Ezikial looked up at the fat man blocking his path. "Well," he drawled. "I think--" the fat pirate staggered backwards clutching his groin from Ezikial's well-placed kick. He pulled out his pistol, cocked it, and shoved it into the man's face. "Back off and leave me alone." He was dimly aware of Reiko and Feruzi moving behind him, the Tian slinking back into the shadows while the Mwangi huntress stepped up to prevent the other pirates from surrounding him.
The fat man panted hard for a few seconds. "You won't get away with kicking Fipps Chumlett!" he growled, yanking a dagger out of his belt and shoving Ezikial's gun aside.
"No!" the big-eared woman standing beside him hissed. "I ain't gonna get keel-hauled!"
"Most wise," Feruzi commented as Ezikial danced backward, taking a messy but not dangerous cut along the outside of his thigh. The other pirates waded in, swinging fists and weighted bits of rope. Chopper punched one in the jaw, dodging a reciprocal kick. Feruzi's hand shot out with snake speed, striking the rigger woman in the abdomen and doubling her up. The Mwangi's foot then soared skyward and came down solidly on the rigger's forehead, staggering her and putting her out of the fight.
"Stop this right now!" Reiko yelled. "I'll be sure Scourge and Plugg know all about this little shindig!"
"C'mon, Fipps!" the remaining uninjured pirate insisted. "Let's get on deck before we're missed."
Fipps hesitated, then backed away, never taking his eyes off Ezikial. "Another time, maybe," he drawled.
"don't think the Captain won't hear about this, too," Reiko snarled. Ezikial un-cocked the pistol and put it back in his shirt.
"Watch your back, mate," Chopper told the retreating pirates, "Cos I'm gonna put my boot up--oh, they're gone."
"Methinks it would be most wise to avoid going anywhere alone for the near future," Feruzi remarked. Ezikial shrugged. "Your duties take you alone over the entire ship," she insisted. "Watch yourself."
The crew was already assembled on the Wormwood's deck when they arrived. Fishguts handed around some ship biscuits for breakfast in a desultory fashion, his eyes squinted nearly shut against the sunlight.
"What is this, a rock?" Feruzi demanded in disgust. She watched Chopper attempting to masticate his biscuit without chipping a tooth.
"Just eat it," Reiko told her.
"Valid question," Chopper mumbled. "Sailors have not yet come up with a satisfactory answer."
"What, did you lose all your teeth already?" Reiko asked.
"No. And I plan to keep them intact." Feruzi stared at the biscuit for a few moments more, then put it on the rail and punched it vigorously, turning it into a mush of small pieces. "Feruzi is victorious," she announced. Reiko rolled her eyes.
Mr. Plugg glanced over them in passing. "Mr. Chopper, you're working the lines today. Hands will be down in the bilges. Feruzi is our runner. And Miss Nakayama, Fishguts has . . . something . . . for you to do, I have no doubt."
"Wonderful," Reiko said. I'll get started on that, then." She arrived in the galley to find that Fishguts had already succeeded in rendering himself insensible, and the bits of fish already set out would not be enough to feed the crew. Sighing, she rooted out a hook and line and set out to augment the supplies. She passed Chopper as he entered the quartermaster's stores, and paused to watch.
"That looks familiar," Chopper said, not as casually as he probably thought, gesturing to a package of his former belongings. "Any chance I can get that stuff, you know, back?"
"Yep," Grok the quartermaster croaked. "Plunder belongs to the Captain, but everything has a price."
"Aye," Chopper replied. "So, what, er, price, were you thinking of?"
Grok snorted. "Look, I'm used to pressed sailors beggin' me fer their stuff back. Money talks, friend."
"The Captain took that, too. Are favors any good as currency?"
"Depends," she replied, grinning toothily. "You got anything to drink besides rum?"
"Ah, see, now we are communicating. I hear you. I'll see what I can do," Chopper said, shooting her a little two-fingered salute before sauntering off. Reiko followed him onto the deck, and spent the entire day attempting to wrangle up enough fish for dinner. She barely had enough time to scurry back down to the galley, chop up her gleanings, and boil them to a sufficiently cooked status before the bell rang, announcing the end of the working day. She hauled the stew and a stack of bowls onto the deck for distribution.
"So," she asked Grok as the quartermaster approached for her serving. "How do you suppose one might gain an audience with the Captain?"
"Oh, you don't want that, sweetie, trust me," Grok said, accepting a bowl.
"You're right, of course. I was just curious as to how one might go about it, should a need arise."
"Chain of command. Well, when they aren't beatin' ya with it."
"That makes sense, I suppose."
"If somethin' needs attention, ye tell Scourge, who tells Plugg, who tells Harrigan."
