Home Is Where the Hate Is
Mickey Zucker Reichert
A dense fog blurred the long-ruined temples of the Promise of Heaven and dimmed the early afternoon sunlight to a dusk-like gray. Light rain stung Dysan's face as he slouched along the Avenue of Temples that led to the shattered ruin he alone called home. The dampness added volume and curl to raven hair already too thick to comb. It fell to his shoulders in a chaotic snarl that he clipped only when it persistently fell into his eyes. Few bothered with this quarter of the city, though Dysan guessed it had once bustled with priests and their pious. In the ten years since Arizak and his Irrune warriors had destroyed the Bloody Hand of Dyareela and banished all but their own religion from the inner regions of Sanctuary, no one had bothered to pick up the desecrated pieces the Dyareelans had left of their former temples. Instead, the buildings fell prey to ten years of disrepair, beset by Sanctuary's infernal storms and soggy climate.
At sixteen, Dysan was only just beginning to learn his way around the city that bred, bore, and neglectedto raise him. He recalled only flashes of his first four years, when he, his mother, and his brother, Kharmael, had lived in a hovel near the Street of Red Lanterns. Only in the last few years had he figured out what so many must have known all along: Kharmael's father, Ilmaris, the man Dysan had once blindly believed his own, had died three years before his birth. Their mother had supported them with her body. Dysan's father might be any man who had lived in or passed through Sanctuary, and his mother, in what the Rankans had proclaimed was the 86th year of their crumbling empire and the Ilsigis called the 3,553rd year of theirs.
Dysan flicked water from his lashes and wiped his dripping nose with the back of a grimy, tattered sleeve. He had managed to swipe a handful of bread and some lumps of fish from an unwatched stew pot, enough to fill his small belly. Tonight, he planned to use his meager store of wood to light a fire in the Yard--his name for the roofless two-walled main room of his home--beneath an overhang sheltered from the rain. It was a luxury he did not often allow himself. The flames sometimes managed to chase away the chill that had haunted his heart for every one of the ten years he had lived without his brother, but it was a bittersweet trade-off. Even small, controlled fires sometimes stirred flashbacks to the worst moments of his life.
Tears rose, unbidden, mingling with the rainwater dribbling down Dysan's face. Kharmael and the Dyareelans had raised him from a toddler to a child in a world of pain and blood that no one should ever have to endure. Lightning flashed, igniting the sky and a memory of a stranger: skinned and mutilated by laughing children trained to kill with cruel and guiltless pleasure. Dysan had personallysuffered the lash of the whip only once. Small and frail, half the size of a normal four-year-old, he had passed out at the agony of the first strike. Only the scars that striped his shoulders and back, and the aches that had assailed him on awakening, made it clear that his lack of mental presence had not ended the torture. The Hand had labeled him as weak, a sure sacrifice to their blood-loving, hermaphrodite god/goddess; and he would have become one in his first few weeks had Kharmael not been there to comfort him, to rally and bully him, when necessary, into moving when he would rather have surrendered to whatever death the Hand pronounced.
Kharmael had been the survivor: large, strong, swarthy with health, and handsome with a magnificent shock of strawberry-blond hair inherited from their father. His father, Dysan reminded himself. Dysan had shared nothing with his brother but love and a mother, dead from a disease one of her clients had given her. Later, Dysan discovered, that same illness had afflicted him in the womb, the cause of his poor growth, his delicate health, and the oddities of his mind. Oddities that had proven both curse and blessing. Social conventions and small talk baffled him. He could not count his own digits, yet languages came to him with an eerie golden clarity that the rest of the world lacked. At first, his companions in the Pits, and the Hand alike, believed him hopelessly simple-minded. At five years old, he barely looked three; and only Kharmael could wholly understand his speech. It was the orphans who figured out that Dysan used words from the languages of every man who had come to visit his mother, of every child in the Pits, interchangeably, switching at random. But once the Hand heard ofthis ability, Dysan's life had irrevocably changed.
Dysan turned onto the crude path that led to his home, sinking ankle-deep into mud that sucked the last shreds of cloth from his feet. He would have to steal a pair of shoes or boots, or the money to buy them, before colder days set in. Already, the wind turned his damp skin to gooseflesh; his sodden hair and the wet tatters of his clothing felt like ice when they brushed against him. But the thought of shopping sent a shiver through Dysan that transcended cold. No matter how hard he tried, counting padpols confounded him. Most thieves would celebrate the discovery of something large and silver, but he dreaded the day his thieving netted him a horde of soldats or shaboozh. He could never figure out how to change it or spend it, and it would taunt him until some better thief relieved him of the burden.
A gruff voice speaking rapid Wrigglie froze Dysan just at the boundary between the dilapidated skeleton of some unused Ilsigi temple and the one he called his own.
"Frog your sheep-shite arse, I'm done for the day. My froggin' left hand can't see what my froggin' right hand is froggin' doing."
An older man snapped back. "Watch your language, boy! There's a lady present."
The aforementioned lady spoke next. Unlike the men, clearly Sanctuary natives, she spoke Ilsigi with a musical, Imperial accent. "Don't worry about his language, Mason. I don't understand a word that boy soys."
Dysan peeked around the corner. However else being born with the clap had affected him, it had not damaged his eyesight or his ears, at least not when soggy shadows and darkness covered the city, which was most of the time. He spotted three figuresin his Yard, standing around a fresh stack of stone blocks. They had worked quickly. He had seen no sign of them when he left the ruins that morning. Gods-all-be-damned. What in the froggin' hell--? The goosebumps faded as curiosity warmed to anger. That's my home. MY HOME! Dysan's hands balled to fists, but he remained in place. He had seen plenty of fights in his lifetime, enough to know he could barely take on the plump, gray-haired woman, let alone the two strapping men beside her.
The mason translated for his apprentice, eliminating the curses, which did not leave much. "He says it's quitting time. We'll finish staging the wall tomorrow, then start mortaring." Mopping his brow, he straightened, then plucked a lantern from the ground.
"Fine. Fine." The woman glanced at the piled stone from every direction, stroking her strong, Rankan chin as she did so.
