THE NAMING OF THE CHLOE
(A companion story to Book 1, The Coming of the Whirlpool)
Long before the young Vincente of the Shinbone laid eyes upon his future bride, he’d heard the most frightful rumours about her. Unwed well past the customary age, she was reputed to be a terror to any man who tried to court her; caustic of temper and sharp of tongue, arrogant in manner, cruel by nature, and as dangerous to all hands, everyone said, as a hundred-gun battleship.
Such, at least, were the stories repeated around the dinner table in many a Great Cabin, as rueful young officers recalled their bruising encounters with the Lady Esmeralda Chloemena Despina, Princess Royal, and only daughter of Ferdinand of the Scale, King of Castille.
Not that Vincente much heeded these tales; a Castille princess was unlikely to ever be any concern of his. For one thing, although Vincente’s background was prosperous and respectable, he was not of a noble line, and so could never expect to court royalty. And second, his own kingdom of Valignano and the Lady’s kingdom of Castille had been sworn enemies for as long as anyone could remember. They were not at outright war anymore – for this was in the peaceful days of the Sea Lord’s rule – but they were close enough to it. A Valignano suitor would find very cold welcome if he went calling in Castille.
By all likelihood, thus, Vincente and this future wife should never have even met.
How they did come to meet, and so alter not only the course of their own lives, but the whole course of history, is a story that all scholars must ponder in its strangeness and tragedy. Not least those historians who are students of the life of Dow Amber. For though there may seem little connection through the years and across the sea between the meeting of a Ship Kings officer and a princess, and a boy of New Island who was not yet born; in fact the webs of fate draw all three inexorably together.
Those webs began to be woven on the day that the young Vincente fought his first sea battle.
It was an event that would make him famous throughout the kingdoms, but in fact his name was well known in naval circles even before that day, for his early career had been a notable one. Born into a wealthy Valignano family admired for their long seafaring tradition, he had enlisted as a midshipman at age fourteen, and so able had he proved himself that by sixteen he was already a sub-lieutenant, two years in advance of the usual age, and likewise a junior lieutenant by eighteen, and a senior lieutenant by twenty one.
His first postings were served upon frigates belonging to kingdoms other than his own, as was the custom, but it was when he was posted to his first Valignano battleship, the Momentous, that his fame truly began to spread. The Momentous was commanded by a bold and irascible old captain by the name of Umberto of the Snail, who was wont to take his ship wilfully into many perils, and who, seeing something he liked in his new lieutenant, assigned Vincente all manner of hazardous tasks.
It was Vincente, for instance, who rescued the crew of one of the ship’s boats when it was dashed to pieces by an enraged whale. The young lieutenant fearlessly plunged his own boat into the deadly tumult to snatch one of the terrified sailors from the beast’s very jaws. And it was Vincente who saved the Momentous from annihilation when a blaze below decks threatened the magazines; he fought his way through the fire to reach the gunpowder stores, and then used that same gunpowder to create a cunningly focussed blast that snuffed the fire out.
And when the Momentous dared to voyage to the dreaded Unquiet Ice, the first ship to do so in some thirty years, it was Vincente who was foremost in daring among the great bergs and bitter cold. Umberto had taken them north in the hope of finding the fabled Northern Way, and though they failed in that aim, despite sailing within sight of the terrible Ice Wall, they were still feted upon their return, and it was Vincente whom the captain praised most in his official account of the arctic realm.
By the age of twenty-five, Vincente was a junior commander and Third Officer upon the Momentous; the youngest officer of such rank in the fleet. He was quite aware, however, that from this point on his climb through the ranks would be slower, regardless of his skill or daring, for senior command positions were usually reserved for the nobility, and only in rare circumstances were offered to commoners such as himself.
Nevertheless, the years that followed were happy ones, and by dint of many brave deeds upon many long voyages, Vincente remained Valignano’s most celebrated mariner. His thirtieth birthday found him promoted at last to Second Officer on the Momentous, and so widely and highly was his seamanship regarded that he was even invited to dine with the Sea Lord, with whom he struck up what would prove to be a lifelong friendship.
But what brought Vincente to the attention of the Castille court, and so into the presence of the Lady Esmeralda, was another matter entirely: one not of seamanship but of honour.
For Vincente’s captain, Umberto of the Snail, bilious and short tempered as he was, became embroiled in a heated feud with another old captain, equally bilious and short tempered, one Ramon of the Stirrup, captain of a Castille battleship, the Vanquish. The two men had served as cadets together and had hated each ever since – but their latest argument involved a collision between their ships during fleet manoeuvres upon the Golden Millpond. Little damage was done to either vessel, but grievous injury was inflicted upon the pride of the two captains. Umberto blamed Ramon for the mishap, and Ramon blamed Umberto, and neither would be gainsaid.
