The Ship of the Dead

Page 23

The giant turned and strode through the streets of York, pedestrians moving out of his way as if he were a veering bus.

I turned to Alex. “Explain. What did you just agree to?”

The contrast between her heterochromatic eyes seemed even greater than usual, as if the gold and the brown were separating, pooling to the left and right.

“We need to find a pottery studio,” she said. “Fast.”

YOU DON’T hear heroes say that a lot.

Quick, Boy Wonder! To the pottery studio!

But Alex’s tone left no doubt it was a matter of life and death. The nearest ceramics workshop—a place called the Earthery—turned out to be on my favorite street, the Shambles. I didn’t see that as a good omen. While T.J. and I waited outside, Alex spent a few minutes talking with the proprietor, who at last emerged, grinning and holding a large wad of multicolored money. “Have fun, lads!” he said as he hurried down the street. “Brilliant! Ta!”

“Thank you!” T.J. waved. “And thanks for not getting involved in our Civil War!”

We headed inside, where Alex was taking inventory—worktables, potter’s wheels, metal shelves lined with half-finished pots, tubs filled with tools, a cabinet stacked with slabs of wet clay in plastic bags. In the back of the studio, one door led to a small bathroom, another to what looked like a storage room.

“This might work,” Alex muttered. “Maybe.”

“Did you buy this place?” I asked.

“Don’t be silly. I just paid the owner for twenty-four hours’ exclusive use. But I paid well.”

“In British pounds,” I noted. “Where’d you get so much local cash?”

She shrugged, her attention on counting bags of clay. “It’s called preparation, Chase. I figured we’d be traveling through the UK and Scandinavia. I brought euros, kronor, kroner, and pounds. Compliments of my family. And by compliments, I mean I stole it.”

I remembered my dream of Alex in front of her house, the way she’d snarled I don’t want your money. Maybe she’d meant she only wanted it on her terms. I could respect that. But how she’d gotten so many different currencies, I couldn’t guess.

“Stop gawping and help me,” she ordered.

“I’m not—I wasn’t gawping.”

“We need to push these tables together,” she said. “T.J., go see if there’s more clay in the back. We need a lot more.”

“On it!” T.J. dashed to the supply room.

Alex and I moved four tables together, making a work surface big enough to play Ping-Pong on. T.J. hauled out extra bags of clay until I estimated we had an adequate amount to make a ceramic Volkswagen.

Alex looked back and forth between the clay and the potter’s wheels. She tapped her thumbnail nervously against her teeth. “Not enough time,” she muttered. “Drying, glazing, firing—”

“Alex,” I said. “If you want us to help you, you’re going to have to explain what we’re doing.”

T.J. edged away from me, in case Alex brought out the garrote.

She just glared at me. “You would know what I’m doing if you’d taken Pottery 101 in Valhalla with me like I asked you.”

“I—I had a scheduling conflict.” In fact, I hadn’t liked the idea of pottery to the death, especially if it involved getting thrown in a fiery kiln.

“Stone giants have a tradition called tveirvigi,” said Alex. “Double combat.”

“It’s like Viking single combat, einvigi,” T.J. added. “Except with tveir instead of ein.”

“Fascinating,” I said.

“I know! I read about it in—”

“Please don’t say a travel guide.”

T.J. looked at the floor.

Alex picked up a box of assorted wooden tools. “Honestly, Chase, we don’t have time to bring you up to speed. T.J. fights Hrungnir. I make a ceramic warrior who fights the giant’s ceramic warrior. You play water boy, or heal, or whatever. It’s pretty straightforward.”

I stared at the bags of clay. “A ceramic warrior. As in magic pottery?”

“Pottery 101,” Alex repeated, like that was obvious. “T.J., would you start cutting those slabs? I need slices one inch thick, about sixty or seventy of them.”

“Sure! Do I get to use your garrote?”

Alex laughed long and hard. “Absolutely not. There should be a cutter in that gray tub.”

T.J. sulked off to find a regular clay cutter.

“And you,” Alex told me, “you’re going to be making coils.”


“I know you can roll clay into coils. It’s just like making snakes out of Play-Doh.”

I wondered how she knew my dark secret—that I had enjoyed Play-Doh as a kid. (And when I say kid, I mean up to, like, age eleven.) I grudgingly admitted that this was within my scope of talents. “And you?”

“The hardest part is using the wheel,” she said. “The most important components have to be thrown.”

