Trouble With Mussels
A single bite of tender pork sent flavours bursting in Sano's mouth. The tang of vinegar blended perfectly with the saltiness of the soy sauce and the fragrance of the garlic. Sano could swear this was the best thing he’d ever tasted. His mother was a good enough cook, but they rarely had the ingredients to make something so rich. As the boat bobbed in the gentle waves, Sano and Anina passed the bowl between them, taking handfuls of rice and pork with each pass. The food nursed in them an energy that their conversation had slowly depleted.
It had been a great day for Sano, with minimal embarrassment on his part and good earnings to boot. Now in the open quietness of the night, he didn’t know how to feel, with good food in his belly but worrisome news in his mind.
“At some point, the rumours will be so blown out of proportion that nobody will believe them, right?” Sano asked, washing his hands with a bit of seawater. “I can’t be stealing from Dayungan nobles, causing landslides, and bringing luck baskets to villages. I can’t possibly be in two far-flung places at the same time. What am I, the Ghoul of Katam?”
Anina finished what was left in the bowl. “You have a point, but King Bunawi wouldn’t wait until the rumours are tangled up. He’s out for you now, and there’s no chance of him losing interest in you if there’s always something getting conflated with you.”
Sano splashed some water onto his face. If King Bunawi’s interest in him didn’t wane, not only would that make it more difficult to reunite with his mother, but it would also continue to jeopardize both their lives. Unless King Bunawi decided Sano wasn’t worth capturing, Sano and his mother could potentially live the rest of their lives on the run. They might never be able to hide again.
But would that be such a terrible outcome? Life tucked away in the forest was monotonous, the isolation suffocating at times. They might be able to escape to the Unconquered Lands or the Gamhanan Isles, but that would be like being chased out of his own home. It would simply be a different kind of hiding. Wasn’t there any way for Sano and his mother to live out in the open without fear of King Bunawi?
In front of him, Anina toed one of her staffs at the bottom of the boat. She frowned, and Sano realized she was once again trying to get magic to flow to her foot. Sano knelt before her, reaching for her arm.
“It might be too unfamiliar for your body to divert magic to your foot right away,” he explained. He rolled up her sleeve to her elbow, and placed the staff against her inner arm. “You can always practice somewhere closer to your hand. Since the magic has to travel up to your palm, it’s already used to taking this route.”
Sano waited, watching the grooves of Anina's scripts for the tell-tale sign of magic coursing through. It wasn’t long until a spark of blue lit up one of the scripts, and Anina gasped.
“See? There you go!” Sano said.
Anina continued to practice, holding her staff against her arm or elbow, her magic pulsing through the scripts on her staff. Sano still didn’t know why she was so keen on learning these illegal magic skills, when she seemed so law-abiding otherwise. However, he had a hunch she would clam up if he pried, so he let her continue without interrupting. She was usually so serious that it was lovely to see her, if not excited, at least very pleased about something for once.
Sano thought that being accused of thievery was the worst news he’d hear for a while. Unfortunately, the next morning, he and Anina overheard their neighbours gossiping that King Bunawi was on his way to Masagan.
“Coming here for the sea-serpent season,” one of the men said. “I hear he’s dragging with him an entire boatload of jewels to use as an offering.”
Anina crouched beside Sano in his section of their room, leaning against the thin wall. It was not yet dawn, but their neighbours made quite a racket as they vacated their room. They complained that they wouldn’t get to see the king and the sacrifice now that they were leaving Masagan. Others hoped they would run into the king’s entourage on the road. All the while, Sano and Anina eavesdropped in quiet trepidation.
Anina didn’t seem like she was fully awake yet, with the way her head rested against the wall, eyes half-lidded, hair falling into her face. Sano wanted to ask what they were going to do, but he was getting really embarrassed about doing that. It rankled that he couldn’t find a way to get them out of this situation, when he’d gotten them into it in the first place. Sano had spent all his life imagining the amazing things he would do when he finally lived out in the world, and now he couldn’t even afford peanut curry, let alone stay one step ahead of the king.
“Should we leave?” Sano asked, unable to come up with a better suggestion. “I’m all right with it if you are.”
