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“Saldo come, Saldo come, Saldo come a frothin',
From 'cross the dark lake Dexyn, from the Waters of the Nothin',
From the grip of Lady Valdo, who eyed him as her prize,
She sought to wed the man above, and made his ship capsize,
Our names do rhyme, so you are mine, oh brutish sailor man,
Sink into the depths with me, and never seek the land.”
Toke sat on the top row of the Seventh Swordfish's benches, gasping like a fish with every breath. In his hands were a spoon and a bowl half filled with a thick brown stew, and even as he panted he shoveled another spoonful into his mouth. Like most things served in Vlangur, it was spicy enough to melt the teeth of any foreigner foolish enough to try it. The crew called it chili, which must have been a joke because chilly was the one thing it was not. It was made with beef, beans, tomatoes, and a whole assortment of spices Toke wouldn't have been able to pronounce even if his tongue hadn't been numb. Truth be told, he would have preferred to share the fruits and vegetables his family had elected to eat instead of the mouth-melting stew, but the other crewmembers were practically drinking the stuff like water. Treyn had declared that all his performers ate the fiery glop, and Toke would be no exception.
And just to add insult to his injury, Zashiel sat beside him, eating a bowl herself. Sorakines were naturally stronger than humans in every way, and tonight Toke learned that included their taste buds. He couldn't help but scowl as she guzzled it down with as much gusto as the rest of the crew.
This was her second bowl.
“I just want you to know,” he said, setting his spoon down to wipe the sweat from his brow, “I really hate you right now.”
The Sorakine girl grinned wickedly. “You've got to toughen up, Toke. When in Vlangur, eat as the Vlangurtians.”
Toke choked down another mouthful of the stew. “Oh, shut the smite up.”
“You think it's bad now?” Ludsong asked, tromping up and sitting down on his other side. He chuckled. “Just wait till it comes out the other end!”
Both he and Zashiel watched as Toke paled, and then burst out laughing. Toke's face turned from white to red, and he glared down into his bowl. If he was ever lucky enough to get out of Vlangur, he would never take Yasmik's food for granted again. Ludsong put his own bowl to his lips, tilted it back, and slurped the whole thing down in a few long gulps.
While one third of the crew ate, another third continued to pole the Seventh Swordfish through the water. Their poles were each more than thirty feet long, with places to attach even more poles for deeper water. Toke couldn’t help but be amazed at how they were able to thrust them down into the river, over and over again, so that the barge continued to move at a speedy pace. Just thinking about it made his right hand tingle.
It was hard to watch the pole pushers for long, though, because the last third of the crew was practicing one of their acts.
“Saldo come, Saldo come, Saldo come a frothin',
Up from the darkness of the lake, your sail a' made of clothin',
Stole from the Lady Valdo's gown, to be worn on your weddin',
Her white linens shinin' bright in the pitch black of the Dexyn,
And Saldo fled his lover's bed, and Valdo's anger rose,
And the lady of the deep made her vengeful windstorm blow...”
It was quite a sight to see. Several of the performers were standing at opposite ends of the ring surrounded by the benches, stretching long sheets of blue fabric between them. They waved them up and down, turning the floor into a pool of turbulent waters. A boat shaped prop lay abandoned on one side of the stage, while two actors conversed on a raised platform with a throne on it. One of them Toke recognized as Inaska, dressed in a brilliant blue and green dress that shimmered in the limelights. She still wore that strange glittering mask, sending specks of light dancing around the stage with every turn of her head. It didn’t do anything to make her any less beautiful, though.
“What are they singing about?” he asked, pointing to them with his spoon. Watching them was almost enough to make him stop thinking about the bowl of liquid fire he was eating.
Ludsong looked up. “Don't tell me you ain’t heard the legend of Saldo Gunn!”
This caught Boam's attention, and he leaned forward so eagerly he almost dumped his food off of his lap. Even a year of life on the run wasn't enough to take away his writer’s nature.
“We're not from around here,” Toke said.
