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Chapter 18: To the beat of a lover's heart

We ate rather lightly, since the tea and sandwiches were not all that long past. The main course was a semi-reptilian fowl cooked in an interesting local fashion. It reminded me of the pheasants my grandfather used to shoot on the moors. His Grace plied us with questions, on this occasion, mostly of a human interest rather than practical military sort. I’m afraid, however, that I wasn’t very useful at helping him get into Edgar’s head since, at that time; I was concerned with keeping the pirate out of Ari’s. We finished with wine and fruit.

“The time has come for me to borrow your mate,” said the duke. “I shall return him in due course. Probably this evening.”

“Fully intact and functional, I hope.” Ari smiled and sipped from her glass.

The Prefect laughed. “Most assuredly! What will you be doing in the meantime, milady?”

She became serious. “Visiting friends.”

“I understand. Mr. Chang is doing quite well, by the way, and should be released from St. Constance’s in a few days.

“Jen (it seems strange to refer to a fourteen-year-old as a dowager queen) is also there, to get her hand worked on. The little one is with her, of course. I’ll see that they know you’re coming.”

“Thank you, your Grace. I would also like to see the others, the marines we were with.”

“I’m certain that can be arranged.”

“I’d like to see all of them too, whenever that’s possible.” I rather doubted that it would be.

“Of course, Commander.”

Shortly afterwards, Ferrell and other members of the staff entered. I kissed Ari and saw her to the door. The tables were re-arranged to display the Captain’s maps, holograms, orders-of-battle and star-charts. We soon became very busy. Arranging the departure of so many ships with their crews on such short notice was complicated and required the combined skills of a juggler, a mathematician, a thief and a saint. I’m not sure which I was supposed to be, but it wasn’t saint.

The fleet had grown slightly in the twenty-four hours since we arrived. A heavy cruiser, the Hermes, and two destroyers, the Zephyr and Whirlwind had entered the system.

We now had present: two carriers (Lexington, Soryu), three dreadnaughts (Kirov, Crown Imperial, Salamis), six heavies (Agamemnon, Hermes, Lancaster, Dublin, Konigsberg, Tsingtao), four light cruisers (Cormorant, Dromond, Eagle, Deimos), fourteen destroyers(Pike, Foxfire, Streltsy, Sparrowhawk, Huntsman, Akakaze, Draconis, Zephyr, Whirlwind, Tornado, Sabertooth, Cossack, Uhlan, Kali).

I finally learned something about those five unidentified small ships. “These are brand new and experimental,” said the Prefect. “They’re called gunships.” He pulled up a schematic from a tablet. “Along with light weapons, each is armed with a massive railgun that occupies most of the interior. This gun’s capable of firing a solid iron projectile weighing 3000 tonnes at velocities of up to 1,000 kilometers per second. Each vessel’s provided with five of these ship-killing projectiles and can be fired at about one a minute!”

I was suitably impressed.

“Your Grace!” We were interrupted by an unhappy Ferrell (This seemed to be his normal state of being). He sighed and lowered his spectacles from head to nose and looked at us over them (I swear I never ever saw him look through them). “Just got a note from the St. Constance ER.” He waved a piece of paper. “The captain of the Crockett was severely injured this morning in a skiing accident.”

“What the devil! Skiing? She had no business doing that! How bad is it?”

“A spinal fracture with nerve damage.”

The Duke winced. “It could take months of therapy just to get her walking again. We’ll have to leave without her. Who’s the exec?”

Ferrell scanned his tablet. “A lieutenant Vennick, good man, solid record, very little experience though.”

“He’ll have to do, I suppose.”

I confess that I was following this with some interest. To state it plainly, I did not want to be a staff officer, even though it was usually the fastest route to advancement, it just wasn’t what I wanted. With the Crocket’s exec now moved to captain, there was now room for a new second in command there; on one of the new gunships no less! It was tempting; however, I held my tongue. I didn’t want to benefit, even indirectly, from a fellow officer’s misfortune.

