpendiculars, over forty-two feet in the beam, and displacing twelve hundred tons, the big, fifty-four-gun galleon was usually an excellent sea boat, but there seemed to be something about the current weather she didn’t care for.

          Neither did Aplyn-Ahrmahk, when he thought about it. There was a strange quality to the air, a sultry feeling that seemed to lie heavily against his skin, and the persistent, steamy haze over Staiphan Reach made it extraordinarily difficult to pick out details. Which was rather the point of Lieutenant Lathyk’s inquiry, he supposed. Speaking of which . . . .

          “I can’t make it out, either, Sir!” He hated admitting that, but there was no point pretending. “I can barely make out Howard Island for the haze!” He looked down at Lathyk. “There’s a couple of sail moving about beyond Howard, but all I can see are topsails! Can’t say whether they’re men-of-war or merchantmen from here!”

          Lathyk craned his neck, gazing up at him for several moments, then shrugged.

          “In that case, Master Aplyn-Ahrmahk, might I suggest you could be better employed on deck?”

          “Aye, aye, Sir!”

          Aplyn-Ahrmahk slung the spyglass over his back and adjusted the carry strap across his chest with care. Letting the expensive glass plummet to the deck and shatter probably wouldn’t make Lathyk any happier with him . . . and that was assuming he managed to avoid braining one of Destiny‘s crewmen with it. The way his luck had been going this morning, he doubted he’d be that fortunate.        Once he was sure the spyglass was secure, he headed down the shrouds towards the deck so far below.

          “You say the haze is building?” Lathyk asked him almost before his feet had touched the quarterdeck, and Aplyn-Ahrmahk nodded.

          “It is, Sir,” he replied, trying very hard not to sound as if he were making excuses for an unsatisfactory report. “I’d estimate we’ve lost at least four or five miles’ visibility since the turn of the glass.”

          “Um.” Lathyk gave the almost toneless, noncommittal sound which served to inform the world that he was thinking. After a moment, he looked back up at the sky, gazing south-southwest down the length of Terrence Bay, into the eye of the wind. There was a hint of darkness on the horizon, despite the relatively early hour, and anvil-headed clouds with an odd striated appearance and black, ominous bases were welling up above that dark line. Back on a planet called Earth which neither Lathyk nor Aplyn-Ahrmahk had ever heard of, those clouds might have been called cumulonimbus.

          “What’s the glass, Chief Waigan?” Lathyk asked after a moment.

          “Still falling, Sir.” Chief Petty Officer Fhranklyn Waigan’s voice was unhappy. “Better’n seven points in the last hour, and the rate’s increasing.”

          Aplyn-Ahrmahk felt his nerves tighten. Before the introduction of the new Arabic numerals it had been impossible to label the intervals on a barometer’s face as accurately as they could now be divided. What had mattered for weather prediction purposes, however, was less the actual pressure at any given moment than the observed rate of change in that pressure. A fall of more than .07 inches of mercury in no more than an hour was a pretty high rate, and he found himself turning to look the same direction Lathyk was looking.

          “Master Aplyn-Ahrmahk, be kind enough to present my compliments to the Captain,” Lathyk said. “Inform him that the glass is dropping quickly and that I don’t like the looks of the weather.”

          “Aye, Sir. Your compliments to the Captain, the glass is dropping quickly, and you don’t like the looks of the weather.”

          Lathyk nodded satisfaction, and Aplyn-Ahrmahk headed for the quarterdeck hatch just a bit more swiftly even than usual.

* * * * * * * * * *

          Lieutenant Lathyk’s sense of humor might leave a little something to be desired; his weather sense, unfortunately, did not.

          The wind had increased dramatically, rising from a topgallant breeze, little more than eight or nine miles per hour, to something much stronger in a scant twenty minutes. The waves, which had been barely two feet tall, with a light scattering of glassy-looking foam, were three times that tall now, with white, foamy crests everywhere, and spray was beginning to fly. A seaman would have called it a topsail breeze and been happy to see it under normal conditions. With a wind speed of just under twenty-five miles an hour, a ship like Destiny would turn out perhaps seven knots with the wind on her quarter and all sail set to the topgallants. But that sort of increase in so short a period was most unwelcome, especially with the barometer continuing to fall at an ever steeper rate. Indeed, one might almost have said the glass was beginning to plummet.

          “Don’t like it, Captain,” Lathyk said as he and Captain Yairley stood beside the ship’s double wheel, gazing down at the binnacle. The lieutenant shook his head and raised his eyes to the set of the canvas. “Don’t usually see heavy weather out of the southwest this time of year, not in these waters.”

          Yairley nodded, hands clasped behind him while he considered the compass card.