Aboard the Tarshish Queen
October 21st, Change Year 46/2044 A.D.
John’s fingers moved on the lute as he sang softly in the darkness, leaning against one of the catapults; Thora was lying on the deck nearby, fingers laced behind her head. Deor had his harp Golden Singer out, and Ruan his flute, and they were letting the tune wander between them as they worked their hands supple again after a spell on the pumps.
Night and mist enclosed the Tarshish Queen, lit only by gleams from the stern lanterns that sparkled on the drops hanging from the star-tracery of rope and rigging, amid quiet creaks and a faint chuckle from beneath the bows and a gentle whisper of the wind. The words shaped themselves to the sounds:
“Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Through the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river,
Down to towered Todenangst.
Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,
An abbot on an ambling pad,
Sometimes a laughing shepherd-lad,
Or long-haired page in crimson clad,
Goes by to towered Todenangst;
And sometimes by the river blue
The knights come riding, two and two...”
“Ah, now that is music,” Deor said, when they’d stopped, and Thora sighed wordlessly. “That’s your grandparents’ dream turned to air and song.”
“Not my lyrics, mostly,” John said. “An old poet of the ancients, singing of King Arthur’s court. I just reshaped it a bit. And I had a hint on the tune; my aunt Fiorbhinn said someone had sung a bit of it from memory—badly—when she was a child, and she’d always wanted to make something of it but never had the time. She gave me the little fragment she had.”
“All honor to her as a maker, and she taught me much. But by Woden who sends the mead of poetry to men, you made this,” Deor said.
Ruan spoke up unexpectedly. “It’s the Prince’s grandparents dream—his mother’s parents. But it’s the best of it. The beauty and the gallantry beneath. And that’s why they built better than they knew with their waking minds, or even intended. That’s what has lasted when the rest was burned away by time and war.”
Deor nodded soberly and carefully wiped down the harp with a special cloth before he snapped it into its padded leather case. John did the same before he put Azalaïs into the case Evrouin held out. He’d let the valet handle it a few times, which he’d done quite competently, but found himself reluctant to do that when Deor was around.
He sets a high standard, as a troubadour, John thought whimsically. And when you’re around a man like that, you... just don’t want to let the side down.
The first mate went by, pulling on his long shirt as he did, his feet still wet from the hold. They all glanced at each other and waited in silence; they were just under the break of the quarterdeck, and they could hear a conversation by the wheel.
“She’s gained another foot overnight, Cap’n,” Radavindraban said. “The pumps are indeed going flat-out, but they cannot keep pace.”
John rose, as if casually, and went up the quarterdeck ladder himself; he had that privilege, as Prince or perhaps just as the one who’d chartered the ship, as long as he kept out of the way. Thora and Deor did too, as very old friends of the Captain.
Feldman gave them a glance and then nodded to his first officer.
“Then we’re beaching her today, like it or not,” he said. A grim smile. “On the bottom, if nowhere else.”
There was a thick mist, curling around the Tarshish Queen like darker tendrils in the gray light of predawn, and John was glad of his arming doublet. There was a damp chill to the air now, despite the tropic heat he knew was coming. The ship was silent save for its eternal creak and groan, and the rhythmic thumping of the pumps and the splash of water jetting overside. The motion beneath their feet was perceptibly different than the big schooner’s usual light dance with the waters, a sluggish check to the roll as the liquid weight surged through the hold and ran inches deep on its planking. It would have been worse if the ship had been carrying cargo there as usual, rather than just people and their supplies.
“I’d really rather not go for a swim around here, Captain,” John said lightly. “Considering the sort of thing they have in the water.”
A few within hearing smiled, but only Thora Garwood’s chuckle was heartfelt. There hadn’t been any sign of the monster saltie, but none of them had forgotten it. In a few months it would be a valuable prop in tales told in longshore bars provided that they ever saw one again, but right now the memory was entirely too fresh. Deor was at least as courageous, but he’d obviously sensed something about the animal that wasn’t of the world of common day. So had John, but he didn’t want to think about it. It was hard not to, drifting over a dark ghost sea through the mist, as if they were on some voyage in Limbo that would never end. In fact they had less time than that; the sail they’d fothered over the leak was pressed away from the hull whenever they made any progress forward. The winds had been faint and irregular, but a flat calm wouldn’t save them, just make sinking slower. Those triangular fins were still out there.
