Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Jan 30, 2014

Skull and Shackles Interlude: Love and War Part 4

Drenchport was, for once, not living up to its name.  The occasional flare of sunlight peeping through the clouds even lent the place a festival air, like fireworks.  Nonetheless, Feruzi was not entirely certain how she wound up agreeing to take Ukele out shopping.  The original plan, as far as she could recall, was simply to roust her sister out of her cabin and make her get some exercise before she figuratively (and maybe even literally) exploded from boredom.  Ukele was strangely resistant to the idea and only grudgingly agreed to go ashore with Feruzi as escort.

"What is with you today?" Feruzi asked as Ukele sulked her way past yet another market stall.  "Are you sick?"

"I'm fine!  What's it to you, anyway?"

"You're the one who dragged me along.  I don't see why I should have to put up with your mood as well."

"Oh, well, don't feel like you need to bother yourself on my account!  I can take care of myself!"

Feruzi bit back a response, settling for an indifferent shrug.  "Suit yourself.  Just don't wander too far, we're leaving on the evening tide."

"Mmph," was the sour response.  "I have half a mind to be late on purpose," Ukele muttered as Feruzi walked away, leaving her to her own devices.  "I hate that rotten tub, anyway."  Not that Drenchport appealed, either.  The streets, if such they could be called, were ankle-deep muck.  Ukele's feet were already soaked and starting to blister.  She spotted an open doorway to what looked like a tavern and stepped inside gratefully.

"Well, here's a nice surprise," a male voice called from inside.  "Were you looking for me?"  It was Drale.  Ukele shrank back and collided with another patron who was trying to walk in behind her.  The man didn't seem displeased at this development in the slightest.

"Hey, Jenner, the quality o' yer girls is improvin', I'd say.  Give us a kiss, sweetheart!"

"Get away from me!" Ukele shrieked.

"Oh, don't be that way . . ."

"The lady said no, you cur," Drale snarled, interposing himself.  The rough eyed the Andoran Captain for a moment, then held up his hands in a soothing gesture.

"Didn't mean nothin' by it, yer honor.  Just a mistake, is all."

"See that you don't make another."  Drale took Ukele's arm and ushered her out of the common room, into the back of the tavern where the private rooms were standing empty.  "Are you all right?" he asked, easing her into a chair and closing the door.  "You shouldn't go wandering around by yourself."

"I'm . . . fine.  I should go . . ."

"You just got here.  Surely after that you could use a drink, at least.  Wait here."  He was gone before she could protest.  Ukele couldn't guess what to think of his behavior.  He seemed almost nice, when yesterday was so ugly.

"Here we go," Drale said, returning with a bottle and two tumblers.  He filled both glasses nearly to the rim and pressed one on Ukele.  The potent liquor stung her nose before she even got it near her face.  This wasn't what you drank when you needed a shot of artificial courage.  This was what you drank when you wanted to forget how to walk, stand, speak, and possibly even breathe.  Drale was watching her intently.  Ukele mimed taking a sip then burst into a completely feigned coughing fit.

"Good stuff, eh?" Drale said dryly.  "Actually, I'm glad I got a moment to talk with you, see, I wanted to ask if you told anyone . . . about last night."

Here came the panic again.  "N-no . . ." that seemed like a safe bet.  Maybe.  Drale looked relieved.

"Good, good.  Merrill can be a bit of a prig at times, no telling what he might think of me swiving his wife's sister.  Probably believes you're some blushing virgin although we know that isn't the case, don't we . . ."

Ukele listened to this little speech, feeling her panic replaced drop by drop with fulminating rage.  She grabbed the neck of the bottle and hurled the contents into Drale's face, covering them both in liquor.  "How DARE you speak to me like I'm some dockside whore!"  She drew in a breath to continue and was shocked when Drale struck her a blow across the side of her face.  That wasn't supposed to happen.  He was supposed to be horrified and apologetic.  Her vision went briefly dark and her brain felt scrambled.

"No," Drale gritted out.  "Whores get paid.  You're just a bitch in heat."

"I'll tell my sister!"

"If you were going to, you would have already.  I don't know what I was thinking, you've probably had every man on that ship.  Well I don't like used goods, so, bye."  He poured the rest of the liquor over her and banged the door open.  When Ukele managed to pick herself up, she found that Drale had left without paying for the expensive bottle.  The tavernkeeper was ill-pleased by the contents of Ukele's purse or by her tears and ejected her forcefully into the street.

"Don't try turning your tricks in my establishment again!  Stupid bitch!"

"I'M NOT A WHORE!!" she shrieked and fell down weeping in the mud of the street.  Dimly, she heard running feet an several of the Bonaventure's crew gathered around her.

"Quick, go find Feruzi," an authoritative voice ordered.  It was Scrimshaw Jack, the man they were in Drenchport to pick up.

"NO-O-O!" Ukele screamed, her voice coming in jerks like a two-year-old having an utterly incontinent tantrum.  Someone tried to put a cloak around her shoulders and she slapped them away.

"Ye can't jist stay here in the street making a spectacle of yerself," Jack said.


"Besmara, did ye ever see somethin' so pathetic."

Ukele grabbed handfuls of mud and threw them at him, but Jack dodged aside, shaking his head.  He put his foot on her rump and pushed her over--not hard, just enough to prevent any more attempts at retaliation.  "Here's yer sister.  Maybe she kin do summat with ye."

"Kele, Kele, what happened?" Feruzi asked, running up and squatting down.  "What happened?" she demanded of Jack when Ukele proved incoherent.  He shrugged.

"Sod me if I know.  She just started screaming."

"She smells like a distillery.  Has she been drinking?"


"Hey, you lot, quit blocking the damn street!"

Feruzi shot to her feet and whirled around.  "You. are. speaking. to. a. Pirate. Lord."

"Er . . ."

"Did you have something you wanted to say to me?"

"Uh . . . no.  Carry on."

"I thought so."  Feruzi turned her back on the man and squatted next to Ukele again.  "Let's get you out of the street, at least.  There's a tavern right over here!"

"NO-O-O!!!"  Ukele began to struggle madly. 

Feruzi released a long-suffering sigh.  "She's hysterical."  She gestured at an item next to one of the nearby stalls and Jack caught her meaning and went to grab it.

"I'M NOT HYSTE--" the rest of the word was abruptly cut off as a bucket of rainwater hit Ukele full in the face, a substantial amount going straight into her open mouth.  She choked and spluttered helplessly while Jack looked on, grinning.

"That seems to have done the trick," he said.

"You're not half bad at this," Feruzi told him.

"I gots three spoiled little sisters at home, don't I?  'S why I went to sea inna first place."

"I hate you!" Ukele repeated in a somewhat more moderate tone.

"Hate him later and tell me what happened," Feruzi ordered.

"Oh, Zizi, it was awful!  He hit me!"

"Who?" Feruzi glanced up at Jack, who flapped his hands defensively.

"Weren't me, Ma'am!"

"It was that . . . that Drale!  Last night he . . ." Ukele also glanced at Jack, then yanked Feruzi's shoulder over and whispered in her sister's ear.  At length.  Feruzi covered her eyes with her hand.

"You brought this on yourself, you know."

"I knew you'd say that!  How can you take his side?!  He raped me!"

"Hey, now . . ." Jack started.  Feruzi waved him to silence.

