V.O.C. of the People

Ranks and Regrets

Harken pushed the batwing doors open as he strode into the tavern, anger resonating with every step of his heavy boots. The building was quiet and calm, though not for a lack of patrons; nearly every table was full, and customers spoke softly with their company. The tables near the door took notice of both Harken’s arrival and his especially sour glare, and many of the heads that turned to acknowledge his arrival had since returned their noses downward, as though in anticipation of a fight they wanted no part of.

The carpeted flooring and gentle lighting painted this place as an uncommonly upscale establishment, especially for this part of the Caribbean. The few patrons that weren’t regaled in military coats were instead decked in the jewelry and finery indicative of great wealth. Powdered wigs were uncommon in this far-flung corner of the British Empire—and even more so in such a maritime province as Havana—yet even a few of those could be spotted in this crowd.

The muffled thuds of Harken’s footfalls were joined by the slight jingle of metal buckles and clasps rustling in his coat as he moved, swiftly cutting across the tavern floor to the bar. Halfway to his destination, three others treaded into the tavern—slightly behind him, but close enough to still declare themselves members of his party. Unlike Harken, these three quickly spread out across the floor, each heading in a different direction, and each moving with a different purpose. Scanning faces, windows, tables, and doors, they inspected the establishment with a level of scrutiny normally reserved for thieves and murderers.

Harken approached the barkeep, placing one boot up on the foot rail and leaning against the bar with the cocksure manner of a man who owned the place. “Your dryest vodka, please,” he barked, not bothering to wait for the bartender’s attention.

The barkeep, a slender-yet-tall man with evenly parted hair and a finely waxed mustache, turned gently to face the gruff fellow before him. A derisive smile flashed across his face for the briefest of moments before he adopted a compassionate face. “I’m sorry, sir, but I’m afraid it’s terribly difficult to get vodka out here. Might I interest you in some rum instead? I have some selections that are quite difficult to find back in England.”

Harken let out a frustrated sound somewhere between a growl and the word “idiot,” then slapped a small coin on the bar and slid it forward. Tapping it pointedly with one finger, he locked eyes with the bartender. “I’ve come a long way, and I’ve had a very rough journey. Your dryest vodka, please.”

The bartender made to repeat himself, then paused, as a thought clicked in his brain. “Oh,” he simply said. “Oh, I see,” he continued, as his eyes fell to the coin. He inspected it for only a moment, then stepped away from the bar. “Yes, sir, I do believe that there might be a small bit stashed away. Please, let me show you what I have.” He strode around the bar and out from behind it, over to a door against the back wall. As he walked, he met eyes with each of the men that had followed him in, and nodded to them in turn.

Harken grumbled under his breath, pocketing the coin as he slid over to join the man. “Thank you,” he said as the barkeep pushed the door open, and passed through it. The latch locking shut made him look back for only a moment, but he quickly snapped forward to inspect this new room. Thicker, softer carpet, and a crackling fireplace in the back immediately lent a sense of luxury to this room. Paintings, framed maps, and thick bookshelves decorated the dark wooden walls, and model ships, antique sextants, and ornate compasses covered every flat surface. A faint smell of lavender even tickled Harken’s nose as he struggled to take in all the finery about him.

“Missing home yet, Colour Sergeant?” A voice rose from an overstuffed armchair a few paces to Harken’s side, surprising him. “I can’t imagine you’ve had much in the way of creature comforts these last few years.” The man had piercing blue eyes, which shone out through his bushy eyebrows, and his thick grey whiskers concealed his mouth. Though clearly at least a decade Harken’s senior, he stood tall in his officer’s jacket and ascot, and his epaulets bore the insignia of a Brigadier, which only surprised Harken further.

Harken snapped to a crisp salute, immediately regretting his gruff demeanor and poor grooming. He wasn’t expecting to be greeted by a Brigadier this far out from England, and his slipshod appearance was wholly unbecoming of His Majesty’s Royal Marines, even under current circumstances.

“None of that out here, son, especially not in front of me,” the Brigadier said gently as he stood. “We’re working quietly from here out, and there’s no sense in telling people more than what they need to know.”

Harken allowed himself to relax a bit, though a stiffness lingered in his spine, as penance for his oversight from before. “As you say, sir. You’ll forgive me my poor appearance, I wasn’t expecting to be greeted by anyone more than a fresh-faced lieutenant.”

The Brigadier grunted as he walked over to Harken. “It’s already forgotten, Colour Sergeant, though it does bother me that you were planning on asserting yourself over your superior.” He stepped in close and inspected Harken’s face. “That’s not going to be a problem, is it?”

“No, sir.” Harken responded crisply, trying to keep his eyes unfocused despite the officer in his face.

“Good,” the Brigadier replied, turning on his heel and stepping away. “The Falconers don’t have time to be measuring cocks out here. Which, while we’re on the subject of time,” the Brigadier turned to face him again, this time from halfway across the room. “Would you care to explain why you’re two months late?”

Harken frowned, confused at the question. “I’m sorry, sir, I don’t understand. We made excellent time, my men and I were onboard the Songbird for less than a week before we arrived.”

The Brigadier pursed his lips and made for a desk in the corner. “Colour Sergeant, my commission names me Brigadier Percival Patience. One thing you’ll learn quickly about Brigadier Patience is that I have none.” He grabbed the standing calendar on the desk and turned it to face Harken: June 21, 1718.

Harken felt his stomach flip as Brigadier Patience continued. “You were to report to my office in March. Your missives out of Manila led me to believe this would be the case. Even your letter explaining your departure across the Pacific sounded hopeful; I recall you mentioning a ship with Chaos Sails.” He leaned against the desk, rubbing his knee. “So why don’t you try that answer again?”

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