“Homesick?” a gentle voice wondered, causing the red-soaked paintbrush to fly from Gaoel Fynystere’s steady hand to the newly cleaned deck. The captain of the Eclipse whirled and stared into the serenely amused face of his bowmaster. Richard just Richard smiled. “It’s a nice painting,” the archer commented, gazing critically at the nearly complete representation of the night-shrouded city of Dargon. Only the Regehr, the red north-pointing star which would crown the port city like a glowing ruby, remained uncolored.
“You’re back early,” the captain finally noted, retrieving his paintbrush. “Is something wrong, Richard?”
The bowmaster squatted beside his old friend. “Plenty, but it will keep, Gaoel. It can’t touch us here off the town.”
“Nothing can touch us,” the captain noted smugly, cleaning the brush so that he could complete the painting. Fynystere dipped the brush, smiling wickedly as he thought of the Eclipse’s reputation. Not only could no one touch the Eclipse or her crew, but no one would dare.
“Nothing but our own souls,” Richard replied, sighing. “It is a beautiful painting, Gaoel.”
“It’s a beautiful night.” Fynystere looked fondly at the moon-shadowed city with a thousand flickering eyes, with a mantle of stars such as Alana the Night Goddess, the figurehead of the Eclipse, would wear. Fynystere dabbed the Regehr above Dargon with blood-red color. “Mind telling me why you’re back so early on a beautiful night like this?”
“You know I don’t raise living and dead on shore leave like Donegal and Cedric do.”
“But you generally like Dargon,” the captain pointed out, delicately touching the canvas.
“I do like Dargon,” Richard confirmed. “Are you almost done, Gaoel?”
Fynystere smiled at Richard’s abrupt change in subject; it was typical of the bowmaster. “Aye, just.” Fynystere washed the brush in a cup of seawater. Richard rose and lifted the painting. “She’ll hang beside the Eclipse,” Fynystere decided aloud. He folded the easel and closed the small chest full of paints. “Luen, take the watch!” Fynystere bellowed, and he turned to the archer. “Well, Rich, if you aren’t going to drink on shore, you’ll drink with me.”
Fynystere led the way in the dark to his cabin below. Richard opened the door for his friend, and the captain, after gently setting the paint chest in the corner, lit the hellfire lamp. Richard set the painting against the wall and took the spare seat.
“I’ll pour,” the bowmaster offered, taking a folded paper out of a pouch. “You read.”
Fynystere took the letter eagerly, broke his family’s seal, and scanned the neat handwriting anxiously. He frowned. “Xandra’s still missing,” he announced, anger and frustration in his voice.
“Gaoel,” Richard said gently, pouring the whiskey, “I don’t think you’ll ever see your sister again.”
“If she’s dead, I’ll kill that God-damned Duke!”
“That will only get you killed,” Richard noted, and as usual, his logic was irrefutable. “Here, drink.” Fynystere took the goblet absently. “It always amazes me that you only blame the Duke of Dargon. Your sister did participate, you know.”
“Aye, but Xandra didn’t refuse to acknowledge the child or cut the Duke off from her. Damn that ass! He’s probably the one who scared her out of Dargon in the first place. If it weren’t for Fionn Connall, the Duke might have had her killed.”
“Clifton Dargon? Hardly,” Richard laughed. “I know Dargon has an overblown sense of honor, but it isn’t *that* extreme.”
Fynystere started to grunt, but he forgot the sound in the words of the letter. “My God!” When Richard failed to speak, the captain looked at him concern in his eyes. “Rich, there’s war! Beinison’s attacked us!”
“I know,” Richard said calmly. “I heard at the Rogue and Quiver, and while I was waiting for your letter, I went to Belisandra’s to find out what I could about it. It’s rather interesting.”
“Interesting?” Fynystere scoffed, kicking a chair toward him and sitting firmly in it.
“War is always interesting,” Richard returned mildly.
“Not when you’re in it!”
“I beg to differ,” Richard replied with formality that was only half-mocking. “We war against ships, and I’ve never heard you declare it boring.”
“This isn’t the same.”
“Perhaps,” Richard acknowledged.
Fynystere took the drink Richard had poured him and scowled at the bowmaster. “So, you went to Belisandra’s. Why?”
Richard nodded. “As I suspected, some of the Duke’s men and Connall archers were there.” The bowmaster frowned. “They knew the entire romance. It’s rather complicated, but the end of it is that Beinison has executed the Count of Connall and attacked Pyridain.”
