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Chapter Nine of Mermaid Steel

April 24, 2014 Leave a comment

“Well, now I see why you come home smelling of smoke.” Chielle was startled by her mother’s voice. Gonnakaa Mmava walked into the shack’s bedroom waving her hand in front of her face. Thymon followed meekly behind her.

“Mama I’m so glad you’re here.”

“This is quite the secret you’ve kept.”

Chielle got up from Sten’s bedside and let her mother step up to examine him. “I’m sorry Mama, I didn’t want to tell you until I knew for sure if…”

“If you really love him? Do you know now?”

“Yes, I do.”

Her mother looked at her and sighed. “You’ve carved out a hard life for yourself.”

“I know, Mama.”

Gonnakaa looked over his unconscious form. “He’s so beat up.”

“He got into a fight. Defending me.”

“Really? It looks like he fought the whole village.” She picked up his arm and prodded the sting.

Seeing her mother out of water and next to Sten, she was taken with how petite and old she looked, despite how beautiful she was in her long yellow tunic. This struck her as odd, since her mom was such a source of strength in her life.

“Humans usually don’t pass out from Lionfish venom. The sting surely hurts them a lot. He must be allergic. I have a mud that will help with the venom. He’s going to have to recover from the shock on his own. I hope he’s strong.”

“He’s very strong,” Chielle said a little too quickly.

“Thymon, give me my bag,” she directed. “This mud should be mixed up with hot water and smeared all over his arm.”

Chielle walked from the bedroom into the shop front half of the shack. She grabbed the tea pot off the grill and stepped over to the rainwater barrel. She caught her mother watching her through the door as she filled it and set it back on the hearth. She turned the bellows crank and brought the coals up to glowing.

Her mother didn’t say anything. Her knowing look said it all.

“Yes, I know my way around this shop.”

“Does he live here alone?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know if he has always lived alone?”

Thymon spoke up. “He told me he used to have a sister, but he didn’t say how long ago that was.”

“What’s your point, Mama?”

“Humans often don’t stay with their families. They like to strike out on their own. If he has been living alone for a long time, then maybe that’s because he likes living alone.”

“Mama, I’m not planning on settling down with him. Yes, I love him, but we’re only dating.”

“I’m just looking out for my girl. How long have you been dating him?”

Chielle had to think about that one. “Coming up on four weeks.”

Gonnakaa turned to Thymon who was standing idly by. “That goes back before you and your crew started making iron spears. Let me guess. Sten showed her how to craft iron, she showed you, and you went and armed yourselves.” She rolled her eyes. “My enterprising children. Oh, but at your trial you didn’t say anything about Chielle.”

“She didn’t know I was going to make weapons. In fact, she was really upset with us when we showed her. So I did not mention her.”

Their mother turned back to Chielle. “I hope you realize if it comes out that Sten here was the source of the knowledge that led to those weapons, the Shaman will probably forbid you from seeing him again.”

“That’s not fair. He showed me so I could make tools. I showed Thymon so he could make tools.”

“I didn’t say it was fair. I said it was likely.”

The kettle began to whistle and Chielle pulled it off the grill. She grabbed a bowl and came back into the bedroom. Her mother scooped out a handful of the mud from its jar and Chielle dribbled in hot water. Gonnakaa mixed it in and applied a handful across the length of Sten’s injured forearm. “The heat breaks it down,” she explained, “while the mud draws it out.”

Thymon said, “We’ve got company.”

Chielle had been so focused on what her mother was doing, she hadn’t heard anyone approaching. She started to walk to the front, and met Jacio in the doorway.

He looked from her to her brother and to her mother, suspicion and dread growing by the second. “Chielle, what’s going on?”

She shifted to English. “Jacio, it’s okay, this is my brother and my mom. I called them here to help Sten with his injuries.”

A woman with gray streaks in her curly dark hair stepped up behind Jacio and said, “My son came and got me for the same purpose.”

Chielle heard her mother let out a tight chirp of shocked surprise. The woman spotted Gonnakaa and she too looked shocked.

“Do you two know each other?”

They both ignored Chielle and neither of them said anything for a very tense moment. “Gonnakka, it’s been a very long time.”

“Patry, it certainly has.

Chielle lit up when she recognized the name. “Oh, Mama, you told me this story. You two used to be best friends when you were teenagers. Now you’re Mrs. Bilboa, Jacio’s mother. How delightful.”

Then Chielle noticed neither of them were smiling, In fact, neither of them had moved. Watching the two of them stare each other down, Chielle feared they would stop helping Sten. She was about to say something when Patry turned to Chielle.

