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Nicholas Eames Chapter Six posted 14 Dec 2004, 07:12 by Gable, Candidate

Hey...Chapter 6. One of my favorite chapters. Read away if you have the time--I'd love to hear what you think. Thanks Six Gifts SQUINTING AGAINST THE reflected glare of the cresting sun, the young musician studied the face of the dead emperor Agamestian with a slight frown, noting the clean-shaven, square jaw; the arched, patrician nose; and the Laurel Crown perched on his high brow. His gaze then shifted to visage of the departed emperor Tovadron IV, and for the life of him he could not discern a difference between the two. Which stood to reason, he decided, since whichever monarch’s facade was upon it, a mex was a still a mex. And a mex, he also determined, was far too much to waste on a beggar. Endelas, as vast and grand a city as she was, had more than her share of urchins. The streets and shaded alleys of Low Tide veritably teemed with the city’s less fortunate denizens. Ex-soldiers and mercenaries, crippled veterans of faraway wars, slumped in pathetic heaps against the walls of taverns and brothels, crying out of the grievances heaped upon them by an unjust and callous state. Those who had lost their wits in drink or gambled away their souls on an unlucky roll of the dice kept swaggering stride alongside passer-by’s long enough to suggest that a single mex or two thrown their way could see them up and on their feet again. Wren had watched them, seen them shrink away in contrived gratitude at the drop of a half-piece or howl scornful profanities when rebuked, until the next promising face passed near and the deplorable dance began anew. There were those in Low Tide that had never stood a chance, having been born or abandoned into poverty as infants. Some of these Wren could almost feel sorry for, despite the depraved manner of their livelihood. Reed-thin girls (most of them younger than he) calling out from windows and haunted doorways to men walking by, youthful skin and wanton eyes promising immoralities sold for silver coin. Boys who slipped through crowds, slicing purse-bottoms and rifling the pockets of the unmindful. Still others, like Wren’s own father, had been merchants or traders, for whom a risky stake on a doomed shipment had proved ultimately ruinous. Those who didn’t take their own lives, leaving sons to fend for themselves in a ruthless world, either lapsed into declining stupors or contrived petty schemes to restore themselves to prosperity once again. There were many ways in which the world could break someone. Many ways in which the broken strove to survive. Some Wren knew of took up paints and brushes, set up makeshift stalls in crowded plazas and painted scenes and portraits on sanded stone or brittle parchment, auctioning them off afterwards to onlookers who had gathered to watch them work. Some banded together in troupes, contrived simple scripts and acted out farces in the streets, crude but amusing mockeries of the epic dramas performed by the Histriones in Dethyuses’ Bowl, the grand theatre of the upper-city. There was a man, most often found near the steps of the Antikon Forum, who juggled ceramic jars filled with water, and who, he’d heard many claim, never spilled a drop. As Wren saw it, you had to give something in order to expect something back. How could one expect charity and offer nothing in return? Even the whores, he grudgingly accepted, gave something, however much it seemed to him a surrender, rather than a gift. You gave what you had to give, was what it came down to, he supposed. And Wren gave them music. Closing his hands on the coins (the sum of two days spent in the Emporium district) and slipping them into the inside pocket of his ragged coat, Wren returned his attention across the plaza, to the man sitting on the ground at the base of the statue of Mexus, First Emperor of Kaladar. He knew the urchin at once by the particular, defeated slump of his bearing and by the tattered, darkly stained Imperial Standard he wore swathed around him like a pestilent shawl. Rorges sat heaped against the north side of the statue, facing the vaulted gate that led out of Low Tide to the upper tiers of the city. He was begging for change, as always. And, as always, offering absolutely nothing in return. Wren shifted the weight of the kithara slung across his back, then made his way across the plaza, smiling kindly at those he passed—a smile that withered to a grimace as he entered the radius of Rorges’ foul reek. The beggar groaned piteously at his approach, raised his beleaguered head called out to him. “Spare a tenth-piece, kind lord, for an old soldier,” he whimpered, his voice affecting that of someone truly beset by the hardships of this cruel world. “Alas, the wars have taken all I have—cast my life into ruin to spite my valour!” The musician said nothing, observed the wretched farce impassively as he reached into his pocket and withdrew one of the silver mexx. Rorges, discerning the sound of clinking coins even as he struggled to make out the figure before him against the late morning sun, renewed his efforts. “Mercy, I beg you,” he persisted, “I carry not only my own scars, but those of my brave comrades as well, smote by the heathen sword of the distant east! I was witness as dearest Captain Cleodron, like a brother to me, had his left arm hacked off by the enemy as his right lay trapped and ruined beneath his own fallen steed. Unable to wield a sword or bear a shield in service to his nation, he was cast away by the country he served—and now crippled and destitute, he is forsaken by those he fought to protect! Such injustice in the fate of Kaladar’s brave sons! Such atrocities torment my every moment! Have pity upon me, a tenth-piece only!” Again something within Wren revolted at the idea of giving money he had earned to this beggar. Must remember, he chided himself, you can make here in a few hours what a day in the emporiums, or even the forums, will