The Roiling Strait, present day
Apata rose from sleep slowly. Her head was mercifully without pain. Mother Sun was high in the sky. The sky itself was clear, barring small tufts of fluffy white clouds here and there. The strait was as calm as it could be without alluding to a storm that her dinghy could not take.
The water was perfect cerulean, matching the sky so well that she could only make out the horizon by watching for the curl of the waves. Then she noticed the smell of her boat.
If anything, dead sawmouths smelled worse than living ones. Mother Sun had cooked the bird on the heated boards of the boat, just as it blistered the pale parts of Apata’s skin. The reek of the rotten bird’s corpse was eye watering and made even worse by the stench of vomit cooked by the sun to the same degree.
She stood firmly for the first time in days, her feet solid beneath her despite the tilt and roll of the waves beneath the deck of her boat. The wind was light, rather than rampant…
…and this is the Roiling Strait! A woman couldn’t ask for a better day than a tossing boat under a clear sky, sure. She was as brusque as she could be seeing to the sanitization of her vessel. The sawmouth’s corpse? Overboard, with nary a hint of hesitation. The vomit? Cleaned from the floorboards, with help from her precious spare arisaid and briny seawater. The arisaid also went overboard, the folds and flaps of the garment flowing with the motion of the sea. She was, she realized, beginning to notice the heat of day before Mother Sun was at her zenith.
That could mean two things. Either she had drifted far enough south during her slumber that she was nearing Central Isle by way of the strait and the luck of rotted fae both or she had slumbered so long that she’d passed around her destination entirely and was now adrift in the Serpentine Sea.
Apata decided it was best to hold on to hope. For if it’s hope I’ve lost, I’m better off diving into the murk and taking a nice big lungful, I am. With that thought, she tightened the waist belt of her arisaid and let the upper half of the garment drop from her shoulders.
She felt the cooling effects of the sea mist on her torso almost immediately. The blues and pinks of her skin welcomed the change with a level of relief that forced an audible sigh.
This was the way of the Abrugaels. Clothing was a guard against the elements, the same way a shield was a guard against sword blows. When a shield was broken or no longer needed, you dropped it. When the protection clothing offered was no longer needed, you took it off. It was not uncommon to see men and women both in little more than footwraps and loincloth during the summer months.
She had no doubt customs differed elsewhere in the isles of Bakkaj; sailors and port merchants who came to the Shifting Highlands were often addled by shock…
…strange that something as simple as nudity throws men from other isles into spluttering and coughing and staring, so.
That thought brought on memories of the last man she had shared a bed with. A kind, middle merchant shipping oddities and antiques from the outward isles to a shop in Eastmere; itself a mostly seedy district in Bakkaj’s capital city of Mjimeri. The man’s disposition was a strange mixture of cynical innocence. He wasn’t eager to trust but was also lacking knowledge in many ways of the world. Such could be expected of a city native.
Bakkaj’s central islands were artificially bound together in stunning fashion. Man’s ambition and natural capacity for building had linked them with metal, mortar, and sweat. Any trade in Bakkaj flowed through that manmade chain, funneled there by riches and high residence.
The rest of Bakkaj had hamlets and port towns, but large urban centers were slow to rise, and people from areas like the Shifting Highlands didn’t trust them. Apata had been to Mjimeri once…
…it reeked of smoke and dung as I recall. The folk there didn’t seem too happy about yokels from the Highlands, either, to Mother Sun’s sorrow. She found herself slipping into the past. A small part of her mind worried about how often that had been happening as of late. That part of her was quickly silenced by reverie.
The Salt Docks, Westmere, three years ago
Apata was sixteen summers old and filled to the brim with awe. The city bustled, true. Merchants cried their wares, and the folk migrating in from other isles were dazzled by the tall buildings and clever inventions. There were ornate spires built of stone buttresses with knobby metal roofs. Large, flat buildings erected from cobblestone and metal as black as a cloudy, moonless night. Little stone dragons jutting off of rooftop corners, faces a mixture of snarls and smiles and grievous howls. Pulleys lifted massive weights of stone on high with little but the ker-chunk! of a lever engaging a water-wheel. Large chimneys belched smoke into the air, and dyes ran from pipes into the sea, suspending themselves in little globules on the water’s surface. Visitors lined the harbor chattering, laughing, playing music. There were very few houses here, from what Apata could see.
