The trees at the edge of the beach lean away from the water. They could have been blown back by a powerful sea wind, but Haworth is certain the trees are simply trying to get as far from the beach as possible. She wants to lean back too.
“What the fuck is this?” Haworth asks. Her breath mists in the damp-cold air. They could have been on the ship home to Tirucal by now.
Aristalo, hands in her pockets, surveys the beach calmly. Haworth’s boss is maybe fifty (unconfirmed, since she’s not the kind of person you can ask to tell you their age), and being a traveling bard that long is a surefire way to become unflappable. “It’s a beach full of sand castles,” she answers. “Watch your language.”
Haworth, about to call profanity-prone Aristalo out on her massive hypocrisy, looks back at the beach and crosses her arms instead.
Fog billows over the water, thick and grey, but it does not touch the land. As far as they can see along the beach, the sand is formed into shapes that could, if you happen to be a connoisseur of the understatement, be called sand castles. They’re nothing like the sand castles Haworth’s younger cousins used to make. They’re as tall as Haworth, and Haworth is five inches taller than Aristalo. An unbroken line of walls marks the border of the sand city. She can barely see the water’s edge past the densely built towers and battlements, despite the slope of the beach. The dark grey sand looks so solid that it’s hard to imagine the incoming tide washing the castles away. They are definitely magical, or supernatural, or at the very least uncanny.
There is something threatening about the sand castles. It’s what makes Haworth want to back away, what makes her think the trees are leaning away from the beach and not the wind. Maybe it’s the stillness, maybe the empty windows in the sandy walls.
“Are they haunted, or what?” Haworth asks. She’s encountered hauntings before in her apprenticeship, mostly at a distance. Aristalo seems to think Haworth is too green to deal with the uncanny shit. The closest she’s gotten was dealing with a suspiciously sentient library’s opinions about which stories she told the citizens of Diosco.
Aristalo hmms, and slings her pack off her back. She rummages around in the outer pocket and pulls out a blue knit hat, which she jams over her close-cropped grey hair.
“Where did you get that hat?” Haworth demands, distracted.
Aristalo grins a dirty little grin. “The waitress at the pub in Imbricata gave it to me.”
Impressed, Haworth subsides. How is it that this cranky, butch old lady gets pretty women giving her knitwear all the time? Is this a skill Haworth can apprentice herself to like the storytelling and singing? Haworth doesn’t really like hats, but still, it’d be nice to get the occasional scarf as a memento. She could use a scarf right now. The air off the water is heavy with cold, the leaves on the trees frozen crisp.
“Why are we here?” Haworth asks. “We could have gone straight to the ship with Captain Setosa.” He’s an old friend of Aristalo’s from the last time she visited Imbricata, and he’s agreed to take them to Tirucal. Haworth’s home, which she hasn’t been to in two years. Which she could be getting to sooner, if Aristalo hadn’t insisted on this little detour. As much as Haworth likes and respects her boss, sometimes she wants to shove Aristalo overboard. She can swim, she’d be fine; she just deserves a good dunking.
“He’s picking us up here, the ship’s out in that fog somewhere.”
“Er, picking us up how? There’s no path through.”
“Your turn.” Aristalo puts her pack back on and gestures for Haworth to go ahead. “Figure out how to get us to the water.”
Haworth groans internally. Of course this is a test. Aristalo loves tests. Especially when they’re mildly life-threatening.
The castles are tall enough that climbing across would be a pain in the ass, and there’s no way Aristalo would do it, so that can’t be the answer. Haworth tugs her collar up around her neck and frowns. Maybe this is why Aristalo is cranky all the time—the bard she apprenticed to probably made her do shit like this, and now she’s passing it on.
Actually, Haworth realizes, that might be exactly what’s happening. Captain Setosa has obviously known Aristalo a very long time, long enough that she could have first visited this region and encountered the sand castles as a young apprentice.
