While Bas had his spygla.s.s directed south, Atau only stared ahead. Past the main deck and the forecastle, he looked upon the roaring waves on their course, and the depths beneath. To most sailors, the darkness of the sea was a great terror, but it was much worse for a Yaku like him. After all, they believed the underworld to sleep right beneath the waves. Nothing would be harsher than to sink into the waters, without a proper burial, without a way to defend oneself.
"What's wrong, captain? The enemy has been left behind the horizon and we have near made our way out of the reefs. Shouldn't we revel?" Bas asked.
"We can't celebrate until we're out of this patch of weather," the captain answered, still focused ahead. "Even when we make it out of the dangerous terrain, we can't know how many more Bornish ships are waiting along the coastline."
As he thought about the implications of a Bornish fleet in Yaku waters, his mouth pulled down as if he had eaten something bitter. How many more were there? How many more would come? What were their goals?
"Sire... doesn't your att.i.tude seem a bit defeatist?"
A deep breath smoothed the captain's face, as his hands tightened around the bal.u.s.trade.
"A captain remains a pessimist in victory, and turns optimist only in the face of certain death. Remember this well, Lieutenant. One day you'll command your own ship, just like Orin."
"Of course, Captain Atau," a somber voice came back.
As his bitter look turned into a shallow smile, Atau leaned into the rain.
"Pessimism is good, it keeps us grounded, and it keeps us focused. Though even if it is unfounded, caution never hurts."
"Ship ahead!" a scream echoed towards the captain's command post. When he received the news, Atau's hands further tightened around the wood. At the same time, his smile turned so big his jaws clenched.
"And sometimes, the caution can be well-founded too," he added through his teeth.
"Report! What's going on?" As soon as Atau reached the forecastle, he shouted into the crowd of sailors.
"It's Ekuo, sire," a portly man with a scruffy, gray-streaked beard replied,. "he says he saw a ship in the rains, and sure enough, there it is." His finger pointed beyond the Homeward's bough. Even without a spygla.s.s, anyone could see the tattered sails and crooked mast of the vessel in the waves before them.
"You spotted it?" Atau stared at a small, dark-skinned man to the side. Awkward on his feet, he stood up straight and answered in the best Yakua.
"Yes, Official Atau. This servant has spotted the ship from his outpost up high, as ordered."
Although he wasn't happy with the man's answer, Atau still nodded. There was no reason to lower morale in the face of the enemy.
"Lieutenant Bas, this man has earned his entire watch an extra portion of brandy for tonight," he said.
Of course the men cheered like Atau had known they would. Aboard a ship, there was little else to do but drink, song and superst.i.tion. Apart from the gambling of course, if one could keep off the eyes of the commanders. Into the cheers of the sailors, Bas interrupted.
"Well done, lookout. Though even in your enthusiasm, you're to call the captain by his proper t.i.tle. There are no 'officials' at sea."
"Of course, Lieutenant. Excuse me, Lieutenant." Ekuo the lookout bowed.
During the exchange of his men, Atau was happy to see his new Yaku sailors find their place in his crew well enough. Ever since Corco had established the southern kingdom, the two of them had begun to mix members of the ghost warriors into his crews. For all sorts of reasons, cultivators had special value at sea, especially scouts like Ekuo. With their importance to the survival of all the men aboard, it would be the perfect place to let the cultures mingle, even more so since his old crew was well-used to strange folk and strange customs. Though of course, Atau only cared about their immediate use as sailors.
In the end, Atau still decided to get some help from his tool. They needed to know their enemy after all. Even more, he needed to know where this one had come from, and whether or not they could expect more of them.
From up close, the enemy ship appeared wounded, if not dead. Not only was the fore-mast crooked, much of the rigging had also been cut or snapped. Only the proud, washed-out 'X' of the Bornish flag told Atau that the ship and her crew were still very much alive.
"Must have lost its way," he mumbled.
"Lost its way? Could you enlighten us, captain?" Bas asked.
"Through the night, the bad weather and the rough terrain, the Bornish followed us all the way. In their pursuit they must have struggled to keep together. If any of their ships would have some trouble with the currents or reefs, they would be left behind to continue the chase. She should be one of the unlucky ones. While we maneuvered around in the center of the reefs, this one skirted the edges, lost and confused. Just about managed to not sink, by the looks of it."
