(Note: If you require content warnings, please click to scroll to the bottom of the page.)
Chapter 5: Mazna
Kirin – Lorar: A Tavern
Kirin spat a gob of wine onto the tavern floor as yet another Yellower passed the small wood table where he and Ydelka were rolling dice. He’d invited Ydelka here to relax, but the Yellowers were ruining it, making the already cramped, low-ceilinged space feel that much smaller.
The Yellow senator didn’t even notice Kirin’s insult, just kept walking to greet his friends: five men in long, white and yellow tunics clustered around two tables close to the counter at the tavern’s front, already deep in their cups and diving further. They threw up their hands and cheered as the newcomer reached them, the sound overwhelming all other chatter.
Yakovius was nowhere to be seen. Maybe he swore off taverns like he did all other kinds of fun. Then again, it was evening—perhaps he was with his family.
Kirin’s stomach seemed to twist as though with a perverse kind of disappointment, but that was foolish. When he’d escorted Yakovius Lutelian home a week ago, the man had been entertaining in his own way, but he and Kirin shared nothing in common. The head of Yellow Faction was a coward and an eel just like his brethren at those tables. Here these men sat smiling, and laughing, and howling for peace as the first dribbles of another wave of refugees flooded through the city gates.
“I’m not paying for another,” said Ydelka, drawing Kirin’s attention.
Kirin frowned. “What?”
She glared at him, gently swiping the dice to the side of the table. “I’m not paying for more wine if all you plan to do is quench the floor.”
“They’re cowards,” said Kirin, as another cheer went up around the Yellowers’ table.
Ydelka snorted. “Most men are. What’s soured you against these men specifically? Did Yakovius make you cry?”
Kirin scoffed. “I don’t cry.”
The Yellowers were stretching their necks forward, whispering to each other in hushed voices of serpents. Kirin didn’t know any of their names, but it was easy enough to memorize them by their features: Potbelly, Squeaker, Longnose, Piggy.
“Everyone cries.” Ydelka grabbed one of the coins to the side of the table and flicked it in the air. “Especially if he’s seen as much pain and death as you.”
Potbelly and Longnose broke away from the others. Longnose clamped his hand over Potbelly’s shoulder, and they strode away from the table, voices so low they dragged on the stone floor.
Kirin averted his gaze as they passed.
Longnose sounded angry, his words as he walked past sharp enough that Kirin made out part of the whisper. “More than a few of us would rather a loss . . . .” He slapped Potbelly’s back. “Just think on it.”
Ydelka snapped her fingers. “You’re the one who asked me to join you, but you’ve spent most of our time together spying.”
The pair stepped out of range of Kirin’s hearing, their words drowned out by the barking of a cur outside the tavern and the much louder bellow of Piggy from the Yellowers’ table.
“I’m not spying,” he protested.
“No, just listening to other people’s private conversations.” She sipped her wine, staring at him with an amused, doe-eyed expression.
It wasn’t his fault the Yellowers had turned up, and he couldn’t help that they were suspicious. “Marianus wouldn’t countenance spying.”
“So you must not be a spy?” Ydelka laughed, a sound like the scale of a harp. Beautiful. “You wouldn’t be alone, you know. Marianus has spies from here to Indas.” She slid her finger along her cup. “He and half the senate, and they’d be fools not to.”
At the nearest table, some gamblers picked at a bowl of green olives, and Kirin’s mouth watered. “Where’s your proof?”
Ydelka drew her eyebrows together in incredulity. She leaned away from the table, crossing her arms. “I’ve met some of them. His man in Indas was a scribe here when I was a child. Now he serves Hadrianus’s court.”
“That hardly makes him a spy,” said Kirin.
Ydelka smiled sweetly. “No, but the letters he sends Marianus do.”
Well, so what if Marianus had men loyal to him in Indas? If what Yakovius had said about Hadrianus’s designs on the senate were true, Marianus had good reason.
Kirin rolled his shoulder, stretching out an ache, unable to keep from turning again toward the Yellowers. “It’s strange though, isn’t it? The Yellowers don’t have a hope, but Yakovius talked like he has a real chance of becoming Pater.”
“So maybe he does,” said Ydelka. “Fear of war could turn the fidelia to his cause.”
“No, they’re scheming something.” He narrowed his eyes at the politicians. “Marianus must know—that’s why he hired me when he did.”
