Of Blood and Brine, by Megan E. O’Keefe

Child’s mistress was out when the scentless woman entered the shop and laid a strip of severed cloth upon the counter. For once, Child wished her mistress were at her side.

bloodpull1“May I help you?” Child asked around a clot of fear.

“Make me a vial of this perfume,” Scentless said, her voice honey-sweet though her sillage was hollow, “and another exactly the same, but with the tiniest hint of the sea.”

Child squinted, desperate to find a hint of the woman’s identity beneath the netting she wore across her green-brown eyes. Scentless had forgone the usual patterns women painted around their eyes. Her face was a bare mask.

Unease dampened the palms of Child’s hands. The woman was old enough to have passed her Naming Day, but no matter how Child flared her nostrils and breathed, she could not scent the woman’s name. Scentless wore the wrap all named men and women wore, covered hair-to-toe in thin black fabric to protect her skin from the poison of the sun’s red glare. The cloth of her wrap had a subtle sheen, the fabric so smooth Child could not even see the weave. She must be wealthy. The slender arc of her cheekbones rose just above the bottom of netting, hinting that she was beautiful.

And yet the woman wore no scent. She was nameless.

Even the dead smell, Child thought, then shook herself. This was business. Whatever had urged this woman to go out into the world without a name was none of her concern.

Forcing the pleasant shopkeeper-smile her mistress had taught her, Child made a show of rinsing her hands in clean water, then scrubbing them with salt and rinsing them again. She dried her hands on a fine, fresh rag, and held them up for Scentless’ inspection. The woman leaned forward, sniffed the air, and nodded her approval.

Thus prepared, Child gathered the cloth into her hands and brought it as close to her nose as she dared. The aroma was warm, spice-tinged. Cardamom and violet with the faintest whiff of balsam. The sea would be a pleasant addition to such a scent, but Child had no idea how to blend such an aroma.

“I can recreate this by this evening,” Child said, “but the addition of the sea will take time. There is no single oil for such a scent.”

Scentless inclined her head, the supple fabric of her wrap hissing softly as the folds brushed against each other. “I will need it by the full-moon,” she said, and laid a rope of silver upon the counter alongside the cloth.

Child’s throat clenched. Such a sum was no small thing to turn one’s nose up at, even if the deadline was nigh impossible. Not daring to touch the silver, lest she spoil the cleanliness of her hands, Child folded the cloth and set it aside, then took up a slip of paper and a grease pencil. She breathed deep, settling the butterflies fighting to escape through her lips.

“Forgive my asking, but what is your name? I cannot smell it on you.”

The woman’s eyes crinkled at the corners. Whether in amusement or anger, Child could not tell. “I wear none. Put what you like on your paper, I will return in three days to check upon your progress. I will bring you a gold rope if you finish in time.”

She pressed black-gloved hands together and bowed deep, then turned and stepped from the shop back into the hot red eye of the sun’s regard.

Child stared at the paper, stunned. A whole gold rope. Enough to buy her own wrap, her own name. Chewing her lip, she wrote: Scentless.

Then crossed it out, over and over again, until the name was little more than a black square. Her mistress had not been here. She did not need to know. Heart hammering, Child filled in the square until it was black as coal.

Beneath it, she began to make notes on what she had smelled in the cloth.

Ivy-beneath-cedar returned that evening with wine so rich on her breath Child scarcely scented her arrival. She staggered a step, then slung herself into a creaking chair in their workshop, squinting eyes veined with red spiderwebs at her. Child tensed, turning on her stool so that her back guarded her work, and laid her palm flat over Scentless’s receipt.

“You’re working late,” her mistress slurred.

“We had a new client today. A wealthy one.” Hesitantly, Child pulled the length of silver from the pocket of her apron. Ivy-beneath-cedar’s eyes sparked beneath the netting of her wrap, reflecting the glitter of the lantern light against the precious metal.

“What did she want for so much?” her mistress scoffed, “To change her name?”

“Cardamom-over-violet, centered with balsam,” Child added in a rush, “Two vials.”

