Sartore meets an old man named Maisero, and prepare their journey overseas.
Taramiel’s head always cleared in the woods. There was little to do at camp, anyway, and little reason to remain there. Gloss was sick. He liked to say that the Gods punished his disobedience, the disobedience of his riders, with illness. And Taramiel believed him. So Taramiel kept out of their clearing, and brushed away the nagging thought that perhaps some earthworm in the village had wriggled into the dirt and out of his grasp.
If there were good targets here, he had yet to find one. He had his bow slung over his shoulder and a quiver of hand-crafted arrows strapped to his back, but so far had found no reason to fire one. Small critters padded around him like any other element of the vegetation, while he cleared a path through it, stepping onto and over roots and small plants.
Taramiel could see a stronger beam of light break through the greenery further down. Now, the forest cleared the way for him, leading him to the shore of an enormous lake, which turned down a snakepath of trees and past his vision. The cerulean surface of the water barely shifted, and shined like the folds of a young lady’s dress. He could feel the warm blanket of the sun against his skin, the smell of life as the breeze scattered the loose foliage at his feet. There was a momentary vision in his head; him sitting in the dirt, dipping his hands into the cool water, skipping rocks as he used to as a child. His heart, his chest, beat for it. Others shared in the same vision; a large elk dipped its head and drank from the pool a few meters from him, its antlers like large, unbreakable branches. When it lifted its head, it had what Taramiel thought was the same shine in its eyes—
Taramiel hid behind a tree with his bow clutched in one hand and an arrow in the other. The vision he’d crushed and let blow away in the same wind. He did not need to know the path for his feet to find it, stepping without interruption or noise between tripwires and unsteady terrain. Even when he crouched a few feet away, the deer failed to notice. As the beast stared out at the water, Taramiel nocked an arrow, and pointed it at the weak blesh behind its forward leg.
The arrow sunk into the deer’s side. The creature neighed, shaking its head back and forth and striking its other side against the trees. The arrow kept firm in its organs, mangling them. But with his target weak, he had no reason to wait. Taramiel withdrew a long dagger from his back and stepped forward after the elk’s initial commotion had ceased. He grabbed its antler, exposed its neck, and cut a deep line across it. The meat fell to the earth.
The rest of the ritual was a familiar rhythm, and would pass quickly. Taramiel withdrew a well-folded and compressed skin bag from his pocket, shook it out and laid it against the ground. With the same knife, he peeled away the elk’s skin, and carved out the best cuts he could get with the least trouble. The rest he’d leave for carrion. He severed the head from the bone, and with the bag of flesh in one hand and the prize in the other, headed for camp. The lake was long gone.
There was little other movement. A few other riders had ventured into their own neck of the woods for food, but he found few of them. Besides—they were searching for a small meal and a poorly carved skin. Taramiel collected firewood as he went. Upon arriving at his tent, Taramiel dropped his bag and set the severed head of the elk in his tent, snout pointed at the sky and antlers holding it up, and built a quick bonfire. Over it he spitted his meat, and waited. As the flesh of the meat grew darker, so too did the sky, and the embers became like orange stars against the night sky before blinking out.
Taramiel’s dinner was quick. Two thick slabs of meat. The rest was salted and returned to his sack. He decided on a walk before bed, a good chance to clear his head. Most of the other riders were setting up camp for another night of drinking. The other generals had already arrived, their laughs and voices already muddied. The spots of fire were fewer, but most had decided this night as good as any other. Taramiel passed them all, crawling around the border of their clearing, feeling the heat against his cheek on one side and the cool moans from the forest on the other.
Then he heard screaming. Gloss’ tent. Everyone’s head turned, and after a moment, scurried back to their tents. Before Taramiel had the chance to blink, the fires had gone out, the riders (and the alcohol) had disappeared, and the clearing was empty and dark, but for the bright glow of Gloss’ tent. And Taramiel. He crossed the clearing and hid in his tent, slipping into bed and hoping for sleep. Thankfully, the screams dimmed, long enough to keep Taramiel’s mind untroubled . . .
A dark shape stood in front of him, pushing open his front entrance. The humanoid silhouette tilted its head in, as though waiting to ask a question. No threat here. Taramiel realized he must have only been asleep for an hour or so—now only Gloss’ light remained outside (as far as he could tell), and his head was far away. The figure in front of him, dressed in a black cloak, must have been one of Gloss’ personal confidants.
“Good morning, sunshine,” Taramiel said. The cloaked figure chuckled. It sounded like a skeleton laughing at someone stuck in their catacombs.
“The Sacredate would like to see you,” the figure said. “Must see you.”
“Now?” Taramiel asked. He knew the answer that would come, and knew that in a moment he would be crossing, upon shaky legs, over the dirt floor, but another second in bed would still be nice.