Kirin grunted and downed the rest of his wine.
“He’s not so different from you, you know,” Ydelka continued.
He’d need more drink if the conversation rambled on. He grabbed some of the coins from the table, clutching them in his fist. Damn Oran, and damn Ydelka with him. “We’re nothing alike.” He stood up and cupped his manhood through his tunic. “I’ve got a cock for one,” he said, winking.
Ydelka averted her gaze. “You don’t need a cock to fight.”
“Is that so?” Kirin took his empty cup and walked past her toward the tavern counter. “I haven’t seen you fight.”
“You’ve seen Oran,” snapped Ydelka, but Kirin was already walking away, headed for the bar. He laid his cup down on the counter.
The Yellowers were chatting about the election, but when Kirin looked at them, they went silent. He tensed his arms to flex his muscles and gripped the handle of the gladius slung at his waist.
He smiled as he tossed his coin onto the stone counter. “Paid for by Marianus Rufus,” he gloated, releasing his sword. The Yellowers eyed him nervously as the proprietress ladled wine into Kirin’s cup from one of the vats built into the counter.
“And some olives,” said Kirin.
On his way back to his table, he patted Piggy on the shoulder.
Ydelka looked up at him as he returned, continuing the conversation as if he’d never left. “I suppose you won’t believe I could beat you till I prove it. And maybe not even then. You’re all the same.”
“Who are?” Kirin set the olives and wine down, then took a seat. The senators’ stares were less discreet than they clearly believed. Kirin waved at them.
“You men. You Lorai men.” Ydelka smiled, a satisfied glint in her eyes, or maybe that was merely a reflection from the sconces lighting the darkened tavern. She plucked an olive from the dish and popped it in her mouth.
Kirin frowned, shifting on his stool. What supposed wisdom was Ydelka about to impart from her lofty seat? “The rat believes you, does he?”
“Oran. And he’s less a rat than you are. He doesn’t let preconceptions fog his mind.” She stared past him, like she was watching the street outside.
Kirin turned around, half expecting to see the Anouti rat himself standing outside the tavern, but it was only some Masseni slaves escorting their wealthy master.
Perhaps rat meat was Ydelka’s favoured fare. Well, if that were the case, Oran could have her, and he could drag her to the bowels of the underworld with him when he died.
Kirin balled his fingers into a fist.
Ydelka was nothing really―a pretty trifle, a novelty. The only reason he was here with her was because they worked together, and because Marianus’s other slaves were bland as stale bread. Kirin’d had one of the slaves—Irina—two nights in a row. Licked her tits till she moaned, plowed her till she squealed. Irina was soft as women should be, didn’t pretend at being a warrior. But her mundane chatter could put him to sleep.
He cocked his chin at Ydelka, trying to read her black eyes. “If you’re such a prize fighter, prove me wrong. I’ll change my mind the same as any man. I’m not the only one with preconceptions.”
She licked her lip. “All right.” She grabbed the coins and dice and stood up. “But on my terms. If I win, you promise you’ll shut up.”
Kirin darted a glance back at the Yellowers. If he left with Ydelka now, he might miss something. His duty was to protect Marianus, at any cost.
“Kirin.” Ydelka flicked an olive pit at him. “I thought you’d invited me here to seduce me. Looks like I’m not your type.”
Seduce her? He couldn’t fight his grin. He downed a last gulp of wine, then grabbed a handful of olives from the dish.
She smiled. “If I win,” she repeated, “you’ll shut up.”
As they left the tavern, Kirin felt the heat of the Yellowers’ stares at his back. They were plotting something against Marianus, and as the senator’s bodyguard, Kirin ought to uncover it. What if Oran was one of them? In the arena, Bado had called Oran karnaam, as though the word made him dangerous. He could be a sorcerer of some kind, or an evil desert spirit.
“You’re thinking,” Ydelka said as they stepped onto the darkened street. She adjusted her hair as she walked, her hips swaying, belt clinking from the movement.
Kirin walked behind her, enjoying the view. “I do that sometimes.”
She rested her hand on her belt to stop her equipment jostling together, then slowed her pace so Kirin was walking beside her. “Not about the right things.”
Kirin clucked in disapproval. “Now who’s letting her preconceptions fog her judgement.”
