A heavy sigh escaped between full lips as the young lady tossed her head back to stare at the gray sky, which was as interesting as the fog nesting on top of the gray waters she just had her fill of. The rowboat continued to rock gently beneath her and the waves made leisurely slaps against its outer frame. She brought her cloak tighter around herself and adjusted the hood resting on her head. She sighed again and tapped the inside of her feet against a rectangular box covered in thick cloth–about the length and width of her back and a foot in depth–on the floorboards. The faded designs engraved into its sides was apparent that its origin was not from the Continent. It depicted images of desert landscapes and creatures whom did not stalk the lands. The craftsmanship itself spoke more than the images of its alien source with its many hidden compartments. When it was at its prime it was painted with golden hues to exaggerate the sun's brilliance over the hills of sand; not brown, faded and chipped.
There was a slight shift in the waves and a soft trickle of water to follow. The young lady gave no indication if she heard something and continued tapping the box. Then something knocked on the boat in quick succession and stopped. The young lady peered over the boat and stared into black beads for eyes on a green face half hidden beneath the water.
“Afternoon,” she said.
The vodyanoi placed his webbed hands of four fingers on the boat's frame and lifted himself out of the water and onto the opposite bench in one swift motion. Even in the sunless area his scales shimmered with emerald brilliance from his head down to his to his webbed feet—save for the loincloth created from unknown plant life and a black belt adorned with large and mismatched blue stones sitting around his waist.
He spoke through a filtered mask which helped him breathe the surface's air.
“No matter how many times I see this box it will always fascinate me. A land with minimal water is something I can't even imagine.”
The young lady smiled. “Can anyone imagine an entire world with its own politics, economics and wars thriving below their feet?”
The vodyanoi looked directly into the woman's shadowed eyes with a glint of amusement. “When you put it that way it does sound like something out of a children's story.” He laughed and removed a blue stone from the belt. With the same hand he quickly pressed and released the top of the stone with his pointer finger to dispense–from the bottom of the stone–a single green scale into his other hand. The woman extended an arm, wrapped in a leather brace, for him to drop it into. She inspected the scale of about the height of her middle finger and the width of her palm. It didn't carry the same brilliant shimmer like those seen on a living vodyanoi, but the emerald was still crisp and lovely.
“How old was this corpse?” she asked. “It's huge.”
“Doesn't matter. He died in our dungeons. Consider it a present. The others,” he returned the stone to the belt and grabbed another one. He shook it and a soft chime of bells rang in the woman's ears. “Do you have what I asked for?”
The young lady curled her fingers around the scale and nodded her head. She slid the box closer to herself, flipped the front flap of the cloth back, and unlatched a metal lock. The front opened as a hinged door to reveal a neat assortment of sixteen drawers, all in the same size except for the bottom one which was the same length as the case. Strapped in thin bundles on the inside of the door were herbs, dried fruit and flowers. She pulled out the top drawer and placed the scale inside it. She drew out another and raised a string attached to a woven sack. A sharp and familiar smell emitted from it, but when the vodyanoi took possession of it his head pulled back from the stench.
“Is this what humans bathe and wash their fabrics with?”
“Yes. Wait don't open it yet. I had a sorceress place a spell on it so it won't erode in the water.”
The vodyanoi retracted his hand and sighed. “Something so small causes the death of thousands of our small creatures. Humans love their water and their baths and use it however they see fit. Undeterred by those who inhabit the rivers they constantly dump their wastes in it.”
“I hope that's enough to find a cure for the sick.”
He scoffed. “Don't insult us. We are far more advanced than you landwalkers and our magic isn't as coarse as your sorcerers'.” He tossed her the stone that chimed of bells.
The woman held her finger on the top of the stone but is stopped.
“No. Take the whole thing.”
Her lips pressed in a firm line at the vodyanoi's second generous offer. “I have nothing else to trade with you-”
“A gift then,” he quickly added.
Unsure of how to make due with his kindness she considered dispensing the scales and handing back the stone to him. In their year of trading he had been careful not to distribute anything of intelligent design that proved the vodyanoi's flourishing existence. Many humans and non-humans considered them extinct or few in numbers, and the water creatures preferred to keep it that way. The woman did not hide her suspicion.
“And if I were to sell the stone?”
“Like I said before. It's a gift, so you may do with it as you see fit. And it's only a single stone. Spin a tale on how you procured it.”
The woman clicked her tongue with feint astonishment and puts it where the soap was placed in.
