Due North [Episode 3]: Into the Thick of It, Part I

Water horses, sentient houses, disappearing cats, grave whisperers, semi-dead grave robbers, minotaurs, bearotaurs, satyrs, dryads, sirens, and more!

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The quiet early morning moon washed Alecia Ossario in its silvery tinge. She was dressed in black from head to toe - turtleneck covered with a leather jacket (that had a space-defying number of pockets) on top and jeans and lace-up boots on the bottom - save for her hair which had decided green was the way to go tonight. She made a mental note to tell Jasper to bring the delivery time a couple hours ahead, so she doesn’t have to be up when the only other people awake are the aquatics, gnomes, and faeries. Still, primetime for client scouting.

The silence of the night was broken only by the faint sound of an approaching car, coming slowly down the end of the road. It purred along almost noiselessly, but on this particular night, nothing else, not a frog nor an angry moth (those things could work up a real racket when they wanted) stirred even in the slightest, and no music from a water sprite afterparty rung through the night (If there’s one thing those guys know, it’s how to party, Alecia thought to herself), making it the loudest sound for miles.

Its busted headlights illuminated only a few feet of the winding road in front of it, something that Alecia thought was a touch risqué, especially considering she quite valued the cargo and the side lines were more watery than she, and her all-too-soluble delivery, would have liked. She spun her hand by her side, weaving a little light in between her slender fingers and let it fall in front of the car. Grateful for the light, it steered a bit more steadily before coming calmly to a stop a few feet in front of Alecia.

The driver turned the engine off and stepped out. A black boot hit the ground first, a tiny spark flying off, before a jaunty, dapper man stepped out. His face belonged to a much younger man, all save for the eyes, which betrayed his true age. He donned a dark trench coat draped over a brown suit and a half-buttoned olive-green shirt and rounded out the sombreness with a yellow scarf, topping it all off with a top hat balanced on his head, tilted precariously to one side.

‘Alecia!’ he exclaimed. ‘How you doing, darling?’

‘Just fine, J, just fine. You should really get that headlight fixed, ya know.’

‘Yeah, you know how it is. Always something in the way.’

‘Uh huh. Well, shall we get down to business?’

‘Always so quick on the draw, Alecia. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you didn’t like me very much,’ he jested, leading the way to the back of the car.

‘Who said I liked ya? I do like what you’re carrying though, if that helps,’ she said, winking.

Jasper mimed being shot in the heart with a laugh, then opened the trunk; Alecia twiddled her fingers and redirected the light from the road to the trunk to get a better view. Two plastic-wrapped packages, roughly the size of sacks of flour, gleamed in her light, boasting colourful pills packed to the brim, threatening to spill and scatter across the pavement.

‘Jasper, plastic? I thought we’d already had this conversation, come on.’

‘I know, I know, sorry. Last-minute complication leaving me with no choice. Won’t happen again, don’t worry.’

Alecia huffed. ‘Fine. Leave it with me. If a satyr drops by, I’ll throw it in as a “gesture of good faith”.’

Producing a knife from one of her jacket pockets, Alecia made a small, sharp cut in the packaging of one of the two, scooping up the pills before they could hit the ground. She crushed the edge of one of them and sucked on the produced powder, testing its strength and pocketing the rest.

‘What? Still don’t think I’m good for it?’

‘I don’t think you’re smart enough for it, J. Twice now you’ve been duped into bringing me candy. Not even the good kind. Ended up giving it away with meals at the diner both times.’

‘Hey, twice in – shit, how long has it been? Whatever. Twice in however many years is still pretty damn good!’ he protested.

‘Yeah, well, I just wanted to make sure it’s not three. And yeah, you’re good for it this time.’ She reached into another pocket and produced a wad of cash. Jasper took it with an exaggerated bow, Alecia’s response to which was to roll her eyes, and unloaded the two packages before closing the trunk and walking back to the driver’s seat.

‘Fix that headlight, J,’ Alecia called out. ‘Can’t count on me for light on your other routes.’

‘Bye Alecia!’ came the singsong reply as he sped off into the night.

*

Berto, true to himself woke up well after noon. Bella, most untrue to herself, woke up even after him, having chosen to finish moving in after dinner the previous night. After a decidedly most undignified wake up, as Bella had so elegantly put it, Berto dragged the pair of them to a bookshop simply named Deluca’s. He raved about it the entire way there, claiming it was half the reason he moved to Due North at all.

