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It never failed.
The tourists started out polite enough when the Wavebiter floated elegantly at the dock. They flourished their travel licenses and pranced up the plank. They admired the sleek muscles of the skeleton crew left to tend the ship in the harbor. They leaned on the rails, eager to be off.
Then the rest of the crew returned, back from shore leave in time to catch the turning of the tide. The crowded decks pressed the tourists into closer contact with the sailors, who shouted at them to get out of the way, and with the warsailors, who largely ignored them in favor of searching the waters for possible threats. The tourists looked at the lean, scarred bodies and began to sneer.
The license masters were the worst. Brelig disliked dealing with mainland license masters, but he couldn't avoid them forever. They always looked down their noses at people who had to work for a living, especially people whose work tended to leave conspicuous marks. Today's pest seemed to be poured from pure milk: long white-blond hair as fine as floss, pale blue eyes, skin so fair that the veins showed through in blue rivers. He wrinkled his delicate lips as Brelig approached.
Brelig glanced down at himself. The same old swath of dream rash swept down his right side, tiny white crescents marring the rich tan of his skin. The deep pucker in his left thigh still showed an angry red from last month's encounter with a soldierfish's sharp snout. His left forearm ended at the wrist, hand bitten away by a giant sea turtle and replaced by a gleaming sickle of steel. Brelig swept his gaze up and up then, meeting the eyes of the giant who stood nearly twice his own height. "Beautiful morning, License Master Alaaffi," he said evenly.
"It was, until you showed your ugly self," said Alaaffi with a sniff. "What are you even doing on a ship? You should be in a support home with the rest of the cripples."
Ah. That. Brelig shook his head, deftly hooking a set of three small hoops from his belt. He juggled them for a tick, then fastened them back in place. "As you see, my dexterity remains quite sufficient," said Brelig.
"I've seen far better entertainers performing on street corners in Affayasilith," said Alaaffi. "If that's your best work, you really do belong in a support home."
Brelig raised his ginger eyebrows. Could this arrogant tourist come from so far inland that he didn't even recognize a warsailor when he saw one? "License Master Alaaffi," he said gently, "you should hope by all that is licensed that you never have need to see my best work."
Alaaffi shooed Brelig away with a flick of his long pink fingers. "Be off with you."
Pink? Brelig narrowed his eyes. Yes, pink. It was always someone; it never failed. With a sigh, he pulled a small ceramic pot from his belt pouch. "You forgot your sun cream. Put this on before all your skin comes off," he ordered. He tossed the pot to the startled man and walked away, his short bowed legs rolling gracefully with the ship's motion.
That night, though, they ran into each other again. Brelig liked to spend his off-duty hours in the lounge. With a grin he heaved his license case onto the velveteen table. Alaaffi's jaw dropped. He fingered one end of his own license case.
He probably thinks that I pad mine, Brelig mused, wondering if Alaaffi would pull out a ruler to measure whose case held the thicker stack of licenses. Ah well, no matter. He himself measured his worth by other means. Brelig flicked open the catch and tipped out a sheaf of papers, quickly sorting through to find his statistical recreation license. He handed it to the croupier.
Then he turned to Alaaffi. "Care to join us for a game, License Master?" Brelig invited. It never hurt to cater to the tourists, pests or no.
"I do not gamble," Alaaffi said coolly.
You mean you can't, or don't have a license for it, Brelig thought. He tucked his license back into his case. Brelig claimed a seat on the short bench next to another normal-sized warsailor named Vlagen, who smirked as she passed him the dice in their bone cup. Brelig caught the cup with his hook, curling it against his forearm. He covered the open end with his hand and shook vigorously, then tipped the dice into the embroidered circle. The croupier called out his opening score, which Brelig would have to beat in subsequent rounds. Brelig placed his first bet and passed the dice.
Alaaffi stood in a swirl of silver-gray silk. "This lounge is unbearably dull," he announced. "I believe I shall go in search of actual entertainment." With that he swept out of the room, stumbling a little on the rocking floor of the ship.
