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?” Pegsworty 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.

CLICK.

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.”

“Congratulations.”

“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.

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Jennifer

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