It took three days for the Man's Promise to limp its way to the Slithering Coast, but in the frantic scramble to do with eleven what a crew of more than twenty found hard going the minutes took on a strange dual quality. Each moment seemed endless, yet once they passed the memory of them vanished in the next crisis and it was somehow shocking to realize that an entire hour or morning had suddenly flashed by. When the land finally crept into view it seemed more like an illusion, even as they rounded the tall headland and sailed into the greenish-brown outflow of a sluggish jungle river, visibly withdrawn from wide banks of red mud that had become a landscape of cracks in the sun. The dense jungle foliage surrounding the cluster of buildings and piers at the river's mouth was yellowed and wilted, and there was little visible activity anywhere ashore.
A lone red and yellow flag flickered at the top of a watchtower, followed by a similar sign from the roof of the massive shed that obviously housed the drydock. Like ants with a disturbed nest, dozens of figures emerged from the buildings to gather on the pier. A longboat was manned and launched and arrowed straight toward the Promise, where the crew put down their tasks and gathered at the rail, looking at their shiny new Captain for instructions.
Chopper frowned, then gestured to Reiko. "This seems administrative in nature," he said, reassured when Reiko nodded firm agreement.
"Lower the cutter," she said. "Mr. Hands, come with me. Will you be joining us, Captain?" Chopper nodded and in short order the three of them were coming abreast of the squibbers' longboat. A short, stoop-backed old man, balancing easily, gestured a greeting as they approached, his leathery face splitting into a wide grin.
"Welcome, me hearties!" he bellowed in a surprisingly powerful voice. "I be Rickety Hake, owner an' proprietor o' Rickety's Squibs!"
"Well met, Rickety," Chopper hailed back with a winning smile. "Or is it Mister Hake? Either way, a pleasure."
"Ah, Rickety be fine, I don't stand much on ceremony 'ere! She ne'er stood much on me!" The man laughed hugely at his own joke, slapping his thigh until he had a coughing fit and had to bend over, wheezing. Chopper laughed as well in open, unfeigned good humor, minus the wheezing, which obviously delighted Rickety. "My guess is yer here t' have that there ship squibbed?" Chopper frowned pensively.
"That would be a good guess, Mr. Hake," Reiko spoke up from beside him.
"Are we so transparent?" Chopper asked. "And the name's Chopper. Captain Chopper, actually."
"Oh, nobody comes 'ere fer any other reason, e'en when we ain't got a drought. If ye'll let me aboard, I kin have a look about, give ye an idea how long 'n how much."
"Permission granted, sir."
"Aye, yer a prince among pirates, Mister Cap'n Chopper. C'mon boys, row me on o'er."
They ascended to the deck of the Promise to find Feruzi waiting for them with pencil and paper on top of a bit of board, looking like a some kind of fantastical combination of cannibal and clerk. Rickety grinned hugely at her and then took in the ship.
"Wonner if I seen this one before. If so, it's been a while. Or my memory ain't what it were. Or mebbe both, who knows. If ye have any special modderfercations ye want done, jist let me know." Feruzi showed him her paper, containing crude sketches of the deck layouts.
"We wish to have a few partitions installed," she said, pointing them out. He took her arm all friendly-like, nearly eliciting a violent protest before she realized what he wanted, and they left to tour the ship. Rickety's manner changed radically, now all professionalism as he examined the bulkheads, kicked the masts, and tugged on the ropes, all the while muttering nonsense under his breath like "be needin a right-hand futtock here" and "for'sl yard loose, very bad". Finally he stumped over to Chopper, stratched his balding head, and announced, "She's in no great shape, ye ken, but I reckon we kin do this fer two thousand gold, in 'bout six days with good weather, which we sadly got plenty of at present." A sharp glint appeared in his eye. "Not t' be rude or nothin', but I'd like t' be sure ye kin pay fer our services afore we get started."
Feruzi stalked into the Captain's cabin and returned with a small case of jewelry and mixed coinage out of Plugg's stash of plunder, displaying it with some ceremony to Rickety Hake. Unabashed, he produced a jeweler's loupe and seated it over his right eye, then spent some time examining the articles in detail. Finally, he grunted, indicating satisfaction, removed the loupe with a sharp popping sound, and grabbed Chopper's hand, pumping it twice vigorously. Deal done, he lapsed again into the persona of Jovial Old Man. "Are ye new to life on the account? Suren I'd recall seein such fine folks afore."
Chopper twitched. "New, perhaps, but none to green for all that." His smile was sharp.
