I mean, if we'dah just rearranged his face, that'd be one thing. But burning down his joint? Well, that's just rude.
Goodness gracious, such a fine night for a riot as I’ve never seen! Or an epic bender? Or a good old-fashioned donnybrook? Truth be told, I can’t much say exactly what adventures the eventide will hold. But whatever she may bring, it’s been a looong time coming. And I’ve never been more ready for it.
Now I know what you’re thinking: What night ain’t ripe for such honest fun? Everyone needs a little hair-down time now-and-again, amiright? And in my youth I’da greed witchya. But I’ve seen one-too-many hostile taverns. Been escorted outta one-too-many ports. Been forced inta my “watchyer back” behavior one-too-many times. But not tonight. Not tonight, goddamnit! Cuz tonight… I’m back in Argo. Tonight… I’m home. And it’s been’ah long time comin.
The headswain – well, she gave me a little talkin-to. Said we need tah be ready to pull anchor in two morns’ time. And she didn’t want a repeat of the "Pozie Incident". But if we’re bein totally honest, that hag’s always had diarrhea of the mouth and I didn’t really process too much’ah her dabble babble from the moment that we’d entered Turtle Bay. Besides, those pretentious Maversian pricks got exactly what was comin to’em. And now I’m back on home soil again – back… in Argo.
Ohh, Argo. City of Straw. Dock of Dirt. Bay of Bedlam. I’ve heard all the names. I’ve wore every one like a shiny badge of pride. I prolly skipped the Sister Seia a dozen times afore I realized that others spit those labels through their teeth like slurs. But when I wadn’t inclined to relieve one’ah those fools of a few chompers, I’d just smile and say, “Damn skippy.” For Argo is proof that Hinterfolk can build an empire if ya just give’em equal rations of mortar and mouldmilk. And quite frankly, the mortar’s kinda optional.
I hadn’t actually spected to roll up into a group affair. When I knew we’d set course for the stompin grounds, I kinda figured it’d just be me and my demons, strollin the old haunts and remembrin the hazy days afore I’d taken to the Aequin. But they say something bout the “best laid plans”… and shore enough, I’d barely set foot on solid ground afore I saw none other than Butz, standin there on the dock, grinnin like he’d just got his nob slobbed.
I won’t explain how someone comes about the name Butz. It’d take quite’ah few frothy ones tah spill that tale. And I haven’t a clue how he got word’ah my arrival. But there’s a select group’ah mates for whom no splainin’s really necessary. Ya just smile. And nod. And brace yerself for the venture that’s about-tah to unfold. It’s a good few minutes of slappin and bumpin and ass-smackin afore he finally feels compelled to speak.
Butz: Well lookee who's done got all fancy!
His words actually catch me off guard. I step back a stretch and look down at myself in confusion.
Me: Huh? Whatchu spittin bout?
He motions over me like a pontiff sizin up a choir boy.
Butz: Those some spiffy threads yer sportin!
It takes me a solid minute to properly catch his drift. The other shiteheads on the crew always give me what-fer bout my ragged longboots. And my jerkin’s weathered one-too-many razers. But when I look out at the longshoremen on the other docks, goin bout their bitness and slavin under their cargoes, it hits me for the first time that, well, maybe my threads are a little nicer than most? I cain’t help but loose a nervous giggle.
Me: Well, I spose… But, don’t get all jealous cuz I got airs, now!
Butz releases a gut-busting cackle and slaps me on the back.
Butz: Come’on, Miss Fancy! Yer lookin hella thirsty!
We commence a scamp’s march cross town and I ain’t need tah ask him where we’re headed. The workin stiffs live their lives in Argo proper. But the roughnecks know where to hunt a decent hangover. We’re chasin through back roads and grimy alleys that can only end in one place: Olde Town.
Walking these corridors is like donnin a proper glove. The kind that’s bent to the knots and the creases that are only comfortin on your hand. The kind that stinks of your sweat. The kind that no one else really wants to slip on their grubby paw.
The jaw’in is scant. We could bend each other’s ears for days. And we ain’t had that pleasure in years. But the best kin are those that don’t need to fill in all the backstory. The best kin are the ones that can smile, and nod – and nothin else needs be said.
I suppose I ain’t gathered my muddfoot legs as yet. And maybe I’m a bit daft on the uptake. But it’s a good dozen-or-so blocks afore I realize that we’re gatherin a flock as we trudge toward Olde Town. Every quarton-or-so, another head pops out of a shop. Every alley we pass, another curious set’ah eyes peers out from the merchandise. And for nearly every spy who’s so bold as to inquire about the parade, Butz belts out the same refrain:
Butz: That’s right! It's her! Aisa’s back in port!
Someone bolts out. Someone wraps me in a hug that’s borderline-'barrissin. And with no more explanation, the parade’s acquired another jester. A rogue’s gallery of old mates, half-friends, barely-remembered quaintances. Aww, hell. Who am I kiddin? I cain’t even member half these folk. But they hug me like I’m their first born. And as long as I’m spillin my tender feelins, well… yeah. Gotta admit. It feels damn fine.
