If any more blood rushed into Low Fishdrum’s face, it was sure to pop, spattering the tavern walls with the mark of the city’s laziest and angriest abstract artist. Fortunately, it was unlikely to matter much, judging by the state of the rest of the room.
Except to Low. To Low it would matter a great deal, in fact, if his face exploded.
In the time since Root and Beel and the bartender and swordsman had left, Low had emptied the tavern of its remaining patrons, citing a sudden lack of seating that wasn’t in pieces all over the floor. As Root and the others filed inside, the last few stragglers made their way to the door, still downing the dregs of their drinks and apologetically righting chairs or picking up shards of broken crockery. Low waved them out—it wasn’t their problem, he insisted, and have a good night, he’d add each time with a smile that evaporated in an instant. Root got the feeling she wasn’t going to hear the same script.
Low turned to them as soon as the last of his customers left. The patches of grey hair on his head looked like steam pouring out of his various orifices, which made him look only comical. Root swallowed a laugh. It was the most nourishing thing she’d had in three weeks.
“You all… you’ve… you’ve wrecked my tavern! And my shop!”
Root, Beel, and the swordsman stood amidst the overturned furniture, pieces of assorted breakage, and a buffet for hounds and ants and other creatures that didn’t mind eating off of the floor, which might have been a category that included Root—she hadn’t decided yet. The bartender peeled away from the others and set to work quietly picking up the rare still-intact mug or glass and lining them up along the countertop.
“Now, hold on just a minute,” began the swordsman, holding up a hand. “Your shop?”
The swordsman looked from Low to Root and back again. His eyebrows pinched in tighter with each shift of his attention. “Where is this shop?”
Low jabbed one angry finger towards the corner where various fishing supplies still lay here or there, or in the case of several cracked rods, here and there.
“Oh,” said the swordsman. “I thought that was just storage. Or maybe ingredients for the kitchen.”
“You think I serve wooden fish to my customers, boy?”
The swordsman took a moment before answering, as if he had to double and triple check that the answer poised to leave his mouth was the correct one. “…No.”
“Could be a welcome change of flavor,” muttered Beel.
“And consistency,” offered Root.
Low held out his hand. “I expect full payment for your meals and drinks. And then compensation for the damages.”
Root dropped her eight radulas into the man’s hand—the price for her mead and Beel’s lager, since she’d already paid for their food. Low gave her a petty expression as he waited for more. Root shook her head.
“That’s what I owe you for the drinks. I had nothing to do with this mess.”
“Nothing?” asked Low with a scoff. His eyebrows reached for the ceiling.
“So I suppose you ran out into the street to catch the ice cream cart, then?”
“No, I went to help my… friend.” She gestured to Beel.
“And you helped your friend by not having anything to do with this?”
Root scowled. “You’re fucking joking right now, right? You saw what happened. He was being chased—he didn’t even do anything. It was those two spirits who wrecked this place, not us!”
“And where are they now?”
“Sir…” started the swordsman. He took a step forward.
“Let me guess: you had nothing to do with this either?”
The swordsman scratched the back of his head. “Well, I suppose you could say we all played a small part. But she’s right—it’s the two spirits you should fault. Though they were slain.”
“Which makes all of this whose problem?”
“I assume the answer is ‘ours.’”
“Unless you’re going to go and fetch me some of their coins to pay for their drinks and damages.”
The swordsman choked out a laugh. “Go through their left things? And end up in the city jail? Not a chance. Should I go grave robbing for you while I’m at it? No, I’ll leave their things there until they get back to retrieve them. If you want their money, I’ll show you where it is, but I won’t be touching it. No way.”
“Then it’s yours I’ll be having. Come on, cough it up.” Low looked from the swordsman to Root and down to Beel. Root’s throat tightened as if it expected her to follow the order and cough the last of her coins into his hand, but though admirably loyal, it was her hand guarding the last of her money.
