Erik knew his way around the city far better than I would have expected. The Dierkhlani led us away from the inn down a narrow alley, and then through a winding network of streets both large and small. The neighborhood didn’t improve as we walked; if anything, the square by the gate seemed to be nicer than average for this district. I had seen much, much worse, but I had also seen much better; Rose was visibly unsettled by our surroundings.
It wasn’t that long of a walk, though, before we reached the ocean.
I spent several long moments standing still and staring out over it, once we reached the dock. It was….amazing. There were no words. I had heard it described, of course, but I had never seen a body of water larger than a large lake. I’d never really grasped just how awe-inspiring it was to look out over the water and not see an end to it. Oh, there were islands in front of us, a substantial number of them, covered in buildings–the bulk of Aseoto was built on that collection of islands, it seemed. But I could see out through the gaps, and the water…just kept going. It seemed to stretch on forever, the surface of the water painted gold by the setting sun. I could smell it, salt and water and a touch of rotting meat. I could hear the constant lapping of the waves.
It was beautiful.
Erik stood patiently as Rose and I had our first experience of the ocean. She seemed to be as awestruck as I was, or more so. Her eyes were wide, and I could see tears running down her face.
Finally we began moving again, walking on. There were small boats, dozens of them, being rowed or poled along the edge of the water. Erik waved to one and the boatman, a thin Tsuran man with arms that were almost thicker than his legs, rowed over to where we were standing. Erik helped us in before stepping into the boat himself, his grip rock steady as usual. He spoke to the boatman in Tsuran, too quick for me to catch the meaning and with the accent of a native.
As he started rowing out away from the coast, towards one of the islands, I looked at Erik. “You know your way around,” I said. I said it in Tsuran, not Skellish; I was guessing that getting into the habit of using the local language was a good idea. Nothing marks you as a foreigner quite so clearly as using a foreign language, and I didn’t want to be seen as an easy mark.
He shrugged. I could barely see his face as a silhouette against the sunset, but I thought he was smiling slightly. “I’ve spent some time here,” he said. “There’s more business than you’d think for someone in my line of work. The wards keep most of the monsters out and the civic legion handles criminals, but there’s always something they don’t want to deal with. Or someone who wants something done with, shall we say, no questions asked.”
I looked at the boatman, a bit shocked that Erik would all but admit to committing crimes with a stranger right there. Apparently my expression said enough to get the point across, because Erik laughed softly. “Don’t worry about it, Silf,” he said. “No one in this city hears more than the boatmen. They know enough not to pass it along.”
I was still dubious, but I decided to yield to his judgment. He was, after all, the one who knew the city. It would be foolish of me to insist that I knew better.
The boat took us out a good ways onto the water, as the sun finished sinking below the waves. The ocean was even more amazing in the night. I could see the reflected moonlight on the water, and the lights of the city.
Aseoto blazed with light in the night. Everywhere I looked I saw alchemical lights gleaming bright against the darkness. Our little boat had a small but bright alchemical lamp hanging from the bow, as did almost all the other boats plying the waves between the islands. The islands themselves were fairly covered in light, alchemical lights of every color imaginable shining out from the windows of buildings.
I hated to admit it, but…this city was beautiful. Every bit as beautiful in its way as the Whitewood had been, before the fire.
The boat passed a number of islands before it pulled up to a stop at one of them. Erik stepped easily off the boat; Rose and I stumbled, not used to it. The Dierkhlani tossed the boatman a coin–I caught the flash of silver in the sanguine light of the nearest building–and walked confidently off down the street. We were on solid ground now, again, on a large island amid the waves. I could hear music coming from the windows of many of the buildings we passed, and the people passing on the street were dressed in exotic finery.
I was a bit surprised at the building Erik stopped in front of. It didn’t much resemble the inns I was used to. There was only a single floor to it, and it wasn’t terribly large. In the light of the silvered alchemical lamp over the door, I could read the sign that declared the building to be Komatsu’s Silver Star.
Erik proceeded inside without hesitation. I followed, rather more hesitantly, and found myself in something that had only the vaguest of resemblance to the taprooms I was used to. It was superficially similar–there were tables around the room, and a bar. But it was far quieter, far more subdued. The lights were soft, many of them having the same silver tone as the one hanging above the door. The kitchen was on the other side of a closed door behind the bar, but I could smell the food, fish and meat and spices and hot oil.
