Captain Rob Fights (Part Five)

Crosstahl

clawlies

It was the boy’s first city, and it could have easily been his last if he hadn’t overpowered his awe and remembered to breathe.  The ground before their party was an ancient split: a crevice of stunning depth and length that ate up the horizon just as well as any ocean.

“In the time before the Age of Building, four tiles met here,” Rob proclaimed.  “Nature has eaten them away, turned them to soil and dust, but their convergence remains, hollowed by rain and river.  Feast your eyes upon Crosstahl: the city of crossroads.” 

Alast obeyed his Captain.  His head could not twist fast enough as they descended into the crevice on a gentle slope and then a series of elevators big enough for their animals.  The stone walls of the crevice were packed with carved windows and doors.  The doors were often elaborately painted and ornamented to show which ones were connected to the same buildings.  Stone and wood bridges of a hundred types crisscrossed over the gap.  Shelves of rock layered the entire city and provided walking and traveling space.  Metal ladders on tracks were pushed and pulled along the edges of the shelves, like those found in libraries.

Alast looked over the side, to the true bottom of Crosstahl, where he saw a beautiful blue river.  Sometimes it was allowed to run free, and others it was aggressively divided into canals.  Boats of all size moved back and forth in the lanes, their crews swapping goods across their decks as they passed.  He could only see the schools of quick-moving fish underneath thanks to the water’s incredible clearness and its bright blue color.

“Why is the water like that?” he asked.  He didn’t know who he was asking, because he could not tear his eyes from the shimmering blue.  He hoped someone would pick up the question.

“There be stuff in it,” Dawn answered.  “Cleaning stuff.  It be a bit like soapstone.  People say it makes the fish taste lousy.”

“You’ve never had it?”

“Lost me tongue before I got the chance.”

A person flew by overhead, whooping in delight.  That got Alast’s attention.  They were in the city proper now and he could see, in addition to the sturdier bridges for carts and animals, ropes hung between the sides of the crevice.  People wrapped their coats or leather straps around them and jumped, letting gravitation pull them down and across to their destination.  Roary told him they were called zipper lines.

“They’re a lot more fun when you can bonepick,” Dawn added.  “Then you can ride them back up.”

Painted clay pots wider and taller than their tilehooves hung off the edges as well.  Most had trees planted in them that grew out into the crevice to catch the florent’s light.  Some of their roots grew over the lips of their pots and created cascading nets of life that reminded him of the hairy edges of the bropato sheet.

Four great roads that wound their way around both the Shattered Tiles and the Cracked Tiles met in this city, and it showed on its people.  The clothing and behavior of a hundred cultures were on display in the passersby.  Alast saw men, gravefolk, and tilefolk in equal numbers.  He saw women carrying pots on their heads, even running through the crowds without putting a hand on their cargo.  He saw a wagon full of gravefolk sitting on a pile of spare bones, swapping parts and haggling over the prices.

“Could you buy a new body?” he asked Oddball as they passed it.

“I could,” the skull answered, “but some of us back on the Mop already share.  Besides, when you’re in the gutter it be best to keep a low profile.”  The skull steered Finick under the belly of the tilehoof and vanished.

He saw the rainbow of tilefolk, white and blonde all the way to dark brown and black.  Many of them carried false heads on sticks, but they were not weapons like the one he’d been attacked with; they were just objects of convenience when discussing things with regular men so they didn’t have to look down on the tilefolk.  The tilefolk didn’t seem to understand what made a regular person attractive, as most of the false faces had absurd proportions, with noses like drooping wild carrots or ears like big wet leaves.

Scattered in the crowds, but rising above the rest, were bergfolk.  Alast had read much about them and looked at illustrations, but he’d never actually laid eyes on one before, given their preference for the much colder climates of Third and Second Toil.  Even the shortest adults stood a foam above the Captain.  Their bodies and faces were covered in hair, sparser than the fur of the tilefolk, and it only came in shades of gray and white.

Most, even the women, had long whiskers that grew out like tree needles until they bent under their own weight.  Their eyes were small and wreathed with long white lashes.  The other features of their very round heads were always big and fleshy: ears like molded dough, smiles like the lid being lifted from a bucket full of white tiles, and bulbous noses.  Their breathing, even while at rest, was loud and always produced fog.

To Alast they looked like masses of icicles that had grown hair and detached from the cave mouths where they’d grown. Riding by them he heard snippets of their own language, a phlegmy collection of unfamiliar sounds he knew was commonly called Merdidu.

Rob took them down a street that hid the crevice and its canals from view. The street opened up into a stone dome with shafts bored in the ceiling so light could shine in.  It was an open air market where people traded livestock, feed, and carts.  Alast saw plenty of folducted things; he occupied his time while Rob and the crew sold the animals by classifying the bropato he saw based on color and grain.

“Alast, stop gawping.  Help Mr. Bucklr,” the Captain ordered.  Alast found his fellow pirate holding one end of Cardinal Second, hidden under a blanket of course, and moved to grab the other side.  The chore was annoying, but he reminded himself how much worse it would be if the tile actually weighed something.  “Stay close.”  They entered a single-file formation, the Captain in front and Teal in the back, left the market, and returned to the central crevice.  Bonswario promised Alast the charm school wasn’t far.

“What sort of place is this school?” he asked.

“The sort of place you’ll love,” Roary assured, breaking the line just long enough to nudge Alast in the ribs.  “Especially after that mess with Pinwhistle.”

“What does that mean?”

“A charm school be a place where young ladies learn manners,” Bonswario said.  They pushed and pulled the tile up a set of stairs.  “Not normal manners like holding in your spit.  Intricate manners for very uptight very rich people.  It be a bunch of nonsense what takes washes to learn.”

“Why would we bring… this to a place like that?” the boy asked.

“The Captain knows the head of the school,” Roary said.

Knows be one word for it,” Dawn added over her shoulder.  Alast paid no attention.  Once they reached the top of the stairs his mind had moved back to the first part of Bonswario’s description.  The charm school was for young ladies.  All of a sudden the sides of his neck felt tight and his palms were sweating.  He would’ve been extremely excited if he wasn’t so terrified.  The last time he spoke to a girl he didn’t know he nearly got two ships’ worth of people embroiled in a bloody battle.  At that moment he imagined the destruction he could create when surrounded by girls he didn’t know.

They once again turned away from the crevice and deep into the stone.  The sounds of the crowd became faint as they left the activity behind and came to an iron gate with a guard posted.  Rob briefly discussed something with the man, and then they were allowed to pass.  When the alley opened they were met by the face of a lone building, but it was quite large.  Bored shafts of light outlined the path to its front door.  Trimmed grass, shrubs, and trees, all of which bore more colorful flowers than leaves, decorated both sides of the path.

A group of girls in modest skirted uniforms played a game off to one side involving the careful balancing of rounded stones.  When one tower fell they all giggled and helped pick them up.  Something didn’t feel right to Alast, something more than the bibcraw claws that usually pinched at his heart when girls were around.  Perhaps it was the way the giggling had ceased the exact drip the girls were behind them.  Or maybe it was the way it was replaced by dead silence.  He tried to ignore what felt like six pairs of feminine eyes on his back and focus on the school itself.  There was a sign.

The Oobla Redr School for Girls’ Dignity and Reform

“Can I knock Captain?” Roary asked like a child asking to lick the whipped cream spoon.

“There’s no need to knock,” Rob said.  “They already know we’re here.”  Alast turned his head and saw the girls who had been playing were gone, their stone towers abandoned.  Rob grabbed the knob and pushed the door open.  He stopped and turned.  “Mr. Bucklr and Ms. Paintr, guard our cargo out here if you please.  I want to be certain we are welcome before we bring it in.”  Ladyfish took Alast’s place and helped Bonswario move Cardinal Second away from the door.  The rest of them walked inside.

The entrance hall was very warm.  Every lamp on the wall was lit.  The walls were painted a soft red that matched the thick carpet.  Alast realized he’d never been in a building with that sort of warmth before.  It wasn’t the heat of poor ventilation; it was the comfort of plush expensive furniture and rug fibers you could feel between your toes even with your boots on.

A clock ticked loudly, its pendulum swinging back and forth behind the smiling girl at the counter.  A guestbook with a thousand cream pages was opened exactly to the middle.  The girl was about to hand Rob an ink-dipped quill when she recognized him.

“Captain Ordr,” she said with a smirk.  “To what do we owe the pleasure?”

“I’ve some business with your principal,” Rob said, putting his hands on his hips.  “Where is Ms. Redr?”

“I see you’ve brought Ms. Powdr with you,” the girl said instead of answering.  She stared at Teal with a false smile and eyes like sharpened claws.

“What of it?” Teal said, matching the icy hostility.

“Ms. Redr does not want to see Ms. Powdr,” the girl said.  “It is a physical impossibility for Ms. Redr and Ms. Powdr to exist in the same room at the same time.”  Alast looked to Teal.  Her expression was blank as ever, but the boy sensed the muscles twitching under her skin.  She looked like the inside of her mouth was an airless void.

“Teal,” Rob said.  An order from the Captain.  Teal seemed to balance on the edge of a hair for a moment, deciding whether to obey or disobey.  She turned and retreated down the hall to the front door.  She closed it gently, but Alast remembered the way she always eased doors closed on the Mop.  This was as powerful as any slam.

Another door on the opposite hall opened in response.  A big woman emerged like a stack of books collapsing.  Her dress was red and black, its sides held aloft by the two uniformed girls accompanying her.  A corset struggled to contain her thick waist.  She held her plump arms out from her body, indicating a fair amount of muscle hidden under their softness.  She had a square jaw, cheeks that looked like her mouth was packed with red taffy, and a button nose.  An untamable crop of curling, shining, red hair cascaded over her shoulders.  Three bundles of it, the curliest of them all, were stuffed into her ample cleavage only to have their bouncy ends emerge again like a bouquet of boisterous blossoms.

