Chapter 9: The Farthest Places
“Commander Magnus, sir? Lord High Consul dev'Pross wishes to know our position, sir.” The deckhand's voice interrupted Jax's ruminations.
He turned away from the prow and its view of the jungle world beneath them. “Tell the Lord High Consul that we are moving under full sail due east, the same as the last time he asked.”
“Very good sir...but...”
“What is it?”
“Well, sir...it's just that...”
“Spit it out, then, Neophyte.”
“He will wish to know our precise position, sir. And our estimated date of arrival.”
Jax sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. If there was anything more trying on a man's patience than soft and inexperienced noblemen in positions of authority, he hadn't come across it. This “Lord High Consul” was a boy of maybe eighteen years, with no combat experience, no training in basic navigation, much less inter-realm navigation. His mother was the emperor's favored niece, and he was given command of a Dreadnaught for no other reason than to please a favorite relative. “Tell the Lord High Consul, yet again, that it is impossible to give an exact position, because this is an uncharted realm, and we have no known landmarks by which to gauge our position. Moreover, we have no predetermined destination, therefore we cannot have a date of arrival.”
The Neophyte shifted uneasily, looking confused and distraught. “He won't...he won't like that, sir. I'm sorry sir, but he just...”
Jax ground his teeth, trying to contain his irritation. It wasn't the fault of this unshaven boy that the Consul couldn't understand the most basic principles of commanding a vessel. “Tell him, then, as a message directly from me, that if his imperial lordship the High Consul wishes to play at being in charge of this vessel, then he should cork the wine bottle and come out on deck for once in his worthless life. Tell him that exactly, Neophyte Orissel.” The boy—a skinny, gangly peasant of barely fifteen years, shipping out on his first voyage—paled and began trembling.
“I—I can't tell him that, sir! I just couldn't! You don't know the temper that one's got, 'specially when he's in his cups, and he's been in 'em since afore noon. He'd have the hide offa me and then throw to me get eaten by whatever lives down in that there jungle.” The boy's rustic, peasant accent became more pronounced as his agitation increased. “You might not be scared of what he can do to you, sir, but I am, an' I ain't afraid to say as much.”
Jax was unrelenting. “Tell him, Orissel. Tell him that you've got a message from me, and all apologies as it's not your words but mine. Deliver the message, and then get out, whatever the wretch says. I'll find some other post for you.” Orissel was still pale, but he looked glad at the prospect of working away from the Lord High Consul Aryl dev'Pross.
Jax cursed under his breath. The last High Consul was a fair, worthy man, and Jax had served under him willingly. Consul Irindi had been a warrior who had fought his way up the ranks from green deckhand to seasoned Corsair, to Ground Commander—Jax's current rank—and finally to High Consul. It had only been a matter of time of course, but when Irindi had been promoted to Palace Under-vizier, Jax had been sad to see him go. Then, Jax had been summoned to the office of the War Vizier. He'd been expecting to be put in Irindi's place as High Consul of the Imperial Dreadnaught Relentless; instead, he'd been saddled with a dead-weight, an arrogant boy who hadn't even learned to shave his own ugly face. Irindi had watched the proceedings with a sad but amused expression. The High Vizier, a pale, rat-faced man with a precisely-trimmed beard, had introduced Jax to Mirana dev'Pross, niece to the Emperor. Jax knew the woman well, and had been hard-pressed to keep his hands off of her lovely throat: she'd been one of his most frequent post-Contest visitors, and the most...energetic. She was startled to see Jax in the trappings of a Ground Commander, but, experienced politician that she was, she covered it with expert ease.
“I'm sure you will take excellent care of my son, Aryl, won't you, Commander? He's a good boy, just a bit...sheltered. His father wishes him to see a bit of the Realms, before he takes up a post in the palace. It would do him a bit of good, I should say.” Her voice was sweet and calm, but the look she gave Jax held a world of venom. Aryl looked about as pleased at the arrangement as Jax himself, but it didn't seem either of them had much choice in the matter.
When they had all gone, Jax turned to Irindi and the Vizier, saying, “If I'm to have charge of this boy, doing my job as well as his, then I had damn well better get the pay for both jobs. And I won't be held responsible if he gets himself killed.”
The Vizier had stood up and glared down at Jax. “You'd best listen, and listen well, Commander, because your life is at stake. Aryl dev'Pross is your life, from this moment on. If you fail to return him to Carth at the voyage's end, then your head will roll down the palace steps, do you hear me? Furthermore, you had better teach him a few things while you're at it. As for pay, your request is reasonable, so I'll grant it, but only because the dev'Pross family is wealthier than all the empire combined and they won't even miss it.” The Vizier crossed to a bookshelf stuffed with scrolls and codices, rolled maps and scraps of paper, inkstands, pens, compasses, all the detritus of a busy, important politician. He rummaged for a moment before pulling out a blank scroll, sat down at his desk and wrote on it in clear, flowing script for many minutes. When he was finished, he blew on it to dry the ink and handed it to Jax.
