We continue with our 2nd of 5 parts...
Ooroth stomped along the darkened streets of Fructus City as well as his tentacles would carry him on land. A walk sometimes did him good when he was angry, but this time the words wouldn’t leave his head. ‘No human woman would love a monster such as you.’ Ambassador Jahroon had sneered. And laughed at him too.
That puffed-up, blue-skinned, self-important simpleton. Who did he think he was? Sure, he was Hadross’s representative on Frutcus. Sure, Ooroth was captain of his house guard, and therefore his servant. But nobody got sent to Fructus for their health. Jahroon’s hands were no cleaner than Ooroth’s. They’d all been disgraced, in one way or another, and exiled from the depths.
Ooroth didn’t long for the sweet, salty sea. Quite the opposite, in fact. But his skin itched when he spent any time ashore. His tentacles itched, his arms itched, even the membranous tissues of his translucent skull itched. Now he was stuck here on this cursed island, charged with protecting an arrogant, bigoted, condescending moron.
Ooroth suddenly felt tired. He scratched his skull with a beard tentacle. In his fury he’d forgotten the ointment jar. He looked up at the moon rising over the Celestial Cathedral’s central spire and sighed. The night air eased the itching. But not by much.
The Deep Voices woke in his mind.
“Oh, what now?” he demanded.
No words. No, never any words. But a feeling. A call. Like a whale’s song, but deeper. Sinister.
“That way?” The Voices urged him along one of the Cathedral District’s many tree-line boulevards. The Voices didn’t respond, but he felt their presence. He kept moving, slowly. At least he’d remembered his greatsword across his back. What would he find this time? Was it assassins? Thieves? An informant, perhaps?
Ooroth peered down a blind alley, shadowed from the moonlight by tall apartment rises on either side. Shining eyes reflected his lamplight. He heard a pitiful meow.
All the tension left his many, many secondary limbs, and he slumped. “A cat?” he demanded of the distant sea. “You brought me out here for a cat?”
“Brilliant. Bloody brilliant. Tide and teeth, don’t you have anything better to do?”
The cat meowed again, pleading. From somewhere back the way he’d come, a child called, “Jodo! Jodo! Here kitty!”
Ooroth sighed again at the eyes. “Jodo, I presume?”
The cat mewed, pitifully.
He shambled down the alley, possibly the cleanest alley he’d ever seen. But then, this was the Cathedral District, not Dockside where he and the other Hadrossians normally kept to themselves. Still, the fat feline had managed to wedge itself between two heavy refuse bins.
Ooroth pushed aside the bins with his chin tentacles, and picked up Jodo in his arms. The cat purred. “Well, you’re an odd one,” Ooroth said. “Most surface dwellers run in terror at the sight of me.”
“Yes, yes, I’ll take the cat to the girl. Noisy bloody busybodies.” He shambled out of the alley, muttering. “Saving cats. I know the Depths move in mysterious ways, but this is ridiculous.”
He followed the calls of “Jodo! Jodo-bean! Kitty!” to their source. He and the girl rounded a corner at the same moment. Her eyes flared huge, paralyzed in shock.
She shrieked at the top of her lungs and ran as though a leviathan pursued.
Ooroth stretched a hand after her. “Wait! I’m not—!” Too late. He shambled as fast as his pods would take him. And itched. And grumbled, “Bloody bipeds and their long bloody legs.” Jodo purred.
He needn’t have rushed. The girl reappeared with a Watch officer in tow, and pointed. “It has my cat!”
The Watch officer took in the scene in an instant. She relaxed and took her hand off her heavy mace. “Child, that’s not a monster. It’s a Deepman of Hadross. Have you not seen one before?”
The girl shook her head, eyes still huge.
Ooroth moved forward. He couldn’t help but notice the Watchwoman had very pretty eyes, and there were marked curves beneath that shapeless armor. ‘No human woman would love you….’ He shoved the thought away and held Jodo out. “He was stuck. He’s a pudgy thing, to be sure.”
The little girl hesitated, then snatched Jodo from his arms. “He’s not slimy at all! I’d heard Deepmen were slimy.”
Ooroth put fists on his hips. “Of course not. And I’m not a Deepman. They’ve got legs and look more human. I’m a Sevridan. We’re squishy, but none of us are slimy. Well, not unless we work with the kraken. Those things are disgusting, believe me.”
