The Art of Haggling (Part 3)

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Charles looked at them in horror, terrified to leave the room lest he stumble on the skinless corpse of their former cook. "They took her bloody skin!" He shouted, feeling the burn of bile tickling the back of his throat. Cecile reeled on him, reading the gruesome turn of his thoughts by the disgust in his face.

"Oh hell, Charles, if you faint I will slap you cross eyed." She shifted her tight grip to his shoulders, giving him a good shake. "Not her human skin, twit, her other skin."

Charles sputtered for a moment, lost once again. "Pardon?"

"A selkie, child of the sea," Yan answered, his honey hazel eyes bleak in his face. "Keto, she was so afraid to come here."

"I know, but she refused to tell me what was wrong. You know I would never order her unless it was an emergency. Those were the terms between us," said Cecile, gripping the ship's wheel until her knuckles turned pale. "She's been with us so long, I thought she'd trust us enough to help her."

The captain tucked her chin down, not meeting their eyes.

Charles scrambled to catch up to the conversation. He was aware at that moment how lacking his knowledge of folklore truly was. He'd never heard of a Selkie, but he did know sadness, he understood the loneliness he felt sitting at the end of Ingrid's bed. A few thoughts clicked into place.

"She told me."

Captain and First Mate turned in his direction, their incredulous expressions parodies of each other. "How so?" Cecile finally asked.

"She asked me about my bargaining skills. Said there was a peddler of sorts out here, but her goods weren't run of the mill or paid for through usual means."

Cecile braced herself at his words, her dark skin turning ashen by the time he finished. "Not a peddler, not by a long shot."

"You know who she spoke of?"

"Yes," said the captain, "the Hag of the Deep."

"The Sea Witch," Yan sneered, spitting out the name as if it tasted foul in his mouth.

Cecil nodded to the dim shore outside. "And we are stranded right in the middle of her lair."

__***__

He could hear Yan arguing with the captain, the swell and ebb of their voices, his anger against her calm.

The tail end of their conversation crashed into the mess where Charles and Blind Brand waited to hear Cecile's plan.

"You can't venture in there alone, Keto, not without some form of back up," Yan wrung his hands at her, clearly repeating an ignored sentiment.

"I need you to stay behind and guard the Proteus. She's likely to make off with the whole bloody ship if we all go trouncing off after Ingrid."

"Captian," Brand interrupted, "you cannot do this alone."

"And she won't," said Charles, rising to his feet.

"You're joking right?" Cecile eyed him up and down, stressing how lacking she found him. He ignored her tactics, driving his point home.

"I'm not required to operate the ship and I owe her a rescue."

"Seems like a sound argument to me," said Yan.

Cecile glared at her first mate before turning on Charles. " You mess up or make things worse, I am leaving your arse behind, understood?"

"Understood."

She stomped off, just as Yan slid in front of him. A sheathed dagger pressed into Charles's palm. "Take care of our Keto. Return them both safely to us."

The scientist swallowed, hoping he was up to the task.

__***__

For the inside of an underwater cave, the air was surprisingly dry. Much to his dismay, Charles realized this was his second foray into such a cave and lamented his decision to remain on the Proteus if all his adventures should end in such locale. The beach they clambered on was comprised of black silt, powdering onto his shoes as he walked. It was also much deeper than the cave of the Mami Wata, the beach narrowing to a path that curved around the wall out of sight.

"As if she has her own antechamber," murmured Charles, following Cecile's determined march. The captain did little more than huff at his comment, kicking a protruding rock that went winging into the shallow waters off shore. The two followed the narrowing strip of beach, emerging into a chamber quite different from the snake woman's. There were no heaps of silver and gold, or jewel encrusted knick knacks. There was, however, a massive looking glass without a frame, hung on the far wall. Jars lined the walls, filled with vibrantly colored kelp, pearly powders, and other organic implements. Beside the mirror, squatting in the corner like a massive cast iron toad, was a cauldron, quietly bubbling away with a liquid the color of old blood. On the ground, far enough away to avoid the low flames licking the cauldron's black belly, was a crumpled pile of fur.

"Is that what I think it is?" Charles whispered.

"Indeed." Cecile crouched to dash forward. The mirror rippled. A foot extended from the glass, the rest of the figure soon followed. It was a woman, her long pale hair like morning sea foam. A tattered brown robe hung off her pearl colored shoulders. Cool green eyes assessed them. Charles thought her oddly human looking until she smiled, revealing triangular shark's teeth. The Sea Witch bowed to them, spreading her arms wide.

"Welcome to my humble abode, travelers," she looked up, the shark smiling widening. "Come to make a deal?" 

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