Large glass double doors stood front and centre, opposite the canal that ran through the town. Small tables lined the two storefronts it occupied, its wonderfully comfortable light spilling out onto the pavement in front. Postcards hung from near invisible strings, each one unlike its neighbours, boasting fantastical narratives and landscapes dipping in and out of reality.

Overlapping scents floated around inside, books, new and old, mingling lively with fresh-baked cakes and pastries; the quietest music, soft around the edges, piggybacked on the aromas. Rows of books lined the front half of the store, some simply stacked on shelfs, some on painted carousels, others on platters hanging from the ceiling, and still other, ludicrously expensive ones, behind glass cases. The latter half boasted the most impressive patisserie either one of Berto or Bella had seen (‘And I did a year in Paris!’ Bella remarked). Lines of pastries, macaroons, puffs, breads, doughnuts, waffles, and more streaked down the enormous glass casing, leaving the two of them instantly famished, despite having eaten only half an hour ago.

Alia Deluca herself manned the counter, introducing herself proudly. It wasn’t arrogant pride, Berto noted silently, even though, looking around, she had every right to be. Rather, it was indulgent and her smile warm and welcoming, inviting you to enjoy with her.

Bella ordered a black coffee with a plain muffin and Berto, with a little more than a little difficulty, managed to ask for a strawberry tart and an iced coffee. Bella thought she glimpsed something vaguely bear-like in the kitchen while placing her order, but then kicked herself for making fun of how someone else looked.

The sun was shining, a light breeze was blowing, and the riverbank glittered with fish merrily making their way about, so they took a table outside. ‘Such a vanilla order,’ Berto chided once they were seated.

‘What? Afraid I embarrassed you in front of your new little friend?’

‘What?’ Berto cried incredulously.

‘Oh please, you could barely make it to the end of that order!’

‘I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ he firmly negated, smiling slightly nonetheless.

Bella likely would have been less focused on teasing Berto if they had sat inside. For all the attention they spent on the bookshop itself, they had completely neglected the patrons, a mere glance at whom would have proved to be a rather useful introduction for the oncoming evening.

Dotted across the tables and mingling amongst the books were people of all sorts. Fairies, harpies, and other small, winged creatures were either sat at tiny tables hanging from the ceiling, enjoying appropriately sized coffees and breads, or zipped around through the shop, their own light mixing comfortably with Deluca’s’ ambiance.

At a table on the ground, sat an elf and a dwarf dressed for two completely different occasions. The elf was clad in colourless clothes, black from the top to bottom, save for a red and white striped scarf. The dwarf, on the other hand, looked like he would be right at home amongst the stars of Milan’s fashion week (if, you know, they allowed people standing at half the average human height). A white shirt was tucked into burgundy trousers with a chequered blue jacket buttoned up on top. He completed the ensemble with a small yellow scarf tied around his neck, half tucked into his shirt, half falling out gracefully on top of it. Their coffees had gotten cold and were instead signing rapidly at each other and pointing to places on maps strewn across the table, apparently amid a high-stakes discussion.

Another was occupied by a donsy of gnomes, chattering across enough servings of biscuits and cups of tea to go around two per gnome and still have more to spare. They were a little lounder than Alia would have liked for a bookshop crowd, but they ate a lot and tipped heartily so she didn’t mind them all too much.

Cats floated around the books section of the store, merrily browsing Alia’s collection. Only their heads were visible at any given point, the rest of their limbs operating invisibly, and even the heads puffed in and out of visibility. Contrary to what one would think, the cats had exemplary hygiene standards: these cats didn’t shed nor drool and if they happened to somehow make a mess of things, they could magic it away along with themselves. Of course, their little disappearing act gave their kind the ability to be very, very good thieves (Alia had even met a few, though thankfully not at her own place) but the clowder that frequented Deluca’s spent a small fortune every month on books and then spent hours talking to her about them. They were her favourite customers.

Berto and Bella would have met all these people and more, if only they had sat inside, and would maybe even have been advised not to cross a minotaur’s territory, even by accident. Instead, all they saw were the fish, scales gleaming in the sun as they dipped in and out of the water, swimming merrily along the canal.


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