There was a well-established road winding around town up the cliffs. We asked around and got directions. Apparently visitors were welcome there – the pieces were just as much about discouraging people from trying anything as they were about sinking vessels.
Me and my companion – I couldn’t think of him as a slave and calling him my crewman felt pitiful when he was the only one – both wanted to test our endurance and bottom out our stamina. The kitsune wasn’t in his prime, though. In addition to his recent voyage he’d been kept on a short leash for a long time. This was the first opportunity in years that he’d had just to run freely.
When he quickly exhausted himself, he beckoned me to go on ahead. I didn’t do so until we tested how far he could get from me and how much time he had. It turned out he could get about 100 yards away, then he had a 24-hour timer. I admitted to him I was a bit jealous. At a third of that, I was always looking for excuses to slip away from my business ashore. If I had a solid day, I could have managed a typical workday easily. I could have even slept ashore in a nice bed!
I took his documents back and stashed them in my bag before leaving the kitsune behind to catch up with me. If someone asked what he was doing, he could say he was following his master and the worst that should happen would they escort him to find me.
Running ahead up the cliffs was difficult. I had the stats for it easily, but since I wasn’t conditioned for this exercise I still felt the burning muscles. When my stamina dropped to 10% I recovered before continuing. The wind blew harder as I climbed. I stopped a couple times solely to admire the view of the ocean from up here, but the promise of a better view higher up kept calling me. Soon I reached the top.
There was an established defensive structure and garrison around the battery. The gates were open and guards were present in force, but civilians were also meandering and gawking, so I didn’t feel too out of place. I didn’t wait for Sadeo, I went straight to admiring the artillery.
When most sailors referred to artillery, they referred to scorpion ballista and onagers. Those were usually the only feasible pieces that could fit aboard a ship. On land, such limitations didn’t apply. In addition, these were weapons commissioned to make any pirate or enemy scared to even think of trying anything. In addition to the large catapults ready to drop boulders along either side of the cliff, there was a massive trebuchet and another piece that I didn’t even recognize.
The garrison was conduction drills, being harped on by some officer. I imagined it was part drill practice, part show for the onlookers. There were enough gathered around that people must have developed new interest after a ship was sunk yesterday. A spotter would call a clear range of fire with no ships travelling. The officer would call for the drill to begin and a team leader would start barking out orders, winching down the huge catapult with teamed manpower.
The same leader would call for one of the nearby stones lined up in rows. Each stone had its weight and a number scratched onto it. Depending on the range of the theoretical target, a different stone would be required. The team leader called out his orders efficiently, selecting the stone he wanted even with the officer yelling and cursing at him. Maybe that part was supposed to be simulated stress?
In any case, the crew worked like a well-oiled machine and the catapult fired. The officer stopped yelling and marked the time. Then everybody watched the stone fly through the air. Between the size of the catapult and the advantage offered by our height, the 80-pound rock spent a lot more time in the air than nature ever intended. The splash it made easily marked the location it hit. The officer congratulated the team leader on his accuracy, and the team leader congratulated his team on their efficiency. I suspected that if there weren’t so many observers, there’d be more to the report than that!
I observed the artillery pieces with admiration while they set up another demonstration, this time on the oddly designed artillery piece. Analyzing it showed me the name ‘triple bow ballista’. It had three sets of arms on it instead of one, and their configuration confused me. The limbs were also either sheathed in metal or perhaps solid all the way through.
When the firing team was giving its range, they set to work. A pair of oxen were hooked to a block and tackle setup that drew the weapon. Once locked in place, the oxen were unhooked and led away while the team leader called out changes to the orientation and elevation. The whole thing was setup on a rotating platform that turned as the crew spun cranks. Once the weapon was pointing far, far out to sea, they were ready.
An 8-foot custom made javelin was brought out and placed. The team leader called out to each position and verified everything was ready and accurate, then gave the order to fire.
The powerful machine shot the projectile out faster than the eye could follow. My eyes did catch up to it mid flight and I was amazed. The theoretical target must have been on the far range of the machine’s capability. The projectile climbed, 300 yards … 400, 500 … it began to hit its crest and level off. 700, 800 yards … people were exclaiming and pointing at it for their friends who’d lost track.
