Chapter 6

The Gatekeepers


Smoke wafted up from the grizzled and gnarled end of a burning cigar butt. Captain Archuleta worked the stogie around his chiseled maw. Taking another liberal puff from the aromatic cigar, he filled the deck with the pungent pall of ash and smolder. Expelling a sigh of sanguine pleasure, he groaned in satiety, thirst slaked.

“Cobaltine ecstasy. I’d recognize these tobacco leaves anywhere.” He smirked nostalgically. “Reminds me of home, actually. Good times.”

“Sir, I thought you hailed from—" the corporal flanking him interrupted being cutoff himself.

“That’s not important, Corporal, neither here nor there. Now, what do we got?” Archuleta asked, sounding annoyed and with visibly diminishing good cheer.

“Uh, half a dozen boxes of tobacco were found hidden in the galley’s stores. Three times that many in the cache beneath the brig. More boxes are still being recovered from all over the ship. Estimates based on preliminary reports number anywhere from forty to sixty kilos worth of contraband. Mostly tobacco, but with some associated paraphernalia: papers, presses, and an assortment of holders, additives, and other accessories.”

Archuleta whistled.

“Damn. Huh, that much?”

“Yessir.”

Under Archuleta’s command, the warship Devanagari was tasked with enforcing levies in the port of Istan. He nailed the now confirmed smugglers with a hard stare. “And you fuckers were trying to sail by on—what bullshit excuse did they provide us with corporal?” His gaze kept his quarry pinned to the docks where they knelt before armed guards. The group of Gardenian sailor’s—smugglers—looked down in varying degrees of shame, anger and frustration. All except a particularly ballsy young man with long red hair. A beard just as fiery. The carpet probably matched the drapes.

Ironically, an irony which saw sardonic transformation over the years, Gardenia had been hailed as the World’s Hearth at one point, the de facto commercial agricultural center. But that was long ago. The weather changed, the soil died, and the land was met with not but rot and ruin. Dark magic was to blame, they accused. Witches were staked, animals sacrificed, Gods cursed. Neighbors invited aspersions against another while those foolish enough lashed out in desperation or predation, but nothing ever came of these speculations. With no culprit forthcoming, the land simply wasted away. Gardenia lost many of its allies over the years, but Atreia, ever-noble, had held out steadfastly.

These days, Gardenians did two things well, smuggle and steal. And these diplomats seemed to be a pay grade above the latter. Funny that, the captain reasoned, criminals with standards.

“Uh—I believe they claimed to be on diplomatic mission sir.” The corporal responded. “We don’t check those.” He added lowly.

“Yeah. No shit.” Archuleta mumbled.

“This is bullshit! You can’t search our ship. You have no right to seize our cargo either. We’re protected emissaries of Gardenia. Regardless of what we’re ferrying, under diplomatic accord, you cannot inspect, much less seize—”

A strong fist planted itself in the man’s gut. He choked out a lungful of breath, spittle pocking the plosive fit. Eyes wide, he followed the fist up the arm to the man whom it belonged. Archuleta blew a cloud of smoke in the man’s face.

“Diplomatic accord,” he grunted out. “with Gardenia states, and I quote—what corporal?”

“Uh, well, that diplomatic envoys, ships in particular, are considered enclaves of that realm and diplomats are granted immunity from prosecution in another—foreign realm, that is—during the exercitation of duty.”

“Exactly! You see—”

Archuleta closed his other fist, his knuckles cracking as his fingers closed. The man abruptly stopped talking.

“Corporal?”

“Except of course, when diplomats wave their rights.”

“But we haven’t—”

“Or break a capital law, like you did when you accepted this cargo and attempted to smuggle it off the island. Atreian law is very clear regarding this matter; and I quote, ‘diplomatic immunity may be overturned when a diplomat is found to be acting outside the scope of their duties’. It goes on like that, but it seems like you understand. In this case, disregarding the fact that when you detoured to Cobalt you were technically derelict of duty, when you tried to bypass our levies, you broke the law (i.e. smuggling).”

The men’s faces paled.

“But…” he floundered to come up with something, mouth gaping. “But smuggling isn’t a capital law!” he cried. He was Gardenian by birth, but had sailed enough to be fairly confident it wasn’t.

