Chapter 03,  Chapter Section

Chapter 3: II: Dashel

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Chapter 3: Merchants

Section II

Dashel – Qemassen: The Palace

Dashel drew his wooden shortsword up to shield his face, humming a Massenqa victory tune. Aurelius was a good fighter, quick and clever and well-trained, but Dashel was stronger and more experienced with close-range weapons. He had both the formal schooling of the Semassenqa, and the experience of the unstaged fights that broke out sometimes in the lower quarter where he’d grown up.

Besides, Aurelius was proud. Proud men could be baited, and Aurelius wouldn’t be able to resist the taunt of Dashel’s humming.

The prince darted forward, his two curved short swords too fast for Dashel to mind either one. Instead, he trusted his earlier instincts and kept his focus on Aurelius’s upper body while skipping back, steps careful on the smooth onyx floor of the throne room. Normally they sparred outside, in the gravelled courtyard surrounded by the elephant stables, but last night’s fire in the lower quarters had spoiled the air with its smoke.

One of Aurelius’s blades angled toward Dashel’s leg, but he kept his sword up, suspecting a feint. A few seconds later, Aurelius proved him right, slamming his shoulder against Dashel and attempting to force him back.

But Dashel towered over him—six feet tall and broad as an ox. All he had to do once Aurelius had thrown in his lot with brute force was push back.

He forced Aurelius into a crouch. At the last moment, however, Aurelius slipped out from under him, spinning to Dashel’s left and kicking his foot out in an attempt to knock the bigger man down. Dashel avoided the blow, and while Aurelius was surprised, brought the tip of his blade to the prince’s throat.

Maybe his victory wasn’t entirely fair. Aurelius’s training as a member of Qemassen’s renowned Sacred Band—the Massenqa spearmen drawn from amongst the sons of the Semassenqa—hadn’t fully prepared him for the use of the twin, curved swords. He’d seen some Lora arena fighters sparring with the blades on one of his voyages across the Helit and had been inspired to purchase some himself, ignoring the impracticality of dual wielding for anyone who wasn’t a master.

But Aurelius had always favoured style over practicality.

“Drop them, Sese, unless you want a beating.” Dashel tried not to smile too widely.

Aurelius let his swords clatter to the marble floor, his hands held up in surrender. “I let you win, obviously.” He smirked. “A true child of Qemassen could never be defeated by a lowly Erun servant.”

Dashel lowered his sword with a smile and walked over to Aurelius’s slave, Hasdrubaal. He handed the man his weapon. “Of course not.”

A flurry of palace slaves darted in to polish the floor where Dashel and Aurelius had been practicing. Hasdrubaal gave Dashel a hard stare, not bold enough to blame the prince for the nuisance they’d caused. An Erun servant was a far easier mark.

Dashel rubbed the back of his head sheepishly, the tip of his elbow hitting the pillar behind him. He might have won, but it didn’t make him any less the clumsy oaf the Semassenqa had started to think him in the long years since he’d been Moniqa’s favourite.

Better a clumsy oaf than a prick like Samelqo, or a weasel like Qanmi. That’s what Aurelius would have said if Dashel had mentioned it, and maybe he’d have been be right.

Hasdrubaal probably didn’t like Samelqo or Qanmi much either, but Dashel had learned long ago that bullies rarely attacked those who deserved it.

Aurelius snapped his fingers to get Dashel’s attention. “Buy you a drink in apology?” He wiped the sweat from his brow on his loose linen sleeve. “Forget a drink; I’ll buy you two, and a pair for me to match.”

Dashel raised his eyebrow. “And a companion for the night?”

Aurelius strolled toward one of the doors beneath the mezzanine and pushed through it. In the adjoining corridor, the black veins of a yellow marble floor spread like cobwebs beneath the prince’s feet. Hasdrubaal trailed closely behind his master, but Dashel hung back, following at a leisurely pace.

Aurelius turned and grinned at Dashel while walking backwards down the corridor. “I thought you’d taken the Lora ambassador to bed while I was away? Djana can’t stop talking about it. Unless he’s not enough for you?” He winked. “No wonder I have such insatiable appetites, when I’ve had you as a model.”

