Skull and Shackles

Session 8: Dangerous Reefs

Posted by: Jennifer

Ezikial spent their second day aboard the Promise swabbing the deck, a chore he engaged in diligently even though it seemed a poor use of his skills. He never objected to even the hardest work aboard a ship—all proper ship work seemed right to him, somehow, and did not grate on his nerves the way it did other people. He was just settling into his pace when Reiko staggered by, burdened with a load of sea turtles. Her grasp slipped as she turned to edge past and she wound up dumping the entire batch nearly at his feet.

“So sorry,” she muttered, trying to chivvy the turtles back into a heap.

“Help her, fool,” a voice grated, and Ezikial glanced up to receive an imperious gesture from Mr. Scourge. Shrugging, he picked up several by their tails and helped Reiko ferry them to the galley. He couldn’t have been gone more than a minute or two, but by the time he returned to the deck it was smeared with two dozen filthy bootprints. He blinked at the mess for a moment, slightly dazzled by the laughable childishness, then began cleaning the same patch of deck for the second time.

“Tsk, tsk,” said Acting Captain Plugg, stopping to survey the mess on his rounds. “How long have you been working on this spot, Mr. Hands? You seem hardly to have begun. Clearly, I have been too lenient with you. This is what happens when I permit alcohol aboard.”

Ezikial stared at the Acting Captain, baffled by this line of reasoning. The two new Rahadoumi crewmembers drew closer, hovering. Ezikial realized suddenly that he shot one of them during the boarding action. The man’s face was full of anticipation.

“Surrender your flask, Mr. Hands. That is an order.” There didn’t seem any point in resisting. Moving woodenly, Ezikial pulled the flask from his pocket and held it out, wincing as Plugg seized it. “Master Scourge! Search his duff and bring me any liquor you find,” Plugg added. He then unscrewed the top of the flask and poured the whiskey into the ocean.

“Sir?” Ezikial interjected, dumbfounded. Plugg smiled faintly as Scourge returned with a bottle of cheap wine and another of brandy. Plugg disposed of them over the side, as well.

“Search him,” Plugg added to the Rahadoumi sailors. Ezikial’s stomach knotted.

“Captain Plugg, sir, if I may speak so, keeping me from the consumption of spirits is quite likely to impair my ability to be of service to you and your ship. I beg your indulgence on this issue so that I may perform to your expectations.”

“Indulgence denied,” Plugg said offhandedly. Haroun and Maoud seized Ezikial’s shoulders and made short work of searching him, coming up with a waterskin and a piece of parchment. “Give it here,” Plugg said. The waterskin met the same fate as the other booze, then Plugg turned his attention to the parchment. His faint smile broadened and he waved at Scourge. “Ring the bell and bring everyone on deck,” Plugg ordered.

“Everyone?” Scourge asked.

EVERYONE!”

“Shit,” Ezikial muttered under his breath. It took some minutes for everyone to assemble, looking baffled and even hostile to be interrupted in their work. Plugg waved the paper overhead theatrically.

“I have here a most startling confession out of Mr. Hands’ pocket,” he announced. “I shall read it to you. Dear Chopper . . . such a lovely salutation, so formal . . . Alas, the days on this ship keep us apart . . .”

“What the hell?” Chopper demanded, staring wide-eyed at Ezikial. Behind him, Sandara was looking absolutely green, as though she would now welcome death.

“I know how I feel about you now, but I have no way to tell you! I hope the day comes soon when I can speak to you in person, until then, hold this close as a token of my favor! Such lovely sentiments from one crewmember to another,” Plugg said, glancing from Ezikial to Chopper and back. Most of the crew was grinning broadly. “Oh, wait, there’s a signature . . . Yours, Sandara Q. Well, that’s slightly less disturbing.” The thuggish crewmembers howled with derisive laughter. “This is very precious, Ms. Quinn. Shall I marry you now? I have that right as Captain.”

“You’re a real son of a bitch, you know that?” Chopper hissed. “A true rotter.”

Plugg’s smile tightened dangerously. “I’ve heard that said, yes. But it takes a son of a bitch to manage a gang of cutthroats like this.” He crumpled the parchment and dropped it to the deck. “Everyone back to work.” Plugg began to turn away.

“Sadly, you are mistaken, Sir,” Ezikial said abruptly, startling everyone. “I, at least, would have worked with a will and willingly if you had even the slightest notion how to lead men.”

Plugg waited a moment or two before replying. “I fear I must have understood you incorrectly, Mr. Hands. Would you care to . . . rephrase . . . your statement?”