The matter escalated to yet another diplomatic crisis between Valignano and Castille, for as it happened Umberto was cousin to Benefice, King of Valignano, and Ramon was likewise cousin to Ferdinand, King of Castille – and each sovereign loyally came out in support of their relative. Royal honour was at stake, and after some years of threatening letters and withdrawals of ambassadors and presentations to the Lords of the Fleet and appeals to the Sea Lord, it was decided that the affair could only be settled on the field of combat. A duel was arranged between the captains, to the death or surrender – whichever came first – battleship to battleship upon the open sea.
The two ships met on a grey winter’s day off the western shores, each with a single frigate standing by to take off survivors, should it come to that, though sinking in such duels was rare; the aim was to capture the opposing ship, not send it to the bottom.
And because it was not thought fair to force common seamen to risk life and limb in what was essentially a private argument between their captains, each vessel was crewed for this day by volunteers only. But there’d been no trouble in filling the rosters; on the contrary, many had been turned away, for there was no greater distinction – in those peaceful times between the Great Wars – than to have fought in and survived a true battle.
The signal was given, the cannons roared and the duel began. Both combatants were hundred gunners, and so the encounter was evenly matched, each ship blazing away at the other with swarms of grapeshot.
Vincente, as Second Officer on the Momentous, was posted below, in charge of the gun decks, and so should have played only a minor role in the battle overall. But as fate would have it, perhaps a quarter-hour into the furious exchange, the ship’s First Officer was severely wounded by flying shrapnel, and so Vincente was summoned to the high deck to assume the injured man’s duties. He arrived, however, only in time to see Captain Umberto himself fall dead in a hail of shot, leaving a surprised Vincente in outright command of the ship.
He might have surrendered right then with honour, as the feud itself had died with Umberto. But by now – gore stained and powder blackened and appalled at any thought of defeat – Vincente’s blood was truly up. ‘Come about,’ he cried, ‘and keep firing!’
Meanwhile, on the Vanquish, Captain Ramon – as ever in step with his old enemy Umberto – had also just been killed by flying shot, and likewise command of his ship had fallen to another. That person was not, however, the First Officer, as would be expected. Rather, it was a man who should never have been on the Vanquish at all; Crown Prince Carlos of the Scale, only son of King Ferdinand, and heir to the throne of Castille.
His father, of course, would never have allowed the Prince to risk his life in such a reckless fashion. But Carlos was a grown man and a fully trained commander in his own right, and brave to boot – if not, to his guileful father’s disappointment, all that subtle – and he chafed at the protected life of the royal court. Thus he’d convinced his older cousin Ramon to let him come aboard for the duel, so that he could taste battle for real.
Finding himself suddenly in command, Prince Carlos fought on courageously, but he was outsailed and outgunned at every turn by Vincente, and all too soon the Vanquish lost its two forward masts and control of its rudder. Victory belonged to the Momentous, closed in now to only fifty yards. But just as the Vanquish was running the white flag up its single remaining mast, this mast too collapsed, and as it toppled over the side and plunged into the depths, it dragged three hapless seamen with it, tangled in a great net of rope and canvas.
The Prince, watching on – without a moment’s thought for his own safety – dove in after them.
Vincente, nearby on the high deck of the Momentous, witnessed the dive. He didn’t know then who the officer was, but was so impressed by the selflessness of the act that when the man did not resurface (for Carlos, in his efforts to free the drowning seamen, had himself become entangled) Vincente too, with no concern for his own life, plucked up a knife and leapt from the rail.
The result of all his heroism? Carlos, the three seamen and Vincente all made it back to the surface alive, to the cheers of the crews on both ships, who had by then put all thought of feuding behind them.
Vincente’s fame was thus assured. He had won the battle and captured the Vanquish – which by law passed as a prize to the Valignano fleet – and what was more, he had single-handedly saved the life of the Crown Prince of Castille. Carlos’ father King Ferdinand was so grateful (once he’d overcome his rage at the stupidity of his son) that he put aside the animosity between the two kingdoms and invited Vincente to a special reception at the Castille royal court in Coris, there to be officially thanked by Ferdinand himself for the chivalrous rescue.
It was a gesture of goodwill that the king was to sorely regret, for it was at this reception that Vincente met Ferdinands’s daughter, the Lady Esmerelda.
The Lady Esmeralda, for her part, expected little but boredom from the reception. She might not have gone at all, for she disliked such affairs, with their pomp and tedium, but Carlos was her brother, so it would hardly be fitting to miss the honouring of the man who had saved his life. And anyway, Faustus had advised that she should go.
Faustus was her scapegoat.
Now, it was quite unheard of that a person – as compared to a ship – should have their own scapegoat, but the Lady Esmerelda did. It was her father’s doing, for her mother had died giving birth to her, and the Lady Esmeralda herself was frail and sickly in her early years – and such was King Ferdinand’s terror that he would lose his daughter he took the extraordinary step of appointing a scapegoat to watch over her.
It was a contentious posting, and many scapegoats would’ve refused it. To serve a mere child – even if a princess – rather than upon a noble vessel voyaging across the sea, why, it was improper and demeaning. But Faustus accepted the position willingly.
