Chapter 28:

The Witness

The Governor's Queen

Rosamund felt like a school teacher talking to guilty children. The four captains he went through so far took less than half an hour each, cracking during the lightest pressure. He was getting worried that Ekliptik hardly had the chance to learn anything, considering how easy the targets were. Although, these young men and women were about as old as Vice Admiral. This was probably their first real meeting with consequences of their actions. These people were Khamil's friends, at least in theory. They probably went to the Royal Naval Academy together, but lacked his connection and status that would protect them now that they stepped on the wrong toes. He supposed that corroborating a story after whatever nonsense they were up to in school was far easier than corroborating a public accusation against the Governor. There really wasn't much to them. Children, all of them. Unlike with Pronyscher Zaum, he didn't feel like playing the role of a parent. Zaum showed some initiative and spirit, for one, despite the end result being an equally remarkably short-sighted action. Meanwhile these cretins were just following an equally idiotic ringleader, and none of these people would be worth his time had they not been making those accusations. Or possibly tried to kill him. In either case, he didn't get anything new out of them. They all agreed Vice Admiral was behind it, and that slander was all his idea to cover up the incompetence. Unreliable witnesses were about as good as no witnesses, these idiots would get swayed by anyone who gives them a bad look during the trial. Dragging the truth out of them here and now... wasn't good enough.

During their breaks, he and Ekliptik drank the tea that they served. The teenager had to stand in silence while he was speaking to the Captains, so this was a way to ensure they had an appropriate break and weren't getting tired.

"So, what do you think?" he asked.
"Mm... yer good. I can't say I'm impressed by your people, tho," they said. "But y've got this... authority going on. I'm not sure how t' imitate it."
"They had more than a week to consider their actions, and no time to set their stories straight," Rosamund explained. "Divide and conquer. That was why I sent the letter to Nivelir to arrest them immediately, instead of waiting until my return. I couldn't allow them time to organize themselves."
They nodded.
"One more to go," he said. "Will you stay?"
"Aye. It's nice t'seeya work."
"I hope you've learned something. If you get bored, you may leave."
"Nnno. I don't think I will. Unless... do y'want me to?"
"Of course not. You are always welcome. I am merely worried you may be uncomfortable, having to stand in place for this long."
"Very good, then."

They poured themselves more tea.

"Authority also comes from self-confidence, I suppose. And skill, and position. It's all about how you present yourself. But I am not sure how much of this you need me to say. You are a spymaster, I presume you have people under your command?"
"Aye. They listen. But it's different from how you do it. I feel like I just say, and they do."
"In a way, that is even more impressive. At times, I need to assert my authority, and remind the people who they're dealing with. If your men immediately do as they are told, that just shows the amount of respect they have for you." Or, more likely, for Adanita. Although if it was just people following Adanita with Ekliptik as the middleman between them, they would try to undermine or replace them. No, these people respected them for their skill. In a place like Hannau Cove, he was certain that was what mattered the most.

He could admit that he was wrong in his first impression of Ekliptik. Clearly they were competent, and it was downright a miracle in his eyes that they could stand in such serious silence while he worked, without fidgeting. They were a genious. They didn't need coddling, they needed to grow into their role in full. Perhaps not by getting thrown into it with a vague hope that they'll manage to make it through on their own, he still disagreed with Adanita just giving them their position despite all their skill. No, he will need to plan out special education, just for them. And until he does so, they can simply observe.

They kept their expression neutral, although they were red in the face. Adanita said that they were the one who helped her uncover where Lotus took him, and it seemed they chose to dress up as a servant all on their own. It was strange to see such confident decision-making from someone who would get flustered by a compliment. Or, perhaps, it was because they didn't like to get noticed. Perfectly adorable, in either case.

He wondered what was the reason behind their unusual fashion sense. Was it the fact that they were a teenager left nearly completely unsupervised? Aside from the pimples - and he will have Lilac deal with those, not because they were ugly, but because puberty was hell even without them and they didn't need additional suffering - their face was perfectly ordinary. In fact, he found it difficult to focus on. They were neither remarkably handsome nor ugly. They had a face of someone that witnesses would have trouble recalling. He wondered what their hair color was, considering they were hiding it under the bandana. Their vibrant cyan eyes were the only noticeable feature, but they didn't tell him anything new, either. Calm and clear, hiding... what?

His train of thought was interrupted by a knock on the door. Ekliptik immediately got up and went to stand in his usual spot in the corner, the perfect picture of a servant ready to work. They took their teacup with them, hiding it on a small shelf behind them.

"Come in," he called.

The door opened, and the guard walked in with the final Captain. She was a woman in her forties or maybe fifties, who walked with a calm and certain step. She wore her uniform, clean, and her hands were also free. The soft wrinkles around her eyes told him she was normally a much brighter person, although her eyes were now quietly wary. Unlike the twentysomethings he had to manage previously, the stood straight and looked at him directly.

Finally, something new.

