"Tatsumi? Tatsumi!" Reiko crossed the beach in a single bound and flung herself on her brother, who grinned a bit sheepishly.
"You . . . know her, then, Tatsumi?" the resplendent man asked, gesturing for his other crew to stand down. This close, his coat was visibly faded and somewhat threadbare, although the coat of mail he wore under it gleamed like silver. Tatsumi nodded at him respectfully.
"Captain, this is my sister. Although the last time I saw her, she was back in Genzei."
Reiko bowed deeply. "I heard rumors that Tatsumi had joined your crew, Captain Pegsworthy. Thank you for taking care of him."
"At your service, madam," he said, pulling off a rather florid, courtly obeisance in return despite the slight awkwardness of his peg leg. "As you know my name, it seems the introductions fall to you."
"Yes, of course. I am Nakayama Reiko, please, call me Reiko." She gestured toward Ezikial, who holstered his pistols and nodded. "This is Mr. Ezikial Hands, he is our Master Gunner."
"Hands? Any relation to Israel Hands, perchance?"
"Aye, sir, my father."
Captain Pegsworth was sharply taken aback. "Truly! How remarkable. I've heard your father was quite a meritorious pirate. Served under the Hurricane King himself."
"So I have heard, as well, sir. Perhaps we can discuss this over a drink."
"A better idea has rarely been voiced." Pegsworthy nodded again to Ezikial and turned his attention back to Reiko, who recognized her cue.
"And this is Ms. Feruzi. She is our Master at Arms." Feruzi bowed.
"A savage?" Pegsworthy asked, looking the Mwangi huntress up and down. "She certainly looks fierce enough. Must be a bit rough on the prisoners, though."
Reiko shot Feruzi a horrified look, wondering how to politely correct Pegsworthy, when Feruzi spoke, her voice creaking with irony, "You assume there are any."
"No mercy at all? Perhaps there's a thing Captain Pegsworthy could teach you."
"Perhaps." The Captain snagged her hand and bowed over it, something Feruzi had seen Chopper do with women when the mood took him. Fortunately, Pegsworthy didn't attempt to slobber on her. Social ritual complete, he favored them all with a broad grin and waved toward the door of the public house.
"When the lookout didn't signal us, I assumed the drydock was unoccupied," he said, leading the way to the tavern. "We will, of course, take our leave and return when Mr. Hake is free to squib the Strix for us--after that drink you mentioned, Mr. Hands."
"I'll need two days at t' least," Rickety announced, stumping up to them and wiping his forehead. "What a mess."
"Were there many losses, Mr. Hake?" Reiko asked.
"If we may assist in any way, you need only ask," Feruzi added.
"Goodness, she learns fast!" Pegsworthy announced cheerfully, unfazed by Feruzi's expression.
"It coulda been worse," Rickety answered Reiko, nonplussed by this exchange. "They carried a few off, but it woulda bin more if it hadna bin fer ye lot."
Pegsworthy bought a round for the house and settled himself on a bench.
"If I may, Captain, where did you last hear my father was hiding?" Ezikial asked.
"He is no longer in Bonefist's service, but I don't recall the specifics. Should you decide to become Free Sailors yourselves, you could ask him about it."
"Thank you, sir. I will take that under advisement." That seemed to be the end of Ezikial's conversation; he pulled out some unfinished pistols and resumed work.
Pegsworthy drank in silence for a moment, watching them. "That ship, the Man's Promise, isn't she? Seen her before in these waters. Tried to catch her once, but the winds were against us."
"It's a long, but mildly entertaining story of how it came into our possession," Reiko explained.
"If you please, then."
"It all began about a month ago when we joined the crew of the Wormwood under Captain Harrigan . . ."
"Oh, Harrigan, that blasted scum!" Pegsworthy interrupted suddenly.
"Indeed, although he hardly showed his face to us during that time."
"All the better for you, then. I've run afoul of him before. More than once." He listened intently while Reiko recounted the bulk of their adventures, then raised his mug.
"To common enemies! I salute you all, brave and resourceful both. If I may, it would be my honor to rededicate your vessel when the refit is complete."