"I am sure Captain Bloodmourn would be sad to hear you think of us as greenhorns," Reiko added.
"Oh, I meant no 'fense, ma'am. Jist curious is all."
"No offense taken, of course," Reiko replied smoothly, conjuring up a pleasant smile. Rickety quickly changed the subject, although his eyebrows rose sharply as if to draw a line under the exchange.
"We'll kip ye all in our main house while th' work's done. If ye wanna take yer boats ashore, we'll haul yer fine lady inter the dock an' get started."
"Thank you, Mr. Hake," Reiko said. The crew gathered their valuables and packed aboard the cutter and longboat, which had more than enough room. They landed at a pair of docks along side three small dinghies. The sea breeze seemed unable to penetrate the green stink of the river, and the heat and insects were oppressive. A few sun-darkened workers perched on casks and crates, splicing ropes and mending nets while they ostentatiously ignored the new arrivals. The crew of the Promise made their way along the rude boardwalk to the shipworks to do some polite gawking as great cables were secured to the Promise and she was winched into dock by a team of eight straining oxen.
They then headed for the main house, a once-grand villa with broad wings extending from the ground floor and an octagonal dome topped by an ornate cupola, now sadly faded with time. A board hanging slightly crooked over the veranda named it proudly, "Rickety's Squibs". Smaller hovels and sheds assembled of driftwood and flotsam surrounded it on all sides and gradually merged into the jungle.
"How about we find a place to have a fine drink, Mr. Kroop?" Reiko suggested.
"I think I'm about ready fer one, aye!" the cook agreed wholeheartedly.
"Ask around, casual-like, and see if there are any sailors in need of work," Chopper addressed everyone before they broke up. Reiko and Feruzi nodded, Reiko taking Fishgut's arm and making a beeline for the taproom, the house's most prominent feature by far. Leila and Sandara followed them. Chopper strolled away, lost in thought, leaving Feruzi and Ezikial standing on the veranda with the only two nominal non-officers, who seemed uncertain of what to do next.
Feruzi gave Rosie and Conchobar a wry look. "Do whatever you like, but stay together for safety. Use the buddy system." Conchobar brightened at this, but Rosie made a face.
"You heard the Master at Arms, dear," the gnome said cheerfully.
"If you find a more interesting buddy, you may swap," Feruzi said, trying not to chuckle.
"You can come with me if you like," Ezikial offered.
"Gods yes, Mr. Hands. Er, no offense or nothin'," the halfling woman added quickly when Conchobar looked crestfallen. He shrugged and ambled off. Chopper waved to him as he passed.
"C'mon, Conchobar, I could use your keen eye to pick out a hat befitting my new station."
Conchobar brightened immediately, never oppressed for long in the typical gnomish fashion. "It would be my pleasure, Captain." They found the storehouse, a sort of combination outfitter and rummage stall. Conchobar instantly fastened upon a glorious red Captain's coat, only slightly motheaten and absolutely festooned with gold braid, trim, and buttons. "You would cut quite a dashing figure in this, Captain," he said, pulling it out of the pile and holding it up, which caused the gnome to nearly vanish beneath its impressive sweep and depth.
"This is precisely why I need you around. You're my head Concho."
Feruzi wandered the docks, looking for anyone who seemed to have more time than work and stopping to pass the time with them. Several turned out to be former sailors who expressed guarded interest in resuming their occupation.
Reiko prudently kept her alcohol consumption moderate and watched as her exotic Tian looks drew glances and low-voiced comments from the off-duty workers crowding the taproom. She began chat in a lively manner about their recent exploits with Fishguts, who in his cheerful inebriation was better than the trained chorus in an Andoran play, salting her chatter with perfectly-timed exclamations of "Aye, that be the truth!" and "It's a rotten shame!" In minutes, they had an intent audience, and Reiko contrived to notice them accidentally and draw them into the conversation. Soon they were rapt and she allowed herself a satisfied inner smile as their reputation began to take shape.
In this pleasant way, two more days passed. Early on the morning of the third, some of Rickety's off-duty workers invited them to join in a game of ninepins and share a small cask of beer cooling in the river. "Absolutely!" Chopper said, joining them without hesitation. Reiko also accepted the offer.
The cloudless sky was the color of iron, promising another scorcher. The locals set up their game in the shade of the boathouse while others went to pull on the ropes leading to the underwater keg. The rope suddenly jerked and one man was pulled violently into the water. A woman yelled, the palms of her hands torn where she was holding on only moments before. Reiko reacted instantly, dashing forward to grab the unspooling rope, burning her own hands, but managing to arrest whatever was dragging at it. Chopper reached for his hip and cursed. "Gods below, anyone got a knife?!" A blade was pressed into his hand as he shed hat, coat, and boots, and he dove into the water.