“This is your commission,” the Vizier said. “You are an excellent commander, one of our best, truthfully, and you are well-due for a Consul's braids. But, even I cannot gainsay the wishes of Mirana dev'Pross. You are not a politician, my boy, so I'll put this in plain words. I know how you came to your post, for Luravian is an old, old friend of mine, and I know why you seemed about to rip Mirana's pretty little throat out. But, she is a dov'Firren by birth, born of the Emperor's only sister, and she could have you killed as easy as she draws a breath. My advice to you is to do as she wishes. The boy is a nuisance of the worst sort, a drunkard already, a lecher, a woman-beater, a gambler, and a weakling, but he has imperial blood, and none can control him.” The Vizier poured two glasses of wine, nodded at Irindi in dismissal. When he and Jax were alone, the Vizier leaned forward and spoke in a low voice. “Listen, boy. There are two ways that I see for you to deal with Aryl. One, you can ignore him, and let him pretend he's in charge. He knows he's not, and he knows why he's on board. He would rather be here in Carth, where wine and women and dice are plentiful, but the voyage on a Dreadnaught is part of the game, if one wishes to advance in the government. The other way to deal with him, one I do not advise, personally, is to arrange...an accident. Winds are unpredictable, and drunks are unsteady on their feet, and who would deny it if you were to say he tumbled overboard, one dark night?”
Jax thought carefully before answering. “You tempt me, Vizier. I would like little more than to just to toss him over, but the way Mirana looked at me...she'd assume the truth and that would it for me. I survived the Contests once, and I could again, but she would arrange a different fate for me, I believe.”
“You have the right of it. Just put up with him. Try not to let him anger you into rash action. Now, there is one last piece of business for us to discuss.” The Vizier made sure no one was eavesdropping at the door before resuming. “There is a mission given to High Consuls when they are first commissioned. It is not secret, per se, but it not public knowledge either. I give you the mission because Aryl dev'Pross is only Consul in name, and after this voyage you will take the helm as Consul in name and fact. Simply put, it is this: Carth is running out of room. Our population is outgrowing the space we have in the city, and something must be done. So, you are to scour the realms for a suitable location for colonies. We are preparing new ships and technologies as we speak, and when a location has been found, volunteers will be chosen.”
Jax was perplexed. “Why can you not simply expand the city? There is miles of room to every side, is there not?”
“I had forgotten you were an off-worlder. It is not that simple. Did you not notice that there were no other cities, anywhere? There are a few villages scattered here and there in the highest peaks of the mountains, but no other city even a hundredth of our size. The reason for this is that the lowlands are uninhabitable.”
“How so? It looks to be lush, fertile land, to me.”
“It looks so, but looks are deceiving. I have been down there, many years ago. Down in the lowlands, anywhere but above the treeline, there are storms down there, what are called temporal storms. It is not anything so simple as rain and lightning, however. It is magical in nature. How do I describe it? There are...pools of slow-time, where you will be walking along and then suddenly everything is frozen around you, the sun stands still, your breath comes slow and heavy, you cannot blink or move. It is like you are stuck in quicksand, sinking. If you can muscle your way through, you will come out the other side and it could be days or weeks or months or even years later. I went down to the lowlands on a scouting expedition, as a young man of twenty, and when I came back, my parents were three years in their graves, though to me, I had been gone only a matter of months. You cannot detect these pockets of slow-time, and it takes a man of near-superhuman strength to escape them. It was an effort of sheer will that got me out of it, and I was weak to sickness for weeks afterward.
“There are also things like lightning strikes, flashes of light that crack and growl and make the hairs on your head stand on end. I saw a man in my party struck by one, and he simply disappeared. Vanished. The most learned of mages have done research on these flashes, and to the best of their knowledge, they are a kind of crack between realms, like a portal. They have called them shift-strikes, for lack of a better term. There are other dangers, such as the realm-quakes. I experienced one of those as well. It is...terrifying, I don't mind admitting. Everything shook and trembled, and I was tossed into the air like a leaf. The world around me changed as if I was on a wheel rolling through the realms, one moment I was in a snowy world, the next plunged into the salty sea, the next drifting through the stars, the next in a desert...it lasted for nearly an hour, and I still have nightmares about it. This is all aside from the raveners, and shrieks, and baulders, and other things we have no names for. No, expansion here is not an option. The commission lists what we are looking for, and what to do if you find a likely place.
“So, Commander Brutus Magnus, you have your commission, and my best wishes. See you next cycle.”
A bellow of rage brought Jax back to the present. Aryl had just been given the message, it would seem. Orissel stumbled backwards out of the Consul's cabin, ducking and bowing. A sword sheath, gold-gilt and jewel-encrusted, flew out of the door after Orissel and struck the poor boy on the head, setting him to bleeding. Orissel stumbled below-decks, looking haunted.
“COMMANDER!” Aryl lurched out of the cabin, down the steps, and stood wavering unsteadily in front of Jax, a wine bottle in one hand and a naked sword in the other. “What is the meaning of this? Explain yourself.”
