Sunday, August 7, 2011
When he came to, he was draped over Roger’s naked back, staring upside-down at her muscular buttocks as she walked. Her shoulder was digging into his gut, and he could feel a breast pressing up against his wet shorts. Overall his first reaction was visceral. He tried to distract himself by casting his mind back: how had he gotten here? He must have drunk more than he should have. The damned wine was so sweet; it didn’t taste alcoholic at all. Less potent than the artan it may have been, but in the quantities he was putting it away, that hardly mattered. He could remember an indulgent half-smile on Aidan’s face. He could remember Roger telling him he was “squiffy,” and him cackling at that madly. He could remember Bones squawking along with his laughter like a lower primates’ version of call-and-response. He couldn’t remember Larissa participating, but that wasn’t surprising. Roger was going up the ladder now, which meant that her grip on his upper thigh became even tighter, the view of her lower back became even more fascinating, and her chest thrust into his crotch rhythmically. He gave up trying to remember how he’d gotten here and concentrated on thanking whatever divine force had engineered it.
The ride ended abruptly in a sucker punch of vertigo as Roger flipped him over into the hammock. How she could manhandle him so easily, he couldn’t imagine; she was certainly fit, but he outweighed her by a good bit. Yet she stood over him, hands on her hips, not even breathing hard. “I see ye’re awake now,” she commented.
Johnny opened his mouth, then realized the folly of that maneuver and just nodded.
“You want me to get them pants off’n ye?”
Johnny stopped staring at her breasts and said “hunh,” primarily to buy a little more time while he considered this proposal. Obviously the right thing to do would be to refuse politely. But maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to let her ... I mean, she did offer, right?
He noticed that Roger’s eyes were sparkling, and he had a sudden surety that she knew what he thinking, somehow. He flushed bright red. She voiced that throaty chuckle that made Johnny’s hair squirm, and suddenly his wet shorts were way too tight. “Oh, my bonny cabin boy,” Roger said, winking at him. “Ye’re a gorgeous laddie, ye really are, and ye’re plenty man enough at this age. I’ll not refuse ye if ye ask me again when yer head’s a mite clearer. But right now it’d be like taking advantage of the town simpleton, and I’m just not that sort of woman.” She lifted the arm closest to her and raised his hand to her mouth. She kissed the tip of his index finger, then ran her tongue along the underside of it. Lowering his hand, she placed it on her right breast, then squeezed his hand with hers.
She replaced the hand gently on his bare chest and touched his cheek briefly. “Sleep now, boyo. Mornin’ll make a fine mush of yer brain, I’m sure. So catch yer winks while ye can.”
For all the dirty thoughts that were whizzing around his head, the body part that Johnny fixated on as he drifted off to sleep was her smile.
Johnny didn’t feel like he had a hangover. His tongue felt too thick, granted, and maybe a bit fuzzy as well, but he didn’t really have a headache. Nor did he feel sick to his stomach. The fact that it was exactly as light as it had been “last night” was old hat by now, and he didn’t even feel particularly disoriented. “Morning” hadn’t made a fine mush of his brain after all, it seemed.
He walked out onto the flying bridge. Aidan waved at him and smiled. Johnny waved back with half-lidded eyes and then descended to the deck. Roger gave him her standard grin from her position at the wheel, but Johnny didn’t really want to make eye contact. He walked around the deckhouse and discovered Larissa leaning on the railing, watching the swampy landscape float slowly by.
“Um, hey,” Johnny said.
Larissa arched an eyebrow, and he thought he could detect the barest hint of a smile, but she said nothing.
“So, um ... was I ... I mean, did I ... ?” Johnny floundered. Larissa’s eyebrow climbed even higher, which Johnny wouldn’t have thought possible.
Johnny thought he might be blushing. “Yeah, never mind, I guess.” They stood in silence for a while. The gentle breeze of the ship’s passage actually felt very good on Johnny’s face. He hadn’t realized how stuffy he’d felt, and it was only now that the danger was past that he realized he had been feeling a bit nauseous after all.
One of the little light blue snakes twirled up the vertical post of the railing, practically a blur. It shot up onto the crossbar, slithered along it for a bit, then wrapped itself tightly around Larissa’s wrist. Johnny watched the whole thing with interest. After a moment in which Larissa made no move to dislodge the little reptile, Johnny asked, “Are you going to throw it back?”
Larissa pointed down at the plant-covered surface of the water. Cutting through the duckweed and bladderwort and water lettuce, easily keeping pace with the ship, was a large fin. Although it moved like a shark fin, it was obviously a large fish: the thin membrane of the fin stretched across four or five stiff spines. The color was a mottled brown, very similar to the color of the water. As Johnny watched, the fin folded neatly down and disappeared, although he couldn’t shake the feeling that the fish itself was still there.
“The anterior dorsal fin is much too large, of course,” Larissa commented. “And they don’t generally swim just under the surface like that. Nor are they colored like that, and of course they aren’t freshwater fish, as I mentioned before. But it certainly does appear to be some variant of barracuda.” She glanced at the snake wrapped around her wrist. “Obviously it’s impossible to say what a ‘swamp barracuda’ might eat, but one could surmise.”
