(reading time: 41 minutes)
The Gross Truth
He spent his days with his nose to the deck, and he spent his nights with his nose to a desk. It was his job to scrub. To scrub the deck. To scrub the walls. Scrub the barrels. Scrub the water closets. Scrub the skulls of the gravefolk who didn’t have enough of a body left to do it themselves. It turned out there were nearly fifty of them aboard who were either missing some combination of limbs or everything below the jaw. Scrub the Captain’s laboratory equipment. Scrub the bottom of everyone’s boots. Get on that ladder and scrub the ceilings. Climb out on the beakhead and scrub the spots between the ropes. Don’t forget to scrub the backs of your scrubbing brushes so you don’t look a mess while you’re scrubbing.
Only when he’d completed his chores for the day, chores assigned by Roary that occasionally included some of his own, was Alast allowed to go to the documents room or the library to have his lessons for a drop or two. He didn’t have to worry about the time exactly, since his teachers would be wherever he put them last. The four skulls from the documents room that had laughed at him along with Rorke were his instructors in all things Porce.
One of them, a man named Veer Keystonr, had an iron crown bonded to his brow. He told Alast that in his first life, before he was gravefolk, he was a human ledger. He kept all sorts of numbers and quantities in his head so the scoundrels he worked for didn’t have to keep incriminating records of their work. He insisted he could still remember every digit they ever gave him because it was a tiny tally mark scratched on the inside of his skull. He remembered how, sixteen rests ago, a tilefolk warlord, whose name escaped him, stole 10,428 tiles from his own brother.
He taught Alast maths. Arithmetic. Geometry. The management of coin. Alast loved math, a concept he only vaguely understood before as big bits of counting smashing into each other. Once he realized the problem-solving power it granted him he felt like he could pick things up without touching them. He felt like he could brute force his way past ignorance by smelting two unknowns into something calculable. He made up problems for himself and practiced them during the day, using his brush as a pen and soapy foam as ink. He wrote equations into the deck and only did the appropriate amount of scrubbing when he made a mistake and needed it erased. One of the deckhands started to think the ship was trying to communicate with him by the numbers appearing in the grime.
The second head was Nurkly Neenr, a woman whose skull Captain Rob had won in a game of cards. She was worth betting because she was an excellent storyteller; her previous owner was extremely sour when she realized she’d no longer have someone to send her to sleep with bedtime yarns. Nurkly’s skull was covered in scrawl, but Alast could not yet read the story written across her face. It was her job to teach him how. Alast was just as desperate to learn reading and writing as anything else, but his progress was slow. That was due partly to what he feared was a permanent injury in his hands caused by the days on the rope ladder. While his fist could close as tightly as ever, his fingers often curled involuntarily. Knots were really more about swift wrist motions, but writing required precision he hadn’t yet regained. His letters looked like tiny twistenbeast with shaky legs that were always falling over.
He wanted reading to be as straightforward as math, but he quickly realized there were far more letters than numbers and he couldn’t make the ones he wanted just by adding or multiplying the ones he knew. He kept at it diligently though, because much of the knowledge aboard the ship was locked away in books. Once he understood their silent language he could learn from them whenever he wanted; he thought it a great improvement over folk who could decide they weren’t in the mood to teach.
The third skull, a big bumpy one with a mix of iron and copper teeth, belonged to a man named Fulbur Gheesr. Fulbur didn’t like to talk about himself, so Alast didn’t know how he learned so much about Porce and its creatures. He taught Alast the basic principles of many sciences: geology, weather prediction, zoology, botany, and physics. Whenever it was time to discuss animals, Fulbur would order Alast to pick him up so they could take little trips about the ship. He would guide Alast through the corridors to the places where the few animals aboard were kept. Finick stayed with two much larger haunds kept as scent trackers. The three had become fast friends and whenever Alast walked by he often saw the three of them sleeping in a pile on a bed of straw.
After Fulbur had taught him everything there was to know about the hundreds of domestic breeds of haund, he moved on to explaining ekapads. He took Alast to a place on deck, behind the helm. There was a metal square much like the one he’d seen on Orbon’s roof, except this one was much better kept. It was an unusual time of day for a lesson, it was daylight and the deck was in its full swing of activity, but Fulbur had insisted. They waited there for half a drop. Fulbur had to tell Alast to stop drumming on his skull every few drips.
The first sign of the creature was a silent strike of red lightning hopping between the thin white clouds overhead. It moved in a big circle until it was centered in the cloud directly over them. Then it struck. A red bolt came down with all the thunderous sound it should’ve had in the clouds. Alast instantly recognized the sounds as ones he’d heard on deck a few times before, but he’d kept his nose to his scrubbing. He’d thought it was barrels breaking loose or armor-headed whorls butting in the water below. The true source of the sound, an ekapad, stood before him.
