It was a hot morning. It was always a hot morning, no matter how cool the night or how fresh the breeze. The sun would rise, and it would bake Rhytheport, and damn near boil everyone living there. Thirty-something years had passed since Talyreina had been dropped off in a bag and left for dead in this godsforsaken town, yet she was still the most recent arrival, the last one. No one wanted to live there, or to even visit for that matter, only… they couldn’t leave.
Talyreina finished her cup of lukewarm tea. Imported from Helen’s Bay on the west coast, she could only afford the luxury once or twice a week, but still it always tasted like a cup of salt with some slight exotic flavour to make it marginally more interesting. It didn’t matter how long the tea was left to brew, it still tasted like salt. Everything tasted like bloody salt.
She wrapped herself in a white cloth, covering as much skin as she could. She would spend most of the day in the sun, more than enough to return burnt and blistered, head throbbing, stomach convulsing. The sun was no friend to the residents of Rhytheport, but their lives still depended on it. Talyreina’s especially.
Reluctantly, she left the house, hurrying out of the front door without glancing back. Built from baked clay bricks, it looked the same as every other building there. The town’s creativity had been sapped years before, monotony becoming the norm, in both sight and thought. A newcomer would stand no chance finding their way home. Though, if she ever spotted one, she would probably throw them back into the sea for their stupidity.
“Morning, Tally,” called a voice passing her in the street.
“Good morning to you, Witsen,” she replied, trying to sound as cheerful as she could.
Witsen was on his way back from the docks. If he was heading home already, it suggested his catch was light. And he was probably hungry and broke, in a bad mood, and above all, thirsty. She could let it go. She could let him walk home in peace without anyone reminding him how bad life could be, as any decent person would do.
“Catch anything this morning?” she asked, stifling a wry smile.
“Nothing to catch,” moaned Witsen. “I swear there are no more fish in the sea.”
Not a good prospect for a town that relied on the catch to survive. It was not as if they could just buy food from the Helen’s Bay. The main city was in the only fertile region, the rich area, on the opposite end of the island. Rhytheport was wedged between two hundred leagues of desert, and thousands of leagues of sea. It had nothing to offer, except salt. And nothing to eat, except fish. Worse yet, there was nothing to drink; no fresh water to be found anywhere.
Talyreina knew what Witsen was going to ask next. She could tell by the pleading expression he was preparing.
“Please, Tally,” he whimpered. “I haven’t had anything to drink today. Do you have any spare water? A few drops perhaps?”
She did. But that’s because she was smart. She saved it up, kept a few spare bottles hidden here and there, in places no one else could find them. She kept enough to last her a week, just in case she couldn’t work. In Rhytheport, not having spare water was as good as hanging yourself. She always had a store.
“Sorry, Witsen, I drank the last of it this morning. I had a cup of tea. It was very nice. Very… refreshing.”
Except it tasted like salt. Everything tasted like bloody salt.
“Thanks anyway,” said Witsen, a dour, pitiful expression swallowing his face. “Have a good day at work.”
About time that man fell overboard, Talyreina thought to herself, he would make a good meal for the tailsharks. There may well be a shortage of fish around, but there were always plenty of tailshark fins cutting through the surf. Witsen was too soft by far, and too stupid. Talyreina couldn’t understand how he had survived so long in Rhytheport. Worse, the man seemed to think he stood a chance with her. Ten years of rejection hadn’t thrown him down.
She wasn’t interested in weak men. She was keeping her eyes open for someone different. Someone with the right attitude. And perhaps someone who could take her away from Rhytheport. But deep down she knew it couldn’t happen. In thirty-something years, no one had left Rhytheport. It just wasn’t possible.
“Morning, Tally,” came the voice from the gatehouse.
“Good morning to you, Yaz,” she said, forcing a smile.
Yaz had worked in the pans for as long as she could remember. She had too, really, at least since she could walk. There wasn’t much skill to her job, but the men had joked that she was a natural, and her life in the pans had begun early.
“Need anything?” asked Yaz.
“Got a ship and enough money for me to get out of this godsforsaken place?”
“I got some tools? Might not help with your flight, but in the mean time you could get some work done.”
“I’ll take a brush, a chisel, a hammer, and a couple of cloths. Got some rusty plates need work.”
Yaz handed her the supplies, and she soon began her work as the tide began to fall.
