Seren and Rive walked down the street together, the red and white mushroom in the distance growing larger as their legs ate up the space from where they were to there. The feelings swirling around inside Seren were too many and too entwined to name; “happy” was a pale comparison to have Rive at her side. There was no way she would have figured out the twists and turns of Viadora, and more than once, they chose a shortcut at a place where she would have added more steps to their journey. The hodgepodge she’d seen from the rooftop lab was multiplied in the streets. Complex patterns of language and color knotted together for businesses, services, and other advertisements, and the farther they walked from Rive’s house, the more Seren heard fragments of other languages being spoken.
“The lists aren’t actually outside outside,” Rive explained, looking over their shoulder. Seren waved at them, partly to prove that she was still following and partly to show that she was paying attention, even though everything around the two of them was amazing and she wanted to spend hours just watching. “There are a few small buildings that keep sets of lists, one at each tower direction.”
She nodded, enjoying the movement of her new haircut out of the corner of her eyes. Rive had asked Krins for help with their hair and the older sibling had done well. Krins was a little scary, reflected Seren, swinging the end of a braid forward for her to catch, but they clearly cared for their family.
“Like it?” Rive was smiling at her, rubbing the back of their own shaven head. Her own style differed greatly from the long hair she’d had before. After Krins had heard she’d never had hair above her waist, the plan for shortness had changed a little. She still had long hair on the left and the right side of her head, but Krins had hacked the back away, setting free a weight she’d been carrying for far too long. The sides were then plaited with strings of small colored ribbons donated to the cause.
“I really do,” she assured Rive, running a hand up the back of her head to feel the bristly bits poke bite at her palm. “This was an amazing idea.”
“Krins does have some good ones,” they said, nodding. “Most of the time.”
Seren just smiled at that.
“You were saying the lists aren’t outside, though?”
“We’ll be going into the White ‘shroom.” They paused. “So, there’s the Mushroom, and then there are four colored ‘shrooms, white, blue, red, and green, since we have towers like that too.”
“What are the towers for?” Seren walked past Rive as they stopped. “What?”
“I keep forgetting how little you know about Viadora,” they groaned, sliding a hand over their face. “And this is gonna come back to bite us when we fill out our application for a license.”
She perked up at that. Her engineer had been sparse on what exactly they’d need to get her ship back, and this was the first time they’d let something drop.
“When Viadora changed from a small city to this,” they began, taking the lead again, “it was basically because of four families. They’d all moved here, for some reason or another, and as they settled into the city, they decided it was missing some things. They prayed to their gods, I guess asking for help to get what they wanted, but there was a disagreement about how to pray.”
“So each tower is dedicated to a different god?”
“They are now,” Rive said, nodding. “But when they were first built, it was to the same god, just used in four different ways. The White Tower was to burn messages, since the ash would rise and the prayer would be read. Blue practices folding, and the smaller you can fold a prayer, the more it piques a god’s interest to read and grant it. Green is the worst, in most people’s opinions. They make you find bones and carve your wishes on that.”
Seren shivered at the thought.
“Where do people get bones, though?”
Rive’s widening smile didn’t comfort her at all.
“You can buy them. Or ‘find’ them when a person dies. Sometimes even steal them from people.” They let out a sigh. “I know a woman who cut off her fingers and sold them, then cut off her hand at the wrist. And there are others that, if they have an accident, won’t try to reattach the part. They’ll just sell it.”
Seren stopped walking to stare at Rive’s back.
“That’s... that’s horrible!” she blurted out, startling three other people walking past her. “Rive, why is that still allowed? Rive!”
“Come on!” they called, motioning for her to hurry. “And why they allow it is pretty easy. Do you see all the beings around us?”
She nodded, but they couldn’t see her action, so she jogged up to be at their side again. The section of the street Rive was looking at seemed like a two-way river. There were more people moving away from the giant mushroom, voices loud and bright, movements exaggerated. Others were moving against that current, returning while wearing outfits like Bri’s, three-quarter sleeved tops, long skirts, and black midsections. It looked as if they were all wearing badges too, but she and Rive were too far away to tell. These beings were more… unsmiling if she had to put a word to it. Much more subdued than the others spreading outward.
“I see people?” Her eyes were swimming in them, like the one time she’d seen a swarm of bees flying over the island in search, her dad had told her, of a new home. “There’s so many of them...”
“Exactly. Where do you think all these people go when they die? I’ll tell you right now we don’t have places to bury them like they used to centuries ago.”
She looked at them in shock, and they laughed.
“Families will sell bodies and bones; it’s a good way to leave something to those living.”
