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Chapt. 25: As Widows Do
By Michael Jesse
Riona leaned her head forward and tenderly placed her forehead inside the horns where Verdu's own had once been. She closed her nostrils tightly around the two main valves and began to play. She had trouble finding some of the notes at first, but it was the same tune she'd whistled a moment ago. The same song her mother had played many times on her father's horns as she grew up.
MacWilde seemed stunned by what he was witnessing and even Jack was surprised. He had known all along what would happen but he hadn't quite prepared himself to hear Verdu's voice. The song was Riona's and she could not play nearly so loud as Verdu, but it was it was exactly Verdu's voice as if he were alive with them again.
Everyone else was silent, watching, and Riona's song through her dead husband's horns became clearer and more confident as she played. It filled the room and echoed up the stairwells where Marketta must have heard it because now Jack saw her standing in the doorway. He expected her to make them stop and take the valuable horns away, but Marketta just stood there and listened like everyone else until Riona was exhausted and overcome with her own emotions and stopped playing. Marketta clapped her hands and strode over to them, beaming. "How in the world did you teach her to do that?"
"I didn't have to," Jack said. "This is just something they do. I saw it when I was over there. It's like a tradition. They preserve the horns of the males who die and the widow plays them on special occasions."
"Oh that's good," Marketta said. "I like that. Oh, I have an idea. We could say these are the horns of her lost love."
"That's what they ARE!," Jack nearly shouted, keeping his composure for the sake of Riona. "These really are the horns of her husband– her mate. "
"Perfect!" Marketta replied excitedly, and Jack still could not tell if she believed him. "Oh, this will bring in three times the revenue we've projected. I think our Miss Riona has star power."
"Wait. . . we'll make three times as much money?" Jack asked cautiously. "Without selling them?"
Next to music, Jack's only other good subject was math and this was beginning to sound like a story problem to their advantage.
"So if she makes three times as much money for Capt. MacWilde then he could make enough to get back his ship and still keep the ruah too!" he exclaimed.
Marketta laughed. "No, sweetheart, whatever gave you that idea? His ship, certainly, but not the animals."
Hearing her call him "sweetheart" nearly short-circuited his thinking but Jack held onto his train of thought. "Why not?"
"In the first place, I don't think he wants them After all, he brought them here to sell to Capital Ventures for a profit. But even if he did want to keep them, I'm afraid that's not how economics works, little man. You see, if Riona brings in more revenue than we originally forecast, it simply means she's worth more than our original estimate. Therefore, we would increase the repurchase price accordingly."
"But you don't have to do that."
"Oh but we do. You must understand, my dear. Mr. Procktor and I share a very serious responsibility as representatives of Capital Ventures. Only a small portion of the money these animals bring in will go to us personally. We act in behalf of thousands of citizens of Margaid who have trusted us to look out for them and their financial interests. We can't be sentimental and allow our hearts to interfere with business decisions. If the most profitable use of these animals is through performance and ticket sales, then that's what we do. If it's more profitable to sell them as farm animals or butcher them for their meat and skins, then we would do that instead. We have a responsibility to our shareholders and there is nothing more important."
Riona gave an irritated whistle, wanting to know what was going on. Jack quickly filled her in and Riona made a brief reply as Marketta watched with amusement.
"I love how he does that," Marketta whispered to MacWilde, and then to Jack she said, "does our Miss Riona have something she wishes to say."
"She says what you're doing is immoral."
Marketta sighed and her smile disappeared. "When you are older, you will learn that in business whatever is legal is therefore also moral." She looked at her ornate watch. "Well, this has been such fun, but I must dash off to an appointment."
She turned to go but then looked back over her shoulder and waved to Riona, who glared back at her angrily. "And it was so nice chatting with you as well, Miss Riona. We really must have tea sometime."
As the sound of Marketta's heels faded up the stairwell, MacWilde stood for a long time uncharacteristically silent.
"You know, Jack," he finally said, "I've seen you do this several times now and–"
"The way you talk to them and they seem to really be talking back. It's not just what you say that they've said — anybody could do that. But the way their eyes look and how they sound, like just a moment ago the look on Riona's face . . .. It's like she . . . well, it's very convincing."