“Gladly. Perhaps Neophyte Orissel did not deliver the message accurately. What I told him to say was that if your imperial lordship the High Consul wishes to play at commanding this vessel, then you should cork the wine and come out on deck, for once in your worthless life. I see you have emerged on deck for the first time this voyage, but you still have the wine.”
“Worthless life? Do you know who I am? Speak to me that way again and I'll run you through, you ugly lout.” Aryl pressed the tip of his sword to Jax's throat.
“I will only say this once, Aryl. Put down the sword before you get hurt.”
“You don't scare me.”
“No? You asked if I know who you are. The real question is, do you know who I am?”
“Should I?” The sword point dug into the flesh enough to send a trickle of blood down Jax's tunic.
Jax reached up and grasped the sword blade with his hand and yanked it out of Aryl's grip. “I am Brutus Magnus. Do you know that name?”
Aryl's eyes widened. “The champion of the last Brutalian Contests? That's you?”
Jax examined the sword, turning it over in his hands, one of which was cut deeply by the blade. “Yes, that's me.” Jax held the sword up in front of Aryl, snapped it in two. “Next time you point a blade at me, boy, use a real sword, not a dull, flimsy hunk of scrap metal like that. And be ready to use it. You couldn't run me through, even if you had a real sword. You haven't got the guts. The closest you've ever gotten to real combat is sitting in your fat uncle's box at the Contests, swilling wine and groping whores. You watch good, honest men slaughter each other for your amusement and you think, 'I could do that,' but if you were ever faced by real danger, all you'd be capable of is pissing yourself, you rotten little brat.”
Aryl reddened with rage, stumbled back a step, then charged forward and swung sloppy fist at Jax, who simply stood his ground and let the blow connect. When it did, the boy staggered back, clutching his hand. “Big mistake, boy,” Jax growled. He jabbed hard with his left, breaking Aryl's nose and knocking him to the ground, then picked him by his tunic and held him backwards over the rail to hang upside down. Aryl screamed, choking as the blood sluicing from his nose ran down his throat. “If I let you go, all I need to say is that you fell overboard, drunk as a blind beggar. No one on board this ship would disagree. You live on my sufferance, boy, and don't forget it.” Jax let Aryl up and threw him weeping to the deck. Jax picked up the dropped wine bottle from the deck and drank from it, waiting for Aryl to compose himself. Eventually, he did, and stood up, wiping his nose on his sleeve.
“You have a choice,” Jax told him. “You can either sit in your cabin and drink and leave me alone to do my job, or you can take off that ridiculous uniform and bunk down below as deckhand, and do a hard-day's work for once in your life.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“What don't you understand?”
“Bunk down below? Like...with the commoners?”
“Yes, you imbecile, with the commoners. And you would work like one too.”
“And if I don't want to?”
“I'll lock you in your cabin until we dock at Carth and you can crawl crying to your mommy about how mean I was to you, and she can do her worst to me. I don't care either way.”
“Why can't I be a Corsair?”
Jax laughed at this, and finished the wine in one long gulp. “Because you couldn't. You'd get killed within minutes. I can't be down there commanding them as well as protect you. You can barely hold a sword right way up. You have to earn being a Corsair. You know nothing, nothing at all. Sitting in your box watching men stab each other doesn't prepare you for combat. Do really want to know what it's like, down in the ring? It's hot, for one, and the armor is heavy, and the sword hilts are slippery in your hands because you're sweating like a pig. Your heart is beating in your throat, because you're terrified. There are dozens of men out on the sand, waiting to cut you open and spill your guts onto the sand. The crowd is screaming so loud you can't even hear yourself think. Then, the gate opens and you're pushed out into the ring, and the sun blinds you, and there's a huge man with swords trying to kill you. Your bowels are water in your belly, and your legs tremble, but if you don't move quickly enough, you'll get a sword through your gut, and that's exactly what the crowd wants to see happen. And that's just the ring. You do that seven times, each time harder than the last.
“You want to be a Corsair? The armor weighs almost as much as you do, and the masks make it hard to see, and the sun bakes you alive inside the metal and leather. Then, you have to slide down a rope, hundreds of feet to the ground and if your hands slip you're dead, and no one'll come back for you. Then you have to fight, for your life and the lives of the other men, against enemies who hate you, who want to rip you apart because more than likely other Corsairs have taken their loved ones as slaves, and they outnumber you at least two-to-one. What's worse is, you have nothing against them. They're no threat to you, you don't hate them or feel anything for them at all. You may not even know what they're called or the name of the realm you're in, but orders are orders and if you disobey you'll be whipped or executed or given to a laniska, or just left naked on the ground. So, you have to kill them and rip them out of the arms of their husbands and wives and children, and watch them sold into a life of slavery, or get burned out in the drain-chambers until they're just empty husks. And then, you have to do it all over again, next world.”
Aryl was silent, staring out at the jungle passing beneath them in the waning sunlight. “I had no idea...I'd never really thought about it,” he said, dragging his wrist across his still-bleeding nose. “I always thought it would fun, somehow. See new places, scare some natives, take a few prisoners with a show of force, tumble some local girls, unwilling or not...”
