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.”