“Mr. Fishdrum, I—” Low gave Root a look that made it clear she was not to refer to him in such a manner again. “I don’t have much. At all.”
“Hand over what you do have, then, or I’ll be ringing for the city guard. I’ll have you thrown out of Unn altogether!”
Root clenched her jaw hard. If she got thrown out of the city, she’d have nowhere to go but home—if she could even afford that. She’d be right back where she started with nothing to show for it but the few measly coins she had sent back to her father already, hardly more than the cost of her ticket across the sea, and certainly less than her travel expenses if she turned back now. Just imagining the homecoming made her want to retch. Hi dad, remember when we lost our house and farm and everything we have ever owned, and then I took the last of our savings to sail across the sea? Well, I’m back with even less money than I left with! Oops! My bad I guess!
Root’s hand inched across the gap toward Low’s waiting palm to deposit the last of her coins into his hand. Her throat hmphed from its high horse as it watched the betrayal. The ground she’d be sleeping on that night was so unforgiving that it was already giving her bruises in anticipation of their acquaintance.
The two words made Root’s temper spike. She felt a wisp of smoke curl up from the back of her neck. The state of the tavern might not be her fault, but it was about to be.
“That’s it,” said Root. “That’s all I have.”
“I’m afraid I don’t have much more,” said the swordsman. He emptied a handful of coins into Low’s palm. Beel turned over one radula and two shells.
“You had all better get to work making things right,” said Low as he closed his fist around three sets of paltry savings, “or the city guard might turn up anyway. I want this place spicker than spick and spanner than span.” After a glare so harsh it might’ve done more to halt the spirits’ tantrum than all the effort the rest of them had put in combined, Low rounded on the bartender.
“And you, Vit!” he said. The bartender dropped the glass they were holding. It shattered on the floor.
“Hang on, I can fix that.” A moment later, the glass rested back atop the counter, a mess of webs gluing the clinking shards into a shape that might have resembled a cup to someone who had never seen one, though there was no chance liquid contents would ever be fooled long enough to stick around. Still, it held together better than Low’s temper.
Low led the bartender—Vit—back behind the counter and into the kitchen. Only Root, Beel, and the swordsman remained in the room.
“I guess we might want to—”
“Yeah,” said Root. It took all the strength left in her to keep from tearing up.
“I’m Azriah, by the way. Azriah Kaiyn.”
“Root Hashells. And this is Beel.”
“Nice to meet you both. Er, officially. I’m sorry about all of this.”
“I suppose it doesn’t change much,” said Root. “Lumpy mattress, the ground outside—I’d wake up with a crick in my neck regardless, and they both have the same number of bugs.”
“Speak for yourself,” said Beel. “My neck is still sore from last night.”
“You don’t have a neck.”
“But if I did it would be sore.”
Azriah gave Beel a funny look. “How can you tell?”
“Ignore him. He’s run out of real problems to complain about, so now he has to make up new ones.”
“Only to be treated like this, it seems,” whined Beel, kicking a baked potato that was halfway smeared across the floorboards.
Azriah turned his attention to Root instead. “All right. How about you and I right these tables while he sweeps.”
“I don’t want to sweep.”
“Go sweep, Beel,” said Root.
Root took hold of a table and flipped it back onto its feet with ease, Azriah at the other end. “You’re quite strong,” he said, nodding towards her bare biceps where they were visible past the short sleeves of her grey shirt. Instinctively, she angled her body to limit how much he could see of them; though defined with muscle, as he pointed out, they were also speckled with scars that made her look as though she’d spent hours as a practice dummy for the worlds’ worst acupuncturist. Each one stood out like an engorged tick against her pale skin.
“I grew up on a farm.”
“What did you grow?”
“It was a worm farm,” said Root with a sigh. “Spirit worms. They produce good fertilizer.”
“Ah, I see,” said Azriah as they flipped another table. “What brings you to Unn?”
