The Sea Cook; or Hetalia's Treasure Island
Chapter Fourteen: In Which the Betrayal is Uncovered by Accident
In the following weeks, the ship returned to a semblance of normality. The hole in discipline left in Ludwig's absence was filled by Vash and, of all people, Miss Elizaveta, who requisitioned a frying pan from Kirkland's galley and proved quite proficient in wielding it against wayward crewmen. The position as officer and tactician was supplemented by Roderich who, though he lacked navigation skills, understood the workings of a ship well enough to take over those duties despite ongoing personal conflicts with the captain.
For their part, Alfred and Matthew continued to learn voraciously. Despite his questionable position as cook, Arthur proved a most capable tutor, instructing Alfred in everything from rigging the sails to attending minor wounds. Likewise, Francis continued to shower Matthew with much-needed encouragement. The voyage continued on without incident right up until they day they were bound to arrive at their destination.
His morning chores complete, Matthew looked for his brother and was surprised to find him in the galley rather than above deck. "Al?"
"Hey, Mattie!" Alfred waved from the back. He was standing on the counter, putting a newly-scrubbed pot away on the top shelf, but he hopped down as his brother approached. "Done with your chores?"
"Yeah, you too?"
Alfred grinned. "Yup!"
"And you're not going above deck?"
"You think we should?" Alfred asked, squirming like a schoolboy about to embark on his first day of class. "We're supposed to reach land any hour now, right? We'll finally make it."
"We sure will." Matthew smiled. "We should watch, eh?"
"Definitely! But let's grab a snack first."
Alfred pulled a stool from the lines of tables up alongside the huge apple barrel. It had once been a wine cask, its remnant fumes keeping the several dozen bushels of fruit slightly fresher throughout their month-long journey. It only came up to elbow height on the twins but, as it was almost empty, Alfred needed the boost to reach the bottom.
"Jeez, it's a good thing we're almost to land," he said, looking his waist over the wooden edge. "There ain't a lot of fruit left."
"With the way you've been eating it, I'm not surprised." Matthew laughed, and suddenly sparked upon a wicked little idea. He waited until his brother was fully extended, stretching on the tips of his toes, and yanked the stool away.
"Hey!" Alfred yelped and tumbled head-first into the barrel.
Matthew chortled at his brother's kicking feet disappeared over the edge. A few thumps later and Alfred's voice came again. "Real funny, Mattie!"
"Sorry, Al. I couldn't resist."
"Ha-ha. Now pull me out, I'm stuck."
Mathew frowned in disbelief. "You are not."
"Am too! That's how low the apples are! Now get me out!"
Still not completely convinced, Matthew pushed the stool against the barrel once more and peered in to see for himself. Alfred sat on the bottom, scowling up at him.
"You big baby," Matthew sighed. "You're always like this when you don't get your way. Give me your hand."
As instructed, Alfred took the offered hand. His eyes flinted and that was all Matthew had time to register before he, too, was pulled head-first into the barrel.
"Serves you right!" Alfred laughed, rolling under the swings of Matthew's elbows and knees as the younger brother struggled to right himself. A number of over-ripened apples cracked and burst beneath them, but neither boy noticed until they finally got themselves situated, with Matthew practically sitting in Alfred's lap.
Matthew pouted, puffing out his cheeks. "Not funny, Al."
"Payback is payback, brother mine. Apple?"
Matthew huffed but took the apple his twin offered him. Alfred found another for himself and polished it smartly on his shirt. "There we go. Snack acquired. Now, let's go –"
The door at the stop of the galley stairs slammed open. The twins jumped in surprise and Alfred dropped his apple. Matthew stole a glance out a knothole on the side of the barrel and swallowed.
"Braganski," he breathed.
"Kol kol kol kol kol…"
As one, the twins' breath caught in their throats. That strange sound, such horrible laughter, bounced around their heads as clearly as it chased them the night the Admiral Benbow burned. As one, they pressed together against the side of the barrel, as far from Braganski as they could. Their hands moved both to hug and to cover each other's mouth, muffling any reflexive whimpers or screams. Their eyes focused on the hole in the wood, their only window to the outside world, where the monster lurked in wait.
Braganski saunted between the long tables as though he owned the ship, chuckling his horrid chuckle and taking drafts of his silver flask. If he was drunk, he did not show it, his sea legs as steady as ever right up until he plopped into the chair normally reserved for Squire Edelstein.
He did not stay lonely long. The door opened again, ushering in Denmark, Aussie and Denmark's quiet "keeper," Norway. Another few moments brought in Iceland, and Yao wandered in from the barracks. Soon it seemed the whole crew, with the exception of the officers, the look-out and Francis, were gathered together.
The twins' hearts pounded in their chests and they exchanged baffled looks. It was nowhere near time for a meal, and no whistle was sounded to summon the crew. What was going on?
The door opened one final time, then it closed and locked.
"So. We all here, then?"
Matthew felt Alfred's gasp against the palm of his hand. The last crewman traversed the stairs slowly, every other footstep replaced by the hollow thump of wood against wood.
"All save for Yong-Soo," Yao reported. "He is still on lookout.:
"As he should be. Good."
Arthur Kirkland came to a stop at the base of the stairs, finally in full view of the boys' peephole. Alfred leaned forward. Matthew pulled him back.
