Anaru awoke to the sounds of rhythmic chanting in the old tongues, the smell of incense and felt his head pound. The Piscean kept his eyes shut. He couldn’t remember last night, in fact the entire day before was blurry in recollection. The bits and pieces of the previous afternoon gleamed momentarily in his memory.
He knew he performed yesterday with his band. In the months since his band, Nga Tama a Rangi — or “The Sons of Heaven” in the worldwide tongue — had been officially promoted by the local churches and hailed as “true gospel,” the requests for concerts became more and more frequent. However, the spiritual substances — the drink, the smoke, the mushrooms and many other gifts of the gods — often brought reckoning the next day for their pride and their sins. When he heard a curtain slide open, Anaru knew better than to open his eyes right away. He felt his guitar case under his hand and pulled it close to him for comfort.
“Your repentance looks painful this morning, young worshiper.” A kindly old voice said.
“This morning I repent for all the sinners in the world,” Anaru said with slight smile. “Or at least that is what it feels like.”
“It is already the afternoon, so your penance will have to be cut short.” The priestess laughed. “We need our confession room for the faithful.”
“Is that where I am?” Anaru hazarded opening one eye slightly and was thankful to find the room was not as bright as he had thought. “Did I confess last night?”
“Honestly, no.” She said while forcing him to sit up by propping him up against the wall. “We found you lying in the sand not far from here, singing of Neptune and your wish to go surfing.”
“Sounds like a confession of the heart to me,” Anaru smiled and very slowly tried to sit up.
The confession space was similar to most others he had frequented. Lengths of luxurious cloth covered the walls, punctuated only by icons and paintings of the gods, mostly Neptune. Pillows covered every square inch of the floor, with the exceptions for the center of the room — for the hookah — and the large cabinet in the corner which kept the “harder” spiritual substances for the more serious sins.
“May I confess, priestess? Before I go, I mean.” Anaru spoke softly and sincerely.
The old woman nodded and swept her long seafoam-colored robes out from under her as she sat by the hookah. From a pocket inside the wide sleeves, she produced a tin of strong, dried sea cannabis, or seaweed, and began to pack the wide bowl.
Anaru made the symbol of the trident across his heart and head. Kissing his fingers and pointing to the sky, he began.
“Gods forgive me, for I have sinned. Today is the nineteenth day of April, and last night I performed in worship of you. As my popularity grows across the Isles, I know the Holy Pantheon is watching over me and allowing me to shine like a guiding star for the faithful…” The young rock star’s voice trailed off as the priestess handed him a hose as she began to puff smoke from the corner of her wrinkled mouth.
Anaru took a draw from the hose and felt the pain of the hangover fade away, the world softened and began to slow. His body grew heavy but his face was grinning as the mouthpiece left his lips.
“… However, I can hide nothing from the gods, and Neptune knows that I have taken freely of the love and gifts of the faithful fans who have followed me and my band on this tour.”
Anaru began his long and storied tales of celebrations, sex and debauchery which followed Nga Tama a Rangi around the islands, and the old priestess listened patiently until he was finished.
“Hmmm. Well young man, it seems you’ve certainly made time for yourself during this circuit of worship.” She raised an eyebrow and spoke with the hose at her pursed lips. “It is clear the gods have not sought to turn away your fame and fortune — yet. However, the Church is willing to absolve you of your sins by way of spiritual substances if you make a generous donation to our temple.”
Anaru nodded too quickly and found the room spinning. He opened his guitar case and found one of the cards for the line of credit his band manager had given him.
“How much do you need?”
“No, my child, the question is, how much do you need?” She lifted herself to her feet with care, and made her way to the large, driftwood cabinet.
The priestess opened a few cabinets until she found the jar she sought.
“I’m sure, with your history, you are familiar with these,” the old woman held up a large jar, filled nearly to the brim with tiny mushrooms. “They will test your spirit and cleanse you of your past mistakes. Clear a day and take three in the morning. Meditate on the man you wish to be. Although, it is obvious you have much to atone for and you know your sins better than I, so buy the number you think needed to atone for your transgressions.”
She bowed her head solemnly and took up his card of credit.
“How much are you willing to donate today?”
“Umm…” Anaru tried to do the math for how much the sacred ‘shrooms went for in his hometown church. He figured an increased price for the immorality he had undertaken, and then lost the figures in his mind altogether. “Two hundred?”
The priestess tried to hide her surprise at the size of the generous amount.
“Come now son, is that what you immortal soul is worth?”