"I cannot speak for our Captain, but we would be most honored as well," Reiko told him.
"Oh? Where is he?"
"He is resting after a . . . mishap with a naga yesterday."
"This would be Mister Chopper? Captain Chopper now, I understand."
"Something about that name sounds familiar, but I could be mistaken. You meet so many people in this business."
"Perhaps Captain Pegsworthy has even had news of Feruzi's sister, then," Feruzi said, leaning back against another nearby table.
"Stranger things have happened, my dear. What is your sister's name?"
Chris: He turns his attention back to Feruzi. "Stranger things have happened, my dear. What is your sister's name?"
Feruzi straightened again. "Feruzi's sister is a sorcerer named Ukele, who ran away from her family some months ago."
"Ukele." Pegsworthy scowled. "That does not ring a bell. Is she as striking as you are?"
Feruzi gave a short huff of breath that might have been a laugh. "Not exactly. But Feruzi would be surprised if you heard anything."
"Well, if I do meet her, you will be the first to know." He finished off his mug with a long swallow as Rickety approached them.
"Sorry t'interrupt, but I hadda ask ye somethin'."
"Not at all, my good man; we were just about to leave," Pegsworthy declared.
"Captain, if I may, I would like to stay ashore and catch up with my sister," Tatsumi said. Pegsworthy nodded.
"Of course. We'll return in two days' time. Until then, my friends." He gathered up his buccaneers by eye and they left the tavern.
"I, uh, I'm worried 'bout Godwin, me lookout," Rickety explained.
"Worried why?" Feruzi asked.
"Tain't like him not t' signal a ship comin' in. I fear somethin' musta happened. I'd, uh, be grateful if ye could check on 'im fer me. I'll knock another hunderd gold off yer squibbin."
"Certainly we will," Reiko said. "Tatsumi, you are welcome to stay and rest if you like."
"I could use a while to get settled in," her brother told her. "We can talk more on your return. I have a bottle of sake I've been saving for an occasion such as this."
Reiko grinned hugely. "Excellent. We'll return soon. Ms. Feruzi, Mr. Hands, I assume you are coming as well?"
"It would be a good exercise for our new recruits," Feruzi offered.
"There's a trail that runs up the ridgeline t' the watchtower," Rickety explained.
Ezikial began clearing up his tools, passing them on to Rosie for safekeeping, and went upstairs to find Chopper. He found Sandara in the room, casting some sort of complicated spell. When she finished, Chopper looked much restored, and climbed off the bed to try a few experimental strides across the room, swinging his arms.
"Mister Hands!" Chopper said. "What can I do for you? Time for a drink?"
"We're pirates, Cap'n," Sandara said, clearing up her ritual objects. "It's always time fer a drink."
Ezikial passed his flask on to Chopper, who swallowed. "If you are feeling better, sir, we are about to embark on a brief journey to the watchtower so as to ascertain the condition of the lookout."
"Sounds like you need a shot yourself. You sound like a bloody scholar."
Ezikial nodded. "Will you be joining us, then?"
"Sure. I've entertained Sandara enough for one day."
"At least ye don't snore like Fishguts do," Sandara mock-grumbled.
"No one snores like Mr. Kroop," Ezikial told her.
"A man has to have a goal, aye?" Chopper joked, putting on his coat and boots and stamping around the room a few more times. They rumbled their way down the stairs to meet Reiko waiting at the bottom.
"Captain, you look much better!"
"Aye. Besmara loves me, you know. Today."
"Loves watching you squirm, you mean," Feruzi said under her breath. She turned to address the assembled recruits, who looked even more shabby and dubious than pirates usually did. "Just a little light activity today, going up the hill to check on a possibly missing watchman. I want you to watch our backtrail and keep your eyes open for anything suspicious. I anything happens, you are to retreat here and wait for us, understood?" There were a few mutters of assent, none very enthusiastic.
Ezikial pointed them toward the storehouse. "Arm yourselves." It took a while, but they managed to locate enough cutlasses, knives, and axes to go around. One or two seemed inclined to become a walking armory, but Ezikial dissuaded them with a sharp look.
