Malspire: Dark Seas

by Nikolai Bird

About The Book

There is a rot at the heart of the Emben Empire. Malspire, a cripple known as the Undertaker is the bitter twin of the perfect Imperial hero and yet it is Malspire who is fated be the one who can save the world. What he must decide is whether or not he cares. When his beloved brother vanishes, he makes his choice.

The story is a dark fantasy set in an epic world of mighty sea battles, sinister agents, rebellion, ancient magic and cults. This is Malspire’s story as seen through his eyes.



Get Up To Speed

Malspire, the unwanted, crippled son of the fleet’s Lord Admiral is a junior officer aboard the Sea Huntress, captained by the cruel Eezuk Crosp. Crosp wants rid of Malspire and is only too happy to let the cripple lead a boarding party when confronted by pirates.

The Hook

Chapter Three

“Smoke to starboard!” called the lookout high above me.

I stood at the taffrail. Due to another officer’s illness, I was still on duty having already passed the long cold hours of the night watch. I felt tired and hungry. Crosp was there and we tried as best we could to avoid one another. We were a few days out from Umuron and I was looking forward to some land time after a straight run from the capital. I was expecting my brother to be in the region. Ajator had left Norlan a few days earlier. It had now been three uneventful weeks at sea.

The captain and I stepped over to the side where we did indeed see a stack of smoke like a dark smudge on the grey horizon. It was cold, and a light drizzle made the crew damp and helped the cold reach the bone. Although pleased for my waxed long-coat, even that could not entirely protect me from the constant wind and drizzle.

“Bring us about, Mister Ardalrion. We shall investigate.”

“Aye aye, Captain. Bring us about. Starboard, three points. Full speed Mister Brintyne,” I called. The helmsman acknowledged and spun the wheel.

The ship came round, and the engine pounded to a new beat, the great paddle wheel at the rear of the Sea Huntress churned the water white. I made my way to the forecastle and using my officer’s glass, saw a plume of black smoke from a powered boat in the distance. It could have been a merchantman or Imperial Navy, but I had a gut feeling that there was trouble over there. We had boarded many ships in the past but here in the vast expanse of the great ocean, the small Sea Huntress – an insignificant little speck, suddenly felt like a flimsy barrier to the sucking depths and terrors that hunt these waves.

The ship cut a sure path through the grey sea, spattering me with more spray, adding to the drizzle as she rose and fell on the waves. Slowly the distant shapes of two ships came into view. One was a steam vessel of some kind, and the other a large white sailing ship of three masts, one of which was broken. I could just make out the tiny blotches of smoke from gun shots. The powered vessel looked like she was going to board the tall ship. On returning to the captain, I reported what I had seen.

“Clear the deck. Battle stations, Mister Ardalrion.”

“Clear the deck! Battle stations! Run out the guns! Marines to you stations!” I called out and began to walk calmly to my cabin to fetch my arms, observing the crew as I did so.

A boy rang the bell, and all hands ran to their stations. I saw thirty or so marines line the ship. They looked smart next to the seamen in their dark midnight blue uniforms, round helmets crested by a nasty spike, with a metal forehead plate and peak. Each had a musket which was tipped with a long, slightly curved blade. Marksmen climbed to the crow’s-nest. Twenty four guns were run out, powder bags taken from storage and placed by each gun which already had shot and water buckets in place. All this happened in the short time it took me to reach my cabin.

All officers took their places, and I returned armed with a service cutlass, which I much preferred to the officer’s rapier sword. I liked to cut, hack, stab and slash, not play dandy footsy like the other officers. Although I was inexperienced I was sure they would die fast in a true sword fight. Perhaps we would soon get the chance to find out.

As we got closer, we saw that the steam vessel was a frigate, a little smaller than the Sea Huntress, and was indeed locked with the tall ship. I could make out a running battle on the white merchant with the defenders holding the forecastle, and the attackers making bloody murder on the rest. The powered vessel was an older style frigate with two large wheals at her rear, and I could now see that her flag was red with a white snake.

“Pirates,” I growled. They were not as common in these parts as further south, but with the war and the confusion it brought, they could probably make a good living here now. Rumour had it that the rebels where using privateers to good effect and these probably had a letter of marque from the rebel leader Duke Valthorn.

“I see it. Close the gun ports and make ready to board her,” Crosp said, standing resolutely, hands behind his back.

I called out the orders, and more men came up on deck with knives, swords, clubs, spears and a few with pistols. Some had put on chain mail, while others had found shields and tin helmets. I too had put on a fine suit of chain mail under my coat, and just hoped I did not fall into the icy waters. Now I could hear the gunfire and the ring of metal. The stink of powder was in the air as was blood and fear. I saw as the enemy, who had now seen us, were trying to cut free of the merchant ship, but they were so entangled that they soon gave up and made ready for boarding instead.

“We shall board the merchant,” said Crosp frowning as he made his calculations. “That way they shan’t have the opportunity for a broadside before we enter the fray, and we shall join the defenders, Mister Ardalrion. Push them back onto the frigate then keep pushing until they’re either standing on water or drowning.”

“Sir,” I said. “Permission to lead the boarding party, sir?”

Captain Eezuk Crosp turned to give me a chilling smile. “Granted, Mister Ardalrion. Granted.”

A bullet hissed past my ear. It was all I could do not to drop to the deck. The captain watched me. Another shot hit the bulwark.

“Marines may fire,” said Crosp returning his attention to the battle.

I looked down at the marine sergeant who was waiting for the order to open fire. They were already taking aim. “You may open fire, sergeant.”

“Aim low, lads. Aim for their balls. Fire!” called the sergeant which was followed by a spark from each gun, a gout of flame from the muzzles and the deafening roll of the musket volley. Each gun spewed a cloud of smoke which was quickly whipped away by the sea breeze.

At this range, the muskets were not accurate but there was no point in holding back and a few lucky shots found their targets on both sides. I saw two Marines go down, one dead with a dark stain spreading across the chest of his uniform, and the other screaming with a shot to the shoulder. The man was quickly dragged off to the surgeon. We crept closer. With all the gunfire, both decks where covered in stinking gunpowder smoke, and it was getting hard to find solid targets. The smoke stank, and stung the eyes. It was like a poison in the air, and already gave me a sore throat.

“Kill the vermin. Show no mercy. I want the captain alive,” said Crosp.

“Aye, Captain,” I said drawing my cutlass. The captain saw it and sneered at the use of such a butcher’s cleaver.

The noise of battle was a fearful song. The screams of pain mixed with the roars of warriors. Steel rang on steel and shot punctured the melody with discordant beats. Apprehension gripped me with the sudden realisation that I was about to board an openly hostile enemy, something I had never done before in battle. In the books it was associated with heroism and glory but I knew not to trust such words, and as we crept closer I began to feel that I was right not to do so as I saw the grizzled faces and pointed blades and blackened muskets of the enemy.

The helmsman stopped the engines and let the Sea Huntress glide closer. I ordered grappling hooks which were thrown across and pulled tight, men heaving on the ropes. The enemy did not try to cut them but instead shot at the Sea Huntress or shouted curses, and spat and jeered. Again I had to resist the temptation to flinch or duck as the shots filled the air around me. There was fighting all along the merchant but one man found the time to pull his breaches down and show the See Huntress his white arse. The fool was fired upon by just about every musket and pistol on the Sea Huntress but fortune seemed to favour the jester who quickly pulled them up and danced away.

Had I not been so tense, I would have smiled at the show, but instead I gritted my teeth, then called, “Boarding party, make ready!” I stood in the aftcastle and intended to drop down onto merchant’s lower aftcastle together with seven or eight marines and a few sailors including Jodlin who I later learned was told by Harl to keep an eye on me. Others would cross over all along the deck, but I did not want the enemy using the aftcastle as a defensive position. With only yards to go, both sides screamed at each other. Shots fired, and even a few harpoons and spears were thrown. An arrow grazed my shoulder and embedded itself in the stock of a marine’s musket. Then with a crash of timber upon timber, we were upon them.

“Charge!” I screamed as I turned from the cover of the wooden crenulations and stepped up onto the Sea Huntress’s gunwale. It was then that the fear struck me. It had been there the whole time, waiting for its moment to bite. Now it reared its ugly head and bit hard! I was always a craven man in my own mind and it took hold of me like a crushing grip and made me falter. It was a long drop of about eight feet into a pack of braying wolves, but I was now a clear target and so had to either jump or turn and flee. I could not move; either option was too horrific to comprehend, but finally with an effort of will and a sudden fatalistic acceptance, I forced myself to go.

Of course they were waiting and I had a bristling field of blades pointing up at me. That I was not skewered before even landing was a miracle, but I screamed wildly, kicking one blade away, and two more being robbed of my death by the chain mail before coming down with the full force of my cutlass onto a man’s head, who, without a sound simply fell dead to the deck. I too fell and rolled quickly aside to avoid the knives and blades hacking at me. One spear point nicked my ear. A blade just missed my belly. I was being kicked and stomped and had to lash out with the cutlass to make space. The blade went deep into a man’s shin. He screamed and fell away. I then managed to hamstring another before finding some space. Jumping to my feet, I did not pause or feel fear anymore, or at least I felt something beyond fear. It was a rage and the only thing left open to me, so I embraced it with all my heart allowing it to overcome all conscious thought.

I half shouted, half grunted with effort and hacked at an arm which recoiled, then slashed at a man’s head who threw himself backwards. As more men joined the fight, I began to dance around the deck, cutting, parrying, thrusting, dodging, and stabbing. I killed easily, and found that I was indeed a good fighter or at least a nasty fighter and kicked, spat and head butted as readily as I stabbed and thrust. I cut a man’s arm from wrist to elbow. The man had tried protect his head. I forced the blade into another pirate’s belly and had to twist and yank hard to release it from the sucking grip of flesh and blood. One ragged looking pirate tried to run a spear through my gut but I stepped aside and pulled the spear past me, forcing the pirate off balance at which point I grabbed him and bit his nose. The poor fool screeched and scrabbled frantically to be free of me, but I mercilessly bit harder and with a sickening crunch bit the man’s nose clean off. Blinded by pain and stunned by my ferocity, the pirate fell on his side, face in hands, screaming in horror. I put my blade through the man’s neck and left him to drown in his own blood. Why did I bite the man? I do not know – it just felt right.

There was a mighty roar, and the deck shook as Jodlin landed in amongst the enemy. He had a shield and an overly large blacksmith’s hammer which he used to terrifyingly good effect. I saw him crush a man’s skull with sickening ease. Jodlin then took a blow on the shield, turned to strike, and although the enemy tried to parry with his blade, Jodlin simply pulverised the fool. Each strike seemed to bring a pirate down. A knife stabbed me in the back which was stopped by the chain mail. This returned my attention to my own fight, swinging the cutlass round to slash the attacker’s belly open.

Soon the enemy where backing away from us, a look of fear on their faces. I must have looked like death, bent, hobbling and covered in blood with a cold, half mad smile on my face. I saw the opportunity to rout them from the aftcastle and so charged again.

“Kill them!” I cried. “Crush the pirate vermin. Cut them! Kill them all!” I threw myself at them. Again my armour saved my life from a stab to my side. It hurt like a punch and winded me, but it did not stop my crazed onslaught. Suddenly the pirates fell back. We had taken the aftcastle, and I stopped to survey the situation. Blinking, I wiped blood from my eyes. I had taken a cut to the forehead, but did not remember how. Looking across the deck I could see the battle was not progressing well as more of the enemy joined the fight from the pirate ship. Sudlas was surrounded but seemed to be holding out. I was about to order another charge when through the smoke and noise and confusion, I saw her.