The projectile had traveled at least ¾ of a mile by the time it impacted the surface. Rather than cause a huge splash, it simply disappeared. That didn’t trick me into thinking it wouldn’t have caused much damage. Quite the contrary – something like that would tear right through a ship. If they brought out any enchanted bolts … I shivered. I wished I could have something like this out at sea but was glad no one else was out there pointing one back at me.
And to hit an enemy at such a range! Ships had no chance of returning fire to the battery up here, but the defenses could sink them long before they could delude themselves into thinking they had the chance. The downside to firing the weapon was its long setup and reload time. If they missed, they’d have to recalculate hitting a moving target all over again. It was easy to see the weapon’s range, but they weren’t actually demonstrating their accuracy – just shooting into the wide-open ocean.
Approaching the port beneath the waves would be the preferable mode of entry if it had to be done.
The crowd clapped and cheered for the firing crew, who bowed before taking a break. I imagined they’d be doing such demonstrations and drills off and on for the rest of the day. Sadeo would get his chance to see them in action.
Sadeo huffed and puffed up to the battery after I’d had my fill of examining the weapons. I pointed out the unique ballista to him and asked if he recognized it.
“Hmm, no, I don’t recognize it. I can tell … yes, shared torsion … and how do they transfer …”
Sadeo was disappearing into his own world, critically examining the machine. I brought him back with a quick question.
“Could the principle be applied to scorpion ballistae?”
He looked at me, then at the contraption. “It would take some fiddling. Yes, in theory, but how useful it would actually be remains to be seen.”
I nodded. “Keep it in mind. We’re limited at sea on what we can fit, so an upgrade like that may be a game changer.”
He nodded and moved closer to dissect the design with his eyes. I hoped they’d put on another demonstration for him soon.
I walked back down the cliff a little way to admire the view. I noticed there was a man sitting at a small table, bundled in a cloak against wind. There was a game of some kind on the table, he must be waiting for someone. My imagination drew up a scenario of old men climbing the cliffs to play games every day, enjoying their twilight years.
This gentleman had sharp eyes and noticed me watching. He smiled kindly and I nodded back politely before returning my gaze to the horizon.
“Please,” he called out. “Would you join me?”
I glanced around quickly but he was clearly speaking to me. I approached. “Are you waiting for someone?”
“I am waiting for anyone.” He said, gesturing at his board. “This is a wonderful place to sit and appreciate the view, but even better to find a surprise game of crowns!”
I looked at the board. He indeed had the board and pieces for a game of crowns. I, however, had only played the game a few times. I usually stuck with cards and dice. “I’m afraid I wouldn’t offer you much sport.”
He shrugged. “Then we won’t wager anything. Call it a learning opportunity.”
I didn’t have anywhere else to go right now and wasn’t eager to head back to the Consort. I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do about Burdette’s unofficial order to stay off his ship. I sat down opposite the man.
He had gray hair with muttonchops and a goatee. A small topknot was pulled up on his head, and loose stands of hair blew about his face in the wind. He offered me the first move.
I only knew one strategy, and that was because the person who’d beat me with it had explained afterwards. I imagined someone like this man would see what I was doing but trying to play well would be respectful.
I moved my piece, and he moved his. We went back and forth for several turns, exchanging casual conversation. A firing team in the battery began running another drill, this time without firing.
“Do they usually practice this much?” I asked.
“No. They run drills frequently, but only fire munitions when training their skills. Today they are making a show of force for the people.”
“Why? The ship that was sunk yesterday?”
“That is largely why. The matter of the elvish ship being fired upon is being investigated. They should have been received as envoys instead of destroyed. Now, however, his majesty is faced with an untenable situation. If he apologizes to the elves and pays restitution, he will alienate our allies in Makam who are at war with Elessar. If he does not, he has essentially declared war himself, as the elves will not forgive the deaths of the nobility the attack caused.”
“An elvish ship? Wow … I didn’t realize that.”
“Many of the details are not being shared with the public yet,” he said, moving another piece. “Popular outcry would demand war, despising the thought of apologizing. Nevertheless, his majesty doesn’t like being forced into the war. He would rather make up his own mind and enter at his own time.”
“The attack,” I said, rather hesitantly. “Well, why did it happen? Who ordered it?”
“That,” he said. “Is the mater they are looking into. There are several steps of communicating targets with the batteries. If a mistake was made where was it, and was it deliberate?”
