“C’mere, boy, you’re dallying too much for my liking,” a gruff voice said, and the imp opened his eyes to see Captain Stone towering over him, almost blocking out the sun. The only reason Rumpelstiltskin recognized the sailor was because of his large frame and the missing fingers from his silhouette.
“But the sun is so warm,” the imp said before turning onto his side and stretching like his feline friend, Mr. Prince. It had been a year since they had gone their separate ways, but Captain Stone had been taking very good care of Rumpelstiltskin in the meantime. However, the captain didn’t much care for his feline antics, so he prodded the imp in his ribs.
Not too hard, but enough to get his point across.
“Yes, Rumpelstiltskin, it’s always warm,” he commented as the imp got to his feet and wiped the sleep out of his eyes, drawing out a deliberate yawn as his last act of defiance. With a grunt, the captain nodded at the starboard side and the harness waiting for his immortal cabin boy. “But that doesn’t stop you from being on barnacle duty.”
“Ooh, that’ll be fun!” Rumpelstiltskin said as he clapped his hands together. He couldn’t wait to feel the water on his skin and see the sunlight from beneath the waves. Barnacle duty should have been tedious and grueling work, but as with all children, Rumpelstiltskin could find joy in even the most menial of tasks. In fact, he was just about to run over to his harness when the captain gripped his shoulder with his strong hand.
“You got yer bracelet with you?” he asked, and the imp realized that he had almost forgotten his most important tool. Looking down at his wrist, Rumpelstiltskin found the simple, silver band they had taken from the Migrating Island just one month prior. While that adventure had been full of all kinds of magic and mystery, this simple little piece of jewelry was worth far more than any other haul. The only thing that made it stand out was the blue stone in the rotating socket, but it was the most important part.
When it was rotated to the other side and the stone was hidden against the wearer’s wrist, the owner would become intangible. A smuggler as resourceful as Captain Stone should have thought up plenty of schemes and plans to abuse that magic, but the good captain had felt it appropriate to give it to his cabin boy, even going so far as to keep it a secret between them. His excuse was that it would allow Rumpelstiltskin to clean off the sides of his ship with ease, without fear of drowning, but it really was just an excuse.
Over the last year, the captain had become quite fond of Rumpelstiltskin, and he had only an inkling of a thought that the imp was immortal and could not be harmed. Just like the imp’s protective reaper, Captain Stone instinctively kept his cabin boy from danger. That was why he had left the bracelet to Rumpelstiltskin, why he had kept it a secret from his crew. It was to be the imp’s safety net in case the captain should fall.
Of course, Rumpelstiltskin did not know all that, but he could tell Captain Stone cared for him just by the way he smiled and clapped him on the back.
“Alright, boy, seems yer ready to get down there,” he said as he pushed Rumpelstiltskin forward, causing him to stumble as their ship rocked with the waves. The imp quickly regained his balance and turned back to his captain, but the man was still smiling at his own behavior. “What you lookin’ at me, for? I gave you a job.”
“Aye, Cap’n,” Rumpelstiltskin said with an intentionally lazy and disrespectful salute, only causing the captain to grin a little wider. “The ship’ll be clean as my backside soon enough.”
“Do a better job than that, boy,” Captain Stone said with a scoff and a nod, but he was in a fairly good mood before he turned to his left and saw two of his sailors smoking at the stern. Smoking was perfectly fine, but their laziness was enough to make the smuggler stomp toward them. “You better have a reason for sitting around, dogs. Even the imp is pullin’ his weight!”
“Well, about to, if he gets in here,” someone said behind Rumpelstiltskin, and the imp turned to see Merry holding up the harness meant for barnacle duty. It was a mess of knots and ropes the imp could not understand and it reminded him of a diaper, with the way he had to climb into it, but it was a fun time whenever the sailors would swing him around the deck for entertainment. Sometimes they made a game of it, pushing him and trying to use him as a ball, but it was enjoyable even when they inevitably pushed Rumpelstiltskin over the deck and dumped him unceremoniously into the ocean.
