Saltish and the Sea-beast


It was the smell that woke them in the night.

They came down to the sea from their little turf houses and found it there, at the edge of the tide, limp and rubbery and glistening in the light of the moon. It was big, bigger than anything that had ever washed up before. Almost too big for the little sand beach. The whole village stood, a hesitant half-circle, staring.

Saltish, the Uphithlic girl, was the only one to approach it. She stepped forward and put her hand on the side of the thing. It shuddered and wheezed. The skin under her hand slid suddenly down.

She recoiled. Where her hand had been was a mass like white jelly, the size of her head, with a black and beady core. It was an eye! The weary thing looked at her. The village stepped back.

Its eyelid twitched like it could not bear the bright light of the moon, and its breath was sharp and shallow. Its skin was slick like fever, although maybe that was how its skin was supposed to look. There was no telling what was right. There was no knowing what it was, great, putrid, dying.

The waves broke hard over the rocks to the north and south of the narrow beach. They battered, too, upon the back of the thing, ran flotsam down its fins and fans and spine.

There was nothing to do but leave it to die, the terrible, bloated, asymmetric mass. The village returned to its houses of turf and driftwood and tied cheesecloths against its noses and slept. Only Saltish remained.

She stayed with the thing until morning, which came gray and late, the sky heavy with rain. The thing appeared to be sleeping. It snored a low, rumbling snore.

At some point in the morning Saltish too fell asleep, curled up on the sand, and when she awoke the tide had nearly abandoned the thing. The sea had begun its autumnal retreat a few weeks before, and would not rise again until spring. Soon there would be no hope for it.

Saltish walked across to the beach-hut where the whaleboats were kept and dragged one down to the water's edge. She found ropes and wrapped one around the horns of the thing and another around its thick, flat tail in a way she hoped would not hurt it.

She tied the loose ends of the ropes to the stern of the whaleboat and launched it and began to row. When she reached the mouth of the cove, the ropes went taught. She was far enough out. With each stroke, now, she was pulling at the ropes.

The thing opened one of its eyes and looked out at the little girl in the little boat at the end of her ropes on the sea. It exhaled what could be a cough or a wheeze or even a laugh. It closed its eye and resumed its death.

Saltish continued to pull against the thing, watching it. It did not budge, of course, from its sandy destitution, but the ropes held fast. Perhaps she could encourage the thing to help her. Help her help it. She pulled.

It seemed to be asleep again. She stopped for a second to wipe the rain from her eyes. When she looked up again the thing was looking at her. She picked up the oars again and it closed its eye.

The day crept away in the gaps between the rain. Light was scarce on that east coast of Hithlid. The sea was black, the hills in mist. Even the sand was dark and swampy. It was the place the sun forgot, or didn't care to go, a shore that was only home to people because people will make a home anywhere.

Saltish had tried to leave before. That was the issue with home, even if there was nothing redeeming about it. There was always something that tethered you to the shore.

She pulled all day against the blubbery thing on the beach. The village ignored her. One fisherman launched his boat and rowed past. He looked at her but didn't say anything.

The day dragged along. Soon, the low blanket of the sky had begun to go dark, and the thing had still not moved. She put down the oars and let the lines go slack. The thing was still.

She rowed back to shore and slid the whaleboat up onto the soggy sand. She put a hand on the thing's scaly back. It was cold, but not lifeless. It was breathing in time with the waves.

Saltish walked up towards the village and to the door of the northernmost house. It was a village in name only, just a sea-facing line of lonely, hunched, half-buried houses.

They passed her around, took turns like a chore. That's how it had been since she arrived. She'd been staying in this one for a month. She knocked the clumps of sand from her boots and opened the door.

"You were out there all day," said the mother.

Saltish took a piece of whale meat from the dish on the table. That was all these people ate. The ground couldn't be farmed and the sheep had all been killed by wolves.

"I don't know how you aren't bothered by the smell of the thing," said the mother.

"She likes it because they look the same," said the boy.

"Now," said the mother, like a chore, but the father chuckled under his breath.

"And they showed up the same," continued the boy. "Came from nowhere, all ready to die."

The mother turned to the father. "How were the hills today?"

The father was gruff. "Same."

"Well, hopefully they'll come soon."

Saltish ate without looking up. She wasn't sure what the father did in the hills. When she was done, she went back outside. None of these houses had more than one room. There was nowhere to go but out.

The little Haskil was playing in the ditch behind his house. She walked over. He was the best of them, she thought, too young to be like the others.

He had pieces of driftwood he'd turned into a tiny tower. "You try," he said when he saw her, and she knelt to examine the tower. A piece near the bottom looked loose. She gently worked it out of the tangle and added it back to the top.

"Good!" he said. He wasn't used to having a playmate. He slid a piece out of the middle, and the tower wobbled, but didn't fall. He stacked it on top of the others and grinned.

