"Ships ahoy!" called the lookout and the officers assembled onto the deck of the Crisis to see for themselves. Two ships were visible near the horizon, quite close to each other.
Ezikial's reaction was immediate: "Bring up the ballistae!"
Reiko frowned slightly while Chopper examined them through his spyglass. "Captain?" she inquired. One of the ships was clearly chasing the other, engaged in a full-out battle, but the colors were indistinguishable at this distance.
"Eh," Chopper shrugged, "take the winner?"
"Would it not be best to know why they are fighting, first?" Feruzi asked. "Or even, who they are?"
Chopper glanced at her. "Maybe, but . . . pirate." He shrugged again. "Feelin' lazy today. Steady as she goes. We'll get there soon enough."
"Right," Reiko said. "Maybe you could go take a nap and we'll let you know when the good stuff starts?"
Chopper seemed to give this consideration. "Nah."
"Right," Reiko drawled. "You just leave everything to me."
"Duh. I had to do all the work with the Dominator, so you layabouts should do something. For once." Reiko struggled to conceal a smirk as she turned away and began ascending the rigging. Feruzi glared openly at Chopper.
"YOU did all the work?" she demanded.
"So you got some new scars. You're welcome?"
"These are AMATEUR scars," she protested.
"Aye, aye, fair enough," he muttered, conceding the point. As they neared, the lead ship heeled over hard and feathered until its sails luffed and it drifted to a stop. The attacker, a Shackles drekar, ran in hard to guard its prize, rather like a dog with a meat bone. Chopper chuckled. "Aren't they cute. Full ahead. Mister Hands, test out your new toy."
"Sir?" Ezikial asked, glancing first at his new pistol and then at the still-distant ship. An eloquent, incredulous eyebrow arose like a whale breaching.
"Shut up and let me quip. Shoot them. Hard."
"Shall we hoist the colors, Captain?" Reiko asked.
"I'll assume that is a rhetorical question, Ms. Mate."
"Of course, Captain."
The drekar loosed a catapult load in their direction as they continued to close. The ship's name was now visible: Devil's Pallor. It was absolutely swarming with pirates who looked none too pleased at the interruption. Ezikial grinned as the catapult load tore through several sails; Chopper cursed at Cogsworth, who had the helm.
"T'ain't like steerin' a hummin'bird, Cap'n sir!"
"Not with that attitude, sailor!"
"Svard," Reiko said mysteriously. "Cog, go get ready for boarding." She took the helm.
"What's a Svard?" Chopper demanded suspiciously.
"A captain. The captain of this ship is a Hobgoblin. His name is Gortus Svard."
"What's a hobgoblin?!"
"It's a . . . hobgoblin. You want I should draw you a picture?"
"A goblin with nailed boots," Feruzi muttered under her breath, trying to conceal a grin behind her hand.
"Feruzi is promoted to Ship's Loremaster!" Chopper yelled. "You can't define a word with the same damn word!"
"Sure I can."
"You'll clap eyes on him soon enough, Cap'n," Conchobar said mildly.
"BESMARA!" Ezikial bellowed. The chain bolts swept the Pallor's forward deck, dispersing the pirates gathered there while the drekar returned fire and made a fair wreck of the Crisis's sails. Feruzi spotted some better-dressed persons among the pirates and donated them some arrows while Chopper broke out his full cussin' vocabulary and the crew scrambled. Reiko spun the wheel, but the Pallor was having none of it and swerved away effortlessly. Ezikial fired his pepperbox despite the extreme range and managed to severely inconvenience one of the pirates.
Once again, the drekar came sharply about, but Reiko anticipated it this time and the Crisis surged into the Pallor's side. A hail of grapples burst from the Crisis's decks and, as always, Chopper was among the first over.
"SVARD!! Come face me, Chopper! Captain Chopper!" The hobgoblin promptly shot him with a crossbow, fortunately doing little damage, but Choppers advance became rather uneven.
"Poisoned bolts? Aw, c'mon." Ezikial burst past him and stabbed Svard right in his nice armored coat. The hobgoblin dropped the crossbow and beat Ezikial back with a wicked-looking falcata. "Oi, I'm the Captain, ye silly bitch!" Chopper complained and attacked as well. Svard shot him a furious glare and delivered a blow that nearly took Chopper's leg off. Chopper's eyes widened in pain and shock, then Reiko came up behind him and took Svard's head right off. Ezikial gave a gleeful laugh and began mowing down the surviving crew with his sword.
"Surrender, dogs, and live to see another sunrise!" Chopper called. He blinked. "Mr. Hands! Let them surrender!" Ezikial skidded to a halt. "Good man. Take our prisoners and commence looting. Signal my wish to parlay with the . . ." he squinted at the other ship "Sea Chanty." Ezikial pouted slightly but did as he was told. The other ship, a Sargavan merchantman by the look of it, hadn't gotten very far, but they didn't appear to be slowing, either.
"Pursue?" Ezikial asked.
"Duh. Pirate. Reiko, you're in command of the Devil's Pallor until we can come up with a better name. Now, let's go get some bloody gratitude." The Crisis caught up with the Sea Chanty without any real effort--the Sargavan's hastily raised a white flag.
"Ahoy and you're welcome!" Chopper boomed as they came within hailing distance. "Permission to come aboard?"
"I am in no condition to deny you my hospitality," the Sargavan Captain, a tall, thin woman, said grimly.