“We don’t have enough money.” Anina counted on her fingers. “We still have a few more days. Our neighbours said that King Bunawi had just departed from Little Dayung, and it’s several days’ trip to get here. We’ll know when he’s close, because the Chief of Masagan and the Great Arbiter would be preparing for his arrival.”
With that, Anina slunk away to her side of the room, pulling the curtain closed. Her sombreness seeped into Sano like rain soaking into clothes. He steeled himself against it. One sullen person was enough, and at least Anina had ideas that kept them safe. Sano hadn’t really done anything but follow her around; the least he could do was keep the atmosphere light and hopeful.
As soon Anina left Sano to go to the jeweller who had hired her yesterday, a man came up to him.
“Are you Sano, by any chance?” the man asked. He wore a dusty turban on his head, and his darkened skin was the shade of someone who’d spent too much time under the sun. Sano was surprised to hear the man knew him by name and was even able to single him out among all the market-goers.
“Yes,” Sano answered. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Sure, my boy. I’m Bikon, and I have a deal with Kathan, that plump seafood merchant with bad teeth. You know her?” Bikon didn’t wait for Sano’s answer. “You see, I know this area of the beach that doesn’t attract a lot of people, especially during high tide. It has a large colony of mussels, and Kathan wants to harvest them now while her competitors are waiting for the low tide. She and I agreed on a price, if I can get some swimmers together and give her mussels by the end of the day. You get a cut for helping out.” Bikon gave Sano a friendly grin. “I’ve heard a lot about you these last couple of days. People say you’re the pal to ask for help.”
People were actually talking favourably about him? Sano had thought he would never live down that embarrassing event with the woodworker two days ago. Now other people in the market were seeking him out personally.
This was good. If folks here thought of him as hardworking and honest, perhaps they were less likely to connect him to the rogue mage. “Sure, I’ll help!” Sano said.
“Great!” Bikon clapped Sano on the back. “Best part is that Kathan is a little desperate, so she’s willing to give the swimmers a silver gram each.”
“Each?” With a silver gram, Sano and Anina could be on their way out of the market next morning. They wouldn’t have to worry about potentially running into King Bunawi. “I’m in!”
Bikon whooped, and led him down the beach, away from the market and the port. There was a set of bluffs on the west side that jutted out into the sea, so he and Bikon rode in a small boat to go around the rocky wall. The bluff was wide, but there was a part of it that receded back to the land and formed an alcove, a small space littered with rocks and sand. There were six people waiting there.
“This is the area,” Bikon said as he pulled on the oars. “Those are the other swimmers I found. Now I think we’ve got enough to start.”
When they neared the others lounging in the alcove, Sano waved at them and introduced himself. There were three middle-aged women who seemed like they might be related, and two young men around Sano’s age.
Bikon was not lying when he said the area was filled with a colony of mussels. The rocks that pierced the surface of the water already had a blanket of molluscs waiting to be plucked. When Sano dove underwater, almost everywhere he looked, mussels covered the seabed. He pulled several off until his hands couldn't hold one more shell. Surfacing from the tides, Sano swam back to the alcove where six barrels waited to receive the mussels.
Sano went back and forth between the shallows and the alcove, collecting mussels until his hands were full or he was out of breath. The water was warm, and though the salt stung his eyes, Sano soon found that he was actually enjoying himself.
At midday, Bikon left to get them something to eat. To Sano’s delight, the man returned with something that rivalled even Anina’s dinner from the previous night: peanut curry!
Sano and the other swimmers pulled themselves out of the water and sat on separate rocks or lay cross-legged on the sand. Each of them got a bowl of rice covered in thick, fragrant peanut sauce with vegetables and beef tripe. A clump of shrimp paste topped the bowl. Sano took a bite of rice and beef, and it filled his mouth with a delicious, earthy flavour. He was overwhelmed by an urge to devour the entire thing in a single breath, but he took a few moments to regain his composure, resolving to be brave and to save some for Anina.
As he ate, Sano noticed the rippling of a sea-serpent out on the horizon. His mother had taught him how to spot the creatures; they looked like ocean waves at first, until you learned to discern their colour and movement. The reptiles never ventured near Sano’s home in the foothills, even when they flew, but here in Masagan, Sano heard that sea-serpents would sometimes slither up to the harbour itself.
