(The following is an initial draft of this work. All content is (c) Andrija Popovic 2015)
“You build their homes like toy blocks set upon each other.” Tellus gazed up as Strom guided them through the streets. If this was where some of the poorer citizens lived, he could not see it. The streets, paved even, were clear of garbage. Even the tiniest of rooms had an open area with a small garden growing in a planter. “I feel for the old ones who live on the topmost areas. All those stairs…”
“That’s what the lift carts are for. You can’t see them, but many of the homes have small carts in the back on ropes.” Strom pointed to a stucco house seated atop a building, connected to the street by long and winding stairs. “My mother, gods rest her and keep her, lived on a topmost home.” As they traveled, she pointed out building styles from across the continent – Cunis, the Suzaranate and Gallatia, and beyond. “We tend to get a lot of travelers settling here.”
The street joined and crossed with two others in a triangular plaza. Tucked in between the high walls of the noble section, the gates of the scholar’s quarters and the great curve of the inner keep was a tall, reddish brown building.
The main archway carried a sign in many different languages, but each one read the same. The Wayfarer’s Rest. Columns created a small sheltered area outside the doors. They carried on up for at least three levels. On the higher floors, multi-layered cloth covered the entrances. Privacy for the rooms there, perhaps?
Strom walked them inside. One was already pulled aside, held open with a small urn. They walked inside, scraping their boots against a strap of metal provided for the purpose. Pegs hung beside the door, should anyone wish to leave rain soaked gear to dry.
More columns and arches. Tellus scanned the room. Like most taverns and rest homes it held a bar, stairs to the upper rooms and tables in a common area by a fireplace and small stage. But the execution was unusual. A gridline of columns and arches supported the entire room. From the X where the arches met hung glowing lamps, illuminating the seats below. Every table was hexagonal, giving one a good amount of room to sit, yet not dominating the space. There was no traditional flue fireplace. Instead a stone box jutted out into the room, holding the fire and several haunches of meat roasting on spits.
A stage, hexagonal like the tables, rested in the far corner across from the door. A woman in a red tunic and loose trousers sat in the corner, with a massive stringed instrument in her lap. She plucked at it with a relaxed fury. A man danced beside her wearing a mirror of her outfit. He carried bells on his wrists and ankles, and beat a counterpoint to his partner’s song with a small drum
In the far back was a massive stone bar, carved from some salvaged piece of marble . Behind there bar were doorways to a kitchen area and a stairwell into a basement – the storehouse no doubt.
Tellus heard Adia whistle at the sword on the wall. It was twice her height and wide as an arm-span. To him, it resembled a reaper’s scythe more than a sword. This weapon carried no finesse. It was designed for brutal, efficient slaughter, hewing through lines of soldiers like a storm felling trees.
The bartender filled a clay mug for a patron. He belonged to the sword: they looked cut from the same dark metal. A claw mark decorated one eye. The other, pale blue, reminded him of an old hunting lizard’s gaze
After a moment, he left the bar and went to the fire place, checking on the meat roasting there. The woman who took the bar was almost a laughable contrast. Where he was a massive war machine, all muscle and fury, she was a hunting snake. Build more like Adia, with the grace of a hunting cat, she carried scars across her arms and face. She picked up several bottles from beneath the bar and began mixing their contents, flipping them around as if they were toys.
Tellus throwing knives and darts tucked into her belt. He imagined her hands sending the sharp blades into a poor soul’s vitals instead of juggling bottles of spirits. Now and again, she gave the massive one’s backside an appreciative glance as he carved off long strips of lamb or boar for various customers..
“For someone who once sliced warhorses in half, he manages to carve meat with amazing delicacy.” Strom smirked. “Oh, and start with the ale. Few are ready for the way she mixes spirits.”
“I do not drink ferment.” Tellus wondered if it would be limes and waters again. There appeared to be little tea around.
“Well I drink the ferment.” Adia watched the bottles fly through the air. “Thanks for the warning.”
“You’re welcome.” Strom pushed through the crowd. “Visik, damn your eyes the boar smells as good as ever.” She clapped the massive cook on the shoulder. He grinned and sliced off another fine cut of meat, serving it to her on the end of his fork. She ate it without reservation. “Gods, this is heaven after rations and lizard meat.”
