Friends and Goodbyes
A tiny woman stood alone on the edge of the boat. The wind whipped the amber locks of her ponytail around. A woolen shawl was wrapped tightly around her thin small shoulders, despite the humid warm day. She wore a tight leather belt with many pouches.
She could feel the warm wind on her cheek, the smell of salt in the air. The woman fingers a bronze bracelet with the name Ludia, inscribed on it. Ludia stood, watching the floating city growing bigger and bigger as they approached. A C-shaped massive vessel with four decks and a thousand masts with hundreds of sails. Smaller ships, boats, and a few rafts moving about, like ducklings following their mother.
“I bring you good tidings,” She heard a rough voice that bellied a slight hiss. “Welcome to Cerulea.”
Ludia looked behind her, dark eyes searching. She saw a thin lizard-like face with light teal scales and webbed fins. Its fangs flashed at her as it laughed, forked tongue peeking through.
‘An Aquatil,’ she thought. ‘One of the lizardfolk. Most likely he is the harbor pilot.’
Ludia was not fond of strangers and even less fond of friendly ones. Still, the Aquatil might have useful information.
“Good evening,” Ludia repeated cautiously. “Whether it is good or not remains to be seen. Tell me about this place.”
The Aquatil came closer, scales sparkling in the torchlight. “Ah. The city with a thousand masts, home to the largest marketplace in the known world. And I am Beryl.”
Ludia blinked at the Aquatil dressed in a cloth suit. No matter how many years she couldn’t shake the surprise of people just giving out their names like candy.
She answered slowly. The name crawled on her tongue, bitter-tasting. Ludia had always been her second name, yet it felt wrong to hand it out when others gave their real ones so freely. Ah, but it was too dangerous, even now, to give them her real one.
Beryl chuckled. “You looked surprised. Newcomers are always confused by how small the city is.”
“I’m not a newcomer,” Ludia cursed herself for the retort that flew out. She may not be a newcomer, given how long ago her last visit was, she might as well be one. “I just haven’t been here in a while. A long while.”
“Hmm.” He studied her with dark golden eyes. “The sails are down tonight, the wind is favoring the fishermen. You had arrived at a fortune time. I am an apprentice to a sailmaker. My masters are hosting a party. There is wine, music, and other pleasures.”
Ludia’s eyebrows rose. She stared back at Beryl, taken aback once more. To invite her to a party just like that. Could he be trying to trick her, rob her?
“...I’m a stranger to you,” She said. “Why invite me, a traveler visiting the city? Won’t your masters be upset with you?”
Beryl laughed again. “Haven’t been to a good Cerulea party I see. It is normal for us to pull strangers into the party to celebrate. If it’s worth a party, everyone should enjoy it.”
“Aren’t you worried that I could be dangerous? A thief, or a murderer?” She asked.
Beryl simply gestured behind her. Ludia suddenly spotted the smaller ship floating ahead of them. It cut through the murky seawater with elegant speed, sails bearing the outline of an albatross. Someone was standing at the stern watching the crew on the boat. They held a trident in their hands.
Ludia eyed them with curiosity. “Someone’s guard?”
Beryl shook his head. “Not someone’s. They are the Wharven, guards that watch over all of Cerulea. It takes either a very clever person or a very strong person to outdo them.”
Ludia tightened her arms around her body, frowning. What an interesting culture, willing to devote men and women to guard everyone. “I’m visiting someone here. Is it possible that they would be attending this party?”
Beryl tilted his head. “Who are you looking for?”
“Asher. He’s a sails-master, most likely lives on the third deck, you’d probably know where. We’re old friends and he told me to come urgently.”
Beryl arched his equivalent of an eyebrow. “Asher’s the one who is having the party. Didn’t mention expecting an outsider.”
Ludia grimaced angrily. “He wouldn’t be, normally I wouldn’t have come, except he claimed that he was terminally ill. Too ill to come to see me, oh but he’s well enough to throw a party.”
Beryl’s face twisted into sympathy. “Oh. Well,” He awkwardly brushed a hand over the webbed fins on his head, like a human would with their hair.
“This conversation might come off as inappropriate to you, but we here at Cerulea celebrate all events in life with parties. Birth, marriage, the usual, however when someone is dying, we celebrate that as well. It’s their last chance to enjoy life. Asher is dying, isn’t expected to live past the night. That’s why we are throwing it, at the Whale Fountain no less. If you will let me, I can bring you.”