“I would come quickly, for your own sake,” the figure said, then dropped the flap of his tent. Taramiel rubbed his eyes and almost let his head fall back on his pillow, but that was a quick recipe for disaster. Instead, he crawled out from the tent, and when under the eye of the moon, finally rose. The face of the figure was now apparent to him; a well-creased and crooked.
The cloaked figure led Taramiel slowly. Taramiel’s heart woke up before he did, and sent a warm, all-erasing rush to his head just before he entered the tent. The cloaked figure held it open and shoved Taramiel in.
Gloss lay in his bed, with his retinue encircling him. They fed him, and kept a fresh, cool towel on his forehead. He was a very old child. Each of the cloaked faces was worried, and Taramiel noticed that even the man who’d ripped him from slumber had become grave. He shoved Taramiel forward, just a foot away from the others, and as he did, Gloss turned to meet him.
“Taramiel, you lied to me,” he whispered. Taramiel almost didn’t hear at first, and then he wished he hadn’t. It took him a moment to dig up some words worth saying, if that.
“I promise you, Sacredate, that I have done everything in my power to stay true to you.”
“Yes, I’m sure. But you didn’t do a very good job. You didn’t kill everyone in the village.”
Taramiel wanted to protest, but didn’t. No matter what he saw with his own eyes, Gloss, even while stuck here, could see better.
“Sacredate, I apologize for my mistake—”
“This goes deeper than a mistake, Taramiel! These mistakes are costly, and this one in particular.” Gloss was grinning now. “You’ve made an awful blunder here. Listen—I can forgive you. But you must rectify your mistake.”
“How can I do that, Sacredate?”
Gloss’ smile grew wider. “They will be leaving Palthos two days from now, at noon. Go to Fiarin and request a boat—take one if you have to—and meet them at the sea. Destroy them.”
Gloss laughed. “The little boy found himself a travelling mate. Now go. Get some rest if you need it.”
Taramiel did as requested. When he left the tent, felt the breeze and saw the night sky, it felt as though everything was watching him: the small creatures that hid in the underbrush, the birds that hopped on their branches, the trees that surrounded him, and the stars that peered down at him. He sighed. Awful blunder. First blunder, but still—awful. Taramiel headed back to his tent to get some rest.
Sartore dropped off the pier and swiveled to face the voice. It had come from an old man, hunched over and breathing restlessly. His jaw was rounded and carried a reptilian sack beneath it. The weather was cold; as he stood, he felt a shiver run down his arms and spine. And the shadowy, slackened case of a person in front of him, standing in the near-dark, didn’t help either.
“I’m not here to hurt you, child,” Maisero said. The child had more gumption than he’d anticipated; fists raised and body bent forward. Maisero almost wanted to flee, but swatted the thought—this was, of course, just a child. “What’s your name?”
For a second, Sartore did nothing. Then he dropped his fists to his sides and stood a little taller, now looking away with a knotted brow.
“Sartore, I think.”
“What’re you doing out here?” A flash of recognition crossed the boy’s eyes. “Shouldn’t you be home? Eating dinner?”
“Well, I have no house to go to here, it’s only my first day.”
Maisero paused for a second to register the words. “Where did you come from?”
“A small village, not far. Just past the gates and around the corner.”
Weren’t the Sacredate’s men near those parts? Shit. “What brought you here?”
“The Sun asked me to come.”
Maisero laughed, nervously. “Got lost playing a child’s game?”
“No, the Sun asked. Didn’t I—”
“The Sun doesn’t speak, child, you’ll have to be clearer with me.”
“Yeah, it does. You’re just not listening.” Sartore had meant it more as a quip to fill the space, now that he’d run out of things to say, but instead the old man had grown silent.
“Are you planning on staying the night here, child?”
“Why don’t we meet again tomorrow? Be awaiting for me here at around sunrise, and I can find you, take you to the library, and we can chat for a little bit. Does that sound agreeable?”
“In the meantime, there are a few places around here you might be able to find shelter, perhaps one of the more lavish cots, or, if you’re really, you know, struggling, just find yourself a good—a good corner, and get into some cozy position, and get a little bit of rest.”
“Can’t I come with you?” Sartore knew the answer he was going to get as soon as he’d asked. The old man had flinched back like a child dodging his friend’s fake punch.
“Can I sleep at your house? It’s going to be cold, and I’m going to be hungry, and there’s . . . strange people walking around. I can take the floor, anything, really.”
“Of course not, child. There isn’t the space, nor the time, nor the accomodations to produce something of that nature that quickly. Things are in a bit more disorder than I would like, and I won’t be inviting any guests in those circumstances. Now, I’ll be on my way. Farewell, I will see you in the morning.”
“You should be fine. Farewell.”
