Preamble: this is preceded by the game’s opening, in which you leave the remote orchard village of Last Apple seeking adventure. That’s after discovering, in the library of the orchard-master Paul Crab, a slender volume titled Perils of the Overworld, which is sort of a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for this realm. The book pricks a wound in your heart, your imagination, that will not stop bleeding—so you go. Sorry, that’s a rough way to start, but we are all about the roughness, ARE WE NOT?
Port Fabri must have been grand indeed, for it merited an entry in Perils of the Overworld, which described it thusly:
Small cider port. Oysters recommended.
Well. Better than nothing.
The streets were clogged with barrels and the air was thick with the sweet funk of the cider houses and the brandy factories. The port’s great central artery was lined with inns, taverns, and public houses, where new offerings could be sampled, deals struck. A barrel of cider now bound for a tavern in Dramond. A dozen bound for the New Capital. A hundred, bound for the fifth division of the second army of the Gregarious Empire.
Kai ignored all this. He knew his objective; he made for the docks.
Did he imagine he would stride through Port Fabri and step onto a ship, never looking back, hardly even to either side?
It was not to be.
The supply chain of the Cider Coast is a delicate machine. For a hundred years, the Revenant Fleet has held the exclusive shipping contract; they pay the cidermaker’s guild handsomely for this right.
The ghost ships, though clockwork-reliable and indifferent to weather—they sail on different winds—have other limitations. They dock only at night, so Port Fabri’s bustle is inverted: quiet while the sun shines, a harried scrum in the moonlight.
Kai did not know any of this—Kai did not know anything—and he arrived therefore at empty docks.
A desultory oyster farmer explained the schedule. “They’re right there in front of ya,” he said. “Just can’t see em in the sun.”
What then? Kai wandered the port. Watched barrels and bottles tumble out of the mouths of the Grimm Cider Works, Golden Sakar Brandy Company, Sicera & Daughters Distilling, a dozen others.
At an inn called the Green Goat, he spent one precious coin on a lunch of hard cheese and boar sausage.
The innkeeper, a ruddy cobold, was sorry to break it to him: “No passengers on the ghost ships. Living souls can’t make the voyage. They sail through hell, is what I heard. Distances a bit shorter there.”
The distance between Port Fabri and the New Capital was shorter in hell?
“Or maybe it’s that time moves slower there,” she said. “I don’t know. I just hear things.”
So how was Kai going to get off this coast?
“There are other ships,” the innkeeper told him. “They’re pricy. There’s a lady upstairs who’s waiting for the Gray Vanessa, bound for Dramond. You could ask her.”
When the woman appeared for dinner, Kai did just that. She was tall and wore jodhpurs. She replied icily that she had sold an entire quince orchard to fund her ticket and what, pray tell, had he sold?
In the night, after all the inn’s guests had retired, Kai returned to the docks. The Revenant Fleet was not made of mist; the ships looked real and solid, except that they caught no light and cast no shadow. Lanterns blazed on the docks to light the path for the stevedores, but their flicker did not touch the ghost ships, which glowed with flat daylight from some other place.
The stevedores trundled barrels up loading planks onto the waiting ships, handing them off to unseen partners; the barrels continued their journeys into the ships’ bellies on their own, or so it seemed.
Kai sat and watched the work of the dock, astonishment swirling with frustration. Maybe it was a lie, he thought; maybe the captains of the ghost ships told tales of voyages through hell just to frighten stowaways.
He watched the sails slowly rise, ropes pulled taut by unseen hands.
He was not brave enough to test that theory.
In the morning, he returned to the Green Goat, exhausted and hungry. The innkeeper detected his distress and served him a plate of eggs and a mug of still cider.
“What will you do now?” she asked.
Kai had no idea. His reading of quest adventures had left him unprepared to be so quickly defeated.
“The ships come and go,” the innkeeper counseled. “Who knows? Maybe cheaper passage will appear.” She paused a moment. “My daughter used to work with me here. Last year, she went off on her own, tallying shipments for a cider house. Turns out, I’m a bit short handed. I could put you up in her old room, and you could do the work she used to do. Bit of cleaning. Can you cook?”
Kai turned away, because tears had sprung unbidden into his eyes, and the quester did not cry in front of the very first person he’d met.
The innkeeper did not realize what a gift he’d offered to the boy: how he had saved him from the serpent rising in the back of his brain, the dull certainty he would have to return home, just another child who thought he was too good for Last Apple, another child who the world had succinctly proven wrong.
Kai wanted to accept the innkeeper’s offer with cheery resolve but his face was still a crumple, so, instead, he choked out a sobbed “yes, please, thank you.”
So this, too, was a peril of the overworld.
And then: a year passed Port Fabri. A year of backwards days and nights. A year of dirty plates and dirty mugs, dirty sheets and dirty floors; of balancing four mugs on a tray and frying twelve eggs at a time, first violently and, before long, perfectly; of shucking oysters endlessly.
Of watching the cobold innkeeper declare to a dozen different customers, with a straight face, that the goats really were green in her home country. Of watching her roll her eyes as she turned away. Or catching her winks.
The woman in jodhpurs waited nearly that whole year for the Gray Vanessa. When the ship came at last, Kai watched its passengers walk aboard, a procession all as severe and well-dressed as the woman, and his disappointment surged afresh. He had started collecting tips from customers at the inn, and now he had a sense of how long it might take to afford passage on a ship like that.
That winter, a trio of cider traders made the Green Goat their gathering place, and, although he didn’t realize it then, it marked the beginning of Kai’s education: lessons delivered in conversations overhead.