The pans stretched a few miles along the coast. During the high tide they captured the water in shallow pools, and during the low tide they let it bake in the sun. A series of iron plates captured the water as it evaporated, allowing it to collect and gradually run off into bottles, leaving a layer of dried salt in the pan. The bottles needed to be prepared as the tide began to fall, and removed before it returned. The plates needed constant attention, as the iron rusted quickly, poisoning the water if it wasn’t cleaned frequently enough.
Most towns along the coast would boil their water over a fire, but Rhytheport had a distinct disadvantage. Being on the edge of a desert, there was nothing to burn. Firewood was a luxury, as valuable as the water itself. Flamed meat was reserved for special celebrations, a feast most usually couldn’t afford. The people of Rhytheport had learnt to use the sun and the salt for their cooking needs too; the only two things they had in abundance when the fisherman came in empty handed.
“Morning, Tally,” called a voice as she began work on one of the pans.
“Good morning to you, Jollo,” she replied, already annoyed by his ridiculous grin.
Jollo was a fellow panner. Not a bad guy really, in that innocent, boring, and completely harmless sort of way. Except that he persisted in sniffing around her.
“Fine day isn’t it?” he said. “And a perfect tide too.”
It was a perfect tide, the sea dropping just as it began to get really hot. Gave a full day’s worth of sun to boil the water. They were able to stockpile extra water and still sell more of it for a little less when the tides were good.
“Only if you like spending the whole day in the sun.”
Jollo took a deep breath and puffed his chest out.
“All in a day’s work. Town needs us, we do the best we can.”
For ourselves, thought Talyreina to herself. Sure, she sold water, but it wasn’t exactly to help the locals. Yes, the panners were integral to Rhytheport, making certain there was always enough drinkable water… but a job was a job, and she was there for the coin.
“Fancy meeting me in the tavern tonight?” asked Jollo. “I hear Deklow got something special in from Helen’s Bay.”
Silly man. Drinks from Helen’s Bay weren’t cheap.
“I would love to,” said Talyreina. “But I can’t afford it at the moment.”
“Please, Tally, don’t worry about the money. I would love to buy you a drink.”
“Alright, you’ve convinced me.” She flashed him a smile. “I’ll see you there. But you best get back to work now.”
Jollo skipped away like an undignified idiot. Talyreina began preparing the bottles along the pans, her feet sinking into the sand. It was still early, and the damp sand was cool. It wouldn’t last long. She sang to herself softly as she worked. Not about handsome princes and heroic warriors, nor even about silly men buying her drinks, but about the fabled towns of the mainland, where trees grew wild, where water flowed in wide rivers, and where trade kept the markets filled with goods unheard of in Rhytheport. The mainland was a myth, she was certain, despite the tales repeated by the older generations. But she didn’t care about reaching the mainland, she only cared about getting away from Rhytheport.
Talyreina sat down to take a short break, taking a sip of water from one of the collection bottles. The water was hot, and far from refreshing. She hated it, and she was tempted to spit it out, but experience had taught her otherwise. She just wished the pans cleaned it better. Poorly filtered, the water was used in producing the local ale, when there was enough of it, and also for preparing food. It was drinkable, but it still tasted like salt. Everything tasted like bloody salt.
* * *
“Evening, Tally,” came the greeting from behind the bar.
“Good evening to you, Deklow,” she replied, her eyes already scanning the drinks behind the bar.
There was only one tavern in Rhytheport. The Evergreen Stream. It wasn’t green, nor was there a stream within a hundred leagues. Often enough, it didn’t have anything to drink either, but that evening there was a stock of the local brew, and a fresh shipment from Helen’s Bay.
“I’ll try one of those fancy drinks,” she said, pointing at the cask. “Jollo offered to buy me one.”
Deklow, being an experienced barman, didn’t say anything, but he gave Jollo a pitiful look as he began pouring the drink. She supposed she would at least need to talk to Jollo while she drank it. That much she could afford him.
But before long she was wandering around the tavern searching for better company. A man soon stopped her, offering to buy her a drink. She didn’t recognise him. Could be a trader, she guessed. It didn’t matter to her, she was soon sitting down with a fresh cup of ale.
“You work in the pans, right?” he said.
“Only because I need to.”
“I need to get out of this town,” he said. “That’s why I wanted to talk to you.”