“There’s land nearby,” Feldman said. “I can smell it, even if we’re not sure on the charts.”
John breathed in deeply. There were the usual smells of wood and tarred cordage and the breakfast hash frying, crumbled ship’s biscuit and salt beef, and the slightly stale brine of the bilges—much cleaner because of the flow-through between leak and pumps. Perhaps there was a hint of something else, something between rotting fish and hot sand and compost, but it was nothing like the cool fir-sap scent you mostly got off Montival’s coasts, or the dry rock and fennel of the far southern reaches they’d left. Or it could be his imagination.
“Aye, Cap’n, maybe,” Radavindraban said doubtfully. “The islands don’t move, but the shoals do, and the reefs grow fast this past while. Bad sightings these last few days, too.”
“That’s why we’ll have soundings, Mr. Mate.”
Silence fell again, broken every few minutes by the cry of the leadsman in the bows: “No bottom! No bottom at forty fathom!”
Then another cry came from the lookout at the masthead. “Light! A light!”
John’s breath caught. That brought every head up, and the captain’s speaking-trumpet. “What light, and where away?”
“Burning yellow, skipper! Hard on the port beam. A fixed light!”
“Mr. Mate, come about, thus,” Feldman said, and pointed. “We’ll close her. Keep the soundings coming. And have the crew stand to; it might be wreckers.”
The watch below had come on deck at the call, their feet wet from the water sloshing beneath their hammocks, and there was a little crowding and the sound of the bosun’s voice cursing and the thump of a bare foot on a backside as the lines were trimmed and the ship’s head came slowly about to the northeast.
“Bottom!” the leadsman cried, her voice cracking. “Bottom at thirty fathom!”
“What bottom?” Feldman called, and there was a delay as the sailor examined the soft tallow on the bottom of the cone-shaped lead by the light of a shuttered lamp.
“Shell and coral sand, skipper!”
Another spell of silence, and then a gust of wind and they all saw the light, a low yellow flicker ahead. Feldman looked up at the sails, where they disappeared into the darkness and the fog.
“Wind’s quickening,” he said, as if speaking to himself. “And it’s on the port quarter; morning wind, from the land. It’ll shift this fog soon enough and the sun will burn off what’s left.”
“By the mark... twenty-six! Twenty-six fathom even!”
Then they all saw it, a steady yellow spot on the horizon. The mist closed in again, parted again, as they crept forward. Their progress was a faint chuckle of bow-wave under the schooner’s sharp prow.
“By the mark... ten fathoms! By the mark... eight! Shelving!”
“Sharp sand and coral rag, skipper!”
“Back topsails,” Feldman said. “Starboard your helm. Mr. Mate, anchor when she’s stopped. We’ll wait for dawn. The reefs do grow fast around here.”
The Tarshish Queen’s head came into the gentle wind from the northeast and she slowed to a halt. The forward anchor went in with a rumble and splash.
“She holds, skipper!”
“Strike all sail,” Feldman said. “Now we’ll wait.”
They did, and the world turned from shades of black and gray to pale gray and white; then the mist began to lift in earnest.
“Mr. Mate, tell the hands off for breakfast,” Feldman said; unspoken was the thought that it might well be their last meal if they didn’t find a good place to careen. “And then double the stays, preventers fore and aft. We may be trying the masts hard soon, and the mizzen’s already wounded. Pull them taut, if you will.”
“Aye aye, Cap’n.”
Thump... thump... thump went the pumps, and the water jetted. Gangs of sailors went aloft with heavy cables over their shoulders, like the legs of a long narrow climbing centipede. John split his attention between them—it was always fascinating watching experts do something difficult—and the sights to northward as the mist burned away and the sun came up.
The eastern horizon flashed green as the burning arch cleared the horizon, with crimson the color of molten copper on the fringe of clouds. The stars showed as the mist cleared and then were gone in the greater light, fading away to a few scattered in the midnight blue of the western horizon for a moment. Ruan’s young voice rose from the bows as he greeted the sun with the Dawn Chant.
Even after weeks in these waters, John was still rapt for a moment.
“Dawns like thunder,” Feldman said softly, with the air of a man quoting.
Deor smiled and spoke:
“Between the pedestals of Night and Morning
Between red Death, and radiant Desire
With not one sound of triumph or of warning
Stands the great sentry on the Bridge of Fire...”
The captain nodded and they shared a smile, as old friends do over a common memory.