Saltish put her face close to the ground and looked at all the little holes between the sticks. Each one held up another. She couldn't immediately see one she could pull out without the whole tower toppling down.

Suddenly there was a boot on her back and her face hit the dirt and the crumbling tower of sticks.

"Look who just lost the game," jeered a voice from behind her. Haskil started to cry.

"And now little Haskil is sad," said another. "Why'd you have to lose the game like that?" The boot relaxed and Saltish turned over to see the village boys. The one she lived with stood towards the back.

For a minute she laid there in the dirt and the boys stood over her, self-satisfied, looking at her and the mess of the fallen tower They were victorious but they didn't seem to know what to do next.

Saltish lifted her head at looked at Haskil. He was sitting in the dirt, with his hands over his eyes, waiting for the boys to go. She twisted to look at them.

"She's going to feed Haskil to the monster!" blurted the boy she lived with, breaking the silence.

And then the boys seemed to know what to do. They grabbed her and picked her up and one of them hit her and it hurt like being woken from a deep sleep and all she wanted to do was get back to dreaming and groggy she watched Haskil fade into the dark as the boys carried her down to the beach.

She heard only fragments in the space between the wind. "...sea-witch... she likes it so much... probly gonna marry it..."

They flopped her into the whaleboat and Saltish was grateful. They pushed the whaleboat down the sand towards the surf, and Saltish, half-awake, saw the shape of the sea-thing towering over her. She wondered then why nobody else in this place was interested in it.

It was her last thought. The boys heaved the whaleboat into the waves and it rocked like a cradle and Saltish drifted into sleep.


When the morning cracked it cracked like an egg, sticky and wrong as the blood on the bruise on her head. Saltish groaned. There was light in the sky, unnatural, yellow light. A break in the clouds. The sun.

She pulled herself onto the seat of the whaleboat and tried not to fall into the sea. Land was a dull horizon behind her.

The whaleboat heaved suddenly and Saltish jerked forward onto her knees. There was a great swelling in the water to the side of the boat.

She peered down. The water betrayed nothing, shadowed and murky, and then the shadow darkened and swelled with the sea and grew until it parted the waves and rose mighty to look at her.

It took her a moment to recognize the magnificent sea-beast as the thing from the beach. It was iridescent and huge and very alive. It had whiskers like seagrass and a great turquoise dorsal fin and patches of scales and vast swaths of glass-smooth skin. It blew a high stream of water from the blowhole on top of its head. It looked at her now with the same eye she'd seen open two nights ago.

Had it followed her out here? How had it gotten off of the beach? It seemed to recognize her. It dove, fast as it had come, and the whaleboat rocked, and the sea-beast rose again on the opposite side. It looked at her with a constellation of eyes she had not yet seen. It was the side of the sea-beast that had been pressed against the sand.

It was alien beauty, unbelievable scale. When it was grounded, withered and dying, it hadn't looked this big. It could probably swallow the whaleboat whole, if it had a mouth. Saltish wasn't sure which part was its mouth.

It still showed signs of death. The thing had tears in its fins and pits where once there were eyes and scars like trenches across its skin. Its eyelids still twitched as they had on the beach, like it could not bare the light for long. And it was wrinkled, formless. Whole unidentifiable parts of it were dead, limp weight. Whatever purpose they once served, that purpose was gone.

It gently bumped the whaleboat with its wide, spherical head, in the direction of shore.

"No. I cannot go back," said Saltish to the sea-beast. She hadn't confronted the fact until she said it, but it was true. She could not go back.

She could not go anywhere, in fact. The whaleboat was missing an oar. She'd left them both in the oarlocks last night, but only one remained, dragging lazy in the water as the waves went by. Maybe the other had fallen out in the swell? Or maybe the boys had knocked it loose by accident.

There was an old, torn net stuffed into the bow and a whaling harpoon someone hadn't bothered to put away. Nothing she could use.

The ropes she'd tied, however, were still wrapped around the sea-beast. Their ends were drifting on the waves. She leaned out across the water and the whaleboat heeled and she reached and splashed at the water and grabbed one of the ropes. The sea-beast watched her with all of its eyes.

She tied the rope to the stern with a knot that was easily untied and hoped the beast did not dive too far. She sat back down.

And then the sea-beast began to swim. It swam south, towards the yellow sun, and the whaleboat trailed behind. As the other ropes she had tied to the beast straightened out behind it she leaned out and plucked their frayed and dripping ends from the water and tied them along with the first.

The beast was slow. It swam with its wide flat tail just beneath the surface and its gargantuan forehead high and wide like the prow of a ship. Saltish did not know where it was taking her but she knew she did not have much choice.

The sea looked mostly the same up close as it did from shore. Where would she go if she did have a choice? She wasn't sure.