He was a strange man; secretive in manner and cold seemingly in spirit. He came from a long line of mariners, but had defied family tradition and never gone to sea, seeking instead employment as an administrator in the royal court, where he laboured in dark rooms over dark papers, wielding much power, but seldom seeing the sun or the ocean. In truth, Faustus hated sailing, and for a hidden reason; he suffered – to his deathly embarrassment – from a violent and incurable seasickness.
Nevertheless, one of his many duties was to inspect the accounts of each of the king’s ships, and so he must from time to time board this vessel or that in the harbour. On one such occasion – it was the very day the Lady Esmerelda was born – as he was stepping from a boat onto a boarding ladder, he was bitten by a sea snake.
A sea snake! This was a rare event, and portentous, for the venom of the sea snake was so deadly as to be almost always fatal, but those who survived were considered specially marked to be scapegoats.
And Faustus did survive, though barely, and only after long agony and the loss of the afflicted leg. It was a year before he could even walk again, limping on his wooden stump. By then he was shrunken, old before his time, and bitter. He had lost his position at court and the power that went with it, and all that awaited him now was to serve as a scapegoat upon the hated sea.
So when instead he was chosen – snake-bitten on the day of her birth – to play scapegoat to the Lady Esmeralda, he took up the unusual commission eagerly. Not only did it mean he could return to court and wield influence there once again, it also meant he would not have to go to sea; a princess would rarely go sailing.
Such ignoble motives in a scapegoat did not bode well, perhaps. But at first it appeared that Faustus did indeed bring good fortune to the Lady Esmerelda, for under his care she at last threw off sickness and began to thrive. So grateful was the king he rewarded the scapegoat with money and high office, and even took to consulting him at times on matters of state.
Faustus found himself powerful once more, and was pleased. But the bite of the snake had affected him in strange ways, blessing – or cursing – him with some measure of foresight. And a warning sounded deep in his cold heart that a day would come when the princess would no longer need his protection, and that such a day would spell doom for him. And so he watched over her greedily, to prevent the coming of that day.
But the Lady Esmerelda guessed none of this. She loved her scapegoat as a second father, despite his stern and distant manner, and always heeded his advice. The years passed, and she grew to be a young woman of slight and small stature, but otherwise hale and healthy; the favourite, King Ferdinand found to his own surprise, of his two children, for she was far more intelligent and shrewd than her bother, and fiercer too, for all that she was destined for a woman’s role in life.
As for her fearsome reputation – the truth was, she was not at all the terror that rumour made her out to be. At least, she was a terror only to fools and braggarts, examples of which she encountered all too often (she felt) among the young noblemen who tried to court her.
She had no patience for them. Short as she was, the Lady Esmerelda looked up at all these towering and proud young men and saw only lumbering oafs, too slow and stupid to bear – let alone marry. So to be rid of them, she often let her quick tongue cut them down to size, surprised at how easy it was to prick male pride, and how helpless they were to defend themselves.
More years passed; the Lady Esmeralda turned eighteen, then twenty one, then twenty five – and still she was unwed. She was not opposed to marriage, at least in principle, but meanwhile her life was very satisfying without it. She had the freedom to do as she pleased, and was busy travelling all about Castille overseeing the construction of special hospitals for woman in childbirth, a project she had begun in memory of her mother. It seemed that a husband would only interfere with that freedom, or take her off to some other kingdom, away from her work. So she could see little purpose in it.
Also, whenever she consulted her scapegoat – in whom she had great faith – about this suitor or that, he always advised against accepting them.
Faustus – though of course he could not tell the Lady Esmeralda this – had no desire to see his charge married to anyone at all. A new husband might well regard it as his own role to protect the princess, and so send the scapegoat away; at the least, Faustus knew his influence over the princess would lessen if she married.
But he knew too that he could not simply reject, without good reason, every suitor that approached her. So whenever the Lady Esmerelda asked Faustus about marriage, he always gave the same cunning reply. He pretended that a foretelling was upon him, and said that if she was to wed at all, then it would not be to fellow royalty or nobility, but to someone of lesser status.
But how could that be, the Lady Esmeralda would ask, for she would surely never be allowed to marry someone who wasn’t her equal? To which Faustus would respond, in cryptic fashion, that even so, if the right man ever came, he would, despite his lesser rank, indeed be her equal, and be able to meet her eye to eye.
But even if such a one never came, the scapegoat would add, the Lady was not to worry. She did not need a husband. He insisted that, husband or not, hers was a name destined to live on through history.
The great reception for Commander Vincente took place in the Grand Salon of King Ferdinand’s palace at Coris. It was an important moment in the history of the two kingdoms, so long at loggerheads with one another. Many were hoping that such a cordial assembly might mark the start of a new era of friendship between the realms.
Ferdinand was certainly gracious enough when he met with Vincente in private, shortly before the reception was to begin. He praised the young commander for his chivalry, thanked him for rescuing the Prince, and congratulated him on winning the prize of the Vanquish. At which point came the only sour note of their meeting.
