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Mar 31, 2013

Skull and Shackles Session 14: Insights

Leaving Tidewater Rock, they sailed east toward Bloodcove, following Lady Smythee's advice on how they might locate slavers bound for Cheliax.  Chopper, in an ebullient mood no one could damp, took to singing a truly dreadful song of his own composition entitled "Gonna Put the Beatdown on some Slavers".  It had a surprisingly salubrious effect on the crew--they were all very excited to find work whenever he appeared in their vicinity.

In the waning hours of their second day at see, a ship suddenly came into view, crossing ahead of the setting sun.  The light made any details impossible to see, but the general lines suggested a whaler riding low in the water.  As the last of the light faded, the ship also disappeared from view.  Chopper frowned, rubbing the as-yet short growth of beard on his chin.  "That ship was moving directly against the wind," he commented.

"No doubt there are many strange sights in these waters," Feruzi said.

"Night-time assault?" he suggested.  "Save the whales!"  Reiko steered them in that direction, directing the crew at the touchy process of tacking into the wind.  The Crisis could manage a course about twenty points off the wind, but sailing directly into it ought to be impossible without magic.  Or possibly harpooning a furious white whale.  Who could say.  Ezikial set Rosie and Marteen to setting up the ballista on the deck with help from the burly Dar and Insawa, taking great pride in showing off the results of his hard work to the rest of the crew.  Ezikial in particular seemed eager to test out his new toy.  They found no further trace of the whaler, though.  Chopper shook his head, disappointed.

"Keep your eyes peeled.  I don't want to be caught with our pantaloons down."

"I think I would agree with you on that one," Reiko told him.  Sandara grinned.

"Not like this, anyway."

On the next morning, early, they spotted another ship in the distance, headed more or less in their direction.  "Let's check it out," Chopper said, yawning and chewing on breakfast, which was steadily improving in quality under Tolitha's motherly influence.  Even Fishguts was beginning to look, if not sharp, then at least a more genteel sort of disreputable.  A quick examination via spyglass revealed a schooner flying the Chelish colors.  She predictably altered course soon after they spotted her.

"Well now," Chopper said, grinning dangerously.  "That's just rude. Pursuit!"  The Crisis seemed to lean forward eagerly as Reiko set the wheel and the sails caught the wind, her keel carving gash into the waves and launching a great burst of sea-spray to either side of the bow.  The distance narrowed rapidly despite apparent frenzy aboard the Chelish ship, which was not armed for serious engagement.  Sloppy of them, really, but since the treaty between Sargava and the Pirate Council, they'd had little to fear--had being the operative term.  Chopper could make out a woman at the ship's wheel and about thirty sailors on deck.  No ship-to-ship weapons, only a few crossbows and miscellaneous hand weapons on display.  Still, there was an enormous box of some type amidships, near the mast, hidden beneath a canvas tarp that stirred occasionally, and not entirely with the wind.

Ezikial gave an order and Rosie hauled on a lever, causing the ballista to heave violently and expel a whirling length of chain that swept the decks of the Chelish ship like a scythe, mowing down rigging and canvas and seriously impeding their forward motion.  The range shrank accordingly.

"Don't kill anyone if you don't have to," Chopper ordered his crew as they assembled on the deck with grapples, boarding pikes, and other miscellaneous tools of the pirate's trade.  "The more people left to spread the tale, the better."

"Agreed!" Reiko called.  The crew looked a bit nervous at this pronouncement.

"If they hurt our crew, Feruzi will shoot them in the face," the sergeant added.

"Oh, well, that falls under the category of 'have to'," Chopper agreed, producing noticeable relief, watching three sailors rush to free the tarp from the box.  Or the cage.  They threw open the grate, and a snarling mass of claws, fur, and quills exploded out, taking wing directly at the Crisis.  "Oo," Chopper said.  "Capture that beast for me!  I want it!"  Reiko sighed as Chopper drew his cutlass and strode to the rail.  "C'mon, beastie!" he yelled.