She knew of a place, around the Horn and a few miles into the Sanguine Sea. Tåsk. The ministerial city. The villagers did not like to speak of it. When they did they had bad things to say.

It was a village where the people knew nothing. Or, it seemed, knew only one thing. They could not all hunt or cook or care for sheep. Each in that village had a singular job and they never learned to do anything else. They were useless on their own.

Maybe there was a person in Tåsk whose job was to tend to beached sea monsters. She couldn't imagine a more preposterous thing.

Saltish realized the sea-beast had stopped. The whaleboat drifted up to bump against the hulk of the thing. She looked around. They were just as far from the hazy shore as they'd been. There was flotsam in the water, driftwood, a mess of weeds and wood.

A tentacle of the sea-beast emerged from below, curled and picking at the flotsam. After a moment it wound around a long, thin branch and lifted it up and Saltish saw that it was an oar! The tentacle dropped the oar in the whaleboat and slunk back into the water.

It was greenish, half-rotten, but it fit into the oarlock like it was meant to be. Saltish gave a hesitant row. It was a different length to the original, and the whaleboat turned ever so gently to starboard with the stroke, but at least she could move.

The sea-beast watched the whaleboat slide forward through the flotsam. It gave a rumbling snort and flopped down to float on the surface. It closed its single upwards eye, then opened it to watch Saltish for a moment, then closed it again.

Saltish began to row. She went south along the coast, and pulled the beast along behind her. It was lighter than it looked, high hulk of briny flesh and fins, hardly a burden.

Mostly, the sea-beast was too weary to swim on its own. Sometimes, though, it powered ahead, splitting the waves with its alien fins. Still she rowed.

She looked often out to her left at the deep and misty green coast of Hithlid, and at the sea-beast and the wake of the whaleboat as she sat and rowed. It was a funny thing, not being able to see where you were going, always looking back at where you were.

It was in this way that she came almost by surprise to the Horn of Hithlid, the great headland which marked the entrance to the Sanguine Sea. Upon it, black as soot, stood the iron ruins of a dark and ancient tower. Perhaps it had been a lighthouse, millennia ago. Certainly no light remained.

Slowly she rowed the whaleboat and the beast around the cape and came along the grim northern shore of the Sanguine Sea. This was not like the land she knew. Brown and barren was that coast, full of skeleton trees picked clean by the wind. The water shimmered, glassy, like oil.

She had heard ill things of the Sanguine Sea, things she couldn't quite believe and yet didn't want to give chance to be true. But Tåsk was the only town she knew of, other than the village. Where else would she go? She continued to row.

They crossed a great bay between the Horn of Hithlid and a low, gravelly, winter-tidal peninsula that looked recently revealed. The bay was sparsely dotted with monumental, rusty-orange, time-worn hulks. They were like parts of ships, but made entirely of metal, cut, impossibly, into geometric segments, jagged chunks of hull. Like some giant child had taken apart his toys, strewn them across the floor, to make abstract art.

Saltish pulled the slumbering sea-beast into the shadow of a cross section of the high, flat stern of one of the ruins. The water was deep and still. The sea-beast was pale. There was little color left in its iridescent scales, and no wind in the gaps between the hulks. The bay stank of receeding tide.

She continued to row, until the hulks were black shapes on the horizon. They looked like scraps of stiff paper, the leftover shapes, half circles and slivers, stuck vertical into the bay and the littoral sands. She was glad to be out again in open water. She didn't feel hungry or thirsty or tired. She didn't feel much of anything.

The sun had gone and come again when she noticed a rippling in the water beside the beast. The sea-beast was asleep - it had been for hours.

She put down the oars and stood up in the boat and peered out at the inky water. Like an egret she watched.

There it was again. A swift cut in the water around the side of the beast, and then nothing.

She waited, still as could be, feeling the whaleboat rock beneath her feet.

And then the sea-beast howled and twisted in the water and the whaleboat jumped and Saltish staggered and two-stepped and fell back against the seat.

There was blood in the water. The sea-beast rolled, revealing a wide gash in its side.

There was blood in the water and something else. She saw a tall jagged fin cut the water's surface, arcing, again, around the sea-beast. A shark.

Without taking her eyes off the shapes in the water Saltish felt her way to the bow of the whaleboat and her hands found the old harpoon tangled in line. It was old and weather-beaten but the head was still sharp and it would have to do.

When she made it back to the stern there was no sign of the shark. The sea was awash with dark shadows and shimmers. Saltish tried to make out which shadows were just plays of the light, which shadows had teeth.

There was nothing to do but wait. She didn't have to wait long. The sea-beast twisted in anguish again and the water splashed red and Saltish saw the shark.