They would almost always help him back up, though.
“You’ll be quick about pulling me back onto the deck this time, right, Merry?” Rumpelstiltskin asked as he climbed into the holes for his legs, but he was doubtful of the sailor’s intentions once he heard a low chuckle.
“Sure, imp, I’ll do just that.”
Rumpelstiltskin had to stare at the man a moment before feeling comfortable enough to settle his weight onto the makeshift seat of his harness and grab hold of the ropes hanging from the spiderweb that lashed together the mast and sails and whatnot. With a frown, Rumpelstiltskin tilted his head at Merry.
“You better. Last time you kept me on the side of the ship for an extra hour,” he said, but the sailor rolled his eyes and gave Rumpelstiltskin a sharp trowel that was tethered to a coil of rope. The imp went about wrapping the cord around his wrist, but he glowered the entire time.
“It was ten minutes, Rumpelstiltskin. You exaggerate more than you should.”
Rumpelstiltskin would have argued further, but then he realized Merry was probably speaking the truth.
Playing at being frustrated, the imp crossed his arms as Merry and a couple other sailors pulled on nearby ropes and hoisted him into the air.
“You’re mean more often that you should be,” Rumpelstiltskin muttered, but he made sure he was loud enough that the sailor could hear his complaints. When Merry smiled and winked at the imp once more, Rumpelstiltskin knew his comment had been taken the right way.
“Being nice isn’t part of the job, Rumpelstiltskin,” he said as he tied his line around the railing and then grabbed the imp’s harness, guiding him over the edge. Once Rumpelstiltskin was sitting over empty air, Merry looked him in the eye and raised an eyebrow. “Ready to earn your keep?”
“Of course. Maybe you can do the same,” Rumpelstiltskin jabbed, but a grin was on his face as Merry went about untying the rope from the railing.
Before he even replied, he had already let the line go slack and lowered Rumpelstiltskin to the waves. Leaning over the edge, Merry shook his head and slapped the railing.
“You kidding, imp? Taking care of you’s a full-time occupation,” he said just as the imp rotated the stone in his bracelet, letting the magic take effect. It was more than just useful, because while its spell made him intangible, it also let him control that intangibility. As long as he kept his focus, Rumpelstiltskin could make sure that the harness held him up and he could keep hold of his trowel, but he wouldn’t have the feel the water against his skin unless he wanted to.
Which, to be fair, was often the case. While the bracelet would let a normal person stay underwater for longer—since they wouldn’t have to breathe—that had never been the case for Rumpelstiltskin. He could stay underwater for as long as he wanted, anyway, but it was still convenient. When he let the magic flow through his small body, the imp could trick himself into thinking that he was flying, or even just play with how the water felt.
It was exciting for him, even if he did have to clean up barnacles while he had his fun.
“Making fun of you is a full-time—”
Rumpelstiltskin had intended to counter Merry’s earlier jab, but he was surprised by a loud whoosh behind him. Turning in his harness, he saw a gigantic spray of water almost frozen in the air, but that was simply because the imp had only caught the moment just before the water started to fall back down. Once it did, Rumpelstiltskin noticed a dark something in the waves a few hundred feet away. It almost seemed like another migrating island, but it was way too small for that, even though the dark something was just as big as Captain Stone’s ship.
“What is that?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, but he heard Merry mumble out a number of curses before slapping the railing.
“Whale!” He had shouted loud enough for everyone to hear, almost screaming, and he looked down at the imp in alarm. “You alright, Rumpelstiltskin?”
“I’m fine! What’s a whale?” Rumpelstiltskin hoped Merry could hear him over the waves, but his sense of wonder infected the question and shocked the sailor into staring at him.
“What’s a…” he started, pausing at the absurdity of it all, but then he shook his head and pointed at the dark something that was starting to dwindle and disappear. “A whale is a huge beast of the sea, imp. They swim in pods, sometimes harmless—usually valuable to different men than us, but… they’re all dangerous in the wrong situation.”
