The crew gathered on the deck for their assignments as usual, and Chopper realized abruptly that he'd now been aboard the Wormwood for two weeks, long enough for the day's activities to seem like habit. It was certainly a habit for most of the crew to stand slightly away from him, Feruzi, and Ezikial, and for Reiko to stand nearby but not exactly "with" them. Even Feruzi's cluster of friendly companions, now including not just Rosie, but Samms Toppin, Jack Scrimshaw, and Giffer Tibbs stayed well away, not wanting to risk the obvious ire of Mr. Plugg or Mr. Scourge.
The wisdom of their approach became obvious as Plugg gathered the four of them in by eye and gave a very faint purse-lipped smile. "I have special work for you today," he said. "Boarding School."
"Cute," Chopper said, acknowledging the pun with the universal faint grimace. Ezikial grimaced as well, not so faintly.
Plugg gestured to another of the officers who had approached. "Ms. Krine will be in charge of your special training today." The Master Gunner's skin was dark from long days in the sun, and her nose was misshapen from more than one break. Her left leg was short at the knee, the difference made up by a fairly well-made wooden peg.
"In the event that we ever find a ship t'take," she snapped, "I want ye scurvy lubbers t'know how t'board 'er." She flicked her fingers rapidly at Reiko and Chopper. "You two, in t'longboat. Rest at t'rail. Hop it!"
"Great, Feruzi is left with the weird kid," she remarked, giving Ezikial a sly look. Hands was so reticent she hadn't yet formed much of an impression of his personality, though he gave good account of himself otherwise. He made yet another grimace which might have been amused. Or constipated. Feruzi decided to consider it amusement for now. "Clearly we should conspire to show them up," she continued in a low voice.
"Not worth it," Ezikial grunted.
Feruzi snorted slightly at this rebuff. "It would be marginally more entertaining than waiting here," she said. It was taking some time for Reiko and Chopper to row to what Krine apparently thought was an appropriate distance and angle from the side of the ship, and the Gunner was urging them on with oaths foul and inventive, but not especially helpful. Eventually, though, she seemed satisfied and they dropped the anchor. Krine then brought forth a heavy coil of rope and grappling hooks. Cog and Shivikah, a tall Mwangi woman who bore only a very passing resemblance to Feruzi, came to the rail with a barrel full of miscellaneous ship's trash--broken bottles, food too rotten to eat, bits of splintered wood.
"Right, lubbers," Krine told Chopper and Reiko, her voice carrying to the four at the rail. "Grapple that ship, tie off yer ropes, and climb on up while that lot tries to knock you into the drink!"
"Sounds like fun," Reiko said dryly, eyeing Cog as he tossed a wormy apple from hand to hand. She took hold of a rope and braced her feet up under the gunwhales, imitating Chopper, who seemed experienced at this sort of thing. After a couple of experimental swings, she whirled the hook over her head and let fly, arcing it well over the rail of the Wormwood. It landed on the deck with a solid-sounding thunk, and lodged quite firmly when she hauled on the rope.
"Good throw," Chopper told her, and released his own grapple, it also wedged somewhere and seemed firmly planted.
"Beginner's luck," Krine told them, and kicked Chopper lightly in the calf. "Get going!"
"I really should have put my armor on for this," Reiko said, eyeing the projectiles aimed her direction. She sighed and began climbing, hoping her weight on the line wouldn't tip the longboat over. Fortunately, Krine leaned hard against the other side, and the boat itself seemed well-ballasted for this kind of maneuver.
"That seems backward," Chopper said, working his way onto the rope beside her. "Armor'd slow you down. Climb swiftly and we can toss them into the water when we get there."
"It may seem awkward," Reiko grunted, working her way upward, "but if we're attacking a ship, I'd have my armor on." She grunted again as Shivikah nailed her in the side with a moldy cabbage, but Reiko managed to hang on, and with dogged determination she and Chopper reached the rail and clambered over.
"TRADE PLACES!!" Riaris Krine bellowed, hauling up the anchor so they could pull the longboat back in beside the ship. Once Feruzi and Ezikial were aboard Krine loosed the grapples and ordered them to row out to the same distance as before. Feruzi had never rowed facing backward before and had difficulty synching in with Ezikial--they went around in a circle a few times before Krine's red-faced screams straightened them out.
"I suppose I'll play by the rules and not cut the rope . . . like I would," Reiko said, watching this. Chopper grinned.