Archuleta and the corporal both grinned.

“In Atreia” Archuleta purred. His words falling like a silk curtain. “corruption is a capital offense. That means public servants like you cannot act in self-interest. And no one in Atreia is above the law—no one—not even diplomats. Ergo, I can search whomsoever’s fucking ship I want, jackass.”

“Though, you’re not really supposed to.” The corporal whispered, lowly enough so that only the captain heard, which the man went on to pointedly ignore. “Gardenia signed the accord. They agreed to endorse Atreia’s egalitarian legislature.” The corporal said, carrying on.

“Well, you heard him.” Archuleta chuckled. “You can either admit your king ordered you to smuggle our product to your homeland, and technically you’d be free to go with your precious cargo—” Another puff of smoke, another deep inhale. “after paying the levies, of course, but that might raise a stink with the royals—I’m sure you know how prissy those blouse wearing bluebloods can get—or you can cop to smuggling, a lesser crime, and go home a few thousand coins short and with a slap on the wrist. Frankly, creating a diplomatic incident over this, seems petty. You are emissaries on a diplomatic envoy, after all.” He shrugged. “But whatever. What’ll it be?”

The man gaped. The rest of them adopted hard looks.

“Does this cargo belong to you, and were you attempting smuggle it out of Atreia in violation of our laws and outside the scope of your diplomatic obligations? Or were you acting in accordance to orders received from your king? I need you to be specific. Your answer is required for my report.” The corporal clipped out matter-of-factly. “If you don’t mind.” He added, smiling saccharinely. “Please, and all that.” A roll of the hand gestured what he meant by ‘all that’.

The men remained silent, sharing an inscrutable look.

The redhead swallowed. He looked towards an older man, who Archuleta had pegged as the leader. He was probably a captain in name, but commanding a diplomatic tea party meant he was almost surely a politically appointed shitstain. The man hadn’t earned his stripes, therefore hadn’t earned the rank. He’d be addressed as the stain he was until Archuleta, a realcaptain, decided otherwise.

“So what’s it gonna be? Huh?” Archuleta rumbled.

Shitstain nodded to redhead.

“I—” the young man began. “You said a slap on the wrist. You can guarantee this?”

“That’s right.”

“What about breaking your capital law?” he asked suspiciously.

It was the corporal who answered. “A corruption charge voids your immunity, that’s true, but it doesn’t absolve your status as diplomats. We can’t serve out justice on Gardenia’s behalf. Had you committed a more heinous crime, murder for example, you would’ve been arrested and jailed in accommodations suitable to your status until you could be deported.”

“And as it stands.” Archuleta blew out a ring of smoke, looking pleased with himself. “You’re saving us the trouble of shipping you out. Essentially, you’re deporting yourselves.”

A brief pause, then he sighed, resigned. “Yes. We’re smuggling.” Slumping, he sagged into himself at the admission. The man’s posture screamed defeat, and was mirrored by his comrades.

Archuleta grinned.

“You heard ‘em corporal. Cut ‘em loose—write ‘em up, confiscate their contraband, and ship ‘em out.” He made to leave the deck.

“And that box, sir?” the corporal pointed to the cigar box stuffed into the captain’s armpit. “The one we confiscated from the captain’s quarters?”

Archuleta looked down at his cargo, blinked, and returned an even gaze. “Evidence.”

“Right…” the corporal said hesitantly. “So, I suppose you’ll want to log that evidence in yourself, then, Captain?”

“That’s correct, Corporal. Now, if you excuse me, I’ll be in my quarters, logging in the evidence—with some brandy.”

Archuleta walked off, ignoring the corporal’s unbelieving expression and flat look. He shook his head behind the captain’s retreating back, not feeling courageous enough to admonish the man upfront. Sighing, he turned back to the prisoners—er, diplomats—waiting to be processed, flinching from the baleful glares he received. They heard everything.

“Hmm.” It seemed Archuleta hadn’t left. He stood poised at the threshold to the gangplank.

“Sir?”

The captain had a faraway look on his face, as if he was remembering something from the distant past or seeing something that existed beyond the horizon.

“Corporal. Do you sense anything?”