“My son tells me you and our blacksmith are having an affair.”

“Yes. Sten is very dear to me, which is why I sent for my mother to come help.”

“He’s important to us too,” she commented coolly as she stepped over to his bed. Chielle noticed a rustling sound from under the woman’s full, black skirt as she walked. “Oh gracious. I heard about the fight. He’s worse than I thought.” Without looking up to make eye contact, she asked Gonnakaa, “What’s wrong with his arm?”

“He was also stung by a lionfish. He had a bad reaction and passed out. The hot mud will break down the venom and keep it from spreading and doing any more damage.”

Patry untied his shirt and examined his torso which was almost entirely covered in red and purple bruises. “He hasn’t seen a doctor. These wounds haven’t been treated.”

“No,” Jacio confirmed. “He came straight here from jail. I changed his shirt this morning when he got back. It was covered in blood.”

“Jail?” Chielle asked.

“Yeah. He and Captain Boole were arrested and held overnight.”

Patry felt his body and face with her pink hands. “He’s got two broken ribs, but I think all the rest of his bones are intact. Did any of you see if he was vomiting blood?”

“He threw up some food after the fish poison,” Thymon said. “But it didn’t look like blood.”

Party shook her head down at Sten. “You are one tough customer. I want to bandage these cracked ribs so they can heal straight and not puncture anything in the meantime.”

Gonnakaa, who had been quietly standing by, spoke up. “If he’s in shock from the venom, shouldn’t we keep him warm?”

“I don’t think warm will be a problem.” She grabbed the bottom edge of her corset through her white blouse and straightened it gruffly. “It’s just another hot, humid day in our tropical paradise. Some of us don’t get to run around in our swim suits. I think he’ll be plenty warm.”

It pained Chielle to watch her mother force herself to not react to the slight. “Can we do anything about the swelling on his face?”

Patry met Chielle’s gaze. “If you have some way to apply cold. Cold will take down the swelling.”

“Will cold meat work?”

“Sure.”

Chielle caught her brother’s attention. “Thymon? Get us some fish? A couple of fat perch should do.”

He perked up at the chance to do something. “No problem,” he said as he slipped out the door.

Chielle found a large empty cloth sack. “Will this fabric work for bandages for his ribs?”

“Yes, that will do fine.”

Chielle took out her knife and started cutting the sack into strips.

Patry lowered her voice and half turned to Gonnakaa. “Is Thymon your son?”

Chielle caught her mother crack a half smile. “Yes, he’s my eldest. I have a middle daughter too, Sooreet.” She waited for a reaction but got none.

Patry started to lift Sten up into a sitting position and take off his shirt.

“Is Jacio your only child?”

“No. His older brother Horel is grown and moved away.”

“Two sons. I bet their father is proud.”

Chielle thought she caught Patry flash the tiniest smile, but then it faded. She brought the strips over and stopped cold when she saw his back was covered in long vertical jagged scars. “Oh, Rorra!”

The two older women followed her horrified gaze and looked around at his back. “Oh my, he’s been flogged,” Patry concluded. “This is ten, twelve, fifteen lashes. Well, he’s been a bad boy. You only get fifteen lashes if you burn somebody’s house down, or kill someone. He came to Saint Rachel about a year ago. I don’t think I have ever heard where he came from.”

Her mother looked up at Chielle. “Has he ever mentioned having a criminal past?”

“No, I had no idea. He never let on at all. I guess that means they don’t hurt him.”

“Scars usually don’t have any feeling,” explained the human. “I’ll have to ask Constable Blaine what he knows.”

“Or we can just ask Sten when he wakes up,” countered Chielle. “Jacio, has he ever talked to you about his past?”

“Only that he apprenticed to be a blacksmith in a town on the far coast.”

“It sounds like he came here to make a fresh start,” Chielle asserted. “We should give him a chance to tell us the whole story.”

Patry and Gonnakaa traded a knowing look. Even though she understood they were patronizing her, Chielle was happy to see the two sharing a motherly moment.

“Okay, sweetheart,” her mom assured. “We’ll let him speak for himself.”

“Thank you.” Chielle noticed she still held the bandages in her hands. “Do we just wrap his whole chest?”

Patry stepped aside and instructed Gonnakaa, “Here, take his arms and hold him up.” She then started wrapping the strips around him, instructing Chielle, “Just keep wrapping them overlapping, snug and smooth.”

Gonnakaa commented, “You’ve done this before.”

“My husband if a ferrier. He is forever getting stepped on or kicked by horses. I’ve learned a lot about patching up men.”

Chielle caught her mother’s eye and saw a flash of daring. “So who did you marry? Would I know him?”

