Walking on Water
Matthew J. Metzger © 2017
All Rights Reserved
When the sand settled, only silence remained.
The explosion had gone on for what felt like forever—a great boom that shuddered through the water, a shadow that had borne down on the nest like the end of the world had come, and then nothing but panicked escape from the crushing water, the darkness, and the suffocating whirlwind of sand and stones. In the terror, it had seemed like it would never end.
But it did end, eventually. When it did, Calla lay hidden in the gardens, deafened and dazed. She was shivering, though it wasn’t cold. An attack. They had been attacked. By what? Orcas and rival clans could hardly end the world. And what would wish to attack them so?
She took a breath. And another. Her attempts to calm herself felt pathetic and weak, like the desperate attempts of a mewling child. Where was Father? Her sisters? Where even the crabs that chattered and scuttled amongst the bushes? She was alone in the silent gardens, and Calla had never been alone before.
Slowly, she reached out. Slipped through the towering trunks, to the very edge of the gardens, to where the noise had come from. Drew aside a fern and—
Ducked down, clapping a hand over her mouth to prevent the gasp.
A giant beast lay in the courtyard.
Still. Oh, great seas, be still. She held her breath and closed her eyes. It had to be an orca, a beast so huge, and it would see her if she moved.
Yet even in her fear, Calla knew that wasn’t quite right.
Orcas didn’t come this far south—did they? Father had said they would be undisturbed here. Father had said.
She peeked again. Daring. The beast didn’t move.
Nor was it an orca. It was impossible, too huge even for that. Oh, she’d not seen an orca since she’d been a merling, but they’d never been that big. It had squashed the courtyard flat under its great belly, its tail and head—though she couldn’t tell one from the other—spilling out over the rocks and nests that had been homes, once. It would have crushed their occupants, surely. What beast killed by crushing?
Hesitantly, she drifted out of the garden. Her tail brushed the ferns, and she wrapped her fins around them, childishly seeking comfort.
The beast didn’t move.
In fact, it didn’t breathe. Its enormous ribcage, dark and broken, was punctured by a great hole, a huge gaping blackness longer than Calla’s entire body, and wider by far.
It had been slain.
Bloodless. It was quite dead. How could it be dead, how could its heart have been torn out so, without spilling blood into the water? Where was the column of red that marked its descent? Where was—
It was no beast.
Calla fled the safety of the gardens in a flurry of excitement. No, that great oval shape was familiar. How many had scudded gently across the sky in her lifetime? How many times had she watched their passage from her window? Beautiful, dark, silent wonders. Oh, a cloud!
She rushed closer to look. How could a cloud have fallen to earth? Father had said they were simply things that happened in the sky, and no concern of theirs. But this one had fallen, lay here and near and so very touchable—and now Calla wanted to touch the sky.
She held her breath—and touched it.
Rough. Sharp. Its body was dark against her pale hand. And hard, so very hard. She had imagined clouds to be soft and fluid, to walk on water as they did, but it wasn’t. Huge and heavy, it was a miracle that it walked at all.
And a home: tiny molluscs clung to it. As she walked her webbed fingers up the roughness and came over the crest of its enormous belly, she mourned its death. This must have killed it. Such a deep, round belly—clouds were obviously like rocks and stone, but this one had been cut in half. Exposed to the sea was a sheer, flat expanse of paleness, with great cracks in the surface. A column stuck out from the middle, and two smaller ones at head and tail. It had been impaled by something, the poor thing.
The hiss reached her from far away, but Calla ignored it. The poor cloud was dead. It had been slain, and whatever had dragged it from the sky must have been immense, to wield spears like those jutting from its body. And it wasn’t here.
Clouds were harmless. Dead clouds, even more so.
“Calla, what are you doing?”
“Meri, come and see!” she called back to her sister and ducked to swim along its flattened insides. Great ropes of seaweed, twisted into impossible coils, trailed from its bones. Vast stains, dark and pink, smeared its ragged edges. When Calla peered up into the sky, at the stream of bubbles still softly rising from its innards, she could see the gentle descent of debris. It had been torn apart.
Orcas? But an orca pack would have followed it down. Sharks? Calla had never seen a shark, but Father had, long ago when he was a merling, and he’d said they were great and terrible hunters. Were sharks big enough to do it?
That was not Meri’s voice. Deep and commanding, it vibrated through the water like a blow. Calla found herself swimming up the side to answer automatically, and came clear of the cloud’s gut barely in time to prevent the second shout.
Father did not like to call a second time.
She went. At once. The immense joy at her discovery was diminished in a moment by his stern face and sterner voice, and Calla loathed it. She felt like a merling under Father’s frown and struggled to keep her face blank instead of echoing his displeased expression.
“You should stay away from such things. The guards will deal with it.”
He gave her a look. She ducked her chin and drifted across to join her sisters at the window. The window. Pah. What good was the window, was seeing, when she had touched it?
“What is it?” Balta whispered, twirling her hair around her fingers.
“A cloud,” Calla said in her most impressive voice and then pushed between Meri and Balta to peer out. The guard were swarming over the cloud’s belly, poking more holes in the poor thing’s body. “Something killed it.”