And the old, nameless figure bent to hide from the thickening darkness ahead of him, the pace of his feet quickening as he disappeared. In some sense, the old man meant he might find a little bit of solace in the morning, if any could be recovered now, but that still left the task of surviving the night. Sartore turned, taking a last look at the docks and the wrinkled sheet of blue water. He might miss the morning; sleep through it. Miss the old man, but more importantly, miss the sunrise. But he didn’t have time for those worries: the last of the evening-watchers had disappeared, and house lamps were blinking out. Soon, only rats would be scurrying around.
Sartore hurried into an alleyway, hoping no one would spot him in the poor lighting. Most corners had already been taken by bodies, dead or alive. He needed a place these folks would probably avoid—a richer neighborhood, perhaps. After few turns, winding himself deeper into the city’s maze, he stumbled on a wide road with individual, autonomous houses. The tall silhouettes were each menacing figures, but alone, none of them were too frightening.
His choice in hiding place was arbitrary. He found a smaller block than the others, crushed between the broader shoulders of its neighbors, and hid at the side of its rickety stairwell. He lay down in the grass, the moss under his head resembling a pillow, and fell asleep.
Maisero found his way through a memorized sequence of steps. He didn’t dare lift his head, lest some strangers see him, or recognize him as human. He knew when he’d finished, and raised his eyes only when he knew his front door would be there to greet him. He climbed his staircase in a hurry, withdrew his key like a pocket knife, and wedged it into the door. He always thought he heard strange noises, or saw strange shadows, on his way. Not until he was safe at home could he laugh.
No lamp was lit. He could see the outlines of the loose papers and manuscripts, the books left open and piled on top of each other, carrying a decade of dust. Maisero dropped his things, leaving his briefcase against a wall, slipping out of his clothes and into bed. He had a small window, where the sickly white eye of the moon always watched him. He never liked the view, but never bothered doing anything about it. Instead, he turned on his other side, and fell asleep.
The morning light was dull, but there: sunrise was long gone. Overslept was an understatement. Maisero picked an outfit blind from his closet and slipped it on, deemed it agreeable enough, then stepped into the living room and lifted his briefcase from the floor. He opened it and withdrew the used pages, dropping them on the ground with the others, and took a new ream of paper with him.
He only paused after gripping the knob of the front door. Most of the joints in his hands were throbbing. So was much of his back. It always came in the morning, and although he walked it out on his way to the library, it always returned the next day. It was only morning stiffness, he thought, and pushed the thought aside.
Maisero twisted the knob and stepped into a wet morning. Fog had taken up the sunlight’s airtime. Although the houses across the street were there, they were difficult to make out. Good, he thought; no need to worry about the eyes of his neighbors. The heavy air against his skin, by comparison, was a minor inconvenience.
As Maisero finished locking the door behind him, he remembered his walk to the pier the night before. The dirty child that had been standing there, watching the fading sun and the rising moonlight. Strange thing, he was, but no better than a rat. The child would have already left by now, anyway, Maisero wondered. There was a small pang in his chest, but an easily ignorable one. Off to the library.
“Hello?” a voice peeped. Maisero hoped a second later, after regaining consciousness, that none of his neighbors had seen him jump like a startled cat on his porch. His hand was clamped back on the doorknob. The voice had come from under the stairwell. It had to be an intruder, waiting for him to let his guard down; or worse, a savage, intelligent animal, here to devour him; or even worse, some sort of demon here to punish him for his sins! Maisero smiled weakly. Still, he made no reply, and hoped the voice would stay quiet.
“Hello? Anybody there?” Maisero groaned silently, then took a violent step back. Eight small and slender fingers, dirty and greasy in the moist air, took hold of the wooden boards. Above them emerged a familiar face.
“Hello, sir,” the boy said, eyes wide and almost laughing. The boy was shaking, and his arms were covered in gooseflesh.
“How did you find me? Did you follow me last night, child? I will not—”
“No, sir, I promise I didn’t. When you left I went wandering in the city for a place to sleep, and I found this street, and I thought this little spot here was—cozy—”
“This? This—this is my corner, and you better get off of it and my grass immediately!”
Now the boy’s smile grew a little wider. He got onto his feet and hopped onto the street, hands held behind his back. Now that he’d mentioned it, the grass of his front yard was growing as spotty as his head.
“Hmm? What’re you still doing here? Go back from wherever you came!”
Now the boy’s face fell, and a real pang stung in his chest. The boy’s cheeks were as dirty as his hands. His clothes were too, and the holes in them weren’t serving much purpose either. His first line of thought was a classic, tried and true: find the authorities and hand the boy over. Not your responsibility. But another voice, quieter but further lodged in his mind, shoved the other out of the way: Just take the boy with you! What will he do, take your things? You have nothing worth losing. That strain was a thought for another day, but something about it started to cool his head.
“What did you say your name was, boy?”
“Sartore. I’ll have you follow me, if you will. I’ll be taking you to the library. You, however, must follow me. If you get lost, get distracted, or for any reason deviate from my path, I will not turn back to save you. Understood?”
Sartore nodded, and he grinned. Maisero noticed now how the boy’s lips trembled; how the boy’s body trembled. But—no matter.
