Black Heart Stomp

0.-0.-0

Wake up now little sleepyhead
from your nightmarish day with the dead trip
you'd be better off not to know
of the wild seeds you let go
from your thorny fingertips
try to clean bloodstained hands
that ran away and left the scene
of a crime last night.

-Missing, Calexico

0.-0.-0

Of course there were a lot of things that I could have done differently.

That's what everyone says, when the dust has settled and the ink on the last page is finally drying. But then someone nearly always takes a look at the main character and goes, "Wow. Did you have any idea what you were doing at the time, or did you just make it up?"

Sadly, I did. It was seat-of-my-pants, luck-of-the-draw planning the entire way on my part, and even if I'd had the chance to straighten it all out and go, "All right, I'm going to do this here, and avoid that, and kiss him really hard then so as to avoid any future confusion," it probably wouldn't have worked anyway.

But that would have made for a less interesting story all around, wouldn't it?

First off, to give you an idea as to what sort of tale you're dealing with: I'm a liar. I'm a cheat, a cheapskate, a thief, a bandit, and a heroine. I've murdered, and I've fought dirty, and I've enjoyed the hell out of myself at the time. I've hated people with a daunting intensity, and I've loved others with every inch of my warped, self-serving little heart.

But it's a good story, don't get me wrong. There's action. There's chase scenes. There's grand adventure, dastardly villains and shining heroes

There's also a lot of crying and running down back alleys, and bad food with worse service and endless, endless cups of coffee.

There's also true love. Can't forget that.

Basically, it's a rather convoluted story. It's about a really stupid girl who wanted to do the right thing but couldn't always manage it, and about a bent-up old man in a younger one's body. It's about getting blood caked so thick on your hands that you can barely form a fist, and about slapping some more on there for old time's sake. It's about green coats and dusty hair and eyes with too much blue.

There's a whole ton of other stuff too, but I can't really list it all here.

But all in all, it's a pretty good one. It's mine, so it'd better be.

Like most stories, it starts out with a really good puke.

0.-0.-0

I hate boats.

I clamped my lips shut until I could lean over the bucket again, and cough out my guts.

Correction.

I really hate boats.

Ironic, I thought as I leaned back into the tiny alcove that I'd claimed as my own. I'm from an island nation the size of a pocket handkerchief, and boats made my stomach roil.

Formerly from.

Right.

My stomach was now far too empty to do anything other than cramp horribly whenever the boat lurched. I desperately wanted a flask of cold fruit juice, or a tiny bite of sweetbread to take the taste of bile from my mouth- but that would start the cycle all over again, and wouldn't that be fun.

Besides, they didn't have any. They had meat. And biscuits. And a nice sloppy handful of attitude to go with it.

My first day on board, on the first meal, I'd asked the cook somewhat grouchily if he'd had any specialties other than flavorless gray stuff with weevils. (Come on, give me a break, it was my second day on the run, and that stuff was shit, seriously.)

He'd given me one long look, all squinty-like to the side, and then leaned over and spat into my meat and biscuit blend.

Apparently he'd had a bit of a cold that day. I had tried to eat around it.

So, I wasn't on cook's make-nice list (a document that surely stretched halfway around the globe). It didn't matter anyway, since I couldn't keep food down if I'd tried. It was enough to make a girl go Rouge Style on their asses.

-the sound she'd made around my fist, the pause before Dad started screaming at me, when all was white heat, and silly relief that I'd won, and slowly growing horror.-

Nononononononono. No. Absolutely not.

I wasn't going to think about that.

I wrapped my arms around my knees and rested my chin on top of them. My gut squirdled nauseatingly, but settled down to a mere state of constant misery.

It didn't stink too badly down here. The Queen Fury was a clean ship, clean and brand spankin' new by the looks of it. The sailors were always boasting about its revolutionary steam engine, and took terrible offense to me staring blankly at them and saying, "So… it runs on water?"

I was one of four passengers on board, and we'd spread ourselves out pretty evenly across the ship. Unlike most vessels, the Fury was enormous, and there were plenty of small corridors, storerooms, and hallways to get lost in, and I'd immediately exploited this fact. None of the crew could remember seeing me above deck in the last four days or so, which I attributed to my inherent sneakiness. You know. When I wasn't horking my guts out in a bucket.

We didn't talk much, the other passengers and I. Sure, we nodded to each other at dinner once in a while, but there was no sparkling conversation, trust me. Besides, we'd all acquired passage under rather dubious circumstances, and didn't really want to make eye contact with anyone.