I coulda sworn I heard that Lira passed in the Red Razer of 2997. But here she is. Like a giddy ghost. Slappin me on the back and gleefully joining the entourage. And Matheo has even fewer chompers than last I member im. (I used tah take great pride in the fact that all his missin chompers were extracted by my fist. But I cain’t make that claim no more.) He’s pinchin my arse like he’s got the right and slidin into the ranks. And, well, what the hell? Join the party, arsehole.
And Marou… good lordy, she done changed. She’s all proper-n-shite. With spectable longboots and finery. When she first darts from the county house I get all tense for a minute. I’m spectin’ her to serve me papers, or call the magistrate. But her smile engulfs her face, she kisses me on the cheek, she grabs my hand, and she motions toward Olde Town. It’s as if the years atween done melted away in the thick Tollian air. I don’t even quite know what just happened. Butz’s got a smirk on his face that’s screamin for me to punch it into the bay. But I’m in no mood to argue – and we all just march on.
Argo… well, how do I say it? Argo's… changed. It’s still here. Lying somewhere behind the shop fronts. Creeping up from the newly-paved streets. But it’s not quite my Argo. The musty air of straw’s been undermined by the antiseptic non-aroma of - stucco. And bloodwood. And… brick? Really? They’ve resorted to brick now?? Goddammit. What’ve they done to this place? Even the alleys ain’t got quite as much shite in’em. There are holier-than-thou streetminders on damn near every corner. Fuck boys with their silly little nightsticks. Thinkin they got thority round here. Fuckin arseholes.
Marou: Didn’t think I’d ever see you round these parts again.
I cain’t really say why her words catch me so. But they do. We don’t stop the march, but the lilt in my gait’s gotta betray my surprise.
Me: What’d ever make you think that?
Marou: I dunno. I mean… you’re a saltfoot now. Traipsin the Sister Seia. Seein’ new lands. Getting “bigger” than this shite-show.
I cain’t hide the affront in my reply.
Marou: Yeah, yeah… I know. I get that. But you, well… you escaped. You done… better.
Gawd, I hope she don’t see the rouge in my cheeks. Gawd, I don’t even understand why I got the rouge in my cheeks. And just like that, in the span of seconds, I kinda wish she weren’t even here. I kinda wish she couldn’t even see me right now at all. But I’m kinda desperately afraid that she’s gonna let go of my hand. So I do the only thing I know to do in such a situation. I respond with a shitty-and-defensive tone.
Me: Well you look like you’ve done alright for yourself.
And just like the Marou of my youth, she refuses the bait. She smiles anew and chuckles – and, fuckin lord, the rouge just grows stronger. It’s a ‘delible sign of my growing awkwardness – one that simply will not leave my face.
Marou: I done okay.
She shrugs in a manner that I can only characterize as endearing.
Marou: Argo moves on. I suppose that… I move on. Some things change. Some things stay the same.
The Party Posse must be up to at least two dozen at this point. We ain’t now but three blocks from Olde Town – but it kinda feels like three continents at the moment. I think she’s waiting for some kinda response from me. I think she needs some kinda response from me. But every possible word is lodged in my throat like the bola-bread that naan used to make when I was knee-high.
Olde Town rapidly approaches. At least, this is where the Olde Town I member should be comin up. But the shops – they look so damn new. The streets are annoyingly clean. The merchant wares look tidy. There’s somethin bout the whole place that’s far more ‘spectable than I ever recall.
Our entourage grows louder by the minute. There are some familiar faces that warm my heart – and others that give me pause. Margaux’s here. It’s not that I’m so shocked to see’er. But she ain’t look like she used to. Somethin done got in an argument with her face. And, well… that "something" won. Little Rafi’s fallin into the ranks as well. It was quite the sight to see’im again. He’d gone off to saltfootin long afore I did and I wouldn’t-ah spected to find him round these parts no more. But any lingering mystery as to his fate quickly subsides when my eyes stray down to his legs. Or, I should say, his leg. Cuz’iz left one ain’t there no more. From the looks of it, something lopped it off clear up to the hip, and his resultin gait looks swooping – and painful. Eljan’s with him too. I rarely caught the two of’em outta each other’s presence when I was a girl. But from the looks of it now, their… “friendship” has gotten a lot cozier. Good for them.
Old Towne is marked – as it’s always been – by the collision of Fletcher, Smuggler, Bright, Quain’s, and Sentinal Lanes. It’s like all the main streets of Argo got into a wicked kerfuffle over the ‘ventual direction of the city – and the fight’s never properly been settled. It’s the only place in town where you can go two hours afore morn and still expect to find a brawl, a host of mouldmilk vendors, wee-folk hookers, and any illegal contraband you could desire. But like everything else in this stroll through the memories, Olde Town square done got all fancy on me.
The pits of my youth have been replaced by proper taverns. If there are any hookers for hire I can’t right pick’em out from the rest of the pedestrians. The establishments all got proper window coverings on’em – fucking curtains for gods’ sake. Some’ah the partiers even have children walkin aside’em. What. The. Bloody. Ell?? The only “comfort” I can draw from the odd situation is see’in the similar looks of disdain on the faces of my compatriots. I’d-ah thought that maybe the regulars woulda known what to expect from Olde Town these days. But it’s apparent now that they probably don’t get down to the quarter much more than I do anymore. Butz seems every bit as flummoxed as me afore askin me for guidance.