Patry stepped back and let Chielle take over the wrapping. She sighed quietly and turned at last to Gonnakaa. “Yes, you would. I married Wilton.”

“I remember Wilton! How wonderful for you.”

“And you?”

Her mother tilted her head and smiled. “You’re going to laugh. I married Chumbor.”

“No. You hated Chumbor.”

“I know, I did. And then, I didn’t. People grow up and see things differently.”

Patry’s smile faltered and she looked away. “Sometimes.”

“Look, Patry, I see you are trying really hard to stay mad at me. I don’t expect us to go back to being best friends after thirty years just because we ended up in the same room. I just don’t see why you have to still carry hatred for me.”

Patry turned and looked her in the eye. “You never even apologized.”

Chielle could see her mother had played this conversation in her head by how she stayed calm and collected in what was painful just to watch. “How can I apologize for something I did not do? Everyone was so quick to accuse me of stealing that necklace. I knew it was precious to you. I would never want to take something important away from my best friend. You were more important to me than any piece of treasure.”

“You could have said so. You didn’t even come to me to explain.”

“I couldn’t, our parents separated us before we could even discuss it.

“You’re going to blame this on our parents?”

“I’m not blaming anybody. You may have been heartbroken to think your best friend had chosen a trinket over our friendship. Well, I was heartbroken to see how quickly you believed people who didn’t even know me. I can still hear them. ‘Of course she stole it, she is after all a mermaid.’ I was your friend first, regardless of our species.”

Patry looked away. “I don’t know, Gonnakaa. That’s a lot of water under the bridge. I don’t think I can just re-cast you in a different light after all these years of distrust.”

“You said I never apologized. I am sorry. I am sorry anything drove us apart. I am sorry we have grown so far apart for so long. We can’t go back. We’re grown up with children of our own. I am sorry thinking of me still makes you angry. I wish your memories of me made you happy instead.”

Patry thought quietly for a long moment. “So you’re saying what we lost was more valuable than that stupid necklace.”

“Oh, absolutely.”

She looked up at her old friend and took a deep breath. “That’s a big step for me. I’m going to have to think about this.”

“Thank you for trying.”

Chielle wished the woman had looked more hopeful, but she looked confused and sad. “I will try. I’ll stay in touch through your daughter.” She turned and left with Jacio following.

Categories: Mermaid Steel, Writing

Chapter Eight of Mermaid Steel

April 10, 2014 Leave a comment

Today would be a day of rest, Sten decided. He managed to stagger home after Arum released him and Boole. Boole seemed to have finally lost the fighting spirit and went on this way peacefully. Not too many people stared at Sten as he made his way through the streets and down to the wharf. He must have looked a sight. He felt crushed inside and nothing worked without effort. That was enough work for today.

He got home mid-morning and gave Jacio the day off. He deserved it too. Poor Jacio was horrified when he saw Sten. The boy got him out of his blood soaked shirt and into a clean one. Good lad.

He dragged the wind chimes down the ramp with a chair and a wineskin. Now he was set. The chimes were hanging into the water on a rope that he would pull between sips of wine and naps.

He knew he owed Chielle an apology for not being there the night before as he had promised. He hoped she would hear the chimes. He had no other way to reach her. It would be lovely to see her. He started to smile at the thought of her smile, until his face spasmed.

The morning clouds burned off, a gentle warm breeze caressed him, and the sun felt good. This would do just fine, he thought as he drifted off again.

He was awoken by the sound of his wind chimes being laid down on the landing deck. He blinked his eyes open to see a merman sitting on his hunched up tail looking down at Sten. “Are you Sten Holdsmith?”the visitor asked.

Sten lifted himself up from his slouch and sat straight. “Yes, and who are you?”

“I’m Thymon Mmava, Chielle’s brother. What happened to you?”

“I had a disagreement with someone.”

“I’ll say. Chielle said you were kind, not violent.”

“Did she? I didn’t start it.” He paused and chuckled weakly. “I finished it.” Then he considered who he was talking to. “I apologize for my appearance. I would have liked to make a better impression on her family.”

“Well, I’m the only one in her family who knows about you. I heard your chimes and I assumed they were to call my sister, so I thought I’d come meet you myself.”

Sten tried to stand up and his legs did not want to move. He forced himself up, walked over to Thymon and held his hand out in welcome. “Please let me try this again. Welcome to my home.”

The merman sat up straight and shook it while continuing to size him up. Sten took a good look at him too, with his square jaw and his broad shoulders standing out from his long black tunic. Sten had only ever seen Chielle wear shades of tan and gray.

