(1311-11-20) A Word For Cowardice
Summary: Once again Hugo takes Safiye out on a little expedition, to teach her more of the navigational arts — though it’s the vocabulary lesson he should’ve watched out for…
RL Date: 11/13/2019 - 11/20/2019
Related: None really.
safiye hugo 

Harbour &c — Marsilikos


The smart and swift little gig in which the idle young Lt. Lord Hugo de Trevalion has, several times now, for no particular reason but his own enthusiasm for being afloat, taken a coffee-house proprietress out sailing, bobs now just as futilely as its temporary master.

The moon rises higher in the sky, and the stars move subtly in their assigned courses. The advancing November night grows crisp and fragrant with a sharp frost settling over the city’s gardens and its windowpanes. And still Hugo’s alone, and feeling a bit of a tit, and wondering how long he’s supposed to wait— and then, at last, well beyond the time of their agreed rendezvous, a pair of soft-footed female figures approach along the pontoon, both cloaked, the silhouette of the one behind distorted by the shape of the basket she’s carrying.

The last flickering lights from the other ships berthed here in the Royal Navy’s dockyard suffice to pick out the beading upon the high neck of Safiye’s cloak and the shawl of fine teal-green cashmere wrapped about her head on so chilly an evening. Her skin is a shade or two darker than that of most d’Angeline ladies, but pale still in such indifferent and partial illumination: she’s painted as impeccably as she always is at the beginning of their voyages together. It’s Damia behind her, of course, not pleased but resigned, to the burden and the outing both.

“My lord, are we too late?” Safiye inquires anxiously, as soon as she feels herself within earshot of the single figure she can half-see in the gig she knows well. “This evening we had a certain private party who would not leave, who kept me and kept me there…”

Yes. Clearly. He’s been waiting in the cold so long you could cut glass with his nipples, and it’s a surprise that certain other useful appendages haven’t shrivelled completely away. But he’s far too polite to mention it, instead breaking out a welcoming smile and unfolding his arms from around himself to offer both women a hand down and into the small boat.

“Oh no, not at all,” he fibs smoothly, the courteous white lie coming naturally to him, “And it is, as ever, a pleasure to see you. I only hope your company hasn’t left you too tired to enjoy a little excursion tonight.” The smile broadens into something keener as he considers the plans ahead. “How do you feel about mathematics?”

Well, and what was he going to do with any of those bits tonight, anyway? All that’s called for is his hand, to help Safiye down into the boat, and then to take charge of the hamper and sling it along a suitable thwart before Damia descends in turn.

Neither of the women is at all awkward on the water at this point in their acquaintance, and Damia’s boots hardly hit the deck before Safiye is unbuckling the leather straps which secure the hamper’s lid. She pauses, turning toward Hugo’s voice heard through the darkness: “Mathematics,” she repeats slowly, taking care with a word unfamiliar upon her tongue. “I know a little, my lord,” she admits; “I read, many years ago, some of the treatises of—” She hesitates, and then her next words are incomprehensible to anybody ill-acquainted with the mathematical scholars of Khebbel-im-Akkad and their long history of innovation. If one is acquainted with such names and titles only on paper and in translation — then, too, they’ll sound alien.

But then she’s in d’Angeline again, as she unbuckles the last strap. “I brought coffee, my lord, thought after our walk it is not as hot…” It is, at least, contained within copper flasks that are themselves warmly swaddled in lamb’s wool and straw; and her sure hands in the darkness suffice to pour for Hugo, and Damia, and then herself, their cups La Perle’s simplest.

He tries to follow it, he really does. But the combination of unfamiliar language with complicated terms about which he’s only read hazily is too much and he just finds himself nodding along dumbly until, blessed relief, coffee. He takes a moment to get the little craft moving on the water before he accepts his cup, careful not to get the boat heeling over too much in the wind which results in a sedate, quiet exit from the harbour with barely a ripple behind them to shatter the reflection of the moon on the water.

“Your coffee,” he notes, finally pausing to take a sip once he’s happy the boat is on course for wherever he’s going, “is always the highlight of my day. I don’t know what you put in it, but it’s worth giving up this whole life just to stay on land and taste it daily.” Of course it’s an exaggeration, the dimpled smile giving it away. Like he’d give up this waterborne life for anything. “The plan tonight,” he explains, “is to head out to one of the smaller islands, set up the telescope there, exactly 10 miles from my house, as it happens, and take some readings at midnight. There’s a whole method and theory behind it, but I don’t know how interested you are. I can just take the readings and we’ll enjoy a coffee and a sail, if you don’t want to know.”