I have often wondered about beauty. When I see a perfect flower, or the perfect sunset, or even the perfect face, I nod and think, it is perfect, but I do not admire it. There is something boring about perfection. The perfect beauty is pleasing to the eye, but it is, strangely, of no interest at all. Something close however, something nearly perfect, but flawed is something to wander at. In the broken, is something to admire. It is close but it is not perfect. It is interesting, even fascinating. There is no need to love the perfect for it is perfect. The flawed however can be loved and the closer to perfection, the greater the love can be.

She was tall. She had hazel hair and she was striking; beautiful, but perhaps not a conventional beauty. There was something in her face and bearing that spoke of strength and confidence. Clad in a full yellow dress and a pretty white coat, she looked completely out of place in this battle and would not have looked amiss in one of the Imperial parks on an afternoon stroll with some lady friends. Now the dress was blood spattered and gunpowder stained, her hair was falling about her shoulders and she was gritting her teeth with a grim determination.

The lady stood upon the forecastle railing, firing down on the enemy with a pistol in each hand, not a hesitation to kill. It was obvious she knew how to use them. She was exciting, brave and ruthless. I was lost in admiration for this lady warrior. She looked up and saw me staring at her. She fleetingly smiled, then withdrew to reload. Awaking from my dream, I pointed my cutlass at the enemy below. I had to get to her. I had to save her!

“Ready lads? You four, guard the steps. Don’t let them take the aftcastle!” This was to four of the marines who were already defending the steps with shot and bayonets.

“Go now! Go forth!” I cried as I threw myself over the balustrade, grasping a rope with one hand which allowed me to swing and kick a man down before slashing at another. I was alive with the killing and slaughter. I was drunk on the power the cutlass gave me, and the romantic notion of saving a lady from these pirate scum. The fear was truly gone now. Now I was to be feared!

When I landed, I instinctively ducked and felt the wind of a mace pass over my head. Swinging round with my blade, the mace came back again and knocked the cutlass from my hand. Then a boot kicked me in the face, sending me reeling back onto the deck. The man was dressed in leather armour with a round shield and helmet. He had a thick tangled beard and long greasy hair. There was something of the Northmen in him. I could only make out a glint of crazed eyes under the shadow of the helmet but I saw his rotten teeth, as leering, the pirate moved in to kill me.

“I am the slayer!” the pirate growled with a strong Northman accent. “I am the end of your worthless life and I have seen you, little man.” He struck out with the mace.

Rolling to one side, the mace just missed my head, crashing into and splintering the woodwork instead. The man stank of rancid fat and was probably covered in the stuff as protection from the cold and rain. I had to roll again to avoid another blow. Then the Northman pirate began to kick me with heavy boots. I tried to get out of the way. I tried to crawl, but the pirate just kept kicking and stomping. Each bone crushing blow sent shots of pain through my already battered body. One connected with my groin and I felt dizzy and faint with the hurt being dealt me, and prayed that it would stop. Then, when the Northman thought I was subdued, he raised the mace again.

“Die well though you have not fought well, Empire man. You’ll serve me in the afterlife and be the cleaner of my arse. Prepare for the halls of my fathers!”

I was going to die. I panicked and gripped the deck, half blinded with pain and blood, but well aware of the weight of metal about to crush my skull. The drumming in my ears was deafening, the agony of my beaten body, too much. It felt like the pirate must have broken one or more of my ribs. It was then that my fingers felt something; a bit of wood? I did not know but I gripped it and threw myself forward in desperation, hoping perhaps to put the attacker off balance. I lunged and thrust the bit of wood under the shield with all the strength I could muster. Perhaps I could wind him or at least get inside of the blow. The pain of the sudden movement shot through my hurt body and made me scream. To my surprise, the item I was holding went deep into the groin of the Northman pirate with surprising ease, and the death blow the stinking pirate was mustering faltered high above my head. He looked at me in puzzlement and anger. Warm blood trickled down my arm and I pulled it back to see that I was holding a wickedly long and slender gutting knife which had a gentle curve and proved the perfect weapon to get in and under a shield. The man collapsed, groaning, dropping the mace with a heavy clatter.

Looking round, I got to my feet and had to dodge attacks from all sides. The battle was still faltering, although Jodlin now made it to my side and cleared some space for me with his cruel hammer blows. One of which finished off the Northman. Stumbling, I found my cutlass, and went at them again with cutlass in one hand and knife in the other. They proved a combination fitting to my style of fighting and I slashed at the throat of a man I had unbalanced with the larger blade. I instantly forgot my hurts and revelled again in the fight, tasting blood in my mouth. The spray of blood covered me and I had to admit, that I enjoyed the sensation of being a killer and being in command of both life and death and not just the weakling brother of a greater man for once, my near death encounter forgotten in an instant.

I looked to the Sea Huntress. Although hard pressed, no more men were committed from the Imperial and Ardalrion frigate. Their job was to protect the ship if I failed, and failing we were. There were just too many of the pirates, and they didn’t care to protect their own vessel, but flooded over in full, ferocious force. Then there was the ripping crack of a musket and pistol volley, followed by the roar of a charge. The defenders on the forecastle had been given the chance to organise themselves and now joined the fray. This put new strength in my men’s hearts as they re-doubled their efforts and pushed hard with steel and shot. The enemy were now being hit from three sides and some began to pull back to the pirate ship.

I saw then the man who must be the pirate captain, adorned in jewels, gold and finery, with a ridiculously thin and frail rapier and pistol. The captain stood upon the pirate’s bulwark issuing orders, and egging his men on. Then he saw me, and for a moment seemed a little undecided, but then obviously thought that as the only enemy officer in the melee, I would have to do. He put his pistol away inside his coat and raised his sword to point it at me. I nodded, recognising the challenge and fought my way towards the enemy captain, as the captain did likewise towards me. The pirate captain seemed to kill with surprising ease, parrying and thrusting his blade deep into his victims. He showed the quickest of smiles when finally we met, looking down his nose at me.

“Your name?” he demanded.

“Officer Malspire Ardalrion, at your service,” I snarled, heaving in air.

The captain looked me up and down, and did not seem impressed. “Captain Charmio Yorlwig,” he then said by way of introduction. “You are Imperial Navy and yet you dress like a pig herder. I wish to fight a proper officer, where is your captain?”

The haughty bastard was already getting on my nerves. “Captain’s rutting with the cabin boy, so I’ll have to do.”

Yorlwig raised an eyebrow and again turned up his nose. I didn’t know where he came from or why he thought he was so high and mighty but I wanted cut that swiving maggot down to size. “You dress like a dandy milk maid, now put up and defend yourself, you pirate worm.” I said, trying to anger the man.

My words must have cut deep, for before I could even blink, the pirate captain’s sword whipped up to cut me on the chin as though he were slapping an upstart. Captain Yorlwig then stepped back, and readied himself for the duel. I wiped the blood away, and realised that I was probably out of my depth, but what could I do? I had accepted the challenge and then added to it by insulting the man. Yorlwig smiled thinly as though he knew my thoughts, so I simply lunged at him. My only chance was to break that thin blade with my butcher’s steel and be quick about it. The pirate parried, but rather than take the weight of my blade, he turned it away, then flicked his sword round, cutting my coat, but the chain mail robbed the blade of my blood. Yorlwig looked disapprovingly at the mail, then I attacked again, and again Yorlwig parried, following up with his own attack.

Captain Yorlwig took to lunging at me, hoping to penetrate the mail, which would not be hard with such a fine point, or else swiping at my face and neck which I often had to parry with the gutting knife. With every attack, Yorlwig was getting closer to cutting me, and I knew it was only a matter of time before the pirate captain ended my life with a lightning cut and a spray of crimson blood. It was tiring work as we danced round the deck. The others were still in full fight, but mostly managing to make way for us. There was one moment when I got slammed to my back by a pair of men at each other’s throats, and the pirate captain could have easily ended things for me, but instead stepped back, offering this soul the chance to get to my feet. I did so. The arrogant fool, thought I, but was only just in time to jump aside as Yorlwig again lunged, then danced away from my clumsy hack. Yorlwig lunged again, and again I tried to smash the rapier blade, but still failed.

The deck was getting slippery with blood, and with the buffeting of bodies, and heaving of the waves. It was hard to keep one’s footing although the dandy seemed to have no trouble. I was tiring. Yorlwig was playing with me and I wheezed as I took deep lungs full of air. More blood was getting into my eyes and I wished I had nails in his boots, and I wished it would rain properly, not just this incessant drizzle. I wished I was stronger, faster and cleverer than this bastard.

In my anger, I drove forwards again, but this time slipped, my left boot sliding out in front of me. Captain Yorlwig saw his opportunity and lunged. All I could do was turn my left shoulder to the captain and the blade pierced the mail, skin, muscle, and stopped on the bone. I screamed with pain as I wrenched myself to the side, and brought my cutlass, down hard on that damned blade, shattering it into many pieces, then with my left arm now free, swung round again with the gutting knife. The pain of the broken blade’s shards scraping on bone made me scream in agony. The pirate captain stepped back, the hilt of the broken rapier still in his hand. He looked utterly disgusted. It seemed to be my appearance he could not abide, and it was true; I must have looked like a horror – wet and bloody, my hat missing so my matted hair fell before my eyes, my back bent, and my face purple and blue from being kicked and beaten.

Yorlwig stood for a second and looked as though he was going to turn away, when a long, curving line of red blood appeared across his neck. Sighing, the man looked up at the grey skies, and the cut opened wide to pour a wave of crimson blood down his fine clothing. Yorlwig was saying something. I did not know what. Perhaps some farewell to a distant loved one, or a curse on the gods for being defeated by a cripple. I would never know for Captain Yorlwig’s legs gave way and he fell dead upon the deck adding his blood to the pool round my feet. I looked at the knife I had found and kissed its bloody blade for twice saving my life.

The battle lasted only a short while longer. Once the pirate captain was dead, the enemy soon lost the will to fight, and began to drop their weapons, some begging for mercy. I ignored the cries of pain and pleading, and stepped over the fallen and wounded towards the forecastle, passing the bloody but living Sudlas who grimly nodded at me. I wanted to see the woman again. I wanted to know she was unhurt, but she was nowhere to be seen. Climbing to the first tier of the forecastle I then walked straight into her and she looked me in the eyes.

“Never seen a man with such bright eyes before,” she said, then ripped some cloth from her dress for a bandage. I hated my eyes. They were not the pretty blue of my brother’s but sharp, harsh, cutting, sickly in my own reflection.

She was confident, even cocky. I liked her. She had lost her pistols and was now looking after the wounded. Her dress was a mess of blood and ripped to tatters. Her left shoulder was bare and grazed.

I just watched her, so she said, “Are you an officer?”

“Yes.”

“And your name?”

“Ardalrion. Malspire Ardalrion at your service.” I bowed wincing a little.

“Of House Ardalrion?”

“Yes.”

“I am Veinara Havlon. Thank you for coming to our rescue.”

I looked around at the horrible carnage. I wanted to say that it was a pleasure but it would have been a lie. It was awful, yet exciting. A waking nightmare, yet I could not deny that I enjoyed defeating this enemy and conquering my fear. It was by far the most terrifying experience and also the most exhilarating one of my life. I could not find the words so she smiled again and said, “I would have been a prisoner, or dead, or worse if you and your crew had not arrived. They came out of nowhere.”

“Miss Havlon, you are unhurt?” I presumed she was not married and happily she did not contradict me.

“I am not, apart from a few bruises. You’ve taken quite a beating I see.”

“It’s nothing,” I lied. “It looks worse than it is.”

