(reading time: 1 hour, 26 minutes)
Tales of the Living Sixteen: Ciamuse
The first thing she had to get used to was privacy stalls. Her tragedy had taken her behind First Stone Door and atop First Toil, to the expanse beyond First Seat and under First Tank. She was in the shadow of Lunginvess and the toil’s lever. The folk in the town there valued their privacy above all else and looked to the stall around them in their architecture.
Every chamber pot and relief hole, no matter how remote, had its own privacy stall. Every bed was surrounded by one as well, whether its walls were wood, stone, topa, or cloth. When Wympona Dotsettr found lodging and employment there she was given a room to share with six other women, most of them barely more than girls. She was twelve rests herself (Blaine’s Note: thirty-three), but was just as shy and uneducated as the rest of them.
There were six beds in that room and they all had privacy stalls of white cloth. The girls could still talk through them easily, often using candles to cast shadows and puppets for their neighbors in the dead of night. They stayed up most nights, as their work was not difficult; difficulty was reserved for their employer.
Wympona and the other outcasts were in the employ of Filderbean Gasr and his privacy curtain company. They worked mostly in cloth, transporting the rolls and curtains from the older weavers down to the town where they installed them. Mr. Gasr was one of the only folk willing to take in such women, so he was free to set their wages as he liked. Those wages consisted of a bed each night and food each day. He loudly proclaimed, each time a new girl or woman joined them, that he cared not for their status. It didn’t matter if they were diseased, disgraced, unmarried, or even missing a limb.
There was only one thing Mr. Gasr would not tolerate from the women under his employ: children. They were greater drains on time and peace than any missing hand or social scandal. Their cries could penetrate every available make of privacy curtain. Only stone could muffle them, and, as he liked to say, a stone privacy curtain was just a wall. They didn’t sell walls.
That rule did not bother Wympona. She’d been expelled from her family a wash ago, for the crime of rejecting their marriage candidate. She’d started without a man. Mr. Gasr did not allow them visits from the opposite sex, not at home anyway, so her status was not likely to change. She had a friend instead.
It was a lucky day: a day where Wympona and her closest friend had been partnered and sent into town to install ten curtains for a shellenfowl farmer. He wanted each of his hutches hidden from view but still open to air, that way the birds wouldn’t suffer while he kept out the eyes of his competitors eager to spy his breeding and feeding secrets.
A few of the curious birds nipped at Wympona’s long blonde hair as it dragged in the greenish soil of their hutch. She was on her hands and knees, shuffling along, examining the lining of the curtain for any cuts or tears. She stopped when she spied her friend’s feet in the next stall. Wympona flopped onto her back and tapped her leg to get her to look down.
Tam-pam was an even bigger disgrace, and she wore her reputation as a wry smile most of the time. She had florent-kissed skin, a sloppy kiss at that, round cheeks, lips that rarely sat still, and a crop of hair that liked to curl under her chin and touch the ends of the neighboring strands. She wore translucent bright red pants. Red was the exclusive color of her lower half, be it dress, pants, or underthings, as another subversion of her nasty reputation.
“What are you looking at?” she asked Wympona’s head after she noticed it sticking out from the bottom of the curtain. “Is it worth letting them barmy beaks eat up your ringlets?”
“I would go bald to look at your beautiful face,” Wympona answered, smile growing. This was their play. Neither had nor wanted men, but praise was always lovely. They made it for each other and traded it back and forth all day long, as long as they were partnered. None of the others liked to play the game with Wympona; they thought her too old for such silliness, such romance-play. It was too late for her to rehearse for a wedding, but there was still plenty of time to audition as one of the gray weavers out in Gasr’s gardens. They didn’t need to practice compliments though, just weaving.
“Look hard then, because it won’t be beautiful for long,” Tam-pam warned. “My time is almost come again. You could drown in it from that angle.”
“Just keep it within the curtain and Filderbean won’t have to shout at you this cycle,” Wympona suggested jokingly. She disappeared under the curtain and reappeared over it, alongside the long neck and gray head of the bird she held. It pecked at the edge of the curtain, but its blunt bill couldn’t do any damage to their fine products.
“Within the curtain!?” Tam-pam exclaimed with a false gasp. “Me? Keep it private? You know that’s impossible Wympy. “My flow is a mighty river. Thousands have drowned, choking on me because they couldn’t figure out which god to pray to. Would it be the goddess of rivers and sea? Or the goddess of fertility?” She opened the hutch door and stepped out into open soil and grass. Wympona followed, setting the bird down so it could waddle away on its ashen feet and tend to the peeping shells of its offspring.
Tam-pam pulled a chunk of pretzel bread from her pocket, her lunch, and broke off a tiny piece, holding it over the peeping shells. (Blaine’s Note: Shellenfowl are like geese, but are born from shellfish. I imagine Tam-pam is standing over something that looks like a bed of oysters, but with little bills emerging and begging for food.) She crumbled the bread between her fingers and watched their little heads catch it and go quiet.
“Oh I remember five cycles ago,” Wympona pretended to recall, “when your flow destroyed all the crops and wiped out all the curtains under Lunginvess! You’re why we’re still in business. Everything white needs replacing after you’ve gotten to it.”
“You’re right,” Tam-pam said with a smirk. “Filderbean really should treat me better. I’m surprised he hasn’t asked me to be his wife.”
“Well he can’t do that,” Wympona countered, “because after marriage comes children. If you’re with child you can’t flow. No flow means no ruined curtains and no replacement sales. So, he has to keep you a dishonest woman.”
“You make the mistake of underestimating me yet again,” Tam-pam said, raising a finger to the sky, the last crumb of bread wobbling on its tip and then falling. “With or without child, I can flow with the best of them.” She snorted a moment later, which burst the dam; they both exploded into laughter, eventually grabbing each other and the sides of the hutch to stay on their feet.
Tam-pam had been cast out, and torn from her surname, simply because her family was ashamed. As a lineage they valued nothing more than their dignity, and dignity was defined by what percentage of the other dignified folk around responded to their party invitations. It was during one of these parties, where Tam-pam was both required to attend and to wear a white dress despite her complaints of a very specific sort of pain that morning, where she embarrassed them so much that her mother fainted.
She made the mistake of having her monthly bleed, of visibly staining the dress in front of their guests. Worse yet she refused to apologize for it. Faced with her stubborn lack of shame they had no choice but to expel her from their home. Tam-pam continued to cause trouble, roaming the streets of her family’s town with a thick frayed white rope wrapped around her waist. She dipped the end of the rope in red paint and shouted things at passersby. ‘Help! It’s getting everywhere! It’s my monthly bleed and it never stops! My family has scorned me and made it a permanent wound!”
Eventually she was run out of the streets completely, forced to wander the hills outside until she came across Filderbean’s compound. When he answered the door he saw her standing there with a delirious smile, dripping red from her waist.
Wympona arrived a wash after. Tam-pam’s story became another one of their jokes. Yes, it was the right thing to do to cast her out. Her flow was too dangerous. It was a monsoon, a typhoon, a water spout! It was all natural disasters as one and made of viscera as well! Surely it was best that she stay away from civilization, to keep all the others safe. Wympona did wonder sometimes, as Tam-pam had a tendency to disappear once a month. Perhaps it was a bigger part of her life than she admitted. Maybe with every exaggerated retelling the power of her flow grew, and she was priming to take over all of Porce with it. If so that was fine by Wympona. She would be Tam-pam’s right hand in her new flooded world.
“As if Filderbean would ever romance anyone,” Tam-pam finally said once she caught her breath, wiping away a tear. “Besides, if I wanted a child to stop up my flow I would just consent to Blad.” She turned and went to pick up the next rolled curtain. Wympona searched her mind. Blad? Not a name she’d ever heard.
“Who are you talking about?”
“Blad,” Tam-pam repeated, slightly confused. “Surely he has propositioned you, with that glowing face of yours.”
“I’ve never met a man named Blad,” Wympona insisted. Her friend quietly set the rolled curtain back down. She stepped behind one they’d already installed and bent down, dipping her finger into the birds’ water bowl. She drew on the curtain with it, the damp marks clearly visible from the other side. She drew a simple house and then a smaller square a fair distance away. Wympona knew from the tall windows and rounded tops that the house was Filderbean’s compound.
“This is us,” Tam-pam said, flicking the house from behind with a warbling sound. She dragged her finger away from it until the bulge was under the distant square. “This is the water closets.” So far what she said was true. Filderbean was finicky when it came to bad smells, so the only relief chambers were on the far end of the grounds: a series of old stalls, pots, and holes surrounded by the ruin of a much older building.
“I know where they are,” Wympona said with a roll of her eyes. “I go there several times a day, just as everyone else does.”
“But do you go there at night?”
“No. You know I’m a heavy sleeper. My body always waits until morning.”
“That’s why you’ve never met Blad. He’s there only in the darkness. Waits for company. Sweet talks to you while you try to handle your business.”
“What do you mean waits? Why would he come to our water closets at all?”
“He says he’s looking for companionship, but he’s just like the other men. He wants to be inside the pants of all the pretty girls. Wants to wait there instead of the pots.”
“You’re telling a tale,” Wympona guessed. “He’s some sort of magical fiend, yes? Waits under the lids to jump out at you when your pants are down. I know Filderbean would never tolerate a blue-groined nag living in his property.”
“Filderbean doesn’t know,” Tam-pam said, her face stoic. “There’d be no point in telling him as Blad can appear and disappear at will. He’s always in the next stall over, voice sweet as white honey. If you try and open its door or look over the top he’s gone. Soon as you sit back down his voice comes back.”
“You’re being serious?” Wympona asked. She backed up and leaned into another curtain. Suddenly she felt enclosed, as if their curtains were stone after all. “What is this man? magic?”
“Nobody knows what he is,” Tam-pam answered. She drew a few more shapes with her wet finger: a ghost, a ring topped with a radiant bath bead, and a smile coming from the swirling waters of a chamber pot. “A spirit. A man with a bead. A forgotten Custodian perhaps. All I know is that Blad Weebreakr is real, and he’s an unstoppable flirt.”
