Yet another snippet from Notte! Unedited, messy, etc. Enjoy!
Horse’s instructions seemed simple: I was to find the city of Mercy; to locate the inn called Pearl’s Bottom; to rent a bed, yet not use it, and instead wait in the public room below for a week and a day. If I did these things, his messenger would find me there.
Simple, yes. Dubious, without doubt! Yet I lacked the wherewithal to question them.
Reason with me through the difficulties therein presented: I knew language, but not the colloquialisms and connotations of living speech. I knew how to steal clothes and dress myself, but not in a manner resembling anyone but a madman or a child. I did not know how to ask for directions, nor did my nature initially incline me to try. In my brief and sorry life, I had never asked for anything but the return of my daughter’s soul – and that had been denied me.
It took me a year to achieve only the first step Horse had given.
I will not drag you through this long and dreadful time. No, I will not do it; it represents, to me, the most embarrassing time of my life. Trial and error were my guides, and they are cruel and injurious masters.
I attempted to mimic, and my first attempts were understandably disastrous. I could copy any behavior, but without the maturity to interpret it, I applied it at all the wrong times.
There were two occasions in which I was driven from a town with torches, but let us brush that aside.
I was regularly slapped by the offended, and a dozen times challenged to duel (which I learned to avoid; my tendency to survive stab wounds is what led to the torches). Fourteen times, I was outed as not what I seemed because I’d stolen the clothing of some high official, and a bare moment of conversation was enough to dissolve that impression.
I grew even more lonely. Others had their houses and families and animals and fellow warriors or workers of earth; I had no one but the wind and my own thoughts.
I would hide in the shadows of eaves, in the dark places between homes, and in the lingering crowds after work and before bed. I often wept before sleeping. Yet it seemed that I was not truly alone when I woke, but that some soft, incorporeal hand lay upon me; if I quieted myself, listened, stilled, I almost thought I heard a voice. Ah, but I was a child, and never stayed still long enough to listen much. Perhaps it was to be expected.
But I learned. By the end of that year, my friend, most would have to speak to me for more than a few minutes to realize I was still a child in the body of a man. I had learned the key to blending in, a quiet confidence and easy smile. I had learned to walk and not be seen. I had learned.
Ah, you need not look so doubtful! You look at me now with my odd way of speaking and my strange choice of clothes, and you doubt that I fit in well. You may not have considered that my differences are intentional; that I wish others to know me to be not the same from the very start, both to protect them and to give me and my Beast room to breathe.
I do not wish to be feared, but I wish others to be wary. My choices of clothing, bearing, and language are all calculated toward this. Should I wish to hide among your own pretty people, even my lack of long, pointed ears would fail to make you doubt that I was one of your own.
But I digress.
In a year’s time, I learned enough to adapt to the culture of any city I came across, at least on cursory inspection. I learned how to communicate in a way that seemed not too rough (or I was dismissed as low-class, a thief, or worse) and not to high (lest others kowtow to me, or expect impossible favors). I learned. I learned.
And in a year’s time, I found the Pearl’s Bottom.
Ah, my friend, I wish you could have known the cities of that time.
I doubt in my deepest soul that we as a world will ever achieve that level of accord again. Before the First War, it was nothing to see the mixing of races, the communion of species, the joining of blood and of power with no other consideration than what one enjoyed. Of course, there were still class struggles; there were and always will be idiocies based on the rejection of skin or fur or the number of one’s eyes. But there was less. Yes, my friend; there was less. I miss it.
The city of Mercy was named so because of its particular location. It wreathed the sea port of Tamaza, an area that would later become known as Maghreb. At that time simply belonged to the Fey – and as you well know, the Fey are always keen for commerce.
This port was the primary point of access to the Atlantic. That meant it was the place to go for trade, or if one felt an urgent need to leave the continent in a hurry. There was a war on, after all; its vast and horrible reach had not quite grasped this far east, not yet, but it was coming closer – as the steady stream of refugees bore witness.
I suppose my initial ingress was simplified by this fact. Strangers from all over the continent wandered and limped through this city, seeking succor, finding port and (more often than not) setting off for happier shores. How could they know that this war would follow them there? That in time, not even the reaches of the Antarctic would be safe?
Again, I digress. Forgive my easy distraction today. These memories are not ones I have spoken out loud in many thousands of years.
I found the Pearl’s Bottom near what is now called the Straight of Gibraltar. Tamaza was a busy place; large ships (which I had never seen before) roughened the horizon of the otherwise smooth sea, and languages of all kinds rose in needful volume above all the clatter. Fishing was, of course, an enormous industry, but so was the transportation of silks, of wealth and jewels for the crowns of those far distant, of rare woods and rarer rocks the wealthy needed to complete their palaces.
