"What are you waiting for," Mr. Plugg growled. "There's something in the bilges that bit Mr. Scrimshaw. Get in there and don't bother coming out until whatever's down there is dead."
Feruzi frowned slightly. "If we go down there, does that mean we have to be dead before we can come up?"
Plugg's attempted a withering stare, but Feruzi didn't seem inclined to wilt. "We'll just have to see."
"I see that irony is not a big thing around here," Feruzi remarked as they headed belowdecks.
"I doubt they understand it," Ezikial replied in an equally offhand tone.
"Are we killing this thing or what?" Reiko demanded, already well ahead of them. She stopped at the last hatch to don her armor. Feruzi eyed it, her expression overly bland.
"What?" Reiko asked, shrugging.
Feruzi shrugged in return. "If you have your crutch ready . . ."
"I'm no fool."
"In the Mwangi, it is dangerous to wear anything that could tire or slow you. I suspect the same may pertain here, but we shall see." Feruzi heaved the hatch up out of the way and Chopper trotted rapidly down the steep stair-ladder. The lowest deck of the ship was a foul, damp place filled with thick cobwebs and knee-deep in stinking water. In times of trouble it served as the ship's brig, with six sets of manacles fixed to the forward bulkheads.
"I hear splashing," Ezikial commented.
"I don't see anything, though," Reiko said. "It must be pretty small, whatever it is."
"Sadly, small is not the same as harmless," Feruzi said.
"Where?" asked Chopper.
"Over by those bags," Ezikial indicated.
Chopper picked his way carefully through the sludge over to some barley sacks stacked above the water. As he drew near, something erupted near his legs and began biting. "Oh, what the hell!" he grunted, dodging backwards. Ezikial stabbed with his shortsword, but the blade found nothing. Feruzi knocked an arrow, but couldn't find a target. Chopper flailed with his axes, and something began to squeal excitedly.
"Get out of the water," Feruzi told him.
"A little busy!" Stirred into some kind of frenzy, the creatures burst forth: enormous, filthy rats the size of small dogs. They piled onto Chopper, Reiko, and Ezikial.
Reiko shouted and hacked one in half with her razor-sharp katana. "Gross," she stated as the still-squirming halves fell into the water.
"Just don't cook it for dinner," Feruzi said wryly.
"That's a promise."
One of the rats managed to latch on just above Chopper's knee, causing him to grunt again and jerk the leg away. He hit it on the head with an axe, narrowly missing his own leg. The rat thrashed, then was still. An arrow spitted another rat near him while Reiko dispatched the fourth. "I hate rats," she said.
"It's not good to hate," Chopper chided her. "Rots the soul."
"I'll take a rat-sized rotting on my soul, then. Or perhaps a dog-sized rotting in this case."
Ezikial spitted the last enormous rat on his sword, and the bilges were silent once again. Feruzi gathered up the rat corpses to show to Plugg. "We should get out of this filthy water before we catch something vile," she commented.
"Aye," said Chopper. They took a quick look around, finding a few odd lost valuables--a high-quality handaxe, a small vial with the symbol of Calistria on it, and a bag with a few gold coins. Apparently, when things vanished under the water, nobody was too keen to retrieve them.
Feruzi dumped the corpses on deck. "We are victorious," she summed up, and went to wash.
"By the Eye, look at those wretched things," Plugg said, clearly disgusted. "Well done. We might make pirates of you yet."
"Aye, sir," Chopper said without enthusiasm. "I was bitten. Could you direct me to the ship's surgeon?" Plugg gestured for Caulky Tarroon to fetch the Stitchman.
"Mind if I go clean up and get back to work, Mr. Plugg?" Reiko asked.
"Please do," he responded pleasantly.
"Unless, of course, you have anything else you'd like me to slice up?"
"I'll let you know."