“Oh, yeah. Of course not, my bad…” Anaru struggled to think and then decided against it. “Five hundred is what I meant.”
“Understood, here are your reparations.” She took half of the mushrooms out and placed them delicately into a smaller jar. “May Neptune’s love be with you always.”
“And you as well, priestess.” Anaru made the trident motion again and took the jar from the old woman and found a place for it in his guitar case.
He stood with some difficulty and made his way through the beaded curtains into the main hall. The church was exquisite by Piscean standards. Anaru had nearly forgotten which island he was on, but the stained glass windows depicting the ten great gods of the pantheon as well as the ornate fixtures decorating the pews and altars told him his tour must be nearing the pantheonic see. Most temples to the gods were built as basic as any home or tavern with palm and driftwood. As money flowed into the Church, suddenly massive, resplendent buildings were built as temples, but only those chosen by the high priestesses for their heavy traffic. Anaru took his time and stood in awe of the building’s glamour before stepping into the afternoon sun.
The town of (town name here) was already alive with pedestrians, rickshaws and the horses of the sea scurrying about from store to stall. The sounds of the crashing surf mingled among the noise of the people and the whineys of the sea horses, smoothing the harshness of so much motion at once for Anaru.
The Piscean loped leisurely on the outside of the sandy street in his tall, gangly way. He paused at a fruit cart to admire the produce and the horse resting between the tracer poles of the cart.
“May I pet your horse?” Anaru asked the vendor with a dopey smile.
“Yeah, sure. She’s real friendly.” The tiny, chubby vendor grumbled. “As long as you buy something.”
“Okay then, one bushel of apples please.”
Surprised, the vendor began bagging up the fruit as Anaru approached the mare.
The seahorse was shorter than most at nine, maybe ten hands tall and the ringed armor-like texture to her skin was the color of coral and oceanside sunsets. Her mane fin and tail flickered softly in appreciation as the Piscean slowly stroked her the smooth space of her back.
“Here ya go, that’ll be ten dollars.” The vendor held out the hemp bag filled with apples as well as his other hand to receive payment.
“Here’s a card for credit…” Anaru began as he fished around in his guitar case for the stack.
“Credit? Credit?” The vendor barked. “What if I never see you again, boy? I’m as charitable as the next, but I need to make ends meet! I don’t have the Bank of the Church at my disposal y’know.”
“Oh, sorry man. How ‘bout a trade instead?” Anaru found the jar the priestess had handed him and brought it out into the sunlight.
The vendor’s eyes went wide as Anaru began to do the math of how many “caps” he would need to atone for his past mistakes. He began to unscrew the lid.
“Good sir, I’m certain we can work out a trade! How about two, maybe three for the bushel?” The vendor had walked around his stall and placed the bag at Anaru’s feet as her rubbed his hands together.
“Oh, well I already took out five, so here you go.” Anaru casually dropped the spiritual ‘shrooms into the giddy fruit salesman’s hands.
“So generous! The gods must certainly favor you sir, thank you!”
“I hope so.” Anaru took a bite of an apple before moving around to the front of the horse.
He held out the rest of the apple as an offering to the gentle creature. Her many nostrils flared and she nudged the fruit with her muzzle before pulling back her lips and retractable baleen gums to reveal her teeth as she benignly began to nibble at it. A few bites in, she took the apple from his hand in one big chomp.
She permitted him to softly touch her face and cheeks as she chewed happily.
“Enjoy it,” Anaru said to the amphibious beast before navigating the wild traffic of the street to the tavern on the other side.
The dark tavern was a much needed rest for Anaru’s eyes. The slight migraine had grown in sunlight, and the thick, tattered curtains which covered the windows of the building gave him great relief. Surprisingly empty for one o’clock in the afternoon, Anaru counted only three people inside the bar — including the bartender. An unconscious Piscean sat facedown and snoring at his table by the door, occasionally hiccuping in his sleep. Anaru gently stepped around the slumbering man, and picked a stool at the bar two seats from a beautiful woman who seemed to feel as wretched as he did. The suffering rockstar motioned for the barkeep to come over.
“Hey, how are ya?” The barkeep seemed to shine jovially with his shaved head and hints of shimmering jewelry about his person. “Happy Saturday!”
“Oh, it’s Saturn’s day? Is that why business is so slow here?” Anaru queried.
“While it is the religious day of work, I’m afraid I haven’t been sanctioned by the local church yet either. So between those two things, the afternoons have been mighty slow. But anyway, what can I get for ya?”