The manticore seemed eager to oblige.  Frantically, Feruzi let fly with an arrow that sank deep into one of the massive flight muscles--not a mortal wound by far, but a painful and startling one.  The manticore seemed to rear in midair and dipped like a swallow, turning its dive into a tight, wary circle.  "Dammit, Ruse, you're spoiling my fun!" Chopper exclaimed.  Then the manticore's tail whipped, loosing a hail of barbed quills more fearsome than arrows.  Ezikial ducked behind his ballista, cursing while he continued to reload.  Feruzi wasn't fast enough, and a spike impaled itself in her calf.  "Dammit, Ruse, you're spoiling my fun!" Chopper exclaimed.  He sheathed his sword, still grumbling.  "Someone hand me a crossbow or something!"  One of the Chelish marines, taking aim, donated him a crossbow bolt, producing only a mild flesh wound, but dampening his enthusiasm just a touch.  Completing its circle and seeing Feruzi occupied with the spike in her leg, the manticore dove to the deck, mouth open and prepared to finish the job.  Chopper intercepted it with a two-handed grip on the cutlass's hilt.  The blow jarred his arms in their sockets, but the manticore reeled, dazed, and collapsed into a wheezing heap.

"Ha ha!  Captured!" Chopper enthused.  "Anyone who tries to kill it will be walking the fookin' plank!"

"Feruzi is NOT feeding that thing," she said with distatste.

"An' I ain't scoopin' its shit," Rosie added, dodging a bolt from another of the crossbowmen aboard the Chelish ship.  Feruzi gave up on the spike and let loose some arrows in return.  From the yelling, the men were not encouraged at their work, but not dead, either.

Reiko finished her maneuvers and the Crisis pulled abreast the Chelish ship, finally in a position where the crew could use their grapples.  Ezikial hauled on the pivot lever to swing his ballista around, then let fly.  The wheel post on the Chelish ship seemed to burst, knocking the Captain over with the wheel on top of her.  Cursing, she wriggled out from under it as her ship lurched sideways and the crew of the Crisis poured onto her deck, Chopper leading the charge.

"Surrender?" he offered, giving his cutlass a bit of a twirl to indicate the alternative.  The Chelish captain glanced around rapidly and seemed to be counting.  Then she threw her crossbow down in disgust and ordered her crew to surrender, something they seemed only too eager to do. 

Chopper sheathed his weapons and offered her a hand.  "Capital!  Let's talk terms.  Not to worry, this is likely to be the least unpleasant bit of pirating you will ever experience."  He directed the crew of the Crisis to search the Chelish vessel.

"We have slavers here, Captain," Ezikial grated after a brief inventory.

"Correction, Mister Hands. We have new crewmembers to woo.  And what would be your name, Madame?" Chopper asked the Chelish captain.

"Norva Wintarius," she growled.

"A pleasure, Norva.  But I see you've been very naughty indeed.  I'm afraid we'll have to relieve you of your cargo.  I will also be wanting custody of yon beastie.  I suspect, however, that I will need some care tips to get it to behave itself."

"The manticore is our slave, but if you want to hire it, you might be able to come to an understanding.  He likes to eat ferrets."

"Wait, it speaks?"  Wintarius gaped at him.  "That is AWESOME!"  Chopper bellowed.  He waved furiously at the crew.  "Lads, fetch me that cage!"  He turned back to Wintarius, donning his ash-tinted spectacles.  "I shall tell everyone that when the Crisis came, you handled yourselves with dignity.  Please spread the word of our derring-to.  A pleasure, Madame."

"I assure you, 'Captain', that word of your deeds will reach Chelish ears."

All of Chopper's features seemed to suddenly sharpen, a disconcerting expression on one normally so good-natured.  "I look forward to it."

Reiko and Leila directed the crew to raise sail.  Sundry housekeeping chores followed, with Ezikial taking on the task of tallying and storing their various plunder--goods, not riches, for the most part, but enough to pay the crew and keep the Crisis in provender and materiel for a month or so.  Feruzi saw to it that the (former) slaves were loosed from their chains, given food and drink, and given a section of the hold to bed down in.  It would be far from palatial or even comfortable, but it was a huge improvement over their former condition nonetheless.  Most were Mwangi bought at Bloodcove, with a smattering of others.  A few seemed willing, if not eager, to volunteer as crew aboard the Crisis.  The others accepted Feruzi's offer to work their passage to a safe port.