“What kind of danger?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, and Merry looked at the space where the whale used to be and cursed under his breath.
“Hopefully you won’t have to find out.”
“Merry, what the hell are you standing there for? Get yer ass to helpin!” Captain Stone shouted, and Rumpelstiltskin watched as Merry turned and then pointed back at the imp over the railing.
“Rumpelstiltskin is still down the—”
“What? Get him back up here! Now!” Captain Stone’s voice sounded like a volcanic explosion before it cracked on him, and Rumpelstiltskin was suddenly very worried. The captain never shouted that hard unless something serious was happening.
“But why—” Rumpelstiltskin started, but then the ship pitched and his harness crashed into the hull, and the imp gained a few scratches on his face where his cheek met barnacles. When the ship tilted back to normal, Rumpelstiltskin rubbed his face until the curse healed his wounds. He was about to complain to Merry and Captain Stone before he looked around and saw a gigantic eye looking at him from just above the waves.
Rumpelstiltskin could not look away from the eye, which was set into a face as long as the side of a cottage, and that’s just what was above the water. Its skin was a blue so dark it almost seemed black, and while there were plenty of other details Rumpelstiltskin could stare and stammer at, that disproportionate eye kept his interest. It blinked slowly, its pupil dilating once the eyelid swung back like a curtain, but the biological mechanics of such a huge creature did not matter to the imp.
Knowing it from experience, Rumpelstiltskin could see the loneliness haunting this gentle monstrosity.
“Oh, Jesus,” Merry said from the deck, and Rumpelstiltskin broke the intimate, silent conversation he was having to look back up at the sailor. Contrary to his usual aloof behavior, Merry’s face was filled with despair, and Rumpelstiltskin was still looking at him when Captain Stone joined him at the deck.
“God help us,” he muttered, holding his hand to his heart, but Rumpelstiltskin wasn’t able to ask any questions before he heard a rushing sound from his other side. He turned quickly to look back at the whale, but he only just saw the last few seconds of the creature’s skin blending into the shadows of the deep.
“What’s it going to do?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, but neither Merry nor the captain had time to answer him.
Another crash of water erupted behind Rumpelstiltskin, and the imp turned just in time to see a gigantic tail rising from the water. It struck Rumpelstiltskin as odd that the whale would be upside-down like that, but then the beast slammed its tail against the surface and caused a wall of water to rush toward Captain Stone’s ship. Rumpelstiltskin was immediately slammed into the hull, which pitched against the force of the whale’s aquatic assault, but all the sailors would be perfectly fine.
The imp, however, forgot to focus on his bracelet and his intangible body slipped through the harness keeping him safe.
“Rumpelstiltskin!” Captain Stone screamed, his terrified face looking at the imp as he fell to the water, and Rumpelstiltskin almost couldn’t understand why his smuggler friend would act like that.
It was even more disorienting when he fell beneath the surface of the waves, his friends somehow floating away from him with each passing moment.
“Wh—” Rumpelstiltskin tried to say, but no words would come out of his mouth and no air would pass from his lungs. All he could do was look at the hull of Captain’s Stone ship as it became ever smaller, as the current pushed it further and further away from the imp. At first, Rumpelstiltskin could not understand what was happening since he had hit the hull so hard, but then he realized that his bracelet was still active, that the water could not stop him from sinking, that nothing could stop him from dropping to the depths of the ocean except him.
Thinking extra hard, Rumpelstiltskin devoted every ounce of focus to the act of making his lungs tangible, hoping that what little air remained in his body would be enough to help him rise to the surface. While somewhat successful, all it did was stop his descent, and Rumpelstiltskin was still a hundred feet below the surface.
If not for the piercing, haunting call that battered around his brain, he would have given into despair. Instead, he listened to the prolonged notes that seemed to resonate with his very soul. Rumpelstiltskin was about to smile—even this deep below his life and friends—but then he felt the emotional turmoil in those sad, high notes. It reverberated in his tiny little chest, echoed in his brain, vibrated every one of his molecules. As beautiful as this song was, it was more a cry than anything, a deliberate cascade of mourning and loneliness.