It was circling the whaleboat and the sea-beast. Without the time to think she brandished the harpoon and swung to hit the fin as it passed but only slapped the water lamely. The shark turned. It was interested in the whaleboat, now.

It powered away for a moment and then snapped around and came coursing back like an arrow, fins like fletching, whistling, whistling, and then a bang and the whaleboat spun and Saltish reeled and buckled and fell to her knees to avoid being thrown into the water.

The whaleboat settled and Saltish stood again and scanned the water. There it was, already coming back. The whaleboat's hull was not thick. It might not take another hit.

The fin of the shark like an arrow again came speeding towards her and she raised the harpoon and the shark passed below her and she plunged the harpoon into the shadowy water and the shark hit the hull.

Saltish bucked forwards again and it was only the buoyancy of the shark at the end of the harpoon that kept her from toppling into the water.

She steadied herself, threw her weight back into the whaleboat. She let go of the harpoon and it drifted away, tipped slowly, and was swallowed by the sea.

The beast gave a pitiful snort. Its blowhole oozed with the inky, oily water of this Sanguine Sea. It was clearly in pain, but still afloat.

After a moment, it settled, and so did Saltish. She picked up the oars and continued to row.

It was thus, the next day in the morning, that the girl in her boat pulled the dying sea-beast into the high-walled harbor at Tåsk.


Saltish stood in the whaleboat and looked up at the wharf. She'd never seen stone like this before, so tightly packed together that it held the water out. It was like looking up at a cliff.

She had pulled the sea-beast into a square little pocket of harbor, enclosed on three and a half sides by that high, tight stone. The summertide line was already some way up the wall, but the water betrayed no bottom. The sea-beast floated low, curled against the far corner of the slip, breathing, slowly, in and out.

There were stairs, steep and narrow, set into the stone on the left, and Saltish climbed them. There were 60, and who knew how many more beneath the water's surface. At the top, she turned to look down at the dying thing. It was small, from above.

The street was clean and empty. There were buildings, so many of them, and like the stone they were so tight together she could not see a gap between any of them. The height of the wharf provided a wide view of the harbor and the barren, sandy foothills north of the city, sparsely peppered with those black, iron ruins. Lonely spires like hair on the spine of the earth, stood straight up.

There was a narrow street between two houses and she followed it. It was a long way up to the sky, in there, but she eventually made it out and on the other side was a wider street, with more tall buildings all pressed together. There was nobody out. The street was clean, as if it had just rained. There was no dirt on the cobbles or moss in the cracks.

She walked for a while, through the tangle of streets and claustrophobic alleys, between houses that leaned on each other and grand fountains and facades of buildings bigger than anything she'd ever seen, painted shades of white and gray, with grids of high glass windows like hundreds of eyes.

She was certainly lost when a bell rang out like thunder. A door opened, across the street, and a tall man emerged. He had long black trousers and a tall black hat and small flowers pinned to the collar of his jacket.

All down the street, more doors opened, and more people stepped out. Saltish ducked, instinctively, into the alley behind her, and then realized it was people she was looking for, and emerged again.

The first man saw her and nodded, started walking up the street, and then spun on his heels. He strided over to her, efficiently.

"Minister," he said to her, in greeting.

"Hello, I am -" she began to say.

"What is your office?" He peered at her, as if not sure what to make of what he saw.

"My what?"

"I have never heard of a ministry with a code of attire that is so..." He searched for the word. "...flotsammed."

Saltish looked down at herself. Her coat was greenish and torn and some of the sea had, indeed, come up onto it while she was rowing.

"What is your office?" he repeated.

"I have only just arrived in your city, I am sorry. I do not -"

"Ah! Forgive me." He looked her up and down again. "My name is Ollevur Mayconcern. You look like you have traveled far. But I did not want to presume."

"I have a - a thing, I have brought with me," she said. "I am not sure who -"

He cut her off. "Unfortunately I cannot help you. I have a job to do, you see. But I can take you to the Ministry for the Greeting of Far-Begotten Travelers. It is on the way to the cemetery."

At that, he set off up the street, and she had no choice but to follow.

There were more people out, now, all dressed similarly to the man.

"Hullo, Brokur!" said Ollevur to another man, who wore straps around his shoulders that seemed to hold his trousers up. "That's the Minister for the Loosening of Traffic Jams," he said to Saltish. "He doesn't do much; traffic jams haven't been invented yet. But we think they will be big one day."

They turned a corner to follow a wide promenade, where street-lanterns hung from a grid of wires between the eaves of the buildings. The street led uphill, and in the distance she could see the hills north of the city, and the glinting of the iron of a half-hollow tower. Like the lighthouse she'd passed, was that yesterday? Two days ago?

"We are all ministers, here," he explained. "We each have a job, and each job is unique."

"What is your job?"

"I am the Minister for the Putting of Flowers on Graves," he said. He turned the corner. "It is tiresome work, but someone has to do it."