Anaru glanced down the bar toward the woman sitting a few seats away. Her hair was blonde and full of body, as was she. Her curvy structure and wavy golden hair reminded Anaru of the shoreside dunes. Stirring what seemed to be only ice left, she stared past the short glass — possibly contemplating another strong drink. She slumped on the stool with her brow in her hand, as if the bar was the only thing holding her steady.
“I’d like two glasses of whatever she’s having,” Anaru said to the bartender as the blonde looked up to face him, to which he winked in reply. “One for the lady, of course”
“Two monsoons, coming right up.” The bartender grabbed her glass and a fresh one for Anaru and began his happy work, whistling a sailing tune.
The blonde got up and moved to the seat next to Anaru. She wore a turquoise robe, if one could call it that; low-cut, shapley and the hem reached to barely mid-thigh. Both her lips and her eyes were full and red, she had been crying into her drink.
“Hello handsome, thank you for your kindness.” she murmured. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around here, and yet you look so familiar. What’s your name?”
“Perhaps this meeting is fated by the Gods,” he paused to lock eyes with the woman. “Anaru.”
The Piscean knew he embodied the religious rock star with every inch of his mellow smile, tanned skin and sandy hair always pulled away from his smooth brow and strong cheekbones. The ability to sing, play and write music only furthered his confidence and unwavering sense of self. He was tall for a Piscean, and goofily proportioned with even longer arms, legs and feet. However; his handsome smile, his music and his piety earned him the attraction and approval of hundreds across the Piscean islands. Anaru felt in his bones that this was only the beginning.
“Anaru,” she tried the name in her mouth as if tasting a new drink. “Surely not the Anaru of Nga Tama a Rangi?”
“One and the same, at your service.” Anaru grinned widely, as he felt the conversation sliding in his favor.
“I love your music! I nearly bought an electronic music player just to listen to your voice at home.”
“Buy the technology the church forbids to listen to the hymns of the faithful, eh?” The bartender joked as he brought them their drinks. “It’s a strange form of sacrilege, but not an uncommon offense. Especially since your band became so popular within the last couple years.”
“I’d hate to be the cause of any soul’s separation from the church,” Anaru’s face grew sad and long suddenly. “We are all sinners, but the Gods have given us the gift of scripture to save ourselves from Pluto’s grasp and grant us immortal life. I have only sought to rescue souls from him by leading those drifting astray back to the Holy Pantheon and Neptune.”
“That is so beautiful,” the blonde slurred. “So, you’re a sinner too, hm?”
Already halfway through her current drink, she smiled. Anaru tried to gauge whether her eyes were gray or green but each glimpse he caught conveyed a different color or shade.
“Aren’t we all?” Anaru mused, and took a gulp of his drink. “I didn’t catch your name…”
“You didn’t put your hook in the water,” her stormy eyes twinkled as she winked. “It’s Angelica.”
“That’s a lovely name, is it Cancerean?”
“My father was from Cancer, my mother is a Piscean priestess.”
“And the result is as beautiful as the ocean is deep…”
“You flatter me…”
Their eyes met and the conversation fell into silence. The answer to the mystery of the color of Angelica’s eyes became clear, even as his own vision became blurry. They were both. Gray and green, the color of an ocean in the eye of the storm. Neither calm nor stormy, but something soul-shaking in between. Though they often wandered over him during the course of their conversation, her eyes had settled on his face and didn’t seek for anything more.
“So you’re on tour then?” She broke the silence but not the eye contact they shared.
“Yeah, I’ll play tomorrow night at Moana, near the western end of the island, and then we set sail to play at capital’s stadium in Kullat.”
“You’re only here for one more day?” The ocean in her eyes cast shadows.
“Yes,” Anaru swept a strand of blonde hair from her face and let his hand linger there. “But we don’t have to say goodbye just yet.”
“Would you like to try some of the liquor I keep at home?” Pausing only a moment, she placed her hand on his and kept it close to her face. “I have a very extensive collection of fine imports.”
“A gorgeous woman offering me a free drink — a truly irresistible combination.” He grinned.
“Speaking of free drinks,” the bartender interrupted as politely as possible.
“Oh, yes of course.” She pulled out a small, but heavy purse.
Intoxicated as she was, the tiny bag slammed onto the bar top and the clasp let loose a cascade of coins. The sand dollars — the Piscean currency of choice — were often shown as a sign of excessive wealth. The tiny ivory colored coins clinked in the bartender’s hands as he picked up his fare, one coin at a time.
