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Excerpt for Sailing to Redoubt by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Sailing to Redoubt


C. Litka






Smashwords Version 1 (March2019)

©2019 Charles Litka





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If you should happen upon any mistakes, I'd be delighted to correct them. You can email me at cmlitka@gmail.com Thank you.


Information and news about my other and upcoming books can be found here:

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Maps for Sailing to Redoubt can be found and downloaded on my blog here:

https://clitkabooks.blogspot.com/2019/03/maps-for-sailing-to-redoubt.html





Dedication

To my father-in-law Frank, for all his enthusiasm and support for all my crazy ideas over the years.









Chapter 01 Storm, Shipwreck, and Pirates




01

I clung to the railing on the tilting deck. The horizon would not stay still. It would sink below the Island Crown’s railing, leaving only the sickly green-tinted clouds racing silently overhead, like a school of kelp darters with an armorfish in pursuit. This was followed, moments later, by an uncomfortable twist as the Island Crown righted itself on top of the broad crest, revealing the eastern horizon. A horizon of menacingly dark, lightning-laced purple clouds – the racing green clouds’ armorfish, as it were. And then, the Island Crown would once again twist and tilt the other way. This time the angry horizon would be swallowed by the oily-smooth green wall of the next wave as the ship slid into its deep trough. My stomach wasn’t easy. My mind wasn’t particularly easy either.

There wasn’t a breath of wind. It was hot as an oven. The only sound, the hiss and gurgle of the sea rolling away from the Island Crown’s stem, and the remote, thump, thump, of its steam engine.

‘Welcome back to the islands, Lieutenant,’ said a grinning Mr. Derth, the Island Crown’s second mate, as he, clinging to the handrails, slowly dodged his way along the sloping deck, making certain all the cabin doors were secure. ‘I bet it brings back fond memories of your island youth.’

‘In my island youth, I’d be securing the last of the storm shutters over the windows at the mercantile. No islander would be at sea in this weather. Look around, you don’t see a sail. They’ve long since found themselves a sheltered cove on the lee side of a tall island. About now they’re brewing a big pot of kaf and will ride out the storm in comfort.’

‘I can’t say I don’t envy them. Still, we’re steel and steam, not thin wood planking and batten sails. And we have a schedule to keep with plenty of sea room and no islands to worry about. Besides, we’ve yet to meet a typhoon that has the Island Crown’s name on its ledger,’ he added with a sweep of his hand and a grin. ‘And we’ve met more than a few...’

‘Now don’t go tempting fate and the storm gods, mate.’

‘Oh, don’t go all islander on me,’ he laughed. ‘The glass ain’t all that low. Yon storm’s going to just brush by us.’

‘I trust you’re right, Mr. Derth.’

‘Too late now, not to, Lieutenant,’ he said with a grin, and continued weaving his way forward on the steeply angled deck.

With each rise of the true horizon, the menacing purple clouds arched ever higher in the sky. Below them, a thin white line marked the sky from the dark sea. Still eerily silent, the whole world seemed to be holding its hot breath. As ugly as the scene was, or at least promised to be, I could not tear myself away. So I clung to the railing and the iron pillar that rose to the bridge deck above, watching the storm’s approach. Finally, when the white line of the sea was close enough to be seen as the surface of the ocean being torn to wispy threads by the force of the onrushing wind, I decided that it was time to retire to my cabin. Too late.

As I lurched across the sloping passageway, I felt the Island Crown begin to swing about to face the coming blow. The wind screamed and struck the ship. And before I could get my cabin door completely closed, the roaring, wind driven rain sent me reeling into my cabin. Wind and spindrift tore around it several times before I found a foothold to brace myself, and shouldered the door closed.

Slowly the Island Crown righted itself and its movement changed as it plunged through the onrushing storm. There was nothing left for me to do, but climb into the hammock I’d hung across my small cabin, and ride it out.

For what seemed like endless hours, the wind howled and the waves pounded the Island Crown, while the thump, thump of the engine defied them. I could hear its single screw frantically racing for a moment every time its stern was lifted clear of the water. While I didn’t exactly envy the crew, and their tasks, perhaps doing something more than swinging helplessly in a hammock, would’ve made those hours crawl by faster than they did for me. Eventually, sometime during the night, I fell into a restless sleep.




02

All storms must end, and this one blew by shortly after dawn. Mr. Derth was right; we must’ve just brushed along its edge, since island typhoons can blow for days. When I finally rolled out of my hammock, the day was bright, and while the Island Crown was still lively bounding along, it had a familiar rhythm that my stomach didn’t mind. Indeed, I had an appetite. So I put on a fresh, tropical uniform of white shorts, shirt, sandals, and the cap of an Aerlonian Navy lieutenant, limited time, and stepped out into the bright morning. The sky was rain washed clean, deep blue and streaked with thin white clouds; the tattered hem of the racing typhoon. The sun was already warm, the air mild – a smiling Tropic Sea day once more.

I made my way to the grey and green painted saloon below the bridge. Stepping in, I was delighted to discover the enticing aroma of fresh roasted kaf beans, strong enough to overlay its customary pall of nondescript stews and cabbage. The weary off watch was struggling to stay awake as they ate their lukewarm porridge and drank that hot kaf from battered tin mugs.

‘Sleep well, Lieutenant?’ Chief Engineer Gildock, asked sarcastically.

‘I was rocked to sleep, Chief. Beautiful day isn’t it? There’s always a welcomed freshness after a bit of rain, isn’t there?’

‘Oh, it will get hot and close enough soon enough.’

‘Where you’re working, anyway,’ I replied cheerfully while pouring myself a cup of kaf from the battered pot. ‘Still, thanks mates, for the chance to enjoy this cup on this side of the great divide.’

‘We live to serve our customers,’ the Chief replied raising his cup.

I raised mine to him and the crew as well. ‘”We live” are the operative words, I believe.’