Chopper claimed the wheel of the Chelish ship and chipped the vessel's name into the wood, The Dowager Queen, and hung it over the side like a mixture of banner and trophy.  "It has to be really embarrassing to be successfully pirated without losing a single man," He commented.  "Now, where are we going to find ferrets?  Show me a port!"  He concluded, looking at his assembled officers, who had completed their chores for the time being.

"Welp," said Fishguts, who had appointed himself a sort of counselor in the absence of anyone more experienced, "I wouldna go takin yer booty back ta Bloodcove.  Summon might be right upset."

"I would definitely like to head to Quent, but only when we have time to spend several days there," Reiko said.

"What is at Quent that you wish to see?" Feruzi asked, curious.

"I would like to catch up with Captain Bloodmourn.  However, she may not be in port right now.  She is a leader on the Pirate Council, and I worked aboard her ship for a while when I first came to sea.  She will be a good associate for our rise into the council."

"Oh," Leila said, looking somewhat crestfallen.  "Interesting."

"So, Quent, then?"  Chopper asked.  Fishguts scowled.

"Mebbe better t'wait till we got a bit more reputat'n in these waters, Cap'n," the fat man mused.  "No offense ter Miss Reiko, but if yer goes beggin' after favers before ye've rightly begun . . ."

"Understandable.  Where, then?  Rickety's?"

"We have likely gained all we can there for the time being," Feruzi said.   Ezikial stepped into the chartroom and came back out with one of their few precious maps.

"What about Senghor?" he said, pointing at a city at the edge of the jungle, situated at a mouth of a river to the south and east of Bloodcove.

"What do we know about Senghor?"  Chopper asked.  "Are they, ah, pirate-friendly?"

"Friendly enough," Reiko said.  "And they have no love for slavers, either.  One of the very few truly independent cities, and determined to stay that way."

"Senghor it is!  Set the course!"

They ran before a freshening wind for the rest of the day, but as the sun began to sink below the horizon it slacked off.  By midnight, they were shrouded in chill fog, unusual at this latitude.  Feruzi handed the watch over to Reiko and hurried below.  Reiko walked the deck, her breath producing a fog of its own in the frigid air, and thought she could hear the dull clank of a ship's bell somewhere in the gloom.  A ship loomed into sight off the stern, its hull stained black and warped with age and rot.  Only the name seemed pristine, scrawled in pale greenish letters that almost seemed to glow.  Deathknell.  "That . . . can't be good," Reiko muttered to herself as the ship vanished into the mist.  The Deathknell was notorious throughout the Shackles, a ghost ship crewed and captained by the ravenous and unrelenting dead.  According to legend, she stalked her prey for two nights before dragging them down to a watery hell on the third.  She would have to tell the other officers . . . quietly.

Reiko's plans were delayed in the morning, however, as the manticore woke up in its cage, snarly and eager to spread its bad mood around.  The crew all scrambled away from it, taking cover as best they could.  Reiko sighed and approached, ready to dodge any quills.  "Good morning," she said.  "Do you have a name?"  It hissed at her like an enormous, prickly cat.

"He's awake?  Or she?  Never mind that," Chopper gabbled, rushing up.  "You talk?"  He tossed large chunk of ham into the cage.  The manticore sniffed it and growled.

"Morgus hate!  Stink!"

"Morgus?" Reiko asked.  "That's a nice name."

"No one hates ham, Morgie," Chopper insisted.  The manticore sniffed it again.

"Poiiiison.  Dead-meat."  Several nudges failing to inspire the ham to activity, the manticore sighed.  "Better than no-meat."  He gnawed at it a bit, then popped the entire ham into his mouth and chomped it down.

"There ya go!" Chopper said.  "Welcome aboard.  I'm hoping we can come to some mutually beneficial arrangement.  I can't believe Captain Norva just let us take you.  You're gorgeous!"

"Ss.  For slave, one-master same as other-master."

"Slave?  No, no, no, I don't want you as a slave, Morgul."


"Captain, maybe if you would say his name correctly, it would help?" Reiko offered.  Then, under her breath, "Sheesh."

