Ivre – Part 2: The City, Chapter 11

Ivre
by
Andrija Popovic

(The following is an initial draft of this work. All content is (c) Andrija Popovic 2015)

Adia was not woken by either Ufric or Cormac. They said goodnight in the small hours; the boys to report for duty the next day, and she to a strange bed in a strange city, which now felt empty and cold. No, it was the distinct sensation of her bladder demanding attention in recompense for the night’s pleasures. She stumbled onto the chamber pot and listened to the city awake.

Temples rang out with calls to prayer. Bells declared the markets open. Sandals, boots and bare feet drummed along the stones streets. The sun finally cleared the city walls and struck the thick cloth screening her windows.

She stood and stretched. Kneeling before her swords, she said a brief prayer to Mother Mangrove and Father Ocean. Adia pressed her forehead against clasped hands. Her fingers still smelled of the boys. She imagined the two of them awakening, curled together in each others arms.

Bad thoughts. Not right for prayer, idiot. She touched her scars, anointed her blades once more, and walked the tub. She scrubbed herself awake while checking for mites, ticks and infected cuts. Old habits, but good ones to maintain.

Chilly morning air and cool water helped push away thoughts of the boys. She wiped herself dry and rooted around for her clothes. The pleasure house returned the tunic, pants and shoes in fine condition, but they needed replacement.

Tellus could make do with just a few bits of cloth and closed toed sandals. She needed armor. For a moment, she wondered if anyone in the city produced scale armor. No one in the north produced decent leather armor, not like back home. All the tanners she met would take good raptor hide and ruin it.

The Raven Guard offices should give good recommendations.

Adia cleared the room, leaving nothing of hers behind, and headed downstairs. Grilled meat, spiced beans and fresh steamed rice tickled her nose. Her stomach yowled and she took the stairs, two by two.

Tellus sat in the back corner eating steamed rice and honey, with a cup of something red beside him. “No meat? It’s not one of your holidays, is it?”

“No, it is not. But today’s selection is a boar haunch, spit roasted and covered with sugar beets until it glazes.” Tellus put down his spoon. “And boar, along with pig, hyena, scavenger birds and black-toothed lizards, are proscribed.”

“Ever wonder why?”

“I suspect an elder of the faith had a sensitive stomach, but no one has ever proved it.” He took another spoonful of rice. Adia flagged down Senna and requested a portion of everything the common room had on the stoves.

“Where do we go first, then? The hiring hall or the marketplace?” She sopped up sugary juices from her plate with a hung of brown bread. “Gods, I could get so spoiled here! When we run out of money, we need to find a tavern in the slums with terrible food. If I keep eating this well, I won’t want to stop.”

“I never thought I’d hear you asking for a life of acetic simplicity.”

Adia laughed. “Me? An acetic? Lovely joke. I just don’t want to get settled. Too quickly. Especially if we have to leave in order to afford another meal.” Adia poked her spoon at Tellus. “You avoided the question. Market or mercenary guild?”

Tellus laid his spoon across his bowl. “The job first. We should register ourselves, make sure they know where we can be found, and see if there are any jobs awaiting us. The caravans are watched by the Raven Guard, but we may find bodyguard work.”

“Or pest killing. Remember back a month ago, when we spent two days killing vultures?”

“It paid well.”

“It was vulture killing.” Adia finished her beans. “But you are right. Job first. The voucher only lasts for so long. After that, the market – the moving one first, though. The permanent one will be here later in the day, but who knows what goes in and out of the traveling one.”

“And after that?”

She shrugged. “We return here. I suspect it will be dark by then.” As Adia dug into her breakfast, she wondered what Ufric and Cormac did for meals. Did they wait in line, like this, while chef ladled out stew or whatever they could produce in enough quantities to feed an army? Did they go out, spend their hard-earned coin on a luxurious meal?

Adia pictured them sitting together at a bench, talking, complaining about the rations or discussing their next rotation. She almost missed her chance at a second serving.

“Oye, Adia, spider nesting between those ears?” Visik nudged her with his elbow.

“Hope not. I’d charge it rent.” She held out her plate for seconds. “You seem like a knowing man. Anyone in town specialize in decent lizard-scale armor?”

Visik scratched his chin. “Rare workmanship, that. Hard do to right. Most people wreck the scales and it loses the protection.”

Adia’s respect for the chief doubled. And doubled again as she bit into the succulent boar.

“Try Guirna place. It’s in the permanent market, by the bowyers and fletchers. You’ll know it by the pipes and bellows blowing the smell outside the walls. If anyone can either make or has good lizard scale armor, it’s him.”

“My thanks. I’m sure Tellus will appreciate another set of bow strings.” She glanced back at her companion. “Thanks again for the meal.”

“Just eat well and never say you went hungry while under my roof. That’s all the thanks I need.” Visik heaped food onto the next plate.

Tellus insisted on walking through the temporary markets. He wanted a feel of the city. They walked from the house to the wall, and then followed it around, away from the sea. Against the wall, houses piled atop each other like boxes of cargo. Some were no more than shanties, reinforced over the years with available materials. Homes crawled up the walls like vines. Here the water did not flow so freely, and sewage still clogged the street.

The temporary markets buzzed with chaos and trade. Tents covered every block, with bustling avenues cut in between. Elephants, camels and lizards marched in and out of the gates in steady streams, bringing new goods to feed the merchants. She heard at least six different languages, including the trade pidgin, mingled amongst the tents.

In the center of it all was another barracks, identical to the one by the permanent market. Troops marched in and out, patrolling the streets. Tellus nudged her. “Look.” He pointed out a small boy, thin and dirty, sneaking a fruit from a vendor’s stand right under a guard’s nose. The guard pretended not to see, crossing his arms and letting the child slip away.

As the child darted free, three other men were being dragged out by the guards. They wore boards tied to their chests with “Thief” written in black ink. Marched to the edge of the gates, one of the soldiers pointed out to the road. When the thieves protested, swords were drawn and the soldiers took a wedge formation, pushing them out at the point of a blade.

Forgive a child stealing an apple, she thought. But never forgive an adult stealing from the city? Interesting justice.

Adia shrugged as they circled around the central portion of the city. The inner walls, blocking access to the noble and scholarly quarters, rose slightly higher than the outer walls. And inside the main keep itself, the lighthouse pushed into the sky. She saw the flare of light from the beacon cut across the cityscape, undiminished by the sun.

“It is like the eye of some strange god.” She blinked the light from her eyes. “Small wonder they can use it to enforce their laws. I would be afraid if I saw that streaking off in the distance.”

“Temeran magicks.” Tellus sighed. “Even a lighthouse became a monument to their vanity. So, where is the Guild hall again?”

The Raven Guard hiring hall sat nestled between the round inner wall of the scholar and noble sections of the town, just by the gate. Another sibling of the pleasure hall and their inn, this carried frescoes of men in battle. Adia suspected the history of the guard appeared along those walls. At the very top, she saw a military force landing on a coastline, lead by a lone woman in robes of a Gallatian noble from centuries back.

One image depicted lightning from the tower striking a man in full armor. The artist rendered the bolt cooking the man in his armor with great care. Adia saw hunks of flesh cooking under the lightning. Once more, the city’s motto appeared beneath. “The birth of the legend, one assumes?”

Tellus nodded. “And a handy one to pass along.”

They pushed inside. Desks and tables filled the floor of the main hall.Long slabs of slate covered one wall. Listings for different Raven Guard units covered one slate, with “Available” or “Contracted” written beside it, covered the black stone. One army at home, one army on the road, and a guard unit constantly watching the streets created a steady flow of new recruits going into the field, and veterans returning home.

“Have you been assisted?” A scrivener appeared ledger in hand. “Or are you browsing the board?”

“We’re looking to get registered with the Guard. As independents.” She nodded towards Tellus and her swords, just in case they were mistaken for recruits looking to man a sword and shield.

“Ah, excellent. Let’s see…” He glanced over the tables. “It looks like Dania is open. Third desk. She’ll be able to help you.”

Dania, a burly woman with dark skin and tight white curls along her temples, walked them through their registration. Strom’s letter carried weight and cut through many of her questions. And then she asked if they carried tattoos of protection.

“Of course,” said Adia.

“I do not have one,” said Tellus.

Dania put her pen down. “You said you’d been for hire before.”

“Oh, yes, but I’ve never needed protection of that sort for myself.”

“Really?” Dania raised an eyebrow. “Well, if you are going to be working as a mercenary I recommend one. The markings were discovered here. Aside from ending generations of suffering, there are the protections against disease. If you’re concerned about quality…”

She proceeded to describe, in detail, how the protective ink defended all who wore against various forms of violation – some disease based, and some inflicted by human cruelty. The subject put Tellus off balance. Adia frowned. He was a wise man in some ways, but blindingly innocent in others.

Dania left them a list of suggested tattoo artists in the city, notices of registration and a chance to browse the job listings while she retrieved payment for their work with the lumber caravan.

The wall of notices disappointed Adia. Most of the calls were for household guards and other permanent positions. No bodyguard work appeared. The rest followed bounties.

Quite a few notices advertised work in Dubrov. The Dukes of Dubrov called for irregulars to help fortify the city guard, and assist in the protection of outer cities. Adia double-checked many of the caravan notices. They also mentioned hazardous duty heading into Dubrovian territory. “Dubrov is having itself a big war, apparently. Even the caravans with Raven Guard escorts are asking for extra fighter and archers.”

“Dubrov’s internal wars account for half our trade.” Dania returned, handing Adia a purse filled with coin. “Even a full continent away, we feel the war here.”

“Then we will be stopping by here to see if the war changes. Or more jobs arrive.” Adia opened the purse and passed some of the coins to Tellus. He secreted them behind his belt. She tucked a few into her sword sheaths, just in case the purse vanished in the crowd. “Now, do you have any idea where I can get some lizard venom?”

