The Lobster lives immortal.
Or so the fishermen say, when the day is fair and the beer is good and the shadows beg a tale. On this evening, the sea is calm, raked only with tides painted with the slow and sundry winds. The storm is far away.
Yet the docks are deserted, the boats all moored, and what few men still linger in the pier have clustered at the tables of the Widowed Whaler, where they quaff cheap ale with cheerful abandon. Occasionally, one of them will free himself from the talk of his companions, or else the solemn quietude of the bar, to raise his empty mug to the mercies and tap of the solitary barmen.
Or, at least, the bar boy.
At some point in the afternoon, he became aware of watching eyes, and turned into the gaze of a sailor at the very corner of the bar table. Being aware of the details expected of such clientele, he noted that, contrary to justifiable expectation, the man seemed neither tall nor particularly mysterious. If one were to call him dark, they would be referring only to the stained grime of his skin.
He opened lips half-shielded by the dripping cover of a beard, to reveal a mouth of rancid yellow teeth, against which a tongue began to carve words into the fetid air.
"You're not Frank," he rasped. The voice was hoarse, the cords raked with years of ocean brine. "Gone off to Sterl at last, has he?"
The boy shrugged. "It's none of my business," he said, "and even less of yours." Frowning, he attempted the old barman's trick of wiping-a-glass-with-charming-nonchalance, and failed. The mug half-slipped from his grasp, and he clutched at it with an involuntary yelp.
The man laughed strangely, with a wheeze that couldn't possibly be healthy. "Aye, that'd be the truth, then. Sterl . . ." he tasted the word. Which, considering the flavor of his breath, was a sorry fate for the poor thing. "Yes, I'd throw a wager on it. Or is it a wonder? They speak Western in Harval, the mongrels."
"It's no use asking me," said the boy. Taking down a bottle of white wine, he slid it clumsily across the length of the bar, to a client who seemed drunk enough not to care that the bottle had just avoided spilling over the front of his faded suit jacket. He turned back to the man with a forced smile. "Perhaps he'll be back soon," he lied. In fact, he distinctly remembered Frank telling him to "scramble as soon as you fill this sack with coin, hear, and if you look back I'll have Abrams slap you with the rod." A horse was waiting in the back stables, already fitted with a saddle and reins.
Eyes traced the slim build of his shoulders. " 'Ere," said the bearded man, "'you're too young for this, lad. You hear that? In Harval, you've gots to be a real man 'fore they let you at the taps." He drank deeply from his mug of ale, and sighed. "In Harval," he continued, "they'd have ye shining the stools."
"I'll just consider myself blessed, then, shall I?"
"RUM!" someone roared, and the noise carried easily from the back of the inn. Automatically, he handed off a bottle of the stuff to Abrams, who appeared as if by magic before whisking off to deliver the drinks.
"Seventeen," said the bearded man.
"Yer seventeen, no?"
"It doesn't matter, I assure you. More ale?" The man gave up his mug without a fight. As the boy refilled the pint, he tried again.
"Go on . . . seventeen, I say. I'm scarce in the habit of being wrong, with things like this." He took the newly-filled mug with a grunt of gratitude, before continuing: "Go on! There's no harm to it."
Sighing, the boy gave in. "Well, it seems you're as lousy at habits as you are at charm," he said. "I'm nineteen. Twenty in the fall."
The man nodded, and the boy watched in detached interest as a large clump of dirt fell from the beard into the frothing liquid of its owner's drink.
"Not much better, nineteen," he mused. "Doesn't do, I tell you, but oh, don't get so hunched over it! You're doin' a fine job of it, a fine job." Through great endeavor, he was trying to drop his voice to kindlier tones. He sounded as if he was choking on an urchin. The boy stared. "Eh, well," the man went on. "Frank trusts you, don't he? That's all that matters." He swirled his drink in slow circles, watching it in perhaps fascination, perhaps drunken reverie. "When you lay out the table, he's a good man. Good where it counts, ol' Frank."
He had to physically restrain himself from telling the man about the horse. He did so, but only by forcing a cough that was a tad too violent to be genuine. It earned him a stare.
"Where'd he find you, I wonder."
"He's not an apprentice sort of man, Frank. What's your trade, boy? When you're not tappin' the river o' sin, that is. And don't try lying; those aren't barman's hands." He gave a convulsive movement which could generously be labeled a wink. "I know these things."
"Look at those palms -- smooth as a full wind . . ." Hurriedly, he moved his hands behind his back, but he realized it was too late. The bearded man's gaze was thoughtful. "Not a scholar, are you?"