"I am not taking his side," she said.  "It's just, gods, Kele, when are you going to learn some sense?!  No, don't answer that.  Come on, we need to go tell Merrill."

"Do we have to?" Ukele whined as Feruzi dragged her to her feet.

"Do you want to share Drale's company for the rest of the voyage?"

"No . . ."

"Then come on."

They found Pegsworthy on the quarterdeck chatting amiably with Drale, Labella and several other crew in attendance.  Feruzi stormed up the stairs, finger outthrust at Drale's face like a prophet about to smite the unrighteous.  The crew parted in front of her.  "That man raped my sister!" she announced.  Pegsworthy's face went white and his eyes bugged out.

"Er . . . excuse me, dear?" he said faintly.

Drale threw up his hands in an appeal to the heavens.  "Oh, please.  Is that what she's been telling you?!  I did no such thing.  She came on to me.  She was practically panting for it!"

"That's not true!" Ukele shrieked as Feruzi rounded on her.  "He hit me!"

"Oh, I admit, I gave her a little slap after she threw a bottle of Diron in my face, but that stuff is expensive!  She's just trying to get even, now."

"Zizi, you have to believe me!"  Ukele pleaded with Feruzi's stony expression.

"I believe her," Pegsworthy said.  Ukele nearly fainted.

"Gods, Merrill . . ." Drale began.  Pegsworthy scowled at him.

"There might have been a day when I would have taken you at your word, Mr. Drale, but no longer.  Ms. Loor!"

Labella stepped forward eagerly.  "Yes, Cap'n?"

"Remove Mr. Drale from my ship."

"With pleasure, Cap'n."

Drale's face twisted.  "Fine, I'll go.  But you haven't heard the last of me.  Mark my words!"

"Yes, yes, go or I'll have you thrown overboard."

"Not without my men!"

"So?  Fetch them, then.  But be quick about it."

The still somewhat ill and injured Andoran sailors were swiftly assembled on the deck and given a brief summary by Labella.  They held a conference, then one of them approached the quarterdeck, hat in hand.

"Beggin' yer pardon, Cap'n Pegsworthy, might we have a word?"

"Of course," Pegsworthy said.

"We're to be put ashore here, the lady said?"

"Yes.  I'm afraid I cannot extend my hospitality to your Captain any longer."

"I see.  Well, if you've nothin' against us, we'd like to stay aboard, sir.  We'll join yer crew if ye want."

"You do understand this is a pirate vessel."

"Pirate or privateer don't make no difference to men like us, Cap'n sir, but I can see ye treats yer crew well.  We'd be glad ter stay if ye'll have us."

"Then I accept your offer.  Sorry, Mr. Drale, I guess you go ashore alone.  I'll have Pinch swear you men in, as I think Ms. Loor is occupied at the moment."  Labella seized Drale's arm and frog-marched him to the gangplank.  The Andorans flinched when Pinch appeared, but his calm, cultured speech eased their fears and shortly afterward Pegsworthy was alone on the quarterdeck with Feruzi and Ukele.

"Why didn't you believe me, Zizi?" Ukele mourned.  She really was a pathetic sight, her face swollen, her hair and clothes tangled and caked with mud and booze.  Feruzi shook her head.

"Because I know how you act.  And you lie all the time."

"I don't!"

"Not with words.  With your face and hands and your whole body.  Drale probably did think you wanted it."

"How was I supposed to know what he thought?!"

"By using your brains, Kele!  For once!"

"I knew you'd be like this!  You think you're so smart and so perfect and you've never made a mistake, no, not Feruzi!  You're such a bitch.  This is all your fault!"

"MY fault?"

"If you weren't such a bitch, I would have just screamed for help, but I KNEW you'd believe him! So it's your fault!"

Pegsworthy saw Feruzi's nostrils flare and the cords in her neck draw tight.  Moving as quickly as he could, he insinuated himself between the sisters and tentatively put his hands on Feruzi's shoulders.  "Um, I love you, dear, why don't you just . . . take a little break.  We're all a little emotional at the moment, saying things we don't mean . . . I'll have a little talk with her . . ."

Slowly, Feruzi exhaled.

"Um, I love you . . ."

She snorted.  "You said that."

"Well, it's true."

Feruzi patted his cheek.  "Maybe you can talk some sense into her.  I certainly can't."

"See you later?"

"Yes dear."  Shooting Ukele one final black look, Feruzi left.

Pegsworthy threw himself down on the nearest piece of equipment in abject relief.  He had no idea why that just worked.  Some sort of husbandly grovel instinct just took over.  He pointed an unsteady finger in Ukele's direction.  "You owe me.  Again."  Ukele sniffed.

"Gods," Pegsworthy said, thinking back over the past few days.  "Was I ever that much of an ass?"

"If you ask me, you still are," Ukele said primly.  He chuckled.

"Have a seat," he said, gesturing to another trunk full of hardware.

"If it's all the same to you, I'll skip the lecture.  I think I know it by heart."

"That was not a request, young lady.  I am the Captain on this ship and I WILL be obeyed."  Ukele sat, somewhat awkwardly.  "That's better.  Look, I know you're not stupid.  How do you keep doing this to yourself?"

"Guess I'm just unlucky."

"No.  Losing your rum money at cards is unlucky.  Losing your entire livelihood, that's something else.  your problem is that you keep thinking that you're going to win.  So you keep placing the wrong bets."

"What, so I should just stay in my room and do as I'm told?"

"No, but you could try betting on the people who love you instead of random strangers."

"No one loves me."

"Horseshit.  Do you think Feruzi would have stuck by you all this time if she didn't love you?"

"Then why does she keep trying to smother me?  That's all people ever do."

"They want you to be safe."

"I don't want to be treated like a child!"

"Then show them that you're an adult.  That you can stand up for yourself instead of going along with stupid things because you think somebody might scowl at you.  Don't just run and hide when you make a mistake or try to get some stranger to fix it for you.  You've seen how that turns out."

Ukele started to cry.

"Hey," Pegsworthy said, as gently as he could manage, "You've done some dumb things, but it doesn't have to be the last word on you.  What matters is what you do going forward."

"You're so n-nice to me."

He snorted.  "You're upset and you've had a long day.  Go and get cleaned up.  And apologize to your sister."

"Do I have to?"

"No, but it's the right thing to do.  But by all means, ignore everything I just said.  See what it gets you.  Again."

"Fine, I'll go apologize."

"Good girl."  Pegsworthy watched her go and sighed.  He looked down at the tattered old greatcoat he wore, same as the one every Andoran Eagle Knight wore.  Like Drale.  In sudden decision he tore the coat off and hurled it overboard.  Feeling much lighter for some reason, he set off to see to his ship.

Jan 28, 2014

Skull and Shackles Interlude: Love and War part 3

Ukele tiptoed across the hall to the galley, a pointless gesture because there was, at present, no one to see her and she was about as unobtrusive as an ogre in a gnome village in any case.  She was hoping to get a peek at the handsome stranger, Drale, maybe find out if he was as hairy as Feruzi's husband under all the silly cloth these people insisted on wearing.  Didn't they know it was hot?  They sweated and turned read and even blistered up, you would think they would notice at some point.  Truly, no foreigner had any sense.

There was no door to the galley, only a flap of rough cloth that Ukele twitched aside and there was Drale, bare to the waist in the linen knee-pants most sailors wore.  He was a bit fuzzy, to be sure, but the deep golden tan on his face and arms did not extend to his chest and the skin was a distressing pasty white.  Disappointing.  Forgetting herself, Ukele clucked her tongue.

