Ghost Story

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By all rights Southwatch should have been a dying city. All the rest of the great cities had fallen in one way or another, holes pounded into barrier walls or populations dead by starvation and drought. A few of them hung on where the populations had adapted fast enough, but there weren't enough people left to maintain a stable way of life. Not enough hands in the fields and at the smithy and baking the bread, repairing the barrels and the wagons, making the clothing. So they spread over the land and mingled.

Southwatch stayed, if not intact, as a semblance of its former self. Several of the features of which it had been most proud, the school and the fireworks laboratory, were dismantled for building parts or resources. The library remained intact but uncurated except for a few stealthy archivists who tried to preserve what was left. The port became the center of activity.

Southwatch still had sea trade with other countries, even though the land borders had been closed since they discovered the scope of the Cataclysm. The waters were choppy and every ship's captain who made berth there said they'd never had an approach as difficult as when they put in at Southwatch, but they came regardless. Zillah had a theory about that, something to do with the egos of ship's captains and how they couldn't resist a challenge, nor being the one to say they'd put in here the most times without losing their ship. To settle arguments she kept a tally on the largest slate she could find, hung in her office and with a new mark on it every time she saw a ship's captain.

"Someday I'll get you on a ship with me," Captain Lagros leaned against the counter and grinned in what he surely thought was a rakish manner. She thought it made him look silly, but was too careful of his ego to say so.

And in any case she had a ready excuse not to go with him. "My job's here, and I think you know that, o Ship's Captain who relies on my lettering and money changing."

Zillah worked as a notary and money changer, authorized by her city which was good enough for most of the trade that came through. It had been her father and uncle's business before her, and her grandfather's before that, but they had all passed beyond by now and she was the only one left.

Fortunately they'd taught her extensively before her father died of a tumor and her uncle vanished somewhere outside the city. Madoc never stopped grumbling about his wayward brother, but when he knew for certain he was dying he made sure there was a copy of his will and the deed to the business on file with every town hall inside the city and bordering it. She owned the whole thing fair and clear. And by that time the captains and merchants' factors knew to come to her.

Someday, she decided, she would go out to the sea. She would see for herself what troubled everyone who tried to cross the boundaries of the country, try to untangle the source of it all. Though she had the magical talent of the ancient ones, the long-timers she'd been told, she'd never much used it. Her few experiments into magic involved writing things down and making them true if possible, but she'd quickly discovered she could never plan for every contingency. Better to simply put up the special pen with its gold-flecked ink and stick to writing contracts and bills of change.

"And that's that," she closed the last of her files into the drawer and locked it, ready for a pint at the local and some food before bed. "Quiet season, I wonder if it'll pick up at all or if this is it for the winter." Such as winter was in their land anymore.

There was a fog come rolling in from the waters. She'd thought about moving inland, catering to a different sort of clientele but she had no idea who to pitch to. Too much trouble to find a new building with room enough for her business and her sleeping quarters, and then to direct her clients to where she'd relocated, such as would follow her a ways inward. No, she'd put up with the weather and the fog.

And the occasional troublemaker. Footsteps behind her were a necessity since she walked along the thoroughfare to get to her local, any of the three where she was accustomed to take supper. Footsteps matching her exact pace from where she stopped and started, less usual.

Zillah made a couple of stops on her way, then. One to say hello to the flower seller whose grandfather she'd helped draw up a will that gave her the deed to her stand and planting boxes. She got a small flower from the day's leftover ends to wear in her hair and got to listen to the impatient footsteps pacing into an alley ahead of her.

The second was to duck into a leatherworker's she knew next door to the flower stall. If she was right and someone did mean her harm, she'd be able to call on him for help.

"Don't see anyone looking this way who oughtn't to," he peered out the front window under the guise of rearranging the goods on display. "You run into any trouble that next door can't handle, you come knocking on mine. Just fixing to have my supper and do a bit of polishing before bed."

She smiled. "Thank you, Claude, you're a true friend."