earn you. The upper-castes often had a keener appreciation for music he had come to realize: a luxury afforded by a life free of the ever-present threat of looming poverty. And they had money to spend on such luxuries, he knew, that would be wasted upon scum like Rorges. He stood silent a moment longer, gleaning considerable satisfaction in the vagrant’s obvious expectance before he finally spoke. “And were it dearest Captain Cleodron before me, in his tragic state, I might well take pity on him for all the terrible woe he has and must endure. But you, Rorges, are not Cleodron.” The vagrant gave a start at hearing his own name, his demeanour shifting at once from abject diffidence to bewildered hostility. “What’s this?” he asked, raising a grimy hand against the glare. “Your right arm looks hale enough, though. And your left—decidedly intact. I’ve seen you fight, Rorges, outside the pubs on Seafront. You’re not a lame. You bear no scars I’ve seen that a laundry maid could not also possess. If you bear crippling wounds it is not to your arms, but to your self worth and your pride.” Rorges’ retort was a string of obscenities spit out between fits of chocking coughs. His free hand swiped futilely at the air between he and the musician while his other, (concealed until now within his raged clothes to further credit his disgraceful ruse, Wren surmised) appeared, brandishing a sloshing leather ale-skin as one would a cudgel. Wren remained where he stood, unmoving, and waited for the beggars rage to subside. The skin in Rorges hand ceased its use as a potential weapon and was unstoppered, raised to blistered lips and gulped down. When he had drained the skin almost empty, the vagrant wiped at his matted beard with the soiled cloth of the threadbare standard and then fixed upon Wren with bleak, bloodshot eyes. “Fuck off,” he muttered. Wren raised his hand, the silver mex held between two fingers and Rorges gawked up at it like a second sun had come into the sky. “H-hey, hey,” he stammered, in a tone suddenly as forthcoming as Wren guessed he could muster, “you’re that kid. That singer-kid what plays the lyre, right?” “Wrenian. And it’s a kithara—not a lyre.” Rorges shuffled around beneath his rags so that he was not sitting but now on his knees before Wren. “Aye, yes. I’ve heard you play. Not bad at all. Where was that at now? The Red Anchor, maybe? You ever play there?” “No.” “No, eh? Hmm. I know ya from somewhere. Just a kid though, huh? You don’t know nuthin then—not a damned thing. Ever hold a sword, boy?” “Rorges,” Wren interjected, cutting off what might have been another tirade of wartime miseries, “I have a proposal for you. You see this mex here?” The beggar said nothing, but his expression grew wary. “I mean to give it to you, for the price of a small favour. You beg for iron and bronze, yet I offer you the chance for silver in a single moment.” Rorges spat and shook his head. “You ain’t that pretty, boy.” When it dawned on him what the beggar had implied Wren almost laughed aloud. He almost heaved up the contents of his stomach as well. “Don’t flatter yourself, Rorges. I’d rather fuck the horse you supposedly rode into war. No, what I want from you is this spot right here. The statue, the entire plaza. I want you to move somewhere else for a while, a week or so, until after festival to Idol Heronia.” The beggar’s look of suspicion grew. “You’d offer me a silver just to move on? Why’s that, eh? What’s so special about this here spot?” “Nothing, really,” Wren lied. This plaza would be teeming with upper-castes and merchants in the days to come. “It’s a broad space, is all—perfect to play music, room for a crowd.” “Perfect for music?” asked Rorges. “Indeed, it is. And its elevation is just right. Being higher up like this makes for a clearer sound.” Which was horseshit, and he didn’t really know why he’d said it, but Rorges looked confused, which he deemed a good thing for the moment. “Hmm. I don’t know…” Rorges eyed the coin Wren held like a starved wolf who had stumbled upon a stray sheep, yet whose hungry greed compelled him to wonder whether the rest of the flock lay somewhere nearby. “A single mex…I might earn that in a day, ‘round these parts. Some noble lordling out for a stroll may favour me with fortune to impress his young bride, you never know. Besides,” he added, indicating the statue behind him with a cock of his head, “Ol’ Mexus here keeps me company.” The bastard was actually trying to get more money out of him! For the briefest instant Wren considered presenting the other coin in his pocket, but no—this plaza was by no means guaranteed to prove fruitful, and besides, that was all the money he had in this world. Apart from his savings, of course, but his savings was not to be touched, at any cost. Rorges would have to settle for a single mex, absurd as that sounded. But he’d need to be convinced first. “Company, you say? This old codger here?” Wren laughed, “Were it living flesh instead bitter stone it would still possess a beard! And to bed an Emperor? Might be a costly thing, old man. But think of what this silver could grant you here, in Low Tide. Company indeed! Why, the lovely ladies of the Jackal’s Den or Shade might well mistake you for a prince of Kaladar, come to call on them in secret for some carnal indulgence. Such a place would be to you as a harem of the distant west! The best girl in the house for a silver mex, or four, even, of lesser repute. Think of it!” “Bah! Sick-tents, those places. Dwellings of disease and infection. I knows a man what had ‘emself some old harpy over at the Jackal—poor fella’s prick turned green as spring grass and his legs started rotting from the top down!” “Fine, forget the brothels then,” Wren began, before the beggar cut him off. “Now the Seashell—there’s a place a man can get his mex’s worth! Beauties of every sort you could want for. Cost a man like me near a month’s earnings for a night there, but worth every charger, yessir! A fine establishment!” “The