“Kilrobin, is that you?” she exclaimed with syrupy manufactured enthusiasm.  Her accent was strange.  Alast’s knowledge of dialects was sparse, but from what he’d heard among the crew of the Mop he guessed she was originally from one of the toil bases, where Merdidu pronunciation soaked into the Wide Porcian.  Once she was among her guests she dismissed the two students holding her dress.  They immediately used their free hands to wave at Roary, whose eyebrows were working profusely to communicate with them.

“Unless some other man thinks he can cast this shadow,” Rob said.  He produced a smile like Alast had never seen from his Captain.  The woman, who Alast assumed to be Oobla Redr, hugged Rob’s chest and squeezed aggressively, snorting and laughing.

“We’re all friends here girls, you may disrobe to casual,” Oobla said when she finally released Rob.  The two students and the girl behind the desk fiddled with the top buttons of their uniforms in response.  They split their clothes down the middle, transforming them into capes, and tied them to the backs of their belts.  Underneath the modest clothing they wore a very different sort of uniform; it was red, black, and very breathable.  To Alast it looked perfect for chasing your dinner through the forest.  Once they’d shed their disguises the three girls all moved to Roary, who welcomed them with open arms.  He hugged each one of them with the same power Oobla had used on Rob.

“I missed you girls so much,” he said.  “Life has been the Pipes without you.”

“Sure,” one of them scoffed through her smile.  Another one grabbed him by the wrist and dragged him away down the hall.

“I told you you’d love it here Misty,” he said, his head flopping backward as they led him away.  Alast’s confusion grew, but he’d learned by now to keep his mouth shut in situations like this until someone deigned to explain it to him.

“I received your ekapad notice, but it did not say why you were coming,” Oobla mentioned.

“I’ve brought you a keepsafe from my adventures on the Snyre.”

“A gift!  How wonderful.  Surely though, you must mean a keepsake.”

“No.”  Rob snapped his fingers.  A normal snap could not be heard from outside, but this was a bonepicker’s snap.  His fingers moved across each other with such force that the pop rang in Alast’s ears.  The front door opened once again and Ladyfish pulled the cardinal tile up to Oobla.  She whipped off the covering.

“How dare you bring me this as anything other than a gift,” Oobla said, more in awe than anything else.  She pressed her palms flat against it and traced its carvings.  “It’s been a long time since my studies, but I assume this is Second?”

“Yes it is,” Rob confirmed.

“Tell me you didn’t steal it.”

“I didn’t steal it.  Dlak Garbr stole it for Yugo.  Before Yugo could claim the stolen property, I reclaimed it.”

“So you did steal it.”

“Yes, but righteously so.  I’ve no intention of selling it.  I’d see it returned to Metal Block as soon as Yugo clears out of there.”

“Yugo’s not on Block,” Oobla said.  Rob lost some of his composure.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean Metal Block does not have a Yugo Legendr on top of it or inside it,” Oobla clarified.  “Those are his forces alright, but the grave-dodger himself has built a second force from recruiting along the roads.  He’s out on the Tiles somewhere with a caravan lathers long, taking over any place that won’t pay them goods as tribute.”

“He has no designs for Crosstahl, does he?” Rob asked, clearly rethinking the cross he wanted to bury the tile under.

“No,” Oobla assured.  “He couldn’t get his folded wagons down in here and without his war machines his caravan doesn’t seem so solid.  Trust me Kily, I’ve had scouts on it.”  She smiled and moved over to Alast.  The boy realized that despite her build she was actually somewhat short.  The disparity between her effusive demeanor and her size was so great that Alast wondered if the hallway she’d come from actually shrank as you walked down it.  She’d seemed to be near the ceiling when he’d first seen her.  “Who is this?  Is he a gift?  If you wanted to give my girls something to toy with, you know they’d prefer Roary.”

“Roary would run dry on breath and perish in two days’ time if I let him live here,” Rob said with a laugh.  “I’m afraid I can’t let you have this one either.  He’s the new cabin boy.  Alast Nonamr.  Picked him up from the mist when he knew nothing.  The improvement has been astounding; now he knows almost nothing.”

“But I’m a very fast leaner,” Alast insisted.  He bowed to Oobla.  “It’s a pleasure to meet you Ms. Redr.”  She gave him a small smile, but didn’t think him important enough for words.  She turned back to the Captain.

“So you’ve come bearing nothing but expectations,” Oobla accused.  “You want me and my girls to keep the tile safe.  Why should I do this?  Do you think there isn’t enough on my plate already?  What makes you think you can stomp in here with your muddy boots and…”

Rob grabbed Oobla’s waist and pulled her close.  He leaned in to kiss her, but before he could Oobla’s passion overpowered his; she grabbed the back of his head and pushed his lips onto hers.  Ladyfish, apparently fully aware of where she was going, took the tile deeper into the school.  She left Alast standing off to the side of the passionate kiss.  He opened his mouth.  Then he closed it.  Then he turned around.  He could still hear it.

He was only saved from the embarrassment when another student appeared from behind the desk and gestured for Alast to join her.  Alast silently skirted around the Captain and Miss Redr while they caught up on the state of each other’s dentition.  He followed the girl, eventually noticing she didn’t wear one of the false uniforms.  Instead she wore clothing he recognized as traditionally masculine, and her hair was cut shorter than his.

“I’ll show you to the room you and Roary will have as long as you’re with us,” she said.

“My name’s Alast,” he offered.

“Bucklet.”

“I’m just the cabin boy, so they don’t tell me anything,” he said with a chuckle as he rubbed the back of his neck.  “I’m flushed confused.  I thought this was a place to learn manners.  You girls seem more like warriors.”

“You’re right,” Bucklet said.  “It’s supposed to be a secret, but our principal thinks your captain trustworthy.”

“Why would you keep it a secret?”

“Most of our fathers and guardians believe this is a charm school.  We’ve been sent here because they find our femininity or marriageability lacking.  Often, thank goodness, one of the parents sees the folly in teaching a girl to be helpless.  They arrange to have us sent here, where charm is only skin deep.  Ms. Redr teaches us combat, tactics, and the art of disguise.”

“Disguise?”

“My name is Bucklet, but I will be returning to my father as Buckotter.  I cannot claim a rank among his men unless I am a son.”

“So you’re learning to act like a boy?  You’ll go back and live a lie?”

“My pronouns will be a lie, but hardly anything else.  This is your room.”  She opened the door and they both entered.  There was a pair of four-poster beds with pillows covering more than half their length.  Alast sat down on one.  Suddenly it was like gravitation compelled him to go flat on his back.  Between the wet sponge of his home in the mist and the hammocks aboard the Mop, this was the first time Alast had experienced a proper bed.  He sighed and closed his eyes.  He laughed at how soft it was; he couldn’t think of anything more appropriate.  This is ridiculous.  This is a joke of a thing.  How can such softness wear such a straight face?

“If you need anything, find it yourself,” Bucklet advised.  She’d had just about enough of the strange boy rolling around on the bed like it was a flowering meadow.  “If you treat anyone here like a servant you’ll get a boot to the nose.”

“I understand.  Wait,” he said when she turned to leave.  He wasn’t sure quite what he wanted to say.  “Everyone around here seems to love Roary.”  Bucklet snorted.

“Roary’s nice enough.  The only reason he’s treated like gum candy around here is that he’s about the only boy who ever stops by.  This is a school for girls.  No boys allowed.  If you spend enough time crawling through the desert, even sewer water looks like Sea Fauce sodas.”

Alast wasn’t sure if it was a promotion.  His tasks were certainly more varied, but the movement in his ranking seemed to simply be lateral.  Since the school was kept spotless by unseen servants, his new job was errand boy.  With Crosstahl being unexplored territory, he would have genuinely enjoyed the fetching if Oddball hadn’t started to tag along and insist it was time to learn gutter smarts.

Captain Rob and Oobla spent most of their time in bed.  Alast would be resting in his own bed, feeling temptations to sleep that were normally anathema to him, when Roary would poke his head in to tell the cabin boy that the Captain required his presence.  Alast would run to the center of the school, knock on Ms. Redr’s door three times, and then wait patiently, sometimes for two hundred drips.  Then only Rob’s head would emerge from the door when it cracked open.  He was usually covered in sweat and breathing heavily, but he delivered his orders without a shred of shame.  He would hand Alast a handful of coins and give him his errand.

“I need you to go to Swonton Street.  There’s a perfume shop there.  Buy me the largest bottle of First Toil whiff.”

“There’s a painting of a folducted ship in the window about four levels down.  Fetch it.”

“Go to the meat market.  I need two chips of boxback bottom.”

The trouble started on the day he was sent to retrieve a very specific gum candy, which Oobla apparently had a habit of consuming, and six chips worth of shellfish for the other members of the Mop’s crew to have for dinner.  While Rob, Roary, and Alast were happy to stay, the others wanted to return as soon as possible.  One of their lesser reasons was a craving for Third Sink seafood.  The shellfish from Crosstahl’s canals was no substitute for the ones fed by and steamed in Aych Fauce water, but they would have to do for now.  Such a task meant he had to take several elevators down to the canal district.  He was onboard the first one when a Finick-riding Oddball slipped in and started laying out the lesson plan.

“Today be the day you pick up some basics,” the skull declared.  “First you need fast fingers.”  Alast examined his hands.

“Are they slow?”

“I’m jawing about thickening your thievery you screwball.”

“You… you want me to steal something?”

“I want you to snatch something so fastly that you don’t get spotted.  You’re getting oysties right?  Steal one oystie after you pay for the rest and toss it in the bag.  Simple as wiping.”

They stepped off the elevator onto the top level of the canal district.  The air was much wetter, but not so much that it reminded Alast of the mist.  Hundreds of tiny boats hung over the canal, suspended by ropes and chains, waiting to be lowered into the water.  The waters were still very far down, so the piles of coiled chain were huge and speckled with bird droppings.  The skimmers and divers that had created those droppings were thick in the air of the crevice that morning.  Alast watched them catch rising breezes and glide up out of his sight.

