They found her Downmarket. No sense guessing who found her first. Everyone in the crowd wanted that honor – and by honor, I mean coin. When I walked by, all the scavengers were claiming her as kin for the corpse-fee in Ankar-Te. Not one of them actually looked at her. But I did.
Scandalous clothes implied the occupation and one arm sprawled over her head like she reached for a book. Her legs were crossed under her and she stared at the sky, wide-eyed and scared. She had a bulbous nose above grit teeth, and blond hair that was thrown above her head like a spill.
The hair gets to me. And then the sun peeks out behind the clouds to shine on her. I haven’t felt Sarenrae’s blessing in years, but I remember those days when I cared and fought my way west across the Garundi coast. I feel that old, useless pride stirring.
And the anger. That never fades anymore.
I step forward. “No one’s selling anyone. She’s family. I’ll take her.”
It’s a bad lie and they know it. “Come now boy,” a pesh-toothless dwarf snorts. “Two days and I’ll have her sold to the White Lilly. You can take her moving then. It’ll be worth the wait.”
I don’t look kindly at that and they all go quiet when I stare him down. A hairlipped Shoanti, mean but too long comfortable inside these walls looks me over. He’s the biggest and it’s down to him to see how this falls. “Proof? Money? Or do Freemen hire Ulfen dogs to pick up scraps?”
I can’t help but chuckle. Ulfen. He’s right, but so wrong. I might be rough-looking now, but I’ve never worn furs in my life. “Seems to me the only scraps I’m looking at is you all. Although another might be coming…”
I take the gloves off so they can see the scars. Holding flaming scimitars will do that, especially when you lose favor. I’m a head shorter than the Shoanti bully, but about a foot wider. Even though I’ve given up the blades in my shame, I’ve wrestled gnolls and snapped the necks of undead Osiriani jackal priests. And they can see it.
I lift her off the ground and catch a familiar burnt-sweet smell from her mouth. I know where to go after I take care of her. The carrion birds flutter off and make clever comments about my parentage. It’s sad that I wish some of them were true.
* * *
Kaer Maga is a city of unspoken agreements. Everyone leaves each other alone to do what you couldn’t do outside. Anything goes in Kaer Maga, and if you aren’t here for trade, then you’re one of the depraved, the fugitive, or the lost that come for protection and no questions asked. I couldn’t tell you which one of those I am nowadays.
I carry her past the Highside Stacks. A groundling like me will never see the inside of those towers, but that’s just fine with the Freemen that took me in. There’s pride in The Bottoms too, but it’s the pride that comes from the resolve to never wear chains again. Freed slaves are as close to moral company as you get around here.
I get looks when I carry her in, but they know better than to ask. Inside the walls, dim lanterns burn far away from Sarenrae’s love. I knock on the shack made of scavenged plate mail and see a small windmill made of beaten daggers spinning in a non-existent breeze. The blind, half-bleached gnome opens the door and sniffs the air.
“She’s dead,” he says.
“She is,” I confirm. “Ayyid home?”
The gnome steps aside and I walk past buzzing machines that have no logic except for their creator. Candles exaggerate Ayyid’s hunch over the workbench as he scrapes alphabets into thumbnail-sized discs. I look over his shoulder to see a metal sphere stuck with needles ending in different letters. He doesn’t look up when the dead girl’s hair falls in front of him.
“I thought the dead made you nervous,” he says.
I set her down on my bedroll in the corner. “I need you to arrange a burial in the Godsmouth.”
He doesn’t look up, but stops scraping. “Quite a bit of coin for a stranger.”
I’m not sure if he’s referring to her or me. Both of us crossed water to land here; me –finally – from Rahadoum and him from the magic-barren strip of Alkenstar. Neither of us asked each other what we did before Kaer Maga, or what we did to deserve being here. It’s the basis of a respectful, distant friendship.
But he was right, most people found a patch outside the walls. The Godsmouth Ossuary made you pay for the privilege of having your dead swallowed inside staring stones. But someone wanted her body to vanish. In this city, the more obvious the corpse, the more likely it disappears – just to keep the peace. In fact, I wonder why the murderer didn’t sell her to Ankar-Te himself. Either way, I want her kept safe until answers arrive.
And women like her deserve a burial. Too many don’t get it.
“I’m good for it.”
He sniffs and goes back to his invention. “One of the few that are.”
I smooth her hair down. It’s a stupid gesture and Ayyid is good enough to ignore it. I lean close and catch the scent again. – bitter and acrid wafting from her mouth. Smells like flayleaf, but sure enough her fingers are clenched into claws. I take the stockings off and her toes are curled too. I close her eyes and open the chest at the end of my bedroll.
The scimitars wink back under the candlelight. Gold leaf and ruby sunbursts on the hilt glitter below the finest Katapesh steel. I trace Mercy’s edge and my fingertip burns.
Not today. This one isn’t for Sarenrae.
I take out The Birth of Light and Truth and open it to the Duskjourney prayer. I read the words quietly. It’s better to do this in the open, but living inside walls means sunlight is a rarity. Besides, I sunburn easily. After a moment, I decide to take Sarenrae’s symbol. Can’t hurt to have some blessing, if she sees fit.
I leave the girl with Ayyid, his thoughts, and his partner. The sun is setting and the drunken carousing is starting. In the Bottoms, what comes with new freedom is the need to indulge and there will always be those that live on those needs.
I see one leaning against one of the many taverns. Stringy hair and open shirt frame a smooth chest irresistible to some. He sees me walking toward him and smiles with too-perfect teeth. Just another working Tallow Boy, but the smart ones know what the work really is.
“Hard day?” he grins. “If you care to buy me a drink, I’ll listen.”
“Actually, I care to find a woman.”
He turns away and I grab his arm. He reaches to his hip for a surely hidden dagger, and I hold my other hand up before it gets ugly.
“There was a dead girl found Downmarket before sunset. You two probably ran in the same circles. I need to find out where she worked.”
He tries to pull away, but I hold him. “How do you know she worked for a Hospice?” he asks. His threatening hand never moves.
“Her teeth and clothes were too nice to be just street sweet. So are yours.”
His dark eyes narrow. “I’ve seen you before…”
I meet his eyes and fill them. “With Elias, most likely. I know you know who that is. So spare me the dance and rush this to the people that matter.”
The boy is all a different business now. “You’ll be here?”
“Find me in Oriat.”
* * *
You can do anything in Kaer Maga. Some people find that titillating.
These people are idiots.
Those idiots settle in Oriat. They sing and dance and create “art” that expresses who they really are in a city that doesn’t judge, even though there is nothing more they love to do.
I weave past shimmering banners and badly strummed ballads to the storefront. I truly wish the Brotherhood would just burn this place down, but it would just get rebuilt again with new murals and sculptures springing up like mushrooms on the ashes.
There was a time I would have felt right at home here, dressed in fancy silks and singing glorious arias to Asmodeous. I would secretly fold in a few lausavísas under the frippery to make her-
No. Never again. He lied.
The Succoring Muse is an unmarked building at the edge of the district, close enough to The Gap for any visitors to quickly find their chosen addiction. The obese half-orc guarding the door is picking her nose when I walk up.