“I loaned you that volume, a long time ago,” he said, and turned his telescope northward. “While you and Thora were staying in Newport that first time, at my father’s house.”
“There’s the light,” he went on to John. “See, on the headland of that sandspit?”
John used his own binoculars. The light was on a small platform atop a tall rickety-looking triangular framework of poles—Deor supplied the word mangroves when he asked what the material was; in Montival the equivalent would probably have been made from two-by-fours of milled timber. As he watched a bucket swung down at the end of a lever and a cap smothered the flame in its glass enclosure.
“Clever,” Feldman said. “A water-clock arrangement. Probably palm-oil for the light, and someone comes by to reset things every evening. All you’d need to do is pour the water in at the top again and fill up the lamp now and then.”
The last of the fog cleared with a rush, and heads all over the ship turned towards the land that was revealed. They were anchored off the western end of it, with a long slope of mountainous forested interior fading off to the eastward in rippled blue-green reaches. Closer to the shore was a white road, running through groves of coconut and other palms, stirring in the breeze coming down from the mountains. John turned his binoculars to the east, and saw the green of tilled fields and what looked like thatched roofs and walls. There was a slight sighing, as the crew knew they weren’t in danger of being cast adrift in small craft far from land. They could reach that shore easily in the ship’s boats. Of course, what lay on it might be just as dangerous as the sea and its dwellers.
“Mr. Mate, we’ll raise the anchor, if you please, and keep course at this distance from the surf-line,” Feldman said. “I don’t like the look of it right inshore. And regular soundings.”
A volley of orders followed, and the long capstan bars were fitted into the drum on the forecastle. John trotted forward and joined them; there weren’t many things he could usefully do on a ship, but pushing hard on a stick was one. Just to add joy to the occasion, the bosun was looking over the side to see how raising the anchor affected the makeshift sail patch over their leak, which hadn’t been helped at all by the encounter with the giant crocodile.
John braced his palms against the smooth ash surface of the capstan bar; he was barefoot, and he crooked his knees and worked his toes on the holystoned fir planks of the deck to get a firm grip.
“Annnnnnnd... heave!” a bosun’s mate cried. “Break her loose, buckos!”
They heaved, putting their weight into it, faces growing contorted and red as they groaned. There was a long moment of strain as the leverage of bars and gears fought against the anchor’s weight and the catch of the wedge-shaped flukes on the rocky sand below. The ship heeled slightly, and pivoted slowly around the rigid bar of the chain. Then it came free and they all lurched forward a step. The mechanism below-deck gave a single sharp metallic clunk! as the ratchet caught the pawl that prevented it running backward.
“Heave and go! Stamp and go! Heave her ‘round and make her go!”
It was still hard work, but not quite such a strain. Thora was beside him, and Ruan, but Deor had hopped up on the drum of the capstan and held a long note before plunging into a song with a strong steady beat, stamping to emphasize it, and those at the capstan with enough breath took it up too:
“It's a damn tough life full of toil and strife
We sailormen undergo—
And we don't give a damn when the gale is done
How hard the winds did blow—
We're homeward bound from the Arctic ground
With a good ship taut and free—
And we won't give a damn when we drink our dram
With the girls of Old Maui!
The song came to an end and the labor did, after a remarkable catalogue of what the sailors intended to do with the alcohol, girls, boys and sheep of Maui. They all rested for an instant while the forward anchor was pinned home, and then the capstan bars seemed to vanish as if by magic—his slid through his hands almost quick enough to burn when someone snatched it away—and a volley of commands came from the quarterdeck:
“Loose heads’ls there! Hands aloft to loose tops’ls, on the fore, on the main! Lively, we haven’t got all day!”
Some of the sailors running up the ratlines and making the rigging thrum like a guitar chuckled grimly at the graveyard humor—they wouldn’t be floating at the end of the day, one way or another, and they all knew it. The staysails at the bow blossomed above their heads and brought the bows around eastward, parallel with the shore.
“Hard a’starboard the wheel! Let fall! Haul away and sheet her home!”
The big gaff mailsails ran up the masts as the windlasses whined, then swung to starboard and cracked taut in long white curves. Now the Tarshish Queen heeled that way too, and the water began to chuckle at her prow as she gained way. The square sails caught with booming sounds and added a little more roll to the pitch.
“Thus, thus, very well, thus! Sheet her home, hands to braces!”
