He was lying in the gutter. Curled up against the walkway like a child to its mother, screaming softly into the dark opening where his face lay. Echoing below the streets, it was lost above by the heavy storm that pounded rain with the thumping carriages across the pavement.
A piece of paper. A scrap of lace. An empty can of apples. A dead rat. Things were starting to collect in his long coat like an apron. He felt his fingers wave around against the rough current but not his feet. They did not exist. Useless. All he could feel was the pounding water and the tremor of the thunder.
He gasped and water got up his nose. He coughed. “His leg's on the walkway!” Laughter. “Drunks.” Devmond’s eyes jerked and he could see three pairs of shoes, two ladies with high heels and a flat sensible shoe mince chopsticks with tall tree legs. There were more, many more but farther away and swimming. He closed his eyes. Another roll of thunder and he shuddered deeper into the water. Caught between so many fears, he new he should hide but now he wanted to sleep and to forget.
“How are you today?” Duratan pulled out a glass of dark cherry and elderberry brandy and pushed it out across the desk. “You look unwell.”
“Father, please.” Devmond breathed in sharply to calm himself. “You called me at this hour with my favorite drink. Even the messenger knew.”
“The council elders are unhappy with you.”
“That would be exactly where I left them.”
His father gripped the sides of the oak wood edges and pushed out. He leaned back and gazed above the tight black line of his lips. “You don’t even know what you look like, do you? You’re a mess. The rumors, they’re horrifying.”
Isn’t there always rumors for the wealthy? Devmond knew about them, of course. He had even spread a few fake ones for fun. They all became unreal down the line eventually. He smiled leisurely. And here I was worried that he had something new to tell me.
“Do not smirk at me like that. No, these are different-“
Am I really that easy? Only for father.
“The council heard about what you’ve been doing on the surface. Casual relationships with humans. Casual sex. I tried denying it but they had witnesses from the Hunters of Gilene and even from the lower courts in Council of the King who could swear in blood that they had been in your company when you purchased the whores.”
Devmond sighed. “Those stupid little pricks, do they think they can gain favor through backstabbing. No one gets very far politically with that kind of poor seen-through tactic.” His father claws had ripped into the edge of one corner and the whole piece had fallen to the carpet. Devmond said softly, "Listen, I never purchased anything. The rumors were exaggerated and-“
“You do not understand,” his father fangs were bare. “Nothing you or I can say now could ever possibly change their decision.”
Decision. The blood in Devmond’s arms and legs suddenly felt sharp. The council never directly gave orders to individuals unless their life was on the line. Everything made sense now. His step-mother always taking away his daughter on day trips. The servants were avoiding looking him in the eye. His ‘friends’ always busy. Everyone had been too busy.
All he could say was, “What do they want?”
“The sacred right of protecting our holy race and our pure women is the only way to prove to them your worth to our city-“
“No.” Devmond’s chair was flat on the floor. He was scrambling to the door. It seemed so far.
I won’t No. Please, don’t say it. Why the hell is the door not coming closer? It’s too soon. Please.
“To spare the holy race from losing another woman in childbirth-”
You knew what would happen. You watched. It took hours. She hated you till the end. I can’t watch. Not again.
The door was shut behind him and he was at the bottom of it sobbing. He had not been able to escape those last words.
“And so we part from fair waters to let you seek what you are destined to find. May Videre's blessing be always upon you and the path ahead kind.” Words, the last comfort of the evening, were spoken sadly upon a barren shore. The group of sisters had enjoyed the voyage, seeing roughness in the sea only as beauty in their father. What was more lovely, more graceful in power than the flashing rise of a wave in the midst of a storm? None among them felt sick in the exhilarating rise and fall of a turbulent sea, for no boats among men had a keener prow nor hull sturdier than a seiren's ship.
Erato was the sole creature to depart from the small collection of cloaked women before her. Their slender figures loomed darkly in the downpour of rain, only their eyes reflecting light as waves crackle with the lingering threads of lighting. Yet their lips were soft, as were the curves of their faces when the long hoods would blow back just long enough for the moon to strike their cheeks. Circumstances made it impossible to speak gently in their final farewell, but Erato felt it meet that her goodbyes should be doused with shadow and thunder. She did not want to remember these faces, the worries and wonders unspoken in their eyes as they watched her walk into the unknown.