“Unstoppable? You don’t mean that he forces…”
“No, not like that, but he never stops talking. Never stops offering his manhood. I’ve told him several times about my monstrous flow and even that doesn’t put him off.”
“Have you ever agreed? Tried just a kiss with this mysterious man?”
“No I haven’t. It’s clear to me he’s not a caring man. I wouldn’t begrudge anybody else a roll in the hay, or their curiosity, but I don’t trust him. He only wants moments; I, at some point,” she looked around at the hutch like it was her filthy kitchen after the cooking of a gigantic, bungled, burning meal, “would like an entire life.”
There was no pretending anything other than Tam-pam’s tale had woken her. It was the middle of the night: a time Wympona hadn’t consciously seen in rinses. She wasn’t hungry. She wasn’t ill. She sat up in her bed, seeing by the light of one candle three curtains away. A couple of the girls were still up playing a game with bone dice and clay marbles. It was the sort of thing that normally required a stable floor, but they played it on the wrinkled sheets all the same, their giggling filling in the cracks in the game’s rules.
Wympona slipped on a pair of boots and moved down the rows of beds, past the two silhouettes of the playing girls. She lit her own candle, and at the sight of its light one of the players flicked the curtain between them.
“Someone off for a wee break?” the silhouette chimed.
“Just a wee one,” Wympona whispered back.
“Say hello to Blad for me.”
The candle turned out to be vital, as it was nearly pitch black outside. There were only four stars in the sky, circling lazily. Her boots squeaked in the wet grass, but the sound changed to rolling pebbles when she stepped over the threshold of the old building. By the candlelight she saw the five stalls. The exteriors were sided with wood, but only cloth divided them from each other. Off to the side stood the old stone cistern of the ruin. Sometimes Wympona would drop a pebble in there, pretend it was a coin, and make a wish. Usually it was for a real family: one with hearts so connected that they couldn’t cast each other out and still live. Sometimes she wished that she and Tam-pam would come across a friendly aker and picnic on its back while it slithered across the World Floor.
The wind nipped at her wrists and threatened to take her candle flame, so she skipped the wish and went straight into one of the stalls. The pot lids were tilestone, but covered in cloth to keep them from getting too cold. She sat down without pulling down her underwear. When there was no sound after a hundred drips she leaned forward to set her candle upon the dirt floor. She spied a shadow under the next stall, but it was gone in a flash.
“I’ve never seen you before,” a male voice said through the curtain. Wympona didn’t flinch. She’d been expecting it; Tam-pam only lied with smiles and laughs, and neither was on her face when she spoke of Blad.
“Are you Blad Weebreakr?” she asked.
“My reputation precedes me.” He sounded young, but not like a boy on the cusp of manhood. His voice was more like a brush through a thick healthy mane, or plump grains being poured into a barrel. “And you are?”
“Wympona Dotsettr. Tam-pam told me about you. I came here to meet you. I don’t speak to many men these days, just grumpy old Filderbean.”
“Tam-pam is lovely. I adore her, but she refuses to adore me back. She’s suspicious of my motives, which is absurd, because I’m nothing but honest.”
“She said your motives were carnal.”
“Then she doesn’t lie either. I come here to pick up women. To put them down and pick them up repeatedly, as they do the same to me. I like to make love up against these fine soft curtains.” A hand pressed into the creamy white curtain and then receded. Wympona had time to count five perfectly normal-looking fingers.
“That’s absurd,” Wympona said with a grunt. She waited for a reply, but none came. “This is the worst possible place to pick up romance! It’s a water closet! We do our business here. Waste and smell linger. Folk will always argue whether love, art, or knowledge is our highest calling, but there is never any discord when we say nature’s calling is our lowest.”
“Oh, you get used to the smell,” was Blad’s only answer at first. “Do I need to remind you of the Gross Truth?”
“No. Our world is a water closet for giants long gone. It isn’t used for that anymore. Time has cleaned it.”
“Silly me,” Blad countered, “but I was under the impression that Porce was a living world full of folk and animals, and that they do their business all the time. That means Porce is still being used as a water closet. These instances of use surely overlap. There may not have been a moment, since our world’s birth, that business wasn’t being done inside it. That’s why you get used to the smell. If your nose is big enough and smart enough it can always detect it.”
“That’s philosophy,” Wympona argued, “and it too has no place in lovemaking.”
“Do you have a place in lovemaking?” Wympona jumped, as his voice had moved from the stall on her left to the stall on her right.
“I’ve had a few places. Never one as filthy as this.”
“This is a fantastic place for it Wympona. When you’re in the water closet your life is cracked, and your soul is falling down that crack. It’s the admission that not everything you do is crafted, that sometimes it all has to stop so you can get back to your body. The water closet is a place where we encourage time to stop, where we feel that it has, because the walls are blank, and everyone is minding their own business.”
“You’re not minding your own.”
“Can you think of a better place to make love than one where time is stopped?”
“Time never really stops,” Wympona whispered. Was he casting some sort of undetectable spell with his words? She saw things on the blank curtain. Her childhood. A thousand looks in the mirror where she realized she was older, different. The illusions weren’t even broken when he pressed his hand against the curtain once more, only stretched. Throat quivering, Wympona reached out and placed her hand flat against his. The visions intensified. “What are you?”
“I keep my business private, Wympona. I’ve already given you my name, and it is most precious to me. I’m here to love. I’m here for fun. Whether it’s this stall, or one across Porce, or one in another world out in the Dark Empty, I’m here for those things. Most of the time I do it anonymously. Most of the time they don’t even ask my name. I’ve already given you so much…”
“I feel something…” Wympona kept her hand on the curtain even as Blad’s receded. She heard his breathing switch sides again. Again. Every inhale on one side, every exhale on the other. He was everywhere outside the stall, but would never come in without her invitation. These were his boundaries, his true philosophy. “I have a choice in this,” she realized.
“It’s your business,” Blad crooned, each word from a different side.
“I’ve never had my own business. My family’s… Filderbean’s… never mine. The business I’ve always wanted, the thing I want to keep in the place where time stops… is a family.”
“I might be able to give you that,” Blad said. “I can’t make any promises, other than this: I’m certain I’ll enjoy my time with you.”
“Alright,” Wympona said, expecting to stammer even though she didn’t. “Show me time stopping. Please, come in. Make your business mine.” She stood and turned to lower the lid of the chamber pot; while she was turned around she heard the door creak open and closed. A pair of hands touched her waist, contoured to them without grabbing, like balm across lips. Slowly, she turned around.
Just as his hand had indicated, he was a lightfolk man. His clothes were a little strange, like some sort of menial uniform. It was a suit all in one piece with very little color and a single pocket. His boots were thick and squeaky, but polished to a shine. He was tall, but very distinctly shorter than the top of the curtains. Wympona didn’t know why that was important; she just had a vague suspicion that he used to be taller than them, that his body had conformed in order to make it more difficult to violate anyone’s privacy. The stalls around were his bedroom, but this one was Wympona’s.
Gently, he lowered her down onto the seat. She stared up at his face. It was as plain as the rest of him. He was not homely, but it would take a noble lineage for him to be considered attractive. His eyes were far apart and his nose was large, but he had straight bright teeth and a short well-behaved black beard. His muscles were obvious under his clothes, but not overly so. Once again they seemed to radiate a specific purpose; they had just the right amount of strength to hold up the woman he made love to, to press her into the soft side of a privacy curtain so she could sink into the moment.
“You… you said something about other worlds out there in the Dark Empty,” Wympona whispered after she gave him a kiss. Nothing but intent on his breath. “Do such places exist?”
“There are lots of water closets,” he answered, unbuttoning all the way past his navel. He shed the top half of his clothes like someone waking and pulling back their warm blankets. “They all have commonalities, but some are very strange. So perhaps. That doesn’t matter now. You matter now. What do you want Wympona?” Tam-pam flashed in her mind, making jokes and curtains because no one wanted her to make anything else.
“I want life. Smallness in here,” she pressed her hands against the curtains, “is fine, but not out there. I want to move, and play, and flirt, without anything unfair happening. Without my family looking at me like a traitor. I want love and safety, without the two clawing at each other.”
“Here you are loved,” Blad told her. He kissed her. “Here you are safe.” His hands slid elegantly under her thighs, picking her up off the seat without her rocking, even slightly, forward or back. She returned his kiss, made it deeper. Her eyes closed. She drifted in the Dark Empty, with nothing but his hands on her for a moment of forever. Then she felt the privacy curtain on her back. They made a different kind of love than she was used to; it was free of distraction. She couldn’t smell anything around her. She couldn’t hear the wind as it howled outside the thin wooden walls. Her wee break dragged on into eternity.
“Thirty-three, Thirty-two, thirty-one… I’m telling you I’ve got the countdown right,” one of the girls insisted. She tapped her fingers on the windowsill to keep the numbers in her head, but the rain pattering on the glass made it difficult. She mouthed the numbers as well.
“No, you’re off by six drips,” another girl next to her insisted. “Twenty-two, twenty-one, twenty…” Night approached after another long day at Filderbean’s. All the girls were in their thin billowing nightwear, leaned up against the curtains of their beds. They waited to see which of the two against the window had the correct count. As it turned out, neither was exactly right. Between one’s disappointment and the other’s anticipation, the florent went out.
The girls lit their candles, brought out the books they’d rented from the library with the pooled coins they gathered around town, and went about their socializing. Wympona sat upright in her own bed stall, breathing in and out slowly. She rubbed her stomach with one hand to undo the knots that had tortured her every night for a rinse, which always started up the moment the florent went dark.
She composed herself and sat up as straight as she could when Tam-pam crawled under the curtain and onto her bed, bringing a large book of choral songs with her. She sat on her knees and cracked the book, carelessly tossing a red ribbon bookmark to the floor.
“You should’ve knocked,” Wympona snapped. Tam-pam looked at her for a moment, as if her friend had a finger-biting plant growing out of her forehead. Wympona realized she was waiting for an apology, but she couldn’t muster one.
“Why should I?” Tam-pam eventually asked. “I’ve never had to knock before. Best friends don’t knock. They barge in and laugh when they catch you with your pants down. Although none dare laugh when mine are dow…” She stopped when she discerned the pain Wympona tried to hide. “Something’s the matter with you.”