“Many have that same impression. Nothing could be further from the truth. These Corsairs, they rarely see the worlds we pass through except during the raids, and then things are too confused and fast-paced to see much of anything. As for local women, there happens to be strict injunction against tumbling the local girls, as you put it, especially if they're unwilling. That's not to say it doesn't happen on some Dreadnaughts, but on mine, it doesn't. We are not barbarians.”
“Would you really throw me overboard?” Aryl turned to Jax and gave a sharp, sober, penetrating look. The boy had potential, if it could be reached.
“In a heartbeat.”
“Really?” Aryl didn't seem to believe it.
“Don't mistake polite conversation for caring about you. If you cross me, even slightly, I will toss you overboard so fast you won't know what happened until you hit the ground. And believe me, that hurts.” Jax stepped close to Aryl and fixed him with a cold, hard stare, a look that cowed even the doughtiest of Corsairs. “Make your choice. Jump off, stay in your cabin, or work as a deckhand.”
Aryl was silent for a long time. Jax could sense that he was deep in thought, so he stood and waited. At length Aryl spoke, hesitatingly, haltingly. “I...you know, I've never wanted to work in the palace? I told Mum and Da, but they don't care. I'm the emperor's nephew, and I have certain expectations to live up to. I really was looking forward to this voyage, secretly. I put on the face they expected of me, but I've always wanted to be a Corsair, or even just a deckhand. I know I'm in my cups more than I should be, but it's the only way I know how to deal with all the pressure my parents put on me to be this...this perfect aristocratic, noble, imperial-blooded...thing. I'm the future of the Empire, they tell me. Heirs to the Carthian throne do not traipse about the realms swinging bloody swords, and they most certainly do not do menial labor.”
“You're heir to the throne?” Jax hadn't realized that, somehow.
“Well, yes.” Aryl seemed uncomfortable admitting it. “Uncle Herastus, the emperor, he doesn't have any heirs. He had a daughter, but she disappeared before I was born. Nobody will talk about it, and I don't know much. Just that his daughter, my aunt, Nialla, she didn't wouldn't marry any of the suitors Uncle Herastus set up for for her, and then one day she disappeared with a commoner, an off-worlder, Tinus, or...Titus, that's what it was.” Jax's blood ran cold. Something had been niggling at the back of his memory for a long time, ever since the meeting with the Vizier, and now it all clicked together.
“Nialla dov'Firren is your aunt? Daughter to Herastus dov'Firren, Emperor of Carth?”
“Yes. You didn't know that?”
“It just made sense of a few things. So what else do you know about Nialla and Titus?”
“Not much. Just that Nialla ran off one night with that Titus fellow, and they were never seen again, and the Emperor was left with no direct heir. Imperial law states that if the Emperor has no direct issue, then the male in closest degree of consanguinity to the Emperor will inherit...and that would be me, unless Nialla showed up, or if she had a son or daughter.”
“A male or a female can rule?”
“Yes. The law only specifies male in cases of no direct issue.”
“Direct issue, meaning son or daughter.”
“Well, specifically it has to be a son or daughter that is legitimate, by legal marriage.”
“So a bastard can't inherit?”
“Well, that's not true all the time either. The laws regarding inheritance of the throne are convoluted, to say the least. A bastard can inherit if he or she is the child of the Emperor's son or daughter. It's a bizarre clause that no one really understands. The best anyone can explain it is, if the Emperor dies, and the next in line also dies, or is unavailable, say disappeared or mentally unfit, then the Emperor's grandchild can inherit, regardless of legitimacy, but an illegitimate child can't inherit if there is a direct descendant available.”
“They've really drilled this into you, haven't they?”
Aryl laughed bitterly. “Yes, Commander, they have drilled a veritable mountain of knowledge into me. I can recite the entire law, from beginning to end, from absolution to usury. I can tell you the entire the process of succession from the first minor king of Carth when it was little hamlet in the folds of a mountain, to Uncle Herastus. I can tell you who all the captains of every unit are in the current service, and I can tell you the names of all the Consuls of every Dreadnaught, and the name of every Dreadnaught in current commission. I can tell you all of this from memory, while standing on my head, in my sleep. And I don't care a whit about any of it.”
“You don't want to rule?”
“Not even a little bit. I'm not cut out for it. Uncle Herastus, he's cruel enough, merciless enough, and conniving enough to control all of the Viziers and court politicians and sycophants. I'm not like that.”
Jax's view of Aryl dev'Pross was quickly changing, now that he was sober. “So what do you want to do?”
“If I could do whatever I want, I would just stay aboard this Dreadnaught and never go back to the palace. I want to see the realms, I want to learn how to fight, I want to feel all those things you were talking about, even if it does terrify me to think about. I'm sick of being sheltered and protected. My parents act like I might break if get hit by a drop of rain. It makes me sick with rage, sometimes.”
“So don't go back. I could arrange it.”
“They would hunt me down and haul me back, however far I went.”