* * *
The next day, Brelig took his position on starboard watch, which regrettably put him beside a primary sunbathing area. Mirulani, one of the ship's carnal workers, sprawled elegantly on a large towel under an umbrella, her swimunders leaving little to the imagination. Next to her lay Alaaffi, wearing nothing but a thong and the sun cream that Mirulani stroked over his alabaster skin. His hands and face still showed faintly pink from yesterday, but the rest was as white as wave-foam. No amount of sun cream would protect him forever, but Brelig trusted Mirulani to haul the man back into the shade before serious damage could occur.
Brelig scanned the aquamarine waters around the ship, letting the conversation flow past him. They were talking about clouds and weather patterns, he realized, with a fair degree of accuracy too. Perhaps the license master wasn't a total waste of deck space after all. Brelig cast an experienced glance upward. Wispy white wake-clouds in a fine blue sky signified clear weather and good winds, likely for several days.
"Beautiful morning, Warsailor Brelig," called Mirulani, tossing her copper curls over one shoulder. She stretched out on her towel, height become length in a tempting spread. The giant woman nearly matched Alaafi for size.
"Beautiful morning, joyful lady," Brelig replied. Mirulani was a favorite among warsailors, as she carried a license to lie with them for free and she admired scars as marks of survival.
"How long do you make our fair weather, Brelig?" she asked.
"Three days," he said, turning his eyes to the water nearest the ship.
"Ah, then Alaaffi here agrees with you!" she said. "I call for two and a half, myself."
"You should apply for a job in the weather service," Brelig said.
Mirulani laughed. "Forecasting is just a hobby! I like my real work better," she said, rubbing her tawny limbs against Alaaffi.
"It's nice to know some people take their work seriously," Alaaffi drawled. "I haven't seen that lazy lout of a sailor do anything more than stare into space since I boarded this ship. I can't believe they pay him for lolling about like a nooncalf with nothing better to do."
Mirulani brought her dainty hand down on Alaaffi's perfect ass with a resounding smack. "License Master Alaaffi! What a thing to say about a warsailor!" she exclaimed. "Apologize this instant. Don't you know that it's terrible luck to insult a warsailor on a ship?"
Brelig found himself far more interested in watching the scarlet handprint blaze to life on Alaaffi's skin than in any apology the man might make. He smirked, listening to their argument. Then a flicker of something caught his attention from the corner of his eye. Instantly he gripped the rail and leaned over.
"Brelig? Did you see something?" Mirulani rose to a crouch, her eyes following Brelig.
Brelig peered at the rippling water. Had there been a shadow there, or had he imagined it? "Either nothing, or trouble," he said.
Mirulani quickly started rolling up her towel. "Come along, Alaaffi," she said. "You've had enough sun for now. Let's go sit in the lounge for a bit, and I'll tell you about some of my favorite places in Tifijimi."
"You go. I'm comfortable here," Alaaffi said irritably, sounding half-drunk from the sun and the heat. He spread himself conspicuously flat on the towel.
Vlagen called from the port watch, "Brelig, have you seen anything? Thought I saw a shadow but now it's gone."
Brelig looked up to see how the ship's rigging lay and whether it might cast a fleeting shadow beside the hull. Then he caught a swish of motion detached from the ship's own shadow. "'Ware below!" he yelled.
With no more warning than that, a huge green head rose out of the sea to strike down at the ship. Water ran from the sleek arrowhead shape and down the long sinuous neck. A mouth full of needle teeth snapped at the scrambling humans.
"Death! Death!" roared Vlagen, alerting the other warsailors that they faced a deathfin. Moments later her light harpoon skittered along its scales. Her stocky body ducked under the sea monster's attack.
"Get belowdeck!" Brelig shouted to the passengers.
Mirulani darted down the hatch. Other crewmembers herded the passengers toward safety. Alaaffi tripped, long legs tangled in his towel.
The deathfin struck again.
Brelig slammed into the license master, knocking him out of the way. Fanged jaws closed on empty air. Brelig grabbed an axe from the nearest weapons rack and swung at the deathfin's throat. The sharp blade opened a thin slice. Then the deathfin writhed out of the way and lunged for Alaaffi again.
Blast! That pale coloring makes him look like a moonfish! Brelig realized. Deathfins liked the sweet flesh, and the white scales made the moonfish easy targets. As the deathfin struck, so did Brelig, his sickle hooking inside the creature's eyelid.
The deathfin gave a steamwhistle shriek of pain and whipped its head away, ripping a long gash down its face.