Erik walked straight to one of the tables, set aside in a semi-private booth at the edge of the room. Rose and I followed him, not knowing what else to do, and sat across from him on the padded bench.
“Where are the rooms?” I asked. I had been wondering since I first saw him moving towards this building.
He gave me an odd look, then realization dawned across his features. “This is a restaurant, not an inn,” he said. “I don’t suppose you’d be familiar with them. They don’t let rooms; they only serve food here.”
I blinked. It…made sense, I supposed. In a city so very large as Aseoto there would be enough people who didn’t care to cook for themselves that you could support yourself cooking without having to rely on travelers. It was just a foreign concept to me.
There were other people in the room, sitting at tables with food. A young woman was circulating around, talking to them or carrying plates away. I’d spent enough time doing similar work that I’d have known what she was doing instantly, even if she hadn’t been wearing a black dress with a four-pointed star embroidered on the chest in silver.
When she walked up to her table, she smiled the same bright artificial smile I’d pasted over my own features often enough. “What would you like tonight, ladies, sir?” she asked. Her tone was bright and bored all at once. She spoke Tsuran, of course.
“The grilled tuna, with rice and the house sauce,” Erik replied in the same language. I was surprised to realize that I recognized the name of the fish, though I couldn’t remember having eaten it since the Whitewood. It had been a luxury there. I couldn’t remember whether I’d liked the taste.
I shrugged and said, “The same,” anyway. It was as good a choice as any, and I got the impression that Erik had been here before. He likely knew what was decent.
“Are you staying in the city?” Rose asked, while we waited for the food. Her voice took me by surprise. From the look on her face, it had surprised her too.
“Not this time, I think,” Erik said. The serving girl returned with glasses of water, and he smiled at her and sipped the water before continuing. “I’m not in the mood for Aseoto. Too crowded. I’ll probably wander out east. The legions always have plenty of work on the eastern front. They don’t care to chase monsters into the jungles themselves.”
I nodded. I couldn’t blame them. I’d only heard distant stories of the southeastern jungles, but from what I’d heard I wouldn’t want to set foot in them myself, let alone do so in pursuit of a Changed monster.
I didn’t expect that the legions would, either, given the choice. But where else would they go? They’d pressed all the way out to the Tears in the north, and to the northeast. Crossing the Tears to the far northeast to reach the kingdoms on the other side was as impractical as sending the legions across the ocean to the south or the west. Clearing the jungles was all but the only direction they had left in which to expand.
The food came out startlingly fast, faster than I would have guessed by far. It was much nicer looking than what I was used to. The fish was cut into thin slices and seared, then spread out on a bed of white rice. The sauce was a thin red one, which smelled strongly of vinegar and almost as much of sharp spices; drizzled delicately over the fish and rice, it was a strong visual image. There was a leaf vegetable that I didn’t immediately recognize beside it, as well as half an orange which had been carefully cut into the shape of a flower. My mouth watered when I saw that. Oranges were a tropical fruit, an expensive imported luxury in the north, and I hadn’t tasted them but a handful of times in my life.
I managed to restrain myself long enough for the plates to be set on the table and the server to hurry off before I dug into the food, but only with difficulty. When I did, I found it to taste as good as it looked. The fish was tender, and the taste of the fish contrasted wonderfully with the hot, rich flavor of the sauce. The orange was sweet and tart and amazing, and the rice had a slightly floral taste to it that went well with the spiciness of the sauce.
Erik laughed, apparently amused by my enthusiasm, and started cutting into his own food, rather more slowly. “The cooks here aren’t the best with fish,” he said. “But the house sauce is good enough to make up for it.” He took a small bite before continuing. “Are you sure you want to stay? The Changed are…not always treated well in this city.” His eyes flicked to Rose, somehow making her a part of what he was saying though I knew she wasn’t even slightly Changed.
I shrugged. “Where else?” I asked.
Erik shrugged back at me. “North,” he said. “Or take a ship. There are other places in the world.”
“Better?” I asked, then coughed slightly as something caught in my throat.
Erik said nothing.
“I want to stay,” Rose said. “I’m tired of running and hiding.”
“It’s your choice,” he said. The Dierkhlani’s voice was calm, and slightly distant. “I hope Aseoto is what you want from it.”
The rest of the meal passed in silence. Erik seemed to have spent his store of words already, and I wasn’t carrying on a conversation myself. At the end he paid for the food, casually tossing a handful of silver onto the table. He walked away without looking back, leaving us alone on the streets of Aseoto with no idea of where to go or what to do.