The Jewel of the Sea (Private)

The sea parted in white foam as Bloody Barracuda's prow cut its narrow path through the rolling swell. The two-masted schooner was sailing upwind, zig-zagging this way and that to take advantage of her fore'n'aft sails, which swung on the heavy wooden booms overhead each time the vessel made to tack. The ship was following a course laid down in the old charts that had long been aboard the ship. The current captain, Laverna Hellebore, had found the route and notes in the former corsair master's notes. It spoke of a wondrous, wealthy island ruled by pine martens, where all manner of creatures could find good fortune and a warm welcome. Laverna had a feeling this spirit of generosity only extended to other corsairs, but more importantly, she sensed a more formal arrangement with the occupants of the island might be advantageous. The Hellebores needed allies, no matter how unusual it might be for the proud wildcats to associate with other beasts.

The zig-zagging manoeuvres of the ship required closer supervision than the relatively easier times when they were sailing downwind. Laverna stood on the ship's quarterdeck, towards the rear of the schooner. From there she could see the crew at work, who themselves were under the watchful eyes of the fox sergeant, who went by the name of Matlock, who had come with her when the Bloody Barracuda had been recovered. The ship had been beached on the western coast of the Northlands, all but two members of the crew slaughtered. The killer herself had disappeared, but the other survivor, a cat named Ryker, had found his way into Hellebore's Horde. They had followed him back to the ship, pulled it off the sandbank and put her back into commission. Ryker himself had been initiated into the horde, and though he had a brief stint back on land, he was once again out at sea.

The corsair had made a good impression on the beasts of the horde. Laverna had him as the ship's executive officer, since he was the most able sailor aboard. He had a few friends aboard the ship apart from the wildcat; her personal slave, Perrin, had taken to him quite quickly. There was also Nerissa the fox healer, and Ranjit the ferret, who were often by Ryker's side. He was friends with Firas too, a scout in the horde, the grey-furred feral cat was not aboard the Bloody Barracuda, preferring instead to be on land. Laverna liked having another feline on board, though truth be told she was warming to Matlock. She had found they had a common interest in spearing dangerous sea creatures with the ship's finely-sharpened harpoons.

This was the first time the schooner and her crew had really ventured a good distance from Claudia's supervision. Laverna knew her cousin was overly protective about her, but she had to handle this mission herself. The Bloody Barracuda's lookouts were on watch night and day for some sign of what the charts had described as a jewel of the sea. An island busy with trade, the fruits of slave labour going out to the mainland, and luxury goods coming back in return. An island that could be quite influential if it got involved in the business of the mainland. The notes said the ruler of the island styled himself as an Emperor, and lived in a grand white house perched at the highest point of the island's southern tip, where he could look out over his whole kingdom. There were corsairs of all stripes making up the Emperor's fleet, and even exotic creatures like lizards in his guard. There was always plenty of food, drink, and pleasant company. Laverna suspected Captain Crableg had really liked Sampetra, so she could not be sure how much of his description was exaggeration. Still, even the wildest stories can contain some truth.

The Bloody Barracuda sailed onward through night and day. At night the winds changed, so the night watch had to be ever alert as the ship's heavy booms swung over the decks. Matlock had the idea of hooking lanterns to the ends of the booms, so that they could be easily seen. With the moon and stars in the sky, it was easier to see and navigate by the constellations. However, the cloudy nights put everybeast on edge as the world became pitch black, the schooner the only source of light. As they sailed further south, it seemed to Laverna that the days grew warmer, even though it was autumn. The Bloody Barracuda was a fast ship, and the winds and currents had been favourable. There was an air of excitement even amongst the crew, as gossip about the mysterious island spread around the ship like wildfire. The phrase 'shore leave' was enough to make even the most cynical of beasts perk their ears. The captain had also promised an extra ration of rum for the beast that spotted the island first.

"Land, ho!" A call came from the mainmast. Laverna gave Ryker an excited look, and she bounded for the mast's shrouds. Climbing up the rigging, she reached the maintop, a small platform about halfway up the mast. From there, she scaled the shrouds that led to the crow's nest at the top of the mast. The climb up did require some strength and confidence from the wildcat, as there were two way to get to the platforms. There were 'lubber's holes' in the platforms which the less-confident sailors could climb through. Those with more experience could use the rigging (called the futtock shrouds) that was secured to the edge of the platforms, and actually climb up over the edge. This was a more precarious method, as it put the wildcat in a position where she was literally hanging off the ropes.

Laverna had used the lubber's holes when she had first been practicing going aloft. These days she knew her ship much better, and could go on the futtock shrouds and get up to the tops very quickly indeed. The wildcat was a good climber, and liked to give her fellow feline sailor a run for his money in seeing who could get to the top first. Today their friendly competition was not on her mind. She was far too eager to catch sight of the so-called Jewel of the Sea. The ferret on duty pointed it out, it was not quite directly ahead, but a little to the ship's starboard. She gazed intently on the horizon, starting from dead ahead and moving right. Sampetra! There it was, a distant blot on the horizon. Laverna could see what she assumed was the highest part of the island, though they were too far to see the white house from Crableg's stories.

"Good work, sailor. Sergeant! An extra ration of rum for this lad, as promised," Laverna called down. Matlock tugged his ear, and the ferret did the same, looking quite pleased with himself. The captain put her spyglass to her eye and adjusted it to get the island in focus. A curious device made of wood and brass that she had found in her cabin, she now never moved about the ship without it strapped to her belt. Even though it was difficult to make out any details about the rocky hill, just looking at the island filled her with excitement. Here was an adventure waiting to happen. She passed over the glass to Ryker.

"Two points off our starboard bow. Do you recognise it?" Laverna asked excitedly. She knew the corsair had been there before, but the cat had been curiously cagey about his time there. Laverna had decided not to press Ryker about it; he seemed happy enough to travel with her, and he never denied any of the details Crableg had written about. Laverna hoped that his knowledge of the place would be useful in making first contact. They would have to give the Emperor a good first impression, if they were to win his friendship.

Ryker was in on the quarterdeck, but he wasn't supervising for now, the captain and the sergeant that he had heard going by the name of 'Matlock', were enough eyes to keep everything going smoothly and personally, he didn't think it was that important and necessary anymore. It may have only been a few weeks since the Wildcat horde got their paws on The Bloody Barracuda, but already they were quite the organized and well educated crew. There had been hardly any issues during the entire trip and he doubted now that there would be any this day….

He stared out into the ocean blue, spotting and almost immediately identifying fish as they swam besides or under the ship. He liked doing that when he needed to think and reflect on previous events. Though rarely, he did also think about events happening now and now, finally. This was very much the case where he was thinking about now. Laverna wanted to go to Sampetra, he knew the island fairly well. His latter captain, Crableg for the chitin peg leg that used to tap about in rhythm with his one worn boot on the deck from what felt like seasons ago. Constantly took the crew including himself to Sampetra to gamble, drink all kinds of expensive and exotic boozes and grogs and finally, lay with the finest prostitutes taverns can provide in the world of corsairs. Sometimes they would also buy replacement harpoons and weapons and would also have the ship repaired from time to time. However, it always ended the same no matter what was and was not done during each and every single trip. Almost everybeast lost whatever loot he got from raiding the coasts and would wake up the next mourning with both a hangover and a feeling of regret for their uncontrollable spending. Though in Ryker's case, there had also been several times where he felt like kicking the captain's literal crab leg out from under him instead. Though he couldn't deny it, he had fun on every trip to Sampetra.

However, Ryker was not too excited to come back to Sampetra this time around, especially not with Laverna. Mostly because both of them have pasts that are not only drastically different from one another, but also lived societies and cultures that ideally butt heads with each other and go by very different rules and beliefs. One particular rule in Wildcat culture in the Northlands is that the feline race is superior to the 'vermin' races, the thought of bedding with any 'vermin' species would be shameful and disgraceful. However, in corsair culture. This was very common practice and most corsairs hardly cared if other beasts knew about such activities, because every other corsair pretty much has done the same thing. Ryker was not an exception to such a thing. Sure, he was already a favorite in the horde, buuuuut. If he was found out to have such 'personal' interaction with vermin races in the past. He would likely suffer terribly for this.... Especially if Claudia found out about it. He would never be ashamed of his past actions, but he did not like the idea of facing a wildcat's claws....

Another concerning reason his new captain. Laverna's a quick leaner, but she has only just began to get into the life of corsairs and its society. He worried if Sampetra would be too much for her to take in. Pretty much everything that reflects the corsair lifestyle was there and everything that fits wildcat society certainly was not. Laverna may suffer a severe case of culture shock...

"Land, ho!" He heard the shout that sounded like as if it came from the skies, but in reality it was coming from the mainmast. The sea cat turned just in time to see Laverna give him a look of sheer excitement right before she went speeding towards the mast shrouds. 'Might as well join her, even though I seen the place a dozen times before…' He thought as he took his time walking down the steps from the quarterdeck to the main deck, though he drastically increased his speed when he made it to the mast shrouds. Easily making it up to the crow's nest and catching up with the excited wildcat captain. Unfortunately, he was temporarily assaulted by a flood on bad memories when he climbed into the crow's nest. This is where he was hidden for days during that one fateful day when his crew got killed. for several days, he had relied on what was left of his grog and than when that ran out, his own urine. Even than, he has almost died from exposure and also from almost falling off the mast shrouds due to being so weak at the time when he tried to climb down them after the vixen had finally left the ship. Had he fallen, he surely would have hit the sand where the ship had bellied up onto shore and died instantly from impact.

Even though the crow's nest had long been cleaned, he still swore he smelled it all. Even if it wasn't actually there anymore. It was the smell of drunken foolishness and plenty of humiliation and regrets….

He shook the thoughts away quickly, it again. Wasn't a good time to dwell on the past at all. The future had some excitement and fun to be had....

"Two points off our starboard bow. Do you recognise it?" And some baby sitting….

"Aye Captain, that's Sampetra alright. I recognize that palace anywhere. Before you came along, Crableg used to make me and my maties all go there after a good day of lootin' and we would end up losin' a bunch of our shares on the island. There were many times I woke up angry with both a hang over and a urge to kick that chitin leg out from under him...." Despite what sounded like a negative portrayal of his former captain, the cat had a smile tugging at the sides of his muzzle.

Nerissa was also on the quarterdeck, about ten or so minutes ago. She was inside the ship caring for those who were suffering the effects of seasickness, as the sour smell leaking off from her forewarned. Though she wasn't hit directly by projectile bile, she had never been a creature to wear any form of foot wear and unfortunately. It was a fashion choice she finally paid dearly for, either the sick beasts had slumped over their beds and vomited at her feet or she had been forced to walk through it to attend to another sick patient. She made two mental notes to both wash her paws off when they reached shore and to ask Ryker to get her a pair of boots like he always wore. If they would going to be out sailing for a while, she really would prefer to sail without constantly reeking of somebeast's digestive system that had been at work….

"Land, ho!" She turned at the sound, but before she looked up to the ferret, her eyes caught the wildcat captain, Laverna. Excitedly speeding off to the mast shrouds and start her quick climb up, Ryker eventually following in stride. The white vixen smiled, it wasn't too far back when the wildcat wouldn't even dare try to do such a thing and would only climb up the 'lubber's holes' to the crow's nest. According to what Ryker had humorously told her in private, even though it had been there way before the horde ever took control of the vessel. It was typically frowned upon and outright mocked for any beast to use the lubber holes, even if the corsair was new to the deck. Had his former crew saw a big and strong beast such as Laverna actually use the lubber holes instead of the mast shrouds, they would have secretly shared the tale amongst both themselves and to other corsairs from different crews during their trips to islands like Sampetra and Terramort and would have had a good time laughing uproariously about it.

Another rather interesting thing Ryker had said to her involving the mast shrouds was that the former captain, Crableg. Had still used the mast shrouds instead of the lubber holes even after his incident which resulted in him losing most of one of his legs. Even more shocking was that despite the captain's handicap, he had never once fallen from the mast shrouds whenever he climbed up to the crow's nest. This was a ferret who had lost one of his legs just below the knee and was forced to learn how to walk 'flat footed' (Plantigrade-style locomotion) instead of 'on his toes' (Digitigrade-style locomotion) to be able to move correctly on a false leg made of crab chitin and he still refused to take the lubber holes. The thought of such a stubborn beast who would risk repeated chances of falling off and breaking his skull baffled the healer vixen….

"Good work, sailor. Sergeant! An extra ration of rum for this lad, as promised." She suddenly heard the wildcat call down to the fox sergeant that she easily knew as 'Matlock .' She never actually knew the fox personally and Ryker knew the fox even less than she. There were plenty of times either she or Perrin had to immediately remind him of the vulpine sergeant's name. She returned her attention to the felines in the crow's nest to see them speaking to each other, though this time Laverna's tone was normal and Ryker replied in the same manner. Nerissa was too far away to hear what they were talking about….

As she turned her head towards Sampetra, she suddenly frowned miserably as she was reminded of a rather unfortunate fact Ryker had shared with her along with the other snow foxes and ermine aboard the ship. Back at Mossflower country, it had been nearing winter and in preparation natural of their races due to where they came from. All of them have had their winter coats grown in, it hadn't been too noticeable when they had been sailing the seas, but now as they neared the tropical island of Sampetra. The all year around heat typically to the island would make itself known and she would have to either face a pair of shears, or possibly die from exposure from the heat. Even if she choose the stay in the ship. Although the vixen was not looking forward to her furcut, she would rather go through with it and get it all over with instead of burning to death from the inside.

She gave a sad groan and banged her head once on the wooden railing of the ship and rested it there....

