The white robed forms were still far away, and were a fair distance from Fan-Dor’s ship, but still a little too close for comfort. Then an alarming thought hit him. Would Fan-Dor’s be one of the ships ferrying the priests away from Generasi?
Alex glanced around the dock.
He only noticed priests by the one ship.
Good. Unless some were hiding out on Fan-Dor’s ship, then it looked like they were all congregated in front of one vessel.
Theresa had followed Alex’s gaze and had gone stiff and silent. Selina was starting to look in that direction.
“Hey Selina,” Alex said quickly. “Look at the lighthouse.” He pointed to the massive lighthouse rising far above the rest of the port, its top glowing with permanent magical light. “How old do you think it is?”
“Oh wow, it looks super old,” she said, immediately hyper-focused on the interesting piece of architecture.
Alex continued with the gondolier’s conversation. “So yeah, what about that sky-pier, Kirk?”
“Oh, well it’s a pretty complicated issue,” the gondolier said as he poled them closer to the docks. “The port is very old—one of the first places built in all of Generasi—and there isn’t much room for a lot of new construction down here, especially for something that needs the amount of clearance a sky-pier does. Bluebird Sky-Gondolas has tried to get a permit to buy a part of the land, tear down a couple of the older buildings, and build a sky-pier, but we’ve been blocked by zoning paperwork.”
“That’s very interesting,” Alex said, pointing to an open area before the buildings. “You can put us down there. So, who’s blocking you?”
“Right you are.” Kirk poled them down toward the clear area between the gates of Generasi and the port. “Generasi Sky-Gondolas. They have a lot of sway and so we end up struggling with them instead of just being able to build the sky-pier.”
“What about all this space between the town gates and the port?”
The man’s dead eyes seemed to grow a bit dimmer even as his smile remained the same. “That’s where the Committee for the Beautification of Generasi comes in. They insist this area stays clear, and so it stays clear.”
They started to land when an idea suddenly occurred to Alex.
He’d been thinking they might need to slink around to avoid the priests, but there might be a simpler way. “Could you land us on a ship?”
“Why yes, as long as you have the captain’s permission.”
“Oh,” Alex said. “I think he’ll be fine with it.”
“Pirates! Get your swords, we’re being boarded!” Fan-Dor roared as the sky-gondola floated down toward the deck of The Red Siren. “I want their heads mounted on the prow!”
Their sky-gondolier’s smile dropped and he screamed while Alex and Theresa scrambled to the side of the gondola. Selina started to panic while Brutus saw all the excitement and began howling.
“No waitwaitwait!” Alex shouted.
“It’s us, Captain!” Theresa cried. “Theresa, Alex, Selina and Brutus! We were the ones with the cerberus in the summer! It’s us! It’s u-”
She paused, noticing that Captain Fan-Dor was roaring with laughter so hard that he was bent over the railing, pounding it with one of his meaty fists. For a brief moment—as his heart’s racing calmed—Alex imagined using his forceball to sink The Red Siren.
They landed with no other incident, though their gondolier was obviously relieved when Alex told him not to wait for them.
“Good, now you’ve scared them half to death,” Gel-Dor said sarcastically as he stepped toward them from across the deck.
“It was a good joke!” Fan-Dor protested.
Brutus gave him a low growl from all three heads, seeming to sense Theresa’s earlier distress. The captain took a big step away from the cerberus.
“Jokes are only good when the people that are supposed to enjoy them aren’t dead from fright, brother.”
“Oh bah, you’re about as fun as a shark bite.” Fan-Dor waved him off dismissively, before turning to Alex. “How areyou all-Whoa! Well look at you…” He glanced between Alex and Selina. “Well, well, well look how you two have grown.”
He stepped up to the small girl, and held up a hand just in front of her forehead. “When you first boarded The Siren, you were this high.” He wiggled his hand back and forth. “And now look at you.”
“I grew a whole inch!” Selina said proudly, standing her tallest.