"My apologies."

Morgus pawed at the iron and wood surrounding him.  "If no-slave, then no-cage," he insisted.

"I just want you to hear me out," Chopper explained.  "If you don't like what I have to say, I'll open the cage and you can fly to freedom, wherever you like."  Morgus tilted his head.


"My offer is this: you join the crew, use your abilities to scout for us and help us in battle.  I don't know if you have any interest in treasure, but with your share of the plunder you can buy as many ferrets as you can eat."


"Or, if there is something other than ferrets you would prefer . . ." Reiko added.  A low rumble sounded deep in the manticore's throat.

"Never bargain before.  Never offers, only orders."

"I'm not your typical Captain, mate."

"Want free," Morgus said. "Want free."  Chopper sighed.

"So be it." He opened the cage's release and stood back. 

The manticore, exhibiting surprising self-control, watched him clear off, then padded slowly onto the deck and stretched itself.  "Will not forget," he offered.

"It's been an interesting talk," Chopper told him.  "Fare you well."

"Will not forget," Morgus said.  Then he leapt into the air and made for the horizon.

"One fewer slave, anyway," Chopper muttered.  He turned to Ezikial.  "Mister Hands, feel free to dismantle the cage and repurpose the metal."

"Aye, sir.  MARTEEN!  ROSIE!"

"Captain, if I could have a word?" Reiko said diffidently.  Chopper blinked.

"What's up?"

"It might be best for Sandara and the other officers to hear this," she added.

"Yo!" he bellowed.  "All officers, quick meeting!"  They gathered in the chartroom.  Chopper looked at Reiko expectantly.  She controlled a desire to fidget.

"This morning, before dawn, I saw something, in the fog.  A ship."

"Oh, aye?" Chopper said.  "Our next quarry?"

"Not this one," Reiko told him.  "It was the Deathknell."

Sandara gasped, but Chopper grinned.  "Wow, to be the crew that exorcised the Deathknell?  Now, that would be a tale!"

"Probably a tale that involved our horrible deaths," Feruzi said.

"Ghosts usually hang 'round fer a reason," Sandara said, looking pale.  "I suppose if we could figger out what it was, we might be able ter get rid of em."

"We'd have to seek not to defeat the crew, but appease them," Chopper mused.

"Like you appeased the manticore?" Feruzi said dryly. 

"Morgus did not attack us," Reiko said.  "Even if he left, I would call that a win in our book."

"Even if we can't rid the world of Deathknell, if we could somehow ally with it . . ." Chopper continued.  Feruzi slapped him on the top of his head with her open palm.

"ARE YOU MAD?!?" she demanded.  "Chopper, I love you as my brother, but you go too far."

"I reckon' Whalebone's idea o' allies is invitin' us t' join his crew," Sandara said, drawing her thumb across her neck.  Reiko nodded at her and Chopper slumped.

"Not a one of you?" he said.

"No," Ezikial grated. 

Chopper sighed, holding his palms up in defeat. "Fine, another time when it's only my life on the line.  No sense of adventure, you people," he grumbled.

"We may not have a choice, exactly," Reiko said.  "If she is stalking us, the Deathknell will come again."  They all frowned in thought.

"Sandara, if you could . . . do your best to ward teh ship, I am sure we will all be eternally in your debt."

"I'll see what I kin do," Sandara said.

Mar 28, 2013

Skull and Shackles Interlude: Thieving

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.


"Return them."

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."

"My what?"

"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.

Mar 14, 2013

Skull and Shackles Session 13: Breaking-in

It would be three days, Leila estimated, before they could reach Tidewater Rock.  Well, three days with an ordinary crew, but there was really no telling with this bunch.  Feruzi, Ezikial, and Reiko had spent an hour in the chartroom, dickering like fishwives, and come up with an organizational plan of sorts.  At some point they decided to saddle Leila with the moony Lysaro to be her assistant and hopefully learn navigation, a discovery that had Leila feeling just a bit disgruntled this morning.  Lysaro had already called her a delicate flower in addition to a dusky gemstone and something involving a deep well that may have actually been obscene if she felt any desire to decipher the poetic extravagance.  Fortunately for her sanity and Lysaro's continued survival, this appeared to be an ingrained reflex and not actual flirting; he'd settled down once she set the charts on him and made him try to calculate their position.