Butz: Yer the guest of honor. Where ya got in mind, Aisa?
My riotous cohorts look at me like the rest of my fellow saltfoots when they’re awaitin orders from the headswain. But I’m not entirely sure what to say. There’s nothing here that looks “right”. The place where Coddlewog’s used tah be is now some high-falutin haberdashery. Pick-&-Wick’s taint even a building no more. Just an empty splotch’ah land with a bench and some old farts swappin tales. If I squint hard enough, I’m pretty sure that the shiny new restaurant at the base of Quain’s Lane is the same place we used to call Gert Out. And if we tried getting in that place now, there’s no doubt they’d immediately tell us to Gert Out.
Me: Well… I dunno. Olde Town’s done changed. A lot.
The crew nods heads in unison. Sympathetic groans arise from most’ah my friends.
Butz: Yeah… Taint quite how ya left it.
Me: Is this… Is this where ya all throw down nowadays?
Everyone exchanges nervous glances. I can tell that there’s some kinda painful truth that they’re none-too-keen to share. Butz shifts nervously from one leg, then to the other.
Butz: Well, I dunno, Aisa…
Rafi: Yeah, it’s, well… it’s not like it was…
Ever the truth teller, Marou helpfully leans over and speaks directly in my ear.
Marou: Most’ah the crews got, you know… families now. And, like, proper jobs. We don’t really get tah howlin like we used to.
A solid majority of my friends nod eagerly to the sound of her words. I can tell that they’re almost embarrassed to admit what she’s sayin. But they’re also, obviously, relieved. And I can feel the ‘barrassment washin over me as well. Not for the same reasons – but cuz I clearly hadn’t considered that maybe their lives are just as different as mine now. And I’m the last one to realize that the gang has only assembled on the odd occasion that I’m back in town. It’s all I can do to loose a nervous chuckle.
Me: Hehe… hehehe… yeah, I spose I see yer point.
Butz renews his ever-present smile and slaps me on the shoulder.
Butz: At’s alright. We can still make a night of it.
I stand at the crossroads and scan the revamped storefronts that no longer make up my Olde Town. Maybe we won’t be addin another chapter to our felonious sagas, but there’s still gotta be somewhere more to our liking?
As I peer down Quain’s Lane, I can see that the commerce only gets bougier in that direction. The same is true for Fletcher and Smuggler Lanes. Bright may be more promisin – but from the looks of it, the “grittier” feel of Bright Street is only so cuz there’s a whole heap-ah new construction in that direction. Fancy new cafes and overpriced salons that’ll be caterin to all kinds’ah pompous arseholes in a matter of days or months. But just when I’m bout to throw my hands in the air, I take a long look down Sentinal Lane.
The lamplights on Sentinal still look to be a little dimmer. Most of the prissy little tourists traipsin through the square seem to avoid it. Off in the evening haze, it even looks like there may be a few drug dealers stalking the corner a block down. Maybe – just maybe – Sentinal’s still got some promise to it. I point a finger in that direction and issue my command:
Me: C’mon. This way.
The gang emits a little cheer and the mood livens up again. I’m not sure if they’re relieved that I chose “right” – or if they’re just happy to be on the move again. Spose it don't much matter. But we ain’t but half a block down Sentinal afore I realize that this was probably the best possible direction.
Most’ah the storefronts are dark. Looks as though a lotta them are fixin to be remodeled. But they haven’t been transformed yet. Atween the empty commercial shells, there are still a handful of “darker” places. Places that look like they may be more accommodating for our kinda folk. We pass a few open pits, and some of the group flash me anxious “Is this the place?” looks. But I keep marchin – lookin for just the perfect spot.
Three blocks down, it’s clear that we’re in the old part of Olde Town. The real part of Olde Towne. The air is dingier. The passersby are saltier. The remaining merchants are more illicit. The vibe is definitely improving. But then something strange happens. Something I didn’t quite expect.
On the corner of Sentinal and Brauen, the most audacious establishment ain’t a pit. Nor a gambling hall. But smack dab in the middle of this comforting filth, someone’s built some brand new shiny digs. There’s boisterous lighting. Newly carved bloodwood arches. Fancy awnings. The place has the audacity to look spiffy – damn near polished. Above the entrance, carved in fancy letterin, it says, “MOTHAR’S MILK”. The group subconsciously presses onward, but I’ve stopped. They’ve almost passed afore anyone stops tah ask me what I’m lookin at.
Rafi: What’s the deal?
They’re all a bit confused. But I wave to the letterin and naively ask:
Me: What about this place?
No one quite knows what to say. No one tries to mask their confusion.
Butz: Here? You wanna go… here?
Me: Well, sure. Why not?
Afore anyone can answer, it dawns on me just how badly I’ve contradicted myself. I was annoyed by the arrogant gloss back in Olde Town square. I purposely steered us toward something a bit more to our liking. And now, here I am, standin in front of this pretentious outpost on the seedier end of Sentinal Lane.
