Charondolier

The gondola descended towards them in long, lazy circles above their heads.

Like a vulture, Alice thought.

“That’s silly, Alice,” said Aidra. “Vultures only eat you after you’re dead.”

Alice took a moment out of her contemplation of comparative vulturology to think about the fundamental unfairness of reality before answering.

“Good point, you bastard,” she said, as the gondola swooped down, coming to a stop with a whispering crunch on the stones of the Sound, the crooning of the gondolier coming to a close.

It was a gondola much as she expected and feared, a long, narrow boat made of dark wood, with a single cloaked and hooded figure perched at the back of the boat, clutching a long pole. The figure was dressed much like Alice expected the Grim Reaper to be dressed, apart from the fact that their long hooded robes were faintly striped, and a straw hat was perched jauntily atop their head.

“Uh,” asked Alice, after a moment’s hesitation, “can we… go up?”

The response from the Grim Gondolier was an abrupt blast of discordant opera music emitting from their hood with enough force to make the fabric flap about.

She winced, and then turned to the rest of the group. “Did any of you catch that?”

[I Think I Heard Something About ‘Reasonable Rates’, But On The Other Hand, I Do Not Have Ears.]

The gondolier made a series of noises that sounded much like a record scratching, which might have been laughter. They reached into a deep, sepulchral robe pocket, pulling out a jingling bag of gold-ish coins that glimmered oddly in the light. With thin, near-skeletal fingers, they picked two coins out of the bag, holding them in front of the hole in their hood at the approximate position of eyes.

[Hm. Does That Mean I Do Not Have To Pay, As I Do Not Have Eyes?]

The response was a shrug and a few bars of something overly dramatic and backed by violins.

“That was about the senior discount,” supplied Aidra.

[You Have A Lot Of Cheek For Someone Within Arm’s Reach.]

“I like to think of myself as a thrill-seeker!”

[Pushing Your Luck, Then?]

Alice interrupted them. “Do we have any of that kind of money? I thought we only had those plastic token things – Carte Librare?

“Well, I never leave home without my currency mill, so making a conversion should be fine,” said A Librarian brightly.

“You can buy them under ‘essential tools for the nerd on the go’,” said Aidra.

“And what would you do,” he retorted, “if you found yourself somewhere with the wrong currency? You and Nik travel the Realms more than I do, after all.”

“On the one hand, I have my dear brother to pay for things for me-”

Nik groaned, loudly.

“-and on the other hand, I always know what change I’m gonna need. Fun propheperk!”

A Librarian looked up from rummaging through his satchel in order to roll his eyes. “Okay, fine, I guess that’s fair. Anyway-” he pulled a thing that looked like a hand-cranked meatgrinder from his bag – “here. A currency exchanger. How much do you reckon those coins are in Carte Librare?

The Grim Gondolier held up two fingers, and emitted a short piece of acapella dubstep. Terrifyingly, Alice actually understood them this time.

“About four, they say,” she translated.

“Oh, I forgot about your mysterious brain language thing,” said A Librarian. He passed the meatgrinder-shaped currency mill to Twelfth, and was now pulling out his wallet. “Actually, just to be sure, is this two of those each, or overall?”

The gondolier did their best impression of an air-raid siren with vocal backing, and Alice explained to the rest of the group that that meant per head.

“You know,” said Red, “we could just fly up.”

The gondolier made a mildly offended musical noise.

“They say there’s dangerous beasts?”

“Well, they would. No offence.”

The gondolier shrugged, before reaching into their robes and pulling out an alarmingly fresh steak. With a flick of their wrist, they flung it directly upwards, spiralling through the air end-over-end, up past the myriad holes set into the cliffs. For a few slow seconds, nothing seemed to be happening, and then dozens of dark shapes extended from the openings in the cliff and fell upon the meat. Each of them took the form of an extended, jagged set of jaws mounted on the end of a long neck of zigzagging joints that unfolded like concertinas as each maw bore down on their quarry, gnashing enormous jagged fangs and shrieking, long ululating noises that echoed down the cliffs and across the ink. The screaming, ravenous, eyeless heads jostled for purchase, snatched, tore and fought for every little scrap, and when they retreated back into their burrows in the cliff, not a single particle of what the gondolier had thrown fell back down.

Red audibly gulped. “You… you make an excellent point. That doesn’t look pleasant.”

Their response was to chuckle in record-scratch.

“So, Twelfth,” said A Librarian, putting a handful of little plastic cards in the hopper of the currency mill, “if you could just turn this handle here, we’ll be good to go.”

[Okay,] she replied, clamping the device to the beach with two hands and turning the crank with a third.

The noise the crank produced was nothing short of dire, but at least it was quick – ten glistening golden coins came clinking out of the machine in a shower of metallic shavings and swirling dust.

The gondolier, watching the goings-on with possibly-existent eyes, clapped and made the noise of an impressed tuba section with added castanets. Alice scooped up the newly-minted coins, winced at how cold they were, and passed them to the gondolier, who accepted them eagerly, secreting them somewhere within their voluminous horizontally-striped robes. They tipped their hat, gestured to the seating in their gondola, took up their bargepole and waited patiently as the entire group folded themselves up into the slightly shallow benches.

With a brief refrain of vaguely-Italian folk songs, the gondolier leaned back and thrust with their pole, lifting the gondola up into the air, ascending at an angle up towards the top of the cliff.

“So,” Alice asked, “what are the eating-things cliff monsters? How did you even work out how to get past them?”

The gondolier continued to stoicly punt at thin air, bizarrely managing to gain purchase, lift and thrust with just a wooden pole and the atmosphere. However, they did pause in their lilting song in order to give a brief blurt of interpretative salsa music in order to explain that they were called ‘scyllae’, and that they’d always been dwelling in the cliffs.

“Well, that’s neat?”

The briefest lilt of theremin explained that their main strategy to prevent attack was to be inedible and, over the course of several hundred trips, basically condition them to avoid attacking the gondola. It apparently helped to occasionally offer them snacks.

“Well… okay? I’m glad you’re done training them?”

“I’m not often on the receiving end of a conversation I can’t understand both sides of,” said Nik. “Not sure I like it, but thanks for negotiating for us, Alice.”

Hah!” she exclaimed, “I’ve got a spooky ability none of you have!”

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