“There are more realms than there are Dreadnaughts, and if you want it badly enough, you can disappear, with ease. A beard, some armor and muscle and long, unwashed hair...you would be unrecognizable. Change your name, move from ship to ship frequently...it's not that hard. The world of Corsairs and deckhands is a vast, changing thing, and it is impossible to keep track of one man in all of the thousands of faces. On top of that, there are innumerable realms, and some of them are nearly civilized, where a man could make a life, if he wanted to.”
Aryl took a deep breath, faced Jax and squared his shoulders like a man who has made a difficult decision. “Commander Magnus, would you help me disappear?”
“You cannot undo this decision, once made, Aryl. Know that, and understand it. If you make this choice, you will cease to be Aryl dev'Pross, child of the empire and privileged aristocrat. You will do as I say without question, and believe me, it will be hard. You will regret your decision more than once, I promise you that.”
“So be it.”
Jax nodded, motioned for Aryl to follow him.
* * *
Below-decks was a strange world, for Aryl. The men were big, coarse, rough, and vulgar, but something stirred inside of him. He would have been revolted even a day ago, but now, knowing he was going to become one of them, he didn't seem to mind, as much. His heart beat like a drum, his palms were sweaty, and he felt tongue-tied. Commander Magnus led him through low, winding, wood-paneled hallways past clean-rooms billowing with steam and smelling of hot water and soap and flashing with glimpses of muscled, unselfconscious naked men, past wide, spacious barracks ringing with jokes and curses and rough-housing, stuffed with bunks four high and twenty across on each wall. They came to a room that was in a corner, an oddly-shaped cabinet made out of extra space, and here the Commander rummaged through piles of uniforms on rough wooden shelves until he found the uniform of a deckhand.
“This should fit you, I think.” Commander Magnus strode off down another hallway, still speaking as Aryl struggled to keep up. “I'm starting you at the very bottom, as a Neophyte. You know nothing about anything at all, and you'll have to learn the hard way. I'm not going to protect you, favor you, or treat you any different, and I'm going to instruct the men to do the same.”
“They all hate me, I know they do. I see the way the looked at me when I first came aboard. I'll be surprised if I make it past the first day.”
“True, they do hate you, but then...you earned it. You'll have to earn their approval, and you can only do that by working hard and being respectful to those who are more experienced that you. The best advice I can give you is to ask if you don't know. It's best to ask for help than make mistakes, because on board a Dreadnaught, mistakes can kill.”
They came to barracks, a small, cramped room less than half the size of the one's he'd seen before. There were two bunks to a row, ten rows to a wall, and all but one were full. “The empty bunk belonged to Thirin,” Commander Magnus told him. “But he died last voyage and we haven't replaced him yet.”
“How did he die?” Aryl asked.
“A stray arrow got him, last raid. He died slowly. I doubt you'd remember him. He was a good kid.”
“Well, thanks for that cheery thought.”
“This is what you wanted, and that's the reality.”
Commander Magnus addressed the room, “Listen hard, you lot. You all know who this is, and I know how you feel about him. I feel the same. Turns out he's had a turn of heart and he wants to make a clean break of things. More than one of you here are in the same boat as he is, I know. There will be no hazing, no tricks or hard treatment. He's one of you know, same as you were, first day out from the docks, except I can guarantee you he's more nervous than you all were, as he's turning his back on a whole hell of a lot more than you penniless peasant louts. Any mistreatment will earn the offender an extra day in the galley with the cooks, second offense will get you a turn in the drain-tank, and third offenders will be striped.” With that, he turned and left the room, saying over his shoulder, “bunk out and catch some rest, morning shift comes early for Neophytes.” With that, he was gone, and Aryl was left to the stares of the other neophytes.
“I...I know I haven't been pleasant, much...and I'm sorry.” Aryl felt a knot in his gut, and his fingers were trembling. He shoved his hands in the pockets of his uniform to hide the shakes, but he doubted anyone was fooled. These were young, tough boys used to work and used to hard knocks, and they looked ready to fold him into the small chest by his bunk.
“What'd you do, then?” One of the boys asked.
“C'mander said you needed a fresh start, like, and that means you done somethin' back 'ome. What I wants to know is what you done.”
“I didn't do anything, I'll have you know. I just don't want to be what my parents want.”
“Wossat, then?” The boy, no more than sixteen at the most, was idly digging dirt from under his fingernails with a long-bladed knife as he interrogated Aryl.
“Don't you know?”
“Know what, then?”
“Don't you know who I am?”
“No, should I?”
“Well, yes, actually. I am Aryl dev'Pross, nephew to Emperor Herastus dov'Firren, and heir to the throne of Carth.”
The boy jerked at this statement, stabbing himself deeply with his dagger, loosing a ribbon of blood and a stream of curses. “You jestin' me, ain'tcha? Tell me you're just pullin' a knock-headed fast one.”
“What? No, I'm not kidding. I'm deadly serious. I'm running away. They sent me on this voyage to get some 'experience of the wider world', and so I could say I've done my year out and year back.”