Ydelka squinted at him playfully. She gave him a shove, and he nearly stumbled into the path of a small cart. “It’s not a preconception that you’re naive,” she quipped. “It’s an observable phenomenon.”
Kirin sidled in closer to Ydelka, out of the way of the rest of the foot traffic. His arm brushed hers and his hair stood on end. “Where are we going?” She seemed to be leading them eastward toward one of the residential islands.
Ydelka took a severe right down an alley. She stopped in front of a plain wall, bent down to grab a ladder leaning against the side, and propped it into a standing position. “Up.”
“Up?” asked Kirin, bemused despite himself. “Is there some advantage to sparring on a roof? Does Marianus suffer a lot of attacks from angry pigeons?”
Ydelka slammed her hand around a rung and started to climb. She didn’t even bother to look at him as she answered. “You coming or not? My terms, remember?”
Kirin grinned and started after her. She was certainly less predictable than Irina.
Oran aside, Ydelka was clearly a woman of more subtle tastes, and she seemed to think Kirin was some kind of dolt. He’d had fine enough education as Alinaea’s slave, and perhaps he could summon some of the charm Alinaea had once adored to sway Ydelka’s mind.
“I didn’t say I wouldn’t call your terms stupid,” said Kirin. “But if flattery is the price of admission, then I promise that when you do stupid things in future, I’ll defend their brilliance to the death.”
Ydelka reached the top and hopped onto the roof. She poised her boot perilously above the final rung as though she might shove him clattering to the ground. “To the death? What about to the breaking of the back?”
Kirin stared up at her, unafraid of the ten-foot drop. “You don’t hate me that much.” He skipped up the rest of the way, then stood up beside her. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t flirt.”
Ydelka’s laugh was a bird’s trill. “If I were flirting, this would end with you in my bed, and it’s not going to. Unless you’d like to share it with Oran? That might be fun.”
Kirin grimaced, saying nothing. Why encourage her? Instead he surveyed the view from the flat-roofed building. Most Lorai homes and businesses had peaked rooves so the rain would roll down the sides. Ydelka had taken him here, specifically. She knew this place.
And it was spectacular. Lorar stretched out before them, into eternity. Beneath the full moon, the white of the curia and its surrounding government buildings was luminescent. The city’s houses, and temples, and complexes were so many that they blurred into the horizon. To the southwest towered the Arena Venaris, and closer by, avenues of orange trees ran along the Great Causeway and the banks of narrower canals.
It was an excellent place to watch the city. To spy. Did Marianus send Ydelka here? Was that how she knew about it?
“I thought you wanted to fight me,” Ydelka said from behind him.
“It’s like another city up here,” mused Kirin, as much to himself as her.
Ydelka stepped up beside him. “That’s why I like it. Up here it’s my city, not Marianus’s, or the senate’s, or yours, or anyone else’s.” A pigeon cooed nearby. “Maybe the birds’.”
Kirin laughed and half-turned toward her before he noticed the sharp tip of one of her daggers pressed against his throat. He opened his mouth to speak, but her blade was close enough against his skin that even swallowing provoked a spear of pain.
Ydelka scraped the flat of the knife up Kirin’s throat, forcing him to tilt his head up.
“Sneaking isn’t fighting,” he chanced.
Ydelka cocked her head to the side. “Then let’s fight.”
Kirin grabbed Ydelka’s right arm just above the elbow, twisting the knife away from him. He kept his grip light, not wanting to hurt her. She was so small she might shatter in his arms if he wasn’t careful.
Ydelka’s dagger arced away from Kirin’s face, and he circled around her, pinning her arm behind her back, pressing her to him.
He had her. “Not much of a fi—”
Ydelka reached behind her with her left arm, clutching Kirin’s own, and swiftly reversing their positions. Instead of holding Kirin, she landed a fierce kick to his back, knocking the wind from him, and darted to his left. He felt her leg kick out at his knee and dodged, bringing him dangerously near the edge of the roof.
He glanced down, vision spinning from the height. On the street below, a man was leaving the house, trading farewells with someone inside.
Heedless of Kirin’s proximity to the edge, Ydelka let fly another kick, aimed at his side.
Kirin fell into a crouch, narrowly avoiding the attack. “You’re trying to kill me!” His chest ached from where she’d kicked him earlier, the force of the blow seeming to echo through his bones.
She grinned. “Are you admitting I could?”