Habbly Quarne arrived and set to work on Chopper's leg. Chopper assisted, attempting to strike up a conversation, but with Plugg watching Quarne was not talkative. Chopper's skill was not lost on the surgeon, however. Chopper thanked him and headed back to work. The remainder of the day passed quietly, without even a showy discipline during dinner.
Feruzi looked to find the halfling Rosie Cusswell, who appeared to be in a much better mood, throwing her arms around Feruzi's waist as the Mwangi huntress approached. "Did everything work out for you?"
"Fookin' yeah it did! Thanks! I'm gonna play the bawdiest songs I know after dinner!"
Feruzi laughed. "I shall enjoy that."
Reiko waved to Grok, then leaned over to Fishguts and spoke quietly. "She often forget to lock up the store?"
"Damn it, not again," he growled. "Yeah, she's pretty bad like that."
"Want me to let her know, or do you have a key?"
"Nah, it's just 'er. I'll tell 'er."
"All right, then," Reiko said, and helped him finish distributing food to the crew. She sidled over to Grok.
"I heard you took care of a problem in the bilges today," the half-orc said.
"I did," Reiko affirmed. "It was quite messy. I don't really like rats, at all. Ever. Full of diseases. Could turn nasty with them around."
"Me neither," Grok said, making yuck noises. "Those little naked feet, and they'da eaten everything down there. That's our food."
"It looked as though they came out of one of the bags of barley."
"Yeah, Harrigan picked that shit up from Port Peril on the cheap. Serves 'im right."
Reiko lowered her voice. "Oh, Ms. Grok, by the way, I assume Mr. Kroop has already told you about the store?"
"What about it?"
"That you'd forgotten to lock it on your way out? If you need help with remembering to lock it up, I'd be more than happy to remind you."
Grok's skin visibly paled. "Oh, crap! I knew I forgot somethin'! Bless ya, Miss Reiko, ya saved my arse! That'd be damned helpful of ya. Swear I'd forget my arms an' legs if they wasn't attached." A few nearby pirates had turned at the sound of her exclamation, but they returned to their arm wrestling, apparently unconcerned.
"Of course. Perhaps we can work out a trade of some kind," Reiko said, then laughed, as if she had told an amusing joke. Grok's return chortle was a bit broad and theatrical. She headed below to correct her error.
Reiko snickered and walked over to the arm wrestling. "Mind if I join in, gentlemen?" They shifted to make room for her. Crimson Cogward, the man wearing the blue Varisian scarf, seemed willing to take her on. Reiko smiled at him and stretched out her arm. The board they were using was strewn with nails and bits of broken glass--apparently, it wasn't sporting enough for them unless somebody got hurt. Cog took Reiko's hand and yowled in surprise as she easily forced it down into the painful debris. Chopper scowled, watching this, and looked like he wanted to approach, but as several of the more hostile crew crowded up, he held back.
"I got a new deck of cards today," Sandara Quinn remarked nearly in his ear.
"Cards?" he said, perking up.
"Yeah, we were gonna play tonight, right?"
"Aye," Ezikial said.
"Er," Chopper hesitated, looking around. "Sure thing."
"Me, you, Feruzi, and maybe Reiko," Ezikial added.
"Feruzi does not know the cards," she said from where she was listening to Rosie scrape away at the fiddle. The halfling's playing was excellent, but her voice more enthusiastic than professional.
"You'll pick it up quick,
Ruse," Chopper said.
"I'll teach you," Sandara offered, winking.
"Feruzi is also not foolish enough to gamble on a game she does not comprehend. Enjoy, I shall seek other entertainments."
Chopper frowned. "Sorry, I keep trying to socialize her, but . . ."
"We don't have to play for money," Sandara said.
"I have no money anyway," Ezikial added. "Come on, Feruzi," he insisted. "Join us. Below." She eyed him for a long moment, then shrugged.
"Very well, if you insist."
"What about Reiko?" Sandara asked. Chopper glanced over to where she was squaring off against Jape, the half-orc he'd tusseled with the previous morning.
