Games of Chance
by Martin Hall
The sun shone down on a perfect day, the breeze hinting that summer would soon end. A shuttlecock soared above the deck of Le Predateur des Mers, sending a young officer scrabbling after it. His wild swing found it and sent it tottering erratically back towards his opponent. As he recovered, he saw the shuttle in the corner of his eye as it bounced on his side of the deck. It rolled away with the pitch of the ship and his opponent snapped his fingers.
"My point, I believe." Gloated Admiral Alasaiz Valoix Praisse du Rachetisse III as Michel Rois et Reines straightened himself and bowed. Michel frowned slightly, as if considering the odds, then spoke. "Sir?"
"Monsieur Rois et Reines?" Valoix arched an eyebrow as he mopped himself with a towel. "Am I to presume your question concerns the game?" He waved his racket, indicating the chalked lines on the main deck. Michel nodded hastily.
"Given our current situation, sir, I feel that the game is…" he struggled for the correct word, his mouth working without purpose.
"A waste of time?" retorted Valoix as a servant handed him the shuttle.
"Well, I would not be so harsh in my choice of words…" as something like thunder rumbled in the distance and Michel started, dropping his racket.
"But none the less, you feel that you would be better to concentrate your attention on more martial endeavours. Correct?" Valoix adopted a serving stance as Michel picked up his racket. No, he thought. He isn't going to be talked out of it. He's actually going to finish this stupid game. "The situation dictates the actions, mon Amiral." Said Michel, adjusting position in time to return the serve.
"Nonsense. There are several reasons that it is imperative that we do nothing but play, monsieur." The shuttle returned to Michel. "Firstly, it is not in the nature of a man of honour to admit defeat, so the game must be played." His tone changed to that of a lecture. He flipped the shuttle in a high lob and Michel stretched himself to return it. "Secondly, it is all the rage in Court this season. The Empereur finds it diverting. And anything he can do, I can beat him at." The shuttle again returned to Michel. How does the windbag do it?, he thought. Blast him. Michel flew across the court like the wrath of Theus while Valoix intoned in a distracted manner. The man wasnt even sweating, he thought. That isn't natural.
"Thirdly," said Valoix, calmly swatting at the shuttle, "look about you. The men on this ship are in the grip of a very dangerous game indeed. Their lives, and the lives of countless others of our men, hang in the balance. They, if you will, are our stake." He returned Michel's volley. "The essence of any game of chance is composure. We must appear to be…" an airy wave to the crew as he sent his navigator running across the court - "utterly without a care. Victory rests with the man who can calmly stare death in the face and take what is rightfully his." Valoix paused, seemingly lost in contemplation, as the shuttle soared high over his head. "In this case, we are liberating Castille from those peasant-burning fanatics who dictate to that boy king of theirs." The shuttle struck the deck behind Valoix, and Michel stared in disbelief. The Admiral didn't turn around as a servant announced the shot as out.
"Don't overextend yourself, Monsieur. Your response is certain to be wild. A considered shot will find a target far more readily than a senseless and energetic volley. Match point, and final lesson." A furious exchange of shots left Michel running to the left as the shuttle bounced lightly on the right. "The feint." Valoix pointed to the shuttle. "And my game." He bowed extravagantly to the crew and tossed his racket overboard. "You see, your enemy is distracted by numerous small engagements which divert his attention from your real target. It could be considered cheating, I suppose, but only a little." The Admiral smiled. Now, I believe we have a victory to secure. "Pepin, my coat if you please." Thunder sounded, closer again, along with the sounds of combat. Ahead, the harbour of San Cristobal loomed, and the sun was lost in fire and smoke.
Miguel Cortez was almost thrown from his feet by the force of the cannonballs as they were hurled into the side of the ship. There was something in this, he thought. The Montaigne had been engaging them along the coast for the past few weeks, and the attacks had been getting more frequent. Miguel smiled to himself. The Empereur must be getting desperate. He shall have to be taught manners. As the two ships closed, Miguel ran at the rail and vaulted over the breach, barrelling into a Montaigne marine who was fixing his bayonet. The man sprawled under Miguel, who sprang up, laughing. The Montaigne lost no time in springing on Cortez, who tutted as he parried their blows. "Come, now, gentlemen. Surely your masters have something better to waste your lives on than such a futile endeavour as tackling me in combat? No? Such a shame." As Cortez and his crew swarmed onto the deck of the sloop, the Montaigne sailors were outclassed. Miguel fought with joy, tripping his foes, dancing between their blades and parrying every cut and thrust until the captain stood before him. Miguel cut the belt from the mans breeches, and as the captain tumbled to the deck bereft of dignity, Miguel pulled a bottle from a pouch at his waist. He held his blade at the captains throat and smiled. "Never
mind, eh? Perhaps a small glass of Castillian wine will help to soften the painful
blow of defeat."
As Miguel watched the prisoners taken below decks, he looked out to the horizon. Then he looked again. Something wasn't right. He called for a spyglass and sought out the same point in the distance. He was right. Montaigne ships. A lot of Montaigne ships. Heading right for him. Not the usual light frigates, either. He dropped the spyglass. "Rodrigo! Rodrigo!" the bosun ran up to him. "Si, Miguel?"
Cortez pointed out to sea. "Tell the captain they're coming! The Montaigne! Something's wrong here. There shouldn't be this many, not when the fleets spread out so…" Miguel paused, his jaw slack. "Cut the sloop loose, Rodrigo! We have to get away!" As the lookout sent up the cry, the ship became a hive of activity, as Miguel raced back to his vessel and the stricken sloop was cut away with the prisoners still aboard her. The Montaigne quickened their pace and moved to engage. Against so many vessels, the lumbering Castillian galleon had no chance to escape. In his heart, Miguel knew it. He touched the Prophets cross around his neck and prayed to Theus that it might be otherwise.
By the time the first chain shot tore into their masts, Miguel knew that the best he could hope for would be to die like a Castillian. "For Castille and Good King Sandoval!" he yelled, leaping across the breach like an acrobat. "Long live the King!" As he landed among the Montaigne, his blade gleamed in the dying light of day.
Vogt cursed for the thirty-fourth time that morning, drawing a line through
his calculations and snapping his he thought for an instant fifth
pencil. He drew a sixth from his pockets and produced a fresh roll of paper as La Gloire de L'Empereur lurched under him. Shot whistled past. He stifled his thirty-fifth curse and shot a black gaze at the captain.