Sartore followed Maisero through the twists and turns of the alleyways. Maisero kept as close to the shadows cast by the surrounding buildings as possible, head bent down. Sartore’s legs didn’t have Maisero’s reach, but he could keep up.
Eventually the stone walls and structures disappeared, and the pair arrived at the base of a long staircase, made of shining marble, topped by the library. The roof was held up by long pillars, and the sun was nearly blinding on its front face. Sartore thought it captured the same glow he had seen so long ago over the city.
A day ago.
“Hurry up,” Maisero said, and started upwards. Sartore thought he almost lost the old man, and leaped forward to catch up. A few of those steps were enough to wind Sartore, but when he looked up at Maisero, he saw him entirely untroubled.
At the top, Maisero finally turned. His face had hardened, having reached his empire.
“Let’s go,” Maisero part shouted down at the nearing figure of Sartore. Finally achieving the top himself, Sartore took a moment to pant and spit on the marble floor of the library’s entrance. Maisero grimaced, but kept silent. Sartore scurried up to Maisero’s feet when he had regained some strength, and waited there. Maisero took one gnarled hand and grasped the black handle of the library entrance, and pulled it back.
The door creaked open. The dust in the library shimmered like specks of gold in the intruding light. Maisero shoved Sartore in and let the door shut heavily behind them.
“Keep quiet,” Maisero whispered, then moved forward himself. Sartore watched him fix his eyes on one of the tables, and there set up camp, dropping his briefcase and withdrawing a few sheets of paper. Sartore drew his breath, held it as Maisero’s eyes set on him. Sartore stepped forward.
In a quiet hour of darkness, one hundred men entered the city of Palthos through its open gates. A few of the city-dwellers spotted them through their windows and crept to the nearest hiding place to wait out their presence. Those that saw them were summarily killed before much fanfare could be made of it, their bodies left behind on the stone road, blood leaking into the cracks.
A man stood at the corner of the docks, crouched down and tying a rope around a wooden pole. His skin was tanned and painted with the canvasses of his wars at sea, although they had become disfigured with age. He heard that army approaching, but paid little attention. Now he could hear them padding unsteadily on the wooden boards behind him, growing closer.
“Rise, sailor,” one voice said. The man snarled as he did so.
Taramiel could see a vicious beast in the man’s eyes. He was grateful to his sword drawn, the tip biting into the board below. Sure, one hundred to one . . . but still.
“Give us three vessels, and we’ll let you live. Fast ones, ready for battle. Guide us to them, open your equipment to us and prepare our departure, and we will cause you no trouble.” By now Taramiel new that the man had spotted the crest sewn into his shirt: a black shield with a full sun and its rays outstretched in the top half.
“I ain’t working with none Gloss’ men,” the man said, and spit on Taramiel’s shoe.
“Unfortunately, you don’t have much of a choice.” Taramiel lifted his sword and dropped its flat side on the man’s shoulder. The growl in the man’s face seemed to grow deeper, and his teeth seemed to grow sharper.
“I’ll give you no damn boats.”
Taramiel was half certain the man would bark at him before he cut out the sailor’s throat. As it dropped into the cold ocean water, the sailor’s skin turned paler, and shined almost like a white sheet as it fell, until submerged in the black abyss.
Taramiel found three ships that seemed suitable enough. They weren’t the largest in the docks, but they were sleek, and outfitted with rams, harpoons, and an armory of weapons. Some scaled other ships to pilfer them for other valuables, while the rest began rigging the three ships. Taramiel re-fitted sails and unlatched the ropes. Those movements were mechanical, learned from hours at After a few hours of labor under the light of the moon, the eye shut behind a protective layer of clouds, and they were left with a dim reflection against the water.
And three ships were rigged. At the first sign of light, as the gray fog of the morning became visible, they were to leave the docks and sail forwards—and find that sole survivor sailing away. Three boats, the Sacredate had said, would capture him.
Taramiel and his men examined their ships one last time before falling in line into the cabins below. Taramiel went in last, savoring a final moment above-board, the cool wind blowing into his face and the stars spelling an unspoken pattern in the sky. But eventually, he followed. Taramiel found an unoccupied cabin and dropped into it.
The Gods would wake him when it was time to rise.
Sartore took the seat across from Maisero. Maisero had his hands folded over the table now, with his briefcase half-open at one edge of the table, half-vomiting its contents. Sartore realized, as he fidgeted to find a comfortable position in the chair, that he’d fail to find one in the straight-edged wooden furniture.
“Unfortunately, child, I have forgotten much of what we discussed the previous night. Where did you say you were from, again?”
“A small village, not—”
“Yes, yes, which village?”
“I’m not sure. It was always just—the village.”
Maisero took the empty moment to consider the words, and Sartore watched Maisero’s head thud with a frightening thought.
“Do you remember the path you took to arrive here?”