Rafi: I dunno… it’s just, well, it’s just… not what we were spectin.
But Rafi dudn't quite get it. Sure, it’s a bit new-ish for our tastes, but I’ve been in a couple’ah these kinda places on the Moot, and Bagno, and Catriter. They even have one in that shithole Orbois.
Me: Yeah, yeah. Trust me on this. It’s, like, a total emporium. Mouldmilks like you never seen’em afore. The one in Orbois's got damn near a hundred on tap!
It’s clear that my words ain't swaying too many in the gang. It’s also clear that if I wasn’t the Visitor of the Hour, they’d probably laugh me into the bay. But against their better judgment, they’re slowly comin round to the idea that they should listen to me.
Rafi: I dunno… I mean—
Butz: Rafi! If Aisa wants to go to…
He squints up at the lettering – I’m not entirely sure just how well he can read.
Me: Mothar’s Milk. It’s called Mothar’s Milk.
Butz: If Aisa wants to hit up Mothar’s Milk, then dammit, we’re goin to Mothar’s Milk.
A nervous cheer filters up from a handful of the crew. Butz’s words haven’t convinced everyone. But ain’t no one got the sac to question’im. So our entire entourage spills through the doorway.
The first thing that slaps me as we walk through the door is just how new everything is. A gorgeous bar occupies an entire wall. Dozens of kegs are mounted into the wall behind the bar. Opulent tables and surprisingly-sturdy stools (the kind that can withstand a proper tossing) populate the entire establishment – and it’s a spacious edifice. A well-bathed individual in a far corner gently plays the flute. I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard anyone in Argo play the flute. And if I had, they certainly didn’t do it well. But this wily bard is definitely the exception. The place reeks of fresh paint and brand-spanking-new kegs. Despite its size, it’s carefully decorated to give the entire edifice a distinct sense of… quaintness.
The second thing that strikes me is just how empty it is. Well, it was empty – afore our bodacious troupe marched in. But other than our crew, there is nought but the flutist, a man stationed at the far end of the bar sleeping in his hands, and another man prowling behind the bar like a hungry beast that’s just caught scent of fresh meat just outside the cage. He emits a nervous energy that I’ve encountered many times afore. He has the worried excitability of a new business owner who is experiencing his first real “rush” – a rush that could help him to start building'is clientele, but a rush that could also overwhelm the limits of his ill-trained (or nonexistent) staff.
My crew’s hesitance seems tah have waned. From the looks’ah them, I can’t really claim they’ve gotten any happier bout my selection. But now that we’re here, they’re about to start the same ritual we always followed in the younger days: They’re gonna get blitzed. And they’re gonna do it fast. As we begin our crush on the bar area, I can’t help but notice that the flutist makes no note of our entrance. He just keeps playing. Quietly. Completely oblivious. And the fellow asleep in his hands just might be dead fer all I know.
The barkeep’s got a smile as wide as the Aequin. I can tell that he’s tryin tah look upright and prim, even as his face betrays signs of imminent stress. His anxiety seems to rise at the sight of my mates crushing against each other at the bar. Each’ah them is crawling right up the others’ arses, jockeying to be the first to set’is grubby mitts on a fresh goblet.
Barkeep: Welcome, friends!
Rafi shoots a perplexed look to Eljan. Eljan passes the look to Margaux. The ‘wilderment spreads through the group like a bad case’ah pypyrus.
Eljan: You know this dipshit?
Butz: Naww. I ain’t seen’im afore in mah life.
Eljan: What about you, Margaux?
Margaux: No friend’ah mine.
Eljan: Me neither. I don’t know what tha’ell he’s—
The barkeep realizes that he’s somehow committed a faux pas and tries to chuckle it off.
Barkeep: Apologies. It’s a just a figure of speech.
Barkeep: Your lot’s lookin thirsty. What can I get ya started with?
Another bout of the confusion darts through my cronies. I’m bout to speak up, when Eljan picks up the baton again.
Eljan: Nuff with the niceties. The night’s short. Make good with the mouldmilk!
This elicits a small round of cheers from the crew. The barkeep keeps his perma-smile, but I know he’s already feelin the stress.
Barkeep: Of course. Quite right. But… what kind would ya like?
Rafi makes no attempt to hide his disdain.
Rafi: Awww… we got a slow one.
Eljan: What kinda joint don’t know what mouldmilk is??
Barkeep: Indeed. We know all about mouldmilk. But...
And here, he waves toward the numerous kegs mounted behind him.
Barkeep: As you can see, we have quite the selection.
Eljan’s getting impatient. I can tell from the way he’s tappin the bar. It’s a tap that says, “I could be tappin yer skull if yah don’t start actin right.”
Rafi: Look. We don’t much care which keg it comes from, just as long as we get the mouldmilk.
Eljan: Yeah! You heard’im. The green stuff. The frothy stuff. The stuff that makes us hate life just a little less.
I doubt the barkeep’s ever set foot in a klyster. But if he has, I’m certain he spent a great deal studyin the subject of patience. He ain’t let our urgency crack his demeanor, and his smile is still carved on’is face.