Ari decided that she should come bearing gifts. She wasn’t sure what to get, she had few notions of what any of her new friends even liked. At least the baby would be easy to buy for. She asked around the hotel until she found a driver to take her to the shopping district. She would have preferred driving herself, but there was nothing available in the Duke’s motor pool that didn’t require feet. I probably need a guide to the city anyway. She ended up with a spare noncom, a young marine corporal.

“Take her anywhere she wishes and do whatever she tells you,” said his sergeant.

Despite the common stereotypes of women in general and Syrenkans in particular, Ari cared little for shopping just for shopping’s sake. It wasn’t that she didn’t like the occasional trinket or other adornment; she just found other activities more interesting.

She noticed, for example, Samprime’s opera house as they passed and asked the corporal what was playing. He had no idea. She made a mental note to find out later, though she doubted that she and Dri would have the time to attend. Does he even like that sort of thing? Well, at least, she smiled to herself. I know he likes singing.

It was getting on toward evening. The Samarkand sunset now cast a red and purple glow through the windows into the hotel’s dining-room. I was on an encrypted phone frequency explaining to the captain of the Cormorant that he may have to leave the system without fresh strawberries for the officers’ mess. I was distinctly relieved when another junior staff officer motioned for me to cut him off; which I did in mid-sentence.

“He’ll be pissed,” I said.

“I know,” he grinned, “but I think you’ll find this to be worth it.”

“It’s already worth it.” I grinned back. “What do you want?”

“It’s the Prefect; he needs to speak to you.” He nodded his head at the large table where His Grace sat, head in hands.

Uh oh, I thought as I approached, he doesn’t look happy. Ferrell hovered next to him, appearing cheerful in contrast. “You asked for me sir?”

He raised his head, looking very tired. Much of the usual florid color had left his cheeks in the last few hours. “Yes. I’ve come to a decision I’m not too happy about. You have potential as a staff officer and I hate to lose you, but I see no way around it. I’m placing you in command of the Crockett.

“Command?” If he had drawn a pistol and shot me, I wouldn’t have been more surprised, or distressed. “Are you sure? I thought you were placing the executive officer in command.”

He frowned. “Of course I’m sure! This isn’t a snap decision and it’s not favoritism! I didn’t know that you had more experience on the bridge of a warship than Vennick. Right now that counts for more than anything else.”

“Yes sir.” I didn’t add, but he’s been an exec, closer to command than I’ve ever been, and he knows more about gunships. Not to mention, he already has the confidence of his former commander and likely thereby, the crew. I could be walking right into a buzz-saw. Never-the-less, I knew at that instant that I wanted this more than anything else, except perhaps Ari.

“I want you on the next shuttle to the Crockett, and, as soon as she’s able, I want you at the hospital to meet privately with Captain Pym.

Ari knocked at the hospital room door, fiddled with the packages on her lap and waited. After a few moments, Justin opened the door. Surprised, she bounced, squealed and hugged him.

“Careful, Milady,” he chuckled, “You about bowled me over with that thing!”

“Sorry!” She pulled her hoverchair back a few centimeters. “I didn’t expect to see you open the door! You must be feeling better.”

“I am. They’ve been encouraging me to get up and about. I happened to be up when you knocked.”

“Let me look at you!” She took his hands. He was still pale and somewhat frail-looking, but clearly a living Justin. “I’m so relieved to see you well.”

“Thank you, Milady.”

“Please call me Ari, or just call me anything you’d like.” There was another knock at the still-open door. “Jen!”

The Rii woman shyly entered. She was wearing a light-blue gown (the first time Ari had seen her in such a thing). Her bandaged hand was tightly held to her side by a sling. She was followed by a Samarkandian woman who carried Mara for her.

“Ooo let me hold the princess, please!”

Jen smiled and nodded. The nurse placed the child in Ari’s arms. Her tailfin quivered with excitement.

“She’s so lovely, like her mother.”

The talk swirled around feeding, burping and diapering for a while. Feeling a little tired, Justin sat on the edge of his bed. With the addition of Ari’s chair and the other two women, his hospital room was pretty much full. Eventually, Ari asked Jen, “How are you doing?”

