The sun broke through the iron clouds cutting a knife of dazzling sunlight on the black waves. The sky had been threatening a squall all day, but the Aurora’s luck had held out. As the sun dipped toward the horizon, the clouds moved east while the Aurora was pointed west toward Rothniel Harbor. Lieutenant Othorion Blackwell stood on deck, hands clasped around a telescope behind his back in relaxed readiness, watching as the sun began painting red stripes in sky and sea. He smiled. He was heading home.
Well, not quite home. He was heading toward Heliohart. Home was at Pheasant’s Cross, but his family was in Heliohart, so it was close enough.
Othorion didn’t turn, but he smiled. That was Lieutenant Vrandel, with whom Othorion had been serving on the Aurora for only six months. Vrandel had been on the Sea Serpent under Captain Ithlin before then, and from the stories he told, it had been far more exciting. And lucrative.
The Sea Serpent was a pirate-chaser that prowled the trade routes between Faydark and the human kingdoms, especially the Saprexus Empire. Faydark claimed all goods secured from pirate ships, but bounties were put on the pirates and the ships themselves. Those bounties were split amongst the crew that took them. It was dangerous work, but sailors on pirate-chasers could accumulate quite a bit of wealth.
The Aurora was far too large to chase pirates. It was a warship, built twelve years earlier during the Trusquen War. Faydark wasn’t fighting any wars at the moment, so the Aurora had patrolled Faydark’s waters, languishing. Othorion was still proud to serve on the Aurora, even if it hadn’t meant much in the way of glory or wealth. Vrandel hated it.
“Lieutenant Vrandel,” Othorion said, keeping his eyes on the horizon.
“Blackwell, off you get,” he said, pulling a cigarette case from inside his coat.
Othorion cut a glance at him, an eyebrow raised.
Vrandel heaved a dramatic sigh, shoved the case back into his coat, and snapped an overly crisp salute. “Lieutenant Blackwell, I relieve you.”
“I am relieved,” Othorion replied, returning the salute. He lifted the telescope, opened it for Vrandel to examine it, then snapped it shut again. He held it out for Vrandel to take.
Once Vrandel had taken the telescope from Othorion, he placed it on the table beside him. He pulled the case back out of his coat and popped a cigarette into his mouth. He offered it to Othorion, who shook his head.
“Suit yourself. Off you get, though. Best get your rations before Fassy gets too interested in it.”
Othorion nodded, but didn’t move. “You’re on duty now, Vrandel.”
Vrandel rolled his eyes at Othorion, but smirked. “You don’t say? What to report?”
Othorion thought about giving an account, but stopped himself. It had been an unremarkable day, as had the day before and the day before that and the day before that. Even Othorion couldn’t bring himself to be so thoroughly slavish. “Nothing.”
“Hmm, nothing,” Vrandel said. He lit his cigarette, coughed, then held the cigarette between his first two fingers.
They both stood, swaying as the Aurora rode the waves, watching the sun turn the sea golden and rose. Othorion had been serving in the Emperor’s navy for seven years. The last three, he had been a lieutenant. He had spent nearly all that time at sea. And Othorion had enjoyed it. He loved the smell of the sea, the taste of the salt on his lips, the wind against his face, and the heaving waves beneath his feet. It was cramped, isolating, and absolutely filled with boredom, but Othorion found when he returned to land, he grew restless within days. It hadn’t been the adventure he had dreamed of when he was a child, but he still preferred the sea to the land now.
The last time he had spent much time on land at all had been a year before, when he had returned for his mother’s funeral. Fasriel – Fassy as Vrandel called her – had even given Othorion her black gloves and kerchief so that he could be appropriately dressed in mourning garments. Before then, he hadn’t understood why anyone would need a costume for mourning. When he learned of his mother’s death, though, he had felt as if he couldn’t wear any other color ever again. It had felt like all color and light had gone out of the world.
“You’ll be taking your captain’s exams after Rammas, then?” Vrandel asked.
Othorion sighed, the his stomach jumping slightly at the reminder that in a few weeks, he would sit for the twelve-hour exams. He tipped his head back to look at Vrandel, striking a pose he hoped was confident. “I will.”
“That would have been convenient. No, I’ll be returning to Rothniel for that.”
Othorion picked off his gloves. He saw his hands were shaking. “Will you be taking the exams?”
Vrandel scoffed, shifted weight, then let himself fall back against the bulkhead. “Trivuous wouldn’t sponsor me.”
Trivuous was the captain of the Aurora. Othorion had been happy serving beneath her for the last three years. She had always struck him as fair, if strict. While she demanded a lot of her crew, it was no more than she herself was willing to give.
