“The Spear-and-Oar Dance always begins with one thing: the spear.” Captain Fan-Dor lifted his spear, showing Alex its shine beneath the moonlight. “But that is not how we’ll be beginning.”
He tossed Alex a long object, which the young man barely caught.
An old mop.
“Why don’t we start with the oar?” Alex asked.
“Because that’s a lot harder. Safer, but harder.” Fan-Dor lifted his spear, holding the haft up by the middle and balancing it on one finger. “Weapons are balanced for quick movement. Oars aren’t. That makes it harder.”
“That makes sense.”
“Normally, that’s why we’re taught the Way of Weapons before the Dance.”
The captain’s footsteps thumped over the deck as he took up position in the cleared area across from Alex. Only a few of the crew still stirred, leaving them mostly alone. Oil lights blazed on Mausarr’s docks as sailors worked through the evening to get cargo loaded onto their ships.
“But, from the way you walk, I’m thinking you’ve never held a weapon before.” Fan-Dor thumped the butt of his spear into the deck and leaned over the hilt.
“Once.” Alex remembered when he’d begged Mister Lu to hold one of Twin-Blade Lu’s swords when he was a child. He’d gripped the hilt while Mr. Lu had held the scabbard. It was a fond memory, but it’d never made him want to get his own sword, or run off to be a knight like in so many stories he’d heard with young, heroic children in them. He wondered how The Mark would react to him doing that now. Probably, not well.
“So then we don’t want you fumbling around and stabbing yourself. Or worse, stabbing me. So, a mop it is. Tonight, I’m going to start teaching you the first stance, the first step, the second stance and the first guard of the dance.”
“Out of how many?”
“Of the basics? Five stances, five positions of the feet, and five guards. There’s also basic jumps and flourishes, but you won’t have to worry about those until about two years of practice, and trust me, you’ll only need a little to look impressive for your…purposes.”
He grinned at Alex who felt a hot blush creep over his cheeks.
“So! First position!”
He drummed his spear on the deck.
Alex watched him closely, making sure to note as many details for repetition with The Mar-
“Well what’re you waiting for? First position!”
The young mage startled and scrambled into first position, holding his mop by the top and pressing the bottom to the deck.
“Come on, you can do better than that.” Fan-Dor shook his head as though Alex were a fish trying to hop around on land on its tail. “Think of your eggs! Let that motivate you!”
Alex’s cheeks burned. “Listen, uh, humans don’t actually lay eggs. We, uh-”
“Oh, I know.” Fan-Dor grinned. “But you should see the look on your face right now.”
Alex stopped, then burst out laughing as his blush faded. He’d get him back for that.
Shaking off fantasies of amusing, petty revenge, he straightened his back and tried to copy Fan-Dor’s exact stance. He focused on The Mark, and it offered him the best points of his first attempt. He matched it..
Fan-Dor looked him over. “Passable, for a second attempt. Not good. But passable. Right, so next you’ll want the front-step-”
“Uh, captain, is there a back step?” Alex quickly asked. “Can we learn that instead?”
First thing he’d need to learn was how to open distance from an opponent, not approach one.
Fan-Dor raised an eyebrow. “Of course there’s a back step, it’s a dance based on spearmanship. What sort of fighting style doesn’t allow for retreat? The ‘Get-Dead-Quickly-Spear Technique’? But why would you want to learn to retreat first? The approach step is more impressive.”
“Because uh…” Alex thought quickly. “Oh because, when a noble bows to their partner in my country, they step back.”
To demonstrate, he copied the bow he’d seen some of the richer townsfolk use to bow to each other, stepping backward with one foot and clumsily bringing his hand across his chest as he bowed. “I thought if I could combine that with your backward step in the dance, then it’d uh…look more impressive.”
“I like it! Creative thinking there, boy, and using what you’ve already got. Fine, then, back step it is. So, from first position, take your left foot and step back.”
The captain demonstrated, and Alex followed his movement.
“Not like that, you have no balance that way. Point your back foot out a bit to your side.”
Alex shifted his foot.
Alex shifted his foot.”
Alex stopped, knowing that The Mark would be noting this position for later.
“Is this good?” he asked.
“Not yet, now bend your knees. That’s it. Lower…lower…there it is!”
Alex held his position, keeping his knees slightly bent. It was an odd feeling, but he felt like he had more control over his balance. Not complete control—he fought to keep his back straight,
“Better and better. Now use your hips, and make sure you’re lining your spine upright: like it’s the mast of the ship. How’s it feel?”
“Strange,” Alex told the truth. Using his hips to keep himself in position felt odd and used muscles he didn’t know he had. His chest and arms were already sore from the push-ups he’d put his body through. Embarrassingly, he’d only been able to do nine before flopping down on the floor like a gasping fish. Hadn’t Theresa’s brothers done about fifty? Had he remembered that right? He hoped he hadn’t.
He didn’t want to even imagine how many Cedric could pull off.
“Right. Not bad, boy. You’re now in second stance. That’s a fighting stance by the way: on land, it keeps your weight on both feet.”
“Right…and that’s important because you don’t want to lose balance?”
“Losing balance is bad. It makes for all kinds of possibilities for falling over and being murdered.”
Alex thought back to the silence-spider that Brutus—who had been sleeping in Theresa’s room since late afternoon—had thrown over. Once it was off its feet, even they—as inexperienced as they were—were able to kill it.
Balance. Keeping balance then. Dodging around only to land on your ass would be a disaster.
“And, for a dance, losing balance means looking stupid and defenceless. And speaking of defences: first guard.”
