The Stormy Blossom, newest sloop in the service of Bessala Day, glides past the high cliffs opposite the Outer Harbour, where fishing vessels and shrieking gulls teem. As the towering headland slips sternward, the great walls of the Bastion come into view, the massive cannon poking their snouts through loopholes in the five-foot-thick walls of the fortress that guards the entrance to the Inner Harbour of Chang Lao.
There’s no escaping the stench of the Near Reach, the long spit of land that separates the Outer and Inner Harbours, but the Stormy Blossom soon passes that vile home of criminals and destitute. The pilot calls out and the helmsmen heaves the wheel and with a quick snap of the boom, the Blossom turns smartly to starboard, cutting across the waters of the Inner Harbour to where Bessala’s famous shipyards loom, cranes and scaffolds swarming with workers.
The Inner Harbour is less crowded than the Outer, but still, this hub of the islands is busy enough to stun anyone who isn’t used to it. The metropolis of Chang Lao stretches up the hills beyond, looking down on the harbour, where trading junks and heavy pirate warships, nimble sloops and squat caravels all jostle for anchorage, dozens of small boats zipping between the ships, ferrying sailors and supplies from the shore and back. A group of native women in bright saris paddle alongside the Blossom for a while, offering fresh fruit and laughing at the sailors’ jokes.
Captain Stenfahl hasn’t said much on this trip, only that Ms. Day had requested he bring these folks to Chang Lao to potentially join her staff. He says nothing now, brooding by the stern rail and watching the pilot and helmsman pick their way through the shoals in this part of the harbour. His gaze snaps up, however, when the ship’s bell begins to ring.
The forward lookout is hauling on the bellrope, pointing off the port bow.
“Captain, there’s something in the water headed straight for us. Under the water, sir. Coming in fast.”
Captain Jacquline, Da Wei and Uncle are gathered at the bow, taking in the sights of the Chang Lao harbour, when the Captain’s lovely eyes narrow.
“Does anyone else see that?”
Uncle leans out over the rail.
“You mean that hissing, steaming mass under the water, heading straight for us? What of it? Isn’t this how new ships are welcomed to the harbour?”
Further back, near the quarterdeck companionway, Itsuki turned at Captain Stenfahl’s quiet order to his cronies.
“Get the boat over the side. We’re leaving. Now.”
And indeed the Captain and his most favoured men quickly flipped the Stormy Blossom’s rowboat off the deck and into the water, and scrambled down. Itsuki levelled a stern gaze at the Captain.
“So, you seek to betray us. This will not go unavenged.”
Stenfahl stared at the young ninja for a second, then shrugged. He tapped one of the burly seamen on the shoulder.
“Punch this dumb punk in the face and come after us.”
Meanwhile, at the prow, Da Wei, Uncle and Captain Jacquline watched in disbelief as the whatever-it-was barrelled straight at them, crashing into the ship with alarming momentum, rocking the entire ship back and spilling what crew remained to the deck. A terrible roaring started up from belowdecks, where the thing had struck.
Water rushing in, certainly. Screams of doomed men trapped below, of course. But something else. Something even scarier. A roaring like an enormous bonfire had just erupted into life beneath then.
Sure enough, smoke began rising up between the deck planks.
Jacquline decided the time for decisive action had come.
“Abandon ship! Everyone into the water!”
And she leapt overboard, inspiring the greater portion of the crew to do likewise.
Da Wei caught sight of Itsuki’s plight and took a shot at the sailor about to punch the ninja, then jumped after Jacquline. Uncle, startled by Da Wei’s sudden action, grabbed a floatable crate and followed suit.
Hernandez, outraged that anyone should attempt to lay hands on the delicate Itsuki, charged the sailor, who, seeing the odds turn against him, simply took a moment to leap from the rail and into the quickly-disappearing rowboat. Itsuki immediately rushed to the Captain’s rooms, tearing apart shelves and drawers in the search for documents.
The ship burned. Long ropes of flame twisted up through hatchways, writhing like living things. The fiery ropes reached out, one nearly grazing Jacquline in the water, and another striking like a searing cobra at Hernandez, burning the massive native man as he pursued Itsuki. The rigging caught fire above him as the flames began to consume the Stormy Blossom.
Jacquline saved a couple of sailors from near-drowning and fought off a curious shark while following Uncle and Da Wei’s lead towards the nearby shore. Hernandez, panicking as the fire spread everywhere, charged into the Captain’s chamber and tackled Itsuki right out the stern window in a shower of glass and flaming wood. Itsuki hit the water, and, weighed down by his fancy kimono, promptly dropped out of sight. Only some expert swimming by Hernandez kept the ninja from drowning then and there.
Ashore, our heroes found themselves guests at a better-than-it-sounds joint called The Rathole, where the landlord, Robson, took good care of them and even sent one of his boys off to carry a message to Bessala Day.
The night passed peacefully enough. The morning, not so much.
A man calling himself Li arrived as our heroes were enjoying a breakfast. Li claimed to speak on behalf of Bessala Day, and made it clear he suspected them of setting the fire aboard the Stormy Blossom. He instructed them to watch a woman named Kitsune, and to report on who she spoke to that evening at the Watery Rat. He was not very polite. It also seems that the boy sent the previous night by Robson never arrived. Nor did he ever return.
Da Wei arranged for lodging (with improvements by Uncle), while Itsuki restored some missing gear, Jacquline asked around about Robson’s boy, and while she didn’t find him, she did learn that one Captain Dragonfly, favourite of Bessala Day, was on the board of the Harbour Market, gathering funding for a venture involving the Stormy Blossom. That money was all lost now, and Bessala Day was hurting. Her arch-rival, however, Masakumi, was known to have done very well.
Hernandez attempted to track Mr. Li, but got jumped by a trio of thugs and to avoid them, jumped into the harbour. Bets were immediately laid by all onlookers as to how far he’d get before getting eaten by a shark.
Not very far, it turned out. Hernandez was badly injured but still managed to assert his will over the great fish, getting it to carry him away from the scene.
Meanwhile Uncle got some tips on blending in from a palanquin bearer, and doesn’t look around nearly so much anymore.
Our heroes reconvened at the Watery Rat that evening, Hernandez still smarting from his encounter with the shark. The woman Kitsune was impossible to miss—a beauty in a vibrant yellow kimono, with her hair all up and about, long long fingernails and done up like a court lady (very out of place in this nasty little dive). She appeared to be waiting for someone.