Dashel’s smile withered, his guilt at having forgotten Thanos weighing on him like a heavy stone. He scratched his chin. “He’s no one, Sese. I like Thanos well enough, but he won’t stay. Eventually Lorar will recall him, and next time they’ll send another hoary old man like they usually do.” If they sent anyone at all.

“So you do have limits,” Aurelius joked as they headed toward the palace gardens. “That’s a shame, though. Djana said she was fond of this one. He’s all the talk in the ambassadorial apartments. Apparently he’s got an eye for fashion. Djana said he’s making a robe covered in living butterflies.”

Dashel shuddered. “Wasps,” he mumbled.

“What?”

“It’s a hat made of wasps. A wasp hat. He thinks people will buy them.” Dashel felt absurdly shy talking about Thanos, who’d inserted himself into Dashel’s life so efficiently while Aurelius was away. Thanos had invited Dashel to stay with him in his palace rooms, and Dashel had obliged. But though he enjoyed living on the hill, he felt as out of place here as a wild rose in a formal garden. Did Aurelius think of Dashel like that, as someone who had wedged himself into Aurelius’s life like a thorn into flesh? “Really,” Dashel repeated, “he’s no one.”

“Ah. Well, I could find you someone, if you wanted.” Aurelius sounded vaguely disappointed. “And if I can’t,” he said, perking up, “there’s always me, ever at your disservice.”

Dashel’s stomach turned. For want of anything to say, he chuckled. It was obvious to anyone with eyes and ears that Aurelius was the only companion he wanted. He dared imagine, for an instant, that Aurelius would be true to him, and keep him company in truth, and his thoughts drifted to visions of a future by his prince’s side. His neighbours in the lower quarter wouldn’t dare snicker at him then, or spit on the doorstep of his home. No one would pour sewage over Aurelius’s head the way they had Thanos, the day he’d decided to explore Dashel’s district unaccompanied. Thanos hadn’t complained to the Yirada or to Eshmunen, though he might have done. Matters were far too tense between Lorar and Qemassen for it to be worth it, Thanos had claimed.

If Dashel had been there when it had happened, to rear tall and regal above them, no Erun would have wished his ire, nor the ire of his Massenqa patrons.

Cowards.

They stepped from the palace onto the tiles of the garden paths and proceeded silently toward the gate that led to the lower city.

Outside the garden gate, a group of slaves stood sentinel near a litter, waiting in case one of the Massenqa wished to be carried downhill. Several of them were coughing from the foul airs of the smoke that had been blown uphill by Qemassen’s coastal winds. They looked up as Aurelius approached, straightening as they took positions beside the poles of the litter.

Aurelius frowned. “Take the litter inside and stay with it. There’s no point burning your lungs and suffering in the heat. What if someone needs to whip you? The tongues would slip right off your sweat. Hasdrubaal, you can rest inside as well.”

Aurelius shot Dashel a playful smile, but the slaves hadn’t recognized the humour in his words.

What he’d meant, Dashel knew,was to mock those holding the whip, not the ones suffering beneath its lashes. But Aurelius didn’t understand how it felt to have that threat hanging over you, that the jokes he made to lay bare his family’s sins only seemed another cruelty. Dashel was a servant, not a slave, but however much Aurelius wanted to pretend he and Dashel were the same, there were some gulfs they could never cross. At a word, Aurelius could have Dashel’s head served up on a bronze platter. It didn’t matter that he would never ask it; the knowledge that it was possible was enough that Dashel couldn’t laugh.

The slaves hurried away as quick as they could with the litter weighing them down and lowered their burden beneath the shade of an arch. Hasdrubaal, at least, turned around to head back to the palace.

“I told them to go inside,” Aurelius said quietly, almost to himself.

He thought he was helping, but couldn’t see that the slaves would only be punished for abandoning their duties as soon as the next Semassenqen entered the garden expecting a litter at the ready. His tender heart would do them no good.

The soldiers guarding the gate stepped aside to let the prince pass through, and Aurelius tilted his head at them. “Yes, we’re going for a walk. Yes, I can see there’s been a fire. If someone attacks us, I’ll call you. Just make sure you’re listening. We’ll be very far away.”

Did any of the slaves and servants understand? Maybe sarcasm wasn’t something you could be taught—you got it, or you didn’t. Most of the time, Dashel didn’t, but he’d spent enough years with Aurelius to hope he might master it yet.