They were sailing at a bit less than right-angles to the wind, easy enough for a schooner, and with the advantage that it slowed the leak by leaning the ship over so that some of the damage was raised a bit above the surface of the waves. From the conversation that passed back and forth he gathered that the pumps were closer to keeping pace... but not gaining on the water. The break in the frames was working at the planks further and further from the original roundshot wound, made much worse by the elephantine bulk of the creature that had struck them.
They were a little closer to the shore now, though far enough out to avoid the patches of white where the waves caught on offshore rock or reef. Low combers were breaking in azure and cream on wide white sand beaches, but everything was intensely green beyond, coconut palms and trees he didn’t recognize even from pictures, with patches of forest on higher land or abandoned fields starred with clumps of great vivid flowers, red or white or blue. Birds even gaudier flew upward now and then in clumps, strange creatures with huge beaks or trailing tailfeathers bright as a hummingbird’s breast.
Beyond was a stretch of rice fields covering about half the flat ground, paddies separated into rectangles by the bunds that controlled the water and spotted with low bits in reeds and swampy bushes and higher areas covered with trees. The tall stalks of the rice were still vividly green, but here and there a tawny streak showed that the heads of grain would turn dry and golden soon. Now and then he saw a windmill, different in detail and made of laminated bamboo from the great feathery clumps that served for woodlots, but doing the same work he was accustomed to. He walked slowly back to the quarterdeck. Captain Feldman was examining the shore himself with his telescope, and speaking to Deor and Thora—who’d also sailed in these waters. Ruan was there, looking on with fascination.
“A lot of that land was abandoned, and then some of it’s been reclaimed lately,” John said.
“You’re right,” Feldman replied. A moment later: “More of it under the plow as we move east. That’s where the resettlement started.”
“My great-grandfather’s parents came from hereabouts,” Ruan said.
John looked at him with surprise. “I thought he was from China?”
“No and yes, so to say,” he said; his green-hazel eyes sparkled, and the sun had put reddish highlights in the long black hair that fell down his back in a queue bound with an old bowstring.
“You’re a Mackenzie for certain!” Deor said. “Paradox on contradiction!” To the others: “Get him to explain.”
“That from a bard?” John said with a smile.
Ruan turned to John: “It’s simple, so it is, Prince: my great-grandfather’s ancestors were from China, and they always thought of themselves as Han, but their families had moved to these southern isles long ago. Then he and his wife fled some great upheaval or war here, a generation before the Change, and my grandfather was born near Astoria. When he was of a man’s years he married a woman of the Gael, which displeased his kin, so my grandparents moved to Eugene, where my father was born, and his sisters. After the old world fell things went hard for all of them, but they joined the Clan the next year. There’s not much else in my father’s stories—his mother and father died in the second Change year, and he was fostered when he was only five. That story and our midname Chu was all of the tale we had.”
He turned eagerly to his lover. “Now you can show me the wonders you told of, and we can see them together!”
Deor smiled and put an arm around his shoulders. “See how the houses are mostly inside compounds?” he said, pointing. “And how the compounds all face the same direction? That’s how the folk of Bali build their homes; they’re called karang, and many generations of a family may have houses within.”
John focused his glasses. Apart from the smallest and simplest thatched huts the houses of the dwellers—presumably mostly peasants—were indeed within walled enclosures, grouped into long rectangular villages, always with mixed orchards and leafy gardens around them. All were neatly aligned towards a mountain he could see very faintly on the horizon to the northeast.
“And those little buildings in front of the gateways?” Ruan asked, borrowing the glasses for a moment.
“Shrines, where offerings are made to the wights. The entrance is always narrow—it’s called an angkul-angku. Within is a wall facing the gate, to bar hostile spirits.”
“Sure, and it would be useful for those of human kind entering with ill intent,” Ruan observed shrewdly. “Like a Dun in little.”
Thora laughed and clapped him on the back. “Wit as well as looks, youngster,” she said. “I thought exactly the same the first time I saw them. The compounds can be forts at need. Put a few score together and the whole village is a fort.”
“Indeed,” Deor said. “But to the dwellers they’re the universe writ small, as the human body is. The head for goodness, the feet for evil, and the middle the mixed ream of human kind.”