"Good afternoon, Captain Arginin," he wished her.
She gave him a careful nod in return. "Lord Governor. It pleases me to see you alive and... well." Her eyes paused briefly on the wound on his face, as well as his arm in a sling.
"Thank you," he replied. He dismissed the guard with a gesture. "Have a seat, Captain."
"Of course. What can I do for you, Lord Governor?"

Was she with him or against him? She was certainly a piece of work in her own right, considering how calm she was. Confidence? In what, his mercy or her connections? Nivelir couldn't find any connections between her and Dorja, did she hide them? When Khamil went on his slanderous tour, she wasn't supporting him with her own testimony. However, she wasn't speaking against him, either. Fear? Condonement?

"I'd like you to tell me precisely how you saw the storm we sailed into two weeks ago," he said.
"I would prefer not to speak without a lawyer," she said. Her lips twitched for a moment, but that smile barely lasted a second. "Or at least... some reassurance."
Well, she had more brains than those idiots, certainly. "Oh?"
"What are your plans, Lord Governor? Will you punish Vice Admiral Khamil? Will you punish his allies, too? Will he be stripped of his rank, or will you organize for all of us to be discharged from the Navy?"
Her voice was calm, but there was bitterness under the surface. He thought carefully before answering. "The matter of punishment will surely be left to the royal envoy, when they arrive. However, I can't imagine my own input being ignored in full." Has she already decided to cooperate? Having a younger man as your senior officer must've been a proper pain for her, especially considering who that man was. Did she always resent him? She was of common birth, too, did he look down on her? Finally, some proper in-fighting unlike that little set of rats.
"I'm afraid your input is not good enough," she said.
"You do have the advantage of not joining in the slander. Don't think I forgot that you were one of those who warned Vice Admiral that the mercury was dropping, either," he gently said. In fact, out of the two ships that signaled the warning, hers continued waving the flags even after Khamil had dismissed her. This was the best thing she could have done in her situation, the only possible next step for her would have been an open mutiny. Or desertion.
She let out a breath. "Why am I arrested, then?"
"The arrest warrant was given out while I was still in Hannau Cove. I'm afraid my knowledge of the situation at the time was heavily limited. I decided to get you all before you could run, and sort you afterwards. I apologize it took me this long to get to you. You can imagine I was preoccupied by other matters," he said dryly.
She seemed to accept this. He got home two nights ago, heavily injured and accompanied by - as she has undoubtedly heard by now - a pile of pirates. The fact he managed to find the time and strength to sit here and speak with her was a minor miracle.
He continued. "I wouldn't mind freeing you immediately, should you prove a valuable witness. We both know this can't have been Vice Admiral's first... gaffe." She snorted with visible disdain. "If you at least tell me where to look, and agree to tell the truth both to me now, and to the royal envoy, then I see no reason why you should suffer any consequences for your superior's actions." Would that be enough?

The woman slowly weighted her options. "But will you get rid of him?" she asked.

Aha. Perfect. "Probably. It depends on what you tell me. I hate to give such promises in advance, but you can be sure I don't want him anywhere near my ports either." And between the two of them, they should have enough sway to ensure he never returns. I am your ally, Captain.

What a shame. This woman already came in planning to admit if he gave her some promises. The other captains were about as sharp and sturdy as an average egg. They hardly needed real charm or skill. Ekliptik will have to learn more some other time.

She let out a sigh. Her shoulders relaxed a bit, was she afraid of him at first? He supposed he may have been, it wasn't as if they had spoken before. If Khamil and his gang was her sample of nobles, it wasn't too surprising. Him just showing a smidge of being a reasonable man seemed to satisfy her.
Apologizing would be improper. Khamil can take responsibility for his own damn actions, thank you very much.

"Well then, to answer your question, my lord." She looked him directly in the eyes again, speaking clearly. "We have sailed out under the command of Vice Admiral Khamil, with new Lord Governor -" she gave him a respectful nod "- on board of his flagship. During the second day of the cruise, we have ran into a group of pirate ships on their way to the Free Pirate Republic. We began our pursuit. The clouds began to form on the horizon, and the mercury was dropping. I sent out continuous warnings which Vice Admiral ignored. I stopped sending signals as we entered the storm, out of concern for my men. I needed all hands on deck, and besides, that idiot could see it now. We were in." A flash of anger on her face was subdued. She took a deep breath before continuing. "It was a minor miracle we managed to get out with no casualties. Some ships took heavy damage due to a rogue wave, but we managed to tow everyone to safety of Hipparcos before the ships drifted apart too far."
A minor miracle was an understatement of the century. Rosamund couldn't suppress a shiver. He will bury that man.
"I apologize for not intervening," he said. "I am truly, deeply sorry."
"Don't make me laugh, Lord Governor. You are not a sailor. You were a guest. I expected nothing from you," she said. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. Reckless behavior is nothing new to Vice Admiral. He and his lackeys barely take any care of their ships. The crews are doing what they can, but you can't organize against an incompetent leader. Or, leaders. Their ships were in poor shape even before the storm. I am honestly surprised that only your rope had snapped. You should do an inspection."
"I will see to it," he promised. "What else?"
"Embezzlement...?" she pondered. "The money for the upkeep of ships had to go somewhere, somebody should look into it. He also doesn't know how to read flag signals, he constantly sets sail when the tides are wrong, and drops the anchor around dangerous waters." Her lips turned into a thin line. "This is more of a gossip... I've never seen him use a navigational tool or read instruments himself, although I don't work on his flagship so I may be wrong," she admitted.

