I was addressed by the older man. He and the lady – likely his wife, by their clasped hands – looked on me somewhat strangely, though I wore my maid’s uniform this day, and MacTeigue wore simple sailor’s clothes, canvas pants and a brown homespun shirt. I could not have known them, of course, but still they appeared somewhat familiar.
“Aye,” I said, and extended my hand. “I am Damnation Kane, the rightful owner of that ship, which was stolen from me by those dastardly rogues.”
The man clasped my hand. “Elliott Shluxer.”
Needless to say I was taken aback. Peering closely, I could see some of the vile Shluxer’s features in these two: the mother and father of that raping, thieving, mutinous rogue. Ere I could speak again, the man said, “Elliott Shluxer is our son. Do you know him? Have you seen him? Is he all right?”
I pulled back my hand – which took some force, as he had clasped me tightly, with the strength of a parent’s desperation – and I began galloping through my mind for somewhat to say; for these people were innocent, whatever their despicable son had done, and did not deserve to share in his opprobrium; which, alas, was the entirety of what I could think at this moment. Then I was saved.
“Shluxer! Come to the window, please. Shluxer.” It was the guard in the glass box, and as he spoke, Master Shluxer turned away from me instantly, and he and Goodwife Shluxer hurried to the window. The guard informed them that the younger (viler) Shluxer would come to the barred door, and they could speak to him through it, but they had to stand back out of reach. A guard emerged from the glass box and led the couple to a spot some six feet from the portcullis, and then nodded to the two guards remaining in the box. I beckoned to MacTeigue, and we quickly withdrew to the top of the stairwell, out of sight but still within hearing.
I have not the stomach to record precisely all that this mewling, white-livered cur vomited out to his parents. He cried his innocence, of course, and begged them to believe and succor him. I took his pleas for their credulity as clear sign that he lied with every breath he took and with every venomous syllable which hissed out between his serpent’s lips; an honest man trusts in the truth, and takes his reputation, the knowledge of his character, as his only witness. But clearly his parents doted on him, and took him largely at his word. Not entire: there was some question as to how he had fallen in with – are they my crew, still? Mine enough, aye – with my crew, as he had apparently vanished without trace from his place of employment, and the prevailing opinion had been that he had simply run off, a child trying to escape responsibility, as Shluxer was apparently wont to do, intelligence which did not surprise me at all. And then – what was unknown to me previously – it came out that he had stolen from them! From his own mother and father, from his blood, from his home and theirs! I spat in disgust, hearing this new evidence of Shluxer’s corruption.
But the weak-hearted blackguard cried most piteously, and told his doting, gullible parents that he had been kidnapped and pressed into service, that he had been whipped by the ship’s master for his unwillingness to do their – our – evil bidding MacTeigue had to restrain me at these slanderous accusations, directed entirely at me, though thankfully Shluxer did not name me; in retrospect, I presume he wanted to lay the whole blame at the feet of his own erstwhile companions, rather than cast fault at some apparition the authorities knew not. I mastered myself quickly enough, aided by the disgust I felt at this mongrel’s bootlicking, at his puling, his lies, his cowardly attempts to escape all culpability for his actions; disgust which quickly subsumed my rage. To be insulted by this dog – why, that were no dishonor, at all.
Soon enough their time was finished, and Shluxer’s cries and pleas grew quiet – slowly, as he kept up his carping, like the lowing of a hungry calf mixed with the whimpers of a spoiled lapdog, even as they dragged him away to his cell. His parents called out assurances, saying they would engage a lawyer for him – at which I felt some relief; there was to be a trial, then, with lawyers and perhaps a judge, even a jury? Excellent: perhaps that gave us some time – and calling out something about bail, a term I knew only as it referred to removing water from a leaking boat. But the Shluxer elders said they would “bail him out;” was this metaphor? They would save the sinking ship of his fate? I knew not, and I determined to enquire.
The Shluxers did not look at us nor speak as they hurried past, the woman huddled miserably in her husband’s arms, with tears streaming down her cheeks. Ah, such power, such purity in a mother’s love! Alas, that such goodness should be so wasted. Once they had departed, MacTeigue and I returned to the antechamber and were hailed by the guards in the glass box presently.
“Who do you want to see?” the man asked through his metal wand, which seemed to carry sound like a speaking tube.
“Ian O’Gallows,” I answered promptly. I longed to demand Shluxer’s return, so I could slap his fat cheek and force him to recant his lies; I longed even more profoundly to summon O’Flaherty, so I could avenge myself on he who began my undoing; but I knew I would not be able to lay hands on either rogue, not with guards and portcullis between us. My next greatest desire was for the truth – and to confirm the hope that my good friend had not, in fact, betrayed me.