‘Oh, fosh! That little blow? And you an islander – and a naval officer!’ exclaimed Derth.

‘An LT officer, mate – LT as in limited time. And all I’ve been commanding is a desk in the Admiralty in Kanadora these past two years. Plus, I’m seven years away from the islands. I may’ve grown rather soft.’

‘I’d say rather posh,’ growled Gildock.

‘And posh,’ I admitted.




03

Mid-morning found me lounging on a deckchair on the bridge deck enjoying the ever more familiar Tropic Sea. The deep blue sea sparkled in the sunlight that was hot on my shoulders. The breeze carried hints of the jungle from the tall, lush green island off to port. There were two more islands around the half of the horizon I could see, both blue in the distance, both crowned by a cloud. You were never out of sight of an island in the Tropic Sea. I noted seven sails spread around the horizon – all but one small fishing boats. The one was a large, three masted island trader.

I sighed and smiled. It was good to be home, or at least within three days, of home. I’d left the islands to attend university nearly seven years ago, and was last home for a visit more than two years ago, between graduating and joining the Aerlonian Navy.

‘Would you mind stepping up to the bridge for a minute, Lieutenant Lang?’ Captain Wera called down from the navigation bridge.

‘I’d be delighted, sir,’ I replied. I climbed to my feet and then up the steep steps to the navigation bridge, close at hand.

‘What do you make of that fellow, Lieutenant?’ he asked, handing me his binoculars and nodding to that three masted island trader that I’d been watching. It had come at us from that tall, single peaked island off our port side. ‘He altered his course to close in on us. I’m wondering what he’s thinking.’

‘I was wondering that myself,’ I replied. Bringing the binoculars to my eyes, I brought the ship into focus. The three blue-dyed batten sails were already suggestive – though there were probably a hundred islands with blue-dyed, batten sailed ships plying the Tropic Sea. But few of them would have been that large. Once I was able to clearly see her hull – a black painted lorcha with its distinctive yellow trim – there was no question. She had the wind on her aft quarter and was sailing all out, throwing up a creaming white bow wave.

‘A Banjar trading lorcha,’ I replied.

‘Humpf. A trading lorcha?’ muttered the Captain. ‘With a 50 man crew lining the windward rail?’

‘Well, let’s say a nominal trader.’

‘Why not simply say a pirate?’

I lowered the glasses and smiled. ‘If you asked him, he’d claim to be a trader.’

‘And you’d believe him?’

‘Well, no. And he’d not expect me to,’ I smiled. ‘But it’s all part of the island way of life. You’re given the benefit of doubt until you open fire.’

‘I’m not an islander,’ grumbled the Captain.

I turned back to watch the approaching lorcha. ‘He’s rather far out of his usual haunts. I recall reading a report that the Banja’s neighboring islands of Zanra and Trillora have both increased their navies thanks to Feldarain aid. It would seem that the Princes of Banjar are having to send their traders further afield these days.’

‘Humpf! He can’t possibly be thinking that he can do business with me, can he?’

‘I doubt it. He’s probably sailing all out like that to snatch up any worthwhile ships coming out of shelter form the neighboring islands before they scatter to the four winds.’

Occasional piracy was an ugly facet of the island way of life. However, the island way of life dictated that the boats that were sheltering together in a storm must put aside their trades and rivalries to observe a truce for the storm, plus a day afterwards to give all the kelp darters of the boats a fair chance to escape any armorfish that may have also taken shelter in the lagoon with them. To do otherwise would be like netting fish in a barrel. Fair is fair, even in piracy. Plus, it is widely believed to anger the island gods whom the islanders, including pirates, depended on for their luck and prosperity.

We watched in silence for a while as the Banjar continued to rapidly close with us.

‘Surely he can’t be thinking that we’re potential prey,’ the Captain muttered, shaking his head. He glanced aft, towards the canvas covered 10 cm cannon just visible on the after edge of the bridge deck beyond the boat davit. ‘But then, I’m not fond of pirates, so let him try.’

‘He does seem rather eager, doesn’t he?’ I muttered, as I considered the situation. Manned with 50 sailors, a Banjar lorcha would certainly eye every island ship they encountered with thoughts of capturing her, making her cargo their own, and selling her crew as slaves. However, one would think that a steel steamship from one of the southern continents would be another matter. At least in broad daylight. Steamships, like the 70 meter Cealan & Cha Line Island Crown, are always armed with a 10 cm cannon or two that can fire explosive shells capable of reducing the swift sailing, wooden sailing ships of the islands to driftwood in short order. Prudent would-be-pirates did not attempt to take steamships, at least in broad daylight. Given a dark, cloudy night, well, that might be a different story, if the pirate captain wasn’t all that prudent. It was no coincidence that batten sails of the Banjar were dyed dark blue.

‘Perhaps he’s not seen your 10 cm pieces yet, since yours are not bow and stern mounted,’ I said after a while. ‘Not seeing them there, he might want to take a closer look at us on the off chance that the lack of bow and stern cannons is due to storm damage. I doubt that he’ll venture any closer than he needs to spy your pair. But then again, maybe he’s just taunting you. It would be in character.’

‘Well, I’ve been sailing the islands long enough to be a bit of a character myself,’ he growled, and turning to the first mate, who had the watch, said, ‘See that the port cannon is armed and manned, Mr. Bril. I have the bridge. Two can taunt.’

‘Aye, sir,’ said Bril, with a grin, and hurried aft, calling out to the deck crew, who were hammering away on a storm damaged ventilator, to clear and man the gun.

Once the gun was cleared for action, Captain Wera altered course slightly to make certain that the Banjar captain, now less than a kilometer off, could see his manned gun. And that it was manned and cleared for action. The altered course also brought the gun to bear on the Banjar lorcha.