Rickety's trail wound through the jungle behind the Commons, then followed the knife-steep ridgeline toward the top of the headland. Chopper took the lead with Reiko close behind and Ezikial with Feruzi somewhat further back. The crew straggled along behind them uncertainly.
"Quite a view," Chopper called out, looking down over the cove, to be answered by a furious squealing noise that sounded like the gates of Hell opening. Two enormous wild pigs, a boar and a sow, burst out of the undergrowth and charged down the path directly at him. Ezikial reacted instantly, firing his pistol into the boar's face. The bullet punched a hole in the thick grayish hide, but it kept on coming, squealing even louder. Feruzi's arrows took the sow in the chest, sending it stumbling aside, panting, where it collapsed. Reiko sprang forward, sword whistling, and finished the boar off.
"Oh, sorry, was I in everyone's way?" Chopper remarked. "Thanks for securing breakfast, anyway."
"That is why we have recruits," Feruzi said. "To carry our pigs." The new pirates seemed happy enough to be given this chore, a few eyeing the underbrush warily on their way back down the path. The four officers continued on to be accosted by another animal, this one a large, colorful parrot.
"Shoo, fly! Don't bother me!" it squawked. Pluggsley screamed at it from Ezikial's shoulder and it took off, flying to another branch a few meters further down the path.
"Guess he wants us to follow him," Chopper guessed. The parrot flew from tree to tree, always keeping ahead, until they reached a simple wooden platform on stilts. The ground beneath was covered with rum and beer bottles. Reiko climbed the ladder up to the platform itself, which was a wreck--a fallen hammock and various articles of clothing were thrown about. Half underneath the hammock was a flyspecked corpse of an elderly man. One side of his neck was black and swollen to the size of a melon. Dried foam caked his lips and beard. The parrot flapped over and landed on the corpse, shrieking.
"Poor bugger," Chopper said, surveying the carnage. "Wasp allergy."
"That is a shame," Reiko said. "We should take the body back."
They wrapped the man and his few belongings up in the hammock. Ezikial scanned the sea uneasily. "Should I stay?" he asked.
"Stay?" Chopper mused. "Nay, it's Rickety's land, he can assign the next lookout."
Tomara: "I see. That's a shame. We should take his corpse back."
Chris: You notice his morningstar on the platform as well.
Joshua: "Help me wrap him up in this hammock. We'll carry him back down for proper burial."
"Poor bugger," Rickety echoed at the sight. "Did ye find 'is morning star? It's magic, ye know."
"Think it's in here with the rest of his stuff. Didn't look twice at it." Chopper said.
"Ye should keep it." Rickety glanced at the parrot, who hovered nearby, hopping from branch to branch. "I guess ol' Rotgut took a shine to ye as well."
"I can't get him to land on my shoulder yet."
"Ahh, give 'im time. Anyhoo, thanks fer goin' up there. I'll post someone else first thing."
"Did our men get back with the pork? I propose a feast for the fallen."
"They did indeed. My cooks are already dressin' em up."
Chopper grinned. "Sounds right. Invite everyone."
"Yer a prince among pirates an' no mistake, Cap'n."
"If you can get word to Pegsworthy, he's welcome also. I didn't get to meet him proper, earlier."
"He'll be back in a couple days. This is gonna be th' fourth ship I squibbed fer 'im."
"Busy man." Chopper said, looking thoughtful.
There was indeed quite the feast that night. Chopper got drunk as a lord and dredged up some mercilessly awful chanty that he insisted everyone sing along with him. Rosie and Conchobar accompanied him enthusiastically, producing a din that could probably be heard by the nagas upriver. Even Reiko engaged in the festivities, laughing it up with her brother and downing sake like a champion. The next morning they found another four recruits eager to join such a fun crew. Feruzi raised her eyebrows at this, but signed them up along with the others, taking them to meet the Captain where he sat having a hair of the dog with Reiko and Tatsumi.