“They killed Fionn Connall?” the captain screeched, thinking of the man who had protected his sister, who had helped Gaoel escape the city after he had clouted Connall’s brother, the Duke.
“No, they killed Luthias Connall,” Richard clarified. “Fionn Connall and his other son–Roisart, I think his name was–were murdered last Melrin.”
“Murdered?” Fynystere let his breath out in a low whistle. “Sweet Randiriel. And now what?”
“Well,” Richard began, taking a deep breath and raising his cup to his mouth, “the Knight Commander is fighting them off in Pyridain, and this duchy’s getting ready for an attack on the Laraka River.”
“The Laraka? What for?”
Richard swallowed his liquor and stared at his captain in disbelief. “Gaoel, come on! They’re after Magnus! The Laraka’s Magnus’ lifeline.”
Fynystere pondered the information. “I suppose you’re right, Rich, but you would know better than I.”
Richard laughed and set the goblet aside. “Would I?”
“You are from Magnus, after all.”
Richard leaned forward suddenly. “What makes you think that?”
This time, Fynystere was laughing. “Wake up, Rich! Every time you open your mouth, you announce that you’re from Magnus! You have one of the most pronounced Magnus accents I’ve ever heard!”
“I don’t have an accent. *You* have an accent.”
The captain wiped his eyes and caught his breath, but when he looked at his bowmaster, he was still smiling. “Enough, Richard: I have the accent, but you are still from Magnus.”
The archer folded his lips. “Yes,” he agreed stiffly.
Fynystere burst into laughter once more. “Calm down, Rich. It’s the only thing I’ve found out about you in thirteen years.” The bowmaster sighed and agreed. “You keep your secrets more close than any man I’ve ever known.” Richard gave his captain a serious look. “Well, what about the war? When do they expect the attack on Shark’s Cove? How is it faring in Pyridain?”
“They expect the Shark’s Cove attack to arrive in Yule, and despite the morale of the House Dargon troops and the Connall archers, it isn’t going well in Pyridain at all.”
“Yule?!” Fynystere slammed the goblet on a small table. “Yule?! Sanar and Stevene, what the hell are they thinking of? Yule? It isn’t that far! And besides, from the south–the seas are fairly calm–Naia, Rich, Melrin at the latest!” The captain exploded to his feet and stared wildly at Richard. “You say it’s bad in Pyridain?” The bowmaster nodded once. “How bad?”
The bowmaster shrugged and looked at his old friend mildly. “I don’t have numbers.”
Fynystere punched a wall. “Damn you by all the gods, Richard! Will we win?”
Richard settled into his chair calmly. “God knows. No one here does.”
Fynystere snatched the discarded, fallen letter, opened it, read it, and again looked at Richard wildly. “That’s it, Richard. I have to do something.”
Richard was silent.
The captain of the Eclipse crossed the room nervously. He came to his trunk and threw it open. “Not much here,” he assessed nervously. “It’s enough.” He shut the chest soundly. “They may not think me much of a captain, but I’ll be better than the incompetent whoreson who thinks that the Beinison navy won’t be here till bloody Yule!” Suddenly, the captain whirled. Still and silent, Richard watched him placidly. “What’s wrong with you? Aren’t you even concerned? Rich, you own half this ship, and I’m leaving!”
Richard smiled slightly. “Why are you leaving, Gaoel?”
“My *country’s* under attack, you jack-ass! Do you think I can leave my people here, my family, to get butchered by Beinisonian curs?”
“Do you think you will help them by leaving the Eclipse?”
“Curse you!” Fynystere screamed. “Of course I will! I’ll join the Royal Navy, and they’ll make me a captain. I won’t let those heathen Beinisonians touch my land.” The captain scowled at his guest. “You’re not even concerned that I’m leaving.”
“Nay, I’m not,” Richard confirmed quietly, “because you’re not going.”
“I tell you–”
“Sit down and listen,” Richard ordered, and without really knowing why, Fynystere obeyed. There were times when one obeyed Richard, rank notwithstanding. “You are not going back to Dargon, Gaoel. You can’t.”
“Why can’t I?”
“We’ll put aside the fact for the moment that Clifton Dargon will have you killed on sight,” Richard began calmly, “but Dargon’s Admiral of the Fleet. Do you think you have a chance of a commission?”
“What? But he’s a Knight!”
