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Authors: Chris Bunch

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BOOK: Corsair
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• • •

A day later, Gareth got his sea legs, and after that had far less trouble on sailing day, although, to his dying day, he had to busy himself with important work and think about other things when his ship first struck open water after a long time ashore.

• • •

The
Idris
dropped her sails when she came on a fishing fleet from the city of Lyrawise, capital of Juterbog, the sometimes-friend, sometimes-foe of Saros, about a day’s sail across the Narrow Sea.

They traded casks of beer for bottled wine, fresh cuts of beef for salted cheeses, fresh produce for salted herring that’d been spell-cast to not only last almost forever, but keep the sailors of the
Idris
free of scurvy.

Then they sailed on.

Kazala, whom Gareth had thought the very model of rectitude, sat with a loaf of bread from the fishing smacks and a fresh cheese.

“This’ll not appear on any books, needless to say,” he told Gareth.

The boy supposed he showed a bit of shock.

“There’s laws on the land,” Kazala said. “They don’t stretch to sea. We’ve our own articles afloat.”

“Which are?”

“Unwritten and yet to be learned by you, boy. Yet to be learned by you.”

• • •

Gareth went carefully up the shroud lines, not looking down, not considering how solid the deck below was, trying to keep thinking that it wasn’t that far on up to the main yard. The big merchant ships he’d walked past back in Ticao had masts far taller. But that was then, and on dry land. He pushed the thought away, climbing with one arm through the shrouding, making sure of each step.

“Yer takin’ all day,” the hand hanging precariously on the yard above him said. “When th’ skip wants all hands oop th’ mast, there ain’t no time for caution, y’know.”

Gareth ignored him, kept climbing, scrabbled at solid wood above his head. He looked up at the seaman, sitting on the slanting yard holding on with one crooked leg, took a deep breath, and wriggled up beside him.

“Dam’ glad you made it,” the sailor said. “But y’want t’ be careful wi’ that hold you’ve got on th’ yard. Don’t be crushin’ the wood, now, with y’r holt.”

He laughed raucously, and Gareth managed a weak grin.

“Y’ on firm, boy?”

Gareth nodded.

“Good. Now, get t’ your feet … use the mast for a hold, and shinny on up t’ the headrope’s block an’ give it a whack, hard ‘nough so I can hear it.”

Gareth gritted his teeth and obeyed, wondering what he was using for holds on the smooth wood. He reached up, and up, felt the pulley, hit it hard, just as a bellow came from the deck below:


Hern
Radnor! What the hells are you doing arsing about up there! We’ve got a weekly loss chart to make up!”

“ ‘At’s a pity,” the sailor said. “An’ we was just gettin’ started.” He slid easily from his perch and went hand-over-hand down a backstay to the deck.

Gareth made it back to the yard, decided the long slide could wait for another day, and began a cautious climb back down the shroud lines to his waiting, dreaded quill pen.

• • •

“All right, young Gareth,” the first mate said. “Why do you want to learn about cannon? Assuming this pip-squirt of a popgun qualifies. Pursers, no matter how crooked they get, don’t need guns, at least not at sea.”

“Because, sir, I want to learn everything I can,” Gareth said, wishing he didn’t sound like some saphead in a romance.

“Hmmph,” the mate said. “Why not? It’s a slow watch, anyway. Now, this gun’s called a moyen. Any smaller, and it’d be a musket. Shoots lead balls, which is better than the stones our grandsires used.

“Big advantage a gun has, besides doing damage at a lot longer range than anything except a siege engine, is it takes a master magician to cast a spell to keep it from going bang. Almost as reliable as cold steel in a fight.

“Normally, the gun’s kept lashed to the rail, like it is now. If we spot pirates, and we’re stupid enough to want to fight, we’d unlash it so it swings free in its swivel, load it — which I’ll show you how in a minute — and then use this little notched vee up on the barrel to sight through.

“Depending on how far away the enemy is, and with this little shiteroo it best not be far, you’ll aim high or low.

“If ‘twere a
real
cannon, like pirates and warships have, we could load with grapeshot, which is a lot of little balls, and aim at the enemy’s crew. Or we could use chainshot, which is two balls with a chain, and try to take down a mast or unrig a vessel.”

