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Chapter One - Simplicity Itself
Imagine five hundred great trees, embedded in the good earth of the world and watching some two centuries go by, in happiness and woe. War and peace, winter and summer, they are nothing but some thickening of the rings. And let us say these trees–a moderate wood–were cut down by men, and put aside for twenty-odd years, set on stilts to allow the air of another quarter-century to come at them. And after that, they were hewn, and sliced and steamed and nailed into something else. Something to last beyond the lives of the craftsmen who had wielded plane and adze and axe on their enduring flesh.
A man might say they were more than the sum of their parts.
The Revenant was a ship-rigged man-of-war of some three hundred tons–a vessel constructed to bear guns and the men who served them. Built out of black Kassic teak, she was broad in the beam, but with a fine, narrow entry that spoke of speed, and despite the fact that she was getting old now, even in the lives of ships, her timbers were still hard as iron, sound right through.
She had been afloat for the better part of eight decades. A thing of purity, of severe beauty, she had been built solely for the waging of war.
Such was the measure of her conception.
On her gun-deck were a dozen twelve-pound sakers, each nine feet long and a ton and a half in weight, whilst on her quarterdeck four two-pound swivel-guns protruded from her larboard and starboard bulwarks. To bear this mass of metal, she had been built with a pronounced tumblehome, which is to say that her hull widened as it approached the waterline, and in her hold there was room to provision her crew for a year or more.
That crew consisted of ninety-seven men, or things approximating men. Of those, over forty served the guns, some thirty the sails, and the rest were officers, warrant officers, and artisans of many trades. The Revenant's needs were manifold. On board were carpenters, sailmakers, smiths, coopers, and a brace of ship's cooks. Some of this assorted company knew elements of navigation, others could point and load a great gun, and yet more could fashion brand-new masts and spars out of raw wood. The ship's company was a self-sufficient community in which every man had a place and a task to take his hand. A community that looked to one man alone for orders, and a direction in which to point this floating battery, this beautiful seaborne engine of destruction.
Elias Creed, second mate. A sturdily built man of medium height with a head and beard as brindled as that of a badger. One eyebrow was cloven by a skinned line, and more scars marked his wrists and ankles, the legacy of eleven years in the penal quarries of Keutta. A quiet man with dark, thoughtful eyes, his life had been spent as either pirate or convict. He stood now by the taffrail of the ship with an axe in his hand, ready to bring it down upon a taut cable, waiting for a word from his captain.
Peor Gallico, first mate. Nine feet tall, olive-green and long-fanged, the halftroll stood by his captain on the quarterdeck, fiddling with an earring. His legs were short, his immensely powerful torso long in compensation, the arms reaching to his knees and culminating in knotted fists as wide as shovels. In the deep-hollowed sockets below his bald forehead two jade-green eyes burned, the pupils lozenge-shaped, and when his tongue licked about the tusks protruding from his lips, it was black as that of a snake. Despite this, there was humor written across the halftroll's face, a willingness to be pleased with the world. Humanity, compassion–etched across the face of a monster.
And finally the lord of this little wooden world, dwarfed by his towering first mate, and yet a tall man in his own right. Captain Rol Cortishane, a broad-shouldered, fair-haired fellow whose eyes were as cold as a northern sea in midwinter. There was something in his chiseled, wind-burnt face more unsettling than anything in the fearsome countenance of the halftroll. Those eyes had known murder, and would know it again.
They closed now, as if the vivid afternoon sun was too much for them, and the face aged for a moment, becoming that of an older, careworn man. A leadsman was at work in the forechains, calling out the depth of the water beneath the Revenant's keel with increasing urgency. It was a beautiful day, a stiff inshore breeze hastening the ship landward with steady ease.
Rol opened his eyes. Blinding bright, the sun bounced off the waves as they came jostling toward him. He blinked to ease their bitter light from his head and squeeze away the dregs of his thoughts. I sleep awake, he thought. More and more, I dream in daylight. What is it now, eight years? Enough. It must be enough.
Memory is the mind's assassin. It will lie quiet for months, years, then sidle up quietly on a sunny day to plunge its knife deep. And no armor is proof against it.
Memory is the enemy of happiness.
He bared his teeth in the effort to wipe his mind free from the smear of his past, and the quartermaster at the wheel spoke to him with outright nervousness.
"Three fathoms, sir. They called three fathoms."
"I heard the goddamned call, Morcam. Hold your course."
The Revenant cruised on implacably, the sea a hissing shimmer of sound as her beakhead cut through it. The Inner Reach, one of the ancient oceans of the world, deep and blue and wicked and entirely beautiful.
There was blood on Rol Cortishane's face. It had stiffened into a mask, and it soaked his clothes, made black scimitars under his nails. Looking along the crimson sheen of the deck, he saw a severed hand lying there forgotten, browning in the sun. Momentarily, the violence of the morning came back, bright and unbelievable. As he shifted, easing his shoulders out from under the memory, his boot-soles came off the soaked deck-planking with little sucking rips of sound that made his stomach turn. His face never changed. Far astern, a pack of gulls shrieked greedily as they feasted on the corpses.
"Two fathoms and a half!" shouted the leadsman in the starboard forechains.
"We'll scrape the arse out of her if we're not careful," Gallico said, his voice a deep burr.
Rol glanced aft, to where a tense group of seamen was standing with axes, ready to send the kedge plunging from the quarter and bring them to an undignified halt. Elias Creed stood amongst them, blood matting his brindled hair, and he nodded gravely as he caught Rol's eye.
"We'll rein her in quick enough, if it comes to that," Rol said. And he managed something like a smile for Gallico.