“The rest is a tip,” Angelica winked at the barkeep, then turned to Anaru and grabbed his large hand as she stood up. “My home is not far from here.”
Anaru was a bit wobbly as he lifted himself from the barstool. He followed her to the door, but then felt bony fingers quickly grab hold of his other arm. He looked down in shock, muted by the sea weed and drink, and saw the previously unconscious patron staring up at him with blind-white eyes in a look of desperation.
“Trust not the harpy beside you instead of the goddess in-side you!” His deathrattle voice shook as he pounded his chest with his free hand in time with syllables of “inside.”
“Ah!” Anaru gasped in belated surprise. “That is hardly the way to address a lady. I would demand an apology if I thought your sanity or sobriety had it in them.”
Anaru shook off the old man’s grasp, but the nearly skeletal hand clutched wildly in the air. In fear and disgust, the young pair hurried out the bar and into the sunny street. Angelica took Anaru’s hand and pulled him to her as she placed her head on his chest.
“Why would that man say such unkind things, Anaru?” She let out a shaky sob. “I have never even met him before!”
Anaru wrapped his long arms around her and felt the soft fabric of her robe under his fingertips as he pulled her into a tight embrace.
“I…” Anaru’s chest tightened for reasons he could not explain. “…wouldn’t worry about it. I think that fish just had a few too many substances. He’s probably just running from his own demons.”
The blonde sniffed and pulled away from him, but kept careful hold of his hand.
“You were so sweet and chivalrous,” Angelica cooed as she led him down the street, away from the bar. “You’ve definitely earned these spirits.”
The cobblestone road opened up as it led them up into “The Hills,” a neighborhood of merchant’s stately mansions known and envied by all on the isle and several surrounding spits of land. As the sand beaches slopped up into grassy knolls, the style and price of the homes increased.
Anaru followed Angelica, street by street, until he wondered how much further his prize could be. When they finally found the villa, Anaru could hardly believe his own eyes. Between an ivory estate decorated with massive marble fountains sculpted in the likeness of Neptune, and what had to be a Leonean “winter home” judging by the gold inlaid into every decorative facet of the ornate architecture, stood a manor completely unwilling to be outdone by its neighbors.
“Here it is,” Angelica purred. “Home sweet home.”
The lawn was not so much land as water. A saltwater pool — complete with a mini-ecosystem of perfectly maintained plants and fish — filled the front yard, with a driveway off to the side of fine crushed coral. Pillars and high arches greeted him, as Anaru was led dumbstruck through the pair of mostly stained glass front doors. The inside was no less decadent. Although the home clearly had at least two floors, the foyer reached to the ceiling of the home and opened up to an enormous parlor with a glass ceiling and another salt water pool above that. Anaru gawked at the tiny fish swirling above his head until Angelica tugged on his hand once more.
“Don’t dwadle now, the spirits are just upstairs…” She shot him a sultry look over her shoulder. “…in the bedroom.”
*** ** *
Anaru woke up, once again unsure at first of where he was, with another bad headache. Though the silk sheets of the waterbed were far more comfortable than the pile of church pillows he slept on the previous night, he woke up with a sudden shock and a face full of pain. It took several moments to realize there was another man in the room, standing over the bed with clenched fists, and another minute or two to realize that he had been punched awake.
“Eh?” Anaru blinked slowly and gingerly felt his cheek and jaw as his eyes focused to look around the room.
The man standing over the bed was grinding his fist into his palm like a mortar and pestle. Though his vision blurred in and out, he could make out the fuzzy shapes of well-built men in the back of the room blocking the only way out.
“Oh. You’re awake are you?” The accent was strong, foreign yet familiar. Anaru could feel the answer to its origin on the tip of his tongue.
Another hard punch rocked his skull and lost his train of thought. This blow burst his bottom lip and left the taste of blood in Anaru’s mouth.
“Owww…” He groaned almost comically. “Do I even know you?”
The Piscean tried to sit up against the cushioned silk backboard of the bed and felt the room spin from the punches and the spirits consumed hours ago. When his eyes finally oriented themselves to the intoxication and the pain, he finally saw Angelica. Her hands were draped across his assailant as if she was an accessory to be worn, and that was the moment he saw something he hadn’t before — a ring.
“You seem to know my wife, carogna.”
The language brought it home to him, definitely Cancerean. Judging by the build of the man and his buddies, they were sailors, and if the home was any indication he was a wealthy captain with connections. Anaru tried to shake off any remaining sleepiness and focus on the moment.