“Have a seat. We’ll bring him to the door. Did you hear the procedure?”
“Aye – two paces back and no contact.”
He nodded. “It’ll be a minute.”
It was somewhat extraordinary to stand there, MacTeigue at my side and the guard flanking us, and watch as Ian was brought along the corridor beyond the portcullis; I watched his expression turn from confusion – who would be calling for him? – to astonishment when he recognized me, to deep sorrow when he knew that he would now have to face his crimes, whatever they were. He came to the portcullis with head bent, and then slowly raised it and met my gaze.
“Captain,” he said, acknowledging me. Then he waited.
I gave him time to think, knowing that silence and a man’s own conscience are often the only tools needed to elicit a confession. But he neither spoke nor lowered his gaze, though I held his eyes with my own for a good minute or more. Perhaps his conscience did not weigh him down, after all – but he had shown sorrow on the sight of me; what of that?
At last I spoke. “Stand you in mutiny, O’Gallows? Or are you loyal, still?” I spat the last words, as if dubious of that remote possibility, though I had the word of Lynch and Vaughn and MacTeigue that Ian was and had always been true to me.
His eyes flashed fire, and he drew himself up proudly. “I have never wavered in my loyalty, Captain. You, and God above, be my only masters, sir, from now ’til I do rest in Neptune’s cold bosom.” Then he slumped again, and his gaze at last fell to the floor. “But I have failed ye, Captain. Failed ye and failed in my duty to the good ship we both love.”
I looked him over from head to toe. I believed him, in his protestations of loyalty; but I agreed with him in his estimations of his performance. I crossed my arms and said, “I will hear your explanation.”
He took a deep breath, clasped the portcullis with both hands, and then told his tale.
He began to describe their crime, the addlepated assault on what Vaughn’s broadsheets had called a yacht, a pleasure boat on a pleasure cruise with her wealthy owners and their guests; I cut him off, as I had known of this already from those same broadsheets, which described the boarding, murder, robbery, and the stealing away of two innocent lasses, surely bound for Shluxer’s foul lusts, and perhaps some others’ evil attentions, as well. I hurried him on to the capture of my ship, and made clear I wanted to know of her condition, and how he had protected my Grace from those who would do her harm.
He turned first to the guard. “There is a letter in my effects, which was intended for this man, and is so addressed over its seal. Can he have this from thee?”
The guard considered. “I’ll ask.” He knocked on the door to the glass cube, which was opened; he relayed O’Gallows’s request within, and was answered. He nodded and stepped back out, and then addressed me. “You can read it here, but you’ll have to put it back in evidence after you’re done. Do you want it?” I glanced at Ian, who nodded, and then I assented. The guard signaled one within the cube, who stepped out to take his place watching MacTeigue and I, and then the first guard departed down the stairs.
Ian drew in a deep breath. “All right. The letter will tell ye of all I have to say on the mutiny and the attack on the yacht.” He drew himself to attention, and then he reported.
“We were heading east, a few points north of due, clear weather, making five knots with current but little wind. ‘Twas just after dawn, and I had the watch with Desmond on the wheel. I looked to our stern, and I – I saw the ship. No sail, but it bore down on us like a falcon stooping on a rabbit, and as it drew nearer, I could make out the swivel guns on the bow, so I knew who it was, aye.” He looked me in the eye and said, “I did not raise the alarm. I knew they might fire on us, without warning, perhaps, but I did desire that they take the ship, and I sought to give her to them.” He shook his head slowly. “I’ll not apologize for it, sir. I hoped they’d keep the ship whole if we did not fight, and I deemed it better if she be in their hands, than in ours.”
I bit my tongue. I disagreed with him, for I could have taken my ship back with some ease, I thought, if my men still crewed her, if I could remind them of their former loyalty, and put the question to them as to which captain they had flourished under; but now she was out of my reach more surely than before, and only the mercy of the gods kept her afloat, rather than holed and sunk in the pursuit. But I only nodded, and motioned for him to go on.
“But fortune failed me, and O’Flaherty rose then. As he came out of his cabin, he did look astern, and spied our pursuer. Aye, one could hear it, by then, too, and perhaps this is what roused him at that poor moment. He did raise the alarm, and men leapt to stations. A great, booming voice blasted to us across the waves, ordering us to surrender without resistance. But O’Flaherty ordered us to come about and fire the starboard cannons into their bow. Desmond began to spin the wheel, and the men jumped to the shrouds – and then they did open fire on us, aye.”