By thrown, I knew she meant shaped on the wheel, not thrown across the room, though with Alex the two activities often went together.

“All right, boys,” she said. “Let’s get to work.”

After a few hours spent rolling coils, my shoulders ached. My shirt stuck to my sweaty skin. When I closed my eyes, clay snakes flopped around on the backs of my eyelids.

My only relief was getting up to change the station on the proprietor’s little radio whenever Alex or T.J. didn’t like a song. T.J. preferred martial music, but English radio had a shocking lack of marching-band tunes. Alex favored songs from Japanese anime—also in short supply on the AM/FM dial. Finally, they both settled on Duran Duran, for reasons I can’t explain.

From time to time, I brought Alex soft drinks from the proprietor’s mini fridge. Her favorite was Tizer, a sort of cherry soda with extra twang. I didn’t like it, but Alex quickly got addicted. Her lips turned bright red like a vampire’s, which I found both disturbing and strangely fascinating.

Meanwhile T.J. ran back and forth between his slab-cutting and the kiln, which he was heating up for an epic day of firing. He seemed to take special pleasure in poking pencil-stub-size dents in the slabs so they wouldn’t crack when baked. He did this while humming “Hungry Like the Wolf”—not my favorite song, given my personal history. T.J. seemed cheerful for a guy who had a duel scheduled with a twenty-foot-tall stone giant in the morning. I decided not to remind him that if he died here in England, he would stay dead, no matter how friendly the locals were.

I had placed my worktable as close as I could to Alex’s wheel so I could talk to her. Usually I waited to ask her a question until she was centering a new lump of clay. With both her hands engaged, she was less likely to hit me.

“Have you done this before?” I asked. “Made a pottery guy?”

She glanced over, her face flecked with white porcelain. “Tried a few times. Nothing this big. But my family…” She bore down on the clay, molding it into a beehive-like cone. “Like Hrungnir said, we have the necessary skills.”

“Your family.” I tried to imagine Loki sitting at a table, rolling clay snakes.

“The Fierros.” Alex shot me a wary look. “You really don’t know? Never heard of Fierro Ceramics?”

“Uh…should I have?”

She smiled, as if she found my ignorance refreshing. “If you knew anything about cooking or home décor, maybe. It was a hot brand about ten years ago. But that’s fine. I’m not talking about the machine-made crap my dad sells, anyway. I’m talking about my grandfather’s art. He started the business when he emigrated from Tlatilco.”

“Tlatilco.” I tried to place the name. “I’m guessing that’s outside I-95?”

Alex laughed. “No reason you’d have heard of it. Tiny place in Mexico. These days it’s really just a subsection of Mexico City. According to my grandfather, our family has been making pottery there since before the Aztecs. Tlatilco used to be this super-ancient culture.” She pressed her thumbs into the center of her beehive, opening u

p the sides of the new pot.

It still seemed like magic to me the way she did it, shaping such a delicate and perfectly symmetrical vase with nothing but strength and spin. The few times I’d tried to use a wheel, I’d nearly broken my fingers and managed to turn a lump of clay into a slightly uglier lump of clay.

“Who knows what’s true?” Alex continued. “These are just family stories. Legends. But my abuelo took them seriously. When he moved to Boston, he kept doing things the old way. Even if he was just making a plate or a cup, he’d create every piece by hand, with lots of pride and attention to detail.”

“Blitzen would like that.”

Alex sat back, regarding her pot. “Yeah, my granddad would have made a good dwarf. Then my dad took over the business and decided to go commercial. He sold out. He mass-produced lines of ceramic dishware, entered into deals with home-furnishing-supply chains. He made millions before people started realizing the quality was going downhill.”

I recalled her father’s bitter words in my dream: You had so much potential. You understood the craft almost as well as your grandfather.

“He wanted you to carry on the family business.”

She studied me, no doubt wondering how I’d guessed. I almost told her about the dream, but Alex really did not like having people inside her head, even unintentionally. And I didn’t like being yelled at.

“My father is an idiot,” she said. “He didn’t understand how I could like pottery but not want to make money off it. He definitely didn’t appreciate me listening to my granddad’s crazy ideas.”

“Such as?”

Over at his worktable, T.J. kept poking holes in the clay slices with a dowel, creating different patterns, like stars and spirals. “This is kind of fun,” he admitted. “Therapeutic!”

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