Home > Mermaid Steel, Writing > Chapter Seven of Mermaid Steel

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.

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