“It’s a nightly nothing. My stomach has been giving me trouble.”
“Yes, only after the florent is done for the day. Immediately after in fact. Perhaps I ate a mushroom that was a little too intact. They like to spore and grow in the darkness, yes? So,” Wympona grunted as she adjusted herself, “where were we in the songbook? We’re still learning The Three Shakes of Willy, right?” She made a half-hearted attempt to grab the corner of the book and turn it, but Tam-pam closed it and put it behind her back.
“Has Blad done something to you?” she asked.
“Only what I asked him to,” Wympona answered. She felt she knew the man at that point. He wasn’t present every night, but Wympona went out to check regularly. They made love most times, but occasionally he was willing to simply listen and talk. He never offered details of his own life, just tales of his other romantic conquests. If he was to be believed she was rolling in the hay with a man who had bedded both the queen of the First Sink Ponds and the gravitation-defying hero of the tallest twin trees of the Threewall Wild: Bropain and Bropeak.
“I don’t judge you for your choice of bedmate,” Tam-pam assured, “but surely he’s the strangest thing in your life. If something else strange is happening to you it likely has to do with him.”
“I know,” she acknowledged. Another wave of pain moved up her abdomen, turning to nausea in her throat. “I’ll ask him what this is next time we meet. I’m afraid it’s too stormy to go out there now.” Thunder cracked, demonstrating her point. Bad weather was sometimes an unfortunate reality of living under the toil’s lever. As a landmass it was remarkably flat and, with its highly metallic soil, did not absorb water well. So when it flooded it flooded right off the side, pouring cases and cases of water down into the clouds over their town. A storm over Lunginvess that lasted a single night could turn into a torrent that assaulted their home for a rinse or more.
That night was only the beginning of a particularly bad spell. It flooded Filderbean’s basement and workshop, forcing the older weavers to share beds with the younger women for a while. The intrusions didn’t stop the nightly recurrences of pain, so Wympona was forced to bite her lip and bear it without Tam-pam for a while, as she shared her privacy curtains with one of the weavers.
Her name was Delore; she was a gray-streaked woman who, in her youth, worked as a running messenger in times of war. She could still be seen most mornings jogging around the compound. She had sharp eyes for someone her age, and Wympona’s pain did not escape her observation. She held her tongue until the fourth night of the storm.
“It’s only going to get worse from here dear,” she advised in a whisper. “It would be better for you to make arrangements now, before Filderbean catches wind.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Wympona said with a bowed head and closed eyes. It wasn’t as bad as the previous night, perhaps it was finally fading, but it was still enough to make a normal conversation impossible.
“It’s plain as day to anyone who’s been through it,” Delore said with a sympathetic smile. “You’ve got a bit of the green-eggs.” Wympona opened her eyes and looked to see if the woman was joking, but Delore interpreted it as her being unfamiliar with the expression. “You’re sick with babe. I’m sure it will pass soon. Mine always came in the morning.”
“You think I’m with child?” the younger woman asked, swallowing the cold lump in her throat. Her stomached lurched in protest. The possibility had crossed her mind, but as Delore said, babe sickness was supposed to come in the morning.
“You certainly look the way I felt when I had it,” Delore said. “I don’t mean to pry; I just want to make sure you know what Filderbean would do if he found out. He nearly killed a man for allowing his son to get muddy fingerprints on a curtain before we installed it. Will you be leaving? Or do you have someone to take the baby once it’s born?”
“I… I haven’t thought… I need to speak with the father,” was all she could manage to say. There was only one man she’d shared a curtain with, and he was nowhere to be found. When the storm finally ended, Wympona waited for night once more and then rushed to the water closets. To her horror, the stalls were utterly destroyed by the floodwaters. The curtains were shredded and the wooden exterior collapsed. There was no sign of Blad, even when she got down on all fours and stuck her head under one of the shreds, calling his name. Not as much as a whisper.
Filderbean was quick to put up new curtains, but she couldn’t convince him to replace the wood quickly. There was always something higher up on the list than keeping the wind out of the water closets. Wympona went back again and again, but it seemed that the place was too different or too incomplete. Blad did not return. She prayed to him, for him, but there was no sign. When she was sent into town she stole visits to other water closets and begged the walls and the pots to give up her lover. She needed to tell him that she was going to have her family and that it terrified her. She could wrap her head around it, around being a mother, if she could just have one more moment to relax into a curtain with nothing but his hands on her forever.
Only Delore and Tam-pam knew, even as washes passed by, for some of Blad’s oddity did come to pass in her pregnancy. Like the man himself, her child seemed to exist only at night. She would go about her business, lean as before, all day long, but when she settled into bed and the florent went out her body changed. The moment the light vanished, as her eyes adjusted, her child swelled inside her, more so every night. Claws of hunger dug deep into her, as if she’d ignored cravings all day long. She didn’t dare go to the kitchen, as one of the girls might see her state and report it to Filderbean.
Tam-pam, ever understanding, snuck out and brought back the food. As the middle of the pregnancy passed, she spent the early hours of the night eating three meals at once with tins and wrapping cloths spread across the entire bed.
“I think it’s a ciababe,” her friend suggested one night, placing a hand on Wympona’s belly.
“A ciababe?” she asked through a mouthful of shortbread and jam.
“You know, a rumored child. One that doesn’t exist but that folk talk about anyway. Like when someone spots a woman they don’t trust and they say ‘I ciawhore.’ She’s probably not a whore, but she is a ciawhore because someone thinks she is.”
“It feels like more than a rumor,” Wympona said with a weak smile. “I’m certain there’s a child in there. They move. But… all that certainty and movement is only there in the dark. If it is a ciababe, that would explain what Blad is. A ciaman. He’s not around most of the time, but everyone thinks they hear him. They think they’re alone with their business, and then suddenly something shuffles or sniffles in the stall next to them. All of a sudden there’s a ciaman and they can’t get anything done because they don’t have privacy… or they do and just think they don’t.”
“That does sound like Blad,” Tam-pam agreed. “When the time comes you might need to have the baby in the water closet. If it is a ciababe in the same way Blad is a ciaman, it might not be able to exist anywhere else. Right now it has the privacy curtain of your body…”
“I don’t want to have it in there,” Wympona whimpered, “but I didn’t want to make love in there either. Blad made it feel like a different place, like it was no place at all. Even though I wasn’t alone… that feeling was true privacy.”
“He told me something once, when he was trying to get my pants down. He told me that life was just privacy from the Dark Empty. It’s the thing you’re allowed to have all to yourself, and anything which corrupts that is pure undeniable evil.”
“Speaking of your pants, what prophesied doom comes with your next flow?” Wympona asked. Jokes. Their most serious change of subject. Tam-pam dropped the talk of Blad and babe and foretold the horrors to come from between her legs.
She thought she had no choice that night. A fresh storm was about them with a belligerent curtain of rain. Lightning cracked the sky and scattered the stars. The water closets shook violently in the wind as Wympona approached them, ankle deep in mud. She had both hands wrapped around her belly. It was still early, perhaps false labor, but she couldn’t take that chance. If Tam-pam was right, if it was a ciababe, it might need the privacy of the stall.
She pulled one open and threw herself onto the pot. She closed the door, but it did barely anything to keep the storm out. Her toes were still immersed in the filthy water. The pounding of the rain on the top curtain was so loud that the sound seemed to strike her scalp. The tight pain struck again, radiating throughout her body. The child squirmed.
“Blad! Blad, our child is coming! Where are you? I need you! Come out! Please come out!” Someone stomped outside her stall, splashing toward her. She put a hand on each curtain to stabilize herself. “Blad? I’m in here!” The door swung open.
Filderbean Gasr stood there in his blue coat, hood pulled over the top half of his face. His crooked teeth made his furious snarl look all the more fierce, like a warrior insistent on chewing on his foes long after they were dead. The shock of seeing her in that state caused him to drop his lantern. It splashed into the mud, its light turning a nasty brown through the water.
“What is this? You’re heavy with one of those little monsters? How? I saw you this morning and there was nothing there! It’s a trick.” He lurched into the stall, the door flapping in the wind behind him, and grabbed at her nightgown. He pulled it up as she blubbered, expecting to find a medicine ball or a turned basket. Instead he saw only the swell of her skin and the footprint of her struggling child.
“I can explain Mr. Gasr! You’ll never hear a peep out of it! It’s a ciababe! It only comes around at night. It won’t… I promise…” Filderbean grabbed her wrist and yanked her off the pot, just as another contraction struck. Wympona dropped to her knees. “Please! My family’s here. Let me have it at night. I’ll work all day, harder than before, just let me keep my child!” She bawled and moaned, lips stretched like a bottom-feeding fish, parsing two sorts of agony.
“Keep the brat, see if I care!” Filderbean roared over the crashing thunder. His hand practically crushed her shoulder as he dragged her out of the stall. The moment they were past its threshold her child thrashed violently. Her insides felt like a tangle of thorns trying to undo itself. She couldn’t focus enough in the darkness and pain to discern which direction the furious man dragged her. There was the tiniest moment of relief when he sat her down on something wet and stony. “Keep it, because I’m not keeping you!”
Filderbean shoved her, a sharp and quick motion, almost like stabbing her. She tumbled backward and fell into something dark and deep. The old cistern. He had placed her on its crumbling edge. It was part of the original grounds. Filderbean and his workers dropped only wishes and garbage down it; in that first moment without gravitation Wympona wondered if it was disrespectful to force wishes to mingle with waste.
Wympona’s mouth was open in a silent scream. The circle of the stormy night sky shrank as she rushed toward Porce’s bottom layers. The rain had been falling longer than her, so it was all about her, tapping her ears and digits, drumming on her belly. Her child moved again, but weakly. She wrapped both hands around it and whispered apologies. It would not even have half a life, not even the sliver of time the stalls afforded even the lowest of folk.