In response, the Banjar captain backed his sails, bringing his ship to a standstill, allowing the Island Crown to steam by, with its 10 cm cannon tracking the lorcha; its crew eager for the order to fire. Like the Banjar crew across the way, the entire Island Crown’s off duty crew were lining the railing, eager for any action.

‘That captain fellow looked a’mite disappointed,’ muttered Captain Wera as he dropped his binoculars once we put the lorcha astern. ‘An ugly looking chap.’

The lorcha reset her sails and crossing our trailing wake of white water and a wispy white smoke, swung around to our starboard side and began to gain on us again.

‘So he wants to see our starboard gun, as well, does he?’ muttered the Captain. A jerk of his hand to his first mate, who was watching him from the gun mount, sent the gun crew scampering to the starboard cannon. The eager spectators, shifted to starboard, as well.

I followed the Captain across to the starboard wing of the navigation bridge and scanned the sea to see if there were any sails on the horizon that might prove more profitable prey for the Banjars than the Island Crown. No sails, but ahead and off to starboard, I saw a flash of color and a spark of reflection which was not a sunbeam off a wave.

I stared hard. I could just make out a handful of figures waving their shirts from what looked to be a raft when it rose to the top of the swell.

‘Sir, I believe there are some shipwrecked survivors.’ I pointed in their direction.

The Captain swung around and focused his glass on them for several moments before sighing, ‘Ah, yes, I believe you’re right. I don’t suppose it would be proper for an Aerlonian gentleman to leave the Banjars to rescue them… Would it?’

I took it to be a rhetorical question, and didn’t answer. It was his call. He turned back to the bridgehouse and called out, ‘Quartermaster, 2 points to starboard, quarter speed!’

The quartermaster at the helm repeated the order, swung the wheel and rang the engine room.

Walking to the after edge of the navigation wing, he called out, ‘Mr. Bril, See to the launching of the starboard longboat, and gather a boat crew. Lively now, we have some shipwrecked survivors to collect, before the Banjars can get to them.’

‘May I volunteer to join the boat party, Captain?’ I asked.

‘Suit yourself, Lieutenant.’

‘Thank you, sir,’ I replied eagerly, and hurried to my quarters to dig out my sidearm and a box of ammunition from my kit bag. I shoved the box of bullets in my pocket and belted on my service revolver as I hurried around to the other side of the ship where the crew were freeing the longboat for launching.

‘The Skipper has given me permission to join your boat crew, Mr. Bril – with your permission, of course,’ I said, stepping next to him as he directed the operation.

‘Oh, you’re welcome enough,’ he replied glancing aside to me, and noting my sidearm, added, ‘Are we to expect trouble?’

‘Armorfish for sure,’ I replied, and glancing across the half a kilometer of water that now separated us from the Banjar lorcha, I could see activity around their stern boat as well. ‘And well, it looks like the Banjars are just as eager to rescue them as we are. They’re potentially lucrative slaves to the Banjars, so there may be a spot of trouble with them.’

‘I doubt that your revolver will be able to settle any trouble with the likes of them,’ he murmured, turning back to the davit to call out some more directions.

I had to admit that he was likely right. But we did have a 10 cm cannon.




04

I glanced up from loading my revolver at the crackling of gunfire. The rise of the swell revealed that the Banjars in the boat they had launched were cheerfully firing into the sea with their handguns and rifles – no doubt at any armorfish in sight. The wreck had attracted quite a pack of them.

There’s a shared love between armorfish and humans. They love to eat us, and we find them delicious eating, as well. However, in this case they weren’t being hunted for dinner. The Banjars were attempting to draw blood in order to attract the armorfish away from the wreck. Their handgun fire was just a playful lark, as revolvers aren’t likely to do any harm to a three to five meter long armorfish with its hard, bone-like back plates with a double row of spikes. Oh, it might startle, and maybe annoy them, but that was about it. The larger caliber rifles, however, might draw blood, and since it takes only a trace of blood to attract their attention, any blood drawn might draw at least some of the armorfish away from the wreck, making getting the survivors off a little safer. Hopefully their ploy would work, since I could see quite a few glistening spiked backs not only circling the low, waterlogged wreck, but occasionally surging up onto its wave washed deck to snap at the six survivors perched on the top of a half-height cabin.

I snapped the cylinder of my revolver shut as the Banjar captain bellowed an order to his boat crew to cease firing and man the oars, in order to race us to the wreck. I had taken my station in the bow of the launch and had a boat hook close at hand to hold us alongside the wreck when we arrived. We had four men at the oars, with Mr. Bril standing in the stern manning the tiller. He too, was now wearing a holstered revolver, along with a rifle on the bench before him.

The larger crewed Banjar boat beat us to the wreck by less than half a minute. The Banjar captain, who was on board their launch, was already bellowing out orders for the shipwrecked crew to come aboard, or be dragged on board, when we arrived, tactfully on the other side of the wreck.

The wreck looked to be a single-hulled yacht of some twelve meters, wooden built with a single mast, that was now floating alongside on the Banjar side. The cabin down the center of the yacht was the last refuge of the crew, as water filled its interior and waves washed over its deck. Only the natural buoyancy of its wooden construction was keeping it afloat. The crew, save one, were sitting on their kit bags and seemed unmoved by the Banjar captain’s orders. The one, a slim woman, was standing alongside the stump of the yacht’s mast and had been telling the Banjars to shove off. All of the yacht’s crew were dressed in loose, tan colored, calf-length trousers, a sailors’ knives on their belts, and white, loose, open necked shirts with colorful bandannas, topped by a variety of brimmed and rather waterlogged woven grass hats. In short, the typical dress of a more cosmopolitan type of islanders.

‘Push off, you lot!’ roared the much more colorfully dressed Banjar captain, directing his attention to us, as I hooked the lip of the yacht’s deck with the boat hook and pulled us close alongside. Adding, with an even darker glare, ‘This is our salvage by right of first claim.’

