The Ship of the Dead

Page 24

Alex’s Tizer-red lips curled up at the edges. “My abuelo made pottery for a living, but his real interest was in our ancestors’ sculptures. He wanted to understand the spirituality of them. That wasn’t easy. I mean…after so many centuries, trying to figure out your heritage when it’s been buried under so much else—Olmec, Aztec, Spanish, Mexican. How do you even know what’s true? How do you reclaim it?”

I got the feeling her questions were rhetorical and didn’t require answers from me, which was just as well. I couldn’t think clearly with T.J. humming “Rio” and doweling smiley faces in his clay.

“But your granddad managed,” I guessed.

“He thought so.” Alex spun up the wheel again, sponging the sides of her pot. “So did I. My dad…” Her expression soured. “Well, he liked to blame…you know, the way I am…on Loki. He didn’t like it at all when I found validation on the Fierro side of the family.”

My brain felt like my hands—as if a layer of clay was tightening over it, sucking out all the moisture. “Sorry, I don’t understand. What does this have to do with magic ceramic warriors?”

“You’ll see. Fish the phone out of my pocket and call Sam, will you? Give her an update. Then shut up so I can concentrate.”

Even under orders, pulling something out of Alex’s pants pocket while she was wearing said pants seemed like a good way to get myself killed.

I managed, with only a couple of small panic attacks, and found that Alex’s phone had data service in the UK. She must have arranged that when she arranged her multicurrency theft.

I texted Samirah and gave her the lowdown.

A few minutes later, the phone buzzed with her reply. K. GL. Fighting. GTG.

I wondered if GTG in this context meant got to go, Gunderson throttling girlfriend, or giants torturing Gunderson. I decided to think optimistically and went with the first option.

As the afternoon wore on, the back tables filled up with fired porcelain squares that looked like armored plates. Alex taught me how, by combining my coils, to form cylinders that would serve as arms and legs. Her efforts at the pottery wheel produced feet, hands, and a head, all shaped like vases and meticulously decorated with Viking runes.

She spent hours on the faces—two of them, side by side, like the piece of art that Alex’s father had shattered in my dream. The left face had heavy-lidded, suspicious eyes, a cartoon villain’s curly mustache, and a huge grimacing mouth. The right face was a grinning skull with hollow eyeholes and a lolling tongue. Looking at the two visages pressed together, I couldn’t help thinking about Alex’s own different-colored eyes.

By evening, we’d laid out all the pieces of the ceramic warrior on our quadruple table, creating an eight-foot-long Frankenstein’s monster, some assembly required.

“Well.” T.J. wiped his forehead. “That thing would scare me if I had to face it in battle.”

“Agreed,” I said. “And speaking of faces—?”

“It’s a duality mask,” Alex explained. “My ancestors from Tlatilco—they made a lot of the figurines with two faces, or one face with two halves. Nobody’s sure why. My grandfather thought they represented two spirits in a single body.”

“Like my old Lenape friend Mother William!” T.J. said. “So, I guess the native cultures down in Mexico had argr, too!” He corrected himself quickly. “I mean trans folks, gender-fluid folks.”

Argr, the Viking word for someone of shifting gender, literally meant unmanly, which was not an Alex-approved term.

I studied the mask. “No wonder the duality art spoke to you. Your granddad…he got who you were.”

“He got it,” Alex agreed, “and he honored it. When he died, my dad did his best to discredit my abuelo’s ideas, destroy his art, and turn me into a good little businessperson. I wouldn’t let him.”

She rubbed the nape of her neck, maybe subconsciously touching the tattooed symbol of the figure-eight serpents. She had embraced shape-shifting, refusing to let Loki ruin it for her. She had done the same with pottery, even though her father had turned the family business into something she despised.

“Alex,” I said, “the more I find out about you, the more I admire you.”

Her expression was a mix of amusement and exasperation, like I was a cute puppy that had just peed on the carpet. “Hold the admiration until I can bring this thing to life, Smooth Talker. That’s the real trick. In the meantime, we all need some fresh air.” She threw me another wad of money. “Let’s go get some dinner. You’re buying.”

DINNER WAS fish and chips at a place called Mr. Chippy. T.J. found the name hilarious. While we ate, he kept saying “MR. CHIPPY!” in a loud, bubbly voice, which did not amuse the guy at the register.

Afterward, we returned to the pottery studio to lay low for the night. T.J. suggested going back to the ship to be with the rest of the crew, but Alex insisted she needed to keep an eye on her ceramic warrior.

She texted Sam an update.

Sam’s response: NP. OK here. Fighting water horses.

Fighting water horses was written in emojis: fist, wave, horse. I guessed Sam had fought so many of them today she’d decided to make a text shortcut.

“You got her international coverage, too,” I noted.

“Well, yeah,” Alex said. “Gotta keep in touch with my sister.”