Ezikial raised his voice, speaking clearly and precisely. “You have failed to treat us with any semblance of respect and deserve none from us. Instead, you drive us with your fear and insecurity as if they were enough to make you worthy of being captain. If I survive your foolishness I will continue to work for the good of the ship, but never for you.”

Plugg steepled his fingers and tapped his lips meditatively. “I see. Mr. Chopper!”

“Er, what?”

“Congratulations, I am promoting you to ship’s carpenter and surgeon.”

“What?”

“Your first task is to build me a sweatbox . . . and you will do a good job, unless you want to spend a week in it.”

Chopper’s face darkened for the second time. “I only do quality work,” he spat.

Plugg ignored him, looking down his nose at Ezikial. “When the box is completed, then your punishment will begin. You look surprised? Were you expecting me to fight you?”

“No, sir. I don’t expect you are that kind of man or pirate.”

“Get back to work. It appears you’ve missed a spot.”

* * *

With nothing else to do after dinner, the friendly portion of the crew, minus Rosie and Sandara, gathered in the berths. “Did anyone else notice that we changed course last night?” Leila asked.

“How could you tell?” Feruzi wondered.

“I used to be the navigator on this ship. We were headed for Port Peril, but now we’re going east.”

“What is east of here, then?” Chopper growled. “I’m not wildly familiar with the Shackles. It could be any eastern island. Maybe Bloodcove?”

“It is odd that Plugg would disobey Harrigan’s orders. If that is what he is doing,” Feruzi said.

“It could also be the Slithering Coast we’re headed for,” Reiko offered. “The only real dock I know there is Rickety’s Squibs. Based on what we know of Mr. Plugg, I’d say that now he has a ship under his command, he’ll be headed to where he can either get a new one or have this one refitted to be unrecognizable. That is why I think Rickety’s Squibs is likely.”

“What is there that he would want?” Ezikial asked.

“He did not fit in with his old crew. I have no doubt he desires to get away from them. What better opportunity than a port that specializes in refits? All he has to do is get rid of us, keep those loyal to him, and pick up a new crew.”

“If he can find one,” Chopper said.

“I don’t think it would be too difficult. All he needs is to find the equivalent of mercenaries, or have Scourge press a few more.”

“Mercenaries? With what money.”

“Hence the pressing comment, Mr. Chopper.”

“I was in the captain’s cabin this morning,” Leila spoke up. “There is quite a bit of money.”

“You don’t say,” Chopper’s attention was now riveted on her.

“I am sure he got a lot more than we did from the looting of this ship,” Reiko said.

“In that case, I have a plan,” Chopper announced. Ezikial eyed him. “Leila can nab the money for us, then we can toss it overboard on the sly and Plugg’s ambitions come to nothing. Oh, he’ll rant and rave and search the ship, but he’ll find nothing.”

“I don’t think that is the answer, Mr. Chopper,” Reiko said.

“Then you’re very short-sighted,” he shot back. “It’s only money.”

“I agree. It is only money. But throwing it overboard is not the answer in this case.

“Do we care about the ambition of the man? If he makes for port, we can get off this tub,” Feruzi added.

“If we make port,” Chopper objected.

“Then we should endeavor to stay alive until we do.”

Reiko shook her head. “I suspect Plugg will try to drop us off on a deserted island.”

“So pitch me an alternative,” Chopper replied.

“Think like Plugg for a moment. He would want to have as many people crewing this ship for as long as possible until we get at least to the Slithering Coast. We have probably about a week until we reach the coast.” Ezikial stood up abruptly and left the room. “Mr. Hands!” Reiko hissed.

“Need a drink,” he muttered. Chopper stood and followed him into the galley, which fortunately was just next door.

“We need to talk,” Chopper told him flatly while Ezikial rummaged in the cupboards. Fishguts leaned out the door.

“It’s under me bunk,” he said helpfully. Ezikial waved at Fishguts and helped himself.

“So, you want to speak to me?”

“What the hells, Zeek? With the letter? And Sandara? Why did you have that?”

“I would think, my friend, that the contents of the letter, however they did arrive to you, would have been clear.”

“You’re missing the godsdamned point. Actually, I think you’re ducking.”

“It was less conspicuous to give it to me on the deck so I might give it to you after the working day was complete.”

Reiko glared at them both from the doorway. “This is why it doesn’t do to get involved romantically on a ship. You two need to hold it down. You are directly under the captain’s cabin.”

“I am speaking in a quite moderate tone of voice,” Ezikial protested.

“Do you want Plugg to come down here and interrupt our conversation?”

