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The Stars are Wonder
A short story from Cheeseburger Brown
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The Stars are Wonder, a short story by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

2.
Onion War


Travelling at sea is very boring. The most interesting person on the ship is crazy, and I can't understand what the rest of them are saying most of the time. What I can decipher disgusts me, so I talk to the crazy one. His name is Onion War and he has a bad foot.

(His bad foot might seem an insignificant detail, but Onion War would be the first to tell you, at considerable length, about how being bedridden for much of his childhood was a remarkable gift from the magic which first turned him on to the path of learning, so that while other little boys were skipping in the grass he read the folios of women and indulged himself in fantasies of calendars and catalogues. He has never been studded and claims he doesn't mind one bit. Think of that!)

I have no idea how old he is but he smells worse than Captain Stay. His purple-black skin is lined like a raisin, his dreadlocks thick with life. His narrow frame is weighed down by all the trappings of his office, right down to the standard gargoyle codpiece that advertises a brand of masculinity I doubt he possesses. Like a woman he wears beads around his ankles and wrists, each inscribed with a rune. He shuffles them as the days pass.

The crew is leery of Onion War. They avoid his eyes, and after he has passed them by they kiss their totems and frown.

I fell into his association like this: only days out of port Captain Stay began making unusual requests of me, like assigning me to assist in pulling on sails or fetching things. I thought he was confused but when I reiterated who I was he just laughed and replied that he knew exactly my station. He beat me with a length of rope and asked me rhetorical questions about people who illicitly stud themselves with the cousins of princes. I tried to answer his questions at first but later on fell to examining the floorboards near my face and considering the whorls in the grain. Soon enough it was over.

I have quickly learned that assisting Onion War is far preferable to any other shipboard duty, especially working in the galley where Mr. Spice's knives fly freely in concert with his temper. In contrast Onion War is tedious and full of malarkey but not at all murderous.

He pays special attention to the sky so I often find myself on deck with him at night, Onion War casting his eyes into the spangled heavens and me casting mine into the twisted mirror thereof in the water. "Do you ever wonder about the stars?" he asks me.

I shrug. "I'm not religious."

"What do you imagine they are?"

"Who cares? Sparks in the turning veil. Why are mountains craggy?"

Onion War takes this as a serious point, which makes me groan. He closes his eyes and nods, puffing thoughtfully on his long pipe. "In my youth I often trained my wonder on the mountains. Indeed, indeed." Puff-puff-puff.

"That I can understand," I tell him. "Mountains matter. If a man were to know a mountain perfectly he could move his armies quickly through its passes. The stars are counted only by women or magic simpletons."

"They grant us the calendar."

"We would have our calendar by counting something else if not stars. Why question the world?"

Onion War puffs his pipe and peers briefly through one of his instruments, adjusting a knob three turns. "By questioning soil we learn to farm, by questioning water we learn to mill. Consider the greatness of the Empire! Would you have us live like the savages, all history forgotten?"

I take a moment to reflect on the savages we have seen in our brief forays along the shore of the Second Continent: pale, gibbering, bestial primitives draped in unworked skins, living in the rudest circumstances, eking a living directly from the land without the benefit of real economies, without metallurgy, and without any appreciable understanding of the magic. We saw people throwing stones at one another and hooting -- people worshipping cacti or owl turds or waterfalls. Idiots.

"Very well," I concede, "but should we not therefore question things which are to our profit? The stars are part of the deep magic, inscrutable. Why waste time trying to know the unknowable?"

"We do not know what is knowable and what is not until we try to know it. If you awoke one day imprisoned in a cell and fed by automated means, would you not try to learn all you could about your captors and your wider circumstances? Without the benefit of a larger view, could you risk discounting any clue as unimportant?"

"Perhaps, in order to escape. But who longs to escape from the world?"

It is Onion War's turn to shrug. He looks up at the glittering sky and puffs thoughtfully on his pipe. "There are, perhaps, borders beyond our conception."

I sniff. Like I said, he's crazy.



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