The traders griped about shipping rates. They passed rumors about personnel changes at the cider houses. They speculated about harvest yields. One of the traders, a man with a long gray mustache, mentioned to his comrades, entirely in passing, that he was particularly impressed with the quality of the fruit from the remote orchard village called… what was it? Last Apple, yes. Fine fruit indeed; worth the journey. Kai, washing mugs behind the bar, beamed with pride.
Piece by piece he put together the logic of their trade; for all their endless talk, it was simple. You had to identify a buyer and a seller and find a way to make them both happy. You were a matchmaker as surely as Kai’s grandmother had been.
One day, a woman from Sicera & Daughters came looking for the cider traders, who were not present; and Kai mustered the courage to tell her he had a harvest from the remote but celebrated orchard village of Last Apple that he’d been saving for the right buyer.
Kai having no such thing; at least not yet.
But the woman’s eyes came alive—she was, in fact, one of Sicera’s daughters, he would later learn—and she struck a deal there and then.
So, three years after he’d left, Kai returned to Last Apple, not chastened or defeated, but in triumph almost unimaginable: he was coming with money. He bought Paul Crab’s whole harvest, apples from the trees he’d once pruned himself.
“I remember what I said,” Paul Crab muttered, “but I’m glad to see you again. Now go!”
Suddenly, Kai was an apple trader. At first, the quantities he bought and sold were meager; then, they became slightly larger; and, in time, they might have been called modest. Always an eye towards quality: he thought often of the man with the gray mustache, the way his avarice had been leavened with respect. “Fine fruit indeed; worth the journey.” That would be Kai’s specialty.
He could have given up his work at the Green Goat, but he did not, because he loved the innkeeper, and because the information he gleaned serving mugs of cider and plates of oysters was useful. A buyer at Golden Sakar with a taste for pears; a newly-opened hotel in the New Capital that served only the finest brandy, and would pay handsomely for it.
Over the years, he learned more about the Revenant Fleet: the way it marked the stevedores who reached too far across the loading planks, who brushed fingers with their unseen counterparts, and whose own fingers were, from that point onward, more wrinkled than the rest of their hands, and often became gnarled and useless when the stevedores were still young.
From a brandy maker, Kai learned that the captains of the ghost ships could choose their route through an uncanny sea, and so determine the length of their voyage, all while arriving at their destination on schedule: and so, brandy departing Port Fabri nearly raw could have aged sixteen years when it arrived in the New Capital. For this, the Revenant Fleet charged a steep commission, although (the brandy maker said) the captains seemed to prefer those longer journeys.
Kai still went down to the docks to watch the passenger ships set sail. He could afford passage now; he could, if he wished, travel nearly anywhere. Once, on a winter morning, he stood for an hour in front of the office where passage could be arranged, the requisite coins gathered, a hot weight in his pocket.
But he would not abandon the Green Goat and its keeper, and besides, his trade in apples and brandy made him feel like a spider, sensing far-off events through the trembling sensations in its web.
The innkeeper died. Her last wish, a promise extracted with blood-chilling seriousness, was that her death would be marked not with a funeral but with a party, so a party there was. All the other innkeepers of Port Fabri were there, as well as cider makers, apple traders, port administrators, and the head of the stevedore’s union.
The innkeeper’s daughter came, too—only her third or fourth visit to the Green Goat in all the years Kai had worked there. That night, as the little cobold band played wistful tunes and the cider flowed—the inn’s cellar weeping in its own way for its lost mistress—Kai felt there might be something between them, the daughter and him: an attraction alloyed with grief.
But, after that night, they never spoke again. He heard that she had moved to Dramond, to tally that port’s receipt of the same shipments she had, for so long, dispatched from Port Fabri.
He ran the Green Goat for thirty years. To more than one traveler, he explained the puzzle of the Revenant Fleet; to many more than one, he claimed the goats really were green where he came from. And, to more than one despondent youth, newly arrived, he offered a plate of eggs and a mug of still cider.
His parents came to Port Fabri, their first visit ever, and he hosted them at the Green Goat—which was now, improbably, entirely his—in grand fashion. They were so overwhelmed by the city they barely ventured outside the inn. That was fine; Kai cooked for them every morning and every night. His father couldn’t believe how fast his son could shuck an oyster. “You’re a real city slicker,” he said. “A great success.” He slurped an oyster and repeated it, as if signing a great testament: “A great success.”
Perils of the Overworld sat in a place of honor on a short shelf beside the fireplace in the Green Goat’s dining room. Kai had not forgotten the book or its magnetism. But now, when he consulted the map on its first page, he saw his own web of connections overlaid, the places where the cider flowed—cider made from apples that had started in the same place he had.
Did you really have to journey to the ends of the earth, when it was all connected anyway?
He felt old before he was really old, and he wondered if all those mornings spent down at the docks, so close to the Revenant Fleet, had anything to do with it. His hands looked like Paul Crab’s; Paul Crab, who had died, and bequeathed his orchard to the town of Last Apple, to be held in trust, its income supporting the education of orphans, which Paul Crab had been.
Kai wondered if he might do the same thing with the Green Goat somehow, but before he could organize his thoughts, he died. It happened one morning while he was washing mugs; an explosion in his brain. He saw the sun rising out of the sink, and he was gone.
In a remote orchard village, his name is invoked to indicate the outermost reaches of ambition. Once, a boy did go to Port Fabri, and there he built a business. He ran an inn! Kai, child of this place, who braved the perils of the overworld. Anyone could do the same.
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