Craft's Gambit: Part I (a Virtuous Anne Radcliffe story)
The duel finally ended with a solid touch to the left shoulder. “Good! Very good.” Morgan Lafitte stood back, regarding her student with a pleased eye. Anne Radcliffe beamed at the praise, only somewhat tempered by the knowledge that she was sweaty and winded from the bout, while Morgan was not even breathing hard. Still, she had managed to get past her teacher’s formidable guard, not an easy feat at all.
“You are doing well, my young swashbuckler,” Morgan continued. “But you know zat battles are not always blade to blade. I know you have learned much from my colleague, zee Commodore, but what of lessons from Old Fish Eye?”
Anne’s happy expression faded into ruefulness. “I can now hit the broad side of a barn,” she admitted comically.
Morgan’s dark eyes twinkled. “A good start. Work more, and next time you hit the narrow side of one, no? And what of Mordecai’s teachings?”
Anne dropped her eyes. The wooden floor suddenly seemed very interesting. “He doesn’t like me,” she confessed.
Her teacher raised an eyebrow. “No? I heard he was pleased enough with zee one assignment you did for him.” Anne looked surprised, and Morgan allowed herself a smile. “Yes, we discuss our students. Of course! Mordecai thinks you have promise.” Mind, he also thought Anne ‘a prissy dancing girl’, but Morgan Lafitte did not share that comment.
“You should take some lessons from him,” Morgan added firmly. “True, you do not have the strength and endurance he requires from his disciples, but you have gained much in strength since I have known you. Mordecai suggested thees, not I, though I would have. You will not always have room to maneuver in a close fight, and when you can not avoid strong blows, you must learn to manage them.”
Morgan’s voice became very serious. “And, ma petite, you know that most of your foes will be stronger, and some very much stronger than you. You are very good, but zere will always be those who are better zan you. Learn as much as you can, ma cherie.”
“That ees enough for now,” Morgan returned to her usual teaching voice. “We will discuss Madame Vadima’s lessons later. But before you go, zere is a letter for you. Perhaps leading to more adventure, no?”
Morgan Lafitte was absolutely correct. The letter was a plea for help, from Bosun Moon of the ‘Scurvy Dogs’, as they called themselves. Anne returned to her ship and set sail immediately for their island.
Moon was glad to see her and her companions. “Thank Saint Fido you were able to come,” he greeted them gratefully, shaking hands. “Since writing that letter, I 've been working to find more information. I can tell you what we have so far.”
“My sister in Port Regal married this bookish fellow, Robert Hobbs… never knew what she saw in him really, though they seem happy enough together. A week ago I get this frantic message from her. Robert disappeared from the ship docks as he was preparing to go home from some sort of conference. She thinks that he was kidnapped because of some paper he wrote. Now I’ve seen what my brother-in-law does: looks at rocks and makes drawings of plants and things, mostly, and I hardly think that is kidnapping material. It’s not like he makes much of a living with this ‘natural philosophy’ as he calls it, so little use for ransom either. Furthermore, there’s been no ransom note. Personally, I think he’s dead, but my sister refuses to accept that. She’d go looking for him herself, only she’s expecting their pups and she can’t endanger the babies. So I promised I’d do what I could.”
“We can’t leave this island in force with the Monquistans still patrolling the area, but I slipped a few of the boys out with plenty of gold to see what they could find. Some Rats in Scrimshaw were able to tell us that a pirate galleon has been seen docked at one of the very small, insignificant islands near the Cool Ranch storm gate, and some evidence links Robert’s disappearance with this ship. However, the Rats advised strongly to not interfere. Apparently the captain of this ship is a nasty fellow with high ambitions and the means to take what he wants. They were too afraid to give his name, lest even that information should put them at risk.”
Anne’s lip curled in contempt. “Sounds like a bully.”
Bosun Moon gave her a sharp look. “Undoubtedly, but one who is greatly feared and dangerous. Captain Radcliffe, I sincerely hope that if my brother-in-law is still alive, he may be rescued, but use discretion. No sense in getting yourself killed going up against a greatly superior foe.”
Naturally, his advice was going to go unheeded, though no one was so impolite as to tell him so. Not long after, the island in question had been located. Anne and her companions took turns using the spyglass to determine the lay of the land.
“There is a large cave entrance near the sandy beach, well guarded,” Bonnie Anne assessed.
“Of course, that is the easiest way to access the island, and the enemy ship is moored right there,” Ratbeard continued. “However, there’s a rocky promontory on the northwest side of the island that doesn’t look too bad. We can likely dock there. The real tricky part will be getting into that guarded cave.”
Anne scanned the small island with the spyglass. Aside from the pirates swarming around the beach and cave area, the rest of the island was practically deserted. It was not much of an island, just a few hills covered with grasses and small shrubs that were being cropped by wandering sheep. She focused on a cluster of sheep on one hill, and smiled. “I think there may be another way in.”
A short time later, and the sheep in question were being mildly disturbed by the group of people trooping into their midst. As Anne had hoped, the sheep had clustered because they been enjoying the cool blast of air from an opening in the earth. Unfortunately, that opening turned out to be quite narrow. Anne could fit, although barely, the little Monquistans could fit, but no one else. Initial exploration determined the opening led to a long, smooth earthen tube ending in a large chamber with a dry rock floor.
“The marquis, Don Velasco, and I will go down and see what we can find. We will communicate via this tunnel. If we find a larger tunnel to the surface, or find the prisoner, we will let you know.”
“Aye, Captain,” Bonnie Anne replied. “We’ll send down anything you need.”
“Just be careful, Captain,” Sarah Steele added worriedly.