“May I offer you something to drink? I have some excellent red wine here. I can get you a glass.”

“Thank you for the hospitality, but I have never tried wine. I’ve heard that it makes humans act like fools.”

“It can if you drink too much, or if you’re angry when you start drinking. It relaxes us, and makes it easier for us to show how we feel. So if we’re mad or feeling mean, then it comes out more. If you’re feeling happy, then that comes out more too. We also drink it because wine will never make you sick the way tainted water will.”

“So it’s purified water?”

“No, it’s mostly grape juice. But the alcohol in it kills any sickness.”

Thymon did not look convinced. “We don’t drink liquids underwater.”

“I understand. Chielle said it felt odd to drink for pleasure.”

“You fed my sister wine?” he spat, not trying to hide his angered concern.

“No, no. I’ve never given her wine. I gave her a warm, sweet drink called cocoa on a cold night. Cocoa doesn’t change your mood at all like wine.”

“So you have different drinks for different weather?”

“Yes, and different situations. Sitting here being social on a hot day would call for wine or maybe beer.”

“All right, I will accept your offer of this wine. Let no one say I don’t know how to be a good guest.”

Sten was taken by Thymon’s manners. Chielle had said they lived in a tight social order. He hadn’t thought about it in terms of manners. “Shall I get you a glass?”

Thymon looked at how Sten was not moving freely and then glanced up the ramp to his shack. “No, this will be fine.” Sten was glad his guest had figured out how much trouble a glass would have been. Thymon took the wine skin and examined the mouth.

“Just sip from the opening.”

He did so and blinked his enormous merman eyes several times. “It is sour and sweet at the same time. It makes me salivate.” He took another sip. “I can see why you would find this refreshing if you were parched.” He handed the skin back.

“Welcome to the fine human art of wine.”

“It is an art to make this?”

“Yes, the grapes are squeezed and then juice is fermented for just the right length of time to make the alcohol. Then it’s put in bottles and aged for months or even years.”

“Fermented? You mean rotten?”

“It’s a controlled rotting. I think there is yeast involved. People figured out how to make it ages ago.”

“When things rot in the sea, the water carries everything away.”

“Oh, so you wouldn’t be able to capture the alcohol. That’s unfortunate.” Sten took a sip.

“You know I did not come here to talk about making wine.”

“I understand. You wanted to meet this human your sister is spending so much time with.”

“May I ask what your intentions are with Chielle?”

Manners? Mostly. Direct? Absolutely. “I will not lie to you, Thymon. I am falling in love with her. She makes me happy like I have not been happy in years. I want to protect her and care for her. She has shown me just how wrong the folks in Saint Rachel are about the Merrow. That was what my disagreement was about that left me looking like this.”

“You fought for my sister?”

Sten weighed that. “Yes.”

Thymon regarded him for a long moment. “Let me have some more of that wine.”

Sten handed him the skin. Of all the reactions her protective older brother could have had, Sten was happy with that one.

The merman took a big drink and handed it back. “Do you have family here?”

So this was going to be that conversation. “No. I used to have a younger sister, but she’s gone.”

“Oh, so you know how I feel about Chielle?”

“Yes, I was a protective older brother too. Only I…well, she passed away.” Sten took a big drink too.

“I’m sorry.”

“It was a long time ago. To answer your question, no, I don’t have any other family.”

“There is a boy who helps you with your work. Is he related to you?”

“No, he just works for me. That’s funny, Chielle asked the same question. I guess family members work together a lot in your village.”

“Yes, everyone works together.”

“Chielle explained that. I think that’s great. Can I ask you a question?”

“Of course.”

“Were you were part of the group that attacked the fishing boats in Parker’s Meadow?”

“Yes, I was their leader.”

He didn’t sound proud. He just stated the fact. Sten knew he had to tread lightly here. “Our judge punished the man who shot your comrade. The fishermen weren’t supposed to be there according to the treaty. But the man was punished for using too much force. Your men threw spears that could have killed someone. Did your village judges have anything to say about that?”

Thymon rolled off his tail and straightened it out. A large rounded stone was bound to the base of his tail just above the fluke fins.

“Doesn’t that make it really hard to swim?”

“That’s why it’s done. I and my fellows are nearly housebound. We can’t do our jobs, and we are ridiculed whenever we are seen. It took me tiresome hours to get here today.” Thymon took the wine skin back and took another drink.

Sten worked this through in his head. It took a little while with the wine. “Being a part of the working village is really important to you. Being shackled like that cuts you out of that?”

“Yes.”

