Ship of Spies excerpt

Alexander Hope is the hero of THE SEA LORD CHRONICLES, published in 2012.

Alexander Hope is the hero of THE SEA LORD CHRONICLES, published in 2012.

Please enjoy these first three chapters of the sequel to Alexander Hope’s adventures in The Sea Lord Chronicles: Ship of Spies

by David Healey

CHAPTER ONE

Dreaming of gryphons and the sea, Alexander Hope woke up and knew at once that something was wrong. It was hard to tell how long it had been since the sinking of the Napoleonist ships that attacked the Resolution, but he was aware that since then he had drifted in and out of a kind of fever or stupor. The rage he felt while summoning the sea to crush the enemy had wrung out his mind and body like a mop. The last thing he recalled was standing on the quarterdeck of the Resolution, watching the wave crash down.

For the first time in a long while, his mind was clear, in the same way that fog lifts off the sea to reveal the horizon. But this was not why he had awakened. Alexander always had been a light sleeper, and he was sure it had been some noise that roused him.

It was very early morning or perhaps dusk—his sense of time was discombobulated—and long shadows filled the unfamiliar room. Where was he? He was certainly not in his hammock aboard the Resolution, or even in the ship’s surgery. He did not recognize this room with its whitewashed stucco walls, the brass bed in which he lay, or the view of shadowy mountains through the arched window.

His ears strained into the silence, trying to determine what had awakened him. Then he heard it. Footsteps. In the hallway beyond the closed door of his room.

The sound of someone in the hallway might not have been so unusual, but what echoed down into Alexander’s subconscious was that these were stealthy footsteps. Someone was inching his way along the hall toward Alexander’s room, trying desperately not to be heard. The sound made the hair on the back of Alexander’s neck stand on end. He would have liked to move, to get out of the bed, but found that he was frozen with fear.

That’s when the door of his room slowly swung open. Still paralyzed, Alexander could see a man dressed in dark clothes, the lower part of his face masked with black cloth. Something gleamed in the man’s hand, and Alexander realized it was a razor-sharp dagger.

The man edged into his room.

Alexander sat up. “Get out of here!”

He had meant to shout, but his voice was so rusty with disuse that it barely came out louder than a squeak.

The man did not answer, but approached the bed and raised the dagger.

Alexander gasped.

In the next instant another figure came plunging through the door, a tall man armed with a sword. Professor Hobhouse! The assassin lunged at the professor, the double-edged dagger so sharp that the blade made a hissing sound cutting through the air, but Hobhouse knocked it aside with his sword. The assassin spun and leaped toward the bed, the dagger aimed at Alexander.

“No you don’t!” the professor shouted, and with lightning-quick footwork managed to get himself between Alexander and the assassin. His sword flashed again, and the assassin grunted in pain. “Surrender now, while you still can!”

But the assassin slashed at Hobhouse, who only just managed to dodge away in time. Two buttons from his coat, cut free, clattered across the floor.

For all his bookish ways, the professor was deadly with a blade. Hobhouse thrust his sword at the assassin, sinking the blade through his heart. The would-be killer gasped his final breath and collapsed to the floor. Hobhouse kicked the dagger under the bed, then shut the door and began to pile furniture against it.

“Praise Neptune that you’re awake,” Hobhouse said. He was panting from the effort of the fight. “We must be off at once. There are some clothes for you in that chest of drawers there.”

“What’s going on? Where am I? Who was that?” A dozen more questions cluttered Alexander’s mind at once as he recalled his last lucid moments during the fight against the Napoleonist ships. He had seen his friend Lord Parkington shot down. Was he still alive? Had the Resolution survived the battle? Was Captain Amelia all right? What about Roger and Liam? He wasn’t even sure if it was night or day.

“There will be time later to answer your questions,” Professor Hobhouse said. “But right now, we must leave this place. There’s no telling how many assassins were sent.”

Alexander swung his legs to the floor, surprised at how rubbery and weak they felt. Even with fresh adrenalin coursing through his veins, he could barely walk.

“How long have I been in bed?”

“Three weeks, more or less.”

“Three weeks!”

“Long enough for your leg muscles to atrophy somewhat. Here, let me help you.”

