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THE DESERT AND THE BLADE

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER TEN:

 

Golden Gate/Glorannon
(formerly San Francisco Bay)
Crown Province of Westria
(Formerly California)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
July/Fumizuki/Cerweth 14th
Change Year 46/Fifth Age 46/Shōhei 1/2044 A.D.

 

Captain Richard Russ, Royal Montivallan Navy, loved his trade and his ship Stormrider, and never more than on days like this—bright and sunny, just enough wind to blow spindrift from the waves, and a bit of tricky sailing in hand. The RMN’s frigates were based on what the pre-Change world had called a medium clipper plan, and that meant speed and grace and handiness from the sharp bow to the elegant cruiser stern. As lieutenant, lieutenant-commander and Captain he’d been through a great many storms, other perils, and chased pirates aboard her with only brief spells of duty ashore or on other vessels.

At home he was known as a solid quiet sort, a good Churchman devoted to his wife and three children and given to puttering around the rose-bushes in his garden, fighting nothing but the slugs among the cabbages and cucumbers and regularly attending the Astoria Chamber Music Society soirees where he played bass viol and his wife the violin.

At sea it was another matter, for another man.

Stormrider was Astoria-built; that was his native city, where he’d been born thirty-eight years ago and spent his first fifteen years as the second son of a middling-prosperous member of the Guild of St. Luke, patron of physicians. One who also owned a modest chunk of shares in a plant that preserved fish—their potted salmon and lobster were used at Court and by the Dukes of Odell, which had been a matter of immense pride to his late father, and still was to his mother, elder brother and three of his four sisters; the fourth was a nun-physician in the Sisters of Compassion and to give her credit genuinely didn’t care about anything but God and her profession. He’d been headed for the Church himself, except that then the High King returned from the Quest and he’d eagerly shipped on a river-galley on the Columbia instead. Nobody had objected, in the wave of patriotic enthusiasm that had swept Montival just then, and on the whole nowadays he doubted he’d ever really had a vocation.

When they were off-duty, his Corvallan executive officer had been known to refer to him as Purveyor to the Nobility and Gentry because of the cursed potted fish. He laughed at that, mostly because it wouldn’t do to get a reputation as a tight-arse; he’d learned that early, when his nickname as a midshipman had been Spotted Dick.

The irony was that he didn’t even particularly like the aristocracy. Astoria had been part of the Protectorate since early in the Foundation Wars, but it was also a prosperous chartered town of craftsmen and tradesmen and far-ranging merchants, self-governing under its Council of Guilds and Lord Mayor. It also wasn’t an accident that he’d taken service in an arm that worked directly for the High Kingdom as a whole and operated strictly on merit.

Right now the XO was giving a sigh of relief. “That was tricky, Captain,” she said, looking astern at the remains of the ruined bridge dropping out of sight to the south.

Russ nodded curtly. Running the Golden Gate had been relatively, straightforward, but this one, the old Richmond bridge, had given him hives, even though they’d picked up a pilot in Astoria who’d been here recently. Virtually shanghaied him in the mad scramble to depart, in fact.

“We might wait for them here, where we can block the passage through the Richmond bridge,” he said. “It’s a chokepoint—cuts of San Pablo Bay completely.”

She shook her head. “Captain, if anyone does know another way through Feldman’s the man, and the Tarshish Queen draws a lot less water than we do, and since we can’t actually shoot at them...”

Without that threat it was appallingly difficult to catch or stop an agile ship. You’d have to get close enough to launch a boarding grapnel; and it wasn’t hard to pry one of those loose if it wasn’t being covered by canister rounds or showers of crossbow bolts. It was like trying to catch a greased pig on a frozen river.

“I know Feldman a little—” she went on.

Like Moishe Feldman, Lieutenant-Commander Annette Chong came from a prominent Corvallan family, one with merchant-prince aspirations; there weren’t so many of the magnates in the city-state that they didn’t all have personal acquaintance, especially ones with shipping interests rather than banking or spinning-mills or foundries. Corvallis and his home town were both basically mercantile oligarchies with some democracy stirred into the pot for flavor. Astoria was just more open about it, and possibly a bit less ambitious.

“—and sir, if you give him the least little wiggle room, all that you’ll see is his topsails disappearing over the horizon. He’s... clever.”

Reluctantly he nodded. “You’re right. Playing dodgem over the shallows... not a good idea. They’d be far too likely to get past us. Or decoy us onto something that would really give the shipyard work. And for that matter the Princess and Prince John might just go ashore.”

