I stared into the darkness, forcing my eyes open despite the rain lashed into them. We had extinguished every light to keep us hidden, but our foe wouldn’t lose us so easily. Behind me, men with axes chopped away the wreckage of a broken mast and its rigging. The ship writhed beneath my feet as the dead weight broke loose and slid into the ocean.
“Watchmen, an extra half-share to the man who calls him before I do.” I had to shout to be heard, but I kept my voice even. They needed a strong voice right now. I heard my promise called out down the length of the ship, for all the watchmen to hear. “Patrol master, how long before our air patrol is due back?”
“They’re five minutes o’erdue, captain!”
Black scales shone in a flash of lightning. I saw the spindly wreckage of the one wing we’d destroyed in the first volley of cannon fire. Immediately I leaned to the pipe that would make me heard on the gun deck. “Portside cannon, two degrees fore, fire as you bear!”
Drop the portside anchor, bring us around hard!” I heard and felt the anchor let go even as the cannon began to go off. In the first flashes, I saw the serpent slithering through the sea, and other cannons took their bearings from that glimpse.
By God, it was big. They said they were as big as a ship of the line sometimes, but this, this was ridiculous. Its roar sundered the air as it dove for us, almost drowning out the sound of the anchor chain drawing taut. The ship slewed around as the ocean dragged us against the chain. Her timbers groaned and whined as the sea tried to rip her in half, and the dragon passed by in the dark, his pounce ruined by the unexpected maneuver. “Loose the anchor! Loose it!”
I was sure she was going to tear herself apart before we could get loose, the wood moaning as if it were in pain. Stroking the wood, I begged her to hold together. “Just a second longer, girl, just a–” The ship bucked as the anchor came loose, the deck rising to meet me, pain flaring from a broken nose. I pawed at the ground for my glasses, desperate. “Where is it! Somebody find it! Somebody get me bearings on that damned dragon!”
I found the frames of my glasses, and put them on, struggling to my feet. They were bent out of shape, one lens cracked, the other gone, and with a twist, I broke off the arm that could no longer reach my left ear. My blood had already seeped into the cracked lens, drawing a red line across my vision. “Watch commander, find me my damn dragon!”
The sky suddenly lit up in unnatural blue. I looked past the bright light, shielding my eyes. That was our patrol. “Patrol master, send up the colors to attack! Helm, bring us around for a broadside from starboard! We’re living to tell the tale, men!” A ragged cheer went up as the words were called out down the length of the ship.
The three dragons left in our patrol lit up the ocean with more flares. Charges rained down until their sacks were empty, exploding all around our prey. I stood quiet and watched. The cannon fire cascaded across the water, devastatingly accurate in the light provided by the flares. The red light from the guns and the blue light from the flares lit up the smoke that laid over the water in eerie, unnatural colors.
How much time had passed since we first felled it from the sky? A minute? Two? It felt like hours. In its death throes, it tried to lash us with its tail. A few men flew across the deck from the impact, but it was too weakened to threaten the ship.
“Captain, you look upset.”
“Grant . . . how many?” He knew exactly what I meant.
“Two dragons from the patrol in the first attack. And their crews. We have twelve–” He looked aside, at a gesture from someone further down the deck. “–fourteen dead on board. Seven hurt. At least nine went over. More than that, we’ll have to count heads. Sir . . . one that size–”
“You don’t have to tell me. Nobody will believe it without proof. Lash the carcass before it sinks. Get all the lamps lit again, and boats out to look for survivors And get the ship’s surgeon to fix my nose. But not before he’s done stabilizing the injured.”
I took off my glasses and scowled at the blood on my hands from my broken nose. With the danger passed, the dull throbbing pain made itself known. “Grant. They did well. Make it known every man is getting an extra half-share, taken out of mine. Take command of the helm and get us into port, and then drinks are on me. When the patrol’s back on the dragon-deck, get them some rum.”
I put my mangled glasses back in place – better than nothing – and surveyed the wreckage of both my ship and my men. They were all rogues, all greedy bastards, but there was no crew I’d ever trusted more. People nodded in passing, and I understood that though I had their respect, trust was a tricky thing for men like these.
I also knew that fair treatment, respect, and a lot of time could elevate the lowest rogue into an honorable man. Grant had been just such a man. I had been just such a man. Under the tarnish on these men’s souls, there was gold.