“But with the single ball this gun shoots,” Gareth said, “what would be the target?”

The mate rubbed his stubbly chin.

“Actually, you
could
load with pebbles, and have small shot, and wait until the first boarder tries to cut through the nets we’d drape down, and then get half a dozen, if they were bunched up. Or maybe take down the captain, if you could figure out which one that is.

“Generally, though, with a single ball, and remembering that a lot of pirates come after you in spitkits, aim below the waterline, and hope you hole the bastard. Or, when they’re close, pick a target on the quarterdeck — the captain, watch officer, or the helmsman.

“Better idea would be to run up a white flag. There’s enough ways for a sailor to die without getting involved in fighting, when there’s always a white flag to be found.

“Unless,” the mate said, “unless you’re overhauled by a frigging Slaver. You’ve heard of the Linyati?”

“My parents were killed by them,” Gareth said, and once more felt the pain.

“Then you know. Better to go down fighting if we come under their guns. Or grab something heavy and leap overside and drown yourself.”

• • •

At Adrianople, they sold the potatoes and took on barrels of just-pickled beef for Irtysh.

At Irtysh, they made a small profit, waited for three unprofitable weeks, then filled their holds with crated chickens.

Some sickness struck the chickens that made them smash about their cages pecking at one another’s behinds, and a tenth died.

They got rid of the chickens at Badakhshan, scrubbed the holds over and over again, Gareth swearing he’d never be able to look at either end of a fowl without vomiting.

Then they loaded bales of peacock and other exotic feathers for the rich city of Prim.

At Prim, the profit more than made up for the chickens, and they loaded, very carefully, pigs of smelted iron for Killis. Both the captain and the first mate hung over the stevedores to make sure the ship wasn’t overloaded. Each pig was weighed, stowed carefully so there’d be no possibility of shifting, and the
Idris
sank lower and lower in the water.

Then they sailed on.

At Killis they lay at anchor for two weeks before finding a cargo, and the one they did find was a nightmare. A pair of magicians, hired for a small squabble by an island warlord, took passage, together with their acolytes and mistresses.

Nothing was ever right for them, and finally the cook told them to shut the hells up and eat what was in front of them, or dig out their wands and magic up something better. After that, they could insert those wands in a convenient place. Sideways.

Gareth watched, holding his breath, waiting to see the cook turn into a pig or an albatross. But the sorcerers just swore at him, and growled their way up to the bow, where they brooded until the next meal.

But at least the
Idris
was sailing south, into warmer waters and steady trade winds.

South, ever south …

• • •

“Normally we don’t even need this,” the captain told Gareth, “because we navigate fairly close to shore, and take our bearings from landmarks, which I keep close in a book, like all navigators do.

“But when you’re out of sight of land, you can get the altitude of a star using this astrolabe, which then, if you consult your charts, gives you latitude, longitude, even the time of day. You want to make sure, though, by taking a couple of sights and averaging them.

“Men make mistakes, and mistakes make wrecks,” the man said grimly. “And wrecks are damned uncomfortable, not to mention unprofitable as a son of a bitch.”

• • •

The soft wind brought jasmine, other scents across the night. The sand was warm under Gareth’s bare feet, and strange flowering trees sighed overhead.

He could just make out the dark bulk of the
Idris
moored at the long pier behind them, where the lights of the small port gleamed.

Small waves phosphoresced onto the shore, and music came, in a tonal scale utterly foreign to Gareth, from the thatched-roof pavilion they’d left He put his arm around the young woman, and she nestled closer, smiled up at him, long hair soft, brown skin like silk.

Gareth sighed happily. This was the first port he’d been allowed shore leave in, the first time he’d seen a flying fish skitter across the bows of the
Idris,
the first time he’d tasted tropical fruits. This was what had brought him to sea, the dream of tropic islands, calm under a warm sun, exotic under the night sky.

“Something wrong?” the girl asked.

“Nothing’s wrong.”

“Good,” she said. “You be happy. You see. I worth every copper you paid. I know many things you not know.”

Romance teetered. Gareth kissed her, hard, and the reality of the night’s rental vanished.

• • •

Gareth sat quietly, listening, a bit out of the rope-yarn circle. He wasn’t quite an officer, though certainly not a deck hand, which was one explanation for keeping himself apart. The other was that, growing, Gareth had always liked listening to the stories older people told, not the chatter of boys and girls.