They left the Slithering Coast behind rapidly; the wind was cooperative even if the crew wasn't.  By evening, everyone on the ship was exhausted and sought their hammocks without even a token attempt at socializing.  Or, almost everyone.  Ezikial was just drifting off in his peaceful corner when he heard voices and saw a light flickering.  Hoisting himself up, he saw Feruzi, Rosie, and Cochobar gathered outside the door to the crew quarters.  He blinked repeatedly at the sight until he realized that the peculiar shadows were caused by elaborate designs in black and white paint.

"We're not going to hurt anyone," Feruzi said, "just scare them a bit."  Oh, whatever THIS was, it was BOUND to be entertaining.  Ezikial clambered out of his hammock to get a better view just as Feruzi gave a blood-curdling shriek and threw open the door to the crew quarters, vanishing inside.  Rosie and Conchobar followed with their own yells and some truly horrific fiddle-screeches guaranteed to wake the neighbors, the dead, and quite possibly the dead neighbors as well.  A series of yells, thumping noises, and heartfelt curses followed. 

Ezikial considered a moment, then selected a heavy wooden block that he used as a sort of tooling platform and shoved it across the deck and into the crew quarters.  Feruzi had the newbies arranged around her in a rough semi-circle, while Rosie and Conchobar performed a hair-raising ditty.  The crew eyed Ezikial, but he ignored them, pushing the block into a prominent position and then leaving again through the door.  He picked up a heavy fire axe.  The breathless silence when he returned and casually brought the axe up over his shoulder, sending it biting deep into the wood without apparent effort, nearly made him smile.  Feruzi seemed a little alarmed at this performance, but rallied magnificently.

"New shipmates of the Crisis, you have joined us all for different reasons, for adventure or pay or a change of work, but now that you are aboard there is one thing you must learn before all others: whatever your personal wishes, whatever your history, whatever your crimes against men or their crimes against you, the ship has you now!  You belong to her, and whatever she needs, you must provide.  You must heed the words of her master, for only by doing so can you become a crew and not a mob, and the ship needs a crew to tend her.  If she sickens, it is you who must cure her, for if she perishes, you all perish with her.

"The Crisis is a ship reborn, but she still has a history, and as her crew you should know it."  Here Feruzi produced a battered and worn manifest that Ezikial recognized after a moment as the journal of Arron Ivy from the Infernus.  "Here is our first caution--the tale of a crew gone to wrack and ruin."  Speaking in measured, sonorous tones, she read out the record of the last days of the Infernus.  She then produced a suspiciously familiar cat o' nine tails.  "Here is our second caution--the tale of Mr. Plugg."  She then recounted a somewhat abbreviated version of the mutiny aboard the Man's Promise.  Placing those two items aside, she produced a black cloth bag and shook it, producing an ominous rattling noise.  "So now you know the fate that awaits if the crew should fail.  It lies in your hands, by your choice.  So come, step forward and take hold of your fate!"  She shook the bag again.  "Who will choose first?"

Dar, the big scarred brawler, stepped forward with a faint sneer.  "I will."  Feruzi cocked an eyebrow at him and extended the bag, but when he reached toward it she suddenly jerked the bag and gasped out. "Careful!  Don't want it to bite you!"  Dar recoiled violently, belying the sneer and receiving a few knowing chuckles and a broad gummy grin from the ancient and withered Tenchin, who seemed to be enjoying the proceedings immensely.  Somewhat deflated, Dar thrust his hand into the bag and came out with a carved wooden token portraying a snake.

"Excellent," Feruzi said, taking the token from him and affixing it to a length of cloth.  "You shall have cunning and viciousness when you need them."  She bound the token to Dar's arm above the impressive bicep muscle, then clapped him on the shoulder.  He eyeballed her for a moment, then shook his head.

"That's actually . . . kinda neat," he grated.  Feruzi bared her teeth at him and turned to the rest of the crew, who lined up cheerfully to accept their tokens, all except for Simmed, who shrank shivering against the wall when she extended the bag.

