To meet with Tessa Fairwind, they had to make sail immediately for Cauldron Rock, starting point for this year's Free Captains' Regatta. Tessa was delighted to receive Zarskia's information and take the spymaster off Chopper's hands.
"Are you entering the race?" Tessa asked.
"I was thinkin' about it."
"Do so. Here, I'll even pay the entry fee for you. You having a seat on the Pirate Council would be a great help to me. Even if you find you don't agree with my decisions, at least you won't be that worm Harrigan."
"The Wormwood's racin', then?"
"Aye, and widely regarded as the favorite to win the thing. I do NOT want Harrigan on the council. For all I know, he's in league with Cheliax himself!"
Chopper grinned. "Don't you worry. I owe him a bad turn or six. Taking the purse out from under his nose would be a pleasure."
The deck of the Kraken was already crowded with the captains and senior crew of the sixteen other Regatta entrants when the Crisis party arrived. Many of the faces were familiar from Lucre Hold, but none of them had introduced themselves at that time so names could not be assigned to faces. As they edged through the crowd, one tall, imposing figure interposed himself in their path--Captain Barnabas Harrigan. "Well, I'll be damned," he said, grinning hugely.
"What, just now?" Feruzi shot back. Chopper sounded a brief chuckle.
"I, for one, won't be damned," Reiko said, "but it's always a pleasure, Mr. Harrigan."
"Ain't, it, though." His grin faded as he crossed his beefy arms and sneered down at her. Reiko's face, as always, was set into an inscrutable faint smile that made her resemble a marble statue.
"However did you finally deal with your mutinous first mate?"
"Word is ye handled 'im for me. Hope ye weren't expectin' a ree-ward past lettin' ye hang onter my ship."
"A paragon of generosity is Captain Harrigan," said Chopper. "I won't let it be said otherwise."
Reiko's expression did not change. "I am fairly certain that it is not your ship any more. The moment you handed it to Mr. Plugg it was destined to be ours."
"Besmara wills what she will. If yer honor 'er, see that ye pray we don't cross paths out on the open ocean."
"Oh, we won't," Reiko said. "You'll be left in our spray."
Harrigan snarled. "In the spray of yer blood, most like--"
"HARRIGAN," a deep, resonant voice boomed.
"Sounds like your mother calling," Feruzi said.
An imposing man with deeply tanned skin sporting wild gray hair and an impressive matching beard stepped out of the captain's quarters. Even without introduction, this was obviously the Master of the Gales, a fearsome druid pirate who had and needed no other designation. Even the Pirate King Kerdak Bonefist spoke with care when he addressed the Master. The ancient druid fixed his icy blue eyes on Harrigan for a moment, then swept his gaze across the assembled pirates.
"I remind you that the Free Captains' Regatta is a nautical race, NOT a battle or an opportunity to dredge up past quarrels. The Truce is in force and will be enforced."
"Not our fault he doesn't know how to properly choose his crew," Reiko muttered.
"I will personally monitor the race and any ship attacking or unduly interfering with another racing vessel will be disqualified. Or, if necessary, sunk." The Master looked directly at Harrigan again. "Nature is the danger you will face--and a more vast, implacable foe you will never find. You would all be wise to remember this if you hope to complete, much less win, the Regatta." The Master waved and a half-orc mate stepped forward, handing a simple map to each of the captains. "This course will test even the most rugged crew, taking you along the fringes of the Eye of Abendego and even into the storm itself, ending at a small islet called Coaming Point. Make your preparations, Free Captains, the race begins at dawn. You are dismissed."
They climbed back into the boat and set off toward the Crisis. "We should set an extra watch tonight," Chopper said. "The Master of the Gales didn't say anything about sabotage before the race."
"Ukele will be a distraction," Feruzi told him.
"Toss her overboard," Ezikial suggested bluntly.
"Trust me, I'd like to," Feruzi growled.
"Or . . . lock 'er in the brig?" Chopper offered.
"I worry that she'll still somehow find some way to cause us grief."
"I could take care of her for you." Another longboat drew up beside them and Captain Pegsworthy waved cheerfully, nodding up at the hull of the Crisis looming over them. "Permission to come aboard, Captain Chopper?" Ezikial glared, but Pegsworthy was used to that by now and ignored him.
"Sure! What are you doing here?"
"I came to see you off, of course! Just because we're not racing, that doesn't mean we're not eager to see the outcome. Quite a turnout this year. Crisis may not be the favorite, but she's certainly our favorite."
