PodCastle 502: Zilal and the Many-Folded Puzzle Ship — Live at Can-Con!

Zilal and the Many-Folded Puzzle Ship

By Charlotte Ashley

When Zilal Saleebaan Kamal was six years old, she built her first ship in a bottle. It was a fully-articulated craft of sandalwood and brass with eighteen oars that rowed in unison when the bottle was tipped to and fro. Her father presented it to the Suldaan on her behalf, and it sits in the winter palace still.

When she was nine, Zilal received her first commission from the Emir. The musical dhow she built as a gift for his young son played lullabies with the flow of the tides and could be heard singing low, fine raagas while at anchor, the drifting waters playing the ship’s reeds and pipes.

When she was eleven, Zilal redesigned the Suldaan’s xebec to carry a third mast and wider sails, making the Tidebreaker the strongest ship in the Ajuran fleet. She took formal apprenticeship with her father, the artificer Saleebaan, and moved into the Suldaan’s palace.

When she was twelve, a hole in the world opened up off the shore of Mogadishu. The portal, a shimmering, towering tunnel perched prettily in the bay, opened into a whole new world filled with riches, dangers, and opportunities. In the depths of her soul, she understood that the Archipelago, named for its endless seas and infinite islands, would be the equal of her in ways the mundane world could never be.

But when she was sixteen, Zilal Saleebaan Kamal fell in love.

The Sultinate guarded the secret of the portal closely. Nobody could pass through without the Suldaan’s mark.

But Zilal thrived on the impossible. Challenging convention, limitations, even nature — that was her craft. Her whole life had been an apprenticeship in defiance leading up to the moment when her heart, her soul, her very existence depended upon getting that which she needed so desperately that she felt she would simply cease to be if she did not get it. Get him, the tall boy at the shipyard with the thick arms and easy smile.

Not that Jamaal, the woodcutter, withstood her natural charms. He was a fine, strong lad of eighteen who knew a good thing when he saw her. But Zilal wanted more than his chaste attention. Skulking around back alleys and darkened gardens just to find a place of quiet beauty to share with him did not suit her. And why should it, when a whole private world lay just beyond that forbidden gate?

So she built Jerboa.

“Come on, come on!” Zilal whispered. She led Jamaal past the fishermen unloading the day’s catch to an unremarkable covered dhow near the end of the pier. “It’s getting dark!”

“Isn’t that the point?” the boy replied, flashing his calm smile. He had soft brown eyes, big hands, and a wide chest that strained pleasingly against the flimsy linen of his shirt. Zilal let him wrap his arm about her waist, to pull her closer. “The dark is our handmaiden, hiding us from all eyes but the moon’s . . .”

“Is that poetry?” Zilal laughed, slipping away. “Save your honeyed tongue. We need at least a little light to cast off.”

Jerboa was like any other family’s fishing vessel: twenty feet long with a hood-like sterncastle at the rear and a single mast jutting at an angle from the nose. She was made of Tahji bonewood — nearly indestructible — and freshly painted a royal blue-black, but otherwise could have belonged to any poor person in lower Xamar.

Zilal hopped aboard and beckoned to her beloved. “Get that rope. We’ve only a little time.”

Jamaal did as he was told, untying the boat and pushing them away from the dock. He moved to unfurl the sail next, but Zilal stopped him with a hand on his forearm. “What?” the boy asked. “We will need the sail to catch a northerly wind.” Zilal drew him closer to her with only a mysterious smile. “Aren’t — aren’t we going north?”

Zilal shook her head and stood on her toes to whisper into his ear. “No. We’re going there.”

Jamaal drew back enough to follow Zilal’s steady gaze to the portal. “Wait, you’re serious,” he hissed. “You mean to enter the Archipelago.”

Zilal inclined her head. “I do.”

Jamaal looked about the modest dhow, but if he doubted her, he did not let it show. He circled her with an admiring gaze. “I knew you were bold, but I never dreamed you would risk your life for an evening in my arms.”

The hair on the back of Zilal’s neck rippled and her cheeks grew hot. “And you, ready to follow me into that danger?” Her hand found his chin, ran a finger along his smooth jaw. “Come on,” she whispered, “below. I will show you . . . my ship.”