The fish churned in Dysan's gut, and he thought he might vomit. He swallowed hard, tasting acid, wishing he had not fought the lurching in his stomach. The sour taste reminded him too much of the End. This time, he struggled against the memory, but it surged over him too quickly and with a strength he could never hope to banish. Once again, he found himself in the Pits, surrounded by deadeyed orphans lost to that empty internal world that numbed them to any morality their parents might have managed to drive into their thick skulls before the Dyareelans snatched them. The Hand molded them like clay puppets to fit their own image of normalcy: soulless brutality, bitter mistrust, and blood. Dysan knew that place, an empty hideaway for the mind while the body performed unbearable evil. In time, the orphans either severed that place or escapedinto it. The first left them forever stranded from their consciences, the latter steeped in madness.
When the Bloody Hand finally fell, an old man they called the Torch had interviewed each of them separately. Dysan had dodged dark eyes keener than any man that age had a right to and said he wished to remain in the palace with the Hand forever. At the time, he had meant it. His brother was there, and Dysan recalled no other family, no other life. He knew the Hand was evil, that they gleefully sated their goddess with the blood of innocents, that they tore down the orphans with brutal words, torture, and slave labor. Yet, Dysan had suffered far less than the others. Once the priests gave him the organizational skills to tame his runaway talent with languages, he became proficient down to the accent in every tongue they threw at him. He slipped effortlessly from perfect Ilsigi to a melodious and Imperial Rankene to the rapid, broken Wrigglie that was his birthright. They had taught him others as well, most of which they never named and none of which posed much difficulty, written or spoken. They had taught him to steal, to climb, to bend, wrap, and twist his scrawny, underdeveloped body into positions that allowed access into the tiniest cracks and rat holes. They had taken him to houses and temples, to gatherings and inns, where he had only to sip a bowl of goat milk and report the conversations of strangers, who seldom bothered with discretion in front of a young boy. In short, the Hand rewarded him for next to nothing and taught him to survive.
Dysan had used those skills to rescue his brother from the solitary confinement into which the Torch had placed him. Together, they had returned to thePits to gather their scant belongings, all the while planning grand futures that six- and nine-year-old brothers could never really hope to attain. There, they found their companions feasting on a bounty of raw horsemeat. Kharmael joined them. Nursing the end of a stomach virus and accustomed to richer foods than his companions, who supplemented their meals with the bony rats they could catch, Dysan refused his share. Worried for his little brother's strength, Kharmael forced a mouthful on him. Many of the orphans had come to prefer their food raw, the bloodier the better; but Dysan's neverstrong stomach could not handle it. He started vomiting almost immediately. By midnight, all of the others had joined him. One by one, he watched them fall into what he thought was peaceful sleep. But, when a jagged agony in his gut awakened him in the night, he found his brother eerily cold beside him.
Now, with a desperate surge, Dysan managed to throw off the memories that had assailed him. Again. Slipping into the shadows, he watched the men and woman navigate the mucky pathway to the road, shaking slime from their boots with every step. The woman's features pinched. "We'll need to cobble that. Can't have us swimming through a stinking swamp every time it rains."
My mud. My swamp. Dysan remained unmoving, watching the retreating backs and resenting every word. Though he had long cursed that same quagmire, it was a familiar quagmire. It was his quagmire.
"Always froggin' raining," the apprentice muttered, and the others ignored him. "Shite-for-sure, I can't wait to get out of this cess of a city."
"Gravel might be better," the mason started. "Dump a few cartloads of broken ..." His voice andthe figures disappeared into the night, the lantern light visible like a distant star long after they had vanished.
Dysan's fists tightened in increments, until his nails bit painful impressions into his palms. Once certain they were not returning, he glided to the piled stones and examined them. Their position told him everything. These strangers planned to rebuild the missing walls, which might have pleased Dysan had it not clearly meant that someone expected to take over his home. More than five froggin' ruins in this froggin' run-down quarter, and they have to pick mine. There were a lot more than five, but that was the highest number Dysan could reliably identify.
Seized by sudden rage, Dysan hurled himself against the piled stones. Pain arched through his shoulder, and his head snapped sideways. He slid to the ground rubbing his bruised, abraded skin, feeling like a fool. The mason and his foul-mouthed apprentice had not mortared yet, which meant the wall would come down, even if Dysan had to do it block by heavy block.
Dysan set straight to work. It had not taken the men long, but Dysan harbored no illusions that he could work as quickly. Strength had never been his asset. The Hand had made him understand that his frailty, the strange workings and malfunctions of his mind, his notched front teeth and bow-shaped shins were all a god-inflicted curse visited upon his mother for her sins. If the Hand had intended to drive him toward worship, their words had had the opposite effect. Dysan would never throw his support to any deity who punished infants for their parents' wrongdoing. More likely, the priests had intended the insults as a substitute for the "sheep-shitestupid" label they gave to most of the other orphans. They could hardly call Dysan brainless and still expect him to learn the language lessons they bombarded him with for much of the day.
Sometimes, in his dreams, Dysan taunted his teachers, driving them to a raw rage they dared not sate with coiled fists, whips, and blades for fear of losing their delicately constitutioned secret weapon. In his dreams, he could triumph where, in real life, he had miserably failed. Then, Dysan had done whatever they asked because he had seen the price others paid for disobedience. He had been desperately, utterly afraid, terrified to the core of his being, dependent on the praise and approval that he received from a brother who, though only three years older, was the only parent figure Dysan had ever known. Certain her undersized, sallow baby with his protuberant belly and persistent river of snot would die, his mother had not even bothered to name him. He had turned two, by the grace of Kharmael, before she dared to invest any attachment in him. By then, the disease had damaged her physically and mentally, and she relied nearly as much on her older son as Dysan did.
Dysan examined the stonework from every angle, ideas churning through his mind. Though willing to spend the night dismantling the structure, he sought an easier and faster way. Well-placed and wedged, the gray stone seemed to mock him, a solid testament to another stolen love. He had one possession in this life that he saw as permanent, and no one was going to take it from him without a fight. He examined the base, knowing that it ultimately supported the entire pile. If he could remove a significant piece from the bottom, the whole day's labormight collapse. He had only to find one stone, one low-placed weak point.
