Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Fish of the Sun

I left the gregarials yesterday after a breakfast of fish and green cheese. (It comes from the green cow. Her name is Pickle.) In exchange for the hospitality, I left them a jar of dark green oil paint. As I mentioned, one of the gregarials is an albino, white-scaled with bright pink eyes; he has difficulty hunting, as he practically glows in the dark.* I can easily pick up more green at the next town I come to, and he could use some camouflage that won't wash off in the water.

The following day was relatively quiet; the gregarials carried me across the river on half of a boat that they have, wished me well, and sent me on my way. It took longer to get back to the main river than it had to get away from it, so I ended up spending a night in the open after all. Oh well. I'm used to it. I would have slept quite well if it hadn't been for the owls hooting in Morse code over my head.

Today, like every day in the last week, it seemed as if the sun had come down to bathe in the river. Steam rose from the water. The light reflecting from the packed dirt of the road was blinding. I kept to the trees as much as possible, their shade nearly black in comparison to the sunlight. Even there, the air seemed something to be drunk rather than breathed. I reached the river road slightly before noon, hardly a hundred feet from where I left it two days ago. The Tetravanians would be proud. It seems like a lot of work to cross that much distance, but I'm glad I did; I got to meet the gregarials, after all. I looked back at the branch that had caused the detour, that torrent of fast water that had been too strong for me to sail across, and was shocked to see someone wading in it.

Normally, I would say she was a large, fluffy samoval, but I don't think I've ever met one who was less than eight feet tall and didn't make a sheepdog look bald in comparison, so there's really no need. This one was no exception. She was plowing through the water, waves breaking against her waist, stomping as if she was trying to kill something with her feet. She was in the deepest part of the river when I first noticed her. As she started to reach the shallower parts, her head got higher... and higher...

If she wasn't at least nine feet tall, I must have shrunk a lot in the last few weeks.

She was wearing a wide-brimmed hat the size of a wagon wheel. It was almost wide enough to shade her shoulders. On one shoulder, she was carrying a four-foot jar full of what looked like orange juice. Every so often, a flash of red scales and fins was visible inside. Her fur was black at the roots, but she had dyed it a pale yellow, possibly to make it less hot in the sun. If so, it didn't seem to be working particularly well. She was panting in the heat. As I watched, she let out a roar of frustration, threw her hat into the bushes, put down the jar - I was afraid she would throw that too, but she put it down with exquisite care - and flung herself headlong into the river. The wave nearly capsized a little canoe passing by.

"A Thousand Thousand Curses on this abominable fur!" she roared, erupting out of the water again. The man in the canoe nearly tipped over out of fright this time. "Even in the cool of the shade, it Roasts me like a very Oven, and gives me no peace by Night or by Day! I swear this moment, in the hearing of all who hear me, I shall endure it no more! I shall cut it off! To the last Strand shall I sever this coat of Evil, and cast it into the Mud to be trampled by Cattle and Pigs! You!" She pointed with a massive fist at the terrified canoe-paddler. "Have you Scissors? Give them to me!"

The man babbled something about not having any scissors, sorry, goodbye, and paddled off at a speed I didn't know was possible in a canoe. I could see sunlight underneath the keel.

The samoval turned and caught sight of me. "You!" she said, sloshing over to the bank. "You are one who has Scissors. I can tell. You have the Look. Give them to me." She held out one enormous hand. I took a look at the claws on it and decided not to argue.

My scissors looked like nail scissors in her hand, but she managed to get the tip of a finger through each handle. Her fur stuck out in spikes as it dried in the hot air. She cut each one off as if it had personally insulted her. She started walking again as she worked, picking up her hat and jar again on the way by. The jar must have weighed more than I do; she lifted it easily, with one hand.

I had little choice but to follow her. I only have the one pair of scissors. Fortunately, she was going in the same direction I had been traveling anyway. She stomped along without another word, pounding dust out of the road, hacking away at her fur with every step. She somehow managed to hold the jar in one arm while trimming with the other. Cutting evenly seemed to be of no importance; after an hour, her arms had a sort of mangled hedge look to them. The scraps of dyed fur that remained made a sort of diced lightning pattern over the dark roots. The scaled thing continued to flicker in and out of sight in the glass jar. After another hour or so, the samoval seemed less completely enraged, so I asked her about it.

"This is my Fish," she declared. "He is a handsome Fish and quick of Fin. I am raising him in the Fruit of the Sun, so that he shall be a Giant among all Fishes and possess the power of Flame. The Waters shall steam where he Swims."

After that, she was quite willing to talk, though the conversation was rather one-sided. Her name, she said, is Mahalia Peraximander the Third. (The Fish is from the Unseen Deeps and does not yet have a name.) She is apparently part of the royal family of a place called Crucible, "a Great City of Fire and Iron." Having found her Fish, she is returning there. She's fifth in line for the Throne, "but unlikely ever to claim it," she said. "For we are a family of great Strength and Stubbornness, and it shall be many Years till the Death of my Uncle, if indeed Death ever dares to disturb him at all."

I wonder if everyone in Crucible talks this way. I suppose I'll find out. It's going to take a long time to cut all that fur.

* His name is something like Plrzzxgak. I can't pronounce it any better than I can spell it.

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