"Time fer the Bloody Hour!" Scourge bellowed. Chopper shed his jacket and shirt, handing them to Sandara to hold. Scourge shoved him against the mainmast and tied his wrists together with a thick rope. The Boatswain then picked up his whip and made cheerful use of it, hacking away like he intended to cut Chopper in half. The former sawbones made some unpleasant noises, then lost consciousness. Finally, Scourge wandered off, leaving Chopper lashed to the mast.
Ezikial walked up with a bucket of seawater, and Feruzi helped him wash and bandage Chopper's back as best they could. They picked up his still-unconscious body and carried him below, Sandara following with his shirt. Once they had him installed in his hammock, she reached into her bag and pulled out a scroll. She unrolled it and muttered for a moment, causing a faint reddish light to emanate from the page. Chopper's wounds receded somewhat and he woke, blinking.
"Huh-wha?" he slurred, wincing.
"Easy there, lay back now," Sandara told him.
"Why," he asked, "were you going to do all the work." Feruzi snorted.
"Don't coddle him," she said. "He's an idiot."
"That's true," Chopper conceded. "Very, very dumb."
"And what do you plan tomorrow when you cannot work? When you cannot lift your arms above your head? Answer that, genius," Feruzi demanded.
"Actually, I feel way better than I think I have a right to. How am I even conscious?"
"Besmara's blessing, Mister Chopper," Sandara said crisply.
"The Pirate Queen blessed me better? Now that is a new experience."
"Maybe She will bless you with some brains as well," Feruzi added, her scowl not budging in the slightest.
it still hurts enough that I'm not liable to forget." Feruzi snorted and left. "Like a sister to me, that one,"
Chopper told Sandara. "An angry,
On deck, Reiko had worked her way over to the group surrounding Scourge and Mr. Plugg. "Ah, good evening, gentlemen. And ladies," she remarked. "Pleasant weather, don't you think? And what a bloody hour! Not as exciting as yesterday's, but still entertaining."
"Glad you liked the show," Mr. Plugg remarked. "I imagine that, coming from the Ushinawa Isles, you understand the importance of a disciplined crew."
"Oh, naturally," Reiko replied. "We samurai are fairly well disciplined from a young age."
"Everyone has a part to play," Plugg continued. "I know an Ushinawa proverb: 'the nail that sticks out is the one that gets pounded'."
"I couldn't agree more. That is one of our most famous proverbs. You've visited the islands before, have you?"
"No, but the captain on my previous vessel served under an Ushinawa captain when he was a first mate."
"Interesting. I suppose your previous captain described his old captain to you, then?"
"Indeed he did. A real piece of work named Soshimira, captain of the Dragon's Dishonor. He was vicious, though. My captain quit that ship at the first opportunity."
"And how long ago was this, if you don't mind me asking?"
Plugg paused, considering. "Must have been ten years, if Captain Maciason's to be believed. Dragon's Dishonor vanished about five years ago."
"Very interesting, sir. Say, would you care for me to get some more rum? Refill your cups, as it were?"
Scourge started to speak, but Plugg brushed him aside. "We were just about to retire, Reiko-san. Thank you, though. This has been illuminating."
"Indeed. Perhaps we can chat again sometime soon."
When the dawn bell rang, Feruzi climbed out of her hammock and helped tip Chopper out of his. "Thank you," he mumbled as she nudged him upright and then brushed his clothes more or less into order. They joined the others on the deck, where Mr. Plugg assigned them their work and left. The day passed much like the previous two, in endless backbreaking labor. Chopper passed Ezikial coming out of the stores with a number of new items in his possession and growled. Feruzi finished her assigned repair work early and nicked some supplies to make arrows. After much diligent effort, she handed the results over to Grok in exchange for her bow. Chopper growled still more.
Dinner and the Bloody Hour were less exciting than previous, with "Badger" Medlar being given only three lashes for unsatisfactory work. Feruzi sat in an unoccupied corner, tending to her bow and eyeing a piece of shingle she'd set up for a target. The tiny halfling woman, Rosie Cusswell, approached her nervously.
"Yes?" the Mwangi asked, without looking up.
"Er, I see that ya got yer bow back from Grok . . . was wonderin' if ya could do me a favor."
"Depends on the favor, but I am not unreasonable."
"Grok's got my fiddle. I can't get 'er to give it me, cos I kinda lost my temper first time I asked. I'd be grateful as shit if ya could get it back."
Feruzi smiled slightly at the tiny halfling. "I do appreciate music. Give me a day or so to see what I can do."
"Fookin' great! Thanks!"
"Do you know any small trinkets Grok might particularly enjoy?"
"Nah, I tried a couple different damned things. I heard she was superstitious, an' she likes to get fooked up on anythin' BUT rum, but that didn't do me no damned good."
