D M Cornish

Factotum

1

ACROSS THE GRUME

Packet ram- any class of ram that has been radicaled; that is, had part of its lower decks cleared of guns and at least one of its masts unstepped (lowered or removed, making the vessel "short-masted") to allow for the taking on of cargo and/or passengers. Such vessels are usually privately owned, the tariffs for loading and unloading and the fares being their owners' income. Neither fighting vessel nor true cargo, nevertheless what a packet ram loses in carrying capacity it makes up for in firepower and-in the case of a converted frigate-speed.


At a mere four hours, the passage from High Vesting to Brandenbrass was, as water-faring journeys go, rather brief. Though certainly not the busiest sea lane on the vinegar seas, it was nevertheless plied every day-and sometimes into the night too-by all manner of vessels. The most common of these were the packet rams, old naval frigates rescued from breaking and put into civil service, taking people and goods back and forth ceaselessly. Yet for Rossamund, who sat at the tossing prow of the small packet ram Widgeon plowing stoutly through the milky gray-green swell and holding tightly to his newest hat lest it be blown off his crown, the crossing could not be quick enough.

Since their departure from the Imperial Lamplighters' fortress of Winstermill and throughout the entire journey to High Vesting and aboard the Widgeon, the two retired vinegaroons, Fransitart and Craumpalin, had been tight-lipped and unyieldingly alert-as taut as Rossamund had ever known them. Only now, treading across the Grume and many miles distant from the deadly allegations of the Master-of-Clerks and his ambitious surgeon, Grotius Honorius Ludius Swill, did they seem to unbend a little.

Embarked early that morning on what was his very first proper seagoing voyage, Rossamund was aware that at some other time he might have thrilled to the rough passage of the Widgeon; that with each mile he might have savored the bitter sting of the spindrift sprayed by the clash of ram with wave, and his soul soared with the cries of the sooty terns, the mollyhawks and the whimbrel-gulls that teemed in the pale sky above.

Yet he did not.

Two days' journey from that ordeal, Rossamund found himself pinned between sweet relief and restless, anxious dismay. He was free, yes, saved once again by Europa of Naimes, fulgar teratologist and Duchess-in-waiting, but what was he? Though he had escaped the grip of his accusers, he could not escape their accusations turning endlessly in his head. At first indicting him for sedonition, the surgeon, Swill, had stood to claim on evidence that Rossamund was not just a simple sedorner-a monster-lover-but a monster in and of himself. A rossamunderling, or so Swill had called him-"little pink lips," a monster that looks like an everyman. His proofs? The startling effect Rossamund had upon dogs, his monster-slaying strength, even his own name. The man had gone as far as to take some of Rossamund's own blood to mark Fransitart with a proving cruorpunxis. It was then-with a puncting only just begun on the ex-dormitory master's arm-that Europe had intervened. Yet the worst of it was that his old masters, who had known him longest and best, had looked burdened during the inquest, and this was horribly suggestive that the surgeon's wild claims might very well be true.

Can they really have carried such a bizarre secret with them for so long? Why not tell me sooner? Could I really be such a preposterous thing? Rossamund tried not to think of his emerging strength, or of his clear affinity with monsters. He strove to ignore the feeling, but the thoughts persisted. Why else would Craumpalin have me splash myself with Exstinker every day?

What of the calendar, Threnody, the daughter of the Lady Vey and the first girl lighter? Irascible and inscrutable, she had nevertheless become a faithful friend, only to be tricked into betraying him by the shrewd phrasings of Laudibus Pile, the Master-of-Clerks' falseman, and the unavoidable evidence of Rossamund's own peculiarity. They had barely said goodbye before she was hurried off by her high-handed mother. Rossamund looked through masts and rigging toward the low, steadily retreating hills of High Vesting, imagining Threnody in the sequestury of Herbroulesse far beyond and quarreling even now with the Lady Vey.

He let out a long, melancholy sigh.

Of one role he was happy to be certain. He was factotum to Europe-heiress of Naimes, monster-slaying teratologist and once again his savior-now standing by the Widgeon's master at the helm as an honored guest. Rossamund glanced back to find her regarding him impassively, thin strands of her flyaway fringe dancing on the contrary winds blowing up from the south, one hand gripping a thick cable of mast rigging as the teak deck heaved. Clad in a thick cloak of deep red, she had wrapped her mouth and nose in an olive green vent, a silken cloth soaked in neutralizing potives against the sting and acrid stink of the sea. She regarded him briefly, her gaze determined, even hard, though to Rossamund there was something unusually pensive lurking in those hazel depths.