Suddenly she felt two more hands in the darkness, definitely separate from the rain and rushing air. They were bigger than hers, stronger, and they stroked her fingers before moving under her belly. They rolled under her thighs and held her aloft, slowing her fall. The cistern hadn’t been destroyed with the stalls during the previous storm. It was still its old private self, still too dark for anyone to see folk in it. It was just private enough for the touch of Blad Weebreakr to return, to cradle her in one last private moment as she fell through Porce.
When she awoke the world was gone, far above her and out of sight. The cistern punched deep into the Fith, but even when she touched it the substance did not consume her flesh, for she was still alive and she had the taste of something else on her. Still, the fall from the Fith and into the realm of the Pipes was too great to survive, and Blad’s touch ended when the stone of the cistern did. Wympona Dotsettr awoke in a bed of scabs, nightgown nearly eaten away by a few of the flattest palest crawling things the world had ever known. Her hair, eyes, tongue, and flesh were gone. Only bones remained. She was gravefolk.
What she had done to earn her bones she had no idea; she’d always thought of herself as a decent sort. Whatever caused it, she knew it wasn’t getting cast out of her family. There was little chance a world as big and indifferent as Porce cared about her unmooring from social mores. No, all of the recent strangeness in her life seemed more likely. It had to be either dying in the Pipes themselves, knowing the touch of a ciaman like Blad, or both.
The new deep world was a great shock to her, but most of her soul died in the fall. She didn’t have the presence of mind to gasp, cry out, or even mourn. She still had her child, but only as bones inside the cradle of her hips. Its tiny little hinds gripped her spine and refused to let go. It didn’t matter if it was a ciababe, as the world let her keep it. There was no florent to convince it not to exist, no day or night in the bowels of the world. Its bones were always there with her.
Wympona wandered the bloody wastes, covering herself, protecting the remains of her child, with the first piece of cloth she could find. Most fibers were digested by the Fith, so in following the most uncommon debris she found her way to a prosite city. She didn’t yet know the tongue Coproglossi, so its name was a mystery. She found tunnels underneath its streets, white as ivory, full of running water. She constructed a simple raft and set herself adrift in them.
She floated by the living twenty-three while they ate their dinner, too surprised to say anything. She might have drifted by without them noticing if her raft hadn’t bumped the side of the channel. They helped her out and welcomed her. She never opened her cloak. A little voice inside her told her to hide the bones of her child. If it was a ciababe the gaze of others might prove as harsh as the florent. When she refused to take it off they simply gave her a much nicer one and a private stall to change in.
Folk came and went, occasionally dying their first or final deaths. The living twenty-three eventually became the living sixteen. Before she knew it Wympona was one of the elders leading the prayers. She became wise in the ways of the gods; her prayers were earnest. Sometimes, when she guessed they weren’t listening to her thoughts, she threw in a prayer to Blad, who had undoubtedly guided her fall to safety.
The others of the living took inspiration from her, not knowing she carried another family under her cloak and her friend, Tam-pam, in the privacy curtains of her skull. Clix Mousr wanted her to have a title, something that reflected her wisdom. Wympona wasn’t sure if that wisdom was actually there, so she thought a moment and made a suggestion. Ciamuse.
Consensus of the Ice Masters
The florent came on when Teal and her bare bones crew were halfway around the edge of the icy lake dividing the parties. Their approach could be seen clear as day, yet the mutineers didn’t seem to do much preparation. Their attention was on the wall of the sink and the roodnock-infested berg above them. The sound of their work travelled far; the few bonepickers they had were mining handholds into the wall, starting their ladder toward escape.
Teal had no qualms about approaching with her sword drawn, and neither did most of her followers. Dawn and the other young folk were close behind their captain, blades at the ready. The only exception was Pearlen, whose suffering eyesight kept her near the back of the procession. The Rookr twins awkwardly carried their nest egg between them, as they didn’t dare leave it back at the campsite with a magical thief and murderer about. The same worry pressed on Manathan’s skull like a stack of tax law books. The skeleton squeezed between Alast and Dawn to reach Teal’s side.
“Captain, not to throw doubting tar on our efforts here, not to slow them in the slightest captain, but what exactly is your plan? Our bonepickers do outnumber theirs by a fat margin, but they’re already up on that berg captain. They might decide dying is better than us winning; one bonepicking hit in the wrong place could be enough to bring the whole thing down.”
“That’s why I expect you to keep a cool head Master Shuckr. You’ll be doing our negotiating,” she replied. “As the ice master it’s up to you to make sure we don’t wind up in a tomb of the stuff.”
“That’s not exactly what ice master means!” the gravefolk squawked. “I’m no diplomat captain! I understand why you don’t want to do it yourself, what with them hating you and…” He anticipated her harsh stare and looked away for a moment, toward the high curving wall of the melt crater, running his fingers across the ridges on the back of his neck. “What I mean to ask is why you haven’t picked someone more qualified. Dawn. Someone in the Calcitheater. Really, anyone else.”
“The main topic at hand will be ice, and if you’re not the best at that you’ll have to provide me with a reason to keep you around,” Teal threatened. “Pickers, this way!” She swung her blade out to the right, maneuvering her gravefolk in a crescent shape toward the edge of the crater. They were about to pass the first tent of the mutineers and finally drew their attention. Their procession was met by Nayth, Tombhen, Bobat, and many other fleshed folk brandishing their own weapons. The mutinous bonepickers were still stuck on the wall, hammering out their rungs up to the ice mass. The work didn’t stop them from spinning their skulls all the way around and down to watch the clash.
“Come to your senses, have you?” Nayth asked. Teal snapped her fingers. Thirty skeletons placed their feet on the wall of Third Sink simultaneously, making their intent clear. With one order they would ascend and tear the workers off the wall. “Come to madness instead eh? I understand. It’s probably more warming for you. No doubt you’re cold from the draft blowing about in the Captain’s boots, since you can’t fill them out.”
“Always with the boots,” Teal said, too determined to even roll her eyes. “Find some other poetic avenues of attack. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to wait for you to shut your nose in a few more books. I’m here seeking counsel.” Her crew, collectively, almost to a head, flinched. Counsel? What advice did they need from mutineers?
“Counsel? Aha! Ahahahahah!” Nayth laughed. His fellows joined him. Even those still in their tents, ears pressed against the sides, could be heard reveling. “Well, I’d be happy to oblige! Tell me, what would you like to know?”
“Captain Nayth knows plenty,” a woman in his crowd shouted. “Knows which ways are up and out and everything!” More laughter. The smirk on Kohlr’s face was wide enough to fill with supplies and use as a replacement ship.
“I seek counsel from your ice master: Whetsaw Plawkippr,” Teal proclaimed boldly, silencing the laughter in an instant. The sounds of hammering on stone above them slowed, became less rhythmic. Manathan’s jaw dropped, half of it actually dangling free of its mooring. He quickly replaced it and hid himself behind Teal.
“What’s wrong with the ice master you’ve got?” Nayth snarled. He had the presence of mind to keep staring ahead, right into Teal’s razor sharp pupils, but those behind him didn’t. They stole glances upward, at the edge of the ice shelf. It was too high up to see, but Teal guessed the bergfolk was up there, perhaps analyzing the best place to cut into the shelf. “You split the Mop down its shaft because you poured so much confidence in that skull of his.”
“My confidence remains,” Teal assured. Manathan’s head popped back up as he sidestepped out from behind her. He stood as straight as he could, hands clasped behind his back. Alast could see the tension in the man’s finger bones; they were pressed together tight enough to crush the hulls of the most indigestible nuts. “The ice around here is so very tricky; I need the ice masters to parley over one aspect of it.”
“Before I go giving you my ice master, you’ll tell me about this aspect,” Nayth declared. “It sounds like choky smoke.” Teal nodded to her bonepickers. The gravefolk jumped up and grabbed handholds, their feet leaving the ground. The mutineers prickled. Teal turned back, the gravefolk holding their position.
“Haystone Clearcuttr is dead,” she announced. There were a few cries from the mutineers: one mourner and two declaring Teal a liar. Nayth threw up his hand to quiet them. His eyelids quivered, a good sign as far as Teal was concerned. Haystone had no enemies aboard the Mop. The man was too quiet to ever cause any trouble. Most had at least shared a meal with him and assumed a deep bond over the way he politely smiled at them between bites of mealy fishcakes and sips of blue toil water.
“He was murdered,” Teal explained, “by a figure dressed in black. The killer appeared inside his tent, to stalk the children and the treasure, when Haystone defended them. It cost him his life. The killer disappeared just as mysteriously, into the ice.” Whispers. Turning heads. Teal guessed few of them, if any, had a clue as to the plot. “All this necessitates a discussion between ice masters. Pickers, if you please.” She turned their way again, so the skeletons grabbed the next highest stones and pulled themselves up.
“Zip it back up!” Nayth roared. Their climb stalled. The sound of his own folk hammering was now barely present, more like the taps of a bored tilehoof’s feet. “You don’t need Whetsaw, as you have me. I’ll solve your mystery for you, you pot-headed barmy wench. A black figure that does strange things with ice? Hmmmmm, let me think. How about the black and blue blighter that sunk the damn Mop!”
“We’ve already addressed that Mr. Kohlr. We’ve found out the boy’s identity. He is Corvidley Damr, son of the deceased Oddball, on us for vengeance against his father.” She resisted the urge to look back at the real Oddball and shame him once more. Nayth didn’t need to know about the switch. “Corvidley is infected with a dark ice magic that he cannot control. If he was near we all would have frozen solid. This other figure, one only dressed in black, is new to us.” She snapped her fingers.
The gravefolk resumed their climb, and this time took more than one step. Nayth took a few of his own, toward the intruders on his wall, forcing his mutineers to shuffle along behind him nervously. Every foam they ascended was his authority slipping away. There were only so many possibilities for him: start a fight and risk his own death, give in and risk his command, or pretend it was all his idea.
“Stop your bony brutes!” he ordered, but Teal stood there, placid as the ice shelf itself, just as uncaring. “Don’t interrupt the builders! They’re getting us out of here. The ice master is already on his way down. Master Plawkippr! Join us please, before these invaders get everyone killed!” The bonepickers kept climbing, stopping only when the voice of the bergfolk descended on them gently, like a feather soaked in scrub-throat.