Barkeep: I totally understand. Sometimes it just takes a knowing hand to point you in the right direction.
He motions again to the kegs, this time allowing his gesture to linger over the stock to'is left.
Barkeep: Yah see. These kegs over here came special from Morvatia. They’re brewed with a secondary process that’s strained through a bed of jaiper flowers. But this little treasure beside me… well, it’s been double-brewed through a secret recipe that’s only known on Norkey.
He leans over the bar toward us and speaks in a faux whisper, like he’s spillin the goods for only our ears.
Barkeep: Rumor has it, they can only make it with virgins.
Other than the clueless flutist, you could hear a pin drop in the joint. He’s done somethin I hadn’t thought possible. He’s confused my whole crew to the point of silent befuddlement.
Barkeep: Now these on my right, well, they got a bit more kick in the backside, if yah know what I mean.
Butz: Maybe you should just give us some of—
Barkeep: They got afternotes of nettle weed and fish sauce.
Eljan: Why in the hell would anyone ever put nettle weed in a flagon of mouldmilk??
Barkeep: No, no, no! It’s not in the flagon. It’s added to the wort in the brewing process.
Eljan: Well that’s just—
Rafi: the dumbest goddamn thing I’ve ever heard in my life.
Barkeep: I know! It sounds crazy, right? But it lends a fabulous bouquet to the mash. It enhances the mouth-feel. And it greatly improves the afternotes that linger on the tongue.
The following moments pass like hours. I don’t know how long we all stand there, but for a good minute-or-more, no one moves. No one says anything. Butz looks like he’s just been handed a math problem to solve. The barkeep actually looks proud – like he’s just accomplished… something. Most of my friends don’t even know how to parse his babble. They’re thirsty. And agitated. Everyone stares at the barkeep, like he’s gonna burst into flames. When Eljan finally breaks the silence, he dudn’t move his gaze from the enigma smiling at him from the other side of the bar. His words are slow and cautious.
Eljan: You think he’s retarded?
This is the first time that the barkeep’s grin fades. It’s not so much that he’s mad, or even insulted. He’s just powerless to grasp what he’s just heard.
Margaux: You might be onto something. He’s def-nitly a bit… touched.
Rafi: Yeah… his family tree ain’t got too many branches.
The poor fella’s finally flustered.
Barkeep: I, well… I assure you, that, well—
Eljan: See! I knew it! He’s got tha stutter about’im!
Barkeep: I beg your pardon! I assure you my family’s got plenty-ah—
Me: Just give’im the one with the jaiper flowers.
My voice appears to have the heft needed to snap these dolts outta their burgeonin argument. Or maybe it was the fact that I slammed my fist on the bar as I said it. I’m fine with either ‘terpretation. The barkeep and all my crew stare at me for a hard second like I just uttered some magic cantation. But the keep turns round to his kegs while the others keep eyein me with some kinda deep-seated suspicion.
Eljan: Aisa! What the hell??
Me: What?? What’s wrong?
Eljan: I ain’t lookin for no prissy-pants jaiper flowers.
Me: Why? Since I been gone, you done forgot how to handle yer mouldmilk?
Eljan: Them’s fightin words.
Me: I ain’t scared’ah fightin anyone who can’t handle’is mouldmilk.
Eljan: I’ll go toe-tah-toe witchya over any flagon of mouldmilk. But we’re talkin bout jaiper flowers here!
Me: So you can handle yer mouldmilk, unless… someone puts a flower in it? And then yah gotta curl up like a little bitch on the floor? An cry for yer nursemaid?
Eljan: Ya know? You can be a real shitestain when the spirit strikes ya.
Like clockwork, the barkeep pivots back round and slides a fresh goblet in front of Eljan. It ain’t quite the vibrant green of yer “normal” mouldmilk. Looks a bit cloudier than most as well. But the more puzzling aspect is the goblet itself. I gotta admit: It’s kinda… tiny. The whole glass ain’t much larger than my fist. My entire crew commences an impressive choreographed soiree, where they look at the goblet, then at the barkeep, then at the goblet again, then at the barkeep again. Any hopes the keep had bout them being satisfied are dashed. I do believe he’s startin tah sweat.
Barkeep: Is something the matter?
Eljan: We ordered one’ah them fancy jaiper drinks.
He gestures to the goblet with an over-the-top flourish.
Barkeep: And there it is.
My crew continues the goblet-barkeep-goblet head dance while Eljan answers.
Eljan: Where’s the rest of it?
Barkeep’s growin tired of the nervous-chuckle shtick, but I don’t think he has too many other shticks to fall back on.
Barkeep: Oh, well… this is more of an artisanal brew. It comes in a fourth-liter pour.
Eljan: Why, I oughta—
Margaux: Whud he say? What’s arts-in-all mean?
Marou: Not arts-in-all. He said ar-tiss-uh-nuhl.
Margaux: What’s the fuckin diff’rence?
Me: It’s like, you know, art. But it’s also a brew. It’s an artisanal brew.
Margaux: Ahhhh, I see!
Eljan: You do??
Margaux: Ol’ Polynob bitches every time I get tah hittin the mouldmilk. Makes me gassier than I’ll get out. Ee says it gives me the stank-shits.
