A Sister's Duty
by Dana DeVries

   Rosamonde du Montaigne ran a bare finger lightly across her bottom lip as she stared out into the darkness. Her white gown glistened with salt from the ocean spray and waves lapped at the ship beneath her. Behind her, the Montaigne sailors adjusted the sails and prepared to navigate the waters between the town and the isle of Mann that lay just outside the harbor. Attempting this at night was a desperate move, but it was her sister's last hope. The flash of the lighthouse reminded her of her last trip to the port and the man she had met.

   He was large, a bear of a man stuffed into courtier's clothing despite a rakish eye patch. Scornfully he replied, "No, madame naval inspector. Neither myself not my officers have time for a party." Rosamonde raised a graceful eyebrow. "I'm not discussing an Eisen drunken brawl. Just a small affair for your officers and yourself. Surely your duties can spare you for an hour or two?" Her lips dipped into a frown of irritation. Who did this thug think she was? No one refused a personal invitation from l'Emperor's daughter, especially not in such a condescending manner. The General stood and paced about the room filled with maps and nautical charts. He gestured broadly as he spoke. From the dents in the panels and broken filigree, he usually wore his panzerhand in here.

   "I don't think you understand our position here, madame." Rosamonde frowned again at his use of THAT word. "Pirates have been plaguing this area for over a year. They have at least three large ships and are well organized, but every ship sent here finds nothing. It's too far from any naval base to base a ship here constantly, especially one that cannot uncover anything."

   "Exactly. Just as you've found nothing. This seems the perfect time for more...civilized pursuits."

   The General slapped his first into his hand and spoke to himself. "And I've found nothing. As if they know we're here. But we came in at night and hid the ships immediately. Even the crew haven't been allowed onshore. Du Mar is the only one who knows we're here. But why would he tell the pirates? They're plundering his town, stealing from his merchants. Why raid yourself?"

   Rosamonde interrupted his musings. "Because if pirates take your people's goods, you are not responsible for the taxes. You can simply pocket the money. And then l'Emperor will send ships to investigate these pirates which bring in traffic and trade for the local merchants. It's ingenious."

   The General turned to her and quietly asked, "Who told you where we were docked? Whose idea is this party?"

   "Du Mar's. He told me where your ships were and suggested a small ball to relieve the boredom."

   "I'm certain boredom won't be a problem for much longer. Those pirates mean to hit us while all officers are at your party. But we're not going anywhere." He turned away from her.

   "One problem. I've already invited the other two ships. Du Mar suggested this would go better if you didn't have too much time to consider it."
The General shouted, "They deserted their posts? Without even informing me?" Before she could respond, he took a deep breath and calmly asked, "How does du Mar feel about peasants?"

   Rosamonde shrugged, "The same casual contempt of most nobles."

   "Then he won't care if I agreed to the ball or not. If I was at the party when the pirate attacked, it would ruin my career. If I refuse, then a strong attack will likely leave me dead. Either way, I'm no longer a threat to him. But you..."

   Realization lit Rosamonde's eyes. "If I realized what had happened, his life could be forfeit. In any case, L'Emperor's daughter would fetch quite a ransom. Far more than they've been getting from the warehouses. I must get out of here..."

   The gruff reply interrupted her. "No. They'll be expecting that. They'll also expect us to try to run if they attack in force. Never surrender, never flee."

   "Is that an old Eisen saying?"

   "In Eisen, we have no time for old sayings."

   He swept out of the room with Rosamonde in close pursuit. Their bodyguards, his in fighting leathers and hers in blue silk, fell in behind them. As she looked around, her heart fell. She knew most of the officers from court or inspections and individually, they were highly skilled, some of the best of the fleet. But their expressions ranged from distrustful to positively hostile. The General ignored their faces and began barking orders.

   "Topmen, cast off, pull us out for the north passage around the Isle of Mann. Lookout, call out when you see the sails. Men, we're about to be attacked and our escort's officers have gone dancing. It's up to us. Rois et Reines, Le Beau, take command of the Pincer and the Anvil. I expect one ship will be coming from the south, deal with her. You have full authority to do whatever is necessary." The Porte Master and the First Mate nodded and hurried to the forecastle. The scream of Timothy Le Beau ripping open a portal filled the air behind the General's orders.

   "Sices du Sices, Allais du Crieux. Pound them as hard as you can as fast as you can. These are not the Crimson Rogers. They won't fire on each other. We board one of them and they won't be able to keep firing upon us. Then all gunners transfer to the other side and keep firing at the other ship."

   The gunners nodded acknowledgement of the orders.

   "Babette, Dubois du Arrent. We need the pirates shattered as a unit immediately. They have us outnumbered, so hit them hard and fast." Babette nodded.

   "Nothing quite like a little stroll across the ship's decks." Allais du Crieux pointed out, "These men are going to be trying to kill you."

   Babette glowered back at him, "I don't believe their intent is any more savage than yours." Before anyone could comment further, the lookout yelled, "Sails in the north passage!"