"You helped me get my letters without shame or cause to think I was deficient. I'm just paying back the favor."

That was the other business she'd miss if she had to move inland. Lots of folk off the boats or who worked by the docks were embarrassed to admit they couldn't read or write, and had to make an X where their name would go. She had the habit of asking them a few questions about their business, then teaching them the alphabet and how to read and write things relating to, so they could read inventory charts and descriptions of their merchandise. From there they could go on and expand if they liked. And she never judged them, nor gave them call to think they were less than her for not having a skill she took for granted.

Over to the inn, where they boarded a number of her clients and where she would be recognized by half the likely common room inhabitants, for added assurances. She ordered a bowl of soup and an end of the morning's bread, and thought about it as Margat wrote it up on her tally sheet. Figuring was never something that had come easy to her, though her father insisted she learn it. It was a large part of why she had sympathy for those who struggled with their letters.

"Good evening, sister."

That cheerful and loud voice belonged to the northman Wulf. Who was half-deaf, to guess by his inoffensive and unaware volume. "Good evening, brother Wulf," she grinned back, speaking clearly and pitching her voice to be heard across a room full of happy diners. "No one told me you'd made port."

"Just two days ago. Captain wanted to put in here for the winter because it'd be quiet and there's only so much trouble for us to get into, he said." Wulf grinned wide. Everyone regular in the inn knew the kind of trouble the Errant Venture's crew could get into. The Captain called her that for a reason.

Zillah shook her head. "He says that now, come spring he'll be singing a whole different tune, with shackles under it."

"N'aw, he wouldn't do that to us." But he ducked his head and looked around like a little boy afraid of getting caught in the cookie tin. He was putting on a show for her and they both knew it.

She dug her loaf end into her soup and started to chew. "So what did the lot of you have planned for the winter?" she asked, halfway curious considering most wintering over towns were accessible for the rest of the mainland. They had to know Southwatch was cut off from the rest of the continent. It was long enough ago that most of the forsaken land didn't as far as she knew believe there was an outside. Those who did kept very quiet rather than have to answer difficult questions.

But the guests knew, and shrugged it off. They had to in order to keep doing business here. "Don't know. I didn't have much in the way of plans, but thought it might be nice to spend some time in one place on solid ground for a change. Captain's been muttering as there's some scientific publications..." He pronounced each word with a pompousness, making fun of his old friend. "He's not gotten to read yet. I expect the others'll have some pursuit or another they want to get back at. And if not, Captain'll have them repairing nets and lines and sails and the like."

"They could pick up a bit of extra coin, repairing nets." She pulled out a chair with her foot. "Repairing nets, barrels, there's a lot of goods that get used hard and always someone in need of a few stitches, right, Claude?"

Claude sprawled in the chair she'd pulled out for him. "Don't see why not. Got a pile of old tack folks keep dropping on me for mending and then never coming back for. Keep meaning to fix it up some and sell it, would be willing to pay, say, forty percent to whoever'd help me."

"I'll pass that along." Though from the look on Wulf's face he'd be interested in taking the offer himself, too. "But for now, I'll have another beer."

Claude looked at her while he was gone. "He doesn't even know he does it, does he."

"No. He does not." She winced, rubbing the soft spot behind her ear. "Too much cannon fire. I think."

Wulf came back with several beers and the ship's Captain. "Man says he's got a proposal for you, Zillah, but I'd look him over twice before you accept. You know seafaring men, got all manner of unsavory habits..."

She laughed. "I don't think it's a proposal of marriage he's asking, but I'll take it under advisement."

The Captain was smiling but not laughing. In fact as he leaned forward while Claude and Wulf talked she had the distinct impression that he was using their voices for cover. "I need someone I can trust to draw up a contract and disbursement of goods for payment. Quickly is better. I've a deal with some of your countrymen, which is why we've put in here, but ..."

