Before I get into the story, I’d like to apologize for how late this one is in coming. I got sick this weekend and it put a wrench in a number of plans. I hope the new installment is worth the wait.
It hadn’t taken long for them to find the stowaway. Yuki had been rocked to sleep by the waves, a feeling that was not at all like what she experienced in her own bed. The iceberg was so large that the waves did little to jostle it, save in a storm. Even then the rocking often more exciting than relaxing. As uncomfortable as the ship’s hull and the wooden crate she had propped herself against were, she was fast asleep after they had set sail.
The only reason the captain hadn’t thrown her overboard was that she could only have come aboard at their last stop. It would give anyone pause to have a trespasser from an island of ice that shouldn’t have been, should not have existed, with a palace one could see in the distance, and peopled with sea elves, their skin blue and long ears like fins. She looked enough like the guards the sailors had encountered to make them see a connection, but they misinterpeted it.
“You one of their offspring, eh? Some half-elf girl, looking for an adventure?” The captain said to her as she stood between two of his men. They had hauled her up onto the main deck, but quick as they could took their hands off her arms. To the warm blooded, she was not the most pleasant of things to hold. She had struggled at first, but the truth was their warmth had been nice, even as they pulled her from her rest.
“I am seeking adventure, yes.” She didn’t want to lie, mostly because she assumed she would be bad at it. Instead, she let a kind of truth form in their heads based off the captain’s words.
“Well, nothing for it,” he sighed. “We’ve gotta take you back.”
His crew made their displeasure known, a few going so far as to say she looked a fine swimmer.
The captain wheeled on them. “And what would you have us do when the lass tells mother or father how the nasty merchants tossed her overboard? What do you think will happen when our ship is marked at every free port for such a disservice to a young bastard?”
Her eye twitched at that word, but it was true enough. While she did not know who or what her parent had coupled with to produce her, she doubted very much that a marriage had happened.
“I would rather not return to the berg, good sir.” She wondered if she could make herself look smaller, less threatening. Would that help, or would it make her look more the child to be taken back to worried parents? “I haven’t been allowed out in the world in it seems like forever, and yes, I did wrongly take the opportunity of your ship to make my escape from home, but I can pay you.” She touched a bag on her hip. It was filled with gems and old coins that Pak had assured her could be traded sure as any currency for favors. “Give me passage on your ship, and I’ll-“
“We’ve no room, girl. All the space is taken up, and you are a curse on us. We cannot have you coming to harm. Your sire would come calling. I have no pound of flesh on me I’m willing to lose when those ships come.”
“And if we take her back there will be spoilage,” another voice said from the crowd. An older sailor with a stooped back and ink blackened fingertips. “It was only the cold of the iceberg that kept things fresh enough for sale, but away from there, and then back, and then on our way again, we’ll have a hold of rot before we make market.”
More unhappy sounds buzzed through the crowd. Men standing on the decks and hanging from the rigging went from a hum of anger to single shouts at the unfair world and their captain’s rule.
“I will take responsibility for the girl,” said the voice of a man smaller and older than anyone else around. “I do not take much room up. She can bed with me.” Gray pushed through the crowd, parting men three times his size with deft little steps. He moved around them as much as they moved out of his way, and Yuki thought of a sea snake crossing on the surface of the ocean.
“That’s well and good, Master Gray, but you can’t promise I’ll have no backlash for her being here.”
“I can. I will accept full weight of her sire’s ill will for anything that comes to pass. She came here at my behest, after all.”
Gray was hunched over a wooden rod that started from a slender point he stabbed at the deck and blossomed up, looking like wood that had bubbled like rolling smoke and hardened into oak only after reaching the height of his downturned palm. “I am well known. You will be but my agents in this. You can tell any who might come asking where I and the girl went, to the best of your knowledge. No reason to hide anything.”
Yuki’s hand tightened on her gifted treasures. If anyone came after her she would hopefully be long away from this ship, but that was a real chance. Even now her guards could be swimming towards her, or riding waves and the backs of beasts. Had she put these people in danger? Certainly not. Her guards wouldn’t hurt anyone. Not unless that someone was out to hurt her.
The captain shook his head. “Very well. You have yourself a bed mate, little writer. But be sure you and she keep out of my way the rest of the voyage, or I’m like to think I should send you both back in whatever dinghy I can scrape together. Perhaps just put you adrift on a raft, eh?” The captain waved at his crew. “Back to work! We have goods to get to Vakara.”
“You don’t have to thank me,” the little man said.
“I wasn’t about to,” Yuki said. “I could have dealt with that. I had money. Money gets people to do things.” Pak had taught her as much.
“It does, but one of two things would be true here. Either you did not have enough to sway the sailors from their course, because the money involved was less than what they would gain for your return and for the sale of what good survived, or worse, they would have taken all you had, not stolen it but forced you into parting with all of it against getting turned around, then either taken you back anyway or taken you to the first port they came to and dropped you there.”
“They would have abandoned me?”
“They would have satisfied their contract to the extent they felt necessary.” Gray smirked. “But I was referring less to the fact that I did indeed allow for your adventure to continue than to the fact that I did not give away your identity.”
That was a thing she could not have come back from. Had they known her parentage she could well have found herself worse off. Could she have bested all those sailors with her magic? Perhaps. She would have been better off fleeing into the waves, but then she would have little to no idea where she was and how to get anywhere else. The ship was the thing. It would take her to places. She had legs, strong and quick in the water, and her lungs pulled in air above and below the surface equally well. That was not enough though.
“They would have returned me to quell my parent.”
“Of course. Or they would have been stupid. Sometimes, I fear, people are stupid. Against all sense they act in preference for self-destruction. It has to do with math.”