They stood in comfortable silence for a while, then Johnny happened to glance up at the front of the boat. There was a flag that had never been there before—hell, the flagpole had never been there before. Despite the fact that Roger appeared to be a pirate, and her ship appeared to be a pirate ship, there had never been a pirate flag flying over it. But now ...
It wasn’t a traditional Jolly Roger. Oh, there was a white skull all right, but the background was a dark green instead of black. And instead of the crossed bones underneath the skull, there was a red fleur-de-lis with golden edges. The center point of the fleur-de-lis protuded through the top of the skull like a spear and its roots were clenched between the bony teeth; the petals stuck out of the sides of the skull like bizarre ears. Johnny stared at it, his mouth open. “Where did that thing come from?” he finally managed.
Larissa did not look at the flag. She inclined her head aft; Johnny couldn’t see Roger from where they stood, but he knew what Larissa meant.
He looked back at the banner flying above. It flapped in the wind rather smartly; Johnny looked back at the river underneath, layered in its vegetal blanket, then at the trees he could see on the shores. They were zipping by with a speed that was nearly alarming; Johnny felt a twinge of nausea after all. He looked back at the planks of the ship. Obviously Roger had decided they were going to really start moving now.
He cast his feeling out, upstream. The door was still behind them; it wasn’t fading, exactly, but it seemed more like a twinkling star than a steady light. And ahead ... he could almost feel it, then his sense just slipped off it. One thing he could tell: if the door behind him was a heat, the thing ahead of them was a cold, like someone had left the door to the North Pole ajar, and arctic winds were blowing through with wild abandon.
Reluctantly he turned his back on Larissa and walked back to the wheelhouse. He could almost feel eyes on his back. Were he to turn around, he knew that gaze would be merely curious, nothing more.
He sat beside Roger, who wore her habitual grin. “Better this fine mornin’?” she boomed over the roar of the fan.
He started to point out that this wasn’t “morning” any more than it had been “night” when he’d passed out in the hammock, but knew that wasn’t going to get him anywhere. He stared mostly at his boots, still not ready to look her in the eyes.
He closed his mouth and just nodded.
“You heave up at all?” Roger sounded genuinely interested.
“Nah,” he said.
“Impressive!” She slapped him across his shoulder blades, startling him, and almost making a liar out of him right in front of her. “Ye really know how to hold yer liquor for such a young pup!”
“Yeah, I ...” Johnny swallowed to try to settle his stomach a bit. “I’ve heard that before, actually.” He took a quick peek at her face. She seemed fascinated to see what he would say next. “Listen, about last night ...”
This was not a conversation that Johnny had ever had to have before, but he felt that it was the other person’s job to break in at this point, telling him it was nothing and not to worry about it. Perhaps he’d seen too many romantic comedies. Roger stayed stubbornly silent.
“I just feel like I should apologize ...” he tried again.
Now she did butt in. “Now, now, boyo, ye were stirred up lookin’ at me body. Don’t apologize for that! Ye risk causing insult if ye steer that course too long.” He looked at her now; her smile was still there, perhaps a bit more gentle than usual. “Ye’re a man in his prime”—she paused and eyed him appraisingly up and down—“or at least near enough to droppin’ anchor in them waters, and I’ve been told I got a pretty fine fettle.” She winked. “The wonder would’ve been if ye hadn’t stood up to attention.” It took a moment for this crude expression to sink in, and then Johnny blushed.
Roger punched him lightly in the shoulder. “So clear yer pretty little head. But I meant what I said last night, Johnny boy. If ye come around askin’ sometime when ye ain’t four or five sheets to the wind, ye may find a little more luck. And if ye don’t come askin’, I won’t take no offense.”
Johnny swallowed hard. “Um, thanks,” he said.
“I feel like I gotta lay it out plain for ye,” Roger continued. ”‘Cause ye come from away. But that’s pretty common amongst us folks ‘round here. Ye press the flesh where ye can find it, ’cause tomorrow ye pay the piper, and ye never know when ye might come up short. Hell, we were almost sunk on the way to Aidan’s, nought? I reckon his gimcracked Goddess was good for somethin’ after all.” There was a tremendous splash behind the boat, and the ship rocked to and fro just the tiniest bit. Roger laughed loudly and raised her voice even more. “Aye, missy! I hear ye! Shallédanu lei shonta and all that.” She made a complicated hand gesture with her free hand.
“So, basically what I’m tellin’ ye is: sail for today in case today is all ye get. Ye ketch?”
Johnny looked up at her and smiled. “Yer a cheery lass, ain’t ye?”
Roger guffawed and slapped him on the back again. “Aye, that I am, Johnny boy.”
The slipstream around the deckhouse formed its vortex right where they were sitting. The wind ruffled through Johnny’s hair and made Roger’s ponytail fly straight out behind her, almost reaching the fanblades. No one spoke for a moment.
“Man,” Johnny said finally, “we’re really hauling ass, eh?”
Roger nodded. “No need for dawdlin’.”
Another pause. “It’s dangerous up there, isn’t it?”
“Johnny me boyo, it’s dangerous right here. You know what they say about life? She’s a brilliant helsman, but she still kills all her passengers.” Roger nudged him in the side.
Johnny couldn’t help but return her grin. “Well, sail on then, cap’n. I’m ready.”
Roger squeezed his knee and twisted the “wheel” a little harder. The Slyph shot through the plant-covered water even faster.