Meri snorted. “Talk sense, Calla.”
“You sound like a seal, grunting nonsense.”
“I do not!”
They subsided under Father’s booming reprimand—although Calla snuck in a quick pinch before stopping—and returned to watching.
“Clouds don’t fall out of the sky,” Meri whispered. “It must be a shark. There’s nothing so big as a shark. Father said so.”
“Father also said sharks don’t come this far north,” Balta chirped uncertainly, still twirling her hair.
“That’s a cloud,” Calla said and peered upwards to the sky, her eyes following the great trail of bubbles, “and I bet something even bigger killed it.”
Alarik’s fist hit the table with a meaty thud. A plate jumped from the wood, landed a little too far over, teetered, and fell.
The shattering of ceramic on the stone floor was met with uneasy silence.
The advisors jumped, before scrambling to gather their reports. The king was not unlike his late father—amiable when in the mood but quick to turn. And judging by the clenched, shaking fist on the table, the king had indeed turned. Janez, more than used to such moods, simply waited.
Only when the door closed behind the last stuttered, “Your Majesty,” did Alarik unclench his fist.
“This,” he said gravely, “is what happens when interest and bootlicking is permitted over merit. What business did Reiswitz have commanding a ship in the first place? The man was incapable of finding his backside with both hands if given instructions!”
Prince Janez shrugged. He was one of perhaps four people in the kingdom utterly unshaken by the king’s temper.
“A ship sunk, another captured, three hundred men lost to me. The guns won’t be replaced quickly or easily, and the men even less so. We’re pressing them as it is!”
Still, Janez said nothing.
“We’re running out of money, out of food, and out of men. There are rumours of mutiny as it is. I can only thank God that—so far—we’re evenly matched. But one alliance, Janez, one alliance—!”
Silence fell. The king breathed heavily, his palm flat on the wood.
The prince, very slowly, lifted his boots to rest on the seat of another chair and sat back.
The king’s eyes flicked up.
For a split second, rage thundered in that icy blue gaze—and then it died. It drifted away like a storm before a warm southerly breeze. Brushed away, and dissipated. Janez watched it fade as plain as any real storm out over the waves.
“Father would have known what to do,” Alarik said quietly and sank into his chair.
“Father isn’t here.”
Janez’s low assertion seemed to echo in the room, and both king and prince fell silent. Years had passed, and the wound still bled.
“Mother sends her love,” Janez continued. “She begs us both to be safe and sends music for Ingrid’s lessons. I gave her letters to Sofia on my arrival. They’ll be waiting for you when you retire.”
“I cannot. I have to—”
“The admiral will be dealing with the loss of the Held. The enemy were badly grazed, as well, and winter is coming. Likely this was the last action before the ice sets in. If it’s a savage one, they’ll be blocked in—and even if it isn’t, they’ll concentrate on feeding their own and not freezing to death in stranded ships on the sea. They always have. This is a demoralising blow. An action to startle, not to truly wound. A show of force.”
“A show that worked!”
“For now. They suffer winter worse than we do. While they shiver, we can strategise In the meantime, focus on rebuilding—both ships and safe harbours. Our answer lies in alliances—and you cannot forge an alliance tonight.”
“Tonight, you can do nothing. Rest. Kiss your children goodnight, and go to your wife. Make more children.”
A faint smile flickered on the king’s face.
“Tomorrow, wage war again. But a war cannot be won by a shattered king.”
Alarik finally leaned back from the great maps on the table, a dark mark in fresh ink picking out the spot where the Held had gone down. She’d been no great ship, little more than a sloop, and built in foreign harbours some forty years ago, but she’d been a stout sloop, a great weatherer of ice and enemy action. Janez had sailed in her, once or twice. He remembered her faults and fancies well.
Until Captain Reiswitz had set his incompetent boots on her boards, and she’d been set alight and sunk, with all hands aboard.
“I only thank God you were not with them,” Alarik said.
Janez said nothing.
Alarik fell quiet for a long moment, staring almost blindly at that inky stain—and then started as if woken from a dream.
“This is maudlin. And useless. A drink, brother?”
“Cut the formalities, Janez. We’re alone.”
“So I am speaking to my brother and not my king?” Janez asked, voice full of amusement as Alarik filled two cups with dark, sweet wine.
“Always, when we’re amongst none but family.”
“Then go to your family.”
“After a drink with one of them.”
Quite suddenly, Janez pulled a face, and then both men were laughing. The weight of a kingdom lay at the harbour below. The weight of a war snuffled at the closed door. But for a brief time, in the sputtering candlelight, they were merely brothers, children again, with little more worries than a common distaste for their music tutor.
“I’ve missed you,” Alarik said with undisguised fondness and slid a brimming cup across the table as he sank back into his chair.
“And I you,” Janez said, raising the cup. “To family.”
“To family,” Alarik said and lifted his own a little higher. “To brothers.”
“You are maudlin.”
“And you could have been on that ship—you were supposed to be.”
“Yes. When you returned from the Winter Palace, I had instructed the admiral to have you posted as first lieutenant, to attempt to curtail some of Reiswitz’s stupidity.”
