A prequel to the Tales of the Captain Duke, as featured in the October 2015 edition of Airmail.
Cat searched her bag for the last of the biscuits and came up with crumbs. She took a deep breath before uncorking the water flask and turning to her brother with a smile.
“Here you are! Just enough to wet your whistle.”
She dribbled some into Morris’ open mouth. He giggled and most dribbled down his chin. For the hundredth time that morning, Cat reminded herself that a toddler could not be counted on to understand the gravity of their situation.
“Now dinner!” he exclaimed.
“Not just yet, it’s hardly tea time silly boy. You wouldn’t want to spoil your appetite. Soon we’ll have a grand feast.”
“But I’m hungry now.”
“No, no, not yet. Here, want to play with the telescope again?”
Cat was very nearly at her wit’s end, but there was no time for despair. Not when they’d made it so far already. She helped Morris climb onto the musty armchair she’d pushed to the boarded-up window, peering between the slats at the bustling town below. In the distance, the new tallport stretched high into the air, with airships of every shape and size gliding to and fro. If only they knew which one they were looking for.
It had been three days since they’d arrived in the thick of an autumn storm. But last night the harvest moon had shone brightly overhead, the one night of the year when Cat knew where he would be.
And perhaps, she had been wrong.
Perhaps, he had decided not to attend the festival this year.
Perhaps, he had been captured or killed.
Cat felt the sting of tears and focused on taking deep breaths as her brother snuggled into her warmth. She stroked his hair as her mind wandered into the forbidden territory of what to do if tomorrow came and the two of them were still friendless in a world that seemed to grow larger by the day.
“Cat, look! His hair’s afire.”
Startled out of contemplation, she wrenched the telescope away and scanned the square for the red-haired man. He was walking down the street towards the merchants’ bazaar, clad in the very same bright blue coat she remembered from the year before. It must be him. Her hands trembled as she handed the instrument back to her brother.
“There we are! I’m sure that’s him, I’m sure of it. Quickly, gather your things.”
The two of them picked up their meager possessions and ran to the burnt-out stairwell. They slipped through the crowds, invisible. Two dirty children making their way through the streets. By the time they reached the market, they’d lost track completely. Cat’s heart beat a little faster, they could not fail now! She turned into an alley with some boxes for cover, and tucked her brother behind them with their packs.
“I’ll find him, I promise, and then I’ll be right back. Remember what we practiced, quiet as a mouse,” she said, placing a finger to her lips.
“Quiet as a mouse,” he repeated solemnly.
She kissed him on the forehead and rejoined the throng. Unencumbered, she flitted from one store to the next, dashing from one end to the other, always peering through the forest of elbows for a glimpse of the bright blue coat until, at last, she found him by the milliners. He shook the man’s hand as she crept closer to listen.
“That’s the last of it then. It’ll be a good year.”
“Can I no entice ye to stay for a spot of dinner? Winnie’s got a lovely stew on,” said the merchant.
Cat’s belly made its opinion on the matter loudly known.
“Regretfully, I must decline. We’re due for another interception down the way and must leave post-haste. I’m heading back directly and Trick’ll have my hide if he finds I’ve set us off course for any lesser reason than your wife’s pot roast. The pilots still speak of it fondly.”
The milliner guffawed and clapped the red-haired man on the back, “I’ll send her your best, Captain. And ye can be sure she’ll have one waiting for ye next harvest. Here, have a tart for the road.”
Cat grinned. She was sure it was him now. But before she could celebrate, the Captain pocketed the treat and climbed into a waiting carriage with a wave. Her heart was gripped by ice, but as the horse passed her hiding spot at a short clip, she knew what she had to do.
She bolted toward the vehicle, boosting herself up using the footman’s rest to cling to the side, then leapt up to grip the roof and swing her small frame through the window, landing in a heap on the floor.
“Ow,” she said, rubbing her elbow.
“You may need to practice that a bit more,” said the Captain Duke.
His right hand was tucked beneath his coat, some manner of concealed weaponry at the ready, Cat presumed. But at her glare, he removed a handkerchief instead and handed it to her. Blood was beginning to bead on the scrape on her arm, and she accepted it with thanks.
“Now that you have my attention, what might I do for you, little one?” he asked.
“Well, first we need to pick up my brother, and then we’ll be going to your ship.”
“Yes. We’re joining your crew.”
“Well. I hadn’t expected this to be a recruiting mission, where is your brother?”
Cat could tell that he was humouring her. She could always tell when adults were telling fibs. She had him stop the carriage and sweetly asked for his hand before leading him firmly to the alley where Morris hid.
“It’s safe! Quickly now!” she called.
The Captain tensed beside her, sensing a trap, but Cat gripped his sleeve tightly as her brother peered out from behind the crates. Immediately, his manner changed. He crouched in the dirt, carefully removing the tart from his pocket and offering it, hand outstretched, to the boy who grinned and tumbled out of his hiding place.
Two bites in, Morris beamed at Cat, “Quiet as a mouse!”
“Yes, my dear, you did very, very well.”
The Captain was quiet as he watched their exchange, but Cat turned to him, determined. “We’ll be going to your ship now.”
“Tell me your name.”
“Catherine Mary Margaret Waugh.”
“Ah, little Cat. I thought I recognized you. You’re a hand taller than last harvest. How old now? Eight?”
“Nine. And Mouse will be three soon. He’s hardly a bother, you’ll see. I’ll take care of him, he won’t be any trouble.”
“Don’t be afraid, I will not part the two of you. But Cat, I need to know: Where is your father?”
He spoke the last word softly, as though he already knew the answer. Cat tried to reply in a steady voice, but felt as though she’d had the breath knocked out of her.
“They came for him. Three weeks ago. He said to warn you.”
Cat felt her lower lip tremble, but she could feel Morris’ stare and knew she must be brave as she fought for composure. The Captain looked her in the eyes as he rested a hand on her shoulder.
“You’ve done us a great service, little Cat.”
He said nothing more, but picked up her brother with one arm and offered his other hand to her. Cat took a shaky breath and picked up their belongings before slipping her small hand into his.
They took the carriage to the tallport where the Captain boosted her brother onto his shoulders and led them up and up and up the spiral stair to a sleek and beautiful airship. A frowning man stormed onto the deck as soon as they had boarded.
“Now Captain, if I find out you’ve been to dinner at Winnie’s without the rest of us–”
He stopped at the sight of the Captain Duke, blue coat flapping in the wind, a toddler clinging to his hair and a small girl boldly leading the way.
“Change course, Trick. We’re being led into a trap. I’ll explain it all later, but I think we may find time to pass by the Haven instead,” he said as he passed, leading them to the mess.
“Oh, and I seem to have found us some new pilots. Meet Cat,” said the Captain Duke, nodding in her direction, “and Mouse.”
To be continued…