One Way Out
Akali the white Lupe straightened up and dusted the light coating of white snow dust that gathered on his dingy coat. It gathered on just about everything here, and Merida was used to it. What she wasn’t used to was the idea that this enigmatic stranger had a compass in his possession that, when followed, could take her directly to her long-lost brother.
“First things first, we’ve got to get on a ship,” Akali said. He eyed the steamer behind them, which was getting ready to pull off. Crew members in blue uniforms buzzed around, gathering crates and loading them aboard.
“But I don’t have any money for a ticket,” Merida sighed.
“That should be of no consequence. Follow me,” he brought her around to the side of the boat. Merida could hear crewmembers shouting to each other.
“Two more loads, then pull up the gangplank!”
The two of them hung back in the shadow of the ship. When Akali saw a break in the traffic, he pulled her aboard straight towards the pile of wooden crates awaiting storage below deck.
Merida and Akali crouched amongst the large wooden cargo crates. Akali peered over the edge, but the crew was too busy to notice them.
“You’re not really a member of this ship’s crew, are you?” she realized.
“Not technically, no. But I have been riding around with them for quite some time,” He settled in close to the crate to blend in.
“So you’re a stowaway.”
“Need I remind you that you two are now a stowaway?”
“Whatever,” Merida rolled her eyes and crossed her arms, “Where’s this ship headed, anyway?”
“South. Mystery Island. Right where you’re needle’s pointing,” he said. Mystery Island! No wonder Chosek never wanted to come back. It was so far away. Was he all the way down there? She had never even left the mountain. What if she got homesick? She didn’t think she would. There wasn’t anything about the mountain that she particularly liked. Literally anywhere could be better than the eternal winter.
Stowing away on the steamer ship wasn’t too difficult. Once they were underway, they snuck down to the boiler level of the ship and snagged Merida a blue crew uniform. Despite the crew’s large size, it was difficult to find one small enough to fit her. Even when they found one, it was still baggy around the middle and she needed to roll up the sleeves.
“Now the crew turnover here is big enough that most people won’t notice you weren’t actually hired,” Akali explained, “Still, they’re pretty lenient. As long as you’re working and they don’t have to pay you, they’ll let you hang around. Just don’t call too much attention to yourself,” she looked respectable enough, although she still looked too young to ride a ship. “If someone asks you how old you are--”
“I’m old enough to crew a ship,” she said. Her sleeves kept falling over her paws and her pant hems dragged across the ground.
“Just avoid the question.”
Once the ship got underway, Merida and Akali slipped seamlessly into the ranks of the lower crew members. The work was tough but satisfying. They mopped the decks, which only seemed to keep getting wetter. They lugged trash to the incinerator, rotated shifts to maintain the steam engine. One of the crew members discovered Merida’s small size was useful for climbing up high into tight places, so her main job became fitting where no one else could. At least it kept Merida’s mind off the constant rocking of the ground under her feet. She sometimes woke up in the middle of the night to feel the ship swinging her back and forth, back and forth, like a young child in a cradle. Whenever the motion became all-consuming, she buried herself in her work until she could forget about it. During a storm, the open waters lashed more furiously against the sides of the boat than she ever would have guessed. Most of the crew members fell ill with the motion, even Akali. But she held on steadfast and continued caring for the ship. Before now, her only relationship with the water was the quiet and still harbor along Terror Mountain, and that was as flat as a mirror most days. Out here, the water had an attitude.
Sometimes, when the work was slow or Merida had a break, she came up to topside to lean over the railing and inspect the Astroblade Akali had given her. The needle steadfastly pointed off the bow of the ship. At least she was going the right way. But how did it know? And where did Akali get it, before he gave it to her? She wondered how many generations of Neopets it had led astray.
After a week at sea, the ship at last pulled into port in Meridell for refueling and restocking. They were happy to arrive back on land, but the moment Merida stepped onto the dock, her legs gave out from under her. “I can’t walk!” she screamed. Akali pulled her back up to her feet.
“You’ve been at sea for too long. You have to get your land legs back,” he explained. She hardly noticed the ship’s movement anymore, but now that they were on solid ground, the still land seemed to swoop and dive around her. It was warm here, too, and Merida stripped her winter furs and scarves off. She bought new cotton clothes that would breathe better in the warm sun. When she wasn’t needed on the ship, she set about exploring the rolling hills and dales of the Meridell countryside. Everything was so warm and green and alive here. How had she spent her whole life in a snow pile? How could she ever go back?
Akali didn’t do much exploring himself. He kept a low profile every time he stepped on shore, wearing a cloak over his face even in the bright sun. Merida asked him about it, but he didn’t explain. Instead, he muttered something about owing some money to the fellow who ran Kiss the Mortog and kept it at that. When they got back on the ship and pulled away from shore, he seemed relieved to have his back on the place.
The trip south to Mystery Island would take another two weeks. Every day the weather became warmer and warmer as they approached the equator. The crew slowly became more and more nocturnal, working later at night so they could avoid the heat. Akali started playing cards with some of the higher ranking crew members after dinner, making high bets and reaping high rewards. She confronted him after one of these games. “How do you have all this money to bet?” she asked him. With all the money he was betting, he could easily buy a first-class ticket on a passenger ship.
“It’s not about how much money I have. It’s about how much money I can get from them,” he explained, counting his small sum from the night’s game.
“But what if you lose? How will you pay them back?”
Akali shushed her and put the money in his pocket. “I don’t lose,” he said, simply. Merida wasn’t entirely sure that was true.
Another night, after her shift, Merida stood along the edge of the ship as usual, watching the unwavering needle of the Astroblade. Far below, the waves lapped against the hull of the ship. She was getting used to life on a boat.
Akali found her in her spot and joined her along the edge, watching the needle too. She didn’t say anything upon his approach. The both of them had been so busy on the ship, Merida never got the chance to ask him the questions accumulating in her this whole time.
She didn’t know where to start asking, so she settled for the most important. “Why are you going to all this effort to help me?” she asked.
“Maybe I’m just a kindly person,” he said.
“No, that’s not it,” she closed up the lid of the compass and slipped it back into her pocket for safekeeping, “You’re the kind of person who does things for your own benefit. You cheat, you swindle, you lose bets. And then you run from your problems. So what is in it for you if I find my brother?”
Akali squirmed. This was one discussion from which he could not run. “I’ve been using the Astroblade for years now. Even when I didn’t know which direction I should head, it always pointed me where I needed to go. It was just my puzzle to figure out what that place held in store for me. It’s taken me all around the globe. When I bumped into you, the needle was pointing right at you. It never pointed at a person before. You were what I needed next in Terror Mountain. So I guess it was just my job to help you out.”
Merida looked out over the great expanse of water, “How did you know I wouldn’t just pawn off this thing at the Black Market?”
“I didn’t give it to you. I’m letting you borrow it,” he corrected her, “I expect that thing back.”
“Don’t worry. I’m a scavenger, not a thief. I just want my brother back, and then I’ll go back to Terror Mountain,” she smiled, as if something had just occurred to her. “Thank you for everything.”
“I haven’t done anything yet.”
“I know. But still… thank you,” She surprised him by hugging him tight.
To be continued…