Seashell is no better than anywhere else,” Wren stated, suddenly bristling, and starting to think that coming to Rorges in the first place had been a very bad idea. “Any whore-house is the same as the next. Now will you move or not?” The vagrant scoffed, “And what’re you, boy, a sage on the matter? A regular regular, eh? Why, I’d—hey…” he straightened abruptly, leaned forward to peer more closely at the young musician. “Ah ha! I knew I recognized you from somewhere! The Seashell! That’s it! That’s where I seen you play, right?” Wren said nothing for a long moment. He felt his jaw set, felt his left hand close slowly, tightly around the silver coin in his palm. He nodded. “I knew it! Didn’t realized they let them in as young as you—well, the boys anyhow. Say, that’s a fine arrangement you’ve got there, playing music for the whores!” Rorges laughed, Wren grimaced and glanced away from the blistered mouth of corroded brown teeth. “Say, I can sing. Maybe I should learn to play the lyre too, eh?” “It’s a kithara,” Wren corrected, but the beggar wasn’t listening. “I know a couple songs those lasses might get a kick out of. Say, you don’t suppose you could cut old Rorges deal, do ya boy? Get me in for cheap?” “No, I can’t,” Wren replied. “Forget the Seashell, alright? I don’t want to talk about it. Listen, do we have a deal or not? Just take the silver, old man, so I can start making music and you can go somewhere else and pretend to be crippled, okay?” Rorges appeared contemplative for an instant, musing, Wren hoped, on whether or not to accept the coin. “Now,” he said, “it’s been some time since I was there last, but there was this girl…” Wren ground his teeth until he thought they would snap and shatter. “…long, straight brown hair…smooth, pale skin…” He could feel the mex in his clenched hand. Burning. Like a searing ember. “…and freckles! Oh, such a darling, that one. Not the youngest anymore, I’ll wager—or the purest (a wicked laugh at this)—but most certain she is the sweetest! What was that one’s name again? Lyssa? No…Tia? Thyia?” Thyria. “Thyria! That was her name.” The old beggar’s tongue slithered over his lips, his eyes alight now with lewd malice. “Aye, you’ve a deal, son. I’ll take your silver. A fair enough start, I’d say, towards buying her ripe little ass for a night—“ Wren’s right hand shot out in a claw, clamping tight on Rorges’ throat and driving him backwards. His head cracked loudly against the stone base of the statue as his weathered hands came up, weakly trying to pry loose the musician’s unyielding grip. Rorges gurgled and wheezed, his eyes lolling in their sockets as his face darkened to a plum-coloured hue. Wren moved forward, leaned in close enough to smell the putrid heat of Rorges breath, had the vagrant had the capacity to muster any. “Never touch her,” he spoke, in a voice wavering on the edge of wrath. “Never. Or I swear by every Idol I’ll put my lyre so far up your ass that dearest Captain Cleodron would toss you a coin out of pity. You understand me, you disgusting fuck?” Perceiving the old soldier’s choking rasp as assent, Wren released his grasp upon the man’s neck and turned from him. Only as he strode away, fumbling with a shaking hand to return the mex to his inside pocket, did he consider how close he had come to doing something…drastic. A furtive glance around revealed that no one seemed to have taken particular notice of his encounter with Rorges. To hell with the plaza. He’d simply have to find another location to ply his trade for the festival. More than certainly the temple grounds of Idol Heronia themselves were already crowded enough, but there were always alternatives. He had to think—to keep thinking. Anything to distract his thoughts from the Seashell. The damnable Seashell, and from her. Behind him in the square, Rorges had clambered to his knees once more. One hand traced his throat, red and raw where the musician’s fingers had nearly squeezed the life from him. The other hand he tucked behind him, hidden beneath the shredded remnants of the imperial standard he wore as a cloak. He looked around, hopeful that someone had seen his mistreatment and so would perhaps be more inclined to offer recompense. No one had, it seemed. Or at least they pretended not to. So he called out to them. He had been a soldier once, he told them, valiant and brave. But war had robbed him of everything, and his nation had all but forgotten him. He beseeched them for mercy, for what he had endured. He implored them for pity, for what he had become. A beggar at the feet of an emperor. Bathyaes called out to him as he stalked through street and square towards Seafront, unable to purge his thoughts of all that Rorges had implied. He waved as Wren turned, and said something quickly to the woman standing beside him before starting out across the street, offering smiles and apologies to those who’s path he crossed. “My friend!” he said as he approached, taking both the musician’s hands in his own, larger ones. “Maera’s Wisdom guide and guard you, Wrenian. You look well.” “Thank you, I am,” Wren replied, already feeling heartened by the sheer exuberance Bathyaes always seemed to emanate. “And yourself? How fares the plight of Maera and her devoted followers against the tyrannical reign of Idol Pervinca?” “Well. It’s going really well.” His friend nodded enthusiastically, shooting a quick glance behind him at the woman he’d been talking to and the few others around her, all dressed in the same blue and gold robes as Bathyaes himself. Wren recognized Idella, the woman, who was watching them both now with the expression of a noblewoman who’s hound has strayed from her side to consort with some scruffy street mongrel. A pretty enough girl, Wren supposed, aside from the scowl that stole over her face whenever Bathyaes—who had lived, for most of his twenty and two years, as an urchin on the streets of Low Tide—associated with his old friends. Having taken up the righteous cause of supplanting the current Idol