Little had thus far been said between the four of them upon the miscarried inquest at Winstermill and its remarkable conclusion. Though clearly grateful to the fulgar for her intervention, Fransitart and Craumpalin seemed unsure of her still, reluctant to speak until their harbor was sure. Now, aboard a ram-even one reduced for civic service-his two old foundlingery masters had quickly occupied themselves with shipboard tasks. Craumpalin was below, dispensing stomach-easing draughts for passengers suffering the queam-or seasickness; Fransitart was mere yards away by the mainmast, helping the first mate run up the bunting and colored burges that communicated with shore and other vessels and keeping a weather eye out for Rossamund under the watch of his new mistress.

A flight of oystercatchers caught the new factotum's attention, the heavy-billed birds calling to each other kleep, kleep on the wing, dashing across the path of the packet ram in patent haste.

There before the Widgeon was the wide bay of the Brandenmeer and the safer waters of the Branden Roads where long oblong cargoes trod, a great line of them disappearing to the south, waiting to be piloted into harbor, every vessel filled to its load line. Beyond, Rossamund could make out the low pale mass of Brandenbrass itself, the greatest naval and mercantile city of the Soutlands, indeed, of the world-if the boasts of its inhabitants were to be believed. Domes and square towers, peaked tenement roofs and many, many foundry stacks poked high above its already high sea walls. To left and right the coast was tamed by brick and stone, bound fast by generation upon generation of accumulating architecture, a spreading blockish scab grown for miles along the western shore of the Grume. As he watched, a great belching of distant steam rose from some southern district, the venting of some ceaseless foundry or shipyard.

Between the Widgeon and these safer waters lay the threatening line of the arx maria-five squat, near-impregnable sea forts Rossamund well knew from his lessons at the foundlingery: round towers of concrete and granite founded on the very bed of the sea, rising up from the water, each a mile apart from the next. The broad upper works were painted in giant checks of sable and leuc-black and white-and above each flew a great spandarion of the same, the flag of the Sovereign State of Brandenbrass. Pocked with many small slit windows and loopholes, the walls of the upper works sloped inward slightly, their crowns bristling with great-guns, lambasts and tormentums, chimneys, flag posts and weathercocks.

"Lo and lively, pipsqueak!" one salty jack returning from breakfast below barked to Rossamund as he hustled past, his bowlegged steps strangely soft and muffled by dainty black deck-slippers. "Ye better pull yer legs inboard! We'd rather ye not go baiting the hags by offering easy morsels!"

Remarkably, even as the man spoke, some waxen-skinned thing with an arching, steggled back breached gracefully beneath Rossamund's feet and slipped along beside the rostrum of the Widgeon's ram, pushed along by the vessel's rapid progress. With a start Rossamund pulled his absently dangling legs aboard. A grindewhal! He recognized the creature from a plate in his peregrinat, lost in the destruction of Wormstool. The slimy water-beast let out a soft puff from some unseen orifice and disappeared with a wet slap into the opaque waters.

Suddenly, far to the left, a brilliant orange glare shot into the sky. The pulsating light was speeding in a steep arc; a thin and high keening shrilled above the clash of water and hull, wailing up then down the scale. It was a sibaline flare. Another whistling light quickly joined it, fired from the deck of a distant vessel-long yet oddly blocky-struggling out in the roads, burges flying their urgent message on its single mast.

"A distressed bastler!" cried Fransitart, pointing to the low lumbering vessel with its blunt prow. "They're towing some heavy catch: look how the unhandy butterbox lies in the water. Must've enticed a prowling ambusher by accident. It is a brave beastie to come in this close."

"A thalasmache!" came the general cry.

Rossamund's innards gripped. A thalasmache! A battle of nadderer and ram! Gripping a stay and leaning forward to see, he was able to make out a great churning in the swell not far abaft the harried craft. With a great whoosh and spray of milky waters a black thing leaped, throwing itself at the vessel. At such a distant vantage the nature of the nadderer was still clear: blunt calipaced head, great disc-eyes and snapping, armored jaws. Somewhere between delight and horror, Rossamund blinked in astonishment: here was a kraulschwimmen, one of the terrors of the deeps.

"Stays of bone!" came the exclamations of the crew. "What a beauty."

"A right ugly article!"

"Enough to stretch yer eyes!"