The walls and the sides of the buildings within were of some thick-looking substance brightly whitewashed; possibly plastered mud-brick, or rammed earth, or compacted coral rag limestone, topped with curved tile. Each compound had a single gateway flanked by pillars, its ornament and size varying with those of the compound as a whole. The roofs that showed over the walls were steep-pitched in their upper sections and then hipped out below, sometimes of clay tile, sometimes of golden thatch or a darker coarse-looking material. It was just too far away to see details of the people except for the odd fisherman casting nets at the water’s edge, though there were plenty about, and now and then an outrigger canoe or double-hulled vessel with an inverted pyramid for a sail kept its distance.
“They know we’re here,” John said.
He thought some of the horsemen on the road were cantering along and matching the ship’s passage, and doubtless others had galloped ahead to bear the news. When they got a bit closer he could see that many other folk were stopping and pointing. Here and there a spearhead twinkled.
“It has a Balinese look, right enough,” the captain said. “I’ve done good business in Bali, though they’re not the most welcoming of folk until you’ve proven yourself honest.”
John frowned. He’d studied the geography of this part of the world, albeit briefly.
“We’re a long way from Bali, aren’t we?” he asked.
“About a thousand miles, but that’s not all that far in sailing terms. Four to twelve days, with reasonable winds,” Feldman said. “Plenty of places to stop for water along the way, too.”
“Even so, what would they be doing here?”
The three experienced voyagers in their thirties looked at each other. Deor was the one who spoke; he was the maker of tales, after all, the wordsmith.
“There was war in Bali after the Change.”
John shrugged mentally; there had been war nearly everywhere, after the Change. Ranging from minor, structured conflicts more like rough peace-officer work to frenzied mass many-million-fold struggles of all against all as the doomed death-zones perished in fire and blood, famine and plague.
And everything in between.
It was a time of legends to him, of villains and heroes and giants, the saviors of peoples and the builders of nations. And of fell, stark warlords carving out realms at the edge of the sword. Who was which often depended on where the question was asked, or in his case how they felt about his respective grandfathers.
Deor went on: “First there was war against the... outsiders there. The Javanese, mostly—Java was the ruling part of a great empire of these islands then, its people the masters over all, and some of them had settled on Bali to enforce their rule; about one in ten of the total or a little more. The Javanese had different Gods and customs, and neither much liked the other. Also, to Balinese good comes from inland—from the heights, from Gunung Agun, the mountain that is the abode of their Gods and to them the navel of the world. Kaja, goodness and fertility and right order, flows down with the water. Evil comes from below, from the sea—kelod, chaos and destruction and demons. The Javanese came from oversea and were mostly city-dwellers on Bali, so...”
Thora was blunter, as usual. “So, this,” she said, and made a slicing gesture across her throat with one thumb.
John wasn’t surprised at that either. If there just wasn’t enough to go around, you’d naturally see that what there was went to your own folk, those you were bound to by belief and blood, and you’d drive out strangers who added more mouths. Kill them like rats if you had to, when it was a choice of their children starving or yours. That was how human beings were made; like wolves they were creatures of the tribe, of the pack. They could be more than that, but that was the foundation without which nothing could be built.
From the tone of Deor’s words, he suspected that the scop had fond memories of his time there, and wanted to think well of the folk.
“They didn’t kill all of the other outsiders,” he added a little defensively. “The ones who were few and not a threat or great burden, or had useful knowledge.”
Feldman smiled with a wry twist of the mouth, as if mentally thinking back through the long history of his people. He spoke matter-of-factly:
“There were also about three million people on Bali in the year of the Change, and it’s half the size of the Willamette valley. And it’s pretty hilly. Fertile, rich soil and well-watered, they have terraces going up the mountains like green staircases, but even with the outsiders gone there just wasn’t enough.”
“Three million in a place that size?” John blurted, and Ruan whistled.
Usually the numbers of the ancient world were just that, meaninglessly huge strings of numerals, but sometimes they hit home. “And they weren’t ruined completely? The whole of Montival has what, five million people?”
Deor sighed. “The Balinese are true landsmen, skilled and hardy for toil and very good at working together, and quick to come to a good understanding with the wights.”
“The aes dana,” Ruan said, using the Mackenzie term for the spirits of place.
“And they had many fine makers, craftsmen and not machine-tenders, back before the Change, smiths and potters and weavers. But even so, there was cruel hunger, and death stalked the villages.”
“Exactly,” Feldman said, his voice coolly unsentimental. “They had a strong king right from the start, one who seized power almost at once by whipping folk up against the outsiders, and he was no fool and saw the implications.”