Forward of them, the men stood in the waist and upon the fo'c'sle like things frozen, listening for the yell of the leadsman or his mate as they swung out the tallow-bottomed lead and felt for the bottom which was running under the keel of the ship at a good five knots. Shoal water–treacherous sandbank-riddled bad ground with the rocks they called the Assassins somewhere in its midst. And the tide was ebbing.
"Bring up the prisoners," Rol ordered.
The master-at-arms darted below. There were muffled shouts and oaths from belowdecks, a cry of pain.
"On deck there!" the lookout bellowed from the foretop. "There she lies, anchored behind the headland dead ahead!"
"Two fathom," the leadsman called. Twelve feet of water under their keel.
"All hands to take in sail," Rol said. "Gallico, prepare to back topsails."
"About bloody time."
They staggered as the ship touched ground under them, the keel grating on rock with a groan that reverberated through the very soles of their feet.
"Let go the kedge!" Rol shouted, and at once Elias and his party hacked through the cable suspending the anchor aft. The iron kedge fell from the taffrail and plunged into the clear water below with a spout of foam. Seconds later the ship slowed.
"Back topsails!" Gallico called, and the topmen braced the yards right round so that the wind was pressing on the forward face of the sail, pushing the Revenant backward. The ship came to a full stop. Again, that awful grinding under their feet as the keel touched submerged rock. The ship's company seemed to flinch at the sensation, like a man pricked with a needle.
"Set a spring to the kedge," Rol said calmly. "Bring us broadside-on to that ship."
"Deck there!" The lookout again. "She's unfurled Bionese colors."
"As if we needed told," Gallico growled, the green gleam of his eyes sharpening with malice. "Think she'll come out?"
"Probably. In any case, I intend to persuade her."
"Prisoners, sir," Quirion, the master-at-arms, said. He and his mates were shoving half a dozen bloodied men in the livery of Bionese marines toward the starboard gangway.
One of them held his head higher than the rest, and he had a ragged frill of lace at his throat. "What are you going to do with us?" he shouted up at the quarterdeck. "That's one of our vessels out there, a man-of-war. If you harm us it'll–"
"It'll do nothing," Elias Creed snapped at him, joining Rol and Gallico at the quarterdeck rail. "Except meet you in hell."
"Clear for action," Rol said quietly.
His command was a thing of habit. The Revenant was largely prepared for battle. The port-lids were open, tompions out, and the sakers still warm, but inboard. Now the gun-crews began hauling their massive charges up to the bulwark with a deafening thunder of groaning wood and squealing blocks. The ship tilted under their feet as her equilibrium shifted.
"Unfurl the Black Flag."
It snapped out from the maintopgallant backstay, a long, shot-torn streamer of sable without device. No quarter asked or given, it said. Few had the gall to fly such a flag in this day and age.
"Now lash the prisoners to the muzzles of the guns," Rol said, still in the same quiet tone.
Quirion and his mates looked blank. "Skipper?"
"You heard me, Quirion."
There was a short pause before discipline kicked in, but despite that it took the prisoners a few moments to understand. They did not begin to struggle until they were lowered over the ship's side by their bound wrists. Then they began to squeal and wriggle. The saker-crews reached through the gun-ports and attached lengths of cordage to the writhing men's waists, then pulled them taut so that the round muzzle of every twelve-pounder was snug against the spine of a kicking, screaming human being.
"Deck there!" the lookout called, high above the squalor of the sights below. "She's clearing for action, eight guns a side. They look like nine-pounders to me."
Gallico ripped his gaze away from the pinioned men who now lined the side of the ship. "We're in range," he said.
"All the better. Gun-crews! Wait for my command, and then fire from number one, a rippling broadside."
There was a moment of quiet when even the babbling of the prisoners died away. Rol caught the eye of a youngster tied to number four, in the waist on the starboard side. The saker bent his spine like a bow and there were tears and snot streaming down his face. He was fifteen years old if he was a day. All about his eyes there was a line of white.
The six guns of the starboard broadside thundered out one after another; and as they did, a heavy white smoke spumed up, to be blown away to leeward. In the smoke were darker things, spat out of the muzzles of the sakers, and something like a fine warm spray drifted about the decks of the Revenant. Rol wiped his sticky face and peered landward to see the fall of shot. He saw splinters explode up out of the hull of the enemy man-of-war–good practice, at this range–and the ball from number six smashed plumb into the mizzen-top, bringing a clatter of rigging and timber down onto the enemy ship's quarterdeck.
"Fire as they bear!" he shouted. "Fire at will!"
The severed limbs of the unfortunate prisoners were cut loose and the gun-crews began to work their pieces in earnest. When the recoil threw the sakers back from the bulwarks they sponged out the barrels to stop any burning remnants within from setting off the next charge prematurely, then rammed home cloth cartridges of black powder, followed by iron twelve-pound balls, and topped off with wads of cloth which would tamp down the explosion and make it more intense. The guns were hauled back up to the ship's side again and a spike was stabbed through each touch-hole to pierce the cartridge within the barrel. The touch-holes were then filled with loose small-grain powder. The gun was elevated and traversed with wooden wedges and iron crowbars according to the grunted word and gestures of the gun-captain, and when it bore on its target he slapped the touch-hole with a length of burning match. The powder there ignited, in turn setting off the cartridge in the base of the barrel. The explosion, confined by the heavy bronze, propelled cannonball, wad and all, out of the saker's muzzle with incredible force–the fall of shot could be followed, a dark blur, no more, if one had quick eyes–and then the process began again. The Revenants were a veteran crew, and could get off three aimed broadsides in six minutes.
From the Trade Paperback edition.