"Du Maurier!" he bellowed, his face turning bright red beneath his light blonde beard. "If this exercise is to have any merit, I must have at least some measure of calm on board! Keep the port side towards them!" He stabbed an irate finger at two approaching Castillian galleons. "We do not have much time, and I do not appreciate your men's incompetence!" The sound of Castillian fire cracked through the morning, kicking up spray woefully short of the ship.
Louis du Maurier spat at the gunnery master behind his back. He did not appreciate the high-strung Vendel mathematician, but Valoix insisted he was a genius, and he was bound to follow his orders, his whims. Life had been easier with the Admiral back at court. Du Maurier drew out his spyglass and snapped it open noisily as Vogt turned the air blue with vile gutter language again. It wasn't going to work. He had best order the marines to get ready. If he was going to die, he was going to make sure the Vendel died first. Another mans folly was going to kill his crew, but he would make sure that Valoix's pet went with them.
Four curses later, Cathwulf looked up and snapped his pencil in triumph. Two decks of guns, two volleys. One ship against two Castillian ships of the line. The solution to the impossible had presented itself. It could be done. As the Castillians drew closer, Cathwulf hastily copied the diagrams and ran down to the gun deck. Simple enough, he thought. Even they can't ruin it. He waved the sheets as the gunners drew themselves to attention. "No time, idiots! They are almost upon us!" He threw a sheet across the nearest cannon and talked of angles and trajectory as the crews looked on. His voice rang across the first gun deck after he had departed for the second. The crews eyed each other nervously as the galleons drew nearer.
Within minutes, the Castillians were in range. Cathwulf perched on a cannon like a powder-stained gargoyle, staring out through the gun port. His eye marked the mainmast of the nearest ship, then he squinted down the gun at the same point. He leaped from the gun and waved his hat. "First deck fire!" With no inclination to view the result, Cathwulf flew like an angry bat to the sterncastle, looking for the captain.
Du Maurier watched in amazement as the shot ripped through the first galleon. The mainmast seemed to fall down and to the side, and the ship lurched drunkenly away from them as crew fell from the rigging like snow. As the side split open, Vogt sprinted towards him. "To port, du Maurier! Time is scant and the foe still has claws!" As the captain gave the order to come to port, he turned to Vogt and pointed at the sinking ship. "How?" was all he could say. Cathwulf spun around, clutching the diagram triumphantly. "The keel, du Maurier! Given the rapid increase in size of the Castillian fleet, I was willing to wager that the keel had been laid in with more speed than craftsmanship. As you can well see…" his mouth snapped shut. He measured the distance to the approaching Castillian ship. "Time waits for no man, du Maurier! If you will excuse me, I shall be presenting a paper on this subject. You can read it then!" Vogt leapt to the lower gun deck and the volley ripped through the second galleon, crippling it. The cries of the sailors as they abandoned ship drifted across the waves. Du Maurier shrugged. There was a chance Valoix's plan could work after all.
small boat wobbled across the black bay like a leaf as shot after shot
tore overhead, lighting the sky and striking the harbour fortifications
around San Cristobal with unstoppable and unrelenting force. The Montaigne officer
nodded to his marines to ready grapples. The harbour walls were close, and the
smoke from the cannons obscured their arrival. The shore party shipped oars and
drifted. As the grapples sailed towards the wall and bit home, the boat was drawn
brutally towards the slick surface. The noise coincided with the crash of a shot
which shook the wall along its length and showered chips of stone on the heads
of the Montaigne soldiers. The commander drew his sword, tugged on the grapple,
and picked his way carefully up the wall. The first guard to see them was sent
to the hungry sea below before he could utter a sound, and the soldiers picked
their way along the ramparts. As a shot tore a section of wall out ahead of him,
the leader jumped backwards in surprise. He felt blood on his forehead. With
any luck, he mused, that will scar. He ushered his men forward at speed, as the
shot would bring guards. When they did burst from the tower, the Montaigne were
ready for them. The Marines commander fought bravely, working his way up the
stone steps against insurmountable odds while his men did little but cheer him
on and push the harbour forts guns into the sea.
As the Lieutenant reached the top of the tower, he found the forts commandant. The man bowed to him and assumed a fencing stance. "Do you want to know who will kill you?" the Castillian inquired, stiffly.
The Montaigne grinned. "I already know. My mistress' husband will kill me. He really is quite the duellist. But that's not for a year or two yet. It should please you to know that I, Galafre Flaubert du Dore, still have plenty of time to kill you." He pointed with his blade, and the enraged Castillian charged. Galafre stepped to one side and placed one hand behind his back.
"I can see you are at a disadvantage, monsieur, so I shall adopt the style of your country. It is only fair that I do not send you to your grave in the Valroux style." He smiled. "You will only tell the Prophets I cheated."
He aped the Castillian fencing style as the commander spun past, yet easily dodged the thrust despite his prancing mockery. "Now, sir, we are even. A fair fight." Galafre parried another thrust as one of his men cleared his throat at the steps. "You must pardon me. Time waits for no man." With that, he ran the commandant through, and nimbly kicked the staggering man from the tower. "A shame. He really could have used the practice." He slipped a small package in a waxed leather case from his back and pointed to the Castillian flag that flew from the fort. "And get that down. It's revolting."
"Theus preserve us," muttered Hector Bascalle, as the distant sound of battle drifted across the waves. He turned his eyes from the plume of smoke that hung over the coast and made his way unsteadily across the deck, composing himself as he drew near the captain. "Senora!" he shouted, a little louder than was necessary. "Senora
The woman turned to him, startled into the present. Tears streaked her face, and she scowled as her eyes fell on the priest. She turned away, her voice almost inaudible. "Get away from me."
Bascalle felt his mouth dry, and tried swallowing. "Senora Orduno, your country needs you! San Cristobal is in peril, and you stand here doing nothing!"
She spun around again, her clothes inky against the bright sea, her veil pulled low over her face. "What would you have me do, priest? Why don't you ask the Cardinal?"
The eyes of the crew seemed to bore into the back of Bascalle's neck, and the rolling motion of the deck seemed more pronounced than usual. "Th-the city is in danger, Senora. In the name of Theus, I implore you, turn your ship around and do what any Castillian of honour would do!" He raised his hands, the dying sun glinting on his rings and the elaborate jewelled cross about his neck.
