The winch raising the longboat was far too slow for Leila today, with the angry crew on all sides nearly breathing down her neck. By the time they were level with the gunwhales, she could stand it no longer and nearly flung herself over the rail to clutch Feruzi's arm, startling everyone so badly that they nearly fell into the drink.
"You have to DO something!" Leila hissed. She hesitated, then shot Reiko an apologetic look. Reiko's eyebrows rose minutely.
"Is there some kind of problem?" the First Mate asked.
"I would say that there is," a harsh voice behind Leila grated as Serhet, the bald Thuvian, started to reach out to pull Leila back into the ship. Leila flinched, horrifed, and Reiko's eyes appeared ready to shoot out black lightning bolts. Serhet abandoned his boldness and shrank backward slightly and Feruzi climbed out of the longboat to look down at him.
"I believe you can handle this, Sergeant," Reiko drawled, lending her own hand to the grateful Leila. Ezikial, Chopper, and Sandara followed, assuming various poses of relaxed but attentive interest. Sandara grinned broadly, which seemed to unnerve Serhet even more.
Feruzi nodded to Reiko. "So, what is the difficulty, then?" she asked, addressing Leila, not the Thuvian.
"He caught Simmed rooting through his gear," Leila explained, then raised her voice sharply when Serhet started to interrupt. "And THEN he tried to gut the boy."
Serhet growled. "SHE sought to protect the thief from his proper punishment. There is no reforming a thief on the sea. You cannot take their hand and brand them aboard the ship. hang them and toss the carcass overboard for the sharks, that is the way." Everyone was silent for a moment, staring at Serhet's missing hand, now replaced by a cunning hook that served him nearly as well. To the man's credit, he did not shrink from this examination.
"Where is Simmed now?" Feruzi asked levelly when the edged silence seemed to have blunted sufficiently.
"I locked him in the chartroom until you got back," Leila explained. "I didn't want to do anything . . . permanent . . . until you got back."
"Fetch him out, then," Feruzi said, not unkindly. Leila unlocked the chartroom and discovered Simmed huddled in a corner. By the marks on his cheeks and his swollen, reddened eyes, he'd clearly been crying. She regarded him with distaste, wondering if Feruzi meant her to haul him bodily onto the deck if he resisted. Slightly shocked, she realized that something had changed in her over the past couple of weeks--the impropriety of moving Simmed by main force weighed nearly even with the embarrassment of having to go ask Feruzi for assistance in front of everyone. Not entirely even, certainly, but she at least had to think about it. Who aboard this vessel would even notice or care?
"M-miss?" Simmed squeaked, scrubbing at his face with his hands as new tears threatened to spill over.
"The Sergeant wants you," Leila told him, perhaps more harshly than she intended, but something about Simmed's preemptive cowering always irritated her. There was something almost gooey about his helplessness that made her think of a jellyfish, drifting at the whim of every chance current, trailing tentacles concealing a painful or even deadly sting for anyone careless enough to draw too close. It didn't seem like a calculated assault, but jellyfish were hardly calculating, either, and they consumed their accidental prey just the same. Leila felt a flash of sympathy for Serhet and hoped that Simmed would not be the cause of trouble for him. Feruzi's bouts of mercy and hard justice followed no pattern Leila could yet discern.
Simmed's mouth worked like a gasping fish, but when Leila gestured to the door and walked out he unfolded himself and draggled after her, blinking in the sunlight and shying so rapidly from every movement or glance aimed his way that he seemed to flicker as he walked. Feruzi's eyes struck him like the gaze of a medusa--he turned white and stiffened like a marble statue.
"Well?" Feruzi asked when it became apparent Simmed wasn't going to volunteer anything. Serhet made a huffing noise that might almost have been a hastily-concealed laugh.
"The little shit stole my sunstones," Serhet growled. "He stole from most everyone." The rest of the crew made some muttered noises that seemed to indicate assent. Oddly enough, Leila noticed, they now seemed more embarrassed by this spectacle than truly angry.
"I didn't! I didn't!" Simmed squeaked in panic.
"Then how do you explain my combs in your pocket?" Bellisan demanded.
"I didn't steal it! I was going to put it back, put it back! I just wanted to, to, HOLD it for a while!"
"Oh, there's a likely story," Serhet sneered. "You should hang him just to put him out of his misery, the stupid sod."
"Noooooooooo . . ." Simmed turned into a small heap on the deck, clutching his knees and emitting a wail appropriate to a teakettle.
"Give me what he stole," Feruzi ordered the crew. They hesitated, but when she extended her hand imperiously a few small items--rectangular blocks of translucent crystal, some carved bone combs, a patterned silk scarf belonging to Conchobar--were produced and grudgingly handed over. Feruzi weighed them in her hand for a moment, then reached down, located a hand in the heap of Simmed, and hauled it forth. He recoiled from the objects, but Feruzi forced him to take them and then let go. "You claim you were going to return them? Do so.