"I have my own idea," he said. When Feruzi and Ezikial managed to get the grapples solidly planted and tied off, he surreptitiously took hold of Feruzi's rope and waited for her to climb. Reiko, Shivikah, and Cog all tossed garbage as before, but when Feruzi was nearly halfway up Chopper suddenly heaved hard on the rope, nearly dislodging the grapple and causing the entire arrangement to shake violently. Feruzi yelled something about the hairy brother of a dog. With one more heave, the grapple completely gave way, dumping her into the drink about halfway between the Wormwood and the boat.
"HA!" Chopper crowed, waving triumphantly at his furious friend, who paused in the water to make an obscene gesture. "Fancy a swim,
Pirate!!" Reiko snickered,
hiding her wide grin behind her hand, and they both looked over at Ezikial's
remaining grapple. Cog and Shivi were
now laughing so hard they had stopped throwing, so Hands was nearly at the top.
"The next one should be easier, wouldn't you say, Chopper?" she asked humorously. They both grabbed the rope and hauled. Ezikial joined Feruzi in the water, cursing.
"What's that?" Chopper yelled as the pirates dissolved again into laughter. "I couldn't hear you over the splash!" Ezikial swam back toward the boat, but Feruzi seemed to have disappeared.
"Let 'im climb this time!" Riaris bellowed at them as Ezikial hurled the grapple back onto the deck. The Gunner was obviously amused, though.
"Pirate!" Chopper insisted, but they resumed throwing trash. A bottle hit Ezikial in the shoulder and he slipped off again. "Should trade your Hands for fins!" Chopper yelled. Krine was having difficulty giving orders through tears of laughter.
"One more time, ya bloody great bastard!" she said. Ezikial wasn't sure whether she meant Chopper or himself. She suddenly blinked.
"You! Feruzi! Get back in the fuggin' boat! NOW!" Feruzi had climbed up the side of the Wormwood and was just under Chopper's feet. He looked down and grinned.
Ruse." Ezikial took advantage of the distraction to
haul himself rapidly up the rope. Feruzi
did not seem too amused; she reached up, grabbed Chopper's shirt, and heaved
him over the ship's side into the water.
Work on the ship came to a halt as the entire pirate crew burst into
"Feruzi does not need . . . ropes," she informed Chopper as they swam back to the ship.
"Yeah, ropes are for babies!" he agreed.
"You're still a hairy brother of a dog, though."
"Da' loved that dog," he chuckled. Ezikial managed to reach the deck amid the cheers of the crew, who pitched in to help raise and stow the longboat.
"That's the most fun I've had doin' that in years," Krine remarked. Chopper gave her a lazy salute. Reiko cuffed Cog on the shoulder in a companionable fashion, and he grinned, earlier hurts seemingly forgotten. Then the merriment suddenly ebbed away. Plugg and Scourge glared down at them from the poop deck, summoned by the commotion like demons from hell.
"Six bashes with the rope, Miss Feruzi, for failing to complete the exercise," Plugg ground out. Feruzi eyed him but said nothing. Chopper scowled, knowing how the Mwangi woman could be frighteningly unpredictable at times. "Get back to work."
"So worth it," Feruzi commented under her breath. When the Bloody Hour arrived, she was undismayed, and took the bruising strikes with barely a grunt of acknowledgement. Scourge's usual relish quickly dissolved and he looked disgusted at the last strike and went to undo the ropes.
"A little higher, Feruzi's shoulder is sore!" the Mwangi woman said, very loudly and clearly. A titter ran through the gathered crew, an odd sound combining amusement and alarm. Scourge's face turned purple, and he hauled out his cat o' nine tails and gave Feruzi a nasty cut across the back. She sucked air but did not otherwise react.
"Enough," Harrigan growled suddenly. "Bloody Hour's over. Let's eat." Scourge nodded to the Captain and stormed off, leaving Chopper and Ezikial to let Feruzi loose.
"It is your turn to chide Feruzi if you want," she told Chopper.
"Servants of comedy are made to suffer,
Ruse," he said,
patting her shoulder. He examined the
cuts on her back. "Besides, I'm not
great at lectures."
"Neither making them nor heeding them," Feruzi agreed.
Reiko clucked to Grok and Fishguts over Scourge's departure. "Poor baby." They both grinned and winked. With the Bosun away, the crew seemed more relaxed and willing to talk. Cog even proclaimed that Reiko was All Right as he accepted his dinner.
Chopper finished working on Feruzi's back and surveyed the group on deck, realizing that Sandara was nowhere to be seen. Taking food from Reiko, he sought her out and found her below, already in her hammock. "Ahoy there," she muttered, clearly a bit distressed. "How'd it go today?"
"Er, well," he temporized. "Feelin' all right?"
"Touch o' fever. Nothin' a decent night's sleep shouldn't mend."