"Get away from me. I won't ask you again." Margaretta stood shaking, her hands clenched into fists at her sides. The sound of another volley crackled in the distance, and Bascalle twisted his ring of office. He drew himself up and glowered at the woman before him, who seemed so small and fragile.
"Need I remind you that I stand on this ship on behalf of both the Concilio de Razon and Theus Himself, Senora! You would dare to defy the will of the council? You would dare to defy the will of Theus?"
Margaretta stood, icy. "Was it Theus will to condemn and murder my husband? You're my confessor, you tell me."
The sound of boots came from behind Bascalle. The crew were stopping to watch. This would not to. He licked his dry lips and smiled. "Senora, your husband would have defended San Cristobal." His voice poured out, smooth as oil. "Is this how you honour his memory?"
Margaretta's arm lashed out like a serpent, her hand wrapping itself around the chain on Bascalles cross in a second. Her right hand drew her rapier without ever dropping eye contact with the priest. "My husband would have gone back, padre. You are right. But we wouldn't want to emulate such a heretic as that, would we?"
As Bascalle opened his mouth to speak, she drove the pommel of her sword down onto his nose with a furious howl. His eyes rolled skywards and he fell to the ground. She glared at the prone inquisitor in disgust. "Someone throw that creature in the brig. We maintain our position here."
She turned back to the sea, her back to the destruction in the distance. "I'm sorry, my love." She whispered.
Admiral Valoix watched as the volleys from his fleet hammered the helpless city of San Cristobal. Fires raged through the city, and the flag of the Sun King snapped in the scorching black clouds that poured across the harbour forts. He smiled thinly as his ships pounded the heart of Castille into submission. "Checkmate."
The dying sun framed her hair in rich purple as she stared out to sea, her tears mixing with the water. Ahead of her, the ocean stretched away for what seemed like forever, held by a gentle horizon as night fell. Behind her, a nation cried for help. Her nation, she reminded herself. A nation which had turned its back on all she cared about, a nation that had sentenced the only man she ever loved to death for nothing. A voice by her ear made her start.
"Your orders, Dona Orduno?" The man had been standing there for a long time. How long she did not know or care.
"I have no orders, Carlos. Go away." She turned away to the sea again.
The voice continued to needle her. "Bascalle will report you to the Cardinal, my lady. You shouldn't have left him alive."
"Carlos, please. Leave me alone."
"I could go far by condemning you, he says. I could even get a fine ship such as this under my command." Altenar smiled thinly in the dying light.
Margaretta Orduno gritted her teeth, her rapier flying all too easily to her hand. Its point found Altenars throat. "Do you plan to betray me, Altenar? I could kill you right here."
Carlos sniffed and attempted to poke the point of the sword away from his neck. Margaretta drew blood. "Don't be ridiculous, captain. Bascalle is scum. Trust me, I know. Like knows like. He's willing to offer me any price I ask to betray you. However, he's the one in the brig, and I'm the one keeping him there." He hooked his finger around his belt, shaking the keys that hung there loosely. "If I wanted to betray you, you would be dead. I should betray you, of course, for the good of Castille."
Margaretta drew back her sword, making a small cut across Altenar's cheek. Carlos stepped back, hissing, as blood ran through his leather gloves. "Never talk like that to me. I am your captain, and you will treat me with respect at all times."
Clutching his cheek, Carlos spat at Margaretta's feet. "The respect of a Castillian is earned, not given. Are we Montaigne now, that your position makes you more important than your soul? When you behave as a captain, then you are a captain."
Margaretta turned her back on Carlos. "Leave me alone. Those are my orders." Carlos scowled, blood coursing down his cheek.
"You know why I haven't killed you yet? Why I haven't set the priest free and taken the ship to San Cristobal? Do you?" Carlos stood, scowling as the moon hung low over the sea, the smoke of a city in flames still visible over his shoulder. A brief motion sent a dagger from a hidden sheath into his hand. He palmed it silently. "You are better than this, Captain. Your husband lived for the people of Castille, and now you're letting them die. Did you learn nothing from him?"
She gazed forlornly ahead, her back to Carlos, silent.
"Then you leave me no choice, my lady." His arm swept forward in one fluid motion and sent the dagger spinning at Margaretta's back. She spun to one side and brought her rapier up. The dagger struck it with a resounding ring and disappeared into the dark folds of the ocean like a fish. Carlos stood still, blood curving down his cheekbone and dripping from his chin. Margaretta glared at him.
"If you wont lead us in defence of Castille, someone has to. Regardless of what the Inquisition may have done, they are not Castille. They are not the people you swore to defend." He turned away from her, to the column of smoke that marked the destruction of Castille's will to fight.
Margaretta lowered her rapier. "Bring the ship about and ready the boarding parties. I want all gunners drilled and at their posts. Montaigne shall regret the day they started this war."
Carlos Altenar grinned like a hungry wolf as the moon shone silver on the Fuego Negro. "Yes, Captain. Right away."
afternoon light filtered through the long windows of the audience chamber
in the Palais du Soleil, casting a haze over the space between the red-uniformed
man and Leon Alexandre du Montaigne XIV, Empereur of Montaigne. Pierre Levecque
drew himself up to his full height, his stained hands fidgeting with the sealed
document he carried.
"His Lordship Amiral Alasaiz Valoix Praisse du Rachetisse bids me present his fondest wishes for the continued good health and enlightened reign of his most noble Majesty," he recited, bowing deeply from the waist to the Empereur. Leon lifted his chin from his hand and stared at the messenger like a lizard regarding a fly.
"Valoix," drawled Leon, "had better have something to report this time. His failure to bring Castille to its knees and that impertinent boys head to me is trying my patience. What does he have to say to me?" Leon shifted, his eyes falling on the gardens outside the window as Pierre presented the sealed report to one of his servants.
"The communiqué I was instructed to deliver contains…" Leon cut him off with a wave of his hand.
"I do not have the time to listen to every florid passage of praise and excuses that my adoring servants send me. Tell me yourself how the fleet fares." Leon turned his full attention on the messenger. Levecque blanched, regretting ever volunteering to deliver this message.