The war ferret, Ranjit had like his two friends, been against the wooden railing at the foredeck of the schooner, however. Unlike them, he was not taking a 'break.' He was still on 'guard duty….'

The expression on his face would have told anybeast right away how he felt about that. Ranjit sure didn't feel like he was on guard duty and being prepared for a ship-to-ship battle with the native corsairs or the possibility of fighting some sea monster that may take interest in making a meal out of the ship. He felt like he had just been standing around idling away and taking a really long break. It made him wonder why Ryker loved being a corsair so much and why he thought it was such a 'exciting' life. Admittedly it was not a complete waste of his time. There had been rather exciting moments where Ryker and Laverna would take turns trying to catch native creatures like sharks and wolf fish, but all in all. It was too little for such a long trip. As much has he liked Ryker and his friends Nerissa and Perrin, he would have rather preferred to stay ashore with The Way Lady. Scouting through the Mossflower woods couldn't be anywhere near as boring as this. Especially when that wolverine showed up.

He suddenly found himself rather curious on how things went between The War Lady and the wolverine....

"Land, ho!" He heard a beast from the crow's nest, a ferret like himself, call out. He didn't even bother to turn his head to look up at the lookout, instead. He merely looked out ahead to see if he could spot it himself, but he was unable too. Maybe….

He turned around and headed to the other side of the foredeck. There! There it was! It was the place Ryker and Laverna kept calling 'Sampetra.'  Ranjit wondered if maybe some of this 'excitement' that corsairs supposedly have was there. Judging what Ryker had told him about the island. There was a lot of 'excitement' there, especially in the taverns. He smiled at that little detail, maybe Laverna wouldn't care about him going into such places and seeing if he could get lucky, maybe start a violent brawl or two while he was at it....

His smile however, soon turned into a grim expression. Than again, maybe Ryker just thought it was all exciting and he would likely just be temporarily stranded in a place just as boring as this ship is.

"Good work, sailor. Sergeant! An extra ration of rum for this lad, as promised." Ranjit chuckled inwardly when he heard what Laverna shouted. 'Yeh, give the beast who is the highest off the ground some extra alcohol, i'm sore nothin' bad will come of it.' Was his thought. Well, least that would be bring some action on the ship, a drunken ferret jumping off the crow's nest believing he can fly just before he suddenly belly flops into the deck and dies. The thought made him laugh inwardly again. It was a rather cruel thing to think about, but he couldn't help but to find the scene playing out inside his head funny.

He finally raised himself off the railing and with a twisting motion, popped several bones in his spine. Might as well get himself prepared to get off the ship and have a little mini-adventure with Ryker and Laverna. The ferret war slave turned just in time to see Nerissa bang her head against the railing from the other side of the ship and grinned knowingly. 'Have fun with that furcut Nerissa. I know I will.' He again, made a mental imagine about the situation that will eventually happen and again forced himself not to laugh out loud. He thanked his spirits that his ancestors didn't come from the Land of Ice and Snow.

The speck had grown on the horizon over the past hour, and become a proper tropical island. Sampetra appeared vividly green after so many days spent looking at grey-blue seas and the sky. The Bloody Barracuda was headed around the northern tip of the island, which seemed almost untouched by anybeast, save the neat rows of some tall leafy crop Laverna could not name. The charts indicated there was a port town on the western coast, and Ryker's stories seemed to confirm it would be the best place to drop anchor. They passed swathes of white, sandy beaches nestled in coves bordered by rocky cliffs and reefs visible through the shallow light blue waters that surrounded the island. The schooner's rudder creaked as it swung every few minutes, having to navigate through a patch of reefs handily marked by the wreck of a less-fortunate ship. A three-masted fluyt had half-sunk into the shallow water, leaning at a wayward angle. Her top decks and the stumpy remains of her broken masts still stood above the pounding white surf, a bleak reminder of what could befall them should a storm unexpectedly roll in.

Sampetra's highest peak was visible even passing the north-west point of the low-lying island. The 'grand white house' that Crableg had written of looked more like a fortified palace to Laverna, just as Ryker had said. Though true to Crableg's word, somebeast had painted the fortress-like structure white, make it seem even more brilliant by the hot sun's reflection. However, this was the most civilisation the wildcat could see. Much of the island was covered in fields and fields of the tall green plants. Occasionally they would see a few woodlanders in straw hats, or a sea rat dozing in the shade, but nobeast on shore seemed perturbed by the sight of the Bloody Barracuda. Even though the white flower of the Hellebore clan flew from the stays of the spanker sail (the aftmost fore'n'aft rigged sail, which swings on the aftmost boom), the various beasts that did look up to see them pass seemed untroubled by the wildcat symbol. In fact, a couple of corsairs had waved rather drunkenly as the schooner had scudded past. Laverna wondered if they still thought Captain Crableg lived, and that this was just another one of his regular visits to go on a spending spree.

Laverna was practically glued to the spyglass as she watched the coast pass by. She watched a tranquil lagoon bordered by reefs and rocks, then for a moment she could see through the leafy fields where a line of woodlanders ambled along a snaking path through the crop. The further the schooner sailed south, the more signs of life Laverna could make out. She saw wooden huts in clumps formed miniature villages, and squat, mud-brick storehouses with a few corsairs playing with dice or dozing off as they guarded the sloped ramps down to the underground storage, where food and drink could be kept cool and moist. Wagons filled with freshly cut crops were unloaded here and hauled there, though nobeast seemed in a terrible rush. Thin coils of smoke wafted from a blacksmith's furnace, and as the Bloody Barracuda rounded the next set of headlands, the port itself came into view.

The port was nestled in a sheltered inlet, protected from high waves and heavy winds by the headlands. The jetties jutted past the aqua-green shallows and out to where even a full loaded galleon could safely make berth. They had evidently been extended over a long time, since some parts were constructed of different timbers, and the jetties were in different states of disrepair along their length. The jetties were a lot livelier than the surrounding countryside, and there were far more ships than Laverna had expected to find. The largest and most impressive was a four-masted galleon, with sailors hanging off its hull on ropes applying a fresh coat of paint to her white and red patterns. Along the same jetty was a smaller three-masted fluyt, similar to the wreck the Bloody Barracuda had passed in the reefs. She had woodlanders and vermin alike swarming her to unload her spacious cargo holds. Crates and barrels were being moved along the jetty, on their way to the port's warehouses, their wide doors slid open for the day's work. Laverna could also see a schooner similar in size to her own, though her lines were not as beautiful as the Bloody Barracuda's, in her opinion. All three of those ships were flying the same colours; their flags had three vertical stripes, a tropical-looking green, then a vibrant orange, then a lighter blue. In the orange part of the flag in the middle, there were two black circles that looked almost like eyes.

Laverna presumed these three ships represented some part of Sampetra's fleet, though there was ample space on the jetty for more. The other jetties had plenty of other vessels clinging to their painted iron bollards. They were all seaworthy ships, though some looked as if they had weathered storms and swells for decades, their paint cracked and their ragged corsair's colours torn by the wind and bleached by the sun. There were bluff-bowed barques, with their wide hulls designed to keep afloat even with a heavy cargo load. These were the more ambitious adventurers, able to stock away enough supplies for a long-haul voyage, keeping enough crew members alive and healthy to pull in all kinds of loot. They would be before the mast and under the lash for months, perhaps even a year or more, tearing their victims apart for spare sails, rigging, nails, wood, food, rum, and new members of the crew when others fell from battle or disease. These were the most fearsome corsair ships, in the same league as the legendary Goreleech of old, though even one of those might  think twice before falling in with the four-masted galleon. The ships with slimmer hulls were more suited to the corsairs out for a quick and easy catch. They were faster, but could not stay at sea for as long, nor could they haul in the mountains of loot the bigger barques could.

Beyond the jetties, there were other boats tied up at the wharfs that lined the sheltered inlet. They were fore'n'aft rigged sloops, not big enough to go out to sea, but perfect for working around the coast. These did not fly corsair colours; they appeared to be Sampetra's local fishing fleet. Laverna supposed that the island must have a fairly steady supply of fish, though she wondered if any of the seafaring corsairs brought in sharks, or even whales to trade. The harpoons Matlock had found in the armoury were not there for show, after all. Past the multitude of gently swaying masts, the wildcat could see the port town itself. The seaside was mainly devoted to ship operations; the warehouses she had noted earlier, slipways leading to shipyards, and drydocks for ship maintenance. There was a main street that led from the shorefront though, which was lined by various other buildings, these only one or two stories high. Laverna guessed that was where Sampetra's taverns and other such bawdy houses of entertainment had sprung up, eager to lure in the corsairs that had earned some fleeting wealth.

The Bloody Barracuda spilled the wind from her mainsails and let the topsails carry her in as she turned downwind and made to moor at a jetty. Mooring was easier than dropping anchor in the harbour, since that would have to be hauled back up again eventually by the crew, using the capstans. The schooner was a small enough ship that they could simply toss the mooring lines onto the jetty, where a couple of slaves could quickly tie them to the bollards. Laverna was impressed with how quickly they worked; either they were well-practiced, or rightly afraid of messing up the procedure and rousing the ire of a heavily armed corsair captain. With the head line securing the bow of the ship and the stern line fixed at the rear, they passed over the forward and aft breast lines. Meanwhile, the ship's topsails, jibs and staysails had been spilled of their wind and furled so they would not flap in the wind. Matlock inspected the tarred hemp ropes and made certain they looked secure and the knots were tied well. Weak ropes or poor knots could cause all sorts of problems. If the ship were to pull a rope too hard, it might snap, and the snapback could be lethal. Not to mention having the ship loose from its moorings would be dangerous, and not reflect well on Laverna as a captain. The ship's boarding plank was brought up to the weatherdeck and lowered till it hit the jetty. The sailors tied up the plank so it wouldn't shift or fall, and the Bloody Barracuda had officially made port.

Laverna had retreated to her cabin, and was busy with Perrin getting into a more 'corsair' kind of dress. Earlier the weasel had spent some time giving his wildcat mistress a fur cut, a very delicate job when any mistakes could make her quite irritated indeed. Her thick wintery coat was looking a lot trimmer and neater, though she still felt quite warm in this climate. At least she had not been subjected to the rather less-skilled shearing paws that some of the crew had to endure, to bear the heat. For dress, she had put on a relatively simple and hardy looking leather tunic, and a red silk sash, which Perrin tied around her waist, and a cutlass thrust into it instead of her usual longsword. She wore simple pants tucked into her boots, avoiding any appearance of finery. Perrin had found some strips of red cloth in the flag locker, and had made them bandannas to wear on their heads. Matlock was also sporting a bandanna, and had decided to take a harpoon on shore as well as a cutlass. Laverna smiled as she inspected her fearsome looking shore party. "Come on, then. Let's see what Ryker thinks."

"Ryker! Ready to go ashore?" Perrin called out to Ryker as the trio came out onto the quarterdeck. Laverna grinned shyly, feeling a little self-conscious now she was no longer dressed in her usual knightly manner. Perrin seemed to be enjoying the whole thing though, and Matlock… well, the fox was gripping his harpoon quite tightly. Perhaps the wildcat was not the only one nervous about walking through a port of corsairs. The Northlanders were very familiar with old tales of the wildcats turning on the corsairs and slaughtering them. Whilst Laverna reasoned that no illiterate corsair could possibly know this fact so many generations later, there was that niggling feeling of doubt. Perrin turned to show off his 'corsair' apparel; a loose cream shirt and breeches, a ragged sash and bandanna, and they had even found a pair of boots the weasel could fit properly.


"…and Your Grace's is sure the new allowances to the slave masters should be so generous? An increase of fifteen ducats a week?" The rat tried to keep still as the Emperor's brush swished across the canvas, his delicate brown-furred paws barely gripping it in his pink pawpads.

"My dear Lord High Treasurer, if you would skip ahead to the new port regulations, I'm increasing overnight mooring fees by four percent. And you know what four percent of three-hundred and seventy-five ducats is, do you not? Hold still, I'm working on your ears."

A slight pause as the rat worked out the mathematics in his head. Three-point-seven-five times by four... oh. He blushed under his fur, feeling a fool in front of the Emperor. "Fifteen ducats, Your Grace."

"Fifteen ducats! They'll barely notice though, since we're slashing the rum tariff! Hold still, Deke, I've nearly caught the reflection from your earrings." The pine marten pursed his lips and dabbed at the canvas, the point of the brush barely scraping it. The sea rat was obviously getting restless from standing still for so long, but the Emperor was on a roll with this portrait.

"S-slashing the rum tariff! But Your Grace, that could lead to far more demand, and loss of productivity," Deke stammered, his chubby paws beginnig to shake as they gripped the finance report even tighter.

"Ahh, but production's been up this season. Besides, you know as well as I that the rum is hardly going to run out if we add our special ingredient, Deke," the pine marten winked.

If the Lord High Treasurer's ears hadn't been turning red before, they were certainly looking more like wrinkled roses now. "You mean _water_, Your Grace."

Panteleon beamed at Deke and put one final dab on his painting, before dunking the brush in a clay pot of water and shaking it till the water frothed pink. "Exactly! It's not like they can tell after they've had a few rounds of the pure stuff to start with. Half of them have tongues so dead you could fill their flagons with urine and they'd quaff it. Not a bad thought actually, if we run out of water…"

At a nod from the marten, the portly rat collapsed into a wicker chair by the window. He had been in the Emperor's Summer Room all morning, working on the new tariffs and taxes they would be filtering down to the port authority, which was a fancy name given to the bunch of meaty dockworkers and ex-sailors that brought some semblence of order to the island's port town, usually at the end of a cutlass. Whilst he had been wracking his brain over figures to make sure they still came out with a handsome profit, the Emperor had as usual been showing off by doing all the sums in his head whilst painting a portrait.

