WB2014 Duke Forecastle - Part 21
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Eagle’s Gift mostly sat high over the water, atop an imposing peninsula of white cliffs and tumbled rock. The city harbor formed a long finger of blue sea which poked into the island, on a parallel with the ocean. The streets of the city above were connected to the shipyard and docks below by seven enormous, rock-hewn staircases leading down the cliff face.
As colonial capitals went, this was an average-looking Level 2. Its humble limestone towers and squat, clay-roofed buildings were accented with the green of olive trees and vegetable gardens. But it boasted some spiffy terrain bonuses from those sea cliffs. And an array of six fireball catapults, emplaced along the seaward side to the east and at the southeastern point, also helped to keep the Anchormen from mounting a serious landing here. Twice since its founding, Eagle’s Gift had proven it could defend its shores.
Governor Fawksull was not facing the seaward side now. He was leaning over the stone railing of the ballroom balcony, looking down upon the harbor, shaking his head in wonder. Nineteen ships of Her Majesty’s First Expeditionary Fleet stood at anchor. A few yellow blotches moved beneath the shadows of their hulls. But his eyes were fixed upon one small frigate, nestled in among the bigger craft.
“That’s Double Eagle,” he told Henley and Felder, who were the dons of Eagle Keys’ other two cities, and his colony’s only two warlords. They’d made the trip from their home islands to pay their respects to the Royal Navy, but they didn’t seem too terribly interested in it. Neither one of them was a seafarer.
The Governor grinned and pointed, anyway. “That one. See it? Wow. She really brought her.”
When the fleet officers had been announced and admitted, Fawksull waited four precise and proper beats, then rose from his seat of office. To either side of him, the dons were already standing. Five crisp forms led the way over the olive green carpet, approaching, in flawless lock-step, the platform that he and his warlords stood upon. The officer at the point of the little wedge formation called a halt, and shouted boisterously up to him.
Fawksull stared at the gold-emblazoned, blue frock coat of her uniform. Her white boots had a mirror shine, just like Chequer’s black ones used to. She looked taller, leaner, more commanding than he remembered.
She’d been his navigator, his connection to the ship, and his only friend when he was facing the most awful and perilous times of his life. But here they were now, a Governor and an Admiral. There were formalities expected, of course—asking for permission to come ashore when they were already here, and such. He didn’t much care for them, but these turns she might, so he would play his part in the ceremony.
“Admiral Harping!” he bellowed back, a hair louder than she had. “As Governor of Eagle Keys and Master of the City, and as a subject of Her Royal Majesty as well, I do grant you and your units of the glorious and peerless Royal Navy of Seaworld complete and unrestricted liberty within our borders, for the duration of your stay! Welcome back! And it’s ‘Fawksull’ now!”
She’d kept a blank and professionally indifferent commander’s face on, but when he blurted out this last bit, her stomach gave a little buckle and she snorted.
“Ff—what?” she said, breaking into one of those toothy grins that he’d spent so many hours trying to earn from her, while on watch. “Is it really?”
The Governor let his tone fall back to informal. “Admiral Chequer said it that way, if you’ll recall,” he said with a sly, sad little grin of his own. “So. Surely it must be right...”
Her flagship was HMS Nelson Chequer, of course. There was no avoiding that fact, and everything that it stood for.
Cat Harping had gone home to Seaworld as captain of Double Eagle, and Fawksull had stayed here. She might have told the Admiralty the whole tale, or parts of it, or maybe none of it. Perhaps she’d made something up.
It didn’t matter, as Fawksull figured it. The Admiralty made no heroes out of cowards and defectors. As far as Seaworld was concerned, Nelson Chequer had gallantly given his life to uncover Anchorbar’s secrets at the Battle of the Storm Hex. The Admiral had discovered the quakkens and their method of taming them, which put Seaworld and Anchorbar back on an even war footing. The war raged on, but Eliteabit was no longer in danger of losing her empire.
As for the current Governor of Eagle Keys, he was the comic relief of the tale, the seasick lubber who had bunged everything up by attracting a cursed double eagle to the Admiral’s flagship and then taming it. He was the one who’d gotten the Admiral croaked, and escaped from the fight by running away in terror.
Then, out of sheer dumb luck, he had managed to discover an unclaimed capital site on his way home.