The girl swallowed and looked at the Watchwoman. The officer smiled at her. “Run along home.” They watched her go and the Watchwoman said, “Well. Sorry to have disturbed you. Though I’m curious as to why a Deepm—er, what was it?”
“Sevridan. Or just Hadrossian, if you prefer.”
“—why a Sevridan would be up here so late at night.”
Ooroth waited for the Deep Voices to speak. They had gone the moment he handed the cat to the girl. So what had their purpose been? He glanced at the Watchwoman. Very pretty eyes, indeed, Ooroth thought. Wait. Could they have led him to meet this woman? “I’m Ooroth. Captain of the ambassador’s personal guard. I’m here on his business,” he lied, though only by half. “Listen, I don’t suppose there’s a tavern open late up here? This is hardly Dockside.”
She blinked at him. “You can drink?”
“Of course I can drink! Tide and teeth, where do you surfacers get these notions?”
“Hadrossians keep to themselves, mostly. And my watch is usually Park, Cathedral, or Back Meadow.”
‘No human woman…’ Ooroth grunted. “Well. I don’t suppose you’d care to join me? You can tell me about Fructus City, and I can regale you with horrors from the depths.”
She thought a moment. “Why not? My watch is done shortly, and I’m beat. This way.”
Ooroth’s heart sped up, and he felt the blood rushing to his face. He was thankful surfacers could rarely read Sevridan body language. His intentions had been betrayed by a purpling blush far too often in front of Hadrossian women. The human variety that is. The transformed women, those like him, found him attractive enough, but he found them repellant. The irony was not lost on him, nor the hypocrisy. It fed his self-loathing.
Her lamp led the way to the tavern, a place of golden-lit windows and modest laughter. All that ceased when the Watchwoman entered trailing a monster. She scanned the room and asked, “Do you sit? Chairs or stools or…?”
“We do pretty much everything you can do. That table would be fine.” He felt keenly conscious of the eyes on him. A vampire across the room stared at him as hard as the others. Nevermind that the vampire was just as inhuman as Ooroth. He looked human, and Ooroth didn’t. As simple as that.
He set his greatsword against the nearby wall, and squeezed into a narrow chair and she watched him from across the table. “You certainly can… compress quite a bit.”
He shrugged. “My bones work differently. More cartilage, really. As I told the child, we’re squishy. So, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, where are my manners? Lieutenant Jenadra Hall.” She held out her hand from habit, but paused.
He took her hand and touched a tentacle to it, in proper courtly manner. “Charmed, ma’am. So, yes, we Hadrossians do drink. What do you recommend?”
The barmaid who brought their ales avoided looking at Ooroth. He raised the dull metal stein with a beard tentacle and sniffed it. He brought it into the tentacled mass around his mouth and drank deeply. Warmth spread through him. “Much better. I think I needed that. Go ahead and ask, I saw you watching me like a moray.”
Watchwoman Jendara didn’t even pause. “So your mouth is in there somewhere?”
“Yep. Seen a squid’s mouth? Like that.”
“How do you breathe air?”
“Enchantment. The Felskars are trying to sell us some kind of breathing apparatus, but I prefer the magic. Far more reliable, and it doesn’t weigh anything. My turn.” He contemplated, ‘So, do you live nearby?’ But that reeked of desperation. “Just what makes up the Hadross District? I read up on Fructus before coming here, but I never saw it on any map. I gather it’s our ‘territory’ or something of that nature?”
She grinned. “It can be confusing. You know a bit of our history right? How the Celestial religion was centered here about a hundred years back?”
“Still is, as far as I know.”
She nodded. “Right. But there hasn’t been an Archon for more than a century. Not since the Betrayal. So, since then, all the nations send their exiled nobles and inconvenient convicts here.” Her manner grew confidential. “It’s like its own little continent of Arikania, but populated with political troublemakers and ne’er-do-wells, and they’re all bottled up in our city. Alliances shift from week to week, and changes the map from month to month and year to year.”
He set down his stein. “You make it sound like there’s open warfare, but the city seems peaceful enough.”