“May the goddesses watch upon us all and make not your wait in vain.” Erato shuddered then, not quite able to promise anything, and turned away. How long they stood there watching she did not know, but eventually she heard the splash of oars and knew they had begun their small trip back to the main ship. All that would remain of their exchange was the Seer's Stone, a small boulder among a crag of rocks that had an unmistakable eye carved into it. Only a seiren would understand its meaning, the mark of departure and return of the seiren. Within her purse, Erato had been given an enchanted green pearl that would aid in locating any such stone across the many shores of the unfamiliar land. She could even feel its warmth in her hand as she reached within her bag for reassurance.
Warmth now and ice to come; lands beyond our own feel the bite of seasons we have never known. Many more verses would pass through her mind as she wandered through the long grass, not bothering to remove her map when there was too much darkness to see properly. Though the journey had been safe enough, the storm had delayed the time of arrival until night had come upon her escorting crew, and they were too wary to stay near the shore for any extended amount of time. So she made her way to the most promising landmark, a lighthouse not too far into the distance to be unwelcoming. Humans were there... she could already feel the old sense of fear tingling in the scales just above her left eye.
A great deal of mud clung to the seiren's skin by the time she made it to the first houses of the town, each with warm lights flickering from the windows. She did not look long at any of them, holding her cloak tightly about her as it grew only heavier in the water and mud. Constant and odd pricks started in her scales and she had to reach her hand up to rub and soothe them, knowing well that all sorts of danger was near and that she had to brave it.
Had she been paying attention, Erato might have noticed when the roads went from cobbled stone to wooden boardwalk and back again. If she had looked up to the water washed walls of plaster and ivy she might have seen art, but she was too busy staring at the clacking hooves of horses and the large wheels as carriages and wagons passed down the street. All were too busy dashing out of the rain to give mind to her flowing cloak or the flashing white in her blond hair that frequently slipped from her hood. She returned the attentive gesture, seeing only shadows of faces and the flash of black as clothed bodies moved past her.
Then she saw a veritable lump in the road only because she nearly ran into it. Soaked shoes mushed to a stop and bright eyes stared down, down at what could only be an oily fish out of water... or half out of water. It was making the strangest kind of noises and the seiren almost reached out to touch it when she realized that it was a man. A man in a coat. Immediately, Erato's eyes widened and she flinched back as if he had struck her, dashing away like a minnow from a shark.
The seiren was not used to such crowds, disoriented by the dark shadows and the prickle in her scales, and thus made quite a bit of noise as she collided again and again in her clumsy rush. Grunts and annoyed quips followed her deaf ears, but she did not stop moving until the scent of hot fish caught her nose. Her refined pallet could already tell that it had been cooked too long and that the tarragon used was far too strong, but it called to her stomach and reminded her that rest would likely be found near the dish's location. There she might pull out a map, have a bit of heat to steal away inside herself until the rain stopped...
It wasn't particularly easy to find the source of food in the midst of so many other scents (human sweat among them), but it was hot and fresh and nearby. The seiren soon found herself slipping into a warm and crowded building, but it was decidedly more friendly. Coats, once black, gained color in the light of a fireplace and its candle companions, and the strange faces of men and women alike were almost comical. Big chins, small lips, narrow eyes, dark hair—it was everything she had been told, but there was an odd chaos to them,as though she had wandered into a cage of chattering monkeys.
“Hold the mead! I'm with my wife tonight, Ben.”
“Madness! Madness, I say!”
“Harold! Did I not just say—”
“You going to stand there all night?”
Erato nearly jumped out of her skin as a voice cut in just behind her ear, and she fluidly swept herself away from the doorway and into the nearest corner. The gruff exclamations and squeaky laughter continued in another series of scattered conversation, and the serien found herself astounded that she understood it. Yes, she had studied many hours in books learning the Common tongue, but she had never been so immersed in it, never truly connected the sounds to the faces. This was their common life and she was stranding right in the midst of them, unknown.
Luckily for Erato, the corner she had taken was unoccupied, likely due to its distance to the fireplace and closeness to the damp window panes. With careful glances, she looked about herself from the safety of her soaking hood, not at all bothered by the dampness. The air was decidedly warmer here, and she was content with that. Reaching into her bag, she found her desired provisions, which had been set aside for just such a time. Wise as her people were, they did not have much food that could be preserved for more than a few days, and she wasn't sure she could have waited. After all, the journey had been long and all those about her were already eating.
Erato didn't bother to find a fork, unwrapping sumptuous balls of leaves to reveal spiced rice beneath. Bitter vinegar and lemon, the salty scent of hardy nori, then the creamy pink crab meat—she could smell it all even before she brought the sushi to her lips. She took a meager bite, glancing around again before becoming comfortable enough to settle down in her chair. Only one of the prepared pieces was required before she felt her stomach settle, but rather than removing a map and making immediate plans to leave, she found her hands aching for her lyre.