Me: No, no. It’s not fart-isanal. It’s art-isanal.
Margaux: Ain’t that what I just said?
Margaux’s not helping matters any. So I just turn back to Eljan.
Me: Will ya just drink yer goddamn mouldmilk already? Geesh! I never realized y’all were such pussies bout gettin snookered up!
I may not’ah been in Olde Town for decades. But it never hurts to member the basic laws’ah chicanery. If ya want someone to do something – and to do it right quick – there’s no better remedy than to question their manhood. The rookies can pull this little trick on occasion. But if yer an old head like me, yah know that the rules apply equally whether the one yer talkin at’s got some hardware atween their legs – or even if they got nothin at all. Backin off such a challenge is a good way to get booted out the crew. I’ve coaxed mates in’tah punchin magistrates and mountin whores with such challenges. And Eljan knows he’s been called out. So spite his agitation, he grasps the goblet with a new resolve.
Barkeep: Now what ya really wanna do is, swish it around a bit. Hold it to yer nose and savor the notes of—
Eljan slams the thimble'ah spirit afore the keep can even finish his sentence. He makes an honest attempt to funnel most of it into his toothless maw, but at least a third ends up caked on his beard, with more-than-a-few choice droplets flying straight up his prodigious nostrils. I’ve seen men torn asunder by ravenous leviatons. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a look of horror quite as sincere as the shock that now resides on Barkeep’s face. We couldn’t’ah hurt him worse if we’d yanked his scrotum up through’is sophagus. Where I previously thought he was sweatin, I’m now convinced that he’s on the verge of tears. But no one else is givin any looks to Barkeep. They all watch Eljan. They’re waiting for a sign. Some kinda… verdict.
Eljan fights a cough that’s wellin from the pit of’is stomach. He ain’t had anything with quite that bite, and I cain’t help but giggle just a bit.
Butz: C’mon, ol’ boy. How is it??
Eljan chokes on a few stifled convulsions afore finding the strength tah answer.
Eljan: Ya know…
Everyone leans in closer.
Eljan: That… that ain’t too shabby!
A warm cheer launches from the gang. Some hint’ah relief creeps cross the keeper’s pained visage. Everyone’s pushing in tighter now. Anxious to get their own taste of the fancy new sauce. Barkeep composes’is wits while he fashions a response.
Barkeep: That’s fourteen honorarium.
For such a ragtag crew, it’s amazing how they can all respond in tandem when the 'casion calls fer it. With no higher coordination, they all somehow manage a unified cry:
Barkeep: What’s wrong? Surely, ya didn’t think that was on the house??
Margaux: Are ya callin us freeloaders??
Barkeep: No! But ya gotta pay for what ya drink!
Rafi: That's highway robbery!
Rafi: At Fuzzy’s we can get two full flagons for that price! And a blowjob from the house maid!
Barkeep: Fuzzy’s?! This ain’t no Fuzzy’s!
Eljan: Well yah got that right!
Barkeep: And trust me. I seen that house maid down at Fuzzy’s. And that ain’t no bonus.
And this is where I start tah wonderin whether I mis-stepped. I suppose I shoulda known better. And if I’m bein totally honest, I’m not really sure what good I thought may come from draggin my motley gang into these finer digs. Maybe I thought I could spose’em to something new. Maybe – just maybe – I’ve come to like these places a little more than I care to admit. In my narrow mind, I figured the worst that could happen is that they weren’t feeling it – and we move on. No matter what I was thinkin, I certainly wasn’t predictin that the barkeep’d stick’is foot in it quite like this. There are some wounds from which you just cain’t recover.
Butz: Did this prancy pile-ah-shite just insult... my mother?!?!
The roar that springs from the gang – my gang – is somethin I cain’t fully explain. In the span’ah microseconds, the voices rise up like there ain’t dozens of us, but hundreds. I seen more orderly mobs that are flee'in an oncoming razer. Eljan’s already throwin shite. Rafi’s lookin at those sturdy barstools like they’re a challenge. I’m yellin. And wavin. And tryin tah get everyone to just calm the fuck down. But tain’t no one listening to a word that dribbles out my lips. Hell, cain’t no one even hear my words at this point.
Rafi: No one talks bout Miz Butz like that!!
Margaux: Yeah!! Taint nuttin wrong with her blowjobs!!
I'm not sure how Margaux's even qualified to assess the quality of Miz Butz's blowjobs, but we long done passed the point of logical inflection. My first instinct is to get Marou outta here. And that’s the first time I realize that Marou’s already gone. Couldn’t tell yah where she went. But I know she ain’t in here no more. Same goes for the flutist. I didn’t even realize that the music’d stopped. But his fancy chair in the corner is empty and he’s nowhere to be seen. The old man is still sleepin in his hands. (He’s gotta be dead, right??)
Barkeep’s launched into some kinda instinctive self-preservation mode. He’s dancing atween every centimeter of the bar. He’s yellin at various members of the party tah leave. He’s shooing us with all the gusto that he can muster in a shoo. I’m waving for him to leave. I’m desperately tryin to get him tah realize that it’s too late. But I’m also too late. I have brought the demons. I’ve unleashed the madness. And once it’s uncorked, the madness won’t subside till the madness’s had its fill.