A few of the boats were anchored by mechanisms so rusty that there was no chance they could be lowered.  A fisherman sat in one of them, casting a line so long that his legs were wrapped around a giant ball of it.

“Doesn’t it take an age to reel anything in?” Alast asked the man after leaning over and seeing the distance to the water.

“The birds,” the man answered.  “I get the fish in the air and then one o’ them snags it.  When he gets up here I reel him in.  Sometimes it’s two meals for the price o’ one.  Sometimes I cook the fish inside the bird just to add insult!  Hehehe!”

“Quit your moldy stalling,” Oddball growled.  “The oysties be that way and they’re calling out to you!”  Alast pulled away from the edge and continued down the street.  A tilefolk woman balancing a glass bowl of live fish on her shoulders walked by.  A trained bird sat on the bowl’s lip and warded off its wild cousins.  Two men carried a single fishing pole thick enough and long enough to catch a sunken aker.  The boy loved being in the hustle of the city; it was hard to escape the purpose of a street amidst the crowd.  He liked only being able to move forward.

His eyes landed on someone who wasn’t moving at all.  He tried to stop and see what was going on, but the street had gotten very crowded and people pushed him forward.  He slipped between them, apologizing when he bumped someone.  The edge of the street overlooking the water was so thin that when Alast finally broke free of the tide of people he nearly tumbled off the side.  His knees wobbled as he tried to maintain his balance; only a well-timed tug from Finick on the back of his pants kept him on solid ground.

“What are you doing you leaky slack-jawed…” Oddball barked.

“What is she doing?  Is she alright?” Alast asked as he crouched down and grabbed a cracked wooden pole for balance.  “Does she need help?”  Oddball yanked Finick’s reins and turned the haund in the girl’s direction.

“That baldy?  She looks like a jumper alright, ahaha!”

“She’s going to jump?”  Alast looked over the edge once more.  The water was so far that he was certain hitting it from that height would be the same as hitting rock.  She was a lightfolk girl, not gravefolk, so she wasn’t planning on bonepicking her way down.  The water was choppy as well, to the point that it suddenly looked like a pit of spinning blades.  Alast stood, but Oddball put himself in the way.

“I doubt it be the first time,” he said.  Alast was about to protest again, but it was too late.  The girl took three steps out onto a board over the chasm.  She didn’t look down.  She jumped twice, the springy board slapping against the cliff side.  Then she was in the air, silently twisting and turning.

She can bonepick?  No…  She’s just… good.  Those are normal acrobatics.  Alast had only a fraction of a moment to see her face while she spun through the air.  His mind froze time when she was upside down and facing him.  In that drip he memorized her.  His awe was just as much a part of his image of her as her skin.

She was several shades darker than Alast and wearing an even darker garment.  It was tight and lacked sleeves and legs, perfect for swimming.  She held a thin-handled spear in front of her, dividing her into perfectly symmetrical halves.  Her hair was a chalky swirl of blonde and brown.  It was shorter than Alast’s; he guessed it was so her eyes would always be clear when she spun through the air.

Her cheeks were big, her chin pronounced and dimpled.  Her ears were small and streamlined.  Her nose… it could have been anything; the spear hid it from view.  Her eyes.  There was something about her eyes.  It wasn’t like the strange brightness in Herc’s.  There was no time to figure it out.  The frozen moment had thawed.  The girl plummeted towards the water below.

Alast clamped both his hands on the stone and leaned over as far as he could.  The girl became a spot, then a dot, and then a splash of foam immediately reabsorbed into the water.  He tried to find her shadow under the surface, but there was no sign of it.

“She’s flushed dead!  Oddball she’s dead!”

“She be underwater!  There be all sorts of things she could be; dead be only one of them!”  Alast frantically searched for a way down.  Though he loathed to touch ropes more than he had to, he’d climbed enough rigging aboard the Mop to know what was sturdy enough to hold him.  He grabbed one of the ropes holding a red folducted fishing boat in place and climbed down as quickly as he could.  Oddball lacked hands, so he was forced to drive Finick back into the crowd and find another way down.  “If you made me use me own legs for this I’d string you up!  Get back here!”

The boy was not quite as graceful as he thought; twice he slipped down the rope and burned his palms.  When that rope ended in a frayed cut he swung to a chain slick with water weeds and nearly fell to his own death.  Another search of the froth below turned up no sign of the girl.  She’s been without air for a hundred drips!  I should dive from here.  I might make it.  Even with the encouragement of his idiotic adolescence, Alast could not bring himself to let go, but he did the next best thing in his reckless descent to the water’s edge.  He hopped between the sides of swinging boats, clambered down uneven stones, and dropped from shaky edge to crumbling edge until the soles of his boots smacked against the stone and mud at the side of the canal.  The area was devoid of others; it was just a small lip of rock, with all the pattering of feet and creaking of wheels above him.

Three hundred drips to get down.  Nobody can hold their breath like that.  Alast dropped to his knees.  He could at least fish her out and bring her body to her parents.  He leaned over the side, but rolled away when he saw a rising shape.  The tip of a spear pierced the water, followed by a hand that grabbed the uneven rocky edge.  It seemed the girl’s body was fishing itself out.

Not only did she emerge alive, but she hauled a heavy net full of shellfish out as well.  A few green and orange fingerlings flopped around on top of the pile.  The first thing the girl did was seat herself with crossed legs, open the net, and toss the flopping minnows back into the canal.  That left only a beautiful collection of saber shells, blue knucklewarts, and volcano-shaped fountain oysties.  Alast heard gasping and assumed she was catching her breath, but then he realized it was his own.

The girl didn’t spare him a glance.  She grabbed several rolls of fabric off her belt and unfurled them to create a flat work station.  She grabbed a dull rounded prying blade and popped the shellfish open one by one.  If all she found was meat she closed the creature back up and put it aside.  On the fifth one she found a milky pearl nearly the size of an eye.  She smiled at it.

“You were gathering pearls,” he almost whispered.  The girl quickly pocketed the pearl at the sound of another voice.  She looked straight at him.  Alast finally got a clear look at her eyes; tiny black specks appeared randomly across the white.  A few were large enough to make her irises look compressed in places.  Up close the spots looked like the marks of disease.  He expected her to squint, but she just went back to her harvesting.

“I was,” she said.  Her voice was steady, like that of an older woman.  It sounded like it had been fermented deep under the water, enhanced and fortified by chilled currents and constant pressure in the barrel of her bosom.

“That was incredible!” Alast blurted.  “I’ve never seen a dive like that!  I saw you jump and I thought for certain you would perish.  I… I came down here to try and help you.”

“Only to discover I don’t need any help.”

“Yes.”  She seemed content to shuck and let the conversation wither.  Klush, went the shells as she popped them in half.  Klush.

“My name is Alast.”

Klush.

“I’m new to Crosstahl.”  He stopped short of mentioning he was technically a pirate, the sting of being tricked by Pinwhistle still fresh in his mind.  He at least had to wait until somebody else on the crew made a mistake before he could make another.

Klush.

“How did you learn to dive like that?  And hold your breath that long?  I’m envious.”

“Practice.”

“It must be more than that.”

“It isn’t.”  Klush.  She pocketed another pearl.

“Do you do this for a living?”

“It keeps me alive.  Does that count?”

“Well…”

“Rhetorical question.”  Klush.

“Can I give you a hand?”

“I can’t pay you.”

“A conversation would be payment enough.”  She stopped shucking long enough to toss him another flat knife.  He’d shucked plenty back in the mist, but this was the first time he felt the chore really had a point.  He started to fold his legs but then the girl snapped her fingers and pointed to the empty spot directly in front of her.

“Sit here so I can see you,” she said.  Alast crawled closer and sat.  He took a handful of shells from the net.  Klush.

“Do you have trouble seeing?” Alast asked.  She looked at him when he spoke, but not really at his face.  She seemed to stare more at his chin or his neck.  He figured it had something to do with the black specks in her eyes.

“I can see fine enough to spot pearls, so don’t try and pocket any.”  Klush.  Klush. “You’re wondering about the spots right?”  Her wrist went limp.  The edge of her knife scratched along the stone.  Then she dropped it.  She put her hands flat on the ground and leaned forward until her face was a few bubbles from his.  He examined the specks closely; there was something else about them…  He squinted.  He focused on the biggest speck.  Two little bright spots appeared and disappeared, like eyes blinking at the bottom of a well.  Once he noticed them he could see them everywhere, a tiny pair of eyes in each of the specks.

“What are those?” he asked as she leaned back and took up the shucking again.  Klush.

“Clawlies.”

“Clawlies?” he repeated.  He knew the creatures.  They were like bibcraws, but far smaller.  He used to have to remove them from mud at the bottom of ponds with a sieve so they could be separated from the crops that needed a good drowning to grow.  “I’ve never seen them that small.  What are they doing in your eyes?”

“I was fishing when I was little.  I was deep down… and I accidentally broke open a nest.  There’s a certain kind of clawly; as soon as it’s swimming it’s looking for a soft place to make a burrow where it can live out its life catching tasty bits from the water.”

“And the soft place they found… was your eyes?” he tried to swallow the quiver in his voice.  A sieve didn’t seem like a possibility this time.

“It hurt worse than anything else.  It took them about five drops to get comfortable.”

“And they’re still alive in there?”

“Oh yes.”

“They hurt your sight?”  She nodded.  Klush.  “How badly?”

“From here I can tell you’re a person.  Everything’s fuzzy.  I can’t tell faces without bringing them a bubble from my own.”

“Don’t they need water to live?  Maybe if you don’t dive for a few days they’ll die.”

“I thought of that already.  If I don’t dive about every day and give them a chance to feed, they start burrowing again in search of greener pastures.  So doing this for a living is a convenience.  It’s solid coin and it keeps me from going blind.”  Klush. 