The Summer Room was on the top floor of the fortified palace. It had arched windows and light colours, intended to be a breezy, quiet relaxation room for the Emperor during the hottest days of the season. The glass windows were kept open until the storms blew through and made them rattle. Glass had first been imported to Sampetra, back in the days when his forebears had worked to resettle the island and make it their own paradise. The luxury goods they now could not make on the island still came when ordered. With the right amount of gold, almost everything the Emperor wanted was in his reach. Even large blocks of ice were traded at the island, and stored down below where it was cool. The Emperor loved ice in his drinks, and showed off this sign of wealth whenever he had guests.

Deke looked out of the window with mild interest as he saw a schooner pulling into the inlet and making for a jetty. He squinted, trying to make out the colours she was flying, but the white flower (or was it a star?) did not look familiar to him. Panteleon flexed his stiff paws and wandered over to the window too, looking out over his island. Anybeast looking back would see a slender pine marten, his creamy silk shirt open and showing his yellow neck and chest fur.

"That schooner pulling in, I don't believe I recognise her colours," the Emperor mused. "A white star, interesting choice. Or is it a flower? Raknak!"

A Trident Rat entered the room via the double doors that led into one of the palace's many hallways. Raknak Raggedtooth was by no means a pretty sight, his name already suggestive of his pronounced overbite and sharpened teeth. The captain of the Trident Rats was loyal though. It was traditional for them to be the bodyguards of the Emperor, and they guarded the palace night and day. Their devotion to the Emperor was unquestioned, and those who knew the Emperor's family history might wonder if this well of affection for the pine marten was 'influenced' by his deep gaze, which few beasts could bring themselves to avoid. Raknak bowed as he entered, holding the Trident Rat signature weapon upright. "Your Grace?"

"Raknak, be a good chum and go take a look at the schooner that's just arrived in port. See if you can get the captain's name. Good to see fresh blood arriving in our little community, is it not? I wager the maids in town will be glad of some new company, at least," Panteleon's whiskers twitched and he smiled knowingly. Raknak cleared his throat and made his obediences to leave. The Emperor returned to his painting and leant back, his dark almond eyes gazing at it intently. "You can keep this if you like, Deke. I am finished with painting today."

Ryker was leaving his armor behind in his cabin for this trip, it wasn't out of place for corsairs to wear a type of 'light' armor, but he didn't quite enjoy the idea of burning up under a chainmail shirt or scale armor. He was also going to leave behind his bandanna for a hooded (though rather a bit worn and tattered) gray cloak. It was an article of clothing he did not wear to often, but for today, it would serve to help keep him almost completely anonymous and to keep the sun out of his face. For the most part though, he hardly changed much in appearance. He still had friends and associates who either lived on the island or came there from time to time and he wasn't in any particular mood to be forced to explain himself on what happened to his former captain and the crew and who was the new company he was now traveling with….

He snorted. Yeah, that would be a pleasant thing to explain to them, especially the part where he joins in with a wildcat society that thinks of them as inferior to felines. Though now that he thought about the possibility of such a situation happening, his mind quickly started thinking up a convincing lie about Laverna and her subordinates. Nothing would be more trouble than a town full of angry and insulted corsairs, throw in trident rats and lizards and it would become a literal Hellgates.

The sea cat sighed, that would be another thing he would have to remember to do, teach Laverna that whatever habits she took up during her life in the Northlands didn't mean anything in corsair territory. To them, she wasn't anything more special than themselves and if she was inclined to verbally disagree, she would likely face a tidal wave of cutlasses....

He left his cabin and upon walking out into the quarterdeck, noticed the company they were bringing along. Around twenty strong, it shocked him how Laverna had such faith in her control over these creatures, at any moment during their trip into town. They could make themselves disappear into the crowd and escape forever if they wanted too....

"Ryker! Ready to go ashore?" A friendly and familiar voice called out to him. Ryker smiled, it was Perrin, Laverna's personal servant and a close friend of his. He turned to see both the weasel and Laverna coming out onto the quarterdeck, they had decked themselves out as best as they could as corsairs and…. they did a pretty good job actually. He could hardly imagine them being this entirely good at looking like corsairs and working a ship like them, but like always. The discipline and order of this pack continued to surprise him.

"Not yet, we are still missing-" the sea cat's face suddenly gave a look of shock and than he covered his gaping mouth with both hands. A gasp had escaped his throat, but than it was replaced by snickering. He had saw Nerissa come out into the quarterdeck after her furcut and it was a sight to behold. The beast who did the shearing was painfully terrible at doing so. Ryker had not seen the other natives of the Land of Ice and Snow coming out since it came time for their shearing, but now after seeing Nerissa. He wasn't surprised why.

He finally controlled himself and than proceeded to take his cloak off, he didn't need it nearly as bad as the white vixen did now....

"Here, you can have it. I think you need it more than I ever would at the moment..." In a flash the garment was whisked away from his paw and the snow vixen had it on in a matter of moments, unfortunately for her. It was not fast enough. A cruel laughter was heard and several beasts started to uncontrollably chuckle and giggle soon after. He knew who's laugh it was. Ryker thought of turning around and giving Ranjit a silencing glare, but really. He had hardly treated the situation any better than the ferret....

Nerissa did not have a very good furcut. It was very rare to require or want furcuts in the Northlands and doubly so in the Land of Ice and Snow, so when it was finally needed to be able to step footpaw into Sampetra. Almost none of the beasts had any experience at it. She however, had been one of the lucky ones. The shearbeast had known Nerissa was a 'special beast' and actually attempted to do his very best to do a nice, even furcut to avoid the wrath of Ryker had she came to him with a missing ear or something, but his best efforts were still lacking and even though he had successfully trimmed Nerissa down to a comfortable length. Her fur was uneven in many, many places. It made her look like a very awkward piece of artwork (kinda like a Picasso painting ) and she didn't have to look in a mirror to get a good idea on how bad she must look, she could just feel it in her soul! Fortunately, she had successfully argued tooth and claw to keep her hair intact and untouched. It was an uncommon feature for beasts to have hair, but like beasts with beards. It was not a impossibility in the slightest, Nerissa was one of those gifted with hair that she had styled into a braided ponytail. For a slave with not many things to have nor right to have ownership over, it was her pride and joy. After she was finally trimmed down, she got dressed back into her corsair outfit, which consisted of a pair of light gray almost silver colored breeches and a purple and black sash, she also made note to grab and wear a darkish blue shirt with long sleeves to cover her poorly trimmed arms. To add to the corsair look, she had found and put in a couple of silver hooped earrings. (An article of wear she had not worn in a while since one of the cat knights demanded her last ones out of spite) Unfortunately much to her dismay, the crew had taken all of the boots…. When she had finally got done playing dress up, she grabbed a new weapon she acquired, a boarding ax to go along with her sword and made her way up to the quarterdeck....

However, The feeling in her soul about her furcut only got worse when she walked out onto the quarterdeck and was immediately greeted with a gasp and than tiny fits of near silent laughter. She had been hoping silently to herself that it was not too noticeable, but unfortunately. Hope favored only certain beasts with problems. She saw the beast who was making the sounds and her heart sunk, she knew now it had to be bad if the beast she saw as a friend was trying hard not to laugh at her and failing miserably. With a shaky arm, she watched cat discarded his cloak and offer the wear to her.

"Here, you can have it. I think you need it more than I ever would at the moment…"She snatched the cloak out of his offering paw in a instant and put on the garment, wrapping it about herself and securing it with several buttons, unfortunately. A much  less restricted and unsympathetic laughter sounded out partway through her attempt to hide her bad fur day and though it proved contagious and caused a few other beasts to start laughing aswell, she knew immediately who the culprit was. It was the laughter of a ferret that to this day made her wonder why she was on friendly terms with along with Ryker. Ranjit!

She caught sight of him in the crowd of other beasts and fixed him with a hateful glare, but the ferret simply smiled back at her in response. Unlike Ryker, the vixen knew that the war slave hardly had any regret for his act of disrespect towards her, which made her want to skewer him on her sword. Ranjit wasn't always like this, but when he was that way thanks to not having anything better to do. She found it to be a rather excruciating experience to deal with…..

With a sigh, she tucked the hood over her head and took her place next to Ryker and waited patiently for their call to go off board....

Ranjit had been the luckiest out of the three, he didn't have anything at all to worry about. It was good to be both as newcomer to Sampetra and a ferret. Although he found boredom and frustration at his job on the ship being basically to do absolutely nothing, he was rather happy and smug about that fact that all he had to do in preparation to walk upon Sampetra itself was to simply change his clothes and trade in his mace for a rather wide tipped scimitar and a large gaff hook with the rope coiled around his arm, he had originally wanted the vicious fighting hook that the ship's former captain had owned, but he could never find it whenever he searched for it. He had been checking out several of the crew members from a distance to see if they may have the weapon on themselves, but eventually he gave up trying to find it as none of his prime suspects ever showed up with the hook on them…. Pity. Laverna or Nerissa must have chucked it over the railing of the ship along with its owner's paw when it was first found.

Typical of a creature like himself, the ferret had dressed himself up in a rather thuggish manner. He had a pair of old, worn brown leather boots, a pair of black and white striped breeches with a wide buckled belt, tucked into them was a dirty white shirt. Complete with a brown justacorps coat with one of the sleeves rolled up (the other untouched so it gave the impression that his gaff hook was actually a prosthetic hook) and tied closed waist height by a almost blood red sash. He also wore several bandannas of a burgundy color, but none of them were on his head, instead they were wrapped about his hands and forearms, his neck and on one of his boots due the several of its buckles and straps being damaged. His get up gave him a rather menacing and convincing appearance.

The war slave had been waiting along with the rest of the shore party when Nerissa came out, what a sight she was to see. She looked like something from a oil painting done by a drunkard! He had caught sight of her (thanks to Ryker offering his cloak to her) before she could hide her body inside a cloak, which caused him to immediately explode in scornful laughter. His laughter proved contagious and soon several other slaves started to chuckle and cackle as well. He had expected the vixen to not look so pretty after her shear treatment, but he never dreamed it would have been that bad! It was something he would never let down and it would be something that he could always think of whenever he felt bored or down. The day had started off boring as usual, but now things were suddenly taking a turn for the better. His trip through the seas had finally been worth something.

He was finally finding some excitement on this journey and was now looking forward to what other shenanigans he could witness on their walked through Sampetra.

A frown passed over Laverna's face as she heard laughter amongst the shore party. She had missed the joke though, and she was more worried about getting to the Palace than what her crew found so funny. She turned to inspect her group of soldiers, all dressed in similar corsair outfits. Matlock had made an effort in his disguise, but Laverna could tell he was still very nervous about going ashore. He was still wearing his scale armour, and her practiced eye could tell where he'd strapped knives in discreet positions. The fox was ready to go to war, and the wildcat could not help but sympathise with him. She hated the idea of them being surrounded by hostile corsairs and gutted, but the thought that Claudia would never know what happened weighed even more on her mind. Yet she could not go ashore looking like she was here to conquer the place. The outfits would help them blend in, and get them further than if they came dressed as dangerous foreigners.

"Stay close together, no wandering off. I know there's lots to see, but we are here to do a job. There'll be more shore leave if we can make peaceful contact with the Emperor. Let's go!" Laverna announced, and led the group down the gangplank. The wildcat stepped onto the jetty and breathed in. The jetty smelt of old fish and alcohol, but the salty breeze kept it from becoming too pungent. The waves lapped gently against the wooden frames, and the whole structure creaked as corsairs strolled along its length. Slaves wove their way past the sailors, keeping their heads down and darting nimbly out of the way of larger vermin. One particular beast caught Laverna's eye; a heavyset stoat dressed much like her only ten times grubbier, a battered breastplate strapped to his chest, one paw resting on a cutlass thrust in his sash, his other holding a yellowed scroll.

"Oi," he yelled by way of greeting, waddling down the dock towards the group. His dark eyes squinted critically at the cats, the foxes, and the assorted vermin, and his chested swelled pompously as he drew in a rattling breath. "'s three-sevenny-five ducats moorin' fee. By order o' the Emprah."

Laverna stared at the stoat in that inscrutable feline way, judging whether or not the puffed up creature was trying to con her, or if he did actually represent the… 'Emprah'. She could see other beasts on the jetty that did resemble him in some ways. Overweight, holding ragged documents and all wearing crude breastplates, though each had the same simple engraving; two indentations that reminded Laverna of eyes. Apparently, the Emperor was fond of that motif. "We have gold, will that do?"

The wildcat winced as she realised she had not put on a corsair accent. She hardly trusted herself to do one anyway, but it might have made her disguise just a bit more convincing than her noble wildcat tones. The stoat didn't seem to notice or care though, and grunted in response, taking a filthy, chewed up old quill from behind his ear and scribbling something on the piece of paper. Laverna suspected the beast was illiterate, and was just pretending to write something to look officious. He tore off a piece of paper and gave it to Laverna. She peered at it curiously. The stoat had 'signed' it she supposed, though it looked more like he'd been trying to draw a wasp made of scribbles. "Go t'the dock purser wiv the gold. Welcome t'Sampetra, pay yer debts or I'll break yer knees."

"Arr," Laverna hazarded a guess at a corsair's appropriate response to this. She doubted real corsairs would have any manners, so scowled at the stoat and swept past him. The stoat spat as he watched the shore party pass by, as if the arrival of a new ship on the jetty had really ruined his day. Her companions caught her up, and Matlock spoke in a low voice close to her ear.

"Er, I'd advise growling like a corsair again, captain," he said. "You do it too gently."

