Salted Cod by Tina Fang

There are three suns in the sky, grazing the spires of the Last Temple. Greta, the lady of the final sleep, burns bright in the east. Rornes, the father of harvest, graces the south. And to the east, lies Magi.

The seaside port city that sprawls over rock and limestone never sleeps. There was a name for it once, now long forgotten. It is loud everywhere, and the constant babble of the city’s people fades into a heavy drone that lies over everything. However, it is unusually noisy down by the docks today, by the Maiden’s Honey and the Ocean Bane.

A girl with hair as black as witchwood is running for her life, and having the time of it too. Her cheeks are flushed with excitement, and each step she takes pushes the boundaries of her flexibility. There is half a block of butter, a pouch of salt cod, and a string of black sausages in her hand, a pittance that no other self-respecting thief would risk their life for. Brae isn’t doing it for the food, though.

She’s small but fast, and it takes less than half a dozen minutes to shake off the Count’s Guard. Their footsteps gradually fade as she plunges into the veritable labyrinth that is the less-respectable half of the Seaside City, and she can’t stop a smile from splitting her face. With a last burst of strength Brae navigates the narrow back alleys and arrives at the arranged rendezvous, besides the building with the purple door.

“Brae!” Ana tackles the older girl with a hug. Her hair smells like filth and raw fish. Brae laughs and returns the embrace for a moment, before gently pushing her away.

“How was it? Did you get caught?”

“Very nearly,” Brae says nonchalantly, handing the goods over. “I was chased for a good three blocks by the Guard. It was quite a good attempt on their behalf, I’d say. They almost managed to keep up for an entire five minutes.” She wipes her hands on her breeches, wrinkling her nose as it comes off smeared gray.

“Thank you,” Ana says gratefully. “Imogen has been craving butter on her bread for weeks, she’ll be ever so happy to have this. What’s in the pouch?”

Imogen, barely six, with eyes as round as the moon. Brae grins at the image of the child indulging in buttered bread. “Salted cod.”

Immediately, Ana hands the bag back. “Hayden’s deathly allergic to the stuff,” she explains. “Won’t even go near it, or else he’ll break out in hives. It’s all right, bring it home for yourself. We’ve got enough for a while.”

Hayden, Imogen, Ana and Under. A group of orphans that makes their home on a sheltered bit of roof above Screamer’s Pub, where the eaves manage to provide a bit of shelter from the rain. Brae bites her lip, accepting the cod. “I’ll be back in a day. Or two.” It will depend on how soon she can slip away. Good gods, the freedom, the anonymity, and the unpredictability of the streets…it is addicting. “I’ll be back.”

Ana sends her off with a beam and a wave, and Brae starts on the journey home, but not before making quick stopover in an isolated alley lined with refuse, bones, and filthy, unidentifiable objects. Holding her breath, she steps out of her homespun peasant garb and into a dress the color of sea foam. The bodice is lined with freshwater pearls, and the skirt billows out shamelessly, layers of chiffon and silk underneath.

Brae feels her street self slipping away like morning dewdrops. Slowly, she is turning back into Braelyn the heiress, Braelyn the aristocrat.

It does not take long to return to the manse. And, it does not take long for Mother to find her.

Countess Arabel is the spitting image of her daughter. Apart from a few streaks of gray and a few fine lines, the two can be mistaken for sisters and often are. Her expression is stony, and her eyes bear into Brae’s like sabers. “Braelyn Forsythia Arabel! Where have you been?” Her hair is pulled into a severe bun, and she seems to emanate a dangerous air that only mothers possess.

“I’ve been discussing, er, trade routes with Scholar Emory down at the libraries,” Brae defends hastily. She mulls over her lie. Yes, it is a good one. Quite plausible. She actually does harbor and interest in commerce- she just happened not to have spent much time on it today.

Mother’s expression softens fractionally. “And why did you suddenly take it upon yourself to visit the library? You know you had a fitting today. You knew.” The words are hurled at her, an accusation.

Well, yes, she does know! The fitting is precisely what Brae wanted to avoid today, and it seems she has succeeded. Making sure to keep her expression apologetic, she dipped into a half-curtsy. “Sorry, Ma.”

“You will help the kitchen prepare dinner,” Mother sentences her. “And the fitting has been rescheduled for tomorrow. I will wake you up myself in the morning.” She sweeps away, silks rustling on the marble floor, finished speaking.

Brae allows another small smile to slip. Today has turned out to be a truly exceptional day. First she gets to experience the exhilaration of stealing from the street vendors, then she gets to be chased by her parents’ own guards- disguised- and now, she gets to help Old Gertrude prepare food! With a little laugh, Brae dashes off, her leather boots slapping the floor.