I cared not for all these things. I busied myself with offering out coins to the Pearl’s Bottom manager in order to obtain a room.
“What’s this for?”
“A bed for a week and a day,” I said, as normal as one might wish.
He took them from me and counted them out, then nodded. I hardly know what money I gave him. The skill of money must be taught, and I had no teacher; these coins were simply the contents of a pouch I’d taken from an unfortunate robber the night before. I have no doubt the inn’s owner rooked me most dearly.
It hardly mattered. There was no price too high for redemption.
Redemption: what did this word mean but a cessation of shame and a ceasing of guilt? A lessening of sorrow, a scraping-clean of my misdeeds as one might scrape a muddy leather hide. What would I not do to obtain this? Precious little, even had I been told to fling myself into the sun.
Business was plentiful there as merchants, explorers, and refugees made their way through. I smelled blood utterly new to me, spiced with diet and lifestyles I’d never known. I saw skin colors as varied as the painted sky from dawn to dusk, and glorious fashions I had not guessed possible. I saw humans – in all their glory and all their mess, living and heated and pounding with blood, and I wanted to devour them all.
But I did not hunt. I remained glued to my little table as if my very life depended on it, for certainly, my redemption did.
A week and a day is an interminable amount of time to stay in one place, for the record. The owner re-rented my bed out after day three, I believe, though I have no proof of this. He simply grew nervous any time I looked toward the stairs that led to the sleeping area.
A week. A day. I had time to listen and observe, and this in itself was helpful to pass the time.
At last, my small purgatory was done. That is when she came.
She slid across from me at my table, dark in her dark cloak, all a-mystery and thick with the silence of shadow. “Are you Hestur’s new folly?” she said, her voice husky and clipped.
Now, this introduction would make little sense even to an adult who knew the ways of the world. To me, it was gibberish. “What?”
She made a displeased sound – one I would come to know very well in time, and learn to avoid with fervor – and pushed her hood back.
Her ears were as long as my forearm and so delicately thin that though her skin was the deep indigo of moonlit sea, the lamplight of this place gleamed through them, turning them playfully violet. A dark tracery of ebony tattoos raced along her skin, catching the light as she moved – ass though granting me glimpses of her hidden veins. And yes, of course, she was beautiful; this beauty, though, was the flavor of craggy cliffs and wind-washed stones, of icy fields completely smooth in the moonlight.
Hers was the beauty of the desolate and the blade.
“You wish for redemption?” she said, her voice a low, throaty velvet in this place of rough tones and coarse words.
“I’ve waited here to find it,” I said.
She slid a small leather pouch across to me across the table. It was flat; buttoned down in front, utterly plain but for the leather thongs that curled away on both sides like tails. “Tie this around your neck. You will need it when you arrive. Take the Salted Road. Follow it to its end. Once you arrive, present this coin, and you may find the path you seek. If you are worthy.” She stood.
And she may as well have kicked me in the stomach. “More journeying? More tests? Have I not proven myself already?”
“Stupid creature. Did you think it would be easy?” she said, her dark eyes wide and bright like spear-tips in moonlight.
It had not been easy. My loneliness rising like volcanic spew, but when she did nothing in response – said nothing more, but merely stared at me – I did what any child would do: I struggled not to weep. Adults rarely wept in public, this I knew, but what else was I to do? Tears slid down my face and wetted the table leaving marks in the dust that had gathered there. I was so very, very lonely. How many more days would this take?
Something in her… cracked. This will mean more to you in time, when I have told you her sorry tale, but now you must take my word for this: she pitied me in that moment, and it changed the course of both our lives.
“Don’t – ” she started, then sighed. “This is all a test. You have to prove yourself worthy, yes, but more than that, you have to show how dearly you want this. If you fall by the wayside because the path is too difficult, then you will never survive whatever he’s planned for you next. Stop… whining.” For Darkling Six, this was great compassion, indeed.
I sniffled and wiped my face on my sleeve (a practical use for clothing, finally!). “I will stay the course. I will not fall away, though the way seems so alone.”
If that made any sense to this woman, she gave me no indication. She re-hooded herself.
“What is the Salted Road?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Find it, creature.” And she walked out.
Yes, yes. I should have stopped her, chased her down, something. I didn’t. Instead, I put my head in my hands and tried desperately to regain control of myself.
People were looking at me. I knew enough to know that was bad. Still wiping my face, I went to the thieving owner. “I require the Salted Road.”
He eyed me. “Might cost you.”
It had already cost me! What did he know of cost? “No more money. Where is the Salted Road?”
Perhaps he was merely glad to be rid of me. I see no scenario in which my constant presence would seem comforting. “Go to the shore on the west of town. You’ll see it. Just go! You’ll see it.”
He was right.