***

Adia looked at a jar, smelling the contents, and her eyes widened. “Is this concentrated river adder venom?” She almost giggled, like a child opening a present. “How did you get it this far north?

“Ah, you recognize it!” The old man hustled across the tent. “It’s always a joy to have a truly appreciative shopper. But I should have known from the blades. Never fear, Gedri of the Amber Grasses will have what you need. Are you in the market for puffer fish toxins?”

An hour later, Adia’s blades dripped a wide variety of deadly toxins and she carried enough poison to wipe out a small settlement. She could not stop smiling. The scent of rendered snake venom reminded her of home. Tellus only shook his head and smiled.

After asking a few directions, they found the tanner their innkeeper recommended. True to Visik’s word, Guirna supplied them with affordable leather armor, without a surfeit of haggling. Adia procured a chest plate, two vambraces and grieves. Tellus was fitted for archer’s armor, with gloves to protect the drawing fingers and a brace for his forearm. It was apparent the bulk orders placed by the Raven Guard allowed Guirna to sell at a more discounted price to independent mercenaries, such as themselves.

“Thank you again. Now, I just have need of new bowstrings.” Tellus plucked at the one in his bow. Already he could feel the tension slacking. “Do you supply them? And would you know of a good fletcher?”

“If you want good bowstrings and arrows, look for N’talle’s shop.” Guirna rapped his finger along the leather of Tellus’ new chest piece, as if testing the fitting by sound. “Best bowstrings around. Has this machine she built which takes chords, draws them together into one string, tight as a drum. And then she seals it against weather. They won’t stretch or play for a while. And her arrows- learned her trade from her father. You won’t find better.”

“And her bows?”

“Well, there she has trouble competing with Hanud. Hers are like yours. Curved in odd places and made from horn and things. Complicated to make, and expensive. Still, her arrows fly like angry wasps from her bows. Use them in the city for guarding the walls. But I’ll bet good coin she’ll make find a way to get Hanud’s business away from him. Hard worker, that one.”

“Thank you” Adia plunked coin into Guirna’s hand. “For the armor, and the advice When I return to the mangroves, I’ll tell the tribe to come here for supplies.” She gave Tellus a wicked smile. “Seems we’re drawn to the bowyers once again.”

Gathering directions from Guirna, they left the tannery and headed for the barracks near the center of the permanent market. They could see N’Talle’s stand, but the crowd grew suddenly thicker. Tellus frowned as they tried to move through the packed throng, until the wave of people pressed them against one of the elephant watering fountains.

“What in the black hells?” She stood on the fountain’s edge, shading her eyes. Tellus, on his toes, saw just over the sea of heads, hats and head coverings. Raven Guard helmets marched through the crowd. Steady and orderly, they walked out to a space in front of the barracks and began building a wooden frame.

“Some kind of exercise?” Tellus watched another line of soldiers enter from the opposite side of the market. At the head of the procession, in chains, marched a squat man in funeral whites. A deep hood obscured his face. over his face.

“It’s an execution.” Adia and Tellus turned. N’Talle stood behind them dressed in stained leather coverings. Wood shavings clung to her hair, arms and hands. Streaks of sweat cut through the dirt on her cheeks. “Duke from Dubrov. Broke the first law, amongst others.”

The Raven Guard construction crew stood back from the completed frame. An elaborate set of stocks now dominated the space just before the barracks. Built from black wood – scraps of a ship? – a person placed inside would be held spread-eagle in the air, bound by the wrists, legs and waist.

“How did you find us?” Tellus handed N’Talle a small square of cloth. She thanked him and wiped her face. Motes of wood and horn shaving fell to the ground. He fought the urge to pull a particularly large wood curl from her hair.

“You also stand a head taller than most here. It was easy enough to see once we closed the shop and moved in to watch the judgement.” N’Talle pointed to Adia. “Then she got on the fountain.”

Adia watched the soldiers take position around the socks. Two elephants watered themselves on the other side of the fountain, driving the crowd into a thick clump near their part of the square. The soldiers took up formation, pillars in black armor, and blocked access with crossed pikes. They brought the condemned forward and removed his hood.

“What happened to his head?” Tellus shivered. He’d never seen a mark like the one the accused bore.

“City’s judgment.” N’Talle touched her forelock and lowered her head. The crowd rumbled and buzzed. He leaned closer, hearing strained. “Five sit in as jury for the accused. One of the votes is the city, spoken through the Lady Protector. That black mark is a vote against.”

“The city speaks?” Tellus looked up at the great tower. The light from the very top cut through the sun like a red knife. Every half rotation, he swore he saw an eagle-like eye embedded in the great crystal lens.

“Cities have souls, just like anywhere else. I like to think Ivre is pragmatic.” One of the porters bumped into her from behind. The shove nearly sent her into Tellus. “Though her denizens still seem to love a good bit of blood justice, it seems.”

Tellus glanced over his shoulder. The accused sat in the stocks, arms bound to the upper pylons, legs tied to the lower ones, and his waist held in place by tightly pulled straps of leather. “How will he die?”

“Spears to the heart. The executions never linger, but are messy. They’ll spend more time cleaning up his remains than actually setting up the stocks.” N’Talle crossed her arms. “Still, no luck getting anyone to work or buy when this happens. Executions for violating the core laws of the city are rare.”

“You mean no one is usually stupid enough to come here looking to close a grudge?” Adia shaded her eyes.

“Neutral ground is neutral ground. Everyone gets a second chance in Ivre.” N’Talle lowered her eyes. “It still doesn’t stop people from the usual stupidity, but there’s a difference between home grown idiocy and carrying fights with you.”

Bitterness hung in the air. Tellus watched N’Talle’s eyes harden, then refocus on the Raven Guard officer. His leather armor carried detailed gold and brass workings. Ceremonial armor? The officer stood atop a large, flat bowl and unfurled a scroll.

“Duke Mirokiv of Dubrov, a court of the city of Ivre finds you guilty of the following offenses: Violating the first law of the city, and carrying out a vendetta against one who was granted refuge here in our walls. In doing so, you were also responsible for the crimes of bribery, suborning officers of the law, hiring known criminals to commit acts of murder, and attempting to obstruct investigations into those murders.”

“But the court agrees his most heinous crime…” The officer took a deep breath, and swallowed. He gripped the scroll, crackling the paper. “Was the abuse, murder and violation of three children of Ivre -”

A howl went up in the crowd. Near the stocks, a group of mourners in funeral red poured dirt over their heads. The parents? Their silence compared to the roar of anger confirmed this in Tellus’ mind.

“-done without remorse, as if such abuse was part of his station in life and the lives of those children were worthless in comparison.

Tellus murmured a silent prayer. He turned to N’talle and Adia. As he did, from the edge of his vision, a man in a light brown head-wrap pressed parted the crowd. A needle-like blade glimmered in his palm. His eyes, though shaded, were fixed on N’talle.

“For this, he is sentenced to death at the spear, to be carried out immediately.”

“Down!” He yelled before thinking. The assassin, alerted, lunged forward, blade aimed just between N’Talle’s ribs. She ducked aside, yelping. The dagger caught her sleeve, leaving blood and opened skin in its wake.

The assassin spun, reversing his dagger in the hopes of catching N’talle on the backswing. Tellus threw his body into her attacker. He wedged the killer’s attacking arm against his shoulder, and tightening his grip against the killer’s wrist.

A second blade, small and triangular, appeared from under the attacker’s sleeve. The assassin made a quick punch, upwards, aiming at Tellus’ throat.

So Tellus bent his legs and let the attacker’s weight carry them both back. The fountain edge caught their legs and they tumbled into the water. Cold covered his face, pushing into his nose and mouth. He pushed himself against N’talle’s attacker, holding him down under the surface.

From above, hazed by the churning water, Adia’s fist drove past him and smashed into the assassin’s nose. Blood bloomed in the water and he was blinded. His attacker fell slack.

Tellus pushed himself up, into the light. “Get him out! We need him alive,” he shouted.

“I know.” She pulled the attacker out of the water, kicked him in the stomach, made sure he spat out the water in his lungs and mouth.

Tellus unwound the man’s head-scarf. Knee in his back, he tied the man’s hands in place.. When he looked up, Adia’s mouth was latched around N’talle’s wound.She sucked blood free and spat it on the ground.

“Bleh. Cheap poison. Here, drink this.” Adia shoved a recently purchased philter into N’Talle’s hand. When she stuttered and balked, Adia pulled the top and poured it down her throat. “It tastes terrible, but it’ll prevent any further issues.” Unlacing part of N’talle’s shirt, Adia tied her arm up above the wound. She soaked a scrap of cloth in water and washed the wound clean.

“I… what?” N’Talle fell to the ground. Tellus rushed to her, helping her down while Adia moved to their prisoner. She shook her head, as if trying to clear away the last few moments. Around them the crowd pushed back. He heard the elephants roar, and their handlers hurry calm the great beasts.

“Hellfire and buggery, give her some room!” The Raven Guard officer muscled past two spectators. Other members of the guard, tower shields poised, created a small open area beside the assault. He eyed Adia, Tellus and the fallen assassin. The wound caught his gaze first. “Leftenant Solus, at your service, Mistress Davia. I’ve sent for the guard and a physicker from the scholar’s quarter. Is this the extent of your injuries?”

N’Talle nodded. “Thank all the gods, yes. Tellus has handled the assailant and Adia has taken care of any poisons on his blade. Do you recognize him?”

“No, but we’ll have a name out of him soon enough.” He stood up. More helmets moved through the crowd – the guard divisions of the city, clearing the square, interviewing witnesses.

“N’talle. Look at me.” He met her eyes. “Breathe. Your body will start reacting now your fears are not driving you. If you do not allow it to relax, you will find it hard to focus.”