The latter looked down at her hand. “I’m to have surgery tomorrow morning to reattach tendons,” she said quietly.

“Very good. That means you’ll be fine.”

“Thank you.” Jen looked about nervously. “I need to take some air. The surgery makes me feel just a bit frightened. Would you come with me, Ari?”

“Certainly.” Out in the hallway, Ari tried to reassure her. “You know there’s nothing to be frightened of.”

Jen nodded but said nothing. They stepped out onto a wide balcony that overlooked a large mountain lake and was open to a cool, moonlit sky. “I am frightened, but I must be truthful and say it’s not my hand.”

“What is it?” Ari wrapped the baby against the early spring chill and held her close.

“It’s…It’s everything. It’s all so different. Even that is different.” She waved her good hand at the sky, with Samarkand’s large moon, Iskander in the middle of it. “I feel danger for my daughter’s future, but I don’t even know what to fear! I need knowledge and wisdom, but I barely know how to read!” Jen wiped tears from her cheeks. “I’m too small for all this, can you help us?”

“Of course!” Ari reached up and took her hand. “I would do anything to help you and Mara! And you know Justin will as well, now that he’s recovering. You have many on your side.”

“Then teach me! I need to know who to trust! Who really cares about us and who see us only as a weapon against Edgar?”

“I will do my best.”

“Thank you! I feel better already.” Jen reached for her child and Ari placed her in the crook of her good arm. “Look out there, Mara! It’s called a lake! It’s more water than mommy has seen in her entire life!”

Hmm, thought Ari, I wonder what the fish taste like!

Within an hour, I found myself on board a shuttle headed for the Crockett’s parking orbit. With permission, I entered the cockpit. I wanted to see my new command as we approached. She was a rough cylinder about a hundred and fifty meters long and thirty wide with a boxy stern to house her out-sized engines. The fusion reactor for these engines provided the massive power required for the main armament and as a bonus, provided her with an impressive rate of acceleration. She had three torpedo launchers, two light particle-cannon for secondary guns and four pulse-lasers for point defense. In outward appearance, she was no more formidable than a light convoy escort. Only from the bow could one see the giant maw of the rail gun. I chuckled quietly; someone had already thought to paint shark’s teeth around the muzzle.

I returned to my seat and buckled in for docking. I was going to need all of Ari’s diplomatic ability and then some to salvage this situation. I couldn’t think of anything worse to do to an ambitious young officer than dangle a command before his eyes then snatch it away only to give it to another ambitious young officer with seemingly no better qualifications than one’s own. In the end it will come down to quality of character; his and mine. To work together, we’d both need to be exemplary.

There was a slight hiss as the atmospheres of the two vessels equalized. The hatch slid open.

“Permission to come aboard!”

“Permission granted.”

I stepped through the hatch and saluted. The man who answered my salute was alone. There was no honor guard, on a ship of this size they were considered unnecessary. He was about my height with a slightly heavier build. His hair was short and blond, the eyes steel-gray. He certainly looked like he could demand obedience, and get it.

“Welcome aboard, Captain.”

“Thank you.”

“If you’ll come this way please.” He turned and I followed him to the wardroom. He showed no discernible emotion. Of course, if he’d spat at me or drew a weapon, the affair would’ve been simpler and easier to deal with. In a weaker moment, I might have even preferred that; but the Navy frowns upon bloodshed among its officers, only the pirates get to have things that uncomplicated.

In the middle of the wardroom was a table. On the center of the table was a tablet; off to the stem side was a portrait of His Majesty, to the stern a bottle of rum and two small glasses. There were two chairs setting opposite each other, port and starboard. I’d seen this done before; it was part of every naval officer’s training, so I knew what to do.

Vennick went to the starboard side of the table and stopped behind the chair. I stood behind the opposite chair. He poured the rum. We saluted the portrait, drained the glasses then, moving counter-clockwise, we switched places and sat down. The Crockett was now officially my responsibility.