“Well, then we ought to be grateful that Reiswitz’s stupidity is faster than two hundred miles by horse.”
“I’m going to say no,” Janez said, “as I’m enjoying a drink with my brother and don’t wish my king to make one of his enraged appearances.”
Alarik shot him a foul look but subsided with a grumble, making his feelings well known on the matter.
“You’re a fool, Janez.”
“But a living one, and fully intending to eke out a few more years. In any case, it would have been a poor choice on your part.”
“You don’t remember the last time Captain Reiswitz and I were in the same room?”
Alarik’s face eased from its scowling countenance, and he laughed. “He thought you had propositioned his sister, and challenged you to a duel—”
“—so his sister dutifully took my pistol and shot him in the arm,” Janez finished with a crowing laugh, and rank and privilege were both forgotten as the men hooted like sailors in a tavern at the memory.
“And the look of horror on your face!”
“Any man who propositioned her most likely wound up dead– I wanted to ask if he thought me suicidal!”
“I’ve quite forgotten her name.”
“Catherine,” Janez supplied. “I saw her at the Winter Palace. Still as formidable as ever—and as forthright. Damned be the uniform and my standing, she hit me and then hugged me.”
“What did you do to deserve that?”
“Oh, breathed, I imagine. She did insist on drinking to the health of every man, woman, and child in the kingdom—and individually, too. After such a greeting, I couldn’t begrudge her a moment of it.”
“I do sympathise,” Alarik said, reaching over to top up Janez’s cup. “I find the urge to hit you quite strong, sometimes. Perhaps I ought to change the laws and have the lady knighted.”
“You never hug me.”
“Would you let me?”
Janez laughed. “That would depend, dear brother. Often, if you’re kind to me, you have some plan in mind.”
“Now, you know that isn’t true…”
“No, of course not—which reminds me, what price the wine?”
Alarik chuckled, called his younger brother suspicious, and sat back. His shoulders were easing, Janez noted with a smile. The king had slipped away, and the exasperated brother, so easy to aggravate, had returned full-force.
“I think not,” Janez said, raising his cup with a smirk.
“I take it that now you are back, I won’t be able to keep you from the ships any longer?”
Ah. Perhaps the king was indeed still in the room.
“People will talk if you try.”
“People will talk regardless.”
“I should go. You need a presence on those ships. The men can’t fight your war for you, without—”
“Without the knowledge that I, too, may lose something.”
Alarik pursed his lips but didn’t argue the point.
“Fine,” he said eventually, “but no damned heroics, Janez. You’re right—an alliance is our best hope for a swift resolution. They would not wage war with a united coast.”
“You’ll never get—”
“Let me worry about who I can and cannot sway to our side. You forget,” Alarik said, levelling a look much like Father’s stern eye at Janez, “that you are still considered something of an eligible—”
Janez hesitated, biting back the curse. Alarik knew very well the reasons why Janez was considered an eligible bachelor. And he ought to know better than to wield them.
But he wished to speak with his brother, and not with maudlin kings, so Janez wrenched a smile into place and crudely said,
“One bastard child, and the world suddenly thinks you have the dimensions of a dockyard donkey.”
“The truth need not be known until after such an alliance.”
“Very cruel. The poor lady, to be saddled with me.”
“The poor kingdom, to have you for a potential ruler.”
Janez objected, and Alarik insisted, and they cackled together like children a little longer, before Janez broke off to yawn heavily. Too heavily. He eyed the cup suspiciously, and set it down.
“You looked tired. I’m surprised Sofia didn’t try the same.”
“If I could damn you both without being taken for a traitor—”
“Please,” Alarik said evenly, leaning back with a fond smile. “You damn us both half a dozen times a day, and nobody’s thrown you in the dungeons yet.”
“There’s still time,” Janez grumbled, yawning widely again. “Last time I drink alone with you, brother.”
“You’re a wicked liar,” Alarik said, “and none too good at threats. Come. You’ll sleep in the royal chambers tonight.”
Janez staggered when he rose, and the slide of the king’s arm under his felt oddly reminiscent of their younger days when Father had permitted them to discover wine and women. Janez had never been much for the women, not since Greta, but the wine—ah, the wine…
“The next toast I shall utter—” he said determinedly as they passed from the room. A sentry caught at his other arm to lift him. By the man’s unperturbed amusement, he was plainly sly to the king’s plot.
“The next toast, Janez, can be whatever you wish,” Alarik said in that maddening, benevolent tone. “But for once, you can do as you’re told.”
“Well, if you must know, it was Sofia’s idea.”
“Ah, well, for Sofia—”
“I wouldn’t finish that sentence if I were you.”
The royal chambers were not far, but Janez was a heavy man, a veritable pile of muscle and bone. They struggled with him to the cushioned seats under the great window of the sitting room. The sentry was dismissed, and Janez heard the familiar sounds of a father—albeit one with a crown about his temples—checking on his children.
Then a blanket settled over Janez’s exhausted form, and the low light of the candles was snuffed out.
Janez sighed and took his own advice, sagging into the dark, warm hold of sleep.
The ships, the sea, the war and world, would wait a while longer.