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“Payment” – short story

Dry land was scarce since the Flood. What remained were thousands of islands scattered about the endless ocean. Of them, only few were large enough to support a town this size. Fiorello recalled the stories his grandmother had told him, the ones her grandmother had told her in turn. Stories about fields of grass and grain as far as the eye could see; stories of people who travelled by land to the cities that housed millions. Fantastic tales, but little more. All he had ever known was this island, this town. As a child, he had thought these shores were the end of the world. How much he had learned since then.

He stood on the terrace of his house and stared out over the ocean. It was a quiet day today, with a calm sea and pleasant breeze to dispel the heat. A promising day, too, because yesterday he had spotted a tiny black dot on the horizon that hadn’t disappeared when he blinked. This morning, it was considerably larger and growing still. If the wind didn’t change, it should make landfall by noon. Fiorello intended to be there when it did.

As the black shape came closer, it revealed itself to be a raft. Its makeshift sail hung in tatters, but caught just enough wind to carry the ragtag vessel and its occupant to the island. Others near the shore had come to see, but when Fiorello arrived at the beach, they made way for him. He ordered two of his servants to pull the raft onto the sand and check on the lone sailor who lay sprawled on the beams.

“Does he live?”

“She, my lord,” his servant said. “And yes, she lives.”

“Then carry her to my house and tend to her as usual. But remember, I alone shall speak to her!”

“Yes, my lord.”

While his servants concerned themselves with the exhausted woman, Fiorello investigated the raft. It was small and weathered, made of driftwood that, by the faded paint of the boards, had all belonged to the same ship’s hull. The mast, too, was a splintered remnant of a larger whole. The absence of anything remotely edible and an empty, leaking water sack spoke of the woman’s arduous journey. His insides jittered with glee. The stories this sailor would tell!

In his house, his servants cleaned the woman’s sunburned body and dressed her wounds. The real saving, however, Fiorello did himself. He filled a bronze chalice with sweet water from his own reservoir. With that in hand, he knelt at the woman’s side. She was awake and moved her chapped lips in an attempt to speak with a mouth too parched for sound.

“I will help you,” he said. Supporting her neck, he lifted her head and let her drink from the chalice, a few drops at a time.

“Thank you,” she whispered when she could.

“The pleasure is mine, my dear. You shall be my guest for as long as you need. I will feed you, clothe you and house you during your recovery.”

Her sunken face lit up with intense gratitude even as sleep claimed her.

As always, Fiorello kept his promise. For weeks on end, he had his servants bring the woman anything she needed. She grew stronger with each passing day, and every day Fiorello sat at her side to listen to the tales of her travel. He discovered she was older than he had imagined, an accomplished and experienced sailor. Her travel had taken her to countless islands, where she had encountered strange beasts, wary humans and ruins of the time before the Flood. He listened with rapt attention as she told of the hardships of her travels, so foreign to the comfortable life he led. He knew the legends of the monsters of the sea and beyond, but she had seen these creatures with her own eyes and now described them for his pleasure. Other sailors before her had spoken about the big cats of the Far South, yet when she shared her memories of fighting one, he drank her story like she drank his water.

At last the day came when her recovery was complete. “It is time I set sail again,” she said. “I thank you for your hospitality. I shall trespass on it no further.”

“It is not a trespass,” said Fiorello and held up the chalice from which she had drunk during her stay. “I filled this with water while you needed it. Now you shall fill it for me. With gold.”

The woman frowned. “I never possessed gold. What I owned, I lost when I lost my ship in the storm.”

“That is of no hindrance. You can earn your repayment in other ways. All my servants are stranded sailors who are working off their debt to me.” He showed her a locked cabinet. Within were seven chalices, each with some amount of gold inside. He set her chalice on the same shelf. “Your wages shall be accrued here. When the cup is full, I shall take its contents as your repayment to me.”

“Serve you? Why do I owe you anything?”

Fiorello bustled with indignation. “Why? Why? Because I helped you! I gave you water when you lay dying!”

“For that, I have paid you with my experiences. I imagine they all did.” she said, looking at the servants. They watched her expectantly in return.

“Mere stories!” Fiorello exclaimed.

“Yet more valuable than gold.” The woman shook her head in pity. “You, who never left this island, have learned more of the world than your own limited experiences could ever teach you.” She began to walk out, motioning the servants to follow her.

“But you owe me!” Fiorello shouted after them.

“No. We have repaid our debt,” the woman said. “With the knowledge we have shared with you, you can fill those cups yourself.”


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