Morning came, but with it no dawn, only pewter sky, silver rain, and leaden sea that rolled all around the Wormwood, the great heavy waves jostling her like an indifferent crowd, threatening to knock her down and trample her should she falter. The crew hunched together on her deck, already wet and shivering, clutching the rations that must sustain them through the grinding effort to come. Behind them were calmer waters, but ahead the clouds mounted the sky seemingly without end, an uncharted range they must now endeavor to scale.
Feruzi looked up into the rigging, trying to quell her impulse to shrink from the water and the chill, knowing there was no use and it would only exhaust her. "There is always a storm sooner or later," she remarked, sententious in her philosophy.
"That's nature for you," Reiko agreed, unruffled in hers.
Mr. Plugg, wet as the rest of the crew but somehow looking less sloppy, dispensed assignments with a few curt gestures. Chopper found himself straining at one of the mainsail's halyards. Ezikial was banished to the sloshing bilges, Feruzi patching and repairing the tarry caulking nearby. Reiko had little to do--the galley was all-but-unusable while the ship wallowed before the wind, the fires damped, the cutlery stashed and secured. Even the animals were still and nearly silent, anxious but not terrified.
"May as well sit down an' take yer ease while ye can, lass," Fishguts said, gesturing with his tin cup. "'Tis likely will only get worse."
"Ah," Reiko said, considering. "I'll be back in a moment, Mr. Kroop. I need to speak to Mr. Cogward."
Fishguts shrugged. "I think ye'll find 'im swabbin' the decks." Reiko gave him an odd look.
"In all this rain? That makes no sense. In any case, I'll be back shortly." She slipped up to the top deck and looked around, passing Chopper, who was grimacing at his rope-reddened hands. Cogward was working not far from Aretta Banison, the big-eared ex-harlot they'd clashed with some time ago. Reiko let her eyes slide past them, looking for Sandara Quinn as well, who was lugging a heavy rope not far away. "Mr. Cogward," she said, pitching her voice to carry, but trying not to shout. "Could you come down to the galley? You are needed for a moment."
He blinked, clearly surprised by this request, then shrugged and headed for the hatch all the same. Reiko gestured to Sandara as the redhead passed.
"How's this fine Shackles weather treatin' ya?" Sandara asked.
"I love this kind of weather. Or, rather, just after the storm when the sky finally clears. I need a favor, please, Ms. Quinn, but I need it kept secret as well. Would you come down to the galley with me?"
Cogward must have dawdled somewhere, because he arrived at the galley only moments before Reiko, heralded by Fishguts' cheerful bellow. "Oi, Cog, Reiko was just lookin' for ya!" Cog hesitated, clearly taken aback.
"Please, go inside, Mr. Cogward," Reiko said behind him, making him jump. He stepped warily into the galley and turned so that his back was to the wall--as much as it could be in those cramped quarters--and so that he could see Kroop, Reiko, and a moment later Sandara when she came in. Reiko smiled disarmingly.
"How is your hand doing, Mr. Cogward?"
Cog grunted. "Not bad, long as I don't close it all the way."
Reiko turned to look at Sandara. "Ms. Quinn, do you think you could heal him like you did for me last night?"
Sandara visibly relaxed. "Of course! If you'll let me, Mr. Cogward." After a long, suspicious pause while Reiko smiled as encouragingly as possible, he extended his injured hand, glancing nervously away as if he feared the sight. Sandara smirked slightly at this show of squeamishness and made a pass with her fingers. The scabby, inflamed cuts faded away. Reiko bowed to her.
"You have my gratitude, and I will most certainly make this up to you."
"Heh, my pleasure," Sandara said. She winked at Cog and sauntered out of the galley.
"That should do," Reiko said to Cogward. "I do hope, however, that you will keep this between us. It wouldn't do any good to spread it around. I do apologize if I was overly rough. Of course, I know you understand that there are always consequences for everything we do. I do hope we can be friends. I am not here to make enemies."
Cog glanced at Fishguts. "I can't say I 'preciate you trickin' me down here to help me, but I guess I 'preciate you helpin' me," the swab said awkwardly.
