Not All Exchanges Are Totally Equal, and Only Sometimes Is That a Problem
Nilmeain Kasar was the most interesting city Pax had ever explored while wearing nothing but body paint.
Unlike Archer’s Rest, it was laid out in a very sensible way that was very easy to navigate thanks in no small part to the signage everywhere, once Pax had gotten used to the spiral shapes. Unlike Bethel’s Frontier, it was quite temperate. Unlike Jdinrma-Hash, people generally were quite happy to give directions to an obvious foreigner. And unlike Barnt, no birds were pecking any of his sensitive areas.
And unlike any human city Pax had ever been in, clothed or no, Nilmeain Kasar was ruled by his best friend’s husband, so everyone was excited to give him stuff.
“You don’t find a blade of this calibre every day,” said the artisan Pax was speaking with. “That’s made from thrice-erupted ageon strengthened with blackwild, and the handle is living coral from the Y’nn’a Fields.”
Pax nodded, pausing in his consideration of the blade to look at the artisan. “Living coral?” he asked. “The handle is alive?”
“It is,” she said with a frill. “And will remain so for at least five hundred years.” She paused, considering Pax. “If you take it with you when you return to the sky you will need to immerse it in seawater for at least an hour a day so it doesn’t suffocate.”
“That makes sense,” Pax said. He smiled. “I’ll take it.”
“Wonderful,” said the artisan, whose name was Yuza. “Please, be sure to tell the Degma and the Prime about my work.”
“I will,” Pax promised, mentally putting her on the list. The merpeople didn’t use money, which had briefly made Pax nervous because the last time Pax had been somewhere that didn’t use money, oral sex had been the main currency, but it turned out that Ran Errevir, at least, operated on a barter economy, and that the most valuable thing Pax had was the trust and friendship of the Degma. Still, he felt a bit bad taking people’s things without giving them something a little more substantial in return. “Please though, I’d like to take that one too, and the other one I looked at,” Pax said, pointing at the other knives he liked. “In exchange, I have a human commodity called leather. It’s made from the skin of an animal called a cow, and one of the things we use it for is creating bindings around the hilts of weapons. It doesn’t typically survive being underwater long, but I’ve had it enchanted so it will hold up.”
That wasn’t the end of it, because obviously such a valuable commodity was worth more than what Pax was trying to take, and he ended up with four more knives before he left Yuza’s shop, promising to talk about her at dinner with Denver, Louis and Alse tonight, which he would, of course. Pax may have been a shameless haggler, but she’d given him seven knives in exchange for some leather and a promise to drop her name, and Pax’s loquacity was both his most valuable contribution to any society and his favourite hobby, plus it would give him something to interject with when he wanted Denver to stop talking about all the sex he and Alse and Louis were having.
It’s so unlike you to feel uncomfortable taking things from people without paying, Nate teased, as Pax floated in front of the third-storey shop, looking around. There were large, bright bars of light on many buildings that told time like clocks, and according to the nearest one, he should start heading back; he was supposed to meet Hyel and Toay for further sharing of cultural information, non-sexily this time.
It’s different when they want me to take their things, Pax explained, swimming upwards until he was at the top of the building, then crossing the street, where several merpeople were waiting under a small sign. He had a bag with him, which he tried to hold so it wasn’t in anyone’s way. That just makes it weird. As much as I appreciate not sinking and therefore the mereconomy’s lack of reliance on random bits of metal, I also feel like it’s not genuinely equivalent for me to take goods provided by an artisan in exchange for mentioning them at supper, and I suspect that sort of exchange is very much rooted in an older, perhaps fading, class system in which rich people could just take whatever they wanted from everyone else.
I guess so, Nate said. But also it’s pretty cool that you can just go up and get a bunch of random stuff from Pelican Bay and exchange it for cool merpeople stuff.
Pax did agree that that was, in fact, pretty cool, but before he could say that, a small hand touched his thigh, and Pax moved back, trying not to startle the young green merperson touching him. “Hello,” he said.