“A whole inch! Well, well, well, we’ll have a giant on our hands before we know it!” Fan-Dor laughed.
For a brief instant, Alex’s mind returned to his plan of feeding Selina body enhancement potions until she had grown into a giant. He shook the mad thought away as the captain approached him, looking him up and down. “Well, well, lookit you. When I last saw you, you were as skinny as a broomstick, now what do I see? You got the beginnings of a sailor’s build, young Alex.”
Alex grinned, rolled up the sleeve of his left arm—not the side bearing The Mark—and flexed, drawing an eye roll from Selina and a whistle from Fan-Dor. He’d put on even more muscle in the past couple of weeks and it was burning through what little fat he used to carry.
His eyes flicked over to Theresa, to find her quickly turning her head away.
A blush was creeping up her cheeks.
Alex felt a little flutter of pride.
“I thought you were going to a wizard school,” Gel-Dor said, cocking his head.
“Hey a guy’s gotta have hobbies,” Alex shrugged.
“Right.” Fan-Dor glanced at Theresa. “And how have you been?”
“Fantastic,” she said. “I kind of love this city, I’m not going to lie. How have you all been?”
“Aaah, I can’t complain, can’t complain,” Fan-Dor said. “Your little reward helped us out quite a bit, Alex.”
“Oh?” Alex asked.
“Yeah, business got a bit bad there for a while when it got out that we had another mana vampire stow aboard, but the gold from the reward kept us afloat…literally. We took on cargo for a time and went to some other ports. Less reputation at first, but I know how to build one quick. Got some good contracts for a bit…then came the pirates.”
“What? Pirates?” Selina blinked.
“Oh yeah. Seems like a bunch of ships had started making their way to your homeland when news of that big monster of yours got out: captains looking to make a killing ferrying desperate people, and pirate captains looking to make a killing out of gutting those ferries.” He waved his hand. “There was some kind of business with some kind of…portal cave? I think? That sound familiar to you?”
“Oh yes,” Theresa said, and Alex fought to keep a straight face.
“Anyway, so there was some business with that which meant no desperate passengers for ferries real fast, and only the ships that got there first got to make anything. So, the captains were left without much to do, and they were all in the same place. A hungry crew can make a captain make some hard decisions.”
He frowned. “So the pirates started attacking them at the same time as they turned on each other, looking for some kind of profit.”
“Oh, jeez,” Alex muttered.
“And then the pirates started spreading out, hitting other ships in other waters. That’s when the Rhinean Empire and the Kingdom of Guadiana put up bounties. We took advantage of that and hunted a couple of pirate ships.”
“Were-were any of you hurt?” Selina asked, wide-eyed.
“You can’t go into a scrap without expecting a bruise,” Gel-Dor said darkly.
Alex glanced around. Some of the crew members were unfamiliar to him, and some of the ones from when they’d ferried on The Red Siren were missing.
“Well, we made a tidy profit on the bounties and on selling the ships,” Fan-Dor laughed, and Alex noticed that he and the crew were dressed far better than they had been the last time they’d met. “And now we’re back. Already have a contract or two. The folks around here’ll warm to us again, just like the sea warms when Ek-u-Dari shines the sun over it. So, that’s what we’ve been up to. Now, come join us for some lunch, and then I think I owe you another dance lesson.”
“Looking forward to it,” Alex said, glancing at the priests down the pier. “Do you uh, have any other passengers, captain? Will they be having lunch with us?”
“Got a couple to be ferried, but none are boarding until tonight.
“I see,” Alex said neutrally. He glanced again at the priests. It looked like their ship was raising anchor and would be leaving soon. Good. That meant they wouldn’t be coming close enough to sense him.
He would keep an eye out just in case, though.
“What?” Fan-Dor blinked a few times. “All the steps?”
“And every position and stance,” Alex said, giving the oar Captain Fan-Dor had handed him a twirl as he brought it up into first guard. “We can go into detail with whatever next parts of the dance you want to teach me, but I want to trythem all.”