"Eh. She can catch the next hand." Reiko's match with Jape was hard-fought, but in the end he succeeded in forcing her hand to the table. Sneering, he got up and basked in the applause of his cronies.
Reiko flexed her bleeding hand. "That smarts. Mind if we go another round?" The half-orc looked shocked, but nodded in agreement. Reiko smiled, and then all-but-hurled Jape's hand to the table, sending bits of danger flying everywhere. He howled in pain and leapt to his feet, fleeing the deck amidst gales of laughter.
"Hey, Jape!" Chopper yelled. "Need me to cut it off?" Sandara laughed until she had trouble breathing.
"I'd feel for him," Reiko said, "But all's fair in love and pirates."
"Reiko-tono, will you join us below for cards?" Ezikial said insistantly. She blinked at him, then seemed to get the point.
"I apologize, Mr. Hands, I'm not much for playing cards, but I may come down and join you all for some conversation in a bit."
"Aye," Ezikial said, and led the way down to their quarters. The only other person around was Tilly Brackett, who already had too much to drink and was sleeping it off. Sandara dealt out hands as the others filed in. Reiko showed her cuts to Chopper.
"Think you can have a look at this?" she asked.
"Mm. Looks painful."
"Still better than the other guy. Guys." Sandara said, chuckling.
"You could've offered him an out once it was clear he was beaten. I mean, fuck Jape, but . . ."
"Well, it's a contest, Mr. Chopper. If I hadn't done it to him, he'd have done it to me. He'll be better for the experience, I'm sure."
"I disagree," Chopper grunted, but he still picked the bits of glass out of her hand and bandaged it up. "All I'm saying is, a bit of mercy can work in your favor as well as a show of force."
"Mm. This way he'll probably be disinclined to spend so much time with Mr. Scourge, if you catch my meaning."
"I don't follow that line of logic, no."
"Oh, you must have missed when he was hanging out with Scourge's crew the other night. I think he'll be the better for this display. And, really, his wound is no worse than mine." Reiko grinned. "Mr. Jape's wound, on the other hand might not fare so well."
"Aye, here's hopin'," Sandara said. "A bit of the rot might do 'im in. Lemme see that hand, Reiko, I can mend it for ya." She took the Tian woman's hand and muttered a spell, closing the worst of the cuts.
Feruzi rubbed her head. "I would simply be happy to be shut of this vessel."
"For that, we'll need a spit of land," Ezikial said. "Or another vessel."
"I don't fancy our chances on the open sea. Sharks, etcetera. We haven't actually done any piracy. No wonder I've never heard of Harrigan."
"We could always steal a boat," Feruzi said.
"A rowboat?" Chopper replied skeptically. "You landlubber."
a big place, an' no mistake," Sandara said. "Harrigan's huntin' fer a prize. Should only be a matter of time before he
finds one. If he don't, well . . ." Fever Sea
"Well?" Chopper asked as the sentence petered out.
"Folks will start gettin' itches soon," Reiko explained.
"I don't see anyone on this ship with a hope to replace Harrigan that I would prefer," Feruzi said.
"That, Ms. Feruzi, is not the point," Reiko huffed.
"Harrigan's a nightmare walkin' in the day, no mistake," Sandara said. "But pirates without plunder do get mighty restless."
"Indeed, Ms. Quinn," Reiko affirmed. She wandered over to the ladder and peered above, making sure there were no listeners.
"Frankly, Plugg and Scourge look like half a mutiny to me already, with their little brute squad," Chopper said.
"If they start making noise, we may be able to unseat them," Feruzi said. "But that won't get rid of Harrigan."
"Unless we let them get rid of Harrigan for us. They'd lose men in such an attempt. And that gives us an advantage," Chopper replied.
"That is a point. With Harrigan out of the picture, they'd no doubt fall to fighting each other--and they rule by fear, not affection."
Reiko turned back to the conversation. "It would help to have a couple more of the current officers on our side if it comes down to it. That would be my suggestion."