"Who's there?" Drale demanded, reaching instantly for a weapon.  "Vanenza?"  That was the Bonaventure's new chaplain, who provided healing and also such luxuries as purified bathwater.

"No, it is Ukele!" she announced, sweeping the cloth aside and stepping into the room.  She smiled and posed--one leg forward, hand on opposite hip, chest outthrust--and was rewarded by the pleased, appraising look she knew so well.

"Well, hello again, my pretty.  Did you come to keep me company?"

"You seem about the only interesting person in this dreadful tub."  Ukele hopped up on the table, swinging her legs girlishly while she chewed a fingernail.  "I heard them call you Captain, do you have your own ship?"

Drale gave a rueful chuckle.  "Not any more.  A temporary setback I intend to rectify immediately."

"Feruzi's Captain has a bunch of ships.  Maybe he'll give you one."

"What, Merrill?"

"No, the other one.  Whatshisname, Chopper.  We're going to his island."

"Sounds like a wealthy man."

Ukele shrugged.  "I suppose.  He's some kind of Pirate Lord, now.  Feruzi too, but she doesn't seem to think much of it."  Sniff.  "People are always giving her things.  You'd think she would appreciate them more."

Drale rubbed his chin thoughtfully.  "Maybe there's a way to salvage this mess after all.  Do you think Feruzi would introduce me to this Captain of hers?"

Ukele made a face.  "I don't think she likes you very much.  She's always so uptight.  Not a drop of fun in her veins at all."

"Not like you, I can see," Drale purred, making his face relax into his most charming smile.  "I can see I'm being terribly rude . . . you didn't come down here to talk about her, after all."

"I certainly did not."

Drale's smile widened and his eyelids drooped into a dangerous, sleepy look.  "So what did you come here for?"

Ukele shrugged, artfully artless.  "Oh, I don't know.  I was bored.  There's nothing for me to do."

"Oh?  Well, perhaps I can help you with that."  Ukele squeaked as Drale swept an arm around her, jerking her against his body.  He forced her head back and crushed her mouth with his own, slimy tongue wriggling ferociously.  "There's a nice girl," he hissed, releasing her mouth to yank at her clothing.  "You know how to show your appreciation, don't you . . ."

Ukele's mind was blank with panic.  She was just teasing, amusing herself as always . . . did he really imagine he could just have her?  HER?!  She started to struggle, kicking, shoving at him with her arms.  Drale grabbed her wrists and twisted them around behind her.  She bit him.

"Ouch!  So you like it rough, then?"  Ukele's face mashed against the table as he flipped her over.  She felt the air on her backside and realized she was now fully exposed.  Arcing her back, she inhaled brutally, preparing to scream the place down.  Then, the thought came that if she did scream, Feruzi would come running and find her like this.  Humiliation choked her and the breath fled in gasps of rage and pain as Drale rutted away on top of her, grunting like a pig.

"Nice little filly you are," he muttered, giving her a final grope before he began throwing on his clothes.  "Nothing like a good hard ride to take a man's mind off his troubles."

At least he spared her the necessity of thinking of something to say by sauntering off.  Creeping like a mouse that fears a cat in every shadow, Ukele escaped to her room and locked the door, wishing she had furniture to pile in front of it.

Jan 27, 2014

Skull and Shackles Interlude: Love and War part 2

"I must say, you seem to be doing well for yourself, Merrill.  Does piracy pay so well?"  If the chair weren't bolted to the deck, Carson Drale would no doubt have leaned back and dumped his boots on the table.  He was that type of man, Feruzi decided.  Now that his rage had run its course Drale's natural personality seemed to be reasserting itself and Feruzi could not find it in herself to like the man.  To be fair, she acknowledged that she hadn't liked Merrill at first, either.  Perhaps Drale's swagger also was a front for a decent, loyal heart.  Ukele had settled in one of the other chairs.  Maybe Drale would have some such effect on Ukele as Merrill had on Feruzi.  She could not decide whether the idea pleased her or not, but it did amuse her.

"It has its ups and downs," Pegsworthy was saying.  "Much like anything, I suppose.  One good haul might set a man up for life, but a bit of bad luck might mean total ruin, with your former fellows eager to speed you on your way.  I try to avoid either extreme."  He glanced at Feruzi thoughtfully, his expression unreadable.

"What's that face supposed to mean?" Drale asked, chuckling.

"Oh, nothing.  I still just can't get over what an enormous coincidence this is, finding you out here.  I don't like to play the superstitious man, but . . ."

"It's no coincidence, old man.  I asked for this assignment, so, really it was only a matter of time before we encountered each other again."

"What assignment?"

Drale smirked.  "That's between the Admiralty and myself, I'm afraid.  It seems they do recognize talent when it's shoved down their throats hard enough."

Feruzi didn't imagine anyone else would have noticed the faint contraction of pain in Pegsworthy's face, but from the sudden intensity of Drale's stare and the equally faint rise of his eyebrows he noticed and was enjoying it.  Feruzi's stomach clenched and she felt a powerful urge to see Drale off the Bonaventure at the first opportunity, land nearby or no.  The sight of Ukele watching in rapt fascination was abruptly no longer a source of any amusement.

"Is the manner of your survival also a matter of national security?" Merrill asked.  "I would think so, given how you've danced around the issue."

"Not at all.  It's not a bad story, in fact--good gods, what is that?!"  Drale launched himself halfway out of his chair as Pinch appeared bearing the breakfast tray.

"Ah," Pegsworthy said, briefly at a loss.  His good manners came to his rescue.  "May I present Mr. Pinch, quartermaster of the Bonaventure."

"It's a bloody devil-spawn, is what it is!"

"Be nice, Carson," Pegsworthy chided, in Feruzi's opinion far too mildly.

"Your pardon, Captain," Pinch said, setting the tray down with all the precision of a superior house servant.  "I did not mean to offend your guest."  The quartermaster's tone was polite but it only served to make his antipathy for Drale more plain.

"How dare you speak like that, misbegotten wretch . . ."

"Mr. Drale!"  Pegsworthy's voice cracked like a whip.  Even Ukele flinched.  "Mr. Pinch is a valued member of my crew.  If you find yourself unable to be civil then I request you confine yourself to silence!"  The two men locked gazes for a moment, then Drale shrugged, trying to make his offhand gesture a casual denial of the contest that had just taken place.

"Sorry, Merrill, the surprise, you know . . ."

Pegsworthy kept his silent gaze on Drale for some seconds longer, then released him pointedly.  "Thank you, Markuss, that will be all."

"Yes, Captain," Pinch said, giving a respectful half-bow and withdrawing.

"Where in the world did you get that thing?" Carson grumbled when Pinch was out of earshot.

"Where do you think, Carson?" Pegsworthy shot back with some asperity.

"Well, you didn't have to bring it with you when you left."

"That is a matter between Mr. Pinch and myself.  So, you were about to tell me how you survived being dragged underwater and abandoned?"

"Oh, yes."  Drale seemed to be having difficulty in reasserting his swagger.  "There really isn't that much to tell.  I was rescued at the last moment by a, well, a woman."

"An underwater woman?" Feruzi demanded, dubious.  Carson glanced at her and straightened primly.