Anne grinned. “Of course!” Sarah rolled her eyes, but the ironic humor did ease her spirit just a little.
An extra lantern and rope, as well as Don Velasco’s halberd, were lowered down after the two adventurers. They both began to explore the cave interior. It was a very odd cavern, with no stalactites or stalagmites, just smooth, rounded walls and floors, with larger chambers connected by similar tunnels. The horizontal tunnels they ventured into now were usually considerably larger than the passage they had entered by, but the vertical tunnels leading upwards remained narrow.
Eventually, doubling back as needed, they found that cavern chambers simply progressed to larger sizes in one particular direction. They ended up in a quite large cavern, which their lanterns could not fully illuminate. Separating, Anne and Velasco took an opposite arc around the cavern, searching for their next clue.
Velasco’s luck struck first. “There’s something different here, captain,” he called in a moderated tone that nevertheless carried clearly across the underground space. Anne began to cross the smooth floor towards him, having seen nothing on her side. “It’s like silver threads, ropes really,” he continued his description, “and -- Arrgh!”
Anne drew her sword and dagger and raced to Velasco’s side. The brave Monquistan knight struggled within a mass of silvery tentacles, his halberd fouled by the tentacles that wrapped around his arm and the shaft of the weapon. Anne dove in, slicing madly at the writhing silver masses that now also sought to entangle her, freeing her companion enough that he was able to draw his own dagger. Chopping and slashing furiously, they managed to back out of immediate danger, the undamaged tentacles still swinging about blindly, seeking fruitlessly for prey.
“What was that?” Anne asked no one in particular, breathing hard.
“It reminds me of those horrible plants in Diabolo Cut,” Velasco commented, also breathing hard. “Ugh.”
“I believe it is Byblis giganticus,” came a new voice from the shadows beyond the deadly silvery tentacles. Both Anne and Velasco immediately jumped back to back, ready to fight, but no threat came. After a moment, Anne raised the lantern to see what was in the darkness.
The light illuminated a ring of silver tentacles that massed from floor to ceiling, now beginning to quiet, although still twitching hopefully. Beyond them the light glanced off glass from a pair of spectacles perched on the long nose of a Marleybonean Dog. He indeed was the author of the voice, for he continued speaking. “Although since I believe most Byblis have pink flowers, this must be a Byblis giganticus alba,” he added helpfully, pointing with a shadowed finger at the white moon-like flowers of the sinister plant.
“You must be Robert Hobbs, then?” Anne inquired.
“I am,” the Dog replied warily.
“A friend of mine, Bosun Moon, sent me,” Anne reassured him. “Your wife is very concerned.”
“Clara? Is she well?” His voice leaped with animated affection.
“Just worried about you. Some prison you are in -- how do your captors get to you?”
“They have a distillate of mandrake root which they spray upon the plant to send it into a temporary stupor. Surgeons in Marleybone and Polaris are experimenting with mandrake distillate you know, as new methods of its manufacture show that it can render a patient insensible for hours, making for safer and more humane surgery. I suppose it thus has a similar effect on the Byblis.”
“Unfortunately, we have nothing like that,” Anne mused.
“We could burn it, perhaps?” Don Velasco suggested.
“I think we would risk suffocating ourselves,” Anne replied. “Mr. Hobbs, do you have any suggestions?”
“Do you have a supply of salt? Most plants dislike quantities of salt,” Robert suggested.
It took some time, going back to the initial tunnel, having salt fetched from the ship, and returning, but the results were as they all wished. Sprinkled with salt, the tentacle-like plant parts shriveled, twisted, and coiled away. It was then an easy matter for Anne to enter the smaller chamber to fetch the prisoner out.
His captors had not bothered to bind him in such a secure prison, and an empty plate and cup on the floor showed that he had not been starved, but otherwise the kidnappers had not been kind. The unfortunate Marleybonean showed marks of considerable abuse, and he needed Anne to help him rise and limp into the larger chamber, hampered additionally by the large, battered book he clung to, which he explained was his notebook.
Once in the main cavern, Anne gently helped him to sit in the pool of light made by the two lanterns. She handed him the Yum salve she kept in her coat pocket, as well as water, bread, and buffaloon jerky they had brought for the expected needs of the prisoner. He fell upon the food and water first -- evidently they hadn’t fed him that much -- and with some application of the salve and healing Yum juice, he soon looked much better.
“I am in your debt,” he gratefully expressed. “And who are you?”
“I’m Anne Radcliffe, a… a pirate,” she admitted, and blushed deeply in shame at his instinctively horrified look.
“She is an honorable and courageous lady, who has been of great service to my queen,” Don Velasco nobly hastened to her defense.
“Of course, I see,” Robert Hobbs replied politely, recovering from his initial shock. He blinked owlishly behind his spectacles. “And I do mean that,” he reflected more slowly. “The pirate captain who took me affects to be a gentleman. He has grand ambitions, as he tells me. He is clean and perfumed, takes care that his clothing and weapons are to a gentleman’s standard, and is most… insistent… on being given the respect that he believes he deserves.” Robert Hobbs swallowed, his face momentarily bleak. Both Anne and Velasco understood. Indeed, Anne understood far too well, having once been the prisoner of Deacon himself.
His expression lightened as he looked at Anne, covered from head to toe in dirt and disheveled from scrabbling through tunnels and her tussle with the carnivorous plant. “You, however, put aside your own needs, and faced danger and hardship to aid a friend and help a stranger.”
“That pirate, no matter what wealth or power he gains, will never be a gentleman. But you…” he took her hand, filthy and scratched from her recent adventures, his eyes warm with admiration. Anne gave him a shy, sweet smile, one unlike her usual cocky grin. “You are truly a lady,” he finished gallantly.
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