It was an odd creature indeed. It had only one foot that was as wide as its body, tipped in a smooth hoof that seemed magnetically connected to the metal pad. Its fur was bluish-grey and crackling with tiny jolts of red static. Its muscled neck supported a large head. Its long snout was tipped with two fleshy nostrils and filled with blocky blunt teeth. A pair of giant horns rose up to the sky; red lightning jumped between the two of them continuously. Its shape was like a board game piece a bit too heavy to push without knocking over. To Alast its eyes looked like the eyes of the knobby creature that had pushed the rope ladder, except with a curve of intelligent light in the pupil. The creature was expertly trained. The ekapad was loaded with saddlebags and cylinders. A deckhand grabbed two off of it, marked with Rob’s spiked green skull, and then replaced them with two fresh ones. They smacked it on the flank; the ekapad whinnied and leapt back into the sky with its trail of red lightning.
“The ekapad post system is the backbone of modern communication,” Fulbur explained. “They were corralled out of the clouds generations ago and domesticated. Thanks to the electricity they store they can generate and travel in bolts of lightning, allowing them to cross the entirety of Porce in a single day. Older post systems using birds were far less reliable and took rinses.” Alast brushed the static out of his hair and watched the red streak vanish into the sky.
“Why don’t folk ride them?” he asked. Even retroactively he searched for ways to avoid the rope bridge.
“Our bodies can’t withstand the lightning,” Fulbur said. “Even an old pile of bones like me can’t ride an ekapad. The energy would turn me to dust. Now take us back down boy so I can show you how to feed the glintshell without losing a finger.”
The fourth teacher on the shelf was Srina Pompr, a woman whose voice somehow suggested she had been very tall in life. There were two purple pearls affixed to the back of her eye sockets so there was something to look at while you spoke to her. Srina taught him the current affairs of Porce: politics, wars, religions, and what not to say in a Broken Fix restaurant. She also taught him thousands of rests worth of history. She talked about the eight gods that may or may not have existed. She talked about the Spotless and the Toil Papers and the arguments for and against their validity. Alast learned that a decent chunk of the crew were toil papists.
Srina told him about the great scribblings across the stone doors and their supports, and how they were translated and interpreted to create the first version of the Toil Papers. She showed him books where the writings were reproduced in their original forms. Alast didn’t understand how the folk of the past had gleaned so much from so little:
U.L. and K.V. 4ever yall who wrote dis are idiot
Pray to him he have answerd mine
Best frencher was here text me at 555-8566 but no dudes
U suck dont touch blake yorkie he have STDDDDDDDick Hi
Call 555-6444 for a good time
This place was spotless last time
No u suck casey I no its you you cant have him he’s mine
Who wrote that? go to heck im lonely… this is where I cry
How I learned to stop worrying and drop a bomb in this bowl
Drunk as a skunk in the trunk
Shorties I did in here: |||||||||||||||||||||||| stop writing here!!!!!
She a hoe, she a big time hoe STINKY STANK never forget woops forgot
Bishop Takes Red Checker is the best band everif you only listen to tracks 7 8 11
BTRC can suck it never heard of em prick devilmusic
Glorfy his name and sing his praisins
FACT: women cant be potus cuz they cant write theys name in the snow
The snozberries taste like crap
Buttermilk pancakes made this smell
We can make it spotless again. We just have to come together and not vandalize.
SCREW THIS PERSON
Kilroy was here.
There were plenty more scribblings, but Alast tried to wrap his head around those first. He had a million questions about them and it was lucky Srina had the patience of a book when it came to answering them.
She explained that some of the words and grammar were strange because it was a more ancient tongue. The scribblings were the root of both Wide Porcian and Pawtymouth. She demonstrated this by showing him the scribbled word shorty, which meant woman, and then showing him the Pawtymouth word for woman: sha-te.
Though there were many folk in Porce who were not toil papists, Srina included, their history was important enough that she made sure Alast understood them and their goals. Many sects put special emphasis on the scribbling ‘Call 555-6444 for a good time’. She explained that under the old system of grid-based mapping, itself based upon the scribblings, 555-6444 was a set of coordinates pointing to one very specific spot on the Glorious Stone attached to Second Stone Door, a hole in fact. The hole was a gateway from one toil to another, a route for migration spanning the ages. To many it was a place of hope, the place where one day the Spotless would return and transport all of them through the florent and into a glorious endless realm of perfection free of death, decay, and detritus. They called this place the Glory Hole.
She taught him of other religions too. Some worshipped the eight. Some worshipped the minutiae of nature. Some worshipped nothing. Alast noticed a common thread between several of them: eternal life. Many believed that death sent the spirit into the florent where it could live happily forever and shine down on the world. The wicked had a different fate though. Their spirits went underground and moldered in the Pipes until there was nothing but tiny pebbles of evil left over.