Leaning on the professor’s shoulder, Alexander was able to cross to the chest of drawers. He found dark trousers, a white shirt, a plain black coat and boots. He saw with relief that his wristling lay on top of the clothing, its delicately wrought silver glittering in the light. He slipped it on and pulled the sleeve of the coat down over it.

His naval uniform was nowhere to be found. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Where is my uniform?”

“We’ll be traveling as civilians,” Hobhouse said. “The uniform is much too obvious under the circumstances. I thought we would have more time, but we have been found out.”

“Where are we going?”

“I’ll explain later. We’ll be leaving by the window. There may be others in the house at this very moment.”

Hobhouse opened the window and climbed out first. There was a low porch roof immediately below. Alexander followed on his wobbly legs. “I can’t believe I can barely walk,” he muttered.

“Do hurry, Mr. Hope. We haven’t any time to lose.”

Below them was a kind of courtyard paved with stones. It was perhaps a twelve-foot drop to the ground, which Alexander didn’t even want to think about attempting with his weakling’s muscles. But Hobhouse whistled, and out of the gloom came two great winged beasts. Gryphons. They were led by a man wearing the clothes of a Spanish shepherd.

“Here we are!” the shepherd called in a distinctly English voice, much to Alexander’s surprise.

Alexander thought he recognized the voice, but it was like a dim memory.

“Bring them close, Mr. Rigley, and we shall jump down on their backs.”

Rigley! He was one of Resolution’s flyers. But why was he disguised as a shepherd?

One gryphon was much larger than the other. That big one would be Biscuit. The other beast was Gimcrack.

Rigley led the gryphons right beside the house. From the roof to Biscuit’s back it was a drop of roughly six feet—Alexander thought he could manage that even in his weakened state.

From the room they had just vacated, they could hear someone pounding on the door, trying to force it open. Alexander looked back and could see the door pushed open a crack.

“Jump!” Professor Hobhouse shouted.

Alexander hesitated, which earned him a shove that sent him tumbling into space. He landed in a heap on Biscuit’s back and managed to scramble into the stern saddle. Hobhouse was already off the roof and taking the reins of the other gryphon. Rigley, who was a short and agile fellow as befitted a Royal Flyer, leaped into the pilot’s saddle a moment later. Above them, a dark figure appeared in the window they had crawled through, and leveled a pistol at them.

“Huzzah!” cried Rigley, and Biscuit sprang forward on his powerful hind legs. They hurtled into the sky. The rush of speed was exhilarating and dizzying all at once. The gryphon did not fly straight, but at an expert tug of the reins veered to the left. As it turned out, Rigley knew just what we was doing in changing Biscuit’s direction. From the corner of his eye, Alexander saw the flare of a pistol shot from the window and heard the crack of the weapon, but the assassin’s bullet went wide.

Rigley reached back and handed Alexander a pistol. Over the wind he shouted, “Take this, lad, just in case someone comes after us. Can you manage it?”

Alexander nodded, deciding that if it came to it, he would need two hands to fire the weapon.

Beneath them, the dark ground dropped away and overhead stretched the boundless sky. Off to their right was Professor Hobhouse, clinging for dear life to the back of his own gryphon. Hobhouse never had been much for flying, and his tall figure seemed too big for the gryphon, but Gimcrack seemed content to follow Biscuit’s lead and needed little actual piloting.

The house was soon just a tiny dot below them. Satisfied that they were not being pursued by any hostile gryphons, Rigley allowed Biscuit to ease off and stop climbing. They flew now at an almost leisurely pace, in a squadron of two.

Alexander saw that they were flying into a gray dawn rather than twilight, because to the east he could see the sun beginning to outline the mountains in the distance. Wind whistled in his ears. Biscuit’s wings beat rhythmically, and he could smell the gryphon’s strong feline odor—gryphon’s were, after all, close relatives of lions, and when flying smelled very much like a large, perspiring house cat. It was not a pleasant smell, but one got used to it.

Though morning was on its way, it was still dark, and he fumbled around in the gloom until he found the speaking tube.

“Rigley, who were those men back at the house?” he asked. “And why were they trying to kill me?”

“You’ll have to ask Professor Hobhouse that particular question,” Rigley said. He laughed. “And right now, it looks to me as if he’s got his hands full trying to stay on that gryphon, ha, ha.”

“Then can you at least tell me where we’re going?”

