The waves were restless, but the breeze was a calming salve. It sauntered through the tight streets of Arukadia and ambled gently up and down the zigzagging stairs. Sometimes it would quiet itself and loiter in a plaza for just a moment. Everything was suffused with its tranquility, especially the people, and they moved with an easy elegance that Akura’a hadn’t seen before, almost as if in slow motion. She enjoyed it–its delicacy, its purposefulness, its fluidity.

Her companions were a different story. Dwarves were compact and brick-like, but their energy was elastic. The pitch of their voice was volatile, careening about, ploughing roughshod through the delicate air and punctuated with heaps of laughter.

Rovel Tells-Tall-Tales was showing Akura’a how he had earned his name. He had already colorfully narrated stories about felled giants and torrid romances with sylphs whose existence was surely as ethereal as the beauty he ascribed to them. Now he was engaged in a particularly unbelievable epic about how he had single-handedly thwarted an all-out war from breaking out among the Far-flung Territories. Every beat he hit and inflection in his voice seemed deliberate, but not in a way that made his story rote or predictable. The opposite. He was a master-craftsman, and he had lovingly polished these stories, every retelling a new and more perfect draft. He reminded her a bit of Othoku’u, which was painful at first, but soon became a source of warmth and comfort. His stories were little escapes, and she was happy to dissolve into them when she could.

“And see, the goblins knew that they didn’t stand a chance on their own, but they knew that the second they allied with either the Draclaudians or the Deepvalers, they’d be the low ‘uns on the totem pole. Didn’t matter which side they picked, they knew once the dust settled, they’d be the next ones on the choppin’ block. That’s why they’ve always been given more to them behind-the-scenes machinations. Whip-smart”–he tapped his forehead–“So, instead of picking a side, they supplied both with arms, and just did their best to poke and prod until one of the sides snapped and attacked the other. Then they’d just kick back”–he mimicked the motion–“and wait for them to tear each other limb from limb. And then they’d swoop in with the money they made from the arms sales and offer aid. Basically buy peoples’ allegiance. Clever bastards. Now–I ain’t got a thing against goblins. Just this particular band of ‘em sorta had some nasty imperial aspirations. And it woulda cut in to our profits, ‘cause they woulda made sure they had a monopoly on the market. So, that’s when I set into motion, see–”

“Alright, Rovel,” Haveraul said, tossing a chunk of stale bread at him to shut him up. “Give her ear a rest.”

“But he’s just getting to the good part,” Darben protested.

“Ain’t any part of that story I need to hear for the tenth time,” Laterra said.

Haveraul pulled on the reins and the horses slowed their trot. He pointed toward a street vendor, who had a small fire going and several large barrels of fish and other seafood. “This one right here,” he said. “She’s got the best grub ‘round here.”

The elf smiled at them as the carts all came to a stop. “I do love when my dwarves are in town. It’s so much more lively.” Her grin quickly faded when she noticed the orc. Akura’a steeled herself for whatever was to come–more like Blakely, she expected. The elf quickly thought better of herself, though, and the smile returned. The bright white of her teeth peeked out again, like the timid sun from behind a cloud. “Have a new companion? It’s very nice to meet you.” She held out her hand. “I’m Ida.”

Akura’a hesitated,  but then shook it delicately. “I’m Akura’a.”

“It’s very unusual to see your kind here.”

“We tend to keep to ourselves.”

“Well, I’m glad to have you.” She looked at Haveraul and winked. “See you picked up another strapping lass to do the heavy-lifting for you. You lazy git.”

“Them’s fightin’ words,” he said. “And you know dwarves–we’re lovers, not fighters. So how bout you give me some of that grilled squid I love so much?”

But Ida wasn’t one to be hurried. “I have to ask–what could possibly make you travel with this lot? Don’t get me wrong–they’re great for a visit. But if I had to stay with ‘em?”

Akura’a still wasn’t sure how to answer that question. But she figured she’d better start saying something. “I just really needed a ride out east… And orcs can’t exactly be choosy about their friends.”

Darben laughed. “We help her out and she insults us!”

“No,” Akura’a said. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“She ain’t there yet, Darben,” he said, punching the dwarf on the shoulder. He turned back to Ida. “Can’t give her too much guff yet. She still takes it serious.” And now he looked to Akura’a and gave her a buoyant grin. “‘Sides, you ain’t wrong. Your last friend turned out to be a weredragon, ‘member that?”

Ida’s face crinkled with doubt. “You been listenin’ to too many of Rovel’s stories, Haver.”

“Cross my heart! Tell her.”

Akura’a shrugged. “I…didn’t see anything.”

Ida put a hand to her hip and thrust it out, waiting for Haver to explain himself.

“‘Course,” Akura’a clarified, “I think he blew the barracks up. So maybe?” She shrugged.

Haveraul mimicked Ida, hand on outthrust hip, and a pair of impish dimples signaled her surrender. “See,” she said, “this is why I love you all–in doses.” She turned and reached into one of her barrels, pulling a squid out. “So many good stories.”

There was something exfoliating about the idle chatter, the benign pleasantries. Akura’a luxuriated in them as they scrubbed the grit from her graveled skin, like she was shedding her old self.

“Speakin’ of my stories,” Rovel said, “I was just in the middle of one when we pulled up. Think we’re ready for the third act.”

“But,” Ida said, “I’ve been left behind. Catch me up?”

“Sure. So you see–”

Laterra interrupted because Rovel never gave abridged versions. “Far-flungs. Deepvalers, Draclaudians hate each other. Goblins playing both sides. Bout to break into war. Got it?”

“Got it.” Ida held up the gloppy critter so they could see. “This one suit ya?”

Haveraul nodded. “Any’ll do. I’m starved.”

Ida threw it onto the grill and it made a peculiar splat. She looked back at them ready for Rovel to continue his story, but Akura’a remained fixated on the squid. She watched as its soft-body sloughed between the bars of the grill, swelling and bulging. As the heat from the fire began to cook it, its skin bubbled and blistered and a strange burbling noise escaped its dermis. It was something between a solid and a liquid, and there was something in its sludge that unnerved her.

Gelatinous and oozing, slowly seeping, weeping strange sweat…

Panic poured over her in hot waves. Her stomach clutched and all she could see was the brain of that poor smudge of a person.

A person she had made a smudge.

Its brains had oozed. They had quivered and sweated out a strange liquid…

Before she knew what was happening, Akura’a vomited. Her own fluids oozed, stomach acid and pain and disgust and wild fever escaping. Her body was trying desperately to rid itself of a strange, phantom pathogen.

Haveraul jumped back in reflex, and Ida had to turn away, or else she felt she might get sick, too.

When it seemed like it had finished, Akura’a looked up and tried to apologize, but the squid was still sizzling, and all she could do was shut her eyes tight and hold her stomach.

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