The boy looked incredulous as he clamped a rag around his finger. “You are tellin' for true, ain'tcha? Bless me, but that's loony.” He turned at exchanged disbelieving glances with his fellows. “Well if that don't beat all. You're actually running away from bein' emperor of all Carth, away from the wives and concubines and all that money...and those servants to do what-all you tell 'em...gods but what I wouldn't give to trade places with you.”
Aryl laughed aloud and shook his head. “No, you wouldn't want that. It's not at all like you think. Sure, there's money and women and servants, that's all true. I've got all that, as much as I want. But it comes with a lot of expectations, to say the least. Do you want to know what it's really like?” The other neophytes gathered around close, sat piled onto bottom bunks and passed around a bottle of something that made Aryl's throat burn. He told them story after story of his youth in the palace, dodging tutors and slipping into the servants quarters with mostly-willing chambermaids, told them of hours upon hours of rote memorization of the law and the rites of succession and the names of ancestors and generals and battles and the history of Carth, told them of wild nights in the guard's barracks dicing until he had lost all but his underclothes and had to sneak back to his rooms nearly naked. They seemed awed and mystified that anyone would give up such a life, but they understood more fully when he described the pressures of inheritance, the expectation that he would be ready to rule the empire when Herastus stepped down. The empire was a massive thing, a living, organic, pulsing, changing creature that needed constant care, constant attention, that any slightest mistake or bad judgment meant lives lost and resources wasted. By the time he had told every story he could think of, the bottle was nearly empty and the neophytes were nodding where they sat. The boy who first spoken, whose name was Jossur, eventually announced that it was time to have done and get some sleep, and the others seemed to listen readily. Jossur was the most senior, it turned out, and thus had the most authority among the neophytes.
He handed Aryl the bottle and let him finish it, saying, “If I was you, I'd not tell anyone else what you done told us. You got lucky that the C'mander put you with this lot, because I doubt the others'd be so ready to listen. Most others might even know your name and who you are by sight, and that could lead to trouble for you. I might even start goin' by a different name, and let yourself get some scruff goin'. The C'mander, he ain't much on holdin' to regs that don't serve much purpose.”
“Regs? What are regs?” Aryl was dizzy and sleepy, and he fairly fell into his bunk, Jossur in the bunk at Aryl's head.
“Regulations...things like havin' short hair and no beard, wearin' full dress when muster is called before first shift..that kinda stuff.”
“Full dress? Muster?”
Jossur laughed sleepily. “Oh man, gods help us. You don't even know what dress uniform is. It's gonna be a long trip till we learn you the ropes, it is.” Jossur turned over and was soon snoring, and Aryl wasn't far behind.
Jossur's words that night proved prophetic. Everything involved in becoming a deckhand was alien and difficult. The ropes rubbed his hands into blisters that soon burst and bled and became callouses, and it took every ounce of mental retention to learn the names of the sails and masts and ropes and cranks. He washed the deck with a long-handled mop, a duty called swabbing, he spent hours in a little perch at the dizzying top of the forward mast on look-out duty, swaying hundreds of feet above the deck with all the world spread out beneath him like a living map, the wind pushing and blowing and tossing him. He learned the hard way that petty disagreements with other neophytes were settled by the simple expedient of quick and dirty fist-fights. He got into many disagreements and lost most of them until he hardened a bit and learned to punch straight. These fights were against ship-rules, technically, but he quickly learned that the Commander rarely interfered unless a fight got out of hand. He was learning to see Commander Magnus in a much different light, now that he was a neophyte, or in barracks-slang, a scrub. No one, not even the most experienced Corsair, ever called him anything but “the Commander,” and they were almost reverential in the way they spoke of him. If he was in view, everyone worked a little harder by unspoken consent, and they walked with a straighter back and quieter voices. If he gave an order, it was obeyed with alacrity. Aryl only saw one person on the ship ever approach the Commander and speak to him as something like an equal, and that was a Corsair who addressed him as “Brutus” rather than “Commander.” The Corsair was heavily scarred, hugely muscled, with hands that seemed permanently curled as if around the hilt of his weapons.
The Commander spent a lot of time standing at the rail in front of his cabin watching the deckhands scurry about ship maintenance and Corsairs engaged in sparring exercises, his lean, tanned, weather-worn face scarred and pitted, dark eyes glittering in the sun, long black hair tied back into a neat queue, impassive and inscrutable. He moved about the ship in a slow, graceful prowl, never stumbling, even when the hardest winds buffeted the ship into rocking and bucking; if he wasn't at the rail, he was moving below-decks, poking his head into barracks and cabins, always with a shallow nod and greeting men by name.
The Relentless was weeks above the jungle, a seemingly-endless expanse of green tree-tops and shimmering silver threads of rivers. They moved eastward in long tacks, sails snapping and belled out by the perpetual wind, screws still and engines at rest to conserve power. Each day found Aryl more at ease on the ship, among the other men, and with his allotted job. He ignored the advice of both the Commander and Jossur and continued to go by his own given name; it was sheer stubbornness on his part, he knew, but he refused to hide behind fake names. Either he would be accepted as himself, or he wouldn't. The Corsairs especially were cold and distant to him, if not outright hostile, being older and more aware of who he was and his reputation.