"Yes.  I thought I was a dead man, tangled in the wreckage, my last breath trailing away, then I woke in some sort of underwater grotto with a beautiful maiden standing over me.  She was some kind of sorceress," Drale added, smirking faintly.  "At first, she didn't want to let me go, but I was so charming she was soon just putty in my hands.  She had these flying eyeball creatures that she used to watch for passing ships in her cauldron.  When she saw one close by she had her pet sea-troll carry me to the surface."

"Eyeballs," Feruzi said.

"Yes, I agree it sounds rather queer . . ."

"It's not queer if you are a Sea Hag."

Drale's face turned an interesting shade of purple.  "She was no hag!"

"They can disguise themselves with magic.  A fact that plainly did not occur to you."

Pegsworthy cleared his throat loudly before Drale could respond to that.  "Dear, could I speak to you privately, please."

Feruzi blinked.  "Er, of course."  She followed him into their shared bedroom.  Pegsworthy carefully shut the door on Carson and Ukele.

"Really a Sea Hag?" Pegsworthy said, finally.

"It sure sounded like it."

"I see.  Well . . . let's just keep this between us, hmm?"

"If you say so."

"I do, if only to keep the peace on my ship.  Go have some breakfast, love.  Just try to stick with . . . less inflammatory topics.  If there are any."

Feruzi scowled.  "And what are you going to do?"

"Oh, I have some . . . things I wanted to do," Pegsworthy said, waving his hands around airily.  Feruzi didn't seem to buy it, but she let him put her out of the cabin.  Pegsworthy then buried his face in the pillows and laughed himself sick.

Jan 20, 2014

Fragment and Pandemonium

This novel by Warren Fahy is an enjoyable little bioscience romp.  It's fun, it's exciting, and it's pure fluff.

I was a little surprised about the fluff part.  In a way it's kind of refreshing--techno-thrillers often go in for nasty cynicism in a big way.  Fragment, on the other hand, can't even seem to take its villain particularly seriously.  Heck, people get killed right and left and it's just not that big of a deal.

Fragment is a story about an island that was isolated from contact with the rest of the world so long ago that it developed a radically different ecosystem that is nothing but "weed" species--virulent, explosive species that are so successful in out-competing every other species on earth that they could destroy the world.  Scary stuff.

So, why is it so fluffy?  Well, for one thing there's basically no characterization.  There's supposed to be a romance of sorts going on, but it feels like it was attached to the novel with a stapler.  The non-human creatures are better characterized than the humans, who receive a couple of lines of bare description.  I honestly couldn't tell you anything about what the female protagonist is supposed to look like, much less her personality.  Oh, wait, she does have some sort of nightmares about her mother, who was a famous naturalist killed by a jellyfish.  But this is tacked-on, too.  It has no significance to the events of the story and more or less gets abandoned.

The science is, for the most part, similarly fluffy.  Oh, it's not BAD, and there are some interesting hypotheses there, but that's what they are.  Hypotheses.  Science doesn't consist of smart people who've read a bunch of books sitting in a room and spouting off wild notions on the basis of a few examples and a lot of guesswork.  It consists of methodical people gathering data and testing those notions.  I'll grant you they don't really get a chance due to the murderterror wildlife, but all this action focus just makes it fluffier.

The coup de fluff, of course, is when Fahy brings in the President of the United States and, of course, a nuke.  Still, I enjoyed reading it.  Just don't expect to be blown away by any degree of depth.

Pandemonium, the second book in the series, kind of feels like a Bioshock homage.  I'm not really sure why there needed to be a second book.  There weren't really a lot of loose ends that needed to be tied up, so it really furthers the comic-book feel of the whole thing.  Like the Joker in Batman comics, the scary murderterror wildlife keeps escaping and coming back for more.

It's even weirder because Pandemonium is supposed to be set in yet another weird isolated ecosystem--and it gets almost no screen time apart from being a colorful backdrop.  I'm not sure this was actually a bad decision--at least it's not a full retread of the first novel.  The non-human characters actually have some interesting characterization and are far more interesting and enjoyable than almost all of the humans.

So, some fun, well-written action novels here.

Jan 16, 2014

Skull and Shackles Interlude: Love and War Part 1

"Anyway, I don't see why everyone had to get so upset," Ukele finished, tossing her long, dark hair and sniffing disdainfully.  She'd been complaining non-stop since she came aboard the Bonaventure some hours ago.

"When you decide to dump your powerful, bad-tempered draconic boyfriend you might  give some thought to the people who have to live near him," Feruzi said dryly.

"Well, he didn't actually eat anyone."

"It was touch-and-go for a while there, though.  We're just lucky Raali would rather be pampered than vent his temper."

Ukele shrugged, dismissing the incident from her mind.  "So, how's this island of yours?  Nice?"

"It's not mine," Feruzi corrected, "it belongs to Chopper. But I think we've done well for ourselves, yes."

"Good.  Any handsome men?"

"You mean aside from Merrill?" Feruzi said, raising her voice so that Pegsworthy could hear and smiling as Ukele stuck her tongue out in disgust.  Pegsworthy snorted his amusement and leaned over to kiss Feruzi's cheek.  They exchanged a fond look.

"You two are disgusting," Ukele whined.

"You're just jealous," Feruzi said.

"Well . . . maybe just a bit.  Don't let it go to your head."

* * *

A vicious storm blew in and the Bonaventure sheltered for the night at the river mouth.  Ukele was unpleasantly seasick and finally used a few scrolls to transport herself ashore and manufacture a pleasant little cottage out of thin air.  Pegsworthy found this intensely amusing but sent some of his crew ashore to keep an eye on her just in case.  The storm was short-lived and the morning dawned exceedingly fine with a stiff breeze that should more than make up for lost time.

"Smoke ahead, Captain!" the lookout called as afternoon turned toward evening.  Pegsworthy squinted but could make out nothing against the glare.  It wasn't a huge, out-of-control, fire, then, more likely a distress signal.

"Do you want to check it out?" Pegsworthy asked Feruzi, who was scanning the horizon with his spyglass. 

She shrugged.  "This isn't anywhere near the usual shipping lanes.  If someone is in trouble we may be the only people in reach."

"True enough.  Set course for the smoke, Mistress Loor," Pegsworthy ordered.

"Aye, aye, Cap'n."

* * *

"We ought to be able to see it by now," Pegsworthy muttered.  They had changed course over an hour ago.  The smoke came and went, shifting with the inconstant breeze, but they had yet to find wreckage or any sign of another ship.

"At least you tried," Feruzi said.

"Yes, I suppose I did.  I just don't like this, it's too--"

"I see summat, Cap'n," the lookout called.  Labella adjusted their course again as Pegsworthy shouted for the riggers to shift the sails, slowing the Bonaventure's forward speed but still leaving her ready to run at a moment's notice.  The source of the fire came slowly into view from the deck and Feruzi realized why they hadn't seen it.  A ship lay in the water on its side, so far under that only the tip of the hull was out of the swell.  Someone had built a fire on this precarious platform.  Several hopeless, dispirited men huddled around it.

"That's Andoran manufacture," Pegsworthy breathed.  Feruzi chuckled at him.  She could barely have identified it as a ship, much less guess at who built it.  One of the shipwrecked men climbed to his feet and began waving at them, not with any real enthusiasm but with a kind of grim, desperate hope.  Pegsworthy detailed Renvel to launch the boat and fetch them over, whoever they were.  "What a terrible spot to be in," he mused.  "They're lucky we came along and not slavers or worse."