Anger receded as Dysan focused on the wall, here studying, there wiggling, until he found an essential rock that shifted slightly when he pressed against it. Dysan flexed his fingers, planted them firmly against the rock, and shoved with all his strength. A sheeting sound grated through his hearing, but he felt much less movement than the noise suggested. Not for the first time, he cursed his lack of size. He had stopped growing, in any direction, since he had eaten, albeit lightly, of the poisoned feast and had met more than one seven-year-old who topped him in height and breadth.
Damn it! Dysan pounded a fist against the wall, which only succeeded in slamming pain through the side of his hand. He had long ago learned that legs were stronger than arms, so he lay on his back and braced his bare feet against the rock he had selected. Dampness permeated the frayed linen of his shirt, chilling his back to the spine. Closing his eyes, he attempted to focus his mind in one direction, though the effort proved taxing. His thoughts preferred to stray, especially when it came to anything involving counting, and it took a great effort of will to keep his mind engaged on any one task. The Hand had taught him to use anger as an anchor, and he turned to that technique now. Dysan closed his eyes and directed his thoughts. They want to take away my home. His muscles coiled. They battered and broke my friends. It was a different "they," but it had the same effect. Those sheep-shite bastards killed my brother! Images flashed through Dysan's mind: maimed women screaming in mindless terror and agony, grown men streaming blood like spilled wine and pleading for mercy, a broken fevered child beggingthe others to kill him so he would not have to face the tortures of Dyareela alive.
Bombarded by rage, vision a red fog, Dysan drove his feet against his chosen stone. It gave way beneath his assault, grinding free of its position in the wall. For a hovering instant, nothing happened. Dysan opened his eyes, immediately assaulted by lime and rain. His anger dispersed with the suddenness of a startled flock of birds, and he abruptly realized his danger. "Shite!" He scrambled backward as the entire wall collapsed, and stone exploded around him.
A boulder crashed against Dysan's wrist, sparing his face but sending pain screaming through his arm. More rumbled onto his legs, one caught him on the hip, and another smashed into his abdomen with enough force to drive air through his teeth. Then, the assault ended. The world descended into an unnatural silence, gradually broken by a growing chorus of night insects.
Dysan assessed his injuries. His arm hurt, the rubble pinned his legs, and pain ached through his hip. Cautiously, he wriggled from beneath the pile, stones rolling from his legs and raising a new crop of dust. Gingerly, he rose, careful not to put any weight on his left hand. His legs held him, though his weight ground pain through his right shin. Teeth gritted, he limped toward his bed, unable to fully savor what had become a bitter victory, and wished he had chosen the slower course.
Dysan awakened to a string of coarse swearing. He lay still, heart pounding, limbs aching, and forced himself to remember the previous night. Wedged into his blanketed crevice between the ceiling beams, he looked down on the Yard. The stoneworkers stood surveying the scattered stones thathad once formed the beginnings of a wall far sturdier than the previous adobe. This time, two women accompanied them: one the gray-haired matron he had seen yesterday, the other a middle-aged dark blonde with a bewildered expression.
The apprentice paced with balled fists. "Gods all be froggin' sure damn! I don't froggin' believe this!"
"Watch your tongue, boy. There're ladies present." The mason's familiar words had become a mantra.
The apprentice stopped pacing to whirl and face the women. He seemed beyond controlling his language. "Shite-for-sure, this ain't done by no wind. There weren't enough froggin' wind last night to take down a froggin' hay pile."
Apparently giving up on curbing his apprentice's swearing, the mason leaned against one of the solid walls. "Don't pay him any mind, ladies. Lost his mother young and raised by a foul-mouthed father."
The gray-haired woman ran her gaze around the entire area. "I don't hire builders for their sweet manners. And, like I keep saying, I don't understand a word he says anyway."
The younger woman blushed. Apparently, she did. "So how did it come down?"
The mason ran a meaty hand through black hair liberally flecked with gray. "Someone worked, and worked hard, to bring this down."
The younger woman glanced at the older, who pulled at her lower lip and examined the carnage thoughtfully. "Who?"
The apprentice threw up his hands and walked toward the mule cart, filled with new building stone.
"Don't know," the mason admitted. "It's never happened before, and I'm not sure what anyone would get out of it except the pleasure of watching me and Makla do the whole thing again."
The older woman looked up suddenly, hazel eyes darting, gaze sweeping the ceiling. Dysan froze, hoping she could not make out his shadow against the cracks, that his eyes were not as visible to her as hers to him. He had the benefits of darkness, of solid wood and blankets, of familiarity and utter stillness; but he could not help feeling as if the woman's cold eyes pinned him solidly to the beams. Yet, if the woman noticed him, she gave no sign.
The mason set to regathering stones, and the apprentice swiftly joined him.
"A prank?" the younger woman suggested.
"Sheep--" the apprentice started, cut off by the mason's abrupt gesture.
The mason turned to her, head shaking. "Possible. But a lot of effort for some dumb pud out looking for a frayed purse string." He went back to his work, straightening those base stones still in place.
For several moments, the men worked in silence before the younger woman tried again. "An enemy, perhaps?"
The mason checked the alignment while his young apprentice hurled the most widely scattered rocks back toward the damaged wall. "Haven't got any I know of." He rose, walked to the other side, and eyeballed the construction from the opposite side. "Got a son who's made a few, but he's out smashing stone for another project. His are the type who'd walk right up and plant a fist in your face, not ruin a day's work then hide like cess rats."
"Froggin' cowards," the apprentice muttered, barely loud enough for Dysan to hear.
Dysan smiled at the insult. He was used to worse.
The mason finally gave his full attention to the women again. "Begging your pardons, but not everyone's happy to see someone new come to the Promise of Heaven. Memories of ... the Hand and all."
Though not his motive, Dysan had to agree. He hated the Dyareelans and mistrusted the ruling Irrune, the victims of most of his spying; but he had no grievance with the established religions of Ilsigi and Ranke. He remained unmoving, watching the interaction unfold beneath him.
The gray-haired woman stiffened. The other's mouth dropped open, and no words emerged for several moments. Finally, she managed, "But we're not a temple--"
The older woman took her arm. "No, SaMavis, but we are dedicated believers. A passerby could assume." She smiled at the mason--at least Dysan thought she did. Her mouth pulled outward more than upward. "Whoever did it seems like an opportunist rather than someone willing to take credit or blame for his actions. Despite his presentation, I believe the young man is right. Our vandal is a coward. He wouldn't dare bother our mason, and he's not likely to touch the wall while we're here either."