The round of tales about the various ways the sea could kill you stopped for a moment, and Gareth chanced a question:

“What about pirates?”

“You hirin’, or huntin’?” the seaman who’d helped him make his first mast climb asked. Gareth didn’t answer.

“Pirates,” another sailor said. “That’s even a hard thing to put a label to.

“First, let’s say there’s two general kinds of pirates. People-pirates and those godsdamned Slavers.” He spat overside reflexively.

“Let’s not talk on them,” a third sailor said. “Even mentioning ‘em’s liable to be a summons.”

“Damn, Jav, but you’re superstitious,” another said. “Not like a sailor, ‘tall, ‘tall.”

When the laughter faded, the second man went on.

“So we’re talkin’ about human pirates, ‘cause I’m about half doubtin’ the Linyati are even people.”

“No need to make ‘em scarier’n than they are.”

“Like I said,” the man went on. “We’re not talkin’ about them.

“A pirate’s somebody who goes out on a ship, and takes something that ain’t his for profit.”

“Shit,” a sailor spat. “You sound like the king’s judge, givin’ th’ law afore he hangs your young ass.”

“Now, what’s the differments,” the second sailor went on, “ ‘tween a pirate and a navy sailor? The answer is there ain’t none, but what one ship flies a country’s flag, and the other flies a black flag, or none at all.

“One’s ruled by kings and queens, and the other by brethren law.”

“Don’t forget privateers,” a sailor put in.

“Wait,” Gareth said. “What’s brethren law?”

“When people set out to go a-pirating,” the first sailor said, “they agree to certain conditions. Like the skipper gets, say, ten shares of any loot, the quartermaster gets ten, since he speaks for the crew, the ship’s carpenter five, the gunners five, and us common deck apes one.”

Gareth noted the word “us,” didn’t comment.

“Other rules, like if you loses a hand or an eye, you get a share on top, rules forbiddin’ maybe gambling, maybe women, though that’s foolish.

“Another thing is the men elect their captain. If he — even she, sometimes — does well, he stays atop. If not, they kick him back to where he was an’ try again with somebody else.”

“Where do pirates come from?” Gareth asked.

There was general laughter.

“Now, don’t breathe a word of this, boy,” the sailor said, “but from the likes of you and me. Sometimes men have a bad cap’n, and they mutiny. Or sometimes men ashore steal a ship that’s anchored, and take after honest merchantmen like us.”

“And what happens when you’re taken?”

“Gen’rly, not much of anything,” the man said. “ ‘Less you were a butthead, and killed some of their friends while the shootin’ was going on. Then maybe you’ll swim with the sharks. But normally you get a choice, join ‘em or be set ashore somewhere, generally somewhere you can make it back to civil’zation.”

“Join ‘em,” Jav said, “an’ you’ve got five years t’ run, on average. Then they catches you, and hangs you. Sometimes some navies, who’s generally the folks who catch you, figure you should die harder than just a broke neck at the end of a rope. Hard cheese, ‘tis.”

“Sometimes,” another man said. “But there’s those who’ve taken some ships, and then disappeared off the sea. I’ve heard tales some of the lords upcountry in Saros got their start that way, paid off the King’s Justice, and now their shit smells like attar a’ roses.”

“Somebody said something about privateering,” Gareth said.

“Privateer’s a pirate that’s got the king or queen’s warrant to go mess about with some country or people the king’s pissed at this week,” the second man explained. “This means, in theory, you get treated right if you get caught by whoever you’re privateerin’ against.

“So you goes out, and takes prizes, and then you and your crew get most of the profit, the king takes his cut.

“But you got to be careful. If you’re too successful, the king’s liable to disclaim your ass, keep the spoils all for himself, and send all of you to the gibbet. Or if the enemy makes peace with the king while you’re out at sea and you come back, all piss and vinegar, on’y to find out that warrant ain’t worth shit anymore, and there you are, goin’ up the rope neck first, like before.

“ ‘Tis a complicated world,” the man sighed.

• • •

It was almost a year before the
Idris,
more battered than ever, sailed back upriver and tied up to a wharf in Ticao.

BOOK: Corsair
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