For Ferdinand said, ‘If I might make one suggestion, however, Commander. The Vanquish is an old ship, one of the oldest serving in our fleet – it was only by the whim of Captain Ramon, who was fond of it, that it was kept in service at all. So if Castille is to cede a ship to Valignano, as the rules of battle say we must, then I would be honoured if you would instead accept a more modern vessel, in better condition. Why, the Vanquish I gather is little better than a wreck now anyway. What do you say, Commander, shall we exchange it for a finer one?’
It was a request that rather perplexed Vincente. For Ferdinand spoke truly, the Vanquish was indeed an old ship, and in poor condition, more so after the battle, and it was generous and honourable to offer to replace it. And yet Vincente was hesitant. In the brief time that he’d spent aboard the Vanquish he’d felt a strong affinity for the old vessel. He liked it, and knew somehow that it had greatness ahead of it still, not retirement. The idea of surrendering it now cut him surprisingly deep.
More importantly, he suspected that Ferdinand was not a man to act from honour or generosity alone – there must be more to this offer than there appeared. And so, politely, Vincente rejected it, saying he felt bound to accept the prize as it had been won in the battle.
Ferdinand pressed no further, though he was clearly unhappy. It was time to go to the reception. And yet, as historians now know, Vincente’s instincts were quite correct; King Ferdinand indeed had ulterior motives behind his proposal. But what they were Vincente himself would never learn. That truth would only be unearthed by others, and not until many years later.
The reception was a brilliant affair; some three hundred of Castille’s highest ranking courtiers and nobility gathered beneath the Grand Salon’s blazing chandeliers, their finery and jewels glittering magnificently in the thousand mirrors that graced the Salon’s walls.
Once everyone of importance was in attendance – including the Lady Esmeralda and her retinue – the royal heralds announced, ‘Your Majesty King Ferdinand, Crown Prince and Lady Princess, Lords and Ladies; please pay welcome to the most esteemed Commander Vincente of the Shinbone, and other honoured guests from the court of Valignano.’ At which, several hundred expectant faces turned as the Salon doors swung open and Commander Vincente and his party swept in.
The Lady Esmeralda found herself surprised. So this was the dashing young Commander Vincente of whom everyone was speaking. But he was so short! And worse, his hair was thinning, and he had a pot belly; even his finely tailored coat and commander’s hat couldn’t hide such things. She smiled to herself. Really, was this the best Valignano could produce for a hero?
But later in the evening, when her brother brought Vincente over in person to meet her, the Lady Esmerelda was forced to reassess her opinion. The commander first bowed low, as protocol demanded, but then – as her brother enthused about the details of his rescue – Vincente straightened to gaze at her directly, unabashed by her rank. Indeed, the half smile on his lips, while in no way arrogant or smug, appeared to dismiss her and the entire Court of Castille as an idle amusement at best.
What presence the man had – for up close he did not seem short, or pot bellied, or balding. Up close she was aware far more of his eyes, dark and calm as they assessed her, exactly level with her own. Then there was that half smile of his, so knowing and assured. And finally there was his aura of authority – not the authority of royalty, of power by birth and privilege, such as her father displayed – but rather the authority of self confidence and capability, the earned authority of a commander who has led his ship to victory. And his hands! She noticed suddenly, in a way that made her skin feel flushed, how strong his hands looked. How old did the reports say he was? Thirty four, wasn’t it? Nearly ten years her senior…
The simple fact was, in those first few moments, before her brother even finished speaking, and before either she or Vincente could say a word to each other, the Lady Esmeralda fell in love.
Thus, when Carlos concluded by saying to Vincente, ‘And so it pleases me greatly to introduce you to my sister, the Lady Esmeralda Chloemena Despina, Princess of the Scale.’ – an amazing thing happened. The woman who was a terror to all men smiled at the commander, held out her hand to be kissed (for she very much wanted to feel the strength of his hands) and to her own surprise said, laughingly, ‘Please, just call me Chloe.’
A family nickname which, until that moment, only her father and brother had ever been permitted to use.
On Vincente’s part the surprise was no less.
At his first glimpse of her, he took the princess to be what all rumour said she was – cold, aloof, forbidding. Then, as he stood waiting for her brother to finish, he observed her more closely, with the detachment of knowing they would probably never meet again.
She was not, he decided, particularly beautiful. She was short and rather pinched, and her expression was haughty – angry, perhaps, that his stare was so direct. Which only made him smile, for why should he be intimidated merely by royalty? He was a man who had braved the Ice, and defied whales, and won battles at sea. Even a princess could hardly compare to that.
He was all the more shocked then when she suddenly laughed, and held out her hand to him, and in an instant threw all her high titles away.
Please, just call me Chloe.
Chloe! Why, the very sound of it changed everything about her. He took her hand in his, kissed it lightly, and staring up again saw something in her eyes that was as far from haughtiness as could be.
Vincente could never remember what he said next, only that he was smiling as he said it, and that she laughed again in return – and that when she laughed she suddenly was beautiful, at least to him.
And so they each fell.
Hovering nearby, however, was Faustus.
