A Life of Cockles and Mussels

“The Pirate Library of Stolen Books,” she thought watching her visitor approach, “this should be the name of this place.” Every moon, the same ritual. One morning, more or less fixed, more or less arbitrary, she would get word to be there and receive the bag of loot for the library’s catalogue. One pirate or another would bring whatever they had collected that contained written words of any sort. Novels, private letters, random ads posted at banks about lost puppies, headhunters’ quests, gamblers’ announcements. There was usually a note or two taken from Tarnus Quin from Marali, usually a few instructions left to groups of brigands by their masters, cloth sales receipts from WWW business around the world, rarely a tome that would please an avid reader. Unfortunately, this was the only way for New Mirith to fill her bookshelves, after Brigobaen and the capital had refused to part with their catalogue “to be handled by thugs”. The King was too busy to force them to do otherwise, but still threatened her —not the librarians— if the library didn’t look good. “Me likes me books!” “Range ‘em by colour!” “Small books to the front, tall books be’ind!” and things like that, as if she didn’t know the man was actually educated, raised by the finest tutors in the lands, the disciple of the Centaurs, versed in languages old and new. Alas, it was not her place to protest. Nor her place, nor her personality. Heather was the quiet type. If she could, she would have remained in Brigobaen, instead of integrating the contingent of healers sent to aid the King. Or to keep the King from doing any harm, especially to himself. Or to tidy up whatever trail of destruction he left behind, after his drunken romps. Whatever was needed, they were told, whatever was needed.

The pirate was taking his time to cross the luxurious gardens. Arriving one hour late and visibly enjoying to make someone wait, he chewed on a long straw, only pausing to whistle at the group of dancers rehearsing at the marble stage. Heather could feel her impatience growing, but took the opportunity to glance at her own reflection on the lake near the library. She, too, had to rehearse. A fake smile, not to warm, not too distant, just enough to deal with the potentially aggressive stranger without triggering any unwelcome behaviour. Not all pirates were rude, she knew that, but the book-carrying pirates she had met so far were all strangely brutal. “Perhaps you need some brutality to separate someone from their favourite tomes.” She settled with a discreet smile, slightly raising the corners of her mouth, but without showing her teeth. She had read somewhere that showing teeth was a sign of defiance for many mammal species, and she wanted to play it safe.

The pirate was now right in front of her nose, a bit too close for comfort. He looked particularly harsh and ruthless. “A man with no heart shouldn’t handle books,” she told herself, trying to ignore his breath. “Then again, there’s likely no book in that bag.” “Come in, please,” she said aloud, showing him a table where he could drop his goods. He followed her, stomping on the white floor with his muddy boots.

“Me brings you fine treasure, miss.”

“I bet you do, good sir.”

“Me brings you the writings of one of them Mhara misses. Lookie here!”

Sorting through a mass of random papers, the man revealed a think volume, relatively well preserved, though partially tainted by some sort of violet stain, as if someone had dropped the ink bottle disastrously over the cover. Heather refused to take it. She had read her former compeer’s Elarison’s pamphlet “Common Misconceptions on the Mhara”. Elarison had, since, fallen out of grace of Brigobaen, after a squabble with Aldus, but that was the boys’ problem, not hers, and she had learnt a lot from the text. She had learnt, for example, that not all Mharan have fish tails, and those who do usually serve as scouts. Other merfolk have legs like humans, but more slippery, longer, with fins instead of feet, but strong enough to allow them to walk on land. Others yet, such as the mythical Leviathan, were said to resemble sea snails, coming out of their shells only for special occasions. From the same opuscule, she learnt that, unlike the rumour circulating in Lerilin, the Mhara did not feed by swimming with their mouth wide open, thus gathering fish. Sometimes, a Mharan would swallow a small fish or two this way, but it was largely accidental and filled them with remorse. But what interested her the most were the last few pages, a linguistic appendix with some basic rules of grammar, a small vocabulary, and an overview of the Mharan literary tradition.

“You don’t fool me,” she turned to the pirate, confidently armed with her knowledge. “The Mhara don’t write books, they sing them!”

“This one is written alright,” insisted the pirate, pushing the book towards her.

Still afraid of the man in front of her, though not wanting appear gullible, she opened the volume on the title page. She closed it again, ready to send the dealer away. “‘Diary’, just like that, written in Common!” But, as she pronounced these words, it hit her. A spark in her eye denounced her realisation, and the pirate caught it, smirking satisfied. She suddenly gather who had been the owner of the diary. She could guess why it was written in Common. But, above all, she knew what the purple colour was. It was Mharan blood.