“True. It’s not quite that bad. Not unless you’re just so poor you have to live on the north side in Redwater. That place is a nightmare. The Watch barely goes there. But, back to your question, what I’d call Hadross’s District consists of… let’s see… Hadross Tower of course, a fifth of Cathedral, the east end of Merchant’s March (for now), and about half of Dockside. It’ll probably be that way for another couple of months. Believe it or not, all your ambassadors showing up for these talks has really stabilized things. Everyone’s playing nice.”
Ooroth snorted, a distinctly watery sound. “Unless you’re in on the talks. My ambassador has met with Felskar twice now. Blistering. That’s the word. Got another dawn meeting before the big show tomorrow afternoon when all of them get together in the Cathedral for the conference.”
“Is that why you were up here?”
Ooorth purpled slightly. “I shouldn’t really say anything else about it. Sorry.”
“Fair enough. My turn. How do normal people live in Hadross?”
“Well....” She gestured at the other drinkers. “Humans. I mean, we breathe air. Most of your country is underwater.”
“Magic again, mostly. There are some contraptions they use too, but the Deep Ones see to it all.”
“Those are your gods.”
They’d have us think so, he thought. “More or less. They’re the ones that change us.”
She stared a moment. “Change you?”
“I… didn’t start out like this. I was born human. All of us, Deepmen and Sevridan, we start out human.”
A wry tone escaped him. “How kind.”
“I didn’t mean it that way, but— Well, what I meant—“
“No, you’re right. It’s pretty horrible, and all because of an arms race with Kartoresh. Not many know about that. Have you heard the tale?”
She shook her head.
“The short version, then. Hadross and Kartoresh have been sniping at each other for centuries. Everyone knows this is because our two leaders are brothers, and, despite living for centuries, still fight like children. Anyway, Kartoresh’s king made a pact with some big fiery elemental overlord, and suddenly their military might outstripped ours by a huge margin. So, our ruler, Scion Hadross, made his pact with the Depths as a counter. And his country, and us, was part of the price. So now, anyone born in our borders and brought up in the Neridan religion stands a good chance of transforming after puberty.”
Jendara was ashen. “I… I don’t even know what to say.”
Ooroth shrugged fluidly. “There’s nothing to say. It’s the way things are. The transformation is seen as a blessing by most. Something to be sought after. Humans actually have a bit of a stigma against them, no offense.” He thought a moment. “As a loyal Hadrossian, I can’t complain. There’s so much to see beneath the waves. So much room to expand, even if the wilderdepths are more hazardous than your most barbaric hinterlands. And the cities… the Aquapolis of Ophion is stunning. A coral reef of light and civilization. The Opal Palace puts the Grand Cathedral of Fructus to shame.” He took a long draw on his stein.
“But?” she prodded.
“But. If asked, would I have chosen this? No. I preferred my bipedal self, and not itching like crazy at the slightest hint of dehydration. I like the sun a lot more than a jellyfish should. It complicates matters. Especially when dealing with—with other nations.” He’d almost said ‘real women’. He went on, “Although the prejudice against my kind is mildly amusing when dealing with Telloria or Kartoresh. Vampires and Ashmen have nothing on us for beastly physical transformations. It’s just they look vaguely more human.”
Jendara was staring at him, her stein immobile on the table.
“Sorry,” he said. “I get a little intense.”
“No, it’s okay. I guess you’re right. I’ve seen my share of vampires and not blinked.”
Ooroth grunted. “Like the one in the corner.”
“In the corner?”
It was his turn to set down his stein. He motioned surreptitiously with his face tentacles. “Yes, that one over there. The bald one talking to the man with the mustache and cigar.”
She glanced. “Oh! Wow, I didn’t even see him. Are you sure?”
He tapped the three eyes on the side of his head. “My kind can see heat a little bit. Helps when you’re down in the depths where even light is hard to come by. That guy is almost room temperature. Also, I can look directly at almost anything that isn’t straight behind me.”
She smiled wide. “That would be so useful in my line of work. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve found myself alone on the streets wishing for a little more light…” She went on, but Ooroth’s attention was drawn to Mustache Man. Something about him is familiar.