“Okay. I come down.” With another snap and a wave of her hand Teal recalled her gravefolk. Though they came back to the ground many of them leaned on the wall with their hands or elbows, treating it as they would an old friend or lover. They could easily reunite with it any time.
Everyone watched as the gaunt furry figure of Whetsaw slowly climbed down from the shelf. He hummed to himself, seeming quite pleased he had something to do. Even with his missing arm, he took a bit longer than needed to finally put feet on flat ice once more. When he did he wiped his hand across the thigh of his pants, took a deep breath, and surveyed the two sections of the crew.
“Your expertise is needed,” Nayth grumbled. “If you would be so kind as to converse with Shuckr for a drop, but no more than that.”
“I rather work,” Whetsaw said, “but okay. Talk is fine by me. Where we talk? Here?” Teal snapped her fingers again. Six bonepickers disengaged from the wall and approached the bergfolk. They set their weapons aside and got down on their knees. A few of them pulled limbs out of their joints and rearranged them. Two of the skeletons turned their skulls, grabbed each other’s shoulders, crouched, and bent at the waist, forming something of a table with their backs. The others arranged their bodies into simple chairs.
“Please have a seat,” Teal invited. One of Nayth’s crew grabbed a small pitched tent and ripped its cover away, revealing two crouched lightfolk who no longer had anything to stick their ears against. They scurried away. The tent was brought to the bony table and thrown over it to make it more presentable. Whetsaw settled into his rattling seat. It took a shove from his captain, but Manathan stepped forward and took his seat as well. He leaned forward and tented his finger bones, hoping his elbows on the table would communicate his resolve.
For a few moments the two ice masters simply stared at each other. Though Man had no eyes to speak of he seemed to blink first, looking away to make sure he was still trapped by orders. Nurkly watched him from the lip of a pack, encouraging him with a nod.
A woman shuffled in with two tin cups: more decoration for their meeting. Whetsaw’s had a live fish tail flopping over the side. He took a swig, sucked the fish into his mouth, and chewed it to a pulp. Not to be outdone, Man grabbed his and proposed a toast.
“To a successful parley between masters of our crafty trade.” Their glasses clinked. Man took a sip, but his cup was empty.
“Aye,” Whetsaw said, his silly grin growing. He’d never had so many eyes on him for so long, and he swelled into it even as Manathan shrank from it. Silence. An awkward cough came from under the tablecloth, and since there were no clogged throats down there it could only mean impatience.
“Well, get on with your words!” a mutineer shouted.
“Yes, well, I suppose I’ll start since I’m flushed with information regarding the incident, as opposed to your excusable ignorance,” Manathan rambled.
“Okay,” the opposing ice master assented.
“First… Where have you gotten the cracked idea that you can tunnel through that shelf without collapsing it? I can cite nearly a dozen historical cases of shelf collapse, caused by less than what you plan to do to it. There was the Slipfootr Party of 6265 A.B., that incident with those brighted-boot smugglers in 5969…”
“I don’t know those,” Whetsaw dismissed. “It don’t matter. They not me. I know how to make good tunnels. Quiet tunnels. They upset nothing. The ice won’t know we there.”
“That’s… that’s absurd!” the gravefolk babbled. “The ice doesn’t know anything. It’s ice. In this case it’s Third Sink water likely in its fifth melt cycle since the increase in flow from Aych Fauce. Its mineral content is low, its stone-holding capacity is similarly low, so any tunneling is a significant risk! You won’t be able to soothe the ice with whispers!”
“I no whisper to it. That stupid. I know ice have no brain. It have soul. All Porce have soul, left from eight gods. Ice have soul from Swimmr. Her soul shine in that shelf. That why it won’t fall.”
“That’s certainly… a perspective. And by what mechanism do you think Swimmr will prevent the collapse? The spontaneous addition of tilestone-gripping minerals to the core of the mass? Or big invisible hands?”
“Hey, you’re here to talk about the ice under Haystone!” Nayth shouted; he turned to Teal. “You pull his clacking teeth in the right direction or this charade is over.” Man looked to Teal, whose slight head tilt suggested he should move on. The skeleton took a second imaginary sip from his cup, set it down, and approached his next talking point.
“Aye, we are here to talk about something else Master Plawkippr. Did you hear the unfortunate news from up there? That Mr. Haystone Clearcuttr has been murdered, and that his killer mysteriously vanished into the ice?”
“I hear most,” the bergfolk answered. He picked a few curled fish bones out of his teeth and flicked them away. “You say it not the blue boy who sunk Mop.”
“That is correct. I admit my understanding is useless when bath beads are at play, but we haven’t identified one’s presence as of yet Master Plawkippr. All we have to work with is my retelling and interpretation, to be combined with your interpretation.”
“Okay. Retell. I listen.” Whetsaw leaned back in his chair. The gravefolk it was built from relaxed her limb bones so he could recline some.
“Right, on with the icicles,” Man started. He was about to stand and pace around the table, but one look at Nayth convinced him to stay seated. His pelvis clicked back and forth as he adjusted himself. The only tools he had were the table and his cup, so he used them. He turned the tin cup over and placed it on the flattest part of the table. “Let this cup represent the tent within which these events occurred. The cloth of the table is the ice. You are with me so far?”
“Aye, we are at same table.”
“Right. Right then. Excellent. That tent contained Mr. Clearcuttr, the youngest of the crew, and Rob’s bag of plunder. When I examined the ice under them I found it to be flawless: no cracks, chips, or scratches. Haystone’s blood was frozen across it in a spill pattern, having penetrated less than a quarter of a bubble, but there was still a degree of penetration. Whatever phenomenon swallowed the attacker also allowed the victim’s blood to seep into the ice.”
“Hmm. Very strange.”
“My thoughts exactly Master Plawkippr, except with more words of course. The patch of ice in question was much the same as your shelf up there, though I expect it’s an earlier melt cycle. It’s a touch more Aych than Sea judging by its settling sounds. Have you noticed this as well Master Plawkippr?”
“The killer silently appeared, attempted to steal the treasure, attacked when Haystone intervened, and then disappeared. The only other reported detail is an orange glow beneath the ice, a thing that vanished with the attacker. Do you have any theories?”
“You go first.”
“I don’t have much to go on, Master Plawkippr. I know of no ice-dwelling creatures that produce orange light. I know of no ice-specific bath beads with such a warm aura. We must diagnose a force that creates light and passage, but that doesn’t disturb the ice.”
“Hmmm.” Whetsaw stroked his beard before bending forward and lifting the cup, as if he expected to find something underneath. “Answer not in ice.”
“What do you mean?”
“I know ice; you know ice with differences.”
“I think you mean that together we know an awful lot of ice. We have its pants-down.”
“Aye. Two heads full of ice, yet we no understand this. Answer not in ice. Answer in things about ice.” The bergfolk tapped his temple and leaned back further.
“You’re suggesting the ice is secondary,” Manathan puzzled out slowly. “Its characteristics are of primary concern. It’s not ice, but an object that holds two to ten qualities depending on what folk you ask about it. A layfolk would list ice’s qualities as such in such an order: cold, white or blue, solid, smooth, inflexible, and buoyant.”
“Look at all words we work with now!” Whetsaw declared with a slap on his knee. “That many words you just say. Each as big as word ice. Now we just problem out which one is important one.”
“I do see what you’re getting at, though this is something of an abstract line Master Plawkippr. Abstraction is the name of the game however, given the peculiarities of the Winchar Straits, our sinking, and the murder in question, but which abstract characteristic is most likely to be the culprit? The temperature of the ice? Its breaking point? Its color?” The two ice masters sat for a moment, deep in thought. One of Manathan’s chair legs held out his finger bones, placing a bet with a fellow over how much longer they would blather on.
“You a smart bone,” Whetsaw complimented. Manathan’s jaw opened slightly, a shocked squeak escaping. He put a hand over his ribs.
“That’s very nice of you to say Master Plawkippr, very nice! You know when I was first approached about this little venture, I admit I had my qualms. I’ve misjudged you Master Plawkippr. Already your artisanal ice experience has got my mind moving again, trying to…”
“You welcome,” Whetsaw said, holding up a hand to stop the skeleton’s chattering. “It not just compliment. It observation too.” He tapped his temple again. “You smart, and ice master, yet you not see anything strange. That tell me strange thing hidden. Only thing could hide it is blood.”
“What exactly would the blood disguise…” Manathan trailed off. He jumped out of his chair so suddenly that it collapsed. Before it could pull itself together Teal’s ice master had grabbed his empty cup and rushed to the lake’s edge. Nayth smacked the shoulders of a few of his mutineers, ordering them to follow the skeleton with weapons drawn. Man ignored their sharp edges and kept going. Whetsaw stood as well, just as Man dipped his cup into the waters and rushed back.
He whipped the tent off their table and shooed the supporting gravefolk. They cleared the spot. Manathan held out his full cup, excitement shaking a few drops from it. The hammering at the side of Third Sink had ceased completely. Man hesitated. He couldn’t just solve the mystery without a little flourish, given that he only ever had all those eyes on him when he was the butt of a joke.
“Let the secrets of the ice… be revealed!” he shouted. He turned the cup; its contents splashed across the ice where their table had been. He swirled the water around with his foot, dispersing the light layers of frost and snow. Underneath was smooth ice: a perfect patch that reflected his eye sockets back at him. The two crews shuffled closer, leaning to see their scalps in the patch as well. “Behold the hidden trait of the ice! Underneath the frost it is reflective. It is safe to assume that the body heat bleeding through Haystone’s tent that night also undid the light frost.”
“So what?” Nayth challenged.
“So what?” Manathan countered. “So what? So, we have a theory. Not just any theory. A working theory. A theory that could plow a snowy field for you. That’s how strong it is. There were no bath beads or Winchar wildlife involved in the murder, but there was magic. Our killer must have traveled via the Reflecting Path!” There were immediate murmurs, but an equal number of phlegmy scoffs.
“You’re saying somebody out there, in some far glass corner of Porce, took time out of their busy schedule to pop into the ice here and murder Mr. Clearcuttr for no reason?” Nayth balked. “Aye, bravo ice master.”