Jerboa was not what she seemed. Her perfectly-joined hulls hid many secrets.

Jerboa-the-fishing-boat had little more than a storage space below deck with room only to lie in the dark on a strange, polished belly. But she was not a fishing boat for long.

Zilal returned to the main deck and counted the waves as they drifted into the current, watched as the Suldaan’s fleet dipped in and out of view with the swell of their wake. In the valley between peaks, when she was as hidden from them as they were from her, she started to fold the ship.

Whoosh, with the rolling of a wave, she set a hidden gear clicking with the depression of a lever and the whole port deck slid aside.

Whoosh, another wave and the starboard deck, next, rolled away in a clatter of retracting boards.

Whoosh, Zilal danced into the shadow of the hooded sterncastle, waiting for a big one.

WHOOSH! It came, and she drew down the hood as if it were bed netting, tucking the interlocking boards under the lip of the aft hull. Jamaal sat up in confusion, finding himself open to the air.

“Get down,” she whispered. She put a hand on his chest and guided him onto his back, leaning down beside him. “I have one more change to make.”

Jamaal merely nodded, fascinated by the ship’s belly, revealed to be made entirely of sea-dark glass speckled with the reflection of dusk-time stars. Zilal left him to uncover a crank wheel at the base of the mast that locked into a helm position. She stirred it round and round, retracting the mast and eliciting shudders from along the outer hull.

“There,” Zilal sighed, returning to Jamaal. She lay her hand on his chest once more and wormed her head into the crook of his shoulder. When he turned to look at her, the endless sky looked back from the depths of his eyes.

“Kiss me,” Jamaal whispered, and she did, hungrily. “Because…” She silenced him with another taste. “Because—” He gently pushed her away. “—we may not get another chance. We are drifting too close to the fleet!”

Zilal raised an eyebrow. “They cannot see us if we stay low,” she said. “Look.”

All along the lip of the hull, water gently lapped over the edge of the boat and ran down into gutters along the glass bottom. Jamaal’s mouth dropped open before he could articulate his surprise. “How is the water so high? Are we—”

“We’re sunk low in the water,” she finished. “It’s an illusion. The face of the sea aligns perfectly with the top of the boat. Jerboa’s many-folded hulls are nothing more than a shadow beneath the waves, to them.” She moved her hand to his cheek, turning his face to hers. “All we need to do is wait. We will know when we are safe in the Archipelago.”

It did not take long. The blackening sky suddenly flashed silver and the light around them shimmered and broke like a flock of birds. When it dimmed again, nothing was the same.

Light moved differently on the other side of the portal. The days were longer and the nights bright with the glow of an enormous moon. Archipelago’s sea shone blue through the glass, smooth light reflecting off unlikely objects. Shells, millions of them, gave off soft, distant lights, schools of eels flashed rainbows, and hard, black edges glinted strangely as Jerboa‘s outline passed by.

Zilal knew how this light favoured her sharp features, lit from below. She stretched, catlike, on the glass with Jamaal lying at her side, his chest pressing into her back, watching the undersea world glide by over her shoulder.

“How is this possible?” Jamaal muttered, nuzzling her ear. “See those hookfish there? They must be half a league below us. They look like termites. How is it not as black as shaah down there?”

“This is Heaven,” Zilal murmured, tipping her head to glance Jamaal’s cheek with her own. “God’s gift. The land of a thousand million possibilities.” She closed her eyes and enjoyed the tickle of his breath. “Also, the glass is curved to make the world seem bigger and brighter than it is.”

Jamaal kissed her cheek, his dark eyes gleaming with blue. “That’s incredible. You are incredible.” His lips moved down to her chin, her throat. “My ange — what was that?” He abruptly pressed himself up on one arm and leaned hard over Zilal, nearly pressing his nose to the glass. “Did you see that?”

Zilal extricated herself. “No.” She glanced cursorily into the deep. “It was probably a sea serpent. We’ll be over the Devil’s Gorge by now.”

“God protect us!” Jamaal breathed. “It was some sort of snake, or whirlpool — twisting and flexing — only made up of bone or shell or—”

“Sounds like a sea serpent to me,” Zilal replied, the tingles along her neck growing cold. “And much further away than it appears.” She lay flat on her back and lay one finger on the sharp point of Jamaal’s hip, immediately drawing his eye. “Think of him as our guardian. How else could we find ourselves the only two people in all the world?” This time, Jamaal smiled and lowered himself slowly over her for a long, succulent kiss.