Well away to their right, a dark drag-mauler was racing from the north, coming between two arx maria, all bunting flying, signaling that it knew of the bastler's distress, its powerful over-large ram throwing up a broad bow wave as it rushed on. But even with its great speed it was too far away to be of any immediate help to the stricken vessel.

Seeing that he was in a better position to offer more immediate aid, the master of the Widgeon bellowed in fine navy fashion, "All hands to quarters!" adding to his first mate, "Run up the red Jack, Mister Sage; let them know we're coming!" declaring most emphatically with this order of his intention to intervene. He deferred with a nod of a bow to Europe. "If that be all right with ye, great lady?"

"Carry on, Master Right," the heiress of Naimes returned, nodding politely, a slight and amused arch to her spoored brow.

There was no beating of drums to call the crew to action-the Widgeon was no longer a navy-run vessel-and shouts were enough to get the crew's obedience.

"Ladeboard watch, ahead all limbers to the screw!" came the master's cries, echoed by his first mate to the deck and his third down an ox-horn speaking cornet to the decks below. "Gather as she goes! Strike the nasty hag full abeam!"

With a shiver right through its frame and the planks of its teak deck, the great silent muscles of the gastrines in the organ deck below turned harder. The Widgeon gathered speed, and its sharp bow came about several points to steerboard to make directly for the bastler and its monstrous harasser. Once a properly commissioned frigate in naval service, the vessel put on a fair pace, and Rossamund was astonished at the great lathers of vinegar that began to spume from the proud and deadly ram.

"Steerboard watch to quarters!" rang the commands. "Spring the lambasts! Run out the guns!"

"Come on, Rosey me lad," Fransitart called, catching himself expertly as the vessel smashed over a rolling wave. "We'll be better service on the gun deck."

Below in the low width of the gun deck-painted a pleasant duck-egg blue rather than an efficient, gore-hiding red-Rossamund and his old foundlingery master offered their service. Undergunned to better serve her more mundane role, the Widgeon had barely a dozen long twelve-pounders on either broadside. Even then, at only seventy-odd crew, she did not have enough hands to work her gastrines and man her armaments too, and every soul available and willing was called from among the dozen passengers sharing the ride to serve a gun.

As boys ran between them bearing prefashioned cartidges carried in pails from the powder room to their assigned gun crews, the flustered second mate directed Rossamund to join these scurrying lads.

"I'd rather 'e fought with me, if ye don't mind, matey," Fransitart offered with the knowing look of a fellow seafarer.

At first the mate seemed fit to argue, but knowing Fransitart to have once been a gunner-the seniormost gunnery officer aboard proper naval rams-he agreed and promptly gave the ex-dormitory master charge over number three gun, Leaping Ladie scrawled by some eager crew member on its truck.

Fransitart easily took on the role as gun captain, organizing the brave yet clearly ignorant passengers whom need had pressed into service with an eagerness Rossamund had never seen in him before. "Cast loose yer gun!" the old salt cried, the command echoed by other gun captains up and down the deck. "Take out yer tampion-aye, the plug at the front. Now, grasp them handspikes, gents-aye, them long posts there-and lift the breech-aye, the barrel; we need to get it depressed so's to have good shot at the slug…"

Joined by two rather refined-looking gentleman passengers, cheeks flushed with excitement, and three crew members, Rossamund did all that was asked, careful not to put too much weight into his actions and therefore reveal himself as an aberration.

"Shot and wad 'er!"

A cloth cartridge of powder, a heavy iron shot and finally a wad of junk-old cut-up rope-were rammed home.

"Run 'em out! Heave on the rope there, ye happy gents, heave!"

In all it was clumsy work, yet there were enough seasoned seamen among them to get the task done.

"Steady, now," Fransitart warned when Leaping Ladie was loaded, run out and fixed with a couple of turns of the breeching rope about the cascable of the twelve-pounder, "an' wait fer the word to fire."

"Look at 'er!" someone farther down the vessel cried in fright. "The whole sea is alive with the terrors!"

Bending to peer through the open port, Rossamund caught tossing glimpses of the beleaguered fishing vessel coming closer and closer. Smaller creatures were assailing it, leaping from the water, trying to snatch fishermen down into the caustic brey.

"It's pro'bly blighted wee lagimopes," one of Rossamund's own gun crew muttered. "They like ta follow and feed at any sheddin' o' blood."

"Steady…," Fransitart growled with grim authority, immediately calming not only his gun crew but those on either side.