“What about Captain Inillion?” Inillion captained the Sea Serpent. As Othorion recalled, Captain Inillion had given Vrandel a shining recommendation when Vrandel had transferred to the Aurora.
“I hadn’t served under him long enough,” Vrandel replied.
Othorion raised an eyebrow. Othorion had assumed Vrandel was a similar age as himself. He must be much younger, if his time as lieutenant had only begun with the Sea Serpent. “How long have you been a lieutenant, then?”
“Just shy of a year.” There was a dark little glare in Vrandel’s eye that told Othorion not to push too hard on this, and so Othorion understood. It wasn’t that Vrandel was much younger than Othorion. It was Vrandel hadn’t been promoted to lieutenant as early as he had. Othorion decided trying to discover why wasn’t worth it. After all, perhaps Vrandel hadn’t joined the navy as young as Othorion had.
“The exams are every six months. Captain Trivuous will sponsor you next time, I’m certain.”
Vrandel exhaled yellowish smoke and shrugged. “If you become a captain, you can sponsor me.”
Othorion would have corrected him. A lieutenant needed to serve with a captain for a year before the captain could sponsor him for the captain exams. However, something out at sea caught his eye. “Vrandel, the telescope,” he said, pointing to the northeast. The clouds had burst there, and rain and distance blurred the sea there, but Othorion was certain he saw two shapes moving. “What are those?”
Vrandel rushed to the railing and peered through the telescope. “A ship. Two ships. I think… one is chasing the other.”
“The first has two-masts. It’s… a binoria. I don’t recognize it. The chaser has three masts, square-rigged. A regalia.” He looked back at Othorion. “I think it’s the Squall.”
A pirate-chaser. Othorion took the telescope from Vrandel and looked. “They’ll never catch that binoria. We need to intercept.”
Vrandel blew his whistle while Othorion shouted orders to adjust course and trim sails. The decks burst into action. Othorion rushed to the helmsman to appraise him of the situation. He nearly lost his balance as the warship swung around.
“Intercept!” he shouted, pointing to ships, which were already rapidly growing larger.
“We’ll be going into the storm!” the helmsman shouted.
“They’ll be well out of it before we get to them!”
Othorion turned to see Captain Trivuous, tall, slim, kinky gray hair tied tightly back against the nape of her neck and ebony face implacable. She strode the deck toward the helms. Beside her ran the first mate, Lieutenant Reconna, red-faced and shrieking. Vrandel was beside them, already trying to give his report over the shouting Reconna.
“Who ordered a change of course without the captain’s permission?” Reconna demanded. Spittle glistened at the corner of his mouth,
“The Squall is chasing a pirate. We’re intercepting to assist,” Othorion said.
Captain Trivuous opened her hand solemnly, and Vrandel immediately placed the telescope in it. Othorion did not have to point for her to find the ships on the horizon. A frown briefly creased her face, then she handed the telescope back to Vrandel.
“Can you name that pirate?” she asked. Her eyes were a startling purple. Few ever managed to meet her gaze for long.
Vrandel took back the telescope. He hesitated as he caught the ship in the lens. He swallowed, then cleared his throat and handed the telescope back. “It’s the Hideous, I’m certain of it.”
“Piracy, smuggling, murder of the Emperor’s servants,” Vrandel began, but the captain cut him off.
“Lieutenant Reconna, hail the Squall on the soundbeam. Tell them that we are assisting the capture of this ship. If we’re quick enough, we can pincer it before it can outrun both of us, but they’ll need to stay on their northern side to keep them from breaking.
“Lieutenant Vrandel, keep the ship on course.” The helmsman stepped away so Vrandel could take the wheel. “Lieutenant Blackwell, prepare the cannons. I want the ship captured, not sunk, understood?”
Othorion hurried below deck, ordering the crew into cannon companies, ordering each to prime the cannons. The noise was cacophonous as first, shouting, wood creaking, metal shrieking against metal, the waves slamming against the hull, but still, he heard his heartbeat above all the rest. Othorion ordered them to keep the gun ports shut until they came broadside, and soon the air grew quiet. Not for the first time, Othorion was grateful that the elves who sailed with him obeyed commands without question. He knew how frightening it could be, not knowing why orders were given, but he also knew following those orders could mean the difference between life and death.
Othorion stood at the porthole, which allowed him to judge the aim for the cannons. All he saw was ocean waves, stretching out to the horizon. He could just make out the wall of rain, dissolving the line of the horizon into a hazy black void to the east. He turned and peered out the port side porthole. There, the ocean stretched out toward the west, burnt orange and gold by the setting sun. Beyond the waters, Rothniel Harbor waited, and Othorion swallowed hard. The Hideous would be coming to view on the starboard side soon.