Laverna nodded silently, her mouth going dry as she drew closer to the shore. There were far more corsairs about, yelling, laughing, drinking and arguing. There was some specttacle that was drawing a crowd along the main road, and as they got nearer they could hear the clash of metal on metal. A duel, or more accurately a brawl with swords had broken out outside one of the taverns. There were beasts lying against walls and in the gutters, either passed out unconscious or swigging at a bottle until their brains were finally pickled. This, she supposed, was the sort of thing corsairs found to be fun. She hesitated for a moment as she saw a greatrat storming down the street with a trident, flanked by uniformed rats with similar weapons.

"Ryker? Some old friends of yours?" Laverna asked. The greatrat reached the brawl and began literally pulling the onlookers aside. A few were smart enough to slink off before the Trident Rats began to break up the fight. One of the duellists was belted over the head and knocked out, the other dropped his weapon as he felt the centre prong of the greatrat's trident against his throat. The wildcat watched as the two were led away in iron chains. For an island inhabited by corsairs, it seemed the Emperor did not tolerate heads rolling in the street. It made sense, Laverna supposed, there was no wealth to be made if the island's clientele kept dying. Laverna did not have to go very far before they arrived at a rather squalid looking shack at the harbourfront. The sign over the door proclaimed it was the purser's office.

"Perrin, take the gold and deal with this mooring fee business," Laverna said, passing the stoat's note to her weasel slave. Perrin nodded at the two beasts carrying the chest of gold, and led them into the little building.


Another brawl in the street, another two fuming corsairs stuffed into the lockup for the night. They looked like the usual tar-pawed scum of the sea, nobeast would miss them. If Raknak arrested higher-ranking beasts on a ship, like the first mate or the bosun, their captains would demand their release, often in very aggressive terms. There'd be a bit of a shouting match, then the Trident Rats would let the unruly corsair go. If they arrested a regular sailor though, nobeast from their ship tended to notice, or care. Raknak had seen beasts in the lockup reduced to snivelling wrecks as their ships sailed off without them. He wasn't sure what was worse; losing their sea-chest and all their valuables, or the realisation that nobeast actually cared if they were on board or not. The greatrat had no sympathy for the brutes though. These were the Emperor's streets, and the pine marten disliked having them covered in blood. And what the Emperor disliked, Raknak disliked also. He had never disobeyed an order from the Emperor, he'd never even disagreed with the marten, not even privately. There was something about Panteleon, the way he spoke so elegantly, the deep, searching look in his eyes that made it impossible for Raknak to question him.

Raknak watched the newcomers as they weaved their way up the dirt road, their heads turning this way and that as they looked from building to building. Raknak could see they were 'fresh blood' as the Emperor had put it. The wildcat was in charge, though from the way she kept stealing glances at the feral cat with the tall ears, it seemed she was taking her cues from him. The greatrat pondered this new captain, he had a bit of a knack for reading beasts. She did not look pleased to be here, in fact the way her eyes darted from her companion, to passers-by, to him, and back to the other feline suggested she was nervous. She had left her crewmates with a small chest of gold at the purser's office, whereas most captains were far less trusting with their gold. She didn't seem like a corsair captain at all, which meant she was hiding something. Raknak suppressed a ragged-toothed grin, and stepped towards the wildcat, his Trident Rats close on his heels.

"Ahoy there, are ye not the mistress of that fine schooner with the white star ensign? "Raknak greeted Laverna with a short bow. "Such a pretty vessel, such fine lines. What port might ye've sailed from?"

Laverna nodded her head back. She had read mention of the Trident Rats in Crableg's log, though the old corsair had never said anything complementary about them. They worked for the Emperor though, alongside a strange and exotic group of lizards from far-off lands that the Emperor's family had brought to the islands seasons ago. "We have come from the Northlands, captain…?"

"Raknak. They call me Raknak Raggedtooth," the greatrat finished, giving her a wide grin and showing off his gold fillings. "Yer face is not familiar, have ye made port here before, miss...?"

"_Captain_ Laverna," the wildcat corrected, bristling a little at being called 'miss' by the greatrat. "I have sailed here to see the Emperor."

"Really? I'm sure an offer to join his fleet would most entertain him," Raknak said smoothly, "but he does require _experienced_ captains, beasts who have seasons before the mast and blood staining their blades. Not some young maiden who can't keep her lads in line."

Laverna bared her teeth. "My crew weren't the ones brawling in the streets!"

The greatrat wasn't looking at Laverna though, he was looking past her. She turned to see a crowd was gathering outside the purser's office. She felt a sudden shock, and her paw went to her cutlass. She whispered urgently under her breath, "_Perrin!_"

The wildcat and her entourage dashed back to the little hut of a building, cutlasses drawn. The Trident Rats followed at a more leisurely pace, Raknak watching Laverna with faint amusement. The crowd parted for the dangerous-looking felines and foxes, and Laverna drew a sharp breath as she entered the office. There were papers scattered everywhere, scales and weights tipped on the floor, and a ferret slumped unconscious behind the desk. Laverna gestured to Nerissa to attend to the ferret, whilst she examined the extent of the damage. There were gold coins in piles here and there and a few precious trinkets, but she did not see anything that had been in the little chest of gold they had brought ashore. It was gone, and her three sailors trusted with it had disappeared.

"Oh, Perrin," Laverna muttered, scarcely able to believe the little weasel could have turned deserter and thief like that. She had known him for seasons, he had been good and dependable. That is, until the sight of all that wealth, and being left alone on this strange new island where beasts like him walked free. Had he really taken his chances and run off, hoping to become a free corsair? Laverna had to find him. "Ryker, take who you need and find them. The beast that brings them back alive will be rewarded."

"Deserters, eh? Shame," Raknak said from the doorway. The greatrat was leaning on the doorframe, his eyes glinting as he watched the newcomer. "I suppose we _could_ order all ships in port to conduct a search for three stowaways. But…"

"But what?" Laverna asked, her eyes narrowing. This Trident Rat was enjoying this far too much.

Raknak licked his teeth and grinned wider. "Any deserter taken into our custody must be hanged immediately from the yardarm of the ship he's found aboard."

The wildcat did not hesitate, as the greatrat expected she would. She stared back, and said, "If I find them, Captain Raknak, they'll wish it was that simple."

"I look forward to seeing that, captain." Raknak bowed graciously, and left the building. She was quicker with her wits than he'd first thought. He ordered his Trident Rats to search in groups of three for the deserters, whilst he himself went back to the Palace to make his report. No doubt His Grace would find the whole situation quite entertaining. Perhaps 'Captain Laverna' if that really was her name would have an audience with the pine marten after all, if she intrigued him enough.

Laverna turned back to Nerissa. The ferret seemed to be coming around, though far too dazed to speak. "Nerissa, get the full story out of him. Ryker..."

The two cats made eye contact. Laverna had kept a stern face throughout the incident, but it was clear from her eyes that deep down, she was troubled by Perrin's apparent betrayal. She spoke in a lower voice, so no Trident Rat or bystander would hear. "Find him first. He's still mine, I'm responsible for him. I... I should be the one to do it. When the time comes."

Perrin felt his body being dragged along by his footpaws. His head throbbed with pain, and he could feel something sticky and half-dry on his face. His paws were tightly bound, and his tail lanced with pain at every bump over the ground. He cracked open one eyelid. His bleary vision only revealed bright blue sky, and leafy plants sliding past. He remembered going to the purser with the beasts carrying the gold, but it all went hazy after he'd gone through the door. He felt himself come to a stop, and whoever was clutching his footpaws dropped them. He heard frightened, urgent voices arguing in whispers and grunts, but mostly he thought about the sun, and how he wished they'd dragged him a bit closer to the shade. He couldn't hear the sounds of the shore, or the bustle of the port, only the rustling of the leaves in the breeze. The voices had gone silent, and the weasel idly wondered if he had been left here to die, or if they were coming back. The pain in his head was easing into a dull ache. He didn't want to die here. It was so far from home, it somehow didn't feel right. Perrin opened his muzzle, and tried to croak out the name of his mistress. His throat was dry, and all he could do was make a low moaning noise. Laverna. Ryker. They would find him, surely. It was just a matter of time.

"Stay close together, no wandering off. I know there's lots to see, but we are here to do a job. There'll be more shore leave if we can make peaceful contact with the Emperor. Let's go!" Ryker followed the wildcat captain along with the rest of the party down the gangplank and onto the hard wooden plants of the jetty they had roped the ship to, Ryker was hit with a tidal wave of nostalgia, however. His thoughts were not sailing back to the good ol' days. They were on his new company and the fact he had no way to conceal his identity now. He had been caught up in the moment of giving Nerissa his cloak that he had not thought to warn Laverna about how to behave around corsairs nor on what to say when corsairs or natives that knew him questioned him about his new captain and who the rest of his new crew are.

"Oi,"

He wanted to say something right than and there to Laverna, but they had already been met by the toll beast, a big fat stoat. He had encountered him plenty of times when he served Captain Crableg and he was one of the last beasts he wanted to meet again. The beast had the sunny attitude of a graveyard keeper and a waddle like a waterlogged duck. Ryker and his captain have in the past had altercations with him over the stoat's constantly changing toll price and because of this, he wisely positioned himself in between several other beasts so the stoat wouldn't notice him and become extra pissy.

' Please don't kill him in front of everyone Laverna…' He thought.

"'s three-sevenny-five ducats moorin' fee. By order o' the Emprah." Twenty more ducats than usual. 'Oh you slimy sack of shark shit….' The seacat thought as he suppressed the urge to call out the stoat and argue with him, mainly because he didn't want Laverna to respond to the realization with retaliation and cause them to become banned from the island, besides. The stoat has charged even more than that before….

Laverna's reply cheered him up though, actually tickling his funny bone. "We have gold, will that do?" 'Of course that will do captain, gold works with EVERYTHING!' The cat's conscience noted in the back of his brain. A smile threatened to tug his lips at the thought.

"Go t'the dock purser wiv the gold. Welcome t'Sampetra, pay yer debts or I'll break yer knees."

He was shocked on how calmly and well his new captain was taking this. His old captain would have replied to the stoat's threat with something along the lines of raping his mother and than jamming her head on the bowsprit so that stoat could see his dead mother's smiling decomposing face the next time they sail into Sampetra.

When they got moving again, Ryker quickly got back to his original position of following closely behind Laverna, he wasn't the only one. That one dog fox was also with her, he kept forgetting his name. Nerissa would have to remind him when they got together again, for now though. It appeared that the vixen was at the back of the pack, likely trying to keep as much of herself out of visible eyes as possible. He hardly blamed her.

"Er, I'd advice growling like a corsair again, captain," It was the dog fox he heard, he could hear the nervousness in his voice, he had been like that even before they left the ship. "You do it too gently." 'Oh for-' "She's fine, believe it or not. You are going to see corsairs of many shapes, sizes, races and especially accents. Sampetra is a popular spot for corsairs from all ends of the sea."

Just before they made it inland, Ryker heard Ranjit say something that caused roars of laughter in the pack, even Nerissa laughed when she heard it. Ranjit was a ferret who had a special talent for snarky comments and comebacks.

"Dat waz a good 'un! Pay yar debts or i'll break yer knees! That pompous whale couldn't bend over to put 'is boots on! I seen pregnant beasts that wurnt as fat as 'im! He could'nt bend over enough ta break yer elbows! Ahhhhahahaha!!!!!"

When they finally made it inland, Ryker was greeted with the sights and sounds of more pure nostalgia. Sampetra had not changed one little bit, especially with the drunken violence as he noticed Laverna watching one right now. He watched that duel with her as the rat and stoat fought each other with cutlasses. His conscience spoke his exact thought. 'Ten gold coins on the stoat, he looks like he could take on four rats and win.' Unfortunately, his mental mention of the word 'rats' ended up jinxing him as he noticed Laverna's attention turn elsewhere.

"Ryker? Some old friends of yours?"

"Hardly, it's ol' bossy breeches 'imself. He is called Raknak Raggedteeth…... or tooth.... Whichever, he's the emperor's left paw and leader of a type of authority on this island known as 'The Trident Rats.' None of us corsairs like 'im."

They both watched as the greatrat and his posse broke up the duel, The two duelists ended up being led away in chains much to his disgust. Those two wouldn't likely be going back out to sea for a long time if they are lowley crew mates, he pitied them.

Eventually Laverna had enough of the scene and the party walked on to the pay shack, it was about as much of an eyesore as he remembered it, nobeast ever bothered to clean it. Nobeast.

"Perrin, take the gold and deal with this mooring fee business." Ryker gave Perrin a wave as he and two ferrets made off to the shack with a chest full of cold before turning his attention back to Raknak and his posse, they were already approaching Laverna, Raknak was always interested in messing with newcomers. He was especially curious about  his new captain, he knew it. Raknak had a savage grin like White Death, he certainly had the muzzle and nose to go with the look. All he lacked was the black abysmal eyes….

"Ahoy there, are ye not the mistress of that fine schooner with the white star ensign? " 'Here we go….' was his thought.   "Such a pretty vessel, such fine lines. What port might ye've sailed from?" He debated inwardly if he should get himself involved in the conversation or not, quickly. He decided it would be wiser to let Laverna handle him herself.

"We have come from the Northlands, captain…?"

"Raknak. They call me Raknak Raggedtooth," the greatrat finished, giving her a wide grin and showing off his gold fillings. "Yer face is not familiar, have ye made port here before, miss...?"

"Captain Laverna," Ryker grinned inside his mind, he had made the right call. She was more than capable of keeping the rat on his toes. "I have sailed here to see the Emperor."

"Really? I'm sure an offer to join his fleet would most entertain him," Raknak said smoothly, "but he does require experienced captains, beasts who have seasons before the mast and blood staining their blades. Not some young maiden who can't keep her lads in line."