By now the street was full, a river of long legs and tall hats. Despite the crowd, everyone seemed to know exactly where to walk to avoid running into everyone else. People here were dark and tall and trim, and Saltish felt inadequate, ragged, pale and pallid in her sea-stained coat and knotty hair.

"Where do you come from?" Ollevur asked.

"Hithlid. I was born in the inland hills."

"I suppose, then, you are unfamiliar with the concept of Rush Hour. Well, this is that." An awful grinding sound broke the crowd in two and Ollevur pulled her aside as a bright yellow carriage rolled past on little grooves in the street. Or, it was like a carriage, but boxy and large and made all of metal, with two bent rods like antennae which scraped the street-lantern wires and threw little sparks of light into the air.

"Mustn't get hit by the tram," he said. "Here." He led her around a corner and up to a little red door with a sign on it that said: Ministry for the Greeting of Far-Begotten Travelers. "I have to go. Temeley will take care of you. Welcome to Tåsk." Before she could respond, Ollevur had disappeared into the throng of the street called Rush Hour.

Saltish, tentative, opened the door and stepped inside. The room was dark. It smelled of pine. There was a counter near the door, and several desks and chairs beyond that.

"And I said, I said how can you enjoy the party without the paperwork? You have to take - Oh! Oh, my." A round-faced, graying woman was leaning back in a chair behind the counter, talking to someone out of sight. She stood up when she noticed Saltish. "Oh, my. You look an awful lot like a Far-Begotten Traveler."

"Hello," said Saltish. "A man called Ollevur sent me here."

"Oh, Ollevur! Lovely, lovely. What a clever man. Yes, it looks like he sent you to the right place indeed. One moment. Yalle!"

She put on her spectacles and examined the girl. "You have come far, hmm? Yes. Well, step up to the counter, please."

Saltish stepped forward.

"I, Temeley Findsyouwell, in accordance with my office as the Ministry for the Greeting of Far-Begotten Travelers, hereby welcome - sorry, what's your name?"


"I, Temeley Findsyouwell, in accordance with my office as the Minister for the Greeting of Far-Begotten Travelers, hereby welcome you, Saltish of Faraway, to the city of Tåsk." She pushed a piece of paper across the counter. "Sign on the dotted line, please."

She noticed Saltish's blank stare. "Oh. Perhaps you don't know how to read. Well, just draw with the pen there what you think your name looks like."

Saltish, puzzled, drew a little tuft of hill-grass on the dotted line.

"Perfect. Formalities done. Are you here for tourism? Visiting relatives?"

"I -"

"Ah! And, I'm sorry to say, the Minister for the Giving of Gift Baskets to Foreign Visitors is on holiday - hopefully receiving a gift basket of his own, bless him - so you'll have to make do until he comes back. Now, what do you need?"

Saltish wasn't sure what to say. Temeley smiled encouragingly. "A thing washed up on my shore. In Hithlid. I thought, maybe, somebody here could help it."

"Oh my. What kind of thing?"

"A... a sort of whale, maybe? I don't know if it has a name."

"A whale?" said a voice. "You brought a whale here from Hithlid?"

The man of the voice emerged from the back of the room. He had a large handkerchief in the pocket of his coat. He was younger than Temeley.

"This is Yalle. Minister for the Sending-Off of Far-Begotten Travelers."

"Where is it?" he asked.

"I'm not sure it's a whale. I left it by my boat. It's not like any whale I've ever seen."

"Oh my," said Temeley again.

"Halibur would want to know," said Yalle.

"Why don't the girl and I go down to the wharf, and you can get him and meet us there." Temeley put on a long red jacket and a hat that looked like a bird and swept Saltish out the door with her.

"Halibur works with big fish," Temeley explained as they walked. "Him and Yalle were school-friends. Yalle's job isn't very exciting, so he's always rearing for a chance to do something with the day."

Temeley led the way back to the harbor and Saltish watched the people of Tåsk as they passed. They all sort of looked the same. They had long thin legs and they walked carefully through their city, like spiders on a giant web.

The whole of Tåsk seemed so delicately constructed. It was nothing she could have imagined from the village in Hithlid. Most of the buildings appeared to lean on each other, and those very few which stood on their own had wires and street-lanterns and signs on them.

You couldn't have knocked a building down if you tried. The whole city would topple, like Haskil's game.

"Did you dock - oh, you did, yes. Oh! Oh my." They had arrived at the wharf and Temeley plugged her nose and looked down at the sea-beast floating low against the stone.

A small crowd had gathered. Saltish ducked through the people and rushed down the 61 stone stairs to the water's edge. She stepped into the whaleboat and pulled it along the wall until she could lean out across the water and put her hand on the beast. Its skin was hot to the touch.