The women have more decided recourse to their coffee, though some remains still in the depths of the hamper— along with a couple of covered dishes of whatever Safiye thought might be pleasant tonight from a restaurant near La Perle, and which were appended to the bill of her too-lingering party of private guests, not that they’re ever likely to notice.

Sitting next to the hamper Safiye takes the compliment and its partial sincerity in good humour, both for what it is and what it is not: extravagant praise is the Eastern way, and she has long been adept at sifting for the truth in more elaborate offerings than Hugo’s.

“But I would like to know,” she says earnestly, her husky voice coming to him out of the darkness, as his arrived with her. “I think the stars here cannot be so very different from those I used to know, but that can only be seen away from the city’s smoke… And you always explain things so well, my lord. I have learnt much already of the sea, and I would like to hear you explain the skies as well,” she admits. “I think I will learn something, tonight.”

Hugo lets out a little laugh, as comfortable as he ever could be in the company of a pair of older women, but at least he’s at sea so there’s that. “I’m not sure I’m a great teacher, but I can try. Most of what you’ll be told is all fairly basic. There’s the north star,” he notes, nodding upwards casually, without even seeming to look for it. “And that’s always to the north. Well… as long as you can see it. When you’re far enough south you can’t, but that’s a whole other story. If you learn nothing else, learn the north star.”

Safiye’s brown eyes gleam as they flick upwards, following Hugo’s gaze. “I think I know that one,” she admits, “but it is a long while, many years, since I thought of it.”

There follows some discussion of the various ways in which one might find the north star, how the stars move according to the seasons, and even a pointing out of the glowing orange speck that indicates the planet Mars. That one is rather proudly pointed out, if we’re honest, as though Hugo perhaps has a timeshare on the planet or something. The boat moves along at a decent pace, not too hurried, the better to keep its occupants comfortable and dry, and by the time Hugo has introduced some of the lesser known constellations and suggested how they might be used to identify others, the growing speck of island on the horizon is more than a speck and its silhouette against the sky is rather rapidly looming up in front of them.

“Then, of course, there comes the moon,” the young man pronounces, as though this is the finale of his magic trick. “There are ways enough to find which way’s north, and then to work out, based on the time of year, just how far north you are… mind your heads,” he adds, just before the boom swings over and the little boat is running diagonally for the shore. “But the trick is to find a way to work out how far west we are. Look, you’re an awfully intelligent woman, what would you do to work it out? If there’s no land in sight?”

Safiye more than Damia assists with the task of sailing the borrowed gig in the direction Hugo sets— her hands hesitant and slow in the dark, but still practiced enough by now that she requires only the encouragement that, yes, she’s getting it right, she’s helping. And she always has an ear toward Hugo as he waxes lyrical upon his favourite subjects.

“But I don’t think I have ever… I have not been anywhere more to the north than this, more than we are now,” is her first thought, spoken slowly in the quiet upon the water, with Damia seated at a slight distance and the waves lapping up at the gunwale, and no other sound worth troubling about. “To the west, I… I don’t know, my lord,” she admits. “Away from the coast, I…” She draws in a breath; plainly, she’s giving the question serious consideration, even if she can’t reach her way to an answer that suits her. “Of course I know it cannot be known, yet,” and she shakes her cashmere-swathed head. “But I would hope I might find myself in the company of somebody who could make a more intelligent guess than mine.”

“That’s the kindest copout I’ve heard,” Hugo notes with wry amusement, drawing the boat up alongside a natural promontory and hopping ashore with the sort of ease that comes so naturally to a scion of Azza.

“East to west, the sun travels, right?” he notes as he finds a suitable length of root to which he can anchor the little boat’s bowline. “So it stands to reason that the further west I am, the later it takes for the sun to reach me. Noon where you’re from, for example, might be an hour before noon here. If I have two timepieces, one in Ephesium and one in Marsilikos, both calibrated exactly the same, and it’s noon in Ephesium but only eleven o’clock here, then I can calculate the distance between the two cities based on the speed of the sun.”

He pauses then, acutely aware that he’s explaining what might be a difficult concept to grasp for people who haven’t had these basic ideas drummed into them for years by navigation and sailing masters. “Basically, if we’re on land, we can tell how far west we are by calibrating timepieces and looking to see when the sun is highest in the sky. With some fancy maths, anyway, or at least a formula. For every hour difference, you’re nine hundred miles further west.”