“Don’t be dense,” Teal countered. “Whoever the culprit, they were after the plunder. They knew it was in there. The killer is among the crew, and everyone loyal to me already has their share of that treasure. It was one of yours. There’s a piece of the Reflecting Path among you, covered by your grime so we can’t see its sparkle.”
“I won’t stand for such accusations!” Nayth shouted back. He drew his own saber, the tiny steel bells tied to its hilt jangling. “If any of us had a piece of the path, this all could’ve been avoided. Entering the path means you can find your way anywhere else, anywhere where there’s glass to catch your eye. Whoever had one could be sipping fine tank-green over Second Tank instead of marching through these coldrums and starving near to death. There’d be absolutely no reason to stay.”
“They no need reason,” Whetsaw corrected his leader. Nayth looked at him like the bergfolk had just tracked mud on a fine carpet and called it clean. “They have no choice. This ice curve. It curve reflection too. Reflecting Path would be confusing. Hard to find way out.”
“Aye, you’re exactly right Master Plawkippr,” Manathan seconded. He paced back and forth between the crews, lecturing as fast as he could. “These natural surfaces aren’t like mirrors. There are likely millions of them in the Winchar Straits, and many would be curved. This would distort the path itself, making navigation nearly impossible. So while our killer could enter the Reflecting Path, perhaps be able to find their way around inside this ice, they wouldn’t be able to find their way out. They are just as trapped as the rest of us.”
“It was Rob!” someone in Nayth’s bunch shouted after a quiet moment. “Our Captain’s come back to us! He had a piece of the Reflecting Path!” There were a few scattered cheers; Teal was about to put a stop to it when Nayth beat her to the chance.
“None of that talk!” he shouted at his own crew. “Even if Rob survived, which he didn’t, I highly doubt he came back to take the life of one of his most loyal sailors. Think for one blasted drip you morons!”
“Maybe he’s come back to punish us!” another random voice cried. “It’s his spirit or his bones and we’re all guilty of letting him fall! We’re next!”
“There’s still the matter of the orange glow!” Manathan shouted over the rattling nerves of the mutineers. He stood as tall as his bones allowed, his spine popping piece by piece as it stretched. “I’m confident my fellow ice master will agree with my interpretation. With the curvature of the ice, even traveling a short distance via the Reflecting Path would be a time-consuming slog. They were close by. The only orange glow with sufficient strength to show through a portal like that would be a campfire, like the ones burning in your camp Mr. Kohlr.” The gravefolk pointed a finger at the mutineer, and it seemed to actually strike him. He took a step back, examined the cracks in his own boots.
“Rob said he lost his piece of the path in the sinking,” Teal reminded. She strode forward and let her ice master fall back. “But he was barely conscious when we got him aboard the lifeboats. Those pieces aren’t pre-packed rin cakes; you can’t just spy one in a street crack. There’s no chance there was another one among us. I say it was still on him when we got him into the boat. Someone took it off him before he got his wits about him.”
A pair of shoulders turned and slowly receded into the group of mutineers. Teal snapped her fingers and pointed. Three bonepickers threw themselves like javelins, spiraled through the air with a few cackles, and landed in the middle of the traitors. They each took up a limb of the fleeing pair of shoulders and forced the folk off the ground, carting their prize back toward the middle.
“Wait just a drip!” Nayth shouted, waving his saber. “You won’t be taking any of mine without some proof! I’m judge and jury to my own. Put them down! Let me see!” The mutineers swelled forward. Teal held her ground, but nodded to her pickers. The gravefolk let their prisoner stand on his own two legs, and turned him around to face Nayth. It was Bobat Fwindr: the tilefolk physician. He stood there with eyes cast down, his foggy breath coming in gasps.
“Bobat was in the boat with us when we pulled up Rob,” Teal explained. “He examined the Captain, told him to lie back down.”
“Due nu rik-rik!” the tilefolk barked in Pawtymouth.
“He says he was just doing his job,” Nayth translated for those who didn’t know the tongue.
“Madyd doora cryk-cryk dyn tyyt-tyn. Due dra nahda. Due nu taiga-rik.”
“He says Rob had a cracked skull when he came up that needed tending to. He never took anything, except on the Captain’s orders.”
“You can solve this murder for yourself Mr. Kohlr,” Teal offered. Her gravefolk took a few steps away from Fwindr. “Search him with your own two hands. See if he’s got his reflection on him.” Nayth sheathed his saber and approached the man. He stared into the tilefolk’s larger bloodshot eyes. It was clear Nayth was confused. He thought he’d acted just as Rob would have, and so should have commanded the same loyalty. Yet a member of his crew had kept something from him already. Rob had made it rests without mutiny, through situations hairier than a nesting balclog, but Nayth couldn’t make it a rinse.
Bobat protested, but Nayth told him to shut his mouth. The tilefolk wore a baggy pair of black pants with numerous folds, so his captain searched the pockets one by one. Out came a few wads of lint, a couple counterfeit tiles, a wide-branched stethoscope meant for the armpit-ears of tilefolk, and an end of black twine. Nayth’s hand stopped on the twine. He pulled.
Both crews watched in anticipation as the string slowly grew out of the pocket. Nayth’s grip tightened when something stuck on the lip of the cloth. He yanked. The foot of one of his workers slipped and they nearly fell from the wall. Nayth raised his hand to see how the object caught the light of the florent. The prism sparkled. Rob’s piece of the Reflecting Path, still on its original twine. Nayth shoved Bobat’s shoulder violently with his free hand, sending the tilefolk stumbling toward Teal, leaving him stranded in the gulf between the two halves of the Mop.
“What’s the meaning of this Mr. Fwindr?” Nayth growled. “You wanted to use it to take back our plunder, fine, but you didn’t inform me? We’re your brothers and sisters! Powdr over there has never been one of us. She was always too snug in Rob’s sheets and sails to know what it was like to be a soldier of his, but we did. It makes sense to leave her out, to steal back what’s ours from the woman who never dirtied herself over it, but me? I’m your captain. I’m the man holding the Mop!” Bobat sneered.
“Nahda Mop! Rob cryl custadyn. Dah ti Teal nahda. Bae-bitah dyn Mop, ti cruposs. Due Bobat splyyk, remyyn byn drekk.”
“You speak Porcian, so why not explain it to the rest of us splinters?” Nayth challenged.
“Fine!” The tilefolk spread his shoulders, presenting his face to his fellow traitors. “There is no Mop. Rob was in line with a Custodian! You and Teal are both nothing. Just splinters of the Mop like the rest of us. I am Bobat the splinter, and I am stuck in your thumb.”
“A mutineer in your ranks Mr. Kohlr,” Teal said coolly. “How unfortunate. I wonder what you’ll do about it.” Nayth’s head whirled around to see the expectant stares of his crew. Thinking quickly, he hoisted the piece of the path into the air.
“Bobat will be dealt with, but look! We have a piece of the path. We can get out of here.”
“You not listen,” Whetsaw said. “Ice curve. The path a mess. You cannot go anywhere but here.”
“Quite right,” Manathan seconded.
“You say that, but clearly Bobat had an idea, otherwise he wouldn’t have attempted to take the plunder for himself. He could not have kept it secret from us that long, not with so many to a tent.” He approached the physician and put one hand on his hairy shoulder. “Tell us. Tell us your way out and your punishment for Mr. Clearcuttr will not include death.” The tilefolk’s eyes darted about. He held his breath, cutting off the fog in front of his face.
“Alright. I’ll tell you.” Nayth grinned, throwing a look in Teal’s direction. The tilefolk reached behind his back, grabbed a knot of fabric, and undid it. The pieces of cloth making it up hung between his legs. “I used these wrappings to hide my identity. I thought if they saw only black in the dead of night, meddling with the ice, they would blame the sinker.”
“My escape plan… I hadn’t gotten that far yet.” Bobat grabbed the dangling piece of the path from Nayth’s hand and shoved his knee into his captain’s groin. Nayth doubled over and stumbled backward. The tilefolk gripped the prism in both hands and hopped. Rather than collide with the ice his feet kept going. Bobat vanished into the ground in an instant. He’d positioned himself directly over the patch cleared of frost. He was safely in the Reflecting Path. None could follow, but all tried.
The two crews merged into one angry blob, all eyes and sockets cast down at the ice. They swished their feet across the surface, clearing the frost as quickly as they could. Teal’s clothed bonepickers grabbed their sleeves and tossed themselves, spinning across the ice to clear it even faster. The skeletons moved like soap biscuits across a slick surface, bouncing off each other until most of the lakeside was clear of frost. Nayth’s bonepickers dropped off the wall and joined the chase, their captain the only folk left behind. He sat there on his knees, cold hands pressed between them, staring at his reflection.
“I can see the blighter!” Bonswario declared. He stabbed at the ice, but it did no good. Bobat was visible, but the path was inverted, so they only saw the soles of his boots as he ran across the ice, searching for a way out of the melt crater. A few ran ahead and scored the ice with their weapons, hoping to create some sort of corresponding barrier in the reflecting Path, yet the boot soles powered right past the gouges. Bobat drew them all away from the camps and right up to the curved wall of the crater. His body stretched up its side and reversed, so that now he stood before them on a reflective wall.
The top of the crater’s side was jagged. Streams of fresh powdery snow fell between its spires like the flow of a dropglass. Bobat stood between two such streams, his image stretched and warped by the tall ice. His limbs wiggled about in mockery of his former crewmates. He opened his tilefolk mouth wide, his triangular teeth exaggerated to more than twice their actual size. They couldn’t hear his laughter from within the path, but it was plain enough to see.
“You bastard! You yellow-brained piss-pickled bowl stain!” Bonswario roared and bawled. He stabbed at Bobat, chipping away at the image of his sternum, right over his heart. He struck repeatedly, growing the divot in the ice by a tiny amount each time.
“It’s no good Mr. Bucklr,” Manathan told him, putting a hand on his shoulder. “In order for anything we do to harm him, we’d have to utterly destroy the surface he was nearest. Obliterate it. Only then would the chaos carry over to the path like an avalanche. For now he’s going to walk away.”