“Would you allow me to clean those wounds?”

I hesitated. I did need attention, but was uncomfortable with the idea of her touching my deformed body.

“It is the least I can do.”

“I would be honoured,” I relented.

She led me to a section of the forecastle where a sail was being jury rigged as a temporary cover were some of the wounded could be seen to. After sitting down upon a crate, she took clean water from a wooden bowl and began to remove the blood from my head and face using the strip she had ripped from her dress. I wondered what had become of my hat, not knowing when or where it was lost. We did not talk for a while. I was wound up and shivering from the rush of the battle and needed to calm down. Her touch was gentle and caring. She seemed to take great pains not to hurt me. Closing my eyes, I felt instantly at ease with her closeness. It was a new experience to be touched by a woman who was simply caring for me, who wanted to heal me.

“Have you seen many battles?” she asked after a while.

“Not like this.”

“You fought well.”

I did not answer. I had not fought well, but did not want to contradict her.

“I saw you fighting the captain. I knew you would win the duel.”

“I was lucky.” I could feel her warm, sweet breath on my forehead.

“You could say that of any man who wins a duel.”

Opening my eyes, I had to blink away some water. When I could see again, she was close. So close, I could have kissed her. Then behind here, I noticed Harl together with Jodlin. Both men seemed unharmed. Harl nodded and Jodlin just grinned. I tried to ignore them.

“What’s your destination?” I asked her.

“I am travelling to Norlan together with my father,” she said with a big smile. “He wishes to find a wealthy husband for me.”

“He has high hopes for the city?”

“Yes, but I don’t. To be honest, I’m not ready. I am young and I have yet to see the world!”

“Not much to see.”

“Oh?” she mimicked my stern expression. This made me smile. “We’re farmers. My father owns a stretch of land on the western shores of Malolia. We’re not poor but my father thinks he can find a better match in the city. At least that is what my father hopes for,” she said. “I just want to see the city and its attractions that I have heard of for so long.”

“There is little worth seeing in Norlan,” I said. “It’s big, cramped and smells funny.” The city was to my liking, but these days, I yearned for the sea or country whenever there.

“What about the theatres, museums, libraries? Culture? Surely as the very heart of the Empire it is overflowing with art and architecture and music?”

The city had all that, it was true, so I just shrugged, then winced when she placed her hand on my bent back, not from pain but the shame. She did not seem to care though, or at least she did not show it.

Veinara had finished cleaning and bandaging me when Captain Crosp reached the forecastle of the merchant, carefully stepping over the pools of blood. He was escorted by two marines who took up position behind him as he stopped in front of us. “I wanted the captain alive!”

looking up, I fought the urge to point out the bloody obvious which was that the man was trying to kill me. “My apologies, sir. I had hoped he would yield but I made a clumsy stroke and took his life.”

“A clumsy weapon in clumsy hands, Ardalrion! Stand to attention when I speak to you. Damn your manners man!”

I reluctantly and painfully got to my feet and found the captain watching Miss Havlon.

“May I present Miss Veinara Havlon of Malolia, Captain Crosp of the Imperial and Ardalrion Navy frigate Sea Huntress,” I said.

“Charmed, m’lady.” Crosp bowed and I saw his gaze fall down to her breasts, more drool forming at the corner of his mouth. “I trust the dogs did not hurt you?”

“They did not get the chance Captain, thanks to your brave officer and men.”

Crosp ignored the comment. “We shall be sailing in convoy to Umuron. Can I offer you my cabin for the short trip?”

“That is very kind of you Captain Crosp, but my father and I have a cabin and I am sure we will be safe enough now that you are escorting us.”

“Your father?” said Crosp, looking disappointed. “Of course.”

Crosp left us and an elderly man, probably in his late sixties or early seventies sidled up to Veinara. “Was that the captain, my sweet?”

“Yes father. It was.” She then stepped aside and said, “This is Malspire Ardalrion, father. The officer who saved us.”

We shook hands. “Lord Ardalrion at your service.” I rarely used my title, but suddenly felt I should.

“Lord?” said both Veinara and her father.

“Yes. I am the son of Duke Ajorion Ardalrion.”

The old man quickly forgot the captain. “I’ve heard of you. Read about you in the papers.”

“Nothing bad I hope.”

“Can’t remember. I am Guthan Havlon and this is my daughter, Veinara Havlon. She’s not married and not a bad cook. She don’t mind a bit of honest work, but she can be stubborn and has a taste for fine clothing and expensive books.”

“Father!”

I could not suppress a smile, liking the honesty of the old man.

“Please forgive my father. He has no sense at all.”

“I’m getting old my darling. I have to marry you off soon or I’ll not have done my duty before I feed the worms.”

I waved it away.

“Our thanks, Lord Ardalrion,” said Guthan. “I fought as best I could but to be honest I was left to reload the pistols mostly. No strength left in these arms. No speed.”

“You did well, father,” said Veinara proudly.

The old man shuffled off to find a task. There was not much more Veinara could do to help me. I decided that my ribs were not broken as the pain was abating and had no trouble breathing.

“Well, I must return to my duties. Thank you for your kind attention.”

“It was a pleasure, my lord.”

“Please, call me Malspire.”

She smiled and I forced myself to turn and return my attention to the pirates. Making my way over to Captain Yorlwig’s cabin, I had a good look around. The cabin was tastefully done with fine furniture, and charts as well as a wine cabinet that had already been ransacked. The draws had all been pulled out of the desk, and any valuables taken. The paperwork and maps however were left strewn across the floor. Captain Crosp would undoubtedly send men to gather it up for the Secret Servants, the agents whose task it is to gather information and intelligence. I, using my cutlass, began sifting through it. There amongst the piles of paper, and scrolls was one particular scroll, with a fine looking ribbon and broken seal. Plucking it up, I unravelled it to discover that it was the marque of the enemy navy granting Captain Yorlwig rights as a privateer. I quickly rolled it up and put it in my inside pocket just as Qenrik entered the room with two marines. Qenrik never liked me, but got on famously with the captain. Qenrik was just a snivelling turd in my eyes. The officer was quick to bully the enemy captives once they had surrendered but had been nowhere in sight before the fight. I ignored them and left the cabin with my token, imagining one day hanging it on a wall to tell of this day’s victory.

Eventually, together with the pirate vessel as prize, the Sea Huntress took the tall ship in tow, and set sail for port. The captain of the sailing ship had been killed in the fight, so it fell to me to stay aboard her, and insisted that Veinara and her father join me for dinner each of the three nights it would take to reach port. When I had told Captain Crosp that I needed experience aboard a tall ship, the captain agreed and seemed only too pleased to be rid of me. If Crosp had suspected that my wish was to be with the lady, he would never have approved, but the captain was thinking only of his prize money and the little extra status the capture would bring him.

To my surprise Veinara seemed to enjoy my company and I tried my best to be the city gentleman women expected of a naval officer. I felt clumsy and unintentionally rude, but she laughed at my gaffs and made light of my fumbling attempts at etiquette. Now, for the first time in my life, I wished I had listened to my tutors regarding such things. I wished I could take a leaf from my brother’s book and effortlessly charm my guests with polite banter and topical conversation.

“So you have a twin brother?” Veinara asked. She was dressed in a simple light green dress with a dried cornflower at the neckline.

The three of us had eaten well and were now enjoying a dark wine that Willan had found in storage.

“I do. His name is Ajator. He is the heir to the Duchy of Ardalrion and an officer like myself aboard the Grand Oak.”

“Are you close?”

“Yes. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he is not only my brother but also my best friend. Probably my only friend,” I added.

“Not your only friend.” She smiled. “If I may be so bold.”

“And a good cook,” Guthan added hopefully. Veinara shot him a glance.

I did not know what to say. I had made a female friend. It was a new experience for me. She made me smile, and I made her laugh. We talked long into the evening and I never once thought of touching her or approaching her in any manner other than gentlemanly. Of course her father was ever present.

That night I could not sleep and ended up taking the watch until the early hours again. In my mind, I kept going over the evening’s talk and felt childish for letting my imagination run wild with ideas of sweeping the striking Veinara off her feet. Something about her was exciting. Was I falling in love? The more I saw her, the more beautiful she became.

The next evening was much the same. The old man sat mostly quietly while Veinara and I talked of anything and everything under the sun and moon. It transpired that Veinara’s mother had passed away some five years past leaving Guthan with six sons and a daughter. All the sons were married off, and now Guthan just had Veinara to deal with.

On the last evening before reaching port, I felt sad that the perfect arrangement was soon coming to an end. I was enjoying the sensation of commanding a ship and enjoying even more the company, and so forced a brave face and entertained my guests as best I could, even having Willan clean himself up.

“You’re a rogue, Lord Ardalrion,” Veinara said with a laugh after I had told one of the lighter tavern jokes I had heard – the one about the moon fish and the lost hermit crab.

“Malspire. Please, you must call me Malspire. If I am a rogue then you are maiden warrior of old. I saw how you handled those pistols up on deck.”

“My brothers taught me. I can handle a sword too if need be. They thought I should be able to protect myself.”

“And I agree with them whole heartedly.”

Veinara thought for a second. “My brother’s would like you. They’re land workers. Farmers at heart with hands like shovels and chests like barn doors. They like the simpler things in life. They have little time for lords and ladies, but you I think they would like. You’re not like any lord I have ever met before.”

“No? What do you think, Miss Havlon? Am I to your liking too?” I asked tentatively.

“Of course. You are my knight in shining armour, come to save me from sea monsters and pirates.”

“I thought I was a rogue?”

“Oh that too,” she smiled.

Her father sat snoring in his chair at the dining table. The lanterns cast deep shadows around the captain’s cabin. The food was good with fresh fish, meats and vegetables as well as another fine wine. The previous captain liked to dine well. I knew I had been clumsy in my manners. I knew I had the looks of a mongrel and the clothing of a boor, but perhaps this woman could see through such things. Perhaps she had seen something in me that she could learn to love? I felt foolish for even thinking it, but never before had a woman, so striking and handsome shown me any form of affection freely and so happily. The night ended very late. Mister Havlon had to be woken, and in his sleepy daze thanked his daughter by kissing her on the cheek and saying, “Goodnight Falinda, dear.”

With a tear in her eye, Veinara explained that Falinda was her mother. “He dreams of her at night,” she said.

Not knowing what to say, I felt guilty, for all I could think about was embracing this last private moment with Veinara before the night ended.

“Thank you,” I said clumsily.

“For what?”

Her father left the cabin to find his own bed. Veinara wanted to go with him but she hesitated. I felt the need to say something noble or clever or intelligent; anything that would leave a lasting impression on her. Anything that would make her think well of me.

“I mean. Thank you for your company,” was all I could think of.

“It is we who should thank you.”

There was an awkward silence which ended when Mister Havlon opened the wrong door to some other cabin. Veinara could wait no longer. She quickly kissed me on the cheek, and thanked me one last time before leaving the cabin for her own. That kiss struck me like a hammer and I would remember it forever. I remember it now like it was yesterday.

***

When the Sea Huntress, at the head of the small flotilla made port, I helped Miss Havlon and her father with their baggage as well as find lodging in the town. Although the better inns were always full, I simply used the weight of my name and gold to have them put up in a finer establishment, and when the old man asked about the price, I told him the Imperial Navy would pay for it. That was a lie which cost me two gold heads, but Veinara was making the fool of me as women so often do with men. A harlot could be made to dance naked all night long for a couple of coppers, and yet I expected nothing for the riches paid so that the pair would sleep in comfort and safety. They were very grateful to me for my services and insisted that I should visit if ever I was in the region of their farmlands. I assured them that I would.