"Chopper will be delighted to hear about your rescue," Feruzi said.

"Hah, yes, next I'll be fetching cats out of trees and helping old ladies cross the street."

"We have enough cats on this ship, thank you, but if you can find an old lady and a street out here you may do as you please," Feruzi said.  Pegsworthy grinned.

The Andoran sailors were in such poor condition that they couldn't climb a ladder and had to wait while the boat was raised and secured.  Feruzi hung back while Renvel and Nikaus unloaded the worst-injured, men suffering from exposure, dehydration, sunburn, and in one case shark bite.  The last man to climb out seemed merely weary, his shoulders hunched under a familiar gray coat with gold epaulettes.  He was five or six years younger than Pegsworthy, Feruzi estimated, tall and blond and startlingly handsome even in his ragged and exhausted condition.  He caught her staring and gave a short nod of acknowledgement, then his eyes slid sideways to Pegsworthy and he staggered as if from a blow. 

"You!" both men cried at the same moment.  Feruzi turned in time to see Pegsworthy's face go white, then fall into a silly, helpless grin.  "Carson!"  he strode forward, arm extended.  The blond man recoiled.

"Don't touch me, you traitor," he snarled.  Pegsworthy's face fell, and after a moment he lowered his hand.

"Carson, I thought you were dead!  What are you doing here?  How did you survive?"

"You mean to interrogate me, then?  You will only waste your time.  If it weren't for my men I'd leap from this cursed ship and take my chances with the sharks!  I hoped never to lay eyes on you again, Merrill Tantrey!" the blond man pronounced Pegsworthy's name as if it were curse.  Feruzi realized that Pegsworthy was trembling, his eyes full of unshed tears.

"I have no desire to interrogate you," Pegsworthy said.  "I apologize if the manner of your rescue offends you."

The blond man drew himself up.  "I am grateful on behalf of my men, or I will be once I know what you intend to do with them.  Ransom?  Slavery?  Press-gang them into your crew?"

"No, when they are recovered from their ordeal they are free to go at the port of their choosing."

"Good.  Then you and I have no more occasion to speak."

"Will you at least tell me how you survived?" the friendliness had slowly bled out of Pegsworthy's voice, replaced by distant, chilly politeness, but Feruzi thought she could detect a lingering hint of pleading.  The blond man's face was frozen in lines of fury and bitterness, terrible to see.

"Merrill, who is this man?" Feruzi interrupted, finding she dreaded whatever response the stranger was about to make.

"Ah, apologies, my dear.  This is Carson Drale.  He was my lieutenant when I . . . when I was still in the Andoran navy.  I believed he had drowned when he . . . saved my life," Pegsworthy said, the words slow and uncertain.

"When you lost your leg?" Feruzi asked.

"Yes.  Carson"--the man snarled--"Mr. Drale, I'd like you to meet my wife, Feruzi."

"Captain Drale, now, and I hardly care to be introduced to your pirate whore."

Pegsworthy's face froze.  "I'm the only Captain aboard this ship," he said.  "Think what you like of me, but do not insult my wife."

"It's nothing to me what you style yourself, but you're no more a Captain than I am a twelve-year-old girl.  I'll neither speak civil nor grant you my parole.  If you'll have me aboard, it will be as a prisoner."

"Very well.  Renvel, put him in the brig.  Gently, though.  See to it he has enough food and water and anything else he needs."

"Aye, Captain."

Feruzi followed Pegsworthy as he returned to ordering the ship, but he responded to her questions with monosyllables, eventually forcing her to concede defeat and retire to their cabin.  Pegsworthy did not join her until late that night and he shook her off impatiently when she approached to console him.  Annoyed, she threw on a robe and went for a walk on the deck rather than join him in bed.  Pegsworthy closed the door behind her with a soft click and fell into his chair, breaking down into broken, helpless weeping.  The sound of footsteps on the deck brought him back to himself, so he threw off his clothes and scrambled into bed, hiding his face with the intention of pretending sleep when Feruzi returned some moments later.  She said nothing but slipped in beside him, trailing her fingers gently through his loose brown hair.  Some knot in Pegsworthy's chest seemed to loosen at her touch.

"I'm sorry," he said.

"I know.  You don't have to talk to me right now.  It's hard, loving someone so much."

"I don't mean to be difficult."

She chuckled.  "I meant you and Mr. Drale.  Not that I don't love you, ridiculous man.  But that's not what's hurting you, now."

Pegsworthy rolled over and looked up at her.  "All these years I thought he was dead and here he is, a Captain, and an Eagle Knight, even.  I thought he'd died because of me.  I swore I wouldn't let his sacrifice be in vain.  I swore it.  I could have just drunk myself quietly to death in some dockside tavern, but I swore to him . . . so I stole the Bonaventure . . ."

"And became a pirate."

"It was that or starve.  I know I'm no angel, but I didn't think . . . I thought he'd . . . understand.  Wherever he was."  Pegsworthy punched the mattress.  "I should have known better.  Carson was, is, a good man.  The best.  He would never have approved.  He must hate me."

"Must he?"

"Wouldn't you?  And you married me."

"I think . . . he was certainly very angry.  And I think . . . well, perhaps later."

"What?  Tell me."

"I think . . . Merrill, it's clear to me that there's something . . . not right, with you.  Something missing, that prevents you from being a . . . whole man."

Pegsworthy sat up, turning an incredulous expression on his wife.  "Well, YES, you may have noticed that I have only. one. leg."

Feruzi shoved him back over, rolling her eyes.  "I don't mean that.  I mean some . . . empty place, in your soul, Merrill.  And don't put me off.  You know I'm right."

"So what if you are?  I can't turn back time.  I can't undo what I've done."

"No, but perhaps you can come to terms with it."

"Can I?  Believe me, I have tried, but Carson was right.  I abandoned my duty.  I have killed, stolen, held people for ransom . . . dearest, I've fallen.  There's no pretending otherwise.  I would give any--almost anything--to be able to stand, to kneel before you and offer you a clean heart, but I can't.  I'm not sure I ever could.  There's not all that much difference between the Gray Corsairs and the Shackles Pirates."

"Then maybe you should stop believing that what you are is unworthy.  I wouldn't have married you if I thought you were unworthy, Merrill.  I wasn't looking for an angel."

"You're too good for me."

Feruzi gripped his face between her hands and kissed him.  Slowly, one muscle at a time, Pegsworthy relaxed, letting her offer what comfort she could.  His hands clutched her naked body and he cried out, pain and ecstacy mingling until he could hardly tell one from the other.

* * *

Feruzi woke to a horribly familiar sensation, the hard, cold, slithering movement of a blade being pressed to the back of her neck.  "Make any sudden moves and I'll sever her spine," Carson grated.  Merrill started to sit up and froze halfway as Drale bore down on the blade, making Feruzi wince.

"Don't.  Don't hurt her."

"Get up.  Nice and slow."

"How did you get in here?" Pegsworthy asked, easing himself carefully out of bed.

"Not that it matters, but one of my men let me out.  They're making sure we aren't disturbed."  Feruzi felt Drale's grip slacken just a bit and slid sideways.  Drale casually punched her in the face, stunning her.  She faintly heard Pegsworthy's snarl of rage.  "I will kill her, Tantrey.  Try me if you like."