His numerous boat crew growled, seconding his claim. They were a very colorful band of men and a few women. They were dressed either brightly dyed loincloths or baggy trousers, with skirts in reds, oranges and yellows, many with open jerkins of armorfish leather and armor. They also had several bandannas around their necks. The men and women both wove strings of shells and beads through their long hair, and all sported several armorfish leather belts around their waist for their long knives, short swords, and handguns. The barrel chested captain wore chains of gold under his open armorfish jerkin.

I gave him a casual island salute, touching my forehead with my fist. ‘We do not contest your right of salvage...’

‘We’ve already declined your offer of salvage,’ snapped the rather savage looking young lady at the mast. ‘They have no claim.’

‘And wisely so,’ I said, saluting her as well. ‘We make no claim to salvage. We’re here to offer you and your crew passage to Fey Lon, courtesy of the Island Crown, and, I might add, passage home as well, if necessary, courtesy of the Aerolonia Navy’s distressed mariners’ fund.’

‘Bugger off, mate,’ growled the Banjar captain. ‘I’m giving you one and only one warning. They’re mine, and I intend to have them, one way or another. And there’s nothing you can do about it,’ he added with a sweep of his hand to his crew at his back, who outnumbered us three to one, and outgunned us by a far greater margin.

I bit back my first impulse to mention our 10 cm cannon in the offing. It would be of no help here and now. Instead I smiled and said, ‘We don’t want trouble. Trouble will only feed the armorfish...’ One of which, as if on cue, surfaced and slid over the battered railing and across the mostly submerged deck of the launch to snap at the crew on the cabin, and then at us in the boat, before wiggling back into the water. It then swam under our boat, raking its spikes against its bottom, just to prove its point.

‘I don’t mind trouble. And I wouldn’t mind feeding you to the armorfish or making you guests of the Bird-of-night as well,’ replied the Banjor captain. ‘So bugger off and let me take off this sorry lot of hopeless excuses for sailors.’

‘I will make a great deal of trouble for you if you try,’ snapped the lady at the mast.

I had only one card to play, and it was a weak one. But as I said, it was my only one.

‘We’re within the waters of the Principality of Merkara. Piracy and slavery is outlawed in Merkara waters. As an officer of in Aerlonian Navy, and an ally of the Prince of Merkara, I’m ordering you to cease your efforts to take these people prisoners. They have refused your offer of aid, so please return to your ship and be on your honest way.’

He laughed. I didn’t blame him. Given the circumstances, I had to make a great effort to play that card without laughing myself. Still, it was on the table.

‘And if I don’t? Are you going to try to stop me?’

‘I’ll see that you’re hunted down and hung as pirates. We’ll be in Merkara by this evening (a lie) and I’ll report you as a pirate upon arrival,’ I replied, boldly enough. They did hang pirates in the Principality of Merkara, and who knows, perhaps Captain Wera would briefly call on Merkara... ‘Plus, we’re only three days out of Fey Lon and its Aerlonian naval base. There’s likely a fast corvette or frigate at anchor that would like nothing better than to hunt down a Banjar pirate.’ That part, at least, might not be all bluff.

The Banjar Captain considered my threat for a second or two, and then grinned, ‘The seas are wide.’ And adding, with a sweep of his arm, ‘Bak, Nan, Lee, jump to it and haul our guests onboard. The rest of you, keep yon crew in your sights, but don’t shoot until I give the order. We don’t want trouble, now, do we?’ he added with a laugh, watching me.

As Bak, Nan, and Lee, made their way to the gunwale of the boat, armed with thick canes to beat the yacht crew into submission, I let my hand fall to the handle of my revolver at my side.

And yet…

I looked across the wreck to the thickly packed Banjar boat. I could think of nothing else to do. Nothing wise, anyway. A gun fight would not only result in getting myself and my shipmates shot and possibly killed, but would likely kill the survivors on the wreck in the crossfire as well.

I glanced back to Mr. Bril. He was in command of the boat. He shrugged, and then looked back at the Island Crown. It was now up to Captain Wera aboard the Island Crown and his 10 cm cannon...

The Banjar captain’s smile widened, as he read my thoughts on my face. As far as he was concerned, this was an islander affair and the continentals would stay out of it, when it came to more than talk. ‘Off you go mates,’ he snarled to Bak, Nan, and Lee, who had prudently paused on the gunwale to survey the surrounding waters for armorfish.

But before they could be off, the grim faced lady at the mast lifted her arm, and pointing it at them, said in a clear, cold, loud voice, ‘Die.’

I can’t say, with certainty, what happened in the next few seconds. But something did happen. I was left with an impression that there was some sort of flickering and then, silently, Bak, Nan, and Lee collapsed into the arms of their comrades behind them, as if dead.

For several long seconds I, and everyone else on both boats, just stared at the limp bodies, trying to make sense of what just happened. And then we all turned to the grim faced figure at the mast. She still had her arm outstretched, and was now pointing directly at the Banjar captain.

‘Now go,’ she commanded, in her hard, cold voice.

The Banjar captain, after staring in disbelief at his collapsing men, roared, ‘Bak, Nan, Lee, jump to it, I said! Get her!’

Held upright only by their comrades behind them, the three limp men didn’t jump to it.

One of the rowers behind me – a native islander – was next to speak. ‘Sorcery,’ he muttered quietly. And then loudly in rising panic, ‘She’s a sorceress! Why, they’re the fire-cursed Vente, mates!’

This sent a startled ripple of fear through the Banjar boat’s crew. The other islander on our crew gasped as well.

‘Leave now, Captain, or you, and your crew, will all die,’ said the alleged sorceress, pointing directly at him.

Undaunted, the Banjar Captain roared, ‘Shoot her!’

‘Die,’ she commanded, in reply.

A flicker?

And he did, folding and collapsing like Bak, Nan, and Lee into the arms of his crew behind him.