The scribble Alast was most interested in was one of the few that carried a pictogram with it: Kilroy was here. When he practiced his reading he remembered getting stuck on those black-dot eyes of the man looking over the wall. It took him thirty drips to pull away from it and get to the words that came after. He asked Srina if it was the same Kilroy that eventually spawned the Captain. Roary had said when introducing Rob that he was of the line of Custodian Kilroy Ordr. He also asked if it had anything to do with the ‘Kil’ from the song he’d heard Herc play.
“Flushed perceptive of you Alast,” Srina had said proudly. “Kilroy is a mythological figure whose name first showed on the scribbles. To the papists he is a trickster who fools the innocent down into the Pipes. To others he’s simply a mischievous spirit. Custodian Kilroy Ordr was named after him. Since then his line has kept the ‘Kil’ name: Kilrona, Kilross, Kilrod, Kilrock, Kilrose, Kilroth, Kilroxy, and so on all the way down to Kilrorke, Kilrobin, and Kilroary.”
“What’s a Custodian? Alast asked.
“It’s a title,” the skull explained.
“More important than a Captain. When the Custodians existed they had authority across all of Porce. The legend goes that eight gods looked after the sections of Porce. They bred with the creatures they created. The resulting children called themselves the Oaths because they swore to protect the things their divine parents created. When the Oaths sired their own, those children took custody of their oaths and became the Custodians. Many of them failed to uphold those oaths, but few failed to sire. Many in Porce are part of one of these lines and, supposedly, have divine blood.”
“Is that why the Captain can bonepick?”
“No Alast. That is a different phenomenon. We’re not there yet.”
Next he learned of the most current of Porce’s current affairs: Yugo Legendr. He was surprised to learn that Yugo was both gravefolk and a toil papist. He was a man who could never be anything other than leader or fool thanks to his appearance. The cause of the aberration to his bones was unknown, but Yugo Legendr was purple. Not only were his bones bright purple, they were translucent like crystal as well. He also had a curving horn sprouting from between his eye sockets that looked like the nose of a kettle. Alast saw a pictogram of his flag in one of the books: a purple skull in profile with the same strange horn.
The purple Porcian’s papist plan was to acquire all of the cardinal tiles and unite them at the Glory Hole. He believed that by bringing the eight gravitation totems to the holiest of all places it would trigger an incredible rising; all of Porce would move up in the Dark Empty and enter the realm of the Spotless.
“But to move them is to unsteady the world,” Srina explained. “Our world could sail away from home on a black sea and smash into… something else. It would risk everything and prove nothing.”
“Don’t worry Miss Pompr. I’ll be putting Cardinal Second back soon,” Alast said.
“If you do lad, I’ll teach the next stupid cabin boy all about you.”
While the four skulls taught him about everything off the Greedy Old Mop, the crew berated him until he understood everything aboard it. Alast thrived on being busy, on learning to both participate in and operate such a grand vessel. Equally as satisfying were the meals at the end of the day, where Alast learned what real food was like.
The dining room, which the crew simply called the galley, was a warm chamber close to the bottom of the ship and connected to the rest by four entrances so folk could join the meal from any direction and surprise you with their company. Hundreds of dried branches, flowers, vines, spices, and herbs hung from the rafters on the ceiling, so much so that when the ship rocked little flakes of them fell into the food and seasoned it. A wondrous snow of spices. A flurry of flavor that made every meal unique. Four long wooden tables, polished smooth and maintaining the natural dark swirls of the wood, filled the chamber and could hold all the fleshy crew aboard the ship and then some.
Food in the mist had been as dismal as everything else. Bread moldered, so they never had any. Meat went bad overnight and starting a fire in the saturated air was nearly impossible, so if not salted and cased as a sausage it had to be eaten fresh and raw. That meant a lot of shellenfowl eggs, cracked and sucked down on the half-shell. If you wanted to treat yourself you would add a pinch of salt to the clear slime. On the few occasions they managed to pull vegetables out of the metallic mud, sickly black things of inconsistent shape, they would celebrate by pickling the poison out of them and enjoying their sour bitterness two to three rinses later when they were safe to eat. Alast had eaten one once and it had created a small geyser of acid on the left side of his stomach that took four days to go away.
Food aboard the Greedy Old Mop was practically a divine revelation for Alast. He wondered why he hadn’t learned about the religion based on the galley yet. They didn’t have the stone ovens or the grain for bread, but the freshwater of the Snyre provided an incredible bounty. Whatever they fished out of it each day was supplemented by their substantial stores. The cook on the Mop was a tilefolk woman. She only spoke Pawtymouth, but it was clear to Alast from her shouting that she got very angry whenever the evening’s meal wasn’t completely consumed. I must eat everything, he reasoned. We can’t upset her. It’s our duty.
