Port Nyanzaru! Jewel of Chult!
At least that was what all the merchants and traders told us. We had sailed here six months ago –yet another mysterious request from Captain Corvus’s unseen benefactor –and we had spent the time most profitably. The Captain still had his secret errands and agendas, which after many years I had come to accept as the norm, as did all of the other crew, but for the rest of us there was much gainful employment to be had, from guarding caravans heading to the various encampments for the Order of the Gauntlet or the Ytepka Society –a faction dedicated to upholding the natural order of the island –to exploring the jungles themselves. We had heard rumours of an ancient city, lost for centuries, and we all dreamed of the treasures that might be found there. There were also rumours of the guardians of the city –a race of snake-like people who were hostile to all outsiders –however since no one had ever been to the city and survived there was no real proof either way.
One rumour spoke of an ancient tomb underneath that city, built by some unspeakably evil being. This seemed to pique the most interest among explorers and architects, and we received many offers to escort them as they searched for the tomb. On advice from Captain Corvus, however, we declined all offers no matter how lucrative they were. As those expeditions were never heard from again this proved to be a prudent course of action.
It had been several years now since I had joined the Stormraven, and it was now as much a home to me as any other home I had had, and the crew were like a family. Whether we were on the ship or ashore we joined together for meals and recreation. We even took it in turns to cook, and I might say I learned more than a few culinary skills. It was a good life, and Chult was a good place. In other circumstances, I might be almost tempted to settle here permanently.
There was one major problem which prevented Chult from being a true paradise. It was under the control of Amn. The same Amn whose ships the Stormraven had raided and looted during its pirating career. For the most part, the great nation of Amn was represented by one portly governor and his small entourage of administrators and bureaucrats. They rarely made an appearance and as long as we kept a low profile and stayed out of too much trouble, we would be fine.
Yes, it was a good life.
A few days into the seventh month of our stay Captain Corvus pulled me to one side. I could tell by the look on his face he had received some bad news.
“Talon,” he began, “I’ve received word from our contacts in the city that a delegation from Amn is arriving later today. I’ve given orders for the ship to be moved to a hidden cove, but I want you to eavesdrop on the meeting and find out what they want.”
My eyes widened. This could only be trouble. “Do you know what it’s about, sir?”
The Captain shook his head. “No, but I have a bad feeling about it. Find out their purpose and report back as soon as you are able. Now get going!”
I nodded, dashed off a quick salute, and went to my bunk to make my preparations. It was a pretty standard stealth infiltration, so I would just need my usual pack. As I left the ship along the gangplank I heard the crew making the sails ready. The Captain had given me the location he was heading to. It was quite a long way around the Island, so I would have to travel through a substantial amount of jungle to reach it. That didn’t worry me –I had a mansion to infiltrate.
I had previously taken advantage of several opportunities during our time here to survey the governor’s mansion and had made a few acquaintances among the staff and servants –I had even done a few of the more menial jobs –and so when I arrived at the servants’ entrance I was welcomed and ushered in without any delay. I knew where the governor’s audience hall was and which rooms adjoining it was generally unused at this time of day. There was one particular room which would suit my purposes –when the city had originally been built, before Amn came, the merchant princes had distrusted one another so much that any secret meetings in the audience hall would be recorded by a rival prince in a small room which featured a spyhole hidden in one of the audience hall’s frescoes. From what the servants had told me, the Amn governor did not know about the existence of either the spyhole or the room, and that made it an ideal spot to listen in from.
I found the room a half-hour before the Amn delegation was due to arrive. It was smaller than I had expected –there was only just enough room for one person to fit in. That didn’t matter though, it would serve well enough. I could see the spy hole and through it the audience hall. I squeezed in, closed the door, and waited. At the appointed hour I saw the main doors open and a group of well dressed, bureaucratic-looking men and women entered. I recognised them as the Amn governor and some of the merchant princes, including a representative from the Ytepka Society. A few moments later a second group entered, only this time instead of opulent garments, they were wearing armour of Amn design. At their head was a severe-looking man who had the air of authority about him. His armour was lined with fur and he wore no helmet. This must be a high-ranking officer.
I felt my stomach sink. This could not be good. I strained my ears to listen. A few pleasantries were exchanged, then the real discussions began.
“We have received your request for independence from Amn,” the General began, “and we have come to negotiate terms.”
The Nyanzaru group shuffled uncomfortably. “We appreciate your willingness to negotiate,” the Ytepka Society representative said nervously, “However we do wonder about the requirement for such a large military force.”
The General shrugged. “They are here merely as a bodyguard. Pay them no mind. However…” he trailed off and fixed the Ytepka representative with a stare, “Should negotiations break down, we will need to… take measures… to ensure Amn rule continues without incident.”
“Do… do you have a proposal for us?” the Ytepka representative asked. It looked to me like the blood had drained from his face.
The Amn General shrugged again. “As it happens, we have no real interest in continuing our governance of this place. Amn is willing to relinquish administrative control to you and your colleagues. On one condition.”
The Ytepka and his associates visibly breathed sighs of relief. “What is your condition?” the Ytepka asked.
The General smiled. “A very simple thing. We have learned that a certain ship is docked here. The Stormraven. This ship has been a thorn in the side of Amn’s affairs for some considerable time now.
“Our condition is that you turn over the ship and its crew to us or, failing that, give us the location of the ship and we will deal with the matter ourselves.”
Captain Corvus’s shoulders slumped when I reported the news. “They’re going to turn us over. There’s no reason for them not to. The merchant princes have been petitioning for independence from Amn for years.”