"Superstitious?" Chopper asked, butting in. Feruzi glanced over his shoulder to where Sandara was standing.
"That's how I got my things back from her," the readhead confided. "By saying they were cuuuuuuursed."
"Well, damn," Chopper said. "That probably won't work too many times."
Feruzi shrugged. "I was thinking to make her a holy symbol of Besmara, for protection, you know. Could you bless it, if I made one?" She looked down at Rosie. "And then you could give it to her, earn some stock back."
"That sounds like a plan," Sandara said. "Who knows, maybe even put a little faith in her."
Reiko meandered over to where Fishguts was flopped on a bench. "Ah, Mr. Kroop. How's the head doing?"
"It's doin'," he said, grinning unrepentantly. "I guess ya did all right without me."
"It was tough work to be sure. I can see why you like the drink. How about we make a deal, you and I?"
His grin became downright conspiratorial. "Tell me."
"Well, to start, why not hold back on the drink just a hair so we can chat tomorrow while I'm cooking. You can take it easy and drink all you want, don't have to drink it all at once, if you know what I mean."
The old cook feigned affront for a moment. "Well, all right, lass, ye got a deal. Cap'n Harrigan wants somethin' special tomorrow night, anyway."
"I'll even make sure to be up to take care of breakfast for ya."
"Bless ya, lass."
Feruzi finished her ministrations to the bow and began taking shots at her target. Within minutes, a small group of the crew had gathered, betting cheerfully as she set up more difficult targets and hit them with ease. Chopper watched, amused, as Feruzi paused, to disappointed groans from the bored pirates, and then spent several moments negotiating fiercely. She then handed the target shingle to a grinning pirate, who tripped across the deck with it, setting it up almost, but not quite, behind a barrel. Feruzi scowled, knocked an arrow, and let fly, hitting a corner of the shingle and sending it skidding across the deck. Without a pause, she sent another arrow after it, nailing it square in the center. The pirates applauded happily and handed over a few miscellaneous coins and trinkets, satisfied with their entertainment.
In the morning when the crew assembled, a few of the older hands were grumbling about the slow trip and the lack of plunder. Reiko spent the day in the kitchen, butchering and roasting a young pig for the Captain's special dinner. The Captain's concubine showed up to take it away, tasting everything before nodding her approval. Fishguts shook his head.
"Can't trust noone on a pirate ship," he said, spitting reflectively. "Tryin' to poison the officers is 'bout the worst thing there is."
"Well, naturally," Rekio responded dimly. "So, tell me, Mr. Kroop, are there any other officers you're close to?"
"Jist Grok, really. The Cap'n mostly keeps me around cos he owns me, I guess."
"Owns you? Care to elaborate?"
"Er, well, I bet me own life again' 'im on th' cards 'bout two year ago, an' I lost," Fishguts mumbled, his accent nearly indecipherable in his embarrassment. "I'm still a better cook'n any o' these tars, an thass kept me alive. So far."
"What a shame," Reiko remarked. "The upside is that you'll be with us for the foreseeable future, though."
Chopper cornered Grok in the stores and launched into a lengthy ghost story about his axes and his previous career removing limbs on a legitimate vessel. He could tell she wasn't buying it, but neither of them were getting any work done, either. Finally, she broke down and handed over his gear just to get rid of him. Triumphant, he buckled on his weapons and set off merrily.
Ezikial spent the day killing vermin. He ran across Sandara, who was helping to clear the deck. "You have plans?" he asked her quietly.
"For my life, or just tonight?" she asked. "Either way, no, not really."
"Maybe some cards and a chat, before bed?"
"Pardon," Feruzi said, interrupting them. Ezikial glared at her but the Mwangi seemed utterly oblivious. Or maybe that was just her face. She handed a neatly-carved wooden symbol over to Sandara. "I have finished. Please pass this on to Rosie when it is ready."
Sandara turned the symbol over in her hands. "Not bad work."
"We could play with Chopper, too," Ezikial offered.
"Aye, I'd like that, Mr. Hands," Sandara said, smiling. "I think I'd like that a great deal. The more the merrier!" She gave him a saucy wink before Scourge stomped over and cussed them back to work.
Mid-morning, an unholy shriek came from below the deck, and Jack Scrimshaw erupted out of the hatch. "Summat . . . summat jumped right out o' the bilges and bit me!" he yelled, waving his bloody hand like a flag. Mr. Plugg nodded calmly and waved Jack off to find Quarne, the ship's surgeon. He then called out, "Mr. Hands! Mr. Chopper! Ms. Feruzi! Ms. Reiko! Front and center! Get down in there and don't bother coming out until whatever it is, is dead!"