“Humans value their freedom more than anything, so we hold our criminals captive for long periods. I can see where this is just as bad for you.” He held out his hand for Thymon to give him the wine.

When the merman handed it over, he blinked and shook his head. “Oh, now I’m feeling this relaxation you spoke of. I know this feeling. We get this way to be social too.”

“Really? What do you drink?”

“It’s not a drink.” Thymon fingered through the pockets of the sash belt he wore over one shoulder. “Ah, here it is. I couldn’t remember if I had one with me.” He held up between two webbed fingers a thin pointed object about as long as a finger, with stripes of black and orange down its length. “It’s a quill.”

“From what?” Sten asked as he squinted to see it better.

“It’s from a fish with fins all striped like this. These spines are along its back. They are filled with a venom that keeps predators away.”

“So the predators know to stay away from the stripes?”

“That’s a good general rule in the ocean, that striped or brightly colored things are usually poisonous.”

“So what do you do with this quill? Surely you don’t poison yourself with it.”

“Why, yes. The poison only harms other fish. We’re not fish. We’re mammals like whales and you. The venom only makes us high, like your wine.”

Sten suddenly realized Chielle’s straight-laced older brother was in fact like any other bored, thrill seeking young man. “Let me guess, you get high on this venom with your friends, as opposed to when you are courting a mermaid.”

“That’s true. Would you like to try it?”

Sten very nearly blurted out no, but checked himself. Here was his lady love’s older brother offering to share his own personal stash. Thymon had been game enough to drink his wine despite having heard bad things about it. Mammals, he said, like whales and humans. How bad could it be? Think of the trust it could build with her family. “Sure. How do you do it?”

“It has a point. You just prick your skin and a drop goes in.”

“That’s all it takes?”

“Yeah. It takes a few minutes to take effect, a lot like your wine.” He handed Sten the quill.

Sten looked at the quill, looked at Thymon, then looked back at the quill. He didn’t have much choice now. His heart started pounding faster. He was tough. Of course, he thought he was tough enough to take on Boole head on and look what that got him. “Is my forearm a good place?”

“Yes.”

He unbuttoned his cuff and pushed up his loose white shirt sleeve. He scratched his skin with the point but nothing seemed to come out. He was actually relieved. “I think I did it wrong.”

Thymon stepped over and took it from him. “It’s more of a puncture,” he said as he poked it straight into his arm. “There.”

Sten looked on, trying his hardest to hide his terror and regret at going along with this. “Ow, it’s burning.” He rubbed the spot, but that did not make it feel any better. “Is it supposed to burn?”

Thymon frowned. “No. It doesn’t feel like anything more than a prick.”

“Hey, it’s getting worse. It’s spreading too. Man, it’s getting really painful. I think I’m having a bad reaction. What can I take to stop this? Is there an antidote?”

“Not that I know of. I’m sorry, Sten. I don’t know what to do.”

Sten grabbed his arm at the elbow with his other hand and squeezed to slow the blood flow. I need to find something to keep this in my arm. Here, squeeze my arm like I have it here.”

Thymon did as he was told. Sten undid his belt and wrapped it around his arm and pulled it tight.”

“I am so sorry. I had no idea this would hurt you.”

“I know, it’s not your fault. I should’ve been more careful too. Oh, man! This is really hurting.” He was suddenly lightheaded and nauseous. “Oh no.” He ran to the edge of the deck and vomited into the sea. Dizziness overtook him and he rolled onto his back, looking up at the sky. He couldn’t concentrate to keep the tension on his belt, and he let it slip. He went limp and everything blurred to a fog.

He saw Chielle fly up out of the water and start screaming at her brother in their underwater language of squeals and ratting clicks. The last thing Sten thought before he blacked out was how good their language was at conveying anger.

“How could you be so stupid?! He doesn’t have a blubber layer like us!” Chielle wanted to throttle her brother but was more focused on what to do for poor Sten. ‘Ugh! The both of you stink of wine. Let me guess, you two were drinking and decided to go the next step higher. Reckless, idiot men! Why is he so bruised? Were you two fighting?”

“No, he got in a fight yesterday with someone in town. He was fighting in your defense.”

She shook her head. “More male stupidity.” She whipped her knife out of its shoulder belt. “Here, hold still.” She slashed the ropes that held the weight on Thymon’s tail. “Go get Mama.”

“What? I’ll be branded if I’m seen without the tetherweight.”

“Risk it. We need Mama here now. Drunk or not, you’re fast enough, so get going.”

“What do I tell her?”

She bit back and made a hard decision. “Tell her the truth. The time for secrets is over.”

He paused meaningfully. “Really?”

