Sunday, July 31, 2011
Aidan had brought all he needed for the journey with him, so from the clearing they returned directly to The Sylph, where he began stowing away gear while Roger guided them expertly out of their mooring.
“So ...” Johnny hardly knew where to begin asking questions. “What exactly do you do, Mr. de Tourneville?”
Aidan grinned at him. He had a very easy grin that lit up his whole face, although he seemed to use it much more sparingly than Roger. “Save you from muck monsters, apparently. And call me Aidan, son.”
This mode of address struck Johnny as odd, somehow ... perhaps it was just that Aidan seemed not so much older than he was. He was no more than twenty-five, surely: fresh-faced and clean-shaven, barely taller than Johnny and not much heavier either. Perhaps it was a religious thing. “So, are you, like, a priest?”
“I’m a Guide,” Aidan replied. “I believe I mentioned that already, didn’t I?” He winked at Johnny, then glanced over at Larissa. He said in a stage whisper: “She doesn’t talk much, eh?” He stuck out his hand at her. “Aidan de Tourneville, milady. And you are ...?”
Larissa took his hand and shook it. “There doesn’t appear to be enough indigenous wildlife in this area to support a predator of that size. What does it eat?”
Aidan looked taken aback. “Pretty much anything it likes, unfortunately. But not us. Not today, at any rate. Tomorrow, who can say? But hopefully the Goddess will watch over us.”
Larissa stared up at him with her wide eyes. “And what goddess would that be?” she asked.
“Shallédanu, Goddess of the Waters. She is omnipresent, in this place.” The Water Guide looked back at Johnny. “She’s a curious one, eh?”
Johnny nodded. “She is that.”
Aidan didn’t seem perturbed that he had not learned Larissa’s name. “Well, at least our journey is off to an auspicious beginning.”
Johnny frowned. “Being attacked by a giant homicidal creature is an auspicious beginning?”
“Surviving being attacked by a giant homicidal creature is, surely. Much better than the alternative, no?” He looked around. “I assume this craft has a tub on board?”
It seemed like skinnydipping in the boat’s hold was some sort of tradition when bringing on new crew members. Johnny was more prepared this time, however, and had found a pair of shorts among Roger’s extra clothes which could double as swimming trunks. Larissa just took off her shoes and rolled the loose pants up above her knees; she sat on the side of the square opening of the tub and trailed her bare legs in the brownish water. Roger and Aidan both seemed perfectly comfortable being naked. Aidan’s body was lean and pale, and he sported several serious scars: on his right shoulder, the left side of his ribcage, and his right hip, among others. Johnny continued to try to avoid looking at Roger’s body, but her lack of modesty was starting to put him more at ease.
There was less washing this time and more friendly chatting and socializing. Roger and Aidan exchanged ideas about the upcoming weather and their general course. None of their navigation talk included any directions such as “west” or “north”; it was all “upstream” and “leeward” and “deasil.” Johnny was only half paying attention. Mainly he was looking more closely at the fiery columns of the tub and trying to figure out how it worked. The fire was only in the corners; between the columns there appeared to be some sort of invisible barrier which kept out wildlife but not the current. The water was quite warm, although he suspected that was some function of the tub more than the natural temperature of the river. He could see shadowy forms swimming on the far side of the barrier, but nothing clearly—the barrier might seem invisible, but it did make things on its far side appear dimmer.
At some point, Roger called for Bones to fetch “some grub” and suddenly they were having a dinner party in the pool-sized tub. There was the usual greenish cheese, dried fig-like fruits, and jerky-esque pemmican, but Roger evidently felt this was a special occasion, because she had Bones bring out several things Johnny hadn’t seen before: a type of small citrus fruit that Larissa hesitantly identified as a kumquat, some sort of crusty bread that was hard as a rock on the outside but soft and chewy on the inside, small green pea-like beans (uncooked but still quite good), and some form of pickle that looked like mushrooms and smelled like the clove cigarettes that some of the night people in DC smoked. Bones provided cups, and they just scooped water out of the tub. It occurred to Johnny that he ought to be discomfited that they were drinking water they’d just been bathing in, but of course the water in the tub was still flowing past with the slow current, so it was theoretically just as fresh as the water that they’d been drawing from the river for the entire journey.
Johnny tried a little bit of everything, and it was all good. Larissa seemed more hesitant, sniffing the offerings and eyeing them critically. Aidan and Roger were positively festive, the former complimenting his host repeatedly, the latter calling out colorful pirate phrases such as “heave to with the hard tack, swabbies” and “belay forestalling them fungus afore I have ye keelhauled!” Gradually the proceedings wound down and everyone became a bit more pensive.
Aidan was now leaning back with his elbows on the side of the tub, his lean body extended nearly horizontally, just under the surface of the water. He paddled aimlessly with his feet, his toes occasionally breaking the surface. “I think,” he announced, “it is time for some wine.”
Johnny looked around with interest. “We have wine?”
“Not yet,” Aidan said, winking. “Bones, my good man. Fetch me a pitcher.” Bones squawked and streaked over to Aidan, sitting up on his back legs in a manner more reminiscent of a dog than either avian or primate. It cocked its head and stared at the young man, who was now giving detailed instructions. “Your best pitcther, mind. It must be solid silver—you have such a thing?” This was directed at Roger, who nodded. “Good. The silver, then. And fresh cups. And then look in the left-hand pocket of my robe and bring me the gray pouch you find there.”