And before he even turned his childlike body to see the source, he knew the whale would be behind him.
Beneath the waves, its gigantic size was awe-inspiring, even if the visibility of ocean made it seem like a ghost suspended in the water. What Rumpelstiltskin had been able to see from the side of Captain Stone’s ship was nothing; it was merely the tip of a living iceberg. Now that he was alone with the massive beast, the imp could see that it was hundreds, perhaps a thousand times his size. It was bigger than any creature, beast or monster that Rumpelstiltskin had ever seen. However, its massive size was still just a distraction.
This close, with such a perfect view of the singer, Rumpelstiltskin could feel its loneliness aching through his bones, his skin, whatever parts of his body the imp had left tangible. In the face of this blue whale, the imp knew he could not let himself feel only part of its pain or know only part of its song. Bracing against the frigid water to come, he turned the gem in his bracelet around and he opened himself up to the whale’s beautiful misery.
The water was colder than he had thought it would be—and even with the undying benefits of his curse Rumpelstiltskin’s body started to go into shock—but he steeled his resolve, clenched his fists and opened his eyes again. Even those beady black eyes of his felt the whale’s song vibrating through each cell and fought desperately to feel even more of it. He was being absorbed into that melody; the prolonged notes calling out for something, anything to help it. Then Rumpelstiltskin let his heart become tangible, let it beat and pump away, and he felt something incredible.
When his heart beat in his tiny chest, a stronger, deeper beat answered him.
At once, Rumpelstiltskin wanted to cry, but his tears only joined the water around him. It was frustrating—wanting to cry but unable to do so—but they were not sad tears. This creature, beast—whatever it was and whatever it knew of the world and the people living in it—was kindred to Rumpelstiltskin. In its own way, it understood something that the imp had been keeping to himself—had always kept to himself except for when it came to friends like Ser Death or Mr. Prince. Even Captain Stone could not understand, but the imp did not judge him for it; he was simply jealous of the captain’s fortune.
For even the salty, grog-swilling smuggler belonged somewhere.
And so, deep beneath the waves—with a creature that dwarfed him countless times over—Rumpelstiltskin found one of the very few beings who felt his loneliness. Upon that realization, he smiled and stopped clenching his fists against the cold sting of the water; let himself float in front of the majestic, tragic beast. It was alone out here—the solitary member of its pod—and Rumpelstiltskin could not help but sympathize. In a way, this blue whale was more a friend than the dozens of people who had already shared the imp’s path.
As they stared at each other and the whale continued its song, Rumpelstiltskin just focused on that slower, stronger heartbeat crossing the distance between them. It battered against his insides, but it did not hurt anything but his spirit. To try to communicate—to do something to make the whale understand—Rumpelstiltskin willed his own heart to beat harder, to almost burst out of his chest. He even flailed his tiny little arms against his ribcage in time, to try to emphasize and echo his heartbeat, but the more he looked at the whale, the more useless his actions seemed. It was just too big, and to such a creature, Rumpelstiltskin must have been an insignificant speck.
But then the song changed. Something about it didn’t seem so lonely, and Rumpelstiltskin somehow felt like the whale had heard him. And while he doubted he could do it in the water, Rumpelstiltskin tried to sing, to reach the somber notes that came so naturally to the whale. He was smiling when the creature pushed its tail against the water and seemed to glide forward.
Rumpelstiltskin stopped smiling once it seemed like the whale would crash right into him.
Fumbling with his wrist—unable to feel his skin because of the cold of the water—the imp panicked as the whale rushed forward. Its mouth was open, its song continued, and Rumpelstiltskin knew that it did not mean to hurt him. However, that did not mean the whale would not accidentally hurt him. From its sheer size, it was more than just a possibility, and the imp knew that his only hope was the blue stone that he needed to flip around.
