Taste of success

In which travelling wears thin

The Taste of Lies Part IV

Part I

Part II

Part III


Guppy’s feet hurt. It turned out no-one had bothered to cobble the world outside (to be fair she could see why, it was the least interesting thing her eyeballs had ever bled over). Instead, it was full of mud and puddles and grit and rocks and miles and miles of emptiness. 

The first day, she’d actually tried to pay attention to the journey so she could find her way back on the off-chance that they could escape. This proved to be doubly pointless: there was about as much differentiation as you’d find between the undersides of two slime covered paving slabs, and Grey’s knife never wavered from view. 

By day two, she was envisioning herself being carried along in a golden palanquin so her shredded leather soles floated above that bloody miserable surface.

By day four, she’d decided that if she were king, she would command that the entire land be covered in paving slabs with lots of fruit vendors dotted around the place. And her subjects would be ordered to mill along making lots of noise so there wasn’t this head-exploding silence. 

It turned out that Nate was even more miserable than she was (she felt a bit bad that this cheered her up). Grey kept him to heel through the entire march, and had been forcing him to tell the tiniest of lies over and over again. 

This had resulted in his rag-doll body getting repeatedly spattered with vomit, though Grey somehow always managed to stay out of the splash zone.

Shame, thought Guppy.

She supposed that it was possible there might have been a little less vomit exiting Nate’s mouth than there had been at the beginning, so maybe his tolerance was getting better. Or maybe he was just a whole lot emptier. 

Grey was looking grimmer, and Guppy suspected her threat to dump Nate was getting more likely by the day. 

Time to take action.

They’d set up for camp in a small copse that offered some shelter from the constant drift of rain that spiderwebbed their clothing. As ever, they ate in silence, jaws working over leathered strips of meat and small pats of nut-tack. Grey had taken to stalking a few more strides away to sleep, though she made sure her blades were still all too visible in the grey light.

‘Nate!’ Guppy hissed at the huddled figure curled up at the foot of a wide oak. She kept one eye on Grey, who lay completely still across the small clearing. 

The boy stirred and rolled slowly over to look at her. 

‘What do you want, Guppy?’ He sounded completely exhausted, voice emptied of every trace of fear. She scrambled forward over the squishy ground.

‘You gotta figure this thing out, else she’s gonna boot you. And you don’t want to end up with another slaver again.’

He shook his head, voice rising. ‘I’ve tried! I’ve been trying for days! I’m just not like you.’

Guppy paused, chewing her lip. ‘See the thing is, Nate, I reckon that lying is all about what you think is the truth. If I know something’s a lie, then it tastes like a lie. But if I say something I think is the truth, then it never tastes bad even if I find out later I was wrong. So I don’t get hung up on truth, it’s all just what I think at the time. And maybe that’s why it don’t taste so bad when I lie, part of me knows it could be the truth, somewhere, for someone.’ 

Nate’s pale face wrinkled, ‘So you’re saying truth doesn’t exist?’

Guppy shrugged, ‘I’m saying I’ve never found it all that reliable. Maybe that could help you.’

He sighed, ‘I’ll try. But I don’t see how going with Grey is any better than being with a slaver anyway.’

She nodded, glancing back at the long lean shadow that lurked behind her. ‘I’m not sticking with her, we’ll run as soon as we can. But if you can’t lie, you’ll get dumped off somewhere.’

‘Why do you even care?’

Guppy scowled. ‘I bloody well nearly burnt my tongue off last time I dropped you in it. I don’t fancy trying that again.’

He snorted softly, ‘I’ll try again tomorrow.’

***

‘Again.’ Grey’s voice pulled Guppy awake. Grey and Nate were standing a few paces away, their faces turned away. 

‘I’m from Casta.’ Nate’s voice wobbled slightly, but there was no heave to his shoulders, not a single retch. 

Guppy sat up, eyes widening. 

‘You’re a servant from Casta.’ Grey’s voice was as bored as it had been the day before.

‘I’m a servant from Casta.’ 

‘Good, you need to keep your face from screwing up, it’s still easy to see you’re uncomfortable. Again.’

Guppy flopped back with a wild grin. He’d finally done it. 

It was another three days before Casta came into view. Nate had only had four more vomiting incidents and was slowly getting better at keeping his face from scrunching. 

The capital city rose from the landscape in stocky steep pillars of dark grey. Walls made of blocks bigger than Guppy herself soared far ahead and curved around as far as her eyes could see. But with the looming grey came a new scent that flared her nostrils, had her sticking her tongue out to taste. Salt, like an exaggerated tale with the barest hint of truth, but a subtle sting rather than an eye-watering punch. 