"Well, I am glad I could help. Perhaps now would be a good time for you to return to work."
"I, uh, yeah, I reckon so." He left with even more than due haste.
Feruzi paused near Jack Scrimshaw on one of her trips for more tar. The human shot her a nervous glance, and Feruzi attempted to compose her face into a pleasant expression. "I understand you have a talent for carving," she remarked.
"It's as good a way to pass the hours as any," he said, nodding awkwardly.
"I would like to see an example of your work sometime. I take an interest in craftsmanship."
"Oh, aye? I got one here I bin working on." He pulled a bit of whale ivory out of his pocket, half-carved into the shape of a narwhal.
"This is fine work," Feruzi told him after examining it for a while. "I carve as well, but nothing this detailed." She unshipped her bow and held it out to him with both hands, bowing slightly as she did so. "I made this myself, but you can see it lacks ornamentation. Perhaps we could trade our skills. A bow is a useful thing to have." She smiled when Scrimshaw looked dubious. "I would also be pleased to instruct you in the art of archery, as well. Nothing earns respect like a keen eye. With an arrow behind it."
"Oh, er, I, I'd like that very much, Miss Feruzi," Scrimshaw managed.
By evening bell, the storm had worsened enough that dinner was served in the middle hold. Chopper was looking sullen and sodden, so Feruzi handed him a dry-ish blanket. "Rough day?" she asked.
"Aye," he said, displaying blistered palms. "The ropes are hard enough when they don't fight back."
"Fortunately, the weather seems to be keeping tempers down." Chopper's only response to this was a shrug. Owlbear waved at them with unabashed enthusiasm, so she left to go squat beside the giant, fortunately before Chopper could finish assembling a gibe about Feruzi's new beau. Feruzi declined an offer of live crabs as politely as possible. Owlbear seemed a bit disappointed, but not badly so.
"So that went all right with Cog, then?" Sandara asked Reiko. The redhead sat over her mug of grog as if it were a fire that could warm her.
"I believe so. He doesn't seem to hate me so much now, at least."
"Good. Glad to hear it. Chopper wasn't too pleased about it all."
Reiko sighed. "Yes, Cogward is not entirely a bad person. A little misguided, perhaps, but not bad."
"So are you a student of people, as it were? Good and bad?"
"You could say that. I actually prefer non-violence. If all problems could be solved with words, the world would be a much better place, never mind safer."
"You ain't wrong."
Reiko's perpetual smile tightened, shark-like. "Of course, not liking to fight doesn't mean not knowing how. I'm sure you've figured that out already, though."
"Sure, sure," Sandara replied. "I'd just as soon avoid a scrap, too, but I can take care of myself in one."
"Good to know," said Reiko. "Oh, yes, I've been meaning to ask you, Ms. Quinn, if you've seen or heard of my brother, Nakayama Tatsumi. He may go by Kairi Tatsumi, also."
Sandara frowned slightly, derailed a bit. "Nah, that doesn't sound familiar. Ask me again when I'm sober, though, just in case."
With nothing much else to do, Ezikial strolled across the deck, fetching up beside Feruzi who appeared to be wrestling with a long bit of seasoned yew--wrestling, and losing. She looked up and caught his questioning expression.
"I thought we might be well served to ensure the crew is reasonably armed," she said. He scowled.
"I can only make firearms and I have no desire to train another in their use."
"Oh? Why not?"
"Because without long and thorough training, they're more dangerous to the shooter than to their target. Besides, the materials on this ship are somewhat lacking."
"Not that lacking, and the same is true of most weapons. But I shall take your word for it. I would like to see these 'firearms' of yours some day."
"You'll notice when I use mine. You won't be able to avoid it."
"I look forward to it," she replied, scowling at her yew. "It seems a slow evening. We would all benefit from some rest."