Indeed (or so went the opinion of the Admiralty), defecting and founding a new side was the only thing the mudfoot could have done to avoid a court martial and disbandment. And only by declaring Eagle Keys a colony of Seaworld had he avoided being conquered since. For so long as it pleased the Crown that he do so, the Governor would remain a minor embarrassment in an otherwise glorious tale of triumph. “Fate protects a fool,” was the simple moral of his story.
The quakken-taming, non-seafarer units now attached to the crew of most Royal Navy ships were pejoratively called “Forecastle” (as was anyone who did or said something foolish aboard ship). The Forecastles were reminded every day to stay out of the crew’s way, unless they were feeding the quakken. And never, ever, under any circumstances, were they to feed a double eagle, should a ship find itself cursed with one.
Fawksull knew this, and his heart went out to them. But that was the Royal Navy.
Nor had his own humiliation from them ended with his service. It was, as Fate would have it, his formal obligation and duty as Governor to host a banquet for all the fleet officers on their first night in port.
Meeting the actual “Forecastle” of legend, the one whose buffoonery had almost cost the Queen her greatest triumph, was a rare treat for the puffed-up little captains and commodores. From every table, the thirty or so fleet officers took their turns one-upping each other. Their jests and barbs barely stayed within the bounds of proper etiquette. But that was part of the game, and the Colonial Governor politely smiled his way through it.
“Did you think that ‘Eagle Keys’ and ‘Eagle’s Gift’ would be lucky names, Governor?” asked one chub-cheeked, muttonchopped rear admiral who was seated at his own table, monopolizing the conversation. “Like Double Eagle?”
There were laughs, and Fawksull grunted. The frigate’s name was one reason he had been surprised to see his former ship among the fleet. As far as he’d heard tell, the ship had stayed in port at Seaworld ever since her arrival there, over fifteen hundredturns ago. She was viewed with a certain reverence for history, so they refused to rename her. But no-one wanted to crew or command that ship. No-one wanted her to sail as part of their fleet. Titans, who would intentionally set sail with a Double Eagle?
The Governor applied a knife to his lobster tail and carved out a morsel of meat. “Luckier for land, than for sea, I’d imagine,” he smiled politely.
“Tell me. Do you ever see any eagles here in Eagle Keys?”
He nodded. “Oh, yes. Occasionally. We think that they pop on the smaller keys, when no unit is around to observe them. Then they fly off to sea.” He glanced at Cat with the same affected smile. “You should be cautious about staying too long, Admiral. You might attract one.”
This comment quieted the dining room considerably.
To that point in the evening, Cat had said about as little as was required of her. But now she raised her wine glass and drained it of burgundy, and eyed him with a trace of a sneer. “If that happens, Governor, then I suppose I’ll invite you down to the Chequer to feed it.”
The table erupted in laughter, and Fawksull forced himself to chuckle along.
Cat smirked around at her captains, holding up her glass for a steward behind her to refill. “Ya wouldn’t mind climbing the mainmast with a bucket, I’m sure. Right? You used to love to do that.”
Cat swigged more wine, as another bout of laughs followed. She set down her glass.
“So yes, Governor Fawk-sull, if we attract one of your birds, then I’ll be counting on you to take it off our hands. Make it an Eagle Keys unit.” She leaned toward him and gave him a wicked grin. “That’ll solve that matter, don’tcha think?”
His face hurt from forcing himself to laugh and smile all evening.
Fawksull unlaced his boots, sitting on the edge of his grandiose bed. Its absurd comfort (compared to anywhere he ever slept, on a ship or otherwise), and the incipient bliss of unconsciousness were the only things that could genuinely make him smile right now. Soon, he would be asleep. Soon, the fleet would depart. Soon, Cat Harping would be gone.
For all these hundredturns, he’d told himself that it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that she’d sailed home, that she had refused to turn, that she wouldn’t live here with him and help the colony grow. That was her life, and she had gone where her Duty took her.
Above all, he’d told himself that it didn’t matter whether or not she had told the Admiralty the truth about the battle. She knew, and he knew, and the Titans knew. As long as they were both alive in the world, that was enough for him.
But she had been so disbanded unkind tonight. This person wasn’t the Cat Harping he remembered.
And now, of course, he knew. She had lied. She must have.