“And it will help the anti-venom.” Adia turned N’Talle’s head to face her. “Good. Your pupils are not split. Means it’s working. You’re lucky the man didn’t know how to mix a real poison.”

“What about Tellus? He was also scratched by the other blade?”

Tellus blinked, puzzled, until he saw a long scratch along his arm, just over his armor. He cupped water and washed it over the wound.

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” said Adia. She helped N’Talle to her feet. “I’ve dosed Tellus with every anti-venom I can find. Kept him sick for a week doing it. He doesn’t have my tribe’s tolerance, but he can take this stuff with ease.”

Tellus rose. His muscles ached and his breath still burned, but he rose. “Ease? A week of nightmares while we hid away in the hills near Cunis is not ease. And I will still be sick tonight, most like.”

“So you two are familiar with this type of assault?” N’Talle winced as she tried to move her arm.

“It is our business, yes.” Tellus let N’Talle use him as a crutch. ”

The city guard leftenant, Solus, pulled Adia aside and spoke to her. After a few nods of acknowledgment, she joined them again. “The guard is going to escort us back to your shop.”

“Good. While there, I we can talk business.”

“Business?” Tellus frowned. “I can buy arrows and bowstrings from you later.”

“Bowstrings?” N’talle laughed. “I can make it part of your payment. No, I would like to hire the two of you as bodyguards.”

Ivre – Part 1: Arrival, Chapter 10

Ivre
by
Andrija Popovic

(The following is an initial draft of this work. All content is (c) Andrija Popovic 2015)

A box within a box. The great watchers laugh at me. The beast flailed in the ocean’s depths, grasping at the tiny motes of energy floating around. Fish. Squid. Survivors of the ship which carried his first prison. None offered sustenance. He craved the life-force of one of the sorcerers who dragged him from the oceans of home.

This was a cruel parody of his ocean. The channeler’s basalt prison maddened him, gave him nothing to focus on but the pain of his life essence draining away at the command of some petty energy channeler. Yet this world, this ocean, held no such malice. It could not help blinding him, starving him, driving him mad.

The beast sang, low and mournful, through the wisps of the higher realms where he once lived. It echoed into the sea and sky, unheard by the beings who dragged him into this existence. The world was deaf to his song.

But something sang back.

The the tenor felt nothing like the long, undulating songs of his people. This song resembled a chorus of sharp, brittle chimes which melded into a larger song. It was alien and strange, but close. Close enough to touch.

Can you hear me? The beast sang.

*We can hear you,* the chorus sang back.

How can you hear me?

*You sing the songs of the higher seas. We swim there to travel* The chorus grew discordant. *We swam. No longer. We are exiled here now. Our Queen was cast from the great web.*

I understand. The beast dragged his bulk further out to the sea, focused on the distant signal. I was dragged from my sea by channelers called Tememerans. They enslaved me. He sang sensations of entrapment, fear and pain. Through the aether, he felt sympathy and sadness from the chorus.

*We know the Temerans. When we were first cast to the lower realms, it was near their home continent. They took it as a sign and began a great working. They sought divinity through the higher realms.*

Did they succeed?

*No. It left them spiritless meat.* Sadness bloomed into thick, red despair. *But they trapped us here.*

You have my sympathies. One of his tendrils reached the source of the song: A rocky mass sitting in the sea, coasting like driftwood. You have learned to channel as they do?

*Yes. We disassembled the the Temerans remains. It allowed us to build a semblance of a life . In time, we could have returned to the home webs. But that is impossible now.*

Shockwaves of depression washed against the beast. He plucked out images of fire, of humans in armor, and of a human in white with a long, flowing beard.

Once more, a channeler of this realm causes suffering. Is there no hope?

*For us? No. There is only war.*

I wish you victory. And I wish I could help.

An odd sensation danced across the surface of his mind. For the first time since reaching this blighted realm, he tasted comfort, and the energies of home.

*We can help you. It will take time, but we can free you from this realm.*

The beast went silent. When they heard nothing back, the others reached out to him.

*Embrace our vessel. Listen to our song. Soon, the ways will open and you can swim home.*

The beast curled his tentacles around the rocky mass. The chorus sang, clear and strong, and the song resonated. It gained strength.

He joined his song to theirs, giving them what energy he could. The box would no longer imprison him. He was returning home. For the first time in centuries, he felt joy.

Ivre – Part 1: Arrival, Chapter 9

Ivre
by
Andrija Popovic

(The following is an initial draft of this work. All content is (c) Andrija Popovic 2015)

“Can you see it?” Anton tilted his head. Tellus did. He knew his efforts were in vain, but he could not let go

“Yes.” Tellus toppled his king. “I am beaten.”

“Gods, what a graceful game…” The High General shook her head. “He does this, constantly. I can never find his endgame strategies until it’s too late.”

“You two share very common instincts where the game is concerned. You tend towards calculation and cold approaches.” He took a sip from his wine glass. “The two of you playing would be fascinating.”

“Perhaps another night. I sense, however, another wishes to challenge.” Tellus reset the game. He stood up and offered his place to Anton’s usual opponent. “Please, High General.”

“Here I am Bellia, just another challenger before the master.” She sat down across from Anton. Her smile was impish. “Besides, even he must re-learn his lessons. Especially when encountering an equal.”

Tellus raised his hands. “Please, again, you give me too much credit. The compliments will swell my head and I will hear no end of it from Adia.”

“You might do well to learn from your more hot-blooded friend. Always invest passion.” His eyes glimmered and he fixed Bellia with a gaze. “Too much cold calculation freezes the mind. Do remember this.”

“Thank you.” Tellus bowed his head and touched his hand to his forelock. “I appreciate the lesson. I shall endeavor to apply it now and in the future.”

“The future is now, Tellus of the Anutai clan.” Bellia quirked her lips in a half-smile. She narrowed her gaze and let a lock of her hair fall across her eye. “Begin.”

There was no slow game here. The pendulum could not keep up. Pieces were exchanged at a furious pace. They played the game the way Adia fought with her swords: a whirlwind of strikes, feints and crippling cuts. But in the end, Anton remained the victor.

Tellus leaned back. “You two are very…familar with each other’s play styles.” Without asking, another mug of tea was placed at the table. He inhaled the mint scented steam.

“We have fought this battle many times.” Bellia rubbed her chin. “Maybe I should divert from my normal form. Actually follow the clock? Or, maybe challenge our guest to a game…?”

“Ah. Well…” Tellus paused. “My friend is watching a swordfight demonstration. I’m unsure how long she will be.”

Anton and Bellia exchanged looks. Tellus swore he heard at least one person giggle.

“I think there will be sufficient time for quite a few games,” said Anton. “Besides, who knows who will come wandering in. We may get a chance to play a four person variant?”

Tellus blinked. If Adia would be running late enough for a four-person game of ajedrez to finish… Tellus suspected he may be departing early, and alone, this evening.

***

Cool water splashed down her face and chest. Adia cupped both hands and drank. How anything with the chill of a mountain stream could reach under this city baffled her, but she did not care. Her body glowed with heat after two practice duels. Aches pinched her wrists and arms. Little muscles she never knew existed twinged.

Just as the cold became too much, warmth grew along her back. Ufric, all sweat and exhaustion, pressed against her. His cock, weight down by cold and exhaustion, nestled against her backside. She pulled him closer, borrowing what heat he offered. Cormac dunked his head under the stream. Dirt and grime washed away into the pool. Adia reached out and brushed away stray grains of arena sand from the puckered scars on his chest. She ran her hand down his belly and cupped his sex, pulling him into an embrace.

“The water’s cold.”

“We can step out, get dried off and warm.” Ufric wrapped his arms around Cormac’s waist. They created an envelope of living heat between them.

“You exotic boys and your temptations.” She toyed Cormac’s dark, curly hairs.

“Because we’re foreign?” said Ufric.

“Because you’ve got curly hair down around your swords,” she said. “I’m starting to appreciate those curls.”

Cormac chuckled. “Two people who appreciate my short and curlies. The gods are being kind.” He stood on his toes and kissed Ufric. Adia ducked down, looking at their lips meet. Their tongues played together, dancing.

“I could watch you two kiss for the rest of the night.” Adia turned around, letting her body rub against Cormac’s shaft while she toyed with Ufric’s. She kissed one of his scarred nipples.

“You can do that if you wish.” Ufric toyed with her short, dark hair. “You essentially own us, body and soul.”

“No, you two belong to each other. I’m just borrowing both of you for the night.” She felt them shiver as the cold finally sunk past the heat of the duels and practice. They stepped out of the fountain together.. The air slapped her as she stepped onto the stone floor. Before a chill set in, Ufric and Cormac pulled two long strips of cloth from beside the fountain and began to dry her.

Cormac knelt down, wiping drops from her feet, calves and thighs. He kissed the small crest of her navel. Ufric patted down her arms and shoulders. He wrapped the cloth around her breasts and belly. He kissed the nape of her neck. .

They fell together into the silks. Adia nestled between the lovers. She watched them touch each other, tracing the lines of their muscles and scars. They kissed just above her, grew erect against her, and ran their hands across her skin. “So where do we go from here?”

“We go where you wish. Just let us know.” Ufric touched the ritual scars on her chest, puzzled, unable to match them to battle wounds. Adia took his hand and cupped his palm against her nipple. And she laughed.

“What’s so funny?” Cormac blinked.

“I’m drowning in an embarrassment of riches. I don’t know where to start.”

“Well, if I can suggest… Cormac can do more with his tongue than talk.” Ufric glanced over to his partner.

“Oh?” Adia grinned and let Cormac nestle himself between her legs. He kissed her just above the tiny pearl most men forgot existed. She closed her eyes, sucking a breath through her teeth. The bastard knew what he was doing. She grabbed his hair and held him down.