His XO’s hard amber-skinned face and slanted blue eyes were carefully impassive, even elaborately so. He hoped his own countenance was just as blank; there was obviously high court politics involving the Royal family here, which meant it was a good idea to carry out their orders without too much speculation if they could. The High Queen would presumably be grateful if everything went well, but the heirs would not. He hadn’t heard that either the Crown Princess or Prince John were particularly vindictive, but remembering someone as the man who’d effectively arrested you... and considering that she would be running the whole of Montival and he the Protectorate later...

He ordered the leadsmen to the bows. Once you got beyond the old bridge passage was easier, but he’d still be much more relaxed when they reached the buoy-marked channel that lead to the landing at the—absurdly named, in his private opinion—Círbann Rómenadrim.

Everyone rational knew that the Rangers’ Historian had been a good Catholic and meant his tales of Middle-Earth as a biblical allegory, after all. Even the Catholics among the Rangers treated it literally, though, and it didn’t do to offend them.

Russ looked up at the rig stripped to fighting sail, and down the long sweep of the warship, noting the boarding and splinter nets taut and ready, the damage control parties standing by with their pumps and tanks, axes and crowbars and come-alongs, the pivoting launchers and their crews ready with boarding grapnels and coils of steel cable. The deck of the Stormrider was two hundred and twenty feet long not counting the bowsprit, flush from the break of the quarterdeck to the bow except for the hatchway coamings, and the broadside catapults were below on a full gundeck, fourteen to a side—the mark of a frigate, as opposed to the war-sloops which made up most of the RMN and carried their weapons topside. That gave the detachment of the Protector’s Guard room to stand in armored ranks, like metallic black insects. Besides their usual gear they were carrying nets and poles, rather awkwardly, since those were tools more suited to a city Watch than the Protectorate’s elite fighting unit.

He raised his voice slightly. “Sir Boleslav? If you would, please.”

The thickset gray-eyed knight clanked up the quarterdeck ladder with his silent tow-haired squire Andrei at his heels carrying his helmet and shield; the senior nobleman’s round head was shaven save for a plaited black scalplock over his right ear, which was a fashion in County Chehalis, something from the ancient homeland of House Stavarov. The effect was rather like a decorated bowling ball above the scoop-shaped bevoir that covered his neck and chin up to the level of his lower lip; the Guard had chosen protection over sea-safety, which was within the nobleman’s area of authority. What wasn’t...

The soldier saluted first, fist-to-chest, and Russ returned it with the Navy’s hand-to-brow. Their ranks were roughly equivalent, but his came from the High Kingdom, not the Protectorate, which gave him seniority; with the High Queen also Lady Protector the distinction was a little theoretical for now, but it was there. The orders from Her Majesty had specifically confirmed that, and to his credit Boleslav hadn’t pushed at it...

Much, the naval officer thought.

“We will pursue, Captain?” the Guard officer said.

“We’ll pursue by waiting, Sir Boleslav,” Russ replied; technically the knight was a Captain of the Guard, but on a ship only one officer bore that title.

He indicated the mountains to port and the long low coastline and brown water ahead and to starboard, with the hills standing out further north.

“That’s the northern part of San Pablo bay. It’s broad but most of it’s shallow, and we have three times the tonnage and twice the depth to keel of Feldman’s ship. Now that we’re inside the Gate and the Richmond bridge he can’t get past us. I don’t want to get into a dodging contest with a ship I can’t shoot at and that can go where I can’t and can point a lot closer to the wind. We’ll approach gradually, pin him, and then send a boarding party in the longboats. That’s where your men come in. But we’ll have to be very careful.”

“This merchant is more nimble than a Royal warship?”

Russ controlled himself and pointed to the sails. “This is a ship-rigged vessel, Sir Knight. Mostly square sails. I’m faster than the merchantman with the wind astern or on the beam, but the Tarshish Queen is a schooner. Mostly fore-and-aft sails. Which are made to beat into the wind.”

Boleslav frowned. “Her Highness and Prince John could go ashore,” he said. “I am most straightly charged by the Queen’s Majesty to secure their persons at any hazard.”

“You can go ashore too if you have to, Sir Knight; that’s why we have longboats on the davits,” Russ said.

And did not add: This ship isn’t a destrier, and not just because it doesn’t eat hay and shit. And why do you Associates all talk like old books?

They just did. Considering who their grandparents had been, or who their grandparents had imitated and married, it wasn’t even very surprising. Instead he went on aloud:

“And the commander of the High King’s Archers should be here by now, or very shortly, to block things on the land.”

He’d met Edain Aylward Mackenzie; if the High Queen told him to move quickly, he would move quickly. Possibly leaving Captain-of-Archers shaped holes in trees and mountains and any unfortunate human beings who got in the way.

