How Firm A Foundation – Snippet 37


King’s Harbor,

Helen Island,

Kingdom of Old Charis


          Seagulls screamed and wyverns whistled shrilly, swooping and stooping above the broad expanse of King’s Harbor. The winged inhabitants of Helen Island could hardly believe the largess a generous nature had bestowed upon them. With so many ships cluttering up the waters, the supply of flotsam and plain old drifting garbage exceeded their most beatific dreams of greed, and they pounced upon it with gleeful abandon.

          Oared barges, water hoys, sheer hulks, and a dozen other types of service craft made their ways in and around and through the press of anchored warships beneath that storm of wings. Newly mustered — and still mustering — ships’ companies fell in on decks, raced up and down masts, panted under the unrelenting demands of their officers, and cursed their leather-lunged, hectoring petty officers with all the time-honored, tradition-sanctified fervency of new recruits the universe over, yet that represented barely a fraction of the human energy being expended throughout that broad harbor. Carpenters and shipfitters labored to repair lingering battle damage. Dockyard inspectors argued vociferously with working party supervisors. Pursers and clerks counted casks, barrels, crates, and bags of supplies and swore with weary creativity each time the numbers came up wrong and they had to start all over again. Sailmakers and chandlers, gunners and quartermasters, captains and midshipmen, chaplains and clerks, flag lieutenants and messengers were everywhere, all of them totally focused on the tasks at hand and utterly oblivious to all the clangor and rush going on about them. The sheer level of activity was staggering, even for the Imperial Charisian Navy, and the squeal of sheaves as heavy weights were lifted, the bellow of shouted orders, the thud of hammers and the clang of metal resounded across the water. Any casual observer might have been excused for assuming the scene was one of utter chaos and confusion, but he would have been wrong.

          Amidst that much bustling traffic, one more admiral’s barge was scarcely noticeable, Domynyk Staynair thought dryly, easing the peg which had replaced his lower right leg. It had been skillfully fitted, but there were still times the stump bothered him, especially when he’d been on his feet — well, foot and peg, he supposed — longer than he ought to have been. And “longer than he ought to have been” was a pretty good description of most of his working days since stepping into Bryahn Lock Island’s shoes.

          Shoe, I suppose I mean, he reflected mordantly, continuing his earlier thought, then looked up as the barge slid under the overhanging stern of one of the anchored galleons. Her original name — Sword of God — was still visible on her transom, although the decision had already been taken to rename her when she was commissioned into Charisian service. Of course, exactly what that new name would be was one of the myriad details which hadn’t been decided upon just yet, wasn’t it?

          “In oars!” his coxswain shouted, and the oarsmen brought their long sweeps smartly inboard in a perfectly choreographed maneuver as he swung the tiller, sending them curving gracefully into Sword of God‘s dense shadow and laying the barge alongside the larger ship.

“Chains!” the coxswain shouted, and the seaman perched in the bow reached out with his long boat hook and snagged the galleon’s main chains with neat, practiced efficiency.

          “Smartly done, Byrt,” the admiral said.

          “Thank’ee, My Lord,” Byrtrym Veldamahn replied in a gratified tone. Rock Point wasn’t known for bestowing empty compliments, but he was known for honest praise when a duty or an evolution was smartly performed.

          The barge’s other passengers remained seated as Rock Point heaved himself upright. Tradition made the senior officer the last to board a small boat and the first to debark, and as a junior officer, Rock Point had subscribed to the theory that the tradition existed so that a tipsy captain or flag officer’s dutiful subordinates could catch him when he tumbled back into the boat in a drunken heap. He’d changed his mind as he grew older and wiser (and more senior himself), but there might just be something to the catching notion in his own case, he reflected now. He’d actually learned to dance again, after a fashion at least, since losing his leg, but even a boat the size of his barge was lively underfoot, and he balanced carefully as he reached out for the battens affixed to the galleon’s side.

          If I had any sense, I’d stay right here on a thwart while they rigged a bo’sun’s chair for me, he told himself dryly. But I don’t, so I’m not going to. If I fall and break my fool neck, it’ll be no more than I deserve, but I’ll be damned if they’re going to hoist me aboard like one more piece of cargo!

          He reached up, caught one of the battens, balanced on his artificial leg while he got his left foot ready, then pushed himself upward. He could feel his subordinates watching him, no doubt poised to rescue him when his foolishness reaped the reward it so amply deserved. At least King’s Harbor’s water was relatively warm year-round, so if he missed the boat entirely he wasn’t going to freeze . . . and as long as he didn’t manage to get crushed between the barge and the galleon or pushed down under the turn of the bilge, he wouldn’t drown, either. Not that he had any intention of allowing his illustrious naval career to be terminated quite that humiliatingly.

          He heaved, and he’d always been powerfully muscled. Since the loss of his leg, his arms and shoulders had become even more powerful and they lifted him clear of the curtsying barge. He got the toe of his remaining foot onto another batten, clear of the barge’s gunwale, then drew his peg up and wedged it carefully beside his foot before he reached upward once more. Climbing the side of a galleon had never been an easy task even for someone with the designed number of feet, and he felt himself panting heavily as he clambered up the battens.

          This really isn’t worth the effort, he thought, baring his teeth in a fierce, grin, but I’m too stubborn — and too stupid — to admit that to anyone. Besides, the day I stop doing this will be the day I stop being able to do it.

          He made it to the entry port and bo’sun’s pipes squealed in salute as he hauled himself through it onto the deck of what had once been Bishop Kornylys Harpahr’s flagship. If the truth be known, the identity of its previous owner was one of the reasons he’d selected it to become one of the first prizes to be commissioned into Charisian service.

That possibly ignoble (but profoundly satisfying) thought passed through his mind as the side boys came to attention and a short, compact officer in the uniform of a captain saluted.

          “High Admiral, arriving!” the quartermaster of the watch announced, which still sounded a bit unnatural to Rock Point when someone applied the title to him.

          “Welcome aboard, Sir,” the captain said, extending his hand.

          “Thank you, Captain Pruait.” Rock Point clasped forearms with the captain, then stepped aside and turned to watch as three more officers climbed through the entry port in descending order of seniority.

The bo’sun’s pipes shrilled again as another captain, this one on the tall side, stepped aboard, followed by Commander Mahndrayn and Lieutenant Styvyn Erayksyn, Rock Point’s flag lieutenant. Erayksyn was about due for promotion to lieutenant commander, although Rock Point hadn’t told him that yet. The promotion was going to bring a sea command with it, of course. That was inevitable, given the Imperial Charisian Navy’s abrupt, unanticipated expansion. Even without that, Erayksyn amply deserved the reward of which every sea officer worth his salt dreamed, and Rock Point was pleased for young Styvyn. Of course, it was going to be a pain in the ass finding and breaking in a replacement who’d suit the high admiral half as well.

Pruait greeted the other newcomers in turn, then stepped back, sweeping both arms to indicate the broad, busy deck of the ship. It looked oddly unfinished to any Charisian officer’s eyes, given the bulwarks’ empty rows of gun ports. There should have been a solid row of carronades crouching squatly in those ports, but this galleon had never carried them. In fact, that had quite a bit to do with Rock Point’s current visit.

The most notable aspect of the ship’s upper works, however, were the bustling work parties. Her original masts had been retained, but they were being fitted with entirely new yards on the Charisian pattern, and brand new sails had already been sent up the foremast, and more new canvas was ascending the mainmast as Rock Point watched. Her new headsails had already been rigged, as well, and painting parties on scaffolding slung over her side were busy converting her original gaudy paint scheme into the utilitarian black-and-white of the Imperial Charisian Navy.