Bones streaked off with another squawk. Johnny swam over to Aidan and perched on the side of the tub as he had done once upon a time in his family swimming pool. “You’re going to make wine? Doesn’t that take ... well, a long time?”
“And distillation equipment,” Larissa added softly, as if she were just saying it to make herself feel better and didn’t expect anyone to pay any attention to her. She was right about that, of course.
Aidan grinned. “The important thing to know about wine, my dear boy, is that it’s mostly water. And I, of course, am a Water Guide.”
Johnny was starting to think that the inhabitants of this world used the word “guide” in a way that was quite different than he was used to.
Bones streaked back with a hefty pitcher nearly as big as he was and a soft gray bag with a rawhide drawstring. Aidan took the pitcher (“thankee kindly, sir” he said to Bones) and scooped it through the water. From the pouch, Aidan removed a handful of small round objects, like colored ball bearings. Most were a dark blue, but several were red, and a few were white.
“What’re those?” Johnny asked, still fascinated.
“Berries,” Aidan announced.
Johnny wrinkled his brow. “So the blue ones are blueberries, I suppose ... the red ones are cherries?”
Larissa spoke up. “Not blueberries: juniper berries. Although where one finds a conifer in a swamp I can’t imagine. And definitely not cherries ... something else. But they’re too small.”
Aidan nodded. “I take the water out of them. Easier to carry, and they don’t spoil this way.”
“But they don’t look like dried fruit ...” Johnny started, before realizing that this was almost certainly a futile line of inquiry.
“Dried?” Aidan seemed genuinely puzzled. “What, you mean like the derries?” He gestured at the fruit Johnny had been calling figs. “No, I just ... take the water out of them. And the red ones are hawberries.” Larissa looked slightly dubious, although she nodded.
“And the white ones?” Johnny asked.
“Snowberries,” Aidan said, tossing the pile of miniature berries into the pitcher.
Even Johnny couldn’t let that go. “Snowberries? As in, snow? You have snow here?”
“Strictly speaking, snow isn’t required for snowberries.” Aidan’s tone was mild.
Larissa opened her mouth, but Johnny already knew what she was going to say, and he knew they weren’t going to get anywhere complaining that people oughtn’t have words for things they’d never experienced, so he cut her off. “Snow is made of water, you know.”
Aidan arched an eyebrow. “Well of course I know that. Shall I make you some?” He scooped up a handful of water and blew on it, hard. The water shot out of his hand and swirled around, each drop maintaining its individuality so that it was more like dust than splash. The cloud of droplets floated upward, defying gravity, then began to sparkle. Finally there was a puff, and then several snowflakes fell down onto Johnny’s unbelieving face. They melted instantly of course, but there was a split-second when he could actually feel tiny pinpricks of cold against his skin. He stared at Aidan. Larissa’s face was neutral. Roger chuckled in the background.
Aidan ignored all this. “Now, where was I? Ah, yes.” He reached into his pouch again, and took out a smaller handful of yellow powder. He sprinkled this into the pitcher slowly, mumbling in that same liquid language he had used against the muck monster. A luminescence began to appear above the pitcher, ephemeral, like the yellowish-green lights Johnny sometimes saw shooting off to the edges of his vision if he rubbed his eyes too hard. And, like those phosphenes, the lights seemed to slide away if stared at directly, and yet irresistably drew the eye toward them. Straining his ears, Johnny thought—or imagined—a fizzing sound, a muted version of bubbles escaping from soda, or champagne.
Slowly the light subsided, and Aidan poured from the silver pitcher into the simple wooden cups Bones had brought. The liquid had changed from the brown tealike color of the river to a rich indigo, with a hint of effervescent yellow somehow buried in its core. Aidan poured four times, and then Bones poked him with a much smaller tin cup. Aidan chuckled and poured a dollop for Bones as well.
Larissa stared at her cup but didn’t drink. Roger and Aidan each took a long draught and made nearly identical lip-smacking “ahh” sounds. Johnny sipped his cautiously.
To describe it would have been impossible. It was slightly sweet, but it definitely had the bite he recalled from stealing sips from his mother’s wine glass when she wasn’t looking. It was fruity in a way that he had never tasted before, sort of a raspberry-blackberry-boysenberry, but wrapped up in the odor he associated with his father’s gin and tonics (he’d never dared sneak a taste of those, but the smell had always stayed with him), and yet none of that, and all of that, and more. It was dry, and cold, and it seemed to dance on his tongue. He stared at Aidan, amazed.
Aidan smiled back at him. “Not too shoddy, if I do say so myself. Roger?”
Roger had adopted Aidan’s pose on the side of the tub to their left. She arched her back, thrusting her small breasts up into the air. “Vurra nice, me bucko. Not artan, of course, but a pleasant enough change. Ye make a fine cuppa, Aidan.”
Johnny started to drink again, more eagerly this time, but he stopped himself. “Is this going to get me drunk?” he asked. “Like the artan if I drink it too fast?”
Aidan pursed his lips. “Well, it is wine, and it will surely make you tipsy if you drink enough of it. But it doesn’t have nearly the alcohol content of that curious concoction that our fine captain favors.” He looked archly at Roger, as if he’d just delivered a real zinger of an insult to her. Roger merely pshawed him with a lazy wave of her arm.
This was good enough for Johnny. He drank the rest of his cup in big gulps, and then he started in on Larissa’s.