He studied Mustache, easy to do with his extended field of vision. Big and burly, he looked military. Armed, of course. And he had a House Teknes symbol on his sword belt. So that was it? A Felskar officer speaking with a bald vampire at an out-of-the-way tavern in the dead of night. Innocent? Not? And where had he seen Mustache before? Why couldn’t the Deep Voices have an opinion on that? No, no, instead they were helping him find missing cats. Or had they led him to a smart and intriguing woman? Dared he hope that they were concerned with his well-being for once?
Jendara had stopped speaking. “Are you listening? It’s hard to tell.”
“I’m very sorry, I wasn’t. I was thinking about another ‘gift’ that comes with the transformation. The Deep Voices. Those I know you’ve heard of.”
“Those would be your gods, right? It’s said they talk to you.”
“Won’t shut up, is more like.”
She blinked in surprise, then grinned. “I’m not sure I could ever speak so irreverently about my gods.”
“They’re not exactly my gods. Sure, there’s a religion around them and all, but… I hear them. A lot. More than most, if you want to know. I try not to spread that around. Tonight they led me to the cat.”
Jendara crossed her arms. “The cat. You’re telling me your sea gods care about a lost cat?”
He shrugged. “There are worse things for gods to care about, no?”
She thought a moment, then smiled. “Good point.”
“But no, they didn’t bring me up here solely for the little girl or her cat. I don’t think so anyway. Usually their intervention is more grandiose. Maybe it was seeing those two.” He didn’t say ‘Or to meet the woman of my dreams?’ Talk about sounding desperate.
She glanced. The bald vampire and Mr. Mustache had risen and shaken hands. Mustache left, trailing cigar smoke. “Are they important to your Deep Voices?”
“I have absolutely no idea,” Ooroth admitted. “But they’ve never, ever led me wrong. Sometimes it’s when to stay hidden beneath a reef when a megalodon shark is on the prowl. Other times it’s when to speak out of turn in the Scion’s throne room at the Opal Palace. That went over well, I can tell you. Sometimes it’s when an assassin is sneaking up behind my ambassador. Other times it’s where a cat is. I cannot fathom them, no pun.”
“I can’t imagine my gods talking to me like that,” she said.
“You worship the Celestials?”
“Maybe you should stop. I quit worshipping the Deep Ones when I changed. They haven’t shut up since.”
She laughed and finished her stein. “Well, this has been fun.”
His heart warmed. “It has. Listen, um…. I’m around until the conference is over. Can I see you again?”
She shrugged. “Sure, I like meeting new people—“ Her eyes flared. “Wait, are you—Oh, no, I, uh, I’m not—“
He held up his hands. “Oh I didn’t mean… Oh that’s not true, I did mean as more than friends. That’s the other part of this curse. When I changed, my liking for human women didn’t. I’m… I know I make you uncomfortable. We just talked so well that I…thought…”
She stood, blushing. “I’m sorry. I… I’m sorry.” Jendara hurried out without a backwards glance.
Ooroth sat at the table for another long minute. He stared at his stein and his tentacles twitched between anger and sorrow. ‘No human woman….’ He drained the last in one draw, and left.
That morning, after a night of wandering, he arrived early to Ambassador Jahroon’s opulent house overlooking the harbor. Below, Dockside lit the waters with red and orange lights from busy tavern windows. Dockside never slept.
The honor guard was already stationed in the antechamber, two trusted Deepmen. They saluted his nod. “Has his eminent self been seen yet?” Ooroth asked.
“He has,” said the ambassador from the top of the stairs. He descended, attended by two stunning slave women draped in silks and jewels. “And I’ll thank you to moderate your sarcastic tone, captain.”
Ooroth glanced at the slave women. ‘No human woman….’ There was falsity in their fawning, a caress too light, a touch of wood in their smiles. The fact that these obsequious creatures were forced to adore Jahroon would be completely lost on him. Or maybe he just liked it that way. Ooroth spoke firmly. “They need to stay here. We don’t want to draw attention.”
Jahroon glared, looking rather human. Deepmen weren’t nearly so altered as Sevridan. “I decide upon my retinue, captain. And this meeting is merely a formality to conclude our negotiations with Felskar.”
“Before the actual talks begin.”
“Of course. You know nothing of politics.”
Ooroth knew more than he would’ve liked, but they were not his concern. “Ambassador, what better way to wreck the conference than by killing a dignitary? I wouldn’t put it past any faction, Kartoresh especially.”