As they left me in the street outside the inn, carts trundling past on cobble roads, people about their business, I stood for a while and wondered what to do. I forced myself not to think of Miss Havlon. It was hard. There was a sudden emptiness mixed with a joy I had never known before. What should I do? Should I pay her another visit? When? How long should I wait? I breathed deeply and looked round. There were so few civilians and so many sailors and marines and officers. Umuron was a base for the Navy in this region, and used as a striking point for attacks against the rebels.

Winter was coming, and my breath misted in the air. I took out my watch to see that is was mid-day and so turned to report back to Captain Crosp who would undoubtedly be wondering where I was. Tomorrow, I decided I would visit her. That would be a respectable amount of time to wait and in the meanwhile, I could find some better clothing and perhaps a gift for the young lady. That was the answer. Just then a voice called to me and looking up I saw Ajator coming up the street from the harbour with a wide grin on his handsome face.

“Malspire!”

“Brother!” We clasped one another. It felt good to hold my brother again. It always did.

“At last I found you. I saw your ship, and asked about you. That man, Crosp, told me you had found it in your heart to be charitable to an old man and his granddaughter.”

“His daughter,” I corrected him.

“She must be a rare sight,” Ajator laughed.

“She is a fine lady and was in need of my assistance, nothing more.”

Ajator beamed at the sight of me. I felt likewise and wanted to tell him of my feelings for this woman, but couldn’t find the words.

“How are you?” Ajator asked, changing the subject. “You look like you fell off a mountain this time. Was it a hard fight? I heard you ran into pirates, but gave them hells and fire.”

“They gave me hells, but yes we ended their days at sea. We took a prize!”

“Well done! Who was the captain?”

“A Captain Yorlwig. Never heard of him, but it doesn’t matter now, he’s rotting at the feet of Vorn in the lower depths.”

“Dead is he?”

“Yes. I fought him in single combat and took his life.”

“Ha! I knew you were a hero.”

“No hero, Ajator, just lucky.”

“Malspire?” This was Veinara. She appeared at the steps of the inn behind us.

“Miss Havlon,” I said as she approached.

“I wanted to thank you one last time for saving us…” She was watching Ajator, so I introduced her to my brother.

“A pleasure, Miss Havlon,” said Ajator, bowing.

“The famous twin of my rescuer. Malspire told me all about you.”

They spoke but I did not listen for my heart sank as low as the deepest depths of the Outer Oceans for I saw how my brother met her eyes, and how in an instant, she forgot I was even standing there. Ajator was besotted from the very second he saw her and it seemed he had the same effect on Veinara. Inside, I was screaming my rage at the world, cursing the gods and spitting at the poets of romances. Superficially I stood calmly, and waited as they talked. Life is a dark and overgrown path of many thorns and potholes, rain and ice, fire and pain. I walked this path and sometimes, very rarely I would just make out a ray of light up ahead which would give me hope. Sometimes I dared to dream that things could be better, but always my dreams would crash to the rocky ground and splinter into a thousand shards that would further litter the path before me and cut my feet as I continued my lonely journey. I heard nothing of what they said. Not a single word, for sound had simply become a background noise, played in the chaotic field of emotions that was my broken heart. I saw them laugh. I saw them flirt and I saw them touch as Ajator kissed her hand.

“Malspire? Malspire?” This was Ajator.

I awoke, back on the street outside the inn. Ajator stood tall and handsome, as strong as a lion. Veinara again said her goodbyes and left us with a final glance at Ajator.

“Are you alright?” asked Ajator. “You’ve gone pale.”

“Me? Fine,” I answered curtly, but Ajator did not seem to notice.

Ajator talked of Veinara all the way back to the ship. The injustice of it was crushing, and for the first time in my life, I was truly angry with my brother. How dare he come along and so casually take the woman I had saved from the pirates? How dare he simply look into her eyes and make her forget me? It was then that I realised that I had truly fallen in love with Veinara. We had only known one another for three days but I thought she understood me. I felt she was the one I would sail beyond the Great Oceans for. Perhaps it was just an infatuation? Perhaps these foolish feelings would pass, but it still hurt so very much. It was not lust, I wanted to care for her and wanted her to care for me, but she did not care. How could she if she fell so easily for Ajator’s charms? It was a betrayal that made my world spin.

“Why the long face all of a sudden, Malspire?” asked Ajator. I had said nothing for a long while.

“What? Nothing.”

“Nothing? We’ve not seen one another in weeks yet you seem sad now.”

“My shoulder is hurting,” I half lied. “The blade went deep and I helped to carry their belongings.”

“It’s the girl isn’t it?”

“No!” I tried to wave away the accusation, but it came out as angry and hurt.

“Forgive me, brother. I’ll stay away from her.” Ajator said this with a heavy heart. He tried to hide it, but I knew my brother, and felt a pang of pity for him. Although angry with him, I could not see Ajator sad. It was either the pity or pride that made me say, “She is a fine lady Ajator, but not to my tastes. Please, don’t let me stop you. If you like her, go and see her.” I even smiled. It was so hard, but I smiled for my brother, and Ajator beamed.

“Are you sure? She is a wonder. Such character. Such wit!”

“I’m sure.” I was sure I had lost her, but knew she was lost as soon as she had seen Ajator, so what was the use in trying to fight it? I couldn’t win such a contest. There was probably no contest to begin with anyway. What was I thinking? How could she ever love one such as me?

“Fine. Perhaps I will visit her. We leave in six days. Plenty of time to get to know her,” Ajator said, rubbing his gloved hands to warm his fingers.

Such confidence. And me? I was never so confident. My brother would simply decide what was to happen and one way or another make it so. I on the other hand always had doubts and worries. Ajator was perfect. So perfect. In any other man, I would have hated him, but this was my brother and although my heart was broken, I loved him still.

Always has the perfect annoyed me. Only the broken, imperfect could be something I loved, but Ajator was the exception I suppose. Ajator was perfect and I loved him still. Of course now I know that the rule still stood. It was not an exception, it was just that then I did not see the imperfection.

I saw no more of Veinara, and avoided my brother. Keeping to myself, I drank heavily whenever Captain Crosp wasn’t about which was most of the time as the captain was staying at the Naval Offices making plans with the other senior officers. Rumour was that the rebels were planning a major strike. The obvious choice was to attack Umuron to try to force the Empire out of this region, but others said that the rebels wanted to capture that strange volcanic island system at the heart of the ocean called the Isles of Ash. At present, the Empire controlled those islands and access was limited. What was so interesting about them, I did not know.

I read the papers and practiced angrily with my cutlass. I played cards and lost money. I never left the ship unless I had to, but simply retreated from the outside world into the belly of the wooden hull. Its crew started avoiding me as I would quickly growl, snap, and chastise them for petty errors. I grew more morose by the day until after the fourth day in port, there was a knock at my cabin door.

“Enter,” I said with a slur, having been drinking heavily. My voice even surprised me, but I did not care.

Grandon Harl entered the little cabin and closed the door behind him. The room had a desk, a chair, a thin wardrobe and a cot. I sat at his desk in the dim light of the lantern with a bottle in one hand and a wooden cup in the other. Harl wrinkled his nose and I guessed that I must have smelt like a beggar, but I did not care.

“Well?” I asked of the sailor.

“How old are you, sir?”

“What?”

“How old are you?”

“Twenty two cold winters, Mister Harl. What the devils does that have to do with anything?”

“I’m forty eight, sir. Forty eight winters and summers,” Harl added.

“What’s your point Mister Harl?” grumbled I. My head was hurting.

Grandon Harl, still standing to attention at the door considered his next words. “I ain’t seen it all, but I’ve seen plenty. I sailed the seas longer than you’ve been alive and I’ve seen things both strange and magical in my time. I’ve seen fish with the heads of lions. I’ve arm wrestled with a man who had three eyes. I once had dinner with the prince of Col-Jah and ate the brains of a swamp monkey. I’ve seen the morning sun rise through the mists of the Tebio Falls and I saw a woman who was so beautiful, men would lay down their lives for one kiss.”

Harl now edged closer to me as he spoke, forsaking discipline for passion. I let him. The sailor’s words were spoken with a simple honesty that I could not resist.

“It’s a strange world, sir. The Gods of Creation know no bounds. I saw a witch bring a lamb back from the dead by blowing through its nose and a wizard raise a ship from the very seabed, sir. I once even saw a giant take a hammer and crush the head of a troll that had killed his family. The giant then threw himself over a cliff top to his own bloody death.” This was more than Harl would normally speak in a whole day. I liked Harl. I even respected him and so Mister Harl’s words held weight and I continued to listen.

“I’ve seen some strange things,” Harl said again. “Wonderful things and tragic things, but never in all my days and all my travels have I seen something as strange as a man’s love for a woman and a woman’s way with men. What is this thing that drives us so mad? Eh? What is it that raises us up to the heavens, and then rips out our hearts and drops us back to the deck again, broken and unwanted?”

“What is it, Grandon? Do you know?” I asked, desperately wanting to know the answer, no longer caring for pride or status. Mister Harl was right. I had been raised up in hope and then cast aside like a rag doll in a storm.

“I don’t, sir. No man knows. All I know is that it happens to all of us. It happens to the best of us, and when it does, it hurts like the white hot tip of a poker in the gut, sir. Nothing to be ashamed of. You’re an officer, I know, but you’ve been good to the lads and they see you as one of them, sort of, and I look after the lads.”

My shoulders slumped. Harl sat down on the cot. “It’s hard sometimes, Harl. How did you know?”

“Saw your brother with that woman you were taking an interest in. A fine woman, but not the last, sir. Plenty of women out there, just waiting to be saved from pirates.”

“What then?” I asked. “Raised up again, then stabbed in the heart?”

“Oh yes,” Harl said lightly. “But then one day, one of them will be right. One will only have eyes for you.”

I was aware that all semblances of authority and strength were gone now. I was naked and laid bare. I was also aware that the older man must think me a fool for falling in love after only three days with this woman, but it did not seem wrong. Grandon Harl was offering friendship and I found that I desperately needed it and no longer had the strength to fight the honest offer. “It would be nice. I dared to think of a future with a wife and children. I had never thought it possible before, but she was kind to me.”

“I know,” said Harl.

“Don’t think badly of my brother. I told him to go to her.”

“Of course. One day, sir. One day you will have that life.”

“Do you think so?” I said, looking at the man, offering my mongrel face for examination.

“Yes I do,” Harl said sincerely. “Best not to introduce her to your brother until you’re married though.”

We both laughed at this.

“What a bloody fool I am, Harl. One pretty woman shows a bit of affection and I fall apart.”

“You’re a man, sir. We’re all fools where women are concerned.”

***

It was the fifth day in Umuron, and I knew my brother would be heading for Norlan the next, so I made my way over to the Grand Oak to say farewell. I was still heartbroken but it could be months before I saw Ajator again, and so I steeled myself and searched him out. After asking some crew, I eventually found Ajator behind a stacked pile of stock, oddly hidden away from prying eyes. I did not call out to him as Ajator seemed to be in conversation with a stranger clad in fine furs with a top hat and golden rings upon his fingers that were wrapped around a silver topped cane. The man was wearing a pair of dark goggles, and had his collar turned up so it was hard for me to make out his face. The stranger was pointing a long finger at Ajator, and telling him something that I could not hear. I backed away round the side of the stack and waited. When Ajator finally appeared, he was surprised to see me and shot a glance back, but it seemed the stranger had gone.

“I was looking for you,” I said.

“I was inspecting the stock. A ship that size has a lot to take on and we leave in the morning,” said Ajator indicating the stack.