She had heard that before, many times. But she had almost a full cup.
“Yes. I have a plan. But I need someone on the inside. Someone, er… not… dedicated.”
That described her perfectly. Give or take.
“On the inside?”
“You understand about supply and demand, right?”
“More or less. I supply the boot, you supply the pebbles, and you curl up on the floor crying for your mother while I demand you shut up. Get to the point, what do you want from me?”
The man laughed, cheerful, unthreatened. Brave, or slimy. She still didn’t know his name. Did it matter?
“Water,” he said. “More valuable than anything else around here. High demand, low supply, you see.”
“That’s not news, it’s just the way it is.”
“True. But what if we were to tinker with that, to our benefit. Reduce the supply, increase the demand.”
“We work together, siphoning off extra water, stockpiling it in my warehouse. You work in the pans, so you can make sure that enough of the water comes our way, preferably without it costing us anything. Then, when we’re ready, we poison all the workers, disrupting the supply. That would leave only us to meet the demand, at extortionate prices. Enough to get out of Rhytheport.”
There were three flaws in his plan. One, she would need to poison herself too, otherwise they would all know it was her. Two, the entire town would see straight through their plan and hang them up for a week in sun.
“How do I know I can trust you?” she asked. “How do I know you wouldn’t betray me and take all the money for yourself?”
And finally, three: the way she saw it, she didn’t need him. She would definitely screw him out of his share.
“We both want the same thing,” he said. “We both got stuck in this town, and we both want to get out of it. We can help each other here.”
He had a point.
“How did you get stuck here?”
“Storm blew us around the island, and my boat sank off the peninsula three days ago. Lost all my men, and I have no money and nothing to sell. I need to get back to Helen’s Bay.”
She glanced at the expensive ale in front of her, she didn’t ask how he could afford it.
“It sounds like we have a deal,” she said reaching her arm out. “What’s your name?”
“I gave up my name years ago. Please, call me Tailfin.”
Tailfin. Sounds just like someone who would work up such a scheme. She downed the remains of her ale, and nodding to her new business partner she left for home, delighted at her new attempt at escape.
When the panners all fell ill a week later, Talyreina arrived at the pans insisting she was still okay to work. Despite the unknown risk, they were happy for her to head out. Strangely, even with the perfect conditions, hardly any water had made it back to Rhytheport, and the stores were all but empty. Talyreina, of course, knew exactly where the water was, but she and Tailfin weren’t quite ready to sell. She would collect another day’s worth, and wait a little longer while the residents began to dehydrate. That should drive the price up nicely.
She enjoyed the sun for the first time in a while, wondering whether it was her last day in the pans. Her feet sank into the cool sand, though the tides were already getting later in the day. Soon, high tide would be in the afternoon, and water production would all but fail. The townsfolk knew that too, and she could almost feel their last coins in her pockets.
“Evening, Tally,” said the man in the gatehouse.
“Good evening to you, Yaz,” she said as she handed him the tools to store for the night.
“Too many plates are rusted through,” she said. “Can hardly get a drop at the moment. Doesn’t help that I am the only one here either.”
Yaz look very worried. He knew what it meant. Rhytheport was dry.
“I’ll be back tomorrow, I promise. I will do my best. I know how much the town needs it.”
Talyreina skipped away, leaving Yaz nodding solemnly. He couldn’t do anything more. She headed back to the edge of town to meet Tailfin. The water had been stored in his so-called warehouse – an old abandoned building, crumbling and lacking a roof – where he had been sleeping under the stars since he had been wrecked in Rhytheport.
She wasn’t even half way there when a nervous thought turned into certainty. She began running, cursing to herself. Tailfin had moved faster than she had, she knew it. She felt it.
She burst in through the broken doorway to find exactly what she had been expecting. A ruin, walls crumbing, roof long gone. And an empty floor, with no water, and no Tailfin. The bastard.
Furious, she bolted into town, searching for any sign of the slimy creep. Within moments, the residents turned on her, chased her down, and grabbed her. She was taken by surprise, but it didn’t take long to catch up. He had sold her out, easing his own flight.
“What the hell is going on?” she yelled.
A particularly aggressive looking woman was inches away from her face, with arms gripping hard on each shoulder.
“You were stockpiling water, watching the rest of us suffer! Did you really think you would get away with it?”
