Sammy peered into the upturned mushroom head in front of her. It was the size of a cereal bowl and within it sat a pile of ground meat, jumbled together with celery-like stalks.
“So that woman that gave you the bracelet,” Mehrak said, sitting down in front of her. “She didn’t say anything else about how it worked?”
“No,” Sammy said. “I think she was going to …”
“But you fiddled with it before she had the chance?”
“Yeah, something like that.” Sammy poked at the food with her fork.
“You think she wanted you to come to Perseopia for a specific reason?”
“I’m not supposed to be here. It should be her instead. She told me she was some sort of chosen one. I think I might’ve messed things up quite a bit.”
“Oh.” Mehrak frowned. “Don’t poke at your food.”
“You sound like my mum,” Sammy said. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to eat the lumpy bits of meat congealing in the sagging mushroom bowl that sat before her. “What is this?”
“Baby mushrooms stuffed with creepers and rat mince.”
Sammy’s hand flew to her mouth. “Rat? Urgh.”
Mehrak flinched. “I spent a long time preparing this while you slept. You don’t have to eat my food.” He made a move to take it away.
“Wait,” Sammy said. “I am hungry. It’s just – well – we don’t eat rats in the proper world. They have diseases.”
Mehrak retracted his hand. “Do you know how long it took to catch those rats? I could have given you some chewy stegohog fillets, but no, I wanted your first meal to be special. Proper world indeed …”
Sammy scowled as she scooped up a blob of rat mince and creeper stalks. The food slouched on her fork as a thin liquid dribbled through the prongs. She took a deep breath and shoved it into her mouth. And chewed. It was actually quite good, but she wasn’t going to let on. Mehrak raised his eyebrows, waiting for a reply. Sammy kept her expression neutral and said nothing.
“Would you like a sprinkle of salty legs?” Mehrak asked.
“Salty rat legs?”
“Insect legs. They’re good.” Mehrak held up a tin can with irregular holes punched in the lid.
Sammy puffed her cheeks out and the word ‘gross’ lingered on her lips, but she resisted the urge to say it. “Thanks, but I’ll stick to the vermin,” she said.
“I suppose you don’t eat insects where you come from either?” Mehrak tipped the can upside down and shook little twig-shaped appendages over his lunch.
“Not on purpose.”
After the meal, Mehrak explained where Sammy could find clean clothes and sent her upstairs with a bucket of water to get cleaned up. She returned to the kitchen in a turquoise wrap-around top with matching silk shoes and a pair of white baggy trousers that pinched in at the ankles.
Mehrak was at the sink, drying the last of the dishes. He turned as Sammy reached the bottom of the stairs and smiled wistfully at her.
“You look beautiful,” he said.
Sammy’s chest swelled. She wasn’t often complimented on her appearance.
“You remind me of my wife.”
And the high had gone. She didn’t want to hear about Mehrak’s wife. Then she felt guilty for thinking it.
“How much longer until we get to that city?” she asked.
“Honton Keep? A day, day-and-a-half, perhaps.”
“What do we do until then? What do you normally do for fun?”
“Well … I reread my grandfather’s Rule Book journal, and the other couple of books I have,” Mehrak said. “I’m trying to improve my Sanskrit and to learn some Bactrian too, so I suppose I do some of that.”
Sammy said nothing.
“We could sing a song?”
Sing? Sammy stared at the multi-coloured birds gliding over the table, hoping that if she didn’t make eye contact, the suggestion would glide away too.
“How about we play Chaturanga?” Mehrak said at last.
“Thank God,” Sammy said. “How do you play Chattychanga?”
“I’ll get the board,” Mehrak said, and went upstairs. He returned not long after carrying an oddly marked chessboard and a small cloth bag. “I can’t wait to play again. I tried playing Louis once, but he can’t see where the pieces are and keeps knocking the board over when he tries to move. And explaining where the pieces are over and over gets really boring really fast.”
Mehrak laid the board on the table and tipped out the bag, emptying an assortment of red and blue figures and several small stones onto the table. Of the figures, there were elephants, men on horses, men without horses, boats and two noblemen who looked like kings. He arranged the pieces on the board so that the red pieces were in front of Sammy and the blue pieces in front of him, then he sat down.
“How come I have fewer pieces?” Sammy asked.