of Prudence and Good Judgment, Pervinca, with their own virtuous champion, the followers of Maera were supposed to have forsaken the worldly shackles of social standing in favour of divine tolerance. Idella, Wren also supposed, had forgotten that. Once a patrician… “We’re hosting an Observance tonight, up in Mummer’s Court, then marching upon the temple of Pervinca with the sunrise. You should come, Wren. We couldn’t pay you, I’m afraid, but your music would make a long night seem less so. A reason to stay awake, at least. Any excuse to get out of Low Tide for a few hours is a good one, I should think. Idella’s managed to secure me a pass until noon tomorrow, but they’d hardly stop you at the gate if you told them your business.” Bathyaes was often doing this—trying to steer Wren onto the same path as himself. He’d once insisted that the two of them join the army together and had only been dissuaded upon discovering that Wren, who’s father had not been born in the Empire, would have to serve in a separate corps than he. Likewise, he had, almost a year ago now, fallen in love with Idella the Scowler and had ever since thrown himself heart-and-soul into her cause. Wren had to admit though, that his friend seemed happier and more content (if slightly more fanatic) every time they ran into one another. “I’m sorry, I can’t tonight. I have to play,” Wren apologized. Bathyaes only looked slightly disappointed. “That’s alright,” he replied, without asking where Wren would be playing, for which the young musician was glad. He hated lying to friends. “Where are you off to now?” Wren shrugged. “Not sure, really. Looking for a good place to sit down, I guess. Make some music. It’s all about finding a good crowd.” “Tell me about it,” said Bathyaes. “This Idol stuff can really incite some people, you wouldn’t believe it. We faced a mob during the festival last month that nearly chased us right into the sea! I ought to arm myself for tonight, just in case.” He grinned, “I’d have been safer as a soldier, and get paid better as well!” Wren grimaced, “Speaking of soldiers, I just had a talk with our friend Rorges,” then laughed, “seems he’s got it pretty rough. Some really terrible things befell some people he used to kind of know.” “Fucking Rorges,” Bathyaes swore—too loudly, he realized immediately—and looked back to be sure of Idella’s reproving glare. He waved at her, somehow managing to smile and cringe at the same time, then turned back to Wren. “I had better go,” he said. The hound feels the tug of his master’s leash, thought the musician, and smiled. “It was good seeing you, Bath. Be safe, okay?” His friend clapped him on the shoulder, “You as well, my friend.” “And give my best to Idella, will you?” Bathyaes managed to look his most pious. “Maera’s Wisdom guide and guard me.” Upon his very first sight of The Seventh Tempest, Wren thought it at once the most disparate and magnificent ship he had ever laid eyes on. His father had been a seafarer, had spent much of Wren’s childhood away on one commercial voyage or another. He had, on a number of occasions, even brought his young son along on such journeys—‘to enrich your spirit,’ Wren thought he could remember his father saying, ‘and give you a taste of the wider world.’ Before his death—a lifetime ago, it often seemed—he had begun to instil in Wren a rudimentary understanding of sea borne commerce and the mercantile vocation, as well as a fundamental understanding of naval vessels themselves. And it was this knowledge that enabled him to see the ship for what she was: makeshift and motley, a bastard of the sea. Her hull was larger and longer than most imperial galleons, but just as sleek, with a high bow and three staggered banks of oars on either side. The deck was stepped at the stern to allow for a cabin space beneath, clearly of Teregad design. Her main sail was split and divided on either side of the mast in the fashion of the nimble warships of Ruangoth, each rigged to it’s own yardarm that could pivot separate from the other to allow—able crew permitting—for alarming feats of manoeuvrability. Upon each sail was emblazoned the serpentine dragon of Ruan folklore, red upon gold. The foresail was angled like a spearhead and ribbed in the Narmiir fashion for strength and stability. Mounted upon its prow in tarnished bronze was an effigy of the Kraken, Gol, who was worshipped still, it was said, by many of the pagan island tribes of the Jade Sea. ‘As near perfect as a ship can be,’ his father had said of The Seventh Tempest, when he had first pointed it out to his young son. And indeed, whenever it had found anchorage at Endelas over the past years, it never failed to remind Wren of his father and stir in him the same sense of awe and exhilaration, the promise of the unknown, as it had when he was still just a boy and the future full of possibility. He’d spotted her from the top of Memorial Hill as he made his way down and east towards the water, her golden sails blazing in the sun as she passed between the towering Colossi and into the harbour proper, and been struck with a sudden idea. Let Rorges have his plaza. Let those stuffy nobles be audience to his melancholy—he’d found a better crowd, or so he’d hoped. Quickening his pace, he began to cut through alleys as he tracked the ships progress across the harbour. As he cut between buildings to bypass a particularly crowded street, a dishevelled-looking man sitting on the ground against a wall accosted him. “Please sir, some coin to spare? Or a scrap to eat for me or my mutt?” he asked, indicated the mangy dog asleep beside him. Wren didn’t stop—either to be charitable or to lecture the man on the ridiculousness of keeping a pet when you lived on the city streets. Upon reaching the Grandmarch, he skirted its high wall until he arrived at the stairs down to the next crossing, and then waited for a cessation in the traffic to cross. The major thoroughfare of Endelas was terribly congested for most of the day, as it was the only