A waif thin fishmonger hawking his wares caught Apata’s eye. He grinned at her and waved. “Sea Nalget filets, butchered daily! Sweet-blooded lamprey, for you, lovely lady! Blue-finned marlin what leaves folk salivating!” The harbor smelled of sea water, wood smoke, and cooked fish. People were packed so densely that Apata couldn’t take a step without feeling jostled. The place was utter chaos to a Highlander’s eye. Apata, to her surprise, had never felt so at home.
A veteran harbor goer—she could see from his basket and the way he weaved through the crowd—began to have words with the rhyming fisherman, loudly. “Fresh, my hairy arse! If this platescale bass is anything less than a week old, I’ll find ‘is family and feed them my left bollock!”
The fishmonger turned on the man, his movements full of whipcord strength. He prodded a callused finger on a battered hand into the man’s chest. “If you’ve found better, go and buy it. I’ll not take this from a birth-addled twit.”
“I’ll give you three coppers for a pound,” the man grumbled.
“You’ll give me four or you’ll not get anything at all,” the fishmonger hissed. His eyes narrowed, bushy eyebrows descending over them. The wrinkles on his face deepened. Despite this change in expression, the fishmonger wrapped the man’s chosen cuts in…
…in parchment of all things!
“Fine then, you old bilker, take your damned coins! I hope you choke on ‘em!” the customer said. He huffed away, raising a fist with a solitary finger extended. That gesture meant the same thing on every isle in Bakkaj.
“And a fine afternoon to you too, Anders! Tell the missus I said hello!” The merchant turned and muttered something under his breath, but Apata couldn’t make it out.
Apata walked beside Caradoc and Brannaw the Elder. The bustle of the city didn’t wane, in fact, the further the trio journeyed from the harbor, the more crowded the streets became.
The ship they’d taken from the Highlands—styled with the name Shrieking Fury—was unloading her goods. People were clamoring forward for the pelts and furs of dangerous animals of her homeland—though from the climate, Apata could hardly tell when they would ever use them. Perhaps in Princinovus when the year was beginning again or the month after, Vintnerlun, during the sweet-grape harvest. But this was Aestulun, highest of high summer, and the heat of Mjimeri was a thick, stifling one. Every breath tasted of briny stew.
The trio kept walking. Brannaw the Elder whistled. Caradoc read while he kept pace. A dry tome; Apata made out the words branded into the leather spine efficiently enough, though she had no taste for reading herself: On The Natural Philosophy and Megafauna of the Inwardly Sea.
Infinite mothers and single father, who reads a book about fish?
“I swear, you’re going to ruin your eyes doing that, brother mine.”
He chuckled. “More likely to get flattened by a speeding cart before that happens, dear sister.”
“Well that’s good then. Let’s go find a cart moving nice and quick. With a full-bellied jak-ox to make its best work before the wheels hit.”
“Just remember you’re the one cleaning me wounds, lass.”
Brannaw the Elder’s whistling stopped, supplanted by a groan that quickly turned into a snarl. “If the two of you don’t stop nipping at each other like the pair of pups you are, I swear I’ll shove my feet so far up your arses that I’ll have a new pair of fishing leathers, and you’ll feel the hair on me knees tickling your throats!” By the end of his tirade, Brannaw was red-faced and breathless.
The two siblings stopped. The people of the harbor did not. He glared about the city, and the few gawkers slowly resumed their activities. Brannaw gathered himself, his face still red as a freshly cut beet. He coughed twice and pounded a meaty, blue scarred fist into his chest. “Apologies, children. Apologies.” It began suddenly, as they walked along. He started to cough more. Then he gasped and slouched against the pole of a gas lamp.
Cheeks rosy. Skin ashen. Breathing heavy. Teeth clenched. Apata laid her hands on his chest before she even noticed she’d been called a child.
Anam? No. Preventative. Neart.
She felt energy slip from her muscles, and her eyelids fluttered, but the bond had been set. She could sense the inside of Brannaw’s body with a perception well beyond sight. She felt his heart straining valiantly against a constricted artery. The chambers and ventricles spasmed randomly. Apata set her feet and clenched her jaw. She clutched at his chest and sent the strength of her body forward in a wrenching pulse. His heart stopped. It went slack.
It started to beat.