“Indeed I can! We’re on our way to see a good friend of yours,” Rigley said. “Although I have to say it’s quite a flight. These are strong beasts, but it’s going to take us at least three days of flying to get there.”

“Who are we going to see?” Alexander’s mind was still too foggy to think straight.

The sound of Rigley’s laughter boomed through the speaking tube. “Let’s just say we don’t want to keep his lordship waiting!”

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CHAPTER 2

The admiral was in such a foul mood that he made a North Sea gale look friendly by comparison.

“Damn your eyes, but you ought to know better than to bring me cold coffee!” he stormed at his secretary in a voice accustomed to being heard on the deck of a Royal Navy ship at sea. He was loud enough to actually rattle the china cup on its saucer. Like any good sailor, Lord Jervis preferred coffee to tea.

“Of course, my lord,” the secretary said, and the man hurried to take away the offending coffee.

Lord Jervis no longer commanded a ship, but from his desk at the Admiralty he now directed much of the Royal Navy fleet. The Admiralty was both a place and a power, an imposing building on the street known as Whitehall in London. In some ways it was the most powerful military headquarters in the world. Hundreds of ships, many thousands of men, all received their orders from the Admiralty. And yet the Admiralty, the city of London, even the Kingdom of England were under the dire threat of invasion by the Emperor Napoleon. Lord Jervis was well aware that a cold cup of coffee was the least of his worries, yet it was the only one he had any real control over.

Take this report, for instance. He was reading the official report of the sea battle that had taken place just three weeks before between HMS Resolution and three Napoleonist ships. Everything about the report seemed off kilter and unbelievable, and yet it had been written by one of the Royal Navy’s most capable and trusted commanders, Captain Bellingham.

As his secretary poured him another cup of coffee, piping hot this time, then slipped out of the room, Lord Jervis started to read the report again from the beginning, just in case he had overlooked something.

In deep fog, Resolution chanced to encounter a struggle between two ships, one being a Napoleonist corvette, the other a smaller apparent merchant vessel flying British colors. Upon going to the vessel’s aid as was our duty and right, it became apparent that this was a trap meant to dupe us, for the vessel struck its friendly colors and ran up the French tricolor. Both vessels then engaged Resolution ….

Here the First Lord of the Admiralty paused. Lord Jervis was a stickler for detail, for keeping to the facts, and yet at the same time he possessed the vivid imagination of any good military commander. In his mind he could easily transport himself to the scene of confusion aboard Resolution as the French colors appeared on the second ship. He had to smile. The French would have thought they had won already, and perhaps with another Royal Navy frigate that would have been the case. But they had not encountered the likes of Captain Bellingham. The man was a tiger, made to bite and claw and fight. He was utterly fearless. If the enemy captains had anticipated an easy victory, they had underestimated their opponent.

He read on:

Several broadsides were exchanged, Resolution standing toe-to-toe against her dual adversaries. It was, not to be too bold, a hot action that if not going in favor of Resolution could not be said to be going against her. As the fog began to clear and gave way to blue skies, however, the crew of Resolution was much distressed to spot the arrival of a third French vessel. This vessel also engaged Resolution. One ship against one would have been equally matched, but the three now against one created a situation of unfavorable odds. Greatly distressed, the crew of Resolution fought boldly, but in good faith let it be said that a favorable outcome was unlikely.

Again, Lord Jervis could well imagine the impossibility of fighting not two but three Napoleonist ships. He had experienced his share of sea battles—he was no political commander, but a veteran officer who had come up through the ranks from ensign to lieutenant to commander to captain and admiral. As a result, Lord Jervis did not suffer fools or reports that hid the truth. But as always, Bellingham had neither embellished nor shied from the truth. Bellingham had known he was in serious trouble, and said so. But the paragraph that followed was outrageous. He read it now for the fourth time.

… Providence and good fortune arrived with the most propitious timing, for a great wave suddenly surged up and swallowed two of the enemy ships. A second wave also appeared as if by chance and destroyed the last French ship. From the arrival by providence of this irregular storm thus Resolution saved from certain destruction or surrender.