‘Fire-cursed magic!’ exclaimed our islander crewman behind me.

A couple of wild shots followed, but almost to a man, the Banjar crew decided not to die. They flung themselves into a flurry of howling activity, not to open fire, but to escape the fire-cursed Vente wreck with its sorceress. They scrambled to their oars, and frantically pushed their boat away from the wreck. Once clear, they started rowing for their ship, putting their back into it, without orders to. The slender woman at the mast kept her arm pointing at them until the were out of reliable gun shot range.

And just to be fair, our two islanders had tried to follow suit, but Bril and I held the boat tight to the wreck, while Bril howled, ‘Hold up, you blasted fools. What are you up to? I gave no orders!’

I suppose to most islanders, no orders were necessary to get clear of a fire-cursed Vente sorcerer, given their dark reputation. Islanders learned to fear the Vente from a young age. The stories of the Ventes arriving in the moonless darkness of the night to carry very naughty children away with them, were used to frighten naughty children into behaving. The Vente were, however, more than just stories to scare children. They were part of the dark pantheon of island mythology – like demon armorfish, the volcanic fire gods, or the storm gods with their lightning ships of blue fire. I’m far from certain that the Banjar captain could have even made them approach the wreck if they had known they were Vente. Or that he would’ve even tried.

Of course, like the demon armorfish and the storm gods, the Vente were mostly myth and legend, at least this far south in the Tropic Sea. Actual Vente or not, it was the fact that the woman at the mast pointed to four men, told them to die, and they did, that made them Vente. That was enough. And, truth be told, if I’d been one of them, a true islander, I’d be rowing hard with them as well.

But I wasn’t quite a true islander, despite having been born and raised in the islands. And I was university educated. And I didn’t believe in the island gods and magic. And finally, she wasn’t pointing at me. That said, I could not say what had just happened. It didn’t seem like one needed to believe in magic, for magic to work...

Dropping her arm, the woman, the alleged sorceress, turned to us. ‘Is your offer still open?’

‘Ah, yes… Yes, of course,’ I stammered, and glanced back to Bril. I was, after all, only a passenger. ‘I’m right, aren’t I, Mr. Bril?’

Luckily, Bril, likely as stunned as I was by what had just happened, was an Aerlonian, and viewed island superstition with either humor or disdain. He merely nodded “Yes” absently, adding, grimly, ‘That’s what we’re here for.’

That was good enough for me – especially since I didn’t think we really had an alternative.

‘Right, then, let’s get everyone on board,’ I said, as brightly as I could, turning back to the sorceress. ‘And the sooner the better. We want to be on our way before the Banjars find their courage again.’ I braced a foot on the gunwale and held out my free hand to help haul the crew onboard.

She nodded and turned to her crew with a nod. They stood, and, as she slowly named her crew, three men and two woman, one by one, they grabbed their kit bags and jumped down to the narrow, wave washed deck, and crossed it in a bound or two. I helped each to climb aboard with my free hand. Each gave a nod of thanks and settled on the nearest bench or in the hollow behind me.

The slender sorceress was the last to collect her kit and, timing her jump to the swell, she landed on the deck, just as an armorfish, half the length of our boat, leaped straight out of the sea behind Bril to land on the wreck’s deck with a thump and a mighty splash. With its many teethed jaws wide open, it swooshed across the slippery deck towards the sorceress.

She made a desperate leap for the boat. I abandoned the boathook to free both hands and caught her by the waist, lifting her up, over my head, hoping to get her clear of the snapping jaws of the armorfish. I staggered back and twisted to avoid going over the other side of the boat, to collapse into the collective laps and kit bags of her crew around me. She landed on top of me – her damp chest on my face.

She quickly pushed off, her hands on my shoulders, to scowl down at me with her cold blue-green eyes for a second or two.

I smiled, and asked, a bit breathlessly, ‘Still have all ten toes?’

‘Yes,’ she replied, coldly, without a smile, and rolled off of me to take a seat with her crew, who quickly made room on the bench for her.

‘Are you done having fun up there, Lieutenant?’ called out Bril, as I sat up and took a seat facing aft at the very bow of the boat.

‘I believe so. Home, Mr. Bril,’ I replied cheerfully, much relieved that we had carried off the rescue against all odds. I settled back as we pushed off the wreck, and took in the mythical Ventes – if indeed that was who and what they were. They looked no different than any other islander.

I beamed a friendly smile at the six waterlogged survivors sitting silently on the benches and crouching before me, and asked, ‘Victims of the typhoon, I take it?’

The sorceress gave me one withering look of disdain with her cold blue-green eyes for uttering such an inane question, and looked away and back towards the wreck.

The fellow by the name of Vara, who may have been the captain of the yacht, replied quietly, ‘The storm was mostly to the south of us. Still, we were making for shelter along a white-water reef, looking for a passage into the lagoon of yonder island, when a white squall struck us with great force, driving us over the reef and into the lagoon, taking off our mast in the process. Before we could clear the wreckage and get some steerage, the squall drove us across the lagoon and over the reef once more, this time taking out a large section of our bottom hull. We managed to lighten the boat, and get a couple of lines around the hull to hold it together and stay afloat all night. Luckily you came along, so we haven’t suffered all that much.’

I nodded sadly. ‘Ill luck and good luck. The hazards of the sea. I appreciate your loss. Still, you’re alive and safe,’ I added with an encouraging smile. ‘And you’ve nothing more to worry about. The Aerlonian Navy base on Fey Lon has a fund to see that shipwrecked and stranded mariners get home.’ Though, if they were actual Vente Islanders, that might prove difficult. But that was a problem – and perhaps an opportunity – for another day. It may also explain why my assurances didn’t seem to cheer them up. Still, I suppose returning home, no matter what island home it may be, without the yacht you set out in, was never going to be all that happy of a return. It was, however, better than being a lump in an armorfish’s belly.