I wanted to ask why she hadn’t done the same for me. Then I remembered I didn’t have a phone. Most einherjar didn’t bother with them. For one thing, getting a number and paying the bill is hard when you’re officially dead. Also, no data plan covers the rest of the Nine Worlds. And the reception in Valhalla is horrible. I blame the roof of golden shields. Despite all that, Alex insisted on keeping a phone. How she managed, I didn’t know. Maybe Samirah had registered her in some kind of friends & family & also dead family program.

As soon as we reached the studio, Alex checked on her ceramic project. I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or disappointed that it hadn’t assembled itself and come to life yet.

“I’ll check it again in a few hours,” she said. “Gonna…”

She staggered to the only comfy chair in the room—the proprietor’s clay-spattered Barcalounger—then passed out and began to sno

re. Yikes, she could snore. T.J. and I decided to bunk in the storage room, where we’d be better insulated from Alex’s impression of a dying lawn mower.

We made some impromptu mattresses out of canvas tarps.

T.J. cleaned his rifle and sharpened his bayonet—a nighttime ritual for him.

I lay down and watched the rain patter against the skylights. The glass leaked, dripping on the metal shelves and filling the room with the smell of damp rust, but I didn’t mind. I was grateful for the steady drumming.

“So, what happens tomorrow?” I asked T.J. “I mean exactly?”

T.J. laughed. “Exactly? I fight a twenty-foot-tall giant until one of us dies or can’t fight anymore. Meanwhile, the giant’s clay warrior fights Alex’s clay warrior until one of them is rubble. Alex, I dunno, cheers on her creation, I guess. You heal me if you can.”

“That’s allowed?”

T.J. shrugged. “Far as I know, anything’s allowed for you and Alex as long as you don’t actually fight.”

“Doesn’t it bother you that your opponent is fifteen feet taller than you?”

T.J. straightened his back. “Do you think I look that short? I’m almost six feet!”

“How can you be so calm?”

He inspected the edge of his bayonet, holding it up to his face so it seemed to cut him in half like a duality mask. “I’ve already beat the odds so many times, Magnus. On James Island, South Carolina? I was standing right next to a friend of mine, Joe Wilson, when a Reb sniper—” He made a finger gun and pulled the trigger. “Could have been me. Could have been any of us. I hit the dirt, rolled over and stared up at the sky, and this sense of calm washed over me. I wasn’t afraid anymore.”

“Yeah, that’s called shock.”

He shook his head. “Nah, I saw Valkyries, Magnus—ladies on horses, swirling in the skies above our regiment. I finally believed what my ma had always told me about my dad being Tyr. Those crazy stories about Norse gods in Boston. Right then I decided…okay. What happens happens. If my dad is the god of bravery, I’d better make him proud.”

I wasn’t sure that would’ve been my reaction. I was glad I had a father who was proud of me for healing people, enjoying the outdoors, and tolerating his talking sword.

“You’ve met your dad?” I asked. “He gave you that bayonet, right?”

T.J. folded the blade in its chamois cloth like he was tucking it into bed. “The bayonet was waiting for me when I checked into Valhalla. I never met Tyr face-to-face.” He shrugged. “Still, every time I accept a challenge, I feel closer to him. The more dangerous, the better.”

“You must feel super close to him right now,” I guessed.

T.J. grinned. “Yep. Good times.”

I wondered how a god could go a hundred and fifty years without acknowledging a son as brave as T.J., but my friend wasn’t alone. I knew a lot of einherjar who had never met their parents. Face time with the kids wasn’t a priority for Norse deities—maybe because they had hundreds or thousands of children. Or maybe because the gods were jerks.

T.J. lay back on his tarp mattress. “Now I just gotta figure out how to kill that giant. I’m worried a direct frontal charge might not work.”

For a Civil War soldier, this was creative thinking.

“So what’s your plan?” I asked.

“No idea!” He tipped his Union cap over his eyes. “Maybe something will come to me in my dreams. ’Night, Magnus.”

He began to snore almost as loudly as Alex.

I couldn’t win.

I lay awake, wondering how Sam, Halfborn, and Mallory were doing on board the ship. I wondered why Blitzen and Hearthstone weren’t back yet, and why it would take them five days just to scout out the location of a whetstone. Njord had promised I’d see them again before the really dangerous stuff went down. I should’ve gotten him to swear an oath on his immaculately groomed feet.

Mainly though, I worried about my own impending duel with Loki: a contest of insults with the most eloquent Norse deity. What had I been thinking? No matter how magical Kvasir’s Mead was, how could it possibly help me beat Loki at his own game?

No pressure, of course. If I lost I’d just be reduced to a shadow of myself and imprisoned in Helheim while all my friends died and Ragnarok destroyed the Nine Worlds. Maybe I could buy a book of Viking insults at the Viking Centre gift shop.

T.J. snored on. I admired his courage and positivity. I wondered if I’d have

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