Could they ram their way through? Haworth looks around at the trees. If she got a branch big enough, maybe she could use it to shove sand aside and clear a path. But she isn’t sure she could break off a branch that would be strong enough to do the job. And anyway, there is nothing normal about a beach full of gigantic sand castles. A normal solution like shoving sand aside isn’t going to cut it.
Tentatively, Haworth steps up to the border of the sand city and peers over the wall. She half expects to find the city occupied by hermit crabs or sea turtles or something, but the courtyard below is empty. It has an odd floral scent, mixing unpleasantly with the scent of salt water. There’s no way any flowers are blooming in this cold. Haworth reaches out and shoves one of the conical sand towers with both hands, just to see what will happen.
The sand shoves back.
She stumbles, loses her footing in the loose sand, and sits down hard on her ass. The sensation of the shove, not quite like hands, lingers in her shoulders.
Aristalo snickers. “You asked for that.”
Haworth glares and dusts off her hands, then gets up and dusts off the seat of her pants. She knows better than to push Aristalo, but still she says, “We have to do this now? Just for once, we can’t take the direct path so I can see my family sooner? Aunt Deline is probably already baking fish cakes.”
Aristalo makes a face about the fish cakes, but she doesn’t chide Haworth for trying to get out of this test. “You’ve done four years of your apprenticeship,” she says, the way one might say ‘you’ve done four years of your six-year prison sentence’, “and you’ve got the skills. Wouldn’t you like to be able to tell your cousins the story of the time you handled a beachful of spooky sand castles?”
Huh. Alright, yeah, Haworth does want to tell that story. She grew up telling her cousins stories, when they were little and sad because the Tirucali kids all thought they were too weird to play with, with their Baselban food and Baselban family. It’s how she got the itch for bardcraft, what led her to her apprenticeship with Aristalo. And she mostly made up the stories she told her cousins; it would be novel to tell them a true story about how awesome she is. Damn Aristalo for knowing which carrot to dangle in front of her.
Aristalo said she has the skills. That suggests that somehow crossing the sand castle city is a problem to which Haworth can apply the skills she’s learned during her apprenticeship. She’s an apprentice bard, though. Maybe if she plays the hand drum just right the sound waves will cause the castles to spontaneously fall down? Using brute force is clearly out of the question, so she can’t use the lute as a sand shovel. The tower she shoved looks totally unaffected.
But destruction is the wrong approach anyway, she realizes. You could tell a great story about someone fighting their way through a bunch of uncanny sand castles, but it’s not the story you’d tell about a bard.
Haworth edges back up to the sand wall and begins walking along it. Partly she’s looking for clues, partly she just wants to get away from Aristalo’s amused face for a couple of minutes. Four years of travel with the same aggravating woman, no matter how educational and often fun, requires taking breaks. The sand this side of the city is loose enough her boots sink in; walking through it is a slog. Sand is such bullshit, she thinks.
She walks far enough to be out of earshot if Aristalo decides to shout at her, and stops to look at the sand castles. If she weren’t cold and annoyed, she’d appreciate how beautiful they are. Yes, there’s something creepy about them, but they’re beautiful too. They have not been decorated with shells and stones and fronds of seaweed like a child’s sand castle. Now that she’s paying more attention, she can see the precise way the roofs of the towers are carved to look like tile. The cathedralesque domes are etched with floral patterns. Some of the crenellated walls look like they’re built of regular stone blocks. The windows are shaped into graceful arches. Haworth wonders if the castles have an inside. The windows are real openings, but she can’t see far enough in to tell whether they’re just tunnels that don’t go anywhere, or whether the insides of the castles have been carved out just as realistically as the outsides.