She stepped away from Brannaw. Then she wheeled around and slapped him. It was a hard hit, possessing the snapping sound of thick sails pressed against the wind. “And have I not told you that you need to eat less land-bound meat, old man? But no, this whole sea voyage has been nothing but salt-pork and crackling. Even though there was a fresh catch every day. Every. Day!”
For his part, Caradoc had dropped his book on the ground. He quickly knelt and picked it up, cradling it like a precious child, eyes wide with surprise and consternation.
Brannaw wheezed for an instant and then began to laugh. “I must give old Lugos his due. His children have filled my life with joy, and now my bones with life. Thank you, lass.” Then he stopped to rub his cheek, which had gone a shade of virulent purple in the shape of a slim-fingered hand. “Though I think I’ll have a talk with your teacher about your slapping men of rank. Afore it progresses into stabbing me in the night for some unknown ire.” His smile was gentle, his grimace gone.
“For now though, I think it best that we go our separate ways. You have the Soulmistress’s purse. Caradoc has his allowance, and I have a merchant’s union to holler at. Here’s to me ticker then, children!” He unfastened one of his water skins, took a swig from it, and passed it to Caradoc. Caradoc took a draft and, spluttering, passed it to Apata.
She sniffed at it. Whatever was in the skin was strong, and it certainly wasn’t water. She took a swig. Then a long draft. Brannaw’s smile grew larger. The liquid was sickly sweet and had a finish acidic enough to strip paint from a ship’s hull. After a few seconds, a warm tingling feeling touched her fingertips and the tip of her nose. “Honeyjack fit for the Gods, eh?” Brannaw said with a smile. He quirked an eyebrow.
Before she could respond, Caradoc spoke. “The southbound end of a northbound jak-ox, more like.”
Brannaw’s grin slipped into a well humored scowl and he rolled his eyes. Apata and Caradoc both laughed. The older man took another swig and walked off into the city streets, towards the shipping union.
The younger one continued to read without looking up to see where he was going but managed to find a man trading tomes and scrolls. Apata made her way toward the heart of the city. If any shop had the odds and ends needed by an apothecary, she assumed she’d find it there.
Mjimeri, present day
Apata’s course was a steady one, now. The strait’s clamoring chaos was calming. Mother Sun was descending over the horizon, flares of red and blue glinting off of the sea, off of the shores of Mjimeri. She whooped when the buildings of Effre rose from the horizon like ambling fingers splayed from an oversized hand. The sunset hit that district in a particularly striking way, turning the sharp-edged buildings from intimidating structures to the shards of a gigantic broken wine glass, still dripping with sweet, red fluid. Even as the red turned to violet and then to indigo, the buildings shone with a wan pink light, clutching hard at the last vestiges of day.
The whispstacks of Bransk came next in the distance as she curved around the east side of the islands. All that could be seen of them were the clouds of pungent smelling transmute-waste produced by the industrial anamri and funneled into the sky like malevolent storms: thick, black, ominous.
On more humid days, those clouds filled with angry, red lightning. She turned her attention to her left and saw the old brick of Eastmere. The East Docks rolled into sight, gaining detail as Apata gained ground. By the time she could see them clearly, the moons were high in the sky on either side. The split beams and boards where the water lapped at them were covered in thick yellow lichen that glowed faintly with menace. Any contact it made with a person’s skin produced an angry rash of sores and pus. Last time she was in the city, she’d tried using it to pack a wound on her own arm and found that the results— were rather horrible. Things like that were what she’d always found odd about Mjimeri and the central islands in general…
…as if the plants and animals born here are wrong. As if they’re upset with people and we should know why. Apata lurched up the mast of her dinghy, slashing the sail from the strong post with her sgian-dubh and packing the material away into her travel sack. She didn’t have use for a boat anymore, or at least, any time soon. The sail could be used for a cloak or even a shelter should her plans not bear fruit. The dinghy slowed and halted; the lazy current left from the strait sent it drifting right towards the docks.
She threw a leather lariat around a lichen-covered post, pulled the boat into dock, tied the cord to a handle on its side, and unrolled a piece of parchment stowed in her travel kit. She took a piece of charcoal from another pouch therein and wrote a message in large letters: Keep the boat. Keep the knife. You need them more than I. She held the paper to the mast with her sgian-dubh and hammered it in place with short, choppy blows from her palm. She stepped away, then turned back and appended, It needs a sail.