“We leave today. My captain returned last night with orders to patrol the region. We’re to hunt rebels, stop piracy and smugglers from supplying the enemy. The Sea Huntress is ready to leave, so I wanted to say goodbye.”

Ajator smiled, and took me by the shoulder. “I came looking for you, but you’ve been busy. Is all well? Are your ship and crew ready for action?”

“All is well, and yes, we’re ready.” I did not want to ask but I couldn’t help myself. “Did you visit her?”

Ajator stopped for a moment. “I did.” He looked at me with a pained expression. “We’ve grown close, but it weighs heavy on my heart, brother. I know you like her.”

“Please. Of course I like her, but as I said, she’s not my type. Don’t feel bad. I much prefer the simplicity and demands of a common girl. Miss Havlon will demand a lot more of you than a couple of coppers and a bottle of wine if you’re not careful!”

“She likes you. She said you were kind and tried to please her and her father, but you were like a fox trying to entertain a hen. She told me you’re a true hero. I agree with her.”

“Shut up, Ajator,” I said, but not in anger. Ajator laughed. I smiled too. How could I not? His smile, the twinkle in his eye. The man had a good heart and deserved happiness.

“She’s coming aboard the Grand Oak as my guest for the return trip to Norlan.”

“I see. She will be safe then.”

“Indeed!”

“And so will you.” This thought at least was a little comfort to me. The two people in the world that meant something to me would be safe for a while on a battleship and then at port in Norlan away from the frontiers and war. I wanted to ask about the stranger, but Ajator had obviously seen him in private and it was none of my business anyway. If Ajator wanted to share it with me, he would have.

“I had best return,” I mumbled as we walked along the dock.

“Why so morose? We’ll meet again soon, and we’ll hunt together for rebels and pirates. Soon we’ll be captains of our own ships, and then we’ll wreak hellish fire upon the Empire’s enemies, eh?”

“Yes. Soon we shall. Farewell.” Again I smiled to put my brother at ease.

“One more thing, Mal,” said Ajator. He stepped closer and in a quieter voice so as not to be overheard, said, “Are you a member of the Ship of Mariners?”

Ajator was referring to a club which was meant to be secret but everybody knew about it. The organisation had lodges all over the Empire. Members had secret signs and performed secret rituals which I assumed they found amusing. I myself was not interested in being asked to join and doubted I would ever fit the mould for membership anyway.

“Of course not. Are you?”

“No.” Ajator looked troubled. “I was though. I was asked to join a few months ago by a fellow I had drinks with in the city. Odd man, but a good drinking partner. Name of Obein Klarans. Flame red hair, lost his ear and two fingers in a fight. Intelligent man, but not boring.”

“Why did you leave? Did the masks and handshakes not amuse you?”

“At first, yes.” Ajator responded frowning at some further thought.

“Tell me Ajator, what’s bothering you?”

“Something happened. But…” Ajator paused.

“But what?”

“I might be mistaken. I felt the group, including Klarans were not all they seemed to be after a while. Talk would often be of the Empire and rebellion and I somehow felt questioned.”

“Questioned?”

“As though they were trying to ascertain my feelings for the rebellion.”

“Nothing odd about that. On the Sea Huntress we have little else to talk about other than the possibility of Captain Crosp having an unfortunate accident.”

“Yes, but when I said that the rebels had a point, things took an odd turn.”

“What? Use your head, Ajator. We all know that war isn’t simple. The rebels fight for an idea. They fight the blood system, a system you know that I don’t hold with, but we also know our place and know that we fight for an even greater plan. Don’t expect others to understand this though! The Secret Servants probably have agents in the Ship of Mariners and they will keep a close eye on you if you say things like that.”

“You don’t understand, Mal. Shortly after, Klarans approached me and openly offered me a place in the rebellion. He told me that I would be able to keep the title and lands when the rebels win the war. He openly admitted to being a rebel agent!”

“Oh, I see. It’s a test.”

“A test? I thought of that. At first I thought that they were testing my loyalty to the Emperor after my statements, but he seemed so sincere.”

“So what did you do?”

“I don’t like these games of shadow and secrecy and tests. You know me. I left the Ship of Mariners. If they can’t think for themselves then it’s not for me.”

“Good. What if he was sincere?” I had to ask. I knew it was not so, but my darker side just had to pick that thread.

“That has me worried,” said Ajator and meant it. “Perhaps I should report it to the Secret Servants.”

I did not like the thought of that. Stay as far away from the secret police of the Emperor as possible was my gut feeling. “Leave it be, Ajator. Don’t dwell on it. Thinking too much has always been a problem of mine. Perhaps it runs in the family and only now have you fallen victim to this malady.”

“Ha! You say that I don’t think?”

“You have the looks, Ajator. You don’t need to think. I really must go now. I’m expected.”

I said my goodbyes and left quickly as a carriage pull up which I thought could have been Veinara and her father. I did not want to see her for fear of betraying my true feelings of anger and disappointment. I felt betrayed, but it was nothing a bottle of Deep Lorcant wine would not drown and so I headed back to the Sea Huntress, giving little further thought to my brother’s words, but in time I would come to regret that. In time I would wish I had stayed with my brother, for Ajator, myself and the house of Ardalrion were set on the road to disaster.

Chapter Four

Some things you never forget. When a pistol, no more than three inches away, is pointed at your face, you come to realise how very small you really are. An ant under the gaze of a cruel child, a flea stuck between thumb and forefinger, a fly trapped beneath a cupped hand. I had never felt so small as I now did, staring down the double barrels of the long pistol at the stranger’s eyes in which I saw only death.

That morning we had been at sea. To the north was the Quarvor Sea, to the south was the vast Inner Ocean. Dividing these greater waters was a string of islands and rocks that started as the lands of Calandia and ended in Umuron where I could see how the harbour was being fortified as the Sea Huntress returned from her patrol. The entrance had two newly finished gun towers. Not large but under the circumstances, still impressive considering how few resources where being spent on the war in the west. I thought back to the first time I had entered the port of Norlan. The entrance to the port is called the Gates of Norlan where two giant warrior maidens of old stand guard, naked and proud with great-swords granting a minimum of modesty. They are called Emla, and Anla. Old sailors called them Betlan and Pennan – common names as used by common girls. It was regarded as lucky to blow them a kiss on entering or leaving port. I liked them as they were from a more honest era. They neither hid, nor showed any shame at being naked, but instead stood as a warning to an enemy that here, even the women would overcome them. It was either that or Norlan women were easy.

“Angels, Malspire,” Ajator said one day when again I had suggested that Emla and Anla were perhaps advertising Norlan’s finer goods. “They’re angels standing guard against the dark gods, put there by Emperor Sabnor-Arn the Ferocious.”

“He was a notorious womaniser!” I teased him, knowing how Ajator disliked any criticism of an emperor.

“Where did you read that?”

“Hollmoor’s History of the Emperors.”

“That boorish tome? You read too much, and worst of all is the subject you choose. That book should be banned.”

“I think it might be. The library is thankfully run by librarians, not officers. Amazing what you can find if you’re willing to delve into the back shelves.”

I knew that Ajator had read no more than a few pages before discarding it with an incredulous bah! It was far too plainspoken for his idealistic views on the world, and anyway, it was not on any reading list. Sometimes I could only see the rot in the world and however hard I tried to show Ajator, my dear brother only saw the silver. Soot and silver, Malspire and Ajator. Even I sometimes doubted that we were truly twins. Never Ajator though. He never once showed any doubt and I loved him for it.

All along the walls and up the straight backs of Emla and Anla, buildings had grown from the black granite. Behind the statues was the wide gulf of calm water harbour and behind this, the city grew further into a maze of climbing structures and winding canals like a vast termite’s nest, but with people running here are there about their business. Carvings and statues adorned every wall. There were plazas and bath houses, markets and shops. There were bakeries, sick houses, smithies, inns, taverns, manufactories, temples and plain old dwellings built one upon the other. It was a magnificent achievement of engineering over a period of thousands of years, and I could certainly believe that the city could boast a million souls all living on what was just a small island of rock now lost somewhere beneath it all.

The poorer regions of the city, called the Waters, were built using good old timber. These regions grew inwards from the edges of the harbour, and the best times where to be had not on land but the planked streets built on floating barges and stilts. It was run down, filthy, impoverished and stinking, but we loved it.

“All fart and no shit,” a drunk had once described the city true. “Down here in the Waters we get plenty shit!”

And so our education was not just in naval etiquette and tactics, but also in brawling, drinking, gambling and life. Life was to be lived and not suffered, I would often tell myself, but without my brother by my side, it was easily forgotten. Without my brother, I was just a cripple, a shadow, the Undertaker.

I returned from my daydreaming as the captain called out orders to the men on duty from behind me on the aftcastle, and then I saw The War Tempest at anchor in the deep waters. The flagship was usually found here. Flags of salute were run up followed shortly thereafter by a four gun salute for High Admiral Barron Villor who’s flag flew from the mighty ship’s mast.

On making port, I made my way to the closest inn where I intended to find a woman. Others of the crew had done the same, and they nodded as I took a table to one side. Harl, Willan and Jodlin were there together with the tattooed Tabor and young Paggod as well as others of the crew. Sudlas was lurking in the shadows as ever. Sudlas was a strange one, quiet and unsettling. I suspected that the man had sworn an oath to the Ardalrion Navy in order to escape a prison sentence which was not an uncommon story. Sudlas always wore a worn top-hat and scruffy waist coat when in town. It looked comical, but there was nothing comical about the man.

“Landlord,” I called to the stout barman who waved over a wench to take my order. “I’ll have a room and a woman.”

“Food, drink?”

“Wine and pork. A free drink for all those men as well,” I added, indicating my fellow crewmen. Those that noted, nodded and knuckled their foreheads in appreciation.

“As you wish,” said the skinny barmaid. Moments later she returned with a clay jug and cup. “The pork is on its way, sir. Women come along later.”

“Good,” I said and poured myself some wine. It was still early in the day, but I was not needed back on the ship for the next few days and wanted to relax. Wine and a woman would do that. It was good to be away from Crosp and his pathetic lackeys who would be making their way to finer establishments by now. Crosp would undoubtedly be on his way to the Naval Office first to send yet another letter complaining of me. Ajator was far away at the moment in the east aboard The Grand Oak as far as I knew, probably fighting beastmen from the Outer Oceans. I thought of the Ship of Mariners and how they had tested Ajator. Rebellion was infectious and it was understandable that such an organisation would want to nip any in the bud. It just occurred to me that testing the son of a lord admiral could be seen as quite the insult. Did they have reason to think there was the slightest chance that Ajator was somehow corrupted? Probably not. It was probably just stupidity or perhaps part of the initiation. Then why did it worry me so now?

The wine was sweetened. I preferred dry. The Naval Academy of Norlan had tried to teach me the finer points of wine tasting and the difference in grape varieties, but to me, it was pointless. You either liked a wine or you didn’t. Drink enough and they all taste the same – flippant, I knew, but there was a tried and tested truth to it.

A bowl of steaming pork cuts was placed before me and I knew I was going to get my fingers messy, but before getting a chance, the door opened and in came a thin man in ragged city clothing a size too small. He was dragging a case and had a tatty bowler hat upon his head of long, greasy black hair. I would have guessed that he had just arrived from the city, but he was no navy man. Perhaps a merchant’s agent? Then I saw the particularly long, double barrelled pistol just inside his coat. As the stranger turned to look at his surroundings, I also saw scars on his face. This was no office worker either, odd. Somehow he did not fit. Something in the air now felt wrong. I saw Sudlas tense and retreat further into the shadows. This more than anything told me that there was more to this stranger than met the eye – something dangerous.