Though with forty-odd men, that’s a lot of land to block. Forty thousand might make a go of it.

“It is a large stretch of empty country,” Sir Boleslav said, and scratched the shining dome of his head, possibly because it was a little sunburned. “Hard to find another small group.”

All right, he’s not actually stupid.

He grudgingly admitted that the Associate gentry were almost always brave, and seldom outright dim mentally; their faults tended to be the headlong arrogance and insularity born of growing up in a rural world where they were all the biggest bullfrogs in some small manorial pond surrounded by forelock-tugging deference, plus a tendency to see all life’s problems as susceptible to solution via whacks with a war-hammer. But Boleslav’s main qualification had seemed to be a stolid readiness to carry out his orders no matter what.

The knight surprised the captain by smiling slightly.

“So, we wait. Like waiting for a boar to come out of the thicket, eh?”

“Sail ho to starboard!”

The lookout’s hail was punctuated by the shrilling of a whistle, something used only in emergencies. Russ snatched up a speaking-trumpet and shouted at the maintop:

“Where away? What ships?”

Three sail, starboard, Captain! Orcas, Orcas! Three sail, two Orcas, one some other sort of foreigner. Big ship, three-master, brigantine rig, sort of! They’re coming out from behind a wreck near the Richmond shore!

A ripple went through the frigate’s crew at the lookout’s hail, more a matter of tensing than movement; they’d all heard that cry of Orca before, though usually much further north. Petty officers and bosun’s mates cursed and shouted:

Eyes on your work, damn your liver and lights! The officers will take care of the thinking!”

The sailor and the soldier looked at each other as the lookout repeated the hail, adding details with a slight rise to her voice. A lieutenant slung a long telescope over his back by its carrying strap, leapt and went up the shrouds like a squirrel with its tail on fire.

Russ put his own glass to his eye, and caught the flotilla coming out from behind the rusting canted bulk of one of the ancient world’s absurdly large ships. The Orcas were unpleasantly familiar, long low schooners with killer-whale figureheads and sea-colored sails. The other ship was basically a medium-sized three-master, but with details that precisely coincided with the reports on the ships who’d brought the men who killed the High King. A Korean warship, then; and apparently Montival was at war with Korea whether they wanted to be or not. It only took one to make a fight.

His lips curled back from his teeth a little. Avenging the High King was something that he would enjoy much more than getting involved in some sort of internal squabble in House Artos.

It probably wasn’t worth the trouble now to try and raise a man-carrying observation kite...

“Haida; and a Korean,” Russ said, and added gently: “I think that your men can stow those catchpoles and nets, Sir Knight.”

Boleslav grunted, then smiled thinly. “Yes. This is a day for swords now, I think.”

A shrug of armored shoulders. “Better so. I would rather fight to keep the heirs alive than chase them with a net like a butterfly to be pinned to a board.”

At the naval commander’s double-take: “I collect.”

Doesn’t pay to make assumptions.

Captain Russ ran the map through his mind, automatically adding wind direction and depths and known navigation hazards. He had to keep the heirs safe... but he didn’t want to let them by him, either, if he could do that without endangering them.

The first priority is to keep those ships from getting past me.

“Chess is my hobby,” he said. “And now if you would, I need the quarterdeck, Sir Boleslav. I hope it won’t come to close acquaintance with our visitors, but if it does I’ll be glad to have your men-at-arms.”

The lookout called again: “The Tarshish Queen’s dropped anchor off the Círbann Rómenadrim wharf! Boats making for the shore!”

Russ hesitated for an instant, then shook his head and went on with what he’d just planned: his priorities had changed, and he didn’t know and couldn’t possibly find out exactly who was in those boats, they were too far away even to a lookout at the masthead. The Admiralty was in Astoria, the Marshal was in Portland, the High Queen was in Todenangst, and a small fleet of enemies was heading in the direction of the Crown Princess and the Prince, whether they were still on the merchantman or heading for the shore.

And I am here, with a radically changed situation the high command won’t know about for weeks.

It was called ‘exercising initiative’ if you did the right thing or got lucky or both, and ‘being a sacrificial goat’ if you didn’t. You couldn’t just take refuge in following orders, either, not in the Royal Montivallan Navy you couldn’t. This sort of thing was why they made you Captain, and why his teachers had told him moral courage was the first qualification for command.

“Helm! Come about, sou’ sou’east. Number One, we’ll rig the starboard catapults for bolt, if you please; firebolt. Load thermite. We’ll start the dance with a warm salute from a distance.”

 

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