"Is it common for the Captain to leave his flagship to oversee a squibbing?" Chopper was asking.
"Not for everyone, but Captain Pegsworthy considers himself one of us. Labella Loor's minding the Bonaventure while he's away, she's surely got things under control." Tatsumi smiled shyly. "Once the Strix has been squibbed, I am to be her captain." Reiko smiled proudly.
"What sort of Captain is Pegsworthy?" Feruzi asked.
"He is an honorable man. His honor is not like that of the samurai, of course, but he believes in what he does. We all respect him, and I serve him as a samurai serves his daimyo."
"What does he believe?" Chopper asked.
"That individual honor and loyalty are more important than any greater good. He is fair, yet ruthless . . . he is a complicated man. He goes his own way . . . he has few enemies and fewer friends."
"You intend to follow his example?" Feruzi asked. Tatsumi nodded.
"I was fortunate to find him when I left home."
"We were less fortunate. Or perhaps not, Reiko did manage to find you, after all." Feruzi helped herself to a mug and sat down. Leila came in, hesitated at the door, and took a seat at the far side of the room. Reiko waved at her, but it took Leila a moment to notice. She sat still for a long moment, then finally got up and joined them.
"The Captain likes you," Tatsumi said, "all of you, really. As do I."
"I'm glad my crew represents me well," Chopper told him, grinning. He looked up at Leila. "Where've you been, Godless?" She glanced nervously at Tatsumi.
"Captain!" Reiko said sharply.
"Sister, I would love a proper introduction to your friend here."
"I wanted to introduce you. This is my brother, Tatsumi. Tatsumi, this is my best friend, Leila."
"Best friend, eh?" Chopper mouthed at Feruzi. She scowled.
"What are you on about now?"
"We met," Leila said quietly, "while you were gone."
"Oh?" Reiko asked, glancing at her brother.
"Yes I told her all about our exploits and adventures."
"Is that so?"
"And how I'm going to be Captain soon, but I'm afraid she is very difficult to impress, little sister." Reiko's expression froze. "Ah, if only you could put in a good word for me."
"I . . . see."
"I find her very beautiful."
"I am also very not interested, as I told you before," Leila spoke up.
"And so modest! So rare to among the women of the sea."
"Why not, Leila?" Chopper asked. "Strapping young man like Tatsumi. Fine man."
"We should talk about this later," Reiko said flatly.
"So prickly," Chopper muttered. Reiko stared at Tatsumi again, then grabbed Leila's hand and all but dragged her out of the taproom.
"Reiko, I . . . wait! Reiko!" Tatsumi called after her, then flopped back down on the bench. He shot an appealing look at Chopper and Feruzi.
"Ah, sorry if I wasn't so helpful just then," Chopper said.
"You tried, my friend," Tatsumi said with a sigh.
"I think there is some other problem here," Feruzi told them. Tatsumi shook his head.
"I simply don't understand women."
Chopper toasted him. "You and me both."
The Strix returned to the cove for the ceremonial launching of the new ship, now named the Crisis after a hasty conference. Feruzi unexpectedly produced an enormous bottle of champagne, seemingly from nowhere, and prepared to smash it over the ship's keel. Rickety grabbed her.
"Thas better'n this Sargavan stuff I got. Where'd you find that, lass?"
"It was in some old boots down at the store. Might have been there for years."
"Aye, well, save that fer drinkin'." Rickety hurled his own bottle against the keel, where it broke satisfactorily. Feruzi took up some white paint and carefully added the new name to the escutcheon. Captain Pegsworthy smirked at her, but she seemed oblivious to the smear of white over her nose. Chopper nodded over the ship.
"This is good. This feels right."
"Good fortune and sure sail await what one can crack the Tidewater Rock!" Captain Pegsworthy toasted, clapping Chopper on the shoulder. "Maybe you'll be the one?"
"Hoist the colors, Mr. Hands!" Ezikial hauled on the rope and their flag, the Fist and Chain, unfurled on the wind. Chopper took out his ash-tinted spectacles and put them on as the ship rolled out into the water, ready to sail. "Challenge Accepted," he said.