“Uh…” He didn’t. “Sir?”

Archuleta shook his head. “I don’t know what it is, but I sense something.” He hummed again.

“Oh.” The corporal approached him, then turned to stare toward port, which seemed to have captured the captain’s interest.

“Hey, get these fucking cuffs off already. You said you’d let us go.” Someone—presumably redhead—groused in the background.

“Shut up!.” Someone—presumably one of the guards—ordered.

“How many mages we got stationed?” Archuleta asked. He knew, of course. He was the captain, and mages were valued military personnel. Sergeant Avanti could bend metal; and Private Janus had received the mandatory schooling, but not merited any title. The private could cast lesser spells, like summoning a campfire or some other pretty lights, which amounted to jack-all in his opinion.

The corporal queried a brow. “Three, including yourself. Of course, the magical combat division led by myself, consists of thirteen base personnel, including myself. Everyone else only has basic training in—”

“Yeah, yeah. So, three, huh?”

“Yessir.”

He gestured toward the dock with his head. “That would make those the other two, right? Avanti and Janus?”

Turning, the corporal saw Avanti and Janus who were supposed to be presiding over the seized cargo operations on the dock. Except, they weren’t. Avanti and Janus were also staring off towards the East, like the captain had been—no, was still doing. But why? That was the million coin question.

“Yessir, that’s them.”

Every marine had gone through basic training, which included learning the basics in magical sensing. The magical combat division, non-mages armed with magically enhanced weaponry, obtained advanced training and usually underwent further training of their own volition in order to better understand the magical nature of their own weapons. Mages though, all went through at least some wizarding school. It was mandatory in all realms, as far as he knew, for they were the divine instruments of the Gods. Or at the very least, the most formidable military deterrents mortal men possessed. They were the elite, which is why it hadn’t surprised the corporal when the captain, along with Avanti and Janus, sensed something he hadn’t—couldn’t.

“Sir? Is there something… going on?” The corporal was starting to get a sinking feeling.

“I sense something.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know.” Archuleta practically spat the words out.

“Would you like me to try sensing it again?”

“Why not.” He shrugged. “Just don’t try so hard you shit the deck.”

The corporal tried. He really tried. He almost disobeyed orders in his temerity. But ceded defeat after a brief internal struggle, knowing the captain didn’t like ‘bullshit artists’ who pretended to be capable of feats they weren’t, and preferred his men to recognize their limitations—while striving to improve, he would add—instead of finding out the hard way ‘you weren’t the hot shit you thought you were’. “I’m not sensing anything. I’m sorry, sir.”

“S’aight.” But it wasn’t. Because there was something out there, Archuleta realized. It wasn’t like anything else he’d ever sensed. It had a presence, like fuck-all he’d ever sensed before. It kept drifting in and out of his peripheral senses, then bam! And it was back again, up close and in his face. Except it wasn’t, because it was as if it had never been there in the first place. It was maddening. And the ringer? Apparently only mages had a strong enough magical affinity to sense the blasted thing.

He didn’t need to ask Avanti and Janus their opinion. He could see it on their faces, plain as day. The corporal’s ignorance concerned him though, as it seemed that the mages were sensing some weird shit no one else could even fathom. So, what was it?

Magic. Of fucking course it was. ‘Magic is the answer to everything.’ he remembered his magic school teacher telling him as a boy. If being a mage made you keen to it, then magic was the culprit. That meant it had a source: man or animal. The question became, who was behind it?

Sea monsters could definitely be classified as magical creatures. They lurked in the depths, below the ocean’s surface and could strike at anything from anywhere. Usually, nothing could stop them. Though they could be killed just as good as anything else with a heartbeat, their proclivity for employing guerilla tactics in their hunting patterns denied many the chance to launch such successful counterattacks.

Man had been using magic since before he had a name for it. Looking out across the horizon assuaged his worries that they were about to be welcoming any unexpected vessels anytime soon, but the thought that anything or anyone could cast such an opaque specter from far enough away to dip below the horizon did not.

“Prepare the docks to receive some visitors.”

“Yessir.” The corporal saluted. “Should I… uh—is there an ETA, sir?”

“No. But since you asked, you have five minutes.”