The paved street leading downhill was quieter than usual. The wealthy Massenqa who lived in the towering rectangular homes to either side of the road were too delicate to venture outside in such conditions, when a stray breeze was enough to carry the smell of smoke to the nose.

Dashel swallowed the lump starting to form in his throat. His sister Sarah and her children would have no such option. The Eru quarter neighboured on the block that had burned, as did the Eghri eq-Shalem, Qemassen’s central market. His sister Sarah couldn’t afford to close her olive stalls, no matter the destruction only a street away. Dashel was lucky he didn’t have to worry about things like that, thanks to Thanos. He should offer to take Sarah’s children someday soon, to show them the palace and their grandfather’s elephant stables. Maybe on one of the days when Hima asked him to watch Hiram and Reshith, so the children could play together. Since Hima’s sons had been born, caring for the boys had become one of his palace duties.

He’d visit Sarah once he and Aurelius were done drinking.

“I miss being a sailor already,” said Aurelius, breaking Dashel’s train of thought. “There are too many slaves at the palace: slaves waiting to escort you to your chambers, slaves bought to dress you, slaves loitering with a sponge ready to wipe you after a shit.” He paused, like he was mulling something over. “Maybe we should free them all. It would force the Semassenqa to learn to do things for themselves. It would let the slaves do the same.”

Dashel snorted. The real world wasn’t how Aurelius talked about it in his philosophers’ circle. “You couldn’t do everything yourself. You’d need servants to cook and clean, and then you’d have to pay them more. And where would all the slaves go?”

Aurelius went quiet. Then, long after Dashel thought him finished with the conversation, he spoke. “It wouldn’t be easy, but I’d work something out, even if it meant giving up the palace.”

Easy for Aurelius to say. The palace wasn’t his, and since he’d never be king, he’d never have to deal with the implications of, or problems with, his plan.

That was Dashel’s mind talking though, and since when had he listened to that tired old thing? Aurelius would’ve been a great king if Samelqo hadn’t dismissed his birthright. Dashel knew it in his bones. Aurelius was a man to follow, the kind men loved, a star blazing across the sky.

“Sese! Sese!” huffed someone from behind them and they turned.

A boy in a slave collar was running toward them. They hurried back the way they’d come, and Dashel caught the boy as he tripped on the flagstones. The scrawny thing bent over, breathing heavily in Dashel’s arms. When he was sure the child could stand on his own he let him go.

“It’s the King, Sese,” the boy panted. “He wishes to speak with you.”

Aurelius took a step forward, frowning. “About what?”

“I don’t know, Sese.”

The prince scowled.

“Something about the Feislands, I think. About the alliance.”

Aurelius hesitated. Dashel knew that look. He’d seen it once on a wild horse that had been caught by a trader and was struggling to remain untamed.

“He obviously didn’t give you those details,” said Aurelius, “which means you overheard them.”

The slave looked up to protest.

Aurelius raised his hand to stop him. “You can’t help it. Just remember to pretend you don’t, like all the other slaves. You’d be surprised how unobservant your masters can be when it comes to those beneath them.” He smiled, and the boy returned the expression before stepping aside to wait.

Dashel blinked. Maybe Aurelius’s tenderheartedness wasn’t just naivety.

Aurelius tilted his head apologetically at Dashel. “I’m sorry. I’ll buy you those drinks another time.”

Dashel prepared a smile. What had he to be upset about, anyway? He’d spent the morning laughing with Aurelius, had eaten that questionable but well-meant breakfast Thanos had concocted for him. All should be well. All was well. It wasn’t like he could argue. “Another time, Sese.”

He didn’t watch Aurelius follow the slave back to the palace. Instead he glanced downhill at the gloomy streets below, the haze in the sky above the poorer parts of the city. Despite his assertion that all was well, the truth was that what had looked to be a fine day was fast becoming a disappointment. He could drink by himself, but the prince’s absence didn’t give Dashel the excuse his presence would have, and then he’d have to listen to Sarah complain about the beer on his breath when he came to visit.

Wretchedness stared Dashel in the face when Aurelius wasn’t there to dispel it, the glitter and wealth of the Semassenqa giving way to the ordinariness of Qemassen’s lower streets.