“We’re well hidden here though, aren’t we?” I asked. The Stormraven had chosen its hiding place well. We had dropped anchor in a natural cavern that was in an inlet about a third of the way around the island from Port Nyanzaru. The natural cover was enough to hide us from prying eyes but still allowed us to see ships coming from a great distance.
The Captain shook his head. “Some of the dock workers had a hand in moving us. There was no way to avoid it. All it will take is a little pressure –or some coins –and they will tell those Amnian dogs whatever they want to know. Our only option is to try and run. How soon can we set sail?”
I thought for a moment. We were still loading supplies, although the stock currently in our hold would be enough to last us until we reached a friendlier port. Some of the crew were still ashore and would not be back for a few hours. Captain Corvus would not leave any of his men behind, that much was certain.
“By my estimate, we should be ready to leave at midnight,” I replied. It wasn’t the best answer but it was the most realistic.
The Captain looked thoughtful for a moment then nodded. “Make ready the sails and weapons. We leave as soon as we are able.” His raven landed on his shoulder. He reached up to it and petted it on its head.
I took that as my cue to leave and see to the ship’s preparations. Midnight was only a few hours away but there was much work to do before then.
It was a quarter of an hour to midnight when we heard a cry from the lookout.
“Sail ho!” The urgency in his voice was unmistakable
I ran to the side of the ship to see what was happening. My heart sank like a stone. Gathering around the mouth of the cavern were six Amn warships, heavily armoured and armed with ballistae and catapults. They didn’t seem to have seen us yet but it was certain they knew we were here.
Captain Corvus came and stood next to me. His face was grim. “So this is how it is then.” For a long moment, his knuckles tightened on the wooden railing. Eventually, he turned to face the rest of the crew who by now had all gathered on the deck. “My friends,” he began, “It seems that Amn has come to settle their account with us. Now you know me, I won’t give them the satisfaction of trapping us here like bilge rats! We can either meet our fate cowering here, or we can go out and face them like the true pirates we are!” He drew his cutlass and raised it above his head. “I know what my choice is! I won’t give them the satisfaction of running us to the ground! What say you?”
For a brief moment there was silence, then one or two of the crew cheered their assent. They were quickly followed by everyone else. All the crew waved their swords and shouted their defiance, myself among them. It had been a good life and if it had to come to an end, this was as fine a way as any. At least, I told myself, I would be able to see Astrid soon. Maybe she would even forgive me for what I did to her. I would find out soon enough.
The Captain spoke again, his voice booming over us, “Then make ready! We go forth to our destiny!”
We rushed to our positions –sails, ballistae and so on –and the Captain gave the order to raise the anchor. In a magnificent show of courage, honour and defiance, the Stormraven began its final voyage.
No sooner had we cleared the mouth of the cave than the Amn ships opened fire with their catapults, throwing great flaming boulders into the air. The first few boulders missed their mark, landing in the water around us with almighty splashes, but we knew that wouldn’t last. Our two ship-mounted ballistae fired great arrows at the nearest ships. One fell short and crashed into the sea, but the other stayed true and impaled the enemy vessel. The damage was too light however and the ship carried on as if it had been attacked by an insect.
The first boulder to hit us struck our mainmast, neatly cleaving it in two. The great mainsail tipped sideways and began to fall, tearing ropes from their mounts and flinging men over the side of the ship into the water. The lookout stationed on top of the mast fell screaming into the sea, instantly dead.
The men continued to roar their defiance and took up bows, firing arrow after arrow –some on fire, some not –at the nearest ships. A few found their targets and the wooden hulls of the Amn vessels caught fire but yet again it was not enough. The enemy ships kept coming and their catapults kept flinging their boulders.
“Talon!” I turned as Captain Corvus called to me. He was standing at the Stormraven’s wheel, his wide flamboyant hat on the deck next to him trampled and tattered… I ran to join him, narrowly avoiding a boulder as it crashed through the deck behind me. The Captain’s hands gripped the wheel so tightly I could see blood starting to seep between his fingers. He turned to me. “Talon, you have to get off the ship! Now!” he shouted.
I shook my head. “I’m not leaving!” I shouted back. “This is my fate as much as it is yours!”
“Don’t be a fool, Talon!” The Captain finally let go of the wheel and reached into his cloak. He pulled out a leather pouch, which he pressed into my hands. “Take this! You’ll know what to do with it when the time comes! Now go!” I still didn’t move. “Go!” The Captain was shouting in my face, “She still has a purpose for you!”
She? Who was she? I opened my mouth to ask the Captain who “She” was when he grabbed me by my arm. Shocked, I offered no resistance as he dragged me to the rear of the ship.
“It’s been an honour to serve with you Talon!” Captain Corvus said, then he swung his fist and punched me on the jaw. I went over and fell down to the water. The shock of it stunned me for a moment as I sank, then self-preservation took over and I swam hard back to the surface. Some pieces of the ship were floating nearby, so I grabbed one and hung on to it, kicking my way back to the cavern that had been our refuge for a brief time.
When I reached the relative safety of the cavern I turned back. Tears stung my eyes.
The Stormraven was going down. With a great crashing sound the wood of the hull bent and broke. The Amn ships still fired boulder after boulder into it. Finally, the wreckage of the ship sank beneath the water and the sea grew calm once more.
For a moment I hoped that others from the ship had made it, but I saw no one in the water. The Amn ships began to turn and leave, their work complete.
I remained where I was, shock and grief battling inside me. Grief won and I broke down crying. Another ship, another crew, another captain, gone.
What was going to happen to me now?