Suddenly the sea-serpent Sano was watching shot straight into the sky. He held his breath, wondering if it would fly closer, but it merely somersaulted in the air, scales glinting against the high sun, and plunged back down with a giant splash. Sano wasn’t even disappointed. It was just so beautiful. One look, and you knew why sea-serpents were sacred.
After eating and resting for a short while, Sano and the other swimmers once again dived for mussels. When they had filled all of the barrels, Bikon said it was time to stop. “This is incredible work!” he praised them. “Very impressive, truly. I’ll go call the merchant over, and we’ll return with another boat for the barrels.”
Sano and the others stayed in the alcove, observing the fiery colours of the setting sun. He was just enjoying the gentle breeze and the calming rush of the waves when a boat finally appeared around the bluff. Curiously, there was only one, and the two people riding it didn’t look like Bikon or a merchant. One of them was dressed as a market enforcer, and the other was a shaman.
Sano’s heart sunk. Had something gone wrong?
“Hey, you sorry lot!” the enforcer yelled. “This area is private!”
Sano pushed himself up from the boulder. The ease that he’d worn like a second skin throughout the day slipped away, like the waves receding from the sand.
The enforcer rowed to the beach and jumped off the boat. The shaman followed him. He looked at each of the hired swimmers, and then peered at the six barrels of mussels they had collected.
“No, no, this won’t do at all.” The enforcer shook his head, his brows low and his moustache drooping. “This area is reserved for Lady Tali. She has paid the Chief of Masagan for sole access for a month. You can’t just come in here and harvest whenever you want.”
“Sir, we had an agreement with a merchant,” Sano began. “Bikon mentioned her name. Kat...na? Kathan? Something like that. Seafood vendor with the bad teeth, he said.”
The enforcer and the shaman exchanged confused glances. “Never heard of her,” the enforcer grunted. “Doesn’t matter. If you’re not affiliated with Lady Tali, then you have no right to be in this area. I’m confiscating these.” He shoved Sano aside, and headed for the barrels.
“Hey, hold on now,” Sano said. “Why don’t you talk it out with Bikon first? I’m sure it’s just a misunderstanding.”
Sano looked at the other swimmers. Why was he the only one doing all the talking? Surely they knew about Bikon’s deal and could help corroborate his story. However, they all huddled away from the enforcer, staring at the sand as if too ashamed to lift their heads.
“Talk?” the enforcer repeated, and he let out a rough, mocking laugh. “What makes you think I’m interesting in talking to criminals?” He gestured at the shaman. “Get their magic levels.” To the swimmers, he said, “You will all be fined two grams of silver for breaking the law, with additional interest proportional to your powers.”
Two grams of silver!
Sano’s knees almost buckled. Not only did it look like he wasn’t getting the silver gram Bikon promised, but he was actually incurring debt! Sano's mind raced, grasping for a convincing protest, when the shaman grabbed his hand. After a moment of quiet deliberation, she announced that he was getting a twenty percent interest.
The enforcer gave Sano an amused look. “That’s a high interest,” he snickered. “Bloated with so much magic there's no room for brains, that’s how some of you are.”
Sano walked towards the enforcer. “Please sir, just wait for Bikon to come back. He’ll explain everything. We worked hard for this.” He laid his hand on the enforcer’s shoulder, but the man flinched as if Sano’s hand was coated with grime. The enforcer swung out a fist, and the next thing Sano knew, he was on the ground, his face in the sand. Sharp pain streaked up his neck and he couldn’t feel his cheek.
When Sano tried to push himself up from the wet beach, a blow landed against his middle, and he slumped back down. Breath escaped him, and he struggled to catch the next one.
“Stupid boy,” the enforcer muttered. “Don’t lay your hands on me. That’s an extra half gram of silver you’ll have to pay.”
Sano hissed through his teeth, desperate for air. Sand streamed into his mouth instead. He coughed, and the pain in his belly worsened. Groaning, Sano mustered all his strength and pushed himself up. How in the world had he managed to raise a wall against a speeding landslide, and yet be too slow to avoid a fist? Sano clutched his neck with one hand and his cheek with the other. By the time he was able to stand, the enforcer and the shaman had loaded the boat with all six of the barrels.
The enforcer stood in front of them, his dagger drawn from its sheath. Sano stepped back.
“All right, now it’s time to pay up.” The enforcer held out his hand, and the other swimmers began to pull beads of money from their pockets or pouches.