"I won't handle illegal business," she told him. She could play as she was flirting and look coy, but the stare she gave him under cover of a smile was unfriendly. "Some might, but I won't. My father didn't..."

"This isn't exactly illegal. As far as I know no one else's tried to do business with your folk outside of, obviously, living quarters and services like yours." Or other services he wouldn't mention in front of a lady. She could tell from the faces he made.

"Not illegal, just... ill-advised?" Not that she would presume to tell him his business. That wasn't the word she'd prefer to use. "If not unprecedented, little precedented." That wasn't a good word for it either, she had better, but not to hand.

"Exactly. And we'd prefer to keep it quiet, seeing as it involves the sort of service only your people can offer."

The conversation died in her mouth and the table went loud. Wulf's voice roaring in her ear, every clack and clank of mugs and plates and the sound of beer sloshing around in the barrels as they were changed. The pop of a log in the fire. Someone cursed, burnt by a spark as the went to keep it from rolling onto the hearth. Figures moved out of the corner of her eye; no one in here was talented that way. She knew. And she was still scared.

"You know what I mean, don't you."

"I do. I know it's a fool's trade and I'm not likely to persuade you otherwise. Goods or services?"

He smiled broadly, relieved, and took her hands like she'd just agreed to court him. Which after a fashion she supposed she'd agreed to something he hadn't expected. "Goods. Not services, don't think anyone's sure your services would work outside of your land. Yes, I know the storms aren't natural, every man faring this way knows the storms aren't natural. That's part of the draw."

She knew the difficulty of passage to Southwatch was part of the draw, she hadn't known they knew that. Their knowing might make things more complicated. "What kinds of goods?"

"Oh, rope that won't rot or break, barrels that won't leak, that sort of thing."

He was lying. She could tell he was lying, but he was good at it. The first items might be things they could use on the ship and not for trade, or at least not for trade outside the round of ships and folks who knew what was what. After that, though, he would see what else he could sell to outsiders. Things they hadn't seen before, that they might want. Southwatch, and perhaps the entire country, would become a mysterious source of prized goods. And while no one could readily get into the country itself, she didn't know what that would do with such a narrow corridor...

She could go in circles for the rest of the evening contemplating all the ways that could go wrong. "All right. At least that seems harmless enough, and as you say, no law against it. You want me to draw up the trading papers?" She looked at him and saw that not only did he mean her to draw up the papers, he wanted her to use her abilities to do so. "You want me to set your agreement into ink. It's not the same thing, you know."

"I know."

He might know the facts but he couldn't appreciate what he was asking her to do. Not really, not if he had only put into port at Southwatch now and again and had never been into the city or seen the legacy of overuse. Well, he would if she took him to her family's estate, which was within the city walls themselves. Near to the library, if she had her girlhood memories straight. But first she had to deal with getting them back to her office and her unwanted follower.

"All right." She heaved a sigh, but better her than someone else with less wisdom or principle. Or skill. Claude threw her a worried look. "But there's a man following me, I've no idea..."

Claude stood, and Wulf with him. They leaned on each other without asking or as far as Zillah could tell with so much as a glance to agree on their actions, which she took to mean they'd discussed it while she was dealing with business with the Captain. "O where and oh where are you hunting dear Jacob..."

With that chorus they started listing in between the tables and heading for the door. And to deal with the intruder who might be outside around the inn, she guessed. Her lips pressed together in a hard-pack type of smile, all crust and resistance. "I suppose you have a ..."

"There's policy about this sort of thing," the Captain grinned, more lukewarm and limp. "Sometimes we put into a port there's someone who'll want to spy on us and find out our cargo, so they can steal it off of us or screw us on a deal."

"Mm." That made sense as she thought of it. "We might as well enjoy our dinner then, in the meanwhile."

It took them a good span of minutes and another mug of beer to get back in, but neither of them looked worse for the wear. "The old baker's boy, the one who was supposed to take over the business?"