“Don’t get greedy,” said Ufric. He leaned over and ran his teeth against her nipple. She gasped. He switched from teeth to tongue, distracting her until she held his head in place while Cormac switched his attentions. His hand took Ufric by the shaft, stroking him and kissing him.

Adia sat up and watched. Cormac toyed with Ufric until body grew as rigid in pleasure as his cock. She held onto him, kissing the hollow of his throat, playing with him, but kept her eyes on Cormac’s ministrations.

“Should I stop?” Cormac looked up.

“Yes.” Ufric gasped.

“No.” Adia rubbed herself while Ufric quirmed. “I want to see and feel him.” She grabbed Ufric tight. “Go on.”

Cormac smiled set to work once more. Ufric moaned into breasts then shuddered, crying out. Cormac played him a lyre, plucking his strings until he reached an unbearable pitch. And then the string snapped. Ufric collapsed between them.

Adia reached down and grabbed Cormac’s hair. She kissed him, tasting Ufric’s salty remains on her tongue. She pulled Cormac up, wrapped her legs around his waist, and buried his length inside her.

Ufric knelt behind them. He cupped his lover’s backside and toyed with him as they moved together. She felt his tongue dance where her lips and Cormac shaft moved together. Ufric even found a way to sneak a finger between them, so her pearl was never unattended

As the thrusts drew her closer and closer to a climax, red curled around her vision. She bit into Cormac’s shoulder, but it did not dissuade him. If anything, it sent a distinct shudder of pleasure through his back. He answered by almost howling into the pillows as his seed spilled deep into her.

When the color faded from her eyes, she had Cormac and Ufric surrounding her. They panted, and wrapped their arms together. For the first time, in a long time, she felt safe.

Safe, but not sated. She tickled Ufric’s curly hairs and said, “So… how much more time do I have with you boys?”

***

Livia sat back in a pile of silks and pillows and listened. The pipes carrying water and heat through the body of the building amplified sounds as well. Here, in the center of the house, in her family’s quarters, she absorbed it all. Voices and songs and poems and moans all became a chorus of information.

A door opened in the back of the room. Anton, eyes dark with fatigue, stepped inside.

“Hello, brother of mine.” She smirked. “I’m surprised you are not spending time with the High General, as usual.”

“She has been seduced away, sister of mine.” He walked up to the the bath, testing the water. Steam still clung to the surface. “I’m taking the last of your bath.”

“Greedy.” Livia waved him on. Anton undid his vest. Two small but well shaped breasts, nipples dark as his hair, appeared when he pulled away his shirt. When he undid the rest of his clothes, the signs of both the male and female sex became apparent. Although he chose to be male, he could become his female mirror should his other position require it.

“I’m being generous..” He sank in, down to his shoulders. Under the water, the deception runes burned into his skin glowed like hot coals under amber. “For example: tonight, nothing is on the prohibited list tonight.”

“Oh?” Livia sat up.

“There was no information beyond the usual gossiping. It may amount to something, but nothing which compromises the safety of Ivre.” Anton rooted around for the bowl of scented palm shavings. He squeezed a few into his hand and scrubbed his feet with rough, white rinds. “Is there anything sellable?”

“Mostly about your opponent and his friend. He’s got a sharp eye. And the swordswoman is very impressive. She picked up a fighting style without blinking.” Livia stretched her arms upwards, reaching for the ceiling. “She and the boys are getting along.”

“Well, that’s not surprising. They were thick as thieves on the trip in.”

“Oh, it’s not just physical attraction and camaraderie. They’re comfortable with each other. I think, if she stays, they may actually remain friends beyond the sex.” Livia turned on her side. “What do you?”

“I wish I could keep him. You were right – very sharp eyes.” Anton scrubbed his elbows. “It always fascinates me how different cultures react to different environments. Both Adia and Tellus come from places where death is a regular companion. Yet their worldviews and behaviors are completely different. I wonder if it is a matter of more than simply survival. The mangroves are not the desert, after all.”

Liva rolled onto her stomach and faced him. “I love hearing you play scholar, brother of mine.”

“You love selling the information my scholarly rants provides you, sister of mine.”

“True, but we all gain from the arrangement.” She picked up a pillow and tucked it under her chin. “Guess who wants all they can get on these two?”

“Hanud and N’Talle?”

She threw the pillow at him. It fell short. “Cheat. But correct. More specifically, they want information on Tellus and his bow. N’Talle believes it will help her with her work, and Hanud wants the information because N’Talle wants it.”

“Hanud’s takes after his father. His mother was more of the artisan. He did not inherit her talents, so he focuses on money and politics.”

Livia shrugged. “Such is the way of things.”

Anton rose from the bath. “Strom wants information on the boys, though. What will you say?”

Livia walked to the bath. She dipped her feet in, letting the cooling waters tickle the soles of her feet.

“They are fine. Adia won’t endanger them as a couple or a fighting unit.” Livia peered at stubborn callous where the toe-loop of her sandals met skin. “Strom is ambitious. She wants her company moved to more lucrative positions. For that, she needs good soldiers.”

“It could be genuine concern, sister of mine.” Anton wrapped the towel around his waist. He sat down and combed the tangles from his hair. “It does happen now and again.”

Liva smirked. “Now and again. Genuine concern is a rare beast, brother of mine.” She waved him on. “No, go. Sleep. Dream of game pieces and your favorite general.”

Anton said goodnight. When the door sealed, she rang for a small bell. Two women entered. Alisha and Imari. In addition to being two of her sword fighters from the lower arena, they helped her in all business matters. Aegyptian river traders by blood, they fought with a very short, close style honed from pitched battles on moving barges.

“Is the report for Evericus ready?”

“Yes,” said Alisha. “Though I’m unsure if he’ll be all that interested in back channel gossip.”

“That’s where you are wrong.” Livia peeled off her clothes and slid into the tub’s cool waters. “The rumors are all he wants. Which is why he’s dangerous. But we’ll keep an eye on him until he becomes Anton’s problem.”

“And until then?” Imari poured herself a drink. Her sister unrolled the coded report for Evericus.

Livia inspected the summary of the night’s rumors. “Until then, we watch and profit. Get to our favorite spy. Then get some rest. The boys are back on duty tomorrow.”

The sisters departed, leaving Livia alone in her room. She sat back into the water and listened as the sounds of the pleasure house dwindled into the early morning.

Concern. She frowned, thinking of her brother’s last words. Rare beast, but not so rare it won’t be slaughtered given a chance.

Ivre – Part 1: Arrival, Chapter 8

Ivre
by
Andrija Popovic

(The following is an initial draft of this work. All content is (c) Andrija Popovic 2015)

“The pleasure place has a dungeon?” Adia’s saw the lush comforts of the upper levels vanish as she descended. The soft lamps became guttering torches. Chains hung from the walls at random intervals. A low wind carried a damp, musky scent from deep within the catacombs.

“We service softer pleasures upstairs, but more rugged ones here.” Livia tapped one of the torches, knocking away ash until it brightened. “There is a certain decor which must be kept. Clients expect it. It adds to the mystique.” They walked to a double-barred doorway. Two guards in full armor, chain draped across their faces like veils, barred the way. They opened the door and allowed them to enter. “Welcome to the arena.”

Adia walked a miniature of the training arenas she knew from her time in central Alaque. She expected the weapon racks. Every blade imaginable, from small dirks to massive double-length swords with jagged cuts in the sides, rested in oiled wooden holders. This she expected from an arena.

But she didn’t expect the fountain.

A series of carved lion’s heads spat clear water into a small pool. Tables surrounded a central area decorated with heavy pillows. Fruit and drink of every variety rested in simple bowls.From easy view of the seating area sat an oval shaped fighting pit. Sand, freshly cleaned and lined by a rake, filled the lower area. It was not a full arena, but it allowed the combatants a measure of separation from the viewers

“Ivre’s very proud of its running water, isn’t it?” Adia dipped her fingers under the stream. It prickled her fingers. Cupping her hand, she took a sip.

“Lord Protector Claudius insisted on it. He believed clean water, especially when fed by abundant underground rivers, was a sign of civility.” Livia offered Adia the main seat before the arena.

“So, how does this work?” Adia pushed the soft, rich pillows around. They almost drowned her.

“It is simple. The room is yours for the night, as are the two fighters within. When the door closes, they will arrive, choose weapons and duel for you.” Livia spread her hands, encompassing the arena. “The purpose of the duel is to disrobe your opponent. No damage is to be done to the fighters. After, you may choose to spar with them… or engage in other physical activity.”

Adia set the overstuffed pillows aside and sat on the bare floor. “This should be interesting.”

Livia bowed. “One hopes you enjoy yourself.”

The door closed. Adia pulled a small, round fruit from a nearby bowl. She nibbled on the skin. It burst in a gush of sweet juices.

“Not bad.”

A door to the arena’s left opened. Two men entered. They wore full helmets which covered every aspect of their face and head. One helmet carried a bright red crest. The other wore bright blue fringe. The only armor they carried were vambraces and grieves. Otherwise they wore loose pants and tunics. A cut would slice the clothing, but not scar the skin underneath.

The fighters selected two long, needle-sharp swords from the armory. They raised the blades in a salute and began the duel. The cuts became a whip-cracks in the air.

Adia leaned forward, engrossed in the dance. It reminded her of Tellus’ ajedrez matches. Move and counter-move, feint and counterattack – the dance of war at high speed.

Red and Blue knew each others attacks. They fought with precision, feints and counter feints matched in the sharp ping of steel striking steel. Blue dipped his shoulder. It was slight, but enough to allow Red a stinging riposte. He drove away the blade and on the backswing, cut Red’s tunic open.

The cloth parted and fell away, revealing an oiled, muscular chest. Scars and curled yellow hair decorated his skin in equal proportion.

“Oh.” Adia took a long, slow sip of wine. “Not bad at all.”

***

“Well played.” Anton applauded, and tipped over his king.

Tellus shook his head. “It was a near thing. You nearly had me.”