‘Guppy! Pay attention.’ Grey’s fingers gripped her shoulder in a fierce pinch. ‘We need to get to the palace without anyone paying any attention to you. This isn’t going to happen if you keep gawping around. Get your head down.’

Guppy rolled her eyes and mouthed a silent imitation of her captor, but kept her head down as Grey walked them toward the heavily guarded gate in the wall. 

At the very edge of her vision, she watched the city pass by. It smelt more or less the same as home, apart from the salt that hung in the air – bread and uncleaned drains and brew and sweat. She nodded to herself. This she could deal with. 

And then she saw the palace. 

There was no helping the gawp. She pulled to a halt to stare, barely noticing Nate run into her from behind.

The palace streaked straight up from the edge of the city, surrounded by ordered groves of ancient looking trees that were weighed down by heavily scented blooms. It was made of the same grey stone as the rest of the city, but the blocks were much smaller, allowing for an almost delicate construction that was bigger than any building Guppy had ever imagined, let alone seen. 

Grey looked back over her shoulder, impatient frown ever present. 

‘What did I tell you about gawping?’

Guppy shook the startled expression from her face, and trotted toward the perfumed grove.

Bad taste

In which our heroine gets an unexpected job offer

The Taste of Lies Part III

Part I

Part II


Guppy’s eyes slid their way along all five inches of a slick steel blade, past a fine boned ivory hand, and up to the hardened eyes of a woman she’d never seen before. 

‘You and your friend are going to keep your mouths shut and come with me. Nod to show you understand.’ The woman’s voice was a hushed rasp in the darkness. Guppy nodded, elbowing the boy behind her to do the same. She was painfully aware that any movement she made could press her throat against that skinny blade. 

‘Good. We’re heading to the granary. If you try to run, you’ll get a knife in your back.’ The tone was brutally matter-of-fact. She gave Guppy a sharp shove after her knife slid away into the dark. ‘Move.’

They set off again, the sharp clicks of the woman’s heels punctuating their journey through narrow streets to the southern-most outskirts of the town. Here the cobbles turned to dirt, and the warm lights of houses fell away to leave them coated in murk. The boy’s gasps almost sounded shrill. 

The granary loomed up from the darkness, blocky shapes afloat heavy stone blocks. The woman stalked to the store at the very rear, and reached up to open the wooden door. She beckoned to the children. 

Guppy held the boy behind her, shoulders back and mouth set in a defiant line. The woman rolled her eyes and before Guppy could move, that blade was back in those fine white fingers, loosely held in lazy threat. 

Guppy scrambled forward and gave the boy a boost up to the doorway, shooting a scowl at the woman before hoiking herself up behind him. The store was mostly empty, save for scatterings of grain underfoot. There was a scraping behind them, and then pitch darkness as the woman closed the door. 

After a moment, there was a faint scrape followed by a soft hum, and a warm yellow glow burned through the black, emitted by the gleaming glass tube the woman placed by her thigh. 

She sat leaning back against one wall, long legs between Guppy and the doorway. She was dressed in greys, head to toe, including a heavy woollen cloak stained with mud around its hem. Her face was all angles, the light catching planes and casting shadows so it appeared one half of her was made of darkness. Even her eyes were grey. The eye in the light was fixed on Guppy’s face. 

‘So. It seems you two managed to get yourselves into an impressive amount of trouble. That slaver you cheated is rampaging all over town. Names?’

The boy beside Guppy hitched in a breath, then said, ‘Nate, I don’t know hers, she can’t talk.’

‘Is that so?’ The woman’s shadow eyebrow rose. Guppy stuck out her tongue yet again, feeling aggrieved that today of all days she couldn’t donate a piece of her mind to all the people she’d met. The woman leaned forward, inspecting. One hand slid to a pocket on the inside of her cloak. Guppy stiffened, but the hand emerged holding a small brown glass pot, rather than a blade.

‘Take a fingerful of this and rub it over your tongue. It’ll help the swelling go down.’

Guppy snorted. As if she was going to chomp something a crazy knife kidnapper waved at her. Before the snort was over, said kidnapper was waving said knife in her other hand. 

‘This isn’t a suggestion, girl. It’s an order.’

Guppy leaned forward and dipped a finger into the ruddy goop in the pot. She took a suspicious sniff. It smelled kinda lemony. Tentatively she swiped it over the tip of her tongue and then as the cooling sensation spread, she eased her finger over the rest of the swollen mass. Abruptly it became easier to breathe, as her tongue began to deflate. And the stuff even tasted nice. Neat.

The woman waited for a minute, then put the pot away. 