But, sure enough, it was breathing. She could feel the rumbling wheeze of its lungs.

She turned to look back up at the crowd and saw Temeley waving her up. A man beside her was pointing down at the beast, arm outstretched, mouth agape. Probably the Minister of Ogling, or of Pointing and Looking at Peculiar Sights, or something like that.

Saltish climbed back up the stairs in time to hear the end of what Temeley was telling the crowd. That girl, fresh from the wild hills, had brought a whale to Tåsk. When she stepped up onto the street, the crowd barraged her.

"Minister for the Collection of the Waste on Guvenor Street," said one woman, holding out her hand.

"The Ministry of Marital Affairs welcomes you," said another.

The man who'd been pointing briefly paused to shake Saltish's hand. "Minister for the Tax of Wild Animals Kept on Public Land," he said. He noticed her look. "Oh, the pointing. That's just a hobby. The Minister for Bystanding, he's the professional." He nodded towards a man standing off to the side, who waved, shyly.

"Minister for the Keeping of the Clocks," said a man with a wide moustache. "Alburt Alburtur. I've been here for ages."

"Alburt!" said the woman from Marital Affairs. "The clock tower is on the other side of the city - you'll be late for work!"

"I'll be the judge of that," said the Minister for the Keeping of the Clocks. "And anyway, I wouldn't want to miss this. What is that thing?"

Saltish looked up. The whole crowd was looking at her. What should she say? She didn't know what it was.

"She isn't sure," said Temeley after an awkward moment.

"It washed ashore on the beach of my village, in Hithlid," said Saltish. It seemed wrong to call it a village, after seeing this one. "We left together. It was bit by a shark. I pulled it here."

Yalle and three other people rounded the corner and came towards the crowd. "Ah!" said Temeley. She beckoned Saltish away from the edge of the wharf to meet them.

"Halibur Insofar, Minister for the Health of Leviathan Beasts," said the tallest of them. He shook her hand gravely. He had a blue cap and a wide beard and wrinkles around his eyes.

"I am Saltish," said Saltish.

The other two were short and thin and spectacled. They introduced themselves.

"I am Wellamie Aggregate, the Minister of Greater Nautical Loss," said the first. She held out her hand.

"And I am Redda Wherewithal, the Minister of Lesser Nautical Loss." He held out his hand as well. Saltish, unsure, shook them both at once.

"I deal with sunken ships," said Wellamie.

"And I deal with the ruined pocketwatches of the sailors that survived," said Redda

"We spend a lot of time together," said Wellamie.

"Yes", said Halibur. "Lots of cases of Nautical Loss involve a Leviathan Beast. They run into a ship by accident, or think it is food and attack it, or, more rarely, think it is one of their kind and try to mate with it. Unnatural, ungodly things."

Redda winced at the thought.

"Let us see what you have found," said Halibur, and led them to look over the high wall of the wharf. Wellamie whistled low under her breath.

"Amazing!" said Halibur.

"Astounding!" said Wellamie.

"Incredible!" said Redda.

"Macroraptorial!" said Halibur, like punctuation, and the three of them rushed down the steep stone stairs.

By the time Saltish reached them they had piled into the whaleboat to examine the sea-beast. She jumped in and pushed them closer.

"I have not see this class of Beast before," said Halibur. "But I have read something about them. Sailors trawling the Headwinds -"

"Look," said Redda.

The sea-beast shook, its blowhole oozed. It opened an eye, to look at the whaleboat of ministers, and closed it again. Then, slowly, it turned on its side, exposing fins and fans and weedy tendrils and, there, just where its flat skin transitioned to scales, were wounds, pink and terrible.

"Hideous," muttered Wellamie.

"Beautiful," said Halibur. "I do not know, actually, if I recognize your beast. It has come far." He reached out, peered into the two shark bites. The first was shallow, just an arc of punctures left by teeth, but the other was fleshy and torn, like the shark had tried to steal a piece of the thing.

Halibur put a hand on the scales of the beast, and with his other reached into the wound. For a moment, he hovered, indecisive. And then, swiftly, he pulled.

The sea-beast screeched, desperate-eyed. Halibur opened his hand. A tooth. The tooth of the shark. The sea-beast saw it and calmed, all of its matrix of eyes trained on the bone-white fang.

"I can try to stitch its wounds. I am not sure if that will save it. But I can try," he said. He stared long into the eyes of the sea-beast.

"It has come far. Perhaps from the north, out from under sea-ice high thick as mountains. Or the radiant south, from deep reefs and wide, sandy-bottom trenches." Halibur put a hand on the beast's glossy skin. "Or, maybe, it came from the east, beyond the Headwinds, past Wregedlek and all the scraps of ragged land. Beyond the range of any bird, where the sea is truly deep. Where a sea-beast like this one can call out, lonely, whalesong running for miles along the current, and there is nothing with ears to hear it."