The dam had broken. Khamil can't have been a Vice Admiral for long, he was too young. Perhaps two or three years? He needed to check. In either case, the complaints kept coming, and coming. At first, they were professional failings of the man, and then it continued on to even more hearsay. In the end, the poor woman was so angry, she began to explain in detail all his personal failings too, along with the ways he wronged her, her crew, other crews, and his people in general. She got up and started pacing around, talking and swearing like - well, like a sailor. Clearly she had a lot bottled in, and nobody to rely on. A superior officer shouldn't complain about superiors to her own people, after all. And other captains were as worthless as Khamil.
He could see Ekliptik in the corner of his eye. They held a dagger behind their back as the woman ranted around, clearly worried she would turn to violence. The dagger was hidden from her view, at least. Rosamund wasn't worried about it anyway, he let her talk and listened carefully. He wasn't in danger, not from her.

Incompetence and embezzlement...

He couldn't yet afford to implicate Duchess Almukantarat. It would have been too sudden, too messy, and the evidence would be difficult to gather. It would have been flimsy. Hardly a case. Her position was too high and her friends too important for him to allow any leftover reasonable doubt. He needed the time to deal with her, and he'd only have to do it if she comes after Lilac or his family for the second time. He was willing to give her a chance, both out of caution and respect for an old friend. It hurt too much to think about how she had changed... but it was also completely believable. He dreaded having to face her.

In either case, first he needed to deal with the pressing matter, which was Khamil. He finally stepped in to stop the little monologue Captain Arginin was doing. He was tired, it was time to close the curtains.

"Thank you for your testimony, Captain. You are now free to go, although I will give you a few guards for your personal protection. Or, would you prefer to stay here, to not arouse Vice Admiral's suspicions?"
She was also tired, he could tell. Draining the anger that she accumulated over the short time she was with Khamil left her, well, drained. "I... don't think he is smart enough. But I truly don't want to face him to explain myself at this time. While he is free to go as he pleases, I'd prefer to stay within your manor."
"In that case, my servant here will organize a room for you," he said, dismissing them both.
Ekliptik's knife was hidden away again, and they led the way out.

He leaned back in his seat, tiredly replaying today's events. He now had four prisoners and one witness, and several other threads to pull on. The other captains didn't mention embezzlement, but it wasn't as if he knew to look for it at the time. Perhaps he should have started with Arginin, instead of the others. But considering everything they told him, did he really think the rest of his lackeys was involved? It was entirely possible that Khamil did it all on his own... and it would have been nearly impossible to prove it in that case. Their time was running out. If he had enough of a brain to steal the money then he will probably also have enough of a brain to try and hide it. Scraps of poorly destroyed evidence were... not enough, he decided. And if he orders a search of his manor - that would be too much, with too little evidence to base that move on. He will sic an auditor at him, he decided. Nivelir will find someone acceptable. If her testimony was right, he was certainly guilty of funds mismanagement and general incompetence. And false accusations, which will be proven once Rosamund proves his own innocence.

His gaze wandered to his hand. Just remembering Adanita's touch was enough to warm him up, he smiled, deep in his thoughts. If Teodolit was a summer's day with that crown of flowers, then Adanita was a soft sunset. Her hand was gentle and warm, and her skin was hardened by her work. Not necessarily the blades, she was a sailor, after all. Not that he doubted her constant training. Her skills could not have come overnight, after all.
He wondered why it was so easy to trust her words. The four of them - Nivelir, Lilac, and Dorotea - were all friends as children. He and Nivelir were older than Lilac and Dorja, so the two of them would often go and play alone once he started to work with his father. Then, when she ascended to her position, she proposed to Lilac. He turned her down immediately, and she never brought it up again. Perhaps Rosamund always knew that something was off about that girl, subconsciously at least. He always found her a dear, intelligent child. How was it so easy to believe she could commit such monstrosities?

Adanita's fear of her was real, he supposed. There was no way to fake her expression and her voice when she spoke about what had happened to her. He simply... believed her words. He wondered when he became this trusting of people. He also wondered when he got so used to her being nearby. He wasn't even fazed that she had broken into his room while he was at his most vulnerable. In fact, he was glad she did... although he will have to warn her about it in the future. If someone had seen her, it would have quickly turned ugly. You can visit whenever you like, just don't alert the people guarding me - he couldn't really imagine saying that. No, he will have to warn Lilac instead. She was simply always welcome to see him, just like he and Nivelir, and neither of them had the authority to bar her entrance in the future. Breaking in should be unnecessary. Although, she was a pirate. It was entirely possible she will come through the balcony again. Good news was that both his bedroom and his office had one, so at least she had an invitation of sorts.

Humming a nonsensical tune to himself, he got up and left to find his brother.