Kirin grunted as they circled each other, moving away from the edge. “The impact of the street against my head would kill me.”
“The tip of your sword through my guts would kill me,” Ydelka countered, “but it would still be you who put it there.”
As she canvassed across the ground, moving lithe as an ermine, she drew a second blade and held them in front of her.
Kirin leaped forward to punch her. She blocked him easily, throwing his attack off with the flat of her forearm, but he swooped his other fist underneath her defending arm and shoved her backward. She stumbled, dropping one of her blades.
She dove into a roll before propelling herself back onto her feet and dashing straight at him.
Kirin bent beneath the jab of her blade. He grabbed the knife he’d knocked out of her hand earlier and held it, point-out, in warning. He bared his teeth in a taunt. “I see you dancing; I’m not sure you’ve proved me wrong yet.”
She kicked, and he dodged easily before slamming his own foot against her narrow chest. She bent over in pain, shuffling back.
Kirin strolled toward her, keeping the tip of the dagger pointed at her. She’d been all talk. As he’d expected, some well-intentioned instructor had thought to teach her a few tricks, but it was clear that was all they were. “Surrender.”
Ydelka stood up slowly, and smiled apologetically, defeated. The forlorn expression almost made him feel guilty.
At the last second, he caught sight of some spark in her eyes that told him she wasn’t finished yet. He jabbed the blade close to her side, but just as he thought he’d outwitted her, she raised her own knife, and slapped his blade out of the way.
She elbowed him in the throat, and wrapped her arm beneath his own, spinning around him. Her foot connected with the back of his calf just above the ankle, knocking him onto his knees. Pain shot up his legs, to his hips, and he let go of the knife.
Ydelka grabbed it, slipping it from his control so fast he wasn’t sure how she’d done it.
He made to get up, but she pressed one of the knives to his throat, her other arm wrapped around his chest so that she pointed the second blade to his cock.
He was beaten. If she wanted to kill him she could.
“Surrender?” she asked.
Kirin nodded bitterly, choking back his pride. “Surrender.”
“Good.” She sheathed her weapons at her side and sat down cross-legged on the rooftop as though they’d come up here to toss stones and not to pummel each other. She patted the roof beside her.
Kirin relented. She was pretty, after all, and perhaps if he was accommodating, she might be accommodating in kind. They sat for a moment in silence, panting and spent, and he used the opportunity to admire her—her lithe arms, her firm legs.
She paid his attentions no mind, simply smiled at the skyline.
After he’d caught his breath, he spoke. “You’re not a slave like us. How did you come into Marianus’s service?”
Her gaze drifted toward the slave’s collar at his neck, and Kirin tugged his tunic up to hide it. All the happiness on Ydelka’s face faded as she turned away from him. Of course he’d found a way to kill the mood.
“He’s had me since I was a girl,” she answered, her voice oddly cold. “I’m not a slave, no, but I am a pet―the pet wildwoman of a Lorai senator. Do you know what my name means? It’s a Feislander word for bitch―for a dog.” She shook her head as though at Marianus, her black braids slipping from where they’d snagged on her shoulders to hang straight as arrows down her back. “I’m not even from the Feislands.”
What was Kirin supposed to make of that? He rubbed his hand over the roof, over the dust that had collected here. “But where did he find you? Why did you stay if you hate him so much?”
A cloud passed overhead, obscuring what had been a clear night, shadowing her face so that her skin looked smooth as unpainted marble. She hung her head, staring at her boots, and reached out to pull at the worn leather. “What else was there to do? I was a little girl and he was a big man, and I didn’t speak the language or know the city the way I do now. At first I even convinced myself I liked him. He didn’t hit me―kept me on a cushion beside his seat when he entertained guests or received tribute. It was all a game then. His friends were fascinated by me; they’d never seen anything like me. He used to make me speak for them in tongues, and they would laugh, or stare.” She swallowed, throat bobbing. “That Indasi spy I told you about used to record everything I said on a scroll. I think he was a historian or something. He’d give me treats. I liked him. I can’t even remember what I said anymore. I know there was a time when I could picture my parents’ faces, hear their voices, but it all went away―my language went away the more I learned of the Lorai world.”
Ydelka grabbed a stone from beside her and flicked it toward the roof across the street. It pinged off a ceramic tile, and bounced down onto the road.
Kirin picked up a stone of his own, but didn’t toss it. “Is that why you hate Marianus? Because you lost your language?”
