Tuesday, May 20, 2014

19. The Guests Are Met, the Feast Is Set

Ridley lay in the salt bath until well past moonrise. Barely a sliver of the Lady of Tides showed above the trees. Out in the deeps, the great lords would be ending their council. Momentous plans had been decided, confirmed, celebrated; the ocean echoed with the dying cries of lesser life after the great feast. Ridley wriggled unhappily in the confines of the enameled tub. Ah, to be glidin’ under the brine, in the court of the great lords! Dearie, show me, let me see that afore I join you. Just once before I cast off, let me swim alongside the Unrisen and hear their battle songs... He sighed. So many wondrous things, his lover had revealed to him; things no ordinary men could fathom, nightmares and phantasias alike. And here I wallow in this bloody tiny tub. Mr Fogchaser, you’ve come down in station, ye have. He looked toward the closed bathroom door, listened to the quiet house. Not for long, though. Not for long.

He uncurled a mass of tentacles from his midsection. The unappealing tan and pink of old skin had almost all turned to the slick, tough grey-brown of krakenflesh. Multiple arms reached from the tub, lashing around a towel bar, the washbasin fixtures, the water line to the commode tank. He pulled himself upright, and noticed his fingers had fused. Soon they would be paddles, like the sensitive appendages of his Dearie. Ridley flapped the useless-looking bits of flesh; softened bones bent without pain. He giggled.

The only thing which distressed him was that if he was turning into his idol, it wasn’t accompanied by an appreciable increase in mass or size. Perhaps that would come, though, once he was fully kraken, shed of this increasingly awkward humanity. He peered down at his legs in the dark room. Mikael’s sister had left him a candle, and he’d let it burn out of politeness to her, but he was happier once it guttered into a puddle of wax. Almost got no legs left! Now these’ll be some true sea legs, oh aye! Experimentally, he slithered one of the limp, thicker limbs over the edge of the tub. It no longer slapped flat to the floor as his feet had, but wobbled a bit, slippery on the tiles. He swung several of the main tentacles after it, and found a vaguely upright balance. The lady had left clean towels in a pile for his use. He didn’t bother. Dripping, he picked up his ragged tunic from the floor. Such silly business, that coverin’ up. The mass of writhing limbs now spread down from his chest, like a hothouse plant shooting out roots to sop up every precious ounce of water, and now the details of his lower anatomy were impossible to discern.

He’d been pleasantly surprised when the lady of the house had asked him if he wished a bath. She in turn had seemed taken aback when he asked for cold, salty water to drench his itching body. He’d scrubbed off the dried sweat and skin, delighted at the gleaming sleekness revealed when he sluiced water through upturned arms, tiny suckers gasping in appreciation of the brine. Good woman, ‘at is, ain’t she Dearie? Mikael was right to send us here. Got rid of ‘at rock, and found Little Sister!

Sobered immediately, Ridley wondered how the child was. He’d peered into her room earlier, and tried working up his courage to go in, but Mikael’s sister had intercepted him, distracted him with the bath. If she’s not better...if she’s still not well...oh Dearie, I’m no sawbones to make her live! I gave her the magic rock, just like you said, but she’s not sproutin’ lovely arms like me...oh, what if she’s ill? Worried, he shuffled around the bathroom. His ungainly leg-arms slipped, and he knocked over a brass plant stand holding a struggling fern, but two of his new limbs whipped out to catch it before it crashed without him even having to direct them. Aye, an’ if ye weren’t such an oafish git, ye’d never have need to whip around such! Now go and see, go and see!

Apprehensive, he eased open the door and crossed the upper hallway. In the flickering light of a krakenoil lamp mounted high on the wall, his shadow bobbled and glided like a strange craft sailing choppy seas. The runner carpet slowed him a bit, and he considered ripping it from its tacks, then remembered he was a guest. He continued, chafing inwardly when the woven India-wool stuck to the larger suckers on what had been his legs.

From the next room, he heard the dreams of the fire-sorceress. He stopped, though his conscience scolded him for the delay. The lady of the house dreamt of fire, fire chasing over the rocks and trees and fields, a sweeping wave of crimson blazing across the entire continent, leaving charred black earth in its swift wake. Ridley understood she dreamt of herself, but even so, he had to jump out of the way when her thoughts shifted to this house, and for a moment the doorframe seemed to blaze up in a swirl of smoke that turned to maple leaves. Ridley blinked, pulling himself out of her sleeping mind. Dearie had warned him he’d hear all that noise, the constant jabber of human thought. He hadn’t realized he could be sucked into the maelstrom of their dreams.

