The Ship of the Dead

Page 9

I wondered what T.J. was talking about. I’d heard that Mallory had died trying to disarm a car bomb in Ireland, but beyond that, I knew very little of her past. Had Loki been responsible for her death?

She gripped my wrist, her calloused fingers reminding me uncomfortably of the keratin vines of Naglfar. “Magnus, Loki’s calling you out. If you have that dream again, don’t talk to him. Don’t be baited.”

“Baited into what?” I asked.

Behind us, Halfborn yelled, “Valkyrie at ten o’clock!” He pointed to the Charlestown waterfront. About a quarter mile ahead, I could just make out two figures standing on the dock—one with a green hijab, the other with green hair.

Mallory scowled back at Gunderson. “Do you have to be so loud, you oaf?”

“This is my regular voice, woman!”

“Yes, I know: loud and annoying.”

“If you don’t like it—”

“Magnus,” she said, “we’ll talk later.” She stomped over to the deck hatch, where Halfborn had dropped his battle-ax during all the confusion. She scooped up the weapon and brandished it at Halfborn. “You can have this back when you start to behave.”

She slid down the ladder and disappeared belowdecks.

“Oh, no, she didn’t!” Halfborn abandoned his post and marched after her.

The ship began to list to starboard. T.J. scrambled back and took the rudder.

He sighed. “Those two picked a terrible time to break up.”

“Wait, what?” I asked.

T.J. raised his eyebrows. “You didn’t hear?”

Halfborn and Mallory argued so much, it was hard to tell when they were angry and when they were just showing affection. Now that I thought about it, though, they had been a little more aggressive with each other the last few days.

“Why the breakup?”

T.J. shrugged. “The afterlife is a marathon, not a sprint. Long-term relationships are tricky when you live forever. It’s not uncommon for einherji couples to break up sixty, seventy times over the course of a few centuries.”

I tried to imagine that. Of course, I’d never been in a relationship, long-term or otherwise, so…I couldn’t.

“And we’re stuck on a ship with them,” I noted, “while they’re working out their differences, surrounded by a wide assortment of weapons.”

“They’re both professionals,” said T.J. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

THUNK. Below my feet, the deck shuddered with the sound of an ax impaling wood.

“Right,” I said. “And the stuff Mallory was saying about Loki?”

T.J.’s smile melted. “We all have our problems with that trickster.”

I wondered what T.J.’s were. I’d lived with my friends on floor nineteen for months now, but I was starting to realize how little I knew about their pasts. Thomas Jefferson Jr.—former infantryman in the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts, son of the war god Tyr and a freed slave. T.J. never seemed to get flustered, even when he got killed on the battlefield, or when he had to intercept Halfborn Gunderson sleepwalking naked through the halls and get him back to his room. T.J. had the sunniest disposition of any dead person I knew, but he must have seen his share of horrors.

I wondered what sort of ammunition Loki used to taunt him in his dreams.

“Mallory said Loki was calling me out,” I remembered. “And that I shouldn’t take the bait?”

T.J. flexed his fingers, as if he were having sympathetic pains from his father, Tyr, who’d gotten his hand bitten off by Fenris Wolf. “Mallory’s right. Some challenges you should never take, especially from Loki.”

I frowned. Loki had used the term challenge, too. Not fight. Not stop. He’d said if you do insist on challenging me….

“T.J., isn’t your dad the god of personal challenges and duels and whatnot?”

“Exactly.” T.J.’s voice was as stiff and flat as the hardtack bread he loved to eat. He pointed to the docks. “Look, Sam and Alex have company.”

I hadn’t noticed earlier, but lurking a few feet behind the children of Loki, leaning against the hood of his car in his jeans and teal work shirt, was my favorite supplier of fresh falafel sandwiches. Amir Fadlan, Samirah’s fiancé, had come to see us off.

“WOW,” SAID SAMIRAH as we approached the dock. “You’re right, Alex. That ship is really yellow.”

I sighed. “Not you, too.”

Alex grinned. “I vote we name it the Big Banana. All in favor?”

“Don’t you dare,” I said.