Unfortunately that did startle the child, who darted over to someone who was presumably their parent, hiding under a thick tail. “Suvve, I told you not to bother them. I’m very sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Pax said, smiling. He couldn’t smile with his frills since he didn’t have any, so he was hoping that the merpeople understood the signal. “I’m unbothered.” Pax’s body paint marked him as a member of the Degma’s household even if his species didn’t, so he didn’t want anyone thinking they’d incurred wrath from the palace. Especially because he didn’t want Denver to have a reputation as a wrathful type among his subjects.
“How come you don’t have scales?” Suvve blurted, before their parent could stop them. Their gills were opening and closing in excitement.
“Because I’m a human,” Pax told them.
“Oh. Oh!” Suvve gripped their parent’s arm, pulling themselves up to eye level. “They’re a sky person! Like the Degma!”
Pax nodded, smiling again. “That’s right. I’m lucky to be friends with the Degma. My name is Pax.”
“Hi,” Suvve said, just kind of looking at Pax now.
Coming towards them was a metallic contraption comprised of a large frame and a flat base. Pax reached into his bag, pulled out a small piece of caramel, which he offered to Suvve. “Here,” he said. “It’s a sky person candy. It’s very good. And safe for them to eat,” he promised Suvve’s parent. “The Prime ate some this morning. He said it was the best food he’d ever had.”
Eyes wide as sandollars, Suvve reached out and took the candy, looking at it reverently. “Thank you,” they whispered.
“Eat it soon, okay? It will melt after a while if you don’t.” The contraption stopped in front of them, and everyone, including Pax, started to get on, except for the people who got off. Pax held onto a ring attached to the frame. The contraption was called a trybben, which didn’t translate into any language Pax knew, but it was a horse-drawn carriage for public use, but without the horses. Apparently they had used to be drawn by squids, but a hundred years or so ago the merpeople had used the same energy they used to keep the lights on to make it move on its own., which Pax really wanted to understand the mechanisms of and would be asking Hyel about at the palace. Out of all the things Nilmeain Kasar had that surface cities didn’t, trybba were the thing Pax wanted to have on land the most, they were just so obviously useful.
Hey, Pax? Nate asked, halfway through the ride.
We should have kids someday.
Pax blushed very deeply, which clashed with the paint on his cheeks. He took a breath, and nodded. I’d like that.
He had to leave the trybben after it left the spiral and get onto another one, which took him within a kilometre of Sembel Nok. It was colossal, circular with ridges in the stone to seem like a spiral even though it wasn’t. The ridges were lit in colours that changed gradually and in gentle waves. The castle didn’t have a wall, but it did have a magical barrier around it, which Pax’s paint let him pass through.
He was swimming around to the door he wanted when he ran into Sylvester and John. “Hey,” said Sylvester. “You’re back.”
“I am indeed back,” confirmed Pax, noting that they were holding hands again. “I see you’re leaving.”
“Yeah, we were going to look around the city a bit.”
“It’s getting late in the day,” Pax warned. “You don’t have to worry about it getting dark, though, the lighting is quite good.”
“Yeah,” Sylvester agreed. “We meant to go earlier, but it’s fine. We’ll take notes on all that night life you otherwise won’t put in the book.”
“Toay and Kozi were telling me about this place in the Fourth Spiral,” said John, smiling as if to himself. “It sounds sort of like a tavern but they have parties there all night. It might be fun.”
Sylvester nodded, slipping his arm fully around John. “Yeah, that sounds fun.”
Pax tried very hard not to give them inappropriate looks, which was harder than it seemed and he was very proud of himself for not doing it. “With the understanding that I’m not doing so judgementally and the knowledge that it’s only because one of you is my friend and one of you is my co-worker, I would like to inquire as to the nature of your relationship.”
That felt very natural, Pax, Nate assured him. I’m sure nobody found that awkward at all.
That was what Pax had intended. John made as if to move away from Sylvester, who kept him in place. “None of your goddamned business, Pax.”
“I suppose that’s true in a technical sense, but…”
“It’s true in all senses. We’re big boys and what we do to make ourselves happy has nothing to do with you.”
Sylvester always sounded a bit sharp and his voice didn’t sound any less so right now, but it did make Pax look away. “You’re right, of course. I’m sorry for intruding. And for being judgemental even though I said I wasn’t. Have a good night.”