The first mate grunted and sat back in the benches. “It's one of Vlangur's oldest tales. Saldo Gunn was a sailor who took his ship across Lake Dexyn.” He paused. “That's right by Stal Atrieda. Biggest lake in Vlangur, it is. Nobody's ever sailed to the other side. Or, if they have, they never made it back to tell us. People call it the Waters of Nothin’ on account of how black they are. You can scoop out a handful, and it’ll be black as ink.”
“Sounds creepy,” Wayli chimed in.
Ludsong nodded. “Aye. Not many people go out on that lake. Some say there's monsters in it, others say ghosts. Some people even say it goes right off the edge of Fissura itself. The people in Stal Atrieda don’t even use the water, since whatever makes it black makes it poisonous too.” He waved his hand. “Anyways, ol' Saldo took his ship and went across. He sailed for fifty days and nights, they say, until—”
“Why did he do that?” Boam interrupted him.
Ludsong stopped. “Why'd he do what?”
“Go out on the Dexyn. Most sailors are traders. If there's nothing out on the Dexyn, then why would he sail his ship out there?”
Ludsong looked at him for a few seconds, and then shook his head. “What's it matter?”
“Because to tell a good story, you have to identify with the characters. Just saying that somebody did something isn't enough. You have to tell them why—”
“Ah, shaddup and let me tell the story, will ya?”
Boam looked down at his apple, but Toke still heard him mutter something about plot holes.
“Anyways,” Ludsong continued, sounding a fair bit grumpier now than when he'd started, “Saldo sailed for fifty days and fifty nights, and that's when the Lady Valdo saw him from the dark depths of the Dexyn. Now Lady Valdo, she's queen of the Dexyn, living at the bottom of the river all godlike and whatnot. She saw Saldo sailing above her, and became right smitten with him. See, her great grandmama had told her that her husband would be a man whose name sounded like her own. Saldo and Valdo, see? She put two and two together, and sent up a wave so big that it flipped Saldo's ship right over!”
“It wasn't a wave,” said another voice, and everyone looked up to see Captain Treyn hop up from the ring, walking balanced atop the benches until he was standing over them. “It was a monster. A big, slimy tentacley thing.” He raised his hands and wiggled his fingers. “It swam up there and capsized the ship and dragged Saldo down to the bottom of the lake.”
Ludsong growled. “Cap'n, with all due respect, how stupid are you?”
“What? That's how it goes.” He looked at Toke and rolled his eyes. “You'd think he'd know his own folklore better.”
Ludsong went red in the fact and brought his fist down on the bench hard enough to make it wobble underneath them. “You're the one who wrote the script! They're doin' it right in front of you!”
“Exactly, so I think I know what I'm talking about.”
“Will you shut up and let me tell the story already? It was a wave that flipped the ship. The monster didn't show up till later.” Before Treyn could interrupt again, Ludsong turned back to the Yasmikans. “Anyway, Lady Valdo brought Saldo down to her castle on the bottom of the Dexyn and made him eat one of her scales. 'Cuz she had scales, see? Like a fish. And it was a magic scale, coming from the Queen of the Dexyn and all, so when he swallowed it Saldo was able to breathe underwater like her.”
When Zashiel heard this, she leaned forward a little, her bowl sitting forgotten on the bench beside her. Toke wished he hadn't looked, because seeing her bowl only reminded him that he hadn't finished his own dinner yet, and he forced himself to swallow another bite. Three quarters of the way done. His gasping breaths were enough to drown out Ludsong's voice in his own ears, though, so once he'd finally brought the blaze in his mouth down to a manageable level the first mate had moved on.
“—snuck into Lady Valdo's chambers while she was sleepin', and stole that weddin’ dress. It was as black as octopus ink at the bottom of the Dexyn, but the dress was sewn from jellyfish veins, and by its light Saldo was able to see. Lady Valdo didn't know it, but he'd spent the three weeks he'd been down there buildin’ himself a brand new ship. It was a tiny one, one he'd be able to sail all by himself, and it was finally finished. All it needed now was a sail, and Saldo knew exactly what he had to do. Tyin’ Valdo's dress to the mast, he raised the ship up from the bed of the lake and set sail for home!”
“He could breathe underwater, but he still had to make a boat to get home?” Boam asked skeptically.