Lieutenant Vennick pushed the tablet toward me. “Here’s the complete manifest of the crew plus list of supplies, ordnance, spares…”

I pushed the tablet back. “That’s alright. Just tell me if anything’s lacking.” All these things were the executive officer’s job, though still my responsibility. I refused to look over his shoulder. We would get nowhere if I didn’t trust him.

He smiled slightly. “Nothing’s lacking, sir. Give the order and we can leave orbit for our jump point right now. Captain Pym saw to that.” He hesitated, as though wondering if he should have included that last bit.

“I’ll be sure to thank her when I see her tomorrow. I believe I’m ready to meet the other officers and crew now.”

“Can we see Rii from here?” asked Jen.

“I don’t know, but I can check.” Ari pulled her tablet from between the hoverchair’s armrest and her tail.

“It still amazes me that all these stars belong to the Empire.”

“Actually, most of them don’t,” said Ari. “The Empire is only four hundred light-years in diameter. The galaxy is huge, one hundred thousand light-years across!”

“Oh…Oh my! Uh…What’s a light-year?”

“It’s how far light travels in a year.”

“That must be a very great distance.”

“Billions and billions of kilometers.”

“How much is a billion?”

“A thousand thousand thousands!”

Jen sighed and looked sad. “I can’t even comprehend such a number.”

“Don’t worry!” Ari laughed. “Nobody can.

“Ah, according to this, we can’t see Rii’s sun this time of year. It’s in the daylight sky.” Ari showed Jen the tablet screen.

Jen nodded. “I’m so ignorant. It makes me sad and it makes me angry. Do you know that if anyone had found out that Justin had taught me to read, he would have been killed and my eyes put out? I don’t want Mara raised on such a world.”

Ari’s tail twitched. “She won’t be! I swear it! She will be Keeper one day. Her mother will be regent. She will do what is right!”

“I would be happy just to see her happy and free.” At that, the child became restless. Jen gave her to Ari and they went inside.

I stepped onto the bridge, followed by Vennick. I was glad that I’d thought to study the ship’s schematics; getting lost would have been embarrassing. One by one, I was introduced to the five officers standing there.

Lieutenant D’Aubigny, chief of engineering, was short, with long, light-brown hair and a casual appearance. If I’d met him at the Academy, I’d have avoided him as a trouble-maker. He had that look about him. But I can’t be right. It takes a lot of applied study to even get accepted in the engineering department. In addition, an uncooperative or lazy fool wouldn’t live long in an engine room, let alone become its chief.

The chief gunnery officer, Lieutenant Ransome, looked like a little girl. With short, black hair and high cheek-bones, she could have been Jen’s younger sister. There was also an air of shyness about her.

Doctor Holt, the ships surgeon, was probably the oldest man aboard at age forty. He grinned toothily as he shook my hand. He seemed the most comfortable and at ease of the officers.

Lieutenant Rashid, head of damage control, was tall, blond and earnest-looking. The only other impression I got was when we shook hands. His flesh was cold and he bit his nails.

The quartermaster, Bathurst, seemed the sort of person you would enjoy relaxing with; perhaps with a pint of beer or a cigar. Other than that I got nothing.

I was a bit disappointed, not in my officers but in my apparent inability to read them. My meeting with Pym was going to have to be more than just a formality.

It was quite late when I finally made it back to our suite. I stepped in and threw my jacket on one of the kitchen chairs.

“Ari?” Are you here? There was no response. There was the sound of water trickling in the bathroom. I peeked; she was in the bathtub, curled up asleep. I sat next to the tub. It was a bit disconcerting. I’m used to people breathing air, but her gills gently flared and closed in time with the rise and fall of her chest. I stuck my hand in the water, it was warm, and shook her shoulder. Ari, love, I’m here.

She raised her head from the water and smiled. “Thank you. It was getting a bit stuffy down there. I drew a bath to ease my mind. I didn’t mean to fall asleep.” Then she gave me a suggestive look. “Water’s still warm. Care to join me?” She stirred the water with her tail.

