It was sometime around late morning on the second day that he started to give up hope. He had heard it called “the drowning of the spirit”, whereby, once you gave up struggling, it got easier. There was less anger and frustration, more resolution, and even the relief that he wouldn’t need to worry any longer about water, food, and warmth.
Some might hold out for longer; Raulin simply did the mathematics of his plight. He knew roughly how wide the Gamik Sea was and could guess how many ships were upon it at any given point in time. While he was still in the pathway of one of the major routes, just one mile would be the difference between rescue or languishing at sea.
So, with the reality of the rest of his life in front of him, he moved on to resignation. He had been trained for this. His job was dangerous. Sometimes a trirec would die by the hands of another in a fight. Sometimes it was execution or a fatal mistake when escaping. And sometimes they wouldn’t even be in a contract, perhaps sailing on a ship that got too close to a hurricane. Whether it was a broken spine or their lifeblood spilling out, they needed to reach a point of finality.
He was supposed to prepare himself for his next life. He was supposed to review his skills and successes in his career, bottle them up, and send them off in hopes that he would remember them when he was chosen again as a trirec. It was the Merakian way.
He’d rather starve to death on the streets of Kamwaistom than to live another life as a trirec.
So, he didn’t think about the quickest and most silent deaths he had bestowed or the greatest treasures he’d stolen. He thought about his family. He thought about his mother and his father, of his brother and sisters. He remembered the best times with them, the fond memories of hugs and kisses, of playing, of laughing.
He thought about all the time he had spent in between dockets, the few weeks or months each year he spent in good company. He had a few dear friends across the globe, each having a level of camaraderie with a man they didn’t know was a trirec. He’d had a few women he’d spent time with, some he might even consider lovers. They hadn’t known, either, but it hadn’t mattered. Each had been a brief escape into a normal life.
He thought about so many other things. Exotic dishes, all the conversations he’d had, the best parties and soirees. And all of it was going to die with him, like a priceless book being burned.
Acceptance. He was going to die.
Understanding. Who was going to be the master of his death?
His choice came down to whether he was going to take matters into his own hands or let nature take its course. A lungful of water would be the quickest way. A slash across his throat with one of his knives would be fast, too, but painful, especially if he did it wrong and it attracted sharks. He couldn’t figure out a way to strangle himself with the rope available or his laces.
After many hours on his raft, the water keeping his clothes continuously soaked, but not cool enough to ease his burns, he decided to let his life ebb slowly instead of ending it quickly. He didn’t want to die, didn’t have that dark, dispair that some men got when things grew bleak. Even though no ship was coming for him, he could still live what little he had to the fullest by remembering the best moments of it. So, he continued with his thoughts.
He was right: there was no ship coming for him. But there was, however, a peculiar shape on the horizon that was growing closer and closer. It was dark and larger than a man standing, wider by twice that size. It made a back-and-forth motion, not unlike a quadrille step he had learned where the male and female almost touched opposite shoulders. As the thing lumbered on, he kept imagining two very heavy dancers huffing and puffing across the ballroom.
He realized it wasn’t coming towards him. It was going to pass him by. He took a chance that whatever it was didn’t have any bad intentions and started flapping his arms. “Hey!” he yelled, his voice gravelly from thirst.
It stopped and he continued to wave and shout, slapping the water to make noise. It started towards him and he cheered. Yes, he thought. Either I’m going to be saved or killed quickly.
When the thing reached the edge of where the flotsam was, he saw it for what it was. It was a large raft, something that could be even called a houseboat. On the raft were all sorts of items from the sea or items left behind by unfortunate souls, like the crew of the Spirowan. Bottles, barrels, nets, poles, masts, driftwood, and planks mixed with bones of sea creatures, shells, coral, and tropical plants to make a sort of scalloped cave on the back of the raft. In the front, powering a device that pushed two large paddles on either side, was a to’ken.
Raulin had never met one before, but knew it must be a to’ken. It was hard to tell if it was male or female based on its body shape and clothing, but Raulin decided it was a he based on his aggressive pose. Seaweed wrapped his chubby torso from his armpits to his navel. Around his waist were several nets that made a skirt of sorts. His skin was pale and thick with a slimy texture to it, his head hairless with two slight ridges back from eyebrow to neck. He was small of stature with shorter legs and longer arms, both with wide, flat feet and hands that were slightly webbed.
