The hulk of a greenish, barnacle-crusted cog hung under Saint Pierro Bridge. Strange folk crept up creaky scaffolds nailed to the crossing's piers, swaggered through a pair of saloon doors set in the hull to join a ruckus of voices and excitedly strummed six-strings. In the windows, cobbled from daub and ends of bottles, figures shifted like smoke. By the swinging doors was pegged a sign painted with a lounging, fin-legged woman: The Siren's Rest.
"I don't know about this, Elias," said Peral, frowning at the slightly swaying structure.
Elias punched her in the shoulder, grinned under his messy drapes of black hair. "Come on, tipa. This place is the most, and these fellows I know are something," he said, unbuttoning his red cadet's jacket. "At least, I think they're fellows. I hope."
"Micio," grinned Peral. She punched him back. "Fine. I want a drink."
They braved the groaning scaffold, pushed past all manor of swaying, smoky creatures. Something briefly tugged Peral's sleeve, flashed her a hand sign she didn't comprehend. A mouse spilled his thimble of wine on Elias' boot. Up ahead, someone keeled over the rail, toppled with a shriek into the briny canal far below.
Peral caught the saloon doors as they swung behind Elias. A wash of sound and pepperelle smoke doused her, thick and thrumming. To the prow of the old hulk, a bustle of hands passed wine, rum, and sherry over a grainy bartop made smooth by wear. A swarthy, busty publican directed glasses and pewter cups to and from thirsty hands. Circular tables cluttered the long hold, crowded with shifting creatures. A trio of men in wide hats blurred their fingers on the frets of wide guitars, laughed at the mice who danced amidst ropes and smoky, swaying lamps on the ceiling. Over the bar, gazing dully over the scene, was the mounted head of a siren. Lank, golden hair fell over glass eyes and small fangs couched in shriveled lips. Peral stared, grimaced.
Grinning wide, Elias beckoned Peral to the bar. He tugged the publican's sleeve, mouthed something over the noise, held up two fingers. The apron-clad woman plucked two stepped glasses from beneath the counter, wet the edges, and rolled them in a bed of grisodate salt. A splash of blue liquor and a half lime, squeezed, graced the stem's glass bowls. Elias flicked a silver coin, plucked the glasses, proffered one to Peral.
"This is what they're drinking in Empereaux. Try it."
Peral squinted at the sour cocktail. "Lord, tipo. The Emperoussins must want to hurt."
"Hah, well, they do," said Elias, distractedly. He was craning his neck, looking over the tables. "There they are!" he exclaimed, pointing to the back.
Elias took Peral's arm, split the crowd with his shoulder, drink held overhead. As Peral passed one table, a scarred man flipped it at his comrade, who lunged in response. A mouse landed on her shoulder, only to depart immediately, leaving sooty footprints. Her boot tread on something soft: a bare pair of legs sticking from under another table. Peral frowned. Elias turned her about.
"Fellows, meet my friend Peral," he said, gesturing. Before them sat, at a round table, a trio of odd creatures: Thin, crooked, and entirely wrapped in thin strips of leather and cloth. Bright, bloodshot eyes peered at Peral from under bandannas and woven rags. One of them, a creature with a bicorne hat crammed over his head wrappings, stood and offered a thin hand.
"A pleasure, Señora," he said, baring pink, sharp teeth.
Peral shook the bony hand.
"Milne and his crew," said Elias.
"Please," said the raggedy man. "Join us."
The cadets pulled up chairs, joined the table. Milne fixed Peral with his reddened eyes. "You are a friend from the naval academy, aye?"
"Yes," said Peral, looking to the still-grinning Elias, unsure.
"We, too, are sailors," said Milne. His compatriots nodded in unison. One of them curled his lip, spat a gob of pink goo into a copper cup. "Recently, we have returned from sea, eager for fresh eggs and coquelicish."
"Tipa, Milne sailed under Hogar of the High Steppe," said Elias, nudging his friend.
"Aye," said Milne, hat bobbing. "He was a fine and generous captain. We sailed before the Mascarados vanished."
Peral raised her eyebrows. "That was before I was born. You've sailed a long while."
"Age is not so obvious, in us."
A silence fell, stretched. "Um" said Peral, shifting. "What, if you don't mind my ignorance, are your people called, Señor Milne?"
Beside Peral, Elias choked on his drink. Milne pulled a wide smile at him, displaying crooked and pointed teeth set in bright red gums. His companions flashed similarly sharp grins. "I'm glad tales of our Norther cousins do not precede us, Cadet. We are traperos; 'rag folk,' in your Alagórian tongue."
Elias frowned, pulled a pained smile. "I'm sorry, Milne. I should have explained to my friend."
"No, let her question."
"How," said Peral, leaning forward, curious. "Do your cousins spoil your name?"
Beside Milne, the ragged sailors put hands to their covered foreheads, made signs like pointed horns.