Chopper felt the redhead's forehead and cheeks gently. "Aye, rest should do you well. Need anything?"
"Nah, m'fine. Thanks, though." She hesitated as he started to withdraw. "Well, unless you know any songs I ain't heard?"
"Know? Sure. Can perform? Less so."
She laughed a bit, then launched into a fit of coughing. "And here I thought you was brave."
Chopper's eyebrows rose. "Challenge Accepted," he said, seating himself on a barrel and clearing his throat. He didn't get to demonstrate his skill or lack thereof, though, because Sandara was already asleep. He watched her fondly for a while, then went off to seek his own hammock.
The next two days were unmemorable, perhaps intentionally so because Chopper could feel the tension in the crew. Plugg and Scourge were unusually withdrawn, issuing no punishments and hardly speaking to anyone, although they watched everything, hanging over the edge of the poop deck like vultures awaiting a death. Then Plugg began assigning Ezikial, Feruzi, and Chopper exclusively to jobs that would keep them far apart, the nastiest duties on the ship. On the fifth day, their seventeenth aboard, Chopper found himself assigned to the bilges, usually a solitary chore. However, when he arrived below, he discovered Fipps Chumlett, the nastiest bully among the crew, and Maheem, a massive Rahadoumi rigger with a permanent scowl, were already there. They glanced at him and away, making a show of working. All the hair on the back of Chopper's neck promptly stood on end, apparently wanting to escape while it could. Chopper wished he could do the same, but he forced himself to enter the cramped hold and begin pumping. Fipps and Maheem both were wearing daggers at their belts, he realized. He felt his own new axe with one hand, waiting.
"Lookithat, Maheem; he's slackin'," Fipps suddenly drawled. Chopper exhaled, slightly relieved--the bully was too stupid not to announce his attentions.
"So it's like that," Chopper said, turning to face them.
"Seems so," Maheem growled. Both drew their knives. Chopper kicked filthy bilgewater into their faces and shouted.
"PIRATE!!! Come get some!" He yanked the axe out of his shirt, but missed Fipps as the big man closed with surprising speed, the knife slicing along Chopper's arm. Maheem circled around; Chopper dodged away, but felt the knife do some damage somewhere on his thigh. He scooted for the ladder, but someone had shut the hatch and he couldn't open it and defend himself. Maheem got in another cut while Chopper was distracted. Losing blood rapidly now, Chopper dodged Fipps and managed to push the bully against the ladder. Fipps stumbled and Chopper lived up to his name, burying the axe in the man's skull. He twitched mightily and hurtled into the water, dead.
"You're next, sunshine," Chopper grated at Maheem, who seemed undeterred. The massive Rahadoumi slapped Chopper's wavering axe hand aside and buried the knife in his guts.
"Oh . . . fuck," Chopper wheezed, collapsing.
Reiko looked up from scrubbing when Grok poked her head into the galley. "Did you hear something below?" the quartermaster asked, looking baffled. "Like someone callin' out, in the bilges?" Reiko realized that Chopper was below, in the bilges, and cursed, dropping everything and sprinting for the hatch.
Suddenly there was a thunderous boom from below, and an enraged howl. "NEVER TOUCH MY MATES, FOOL!" Ezikial had heard the disturbance. When he arrived at the bilges hatch, he discovered someone had blocked it with a heavy barrel--a very heavy barrel, that felt like it was full of lead bricks when he levered it aside, nearly rupturing himself. Yanking his pistol from his belt, he'd aimed it right at Maheem's face and discharged it. The effect was quite dramatic and served to interrupt the cutting of Chopper's throat, but no blood blossomed on the Rahadoumi's body or face. Ezikial had missed. Not just missed, he discovered as he scrabbled at the hammer, but the gun had actually misfired and was now smoking and useless. He staggered backward up the ladder as Maheem grinned. Then a sword came into view over his shoulder and Reiko screamed in his ear.
"MURDERER!!!" she assumed a conversational tone and continued. "Put up your gun, Ezikial." Then screaming again, "DROP YOUR KNIFE, YOU MURDERER!!!" Ezikial hauled out his own short sword.
"Back away, or die," he added. Maheem did not back away, and Ezikial caught him solidly in the shoulder, giving Reiko the opening she needed to land a numbing blow on the knife itself. It flew from Maheem's hand and disappeared into the darkness of the bilges. They could hear a sound like faint thunder, now, and quite a lot of shouting. People were coming. Reiko clubbed Maheem on top of his head, driving him down into the water besides Fipps's corpse. She then fished the unconscious and bleeding Chopper out of the water with Ezikial's help just as Feruzi arrived, seemingly the entire crew behind her.