He watched with a deepening frown as Vincente and Chloe spent the rest of that evening together, first talking, and then dancing late into the night. This must not be allowed to progress too far, the scapegoat knew: but he felt trapped by his own false prophecy. A man who could meet her eye to eye. A man of lesser rank, but her equal. He’d never imagined one might actually appear! And by the time the reception ended, and Faustus could speak with the Lady in private, to caution her about involvement with the young commander, it was already too late.
Not that he was alone in his disapproval. The affair was a scandal from the beginning, and gossip of it passed all over Coris the next day, spread by the hundreds of eagle-eyed courtiers who had been packed into the Grand Salon. The cheek of it! A Valignano sailor of mere commander’s rank – not even a captain, and certainly not a nobleman – dallying with a Castille high princess!
King Ferdinand was certainly unimpressed, and the next evening came close to banishing Vincente back to Valignano. But Vincente had been invited to be a guest for a full month, and to rescind that invitation now would only cause another diplomatic incident.
Ferdinand would have risked it anyway, but the Crown Prince Carlos would not hear of his rescuer being insulted, even if the commander had indeed set his heart upon Carlos’ own sister. Why – Carlos told his father heatedly – Vincente was as fine a man as could be, and Chloe could hardly hope to do better. An attitude which only confirmed to Ferdinand that his son was a fool. A lowly Valignano officer would never do for Chloe.
Nevertheless, by the month’s end Vincente and Chloe were engaged. No amount of dire prophecies and dark hints on Faustus’ part could shake Chloe’s certainty. And no end of threats and admonishments on Ferdinand’s part could make his daughter see reason.
Reluctantly, both scapegoat and king had to admit defeat and give their consent. Faustus was forced to make do with a promise from Chloe that he would not be sent away. And Ferdinand could only write to his fellow monarch, King Benefice of Valignano, suggesting that Vincente be ennobled with a knighthood, so that at least some protocols could be preserved.
Six months later Vincente and Chloe were wed – on the same day, as chance would have it, that far away across the sea in a small cottage in a high valley of New Island, a baby boy was born to the Amber family…
But that, of course, was an event unknown to the happy couple, and of no apparent importance to their future. The wedding feast was immense, and attended by the assembled courts of both kingdoms in great hope, for the union would surely put an end to the animosity between the two lands. With such ties to bind them – Valignano’s favourite son married into the Castille royal family – how could the realms stay enemies?
Alas, fate had other intentions.
For a time however it seemed that life for the new couple was blessed. After a year long honeymoon tour of Great Island, which included a month upon the Twelfth Kingdom as guests of the Sea Lord, they returned to Haven Diaz, capital port of Valignano. There – enriched by a dowry from King Ferdinand, and ennobled as a knight by King Benefice – Vincente set up home with Chloe in a fine mansion overlooking the harbour.
But even before unpacking, Vincente took his new wife down to the docks to meet his equally new command. For as a further reward from King Benefice, Vincente had been promoted to the rank of Ship’s Captain, a title that mattered far more to him than his knighthood. The latter was an empty honour, bestowed for formality’s sake. But the captaincy he’d attained by skill and courage.
And fittingly, his first command was to be the very battleship he’d captured in the duel that had made him so renowned – the Vanquish.
It waited for him now in the shipyards, where the great work of restoration had just begun, for Vincente had ordered a complete refit of the vessel. The ship had been badly damaged in the battle, but also – as King Ferdinand had said – it was very old, and while the ancient hull was still sound within its sheath of nicre, the lower decks were in a poor state. Thus when Vincente and Chloe visited it that day, the vessel was a bare hulk without masts or decking – little more, in fact, than a hollowed out shell. But already it was a thing of beauty to its captain.
His own ship! Staring down, Vincente could discern grace and speed even in the empty hull. Oh yes, he would make it a vessel fit to circle the world!
‘What will you name it?’ asked his wife. ‘The custom is the same here as in Castille, is it not? A captain is allowed to chose a new name for his first command?’
Vincente nodded. ‘The custom holds in Valignano too. But it’s not time for a new name yet. A captain must take his first voyage on his new ship under its old name, so as to get to know it – only then may he rechristen the vessel. So it will remain the Vanquish for now.’
‘Still, what name will you choose, when the time comes?’
‘I won’t know till then.’
She smiled. ‘Battleships always have such aggressive sounding names. Momentous. Vanquish. Conquest. They’re a little obvious, don’t you think? A little insecure? It seems to me that a confident captain wouldn’t need such a desperately belligerent name to advertise his martial qualities. He could pick something softer.’
Vincente laughed. ‘I don’t know that men would like to serve on a battleship called Satin or Feather.’
Chloe turned to her scapegoat, who was with them. ‘What should he name it, Faustus?’ she asked playfully. ‘Is it a lucky ship, do you think?’
Faustus considered her unhappily. He had not enjoyed the last year, dragged about the kingdoms on a honeymoon tour and consigned to a position that was little more than master of the baggage. He missed Castille and his place in the royal court, but of course he could not go back there, not without Chloe – and though she still was careful to consult him on all matters, he knew he would never convince her to leave her husband and go home.