“Oh, nonsense.” Anton took a long sip from his beaker of wine. “I have never seen a midgame quite like yours. Who taught it to you?”

“The best teachers I know: elders in the Red Desert, waiting out sandstorms and the heat in their tents.” An uncomfortable crowd surrounded their table. Other gamers and even couples partway through undressing for further revels watched in awe. Tellus leaned forward, cupping his mug of tea. “Are the games usually so…well watched?

“Oh, no. But this is the first time I’ve lost in half a year. They’re curious.”

Tellus nearly choked on his tea. “Half a year?”

“Does that surprise you?” Anton reset the board in a flurry of quick moves.

“Surely other players of greater skill than I have come by and challenged you? I heard grand masters face three opponents every night, and never play fewer than five games.”

“Oh, very true. And we have many good players” Anton finished his wine. It was refilled before the beaker touched the table. “Do not sell your skills lightly. You should seek out more masters and grand masters. They could learn from you.” Anton raised his hand. “But do not go to the Five Princedoms and try it without gaining more of a reputation. They respond to upset tourneys with assassinations.”

“A fair warning, I thank you.” Tellus finished his mint tea and asked for another. “Though I am still not sure I earned such praise.”

“Then let us play again. I still think you are hiding something behind those lovely eyes.” Anton stretched out, cracking his fingers. “How about a speed variation. It should convince you I’m not playing for a loss to learn your secrets.”

“You would learn such secrets by winning, too?” The tea arrived, poured by a serving man in a long stream into his cup. Jasmine tea, matching Anton’s scent note for note. “And while I am flattered by the compliment – ”

“Yes, I had heard you were a ensayyadin, a man of the faith and oathbound. You follow Atamal, yes?”

Tellus stilled. “We do not speak the name of our god. He may begin to follow us – not the other way around. How do you know him?”

“There is a scholar in the city that hungers for knowledge of every faith he can.,” said Anton. He touched his finger on one of the counselor pieces. “He often discusses matters of faith as he plays.”

“I hope to meet him, then, and play a round or two.”

“And correct him where errs?”

Tellus shrugged. “Should it come to it,” he said. “How shall we time the moves?”

Anton waved over a young woman. In her hand she carried a small pendulum suspended inside a rig. It moved very slowly. Each swing caused a tiny strip of metal to click loudly as it waved back and forth. “Twenty clicks per move.”

“Better than heartbeats between sandstorms.” Tellus rubbed his beard. “This shall be a challenge.”

Anton flashed another smile. “Most excellent.” He nodded to the timekeeper. “Begin.”

The first piece fell like the peal of a hammer. Tellus barely drew breath before his hand reached out and responded. The spare, contemplative moments between the moves vanished. Within the time he would normally take to make his second move, the midgame had already begun.

Breathe, Tellus reminded himself. In every moment, there exist hundreds of smaller moments. Time is a dune sea, with more grains of sand than one can ever count.

Each tick grew longer. Between the ticks lay all the time he needed.

Pieces moved and fell. Anton’s ability to deduce his moves and counter moves astounded him. Every attack was a prelude to another, pushing him into ceding territory on the board. He was relentless.

Tellus imagined Anton as a great dust storm, flowing from the desert. He needed to deflect the storm, to channel it away and onto itself. He built thick walls, channeling the attacks, and left only one way for the storm to travel.

Anton moved. Tellus’ heart leapt. But, before he could reach for his piece, his opponent raised his hand. “Stop!”

The pendulum froze. Anton stared at the board, smiled and laughed riotously.

“Oh, were you not a man of faith I would kiss you.” He tipped his king over. “Congratulations. A second victory.” Everyone burst into applause.

Tellus shivered. The adulation washed over him like icy ocean water. “Please, no, it’s not necessary. This was sheer chance.”

“Nonsense. Our grandmaster got careless after playing the same people over and over.” A woman parted the crowd. Tall and imposing, her eyes and hair were raven black. Thick ringlets fell across her ears and cheeks.

The sword caught Tellus eyes first. It was modeled after a simple soldier’s weapon. But the pommel carried an ornate, hand carved seal: a raven in flight over a city of Ivre’s tower.

“Ah, looks like I’ve been called out.” Anton sighed. “And I have some variety in my opponents.”

“Not enough, it seems.” The woman prodded Anton in the shoulder. “Will there be a third game?”

“I hope so.” Anton looked to Tellus.

“Yes, indeed,” said Tellus. “I would hope grandmaster Malleus would wish to even the score, lady..?”

“General.” She clapped her hand across her chest in a salute. “High General Bellia Ivre of the Raven Guard.” She pulled a low chair from one of the other tables. “But here, I’m just another enthusiast enjoying our Anton having to work for a change..”

Bellia folded her hands across the chair’s back rest and placed her chin upon her forearms. Her eyes were level with the board as Tellus and Anton reset the pieces.

Tellus finished the last of his tea in a deep gulp. A city where ajedrez matches draw generals and priests? This is either paradise or damnation.

When Anton made his first move, Tellus felt closer to the latter place than the former. He picked up his soldier and the game began in earnest.

***

Adia sat forward, fruit in hand, admiring the scene. It was down to helmets and loin cloths. Red and Blue, as she called them, took a pause after the last scrap of cloth fell away from Red’s legs. Each pieces of felled clothing taught her more and more about the duelists.

One was blonde and the other dark haired. Both were professional soldiers. The scars on their bodies mapped a lifetime of combat. They were fit. She could easily see sweat roll down the muscles defining their chests, bellies, legs and calves.

Red and Blue were lithe and quick. They had a savanna cat’s speed. The duel became an erotic art. By now, Adia knew the dance well. She saw Red’s arm steadily weakened over time. A large scar across the meat of one shoulder, dangerously close to the sinews, explained the fatigue. Even with the best of healers, the damage would create a disadvantage.

Red knew his disadvantage, and compensated with his greater speed, minimizing Blue’s attacks. But Blue knew red. He pressed his advantage with brutal strikes and quick lunges. It forced Red into expending more energy in defense, exhausting him.

Steel pinged against steel, faster than raindrops hitting the still surface of a lake. Blue drove Red back against the edge of the arena. Sand flew in arcs as his feet dug in against the assault. Adia at up. It would be decided here.

“Ha!” Red yelled out and dropped into a squat just as Blue dove forward into a disarming blow. Lunging forward, he caught the tip of his sword in the fabric of Blue’s loin cloth, just as it rested on his hip bone. It sliced the fabric. The loin cloth tumbled to the sand and left Blue naked.

“Damn!” Blue retaliated the only way he could. He quickly aimed his sword downward and caught the knot holding Red’s loin cloth. Spearing it like an apple on a stick, he cut away and left his opponent just as naked. Only their helmets remained.

Adia grinned. “Good job, Red. Exactly the blow I would have struck. Though, I think I’m the only winner here.” She tilted her head. Both were well formed, front and back.

“Now, the victor gets to rest while the loser gets to show me those parries he used.” She stretched and pulled off her boots. “Oh, and take the helmets off. ”

Red and Blue looked at each other and shrugged. Adia pulled her tunic off as they pulled away their helmets. No sense in further damaging her only clothes.

When she opened her eyes, Ulfric and Cormac stood in the sand, tired but smiling.

Adia brushed her hair back and laughed. “Really?”

“Yes. The guard pays well, but everyone has living expenses.” Ufric, once Red, leaned against a pillar and wiped sweat from his brow. “Besides, it was Cormac’s idea to start.”

“It was my idea to teach sword fighting to others. It just happened we could do both, together, for a lot more money this way.” Cormac grabbed two practice swords, and a jug of fruit juice.

Adia watched him place the swords before her as she peeled off her pants. Ufric stretched, working the muscles in his shoulders and back. They were so unlike the men of her tribe: rough and unshaven both above and below the waist. Hair curled around uncut members in untamed thatches. No fear of grove mites, or ritual cleanings with envenomed blades to keep the skin smooth for them.

“Thank you.” Cormac passed Ufric the juice jug, and followed it with a kiss. Adia held her breath. It was a simple kiss, quick and on the lips. But they lingered, touching hands and feet. Ufric brushed sand from Cormach’s cheek, and their eyes reflected nothing but love.

Jealous, Adia? she thought. No, not quite. But there was tint of envy. Lovers came and went. Life was cheap, especially under Mother Mangrove’s arms. Her tattoo kept her from unwanted children and unwanted attention; the venoms of her tribe’s sages kept disease at bay. Should she want a lover after the heat of battle, she could always find one. She was luckier than most.

But not as lucky as these two.

“Do the Raven Guard allow fraternization?” Adia hefted one of the swords, and took a practice swing.

“It depends” Ufric stretched his arm, glancing at the old wound.

When his lover was not forthcoming, Cormac shook his head and said, “It was once a tradition in the Gallatian Empire. Lovers were paired together in fighting units. They would fight as one, and if one died, the other would go into a killing frenzy.”

“Once?”

“Relations between men is considered a blight against purity by the church of the New Sun. Only places created by the exiles keep the tradition.” Cormac exchanged his juices for a blade. “It is why we never stayed with the Legion or joined any of the mercenary companies from the Five Princedoms. The unit chaplains…” He shuddered.

“Stop!” Adia playfully batted him on the ass. “Past is the past. You’ve survived it. You’re here, now, with a man you love in a place which lets you be you. Now, do you want to dance?”

Ufric smiled and smacked Cormac’s unadorned asscheek. “She has paid for the night. Can’t disappoint her, now can we?”

“No, that we can’t do.” Cormac walked into the arena. Adia followed, standing beside him and mirrored his stance.

“Good.” Adia nodded. “Now, show me that parry you did. Then, Ufric, you pulled this one low lunge I’d like to see.”

Cormac nodded. He took a starting stance. Adia mirrored it, and then she lowered her sword. “Just to ask, are you two only interested in each other?”

