Scholar: A Novel in the Imager Portfolio (7 page)

BOOK: Scholar: A Novel in the Imager Portfolio
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Zoeryl glanced toward the scholar, then back toward the foremast. “Pirates. Off to the west, just above the horizon. Like as not out of Lucayl. They hole up in the coves south of the cape. Some have caves that open to the sea and will hold a small ship.”

Quaeryt studied the sea to the west, finally making out a low, sloop-rigged craft running at an angle to the wind. For a moment, he didn’t understand why the captain hadn’t turned downwind, but another look at the rapidly nearing craft explained that. The pirate craft was designed and rigged so that she’d be far faster, and Shuld wanted to maneuver so as to put the
Diamond
where the barque’s greater sail expanse would offset the cleaner lines and rigging of the pirate.

After several moments, Quaeryt asked, “They try to grapple and board on a single pass with their speed?”

“When they get close, they’ll try to use sailshot to disable us first.”

Sailshot? The scholar hadn’t heard of that, but it was probably a version of grapeshot or chainshot or even wadding designed to rip through the merchanter’s sails.

“You right with weapons? We’ve got a spare cutlass or two and a shipstaff. Hope we won’t need them. If the captain’s as good as usual, they won’t get close enough to board,” said the bosun.

“I’m better with a shipstaff.”

“Comes to that, you’ll have one.” The bosun turned from the scholar.

Ghoryn’s voice rose over the others. “Mind the fore topsail!”

Behind and above Quaeryt, Shuld was giving orders, and the scholar strained to hear the captain’s orders to the helmsman.

“Another point to port.…”

Quaeryt watched the pirate vessel—dark-hulled with gray sails and even grayed masts—slowly draw nearer.

“Gun crew to the foredeck!” Shuld hurried down the ladder from the upper deck.

Behind him, Ghoryn moved aft to direct the helmsman.

A puff of smoke issued from the oncoming vessel, less than a vingt away, then a second. Quaeryt saw only the single gout of water a good fifty yards short of the
Diamond
and more than a hundred yards forward of the bow.

Shuld was issuing directions to the gun crew. “Second wedge! One right.”

Quaeryt watched, intrigued, while the crewman acting as gun captain tapped the wedge-shaped quoin in place. They weren’t firing point-blank, but he judged the elevation to be low. He hadn’t seen the shell rammed in place, but it must have been.

“Match at the ready!”

“Match ready.”

Shuld was using a device like a sextant, which he lowered. “Two right!”

Two of the gun crew cranked a small winch attached to lines on the gun carriage to turn the gun.

“Fire!”

The cannon’s recoil was restricted by wooden wheels and the heavy hawsers attached to the frame of the vessel itself.

Quaeryt watched. From what he could tell, the first shell landed long, well aft of the pirate sloop.

Two more puffs of smoke from the pirate were followed by a cannonball tearing through the foresail.

Quaeryt winced.

“First wedge, three right.”

The second shot from the
Diamond
landed in the water some fifty yards in front of the pirate.

“Hold! Match ready!”

At that moment, Baeryn scurried across the deck and thrust a shipstaff at the scholar. Quaeryt accepted it almost unthinkingly as his eyes fixed on the black-hulled ship bearing down on the
Diamond
.

The pirate was less than half a vingt from the
Diamond
before Shuld again ordered, “Fire!”

The shell ripped into the fo’c’s’le of the pirate, and almost instantly, crimson-green-yellow flames surged up. There was … something … about that unnatural fire.
Antiagon Fire? In a shell?
Quaeryt repressed a shiver.

“Fire!” ordered Shuld.

A second shell exploded on the low fantail of the pirate sloop, and it too erupted in flames that raced skyward into the rigging.

The pirate vessel seemed to shudder, then swing to the south, as if to parallel the
Diamond
’s heading. Then the sails and rigging began to catch fire, and men started to jump and dive off the burning ship. Part of the bow exploded.

Powder magazine?
wondered Quaeryt.

“Steady as she goes!” called out Ghoryn.

“Stow the shells!” ordered Shuld. “On the double!”

Quaeryt turned to watch as the gun crew quickly removed the six shells remaining in the wooden cradle inboard and aft of the shining bronze gun. Once the shells disappeared below, Shuld seemed to be less tense.