Lord Jervis scratched head and sipped his coffee. He did not believe a word of the report. It was complete folderol. Waves did not spring up in blue sky weather to devour three enemy ships and somehow spare one’s own. Yet otherwise the destruction of the French ships was inexplicable. He believed that there had been two tremendous waves, and he believed that they had destroyed the enemy ships—or Resolution would not have survived. He knew that Captain Bellingham was not one to bend the truth. If he wrote that the enemy ships had been destroyed by waves, then so they had. But Bellingham had not offered any real explanation for the waves.

What possible explanation could there be? He set the report aside. Long before Captain Bellingham’s report had reached his desk, rumors had reached his ears. There were stories of how a young ensign aboard the ship had summoned the waves and crushed the French ships. Sailors loved rumors and stories the way other men loved to eat—it was their meat and potatoes against long days of dull duty—so Lord Jervis was willing to wave them off and believe Captain Bellingham’s official report, which made no mention of such an ensign.

And yet, and yet … there was cause for concern. What the rumors indicated was an elemental, a game changer, a wielder of power that had not been seen in two centuries, just at a time when England needed one most as it faced the threat from Napoleon. Not since—

The great doors opened, and his secretary entered. “My lord, there is someone here to see you.”

“Do you have seaweed in your ears? I gave orders not to be disturbed!” Lord Jervis again used that thunderous voice that had once carried above the din of battle on a ship of the line. The secretary seemed to stagger under it and he actually put up an arm the way one did in the face of a raging wind storm.

“Indeed, sir, so you did,” the secretary agreed timidly, his arm still up as if to ward off a blow. “But this is an ensign who recently served aboard HMS Resolution. I believe you are reading that action report now?”

“An ensign?” The admiral was a bit incredulous; he rarely dealt with anyone who ranked lower than post captain.

“Yes, my lord. His name is Thomas Fowler.”

“Fowler? Fowler?” Mentally, he ran through a list of influential families that had sons in the service. The name Fowler did not come to mind. “Very well. Send him in.”

The admiral’s first impression was that Fowler was rather old to be an ensign. He was a boy well into his teenage years, not some trembling snotty. His uniform was the sort that was worn daily, not a dress uniform at all, and while it was reasonably clean—there was a smear at the elbow that looked suspiciously like tar—it showed signs of use and little stitches where it had been repaired. A battered bicorn hat was tucked under his arm. His hair was a bit scraggly as if he might already be going bald or had suffered a bout of scurvy. His long face resembled nothing so much as a hatchet.

“Ensign Fowler at your service, sir.”

“So I have heard.” The admiral did not bother to get up. “You have information for me, Fowler?”

“I have news for you, my lord, about the action that Resolution undertook against three Napoleonist ships.”

“Indeed?” The admiral said. “What could you possibly tell me that was not in Captain Bellingham’s detailed report.”

“Did the report mention waves, sir?”

Briefly, the admiral considered informing the ensign that it was none of his business what had been written in the report. But Jervis was curious. He also felt that he was sailing blind in turbulent waters.

“It did, Mr. Fowler. Two waves, in fact, that arose out of a sudden storm.”

Fowler looked surprised. “What storm? There was no storm, my lord.”

“How else might one explain the sudden appearance of rogue waves large enough to crush three enemy ships, Mr. Fowler? Of course there was a storm, although it may have been a distant one. That is what Captain Bellingham wrote in his report. May I remind you that Bellingham is a most esteemed captain and I trust him immensely. Have you come here to contradict his report?”

Fowler seemed to waver. He looked away from the admiral’s glowering face, as if to take a moment to rally his thoughts. Fowler spoke carefully, “I would never think to contradict Captain Bellingham, sir.”

“Oh? How good to hear that you are a loyal young man. Then why are you here wasting my time?”

“It’s possible that the captain overlooked some detail or did not see everything that took place that day,” Fowler said carefully.

“And you were more observant than Captain Bellingham?”

“Yes, my lord.” Fowler seemed to go forward now with more confidence, the way a man charging into an enemy battalion will run faster, knowing that he will either succeed, or die trying. “Did the captain’s report mention the actions of an Ensign Hope?”

“I will tell you what the captain’s report said when I am ready to do so, Fowler. Where was this Ensign Hope during the battle?”

Fowler barely suppressed a smile. “He was standing on the quarterdeck next to Captain Bellingham.”

“I am sure that Captain Bellingham had his reasons for leaving out the actions of this ensign. Generally, an ensign’s chief concern is to keep his head out of his arse. What, pray tell, did this ensign do that had such a bearing on the battle?”