Once happy with the security of the boat, he offers the ladies a hand up, only then retracing his steps to claim from the shadowy bows of the boat a sturdy looking case to bring up with him. “When you’re at sea, though, you can’t keep a reliable timepiece. The salt water corrodes, a pendulum won’t swing steadily because of the rocking, and you can’t use a sand clock or water clock because the ship keeps moving so it doesn’t keep good time. Which means shooting the sun isn’t any good to us. This,” he explains firmly, “is what we call the longitude problem. And it keeps a lot of brighter minds than mine worrying at night.”

“Co… pout,” is Safiye’s first inaudible muttering, to herself, accompanied by a resolution to ask Hugo about it once he’s finished whatever else it is he’s saying, which has most of her attention as she follows along in this, the sixth of her languages, but lately the most frequent.

Then she takes a leap into the dark, holding Hugo’s hand, and finds herself wishing she were in boots rather than slippers. She didn’t think of it when she was changing. Hers has never been an out-of-doors lifestyle, after all. She’s still listening, thinking of timepieces as well as boots, as he hands Damia down after her onto the piece of shore he’s chosen. She moves meanwhile a little farther away, testing her footing by the light of the autumn moon. Her voice comes to him huskily out of the darkness. “Once I lived… I think more than eight hundred miles to the east of Constantinopolis,” she offers, naming a distance rather broader than Terre d’Ange; “I am slow with those numbers. Was I truly an hour earlier? That feels less — and more, too.”

“Well…” Hugo allows, rescuing from the boat a lantern to light their way, “technically it’s only 900 miles if you’re at the equator, but let’s not go into that right now. It’s certain close enough where we are, for the theory at least, if not for actual navigation. I mean, if you’re far enough north, it can take the sun an hour to go even a hundred miles.”

He glances to the pair of women, trying to judge just how interested they are, then pauses to squat down on his haunches, setting the lantern down and taking up a stick with which to mark diagrams in the sandy soil of the island. “We believe the world is round, a sphere, like a ball. And we turn on this axis.” A circle is drawn, with a long line down the centre. “The equator is the middle here,” another line, “and then we’ve got the lines of latitude at equal distances. So as long as you’re going north or south, the distance between these lines is always the same. And we know, because the world is a sphere, that we can split it into 24, the same as we can split it the other way, and each 24th of that would be 900 miles. So one minute in degrees north is always 900 miles.”

He then begins adding curved longitudinal lines, tapping with his stick when he’s done. “And we know at the equator, the gap between these lines is always 900 miles, one minute in degrees west, which is an hour for the sun. But further north, an hour for the sun is a smaller distance, make sense?”

How interested are they? Safiye, somewhat: Damia, soon turning her back and striding forward to scout for potential threats amongst the sand and the scrub. Really, a potential threat would be a godsend right now, in this universe of picnic baskets and incomprehensible lines.

“Ye-es,” Safiye agrees slowly, for the diagram at least matches others she has come across before. “But how can— a hundred miles, or nine hundred?” she marvels. “But— yes, the sphere narrows to the north and the south,” she suggests, bending a little with one hand on her knee and the other describing a gesture over the sand scored by Hugo’s stick, “but the sun remains always at the same distance from the equator, does it not? So the light crosses a shorter span of the sphere, in the same time,” she decides tentatively. That seems to be the point most interesting to her at the moment, most mappable to her experience. “… I have read about this,” she decides, “but the words were too different, and too long ago.”

Hugo gives her a bright, dimpled smile. She gets it, and that’s a rarity, but he’s not about to push his luck. The stick is casually tossed away and he takes up the lantern again, as well as his case of instruments. “Before we get to seasons and how they affect everything, yes, exactly that,” he agrees delightedly, scuffing out his diagram with the toe of one boot. “Should I go on, or is your brain fit to burst already?”

Safiye strikes a middle path, approved of by most eastern philosophies. “Perhaps you might go on, my lord,” she suggests, “as we walk…?” For she was invited to look at the stars rather than the sand, and despite the uncertain footing she’s interested in the journey.

Nodding eagerly, he picks his way forward where Damia has already so helpfully cleared the way, moving further up a small bank and away from an ominous cluster of trees that loom up out of the darkness, even with the moonlight to help pick them out with a silvery reflection off branches and what few leaves remain.