Reconna sidled up beside him. “We’ll be on them in minutes,” Reconna said. “Are you ready?”
Othorion nodded, but didn’t turn away from the porthole.
“Aim for the masts, boy.”
“Don’t get too full of yourself.”
Reconna caught Othorion by the shoulder and shoved him back so that Othorion was forced to look him in the eye. “Blackwell, I know your kind. You’re a worthless rich boy who wants to play sailor. And while you may have fooled the captain, I know the color of your stripe. Your father may be important, but you’re nothing but an upjumped lieutenant. On the sea, you obey your masters.”
“I do obey.”
Reconna glowered in Othorion’s face.
Othorion found Reconna repulsive, and Reconna had never hidden his own disgust for Othorion. There was resentment, of course, that Othorion was a Blackwell, and that the Blackwells were nobility of the Court of the Stag. Othorion wasn’t the only child of a noble family serving in the navy. But in the navy, as in the army, any who wished to serve the Emperor could. Only here did the rules of elvish peerage disappear.
The relationship between the two highest ranking lieutenants had been tense since Othorion first joined Aurora’s crew. Three years before, Othorion was a newly-minted lieutenant, and Reconna had been a lieutenant for two years. Now, Reconna remained the first mate, and Othorion was sitting for his captain’s exams. Captain Trivuous’s sponsorship had almost made Reconna snap.
“You had better.”
Othorion kept his face as blank as possible, but he did not look away. He could see the grayish tint to Reconna’s cheeks, his dark eyes and high brow. Othorion felt anger rising in his chest, but he tamped it back down.
“Broadside!” a shout thundered from above.
Othorion shoved Reconna off of him and turned back to the porthole. The Hideous’ red and gold hull broke the waves before them. “Gun ports!” he shouted, running down the line of cannons.
Light pierced the gloom of the belowdecks, nearly blinding, but Othorion sighted down the cannons. “Nine degrees,” he shouted. The belowdecks thundered as cannons adjusted their aim up. Othorion ran back to the first cannon in line. He held a fist up, staring down the barrel. The gunner held his breath, hand hovering over the trigger. The mast stood before them, slightly out of angle. Then the binoria bucked on the waves and Othorion brought his fist down. The gunner slammed the trigger and the cannon barked fire and smoke and deafening noise.
The missile went wide of the mast, tearing through rigging and sail instead. Othorion could hear Reconna curse, but Othorion was already moving down the line. Gunners aimed, adjusting by Othorion’s orders.
The hull to Othorion’s right exploded in splinters, blood, and burning metal. Elves lay screaming where once two cannons and cannon companies had stood. Some lay dead. A hole gaped in the hull, acrid smoke clung in the air. Othorion pulled himself upright, having been blown off his feet. He shouted over the din crying and dying men. “Reconna!” he shouted. Reconna had been closer.
“He’s alive!” a voice called.
Cannon companies two and three were down. “One, four, five, get the wounded to the surgery!” Othorion ran to Reconna, who sat pressed against the hull wall. Othorion knelt beside him, but he was sitting with eyes open wide and jaw hanging slack. “Reconna! Reconna, wake up!” He shook Reconna, and blood trickled from the first mate’s ear. “Reconna!” Othorion slapped his cheek, then shook him. He was about to order a mate to take Reconna to the surgery as well when Reconna blink rapidly and his eyes focused.
“Reconna, I need you to-”
“I… I can’t hear…”
There was a draw on Reconna’s voice that told Othorion that he was, at least, temporarily deaf. Othorion swallowed, then pulled Reconna to his feet. He grabbed a mate by the shoulder and shouted, “Take the lieutenant to surgery.”
“Half!” Othorion shouted, walking down the lines of the remaining cannons. There were supposed to be four elves per cannon, but they ran half-drills. Othorion knew these men could run the cannons with just two. At least long enough to disable the Hideous.
“Six through ten, seventeen through twenty-six, fire at will. Make them duck, but don’t pierce the hull!” Othorion shouted as he moved to the thirteenth cannon. Once more, he had them wait.
Othorion was nearly deaf from the booming of the cannons as he manually aimed the cannon. Once more, he held up his fist. The Hideous bucked before them. It was turning north. It could outrun both the Aurora and the Squall. Othorion took a deep breath. Thirteen, he thought, like the thirteen gods. Maybe this was lucky.
The Hideous dipped in the wave, and Othorion brought his fist down. The cannon boomed and Othorion was nearly blind as well as nearly deaf. He blinked and saw the central mast explode and list desperately and tumble into the sea. Othorion just saw another explosion on the deck from the Squall.