"We both know I'm the one you're after.  Let her go."

"Sorry, but I'm not stupid enough to go up against you without a lever."  Carson drew a pistol from his belt and cocked it one-handed, aiming it at Pegsworthy.

"You'd murder an unarmed man?"

"Execute.  The word is execute."

"Carson, be reasonable.  Even if you kill both of us my crew will rip you to pieces.  And your men."

"They're pirates.  What's one Captain to them, more or less?"

"You're wrong," Feruzi said.  "They love him like he's their father.  Not that it will matter, because I will tear you apart with my bare hands."

Carson snorted.  "I almost believe you could."

"She can," Pegsworthy said.  "She makes me look like a gentle lamb."

"It doesn't matter.  At least I'll have rid the seas of you."

"Your hand is shaking," Pegsworthy said.  "I don't mean you any harm, Carson.  Don't do this."

"Stop. Saying. My. Name."

"I will let you go.  I won't even make you wait until we reach port, you can take the ship's boat and all the provisions she can carry.  I'll even forget that you threatened my wife."  Pegsworthy reached out toward the pistol.

"DON'T MOVE!" Carson yelled.  Feruzi felt his grip on the blade slacken and exploded out of the bed, teeth and claws extended.  Pegworthy flinched and ducked as he saw Carson pull the trigger just before Feruzi landed on him, bearing him to the ground.


Feruzi stared at Pegsworthy in surprise.  He was sprawled on the floor, but there was no smoke, no explosion, no blood, and he was . . . laughing.  "He forgot to load it," Pegsworthy gasped between spasms.

"Gods damn you!" Carson yelled.  "GODS DAMN YOU, MERRILL TANTREY!!"

"They certainly seem to enjoy playing with me," Pegsworthy chuckled.

Drale's shoulders started to shake under Feruzi's hands.  She looked down and realized that he, too, was laughing, all involuntary, in hard, tight shudders that seemed forced through his chest by some outside hand.  His face twisted ruefully and he buried it in his hands.  "Gods damn you, Merrill, but it's good to see you.  You weren't joking about the woman."

"My wife," Pegsworthy corrected.  "Properly married and everything."


"You are BOTH completely insane," Feruzi spat, shoving Drale away hard and climbing back into bed, where she wrapped a sheet around herself, and glared.

"Yes, I suppose so," Drale said, clambering to his feet.  "I'm sorry.  I . . . I really was going to kill you, Merrill."

"I know.  Over it, now?"

"Yes I . . . I think so.  I am sorry.  I thought . . . I'm not sure what I thought.  It felt like the right thing to do.  Now . . . I don't know."

"Come on, Carson, you're better than that.  At the very least, you would have gotten your men killed."  Pegsworthy extended a hand and cleared his throat pointedly.  Carson helped him stand up and turned his face away, embarrassed, while Pegsworthy pulled clothing on and buckled his peg leg in place.  "Right," Pegsworthy said, straightening his coat.  "Let's go have a drink and talk about it.  I dearly want to know how you survived."

"I think . . . I'd like that."

Pegsworthy glanced at Feruzi.  "Coming, my love?"

"I suppose I had better, in case he tries to kill you again," she grumbled, reaching for her clothes.  Someone knocked at the door, a calm, civilized knock.  Mystified, Pegsworthy opened it and Ukele breezed in.

"Zizi, the strangest things are going on out here . . . oh, hello Mr. Captain," she acknowledged Pegsworthy vaguely.  Then she saw Carson and stopped, one eyebrow slowly rising.  "Who's this?"

Pegsworthy made an ironic half-bow toward her back.  "Ukele, may I present Captain Carson Drale.  Carson, this is Ukele, my sister-in-law."

Ukele's eyes widened.  "He's CUTE."  A strangled noise that might have been a laugh burst out of Feruzi.

"Maybe I won't need to avenge myself on him after all," she muttered. 

Skull and Shackles Session 40: Fire and Water

"Perhaps we should go down to the grotto?"  Feruzi asked.  The guests were headed to bed and no amount of searching had revealed Sefina in or around the hold.

"I think it would be a good idea to inform our trusted allies first.  We should not leave our guests unguarded," Reiko said.

Pegsworthy, Tatsumi, Rosie, Saburo, Leila and Conchobar were quickly recruited to set up a perimeter.  Ezikial climbed onto the roof to roost with his beloved ballistae.  Chopper set off toward the grotto with Reiko, Feruzi, and Sandara in tow.

"It seems a little odd that Sefina would do all this walking instead of swimming," Feruzi remarked as they followed and quickly lost the faint traces.

"I'm good, but I can't track through water," Chopper said.  "Maybe we just pay her a visit and, you know, ask her."

As they approached the water's edge something launched into the air and exploded into bright sparks.  A moment later Sefina rose up from the water.  "I am sorry," she said, "for what the tiny man makes me do."

"What tiny man?" Reiko asked. 

Sefina stared directly into Chopper's eyes.  "Defend me, Captain."


The nereid then sprayed a fine mist at the ladies.  Feruzi ducked and Reiko tossed her head, but Sandara squealed and pawed at her eyes.  "Dammit, I'm blind!" the cleric yelled.

"Sefina, what are you doing?" Reiko demanded.  "We did not come here to hurt you.  We only came to ask you a question.  Why are you attacking us?"

"The tiny man has my shawl!  I must obey him?"

"Who is the tiny man?  We can get your shawl back for you!"

Feruzi attempted to get around Chopper but he pushed her back without apparent effort.  "Stop that.  Please don't make me make you hurt me."  Sefina sang to the water and an elemental answered her summons, gliding forward to grapple Reiko.  Chopper made a face.  "See, now what do you need me for?"

"There ARE three of them," Sefina told him, pouting.

"That thing counts fer two, though!"

"What in Hells is happenin?!" Sandara complained.  She flinched as Feruzi shot a volley of arrows at the elemental, disrupting it badly enough that it lost its shape.

"Oh, good," Chopper said.  "I might actually become necessary as a means of defense now."

"I'm supposed to keep you all busy while the tiny man sets fire to the pirate lords' ships!  You'll be disgraced if you can't stop him!" Sefina cried mournfully.  Reiko gave her a disgusted look.  Feruzi attempted once again to get past Chopper, but he doggedly interfered.  Not seeing any other alternative, she punched him.

"Dammit, Ruze!" Chopper grunted, staggering backward.  Reiko darted past him and struck Sefina with the hilt of her sword, dazing the nereid.

"I'm sorry!" Reiko said reflexively.  "We need to go now, guys!"

"How are we supposed to find him out there?" Feruzi asked, chasing after Reiko and catching up after only a few strides.

"We can't do anything from this side of the cove, we need to get back to the fort."

"I'll sound the alarm," Feruzi said, ducking her head and pushing into a full sprint, her long legs devouring the distance.  Chopper and Sefina watched them go.

"It's already begun," Sefina said.  "I don't need to hold you here any longer.   You should go while there's still time."

Feruzi was almost within shouting range of Nightmare Hold when the side of the Blood Moon exploded into a blaze of fire.  She saw people up on the parapet were now clearly aware of the situation and turned toward the docks, freeing one of the rowboats for Reiko to use when she caught up and then diving into the water to swim toward the anchored ships.  As she got closer, she saw the silhouette of a halfling clinging to the side of the Wavecrest and doing who-knew-what to the hull of the ship.  Unfortunately, he spotted her and dissolved into a fluid form, leaving some kind of device behind.