“What?” the corporal was beside himself. Five minutes was obscene.

Archuleta grinned. “That’s an order.” He sang, then carried on about his way, down the gangplank whistling a broken tune. “Avanti! Janus! Quit your gawking and get your lazy asses back to work!”

Twin ‘yessir’s were belted out, along with dual salutes.

Archuleta made for the compound to the sonorous backdrop of his orders being carried out. He bypassed his quarters, heading straight to his office, deposited the cigars on the desk for later perusal. Making his way to the comms room, the communication’s center of the ship, he began formulating the words he wanted. He tried and troubled to blame the tobacco for the ashen taste in his mouth, but knew it more ominous than that; a warning perhaps. Dullahan and Coxswain were at the comms, which consisted of a pair of oversized writing desks, each littered with stacks of unfurled scrolls pinned at the edges by iron paperweights.

To his disappointment, Dullahan and Coxswain didn’t alert to his presence. He would relish beating the complacency out of them later. “Ten hut!”

The communications officers snapped to attention, dropping pens and papers in their haste to right themselves. Upon seeing Captain Archuleta announcing himself, himself, they balked, aware of having been caught in a moment of complacency in front of their hard-as-nails commanding officer.

“Sir!” They saluted.

“I need to send a message to command.”

“Yessir.” Coxswain said, and began rooting around for the right scroll.

Dullahan handed the captain a pen.

“Please infuse your manna into—”

“I know how a fucking pen works, Private.”

Dullahan stopped short. “Uh… actually, sir, it’s Corporal.”

“Don’t be too sure about that.” Archuleta warned.

Dullahan paled, looking at Coxswain for support, who looked no better equipped for dealing with the captain’s barbarism. The man merely shrugged, and collected a container from the locked cabinet reserved for classified materials, which he offered to the captain.

Archuleta took the cylindrical shell, and began applying his manna to the locking mechanism with a practiced ease. He was one of the few people on the base who could retrieve or activate this scroll. Paying cautious attention to his machinations, he took his time, knowing that fucking up would destroy the scroll housed inside. The latch clicked, now unlocked.

He retrieved its contents. About two feet in length, rolled tight, and with a red stripe along each end, the  scroll was a direct link to the capital. The parchment itself was worthless, beyond the fact it was made of the finest quality. The magic lay in the incantations. The runes embedded into the scroll created a network of magic that layered several complex orders of spells that he was sure he wouldn’t understand even if he were a wizard himself. The Atreian Royal Wizarding Corp didn’t fuck around.

Using the ink on his desk, which contained traces of his own blood and manna, he wrote in the unfurled scroll.

ARMC Captain Archuleta,

At approximately 4.1, the Gardenian envoy was detained on smuggling charges after wolves alerted to contraband. A confession of charge was acquired shortly after interrogation questioning commenced. The diplomats are to be released on citation after cargo seizure. Preliminary estimate: 40-60 kilos of domestic tobacco.

The words were slowly absorbed into the parchment, disappearing shortly after being written. They would reappear on the scroll’s counterpart located somewhere in the capital building. A flash of light, the song and dance of bird, a bout of flatulence, or some other equally convoluted bullshit he couldn’t give a rats ass about would alert whosoever fucked the wrong councilman’s daughter—or someone else presumably being punished with a shit post—to the fact a message was incoming. The scroll department was always fully staffed. A staffer, seeing the incoming message, would alert the department for whom it was intended. Military scrolls were only ever staffed by military personnel with special clearance. Though even they weren’t allowed to see everything. For banal reports and sightings, like this was, it wasn’t necessary to encrypt the contents of a message. It’s a good thing too, because he’d forgotten the code and would have had to waste extra time foisting the responsibility off on the corporal.

“Tsk.” He hesitated, wondering if he should mention the magic he’d sensed, but it was why he’d chosen to report his findings directly, instead of making the corporal do it, as he was oft to do.

At approximately 4.7, a magical anomaly was sensed exclusively by mage base personnel. Its direction was approximate to E-SE. All other factors remain unknown at this time, including location, bearing, and source; no visual.

Be advised, the anomaly may only be sensible by those with acute magical sensitivity. I request confirmation from the sensory division.