So it was that the seiren briefly wiped her hands on a spare handkerchief (no decent seiren would ever be caught eating a meal without some manner of napkin, even among those sloppy humans), reaching beneath her cloak to take the strapped instrument from her back. Lovingly, her hands caressed its smooth edges, fingers brushing gently across the strings. White mixed with almost every manner of color glimmered in the dull light of her corner, beauty unseen by the crowds engaged in their chatter. None turned to look, the sound of a melody gentle enough to be played by a lazy breeze lost almost as soon as it left its wooden home. Half-hidden under her arm and behind the edge of the table, her fingers worked out their trembles and bright eyes stared under the shadow of a foreign cloak. Calm, she needed calm again before deciding where to go next.
“Surely you know it,” the old man’s breath was mixed with peppermint and with barley. With his back to the light, he seemed one whole shadow that covered Erato as he leaned over her. “There is in the sea-“
The sandy haired barber was a regular at the pub for years and could spot even a casual goer even with inebriated eyes that were half-closed and bleary. That was something to be proud of. This fellow in the corner was strange, he walked funny and kept looking around every so often. He had motioned to his son and they both took turns keeping their watch on him. This town was ripe with unfriendly travelers, it was too close to the Tyrian mountains where the monstrous spider people dwelt. No one here ever took a stranger in, no matter how destitute their condition. However, the old man saw something that peaked greater interest. A beautiful harp was taken out of the mysterious stranger’s cloak and the barber watched him play quietly in the corner.
He motioned to his son and stood quickly. Carefully, slowly, he made his way to the stranger and smiled carefully.
“Could you play, “The Mermaid” for us, sir? It’s a popular song. Surely you know it. It goes likes this…”
Devmond wiped the bile from his mouth with a soaked sleeve, his other hand holding his shaking weight to the cemented street lamp. He heard laughter somewhere past the reach of the dull light and felt his stomach want to twist itself away. Ducking under the black hood, he pushed away with weak momentum. The rain had chased most of them away, but not enough of those humans. Every wet surface reflected something of their movement even as he kept his eyes downcast. Every so often he would catch the sight of the hem of a woman’s skirt or the splash of a running carriage.
He gave a sharp laugh and a pair of feet leapt like a rabbit and scurried away behind him. His drenched clothes stuck to him in patches that slid up and down against his movement. The vomit was mostly on his shoes but some was still stuck on the front of his shirt in drippy clumps. His hair had fallen from the bind and seemed to reach towards the center of his face with strands in his eyes, his nose, his mouth. Blood was dripping down the left edge of his face from a bulge on his forehead from where his forehead had struck the pavement above the gutter.
That feeling past fear, anger, depression or even hatred that always follows after their terrible surge, apathy had hold of him. He now could see it as delirium, an unconquerable but amoral drive. He was laughing again. The rain had stopped. The sky was not closing down around him. Devmond could finally stand without fearing that his own steps would be drowned in water and sound.
The smell of cooked food had been the cause of his the acid dance happening in his stomach and it was getting stronger as he continued down the road. A new specific flavor almost caused him to bend over again: the smell of burnt and cheap fish. He lurched forward as fast as he could to escape it but was distracted again. It was the sound of music.
It stopped him with its familiarity but somehow his mind could not grasp hold of it. He put his sleeve across his mouth and stepped into the bright light of the tavern’s open door. Closing his eyes, he ignored everything and desperately clung to its melody. Ah! Devmond grinned and carelessly dropped his arm only to cling it back more firmly with a new wave of awful scent from what seemed to be a trove of sweaty, dancing men. He recognized the tune was a familiar human peasant song, “The Mermaid” adapted from an obviously Pallentian masterpiece. The stupid creatures were drunk and idiotic, throwing themselves around like ragdolls while stretching their untrained voices in a chaotic thrall together. Some were standing on the chairs and beating their bodies while another was slowly kicking off their boots while lying on the bar.
Then he noticed, at the center of the crows, someone was being held aloft on the shoulders of two men. Grinning, Devmond pushed a couple kissing in the doorway aside and moved in closer. The crown jewel atop the old man’s arms was a young woman. She had turned her face toward him but her expression was lost on him. The face was soft with a lack of experience or what others would call innocence. No, she did not want to be there. Anywhere near this place. He laughed again but felt his face grow hot. The frame of his body was shaking again, sensitive to each noise and sound around him that bombarded just like the angry thunder. They needed to stop laughing, stop singing. Now. Feeling suddenly inspired by his muse. Apathy, he shouted, "Don't you dare make another sound!"