“I...” The idea was odd. She was no stranger to life, and with life came death, but just animals. Cows and goats for milk. Sheep for wool. Sure, they had items carved from horns that had been collected when animals had died, but... was that the same thing?
“It might be weird to you, but it’s normal to us,” Rive said quietly, watching her. “In life we work to help people in our family succeed, so why not in death?”
One of her favorite pieces carved by her dad had been from ram horn. He did small things like that during winter when the family was cooped up in the house. Father painted, she read books, and dad made memories into tangible items. She nodded at Rive, hesitant at first, but then with a bit more strength behind the action.
“I can understand wanting to make sure your family will be taken care of.” Seren took a deep breath, one that tasted slightly earthy, and let it out. “I... I might have trouble if it was one of my friends or family members.”
Rive snorted and rubbed their head again.
“If it’s someone close to you, trust me, there are things on your mind other than what happens to the body.” They fixed her with a look. “Have you had a family death?”
“No.” Both her parents were still alive, and she’d never had any siblings.
“...lucky.” They began walking again. “Anyhow, white burns things, blue folds things, and green makes people carve bones.”
“What about red?”
“Red’s easy. Say your prayers until you lose your voice.” They sniffed. “There are people who will pay others to pray for them, so their hope is nonstop until it’s granted.”
“It makes sense to me.” More than the whole idea of buying and selling people’s bones after they died. Seren walked around someone who was leaning against a building, their legs stretched out into the walking traffic.
“Meh. No heart to it, though, making it a transaction. If I were a god, I’d rather have people use their body to pray for me, not get replacements.” They pointed. “There. That’s where we need to be.”
Seren looked at the end of their finger and saw a small, unassuming office painted to look like a much smaller mushroom than the one she’d seen when flying in.
“And it’s okay for us to just walk right in? You’re sure?” That’s another thing that baffled her. Her father and dad had always harped about how information could be power in the right hands, and all this knowledge was free for anyone to read?
Rive nodded, already looking for a gap so that they could cross the street.
“Why not? As far as they know, we’re just apprentices looking to see if the ship our master needs finally docked.” They darted left, forcing Seren to run after them. She stumbled, tripping on the hem of the patchwork skirt she’d borrowed from Lissa, and quickly caught herself.
“Don’t use my name,” they said, interrupting her. “Call me Engineer. Or better yet, just tap on my shoulder or something, that way you don’t have to call me anything at all.”
She stopped, confused. If doing so was that important, why hadn’t they said anything when they’d left the house? Or along the route to the mushroom?
“Um, sure... I can do that.” Seren shushed the inside voice, reminding her that she was really, really bad—terribly bad—at keeping secrets. “Why though?”
“I’ll tell you later.” They walked up to the front door, rectangular, wooden, and painted white, then opened it, bowing at the waist, then motioning for her to go on through. Seren stammered a thanks and blushed, trying to walk in as if she knew what she was doing.
“It’s huge!” she whispered to Rive, her eyes drinking in all the people, books, and cabinets. “It looked so small outside!”
“It’s longer since it goes into the ‘shroom,” they replied, pushing her gently so that she’d move out of the doorway. “Come on. Manifests are all the way to the left. See those big books, the ones about half your height? That’s where we’re heading.”
Seren rocked from another little push, but instead of turning and yelling at Rive, which would mean drawing attention to them, she began moving toward the books they had mentioned.
“Who are all these people?” she whispered to Rive. For a small office, it was crowded with beings demanding service, others arguing with bored looking staff, and there was one person who kept raising their voice every time the other person in their conversation spoke.
“Captains. Crew members. People who need licenses to trade with ships.”
“You need a license to fly a ship and trade with it?” Seren rolled her eyes and Rive snorted at her expression.
“Look, this is where the city makes most of its money. Ships coming in and out need papers, shops and businesses need papers, and all the papers cost money. Not to mention guild fees.”
That was the worrying part. She—They—were on a time limit to get those documents and she still didn’t know how much money it was going to take.
“Ri—“ Her voice faltered as they glared at her, and she bit her tongue. They were here to find her ship, and if they couldn’t, then the question wasn’t really that important. Her eyes focused on the open books ahead of them and narrowed. “Engineer, you take the book on the left, I’ll take the book on the right, and we’ll meet in the middle.”
Rive quirked an eyebrow at her, and she thought she saw a small smile start at the corner of their mouth, but they gave a little bow instead.