“Big numbers. Get enough of them together and they do illogical things. Probability, it is called.”
“I’m familiar. It deals with chance.”
“It deals with existence,” he corrected. “In this world you may well encounter people professing to know the future. They do not. They may have a very good idea of what is likely, but their notions are only possible outcomes. Nothing is certain.”
“Except the past,” she said.
The historian laughed. “Oh no,” Gray said. “Not even that. Sometimes that less than anything else. Ask a hundred witnesses to the sacking of a city what the commander’s armor looked like and you’ll get a hundred different answers. Some will say leather, others steel. His shield had a demon’s face, or perhaps it was smooth round wood. He wasn’t even a man, one will tell you. A green cloak, you’ll hear, and then it’ll be countered by another that swears by red.”
“I don’t speak of interviews. I mean that facts are facts.”
“They are, and they aren’t. Oh, they of course happened, except when they didn’t. What matters most is what people think happened. History is a thing for thinking peoples, and it is thinking that allows everything to go wrong.”
She sighed. “All your back talk and riddles make me feel I’m back in meditation class.” She wanted to look out a window, but there was no port hole in the little man’s room. “I thought you would be different. Your books, they tell the truth.”
“They tell an aggregate. I have never done less than express the history from as many perspectives as were available.”
“But there is truth to them all the same.” She took from her back his history of her country’s economic development. “You wrote about the merchant princes.”
“And pirates,” he said, “and the farmers, and the under folk, and your parent, a bit.”
“A bit,” she said. “Do you know more about…”
“I know things. Yours is the only ruler neither king nor queen. A crown of water sits on no head, but the ruler of Senna is the ruler. None doubt that. Your parent was born a he, but gave that up before even claiming the mantle of power.”
“I had heard that. A man, then a woman. A bird, then a wolf. A dolphin, then a whale, then a kraken.”
“You are not the first child, either. The first since the mantle, though. The first to walk on two legs and have the gift of speech. Your parent had children in other places and times, but they are dead. Their lineages may well still exist, somewhere.” He cracked open the tome he kept locked at his side with the turning of a key and the thud of its front cover on a table. “But that was before the flesh was abandoned in preference for a formless form. Many call skin and meat a vessel, but it is somewhat more literal in the case of your parent.”
“I have not seen my parent in years. I wouldn’t know what to look for.”
“No, but you’d know the moment you saw. Had you ever been confused before when you were visited?”
“Never,” Yuki admitted. “Even when a cover of flesh was worn, I knew my parent on sight.” She scowled at the little man. “But these are things I know already. Can you not share anything new with me?” That was not fully true. She had never known her sire had birthed others into this world, even if none were of an immortal breed.
“You will not live forever,” Gray said.
It is as if he looked in my head and saw the words there as easily as he does the ones on his pages, she thought. “What do you mean?”
“You are a half-elf. While the elves do not die from old age, you are not fully an elf. You age now, though slowly. You are mature, a young woman. I would say to look at you that, were you human, you were approaching your twentieth year. Were you an elf, you would be about three hundred. As a half-elf, you must be, what, sixty?”
“Fifty three,” she said. She made a fist, then slapped it against her thigh. “You mean I’ll die an old woman?”
“No. Likely not. You are attached to a power greater than what most people will ever come in contact with in their short lives. Lives that come and go in less time than it takes you to fully mature. Some will want that power, and many will fear it. When you left that island you started in motion events that will lead to hardship you cannot imagine, now. Your servant knew this.”
“Pak is my friend. Why would he put me in danger?”
“Oh no. He did no such thing. He has only allowed you the opportunity to put yourself in danger. You understand the difference, don’t you?”
“Danger is a byproduct of freedom. A slave may well have the safest life imaginable, and so too a pet. But they cannot choose where they go, what they eat, or who they know. On your little island you were safe, and boring.”
She wanted to argue but the snap back at Gray died cold on her tongue. She had been bored for so long, and her only real excitement was avoiding her guards, swimming out too far so they had to come get her, or pulling pranks on them to pass the days and years.
Gray nodded, though she had said nothing. He brushed lines of text, and she chanced a look over his shoulder. His other hand slammed the tome shut so fast she thought he might lose fingers, but he raised one as if to show it intact. “Pak, your friend, is immortal. Oh, a sword could perhaps put him down, or a disease if untreated. But time will never rob him of tomorrows. He saw in you a baby, a girl, a woman, an old woman, a corpse. That palace could as easily be your tomb as your cage. In short, you will die, be it on that iceberg island, or out in the world.” He smiled and stretched his arms overhead, fingers interlocked and elbow joints popping. “I would ask which you preferred, but the choice has been made already. As they say, that ship has sailed.”
She thought he looked too pleased with himself. She waved a hand and spoke in the tongue of the depths. The ground under Gray’s feet moistened, then grew bitter cold. His flat soled shoes slipped as he leaned back in his stretch, and he went into chaotic dance before falling back onto his small bed.
She laughed, holding her sides and doubling over. “Keep it up, old man.” She grinned. “Mortal I may be, but I think you’ll be dust by the time I’m full grown.”
He smirked, pushing himself up onto his elbows. “You’ve taken to news of your inevitable death quite well. But I pray you, take some pity on an old man like me. I’m all brittle bones and quick wit. One good fall and that dust will be around sooner than you think.”
She helped him back up, the ice sheet gone seconds after he had touched it. “I apologize. I’ll keep my torments psychological in nature. Like you.”
He laughed, then stopped as a noise like an axehead driven into wood came from the wall beside them. They both looked. No window, but through the hull they could hear something moving, crawling up towards the deck.
Some distance from where they stood in the little man’s cabin, they heard more climbing outside the ship.
Fundamental Forces, Episode 10 by Ryan Deugan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.