After a month, Aryl was familiar enough with the rhythms and sensations of the Dreadnaught to recognize that the ship had halted during the night when he woke for morning muster. All the deckhands and the Corsairs were gathered on the deck in their unit formations, sleepy-eyed and groggy in the still gray pre-dawn haze. The Commander stood in front of them and waited until the last stragglers were in formation and all the chatter had been silenced.
“I have decided,” he began, “that we must break from protocol if we are to gain any profit from this realm. We must make an excursion to the ground, beneath the tree canopy. For all of you who haven't been with us for a raid, this is unusual in that Corsairs are trained as shock troops. We rely on surprise and superior training to bear us through situations in which we are often vastly outnumbered. Here, in the jungle, we will be at a disadvantage. We are not explorers or woodsmen, and we do not know what to expect down there, but it is simply unconscionable to leave this realm after spending so much by way of time and resources exploring it without gaining something. So, orders. Corsairs: ready yourselves for a raid, projectile weapons as well as close quarters. Deckhands, you must be alert for the slightest tug on the cables, ready to haul away at a moments notice. We will go down in fists, each group of five descending and taking up sentry points around the ship for the others coming down. No face-masks, as you will need all of your senses about you. Deckhands: reef the sails, tie off all lines, and prepare the descent cables, and standby. Go.” The Commander himself was already in full battle gear, helmet tucked under an arm, belt hung with saber and axe, an unstrung bow and a quiver at his back. When the Corsairs were all below-decks, he called over a deckhand, an older, heavy-set man with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and beard.
“Borian, I'm leaving you in temporary command of the vessel until we return. If for any reason I should not come back alive or able to command, then you are to set a course for Carth and do not stop for anything. Keep the engines on while we are below, ready to rise and depart the moment the last Corsair is on board. Allow for no mistakes, Borian. Be alert.”
Borian merely nodded, and when the Commander had turned to inspect the preparations of his ground crew, Borian began issuing orders in a deep, clear, loud voice. Aryl was part of the crew ordered to reef the sails. Scrambling up the nets, he sat astride the mizzen-mast yard and furiously hauled at the lines until the sheet was fully reefed. By the time this was done, the Corsairs were lined up at the descent cables waiting for orders. Commander Magnus was standing on the wide, flat mounting rail, saber in one hand, cable clamp in the other, a foot set in a pre-made loop in the cable, helmeted and unmasked, watching as his troops made ready. When all was to his satisfaction, the Commander held his saber aloft for a few tense beats, then stepped off the rail as he lowered the sword. The Corsairs all gave a monosyllabic chant in unison as they followed suit, stepping onto the rail and off into space. As soon as the rail was clear, the next Corsair in line stepped up and over, the whole process going so quickly that within a matter of seconds the deck was clear and silent once more.
For perhaps an hour, the deck crew waited tensely, the silence only broken by muttered conversations and brief orders, and then a rope was jerked and the crank crews hauled at the double handles of the cog-and-wheel apparatus that drew the descent cables back up to the ship. The Corsair who tumbled over the rail was weak and bloody, pin-cushioned with four-foot-long black arrows with yellow fletching. He slumped to the deck, grabbed the nearest deckhand and yanked him down to his mouth, muttering a few words, then coughed wetly, pink froth bubbling at his lips. The deckhand leapt to his feet and scrambled over to Borian. Whatever the deckhand told him made Borian's face pale, visible even from Aryl's perch at the mizzen-mast platform, far above.
“All hands!” Borian bellowed. “All hands, to me!” Within seconds every deckhand was clustered around Borian, listening. “They've run into trouble, down below. The Commander has ordered everyone down below except crank-hands. You're not down there to fight, so don't get no ideas of heroism, you're there to get the killed and wounded back up to the deck. It'll be a wild scrum, I'm guessin', so keep your heads down and a wary eye out.” Borian stepped over to the nearest descent cable and demonstrated the proper method of descent.
“If you haven't used the cables yet, then listen up. It's easy but if you do it wrong you'll break your bones. The bottom of the cable has a loop in it, called the foot-loop. Hopefully it's obvious what you do with it. This,” he held up a clamp attached to the cable by a smaller line that braided around the main cable and attached to the crank, “is the stop-clamp. When you get near the ground, say fifty or a hundred feet, squeeze this cable with your hand and it'll slow your descent so you don't slam into the ground. There will be men waiting for you, so don't use the clamp until you're close to the bottom, or you'll cause a pile up. Now, get moving, single file lines and be quick!”