He headed downhill, whistling a cheerful tune to himself―the victory song from earlier. If he was unhappy, then all there was to it was to make himself happy. He’d run out of sapenta last night, and doubted Thanos would be willing to request more of the poppy drink from the royal physician under the pretense that Dashel was sick. That left Hesh, to whom Dashel already owed money. Staying with Thanos had meant, among other things, avoiding Hesh.

Dashel’s skin prickled. He’d do well to stay away from Hesh’s territory—maybe he would avoid the Eru quarter and visit Sarah another day. There were other places to find Molot’s Wine, ones that didn’t put him at risk of broken bones.

He ambled down a long, colourful side street, toward another of his usual haunts. There were a few good things downhill—Molot’s Purse was the nicest of the taverns on this side of the city, and the brewer there, Laelat et-Eret, might know a man who knew a man if he slipped her an extra teqla or two. The Purse was where he’d have taken Aurelius—there or Ashtet’s temple for a cup of lotus tea, but with Aurelius gone, Dashel no longer had the coin for a tussle with one of the temple’s holy prostitutes. Laelat had men for sale if you knew to ask, though for some reason she was sly about it.

It had been too long since he’d visited the Purse, anyway. Having a slave fetch your beer wasn’t the same—didn’t smell the same as a room full of raucous laughter and clinking cups, and Dashel always ended the exchange feeling awkward, as though he were the one who should be doing the fetching.

Not all Dashel’s people were poor, and there were Eru nobles amongst the Semassenqa, but most Eru lived simple, inelegant lives, free of the burdens of education, unless they were from a priestly or scribal family, or one that practiced another trade.

At least the Eru weren’t as vilified as the Lora citizens of Qemassen, whose shops suffered vandalism, and sometimes worse. He cringed, thinking of Thanos and the waste they’d poured over his head. Thanos had waved away the assault but it boiled Dashel’s blood. He didn’t even know if it had happened because of Thanos’s Lora blood, or because he shared a man’s bed.

The Massenqa ignored sex between men, save for when it served someone’s purpose to slander a rival with accusations of playing the woman in the bedchamber. It wasn’t something spoken of outright accept in certain corners, but even so, people like Dashel and Aurelius somehow found their own.

He reached for the coin purse tied at the belt of his short tunic and tested its weight. It was awfully light. Could he afford Laela’s bribe and the sapenta and a whore? He frowned. Long ago, he’d asked much nobler things of himself.

He let the purse fall back against his side and flexed his fingers. The beer at The Purse would be enough for him. Say it enough times and it would be true.

But when Dashel finally arrived at the corner of the street where the Purse stood, he realized his mistake.

Where run-down apartments had once capped either side of the street, a truncated mess of blackened stone and charred wood beams threatened to topple over. It was the same on either side of the block: skeletons where the homes and brothels near the Purse had stood.

And it was quiet, deathly quiet. Before the fire, the corner had always been bustling and loud, cramped with whores cooing at potential clients, the shouts of children playing in the streets, patrons of the Purse cursing those same children for dashing off with their coin.

The wind shifted, carrying with it the smell of burned wood. Burned fat. Suddenly Dashel was a boy again, during the drought when the smoke from Molot’s temple had seemed to blot out everything but the cruel sun, and children had burned to ease the burden of starvation.

Something moved two buildings down and Dashel turned toward it.

A woman’s wail interrupted the eerie silence. She and two others knelt before the ruined front of one of the buildings, clutching something in their hands. Small bronze razor blades shaped like hatchets had been piled before the ruins. The talisman was sacred to so many of the Massenqa gods that Dashel didn’t bother guessing which.

He squinted. Further down the road, some Ashqata of Qalita turned the corner on their march down the street, swinging censures full of incense.

Dashel didn’t want to look, but it seemed wrong not to witness. He turned the corner nearest him, staring down the street. It was busier on this side. Ashenqa of Molot wormed inside the buildings like maggots in a corpse, sweeping up ashes with their tiny brooms. Some of them, at least, had to be human ashes.

Three buildings down, a woman stood in the middle of the road, watching as several acolytes of Molot carried out a blackened bundle of contorted bones on pallet. The remains were too small to have been those of an adult.

Dashel swallowed. He couldn’t, he wouldn’t, just stand and watch.

There was something familiar about the woman. He walked over to her and waved. “Hey! Hey! Let me help. Tell me what to do.”