“But . . .” he whispered, his lips still touching hers. “Could it not come up here and swallow us in one gulp?”

Zilal cupped his face, her hands like blinders. “The glass works in reverse as well. We look like ants, or less. Anyway, let it try,” she said. “I trust Jerboa.”

Jamaal grinned. “And I trust you.” His hips came to press heavily on hers, then, a weight like the fold before a leap; the gathering of anticipation before the release of—

Bang! Bang bang, BANG!

“I knew it!” Jamaal cried, leaping to a crouch before the echoes of the nearby explosions had even subsided. “Gunfire!”

“What?” Zilal sat up, alarmed. “But, that’s impossible. Nobody could have seen us. Nobody—”

Bang! Bang!

Zilal flinched, but the explosions were behind and to starboard, on the mainland. She crept to the rail and risked a look over.

The Archipelago was many things, glorious and beautiful, dangerous and wild. Another evening, Zilal might have wondered at the strangeness of it, the raw, uncontrolled freedom in every alien tree beneath the unknowable stars. She knew it only from maps and stories, from sketches brought to her workshop. It was something else in the flesh, something that filled the soul with more light than the sun.

Or would, if Zilal’s soul had not already been quite full of a more earthly desire. All she cared for now was the endless sea lapping against the lip of her ship and, almost a mile away, a silver-rimmed thumb of darkness where the portal back to Mogadishu was.

“It’s nothing,” she murmured. “Nobody has followed us.”

“But look,” Jamaal protested. “There!”

They were more than a hundred yards from the coast, and a commotion. Silhouetted against the moonlit sand, two people raced along the beach, drizzles of white smoke rising between them. More smoke flowed out of the forest up the shore. A third person burst from the treeline, followed by a single Bang! Two more shots, further in, answered it.

“They have not spotted us yet,” Zilal muttered, looking askance at her companion.

Jamaal leaned over the hull, spilling rivulets into the boat as he squinted hard. “Mercy of God, I think those are children. Zilal—” He took her hand and stood, his head and shoulders above the safety of the waterline. “—we must help them.”

But that’s none of our business, Zilal might have said, or, But we haven’t got any weapons. But, Jamaal, we’re in another world full of sea serpents and deadly jungles, with nothing but our wits and, by the way, I have been planning this trip for weeks. She might have said that, too.

But look at him! He had one foot on the lip of the boat now, poised, as if he would jump into this bottomless ocean just to save those poor souls, whatever the cost to him. Her belly flushed hot with pride — or something like it — and she stood with him.

“We will,” she replied. “Just watch.”

The crank at the helm emptied the bilge tanks inside the hull and extended the telescoping mast. Jerboa rose out of the water and then grew larger still when Zilal drew closed the boards of her upper deck once more. She unfolded hidden planks, building the hull higher and longer with little more than the release of a catch and a touch of her hand, transforming Jerboa from a drifting rowboat to an imposing caravel.

Jamaal set the sail and tied it fast as Zilal leaned on the rudder, bringing Jerboa around.

They could soon make out more of the three figures on the beach. None of them were large, but it was clear that only one, the last to have emerged from the forest, was an adult. The other two could not have been older than eight or nine.

The adult with the gun waved their arms in the air at Jerboa, pulling the children close. Without a word of consultation, Jerboa‘s meager crew sailed the boat in to the edge of the Gorge, turning broadside to the shallows and dropping a plank. Catching their meaning immediately, the stranded trio waded into the water as quickly as they could, starting the knee-depth trek towards the ship.

Behind them, two muzzles flashed against the dark forest verge. The adult took one child under each arm and tried to run.

“Come on,” Zilal said, and vaulted over the ledge into the water. Jamaal followed half a moment behind her.

Beyond the drop-off, the water was only deep enough to cushion their landing. They lumbered through the shallows to meet the woman — for they could now see the curve of her robes and the telltale pattern of facial scars the women of the Way Western villages wore. They picked up one of her children each, which she relinquished with relief. Zilal felt a strange stiffness in the child’s arm as she settled him on her hip and ran back to the ship’s ramp, but there was no time to wonder. Their shadowy assailants were sprinting down the shore, reloading their guns as they ran.