"Ma'am," the mason started. "It might not be safe for a group of women ..." As the older woman's attention settled grimly upon him, he trailed off. "I just mean it--"
The woman's tone held ice. "I know what you mean. But we've bought this place, and here we will build. We'll eventually have to live here, women that we are. What will we have then that we don't have now?"
"Walls?" the apprentice suggested.
Dysan swallowed a laugh, his course already clear.He would let the stoneworkers build their walls and repair the leaky ceiling. Once he chased the newcomers away, he would have a fine home for which he did not have to pay a padpol.
"We have the blessing of sweet Sabellia. She chose this place for us, and She does nothing without reason."
Dysan did not recall a visit from any goddess. In fact, they had not answered the prayers of any of the orphans trapped in the Dyareelan Pits. He wondered how so many fanatical worshipers convinced themselves that their god or goddess held a personal interest in the mundane doings of any human's day. Had he not committed himself to statue-like stillness, he would have rolled his eyes in disdain.
The mason went back to work without another word. To argue his point would only anger his clients, which tended to hamper payment. Dysan remained stock-still and planned his next strike.
Dysan watched the women move basic packs and provisions to the Yard, counting five, all with Imperial accents. The youngest appeared a decade older than Dysan, the oldest the solemn woman who had handled their business with the stonemason and his apprentice. Their hair colors ranged from gray to medium brown, their features chiseled and fine, their skin Rankan ivory without a hint of Ilsigi swarthiness. Dysan waited until the stoneworkers took a break and the women disappeared to gather more of their belongings. Their conversation had revealed that they did not expect the vandal to return until after nightfall, so Dysan seized the opportunity.
Slipping from his hiding place as quietly as any cat, Dysan glided around the crawl space, which allowedhim a bird's eye view of every angle in and near the ruins. No one hovered around the two still-standing adobe walls, behind the new construction, around the collected stones where the mule grazed on twisted shoots jutting between the debris. Attuned to the slightest sound, Dysan spiraled through shadows toward the packs. He trusted his senses to warn him of any traps and his intuition of any magic. Those things alone had never failed him.
No stranger to thievery, Dysan scanned through the packs quicker than most people could pour out their contents, disturbing little in the process. He discovered blankets with embroidered patterns, dresses of simple design yet without holes or fraying, dried travel foods that might suffice for sustenance but little more, not worth stealing. He did find three soldats and a scattering of padpols. Dysan shoveled these into one purse without counting, which always gave him a headache. When others occasionally hired him and asked his charge, he always answered, "Five," leaving the denomination to the client. So far, he had received only padpols. If a man ever paid him in anything bigger, he would know it reflected a more difficult, valuable, or dangerous assignment. He tucked the purse in his waist band, covered it with the remnants of his shirt, and tried to minimize the bulge.
Finishing in scant moments, Dysan slipped around the walls and onto the Avenue of Temples. Even in broad daylight, he found little company on the street. Every altar desecrated, every priest brutally massacred, every wall blood-splattered or smashed reminded the inhabitants of the worst of Dyareela. The inner shards of the broken walls of Dysan's home still held paint that had once probably fit together as a mural depicting some pantheonand its miracles. The altar contained stains that reeked of urine and sex, blood and death; and he had disposed of lumps of animal and human feces left where valuables had once sat as offerings. Even those gods who might bother returning to Sanctuary could want nothing to do with the defiled remnants of their once great temples. Except, apparently, a small, confused group of Rankan women.
Dysan kept to the smaller alleyways, preferring to risk robbery over the need to exchange small talk. Though he had lived his entire life here, few knew his face and only a handful his name. Though he had kept "Dysan" throughout his life, a tribute to Kharmael, he could see no reason why anyone from his past would recognize it. He had seen the corpses of the other orphans buried by strangers. If others had survived the Pits, and he had heard rumors that a few had, they must have escaped before the poisoning and the fire. Reportedly, the Dyareelans had been destroyed to a man; and good riddance. He only wished they could have suffered the same terror, the same protracted and agonizing deaths they had inflicted on so many others.
A cold breeze touched sweat trickling along Dysan's spine, shocking him with an icy shiver. He shoved the thoughts aside before they could spark to flashback. He had suffered enough of that in the years following his escape; they had plagued him nearly to suicide. Grim focus had finally given him dominion over the leaps and lapses of his thoughts, but it required him to become attuned with body and mind, with the first indications that memory was rising toward rebellion. Only in his dreams could it still catch him unprotected, but even those had become rare in the last several years.
Dark men hidden deeply in shadow paid less attentionto Dysan than he did to them. He seemed a most unlikely and unnecessary target in his bare feet and tattered clothing. He knew how to draw attention away from his hidden purse, how to let the others know he saw them without giving away their concealment, how to listen while seeming distant and disinterested. This language, too, he knew, the one that kept a small man alive on dangerous streets.
Dysan also knew where to take his money, the only place he trusted to give him a fair exchange for his coins or for the merchandise he acquired. As he trotted past the Maze, he realized the time had come to enter it again, too. He had spent a lot of time there with the Hand, usually in the Vulgar Unicorn; but, in the last ten years, he went only often enough to keep tabs on the shifting landscape, or when hired business brought him there. Though great places for information, he otherwise found taverns boring. Strangers saw him as a child. He rarely found himself invited directly into discussions or games of chance, and the barmaids usually diluted his drinks to water. He had learned to appreciate that, as his slightness gave him little body mass to offset even one full-strength beer, but it also gave him nothing much to savor.
Dysan turned onto Wriggle Way and headed for the shop of Bezul the Changer. A pair of women passed him, discussing intended purchases in the market. He heard more than watched a dark-clad figure slink into the Maze. Ignoring them, Dysan tripped the gate latch and headed into the shop yard. He had taken only three steps when an enormous, muddy goose waddled from behind a bush with a snake-like hiss followed by a honk loud enough to wake the dead. More geese answered inringing echoes from the back courtyard. Dysan turned his quiet saunter into a run for the door, the goose honking, flapping, and biting at his heels.