“He summoned the waves, my lord.”

The admiral managed to spill hot coffee on his desk. “He what?”

“He raised his arms like this—” Fowler lifted his own arms over his head, dropping his hat in the process “—and the sea rose up around us, my lord, in a magnificent column of water. Then Ensign Hope brought down his hands and the sea smashed the enemy ships.”

The admiral was speechless for several moments. He finally thundered: “Has our beloved Royal Navy fallen so low that it now accepts witless boys who tell such outlandish stories? Preposterous!”

“It was Ensign Hope, my lord,” Fowler insisted in a quiet, but determined voice. “He commanded the sea. He is an elemental.”

The admiral rose, preparing to hurl this foolish ensign from his office with the fury of his voice alone. But something nagged at the back of his mind. The admiral stroked his chin. Names and connections were like the coin of the realm. “Ensign Hope, you say? Hope? Where have I heard that name?” The admiral’s eyes grew wide. “The Hero of the Armada!”

“Yes, my lord, you have probably heard of Sir Algernon Hope. He was the one who sank the Spanish Armada in—”

The admiral pounded the desk. “I am well acquainted with the legend of Sir Algernon Hope! There is no need to instruct me in the tale that every schoolboy knows, Mr. Fowler!”

“Then, my lord, you may know that Ensign Hope is his direct descendant.” This time, a sly smile formed on Fowler’s thin lips.

The admiral sank slowly into his chair. “To whom else have you told this?” he demanded.

“No one, my lord.”

“Then we must keep it this way, Mr. Fowler. These are dangerous times for rumors and half truths to give false optimism. The admiralty must proceed cautiously in such cases. I would say that this Ensign Hope bears watching. If you are serving with him aboard Resolution, perhaps you could report periodically to me. Directly to me, I might add.”

“It would be an honor, my lord. Unfortunately, I am no longer assigned to Resolution. Captain Bellingham made a change in the roster that has put me ashore in a most inconvenient way.”

The admiral knew that the “inconvenient” aspect probably had to do with the fact that Ensign Fowler was now on half pay and out of the running for any prize money. Judging by the state of his uniform, it was likely that Fowler sorely needed his Royal Navy pay. Of course, there were families who kept their sons in fine fettle, but Fowler did not appear to be one of them.

“I am sure Captain Bellingham can find room for you on his ship.”

“Perhaps Bellingham won’t want me, sir.”

“Indeed? We shall see about that.” The admiral took pen and paper, and in his own hand, wrote orders. He began to hand Fowler the sealed packet, took stock of the ensign’s uniform again, and wrapped a twenty pound note around it. Quite a considerable sum. “Here. You are now promoted to Senior Ensign. This should settle matters with Captain Bellingham. And perhaps a new coat would set you right in his eyes.”

Fowler took the orders and the money. “Thank you, my lord.”

“Keep me informed, Mr. Fowler. That will be all.”

• • •

Lord Jervis was both excited and troubled after his meeting with the ensign. He wasn’t much concerned with Fowler, who seemed to be nothing more than an opportunist and toady—but one whom the admiral could put to his own uses.

No, it was this Ensign Hope that troubled him.

Lord Jervis had not been exaggerating when he said that every schoolboy knew the legend of how Sir Algernon Hope had destroyed the Spanish Armada and saved England from invasion. He sipped his coffee and reflected on that tale.

In 1588, the King of Spain had sent hundreds of ships and thousands of soldiers to invade England. The Spanish were wily sailors and fierce soldiers who had conquered an empire in the New World. Now, they had set their sights on England, which was outnumbered in every way.

Aboard the Armada were no less than three fire elementals, including the savage Duke of Castille. The English had none, because Henry the Eighth had exiled or put to death any elementals for fear that they might pose a threat to the throne.

Algernon Hope had only been an unknown boy, about the same age as an ensign. While Sir Francis Drake was doing what he could at sea and with Queen Elizabeth herself leading troops on land, this mere boy rowed out in a skiff and summoned the sea to crush the Armada.