He huffed. On paper, it seemed even flimsier than he had expected. His hand wavered over the last line for a brief moment before plunging ahead.

In in the interim, I’m recommending that the combat readiness level be raised post haste.

End.

He ended the message with a flourished stroke of the pen, imparting his signature.

Well, it was out of his hands now. There was no further use in worrying about it, because it was officially someone else’s problem.

“Keeps tabs on this. Alert me to any incoming messages.” He ordered, and strode out.

It was half an hour later before Private Dullahan ran up to him with the response. During that time, he had smoked a couple more cigars, downed a snifter of brandy, and tried to put the nagging feeling he felt earlier out of his mind. The returned message was short.

ARMC Command,

Captain Archuleta, you have overstepped your authority by interfering with a diplomatic envoy. You are hereby ordered to stow the illicit goods until they can retrieved by the HMS Jabberwocky during the next scheduled provisions resupply, at which point you can expect to receive a written reprimand for your misconduct.

As for the anomalous sighting, no confirmation can be made at this time. You are ordered to reassess and report back.

Your recommendation to increase readiness has been taken into consideration. You are ordered to maintain current readiness level until further notice.

Do not overstep your authority again, Captain. That is an order.

End.

Archuleta fisted the parchment, wadding the paper up in a resultant pile. Taking it to the end of his tobacco, he watched it ignite with a perverse intensity. But the satisfaction he sought eluded him. It wasn’t the note’s fault. It was those assholes at the capital who were so bogged down with bureaucratic red tape that a bondage fetish was a necessary requirement for the job.

Snuffing the cigar butt out, he stuffed two more in his coat pocket and left. The magical presence he’d sensed earlier hadn’t gone away. Reassess and report back. Hmph. They could kiss his hairy ass. But still, Archuleta was a soldier, and soldier’s followed orders. Even if they fucking sucked. His hand twitched all the way to the dock, itching for another smoke.

The Gardenians were shipping out, which pleased him. The corporal was overseeing the seizure, which Avanti should’ve been spearheading. Now that pissed him off.

“Avanti!” he shouted.

Every marine—nay, every man on the dock—stopped what they were doing. The Gardenians, upon sighting him, flipped him off and went back to hoisting their rigging. The corporal waved everyone else off and made his way over.

“Sir, Avanti and Janus are…” he hesitated. The corporal doesn’t’ hesitate—much. Not around him, anyway. “… indisposed.” He finished lamely.

“Explain.”

“You really should see this for yourself.” The corporal led him round the intake pier to the military section which was cordoned off from the public. As they walked in as uncomfortable a silence as he only ever knew the captain to invoke—leading him to believe that the man must be more proficient in the wizarding arts than he lets on due to his continued casting of this particular spell—he noticed that the captain himself kept exhibiting the same strange, now burgeoningly familiar, behavior. Hmm.

Archuleta kept looking over his shoulder to the right, which he knew was east, focusing on the anomaly he continued to sense—correction, had just reassessed and would report back. What was out there? He hadn’t the fortune to divine an answer before he came across his absentee sailors, which he planned to heap the shit onto for going AWOL. They’d be lucky if they ever got the taste of leather out of their mouths from how deeply he planned to lodge his boot up their collective asses.

He found Avanti and Janus aboard the foredeck of the HMS Devanagari, just staring off into the distance. He knew why, but still twitched a little, frustrated. Who the fuck ordered them to go lollygagging? He wondered if he could go through with his boot plan from his position on the pier, as overexcited as he was to begin.

Avanti gasped, and Archuleta followed the man’s line of sight. The corporal did as well, and gasped himself.

It had been nagging at him—niggling, squirming, bugging—but Archuleta could nearly see it now, whatever it was. The itch was finally being scratched. It was appearing, or maybe it had always there but had only chosen to reveal itself at this moment. It was almost like peering through the veil of reality itself as it was being lifted. It was mesmerizing.

A curtain—something—was being pulled back, exposing new shapes and colors. Off in the distance, a stone’s skip from the harbor, amongst shimmering waters and a clear blue sky, it fell, fading opaquely. The Band-Aid was being pulled back from reality.