"You see," said Milne, baring his teeth again. "They eat people."
Moonlight played over Meeve's cot, over the burgundy quilt tenting atop small toes. The child ogled, frozen, at the open window above her bed. Silhouettes of twigs wavered in the frame, swayed by summer breeze. Meeve followed each, eyes wide. A mousy blonde lock stuck to her forehead, quivered with every quiet breath.
A scratching broke the quiet. Meeve flinched, screwed her eyes shut, screamed.
Footsteps sounded in the hall. Something scraped and bumped on the floor, then quieted. The bedroom door opened with a clunk and a creak. An arc of yellow light fell into the room.
"Meeve, Dearie?" said Mum. She wore a nightgown, held a low candle in a silver chamberstick. "What is it, now?"
"A monster's come through my window, Mum" said Meeve, clutching her quilt.
Mum pursed her lips, rubbed the bags under her eyes. "Dearie, you've had a nightmare. Try and sleep."
"No, it came through the window. Check and see!" The girl pointed sharply.
Mum smiled thinly, stepped to the window. Her candle made the dim frame into a deep, black rectangle. She bent, plucked something from the floor.
"It's just a twig, see?" She raised a crooked stick. "Fallen in from the apple tree. Nothing to fear." She tossed it out into the dark. "You must try and go back to sleep."
"But I'm scared."
"Well, maybe you should be" said Mum, soft with exaggerated fervor.
"Mum?" said Meeve, wringing under the quilt, eyes wide.
Mum sat beside her, held the candle in her lap. Its flame lent her a stark, shadowed visage. "You know the game you play at the fountain wall, with Dosof and the schoolchildren?" she asked. Meeve nodded.
"And what do you call it?" said Mum.
"'Who's Afraid of the Ragwretch'" recited Meeve.
"You know what a ragwretch is?"
"Sort of" said Meeve, eyes wide.
"A ragwretch" said Mum "is a hungry, hungry creature that comes out at night. It wears all rags and bits of cloth, because the sun burns it up. It's got sharp horns on its head like spindles; and little red eyes like redcurrants; and sharp teeth like a cat's, but bigger and more crooked." Meeve shuddered. Mum smiled, continued. "All wise little children know to keep quiet and asleep at night, lest a ragwretch hear them."
"What happens if a ragwretch hears you?" said Meeve, whispering into her knotted quilt.
"Well" said Mum, leaning over the flame. "It'll creep up and stuff you in a sack with all the other things it means to eat."
"Now" said Mum, standing to leave. "You know why you'd best stay quiet and sleep?"
"Yes, Mum" murmured Meeve.
"Good. Nighty night, Dearie."
Mum departed, her candlelight followed. The bedroom was darker for its absence. In the gloom, Meeve smoothed her quilt, settled in, held it tight to her neck. Quite still, she peered at the window through her mousy hair. Breath slipped from her lips, shallow and carefully silent.
Slowly, Meeve's eyes adapted to the moonlight. She made out the pattern of the burgundy quilt, the crooked lines of the apple tree, and the glistening, hungry teeth rising from neath her bed: Like a cat's, but bigger and more crooked.
Picture a ragwretch: A hunched, crooked creature wrapped in rags. A scuttling beast bent under a wriggling sack. A pair of hungry eyes shining in the dark under horns like spindles. This picture haunts the cultural fears of the North. It is the bogeyman, the creeping ravager, the eater of human flesh.
Every Northern child knows what ragwretches are. They live in holes and huts deep in the wilder-woods. They sleep away the day because the sun burns their skin. At night, they come out to hunt, snatch up everything they can strangle and fit in their sacks. They are monsters both real and imagined, made terrifying by the perverse joy they find in mischief and murder.
Every Ward Ranger knows what ragwretches are, too. They are clever fiends who prowl the wilderness, preying on settlements and farmer's holds. They yearn, with every moment, to creep across the moors and devour the good folk of Firlund. The Rangers stand vigilant, ready to put down invading wretches with fire, bolt, and blade.
Though they'd never suppose it, Southerners know ragwretches, too. In the warm ports of Alagór, they are known as pinkspitters (for the coquelicish they chew,) ragmen, or traperos (for their intricately woven trappings.) They are wry and nimble creatures of the seaside, not at all like their predatory Northern cousins.
Traperos have no horns on their skulls, for they do not consume the flesh of man. Instead, they are fond of eggs and fish, and are as civilized as any mouse or human (albeit unusually fond of drugs and adventure.) Though the Church does not permit nonhumans in the Navy, any trader or privateering captain would consider himself lucky to hire a crew of rowdy pinkspitters.
Though scholars agree Northern ragwretches and Southern traperos are undoubtedly the same species, none can say what caused them to diverge so strongly. Only their shared mutation, a terrible sensitivity to sunlight, unites these disparate races.
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