And it did matter. Perhaps it changed nothing about his life, but somehow it very much mattered to him. She’d gone home and told Queen Eliteabit and the highest officers of the Royal Navy that Chequer had won the fight, and that she had helped him, despite the ineptitude of “Forecastle.” For that, they had first made her a captain, then a commodore, then a rear admiral. And now, she commanded the largest fleet in the Royal Navy.
Yes. It mattered.
Despite the wine and his exhaustion, unconsciousness came reluctantly. And when it finally arrived, it didn’t stay for long.
She didn’t knock like an admiral, or even like the gruff, no-nonsense navigator he once had known. The rapping at his door was soft, but insistent. It must have gone on for a long time before he awoke. And it was still going on as he opened the door, standing in his nightshirt with his stockinged feet on his thick pile rug.
“What is it, Admiral?” he said in a low whisper.
“Need to talk,” she said. Her face was in shadows, her voice soft and conspiratorial. She was still in her formal uniform from the banquet. “I need to ask you something. For a favor, I suppose.”
He rubbed his eyelids with thumb and forefinger. “Um. Can it wait until morning?”
“No, Fawksull,” she said. “Please.”
He shook his head, but not to say no, only to clear out the sleep. He motioned her inside, and closed and latched the door behind her.
They stood there looking at one another in the light of a single powerball he had uncovered after waking.
“Well?” he asked her after a while.
“Fawksull, the Navy...” She breathed out through her nose and gave a humorless smile. “You remember the Royal Navy, right?”
He only stared at her.
“The Navy’s the Navy,” she said, sounding tense. “You remember. We do things a certain way. It’s not always right, I know. It’s not always smart.”
“It’s not always honest,” added Fawksull, surprising himself with the bluntness of it after an evening of forced politeness.
“Yeah,” the Admiral admitted at once. “It’s rarely that. That’s what I mean.” She blinked a couple of times at him. “The, um...part you played tonight, Fawksull. You did it really well.”
He wasn’t sure what she meant by that. “...Thanks?” he ventured sarcastically.
“I didn’t know if you were going to stick to the story or not. That’s what I mean about the Navy; that’s their story. It’s the Queen’s story. They’re commissioning an epic. So we have to keep it going. It’s important. More important than you are,” she looked away for a moment, then met his eyes. “But I guess I never had a chance to apologize for that, Fawksull. You deserved better.”
He opened his palm and gestured at the lavish quarters he now occupied. “I can hardly complain about my circumstances, Cat.”
She shook her head. “You earned this, Fawksull. But it’s not about where we ended up,” she said. “A lot of units who were better than either of us wound up at the bottom of the sea. Justice is the Titan’s business.” She sighed tensely. “This is about the truth. There’s the Navy...and then there’s the truth. You know what I’m saying?”
He couldn’t help giving her a sardonic little half-chuckle. “Well that much is true. For all the power that the truth has, anyway...”
She reached out and grabbed his wrist. Her hands were strong, but chill. She was nervous. He didn’t remember ever seeing her this way. “It’s got power,” she whispered urgently. “It’s got too much power. Not everyone can come to grips with it. That’s why the Navy needs its stories. But it needs the truth, too. Or we lose whole fleets, whole wars. You know that, Fawksull.”
Even in the dark, the look she was giving him burned with intensity. She had never spoken like this under Admiral Chequer’s command, either.
“What do you want, Cat?” he asked her. “What’s the favor?”
She let go of his wrist. “I came far out of our way to be here for it. Thirty turns or more. You’d better say yes.”
Fawksull suddenly stiffened.
“No, Cat. I’m not going to sea again. Not for any reason. If that’s why you brought Double—”
“No-no!” She held up both hands hastily. “No, I would never ask you that. I know better.”
“Then what?” he said, wrinkling his brow. “What is it?”
She took a step away from him and looked off to a corner of the room. “I don’t know all of my captains, yet,” she said. “I know some of the ones I can’t trust. And I know just a few that I do. Before we take this fleet into battle, I need the ones I trust to hear what really happened at Stormy.”
Her eyes now snapped into a distant focus, looking somewhere over his shoulder. This was the competent, piercing stare of a ship’s captain, scanning the horizon.
“They’re good people, Fawksull. And if I’m any good at fleet command, then they’re going to be the Admiralty someday,” she told him with confidence. “Maybe if that happens, then the Navy won’t need so many stories.”