John nodded again. That was thoroughly familiar too. Besides luck and strong will and wits, a willingness to see and accept what the Change would bring had been a common trait of many who’d risen to power then. All four of his grandparents, for starters.
“It’s a small enough place that men on foot or on bicycles could keep them acting together when the ancients’ machines for talking at a distance failed. Most of the other islands around were ruined utterly, with fighting and chaos so bad they kept the next crop from being planted or harvested.”
“Ah,” John said. “So the Balinese were very hungry by then, but not quite so bad that they couldn’t do anything but claw at each other and perish. A borderline case where what the leaders did was crucial. I’ve studied such.”
He carefully didn’t mention that his grandfather Norman Arminger had been one such leader, and the choices he’d made. Most of them had involved killing people in very large numbers. People who’d have died anyway, but...
Feldman nodded: “So by the second year they set out to conquer more land and settle colonists there, the people they couldn’t feed at home.”
Deor nodded soberly as well. “That’s hard for Balinese, to uproot themselves. They sink deep roots in a place, and the family shrines where they worship their ancestors are dear to them. They drew lots to see who must go, I was told; two families in three, over the next few years. They’ve made poems of the bitterness of it.”
Feldman supplied the bare facts: “The eastern edge of Java and Lombok are close to west and east of Bali—almost close enough to swim, in easy reach for any sort of little fishing boat, and they had many sailing vessels... yachts, they called them then.”
Thora’s right hand closed unconsciously where the hilt of her backsword would have been. “It’s a king’s duty to find his people fields to plow if they lack them, to work the land and feed their children,” she said. “So the first Bear Lord of my folk did, by the sword when he had to.”
“Rajadharma, they say here,” Deor said. “As Hengist and Hrosa led my people, in the very ancient days:
“Engle and Seaxe upp becomon,
ofer brad brimu Britene sohton,
wlance wig-smithas, Wealas ofercomon,
eorlas ar-hwaete eard begeaton!”
He thought for a moment, then said: “Or in the modern tongue:
“—since from the east Angles and Saxons came up
Over the broad sea. Britain they sought,
Proud war-smiths who overcame the Welsh,
Glorious warriors, they took hold of the land.”
Everyone nodded, and Feldman went on: “Raja Oka rules east Java and the whole of Lombok as well as Bali proper these days, and bits and pieces elsewhere. He’s the grandson of the first, Oka the Great, and there are Balinese colonies all over. They just headed out to anyplace they thought might be doable—they even tried New Guinea, though not twice.”
“Desperate and fierce and ruthless as so many were in the terrible years,” Deor said. “Sometimes taking land spear-won, sometimes being pushed back into the sea and dying with their families, either way sparing the food-stocks back home so that their kinfolk might live.”
“It looks like this is one of the places they fought their way ashore,” Feldman said.
Then he frowned. “Though I’ve never heard of it, specifically. Probably it has its own ruler and he doesn’t want to attract Oka’s attention or pay tribute. We’ll see.”
John nodded, feeling his heart swell suddenly as the wind brought a strange spicy waft and the palms swayed in the distance, the light of dawn flickering and flashing on their fronds.
We will see, he thought. And I’ll have a chance to see. We’ll go back as soon as we can—duty prompted that—but until then... we’ll see things strange and wild!
“Christ have mercy!” he said later that day, as the sun was just an hour above the western horizon.
When he crossed himself there was pure awe in the gesture. The harbor was broad, shaped like an irregular C pointing southwest. Most of the shoreline was farmland or forest or gardens—he thought he could see glimpses of what must be villas, with pools and artificial streams and very beautiful gardens. Otherwise it was as if it was in two different places at once, or two profoundly different countries whose capitals were close enough see in a single sweeping glance.
One was to the west, their left-hand side, or port-side as sailors said. There rose a spread-out walled city of palace and temple, pagoda-like structures towering up in narrow pyramids of one roof after another, each smaller than the last. Or triple rows like steep triangular hills carved from white rock in fantastically intricate patterns, patterns that blazed with light from gilt and stucco and metal and glass. Open spaces full of trees or busy roads separated them, and he thought he saw leaping fountains. Further inland were compounds like those they’d seen in the countryside, but jammed together to front on dusty streets that thronged with people. The whole was very substantial but not huge; there were probably at least twenty thousand people, possibly thirty, not quite half what a really big city like Portland or Corvallis held.