“Certainly, Captain.” One small salute later, and they sauntered off to the open pages nearest the arched window and its drawn curtains. She went to her place, the staff counter continuing to stay on her right. The book wasn’t like the smaller books she had on the shelf in the ship. This was, as Rive had noticed, almost half the size of her and had names written in some type of glittering ink. Seren let out a small sigh as she glanced over the names; while it looked fancy, with all the loops and squiggles, it had nothing on her father’s cursive when he was tired. Her eyes went straight to the top of the crisp, off-white page and started from there. One of the first things she noticed was that there weren’t multiple languages for each name and ship; those were each written in one language for the line, even though that changed every so often on the page, depending on the ship and what they were picking up.
|In||Out||Ship's Name||Captain||Faction||Home Port||Voyage Port||Exports||Imports|
|D3 W4 Y20||D4 W4 Y20||Steel Snow||Alden Khek-sal||Winter Mines||Kheka||Palas||fabric||coin, metal|
|D3 W4 Y20||D5 W4 Y20||Rust Maelstrom||Den-Nul-Ten-Gik||Natural Disasters||Iriesall||Kheka||weapons||weapons|
|D3 W4 Y20||D4 W4 Y20||Cerulean Fog||Dr. Elnika Mih||Ocean Winds||Jocaster||Palas||toursim||information|
|D3 W4 Y20||D1 W5 Y20||Iron Rain||Iioh Khel-sey||Winter Mines||Noln||Kheley||settlers||metals|
None of them mentioned Captain Juji and the Autumn Sky. Which made a type of sense. People exporting things out of the city must have either been here or had Viadora on their landing schedule, but Captain Juji and Jo had said they’d stopped because Seren had needed help. She eyed the book to her left. Maintenance.
|In||Out||Ship's Name||Captain||Faction||Home Port||Voyage Port||Duration||Maintenance||Cost||Reason|
|D3 W4 Y20||Ivory Light (religious)||Honorable Lights of God||Prism of Light||Arodon||Arodon||Being determined||Fixing bottom floor, rudder, replacement, replacement of anchor||Being determined||Settled onto the top of the Silver Drizzle|
|D3 W4 Y20||Silver Drizzle||Gaman||Spring Mist||Arodon||Noln||Being determined||Sails replacement, fixing of main floor, and repairing staircases||Being determined||Rose into the belly of the Ivory Light|
... huh. That must have been a horrible day for the Silver Drizzle. Seren's eyes already went to the next entry, and upon reading the name of the ship at the top, had to pinch herself to keep from laughing.
This was a more interesting list, and she wanted to ask someone why the Ivory Light had the term “religious” next to it, since the naming pattern seemed to fit in well with the others. The detailed list continued, so she flipped a few pages ahead to see if there was any end in sight—there were at least two more pages just for today. And in general, a whole book for maintenance.
“Why is all this information public?” she whispered to herself. Cost was something between the payer and the person paying, right? Why would others need to know? Length of time was easier to imagine someone needed to know, especially if there were people looking more to the future about hiring the ship and focusing less on the immediate now.
“Cap... Captain... Captain!” Seren yanked her gaze away from the book and turned to see Rive glaring at her.
“Sorry Ri—Engineer,” she responded, rubbing the back of her head.
“I found the ship we were looking for,” they said, motioning for her to come look. She took a step towards them, then stopped, a familiar figure appearing in the corner of her vision. Smiling, pausing for quick comments to people along the way, and still moving steadily towards the counter, was Briarrshi. There was no doubt about it; that one-of-a-kind hairstyle confirmed it.
“Serri?” Rive turned to see who she was watching. “What’s wrong? Do you know them?”
“That’s the person who threaded me,” she whispered. “And sent me to the White Tower.”
“Figured that out for myself, but glad to hear you confirm it. Come on, we need to leave before she notices—“ their words drifted off as Bri walked over to the book they were standing near.
“Excuse me, I need to check the books,” she said, looking at the two of them. Her gaze flickered to Rive, but lingered on Seren. “I’m sorry, but you seem familiar... Do we know each other?”
She opened her mouth just as Rive’s fingers pinched her arm in warning.
- Dust Warrior
CoffeeQuills is a transplanted Floridian, living in the Land Rising Sun. They write for 4thewords (an RPG for writers) and in the twists of space and time created by caffeine, they enjoy coming up with stories all along the spec-fic range. Anything goes for this Hufflepunk, so hold tight and pretend it's a plan!
“This is who I am, right here, right now, all right? All that counts is here and now, and this is me!”
(Currently back after a long hiatus - apologies to those I owe chapters and mail too. The plan is to update fictions and continue with a once a week schedule.)