“Yes, we have to tell her so she can decide what’s best.”

“All right.” He leapt into the sea and was gone.

Chielle felt Sten’s forehead and it was hotter than it should be. She hunched up her tail and grabbed him under the armpits. The last time she grabbed him like this he was underwater and she could move him effortlessly. Now she was saving him again, but he was a whole lot harder to move on land. She pushed as hard as she could and managed to lift his torso up and drag his legs behind him. She had to get him to his shack and into bed with blankets. She pushed again and gained another few feet. Thankfully it was high tide with the landing platform up and the ramp was not steep. Half a dozen more heaving pulls and she had him to the top.

Jacio was walking out the wharf. “Jacio, thank goodness! I need your help getting Sten inside.”

He ran up but hesitated when he saw his boss unconscious. “What happened?”

“He got drunk and fell. He may have accidentally poisoned himself too. I’ve got help coming. Can you help me get him into bed?”

“Sure.” He grabbed one shoulder and Chielle grabbed the other and between them they dragged him into the shack and up into bed.

Chielle turned to thank him , but Jacio ran out and up the wharf without saying a word. She wondered what he was doing, but couldn’t take time to go after him. She pulled the blankets up around Sten and tucked them around him. He checked his breathing and found it steady. He was still way too hot. She laid her head on his chest and prayed. “Rorra, please watch over this good man. Please bring him back to health so I can tell him what a fool he is and how much I love him.”

Categories: Mermaid Steel, Writing

Chapter Seven of Mermaid Steel

Sten’s stomach noisily reminded him that he had been running errands since dawn without eating breakfast. He set down the large bundle of bamboo in front of The Pied Cock and went in for a bite. “Mister Caron!” he called to the bartender. “Have you got any of those pickled eggs behind the bar?”

Paulbert Caron came out of the kitchen wiping his hands on a towel. He had his long, straight black hair pulled into a ponytail which Sten thought made him look neater, cleaner, more suited to be handling food. “I most certainly do. You don’t usually breakfast with us in town, Sten. You up to anything interesting?”

Sten appreciated that Caron had to keep up with all the local news since his pub was the central exchange for gossip among men. He did not appreciate how much Caron seemed to enjoy sticking his nose into everybody’s business. “Not really. I’ve just got a lot of work today and wanted to get an early start. Besides, I really like these eggs.”

The bartender fished two out of the barrel and put them on a plate.

“Better make it three,” Sten requested. “What have you got to drink?”

Caron smiled. “You mean, that goes with pickled eggs and won’t get you drunk at ten in the morning?”

“Yeah, that would be good.”

“You’re actually in luck. Some kids came by yesterday with a fruit cart and I got some pineapples. Let me bust one up for you.”

Sten picked up the first egg and started to take a bite. “Damn, Paulbert. Eggs and juice? I’m gonna have to come into town for breakfast more often.”

When Caron went into the back, Sten looked around and spotted a couple of old sail makers having a rather heated discussion at a table toward the back of the pub. One of them caught Sten looking and called out to him. Sten thought he remembered his name was Finkle. “So who do you think did it?”

“Did what?” Sten called back without getting up from the bar.

“Called in the crown and got poor Roff lashed like a dog.”

“How do you know anybody summoned the High Lord? A gunfight is pretty big news. You don’t think word travelled on its own?”

“Too fast,” Finkle insisted. “Somebody went over Arum Blaine’s head.”

“And behind all our backs,” his tablemate chimed in.

“Would it make any difference if the merfolk punished the young mermen who attacked the fleet for starting the fight? What if their authorities didn’t like resorting to violence either?”

“Damn right they should be punished! About bloody time they acted with some honor. Still, Roff was just defending himself.”

“I doubt they punished anybody,” the other man grumbled.

Sten bit back and sighed quietly to himself. He had considered coming clean once things had settled down. His justice seeking hadn’t improved things at all. This was going to be a long, hard road.

****

Sten and Jacio were sitting on the end of the wharf, watching the sun sink into the west, surrounded by the fruits of their day’s labors. Drilled out bamboo poles, tapped pipe fittings, a crank-powered bellows, and a beaten metal bell fitted with a window were all stacked in a line.

“Sten,” he began cautiously, “I know you said this project was to satisfy your curiosity. I’ve known you for almost a year, and I can say you have a pretty strong curiosity.”

Sten smiled at his apprentice’s careful choice of words. “Thank you.’

“That said, even after working on this all day to make sure it works, this is a really dangerous thing you’re planning. I have to wonder if you would take this kind of risk just out of curiosity.”

“Why else?” he baited.

