Tsadok Goldtooth reappeared at the Crisis shortly after lunch. Another crowd of onlookers all waiting to be entertained gathered rapidly. Feruzi shook her head. "We are certainly attracting a lot of attention with this."
Goldtooth ignored her and addressed himself to Chopper. "Have someone bring up a table and chairs." Chopper gave a negligent wave and snapped his fingers. After several seconds of blank staring, Dar and Marteen ran off to fetch the table and chairs from the chartroom, nearly the only real furniture aboard the Crisis. "Who am I playing?" Goldtooth growled.
"That would be myself, Mr. Goldtooth," Reiko informed him.
"This is my first mate, Nakayama Reiko," Chopper added. Reiko's chin came up just about to Goldtooth's belt buckle as the half-orc scrutinized her.
"All right, then," he said finally and waved a dwarf from his own crew forward, followed by a couple of swabs hauling a keg of rum. "Argus, the two of us, and nobody else at the table. Argus will be dealing." Reiko bowed politely to the dwarf, who was nearly as tall as she was, if much broader. His thick, heavy-jointed hands strongly resembled building equipment, but he handled the cards deftly.
"Should I check the rum, Captain?" Ezikial muttered.
"Aye, do that."
"Mr. Goldtooth," Ezikial called. "Do you mind if I check the rum before you start?"
"Afraid we're trying to poison the winner, Mister . . . ?"
"Ezikial Hands. I am something of a connoisseur."
"Ezikial . . . Hands?" Goldtooth lingered over the name. "If you must, then by all means. I expect you will have much to discuss with the King . . . should you win an audience with him."
Ezikial took a dipper of the rum, sniffed it appreciatively, then drank it off. "I will not deny that, Mr. Goldtooth. I almost wish I were playing just for the rum, Reiko-san. Besmara's luck to you."
Argus set out a hundred platinum coins in small stacks in front of Goldtooth then looked expectantly at Reiko.
"You mentioned that you brought along a moneychanger?" Reiko said smoothly. The dwarf nodded and they bent their heads together to dicker, finally settling on a sum of coins and small jewels as equivalent stake and exchanging them for the platinum coins. Goldtooth and Reiko each threw in their ante and Argus dealt the cards.
Goldtooth examined his hand. "I bet one," he said, nonchalant.
"I'll see you," Reiko replied.
"Call, then." Goldtooth showed his cards, but Reiko's hand was the superior. She raked in the pot and a glass of rum, drinking it off with some coughing but no other apparent effects. The game continued, Goldtooth again betting a single platinum.
"I'll see you, and raise you one," Reiko told him.
"Very well. Call." They showed cards again and once again, Reiko's hand was superior. Goldtooth's visage darkened as Argus passed over the pot and the glass.
"I ne'er took Reiko fer a gambler, Cap'n," Sandara murmured. "How come it's her up there?"
"Cos she can read people. Handy skill in this company. That, and she's tougher than she looks for her size. Tends to make folk underestimate her."
Reiko turned the glass upside-down on the table and picked up her new hand. Goldtooth again bid one. Reiko pondered her cards for an overly long time, then decided to see the bet. Goldtooth called and they showed cards, the half-orc taking this hand and drinking the glass.
"I bet five," Goldtooth growled after surveying his new hand.
"I'll fold this hand, Mr. Goldtooth," Reiko said, smiling innocently. The half-orc grimaced and took his second shot of rum.
"I bid three."
"I'll see that," Reiko told him.
"Call." A draw this time, and no rum for anyone.
"You are quite the conservative bidder. A man who knows how to use the cards in his favor," Reiko remarked. Goldtooth scowled at his hand and folded, forfeiting the ante. Something was clearly upsetting him--he took the deck from Argus, cursing the dwarf for being bad luck--and began dealing for himself. "You win some, you lose some," Reiko told him and downed her third glass of rum. "What are you doing? Mr. Argus was an excellent dealer."
"I'm all in," Goldtooth growled. Reiko smiled.
"Sure, I'll call you." Goldtooth revealed his hand and Reiko did the same. A hush fell as the onlookers totted the cards up in their heads. Then Argus, still standing near the table, gestured toward Reiko as the winner. The crowd erupted into chaotic applause. Reiko stood and bowed formally to Goldtooth, who reached out to begin collecting his stake. Reiko placed her hand on her hilt.
"I am pretty sure I won that money fair and square, Mr. Goldtooth."
The half-orc froze. "This was just a friendly game for show. Not for real stakes."
"That is not true. If we had lost, you would have deemed us unworthy to meet with the King."
He seemed to consider, then shrugged. "Fair enough. You play well, Nakayama Reiko. And drink like a real pirate, for that matter."
Reiko smiled and bowed, saying quietly, "And I won't say anything about Mr. Argus's slippery fingers, either."