Feruzi grabbed the side of the Wavecrest and hauled herself out of the water.  "HEY!!" she bellowed in her best Master-at-Arms voice.  "There's a bomb on the side of the ship!  Get some people down here NOW!!"  Inquisitive heads looked over the side at her and she began cursing them viciously.  "Signal the other ships, dammit!  And where's that bloody druid when you need him!"

Reiko, Chopper, and Sandara finally arrived at the docks.  Reiko took charge of their allies from the fort, directing Pegsworthy and Tatsumi to blockade the harbor and sending everyone else to aid with the firefighting effort.  Chopper took the oars of the loose rowboat and Reiko climbed in, still yelling instructions as they cast off for the Come What May, Cerise Bloodmourne's ship, pausing only briefly to pick up the squelchy Feruzi.  Reiko pointed: the translucent halfling was there, on the side of the Come What May, planting another bomb.  Feruzi drew her bow, scowling at the water-filled quiver, and took a shot.  The halfling looked up, yelped, and dove into the water.

All was now quiet.  Mase Darimar helped the crew of the Blood Moon extinguish the last of the flames: the Wavecrest and Come What May were unscathed.  Exhausted by all the excitement, Reiko, Chopper, and Feruzi returned to shore, where Ezikial was waiting.

"Got 'im," Ezikial informed them.

"Succinct," Chopper said.  Ezikial led them to a hidden cellar that now contained an equally hidden alchemy lab.  The halfling, now solid, lay on the floor in a bullet-riddled fashion.

"What was that all about, anyway?" Feruzi asked, baffled.  Ezikial shrugged.

"Captain, sir, the pirate lords would like a word," Conchobhar said.  Cerise Bloodmourn, Avimar Sorrinash, and Mase Darimar were waiting with the Master of the Gales.

"Sorry for all the ruckus," Chopper said.

Lady Bloodmourn grinned and tipped her hat.  "Not at all.  That, Captain Chopper, was a party."

"Heh, thankee.  Still, my apologies to Captain Sorrinash more'n the rest.  Security breach was my own fault.  Whatever reparations we can make fer the damages ta yer ship, we'll do."  Avimar gave him a sharp, disgruntled nod.

"It is the decision of this committee that you will EACH be offered a seat on the Pirate Council," Lady Bloodmourn said.

"Congratulations," The Master of the Gales intoned.  "I think that new blood is just what the Council needs."

"Wait, what?" Feruzi asked.

"You are now on the Pirate Council, Miss Feruzi."

"Sounds like a lot of extra work to me."

"It's not that much work," Lady Bloodmourn said.  "Hells, if I can do it . . ." 

Jan 9, 2014

Skull and Shackles Session 39: Sorry Soiree

It was Kuthona, the beginning of winter.  The island was quiet for the first time--the hired workmen had finished their repairs and taken ship for other ports.  The Bonaventure, the Kitsune, and the Sated Satyr were anchored in the cove alongside the Crisis.  The former Chelish fortress would be crowded tonight, but for now they still awaited the arrival of the guests of honor--three pirate lords who would pass judgment on Captain Chopper's fitness to join the Pirate Council.

Captain Pegsworthy simply rolled over and resumed snoring when Feruzi got up at the crack of dawn, dressed in her simple white gown, and left the room.  There was nothing useful for her to do at this early hour but there was no possible chance of her relaxing, either.  Mr. Kroop waved at her, yawning, when she invaded the kitchen.

"Will I need to set something on fire to get rid of her?" Audessa asked sotto voce.

"Jist hope summon gets 'ere soon," Kroop told her.

Rickety Hake was the first guest to arrive, expressing his delight at being invited.  Chopper appeared, arrayed in some of Conchobar's finest work, and shook hands with the grinning old man.  The Luck of the Draw, Tessa's flagship, arrived next, just before noon.  She told Chopper to expect Avimar Sorrinash, Cerise Bloodmourn, and Mase Darimar as the Council's representatives.

"I thought I should excuse myself, being rather biased," she explained.  "I'll be around if you need me, though."

"Have you met Fargo Vitterande?" Feruzi asked as Chopper turned to greet Lady Agasta.  Tessa shook her head.  The weasely little man perked up at the introduction and was soon happily comparing mutual acquaintances with Captain Fairwind.  Next to arrive was the Kraken with the Master of the Gales, not formally part of the review, either.  The Master gave Chopper a single, distracted nod and swept off on whatever mysterious druid business occupied his attention.

Reiko appeared, wearing a kimono of fine cloth but without the nearly-immobilizing extravagance of full formality.  Ezikial wore a sharply-tailored black and red coat accessorized with pistols and a neat ascot wrapped around his neck.

The next to arrive was Lady Bloodmourn, and it was time for the party to begin.  "Nakayama Reiko, as I live and breathe," she declared by way of introduction.  "You have come a LONG way."  She gestured to the Captains entering behind her.  "Please, introduce us to your shipmates."

Reiko bowed deeply as a sign of extreme respect.  "This is the Captain of the Crisis, Chopper.  And here we have Ms. Feruzi and Mr. Hands."

"Captain," Lady Bloodmourn said, making a courtly little obeisance.  "I've heard so much about you."

"Right," Sorrinash growled.  "Time for you to show us the big guns.  I want to see your fortifications before we feast."

Chopper nodded easily.  "Mr. Hands, if you would?"

"This way," Ezikial said diffidently.  Sorrinash grilled him relentlessly as they toured the battlements, bringing up obscure terms and historical comparisons.  Ezikial didn't seem impressed and answered the questions with curt expertise.  Finally, Sorrinash gave a grudging nod.

"Not bad.  I think you have this coastline under control."

"Aye," was Ezikial's laconic response.

"Maybe you'll have some use for this, then," Sorrinash continued, handing Ezikial a clear glass bottle with a tiny, intricately detailed miniature ship inside.


"It's considered appropriate for us to show our approval with gifts," Lady Bloodmourn explained.  "Now, if that's out of the way, I could do with some entertainment."

"Fortunately, we anticipated that," Feruzi said dryly.  "This way."

Audessa and her crew of former courtesans had the hall ready when they arrived.  The Pirate Lords smacked their lips appreciatively over the Old Deep Rum and soon the carouse was in full swing.  "So, tell us what you found on this island.  It has quite the . . . reputation.  Your navigator mentioned something about a giant octopus, I believe."

"That was just the welcoming committee," Feruzi said, dryly.  "After we disposed of it we discovered that the fortress, our new home, was infested with not one, but two sets of mystical creatures: Nightmare shadows and phasing spiders.  We were put to some inconvenience, it is true."

"It sounds like it."

"But that was before we discovered the immortality-seeking wizard ghost in the basement.  He called himself Bikendi Otongu, if you have ever heard the name.  He was responsible for this infestation--he made a deal with a hag that, unfortunately, didn't turn out very well for him.  He was planning on using an artifact sacred to the island's cyclops population to make himself immortal, but even though he sacrificed a hundred souls to this end he was killed before he could finish the ritual, binding his soul here in eternal waiting.  We reclamed the artifact from the cyclopes--they weren't too eager to let loose of it--but it didn't seem right to make a deal with a known backstabber like Otongu, so we destroyed it.  Then we destroyed him."