The thought that England might have another such hero should have been a relief to Lord Jervis. But he knew all too well how the story of Sir Algernon Hope had ended in intrigue and tragedy. His descendant could tip the balance of power against the Emperor Napoleon, but in what way? If this Ensign Hope really was an elemental, Lord Jervis knew he must tread carefully as a barefoot man in a room filled with scorpions. For  now, it would be enough to keep in eye on Ensign Hope. And Fowler seemed to be just the lad for the job.

• • •

An hour later, the newly promoted Senior Ensign Thomas Fowler made his way through the streets of London. He felt almost giddy with delight. He was returning to sea and to the Resolution! That alone was rich reward.

Of course, the admiral’s money also helped to improve Fowler’s frame of mind. He had stopped in the first tailor’s shop he came to and been measured for a new coat, just as the admiral suggested. In fact, there was money enough for an entirely new uniform, right down to his sea boots. He paid extra so that it would be ready by the morning. He would be returning to HMS Resolution in style.

He patted the pocket that held the admiral’s orders. Old Bellingham might not be entirely glad to have him back, but he wouldn’t have much choice. No matter—once he was back aboard Resolution and at sea, he would have a chance to prove himself. With luck, promotion would await him or perhaps a transfer to one of the new triple-decker ships of the line that were being built to help thwart the threat of invasion by the Napoleonists.

Passing a row of vendors, the delicious smell of grilling meat and fresh-basked pastry made his belly rumble. He had been short on funds, living on stale bread and cheese in his rented room above a dingy storefront. He stopped, and with one of the bright coins in his pocket he bought a meat pie wrapped in newspaper. When he bit through the golden brown crust, hot juices ran down his chin. Delicious! He devoured it on the spot, standing beside the vendor’s cart. And then he bought another.

Eating this pie more slowly, savoring the flavor of it, he nearly tripped over the beggar who suddenly appeared in his path. The beggar was a boy, scarcely more than eight or nine years old. Ragged clothing hung off him, and the skinny lad shivered in the damp air. “Please, sir, I’m starving! I haven’t had a bite to eat—”

“Out of my way!” Fowler shoved the child harder than necessary, so that he went down on his hands and knees on the rough cobblestones. Then Fowler kicked him. “You filthy beggars are ruining this city!”

“Oi!” someone shouted, and Fowler looked up to see a sturdy workman pointing at him angrily. “That’s no way to treat a beggar boy, young master, not rough like that!”

“Who are you to say how I shall treat him?” Fowler pulled back his coat to reveal a pistol and a knife tucked into his belt.

The unarmed workman just shook his head and looked away. No good would come from tangling with a young Navy officer.

Fowler snorted in derision. “That’s what I thought!”

He kicked the beggar boy one more time for good measure, and then made his way toward the waterfront, whistling.

CHAPTER 3

Captain Amelia Blackburn of the Royal Flyer Corps stood at the quarterdeck of HMS Resolution, watching a messenger gryphon make a clumsy landing at the ship’s unfamiliar gryphon port. It was several minutes later that the courier appeared, wearing the sky blue uniform of the Royal Flyer Corps.

He had come to deliver a message to Captain Bellingham, the ship’s commander, but it was Captain Amelia who greeted him by critiquing his flying skills in a loud voice that was audible to all on deck: “That is by far the worst landing I have ever seen!”

“If you say so, ma’am,” the courier said, taken aback by the look of outrage on the flyer captain’s face. He was small and compact as many flyers were, while Amelia was tall and lithe. Although he had never met her, he knew at once who this was, for Captain Amelia Blackburn’s sharp-tongued reputation was well known throughout the fleet.

“I do say so! It seems we are now putting any boy with a skinny arse into a gryphon saddle and calling him a flyer. It’s quite disappointing.”

Captain Bellingham stepped forward and took the message packet. “Thank you, young man. That will be all.”

Gratefully, and with a wary eye on Captain Amelia, the young flyer saluted the ship’s commander, drew himself up to his full height—his head barely reached the brass buttons of Bellingham’s sea coat—then spun smartly on his heels and marched away. Minutes later, he and his gryphon took off again. It was a rather puny gryphon, not much larger than a pony. The beast looked bony rather than sleek, as if the creature had been flown too much and not fed enough, and it tumbled alarmingly toward the water before seeming to remember that it had wings. As rider and gryphon flew away from the Resolution, they were followed by a few shouts from Captain Amelia, who took pains to point out their sloppy execution of a take off.