Jacio took a breath and smirked at him. ‘You’re not going to make this easy for me, so I’ll just come right out and say it. Are you falling in love with Chielle?”

“You know I could just say that’s none of your business. On the other hand, if I die trying this dive, then I guess it will be your business. I’ll level with you. I think so, but I’m still wondering myself. I love being around her. She’s so full of wonder and hope and love for the world. She flirts with me shamelessly. I find myself daydreaming about her.”

“Does it matter that she’s…not human?”

“Ah, now, my young friend, your curiosity is showing. I keep wondering that myself. I mean, seriously, that can’t be overlooked. You’re right, though. It doesn’t seem to matter when I think about her and joy overtakes me.”

“They say love is blind. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been seriously in love.”

Sten punched him in the shoulder. “You’ll get there in due time. I don’t think love is blinding me to her differences. I would never have taken the time to get to know her if I hadn’t been attracted. I actually think love is opening my eyes to see the wonderful person behind the alien form.

****

Sten stepped out of Bom Stickney’s cobbler shop holding the swim flipper boots in a burlap sack. He glanced around the town streets brimming with folks finishing up their afternoon errands, going through his mental list, wondering if he had forgotten anything for his grand adventure. He was distracted enough he didn’t see Corm Neeley standing in his path with his arms folded over his chest.

“Well, if it isn’t the traitor in our midst,” the stone cutter accused.

Sten looked up and saw him for the first time. “Oh, good afternoon to you too, Corm.”

He started to walk around the man, but Corm stepped in his way.

“What is it?” he asked as patiently as he could. “Don’t tell me you’re picking a fight right here in the middle of the street. Shouldn’t we leave that kind of carrying on to the teenagers?”

“I don’t think it’s childish to stand up for what’s right,” he began loudly enough to draw attention. “You’re cozying up with the mermaids while we’re trying to carve out a living. Those thriving fins have even found a way to steal the fish out from under our boats.”

Sten stood up before him and set his shoulders. “The Merrow are not our enemies. They work hard to get by just like us. Nobody has to steal or cheat or attack anybody.”

“Listen to yourself. The ‘Merrow.’ Who the hell calls them that? That’s what they call themselves. You don’t give a damn about us! You’re too busy making friends with them.”

“You know what? I am trying to make friends with them. They have a lot to offer. You want them to stop stealing your scrap iron? Try treating them with a little respect. They were here first.”

By now a crowd of over a dozen men had gathered around at a safe distance. Barging through them and stepping right up was Selric Boole. “I’ll bet one of my best nets it was you who called the High Lord to come whip poor Roff for defending himself.”
S
ten looked down straight into his beady eyes. “I have no sway with the law.”

“Somebody called him,” the wide-shouldered captain spat. “Somebody who cares more for fish than men.”

“You’re just hate mongering,” Sten dismissed him.

Corm chimed in, “Good ol’ Roff took it like a man. Didn’t cry out once.”

Sten turned to him pointedly. “That’s right. He did take it like a man, because he knew what he did was wrong. I spoke with Roff the night he shot that merman. He was completely guilt-stricken. He knew he had to pay, and he did, and now it’s done. He’s clean, and so is his conscience.”

“What a load of shit!” Boole insisted.

“Look, Boole, you talk a lot about what it means to be a man. Do you think Atlan would approve of us subjugating a primitive people?”

Boole stiffened up at the mention of their ideal.

Sten turned to the crowd. “Seriously, Atlan would expect us to do better, to be wiser.”

“Now you’ve crossed the line” Boole growled through gritted teeth as he swung on Sten.

Sten barely veered out of the way, but there were more punches coming. Boole landed a solid hit in Sten’s stomach, but Sten was ready for it. He jabbed back with an elbow across the bridge of Boole’s nose. That only slowed him down for a second before he launched back with both fists flying. Sten responded in kind, toe to toe swinging savagely. Sten was surprised how little a punch in the face hurt. So he hit Boole harder. Still the short sailor kept swinging. Sten lost track of where the punches were coming from or where they were landing. He just stiffened his body under the onslaught and fired back as many as he could land.

Boole wasn’t trying to defend himself either, as both men relied on their sheer toughness and concentrated on full tilted attack.

Sten lost track of time. Maybe it had only been a few seconds, it could have been many minutes. He hurt all over but he still had strength in his arms, so he kept on punching. He did notice the crowd wasn’t stepping in to break up the fight. They were cheering. He wondered if any of them were rooting for him.

He had expected Boole to be strong, but the man’s ferocity was unending. Sten wasn’t sure he would be able to make much difference against so much pent up anger.