The crowd above was growing restless. Saltish was not sure they could hear what Halibur was saying. He ran his hand along the spine of a fin of the beast.

"Where the waters are pure, untouched by the grim foulness that perverts this land and sea," said Halibur. "Where the autumntide goes."

"There is no knowing where it is from," said Redda. "If only it could speak."

The sound of the crowd had grown to a roar, and the sound of it echoed down and off the walls of the wharf.

"There is much we do not know," said Halibur. "We are blind. We live on a grim, oily harbor, in the foothills of a -"

"Halibur," said Wellamie, and she nodded up the stairs.

Saltish looked, too. The crowd had parted, and in the gap stood a new crowd. They were black-robed and high-hooded. There were four or five or eight of them, or there could have been more.

"The Witch-Ministry," said Halibur under his breath.

"The girl cannot be permitted to stay." A gravelly voice ricocheted down to the water. It was impossible to tell which one was speaking.

"That thing..." said another.

"The fish is evil."

"It brings only death to our city of Tåsk."

"The girl. She must leave."

The hooded ministers began to file down the stairs, chanting low, quietly. "Black beast, black beast." There were twelve of them, equally robed, equally drooping and dour.

The first one stopped, seven steps up from the lapping water's edge. Each stopped one step up from the last. The points of their black hoods like the spires of a horrible house.

They spoke in order, from the first to the highest and last.

"I am the Minister of the Aura of Death."

"And I, the Minister of Rot."

"Minister," said the third, "of Evil Odor."

"Minister of Containment and Exile," said the fourth.

"I am Minister for the Negative Twelfth," said the fifth.

"And I, Minister of Lice and Gnats."

"Minister of That Which Echoes in the Night."

"We are the Ministers of Omens and of Ill Portent," said the eighth and the ninth.

"I am Minister of the Burying," said the tenth.

"And I am the Minister for the Putting of Flowers on Graves," said the last, and Saltish saw that it was Ollevur. He held a single flower, a water lily. A water lily, for a watery grave.

"She cannot stay," said the first, the Minister of the Aura of Death. "Not while that thing draws evil down from the hills."

"It is not evil, it is dying!" said Halibur.

Redda and Wellamie stepped off the boat and climbed the stairs, heads down.

"What is the difference? Its rot will bring an end to us."

"Its rot is our own! Our city is a city in the very land of rot. Can you not see? It did not used to be sick. It did not used to be dying. This beast became ill when it came into our waters." Saltish was not sure if what he said was true, or how he could know.

"Our sea is changing," said Halibur. "None can deny. It is a compounding thing. More things wash ashore than ever before. Ships come back with empty nets, or don't come back at all."

He paused, considering. "There are some, I know, who believe what happened to our ancestors is happening again. We live in the foothills of the ruins of a society that did not survive itself, a people we cannot begin to imagine, and we cannot see beyond our own quaint bureaucracy, our own fear."

"All the better to send away such evil," said the Minister of Rot.

"Lest it draws its evil to us."

"Can't you see?" asked Halibur "It is our duty to mend these wounded things, not send them away to be wounded alone. We are what remains. If it is evil, rotten, should it not be kept away from other things? From the not-yet-rotten world? Send it away and it will die in our waters. If I have learned one thing in my Ministry, it is that the sea is a delicate thing. Death in the water is death on all of its shores."

Like Haskil's game, a tower of sticks. Pull one out and things start washing up on the beach.

"Nonsense," said the Minister of Lice and Gnats.

"We will poison our city," said the Minister of Rot.

"The sea on which we live is poisoned already!" exclaimed Halibur to nobody.

"The thing is rotten. Expired."

"It cannot be eaten."

"It cannot be burned."

"It cannot be buried," said the Minister of the Burying.

"It must be expelled."

"You cannot just make them leave!" Halibur protested. "After they have come all this way! We can help her! Help this beautiful thing! It is our duty!"

"The choice is made."

"The cards are dealt."

"She could never have stayed."

"There is too much evil in the flesh she hath brought."

"She must take her ill fish with her."

"She must leave."

The Witch-Ministry rushed down the stairs and seized Halibur by his arms. He struggled, then gave in. "I am sorry," he said to Saltish. "I think you ought to do what they say."


None of it mattered.

What had Halibur said? A society that did not survive itself. She let go of the oars and looked at the ruins of a tower, high upon the Horn of Hithlid.

She'd heard the stories. That's all they were, stories. Great machines, pounding iron, embers that never went cold. But they were just stories. The whole sweep of the Scraplands used to be forest, they said. How could anyone know? The ruins were far too old for memory.

Before she'd left, Temeley had told her it wasn't personal, that sometimes men are just afraid of big fish. She could believe that. Tåsk was a cautious city. Easy to be cautious, she thought, when you live at the edge of a thing that has died.