His gaze bleak, he turned to examine the hollow hull. ‘It is a vessel that has known defeat,’ he said at last. ‘At Captain Vincente’s own hand, most recently, but in earlier years too, I feel. And yet I feel also that it has known many victories. It is neither lucky nor unlucky, I say. It is a ship that mirrors only the skills of its commander.’ He bowed to Vincente. ‘Name it as you see fit, sir.’
Vincente gave no response. He did not much like Faustus, if only because Faustus plainly did not much like him, or approve of the marriage. But beyond that, it seemed strange to Vincente that Chloe, who was otherwise so level headed and sensible, consulted her scapegoat so regularly, and gave so much credence to his supposed intuitions and prophecies. Surely she didn’t believe in nonsensical things like the telling of the future…
Ah, but the old man had been with her most of her life, and Vincente had already assured her that he would never force her to send him away.
The refitting was scheduled to take a single year, but in fact the Vanquish was well over two years in the shipyards. Vincente bore the delays patiently, however, for he was busy with other matters.
First, shocking news came from Castille; Carlos the Crown Prince, Chloe’s brother, had died suddenly of a fever, leaving an infant son and daughter behind, and rendering Vincente’s rescue of him in vain.
It necessitated a visit of some months to Castille for the funeral and the official mourning. Not only had Chloe lost her brother and Vincente a friend, it would prove a significant death in state affairs too, for it left King Ferdinand without an adult heir, and ensured that he would rule Castille far into his embittered old age, with grave consequence to the Ship Kings empire.
And then came a greater distraction, for when Vincente and Chloe returned to Haven Diaz, Chloe announced that she was expectant with their first child. The birth came in due time – on the second anniversary of their wedding, no less – and produced a small but healthy baby boy. They named him Augustin Carlos of the Shinbone, and for a long while afterwards fatherhood was more than enough to keep Vincente occupied.
But the day finally arrived – with Augustin sixteen months old, and Vincente himself just turned thirty seven – when the Vanquish was finished. Standing proudly at the wheel, the new captain eased his ship out from the dock for the first time, its new sails strung brightly from its new rigging. There followed a further three months of sea trials and training, but at last the vessel was fully squared away and the crew primed, ready to depart.
Their inaugural assignment? Escorting a tribute fleet on a spring run to the dominion of New Island.
‘It’s a dull enough crossing, and short too,’ Vincente told his wife after receiving his orders. ‘I would’ve preferred the Twin Isle’s run – the Vanquish used to make it often under Ramon – but it’s a start.’
‘How long will you be away?’
‘Oh – five or six months, I’d expect.’
‘You’ll miss Augustin’s second birthday!’
Faustus, standing by as always, bent and stiff on his wooden leg, noted gloomily, ‘The boy will have to get used to that, with a sea captain as a father.’
‘I suppose he will,’ pondered Chloe.
But Augustin’s grandfather was not so sanguine on the matter. Upon hearing that Vincente was to return to sea, King Ferdinand demanded that Chloe and Augustin come home to Coris in the meantime. No grandson of his was going to spend his second birthday alone among the Valignano barbarians. Indeed, without even waiting for his daughter’s answer, he dispatched his flagship and two escorting frigates to collect her.
‘And if I refuse to board,’ the amused Chloe told her husband, ‘no doubt they’ll open fire on the town and lay siege until I surrender.’
Vincente laughed, bouncing his son on his knee. ‘There’s no need for it to come to that. By all means stay with your father while I’m away. Only be home again in plenty of time. After six months without you two, I won’t want to come home to an empty house.’
‘We’ll be here. It’s you I’ll be worried about. Promise me you’ll be careful out there.’
‘On a New Island run? I’ll be fine.’
But Faustus, watching on, had gone pale and was shaking his head to himself. He said nothing, but went away and sat a while in troubled thought. An hour later he was back again to address his master and mistress gravely. ‘A foreboding is upon me. Your voyage to New Island, Captain, will not be as plain sailing as you seem to think – and I fear that you will not return at all.’
Chloe blanched. ‘Then you must not go!’
‘Nonsense,’ responded Vincente, glaring at the scapegoat. ‘How dare you distress your mistress in such a way. There’s nothing to fear.’
‘I know only what I know, sir.’
‘Husband,’ declared Chloe suddenly, her eyes lighting with an idea, ‘you have not yet appointed a scapegoat to the Vanquish, isn’t that so?’
Vincente, in truth, had always considered the scapegoat tradition something of a nuisance – though he knew too that most seaman were more superstitious than he, and would not dream of sailing without one. ‘No … it’s a last detail I’d not yet attended to.’
‘Then the solution is simple. If Faustus thinks you are in danger, who better to protect you than Faustus himself! Has he not always protected me?’
Now it was the scapegoat’s turn to blanche. ‘But I was never to leave your side, my Lady!’
