The pike with the buzz-cut came over to her, eventually. He’d been watching her for a while now, him and his mates, from their table covered in empty bottles and glasses, a few plates with the dried-out remains of shequalla. So his breath would stink of alcohol and the sad excuse for seafish they farmed this far from the archipegalo.
“Hey,” he said, leaning on the bar as he signalled to the barkeep.
“Hey.” She took a sip of her own drink—water, with a slice of some unrecognisable fruit floating on the surface, just for appearance’s sake.
“Please?” said the barkeep, his flattened nose-bone making his voice whiny and thin. He waved one arm, two others cleaning a glass.
Buzz-cut pointed to his friends. “Same as last time.”
“Coming right up.” The barkeep shuffled away to prepare the order.
Buzz-cut turned to her, and she felt his eyes travel her body, unblinking. “We’ve been trying to figure out,” he said, his words slurring. “What bed are you?”
She signed. “You wouldn’t have heard of us.”
His gill-flaps quivered in indignation. “We’re not all bottom-dwellers here, you know. I’ve swum the waves. So where you from?”
The only place this fool had swam was to the bottom of a glass. But his friends were gesticulating, urging him on.
“Erona,” she said, the name deep with both pleasure and pain.
His brow furrowed. “That over near Forras?”
“Bit further. Between Corallas and Brinotia.”
“Thought they bordered.”
She glared at him like her maternal used to glare at her. “Not always. Erona, channel to the Pathays, most beautiful place in the whole drop. Until the sharks started snapping.”
Some kind of understanding filtered into his flat face. “Oh, right. Yeah, the Swelling. Never heard of your place, though. Stuck in the middle, right?”
“Right in the middle.” And, strangely, it felt good to talk about it. “Tried to stay deep neutral, but…cross-currents and all that.” She shrugged. “A perfect shell, crushed under sludge.”
But not before she’d run, leaving the mountains and the lakes, trusting others were following. Then the days of hiding, moving by night. Searching for news, hearing only bad until the truth became devastatingly unavoidable.
“Nothing there now,” she said, running a finger through the beads of condensation on her glass. “Food-beds destroyed, bodies left for the feathers to pick apart. Nothing left. Except me. I’m the last Erona.”
She stared hard at him, strong in the surety of who she was. The last—and when she was gone, there would be no more Epona. And this fool, what was he? A minnow, one of many in this swarming city. A nothing.
“Nobody else?” he asked. She shook her head. “Have you…what about spawning?”
She sneered at him. Did he really believe he had a chance? “Not with any other. Erona won’t be watered down.” And there was no point telling him of the test, of her…her inability in that area.
She would always be the last.
“That’s…that’s really sad.” His mouth gaped a few times, and then he shuffled back to his friends.
There was something pleasing in causing discomfort in others. It was one of the few things she had left. That, and remembering her home.
“Did I hear you say you’re Erona?”
She spun. The speaker was female, almost a girl, slight and pretty. Her nose twitched, reminiscent of the girls back home. “Erona, right?”
“The last.” If the girl had been listening, there was no need to repeat her tale.
The girl smiled, and shook her head. “No. Just one of the last. I’m Erona too.”
* * *
Seems the girl—Hakee, which sounded like an Erona name at least—had fled with her shoal as soon as the trouble started. She said her elders were proud of their heritage, so they taught Hakee their history and customs. And she had knowledge, that much was clear. When she called over the bartender, she showed proper control by judging suitable drinks for them both.
“We’re practically sisters,” Hakee said at one point, and she might have been right.
The age difference was not as great as she’d first thought, and Hakee spoke of people they’d both known. And when she spoke about the wonderful cliffs and the beautiful but treacherous waterfalls, there was an earnest longing in her voice, one that was undeniable.
“I’ll return some day,” Hakee said. “When the troubles are over. I’ll go back to the paradise, whatever state it’s in, and I’ll fight to get it reinstated. For both of us. And for any others we find.” Then she smiled, and the touch of her hand was warm. “You’re not alone anymore.”
* * *
And later, they walked along the river-path to the multi-den Hakee had lodgings in. The dampness in the air was welcome, but there was no escaping the silty stink of the city. The plants alongside the path were flattened by detritus, cold metal and ugly plastic, and the high wall was chipped and stained.
“Do you think we’ll find more?” the girl asked, as if she’d already decided that the two of them were now a team “Enough to…to build Erona again?”
“I thought I was the last,” she said. “I suppose it’s possible.”
And that was when she pushed the girl, hard. That was when she grabbed the metal pole she’d been eyeing for a few steps, brought it down on Hakee’s dainty features, spreading them over her face. That was when she did what was needed to erase her possible sister from history.
And as the body sunk into the fetid water she walked on, the last Erona.
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