“Well.” Her mistress heaved herself to her feet and took the length of silver from her. “That is a simple enough task for you. If you make her happy, we might use some of this for your own Naming Day. You’re meant to take the wrap in what, a month? Two?”

“Four weeks,” Child said, unable to keep a flush from creeping across her cheeks.

“Right. Good girl.” Ivy-beneath-cedar gave her a thick-handed pat on the shoulder. She straightened, brushed the rumpled folds of her wrap smooth, and then stumbled through the back door toward her bedchamber, humming an uneven tune all the while. Child’s small fists clenched. She was no fool. There would be no silver left for her by the time her Naming Day came. Ivy-beneath-cedar would drink every last silver away.

But the gold rope. That she could use.

Child smoothed the wrinkles her sweating palm had left on Scentless’s receipt and returned to her work, fingers dancing amongst warm amber bottles lit by the glow of her oil lamp. She didn’t dare burn candles—tallow and beeswax were too strong of scent, they would muddy her work. And she needed clarity now, if she were going to distill the sea.

Child walked the edge of the cold shore, bare feet sinking in rough sand. The red glare of the sun cast the pale beige granules in eerie, pink light, as if blood had been spilled across them and then diluted by the waves. Beak-pecked carcasses of sea creatures lay along her path, their poisonous flesh bulbous with tumors even after those few birds who could stomach them had picked them over. Why anyone would desire to smell like those wretched waters, Child could not guess.

The beach was empty, as it always was, save for a small group of mourning. They bundled their dead—two or three, she could not tell—onto a floating bier, set light the wooden slats, and shoved it out to sea. Child caught her breath, anger tightening her fists as flames licked up around the bier, revealing the wraps the dead had been sent to their rest within. Such a waste. But then, they had earned them. It was their right.

She turned upwind to avoid the smoke and breathed deep of the air, closed her eyes, and flared her nostrils. At the base of the scent of the sea was the brittle bark of the trees which ringed it. Warm, dry. Overlaid with the overwhelming crush of the water itself; a cool, menthol middle mingled with the wet vegetal aroma of aquatic plant-life.

But there was something else above it all, something that took those two meager elements and made them say sea. There was brine, metallic iron, and the air itself, crisp as if lightning had just struck. Both aromas too ephemeral to bottle.

She sighed, opened her eyes, and kicked clumps of sand tangled with rotted seaweed. The Cardamom-over-violet she had already made she clutched tight in her pocket, warming the hard glass with her palm. Ivy-beneath-cedar’s workshop was not suitable to this task, she did not have the ingredients required.

Child extended a finger in her pocket, felt the small thread of copper she kept hidden there, her week’s meager pay. She could buy a new fragrant oil or resin.

And then, with the gold rope, she could start her own shop. Blend her own name.

The market awnings of the city Bahat were dyed green, but in the high light of noon the tops of them turned brown under the red light. Child blended amongst the crowd as best she could, but she was tall for her age and that made her difficult to miss. She drew stares, the people of Bahat wondering just what a girl her age was doing unnamed and without her wrap.

Child paused, glancing at the backs of her hands. Even under the shade of her hat the sun’s glare took its toll. Her skin, nearly fourteen summers old, was already dry and cracked as an ancient lakebed.

Soon it would be dangerous to go without. Soon, the cracks in her skin would begin weeping dark fluids, and no emollient salve would hold the spread of the sun-sickness at bay.

Ivy-beneath-cedar wouldn’t care; apprentices were easy enough to come by. The Justice of Bahat would see no harm done—those who failed to earn enough to purchase their own wraps before the sickness took them were considered useless. Just another mouth to feed from the scorched soil.

Child swallowed, shook her head. No. She would capture the sea. She would claim the Scentless woman’s golden rope.

Embarrassment blushed her cheeks, added haste to her steps. She wove amongst the hundreds of other men and women of the market, catching hints of their names as she slipped between them. A blunt name struck her—without nuance, without balance. Myrrh-under-clove, or was it over? She couldn’t tell, the dominant notes had been blended in equal measure. The heady scents competed with one another for dominance, bludgeoning her senses.