He shook his head, ran his hand through his hair. “I have never heard nor seen the like. It sounded something like thunder, with storm-waves crashing on rocks below. It sounded like an avalanche of iron, if such a thing could be. And we took fire as if a thousand swivel guns were aimed at us, rather than the one. It chopped up the sails and the shrouds, and we lost the wind. Then it paused and a single rifle shot rang out, and Desmond fell, wounded – a miracle of marksmanship, to hit a man on one moving ship from another with a single aimed shot – and then the thunder roared again, and the wheel just – disappeared, in a hail of splinters.” He showed a gash in his forearm, now partly healed. “I dove to the main deck, but a splinter caught me in the air. ‘Tis a wonder that Desmond survived.” He looked me in the eye again. “It confirmed for me that I had chosen aright. We could not have resisted that assault. Perhaps our cannon could have disabled them, but as that ship was solid steel, I think not – but damn me if they couldn’t ha’ sunk us without breathing hard.
“They came up to our stern, and raked the sails once more with that thunder-gun. They grappled and boarded, their booming voice calling again for our surrender. O’Flaherty and Burke had mustered the crew on the deck and were shouting at us to fight to the death. But just as the men of the steel ship began to leap aboard, I struck.
“I grabbed a hold of the chain on Burke’s wrist and clubbed him with my sword hilt. I swung him, half-stunned, into O’Flaherty, felling them both. Carter spun about with a snarl, but I flung my sword and fouled his aim before he could fire at me; then I was on him, and laid him out with my fists, the slack-brained lout. The men knew not how to respond, to take my side or O’Flaherty’s. I heard a shout and spun about to see Kelly, who had been below guarding the two lasses; he had come above and was just finishing off O’Grady, who had leveled his aim at me and was now off to a pleasant nap with something of a lump on his skull. Then men turned to look at Kelly, then back at me, and by then the steel ship’s crew had all of us in their sights.”
He sighed and dropped his gaze, wrapping his hands around the bars of the portcullis. “‘Twas then, and I’m right sorry to bring ye the news, Captain – aye, and you, too, Owen – but your cousin, Hugh Moran, did draw and aim with a shout. They cut him down. I ha’ ne’er seen the like: every man had a thunder-gun, and ’twas not as if he were shot, but rather like he exploded like a grenado, blood spraying from a hundred wounds in seconds. He do be dead, Captain.”
I nodded. “Were any others hurt?”
“No, sir. The rest of them surrendered, following my lead, and Kelly’s – aye, and Shluxer, that milk-hearted coward, though he was crying and begging for mercy when he threw his weapons down. Our men kept their pride, even in defeat, sir.
“They manacled us and put us below. They towed the Grace back with us, and docked her at their fortress. I think – I hope – she be there still. They ha’ taken Desmond to a surgeon, and put the rest of us in these cells.” He spread his hands. “And here we be.”
I nodded. The guard returned then with his letter, which I read on the spot. I looked Ian over, and then closed my eyes and took as deep a breath as lungs could hold. Then I let it out, and pronounced my judgment.
“Ye have not failed in your duty to the ship. You protected her as well as you could, and I have no doubt she still rides on the water instead of resting below it because of you.” He straightened with every word, as if heavy weight fell from his broad shoulders. But I raised a hand. “But you have failed me, O’Gallows. For you put my ship out of my reach, and though you did not steal her, still you could not bring her back to me, nor remind my men of their loyalty to me and not O’Flaherty.” He hung his head, nodding once as he acknowledged the truth of what I said.
I turned to MacTeigue. “Come, we are done here.” I nodded to the guard. “We are done. Put him back in his cell. He can think on his actions there.” And without looking back at my friend, I strode out.
Of course it was but posturing. I knew it unfair, even absurd, to hold O’Gallows responsible for the way I had lost my ship. If I should not blame those who took her – and aye, I blamed them – the only other fault must be mine own. I kept secrets from my men, and thus lost their trust, and then I let those bastards trick me and steal from me. But absurd or not, I could not but feel a deep, burning anger at all those who lost me my ship – of which Ian was one. Thus, my childish tantrum.
I will get him out, aye. I will get them all out. With a lawyer and this bail of which the Shluxers spoke, if possible. But if not that, then I will use force. Mutinous or not, they are my crew, my countrymen, the only others of my time in this peculiar world, and I will have them back by my side.
Though I do not know how.