Then Amelia stood for several long moments, staring at the sky until it was empty. While she loved the sea and open sky, at the same time she sometimes thought there was nothing so bleak as a gray sky above a calm sea on a ship moored in the harbor. A ship should not be tethered, she thought, just as a flyer should not be grounded. Unfortunately, she had not been in the air for several weeks now, not since the battle against the three Napoleonist ships in which her own beloved gryphon, Desdemona, had been killed defending her in hand-to-hand combat when the Resolution had been boarded. The loss was doubly felt. Part of her mourned Desdemona, and the other part mourned the fact that she had been grounded since then.

The problem was that a gryphon was a rare beast and quite expensive. It was not like replacing a horse. No, it was a situation akin to a captain who had lost his ship. One did not simply sign out a new ship because no ship was to be had. Nor did one simply sign for a new gryphon.

There were exceptions to this rule, depending upon one’s circumstances—wealth, to put it baldly—and connections. While she had not done badly for herself between her share of prize money and her officer’s pay, Amelia lacked the sort of money needed to simply acquire a new gryphon rather than wait for the Royal Flyer Corps to get around to assigning one. Her caustic nature had not won her any rich patrons met at London parties.

Really good gryphons assigned by the service were rare—case in point being the bony gryphon with the sloppy landing and takeoff she had just witnessed. Desdemona had been an exception.

“Come, Amelia, join me for coffee in my cabin,” said Bellingham. It was his kindness this last few weeks that had kept her from going mad. “I should like your opinion on a naval matter.”

She followed him below. The captain’s cabin is one of the grandest spaces on a Royal Navy Frigate, which for the most part is a cramped, crowded world, even for an officer. Bellingham’s cabin glowed with whitewash, and a great table stood in the center of the space. A lantern swung above, keeping the gloom at bay and make the space seem cozy. A row of windows in the stern let in yet more light, and offered a view of the other ships anchored at Spithead, biding their time like birds of prey at rest.

“The courier has brought me orders, Amelia.” Bellingham slapped his big hands together happily. Just as Amelia couldn’t wait to get back in the air, Bellingham preferred to be at sea. “We are to sail on tomorrow’s tide.”

“That is wonderful news,” Amelia said hollowly, then forced a smile for Bellingham’s sake.

Bellingham’s serving man poured them coffee and added a great deal of sugar and cream to Bellingham’s cup. Captain Amelia drank hers black.

“We are to have passengers,” he said. From time to time, Royal Navy vessels carried important persons such as diplomats on special missions. “What makes this most unusual is that our passengers are to be Americans.”

Amelia sat up with something like alarm. She had never met an actual American. Most British viewed them the same way they would see poor relations from Liverpool, or the unfortunate cousin who once went to debtor’s prison; maybe he was even suspected of stealing sheep. In other words, one rarely discussed Americans in polite company. “Don’t they have their own ships?”

“One would think so, but orders are orders. The Admiralty can be very mysterious, as you know.”

While she was happy for Bellingham, going to sea would, in all likelihood, delay even further her hopes of receiving a new gryphon. “Is there any word yet from Rigley and Hobhouse?”

Bellingham shook his head. The two had taken young Mr. Hope to shore to recover after the poor boy had been left nearly comatose in the battle against the Napoleonists. Something terrible and awful had happened that day. Bellingham forbade anyone to talk openly of what they had seen but the crew whispered about it in hushed tones. The captain had not heard from Rigley or Hobhouse in weeks, and his messages had gone unanswered.

“I sent the courier back with a message for Lord Parkington, in hopes that if he has made his recovery, that he may join us in time,” the captain said.

“Let us hope he can,” Amelia said vaguely, and sipped her coffee. She had mixed emotions on Parkington. He was a good flyer—she grudgingly admitted he was one of the best—but his status as a wealthy aristocrat made him prickly where taking orders was concerned. A disdain for following orders was a quality she admired in herself, but not in her ensigns. Of course, for someone like Parkington it would be no great thing to find a new gryphon. She’d heard the beasts bred like rabbits at the young earl’s vast country estate.

But Amelia’s pride would not allow her to write to an ensign, a mere boy at that—even if he was the Earl of Parkington—and beg for a gryphon. No, she would be grounded until the Royal Flyer Corps worked its slow way ’round to issuing her a new gryphon. She feared it was a process that could take weeks—or months.

