Posted by Jennifer
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 move 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.