“I was hoping to make some money. Guess it’s not going so well.” She gestured in the direction of the kitchen where the last of her coins were adjusting to a new life with a sweaty, front-row seat view of managerial abuse. “What about you? Are you from the city?” she asked, returning the pleasantry but moving quickly on to the next table.
“Not originally, no, but I’ve lived here on and off for several years. I was born in a village in Ubado, lived there until my mother moved us out here. She died about two years ago. Now I just take jobs in the city—bodyguard for merchants and politicians, hired guard for trading caravans traveling to other towns and back, that sort of thing. Whatever pays.”
“I’m trying to do the same—take jobs here and there, that is. Not as a guard. I’m no fighter.”
“No? You clearly have some skill, even if it’s just the basics. And that’s some trick with the smoke.”
“Thanks,” said Root, punctuating it with a period that could’ve halted a stampede of wildebeest.
Silence hung between them for only a moment, however, (that is, silence aside from the sustained grunts and groans of Beel, who needed everyone within earshot to be aware that he was doing manual labor and that it was terribly laborious) before a crash came from the kitchen.
“—worthless, broken—” came the shouts of Low. Root glanced down at Beel, and then over to Azriah. The room remained about as orderly as a collector’s basement, but with none of the intrigue and twice as much water damage—or ale damage. Damage, in general, remained abundant. Root got the sense they might want to pick up the pace, and the chairs, and the cups, and the food, or else they’d be having another uncomfortable exchange with Low—or worse, the city guard.
As Root moved across the floor, her foot collided with an obstacle which, as it skittered across the floor, looked more and more like the next morning’s breakfast. An untouched dinner roll, dusted lightly with a coating of flour and fuzz. A second one lay just beside it. Hiding her movements from Azriah, she ducked, scooped up the meal, and tucked the rolls away in her pockets.
“—killing my customers—” echoed more shouting from the kitchen. Another bout of banging ensued. More muffled shouting, and then the kitchen door opened in a rush as Vit the bartender pushed through it, untying their apron with their extra arms as they went. They shed the apron in a heap on the floor, but after locking eyes with Root, they paused, stooped, and retrieved it, an embarrassed flush creeping into their cheeks. They lay the apron gently across the countertop.
“That’s a loud boss you’ve got there,” said Azriah.
“Not anymore,” said Vit, on a course for the door. “Fired.”
“Oh.” Vit only waved over their shoulder with two of their translucent spider arms, and a moment later they were gone.
“Well,” said Azriah, “you were looking for a job?”
From the kitchen came the unmistakable sound of metal cookware hitting the tile floor. Tonight, it seemed Low Fishdrum’s Tavern and Tackle was making a true effort to win out over its neighbors for loudest venue on the block.
“I don’t think I’ve made a great first impression with the boss.”
“I think you ruined your chances when you cut open two of the patrons,” said Beel. “Doesn’t make a strong case for your customer service skills.”
“Maybe a bouncer, then?” offered Azriah.
“Low can’t afford to turn away business.”
“Only the hooligans.”
“There’d be no one left.”
The front door opened then. The three of them all turned to look as a small spirit rolled in. At first, Root thought it was a mass of clipped shrubbery blown in by a stiff breeze; the thing looked like nothing more than a tangle of green vines. But as the spirit moved, his whole body shifted and slithered around in itself like a snake practicing knot work on a budget. A small head darted out from one side and then the next, keeping his face clear of the floor as he rolled. He looked around as he squirmed just beyond the threshold.
“Tavern’s closed,” said Root, shifting her attention back to the cleaning at once.
“See, you’re a natural,” said Beel.
“I’m not here for the poison,” said the spirit. The words came out in a wheeze, exhausted after traveling through the tangled mess of a windpipe.
“Oh, there’s food too,” said Beel.
“I was right the first time.”
The spirit moved farther into the room. A few strands of pasta caught in his form and immediately wormed deep into the tangle where Root could only imagine they’d remain for the foreseeable future, if her experience trying to separate one length of long forgotten rope from the rest at the bottom of a chest in the family barn was anything to go by.
