As they headed southeast, Slate and Pilotte entered the very oldest parts of the Yellow Forest, those in the foothills of the Vallor Mountains. There, above the deep snow, droves of woodneedles worked extracting tiny bugs with their long, thin beaks, making the forest sound like a woodshop. The forest had plenty to eat for Slate, too, as there were patches of mushrooms springing up wherever the snow had not covered the ground, and too many blushberry bushes to count. Pilotte didn’t care much for fungi or fruits, and so he got the greater portion of the small game the pair was able to catch before Slate stopped halfway up the mountains to sleep for the night in an old hiker’s lean-to.
The next morning’s trek over the pass didn’t take but two hours. At the top, the warm air from the Anir Ocean greeted Slate like an old friend. The temperature rose as Slate and Pilotte came down the eastern side of the mountains, allowing for Slate to remove his heavy coat for the rest of the trip to the city of Nowhere, which sparkled like a jewel on the coast in the rising sun.
Slate was eager to see the wild place he had heard so much about from Arianna. While he had explicit recommendations from Mrs. Falls to find the first transport south, he figured looking around Nowhere beforehand wouldn’t hurt. And putting off the boat trip, which he was still rather apprehensive about, was an added benefit. He set off with Pilotte onto one of the walking paths that looped through the sandy soil that surrounded the city and readied for excitement.
The sweet, rich smell of honeymarrot palms and their fallen white petals guided the way through a maze of slap-dash shacks to where the sandy path turned into a proper street. Buildings offering anything and everything had their doors open all along the street, inviting customers inside. Eager to sample what exotic culinary delights Nowhere might have to offer, Slate stopped into one of these stores, which had a wonderful smell wafting from inside. Pilotte waited on the curb, scaring passers-by to the other side of the street as Slate shopped.
Inside, Slate found a clear-fronted box stacked with trays of glistening baked goods: breads, cookies, bundles, cakes, and candy, in every color and flavor imaginable. There were even chocolate-covered windhoppers and spiced, dried fish for the daring. Slate spent some time trying to decide between a clant bunch and habricotte bread, before finally settling on a frosted cranberry fold. He asked the clerk behind the counter for two of the folds, plus the biggest bone they might have behind the deli, for Pilotte. The clerk ducked into the back, then reappeared with a two-foot larts rib. He wrapped the goods up in banch paper, then totaled them on a ledger. Slate paid, and rejoined Pilotte on the street outside. The wulf split the larts rib open and then crushed the rest to bits in short order
The wulf split his larts rib open and then crushed the rest to bits in short order. Slate ingested his folds almost as quickly, and then the two started to wander. In the artisan quarters, down streets crossed with lanterns and prayer flags, Slate saw incredible glass sculpture, and jade carvings, and he listened to a man who could sing two notes at the same time. He lost three pieces of goldquartz in a game of chance played right on the street that he was pretty sure he couldn’t have won anyways. It was all so much fun that by the time the sun went down and the streetlamps were lit, Slate realized he had wasted the whole day without ever making it to the harbor. Figuring it was too late now to find transport, he yawned his way into a small inn called the Breakaway.
Slate was conned out of a sizeable portion of his goldquartz by a clerk at the hotel, who made up several tourist charges that sleepy-headed Slate agreed to. In the morning, after kicking himself for having paid the no breakfast fee, Slate stopped into the bakery he had found he day before, purchased more folds and another larts rib, and then headed for the city harbor with Pilotte, to try to find their ride south to Airyel.
As Slate approached the harbor, a series of haggard beggars stumbled at him asking for money. Some were younger than he, but most were gray and wizen. A few of them mumbled things about being Veterans of the Ha War, of which Slate had never heard. He felt bad about having nothing to offer the beggars, but worried that his remaining pieces of goldquartz might not cover his trip, if he could even find anyone that might be open for charter. The beggars weren’t disappointed at Slate’s unwillingness to give; they simply moved on and asked someone else.
The water in Nowhere’s harbor was full of garbage and waste from the nearby shantytown that the beggars lived in, who used it as their waste bin and latrine. The waters were oily and covered in a sickly, green foam, but the strong winds from the northwest carried the stench away on salty-sweet air, and the orange-pink sky was a beauty to behold that morning.
Slate walked down to the far end of the last pier, to get a clearer view of the horizon. The wind met the end of the pier with all its force, precluding the viewing that Slate had hoped for, and forcing him to turn back. He made for the closest shelter against the wind, the hull of a tiny boat with the name Calamity painted in sparkling blue on its side. Looking up from where he and Pilotte crouched, Slate saw a spry, happy-looking older man with a bushy, white beard and a tattered fisherman’s cap, smiling at him from the boat’s deck.
“Hello,” the stranger called to Slate.