"In that case, shall we lend the reefs a hand?" the first mate asked.
"No time." Atau reholstered his spygla.s.s. "If we waste out time with combat, the Bornish behind us will get time to catch up again."
"Then what do we do?"
While his fingers ran through his beard, Atau thought about their options. They couldn't stay and fight. Any delay could bring back the rest of the Bornish fleet. Even worse, they didn't know whether or not they might encounter another enemy ship. At the same time, the strong currents and narrow waterways led them onto a collision course. At last, the captain's hand returned to the railing. He had made his decision.
"Tell the rest of the fleet to slow down. We'll go past them on their starboard side and catch up with the front."
"Signal the fleet to slow down! Change course north north-east!" Bas shouted over the deck. While the commanders got ready with megaphones and signal fires to coordinate their fleet and crew, the first mate turned to his captain for answers.
"Captain, what is our plan?" Bas asked again. Of course the captain would never have to explain his orders to anyone. However, they would need many captains in the future, and Bas was a good man. Thus, he considered it a learning opportunity for the young sailor.
"Our Homeward is an older dame by now, but she's been built for the future. Even though her sleek lines give her speed, she is far from our fastest ship. Why do you think that is?"
"...I am unsure."
"It's because Corco knew how naval combat would develop over the years. These days, modern ships are built with a thicker hull, since they have to withstand cannon fire. However, among all of our ships, the Homeward is the most modern. The homeward can take cannon fire the best."
At last, understanding dawned on Bas' face, his eyes bulged out of their sockets.
"No, you don't plan to..."
"Why does everyone keep saying that? You're the same as Orin. If you wanna be the captain, you need some boldness to match your imagination. I mean, this time the solution is pretty obvious. We'll rush past the enemy and endure their fire. And we'll use our flagship as a shield."
Once they had put themselves into their suicidal position, they had returned to the command deck. Bas licked his lips as he looked to the skeleton of a ship that would play their enemy, almost as if he found the sight appetizing.
"What could have caused the damage to the sails, captain? If they're caught in a storm, why wouldn't they hand the sail and wait out the storm, captain?"
While Bas looked to the enemy, Atau kept an eye on their men, as they ran across the deck to get into position.
"Might have been desperate," he said. "You're not so worried about the state of your sails if you'd brak on a rock otherwise. Unless their captain is an idiot, he probably sacrificed his mobility to save his crew. It's commendable."
"Even without mobility, we won't be able to escape them, and they won't need sails to fire their cannons."
Reminded of the terrain, Atau looked beyond the homeward. All around them, rocks peeked out through the rough waves. Where he couldn't see rocks, he could see white foam shine in the morning light. This stretch of the reefs was built like a mountain pa.s.s. Thin and narrow, they were forced to drive along a single path. Although there must have been many ways through the currents and reefs, he nor the enemy commander were confident enough to break through without loss of life. Thus the two sides stayed on course and reduced the distance between each other with every second. Soon, the opponents would pa.s.s by each other within cannon range.
"Really is an unlucky day, isn't it?" Atau asked. Somehow, he felt they had been dragged into the serpent reefs by fate, as if the ancient snake had decided to test their wits in this ancient trial site. Of course it was ridiculous, but Atau just couldn't forget the ominous words of the seer.
"Captain, what about their cannons?" Bas asked again, but Atau had no proper answer. There was nothing they could really do against the enemy's firepower.
"Maybe their powder has gotten wet in the storm? It's possible."
"I thought a captain would have to remain pessimistic."
"Not in the face of certain death." A grin spread all over Atau's face. When he turned to his first mate, Bas looked frozen in shock."
"It's a joke. Lighten up." Atau said.
"Sire, we are about to be fired upon from point-blank range. This is hardly a time for jokes."
"Aaagh, you got no sense of humor, and you're not thinking either. What sort of cannons are they gonna have? Two or three pounders, mostly on the main deck, right? No large calibers and nothing close to the water line. With her hull, they won't break through the Homeward even if they pull up right beside us. We're not in any real danger.. Just batten down the hatches and we'll weather the storm."
"Batten down the hatches!" Bas shouted without a thought. While his command was repeated, his head faced the captain, as slow understanding made way for even slower shock. "Batten down the hatches!? But we'll be defenseless!"