Bellingham seemed to sense what she was thinking. He reached across the table and covered her hand with his own. It was something of a liberty for a man to take with a woman, but it could be seen as a gesture between friends. Yet Bellingham held her hand long enough to indicate that it could mean something more, if she wished it to. “Give it time, Amelia. You know how slowly the service works. One of these days you will be back in the air with a gryphon every bit as good as Desdemona was.”

“If you lost the Resolution, would you think the replacement ship was as good?”

Bellingham scowled—he didn’t like the thought of losing the Resolution and considered that even the mention of it was bad luck. Then his look softened. “I would honor Resolution‘s memory, and then count myself lucky to have a new ship.”

It was Amelia’s turn to smile. “You always do see the grog glass half full, don’t you? Well, the tide turns tomorrow. We shall see.”

• • •

Michel Ney, marshal of France, stood before a roaring fire and contemplated the flames. Some found it strange that he always had a fire going in his headquarters, whether it was winter or summer. The flames licked over several chunks of hardwood and crept up the blackened stones of the fireplace itself. The heat was searing, but Ney did not seem to notice.

He was busy carving an apple with a small, sharp knife. He cut off a slice and chewed, enjoying the snap of the juice in his mouth. He paused to reach out a hand and let the fire dance along his fingers. Ney felt no more warmth that if he had been soaking up the sun.

Marshal Ney was among the handful of generals handpicked and trusted by Napoleon Bonaparte. Ney was seen as the bravest and most loyal of them all. His body was marked with the scars to prove it—a bullet wound here, a sword cut there. He had spilled his share of blood leading the Napoleonists. A rugged, broad-shouldered man, he was considered one of Napoleon’s fiercest generals—a real lion at heart, fighting for the glory of France. Here was a general who led from the front of his troops, not the safety of the rear.

He was also much feared, because Ney commanded fire. Like the Emperor Napoleon himself, he was a fire elemental of the first order. He always liked to have flames nearby because Ney was the master of them.

But Ney also carried a secret. Those who had found it out, Ney had carefully seen eliminated like so much dead wood from a tree. He was as protective of his secret as he was of France.

His thoughts were interrupted by his aide de camp.

“Sir, we have news from London,” the man said. He looked at Ney by the fire and hesitated before approaching any closer. The very air around the field marshal seemed to shimmer and crackle.

“Well?”

“It concerns the engagement in which three corvettes were lost.”

“Mmm,” Ney said. Naval engagements did not much interest him. He believed a man should fight on foot or in the saddle—a saddle on the back of a gryphon or a horse would do equally well. Napoleon had very capable admirals, while Ney preferred to do his fighting on land.

“Our reports indicate something unnatural happened to them.”

That got the field marshal’s attention. “Unnatural?”

“The ships were sunk by a single large wave. Well, two waves, to be exact.”

Ney waited for the man to go on. “Is that significant?”

“It is, sir, if the waves were generated by a mere boy. The English may have another elemental.”

“Another besides Wellington?”

The Duke of Wellington was Ney’s arch rival—and a fire elemental himself. All across the battlefields of Europe, the two men had held each other in check, each one matching the other. But another elemental could change the equation and tip the balance of power.

“Our spies indicate that he is a young officer in the Royal Navy. An ensign.”

“How interesting.” He knew that most ensigns were no more than boys, more like officers in training.

When the field marshal said nothing else, the aide de camp bowed and left the room, glad to be back out in the hallway, where it was cooler. He found that he was soaked through with sweat. Reporting to the field marshal tended to have that effect on a man, regardless of the blazing fire.

Marshal Ney thought about what he had heard. The English had another elemental? Well, he would be needing more news about that. Who was this boy? What was his name? Where could he be found? And then this boy must be extinguished like a spark burning in the wrong place.

Ney turned and tossed the apple into the middle of the vast, high-ceilinged room. The apple never reached the floor. Ney flicked his hand and a tongue of flame shot from the fireplace and seared the fruit into ashes, which fluttered down like inky snowflakes.

Snuffed out, he thought. Before he tips the odds of war in England’s favor.

The ebook for Ship of Spies is now available at amazon.com. For alerts about future releases in this series, please follow @healeyink on Twitter or like http://www.facebook.com/david.healey.books

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