street upon which horses and wagons were allowed to pass up through the city. Most of the freight was delivered by mule-drawn carts during the night. By the time Wren came to the docks The Seventh Tempest had just tied up to the quay. A Registrar and a number of soldiers were standing by to inspect and insure the legality of her cargo. Wren sat down on a bench carved into the stone ledge of the wharf and un-slung his kithara from over his shoulder. For a while he simply laid back, the instrument light upon his chest, and basked in the warming heat of the afternoon sun. After a time, as he lay there, the sounds of Low Tide began to fade from his ears—first the humming drone of the city itself, then the cries of the gulls wheeling in the sky overhead and the rhythmic thump and creak of ships at their moorings—until only the ceaseless murmur of the sea remained, enveloping him. The whisper of water and stone. Eventually he heard voices nearby, and the sound of coarse laughter. He opened his eyes to the world again, blinking at its brightness, and saw that the crew had begun to disembark, bearing armloads of their shipment with them down the wide gangplank. He’d never been this close to the ship before, but wasn’t surprised to see that the crew comprised entirely of freeborn sailors, as opposed to the slaves employed by most fleets of the world to man the oars in the sweltering galleries below-decks. He found them, as well, to be as curious and varied as The Seventh Tempest herself. Here were men of every ilk and colour, boasting the accent and attire of at least two-dozen nations. They conversed with one another as they worked, laughing often, and time and again one of them would stand and gaze up at the magnificence of the Imperial City, shielding his eyes against the blinding sunlight. When Wren plucked the first few chords of a song on his Kithara they smiled at him and nodded their appreciation. As he began to play through the song after song—beginning with those he knew to be more suited towards the life of the seaman—they even seemed to quicken the pace of their work, the music becoming an underlying cadence to their labours. Massive barrels of banded oak were rolled down the plank; wooden crates and sackcloth bags of produce and harvest vegetables stacked beside them. Delicate pottery was borne by calloused hands and arrayed carefully on the stone bench beside the musician. Baskets of dyed cloth and clay amphorae of ale and wine (many empty) were unloaded, and a long cage housing a number of large, crimson-scaled lizards was set nearby. The cargo, Wren thought amusingly, would be outdone in contrast by neither ship nor crew. At one point, as he reached the rousing climax of A cask and a kiss, one of the sailors—an islander by the look of him, whose dark skin was etched almost entirely in darker tattoos—broke into chorus with him from where he stood on the foredeck. “You may take my golden coins, they’re really not something I’d miss,” he sang, “my house and my horse would be worth no remorse, but leave me a cask and a kiss!” The crewman laughed and clapped as their fellow climbed dramatically into the rigging, and when next the chorus came along many more of them chimed in. The song ended in uproarious cheer, some calling for the musician to play it again while others shouted out requests of their own. Wren beamed at them. An audience indeed, he thought, and his heart leapt as he saw many of them rummaging through satchels and pockets, fishing out coins and small trinkets, intending to award him for his entertainment. “Stop.” A disembodied voice, commanding and resonant, as if the ship herself had spoken. The man in the rigging scrambled down like a monkey at marketplace, looked to fashion some manner of excuse to the figure who now stood at the top of the gangplank, managing to include the entire assemblage in his iron glare. “Give him nothing,” the captain boomed. “The man who spares a coin will stay aboard and count planks until we set sail again. Get back to work.” The islander’s words died in his mouth and he stooped to retrieve the basket he’d been carrying. The crew of the Seventh Tempest suddenly became an assiduously hardworking bunch as coins disappeared, trinkets were stowed away, and tasks were resumed with an industriousness that not even music had previously induced. Wren’s own objection withered on his lips as he looked up to discover the captain’s hard stare upon him and he silently cursed himself a moment later when he turned his own eyes away. For a long while he sat in silence, thinking, at first, about how much he detested this day so far, and Rorges, and the harsh captain who’d appeared as if from nowhere to quash his hopes of sudden wealth, until his thoughts dwindled to nothingness. Staring down, he admired his hands: lithe and long-fingered—he’d have to clean his nails before tonight—and the elegant craftsmanship of the kithara in his lap. A gift, the instrument had been, father to son. Not really intended to be played. Never meant to sustain him through poverty. He examined his sandals. A week or two before they expired, he guessed. Around him, the sailors toiled in silence. Finally turning his thoughts and his gaze from his own sorry condition, Wren looked out past the sprawling dockyard and the giants of bronze who stood silent vigil over it, across the sea, to the far horizon. He watched the sky dim from blue to violet. Watched the sun make its journey into the distant west and dreamt absently of following it. By then the crew of The Seventh Tempest had finished their labours and had assembled in full, roughly two hundred men, upon the wharf, where their captain addressed them in the gathering dusk. “T’is been a long journey,” the musician heard him say, “and not without its share of trials. Drink your heart’s fill tonight, mates, and enjoy your time in the city, for it shan’t be long. Keep your eyes open, your heads low and your mouths shut. Four days from now, we sail. Report by noon