Captain Cari Dix stood over the long dining table in Captain Crandall Wheldon’s estate, looking at the expanse of charts spread out across it. She stabbed a finger down on a small town west along the coast from Tandon. “Can’t we land here?”
Crandall shook his head. “No. The Duke’s forces are spreading out across the western reaches of the Empire. The imperial naval forces under his control are blockading each of the ports as they reach them and he has situated land forces along most of the approaches to Tandon.”
“Well, we’ve got to find some place to land. We can’t stay here forever.”
Cari’s eyes scanned the map in front of her and then looked at the other charts showing different portions of the western coastline of the Empire Fantasma. There had to be somewhere she could get ashore safely and begin transporting Crown Princess Jaycee to her great-grandmother, the Empress.
“What if we tried to force our way through and get into Tandon’s harbor before any naval ships were able to catch us?” Helen Doolan, Cari’s first mate, said.
“That’s not something I’d want to try,” Crandall said. “There are more naval ships out there now than you want to run past. Even in my fast schooner, they’d be able to corner us at some point, and we won’t be able to fight our way free. That boat is equipped to run fast, not fight a pitched battle at sea.”
Cari stood looking down at the map, her hands on her hips and shook her head. “We can’t stay here. We can’t get to the mainland.” Cari ground her teeth in frustration. “Is there any way we can avoid the vote in the Council of Captains tomorrow, Crandall?”
The old Raider captain shook his head. “I have some sway with the majority of the captains in port, but even that isn’t enough to get past their need to trade goods somewhere. You made it so we didn’t have to be pirates anymore. Most of the captains appreciate that, but that means we have to be able to become merchants again. That’s hard to do when all the nearest ports are sealed against you.”
“It’s like they know you and the princess are still alive, Cari,” Helen said.
“Yes,” Cari agreed. “And that means someone here on Cairn Island got word to the Duke about not only me but also the princess.”
“Unfortunately, I agree,” Crandall said. “All the more reason to get you ashore on the mainland as quickly as possible. Once the naval commanders under the Duke of Charon’s control think they’ve got enough ships to come here in force and challenge us in our own waters, they are going to come looking for you. It’s one of the reasons the council wants to vote to have you expelled. I think I have wrangled enough votes to allow you all to stay here with me for now but there will be another call for a vote next month, and the next, until they succeed. As long as this economic pressure is on us, one or more of the friendly captains are going to flip sides. Eventually, we will lose the vote. It’s inevitable, I fear.”
Cari leaned over the table and traced her finger along the coastline once again. “Morton Creek is out. They’re letting ships in and out but searching them as they arrive. That also appears to be where the Duke’s pet admiral has set up his headquarters. We could put in at one of the small fishing villages along the coast between Morton Creek and Tandon.”
“Most of those were raided by Sultanate slavers, remember?” Helen pointed out. “Even if we landed there, we wouldn’t get much in the way of supplies or support. By the reports I’ve heard, only a few have managed to rebuild again. Most are still charred ghost towns.”
Cari continued, bypassing Tandon on the map. The strongest blockade force was rumored to be headed in that direction. “Our only option is to head northwest and hope one of the other free cities farther north along the coast is able to get us the support we need once we land. We must break through to Tandon and coordinate with the Duke there to help us reach the Crystal City and Empress Kareena.”
“The Duke of Charon has almost taken control of the entire Empire at this point. Only the western cities remain,” Crandall said. “It’s not going to be easy to make it through to the capital no matter where you land. Once the old Empress dies, the Duke of Charon is ready to put that puppet, Prince Timron, on the throne as fast as he can.”
“Yes, but, Timron is in hiding right now,” Cari observed. “He won’t come out until he knows it’s safe for him to travel to the Crystal City. He’ll only do that once his grandmother passes away. That gives us time to get Jaycee there first. If we can keep her safe, even the Duke of Charon would have to let her succeed her great-grandmother when the time comes.”
“He’ll push to become the regent, you know,” Crandall observed.
“It’ll be difficult for him to do that spitted on the end of my sword,” Cari snarled. “He’s got a lot of good people’s lives to pay for. I intend to settle accounts with him once I get the chance. He won’t be able to avoid a public challenge to his honor and then I’ll finish him in a duel once and for all.”
The discussion was interrupted by Francesca, one of the few surviving members of Cari’s crew. “Excuse me, Captain. I think you should come see this. There’s something going on outside.”