With that, she stepped onto the dock, careful to keep her toes—which peeked out of her foot leathers—away from the evil-hearted moss.
Eastmere was lonesome. Apart from the sounds of lovers quarreling and the sound of knackered young men and women stumbling home together, it was silent on the order of desolate. Footsteps echoed against the cobblestones. She remembered that sound…
Eastmere, three years ago
The walls of the alley rose on either side as Mother Sun’s light started to slip away. Apata was desperately, hopelessly lost. She had no funds to speak of, having given her allowance to a street urchin who was begging for himself and his burn-disabled sister. When Apata asked, he’d said his parents had died in a factory accident. She did away with her purse on the spot. The look he gave was recompense enough at the time.
Now though, in a darkened dead-end alleyway, she was starting to wish she’d bought her supplies and turned tail instead of deciding to shake the rust off of her five-fingered purse trap. Especially when she turned to find three large men leering at her.
…sure and that’s never a sight for sore eyes to see happily. She recognized one of them. The angry fish-buyer from the harbor. The other two were just as menacing as he’d been then and was now. They stalked towards her in a triangular formation. Two in front, one leading up the rear. The man on the right was built like a brick outhouse, flab over muscle over stout bone. He had tattoos of sea waves and merfolk. His mouth was surrounded by a ring of sores. Venerial sores, or I’m his mum. A sailor. The one on the left was lithe and covered in harsh pink slashes and puckered circles. Sword and arrow scars. Fighting man.
The man from the fish market had a predatory smile under a coarse beard. His beady, black eyes glinted with lust. They rested over dark circles.
“Anders here says he saw you put a man’s red humors to rights by laying a hand on his chest, luv. That’s a mighty fine talent you have,” the fighting man said.
“You’d fetch us some pretty, shimmering gold up at the Bordello, ain’t that right?” the sailor added.
So that’s that then. No getting out of this without some bruises. Apata grimaced, memories of her time as an urchin pushing bile to her throat. She remembered the fights. Her wins. Her losses.
She also remembered when the Soulmistress decided to take her on as an apprentice. And the reason for it. These men were opportunistic animals, and they worked for worse animals still. The worst ones found in the Oubliette.
The Aniscort Bordello was known far and wide around Bakkaj, one of a few large institutions known colloquially as the red theaters. It was a high class affair—in terms of price. When it came to morality, it was as low as low got.
Young female anamri were either sold outright by loved ones in debt or abducted and then sold. They were trained in the arts of courting, seduction, and then taught magical skills like healing or illusion—by the black-yew switch—to add to their repertoire.
The one thing to be said for the Bordello was that it didn’t require it’s denizens to be full-on whores. At least not on the face of it. The owners made sure the women understood that they still had to please their clients, no matter what it cost them. Profit always came before personal comfort.
“I think,” the harbor-going man—Anders—said, “I’d like me a finders fee afore that, though.” A dried-kelp yellow grin split his beard.
Apata’s gut kicked with panic, but words from the Soulmistress called over the fear. Our arts are used to heal, lass. But too much of anything can hurt. She forced down the terror, whispering, “Seems there’s nothing I can do, then.” She quirked an eyebrow and pasted on a sultry smile, beckoning Anders closer with a curl of her finger.
Ander’s grin grew wider, and he stepped in front of the other two men, whispering, “That’s right, love.” Soon he was standing close enough that she could smell the pungent reek of brandy on his breath.
She placed one hand on his cheek, caressing the sweat-matted beard as tenderly as she could bring herself to do, and used her other hand to unbuckle his belt. She slid her hand into his trousers, under his loincloth, around his manhood. She suppressed a cringe and a gag—it was covered in slick sweat.
Anders groaned. “Oh-ho, yes, that’s a good lass.” His partners whistled and laughed.
She felt a hollowing sensation creep over her insides. There was a sharp crackling sound like ice breaking on top of a rushing river. His partners stopped laughing, a look of confusion coming over both of their faces simultaneously.
Anders, for his part, began to scream.
It wasn’t the scream of an angered man, but the shrill screech of a wounded child. The hand that had been caressing his cheek now clutched at his throat. Apata dug her nails in, hard enough to draw blood. She strangled his crotch with the same furious grip. The crackling, the screaming, growing ever louder.
“I’ve known men like you before, Anders,” she hissed. “I know how to spot a drunk who thinks with his cock instead of his brain, sure and I do.”