“I know,” Richard agreed wryly. “It’s very strange.”
“I wouldn’t go to Dargon.”
“Fine,” Richard concurred for sake of the arguement. “And what would you do on one ship? How could you protect your family? You couldn’t. You’d go where they tell you, do what they tell you. You’re likely to get killed. The Beinisonian Navy is nothing to laugh at, and you know it.”
“Of course I know it,” the captain responded contemptuously. “But I’ll have hellfire–”
The bowmaster’s eyes burned as blue and hot as the hellfire he invented. “You will *not* have hellfire!” Richard thundered, and there was no room for arguement in his voice. “Hellfire is mine and Donegal’s, and by my God and all of his, it will *not leave this ship!*”
Fynystere frowned, greatly displeased. “I can’t just do nothing!”
“I’m not saying that you should do nothing. But the fact remains, Gaoel: you hurt your family and your kingdom more by leaving the Eclipse than by staying with her.”
“What are you suggesting I do then?” the captain asked with angry stiffness.
Richard leaned forward, his face serious. “Gaoel, this is the most powerful ship a-sail. You know that. We have a fine crew, and we have hellfire. We can sink anything Beinison has afloat, and we can afford to leave the Baranurian navy alone.”
“A personal crusade?”
“Why not?” Richard countered, smiling again and leaning back. “If we still go after the merchant ships, the crew will be content.”
“I don’t think the Beinisons aboard will like this, Richard,” the captain muttered, reaching for his drink, but internally, Fynystere was relieved. Despite the fact that Clifton Dargon had deserved that blow to the face in his court for deserting Xandra, Fynystere truly had no wish to deal with him again.
Richard abruptly threw back his blond head and laughed loudly. “Gaoel, are you jesting with me? ‘The Beinisonians aboard won’t like this’? Donegal, whom they enslaved? Albar, whom they branded for worshiping Cephas Stevene instead of Gow and Sanar? Use your sense, man!”
Fynystere thought about and smiled; Richard was, again, right. The captain sat back thoughtfully. “So,” Fynystere said, “we leave the Baranurian navy alone and sink anything belonging to Beinison. It might work; it might help.” He looked at his bowmaster earnestly. “Do you really think it would work?”
“I think it’s the best we can do, you and I.”
Fynystere laughed and poured himself more liquor. “You’re right, Rich. You always are.” The captain quaffed his drink, then looked searchingly at his old friend. “How did you know?”
“Know what?” Richard wondered.
“Know what I’d do, and how to talk me out of it.”
“Well, I know you,” Richard explained uncertainly, “and as for my talking you out of it–well, I’d already had the arguement once tonight.”
“Really? With who?” Fynystere asked, avid curiousity shining from his eyes.
“With myself.” The bowmaster sighed as if he had a world oppressing his soul. “I realized I’d do my family–and my country–more harm than good if I returned.”
“Hmm.” For lack of any better action, Fynystere buried his nose in his cup. As much as he wanted more information, Fynystere didn’t dare break his own rules and question Richard about his past.
“I couldn’t leave the Eclipse anyway,” Richard breathed, settling into the comfortable chair. “It’s like home to me, and I have no other–and no one else.”
“You mentioned family,” Fynystere reminded him.
“A brother,” Richard confirmed, “and if he were in danger–” The bowmaster stopped, clouds in his blue eyes.
“Leave?” The archer gave a short, barking laugh. “I’d take the Eclipse with me. Believe me, Gaoel, I’d need all the help I could get. But as it is, I think he’s well protected.”
“Hmm,” the captain muttered again. “Here, Rich, have another drink.” The captain tossed the skin to Richard, who caught it deftly. “And tell me one more thing about tonight before we drink ourselves senseless, Richard.”
“How did you know that the Dargon House troops and the Connall archers would be at Belisandra’s Tavern?”
“It’s a popular retreat of both companies when they’re in town,” Richard hedged as dexterously as he caught the skin.
“Aye, and how’d you find that out?” the captain demanded, his hazel eyes sparkling. The bowmaster looked away. “Come on, Rich, or by J’mirg–”
“Ask no questions, Gaoel,” Richard threatened.
A dim sun dawned in Fynystere’s clouded consciousness. “You were in Dargon before you joined us.”
“Aye.” Richard inhaled heavily and took another drink. “I trained as an archer in Connall.” The archer suddenly smiled. “Those days are gone with your merchanting, Gaoel. Let’s drink.”