"... I buy cakes from him!" And yet it didn't come as a surprise. He looked at her a touch too often, was too eager when she came to the small corner stall at the end of a long day, had the look of a boy who didn't know what No meant. She sighed. "All right, well. I don't know what's to be done about him."

"Pick up his teeth off the cobblestones and hope the barber knows how to put them back in?" Wulf didn't have any patience for this. "We weren't that rough," he protested, off her reproving look. "Did put the fear of the bo'sun into him, if he bothers you again let someone on the ship know, or your crofter friend here might help." Claude nodded.

"Thank you. In earnest, thank you. If that's done with, we can settle up and see about your contract?"

The Captain nodded, standing along with her and shaking Wulf's hand with thanks and approbation. Zillah rolled her eyes while they all congratulated each other on their good job protecting the little lady, though she couldn't say she wasn't glad to have that done and over with. The night had only gotten darker and more sinister for the job proposal and the news that someone was going to try exporting out of Southwatch in earnest, and she was eager to get to the next day.

Claude went back to his storefront with a piece of meat and cheese wrapped in some bread ends and a promise that she would call on him tomorrow and let him know that everything went well. Wulf called over another man, the Captain's accountant, to go with them and help in the drawing up of papers and the listing of numbers. It was a nice night for a walk, at least. Some of the chill had lifted, and the dampness that remained felt more like the comforting familiarity of the seaside in Teresa's Summer, when the current brought the warm winds up from the lower sea.

"Gentlemen." She gave them an ironic face as she bowed to let them know she was doing this under some duress. If not duress, against her better judgment. "Step into my office."

She had three rooms in her office by the port, a small front chamber where she did her money changing and behind that and a heavy door with a lock, her safe on one side and her grandfather's desk on the other. She went and sat behind it to conduct her business, gesturing for them to draw chairs or stools from the front room or even her bedroom if they chose. She had a small cot and table in the third room separated off with a curtain. A wood stove kept the whole thing warm, and the Captain took the stool by it with a smile that suggested he expected it to be warm as well.

"I'd be careful of that, it has a rickety leg," she told him, and some of the smile fell off his face. "So. We'll start with the standard language of a contract of goods for sale." Wulf, it turned out, was only there for the sake of being the one to introduce them all, and sat back while the accountant Mr. Baines and the Captain looked over the language. When they nodded approval, she copied it over onto a fresh paper with her gold-flecked ink.

The terms of the trade goods to be picked up were vague enough to give her fits on two separate causes, the first because anyone could be exploited to create augmented materials that way and the second because it made her workings all the harder. But that was the main sticking point in a contract that gave her fits to begin with. At least the sticking point of exporting magic out of Southwatch wasn't changed to something she had to wrap her mind around again. She didn't know that she'd ever be used to the idea, but she was starting to work on who to tell about the matter and how much she could share without breaching her client's confidentiality, and what they could then do about it.

"Thank you for your kind service," the Captain shook her hand when they were done, smiling with real warmth and compassion. "I understand this must be difficult for you."

Did he? She couldn't tell if it was that or if he assumed some other cause for the faces she was making, something related to her family or doing business at a desk so clearly sized for a larger man, or something else entirely. "It's my job," she smiled anyway and shook his hand. "It's my training and my vocation. I'm glad to have been of use."

The turn of phrase was unfortunate, and she wished she'd picked another as soon as she opened her mouth. Another second showed her that the Captain also thought the phrase was peculiar, with a tiny frown at the corner of his eyes and his mouth. In the third second as she turned to shake Mr. Baines' hand she saw that he approved of it. Also that he had a gun in his hand.

It went off and rattled her eardrums, the windows, and everything not nailed down in the room. Or it felt that way as sounds were replaced by a ringing in her ears and everything went white with smoke. Not a very good gun.

She stumbled around the desk as the Captain dropped, feeling the vibration in her feet and the pounding of heavy boots as Wulf roared around his chair. He, too, got a second and then a third shot full to the front, she didn't see where but it didn't much matter with that amount of explosion.

