Skull and Shackles

Interlude: It Begins

Posted by: Jennifer

As they approached the gangway to the Crisis, Pegsworthy realized that Feruzi was counting down under her breath. He raised an eyebrow at her, but she shook her head minutely and continued to count.

“Hey, who’s the pretty lady?” Cog shouted down from the wheelhouse. The deck was instantly covered in pirates.

“Three . . . two . . . one . . .,” Feruzi continued muttering.

Ukele burst into tears and collapsed in a heap on the deck, a sight to appall a stone statue, which Pegsworthy was not. Fortunately, he was saved from having to make up his mind as a horde of Chopper’s solicitous crew rushed forward to offer their assistance—Fishguts firmly in the lead. A look of horror flashed across Ukele’s face, quickly concealed. Pegsworthy bit the inside of his cheek to control a smirk. This was going to be entertaining.

“Ye poor thing!” Fishguts slobbered while Ukele sniffled to a stop and managed a ‘brave’ smile. Conchobar appeared around the bulk of Fishgut’s stomach like a small moonrise and offered her a handkerchief with a bow as florid as only a gnome could make it. “Ye’ll be wantin’ a hot meal, I’ll wager,” Fishguts continued.

“Oh, yes please!” Ukele enthused. “And, perhaps, if it’s not too much trouble . . .”

“No trouble, no trouble!”

“Perhaps I could get a bath, and some clean clothes . . .”

“Of course!”

Feruzi made a disgusted noise as male crewmembers scurried off in all directions, leaving only Conchobar behind. She stalked over to the door of the Female Officers’ Quarters, slamming it behind her. The gnome frowned up at Pegsworthy, looking for an explanation.

“It seems my lady is not as fond of her sister as one might expect,” he said.

“So that’s Ukele? She seems nice. Too tall, though.” Conchobar grinned. “Never really been into humans.” Pegsworthy just shrugged at this pronouncement. Concho looked around for Chopper, but his Captain was busy sorting through a pile of loot. “Do you know if she’s staying?”

“From the sound of things, yes.” Fishguts reappeared, looking around in bafflement. He spotted a pile of clothes and jewelry in the loot and made a beeline for it, snatching the entire pile from under Chopper’s nose without so much as a by-your-leave-Captain. He then promptly disappeared below again.

“We . . . can’t put her in with the rest of the crew,” Conchobar mused. "And I don’t want to guess what might happen if we put her in with Feruzi . . .

“I think that would be unwise,” Pegsworthy agreed.

“There ain’t no room in there, anyway,” Rosie said. “Not with me and F’ruzi and Leila.”

“Perhaps Reiko’s room . . .”

“No,” Reiko said flatly.

“You could share . . .”

“No.”

“How’s about the Male Officers’ Quarters?” Rosie asked, grinning wickedly. Conchobar looked horrified. “It’s just yer and Cog, an’ ye can sleep below.”

“But . . .”

“I bet Cog’d agree if ye axed him,” Rosie continued heartlessly.

“But . . . but . . .”

“It’s that ‘r the bilges. Or maybe ye could put ’er in wit Fishguts. Or Zeek if she don’t mind what ‘e an Grok get up to o’nights . . . ‘ey, mebbe she’ll join in . . .”

MERCIFUL GODS!” Conchobar squeaked, his voice rising several octaves.

“I kin just see it,” Rosie went on, grinning savagely. Conchobar looked faint. Pegsworthy grinned at the little gnome’s discomfiture.

“I don’t mind moving that much!”

“Right, it’s settled then. I’ll tell Cog,” Rosie said and scampered off.

“Women,” Conchobar muttered.

“I couldn’t agree more,” Pegsworthy said. “Speaking of which . . .”

“Maybe you should wait. She didn’t seem to be in a very good mood.”

“You could be right, but I suspect it will not improve if I just let her stew.”

“Yes, Feruzi’s a champion stewer.” Pegsworthy gave Conchobar a jaundiced look. “Sorry, that sounded bad.”

“That’s all right, I know what you meant. Ah well, once more into the breach and all that.”

“Best of luck, sir.”

“Thank you. I will probably need it.” The door flew open between his first and second knocks and Pegsworthy stumbled, nearly losing his balance and hissing in pain as his shortened leg twisted awkwardly. Feruzi blanched and grabbed his arm, steadying him.

“I’m sorry, Captain . . .”

Pegsworthy felt a flare of temper and abruptly decided to follow it. “I don’t suppose you have the good manners to invite me in?” Feruzi blinked in shock and took several steps back—about all there was room for. Pegsworthy closed the door behind him and leaned against it. “And when are you going to learn to call me Merrill?” he demanded. She stiffened.