The scholar risked another look at the sinking and flaming hulk that had been a pirate vessel, then eased toward the captain, still watching as the crew cleaned the gun and began to unfasten the recoil hawsers. “What was in those shells?” He thought he knew, but wanted to make sure.

“Antiagon Fire,” replied the captain quietly, his eyes straying aft to the still-burning hulk that had been a pirate vessel.

“You keep it on board?”

“The magazine is steel-sheathed and lead-lined. The shells are cast iron and copper-lined.”

“And the gun is very special,” added Quaeryt. “A fine gun, Captain, and better gunnery.”

“We were fortunate. Usually takes more than a few shots to get the range. Especially in the gray before dawn. They were too eager, kept a steady course.”

Quaeryt nodded. As he stood there on the deck in the growing light of dawn, the wind in his face off the starboard quarter, he realized, if belatedly, why Shuld’s gun and shells were so effective. There had been no survivors, and from the coordination of the gun crew, it was far from the first time they’d been used. Yet he knew that none of the privateers commissioned by Bhayar had shells like the ones Shuld had used. And he doubted that either of Bhayar’s two warships had shells such as those, or bronze cannon.

“Puzzled, aren’t you, scholar?” asked the captain.

“I have to admit I am. Why don’t more ships have guns and shells like that?”

Shuld laughed. “More than a few reasons. Each shell costs a gold, maybe a bit more. I have no idea what the gun cost. I was told not to ask and not to lose it—ever. Pirates can’t afford guns and shells like that. Most merchanters can’t, either. Even if they could, who would they get to make the Antiagon Fire? It takes an imager who’s also an armorer and an alchemist. There are but a handful in all Terahnar, and all are employed by High Holders or rulers.”

“Such as High Holder Ghasphar?”

Shuld nodded.

“Still … they would make fearful armament for warships.”

“They would, until everyone had them.” Shuld smiled ironically. “Only the Antiagons have ever bothered with large numbers of warships, and they have but a triple handful.”

Put that way, it made sense, all too much sense. Antiagon Fire was useless against stone and earth ramparts, and that was why no fortifications were ever wooden. But it was effective against large bodies of men on foot, and that was one reason why most rulers used cavalry or mounted infantry that could scatter quickly. Quaeryt and every other scholar for generations had known that. The threat of Antiagon Fire had also affected the way war was waged, but Quaeryt was amazed and more than a little irritated at himself for not realizing why there had been so few naval conflicts. Yet it was obvious. Why would anyone want to build a fleet of warships that could be destroyed so quickly? If every ruler built and armed ships with cannons that shot Antiagon Fire shells, a war would ruin them all.

“You understand, I see.”

“I never thought of it that way,” Quaeryt admitted.

“No one cares if pirate vessels vanish, and we just hoist the Jewel ensign if privateers get too close. If they ignore it … well, then they’re pirates.”

“I imagine the jewel fleet is profitable.”

“Rather our losses are far less, and we keep good crews that way.”

“Do you see pirates on every voyage in or out of Solis?”

“Namer’s demons, no. One passage in ten is more like it, but we could see two on a single transit, and not another for years.” Shuld turned to the bosun. “You can handle it from here, Zoeryl. If you would excuse me, scholar?”

“Oh … I didn’t mean to get in the way, Captain. Thank you.” Quaeryt inclined his head and stepped back.

Then he eased his way to the railing just forward of midships and looked back to the west. Only a rapidly dispersing plume of mixed gray and black smoke remained of the pirate vessel.

9

The sun on Jeudi—the second Jeudi Quaeryt had spent on board—had been blistering hot, especially in the late afternoon, so hot that the fantail locker was still radiating heat well after sundown. That was only one of the reasons why Quaeryt stood on the poop, just short of where the two railings met on the forward port corner, looking out into a darkness little relieved by the reddish crescent of Erion. The other reason was that the captain had asked him to stand a watch as the port lookout and offer navigation calculations.

So far, over the past glass, he’d seen no other vessels and no inclement weather creeping up from any horizon, not that he would have expected that, not on a cloudless night with a mild following wind and only moderate swells.

According to the tables, at the longitude of Cape Sud, on Jeudi, the twenty-sixth of Juyn, Artiema should rise at two quints past eighth glass. By checking the deck glass, illuminated by a shielded lantern, Quaeryt could then determine how far west the
Diamond
was from the cape. That was only an approximation, of course, because even in a stabilized box, the glass sands did not run smoothly, but it was a start. Then, by sighting both moons, he could get an idea of their latitude.