“Does this conclude our trade?”
“One more thing.” He turned somber. “Our meetings will have to be put on hold for quite some time.”
“I see. I'll return in a few months then.” The woman was disappointed but made no effort to push the subject.
Her behavior astounded the vodyanoi and the woman could imagine him speaking with a smirk. “No questions? You're a terrible merchant. A very rare source of income is slipping through your fingers.”
The woman shrugged. “I think I treasure the friendship more than the income. And as a friend, your troubles do concern me. If there is anything I can do I'll do it. But as a landwalker and a human, I doubt there is much I can do. Not saying I'm not willing to try.”
The vodyanoi returned to being grim. “And as a friend I will share this with you. You have a rare gift, human. Something the landwalkers and my people lack: compassion and completely devoid of greed. But it is also your flaw. Many will see this as a sign of weakness and more as pure naivety.”
The woman was silent for a moment before her body began to shake. The vodyanoi raised a hand, although he didn't quite know what to do with it because he didn't understand what was wrong with the human. Is this a human thing? He thought. He felt himself jump when the woman burst into laughter. The vodyanoi narrowed its eyes with displeasure.
“I fail to see the humor.”
The woman eased her laugh into small fits of chuckles. “My friend, you forget I'm a merchant. I trade to support myself and part of trading is being courteous. True, I often... negotiate rather than blindly draw my fists, but only because I know for a fact that words can sting harder than any bruise or cut.”
The vodyanoi bounced the sack of soap in his hand. He took the time to ponder her words and her forced smile.
“You want me to believe that I'm a friend only to your convenience. You know you have a tender heart and therefore hide it behind a stone wall; as you should. You could have come to me armed to the teeth and attacked me. Then send me to be tortured to reveal my kingdom's location which would be followed by sorcerers to locate us deep below the waters to draw us out. Thus initiating another battle among non-humans and humans because we don't like to share our secrets and humans are high with greed.”
“I want you for myself,” the woman spoke plainly. “I make a steady profit with just one vodyanoi. Why push for more?”
“Very well. I
will accept your lies. I suppose you need them to protect yourself.”
“I am as quick to giving compassion as I am quick to drawing my blade.” She looked at the vodyanoi fiercely and with eyes that matched the weight of her words. “I am not someone to be underestimated.”
He felt the scales along his spine and tail rise in natural defense in affect to the woman's sudden change of nature. There was an unnaturally powerful Force emanating from her, but it lasted a mere fraction of a second making him believe it was an illusion, or he forced himself to believe it was just that. Otherwise, she was more than who she had led him to believe: a clever female with the ability to defend herself, knowledge that rivals a historian, and a charming smile. The burst of Force proved hidden abilities he never thought possible coming from her, and he knew exactly what she was; a rare specimen even among his people. He chose not to address her with suspicion or hostility since it was his mistake for bringing up a subject he did not realize was sensitive, and because she had no intention of attacking. She was merely showing off.
“Mind yourself, human,” he spoke with humor. “You'd do well not to pick a fight with someone several hundred years your senior. And one who is part of an ancient race.”
The woman returned to her good nature. “Oh, I understand better than anyone,” she said with experience.
“It's been a pleasure as always, human.” He stood up without causing the boat to shift beneath them, and exposed the raw, red skin and scars of scales being pulled out of his back.
“Your back!” The woman jumped up and caused the boat to rock beneath them. Both held their balance, undeterred. “You were tortured. Why?”
He did not answer and proceeded to attempt a leap, but was halted by the pressing female. “They caught you,” she deduced. “They caught you surfacing. Why didn't you reveal me to them? Why lie? Am I not just a dirty, disgusting, brainless landwalker?” She remembered the stone of scales he gave her and retrieved it from her case. She dispensed a scale into her hand and inspected traces of blood on the pointed end of it. “Take these back. My trade is for scales from corpses.”
“They'd fetch for a higher price now.”
“This puts a risk on your people and you know it!”
He turned to her. “Take head to what I told you earlier. Prioritizing your life over a non-human's will be the death of you.”
He jumped high into the air and dove into the water without a splash.
The woman stood without moving for several moments before falling back down onto the bench. She looked at the scale with his blood one last time and held the stone upside down so the dispenser is facing upward. She pressed the bottom of it and the stone opened to return the scale inside. She placed the stone inside her case and completely closed her small store.
She picked up the oars and began the 45 minute row to shore.