“Up, up!” Zilal cried, putting the child on the ramp and ushering Jamaal and the woman past her. She narrowed her eyes at their pursuers, trying to make out clues in their outfits. They were neat and well-fed. Official. Military. She followed the others up onto the ship.

Jamaal untied the ropes and turned the sail to catch the southerly breeze as their new passengers embraced and exchanged a few words in a Westerly language. The ship gently surged out into the deep. The woman stiffened at the motion, then turned on him with a shout. “I’m sorry,” he said, startled. “I don’t understand—”

“No! Idiot, north!” the woman repeated, in their language this time, waving her pistol for emphasis. “They told me Mumiani is north!” She appended several Westerly curses and a jab of the weapon. “Where is your guns?”

“Mumiani?” Jamaal looked at Zilal for clarification, but she could only shrug.

“Is that a place?” she asked. “Here, or back home?”

The woman grew very still. “You are not from Mumiani?” She looked around the deck without turning her back to them. “This is not Ajuran ship.”

Zilal became very conscious of the Suldaan’s edict against travelling into the Archipelago.

“Of course we’re an Ajuran ship,” she laughed. “We’re from Al’Tahj, to the south. Why else would we be here?”

The woman scowled and gestured idly with her gun. “You are badly lying,” she said. “Turn back north or you will get us all dead.”

“I was not going to get myself killed before we rescued you and I don’t plan to get myself killed now,” Zilal replied curtly, crossing her arms. “All right, we are not from Al’Tahj. But neither are you. Those men were the Suldaan’s militia. Why were they chasing you? How did you get here?” The woman’s grip tightened on her pistol and she closed one eye, as if measuring the space between them. The girl raised an eyebrow. “If that is a threat, I’ll thank you to remember that we did just save you from them.”

The woman smirked at that and tucked her pistol into her robe. “Brave girl. Good blasted thing, because you are in over your hair. Now, look.” Zilal heard the unmistakable click of a hammer being reset. The little boy she’d carried onto her ship stood off to one side, a pistol trained on her chest and a serious frown on his young face. “Turn the ship around, because we’re going to Mumiani.”

“Zilal?” Jamaal asked. She heard a second pistol click where the other child would be, and sighed.

“You have mistaken us, Mother. We are not your enemy.”

“Might be,” the woman shrugged. “But I did not come all this way just to be stranded on a beach. My boys and I were promised refuge at Mumiani, if we could reach it, and I plan to do just that. I can leave you here if you like, but this ship is now mine.”

Zilal’s eyes darkened. “Jerboa will never belong to anyone but me,” she said. “Only I know how to solve her puzzles. I will drop you somewhere safe and you can continue to your destination.”

The woman chucked. “Can’t reach Mumiani without a ship,” she said, moving to trade pistols with her son, who sat to reload hers. “And this ship is taken. Sorry, girl. You are mine.”

Mother inspected their little ship and found it wanting. Zilal feigned ignorance of all but the most basic sailing practices as Jamaal stood in sullen silence by the rudder, watching the children search every lip and corner for cargo or weapons. After some barking at her sons, Mother put Zilal and Jamaal below decks and locked the hatch behind them.

“Not even a — one cannon,” she grumbled, kicking the trap shut. “And no cargo to trade at Mumiani. We must find a proper ship. Blast and—” her voice fell muffled as the Westerly cursing began.

“Jamaal?” Zilal whispered, laying her hand on the boy’s shoulder. He sat on the floor with his back to her, hands flat on the glass. He tensed at her touch.

“I brought her aboard,” Jamaal muttered. “We had no weapons, no soldiers. What was I thinking?”

Zilal drew back. “You brought them aboard?”

“If only we had something — a spear, an axe! Then, perhaps—”

“An axe? Are you in the habit of hacking apart children down at the shipyards?”

Jamaal turned to look at her. “What? No, but—”

“Don’t say one more word. You brought them aboard, indeed! I suppose I was just simpering below decks?”

“Obviously, no, but—”

“I brought Mother and her little demon babies onto my ship, Jamaal, not you. And I would not have done so if I did not know exactly what I was doing.”