Ludia’s stomach flipped. She pressed her lips tight and turned her face away, nodding once. ‘So he is dying,’ She thought grimly. ‘You shouldn’t have come. You hate saying goodbye.’ Ludia reached down and grasped at the pouches on her belt. Yes, this was going to be goodbye. She could feel it in her thin bones.
They steered into the entrance of the harbor. She gazed slowly at the harbor as they sailed in. Other ships docking, unloading their cargo, people scurrying about on the docks. And overhead the looming masts lining the edge of the C-shaped vessel, sails furled.
Once the sailors let down the wooden platform, Beryl stepped off onto the third deck. He waited for her to follow, hands placed onto hips. Ludia watched him for a moment, then she moved to follow. Except her legs froze in place stopping her solid. Ludia sighed in frustration when her legs refused to move. ‘Really?’ She thought. ‘Stop doing this right now, it’s all in your head. You are here to visit Asher, not to cause trouble, stop feeling so guilty.’
Beryl looked at her curiously. “You coming?”
Ludia shrugged unhappily. “My... culture honors specific rules, one of those is not being able to cross into people’s homes uninvited. Mistakenly I assumed that this place wouldn’t count as it is a ship. However, I find myself unable to cross.”
Beryl stepped forward and outreached a clawed hand.
“All right. Here then.”
Ludia grasped the cold hand and stepped onto the floating city. Beryl led her through the city to where Asher was. That proved to be a challenge, he was tall, she was tiny, and the crowd pushed at her like a sea wave. Even though it was late into the day, the place was bustling, ships taking off and coming in.
Ludia kept her dark eyes on Beryl’s tail as she climbed the wooden ladder to where the Whale Fountain was located. More of the Wharven Guards were here, wandering through the crowd, tridents firmly in their grip.
Then at the top of the ladder revealed a bright courtyard with a large fountain in the middle. It was indeed shaped like a whale, made of marble with steps leading to its base. People were sitting on the fountain steps clapping at some hired dancers. Some flowers brought in from the mainland were placed into nooks and crannies. A table was set next to the fountain, clusters of grapes sat next to roasted fish cooked in lemon.
Ludia could see a loaf of bread that was shaped like Cerulea, four layers, and curved into a C shape. She heard the music Beryl had been referring to, whistles and flutes singing together. The floor glowed in the fading sunlight. When she stepped from the ladder onto the ground she saw why. It was covered in coins, silver, gold, and copper.
Beryl pointed a finger. “Over there is where he lays. Stay as long as you like, once he leaves us the party ends. Pick up a few coins when it’s over, he donated the wealth to the party-goers.”
Ludia saw him then. In a corner lay a withered looking elf in a makeshift bed, sheets pulled around him. His hair had been shaved off at an unflattering angle making him look like a baby bird. He was coughing into a handkerchief. Stick-thin, his skin an ashen grey, covered in sweat.
Several people were standing next to him, talking. He shivered violently after each hacking cough. The handkerchief came away bloody once he finished. Ludia felt her heart clench at the sight of the diseased man.
She walked over to him quickly. “Asher. What happened to you? You look horrendous.”
Asher turned painfully towards her, elven ears drooping once he made eye contact. The once clear yellow eyes were clouded with tears and mucus. His nose had turned a blackish-purple color and it smelled like rotten meat.
“You... you came. You went into the effort to come.” Asher broke off weakly as Ludia sat next to him on the ground.
“I told you when we started this, I hate saying goodbye. It’s the most awful thing in the world. Of course, I came to prevent it. Now how did this happen?”
Asher waved the people aside. “Let us talk in peace. It’s been far too long since we spoke.”
Once the people had moved away he eyed her pouch tilting his head. “Genetics. Even us long-lived elves can fall ill to the terminal illnesses.”
He looked her in the face. “Are you sure that you can stop my death?”
Ludia tsked at him as she dug into her pouches. “Always doubting what I tell you is true. Well, you signed up for this when you became my friend, so there, I’m positively sure.”
She pulled out a dark grey crystal, the sunlight gleaming off its polished surface. Asher breathed out a sigh. “Will I turn into what you are?”