Feruzi placed a small box on the table and flipped it open to reveal six fire opals.  "Do you know why this is called the Island of Empty Eyes?  The many statues on this island once held gems like these.  I hope you will accept them as souvenirs--of your visit.  The cyclopes only have one eye apiece, but since we have two this seems more appropriate."

"That's very kind of you," Lady Bloodmourne said.  "I have a gift for you, as well."  She waved to one of her nearby crew who acted as her personal retainer.

Chopper realized someone was tugging at his jacket.  "Captain!" one of Audessa's ladies hissed.  "We could use some help with a, uh, minor problem in the kitchen."

"Right.  Mr. Hands, with me.  Reiko, Feruzi, see to our honored guests for just a moment."

"Of course," Feruzi said.

"Is everything all right, Captain Chopper?" Mase Darimar asked, raising an eyebrow languidly.

"I'm sure it is nothing, Captain Darimar," Reiko said.  "Our Captain will see to whatever it is.  He likes to get his hands dirty from time to time."

Fishguts waved his hands frantically as Chopper and Ezikial entered the kitchen.  "Oh, thank the Black Queen yer here.  They're comin outta the bloody walls!"  One of the courtesans shrieked.

"What's this?" Chopper asked, mystified.  Then he looked down.  For a moment it looked like the floor was moving, then he realized that he was looking at a metaphorical sea of rats, all scratching, squeaking, and scurrying in unison.  "Oh fer gawdsake."  He waved a hand and the noise abruptly stopped, the rats gathering attentively around his feet.  "Oi, you lot.  Fug off.  This is a party, not a rat convention."

Amazingly, this seemed to have an effect.  With disappointed-sounding squeaks, the rats began disappearing back down their holes.  Chopper and Ezikial searched the kitchen and the cellar while Kroop attempted to repair the damage, throwing out a lovely cake now additionally decorated with tiny rat prints.  They found no sign of where the rats might have come from, nor even where they might have disappeared to.

"Hm," Chopper said.  "I guess that's that."

"Thank you, Captain," Audessa said.  "When you head back out, please let them know that we're ready to serve the first course."

Chopper hurried back into the dining hall, just in time to receive Lady Bloodmourne's gift, a finely-worked sword cane.  He grinned, and invited the pirate lords to sit down to dinner.  Despite the rat mishap Kroop had outdone himself; Sorrinash and Lady Bloodmourne tucked into their plates while Captain Darimar eyed Chopper.

"So, you will have seen much of the Shackles by now," the elven druid said.  "The hidden currents, the smuggler's coves, the weather patterns . . ."

"A good bit, aye."

"If I were to ask you to plot a course from here to Firegrass Isle, how would you go about it?" Darimar asked.  Feruzi heard Pegsworthy snort--he had just come from Firegrass Isle--but he knew better than to speak up.  Chopper tapped his chin, making a show of consideration, before rattling off a litany of coarse changes and navigation notes.  Darimar nodded.  "You are an interesting man, Captain Chopper.  I hear you have made many friends."

"Aye, I'm all right, I suppose."

"Not everyone would show mercy to a locathah matriarch."

"Well, she were in a bad enough spot without us pilin' on.  Didn't seem . . . right."

"I have always been fascinated by the creatures of the deep and the aquatic fey."

"We have one of those around here, actually," Feruzi put in when no one seemed about to respond to Darimar's latest statement.  "A nereid.  Her name is Sefina."

"I appreciate your willingness to befriend and work with the aquatic races, Captain Chopper," Darimar said.  He set a large, intricately carved conch shell on the table.

"Much obliged, Captain."  Chopper started to say something else, but Sandara appeared at his elbow.

"Captain, kin I borrow ye fer a minnit?"

"Course," he said, following her once more into the kitchen.  She gestured to Fishguts, who was lying on the floor and groaning.  Audessa was dabbing his forehead with a cloth.

"I dunno whass wrong with 'im," Sandara said as Chopper crouched to examine Fishguts.

"Poison," was Chopper's rapid diagnosis.  Ezikial, who had silently followed them to the kitchen, produced a bottle of antitoxin and passed it over.

"How'd he git poisoned?" Sandara demanded.  "I checked ALL this stuff, Captain."

"Good question.  You have anything off-menu, Mister Kroop?"

"No!  I bin checkin everything afore sendin it out, o'course . . . ."

"A mixed poison?" Ezikial asked.

"Mixed what, now?"  Sandara demanded.

"Separate components in different dishes.  They only have an effect when you eat them together."

Sandara shook her head, not disagreeing, just disgusted.  "I wouldna found that."

"I'm at a loss," Chopper said.  "If any of our guests gets sick, that could be very, very bad."

"An' we've all eaten it, too," Sandara said.

"Fuck," was Ezikial's comment.

"Mebbe we kin trick th' Councilors inter acceptin help afore they get sick?  I kin only cast a spell on ONE of em.  Or Fishguts, here," Sandara said.

"Can't you purify it?" Ezikial asked.

"Zeke, errybody's already eaten it!"

Ezikial sighed.  "Aye, I'm grasping at straws here."  He frowned, glaring into the distance.  "We should have a toast," he declared.  "Spiced whiskey.  Mix it with antitoxin and hope for the best."

"The guests are starting to wonder where you've all gone," Audessa said.

"Right," Chopper said his eyes suddenly crossed.  "Zeke, you take care of it.  Quickly."

"What are you going to do?"

"Imma go throw up."

Ezikial threw together some special drinks for the guests over the sound of Chopper being ill out back.  The guests were, indeed, getting restless, but all suspicion vanished in the presence of More Booze.  Ezikial took advantage of the distraction to send Feruzi out to deal with the retching Chopper.  It seemed they had dodged a bullet, but no sign could be found of the poison's source.  Further investigation would have to wait; Reiko spotted Captain Sorrinash cornering one of Audessa's ladies, who was trying to get away without causing offense and searching the crowd for help.  Reiko withdrew two fans from her obi and crossed to them in the tiny, mincing steps of the geisha.

"I was wondering, Captain, have you ever been to the Ushinawa Isles?"

Sorrinash looked up, bewildered.  "Can't say as I have."

"We have a different idea of entertainment.  Shall I show you?"

Sorrinash seemed to realize that everyone in the room was staring at them now.  "Yah . . ." he allowed, cautiously, letting go of the girl, who scurried away.  Reiko gave him a tiny, tight-lipped smile.  The courtesans playing musical instruments changed to a piece with a Tien flavor.  The party slowly lurched back to action.

Feruzi reappeared with the still-somewhat-green Chopper, but Reiko seemed to have everything well in hand.  With a sigh of relief, she sought out a corner to hide in, only to be interrupted by another of the courtesans.

"I've made a terrible mistake!" she said.  Feruzi blinked.

"What seems to be the trouble?"

"It's all my fault.  I gave Captain Sorrinash the . . . whatever it was that made him so hot for Cyr."

"You did?  What's your name, again?"

"I'm Vinza.  I was throwing out scraps in the back alley and this beautiful woman approached me . . . she asked me to serve Lord Sorrinash this special drink.  It never even occurred to me to refuse her.  Why would that be?"

"Sounds like magic to me," Feruzi said. "Did you recognize the woman at all?"

"I've seen her before. Hard to forget. Naked, except for this sheer shawl covering her, you know, lady bits."