"Like the Surgeon or the Sorcerer?" Feruzi asked doubtfully.
"The surgeon has seen my skill, now," Chopper said. "I hope to make nice with him soon enough. Don't know about the sorcerer. Do you know anything about her, Sandara?"
"Longfarthing goes WAY back with the Captain. She's supposed to be more loyal to him than everyone."
"Could we try turning one of the other officers against her?" Feruzi asked. "She would be an extremely dangerous opponent."
"You've got a very political mind for a savage," said Chopper, grinning.
"I learned dealing with my sister."
"Right, right. Didn't you tell me she was some kind of princess? Or whore? But I repeat myself." Reiko excused herself and went back up on deck, not interested in family reminiscence.
Sandara began counting on her fingers. "Besides the Captain, Plugg, an' Scourge, there's, what, Riaris Krine, the Stitchman, Grok, Fishguts, Kipper, Longfarthing, Patchsalt, Caulky, an' Owlbear. All's I know about Krine is that she swears even worse'n Grok an' Rosie put together. An' Patchsalt's crazy. I'd steer clear o' that one, too. We might be better off workin' on the rank an' file, as it were."
"True," Ezikial opined, the first time he'd spoken for several hands.
"So, there is a 'we'?" Chopper asked. Ezikial eyed him.
"Well, sure!" Sandara enthused, then gave Ezikial a concerned look. "Uh . . . isn't there?"
"If we have a similar goal, there is no reason not to work together," Feruzi said.
"Aye," Ezikial said, finally.
"Not for nothing, but I met most of you three days ago, and I've seen a fair bit of brutality and treachery aboard this ship. Could be a setup." He rolled his shoulders. "That said, you've had ample opportunity to do me harm or simply withhold help. My gut says we can trust each other."
"Reiko's goals may not align with ours," Feruzi said, noting that the Tian had left. "We should give her the opportunity to go her own way if she wishes."
"Dangerous," Chopper said. "But I don't really understand Reiko's motivations. At all."
"Then perhaps you should ask her," Feruzi replied.
"She is iffy," Ezikial said. "But she doesn't fit with the others."
"She seems to be making her own place on this ship," Feruzi said.
"She didn't hesitate to assist with Fipps and company," Ezikial said.
"Did she not? Perhaps I remember differently."
Ruse, she didn't hesitate to speak up,"
"She backed off and did not offer herself to their blows in our defense. Only when the fight was well in progress did she threaten to report them. Words are one thing. Wounds are another."
"Words ended the fight."
Feruzi held up a conciliatory hand. "I do not disparage their worth. Only the willingness of their intent." She squeezed Chopper's shoulder, somewhat carefully, mindful of his half-healed injuries. "I will be guided by you in this, Mngani."
"Then we wait," Chopper told her. "Time, for now, is on our side."
On deck, Reiko approached a group of pirates who were now playing hog lob, Jape among them. "Your pardon," she said, "I was just curious about the game. Sorry about the hand, Mr. Jape. Arm wrestling is always a game of chance."
"Cram yer curiosity, an' get out of here before we make you."
"Come now, must we be enemies? Being as little as I am, people often assume that I cannot hold my own. Same as you, I don't want people trying to take advantage of what they see. Surely, Mr. Jape, you can understand that appearances are not what makes a person who they are. Will you really make me leave?"
"Yeah," Fipps growled, stepping up. He reeked of, well, everything.
Reiko smiled then sighed. "Surely, everyone here has faced discrimination simply for the way they look. We pirates are hardly welcome in civilized company."
"Sure," Fipps sneered. "We don't disc-rim-inate against you for the way you look. We just don't like you. So, in the name of civilized company, pretty please, fuck off, please and thank you."
"Well, that's a shame, since I'm a pretty likeable person. But . . . I'll leave it for tonight."