He heard her moan, and through the crack between door and jamb he saw a flash of raven-wing blackness as she turned in her sleep and her hair flowed from her brow, a river of mourning satin, of oil on the water. Observing the shifting currents of her thoughts with more caution, Ridley saw the curtain of fire slam into a storm of emerald lightning. Rain burst out, the torrents sizzling on the burnt ground. Wind funneled fire and water into a spout of fury. Ridley watched a moment longer, curious, while the crackling aether and searing flames swirled into a dance, a balance, unlikely harmony. The dreamer sighed, and burrowed farther under the heavy quilts.

Turning away, Ridley carefully entered the turret room. Absolute stillness filled the atmosphere here. The Pilot paused, suddenly cast back to days of stifling nothingness pressing upon his ship, out in the Sargasso. Unease washed through him. His limbs squelched on the rug, the boards beneath creaking like an anxious ship becalmed in evil waters. Hunger growled in his empty guts.

She sat motionless, pillows stacked behind her tiny frame, covers drawn up but eyes wide. Ridley found himself holding his breath. The gleam of streetlamps reached faintly around the edges of the shutters, and she watched this shambling collection of far too many serpentine arms totter toward her. She didn’t move, didn’t make a sound. Ridley listened with that inner sense, but he couldn’t hear a single thought from her. Oh lud, is she dead? Is that a bonny corpse lookin’ so strange at me? Heart pounding, he inched closer and closer, hardly daring to look at her. When he finally halted right beside her, and worriedly bent over her to check for the heat of a breath in that tiny, belabored ribcage, the child suddenly turned her head up to stare straight into his night-broadened eyes. He blew out a sigh of relief. Oh thank the deepest lords of the darkest seas! The tiny fingers around his mouth twisted upward in a happy grin. His stomach rumbled again, embarrassing him.

Little Sister looked him slowly up and down. He saw her hands twisted in the sheet, clutching it tightly against herself. A shiver passed through her. The fire had died to glowing coals. Alive, she’s alive, now at last I can worship you right proper, Little Sister! Ridley slithered himself onto the bed; the girl drew her legs up under the covers, away from him. He gently reached a tentacle toward her face, wanting to touch that soft hair, to caress that pale cheek.

She shivered again. “I’m hungry,” she said.

Love expanded his torso, suffused his heart. He withdrew the tentacle, brought it to his lips, and bit off the tip of it. Ichor oozed onto the quilt. He offered the still-squirming bit of flesh to the child. She recoiled, then snapped forward, gulping down the morsel. Ridley chuckled. “Oh now, go easy! Be a bit nasty if you choked, wouldn’t it now?”

She merely stared at him, hunger plain in her eyes. Reverently, Ridley used his sharp beak to tear bits from two of his tentacles, and fed them to his Little Sister piece by piece until she lay back in the bed, sated. Only then did she give him a faint smile. Ridley stroked her hair, wetting it against her head. “You rest now, sisser,” he crooned softly. “We’ll rise soon. We’ll all rise.”

She said nothing, but turned over and snuggled into her pillow. Very soon the gentle movements of the blankets over her told him she slept. Ridley quietly stole from the room, wanting some chow himself. Could eat a bloody whale, I could! Crab broth, crab tidbits, naught but crab for days, ain’t there any proper grub hereabouts? He paid no mind to the smears his bite-shortened appendages left along the baseboards as he put his earhole to the walls, seeking the mind he’d heard earlier this evening. Ah ha. There ya be, fockin’ ugly bastich!

Easing down the staircase proved to be more difficult than he’d anticipated; every step, it seemed, groaned and creaked under his humid weight, though to his mind he was little better than a monster in miniature. Once at the back door, it was a simple matter to unlatch it and creep down the kitchen stoop. A shimmer of coldfire in the air clung to him as he passed through it; he shook himself once thoroughly, and a flash of aetherlight went flying with every miniscule droplet of oily water from his skin. Past the ward, Ridley sought the mind he’d noticed while lazing in his bath. The spy posted by Villard to watch Autumn Hill tonight leaned against a tree in the shadows of a thick copse, inattentive, his pistol sheathed. In the jumble of bored reminiscences through the man’s last trip to the Oro Fino Saloon, and idle comparisons of the painted dancers at that establishment to the less fancy whores aboard the steamboat brothel, Ridley saw repeated references to the Company.

An owl perched in the branches overhead heard the snapping, the gurgling voice failing to form a scream, the muffled, repeated crunching as the Pilot ate a hearty supper. The noise frightened any nearby prey, and in annoyance, the owl beat its silent wings and soared away in search of a more private hunting ground.

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