The kitchen is lovely and lively, as it always is, a place of banging metal and smoke and spices. The women accept Brae as one of their own, and whip her out of her dress and into an apron in two bats of an eye.

“What’s for dinner?”

Old Gertrude’s chins wobble as she laughs. That woman is always laughing, no matter what the situation is. “What do you want to be boss of, Blackie? Entrees, mains? Desserts? Sides?” Her apron is a wonderful hodgepodge of splotches and delightful scents, and her hands are stained with something bright blue.

Whatever course it is, Brae muses, there will be some sort of seafood in it. Such is the way of cuisine prepared in seaside cities. “I’ll help out with the main dish today, Gertrude.”

“Swell, sweetling. Martha, check on the stew. Main’s is caramelized shark breast, stuffed with diced potatoes, onions, and carrots, sprigs of parsley on the outside. The ingredients are out over there. Think you can handle it?”

Brae bows mockingly. “Yes, sir!”

“Oh, don’t you give me none of that.” Old Gertrude smiles.

Brae sets herself up by the counter. Everything is laid out in an orderly line, down to the four different types of knives she would be using. As she leans over the counter, she feels a package press up against her. She reaches down, and draws out the pouch of sea cod.

Brae recalls the merchant from whom she’d filched the cod from. He’d had an odd little stall, with different types of pouches, and meat that was laid out in a queer fashion on his table. There had been a number of odd trinkets as well. She opens the pouch, and upends its contents.

Something pale purple and fleshy rolls out, stained with blood. Yes, it definitely carries a salty smell. What will she do with it?

There is only one answer to that.

It takes the better part of two hours to finish stuffing the shark, and it has diced cod as well as potatoes. Brae convinces herself that it will taste fine, washes her hands, and changes into an evening dress for dinner.

A thousand-diamond chandelier drips from the ceiling of the dining hall, throwing facets of light onto the walls. Dinner tonight is served to a small audience, only fifteen seated at a table that could easily host four times the number. The Minister of Finance, some high ranking navy officer, a couple of Father’s closest advisors, and of course, Mother and Father themselves.

Brae slips into her seat near the head of the table herself. Mother is on her left, and a mousy little man is perched on her right, sipping at his goblet every ten seconds or so. His eyes are slightly unfocused. Brae snorts and shifts away from him- the Chancellor is rarely sober, but it is uncommon for him to start drinking so early in the evening.

“How are you doing, my lady?” He asks, slurring only slightly.

Ladies wear manners like a knight wears armor. “I’m doing quite well, thank you.” Brae does not ask after the Chancellor, hoping he might return to his wine. No such chance.

“Have you, er…” he searches around for a conversational topic. “Have you heard about the plague, in the Ravine?”

“Yes, I’ve heard my Father talking about it. Isn’t it from eating contaminated meat?”

“Oh, no, no, no, my lady. The Plague originated from, ah, a fish that dwells in freshwater. A mutant fish, I believe…it was called a hycentha? Hyantha?

“Ah,” Brae says disinterestedly.

“Yes, a deadly disease. Very bad. The mutant flesh is pure poison, but it is slow acting. They say the ones who ate the fish, well, they say their blood turned…ah, but that’s too much, is it not? My apologies, my lady. I forget myself. It is nearly dinner.”

On that rather morbid note, the food arrives. Brae falls upon the appetizers eagerly as an excuse to stop talking with the Chancellor. There is a delightful broth of orange peels and seaweed, followed by a delightful array of shellfish drenched in southern sauces. The shark dish is excellent, and so is the shark blood jelly that follows. Brae retires to her chambers full and content, resigned to a dress fitting first thing in the morning.

 

2 weeks later

 

“Ill!” Ana gapes at Under.

The lanky youth scratches his peach fuzz, genuine distress in his eyes. “The Count’s family isn’t just ill, Ana. They can’t move, they’re supposedly in their beds all day and night. Their blood’s coming out all clotty, and there’s nothing the physikers can do to help.”

“No, no.” Ana groans. She had been annoyed with Braelyn for not coming for the first week. She’d been downright furious when the girly had been absent for the second. Now, though…to learn that Braelyn was in danger… “I don’t believe it! The entire family, at once? Where did you hear this?”

“It’s everywhere. News boys are shouting about it in the streets, and I’d guess it’s on every paper, though I can’t read.”

“What…what disease do they have?”

“They’re calling it the Plague. They seem to have contracted it from a mysterious purple meat in one of their meals.”