Luke Reviews continues its preview of Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero by Dan Abnett, and out from Angry Robot Books. Helpful Links: Reviews of other Dan Abnett works here at Luke Reviews, Angry Robot Books, Parts One, Two, and Three of Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero.
NOTE: TRIUMFF: HER MAJESTY’S HERO CONTAINS SOME LANGUAGE NOT APPROPRIATE FOR YOUNGER READERS.
The Third Chapter
which doth contain a most engaging
discourse upon modern issues
of discovery, and also
a visit to the bath-house
Almost every day, a ship of the Royal Unified Navy leaves one of Britain’s harbours bearing Letters of Passage that grant it the majestic right to discover, explore and, frankly, pillage less fortunate or well-known parts of the globe. On that St Dunstan’s Day alone, Sir Walter de File sailed out of Portsmouth on the Peacespite to see if there was anything of merit between Florida and Argentina, Lord Archimboldo cast off from Southampton aboard the Golden Shot in search of the South Indies, and Thomas Pickering, mariner, sailed his cog the Batty Crease into Toamasina and discovered Madagascar* (and stayed there, which is why Madagascar didn’t appear on charts until 2046. But that really is another story). Letters of Passage, granted by the Queen, were potent tools that gave the seafarer virtual copyright over anything he discovered in the name of the Unity. They were sweeping powers, but necessary. Without such an incentive, it was doubtful anyone would voluntarily spend two or three years in a badly caulked, leaking, unhygienic, overgrown barrel, adrift on the stormiest oceans of the world, braving corsairs, sea-serpents, kraken, bull whales, foreign powers, Scurvy, Rickets, Dutch Wart, hostile native peoples, famine, thirst, drowning, marooning, becalming, casting-away, mutinying, keelhauling, slipping off a topgallant in icy conditions and braining yourself on the taffrail, acting as a human lightning conductor whilst on watch in the crow’s-nest during a freak electrical storm, choking on a ship’s biscuit, scalding to death in the ship’s kettle, being operated on by the surgeon’s mate after grog-rations, smoking in the Orlop next to the Powder Room, going back to check on a lit 32-pounder, happening to mention out loud that you fancied some albatross soup, or, of course, falling off the edge of the world**.
Voyages of Discovery were a dirty, dangerous and complicated business and no mistake***.
The procedures surrounding a victorious return however, were simple. The explorer, bearing his Letters of Passage, was given a respectable length of time to rest, recuperate and get his land-legs back, before he was required to present a report of his discoveries to the Queen. The explorer would be celebrated, paid a considerable sum known as “a Regarde” to acknowledge his achievement, and would probably have the discovered place officially named after him. In return, he would formally hand the Letters of Passage over to the Queen, and, in so doing, bequeath the territory to the Unity.
Only then could further expeditions be arranged. This second wave of voyages would hurtle off along the trail blazed by the original explorer, and, using his notes, maps and gathered intelligence, thoroughly plunder, despoil and exploit the new-found corner of the world. It was the way things were done.
However, until the explorer had made his report and handed back the all-important Letters of Passage, none of that could take place. There was huge money in new discoveries, not to mention honour, prestige, fame, governships and nubile local women, and the Unity’s huge Exploitation Industry therefore waited with eager anticipation for the green light on a new Continent, as did the Church, which was hungrier for fresh sources of Cantriptic power than they cared to admit.
All of this explained the mounting frustration felt at Court over Rupert Triumff. He’d been away. He’d come back, flushed with success, explaining that he had discovered new lands in the Southern Oceans. He’d brought with him many astonishing finds and trinkets, including four hundred and six new species of plant, a lot of non-placental fauna, and a noble, dark-skinned autochthon as an ambassador of the Meridional Climes. Then, months had passed, months in which he showed no signs of making his report, months in which the Letters of Passage idled in his desk under lock and key, long, slow months, which the Unity’s reavers, exploiters and churchmen suffered with increasing impatience, hives, palpitations and stress-induced migraines.
No one had ever taken so long to deliver his report, not even Captain Jacob Tavistock, of the Blue Beagle, who came back from discovering Bermuda with amnesia, and had to have his memory gently nursed back by a team of specially trained Spanish inquisitors.
No one knew what to do about it. There just wasn’t provision in the statutes to deal with a holder of valuable Letters of Passage who was backward in coming forward. They were usually all so anxious to get their hands on their Regarde, buy a big place in Oxenfordshire, and marry a girl who was either a minor Royal or blonde or, best of all, both.