“What are you talking about?”
“The foreigner found your stash. Don’t deny it!”
“What? The foreigner? I was working all day desperately trying to get every drop of water I could, and you believe some foreigner about me hiding water? Where is he anyway?”
The woman faltered. Didn’t loosen her grip though.
“He’s… well, he was trying to get a boat…”
“He got away? Did you all pay for his board too?”
Now she let go, and the mob quietened down quickly, sheepishly looking at each other.
“Well, he… gave us the water. Freely.”
“Freely? You paid for his way out of this place.”
Rhytheport really was full of idiots. Tailfin had played them. Had played her too, but at least she got away without being robbed in the process.
“Any of the other panners okay to work tomorrow?” she asked. “No? Well then you better let me get a good night’s sleep!”
She didn’t. Instead, she spent the entire night cursing herself, rolling over and staring at different flaws in the darkened bedroom walls. She knew Tailfin was planning on screwing her over, but she was supposed to screw him over first. She was supposed to be the town’s saviour, not the one thrown to dirt for a trampling.
Well, she did at least gain something from the experience. A new goal in life. Not only did she need to get out of Rhytheport, but she needed to find Tailfin and stick a sharp blade through his testicles. One by one. Slowly.
“Morning, Tally,” said the man in the gatehouse.
“Good morning to you, Ya… Jollo?” she replied, more curious than concerned.
“Yaz is off sick,” said Jollo. “Same thing as the rest of us. You still good?”
“Seems I have a stronger gut than the rest of you.”
“I guess. Hey, sorry to hear what happened last night. Nothing like being stabbed in the back by your own neighbours.”
Jollo had a pitiful expression. Had he been there the night before, he probably would have been stupid enough to help her. Besides, she didn’t care about the townsfolk. Being betrayed by the foreign trickster was far worse.
“Yes, well, they were desperate. It’s over now. Anyone else at work today?”
“No, just you and me.”
Perfect. Jollo was going to follow her around all day. Whining and pining.
“What say we split up, cover as much ground as possible?”
The tides were bad. Not enough time between high tide and sunset to get sufficient water. The stockpile would last the town a few more days, but they would need to get ahead of production if they wanted to avoid another riot.
Putting her back into it, Talyreina had resigned herself to the hard grind when she heard the sound of chains clinking coming from inland. She picked up an iron bar, the closest thing she had to a weapon, and followed the noise.
She found a man wandering towards her, stumbling meekly from the desert. She didn’t recognise him, another foreigner! But this man had chains on his ankles, each one dragging an iron ball. He looked parched. Well, actually he looked half dead. Like he had been wandering the desert for a few weeks, burnt half to death.
Cautiously, she offered him some water. He stared at the bottle for a few seconds like a man who was trying to figure out if he was being tricked. Or in a dream, perhaps.
“Lytette?” he asked.
He smiled, and took the bottle. Took a deep sip, tipping his head over backwards. Then spat the water out.
“Yuk. Tastes like bloody salt!”
Talyreina smiled and chuckled softly.
“Everything tastes like bloody salt!” she agreed. “I’m Talyreina. Tally for short. Who are you? What are you doing out here?”
“Madrik. I had a run-in with an old nemesis. Probably thinks he’s won. But it’s the last time. This time I will hunt him down, lock chains around his ankles, and drop him into the deep ocean.”
Madrik stared at the chains at his feet.
“You help me out, I will make it worth your while. I have money back in Helen’s Bay. Enough to make you smile for a very long time.”
Helen’s Bay? Money? Maybe she could convince a trader ship to take them there, agree a price to pay on delivery. Rhytheport money was useless, but coin from Helen’s Bay might just do it. She felt a smile widen on her face, ignoring the voice in her head reminding her that it was impossible to escape from Rhytheport. She had to.
“I’ll help you get back to Helen’s Bay. For a price.”
They hadn’t agreed a price, but her smile continued to grow regardless. Getting to Helen’s Bay was good enough for her. From there, she could track down the slimy bastard that screwed her over.
“Who are you going after, anyway?”
“The slimiest bastard you’ll ever meet. Goes by the name of Tailfin.”
She nearly squeaked in her excitement.
I hope you enjoyed reading Renryre Island Chapter IV: A Little Too Much Salt
Next, Chapter V: The Lost Hermit
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