On the eastward side of the bay to their right was a structure just as huge, but...
“That looks sort of like a Classical building,” John said.
Music was his favored art, but he’d looked into architecture too since he was bound to be a patron of all of them someday. After a closer look he went on:
“Not quite, though—maybe Venetian, or Byzantine? And not as big as Todenangst, say, unless there’s a lot more on the other side of that crest, but still pretty damned big. And not anything you’d expect to see in this part of the world!”
He thought it must have been built into and over the side of a substantial hill, sculpting away the bulk of the earth. Most of it was made of some stone that ranged from white with a slight hint of pink through rose to deep dusky scarlet.
“Coral block,” Feldman said, identifying it. “Pretty, and easy to work. Maybe blocks over a core of pounded coral fragments. But it doesn’t make that... whatever it is... as lighthearted as I’d expect just from hearing built of pink stone.”
No indeed, John thought.
Wall and terrace and rising stair, tall slender round towers with bulbous tips, narrow slit windows much taller than a man in blank surfaces that would be easy to defend even if it wasn’t strictly a castle, flanked by engaged pillars twisted like spirals. And on the topmost tier columns and domes, eerily elongated and... somehow subtly twisted. As if they were notes in the harmonies of songs he’d never heard. He blinked his eyes. There had been a shimmer before them, as if he was seeing through the scene before him. Folk were crowded on the walls, watching, ant-tiny at this distance. A black and yellow flag flew in many places, though it was impossible to see the details of it. Looking closer, he had the impression that there were many enclosed courtyards, possibly very large.
Captain Ishikawa had come up and was standing with one hand on his katana and the thumb on the guard, ready to flick it out as his right hand reached for it—that seemed almost instinctive in Nihonjin entitled to wear the twin swords. Ishikawa was also a naval officer, and an engineer, a man of varied accomplishments for his thirty or so years. He looked narrowly at both sets of buildings.
“These are new,” he said.
In English which was still strongly accented—he pronounced these as zese—but now fully fluent and understandable, unlike the third-hand book-learned variety he’d spoken when he arrived on Montival’s shore that spring.
“Both the city to the west, and that structure to the east. Built since the Change; I think that one may incorporate ruins—” he nodded to the mass of rose coral “—but neither existed before the ancient world fell.”
A rueful shake of the head. “It is humbling, to see others building so, in so many different countries, when in Nihon we strive to keep the old in repair.”
John inclined his head slightly. The Japanese—or the ones he’d met in the past six months—were an impeccably polite people, but also intensely proud. Ishikawa was more approachable than the others around Reiko, which made him only extremely reserved and taciturn by Montivallan standards.
“Your people have had their war to fight, Captain Ishikawa, against terrible odds. That consumes all the energy they have to spare.”
Feldman and his First Mate had been scanning the harbor as well. “Now, here’s the question: where do we head? Because we have to beach her, and soon. Unless they have a drydock free here.”
Under the ramparts of the coral-built palace-city were docks and wharves, also solidly built of stone, and a breakwater. Anchored a bit off from them was a very large ship, a long sleek shape with flush decks and four towering masts and a hull painted some neutral blue-gray color. Smaller ships were at the wharves, some of types he was familiar with, others the odd-looking ones called prau in these seas.
Feldman examined the giant. “That’s a pre-Change ship, by the Lord of the Universe! Two thousand tons, or even more. I’ve heard they built ships for sail, sometimes, right before the end.”
“The displacement would depend on her lines underwater,” Ishikawa said, and Radavindraban made a wordless sound of agreement as he used his binoculars.
“Steel hull, then,” Feldman said enviously. “She’ll be fast, from the look of her spars and the amount of canvas she could spread. Not very nimble, though; she’s ship-rigged, all square except a gaff on the mizzen and the staysails and jibs. And she’d draw deep—thirty feet, maybe more. I don’t like the look of this bay, see the mottled color of the water, shading to green and back to blue? Shallow spots, reefs or mudbanks or both. I wouldn’t care to exchange broadsides with that monster either, though.”
John nodded; the steel sides would make her relatively immune to fire, and nearly so to catapult shot and bolts.
“And the ancients built it for... amusement?”
“Not one damned thing amusing about her now,” the captain said. “She’s got a full broadside, probably modifications since then. Fifteen firing ports a side, and more on her deck. That’s a specialist warship, and a very strong one. Stronger than any single ship in the Royal Navy.”