The dock-worker was tangled in the rope, and a long, green, serpentine creature writhed frantically, slapping the man with its tail and stunning him. Chopper saw Reiko enter the water beside him--she flung herself at the water-serpent and cut it with her wakizashi. Chopper swam toward the dockworker and was surprised as the serpent's head came around, revealing a human face but, unfortunately, snake-life fangs that sank into his flesh. A feeling of icy fire flooded his body, but he struggled to ignore it and cut the worker loose. Reiko jabbed the serpent in the neck, distracting it long enough for the other workers on the dock to haul their compatriot to safety. The serpent slapped Reiko aside with its powerful tail and landed another bite on Chopper. The three of them flailed together through the water, churning up enormous quantities of mud while they fought to kill or die. Work stopped as everyone ran toward the fight, stopping uncertainly on the shore. Feruzi drew her bow, unsure who she might hit in the murk, and then everything went still. Then Chopper and Reiko surfaced, gasping, bleeding, and shivering.
"Bah, they are fine," Feruzi said. Reiko raised her fist, still clutching the rope, and hauled the beer triumphantly to shore, followed by the serpent creature.
"Can I get some boots made out of that?" Chopper asked, accepting a blanket someone offered him. Rickety shoved his way to the front of the crowd and shook his head over the mess.
"Poor Selissa. Musta gotten forced downriver by this damned drought," he said.
"Selissa?" Feruzi asked. Chopper looked a bit embarrassed.
"Er, was this an acquaintance of yours, then?"
"We got an understandin, but I s'pose their homes upriver is dryin out. These lands belong to the Nagas. Still, no harm, ye saved my man, an' that's what counts. The least I kin do is knock 500 sails off the price of yer squibbin."
"That's awfully generous of you. Do you have anything to treat burning blood? Cos, my blood kinda burns right now."
Rickety chuckled. "Not so much, no. My druid's got no gift fer dealin wit poisons, sorry t'say."
"Rats," Chopper said. "Guess I'm on bed rest."
The next morning lacked any further excitements aside from Chopper staying in his bunk, sick as a dog, but in the afternoon the docks erupted into shouting and all the workers outside began suddenly sprinting toward the buildings, some even risking serious injury as they leaped to the ground. "Get inside!" someone yelled as he passed Ezikial, Reiko, and Feruzi where they were taking the air. "Get inside now!" A dark mass was rising from the jungle, like a flock of enormous birds, but as they drew closer it became apparent that they were not birds, they were wasps the size of horses, dozens of them.
They got hurriedly to their feet, but several of the wasps were already closing. Reiko's sword leapt out and intercepted two of the insects in midair. Feruzi dodged a third and sent arrows after it. Ezikial's pistols thundered and one of the wasps attacking Reiko exploded like a firework, showering her in gunk. She dispatched the second almost as quickly and then they all ducked into the building, out of reach. The wasps buzzed outside, stinging anyone they could reach and carrying them off once the paralytic poison took effect.
One of the female workers fled toward the door, followed by a pair of wasps who were rapidly closing. Ezikial jumped off the porch, stabbing one with his blade and drawing its attention. Reiko, only an instant behind him, knocked it out of the air like a festive pinata. The woman they were trying to help screamed and dodged as the other wasp attempted to sting her, then Feruzi's arrows caught it. Reiko and Ezikial left the wasps twitching and dying to pull the woman to safety. Moments later, the attack was over--the wasps fled with their booty. Several workers lay on the ground outside, paralyzed or dead.
"Fuck," Ezikial commented.
"There's nothing more we could have done to save them, Mr. Hands," Reiko told him.
"ALARM!!" a faint voice cried in the distance.
"Oh, what now?" Ezikial demanded, beginning to furiously reload his pistols. A galleon rounded the headland--a Chelish vessel. In moments, two boats were lowered and rowed ashore with furious precision, where the sailors, or soldiers, disembarked. They were not dressed as Chelish invaders, though. Eight men and women formed a protective circle around a one-legged human man wearing a gorgeous indigo coat with shining braid and buttons. They looked around, surveying the carnage, and rapidly spotted the only three people standing in the open. One of the buccaneers, dressed in the armor of an Ushinawa warrior, was abruptly, deeply shocked.
"Reiko?!" Nakayama Tatsumi asked.