‘Tongue?’ Guppy stuck it out again. The woman gave a sharp nod. ‘Right, let’s try that again. Name?’

‘Guppy. What’s yours?’ It came out with a bit of a sticky slur but at least didn’t hurt anymore. 

‘You’ve got no need for my name, girl.’

‘Guppy, not girl.’

The woman stared at her. An eyeball thrashing had never had any effect on Guppy in the past, it wasn’t about to bother her now.

‘You can call me Grey. You’re in up to your necks. You’ve pissed off a major slaver and he’s got a good enough description of you that you’re finished in this town and probably the whole region. I’m going to do you a favour.’

Guppy raised her eyebrow in turn. ‘Does the favour involve your knife? That seemed real friendly back there.’

‘Silence.’ The woman snarled the word, moving her knife hand with gut watering speed and slamming it into the boards an inch from Guppy’s left foot. 

Guppy decided she should probably shut up for now and hear the crazy lady out. 

‘I’ve been keeping an eye on you. You seem to think you’re clever, child, when really you’re nothing but a petty thief. Still, a thief with potential.’ Grey frowned, pulling the knife from the board with a sharp tug. ‘You’ve accelerated my timeline a bit with your ridiculous plan – gods know what I’m going to do with him.’ Nate shrunk back from the shadowed glare. 

She focussed back on Guppy. ‘Have you heard of the Cerium?’

Guppy shrugged, ‘They tried to bump the old king off afore he went and copped it anyway.’

Grey gave a slow nod. ‘The Cerium failed in their attempts on the former king’s life, but they continue to lay snares for the present king. They were nearly successful not two months ago when the king was at the Spring Palace. Their plots were discovered and the king was made safe. But they will try again.’ 

Guppy gave another shrug, ‘Don’t mean nothing to me. No king ever made a difference to my life.’

Grey shook her head, ‘So naive. The world as you know it would fall apart if the king fell. He has no heir, no family. The kingdom would fall to civil war, and that would certainly affect your life. And so I ask that you give something to save the king.’

Guppy stared at Grey. ‘Ask? That the kind of asking that involves that there knife you’ve been waving around? Seems to me that isn’t exactly asking.’

‘Ah, let’s say, I strongly suggest that you give something to save the king. You have a talent girl, one that the king would greatly value.’ Her eyes burned into Guppy’s. ‘You have a way with lies.’

Guppy met her eyes with straight out denial, ‘Nope.’ Her mouth flooded with sourness, stinging her still tender tongue. 

Grey smiled as though she could taste the lie too. ‘Have you always thought it was just you? One girl in all the kingdom who can speak untruths without consequences? There aren’t many but those who are discovered are trained mercilessly and brought into service.’

Guppy frowned. ‘Trained mercilessly?’ 

‘It’s the kind of training that involves red hot pins under fingernails, mental torment, and unspeakable tortures, whilst being told to say “I’m fine” repeatedly without cease.’ Bleakness seemed to run over the woman’s features at her words.

Guppy swallowed. ‘Well, that doesn’t really sound like all that much fun, thanks and all that.’

‘You seem to have learned much without formal training, so I think we can proceed to the practical. We need people to act on the kingdom’s behalf against those who are suspected of being members of the Cerium. We need spies, Guppy. And spies need to be able to lie.’

‘And what about Nate here, he can’t lie.’ Guppy turned to the boy, ‘You can’t, can you?’ He shook his head, face pale. ‘Right, he can’t lie so he’s no good as a spy, right? I’m not about to hare off and leave him to the slavers.’

Grey tapped her long fingers against a grey boot. ‘The boy is a bit of an unforeseen problem. Perhaps we can try to teach him the skill. If not, we’ll leave him somewhere far enough away that the slavers won’t recognise him. My word on it.’

‘Riiiight. The word of someone who abducts boys and girls at knifepoint. Real trustworthy, I’m sure.’ Guppy reeled back as a ringing blow hit her left cheekbone. Grey seized her by the neckline and yanked her back the other way until they were nose to nose. 

‘You’ve got lip, girl. If you keep using it, I’ll start slicing pieces off. If you try to sneak off, I’ll hack you into fish food. And whatever I do to you, I do to him.’ Grey nodded at the trembling boy at Guppy’s side. 

Guppy shoved her furious response down. Time to be smart. 

‘Fine. So what’s going to happen to us?’

Grey eased back. ‘Tomorrow we leave this dump and head for Casta. Get your heads down for now.’

She picked up the light tube and the glow winked out with a hiss. 

‘And in case you get any ideas, you should know that I sleep with a blade in each hand.’


Taste of success Part IV