“Lizard meat is amazing if cooked correctly. I need to teach your company how to properly roast one of those beasts in the field.” Visik cleaned the knife on an oilcloth and sheathed it. The butcher’s blade hung at his side like the tiniest of swords. “Glad to see you’re back. The markets were buzzing when the raven came in reporting the attack.”
“Aye, it would be, damn vultures.” Strom licked her fingers. “Gods, I’m hungry enough to slaughter a bullock for your spit. But then I’d have to drag it here by hand…”
Visik laughed. “I missed you, pup. Best damn lance corporal I ever had, you were.” He cast his eye to Tellus and Adia. “And apparently acting as a guide for newcomers to the city?”
“For now. They helped us with the raiders. May I introduce Adia and Tellus.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance. It’s been a while since we’ve had a visitor from the Red Desert. Not since the Junatai clan made their last long trade loop.” Visik offered his hand to Tellus, who shook it, and to Adia, who tried to crush it.
Visik just smiled. “It’s has been nearly six years since the last member of your tribe came through my door, lady of the Black Blade. Father Ocean and Mother Mangrove keep you. Welcome!”
Adia grinned. “A good welcome, indeed.” She pulled out the voucher. “This should cover our stay, and we thank you in advance for your hospitality.”
“Hanud’s credit?” Visik peered at the marking. He glanced to Strom, who nodded and shrugged. He handed the voucher to the lady behind the bar. “Right, Ionna will sort you out then. She can validate the seal. Have to pardon the caution. Hanud rarely gives those out.”
“I suspect the cargo we assisted him in saving would be worth more than our stay here,” said Tellus
“As he is a member in good standing of the league of city merchants, I cannot say anything ill about him.” Visik lead the way to the bar. The clogged floor opened around him. “Not without the wife giving me what-for, as she runs the bloody thing.”
“Lay off, Visik. If we denied league membership to anyone with less than friendly personalities, I’d be the only member.” Ionna held the voucher with the edges of her fingers. She brought it to a lamp behind the bar, peering at the symbol and ink through the light.
“The handwriting looks like his.” Ionna turned the page sideways. “Yes, the way he accents his N’s is unique. Now, let’s check the seal.” She produced a tiny loop of wood with two small pieces of crystal fixed in either end- a miniature version of a lookout’s scope. “Ah, yes. There it is. Love signet rings. They have their own character. And this is his, all right.” She stamped it with her own signet ring and tucked it away beneath her vest. “This will cover four nights in our most basic room. It comes with meals, but the meals are always chef’s choice. You eat what he cooks.”
“Does it always smell like that?” Adia eyed the roasting boar again.
“Usually it smells better.”
“Then I have no problems eating anything and everything the chef prepares. How much for bedding and the like?”
Ionna shook her head. “Bedding comes with the room, as does one bath a night. I’ll have Senna set you up.” She whistled. From the back appeared a young woman with the bartender’s eyes and the chef’s muscles. “We have two new guests. They will be needing separate rooms. Can you see to them?”
They were laid up from the main hall to the sleeping quarters. The stairs curled around, like a vine crawling up a tree, and spilled out into a corridor lined with rooms. A few torch sconces hung along the walls, waiting for evening to come. The curve of the stairway deadened the noise from below. Senna guided Tellus to the far end of the hallway. Across from his room, another was open. A young man, hair and features matching Ionna’s, stuffed scrap cloth and rags into a mattress.
“We have a deal with the cloth merchants. All of their scrap gets washed and sent to us.” Senna opened the door to her room. “Here you are.”
No opulent rugs or filigreed decorations covered the walls. The room held all the simple essentials: a bed to one corner, facing the door, a small table, shelves in the walls for candles, a trunk for the storage of personal items. But each essential was well made: the bed carried a fresh blanket and a mattress. It rested on a framework of wooden slats, not a simple plank with four legs. The trunk looked strong enough to withstand any blow. The wall sconces were clean and well kept, with some kind of candle tucked inside a clay jar.
And then there was the large, rectangular structure in the far corner of the room. It was small, one could sit in it if you tucked your legs close, but it was stone and the inside gleamed with some kind of glazing. Another small, glazed box sat beside it. Tellus blinked.