Curiosity lifted her head and she turned, following her nose. A male silhouette familiar enough to tickle the back of her mind stood beside a market stall, weighing a bottle in his hand. The man paid for the bottle and set it in his basket—a basket she recognized. That man—no, that boy—was Lemon-over-neroli’s apprentice. Not even twelve summers, and he was already named. Poorly, but named and shielded from the sun none the less.

Child hunched her shoulders and hurried toward another merchant, eager to prove her own worth. The first stall she came too was filled with the usual base notes; sandalwood and patchouli, white musk and dark. She moved on, systematically, sniffing every single offering until her nose went numb and she was forced to rest. Child lingered near the stall of a kafa-maker so that the bitter-bright aroma of his roasted beans would refresh her senses. At the shop her mistress kept a platter of the beans for cleansing the nasal palette, but she hadn’t dared bring them with her. Ivy-beneath-cedar would suspect her of stealing before borrowing.

While Child rested, a tall woman approached and purchased kafa, her voice sweet and her eye makeup elaborate; whorls of black danced like eddies of wind around her lashes. As she turned to leave a breeze ruffled her wrap, blowing her scent towards Child’s overtired nose.

Balsam. Violet. Cardamom.

Child stiffened, sniffed the air once more to be certain. The woman drifted back into the crowd, nursing her kafa. Entranced, Child followed.

Cardamom-over-violet led her out of the market and into wider, half-empty streets, until they were climbing up winding ways and skirting the fences of homes bigger than any shop Child had ever seen.

Strange gardens grew beyond those gates, inedible plants that thrived under the harsh light, their huge leaves drooping between forbidding iron. Child attempted to slow, to blend into those lingering, but her clothes were too filthy and her feet dribbled ocean sand with each step. She did not belong here.

She did not even have a wrap to obscure that fact.

Cardamom-over-violet turned into one of those iron gates, the trailing edge of her wrap disappearing amongst vibrant greens. Child hesitated, then took a few quick steps forward, hoping to catch sight of some small clue, or just another sniff. Just to be sure.

Fingers wrapped round her arm, vise-tight, and yanked her into the greenery.

She stumbled, tripped, tried to wrench away on instinct but her other arm was grabbed and pinned to her side. Cardamom-over-violet peered at her through her wrap’s obscuring eye net, her eyes a familiar green-brown. Child stilled in her grasp.

“Why are you following me?” the woman asked, and though her voice was sweet it was not the honeyed tones Child remembered from Scentless.

bloodpull2“I thought I knew your scent, Cardamom-over-violet. Please forgive me, I was mistaken.”

The woman released her and leaned back, pressing her back against the gate. Relief flooded the woman’s posture, a slump came to her shoulders. “No, forgive me for grabbing you, Child. I am on edge.”

Child eased forward a half-step. “Are you well?”

Cardamom-over-violet’s head jerked forward, her shoulders squared, “I am fine, only grieving. The spirit of my sister…” She broke off, shook her head. “Never mind. I am a silly, mad woman.”

Child licked her lips, clenched her fist around the vial in her pocket. “Maybe it was your sister’s scent I recognized?”

“Impossible,” the woman snapped, “my sister drowned in the sea. An accident. Now go,” she pointed, “back to your world, little one.”

Child crossed Bahat in a haze, unable to peel her fingers from the vial. Cardamom-over-violet’s scent had been correct, she was certain of it. Her nose never lied to her, even if it was tired from a day of blending.

As she pushed her way free of the market press she caught a whiff of something, clean and sharp. Like the rain around lightning. Like the air above the sea. She froze, turned slowly, found the aroma turned with her. Shaking herself, leaves fell from her hat, their vibrant green bruised deep where they had been crushed against her. Leaves from Cardamom-over-violet’s garden.

Before they could be trod upon she scooped them up, gathered them up near her nose and breathed deep. Yes, that was it. That was the scent of the air above the sea. Now she would just need the brine. The iron.