“No.” Ydelka fidgeted with the buckles on her boots. “Anyway, I’m not sure I do hate him. He never did hurt me, and he fed me, and had me taught letters, and then how to fight. I’m not sure I could forgive him though, for making me forget my home, for naming me for a cur. And he’s cruel sometimes. You don’t see it, but he is. He sees all the world as another pet, as another conquest. Have you met his wife?”
Kirin shook his head. “Not properly.” He’d seen her from her box in the stadium before, but never up close.
“She’s a greedy thing. She takes his slaves to her bed and then laughs when he has them punished.” Ydelka ripped her hand away from her boot like it was a rock and she’d uncovered a snake beneath. She faced him, black eyes boring into his. Light from the torches lining the streets below caught against her tear-damp cheeks. “You think you’re special, Kirin, and for a little while he’ll make you believe it, that you’re a friend to him, that you’re more than another one of his hounds. He won’t treat you like a slave, and you’ll forget yourself, and it’s then that he’ll remind you of your place, that you’re a what and not a who, and it will sting, and you might even die because of it.”
Ydelka cursed and wiped a sleeve against her cheek.
“Is that what he did to you?” Kirin broached. He wanted to reach for her arm, comfort her. He didn’t.
“No . . . yes. He must have, but more than that, he did it to someone I cared about. Someone like you and Oran.” She regarded him studiously, taking his measure.
“What happened to him?” Surely, Marianus must have had his reasons.
Ydelka shrugged, brow furrowed, anger mating with her sadness. “Like I said. Nuna, his wife, she took him to her bed one day. He was a slave-boy from a Masseni village, one of the border villages near Indas. He was sweet and he was kind, and she took him, and when Marianus found out, he had him flogged until he died.” She shook her head, tears pouring down her face, snot from her nose. “I don’t even think he meant to. He didn’t mean to kill him, but he didn’t care that he had. All it was to him was a waste of money, and he complained afterwards that he’d have to buy another one to replace him. He complained, after he whipped him to death.”
“He shouldn’t have fucked her.” It was odd for a master to deny his wife the pleasure of a slave’s body, but it was still Marianus’s choice to make, and if Nuna’s proclivities were well-known, Ydelka’s Masseni friend should have known better.
Ydelka shoved him. “You think he had a choice?”
Kirin sat firm, rigid. Ydelka was wrong. “Of course he did. He shouldn’t have done it.”
“So you’d refuse her? The wife of a senator? The mistress of the house?”
He smoothed the dust from the surface of the stone in his hand, but instead of throwing it, he laid down beside him. Ydelka’s question had drawn his thoughts uncomfortably back to his own past, to Alinaea and the dead child that had angered his master enough that Kirin had been sold. Kirin had wanted her, and he’d paid for his crime, and he had deserved it. “If I didn’t refuse, it would be my own fault. A noble woman shouldn’t take the blame for the mistakes of a nobody.”
Ydelka bit her lip. “He wasn’t a nobody. His name was Samos, and he was gentle and good and I loved him.”
The reprimand stuck in him like a thorn. Was it Kirin’s fault this Samos was a useless fool? And after all, it seemed Ydelka had a great love of useless fools. “Do you think Oran’s gentle?”
Ydelka slapped him, leaving his cheek stinging. The ringing in his ear returned briefly.
“He is when he’s touching me,” she spat, “which is more than you’ll ever do. You’re an idiot, Kirin. I feel sorry for you.”
Kirin threw up his hands, exhausted. First she seemed not to want him at all, and now she talked like she’d had some desire to draw him to her bed. “What do you expect me to say? Oran’s no better than the man you think Marianus to be. He’ll hurt you eventually; there’s something very wrong with him.”
Her expression softened into an expression annoyingly like pity. “You really care, don’t you? You really think he’ll hurt me.”
Did he? “Yes.”
Ydelka stroked her palm down the side of his face where she’d slapped him. “He won’t.” She got up, and Kirin’s skin tingled with the light touch of her fingers on his cheek. “You’re jealous, because he knows who he is. Because he’s not ashamed.”
“I’m a man of Lorar,” Kirin objected, a creeping emptiness rolling over his skin like a tiny marching army.
“I hope so,” Ydelka said as she walked away from him, toward the ladder. “I’ve never met one before.”