Chopper and Pegsworthy chatted amiably over mugs of hot grog for several hours, interrupted several times by other well-wishers. Tessa Fairwind visited briefly, followed by Pierce Jerrell, who buttonholed Sandara and held a small blue sphere over her head. When he let it go, it began orbiting her slowly. Grinning, he kissed the back of her hand and left with Tessa, leaving the Besmaran blushing furiously.
"Ioun stone?" Feruzi asked curiously. She'd never seen one before, but its behavior was unmistakable.
"Hm? What? Oh, aye. Ioun stone. Pier--Captain Jerrell's lettin' me borror it."
"Generous," Feruzi said.
"Aye, he is that." Sandara smiled.
"More relaxed, Sister?" Ezikial asked.
"When the race is done, mebbe."
"It's good to see that we have our cheering section," Feruzi said. "Let's try not to let them down."
Pegsworthy spent the night, cheerfully getting tipsy with Chopper and falling asleep in the chartroom in the middle of an enthusiastic but virtually incomprehensible card game that sucked in Rosie, Conchobar, Fishguts, and, oddly, Leila, who walked off with everyone's pocket change through the simple expedient of staying sober and palming cards only, oh, five or six times. Ten at the outside. Despite all that, he was up well before dawn, rousting Feruzi out of her quarters so they could transfer Ukele to the Bonaventure before the start of the race.
Reiko was at the wheel when Feruzi returned--looking somewhat flustered--and they immediately set off for the starting line, a rough formation of ships drawn up between the Kraken and the Ocean's Revenge nearly half a mile away. After more than an hour of shouting, cursing, and jockeying for position, the contenders were grouped up.
"Hmm," Reiko said, scanning the competition. Most of them didn't strike her as serious threats, but a few drew her discerning eye. "Albatross, Barnacled Bitch, Bonny Witch, Chimera's Teeth, Darcy's Pillage, Kelizandri's Fever, Pharasma's Price, Promise's Bounty, Redcap, Sea's Largess, Skullduggery, Stormrunner, Sullied Strumpet, Wave Wraith . . . oh, and of course, the Wormwood."
"Admit it," Chopper said. "You memorized that beforehand."
The pre-dawn calm was beginning to get choppy. The Master of the Gales appeared above them on Cauldron Rock. He raised his arms and lightning struck the beach below, signaling the start of the race. The competitors lurched as sails were unfurled, anchors weighed, and oars engaged. The wind shifted abruptly as the Master transformed into an albatross, violently stirring the mass of ships and turning what was already disorder into chaos. Reiko spun the wheel violently and shouted at the riggers, narrowly avoiding the Redcap. The Crisis began to pick up speed, passing just ahead of Pharasma's Price and then they were in the open ocean, making way before a freshening breeze punctuated by raindrops.
"Silted Shrouds ahead!" Leila called.
Chopper perched in the rigging and made rude gestures at the other ships, nearly losing his grip once. He laughed happily. "Full speed ahead, Miss Nakayama!" he shouted. Reiko raised an eyebrow but gave the order.
The Silted Shrouds were an extensive series of shallow sandbars formed by the continuous churn of the Eye of Abendego. There were no up-to-date charts as new channels and sandbars continuously formed and washed away. Only by reading the waves could one navigate the Shrouds without getting hung up or capsizing. Chopper shouted instructions down to Reiko, most of which proved to be good. They had only one near miss, the masts groaning hideously as Crisis's hull skidded off the top of a submerged bar. Reiko swung the wheel and shouted for Cog to swing the foremast around--Crisis heeled over sideways and fell off the bar instead of miring.
"Really, Captain!" she yelled.
"The sandbars look like sharks!" he shouted back. "Just shut up!"
"We're clear for now," Leila called. "But the Raker Shoals are coming up. They're on our charts, though, so I can plot a course. There will be uncharted reefs."
"Shall we slow down, Captain?"
"Full speed ahead. Don't hit the reefs. Captain's Orders," Chopper said.
"You're such a comedian."
"True. Unrelated, but true."
"As long as he doesn't make quite a shipwreck," Feruzi grumbled, hauling in line and securing it.
"Shoal dead ahead!" Ezikial called. "Hundred yards!" Reiko spun the wheel, concentrating hard and watching the angle of the sun. "We're past it, but there's another two points to starboard. Ninety yards!"