Treyn burst out laughing at this, but Ludsong only gave the young writer a venomous look before continuing the story.
“When Lady Valdo found out, she was furious! She saw her husband-to-be sailin' away up above her, and used her magic to conjure up a storm. The winds blew, and the waves rocked the boat, but so skilled was Saldo that he was never once thrown off course. His sail had been sewn by Lady Valdo herself, and even the Lady's own fury couldn't tear it apart. In fact, Saldo used her storm to his advantage, and the journey that had first taken him fifty days was done in a day and a night.”
Down below, the performers acted out the story even as Ludsong told it to them. The man playing Saldo, who Toke didn't know, stood atop the prop boat again, this time with a bright white dress rigged to its mast. The water-cloths were undulating even more rapidly than before, and “Saldo” jerked the helm back and forth, hand held to his brow. Toke could almost believe he was really sailing through a dangerous storm.
“Saldo climbed to the crow's nest,” Ludsong went on, “and through the storm he could see Stal Atrieda! But the Lady Valdo knew she was close to losin' him, and so she sent the jelkar to sink his ship.”
“Told you it was a monster,” Treyn interjected.
“It's a monster now, but it wasn't then! Maelstroms, will you let me finish?”
Toke's spoon scraped the bottom of his bowl. One more bite, and he'd be finished. And not a moment too soon, either, he thought as his stomach growled. It wasn't a growl of hunger, though.
“What's the jelkar?” Wayli asked.
“The jelkar's Lady Valdo's most terrible servant,” Ludsong answered. “A beast big enough to sink a ship and eat it's entire crew. Nobody knows exactly what it looks like. Some say it's a squid. Others say a shark. Either way, it's not somethin’ any sailor has seen and come home to tell about.”
“Then how does anybody—” Boam started to say, but shut his mouth when Wayli punched him on the arm.
Perched on the tightrope like birds, five performers pulled on a web of strings, and a massive puppet rose from the waters. It was as long as seven men were tall, and looked to Toke like a snake made of seaweed. Under their skillful guidance, the jelkar turned to glare down at the man in the boat.
“The jelkar rose up from Lake Dexyn, the waters all churnin' from Lady Valdo's storm, and attacked him! Saldo had no weapons but the knife on his belt, and that wasn't enough to kill a beast like the jelkar, so he had no choice but to try and outrun it. But the jelkar was too big, and too swift. No matter where he sailed, it was there to block his way. And so Saldo thought quick, and came up with another plan. Turnin’ his ship around, he tied the sail in place and jumped overboard. Sure enough, the jelkar followed Lady Valdo's glowin’ dress, and Saldo swam for Stal Atrieda. He could breathe underwater, thanks to Lady Valdo's scale, and so he knew it was only a matter of time before he was home again.”
Saldo leaped from the boat and mimed swimming to the other side of the stage.
“But the Lady Valdo saw him, even as the jelkar chased her dress, and went to stop him herself. For the first time in her eternal life, she breached the surface of the Dexyn and stood upon the shallows, waitin’ for Saldo.”
Inaska held up her hand, white hair whipping dramatically around her head from a gust of wind created by the stagehands.
“Stop!” she cried, voice strong and defiant. “I have claimed you as my own. What right have you to deny me what is mine?”
“Saldo knew that Lady Valdo's powers grew weaker the closer she was to dry land, though,” said Ludsong, “and here the water only came to her knees.”
“Lady Valdo,” Saldo beseeched her, “your beauty is indeed beyond compare, matched only by the beauty of your kingdom. But alas I cannot be yours, for I have a wife and daughter already!”
“Though Saldo begged her to let him return to the land, the Queen of the Dexyn was as stubborn as she was arrogant. The waters rose at her command and tried to force Saldo back into the depths. But she was still in the shallows, only her feet covered by the water, and Saldo was able to resist. He pushed back, takin’ step after step closer to Stal Atrieda. That was when Lady Valdo realized she could not best him, and she was going to lose him. She began to weep even as she fought, her attacks growing weaker with every wave she threw at him. Finally, Saldo stood before her. He took her in his arms, and kissed her—and then plunged his knife into her breast.”