I didn't want anyone looking at me too closely, and passing on to anyone who asked that yes, they had seen a smallish girl with mousy brown hair on the ship, why do you ask?

I was in the hold, where the barrels of salted pork, corn meal, and ale resided, nested between huge coils of rope and crates of cargo. It was also where I'd chosen to stake my claim; quiet, and relatively secluded (except for random appearances from the cook whenever he needed supplies, who would take one look at me, snort, then walk out with a barrel of fish under each porky arm.) and even had a few old blankets strewn around. Okay, not strewn, really, more like packaged neatly with several dozen others in a crate that was a bitch to pry open, but what the hell, I was cozy.

It didn't really get that cold at night, actually. The huge boiler down below made the ship sweltering on hot days, but it stayed warm at night, even when the fog from the north blew in and caused the sailors above deck to gather in little huddles sipping large quantities of brandy.

The weather was changing. Back home, winter meant that you'd occasionally get a brisk wind or a roiling storm every once in a while, not even enough to make the palm trees wilt. It was late fall by now, and already I was loathe to get caught in the chilly regions abovedeck, where I would inevitably give my best small-lapdog-without-a-sweater-on impression. Not like home, where you could sleep on a reed mat in a corner of the room, with the wind blowing in sweet and warm from the jungle…

I stopped that line of thought with a snap and hauled one of the blankets up over me.

I wasn't going to think about home. I wasn't going to think about anything. I was just going to get to Furni and….

Huh. Hadn't actually thought of what I was going to do once I got there. I began thinking of the employment opportunities for a virile young woman- and quickly shied away from that thought.

I wasn't dancing for anybody.

Couldn't cook. (Apparently no one likes their meat well charred) Couldn't sew. (Hmph, it's not like a third sleeve isn't useful). Could probably serve drinks or something, but how long could that last when Dad was probably going to hop the next ship to the mainland to haul me back by the ear?

Really, the only option for me was to do what I was trained to do- fight.

I sat and thought on that a while. The ship obliged by making creaking noises and rocking back and forth as ships normally do. It smelled like hot soot and sweat down here. I was right underneath where they shoveled coal endlessly into the furnace; big sweaty men with black streaked skin and handkerchiefs tied over their noses and mouths, who yelled at me for getting too close the one and only time I expressed curiosity.

Could I do that? Fight, I mean.

There's something wrong with me, I thought angrily. I'm average. I've always been average. But when I fight when I'm mad…

Lotta was your best friend, hissed another part of me. You killed her, just like that. You broke her fucking face in with your bare hands. You know the noise she made. You know what your hand was covered with.

It was so easy to wash off.

A noise from above me. I scrunched down so I'd be harder to see, and peeked carefully out from behind a barrel.

The first mate. He bent down to move a box or two out of the way, then took a smallish one and hefted it experimentally. Whistling, he tucked it under his arm and walked back up the stairs to the noise and bustle of the boiler room.

I relaxed, and stretched my legs out, rubbing my greasy hair with one hand.

But it was the only thing I knew how to do. And apparently (here my thoughts took a jolting lurch to the land of Bad Morbid Humor) I was good at it.

And what's to say you couldn't be very good at it? To just let everything go and beat the shit out of everyone who looks sideways at you, to walk tall and shout a lot.

I leaned back and pinched the bridge of my nose.

Perhaps I could clean chimneys.

Making a disgusted noise with my teeth, I pushed the bucket of sick away with my foot so it wouldn't spill on me in the while I slept (an experience I had treasured last night) and rolled over one last time.

Smelling of stale puke and saltwater- I slept.

0.-0.-0

Her eyes met mine, wide and worried, and her voice was hesitant. "You're sure you want to go? You can just tell him I was out on the reef again and made you late."

I heard myself reply, but the words went all fuzzy and strange….

A foot in my back.

Grunting, I moved away from it, half asleep still. My arm had somehow ended up over my eyes while I was sleeping, and I couldn't see. "Guh-fuzzeh…." I said very intelligently.

Another half-kick, half-nudge. "Hey."

My arm slid off, and I peered blearily at the offender, my eyes muzzy with sleep still.

A sailor glared down at me, his expression displeased. I remembered him. One of the gruffer ones who scoffed at the seasick passengers and pushed ahead of us in the queue for food. His brow furrowed suddenly, "Hey, how long you been down here? You can't sleep here."

I looked around me. Light poured in from an open hatch in the ceiling. The ship was rocking gently side to side, but nearly as much as it had been on open sea. I frowned. "Are we at harbor already?"