With Ezikial leaning out of the Crow's Nest and screaming directions (a practice that seemed to delight him almost as much as shooting people in the face), they threaded the shoals without incident and emerged with a much improved standing in the race. Reiko mopped sweat off her face, reflecting that they'd barely started--morning wasn't half advanced and the race would take all day. She had Cog take the wheel during the brief lull and dunked her head in a bucket of water to cool off.
"What's next, Leila?" she asked.
"Gozreh's flow." Leila smiled demurely. "Sometimes called Gozreh's Piss by the irreverant. It's a nasty current. We'll hit it at the fringes of the Eye, meaning there will be strong wind as well."
The Crisis bucked hard as she encountered the edges of the current, a visible dark green smear that nearly reached the horizon. Reiko set the wheel hard to port and the riggers went to work, trying to angle the sails so the vicious and erratic wind would keep them from being swept leagues off course. This checked their forward speed enormously; instead of flying, she now crawled, every league a struggle. Fishguts came on deck to pass water among the sweating riggers. He patrolled the deck, muttering to himself.
"Problem, Mister Kroop?" Chopper called out.
"Jist had ter come an' see it fer m'self! Nice Shackles weather out here! Rain's almost fallin straight down!"
"Can I shoot him?" Feruzi demanded.
"Just wing him a little?"
"Still no," Chopper said, grinning.
"The Iris's Splinters coming," Leila said. "Race calls for us to sail between them." The Splinters were two jagged shafts of weathered stone that rose out of the ocean, forming a gap that narrowed to 100 feet. Sailing a ship between them was excruciatingly difficult--and thus extremely popular among the more hell-for-leather pirates, particularly when they were called to evade pursuit.
"There's the Sullied Strumpet," Reiko said, indicating a ship less than a league away that was about to make the run. Indefatigably cheerful and a good sport by nature, Chopper began cheering them on. They looked to have achieved an excellent line when an enormous craggy bulk erupted from the water and smashed into them, capsizing the sloop. Everyone on deck shouted in alarm.
"I ne'er seen a dragon turtle before," Rosie remarked in awe.
"Dragon turtle me arse," Fishguts shouted. "That's Hirgenzosk!"
"Gesuntheit?" Feruzi said.
"What's a . . . whatever you said?" Chopper asked.
"E'z the giant dragon turtle what sunk th' Brine Banshee. Din't you listen to Captain Pegsworthy?"
"I think I was distracted by losing my shirt. Wait, what's going on there? Men overboard! Prepare to take on survivors!" Chopper bellowed as wind and water forced them inexorably toward the Splinters and Hirgenzosk. Some of the swimmers spotted his vigorous signaling and managed to grab lines before the turtle could snap them up or simply drown them in its wake. The beast was MASSIVE, as big as any of the racing ships. It disappeared beneath the water again and everyone rushed to the rails to see where it went.
"I wonder if it understands Draconic?" Feruzi wondered aloud. "It is a DRAGON turtle, right?" Muttering to herself, she cast a simple spell. A tremendous beaked head exploded out of the water alongside the Crisis and glared at them. Feruzi stared in horror. She could swear it made an offended snorting noise before firing an enormous jet of super-hot steam at another nearby ship, the Barnacled Bitch, nearly clearing her decks. The gunner aboard the Bitch fired a ballista that struck Hirgenzosk in the neck, and it turned away--back toward the Crisis.
"You saw, Mister Hands!" Chopper commanded. "It doesn't like ballistas. Make an impression!"
Ezikial scowled, then ordered Rosie and Insawa to change out the chain-bolt for a grenade bolt. Hirgenzosk lowered its head, a great bow wave surging ahead of it as it powered toward the Crisis.
"Ezikial!" Reiko shouted. "Fire already!" She lined up the bow with the Splinters and felt the wind suddenly pick up, pushing them ahead of the dragon turtle. Ezikial fired the ballista. It impacted on Hirgenzosk's shell and lodged deep. The turtle didn't seem to notice. And then it exploded. Reiko fought the vicious current as they hurtled between the rocks. Behind them, Hirgenzosk roared in hurt and fury, but it did not pursue.
"HOW much further?" Chopper demanded. Leila glanced at the map.
"Er, I'd say about halfway, Captain. We skirt the Eye next."
"Besmara. Whose idea was this?!"
"Er, yours, I think?"
"Damn right! Full speed ahead!"
"Here's a nother crazy idea off me bukkit list," Fishguts said as they sailed into the hurricane.
"Why do you keep a list in a bucket?" Chopper asked. "Bloody nutter."
