The the aftermath of the mission covered in The Captain’s Vengeance, Dewey Lambdin’s naval hero, Alan Lewrie had returned to Jamaica to general acclaim. His seizure of the Spanish treasure ship had made himself and his superiors wealthy men and the piracy ring had been suppressed thereby demonstrating the long reach of the British navy. But his triumph was to be short-lived. In a private dinner with the deputy to the commander of the Jamaica Station, Lewrie finds that while the squadron is planning an exciting, and possibly profitable, mission against Spanish shipping, Lewrie will not be involved. Instead, he is being sent to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Major spoilers follow.
Because Lewrie had acted as second to his long time friend, Kit Cashman, which had resulted in the death of Ledyard Beauman, the family is pressing the case hard. Lewrie’s commander decides to send Lewrie and Proteus to Halifax for a refit and from there back to England.
Lewrie arrives in England half expecting to be immediately arrested. Instead he is confronted with a letter from Zachariah Twigg, the Foreign Office spy that he has encountered earlier in his career (The King’s Privateer, The King’s Commander), asking for an immediate meeting. Lewrie does so and is quickly introduced to William Wilberforce and Hannah More, prominent social reformers, who are campaigning to end slavery in Britain’s colonies. He is to become part of their campaign. Much to his surprise, as he talks to them he realizes that he really does loathe slavery and isn’t simply acting to win allies.
When Lewrie reports back on board Proteus, he finds orders awaiting him ordering him to escort an East India Company convoy at least as far as the Cape of Good Hope. The senior Royal Navy officer in the convoy is his old commander Captain Sir Tobias Treghues (The King’s Coat, The French Admiral).
Treghues still bears Lewrie ill-will and repeatedly snubs him while penalizing Proteus in various ways. The relationship takes a definite turn for the worse when Proteus intercepts a British ship carrying an itinerant circus invokes Admiralty regulations to make Treghues let the ship join the convoy.
The night before the convoy enters Cape Town it is attacked by French ships. The convoy is successfully defended but Proteus is stern raked and loses her rudder. She has to remain at Cape Town for repairs saving her from a long voyage to either Calcutta or Canton escorting the East India Company’s ships.
From a local chandler they learn of a wrecked Indiaman beached a few miles from Cape Town and determine that the rudder from that wreck can be salvaged and modified to fit Proteus.
While engaged in the salvage operation, the circus people decide to try to trap new animals to replace the ones that have died and to expand their menagerie. They have convinced two of Lewrie’s sailors to desert and join the circus. The circus people hire an inept guide and one of the deserters is killed by a Cape Buffalo and another mauled by a lion.
As Proteus is being repaired a homebound convoy of Indiamen arrives at Cape Town. Among the passengers is Lewrie’s brother-in-law Burgess Chiswick. Proteus is assigned to escort the convoy home.
The captain of the ship of the line escorting the homebound convoy tells Lewrie that the convoy was stalked by French warships and he, like Lewrie, does not believe that the clash Lewrie’s former convoy had with the French ships was happenstance. The convoy departs Cape Town anticipating that they will be intercepted by French ships.
Two days into the voyage the French attack at night in a gale. Lewrie, having been caught by surprise once, has been extra vigilant and Proteus spots the French ships before they are close to the convoy. Proteus engages a larger French frigate but a smaller corvette attempts to take the circus ship. Not a great decision as it turns out. Proteus takes its opponent in a protracted, bloody slugging match. The other ship escorting the convoy easily takes the corvette that had slipped by Proteus.
Lewrie returns to England a minor celebrity but his personal life and impending trial over the theft of the slaves conspire to deny him a knighthood. They do, however, gain him a 38-gun frigate, HMS Savage, and a ticket out of town.