Aryl was third in line at his crank, and his hands were sweaty, his heart thumping crazily, and his stomach was fluttering in his throat. Battles had always seemed like adventures, before, but now that he was about to go down into one, it didn't seem like such fun. Within moments he was stuffing his boot into the foot-loop, grasping the stop-clamp in his hand and standing on the rail. The crank-hand near him slapped him on the back, saying, “You'll be fine, sailor. Now jump!” Aryl took a panicky breath, hesitated, and then half-jumped, half-fell, assisted by a gentle push from the crank-hand. The descent was terrifying. The green blanket of tree-tops hurtled up to him, turning from amorphous green to individual leaves, and then he was crashing through branches that cut and whipped at his face, arms and legs; there were screams and yells audible now, clashing steel and the thunk of arrows hitting trees and torsos, orders in Common, savage ululations of whatever natives had ambushed the Corsairs. Aryl was through the trees now and the ground was less than forty feet away and he was squeezing the clamp with both hands frantically; the Corsairs were clustered in a wide, ragged circle in the middle of a clearing, backs to each other, surrounded by hundreds of ten-foot-tall, skeleton-thin, orange-skinned natives. They were clad in loin-cloths, and wielded bows as tall as a normal human male, and these they used with horrible speed and accuracy, drawing arrows from quivers on their waists and firing them with mechanical precision, filling the air with buzzing arrows. There was not one Corsair in view that didn't have at least a dozen arrows buried in their armor.
Aryl landed hard, jarring his legs and ankles, crushing the air from his lungs and sending stars in sparking in his vision. He stood shakily, only to throw himself back to the ground as an arrow whizzed angrily past his head. There was a thick tree nearby, with a Corsair behind it firing some kind of hand-held cannon that Aryl had never seen before. Aryl crawled over to crouch behind the tree next to the Corsair, who was bleeding from a dozen minor wounds.
“C'mander wants you to get the wounded and dead aboard ship. Get moving, we'll cover you!” The Corsair shoved Aryl out into the open, following him closely. There were two downed Corsairs less than twenty feet away; Aryl crouched low and made his way over to them, trying to keep from vomiting from sheer terror. At least three times arrows passed by him, and the Corsair was hit at least twice more in the torso, but the body armor prevented the arrows from penetrating too deeply, although the warrior grunted each time he was hit. Aryl grabbed the bodies by their heels and hauled them toward the circle of Corsairs where the descent cables were. The natives were everywhere, firing arrows and hooting, unlimbering short throwing spears when their arrows ran out. The deckhands were among the trees now, carrying and dragging bodies, tying them to the cables and jerking the line to signal the crank-hands, rushing out into the fray again. There were at least three deckhands slumped to the dirt. Aryl felt a sting along his back as an arrow creased him, followed by a bolt of sharper pain as another arrow buried itself in his shoulder; he hid behind a tree, reached up behind himself and snapped the arrow off short; a sound nearby pulled Aryl around to see a native towering over him, glaring black eyes wide and fierce, javelin held to stab. Aryl threw himself to the side as the spear flicked out, hit the tree, spat bark at him; he rolled over and over and up against a dead body, felt the hard length of a weapon underneath him. The corpse was a native, and the weapon was javelin. Aryl wormed it out from underneath himself and brought up just in time to block a thrust, another, and a third, he kicked out and felt a knee-joint bend inwards, eliciting a howl of enraged pain; scrambling to his feet, Aryl used the momentary lapse to plunge the spear through the native's gut, pulled it free, saw another orange-skinned warrior a few feet away preparing to throw a javelin. Aryl took a running step, threw the spear in his hand as hard as he could, was rewarded to see it plant itself in the native's back to hang down, pulling the warrior with it. It was an awkward throw, but it distracted the warrior long enough for a Corsair to hack him down the ground with an axe.
Suddenly Commander Magnus was next to him, snapping off arrows and dropping the broken shafts to the ground. “You're not here to fight, dev'Pross. You're here to aid the wounded and retrieve the dead. But good work, nonetheless. Perhaps you're not hopeless, after all. Get moving. We need to retreat or there won't be anyone left to withdraw.” Aryl felt a rush of pride at the Commander's compliment as he made his way to the nearest prostrate Corsair. The wounded man moaned pitifully as Aryl dragged him to a cable, tied it around his waist and signaled for the ascent. After that, the minutes blurred together into a haze of retrieval and tie-off, and then the Commander was yelling for the retreat, waiting until all the Corsairs were aloft, then the last of the deckhands, including Aryl, who, once he was riding the cable aloft, found time to realize that he had been pierced through the thigh by another arrow, a shallow wound through the fat and skin. He realized, now, that he was faint, weak, and dizzy. The natives were still shooting arrows and hurling javelins, flinging the spears with such force that they were hitting targets nearly a hundred feet away. Aryl looked down, watching the natives jump and scream and ululate; one of them threw took a dozen running steps and threw a javelin at Aryl, who watched the missile hurtling towards him helplessly. Commander Magnus was on the cable next to him; Aryl watched in stunned awe as the Commander swung himself back and forth, and at the furthest apex of the swing towards Aryl, lashed out with his saber and cleaved the javelin in half, the barbed point of the spearhead spinning past his head.
“Gotta be on your toes, boy,” the Commander said. “You can't just wait for death to come to you, go to meet it, fight with all your strength and try to best it. Go to meet the enemy, boy, that's the Corsair way.”