Holy…

Ships. Dozens, and dozens of ships. All of them foreign. An invading armada sailing into the harbor. It didn’t escape his notice that the cannon ports were already opened and occupied. The hatches of war were raised.

… shit.

The word fuck could not even begin to express the level of elocution necessitated to convey the sentiment he so desired in that moment. The locution was that of an inferior emotive plosive. No, a fuck the size he required would bury Atreia beneath his vulgarism. He could almost see the letters taking shape, the word forming behind the fleet. It seemed to impress a foreboding sense of dread. An ominous warning.

His shoulders melted while his legs hardened like masonry bricks, his blood boiled and froze, his bowels loosened while his sphincter cinched tightly shut.

For a single, fleeting moment, he dumbly believed it to be the Gardenian navy. All this for some tobacco? He almost shat himself. Then he saw that fucking flag belonging to that bastard king.

He understood, even if he didn’t comprehend. He knew—as surely as he knew the sun would rise in the east the next morning—what he was looking at, but could not truly fathom this new presence. It simply could not exist. How had it gotten here unnoticed? No one bypasses the sensory array—no one. They’ve all tried and failed, sent their best only to be thwarted. Had Atreia grown lax in its confidence, allowing the others to usurp their prominence?

He’d sensed something earlier, but it sure as Hell wasn’t this. Command certainly hadn’t. But why was it here? As far as he knew, Atreia wasn’t at war.

Well, it might be now, he thought grimly.

As he looked out upon the foreign fleet moving into the harbor, he became an immovable statue to the oncoming tide. A sea of wrath begged entry, lapping at his doorstep.

Archuleta faltered. He stood at the precipice overseeing a divergent stream, caught between the machinations of the past and an oncoming storm. His steps leading to this moment, the shoals and stones guiding the river to reach its inevitable end. Peering over the brink, he was reminded of an inalienable truth. A crag in the flow of the inexorable.

He had always been a cold, stone-faced son of a bitch. Even his mother hadn’t been able to love him, having lost the opportunity to do so in childbirth upon her death. He held no illusions of caging his inner demons, for he was the evil which lurked in his heart. Considering his first act on this earth had been to kill the woman who bore him—the proverbial chord struck—it then made a certain amount of cosmic sense that he would go on to become a soldier after all. A professional killer. And if in the land of the killers a sinner’s mind was his sanctum, then Archuleta found solace in the admission.

In ego, he found humility, for the ego of a man was a monument to pretentiousness. A façade, the reflection of a chagrined society which shines bright against the backdrop of civility, unhampered by the fomentations of a deeper, basal introspection of humanity. The scantily clad veneer was enough to appease those receptive to the deception. A balm for the mind in order to stave off madness, a salve for the soul in order to combat corruption. But there was more to a man than the ego could illuminate. There’s everything else.

The id was the monster, the beast which lurked beneath the muck. Archuleta had always believed that he was born with an overinflated sense of id, and an underdeveloped ego, seeing himself for the aberrant spawn he was born and for the demon vessel he’d allowed himself to become. It was simply time to remind everybody else.

The beast within him suddenly howled, breaking the spell. His blood flowed, churned, raged, exploded.

He growled. Lowly, literally. Bestially.

In his mind, the dogs of war were loosed, barking, mouths frothing, rabid, malicious monstrosities with a single imperative—KILL!

Springing into action, he ran for the ship, shouting orders to dazed men, roughly shoving them in his haste. “Sound the alarm! Assume defensive positions! Move godammit!” He bounded down the pier, withdrew a combat knife from his boot and cut the mooring cable with in a swift motion, then bounded past the gangplank like it wasn’t even there. “Hoist off! Man the cannons! Sails down, godammit! And someone hail command on the fucking comms!”

Watching the captain become a flurry of activity roused the rest of the stunned troops. Some dropped what they were doing, quite literally, while others were too out of it to do even that, running with burdened armloads to their destinations across the dock.

“Corporal!” Archuleta bellowed. “Where the fuck is my corporal?” His rant was cut off by sirens blaring as the alarm was sounded.