I decided I didn’t want to ask any more questions about it. Doing so would just involve me in the tangled wire that was obviously getting torn apart in town while it was on lockdown. My playing partner was also far too knowledgeable about it. I hardly thought spies were sent up here to question random people over a game of crowns, but he was probably a city official or at least related to one to have such detailed information.
As we played, my partner began to take longer amounts of time to consider, seemingly puzzled by my simple strategy. I knew he couldn’t really be facing a challenge from me, and he confirmed it soon.
“Your gameplay is both aggressive and defensive. While that can be a useful stratagem, you are uncoordinated and out of balance. Both pushing far and holding back.”
I couldn’t help letting out a dry laugh. “Sounds like a summary of my whole life. Maybe I’ll figure out what to do from fixing my strategy in crowns!” I joked.
My partner nodded. “Smaller things often reflect the larger in our lives. You’re hesitant to move forward. You likely have an idea of what to do with your life, but inside you’re seeking validation and approval for your choices.”
I looked at him and swallowed. He had his stats up, I couldn’t see his name, much less his analyze skill. Did he know my identity? Was he playing at some deeper game? If so, why hadn’t I gotten a notification my ability had failed?
“Please don’t take offensive if my words were too personal. I simply find that discussing life over a game of crowns helps people decide what it is they want.”
“I want to be free,” I whispered.
“Are you a slave?”
“No … no, not in the way Andros considers slavery.”
“The desire for personal freedom often confuses people into avoiding responsibility and isolating themselves from friendship. In reality, stepping forward to lead and opening yourself to the vulnerability that comes with friendship offers much happiness! The opportunities afforded by friends can be …” he looked me in the eyes. “Validating.”
Not knowing what to say, I quickly made a move. My partner didn’t rush his turn though. I considered what he said.
“And once I do what I know I’ll have to … there’ll be opposition. There’ll be orders I have to follow. I don’t like that. I don’t like knowing that what I do will mean people die.”
“Are you being selected for a naval commission?” he asked, moving his piece and graciously ignoring the opening my last hasty move had created.
“Something like that.”
“Take my advice: life is both cheap and invaluable. It is as delicate as it is resilient. But above all, life is to be lived! It is better to live with mistakes or die before your time than to have ventured nothing.”
“Is it worth becoming someone I wouldn’t want to be?”
“Why would you do that? You can choose exactly what you will do and how. You are the one who will have to live with it. If you are willing to pay the price, you may even refuse orders, spare lives that should be taken, or take lives that should be spared. Not,” he said, wagging his finger. “That I am recommending you disobey orders! I simply illustrate that things are less a matter of what can and cannot be done, and more a matter of whether you are willing to pay the required price for your decisions.”
“That’s not very encouraging.”
He laughed. “As you consider it and implement it, you will find it helps greatly with problems that demand they be solved a certain way.”
The officer at the battery began yelling again, trying to browbeat the firing teams into moving faster in a sudden new drill. They began to winch down the counterweight for the trebuchet – which must have been at least 3 tons.
“If you’ll excuse me,” my playing partner said. “I’m afraid I’ll have to concede the match. That’s my cue.” He stood and threw off his cloak, exposing a highly decorated officer’s uniform. He strode over to the clearly junior officer, who ceased espousing invectives and saluted. My mouth was open. My playing partner had been a senior military officer inspecting the battery incognito before he showed himself! It wasn’t until Sadeo joined me that I recovered myself.
“Those are some designs! I’d hate to think what they cost to put together. Thankfully, it’s always easier to copy someone else’s work than it is to develop it.”
“Did you see that weird ballista in action?”
He nodded. “A triple bow ballista. It’s a super-sized version of the crossbow of the same design. It has its uses, but I don’t think they’ll help you improve your scorpions.”
Oh well. If Sadeo hung around with me long enough, we could eventually experiment with all kinds of configurations. I doubted the kitsune used the same catapults and ballista in his homeland that we used here.
We watched the mighty trebuchet be prepared, loaded, and fired. The 200-pound boulder didn’t have nearly the range or trajectory of the ballista, but it more than made up for it with raw power. The splash it made was magnificent! The elevation advantage the trebuchets had meant that between the batteries on either cliff, overlapping fields of fire would be able to hit any vessel trying to enter or leave the harbor. Even if I was sailing a ship submerged, I’d want to avoid having any such boulders come down on me!