They make Haworth feel twitchy, as if she’s waiting for something, expecting the castles to do something. Somehow, they look like they could do something, and she doesn’t want to find out what. No matter how beautiful the sand castles are, she wants to run far away from them. Even the trees want to run away from them, and are only prevented by their roots. But—
The different grains of sand in Haworth’s brain come together, forming a shape that should be less surprising than it is. Aunt Deline’s fish cakes, the kids who wouldn’t play with her and her cousins, the way her dad genuinely listens even to people he thinks are talking nonsense. So many people in Tirucal treat her Baselban family like they’re about to do something horrible, and here she is treating these sand castles the same way. For all she knows, it’s not their fault she finds them creepy. She thinks about her dad, curious even about people who hate him, and decides that if she’s going to tell a story about this, she’d rather be the curious kind of protagonist than the kind who fights her way through.
Then there’s an unexpected flicker of movement, and suddenly Haworth figures out why she finds the sand castles creepy. She turns and tromps back through the sand to Aristalo, who has pulled a piece of dried pork out of her pack and is gnawing on it contemplatively.
“They’re looking at us,” Haworth says. “The windows are eyes.”
“Huh,” Aristalo says. She probably knew that already.
They look at the castles. The windows look back, empty but seeing. Experimentally, Haworth takes several steps to her left. Almost imperceptibly, the windows angle themselves to follow her. She steps back to Aristalo.
“They know we’re here,” Haworth says, thinking out loud, even though she knows Aristalo isn’t going to tell her if she’s on the right track. “If we could stop them from seeing us, distract them, maybe we could get through.” She crosses her arms and wrinkles her nose while she thinks. “How do you stop a window from seeing?”
“Curtains?” Aristalo suggests.
There’s no way that’s the real answer. Haworth ignores it. The wind blows down the length of the beach, not disturbing the tightly packed sand of the city, but whistling through its streets. The fog is still heavy over the water, and Haworth still wishes she had a scarf.
The interesting thing about being a bard is that when you’re telling a story, you’re the center of attention. You have an audience, and everyone is listening to your voice. If you’re just an ordinary bard, they’re also watching your face, your hands, wondering whether your story is true. But if you’re a really good bard, they don’t see you at all. It doesn’t matter if the story is a lie; they see the truth of it, as if it’s alive and colorful around them. You can walk through an audience, borrow their belongings for props, and they make room for you without even noticing you’ve stolen their hats and knives.
Haworth isn’t sure she’s a really good bard yet. Aristalo is, though. Sometimes that makes it difficult to learn from her; Haworth gets so pulled into a story that she can’t see Aristalo’s technique.
Do the sand castles have ears? “BANANAS,” Haworth shouts, experimentally.
“Shit,” Aristalo swears. “Warn a person.”
But Aristalo isn’t the only one who’s startled by the shout. The sand castles have, very slightly, twitched.
That means that if Haworth or Aristalo tells a story, the sand castles will hear it. There’s no telling whether they’ll understand it, but at least they’ll hear it, so this is worth a shot.
“Will you tell the story about Opalina and the forest of canaries?” Haworth asks.
Aristalo squints at her from under the blue hat and after a moment, grins hugely. Huh, maybe that’s why women give her knitwear. “Nah,” she says. “You tell it.”
“But—” Haworth protests. “For this to work, a really good bard has to tell the story.” Not that she doesn’t like the idea of telling it herself, and being the hero of the tale she’s going to tell her cousins about this.
“So we’ll find out if you’re a really good bard. If you’re not, I’ll take over. I’m a fantastic bard.”
Underneath the swagger, there’s a well-hidden little compliment. Aristalo thinks Haworth might already be a really good bard. That lights a warm glow in Haworth’s stomach. She refuses to make it weird by calling attention to it, though.
Haworth takes a deep breath and rolls her shoulders back. She’s told this story before, once, but she was pretty new to storytelling then, and she was telling it to a bunch of eight-year-olds. But she chose this tale for a reason: it’s good. People listen to it even if the teller isn’t any good. In the right hands, surely it’s the tool Haworth needs.
When Haworth opens her mouth again, her voice carries. It expands down the beach, cutting through the whistling of the wind. “If you’ve never heard the story of Opalina and the forest of canaries,” she begins, “you’re in for a treat.”