"Appreciated," Chopper said, crossing over and bowing. Behind him, Ezikial reloaded and cocked his pistol. "Captain Chopper of the Crisis. Glad we could lend a hand to you folks. Nasty business. Bloody pirates, amiright?"
"Ah . . . yes," the Chanty's captain said, obviously uneasy. "If it please you, Captain Chopper, I suppose I should reward you for your aid?"
"Much obliged. We'll be out of your hair once we make sure you're well enough to go on. And what your cargo entails."
"Fruit and wool," the captain said promptly.
"A pleasure," Chopper said after the Chanty disgorged a portion of its cargo. He took the captain's hand and bowed over it gallantly.
"I . . . would have to agree."
"Back to the ship!" Chopper ordered, and they disembarked, Chopper smiling and waving vigorously even while Sandara attempted to get at his wounded leg. Even as the Sea Chanty pulled away, the wind began to pick up, bringing with it increasingly heavy rain. The next day was violently stormy and the Crisis lived up to her name, sending them all scrambling to keep her afloat, until, CRACKOOOM a bolt of lightning blinded and deafened them. The top half of the main mast toppled, swinging wildly as the rigging came violently unrigged.
"Besmara's tits!" Chopper swore. "All RIGHT, I'll quit singing! Message bloody received!" Feruzi and Ezikial raced to hack the ropes loose and free the mast from the ship before it could damage the hull and sink them, while Reiko brought the Devil's Pallor as close as she dared, ready to render assistance. Fortunately, they avoided total catastrophe, and while the seas were heavy, the remainder of the trip back to Tidewater Rock was uneventful.
"Even the gods hate you, apparently," Feruzi remarked to Chopper as they made the ships fast in the cove. She flopped down, exhausted.
"From time to time," he agreed, then froze. "Wait, what do you mean 'even'?" Feruzi marshaled a look of faux innocence. Chopper's eyes narrowed in mock severity, but he was too tired to maintain it for long and flopped down next to her.
"Whew," he said. "Still, a profitable voyage."
"Lady Smythee should be impressed."
"Should be. Still, you know, women."
"Not as much as you might think. Are you going to marry her?"
"Aye." Feruzi waited, but no more seemed forthcoming.
"Aye?" she asked.
"That's what I said. You going deaf?"
"No . . ." Feruzi took a breath to demand full disclosure, then stopped and patted Chopper on the shoulder companionably. "I am sure you know what you are doing."
Lady Smythee and Sergeant McCleagh met them at the front door. "Thank Besmara you're here," Agasta said without preamble.
"Oh?" Chopper asked.
"We were attacked."
"By sahuagin," McCleagh added.
"That has been going around lately," Feruzi intoned.
"We lost Zander and Mardus's leg is . . ." Agasta shook her head. "You're a surgeon, aren't you? Can you help him?" she appealed to Chopper.
"Yes, ma'am." McCleagh led the way into the keep while Agasta returned to her rooms, taking them to the back workshop where Mardus Siggs, the teenage grandson of Lady Smythee's personal servants, lay on a worktable padded with blankets. He was gray-skinned and drenched in sweat, clearly very ill. Chopper broke out his supplies and began examining the wound. With quiet professionalism, Chopper cleaned out the infection with a mixture of potent herbs and distilled rum, then set the bone while Sandara looked on, ready to assist with magic if mundane skill proved insufficient. The pain brought Mardus back to consciousness, but he endured without complaint until Chopper finished.
"Good lad," Chopper remarked as Mardus settled back.
"That was fine work, Cap'n," Sandara beamed.
"Are they gone? The fish men?" Mardus asked, his voice slurring. McCleagh nodded.
"They attacked in the evening, while he was out with the goats. We sent Zander out to call him in to dinner . . ."
"'E gave 'is life t' save me . . ."
"I'll honor 'im with a proper funeral, if'n ye like," Sandara offered
"He deserves honor," Chopper murmured. "Rest up, son."
"How have you fared otherwise?" Feruzi asked while Chopper cleaned up.
"Well enough," the sergeant said. "We've had some word of your exploits now and again. Very impressive."
"HE would not let us be otherwise," Feruzi grumbled, pointing at Chopper with her chin.
"Lady Agasta should be pleased to entertain his suit. If that suits him, of course. And we had a delivery for you, Ms. Feruzi. We have it upstairs." She looked askance at McCleagh until she realized Chopper was looking over her shoulder with a nearly identical expression.
"All . . . right?" She followed McCleagh with Chopper and Sandara tagging along. McCleagh handed Feruzi a long wooden case that opened to reveal an ornate bow and a roll of parchment. Her hand shaking slightly, Feruzi unrolled the note, read it, and boggled.
"What should I do?" she appealed to Chopper. "This is . . . expensive."
"Marry him?" Chopper suggested.
"Um, no. Should I accept it? Or send it back?" Chopper gave her a look she usually reserved for him. "Do you think it wise to take on the responsibility implied by such a gift?" His eyes slowly closed and opened, his expression changing not a whit.
"You're not getting any younger, and on this crew the odds of you getting much older are reduced vastly reduced."
Feruzi fingered the bow cautiously. "Well . . . if I intend to return it, I should place it in his hands myself. And there's no harm in making use of it until then. Right?"
"Right. Now that's settled, I've got a wedding to attend."