Saturday, 22 August 2009

Port of Call

This was written as a sort of cut-scene a week where we didn't meet to play, and is published after requests from the players.


The heavy postwagon trudged steadily through the rain, pulled by its team of four. The horses were large animals with a relentlessness about them. The breed had a reputation for doing the same route in the same time, summer as winter. The two coachmen, wrapped in their looming oilskins, tricorns pulled down to shield their collars from the downpour, were indistinguishable from the black mass of the wagon. In the dark, heavy rain, the driver couldn't see much more than the lead mare and the odd tree by the highway. This was not his first wet drive towards Stafford, and not the lead's either, so he trusted the old lass to follow the road to the turnpike.

Captain Sir Tomas Moore was miserable. He was far from his ship, and perhaps more importantly, far from the sea. He didn't feel comfortable on land, or more to the point, the only place he felt comfortable was on a ship. The constant, incessant jolts from the wheels falling into potholes or hitting rocks never found their rhythm. He felt like his kidneys would come loose, and the insides of his cheeks were sore from countless involuntary bites over the last two days. The thing that made the young naval officer the most ill at ease was two of his fellow travellers. Each seemed perfectly capable of damaging his composure, but he was actually morbidly impressed by the combination of the two.

The young lady was sitting beside him, so close he could feel the warmth of her hand against his own. When they had introduced themselves, she had told him her name was Miss Jessica Purphroy. Her discreet lavender-scented perfume teased his senses further, and made sure he never forgot her presence. Every time he had looked at her over the last two days, he had been stunned by her striking beauty. She was tall, and even if she was a little thin, her stature, the curve of her hips, the lines of her neck, the fullness of her lips, all these were as if designed to distract. Today she was wearing a dark green dress, cut just a tad higher than the line of decency. When he had seen her at breakfast at the inn where they had overnighted, he had felt like a moth, attracted to the perfect curves of her breasts pushed upwards by her corset, rising and falling gently every time she breathed. Still, it was the way she looked at him that really made him lose his course. There was a playful, challenging innocence in those large, brown eyes. It was all he could do not to look at her right now.

And the presbyter knew it. Of that there was no doubt. The second of this diabolical duo sat right accross from him, and the old preacher seemed to have an uncanny ability to sense when morality was in jeopardy. Although Sir Tomas was a Macharite, like most knights and nobles, he was very much familiar with the Presbyterian creed. The two schools were not all that different, both belonged to the Cabal of Pure Thought, and both were founded on the teachings of Macharius. The main difference was that where the Macharites's placed great emphasis on the wonders of Man and the advantages of the Western Erian culture, the Presbyterium adhered to the strict moral codes established by stern men like Archibald Arson and Jonathan Steewell. After the St. Revan's Day Plot against the king, just before Sir Tomas was born, several Macharites, some even MPs, had been arrested and hanged, and the Night of Bloody Daggers were still remembered. Afterwards, Steelwell's militant party had gained control of the Commons and still held it. It was said, though seldom loudly, that during those days Pendrell had been one murder away from a civil war.

In his current predicament, Sir Tomas briefly wondered if his situation would have been less unbearable if it had come to an open war back then. He had heard some stories from that turbulent time, and he was not convinced that it hadn't all been about power, and as a Macharite and a knight, he was certain that had it come to a war, the Ministerium would not have become as powerful as it was now. These possibly treasonous thoughts were abandoned when a bump in the road caused Miss Purphroy's hand to touch his, if only briefly. More than once during the journey the desolate officer had recovered from one of the young lady's spells just to find the presbyter looking at him with such stern dismay that he felt like a midshipman having to explain his mistake to an admiral. And the fact that the watchdog appeared to be sleeping didn't reassure him the least. He had found that such trivialities didn't stop the black-clad minister from preventing lasting damage to the pure souls of his fellow Man. This time, however, he looked to be lost in whatever dreams men like him entertained, and so Sir Tomas suffered on.

He was trapped in a chain of events that seemed bound and determined to make sure he was kept from getting to grips with it. Again he tried to distract himself from the present by going through the last weeks in his head.