Each night she served a roast fish, head and all, between seven and thirteen foams long. She made a fresh sauce every night; sometimes it was sweet, sometimes spicy, and sometimes it kept Alast’s stomach warm all night long. Sometimes it felt like something was kissing the wound in him left by misty vegetables.
The crew often caught hundreds of fourteen-legged bibcraws, which were shelled, deveined, simmered in oil all evening long, and then tossed together with pearls of glistening animal fat and twigs of a spice from the edges of the Gummire that had a hint of its sweetness.
Blocks of laggeren butter, a white and light substance that foamed when warm, were melted over piles of colorful dried vegetable chips. Whenever someone thought they needed a little extra kick they would cry out for the spice stick. Someone would pass them a long wooden pole they could use to poke and prod at the wreathed herbs around the rafters until their plate was properly dusted.
When they went ashore they purchased melons like the one they’d offered the aker. Each night after, as long as the fruits lasted, they were squeezed and pulped into a drinkable slurry that quenched thirst better than water. It was chilled by immersing goblets of it in barrels of Sea Fauce water. This was the same perpetually cold water they’d carried out when retrieving the cardinal tile. When Alast learned about water and ice from Ice Master Shuckr, he learned there were two arching tunnels on each sink that produced water: an Aych Fauce and a Sea Fauce. Currents originating from an Aych were always scalding hot while currents from a Sea Fauce were always cold.
Sometimes one of the better archers onboard, like Ladyfish or Bonswario, would shoot down a seabird that could then be cooked on a spit and stuffed with Snyre tubers and red Cheribarb stems. Some of the birds were as big around at the chest as Alast was. His favorite part was the webbed feet, which the cook was nice enough to panfry with a specially selected blend of spices and set aside for him (in exchange for some more thorough cleaning around her hammock).
One night, Alast was the last one left at the table. The florent had gone out nearly a drop ago, and most of the fleshy crew had gone to bed. He could hear the stony feet of the skeleton crew marching around overhead, adding to the snow of spices on the table scraps in front of him. The fish was picked clean. The sneaky flies that were smart enough to wait their turn emerged from the wreathed herbs and buzzed around the lips of the soup bowls, where orange-yellow globs of broth and fat dried.
Alast noisily ripped the webbing out from between the toes of a blue-black bartlebird with his teeth. It was extremely crispy and chewy, but he had all night to savor it if he wanted. The only thing he would lose was sleep. Somewhere out there there’s a bird with more than two feet. Right after Cardinal Second goes back to Block I’m going to find it. Alast leaned back in his seat and searched around the room for something to wipe his greasy hands on. Anything might have done, but not when it was his job to clean such things. In the end he chose to use the underside of a bowl since he didn’t wash the dishes. Before he could finish, a woman walked into the galley. Alast fumbled the bowl and dropped it into a pile of pink bibcraw shells.
“I just use my pants,” the woman laughed. She brushed her hands against her knees mockingly and then took a seat. She started piling half-eaten things onto a used plate. She poured the remnants of three fruit-filled cups into one. Alast had never seen her before, and at that point he thought he’d been introduced to every member of the crew. She had thick brown hair; the only kempt part was combed over her eyes so you couldn’t see them unless she looked directly at you. She was short and stocky and just old enough that Alast assumed she should get a little more respect than the average crewmember. He was the cabin boy, so she had to outrank him.
“I’m the new cabin boy… Alast,” he said, “ma’am.” She grunted between mouthfuls and then slurped at her drink.
“I know who you are kid,” she said. “I know every bit of grime the Mop picks up. She and I are sisters.”
“If I may ask… who are you?”
“The name’s Bezzy Hornhollr. You might hear the others call me Scuttlr.”
“You have two surnames? Can I have your extra?”
“Good one kid.” She grabbed a shoelace fish and sucked it down like a noodle. At the end he heard her crunch down on its tiny head. “They call me Scuttlr so the Captain doesn’t hear the name Hornhollr. There’s probably no point though. I doubt he remembers it.”
“Are you in trouble with the Captain?”
“I was. Lots of washes ago. So many washes.”
“What happened ma’am?”
“Don’t call me ma’am kid. Believe it or not you outrank me on this ship.”
“But I’m just the cabin boy. What’s below me? You’re not a scrub brush.”
“I’m a stowaway,” she admitted. She picked up her plate and licked it clean. “I might be the best stowaway in the history of Porce, but that still puts me below the cabin boy. I’ve been living here on the Mop ever since I lost my business. The Captain’s too busy brushing ekapads and mixing chemicals in his lab to ever notice the deckhand whose life he demolished.”