“We don’t have much,” replied the oldest woman. “Really, sir. This is all we have. We cannot cover the full fine.”
The enforcer snatched the beads of copper from her hands. “Then you’ll remain in debt until you pay back the entire fee with interest.”
The two boys also handed over their money and jewellery to the enforcer. The jewellery was nothing fancy, just thin bands of bronze around their arms and ankles, but the enforcer took them just the same.
When the enforcer turned to Sano, all Sano could do was hand over the earnings from the previous day. If he refused, the enforcer might increase his debt again.
After receiving the partial payments from all of the swimmers, the shaman tallied up the beads and estimated the jewellery’s worth. She shook her head. “Not nearly enough.”
“I knew you were a sorry lot when I saw you.” The enforcer spat. “This is just pathetic. It will take you a year to pay off your debt in this case. You might as well be slaves!”
One of the women started sniffling, and her companions rubbed her back.
“But I’ll be nice,” the enforcer continued, straightening his back and looking each of them in the eyes. “None of this has to reach the Great Arbiter’s ears, let alone the chief’s, so why don’t I just pardon your debt?”
The punch to Sano’s face must have addled his mind. Where was this going?
“Y-you’ll forgive our fines?” asked the boy to Sano’s left. The crying woman gasped and clasped her hands together in hope.
“Sure.” The enforcer shrugged and looked at them from beneath his lids as if he couldn’t even be bothered about what they owed. “And if you have something that works between your ears, you will not make a peep to anyone, lest it reaches Lady Tali. She won’t be as forgiving as me. It’ll be our little secret, your idiocy and my generosity.”
With that, the enforcer and the shaman squeezed into the full boat, which teetered a little as they stepped inside. They rowed away without once looking back. Sano watched them disappear around the bluff, appalled. How would he explain all of this to Bikon?
Sano turned to the other swimmers, ready to form a plan with them. To his shock, he saw that one by one, they were all going out to brave the waves again.
“W-where are you all going?” Sano shouted after them, but either the crash of the waves was drowning out his voice, or the other swimmers just didn’t want to stay. Sano was left alone in the alcove. The bowl of peanut curry he was saving for Anina had fallen from the boulder he’d left it on, its contents spilled.
Sano wished to wait for Bikon, itching to dump the entire story on someone, but the sun was setting. It would be dangerous for him to swim in the dark with his bruised midriff and his stiff neck. Seeing no other option, Sano set out into the waters, careful to stay near the bluff, but cautious not to bash his feet against the rocks.
By the time Sano dragged himself back to the market, his limbs were sore, his skin wrinkled, and his cheek felt like there was a stone growing out of it. He had discovered during his swim that he had a split lip as well.
At their meeting place, Sano found Anina pacing back and forth. She was holding a folded banana leaf. Probably her dinner.
Anina noticed him, and her steps faltered and her eyes grew wide. “Sano! What in Karingal's name happened to you?” She rushed to him, pulled one of his arms over her shoulder, and helped him limp back to their longhouse. Along the way, Sano described everything that had happened.
“Oh, Sano, that was so naive,” Anina said. Sano's face grew hot with shame. He knew he’d been an idiot, but hearing her tell him so made it more real.
Once they were in their room, Anina lowered Sano to the floor. Using the cooling script on her staff, she made some petrified water and wrapped it in a spare rag. Sano groaned when she placed it on his cheek, the coldness of it stark against the throbbing bruise.
“It was a scam. Bikon was probably in on it. And the shaman too, which is a shame.” Anina rubbed her temples. “I was afraid this would happen.”
“I’m sorry,” Sano said, yet another thing he was tired of saying. “I was after the silver gram.”
Anina laughed sadly. “Nobody gives away a silver gram for swimming!” She kept rubbing her neck and tugging at her skirts. Sano could tell she was agitated but trying hard not to snap at him. He would deserve it if she did. To think he’d been happy all that time he was getting tricked.
Anina made more petrified water for his ribs. Sano almost wished she would just yell at him, but after instructing him to rest, she retreated to her side of the room in silence. He stared blankly at the beams on the ceiling, his chest hollow. Now would be a good time to bury his ugly feelings into those imaginary crates, but Sano was so ashamed, he didn't think he deserved to feel better.