"Smart-arse Cap'n! I ne're thought I'd--" Fishguts was cut off abruptly as a sheet of lightning struck the foremast. The sail EXPLODED into flames, starting a four-way battle between the flames, the rain, the wind, and the cursing riggers.
Ezikial burst into laughter, attacking the fire as if it were an enemy. "BESMARA!" he yelled. In large part due to his singularly crazy antics, the fire was rapidly quenched. They emerged from the worst of the Eye with only a few ships still ahead of them--and only a few visible behind.
Leila waded across the sloshing deck, and checked the map, which like everything else out in the open was now soaked. "Sharkskin Reef and Pinnacle Atoll should be just ahead, Captain. We can thread it, or go around. But going around will take time."
"Thread it, of course!"
"The crew's pretty fagged, Captain," Conchobar said.
"Well . . . reef the fo'sl. Take it careful-like."
At a slightly diminished speed, Reiko was able to thread the reef and make the awkward circle around the Pinnacle, bringing them back out of the Eye. The other contenders were well behind or completely out of sight . . . except for the Wormwood. The Kraken was visible to the west of them, waiting to observe the finish.
"Get that sail free!" Chopper yelled. The Crisis seemed to surge forward, running before the wind and outdistancing the Wormwood by a comfortable margin as they came up to Coaming Point. Despite their exhaustion, the crew burst into hysterical screaming, cheering, and hugging--Chopper was hoisted overhead and paraded around the deck until enough people tried to "help" that they overbalanced and nearly tossed the Captain in the drink. Most of the fleet was gathered south of the Point, out of the worst of the weather, including the Bonaventure. When the Crisis came into view around the point, a signal flag was raised on the Bonaventure--a warning and a request for assistance. Chopper scowled. "Bring us alongside."
"The Master of the Gales'll be waitin', Cap'n," Fishguts said.
"Bring us alongside. Merrill's family. Our prize can wait."
"Cap'n Chopper!" Labella screamed the moment they were within hailing distance. "It's Cap'n Pegsworthy! Come quick!" She didn't have to yell twice. Chopper practically levitated between the two ships the second a gangplank was raised. "He was poisoned!" Labella told him in a more moderate tone. Chopper swore viciously and shouted for his surgeon's kit.
"Captain," Pegsworthy rasped, raising his hand in a weak salute as Chopper waddled in dragging the kit, Feruzi close behind him.
"The hells happened, Merrill?" Chopper demanded, dropping his kit bag on Pegsworthy's desk and rolling up his sleeves.
"Ukele." Feruzi stiffened. Chopper sent a brief glare in her direction. Pegsworthy shook his head slightly while Chopper examined the wound in his arm. It had turned a dark, malignant color and the flesh was red and swollen nearly to Pegsworthy's shoulder. "Not that. More, her fault. Sort of. She 'scaped. Found summof Harrigan's men. Fight. Got 'r back, but . . ."
"Eh, it's not so bad," Chopper said. Feruzi shot him a dark look, recognizing by the tone of his voice that he was lying through his teeth. "Barely a scratch. You'll be up and about in no time." He turned to look at Feruzi and mouthed, "Out." She nodded and mutely left the room, stepping aside to let Sandara in.
"Well?" Labella demanded. Feruzi hesitated, then shook her head grimly.
"I won't lie to you: it's bad."
"I already knew that much." She blinked back tears. "Don't let yer Captain take 'is arm, too. Think he'd rather be dead."
"Don't take Chopper's nickname too literally. He's no butcher."
"That's good to know."
"WHOA!" Someone yelled from the foredeck. An albatross swooped down and landed on the Bonaventure, scattering the crowd. It shimmered and turned into the Master of the Gales, who spotted Feruzi and stalked toward her.
"Fetch your Captain, Miss."
"He's busy," Feruzi said staunchly. The Master raised one hoary eyebrow.
I'm here. What's this about?"
"Well, first things first. Your prize, sir." The old druid handed over a heavy purse along with a packet of papers. Chopper glanced over them briefly and handed them to Feruzi. Next the Master took hold of Chopper's wrist and affixed a silver manacle, meant to symbolize Chopper's new position on the Council as well as his new responsibilities to the people of the Shackles. Then the Master turned away from him and pushed open the door to Pegsworthy's cabin. Mystified, Chopper and Feruzi crowded in behind him.
"I am placing you under arrest for violating the Truce of the Free Captains' Regatta."