Vincente laughed grimly. ‘Snared in your own net, scapegoat. Very well then,’ he added to his wife, ‘if it’ll make you feel better, I’ll take him along, and see what kind of sailor I can fashion out of him.’
And so it went. Vincente delayed only long enough to see his wife and child off on the Castille ships, then cast off himself, with the reluctant Faustus installed, for this one voyage at least, as the Vanquish’s scapegoat. At the mouth of the bay they rendezvoused with the eleven merchantmen of the tribute fleet and with the two frigates who were the assistant escorts; then together the fourteen ships made sail almost directly west for New Island.
Vincente had not, even for moment, taken the scapegoat’s warning seriously, but in fact the crossing did indeed prove to be far tougher than he’d expected. Spring was normally a placid season in such middle latitudes, but that year winter stayed late, and the fleet was battered by storm after storm. The novice captain had a difficult enough time keeping his own ship afloat, let alone holding the entire fleet together and on course.
The only light relief in all the tumult and gales was that Faustus was desperately sea sick the entire time, to Vincente’s somewhat cruel satisfaction. No wonder the man had not wanted to come along!
But the fleet endured in one piece, and at last the great headlands of New Island’s famous bay, the Claw, reared over the horizon. An immense pride stirred in Vincente at the sight; his first voyage as captain was over, and he had conquered the sea and the worst it could throw at him. In his joy – and to suitably impress the New Islanders, who he knew would be watching – he ordered broadsides to be fired off on either flank, before sailing serenely through the Rip to the Stone Port gates.
There were no further troubles after that. The loading of the tribute fleet went smoothly, and the return voyage, in fine summer weather, was uneventful, if somewhat slow. Six months after setting out, the Vanquish and the tribute fleet reached the familiar waters west of Great Island, where the various ships dispersed to their home ports.
It was early autumn by then, and Vincente steered his own course back to Haven Diaz. He was greeted by a town that was strangely silent, and draped in black – black sheets hanging from balconies, black streamers suspended from lampposts, black banners flying from flagpoles.
He could guess what it must be. King Benefice – old and unwell – must have died while they were away, leaving his son Benito to assume the throne, and the town to mourn the death of their monarch.
But when the Vanquish docked and Vincente hurried ashore he was surprised to find King Benefice himself there to greet him, alive and well, but grim-faced with grim news. There had indeed been a royal death, but not of any king. Instead, it was Vincente’s own wife and son, Chloe and Augustin, who were dead.
Dead? Vincente could only stare uncomprehending. His wife and son were dead?
They had drowned, Benefice explained. The Castille flagship – the Dauntless it was called – had been bringing them home from Coris when it sank with nearly all hands lost. It was only two weeks ago…
And still Vincente could only stare. The Castille flagship – that kingdom’s finest, greatest vessel – had sunk, on the mere three day voyage between Coris and Haven Diaz? And two weeks ago? But that was the very day of his son’s second birthday, the day too of his and Chloe’s wedding anniversary. It was impossible!
King Benefice only nodded remorselessly. It was true. The facts had been gathered from the few survivors of the disaster. It happened on the flagship’s first evening out; Chloe and Augustin had celebrated his birthday with his grandfather that morning before embarking, and by nightfall the Dauntless and its two companion frigates had reached the mouth of the Gulf of Coris.
There were known reefs in the area, but warning bonfires were always kept burning on the shoreline, and by taking bearings from the fires a safe route could easily be conned, even in darkness. When a sudden fogbank slid across the water the two frigates – having lost sight of the fires – eased sail until the fog should pass, and it did so within the hour. But when the air was clear again, the two frigates found themselves alone.
The Dauntless was gone.
A frantic search ensued, but it wasn’t until dawn that a few fragments of wreckage were found, with barely a dozen sailors clinging on, wretched and half drowned, out of all the six hundred on board.
These men reported that the Dauntless had not eased sail when the fog came – for the mist was low on the water, and from the flagship’s high deck, so much taller than those of the frigates, the warning fires could still be seen. Or so it was at first, but then the fog had swirled oddly, and the officer on duty must have taken bearings from the wrong fire, for without warning the ship ran hard upon an unseen reef, ripping its side open. The lower decks flooded quickly, and within a few terrifying moments the Dauntless – top-heavy with its grand and gold-gilded stern castle – had capsized. It sank in deep water a hundred yards beyond the reef, and no one, other than a few of those who’d been on deck, had any chance to escape.
And still Vincente only stared. His wife and infant son, entombed forever in the cold darkness. His wife and son, taken from him in calm seas by an accident so preventable and idiotic as to be laughable.
Ah – but the joke was on him. For was he not the man who had conquered the sea and everything it could throw at him? Such he had thought in his pride and foolishness, upon arrival at Stone Port, firing off his broadsides in vain celebration. And all the while the sea had been mocking him; waiting to snatch away – randomly, meaninglessly – the two people he held dearest.