Chopper and Ezikial watched her silently for a moment until she gave up and left. Chopper then threw his hands in the air. “I’m such an idiot. This is all my fault.”

“Perhaps only an idiot as all men are with women?” Ezikial offered. He was rapidly nearing the bottom of his mug.

“All men?” Chopper demanded, incredulous. “Do all men leap into certain—” he stopped, making a face and shaking his head.

* * *

The next day was largely quiet. Chopper finished the sweatbox late in the evening, when there was little point in putting Ezikial inside. By morning, though, a nasty squall blew up, tossing the Promise from side to side. All hands were needed to manage the rigging and pump water out of the bilges. Ezikial took Feruzi aside and had her retrieve his stashed brandy from below. She was clearly tempted to refuse, but did as he asked. Ezikial breathed a sigh of relief and climbed into the rigging. Chopper was eyeing Maheem speculatively as they worked.

“What do you think?” Chopper asked, barely audible over the noise of the storm. Ezikial nodded. Chopper caught Maheem’s attention while Ezikial took a side route through the rigging. Within moments, he was at Maheem’s back, still unnoticed. He leaned forward to hiss in the big Rahadoumi’s ear.

“Goodbye, Maheem. Besmara awaits,” Ezikial hissed in his ear with malicious glee and then shoved the man, hard, and Maheem toppled from the rigging, landing on the deck headfirst. A wave washed the corpse overboard before anyone noticed it. Ezikial grinned at Chopper and resumed work.

* * *

Near dawn dark shapes could be seen looming out of the sea—small islets and coral reefs. The gale seemed to double in ferocity. Creaking and grinding noises began to come from the hull.

CUT THE SAILS LOOSE!” Ezikial shouted, recognizing their position. He began to slash at the canvas with his belt knife, bringing curses from the crew members struck as the sheets flapped loose. Reiko dropped down to the deck to find some kind of officer, only to discover strange goblin-like creatures climbing the sides of the ship. They yelled at her and attacked with wooden spears. Reiko heard a loud boom as Ezikial fired his pistol at them, downing one. She snapped her katana from its sheath and cleaved another down. The others yelled and retreated, disappearing over the side as the Promise gave a great bucking heave. A terrible grinding and screeching noise came from below as the ship ground to a halt on a reef just as the last of the sails came loose and flopped over the deck.

“Land ho,” Chopper said wryly.

They were fortunate, at least, in that the gale seemed to be blowing itself out with the receding tide. The Promise settled heavily onto the rocks while the crew gathered on the canting deck. Plugg eyed them and frowned.

“Where are Ms. Quinn, Mr. Maheem, and Mr. Shortstone?” he demanded. He eyed the half-a-monster Reiko had dragged up and deposited at his feet.

“It appears they were pulled off the ship during the attack,” Feruzi said, displaying Sandara’s holy symbol and pointing to the lingering traces of slime on the deck.

“Then they are lost,” Plugg said. “Grindylows devour whatever they catch.”

“Was it your plan to run us aground, Mr. Plugg? Have you never been on a ship before?” Reiko demanded.

“Stand down, Reiko-san. The storm has blown us off course.”

“I wouldn’t argue that if we were actually headed where we were supposed to go.”

“You are out of line. We have, indeed, strayed from our course—Badger has turned out to be a pitiful navigator. But that is not our concern now. Mr. Chopper! Kindly go below and assess the damage to this ship.” Chopper glared, then stomped off to begin his survey. Plugg turned his attention back to Reiko. “Anything further?”

“Nothing . . . for now.”

“Then you are dismissed.”

* * *

The main hold was staved in on the starboard side, smashing the ship’s reservoir of fresh water among other things. “That is very bad,” Chopper muttered to himself. The ship wasn’t in immediate danger, but she needed repairs to make her seaworthy again.

“We must see if we can move her from the rocks,” Feruzi said, also eyeing the breakage.

“Aye,” Chopper said. He climbed back onto the deck to report his findings. Plugg nodded distantly.

“Very well, Mr. Chopper, take the ship’s cutter and some assistants to the island, there, and search for fresh water and supplies. The repairs will take a day and a half. We sail at the next high tide after.”

“Gonna have to bring my charge, too.”

“Fine, fine. Step to it, Mr. Chopper.” They launched the ship’s cutter and sailed for the island, finding no landing on the western or northern sides, which were sheer cliffs and rocks. As they rounded the eastern shoals, they found an odd decoration or totem suspended at the edge of the water, a small, twisted skeleton, twined in sinew and seaweed and covered in carvings.

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