Anders started to squeal then like a teapot left too long over a fire. But the bond was set. Apata could feel his insides with a perception beyond sight.
Too much of anything can hurt.
She could feel the organ in her hand’s immediate vicinity the most clearly. And she was killing it. Killing it with a work of magic she normally used to cool fevers. His squeal fell mute, and he began to shudder. She spat in his face and shoved him back. His trousers fell about his ankles as he stumbled into his friends. His fruits lolled out of his fallen loincloth. Black. Shriveled. Dead.
He stood up, face spasming in pain, blubbering meaningless sounds, and shakily pulled his trousers back up. When they passed his crotch, his knees buckled. One of his friends heaved an arm over his shoulders. The other turned to her and growled, “You’ll regret this, you filigrad cunt.” His eyes shifted about the alleyway.
Filigrad. A racial slur. One screamed towards Abrugaels in cities during pogroms. Their skin was the reason her people weren’t welcome in Blitzkrieg, or Rekik. Apata felt very little regret, then. Very little indeed.
The three men skittered away like cockroaches facing a lit torch. Apata wiped her sweat soaked hand onto one of the folds in her arisaid. Then she scowled. I’ll have to burn this to be free of that memory I will. She looked up at the entrance to the alleyway only to see it was blocked again. By another man. Tall, lanky, and olive skinned from what she could see. That wasn’t much though, only the light cast by the gas lamp and the alley’s mouth gave any hint as to who he was.
“Hello,” he said. “Might you need some help?”
“Excuse me?” Apata asked. The words came out as equal parts angry howl and terrified scream. The man had come to the mouth of the alley just after the thugs had left.
“Might you need some help?”
“And where were you just moments ago, lad?” she growled.
“The, ah, the street around the corner, I suppose,” he said, watching her reaction with amusement. The man was stepping closer now. She could make out his face. It was angular and smooth, as if he had been carved from a block of olive wood and given a light sanding. But it was kind. He didn’t leer or swagger towards her, but neither did Apata lower her guard. She’d seen kind faces before.
She began to retreat, matching the man’s pace forward. “And how am I to know that you aren’t here to pick up their leavings?”
The man stopped. Apata stopped. He began to shake spasmodically. It took her a few moments to realize he was laughing silently. That’s the laughter of a thief, sure and it is.
She knew that. She laughed that way as well. “And what is it that’s so funny, then?” she asked.
“You’re not very self-aware, are you?” The laughter he had kept soundless now came out in low chuckles halfheartedly hidden behind his hand. He kept laughing, the sound growing with each passing burble. “And you were afraid of me.” Apata’s guard slowly began to dissolve. Another figure rounded the corner and hit the man upside the head, palm flat. The man ducked away, still laughing.
“Do you want to wake the whole bloody city?” the figure hissed. Apata drew in a breath of surprise as it spoke. It was a woman. As she stepped closer, Apata saw that she had a slim build and was nearly a head shorter than the man. She wondered how she’d made the mistake.
“Calm down, Ary— love,” he said.
That was odd.
The man continued as if nothing was amiss. “I heard a racket and came to see what was up.” He turned from studying Apata to the woman. “Also, ow.” He looked at her accusingly, rubbing the back of his head.
The woman rolled her eyes. “I don’t see a racket, I see a girl.” She turned her attention to Apata. “Were you causing a racket?”
The man answered her question with more laughter, ignoring Apata. “You didn’t happen to see the men leaving the alley, did you?” he asked.
“A damsel in distress? At—” A look passed between them and she continued. “Haven’t I taught you better than to take on three to one odds?”
“I didn’t!” The man looked indignant. “She did.”
“Oh, really?” The woman turned towards Apata, suddenly interested. “How?” Apata found this woman’s gaze disarming—no, that wasn’t the right word for it—alarming. It unraveled her defenses. It told her to feel safe. Her own insides uncoiled and struck back in response.
“And why might you care? Let’s exchange answers for answers, shall we?” Apata asked.
The woman—whose name she still didn’t know—smiled. It was warm. Comforting. And it was the face a snake gave a hatchling newly fallen from the nest. “Well then, clever girl. Deal. And it might be very likely we could use you.”
“Your help,” the man supplied.
“Aye,” Apata said, unable to prevent her eyes from narrowing. I don’t think she meant my help, sir. I don’t think she meant that at all.
