To my dismay, I discovered as I rinsed my clothes that I'd lost my sketch of No Map Creek. It probably fell out during my encounter with the Raduar assassin although it’s possible, barely, that it could have happened earlier. Regardless, I took Jack Lasker's advice and used an 'even smaller scrap' to make its replacement.
Jack is crazy. He thinks something is wrong with how I'm mapping but he won't tell me what. Crazy or not, though, he is decently educated. He reads well. He writes a little. He understands math, geometry, and even cartography. Jack's father sent him to a school in Weighbigh, a town just west of Oupenli. It seems that Jack lived at the school from the age of six to nearly the age of twelve. His experience there gave him traits I would normally associate with city men. He can recite poetry, for instance, and he owns a toothbrush.
But before he turned twelve, his father took him out of school and raised him to be a riverman. Jack knows a surprising amount about magic for someone who seems otherwise unconcerned about spells or charms. For my sake, he pointed out magical animals such as the flying frogs in the trees along both shores. They're hard to spot but Jack has a knack for seeing their shapes. He says the frogs get as heavy as wolves farther downstream. I don't like the sound of that. He says they're big enough to share the sky with flying alligators.
He could also identify the sounds we heard during the night. A loud screech came from a type of bat, not an owl as I'd thought. A splash downstream turned out to be a gar, which is a kind of small alligator, I think.
At dusk there was a keening noise. Jack said it was the mating song of a male siren. It didn't seem to worry him so I didn't ask more about it. We slept in shifts and took turns keeping a small fire lit on our main deck. Jack visited the other boat a couple times during the night. Around dawn, both of us slept at the same time. But then we heard the keening again. It sounded rather like a sad, young man who was wandering the opposite shore, singing to himself. But the song had no words. Other than that, he could have been a drunk human.
'Aye, that's the siren male again,' he told me, instantly awake and observing that I was, too. 'They're a danger to the women around here.'
'Not to us?' I asked. I remembered the blonde-haired, strong-armed Simone. I found the thought of anyone doing harm to her distressing.
'A male that small, no, he'd ignore us while we were in his territory. He's looking for a mate. Too bad for him. It's the end of their season, maybe a little past. And there are no siren females hereabouts.'
I wondered how women could live near No Map Creek if the sireni were dangerous. Jack explained that the individuals can be lethal but that the sireni on the whole are dying out. They live in the waters from just north of Shore Kill to a place called the Invisible Temple. At the Invisible Temple, background magic gets too strong for the sireni to set up permanent homes although a few siren heroes go hunting in the area. As to their biology, they appear to be men and women with thick, green skin. They have webbed feet and hands. For tools they carry primitive spears and a little in the way of clothing. Either the sireni breathe water or they hold their breath for so long as makes no difference. The larger magical river beasts like flying alligators, hippopotami, nessi, and bishopi are dangers to the sireni, which is why even the un-mated males don't wander far into the Riggli Kill.
Local lore tells that the sireni hunted the alligators in No Map Creek until there were none left except around the Invisible Temple.
'Me great-grandad was a boatman,' Jack told me. 'But he had a weak moment and got et by them sireni. Their women give out a mating call, ya see, and some men just can't help it. They gots to go to 'em. Oh, he'd heard them sireni before but not out of season and not so far upstream. This one, she was early and she was out of place. And her draw was too strong for me great-gran. So he went. He ran into other fishermen and boatmen from the nearest village. They fought. That's what the song does to ya.'
'And the other men killed your grandfather?'
'Nah. My great-gran beat those other human men. But a male siren, he killed granddad. Drowned him. It probably didn't even mean to do it, just thought it was fighting another male siren for the right to mate. If it wasn't for the male, the female would have drowned granddad anyway. She wouldn't mean to do it. It's just the way they are. They're okay when it's not their mating season. Ya can talk to them. They don't say much but they know words.'
'Amazing.' Then I asked, 'When did it change and get more dangerous for women?'
'Two years after great-granddad died. A wizard came through. Don't know his name. But he wandered right into the heart of mating season and almost got killed. It scared him something awful. So he cast a curse against the sireni. About half of their females got sick and died.'
'How long ago?' It was a question I had to ask several times.
'Nearly sixty years, give or take. The next generation of sireni didn't recover. Nor the next, nor the next. The disease they've been cursed with, it takes half the girls right dead before they can swim alone. I gather that if a girl makes it through her first year, she's almost always going to be okay. But that year is hard on the parents, especially the mother. Their dads is worse than human dads. They spends most of their time away, hunting or fighting with alligators or cougars or hippos or magical water creatures for territory.'
'But the females still sing their mating songs. Isn't that dangerous?'
'They don't have to sing for long to attract mates now, do they? And the lonely males started to sing in response to their situation right away. It was in the very year of the curse. The story goes that they sung mostly sad songs, at first, but then they noticed that they were luring human women. They ain't stupid. Pretty soon, all the losers of the mating fights would start singing songs while the scent of their females was still in the air. And our women would go over to them.'
'And the sireni males would drown them? Why?'
Jack cleared his throat. He gave me a sort of embarrassed cough.
'Ya know,' he choked. 'It's the same reason the females drown our men.'
I was slow to draw the full picture in my mind.
'Fighting?' I said.
'Mating.' The boatman's voice dripped with disdain. 'Not everyone drowns, of course. Most do. Not everyone.'
'Oh.' For a moment, I was afflicted by the same, embarrassed cough.
Next: Chapter Twenty, Scene Three