It was a fortnight since he had taken 'the Sparrowhawk' into port after a routine patrol in the Northern Ocean. His orders had been to stay within ten miles of land, and to collect the reports from the small garrisons protecting the dozen or so trade posts along the Forsaken Coast. The only thing that diverged from the steady routine was the storm. They had been a day from home, outside World's End, when it came. Every sailor knew that the weather changes at the drop of a hat in those waters, but what hit them was not at all common for the season, or any season, for that matter. The ship had been making excellent speed, sails trimmed, and a strong wind from North by North West to speed them to port. Then the wind turned and increased.

Within the hour they had a full storm trying it's damndest to drive them into the rocks. Thanks to a fine crew, a good bit of seamanship, and a terrific ship, all hands had gotten safely to port. Still, there was something about that storm that didn't sit right. And there are all sorts of stories circling about these days, many of them concerning the end of days and dark magic. And it is also no secret that on more than one ship in the fleet, things are practiced below decks that will curl the blood of most enlightened gentlemen, even if the King's Code calls for a full hundred lashes in such cases of blasphemy.

And the she had been spotted. 'The Pius' had come out of the storm. She had first been called three cable-lengths to port, flying a full rig. At first he had thought her at peril, for he was certain that she had been surprised by the change in weather and had lost too much of her crew to trim sails. He had felt the helpless dread a sailor feels when he is forced to witness a tragedy, for surely no ship could stand such a wind with that much canvas. When 'the Pius' had vanished behind a raising wave he had lowered his head in prayer for their souls. Then the lookout called her again. She had come into view a lot closer this time, raging ahead like a demon from the dark, and he could see that she had furled her topsails. That was when he realized that the captain of 'the Pius' was riding this beast of a storm. He knew the ship only by reputation, and of her captain, Gryff Galan, he knew nothing but the name. She was one of the brand new frigates, with a slender hull, new rigging, and, they said, a secret weapon aboard. But what really filled him with pride was the Pendrellian colours flying from her mizzen-mast in defiance of the elements.

Upon anchoring in Ipwyth harbour, he had taken his log, his report, and the correspondence, to the admiral. He had returned to 'the Sparrowhawk' expecting a week of refurbishing and resupplying, and had had just accepted an offer to join his firstmate, Regis, at dinner with his wife when the admiral's dispatch dingy pulled up to his ship. The orders were as vague as they were clear. He was to take 'the Sparrowhawk' to Crondor at best speed, and he was to personally bring his log to the Admiralty at his earliest convenience.

When he had informed his laconic firstmate, Regis had answered, "Ours is not to ask, but why?", then shrugged. And so four days later he had again anchored up and brought his logs to have them signed by his superiors, but this time he had discovered that it was his chance encounter with 'the Pius' that had changed his course.

Now, Sir Tomas is not a man easily baffled by gold-embroidered jackets and the company of stiff peers, but still, over the course of the following week, he was baffled. He gave his account before a brace of admirals of the White, and then before an old admiral of the Gold and a scattering of senior officers of all colors. He was interviewed by two high-ranking Argonauts. Then he talked to a dubious character from the Foreign Office, and he reported to the Ministerium to answer a string of questions from a trio of somber clerics. And thus the week went, one conversation after another, questions about 'the Pius' and her crew. "Have you ever met Captain Galan in person, Sir Tomas? "Do you know anyone who serves on her, Sir Tomas? Have you ever been to Göteshaven, Sir Tomas? How about Freeport?" and so on and so forth. Within Second Freeday he had already cursed the day his outlook called the blasted ship in the storm. Still, even if he felt like a helpless piece of driftwood caught in currents far greater than he could see, his curiosity had been sparked. It would seem that Captain Galan and his crew were somewhat controversial in the higher stratas of Crondor, and it was obvious that at least for the time being he himself was caught up in their wake.