“What is it, Francesca.?”
“It’s some sort of disturbance. It sounds like there’s a mob forming outside of Captain Wheldon’s estate gates.”
Captain Wheldon looked up in alarm. “A mob? I’ll see to this right now. No one challenges me in my home like that.”
“Crandall,” Cari said. “You have to be careful. If something is going on out there, they might not listen to you.”
“I’ll not let these scurvy dogs run you off the island like this. The council of captains hasn’t voted yet and I’m not going to stand by and let the mob rule. If they want things to change they have to wait for the council to vote.”
Cari, Crandall, and Helen followed Francesca out to the second-floor balcony looking down over the stone wall surrounding the Captain’s estate. There seemed to be an angry group of people shouting and pointing at the house through the gate.
Cari pointed at the crowd. “Look. That’s Day Ivarson. It figures he’d be in the middle of this.”
“I’ll have his head on a stick,” Crandall said. “He’s a captain on the council and knows better than to stir up the common folk like this.”
“It seems he’s forgotten,” Cari said.
“I’m going down there. You all stay here. I’ll get them to disperse.”
Crandall left them standing on the balcony as he headed for the stairs. Cari looked past the other side of the gate and saw more people coming up from the port down below. “I don’t like this, Helen. Look, there are more people gathering. Eventually, this mob is going to get out of control. We need to make plans to get out of here.”
“Where do we go?” Helen asked.
“I’m not sure. I do know one thing. We can’t stay here anymore. Francesca, go get Percy and make sure he’s got his things together, then go round up the princess. I’m going back to my room to gather my weapons. I suggest you all do the same. I don’t think we’re going to make it to the harbor without a fight.“
The three of them split up, heading in different directions inside the large manor house. Cari reached her rooms and grabbed her sword baldric settling it diagonally across her chest so that her sword hung at her right side. She strapped on her belt, buckling the bottom of the dagger’s sheath where it hung down next to her thigh.
She lamented once again losing her precious bag of holding when her ship, the Vengeance, sank before she could be rescued by the Raiders. Cari shook her head. There was no sense in worrying about something she couldn’t do anything about. Looking around the room one last time for anything that might be useful, she wheeled about and headed out the door.
Cari reached the main hall downstairs just as Helen arrived with the princess, her cabin boy, Percy, and Francesca. Everyone was armed except for the princess. After all, what kind of weapon did you give to a six-year-old?
“All right,” Cari said. “We’re going to head out back to the stable yard. Hopefully, the rear gate isn’t being watched by anyone from that mob out front. We’ll see if we can hitch a horse to one of the small carts and load ourselves up in that. Then we can get out of here. Perhaps if we head inland on one of the island roads, we can circle around and come at the harbor from a different direction.”
“What are we going to do when we get to the harbor?” Helen asked. “It’s not like we have a ship anymore.”
“We’ll deal with that when we get there. We still have a few friends in town.”
Quest accepted — Escape to the Harbor
The small group headed out the back of the main house into the courtyard. They walked towards the stables. There weren’t any servants around, which Cari thought was strange. She wondered if they were hiding or had run off after seeing an angry mob gathered outside their master’s residence.
She worried about not leaving a letter of some sort for Crandall. She figured he’d probably understand in the long run. Besides, any notes you left could be found. If people from the mob got inside the gates, they’d surely search the home. She didn’t want any of them figuring out what she might be planning.
Percy raced ahead into the stable and led a horse into the center of the paddock where a small, two-wheeled cart was sitting. He started hitching up the horse to the traces. Francesca immediately went over to lend a hand.
Once they had the cart hitched, Cari picked up Jaycee and set her in the back of the wagon. Francesca and Percy climbed in back with the girl. They sat down with their legs dangling over the end of the small open wagon-bed. Helen climbed up to the short bench at the front of the cart. Cari joined her, picking up the reins. She made a clucking sound and slapped the reins down on the horse’s back. The horse started forward, pulling the cart behind with a lurch.
The rear gate to the estate was open and no one was outside when they reached it so Cari snapped the reins down a little harder on the horse’s back. The horse sped up to a trot, heading down the dirt road leading from the rear of the estate into the thick jungle of the tropical island on which they’d been staying.
In the background as they left, Cari heard angry shouts and the sound of a couple of gunshots. She hoped Crandall was alright. There was no going back at this point, though. Her primary responsibility was getting Jaycee to safety. They’d made it out just in time.