“Well, right… so the stars aren’t the only thing in the sky,” Hugo reasons, then points upwards. “And my reasoning is that if we know the track of the moon, we can potentially work out, comparing the moon with the sun, how far west we are. If the moon comes up at six, and is at its peak at twelve, then we can compare that to the date and the almanac, and potentially then we don’t need a timepiece. All we need is a valid, accurate almanac, which is where all these measurements come in.”

He glances about, deciding on a suitable place to stop, then sets his lantern down, and then the case. Flicking open the catches, he creaks open the inlaid lid to reveal, nestled in rich but well worn velvet, a set of brass dividers, an octant, and a telescope and stand with extendable legs. It is this last instrument he takes up, unscrewing butterflies from the end of bolts to release the polished legs and set the whole thing on a tripod at a sensible height.

While Damia looks about for something she can punch or strangle, Safiye follows Hugo closely, her gaze lowered to be sure she keeps her feet within the circle of the lantern’s light, her ears straining to catch each word and her mind to follow the sense of them. She asks one or two reasonably pertinent questions, about the almanac and its projected contents, and is then unashamedly fascinated by the paraphernalia that comes out of his case.

“… How ingenious,” she says softly of the telescope stand, “to make it small enough to be carried easily.” She crouches to have a look at the other instruments still lying in their moulded velvet nests, though she’s respectful enough not to touch anything uninvited. “Are these your own, my lord, or do they come from your ship?” she wonders aloud.

“All mine,” Hugo insists proudly, and judging by the way that everything has its own specific home, moulded into the case, and the quality of the sturdy workmanship, the whole set can’t have been cheap to buy. He stoops a little, fiddles with a knob on the side of the telescope, fusses with the alignment and squints through it once or twice, then steps aside and gestures grandly.

“Here, close one eye so you can see better through it,” he suggests, beaming her a huge smile. “Mars. Right there.”

A complimentary murmur, in Safiye’s low and velvety foreign voice — and then, when she’s invited, she steps into the place where Hugo was just standing and tentatively follows his instructions vis à vis the disposition of warm brown eyes already gleaming with curiosity. One closed, one to the telescope. She takes a moment to focus this instrument of her own. Then she straightens her head suddenly and turns to Hugo beside her. “It really is— the colour, it is almost red!” she marvels. “Will you tell me again, please, how far away it is?” For it was with such inducements that he got her out of the city so late at night, on such an errand.

Rather embarrassed to admit it, Hugo glances to the ground. “Well… I don’t know the exact distance. But it’s a long way. A really long way. If we could take a ship up into the sky and go to Mars it would take hundreds of years.” He folds his hands behind his back, rocking on his heels as he looks back to her. “Which sort of makes it incredible that we can see it, doesn’t it? There’s nothing in the way but sky. If we put Constantinopolis in the sky, 900 miles away, it’d just be a speck, and Mars is waaaay further than that.”

Safiye is already looking through the telescope again, thinking about Mars. “Nothing in the way but sky,” she repeats slowly. Did she just shiver? It must have been the autumn chill, mustn’t it? “… If there had been something in the way we would have fewer heathen gods, and fewer poems too,” she muses. “How good that there is not, and that we can see. I wonder how big it is,” and now she sounds subdued, “if it is so much farther away than the greatest city in the world. I wonder if you will find a way to measure that too, my lord.”

“It’ll happen,” Hugo assures her quietly, peering up into the sky without the aid of the telescope and altogether feeling rather small. “Somebody’ll do it. One of the awfully bright chaps who spend all day and night thinking about these sorts of things.”

He pauses, then wrinkles his nose. “I thought you fellows had all those heathen gods, don’t you? The ones with the hundreds of arms, and the elephant heads, and the funny hats?”

This time Safiye straightens from the telescope in a different kind of surprise. “No,” she says, turning to Hugo and taking over from him the tutelary air; “in the lands of Ephesium we worship the One God, the absolute and the all-knowing, whose name is Allah. It is his grandson whom you call by the name of the Blessed Elua. But I think you know Him, too, no?” she suggests. “Though He is not the— the centre of your worship, as He is outside Terre d’Ange.”

“So not entirely heathen, after all?” Hugo clarifies, touching the telescope with a look of question before he moves forward again to realign it. “Sure, we say our piece to the One God, but he never walked the world, did he? He didn’t really… you know… experience being one of us, like Elua did? Elua and the Companions are much more real.” He pauses, tongue poking out of the corner of his mouth as he slides the telescope’s lens over. “The One God… he’s impressive, like Mars is impressive, but he’s not really tangible. But Elua is more like… I don’t know, the New World? I mean, it’s a thing. An actual thing. You can go there. Still impressive as all hell, but actually… I don’t know how to put it into words. You understand, though?”