Temeley had also told her that Halibur liked to exaggerate, had a weakness for story. He was a poet, she said, but the Ministry for Poetry was an ivory tower. Saltish did not know what that meant, but she got the gist. Lonely, stark against the hills. Hollow. Glinting in the sun of the day.

At least Yalle had waved her off. Minister for the Sending-Off of Far-Begotten Travelers. His big white handkerchief, flapping back and forth atop the high harbor walls. Anything for a job to do. The people of Tåsk were funny like that.

She picked up the oars again and continued to row. She was surprised, again, at how light the whaleboat was, when there was nothing at the end of those ropes. She watched them drift, like strands of hair, in the whaleboat's wake.

The sea-beast had sunk, and she was glad for it. They had been over deep-enough waters when it happened - it would never be revealed by the tide. She was glad it had sunk, yes. Much better than for it to drift around, an island of flies. There would have been no peace in that death.

She enjoyed rowing. She always had, as long as she'd lived by the sea. The headlands were fleeting. It is easy to lose track of time, in a dream.

She did not know how to feel when she saw the village again. The sun had left her as she rounded the Horn of Hithlid, and the whole coast was dark.

At least it was green. She had not seen grass since she left. It sat like a blanket, all those tufts and tussocks, upon the dark sea-rock and around the dark beach-sand. She was acutely aware of the inadequacies of her coat. It had not dried since she'd left. Haskil's mother had made it, years ago, and it was showing its age. Perhaps she could learn to mend it.

The village, at first, looked to her like those black ruins had, sparse and lonely. Turf houses all low in the hills, hunkered against the wind. She pulled the whaleboat up onto the sand.

There was a shovel in the shed on the beach and she took it and walked up through the grass to a flat spot of ground in the middle of two houses. It was a good spot.

She stuck the shovel into the grass and heard roots snap as she worked the clod of dirt from its kin. The ground was wet, which meant it was heavy.

She made good progress. She was knee-deep and sweating when she heard footsteps behind her. It was the boy she lived with. He stopped and stood on a tussock and watched her dig.

"Digging a hole?" he asked, after a while, but it wasn't really a question. "Somebody's grave?"

Saltish ignored him.

"Where'd you go?" he asked. He sounded uncomfortable with the silence.

"I rowed to the moon," she said.

"No, really."

"I took the beast to see a medicine man."

"Yeah, right." The boy shifted on his feet. "Actually? Did he save it?"

"No." Saltish kept digging. After a moment, she looked up again. The boy was still standing there, watching her dig.

"Well?" She said. "Are you just going to stare at me?" She plunged the shovel into the earth and heaved up another block of turf.


She looked at him and he looked away. He'd make a good Minister for Bystanding.

"There's another shovel in the shed," she said.

"I know that," he said.

Saltish didn't respond.

"I know where all the tools are, actually."

"Sure, cause they're all in the shed."

"No. Not all of them. There's a sled in Warrin's house."

"Get it for me?"

"What for?"

She tossed another shovelful of dirt to the side. "Maybe you'll see."

The boy thought about that. It didn't take long for him to set off towards Warrin's house. He clearly wasn't very smart, but you couldn't expect much from a twelve-year-old boy.

It was funny. She'd never realized how short he was. Saltish was at least a head taller than all the boys, actually. It hadn't seemed that way before.

By the time he returned, dragging the sled behind him, she had lugged a few pieces of driftwood up from the beach. Enough to make a frame. She stacked the blocks of turf into a low wall around the hole and stuck it through with the driftwood to reinforce it.

"Now what?" he said, having dropped the sled ropes on the ground.

"It's been a while since I've eaten," said Saltish. "Want to have dinner in a hole?"

She could see he didn't want to say yes to her, but she also saw he liked the idea. She went back to stacking turf.

"Bring some for me, too," she said, when she saw him turn to leave, and he did. They ate on the ground, surrounded by thick walls of wet dirt. She hadn't realized how hungry she was. When they were done, Saltish stacked the bowls in the corner.

Gradually he warmed to the idea of helping her. They dragged more driftwood up from the beach, and used the sled to bring down rolls of roofing sod they had cut from the high meadow behind the village. By nightfall, the hole had walls and a roof.

The next day, at lunchtime, she walked down onto the beach to admire her work. It wasn't a bad house. A little lopsided, the peak of the roof leaning slight to one side. The boy she lived with crawled out the front door and came down to join her. They stood and looked at the village and let their heels sink down in the swampy sand.

The gaps were wide between the houses of the village. They looked like teeth in the mouth of a child, sparse and crooked. But in the very middle, on either side of the house that Saltish had just built, the gaps were smaller. The place was filling out. And for now, that would have to do.