"Do we keep the keg, too?" Ezikial demanded.
"Good question!" Rosie yelled, backing his play. Reiko held out a platinum piece.
"For the keg. I know the crew will enjoy it."
Goldtooth waved her away. "No. Thank you, but no. Keep it as my gift."
"So, was it best two out of three, Mister Goldtooth?" Chopper called up. "Satisfied?"
"Yes, Captain Chopper, two out of three is good. But I would still see you tested in battle. You and your officers. We'll be back in an hour. Have the rest of your crew off the ship; it will fall to the four of you to defend the Crisis from a . . . boarding party."
"Am I allowed to kill them this time, Captain?" Ezikial asked. Chopper's eyebrows rose.
"CAN you shoot to stun?"
"We could slime the rails, maybe?" Chopper mused as the crew filtered off the ship.
"With?" Reiko asked.
"Blood?" was Ezikial's instant response, getting an eye-roll from Reiko.
"Ask Mister Kroop. I dunno. I figure just shoot 'em a lot and any that make it through that, Reiko'll deal with. I'll draw their ire, as is standard."
Feruzi corralled Fishguts and Rosie and they came up with a plan involving a resource easily had in bulk on the docks--disgusting rotted fish. They positioned a few barrel-loads in a net and suspended it above the gangplank for easy access. Then they left the ship with only Chopper, Reiko, Feruzi and Ezikial still aboard. Feruzi climbed to the crow's nest while Ezikial, Reiko, and Chopper took up positions at the rail.
Goldtooth and his crew returned, wheeling a very large covered cage up the dock to the Crisis. Something underneath the canvas bellowed in rage.
"Whatever that is, it can't be good," Reiko breathed.
"Would-be Free Captains!" Goldtooth bellowed. "Take your positions!"
"Yeah, we got 'em. Let's get this over with," Chopper replied.
Goldtooth nodded to his crew, who backed away quickly. The half-orc yanked on the canvas, revealing a hideous flabby giant that waddled out of the cage. It looked like some kind of aquatic giant, with repulsive slimy gray skin and dead, fish-like eyes. "Kill them," Goldtooth ordered, then hurried back up the dock. The giant let loose a roar, its mouth so enormous that its head seemed to split in two.
"I'm beginning to dislike that half-orc," Feruzi announced loudly.
"Naw, he's all right," Chopper told her, drawing his cutlass.
"The comparison to Plugg is not in his favor at this point."
Ezikial kicked the release on the deck ballista, launching a heavy bolt at the giant that imbedded in its monstrous gut, bringing on another furious bellow. It seemed the bolt struck nothing vital, though, because the giant kept coming, clapping its hands and summoning a cloud of dense fog, concealing it as it leapt across the water to land in front of Chopper, who hacked at it with his cutlass.
"Get off my ship!"
Arrows peppered the giant's shoulders as Feruzi tried to pull it away from Chopper. Ezikial fired, the bullet glancing off bone.
"Stand down now and we will not kill you!" Reiko shouted, but the giant ignored her so she charged its back and clubbed it in the middle of its spine with the hilt of her katana. It staggered heavily, but hauled itself back to its feet, slamming Reiko with its fists and sending her reeling backward. Chopper swarmed onto it in retaliation with cutlass and axe, bringing it to the ground, wheezing but alive. The crowd gathered on the dock erupted into loud cheers for the third time.
"If you would come retrieve this big lump, Mr. Goldtooth?" Reiko called. The half-orc approached, clearly nonplussed. Chopper saw movement above him and realized Feruzi was taking aim at the unused sack of dead fish. Chopper kicked a stay repeatedly to get her attention and scowled pointedly at her.
"Leave it!" Clearly reluctant, Feruzi put her bow down and sulked in the rigging.
"Still alive," Goldtooth said, stopping beside the giant. "Good news for the arena we borrowed him from."
"Well, there was no sense in killing him for a "test", Mr. Goldtooth."
"Though he would have shown no mercy to you?" Tsadok half-asked Reiko. "Interesting."
"Not all killing is honorable, Mr. Goldtooth."
"Actually, if he'd like to join the crew..." Chopper began.
"OH HELL NO!" Feruzi yelled, furious. "Don't we have some sort of King to meet?"
"Yes, yes," the half-orc said, walking back to the dock to make his announcements. Behind him, Feruzi climbed down to the deck.
"You should have let me fish him," she told Chopper.
"The hell for? We won. Why fish up the right-hand man of the pirate king?"
"Because I don't like him, that's why."
"And yet you don't want to rescue the giant from him? I don't understand you."
"Rescue! That thing tried to eat you. You think it's intelligent enough to comprehend rescue?"
"Correction, it tried to eat Reiko."