"The Castillians are spread far and wide. Their ships mill about like confused wasps, unable to engage our fleet. They are leaderless. San Cristobal has come under fire from the finest ships our country has ever had the honour to produce, and shall fall in a matter of days. The surrender of Castille without condition cannot be far behind, your Majesty." Pierre bowed again, unsure of palace etiquette. Leon stared down from the throne, slouching lazily in the immaculate garb of the monarch.
"See that it falls soon. We expect great things of our Royal Navy." He fixed the soldiers eyes in his. "Great things."
Pierre felt nervous, sick. This was worse than battle. The eyes of the Empereur were upon them. They could not fail. As distant footsteps heralded the approach of the Empereur's dinner hour, he was escorted from the audience chamber. As he watched the Admirals messenger go, Leon's eyes narrowed. No-one could dare to defy him now. The most powerful man in the world stood, straightened his robes and frowned. Then the chamberlain escorted him to the dinner room, followed by his shoal of servants, in total silence.
del Zepeda looked out across the harbour, counting the number of boats
that seemed to fill the sea, bobbing toward them, the bayonets of the
Montaigne soldiers glinting even through the smoke that floated across the bay.
Rita thought she could hear the faint beat of the drums, the marines no doubt
ready to march the colours of that bloated pig to the highest hill in the city.
As the boats danced nearer, Rita and her men stepped gingerly onto the wreck
of one of the ships which had been shattered where it lay in the docks.
"Rita! Rita!" The call rang out from beneath her. As she bent close to one of the jagged holes punched in the deck, she grimaced as the bullet wound in her chest tightened. "We found it."
She nodded, fighting her desire to faint. She had seen many brave men die on the front, but she had to admire the bravery of the men who had fought under her for the past three days. They were civilians, all but Hector, and they had braved a storm of cannon fire in defence of their loved ones. As she slipped below decks, she looked to the forlorn spars of the Aube Glorieuse, sunk by untrained civilians using the harbour guns. The Montaigne ship was the first lesson that those swine would pay dearly for the pain they had caused. Rita shouldered her musket as she looked around. Ricardo and Hector had found the ships powder room. They beckoned her over. "Well?"
Hector grinned. "Dry. They won't know what hit them. We set it on a ten-minute fuse, then boom." He threw his hands apart then clapped them together.
Rita looked across to Ricardo. "Make sure the warehouses are evacuated, Ricardo. We don't want any of our people getting caught in the explosion. I want them behind good thick walls. When the ship goes, we fire once in a volley while they're confused, then retreat. We take this to the streets. They outnumber us. We can't engage them as they come ashore. We must be patient." Ricardo nodded and ran from the ship to the hastily assembled defenders.
Hector looked at Rita. "There is no fuse. None that we can rely on. The artillerist shook his head. I shall set it off myself." He stood proudly, blood seeping through the dressings on his leg.
"I thought as much. Castille will remember you, Captain." She saluted and turned back out of the magazine.
"Look after your men, Rita." Hector returned her salute, then watched her leave. "Theus be with you." He leaned back on a cask of gunpowder and waited.
When the sound of the explosion tore through the docks, Rita did not cry. When she had driven the invader from her home, she would cry. Then she would cry for all of the lost, she promised. As the confused shouts of the surviving marines drifted through the smoke, she signalled the charge.
La Gloire de L'Empereur swayed
as she lumbered round to face the smaller Castillian ship. Captain Louis
du Maurier studied the ship, searching
for a reason to their attack. Two ships defeated, and they send a smaller ship
to engage us. "It's barely a sloop. What a waste of resources. Vogt?"
The Vendel appeared by his side, stroking his beard. A chewed pencil protruded from his mouth, a habit du Maurier personally considered deplorable. "They're leading us to that cove. She's swift, I'll give them that." He turned to yell at the ginners. "Spotters!" A few shots sailed tentatively towards the small vessel, landing wide of the mark. Vogt frowned, then shouted a series of alterations. A second volley leaped out, sending a fountain of salt spray over the figurehead. Vogt snapped his fingers in triumph. "If you can keep them to port, we'll hole it in a matter of minutes. A few more degrees are all that is necessary. A nimble and small target is considerably more problematic than a Castillian galleon, du Maurier."
Du Maurier sighed. He didn't like this. The Castillians hadn't fired so much as a shot, and there was no sign of a ship in the area besides this one. They just danced beyond range. Vogt's vaunted mathematics hadn't afforded him a single solid hit on the enemy. "Below the waterline if you can, Vogt. We want them slow enough to finish quickly."
Cathwulf rolled his eyes. He looked at the cove, at the ship, at the sun, at the ship again, and then at their own course. He began to sketch as a lone shot flew out towards the Castillians. It skipped through the water ahead of target, and Cathwulf began to scribble more furiously, pulling a fresh pencil from his pocket without so much as a word when the tip snapped on the paper. He stood back from his calculations, then looked to the cove. Something was amiss. They had been manoeuvred into position, and he didn't like it. Cathwulf tapped the captains shoulder. "Du Maurier?"
"Captain du Maurier, you impudent Vendel!" snapped the officer. Vogt, taken aback, could only throw himself to the deck as cannon erupted from a hidden battery in the cove. The mainmast was sheared in half, and a muffled crash indicated that the ship had taken a bad hit below decks. As the sails crumpled noisily to the deck, Vogt watched the Castillians sail into the distance. "Good shot," he muttered, the pencil dropping from his slack jaw as he dusted off his coat. "To the lifeboats, captain Du Maurier." Cathwulf patted him on the shoulder. "Brilliant work. We'll be under in ten minutes, I guarantee it." He shook his head as the Castillians sailed on to San Cristobal. "Brilliant." He muttered.
Valoix Praisse du Rachetisse III reclined on a chair as his barber lathered
his cheeks and the morning sun made another futile attempt to
poke through the grey pall that clung to the city. His officers stood to attention
by his side as the servant sharpened his razor. The sound of volley after volley
from the frigates roared through the morning air. Valoix turned to his navigator.
"Monsieur Rois et Reines."
Michel stepped forward. "Sir?"
"We should have a quartet or something on deck. The sound of battle, while perfectly vigorous and agreeable in the proper environment, has no part of a gentleman's morning ablutions." Valoix sighed as a concentrated burst of shots shattered a section of the harbour wall. "This cacophony has been no fit accompaniment to my days, and the Castillians have yet to surrender the city."