“How long can you hold your breath?” Alast asked.  It seemed like the right time to change the subject and he didn’t want her to ask about his own profession.  Well, when I’m not scrubbing decks and pots I get robbery lessons from a greasy disembodied head.

“I’d show you if I didn’t think you’d make off with my pearls.  You’ll have to take my word that I can stay under for 400 drips.”  (Blaine’s Note:  I think that’s more than six minutes.  Personally I wouldn’t brag about staying submerged in bathroom water for six minutes, but different strokes and all that.)

“What’s the spear for?”

“It makes me feel more streamlined when I dive.  Then I use it to pry the shells from the rock.”  A rope ladder with wooden rungs unfurled down the side of the canal, its rungs clicking as it went.  A portly man descended, stopping every three rungs to hack and wheeze.  He started talking with the girl before his feet even touched the ground.

“You got oysties for me today Pearlen?” he asked.  Her name is Pearlen, Alast archived.  I bet her surname is just as incredible.

“Inspect them yourself Flenn,” she said without looking up.  Flenn made his way over to her shucked pile and examined the pale blue flesh inside.

“These got rings in’em,” Flenn said with chagrin.  “I have aint seen rings iss bad since I lived o’er First Pot.  These aint worth twenny.”

“You know my price is thirty for twenty,” Pearlen said.  “Every day you come in with this nonsense.  There are rings.  There are spots.  You think one of them has a mark that looks like your dead mother and it brings a tear to your eye.”

“These iss rings; it’s worse than my mother.  They’ll taste like pot water.  I’ll give you fifteen.”

“You’ll give me thirty,” Pearlen said, staving off the haggling.

“I’ll give you eighteen.”

“Twenty-five.”

“Eighteen.”

“Twenty-two.”

Eighteen,” Flenn grumbled.  “Eighteen or I take my business up to the Ickr brothers.”

“Fine,” she relented.  “Take them and climb your round bottom back up there.  If you can manage.”  Flenn reached down to get an armful of the shellfish when Alast made a quick decision to intervene.

“Thirty,” he said.  They both looked at him.  He pulled out the bag of coins he was supposed to be using to buy a different kind of oysties.

“What?” Pearlen asked.

“I’ll give you thirty for them,” he clarified.  “I’m buying a meal for my crew and they look like a fine batch of oysties to me.”

“She aw’ready sold’em to me,” Flenn argued.  He bent back down but Pearlen threw her arm over the shells.

“If someone offers me enough coin that can affect the continuity of things,” she said.  “Sold to… Alast?”  He nodded, and then said yes when he realized she couldn’t discern his nod.  “For thirty.”  The boy moved forward to collect his prize, but Flenn got in the way.

“I’m not climbing again today.  I’ll give you thirty-one!” he wheezed desperately.  Pearlen removed her arm.  Flenn sneered and shoveled the oysties into a bag.  His expression of victory was fleeting however, gone the moment he looked up the ladder and remembered he now had to climb it with a sack over one shoulder.  Pearlen and Alast spoke in hushed tones until the wheezing was out of earshot.

“You didn’t have to do that,” she said.

“I learned a thing or two about selling where I came from,” Alast boasted.  “I used to harvest and sell bropato.”

“You lived on Metal Block?”

“I did until recently.  I was ousted by Yugo Legendr’s invasion.”

“How that clown raised an army I’ll never know,” Pearlen said.  Klush.

“Have you seen him?”

“No, but I feel like I have.  That skell is a joke.  He’s purple!  It’s not the most intimidating of colors.  I did hear he killed a prisoner for not being able to stifle his laughter though.”

“I’ve never been able to find out why he is purple,” Alast mentioned.

“Folks say it’s part of his disease.  Same reason he has a horn.”

“It doesn’t seem much like any disease I’ve ever heard of.”  Klush.

“I bet you hadn’t heard of eye-clawlies before today,” she wagered.

“No.”

“So… how long are you in Crosstahl for?” she asked.  “Do you live here now?”

“I’m in the employ of…” he started, but then they were distracted by scurrying scratching sounds rushing down a small hole in the stone wall.  A drip later Finick leapt into their midst, sliding and knocking a few shells back into the canal.

“Hey!” Pearlen shouted as she threw herself on the pile and pulled it away from the side.

“He be in the employ of yours truly!” Oddball declared from the back of his panting mount.  Then he turned to Alast.  “Good show boy.  I thought you had abandoned my lesson to get a kiss, but I now see your play.  You were after her oysties!  Aha!  Show it to me!  Show me the goods!  Be it in your pocket?”  Finick sniffed at the sides of Alast’s pants.  The boy scrambled to his feet and tried to shove Oddball away with the side of his foot.

“What’s that jawbone on about?” Pearlen asked, her speckled eyes narrowing angrily.  She started tossing her belongings back into the net.

“I didn’t steal anything,” Alast said.

“What?” Oddball shouted.  “We haven’t gotten to lying yet you blinkered little pupil.  Finick, find that oystie!”  The haund leapt up and bit at Alast’s pockets.

“I don’t believe this,” Pearlen said glumly, but it was clear to Alast she did believe it.  Faster than he could move past Oddball she tossed everything over her shoulder and dove into the canal.  Alast held a pearl he found in the last shell before the skull’s arrival.

“It was great to meet you,” he mumbled.  He gently dropped the gem into the water and watched it sink.  The darkness took it all at once and he hoped that was the result of a hand snatching it up.  He turned to Oddball.  “You ruined it!”

“I didn’t see you kissing her.  There wasn’t nothing to ruin!  Ahahahaha!  I’d be kicking her out of bed by now.  Now follow me.  We’re going back up and you’re proper stealing an oystie.”

“I think I’m allowed friends outside Captain Rob’s crew!”  Alast declared.  It was a complaint more properly lodged against Rob, but he felt much safer disobeying the man who couldn’t reach his knee.

“What be in your long johns?” Oddball asked.  “There be a hundred starved wenches back at Oobla’s, all too eager to nibble on your curds.”

“I’m not interested in… nibbling… I don’t even know what… never mind.  I’m starting to think gutter smarts don’t have much value if they drive decent folk like her away.”

“You’re boring me boy.  There be no greater sin I says.  Now move before Finick takes off the back of your ankles.”

“Finick would never…” Alast started, but the haund nipped at his exposed skin.  The boy mumbled something about the animal being a traitor, but then did as he was told.  The climb back up was much slower.  He would have to hurry just to get back to the charm school in time for the meal.

Under Oddball’s watchful gaze, though he was technically over it, Alast had to steal an oystie.  He found a fish market stand that was so full of the stony creatures that the pile literally flowed into the street, but Damr would not allow him to simply pick one up; he had to take it from the stand itself when the fishmonger’s back was turned.  To Alast the task stung like the bite of a bleeder fly, but he was happy to get it over with, especially given the sight of the fishmonger’s frighteningly hairy and boil-bearing back.

“That be it,” Oddball crooned when he snagged the shell.  Alast smiled down at the skull, but the second the fishmonger’s accursed back was turned again he put the oystie back where it belonged.  The boy’s smile turned sly.

“What?” he whispered.  “I stole it.  It was mine.  Then I returned it.”

“Clever,” Oddball admitted.  “Wiggling out of tight spots be grand in the gutter, but I’ll flush you in agony if you try that next time.”  Alast promptly paid for a bag of legitimate oysties.  Then they made their way back to the school.

As far as the battle for his own soul Alast felt like the victor that day, but that night he could think about nothing but the girl Pearlen and the way she was trapped in Crosstahl.  She couldn’t leave the water behind like he did the mist.

She’s incredible.  She can survive a city-long drop.  She can practically breathe with the fishes… but she cannot jump out of this canyon.  She cannot swim away down its rivers.  She can!  If I can do it knowing nothing, surely there’s a way for her.  If she was on a crew, say a pirate crew in Third Sink with a fleshy bonepicking captain and a newish cabin boy to show her the rigging, she wouldn’t have to worry about those Clawlies in her eyes.  She could go for a dip every day and then just climb back onboard.  It’s what I would do.  She just has to follow the river and the watering holes to the sink!  The Snyre isn’t going anywhere!  I’ll tell her.  I won’t leave until I see her again.  Roary was the cabin boy when he recruited me, so by all rights I should be able to do the same.  I just have to find her again.  How big can Crosstahl be?

Paper Cutters

papercutter

Initially Alast had thought the charm school was carved straight into the stone and there was nothing behind it.  This turned out to be the sort of thing Oobla wanted oblivious parents to think, but was completely untrue.  There was a door behind the laundry rooms that appeared to be boarded up; the heads of the nails in the wood were a nice touch.  A pull good enough for any other door opened it and revealed a grassy circular courtyard cavern with one central light shaft that was perfect for athletics.  The flowing stone walls were decorated with the life-size charcoal portraits of nearly a hundred graduates.

One day Alast and Roary were lounging in the grass, basking under the warm stares of the portraits, and pretending to play cards while they watched the girls go through their combat and acrobatics exercises.  Herc and Bonswario, being much too old to ogle girls of that age, were off trawling with Ladyfish in the bowels of the city, searching for rumors about Yugo.  Oddball had volunteered his services as equipment, and was being tossed back and forth by several of the students.

Oobla, who was supposed to be training them, was instead focused on Rob.  They both sat in brightly-striped folding chairs with topa backs sipping at each other’s ice-filled drinks and giggling.  Rob’s attire was frighteningly casual, with no gloves, cape, or belt.  Every once in a while Oobla threw out a compliment or tip without looking away from the pirate beard she affectionately stroked.

“Excellent Plybian!  Keep those feet together!”

“Such an improvement Childagrand!”

“Poise Roche!  You need to look composed in order to intimidate.  You need to draw the eye like a star feather!”