“Feruzi did not . . .”

“Oh, cut out that nonsense.” She was seriously glaring now. That was good? Maybe?

“When are YOU going to call me Feruzi?” she shot back. Haha, it WAS good. So the lady LIKES to bicker. Well, he could bicker with the best of them.

“Chopper calls you ‘Ruse’.”

“Chopper’s entitled. And pigheaded.”

“Well, I don’t know that I’m that pigheaded . . .”

“The hells you don’t.”

“Don’t interrupt me, wench, I happen to be the Captain around here.”

“I thought you wanted me to call you Merrill.”

“I do. And I’d like to think I might also be . . . entitled.” She frowned slightly, so he eased off a bit. “Eventually.”

“It’s possible,” she conceded. “Merrill.” He bowed put a hand over his heart and bowed—not a full bow, only a few inches.

“Good, that’s settled.” Pegsworthy pushed himself upright, clasping his hands behind his back and leaning forward slightly. He let forced any trace of teasing out of his voice and spoke with grave gentleness. “Are you all right, my lady? I would not press, but time, as always, is fleeting.”

“Perhaps you should direct that question at Ukele. The cat only scratched me.” She rubbed her arm self-consciously. Pegsworthy took a step forward and took hold of her elbow, frowning over the marks. “It’s nothing,” she insisted.

“I’ll be the judge of that. In any case, you deliberately misunderstood me.” He kept his eyes on her arm, pulling out a clean cloth and a flask and from his belt pouch and dabbing carefully at the dried blood. “I did not ask if you were hurt. I asked if you were all right.”

“Yes, of course—”

“Don’t put me off,” he growled. Feruzi snatched her arm away, planting her shoulder in his chest and forcing him to step back.

“What do you want me to say? ‘Oh, I’m so upset, here, let me cry on your shoulder and moan about how hard my life is’? Would you LIKE that? Go talk to my sister, then, she’s an EXPERT at it.”

“I don’t claim to know the full history, here, but Ukele did not strike me as being as venomous as you seem to think. Young and foolish, perhaps, but we all go through that. Some of us not as handicapped by beauty, of course . . .”

“Handicapped?!”

“Yes. I know it sounds absurd, but just try to imagine it for a moment . . .”

“Because I’d have to IMAGINE anyone wanting ME like that . . .” Feruzi gasped as Pegsworthy hurtled into her, knocking her into the wall and pinning her there with his body pressed full-length against hers.

“I told you,” he murmured, his lips brushing against her jaw, “to cut out that nonsense.” Feruzi just stared, unable to muster any kind of response. Moving carefully, Pegsworthy slipped a hand around the back of her neck and placed a gentle kiss on her forehead. It didn’t seem like she had control of her body, so he eased her carefully into a sitting position and then let go, backing away. Feruzi slowly pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around them, staring at the floor. “Would you prefer me to leave? Say the word. Or just nod. Something.” He hesitated a long moment and a pleading tone crept into his voice. “Anything.” Feruzi scrubbed her hands over her face and drew a shuddering breath. “Forgive me, I . . . I will go.”

“Merrill, don’t . . .” Pegsworthy flinched as if the sound of her voice hurt him. “You’ll . . . visit me again?”

“I think,” he said, talking to the door, “I have reached the limit of what I know how to say. If you ever find something you wish to say to me, I will listen. I want to listen. But I am not sure I can face any more of this silence.” The words sounded final, but he made no move to leave. Feruzi swallowed around the lump in her throat.

“It is better than screaming.”

“Am I as horrible as all that?”

“No! I don’t want to scream at you! But I’m not sure I can stop myself right now.”

“If it would make you feel better . . .”

“No, Merrill, making you hate me would not make me feel better,” she said dryly.

He grinned, turning around to look at her. “Gallantry demands I deny the possibility. But I do have a temper.”

“You?”

“Indeed, my lady. And a great deal of foolish vanity to go with it. Had you not noticed?”

“I think I’ve been a little . . . preoccupied.”

“This situation is not likely to change, my lady.”

Feruzi seemed about to say something, but she was interrupted by a bunch of loud scraping and banging noises coming from next door. Mystified, she opened the door, startling Cogward, who was dragging a sea chest out of the room he shared with Conchobar.

WHAT are you doing?” Feruzi demanded.

“Making room?”

Pegsworthy sighed. “I should get back to my ship. I’ll leave you to it.”

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Jennifer

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