Spaghetti spoke again. “My mistress has asked for an audience with you all. Follow me, and I will take you to her.”
“Okay, first of all, weird,” said Root flatly. “I don’t know a lot about the city but I know whatever you just said is definitely the way to win a new knife in an alleyway in exchange for, like, half of my blood.”
“Or all, if you’re unlucky,” said Beel.
“If you’re lucky,” corrected Azriah.
Root nodded. “Just because you’re fucking her doesn’t mean we want to meet her.”
Spaghetti’s tiny face made a tiny scowl.
“Who is this mistress?” asked Azriah.
“Very powerful. Very clever.”
“Not making this better,” muttered Root.
“A name, maybe?”
“She will introduce herself. She will do you all no harm; she was impressed by your feats of bravery this evening and wishes to speak with you.”
Azriah seemed to consider this for a moment. Another crash overflowed from the kitchen, followed by a hard thump that shook the walls. Low yelled a string of expletives.
“Yeah, I’ll talk to her,” he said, eyeing the door to the kitchen.
Spaghetti turned his attention back to Root. Footsteps marched around the kitchen; it certainly couldn’t hurt to slip out of there as soon as possible, and at least this way she’d have an excuse. And was getting jumped in an alley really worse than scraping mashed peas out of the floorboards? It wasn’t like she had any money left to steal.
What was there to lose?
Blood. A few fingers, few toes. An eye. Her life. But hey—so be it. If she died, she died.
“Ugh, I had a feeling you were going to say that,” groaned Beel.
Root grabbed her small backpack from where she’d left it under the table when she chased after Beel. Azriah collected his own things, and then with as quiet and as hasty footing as possible, they fled the tavern.
Spaghetti rustled down the street by lamplight, taking one turn and then another in silence. Root didn’t relax until Low’s was nothing but a lingering smell of grease in her nostrils.
After another turn onto another street that Root swore led them along a much more roundabout path than necessary—perhaps the shape of Spaghetti’s body made him bad with directions?—their guide led them into an alleyway. Azriah strode ahead with the confidence of a man who had accepted a vague invitation to rendezvous with a nameless contact in an alleyway in the dark. Beel let out a loud huff.
The alley made a single, stiff turn and then the group came to an unmarked wooden door, windowless and reached by half a dozen stone steps leading down. Puddles soaked the eroding stone; they splashed as Spaghetti let his body tumble unhindered to the bottom. One end slithered out of the ball of his body and reached up to wrap three times around the door handle, which opened after a tug.
“In you go—she’s waiting.”
Stabbed or eaten, thought Beel. Those were the two most likely outcomes of this terrible idea. Maybe both. Stabbed and eaten.
He followed along at a slog behind the others—the tumbleweed spirit leading the way, followed by Azriah, the strong and dashing swordsman who had come running to his rescue, and Root, who made stupid decisions.
But Azriah had made the same stupid decision. And now Beel was following them in their collective stupid decision.
Perhaps this ‘mistress’ wants us all for sport. Perhaps she’ll make us fight, the way those nasty men who snatched me up out of the desert planned to do, he thought. Ah, the desert. It’d been so warm there. This city was all squalls and humidity.
If he had to fight Root and Azriah, could he win? Most definitely, he decided after a moment of careful deliberation and sizing up the two from behind. Unless he had to fight them both at the same time. Then they would surely flank him, overwhelm him, conquer him. He’d be back at Yg Balta in minutes. Ugh. He hated that lake of goo.
She’s probably going to eat us, he thought. She’ll probably make Root eat Azriah, and then I’ll have to eat Root, and then this mistress will have me for dinner. The worlds’ worst turducken. A Beeootah. I’m going to be part of a Beeootah.
The tumbleweed spirit entered an alleyway. Here it comes. It’s Beeootah time. He just knew it.