“I love it,” Mallory said, throwing Alex a mooring line.

Keen and Gunderson had emerged from belowdecks in an apparent truce, though both sported fresh black eyes.

“It’s decided, then!” bellowed Halfborn. “The good ship Mikillgulr!”

T.J. scratched his head. “There’s an Old Norse term for big banana?”

“Well, not exactly,” Halfborn admitted. “The Vikings never sailed far enough south to discover bananas. But Mikillgulr means big yellow. That’s close enough!”

I looked skyward with a silent prayer: Frey, god of summer, Dad, thanks for the boat. But could I suggest that forest green is also a great summery color, and please stop embarrassing me in front of my friends? Amen.

I climbed ashore and helped tie up the Big Yellow Humiliation, my legs still wobbly from the rough river ride and my vision of Loki. If I felt this grateful to be back on dry land after only a few minutes of travel, our journey across the sea promised to be tons of fun.

Amir shook my hand. “How are you, J—Magnus?”

Even after all these months, he sometimes slipped and called me Jimmy. That was my bad. During the two years I’d been homeless, Amir and his dad had been one of my few dependable sources of hot meals. They’d given me leftovers from their restaurant in the Transportation Building food court. In exchange for their kindness, I hadn’t trusted them with my real name. I still felt guilty about that.

“Yeah, I’m good….” I realized I was deceiving him yet again. “I mean, as good as can be expected given that we’re heading off on another dangerous quest.”

Samirah nudged my ribs with the butt of her ax. “Hey, don’t get him agitated. I’ve spent the past few days trying to convince Amir not to worry.”

Alex smirked. “And I’ve spent the past few days chaperoning them as she tried to convince him not to worry. It’s been very cute.”

Samirah blushed. She was dressed in her typical travel clothes: leather boots, sturdy cargo pants fitted with two axes, a long-sleeved turtleneck, and a dark green jacket that complemented her magical hijab. The fabric of the headscarf rippled in the breeze, catching the colors from her surroundings and ready to go into full camouflage mode at a moment’s notice.

Sam’s face, though, seemed a little off. Her lips were dry and peeling, her eyes sunken and dull like she was suffering from a vitamin deficiency.

“You okay?” I asked her.

“Of course. I’m fine!”

But I could smell the ketones on her breath—a stale sour scent like lemons left out in the sun. It was the smell of someone who hadn’t eaten in a while. I’d gotten used to that on the streets. “Nah,” I decided. “You’re not okay.”

She started to deny it, but Amir interceded.

“Ramadan started two weeks ago,” he said. “We’re both fasting.”

“Amir!” Sam protested.

“Well? Magnus is a friend. He deserves to know.”

Alex was working his jaw, trying to bite back his frustration. Of course Alex had known. That’s what he’d been talking about at Uncle Randolph’s—the reason Sam was having so much trouble focusing on her training. I didn’t know much about Ramadan, but I knew a lot about going hungry. It can seriously mess up your concentration.

“So, uh, what are the rules about that?” I asked.

“It will not affect me on this quest,” Sam promised. “I didn’t want to say anything, because I didn’t want anyone worrying. It’s just no drinking or eatin

g during daylight hours.”

“Or bathing,” Amir said. “Or cursing. Or smoking. Or violence.”

“Which is fine,” Alex said, “because our quests never involve violence.”

Sam rolled her eyes. “I can still defend myself if attacked. It’s only one month—”

“One month?” I asked.

“I’ve done this every year since I was ten,” Sam said. “Believe me, it’s no big deal.”

It sounded like a pretty big deal to me, especially in the summer when the days were so long, and we’d be facing all sorts of life-and-death situations that would not wait until after regular business hours. “Couldn’t you, like, take a rain check until after our quest?”

“She could,” Amir said. “That’s allowable if you’re traveling, or if fasting would be too dangerous, both of which are true in this case.”

“But she won’t,” Alex chimed in. “Because she is as stubborn as a very devout mule.”

Sam poked Alex in the ribs. “Watch it, brother.”

“Ow,” Alex complained. “What happened to no violence?”

“I was defending myself,” Sam said.

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