“You too, Pax,” said Sylvester, patting Pax’s shoulder as they went by.
Crap. “John,” Pax said, resisting the urge to look over his shoulder.
“I’m sorry that I made you uncomfortable just then. I’ll try not to do it again. Sylvester is a very kind person. I hope you’re happy together.”
“Okay. Then you shouldn’t be ashamed of that even if I’m a jerk about it. I actually, I don’t want to keep you, but I got you something.” He opened his bag, reached inside, around all the knives and other stuff. He pulled out two thin chains cast from one of the merpeople’s underwater metals, a swimming one that seemed to dance between silver and blue without actually changing colour. He turned around and handed them to John. “Here. It’s okay if you don’t like it. I just thought, I know necromancers use metallic vessels to store power in, and you have a particular visual aesthetic that I thought these fit, so…here.”
“These are…very cool,” John said, taking them. They were obviously meant to be worn as jewellery, and they had small decorative teeth hanging from the links. “Thank you, Pax. You didn’t have to do that.”
“I wanted to,” Pax said, uncomfortable all over again. He shrugged. John handed the chains to Sylvester, who took the longer one and clasped it around John’s neck for him. John put the smaller chain around Sylvester’s wrist. They looked comfortable together. “The gift isn’t part of the apology,” he said. “I was going to give it to you anyway. But incidental to the gift, I really am sorry.”
“It’s really okay,” John promised.
“I appreciate that, but…”
“The thing that you’re doing right now,” John told him, interrupting. “Is the same thing that I do a lot. You make a really small mistake, and then you feel bad about it and you try to fix it, but you go so overboard trying to fix it that you end up making it into a bigger and bigger thing and…” he shrugged. “It’s okay, it really is. I’m not upset. And neither is Sylvester, right?”
“No,” Sylvester said, smiling. He looked proud. “I’m really not. And sorry if I upset you, that was mean.”
Pax shook his head. “No, you were right. I’m going to go, I have a meeting with Hyel and Toay. Have a good night. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Thank you for the chains,” Sylvester said, tugging on John’s. “Doesn’t Johnny look pretty in them?”
“This is once again none of my business,” Pax decided, turning around. “Goodnight.” He swam away to the sound of Sylvester chuckling at him.
You okay? Nate asked as he swam.
Pax nodded. “Yeah. They look happy, don’t they?”
“Okay.” Pax sighed. “I really do have to get over this, don’t I?”
We both do, but yes.
“Yeah. I mostly hate that he’s right. I shouldn’t make small things into big things. I wish I knew the trick to that. You don’t make small things into big things. How do you do that?”
I believe people when they tell me things are okay. And then I don’t think about them anymore.
“Huh,” said Pax. “That’s one of the strangest things I’ve ever heard you say.” He got to his room, which was across the hall from Denver and Louis’s unoccupied room. They were with Alse, of course, having copious sex and hopefully also occasionally ruling Ran Errevir. Pax and the rest of them were only going to stay for another day or two before the details of the alliance were finalized and they could return to the ship, so Pax had very little time to do the last of his research.
Fortunately, his research was sitting in his room, a writing table in front of xer. “There you are,” said Hyel, smiling with xer frills. Toay was with xer. “I was worried you’d forgotten.”
“I was worried you’d run into your friends and decided to go to Club Mekki with them,” Toay said, idly playing with one of Hyel’s seismographs. “The theme there tonight is ‘what the darkness holds.’”
“I’m happy to delegate that portion of the research, and I never forget things,” Pax promised, setting his bag down. “Which is good for the many people I promised to mention to Denver, Louis and Alse later. I have many questions for you about your economy and also about the metals that you produce.”
“Good. I have many questions for you about how your society is organized, and Toay wants to know about surface wildlife.”
“Well,” Pax said, taking a seat with them. “I can tell you all about those things. The first thing you need to understand is that your lives under the ocean are inherently superior to ours on the surface. We don’t have trybba, and we do have this class of creatures called birds.”
They exchanged information for hours until supper, and it was one time today when Pax really felt like what he was getting and what he was giving were of equal value, and he felt good about that.