“I remember turning, once. Maybe a few times.”
Another pause for introspection.
“Do you remember why you left?”
Sartore shook his head. In fact, he thought part of him could still see a single glimpse of the village. But not his.
“In any case, if I remember accurately, you spoke of some strange incidents while we were still at the docks. Could you recount that story? Something about the sun . . .”
Now it was Sartore’s turn to pause. He leaned forward, propping his elbows against the wooden table (which were now at head-height), and stared down at the dusty square of rug in the table’s shadow.
“I remember being at the shore of a lake, behind the village. I was watching the sunset. The sun started to speak to me once the colors started changing. I didn’t understand most of it, but I remember it telling me that I—that I needed to follow it. And then it was like I woke up, and the sun was gone, and it was almost night.”
“How did the sun speak to you, child?”
“It whispered into my head.”
Maisero almost snarled at him, but the expression, and the thought that drew it, faded quickly. “And how did you stumble upon this city’s gates?”
“When I left, I walked down to the road out of the village, and remembered hearing about a city to my left. So I went.”
“And your parents allowed you to?” Maisero paused. “Where are they now?”
“I don’t know.”
And that was when the idea came. All of his desperate, miserable searching, come to an end. He could see the cover now: Alien Boy, subtitle: Compiled Adventures. It would be an overnight sensation. Perhaps people would even have the gall to find the story interesting and engaging. That would be something, wouldn’t it? Maisero almost let his joy leak into his face, but caught the smile before it hatched. All he’d have to do is follow the boy around. Take some notes, he thought. It would be the easiest sell of his life.
Even interesting for him, maybe. See the ocean on the other side—
But that would require him to follow the boy. Ghastly business, really. No, he’d have to hire a few others to do the following for him. No time for indulgences. He’d collect their notes and write it himself, in his cozy study, the thin layer of dust growing into a soft coat of fur until the work was finished. And the fame, the glory, would return.
“You arrived at this city sometime previous to our chance encounter. What were you doing prior to that?”
“I walked up to the lake, thinking, thinking that I could find the Sun again at sunrise, but by the time I got there, there was nothing there.”
“The sun was gone?”
“No, it was there. But it wasn’t in a talking mood.”
Maisero thought the words over for a moment, then turned back to Sartore, and asked his next question tentatively:
“Where do you intend to go now, child?”
“I thought the ocean looked pretty with the sun over it . . .”
Sartore winced when he saw Maisero’s sneaky gag. It was as though Maisero had found a noseful of putrid shoreline decay.
“If you’re heart’s set on that, then, I may be able to find some work with some guidance,” Maisero said. Sartore nodded in agreement. Maisero rose, tucked his papers back into his briefcase, slung it over his shoulder, and walked down the side of the bookshelves, letting the child follow behind him. Sartore kept a few feet between him and Maisero.
Maisero skipped the first two shelves. Between them, Sartore found two men with open books in their hands, one seated at a footstool, the other standing, head pointed into the open slot from which he’d withdrawn the volume.
After turning a corner into one of the shelves, Maisero stopped and strummed his fingers against the book spines in front of him. Eventually, he picked one, slid it out and held it for Sartore to see. Sartore immediately noticed the name embossed at the bottom.
“You wrote this?” Sartore asked.
“After many years of study, child. There should be plenty for you here. Follow me.”
And you should follow him. Write a good story, a real one at that. See the water, those fields of daffodils on the other side—
Unsteady boats, scummy people, vomiting, the whole lot—
Maisero carried the book under his arm back to one of the desks, this time on the other side of the shelves. He laid down his briefcase against his chair, and waited for the child to be seated before opening the book and laying out its treasures. The colorful pictures caught Sartore’s eyes immediately.
“There’s an important city across the ocean,” Maisero said. He flipped a few pages forward, searching for the right page. “I still remember old conversations regarding the city. It contained a large port, if memory serves me right. There were large masses of old and dusty ruins, but at the last inquiry I made, they were making preparations to rebuild some of them. They’ve regained some of their stature as of late, after spending some decades poor and useless. But their investments have appeared successful.”
Why’d you never move there in the first place? Much better place to coop up.
“There we are.” Maisero had stopped, and placed a finger over an illustration, before turning the book for Sartore to read. The child stared at the book, and seemed to carry its weight on his head, afraid to lean forward and tip over. Tentatively he scooted forward in his seat, and scanned the lines. Maisero watched with some contentment as the child’s eyes widened and narrowed.
“Is that where I’m going?” Sartore asked, eyes pleading up at Maisero.
“I believe so, child.”
And you as well.
Leave the damned child alone, take him to the docks and get him out of here before he has another opportunity to distract from your studies. And pay somebody else to follow him.
“I can bring you there,” the old man said, after some struggle to form the words properly. Sartore nearly jumped out of his chair, and landed on his feet. “Let’s go, then!”
