Neshka sat alone in the rugged tavern, breathing in the musty air, which was a mix of sweaty sailors and the perfume of voluptuous, cleavage-bearing barmaids. She looked like an outsider among them, her dark skin and lean physique contrasting with their white, plushy bodies. Neshka could never understand how obesity and beer guts were considered attractive in the port city of Oksía. The muscular figures of her kin were much more desirable. Just thinking of them made her want to return to her homeland.
But she couldn’t go back. Her people had discovered her long-kept secret, and she had been banished as a result. Now, she was an outcast, barely managing to make a living off the lands. It was a hard life, but by now she had grown accustomed to it, thieving and scheming where she could. Her recent travels had taken her from the desert to Oksía, completely avoiding her hometown along the way. The port city was a disgusting place, but the best location for thieving. She’d even pocketed a few coins on the way to the tavern, an act she knew would get a scolding from the person she was about to meet that night. Yet her theft could remain secret, just as much as the one that had her banished from her homeland.
A drunken sailor passed by her table, noted her and stopped. His eyes examined her upper body with keen interest, and despite Neshka’s lack of a low neckline, his gaze veered to her impressive bust. “Hey lady—“
The sailor glowered, pounding his fist on the table. “You talking filthy to me?”
“Down right. Now piss off before I get mad.”
He rose his hand to backslap her. Neshka had already reached to her side, flicking a knife out of its sheath. But she wasn’t quick enough. The man screeched, reeling his head back and spinning around.
“Oh dear, did that hurt?” cooed a sympathetic voice behind him.
The man froze, shocked at what he saw.
Neshka grinned. “You’re late, Vel.”
Out from behind the big man circled the most beautiful creature Neshka had ever come to know. It was a young woman, like herself, though her skin was silver-aquamarine, almost white in places, and scales overlayed her arms, shoulders, and legs. Not a strand of hair grew on her, yet her head grew fins in such a way that made her appear to have a chin-length cut. Two dark lines made for eyebrows, and her eyes bore large pupils encircled in thin green irises.
The man grunted. “A Sea Other. Bloody fish folk gonna uproot our town one day.”
He stormed off, grasping the stinging cut on his shoulder.
The Sea Other plunked down across from Neshka, the scythe blade she had used to injure the sailor retracting into the folds of her elbow-fins. “Fish folk,” she scoffed. “Terrible label, but I don’t like Sea Other much better. Whatever happened to mírúhím? The holy people sure have a lot more respect than these goonies.”
Neshka chuckled. “Not much has changed since they hunted your kind centuries ago.”
They turned to watch the injured, pot-bellied sailor mosey up to the bar. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and his skin was beginning to pale.
“How long do you think it’s gonna take before he realizes I poisoned him?” Vel asked.
“Judging by his complexion, not long. Your scythes have a nasty bite.”
They laughed, a sound that melted into the ruckus around them. Neshka flagged down one of the barmaids for a couple mugs of ale. The curvy lady didn’t say a word when she returned with the mugs, which she slammed down on their table. She vanished before the girls could utter a simple ‘thank you.’
“So, how’d the visit go?” Neshka asked, taking a swig.
Vel cocked her head to the side with a sigh, grabbing the free mug. Goodness, was she pretty. Her fun, playful gestures always toyed with Neshka’s emotions, giving her a satisfying yet equally sickening feeling.
“Same as always. Stares, awkward conversations, the whole lot of it. I was done with it by the time I left. You?”
Neshka didn’t answer, casting her gaze to the bitter brew in front of her.
“You didn’t go back, did you?”
Neshka sighed. Vel could see right through her. She had known her that long.
“Why bother? Nothing will change how they think.”
“And here I am putting in my time for Athlarika. You should, too, you know. I thought we made a deal.”
“Deals are often broken. People you trust can turn on you.”
“You would turn on me?”
Neshka looked up at her. Vel was a common reject like herself, a half-breed—half human, half Sea Other—who was shunned by her own people. Sure, she looked like one of the mírúhím, but her pointed ears gave away her mixed lineage. She knew Neshka’s pain, so she ought to know her deepest feelings. But Neshka kept them to herself. She loved Vel more than anything, would die for her when the opportunity arose. It had several times already. Yet after all they had been through together, she just couldn’t bring herself to tell Vel how she really felt about her. Fear told Neshka that she would be rejected like she had been those many years ago in her hometown.
“You alright?” Vel asked, concern in her eyes.
“You’re hiding something. You’re always hiding something. It’s the one thing I can never figure out.”
“I said I’m fine.”
“Sure, but you can’t let your secrets drive a wall between us, Neshka. You know all my secrets. Why can’t I know yours?”
Neshka opened her mouth to speak, then clamped it shut. Athlarika had cautioned against secrets, saying that if she didn’t tell Vel soon, the wall between them would become so thick, she wouldn’t be able to reach her.
“If we were alone, would you tell me?”
Alone. That sounded tempting, thrilling even, especially if a bath was involved. Athlarika’s cautionary words ran through her mind, but she brushed them aside for a more pleasant picture of Vel’s body. She had been enamoured by it since the first time they bathed in the communal baths in Serenestí.
“I’ll wait then.”
That was what Neshka loved about Vel. She was patient and accepted her for who she was. It almost made her believe that Vel would accept her even after she told her she loved her. Of course, Vel wouldn’t return her affections. Vel was as straight as they came, and it made the pain in Neshka’s chest much more heart-wrenching.
“I got us a place to stay,” Vel offered, changing the subject.
Neshka breathed out a deep sigh. “Does it have a bath? I don’t think I could smell worse and the air in this filthy tavern has sunk into my skin.”
Vel laughed, a cute chuckle that resembled the clicking of a dolphin. “Why would I deprive you of a bath, sweetheart? I could use one as well to get that drat sea salt off me.”
“Let’s go then.”
They chugged the last of their ale and exited the tavern, leaving their awkward conversation behind.