Fiction, Monologues, Plays & More
By Sean M. Kozma
Phaedra stood at the bowsprit of the Skate with one hand holding the forestays and a foot up on the spar. The wind whipped her raven hair across her face and clutched at the linen of her blouse. Her bronze skin glistened with sweat and sea spray in the sun like a goddess. To Wycke, she looked as if she were the living figurehead of the ship as she scanned for signs of her prey. He wondered if she were looking for her trimaran, the Exocet, as well.
A pod of dolphins raced ahead of the Skate, playing in the pressure wake, as the sleek prow of the clipper carved through the rolling swells. Off their starboard side, the two-masted Queen’s Lament ran goose-winged. Behind them, the twin square-rigged frigates, Witch’s Promise and Sea Wolf, hauled their canvases taut, riding low in the water and struggling to keep up. They were running a broad reach on a strong, hot wind that had been driving them northwest for three days like the breath of hell, deep into the uncharted waters of the Western Sea.
Wycke looked for the Exocet, but saw no sign of her towering, triangular sail. Considerably faster than any other ship he’d ever seen, she was scouting and screening their perimeter, likely far ahead.
“Storm sign a’port,” shouted the lookout from atop the mainmast.
Wycke looked to the left and saw a sickly, purple bruise growing on the northern horizon. Phaedra’s bare feet made a soft padding sound on the deck as she joined him at the port rail. He handed her a brass lens, which she extended and lifted to her eye. Occasional flashes of bright, terrible colors lit the storm from within. A thin veil of clouds fanned out toward them high above. She handed the lens back to him.
“Have a look,” she said.
“That’s not necessary, Your Majesty,” he said. “As you refuse to be dissuaded from this course, I’ll have a closer view soon enough.”
“How many times do I have to tell you not to call me that?”
“At least once more, Your Majesty.”
“If you were anyone else, I would cut out your tongue and nail it to the mizzen. I sometimes wonder if I shouldn’t anyway as a warning to the rest of the crew, lest they grow too bold from my excessive tolerance you.”
“It would be difficult to perform my duties if I am unable to speak, Your Majesty.”
“An excellent reminder that the only reason you’re still on board this ship–”
“Is because you need me,” he said, cutting her off.
She fixed him with her fierce, green eyes that reminded him of the waters of Emerald Bay. Although he was six feet tall, her gaze was level with his. For a moment, he wondered if he’d finally provoked her once too often.
“I advise you not to test me too sorely on that point, Mister Wycke.” She shouted down to the bosun. “Mister Kahoor, rig for storm sailing and make ready to come about.”
“Aye, Admiral,” Kahoor replied, and turned to yell out instructions and tasks to the rest of the deck crew. The giant Sunlander’s ebony skin seemed to drink in the sunlight. He stood a full head taller than Wycke, and his chest and shoulders were half again as broad. Of all Phaedra’s crew, it was Kahoor that concerned him most.
“Please, Your Majesty,” Wycke said. “I beg you one last time to reconsider this madness. I cannot be the only one here with misgivings about this. This is suicide.”
He raised his voice as he spoke, hoping to perhaps bolster the courage of anyone who might be having second thoughts. A few heads looked their way, but no one else spoke up. Phaedra only smiled.
“All hands,” she shouted.
Her sea voice was impressive, with a booming resonance that carried throughout the ship over almost any din. Within minutes, the entire crew was assembled on the deck.
“Piper, my crown and vestments.”
Her steward, a scrawny girl no more than fifteen years old, appeared as if from nowhere carrying a coat and sash. Like her captain, she was covered in lean, wiry muscle that showed taut under her skin.
Phaedra donned the coat with Piper’s assistance. It was made of fine purple silk brocaded with rampant dolphins in gold thread, although the tails and epaulets were stained with salt. A darker stain marred the back, between the shoulder blades, from where she’d taken the coat off of the Admiral. She tied her “crown,” a crimson sash, around her head, and turned to address the crew.
“Men, you know our quarry. You know our destination. No treasure awaits us, only glory or death. Each of you has signed the Articles. Each of you has as much say in where we go as I do.
“Is there anyone here who would quail before this foe?”
Her crew, a diverse collection of men and women from every island in the Great Archipelago many stranger ports beyond, answered as one.
“Is there anyone here who would take command in my stead?”
She turned to Wycke.
“And what of you, Mister Wycke,” she asked. “You have refused to sign the Articles, but in this matter I give you equal voice. Would you prefer another captain?”
His left hand itched where his missing little finger used to be, though the wound had healed quickly under Thrumm’s care.
“No, Your Majesty,” he said.
“Dismissed,” she shouted, not taking her eyes off of him.
The crew scrambled back to swapping out the sail plan. Kahoor resumed barking orders at the crew, pausing to give Wycke a baleful glare.
“However, as your Chief Thaumaturgist, one of my duties is to advise you, and my advice is for you to reconsider this.”
“I will take that under advisement, Mister Wycke. But you say this ship can take whatever I can throw at it, and I choose to take you at your word.”
She turned and strode aft toward the helm atop to quarterdeck.
“It’s not you I’m afraid of,” he said quietly, and looked back at the storm clouds piling into the sky to the north.
The Skate’s keel was laid at the great Arsenal of Queensport by decree of Her Right Imperial Majesty and Most Serene Grace, Queen Theia VII, on the first day of spring in the 29th year of her reign. Her masts and hull were wrought with spells of strength and protection, and inlaid with ancient Itascan runes. She was launched three months later under the command of Princess Aurora.
As a demonstration, the Crown Princess sailed the Skate up to the Harbor Mount and ordered the Chief of the Guns to fire upon her broadside at close range. The fusillade from the Steel Dragons bounced off the hull, to the astonishment of the crowd gathered for the launch.