Suddenly, as if sensing a chill in the air, Oobla stood and dragged Rob back to the school.  She ordered the girls to keep practicing.  Rob threw it over his shoulder that the boys should keep doing what they were doing as well.  Roary enthusiastically saluted his Captain.  The lovers vanished inside behind yet another door Alast hadn’t noticed.  The moment they were gone the laundry door creaked open and Teal emerged.  She looked around as if she expected to see something.  She even sniffed at the air.

Alast watched as she ran her hands along the charcoal portraits and made her way around the courtyard.  He wondered if she was testing the wall for secret switches.  He’d accidentally hit one himself last night, a candlestick, that had opened a secret drawer full of swords wide enough to work as mirrors.  Once she’d made a full circle and was satisfied nothing was hidden, she picked up her dress and sat down next to Roary and Alast.

“Deal me in,” she said.

“We’re not actually…” Roary started.  Teal glared at him.  “Oh alright.”  When he was finished pouting he picked a game and started tossing cards to them.  “The name of the game is lift the seat: leaks are high, cracks are low, stains are wild, and we’re not playing with stenches.”

Normally Alast was content to play cards; he wasn’t particularly good at it, but that was because he didn’t quite have the rotation of the hundred and some games pirates played with cards down yet.  He’d never played lift the seat, but the rules seemed close enough to must wash hands for him to compete.  When he checked Teal’s face to try and read her reaction to her starting hand he caught a glimpse of something he’d never really seen: an emotion.

He’d never seen an honest one on Teal’s face anyway.  What little feeling escaped her usually came out in her voice, and subtly so.  The tone she used was always the same, but sometimes the words struck like sharp leaves or hot wax.  She had a way of revealing her state of mind by jabbing at you in conversation until yours was identical.

Alast saw her look intently at her cards like they were struggling skingles dropping their tails all over the ground.  He restrained himself from asking, at least for two rounds of the game.  After losing twice he felt like he’d displayed enough humility to allow a quiet question.

“Is something the matter Miss Powdr?” he asked.  She kept playing while she spoke, never looking away from her cards.

“We need to leave.”

“What for?” Roary asked.  “They’re not fighting yet.”

“Wait, who’s going to fight?” Alast asked.

“Captain Roobla’s going to fight,” Teal explained, “but that was inevitable before we set out.  I’m talking about Yugo.”

“He be not in the city,” Roary said.  “Even if he was there be no safer place here than the secret cave behind a house full of warrior women.”

“Are we not actually safe?” Alast asked her in all seriousness.  If I’m not safe it means Pearlen isn’t safe either.  It’s just like the mist.  She needs to get out.  Teal set her cards down in the grass, face down of course, and pulled out a regional map of the land beneath Third Sink’s lip, Crosstahl, and the gently curving lines of the Tributaroads.  She pointed to the thickest road at the edge of the map.

“The ekapad surveys put his main forces here.”  Her fingers moved to the land around the Gummire.  “The forces he had on Metal Block have undoubtedly confirmed Cardinal Second’s absence and moved to the wall.  I’d be surprised if they weren’t working their way down the sides of the sink by now.”

“That don’t mean they’ll come here,” Roary scoffed.  He eyed the girl named Plybian so intently that his grip on his cards weakened.  They fanned out enough for Alast to see them and realize he would lose no matter what.  Now there was no reason to not give Teal his full attention.

“Why do we need to leave?” he asked.

“His forces are divided in two main bodies, but they have one thing in common,” she said.  “They’ve been converging on us and the tile for more than a wash.  Yugo himself has been moving up the Tributaroads.  If I’m right he’ll soon diverge from the main road and begin making his way to Crosstahl.  Meanwhile his forces that are dripping down the side of the sink will cut off our ability to flee back the way we came.  He’ll catch us somewhere between the city and the Gummire.”

“How does he know where we are?”

“Yugo has nearly as many spies as soldiers,” Teal said.  “Rob knows that simply sending you out to get food is a risk.  If his head wasn’t shoved down Oobla’s gullet he’d realize you should be disguised.”  A few of the girls stopped what they were doing and stared.  They might have heard something insulting their principal’s honor.  “Don’t worry about them Alast,” Teal whispered about the students.  “They’re shoved down Oobla’s gullet as well.  The woman has stuffed her face with everyone and everything she could.”

“Was there a spat between the two of you?” Alast asked.  Roary snorted and stopped using his eyebrows to exchange silent poetry with the redheaded Plybian.

“More like the bloodiest war in a hundred rests,” he joked.  Teal smacked the top of his head hard enough to make him drop his cards, which, in a lucky turn of events, was an action that disqualified him from the rest of the round.  “Hey, I was going to win!”

“The First mate orders you to warn the Captain about the approaching threat,” Teal said.

“Why can’t you…” Roary started before remembering the answer to his own question.  “Aye Miss Powdr.”  He put nearly as much effort into appearing sullen while he rose to his feet as he did appearing heartbroken when he said farewell to Plybian.

“Miss Powdr,” Alast continued, “There are eight cardinal tiles aren’t there?  Why is Yugo using an entire army to go after the one that’s moving around?  Why not focus on the others first?”

“The others are better protected,” she explained.  “All of them except Second are stored in fortresses under constant guard.  Second was supposed to be protected by the natural forces within Metal Block.”

“What’s inside Metal Block?  I lived there my whole life and I always thought it was just coiled bropato and darkness.”

“Trust me when I say that’s plenty of protection.  Normally anyway.  Dlak obviously managed to get in and get out quietly.”

“Who’s going to put it back?”

“I’m sorry?”

“When we eventually take Second back to Block.  Who will return it to the darkness?”

“Are you volunteering?”  Alast nodded.  “I doubt the Captain will allow you.  He’ll likely go alone or take one other to mimic Dlak’s journey.  You’re flushed too green for something like that.”

“He won’t be green when I’m through with him,” Oddball cackled.  He rolled across the grass and into the middle of the stalled card game.  He eyed Roary’s dropped cards.  “Ooh… beautiful hand.”  He turned to Alast.  “I’ve got your next assignment boy.”

“I’m tired of stealing,” Alast said.  ‘There’s no point in taking scraps of food anyway.  Nobody ever lost sleep over one bite.”

“This be worth more than a bite,” Oddball said evilly.  “Have you seen that ring on Miss Redr’s right pinky?”  Alast thought back to when he met the woman; he did recall a ring: pale reds and dark reds swirling around on a smooth stone and set in black iron.  He remembered thinking the colors looked like blood and milk being swirled together.  “I’ve seen you reading up on your Custodians.  You remember what to look for when it comes to precious stones out on the tiles.”  Alast remembered the magical bath bead fragments Kilroy Ordr had gifted to his lovers.

“You think the stone is a bath bead?” he asked in a whisper.  Now it was Teal’s turn to smile, another uncommon thing.

“It’s a bath bead alright,” she confirmed.  She stood to leave, conceding the card game to Alast.  I won.  Wait… that’s not important right now.  I’m being ordered to become a jewel thief.  “I’ll leave you boys to your scheming.  Alast… Oobla is a very heavy sleeper.  The snoring should be excellent cover.”  Alast wanted to ask her to stay, but Oddball hopped into his lap.  He was confused as to how the skull managed to jump when another realization hit him.

“You can bonepick Mr. Damr?”

“Of course I can,” the skull said.  “What do you think I do all day?  Not the most effective skill without a body, but I can get around if need be.”  The laundry door squealed shut behind Teal.  Ten drips later the other door opened and Oobla poked her head full of bouncing red curls out.  Once she was sure Rob’s First Mate was gone she pulled the Captain back outside and threw him back into his chair.  They picked up their drinks and went back to sipping at them like nothing had happened.  “Take a good look at that ring boy.  Memorize it.  If you’re going to be a real pirate you need to be able get jewelry away from a woman without her even coming to hate you.”

“Keep your voice down,” Alast hissed.  “She’s right there…  I don’t think the Captain would sanction that sort of assignment.”

“Teal confirmed it with her confirmation!” Oddball said, blowing right by Alast’s objection.  “That stone be magic.”

“What would I even do with it if I managed to take it?”

“Then you give it to Rob.  He’ll give it back if he wants.  Or he’ll keep it and he’ll be flushed proud of you.  I know I’ll be beaming bright as polished tile.”

“I’m not stealing Oobla’s ring!” the boy insisted.  He dropped Oddball back into the grass and stood up, gently kicking the skull back to the girls so he could go back to being their ball.  He was about to bend back down and clean up the cards when he heard his name.

“Alast,” Captain Rob called.  Oh crumbs.  “Come over here.”  He heard.  Of course he heard.  Alast slowly made his way to the Captain with his eyes cast downward.  Maybe he’ll bury me right here.  I’m such a fool.  How could the man not hear it?  We’re in the same chamber!  He felt the twitch of a tile being moved half a world away!  He stopped in front of the two chairs.

“Aye Captain?”

“Go pick up that saber leaning over there,” the Captain ordered.  Alast twisted and saw Roary’s saber leaned up against the wall.

“Captain?”

“Go on boy.  Pick it up.”  Oobla pursed her bright plump lips and giggled.  “Miss Redr has taken exactly one look at you and profoundly underestimated your capability.  She thinks any one of her students could beat you in a sparring match.  I aim to prove her wrong.”  It took all of Alast’s composure to hide his relief.  I only have to fight with swords.  That’s all.  It’s just a day in a brigand’s life.  The boy retrieved the saber, removed it from its scabbard and examined the blade.  It was an old weapon never treated with soapstone; rust had eaten the middle of the blade.

Oobla curled a finger to signal one of her students.  Instead of walking over the girl performed a series of flips until she stood across from Alast.  She brandished a thin straight sword.  She was slightly taller than Alast and just as muscular.  The addition of a cornered hat and a fish hook scar would be all it would take for her to surpass his own swashbuckler image.

“What are the rules?” Alast asked.

“The first one to disarm the opponent is the winner,” Oobla declared.  “Anyone who draws blood is disqualified.”  Oobla’s student, who was named Gambine if Alast’s memory served, sighed with disappointment.  Apparently bloodless battles were a bore.

