'That', says Hohenlohe to first mate, Lars Yerda, 'is the last fire drill that I think we'll ever be trying. What a farce!'
Yerda nods in agreement. 'With us the farce is'.
The Centennial Sparrow is bearing down on two enemy ships, the latter having picked up Herr Michael Agorn, pretender to the Vulgarian throne. This is the fourth ship to bear the proud name of Centennial Sparrow. The third, a fine sloop, alas had to be abandoned, when, after its tiller broke, it lost a game of chicken with a lighthouse. That the lighthouse was on land, of course, certainly didn't help matters. Though the sloop was a fast vessel with sleek lines, its sailing qualities were compromised somewhat by the colossal rocks embedded in its hull, and its rapid switch, thereafter, into a one-use-only submersible. Surviving the wreck through the expedient of abandoning ship an hour or so before the crash, Hohenlohe and his crew made their way back to Bestwestung, and purchased another vessel. Receiving more money from his Vulgarian sponsors, Hohenlohe was able to recruit a second ship, the Maverick (of which more next time). These new ships have proven to be effective. Making good time, both ships made their way to Rotenburg; embarked the required troops; dropped them off on the coast of Bachscuttel; and since then have been waiting off shore to re-embark the Rotenburg expeditionary force and their expected captive, or to deal with any Bachscuttel interlopers.
'Enemy ships in sight!' comes the shout from above.
'Not unexpected', comments Hohenlohe, 'given that they are right in front of us'. Rousing the crew, he makes his way to the front of the Centennial Sparrow (below).
'Prepare the ship for action!' shouts the captain to his quartermaster Crispin Drei.
'Aaaar, sir. Any particular sort of action?' enquires Drei. 'Should I tell the men to dress for dinner, sir, or might there be some form of dancing?'
'Those are enemy warships, mister Drei, and I hardly think that we shall drive them off with the vigour of our jigs'.
'Aaaar, aye aye sir!', replies Drei. He turns to the crew. 'Mister Skorbutthunde, drop the top sail ... No! No! The top sail! ... The top sail is the sail at the top! Those are your trousers!'
'Why hasn't he got any trousers on?' enquires Hohenlohe to the quartermaster. 'I don't like the cut of his jib'.
'Aaaar, it be his jib that's the problem, sir. I think we be seeing altogether too much of it!'
As his crew scurry across the deck of his ship, like chickens that, just prior to losing their heads, were also forced into sets of roller skates, Hohenlohe can't help feeling that his men seem to lack some of the enthusiasm necessary for the coming fight.
'The men seem strangely mutinous, mister Drei' says Hohenlohe. 'The fire drill was lamentable. An actual drill would have done less damage to the ship. Are they still annoyed by that thing about the grog?'
'Aaaar, it don't play well, sir', replies Drei.
'Look, I've been over this already many times. I ordered Yerda to procure six barrels of grog. I cannot be held responsible if he cannot read properly. I cannot conceive of how he mistook the first 'g' for an 'f'.'
'Bollocksed it up, I did', admits Yerda sheepishly.
'Aaaar, sir, I ain't blaming you - but a mug of amphibians just don't refresh a man like rum. And then there was that thing with the provender, sir'.
'You mean the Battenburg - who doesn't like Battenburg?'
'Aaaar, sir - but salted Battenburg?'
'Yes, but now it will last on a long voyage'.
'Aye sir, it will: because no one will eat it. Even the weevils won't touch it - and they like marmite'.
Hohenlohe nods. 'Well, here's a thing, then: I shall improve the men's morale with a moving pre-battle signal. Drei, take this down ...'
(Above) Action is imminent as the two fleets manoeuvre. (Above, top) The Centennial Sparrow heels to port (or whatever direction right might be when one is floating about on water); behind, the Maverick starts to turn as well. (Above, bottom) Fresh from the Bachscuttel coast sail the two vessels of the Palatinate's navy. In theory, Prince Rupprecht fields the most powerful maritime forces in Mittelheim, thanks to the launch of the twenty gun Princess Caroline. However, as has been noted in a previous account, this ship has yet to receive a trained crew. Instead, Prince Rupprecht must rely on two smaller vessels hastily procured from local merchants: a sloop, the Sausage, and a bark, the Shrimp.
(Below) The sloop Sausage fires all three guns of its mighty broadside. Sadly, however, as with its land-based counterparts, it seems that maritime artillery too is concerned mainly with making smoke and a loud noise, and only secondarily with inflicting physical damage upon the enemy. On the Centennial Sparrow the only impact of the attack is to cure one of Hohenlohe's sailors of his hiccups.
On the Centennial Sparrow. mister Drei reads Hohenlohe's planned signal and nods.
'Aaaar, sir! I be very moved. "Vulgaria Expects That Every Man Will Do" - fine sentiments indeed, sir. I just wonders if the end part might be changed a little'.
Hohenlohe narrows his eyes.
'Aaaar, sir. I just wonders if "His Duty" might be a better ending than "His Trousers Up'.
'Do you not think, Drei, that firmly secured britches are an important health and safety concern,especially in battle?' Hohenlohe then sighs. 'Very well - "Duty" it is - make the necessary changes to the signal. But I shall hold you personally responsible for every trouser-related accident on this ship'.
'Aaaar, sir: but since I be on the subject: I also wonders about the second part'.
'You mean the "Or I Shall Have You All Hanged Liked Dogs" part?' replies the captain.
'Yes, sir' says Drei, 'that part'.
'Well, mister Drei: what do you suggest?'
'Aaaar, sir: something less ... confrontational. Something more ... supportive. Empowering, dare I say it!'
Hohenlohe pauses to consider this. The enemy flagship looms through the smoke.
'Very well' he says finally, and orders set the requisite signal flags.
On the Maverick, the first mate reads out the message slowly ...