Lance’s people embrace a young man who has bought passage on their floating island…
Samuel emerged from his rented island room sullen, his cheeks gaunt, dressed all in black. He walked past hammocks where the locals napped away the hot afternoon, couples snoring together in a tangle of limbs, mothers curled around little children like shells around peas. Away from the dwellings he found a handful of goats gnawing on shrubs; honeybees dove through tall bamboo to rummage inside of flowering beans, zucchini and asparagus. In the garden it was difficult to believe that the island was the shell of the giant and ancient titanback named Archelon, floating his annual way around the world.
He followed a path through the tide pools where barefoot children sprinted over the slick bone surface, squatting to inspect the bright slugs, limpets, anemones, sea slugs and stars. A small child held a sea urchin in one hand, drawing out meat from its belly with deft fingers and slurping it up as he watched Samuel step with care. Older children looked after nests of eggs larger than their heads.
At the highest point of the island, the smell of food cooking set his stomach to growling. Locals milled about, poking at a grill, laying out baskets, cleaning up children. A giant carp smoked to a golden brown crisp on smoldering coals laid in the center, its stuffed belly open; clams and oysters and heaps of pickled seaweed lay in steaming piles around it.
“Take cover, ladies. A raincloud approaches,” called a voice, followed by ladies laughing. “Join us, Samuel.”
Blossoms drifted down from a cherry tree under which sat a large man, two women and a basket of food. The three wore sarongs; the man’s was fuschia and wrapped round his waist. One of the women shaved his head with a straight razor. The other sat cross-legged, her hand outstretched, as the man manicured her nails.
Samuel paused in an awkward half-step before sitting at the edge of the shade. “I am afraid I do not know you.”
“You need not fear. I am Lance,” said the man. The woman pushed his ear forward to shave behind it. “Eat honey and cheese. It will sweeten you.”
“I will not eat today,” said Samuel.
“Are you sick?” asked the woman with the straight razor.
“No,” said Samuel. “Fasting preserves power and increases discipline.”
“You have all the rest of your lonely life to starve,” said the man. “How many days will you have for licking honey from the fingers of a beautiful lady?”
Samuel turned his blushing face away from the manicured woman, who dipped a finger in the honeypot with a sly smile. “Is she not one of your wives?”
“People are not possessions,” replied Lance.
“Are these not your children?” sputtered Samuel.
“The children belong to everyone, or rather, we belong to them.” The woman folded away her razor and a little boy slipped down from a branch onto Lance’s shoulders. “You will break your fast today, Sam. If you argue, we will take offense.”
“I prefer Samuel,” he said, but he could not refuse. He deposited a bit of fish into his basket and plucked meat from the fragile bones with his fingers like the others. Children crawled up on his legs and asked incessant questions. Lance made no move to save him from the onslaught, and before long Samuel could not help but chuckle.
After they had eaten, the crowd walked the long pathway down to the shell’s edge to watch the sea trolls hunt. They herded seals and held them under, drowning them before tossing them high in the air and catching them in their giant maws.
“I would not allow the children so close to those hunters,” said Samuel.
Lance kept an arm around Samuel’s stiff shoulder as though they were old friends. “The trolls come ashore once a year to lay eggs, and we care for them. In return, the trolls protect Archelon’s soft underbelly from predators, and we play together. Come, watch the jousts.”
At the shell’s edge, past the long line of docked barges, men tied woven saddles to the beasts’ great heads. Wearing bamboo armor and shields and wielding rattan lances, the men mounted the trolls and charged, their lances crashing into one another’s shields with startling cracks. Lance was the best of these knights; he took to the saddle as if born there, sending one opponent after another splashing into the water, his powerful arm locked around his weapon, a frightening grin spread across his face. His troll roared its pleasure and sprayed the onlookers with a wall of water from its slapping tail.
After the jousts, Samuel and Lance watched the moon rise together while the others wandered away. “How do you like our home?” asked Lance.
“It will not last,” said Samuel. “Archelon will not live forever.”
“The rings round the scutes tell us that Archelon has lived at least a thousand growth seasons, and he swims stronger than ever.”
“All things die.”
“Have faith, Sam.” Lance clapped the young man on his shoulder.
“That is no answer.”
“And yet, it is ever the correct one.”
To be continued…