Nautilus, Chapter 16

AK13Cover_by_kriegsmaschine-d77011sA taste of what I’ve been writing on.

Barr’da still scared Nautilu, in a cornered animal kind of way. She didn’t act like other women. Didn’t act like other Sanguiner women, even. Like she had a secret, and she was afraid people would take it from her. The former captain spent the next few days rushing about, not stumbling once in her role to keep control of things. Ba’s was released, cleared of curse, and also vowed to follow Barr’da to the ends of the earth for the journey.

Everyone called Barr’da as Trekk: “Trekk” this, and “Trekk” that. The surname seemed strange, and not altogether fitting. Her name was Barr’da, Nautilu thought. But then, legs dangling off the edge of the pier, Revel mask over her face, Nautilu once had another name, too. It was the practice of the Blood to change names, and fill the roles of those names. Some day, eventually, Nautilu would no longer be a castaway, but a member of society. She might even not be a member of this one. She might be Artema again.

Or she would be dead. It wasn’t a sad thought. It just was.

During the day, between the drunken reveling nights, the city slept, and those few doing business or preparing for travel paid her no mind. Barr’da kept her nearby, always within eyesight, as she clicked her tongue over travel lists, food and wine and water, and gear. “One cannot prepare for an indefinite trip!” she once growled.

As well, it wasn’t her trip to prepare. Barr’da’s aggravation grew by bounds. Nautilu even saw her sharpening too-sharp knives on another dock, away from her but close enough to shout if she had to.

A boy with a rolling head watched her from another dock, opposite where Barr’da worked. He’d pick at a braid of fiber rope and talk to himself, and roll his head around and around.

The bay, and the subsequent circular depths they had initially traveled over to get to the city, never seemed to get much traffic. Little boats skirted it. Large boats almost skirted it. She understood why. She daydreamed about what the second tower would look like, all spiraling up into the sky, white stone, like a lighthouse, and the sprawling land beneath it. She then imagined how much space needed to swallow it whole. “The ocean itself lowered an inch when that pit opened,” a drunk man said, beside another drunk man, when they saw her looking at the black. “A fitting reminder, the sea. Lalatu takes. Sometimes, she takes always.”

Barr’da celebrated Revel the second night—Scarring Night, as they called it—though she kept to one single bar for her drink. She drank heavily—her cup never empty for more than a moment—and said little. She didn’t let Nautilu touch a drop, save for the heavily watered wine from time to time, and the leafy green-wrapped aromatic tubers they called cart-tot mixed in a wet, meaty bread. It didn’t leave her hungry. Barr’da woke earlier than anyone, the next day, bleary-eyed and hard-faced. Nautilu knew the face in her father, remembered what he once said: “No time to be tired. Time to prepare for harvest. Time to remind my legs.”

The city pulsed. Like the tide, people moved one direction in the morning, another at midday, another in the evening, and during the celebration, still another throughout the night. Fish stalls were rife with catcalls and caterwauls, though the docks were far enough away from the walls only loudest of shouts rose to her ears. She liked the water. She loved the bay, except for those black depths in the center. She saw another funeral on Scarring Day. Someone died the night before, from a drunken accident, and the muslin-wrapped body fell into the sea with a stone weighing it down at the feet. She imagined the darkness of that ocean. She knew it from her dreams.

The world seemed a huge, untamed place. From her low perch, the world seemed wild. Even the little boy—oddly no longer present—seemed untamed. It scared her: she wanted to be a dancer, to protect herself. She wrote in her dream-journal of daydreams.

“You are a quiet young lady,” Ba’s said to her the second day, all smiles shifting his blue tattoo of a fish jawline over his own. He was smaller than the rest, though still strangely tall, fingers nimble. “The quietest I’ve seen in a long time. Mind if I share your dock?”

None of Barr’da’s siblings talked to her. She felt a burden. She nodded, then continued looking out over the bay. She felt she had to say something to him. “I’m Nautilu.” He smiled, skin crinkling around his eyes. “How is your recovery?”

“It goes well! I do not enjoy extra holes in my rib-spaces.”

She nodded. She didn’t figure many enjoyed those holes. “And the curse?”

“Never was one, I suspect.” He winked, face crinkling about his eyes again. “But we humor the healers and give them respect. I would have died, if that’s what you’re asking, if we stayed behind. Passed on to the near sleep.” He coughed. “Funny, that, with all this planning to go to the Deeps, all this preparation, all this time, and all we really needed was for me to die and ask where I traveled.” He laughed again. “Myself or anyone like me.” He pointed to the oceanic pit. “Ask the next one of them to go in our place.”

She looked over the water. She didn’t know what to say. He seemed so nice, so polite and happy. But his words scared her. “What do you do on the ship?” she finally asked.

“Ah. Be the brother of my siblings. Bear the brunt of prayer. Shadow-paint. I’ve missed that, of late. The painting. The meditation. The places I’d go, little one! Oh, you can’t imagine.”

She grew angry at that. “Oh yes! I walk dreams that could run races with your meditations.”

He smiled his crinkly smile, white skin somehow craggy. “No offense intended, little one! We’re embarking on a journey because of your dreams, and the spaces in my chest swell to be a part of this. My sister has a strong belief in you. She has more wisdom than most would think. Daughter of Tu’a and all.”

She didn’t look at him. “But. You’re his son, no?”

He switched to Bectric. “Yes, little one.” His language sounded like honey. His voice smooth, soft, searching. “But as a man, in this place, it is a different thing. We are wise because we must. She is wise despite her ability as a shipmaster. You do not just walk the elders and ask to be captain.” He smiled again. “And I chase wisps. I chase what we call duenda morta, the Beautiful Death. It is a complicated thing you may learn about when you grow older. But I will not tell you today.”