Laverna bared her teeth. "My crew weren't the ones brawling in the streets!"

Ryker noticed the greatrat wasn't keeping eye contact with her anymore, he was looking over her shoulder instead. He followed the rat's gaze and turned around towards the purser's office.

"Perrin!"

Although Ryker heard Laverna whisper the name under her breath and chased after her, shame burned his face and turned the inside of his ears orange-red at failing to pick up anything going on at the office. Normally at this distance, his sensitive and large ears would easily detect any sounds out of the ordinary, but here. There was so much activity, so much noise, so much ruckus. There was no way he could have heard what had happened at the office. He didn't bother to draw his weapon when he entered the building with her, he knew they were too late, the mess inside confirmed it.

Nerissa knew beasts were hurt inside the building before she even entered alongside Ryker, Laverna and a few other beasts. She called it instinct, Though whether it was due to his Ice and Snow heritage or because of her experience as a healer was up for debate…. Maybe it was both...

The vixen already noticed the ferret before Laverna did, she looked towards both the wildcat and Ryker for direction. Laverna was the one who gestured the command, that was all she required. She sheathed her scythe sword and axe as she stepped towards the unconscious beast, he didn't look bad, most likely will not suffer more than a concussion and a throbbing headache. However, Nerissa knew that there could be always more than the eye can see.

Crouching down on one knee, she gently grasped the ferret's head in her hands and examined the damage, there was a good sized knot near the stop of the skull, just above the ferret's right eye. 'Most likely from the pommel of a sword….' She felt the knot and the area around it, nothing gave. 'The skull was not fractured….' That was good news, that gave him a much higher chance of survival for a blow to the head, she tipped the head down, no blood leaked out of the nose or mouth. 'May not have suffered damage to the brain….' She was sure of her diagnosis, he'll be fine. Wake up with a painful headache and have stay awake for awhile due to the possibility of dying from the concussion, but should recover fine…. She pondered if she should cut the knot to let some of the blood leak out, would ease the pressure....

"Oh, Perrin,"  Ryker's ears picked up Laverna's mutter, however. he was not thinking the same thing as her, he assumed that a small group of corsairs saw the chest and got the idea to steal it along with the three beast team escorting it in cause it went down to a hostage situation. Typically the trident rats and monitors keep tabs on every ship docked when a significantly big crime has taken place so they could catch the culprits, however. There were cases where the troublemakers took a trident rat as a hostage or high ranked members of a corsair crew and used them as effective bargining chips to escape custody, obviously though. That would be the last time they could do so, wise beasts who pulled this off never came back to Sampetra again.

'That is what must have happened here….' He thought, his pondering was interrupted by Laverna.

"Ryker, take who you need and find them. The beast that brings them back alive will be rewarded." Ryker opened his muzzle to respond, but Raknak came just in time to interrupt him. "Deserters, eh? Shame," 'Brilliant…'

"I suppose we could order all ships in port to conduct a search for three stowaways. But…"

"But what?"

Ryker watched in hidden disgust as the greatrat licked his teeth and grinned wider. "Any deserter taken into our custody must be hanged immediately from the yardarm of the ship he's found aboard."

"If I find them, Captain Raknak, they'll wish it was that simple."

"I look forward to seeing that, captain." Finally the rat left for good and gave Ryker and his captain some peace, In two incidents, he now hated Raknak more than he ever had before, he hoped someday the Raknak's attitude would take a beast too far and get him killed in the process, he wished more than anything that beast would be Veska. Those two never got along.

"Nerissa, get the full story out of him. Ryker…" The vixen didn't turn around when Laverna spoke to her, only gave her ear a tug and gave a typical 'Yes Captain' as she kept her attention on the ferret, the ferret was indeed coming around. She turned around to call a few of her 'crew.' "Can anybeast spare thy canteen?" The fox that gave her his canteen was noneother than Matlock himself, she quickly snatched the container from his hand and uncorked it before holding it to the ferret's muzzle. The ferret ended up coughing when he attempted to drink with the canteen's liquid cargo pouring straight down to his throat, Nerissa quickly withdrew the canteen and spoke to the battered beast. "Tell me what events took place here."

The ferret took a moment to clear his throat, when he finally finished coughing he replied in a faint tone. "Two…. ferrets... an' a weasel. They both came in wid a chest. Dey sat it down over dare and when the weasel started chattin' with me.... I dun' know.... I dun remem'er what happin' after that...."

Nerissa nodded and stood up from him, leaving the canteen by his side and walked back towards Ryker, by the look on his face, his conversaion with Laverna wasn't a good one, Nerissa hadn't heard it because she had been focused on her patient. "What did she say?" " Our orders, we are going on a scavenger hunt and the prize is that chest and three beasts. Get Ranjit and four more beasts, We move as soon as possible…."

It didn't take long for Nerissa to find him the four extra beasts along with Ranjit, one of them was the dog fox that was always near Laverna, again. He failed to remember his name. "Alright beasts, we have three beasts and a chest hidden in one of the biggest corsair  attractions in the seas, we got a lot of ground to cover  and the sooner we start, the better. Lets go." The cat silently sighed. 'This is going to be like findin' a minnow in a shark's intestines…'

As they quickly left the crime scene, Ryker caught Ranjit saying non-too-quietly…

"Hell's Gates! Dat waz one ugly rat! Didya see 'is face? Looked like he tongue kissed a squid 'n the beak! Ahhhhhhhhahahahahaha!!!!!!"

"And so they're looking for the runaways now, Your Grace. No doubt the Trident Rats will find the scum first, and hang them from the highest yardarm in the fleet." Raknak finished his report, looking quite smug as he stood in the Emperor's wardrobe. This might seem a strange place to stand, except that Pan had a rather sizable collection of clothes that occupied an entire room of the Palace. Some of the garments had been given as tributes or gifts from corsairs with no need of such finery, some had been traded from exotic places in the East or South, and others had been offered to the marten on his journeys abroad, where the marten had drawn admiration and attention from other wealthy beasts. At the moment, the Emperor was adjusting his dark red fez in front of a mirror, turning his head this way and that to make sure the little tasselled hat was at the most regal and yet jaunty angle possible. Around the pine marten's slender waist, he had tied a sky-blue sash.

"Yes yes, very interesting, Raknak," Pan said in a tone so dismissive that one could visibly see the greatrat deflate. "Do you think the sash is too much? I went for a lighter colour since this will not be a formal function. I felt the purple sash was a little too gaudy and overbearing for a simple meeting. Yet the cyan colour suggests a certain carefree air whilst still looking imperial and commanding. Yes?"

"Yes," Raknak repeated dumbly. The pine marten twirled around and fixed the greatrat with a stare that made the Trident Captain stutter. "Uh… I mean, no, it's not too much. And er, yes, it makes you look imperial and commandeering...er..."

"I shall be doing no 'commandeering' today, dear Raknak, master of all corsairs though I may be." Pan flitted out of his wardrobe and took his time going to the main hall, where he would receive his guest officially. Raknak dutifully walked behind his Emperor, watching with a steely eye as other Trident Rats saluted with their spears as the marten glided past. "Find Captain Laverna and have the Trident Rats escort her to my Palace. Veska and her Monitor Lizards will take over this minor disturbance, and we shall allow the good Captain Laverna to deal with her crew herself. After all, we do not want any bad blood between us before we even meet, do we?"

"Veska? Pardon me my lord but-…" Raknak protested, but fell silent as Pan raised his paw loftily.

"I sense that a hard chase in the hot sun is a task best suited to my Monitor Lizards. Call off your hunt, and escort Captain Laverna... politely, here. She is to be treated as an honoured guest, understand?" Pan gave the rat a look, and for a moment the rat seemed to be in a daze, before nodding. Satisfied, the marten gave a sly smile as he spotted a stoat sidle into the room holding a sword wrapped in a silk cloth. "Achenar! Do tell me that's my new rapier, if it isn't I'll have to steal it from your very paws! What a work of craftsmanship!"

The stoat called Achenar bowed, and smirked impishly as he scurried to his master's side, his bare paws almost skipping across the floor's mosaic tiles. He knelt, holding up the sword as it rested on the cream-coloured silk. "Your Grace, no finer a weapon exists on all Sampetra!"

"I would raid every ship in the harbour if I thought there was one finer," Pan answered, grasping the weapon and giving it a twirl in delight. The handle was wrapped in soft velvet, the hilt was ornately swept with gold decoration and the blade was fiercely sharp and thin. "A fine balance, what perfect lines, exactly as I imagined it. The swordsmith may have a fine jewel as a reward for such excellent attention to detail. Throw up that silk, Achenar!"

The stoat stepped back and tossed the silk cloth into the air. Pan's blade flashed, caught by the afternoon sun as it came throw the wide open windows of the hall. One stroke, two strokes, three strokes, and the cloth fell in four pieces. Achenar and Raknak clapped, and the guards that had been watching joined in. The pine marten saluted with the sword and bowed, before slipping the rapier into his sash.

"I shall wear this to greet the captain. It will show I have skill with a blade as well as the wealth to own it," the Emperor said. He turned to Raknak, and raised an eyebrow. "She will not visit me unless invited, Raknak! Off you go!"

The greatrat hastily stopped clapping, saluted, and dashed out of the hall to carry out his Emperor's will. The pine marten watched him go in faint amusement, before turning to Achenar. "Round up my best slaves and prepare an afternoon spread in here, my dear Achenar. Get the string quartet and make sure they play pleasant yet not too lively music. We may have a dance later this evening though, so tell them to practice a few jigs and waltzes once my meeting with Captain Laverna is over."

The stoat bowed shortly and turned to go. The marten furrowed his brow, and called out to him. "Oh, Achenar?"

"Yes, Your Grace?" The stoat turned.

"Do send some fruits up to my room and keep them covered. I feel it's one of those days where I'll need a few snacks, don't you think?"

The stoat bowed again, this time far lower, a smile playing about his lips. "Very good, Your Grace."


Laverna thought things could not get worse when that awful creature with his sharpened teeth returned with a host of armed rats and surrounded her and the remains of her shore party. She was on the verge of drawing her sword and making preparations to drag Raknak Raggedtooth down to Hellgates with her, when the greatrat bowed elegantly, an expression of deep sincerity plastered on his face.

"Captain Laverna, my Emperor wishes that you meet with His Grace immediately at the Palace." The greatrat stood up straight and saluted with his trident. "The Trident Rats have the honour to escort the Emperor's guest personally."

"Guest? What of my crew?" Laverna demanded.

Raknak coughed, his expression growing remorseful. "I'm sorry, the Emperor only made mention of your ladyship as his guest. I shall be honoured to present you, Captain Laverna… er...?"

"...Hellebore. Captain Laverna Hellebore," Laverna said, not quite believing Raknak's change of tone. At first Laverna thought the brutish captain of the Trident Rats was being sarcastic in his expressions, and his claim of being honoured to present her to the Emperor. Yet as she looked closer at him, he did not give off any trace of insincerity. He seemed to be genuinely unhappy that he had to contradict the wildcat's wishes, and his dismissive and downright creepy attitude towards her before seemed to have vanished entirely. Was this even the same rat that had gleefully told her he was going to hang her crew not half an hour ago? Laverna sensed there was something fishy about Raknak's sudden change of temperament. Still, new Raknak or not, it seemed she would not be getting her little army into the Palace. The wildcat now deeply regretted sending Ryker away. She was going in alone.

"Very well." Laverna turned to her crew. "Sir Ryker is now in acting command of the ship and crew. Wait for him back at the purser's office."

The two groups split off; the crew back to the office, and Laverna headed with some trepidation to the Palace, flanked on all sides by trident rats. It ruined an otherwise pleasant walk uphill to where the 'great white house' Captain Crableg had described was perched. As Laverna came closer, she realised the 'Palace' really did look more fortress-like than anything. Its white-painted walls were thick and broad, the walls were high and the gatehouse was still designed to be a killing-zone, with double portcullises and murder holes in the ceiling of the gatehouse, where the trident rats could rain hell down on anybeast that had breached the first gate.

The escort crossed the courtyard and mounted the steps up to the large double-doors. They swung inward as slaves behind pulled them back, and the group entered the atrium, which was cool and airy with all the windows open. From there, the rats and cat weaved their way through the corridors, where quick glances through open doors allowed Laverna to get some idea of the layout of the place. There was a brief moment of sunshine on her face once again as they passed through the Emperor's private garden. Laverna saw for a moment a couple of slaves tending to the hedge, though they scurried out of sight as the trident rats came marching past.

The trident rats brought her through another set of double-doors, and fanned out to stand on either side of the hall. The wildcat saw at last the beast that had summoned her. The pine marten was seated cross-legged on a sofa in front of a low table covered with food, smoking a chibouk, an ornate pipe, looking supremely pleased with himself. Laverna slowly strode closer down the long hall. As she drew closer, the pine marten put down the chibouk, smoke still curling from it. He rose, and it struck Laverna just how willowy his figure was. She had expected the master of an island of corsairs to be older, bigger, and far more mean looking.

"His Grace Panteleon Radzi, Emperor of Sampetra, Master of the Trident Rats and Monitor Lizards, Commander of the Imperial Fleet, Lord of the White Palace," Raknak announced in his most ostentatious tone. "Laverna Hellebore, Captain of the _Bloody Barracuda_.

Laverna hesitated, then curtseyed in the wildcat fashion. Panteleon nodded his head gracefully, and extended his paw to gesture at the seat opposite him. "Welcome, and well-met, Captain Laverna. Please, we have very little ceremony here on Sampetra, at least compared to the Northlands. You are from the North, are you not?"