Sten knocked him back and Boole charged right back at him. Sten ducked down and flipped him up. His momentum carried him right over and into a stack of barrels. One of them shattered and Boole came up covered in molasses. His enormous beard hung like a muddy bib, which made him even more furious.

Sten decided he needed to end this with some real damage. He took a second and gathered all the strength he had left. Boole landed a couple more punches in the meantime, but that didn’t faze him. The shorter man finally left him an opening and he hauled back and struck him with all his might right in the face. He felt something crack, and it felt good, until he wondered if it had been Boole’s face or his own hand he broke.

Boole went down in a halo spray of brown sticky droplets. Sten looked at his hand and it was covered in blood, his own from loss of skin and Boole’s too. He was aghast to see both his hands were chewed up like this. At least neither of them felt broken.

He swayed and had to steady his step. He tried to look around the crowd but couldn’t focus. He couldn’t really form much thought either. He noticed for the first time that his face felt huge and stiff.

He did make out Arum Blaine pushing his way through the crowd and grabbing him by the shoulders. He tried to say something to the constable but it wouldn’t come out. The only other thing he noticed through the blur was his hands were suddenly held together with shackles. He smiled as he recognized them as his own handiwork.

The next few minutes made little sense or impression. When he finally found focus again he was inside a jail cell. Boole was in the next cell with his face covered in bandages. Sten’s entire body ached deeply like there was real damage inside. He wasn’t spitting up blood, so he wasn’t too worried. On the other hand, he didn’t feel like doing anything more than curling up on the cot and trying to ignore the pain enough to get some sleep.

****

The last time she floated up to Sten’s dock, Chielle had worried she wouldn’t have the courage to tell him how she felt about him. This time she was overrun with caution not to scare him off. Act casual, she kept telling herself. Tell a joke to get him talking. Let him do the talking, even though he doesn’t say much about his feelings. She stopped herself before she wound herself up too tightly. He did invite her back. He made her wait a day, but he did say come back tonight. She kept telling herself this all the way up the ramp.

Jacio was closing up the shack when she got to the wharf. “Hi, Jacio. Is Sten around?”

“Oh hi, Chielle. No, he didn’t show up all day.”

“Did he say where he was going to be?”

“No. Nice dress.”

She smiled that he noticed the modest long white gown she wore. “Thank you. Might that mean he’s hurt or in some kind of trouble?”

“No, not really. Sometimes he takes off for a day or two without telling me where he’s going. I won’t worry unless he’s still missing tomorrow.”

She was very confused how this could be all right. “Is this his only home? I mean, does he have somewhere else he could be staying?”

“No. This is it.”

“Yet you’re not worried?”

“No. Not yet. You shouldn’t worry either. Hey, can I ask you a personal question?” He came over to her and lowered his voice.

They were a hundred yards from the nearest person, so she could see how uncomfortable he was. “I may not answer, but you can ask.”

“I know this is none of my business, but you and Sten are getting pretty close, right?”

“Yes.”

“Well, have you two talked about, well…?”

“What?” Now her interested was piqued.

“How he’s going to break it to the townspeople.”

That’s wasn’t what she thought he was going to say. “No. I know they’re not ready to accept me.”

“No, I’m sorry, this is too rude,” he said with a wave of his hand. “I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

“No, wait. You’re obviously concerned about something. Can you tell me?”

“Sten thinks they need his skills too much to stop doing business with him for befriending you and you people. I’m not so sure that’s true. The townspeople are pretty riled up these days. I’m just afraid Sten is going to get himself into some real trouble.”

“So you think I am endangering him?”

“No, no, see that’s why I shouldn’t have brought it up. I like you Chielle, I really do. I never thought I would say that, but these last few weeks have really turned my head around. These people, they’re still stuck in their hate. I don’t know what to do about it. I do not think it’s your fault or anything. Sten gets these causes in his head and there’s no stopping him.”

Her heart felt heavy. “It sounds like it would be a good idea if I didn’t come around as much, just to avoid the chance of putting Sten in harm’s way.”

“I’m sorry, Chielle. I don’t know what else to say.”

“That’s all right, Jacio. I’m glad you told me. I only hear about what’s going on in Saint Rachel from Sten, and he’s been acting like he can handle the townsfolk just fine. If that’s not true, then I’ll do my part. Thank you for telling me.”

“Okay. I’ve got to go home now.” He turned to go. “I’ll see you later, right?”

“Of course,” she called after him. “Good bye.” She watched him walk away.

Walking away. Not an option she had ever considered. She felt like someone had stepped on her heart.

Categories: Mermaid Steel, Writing
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