Jahroon rolled his eyes. “If you fear so much for my life, then should I not have convenient cover to stand behind?” He caressed one of the women. “And such pretty cover too.”
The slave girls’ vapid smiles didn’t waver, but Ooroth sensed their sudden rigidity. Jahroon valued his flesh above anyone else’s. Everyone knew it. “That’s what my men and I are for. Or would you prefer panicked and flighty cover that’s never seen a fight to steadfast and loyal Deepguards?”
Jahroon’s facial tentacles twitched. He motioned and the girls returned upstairs, somewhat hastily to Ooroth’s eye. “Let us go.”
One Deepman led the way ten paces ahead, the other five behind. Ooroth shambled along beside Jahroon. His wide-angled vision saw many people up and about in the predawn darkness. Normal for Fructus. Market vendors, fishwives, very early risers, and the City Watch with their dark blue cloaks. Only once did trouble threaten, but the thugs retreated back down the alley at the sight of the well-armed Hadrossians.
At the Felskar Ambassador’s stately townhome, Ooroth dismissed the men with a word to stay close. He was about to wander in search of the kitchens when Jahroon said, “Captain, attend me. The Deep Voices command it.”
Ooroth sighed. “I’m sure they did.”
“Such blasphemies. Or is it my word you doubt? A serious charge, to speak false of the Deep Voices.”
“No, ambassador, forgive me. It’s been a long walk, and my tentacles were meant for the sea. Of course I’ll attend.”
An armored guardsman showed them into the grand conference room. Gilt furnishings reflected gas-lit lamps in steady, even hues. Their unwavering glow reminded Ooroth of home, though there they used enchanted pearls and luminescent flora beneath the waves where no flame could survive.
Ooroth had always liked Ambassador Rotakin. He was friendly and outgoing, with a wide smile under a huge bushy mustache, like most Felskars wore. “My friends!” He shook their hands clasped in his. “Such pleasure it is to be seeing you this morning. And you’ll forgive the early hour, no? Best we finalize things before this afternoon, eh? I am liking our arrangement more and more. But first, some refreshment. Dreski! Srved freezing cold. Just the thing to prepare one for busy day.”
Ooroth and Rotakin toasted each other and sipped. It had almost no taste, and went down smooth in a spreading warmth that extended to every tentacle tip. And Ooroth didn’t die. He twitched a signal to Jahroon that no surfacer would understand. Jahroon nodded and drank. Yes, Ooroth liked Ambassador Rotakin, but he didn’t trust him. Not even close.
Most of the details seemed settled. Hadross and Felskar would both benefit from free trade and mutual defense. Really the only outstanding issue was an ‘incentive’ payment to Hadross. Specifically its ambassador for making the deal.
At this, Rotakin sighed. “Ah, but now, is difficulty. Only minor complication, to speak true,” said Rotakin.
Ooroth blinked and paid closer attention. He did not like complications.
Rotakin continued, “Instead of vulgar base gold, ambassador, we offer to you personally a small gift of owed debts. Is worth easily fifty percent in excess of formerly discussed value, no?”
Jahroon watched him from narrowed eyes. “An interesting alteration. Not that any personal gifts are required, of course, but we… had agreed on gold.”
Rotakin smiled and spread his hands in a grand gesture. Felskars often spoke with their hands in this manner. “Yes, but our ship has not arrived, you see? And I am thinking best to avoid any hint of notice, no? That we meet for drinks on rare occasion is one thing. But for exchange of currencies, well…. Is best not seen or heard, no?”
Jahroon considered. “Fifty percent more? And how distant are these debts? And how many?”
Ooroth boggled that Jahroon would even consider accepting a bribe in this manner. But he kept silent. It was the ambassador’s bribe, not his.
Rotakin said, “Nineteen, mostly within Fructus itself, and very small few in Arikania at large with banking houses and a trade cartel. Is surely no trouble for men of such influence as ourselves to call such things in, no?”
Then why not do it yourself and pocket the rest? Ooroth thought.
Jahroon tapped the quill on the table and mulled the treaty parchment before him. “Very well. This treaty appears sound, and your terms are fair. I am pleased to put my name beside yours.”
Ooroth plucked the quill from Jahroon’s hand.
