This cover was illustrated by the author.
The islands stretched on across the horizon, green mountains in equal beauty with the vast pink sunset they obscured. I lie with my legs out, foot-paws swaying to and fro with the waves of the incoming tide. I scrunched and extended my toes a hundred times trying to make them fit perfectly with the distant mountain silhouettes.
But mouse toes aren’t shaped like mountains. It was futile.
Then a mountain rose from the water. Blackness engulfed my tanning area. A hunk of kelp splashed at my feet. The blackness stepped away. The kelp which draped my feet matched the mountains, now.
I smiled. What a lovely, useless, moment.
The behemoth who strode onto the beach resembled some mix of a humanoid and cetacean. The large, grey skinned female blew water from her blowhole. Her face was draped in the black shadows of the sun behind her.
“Ratman,” she said.
“Gudra,” I said.
I moved. The fifteen-meter tall titan trudged ashore, sand quaking with every step she took. The size of a being that large, fully capable of squashing you with a step, cannot be overstated.
Gudra grasped an anchor—which she’d carried ashore with her—from the sand, and then pulled with one arm, sidestepping up the beach until she reached the jungle.
What was she carrying, you wonder?
Well, at the end of that anchor was a sailing vessel. A very large, very heavy, very militarized sailing vessel. The Beaching Rite was performed by particularly strong members of Gudra’s maternal clan. Gudra was particularly strong, and by being a member of this clan, claimed the right to perform the rite. She was the Shipwright for the island of Auktomo.
Gudra hauled the entire vessel ashore, whose tar-finished haul parted the sand with greater difficulty than the sea. The crew would have taken the longboats towards the city. They were not permitted to watch Gudra’s work, or so I was told.
As the sun crested over the horizon, descending behind the beached ship and draping me in shade, Gudra went to work. For ships the size of typical humanoids, this was like building a dollhouse for her. She’d informed me that, “My people gave your little folk their first ones, eh? We grabbed the trees from the shoreline and hollowed ‘em out with our fingernails. Scrape by scrape the first Shipwright called Madarun polished her nails with the wood, and the scraps she left behind piled up. A week later she rose from the water where she did her hunting and found the little people floating in the scraps! And so the rite passed through her daughters and their daughters, and Shipwrights lived in these islands a hundred centuries giving you small folk sails for the sea.”
I nodded along to her stories for a few days. This was sometime after our duel with Vispar. I met Gudra while lying out on the beach enjoying fruit. Porbiyo had taken a very large predator from his book, jumped into the sea, and went hunting for hunters. I’d tried to stop him, and even surfed on my board for awhile, but he disappeared. Now he was out there, on the seas, hurting people, and I had no way of finding him.
I grabbed my rajami board from my Boundless Bag and ran into the water. Perhaps, if I could practice enough, I’d become proficient to the level of actually using this thing. With sorcery I could propel my way through the water.
Then, maybe, I could stop Porbiyo from killing those people.
I crashed into the water a few times. The board glowed in green runes and always soared across the water back to me. Guilt still permeated any thankfulness for the board. This was a holy board to the rajami people and now it was stuck with me. At least using it could honor them. So I surfed in the crashing tides as much as I could, thinking of Porbiyo, and our travels, and all the lives we’d interrupted for better or worse.
Gudra rose from the sea. Water cascaded down her sea-colored skin.
“What do you think of the ‘little folk?’ The whalers and fisherman and such?” I asked the aquatic titan. She had to dip into the sea a few times an hour, especially in midday. As she rose from the sea, grey skin alight with the waning sun, she cracked her nonexistent neck and thundered into the sand on her backside.
An awkward moment arose where I couldn’t be certain she heard me, though her lack of an answer to the first question was sort of an answer to the second. But then, just as I gave up hope, she said, “I find you all very amusing.”
“How so?” I trudged through the white waves and into the wet sand.
“You change things.”