Dysan charged into the changer's shop, attempting to slam the door without breaking the goose's neck. But the huge bird crashed in behind him, and the door banged shut an instant too late. Loose in the shop, the goose ran in crazed circles, huge wings walloping the air into whirlwinds and sweeping a line of crockery from a low table. Clay pots spilled to the floor, some smashing, some clomping hollowly against wood and tile. Shards scattered like frightened spiders.
Bezul scrambled from behind a table where he had been servicing a customer. "No! No!" His sandy disarray of hair looked even more tousled than usual, and he moved spryly for a man in his late thirties. He rushed the goose.
Dysan threw the door back open, hoping no one expected him to pay for the damage. He had no idea of the value of such things, but he had enough trouble keeping himself in food and clothing.
The customer back-stepped, presumably to steer clear of the growing wreckage, but stepped on a crockery shard. Balance teetering, he flailed, lost the battle, and landed on his backside. A thrown-out arm barely missed the row of empty jars and vials he had been examining a moment earlier.
The fall drew Dysan's attention even more than the goose, now hissing and squealing as it raced back into the yard, a step ahead of Bezul's broom. The stranger appeared to be nearing thirty, tall, with wiry black hair veined with white. Unlike most graying men, the lighter hairs did not congregate at his temples but seemed chaotically sprinkled, as if someone had dumped a scoop of wheat flour on hishead. He had blue eyes, brighter than Dysan's own but cast into shadow by prominent ridges. The long face and solemn features looked familiar, and Dysan took an involuntary, shocked step backward. He knew this man, or would have, had he sported a seething cacophony of tattoos. Like all of the Dyareelan priests, the man Dysan thought he recognized would have had arms as red as the blood ritually and gleefully splattered in the name of his goddess. That man had also worn permanent swirls of flame, numbers, and names plastered across his face and body.
Stop it! Dysan chastised his imagination. He had not projected an image of the Hand over an innocent in years. He shook his head to clear it, just as Bezul returned, leaving the door open as a welcome to customers. Dysan tried to apologize for letting the goose in, but his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth.
As if nothing had happened, Bezul leaned his broom against a display and approached the stranger. "Were we finished, Pel?"
"Yes," Pel said, his gaze on Dysan, his voice too gentle and deliberate to have ever served the Hand. "We're finished."
Dysan knelt and started picking up pieces of broken crockery, feigning excessive interest in his work.
"I think the boy's a bit shaken by your deadly man-eating attack goose."
"Who, Dysan?" Bezul's attention turned to him, much to Dysan's chagrin. "He's a regular. Not the first goose he's tangled with, eh Dys?"
Dysan hated when Bezul shortened his name. It reminded him that the first two letters matched those of the goddess he despised.
When Dysan did not back-banter, Bezul's tonechanged to one of concern. "You all right, boy?"
"Eh, Bez," Dysan returned belatedly, though Bezul was already a shortened form of the man's name: Bezulshash. "I thought you locked those nasty critters up during the day."
"Must have missed one." It was the standard answer. It seemed like Bezul always forgot a goose or two when he shooed them from the main yard in the morning. Usually, they had the common sense not to follow someone inside the shop.
Dysan swept the clay shards into a pile so he did not have to force a smile. He owed no one an explanation, especially not in Sanctuary, but he still felt obligated to say something. He forced himself to look up. Then, uncertain what to do with his now-free hands, he rubbed his nose with a not-quite casual gesture. "It wasn't the goose. It was the thought of who's going to have to pay for this." He made a gesture that encompassed those shards that had escaped his crude attempt at cleaning.
Bezul shrugged off the concern. "My goose. My mistake."
Pel headed for the door, and Dysan gave him plenty of space. "We'll all pay for it, ultimately." He looked down at the younger man from a frame at least a third again as tall as Dysan's and winked. "You, me, everyone. Believe me."
Bezul neither confirmed nor contradicted as Pel left the shop. He watched the man down the pathway and through the gate before turning to Dysan, who had slowly risen. "So, what can I get for you today?"
Dysan knew he ought to make small talk before launching into business, but jokes about shins bruised by the goose might force him to display the real ones he had gotten from falling building stones.He could ask about Bezul's mother, wife, and children; but he always sounded nervous when he did. Chatter made him uncomfortable; and, under the circumstances, he preferred to stick with the familiar. "I need something to put on my feet." He raised a bare foot, then returned it to the floor, careful to avoid the piled shards of clay. "Some live rats or mice. A couple of snakes."
Bezul's brows crept upward. "You're keeping odd pets these days, Dysan." He did not question; Bezul never questioned. But he left the point hanging if Dysan wished to discuss it further.
Dysan gave an evasive answer. "Need more meat in my diet." Knowing what he could buy depended on what he had to exchange for it, Dysan untied the purse and spilled its contents on the counter.
Bezul's head bent over the coins, revealing pale scalp where his hair had begun its southward march. He picked up the soldats, separating them from the padpols. "Not pure, but decent. Worth about--"
Dysan stayed the Changer with a raised hand. "Just tell me what I can get with it. Something for my feet. And those critters I mentioned."
Bezul straightened. "Right." An almost imperceptible grin touched the corners of his mouth. By now, he had to know Dysan preferred not to count money or deal with much in the way of change. They both scanned the outer shelves, filled with an assortment of bric-a-brac that spanned the length and breadth of Dysan's imagination. Pots and mugs sat beside foodstuffs, trinkets, books, and artwork, much of it filmed with a layer of dust. As he headed for the back room, Bezul made a quick grab that knocked a neat pile of linen askew. He emerged with a writhing black snake clutched behind thehead. He held it up in triumph, then took it with him as he disappeared into the back.
Dysan planted his elbows on the table and buried his face in his hands. Too tired even to glance around the shop, he closed his eyes and savored the moments of dark aloneness. His mind glided toward those empty moments prior to sleep.
Safely ensconced in his hiding place above the Yard ceiling, Dysan watched the drama unfolding beneath him. The stonemason and his apprentice had finished, leaving the beginnings of a wall a bit bigger than the one from the night before and securely mortared. The women sat around a controlled circle of fire, the flickering oranges, reds, and ambers casting dancing shadows along the walls and their faces.