Ludia gasped, the innocent question breaking through her built defenses like a child breaks a sandcastle. She choked out a sob as she replied. “No. Not since I... my kind, failed. If we succeded then... Now we must wait until we can try again.”
Asher gazed at the crystal, a flicker of fear in his voice. “What will I become?”
She jutted her chin at him, dark eyes burning. “This will preserve you until that time. It’s not perfect, you won’t be able to say or do anything, only observe. But it’s the best I can provide. And you.”
Asher folded his hands nodding. “Yes, yes I know. I agreed. Neither of us realized that the end was coming so soon though.”
Ludia shook her head. “This will not be the end. It is a see you soon, see you later, kind of deal.”
Asher glanced at the fountain. “You could be lying.”
“You know I’m not, I’ve proven myself before.” Ludia snarled.
Asher sighed again. Ludia glared at the crystal, eyebrows gathering like a storm. “You’re hesitating.”
Asher did not reply, his attention on one of the dancers in the courtyard with a wistful smile.
Lyida waved a hand in front of his face. “Asher. Beryl says you don’t have much time left.”
Asher gritted his teeth. “That dancer there has a child. A small waif, only been here for five years.”
Ludia groaned, patience running thin. She wrapped her hands around Asher’s, holding the crystal between them. “Continue.”
“I found them in the street on the mainland begging for shelter. A foolish young wench who ran away from her owners with the child.” Asher said.
Ludia turned her head back, surprised. “You are in the business of helping runaway slaves now, I see?”
“Before the sickness took me I thought myself above that,” Asher agreed bitterly. “Then I grew weak and I realized how pitiful my friendships were. Those two were the only ones willing to help a weak sickly old man in the street. Now as I sit here at the mercy of my Baron who so thoughtfully threw me this farewell party, I see those two and you as the only ones who’d grieve over my passing.”
Ludia’s hands squeezed tight at that. “You are not dying, Asher!”
Asher winced. Luida cursed and knitted her hands together in her lap. The crystal stayed in the hands of Asher.
His face lightened as he spoke. “The child is sweet, she has been bringing me all sorts of things that the merchants drop at the market, things the other children will trade for. Seashells, old worthless coins, bits of shiny stones, strings, and other silly items. She even came up with a song to whistle at me. If only I could look after her in thanks.”
Ludia stared at him thoughtfully. “The child’s mother isn’t going to be there for her?”
Asher frowned at the dancer. “Don’t be naive. She’s a runaway slave, she’ll be caught and soon. What will happen to the child will not be pleasant.”
Ludia crossed her arms around her chest and pressed her lips. “I don’t want to meet the child.”
Asher shrugged wordlessly. Ludia huffed at him. “As if I’d want someone else to one day say goodbye to. Asher, the child wouldn’t even live that long!”
Asher closed his eyes, a weary look settling over him. “Tell me a story as we wait for this to end. The story of the boy and the bat.”
Ludia smiled bitterly. “Idiot.”
The party ended as the dawn came slowly and softly. Scraps of food became the gull’s breakfast, the coins were pocketed away, and Asher had passed quietly. They wrapped him in sailcloth, tied it to a large stone, and heaved him over.
Ludia sat on a bench in the Cerulea market gently stroking the crystal. It was now glowing slightly, a beautiful yellow color that warmed her stone-cold heart.
She was arguing with herself as she sat with a child who was eating a piece of bread. Ludia knew that this was the child that had captured Asher’s affections, the one with chocolate twisty locks of hair, tanned skin, and freckles. That child had approached her with a smile as bright as the sun, and a fistful of clay beads.
“Pretty lady, would you like to trade a few beads for a piece of bread?”
Ludia didn’t like friendly strangers. Because if she liked them too much, it was almost too hard to say goodbye. And this child wasn’t going to live long. Not in this world.
“What’s your name, child?” Ludia asked quietly.
“Meredith. Although Mama calls me Pack Rat because I collect everything I see.” the child answered.
Ludia nodded once. Meredith swung her skinny legs, dressed in rags, and she whistled a merry little tune. The yellow crystal pulsated in time with the tune. Ludia blinked and felt the beginnings of a smile at the corners of her mouth. She turned to the girl.
“Next time someone asks, tell them that your name is Pack Rat. It’s good to have a false name.”
Pack Rat stared at her with wide eyes. Then she grinned at Ludia.