that day, sober and seaworthy. And by the Deep God’s sopping beard, Danel, no strumpets in tow this time, please.” A swell of laughter at this. The accused raised his hands in a gesture of blamelessness. The captain continued, “No fighting and no weapons off the ship. The laws of the city permit no arms in the streets, and the last thing we need is Imperial attention. If you—“ A disembodied voice, piercing and filled with a muted sorrow, as if the sea herself had spoken: When this night falls upon me, have I seen the end of light? Shall I ever learn what fortune lies beyond my mortal sight? When darkness casts its midnight cloak, will daylight come once more? Do I dwell on heaven’s threshold or charge through damnation’s door? When shadow’s cup runs over, will that black tide drown out what I’ve done? If those I’ve loved remember might I wake to see the sun? Never my heart falters Ever must I fight Never finding solace Ever war my plight When the sun descends upon me, I shall to this final twilight yield Let darkness be my sword now, let shadow be my shield… Wren’s voice trailed into silence. His fingers played out the last notes of the song, music fading like the stars at dawn. There was silence. Wren, eyes transfixed on the ground before him, couldn’t see the faces of the gathered crewman. He missed the almost imperceptible nod of the grave captain. Failed to see the tattooed islander feign to scratch an itch near the corner of his right eye. The captain resumed his address to the crew in quiet tones, after which, aside from those charged with the unlucky duty of standing watch over the cargo until the transport arrived, then men began to set off in low-talking clusters towards the awaiting pubs and brothels of Seafront. As had been ordered, no coins were tossed the musician’s way, though one sailor ‘accidentally’ dropped a tin flask, flashing Wren a conspiratorial wink before moving on without retrieving it. The wind had begun to pick up—the night would be a cool one. Wren looked to the city, sparkling on the hillside. On the farthest heights he could see the vastness of the Imperial Palace, then the city below, with its great temples and vaulted domes. Its statues of Idols and Champions and Emperors—monoliths of bronze and stone, striding the streets like gods. And then there was Low Tide, crouched and cramped at the base of the hill, the gnarled roots of a towering empire. The scuff of boot on stone startled him and Wren turned to see the captain bending to retrieve the discarded flask. The man straightened and Wren saw his face clearly for the first time in the fading light. Younger than the musician had expected of the captain of such a ship—hardly more than thirty winters, the musician surmised, despite the ravages that wind and sun and a hard life at sea had etched upon his features. His hair and beard were still jet black, both braided tight with leather strings that dangled with tiny, multicoloured beads and shells, so that when he moved to sit on the bench beside Wren they made a faint, clattering music. A brown scar, long ago healed, ran from the hairline on the left of his forehead almost straight down to his chin. The eye it bisected—the one nearer to Wren—was as pale as the winter sun, as if the iris itself had been drained of pigment by the wound. Wren decided immediately not to ask about how such a scar came to be. “An ancient song,” said the captain, “and a sad one.” Even when he spoke quietly his voice seemed to grate—years of barking out commands and calling out the stroke of oars had roughened it to match the man himself. “The last song of the Warrior-Poet, Gable, ‘A Dirge for Hope’, which he sang to his army of peers at the siege of Grandual when the Satamites invaded. Not a song I’d expect to hear anymore, especially from a Kaladarian, at least not as you played it.” He said it reverently, a compliment. “My father was from Hollan,” Wren replied. “A spice merchant. He taught it to me when I was young.” The captain regarded him a moment. “Aye. I see it now. Does your father still live in Endelas?” “He’s dead.” “Ah.” It was all he said, without apology over how sorry he was to hear it. No condolences for how the world was. He unstoppered the flask and, after a precautionary sniff, tipped it back. “Burrhus,” he murmured, licking his lips, recognizing its former owner by its content. “Saurisian honey-ale.” He offered it to Wren who, usually not inclined to accept drink from strangers—or to drink at all, in fact—had to admit to being somewhat intrigued by the idea of an exotic ale, and by the stranger offering it. “Thanks,” said Wren, accepting it and taking a pull. It tasted like any old beer to him. “It’s good,” he said, handing it back. The captain shrugged, taking another swill before closing it and setting it on the stone between them. He gestured at the instrument in the musician’s lap. “You play that quite skilfully. Did your father teach you that as well?” Wren shook his head. “I learnt on my own. Few in the city play the kithara, or care to teach it—in Low Tide anyway.” “It is said that the Warrior-Poet himself was a kitharist of surpassing ability,” the man beside him said. Something Wren had not known. “He claimed that it was the instrument that could most purely emulate the soul and spirit of man.” Wren’s turn to shrug. “It buys the bread for me,” he said matter-a-factly, despite feeling a touch of pride at what the captain had said of his chosen instrument’s lofty heritage. A father’s gift. The soul and spirit of man. The captain looked at him directly—one dark eye, one light. “Is that all?” Unable to hold the other man’s eerie gaze, Wren looked down and away. Neither said anything for a short while. The last light of the sun was smouldering in the west, painting sea and sky in crimson hues. Muted voices and the faint scent of pipe-weed wafted over from where the sailors waited with the cargo. “Back there, when I was singing earlier,” Wren began, himself surprised to have mustered the