Laverna took her seat, and looked up into the Emperor's eyes as he sat opposite her. He had a clever looking face, and his eyes were deep and dark. For a moment she quite forgot to answer his question, but broke her gaze to watch his nimble paws pick at the spread of food placed between them. "Yes, Your Grace. Have you travelled there yourself?"

The wildcat cursed inwardly; she had not meant to blurt out such an impertinent question so early in the proceedings. She was a horde captain, cousin Claudia was better at being at court. But in Claudia's absence, Laverna would have to be as tactful as her kin. Pantaleon did not seem fazed though, in fact the question brought a smile to his face.

"I have toured here and there, in search of the fine things this world has to offer me. Your Northland brews scorched my tongue, but I had plenty of agreeable company to take my mind off it," the marten answered, pausing to take a tiny sip of his drink. Laverna listened to him speak in quiet fascination; the Emperor enunciated every word like it was a musical note to be enjoyed all on its own. He had not a trace of a corsair's rough speech, his voice was a smooth tenor that still managed to command the obedience of even the greatrat that stood dumbly to one side.

"I am glad you found our wildcat kin so agreeable, Your Grace," Laverna answered. Inside, she was desperately searching for the right way to approach the topic of her cousin. If only she had thought to rehearse a few clever remarks before coming here!

Pan's glass tinkled as he set it down, and Laverna realised it had a couple of ice cubes in it. The pine marten seemed to know what she was thinking, and his smile grew wider. "Everything is provided for here, Captain. Please, eat!"

Laverna obediently turned her attention to the food, which really was quite exquisite. She had never seen some of the meats or fruits on display, and her curiosity got the better of her. Each time she pointed to something and asked what it was, the Emperor would delight in launching into an explanation of how he had first discovered such a delectable treat from some far-off land, and how he now had them imported to the island for his enjoyment. Pan's connections in the maritime world were impressive, Laverna thought. He seemed to have every corsair captain from the grizzliest whalers of the high seas to the deadliest coast-raiders under his little claw, hunting the world for the benefit of the marten's little luxuries. His casual demands for ice cubes, exotics fruits and deep-sea fish were translated into months of back-breaking work for hundreds of galley slaves, young searats and old, wily fox captains alike. He kept the corsair economy alive, in fact, it seemed there would hardly be so many ships of vermin terrorising all on the seas and coasts if it wasn't for Pantaleon Radzi's desires. Laverna found herself growing a quiet respect for the beast opposite her, so in control of his own little world. She was reminded strongly of Claudia, really.

"Now, allow me to ask you a question, Captain Laverna," Pan said finally, fixing her with another one of his charming looks. "The _Bloody Barracuda_ has not been to our corner of the world for some time, and I think I would remember so elegant and refined a captain as yourself. It does not concern me that she has switched captains, it happens quite often in the corsair world. Her colours were of interest to me, when I saw you sail into the harbour. Your name is Hellebore, and as something of a gardener myself, I know that is quite a distinctive flower. I believe that is what your banner represents, is it not? I see by your face that I am right. So tell me, how did the colours of House Hellebore come to fly over that schooner?"

"Tch. Amateur hour here. They've barely bothered wiping out the track marks," Matlock sneered. The fox was crouched in front of the hunting pack, harpoon in paw, staring at the ground. They were of the edge of the nearby plantation, where rows and rows of tall leafy plants made close, quiet walls of scented green. "They've been dragging something. Looks too big to be that little chest of gold they had."

Ryker still wasn't completely confident that the beasts who had stolen the chest were Laverna's own subjects, especially not Perrin. However, his heart sunk as soon as they left the crowd and only saw two sets of paws and drag marks. That made him curious… "I think you're right there, uuuh... "

He had forgotten again, and Nerissa was quick to remind him. "Matlock, Ryker..."

"Matlock! They must have thought that the crowd activity back near the office would throw us off and they would have smooth sailin' from here, but their biggest advantage is gone. Now there is no place they can hide..." Ryker looked at the dog fox. "Rather interesting point to make there, bigger than a chest... Like maybe a body? I noticed that we have three beasts and a chest missing, but only two sets of paws and large drag marks now... Looking back now, that chest was easily small enough for a strong beast to carry off the ground by himself..."

Matlock looked back at the feral cat, his expression sincere. "Sir, we both know that little weasel would as soon as betray the captain as wrestle one of them sharks we've gotten so acquainted with these days. My gold is on him being at the mercy of the other two. That overgrown rat back in town was talking out of his tail-end, if you don't mind me saying. They must think Perrin's a bargaining chip, him being so dear to the captain. We should get after them sharpish before they change their minds and decide he's not so useful to them after all."

"Oh please Maddie. Dat's givin' 'im too much credit. 'e couldn' wrestle a minnow an' win. Much less the cap'in and a shark." Ranjit has decided to put his piece in, as worthless as it was. He couldn't help but to find an excuse to get away with calling Matlock the pet name 'Maddie.' Ryker ignored the comment and stand up from his kneeling position. "I thought almost the same thing even before we got our orders. They got a good headstart, but if we're quick we should be on them before Perrin becomes fish chum. Lets go! Quickly!" Ryker had his sword out as he kept a quick stride, he didn't go too fast though, he had to keep track of the trail.

Matlock opened his muzzle to make a harsh reply, but noticed that Ryker had ignored the ferret's silliness. The fox decided to follow Ryker's example and not give the cheeky ferret any satisfaction. Any further thoughts of Ranjit were immediately forgotten however, as a cry broke the eerie silence of the plantation.  Matlock's ears perked right up, and he made eye contact with Ryker. They both knew that voice. "Perrin!"

The group's quick trot broke out into a run as they heard the weasel's cry. Matlock could hear the beating of their paws on the ground, yet he could sense there were other beasts moving nearby, beasts heavier even than he was. There was a strange scent on the air too, something the fox had not smelt before. He though he caught sight of something through the leaves as he dashed down the plantation row, something big, black and blue. "Uh, Ryker? We may have company ahead!"

All of a sudden they were on the scene. Matlock saw the weasel on the ground, a cut with dried blood on his head. He saw the ferrets, terrified and backed into a corner, ready to fight for their lives. And he saw the beasts that had been stalking the same quarry, as the largest monitor lizard he had ever seen emerged from the plants, a fearsome black beast with irridescent blue stripes and spots, its enormous teeth bared and its amber eyes staring the group down. Matlock froze, his ears pinning back to his head.

"Ztop."

Ryker had heard what the fox had said, but Veska's command made him realize it was too late to get everybeast prepared for them, even if he managed to do so, he wasn't completely sure they would dare draw blades against them anyway. Ryker's group was easily outmatched and outnumbered by Veska's monitors, she had brought at least nearly two score with her. No doubt that ol' Raknak the Raggedtoothed bastard himself had given away the size of Laverna's party when they had met near the office and not surprisingly, Veska had not taken any foolish chances when it came to bringing justice to the deserters and robbers.

The seacat knew there is no way to settle this situation without it being on the monitor lizard's terms. The ferrets were going to be at Veska's mercy, not Laverna's as the wildcat captain had originally hoped. Though hope was hardly long gone, unlike Raknak. Ryker knew that Veska was surprisingly by-the-books for a beast of her size and power, he had never heard of any stories of corrupt behavior from the lizard, maybe this would allow him to legally regain custody of the deserters.

He wasn't completely sure though, beasts went to the palace dungeons usually for fighting or harassment, not stealing a entire treasure chest full of gold. Ryker saw many arrests for crimes considered lesser than that plenty of times during his vacations here with Captain Crableg, but never really seen or heard the consequences of flat-out robbery, well except today from Raknak.

His heard his conscience speak his exact thoughts in the back of his mind. "Well, it's worth a shot in the dark. See if there is any way to pull them out of a possible execution, Laverna would be angry if you didn't…."

He held his paws out, empty and in a nonthreatening manner. "Veska, lets not start executions here, we need them alive-"

Veska cut him off with a glare and one word in a serious and authoritative tone. "Zilence!" The monitor lizard at the moment was not in the mood or idle conversation, a crime had been committed in Sampetra and she hated it when the peace was disturbed, when Raknak, the complete and utterly hopeless fool, came walking into her private quarters and told her of a crime that had happened near the docks and informed her of the nature of the crime that had been committed, she literally grabbed a hold of him and shook as much information out of him as possible.  All she got out of him that mattered though was the number of the wildcat captain's crew, the number of beasts who were actually involved in the robbery and that nobeast as far as he knew are dead yet as a result. Not surprisingly, it took less time for her to gather up the appropriate amount of monitor shock troopers and get out of the palace than it did to get that information….

It was typical, she did most of the hard work, Raknak was hardly the former captain whom she has worked with before his death, the only time he ever remotely made an attempt to do his job was when a crime happened right in front of his hideous face and even than, he would completely mess it up due to his lack of understanding and remembering Sampetra's laws and his own pitiful and disgusting nature, she had heard of the nonsense that would come out his muzzle from witnesses and every time she did, it sent her off seething with anger....

Already, she got a good idea on what is going on right at this moment, the two ferrets are the thieves, no doubt. The small group are likely part of their own crew wanting to get personal revenge against them, most likely torturing them to death or lynching them and the beaten up weasel? Either he is supposed to be the ferrets' hostage or he was with them and soon after the robbery, lost his nerve at the last minute and suggested that they all turn themselves in. Apparently the ferrets are not in the mood to turn themselves in, what a surprise, corsairs tend to let that pirating lifestyle and personal freedom garbage go to their heads and have severe aspirations of being above any law. Even Sampetra's, what nonsense! Such beliefs were as ridiculous as trying to store a longboat under a bed!

As much as she would like to actually imprison the ferrets and keep them from the vengeful crew out of spite against their petty attempts to break Sampetra's laws, she had to fold to those same laws as well, unfortunately for the ferrets. Robbery is a severe crime, but not one that called for the death sentence, if this crew had enough money and no sense of being the better beasts and acting it, they could pay their fine and sentence them with their own twisted and unruly sense of justice...... So long as they didn't do it on Sampetra's soil of course!

She turned her head to the ferret pair, than back to Ryker and fixed him with a hard stare. "Theze two are going to be arrezted and zent to the Zampetra dungeonz, the weasel'z coming with uz for healing and queztioning. If the weazel's proven a victim, he'll be releazed az zoon az pozzible. Everything here will be confizcated. The ferretz have committed a zevere crime, they could be locked away from a long time and the only other way they will be releazed iz if you are willing to pay their finez. Now leave thiz area and come back to the palace after a while, I will not be azking again...."

Ryker broke eye contact with the monitor leader and sighed under his breath. He was fearing that ultimatum would come, though it did not come in the manner he expected, it was still pretty bad. They don't have the currency to buy BOTH ferrets out more than likely and if things don't go smoothly for Veska when she makes her arrest attempts, they could both be dead, no matter if they defy her and stay or give into her demands and leave. Laverna was going to be angry with him for failing her….

He tried to sound confident as he started to urge them to turn around and leave. "Lets go crew mates, we'll get them later. There's no point in getting ourselves killed here...."

Matlock's ears were flat against his skull throughout the whole exchange, and he was gripping his harpoon as if it might abandon him to the giant lizard. He opened his mouth to protest at the thought of Laverna's personal slave being dragged off by these sinister reptiles, but no sound came out; his throat was dry. The best he could do was nod at Ryker and follow the feral cat's orders with the grace of a frightened rabbit. Shame filled him, made his cheeks grow hot and his tail droop to brush his legs. The Captain was not going to be happy about this.

"Begging your pardon, sir, but what's the plan now?" Matlock muttered, matching pace with the cat. "Now they've got our captain, our quarry, and our chest of gold up at that Palace."

"We play along, that's all we can do at this point. We are fortunate that it was Veska who has them instead of any other beast, believe it or not. They say no beast both corsair or slave has ever successfully bribed her into doing something that wasn't according to Sampetra's laws. She is incorruptible, if Veska said that they were not going to be executed, than they likely aren't goin' to be, so we have that goin' for us. Best thing for us to do at this point is to go back to Captain Laverna and give her the news….. and hope that she doesn't try to march us back there to pick a fight with Veska and her monitors...." The seacat turned his attention to Nerissa, who had been listening to the conversation between them from behind. "How did he look friend? Did ya get a good look at him?"

The white fox shook her head. "I gazed upon yon weasel an methinks he is battered, but fine, however I cannot say for certain. Tis' possible Perrin could have something broken. I will know nought from just looking at him, only through physical touch. Let us hope that what thou hast heard holds true, and they handle him gently…." She knew how agonizing it could be for a beast with broken bones to be carried in any manner that wasn't stretcher.

A couple of hours past by, but they felt much longer for Ryker, he had came back with the search party only to discover that Laverna had possibly been gone since not long after he first left the crew with his pack to hunt for Perrin and the ferret thieves. Raknak had came back to apparently retrieve her for the emperor and according to several hordebeasts who witnessed the exchanged between him and Laverna, he was acting incredibly out of character and strange. It was something he found particularly disturbing, he had heard the stories and rumors about Pantaleon Radzi, every corsair who's spent more than one day on the deck of ship knew them. How the emperor was the descendant of the mighty Emperor Madeyes that used to exist so long ago, how he inherited the same hypnotic powers that Ublaz had been famous for, it was the reason that despite the minor issues with corruption amongst the Sampetra authority. Every day on Sampetra worked smoothly and with little problems, other than conflicts with minor slave rebellions, Ryker never recalled a incident involving the staff standing up to the emperor….

He felt dread well up inside him, this was a horrible idea from the beginning. Why didn't he try to convince her and Claudia that it wasn't a good idea? What if he had to come back and inform the Warlady that her dearest cousin isn't going to be coming back because she made the severe error of staring into the bastard's eyes? Should he even dare bother to come back to make the report?