The old man took his time, lips placed awkwardly on his face. He shut the book, enjoying the brief echo of the mass of pages collapsing softly on each other, then carried it back to its original spot in the shelves. It occurred to Sartore that few people had ever taken it out from its spot, given the excess of dust now left behind on the desk. Few other than him.
And Sartore followed Maisero to the docks.
The featureless eye above watched the critters below. Sartore thought he was getting special attention. He and Maisero shoved and dodged between the other legs moving in the street. He could feel the skin on the back of his neck tanning into a strip of leather. A few steps ahead, he saw Maisero hunkered down with a hand kept above his brow as they went.
Maisero’s heart was ringing in his head. Every glance from the other street-dwellers caused him to hunch forward a little further. The children running between his feet and bumping into him didn’t help things. He couldn’t stand their laughter, and especially not their unearned tears. Maisero turned for a moment, saw Sartore disappear in a stream of equally-sized hooligans, then reappear when they had left. Maisero beckoned him to move faster, and they did.
As Maisero shoved past a few more people, freeing himself from the crowd behind him, the docks appeared suddenly at his feet. He stood at the tail end of the wooden ramp that turned and bent to the waters. The ocean seemed to have no end, neither past the horizon nor in the deep below its surface.
The water will devour you if you near it.
Maisero recoiled from a tug at his sleeve. Sartore stood beside him, watching him. Now it was Sartore’s turn to beckon forth; but Maisero did nothing. Sartore went on ahead, running down the ramp and heading downwards. Maisero caught the child scanning the bottom of the docks, as though searching for something.
Maisero had never learned to swim. His last real contact with the ocean had been as a child, dipping his toes into the waves at the shore. Swimmers and sailors were blind, Maisero thought, to the fiends that dwelled below them, waiting for the end of a man’s breath or the listing of a ship in the wind to bring the trespasser into the darkest shade below.
As Sartore rounded the corner of the ramp and fell out of sight, Maisero followed.
When he rounded it himself, Maisero saw Sartore standing at the ramp’s conclusion, a flat wooden platform a few inches above water, admiring the massive sails that had landed here. Again, Maisero hesitated; he imagined approaching the child, only for a liquid tentacle to wrap around his ankle and drag him down.
“Move it or I’ll throw you in,” a voice growled from behind him. Maisero didn’t waste a second in sprinting down the docks. His vision had gone gray and red, and he could see his heartbeat, especially as he looked down at his feet to see the shifting image of his reflection over the diluted blue. But his eyes returned to the ramp, where a short handful of loud knocks against the wood ended a few more feet from him.
“And what’re you doing here, Misery?”
Faori had a pipe gripped firmly in his scowl.
“Faori, hello,” Maisero said, offering his hand. When Faori pulled out his own, caked with wet soil and discolored nails, Maisero his his hand in his shadow. Faori grunted.
“Well, Faori, I was wondering if I could provide—this child beside me would like to sail down to Pallasi, and I would like to provide it.”
Maisero raised an eyebrow and turned back. Sartore’s eyes had grown wide with recognition, and had slowly shuffled to Maisero’s back.
“What rat?” Maisero asked.
Faori laughed. “The kid was running around the docks yesterday morning, making a lot of noise. Right, kid?”
Sartore was completely obscured behind Maisero now.
“Sure, I can give him a ticket. You want to go to, Maisero? Go for your first sail?” Faori couldn’t finish the sentence with laughing, a sound like the wrinkling of a sheet of paper.
Faori stopped. He examined Maisero closely, stepping closer to than Maisero would’ve preferred, but found the answer truthful.
“You sure about that? Mind my words, but you were never much for sailing.”
“I think I’ll take this journey. Just the one.”
Faori raised his hands and dropped them back to his sides. “Whatever you say. Follow me. Head up kid, stop running around like a rat.”
The ships that had come to rest at these docks were quiet. The only ones with any crew on board were the passenger ships that were slowly accumulating customers. Sartore watched a lavishly dressed family, with purple-and-maroon stained coats of fur wrapped around their shoulders, clopping up the wooden ramp to the deck.
Maisero felt the world swimming as the water wavered under him, back and forth, pressing against the stone wall to his right and sending up a venomous spray of salt and seaweed.
And the two followed after Faori, who walked quickly for a man with such a heavy gait and stagger. Sartore and Maisero chased after him. He turned and stepped behind a kiosk cut into the stone, shoved through the waist-height wooden door. Maisero dropped the weight of his back and shoulders onto the countertop, holding it up only by his elbows and forearms.
“Got any money on you?” Faori asked as he sifted through some of the drawers by his side. Maisero nodded faintly. He placed his briefcase on the counter and opened his front pocket, removing an array of papers and pamphlets from it. He kept his hand firm over them, bracing for a cold wind that had peeled off the top of the water. He imagined one of those slips escaping from his grasp, looping in the air and landing in the ocean, in a few seconds sogged, in a few more breaking apart and sinking to the bottom to be eaten by minnows, and those minnows to be devoured by more menacing creatures.