“I lost some of the originals. It’s fine; I’ve used stones for the missing pieces. We can make the first game a practice round until you get up to speed.”
A few moves into the first game, Sammy was beginning to regret the decision to play. The rules had taken ages to explain and she’d already forgotten half of them. Being cooped up in the kitchen all morning was making her jittery too, and she was dying to get outside and burn off some energy. Her attention span was suffering as a result and she stared at the board, trying to remember the rules Mehrak had taught her.
“That’s not a valid move,” Mehrak said as Sammy tried to move one of her pebbles three squares to the right.
“You did that move last go.”
“I didn’t. I moved my elephant three squares, that’s your sultan.”
“You said the elephant was the stone that looked like it was smiling. This one’s smiling.”
“No, that one’s sad. It’s upside down. See.” Mehrak turned the pebble around.
Sammy sighed and slid a different stone forward two squares. Mehrak didn’t react so she took her finger off and settled herself for the wait with her head in her hands.
“You okay?” Mehrak asked as he shuffled up and down the bench, trying to view the board from every possible angle.
“You know, it’s alright to be upset over missing your parents.”
“I’m fine … really. My dad thinks I should be more independent. It’s my mum I’m worried about. She doesn’t cope well when I’m not around.”
“I’m sure your dad likes having you around too.”
“I’m sure he does. But he’s got a new family and a new kid, so he has someone else to spend time with. Unless I’m playing football; then he might make time to watch. That’s if there isn’t anything good on telly, and the weather’s okay. If I make it back to
my world in time for my club’s cup match, he might come to that. And when he sees how good I am now, he’ll want to spend more time with me.”
“Football’s a game you play in the Mother World?”
“A sport. Yeah.”
“What’s a club cup match?”
“Does your mum go to watch you?”
“Yeah, she never misses a game, but she isn’t that interested in football. She cheers every time I touch the ball, even when I don’t make a pass. Dad knows what’s going on.”
“But your mum’s always there?”
“Yeah.” Sammy pictured her mother shivering on the sidelines. Her expensive clothes soaked and stained, high heels squelching in the mud and mascara running down her face. Then she pictured the proud grin and the excited victory dance Mama did each time Sammy scored. She rubbed at her eyes with a sleeve.
Mehrak moved one of his pieces. “You’ll have to teach me that game,” he said.
Sammy looked up. “Football?”
“Yeah. I’d like to play it with you.”
“I mostly play it because my dad likes it.” Sammy moved one of her pebbles. “But yeah, that would be good.”
“Sorry to be a stickler for the rules …” Mehrak said.
“… but that wasn’t a valid move?”
“Your last go didn’t involve the cavalry.”
“You made this exact same move and yours wasn’t after moving the cavalry.”
“Oh, right,” Mehrak said. “I’ll move this instead.”
“I thought you said you could only move the boat every other go?” Sammy closed her eyes and rubbed her temples.
“I didn’t mean to move the boat last time,” Mehrak said. “Let’s just move on, shall we?”
Chaturanga was garbage, but at least it was something to do while they were travelling, and it took her mind off worrying about her mum. When they next stopped, Sammy would find something they could use as a ball. She may as well let Mehrak enjoy his victories in Chaturanga before she destroyed him at football.
Unsurprisingly, after a boringly long period of time, Mehrak claimed to be the winner even though Sammy had more pieces left and couldn’t see how she’d lost her sultan.
“Don’t feel too bad.” Mehrak polished his fingernails on his waistcoat before inspecting them. “It’s a hard game to master and I have many more years’ experience than you do. Fancy another game?”
“Do you have any other games?”
Sammy sighed as loudly as possible. “Fine, let’s have another go.”
Three games later, Mehrak was smiling broadly and looked like he was about to announce a fourth victory when Eggie jolted, causing the Chaturanga pieces to fly off the table and onto the floor.
“What was that?” Sammy asked.
“That,” Mehrak said, “was Louis ruining my game. You’ll give me that win, won’t you?”
“It didn’t look like you were going to win to me.”
Mehrak frowned as he ran for the stairs. Sammy followed him up and onto the front balcony.
Louis was barrelling along below, faster than Sammy had seen him move before. Mushrooms were zipping by on either side, rebounding off the cottage and wobbling like bouncy castle turrets in their wake.