   The next few minutes flew by in a haze of nausea as the small Grace skipped across the waves towards the rapidly approaching pirate ships. Despite her misery, Rosamonde watched the crew around her with alarm. Years of inspecting naval ships hadn't taught her a slip knot from a main mast, but it had given her an ability to read crews' skills and a captain's ability to handle them. She noticed the hostility between the women on board and Gilles Allais du Crieux, the way the topmen were snapping at each other while a small figure tried to direct them, the tension in every crewman. The General had obviously alienated his men to the point where their ability to coordinate with each other was faltering.

   Before she could act on her observation, it was too late. The two pirates had split up so that one was ahead to port and the other ahead to starboard. Both ships were older and slower then the Grace. But they were half again her size and the passage wasn't wide enough for the Grace to use her maneuverability well. As the pirates opened up with their cannons, she saw they only ran to the same number of guns as the small frigate despite their larger size. That still meant that the Grace's guns were outnumbered two to one. Most of the shots missed but one smashed across the railing and struck one of the crew. Rosamonde shuddered at the bloody spot when the Grace's cannons fired. Both sides exploded into smoke and the cannonballs flew. Both pirates shuddered from the impacts of multiple hits.

   The gunner crews spun into action and minutes later, the Grace fired again. Rosamonde began to hope again until the General call out a course correction as the pirates approached closer. The correction change brought the Grace's portside guns in line with the pirate on that side and Giles Allais du Crieux scored a direct hit. But on the starboard side, Louis Sices du Sices guns were pulled far out of alignment just as he prepared to fire. He shouted an order to his men and they heaved at the gun mountings, struggling to move them back onto the target. The guns shifted a few degrees and Louis reached out with one hand as they heaved again. The heavy gun shifted with the gunners' desperate heaves, but the effort sent them tumbling to the deck exhausted. Louis staggered to his feet and his hand disappeared into a bloody rift and pulled out a steel plate. Instantly his gun fired, while the adjacent master gunners lit off their fuses and fired their guns seconds later. Their shots flew wide, but Louis' struck home. But now the course correction had the ship bearing straight for the pirate.

   Rosamonde glanced around. The topmen were preparing the boarding nets directly above where Babette and her marines gathered on the main deck. Louis Sices du Sices' men were still scattered on the deck as if dead. Isabeau du Boise and her marines awaited on the aft deck. Giles Allaix du Crieux ignored the pirate bearing down on them and continued to fire upon the other pirate ship that had begun to maneauver closer as well. A moment later, the ship crashed into the pirate and Rosamonde's fears were realized. A wave of pirates outnumbering the entire Montaigne crew washed onboard. One crowd of them leapt for Sices du Sices' men who were still trying to regain their feet. Louis faced a dozen men alone. Babbete and her men engaged another mass of boarders until the boarding nets fell from above, entangling marines and pirates alike. That gave the advantage to the pirates' greater numbers and the topmen stood frozen in shock. On the fore deck, the pirates engulfed Isabeau du Boise's men before their muskets could fire off more than a single shot. Isabeau's two servants tried to hand her loaded muskets, but the press of attackers prevented her from bringing them to bear. Still Isabeau was holding her own. For now.

   The General swore once and then turned to his cabin boy and barked, "Get up in the rigging and tell those topmen to get down on the deck or I'll have what's left of them whipped when this is over." Then he threw himself away from the main deck towards Isabeau.

   Rosamonde and the bodyguards tried to stay close as he hit the pirates back ranks like a grenade, smashing men aside with his steel panzerhand and broadsword. Rosamonde drew back in distaste as a mouthful of teeth danced across her feet, but the bodyguards leapt into the fray and within seconds, the pirates were thrown into disarray. Isabeau and her men took three steps back and aimed their muskets at the pirates before them until the General growled, "Save Sices du Sices."

   Isabeau nodded and shouted a few quick commands. The marines turned and fired the volley across the boat into the mass of pirates trying to get to the disoriented gunners behind Sices du Sices. The shock of the bullets drove the pirates forward and brought the gunners to their feet. With a shout they surged around their commander and swept over the wounded pirates.

   Unfortunately, the pirates surrounding Isabeau and the General took heart at the smoking muskets of the Montaigne. One of them shouted, "They'll need to reload before they can fire again." Isabeau smiled. "Really?" Over her shoulder, she lightly called out, "Now, Pierre." The pirates elation changed to fear as the servants who stood behind each of the marines slapped a freshly loaded musket into their hands.

   The close range volley of the front rank shattered their ranks. Another servant handed Isabeau another musket as the front rank dropped to one knee and the back rank raised their weapons. The pirates tried to scatter. They failed as the air crashed with the sound of flying iron. Only a few men remained, clustered around the General, too close for musket work even if any of the weapons had still held ammunition.

   Rosamonde turned and watched time slow to a crawl as three pirates slashed out at the General. The General parried the first two with his sword and lashed out with his panzerhand against the third. It smashed the pirate across the deck and knocked the two remaining bodyguards to the deck. Her bodyguard Martin had been drawing a pistol at the time and it flew through the air towards her. Reflexively, she grabbed it. Another pirate shouted with his cutlass raised above his head with both hands and charged across the deck towards the General's back.