courage to do so, “Why did you tell them—your men—not to give me anything?” The captain took up the flask again and drank deeply. Wren politely refused when it was offered. “Because,” the older man said finally, “those men have earned their share, as meagre a sum as it is for what they must endure each voyage. Not many of them bother to save anything—why would they? A man who makes a life for himself at sea expects to die at sea—it is a fool who does not—and you take nothing with you to the Great Deep when you go. That we make harbour in the Grand City of Endelas means that likely half of them will have been swindled out of their coin by dicers and harlots come tomorrow morning, and will come to me seeking an advance on their next pay, which I, of course, am loath to do. So, in part, I sought to stop them from squandering their coin before they even so much as left the docks.” Wren opened his mouth in protest but was silenced by the captain’s raised hand. “Your pride is wounded. I am sorry. I meant no offence to you personally. In fact, another reason I forbade them compensate you is that I wished to do it myself.” The captain unlaced a pouch at his side and drew forth something swathed in cloth. He set in on his lap and began, carefully, to open it, speaking as he did so. “For the unwarranted entertainment of my men today, I would have paid you in silver. Perhaps, had I been feeling excessively generous, I might even have given you an imperial laurel.” Wren felt his mouth go dry. His thoughts flickered momentarily to the Plaza of Mexus and his confrontation with Rorges. If the vagrant-soldier hadn’t angered him so… “But for that last song…” the captain continued, seemingly searching for the right words. “It was a gift, truly. And so I, in return, offer you such as I have to give.” Finished unwrapping the cloth, he held up before the young musician what had been safely stored inside it. “It just so happens I’m feeling rather magnanimous today.” Gold. Gold. A necklace of some sort—Wren could barely think—a golden crescent, like a quarter moon. A slinking chain of delicate, interlocking links, shimmering before his eyes in the dying light. “A bauble I picked up in Aldea. I don’t expect you to wear it, of course, but to sell it…you’d be robbed if your got less than twenty-five imperials for it, I should think.” Wren hadn’t moved. Couldn’t seem to find his voice, his eyes fixated on the golden trinket suspended in the air before him. How many months’ earnings was something such as this worth? And this man, this stranger, whose name Wren didn’t even know (had he even offered his own? —he couldn’t remember) was giving him this for a song. Just a song, which had come to him from nowhere, as sudden as a squall, as he had sat watching the sunset, thinking about the man who had taught it to him. There was a clattering rumble behind him, wooden cartwheels over cobblestone—the teamsters coming to bear away the unloaded cargo to the commercial emporiums. The captain proffered the necklace further towards him and Wren, numbly, as if in a dream, watched his own hand reach out and take it. An astonishing gift. A small fortune. “I had best get busy,” said the captain, rising to his feet. “The evening waxes, and these men already have a late start at squandering their coin. Do you mind?” he asked, indicating the tin flask resting on the bench. Wren shook his head. He could feel it, cold and hard, as if it were crafted of ice, nestled in his burning palm. “Thanks. Burrhus will be happy to have it back, I am certain. Take care, kitharist.” He looked down at Wren a moment longer, then made to walk away. Wren swallowed hard. “W-why?” was all he managed to stammer. The captain stopped and cocked his head without actually looking back. A dark silhouette now, against the cerulean sky. “Let’s just say I plan to die at sea,” he said. The rest of Wren’s night had passed in a haze of soaring elation. After leaving the docks he’d made his way along Seafront, detouring once to visit the fountain shrine to Falista, Idol of Patience, to wash his hands and face clean in the cool waters there. From there he had continued south, crossing the Grandmarch again as he traversed the breadth of the city. The night streets of Endelas were quieter than during the day—the riot of sounds confined, emanating from the open doorways and glowing windows of taverns and brothels. Many carts rambled over the paving stones now that the sun had set, and roving squads of red-cloaked imperial soldiers patrolled the streets. Civil servants moved through the city, lighting the hanging street-lamps with tapered poles and filling open, mule-drawn wagons with rubbish and refuse they collected. Here and there along the darkened boulevards, lone candles glimmered in second-story windows behind screens of blue-dyed linen. Now and then throughout the night would skulking figures slip past the bead-curtained thresholds below to find succour in the dissolute companionship of those waiting in the rooms above. As Wren had walked through Low Tide, his ever and only home, he’d clutched tight the necklace the captain had given him in his hand, half-expecting a band of armed thugs to materialize out of the shadows before him, demanding everything of value on his person. It mattered not, he had told himself, bravely: he was ready to kill to safeguard his precious kithara, would risk death to ensure his golden gift reached safely where he meant to take it—not to a hock-shop, or some nocturnal vendor with whom he could haggle over its considerable worth. He didn’t mean to sell it, after all. And so he had found his way to the Seashell, where he’d made arrangements—as he did on most nights—to play there, for the price of a free, hot meal and the late-night company of whichever girl he most preferred. He’d played long into the night, singing aloud and watching in silence as the men he played for were intermittently enticed away from their wine-cups and his music by the brothel’s alluring