The crew was silent, watching Arthur intensely. Arthur met and matched each steely gaze before he finally addressed Ivan Braganski. "Well?"
Arthur scowled and strode across to snatch the flask from Ivan's hand. "Don't play coy with me, you sod. Did you get it or not?"
The gathered crew rustled with nervous tension before settling down again, all eyes now on Braganski. Ivan licked his lips, savoring the last lingering drops of vodka, and heaved a put-upon sigh. "No."
In seconds, the crew was in an uproar, with Arthur loudest of all. "What the bloody hell do you mean, no?"
"I was unable to procure the map," Ivan said slowly and sweetly, a rather terrifying grin on his heavy-set features.
Arthur growled like a lion and instantly the crew was silent again. Even balanced on his one leg, the cook was formidable now, glaring at the seated Russian in fury and disgust.
"We only went through with this fool strategy of yours because you said you could get us the map," Arthur snarled. "Tell me, what was the point of murdering the first mate and waiting the last week for things to settle if you aren't going to get us that blasted map?"
"It was not for lack of trying on my part, captain," Ivan said with entirely too much cheer, skewing the last word into more of an insult than a respectful title. "I turned the first mate's quarters inside and out and discovered many interesting things, but our treasure map was not one of them."
"Then where the bloody hell is it?"
"Someone else must have acquired it before I was given the opportunity, da?"
Arthur struck the barrel with his crutch in anger, rattling the twins in their hiding place. Jade eyes scanned the room, silently demanding that any man who knew of the map come forward.
Arthur took a deep breath and forced his body to relax. He was calm in the next moment, facing off with the crew in silence, leaving them all to their thoughts.
"Well then," he said at last. "So much for that particular advantage, but no matter. Once we get control of the ship, we'll find that map. This is just a minor set back."
"Da," said Ivan, rising from his seat. "But I suspect it is not the only obstacle we now face, is it, captain?"
Arthur glared up at the Russian who now towered over him. "Now what the hell are you going on about?"
"I mean your cabin boys."
For a second, Arthur faltered, his crutch shifting a full inch to the side. "What about them?"
"You seem to have ground quite fond of our little mice, captain," Ivan taunted, running his hand along the edge of the barrel. "If it is an act, it is most convincing. One would almost believe that you had a soft spot for them – especially the loud little one."
The crew drew back, their whispers rustling like fallen leaves. Arthur stood his ground. "Are you trying to suggest I've gone soft?"
Ivan's grin widened like a gash. "Certainly not. But I do wonder if your new-found, ah, affection for the children will make it difficult for you toe lead our eventually mutiny against them."
Arthur growled again, low and dangerous like a cornered lion. He wrapped his hand in Ivan's scarf and pulled him to eye-level.
"No one's got any right to question my devotion here, least of all you," he hissed. "So let me make this clear: I care for only one thing in this world, and that is our treasure. But as you seem to have forgotten, we still need to locate the blasted thing. Edelstein is only a patsy – those boys are the ones who own the map. Getting close to them gets us closer to it."
"Ah, so that is why," Ivan said, his smile never faltering and his tone unconvinced. "But I was making no accusations. I was only making an observation."
Arthur sneered at that but, before their argument could continue, a whistle blasted from up on deck, accompanied by the muffled sound of Yong-Soo whooping and hollering high above.
From the back of the room, Aussie cheered. "Land ho!"
"All hands on deck, gents!" Arthur announced, releasing Ivan. The crew did not need to be told twice, storming up the stairs and ladder with great whooping and cheering. Soon, the galley was empty, all save for Arthur, who was taking his time.
The cook leaned on his crutch, half his weight supported by the wall beside the stairs, and ran a hand through his hair. His eyes scanned the now-empty cabin, surveying the overturned stools and abandoned bottles with disgust. He stayed there for a while after, then turned and hobbled up the stairs.
His thumping crutch echoed the pounding of Matthew's heart. The younger twin did not move until he was absolutely sure that the crew – no, the traitors, the pirates – were gone.
He turned to his brother. "Al?"
Alfred didn't respond. His hands long ago ell to his knees, where they shook in tight fists. His face was hidden behind his hair.
"Alfred?" Matthew ventured cautiously. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," Alfred snapped. "I'm just an idiot."
Alfred pulled himself from the barrel. Matthew scrambled behind, rolling over the edge just in time to see Al pull his switchblade from his belt. He was so proud of the gift, he wore it daily and used it wherever he could. Now his hand shook as he opened it, and he could barely stand to look at the blade. He hurled it against the far wall, where it lodged in the wood like a dart.
Alfred sniffed once and covered his eyes with his arm. Matthew touched his shoulder. "Al?"
"You were right Mattie," Alfred muttered. "I never should've listened to him. To that…I'm such an idiot."
"Oh, Al." Matthew hugged his twin around the shoulders. "You're not an idiot, really."
Alfred sniffed and lowered his arm. Though no tears fell, his eyes were red. It gave birth to a great anger in Matthew's heart.
He would not, could not forgive this.
"We have to tell the captain," Alfred finally said. "They're going to turn against him…us…soon. We have to warn him, so he can make a plan."
Mattie nodded, taking his brother's hand. "Let's go."
Together, they hurried back up the stairs and got their first glimpse of land in almost a month.