“Sure.” I began to undress. “Best let some of the water out, love, or the folks downstairs will have somethin’ to complain about.”

A few minutes of snuggling tickling and splashing later, Ari looked me in the eyes. “What time do you see Captain Pym, tomorrow?”

“It depends on Pym. So you know about the Crockett.

She nodded.

“I was going to talk to you about it.”

“I know, this is our last night for who knows how long.” She rested her head on my shoulder. “What ever shall we do, Dri?”

“What we can. It won’t be so bad. You’ll be just a short shuttle ride away.”

“You don’t understand. Since Jen is under age and Justin is still recuperating, the Prefect has made me her guardian.” She rose up, slopping water onto the floor. “He’s also decided that it’s too dangerous to send her to Rii with the fleet. I’ll be staying on New Samarkand ‘til the Home Fleet arrives or the affair with the pirates is resolved.”

I sighed. “He’s probably right. It would be selfish of me to put you at risk just to have you close.”

“It could be months.”

“I’ve been thinking. This fictitious marriage of ours, we can make it real.”

“I’ve been thinking the same.” She smiled again. “Pym will be needing her rest, I’m thinking. You can see her later in the morning.” There was a conspiratorial glint in her eyes. “His Grace’s chaplain is staying in this very building. There’s also a chapel.”

“You’ve been doing more than thinking. You’re ahead of me!”

“We get up early, rouse the chaplain…”

“…Who I’m sure will be happy to see us.”

Ari giggled. “Yes, he’s nice. I met him.”

“Well, I guess there’s only one way to find out. We’ll see him first thing tomorrow.”

We drained the tub and dried off. Then I carried her to bed.

There was a distracted, almost desperate quality to Ari’s love making. Later, she sat staring off into space. I put my hand on her back. “What are you thinking?”

She gave a short, quiet laugh. “Nothing really. My thoughts are whirling about like moths in a wind-storm.”

“How about a song?”

“Certainly, give me a bit to think of something.”

“How about if I sing to you?”

She turned to me with raised eyebrows. “Really?”

“How could I call myself a Welshman if I didn’t sing?”

She laid herself down and looked deeply in my eyes. “Do sing to me, please.”

“Alright, you can come in on the chorus, if you like.” I paused for a few moments then began.

She was in the flowery garden when first she caught my eye

And I just a marching soldier, she smiled as I passed by

The flowers she held were fresh and fair, her lips were full and red

And as I passed that shady bower, these words to me she said

Last night we spoke of love, now we’re forced to part

You leave to the sound of a marching drum and the beat of a lover’s heart

She was by the shore in the evening when next I saw my dear

Running barefoot by the waterside, she called as I drew near

The sunlight glanced at the water’s edge, making fire of her auburn hair

My young heart danced at her parting words that hung in the evening air

Last night we spoke of love, now we’re forced to part

You leave to the sound of a marching drum and the beat of a lover’s heart

She was on the Strand next morning when orders came to sail

And as we slipped our ropes away I watched her from the rail

She threw me a rose, which fell between us, and floated on the Bay

And as our ship pulled from the shore, I heard her call and say

Last night we spoke of love, now we’re forced to part

You leave to the sound of a marching drum and the beat of a lover’s heart

Now the soldier’s life won’t suit me, sweet music is my trade

For I’d rather melt the hardest heart than pierce it with a blade

Let the time be short til I return to my home in the north of Skye

And the loving girl who stole my heart with these words as I passed by

Last night we spoke of love, now we’re forced to part

You leave to the sound of a marching drum and the beat of a lover’s heart

It’s a song from my childhood. My mother would sometimes sing it to us; not without tears. Ari joined in on the second chorus and had me repeat it until she could sing it as well.

“Well, my hair’s not auburn and you won’t ever be seeing me run barefoot by the waterside, but I love it. Tell me, did he ever make it back to the Isle of Skye? Did he see her again?”

“I don’t know. I hope so.”

Soon, she settled next to me and fell asleep. I followed shortly after.

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