"I . . . I don't . . ."

"You are as much a part of this ship as anyone," Feruzi told him, her voice stern but her expression gentle.  "For is it not said: if we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately."

"You can do it, kid," Dar said unexpectedly.

"Yeah, Sim, it's just Feruzi," Matty added.  "Er, Sergeant Feruzi, I means."

Etto sniffed.  "Humans."

Simmed actually glared at the elf for a fraction of a second.  Rolling up his sleeves, he took a deep breath and darted forward, grabbing something and retreating again.

"Let me see," Feruzi told him, and gently pried the token from his clenched fist while he panted for air.  "Ah, the dragon!"

"E don' look much like a dragon!" Kulio shouted, and everyone laughed.

"Appearances may be deceiving.  Hatchlings are rarely fearsome things," Feruzi said, hooking her elbow up under Simmed's arm to make him hold still while she attached the token.  "There!  And all your arms and legs still attached."

"S-sorry, miss . . ."

Feruzi turned away from him, a clear gesture of dismissal.  "Back to your bunks, all of you.  Long day tomorrow."

Chopper appeared the following morning when Feruzi was trying to un-rig an unfortunate snarl caused by someone using the wrong knots in exactly the right spot.  "Hey there, what are all the crew talking about?" he asked, glancing around at his officers.  "Something about a bag?"

"Ask Feruzi, Captain," Ezikial volunteered. 

Feruzi tried vainly to conceal a smirk.  "Feruzi does not know what you could mean," she insisted.

"H'oookay," Chopper said.  Feruzi pulled a token on a string out of her pocket and deposited it over his head.

"You will need this, however."

Chopper's eyes crossed slightly as he tried to examine the piece of wood.  It appeared to be some kind of bull, snorting smoke as it trampled on  . . . was that pottery?  "Weirdo bloody savage," he muttered, wandering away. 

With the crew gradually coming into shape, they decided to continue sailing at night, Feruzi taking the third watch until Reiko arose in the misty dawn to relieve her.  The night seemed peaceful enough until a woman's scream split the air from far forward.  Feruzi had taken a total of two steps when a toothy maw nearly enveloped her face.  She stumbled back and felt her cheek tear as the teeth snapped together, and then she was fighting for her life against two massive fish-men.

The hatch flew open and Ezikial erupted onto the deck.  "Arise and arm yourselves!" he bellowed, firing both pistols at once toward something near the foredeck.  "We are beset!"

Feruzi took several more minor wounds before she managed to get free of her attackers, then she peppered one with arrows and left it writhing on the deck.  The other hissed and jumped overboard as Chopper emerged from his cabin, axes in hand.

"SITREP!!" he bellowed.

"Fish-monsters, Captain," Feruzi panted.  "Someone screamed."  Chopper hurried forward, to find Ezikial crouched over Matty, desperately trying to staunch the gush of blood from the young woman's opened stomach.

"Fetch Sandara, this may be beyond my skill," he said.  Feruzi ran off to get the surgeon as Reiko arrived.  "Search the ship, see if there are any more," Chopper instructed her.  A search of the compartments and headcount of the crew turned up nothing else--apparently it was an attack of opportunity, not a full-scale assault.  Sandara prayed over Matty and managed to staunch the bleeding, so Feruzi picked the young woman up and carried her back to quarters.

"Sergeant Feruzi?  Is it... is it always like this?"  Matty asked as the Master at Arms tucked her in.

"Always?  No.  Sometimes it is much worse.  You did well--your shout roused the ship before the fish could do much damage.  We are in your debt."

Matty winced a little at this slightly edited description, but she didn't dispute it.  "Thank you . . . all of you . . . for saving my life."

Feruzi grinned.  "That is what shipmates are for.  Get some rest.  Light duty for you tomorrow."

The ship was almost cheerful the next day.  Fishguts directed Tolitha to serve up rashers of candied ham that he'd snuck on board, and Matty blushed and mumbled under the praise for her bravery and quick thinking.  Perhaps emboldened by this, Dar became a bit overbearing toward the tiny but ferocious Riis, but she resolved matters decisively by twisting his arm up his back for him before anyone had to intervene.  Feruzi held a brief shooting match with Etto and Marteen and gave them a few pointers with their favored weapons.