I led Sadeo back to town when we were done. After grabbing some food and discussing our options, we returned to the Consort.
I’d told Sadeo about my abilities and my needs to fulfill them. He told me that if I was willing to take the risk, there were dozens of slaves who would jump at the chance to sail instead of labor on a plantation. He made sure I understood that they would do so gladly if they were treated fairly, and while I made no lies about my expectations for complete authority I believed in treating my crew well.
I was also more limited in my movements now that I had a crewmember. Before I could have travelled quickly through the ocean, but not only did Sadeo not have any swimming skill, he’d never been swimming at all! Not even in a lake or anything! I believed that he’d share in my ability to breathe and anchor myself underwater, but there was no doubt he’d slow me down.
He’d also have to be trained in seamanship. Right now, he was no use helping me manage a large vessel. He promised he could do miracles with the mounted weapons aboard that ship, though.
Burdette was on deck when I showed up. His eyes darkened when he saw me. They darkened even further when they saw Sadeo tagging along with me.
“What the bloody sea-foam is this?”
I gestured at the kitsune. “This is Sadeo, my slave.” All the nearby crew looked at me in wonder when I said that. After all, they’d been hearing the officers disparaging me as a copper-mouth the whole voyage, and they’d seen me take a beating for standing up on their behalf.
Burdette pointed a finger at Sadeo. “You bought this one? For 4 gold?”
“He was worth twice that!”
“Bad day at the auction.”
Burdette’s jowls were rosy red. “I’m not allowing additional passengers on my ship, boy!”
“He’s already on the ship’s manifest,” I countered. Seeing that wasn’t going to convince the Captain, I offered to sweeten the deal. “Name your price for his passage.”
“A gold piece,” the captain declared.
That was an exorbitant rate by any standard. The way I saw it though, the Captain was trying to recoup the loss he’d taken on Sadeo’s sale. Since I had the money, I’d rather pay it and not leave him any excuse than haggle.
Burdette growled and snatched my money. For a second, I thought he’d throw it overboard. “The kitsune will bunk with the rest of the cargo.”
“As my slave,” I said. “I’ll dictate where he sleeps.”
“As my employee, you’ll do as I say!”
I didn’t challenge him or refuse to answer. “Yes, Captain.” I said blandly. The quirk of my eyebrow was enough.
His fists tightened, but he didn’t make a scene of it. “Good!” He stalked off.
I never wanted to have a crewman as insubordinate as I was. I thought I understood what my crown’s partner had been saying about doing what you will, so long as you were willing to pay the price. As someone who’d always looked for a role to fill, that was indeed a liberating idea.
We got underway that evening, again under-crewed. Burdette had acquired a few new laborers but was wholly unsatisfied with their number. Myota and I rejoiced with the slaves since they weren’t quite as crowded. I would have made a point of letting Sadeo sleep by me, but the chatty creature was fine hanging out with the people he’d spent the trip north with.
My predictions that we could make up time heading south we proven true. For three days we made great headway even as a storm formed behind us and drove us on. It overtook us and had us swiping rain from out eyes as we kept the Consort on the right heading. Burdette believed – and I agreed – that a bigger storm was winding up on the passive ocean and took us further out to sea.
That was working, but when the storm came up it caught us and drove us south and east – towards our destination but back towards shore. I exhausted myself working while the Consort dutifully climbed wave after wave. This was great weather to level my seamanship skills in, but I couldn’t duck below the waves for a respite! We were all dependent on keeping the unwieldy carrack in check.
I dropped to sleep and slept like the dead. I’d taken to sleeping in the slave hold with Sadeo, Arnnaith, and the others. I admitted I was paranoid about the officers of the ship. Perhaps if I’d spared more thought to where we were and less to what schemes aboard ship might or might not be happening, I could have predicted what befell us.
I was awakened from sleep by someone singing. That wasn’t totally unusual, singing was one way to pass the time. Nevertheless, I was dragged into consciousness. Someone else was singing now, the same tune. Not just the same tune … they were synchronized. It was eerie.
I wasn’t so dense that I needed to hear the song itself. The sirens were back!
I bellowed out a warning to the slaves, or more importantly to the crew above, and dashed for the hatch. It was barred! Was I locked below with the others for their own safety? No, someone up top was calling for help, yelling about sirens himself!
I tried to break the barricade on the door, but it wouldn’t budge. More slaves were singing now. It sounded like a lullaby.