‘Oh, by the way, my name is Taef Lang, Lieutenant, LT, Aerlonia Navy. I’m actually just a passenger aboard the Island Crown, on my way to Fey Lon. I’ll be happy to look after matters concerning your return when we arrive.’

Vara nodded, glancing to the sorceress, who continued to stare back at the wallowing wreck.

I decided to play the Aerlonian, and fain ignorance of islands myths. So I looked to the sorceress, and asked, ‘How did you do that? To the Banjars, I mean. Just pointing at them… It was like magic,’ I added with a forced laugh. And then adding, authentically curious, ‘It wasn’t magic, was it?’

She ignored the question. But I continued on, nevertheless.

‘Did you really kill them? Not that I blame you. You would’ve ended up as slaves or worse. And to be honest, I don’t know what we could’ve done to prevent them from taking you, if you hadn’t sent them packing. Captain Wera would not have needed much of an excuse to sink the Banjar ship, but we would’ve all been feeding the armorfish by then, so I guess we all owe you a debt of gratitude,’ I said, rambling on, to no effect.

I looked to Vara, and the rest. They offered to add nothing more, taking their cue from the sorceress.

Still, undaunted, I said, ‘Well, we have Vara and Muse, Hiks, Kin, and Ade, here.’ I nodded to each in turn, and then returned to the sorceress with a smile, ‘But I don’t know your name, ah… Miss?’ I didn’t dare to call her a sorceress to her face.

She ignored me.

So I laughed and added, ‘Oh, well, I suppose we’ve already met.’

She turned her head and focused her cold gaze on me for a chilling moment or two. Thankfully she didn’t point at me, but I had the feeling she was fighting that urge. Finally she said, scornfully, ‘Forgive us. We have suffered a very exhausting experience and are not in the mood for palaver. You can interrogate us once we have time to recover.’

‘Of course. Sorry. I was, actually, just trying to make polite conversation,’ I said, contritely. ‘But, as you say, we’ll have time enough to chat once you’ve rested.’

Which was wishful thinking, as it turned out.




Chapter 02 Harbor, A Favor, Duty, and Home




01

‘A word with you, Lieutenant,’ said Captain Wera, as we rose from our midday meal.

He led me out on to the deck, and up the several flights of stairs to the navigation bridge. Our new passengers, having eaten earlier, were now lounging in deck chairs on the bridge deck below us.

‘What do you make of them?’

I shrugged. ‘Not a very talkative lot. I can’t tell you much of anything.’

‘Humpf...What exactly happened on the wreck?’

I told him.

‘How’d she do it?

‘I’ve no idea. Magic is as good an explanation as any.’

‘You don’t believe that, do you?’

‘I don’t. But then again, I’ve yet to come up with a better explanation.’

He “humpf”-ed again. ‘Are they the Vente islanders that our islander crewmen claim they are?’

‘There are several island versions of the Vente, sir. In the children’s version, the Ventes are often described as demons to scare naughty children into behaving. We can dismiss that one. There also is the more grown up version, though is still fanciful. In that version, the Ventes are wielders of magic, members of the large pantheon of island demons and gods, as powerful sorcerers.

‘However, remarkably enough, given their mythical reputation, the Vente Islands do, in fact, exist. They’re an island principality off the southwest coast of Norterra. There’s a thin file on them at the Admiralty which I happened to browse through, one quiet afternoon. It contained mostly hearsay. The usual legends collected from throughout the islands, and a few brief comments by continental explorers who made it to their islands one way or another. They never got beyond the fringe islands, since they were warned off by very credible threats, threats that did not rely on magic. A very secretive people, it seems.’

‘Humpf. Pretty far from home, if they are Ventes.’

‘True. Nearly 4000 kilometers. That’s hard to explain. Naughty children can’t be all that rare in the islands,’ I added with a smile.

Wera gave me a dark look.

‘Well, you probably had more words with the so-called sorceress than I. What do you think?’ I asked.

‘She paid for her crew’s passage with a gold coin, so I guess I don’t have to think too hard.’ He pulled the small gold coin from his vest pocket and handed it to me. ‘Recognize it?’

I studied it, and handed it back to him. ‘I believe Mira is the dynastic name of the Princes of the Kinjini Islands. They’re another northern continent island group, so that would fit the Vente theory.’

‘Humpf.’ he said. ‘Could they be pirates? Do we need to keep an eye on them? I don’t want to wake up one night with my throat cut.’

‘I don’t think you need worry too much. The Ventes are not known to be pirates. Nor do pirates go cruising in 12 meter yachts.’

‘All pirates have to do is get a band onboard a ship, and then, in the dark of the night, they spread out and start cutting throats – or do whatever she did to those Banjars. Find out all you can about them.’

‘Yes, sir. I’ll try. Still, they paid for their passage, and she had a very good reason for doing whatever she did, so I don’t think that you have anything to worry about.’

‘I wasn’t worried,’ he replied shortly. ‘I’m simply doing my duty and looking after the safety of my ship. Keep an eye on them and see what you can find out about them. You’ve got nothing better to do. Let me know if you think I need to take precautions,’ he added, and dismissed me with a nod.

‘Aye, aye, sir,’ I replied, and with a smile, headed down to the bridge deck to look in on my new fellow passengers. As a matter of fact, I had two professions at present. Both would have me trying find out more about these rumored Vente, even without Captain Wera’s, ah, request.

My real profession was that of an archaeologist. At least, I had a degree in archaeology – the study of the non-written history of the world that the Founders called Dara – with my name on it. I hoped, when I finished my current, and temporary profession, to find a place in my field, and specialize in the non-written history of the Tropic Sea islanders, since I was an islander. Or rather, half of one. I am the son and grandson of Aerlonian merchants who operate a chain of general merchandise stores in the Merkara and Fey Lon Islands. However, I was born and grew up on Lil Lon Island, a small island just off the coast of Fey Lon Island, and as such, I grew up pretty much island fashion.