The selachar scratched his chin. “Not sure if that’s the most useful idea in the world, Alex. A lot of this stuff’s really advanced—only taught after years of practice and some of the steps even I’mnot great at.”
“I still want to try them,” Alex said enthusiastically. “Think of it like a preview for later, plus if I know where I’m heading to eventually, it’ll help me with what I have to learn now.”
Fan-Dor frowned. “Well, that doesn’t make too much sense to me, but no harm in showing you everything I know, I guess. You’ll mess up a lot, just to warn you, but no harm in it. But really, we’re going to go through them all quick and then focus on the next steps in the dance: we’ll need time and practice with those if you’ll have any hope of getting them right on your own. Then we can save the next steps for another time.”
“Hey, that makes sense: repetition is the mother of learning, after all,” Alex said. “Just think of it as showing me everything and satisfying my curiosity before we get to the real learning.”
In truth, Alex was far more interested in Fan-Dor teaching him the beginnings of every movement in the dance than he was in the detailed lesson the captain planned for. The Mark couldn’t conjure knowledge from nothing, nor could it simply transfer skills into his head directly, but it could point out the successful parts of anything he tried.
That meant that as long as he tried every step in the dance at least once, then The Mark would have something to build on when it came time to repeat it. The successes would build upon each other, and he would learn the skill—even without a teacher right there to help him. Of course, also having a teacher to guide him would be extra helpful and help him progress faster, but he couldn’t rely on Fan-Dor always being in port to help him with every step of the dance.
By trying each move once, he could have The Mark guide him through the entirety of the dance. Then, whenever Fan-Dor returned, he’d be a lot farther along.
“Alright, you been practicing? Show me how you’re doing with what I’ve already taught you,” Fan-Dor said, raising his oar into the air.
Alex lifted his oar too: his increased strength and practice had made Fan-Dor agree to ‘graduating’ him from a simple mop. He fell into the first stance then passed through the first step, the second stance and the first guard of the dance with practiced grace.
Fan-Dor gaped. “What th…do that again!”
Again Alex demonstrated the parts of the dance he’d been taught, moving like water through each movement.
“Well, well!” Fan-Dor laughed. “Well, snap my mast, you’re a damned natural! By Ek-u-Dari, just how much did you practice? You look like you’ve been doing those steps for years.”
“Enough. I practiced a lot.” Alex said.
“Now I see why you wanted demonstrations of the whole thing! You’re going to be incredible at this when you’re ready to make your move on you know who!” He laughed and winked, as Alex turned red.
With that, Fan-Dor jumped into demonstrating the other three stances, four positions of the feet, and four guards, letting him try each one. Alex couldn’t help but smile as they went through each movement: the more advanced ones were more difficult for him, but he was doing a lot better with them than he had when he’d first started learning the Spear-and-Oar Dance months earlier.
The basic foundation he’d built would help him quickly learn the rest.
After that, Fan-Dor had excitedly called his brother over. “You gotta see this!” he said.
The commotion brought over the rest of the crew, as well as Selina, Theresa and Brutus. All watched as Alex demonstrated the parts of the dance he’d just learned, with growing skill.
“You just taught him that?” Gel-Dor whistled in surprise. “Well let’s get to the flourishes and basic jumps then! This young man’s hungry, let’s feed him up!”
Alex laughed as they enthusiastically started to teach him the more advanced movements. They almost seemed to be competing with one another as to who could teach the steps the best and quickest.
He absorbed all of it like a sponge, though the flourishes and jumps were a fair bit harder. Thankfully—due to his practice on the obstacle course in the gymnasium—even these weren’t too difficult.
He’d come a long way from the stumbling, skinny young man who’d first tried to learn the dance.
A surprise came when Theresa suddenly grabbed an oar. “Think you can teach two at the same time?” she asked.
The selachar twins only grinned and waved her over.