“The Captain destroyed your life? He made mine.”
“Well isn’t that lovely for you,” she grumbled. “I’ve been able to hide here for so long because I’m careful. I only eat when everyone else is done. I never look the Captain in the eye. I sleep in my own special corner.”
“What about the rest of the crew?”
“They know me and they love me. It’s only the Captain who would run me through if he realized who I was. One drip he’d feel guilty and the next he’d transform it to anger and bonepick me overboard.”
“You know what we do aboard this ship don’t you kid?”
“Piracy. I made sure we were a decent sort of pirates before I got onboard.”
“Oh you made sure did you? Then I wish you were around back when I ran Hornhollr Unsinkables. I’m sure your protestations would’ve stopped the noble Captain from making off with the Mop.”
“Captain Rob stole this ship?” Alast asked, stunned. He hadn’t realized something that size could be stolen; it was like stealing a mountain or a river.
“He commissioned her,” Bezzy said, “paid for her, sailed away, and then had an agent of his break into my offices and steal back the exact cost of the ship. I worked for so long to put this beautiful vessel together. I was sad to see her go. I nearly died when I saw I’d done it all for nothing. I had to close. Even then it dropped me into so much debt I had to give up my home and wander the streets to avoid the collectors. Next time Rob showed his face in my port, I snuck aboard. At least now I have a place to live and food to eat.”
“You must’ve done something to make the Captain angry,” Alast suggested. Bezzy stared at him like he’d spit in her face. Though she didn’t want to be called ma’am, she didn’t want to be disrespected either.
“Sure kid. I overcharged him a little for the cannons. So he broke me. Fair is fair I guess. You’re not going to tell on me are you?”
“The rest of the crew knows about you?”
“I’ll ask them. If they say yes then I won’t say anything. It wouldn’t be my place to question something the First and Second Mates approve of.” Alast went back to ripping the skin from his bird feet.
“It’s not the last unsavory thing you’ll learn about your dear Captain,” Bezzy warned. Alast slowed his chewing. He wondered if he should ask her to elaborate, but Bezzy had eaten very quickly and got up to leave before Alast finished putting his feet in his mouth. Part of him wanted to add her to his roster of teachers, but there weren’t enough drops in the day for him to stay around long after every dinner… especially since he needed to squeeze in his bonepicking lessons. Alast never missed one of those.
The sails flapped softly in the night’s wind. It wasn’t completely dark on deck thanks to the wick lamps set up all over the ship. A minimal crew of gravefolk kept watch and manned the helm. One of them snored in the bird’s nest atop the central mast.
Alast tried to keep quiet, but it was very difficult when he was constantly falling on his face. He didn’t have a bonepicking sword, but he assumed a regular saber would be good enough for simple maneuvers. He placed the tip of the blade on the deck. He leaned forward and back. Forward and back. Forward and back. He jumped as high as he could and pushed himself forward, forward, forward. The saber slipped out to the side and slid away. Alast smashed his cheek against the deck for the twentieth time that night. A cut he’d received from the slipping saber the night before reopened. His blood stained his gray shirt. If he kept ruining his new sailing clothes the crew might force him to go back to his blue mist clothes.
He decided to forego the sword for the rest of the night; he moved on to his jumping exercises. He kept pressure on his cut with his free hand and hopped in place. Once again he noticed no improvement in the height. Don’t think of it as a jump, he told himself in the Captain’s voice. It’s a shift in gravitation. I’m not going up, my force is. The object that is Alast is responding to the forces of Porce. He jumped and pushed his soul into his skullcap. The only place he went was back to the deck.
Then he tested his jump length. No improvement. Time in the air. No improvement. Leaning without toppling. No improvement. Balancing on one hand. No improvement. Spinning without getting dizzy. No improvement. In every aspect of the art he’d managed to discern, he was a failure. Alast jumped towards the wall of a cabin and tried to pull back from it in mid-air. Whumf. He smacked flatly on the wood and fell backwards onto his bottom. That was when he saw the empty eyes of Dawn Shockr. She leaned against the corner of the wall and stared at him.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she asked. Alast pulled himself off the ground and collected his saber. He didn’t see any point in trying to lie. Maybe she would be willing to help.
“I’m trying to bonepick,” he said.
“You idiot. Fleshies can’t bonepick. All your other senses are in the way.”
“The Captain can do it.”
“The Captain be extraordinary. You’re just a little boy what ran away from home.” Alast turned away from her and leaned over the railing of the Mop. He could just make out the water below as it rose and fell against the hull.