Safiye yields her place to Hugo and watches, with her gloved hands clasped in front of her, as he adjusts the telescope. “It is… is it not the definition of the all-knowing God, that He has perfect knowledge of all, even what it means to be one of us— walking the world,” she suggests softly, making use of his concept. “It is curious to me, that some d’Angelines think of divine knowledge as being so much like human knowledge, as if God who knows all and sees every soul must have toes and put His toes in the dirt to understand what dirt is.”

“But if you know everything then you automatically don’t know what’s it like not to know everything,” Hugo replies, wrinkling his nose at the whole philosophical nature of the turn in conversation. “If you’re always dry, how can you know what it’s like to be wet? Because, well, by definition, you’re always dry. Like blind people understanding colour. You’ve got to have experienced it to know it, haven’t you?”

He gestures again to the telescope for her to have a look. “If the One God didn’t need to experience living on the world, he wouldn’t have sent his kin down to do it, would he?” he argues, tilting his head. “He’d have just told them. Yeah, life works like this, Elua, buddy. Some people are dicks. Some people are pretty sound. This is dirt, it feels crunchy under your toes, and by the way these are toes.”

“My lord,” suggests Safiye, amused, “I do think you conceive of knowledge in a human way, as if the mind of God had the same limits and purposes as my mind or yours…” She bows her head toward the telescope, again closing one eye. “That is al-Dabarān,” she pronounces suddenly, giving the Follower its Menekhetan name. One might suppose she had glimpsed an old friend across the marketplace and were hailing him excitedly. “And…” A pause. “The Sisters, no?” Another pause. “What was it you said, please? Some people are… dix?”

Hugo shakes his head, correcting her, “Ah, no, that’s Taurus? It’s made up of a bunch of stars, but it’s the bull, see? That’s the brightest star among them, and then, yeah, the Sisters,” he agrees with a pleased smile. “Through the telescope you can actually see more of them than you can just by looking,” he adds, this with a hint of pride. Well, it’s his telescope, he’s allowed to be proud.

“And sure, some people,” he allows, in answer to that last. “I mean, not everyone. Obviously. And I think most people think they’re good people, but… well, we’re all dicks sometimes, aren’t we?”

The stars divert Safiye the most — but she’s attentive to the rest of Hugo’s talk too. “Taurus,” she repeats, for that rings a bell, and then having enjoyed long conversations lately with an Illyrian princess she connects it with: “Yes, the bull. I understand. But al-Dabarān, that is… that is the eye of the bull, is it not? Bull’s-eye,” she murmurs, having heard that too at an archery exhibition. “But I don’t know that one, my lord,” she goes on, still gazing. “What are we all, sometimes,” she chuckles, conducting in all innocence her quest for new vocabulary.

Suddenly realising that perhaps this isn’t exactly appropriate language for a foreign lady to hear, an esteemed and dignified and somewhat elderly foreign lady who, more to the point, keeps the coffee flowing, Hugo clears his throat. “I just mean that sometimes we can all do things that aren’t very sensible. Or nice. Or useful. You know. We’re all… well… idiots?”

It is, for instance, the act of an idiot to equip such a lady’s inquiring mind with a synonym she’ll regret employing in polite company— which she’s sure to do, now that Hugo has completely failed to give her a true sense of how it will be received and understood.

Safiye agrees with the principle, at least, uttering a thoughtful mmm as she straightens from her survey of the Seven Sisters and yields the telescope once more to its owner. “We all have our moments of foolishness,” she agrees with a sigh, and she turns toward Hugo beside her. “But what was that other word I was going to ask you, the word you said on the boat—?” she wonders aloud. Then, with her usual care, she pronounces: “… Copout?”

Hugo waves off the telescope for now, letting her examine the night sky further of her own accord while he prepares to make the appropriate notes and measurements he needs. “Copout? Did I say you were copping out? I don’t remember why, but… you know when somebody chooses the easy path instead of tackling the actual issue? That’s a copout. It’s taking an extra day or two on your journey because you’re not seaman enough to take the ship through the weather. Copout.”

Safiye’s hand, gloved in fine dark leather stitched with thread-of-gold, curls around the telescope and she plays with adjusting it as she saw Hugo do— yes, she was watching closely. “It is a word for cowardice, then,” she declares after a moment’s thought. And then she chuckles, “I hope I will not have too much cause to use it, my lord.”

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