"Reiko can take care of herself."
"And it can use magic! Yeah, I think it might comprehend rescue."
"Fine, suit yourself."
"No, forget it, I thought I was getting an Owlbear vibe. Clearly, I was mistaken."
"They're not ALL nice . . ."
Tsadok Goldtooth addressed the crowd. "I proclaim the Crisis crew to indeed be deserving of becoming Free Captains of the Shackles!" Wild applause. "Hurricane King Kerdak Bonefist will grant them their letters of marque this very evening!" Much less applause. Goldtooth nodded to Chopper. "I will see you at
after sundown." He sauntered away
and the crowd gradually dispersed. Fort Hazard
"I'll be back before then, Captain," Reiko said, and also wandered off into the crowd. Ezikial went below and Feruzi tackled the chore of disposing of the dead fish.
Chopper assembled his officers on the deck: Reiko, Ezikial, and Feruzi as usual, but also Leila, Sandara, and Fishguts decided to come along. The revelry was already in full swing when they arrived at the Fort, the tables laden with roasted meat and flagons of ale, the people decked out in their finest pirate togs. Tsadok Goldtooth spotted them almost immediately and came to greet them.
"We have a table up front for you." It was small enough to be almost invisible, but right across from the gold-chased teakwood throne that was currently unoccupied. Chopper sat down and dug right in to the offerings of food and booze, followed by the rest of his crew, although Feruzi was clearly uncomfortable.
"Whassa matter?" Sandara asked her, slapping some butter onto a bowl of potatoes.
"She's got a plug up her--ahoy, Captains!" Chopper started, then turned around to yell at someone in the crowd.
"My friends!" Captain Pegsworthy replied once he was in shouting distance, Tatsumi following him closely. "So fortuitous that we should be in Port Peril to witness this moment!"
"Fortunate, indeed. Can you sit a while?" Chopper gestured at the empty seat next to Feruzi, who winced.
"There is nowhere I would rather be, my good Captain." The pair of them settled at the table, which was now rather crowded. Pegsworthy leaned across Feruzi to grasp a tankard and she suddenly remembered herself, grabbing the Eagle-Claw from under the bench and nearly knocking Pegsworthy over with it, producing an awkward silence and a furious glare from Chopper.
"Could you not . . . just now . . . ?" he hissed. Feruzi winced again and slid the bow back under the bench.
Pegsworthy looked baffled, but recovered magnificently, waving his tankard toward Chopper. "Free Captains. I congratulate you. Tell me, will you be competing in the Regatta?"
"We might," Chopper said, leaving off glaring at Feruzi for now. "Tell me ... more."
"It's... a race through the edges of the Eye of Abendego, which we have every year. A Free Captain can win fame and fortune, as well as lordship of an island... and a seat on the Pirate Council. The field's wide open for the first time in years!"
"Oh, right! The Master of the Gales isn't runnin' this year, is 'e?" Sandara said. Chopper smiled at her benevolently, glad that some of his crew could remember their manners.
"Aye, lass," said Pegsworthy. "He's judging instead of participating this year. Five straight wins was enough, apparently."
"Sporting of him. I have an island, me," Chopper mused, "but a seat on the Council, you say...?"
"It ain't th' easiest or safest way t' gain power or influence in th' Shackles, but damn if it ain't th' quickest," Fishguts told him.
"Crisis ain't seen much easy nor safe in her short life, so this seems a good next step."
"Have you raced before?" Feruzi asked, glancing at Pegsworthy. "It seems . . . frivolous."
"Frivolous?!" Chopper demanded.
"Well, is this the best way to choose a leader? Racing? In a hurricane no less? Are ships not destroyed?"
"Do not the strongest, fastest, most capable Mwangi rule?" Chopper asked.
"Feruzi is hardly an authority on all the Mwangi, but her father leads because he leads the warriors to victory, not because he is the best in battle," she replied stiffly.
"It is not the same!"
"It is meant to make the Council a meritocracy," Pegsworthy interrupted her in an attempt to be conciliatory. "Ruled by the most skilled pirates." His tone made it sure he considered it a dubious proposition, however. "We will not be running ourselves this year, but that is no reason why you should not."
"We're heading out tomorrow morning," Tatsumi explained. "We were going to leave tonight, but we couldn't miss this."
"I'm so glad to see you here, then." Reiko told him. "Think you can spare some time for me tonight? I have some... things... I need to talk to you about. Of course, right this moment is not the time."
"Of course, Reiko-chan," Tatsumi said, grinning, his smile so infectious that even Feruzi smiled back, faintly. Seeing her relax, Pegsworthy attempted to gain her attention.
"I see you got my gif--" he then froze as Kerdak Bonefist walked past their table. A big, bluff man with long black hair and beard, Bonefist looked more pirate than king. He waved a skeletal right hand toward the crowd as he climbed into the throne, deep in his cups already.