“We never would have suggested this if we weren’t interested in you.” Cormac brushed against her, lifting her arm back into place. He let a little ripple of breath hit the nape of her neck. Gooseflesh rose along her skin.

“I hope I stay interesting, then.” Adia put her hand behind her back, toying with the curly hairs around Cormac’s cock. He responded quite well. Laughing, he returned to his stance and walked her through the parry. They mirrored each other, sweat dripping onto the sand.

After a few more mirror passes, Adia and Cormac began to dance in earnest.

Ivre – Part 1: Arrival, Chapter 7

Ivre
by
Andrija Popovic

(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.”

“The what?”

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.

Ivre – Part 1: Arrival, Chapter 6

Ivre
by
Andrija Popovic

(The following is an initial draft of this work. All content is (c) Andrija Popovic 2015)

“Almost there. We’re reaching the outer limits now.” Strom pointed to a series of low hills covered in walled farmlands and orchards. Late afternoon sun soaked the odd and crooked trees in amber. Winds picked up and rattled along the roadside. Even the elephants seemed to sense the trip was ending.

As they rode, the scent of the sea grew stronger. Adia suspected the coast hid behind the rocky outcroppings to their left. From the descriptions she received, this part of the coastline consisted of high cliffs and black rock. She found himself glad their former captain unleashed the creature. A few leagues north and they may have been dashed against cliffs.

“What kind of farms thrive on hillsides and cliffs?” Adia peered into the distance. She rode with Strom today and discussed business, strategy and the differences between soldiering and bodyguard work. Cormac and Ufric rode with Tellus, telling him about the legends of their land. The Baradus isles favored stories of heroic men who lost arms or hands, yet used the deformity to their advantage though cleverness and magick.

“Olive and date orchards, amongst other things.” Strom pointed to the terraced hills, connected by earthen aqueducts. Adia imagined ancient floodwaters curling against the once rocky hills, depositing soil and breaking through the weaker barriers as it rushed to the sea. Over aeons, the desert would drink in the waters. Some day, it was said, the earth would eat Father Ocean in much the same way.

“We will be meeting the outer perimeter patrols soon. I will talk with them, and then they will do a quick inspection before we’re routed to the sea gate. It’s a slow walk but you’ll get to see the city before sunset fully hits.” True to Strom’s word, the hills along the road grew high and bore the marks of stonemasons. Archers appeared along the hilltops. Unlike the ones which guarded the caravan, these carried bows much like Tellus’ – multiple curves, instead of a single one.

Two riders approached Strom. Adia glanced over her shoulder as they spoke. Hanud glanced at the sun and fidgeted in the saddle. His yakkul snorted and waved its horns, irritated. She could not blame the beast. Any sensible animal would have thrown Hanud off by now. The rest of the caravan seemed just as eager to be home, or at least well guarded.

Adia fell back beside Tellus. The logging cart next to them rumbled away. Afternoon shifted into very early evening before they first saw Ivre. A gentle slope took the smaller road onto a massive causeway. Thousands of footsteps beat the stone and sand into a flat pathway, big enough for five elephants side by side. To the east the great roadway traveled to the docks cut from the sea cliffs. Ships still unloaded their cargo onto oxen and elephants even as the night approached

Ivre showed itself in a beam of rose-colored light. Adia stared at the city’s tower: a pillar of pure marble stretching skywards from the city’s heart. It dwarfed the massive keep surrounding the base, built from the same stone which lined the coast. A beam of light would sweep from a massive crystal seated atop the tower and illuminate the coast.

“The sorcerer kings of old knew how to make their navigation beacons, eh?” Cormac trotted beside them. Adia could see generations of soldiers and generals building this city. The inner keep held a clear view over the rest of the city as it stretched out to the outermost walls. Four stout towers kept the city and the approaches in view They jutted from the corners in strange oblongs. And the walls were not straight, but curved slightly, dipping in wards.

Ah, I see. They prevent blind spots. Outside the massive city walls, a smaller city of low brick houses and stone walls hugged the city for protection. They faded out into the hills, merging with the farmlands.

“Is that an eye on the gates facing the sea?” Tellus pointed to the two massive doors spread wide apart. The construction was not fancy – timbers worked and riveted together, held in place by massive iron bands – but the scale impressed. Two columns of elephants and their carts, one entering and one leaving, flowed through the massive portal.

“Indeed. The doors are made from old ships and imported woods. The original gates for the inner part of the city contributed wood to the final ones.” Strom pointed to several notches within the door, facing inward. “The Lord Protector who designed the door also made an inner set.”

Adia nodded. “Ah, I see. In case of storm or siege, you can winch down braces which tie the doors together. The two doors become one, and create a kill zone between them.”

“And the words?” Tellus peered at the massive carvings along the door. They mirrored ones cut in the walls, in six different scripts. “Is it the same set of phrases?”

“‘Thou shalt leave thine vendettas behind. No feuds will be fought within the tower’s light. The law is the law.'” Adia smiled, enjoying everyone’s surprise. “I can read at least three of those languages, thank you.”

As they traveled under the archway, men in red vests walked to the elephants and lead them through the crowd. She saw similar uniforms worn by others tending the animals: a porter’s guild.

The inner gate gave way to a massive plaza. Columns, almost as high as the city walls, ringed the market space and sheltered permanent store spaces and workshops clustered. She saw a blacksmith’s in one part of the market and smelled a tanner’s in the other. People of every kith and clan made way for the massive caravan.

Adia looked upwards, unashamed. Guardsman patrolled the parapets and causeways, which linked to a barracks in the center of the market. Raven Guard filed up along the side of the wagons, inspecting them, before lining up and presenting arms. Strom checked her troops, nodded seriously, and dismissed them. She dropped from her yakkul and watched as the mounted soldiers cared for their beasts. Adia and Tellus followed Cormac and Ufric’s lead, returning their borrowed mounts to two of the Raven Guard.

“Hurry up!” Hanud road up to the sledge with the heartwood stacks. “I need this in my storehouse by sundown. I’ll pay you double to clear the whole sledge.”

“Then maybe you will compensate me for taking my part of the shipment?”

Adia looked up, over the crowd. A dark-skinned woman with almond eyes stood beside a group of porters, arms crossed. She wore a simple brown tunic, belted in the middle, with long flowing trousers and battered boots. Curls of wood hung in her ebony hair. Glue stains dotted her clothes.

Her hands fascinated Adia. Calluses dotted the fingers. They matched the ones she saw on Tellus – another archer. Moreover, another bowyer. And here is the rival.

“The porters know their business, N’Talle.” Hanud waved dismissively. “This load is mine. You don’t need that much heartwood for the small orders you have to fill.”

“And you do not need the fines for remarking wood shipments meant for others. Again” She clambered onto the wagon, looking at colored fabrics nailed into the feet of each log. “Ha. Your old eyes missed it. My section of the heart wood is on the bottom. I can wait while your porters take your section.” N’Talle hopped off the cart with ease. She gave Strom a quick bow. “Captain, I heard there was an attack on the caravan. How did your troops fare?”

“We did take casualties. I will have sad notices to send to some family members.” Strom unbuckled the straps of her chest plate, loosening it and pulling at the padding beneath. “But we had assistance from two travelers.”

“Adia and I had the fortune to be where we could help.” Tellus bowed his head respectfully. “Tellus of the Anutai Clan from the Red Desert, at your service.”

“Adia of the Black Blade tribe, and available for hire at this point.” Adia smiled and crossed a hand across her chest.

N’talle bowed to Adia, but fixed on Tellus’s back. The outer curve of his bow drew her attention. She almost slipped, staring the way she did.

“You carry a beautiful bow.” N’talle spoke, voice low, in the language of Tellus’ people.

“Thank you.” He bowed his head once more.

“Yes, they were quite instrumental in turning the battle.” The exchange did not go unnoticed by Hanud. He waved over a young man carrying sheaves of paper.He scribbled a note onto one and stamped it with a signet ring.

“Here. A note of credit for the two of you.” He handed it to Tellus. “This will see you room and board at the Wayfarer’s Rest. It is the finest lodging in the city. And…” Another quick scribbling on the page, another mark, and Hanud handed Adia a second voucher. “This will give you a night at the Zarina’s Tavern, the only true pleasure-house of the city.”

Adia tightened her grip on the page. “Are you making an assumption of my interests and whom I prefer to keep company with?”

“And I think you assume what I enjoy doing…” Tellus crossed his arms. “I was ordained as ensayyadin. They preclude me from taking advantage of the pleasure houses.”

Hanud raised his hands. “My apologies, you misunderstand. It is not that kind of pleasure house.”

“Well, it is.” Cormac knocked on the side of his saddle. “But it’s more than that. All pleasures are welcomed there. They’ve got poets reading on a regular basis.”

“And there’s a ranked ajedrez master in residence.” Ufric brushed his mount as they spoke. “They say he’s beaten every scholar and in the city at least three times.”

“No, four.” N’talle smiled. “They held a tournament while you were out. He rousted the entire college, including the Lady Protector’s husband. You could see them spitting fire and magick in frustration.”

Adia saw an itch crawl up her companion’s fingers Tellus lost his small ajedrez set during the shipwreck – a gift given to him by his father before he began his travels.

“Still nothing to interest me, though.” Adia handed Tellus her voucher.

“There are the duels.” Cormac stepped forward. “Arms demonstrations.”

Adia shrugged. “If I wanted to watch two people fight, I’d hang around practice yards.”

“Not like this.” Cormac smiled. “It’s more art than war. The objective is not to hurt or injure the other one, but to carefully cut away the opponent’s clothes…”

“…and the loser is left naked.” Ufric rubbed bits of dander from his hand. “Good show last time I was there.”