He peered closely, his lips moving. “I can make out her name. H... A... S... T... U... R... Hastur.”
He turned his glass to the westward. “Now, they’ve got much less in the way of dockage and wharfage over there. I’m not very surprised, Balinese don’t really take to the sea well. Praus, plenty of fishing boats, and very little else... except that barquentine. Smallish, two hundred tons, maybe two-fifty. Looks fast though... catapults too, some sort of light sea-scorpion.”
“Aussie, Cap’n?” Radavindraban said.
“Yes, from her lines. And they like that rig, square on the fore and fore-and-aft on the main and mizzen except for a main top’sle. Darwin, maybe. Or maybe Townsville, or Cairns. And she’s got a shark-mouth painted on her waterline.”
His brows went up. “And they’re weighing anchor and making sail. Making sail right away, they tied a float to their anchor-cable and threw it overside. They’re anxious to make our acquaintance, it seems. Mr. Mate, all hands to battle stations.”
The crew already was, but they stood to in anxious tense silence when Radavindraban conveyed the message; Ishikawa nodded and trotted down to the catapult he and his men crewed. John frowned. Something was bothering him...
Something besides being on a sinking ship and having multitudes trying to kill me. The things I do!
“Captain,” he said. Feldman glanced aside at him, frowning the way a man did when his concentration was upset. “This island doesn’t do much trade, right?”
“None, from what I’ve heard,” Feldman said flatly. “It might as well have sunk right after the Change. Which is a bit odd; it’s fair-sized, and obviously well-peopled.”
“But those people there—” John pointed eastward “—have that bloody great ship, the Hastur! And a bunch of others. And that building is something you’d talk about if you ever saw it. Why hasn’t any word of this got out? Why hasn’t someone like you put in here to see if there was any trade? And brought out news?”
“Not worth my while, but you’re right in principle. Someone would... like that little Aussie barquentine. In the last decade or two with trade picking up the way it has... it’s become harder to be entirely out of the way than it used to be.”
He snapped his fingers. “Unless you’re trying to stay out of sight! I should have thought... well, busy. Those ships are all colored blue-grey. Camouflage, yes; pirates and warships. Honest merchantmen usually don’t try that hard not to be seen!”
Just then the masthead hailed: “Small craft putting out from the quays to eastward below the pink castle, skipper! Dozens of them, crammed with men! I can see spearheads, and some of ‘em are galleys with catapults in the bows!”
A moment later. “More small craft from the westward harbor setting out towards us as well, skipper! Same sort, but not as many!”
“Any sign of movement from the big ship?” Feldman called back.
“No, skipper. She’d take a while, that ‘un. Anchored fore and aft, too. Wait... some of the small boats are putting along side her, men going aboard, lots of ‘em.”
“Thank you, Your Highness,” Feldman said. “We’ll head west towards the Balinese, and hope we get there before those galleys do. This may well come to a close-quarter action, and I don’t like fighting galleys in confined waters where you can’t dodge about to make them exhaust their rowers. They can come at you right out of the eye of the wind.”
John nodded wordlessly and vaulted over the railing and down to the main deck. Evrouin was moving towards him with the canvas sack and his shield over his back, and he took a deep breath and nodded.
“Full gear, Sergeant Fayard,” he called to the under-officer of crossbowmen. “This looks... serious.”
Out of the frying pan, into the fucking fire, he added silently, and saw the thought echoed in the under-officer’s eyes.
John had expected to feel better when he had a chance to do something he was properly trained at. Right now, he’d have settled for being a supernumerary idler again. The valet-bodyguard started pulling things out of the bag; Deor wiggled into his mail shirt, then started helping Thora, as Ruan shrugged into his Mackenzie brigantine and buckled the straps under his right arm and stepped through his longbow to string it with his thigh braced over the riser. John’s mouth was suddenly very dry and he wanted a drink very badly, but you didn’t want a full bladder in a suit of plate before you had to.
What in the name of all the Saints and the Virgin is going on here?
He didn’t know. He didn’t even know if anyone else knew, either. Maybe the Australian ship could tell him, if they weren’t coming to attack him too. He considered that as he bent and twisted to let the plates and pieces settle and they were buckled and fitted and strapped.
I wonder how they got here?
Copyright © 2015-2016 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>