"Quiet," the King rumbled, producing no response. "Quiet!" he yelled. "QUIET! EVERYBODY SHUT UP!" Most ignored him. Finally, he whipped out his pistol and fired it into the ceiling. The thunderous echo gave way to silence. The Crisis officers, sitting nearest the throne, flinched away from the noise, nearly overturning one of the benches. Feruzi found herself almost in Pegsworthy's lap as they struggled to sort themselves out. Bonefist glared around the room, then assumed a somewhat more benevolent expression and waved his pistol at their table.
"Tel me yer names."
Chopper stood up and bowed. "I am Captain Chopper, and these are my crew." Moving quickly, he pointed them each out in turn and introduced them.
"Hands?" Bonefist demanded when Ezikial's turn came.
"Sir," Ezikial responded formally.
"Are ye Israel Hands' whelp, Mr. Hands?"
"So I am led to believe."
Bonefist grinned. "Well, don't that just beat all. Israel Hands was my first mate before Goldtooth here. An' a finer brother in arms a buccaneer ne'er hand, no mistake! Yer sea-blooded, son, that's fer sure an' fer certain."
Bonefist turned away, waving his pistol like a baton. "This fresh catch of scallywags want ter add their fine ship to our brethren o' the sea, but afore I go awardin' 'em a letter of marque an' make 'em Free Captains, I says we 'ear from 'em first!" His gaze sharpened on Chopper and the room seemed to grow darker. "Tell us a tale or two of how ye came by the plunder in yer hold."
Chopper blinked, and Reiko hurriedly rose from her seat, tugging on his arm. "Captain, let me, please." Chopper gestured permission and sat back down. Reiko smoothed her kimono and bowed twice, first to Bonefist and second to the assembled pirates.
"If it please you, pirate lords and ladies, our plunder derives from many sources, some known to you, some perhaps not. We have faced sahuagin, Chelish slavers, and demonic beasts, setting out from Tidewater Rock--"
"Oh, this lot cracked the Rock? A likely tale!" someone shouted from the crowd.
"We did indeed, although not how you might think. Sometimes the heart can conquer what no force of arms can achieve." Chopper rolled his eyes. The heckler seemed ready to disagree, but the sight of Ezikial and Feruzi fingering their weapons proved enough of a distraction. "I will not bore you with the details. Our chief exploits lie in gaining the treasures of two notable captains: Whalebone Pilk and Cyrus Wolfe."
"Oh, ye fought Pilk, did ye? You an' everone else in tha room! 'E's like weeds, cut 'im down an' e' comes right back!"
"While for most this is true, we discovered the source of Pilk's curse and managed to end his depredations for all time."
"Aye, an' ye danced wit' tha king o' hell, too!"
"If you doubt it, we would be happy to show you the wheel of the Deathknell, now decorating our ship." Reiko smiled pleasantly. "Our second notable triumph took us to Mancatcher Cove, where we defeated Cyrus Wolfe's infamous beast and found the cache of his treasure."
"Lots o' pirates 'ave dug up this or that cache," a deep voice rumbled.
"Not the big one in Mancatcher cove, I am afraid."
"Do yer give me the lie, little girl?" A huge form rose to its feet somewhere in the middle of the room. Ezikial fired his pistol, exploding a tankard, and the creature--man, woman, or something else--resumed its seat. Reiko smoothed her kimono again.
"There is a great deal more, of course, such as sabotaging a Chelish man-o-war . . ."
Bonefist grinned. "A little bird told me that there's a Chelish bounty on your heads. Now I know why."
"Oooh... we have a bounty on our heads? How nice." Reiko smiled.
"So, ye scurvy dogs, what be it, aye or nay?"
"AYE!" bellowed most of the room. Bonefist smiled.
"Aye. Aye indeed." He reached into his coat and drew out a roll of parchment. "On my authority as Hurricane King, I, Kerdak Bonefist, do give ye this letter of marque, makin ye Free Captains of the Shackles, entitled to all privileges and duties thereof." He passed the parchment to Chopper, who held it up to the applause of the crowd. "Now were we gonna have a PARTY or what?!"
The following morning, Chopper flinched at the sound of knocking. On the third try, he flopped out of his hammock and went to open the door, revealing the spotty and nervous face of Simmed.
"Begging yer pardon, Captain, but there's a message for you."
"Why am I still wearing pants?" Chopper asked, looking down at himself.
"Um . . ."
"Never mind, never mind. What's this message?" Simmed handed him a scroll. Chopper cracked the seal and focused his bleary eyes.
"Please come to dinner at my townhouse in Eastwind tomorrow. We have much to discuss. Yours, Tessa Fairwind."