   There was a clap of thunder and brimstone all around Rosamonde and the pirate was falling to the deck as a spray of red filled the air behind him. Her hands ached and when she looked down she saw that they clutched onto the smoking pistol. Black powder covered her dress. The General was walking towards her. The pirate lay crumpled at his feet but he just stepped over him. The General stopped before her and said, "Thank you."

   Then he had walked past and was ordering the Montaigne marines into action. Somehow the tide had turned in the last few moments. Isabeau and her men were firing down upon the remaining pirates. The riggers and Marines under Babette had cleared the main deck. Louis and his men had joined Giles Allais du Crieux and were firing volley after volley at the other pirate ship which was struggling to escape. Rosamonde felt numb as she watched the Montaigne all around her continue as if nothing had happened. Rosamonde looked down. The man she had shot....the man she had killed lay at her feet. Everything blurred around her.

   "Lady Rosamonde. Lady Rosamonde. Help me, Lady Rosamonde!"

   "Hmm." Rosamonde glanced around. She was still on board the Grace, but some time had passed. The pirates had been thrown overboard or put down below in the hold. The wounded cared for and the General was dealing with the last few details of the attack. One of her bodyguards was delicately fanning her with his blue silk cravat.

   "Lady Rosamonde." She focused her attention on the man before the General. He was a slight figure dressed in the finery of a Montaigne noble. He appeared terrified, but unharmed as the Montaigne captain ordered him into the hold with the other prisoners. Rosamonde rose to her feet and glided across the deck towards him.

   "General. Wait a moment. There must be a mistake. This is no common pirate. This is Philipe du Mar. The brother of Duke du Mar."

   "He's a pirate and a rogue." His look was filled with contempt for the man before her and something else. It took a long moment for her to realize that it was respect for her.

   "Oh no, General. Not a common rogue at all. He is a noble and a gentleman. We must put him up in an officer's cabin and make him comfortable until we can return to port." The nobleman straightened up for a moment and smiled. But Rosamonde continued speaking lightly. "Of course then he will be put on trial. Not as a pirate, but a traitor for raising arms against the Montaigne Fleet. The penalty for that is the removal of noble status, confiscation of all property and execution as a common criminal."

   The nobleman's face dropped in horror. He stared into her face for a moment and then dropped to his knees and began crawling towards Rosamonde. "No, please, not that." The General looked down at the man in disgust while Rosamonde compared the two. Before today, she had always dealt with those like du Mar. Noblemen who cared about her station or influence. Men who crawled to her for what she could do for her. But the General didn't care about those. He was treating her with respect because of her actions, for saving his life. He respected her, not her position.

   "Yes. Exactly that for yourself and your brother." Rosamonde's eyes suddenly lit up with an idea. "Unless..."

   Du Mar grabbed at her words like a drowning man reaching for salvation. "Unless? Unless what? Anything I have, its yours!"

   "The General and I were discussing earlier how this section of Montaigne has no naval bases and the difficulties this has presented. However, L'Emperor has no plans to build one here. It would be very convenient if a nobleman were to build such a naval base and gift it to Montaigne as his patriotic duty."

   Indignation flared in du Mar's eyes. "A naval base? That would cost a fortune."

   Rosamonde's face was impassive as she replied. "A fortune that you will not have once your crimes are brought to light." The nobleman bowed his head for a moment before nodding. "And trust me, du Mar. If you think to co-opt the base for your own ends or weasel out of this, I will make certain that your fate is long, slow and unpleasant." Her voice was as hard as the steel of the General's panzerhand.

   Then she turned to the General and drew him aside. "General, please put this man up in one of officer's cabin for now."

   "He attacked us and tried to kidnap you. Why allow him to weasel out of his crimes?"

   "This way, Montaigne profits from a new naval base, he pays for his crimes, and the officers here can keep an eye upon the activities here. That will give you allies in this area as well. He's a nobleman of Montaigne. No matter what evidence we have, the chances of him ever being brought to anything resembling justice are remote. If we take it to my father, it will all come down to what mood he is in. Most judges are no better."

   The General's voice was soft. "Alright. A base in this area will be useful. And allies are always useful."

   Rosamonde smiled slightly in response.

   Rosamonde du Montaigne shook her head and stared at the darkness around her. That had all happened a long time ago. She had saved his life that day. Later she had protected him from the wrath of the Admiral. From the wrath of the nobles who hated him. She had saved him time and again. But now that she needed him, he was gone. Her mouth tightened at the thought.

   The small ship slipped through the dark waters and into the small naval base. She had helped build it and inspected it several times. She should be able to slip in and through it without any difficulty. She had learned that day long ago that she was far from helpless. Her sister Evelyne's life was at stake and even though she didn't know how to go about saving her, Rosamonde would try. Damn the Revolution, she would try to save her sister!