“R’th kuda?” he asked, holding a spear tilted towards Raulin but not pointing at him.
“I don’t speak your language,” Raulin said.
“Eshkra nauthif, eslia shaulintess.”
He knew seven languages fluently, another eleven conversationally, and a smattering of perhaps another two dozen. He started speaking from the former set, hoping the to’ken spoke one of them. He switched from Merakian to Ghenian, then Walpin, Aroukean, Seyanese, Kintasian, and then finally, Arvonnese.
“These words I know,” the to’ken said. It would have to be Arvonnese, of course.
“I’m stranded and I need someone to take me to Gheny. Or the closest place I can get a boat to Gheny.”
“I can see that. What happened to your boat?”
“It was shipwrecked a day ago during a storm.”
“I know about this storm. This is why I am here, to see if anything remains.” He peared over Raulin’s boat. “I will take your things.”
“You can have them, if you bring me to Gheny. Riyala in Genale or Hanala in Sharka will do.”
The to’ken shifted his spear from hand to hand quickly. “I agree to this exchange. What do you have of worth?”
Raulin swam over to the to’ken’s houseboat, dragging his poorly cobbled raft behind him. The discomfort of heatstroke and burns stayed, but he felt peculiar about the situation. He wasn’t elated. He was almost disappointed, actually, and he felt that was very odd. It was almost as if Raulin had been prepared for death so much that this man arriving had been a trespass on something almost sacred to him. He had been with his memories so strongly. He wanted to die with them.
But, the opportunity had arrived. Queyella had sent someone and he was going to live. He was a mess, but at least he was better than a corpse. “I grabbed everything I could find. I couldn’t open these barrels, so I don’t know what’s in them.”
He could have, having many knives tucked away on his person, but it was more he didn’t want to risk opening a barrel that floated, only to have it fill with water and leave him without bouyancy. When the to’ken opened the first, he realized he’d made a good choice.
“Hardtack,” Raulin explained. “It’s food.” He would have grown even thirstier.
The second barrel, however, made him feel foolish. “This is beer,” he said, after dipping his fingers in and tasting them. He wanted ever so badly to cup his hands in the sweet, golden nectar and drink his fill.
“So, you bring me items I can eat and drink, but what about you? Why should I keep you alive when I could slit you open and throw you back in the sea?”
Raulin paused as he tried climbing aboard the raft. “Because you made an agreement?”
The to’ken shrugged, but still didn’t move. He didn’t point his spear at Raulin, which made him think he was trying to look for a better deal, not to renege on their initial contract. “I would like your clothing and your metal.”
“We didn’t agree to that. You take me to Gheny in exchange for the barrels and this raft.”
“We didn’t agree to how you were to arrive in Gheny. I could still slit your belly open and let your innerds feed the sea creatures, then take your rotting corpse to Gheny. We would be fair.”
The trirec had to kick himself. He’d learned that, when societies clung together with limited resources, they either learned to share equally or become extremely shrewd. The to’ken, apparently, were very crafty with negotiations and this one was an embodiment of the virtue. It appeared, though, from what Raulin could understand of his gestures and body language, that he’d prefer to make more money than kill the trirec.
He used his ace in the hole. “If you bring me to Gheny, I will escort you to the trirec compound and they will pay you a considerable sum.”
“Sum? How much sum?”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you can buy lots and lots of things. Barrels of food, trinkets, clothes, whatever you need.” He pointed to the barrel of beer. “This, right here, can give you all the drink you’d need for weeks, maybe months. This is worth about five gold.”
“Why will they give me gold for you?”
Raulin wasn’t entirely sure Arvarikor would pay, since he wouldn’t be dead or on a job, but he felt he was enough of an asset that they’d go along with it. “If a trirec dies while on a job and a man returns his mask to any trirec building, he is given fifty gold. No questions are asked and no bounty is put on him.”
“This still doesn’t answer why I shouldn’t kill you, dump your corpse in the nearest harbor, and turn the mask in.”
“Well, do you know where the nearest trirec building is?”
“I can ask. Humans can be helpful for free, sometimes.”
“They can also be greedy. I promise to guard your property, this mask, until you are paid your reward. I will not help anyone else by telling them where to go or how to get money. Only you.”
The to’ken shifted his spear from hand to hand for a few moments, then stopped. “I agree to this exchange.”
“Great, now please may I have some water?”