Early the next morning, Haroud called land and they drew up at a tiny island, maybe two miles long by one wide and almost entirely surrounded by rough shingle and gravel beaches.  It was less of a tropical retreat and more a fist of rock, brutally outthrust in a challenge to any who might draw near.  A narrow channel squeezed between two piles of jumbled boulders and ended in a lagoon wide and deep enough to hold three ships of the line.  A fortified stone tower, seventy feet if it was an inch, loomed above, commanding the entire lagoon--there was not a stretch of water or beach as much as an inch wide that could not come under brutal fire at the slightest hint of violent intent, yet aside from the Crisis, the lagoon was empty and seemingly had been for some time.  Chopper examined the tower with his spyglass.

"Hm, they have a watch.  They've spotted us.  Then again, how could they not?  He's pointing a crossbow at us!"

"Who are they, other pirates?" Feruzi asked.

"If so, they appear to be in the market for a ship.  You guys wanna bother these folks?"

"Well, that is why we came."

Chopper put the spyglass into his pocket and gestured toward the nearest crewmembers.  "Lower the cutter, lads, we're goin' ashore."  After a brief discussion, Leila was left on board to mind the ship while Chopper, Reiko, Ezikial, Feruzi, and Sandara took the cutter in for a landing.  By the time they drew up on the shingle, six people were watching them from the battlements with various bemused expressions.

"Ahoy, there!" Chopper bellowed.  "Nice . . . rock."

"Ahoy!" called one of them, a middle-aged man with a mustache impressive enough to be visible even at this distance.  "That is close enough.  Welcome to Tidewater Rock."

"We're gonna need a bigger cannon," Ezikial muttered under his breath.

"My thanks, sir.  I am Captain Chopper of the Crisis.  These are my loyal crew."  Sandara made an awkward moue halfway between a bow and a curtsey.  Beside her, Feruzi crossed her arms and looked fierce, creating a stark contrast.

"I am Sergeant-at-Arms Royster McCleagh.  What is your business here, Captain Chopper?"

"Ah, as to that.  We're here to take the Rock, aye?"  Chopper sounded almost apologetic.  McCleagh laughed.

"Oh, have you now?  All five of you?"  The blond woman standing next to him smacked him on the shoulder.  "Tidewater Rock has stood against entire fleets, Captain Chopper.  I don't mean to insult you, but, well, it is quite funny."

"Well, we have a few more aboard if it comes to that.  Be that Smythee's widow?  I apologize, madame, I have not heard your name."

The woman leaned past McCleagh to peer down at them.  "Aye, I am Lady Agasta Smythee, and I am pleased to meet you, even under these awkward circumstances."

"A pleasure, truly," Chopper said, bowing formally.  "Kindred spirits we are, I'd wager, y'see, this crew is not overly fond of one Barnabas Harrigan, and we mean to take him down as soon as the opportunity presents itself."

Lady Smythee leaned on the battlement, a move that did interesting things to her bodice.  "Is that so?  It's always good to meet people with similar interests."

"Aye, madam, I feel the same.  If you are keen, we'd be pleased to discuss this further, say, over dinner?"

"Mm, tempting, but I am so reluctant to open my doors to strangers these days.  We seldom get company of the desirable sort."

"M'lady," Reiko piped in, "I understand your hesitation as we have already stated that we intend to 'Crack the Rock', but the truth is, we are only seeking the renown associated with such a deed.  I am sure we could arrange a situation of mutual benefit."

A smile formed on Lady Smythee's face.  "Very well, I invite you to dine with me, but on one condition."

"Name it," Chopper said.

"To ensure good behavior all around, you must present one of your number as a hostage.  They will be well-treated as long as your intentions remain peaceful."

"I will do it," Feruzi said.  Chopper nodded to her.

"As you wish."

"What is your name, Miss?" Lady Smythee called.

"Feruzi, Madame."  She glanced sideways at Chopper.  "Do not force me to punch my way out through the walls.  I would be at it for months, and my hands would get sore."

"Whiner," he retorted succintly.