"What is happening?" the Mwangi woman demanded. She spotted Chopper and her expression suddenly became terrible. Reiko quickly sheathed her sword. The crew looked shocked. Sandara launched herself bodily through the press, waving her hands and yelling the words of a prayer, more a demand. Spurred, everyone began yelling at once, and soon the lower deck was in chaos: Reiko, Ezikial, Sandara, and Feruzi trying to force their way up the ladder with Chopper in tow; Chopper woozily regaining consciousness after Sandara's healing spell; the officers trying to get into the bilges to see what was happening; and the crew generally interfering and making nuisances of themselves. It was all too much for such tight quarters and eventually they all erupted onto the top deck, where Plugg forced himself to the fore.
"What in the HELLS is going on?!" There was instant silence.
"Bilge party?" Chopper said, always ready with a quip even when woozy from stabbing. Reiko nudged him. "If anyone asks, Mr. Maheem murdered Mr. Chumlett, then turned on you," she whispered into his ear. Chopper blinked a few times, then nodded.
"Mister Hands!" Plugg snarled. "Why did you discharge your weapon?"
"Aye, sir," Hands said, getting a peculiar look from Plugg. "Because, sir, Maheem was going to kill Chopper." Scourge approached and looked around, muttering as if he was counting. Plugg waited for Hands to say more, but Ezikial seemed finished.
"Mr. Plugg," Reiko cut in, realizing Ezikial was out of his depth, "Our apologies, but Mr. Hands was attempting to startle Mr. Maheem into dropping his knife."
"Is that so, Mr. Chopper?"
"Aye, Maheem was tryin' ta gut me," Chopper muttered.
"I see. Did he give a reason why?" The three of them gaped at the question, it was so bizarre. Chopper wasn't even sure how to formulate an answer. It was obvious from Plugg's expression that he knew exactly what was going on.
"He just said I was slackin'," Chopper managed finally, sounding even lamer now than it had below.
"I don't see Chumlett, Mr. Plugg," Scourge said. Plugg frowned.
"Not an easy man to miss, is he. Where is Mr. Chumlett, Mr. Chopper?"
"You might look down in the bilges," Reiko suggested. Plugg waved to Scourge, who vanished down the ladder. After a few moments, he called up.
"He's down here, Mr. Plugg! He's dead! Murdered!" Scourge climbed back on the deck.
"The only person conscious when Mr. Hands and I arrived was Mr. Maheem," Reiko said quickly.
"So?" Scourge demanded before Plugg could say anything.
"Well, Mr. Scourge, that would mean that Mr. Maheem is the one guilty of murder, here. I believe that one of the ship rules was keelhauling for murder?"
"Mr. Maheem attacked Mr. Chopper AND Mr. Chumlett?" Plugg demanded, incredulous.
"I don't know what Maheem did once I was out, sir," Chopper offered.
"Maybe Mr. Maheem went a little crazy from the bilge air?" Reiko suggested. "A rule is a rule. Surely, Mr. Plugg, we can't let this go."
"Feruzi is willing to let it go," the Mwangi woman commented.
Plugg looked around him, taking a silent measure of the crew. Maheem was still unconscious and in no position to help. Chumlett was dead. Almost all of those gathered around were wearing singularly blank expressions, and avoided his eyes. He gritted his teeth. "Then let the rules be carried out," he spat. "Master Scourge, put Mr. Maheem in the sweatbox. We'll keelhaul him tomorrow."
The show over, the crew finally dispersed. Feruzi tugged on Ezikial's sleeve as he passed. "Thank you," she said, giving him a shy little smile, unusual for her. She had to assume that his return grimace was a sort of grin.
The next few day, the mood aboard ship was extremely subdued--there was no roughhousing, no friendly chatter, people did their work in silence and avoided each other at dinner. Clearly no one was looking forward to the keelhauling that evening, whatever their personal reasons. It was somewhat of a relief when the call came from the lookout.
"Ship Ahoy!" Harrigan ordered the Wormwood after her prey. Gradually, hour after hour, she gained on the other ship, a merchantman by the looks of her, until by dawn less than half a mile separated them. Riaris collared Chopper and the others during the preparations.
“The ship’s wheel is at aft deck, jus' below sterncastle. Yer to grapple over, kill the guards on sterncastle, take the wheel, and guard t'boats. Kill any what tries to get away, but don’ move from t'wheel 'til t'fighting’s done, or you’ll have ta answer ta me. Oh yeah, an' as we get close, it'll get foggy. Just stick to what I told ya, and don' mind anything else." She looked at Chopper. "Yer in charge o' the boardin' party. Do me proud."