Thirsty are the lips that taste the ocean. Sick is the belly that braves the stream. Dirty are the hands that bathe in bloodwater.
It had been one of his mother’s favorite things to say. What it meant would depend on the occasion. It could mean: you shouldn’t have drunk that, it’ll make you sick. Or: whatever trouble it is you’re in, you have only yourself to blame. She also could mean it literally. As in: don’t touch the bloodwater, it’ll dirty your hands.
But Nisean had weak arms, which meant he was no good for the mines. His sight was too poor for the rangers. He couldn’t read or write, and in any case, the shopkeepers had never liked the looks of him, with his filthy black hair and that scar from lip to chin where a horse had once kicked him. He looked like the sort that would rob them blind. And he might have, if it came down to it.
But there was money in bloodwater. Even for a boy with no skills.
It wouldn’t be the first time he’d ignored his mother’s advice.
The old man sniffed suspiciously at the day’s catch, which Nisean carefully laid out across his counter. He had wrapped them in his own undershirts, since he had no paper.
“What did you bring me?” the merchant demanded, though the answer was plain. They were fish, but not ordinary fish. Their scales sparkled green, with flashes of red when they caught the sun at the right angle.
“If you can name them,” the boy answered, “then you know your fish better than me. I’ve never seen the like.”
Nisean was thirteen. He was tall for his age, but his voice was still high and thin.
“Three coppers?” the man demanded skeptically, his eyes directed to the scales, as if the fish themselves might name their price.
“Six,” Nisean countered.
“Six!” the man repeated, “Six if they swallowed your mother’s pearls. What would you say to four?”
Nisean nodded hesitantly.
“You’ve robbed me!” the man cried with feigned bitterness. Then he dropped the coins onto the counter one at a time. They clattered noisily against the wood.
The boy smiled. He had no way of knowing the fish were worth five times that sum. He was on his own now, and he had to make do with what wits were left to him.