When a full six months had elapsed with no sign of Triumff, the Privy Council began to look into the matter, scouring the many volumes of regulations for a loophole. They consulted the Navy, the Church and the various lords that might know. Solutions there were none. The ball, it appeared, was firmly in Triumff’s court. It was up to him to take the initiative, and up to the rest of the government and other interested parties to lump it.
However, the interlude was now long enough for even a busy Queen to start noticing it, and that, as the Privy Council soon found out, was the one thing they hadn’t thought of. The simple way to get around the legal thicket protecting Triumff was to erase the laws, and the one person who could do that was the Queen.
The only thing that ever weighed heavily on Her Majesty was about half-a-ton of lace, silk, gauze, kapok, sequins and pearls. Nothing else troubled her or slowed her down much, particularly not minor foibles like statutes or civil laws. It was the matter of a moment, and the work of a scratching quill, to ascribe new Letters of Passage to another explorer and expunge the life, property, rights and memory of Rupert Triumff from the land.
Triumff might have been the only person who had actually been expecting as much for a while. He knew it was just a matter of time. He’d stalled for as long as he could, hoping the Court would swallow his ploy, but now he needed something else, some more active course to follow. He needed a new ploy.
That was exactly what he’d been afraid of, because, unfortunately, if there was one thing he really didn’t shine at, it was ploys.
Considerations of the possible size, shape, colour and cost of a potential new ploy, as well as how he might recognise it, filled Triumff’s mind as he paid a shilling to the doorman and entered the warm, damp embrace of the Dolphin Bath House at twenty past four. There was the best part of another hour before they shut for the night, and late-afternoon bathers, seeking a restorative for agued limbs made rheumy by a week of heavy rain, jostled about the place. Their pallid, portly shapes could be glimpsed in the steamy atmosphere, lurking under the green-shadowed colonnades, slapping across the tiled walks, or sliding walrus-like into the pools.
The warm, wet air smelled of soaked stonework, body odour, antiseptic and wrinkled skin.
A meaty attendant with arms like hams and a tight blue bathing cap came over and handed Triumff a clean towel.
“Changing over there,” he said, pointing to the doorways in the shadows of the western colonnade, marked variously “Miladies” and “Migents”, as well as three marked “Sauna”, “Jacuzzi & Cold Plunge” and “’Assail”. The attendant turned his moon-face back to Triumff. “No carousing, no splashing, no bombing and no pissing in ye pool. We close at six.”
“Thank you so much, I know the rules,” Triumff said, glaring. The attendant shook his rubber-capped head at Triumff and wandered away. The cap was so tight, he looked like a bald man with a frost-bitten scalp.
The Migents changing area was vacant, except for hooks full of unlaced doublets, capes, canions and wrinkled hose. Triumff stripped off swiftly, and then, with his towel knotted around his waist, crossed to the frosted window in the west wall. It was high up. He had to climb up on a bench to reach it, and in doing so knocked somebody’s slashed applique pansid slops and heavily bombasted codpiece into the puddles on the floor.
Steam had swelled the window’s frame into wedged plumpness, but three smart blows with the ball of his hand finally knocked it out. Cold, evening air rushed in and stung his flushed face.
“Uptil!” he hissed into the dark of the alley beyond. “Uptil!”
“Give us a hand up, mate,” muttered Uptil from outside. Triumff obliged by heaving the large man up and in through the window. It wasn’t easy, and it took a good few moments. Triumff prickled with agitation as he strained to counterbalance Uptil’s weight, expecting an interruption at any second.
Finally, he was in. Uptil was shrouded in a hooded serge cloak. He produced Triumff’s scabbarded rapier from beneath its folds, asking, “Want this?”
“Right, where am I going to conceal that?”
Uptil winked, and said, “Exactly. That’s why I fished this out of the garbage.”
He held out the Couteau Suisse.
“Okay, that’s actually quite a good idea,” Triumff admitted. “Now, stay out of sight, keep your eyes peeled, and if you hear me whistle, move like the clappers.”
“And,” he added, “if anyone does see you, remember the Ploy.”
Uptil nodded again.
“The Ploy. Right,” he said, making his “lamps on, nobody home” face.