The woman continued. “To answer your question, anyone capable of taking on three armed men and walking away unscathed interests me. So I’ll ask again: how did you do it?”
The man blinked. “What?”
The woman cocked her head. “You care to explain further?”
“I’m an anamri. The man wanted me to handle his private bits. I handled them, sure. With chillrot.”
The woman froze. The she began to laugh. “Damn, girl. I like the way you think.”
“It was less of a thought and more of an improvisation, sure, but thank you.”
The man had yet to add to the conversation. He had looked interested, at first, but now the only look on his face was that of sympathy pains. His complexion had taken on the grey-greened tone of a man kicked in his berries by a jak-ox.
“Winds and seas,” he muttered. “Remind me not to cross you.”
Apata clapped him on the back, and he sidestepped quickly away, edging closer to the woman. “You’ve nothing to fear from me,” Apata said. “I swear it on the light of Mother Sun.”
He gave a slight nod. The darkness still prevailed, but by the time the moons began their descent, the trio had reached the front of a curio shop. The man stepped forward and put his key—a surprisingly ornate piece of tarnishing copper—into the door. A long series of rattles and thumps came from the lock, after which the door swung open seemingly of its own accord, leaving the key in the man’s hands. “After you,” he said with a tilt of his head and a flourish of his wrist, first to the woman, and then, reluctantly, to Apata.
The trio filed in, the man leading up the rear and locking the door behind them. The two Mjimeri natives sat in luxurious chairs. Apata stood, taking in her surroundings. Books, old and rare and written in alphabets she couldn’t make any sense of. Artworks religious, stylized, angry and occult. Jewelry, intricate and simple, expensive and fake. A shop that sold everything. Found everything. Had just what you needed, right when you needed it. On second glance, she saw bottles and vials full of poultices. Some of the combinations made no sense. Hissweed and black-yew bark? I’m unsure if there’s a better eel-oil tincture anywhere in Bakkaj, I am. The striking thing was that she also saw very valid tinctures. Sage oil and feverfew? What does this man do?
“Right then,” the woman said, placing a foot on the table and lifting the front legs of her chair off of the floor “My name is Aryn, and that finicky shadow of a man over there is Atlas. You look like you could use some help.”
Eastmere, present day
The shop was shuttered. No lights twinkled in the windows. Apata’s teeth ground against each other in anger, mostly aimed at her own sweet self.
Stupid! Fat lot of good it’ll do you if he’s moved, or sold shop, or gods forfend been killed in the past three years. The truth was, she had no way of knowing if Atlas was still walking amongst the living. He’d been kind to her before. Though everything on Central came for a price.
He’d given her a place to stay and even paid her for a job that bore little resemblance to any she’d ever done. The job, in fact, was the cost of her room there. He even helped me find my boat home he did. The herbs and tinctures and bandages, too. She rested her forehead against the scuffed wooden door of the shop and sighed.
She felt something tickling her feet through her foot leathers. She looked down to the sight of a cat, fur glittering dirty gold in the light of the gas lamps. It looked up at her with disapproving feline eyes. Mrow. All at once her worry vanished, and she knelt down with a smile.
“Why hello there, little Fishnik!” she said, giving the animal a scratch behind his ears. The cat batted at her wrist with claws out. She remembered swearing on her blood that she would get the cat to like her. It hadn’t happened yet, though this was better than last time. She rubbed a scar on her arm as the cat twined himself around her ankles. “Is your person about?” Apata heard footsteps coming from down the street. Slow. Casual. She looked away from Fishnik to see a woman. She was short, a head shorter than Apata, and her face was vaguely heart shaped with hair as red as Apata’s own. More red, even: the bright shade of the sun setting over calm waters. She wore a simple knee-length dress, a short apron, and comfortable boots. “He’s been out all day, actually,” she said.“What did you need?”
“I—that is—Atlas—” Apata responded. Having spent so long away from other people, she found herself less articulate than usual. She felt a small thrill. She was no longer alone at sea or walking solitary in the city streets. She sighed, exasperated, and thumped her head against the door frame. The woman waited patiently for her to finish. “I knew him long ago, and it’s fair certain I need his help.”
“Sounds about right,” the woman said, smiling. She took Apata by the arm, briefly, as if to say, follow me. Apata did. They came to a stop in front of a bakery obviously closed for the night. A tallow candle was still burning in the window. “Any friend of Fishnik’s is a friend of mine,” the woman said, lifting a key from one of the pockets of her apron.