His fingers would not cooperate in those frantic moments and Rumpelstiltskin realized that he might become his new friend’s next meal, but he was finally able to force the clasp to rotate and then the stone met his skin. The whale was only a few feet away at that point, and while Rumpelstiltskin would have liked to maintain some physical form, the sight of a blue whale closing in on him with a mouth that could swallow a small ship was more than he was able to process.
When the whale swam past, he swam right through Rumpelstiltskin’s completely intangible body.
Although he was frightened to the point of closing his eyes and curling into a fetal position, Rumpelstiltskin knew he could not stay like this forever. This whale did not mean to harm him—did not mean to swallow him whole—and to abandon the lonely creature was too cruel for Rumpelstiltskin to consider. Opening his eyes and seeing darkness, the imp tried to figure out what had happened. Then, taking a bigger chance than he had really meant to take, he allowed the skin of his arm to become tangible once more.
And when he felt warmth against his skin and felt that strong heartbeat surrounding him, Rumpelstiltskin allowed the rest of his body to feel.
There was no way to tell where he was, except that he had somehow found some sort of safe haven in the whale’s body. It was warm, the water was thick and clung to his skin, but that heartbeat was what allowed Rumpelstiltskin to figure out where he had reappeared. If nothing else, Rumpelstiltskin hoped his arrival would not harm this dignified creature.
For Rumpelstiltskin knew that he was in the whale’s bloodstream.
He had not realized he was small enough to fit through the creature’s veins and arteries—and he truly was not—but the bracelet on his wrist allowed him to flow along with the whale’s lifeblood in spite of it, to fully give into the beast’s heartbeat. Here, inside the whale, its heartbeat took over Rumpelstiltskin’s entire existence. It was still much slower than the imp’s shallow beating, but he could still feel them bouncing off each other, joining each other in some otherworldly song.
And then the whale started to sing.
Between Rumpelstiltskin’s snare of a heartbeat, the whale’s powerful bass, and the haunting song coming from everywhere at once, Rumpelstiltskin could not keep his eyes open. All he could do was give into the song and feel, to know something that no one else could ever understand. This experience was entirely his and no one would ever believe his story if he ever decided to tell it.
However, once he entered into a large, warm chamber that assaulted his semi-intangible eardrums, Rumpelstiltskin knew he could never share this story, never want to. To do so would be a betrayal of this very special friend and this beautiful memory.
For now, after minutes of drifting through the whale’s bloodstream, Rumpelstiltskin had finally reached its heart.
The pressure against his frail body was so immense that he had to let his body become slightly more intangible, but he felt the whale’s heartbeat no matter what he did. Rumpelstiltskin was in darkness—in a place where only he could survive and he could not breathe or hear or really touch anything—but he knew now that this was magic, that this was one of the most beautiful moments of his life. Its song still reached his soul, its loneliness still tore at his senses, but the whale somehow knew that Rumpelstiltskin was in its heart, and it knew that, for the moment, he was not alone.
And there, in that too-loud moment, when Rumpelstiltskin was engulfed in noise and chaos and thick, warm blood and almost forgot who he was, his heartbeat resonated with that gigantic creature. After all that confusion and wonder and terror, their hearts beat at the same time, and it opened Rumpelstiltskin up to feelings he could not ever hope to understand in his lunacy.
But he felt them, the whale felt them, and Rumpelstiltskin knew that it would be a very long time before he would feel them again.
So, until the whale would tire of him, the imp knew he could not abandon his friend. He would stay here as long as it needed him, as long as it could stand to have a twisted, little imp stowing away in the chambers of his heart. Rumpelstiltskin could not stay here forever—did not want to stay here forever—but he knew he would regret leaving any sooner than when the whale wished for it. And though the whale could not tell him in words, or even thoughts, Rumpelstiltskin knew that time had not yet come.
For as the whale continued on its long journey, its song sounded like hope.
And Rumpelstiltskin the Third could never take that from anyone.