The rest was a short one. Before dawn had properly come the weather had become a gale, the Wormwood now more like a wild horse than a ship, the bit between her teeth and running. All other duties were abandoned as the crew wrestled with the rigging. Despite the emergency, tensions ran high--there were few opportunities so perfect to give someone a surreptitious nudge overboard and never be troubled with them again. The practiced crewmembers all being busy, Plugg gestured Feruzi into the crow's nest for lookout. Gritting her teeth, she managed the climb without incident and attempted to imitate a barnacle clinging to the top of the mast. The Wormwood twisted slightly, fighting the helm, and a mountain of water crashed over the deck, almost upsetting her. Feruzi waved wildly from the crow's nest, pointing.
"MAN OVERBOARD!!" she yelled, uncertain if anyone could hear. Ezikial flung himself at the gunwhales in time to spot a terrified Rosie hurtling up the side of another wave, borne rapidly away from the ship. The halfling's terrified cry reached him, and he remembered the race was notorious for dread of drowning and inability to swim. Reacting more than thinking, he hurled a coil of rope in her direction and braced himself just in time. Despite Rosie's small size, the terrific jerk as she caught the line nearly pulled him overboard. He hung on, unable to accomplish anything to improve the situation. Chopper's broad hands caught the line as well, and Reiko planted her feet, taking the trailing end over her shoulder and lending them her full weight. Rosie broke the surface, although Ezikial wasn't sure she was getting any breath around that stream of vile curses. Slowly, they dragged her closer, until Chopper could reach down to haul her aboard, mostly by her hair to Rosie's extreme displeasure.
"Swim time is over, Rosie. Rules is rules," he remarked as he deposited the waterlogged halfling at his feet.
"Good grief, woman, be more careful!" Reiko added.
"Bastards!" Rosie cursed at them, grinning weakly. "Ugly oversized humans! Eh, I love ya anyway."
Night came, but there was no rest for anyone, only endless labor. Still, by the next morning the wind had slackened and there was time for a bit of biscuit and a few gulps of scalding bitter tea before Scourge shouted them back to work, many so exhausted they seemed indifferent even to his worst threats.
Chopper made it a few feet up into the rigging before he slumped, unable to continue--hauling Rosie aboard had drained what little was left of his stamina. Ezikial shook him, but Chopper just hung there, unresponsive. Scourge's back was to them, so Hands grasped the bigger man around his ribcage and lowered him back to the deck. Sandara shot them a worried look, saw Scourge was starting to turn, and hurried to head him off while Feruzi charged up with a blanket.
With Feruzi's help or interference, Ezikial was able to manhandle the stupefied man off the deck, but he could hear whatever altercation Sandara had started rapidly escalating in volume. "Go help!" he told Feruzi shortly when she hesitated. Looking somewhat offended, she returned to the deck in time to see Sandara grab Scourge's collar and spit right in his face. The air seemed to crystallize as he reached up and wiped his face, a mostly symbolic gesture in the ongoing drizzle. Sandara backed away a step at Scourge's smirk.
"Take her in hand, men," he said, gesturing to his cronies and turning away to fish for a ring of keys. Sandara turned to look at Fipps, only to see the man glance over her shoulder and freeze in place. Feruzi was standing there, fixing Scourge's loyal men with a stare so implacable it nearly made Sandara recoil anew. They stood there, unmoving, while Scourge unlocked the little metal box on the deck, the sweatbox, and then turned around, his expression suddenly turning baffled. The cronies looked at him for instruction, and Feruzi hissed. Sandara caught some intention in the Mwangi woman's eyes, but too late to decipher it, something blurred and she hit the deck.
"Disrespectful slut!" Feruzi shouted, trying not to look around to see if anyone was buying this. She heaved Sandara's dazed body over, sliding a bottle of water and package of biscuits into the redhead's belt as she did so. Scourge and company looked rather more baffled than anything, but finally Scourge gave a slow nod and they loaded Sandara into the sweatbox without further incident.
"Let's give 'er eight hours an' see where we stand," Scourge remarked, dismissing the rather bizarre incident. Feruzi shook her head slightly, not sure if she'd accomplished anything useful. Her unexpected action seemed to have soured Scourge's enjoyment, at least. By evening, everyone was so utterly strung out that even the officers hardly seemed to care. They all gathered without conversation to gnaw at some food. Reiko slipped some down to Chopper, followed by Ezikial and Feruzi, and the four of them slumped in companionable misery.