inhabitants. And when the hour had grown late and the couches and plush divans of the common room were either empty or host to some carnal act or another, she came to him. Took her place, as was usual, near to the stage, where she waited for him to finish. Which was never long. In her candlelit chamber on the second floor, he’d sat on the bed, heart racing with excitement and nervous anticipation—of the gift he meant to give her, of her. She had seated herself at the dressing table against the wall, adorned with a large, bronze-rimmed mirror, and set about removing her make-up. She’d offered to keep it on, of course, at first, but he’d insisted he didn’t mind. She didn’t need make-up, he’d told her many times, to be beautiful. When she was finished at the table she stood, taking a bronze bowl in hand and placing it atop a smoking brazier. The ash-coloured dust inside hissed quietly and began to dissolve and she inhaled the vapour through a cotton sieve. Wren had watched as she set aside the bowl of suima and crossed in front of him to her wardrobe, where she slipped out of the silk gown she’d been wearing and put it away. He’d felt his soul shudder then, as it often did in her presence, and felt the first stirrings of arousal within him. She’d stood there a moment watching him, allowing his eyes to stray over her, to drink her in and become intoxicated. She had appeared to him then, for all the world, like the flawless sculpture of something…otherworldly, something divine. Perfect skin, alabaster smooth, shimmering in the soft candlelight. He’d fought for self-control, some restraint to his passion and scarcely managed it. They had made love: slowly at first, with the sensual coyness that only the young can manage; considerate, selfless, chaste as could possibly be under the roof of a such a place, until the needs of each had become too great a burden and urgency overcame them. Rumpled sheets grew damp, were clutched tight in grasping hands. Skin grew warm and flushed with exertion, in places marred by a scratching nail or the bruise of biting teeth. He had thrust into her then, breathing hard, holding her against him with the fierceness of someone certain in love, blazing and true. She had moaned and gasped, whispering sultry encouragement into his ear, clutching him to her with the wild desperation of someone for whom love—or the act of it, at least—had become a ritual of endured shame. Afterwards, Wren had meant to present her with the necklace, but she had asked him to play for her and refusing her was not something he was even remotely capable of doing. And so he had taken up his kithara in the seat by the window, where the cooling night breeze wafted through the wooden shutters, and began, softly, to sing. She was asleep now. Wren allowed the music to fade, until only the slow rhythm of her breathing could be heard in the room. He rose as quietly as he could and went to where his clothes lay strewn on the floor. When he was dressed, he slung his instrument over his shoulder, then moved to the edge of the bed. He stood there a time, struck with awe, before leaning over to draw the blankets up and over her sleeping form. He brushed her hair, like golden silk, gently away from her face, then carefully opened her hand and placed the delicate golden chain within it. An astonishing gift. “Goodnight Thyria,” he whispered. And then he rose, turned away from the bed and the woman in it, and one by one, as he glanced at them, willed the flickering candles around the room to go out. Which they did—compelled by a power (yet another gift, of sorts) that had made itself manifest in this very room on a night some time ago, when a young, fatherless musician had come seeking solace and a reprieve from grief. He’d found love, as it turned out, and was fireborn because of it. Such things happened in the world. Wren left the room and within moments had passed out onto the street, nodding curtly to the Seashell’s night sentries as he went out. The stars above were bright as diamonds in the black sky. Tugging up the collar of his coat against the knifing wind, he set off briskly towards the hovel he called home. He was roughly halfway there when a man’s frail voice called out from the shadows. “Mercy, kind lord,” it pleaded, “Spare a tenth-piece, for an old soldier.” Wren didn’t recognize the voice. A few wary steps in the darkness brought him within sight of the speaker, however, and his breath caught. No arms. The dishevelled soldier’s kit he wore was torn and stained almost black, but Wren could barely make out the insignia of rank sewn onto the shoulder of the old man’s empty sleeve. He’d been a captain once, it seemed. Wren rummaged into his pocket. The old man thanked him vastly at the sound of a coin striking the stone before him. His praise followed the musician on the wind, as he continued towards home. A mex, under certain, exceedingly rare circumstances, Wren decided, was not too much to waste on a beggar. view post

posted 16 Dec 2004, 03:12 by Erthaelion, Candidate

I only skimmed through this quickly. Seems solid. I'll be more thorough over the holidays bud, give you a rundown. Much smoother. Questions: Whats your setting supposed to look/feel like? Tastes of Greco Roman and Medieval. I really cant SEE your city. Is it described at all earlier? It felt, honestly, like the two chaps at the start were talking all alone beneath a statue that I couldnt quite picture, so I immediately saw cuirassed Augustus with his arm upraised. Need work there. If its a busy forum, dscribe it. Bring the reader there. In terms we both can understand: Akka in the forum when Maithanet declares Holy War. The bul;l with the kids on it, the Summoning Horn, the masses... the heat... You can feel it. The agora in Momemn with Akka, the skin spy, etc Guy Kay is also magnificent at bringing cities to life. Not sure if it was described prior, but regardless, give us a mood. Right off the bat. view post


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