In the firelight, the oldest looked more world-weary than wise and dangerous. The middle-aged, dark blonde she had called SaMavis moved with jerky motions that seemed nervous, and she glanced around the Yard as if she expected an abrupt visit from a pack of starved and wild dogs. Dysan examined the others, gleaning their names from occasional bursts that rose above their quiet conversation. They called the old woman SaVell or Raivay SaVell or just the Raivay, which was, apparently, a title of respect. The youngest was a pretty brunette in her twenties named SaKimarza. The last two were nondescript, heavyset women in their early thirties who could have passed for twins: SaShayka and SaParnith.
Dysan had to strain to catch even spatterings of their conversations. They talked softly, mostly in Rankene. Occasionally, they spoke more intimately in a self-styled syntax that resembled the Court style of Rankan aristocrats, one of the first languages theHand had taught him. Most Wrigglies would find those portions of their talks incomprehensible, though anything based on Rankene came as easily to Dysan as counting did not. The only languages that had given him any trouble at all were the cryptic, unnamed, and evolving dialects of spies and thieves. However, when the women slipped into their personal tongue, they also tended to drop their volume. What Dysan did manage to catch concerned watches and guarding, fears about an attack, speculation about the person or people who had destroyed their wall in the night.
Though Dysan tried to stay above it all, in attitude as well as position, he could not help smiling. He had only received this much attention when he reported conversations overheard in various tunnels and taverns to his handlers. Normally, he shied from notice, preferring anonymity. But, perhaps because these were women and he had never managed to win over his mother, this felt right. The fact that he had had to commit a crime to attract them did send a twinge through him. Kharmael would not approve, yet Dysan knew he had to keep focused on his mission. These women were invaders; and, one way or another, he would repel them.
The aromas of roasting spiced tubers and venison brought saliva to Dysan's mouth despite the full meal, cold and tasteless, that the women's money had bought him. He had gotten his boots, scuffed outside and smoothed inside by the child who had worn them before him, but still the best footgear he had ever owned. A new linen shirt, at least three sizes too big, joined the tatters of his regular clothing, along with britches he had to tie up with a belt looped three times around his waist. He had exchanged the women's purse for another, in case hehad to deny the theft. Even with the five padpols change, Bezul said Dysan had squared the cheap pottery and its thorough clean-up. Apparently, he had stolen a fortune from these women, yet they seemed not to have noticed. Or, if they did, they had done their screaming and shouting in his absence.
The blankets felt snug and greasy against Dysan's skin, warmed by the fire. He closed his eyes, limiting his concentration to one sense, the one he so often wholly relied upon, his hearing. The women's conversations turned to the mundane. Desperately shy on rest, Dysan slid into sleep without realizing it, awakened moments later by a shrill scream of terror. Only well-ingrained training kept him from springing to his feet and braining himself on the crawl space. Instead, he jerked opened his eyes and aimed them at the sound. Movement caught his vision first, a mouse scampering for freedom and a snake sidling with surprising speed for a creature lacking legs. SaShayka clutched her gear in trembling hands, her features paler than usual, her gaze locked on the fleeing snake. SaMavis stood on the stones surrounding the fire, hand clutched to her chest. The other three women stared at them.
As usual, the Raivay took control, clapping her hands for attention. "Ladies, please! Control yourselves. They're just little animals."
SaShayka hurled her things to the ground, and another mouse scrambled out, running jerkily into the night. "Those aren't little animals," she said, with a yip. "They're horrid little vermin and slimy, repulsive serpents." She shuddered. "Disgusting."
Once again, Raivay SaVell's sharp yellow gaze swept the interior and seemed to ferret out Dysan where he lay. He scarcely dared to breathe butcould not stop a cold shiver that twisted through him despite blankets that still held his body heat. "Disgusting they may be, but we'll see many more, I'd warrant. Now, ladies. Each of you take an end of your bedrolls and shake. And don't be surprised if you find valuables missing."
The women obeyed, some with clear timidity and others with the apparent intent of dislodging a herd of mules. Clothing and foodstuffs, blankets, personal toiletries, sacks, and even jewelry flew through the partially enclosed room, along with the mice, lizards, frogs, and snakes that had not skittered out of their own accord since Dysan had placed them there. All of the animals ran scared, disappearing into the darkness while the women unfolded every shift and emptied every pouch to assure they would not deliberately share their beds with creatures of the creeping variety.
The youngest, SaKimarza, switched to their private dialect. "Our invader?"
SaVell nodded once. "Undoubtedly."
SaMavis sorted her things back together and ran a comb through her locks. She returned the conversation to standard Rankene. "If the excitement is over for the night, I suggest we get some sleep."
"Indeed," SaVell said, gesturing to the others to collect their belongings and find a suitable location. "Watches as discussed. The guard will be mostly responsible for tending the fire, as I think our welcoming party has performed his cowardly evil for the night."
Dysan suffered a flash of angry pain at the insult. He did not like the words cowardly or evil ascribed to him, though both currently fit. They had left him little choice, five against one, commandeering his home without so much as an apology. Thoughwomen, every one stood taller and heavier than him, and it might take him forever to earn the money to buy them out. He did work the occasional odd job, but no one would hire his scrawny self for manual labor. They could always find someone larger, stronger, more personable to do the job. The anonymity necessary to perform Dysan's true calling well also kept the vast majority of people from knowing he existed for hire. Even those who learned of him often balked when they saw him, assuming him an unsophisticated child, unsuitable for such intricate assignments. In a life where his clothes wore out faster than he could replace them, where he went to bed hungry as often as not, where a grimy blanket worn threadbare served as his only constant source of warmth, he could scarcely help turning to the darker side of himself for sustenance and solace. At the worst of times, he sometimes wondered if the Irrune had done him any favors by destroying the Dyareelans. At least they had kept him alive with a daily warm meal, a place by the fire, and herbs when the raw fogs of Sanctuary crept deep into his lungs.
Dysan always knew he had reached bottom when those thoughts oozed into his mind. At those times, he warmed himself with rage. Those few and regular comforts had come at an unbearable price. And, he knew, the Hand only tended his illnesses because they found use for his talent. If it had ever failed him, if they had found another who could do it better, if they had no longer needed his services, they would have sacrificed him as blithely and easily as any goat and taken ruthless pleasure in the experience.