Inaska screamed as Saldo did exactly that.
“Well, that's pleasant,” Wayli blurted out.
Ludsong shrugged. “What'd you expect? She was tryin' to kill him.”
To Toke's surprise, Boam nodded too. “Not every story needs to have a happy ending.”
“Ha, now you're talkin' sense,” Ludsong said. “Anyway, he didn't kill her. Lady Valdo was a god, remember? More than anythin’, he just surprised her. She fell at his feet, bleedin’ into the Dexyn, and in her grief the waters receded, leavin’ them both on land as dry as a desert. Lady Valdo wept, because she had never before been denied what she wanted. Saldo was tempted to leave her there to shrivel up and die like a beached fish, but he took pity on her and picked her up. They say her skin was as light and soft as an ocean breeze as he carried her to the depths of Lake Dexyn, and set her back down in the water. As she sank down to her shadowy kingdom, he made her a promise.”
Ludsong paused, and the others looked at him expectantly.
“Well?” Brin asked, to everyone's surprise. “What was the promise?”
Ludsong shrugged and shook his head. “Nobody knows. That was between him and Lady Valdo. All we know is that Saldo saw his wife and daughter again. He got himself a new ship, and got back to sailing. He never went out on Lake Dexyn again, though. And that,” he stood up, “is the end of that.”
The ship's orchestra began to play the ending ballad, while Saldo picked a child up into his arms and kissed a woman Toke took to be his wife, while the first mate tromped off, leaving the travelers alone with their captain. Treyn shrugged before producing a pear from his pocket and taking a bite from it.
“He was right, you know,” he said while his mouth was still full. “These Vlangurtians are a suspicious lot. I like to see how many faces I can get him to make by getting his stories wrong.” He burst out laughing, and Toke grimaced when a chunk of fruit landed on his cheek.
“You're not Vlangurtian then, I take it?” Zashiel asked.
“How'd you guess? Was it the hair?” Treyn picked at one of his long brown locks, a striking difference from the rest of his white-headed crew. “I bet it was the hair.”
“What's your story, then?”
Treyn shrugged, looking nonchalantly away from the ring, where the dark waters of the lake stretched out past the edge of the ship. “Not much to tell. Love to travel, love to act. Vlangur gave me the chance to do both. The end!”
“Meh,” Boam grunted, tossing his apple core overboard. “Ludsong's story was better.”
“No argument here,” Treyn agreed. He held up a finger. “But mine has a happy ending!”
Toke's stomach rumbled again, and he set the bowl down beside him. “How far is it to Stal Atrieda?” he asked.
“A month, at least,” Treyn said
At that, Toke and Zashiel both sat up straight.
“A month?” Zashiel demanded. “It shouldn't take more than a week!”
“If we were going straight there, yes.” Treyn pointed down at the ring, where his crew was busy putting away their props. “But in case you haven't noticed, we're a circus. We stop everywhere there's people who'd pay to see us.”
Toke grimaced and rubbed his forehead. “But still... a month?”
“Is that a problem?”
There was no mistaking the threat in Treyn's words. He'd only allowed them aboard his ship in exchange for them performing in his show. If they broke their agreement, they'd all be thrown overboard in an instant.
Toke shook his head. “No, Captain, it's no problem.”
Treyn beamed. “Glad to hear it! Speaking of which, we need to discuss what your acts are going to be.”
“You can't seriously expect my son to perform in your circus!” Brin exclaimed. “He doesn't have any experience with this!”
“Dad!” Toke snapped.
Treyn raised an eyebrow. “For his sake, and all of yours too, I hope you're wrong.”
The first threat may have been too subtle for Brin to catch, but that one struck him like a speeding autocarriage. For a second, Toke was worried that he'd lose his temper and keep arguing, but to his relief Brin merely looked silently down at his lap.
Toke shrugged. “I don't know what I could do.”
“You can walk on the zwel juala walls, and you can't think of a single thing you could do for me?”
Toke narrowed his eyes. Try as he might, though, he couldn’t place what language the captain always cursed in. He was beginning to wonder if Treyn just made up words to confuse people. He certainly seemed like the kind of person who would find that funny.