“Don’t let me down boy,” Rob warned.  “I made several supportive comments regarding your talent.  Retracting them would be most painful.”

He didn’t say who it would be painful for, Alast noted.  Oobla clapped her hands to begin the sparring match.  During their stay at the school Alast had used this same area for his continuing lessons with Dawn, so he was sure he could at least put up a decent resistance.  How he would remove the sword from Gambine’s grip was another matter.

The girl wasted no time.  She walked forward steadily, the sword poised at an angle in front of her.  Alast tried to hold his ground with a few wild slashes to force her back, but she deflected them and returned with a few controlled swipes of her own.  Alast dropped to the ground and rolled away, a move intended to avoid the incredible low sweep of a bonepicker bent at the ankles, but it did the job well enough.  He only realized his error when he had to take the time to get back to his feet and Gambine’s strikes kept him on his knees.  Alast rolled backward and hopped up, his back colliding with the stone.

“Don’t smudge those portraits,” Oobla warned.

“She doesn’t have a bone to pick with you,” Rob shouted.  “Get in there and fight regular!”  Alast did as he was told.

She’s good.  I should be handling this better though.  Another swing from Gambine nicked his saber.  I’m intimidated; that’s the problem!  She doesn’t fight like Dawn.  I need to adapt.  Alast recalled what it was like to fight in the mist.  Back there every move was only visible in its final drip; reaction time was key.  As crazy as it seemed, the boy closed his eyes for a moment after each move.  He charted the spots where the tip of her blade ended up.  He tried to put it all together in his head and see a pattern.

She scored his saber again.  A possible strategy presented itself.  Perhaps, barring the ability to actually defeat her, he could end the match on a technicality.  Alast kicked away from the wall and locked blades with her.  He put all his strength into each swing, with no regard for the energy it took out of him.  Three more scores appeared in his blade.  He just needed to hit one of them twice and… Kwing!  Gambine’s slash cut the saber in half.  It ricocheted off the wall and landed in the grass.

“Gambine wins!” Oobla judged.  She clapped for her student, who bowed to her and then shook Alast’s hand.

“It’s not official!  It doesn’t count!”  Rob said.  He stood up, marched over, and took the remains of the saber from Alast.  “This weapon wasn’t fit for service.  I practically sent him in with his naked pink hands.  Are you alright Alast?”  His syrupy false concern was meant to further delegitimize the bout, which meant Alast had succeeded; the Captain did not see him as having lost.  “This is all my fault!”

“Oh stop putting on a show,” Oobla teased.  “Accept your defeat.  Let’s go inside.  The cook should have those tarts ready by now.  I think I can smell them.”

“All I smell is iron shavings and blade oil!” Rob exclaimed.  “These smells will haunt me at night, cluttering my dreams with hammers and axes until I’m squeezed out of my own head.  This exercise in unfairness must be rectified.  Alast must be taken to get a proper weapon.  Then we can have this fight again.  Then we can declare a winner.”  Alast’s eyes lit up.  Aboard the Mop he’d only used sabers from the collective barrel; he hadn’t thought as the cabin boy he ever had the chance of getting his own sword.  Or a spear! Or a hammer! 

“But the tarts…” Oobla whined.  “Who will enjoy them with me?”

“Hang the tarts woman,” Rob dismissed.  “Get your boots on Alast.  I’m taking you to Peako Dagyvr.”

Rob, Alast, and Dawn bought seats on a tilehoof-drawn wagon to make the trip relaxing.  Peako lived in a different spoke of the city, so it would take them drops to get there and back.  Dawn insisted on riding along since she was the one handling most of Alast’s combat training and she thought she deserved a say in what sort of weapon she had to work with.

Luckily for Alast the wagon was uncovered; he could scan the streets and the layers of civilization across the canal gap for any sign of Pearlen.  It wasn’t easy to focus though, given the chaos of the fascinating crowds.  From the moment his bottom sank into the folducted topa of his seat his head was on a swivel.  Crosstahl already felt like home because it was exactly like the Mop, always alive with footsteps, conversation, and cargo. Alast briefly entertained a daydream where he slept on a cot carried in the streets, just over everyone’s heads.  He imagined being passed back and forth until he eventually woke in a pocket of culture he’d never seen before:  bergfolk from First Tank, sibling-traders from along the Tributaroads, or naturalists recovering from an expedition to the Green Ring.

Something dropped from one of the top layers and into the canal.  Is it? No, not Pearlen.  Someone’s dumping garbage.  Is that?  No, a diving bartlebird.  This is torture.  The corner of my eye should know her dive exactly by now.  I only saw it once, but there’s no forgetting. 

“Do you think Peako will be awake this time?” Dawn asked Rob, drawing Alast’s attention.  The Captain plucked a salted fish from a basket balanced on a tilefolk woman’s head as she passed by.  He dropped it into his mouth and chewed.  He shook his head to indicate his skepticism.

“I heard Oddball say the best weapon-smith in Porce lived in Crosstahl,” Alast mentioned.  “Was he speaking of Mr. Dagyvr?”

“He was,” Dawn confirmed.  She unsheathed her bonepicking sword.  “This be one of his.  He made Rob’s weapons too.  Teal has one… and there are a few others what get traded around the Mop.”

“So… why does the cabin boy get to have his own?”  Alast asked.  He asked Dawn, but he hoped the Captain would answer.

“To prove a point,” Rob said as he tossed the fish’s tail back into the crowd.  A hand, apparently far hungrier than Rob, grabbed it out of the air and pulled it down.  “Can’t have Oobla thinking I hired someone squishy.  She might think less of me.  You’re to beat Gambine next time, you understand?”

“Aye Captain.”

“After you do, that weapon will become the property of the entire crew.  You’re not to hoard it when we get back.” Alast’s heart sank, but rebounded.  It could at least be his until they were back aboard the Mop.  That could be more than a wash for all he knew.

“What makes Peako Dagyvr the best?” he asked.

“He is a man on a mission,” Rob said.

“Like me.”  The Captain knitted his brow.

“How so boy?”

“Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten my mission Captain.  I’m the caretaker of Cardinal Second.  I go where it goes until it is returned.  Until I earn a surname.”

“Why’s this so important to you?”

“A man with a surname knows too much to live in the mist.  He’s a participant in the world.  I would kill for that responsibility.”

“Oddball tells me you’re barely willing to steal for it,” Rob jabbed.  Alast cast his eyes downward.  He didn’t know the Captain ever bothered to speak with the crazy skull.

“Captain, are you telling me I should take whatever Mr. Damr orders me to take?”

“You’re his charge in Crosstahl,” the Captain said, “and you should obey his every command.”

“Aye Captain.”

“Dagyvr’s mission,” Rob said as he pulled the conversation back to its intended path, “is a self-imposed one.  I suppose that’s another similarity twixt the two of you.  “He’s always dreamed of creating the perfect weapon, a device that could not only cleave flesh from bone, but any part of Porce from any other part.  Imagine a sword that could cut a doorway in stone like a knife through butter.  Imagine a spear that, when thrown, could pierce the bottom of Third Sink, cut the waters of the Snyre, turn around in the air, and then do the same on the way back down.  Imagine the hand that threw it catching it upon return.”

“Is such a weapon possible?” Alast asked.

“I highly doubt it,” Rob said.  “It doesn’t matter how many people tell him that; Peako always keeps trying.  There’s always a new alloy or an exotic metal never plucked from Porce before.  There’s always a new hammering or cooling technique.  The last time I saw him he was even experimenting with religious incantations.”

“He’s dumb,” Dawn added.  “Even if a religious incantation could do something it would be useless without the faith to power it.  I’m sure the gods noticed when one prayer failed and he tried another to a different god in a different tongue.”

“I don’t think I’ll be needing a godly weapon,” Alast laughed.

“You’ll take whatever he gives you,” Rob said.  “That being said, he’s not likely to care about our presence.  He’ll probably give you pick of the litter.”

“He makes the best in the world and I’m allowed to pick whatever I want?”

“To him there is no best in the world until he succeeds.  Every weapon he makes that isn’t the one is garbage to him.  He keeps them around in piles and charges far less than he could.  He doesn’t care for any of them.”

“You’ll have to help me get a good one Dawn,” Alast said.  The grave girl nodded, appreciating his recognition of her expertise.  Alast was about to ask for Rob’s input on weapon choice when he heard a splash.  His head whipped around.  It couldn’t be her.  I never heard the splash last time; it was too perfect.  She’s silent.  It’s like… it’s like… she can cut the waters.  Her dive could separate stone like Peako’s fabled perfect weapon.

“We’ve arrived,” Rob said.  He vaulted off the side of the wagon and flipped a coin to the driver.  Dawn tumbled backwards onto the ground.  Obviously outclassed by the bonepickers, Alast simply stepped down without flinging his body in any particular direction.  They walked down narrow streets for a while, losing the sounds of the canal.  Peako’s place, unlike Oobla’s, shared its cavern with a few other businesses.  Who would’ve thought the greatest weapon-smith in the world was sandwiched between a rug store and a place that sold livestock feed?  They passed through the dusty smell of the carpet place and the earthy grains of the feed shop to get to Peako’s front door.

Alast expected a bell to go off when they entered, or a gravefolk skull to be perched nearby announcing their arrival, but there was no fanfare.  The shop was cramped, built from wood so dark it was nearly black, and the air crackled like that around a campfire.

“His stores are through here,” Rob said, pointing down a hallway.  The crackling grew louder and the air hotter.  Alast noticed a distinct lack of decoration.  There were papers on the walls, and stacked on the furniture, but they were not artwork.  There were receipts, miner’s maps, technical drawings, books on metallurgy, and letters begging for spots in a line that did not exist.  There was also a lot of unopened mail held down by drying bread and cheese crusts.  The dry air in the workshop kept the bugs and mold away, or so Alast reasoned when he noticed his throat drying out.