"Yeah. Got here during the night." He said, his entire body conveying the idea that he spent a lot of time in small confined spaces looking over long lines of figures and by the gods, if the numbers didn't match, someone would pay.

"Oh." I said, feeling stupid. Of course I knew the Queen Fury was a fast ship, but I had no idea that it could reach Furni in a matter of days.

He nudged me again with his foot rather unnecessarily, and I found myself wondering what his reaction would be if I wedged his foot so far down his throat that he could tickle his spleen with his toes.

Hot excitement wakening in me, my sense sharpened, my eyes narrowed.

No. Don't kill him.

Oh, but he so very much deserves it, whined a part of me that I quickly shushed.

"Hey, come on. Time for you to leave, Miss." He said, patience apparently running thin. I rose to my feet stiffly, every muscle in my body screaming noooooo, we don't move like that anymore. I groped randomly around for the small bag of possessions I had brought with me, and held it protectively to my chest once I'd found it. I swayed dangerously on my feet. Oh dear. Though it had nothing left, I could feel my stomach rebelling once more. I stumbled quickly to the set of steep stairs that led to the upper deck.

The sailor's voice rang out from behind me, "Wait a minute, aren't you going to clean this up?" I heard a slosh, "What's in this bucket?"

I ducked my head, and started going faster. I made it with my head halfway out into open air before a clunk and a spattering sound confirmed that in his curiosity, the sailor had tipped over the bucket. I half-sprinted, half-fell across the deck to the gangplank, his shout of outrage and disgust that followed after me suggesting that perhaps he was going to have to wash his socks more than once.

But that was all behind me, as I stepped off the Queen Fury and was enveloped by Furni Harbor.

Oh, gods….

I was dizzily hearkened back to when I was a kid skipping out on practice, flipping through an old atlas in a dusty corner of our house, a room crowded with piles of ragged fishing nets, broken sparring equipment, rickety furniture, and a pile of old books. No one at home really had time for reading, but I had stumbled across that old room quite by accident one day, and had been instantly enamored with the grimy old tomes and their wealth of pictures, maps, and descriptions.

There, on a pile of old hand wraps and fishing wire, I had layed on my stomach with my ankles swinging in the air as I poured through the old texts. I read about the Trade City Lohan and its labyrinth of streets and stalls, and its bi-yearly warrior's challenge. I discovered the city of Fletz, with its twin spiraling towers representing the moon and the stars, surrounding the fat dome of the Sun. I read about the Flower City Donau, and the cramped inscription near the bottom of the first drawing, 'those with allergies, beware.'

And finally, Furni, the Water City.

'Streets composed of canals.´ it said. 'Economy mostly fishing, some business in the fur trade.'

That didn't even come close.

The harbor was a beehive of bustling activity. Seagulls keened over the maze of boat masts and pilings that jutted up into the sky. Groups of sailors loudly swaggered past me, tucking their shirts in and setting their hats to a more rakish angle as they prepared to spend their leave-time in the most entertaining manner possible.

I walked down the dock slowly, looking around with a look of pure amazement. This was like nothing I'd ever dreamed of.

I made my way farther down the dock until I hit the main street into town. The buildings matched the scratchy drawing in the book, which had given me the impression that they were all giant clay bubbles. They were, in a way; some small, some large, and some in the most random places, all made of pale mud and stone. There was some sort of gathering down on the other side of the bridge that was steadily drawing a crowd. As I drew closer, I became aware of more and more people around me, carrying crates of fish, or squawking poultry. Men poled tiny, flat-bottomed boats with effortless speed down the canals, shouting coarsely to each other with blistering language.

I hitched my bag up higher on my shoulder and walked cautiously further down the faded and creaking wood of the dock. Carefully avoiding a trio of men hauling a full net out of a bobbing fishing boat, I made my way to the walkway that lined one of the canals. The water rushed by in a steady current, pulling it out to sea. The water was clear, clean, and green, and wasn't clouded with sewage or choked with debris. I was surprised by this- until I saw all the guards lining the streets. One guy was stupid enough to drop his greasy sandwich wrapper into the pristine waters, and was immediately surrounded by no less than four surly-looking guards informing him that he could either reach in and pick it up, or get an impromptu swimming lesson from Burger here.

Burger had a large mustache and an unnerving way of flexing his biceps. I felt people relax a little around me as the offender sputtered, thought about it for a second, then quickly bent down to get his arm wet to the elbow retrieving his trash.

