He made six days’ travel in three. There should have been plenty of time to explore the academy, set camp, seek the currents of the place. Once he knew what everyone was pursuing he would be armed. When one was armed with knowledge there were few negotiations that could be lost and even fewer doors they couldn’t be opened.
But when one was unarmed it was three days work just to find a ferryman who would carry a Len to the school.
At first the prices were too high. When he found no better offers he could use to haggle with, he agreed to pay. Then the seats were too full. When he came late in the night, when seats should have been open, the ferrymen said they had an urgent appointment to attend to.
He walked away and watched them from afar. For two hours they chatted and took a single human across for a fifth the price he had been told was standard.
The shame of being lied to was too much to bear. He came back yelling and finally, finally, one of them had the integrity to speak his mind.
“Ain’t letting no fuckin’ Len on my boat just so he can piss on the floor and steal my sail”
“All Len are not thieves! We are—”
“My people are not thieves and not savages!”
That night he stole all the man’s money and relieved himself in his boat.
He ran to the next cluster of ferrymen and used his new funds to bribe his way across the storm sea.
The moon was full and when the clouds cleared there was just enough light to look over the side of the air ferry into the writhing sea of black clouds. In those moments of light he swore that he saw tentacles move through the mist. Once he even peered down just in time for lightning to crack across the clouds below him. From the depths three bloodshot, glowing, red eyes set in a perfect line stared up at the boat. A foreign magic brushed against him. The sheer might of it was crushing. It felt like having his blood freeze into thousands of vibrating needles that pierced his flesh.
He whooped with joy. But, even after several fruitless minutes of throwing hunks of bread into the cloud, he came away without even seeing a hint of hungry teeth or a single murderous roar.
Still he sat back with a broad grin on his face.
The ferryman saw the look on his expression and shook his head.
That just made him smile bigger, “You must have seen some amazing things down there.”
“There are beasts that are beyond imagination.”
“Son, the things I’ve seen would chill a man’s heart and haunt his dreams.”
The young Len kept his face straight and his tone honest, “Wow. Isn’t it dangerous? Aren’t you ever frightened that they’ll come for your boat.”
Even from behind he could tell the ferryman was smiling. With a carefully studied nonchalance he turned his face to the side and purses his lips, “We’ve lost good men to the Storm Sea. A lot of good men.,” the ferryman paused to wipe at a phantom tear before glancing at him from the corner of his eye, ”But…”
But real ferrymen have secrets; techniques to scare away the smaller monsters, and magic to make our ships invisible to the real terrors. Or, “he paused, staring into the mist with what he must have imagined a haunted stare would look like, ”at least some of them”
“You must have very strong magic if even the students need to pay you for crossing.”
“Not just the students! Even teachers need our services. Have you ever heard of the Storm Strider?”
“Well boy let me tell you—,” the Ferryman broke his dramatic vigil and spun around sporting the eager grin of a storyteller with a captive audience . Then, when he saw the not quite human leaning almost off the edge of his seat, the ferryman’s smile faded and a hand dropped instinctively to his coin purse.
His passenger saw the motion. They locked eyes, and it was clear that the ferryman had seen him notice the reaction, and they were stuck watching each other being watched. Still, it was something any Len, especially one who had traveled, grew accustomed to. The younger man forced the smile to stay on his face and tried to revive the conversation, “The Stormstrider? It must have a terrifying history.”
The invitation hung in the air. A small struggle played out across his guides face.
“It’s bad enough,” the Ferryman finally said shrugging his shoulders.
The boy waited, but the silence endured until his own eyes fell.
“Not all of my people are thieves,” he murmured.
Doesn’t mean you aren’t one.”
The ferryman almost jumped out of his skin when his passenger started laughing.
“Well caught! You have good ears! ”
For some reason this made the ferryman even more tense, “Quiet your barking. Didn’t I tell you about the dangers out there”
Immediately his passenger spotted the game and leaned forward with a glowing smile, “Ahh, you did mention the dangers, but you never mentioned the dangers of speaking.”