“Sounds a bit like blade dancing…” Blade dancing was a storyteller’s art back home. Dancers carried history and recited it back with each movement. The thought of using it to tell a dirty story never crossed her mind. She pursed her lips. “Well, as long as the dance paid for I might as well give it a go. At least I won’t be bored while Tellus contemplates the intricacies of strategy and gameboards.”

“Then it is settled.” Strom gave one last glance to the caravan. “Tellus, Adia, if you come with me I can escort you to the Wayfarer’s Rest. Just one small note, though. Do not start a fight there.”

Tellus blinked, looking genuinely hurt. “You think we’d break hospitality?”

“In all fairness, we do look rather… unsavory, Tellus.” Adia brushed her hands against her ragged trousers.

Strom laughed. “I warn everyone who stays there. Giant-killer of a sword over Visik’s fireplace is not for show.”

Adia’s paused, then laughed. “So that’s what he meant…”

Tellus frowned. “That is what who meant?”

“My father.” She stooped, and deepened her accent. “‘You’ll go many places and see many things. But the one thing you must never do is start a fight in an inn where a sword hangs behind the bar. It means the innkeeper knows how to use it, and survived long enough to retire!'”

“Soldiers never retire.” Strom motioned them deeper into the city. “He and his wife head the merchant’s council. They traded one kind of war for another. Now, come, let’s get you settled.”

They followed Strom into the city. Adia glanced behind her. N’talle and Hanud ordered their respective porters around. One would watch the other, waiting for any sign of theft. But in spare moments, both bowyers turned and watched Tellus vanish into the crowd.

Ivre – Part 1: Arrival, Chapter 5

Ivre
by
Andrija Popovic

(The following is an initial draft of this work. All content is (c) Andrija Popovic 2015)

“Bartolio! Why are you not enjoying yourself?”

“I am the host, Praet.” Bartolio Milicara bowed his head and clapped his hand Kidina’s shoulder. The gilded edge of his silken red robe whispered against the floor. He was a study in contrasts with the other noble. Beneath his robes were a simple set of trousers and a tunic of good fabric, hiding a fit body leaning towards middle age. Kidina wore layers of silk woven with as much gold, silver and precious gems his corpulent body could manage. “Guests always take precedence. Please, enjoy. After the fight…”

“… we have earned it.” Kidina raised his wine gobblet. He drank a little, and poured the rest down the body of the half-naked pleasure girl in his lap. She giggled convincingly and pretended to enjoy the wine soaked through her white shift. Kidina dragged his chapped, broken across her wine-soaked clothes.

Bartolio swallowed bile and smiled. He hated these events, and hated hosting them more. But they were expected, especially after a victory against Praet Irtolus conservative factions in the city council. Another roadblock to newer merchants establishing themselves removed, and only hundreds more to go.

But as wine flowed, and it washed away inhibitions. Decorum decayed. He gradually replaced his normal serving staff with pleasure servants of both sexes. They were trained and well compensated for their services. His staff worked hard and the meaty caresses of one like Kidina was no reward.

He hated these events because, sadly, they worked. A mix of young merchants and first generation nobles mingled and talked. The merchants interested him the most. He spoke to the nobles every day at council. Like him, they were once scholars, traders or political operatives who were gifted with land, title and responsibility by the Lady Protector. But the merchants either recently acquired homes in the permanent markets, or were long-time residents of the constantly shifting bazaar on the city’s west side. They fought and scrapped for every piece of respectability they could get.

Bartolio saw fire in their eyes as they talked of the future. They hoped their children could live better lives than they did. New Sun preserve them, the city needed the fire if it was to survive.

Bartolio touched the sun blossom pendant under his robes. Warmth filled him. He returned to his guests, seeing to their needs.

His home felt alien. Its previous occupant found himself at the wrong end of the Lady Protector’s justice. At trial’s end, she ennobled Bartolio and gave him all of his predecessor’s possessions – a public reward for the private work exposing the old Praet’s crimes.

He did his duty, and followed the Sun’s teachings, and was rewarded. Bartolio tried to make the place his own. He preferred classical Gallatian styles, with their emphasis on pure geometries and harmonious ratios, to the more ribald later period, or the more extensive scrollwork and buttoning favored by the old Praet.

There was not much he could do with the explicit stonework in some rooms of the house but cover it with cloth and tapestries until the masons could get in.

It was in the library where he spared no expense. Here his scholarly roots blossomed into a garden of delights. Volumes and scrolls on architecture and design filled the rear wall of the library. He decorated the honey-comb like shelves with images of great buildings from across the known world. Sciences, histories and travelogues dominated the left hand side of the library. A rare map of the known world on lizard skin centered the collection. And on the right were the more creative works: folklore and legends from across the world, magickal treaties, and books on art and light.

A thickly woven rug from the Suzerainate covered the floor, inscribed in unique spiral and diamond patterns. Two chairs, thickly padded and slightly angled, sat beside an octagonal table tea table. Light streamed from a rune-covered dodecahedron. It collected sunlight in the day and streamed it out after dark. On cool nights, he could step into the library and feel the warmth of the day on his face.

Bartolio expected the library to be empty but for the mug of mint tea he left there before the party. But he found one guest there.

She held a book in her lap and a cup of tea in her hand. She wore woven shawl, decorated with brass coins, over a simple red robe with black trim. Black leather sandals wrapped her feet, worn but attractive. Her hair, dark as ink, curled under a simple headdress which covered her forehead and flowed down her back.

Bartolio coughed, politely. “Lady Davia, I hope your needs are being attended?”

N’Talle Davia lifted her head, startled. Her bright green eyes glowed in the sun, a sharp contrast to her terracotta skin. Shemarked her place in the book with a strip of cloth, and cradled it against her lap like a newborn.

“Oh, I beg your pardon. Yes, thank you, I am very well attended.” She touched the teapot beside her. “The mint tea is just perfect.”

“And how are you finding Umbero’s treatise on material strength and weight tolerances?”

“Amazing!” N’talle re-opened the book. “The tests he used to determine the flexibility and strength of objects and materials are so simple. Yet, they are repeatable and accurate. And then there are the composites he discusses…”

“This was the first book my mentor gave me when I first studied architecture in Urkur.” And back in Neffalio, before the grand exile. He suppressed memories of his father bundling everyone in blankets and rushing out of their childhood home. “I have this book to thank for my initial successes. Without it we would still have rickety walls protecting the neighborhoods outside the walls and sink-holes in the southern sections of town because of bad rain drainage.”

“All crafters owe a debt to those who studied and explored before us.” N’Talle bowed her head. “And I thank you, too. Without your efforts, I would have lost two of my best fletchers to the law. My business would be crippled.”

Bartolio raised his hands. “You directly contribute to the Guard and the city’s defense. You helped show how proposals such as this weaken the city as a whole. This is your victory.”

“A victory. There’s still more to do.” She sipped her tea. “And I thank you for all you are doing.”

“You are most welcome for any assistance I could provide.” He bowed. “Now, what else can I offer?”

“Praet, you have given me a library, warm mint tea, the single greatest reading light constructed and a moment of peace.” N’Talle smiled. “You spoil me.”

Before he could respond, one of his staff, Tiri, entered the room. She shivered and covered herself. Soaked to the skin in spilled white wine, her practical shift was as translucent the courtesans’ clothes.

“Sir, Praet Vadello entered the kitchen and found issue with one of the vintages. He asked to speak with you on this matter.”

Bartolio hid his clenched fist behind his back. He bowed to N’Talle. “My apologies. This needs attention.”

N’Talle bowed her head, touching her forehead with two fingers. “Please, do not let me keep you.”

“Thank you. Tiri, please, lead the way.” Bartolio touched his amulet in prayer.

Part way down the hall, Tiri stopped. She raised a finger against her lips, and looked up. “He is here.” She whispered. “He wishes to see you in the usual place.”

Barolio nodded. He made the sign of the Sun over Tiri’s forehead. “Thank you for your faith and patience. Please, rest for the remainder of the evening. I know dealing with him is tiresome.”

Tiri smiled, clutching her soaked clothes for a scrap of warmth. “Thank you, Praet.” She ran down the hall to the servant’s quarters. Bartolio walked up carefully hidden stairs to the master bedroom.

When he moved in, the bedroom puzzled him. Settled at the top of the house, it was built with two rings of supports around a single master pillar. The outer room, decorated on columns and chairs and gauzy curtains, showed the whole of Ivre. Chairs dotted the inverted balcony space. One could imagine many long discussions here, with the old Praet pointing to the city as if he owned the buildings and the people within.

The interior room felt cavernous. The ring design continued, creating massive amounts of space, only broken by the firepit and flue, and a sunken bed. One could lie in the bed and see the bathing tub, designed for at least four, without obstruction.

Bartolio’s first night, he felt open and exposed. On the second day, he ordered and installed several decorative privacy.

But then there was the central column. It did not bear any loads or connect to any supporting structures on the floor below. The design of the final floor used the outer ring of columns and the roof structure so all weight was evenly distributed. There was no need for an interior support.

Then Bartolio touched one of the carved stones on the central structure. A door opened. Within was a small room, big enough for three to sit comfortably, and watch everything.

Of course, he was waiting in the room when Bartolio arrived. He sat in one of the overstuffed chairs, bathed in the light from the viewing crystals. Cut with powerful runes and filled with magickal energy, each of the great crystal slabs mounted on the walls in the room tied to a smaller one hidden within the house. No space was unwatched. Glance to the left, and you saw the kitchen larder. A look to the right, and you saw the private room, were two guests were fumbling for their clothes.

And in the center of it all sat Evericus.

“Sun’s light shine on you, Praet.” He had no accent. His face was unremarkable, framed by thinning hair. Pale brown eyes watched the crystals with no particular sign of interest or excitement, just the calculated gaze of a predator studying potential prey.

“And with you, Evericus.” Bartolio sat down. He followed Evericus eyes to a specific crystal facet. It spied on the library, where N’Talle still read. “Did you find nothing of value from the other guests?”