Two bodies on the floor when the smoke cleared. She dropped to her knees out of shock, though a part of her was trying to remember where the nearest weapon was to hand. She did carry one, she dealt in contracts and money and that wasn't a safe business to be in. Her hand closed around the desk knife and when she looked up the gun was pointed at her.

Zillah's mind filled in the click of a misfire. Baines' shocked expression imprinted itself on her mind, his mouth comically o-shaped and his eyebrows raised as high as they would go. But then he clubbed her over the head and took the knife from her with fingers that were gentle, soft. It surprised her, how soft his hands were.

Being stabbed in the throat was more like being punched there, she reflected as she dropped again. The sensation of sharpness was much less than the impact. Wet gushed over her mouth, her neck and the front of her blouse. It was a nice blouse, too. The seller had given her ribbons to go with it for free.

"I'm sorry," he patted her hair while she gurgled, like her father had done. "Truly I am. But you can't have seen or heard any of this. My master won't like it if I've left witnesses. Fortunately, there's more than enough folk who might want to rob a money changer."

She wanted to ask him so many things. Who was his master, and why had he wanted the contract but not half of the participants? Was his master a local or someone from out beyond the sea? What did this have to do with trade? But with a hole ripped into her throat she wasn't asking anything. Her lips were wet, trickling into the back of her throat which still somehow tickled as she watched him knock papers around her office, tip a lamp, start a fire. In a few moments someone would be running by. If they weren't already, after the sounds of shot. If she could hold on a few minutes longer, someone would help her. Claude, or that nice older woman from across the street, or Ismael. Someone would come and take her to the barber. Someone would come.

Footsteps approached through the smoke. Most of Southwatch was gone, but now and then someone lit a fire outside of the city walls for warmth while they went fishing. Once in a while someone used the old storefronts as a shelter against the wind. Rarely anymore did folk venture out of the white walls. They were strange by now. Different. Zillah barely remembered any of them. The names she knew were centuries old.

"Hello?" That was a warm voice. A friendly voice, she liked the sound of the man even before came into view. Younger than she expected. "Hello? I thought I saw someone ..."

Well. There couldn't be much harm in talking to him, the worst that could happen was he took a fright and ran screaming, as had the first few people she'd tried to talk to. "I'm here." Zillah pulled herself together and sat behind her desk, or what remained of it. Two broken legs and everything charred, one leg gone entirely. "I'm over here. Was there something you needed today?"

He did blink, but he didn't run or scream or do anything else that suggested he was scared. "Oh. You're not real."

"I'm as real as you are," she protested, indignant and both clearer and fuzzier than she had been. "I'm..."

He held up his hands. "No, I'm sorry, that's not what I meant, I mean, you're not alive."

"Oh." Her fingers brushed the scarf at her throat. One of the first things she'd done once she realized her situation had been to pull something together to hide the wound. She might be self-controlled enough by now to hide it on her own, but she didn't want to take that risk.

"I was wondering if anyone was here, because it doesn't seem like there's much life in this part of town. If ... well, I've got this circus..."

Zillah's smile broadened as he spoke until she was outright laughing, scar and scarf forgotten. "You want me to run away with you to the circus?" It was absurd. Ridiculous. But then again, so was a man talking to a ghost, these days. She'd thought that knowledge of speaking to the dead had been long forgotten.

"Well, when you put it that way." He grinned at her with all the young man's irresponsible charm.

She took longer to think about it than seemed reasonable, later. Much later, after she had settled in with the caravan and the rest of the ghosts that resided with it, after Timothy had introduced her around and cleared it with the leader, which he had not mentioned he had to do. The leader sighed as though he had done it before, though, which she could well imagine gave him confidence to keep going.

And she would be leaving Southwatch for parts unknown, but with a constant set of people surrounding her. Learning new things and new experiences, and with a solid grounding if not solid ground to stand on. It was the first time she had felt optimistic about her future since her death.