Dysan watched the women preen and dress for bed. The girls among the orphans had taught him propriety by slapping or kicking him when he daredto peek at them unclothed. The more jaded ones either did not care or might charge him in a murderous rage. It became vitally important to discern which and, after his brother had rescued him twice, easier not to look at any of them in a vulnerable state. Dysan had finally grown old enough to find women more than just a curiosity, but his body had not caught up to his mind and probably never would. He had long ago resigned himself to the permanent height of a seven-year-old but found himself wistful again as he passed into the second half of his teens. He doubted any woman would ever take him seriously as a partner, not even the girls in the Unicorn; and anyway, the idea of paying for it reminded him too much of his mother.
At length, all the women, except SaParnith, settled in for the night. She kept herself busy throwing an occasional log on the fire, staring out at the stars, and laboring over a knot of rope work in her lap. Dysan had no trouble sneaking down from his loft to the outside, then creeping soundlessly behind SaParnith. He distinguished the breathing of each woman, four naturally and blissfully asleep and one calmly awake. Cautiously, he dipped the end of SaParnith's bedroll into the fire. She took no notice of him either when he slipped away, clambered back into position, and watched the results through a space in the ceiling timbers.
The cloth took longer than he expected to ignite. Gradually, wisps of smoke condensed into a billow. He watched long enough to see a flame appear amidst the smoke. Smiling, he settled back into position, with every intention of observing the drama unfolding beneath him. Then, exhaustion ambushed Dysan, claiming watchfulness and consciousness alike.
Dysan dreamt of another fire. The past flooded into a dawn memory of men dragging out the bodies of dead orphans, speaking sorrowfully about these soulless babies, hopelessness, and parental dreams dashed. Several cried or made gestures he did not understand. Somehow, he managed to drag his unresponsive brother to a crevice, to cram Kharmael inside, to hide himself in a nearby hole. He watched in horror as the men gathered the children's meager possessions, the remainder of their feast, the bits and shards of remaining Dyareelan might, and set the pile ablaze. Finally, the men retreated.
Only then did Dysan dare to squirm from his hiding place. Those flames had roared to life with a suddenness that caught him wholly off-guard. Smoke funneled into his lungs like a living thing, solid and suffocating. He ran for the nearest exit, dragging Kharmael into a wild column of flame consuming the doorway, searing his face, wringing tears from his eyes only to dry them with heat an instant later. Gasping like a beached fish, he sprinted blindly back the way he had come, losing his grip on his brother.
Kharmael! Dysan tried to shout, but the flames burned his lungs, and his throat felt as raw as cinders. He took a step forward, tripping over something solid. Kharmael? He reached for the body, blistering his hands on blazing linen. He jerked backward, sobbing, trying to find bearings that the now impenetrable smoke would not allow. His mind grew desperately fuzzy. He ran in a tight circle, then forced himself to struggle onward, to leave Kharmael's flaming body behind. He's dead. Dead. Dysan's overwhelmed mind could not comprehend that any more than the realization that the only existence heknew had ended. He waded through smoke and flame, guided only by instinct that sent him always to where the smoke thinned, where the air felt coolest. His brother's death had only just penetrated when he realized that he, too, would die.
Dysan struggled forward into another wall of fire that ignited his clothes.
Dysan awakened screaming for the first time in seven years. He heard the echoes of his own cry bouncing from the loft and clamped a hand over his mouth to keep from loosing another. His heart slammed in his chest, and his breath wheezed out in frenzied gasps. It's all right. I found the window. I'm alive. Dysan measured his breathing, felt his heart rate slow. Then, another sound trickled to his ears, familiar but unplaceable. Just as he finally recognized it as priestly magic, the floor collapsed beneath him.
Air surged around Dysan, and he felt himself falling. Before he could think to do anything, before he could even untangle himself from the blanket, he hit the ground with an impact that shot pain through his shoulder, hip, and gut, stealing his breath. For a moment his eyes and lungs refused to work. Darkness closed over him, filled with spots and squiggles. Then, a sharp spiral of agony swung through him. His lungs spasmed open, taking in air, and his gaze revealed a circle of five women amidst a shattered fire and a pile of billowing ash.
"It's a child," SaParnith said.
SaMavis's sooty face softened, and she made a high-pitched syrupy noise. "He's so cute."
"Adorable," SaShayka agreed.
Too stunned and hurt to move, Dysan remained still and let them talk around him.
SaKimarza brushed back the knotted clump of his hair to look into his face. "You're injured, little boy. Tell me where it hurts?"
Dysan found himself unable to focus on that. Pain seemed to envelop all his parts, and he was more concerned with what these women planned to do with him. Nothing made sense, especially his captors cooing over him like a flock of mother hens. He rolled his eyes to Raivay SaVell, who studied him with equal intent and silence.
The other four began to talk at once, while SaKimarza rummaged through a cloth sack. "Poor lit tle one." "I hope we didn't hurt him too badly." "You don't think he's really the one--"
The Raivay broke in. "Of course he's the one. Remember, sisters, child or not, he's the rat we caught in our trap."
"He's the one who--" SaShayka started.
"This child--" she started again.
All of the women went quiet, studying Dysan. Still uncertain what to do or say, he remained still. He measured the distance to the door with his gaze but knew pain would slow him too much to try. Sleep, slight as it was, had stiffened his wounds from the collapsed stonework; and the fall had reawakened every ache. He had landed on the same hip the toppling rocks had pummeled, and he worried for the bone. Bruises mottled his legs, his wrist ached, and his shoulder felt on fire.
The women switched to their private language; but, this time, Dysan could hear each word. He darted glances in every direction, only partially feigning fear and pretending not to understand them.
SaMavis never took her eyes from Dysan. "What do we do now?"
SaKimarza continued to search her sack. "Find out why he did it. Fix him up. Go from there." She laid out a row of crocks and bottles, and a mouse skittered from the linen. She jerked backward, and a frown scored a face pretty with youth.
SaParnith dropped to her haunches. "I say we scare him off for good. Threaten to ... sacrifice him to Sabellia or something."