Simmed eyed Serhet, Belissan, and Conchobar in horror. "I-I . . ."
"Now, Simmed," Feruzi ordered. With positively glacial speed, pop-eyed and shrunken chest heaving, he extended each item to its owner, scooting away from them when they snatched it back and glared. Feruzi nodded when he was finally finished. "Good. Now give me your dragon."
"Your dragon," she repeated, pointing to the wooden token he still wore. "You betrayed the Ship and it is not yours to wear any longer. Give it to me." He fumbled it loose with shaking fingers and passed it over. Leila felt the mesmerizing quality of this performance and took a moment to glance at the rest of the crew. Yes, they were utterly absorbed, poised to be set tumbling. In one direction--or the other. Feruzi turned sharply and handed the wooden token to Serhet, who started in surprise, breaking the spell.
"Now what?" he demanded, as brows furrowed and the crew shifted uneasily.
"That is up to you," Feruzi informed him.
"You mean, I can HANG him?"
Feruzi shrugged with magnificent indifference, drawing a leery look from Chopper and a deep frown from Reiko. "He disgraced himself by thieving. How complicated is that?" Serhet looked at Simmed, but it was plain the one-handed Thuvian was simply baffled now, bloodlust nearly exorcised. Feruzi allowed a long moment of hesitation, then added, flagrantly casual, "Of course . . . who is to say how you might disgrace yourself in overreaction to it? Petty spite seems a poor exchange for your honor."
"We're pirates, we have no honor."
Feruzi snorted. "You imagine honor is so feeble a thing as to be chased away by a word?"
"Are you saying . . ."
"I? Saying?" The offhand manner abruptly vanished and the medusa glare came out, along with a tone sharp as broken glass. "Actions have consequences. For you as well as for him. The remedy you would offer is one you, too, must swallow else you be butcher, not surgeon."
Serhet's confusion seemed almost outraged, now. "WHAT then? Flogging?"
"Oh, so you think stripes make a man trustworthy?" she mocked him.
"So what would YOU do?"
"It is not MY decision!" she roared. Then another of those quicksilver changes in demeanor. Leila found herself beginning to smile. Feruzi's sudden changes of mood had seemed intimidating, before, but now she was starting to see the larger picture. Reiko was far better at convincing people to do what she wanted, but Feruzi somehow got them to convince themselves and view Feruzi as actually in the way, so when she LET them do what she wanted, they took it as a FAVOR. Leila didn't know whether to cheer, laugh, or simply stare in horrified realization. Could someone wield ambivalence like a weapon? Maybe so. Feruzi was speaking again, her tone now gentle and even. "I suppose, if you ask, I would say that Simmed steals out of fear. If he wanted my trust as a member of the crew, he would have to prove first that he could be brave."
"Brave? Him?" Serhet scoffed. Feruzi shrugged again.
"Stranger things have happened."
Serhet considered for a long moment, fingering the dragon token. Then an evil look grew in his eyes, and he wadded it up in its ribbon, leaned far back, one leg rising from the deck to balance his outstretched arm, and seemed almost to pirouette, his hand ascribing an enormous arc nearly down to the deck. The token sailed away like a flying fish. "Go fetch, boy!" the Thuvian crowed to Simmed's expression of utter horror. Leila shook her head as Simmed cast about in a puppy-like appeal for sympathy or aid from someone, anyone.
"Best hurry," Feruzi said, pitiless, as his gaze slid over her, too frightened to truly rest, but still hopeful. Finding no help, Simmed crept to the rail and stared over. One button at a time, he undid his ragged shirt. He owned no shoes and had only a bit of rope for a belt, so there was no more delaying. With a final, desperate swallow, he jumped, or rather, flopped, into the water with a tremendous splash. Leila started toward a rope, wondering if he would even come back up, but after a moment she spotted him, moving in a determined if inexpert dog-paddle away from the ship. She sighed in relief. Feruzi watched for a moment with a satisfied expression, then turned to Serhet and pointed with her chin at the dinghy. "Help him."
Serhet looked bemused. "The devil you say?" Feruzi let her eyebrows rise slightly. "Fine," the Thuvian growled, rolling his eyes, and went to lower the tiny craft. Leila smiled and shook her head. Was it really any surprise to watch Simmed struggle to the very end of his fading strength after a simple wooden token? To watch Serhet try and pull the boy out before Simmed drowned, while Simmed tried to fight him off? To watch Serhet give up and jump in to help Simmed cross the remaining distance? To watch Simmed return to the ship, half-drowned but triumphant, and have his back slapped companionably by Serhet?
Not really, she decided.