Nick stared at the half-inch of amber rum sloshing around in the bottom of his cup. It was from the supply they had taken on at Blackrock, and to put it frankly, he could not recall having had a more repulsive drink, in a life that was overflowing with candidates from rank taverns and winepits all around the globe. Nick presumed it had been distilled inexpertly by some sun-addled islander hoping to make a quick profit, and it burned on the way down his throat like hot coals. He supposed –- and didn’t have the bravery to test -– that the rum was actually highly flammable.
Drinking it from a fine cup was hardly helping with the flavour, either. The rosewood goblet, with the crest of the Zoohaven Royal Navy picked out in delicate silver, looked far more appropriate for an expertly-aged brandy and conversation about lofty topics than for swilling rotgut that could take the rust off an anchor. But, still, the finery was his to use.
“To think I gave up a life of wealth and women…” he muttered with a smirk, and downed the last of his drink.
The door to his quarters suddenly burst open, and an imposing shadow filled the entrance. Nick turned to look over his shoulder, and smiled warmly at the intruder.
“Ah, First Lieutenant Felix! I was just thinking how much I’d enjoy your presence. Come in and sit down! Have a drink! I promise, there’s only a moderate chance it will kill you…”
“The captain has ordered you to the deck, Redcoat,” came the gruff reply, which was exactly the kind of reply one would expect from huge, cumbersomely muscled panther. With his immaculate blue uniform, officer’s stripes and permanent scowl of disapproval, Felix was not the sort of person to mess with. Nick took great pleasure in irritating him constantly.
“Captain wants to see me? Now that is highly irregular…” Nick pondered, raking a finger through his chin fur. “Unless she wants a verdict on the potability of this embalming fluid we’re calling rum, I can’t think for the life of me why I’d be in demand…”
“Listen, fox,” Felix growled. “The captain ordered me to bring you up on deck, not to put up with your antics. Now get your things and report, or I’ll be happy to flog you myself.” The panther’s eyes gave Nick a once over, wrinkling in disdain at his tattered brown coat and rough accouterments. “Let me remind you, Redcoat, that whatever the captain sees in you is invisible to the rest of us, and as soon as she comes to her senses and recognises you for the lowlife you are, you’ll be hanging from the end of a noose where you belong. Got it?” Felix turned sharply, but paused briefly before he made his leave. “Also, the captain requested again that you report in your proper uniform. However, if I catch sight of you sullying the Crown uniform with your loathsome inadequacy, I’ll throw you overboard myself.” Then he was gone.
Nick grinned after him and got to his feet, putting down his cup. He wasn’t supposed to go by Redcoat anymore, a moniker that he hadn’t earned on account of the colour of his clothes. It didn’t bother him any if they called him by his past name, though. He was not one of them.
He spread the brown long-coat he did wear, examining its battle-scars and patches, and of course the one highly conspicuous hole through its waist. His grin widened as he popped one finger through said hole with a wiggle, and then, donning his black tricorn, he strolled out of his room and up to the deck.
They had been at sea for three months now, and there was a general excitement amongst the crew; the oats from the rumour mill were that they would see and engage the enemy, who were renegades of the Porcine Empire, within the week. Nick paid scant attention to politics, but he had picked up the crucial points from the Captain and from mess deck banter. Recently, the aged King Uthber had been deposed and replaced by a young princeling, Hulfitch of the house Ornstaufen. Prior to that, the Porcine Empire had been no great friend to the kingdom of Zoohaven, and it seemed clear that the royal court thought that new nobility on the throne was an ideal time to change that.
Lucky for them, the pride of the Procine navy, the Tribunal, had been at sea during the coup. Its captain, the brutish and arrogant Lord Bronhelm, had sent word that he would turn against his own for as long as a traitor wore the crown. So, the Zoohaven Royal Navy had promoted one of their most promising officers to captain, granted her a full command, and given her of one of their best ships, the Implacable.
Unbelievably, she had resolutely requested that Nick be admitted to the crew on special conditions, and the admiralty had balked and very nearly demoted her. It made Nick smile to imagine the fur that situation must have ruffled. Threatening to refuse command over the promotion of a fox? Over some lice-bitten pirate fox? In any case, it was how he came to be at sea on an imperial ship, tasked with settling the squabbles of entitled aristocrats who would almost certainly execute him regardless of his performance. Nick shook his head, heading up the stairs.