“Everybody who ever told me I couldn’t do something was a liar,” Alast explained. “My father used to say I couldn’t be out of the mist too long or I’d get sick. He wasn’t just lying; it was the opposite of the truth. I always felt better outside it. Somebody else told me I couldn’t walk in the Threewall Wild. I did and it was a big mistake, but I still could. I’m starting to see that folk who use the word can’t are just folk who hope you’re as scared as they are. I wasn’t scared of falling off that rope, so I’m not scared of falling two feet to the Mop.”
“It be fine that you’ve washed your hands of fear, but you still can’t bonepick,” Dawn insisted. “You’ll have to die to be able to do this.” She gripped the railing with one hand and threw herself overboard. She stopped, her leathery body holding perfectly straight over the side like a plank ready to be walked. She kept talking like it was no strain at all to hold there. “Moving funny be not worth going out like that.”
“What do you mean ‘going out like that’?” Alast asked. He ran his hand along her leathery forearm to see if it was shaking; it wasn’t. Still as death.
“Those lazy bones haven’t explained gravefolk to you yet?”
“I know you’re gravefolk; only lightfolk can become gravefolk. It’s a nature unique to us. I know gravefolk struggle with going mad on account of not having Porcely pleasures like food and drink anymore. I know a lot of them become papists or soldiers because they just need something to devote themselves too.”
“But you don’t know why we exist,” Dawn said, in a tone that suggested he knew that fish swam but couldn’t say why they never flew.
“You died… but not entirely,” he said.
“There be a reason we don’t die entirely. It don’t happen to everybody. Lots of folk just die and stay dead; their bones never walk around unless you string them up and make puppets out of them. You have to earn your bones.”
“How do you do that?”
“Simple. Be evil.”
“The bones are a warning Bluey. Porce always tries to keep things in balance. It wants there to be just as many souls in the florent as there are souls in the Pipes. The problem be that being bad in life be much more tempting than being good. That means a lot more folk go to the Pipes and the balance be wrecked. So we rotten ones get a second chance. If we come back as boney it means we get one more shot to earn the florent. We can renounce our scoundrel ways.”
“Are you telling me that you’re… you’re not a decent sort?” Dawn lifted herself so her feet dangled straight up into the air; her hair rattled and hung towards the sea. She looked at Alast upside down.
“Have you ever done something you’re not proud of?” she asked.
“Then maybe you’ve earned your bones already. Folk like to walk and talk like they know what earns bones and what don’t. They don’t know. Nobody knows who holds those scales. Folk what die on the Mop sometimes come back and sometimes don’t. That means being a thief don’t necessarily do it.”
“Does it hurt being gravefolk?” he asked.
“It don’t hurt at all. It don’t hurt so much that it can make everything feel like a bad dream.”
“Have you ever gone mad?”
“You ask a lot of questions Bluey.”
“I want a lot of answers.”
“Sometimes you have to earn answers.” Dawn dropped back to the deck. She drew her bonepicking sword and used the tip of it to lift Alast’s saber into a dueling position. She stuck one hand behind her back and tossed her head so her beaded hair didn’t block her eye sockets. “You can’t bonepick, but I can teach you how to fight a bonepicker.” Alast smiled. He reared back slowly and swung the saber. Dawn caught his blade with hers, spun her wrist, and twisted the sword right out of the boy’s hand. She juggled the blade on the tip of her own and then balanced it like a sideshow performer. Alast tried to reach for it, but she leaned back at an unnatural angle.
“What exactly is this teaching me?” he asked.
“It be teaching you that you can’t be slow. If you be slow you give me a window to start spinning the forces. Don’t slash against a picker, thrust.” She bounced the saber back to him and he caught it by the handle.
“I knew that the first time I fought you, but how do I fight with only one move?” Without waiting for an answer he tried a series of thrusts. He just wanted to snag a button off her orange shirt. If he could do that then he had a shot at winning a fight. Dawn leaned out of the way of every strike without picking up her feet. Then she charged into him, smashing into his shoulder, and sent both their bodies back to the cabin wall. She pinned him in place with impossible force.
“You have to wait for them to muck it up,” she said. “No bonepicker be perfect. Look for a move where they commit too much gravitation or too little. Then punish them for it. I’ll show you.” She gave him some room to breathe. “This be called the hailstone kick.” Dawn flipped into the air, balanced upside down on the bent tip of her sword, and kicked downward. Then she completed the flip. “If you see them kicking down it means all their force be in their foot. If you strike the foot from a different direction as the force, you throw them off balance. When a bonepicker be off balance you have the advantage. Try again.”