"I think I have made a mistake, Mngani," Feruzi mentioned.
"Huh?" was Chopper's brilliant reply.
"Quinn distracted Scourge while Mr. Hands took you below, but she infuriated him quite badly, so he put her in the sweat box. I intervened because I feared things might escalate, but I think I may have knocked her out. A bit more forcefully than I intended. Apologies."
Feruzi sighed and forced herself to slow down. "I was not sure what else to do; it could have turned ugly very quickly. I was able to sneak her some food and water, though. She should be all right, maybe even grateful for the rest."
"Not that! Scourge boxed her? The hell for?"
"She spat in his face, Mngani."
"Hah!" Chopper barked, delighted.
"In front of the entire crew. I did not hear the details of their . . . discussion."
Chopper turned pensive for a moment, then gave it up. "Nah, I think you did fine,
Ruse. Better you than another." He paused.
"I did not like the idea of Scourge's cronies manhandling her. We shall see. In any case, good night."
Scourge let Sandara out of the sweat box the following evening. She looked awful, but held her chin up as Reiko passed her some food.
"Apologies," Feruzi offered. "Not my best plan."
"S'all right," Sandara groaned, feeling the tender spot on her face where Feruzi's blow landed. "Shoulda seen that comin', I guess."
Feruzi shrugged. "What caused the spitting incident, if I may ask?"
"Oh, I was just callin' his manhood into question, tryin' to keep his attention."
"It might be wise for you to pretend to be angry at me," Feruzi suggested. "Or not. I leave it to your discretion." She smiled a bit. "That, and Chopper can take his own licks fairly well. No need to risk yourself, although I am sure the impulse does you credit."
"Yeah, you didn't have to--" Chopper began.
"Well, I didn't want Mr. Hands gettin' the cat, too," Sandara interrupted him. "Truth be told, I ain't never been much for thinkin' things through beforehand, as it were. I didn't have to, but it's done and done." Ezikial leaned forward and offered her his flask. "Black Queen bless you," she muttered and took a swallow, handing it back. He shook his head.
"Finish that, mate."
"Bless you again, Ezikial Hands." She gulped the liquor happily.
"Well, I owe you," Chopper said, smiling weakly.
"Mark me, I'll find SOME way ta collect on that debt," she replied meaningfully.
The next day found them sailing into shallow waters, treacherous with the jagged heads of many reefs. Most of the sails were furled, slowing them to a crawl. The day was hot and bright with little breeze to liven it, and the crew became annoyed and restive at the painfully slow progress. Finally, in the afternoon, Mr. Plugg appeared with a stack of crab pots and gestured yet again to his most favorite crewmembers.
"The Captain wants fresh crab for supper," he announced, pointing to a particularly nasty-looking reef about 200 feet off the starboard.
"Talk to Owlbear," Chopper shot back instantly, startling everyone.
"Bigger than that," Plugg growled. "You lot can swim out there, fill these pots, and swim back. And take that Besmaran with you."
"Swim?" Feruzi asked incredulously. They all exchanged dismayed looks, then peeled off their outer clothes. Ezikial, Reiko and Sandara pulled rapidly away from the ship, but Chopper hesitated on seeing Feruzi's determined dog-paddle, his expression pained.
"I could teach you how to swim proper,
"Feruzi is fine," she insisted, sneezing out some water as she nearly went under. Despite her lack of grace, they made steady progress and reached the reef without mishap. Feruzi vanished under the water, flailed around, then came bobbing back up, displaying her prize. "I have one," she announced, followed by a loud snap and a startled yelp. The crab abruptly went sailing overhead to vanish into the distance.
"Had," Reiko remarked as they all tried desperately not to laugh. Well, all but Sandara, who proceeded to splash everyone vigorously in abandoned glee. Chopper retaliated by chasing her with a crab. In seconds, the situation had degenerated into a melee. Still, they had managed to fill three of the four pots when a few smallish creatures emerged from the reef and began making a beeline toward them. Pincers outstretched, they resembled gigantic lobsters, but their tails, whipping sinuously through the water, looked more like an eel.
"Uh oh," Sandara said.