Michel looked confused. "Sir, I thought your orders were to raze the city regardless of terms offered."
Valoix smiled, a lazy dollop of soap falling from his cheek onto the towel tucked around his neck. "That is the case. However, the Castillians are not aware of my order. At least," he continued brightly, shooting a half-joking glance at his officers, "they had better not be."
The officers laughed as one, nervously.
Valoix wagged his finger, gesturing to the barber to hold for just a moment, as he continued. "If the Castillians surrender, monsieur Rois et Reines, then that is our conclusive indicator that the fight has gone out of them. If they are willing to give up their ancient capital to their greatest enemy," he smiled, "they no longer have the spirit to resist their destruction. If they surrender, we press them to oblivion. It is that simple." His attention seemed to drift elsewhere for a few seconds, then he swung round in his chair to face his first mate. "I believe the gun teams are taking longer than usual to reload today. Remind them of the very high standards our Empereur expects of his flagships crew. Thirty lashes if they are not firing at a greater rate than yesterday in one hour from now." The officer saluted and clambered below decks as another volley was loosed on the city. In the distance a townhouse collapsed into rubble as Valoix reclined into his chair and nodded to the barber.
"Begin." As the razor scraped along Valoix's cheek, another servant stepped forward holding two carved wooden heads which bore the Admirals wigs for the day. The sudden burst of the explosion caught the barber completely off-guard, causing him to nick Valoix's cheek. As smoke rose from the harbour and boards rained down into the black water, Valoix ripped his towel free and dashed it viciously into the barbers face, then strode to the rail, foam still clinging to his cheeks. "Towel!" he yelled to the barber, who tumbled after him, his hands shaking. As the cluster of officers at the deck drew apart, Valoix looked out across the harbour at the remains of one of his frigates, water gushing in through a dark jagged hole which had punched most of the port side of the vessel apart.
One of his officers turned to face him, smartly at attention. Valoix squinted out at the listing vessel as the surviving crew shouted across the roar of cannons, lowering the boats. "The Etalon de la Mer." He frowned at the officer in question. "That's the third ship these dogs have sunk, St. Just. Third. See to it that they sink no more." Valoix whirled around to find his manservant standing behind him, a wig clutched sheepishly in each hand.
"This exercise is becoming more tiresome with each minute that sees me stranded in this harbour." Valoix grabbed a pistol from St. Just's belt as the officer turned back to the bay, levelled it at his barber, and fired with frightening speed. A crushing silence dominated the bay, broken for those on deck only by the slight ring of the razor sliding from the servant's numb grip and falling to the ground. The hapless barber sunk down slowly, and his head hit the deck with a hollow thud. The barber gasped in pain, blood pumping from the ruin of his leg.
Valoix calmly handed the pistol back to St. Just and dabbed at his bleeding cheek with a lace handkerchief. He motioned to two marines. "Take this man to the gun decks and lash him to the front of the slowest cannon. Facing the city. It is imperative that this crew grasp the urgency of our objectives here, and what lies in store for those who do not measure up to our beloved Empereur's expectations." He stooped, plucking the razor from the floor. He regarded his handkerchief with disdain and crumpled it up, tossing it into the sea with a flick of his wrist. "Good day, gentlemen." The admiral bowed slightly from the waist, then turned on his heel and strode to his cabin to complete his morning ablutions.
Brother Jerome intoned the third vigil again as the thunder of cannon fire erupted from the harbour. The congregation huddled together in the cathedral's dark nave as the initiates plodded solemnly down the aisle, swinging their incense bearers. As the sporadic crackle of musket fire broke out over the city, brother Jerome cast his eyes to the statue of the Third Prophet that stood impassively above him, casting his wise gaze down upon the lectern. "Why?" he whispered. "Why do you suffer this to happen to those who keep your faith?" A loud roar near the cathedral illuminated the east windows briefly, casting a hellish light over the fugitives. Towards the entrance, where the founding fathers of the Sandoval dynasty had carved lessons from the Book of the Prophets in celebration of Castille's covenant with Theus, brother Carleman and some of the Cathedral's own attendants rushed out to look for wounded. A shower of dust and mortar drifted across the surface of Jerome's book as the building shook, and he raised his voice to Theus, steeling himself against his own doubts and fears. The people hadn't come here to see a frightened monk, he told himself. They came here to find Theus.
Since the assault began, people had come to the Cathedral, seeking some sanctuary from the brutality of the Montaignes' assault. They slept in the pews and on the cold stone floor. They helped with the wounded, they gave comfort to the dying, they found what food they could to feed the people of San Cristobal. Some of the priests who had wandered into the streets had never returned. Jerome and his fellow brothers had been left to attend to the church. A frown passed over Jerome's face as he blew the dust from the manuscript and turned the page carefully. The bishop had fled in the first hours of the attack, leaving his flock to the wolves. Jerome finished the prayers of the Vigil and led the congregation in a hymn in Castillian. His superiors in the order would hate him for it, but it raised the spirits of the people more than listening to the choir chant in Thean. He lifted the book from the lectern and passed it solemnly to brother Jeremias. Jerome stepped stiffly down from the lectern as Jeremias replaced the book and began to read to the terrified people.
As he strode to the front of the Cathedral, Jerome looked into the faces of the people. Old, young, rich, poor - the war had made many people equal. He could see Don Reynaldo, one of his order's most generous benefactors, sharing a battered hymnary with an old beggar. Despite the toll the assault had taken, Jerome smiled. His country would survive. He looked up to the Second Prophet's statue, his eyes cast out over the bay. As he did so, the Second Prophet's chest exploded in a shower of stone. A second cannonball flew through the windows of the transept, collapsing one of Castille's finest pieces of art in a storm of glass and molten lead.
Jerome spun on his heel, his robes catching on the pews. "Jeremias!" he bellowed, his hoarse voice cracking, "They're attacking the cathedral!" The other monk stood stunned at the lectern as the people stood uncertainly in their pews. The roar of the cannons sounded again, and a stone pillar fell across the nave, shattering the lectern to pieces. The congregation scrambled to be out of the pews. Jerome leaped among them, shouting orders to the initiates to evacuate the wounded from the cathedral. The throng of panicking citizens moved swiftly, the injured being led from the building by the strong. Jerome lifted a sleeping child and handed it to Luis, one of the initiates. As he turned back to the altar, he heard a groan from beneath the pillar.