The way he spoke it, the words “duenda morta,” his thin tongue slid around his lips. His eyes looked lost when she looked at them, as if he searched a cupboard in his head for something he misplaced. “For most,” he continued in standard cartusian, “they’d be shamed to have been hit by such a corrosive arrow. And I admit to you, only you, little one, I feel shame. Perhaps that is the curse. Shame. Of all of us from Trekk, I believe three of us can handle such a thing. Tu’a is one. Myself another. The healer third.” For the first time he did not smile when he glanced at her. His eyes said, no. Barr’da is not one of the three. She nodded.

“Those dragons you dreamed of,” Ba’s said, all smiles. “They sound like some of those old Gladerunners. Ever hear of ‘em?”

Rowan told her a little of them: ancient things that came from a religion before Lalatu and the Candlegods and even the Chanis’ Paragons. They worshipped Glade, the summation of all Lorcalon’s creatures, who had the look of an animal with great horns, like a bull: long and thick as tree trunks, protruding from his skull as if he had spent an eternity sparring with rocks. She saw a picture in her history book.

“Yes.”

“Think of ‘em as another part of this great, encompassing belief.”

“They are a part of Lalatu?”

He breathed very deep, pain sliding across his face from the wound, she imagined, then exhaled. “Nautilu,” he then said. “The idea of God isn’t enough. Lalatu isn’t so old. There are many, many older things out there than her messengers. Ancient things. Powerful things. Things that have no name, and hadn’t been tamed before she descended. Glade was benevolent once. He provided the world with shelter, and trees, and food. He balanced the things of the world. Then Lalatu came and subdued it. Lalatu is a great god, far greater than anything else I’ve yet seen, but Glade is a subtle one. When the Godtamer Tamiril imprisoned the messengers in guttr, Glade puffed away to smoke, turning into thousands of birds, worms, insects, animals. Hundreds of thousands. A full legion of daemoth. He was never imprisoned, but instead chose to give himself to the world. But he has never returned, either. Perhaps he likes it this way better than before.” Ba’s stuck his finger in the water, then licked it. “Either way, it is a great time to be alive. Your dragons could be Gladerunners. They could be something more: when they come in fours, little one, be mindful of the Watchtowers.” He talked about the least-talked-about messengers of the thirteen.

“If I were you,” he whispered, “I’d be asking for their names.” His eyes lit up. “And—and—and not the names they give everyone. But their forming names. Their,” his excitement rose, “Their malleations.” A bectric word. “Their.” He tried again. “Origins. What they call themselves when they sleep. I know you know your sleep-name. Or one of them.” Gallows. She nodded. “You should know theirs. Because maybe, you gave it to them.”

            That didn’t make sense whatsoever.

He sucked a deep breath through his nose, this time seeming to enjoy the pain that wracked through his chest. “I will now tell you a secret. A secret everyone knows but nobody talks about.” She leaned in as his shoulder touched hers. “I don’t believe in any of it. Candlegods, Lalatu, death, whatever. If Barr’da opened a giant to the world of Telrid, so be it. When I see it, I will agree and say, ‘That is a giant which possesses great magic.’ But a messenger? No. No need to believe it! Never a need. Daemoth is alive and well within each of us. There is no need for a messenger to plop down on this sod and tear out houses to tell us the way of the gods! We only need ourselves. We are capable of making gods and messengers all the same. You, even! This isn’t something to hide among the Sanguine. If you wanted, little one, you could create your own religion and usurp all the greatness of Lalatu with the greatness of your dragons. I think that’s the point of your dream. Nobody is scared of you because you’re a little girl. They should be.” He rocked a little, like Tu’a did on the dock. “They’re too busy with politics and underhanded punishments—even now! That’s the whole point of this trip, you know. To punish Barr’da’s pride. And they’re sending an Elder with her? I know exactly the one. Daipo. And you know why, right? Yes you do. I see it in your eyes. She was kind to you, so they punish her too.”

He took a long look at the bay. “You are not a slave to those dragons, little one. To the Gladeunners. You are birthing them. I cannot birth them, for I do not care. You can tell others, ‘Oh. I have called to Glade, messenger of Lalatu, and he has heeded my call. He rebels against Lalatu!’ And maybe you have. You can say, ‘I am slave to my dreams, and they are made real through torment and the strange torture of Lalatu.’ And maybe they are. Or, you can say, ‘I own these things. They are mine, and I am them, and they do not fit with your gods.’”

Ba’s stood and brushed himself off. “That was what I came here to tell you. I do not believe in anything but me, you, the immeasurable coiling of truth. So in that, I believe in everything. You should believe in your creations.” He leaned over again. “And whatever you do, believe the Locus that follows us, but understand his truth to be his and not necessarily yours. As we all should.”

She was filled with a terrible intensity. “I don’t understand.”

“It isn’t for you to understand today.”

“Okay. Thank you.”

“The worse this world gets, little one, the more you must love yourself. There is no other answer.”

“Okay.”

She instantly wanted to talk to Rowan. The real Rowan. The Rowan before she died. Her mentor. She also wanted to be far away from this man and, simultaneously, follow him.

“And Nautilu?” he said over his narrow shoulder. “Keep the secret.”

She nodded.

Ba’s passed the boy as he ran up the wharf, stopping in the shadow of a low-hanging tree, leaf-shadow over his face and body. He found a rock and sat, and rolled his head. Nautilu watched them both. Ba’s smiled, but not his eye-crinkly smile, and disappeared in a mass of storage buildings.

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