The next morning, Plugg shot Feruzi a baleful look and assigned her to the bilges. "Ugh. Well, no help for it," she muttered. Ezikial shot her a sympathetic look as he set off on his own task. Reiko spent the day hunting leatherback sea turtles with harpoons, treble hooks, and nets. Fishguts was actually sober enough to help, giving surprisingly good advice on the use of the nets. When the working day ended, Feruzi emerged from the hold sodden and filthy. Without any apparent modesty, she stripped naked to scrub herself and her clothes, re-donning only a few bits of cloth to let the rest dry. A few of the pirates shot her odd looks, but most seemed unconcerned. Nearly half the crew was female, anyway.
Shortly after the evening meal, Mr. Plugg approached, hauling a length of chain behind him. A hulking brute of a man followed at the end of the chain--Owlbear Hartshorn, Captain Harrigan's "pet". He was usually kept chained to the foremast in the middle hold. He chewed mindlessly at a fistful of tiny live crabs, cracking their shells with his teeth. His arms and back still held a coating of sticky black gunk and white fluff, the remnants of an earlier prank where the crew tarred and feathered him.
"Time for a bit of sport!" Plugg announced cheerfully.
"Poor creature," Feruzi remarked. "Is there no turpentine on this ship?" Reiko made a face, a cross between sympathy and disgust. Plugg looked in their direction.
"Which of you thinks you can take him on? Bare knuckles or wrestling only, no magic tricks. Last one conscious wins." He held up a purse. "A hundred gold says it's Owlbear."
The rest of the crew muttered and shook their heads. Reiko and Chopper exchanged a glance while Ezikial fingered his gun and scowled. Feruzi frowned. "I shall."
Reiko's eyebrow shot up. "Good luck, Ms. Feruzi." The Mwangi huntress stepped forward and bowed to Owlbear.
"When you are ready, sir." She assumed a defensive stance and circled around, waiting to see what he would do. His fist pounded into her arm with shocking strength, knocking her bodily backwards and nearly dazing her. Feruzi staggered sideways, trying to avoid another blow, but Owlbear was curiously slow to orient. It seemed he was blind in one eye.
"That had to hurt," Reiko remarked as she passed. Feruzi ducked around to Owlbear's blind side again and struck back with two quick kicks to the ribs. Owlbear gasped and attempted to follow, but she danced back out of reach. Mr. Plugg frowned from the sidelines. Two more quick strikes, this time to Owlbear's knee, nearly sent him to the deck. Plugg tossed him a club, but the slow giant was still unable to keep up with Feruzi's quick movements.
"Cheating," the Mwangi woman hissed under her breath, slamming her foot into Owlbear's temple. She dodged away, but the hulk's response was not angry vengeance. Instead, he suddenly began crying and tried to get away.
"This is just sad . . ." Chopper remarked as Plugg and Scourge together shoved Owlbear back into the fight. Feruzi planted a final kick just behind his ear, sending him sprawling to the deck, where he whimpered and drooled and attempted to crawl feebly away.
Sighing in relief, Feruzi relaxed her combat stance and bowed deeply. "Salute. You fought well, sir." Owlbear ceased his crawling and gave her an odd look.
"You. Respect?" he ground out slowly. The rest of the crew stood by in utter silence.
"Of course. I am a Hunter of the vast Mwangi. I respect the laws of the hunt and of the fight."
"You. Kind." Owlbear grunted. With much effort, he climbed to his feet, leaving the club on the deck.
"Are we finished?" Feruzi aked. Owlbear staggered toward her, his arms outstretched. On the sidelines Chopper crouched, ready. Feruzi studied the giant's expression, then smiled slightly and stepped back, grasping one of his hands with both of hers and bowing again. A huge grin split his face, and he brayed with laughter until Plugg's cronies grabbed the chain and hauled him away by main force.
Reiko bowed to Feruzi. "You are a woman of honor and stature. Well done."
Feruzi bowed in return. "You do me too much honor."
"Not at all. Honor is very important where I am from."
The look on Plugg's face when he handed over his purse was utterly disgusted.