“Hello,” Slate answered. He stood up straighter. “Headed out today?”
“Are you kidding? Did you see that sky? Red in the morning, sailors take warning! There’s a storm blowing in, son.”
“So why are you cleaning your windows?” Slate asked.
“It’s not that the windows need to be clean, son, it’s that I get to work on my boat,” the man explained. “Where you hope to be heading? And what on Alm is that snarlingwulf doing at your side?”
“That’s Pilotte,” Slate said. “He’s my friend. And my name is Slate Ahn. I am looking to travel to Airyel. Do you know anyone that might be leaving today, despite the… red morning warning? I have four pieces of goldquartz I can pay.”
The man’s eyes lit up. “Hid Hidli,” he said. “Listen, don’t ever tell a Nowherer that you have goldquartz, son. This ain’t the town to be flashing money around.”
“Or, really, do whatever the hell you want, I don’t care. Ha! Hey, what do you want with the traitors in Airyel anyway?”
“Traitors? I have a delivery to make. And, more importantly, I’m looking for my father, he’s found work there.”
Hid stopped cleaning. “How old are you, son?” he asked.
“I’m almost seventeen, sir.”
“When’s the last time you saw your father?”
“Just before spring,” Slate answered. “He left Alleste for work, like everyone else. Same for my brother, who left about a year ago. I got a letter from my father that said that he was ready for me to join him, so, I’m on my way.”
Hid took off his hat and scratched at his scalp, taking in a deep breath as he squinted into the rising sun. “From Alleste, are ya? Too bad, about the Great Hall, isn’t it? Then Kale, in Aislin. Island’s had a hell of time lately. Tell you what. I was thinking of making a try at an itchy fish today anyways…”
“My wife would never let me hear the end of it if she found out, but whenever it’s about to storm big like this, I go down to Harson’s Island and try for an itchy fish. Incredible creatures. The things are huge. They have a big, spiked sail on their back, and they’re the color of mesmeralds in the moonlight. See, they go into an absolute frenzy before a big storm, leaving their usual waters to gorge on the fish that show up to eat all the goodies a big storm dislodges from the sea floor. Storms like this one is shaping up to be.”
“Have you ever caught an itchy fish?” Slate asked.
“Me? No, not yet. Stories say that people used to,” Hid said, “But, like anything good, everyone jumped on it. Fished ’em to near extinction. Anyways, to my point, you can’t make the trip back north from Harson’s Island at night with the moon where she’s at this time of year, so I usually camp out down there by Airyel after itchy fishing. If you want to come with me, you are welcome to. But I warn you, things may get a little rocky!”
“Oh, that’s okay, Mr. Hidli, I would just really appreciate the ride,” Slate said, relieved.
“Well, alright then! And call me Hid. Looks like it’s off to Magri for business. Or so we tell the wife, right? Come on up, we’ve got some work to do. Do you know anything about sailing?”
Slate admitted, “Well, I’ve never been on a boat. To tell you the truth, I’m sort of terrified by the ocean.”
Hid tried to contain his disbelief, swallowing hard and smiling down at Slate and his wulf. “There’s nothing to be terrified about in life, if you know what you’re doing, Slate. We’re gonna have to teach you about the sea.”
Slate and Pilotte climbed up the galley plank to board the Calamity as the soft rumble of thunder sounded in the distance. Hid gave a tour, explaining that the vessel was an old postal boat he had converted using wood from the Passage Islands. The traditional sailboat out of Nowhere had a much narrower keel, compared to the Calamity’s wide, flat bottom, which Hid used to access pearl beds that deeper-water vessels were unable to reach, and a fully rotating boom, which let him change directions easily.
It wasn’t difficult for Slate to learn what little sailing skill the Calamity required. There was just a single mainsail, which allowed Hid, who was usually at sea by himself, to have greater control. Over the years, he had mastered how the Calamity’s design best rode the particular winds of northeastern Aelioanei.
“Slate, you seem to be a natural,” Hid said after giving a brief lesson. “You know, my father said that a sailor is born, not made. Also said that the only true sailor is the small-boat sailor. See, we gotta know how to trick the wind to carry us from one place to another. Have to know about rips and eddies, bar and channel markings, know about how the weather works. And most importantly, a small-boat sailor has to be able to learn the little quirks that give a boat its personality. How to coax her, bring her gently about. You’ll get that all soon enough too, I’m sure!”
The happy old sailor sang over the crash of the waves as the Calamity’s sails caught a strong wind, which tried as hard as it could to lift the boat right up out of the ocean. The little craft leapt and stuttered over the breakers close to the pier, and then began to pick up smooth speed once it was free of the harbor.
“We’ve got to take her east now,” Hid called. “Aim for the dark clouds! There we go, Slate! We’re on our way!”