"Miss Feruzi, leave your weapons behind and come to the door.  The rest of you, stay well back, lest we be forced to take . . . steps."

Feruzi pouted at her bow for a moment then handed it with her arrows to Chopper before making the long walk up to the door and gate arrangement.  "Besmara go with ye," Sandara called after her.  A few minutes passed, then a small postern gate creaked open and McCleagh emerged with a couple of guards.  Feruzi followed them inside and the door creaked shut.  Several minutes later, the door opened again.

"Please, come in," McCleagh invited.  Chopper started to hand over his weapons, but McCleagh shook his head minutely, leading them up to the fourth floor, to a room filled by a long oak table set for a meal.  Lady Smythee stood at the head of the table and sat down when they arrived, motioning for them to do the same.

"I am impressed, you have made a home of this place," Chopper said, tipping his hat and then placing it on the table next to his plate.  Lady Smythee gave him a long, appraising look, then sipped from her glass.  Reiko and Sandara sat across from each other, but Ezikial took up a position behind Chopper's shoulder.  The Captain narrowly avoided rolling his eyes, but he decided it wouldn't accomplish anything to argue.  Ezikial seemed to be channeling the absent Feruzi and would probably obey orders as it suited him and not as it suited Chopper.

"So, where were we?" Lady Smythee asked.  Chopper smiled as pleasantly as he could.

"Discussing how we might help one another in dispatching Harrigan and his ilk."

"I cannot deny that avenging my late husband on that vile sea-snake holds great appeal, but make no mistake, Captain, I have no intentions of yielding my sovereignty over Tidewater Rock."

Chopper nodded.  "Harrigan press-ganged us onto the Wormwood.  We are here now because his first mate, Plugg, found the acquisition of a new ship too much for his honesty--if he had any to begin with--and made off with it.  So we returned the favor.  I can appreciate your stance--I would hardly sit still if anyone now tried to take the Crisis from me.  I have no wish to unseat you, but it is my understanding that you are now less . . . mobile than previous.  That is where we can lend a hand.  Or twenty."

"Harrigan has cost me much of what Iron Bert once held, yes."  Food began to arrive--boiled crab, buttered sturgeon, goat cheese and hard bread.  Sandara went to it with a will while Reiko and Chopper nibbled politely.

"We are new to these waters, and you have experience.  You could suggest targets that a green crew might be able to handle, and in return, we can begin to rebuild your power base."

"My knowledge of the pirate ways isn't what it was, but it may be of use to you, yes."  Lady Smythee leaned back in her chair, considering.  "This does seem mutually beneficial, but is it enough for you?  Don't you want to tell people that you 'cracked the Rock'?"

"Madame, the paint is not even dry on the escutcheon of my ship.  I need renown however I can get it, and I am in no position to be picky when given a valuable opportunity.  If it concerns you, I have no fewer than two bards on my vessel who would be more than happy to concoct some sort of useful fiction to inflate both of our reputations.  Besides, I can be patient.  Perhaps as part of our arrangement I could become heir to the Rock some day, should you ever find its walls confining."

"Perhaps," Lady Smythee said, her eyes twinkling.  "Some arrangement might be made.  Marriage under Shackles Law is often used for purposes of this kind."  The conversation came to an abrupt halt as Sandara suddenly sprayed wine across the table over Reiko.  The Tian woman sighed and with great delicacy picked up her napkin and began to dab herself clean.  Sandara shrank down, embarrassed.

"That is an interesting . . . proposal," Chopper drawled, donning his ash-tinted spectacles.  He saw a faint shadow pass over McCleagh's face.

"I would prefer to wait, of course," Lady Smythee added, "until you've made more of a name for yourselves."

"Of course.  I wouldn't want to step on anyone's toes.  'Cept Harrigan.  Bugger that guy."
"But it would give you a claim to Tidewater Rock without compromising my own.  For, let's say, a year."

"That should prove sufficient," Chopper said.  "I knew coming here was a good idea.  To profitable alliances!" he said, raising his glass and then draining it.  Lady Smythee nodded and raised her own glass in salute.

Mar 7, 2013

Skull and Shackles Session 12: The New Crisis

"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."

"Yes, sir."

"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."

"Aye, sir."

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.