She turned toward him and frowned, the gaze of her one eye piercing him. It was Uta, Samelqo’s body slave. “What is it you think you can do?” She paused. “Sese.”

Dashel shook his head. “I—I want to . . . .” But his words dried on his tongue. He coughed. “I’m sorry.” Perhaps Uta had family here. Perhaps that child had been someone she’d cared for.

She turned away, her disinterest practically radiating from her.

Dashel stepped back. What help could he offer? This wasn’t his place any more than the palace was his place. The dead were dead, and it was for Massenqa priests to cater to Massenqa bones. A wayward Erun servant had no purpose here.

He’d come to cheer himself up, be merry, forget or remember Aurelius—whatever the moment called for. Now he had something much worse to forget.

There were several dingy watering holes nearby. Dashel slipped down a narrow road, heading toward two of the dingiest.

Ashtet’s Teet was the first of the two taverns Dashel came to. He poked his head through the door.

Crap. Hesh’s men.

Five of the sapenta dealer’s thugs were throwing dice at a nearby table. He pulled his head out from the entrance and backed away. Adonis bless him, they’d not noticed his face. He still owed Hesh at least forty gold sendat coins. Hesh would be wroth, and worse, he’d want his money.

There weren’t many things Dashel was afraid of, but Red-Eyed Hesh and his gang was one of them.

He moved on to the even less salubrious building a few doors down. He could already smell the stink of piss wafting from The Bosom of Tanata, and the closer he came to the establishment, the more refuse littered the gutters of the street. The dirt that settled here was a grim contrast to life at the palace. There were other places he could have visited—he might have headed for the taverns at the docks, or to the Eghri itself, with its bright colours and cheer. But he’d come to this street instead, to wallow in the ugliness. Here, where Hesh roamed, and Dashel had something to fear.

He glanced at the plain door of the Bosom and its shuttered windows. They must have closed the apertures because of the smoke, but he could hear the sound of dull chatter from inside. The Bosom was open, even if it looked closed. And the tavern was unmarked, its sign having supposedly been taken for repair. Rumour had it, the sign had been defaced by the owner of Ashtet’s Teet, who’d decided the Bosom had stolen her name. Probably, the owner was actually angry because whoever had made the Bosom’s sign could spell.

Dashel opened the door and strode into the Bosom, hand at his purse. Faded graffiti of the district’s most popular wrestlers from years past crowded the walls. The rickety wood tables and stools were mostly empty, only a few men staring into their cups, and most of them alone. One man and his child sat atop a mat in a corner playing setef—a little levity in the gloom. A table of four men sat beneath one of the shuttered, street-facing windows. Even from here, Dashel could see the men were grimy with soot. They must have been helping with the debris around the fire. Only one of them looked younger than fifty.

Maybe Dashel had been wrong to let Uta scare him off. With his strength, he could have cleared wreckage better than any of them. What kind of man was he, to have let a scrawny woman like Uta stare him down?

Too late now. Dashel was here instead. Where he belonged.

The counter that ran half the length of the back of the establishment was stone topped with wood. Dashel slammed a coin down on its surface, lifting his hand to reveal a bronze piece, more than enough for a few cups of bouza, the strong, fermented bread-beer preferred in the lower city.

“Two cups, keep the rest.” No need to say of what. They only sold one beer. If you wanted honey beer, or mead, or something more exotic, you had to visit the Purse. Well, now you had to walk to the Eghri.

The sour-faced brewer, who also tended the bar, dipped two cups one by one into a large ceramic container behind her, careful not to overfill. She placed them in front of him, and Dashel grinned, though she didn’t smile back. He downed one, hoping it would elicit a grin, but she turned away, closed the lid of the container, and started pretending to clean. He shrugged, burped, and grabbed the second cup. After that one, he felt a whole lot better.

“It was Laelat set that fire,” grumbled one of the patrons. “I watched the Yirada drag her away this morning, raving. Said a demon burned her children.”

Laelat had started the fire? Dashel recoiled at the idea. She’d been a rough woman, but not like that. Her tavern had been a bright star in the quarter. She’d clearly saved a lot of money to start the business, one she’d have wanted to pass on to her daughters.

“Nah, it was Hesh,” spat another. “One of his whores owed him. He set that fire as a warning and it got out of hand is all.”

Hesh. That, at least, made more sense. Dashel stared into the bottom of his empty cup.