He emerged from below deck and took in a deep snoutfull of the outside air, thick with salt and rum and the sweat of labour. Even with his eyes closed he could paint a vivid picture of the deck: the repugnant scent of individual, unwashed sailors; oil and cheap soap; the...sharp note of fresh blood? He opened his eyes, and watched as an elk pushed by him, heading below deck to the ship’s surgeon. He was gripping his arm tightly, his fur spattered with red. Presumably it was the result of some mishap, but Nick might have guessed he was responsible from the way the elk scowled at him darkly. Nick, ever the gentlemammal, gave him a gracious bow, doffing his hat. Then he sauntered towards the quarterdeck, looking for his captain.
He found her speaking with one of the midshipmammals, and once she caught sight of him, she waved the uniformed badger away.
“Captain Hopps, Fake Lieutenant Nicholas Pibereus Wilde, reporting for duty.” Nick declared with a sweep of his paw, “Or Pretend Officer, or Master of Rodent-like Trickery. Whatever it is I go by. I can never remember, myself.”
Judith’s arms were folded, her face a mask of disapproval. Even though she was only a few feet tall, with glittering amethyst eyes and dark-blue, silver-trimmed finery, she could cast an imposing presence when needs demanded it. Her willow-thin rapier hung by her side – Nick could attest, from firsthand experience, that she back up her cool demeanour with it. You would be a fool to push Captain Judith Hopps too far, which Nick was.
“Honourary Lieutenant Wilde, you were requested on deck in full uniform,” Judith warned, “and yet here you stand, dressed like a street beggar. An explanation, please.”
“It’s a practical issue, Captain,” Nick insisted. “This coat is lucky, and I couldn’t, in good conscience, present myself to danger without it. Look, there’s evidence of its luck right here. Surely you haven’t forgotten about this one?” He popped his finger through the hole in the waist of his coat again, and wiggled it for emphasis. Judith did not look impressed.
“In common experience,” she said slowly, “things fall out of holes in coats. They are not features to be proud of.”
“Mhm, but you didn’t hire me because of my common experience, did you? It was very much my uncommon experience that prompted that decision. Speaking of which,” he said, gesturing to a desktop mounted to the quarterdeck, where a map had been spread out and secured with heavy pins, “shall we move on to business?”
Judy rolled her eyes, but Nick could feel her anger ebbing; as a tactician, Judy was in her element, and she was never happier than when she was organising a plan of attack.
“Honestly, Nick,” she said, moving towards the map table, “you need to take this seriously. Your freedom hangs by a strand, the very same they’ll hang you with for your past crimes if you aren’t careful. Alright, by our best estimate, the Tribunal is about here.” She indicated to a black marker. “We should see its sails on the horizon within the next few days. This fine weather should hold, and if it does, we’ll be within striking range just as we sail by the Ribbons.” Here she pointed to an archipelago, the largest of whose islands were long, leach-like blobs. “The Tribunal knows that for guns we have the advantage on her, but they would still turn and broadside us; it would be the best chance they’d have. If, however, we can force the engagement here, they will be sailing close to a stretch of reef." Her paw drummed on a patch of blue just off the islands. "They’ll lose the roll of the waves, and it will be that much harder for them to fire on our masts. The sun will be behind us. We’ll have every possible advantage.”
Judith crossed her arms, while Nick ran his finger along his muzzle. “You would need to have the skill to commit the Tribunal to that patch of water, and that’s skill I’d reckon you have. It’s a good plan, Captain.”
“I know that,” Judith said through a small grin. “Now I need you to tell me why it will fail.”
“Bronhelm may be arrogant, but I doubt he’s stupid. He’ll want to attack head on, but he knows you have the edge in firepower. Now, if it were me,” Nick said with an irreverent grin, “I’d sail straight for the Ribbons, lose you amongst the islands, and sail on once night had fallen. But Bronhelm might well be able to put those islands to his own use. He could sail amidst them, using them as cover, forcing you to catch up to him and giving him a chance to put the odds in his favour.”
“Very well,” Judith replied, paw to chin. “He gets to pick the moment of engagement, but we still have him beaten when it comes to cannons–”
Nick shook his head. “Bronhelm isn’t going to fight you in line.”
Judith thought. “He’d aim to board us?”