However, being born of Aerlonian born parents, I’m considered a citizen of Aerlonia. As such, my father, with a daughter and a son both expressing interest in joining him in the mercantile business, was happy to send me off to the University of Layfarm on the continent of Aerlonia, if only to reinforce our Aerlonian heritage.

And so, with my professional, and personal, interest in Tropic Sea island history and culture, the chance to interview people from the most secretive of the island cultures was a gift of the islands gods. And with less than three days to interview them, so I didn’t need Captain Wera’s request to get to know them.

They were also people of interest in my current, and temporary profession as a lieutenant, limited time, in the Aerlonian navy’s “political” department, which is to say, intelligence, liaison, and covert operations.

After graduation from Layfarm, I decided, perhaps unwisely, to fulfill my entire lifelong civic service requirement, as an Aerlonian citizen, by signing up for a four year stint in the Aerlonian Navy. I hoped to serve my four years sailing in the Tropic Sea amongst the islands that I wanted to spend my life studying. However, with my university degree, I was signed on as an ensign LT and the navy does not feel it is worth its time to make a seagoing officer out of a limited time officer. So I was assigned to duties as a file clerk at the Admiralty in Kanadora, Aerlonia’s capital city.

I would like to believe, but knowing the navy as I do, I doubt, that my assignment to Admiral Ply’s Department Seven, and specifically its Section 3, Tropic Sea Section, was due to my academic qualifications or the fact that I was island born. However, my knowledge of the islands, as an islander and as a scholar of the islands, quickly earned me a promotion to a lieutenant, LT, as an “operations analyst.” The job largely consisted of condensing field reports into briefing papers for those above my rank and pay scale. The work was sometimes interesting, sometimes boring, and sadly, disconcerting.

I quickly discovered that I was dealing with the records of a secret war between the two great southern continents of Aerlonia and Feldara. Both continental nations embraced the Founding Principles, which included the nonviolent settlement of disputes – in principle. And in everyday life, the two continents had been at peace for more than two hundred years. However, in the islands, they were financing, and encouraging wars and raids by islanders, in order to advance their national interests – who, truth be told, needed no encouragement to raid and war.

There are well over 10,000 islands in the Tropic Seas ruled by thousands of princes and tribal chiefs. There are more than 137 island empires ruling five to several hundred islands, each island with its subordinate princes. Alas, the guiding principles of the Founders are not carefully observed in the islands and raiding has always been part of the island way of life. This tradition was now being using in a proxy war between the two continents in order to gain control of the Tropic Sea as a precondition to claiming, and settling, the untamed northern continent, Norterra. As an Aerlonian, I found this disheartening. As an islander, I was angered and embarrassed that our darkest passions were being so easily stroked and enabled. And, as a student of island history, I knew that Island princes could never be trusted to remain loyal in the face of a better offer from the other side, so that it promised to be an expensive and endless war.

However, after more than two years working in Section 3, I managed to snag a Section 3 field appointment as an intelligence agent in the Fey Lon Islands. The base was actually located on my home island of Lil Lon. While I didn’t relish taking a slightly more active part in the proxy war, the Fey Lon island empire was a quiet backwater of that secret war, so I decided I could do it without too much guilt.

So, in light of my commission as an intelligence agent, of sorts, our shipwrecked passengers offered an opportunity to fatten up that thin file of the Vente Islands back at the Admiralty. And, in doing so, arrive with something of an intelligence coup to impress my new chief.

With all this in mind, I walked back to the bridge deck where the alleged Vente were lounging in canvas deck chairs in the bright, hot sun. The still unnamed sorceress seemed to have fallen asleep. Her hat was held in her hands on her lap. Her pale, sand colored hair was blowing across her face in the breeze. Her eyes were closed, and in sleep, her closed and cold expression had faded to reveal a rather pretty face – high cheekbones, a wide forehead and mouth, all rather regal. The face of a proud sorceress. Vara was watching me, warily, from the chair next to hers. I decided that my investigation could wait until they had recovered from their ordeal, so I merely nodded to him, and moved on.

Little did I know then, that I had seen the sorceress at her best, and would learn little more than what I knew then.

I’ll state simply, my best efforts to find something, indeed, anything about the new passengers over the following two days were a failure. The best I could do was engage them in general conversations on commonplace island topics, and then, only when the sorceress wasn’t around. Like it or not, they learned a lot more about me, as I tried to prime the pump, so to speak, but, as I said, to little avail. One of the women crew members, Kin, would talk island cooking; ingredients, spices, dishes, island specific recipes – something we both had an interest in. I at least, because I was missing island food after nearly seven years on the continent.

I had not even that much success with the sorceress. Awake, she wore a cold, guarded expression, which, in my presence turned to a scowl, as if she was barely holding back her impatience to be rid of me. Maybe she never forgave me for my stupid question. And well, to be honest, I found her too unpleasant to be worth the trouble, so I was content to pass the time in idle, and largely useless conversations, with her companions, when I could catch them out of her company.

And so, my mission to learn the secrets of the Vente ended in almost complete failure. Almost, only because I got interesting sounding recipe for “three pepper, fire-roasted, chicken” from Kin.

That, and the fact that we didn’t wake up with our throats cut.




02

It was an unexpected mix of emotions that the roadstead of Fey Lon – a reef sheltered lagoon between the big island of Fey Lon and its little sister island, Lil Lon – evoked in me, as the Island Crown slowly glided between the two tall beacon towers marking the passage through the eastern reef between the islands. With no breeze, save a whisper from the Island Crown’s walking pace, the heat, the moisture, the smells of jungles, smoke, spices, rot, and the seashore met me as old, long lost friends.