Keep it together.
At the bottom Maisero found a collection of loose coins.
“How many of these?” Maisero asked, dropping a few onto the wood with a startling clatter seemed to break the flow of time.
“Twenty, ten for the pair.”
After some more digging Maisero had collected twenty coins exactly, gathered into a child’s poor imitation of a mountain, and shoved them with his palms towards Faori. Faori swiped them and made two pillars of equal height from them, grunted with approval, and dropped them into another drawer just behind the counter, before shutting it with a hip thrust.
“Which boat do you want? That one’s leaving in an hour, another one tonight.”
Maisero turned to Sartore, but wished he hadn’t. Although the boy had begun to open his mouth, Maisero knew what answer would come, and he fully intended to ignore it.
“Tonight. Send us tonight.” he said without looking back at Faori, and sunk deeper into the shadow of the upper lip of stone overhead. Now with Maisero’s body completely enveloped in darkness, Faori thought he looked like a beast trying to crawl over the counter, and for a moment his heart picked up. Faori pulled out two strips of paper and an old and worn pencil, then scribbled a few notes on each. A few words were entered into an open volume at his side.
“Here you are,” he said, handing one slip of paper to each of them. “Bring that to the boat down at the south end here,” Faori said, pointing down the other end of the docks, where another boat of similar fashion waited.
“The ride’ll be pretty empty tonight, but I’m sure you won’t mind that,” Faori said, nodding his head and moving out of the shop window. “Now get out of here. No idling about.”
Faori swept them away with his arms, and they scurried back up the ramp and took a seat at a wooden bench near the docks with the glittering water at their backs.
Those hours passed in silence. Maisero bowed his head to passersby, while Sartore fidgeted beside him. It wasn’t until the sun began to set that either of them made any real movements. It had been at the back of Sartore’s mind all morning, and he jumped out of his seat the moment he saw the first blush in the sky. Maisero remained in his.
In a few minutes the sky had become amber, then a raging flame that stretched over the sky; but the flames died out, turning to purple then to the fading black of twilight, without a word to Sartore. The stars above seemed to blink absently at him.
“We must go now, child,” Maisero said, rising himself. “Our boat will be boarding soon, I think.” He pointed one unsteady finger down below, and Sartore saw the descending ramp of the boat as well. He saw in Maisero’s face worry and a queasy hopefulness.
“Let’s go, then,” Sartore said, clenching his throat and dashing down to the docks. Behind him, Sartore knew Maisero’s expression had only grown more worried.
But Maisero followed.
Sartore stood a few feet from the ramp up to the boat and marveled at it. There was a quiet majesty to it, the sails furled up and quivering in the wind, the wide and empty deck. Maisero, who scooted up just behind the child, could only see the ship rocking back and forth, which already made him uncomfortable. Better the sight of that than the water, he thought; for in the complete darkness below, anything might dwell.
Faori laughed behind him.
“Voyage well, Maisero, and have a good trip, child,” he said.
Sartore went first, and he rushed up the ramp easily. Maisero watched him go for just long enough to see a foot slip out from under the child. Of course, Sartore caught himself easily. He stopped at the ship’s entrance, both feet firmly on deck.
“Come on!” the boy shouted.
Maisero took a trembling step onto the ramp. It was slick and well-tread. For a minute he couldn’t uproot his other foot.
“Move it, or we’ll leave you on the ramp,” one of the sailors said.
Wouldn’t that be nice?
Another step. Good. Maisero kept his head up, let his feet drag against the boards and placed them firmly enough. The travel was going well, better, even—
Masiero looked down, and down into the black waters, and screamed.
From the water arose a vision.
The first thing that Maisero noticed was a body lying in the muck. Slumped over, like the rotting carcass of an old beast. It took him a little longer before the dust settled in his head and he saw that it was his face lying there, half submerged in the ground. He couldn’t see any visible damage on his dead body, but he wasn’t moving. His eyes were the worst part—motionless, pointed at nothing.
There were people moving around the body, some shoving it with their shoes, but mostly leaving it alone. From among them, Maisero noticed a small pair of boots stop and kneel down, open his jacket and pull a few things from it. The figure placed a hand on Maisero’s dead cheek, and left a smear of dirt on it.
“Shut up, goddammit! Get moving and stop shouting!” Faori yelled, snapping Maisero out of the nightmare. The rest of the world had acquired a metallic quality to it, and seemed to shine at him—from a distance. That image of him remained in his mind, albeit fading, but when he looked back at the water (flinching as he did so) he found no sign of it. He fled up the ramp and out of the water’s sight. The sailors on deck watched him wearily.
“Why’d you shout like that?” Sartore asked, looking up at him, a little frightened. Maisero laughed. He noticed his heart beating restlessly, although by now that vision had completely left. A thrill was rushing through him.