“It's not that, it's just...” Toke finally said, looking away. “My dad's right. I've never done anything like this before. I can use my powers, yes, but... how?”
Treyn chuckled. “And here Zashiel was calling you a genius.”
Toke looked at Zashiel in confusion, but the Sorakine girl only shrugged.
“Anyway, keep thinking on it and meet me in the ring at sunrise tomorrow. You too, Zashiel.”
Zashiel nodded solemnly, as if the captain had just told her she was going to war. Treyn nodded back and, satisfied, went down to join his performers. Toke's stomach took that opportunity to rumble embarrassingly loudly, and he let out a belch that burned his mouth almost as much as the chili itself. Smite, he was going to up all night with heartburn.
“Excuse me,” he moaned, hopping up and hurrying away to the other side of the ship. Sighing, he closed his eyes and sank into the comforting darkness of the void—the only place on Fissura that the wicked stew couldn't torment him.
Once he was properly separated from the world around him, Toke began to think. An act. He needed to think of an act. He'd known this was going to happen sooner or later—Treyn had been completely transparent about what he expected from him and Zashiel. Still, he hadn't even been on the ship for a full day! He folded his arms and leaned back against the barge's railing, racking his brain. What could he possibly do?
A better question, he soon realized, wasn't what could he do, but how. He could control gravity, an ability unheard of in humans back in Yasmik. Here in Vlangur, where Sorakines were practically mythical, it would be even more so. But how to channel that into an entertaining act?
The insides of Toke's eyelids turned yellow, and he didn't have to look to know Zashiel was standing beside him. The light from her wings made her about as stealthy as a horse attending a tea party. He looked anyway, just to be see her face. Ever since she'd boarded the ship, she'd worn her jacket with her wings out, to her obvious relief. Toke didn't have wings, not attached to him anyway, but he could sympathize anyway. Having to keep those bulky, feathery things confined within her clothing all the time couldn't have been comfortable.
“Hey,” she greeted him. “How are you feeling?”
“Like I'm turning into a volcano, and I'm going to...” He let out another long, spicy belch. “Erupt.”
“Well, I'm glad one of us is enjoying this,” Toke grumbled.
The Sorakine girl slugged him on the arm. “Shut up. You know I'm just messing with you.”
“Yeah, I know.” Toke rubbed his shoulder where she'd hit him. “But I'm still going to have to find a bathroom pretty soon.”
Zashiel nodded, and then looked out past him. “So, any ideas?”
He shrugged. “I don't know. A magic show, maybe? I could pull things to me from across the stage.”
“Too boring. Treyn will have us thrown overboard before the crowd even got to boo you offstage.”
“Hey, I think it's got potential! You could be my beautiful assistant.”
“Oh, really?” Zashiel raised her eyebrows.
“Sure! We'd get you dressed up in a nice skimpy outfit…”
“I'm going to murder you if you say one more word.”
“…and I could cut you in half.”
She slugged him again, and this time a painful tingle went up and down Toke's injured hand. He winced, groaning.
Zashiel frowned and looked away. “Sorry,” she whispered.
“Is it really that bad of an idea?” Toke asked once his hand stopped hurting so much.
“Well, I don't hear you making any suggestions!”
“That's because you haven't asked me yet.”
Toke blinked. “You... already have an idea?”
A smirk rose to the Sorakine girl's lips. “It’s been a while since the two of us have had a good training spar, right?”
“I... guess so. What does that have to do with—”
“That hunter nearly killed you this morning. It's obvious you've gotten sloppy over the last year. So, meet me in Treyn's ring tomorrow morning at sunrise.”
“Sunrise? But that's...” Toke's stomach tied itself into a knot when he caught her meaning. “Oh smite, you don't mean we're going to...”
The smirk turned into an evil grin. “Exactly. Bring your weapons.”
NEXT TIME: Are you guys thinking what I’m thinking? Because I’m thinking that Toke and Zashiel are about to introduce Vlangur to the time honored sport of professional wrestling! Tune in next week for a special guest star… and his name is JOHN CEEEEEENAAAAAA! Trust me, he’ll be there. You just won’t see him.