"Jeremias?" Jerome advanced uncertainly. There was no way he could be alive. Yet there was a groan. A movement from the rubble. "Jeremias?" he repeated.
A cough sounded from the ruins of the lectern as a large portion of the east wall fell. The shouts of the initiates became more feverish as the last of the congregation were herded toward the great doors. Jerome knelt by the rubble, scooping away at it. A hand moved weakly, blood welling from a number of cuts along it. Jerome glanced back to the door. The monks were almost all out of the cathedral. He drew the small cross of the prophets from his neck and placed it in the outstretched hand. He bowed his head and began to speak as he held the hand shut around the cross, his eyes closed. He heard the ceiling begin to crack, and the painted dome above the altar collapsed, but he did not stumble over the rites as he spoke to his brother beneath the rubble.
"May Theus receive you and hold you dear…"
"Well done!" Admiral Valoix clapped excitedly as the Cathedral's spire collapsed along the length of the building, and the labour of centuries was laid low in a second. "Good shot. Good shot." His officers clapped politely behind him. The gunner responsible stood at his gun and bowed in an exaggerated fashion. Valoix pulled a small purse from his belt and hefted it in his hand before pitching it to the gunner, who accepted it with a broad grin.
"I believe I am now correct. The cathedral in Charouse is the largest." The admiral inhaled the smoke of the guns, sighing deeply. "At least it is now. Ten sols, I believe the stake was." Valoix smiled, turning to his mate. "You see?" He gestured to the smoking ruin of the Cathedral. "Finest navy in the world."
"No!" Margaretta clutched the rail of the Fuego Negro with both hands, her spyglass clattering to the deck. A tear beaded in her eye as she stared at the seat of learning and culture in Castille, torn asunder as if by the forces of Legion itself. The spire of the Cathedral toppled to the ground like a dying beast, the smoke that hung over the city like a fog masking its fall. "What have I done? What have I cost my people?" she whispered, as the masts of nine Montaigne frigates loomed through the smoke that poured across the harbour.
She turned to her men, her jaw set. "I will not lie to you, men. The Montaigne outnumber us nine to one, but we shall do what we must. Theus willing, we shall cause the Montaigne to flee to their homeland. Every one of you lives and dies a hero in the eyes of Castille." She raised her sword high, and brought it down in an arc towards the Predateur. "Are you with me?"
The cheer of the crew sounded deafening in her ears. "For Castille, and Good King Sandoval!" As the Predateur began to slew around to face them, the gun crews trained their cannons on the flagship of Castille's most hated enemy.
She turned to Antonio, who perched one booted foot nonchalantly on the rail and stared at the approaching warship. "Carlos' party has left. With all the smoke in the harbour, I don't think they'll notice."
Margaretta nodded. "That's what I'm counting on, Antonio."
"Sir!" Michel Rois et Reines ran unsteadily across the deck to where the command staff of the fleet watched the destruction of the city. "We have a vessel bound for the harbour, sir." He saluted awkwardly as Admiral Valoix turned slowly to face him.
"Go on." Valoix snapped impatiently.
"It's Castillian, sir. Naval. Orders?"
Valoix glared across the harbour to the sloop. It was bearing down on the Predateur with speed. "Make sail. Order all guns readied. All crews are to fire at will after the first volley. We shall take care of this matter ourselves."
"And the others?" queried Michel, indicating the remaining ships in the squadron.
"No need to bother them with this little fish, wouldn't you say, monsieur Rois et Reines? It's a sorry day when the flagship of the mightiest navy in the world can't see off a single sloop unassisted. Besides, I want this over quickly, before my staff are incapable of getting the reek of smoke and powder out of my uniforms." Valoix turned haughtily away from his staff, absently stroking his moustache. Commands were bellowed into the tops, and the deck lurched under his feet as the ship moved out of formation to engage the tiny Castillian vessel. "Yes, this battle should be over and done with in short order."
"This battle is over." Spat Margaretta, her eyes fixed in hatred on the approaching Montaigne ship. She braced herself as the Fuego Negro wrenched itself to port. The little vessel wheeled away from the Predateur, turning out of the harbour. Margaretta saw the flagship loom into view, directly in position. "Open fire on the Predateur! Now!"
A roar and plumes of hellish smoke rose from the side of the ship, and shot skipped crazily across the waves toward the Montaignes. Sails were torn, men fell screaming from the tops, and many shots ran across the reinforced hull of the Predateur. Margaretta fixed her eyes on the figurehead, a ram's head drawn from Numan mythology. It was designed to represent the Ram of Alciades, which granted its bearer victory in battle. Just like the Montaigne to interpret the classics so literally, she thought as the Ram's head exploded in a shower of splinters.
"Bring us round again!" she shouted. "That sting'll have them nice and furious. Ricardo?" The gunner stood from the deck gun, his team still feverishly reloading.
"Captain?" he asked, his eyes darting back to his fellows for an instant.
"That was good work you did on that figurehead."
"It was nothing, captain. I consider it fair revenge for having to read the Euliad in Deschamp's translation at La Ciencia."
Margaretta smiled and bowed to Ramos, who returned to work on the cannon. If her men could keep their wits about them in the face of certain death, she thought, they might just be able to do the impossible.
The captain's wig lay on his head at a jaunty angle, pushed forward over his eyes like a snoozing peasant's hat. Carlos Altenar planted his gloved hand roughly on the dead man's chest as he pulled his sword free. The captain crumpled noisily down the mast to the deck, no longer supported by the blade.
"My apologies, Senor. I may have need of this later." He turned to his marines. "Are we in position?"
One of his men waved to him. "Carlos! The Predateur has pulled away from the fleet! Now?"
Carlos shook his head as he tugged the officer's cravat free of the dead man's neck. "No, Manuel. They're too close. If she can lead them away for half an hour more, then she has my respect. If she can draw them out, then her plan might work. If not… well. I don't want to worry you." He smiled cruelly, ran the cravat along his rapier, held the blade up to inspect it, then tossed the bloody rag away.
"What do we do now, then?" asked Manuel.
"For now," Carlos mused, "we wait. Have some men fire the cannons without shot. Any luck, they won't notice something's up. I am going to the captain's cabin."
"Maps? Plans?" Manuel queried, following on Altenar's heels.