Triumff wandered out into the Bath Hall. No one seemed to spare him a second glance. Already, many of the bathers, sensing the approaching end of the day, were climbing from the pools and heading for the shower stalls. Triumff dropped his towel, wrapped the Couteau Suisse in it, and left it on the edge of the pool. Then he waded down the steps into the warm waters of the main bath. There was a stone seat against the side, beneath the water level, which one could sit on to bask in the relaxing heat. Triumff sat, wiped his face with a palm-scoop of water, and leant back, surveying the place with apparent disinterest.
Minutes passed. Triumff’s hawkish vigil relaxed somewhat as the gently lapping, tepid environment lulled and soothed away his aches and cares. He breathed deeply and shook his head, fighting away the drowsy weight that seemed to have suffused his brain.
When he next opened his eyes, he was alone.
Triumff stiffened with a start. The steady drip of water resounded from somewhere, but nothing else: no voices, no sign of life. He wondered how long he had been asleep. Surely the attendants would have woken him if it had passed closing time? That implied that it was still before six o’clock. Yet where were the attendants?
Triumff tried to whistle, but his lips refused. He was up to his chest in many thousands of gallons of water, and his mouth was dry.
Then he saw the line of bubbles. They were crossing the centre of the pool and heading his way. He caught his breath.
Plip plip plip plip plip, they went.
They were ten yards away, coming straight for him. The steps out of the pool were ten yards to his right. He fancied the idea of clambering out of the pool where he was, using the seat as a leg up, but his limbs felt dull and heavy, and didn’t seem strong enough to support him.
Plip plip plip plip plip, came the line of bubbles.
He became aware of how fast he was breathing.
“This is silly,” he whispered out loud. “I can’t just sit here, waiting to be harried by a line of bubbles.”
Five yards away from him, with a last, ominous plip, the bubbles vanished.
Triumff opened his mouth and then closed it again. He considered submerging to take a look-see. By the time he had decided not to, it was academic anyway.
The swordsman exploded out of the water in front of him like a breaching whale. He was heavily muscled, and dressed in a greased breastplate and leather shorts. His face was hidden by a fierce, full-visored helmet that had been reworked to incorporate a trombone-pipe snorkel and leaded glass eye-holes. A rapier glinted in his hand, and the space between Triumff’s naked body and the razor edge of the sword was diminishing alarmingly.
“Gniumpff!” raspberried the assassin tinnily through his snorkel, “Gie! Gie, goo girty gastard!”
Triumff threw his body to the left, thrashing against the slowness of the water. The stinging blade described a glittering arc, and rebounded loudly off the lip of the pool, against which Triumff had just been leaning.
“Gile get goo!” gurgled the assassin, turning after Triumff.
“Pardon?” yelped Triumff, heading out into mid-pool in a mix of headlong flight and doggy paddle.
“Gile get goo, goo girty gastard! Gore gonna gie gorrigly!”
The assassin’s snorkel tube sucked and farted out the words. Water jetted out of the top of the air-pipe.
“What?” asked Triumff desperately.
The assassin ground to a halt some yards from the fleeing Triumff and waved his arms in frustration.
“Gook! Gook!” he snorted. “Gie…” he tapped himself on the breastplate.
Triumff looked uncertain. “You?”
The assassin nodded eagerly. “Gess! Gie gam gonna gurder…” he pointed to his rapier and then to Triumff “…goo.”
“Gess!” bubbled the assassin, clapping his hands. “Gorrigly,” he added.
* And stayed there too, which is why Madagascar didn’t appear on charts until 2046. But that really is another story.
** No one still believed that the Earth was flat, but there were still many adherents to the notion that it might be unfinished in remoter areas (presumably areas where the hills and valleys still had some scaffolding up, the rivers had yet to be plumbed-in, and cherubic workmen lounged about smoking rollies out of sight of the Foreman). There were also quite a few reluctant ex-flat-Earthers around, who couldn’t quite go the whole hog and conceive of an Earth that was spherical, and therefore favoured the recherché “conical” theory.
*** Lord Marmaduke Latimer, Privy Seal to Elizabeth XVIII, was famous for drawing up his “Compendium Of The Relative Dangerf Of Sum Profeffionef”. “Nautical Exploration” came third, between “Being An Heretic” and “Being Out Of Favoure”, and “Generale Seafaring” came seventh over all, behind “Fightinge In An Foreigne War On The Lofing Side” and “Contractinge Ye Buboef”. Top of the list, of course, was “Being An Potentate Of The Southern Americaf”.