Gudra’s eyes—huge, black, almost lifeless eyes, sat on either side of her head. To work on ships, she had to turn her head to either side, as she had no forward vision for anything so close to her face. She’d rotate which eye was staring every few minutes like clockwork. Her eyes stared to me, left then right, and she blinked in a gesture quite questioning, before questioning, “You cannot tell this about yourselves?”
“I am curious about what you can tell.”
The giant giggled. Her laughter, resonant and bellowing, shook the sands upon which she sat. I left my board in the sand and marched through the sticky dry sand towards her. My feet and fur were consumed by the coarse grains.
“We are large and yet flow with the waves. You are small and yet you try to stop the tides. We understand we are part of the larger world. You tiny creatures only wish to establish your size, your place, your significance.” She ran her fingers along the underside of the ship, using thick saliva turned black in the sun to smooth over the worn-out tar. “You are so weak in the water that you took the scraps of our making and turned them into vessels to conquer the waves. Look at your tiny boat—one board—that you ride. You rely on it. And you pay my people to repair ships of greater size. So interesting.”
“You change the world around you.”
“You find smaller mortals amusing, in a derogatory way, yet you change the world around you in the same way.” I tried to dust away the sand. I’d have to wait until my fur and skin dried, though. My tail dragged behind, carving streaks in the hot sediment. “Each step you take disturbs the world around you.” In her footprints, crabs, and mollusks, and a handful of sea snakes all moved towards the water. Her footprints were so deep they disturbed the soaked sand below the beach surface. “You build ships for those smaller. When you walk through the forest you crush countless lives without realizing you did. Insects, mammals, burrows, and nests. All gone.”
She shook her head.
“They teach humility to those who cannot see the stars.”
“I see the stars every night.”
I smiled, “You see the lights. Not the stars.”
“Your people see the stars?”
“In a way.”
“Sounds like a rite of passage.” She lifted the front haul of the ship—effortless and casual—and checked the underside. “To my people, rites to earn the right comes from deep dives.”
“Our rites are more. . . complicated,” I thought of every blip, and how with each new world came more old memories, and how there was never truly a moment which broke me, but only the accumulation. No real rite of passage into Agglomeration, only a descent into the insanity of my situation. And then I thought to the trials of my mousehood back in the Orchards, and how simple those days were, and how complicated the thousand lives I’d lived since had been.
I dwelled the simplicity of cultural tradition imparting place as opposed to accepting one’s place. “You said you dive deep?”
She nodded, “Yes, deep down offshore the land breaks and falls, and falls, and falls, and gets swallowed into black water so thick and lifeless it seems like a void. But it’s not lifeless. It’s only that you can’t see all the life staring back at you. And those of us who wish to be Shipwrights have to scour the bottom of the bottomless sea until we find the remnants of what used to soar through storms upon the white waves. We drag the wreck through the dark, and the seafoam, and the sand, and then we give it new life.”
I smiled, imagining Gudra hauling up some ancient wreck from the depths. “Fascinating.”
“Your friend—the one with his animals—he is out killing on the seas.” Gudra took a collection of enormous tools from a toolbox as large as a shipping container. She groaned, running her fins across the rusty scrapers and files. “Damn tools.”
“Yes,” I spoke of Porb.
“You do not stop him?”
“I am trying to find him. He’s. . . elusive when he wants to be.”
“You did not stop him before he left? Why?” She grunted as she took her tools and tried to scrape the bottom of the ship, peeling the old tar and preparing a new batch of her saliva to reseal. The tools were dull and chipped the haul rather than giving a fine, smooth peel.
“I tried to stop him. But he, no matter his arrogance, is stronger than I am. We all have our beliefs. My kind? We become consumed by our internal understandings. . . by the bits of wisdom over time.” I grinned, a bereaving smile coated in the joy of revelation, “We’ve all lost so much that we hold onto ourselves tighter than anything else possibly could. Our meaning gives us power. So, I will say that seeing the stars is our rite. When we accept that we will grow beyond the stars in the heavens, and must accept our actions as righteous in a universe free of all arbitration. Because the Garden—the universe, the multiverse—does not judge. It only accepts. And for us, we must do the same.”