Brelig heard the rich twunngg! of the spring-wound harpoon cannon. Then the cannoneer shouted, "Death's too deep in the water!"
From the scars, this deathfin had survived many battles. It knew enough to hide in the ship's shadow and keep its vast body out of reach. Only the deadly head on its long, flexible neck would snake out of the water in search of food. Vlagen and several other warsailors charged forward with axes, hacking at the throat. The deathfin disappeared briefly, then reappeared to snap at Alaaffi just as he reached the hatch.
Brelig swiped his sickle toward the bleeding eyelid again -- and the deathfin grabbed him by that arm, lifting him high above the ship. The sudden shock of pain frayed his concentration. Brelig swung in the air, blood raining everywhere. Then he pulled himself upward to swing the axe into the deathfin's eye.
Screaming, the deathfin let go of Brelig and flailed away from the ship. As Brelig fell, he saw the last of the passengers disappear down the hatch. Then the water closed around him, and he lost his grip on consciousness.
* * *
The first time he woke, Brelig found himself attended by the Wavebiter's medic. Thick bandages swathed his arm and chest. Brelig's head felt full of cotton, though at least that muffled the pain to a dull ache. The medic explained the extent of Brelig's injuries and gave him an estimate of when he could return to duty.
One to two months? Brelig had survived worse. He just grumbled and went back to sleep.
The second time he woke, however, Brelig was surprised to see Alaaffi sitting beside his bunk. "What are you doing here, License Master?" he asked. "Did you lose your way to your cabin?"
"No, Mirulani and I have been taking turns sitting with you," said Alaaffi. A pink blush spread across his cheeks. "She said to tell you, if you woke up on my watch, for you to let her know when you feel ready to ... ahem, 'lie there and enjoy yourself,' as it were."
Brelig grinned. "She does have a way of cheering us up when we get bunk-bound with injuries."
"About that ... how are you, really?" asked Alaaffi.
"Well, I lost my sickle and rig," said Brelig as he lifted his heavily padded arm, "and I may lose a few more inches of forearm, depending on what the physicians in Tifijimi have to say. No great worries, though; the Guild will make good on all of it."
"I'm glad to hear that," said Alaaffi. He fiddled with his license case. As he moved, the collar of his robe shifted, revealing a swath of dark bruises mottling the pale skin. "You risked a great deal for very little reward."
"Just doing my job," said Brelig. "Why, did you come down here to apologize or something? It's not necessary."
Alaaffi shook his head. "I don't believe in verbal apologies, Warsailor Brelig. They serve no practical purpose," he said. He opened the case and laid a single sheet of thick, creamy paper on Brelig's chest.
Brelig picked it up and swept his gaze across the tidy official text. The license granted him permission to attend the Grand Railway Convention in Faajaffug at the end of the year. The justification line read simply 'For services rendered in the line of duty, with the Empire's thanks.' His thumb stroked the glossy ink of the seal. Brelig whispered, "How did you know ... I wanted ...?"
"Oh, I just questioned Mirulani, Vlagen, and your other friends until they came to a consensus about what you would appreciate the most that I could provide," said Alaaffi.
"Thank you. Apology accepted," said Brelig. He patted around the edge of the bunk and then confessed, "I have no idea where my license case is."
"It's right here," said Alaaffi, lifting it from the floor. He tucked the new travel license into place. "There. Now yours is one page thicker than mine."
Brelig burst out laughing, which strained his bruised ribs, but he didn't mind.
* * *
By the time they reached the tourist town of Tifijimi, the passengers had learned how to obey shouted orders and dive out of harm's way. They had learned to respect the warsailors who risked their lives to keep crew and passengers safe from the sea monsters. That was the real reason why the Stone Teeth People welcomed the tourists. That was why Warsailor Brelig shook hands with License Master Alaaffi and waved him cheerfully down the plank to enjoy his vacation.
It never failed.Author's Notes
This story came out of the April 15, 2011 Muse Fusion. It was inspired by a prompt from Ellen Million, who wanted a story from the viewpoint of an injured warsailor. It's posted here for free as part of the May Sea Monster Month. It gives a clear look at warsailors in action, their role in naval culture and how other people view them, plus the ominous deathfin. Warsailors are also notable as an exception to the Empire's preference for sidelining people with handicaps.
Fishhooks and Memories continues this tale...