“Just shut it”
Still smiling the Len pulled a small book from his backpack and closed the cover with a snap, “Yes sir! So what about the Stormstrider. Is it—”
“Shut your damn mouth, won’t you?”
“I said to shut your mouth before I find a muzzle for you”
The Len’s smile slowly faded, his hands twitching towards his fur. He tilted his head to the side and examined his companions’ words, trying to find the game in them.
Slowly the boy’s face shifted. There was a flash of confusion, maybe even hurt, but it passed too quickly to be seen. Almost immediately his brows furrowed, his lips twitched back and he shoved his book into his pack with more force than necessary.
When they finally arrived he stood to his feet, dusted off his wrap and turned to the ferryman, “Thank you for your services, I am glad you carried me here”
The ferryman just grunted and held out his hand.
It was abrupt and a bit intimate, but the man was his elder, so the young Len leaned forward to clasp wrists.
“No!” the ferryman pulled his hand away like a snake was lunging for it, “the tip.”
The Len started, “A tip?”
“Its custom provide extra money when a service is done well”
“I know what a tip is. You did not do well en—”
Before things could go any further a large scaled hand clamped onto his shoulder, and dragged him away.
He wanted to jerk his shoulder free of the grip. To go back and speak his mind. Maybe even yell his mind, but the sense of Presence exuded by the other person was too great. Not intense or particularly awe-inspiring, but it still outclassed his own Presence. Feeling that he grit his teeth and allowed the other Len haul him away.
When they had passed the dock he was spun around. The Len who had grabbed him was taller and slender. He had followed a different branch and a smooth coat of scales covered his body. They were a dull brown and accentuated the flatter features of someone who had taken the reptile path.
“Please,” the older Len said, “think before you speak. What one does affects us all.”
The younger Len tore his eyes away from his companion’s scales and stuffed his envy away, not allowing himself to brush at his own fur, “I was not going to attack him. I was only going to tell him that he was an ignorant bigot who had already been paid three times an unfair fee. Also, that his boat was ugly”
“Yes, but you aren’t in civilization anymore. These people do not value honesty. To them a harsh truth is an attack.”
The other Len shrugged, “We must take the higher path and not expect too much from them. But we are both being rude. I am an Employ from the Grace Seekers.”
Immediately upon hearing the title ‘Employ’ the shorter Len dropped his eyes and assumed a more respectful posture, “Your craft?”
“I am Employ Yut Good, a woodworker of middling talent and little drive,” he said with the well polished intonation of ritual, ”And you?”
“I am a Seek of the Ken Seekers, soon to be a Study.”
“And what knowledge are you pursuing?”
“I will be a student of magic here. Not all from the caravan believe in my ability to succeed, though I am certain I will.”
Yut looked at him for several moments, noting the omission of his persona names before the standard demonstration of candor.
That thoughts visibly cascaded through the older Len’s face as he tried to figure out who in the Ken Seekers could afford the tuition for Istima University. Finally, after looking for distinguishing patterns on his wrap, Yut’s eyes fell to the cloth bandage wrapped around the smaller Len’s bicep.
To his credit Yut spoke immediately and without tempering his words, “The Ken Seekers have had their reputation shit upon by a Teach who spread lies for his own benefit”
Yam did not respond.
Yut’s posture grew less welcoming, “Who are you?”
Again the smaller Len chose not to speak.
“Tell me who you are, and what you are doing here. Give me an honest word”
Like an echo, the phrase, ‘honest word’ hung in the air. The young man’s neutral silence transitioned from shock to insult, to smoldering resentment. The silence stretched impossibly long, even though it would only seem like a few moments to the casual observer.
Finally, the shorter Len spoke through his own grit teeth. “I am Study Yam Hist of the Ken Seekers,” he said, shrugging off Yut’s greater Presence and staring at the older Len directly in the eyes, “and I am here to become a god.”Last Chapter Next Chapter