Jack was tired of trying to explain it and said nothing.
"Seeing you do it again just now," MacWilde went on, "it reminded me of when we were on the ship and you had me talking to old Verdu before he . . . before he . . . before he passed on. And hearing her play music on his horns — now that was very strange. Sounded just like him, didn't it? I remember his eyes, looking back at me while you were telling me what he . . . what he was saying."
Jack shrugged, irritated. "But it's just an act, isn't it."
MacWilde squatted in front of Jack, taking him by the shoulders urgently. "Is it, Jack? Tell me truthfully. I know you're old enough to know when something is just pretend."
"I told you the truth," Jack responded hotly, shrugging out of MacWilde's grip. "I can't help it you don't believe me."
"That's the thing, Jack. I think I do believe you. But I can't quite make sense of what that means. If they really are– do me a favor, son. I want you to tell her something for me."
"Tell her what?"
"Tell her that. . . tell her I am deeply and truly sorry about what happened to . . . to Verdu. I never intended for that to happen and I wish I could do something to change that. Would you tell her that for me?"
"Okay," Jack said and played his flute to Riona for a moment. She continued to glare at MacWilde and her expression softened only slightly as she whistled a response. Jack translated as she spoke, a few words behind her.
"She says you can't change the fact that he's dead."
"I know. I wish I could but–"
"But she says there's one thing you could do."
"There is? What does she–"
"Take us back."
"She says you can't change what happened to Verdu but there are a dozen others whose lives you could save if you are willing to."
MacWilde looked at the other young ruah in the cage who were all now staring back at him. "I wish I could do that."
"Wishing isn't enough."
"I don't even have control of my ship," MacWilde insisted. "And even if I did, I can't sail the thing by myself. I guarantee you none of my men would go along with such a thing. We'd all be criminals and outlaws and there's no place we could go. I've been farther in this world than any man alive and I've been to a dozen different lands where people look different and speak different languages, but nearly all of those communities are dying out. Even Margaid, old as it may be and with all the stories in its past of great men and great achievement, it's in decline as well."
"Why are the communities dying out?" Jack asked, curious to hear of this. Out of habit he translated his own question and was surprised again when Riona whistled. "Not enough fresh water."
Jack translated and MacWilde replied, "That's it exactly. How did you know?"
"I'm a science teacher and that's a rather elementary fact."
"A science teacher, are you? I'll have to picture that. Do you have a classroom?"
"Yes, but I prefer to teach outdoors because that's where you find all the best science."
MacWilde laughed at this. "And Verdu was a minister I understand."
"Yes. How did you know that?"
"Jack told me once, but I didn't believe him at the time. I just now remembered it. So did he preach sermons?"
Riona made a trilling laugh that surprised MacWilde and even Jack since she'd been so somber lately. "You could say that," she said. "But you've drifted away from the topic of this conversation. If you regret abducting us, will you act on your conscience and return us to our home?"
"Madam, I dearly wish that I could. But without a crew I can't sail it. I don't suppose you know how to sail, science teacher?"
"Actually, I do, " Riona said, "though I'm not an expert. My Aunt Vera has a sailboat and she used to take me out on the lake near her home."
MacWilde chuckled and looked at Jack. "Son, are you sure you're not making this up?"
"I'm surprised by it too," Jack said, and then to Riona he played, "the ruah have sailboats?"
"Has no one told you about Emelya and The Adventurer?"
"Uh, I don't think so," Jack said.
"Well, it's a long story, but yes, we have sailboats, though nowadays they are mostly just small ones for recreation and not like Capt. MacWilde's large ship."
MacWilde grinned. "I'm having a hard time picturing old Verdu on a little sailboat. Wouldn't those big horns get in the way?"
Riona laughed again. "I'm quite sure Verdu was never on a sailboat in his life. Sailing is primarily a female pursuit in our society. But the point is that we do understand the basic physics of sailing — it's not really that complex — and I assure you we are capable of learning to be your crew. Will you help us?"