He was snapped from his reverie by a particularly inconsiderate pothole that shook the postwagon violently and threw the more amicable of his two scourges against him. As if by instinct, he grabbed her to stop her from falling to the muddy floor. His hands found her slender waist with a will of their own, and she giggled softly as her eyes met his, so close he could smell mint on her breath. He felt completely lost, and felt his words failing him miserably.
"Thank you ever so much, Captain," she said.

The silence that followed was broken unceremoniously by a dry cough from the seat across from them. Sir Tomas let go of the woman immediately and felt anger and shame flooding up in him. Before he could look away from the angelic face in front of him he caught a mischievous little smile, and a discreet wink.

"I'm sorry, madam," he managed to say, cursing all things in general, and 'the Pius' in particular, under his breath.

He could feel the condemning look from the presbyter, and was painfully aware of the knot in his lower belly left after his involuntary indecency. The succubus were laughing beautifully at something one of the other passengers said, and he felt a pang of jealousy. With a feat of willpower he returned to his previous train of thought.

Two days ago he had been ordered to travel to Stafford by the fastest means available. He had actually considered renting a horse, but the Pendrellian countryside in autumn was not easily traveled if you didn't know the roads and the land. Thus he had come to find himself trapped in this torturous coffin. He missed the steady rolling of a ship.

He wasn't quite sure what awaited him at the University, but somehow he knew that he'd be spending more days answering questions about the storm and the ship riding it. His orders said that he was to report to a Doctor Witgard Harbough, fellow of Whiteshield College. The name was familiar, although he knew little of the man bearing it. When he had taken his lieutennant's exam, Doctor Harbough's 'Trigonomical Approaches to Navigation' had been the chief source of most of his dread before he appeared before the board.

Before boarding the postwagon in Crondor, Sir Tomas had met briefly with a friend of the family, Mr. Hobart, who was connected to the Ministerium. Apparently the Doctor was a leading scholar in the field of Metaphysical Anomalies, whatever that meant. Mr. Hobart had also adviced him to jump through all the hoops they placed before him, and to remain pure in thought and stick to the facts. He had been rather unwilling to speculate about why the sighting of 'the Pius' had caused so much ado, but had briefly mentioned an incident in Corinth not long ago. He didn't say much, but had whispered that Captain Galan and his officers had been declared Enemies of Man by the Temple of Man Supreme. The term had sent a chill down Sir Tomas's spine. The Temple had reacted even harsher to the upsurge of hersy than the Cabal, and stories of book-pyres and inquisitions in Corinth and Aragorn had lost their novelty over the last five years. Before they had parted, Mr. Hobart had said that there were parties who were looking to apprehend the officers of 'the Pius', but that Captain Galan so far had been protected by someone close to the King. Then he had touched his nose, and added that mere mortals did wisely to distance themselves from such matters.

Somehow he managed to fall asleep. He dreamt of 'the Pius'. She was fighting a storm fiercer than anything he'd ever seen. It was as if the ocean itself were trying to break the ship as it was tossed around, battered and harried by giant waves. Drowned men were trying to pull him down into the deep, and he was trying to shout to the captain. His voice was drowned out by the raging storm, and he was being dragged towards the railing by dead sailors, frothy seawater running from their mouths. Then the captain turned slowly, and he saw his own drowned face looking back at him.

He awoke with a voilent cough. It was as if he could taste the cold, salty seawater in his mouth. In his mind he thanked providence for the diversion as the driver had stopped the wagon and now shouted, "Elmwilde Turnpike, half hour rest, change to Stafford University!" Still, the dream had rattled him, and he just let himself be swept by the polite efficiency of the stablehands as they helped the passengers through the rain and into the small turnpike inn. He was feeling utterly out of his depth, and absentmindedly ordered a mug of spiced wine to warm his spirit.

He could see the presbyter talking to a stranger, but the young lady was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps she had been met by a wagon and had disappeared. The lost, if hopeless, oportunity, hurt, and he took a deep draught of his mug, finding some consolidation in the warmth that gathered in his belly. Still, he could not shake the cold his dream had left completely. He had a vague feeling of forboding, as if a shadow had just passed beneath his keel.