To the north lay the large island of Fey Lon, which stretched more than a hundred kilometers to the northwest. Close at hand, its capital city of the same name clung to the steep foothill of an ancient volcanic crater rim. Its tree-lined streets wound up to the tall, lava peaks, black rock and clinging green jungle. To the south lay the small island of Lil Lon, some three kilometers in length. It also had a volcanic peak and a small town of foreigners and traders clinging to its steep foothill. Like Fey Lon, its city was almost hidden in a tamed jungle. The remainder of the volcanic rim had fallen into the crater to give Fey Lon’s lagoon a bottom and two low breakwaters and submerged reef on both sides.

The islands, in the yellowing light of the sinking sun and the deepening purple shadows, not only dredged up seven year old memories, but uncertainties as well. I leaned back against the steel wall of the saloon under the bridge deck and explored my feelings. It had been nearly seven years since I sailed from this harbor for the continent. And while the harbor, and my old life growing up here, had not aged in my memory, those seven years would had, no doubt, left their mark on my family, friends, and everyone I knew here. And me, as well. What would I find here, now?

I was slightly apprehensive about my new posting as well. After spending the last two years compiling and filing intelligence reports from the islands, I’d a good idea of what would be expected of me. My apprehension likely stemmed from the uncertainty of how I would fit in. The political office of Fey Lon’s naval base was not large, four officers under a Captain Falaer Char and an administrative staff of three. If personalities clashed, it could be a long eighteen months.

And lastly, I was feeling my failure with our shipwrecked islanders. The sorceress had briskly dismissed any offer of aid from the Aerlonian navy, saying that they would make their own way home, so even that avenue of information was closed to me. And with that failure, my initial hopes of starting my new posting with an intelligence coup died. Indeed, I couldn’t even say for certain that they were Ventes. All I could do now was tell an unbelievable story about a sorceress killing pirates by pointing at them. I didn’t know how well that would go over with my new chief.

The sound of the engines changed – full astern, killing the last of our motion. And then a sudden silence as the engines ceased to pound, followed by a great rattling forward as the Island Crown dropped its anchor, to join the three other continental steamships, and a single, light grey navy steam-frigate in the deep water roadstead. The now silent ship shuddered slightly as the anchor took hold. And as it began to leisurely swing about, I could hear Mr. Derth call the deck crew over to rig the gangplank ladder.

I heaved myself fully upright, with the idea of collecting my kit and catching the first bumboat for the naval dock. It was past dinner time, but I’d best report to someone at the base before climbing further up the hill to the town, and my childhood home. Glancing across the deck, I saw the three Ventes, who had been taking in the sights, suddenly start and call softly to the other two on the other side of the deck. When they arrived, one of them seemed to point discreetly to the Lil Lon side of the harbor, where dozens of island boats of all sizes, lighters, and barges bobbed at anchor. I stepped over to the bulwark to see what had sparked their interest. By the time they had to walk over to the other side of the ship as it completed its slow arc and tugged once again against the anchor, I felt that I had found what they were very interested in – a twelve meter, single masted, single hulled yacht with a dark green hull with a polished teywood half-height cabin that ran from the forecastle nearly the full length of the boat. In short, the sister ship of the wreck we’d taken them off of. In a harbor of perhaps a hundred boats and ships, it matched none of them in style and colors, suggesting, but not proving, that it hailed from some distant island. Perhaps Captain Char might find that interesting enough…

Time to get moving. I turned and climbed the stairs and stepped around to my cabin. Inside, I donned my light uniform jacket and cap, slung my kit over my shoulder, and with one last look about, went out and back down to the main deck where the deck crew was securing the steep stairs and small landing stage at the waterline.

‘That anxious to leave us?’ asked Mr. Derth, as I arrived.

‘I’m home, Bere. And I have a new chief to report to. I don’t know if she’s still on duty – it looks to be past dinner time – but I think it pays to look eager on arrival, even if she isn’t at her desk.’

‘Aye,’ he nodded, and returned to his task. ‘We’ll have it rigged in a minute or two more – if you gentlemen put your backs to it!’ he added in a sharp loud voice towards crew members who were swinging the little landing platform out and over side.

‘A word with you,’ said a quiet voice from behind me.

Turning around I found not the captain, but the sorceress in the shadows, looking as dour as ever. ‘Of course. At your service,’ I replied, trying, but failing, not to sound surprised.

Without another word, she turned away and started for the far side of the ship. I set my kit down and followed her, across and then up the steep ladder to the cabin deck. Once in the shadows of the passageway she stopped and turned to me.

‘I have a question for you.’

I nodded. ‘Fire away.’

‘I understand that you’re reporting for duty at the naval base here.’

‘Correct.’

‘For how long? How long will you be here?’

‘I’ve eighteen months of service yet to serve. I expect to serve them here.’

‘Will you be here, on this island, all of that time, or will you be at sea most of that time?’

‘Can’t say for certain where my duties will take me. I am, however, more or less a clerk and not a ship’s officer, so that I expect to spend most, if not all, of my remaining time here on shore.’ I could have inserted a question of my own like “Why do you ask?” But I had a feeling that giving this information freely would buy me more answers than questions would.

She considered me with her icy, blue-green eyes, for several seconds in silence. I waited.

‘Will you do me a favor?’ she asked, with a little wince, as if it hurt. As it probably did.

‘Yes, of course,’ I replied, without hesitation. From my training I knew that it was always useful for an intelligence agent to have people in your debt. A debt that you might need to call in someday. Not that I expected to have any need to call in any debts. As a limited time lieutenant, I’d likely be tasked with no more than collecting gossip from merchant traders and travelers, and writing up reports that would eventually end up in Section 3 – where my replacement would read and file them away, as I had done for the last two years. But you never know.

‘No questions?’ she asked, suspiciously.

‘Only one for now. Your name. Later, well, I’ll expect some answers, depending on the nature of this favor.’

She considered me with another long scowling look. ‘Lessie.’

‘Ah, Lessie, ah…?’

‘Just Lessie.’


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