“Is that a tub?” He reeled from the decadence.
“Indeed. There is one built into every room. We will have hot water up soon, but if you want cold water it is in the tank beside the tub.” Senna walked over and pulled an odd device from the tub, attached to a chain. It looked like a metal tube, think and reed like, attached to a sphere with a series of holes in the bottom. “And the sprinkler.”
Senna dipped the sphere in the tank. “You fill it with water and place your thumb over the top.” She did so, and lifted the dripping sphere. “The water stays in until you remove your thumb.” Lifting her thumb away, the water spilled from the sphere in a small rain shower.
“Ah, a well dipper! Rarely see one so small like this. Thank you.” Senna’s brother entered with a skin made from some creature’s stomach and poured it into the tub. She thanked him, and tested the water. It steamed, and almost scalded her fingers. It would need a moment too cool.
“The room is all yours. Your companion is set across from you. If you need anything, use the bell pull.” Senna pointed to a length of rope along the wall beside the door. “And welcome.”
Tellus waited for Senna to head downstairs before checking on Adia. She had brought her table to the center of the room. Laid out in front of her were both swords, still in their sheaths. Opening her satchel, she removed several small phials of carved, polished wood, a brush, and a sharpening stone. Lighting the candle, she kneeled before the table.
“Mother Mangrove, hear your daughter as she travels far from your sheltering branches. I thank you the gifts you have given me to survive.” Adia unsheathed her swords. Carefully, she ran the sharpening stone along the cutting edges, smoothing out any nicks and burs.
“Mother Mangrove, I thank you for the beasts in your arms. They keep us swift and strong. I thank you for the gift of their venom and blood.” She poured a few drops out of the phials onto the brush. Thick and jellied, she painted it onto the edge of the blade. Lifting one blade into the candle flame, she let the heat melt the jelly. As it cooled once passed from the flame and formed a black patina against the blade, seasoning it.
“Mother Mangrove, I thank you for the scars you have given me.” She touched the two ritual scars above her breasts, the two on the small star scars just over her hips, and on the scars above her knees. There were many others, but these scars mattered most. “They remind me of the harsh world, and all which is needed to survive.”
“Mother Mangrove, I thank you for my sharp eyes, my strong hands, and swift legs. I will not dishonor your gifts, and shall use them to survive. Honor to you, to the tribe, to the family I have now and the one which is to come.”
Tellus closed the door and left Adia to her prayers. He needed time with his own gods before the night grew long.
“Welcome to Zarina’s Tavern.” Tellus was not a short gentleman. But the owner of the pleasure house made him feel small. She dominated the doorway, dwarfing two bodyguards. Dressed in loose, flowing silks the color of a ripe peach, her skin was a very light brown. She wore no jewels save for a simple belt and a necklace of gold embossed with swirling circles. “Please, enter. We have been expecting you.”
They stepped into a room filled with gods. Right from the doorway, Tellus saw an image of the eight armed good-queen of the Suzaranate, the starburst symbol of the Gallatian Empire’s New Sun, and even a prayer rug with the symbols of his own gods woven into it.
Adia gaped. A mangrove sat in the corner of the room. The branches tangled into the shape of a wide hipped woman, hands stretched to the sky. She walked right to the mangrove. Touching her scars, she raised her hand to the holy tree, mirroring the rise of the branches. When she finished, she rose.
“Thank you. I never thought I would see Mother Mangrove outside of our jungles.” Adia bowed. Tellus had never seen her so well behaved. No quips or gruff observations. Just awe.
“She was a gift from a member of your tribe. As were all of the gods here. My adoptive mother’s grandmother began the tradition. She felt it important to say all faiths and joys were welcome in this home.” The woman bowed. “I am Livia Paaulus, daughter of Marcus Allinius Paaulus. Welcome to Zarina’s rest. What is your pleasure?”
“A question first.” Tellus pointed to the prayer rug. “Where did you receive this? It is from the Danutai tribe. They have not ventured from our desert in two generations as traders.” The knotwork on the rug, and the particular shade of orange in the symbols for wind and vision which made the unspoken name of his God, marked for the trained eye to see. The Danutai tribe discovered an oasis in the great desert and took it as a sign to follow the god of water and earth, their time under wind and vision having passed.