A shout from above. They were boarding the Hideous. Othorion exhaled. He finally turned his attention to the men. Blood was soaking to the wood. Othorion could smell it over the painful stab of cannon smoke in his sinuses. The corpses had not been touched. Three elves lay amongst the wreckage of their cannons. One was missing a leg. Another nearly half his torso had been blown away. The third didn’t seem to have any actual wounds, but blood soaked her clothes. Shrapnel.
Anaspida. Conodonta. Thelodoni. He would write their families personally.
Othorion caught an elf by the shirt as she started running past. “Get these sailors… to the surgery. If they need help, help prepare them for burial.”
“We’re boarding the pirate ship!” she said.
“I will. You-” he turned, pointing out the next four closest elves “-and all of you. Take care of these elves.”
Othorion drew his sword, glanced once more at the dead, and ran up the steps to deck. The explosion into sunlight blinded him briefly. He shielded his eyes with his free hand, walking to the boarding plank by memory and through the press of bodies.
Cheering stopped him. He blinked, looked up, and saw a flag of surrender rising on the Hideous’ remaining mast. Othorion breathed a sigh of relief. As he put his sword away, he realized that the muscles in his shoulders, arms, and back had been bunched up, ready to strike. Adrenaline still surged in his bloodstream. He placed a hand against a convenient railing to steady himself.
“We’ve caught a pirate ship!” Vrandel cheered, appearing at Othorion’s elbow.
“I suppose so,” Othorion said.
“We disabled it, so it’s the Aurora’s victory.”
“Excellent job with the cannons, by the way.” Vrandel clapped a hand on Othorion’s shoulder.
Othorion nodded in reply, feeling sick. He often did, when things were over. Battles, boardings, they had been exceedingly rare in peace time. Still, whenever they had been engaged, it ended with Othorion feeling unmoored and wrung out. He took a deep breath.
“Reconna’s in surgery. We should see-”
“No,” Vrandel said. “He was hurt, but not that badly.”
Othorion frowned, an eyebrow raised. “He was in shock after we were hit.”
“Not for long, apparently.”
Othorion straightened, glancing as best he could through the crowd. He hear his and Vrandel’s names being called. Vrandel caught Othorion by the elbow and they hurried through the crowd to Captain Trivuous’ side. Fasriel was making her way to the captain as well, pale-faced and freckled. Reconna stood beside the captain, a handkerchief to his ear.
“Lieutenant,” Othorion said to Reconna, “are you all right?”
“No thanks to you,” Reconna replied.
Othorion blinked and glanced to the captain’s, whose face was as unreadable as ever. “Reconna,” she said, “you’ll take command of the Hideous. Speak to Captain Loellyn. We’ll be hauling the Hideous to Rothniel Harbor. Fasriel, notify the Harbor we’ll need repairs, then get the elves on doing what repair they can and get a report from surgery about the injured sailors.
“Blackwell, Vrandel, you’ll go on the Hideous with Reconna to secure the brig and take inventory of whatever the pirates have. I expect that to be done within a day. Vrandel, you’ll stay on with Reconna. Blackwell, you’ll return to the Aurora.”
Each lieutenant snapped a salute and hurried to their duties. “Blackwell,” Captain Trivuous called as they departed.
Othorion exchanged glances with Vrandel and Fasriel. Vrandel wore a confused face, Fasriel a concerned one. Othorion turned back.
“Ma’am?” Othorion asked.
Captain Trivuous waited for the others to leave before she continued. Othorion could see a smirk on Reconna’s lips. His stomach did another somersault.
“You will need to prepare a very detailed report about what happened belowdecks between you and Lieutenant Reconna.”
Othorion’s mouth dropped open, an icy feeling exploding behind his eyes. His mind raced. Reconna had been dazed from the explosion. What could have happened? Othorion had tried to revive him. Hadn’t he? He had sent Reconna to surgery. He was in shock, that had been the right thing to do.
“May I know what the concern is?”
“Reconna wants to bring charges against you. Assaulting an officer, dereliction of duty, et cetera. I know the history between you and Reconna, but these are serious charges. Be prepared.”
“But-” Othorion stopped himself, searching for some understanding. He had slapped Reconna to try to revive him. Was that the assault? Who had been with him at the time? Who could he take as a witness? He swallowed. “Captain, will my exams be affected?”
“Do you think this is the time to worry about that?”
Othorion snapped a salute in reply, then turned on his heel. He felt dizzy and a burning in his chest. His ears pounded with his own heartbeat. He almost didn’t hear Fasriel ask, “Is everything all right?”
Othorion set his jaw. “It will be,” he said.
© Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.