The other ruah in the cage had been following this conversation and now several of them joined in, saying, "Yes, we could be your crew" and "Teach us." and Jack translated quickly for each of them.
"Wait, now, all of you," MacWilde said, holding up his hands and taking a quick look at the stairway to make sure no one was listening. "Assuming for the moment that I've not gone completely mad and that we are indeed having this particular conversation, it's just not a practical idea. Stealing a large ship from a river port in the middle of a city like this would require, at the very least, the element of speed. I'd have a hard time doing it with experienced men and I can't imagine doing it with trainees."
"As I recall," Riona said, "it was mostly a matter of tying and untying knots together with a working comprehension of the elementary physics of wind resistance, isn't it?"
"Well that's, er, you could put it that way I suppose," MacWilde said a bit defensively. "But those knots are pretty important. And, uh, not meaning offense, but you haven't any hands. How the bloody hell do you sail without hands?"
"We manage quite well, thank you."
MacWilde picked up a length of rope that had been coiled on a hook on the wall and tossed it in through the bars. "Would you mind showing me a knot or two?"
"Well, I probably don't know the same ones as you," Riona said, picking up the rope with her teeth and dragging it closer to the bars. Sitting down so that her front legs were free she used the toenails of both front feet in combination with her mouth to begin looping the rope through the bars. "This is a common knot we use around the house. Some people call it a grip-and-let knot because at the point of most pressure it grips very securely." As she whistled with her nose, her teeth and lips were busy in practiced and deliberate coordination with her thick toenails as she slowly completed the knot. "So as you can see it will take all the pressure you can give it at this end" — here she tugged at the loose end of the rope with her teeth — "but when you want to release it quickly you can pull on this loop and let it go like this." She slipped a toenail through the loop and pulled gently and the knot fell apart.
MacWilde watched in amazement and then applauded. "That's quite similar to one we use as a matter of fact. Here, let me show you one." He took the rope and made another knot, explaining each step as he went. Then Riona tried it, a bit clumsily but with some prodding and instruction from MacWilde she completed it to his delight.
"Beautifully done!" he exclaimed. "Now here's one we call–"
"Forgive me for interrupting, my dear captain," came a voice from behind them. It was Procktor coming down the stairwell. "I must say I'm impressed with how much effort you are putting into this exhibition."
Jack saw MacWilde's face as he quickly collected himself before turning to face Procktor. But when he whirled around he was ready.
"Elias, you're not interrupting at all," MacWilde said cheerily and without the least hint he was trying to hide anything. "But there's so little time before the first show that Jack and I have to keep working with them, you know."
"I suppose so," Procktor said. "What are the ropes for?"
"Oh just an idea Jack and I were working on," MacWilde said casually. "It's still in the formative stages and we don't know yet whether we can teach them to do this, but we thought we might have them . . . raise a flag. Yes, I thought we might rig up sort of a ship's mast and put the Margaid city flag on it and, uh , teach the animals to raise it over the arena as part of the program."
"Interesting idea," Procktor said. "You have a talent for showmanship, Captain, which adds value to your stake in this investment. I'm sure you will profit handsomely . . . over time. But as you know there are expenses each day."
"What are you talking about?" MacWilde asked suspiciously.
"Oh, it's only the docking fee — for your ship. It's been building up and I advanced some funds to cover it. We'll just apply it to your other debt. No trouble at all."
He handed MacWilde a slip of paper and the captain looked down at the figures with disgust.
"What about the air?" MacWilde asked. He was smiling but his eyes were cold.
"The air?" Procktor repeated. "I'm afraid I don't understand the question."
"I am asking, Elias, whether there is a charge for the air I'm breathing. Am I going to get a bill for that, too, before this is over?"
Procktor laughed wheezily. "No, I assure you the air is free, Captain. Use all you like. Well, I must be going."
As the sound of Procktor's footsteps disappeared up the stairwell MacWilde looked at the paper again and crumpled it into a wad. He tossed it on the floor and looked at Jack. "Tell Riona I'm in the market for a good crew."
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