Carlos shook his head. "Drinks cabinet. I hope this dog kept it well stocked, the bay gets chilly at this time of the morning."
Admiral Valoix grimaced as his boot crushed the remains of the Ram of Alciades' horn. He looked to the stump of the figurehead. "Once again, Castillian ingenuity rears its ugly head. Bring us into range. They'll pay for their insolence in blood."
Captain Ignace Marchant turned to the lookout again. "Are you absolutely sure?" The man wheezed and nodded, leaning hard against the mast to steady himself after his frantic scramble down from the crow's nest.
"Sir, I saw it with my own eyes. The Triomphe reports that the Castillians have seized three vessels of the squadron."
Marchant raised his eyes to the impossible sight. The Triomphe swayed in the water, exchanging volley after volley with the Roi Charles. "Did they say which, Armand?" he asked, his voice tremulous as he contemplated what this information could mean.
"Regretfully not, sir. They ran up the flags, then the Roi started throwing shot at them. I think someone was firing into the fleet before then, but with the shelling, it's impossible to tell who. Sir, I need to be back at my post if we're going to stand a chance against Castillian saboteurs." The lookout stood uncertainly for a moment before Marchant dismissed him with a wave.
"Henri!" the captain yelled, his voice struggling to cut through the bellow of the Triomphe's cannons as it brought the Roi Charles low. He could make out the figure of the mate weaving his way through the crew as they clustered by the rail to watch the two frigates tear into each other.
Henri forced his way through the deck hands and saluted Marchant. "Sir, the Etalon Noir has just opened fire on the squadron."
"Damn it! Chevalier would destroy every ship around if he thought there was so much as a bottle of Castillian wine on them. Send a messenger to him, see if we can get him to hold his fire until we've discovered who our saboteurs are." The captain turned to the battle. "This is far from a foregone conclusion."
"That big one over there is in bad shape, Carlos." Shouted Manuel as he looked up from the gun port, his grin shining through the grime on his face.
Carlos Altenar sipped thoughtfully at his snifter of brandy as he squinted through the acrid smoke at the listing ship. "That big one is the Roi Charles, Manuel. Some of the best shots in the navy end up on that one. Lucky we caught them by surprise."
As another volley was loosed, the snifter leaped in Carlos' hand. He moved with the ship, keeping the drink in the glass. His attention never left the fleet. "She's had it, I fear. Crippled. Better bring us about and target another saboteur, eh? Gentlemen, your health!" Carlos raised his glass high, then drained it and bowed to the gunners before bounding up to the main deck of the Triomphe.
The few Castillian sailors he had brought with him scrabbled around in the rigging like spiders. Carlos pointed with his empty glass at a frigate stationed closer to the City. "Bring us about! I want that one!" As the ship heaved around to face it, a stray shot smashed through the rail and tore a furrow into the deck. As Carlos covered his face, his dropped glass was shattered by the passing shot. As he shook his head and glass rained from his hair, Carlos let out an exultant bark.
"Now I need a new glass! Gentlemen, bring us in closer. I haven't killed nearly enough Montaignos today!"
Michel looked quizzically at his Commander. "Sir? They're outpacing us. If they make it past that cove, they could break away from us and fetch reinforcements. Why are you smiling?"
Valoix spoke distantly, his gaze fixed on the fleeing Castillian ship. "Never let it be said that the role of the nobility is not to educate the less fortunate. Monsieur Rois et Reines, I believe I mentioned that in time of war, it is imperative to conceal one's movements to the greatest possible degree from your foe."
An awkward pause followed, and Michel realised with a start that he was meant to speak. "You did indeed, sir."
Valoix nodded. "Can you remember where our ships are stationed?"
Michel looked to the cove, and mentally translated it into the chart which occupied much of Valoix's table. "The Gloire?"
"Correct! Our finest gunner should be drawing a bead on them even now." Valoix gloated. "Have we had word on the condition of San Cristobal?"
The Admiral frowned. "Lazy sorcerous swine. I specifically asked to be notified every hour."
Michel looked to the cove. Something wasn't right. "Sir?"
"I don't mean to question, but shouldn't the Gloire be there?" He pointed at the cove, where the prow of a second Castillian sloop became visible.
Valoix's eyes widened and the rail creaked as he tightened his grip on it. "Bring us about! That idiot Du Maurier will hang for this! Send those dogs to the bottom, and send a messenger to the fleet at once! I want the Etalon Noir here. Now!"
The crew of the Fuego Negro cheered as the second vessel crested the cove. "Now we are two, Antonio. We are a match for a hundred of their vessels." Margaretta said as she watched them pull away from their hidden position.
Antonio looked out to the sloop. "The Benedicion, if I'm not mistaken. He'd best be careful."
Margaretta looked across. "Why him in particular?" "Captain Garcia is a formidable soldier, but a terrible gambler. He owes me twenty doubloons."
"Gambling is a sin, Aldonez."
"You mean to tell me you've never sinned?" Antonio laughed, as the ship spun to face the Predateur again.
"I never said that." Margaretta smiled coyly. "Let's teach them the meaning of repentance." Two volleys roared out towards the Predateur as it brought its port broadside to bear on the Benedicion.
As the Etalon Noir pulled away from the harbour, Botas Rojas looked up from the ropes. "That's the signal." He muttered to himself. He swung across to the mainmast as the deck below swayed with the force of another volley. Wrapping a line around his hand, he ran part of the way down the great mast of the Triomphe to where Carlos shouted encouragement to the gun teams amid the smoke.
"Carlos! The Etalon Noir has pulled away! That's two ships!" Botas screamed, his voice almost lost in the chaos of the harbour.
Carlos looked up to the man standing halfway down the mast. "Are you sure?" he asked, disappointment in his voice.
"Of course I'm sure!" Botas bellowed, keeping his footing on the mast as the ship jerked. "Two ships was the signal!"
"Very well. Send up the retreat flags, then. A pity." Carlos' face contorted in fury for an instant. Botas shot up the line and swung out across the ship. He smiled to himself as the wind whistled in his ears. He was going home.
Marchant threw his hat to the ground. "What?" he shouted, aiming a vicious kick at his headgear. "The coward! The last thing we need now is for him to order a retreat."
Henri shrugged. "We've done enough damage. The Castillians know what we're capable of."