[to be continued…]


  • That Fini kept a diary was now well known below the surface of the sea. How she did it, not so much. There was a reason, after all, for the Mhara to rely mostly on the oral tradition: water. Sure, in modern days, with the progress in the fields of magery and crafting, it was certainly possible to preserve a material under dire conditions, but the methods were expensive and not available to the adolescent she was when she started recording her days. When the brutal murder of the, by then, queen of the Mhara was announced, her twin, Nifi, searched everywhere for her sister’s diary. But, for three whole moons, she forbade the entrance of any pirate in the underwater galleries, including N’eroth, which hindered the searches and made it more probable that, whenever found, the book would enter the black market instead.

    Heather knew all that. She also knew that, around 439 or so, the late Queen Nita decided it was time for her daughters to learn the Common language. The decision was prompted by the fact that the two girls were too curious about the surface dwellers. Too young to be traumatised by the Poison Forges, too young to be locked away from one half of the living world, they started escaping their tutors’ watch more often than not, to spy on adventurers in Duldrus, or to swim after pirates’ boats, enthralled by the submarine echoes of the racket and the banter.

    Queen Nita and her brother, King Kolarysan… Heather was very fond of this idea of two siblings sharing a throne. According to her, that would have avoided one of the bloodiest episodes in Mirithian history, if only Mirithians knew how to share anything… but Nita and Kolarysan, after much consideration, decided it would be better for the girls to understand the surfacers, if only to be able to defend themselves and learn their true intentions. So, and this is how Heather could be so certain of the things she knew, the monarchs reached out to their old ally, Mayor Palmer, asking for a recommendation for a tutor. Palmer, who also kept good relations with the Mharan scholars in Brigobaen and Andris, suggested they talked to Karmin, Ambrose’s cousin, who, though Andrisian, could be very discreet and had a talent for rebellious youth.

    Palmer himself arranged a meeting between the monarchs and the linguist, at what known as the Turtle Island. Heather remembered how Karmin told her she was going to Lerilin to look for a special kind of fish, and how she begged her mother to bring her along, but Karmin refused. It was only years later, when Heather herself started being interested in the underwater history and asked her parents to let her study in Brigobaen that Karmin revealed the true purpose of the trip. And of all the other trips she made in the following years, claiming that she had a new book club with Marigold, the village’s greatest baker.

    So, Heather knew all that. She also knew that the diary was Karmin’s idea, for the girls to practice their Common. It was also her idea that they should keep them at an unknown location, under a rock or inside a cave, wrapped in protecting leather and away from sight, and that they were not to reveal the coordinates to anyone else, not even their teacher. It was a diary, after all. It was not meant for anyone else’s eyes. Fini embraced the task enthusiastically, much to Nifi’s dismay. The youngest twin (for the Mhara said Fini was born when the tide was high, and Nifi waited for the low tide to swim out to the world) feared that her sister had gained a new friend and confident and, herself a bit too lazy to write her own diary, she started begrudging Karmin her new influence on Fini. This may explain why Nifi’s Common was always less fluent than Fini’s, which Heather found ironic, seeing that the former was the one who married a surface dweller, and the latter never betrayed their underwater loyalties.

    Heather knew many things, after all. And now she could learn many things more, for a quick examination of the diary convinced her of its authenticity. The visible progress in the use of language (though never perfect), the episodes told, the anxieties and concerns expressed — here and there, the sentimental musings of the pubescent mermaid made her blush — all confirmed that the pirate, the potential killer?, had not lied. She had paid him a good sum, both for the tome and for his silence. She did not know yet what she was going to do with the book. She would give it to the queen, eventually, but first she wanted to have the chance to read it herself. Even if she didn’t like to pry, even if she feared to find less flattering references to her mother, even if she felt piously guilty of hiding something she should not possess.

    “Be right back,” she wrote on a note, which she pinned in the library’s announcement board. It seemed only fitting that she would set camp at the Turtle Island for a few days. No one would find her there, and she could find the necessary tranquility to satisfy her curiosity. She could even make an edited copy with the relevant excerpts to send to Brigobaen. She had a debt of education towards them and she had seen enough of New Mirith to fear that the diary would be lost forever the second she trusted it to anyone other than herself. That was it, she made her decision. Packing an empty volume and her writing tools, she sneaked away from the artificial island, towards the place where the story begun.

    [to be continued…]
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