Never look at a man directly if you do not wish to engage him. A single glance can be enough reason for one to approach you for good or ill And she hadn't looked, but there he had been and here she was now. Her screams were no longer silent, but she had never before uttered a sound of terror and it was distorted by the softness with which it was uttered. A desperate cry, low and all too childish was what came from her lips and she wished herself anywhere else but in the hands of two very forward men.
She had finally broken into threats as she was bounced about, not feeling in the least a thread of merriment in their music. Erato had threatened them with Oceanus's name, cried out for help, but all of her plights were merely laughed off. In all her trembling, she finally managed to twist her ankles away from one of the men, thunking to the floor just as a dark figure made itself known to all the people there. Would his cry, too, be ignored?
It was not likely, she realized. This one was tall, utterly covered in filth, and she realized with more dismay that this was the very creature she had mistaken the fish. Looking at him now, it was an insult to those scaled specimens, for he was... well, he was... she didn't truly have a word for it. Oily? A dark cloud of all the worst stenches she could ever imagine? Those flawless golden eyes of his... even those were sleeked over by his hair and an ugly contortion of disgust.
Quickly, Erato snatched the rest of her away from the male, too afraid to give him the reprive he deserved. Her scales felt as though they were about to alight in synaptic flames and the pinching was almost unbearable. Here was trouble, here was danger. She had to collect her harp and get out immediately before either party of males weren't distracted enough for her to slip out unnoticed.
A bawdy looking woman, showing her one shoulder and the fact she was not once won, had shouted back and spat at Devmond’s feet. Most of the humans had ignored the pop of noise but the dancing group in the center of the tavern, including the men holding the young woman aloft, had stopped to glare at this spirit of dark clouds. The woman was standing now on her own two feet, she looked just as uncomfortable on the ground as above it. Devmond only looked at her a moment, but he saw loneliness in the way her bright face seemed to make the light in the dim room dull. There was nothing he could compare it too but perhaps maybe the first time he saw a sunrise.
A sandy-haired man had parted the crowd and hid away from his sight the white light. He was larger even than Devmond in stature and by broad at least twice more. Wearing a dark green, horribly patterned shirt to match an equally hideous rug in a cheap hotel somewhere. His eyes were narrowed and his breathing quick, which would have seemed threatening but Devmond couldn’t take people with bad fashion taste too seriously. The Pallentian moved closer. When he could finally count the hairs on the man’s half-shaved chin and see every red vein in his watery eyes then Devmond felt like answering.
“I want to exist.” Devmond said. He kept his voice to have between only for the little clean air around them. The man snorted and lifted his right arm above his ear. Like a mantis with arms extended, Devmond leapt to grab the front of his shirt. Grinning, he took a fistful of fabric and pulled until he heard the satisfying rip. The sandy-haired human stared as he stepped back and held it in a ball in his fist. A bright spot was on the corner of his left eye and he turned a saw her again. Waving the shirt like an offering of peace, he tried catching her eye and winked. You dirty old dog, don’t you dare ever put your hands on my wife again!” Devmond said triumphantly while swiveling towards the man's untamed belly exposes to his pointing finger.
I want to exist. Now I could always pinch myself, but that's not the mark of reality. I want to see your reactions, show me that I exist through you. What will you do now that I've stirred you up a little? How much can you convince me? Devmond dropped the piece of cloth of the floor and crushed it with a heel.
Erato gave no second glances, no second thoughts to the man in black. The same odd tinglings were alight on her forehead, a feeling she realized was reserved for him. So she had no hesitation in recollecting herself, snatching her fallen cloak from the dirty floor and placing her food back in her back as she rushed to her former table. Her harp was still in the seat in one of the chairs where she had left it, and despite the new myriad of stenches on her still wet cloak, she managed to wrap it back over her shoulders with only a small wrinkling of her nose.
“... don't you ever put your hands on my wife again!” That hoarse voice belonged to none of the tavern men, she knew, and her head almost turned all the way to see the black fish. But she remembered the rule of eye contact and glances, instead pulling her hood back over her head and slipping back into the night outside. The storm had subsided for the time being, leaving only small patters of water to drip from the roof tops.
Having had as much as she could bear from the humans and their buildings, Erato wove her way back to the canals, pausing to watch the moon catch on the water as she stopped to take a breath. Sooner or later, she would have to find a place to stay for the night...