“Scholar … I thought you might be here.” Ghoryn’s voice was barely audible above the sound of the ship cutting through the increasingly larger swells that the
Diamond
was encountering as the ship neared Cape Sud.

“It should be a bit before Artiema rises, but I wanted to sight Erion first.…” Quaeryt glanced toward the horizon again.

“Where do you feel we are?”

“I’d say we’re seventy to eighty milles west of Cape Sud, and twenty south. I’ll know better when I see Artiema.”

“Oh? And why do you think that?”

“The captain wants to be far enough offshore for us not to be seen, but not too far, just beyond sight from the cliffs. He’d be holding a course a half point north of southeast to keep us even with the coast.…”

Ghoryn chuckled. “We’ll see in a bit, won’t we?”

“That we will.”

“Don’t see many scholars at sea,” offered the first mate.

“I’ve never run across another scholar who went to sea,” admitted Quaeryt.
Or much of anywhere if they didn’t have to.
“Then there are more sailors than scholars.” He grinned in the darkness. “Why do you think that might be?”

Ghoryn laughed. “Most folk would say that there’s need of more sailors, and perhaps a need for fewer scholars.”

“Well put,” agreed Quaeryt. “There’s a need for scholars, but too many scholars in one place are like too many cooks in the kitchen.”

“You never did say much about why you needed to get to Tilbora. Not that I heard, anyways.”

“No. I didn’t. I think I told you I had a patron who commissioned a more recent history of Tilbor.” Quaeryt kept scanning the sea to port. He was still supposed to be a lookout.

“He’d pay for that?”

“Of course. Why do you think the frontispieces of so many books give the name of the patron who commissioned the work? That’s so that everyone who reads it for generations to come will see his name.”

“Sounds sort of like Naming,” mused Ghoryn.

“Ah … but he can claim that he is merely advancing human knowledge. A patron isn’t erecting a huge stone monument that everyone would immediately see as evidence of selling one’s integrity to the Namer.”

“A clever way of Naming, then. And you’d do it?”

“What’s a name in a book compared to saving knowledge that would otherwise be lost?” asked Quaeryt. “We all have to do things that aren’t ideal. Don’t you think that there were probably some crewmen on that pirate vessel that had little choice if they wanted to survive? But didn’t the good of saving the
Diamond
and her crew and cargo outweigh the evil of killing a handful of comparative innocents among the guilty?”

“You scholars … you could argue that Erion was the spirit of mercy, and not the great red hunter, and then you’d make out Artiema to be the evil moon.”

“I could,” replied Quaeryt with a laugh, “but I wouldn’t. There’s a big difference between light gray and black, and sometimes there’s an even bigger difference between those who claim to follow pure white and those who prefer slightly grayed white.”

“I have the feeling you’re not a follower of the Nameless, then.”

“Oh … but I am.”
At least of the tenets, even if you’re unsure if there even is a Nameless.
“Life is shades of gray. Those who claim to follow the absolute of pure white are disciples of the Namer, because insisting on absolutes in an imperfect world is another form of Naming.” He glanced eastward again, catching a glimmer of pearly white on the horizon, just about where he expected it. He’d have to approximate, because moonrise was calculated as that time when the highest limb of the moon’s orb cleared the plane of the horizon, and that was almost impossible to determine precisely from a ship’s deck, even one pitching so comparatively slightly as was the
Diamond
.

“Excuse me,” he said to Ghoryn before hurrying across the deck to the lantern-lit glass.

He checked the time—two and a quarter quints past.

“Where are we, scholar?” asked the mate, who had followed Quaeryt across the deck to stand behind the helm.

“If the glass is correct, we’re closer to Cape Sud than I’d thought, more like sixty milles, and I’d judge we’re closer to thirty south of the cape.” Quaeryt shrugged. “That’s an approximation, though.”

Ghoryn nodded. “We both have us close to the same position.”

“We don’t seem to be traveling that fast.”

“Captain knows the currents.”

Quaeryt had to admit he hadn’t thought about currents. He just laughed softly.

BOOK: Scholar: A Novel in the Imager Portfolio
10Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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