“It is at least four generations old. A traveler from the tribe – a wind walker – presented it to the house after my great grandmother assisted him in translating several old scrolls he found.” Livia smiled. “Do you wish to hear the full story?”
“One night, yes, thank you.” Tellus withdrew the letter of credit. “We have been presented with an opportunity to enjoy your hospitality by Hanud, the bowyer.”
Livia took the letter into her slim fingers. She held it to one of the lamps. Her eyes darted across the page. “Ah, this is indeed from Hanud. Thank you. You are welcome to all we can offer. What is your pleasure?”
“I am told you have a champion level ajedrez master.” Tellus bowed. “I’m hoping to test myself.”
“And I heard this story about a sword dance between two men?” Adia followed the gods on the walls with her hand. “I’m interested in seeing this.”
Livia smiled and bowed. “Then follow me.” She parted the great rug covering the entrance to the pleasure house. “We are here to give you a respite from the world.”
They entered a spiritual brother to the common room at the Wayfarer’s Rest. The columns and buttresses mirrored each other; pillars arranged in a harmonious grid. A stage, a bar and the offset chimney all mirrored the other buildings.
Men and women sat around the tables, talking, playing table games, or just lazing in each other’s company. The house workers were always visible by the necklaces, carrying the same swirling patterns Livia wore. He saw pleasure, but no open whoring or groping. There were spots where the veils around the pillars were thicker, but they only masked faces, not activities. He guessed the assignations took place upstairs…and the basement.
Livia brought Tellus to a table in the back. Unlike the others, it was square, and inset with a red and white grid. A half complete game of ajedrez sat on the table. On one side, behind the red, was an older Gallatian gentleman in long, white robes. A sunburst covered the woven stole around his shoulders.
His opponent was slim and graceful, with long dark hair wrapped in braids and skin the color of beach sand soaked in ocean water. Clear blue eyes watched the board. He folded his long, delicate fingers on the table and waited. Tellus saw grace and poise and sharp intellect in the beautiful man’s smile.
“There.” The man in white moved his red cavalier, attempting to trap his opponent’s counselor and two soldiers. “Check.”
Tellus saw the error right away. The beautiful man made no sign of triumph. He moved his plain soldier and moved it into range of the cavaliers’ attack. It triggered a flurry of movement. Pieces were swapped and exchanged.
When the board came to rest, the man in white frowned. He tipped over his general. “I concede.”
The beautiful man lowered his head. “Thank you for an excellent game, Elder Pisio.”
“Once again, Malleus, you confound me. Maybe one day the New Sun will grant me the vision to see through your ploys.” Pisio stood. “But I now have more to contemplate as I play the others in the mission.”
“You are welcome back any time.”
The priest rose and bowed. He tilted his head to Tellus and Livia, and departed, covering his vestments in a dark cloak.
“Tellus of the Anutai Clan of the Red Desert, may I introduce Anton Malleus, ranked ajedrez champion by Gustavi Sanrius.” Livia offered him the seat. Tellus bowed from the waist. Anton returned the bow, rising.
“It is a pleasure to meet you. I have not played anyone from the Red Desert tribes before. What form of the game do you follow?”
“We follow the original form, as played by the Aegyptian kings, though I have played the Gallatian, Urkuran and Princely variants.”
“There are some who say it was the Suzaranate which introduced the game to the Aegyptians.”
Tellus nodded. “True, but that variation was played on all four sides of the board. It is a very different game from the two sided version which the Aegyptians spread.”
In the back, Adia laughed, snorting a little. “Oh, if they start discussing faith and philosophy, Livia, you will have to drug Tellus to remove him.”
“I shall leave when asked, please never fear.” Tellus sat in the chair across from Anton and helped re-arrange the pieces. “Which game do you wish to begin first?”
“I always begin with a simple Aegyptian rule game. As a guest, you advance first.” Anton rubbed the skin of his thumb against a small callous on his finger. Tellus knew the touch. Already, his opponent felt the pieces in hand.
“Thank you.” Tellus moved his queen’s soldier ahead two squares and the game began.