I summoned water and blasted it over the hatch, freezing it solid. After several hearty blows I melted the ice and pounded some more. I repeated that, damaging the wood more and more each time.
I could hear the sirens now. They were singing all around the ship. The slaves who were charmed didn’t try and run to the sirens, they sat down and rocked while they sang – staring at the hatch I was trying to open. Those who’d resisted the charm and weren’t chained had gathered around me, frightened of what the charmed individuals might do.
With blasts of magic and help from some of the slaves, I broke the hatch and climbed above decks. There the dread that had been creeping into my heart took a firm grasp. The lightning flashes and howling storm were a contrast to the sweet, tempting melody filling the waters with thick ensnaring magic. Thunder was the percussion to the siren’s voices.
The charmed sailors hadn’t jumped overboard to be with their sirens. They’d taken control of the ship. Those that hadn’t been ensnared had ben knocked out or killed. Zamari had been the one manning the helm. Now his body was draped over the quarterdeck, blood from his slit neck creating a puddle below. Kuko was at the helm, a deluded smile on his face.
I heard Burdette smashing at the door to his cabin, he’d almost broken it down. I didn’t take the time to finish freeing him, not when I saw what the charmed crew were doing.
“NO!” I screamed. “You’ll all kill yourselves!”
They paid me no mind. The sirens had them in their song.
Three things happened in quick succession: I sprinted for Kuko at the helm, Burdette’s door cracked open, and Kuko turned the ship sharply to starboard.
Much too sharply in dangerous weather, after the crew had trimmed the sails to maximize the effect.
We were just entering the trough of a wave when the ship swung ninety degrees. That was a recipe for capsizing, and the Consort listed hard to port, sending anything not secured tumbling to that side. Whether we would have ever recovered from it was unknown, because we didn’t have a chance. A wave crashed down on us like a carpenter putting the last nail in a coffin.
I went tumbling, thrust into the ocean by the force of the wave. The Consort still had some air in her, causing her keel to poke at the surface, but she was well and truly lost.
As was the crew. The area was swarmed with sirens. As I fought to swim back I saw Kuko abandon his post to swim towards the siren that had previously ensorcelled him, the beautiful love of his heart. He paddled for her like he’d forgotten how to swim, oblivious to the fact he’d never taken a breath and was drowning even now.
I caught the eye of a siren watching me. The matriarch. She grinned ferally. I saw her mouth the words ‘life for a life’. And then she sang a note discordant with the melody of the choir.
Instantly, they all changed their songs. The beautiful seductress playing with Kuko suddenly hissed and screeched in his face. The charmed effect disappeared from him – as it did from all of them – and they spewed out bubbles of air if they had it. They were now cognizant witnesses to their own demise.
I saw Sadeo snarling, fighting two sirens. He hadn’t experimented with moving about underwater before and was being played with. Myota was not in sight, meaning he was probably still stuck inside the Consort. Burdette was moving nimbly through the water despite his stocky bulldog build, but even he was just trying to escape the inevitable.
“No,” I said. “No, I’m not going to let this happen!”
Accessing the abilities granted to me by my profession, I invoked Raise Crew. A long list of names appeared for me to select from. I made my offer to every single one.
And one by one, then in a great flood, they accepted me.
The sirens saw their prey change status from tasty pickings to cursed beings. They screeched in disgust and backed away to see what was happening.
Another wave pounded down, driving the Consort and all her crew further down as well. Burdette was swimming hard, having run out of air but not realizing he no longer needed it. I moved alongside him and grabbed his shoulders, forcing him to look at me.
“Breathe!” I said clearly, then demonstrated.
Burdette choked, then spluttered “what?” before coughing and wheezing – his body convinced he should be drowning even as he received the breath he needed. I dragged him along to the capsized deck of the Consort.
“What,” Burdette said. “What are you?”
“I am Domenic Seaborn,” I said, placing my hand on the deck of the Consort and activating Raise Ship. “And I am the Captain now.”
Death’s Consort has been raised as your cursed ship! Ship interface has been adjusted for ship type.
Even as I took control of the interface so intuitive to me now to right my ship and submerge it below the waves, more messages flooded my head that I did not expect.
Davy Jones has engaged your mental capacities!
You cannot resist your master’s mental effects!
“Hmm,” said a voice I recognized within my mind. “It’s about time!”