Ignace laughed briefly and without joy. "You're right they know what we're capable of. Retreat! A pox on Valoix. If only we'd had an Admiral that actually knew his damned business, we wouldn't be in this mess." He glared bitterly at the scattering fleet as they glided out of the harbour like confused spirits. "It's a disgrace to serve in a navy like this. We're losing good men for no reason." He spat on his hat and kicked it into the sea.
"Sir, Castillian reinforcements are on the way. We had best follow orders if we don't want to lose any more."
Ignace nodded in defeat, his shoulders sagging. "Very well, Henri." He looked around the harbour again. "What happened to the Triomphe?"
Henri followed his captain's eye. "Don't know, sir. In all the confusion…"
"I suppose the saboteurs must have got it. Pity. They performed admirably." He sighed as he looked into the waters, strewn with wreckage. "Take us back to Arisent. Let's go home."
Valoix shuddered as the messenger disappeared to the Etalon Noir with a sickening rip. They should be able to finish off those two ships. The Benedicion was hit badly, and the Fuego Negro had run itself ragged staying out of range. It was time to get back to the squadron. The reports which had come in were not good.
"Sir?" Michel stood uncertainly by the Admiral's elbow as he crumpled the papers.
"Our ships, Monsieur Rois et Reines, are firing on each other." Valoix took great care to enunciate each word crisply. "Apparently, the Castillians have seized an undetermined number. This gives our captains leave to fire on each other with wild abandon, rather than reason the matter out like civilised gentlemen. I trust them to conduct themselves rationally, and look what happens." He hurled the crushed reports impotently at the Castillian vessels. "Take the Predateur back to the harbour. Rallying the squadron is our foremost concern at the moment, not these gnats."
Captain Alexandre Chevalier stuck his arms stiffly into the air as his sword clattered to the deck. Margaretta Orduno jammed the tip of her rapier under his chin and glared with undisguised hatred at the Montaigne officer.
"Captain." She growled through gritted teeth.
"The Etalon Noir wishes to communicate her surrender to our gallant foe. You have shown outstanding courage, Madame." Chevalier did not flinch as the sword's point dug into his chin.
"Captain." She repeated. "Know that you live because the Armada is willing to show you the mercy you denied the people of San Cristobal. Tell your Admiral that the next time we face him in battle, he will not be granted the mercy you have. Tell your Empereur that we will make him regret every step his soldiers take on the soil of Castille. Tell your people that the honour of Montaigne will be forever stained by what they have done here today." Another woman crossed the deck and picked up Chevalier's sword. A sharp ringing snap sounded through the air as she placed the blade against the deck and brought her heel down on it. She handed the broken sword to Chevalier with a flourish and a smile.
Margaretta tossed back her hair and stepped away, lowering her sword. "Now, captain. Return to Montaigne, and do not look back." She whirled around and stormed away as her men pushed the Etalon's guns overboard.
Chevalier stooped to retrieve his sash from the deck, still numbly clutching his broken sword in one hand. The crews of the Fuego Negro and the Benedicion sang as they worked, the ignoble splashing of his ship's arms as they sunk beneath the waves raising a cheer every time. He drew himself up to his full height and strode to his cabin.
"Sir?" Michel whispered, fearful of drawing the Admiral's attention. Valoix's head turned from side to side, silently scanning the harbour for any signs of the fleet. The spars of the Aube Glorieuse poked above the surface of the waters, daring the Predateur to come near to San Cristobal.
"Sir? Our lookout has spotted three Castillian galleons headed for San Cristobal. If we leave now, we can outpace them. Sir? Do I have the order?" Michel held his breath as Alasaiz Valoix Praisse du Rachetisse III, High Admiral of his Majesty Leon Alexandre du Montaigne XIV's navies, blinked. Valoix spoke slowly and absently, as if in a daze.
"No need for that. I'm sure we can handle a few paltry Castillians." His eyes narrowed. "Send them to the bottom. We shall not sully our ship with prisoners."
"Sir?" Michel stared incredulously. "Are you sure?"
"What is your counsel, then?" Valoix asked, not diverting his stare from the empty bay and the ruined city.
"Our fleet is in disarray, Castillian reinforcements are on their way, and they are somewhat unlikely to be inclined towards mercy. If we can regroup, we can still bring the full force of Montaigne to bear on the enemy. But not today, sir. Not today."
Valoix closed his eyes. "Quite right, Monsieur Rois et Reines. We'll make an admiral out of you yet. Get us out of here, and start hunting down the other ships. Someone is going to suffer for this cowardice, this rout." His eyes snapped open and he sneered at the city. "Castille will learn the price of their gall, but not today."
As the Predateur pulled away from the city, Admiral Valoix stayed at the rail until the smoke disappeared from view.
The sounds of distant splashing followed by cheers echoed into the captain's cabin on the Fuego Negro. Margaretta Orduno smiled. "Antonio. He's challenging the crew to throw the bottles of wine we got from that ship we boarded into the sea. If anyone beats his throw, he'll give them a bottle of the Delaga '65."
"Bravado and reckless waste. How very like him." A hint of respect tainted Altenar's contemptuous sneer. "Dona Orduno, I came to talk to you about what happened earlier."
"I don't know, Carlos. I hesitated. I could have turned back earlier. I have done my country a grave wrong. I should resign my commission." Margaretta sat slumped in her chair, her hair hanging loose about her face. Carlos leaned casually against the door. He smiled ambiguously.
"You can trust me to keep silent on the matter. The only other person who knows is Bascalle, and he knows I'll make his last hours uncomfortable if he mentions it."
"Is that it, Altenar? Secrets, and the pretence that I've done the right thing?"
Altenar snarled in frustration. "You did the right thing, for Theus' sake! This crew, with little outside help, managed to drive a dozen Montaigne ships to the four winds! There are a lot of people in San Cristobal who won't think of you as a coward."
Margaretta stood and smoothed out her skirts. "I must tell the King all that transpired, Carlos. I owe him at least that much."
"What happened to 'I owe him nothing', Dona Orduno?"
"Sometimes we forget what we swore to defend. Never again."
"It's good to have you back, Captain." Carlos inclined his head and slid out of the cabin. Margaretta turned away from the window, prying open the locket that hung round her neck. As the moon rose over San Cristobal, the Fuego Negro drifted silently into the harbour.