Alex gulped. Things were sliding closer and closer to combat.
“So first guard’s simple.” Fan-Dor brought up his spear in both hands on a diagonal. “You just do this.”
Alex looked at his mop.
He was just holding up a mop. He was just holding up a mop. Hear that, Fool? He was just holding up a mop as a part of a dance. Nothing else.
Slowly, he copied Fan-Dor’s motion.
And breathed a sigh of relief when The Mark didn’t react.
“A little clumsy looking, but not the worst.” Fan-Dor wiggled his spear a little bit. “Bring up the butt of the mop just a liiittle more. ...that’s the way.” The Captain grinned.
Alex grinned back. ‘Alright, so it doesn’t seem to mind me holding up a mop, even if it’s similar to a guard with a weapon.’
There were lots of actions with different objects that might appear similar to combat, such as swinging an axe to chop wood, or cutting meat with a knife. Or lifting up a mop in front of yourself. If The Fool blocked every action that was similar to fighting, then he’d never be able to live life.
Maybe that was the reason why he could use his forceball to slam into objects and walls, but it interfered when he aimed at living creatures or the things they held. Would it only interfere if the situation he was in was direct combat? He frowned: later he would need to try and test its limits.
“Why frowning so hard, boy?” The Captain cocked his head. “No need to push yourself, you’re doing well for a first attempt. Right, let’s go again.”
Time after time, the captain guided him from the first position, through to the first step, the second position and then the first guard. Using The Fool, Alex kept part of his attention on the captain, while noting the detailed memories of what he’d done right in each attempt and letting them guide him.
It was as though he had two teachers with him the entire way. With each repetition he improved slightly. Only slightly: Alex Roth was known for many things, but his dance prowess was not one of them. He had little previous experience to draw from and his height made it more difficult for him to keep proper balance.
Still, Fan-Dor grew more impressed as the early night wore on. “Well, now I think that’s enough for both of us. And I have to say, you’re a quick study. I wouldn’t say you’re a natural, but you’re a lot better than you were when we started.”
“I guess it’s thanks to all your great teaching, Captain.”
“Oh save it for your lady friend, you’re not going to get free passage from me no matter what you say.”
Alex shrugged lightly. “Ah, well there goes my clever plan. Is it too late to warn you that I’m out of money?”
“Better now than tomorrow night. Now I can drop you back on the dock. Tomorrow, I’d be tossing you overboard halfway to Generasi.”
Alex paused. “You wouldn’t really do that, would you?”
“Hey, half the pay means half the trip.” The captain grinned wickedly. “Am I joking? Am I not? Count yourself lucky you don’t have to find out. Now, come on. We both need to catch our rest. Oh, and keep the mop with you. I won’t be able to teach you again, but feel free to come out here and practice tomorrow night.”
As Captain Fan-Dor and Alex trudged back toward the stairs below deck, Alex paused, looking over the ship one more time.
An odd feeling crawled over his skin and—for a moment—he was sure he was being watched. He shook away the feeling. Port was close by and any number of folk could have been looking at the ship. He’d be spending the next part of his foreseeable future investigating possible ancient conspiracies and studying remains of a dungeon core.
Plenty of real monsters to worry about.
No need to conjure imagined ones.
It was with this thought that he made his way below deck, ready to sleep and trying to push that creepy feeling from his mind.
Alex was awakened later in the dead of night by Selina pounding on him with her little fists, complaining that he’d pushed her off the bed in his sleep.
He wasn’t sure if the Spear-and-Oar Dance had pleased Ek-u-Dari, but the sea goddess seemed to have smiled upon them the next day. The sun was high, the air pleasant and a gentle wind filled the sails to push them south toward Generasi.
The Prinean sea was calm and seemed to glow a beautiful greenish-blue in the sunlight. The air was warmer than most summer days in Alric, and the scent of sea salt gave the air an inviting odour.
The only thundercloud on the horizon was Selina herself, who woke up cranky and refused to talk to him. Fortunately, depositing her beside Captain Fan-Dor seemed to clear up her mood quickly, and soon the hulking Selachar was eagerly answering the little girl’s endless questions as he stood at the wheel, guiding The Red Siren.
Brutus lazily dozed on the deck, letting the sun warm his body.
Alex leaned against the rail at the bow, watching the waters ahead while keeping his ears open to the many languages spoken by the crew. He was also trying desperately to ignore the muscles screaming all over his body. Maybe forcing himself through another set of push-ups that morning hadn’t been the smartest thing to do.
Theresa leaned over the rail beside him, sighing contentedly as the sea breeze rustled her ponytail.
“Enjoying yourself?” he asked.
“Like you wouldn’t believe.” She idly traced a finger on the rail while peering into the horizon. “It’s like finding something you never knew you needed. It’s wonderful. Just all this water and the wide world around you.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty great, isn’t it?”
They fell into a contented silence, though he did notice Theresa give him a strange, sidelong look. She had been for much of the morning.
Then, that odd feeling from the night before crawled over his skin.
It felt like they were being watched.
Turning, he saw the skinny Rhinean man seated on a barrel behind them, stuffing himself with salt pork and biscuits. It was his second meal and it wasn’t even noon yet. The lean man watched the two young people with intensity, but quickly looked away as Alex met his gaze.
Was he looking at Theresa?
An odd rush of jealousy sprang up in Alex. He shook it away.
Turning back to the sea, he hoped the man would stop staring at them. He wouldn’t want that to continue for the rest of their trip.