Princess Aurora’s writ of command was issued with a singular purpose – to bring her rebellious sister to heel and put an end to her predation by any means necessary. To that end, the Skate was outfitted with a galvanic cannon, in addition to her forty breech-loading short guns. Wycke had designed and installed the weaponry personally, along with a bottled daemon motive plant of his own innovation.
They had plied the trade lanes of the archipelago for weeks searching for Phaedra, well into the autumn storm season, to no avail. Princess Aurora spoke often of her desire to bring her sister in peaceably, stressing that violence was to be used only as a last resort. Still, the gun crews were well drilled, and could load, aim, and fire the guns in little more time than it took to open the breechblocks and close them again.
As the Skate sheltered one night in a hidden, leeward cove of a speck of an island two hundred leagues off the coast of Sunland, Phaedra and her crew snuck aboard wearing black and rowing a longboat with muffled oars. She captured the ship without a fight. She marooned the Crown Princess and most of the crew on the island, but not without smashing her sister’s nose with basket of her cutlass and leaving her trussed up in a tree, hogtied to a spar.
She offered both of the crewmembers she kept, himself and Thrumm, the Skate’s surgeon, the opportunity to sign her Articles of Piracy and join her crew freely. Thrumm signed without hesitation and knelt at her feet to swear his undying love and loyalty. Wycke was more reticent, refusing to sign, in part just to see what she would do. The fact that she had kept two very specific specialists was not lost on him.
As a test of his new sworn loyalty, she ordered Thrumm to start taking fingers until he agreed to sign. Before he could move, Kahoor seized him in a crushing grip, forcing his left hand out toward the surgeon. Thrumm calmly drew a small, thin knife from his belt and removed the little finger with a single, swift motion.
It was not the pain, which was minimal, but the shock of losing a digit that made him gasp. Although the sight of his own blood pulsing in a strong, steady stream from the wound made his head spin, he calmly reminded them that a thaumaturgist needed his fingers for complex elemental manipulations. Thrumm placed the blade against his ring finger and turned to Phaedra, waiting.
She considered him silently for a long time before relenting. Thrumm, a gaunt man with sunken eyes and a thick, white beard, stitched up his wound with an arcane poultice that burned like a brand, but left him with nothing but a scar in a manner of days. He finished his work in silence, making no acknowledgement that earlier that day they were both serving on the same ship, sworn to the crown.
Now they were hunting the Leviathan. One of the great storm engines of the seas, the Leviathan was a known maritime hazard that wise captains avoided. On the rare occasions it threatened to make landfall near one of the port cities of the archipelago, shore guns and bombards were usually enough to drive it off, though not without significant storm damage.
Phaedra intended to kill it. Wycke had no doubts about her will and determination, but he was uncertain his weaponry was capable of slaying the beast. Many elders at the Conclave speculated that the Leviathan was immortal and killing it was impossible, though that theory was not without controversy. Like all other living beings, critics argued, it too must able to die. Still, the oldest written Histories suggest that the oral legends of the great sea dragon go back further still, to when men first came down to the sea.
Wycke’s missing finger itched again as he considered the galvanic cannon, turret mounted on the forecastle. A deep rumble he felt in his chest thudded across the waves. High above, the thin upper layer of clouds blotted out the sun, casting a gray pall over the deck. Ahead lay only towering darkness, and they were riding hard on the teeth of the cyclonic storm wind straight for the heart of it.
As they drew closer, Wycke could see that the storm wall was alive with flickering thin fingers of lightning, tracing along the undersides of clouds like delicate filigree. Deeper in, the dazzling, sickly colored flashes came more frequently. The sound of approaching thunder was almost constant, and the seas grew rough.
“Sails abaft,” shouted the lookout.
Wycke ran aft to join Phaedra the fantail. Even under storm sails and choppy seas, the Exocet seemed to fly over the waves, leaping from one crest to the next. Over three times faster than the rest of the fleet, the trimaran raced up behind them to pull up astern of the Skate, her crew leaning hard off the windward float. A curious expression came over Phaedra’s face somewhere between joy and longing.
At a hundred feet long, the Excocet was over two-thirds the length of the clipper, and her ninety-foot beam was almost three times as wide. Her single mast rose two hundred feet in the air. But aside from a small cupola for navigation in the center pod, her wide trampoline offered no shelter at all from sea or storm. Wycke marveled at the steel-hearted seamanship required to pilot such a vessel.
Bannock, Phaedra’s second in command, walked surefooted along the narrow starboard side float to hail the Skate.
“Ahoy, Admiral,” he said.
“Ahoy, Captain,” she called back. “What news?”
“Two clippers approaching, of similar design to yours, with sails struck, yet they appear to be gaining on us.”
She gave Wycke a cryptic smile as he handed her the brass lens again.
This time he looked when she handed it back to him. Two ships, sisters to the Skate and built at the same time, closed on them from behind, their triple masts bare.
“The Typhon and the Borea have found us. Perhaps captains William and Pike are made of sterner stuff than I thought. Thank you, Captain Bannock. You know what to do.”
“Aye, Admiral,” he said, as he rejoined his crew to turn the Exocet back upwind. The Queen’s Lament broke off to join them as they passed, though the trimaran soon pulled away.
“Aren’t we going to break off and engage?” asked Wycke.
“If they are brave enough to follow, they are welcome to join us.” She called up to the lookout. “Hoist the colors, Mister Weaver. Let them know they’ve found us.”
TO BE CONTINUED…
Sean Kozma has spent the last decade working in theater and live sound in Los Angeles. He has been developing his voice as a writer for several years with the Eclectic Voices writer’s group, and he has written several short fiction pieces for the Eclectic Voices online magazine. He is working on a handful of short stories for publication, as well as his first novel.