His thoughts started to turn to the hordebeasts themselves when he had thought about Claudia, maybe it would be better for him not to ever go back. If Laverna is gone, imprisoned under the spell of the emperor's hypnotic eyes without any realistic hope of rescue and he has the only ship that Claudia's army ever had, why should he go back? There would be no consequences in not doing so and all these beasts would basically be free beasts. Especially his closest friends, Perrin arguably could end up in prison, but he doubted that would be the case. Veska likely would realize the weasel was hardly criminal material and release him soon after he was fixed up and he and the crew could retrieve him and leave the island.

He weighed everything in his mind. No..... No, it was done now. This mission is dead in the water and if something wasn't done swiftly, he and the rest would be aswell. He had to nab Perrin and get out to sea now! Pantaleon will likely be too busy amusing himself with Laverna to realise that she has an entire crew that he could nab and use a puppets as well and Veska isn't going to do anything that is against the rules unless the emperor says otherwise, if he moved now, maybe he could retrieve Perrin and be out to sea before Pantaleon turns his interest on them....

"Come on guys, lets head for the palace...." Was his order before he had the pack move for the stronghold of the dreaded emperor. Despite the fact that most of the beasts under him where raised from birth to see felines as superior to them and to obey them no matter what. He found that he was  too scared tell them they weren't really coming for Laverna.... either that..... or he was ashamed of how much of a poor leader he has been for them so far....

The muslin curtain wafted gently in the midday breeze. It hung from the arched window of Achenar's chamber, its blue and white patterns rippling and warping as the stoat watched from the bed. He has the tip of his pipe lodged between his front teeth, idly smoking as he stared at the curtain. Pantaleon had been in earlier, winding down after a day of immaculate mathematical equations that Achenar barely understood, and meeting that young wildcat from the North. The stoat could scent the jasmine flowers that grew outside in one of the palace's gardens, as it mingled with the sharper scent of smoke, and the muskier traces of the room's occupant.

Achenar would have been content to lie there for some time, lazing on soft sheets and daydreaming. Duty called though, the stoat had to make the preparations for tonight's diplomatic dinner and dance. Heaving a sigh, the stoat allowed the faint recollections of his daydreams to waft away into the ether, and got out of bed to close the window. The wooden frame rolled down smoothly, and the brass lock gave a tidy click. It was only then, as Achenar turned from the window, that he saw he was not alone.

"Barranca's blade, Marlfox! How did you get in here?" Achenar yelped, visibly recoiling from the ghoulish apparition that was the Imperial Spymaster. Everything about the marlfox reminded the stoat of ash and smoke, from his dappled grey fur to the mottled cloak that shrouded him. His eyes were a pale blue, which might have unsettled Achenar, except that Pan's eyes were far more potent and enigmatic. The marlfox tilted his head, his gaze cool and indifferent to the stoat's discomfort.

"It is no feat of skill to open an unlocked door, Achenar," the spymaster said. His voice was deep, yet quiet enough that even standing next to him, Achenar had to prick his ears to catch every word. "Since His Grace has retired to his chambers for the afternoon, I reasoned that you were otherwise unoccupied."

"You reasoned it'd be a perfect time to creep in and snoop about, more like," Achenar shot back, scowling and folding his arms. He knew Pan would never put any spies on his case, but a lack of orders never stopped the marlfox from getting into everybeast's business. Creep was the right word for him, Achenar thought, creepy Kawldkan Marlfox, always wheedling gossip out of the guards and putting the screws on slaves for any whispers in their ranks. Thankfully the spymaster's quarters were well away from the stoat's, and Kawldkan seemed to spend a lot of time in his study in the dungeons anyway. "So, crawled up from your damp hole, have you? The kitchens are downstairs, I'm sure you'll find some raw meat in there."

Kawldkan smiled briefly. On his weathered, scarred features, the sudden flash of white jagged teeth only served to make him look more threatening. "If I wanted raw meat, stoat, I'd say I've found some already. Pleasantries aside, I have a proposal for you that may catch your interest."

Achenar rested a paw on the hilt of the dagger on his belt, staring into the marlfox's eyes. "I only take propositions from beasts with high standing. It's just my professional ethic, y'know? And if you want a slice of raw meat, marlfox, you'd best be careful not to get yourself cut."

"Oh, I'm used to making very precise incisions," Kawldkan replied, smoothly drawing back his cloak to reveal the shined silver throwing daggers sheathed in a neat line on his bandolier. "I'm sure I could take what I wanted unscathed, thank you. As for my proposal?"

"Not interested," Achenar snapped. The stoat and marlfox eyed each other, until Kawldkan's lips curled into a smile. And then, the spymaster began to sing, in a low and husky voice that made the stoat shiver.

"_The ring shined in the marten's eyes,
He stole it from a corsair's paw,
He gave it to a stoat one night,
Not knowing his messmate craved more.

Ten seasons the stoat wore the ring,
Keeping safe the pine marten's prize,
And when the thief did meet his gaze,
The stoat put out the marten's eyes.

Beware, beware, the greedy beast,
Who took a gift and never gave
When the debt was owed and trust gained,
He sent his messmate to the grave._"

There was silence in the room as Kawldkan's last notes died away. The marlfox's cold eyes stared into the stoat's warm brown ones, until Achenar had to look away, his body visibly trembling. As Kawldkan had sung the mournful tune, Achenar's tail had tucked itself further between his legs, as recognition of the melody's dark meaning had dawned on him.

Achenar bared his teeth, his breath came in shallow gasps. He was enraged, and sickened to his very core. He knew the song; it was a corsair's ballad sung from here to Terramort Isle. Yet the marlfox was singing it for a reason, and it made the stoat tremble and check his dagger was close at paw. "What the zhipperfriskers do you want from me?"

The marlfox tutted. "A more civil conversation, you curse as if you were still a sailor. I have seen His Grace's agenda for tomorrow. There is an important matter coming up, regarding the captaincy of the Smiling Seductress. His Grace will have to find a suitable candidate, considering the Seductress' misfortunes on the High North Coast last slaving season."

"You want to be captain? What are you going to do, flap your arms and magic up some wind, marlfox?" Achenar smirked bitterly, still smarting over the marlfox's song. Kawldkan might be the master of sneaking around the palace, but Achenar could best him at being a sailor any day.

Kawldkan stared back at Achenar, dead serious. "Don't tempt me. Anyway, I don't want to be captain, you fool, the Palace's intrigues are far more satisfying to unravel than the petty matters of the common corsairs. I want my candidate to be named captain."

"Now, why would you want one of your pals as master of a slaving ship? Looking for something? or somebeast?" Achenar narrowed his eyes. "No guarantees I can sway Pan's mind. He tends to be the one doing the swaying, if you catch my drift."

"It's not your concern what my reasons are, stoat. He listens to your opinion, regardless of what it's actually worth. If my candidate's name is not signed in the Seductress' log by tomorrow evening, I suggest your name be signed up for the first ship off this island. I won't come after you. I won't have to." Kawldkan smiled again, and this time Achenar had to look away, feeling the blood rising to his cheeks, even as his stomach seemed to sink even lower. The marlfox whispered the candidate's name to the four walls, and when the stoat looked back, the spymaster had left as silent and unseen as he had arrived. Freed from Kawldkan's scrutiny, Achenar slumped into a chair, buried his muzzle in folded paws across the desk, and began to weep.


A row of slaves lined up beside the long dining table. In silence, they laid out candelabras, silk doilies, fine porcelain plates, and the silverware. They set salad forks, dinner forks, oyster forks, cake forks, soup spoons, teaspoons, dessert spoons, dinner knives, fish knives, salad knives, and bread knives. Each guest's place had a salad plate, a service plate, and a small bread plate, two wine glasses, and a glass for their drink of choice. The napkins were folded elegantly. It looked simple enough, but the silverware was worth more than what most corsairs got in loot a whole season of plundering.

Achenar gazed at the display with a critical eye, and nodded. The table was ready, and the kitchen slaves were hard at work. He waved a paw, and the musicians filed in. There were four slaves, a string quartet of a violin, viola, 'cello and double bass. They took their seats in the corner, and began to tune up. Their lilting tones and minor pitch alterations made the stoat's ears twitch, so he hurried off to change into his evening wear.

Pantaleon strutted in front of the mirror, a proud smirk in his features. He had a short, dark red cape slung over one shoulder, its lining adorned with gold lace. The marten had brushed and pampered his fur all the way to the tip of his tail, making it smooth and gleaming. He had removed the fez; as much as he liked it, one simply did not eat and then dance with a hat on. Instead, he had chosen to wear a small gold circlet on his head, fashioned in the shape of olive leaves.

Pantaleon's guests would be arriving soon. There were a few beasts worthy of attending such gatherings, most of whom were in the slavery business. Slaves were the lifeblood of the island after all. His guest of honour, Captain Laverna, was also bringing a few beasts of her own. He hoped they knew how to dance, it was one of his favourite diversions.

The pine marten shivered, despite the balmy warmth of the Sampetran evening breeze, which wafted through the open windows. He sensed Kawldkan was close by, and a soft knock on the door confirmed his intuition. The door to the Emperor's quarters was the only door in the world on which the marlfox knocked. Everybeast else just had to suffer Kawldkan's presence, invited or not. The Emperor alone was given the courtesy of refusing to see his spymaster.

"Enter," Pan called. His heart jumped a step as the marlfox entered, dressed in his evening wear. Kawldkan preferred greys and blacks to match his unique mottled fur. His style of dress was quite conservative compared to Pan, which made him seem all the more exotic to the pine marten. Kawldkan had allowed for a splash of colour though, pleasing the Emperor; he wore blood red sash from his shoulder to hip, and a creamy white silk neckcloth was tied elegantly around his neck.

Of all the trophies that Pan had stolen, looted or enticed into his Palace from around the world, the marlfox was the rarest and most precious treasure of all. Redwall might have a magic sword, but what was such a trinket compared to a living, breathing magical creature of legend? There was only one other beast Pan knew had real magical powers, and that was himself. With his powerful gaze commanding the wills of beasts and Kawldkan's shadowy claws moving unseen to enforce his rule, the pine marten felt that nobeast could ever oppose him again.

"Your Grace," Kawldkan bowed his head. "I bring information about the Northlanders. All is not as it appears with the Hellebores."

Pan's ears pricked up, and he smirked. "Oh, good, I love secrets. What have you heard?"

Kawldkan raised his head, and spoke in a tone of detached calm. "The self-styled War Lady has yet to prove herself in any war. She murdered her sister, and left the Northlands with many armies. Armies that could have prevented the subsequent invasion by wolverines and other savages. Now the Northlands are overrun, her father is dead, and the wolverines will no doubt press further South until they start fighting amongst themselves, as is common when a Khan dies."

"Laverna left out the death of her uncle in her story, then," Pan mused, stroking his whiskers with the tips of his claws. "How did you hear this?"

"Sailors talk freely while on shore leave, Your Grace, and we knew of the wolverine invasion some time before the _Bloody Barracuda_ made port. One does not make refugees of the great wildcat clans and go unnoticed," Kawldkan said, raising an eyebrow.

Pan nodded and paced over to the window, to look down at the ships in the harbour, their masts swaying gently from side to side. "We don't trade with the savages; I have no use for necklaces made of bone or their crude weapons. The wildcat clans may have been brutal themselves, but they were civilised. They kept order in the Northlands. Wolverines don't make good allies, and if they sweep further south, they'll hurt my trade routes, kill my business partners, and get their grubby paws all over the jewels and treasures of the South that should be mine to appreciate."

"I agree, Your Grace. But Claudia Hellebore is little more than a child, out of her father's castle for the first time. The wildcat clans may stand together for now, but if she dies they'll fall back to warring with each other. It will be a risky investment to support her," Kawldkan murmured, watching the pine marten's back. Pan turned to face him, and smiled the deceptive, wicked smile the marlfox had come to know meant the Emperor had a scheme in mind.

"You just said the same about the wolverine Khans. Warlords rise and fall all the time, and their great empires with them. Loyalties wain, oaths break, armies flee. There's one thing we can rely on to come out on top, Kawldkan." The Emperor strode over to the marlfox, and extended his paw, showing the spymaster the rings of gold on his fingers, set with precious stones. "Silver and gold will always speak louder than solemn promises. It's all a matter of who to pay to make our problems disappear."

Kawldkan leant forward, and kissed the Emperor's outstretched paw, like he had done when he first swore to serve the pine marten. "I couldn't have said it better myself, Your Grace."

A figure walked up the main street towards the Palace. Beasts moved out of her way, eyes staring fearfully at her face. She was a ferret, with brown fur save for her white-furred head, but there was no beast on Sampetra that looked anything quite like her.

She had a mask of brown fur around her eyes, but only one of them was real, a pale blue-green eye that was fixed on the palace. The other was a gold orb, minutely detailed to look as if its gaze was real. She looked weathered and scarred, her ears were chipped and laden with rings. She wore a tunic made of finely made shark leather, and a silk cloth of royal blue was tied around her neck. Her paws were laden with almost as many rings as the Emperor. On her belt hung a cutlass in a jewelled scabbard by her left hip, and she had straight dirk by her right. She wore leather britches that matched her tunic, and sturdy boots up to her knees. Her tail was scraggly, but decorated with a thick gold ring. Beasts that looked close enough would notice she had two fingers missing from her left paw, and the tip of her middle finger on the right.

She turned her head as she passed Ryker, having heard him order his group of sailors to head for the Palace. Her golden orb seemed to stare into him as much as her real eye, her head tilting ever so slightly.