At this point Atau really missed Orin. Although Bas would follow orders well, he just couldn't keep up mentally. With a frown, he explained again.
"The goal isn't to defeat the enemy, is it? We don't have time to play around. The goal is to get out of here as quickly as possible, before more Bornish ships show up."
"But if we don't return fire, the enemy vessel will turn and pursue. Then we will have to deal with their fire from right in our backs. Not even the Homeward's rudder is cannon proof."
"You're kidding, how would that thing ever catch up to us?" Atau scoffed and jerked his head to the menacing existence of the Bornish sails. "Look at that thing. In their state, they wouldn't be able to do a proper turn even in ideal conditions. Now they're not in ideal conditions. They're in the Serpent Reefs. By the time they've made their gingerly turn, we'll be halfway across the horizon, way out of their reach. No, they only get one pa.s.s, that's all. We can take one or two salvos."
"In that case, wouldn't it be better for them to cease fire as well, and hope we don't kill them? Why provoke us?"
With worry, Atau followed the small figures of sailors across the sea, as they populated the enemy deck and got ready to defend their lives to the last.
"They'll fire, that I can guarantee. It's because they're scared."
"Huh?"Again Bas proved his lack of understanding.
"They're terrified," Atau emphasized. "They have been stranded in foreign waters for an entire night, their ship has been ruined, and now they are confronted by the enemy fleet, all on their own. How would you feel? They will fire, because not firing will make them feel their weakness even more. If they didn't attack us, they'd go mad."
Soon, the enemy vessel had come close enough to see the men aboard even without their spygla.s.ses. Although they must have seen the Homeward's movements, they hadn't reacted at all. Atau wasn't sure if it was from fear, confidence, resignation or a lack of mobility, but none of the options made a difference at this point. As the enemy ship crawled ever closer, Atau's heartbeat raised as much as everyone else's.
Even though he had talked a tough game all this time, their position was not without danger. Getting shot at from point blank would never be pleasant, even if he was confident in his decision. As a great captain, he loved his ship and hoped she would remain unharmed, but as the flagship, the Homeward would have to do her job just like any other member of the crew.
"Brace!" he shouted. Across the deep waves, he could see the enemies even clearer. Like animals they weaseled all over the main deck of the ship, the glitter of muskets and sabers in their hands. They must have readied for a boarding attempt from their enemies. And of course, Atau's men had done the same. Although neither side intended to board, they had no choice but to prepare for one.
*If you want peace, prepare for war,* Atau thought back to one of Corco's bonmots.
In a crawl, the two ships lined up besides one another. One by one, the enemy crew sailed past Atau's eyes. A stout man with mutton chops, a thin boy whose rough hands spoke of his farmer background. A knight. No matter their differences, all of them were wet from sweat and a deep fear shook their eyes.
Had he looked over, it would have been the same for their own people. For one eerie moment, the two sides met each other, in a way no one had ever met them before. For that one moment, they were closer than friends, closer than family. They shared this one, so very human, moment, of people who didn't want to die or fight, but would have to do so anyways. Then he heard the shout.
"FIRE!" the loud Bornish growl shot over from the enemy's quarterdeck. Then the cannons rumbled. The sting of sulfur shot into his nose only moments after his ears had been overwhelmed by the monstrous boom. Though at this point, his ears were the least of their problems.
Since Atau had braced himself on the railing, the tremors of the cannons had traveled through the entire ship and into his body. Paralyzed, his fingers slipped off and almost threw the captain to the ground. Only barely did the cultivator manage to remain upright, while many of his men, most experienced sailors as well, lost their footing.
This didn't feel right. Something was wrong. He could feel it as much in his trembling fingers as he did in his heart, and in his guts.
"Lieutenant Bas! Status report!"
On one knee, Bas forced himself up and rushed towards the main deck. Although he tried to check on the state of their ship, it turned out to be unnecessary. Only moments later, one of their commanders rushed up the stairs, the same terror in his eyes as the their enemy had shown.
"Captain! Report! We have taken on water! Our hull had been breached!"
Again Atau looked at the waves which crashed white between the two vessels. Somewhere down below, the ancient snake would cackle with laughter. Somehow he knew: their nightmare had only just begun.