The physician took that as his cue to make an exit. His silly warped arm wiggled up to his forehead in a mocking salute. He spun the piece of the Reflecting Path by the end of its twine as he turned and sauntered away. His image shrank. Those he left behind could only guess at his next move. Even if he was trapped in the Reflecting Path, it was a large place. There would be safe pockets for him to gather food and warmth. If something ignited the yellow ice he might be able to warm his hands next to the flames without ever leaving the path. Fire in the path wouldn’t burn him, just as he couldn’t swim in the sparse substance that was its water.
If he found a way over or through the melt crater he would immediately drop to the bed of the Snyre Sea, able to walk across it until he found a shore and a free mirror. He could watch the fish and bathmat rays swim overhead like silken birds, confident that he was the least mortal of the Greedy Old Mop.
The crew watched curiously as that confidence faltered some. Bobat’s image had shrunk to the size of a cup, but they clearly saw him stop. The piece of the path hung from his hand limply. The tilefolk took a step back, nearly tripping on the hanging black cloths in his waistband. He turned and ran, the movement of his shoulders exaggerated by the ice.
“He’s coming back!” Bonswario exclaimed. “Why’s he coming back?” Indeed, Bobat approached rapidly. He seemed to run for his life, twisting every few drips to look at something behind him. Whatever that something was, the crew couldn’t see it. They speculated.
“Something’s chasing him.”
“Nothing be there!”
“The specter of guilt?”
“We’d all be guilty enough to see a thing such as that.”
“Quiet! Quiet everyone! I hear something!”
They hushed each other and listened, some pressing their ears to the ice itself. There was a sound growing along with Bobat. It had no consistent shape to it, but it had weight. The sound surged, flowed, and tumbled. Bobat was close now, just fifteen foams away, with an outstretched hand. He asked for help; he wanted someone to grab his hand as soon as they were able and pull him away. What scared him so? The sound swelled. A few of the crew stepped back. The sound surrounded them. Water. There was nothing beyond the crater but the sea itself. Had that turned against them too? No, the ocean was simply in the way. It was plowed through, tossed aside like the airiest soil of the Reflecting Path.
“Run!” Dawn screamed. Many of the bonepickers reacted immediately, flinging themselves backward with unnatural speed, but the fleshed folk were slower. They’d barely turned their heads away from Bobat when the entire crater shook. The lake at the center turned into a splashing tumult. The wall cracked, slicing the image of Bobat in half. The crack splintered outward like a wegger web before exploding the physician into eleven pieces that sailed through the air as boulders of ice.
The rest of the wall collapsed as a great spear penetrated, tipped with the harsh blue light of the divine droplet. The wall of the crater became five chunks of ice falling across each other. Weighty Qliomatrok pushed her way through, her blubber greater than any individual chunk. The narwhorl’s massive head hammered down on the ice, pulling her body forward, bringing a wave of the frigid Snyre with her. The monster wriggled until her horn dipped in and out of the central lake, her whole body now curled across the side of the crater.
The crew of the Greedy Old Mop scattered in terror, folk tripping over each other and the watery ice in equal measure. Qlio’s thrashing was more powerful than any maneuver of any equally-heavy ship, and it was inevitable that some simply couldn’t avoid her. In the first moments of her assault she crushed three more gravefolk and three more lightfolk.
Within the high walls of the crater, the crew had nearly forgotten about the beast. The splintered shaft of the Mop, Haystone’s murder, and the looming threat of Frostbite Cor’s storm pushed her legend to the back of their minds. She was nearly back to being just that, but Qliomatrok never forgot an intruder. Every eye on every folk was covetous, sought to claim the divine droplet as its own. The bead’s fury was only free as long as it was not tamed by the oily fingers of folk. It flooded the whorl’s mind with obsessed rage to protect itself. Wherever the monster went she saw folk behind the ice, still intruding, still plotting.
She would not rest until they were all dead and devoured. Only then would the bead’s light fade, would she be allowed to return to the quiet of hunting prey that couldn’t scream. Her tail slapped against the side of the crater, collapsing more of the wall and letting in another sloshing part of the sea. She opened her massive mouth and bellowed: a sound made all the more intimidating by the open air. It shook the ice under the folk, sounding like the ancient creaking of a toil lid. It was like a twinge of pain in a god’s back. It was age, rage, and the desire to slam a door in someone’s face.
“Captain!” Ladyfish Paintr shouted to Teal. They were back in the tents of Nayth’s camp, though they were quickly toppled by the encroaching seawater. Teal looked to her loyal sailor. The woman’s ratty braids were frozen in place. Dark wet spots crept up her worn coat. She pointed up to the ice shelf. “The roodnocks’s moving on us! They’s called by the bead!” Teal looked up further and confirmed it. In the distance they looked like hairy white worms stuck to the wall of Third Sink, but those worms were angled down, wriggling in their direction. The divine droplet both drew them in and boiled their brains in anger.
“Captain Powdr!” Queenvy shouted to her, hustling her brother and the other young folk along. “Teal, what do we do?” Qliomatrok flexed her back, raised her swollen head, and slammed it down again, pulling her further into the crater. If the crew found themselves against the opposite side there would be nowhere left to run. The ice under Teal cracked.
She stared at the brilliant blue bath bead. It pierced another member of the crew, but the blood flowed right off, for they could not affect its magic in the slightest. She realized it was possibly the oldest thing she’d ever seen. It was from a time at least of the Custodians, before the Age of Building, and if they were to act upon it they needed the resolve of such beings. She worked now in the stead of a captain who was part Custodian. According to myth, the Custodians guarded what the Oaths had before: owned pieces of Porce. Looked after them by order of their divine parentage. The line was clear, even if it wasn’t by blood. If any oath had passed to Rob it was now Teal’s to uphold. The divine droplet. It was her piece of the world. She was to watch over it, keep the animals from gnawing on it, as their minds could only feel rage in its presence.
They couldn’t conceive of protecting objects with the same desperate greed of folk. It wasn’t whorls that locked up treasure in great castles and vaults. It wasn’t roodnocks fighting wars over them, hundreds or thousands of lives pledged to the safety of the glittering gold. It was folk. The droplet made the animals of Porce rage because it could not make them greedy. Teal saw this in its light, saw their only advantage against the monster’s onslaught.
“On your feet you grimy thieves!” she boomed, voice instantly hoarse with the effort. She’d shouted only a handful of times in her life, so even under the bellowing of the narwhorl and the crumbling of the ice the survivors heard her. If they weren’t a drip away from being killed they looked to her. “Make yourselves useful!” She pointed to the divine droplet. “Rob that fatty of her gem! Make off with it! She stole our ship, so we must return her transgression one hundred fold! Stick your sticky fingers where they certainly belong!”
She knew her voice didn’t carry the same weight as Rob’s, both from lack of respect and practice with shouting. Only her example could compel them. She drew her Peako Dagyvr saber, which she had found the time to polish even on the edge of starvation, and charged with it, toward the fatty mountain, toward spiraled horn and bead. The bead was lodged between the twisted pieces, but they were only the products of animal. They were not stone. One of the pirates had to be able to pry it loose.
Dawn joined in the charge, screaming, moving by bonepicking leaps that quickly put her ahead of her captain. She landed on Qliomatrok’s head and grabbed the edge of the beast’s blowhole. She rode through her thrashing admirably, but a geyser of water from deep in Qlio’s throat blew her off, tossed her into the central lake.
Teal’s gravefolk followed Dawn’s lead, throwing themselves onto the monster’s flank, running across her flesh as she rolled along the edge of the lake. Batches of them climbed up the horn like mites, but even the best bonepickers were not stronger than the flail of her head. Teal closed in, but her path was blocked by Nayth, who still knelt where he had when Bobat fled. She refused to slow down, kicking him forward onto the ice as she ran past.
“What were you on the Mop for, if not this?” she shouted over her shoulder at the mutineer. He mattered little. His traitors had fused back into the crew once more, as they all fought the same foe. Cowards or not, there was no escaping Qliomatrok, no surviving without separating her from her bead.
The whorl’s tail smacked the bottom of the ice shelf, destroying the early construction efforts of the mutineers in a single blow. Five roodnocks were dislodged by the strike. The predators bounced on the whorl’s side, snapping at the skeletons still riding the monster. A bonepicker was snapped up by one, their body crushed by the clapping of its blocky teeth.
The lightfolk could not ascend Qlio’s side, so they battled about her thrashing head, waiting for the bead to come in grabbing distance. They were forced to draw their weapons when two roodnocks reached them, slithering over each other’s bodies to bite from different angles. One of them snagged the edge of a bag and pulled. The other end of the bag was in the vice grip of Kingvy. He would sooner die than release their nest egg. Queenvy tried to help, but her brother shoved her away with one shoulder.
“You go!” he shouted. “Trust me with our treasure. Help the others! Snatch that bead!” The roodnock whipped bag and boy into the air, but Kingvy kicked it in the eye and kept hold. The second roodnock snapped at Queenvy’s side, biting her blade in half. She grunted and tossed the hilt at it. It was a drip from pouncing again when Herc, Bonswario, and a few of the mutineers absorbed the girl into their ranks. They slashed at the roodnock, gave her a moment to look up at their goal.
Qliomatrok’s head rose once more, the divine droplet disappearing into the blazing light of the florent. It came down and cracked the ice, separating a sheet and tilting it under her chin. Queenvy was launched from the end of it by the impact, arms flailing. Qlio’s horn was flung up again, becoming a post in the girl’s path. She slammed into the base of the horn, bruising her collarbone, and wrapped her arms around it. Even in the confusion she could feel the bony striations, the slow growth of Qlio over hundreds of rests, like the rings in the tallest toil trees of the Green Ring.