Wish I could tell ya how I managed to wake up on the docks. Wish I could tell ya that this is the first time that I’d woke on the docks. It used tah baffle me. For a while, I even fancied that I had some kinda guardian angel – always pulling me back to the ship. But at this point, I kinda figure that, in my haziest state, I still got some innate compass that brings me back here. Back to the water. Back to my home. I spose I could trace the effect if I just laid off the mouldmilk. But we all know that ain’t happenin anytime soon.
They scare vagrants away. The wanderers muck up the longshoremen while they’re loading the hulls. But everyone leaves the saltfoots alone. They let us be. They let us sleep it off. I cain’t completely explain how they know I’m a saltfoot – and not just another vagrant. But saltfoots got a way of seein each other. Whether I’m traipsin through the nether districts, or passed out while I’m huggin a buoy. The other dockworkers just know. They recognize me as one of their own.
Syrus is even ruder than normal. Bakin my brain. Drenching me in sweat. Forcin me to stop my dead-girl routine and act like a proper piece of society. The mere act of sittin upright takes great personal effort. Through my tight squint, I can see our ship – the Knolltreader – gleamin in the harbor like a shiny jewel. Actually, nothin on that bucket gleams. It’s a tragic mess. But damn near everything in the harbor right now seems entirely too bright.
There’s activity on the bow, although I can’t quite make out who from our crew is makin the rounds. A tinge of panic passes over me as I consider the hour. Headswain said to be ready in two morns’ time. How long have I been on this dock? How long since we were all in Olde Town? Who the hell knows? Spose I should just be happy that the Knolltreader’s here at all and that they haven’t pulled anchor without me.
My eyes are just gettin round to seein proper-like. Syrus is hot. And he's brutal. But more than anything, he's bright. And when yer clearin the mouldmilk out from atween yer ears, it can take a while afore ya can truly process what’s around ya. So maybe that’s why I startle a bit once I reckon that I’m not actually alone on this dock.
There’s some fella sittin damn near next to me. He ain’t more than a meter away. And he ain’t a saltfoot. But he ain’t a vagrant neither. At least, I don’t think he’s a vagrant. He’s got the stink of failure about him. He’s all slouchy. And sweaty. And sooty. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he’s comtemplatin suicide – ‘cept that the water ain’t but three-or-four meters below us and even the dullards gotta realize that such a splash wouldn’t do nothin but get’em wet.
Me: Ya wouldn’t happen tah know what time it is, would ya?
Without so much as raisin’is head, he waves an arm toward the rising star.
Stranger: Bout a day after yesterday. Not quite tomorrow. I woulda said “mornin”… but Syrus is climbin high.
This tells me he’s spent time in Argo. Foreigners get offended by such replies. But it’s a perfectly logical retort in the Hinterlands. We both sit quietly for a damn-near quarter hour while my eyes finish adjustin.
Me: Are you, umm… are you waitin on somethin?
He repeats the head-down, arm-waivin routine.
Stranger: I got passage on one of these ships.
Me: Ahh… I see.
I don’t really see. But there’s not much more I can think tah say. After some more sweaty moments, he pulls a flask from his pocket and nips on the goods. Now this definitely gets my attention, cuz that could really help me take the edge off.
Me: Say… would ya mind if I get a little hit’ah—
He thrusts a sooty arm in my direction. The hand offering the flask may be grimy, but the nails have seen a few manicures in their day. Without thinking too much about it, I swig on that mouldmilk and, like magic, the midday air doesn’t feel quite so stiflin. The milk's sweeter than most. It almost has a hint of… jaiper flowers. I try to return the flask, but he motions me away.
Stranger: You can finish it.
I ain’t need to be invited twice. I empty the rest of the contents and savor the last morsels as they congeal around my molars. Mouldmilk ain’t just a drink. It’s a meal.
Me: Much appreciated, friend.
He solemnly gathers the empty flask from my extended arm.
Stranger: Don’t mention it.
Me: What’s yer name?
Me: Oh, shite.
Oh, shite – I just said “oh, shite”. Like, it literally escaped my lips. I’d only really meant to think it. But now I done said it. Afore I can properly process the ramifications, he finally lifts his head and I can right see’is face. It’s him. It’s the barkeep.
Me: Yer… yer the keep from…
Mothar: From Mothar’s Milk. Yeah. I was.
Now, I like to tease the deckhands bout being a bit slow in the noggin. But I gotta admit that sometimes it can take me a good bit to put all the puzzle pieces together like I should. This is surely one of those times.
Me: What you mean by, was?
He looks straight into my face. It’s not a look of sadness. Or anger. Or pity. It’s just a look’ah, well… lookin. I seen more emotion in a stone wall.
Mothar: Well you were there. Front and center. You should know.
Me: I spose… I spose I should?
He raises the empty flask like it’s a teaching prompt.
Mothar: The jaiper really hits those memory banks.