It was as if fate itself had conspired to teach him a lesson. Why, Chloe had even sent Faustus from her side, the very scapegoat who was meant to defend her. The old man had come away to sea to protect Vincente, who it turned out had not needed protecting at all. Chloe and Augustin were the ones who had needed it…
If only scapegoats could really foretell, thought Vincente numbly. If only Faustus himself had known, and spoken out in time. If only the scapegoat had seen the terrible future that lay ahead.
If only –
It came then, as Vincente stood motionless – a stab of suspicion almost too awful to believe.
Faustus had known.
Vincente remembered it now in inarguable clarity; on that day six months before, when Chloe had agreed to sail home to Coris, the scapegoat had become unaccountably disturbed. He’d claimed that he’d had a foreboding, that he feared for Vincente’s crossing to New Island. But that had been a lie. Instead, in some evil vision, the old man must have beheld the Castille flagship sinking, taking Chloe and Augustin with it – and Faustus too, if he was with them, as he should have been. And so to save himself – craven, cunning – he’d concocted his treacherous prophecy, so that Chloe would insist her scapegoat go with her husband, rather than remain at her side.
And now, finally, Vincente did move.
Back on board his ship he stormed, and up to the high deck, where Faustus stood waiting. One look at Vincente told the old man that his secret was uncovered. ‘Forgive me, master!’ he cried. ‘I was afraid!’
But Vincente, his face black, only took violent hold of the scapegoat and, raising the frail figure high above his head, strode to the seaward rail. ‘Drowned you should have been with them, faithless protector,’ he pronounced terribly, ‘and drowned you shall be now!’
And with that he hurled Faustus from the high deck. Wailing, the scapegoat hit the waters of the harbour with a deathly splash – and never rose again, though whether it was the fall that killed him, or Vincente’s curse, none could ever say, for his body was never found.
Vincente looked darkly upon scapegoats ever afterwards.
He appointed one to replace Faustus, but only because tradition demanded it, and he was careful to chose a stolid, silent old woman with an accidently mangled arm, who claimed no special gift of foresight. He treated her courteously, but seldom consulted her.
She would serve him even so, uncomplaining, until her peaceable death eleven years later – when Vincente would replace her, as a favour to an old friend and against his own misgivings, with a young girl whose name was Ignella, and whose face was strangely scarred…
But meanwhile, in his days of grief following his wife and son’s deaths, Vincente returned Chloe’s dowry unspent to Ferdinand, little though that cheered the stricken king; and gave up his useless knighthood. He would be naught but a seafarer now – and one who no longer deluded himself about the ocean on which he sailed.
The sea was a fool. Vincente had been told it often enough by old sailors, but now he knew it himself to be true. Oh, the Great Ocean still called to him in all its magnificence and wonder, he would still voyage upon it willingly, despite everything it had stolen from him. But it was a fool nonetheless. Cold, brutal, and witless.
And only a fool in turn would give it his love.
Then, three months later, having shut up his mansion for good, and put away his mourning clothes, Vincente went down to the docks and – as was his right – gave the Vanquish its new name.
News of his choice soon spread throughout the kingdoms, and it only deepened the hatred of King Ferdinand when he learned that the man he blamed most for his daughter’s death (for had she not married Vincente, she would never have been aboard the Dauntless that night) had now christened a ship with her name.
Vincente cared not at all. Let Ferdinand hate him, and let others puzzle that a battleship should be named in memory of a woman. They had always said, had they not, that she was as dangerous as a hundred gun battleship – well then, let her become one. And her traitorous scapegoat had foretold that her name would live on in history – well then, so it would live on.
For history would never – not if Vincente had anything to do with it – forget the deeds of the battleship Chloe.
And so it has proved.
But one last curiosity must be noted: twelve years after the events related above, on the exact anniversary of the death of his wife and child, Vincente – fifty years old now, and hardened by his long life at sea – found himself berthed in the New Island city of Stone Port, on escort duty once again with the tribute fleet.
He marked the sad occasion by spending the night in sorrowful vigil, honouring his lost family, and wondering in his grief about the young man that Augustin might have grown into, had he lived. Then the very next morning, with those thoughts still aching in his mind, Vincente was called to pass judgement upon a young New Islander who had overnight trespassed on the Chloe.
None other than Dow Amber.
Who, as it happened, had celebrated his birthday the day before. The same day, it must be remembered, of Vincente and Chloe’s wedding, and the same day also of Augustin’s birth, and then his death.
Now, there are those who divine great meaning in this manifold coincidence. They say that fate must have decreed that the life of Augustin be paired with the life of Dow, and that therefore Dow had been sent by fate to replace the son that was stolen from Vincente.
Others dispute this, rightly pointing out that the coincidence is not so exact. After all, despite their shared birthdays, Dow was two years older than Augustin, and was sixteen when he and Vincente met, whereas Augustin, had he lived, would have been only fourteen.
Still, it’s known that Dow was small for his age, and it must be wondered if the way that Vincente treated him that morning – and in the months that followed – was in some manner affected by the memory Dow stirred in Vincente of his own son who was no more.
But of such inscrutable matters of the heart, nothing can be said for certain.