They entered the main body of the workshop and found ten roaring fireplaces, all barely separate from each other.  Every spot on the wall was occupied by a sword, shield, hammer, or some mysterious collection of spikes and handles that Alast couldn’t put a name too.  Even the chandelier overhead was completely composed of fused hand axes.  Wire baskets twice the size of Alast were spread about the room in no particular pattern and filled with pointy or blunt objects.  A few of them, curiously, seemed to be pointy and blunt at the same time.  Alast couldn’t help but reach out to touch the tip of one of them, but a voice stopped him.

“I wouldn’t do that.  It’ll shred your tiny child hand.”  Alast whirled around to find the owner of the voice.  It took him a few drips to realize the pile of clothes lounging in one of the two chairs in the room was actually a person.  The back of the chair was deeply slanted, giving him the profile of a napper.  It wasn’t clear how he’d seen Alast, given the open pamphlet spread over the top half of his face to shut out the firelight.  All Alast could see was his caramel-colored skin, dry cracked lips, and thin moustache.  The voice sounded a bit younger than the Captain’s.  The boy pulled his hand back.

“So it is sharp?” he asked.  “I don’t mean to be stupid but I honestly couldn’t tell.”

“It’s sharp about half the time,” the man, whom Alast assumed was none other than Peako Dagyvr, answered.

“How does that work?”

“It took grinding up a bath bead called Surface Confusion 5,” Peako said, still not bothering to lift the pamphlet and look the boy in the eye.  He did scratch one of his ankles with the toes on his other foot.

“That’s an odd name for a bath bead,” Alast mused.  Having read several history texts at this point, he was used to grandiose names like the World Boring Bead, the Moldy Blood Bead, or the Malice Constrictor Bead.  Surface Confusion 5 stood out like a fruit among tubers.

“That’s the bead’s scientific classification,” Rob clarified from behind Peako’s chair.  “Aside from their common names beads are classified by their abilities.  If they match the ability of another bead they’re given a number to indicate the order they were found in.  Surface Confusion 5 was a bead weighing some four chips found in the mud of First Sink.  It was found to have the property of changing the textures of things around it.  As it was the fifth bead found with that power, you understand…”

“Is that you Rob?” Peako asked, still refusing to move.  If anything his posture relaxed even more.

“Aye Peako.  I’ve come to get a weapon for the boy there.”

“Why does a boy need one of mine?”

“I’m trying to win a wager.”

“Fair enough.  You know the routine.  Take what you want and pay what’s fair.  Coin bucket’s around here somewhere.”

“You heard the man Alast.  Pick something.”  Alast wandered towards a random wall, but Dawn grabbed his wrist in her leathered hand and dragged him over to one of the baskets instead.  She rattled off the various benefits and drawbacks of everything she pointed to.  She skipped right over a basket full of oddly-shaped bonepicking weapons.  Rob followed behind them, pretending not to pay attention.  He rubbed some dust off the flat pan-shaped face of a bonepicker’s slam-hammer.

“You’ve stopped making bonepicking weapons,” the Captain noted.

“For now,” Peako said.

“Why?”

“Bonepicking may be the greatest combat art, but it’s not the inspiration I need.  I’ve tried all that.  It’s about the materials now.”

“It was about the materials two rests ago but you didn’t have it then either.”

“I’m following the line of evidence.  I’m currently experimenting with powerful contrasts: rare bath beads mixed, half to half, with the commonest soil metals.  The contradiction could create the perfect effect: the ability to cleave anything from anything.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Rob muttered.

“How will you know if it’s perfect?” Alast asked, handing one of Dawn’s recommendations back to her.  She smacked the side of his head to get his attention back, but Alast very much wanted his question answered.  She ended up using bonepicking to silently leap up to the highest part of the wall and remove a few more recommendations.

“Are you saying you wouldn’t know perfection when you saw it?” Peako asked.  He took the pamphlet off his face; Alast saw a pair of very tired eyes.  The smith rose from his chair and moved down the line of forges, turning a few rods here and there.

“Can’t there always be something better?” the boy asked.  “What I mean to say is, if you make a weapon that can cut through a hundred bricks, why do you assume there isn’t one that can cut through a hundred and five?”

“My primary goal is not raw power,” Peako explained.  “It is just a perfect ability.  A weapon of perfect reliability.  It needs only to show no hesitation in the face of any stuff of Porce.  I want to know it can destroy anything, the same way a perfect painting or poem can destroy a man emotionally.  Porce should weep at the sight of it, should proclaim its own inadequacies.”

“Is this goal of yours ultimately about… the Gross Truth?” Alast asked, playing a hunch.  Why am I nervous?  I’m an adult now; I can talk about the Gross Truth.  It’s as real as anything else.

“Where do you wash your hands that you think you can ask me about the Gross Truth?” Peako asked, suddenly agitated.  He stomped over to Dawn, ripped the weapons from her arms, and tossed them all into an empty forge to burn and melt.  “All failures!  Everything in here.  I should be ashamed to make these things.  Nothing that could even cut through a chamber pot.  Nothing that can split me from Porce.”  He stormed over to Alast.  “Once I can cut the Gross Truth away from the world, all will be right.”

“Don’t mind the boy’s questions,” Rob said to disarm the strange man.  “He’s only learned it himself recently.  He thinks he’s got a polished grip on it now.”  He turned to his cabin boy.  “Almost nobody who accepts the Gross Truth likes it.  You can assume that.  You don’t need to run around asking everyone else what their personal pants-down about the whole situation is.”

“Apologies Captain,” Alast said.  “And to you Mr. Dagyvr.  I meant no disrespect.”  I wish I could ask everybody.  How else am I supposed to figure out what everybody knows?

“Perfection will look like a questing beast,” Peako suddenly added.  He paid no attention to Dawn as she fished a few of her favorites back out of the forge.  She had no breath to put out a flaming hilt, so she spun it until it extinguished.  “Once one of them comes to kill me I’ll know I’m moments from success.  Simple as that.  Proof of perfection.”

“Try this one Alast,” Dawn ordered.  She held out a thick saber with a wavy blade like the tail of a phantom cutter.  (Blaine’s Note: My money’s on that being a fish.  I picture a knife fish personally, but I might only be doing that because it would make the sword look way cooler.)  Alast grabbed the blade.  It was heavy, but no so heavy that he lacked control.  Peako walked over to one of the chairs and stomped down on a wooden lever at its base.  The cushion on the chair sprang open on a hinge; a wooden torso covered in scratches popped up.  It wore a silly square hat that was probably meant to be a pillow for the chair originally.  He welcomed Alast to test his weapon on the dummy.  The boy stepped up and subjected the wooden object to several basic attacks.

“It doesn’t feel right to me,” he said as he dropped it back into a basket.  Dawn smacked herself in the forehead.

“Look who thinks he be Custodian Hushypup,” she mocked.  The grave girl dropped all the weapons on the floor and spread them out with the tip of her boot.  “Go on then.  You pick one you’re so smart.”  Alast crouched down and picked through them.  He reached for one, but Dawn kicked it away.  She whistled nonchalantly; he still was not used to a skull being able to produce that sound.  He reached for another, an approved guess this time.  This saber had a simple twist of black leather on its handle.  The blade was thin with an aggressive curve like a claw, most pronounced at the tip.  The only decoration was along the dull edge: a row of polished blue stones in metal settings the color of bread crust.  He took it over to the dummy and tried it out.

It handled the way weapons did in dreams, weightless and flexible.  Even when it stuck in the dummy it didn’t shake or impact his wrist; it just bent.  When he pulled it out it returned to its original shape with a whimsical wobbling sound.  He looked again at its decorative stones.

“These aren’t bath beads are they?” he asked Mr. Dagyvr.  Peako snickered, as did the Captain.

“No,” Peako answered.  “Those are nothing but common blue tilestone tumbled and polished to circles.  They absorb impact tremors and make it easier to keep hold of the weapon.”

“Interesting,” Alast said.  He held the sword out and examined it more closely.  “What else does this blade have about it?  What makes it special?”

“It’s no more special than any of the other failures.  The metal is iron from a toil lever.  The style is mostly from the Disinfectant Conflicts, some 140 rests ago, but there’s a hint of stall marauder flair.  The side walls of course, and nothing too close to the topa.”

“What else?”

‘There is nothing else.  It’s a saber.  It’s your saber if you’ll shut your mouth and leave me to my work.”

“Are you satisfied with that one Alast?” Rob asked.  “We don’t have all day.  Gambine might have graduated by the time we get back if you keep on like this.”

“I think I am Captain.”

“Good,” Peako declared as he threw his hands in the air and returned to his chair.  He opened the pamphlet once again and placed it over his eyes.  “Find the bucket and put some tiles in it.  Close the door on your way out.”  Rob thanked the man briefly and started directing them out the way they came.  Alast was so distracted by his new sword that he didn’t notice he was dangerously close to one of the weapon baskets.  Something poking out of one of the holes cut across his pants, just below the knee, and opened his skin.  He stopped not because felt pain, but because he felt warmth moving down his leg.

“Don’t just gawk at it, put some pressure on,” Dawn scolded.  She dropped down to her knees and wrapped her arms around his leg.  Alast only winced several drips later, when the pain finally came.  He’d never had a wound like it before; the cut was so thin, but somehow deep enough to create a small river of blood.  He looked back at the edge that caught him and saw a very distinct shade of brown.

“That’s bropato,” he said dumbly, pointing to it.  Peako’s pamphlet fell to the floor as he rose again.  He rifled through the basket that had bested Alast, sloppily despite all the pointy bits, and pulled something out.  He tossed it onto the floor: a strange knife with a bropato blade that appeared to have been folded over onto itself a thousand times.  Peako dug out seven other identical knives from the basket and made a pile of them.  Alast bent down and picked one up.