“I need a cheap room for three nights,” said the stranger as he reached the counter. “Clean sheets too!”

“Of course, sir. Let my lad take your kit up for you.”

“Leave it be. I’ll take it up myself.”

“Can I offer you a drink?” I said before I could stop myself, wanting to know more about this man’s business. I knew I should have ignored him, but the words just came out, and no sooner had I said them than I regretted them.

The man’s head snapped round to look down at me. His eyes lingered on the deformities for a long while and I felt the familiar sensation of being the focus of disgust.

“Swive away,” the stranger simply said. I noticed a missing front tooth, the rest of them brown and rotting.

Seamen rose and Jodlin growled. I put up a hand to stop them, and the stranger sneered when he saw this.

“Forgive me,” I said cautiously, “but I only offered a drink in friendship.”

The man looked mockingly at the crew, then back to me. “Friendship? You disgust me. Cripples are the lowest of the low, food for cockroaches and shit crust. You should have been drowned at birth and burnt to ash. Whoever had you must have had a lemon up her kun. A man should not have to see such filth, such boot scraping. I feel sick at the sight of you and bile rises at just the thought of your kind. You’re not even human and I doubt even an ape would keep your company. You have no right to breathe the same air as me. I’ll have no drink from such a shrivelled prick as you. Friendship? I ain’t your friend.”

I had heard it before. I had been insulted in every possible way for my deformities, but the bastard’s tone struck deep and I was forced to bite back hard and swallow the sudden rage within me. Without further word, I turned back to my drink. The stranger turned away with a grunt of contempt. The anger. The rage. It did not diminish as I had hoped, but lingered, twisting and turning in my belly. Breathe. Just breathe and let it pass. It was like a fire within. It was all too much. I held onto my quivering hand with the other under the table. It was rage. RAGE! I lost control.

Before I knew what I was doing, my gutting knife was in my hand and I threw myself at the stranger. The man looked sideways just in time, or had he known what was going to happen? The stranger turned and put out a foot, then let me and blade flash past him and stumble to the floor in front of the counter. Screaming in anger, I slashed backwards only to come face to face with the long double-barrelled pistol now only inches away. The men moved, but far too slowly. The look on the man’s face was knowing and calculating, smug even. He was a killer and he had judged me rightly as a bit of sport and fun. The man smiled and applied pressure to one of the triggers. My heart pounded in my chest. The anger now turned to fear. Did the man not care that the others would surely have him should he kill me? No. He was either that good or insane; perhaps a bit of both. I then thought I would foul my breaches when all of a sudden there was a knife at the stranger’s throat who released his finger from the trigger.

“Easy now fella,” hissed Sudlas into the man’s ear. “I knows what you can do, but you knows that even you can’t twist your way out of this one. I’ll cut you as soon as breath.” Sudlas made the last word sound like a hiss. I had never seen Sudlas look so threatening.

The man looked longingly down at me and for the briefest moment I could see him considering his odds should he pull the trigger. The look of death was on him like I had never before seen in a man. His cold, shark eyes said that he killed for joy. I was not the first, I knew that.

“It would be a mercy killing. Put the dog out of his misery,” said the killer with his raspy voice, an ugly voice. Everything about the man was ugly.

“If he dies, then so do you. You’ll find no mercy here. I’ll cut you a new grin from ear to ear,” said Sudlas.

After a tense silence the stranger slowly lifted his pistol. “I Think I’ll take a room elsewhere then,” he said, putting the gun back inside his coat.

I moved back and got to my feet. Sudlas released the stranger, who took his case and dragged it past the angry crew, some of whom now held pistols and weapons at the ready. The men then joined me as I slumped back into my chair. I had been a hair trigger’s whisper from death.

“You alright, sir?” said Harl. Jodlin looked furious.

“I think so. My thanks to you all. Especially you Mister Sudlas.”

“Dangerous one that, sir. Kills for sport does his kind.”

“Do you know him?”

“No, sir. Saw it on his face though. Also saw part of a tattoo on his arm. He’s Cult of the Black God and blood is their only joy. They make assassins, sir. Madmen trained to kill. We had trouble with them back in the Waters. Took an effort to run that lot into the sea.”

I had heard of the Cult of the Black God or Sciorl as the demonic creature was known in the books of lore. I now also knew a little more about the secretive Sudlas and could guess that the man used to run with the gangs of the Waters. The city guard only enter the Waters when forced to and so the locals pay protection money. Sudlas had probably worked for one of the bosses as did most lads.

“What do you think his business is here in Umuron?”

“As I said, sir. They breed assassins. Expect a death.”

With that, I made my way together with Harl and Jodlin to the Naval Office where we informed the desk clerk of what we had discovered. After an interview with a provost officer by the name of Raits, we were thanked and sent on our way. I could only hope that the stranger had been sent to kill Crosp. Then it struck me that perhaps the stranger had been sent to kill me. What if his actions had been calculated to provoke me into attacking him? He would have been within his rights to shoot me and walk away a free man. Who would send such an agent? Crosp hated me, but it was not his style. Of course the Duke had enemies, but why target me, his lesser son? There could be any number of reasons. Would Crosp hire a killer? He had tried to have me killed in the past, something not forgotten, but could not prove. I had asked Jodlin about the flaying whip, but Jodlin had simply looked ashamed and told me that he did not pick the tool. It was given him by Qenrik and Qenrik did what his master wanted. Qenrik probably fouled the whip at Crosp’s request; a dog that shits on his master’s command.

“Forget the man, sir,” said Harl. I had not voiced my concerns but it must have been obvious to the seaman that I was worried.

“It’s hard to forget the barrel of a gun put to one’s forehead, Mister Harl,” I eventually admitted.

A few days later, I was ordered to visit the Imperial Umuron Naval Office again. Those days had been uncomfortable. The encounter with the stranger had shaken me. It was the look in his eyes. It was the way he so casually offered death. Was the man an assassin? If so, was he going to return and finish what he had started? I was also very much aware of my loss of control, but the man seemed to find just the right words and just the right tone to enrage me. It was chilling to know that such people were out there. Hopefully my summons to the Naval Office would answer some questions. Perhaps the man had been arrested.

I was taken to the lower cells by Provost Officer Raits, where I was shown a body. The figure that lay before me in the cold, dank, darkness was a sight that brought my breakfast to my throat and I had to fight not to vomit on the spot. The body was that of a man, naked and twisted and bloated. His face was contorted in agony. His body was black and white with bruising. Every finger was broken or crushed. His feet were the same. He looked to have broken arms and broken legs. His prick and balls were swollen and crushed. There was little blood, most had probably seeped away in the water where he was undoubtedly found. He was left a mere sack of skin containing the broken parts of a human being.

“Is this the man?” asked Raits.

I forced myself to have a closer look at the face. It hurt just to look at him. His eyes had been gouged out. Every tooth was either missing or broken, his nose crushed. Although the face was a mess, I did recognise him as the man who had held a gun to my face. It was the stranger who apparently took pleasure in killing, but I could only feel pity for the bastard, for someone had tortured him thoroughly and to the very end. Did he deserve it? My experience with the man told me that perhaps he did, but it would take a man at least as sick and perverted as he to do this to him.

“It is,” said I. “What in the names of the Creators happened?”

“We found him under a pier, face down. We think he was dumped there last night.”

“Do you know what sick person did this to him?”

“No. We have nothing to go on other than the tattoos. No name.” Raits actually seemed unimpressed, even bored by the body.

I looked at the dead man’s arms and saw the tattoo that Sudlas had seen on his forearm. It was of a dragon devouring the world.

“Cult of Sciorl,” I said.

“Yes. We can only hope they are not here in numbers.”

“One of my men told me that they breed assassins. Perhaps he bit off more than he could chew.”

“Perhaps. Either way, the world’s better off without his type in it. The cult has long been banned and what with the war, we don’t need them causing trouble here.”

I had to agree, but could not reconcile myself with the means employed to dispatch this person. Someone had tortured him in the worst possible way, and I guessed that he was meant to be found as a warning to others not to try the same. As I turned to leave, I noticed a cut to the underside of the man’s foot. Was that the letter C? Had the killer left his initial? I shuddered at the thought of someone possibly taking pride in this work. Although disgusted, I was also relieved now that the threat to my own life was gone, but I had to get out. I had to have air.

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I returned to the ship, deep in thought, only to be rudely awoken by the bark of Captain Crosp. We were to leave port again. I sighed as I had not enjoyed one minute of my time on land, being all the time worried that the man might return to finish what he had started, half expecting to wake up in the dead of night, face to face with the assassin who would smile as he cut my throat. The look of cool, calculating murder in the man’s eyes was hard to wash away and even though he was now dead, I feared him for he was the monster in every man, unchained, free and hungry. To see it up close and naked was not easy to forget. And just to smell it was to be smitten by it as I had discovered when I lost control and wanted to rip the man’s gut open. Who was he? Who sent him? Who killed him? Perhaps I will now never know.

At sea I could breathe easy again. Of course I was always wary of Crosp, but the men kept an eye out for him and warned me of his mood. I kept playing cards and tried to learn what I could of the sea and its lore. To myself, I reluctantly had to thank my father for the money spent on the games and came to realise that in a way I was buying an education and allies. At first this rankled, but soon grew comfortable with the idea, taking the philosophical view that anything and everything has to be purchased in one way or another. It just so happened that I was rich, and as long as I was bad at cards, I could pay my way into the hearts of these men. Mister Harl and a few others probably guessed this already, but I knew very well that I was not the only philosopher aboard the Sea Huntress.

Once, Qenrik was spied loitering outside the crew’s room. I invited the man in and was pleased to see the flustered look of outrage on his face. The very idea that he would mingle with the crew! I suspected that Qenrik had been sent to gather evidence against me and made sure never to talk of Crosp in future with the men. Just the evening before, one of them had openly admitted to wanting to cut the captain’s belly with a boarding axe and see the worms fall to the deck. I had chastised the man at the time, but it was forced – the thought of seeing a gutted Crosp was not so bad.

Chapter Five

I stood, Willan at my side, staring down at the Wraith Deep. It was the ship we had captured from the privateer, Captain Yorlwig, now wallowing in a forgotten part of Umuron harbour, where debris gathered on the water’s edge and seaweed rotted on the higher stones. She had never been put to use by the Empire and so was left to slow decay. That was until now, for I had been made a captain and given the Wraith Deep, which was now renamed the Lady Ocean.

“She needs pumping, captain,” said Willan.

“She needs a lot of work. How many guns do you see?” I said to the young man who was now seventeen, taller than me, but still as skinny as a stick.

“Ten shooters, sir.”

“Only ten? I suppose we should count ourselves lucky.” In fact I was originally surprised to see any left at all. The ship was in a bad state, and only had half her guns but I still could not suppress a smile. I was a captain!

“So what did Captain Crosp have to say when he found out, sir?”

I thought back to that morning when Crosp had asked me into his cabin. He watched me as I read the letter. It was spring of the third year aboard the Sea Huntress. We had spent the last many months patrolling the waters, watching, waiting, but the expected rebel attack had so far not materialised. In fact the rebels had been quiet. Some would say, too quiet.

The letter was from the Naval Office of Norlan. Captain Lord Malspire Ardalrion, it read. It came with a parchment from the Naval Office explaining my new duties. The letter had a fine stamp and the seal of the Imperial Navy as well as the Ardalrion Navy upon it. The parchment simply stated my name and rank but with a lot of fancy filigree and official seals and was signed by some high ranking naval clerk. I was to take the captured frigate and get her shipshape and ready for duty, as well as add to the skeleton crew and find arms and supplies. I was to take her on sea trials for two months to get the crew and ship ready for duty. Then I was to report to High Admiral Lord Villor for orders.