Regret panged through her, bitter and queasy. Regret because she had already made her choice—already knew what she must do. To survive. She drew a deep breath to steady her nerves.

Every good perfumer knew where to find the scent of iron.

She glanced at the angle of the rusted sun, saw it seeping down into dusk. Ivy-beneath-cedar would be out by now, drinking away her silver.

And Child had her own key to the shop.

Scentless came the next morning. Her wrap was the same fine weave, the same loose fit. Her eyes bore no marks, but shone green-brown down at Child. A green-brown that was familiar to her now. Peering through the shadow of Scentless’s eye net, she followed the partial line of a cheekbone, marked the edge of the top of her nose. More than sisters. Twins.

Child’s fingers trembled as she sat the first vial upon the counter, nudged it forward. She had not bothered to set the wax on the cork with the seal of the shop; she wanted no link between the two.

“Here is Cardamom-over-violet,” she said, and watched the corners of the woman’s eyes twitch with subtle recognition.

“And the other?” the woman asked.

Taking a deep breath, Child set a second vial upon the counter. It was a sliver less full than the first, its cork also unwaxed.

“It is unfinished,” Scentless said, her voice as dulcet as ever.

“I need to know two things first.” Child willed strength into her voice, heard it crack anyway.

“Ask,” she said, a lilt of curiosity creeping through.

“First, will you pay me the gold?”

Scentless pulled a rope of glittering gold from within the folds of her wrap and laid it upon the counter with deliberate care. She took her hand back, leaving the gold. A promise.

Child nodded, cleared her throat. “Second. Did you drown in the sea?”

The woman’s eyes narrowed, and she gave a slight shake of the head. “No. I was drowned in the sea.”

“Give me your hand,” Child said as she uncorked the unfinished bottle and slid it forward. Scentless hesitated just a breath, then held her wrapped hand above it. Child grasped it in her own, felt the lush weave of the fabric, softer than any silk. She pricked the woman’s finger with a fine needle. Scentless sucked air through her teeth, but did not flinch.

Child squeezed drops through the cloth into the bottle. Drops that were not red. One, two. The deep-teal ichor was slow, viscous. Child whisked the bottle away and gave the woman her hand back, then stirred the mixture with the needle. Sniffed.

Metallic brine tingled her nose, mingling with the fresh-air aroma of the leaves. It would not last, the ichor would decay and lose its scent, but Child suspected it would last for as long as the woman needed.

She corked the vial, and still did not bother to wax it.

Scentless gathered both, bowed her thanks, and turned to leave.

“Wait,” Child blurted, and blushed as the woman glanced back, one thick brow raised. “What will you do?”

“This,” she held up Cardamom-over-violet, “will be for me. And this,” she held up the other, “is for the sister who squats in my home.”

Long after Scentless had gone, Child closed the shop and stepped under the red light of the sun’s regard, gold rope heavy in her pocket. In one hand she clutched a new vial, its wax stamped with a sigil of her own making. She held it to the bloodied light, the contents sloshing slow and viscous within their confines. It smelled of air and earth, of sand underfoot, and rain threatening above.

Of a storm about to break.

A fitting name, to start a new life in a new city. Far away from the nameless Child who had blended a killer’s end. Ozone-over-fern turned toward the market. She was going to need a wrap before she could buy a workshop of her own.

fin

Megan E. O’Keefe was raised amongst journalists, and as soon as she was able joined them by crafting a newsletter which chronicled the daily adventures of the local cat population. She has worked in both arts management and graphic design, and spends her free time tinkering with anything she can get her hands on. Megan now lives in the Bay Area of California with her fiancé and makes soap for a living. It’s only a little like Fight Club. She is a first place winner in the Writers of the Future competition, vol. 30. Her website is: http://www.meganokeefe.com

Megan O'Keefe
Megan O’Keefe
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9 thoughts on “Of Blood and Brine, by Megan E. O’Keefe”

  1. I adored this story. I just found you via the writers of the future contest, and I simply must tell you, you have a new fan. Brava!h

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