Alast stepped forward and continued the duel. Dawn showed up every night to change his bonepicking lessons into bonepicking defense. In no time at all he’d catalogued an extensive list of moves used in the art almost as long as his list of knots. Their names were just as fascinating too: the guillotine elbow, the tornado punch, the crushing flat foot, the sword wheel, the grass cutter, and so on…
Captain Rob called for Alast one misty morning. He dropped his scrubber back into the bucket and winced as he stood. He’d learned a thousand knots, but he couldn’t figure out how to untie the one in his lower back. He ran his fingers through his hair and shook out the bubbles and loose pebbles of soapstone. Then he ran them through again, just to feel his smooth black hair. He’d been on the run and on the ship long enough that he couldn’t see his scalp in his reflection anymore, just that beautiful black silk he’d never been allowed to have before. I’ll only cut it if it’s so long somebody in the mist could grab it and drag me back, he thought. He remembered he’d been summoned and ran up the stairs on deck toward the bow, where the Captain stood.
“You called for me Captain?”
“Stand right here,” the Captain ordered. He pulled one of his gloves off and patted the wood next to him. Alast placed his back against it and stared off into the cloudy sky. “It’s time I told you the truth Alast.”
“Which truth Captain?” Alast asked. He flexed his toes in his boots and rubbed his pruned fingertips together. He knew which truth.
“The Gross Truth. Do you think you’re ready to hear it?”
“Well you’re wrong.” Rob stroked his beard. How do I grow one of those? Alast wondered. The Captain stood there for a silent moment. “Tell me what the world is.”
“The world Captain? That’s a strange question. The world is Porce. The world is ground and sky and sea. The world is everything that isn’t the Dark Empty.”
“Where do you think it came from?”
“It’s my understanding that it’s a mystery Captain. Some say gods. Some say it’s natural like the growing of fruit.”
“The Gross Truth is that our world was built, not grown. Whether or not gods existed, they didn’t build it.”
“Who did Captain?”
“I don’t know. Smart observation says they were nothing special… unless you count big as special.”
“What are you chiseling around Captain?”
“Alast… Our world, all of Porce, is a bathroom.” Rob looked at the boy to read his expression, but saw only confusion.
“What’s a bathroom?”
“I suppose you wouldn’t need a tub much in that mist. The air was your bathwater… You’ll know a bathroom by one of its other names: washroom, potchamber, water closet…”
“What!?” Alast exclaimed. The word rose out of him so quickly it was half belch. Water closet must mean something else out here. It can’t mean… This is another one of their jokes, like the gravefolk. He’s trying to get me to believe it. When I say I do the floor will open up and I’ll see a hundred laughing faces. You can’t get me this time Captain. I’m finally too smart for one of them. He smirked. “You can’t fool me Captain. I’ve been paying close attention to all of my lessons. I think one of them would have mentioned it if Porce was a place of… relief.”
“I told them to avoid the subject,” Captain Rob said. His face didn’t so much as twitch. Alast’s smirk retreated inside him like a rummin under a rock. The boy took his back off the side and rushed to the bow. He scanned the world, even though all he could see was clouds and water, for signs that he was being lied to.
“I don’t believe it Captain. You’ve explained everything else. You’ve put everything else in its place. What you claim doesn’t have a place. Between the dignity of life and the fairness of the history and science and math I’ve learned there is no place for it!” He was shouting. He’d seen the Captain flog a man once for such disrespect. The Captain took a step forward and Alast cringed. He didn’t call for a whip.
“Listen to me Alast. If you want to matter in this world you’ve got to grasp the truth. When you accept it you’ll look at your old self and see a child throwing a tantrum. When you see Porce as you would see a bug under a magnifying glass, you know there is only one interpretation. What did you harvest back on Metal Block?”
“Bropato Captain,” Alast said. His mouth felt very dry. He teetered back and forth, expecting each question to sting as badly as the whip. His mind felt squeezed like it was being sucked through a pipe as wide as a raindrop.
“Bropato is a compressed word,” the Captain said. “Made up of three parts. Repeat after me: bro, pay, toe.”
“You’re not dense boy; do as you’re told.”
“Bro pay toe.”
“It is a shortening of the phrase brown paper towel. Bropato exists not to fill us with awe, not to provide us with timber, but to dry the hands of giant creatures that no longer exist. These things would relieve themselves, wash their hands in the waters we now sail, and then rip a great slab of bropato from Metal Block to dry them. Then they would crumple it into a ball that could crush three cities and toss it in the Bottomless Rot.”
“Yes. This world is not for you. It’s for disposal.”
“Yes. The toils? Not oceanic valleys. Chamber pots. Stone doors? Not natural cliffs, but perfectly angled rooms to make the pots private.”
“Captain stop… I don’t feel well…”
“That’s because your world is disgusting. You were born and raised in a thing best ignored in polite conversation. I’d be worried if you did feel well.”
“The papists think…”
“The papists deny. The florent turns on and off because light is not needed when nobody is using the bathroom.”
“The Rin cliffs! What are those? I’ve never seen anything like them in any water closet!”