Jamaal merely stared at her in silent disbelief.

“All right,” Zilal conceded. “I did not expect them to hijack Jerboa. But I would not have taken us into the Archipelago were I not confident that Jerboa were the equal of any threat here. And Mother — ha! She is only human.” She gave Jamaal a reassuring smile. “Jerboa does not have weapons because she does not need them. Jamaal, Jamaal.” She shimmied close and traced his spine with one finger, pleased when he shivered. “Trust me,” she whispered into his ear.

A hesitant smile crept once more onto the boy’s face, He took both her hands in his own, kissing them.

“Tell me what I can do,” he said. “Shall we open the decks again? When they fall through, I’ll knock them on the head, then—”

“No, Jamaal!” Zilal laughed. “We’re not going to beat a woman and her children, no matter how rude they have been.” She pulled her hands away and crawled to the back of the ship, removing a panel on the aft hull and sliding it to Jamaal. “Wield this,” she told him as he lifted the piece, testing its heft. “If they want to go to Mumiani, let them. There is no reason we must go along.”

Zilal sat at the helm and took a deep breath. Jamaal crouched at her back, the bonewood panel held in front of him like a shield. She had warned him that the next fold of her puzzle ship would be impossible for their captors to ignore.

It only took two sunwise rotations of the helm crank to open the bilge tanks once more. The ship gave a shudder, then settled into silence. “Quickly, now!” Zilal whispered. Muted thumping above their heads suggested Mother was already hurrying to investigate the sound.

Zilal scuttled to port and found the hidden seam of a circular cut in one hull, directing to Jamaal to find another to starboard. The thin, strong timber slid perfectly out of place with a tap, revealing a t-shaped handle capping a post screwed horizontally through the layers of the hull.  “One, two—” she mouthed as she and Jamaal each took hold of their respective handles. “—three, turn!”

They rotated the posts in unison, withdrawing them from the hull one layer at a time. With every board they cleared, the heavy, water-filled bottom of the ship dropped a foot from the ceiling, locking into a new position with a loud crack! The footsteps over head thumped and stumbled.

“What are you doing?” Mother’s angry, muffled shouting moved to stern. “Why are the hulls shrinking?” The locks on the hatch rattled.

“Don’t let them down!” Zilal cried. She stood tall now, feeling along the walls for a lever she knew was there as Jamaal raced to cover the locked hatch. He jumped up and caught the handle, hanging on it with his full weight. After a moment’s struggle, Mother gave an angry command and two gunshost exploded right above his head. He held fast.

“Zilal?” he called.

Zilal cursed as she ran her fingers along the underside of the ceiling. “Those guns can’t breach bonewood!” she shouted back. “It will be all right — hold on. It’s just too dark — I can’t find . . .”

“No, Zilal!” Jamaal stammered. “Below. Below!”

They were over the depths of the Devil’s Gorge and darkness had fallen. The reflected glow of the shells had dimmed, the fish had fled, and Jerboa‘s heft now cast a black shadow over the only living thing below them: a writhing sea serpent twisting like a gunworm towards them.

“Of all the luck,” she muttered. “Sorry, Mother.”

She found the lever. She hauled down on it with all her strength, popping a board right out of the upper deck, briefly revealing the stars. The serpent below them rammed the glass in that very instant, cracking its bone-shard head and nearly upending the ship, throwing them all hard to port. Jamaal was tossed away from the door and for a moment, Zilal saw Mother’s robes fluttering past the open hatch in the same direction. Zilal held tight to the lever as it rolled along a hidden rail all the way to the far wall, pulling a new layer of boards into place behind it.

They did not hear the splash, but they saw Mother’s kicking feet through the glass as the ship rocked back to starboard, only a few yards from the serpent’s interlocking scales.

Zilal staggered to stern, pulled the rudder post out of its clamp, and slammed yet another panel shut. The serpent churned in confusion inches from her feet as she slid the rest of the way back to the helm.

“Help me!” she cried, taking hold of the crank. Jamaal half-slid, half-fell into her back, reaching around her and covering her hands with his own. Together, they rotated the stiff crank as hard as they could.