Damn, I wish he wudn’t so right. There are memories. But they’ve all been jumbled up like some knee-high’s jigsaw. I got images. And scents. And the feel’ah Marou’s hand in mine. But everything’s… outta order. The events in my brain don’t add up to a rightful whole.
Me: We were a little… rowdy?
Mothar: Scatterball fans are rowdy. Yer crew was riotous.
Awww, shite. Just hearin that word drops a few more memories in place. I got Eljan launchin a stool across the tavern. I got Margaux’s face comin out on the short end of another brawl. I got Butz laughin at all sorts’ah inappropriate times. Most of all… I got mouldmilk. I got mouldmilk pouring from shattered kegs. I got mouldmilk dribbling down Rafi’s chin. I got mouldmilk gettin regurgitated all over the spiffy new environs of Mothar’s Milk.
Me: Look, I’m sorry. I really am. I can round up the fella’s to clean up yer place.
Mothar: Not much to clean up in the ash.
He motions back toward the city. For the first time, I realize there’s a solid column of smoke pouring up from someplace in town – someplace in the general direction of Olde Town.
Me: That’s Mothar’s Milk?? You mean tah tell me that we burnt it???
He shrugs with such a powerful nonchalance that I cain’t even find the next words. It’d hurt me much less if he screamed. Or cried. Or cursed me out. But he just shrugs. And gazes back down into the murky grime of Turtle Bay. We lapse into a long interval of awkward silence. A half dozen “comfortin” words jump into my throat afore I choke’em back down. Anything I say now’s only gonna make things worse. But I'm still strugglin to find some way for amends. I mean, if we'dah just rearranged his face, that'd be one thing. But burning down his joint? Well, that's just rude.
Finally, I reach into my pocket and fish out a large wad of my shore-leave monies. Taint much, but it’s a lot by most common-folk standards. Saltfoots don’t earn a lot. But we don’t get much chance to spend it neither. So it tends to cumulate to gawdy sums when I let it. Feels like it’d somehow be insulting to sit here and count it – but it’s gotta be at least 500 honorarium. I mash it into one fist and thrust it at’im.
Me: Here. I know it won’t cover the losses… but it’s something.
Almost like he’d rehearsed it, he just reaches out, snags the offerin, and secures it in his front pocket. He don’t say nothin. No “thank you” (not that I’d expect it). No acknowledgment (not that I’d need it). He just pockets the lucre and maintains his long stare into the muddy brine below. I wish I could just shut up. Or maybe even just… get up and walk away. But I feel frozen to this spot. Like I couldn’t rise if I tried.
Me: Are you gonna be, you know… okay?
He shrugs again.
Mothar: I got investors. I told’em we shouldn’t open in Argo. Y’all are fuckin savages up here.
Truer words ain’t ever been spoke.
Me: I guess my folk didn’t really care for the, umm, the… price point.
Good gawd I wish I’d just shut up. But for the first time he ventures a chuckle.
Mothar: Tis what it is.
Mothar: Yeah, half them kegs were just plain ol’ mouldmilk anyway.
Me: Come again?
Mothar: We buy the surplus off local vendors. Transfer it into stylish-lookin kegs. Slap a pretentious name on it. And charge the patrons three times the “normal” rate for a servin’ah mouldmilk.
Me: Ya don’t say?
I cain’t even say that I’m mad. In Argo we don’t call that kinda game a fraud. We call it ingenuity.
Me: But the fish sauce? And the nettle weed? And the jaiper flowers?
Mothar: Jaiper flowers are poisonous.
Me: You poisoned us?!?!
Mothar: Of course not. We spike it with arse-root. Then we tell everyone that it’s actually jaiper flowers. A bit’ah arse-root will lace the brew with a wicked punch.
Me: But why do ya claim that it’s jaiper flower?
Mothar: Cuz if we say that’s it’s spiked with arse-root, no one’ll drink it – let alone, pay for it. But if we say it's made with flowers that taint normally edible, well... that sounds exotic. And people will cough up twice as much for it.
I gotta admit, there’s logic in them words. The more I chew on that thought, the more I’m impressed by it. In fact, I’m so impressed that I’m kinda wishin I hadn’t handed him my hard-earned cash. But I ain’t got the stones to ask for it back now. And I’m kinda thinkin that I might start spikin my own mouldmilk with arse-root from here out.
Me: So yer settin sail? To see… yer investors?
Mothar: Yeah. We’ll regroup in Orbois. Find a new location. Build somewhere else. Someplace where the locals ain’t retards.
I wish I could even get offended by that statement. But I cain’t. I just cain’t.
Me: There ain’t too many ships bold enough to sail into Orbois.
Mothar: I know. If I wudn’t lucky enough to snag passage on the Knolltreader, it mighta been a month afore I could catch another ship that way.
I just stare straight out into Turtle Bay. Where’s a good razer when ya really need one to swoop in and swallow ya up whole? I’ve been crew on some crazy-long voyages. But I don’t think I’ve ever set sail on a journey that’s half as long as the one I’m about to endure. Maybe I can volunteer for galley duty?
Mothar: From what I hear, the Knolltreader crew’s a buncha fuckin idiots.
I nod slowly while he speaks.
Me: Yeah… I hear the same thing.