In my cynicism, I was hardly surprised. I had been given a ship in need of much repair with the minimum of crew and then told to make do. No more crew where being sent from Norlan, nor extra supplies, guns or anything else for that matter. I was given the minimum a man would need to be a captain – a boat. Well, I would show them, the bastards, not that I felt anything but suppressed joy. I would show them just what I could do with a ship, any ship.

Crosp’s lower lip trembled and a line of glistening drool ran down his chin, a visual sign of the hatred the captain had for me. “Well?” Crosp finally asked.

“It seems I am to captain my own ship,” I said. “It is the frigate we took as prize from that buccaneer, Yorlwig – The Wraith Deep. She’s been renamed the Lady Ocean.”

“Then I am rid of you! You do not deserve the commission nor any place in this navy but I am pleased to be rid of you. At last I can have proper officers round me. Men of honour and good taste. Men who do their duty without the need to drink and womanise at every port. Men who know their station. You have been a constant thorn in my side, Ardalrion, and the faster you get yourself killed the better. Now get off my ship!”

I was close to striking the swine. Crosp drank. Crosp womanised. Crosp just did it more discreetly. Why hide it? Only a coward would hide it, and although at heart I knew I was a coward too, I fought it, and did not let it control me. People saw my true self and I did not care. Frea and cowardice were my ever present companions, but I rebelled against it.

“Then let us hope our paths don’t cross too often,” I said biting back the anger. “Good day.” I left without a backwards glance.

A pair of seagulls squabbled upon the Lady Ocean’s crow’s-nest. I realised that I had not answered Willan’s question. “The man was pleased.”

“Pleased, sir?”

“Pleased to be rid of me. Not too happy to lose you though, you’ll be glad to hear.” I had taken Willan with me as was my right as an officer for Willan was now my steward.

“Rather be at your side, Captain.”

“Well, Mister Willan, I might say the same of you, but let’s not dwell on it aye? But are you sure? So far I am only a captain of a half sunk frigate and a single crewman.”

Willan chuckled and shrugged his shoulders.

Rats ran along the Lady Ocean’s deck. Seagulls sat on her railings, fouling the woodwork. She needed cleaning and pumping and probably a lot of new timber. How quickly a ship succumbs to the elements when not used and looked after. It had only been a little over a year since capturing her. The renamed Lady Ocean was not a large frigate and would only hold twenty main guns on a single deck requiring a crew of ninety or one hundred souls to go into battle, not including marines.

Assuming Ajator was now made a captain too, I wondered what ship my brother had been given. My father would have seen to it that Ajator got a well prepared vessel with crew and officers, I was sure, and glad for him.

“Speaking of crew,” I said, and looked around. Apparently there was a skeleton crew assigned to the ship, but where were they?

There was nobody about the ship, but close by was a tavern called the Dragon’s Tooth and now as the evening drew in, sailors where gathering. I wandered over and entered the tavern and was met by a large, smoke filled square room with a bar running along one side, and a simple stone fireplace on the other. Long, gnarled wooden beams held up by four stout oak pillars ran the length of the place in turn holding up a buckling ceiling and lanterns. In between the well-worn bar and soot stained fireplace were wooden tables and chairs and thirty or so sailors and marines having a fine time with drink and barmaids. A cat was sitting on the bar enjoying the attention of a younger sailor boy. Over in one corner a game of cards was being played, and in another, men where arm wrestling. The tavern smelt of pies, ale, wine and pipe smoke.

“Take some leave, Mister Willan,” I said. “Be back at the ship by morning.”

“Right you are, Captain,” he said with a grin, enjoying the new title, then left.

I liked the place. It was a little off the beaten track, but it had a simple charm to it with no attempt at finery or any other complication. It was reasonably clean and seemed to be well run. Nobody stopped as I entered. A few looked round, and either they didn’t notice I was an officer or didn’t care for they carried on as before. Taking off my hat, I sat down at a well carved and initialled table by a wall and took out my long, curved pipe. Most of the table carvings were names or simple pictures while others were quite remarkable works of skill depicting ships and half naked ladies. I stuffed my pipe with tobacco from a leather pouch. Lighting it, I then summoned a plump barmaid who as tradition dictated was revealing a lot of heaving breast, straining at the seams.

“Evenin’, sailor. What’ll it be?”

“The men here – are they regular customers?”

“Some are, some ain’t. You an officer?”

“I’m a captain.”

“Don’t look like a captain. Of course it don’t matter to me. You can be a lord admiral if you want.”

Could I? If only she knew. “What does a captain look like?” I inquired.

“Taller I suppose. Cleaner cut too. You’re too scruffy, and bent,” was the honest answer.

“That would be my brother. He’s an officer. Probably a captain by now, but I haven’t seen him in a while. He’s the perfect officer and looks like one too.” It was true. “You’d like him.”

“Would he order a drink?” she asked tapping her foot impatiently. I got the hint.

“I’ll have a bottle of your house wine. Do you have rooms here?”

“Yes. Nine coppers a night with breakfast from five.”

“And, are the beds warm?” I then asked placing a silver head on the table. “For the wine and a warm bed.” She was a big girl, bigger than I, but she was probably the warmer for it.

She sighed, taking the coin. “I’ll warm the bed for you, Admiral, but you’ll have to wait for closing time, and that can be late.” I nodded my agreement.

The wine was awful but I liked it. It made me feel alive to drink such vinegar. It was honest drink. Cheap, strong and nasty, but it did the trick. As the night wore on, the place filled up and spilled out into the cobbled, lantern lit street outside. It was noisy with boisterous talk, bragging and a fiddle playing, raucous with drink and song. I noticed the flag of Calandia with the added Imperial badge on the wall.

The Empire had ruled these lands for centuries and originally filled it with the settlers who had tamed its eastern shores and forced the barbarians and beasts westwards into the wild plains. They had been hardy, brave people, poor but proud, carving a new slice of civilisation out of the wilderness. The flag was also popular with the rebels, but without the badge of course. Although sitting at a table, others came and went, using my table without leave. I did not mind. Space was at a premium, and I enjoyed listening to the sailors and their simple chatter. As it got later, three sailors sat down and began to talk amongst themselves. One of them mentioned the Lady Ocean so I listened keenly.

“I heard the captain’s a right nasty bastard,” said one.

“Son of the Lord Admiral! We’re in for it, recons I. He’s going to be lookin’ for glory,” said another.

“Gods of the sea, I hope he ain’t mad like some of them lords.”

“Well if he is, we put him in the drink, yeah?” The man grinned hopefully, looking for support.

The others sighed and shook their heads at this. “Don’t be daft Banton. You always say things of the like, but as soon as’n officer shows up, you’re as a wet puppy, all jumpin’ and yes sir, no sir,” said the first who then belched.

“Are you crew of the Lady Ocean?” I then asked, and they looked round in surprise as though I had miraculously materialised.

“Yeah,” said the first eyeing my clothing, realisation slowly dawning on his simple face.

“Good. My name is Ardalrion… Your new captain,” I growled.

The men jumped up and stood as straight as pins.

“Sit down you miserable sons of whores.”

They looked at each other, and one by one sat down. Banton still sat as straight as a pin, and the first man had hit him for the man to relax a bit.

“Names?”

“Horis, sir,” said the first, then introduced Owman and Banton.

“Well lads. I am the son of the Lord Admiral, and I am mad. That means that when we’re on my ship, you will look lively, and you will do your duty. You will not put me in the drink, and if I go looking for glory, you’ll bloody well line up ready for me to sacrifice your sorry souls to whatever sea god I dream up and you’ll thank me for the opportunity to do your duty.”

They looked worried. Banton looked pale.

“Right now however, I want to drink. I want to play some cards, and I want some food so tell that fat barmaid over there to bring us a round of ale, and some pies.”

Nobody moved. “Well, jump to it. Look lively!” I barked, and they did so.

The men soon relaxed and other crewmen joined us. There were a dozen or so men of the Lady Ocean, a motley crew. No marines or officers yet but I would make my way to the Naval Office in the morning and find out where they were. Now I drank and enjoyed the company of simple sailors. I was as always morose and sullen, but the men seemed happy to take my drink, and spoke of adventures past and those to come. With grins, they showed off tattoos. Horis had one on his belly of a naked lady that he could make dance. I liked them already. I did not say so or join in the merriment, but they seemed honest enough, and would make a fine start at a crew. Then I thought of Harl and Jodlin. They were two men I could use, but Captain Crosp would never let them go. It was hard enough keeping crew, let alone finding new men, and good men to boot. It was a problem for the morning however. There were many problems to be solved in the morning.

The next day I was feeling the worse for wear. I had slept well though. The barmaid had kept her word, showing up in my room after the last man had left or fallen asleep under a table. After eating breakfast at the inn, I found Horis and some of the other men on the ship.

“Mister Horis!”

“Sir?”

“Organise the men. Get the hand pumps going, start cleaning up the ship and sort out my cabin. I have business in town and so you are in charge.”

“Me, sir?” Horis was obviously not used to such responsibility.

“Yes you, Mister Horis. I’m promoting you to king of the bastards. Now go and kick the other bastards about and get this ship into some kind of order!”

“Yes, sir. Will do, sir,” Horis said, knuckling his forehead.

“Willan!”

“Captain?” Willan had appeared on deck when he had heard his captain.

“Come with me.”

“Majesty,” said the boy by way of a farewell to Horis as Willan passed the man.

My first stop was at the tailors. I wanted a naval captain’s jacket and so they took my measurements, and then told me to return in a couple of days. I also went to the cobblers and asked for a new pair of boots. They fitted me with a solid pair that should last a couple of years at sea. I gave my old pair to Willan. When all this was done, I went to the Umuron Naval Office which was a three floor stone built building overlooking the harbour. There I saw the supply master who went through some papers, and found orders for food for the ship, had me sign other papers and then told me the supplies would be on the way. My next stop was the personnel master. He was a fat, desk bound naval officer who obviously took an instant disliking to me. He was stuck in a small office behind a small desk surrounded by shelves and stacks of paper. There was a narrow window behind him through which I could see low clouds and seagulls. The man’s belly strained at his jacket buttons. The papers were in disorder, and it was obvious that he did not get out much. Pies and wine came to mind. His name and title was Personell Master Smuddagon – an antagonistic bastard.

“You have one officer, seventeen seamen and an engineer.”

“What? Where are the rest? Officers, men and marines?” I said, already knowing there were no more, but I wanted to squeeze the man.

The portly officer leaned back from his papers making his thin chair creak. “That’s all we’ve got. War on you know.”

“I know there’s a bloody war on. I’ve been fighting it. I need more men!”

“Can’t help you there, Captain Ardalrion.” He made the word captain sound like a sneer. “No men to spare. No new officers arrived yet.”

“So what am I supposed to do?”

“Not for me to say. Perhaps send a letter to the city Naval Office?”

That would take weeks, even months. I needed men now. “Do you know who my father is?” I hated using his name but what choice did he have?

“Lord Admiral Lord Ardalrion. We are well are of you and your family here at the office.” Smuddagon said like he didn’t care.

“That’s right. Do you know how much trouble I would get into if I leaned over that desk, pulled you out of this office and kicked every tooth out of that smug face of yours?” I had no intention of trying. For a start, he doubted I could have budged the fat swine, but Smuddagon got the idea. “That’s right. I wouldn’t be in much trouble at all, whereas you would have to get used to drinking your dinner through a reed straw.”

“Listen,” the officer said, sitting up now, nervous of the cold fury in my tone. “I can’t do anything about it. There just aren’t the men available.”