Everyone poured past me with an absent sort of hurriedness that made me feel twice as lost and kittenish as I already did. It was infuriating. I kept wanting to jerk them around by their collars and teach them the real meaning of a Zen Attitude. But that would probably result in me getting far more up close and personal with Burger's biceps than I ever wanted to be.

"Scuse me, Pet," said a bearded man with an absurdly tall hat as he shouldered past me carrying a large barrel of glistening fish. I stepped back hurriedly- too hurriedly, accidentally treading on the feet of the woman behind me. She was less courteous.

"WATCH it, idiot!" she snapped, and I was shoved rudely from behind, throwing me into yet another person's path.

Panic jolted through my veins like sick heat. Soon I was in the middle of a whole slew of irate people, each one loudly protesting the delay. One old woman caught me behind the ear with the knob of her walking stick, and it was only through rigid self-control that I didn't immediately give into the blinding rage that made me want to break it over her little gray head.

The guards were looking over here with increasing irritation at what I was sure was becoming a jolly good brawl. Fear flooded me- I felt the tang of it in my mouth. I quickly elbowed and slithered my way out of the mess I'd caused, and made fast my escape down an alleyway, probably breaking one guy's nose in the process. I didn't really regret it- plus, the crunching sound made up for a whole lot of the day's bullshit.

Warm readiness roiling in my gut, a sweet ache in my fists.

I shouldn't have felt good about that.

Sandals slapping loudly on the cobblestones, I headed further into the city.

0.-0.-0

It was all Gehrich's fault.

Maybe not. I could be rational about this and trace it back to my father, who trained Gehrich, and trained me.

But after Gehrich left, everything went wrong.

He was only a few years older than me, and my father's disciple by the age of ten. He was serious and quiet even then. I remember him from when I was little, sorting out my wooden playthings with me on the huge, expanding floor of my house. He had very black eyes, and an overly large, slightly beaky nose that stretched out very far from his face, and a very small, secret smile that showed up hardly ever, but when it did, it made him adorable. His big hands, rough and battered from his constant training, were gentle for all that, and carefully held my favorite toy as he asked what its name was.

He was always relaxed in my home, in the hours before my father returned from a day's fishing and fighting. Gehrich trained for many hours of the day, but he always made time to come and see me, and fix me lunch if he had a moment.

He was very devoted to his position as my father's disciple. He was gone all hours of the day and night, and as I got older, I heard stories of him having to stand atop a tall pole for hours, even days at a time. Or having to go out into the jungle with no weapons of any kind, and to return with the head of one of the great spotted cats. I didn't believe it though- he was always so gentle and slow on our rare afternoons together; and my own training was so lackadaisical that such dedication were incomprehensible to me.

Around that time, I had been training with a group of kids my age. Everyone in the village knew how to fight- we got raided so often that it was a necessity. Still, not everyone needed to be a complete master, just deadly enough to kick the ass of any scurvy-ridden pirate that thought our Island was the perfect place to "stock up" on supplies.

I was about thirteen when it happened.

I don't know where, or even what it was about, but Gehrich came back hard-eyed from one of his training sessions. I saw him walking furiously back from the platform, his jaw tight.

He didn't come to my house that night. Or ever after.

Dad was surly that night. Surlier than usual. He didn't think much of me; he thought that anyone who didn't spend twelve hours of every day mindlessly trying the punch through a building was obviously not serious about the Art. We didn't see each other much, he was always off training those who he wanted to succeed the school. I think it was because Mom died such a long time ago. He could deal with me then, I was just a small burbly person that he could coo at, then ignore. Once she was gone, he still didn't take any more interest than that.

He'd focused on Gehrich, instead.

Some said that they'd had a fight, but that idea was dismissed immediately. No disciple in his right mind would attack his master- least of all Haschel, who could take out anyone in the village with one hand tied behind his back and both eyes poked out with a stick.

But my father had moved stiffly that night, and he had a discoloration on his cheek that was no trick of the light. I imagined Gehrich's large hands curled into perfect, deadly fists, and nearly shivered.

And Gehrich didn't come back.

He'd left, they'd said. One of the smaller fishing boats was missing, and all his possessions were gone.

What did his family think? some asked. I remembered somebody else shrugging at that, and saying he didn't have any. Fever took 'em. Years ago.

My mother had died of that fever.

Gehrich had left, and no one knew why. My father was without anyone to pass his Art on to. But then he remembered me, and that's when things pretty much went to shit.

Really, you could say it was the begining of the pattern.