“They have drains just like the toils and sinks. Have you forgotten you can piss standing up?”
“The Tunnel of Sweat?”
“Another form of hand drying. Hot air instead of paper.”
“The Soapstone Mines?”
“They used soapstone to wash their hands the same way you use it to wash the deck.”
“The Broken Fix?”
“Another soap dispenser, just one that has fallen into disrepair. Another shortening in fact. It’s a broken fixture.”
“The Reflecting Path?”
“Before it was shattered by time it would’ve been perfect for examining one’s face for blemishes or sauce stains. Something you’re likely to do after visiting the bathroom.”
“Captain…” The word stuck in Alast’s mouth. His head spun. The deck felt like sponge. Alast leaned forward, the force of his sickness doubling him over so far that he was practically bonepicking. The top half of his body dropped out over the Snyre. The Captain rushed forward and snagged the back of the boy’s clothes so he didn’t go overboard. Alast vomited into the sea. The sick sounds he made were a nauseating mixture of mewling and dreadful fear. He felt like he was disgorging everything he’d ever eaten because his body had come to the realization that you’re not supposed to eat in the bathroom.
“Get it all out,” the Captain urged. “Don’t hold any of that sick inside you because it’ll stay there forever. Purge yourself of your denial.” Alast continued to vomit. The cascade of partial digestion turned into a thick oozing rope of bile that struck the sea and stuck in its surface as gentle curving lines, like a yellow-brown signature. The bottom of his stomach puckered like a sock being turned inside out. When he was finally done he collapsed onto the deck and stared at his trembling hands. The bottom of his spine quivered.
“We’re all meaningless…” he managed to gasp. A yellow spot of sick stuck to one side of his lips.
“Meaning is folkmade,” the Captain countered. “You’re no more or less meaningful than you were yesterday. You’re just a little bit smarter.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Whatever you want to do. Well, while you’re on my ship you do what I want you to do, but you get the idea. If you want more freedom I can dump you overboard right now and give it to you.” Alast rolled onto his back and stared at the clouds. They were so thick that the florent just appeared as a yellow glow behind them. It’s just a lamp. It’s there so you can walk around without stepping in any…
“Run me through Captain,” Alast asked. His tears dropped into the cracks in the deck and flowed away from him. He wasn’t sure why he was asking for death, but the part of his mind that wanted it was thrashing around in his skull like an animal in a steel trap.
“What you’re feeling is normal,” the Captain assured. “You’re not a god-kissed little sprite who will one day sit in the lap of the Spotless and listen to infinite bedtime stories. You’re not secretly the prince of a race of magical spirits. You’re not important to the world. You just are. It’s your job to make something out of that. Good luck.”
With that the Captain turned and walked away. He went back to whatever it was he did in his quarters and left Alast wriggling on the deck like a blind worm. After a drop of acidic thinking that ate at the edges of his understanding, Alast found the fortitude to rise into a sitting position. Another drop later he was on his feet. He felt like they could start walking without him at any moment, like his body might get him lost and there was nothing he could do about it. Instead of getting him lost, it climbed him up the rigging, past the sails, and into the bird’s nest.
He wanted to see past the clouds, but even with the extra height he could not. Third Sink is a washbasin. I’m so small I fit in a washbasin. I’ve been that way before though… I fit in one as a babe. After working the bro’… when I plunged my face into a bucket of water Birdie pumped for me… I could’ve been obliterating an ocean. An unbelievably small version of me might have looked up in terror as my eyes drew closer to the water. My nostrils like caverns. My ears like mountain ranges. My hairs, trees too tall to climb.
At some point Roary showed up in the nest. He didn’t comfort Alast, but he did provide an excuse every time somebody called up to them to ask if anything was the matter.
“Misty was just served the Gross Truth,” he yelled down. He found ten different ways of saying it. “Misty actually knows where he lives now. Misty does his thinking in the bathroom now. Misty finally knows what that smell be. You know the one.” Alast vaguely remembered hearing Bonswario laugh raucously at a couple versions of the excuse. He remembered Manathan’s skull popping up over the edge of the nest to check in.
What he didn’t remember was how he got into his hammock a drop later. Somebody must have carried him. When he finally rose he found his chores for the day done, picked up by ten different crew members. If I’m meaningless I’m only as meaningless as everybody else.
Once the shock was gone Alast felt himself returning to normal. He didn’t feel constantly filthy as he’d feared he would. Happiness still came when he was in his lessons and talking to his new friends. The food in the galley still tasted wonderful, despite the soil it had grown in and the waters that had harbored it.
Every day from then on he woke with the Gross Truth and he went to bed with the Gross Truth. His lessons gave him endless things to learn, but the truth gave him endless things to think over, thinking he felt like he could do for a thousand rests and more.
Continued in Part Four