“Now those are slightly fascinating,” Peako said, “but still abysmal failures.  They were folded from bropato that still lived on its sheet, only separated by the compressing force of a great stone on either side.  In fact, those stones were Surface Confusion 3 and Surface Confusion 4.”

“You greedy gumball,” Rob accused.  “You had three of those beads?  I would’ve given you a silver whore’s washly take for one of those.  I could’ve blunted a thousand enemy blades before the fight even started.”

“I needed them,” was the only excuse Peako made.  “I’d hand the useless rocks over to you now if I hadn’t used them up.”  He picked up another one of the bropato knives and balanced it on the tip of his finger.  He was so skilled that he held it perfectly still without even the slightest adjustment; it was like a leaf dangling from its branch by the tiniest thread of wegger silk.  “The strangest thing about these… I call them paper cutters by the way, after those ships that sliced others in Slick Rin… is that if you were truly desperate, and were careful to avoid the sharp side, you could…”

“Eat them,” Alast said.  Peako dropped the knife.

“That’s right.  How’d you know that?”

“I know every kind of bro’ there is,” he boasted, perfectly happy to let the statement linger with an air of mystery.  “Would it be possible for me to have these as well?”

“Your workshop’s suddenly become a tank full of greedy gumballs!” Rob barked.  “I’m not paying for another.”

“Take them,” Peako said with a wave of his hand.  His focus had drifted away once again and he was making his way back to the chair.  “They’ve been stinking up the place for too long anyway.  I need fresh air in here.  Inspiration instead of moldering bark.”

“Dawn could you please…” Alast said, pointing to the other knives with his nose since his hands were full.  The slight motion of her head indicated she rolled her empty sockets, but she piled the knives together anyway and picked them up.

“Don’t get them wet for more than 100 drips,” Peako warned.  “They’ll go limp as noodles if you do.”

“Thank you Mr.  Dagyvr,” Alast said.  “I’ll never forget this.”  Rob stuck out his boot and kicked Alast in the back to get him going.  Alast heard him drop a pile of coins into a clay jar on the way out.  He remembered one of the tricks taught to him by Veer Keystonr: calculating a monetary amount by the sound of it being dropped.  Klink… That’s not bad.  Kwunk… seems fair for his efforts.  Klank Kling Kling… oh.  He must really be the best.  One footstep in this workshop must cost a day’s wage.  If his guesses were right, the saber he now held was worth more than his own indentured servitude up to and past his own death by more than two rests.  “I’ll be happy to work these off Captain,” he offered.

“Boy you have two rests to work before you make up for me rescuing your dewy behind from that desert.  You’ll be bones before you’re done owing me.”

“Aye Captain.”

Alast thought he had played his cards well, what with managing to get a saber and eight strange knives for his own use.  Part of him hoped they got back to Oobla’s without incident so he wouldn’t be tempted to push his luck, but that was not the path of the day.  Back out on the canal streets, perched on the edge of a round metal pole, was Pearlen.  She had her spear in hand and she eyed the waters below with obvious boredom.  There’s nothing wrong with interrupting boredom, Alast reasoned.  He rushed forward, shouldering his way through the crowds.  Whatever was said behind him, he had to pretend not to hear it.  In order for the plan to succeed the Captain needed to see what she could do, and he certainly wouldn’t wait for her to climb all the way back up and dive again.

“Pearlen!” the boy called to her.  She heard and looked in his direction, but seemed confused that someone would shout her name at all.  “Pearlen!”  He ran up to her and stopped just short of the edge.  He’d forgotten he was technically brandishing a weapon, and when Pearlen recognized the shape she swiveled on the metal pole and pointed her spear at him.

“You’re the worst thief I’ve ever seen,” she growled.  “Can’t you see my net is empty?  I don’t have anything for you to steal yet.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” he said as he realized his error.  He sheathed the saber and held his hands out.  “Do you remember me?  Alast?  I helped you get a good price for your catch the other day?”

“I remember.  It was just a story, to cover your thieving intentions.”

“I don’t have thieving intentions,” Alast insisted.  His teeth cut his lip a little thanks to the lie.  “I don’t have them at the moment…  I would never have them towards a friend, no matter how valuable…  Can I start over?”

“No.”  Pearlen turned back and leaned forward, preparing to dive.

“Alast!” Rob’s voice came from behind as the Captain caught up.  Dawn stopped right behind him.  Pearlen was interested enough in hearing him get chastised to delay her leap.  “Where the foamy caulk are you headed?”

“I’m sorry Captain,” Alast apologized.  One of these days I’ll be in a position where someone has to apologize to me.  “I saw someone I wanted you to meet and she was about to leave.”

“Be that her?” Dawn asked.

“Yes!  This is Pearlen.  She’s a diver.  A treasure hunter really.  You should see what she can bring up from the waters down there.”

“Why would I want to meet this street child?” Rob asked.  “No offense young lady.”  Pearlen shrugged it off.  At this point she was only interested in hearing the strange boy’s angle.  She wondered if he would be foolish enough to follow her down the layers and into the water if she jumped before he was done.  She had trained for washes to hit that water without letting it get the best of her; the boy would likely die if he tried it.

“I think…” Alast began before he’d fully calculated the thought.  “I think she would be an excellent addition to the crew.  It would be a terrible oversight to… oversee her.”

“We’re not hiring boy,” the Captain said.

“Aye, but you weren’t hiring when you took me in either.”

“That was a situation so opposite that your comparison warrants lashing.”

“Don’t lash him too hard,” Pearlen said.  “I will ask that you throw in an extra for me for his assumption.”

“What assumption is that?” Rob asked.

“I’ve never expressed any interest in joining any kind of crew to him,” she said.  “It’s the first I’ve heard of it.”

“I didn’t get the chance,” Alast whined.  “Trust me Pearlen.  This is a rare opportunity.  You don’t have to live the way you do.  There’s adventure and education out on the Snyre Sea with us.”

“Not for her!” Rob declared.  “She hasn’t been asked aboard the ship by anyone bearing any authority.”

“It’s no worry because I wouldn’t want to step foot on any ship run by thieves,” Pearlen countered.

“Nobody wants any part of this boy, now come along before I kick you over.”  Rob started to walk way.  Pearlen turned back to the ledge.

“She can hold her breath for 400 drips!” Alast blurted.  Rob turned back and stared at the boy.  Then at Pearlen.  Then at the boy.  Then the canal.  Then the girl again.

“No she cannot,” he eventually said.

“Yes, she can,” Pearlen said in her own defense.  Rob stroked his beard and played his shifting gaze game a few moments more.

“Alright.  If she dives right now and comes back up after 400 drips, she’s welcome aboard the Mop.  I can make use of a talent like that.”

“What for?” Dawn asked.  “I’m a lungless wonder.  I could stay down there forever and pick my way back up faster than she could swim.”

“Yes, but you don’t have that innocent fleshy little face,” Rob said.  Alast turned to Pearlen and gave her an encouraging nod before wondering if she could see it at all from that distance.  Regardless, she leaned forward and fell towards the water below.  Rob and Dawn leaned over the edge as far as they could, which was unnaturally far thanks to their bonepicking.  Alast had to settle for holding the edge of the cliff with all his fingers.  He went forward enough to feel all the blood rush to his face.  The girl’s body formed a needle once again, with the spear piercing the surface first.  Dawn counted out loud.

“One drip in the bowl, two drips on the seat, three drips on the floor, four drips on his pants, and five drips in his drawers.  Six drips in the bowl, seven drips on the seat, eight drips on the floor, nine drips on his pants, and ten drips in his drawers…”

“You’re counting too fast,” Alast said worriedly.

“My counting be perfect,” she insisted.  “There be no heartbeat throwing me off.  Fourteen drips on his pants, and fifteen drips in his drawers…”  The drips passed agonizingly for Alast.  To him the odds seemed half and half as to whether she would bother to surface just to prove the Captain wrong.  Perhaps she just swam away to gather oysties as soon as she was down.  If her pride didn’t get the better of her he might never see her again.  Dawn’s count passed a hundred.  Then two hundred.  A few bystanders lingered to see what the fuss was until Rob waved them away.  Three hundred.  Alast would’ve been biting his nails if they weren’t keeping him from tumbling into the drink.  “398 drips on the floor, 399 drips on his pants, and 400 drips in his drawers.  She made it.  If she be not dead.”

“She’s not dead,” Alast said.  But is she here?  How could someone turn this down?  It’s a life of adventure!  We’re fleeing from a madman’s army as he seeks a stone that can move the world.  I’d give my left hand to have this life.  The people who wouldn’t don’t even deserve those fancy surnames.

“It looks like you’ve been ditched Alast,” Rob said.  His body tilted back to a normal stance.  Alast leaned forward even more, trying to scoop her out of the canal with his gaze.  There was nothing but blue and small boats moving back and forth.

“Hold on Captain,” Dawn said.  Her empty eyes spotted the dark blur under the surface faster than Alast’s.  Rob leaned forward once again in time to see Pearlen break the surface.  She came up with such force that her body rose out of the water completely and she landed in a tiny passenger boat.  Alast squinted and saw that she’d filled her net in the time she was down there.  She handed a few shells to the man rowing the boat as payment and then leaned back against the bow with her hands behind her head.  She waved goodbye to the three pirates above.

“I’ll be sunk,” Rob said.  “A 400 dip dive.  You were right boy.  It’s too bad she wants no part of this.”  Alast’s enthusiasm sank as he realized he’d gotten a little too caught up in her surfacing.  She wasn’t coming back up.  Instead she leaned back in the boat with her eyes closed and drifted away down the current.  Maybe she didn’t have a surname either.  He hadn’t heard her give one.  Or maybe it’s none of my business.  The boy’s heart sank.  He turned to follow the others back into the streets.

I guess I don’t have to worry about people seeing me as a thief.  The company I keep brands me as one anyway; I might as well know how to steal properly.  I wonder… does Oobla ever nap during the day?

Continued in Part Six

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