"You are going to the Palace?" she asked. Her voice was surprisingly low, and her accent was not typical of corsairs, Northlanders or those from Mossflower. It sounded exotic, with odd emphasis on certain sounds. She smiled, revealing many golden teeth. "Perhaps you will let Raziah come with you, yes? The Emperor has asked for me, but he sends no guards to escort me."

It took a moment for Ryker to respond, he had to stare a moment at her 'eye.' Had he not been so distracted by the solid gold orb, he would have mentally joked that for the first time in the history of male kind, a he looked a she straight in the eye for once. He had heard stories of beasts who lost eyes, and instead of simply sewing the lids shut and wearing an eye patch, they had fake eyes made for them. The cheapest were made from wood, while the far more expensive ones were made by masters of the art. There was no doubt that the one he gazed upon was indeed worked on by a true artist.

"Uuuuh. Yeah, we are. A friend of ours got into some… trouble. He got hurt because he was a witness to a robbery and Veska took him in for healing and questioning. We were told to come get him in a few hours, and now that the time has passed, we are going to get him..."

He wasn't telling the truth, but at the same time, he wasn't really lying either. He hoped that his 'crew' would play along. He realized he had failed to mention their captain completely, but that was the least of his problems. Taking the ferret with them meant that Pan would without a doubt hear of him and the crew, killing any chance of retrieving Perrin without drawing attention. If she was very important to the Emperor, there might be severe consequences for him if the seacat made friends with her along the way... then again, there might be the same consequences for refusing to take her along in the first place.

He made the decision quickly, hoping it was the right one.

"Anyway, sure. You could come with us. The more the merrier, as they say."

Raziah fell in step with Ryker as the band of corsairs took the winding path uphill. The Palace's white walls and columns seemed to cover the whole hilltop. There was a sun-bleached flag wafting gently from a flagpole, but other than its gaudy colours, the fortress seemed stern and plain, with flat roofs and arched windows.

"You are young, to be leading these beasts. This is good. Pantaleon likes ambition," Raziah said conversationally. She looked over at Nerissa, who was walking nearby. The mysterious corsair's gaze seemed to be taking in the vixen's rather embarrassing furcut, her hooped earrings and colourful corsair's clothes. "He also likes dancing. Do you dance, pretty maid?"

There was something rather playful in the ferret's tone, but neither the gold eye nor the real one was giving away anything. They were close to the Palace gates now. The heavy doors were propped open, but guarded by Trident Rats.

Nerissa thought about replying, but remained silent. She had caught the ferret's tone, and the words 'pretty maid' sounded mocking to her ears. Instead, she simply adjusted her hood in silence so it covered even more of her head as soon as the ferret turned her back on her. She tilted her head forward a little as well so the brim of the hood covered her eyes. She had to remember to ask Ryker to punish her amateur barber…

The lead rat stepped in front of the group, and held up his paw. "His Grace commands that each captain only bring one guest to dinner."

"Then I pick this one," Raziah said immediately, pointing to Nerissa. "Though, I do not know her name. I am Raziah, of the Smiling Seductress."

"The floating bordello," Nerissa explained none too quietly to Matlock. It had been a good call on the vixen's part that she adjusted her hood the way she did. Otherwise every beast on the scene would have caught the expression of wide eyed shock on her face. It had not lasted long though before it turned into a tight jawed expression of silent, seething anger. So she was going to do this to her? Take her into the palace just so she could taunt her for no explained reason for as long as she could? Even the cats didn't go this far.

Not this time though, not this time. The cats could get away with it, they were many, well armed and almost her size, this ferret may be well armed, but she wasn't as strong as the cats were and she was only one bullying ferret.

Ryker never thought he could be so on edge in the past, but here he was. Feeling like his soul was trying to explode out of his own body, trying to escape what would be a none-too-pleasant ending to his attempt to retrieve his close friend. Abandoning ship…

His mind raced through the options. It was too late to turn back now, or to try a different approach. All he could do now was play along and hope for the best. Ironically, the authority was his only chance now. If Perrin was okay and not guilty, he could walk back out without trouble from the guards, but what if he was still out of it? What then?

He realized his flaw, he was thinking too far ahead. He still had to get into the palace and he could only bring only one beast with him. One!

He raced through the few options. Ranjit was a great fighter, but no. It was amazing sparks didn't fly out of his mouth every time he talked, because he lit up trouble whenever he did. He would get them both killed the moment he opened his big mouth! He also realized he never had the time to get to know the other beasts. Oh, he talked to them every now and than and remembered a few by name, but he didn't know any of them well enough to know how much use they would be in this situation...

Matchlock, or whatever his name was. He was the only logical option, though Ryker hardly knew him anymore than most of the other beasts, he obviously didn't get his position by doing nothing. Laverna sure found him more useful than the other slaves.

He casually pointed a claw at the fox. "I'll take my old friend here with me. Me and him have been shipmates for a long time." He hoped for once it was a good choice on his part.

"Aye, where'd you be without your old messmate Matlock," Matlock said with a forced grin. He had lost count how many times the cat had forgotten his name, or given some variation on the syllables that never quite matched. Ordinarily the big fox slave was unconcerned with what the knights and lords called him, so long as they didn't call him too often. But right now, it was important that Ryker remember, to keep up the act.

Wordlessly, the guard rat stepped aside to admit the guests. However, once the four beasts were inside, they found themselves flanked by more Trident Rats, to escort them directly to the Emperor.


Laverna was afraid. This wasn't just butterflies in the stomach before a social engagement, like all the boring weddings and parties and occasions that she had avoided as a younger wildcat. She was still young even now, she could see it had surprised Pantaleon that she had commanded a ship. The exile from the North had forced her to grow up rather quickly. Now here she was representing her house in a foreign land, with customs she barely understood.

Meeting Pantaleon had done little to soothe her anxiety. Whilst on the outside he presented a veneer of good manners, charming smiles and civil conversation, she had a feeling in her gut that there was some barbaric, savage side to the pine marten she had yet to uncover. His paws were soft, his words eloquent and perfectly pronounced, but this supposed genteel beast was the sole ruler of an island of bloodthirsty corsairs, propped up by the labour of hundreds- no, _thousands_ of slaves that would work until they dropped dead. How long had Pantaleon been Emperor of this grisly monument to decadence? Twenty years? More? This empire of his was held afloat in an ocean of blood, sweat, and tears.

Laverna had bathed, and was getting ready to dress for the evening. Pantaleon had loftily granted her a room to stay for as long as she was on the island, insisting it was no trouble. The wildcat had not been expecting the 'room' to be the size of a small feasting hall by Northlands standards. It seemed equipped for wildcats too, with an appropriately sized bed, chairs, dressing table and full length mirror. Laverna could only guess that the pine marten was used to playing host to all kinds of beasts. It was actually starting to make her feel homesick - she hadn't been in a proper home for months now. She had mostly been living in a tent, or in the cramped captain's quarters of the _Bloody Barracuda_. She supposed she ought not complain too much about that though; her crew had no personal space at all.

The wildcat put on the clothes the slaves had laid out on the dressing table. It seemed there would be no call for a corsair's disguise this evening. They had selected for her a rather martial looking white tunic, with gold piping, lace and epaulettes. A belt around her waist was fastened with a gold hook, and she tucked the pair of decorative white gloves into the belt, along with a curved sabre Pantaleon had insisted she have as a gift to wear this evening, instead of the heavy cutlass she had brought. The pine marten had mentioned that it was acceptable to wear her weapon to dinner - every other beast would be, anyway. It surprised Laverna how different it was to Northern customs, where wearing weapons to a feast indicated distrust and bad manners. She supposed there was very little trust to be had when all the guests were corsairs.

There was one final touch left. Somebeast had left a five-pointed white flower on the table. It was a Hellebore flower, Laverna's namesake and the sigil of her house. Pantaleon hadn't just been idly boasting about his gardens then, she supposed. She smiled faintly and lifted the flower, being careful not to crush it in her strong paws. She put it neatly in her headfur by her ear, and looked at herself in the mirror. A young noble wildcat looked back, her militaristic appearance tempered by the delicate flower. Laverna smoothed the tunic of any creases, straightened her shoulders, and strode to the door. It was time to meet Sampetra's elite club.

The dining hall's size and grandeur seemed to accentuate the fact that there were not very many guests. Laverna could see that the arrangement of chairs and silverware around the long table were spaced quite apart, and she could tell from the way the guests acted that they were not expecting too many more arrivals. They were loud, large, and full of their own egos, laughing and chattering away as slender slaves slunk between them holding silver platters on which wineglasses were balanced delicately. The hall was held up by white marble pillars around the edges of the room, and by each pillar stood a Trident Rat in polished armour, their weapons gleaming.

"There, see what a beauty she is," a familiar voice said. Laverna had only just stepped through the double doors, and there was Pantaleon already, having changed into what seemed an even more extravagant outfit, a circlet of gold olives perched on his head. Beside his was a slim stoat, who stood with his shoulders back and his chest out, his right paw resting on his hip, and his left daintily holding a silk handkerchief. Pantaleon smiled at Laverna, and gestured at the stoat with one paw. "May I present Achenar, my… majordomo I suppose, or castellan, or steward. I've never quite decided what his official job title is. Suffice to say he's my right paw beast, and looks after my household. Achenar, meet Captain Laverna Hellebore, of the ancient Hellebore wildcat clan."

Achenar bowed with a flourish, and Laverna gave him a short curtsey back. Pantaleon was not done making introductions it seemed, He steered the two of them from one member of his council to the next. Laverna met the Imperial Physician, a kindly looking old vixen named Desmora, who proudly informed the wildcat that she had been looking after Pantaleon all his life, and his father Pantelis before that. Laverna also met Deke, a bumbling fat searat who looked ready for a heart attack any moment.

"I'd also like you to meet the Imperial Spymaster, if he obeyed my wish that he be here," Pantaleon told Laverna, as they crossed the mosaic tiled floor, mingling with the guests, whom all nodded respectfully as he passed. A hint of irritation crept into his voice, and he shot a look at Achenar, who smirked.

"I'll see if I can find him skulking about," the stoat said slyly, and slouched off, his tail flicking jauntily. It seemed to Laverna that the Emperor's majordomo was looking forward to informing the Spymaster of the Emperor's displeasure.

"You summoned me, Your Grace," a deep, quiet voice spoke from behind them. "I am yours to command."

Laverna whirled around in surprise, but Pantaleon merely chuckled at her alarm. The wildcat's eyes went wide with astonishment. There in front of her, was a real, living Marlfox. He had thick mottled fur in shades of grey from near white to black, his eyes were pale blue, and his figure fine and lithe. He wore clothes as dark as the dappled greys of his fur, save for a blood-red sash and cream-coloured neckcloth.

"This is Kawldkan," Pantaleon said with a mischievous grin. Laverna could see the pine marten had enjoyed her surprise immensely; he loved showing off, and this was one of the rarest beasts in the known world. "If Achenar is my right paw, then Kawldkan is my left."

"I have already heard much of you, Captain," Kawldkan said with a short bow of his head. "It is my job to hear things, after all."

"What things have you heard, sir?" Laverna asked.

Kawldkan gave her a thin smile. "I'm not a knight, no need to call me that. If you are looking for a knight though, I expect Sir Ryker will join us in good time. A shame his friend Perrin will be unable to attend."

"Perrin? What's happened to Perrin?" Laverna looked from Kawldkan to Pantaleon, a note of worry creeping into her voice, her brow furrowing. It seemed everybeast knew what was becoming of her crew better than she did herself. "Did you find him?"

Kawldkan give Pantaleon a meaningful look. "Veska."

"Ah," Pantaleon nodded. "There's no need for alarm, Captain, I sent my Monitor Lizards to bring your missing crewmembers into custody. They will not be harmed; Veska follows my orders to the very letter. Please, let us be seated."

Slaves filed into the room as the guests took their places, holding large platters covered by silver lids. Everybeast seemed to know exactly where they sat in the Emperor's hierarchy. The more powerful the beast, the closer they sat to Pantaleon. Laverna was not sure what was safer, being closer or further away from the pine marten. It was only when most of the guests were seated that she realised she had a place of honour, a seat near the Emperor at the head of the table. There was an empty seat beside her, so she had nobeast to talk to but Pantaleon. Achenar sat opposite her. She looked around for where Kawldkan had been seated, but she couldn't see the marlfox at the table anywhere. Had he disappeared from the gathering already? The pine marten seemed unconcerned by this, so the wildcat put it out of her mind.

"I insist you let me begin the dance with you," Pantaleon was saying airily, in a way that seemed to prohibit any protest. "I haven't danced in the Northern style for seasons. We might as well show something new and novel to my more Southern guests, don't you think?"

Laverna was about to reply when the double doors at the end of the hall opened. She looked around, down the table, to see a familiar lean figure approaching, flanked by corsairs. The rat at the door banged his trident down, the noise of metal striking tile echoing over the chattering guests.

"Acting Captain Raziah of the Smiling Seductress, and Sir Ryker, Knight of House Hellebore," he announced in an ostentatious tone. He glanced at Matlock and Nerissa as they tagged along, and cleared his throat, adding, "and two guests."

The unfortunate two 'guests' were waved by the Palace slaves into chairs at the very foot of the table. Ryker and Raziah were directed further up, seating the corsair cat with Laverna, and Raziah beside Deke, the Lord High Treasurer.

"Don't worry," Laverna said, leaning close and giving her trusted companion a small smile. She knew the amount of silver cutlery in front of him looked very daunting. "Just start from the outside, and work your way in."

Pantaleon tapped his wine glass with the tip of his two-tined fork, and the slaves leant forward. In unison, they pulled off the silver lids on the platters, revealing the decadent, exotic meal. Smiling, the pine marten skewered a piece of lobster, and delicately closed his sharp teeth over it. The feast had begun.

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