I said nothing. Let the man fill the silence.

“Perhaps press gang them. Go to the taverns and inns, and take the men.” He was gesticulating now, trying to be friendlier. “Just try not to rob the other naval ships of their crew.”

“What is my officer’s name?”

“Erm.” He rummaged through more papers. “Kristan Olvan, fresh out of the Academy.”

“I see. I need more crew. Take some men from the Sea Huntress. She has a full complement, and wouldn’t miss a few. I only need two men: Mister Harl and Mister Jodlin”

“I can’t do that, Captain Ardalrion.”

“Can’t or won’t,” I demanded.

“Can’t! There is no order I can give. No paper I can sign. It has to come from the city.” He was pleading now.

“I need men. I need officers!” I slammed the table with my fist making Smuddagon jump in his chair. “A surgeon, for the sake of the gods.” I then looked him up and down. “You’re an officer. You look like you could do with some time on a ship. Must get stuffy in here. Yes?” I stood up to grab Smuddagon. It was only a threat. I didn’t want the bloated idiot on my ship but it had the desired effect.

Smuddagon raised his pudgy hands. “Wait, wait! There is a doctor. He’s experienced, but he has just been discharged, kicked out of the Navy and told to make his own way back to Norlan.”

“Why was he kicked out?”

“Well, he’s a drunk. Always swimming with the fish apparently. Took the wrong tooth out of Captain Rantor of The Merciless.”

“I like him already. Where is he?”

He told me so I had Willan, who was waiting outside, proudly polishing his new boots, go and find the doctor. I also had the personnel master sign the paperwork reinstating the doctor into the Navy and my crew.

“As for Mister Harl and Mister Jodlin,” said the officer. “There just is nothing I can do about it, other than send a request to the Imperial Naval Office of Norlan.”

A plan then came to mind, so I filled in the papers together with Smuddagon, and used my family signet ring to make sure the request did not fail. It would take weeks or months, but that was fine. I would have the two men in my crew within days.

“Send any men you can. I need crew!” At that I stood up and stormed out of the office. Pompous swine idiot fat moronic clerk, was all I could think. I returned to the ship and saw a line of men hauling buckets of water from below deck. “Carry on,” I called as they stopped when they saw their new captain. “What’s going on, Mister Horis?”

“Pumps are all broke, Captain. We’re getting the water out of the bilges.”

“Where’s the engineer? I was told we’ve got one.”

“Down below, me’ lord. Having a look at the engine.”

“Don’t call me lord.” I hated it when they did that. I was entitled to it but it made me uncomfortable. “Sir or Captain will suffice, Mister Horis.”

Going below, down to the engine room, I saw the engine was being disassembled by a short fellow, covered in black oil. I assumed the man was getting on in years, and had grey or white hair, but even his hair was black with the stuff. He wore blackened overalls and eye protecting goggles. When he saw me, he did not seem to recognise my rank or did not care.

“Hand me that jug of spirits there, lad,” said the man with a crackling, aged voice.

Looking round at the workbench, I saw the jug which had a large skull painted on the side. I handed it to him and the engineer grunted his thanks, then poured some on the rag, after which he took a swig of the stuff himself which was followed by an awkward dance and cackle.

“Not bad,” he then wheezed holding it out to me. “Have some, lad. Put wind in your sails and fire in your arse. Made it me’self.”

Tentatively, I took the jug and sniffed at it. My eyes watered so I put it down. “My name is Captain Ardalrion. I presume you are my engineer?”

“Captain?” He looked me up and down, but still didn’t seem too concerned. Stepping forwards, the little man took off his goggles to reveal two circles of white skin with clear grey eyes. He knuckled his head. “Larrans Perti, Captain, at your service. Engineer? Aye, that’ll be me.”

“Good. How’s the engine looking?”

“Well,” he scratched his head. “Most of the bits are there, but rust is a problem. We need copper piping too. Someone’s pinched a load of it. Brewing spirits on our piping a dare say.”

“I see. Where do we get the piping?”

“Where? Only the Black Folk make the proper kind, the kind that’ll last. But they’ll have some Empire stuff down at the supply yard.” He was referring to the Calionvar, the enigmatic black skinned people who originally introduced technomancy to the peoples. I had never met one but I had seen them at port both in the city and Umuron. Mostly they kept to themselves. The most unnerving thing about them, I found, were their eyes: Jet black as was their skin. Not just the pupil but the entire eye, so one never knew where they were looking.

“I’ll write a requisition order for you. What else do you need?”

Together we created a list of items required to get the engine running and pumps working. It was a long list and there was a lot of work to do.

***

“Enter,” I said.

In stepped a timid looking young man, clumsy in his pristine new uniform and long rapier. He stepped up to the desk, stumbling on the clumsy blade as he did so. Regaining his composure, the young man saluted smartly and introduced himself, “Junior Officer Kristan Olvan, reporting for duty, Captain.”

I had spent the rest of the day working out what was missing and what was needed. With my cabin and desk set up, I sent runners with papers and orders for supplies and equipment. I had to spend a lot of my own money to grease the works but at least things were moving. Just as I was wondering where the hells my new officer was, there was a knock at my cabin door.

“About bloody time, Olvan!” I barked.

“Sorry, sir. I got lost…”

“Lost!” I got up and stormed round the desk. Looking him up and down, I was not impressed. The junior officer was very young and very nervous, very green.

“What do you know about ships, Olvan? What do you know about navigation?” I poked him in the chest with my pipe.

“Well, I went to the Ardalrion Academy, sir. We learnt…”

“I know what you learn at the Academy, Olvan. What do you know? Not, what did they tell you!”

“I… I…”

“Alright.” I sat back down. “You’re an officer. In fact you’re my only bloody officer and so you’re currently acting First Officer until I can find a man who’s actually been to sea.”

“I have been to sea, sir.”

“Shut up. You will listen and learn, Mister Olvan.” I tempered my voice now. The lad was shaking. “The men know the seas, and they’ll teach you if you give them a chance. I know bugger all, but my father is important and so I’m the master. No other merit, mind you. I like drinking, gambling, women and fighting the enemies of the Empire.”

“Captain,” was all Olvan could say by way of acknowledgement.

“Now pick a cabin, stow your kit, and then report back to me. We’ve got crew to find.”

I, Captain Ardalrion, spent the next days with Olvan at my side drumming up interest in the Lady Ocean. We managed to pick up another seven sailors with the promise of prize money, and glory. The glory was Olvan’s argument, but prize money had a better effect on them. At low tide the ship was careened so the copper sheeting for the hull could be cleaned by an all hands effort which only took a couple of days chipping and scrubbing. A few planks needed replacing and again, I had to fork out copper and silver for the wood and tools. Perti got the engine running, but had to make do with Empire parts, not Calionvar as he would have preferred and warned me that the parts were unreliable.

It was time to get Harl and Jodlin so I went in search of the surgeon who I had yet to meet. Willan had fetched him, but the man had stayed in his cabin all the while. I found our new surgeon, Doctor Eebel, snoring in the medico’s cabin. He was a tall and thin man. His hair was dark with white streaks. His clothes were of a fine make and cloth but they had seen better days. He stank of spirits and an empty jug lay on its side on deck next to an overflowing piss pot.

“Wake up.”

The doctor groaned.

“Wake up!”

The man grudgingly opened his red rimmed eyes and looked round.

“Where am I?” He held his head and tried to sit up.

“On board the Lady Ocean. You’ve re-joined the Navy, and you’re now my ship’s surgeon.”

“What? Oh, yes. Now I remember. Why?”

“I need you. I need a surgeon. You’re the only one available.”

“Oh, and I thought it was my exemplary record. I don’t want to.”

“Pardon?”

“I’m a civilian now. I want to go home in shame and spend the rest of my days as a country doctor where nobody knows me, and I can drink until I pickle in my own piss. Gods I’m hungry. How long have I been here?”

“You’re a naval officer,” I shouted. “You’re a bloody disgrace, but you’re an Imperial and Ardalrion Navy officer, and I have the paperwork to prove it, and I have a boot ready to kick you with and I have crewmen who would like nothing more than to give you twenty lashes and,” The doctor was cringing from the tirade. His head was obviously hurting him, my voice just making it worse. “And,” I went on, “drunk on duty is against naval regulations, but rules are meant to be broken, Doctor Eebel. I don’t give a damn how drunk you are. As long as you get the job done, you can drink the bloody oceans dry for all I care.”

Doctor Eebel scratched his unshaven chin in thought, looked again at me, and then shrugged his shoulders.

The truth was that I did not want a drunk doctor, but it was marginally better than no doctor, so I had Olvan hide away any wine and spirits. There would still be plenty about, but I wanted to make it harder for the drunk.

The first thing I did, after the surgeon had cleaned himself up was have Doctor Eebel do some paperwork. Two documents he signed and handed to me. He complained that this was breaking naval regulations, but I just told him to shut up and sign the damned things. Hung over and in dire need of a drink, the doctor relented.

That night I headed over to the Sea Huntress. Wanting to avoid Captain Crosp, I went to the closest tavern where I expected many of the crew would be found. Luckily both Harl and Jodlin were there. I was given a warm reception by the crewmen and half-heartedly snarled back at them, although I had to admit that I was touched by the greeting.

“Captain Ardalrion, sir,” said Harl. “Pleased to see you, we are.”

“Thank you, Mister Harl. How are the men?”

“Doing well. Shore leave has raised spirits, but we’ll be off soon again. How’s that ship of yours?”

“Fine. She needed work, but we seem to have her running and just about ready for trials. Two months we have to get her ready for duty. Two months to train the men and trim the ship,” I said.

“Good, sir. The men have missed your presence at the card games.”

“I’m sure they have. Running short on coin are they?”

Harl grunted a laugh. “Captain Crosp’s been in a sour mood. We ain’t allowed to mention your name in his presence.”

“Oh, he just can’t take it when a high born bugger like me walks in and steals the show. Thinks I’m a worthless inbred mongrel, or so he has told me on many an occasion, and he’s probably right.” I surreptitiously looked round. I did not want any of the Sea Huntress’s officers to see me talking to Harl and Jodlin. “Let me buy you and Jod some food and drink. I have a proposition to make.”

The three of us took a back table with the food and wine, and I proposed my plan. On me I had the two surgeon’s notes. They told of how both Seaman Harl and Seaman Jodlin had come down with Grotting Worms and how infectious the illness was. It told of how one can lose limbs and eyesight to the worms and how it passes by mere touch. The sick must be kept in quarantine for weeks.

“It’s simple really,” I explained to them. “Tell Captain Crosp, or his first officer that you felt ill and went to the Naval Offices for help. Tell them that they referred you to Doctor Eebel, who gave you these and then told you to get out of his sight.”

Jodlin leered his toothless grin. Harl on the other hand was thinking it through.

“What about Doctor Feasler?” asked Harl. “We would have gone to him first. He might not fall for it.”

“That snivelling puppet? He’s a coward and a fool. He won’t risk his life if there’s the off chance that you’re truly sick. If he reads the notes, get close to him. Make as though you’re going to touch him. Intimidate the fool. Jodlin’s good at that. Jodlin?”

“Yes?”

“Convince the doctor that you’ve got Grotting Worms.”

“I’m good at convincing,” Jodlin said, cracking his knuckles.

“Fine, Captain. We’ll do it. In three days time,” Harl said. “That’s when the ship leaves. I reckon it’s better so they don’t send anyone looking for us or snooping.”

“I agree, Mister Harl. In three days then.”

Pleased with my work, I left them with more food and wine, and then made my way back to the Lady Ocean.


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