But the corporal was running away from the ship, down the length of the pier. He had to cut the second mooring cable, otherwise it would delay their departure. Unlike his captain, he carried a proper sword, though he doubted he could slice the thick chord as easily as the captain had—and the man had done it with a knife. Longer than a sabre, his long thin rapier was ill-suited to the task of cutting. But as the leader of the base’s magical weapons division, it was heavily enchanted and fortified. It could slice through stone or steel if required. And it had been required.

A quick flick of the wrist, the glint of steel, then fwick.And it was severed, ends trailing into the brine.

He made for the gangplank, barely reaching and scaling it before it too fell into the waters, ejected by the slow withdrawal of the ship. Turning to harried shouts, he saw the navigator and several crewmen standing on the pier. A few men were still running towards the ship, while others were swimming to reach it in time.

“Wait! Stop the ship!” the corporal shouted across the deck. “We have to—”

“No!” the captain was suddenly in his face. “Belay that order.” He spoke to everyone else, but stared down the corporal.

“But Captain—"

“Look around.” But he only gestured in one direction. His intent was evident. “We are at war corporal. We cannot be delayed.” Walking past the mute man he left in his wake, he reached the railing.

The corporal didn’t know what was going on in his superior’s mind. He never did. But this seemed like a mistake. The captain seemed to be staring stonily towards shore, at nothing in particular. Then the man surprised him by doing something unexpected.

Archuleta walked the length of the railing until he came across a mounted safety ladder, then tossed that overboard. It unfurled on its way down, creating a knotted bridge of tethered rungs. He gripped the rail, leaned over it bodily until he was nearly parallel with the floor, and roared. “Swim if you can make it! Otherwise, assume defensive positions and evacuate the civilians!” And walked away.

War cries erupted from the pier as the challenge was answered. Many men tried to make it, but few managed. Sopping wet and tired before the fighting even began, they glowed prideful. The rest were forced to turn back with hot tears of shame welling in their eyes. Those helping to pull them in from out of the water pretended not to notice.

The corporal felt a bout of momentary shame as he reaffirmed his decision not to doubt the captain again in the future. For all his faults, and there were many, the man had yet to let him down. He deserved his men’s undiluted trust. That much, at least, he could give.

“Two degrees starboard.” Archuleta told the navigator who had managed to board, clapped the man on the shoulder and nodded.

“Captain.” the corporal said after sidling up to the man. “What’s the plan?”

“You see those guys?” he pointed.

“Yessir.”

“They have us bent over a barrel. We’re outmanned and outgunned. Their dicks are probably bigger too. So, we’re going to do the only thing we can do: get ahead and cut ‘em off; try to slow them down enough to buy the base personnel time to prepare a half-assed defense—unlikely, but I can dream—and to evacuate the civilians, then pray and hope we stay alive long enough to be even remotely useful. After that…” He shrugged. “We’ll probably all be dead, so why worry about it.”

“I see.” He was not liking this plan, but had inferred as much for himself considering the circumstances. “Have we gotten through to command?”

Archuleta snorted. “I know the capital’s right fucking there, Corporal, but I wouldn’t hold out any hope on reinforcements arriving anytime soon. As soon as they learn a siege is coming, they’ll bottle up quicker than a drunk on Beltane. But the message is being delivered as we speak.”

Then the corporal noticed something else. “And those guys?” He pointed to the Gardenian envoy, which was now sailing out into the harbor, bolstered by the arrival of an invading force to flee while the getting was good.

“Hmph. Those dumb bastards are going to get themselves killed.”

“Sir… are we sure these ships are our enemy? Perhaps we should try diplomacy?”

“I didn’t say they were our enemy—I said they had us outmanned and outgunned—but until we can confirm their not our enemy, we’re going to presume they are, and proceed accordingly.”

“Then perhaps we can parlay with their leader? I mean, they haven’t started firing on us or made an aggressive move beyond their sudden appearance. In fact, they appear to be letting our ships—”

“Bullshit. They ain’t letting us do jack.” He remarked snidely. “Take another look at their trajectory.”

He did, but was still missing whatever the captain was registering. He supposed, it was this quality, to see past that which is obvious, which made the captain, in fact, the captain.

“Hmph. Still not getting it, huh?”

The corporal shook his head.

“Fine, then. How would you blow us out of the water?”

“I’d turn my ship—” –so the cannons were facing my target.Oh, of course.