He sighed. He basically knew, didn't he? Scowling to hide the rising blush in his cheeks, he muttered, "Not a scholar. I'm a -- that is, I used to be a poet."
There was a pause.
Then, a grin rose to the face of the bearded man, and he jumped to his feet with a laugh that heated the boy's face like a hot coal, before he realized he wasn't being teased. It wasn't a laugh of ridicule, but instead of endless, incredulous joy.
"Bardin'!" cried the man. "Well, fancy that!" He chuckled, and leaned so far over the bar, with so terrifying a visage, that the boy took a step back, driven by honest fear. "Been too long since I've heard a proper bard," he confided, and the boy felt that this had gone far enough.
"Hold on!" he protested. "I never said I'm a bard, I mean"-- he hesitated --"well, they have schools for that. I never got the hang of the iambics, see, and those little letters with the squiggly lines over the top . . ."
"Don't matter a cent," the man crowed, and tried once more for a wink, with even less success. "Can't read, me. But you . . . you're a bard."
"Er . . . "
"Play us a tune," urged the man. "Been too long, since we heard a proper tune."
"Now, hold on"--
With an impatient growl, the man delved into the depths of his pockets, and produced a single silver coin. "Ans metric," he said, shaking it in front of the boy's cautious eyes. "Spends anywhere from Dyrz to the Free Plains? Now I call that a deal worth your while, no?" He slammed the coin down on the table, and both his eyes and the boy's drifted to the husk of a harpsichord, wreathed in cobwebs and the shadows of the eaves.
"But it's been years!" he protested. "I hardly know the keys!" The man grabbed him by the straps of his apron, and urged him out towards the stool.
"Don't much matter, does it?" he said. "I hardly don't, either." Next, before the boy could stop him, he shot into the crowd and came out with Abrams in tow, shoving him behind the bar and resuming his previous seat. By now the inn had fallen silent, and the boy felt his complaints die in his chest, crushed by a descending weight of terror.
"Argh. . ." he managed, and the word ushered in a period of long, miserable quiet. Only the sounds of the wind could be heard, knocking softly at the boarded windows.
Finally, a man from the center tables spoke up, his voice quiet but surprisingly low. "It's true, you know," he said. "The navies, they don't hold for the old shanties. They took away Poltsky's fiddle on the first night. Threw it into the waves, and we heard the prow shatter the pieces and feed them to the whales."
Inspired now, or perhaps emboldened, the murmurs drew around this bastion, and began to spew cautiously into the intervening air between themselves, and the boy's heavy ears, each voice growing stronger from the contribution of the last, eventually overlapping in a great tide that threatened to swallow his nerve and chew it into unrecognizable cud . . .
And then, a voice rang out, clear and decidedly higher than the rest. It came from the back of the inn, and belonged to a man who was hidden completely by the clustered bodies of the other men. Hidden, that is, save for a large red scarf that covered his face and the top of his head.
"Prove to us," said the voice, "that the Tales have not yet died."
Then the bearded man nodded, vigorous in his zeal, and said: "Tell us about the Old Years," he said, and though his words were soft, they were hard, and easily shot through the massing babble of the crowd, which died in the wake of his pronouncement, like flies in tails of billowing smoke.
He reached for words. His mouth was parched, as if snakes had wandered across it, and the words forsook him like rain in the desert. For another minute he sat surrounded by silence and shame, the brute force of expectation coming and breaking against his wall of helpless terror. The first few men had begun to go back, grumbling, to the contents of their drink, when something finally changed.
The words were not his. The song most certainly wasn't, for he remembered not a scale, not a tune from his time in the College. He simply let them fill him, and closed his eyes in gratitude as a sudden muse swept through the marrow of his bones.
"The Lobster," he whispered, and his hands whisked down upon the keys. A note, clear as flashing lightning, shot into ever corner of the shadows and the silence of the room . . .
And then it was shouted down. For the rasping man, the bearded man, now cried from atop his stool: "No! No, no, that's not how you do it at all!" Discontent spread throughout the inn, centering on the interrupter of the Music.
"Get down, you sorry bag," someone muttered.
The man glared down from his post, an osprey, miserly but insistent in the tyranny of his purpose. "No," he repeated. "You must tell us who you are, boy! What city birthed your talent, to whose name to we cherish the Song? That's how you go about it properly."
He tried to think, and failed. There was the expectancy of the moment, the weight of the Music in his mind, warning him that soon, it would be gone, and the greatest beauty he had ever conjured would be lost to him forever . . .