“You ruined our game.” Mehrak called down. Louis stopped, causing Golden Egg Cottage to come to a lurching halt. Sammy was thrown towards the railing and caught the banister across her middle. She slumped to her knees as she gripped her chest.
She groaned. This would be what a wrestler experienced when he got clotheslined.
Mehrak picked himself up from the floor and made a big show of pulling his clothes together and tidying his turban.
“Louis! What is going –” And he stopped, paling like someone had turned down his colour setting. Sammy was about to ask what the matter was when he moved his finger to his ear, indicating that she should listen. There was a faint chattering, coming from far away, like a thousand crickets chirruping together.
The noise was unnerving. It conjured images of insects; clouds of creepy crawlies with hundreds of limbs swarming over each other. Sammy squirmed. “What is that?” she asked.
Mehrak didn’t answer. Speaking to Louis instead, he asked, “What are our options?”
Louis rotated his ears back and forth, periodically pausing in different positions while Mehrak wrung his hands.
“You’re right, let’s go north. They’ll never know we were here. Quiet, but as fast as you can.”
Louis pulled forward again. Mehrak was ready and grabbed hold of the railing; Sammy wasn’t and went flying towards the tower. Thankfully, there was nothing to injure herself on this time and she slid to a stop before reaching the curtains.
Louis changed direction once, but kept going at full speed.
Sammy got up. She could no longer hear the chattering over the creaking of the cottage and pounding of Louis’s feet, but she couldn’t shake the memory of it. “Are you going to tell me who they are?” She wiped her trembling palms on her trousers trying to make it look like she was brushing herself down.
“There’s a group of crabmen heading this way. We’re taking a detour north.”
Mehrak’s nose curled. “Vile creatures,” he said. “They’re sort of man-shaped from the waist up – hence the name – but they’ve got spider legs and claws for arms.”
“Seriously? Creatures like that exist here?”
“What would they do to us if they caught us?”
“They kidnap you, but I don’t know why …” His voice trailed off. “Louis always smells them, though,” he said after a moment. “They smell like rotten fish, apparently.”
Sammy said nothing.
Mehrak tried to smile. “As long as you don’t wander too far from Louis, you’ll have nothing to worry about.”
“What if they come when Louis’s asleep?”
“There’s a harpoon under the bed for emergencies, but we shouldn’t need it – even if Louis were asleep, they smell bad enough that they’d wake him before they got close.”
Sammy watched the mushrooms race by in silence. Mehrak’s gaze never left the horizon. His nose had gone blotchy and his eyes glassy. He was hurting and she should say something, but she didn’t want to. She didn’t want to open herself to someone else’s pain. She hardly knew him. They weren’t close enough to share feelings and Sammy was happy to maintain that distance.
She had to say something.
“They got your wife, didn’t they?” she said at last.
Mehrak nodded but said nothing. That was good. A perfect interaction. Sammy had acknowledged his pain, he’d acknowledged her concern, now she’d go inside and give him a moment to himself.
Then he spoke. “She used to walk in the mornings before I woke up,” he said. “She was a morning person, Gisouie. ‘It’s when the realm is most alive’, she’d say. She’d go out every morning to forage for soup ingredients. It was the smell of her mushroom soup that woke me each morning,” Mehrak’s jaw set and his face became dark. “You wouldn’t believe how hard it is for me to get up now without it. I have to make it myself. It’s not as good as
hers, of course, but occasionally, if I make it just right and close my eyes, it’s like she’s still here.”
Sammy waited for him to go on, but he remained silent.
“How did the crabmen get past Louis?” she asked at last.
Mehrak shrugged and shook his head. “I don’t believe they did. There was barely a whiff of them. Louis rocked me out of bed when he realised he could no longer smell Gisouie. She must have walked further than normal. We’d had an argument the night before …” Mehrak went quiet. He stared at the sky, blinking away tears. “We searched for her, Louis and I. We tracked groups of crabmen. Tried to get close enough to smell a human over their smelly carcasses, but there was no trace of her.”
“What about the crabmen coming after us?”
“Louis let them get close enough to smell for her,” he said. “But she wasn’t with them.” He snorted and shook his head. “I risked her life chasing this stupid fairy-tale book, and now I’ve lost her.” He squared his shoulders. “I’m going to find her, though. Someone at the Keep will know where the crabmen take their victims. And when I find out, I’m going after her.”