Turning the first ship would create a bottle neck for the next. And if they all turned, they’d be short of their target, which presumably wasn’t them. At the moment, a lone ship didn’t constitute a big enough threat to warrant switching sights. The fact that this school of sharks was lusting after a bigger fish was not of any consolation.

“Hmm. Now you’re getting it.” Smug was not a good color on Archuleta, but he wore it boastfully and, to the corporal’s dismay, frequently.

“And do you see where those Gardenians fucked up?” Their current course was leading them directly into the line of fire.

The corporal nodded, knowing that this would be the true test of the fleet’s intentions. If they fired, they were hostile. And if they didn’t… well, they might still be hostile, just not to Gardenia.

“They fly the flag of Isolde. As far as I know, we’re not at war with them—or any nation. Surely, we can reason with—"

Archuleta sighed, the sound a throaty chuffing, drawn out and ragged. If impatience and frustration ever had a baby, its wails would sound as contemptuous.

“For fucks sake, use your brain, Corporal.”

“Sir, I just don’t understand. Why—”

“Why are they so close to the island?”

“What?”

“Use your brain.” He said, emphasizing each word. “Why are they so close to the island?”

“I…” Then it hit him. They were sailing into the harbor, but did not appear to be slowing. They wouldn’t be able to dock, if docking had been their intent, which the corporal began to doubt had been at all. Their subsequent proximity would put them well within cannon range of the island. At the dawning look of horror broaching his face, the captain nodded.

“Notice their bearing?”

It was the corporal’s turn to nod. If the Isoldeans kept true, they were going to bypass the island entirely, merely skimming close by. Coupled with the first observation, the second took on an even more sinister tone. A strafing run?

“Now tell me, Corporal, we—a military vessel—are on an intercept course, so why haven’t they slowed down? They’ve unlawfully entered Atreian waters. Why aren’t they communicating their intentions? Seems pretty fucking clear-cut to me.”

The corporal balked. He hadn’t wanted the captain to be right. Looking the man over, he realized that neither had he.

“Last question, Corporal. If the capital’s besieged, and we’re dead because we tried, in our infinite idiocy—or in this case, yours—to be diplomatic. What’s going to happen to Istan once we’re dead and there’s no one left to defend it?”

Win or lose, the island would suffer; either it would be invaded in conquest, or bombarded in defeat.

“I see.”

“Do you really?”

“I do.”

“Finally. I was beginning to worry I made a mistake in promoting you. I probably did, but the pickings were slim as it was. Now go make yourself useful, and…” He trailed off.

“Sir?”

The Gardenian envoy held the captain’s attention. They were sailing out into open water. Though it was impossible to avoid getting too close to the fleet without attempting to get ahead of it, as they themselves were doing, the Gardenians passed perilously close to the shore in a concerted effort. It was a fine attempt, if perilous.

The Isoldean flagship was poised to pass the envoy. For a brief moment they would soon be facing one another, broadside to broadside. The Gardenian’s had the foresight to hoist a white flag, and a flagman was animatedly signaling—likely informing the Isoldeans of their peaceable intentions and that they were unaffiliated with the Atreians.

“Should’ve been yellow.” Archuleta muttered, referring to their flag.

Almost as if to prove the captain’s earlier point, the Isoldean flagship, without warning or provocation and at the first opportunity, immediately opened fire on the Gardenian ship. A volley of cannonfire quite literally ripped through the smaller trading vessel. Fires erupted, and smoke wafted up to dye the previously white sails a dirty ocher. As the first Isoldean ship moved past the defunct Gardenian vessel, another took its place in the queue and continued the barrage on the now derelict carapace. The soiled white flag fell as the mast was split, destroyed in the onslaught.

“Fuck.” The corporal said. He really didn’t want the captain to be right.

Sure, Archuleta cursed. Shit, he loved to curse. Though not that he did so with any amount of forethought. Despite being a loyal soldier and revered Captain, he’d been at the forefront of many a dressing down due to his atavistic candor. But he had never heard his corporal—his straight laced as they get, anal retentive underling—curse. Ever.

Well, color me pink in a bonnet…

“Hearing you curse turns me on, Corporal. You should do it more often.”