The ship creaked, shuddered, and abruptly, fell. Zilal felt her weight lifted and then settled as they gained speed. She shouldered Jamaal aside to see if her plan had worked.

Through the glass, she saw the jagged cliffs of the Devil’s Gorge fly past them. She saw the spiraling length of the sea serpent slip away. She saw the shadow of Jerboa — the half of her they left behind, anyway — darkening the distant sea floor as they shot downward.

She sighed in relief and adjusted the crank. A bubbly jet of water to aft steadied the rudder and they came to an even keel.

“We are truly underwater now,” Jamaal guessed. “Jerboa has become a fish. By God, who has ever heard of such a thing?”

Zilal smiled. “We only have a few minutes before we must surface,” she said, touching Jamaal’s cheek. His face was a study in awe, but it was she who commanded that attention. His eyes grew wider as she leaned in to kiss him. She did not need to ask. His arms wound around her as their bodies pressed eagerly together.

“Only a few minutes?” Jamaal murmured. “It is still light. And I find, Zilal, with all this excitement . . .”

Zilal closed her eyes with a tremble, but held onto her reason. “Ah, Jamaal,” she breathed. “In a few minutes we will begin to run out of air. The sea serpent will right itself, and as likely as not, decide to swallow us instead of them. Mother will climb aboard her raft and discover we have left her with a sail but no rudder, a deck but no hull. Hopefully she will take her children to shore, but she may not. And we have to find the right current to ride all the way back to the portal.” She sighed. “No, I think we’ve exhausted our luck for today. We must — that is, perhaps we should return home, for now.”

Jamaal reluctantly agreed. They emptied the bilge tanks and rose smoothly to the surface of the wild new sea once more, opening the ceiling decks to reveal an endless sky speckled with stars no one knew. They made the most of the lazy drift home, lying on their battered boat’s bottom.

Two weeks later, Jamaal the woodcutter took a commission in the Ajuran fleet. He shipped out to the Archipelago in mid-winter.

He did not tell Zilal until the day of his departure. He looked so fine in his sailor’s garb that she couldn’t find it in herself to be angry.

“Only, why?” she asked. “We could have returned together. Jerboa shall have sisters. I have such ideas, Jamaal, plans and drafts. Every day, the Archipelago yields new discoveries, tools and materials that I will—”

She trailed off, seeing the sad smile on her beloved’s face. “Of course,” he said, stroking her braided hair. “You have a great destiny in the Archipelago, Zilal. You have magic in your creations, in your mind, in your smile. But this is my only way to join you. Woodcutters do not get to uncover God’s mysteries. Travelers do. Adventurers do.” He leaned in for a gentle kiss. “When we next meet, we will learn from each other and I shall be more than muscle for your mechanisms.”

Zilal tried to protest, but bit her tongue. He was, after all, right. She kissed him again instead.

“Next time,” he promised, “we will not have to hide.”

Zilal did not care who saw them now.

When Zilal Saleebaan Kamal was twenty years old, she left Mogadishu forever. She moved to the Archipelago in search of her lost ship, a secret city, and Jamaal. Each task was said to be impossible, but the impossible was her craft.

And that is a tale for another time.

About the Author

Charlotte Ashley

Charlotte Ashley

Charlotte Ashley is a writer and bookseller living in Toronto, Canada. Her short fiction appears in a number of anthologies and magazines, including the Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2017. She has been nominated for both the Aurora and Sunburst Awards. Charlotte recently published Archipelago, an alternate history swashbuckling portal fantasy told in three novellas, co-written with Andrew Leon Hudson and Kurt Hunt.

You can find more about her at http://www.once-and-future.com or on Twitter @CharlotteAshley.

Find more by Charlotte Ashley

Charlotte Ashley

About the Narrator

Charlotte Ashley

Charlotte Ashley

Charlotte Ashley is a writer and bookseller living in Toronto, Canada. Her short fiction appears in a number of anthologies and magazines, including the Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2017. She has been nominated for both the Aurora and Sunburst Awards. Charlotte recently published Archipelago, an alternate history swashbuckling portal fantasy told in three novellas, co-written with Andrew Leon Hudson and Kurt Hunt.

You can find more about her at http://www.once-and-future.com or on Twitter @CharlotteAshley.

Find more by Charlotte Ashley

Charlotte Ashley