“Niccolo,” Angelica was trying to move her husband’s hard glare with her hands, pulling his chin toward her face to no avail. “I told you, I was drunk. It meant nothing. I…”
“Get her out of here, boys.” He snapped his fingers and the men behind him, clad in matching striped shirts and bandanas, strode over to Angelica and picked up the flailing woman as if they were moving furniture.
“Get your hands off me! Nicci! Don’t do this!” Her protesting cries echoed off the cavernous walls in the parlor once she was carried out. The door slammed behind them.
Niccolo, as he was apparently called, didn’t move. He stood over a very naked Anaru and glowered down at the tired and sore Pisces.
“So can we talk about this?” Anaru ventured, attempting to slide out of the other side of the bed while wrapping the top sheet around his waist.
“Sure, we can talk.” The Cancerean growled with malice. “Let’s talk about the little trip you’re going to take with me and my crew.”
“Hey, hey, wait a minute… “ Anaru began to get truly nervous. “She never told me she was married. We met at a bar and she invited me over for a few free drinks. Angelica…”
“DON’T SPEAK OF HER AS IF YOU KNOW HER!” The Cancerean Captain shouted until he was red in the face. “My wife may be unfaithful but she is still my wife. I won’t throw away our life together for a rotten piece of driftwood like you. No…”
Rage took hold of Niccolo. His teeth bared as he reached for the nearest thing, a chair — an exquisite piece of woodwork — and threw it at Anaru. The Piscean, having honed ducking reflexes due to a history of nights on stage which went south, dodged the chair but wasn’t ready for the man to come barreling toward him immediately after. Niccolo tacked Anaru and began pummeling his face until Anaru lost consciousness again.
*** ** *
The familiar sounds of the sea were soothing, yet muffled when Anaru awoke. He tried to stretch, as he felt incredibly stiff and sore, but found that he couldn’t. He had been stuffed into a shipping barrel. Suddenly wide awake, he could feel the sea rock far outside his barrel though his container was being jostled quite violently. He was being carried.
“Hey! HEY!” The Piscean banged on the lid of the container and shouted, but only heard the laughter of two men as a response.
They set the barrel down none too gently and though the sounds were muffled, Anaru understood that he was being presented to the Captain for final judgement. The ocean sounded much clearer now, and the Piscean could only guess he was on the ship’s deck.
“Ready, men?” Niccolo’s voice boomed right above Anaru’s barrel.
Sudden sunlight flooded his eyes as the top of the barrel was removed. Anaru quickly stood up, still shoulder-deep in his container, but found the blades of twenty deckhands’ cutlasses pointed at his throat.
“Now let it never be said that ol’ Niccolo is without mercy,” The Captain shouted with mirth for his crew to hear. Chuckles rose eerily from all across the ship. “You came into my home with your guitar case, now you’ll leave my ship with it as well.”
The Cancerean snapped his fingers and Anaru’s guitar case was brought forward and placed easily in the spacious barrel.
“Uh, thank you?” Anaru’s voice wavered.
“Shut up, pigliainculo!” One of the sailors in stripes shouted and smashed the tang of his sword into Anaru’s face.
“Owwww…” Anaru rubbed his forehead where the hilt had hit him.
Captain Niccolo’s cold stare made his smile look strange.
“All right men, close ‘im up. Throw ‘im overboard.” The Cancerean turned his back on Anaru’s barrel and strode into the captain’s quarters.
“Wait! Wait!” Anaru shouted but the cutlass tips inched forward, forcing him back into the massive barrel. “Please, don’t do this! It was an honest mistake!”
The crew ignored him and hammered the lid back into place. It was dark inside the drum again. Abruptly the keg was kicked over. Anaru reached out and clutched his guitar case to his chest. The barrel began to roll and pick up speed, spinning Anaru in a sickening way inside. Then, he was in freefall — for a few short moments the Piscean felt himself lift off the side of the cylinder — and then as ocean hit the wood, Anaru hit the wood. Every sore spot he had accumulated over the past three days seemed to ignite at once.
The Piscean tried to sit up and the motion tipped the vessel until it bobbed vertically in the sea. Anaru pounded on the lid until it separated far enough for him to see out. All he could see was the side of the massive cargo ship, so large it blocked out the sun.
“‘Neptune’s Will,’” He read the name of the ship off the side of its port-side bow. “I’ll have to write a song about this later.”
Anaru tried to laugh, but he felt his cheeks sting with salt water. He tried to remember when the seawater had splashed him, as he wiped what he discovered to be tears.
“Neptune protect me,” he whispered and motioned across his chest with the sign of the trident.