He stepped away from the counter. Everyone here was so gloomy except for the man and his son. Well, maybe Dashel could liven the Bosom up on his own.

“On second thought,” he announced loudly, laying down several more coins, “a round for these fine men.”

One of the men sitting at the table beneath the window looked up to stare malignantly before finally raising his cup in thanks. His three companions didn’t even do that much.

“Afraid of a little kindness?” Dashel asked, strolling toward them.

The four men considered him suspiciously. Their cheeks were ruddy from frequent drunkenness, their stares milky from current drunkenness. After a tense moment, the brewer appeared with their beer. One of the men kicked out a wooden stool for Dashel with a soot-stained sandal.

No doubt they made a mismatched bunch, Dashel’s groomed hair and trim beard contrasting with their scraggly mugs. He took the offered seat, and the tray of beer, laying it on the table. The drunks’ hands were as fast as their thoughts were slow, and they grasped the cups eagerly, as though Dashel might take them away.

“What do they call you all, then?” asked Dashel, maintaining his cheery expression despite the glares he received from two of the men.

“Qemet, Sese,” slurred the man closest to the window.

“Eshmunen.”

“Lagan.”

“Qal.”

“Dashel eq-Yeremi. Cheers.” Dashel lifted his cup high in the air before taking a swig. His new-found friends had already started theirs, and Lagan dribbled as he fumbled to return the courtesy. Dashel laughed, pleased when Lagan grinned back.

Across the room one of the men who’d been drinking alone got up suddenly, stool clattering against the stone floor, startling the boy playing setef with his father.

The stranger stormed outside and Dashel frowned. It was a rough crowd. Perhaps he would have been better off visiting the Temple of Ashtet, where a man could always find pleasant company in the temple’s own brand of prayer. He probably could have afforded a kiss, at least.

“That was Hesh’s man,” grumbled Qal, peering back over his shoulder.

Dashel flinched. “Hesh eq-Dirreth? Red-Eyed Hesh?”

“There ain’t no other Hesh ’round here.” Lagan narrowed his eyes at Dashel. “You got trouble with Hesh?”

Dashel stood up, watching the door as it banged against its frame. Hesh’s man hadn’t even bothered to close it, and the rest of Hesh’s people were close by, at the Teet. If Dashel went out the door, they’d surely catch him.

Dashel turned, looking for another way out. There wasn’t.

“We don’t need no trouble with Hesh Red-Eye. You’d best find another table.”

“Better yet, another drinking hole.”

Dashel glanced down at his companions. “Thanks.”

Voices rumbled from outside, the sound of a group of men approaching the tavern entrance.

Dashel glanced past the table at the shuttered window above it. The building was on a bend. If he was lucky, Hesh might not see him if he left through the window onto the street. He grabbed his beer, downed it, and tossed the cup aside.

No time to be precious.

He leapt onto the bench, sending cups spilling to the floor. Most of the men snapped their hands away in time, but Eshmunen swore behind him as one of Dashel’s laced boots crushed his fingers.

And with that, Dashel unlatched the shutters and slipped gracefully through the window―or he would have, had he not been several fingers too wide. Wedged inside the frame, Dashel grit his teeth, pushing his hands against the wall in an attempt to force himself through.

With his head outside the tavern, Dashel was able to watch as Hesh’s men headed indoors where Dashel could no longer see them. From inside, came distant chatter, as though the men were asking something of the brewer.

“Push me!” Dashel called. Maybe Lagan at least would help. But instead of pushing, someone pulled. No, fuck that. Dashel kicked backwards. The force of it shoved him the rest of the way through the window. He landed in a heap on the pot-holed stones of the street and groaned as he rolled onto his back, eyes closed.

“What does that look like to you, boys?” croaked an all-too familiar voice from above him.

Dashel opened his eyes, coming face-to-toe with a man’s upside-down sandaled feet. Several other feet appeared beside the first two.

Hesh’s foot pressed down on his rib cage. “Because to me it looks like an asshole shitting out an Erun turd.”

Dashel huffed beneath the press of the foot. “Hello, Hesh.”

Hesh eq-Dirreth leaned over, his foul-smelling breath drifting to Dashel’s nose. His wide red eyes, all sore about the rims, were watery and unblinking. He was about ten years older than Dashel, balding, with curly grey hair covering the rest of his head. Hesh didn’t look like much—average height, a little sunken, and round about his middle—unremarkable but for those itchy-looking eyes.