Ooroth ignored Jahroon and leaned across the table. “Show me these debts.”
Rotakin was flustered, the first time Ooroth had ever seen him so. He recovered quickly. “Of course!” He clapped his hands and a retainer came in. The same mustached man that Ooroth had seen earlier meeting with the bald vampire.
Ooroth grinned behind his tentacles. No wonder Mr. Mustache had looked familiar. He should have recognized the man sooner, but all the surfacers looked the same.
Rotakin untied the bound documents and handed the top one across.
Ooroth shook his head. “Not that one. One from the bottom.”
Rotakin’s good nature left his face, though his smile remained. “Is customary in Hadross for functionaries to question their superiors? Forgive my ignorance in this matter, ambassador.”
Jahroon’s tentacles twitched with displeasure, but he said, “Show him.”
Rotakin’s smile got even more wooden. He handed over the document.
Ooroth read it in seconds. “This is a servitude bond for an Achrionian woman. A sailor, if I’m reading it right.” He dropped it in front of Rotakin. “First, how in the depths do we track down a sailor in any timely manner, as you put it? Second, Achrion fiercely and actively protects its citizens from any form of forced servitude, indentured or otherwise. Third, any citizen of Achrion knows this and would never freely sign such a document. Or, if they did and you handed over the cash, then the joke’s on you, and you’re trying to pass it to the ambassador here. So, what’s your game, Rotakin? You pocketed the gold yourself, didn’t you?”
Rotakin’s smile was gone. “Am thinking perhaps we should discuss this further without our functionaries.”
Jahroon stood. “And I am thinking that we’re done here. The gold. Or nothing. As it stands, Felskar shall receive no maritime protection from Hadross, nor will we grant a free trade zone bordering the free cities for Felskar convoys. You’ll pay your tariffs and tolls along with everyone else, or find a way to ship your goods over the mountains. Good morning, sir.”
Jahroon muttered and cursed the entire way back down the city. Ooroth huffed and puffed alongside, wishing not for the last time that he had proper legs, or that the eastern sun, now properly over the horizon, was a little less hot.
Back at the mansion, the ambassador was barely inside the door when he rounded on Ooroth. “How dare you embarrass me in front of Rotakin!”
Ooroth’s tentacles writhed in shock, then anger. “I just saved you from getting royally cheated!”
“And ruined four weeks of careful negotiation! Those agreements will secure our western borders against any possible conflict. If these talks fall through, I’ll know whom to mention prominently in my report.”
Ooroth’s temper got the better of him. “Teeth and tides, you’d do this too, wouldn’t you? If things don’t go well, you’ll pin this on me, all for want of your ‘customary bribe.’”
“Not one more word! Not a single one!” The ambassador’s mouth spewed spittle as he raged. “You don’t understand politics. You had best pray to the Depths that Felskar comes up with the right payments, or, I swear, the Scion himself will hear your name again. Your insolence, drunkenness, and unspeakable blasphemies are well known back home. All that has kept you from sinking has been your family name and what I can only believe is raw luck. They’ll chain you to the biggest boulder they can find and roll it into the Sysor Deep. On my word, see if they don’t!”
Ooroth had purpled with rage, and his tentacles writhed as furiously as Jahroon’s. His hand twitched for the greatsword across his back.
But no. No, it wouldn’t do. Ooroth forced himself back from the precipice and left without Jahroon’s permission, though the ambassador said nothing.
Ooroth backed down, and trudged back out into the streets, heart heavy. Dockside called. He had money. Money enough for ale and wine, and probably a woman to help him forget his loneliness for at least a time.
He was stopped at the compound gate by a messenger. “Your pardon, sir? I’ve a delivery for a Hadrossian at the ambassador’s residence, but I don’t have a proper name.”
Ooroth sighed. “Who’s it from?”
“She didn’t say. A little girl up in Cath District. She was at Karotresh Tower, of all places.”
“I’ll take it. Here, for your trouble.” He handed over a coin and received a rolled up parchment.
Ooroth unrolled it to see a child’s drawing. A fat, smiling cat, and a little girl waving at him beneath the Cathedral. ‘Thank You!’ was written large across the top.
Ooroth crushed the drawing to his chest, and tried hard not to weep.
The Deep Voices slept.