Admiral Kearns and Captain Aubrey’s polished buttons made a golden glitter against the cool cobalt of their coats. Catbeard watched the others gather round as the two entered. Vice admirals, lieutenants, two or three agents under Mycroft Bones. Men of authority from around the area too, it seemed.
The window rose two dozen feet from the floor and looked out over Port Regal. Outside, the sky shone crystal blue and blazed with cold sunshine, scoured clean of clouds by the winds howling through Regal Skyway. Inside, the dining room of the Governor’s mansion lit up with the cascading sunlight. Rolling hills of parchment, figurines, and maps replaced the fine china and cutlery.
Catbeard never dreamed he’d set foot in this place again. Not after the business with Elena and the Governor’s daughter. Though orders were orders. "Look, you’re one of the strongest minds in Skull Island. We’ve been at an impasse for two days. We need your cunning.”
“Oh Captain, flattery will get you everywhere.”
A few cans of pickled herring didn’t hurt either.
Catbeard claimed his seat between Captain Richard Hawkins and Bonnie Anne, whose battles against Guy Fox and Rooke had earned the respect of the Queen’s Iron Dogs. The feline could see the exhaustion in Captain Richard’s eyes. The enormity of what they were involved in—a full on defensive against an overwhelming, multi-world Valencian offensive—pressed down on him, helped in its gravity by the armor weighing down his shoulders.
A command center had been setup in Port Regal, in preparation for the eventual aggression into Skull Island airspace. Fleet Admiral Nelson dispatched Kearns to rally the Skull Island forces into something that could fight.
The meeting started out as always, and descended as always.
“It’s impossible.” A bulldog lieutenant said. His gruff snarl made up for his lack of height, and knocked over two of the wooden figurines on the Skull Island map.
“There has to be a way, Lieutenant Steer.” A Russell Terrier captain said with a twinge of Albion in his bark.
“If you see it, by all means speak up, Green.” Steer countered, slamming a paw on the table. Catbeard noticed Captain Richard sink his head into his hands, before rubbing his temples. “Valencia’s going to come charging out of these Stormgates any week now. Even with the Skull Island rabble, we don’t have the manpower to cover every one.”
Captain Green’s eyes roamed the map. “What about the Puerto Micans.”
“More than half their fleet was recalled to the Capital last week. They’ll be able to catch Valencia if they try to sneak through Avernus, but otherwise we’ll get no help from them here.”
That knocked off another possible entryway, but still left two more. The Cool Ranch gate and the Mooshu Gate. Though no one said it, they were hard-pressed to defend just one, let alone both. Kearns had arrived with less than five ships, though Richard couldn’t blame Nelson for keeping the bulk of his fleet in Marley, after the war with Rooke months ago.
“What if we bottleneck them in Port Regal?” Bonnie suggested, to the disdain of a fair number of dogs.
Catbeard didn’t think terribly of the idea. The entrance to Regal was a slim opening in two large landmasses. Easily defended, especially with nearby Puerto Mico as a base camp.
The issue lay with the cost. Effectively, they’d be handing over Port Regal and Fort Elena for free, and the Iron Dogs weren’t keen on throwing away one of their most prosperous colonies without a fight. And that the idea came from a fox…Catbeard and Richard knew it wouldn’t get any more traction.
Richard slumped while the arguments flew back and forth. He was tired, Catbeard knew. Hadn’t had a wink of sleep in two or three days. Catbeard looked over him and Bonnie, both dejected, dark rings around their eyes, ready to throw in the towel.
Then he shrugged, and figured it was time to let them rest.
“It seems you boys could use a little help.”
His voice silenced the room. A few of the dogs snarled at him. “Marleybone remembers your help, filthy cat.”
“I’ll have you know I take great pride in my cleanliness.” Catbeard sniffed at the air. “By the smell of wet dog in here, it seems you do as well.”
Swords flew from sheaths, rasping one after the other.
“Sit down, all of you.” Kearns silenced the hall once more. He leveled an accepting—and still somehow wary—eye at the feline. “Speak.”
“The only thing I’ve heard is how we’re going to cover all the entrances.” He swallowed a herring, licked his lips, then continued. “Not a single person has thought of closing the entrances themselves.”
Catbeard’s claws fanned out on his left paw, and he leaned forward to cut an ‘X’ across the Mooshu stormgate on the map.
Kearns seemed to catch on. “Break the treaty between Mooshu and Valencia.”
“Ah, an intelligent dog.” Catbeard said. “Yes. The Mooshu gate matters because Valencia has a non-aggression pact with the Emperor. If the treaty breaks, Valencia couldn’t get through without fighting the Imperial Navy, and that leaves only the Cool Ranch gate to worry about.”
“You think we wouldn’t have tried to sever Mooshu’s ties with Valencia?” Lieutenant Steer spat. “Mooshu has only to gain by keeping the treaty. If it could be done, we would have already done it.”
“When was the last time you tried?”
Steer came up short, glancing around the room at equally confused faces.
Catbeard set down the herring. “The Grand General of the Armada was cut down by a no-name pirate. No offense, Captain.” Richard shrugged. “That did more than just save Westminster Skyway. We proved that the Armada was not invincible. With Rooke’s defeat, Mooshu is nursing doubts of their supremacy. Now is the time to convince them they helped the wrong side.”
Catbeard could hear a drop—or an ocean—of contempt in Steer’s snarl.
Kearns watched the cat with an inquisitive eye, sunlight flashing on his monocle. “Agent Banks.”
“Yes, Admiral.” One of Mycroft’s agents answered, a well-dressed Doberman.
“I want you and your men on a skiff towards Hamamitsu within the hour. Tell Ambassador Downley what’s going on. I don’t care what you have to offer the Governor, as long as that treaty is broken.”
They didn’t waste the seconds it took to voice their obedience. The other attendees made their farewells, intending to catch up on sleepless nights. Richard and Bonnie levered their tired bones from the velvet chairs, and told Catbeard to be at the docks by sundown, for the trip back to Jonah Town. A small victory had been won, but there was still more to accomplish.
The room emptied of all but Kearns, Captain Aubrey, and the cat of the hour.
“Will it really be enough, Admiral?” Aubrey asked.
“It is more than we could have dreamed of.” Kearns said, in the friendly emptiness of the sunlit room. “Breaking the treaty not only closes up the Regal Stormgate from invasion, it puts a threat at the Valencians’ backs. If they overcommit here, Mooshu would have an open lane to strike into Valencia’s heart.”
“I knew you were an intelligent dog, Admiral.” Catbeard circled around to the window, gazing out at the open skyway.
Kearns regarded him again, combing fingers through his mustache. “Should this plan result in our triumph, I might see what could be done to restore your name back in the homeland.”
Catbeard knew that to read as ‘You would be free to go as you please’. With the battle of Westminster Skyway hanging over his head, the only thing protecting him from certain demise was Captain Richard’s promise to keep him in custody. A promise he’d sacrificed everything for. He could have done great things with the political clout gained from beating Rooke and saving Marleybone. Improve relations between the kingdom and Albion, acquired vast riches.
Instead, he’d spent it all saving a lone cat from the well-deserved gallows.
Catbeard paused, eyes shifting down to see Bonnie and Richard walking down the steps outside.
“I have all the freedom I need.” He answered at length with a smile. “Though if you’re set on returning the favor, I do love pickled herring.”
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