“There’s a Porcine garrison on the far side of Blackrock,” said Nick. “It’s a good bet that he took on supplies there, just as we did. He could have also taken on extra soldiers, as well. What are the odds, after all, that these hogs on the far side of the ocean give a damp rag about the will of some newly-crowned prince?”
“Let’s presume this is his plan, then,” muttered Judith. “How would we give chase without exposing ourselves to such a danger?”
“Bronhelm will sail here,” said Nick, tapping the strait between the first two slender islands that gave the Ribbons their name. “The sooner he’s out of range of your bow guns, the better. He’d be expecting you to follow him in. So, you sail around to the other side and cut him off.”
Judith frowned. “To do that we’d need to sail around this.” She pointed to the next nearest island, a squat, featureless blob that the cartographer hadn’t even bothered to name. “It’s too wide. By the time we reach the other side, the Tribunal could be anywhere; sailed off, or prepared well enough to come within grappling range. I won’t take that risk.”
Nick’s grin grew even wider, bordering on manic. “There’s no such risk to be taken, because you know something Bronhelm doesn’t; something that isn’t on this map. You know that this island isn’t connected.”
The look on Judith’s face was priceless, and Nick locked it away in his memory to savour later.
“There’s a passage running straight across the middle of here,” he continued, raking a line over the island with his claw. “It’s narrow, but wide enough to sail through, even in a ship this size. We’ll emerge on the other side directly abreast the Tribunal. He’ll have to engage you in a broadside.”
Judith was silent, searching the fox’s face with her piercing violet eyes.
“You’ve sailed amidst these islands before?” she asked.
“When I was smuggling spice out of the Ambrosias,” Nick replied. “Not so long ago that I’m likely to have forgotten.”
“Do you have dens here? Gold buried for lean times? A cutter anchored in some hidden cove?”
Nick laughed; he always found Judith’s speculations about his innate treachery hilarious. “I might well have,” he conceded, “and I suppose I could vanish off the deck while you catch Bronhelm with his trousers down and his curly tail out. Now you weigh the threat of the former against the gains of the latter.”
Judith grinned. “Your plan is tempting, Nick. Provided, of course, your words have currency.”
“And what if they don’t?” came a voice from behind.
Judith turned to find Felix, iron-rod straight and saluting crisply. “What if the pass is too narrow, or pure fantasy, and Bronhelm secures an advantage against us? What if the Implacable flounders in shallow water, and we spend months trying to drag it free? These may be closer to certainties than possibilities.”
“There are risks,” replied Judith, “but taken to avoid greater harm. I can’t afford to come within boarding distance of the Tribunal.”
“Captain, I appreciate that you value Nick’s counsel, but please consider the situation. If the memory of this passage’s depth or location is off. If it has changed over the years. This might be a huge stake to gamble on unknown odds.”
Judith’s face hardened, and Felix averted his eyes and, impossibly, managed to stand even straighter. Second guessing a captain was not a sure strategy for remaining a lieutenant for long. If Nick noticed the change in Judith’s demeanour, it didn’t show; he was enjoying too much the visible strain on Felix of acting civil towards the fox in the Captain’s company.
“We will, on the provision that the Tribunal does sail into the Ribbons, commit ourselves to this course of action on the strength of my informant’s information. If this channel proves fanciful, then Nick will surrender his privileges as a temporary officer, and will be bound, flogged and dispatched to Zoohaven to hang.”
“Ma’am.” Felix’s nod was hard and sharp enough to drive a nail through wood.
“Now go below and see that our gun crews have not become lax in their drills,” Judith finished, and Felix saluted and vanished immediately, as if the order had come at the end of a pistol. “Nick, you’re confined to quarters until we have sight of the Tribunal. For my assurance, and your own safety,” Judith ordered, and Nick offered a poor impersonation of the imperial salute.
“As you please, Captain,” he said, taking the stairs back to the main deck. “I do rather enjoy my accommodations, although I can’t in good conscience recommend the Blackrock rum we’ve taken on. Unless we’re running low on lamp oil, for which it would be perfect...”
“Nick,” Judith said sharply, and he froze mid-step. “That was no idle threat, before. If your value to me has run dry, I will see my prior mercy as a mistake and amend it. Personally. Am I clear?”
Nick flashed his ivory teeth. “As crystal, Ma’am,” he replied, and made his way below.