“I’m not so sure Fishnik and I are friends.”
“You wouldn’t have even seen him if he wasn’t at least passingly fond of you.” The key rattled in the lock and then, with a chunk, turned the latch. She swung the door open.
“I—who are you, aisling?” Apata asked, bewildered and nervous. Captivated by this woman’s appearance for reasons she couldn’t fathom. It was then that she realized what she’d said. Abrugaels commonly used the term aisling when speaking to any person they found beautiful. Sailors from the Highlands found that it charmed women from other isles more than women from their own. This can’t be simply because I was at sea. Nor is it magic. Her head was blank, her thoughts past the moment little more than vapor. Leastways, not the type of magic woven by humankind.
“I’m Eliza,” the woman said, flashing another smile. “And your name is?”
She very nearly missed the question. “A-Apata,” she responded. The woman, Eliza, was already bustling away. She lifted a cedar splint over the candle lit on the counter and transferred the new flame to a kerosene lamp on a small table. Then she pulled a chair out and patted it.
“Please, Apata, you said? Sit. I’ll go find us something to eat. You like anything in particular?” she called over her shoulder.
Apata sat down. “Anything is fine, I suppose.” Eliza returned in short order with a loaf of dark, thick crusted bread and a…
Do my eyes deceive me? Is that a lamprey pie? Eliza sat in the chair across from Apata, setting the dish in front of her. “Normally I would bring out something sweet, but you look like you could use something more substantial. At least for now.”
It was, indeed, a lamprey pie. But it was like none she’d ever eaten. The flavors ran over her palate almost explosively. Chewy fish meat, rich bits of venison heart, smoky-sweet brandy, and freshly chopped rosemary all sat in a thick coagulation of gravy and simmered onion. Apata could hardly think of a meal she’d had that was better. It was a Highlands style lamprey pie, through and through.
She ate like a true Abrugael freshly home from the hunt then: quickly, and with no thought for manners, so transparent was the veil of her hunger. She was halfway through the entire pie dish before she realized that Eliza was smiling. She looked up, one hand full of crumbling crust and dripping filling, the other full of a half loaf of bread. She chewed and swallowed. The food seemed to stick in her throat. She was mortified. Gods forfend, I’ve been behaving like a beast!
“What’s so funny, aisling?” Apata asked, feeling her cheeks flush.
“I just rarely get to see a new face truly enjoy my food. I was worried you weren’t entirely tasting it.”
Apata dropped the handful of pie filling, wiping the slimy remainders on her hand into the bread. She tore off another chunk of the stuff and used it to wipe her face. She ate both pieces of bread down to the last crumb. Eliza’s eyes sparkled with amusement, and she bit her lip to hide a smile.
“I apologize if my manners were lacking. This is the best lamprey pie I’ve ever eaten, sure,” Apata said, picking up the spoon that Eliza had provided for her earlier and that she’d completely ignored. She dug the spoon into the crust, scooped out another heaping bite and made sure to chew a few extra times before swallowing.
“So,” Eliza said, catching whatever remainder of Apata’s attention that strayed elsewhere. “How did you come to know Atlas?”
Apata set the spoon down and regaled Eliza with her story. Eliza’s grin grew from friendly, to ecstatic, to foolish with the telling. By the time she was done, the two had been awake well into the night. By the time she was done, Apata realized exactly how exhausting her journey had been.
Her vision began to swim, her eyes started to feel as if they were full of sawdust. She stood up shakily, her eyelids fluttered. “It’s sorry I am to cut our conversation short, but would asking for a bed be too much?”
“Not at all. Follow me.” Eliza stood and walked away from the table, toward the staircase.
Apata followed her.
Then all of her wherewithal left her in a heaving wave, and she crashed to the floor of the bakery.
“Apata? Apata! Do you need help?”
Her legs and arms would not move to support her. Her eyes willed themselves shut. It was all she could do to swallow the spit gathering in her mouth. Black spots crowded her vision. Then movement. What is that? No. No it couldn’t possibly be.
The last thing Apata saw before she lost consciousness was a movement so slight and brief that it would have passed unnoticed by anyone else. As if all the space around her were filled with transparent, wriggling worms. The same movement she saw on the day Brannaw the Younger died. The same feeling of rotting evil filled the air.
Everything went dark.