Yet Dashel could’ve pissed himself.

“Hello Dashel,” Hesh said, lip drawing back from his teeth like a hyena. Only half his face seemed to move. “I’ve got a lot of money tied up in you. I was wondering if you might untie it.” The foot pressed down a little harder, and Dashel drew in a sharp breath.

“There are nicer ways of asking,” Dashel managed, taking note of the men around him. There were six that he could see, maybe more nearby. He couldn’t fight them all.

And if he fought them, Hesh wouldn’t sell him more sapenta.

No, that wasn’t good. It wasn’t a good reason not to fight. Sarah and her children were a better reason, because Hesh always found creative ways of hurting people who angered him. He wasn’t above getting to Dashel through his family.

“There probably are, but I’m not a very nice man, Dashel.”

“Oh, I think you’re lovely.” He smiled doltishly. Maybe he was better at sarcasm than he’d thought.

Another press of the foot. “Then pay me. Or better yet, have your princeling pay me. He must give you something to let him stick it in your ass.”

Hesh’s men laughed, and Dashel grit his teeth. It was one thing to slander Dashel, another to smear Aurelius. Dashel should be hitting things. He was good at hitting things. “I’ll get it soon. You want a gold piece? I’ve got a gold piece.”

“I want the twenty sendat I loaned you, and the twenty-five for the sapenta.”

Twenty. Those had been for the tunic he’d bought to impress Aurelius the night before he’d left on his trip. The one he hadn’t let Djana or Titrit pay for.

“I’ll have it for you. In a few days I’ll get it.” Dashel wasn’t sure how. Aurelius would have lent it to him of course, but he would never ask that, not of his prince.

Besides, Aurelius didn’t know about the sapenta. It was one thing to spend his days drinking, and his nights high on lotus tea, and quite another to admit to a fondness for Molot’s wine.

“You’ll make a fool of me. Hesh is no fool. He may be a bastard, but he’s no fool.” Hesh lifted his foot, then kicked Dashel in the side.

Dashel swallowed a yell. He forced himself to sit up while he had the chance. “I have powerful friends.”

“As do I.”

Dashel glared. “As powerful as a prince?”

“A prince with no throne? The burnt offering? Yes.” Hesh chuckled. “It isn’t hard.”

There was hardly anyone as powerful as Aurelius. Hesh must be bluffing, or overestimating the importance of his friends.

“In a few days, like I said.” Dashel grunted as he got to his feet. He rubbed his chest where Hesh’s foot had left an impression of his sandal in dirt. He towered over Hesh and the rest of them, so why was it he felt so small? He shifted on his feet, thinking about Thanos again, and Aurelius. He had come here to be happy. He’d come here looking for something to make him forget. “I don’t suppose, before then, you could—”

“You want some of the wine,” Hesh said, all crocodile smiles.

Dashel nodded. He couldn’t meet Hesh’s eyes. “I’ll give you what I have, the rest later?” He reached for his purse, held it out. He didn’t look up when one of the thugs snatched it.

“Daroth?” asked Hesh.

Dashel looked up.

A heavyset man stepped forward, producing a vial from his cloak. He laid it in Hesh’s outstretched hand.

Dashel took the sapenta from Hesh without making eye-contact. “I’ll have it for you in a few days.”

Hesh was already turning around, and his companions with him, heading back toward the Teet.

“Seventy-five!” called Hesh, as he strolled away, his companions turning with him.

“Seventy-five,” Dashel confirmed, turning away himself, sliding the vial into a pocket.

Once Hesh was gone, Dashel started home, no longer in the mood for Teet or Bosom, and without money left to spend. More of the smoke had cleared, the sun shining down on him as he made his way to Sarah’s house. One of the priests at the temple of Adonis had told Dashel once that the sun was God’s eye, watching everything they did. Adonis could see all your indiscretions, all your acts of bravery and cowardice. Acts of bravery seemed behind Dashel now.

He fingered the little bottle in his pocket, tasting that sweet bitterness on his tongue. How was it that time could bring him so low, when he’d once carried a scared little boy in his arms, and been called hero for it?

How had such worthlessness come upon the worthy, like a stalker in the darkness?

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