Sunday, March 4, 2012

Chapter 19 (begun)

The Race

The mermaid-things retired to the far side of the inner lagoon, where the arms of the island stretched out to skinny sandbars, barely a pace across, and almost touched each other.  Looking at it now, Johnny wasn’t sure how The Slyph had fit through the gap.  On the deck, the humans (and Bones) gathered for their own huddle.  Roger started to strip off all her clothes.  Johnny looked at her with some surprise, but Larissa pointed out that clothes would just be extra drag, and Roger nodded curtly.  Aidan was giving Bones a complicated list of ingredients to gather, and fiddling in his own pouches for the rest.

“What are those things?” Johnny asked, to fill time and keep his mind (and his eyes) off Roger’s body.

“Scalas,” Roger replied, pulling off a boot.

“I believe the proper plural is ‘scalae,’” Aidan said.  He pronounced it “skah-lie.”

“The proper plural is ‘bitches who are going to get their fishy little asses beat,’” Roger answered with a snort.  “Now, are ye ready to help me out here?”

Aidan nodded.  “As soon as Bones returns with the remainder of the components I need for the rite, I can brew it in a very short amount of time.”

“Good.”  Roger was now pulling pants off and Johnny was studiously looking elsewhere.  He noted that Aidan seemed to view Roger’s body the same way Larissa did: he looked, but he didn’t respond.  Perhaps, as a priest, he was celibate.  Larissa glanced at him, but said nothing.

Less than a minute later, Roger was naked again, fiddling with her ponytail.  Her smallish breasts were thrust forward.  Not that Johnny was looking, of course.  Bones was back, laying out all sorts of bits and bobs in neat little piles for Aidan to sort through.  To a wooden pitcher, Aidan added three different kinds of powder, some silver things that looked like ball bearings, a dollop of the gunk they used to grease the fan, a piece of the pemmican that he cut into some intricate shape, and the guts out of one of Roger’s flares and the smallest of the ship’s barometers.  The Water Guide’s hands were a blur, so there might have been other scraps as well, and those liquid words chimed out, softly and smoothly.  At the end, Aidan raised his hands into the air, the chanting crescendoed, and Aidan clapped, but it was a thunderclap, and, indeed, when his hands drew apart, a little black cloud formed between them, and it actually began to rain into the pitcher; one brief, jagged fork of lightning arced down into the mixture, and the sound that accompanied it wasn’t thunder, but the electronic sizzle of a large bug zapper, or the flat crack you get when you attach the jumper cables to the last battery terminal.  Gradually the little cartoon thundercloud dissipated and its rain tapered off.  Aidan raised the pitcher and one eyebrow at Roger.  She threw her arms wide and planted her bare feet firmly on the deck, tossing her head back with closed eyes.

Roger upended the pitcher over her, covering her entire body with the glassy liquid that oozed out.  None of it hit the deck; it seemed to inch over her body as if sentient.  It was entirely transparent, but you could still see it somehow, sparkling in the half-light.  When it had covered her entire form in a thin sheen of aqueous film, Roger took a deep, gasping breath and lifted her head.  As she opened her eyes, the stuff, whatever it was, became invisible.  One second you knew it was there, even though you couldn’t actually see it, and the next it was as if it had never been.

Aidan turned her around and inspected her from every angle (again, seeming to be oblivious to her attractions).  “Roger, my dear captain, you are officially, completely, and by the grace of Shall├ędanu, slick.”

Johnny looked back and forth from captain to Guide.  “Meaning ... ?”

Roger smiled her devilish smile.  “Meaning I shall slide through the water like shit through a seagull.”

“Ah.”  Johnny paused a moment, hesitant to breach the subject, but knowing he must.  “And, if you, you know ... don’t win ... will they really eat you?”

Roger strode over and slapped Johnny on the back; Johnny was well used to this by now, and it hardly hurt at all any more.  “Aye, faster’n ye can say ‘Jack Ketch,’ that they will.”

“Ah.  And, what if, you know ... we don’t particularly want you to be eaten?”

Roger chuckled.  “Well, I’ll take that as neighborly concern on yer part, Johnny me boyo, and I’ll thankee kindly.  It’s a risk I knew I’d have to take, and I’ll take it gladly to get us where we’re goin’.  But don’t count yer good captain out quite yet, if ye follow my tack.”  Roger winked.

Johnny rolled his eyes.  “What do we need an ‘opener’ for anyway?” he asked.

Aidan stepped up.  “To open the way for us.  We thought we’d have to ask for both a pathfinder and an opener.  But apparently you can be our guide, so we were able to negotiate a much less dangerous bargain.  Trust me, son, compared to the compact Captain Roger and I thought we would have to make, this is quite reasonable.  There’s always a chance that Roger could lose, yes, and we would have to face very grim consequences indeed if that were to come to pass, but the deal that was struck means that I can do anything in my power to help her win now.  Actually, any of us can, although I suspect the majority of the burden will fall on me.”

“Yes, but why can’t ... look, maybe I could be the opener too.  I ... well, I opened something to get here.  Twice, even.  Sort of.”

Roger and Aidan exchanged unreadable glances.  “This I did not know,” the Guide said.  “It is good information to have ...”

“Although ye might have mentioned it sooner,” Roger mumbled under her breath.

Aidan ignored her and continued.  “Good information to have, but I don’t think it helps us in this particular instance.  Not just any opener will do for this task, Johnny.  Anyone can get into a place between places.  But getting back out again is more difficult, and almost always requires intervention from the natives.”

“Mister fancy-pants here means to say that we need the tubs o’ fishguts out there.”  Roger waved a hand at the monstrous mermaids in the distance.  “All ways here are their ways.”

Johnny stared at her.  “Did you just quote Alice in Wonderland?”

Larissa stepped in.  “Through the Looking Glass.  The Red Queen to Alice: ‘I don’t know what you mean by your way: all the ways about here belong to me.’”  Johnny reflected that this was possibly the most normal thing Larissa had said since they entered the sewers.

Roger stared at the little girl, confused.  “Well, I don’t know queens from quarterdecks, but, aye, it’s exactly like the little missy says.  All the ways are scalas’ ways, and nobody opens ’em but them as know their secrets.  And, by the bye, I’d not let on to Miss Ugly out there that ye have the power.  Else ye may find yerself being an opener in their employ yerself, if ye catch my spur.”

Roger strode over to the deck railing, put two fingers between her lips, and gave a piercing whistle.  Bones was hopping up and down on the crossbar beside her, flapping his wings and screech-squawking.  Aidan whispered as he passed Johnny: “all the ways are scalae’s ways” and then rushed to join her at the rail.  Johnny shook his head at Larissa.  “They’re all crazy,” he said.

Larissa answered simply: “Everything here is crazy.”

Johnny considered that for a moment.  “Yep, you’re right.  Can’t argue with that.  Let’s go be crazy too, I suppose.”

Larissa followed, but slowly.

section break


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