“Oh, just a fright that I spotted, nothing in particular.” The words tasted strange on his tongue. He felt now as though nothing in the world could frighten him or challenge him, and yet here he was, admitting to a terrifying scare in the water. What did he even see, to begin with? It didn’t matter. All he wanted to do was run and dance.
But the feeling was leaving. The cold wind was returning.
“Did you see anything in the water?”
“No, of course not. Everything’s fine—spectacular.”
Now when Maisero looked down at the boy, he noticed a stinging look of suspicion.
“What is your name again, child? I seem to have forgotten, and if we are to be acquaintances, your name would be valuable.”
“Sartore,” the boy said, and smiled. “What’s yours?”
“Maisero S—” then he stopped. “Maisero. Nice to meet you, Sartore.” Now Sartore was laughing. That sound was kind and warm at first, but then it gave Maisero a crooked ache in his head, and he stopped enjoying it. Sartore noticed it too, and stopped laughing.
“You folks can pick yourselves a cabin. Looks like nobody else’ll be joining us tonight,” one sailor told them.
“Alright, thank you. After you, Sartore?”
Sartore nodded, and they headed down. Sartore slipped into the darkness immediately, his eyes wide with wonder as he wandered in the wooden halls and absorbed the stench of its boards. Maisero saw it and sobered up quickly, the last of that toxic drink finally leaving his bloodstream. One small light hung at the entrance, and wobbled with the thrust of the waters. Now Maisero could feel the weight of the water too, and he felt that light happiness in his mind turn to a light nausea, and the small thin line of a throb in his mind. Maisero shook his head and descended.
He followed Sartore’s light steps to the right. From a door Maisero overheard an old lady scolding someone, who wasn’t replying. Eventually he found the cabin of Sartore’s choice. It had a small window, but no other light.
“Is there no lamp here, Sartore?”
“I don’t think so.”
Maisero nodded, and almost left to find a cabin of his own, but he stopped. Sartore had turned to watch the moon through the glass, and Maisero spotted it immediately: small brown boots. That dream roared back to life, and left him sick as he chose the next cabin over, and bereft of sleep when he laid to rest.
The ship set sail a few hours after Sartore had fallen asleep. But his rest was short lived; a pesky wave tried shoving past the boat, and struck the hull with some annoyance before passing. The lurch awoke a number of passengers, and Sartore was one of them. The first thing he saw was the lamplight spying under his door frame as it swung back and forth. He smiled, stepped out of bed and fastened his boots before stepping into the hallway.
The lamp was only a few meters away. It hung from a black hook in the ceiling by a small metal ring. The lamp was unable to find a decent resting place in the ship’s perpetual movement. But the lamp didn’t fall, nor the flame sputter out.
Sartore heard laughing towards the front of the ship, and went there next. He stood in the light’s radius, and could see no further than its circumference. But after a minute, the ship separated from the heavens; and after that, the ship took form.
The laughing had come from a small handful of the original sailors. They stood in disarray near the front of the ship, their backs to him.
“That’s the kid,” spoke a voice from overhead. Sartore noticed a shadow pointing at him from the crow’s nest, the figure’s feet hanging over the side. A different voice groaned, and Sartore watched one of the sailors turn and approach him, bent forward like an angered bull. Sartore quickly thought of running back to bed, or dashing to the side of the ship and hiding in the dark, but before he could decide, the sailor stood a yard away. His long and wrinkled chin poked into the dome of light, and Sartore could make out the black tentacles of hair that fell around his face.
“What’re you doing up here? Go back to bed.”
“I just woke up.”
“Well, better run back to sleep then.”
“If you don’t want to sleep in your own room, I can always throw you in with the other sailors, I’m sure there’s an open hammock for you. That sound better?”
“Well, those’re your options. Take your pick.”
Sartore ceded. The lamplight seared his eyes lightly when he turned to it, and made his next step sloppy. He tripped and nearly fell to the floor, but caught himself on a wooden handrail.
“You—you alright there kid?” the sailor said. Sartore looked back, grinned, and nodded. The sailor nodded in return and walked away.
On his way back to the cabin, Sartore spotted Maisero’s door hanging open, and decided to peek in.
Maisero’s sleep seemed laborious. He was asleep on his side, his chest rising and falling in uneven cycles. Sartore thought Maisero’s squished face and puffy cheeks looked funny. The sheets had fallen away from Maisero, as though they had tried getting away from him.
Suddenly Sartore noticed a mealy taste on his tongue, accompanied by a dry stickiness. Sartore waved goodnight to the sleeping body and stepped back to his own room. Before falling back to bed, he spit defiantly into one of the cracks in the wood under his feet and laughed to himself. He fell sideways into bed, and peeled each boot off with the other foot. Accomplishing that feat, Sartore crawled up to his pillow, slipped under his sheets, and drifted back to sleep.