The beast sprayed from its blowhole once more, dousing Queenvy. She’d felt such things before. Many a time she’d climbed the mast of the Greedy Old Mop to reach the bird’s nest. Even in squalls, with the Snyre Sea trying to slap her off, she managed to ascend. The bird’s nest was where the twins did all their scheming, all their planning for the life ahead. Even when they had company it was usually just Hallotip Tredr, the skull with spyglasses built into his eyes. He couldn’t climb the mast. It was mostly the twins: up, down, up, down, up during a storm, down during a battle…
Queenvy found an old strength in those memories. She scurried up the narwhorl’s horn while the droplet was at its highest point. Twice it nearly shook her off, sent her back to the splashing ice and snapping roodnocks, but Queenvy held. One of her nails bent against its bed, producing blood. It didn’t matter. The solution to everything shined at the top of that mast. The droplet would heal her injuries. She climbed. It would fill her stomach. She climbed. It would glue their crew back together. She tried to climb higher still, but her hand smacked against a facet of the divine droplet.
It truly was a treasure meant for pirates! So much power, lost for so long. So much swirling animal instinct. It had inspired a hundred different sea monsters to sink a thousand different ships, had charged the depths with a thirst for the blood of trespassing folk. Queenvy steadied herself, wrapping her thighs around the end of the horn. She forced her fingers into the seam between bone and gem. She grunted and pried with all her might, but the stone would not come loose.
Qliomatrok crashed back to the ice. Queenvy was plunged into the frigid water. The cold shocked her and turned her hands numb. Her fingers could barely move now, let alone wrest the massive gem from its nest.
“Queenvy!” someone shouted. The girl whipped her head about, focused through the water it shed. It was Alast, at the edge of the central lake, waving his arms. He had something in his hands, something sharp that made his arms look the mandibles of a topa snippybug. Once he saw that he had her attention he threw one of the sharp pieces up toward her. It spun, all its weight in its hilt. A paper cutter! A Dagyvr blade thin as paper, more exacting than her fingers could ever be.
The girl snatched the spinning thing out of the air. She turned back to the tip of Qliomatrok’s horn and shoved the blade into a crevice, where bone met bead. She shook her wrist back and forth, forcing the paper cutter in. The knives were made of bropato, so they couldn’t be wet for long before they lost their strength. She only needed a few more drips. She pushed forward. Pulled back. Deeper. The blade was all but gone from sight. Qliomatrok whipped her massive head. Grit flew from under her horn. The divine droplet popped free! Queenvy pulled it close, hugged it as both sailed through the air. She was a moment from the ice shelf, about to be broken upon one of its jagged ridges, when a bonepicker caught her and stalled the momentum.
The shock of it all kept her eyes glued to the bath bead. Its blue light swirled under its flawless surface. Nothing about it had changed it at all, but it was out of the claws of the animal kingdom, into the nefarious grip of a thief. It was the sort of treasure wars were fought over, but the crew of the Greedy Old Mop weren’t soldiers, not even on their noblest days.
The gravefolk landed on a stable part of the crater, let the girl down gently. Once her feet were planted her mind came back to reality. She looked up. The crater was still. Every eye and socket was turned towards her or Qlio. The narwhorl’s body had stilled, and her head was finally stable enough to let the pirates look into her eyes. They were wider than before, wet with something like relief. Even without a folk’s mind, Qliomatrok knew the age of being a monster was over. The rage the droplet had cultivated dissipated, the dark clouds finally scattered to the wind. She no longer had to terrorize the Winchar Straits.
“Go on,” Teal encouraged. If her crew was at full strength she would have to consider butchering the animal for her horn, oil, hide, and bones. If they still had their ship to drag the carcass there would’ve been little choice. As it stood neither party was in any condition to continue. Qliomatrok saw a placid life on the horizon. Teal saw buildings, roaring fires, down-filled beds, and two bodies curled up together. The captain saw herself with her old flame, stroking the bump that was to be their child, but the wind of the straits had snuffed that flame. The child had never been. Teal Powdr had lost the part of her family, her crew, that required Rob to function, but she still had her life. She still had her treasures.
Qliomatrok whimpered. It was a devastating sound that surely would’ve melted the whole crater if the animal had kept going, turned it into a melody. Instead the narwhorl flapped her great fleshy fins, flexed her head and back, and turned. The pirates ducked under her horn and the empty cradle at its tip as they swung by. They cheered in a wave once the horn looked like it would never return. Hats were thrown into the air. Numb swollen hands clapped, muffled but exuberant. They cheered Teal’s name. Some taunted the whorl, but the monster had no rage left, couldn’t even begin to care.
The roodnocks turned away as well, having forgotten why they descended in the first place. They didn’t even claim the meat they’d created from a few members of the crew. They lazily ascended the white side of Third Sink once more, off in search of normal prey and normal nests. Qliomatrok dove into the Snyre. Her tail went up for a final time, waving goodbye. The crew watched, cheered, and danced as the last spot of her hide disappeared back through the hole in the crater’s side. No more weighty Qlio to stalk them. The Greedy Old Mop could stop sinking in their minds, could finally rest on the sandy bottom, her captain tucked in his quarters.
Teal gently took the divine droplet from Queenvy and tucked it under one arm. Roary came forward with the bag of treasure and opened it, but the captain didn’t place it with the rest. She simply stood, giving the others a chance to gather around her. All of the survivors came, formed a circle around her. Even Kohlr. Alast and Pearlen corralled the three haunds. The animals simpered, seeming to apologize for the behavior the droplet had brought out of them. The littlest one whined, licked Pearlen’s face, and hopped into her arms.
The captain was preparing a speech. She had an offer for the mutineers. With Qlio gone, with the droplet claimed, there was no energy left for hostility. The fight was out of them, and they thought it fine because the fight had ended. Unfortunately, in the afterglow of victory they’d forgotten the endless force that had brought them all there. A familiar bite returned to the wind.
Several of the crew were forced to stamp their feet to shake off the encroaching ice. The lake and its cracked tendrils froze over. A wave from the Snyre, one of the last created by a retreating Qliomatrok, crested over the hole in the crater’s side. It froze before breaking. Moments later they saw a figure through it, stepping up to the crest. This time there was no confusion. The murderer amongst them was shattered by Qlio, but the black storm of Frostbite Cor still ate at their tail.
The young man, youth preserved only by the drying of ice and magic, stood at the top of his frozen wave. He kept his distance from the crew to avoid freezing them in their boots. He had something to say before they were allowed to sleep in the straits. He spoke, his voice taken up by the wind, made loud enough for all to hear. His words were harsh and gritty, but they still heard his adolescence. He was the very sound of betrayal and unfairness.
“So you’ve bested the fat of Winchar,” he howled. “It matters not. She did her job. You have no ship. I know the skells among you could climb the cliff, bring down aid, but I won’t allow it. You will know hopelessness. You will know the permanent cold of winter’s grave. You will suffer as I have, and you will not die quickly.”
The wind grabbed at the pirates’ garb, tried to rip the scarves from their necks. None had enough heat in their chests to shout back. They had to cross their arms and rub to stay on their feet. They needed their gloved hands over their noses so their breath could warm their cracked lips. One stepped forward, letting the storm drag him closer to blackened and bluened Cor: his father Oddball.
“Son, I’m here!” the gravefolk called out to his cursed child. “My boy. It’s over. I’m here for you. Reap with your icicle. Take your revenge against me. Let the crew go. They’ve never been part of our family.” He extended his hand, but the ice crept up his finger bones and stuck them together. The wind pulled him closer, pushed him back. Snow whipped, obscuring Corvidley some.
“Everyone is a part of Porce!” the boy roared, chest heaving. “I learned all about them when I first visited the Mop and walked among your frozen forms, plucking your maps and compasses to set you adrift. I saw their undeserved joy.” His arrow wound glowed blue and issued vibrant snow, like the legendary breath of a Wintyfleish emanating from its cave. “I was far less guilty than you, yet the arrow did not fly true. Somehow, against all kindness and mercy, it struck me. Somehow I am the monster. Those who are near me suffer. Those who are near you suffer. Proximity wounds us all. Family bleeds us.”
“Kill me or keep me at curse’s length!” Oddball shouted. He dropped to his knees. The crew expected the ice to lock him in place, but the wind dragged his supplicant form back and forth, scratching the surface. It was as if Corvidley couldn’t decide what to do with the man. “You don’t need to be alone son. We can both die and be at peace.”
“Your death brings me nothing,” Corvidley growled. “Only the knowledge that I can make you and yours suffer brings me peace of mind. It tells me I am still part of this world. It is impossible to ignore me. Your pain is my home. Your worry is my crackling hearth. I’m off to see the currents of the Aych, to see what my storm does to them, but I’ll return swiftly. None of you will escape. Any who come to rescue you will freeze on that cliff, fall, and shatter at your feet.”
“I’ll come with you!”
“You’ll stay!” The wind pulsed, tossing Oddball back into the arms of the crew. Corvidley screamed and jumped, smashing his feet down. The wave shattered under the force, ice chips sliding in all directions. The crew couldn’t help but wonder. Frostbite Cor was surely between life and death, a state they’d only ever seen in Captain Rob. Could he have bonepicking as well? The wave’s destruction suggested so.
“This won’t help you!” Teal shouted. Oddball wasn’t doing the one job he had left; she had to try to control the situation. “You’ve achieved nothing in sinking us. Let some of us join you at the Aych. Let us speak with you!”
“You’ll all stay,” Frostbite Cor repeated. “If I see one of you following me I will let the ice follow its instincts and freeze your hearts. Every pirate here has reached the age of being unforgivable. I’ve been below that age forever. I know the exact moment where one goes from victim to monster. No monster is to leave this cage. Farewell. I’ll see you soon.” Cor turned back out to sea and took his storm with him.
Oddball sobbed and sputtered, but none bothered to hold him. They went instead to those killed by Qlio and the roodnocks and looked for a place to bury their remains. One returned as gravefolk and needed consoling. There was plenty of talk that needed to be done regarding the traitors, but it could wait until the worst of the cold and grieving was done. They were bound together once more by Cor’s ultimatum. Teal did her best to organize the salvaging of the tents. They hacked some new fishing holes in the lake and started a few fires. The captain was warming her hands by one when Kingvy and Queenvy approached, bearing their nest egg.
“Captain?” Queenvy addressed. Teal turned to her with a weak smile. She hadn’t yet thanked the girl for plucking the droplet from Qliomatrok. She still didn’t have the chance, as the girl’s eyes were alive with determination. “We have an idea.”