M. Kei, “Out the Silver Mist”
Excerpt from M. Kei’s “Men of Honor,” Book Two of “Pirates of the Narrow Seas.”
Xebec Facing two Corsair Galiots. 1738
Even Captains were Pawns to the Lords of the Sea
His Britannic Majesty’s frigate Ajax was at anchor with her bow northwest and stern southeast. Thorton looked over the larboard rail and peered into the grayness. Was there something darker than the sea out there? There was. Something that was accompanied by small white flashes. For a moment he did not know what it was, then realized it was the florescence of foam swept by oars.
“Mr. Perry, would you be kind enough to inform Captain Horner there is a row galley off the larboard quarter?”
“Aye aye, Lieutenant.” Fatigue forgotten, Perry flew down the steps.
Horner came up unshaven. He was buttoning his waistcoat with his steward running along behind him with his coat and hat in hand. Reaching the quarterdeck, he let his steward help him into his coat as he barked, “Report, Lieutenant.”
Thorton replied. “Masthead spotted an unidentified ship due south, sir. There are some white flashes I think is oar spume.”
Horner pulled out his glass and studied the southern sea. His steward, a short stout man with a florid face, stood by with the captain’s cocked hat in his hands.
“Deck ho, another ship! Two points east the first!”
The sky lightened and the squadron appeared out the silver mist. Five oared vessels approached them. They formed a crescent that encircled the Ajax, trapping her against the Isle of Alborán. The center vessel was a two-masted lateener with her sails furled. She was flanked by lateeners, two to each side. A broad swallow tail pennant hung from the masthead of the central vessel. A commodore, then. A faint ululating cry drifted across the distance. Thorton cocked his head and listened. He thought he knew it, but at this distance he wasn’t certain.
Shakil knew it by heart. He immediately commenced bowing and turning. His clear tenor voice rose in time with the strange sounds drifting across the water. He could recognize the Muslim prayer with only the slightest clue.
Horner turned to look at Shakil, then at Thorton. Thorton explained, “Whenever two or more Muslim men are together in one place, they pray as a congregation. He can hear them, so he’s joining them.”
“I see,” said Horner. He put his spyglass in his pocket as he contemplated the encirclement. “Do you know these vessels, Mr. Thorton?”
“The flagship is the galiot Arrow, sir. She is flanked to the east by the xebec Sea Leopard.” It was too far to read the names, but he knew his own ship like he knew his own face.
“Who is the commanding officer?”
“I don’t know, sir. The Sea Leopard was in the hands of Kasim Rais, but I know that Isam Rais was making every effort to recover her. She was his own ship, purpose-built to meet his every expectation. The Spanish made a prize of her when they captured him. They cut down her antennas, which is why her antennas are so short.”
“Short?” Horner asked in surprise. He put the glass to his eye again. “They appear long to me. They are certainly longer than our yards.”
“A xebec carries a tremendous press of sail compared to her hull, sir. I have seen them in Zokhara and elsewhere. The Sea Leopard is—” Thorton almost said something critical. “Not to the Sallee standard.”
“Captain Kasim, you say, hm?” Horner mused. “What do you know of him?”
“He doesn’t have the rank or status to command a squadron unless something terrible has happened in the Sallee Republic. My guess is that Isam Rais Tangueli in command. You know him as ‘Captain Tangle.’ He owns the Arrow.”
Horner’s long face grew longer as his lips pursed together. “He has quite the reputation.”
“He earned it, sir.”
“Did he?” Horner flicked an inscrutable look at him.
The other officers were coming up from below and gathering in knots along the rail to watch. Except for the recently pressed men who were necessarily ignorant, everyone aboard knew what such an encirclement meant. The two vessels at the ends of the arc were in the shoals of Alborán so they must be galleys. Their big bow guns—thirty-two pounds if they were an ounce—pointed at the Ajax. Four vessels meant a weight of two hundred and eighty-eight pounds of metal could be hurled, not counting the smaller guns that ranged alongside them… All told, four hundred and fifty-six pounds versus the Ajax’s three hundred and forty-eight, not counting the Sea Leopard who was armed as well as the Ajax, plus the Arrow and the other escort. The Ajax had nothing over a twelve-pounder. They were outgunned by a margin of three to one…
“Mr. Thorton.” Horner’s voice was firm. He continued to stare at the Sallee encirclement with his hands clasped behind his back. It was his habitual pose. He looked as he looked every morning. He gave no sign of excitement. The only thing different was the sword strapped to his side. Thorton stepped over to the captain.
“Tell me about Commodore Tangueli. How much of a hotspur is he?”
Thorton looked out at the crescent of rowed warships. At three furlongs they were within range for all their guns to work to good effect. They held the distance with a few dips of their oars to resist leeway. The sun was rising in a glorious pink and yellow dawn, but there was no breeze. Without wind the Ajax was a sitting duck. An armed duck, but a sitting duck all the same. Thorton thought rather sadly of all the hard work they had done repairing her. She seemed in imminent danger of being blown to pieces again. “He never bluffs, sir.”