There was no time to think.
"I am Lainsley," he stammered. "Of Halmsvale."
And now the silence was thicker, as if it had fallen in the snow. Lainsley paled from his seat at the keys. He realized what he'd said. As did everyone else in the inn. He felt eyes on him. He remembered what Frank had told him: that there would be no Loyalists, until he reached the Western lands. The Western lands, that is, which were almost a thousand miles in that direction. Halmsvale. Jacal was at war with Halmsvale. He sat here with men who had died under the cannons and swords of his city, with men who, if they had so much as glimpsed the ring he kept in his quarters in a locked and secret chest, the ring with the key signet of the Duke's eagle, would not hesitate to report and stab and drown him, and he'd said what? He imagined the news to the widows on the docks, the tears and the heartbreak when it was told to them that the drowned corpses of their husbands had been crushed under cruel and jagged prows, their corpses scattered so that their spirits would never breathe the air of the next life . . .
For the first time, he tasted the breath of the men who would have waited in silence some far distance away, hearing the wails and feeling the pain and swearing some small vengeance, to make worthy the death of a brother, a friend, a father . . .
For the first time, he knew the cold hand of real Fear.
And then, there was a smile.
"Well then, Lainsley of Halmsvale," said the bearded man, softly. He lifted his mug in a gesture of greeting, and the smile widened to show every molar of his decrepit set of teeth. "We wait to hear your Song."
For just a moment, confusion rattled his heart. What was going on? It was a trick, surely? Terror vied with the instinct to run, and bewilderment stopped both in their tracks. . . .
And made room for the Music.
It filled him in much the same way as it had the first time, coming from within and without, from nowhere and, of course, from everywhere. His eyes traced first the gaze of the bearded man, then trimmed the faces of the distant watchers, who had not anger but instead expectant joy written in every line of their face, and in a moment he knew why.
For, unbeknownst to him, his hands swept silently across the keys. His hands were silent, and in their wake, the air was filled with the Song. With the Lobster, king of the seas and sleeper in the silt which even Time has never disturbed. Lying for Millennia on a shelf of ancient fire, frozen into stone, and around him the wars and trials of Man fell upon the deaf ears of countless seas, each as dispassionate as the last; each as glorious and vibrant and lonely as the last.
After a long while, he stopped, and outside the ocean was still, and the skies had grown dark, lit only by the faux sun of cannon flame, echoing across the waves and bursting with orange blooms of light.
Someone said, "Play it again."
And so he did. Again and again and again, as infinite and varied as grains of sand, and with every run of the Song a note of clarity entered the vault of his Soul. It had a small smile upon its face, that knowledge, and sat upon a large and comfortable chair in the center of a symphony hall. And though the song and the fire and the cannons now raged about him, Lainsley was clothed in silence.
He blinked, and the Other did the same.
"They don't really live forever," it said. "Lobsters, that is. Not really."
Lainsley walked closer. His footsteps made no sound.
"They last quite a while -- dozens and dozens of years, they say -- but they die all the same." It stood, sighing. "They rot. They rot from the inside, and they try to run away."
"Run from what?"
"From the pain of it. It burns them."
"That's horrible." He stepped over a row of chairs. Now he stood not ten paces from the Other, from the center of the silence. Now, it didn't seem as real. It flickered at the edges, and its smile was the smile of the moon.
"Is it?" It said, in a voice like the murmuring tide. "After all, ask yourself -- if a thing has never truly lived, who is to say it ever will truly die?"
Lainsley reached the center of the hall. The Other reached out his hand, as if to shake, and Lainsley offered his own, looking deep into the Other's green eyes. And yet, to think, his own were a vivid blue . . .
Morning rose on the shining oceans of the East. The last of the bodies were washing on the shore, while the ships drifted further out to sea. The water claimed its own. It would not let them go.
Some miles north of the scene of disaster, a few loose supports still flap in the receding waves. By the time anyone comes to check on them, they, too, will have disappeared below the tide, but for now we still can see them. For now, we still know the spot where the Whaler's Widow had stood, and we know that the snapped rope in the stables means that somewhere, far west of here, a horse rides with a saddle and no rider, across endless miles of darkness.
The hill has been hit by cannon, the slopes crushed into a fine ramp on which the ruins slide down like grains through a sieve.
From where we sit, it sounds almost like a song. A melody, tracing its way through ages and the inconvenient discrepancies of misplaced time to find a deserving year. The sailors, though they love the tale, have fates already before them. They shall die. They are lost. But not all things are.
For instance: The Lobster lives immortal