She steps closer to the sand castles and lets her voice reach out to them, lets herself disappear behind the story. “Once, long ago, there was a spinster named Opalina…”
At first she isn’t sure whether the story is having any effect. The sand castles haven’t shifted towards her voice the way they did to watch her move back and forth. But there is an alertness to them, a silence that could be listening. Haworth speaks through the strange floral scent that fills her mouth, through the discomfort of thousands of window-eyes. And, when she reaches the part about Opalina finding the library in the forest, a few of the windows iris shut.
Startled, Haworth injects a little more certainty into her voice, a little more confidence. She recognizes the way some people close their eyes when they’re listening, seeing the story more clearly in their mind’s eye. As if she’s stepping into an audience’s midst, she steps up to the wall of the sand castle city. Much like a human audience, the sand begins to crumble and reshape itself, falling into the story.
Where there were walls, towers, sand cathedrals, suddenly there is a road. It’s narrow, better built for Haworth’s skinny frame than Aristalo’s sturdy one (Haworth will hear about this later). The sand redistributes itself, forms new ramparts and domes along the sides of this road. Still regaling the beach with Opalina’s adventures, describing the brilliant yellow feathers of the canaries, Haworth steps onto the road.
It’s a long slope down to the water. She assumes Aristalo is following, but if she looks back to check, she’ll lose the train of the story. She’s afraid that if she stops talking halfway down the sand road, it will close around her, burying her in sand and trapping her there. But she has no real reason to think the sand castles are that hostile. She knows firsthand how it feels to be feared simply for being unfamiliar, and keeps talking.
Haworth doesn’t remember Opalina having so many adventures; surely this story took less time to tell even with the interruptions of noisy children. But telling it becomes easy. She’s pulled into the story herself, forgetting her discomfort. By the time Opalina is on the road home to her cosy house on the town high street, Haworth is nearly at the end of her own road.
Finally, she steps past the last sand castle and onto a narrow strip of wet sand; gentle waves knit a tangle of kelp at the water’s edge. She keeps talking, telling about the lost cat who has come to welcome Opalina home. At last, she turns to look back at the city. Aristalo steps off the road, grinning and holding her pack in front of her so it doesn’t bump the sand.
“And that,” Haworth says, “is the end of Opalina’s story.”
The closed windows wink open. As if realizing they’ve been duped, the sand castles twitch and the road is destroyed, covered over with walls of sand as it was before. The way back is shut now. Captain Setosa had better show up soon.
Weirdly exhausted, Haworth looks at Aristalo. “What the fuck,” she says, with feeling. Aristalo doesn’t admonish her this time. Maybe because she’s proven she’s a really good bard. Now she can say what she likes.
“Look, here’s Setosa,” Aristalo says.
Haworth turns, and sees a low rowboat gliding toward them from the depths of the fog. The flamboyant green-coated sailor from Imbricata is at the oars. The nose of the boat meets the sand, and Captain Setosa ships the oars and jumps out onto the beach. “Hello!” he says. He sniffs the air, looking around at the sand castles. “Smells like flowers. Must be a lot of people bringing offerings for passage lately.”
Haworth’s mouth falls open. She turns to Aristalo and asks through gritted teeth, “Is he saying we could have just brought some nice flowers and the sand castles would have let us down the beach?”
Aristalo snickers and claps Haworth on the shoulder. “Sure. But maybe the sand castles liked your offering better.”
“So they opened the road because I offered them a story? Not because I’m such a good bard, I made them forget I was there?”
“You got a new story out of it either way, didn’t you?” Aristalo says. “Learned something about how to deal with weird phenomena. And you know, they don’t shut their eyes to listen to just anyone.”
“That’s true,” Captain Setosa says. “They’re picky about stories, the sand castles are. They didn’t shut their eyes for Aristalo’s story.”
Haworth’s eyes go wide. Aristalo punches Captain Setosa on the shoulder and says, “Shut up. I was young. Get in the boat, kid.”