SaMavis gasped. "Sacrilege! Sabellia doesn't take blood--"
A grin stretched SaParnith's face. Though probably intended to appear wicked, it did not measure up to what the Hand priests could manage with the rise of a single brow. Their eyes had always given them away, and SaParnith's pale brown orbs lacked that dangerous gleam of cruelty. "He won't know that. After what the people here have suffered, he won't doubt--"
Raivay SaVell interrupted. "That's exactly what we don't want. Any comparison to the evil that nearly destroyed this place, nearly turned them all against the gods. Sabellia sent us here." She made a stabbing motion at the ground to indicate the building, then a broader gesture that encompassed all of Sanctuary. "Here--to spread the word and greatness of Sabellia to the women of this ... this city."
Dysan thought he caught a hint of contempt in her tone, a common reaction of foreigners to Sanctuary for reasons he did not have the information to understand.
"I just--" SaParnith started.
But SaVell had not finished. "Money has corrupted the highest priestesses in Ranke, and Sabellia sent us here to win over the hearts of Sanctuary'swomen honestly--with selflessness and good deeds, not by terrorizing children."
SaMavis stirred a finger through the sodden ashes. "Imagine what this boy would tell his parents. The Dyareelans have left these people suspicious enough of religion inside their walls. Remember, those bloodthirsty monsters, too, started with good works and charity."
SaShayka leapt to her feet. "But ours is genuine!"
"I'm sure the Dyareelans' seemed that way, too--at first." SaMavis looked up at SaShayka. "Otherwise, they couldn't have grabbed so much power so quickly."
SaVell still studied Dysan, her yellow eyes vital for one so old and their intensity unnerving. "We can discuss this later. We have another matter to deal with now." Finally, she switched to Ilsigi. "Boy, why did you set our things on fire?"
"Maybe I didn't." Dysan restored the brisk stop-and-start inflection to the bastard Wrigglie language. "Maybe you just put your old junk too close to the flames." Fatigue slowed his thoughts and pain made him hostile; yet, at the same time, he felt dangerously vulnerable.
"Maybe nothing." SaVell's gaze remained unwavering. "Ah, so you want to do this the hard way." She raised an arm.
As the old woman came no closer, and she did not strike him, Dysan turned his attention to her. A tingle passed through him, and he recognized it instantly as priestly sorcery. He had seen his share of it in front of altars writhing with human bodies or dripping with their blood. This time, he saw no illusions, felt none of the crushing evil that accompanied the summoning of Dyareela's power. Thistime, it seemed to cleanse him, to strip away the layers of grime that darkened and protected him. His thoughts floated backward, not to the blows, physical and verbal, of his handlers but to the warm solace of his brother's arms.
The whole proved too much for Dysan. Tears stung his eyes, and he confessed in a whisper, "I live here." The words raised a power and anger all his own, and he rammed through the pain to make his point. "You're going to take away my home. My home!" He rolled his gaze to the ceiling, where the boards hung in jagged disarray, revealing the hole that had once served as his bed. Those timbers had remained solid all this time; he tested them daily. Only sorcery could have caused them to fail instantaneously and without a hint of warning. SaVell had made him fall, and Sabellia had granted her the power, had sanctioned that decision.
Before Dysan knew it, he found himself cocooned in warm arms, pressed against an ample bosom, and rocked like an infant. He did not fight, just went limp in the embrace, let her body heat wash over him in a wave of soothing he would not have imagined contact with some stranger might fulfill. She smelled clean and of some sweet spice he could not identify.
The Raivay's voice shattered the sanctity of the moment, struggling to mimic his coarse Wrigglie dialect. "We are building our Sisterhood here."
Dysan anticipated a flash of anger that never came. He knew better than to trust himself to make significant decisions when fatigue and pain muffled his thoughts, just as he knew better than to fall asleep in a house with an uncontrolled fire. Yet, tonight, he did both. Adopting the Rankene variation the women had used, he spoke in a perfect renditionof an Imperial accent. "I know Sabellia doesn't take human sacrifices, and I don't have parents to which to tell anything."
Startled, the woman dropped Dysan. He tensed to keep his balance, the abrupt movement driving pain through him. Cold air washed over Dysan, and he realized SaMavis had been the one embracing him.
Even SaVell's nostrils flared, though she gave no other sign of her surprise.
"How ... ?" SaParnith stammered. "How ... ?" When the words still did not follow, she changed the question. "You don't ... look ... Rankan."
Dysan glanced between the women's shocked faces and wondered if he had made the right decision. "I'm Wrigglie. But I do all right with pretty much any language." He could tell by the bewilderment still pasted on their faces that his explanation had not wholly satisfied them.
Finally, SaKimarza explained, "But that language belongs to our Sisterhood. Only us and Sabellia--"
SaVell leapt in, as she so often did. "Sabellia picked this city, this building." Though not a real explanation, it served well enough. Even Dysan understood that she believed Sabellia had cast his lot with theirs on purpose, had filled in any blanks between his natural bent toward languages and the Rankene code-speech that served this order.
Dysan shivered at the loss of control. That anyone might take over his mind and actions chilled him to the marrow, and the understanding that she was a goddess did not make him any more comfortable. He had been so young when the Bloody Hand, and perhaps Dyareela, owned and shaped him; and he had spent the last decade assuring himself that he answered to no one unless he freely chose to do so.
He had done some stupid things in the last two days: positioning himself to get crushed by stones, falling asleep near fire, allowing a dream to take over his common sense. Yet, he felt certain all of those mistakes were his own, not attempts by anyone to consume him. The association felt right, secure. Five mothers for the one he had never really known and Grandmother Sabellia. None of these could ever truly take the place of the brother he so desperately missed, but any seemed better than ten more years of loneliness.
"So what do we do?" SaShayka finally said. Though soft and gentle, her voice seemed to boom into the lengthy silence.
They all looked at Dysan.
"I think," he said carefully, "I could be talked into sharing." He had no real power in this negotiation. Ten years of living in this ruin meant absolutely nothing compared with the money the women had spent to buy and restore it. Nevertheless, he continued to bargain. "I don't do heavy labor, but I can crawl into small spaces that need checking or fixing. And I'm very good at listening."
SaVell smiled. This time, her face opened fully, and her eyes sparkled. Beneath the gruff exterior, apparently, lurked a good heart. "I don't suppose you could use a few hot meals a day, a home with walls, and a bed without a gaping hole in the bottom."
"I might find use for such things." Dysan managed a smile of his own. "Welcome to my home."
"Our home," Raivay SaVell corrected as SaKimarza examined Dysan's wounds. "Our home."