Gudra stopped working on her boat. She eyed me with her enormous cetacean eyes. “. . . these are not the thoughts of small folk. Or big folk. You sound like the scriptures of gods long and away.”
“I’m sorry, habit.”
“You contradicted yourself, I think. You say you could not stop him. Then you spill philosophy about acceptance and judgement. Why say such things if the blame is on your ability?”
I thought of how many people Porbiyo killed, or let die, or downright tortured to save his animals, and I wondered how strange it was that I didn’t think of it more. I’d fought him over it a thousand times. We’d dueled almost every time we met. But ever since That Time, and the incident with the Genesar, I’d shoved away the thoughts of what he did to keep to his ideals. I buried the truth of his Agglomeration behind our friendship and shared experience.
I’d become, not completely, but only a sliver, complacent. A sliver of complacency can destroy a world’s worth of effort. Especially in friendship. Especially in love.
Threshold only tortured torturers. My admiration for that woman grew each time we met. She was merciless in her judgement—to a degree I could never be—but she held to those ideals. She was never wrong, either. But Porbiyo? He slaughtered without remorse. He was part of my little world. The only “family” I had from place to place. I held onto him as a brother. Because of that, I’d held back in my own belief, in my own ideals, to keep him in my life.
I could have stopped him on that beach.
But I let him go. Some part of me let him go.
“Ah,” Gudra stretched her back. “Have I said too much.”
“No. You said exactly what I needed to hear.”
Without a word, she grunted, threw her tools into her box with furious frustration, and dove down into the sea. While she was gone, I climbed aboard the beached vessel and walked through their corridors. I looked through their things, their journals, their chambers. And I found something fascinating.
A little board made of circles surrounded by cards and dice. Several small pieces adorned the table, and some were in a tin can next to a half drunken—now spilled from Gudra’s heaving—bottle of rich island whiskey.
I took one of the pieces in my paws, and ran my flesh across the stained varnish. Old, and weathered, and well played with. Seasoned by countless games played with it by countless hands.
I took a dark carved piece, which reminded me of Gudra’s head and must have been molded after her people, and slipped it into my bag with my Patchwork set of pieces of quilt. Stealing isn’t stealing if it’s from thieves.
It would add to the set nicely.
Then I jumped into the sand off the ship, watched Gudra rise from the waves as she swam in the twilight, and ran to take my board. I surfed to her. Salty air rushed past me. The chill of the soon-setting sun flowed through my fur.
“Little Ratman on the waves!” she exclaimed. “I am impressed.”
“Gudra,” I said, “could you do me a favor?”
“I do not do favors. I make trades.”
“Alright, how about a trade? Could you flap your fins and make me consistent waves so I can practice?”
“Easy! I will also teach you to watch undercurrents, and notice where the reefs changed the breaking of the waves. Sometimes you little ones are so caught up in challenging the currents and waves and storms that you forget to use their power to your advantage.”
I grinned, “Sounds good,” I said, happy she’d help but also happy to have fur free of sand for awhile. “For a trade, how about I give your tools a new coating? It won’t break or rust and rarely needs sharpened. Hard as volcanic rock but strong as steel.”
“How can little Ratman do this?”
“For my people, that is a sacred, secret rite involving birth signs and magic breathing.”
I spent the day learning to surf with a giant whale woman, remembering the cultural traditions of the rajami whose board I guided through the waves. Then, that night, I used stonefire to coat her tools, and polished them up with more sorcery. I slept very well that night.
The next day, I awoke, sickened about Porbiyo. As there were reports of half a dozen vessels sinking in the sea. No crew survived. Those ships would be dragged from the seafloor one day as props in the coronation of Shipwrights on Auktomo. But those souls would be mourned forevermore.
I couldn’t find Porbiyo. I really, truly, tried.
When the days were done and the top slowed it’s spin, I fell asleep on Gudra’s beach, toes aligned with the mountains without any effort at all—how right that was. When I woke there was no beach, were no mountains, and my toes were tickled by ferns.
My mind swelled with Porbiyo’s actions.
My legs carried me to duel.