The new driver opened the door and stepped in, removing his tricorn as he entered. His long, greasy hair was dark from the rain and plastered to his skull. He had a jagged scar running from his left temple all the way down to the corner of his mouth, fixing his face in a cruel smile. "Right, ladies and gents, mount up for University!" the man said, turning on his heel and replacing the soaked and battered tricorn as he stepped into the rain again.

The new wagon was smaller than the last one, and only had two of the great beasts teamed to it. Sir Tomas was almost shocked when he saw Miss Purphroy hurrying out of a door in one of the houses clustered around the turnpike. She was wrapped in a long traveling cloak, and had an elegant little tricorn fastened to her hair, the gem on the hatpin catching the light from the hissing torches held by the stablehands. A local servant was doing his utmost to shield her from the rain with a tassled umbrella, as she navigated around the deepest puddles on her way to the coach.

As he helped her aboard the wagon, it dawned on him that the mean old preacher was nowhere to be seen. He felt his spirits rise a little as he noted that there were no other passengers for the last leg of the journey. He tipped the servant, and just as he stepped into the wagon he caught the coachman staring at him, the ugly grin all the more menacing in the dark. Sir Tomas returned the look for a few seconds, angered by the frivolity of the man, before the coachman nodded and pulled at the brim of his tricorn, turned, and climbed the steps to his seat.

The next hour went by fast like a childhood summer. The two passengers quickly warmed to the unchaperoned situation. She laughed and joked, and seemed very interested in the adventurous life of a naval captain. They discovered mutual friends, and they joked about the dreary old preacher. The rain kept up its steady tattoo, and for the first time in a while, Sir Tomas felt like things were going his way.

The coach had stopped, and it had been remarkably quiet a few minutes when Miss Purphroy placed her delicate hand on his. "Listen carefully, Sir Tomas," she said, "I need your help."
He was completely taken by surprise by the seriousness of her voice, "Name your favour, Miss Purphroy, I am yours to command," he said, confident and invincible.

She had a sad smile as she said, "I have not been completely honest with you, my dear Tomas. My errand for this journey is to stop you from creating a fuss, you see."

"Pardon me?" he said, feeling like a whale driven into a shallow bay to be slaughtered. "This is all about the blasted 'Pius', isn't it?"

"Yes, my dear, I am afraid it is. You see, Tomas, there is quite a lot of controversy surrounding that ship. It is one of three ships built by the king himself, by plans he claims were given to him by a mysterious lodge.

"Moreover, the captain of 'the Pius' has become involved in several acts of blasphemy, and he is believed to be in league with known members of a dark cult worshipping the Drowned Man."
At this, Sir Tomas felt as if the shadow that had been following him had finally caught up with him.

"And exactly what is it you want from me?" he asked.

"You see, Tomas, our good Captain Galan has become quite dangerous, and there are forces that can no longer allow important members of our realm to ignore his continued blasphemy. Your naïve testimony threatens to further move the focus away from this, and thus, I'm afraid, you, my darling Tomas, have to be prevented from muddying the waters further."

She leaned over to him and kissed him slowly, and he let her, knowing that whatever happened next, he would not get back to port.

She sat back, took off her cloak, pulled out her hatpin and ruffled her long brown hair, the hat falling to the floor. All the while with that look of detached regret in her eyes. She ripped open her dress, tearing seams and exposing small round, white breasts. Then she screamed.

In the blink of an eye, the doors to the couch were thrown open, and several men in wet oilskins converged on him. He was dragged out and thrown on the ground, his hat trampled under a muddy boot. His arms were bent behind his back, cold water soaking his clothes, and he felt the coarse rope tearing his skin as they bound him. They pulled him to his feet and he was made to face his captors. He recognized the coachman and one more fellow from the inn - the same man the presbyter had been talking to. Then he saw the preacher standing behind the men, that same unforgiving look on his face, and he heard him say, "Well done, Jessica."

Sir Tomas almost laughed when he heard her response, "Thank you, papa."

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