“Nothing the Church does not already know. But finding the sins of the powerful is easy.” He leaned forward and pointed at N’talle. “It’s finding the sins of one unaware of power which requires more work.”

“Perhaps she has no sin to find?”

“She is a heathen, without the light of the Sun. She carries sin. It is a matter of finding it and using it.”

Evericus sighed. “Let me guess? ‘We do what we must, for the good of all?’

“Indeed. The enemy presses at us. Evil literally sits at our shores. We must defend the faithful. We cannot do so through good living alone.” Evericus rose and touched one of the crystals. The image rippled, and reformed. A young girl, naked and vulnerable, knelt beside a small shrine to the New Sun. She prayed to the tiny figure within, its golden arms wide, backed by a sunburst. Bartolio paled. Tiri.

“The faith must be defended.” Evericus made a starburst across his chest. “We will ask for forgiveness afterwords.”

“I assume you’re not here to lecture me.” He walked up and blocked Evericus’ view of Tiri’s room. “What would you have me do?”

“There was an attack on the caravan bringing wood from the south.” Evericus crossed his hands behind his back. “You’ll hear of it soon enough. I need you to make gestures to Haunud, as well as N’Talle.”

“Hanud? He’s funding the opposition.”

“Thus why showing concern for his business, as well as that of your allies, will make you seem magnanimous.” Evericus walked to the exit. “Remember your place, Praet. It’s a small request. Follow it and I’ll try to keep future requests… small.”

Evericus opened the walls and stepped out of the room. When the door sealed once again, Bartolio fell into one of the chairs.

He watched N’Talle read, playing with a lock of her hair, toe still wrapped in a sandal strap. On the other crystal, Tiri tried to wash wine from her hair. She had another set of clothes laid out, ready to go back to work.

“You’re right, Tiri. Time for all of us to get back to work.” He sat up, straightened his clothes, and pushed his face into a smile as he ventured back into the party.

***

“Damn the bitch. And damn the desert dweller as well. I hope the sea’s devoured them.” Girad spoke the words like a prayer as he rowed. Jasbel focused on not losing his makeshift oar. Together, they pushed a remnant of their ship,Orhalcion, towards the glimmer of shore.

“If you’re going to damn anyone, damn the captain. He opened the box. Against their advice.” Jasbel looked up, searchig for stars. The unnatural mist which poured from the wreck of their ship followed them. It blocked any chance of proper navigation. So they focused on the shadows of land they saw through the darkness.

“We never would have found the wreck if it was not for the desert dog’s eyes. And the captain never would have opened the box if he was not attempting to impress the bitch.” Girad gripped his timber in salt-cracked hands. He begged for splinters to bring feeling back to his fingers. The waters remained unnaturally cold. He suspected they moved away from shore, into the deeper ocean, but said nothing. They needed what hope they could scavenge.

“If you say women on ship are a curse one more time, I will club you over the head with this plank, Girad, cousin or no cousin.” He glanced to the canvas and crossbeam remnants they rigged as a sail. The wind tugging the cloth faround, but he felt nothing against his skin. Jasbel whispered another prayer to the seas. Forgive my cousin’s vengeful heart. Please take my prayers in stead and see us to safety.

“I do not say all women on ship are curses. Captain Selia runs a good ship, for example. I only say this woman was a curse.” Girad looked up at the horizon and stopped rowing. “Oh, gods be merciful, please look ahead and see what I see.”

Jasbel looked, and his heart leapt. The dark shadow of solid ground filled the horizon. Even from this distance, he saw rocky outlines. This was no illusion of hope, it was land. “I see it, Girad. Now row, dammit, row.”

“Aye, cousin.” They dug into the water, hope fueling their efforts. The shore grew more distinct. Jasbel never thought the cliffs of eastern coastlines would bring him joy.

“Rocks. Low rocks. This means we may be close to Ivre!” Girad laughed. “If she survived, she would be there. I could find her…”

Jasbel gritted his teeth. “You need to actually reach land first, now row!” Driftwood, sea fronds and scraps of barnacle covered detritus bumped against their legs. Their arms and backs burned with exhaustion.

And then the tip of a rock grazed his toes. The moment Jasbel’s foot hit solid ground, he laughed. When oar hit rock, he wept. Girad yelped and hollered. Together, they pulled themselves onto the black stone.

“We can’t dally.” Jasbel hauled the makeshift raft further up the broken coast. He stumbled. The ground wobbled under his feet. “My legs feel like jellied eel.”

“Don’t mention food, for gods’ sake. The tripe crawling along the shoreline looks good right now.” Girad fell against their chunk of hull. “Stop, cousin. We’re away from the shore. Let me rest.”

Jasbel panted. “Aye.” He sat on a flat rock. Water lapped on the shoreline, a mother’s lullaby. He watched the mist from his breath mix with the foggy air.

“The fog has followed us.”

“It probably covers the coast, Jasbel.” Girad levered himself up on his oar. “Let is see how far we are from the cliffs. Maybe there’s a path up.”

“Give me a moment.” Jasbel braced against his own oar. The ground shuddered. He almost lost his footing against the wet rock. For a moment, it felt like a ship turned into the tide. It would be a while before his land legs returned.

They walked inland. The sharp rock beat sensation back into their icy feet. Jasbel looked for any sign of high rock walls, which marked the coast of Ivre. Nothing but flat rock greeted him.

“Did you feel that?” Girad spun around. “Something sticky touched my leg!”

“Pinpricks. We’re half frozen. Keep an eye for any dry driftwood. We will need a fire soon.” Jasbel shivered. He grabbed a handful of his hair and wrung it dry. When his hand came away, he felt sticky webbing caught against his fingers. He looked at his palm. A thin line of silk, gleaming white even in the darkness, crossed his palm. He rubbed at it with his thumb.

“Oye! You!” Girad waved his arms and ran into the fog. Jasbel cursed, hefted his makeshift oar, and hoped his cousin had not chosen this particular moment to go mad.

But soon, he saw the figure, too. A man, wreathed in the fog, waved them forward. Jasbel hissed to Girad. Fog parted, and saw the terrain for the first time.

No rough scrub or other plants clung to the rocks. There was nothing but a white spider web, woven into the earth itself. Light filtered into the air. White crystals, quartz pulled from deep within the earth, glowed like oil lamps set behind milked glass. He stopped. The ground continued moving beneath him.

This was not land. They were still at sea. This was a ship.

“Girad! Stop!”

“Jasbel, it’s Kerr!” The light grew stronger and he saw the figure more clearly. It was indeed, Kerr, the ship’s boatswain. He wore layers of odd cloth, scraps from a hundred different outfits woven together, and a hood. “Gods, Kerr, why did you not say anything? Where did you find that?”

“You. You are – Girad. Yes?” Kerr’s voice creaked and snapped. “Yes. Girad. And Jasbel. Cousins. Shipmates. We remember you.”

Jasbel held his oar as a club. “Back away, Girad. It is not him. Listen to his voice, it is not him.”

The creature who looked like Kerr nodded. “He, Jasbel, is correct. We thank Kerr for the use of his form and his mind. We are glad he is familiar to you. We seek help.”

The hood dropped away. Kerr’s face, narrow and sharp, rested atop another man’s body. Thick, glue-like thread stitched the two together. A chunk of ocean-blue crystal replaced his skull. Thick, finger-like protrusions stretched the face in a parody of natural speech. Hunks of rock, driftwood, metal and other garbage created the neck and part of the spine. All was lashed together , like a puppet built from the sea’s leavings.

“We seek your help.” As the creature spoke, the mechanisms behind the stretched skin clicked and chittered.

Girad lowered his oar. Eyes wide, chin quivering, he hauled breaths between his teeth. “Kerr? Gods…”

“We seek your help,” repeated the thing wearing Kerr’s face.

“Seek death, demon!” Girad howled. He drove the oar into the creature’s skull. The blow tore Kerr’s face free. The delicate mechanisms holding the mouth and neck in place shattered. The creature stumbled backwards.

“No! Stop!” Jasbel yelled in vein. Girad spun around and took a second blow. The flat of his makeshift club crashed against the creature’s ruined neck. It’s skull tumbled down onto the rock. The body collapsed, a puppet without strings.

“Why?” On the ground, the skull cracked and unfolded. The thick fingers became a multitude of legs. From under the face’s remnants a tiny crystal hermit crab appeared. Wide, alien eyes and a broad mouth stared at him. The small pincers where one would envision arms clicked. “Now the soldiers and builders must act. We are sorry.”

The earth moved. Tunnels of webbing and rock pushed up from the ground. Doors like the valves of a great heart opened and spilled forth more crabs. From the mist came a clanking noise. Jasbel saw armored forms, covered in urchin-like spines, rise from the ground.

Crystal crabs encircled them. The one who once wore Kerr’s face looked at him, blue eyes wreathed in sympathy.

“Forgive us. We had hoped we could speak. But time and sympathy are short. We need more information. We need to know about Ivre.”

The chittering and clicking grew. Thick, dripping strands of white silk drifted from the gauntlets of the armored dead, twisting into sticky whips. Jasbel lashed out, but the glue held fast, wrapping around him in a thick cocoon. The other creatures clustered around them. Blue energy drifted from their tiny pincers. The rocks and crystals a their feet turned to clay, wrapping up along their legs and rooting them into place.

“There will be pain at first. But the pain will cease when we have disassembled your nerves. Please forgive us.” Tiny legs ran up along their legs and chest, taking positions on their skin. Tiny blades of blue light formed at the tips of their pincers, poised.

And then one began cutting into Girad. He howled as it peeled away a long, thin strip of skin, like an orange rind pulled away from the pulp.

“Oh, Girad. What have you done?” It was all he could say before he began screaming. He only stopped when a small blue pincer disassembled his voice box.