Authors: Ben Galley
‘You ought to be ‘shamed, sneakin’ up on a blind girl,’ she challenged.
‘There was no sneaking involved,’ said the stranger, a man with a deep, yet quiet voice, the fringes of which were frayed with tiredness and travel.
‘Farden,’ she breathed.
‘The very same.’
‘An’ what could you want, I wonder?’ said Jeasin, with a dry smile. She crossed her arms. His ability to sneak up on her,
of all people, was infuriating. She could never sense him until he was right under her nose. And now there he was, and suddenly Jeasin was wishing he was anywhere but under her nose. She could smell him now, taste him almost; the copper smell of blood still under his fingernails; the scent of mud and leather fighting for air. Metal. Week-old sweat.
‘You tell me, Jeasin,’ mumbled the mage. Leather shoulders creaked.
‘Bath, by the smell of you.’
A shrug. ‘That too.’
‘Same old Farden. You’d better be careful. The Duke’s dog is becomin’ predictable.’
The mage grunted. ‘Watch your mouth, and keep your voice low.’
Jeasin lifted her chin. ‘Would you ‘ave me dumb, as well as blind?’
There was a silence. Farden smirked. The sun was hot on his stubbled face. He examined a muddy stain on the back of his hand. ‘I’d call you many things. Dumb isn’t one of them.’
‘I know what you meant. That was quite the little scam you just pulled. Almost had me fooled. Especially the wife. We should find her a stage,’ said the mage. He reached out and flicked the bulging coin purse hiding under the embroidered neckline of her borrowed dress. It clinked. ‘Quite a bit of coin for a day’s work,’ he said, his voice low, quiet, dangerous if she didn’t know him any better. Luckily, she did. She slapped his hand away.
‘Nothin’ wrong with a bit of work on the side. Anyways, women have to keep together.’ She waited for the nearby footsteps to recede. ‘I was doin’ Karleah a favour. Serfesson’s been tourin’ the brothels like they’re goin’ out of business. Now she can finally be free of him and get what’s ‘ers as well. Reevers don’t pay no heed to us girls or to the city gossip. Those law men need to see proper proof,’ she asserted in a hushed voice. ‘So we gave ‘em some.’
The mage leant forward. ‘Jeasin,’ he said. ‘It’s not a favour if you charge for it.’
The woman shrugged, wondering why she was trying to justify her actions. The mage was right; she couldn’t have cared less about Karleah or her husband. There was no use trying to paint her life with a varnish of virtue and morality; it would have flaked off in an hour. Most of the people in her town were just purses with legs, open hands holding gold, waiting to be taken. That’s how she saw them in the murky darkness, and she didn’t care to be proven wrong.
Farden though, now here was one of the precious few with qualities other than his coin, although Jeasin grumbled to admit it. She poked the coin purse deeper into her dress and reached for Farden’s hand. He let her find it. ‘If anyone’s the authority on morals ‘round here, Farden, it ain’t you. Not by a bloody long shot,’ she said to him, gesturing towards the street. ‘Come on then.’
A few hours later, a bathed Farden stood in front of a grimy window, drying his tangled black hair in the sun. In a mixture of apathy and forgetfulness, he had let it grow down to his shoulders, and now it spent most of its day trying to annoy him, trying to escape. Farden gave up trying to unravel it with his fingers. He turned around, casting about for some sort of brush or comb. Jeasin was dozing on the bed, wrapped loosely in a blanket. A nearby window was propped ajar. Sounds of the canals and waterways floated up and rested on the windowsill like the grey pigeons that roosted there. They burbled and cooed sleepily, mumbling to themselves. A cold breeze ruffled their feathers, prickled the mage’s skin. Farden walked to the window, hands ready to shut it. He lingered there for a moment, looking out over the confused little city.
Tayn was the sister city of Kiltyrin’s capital, imaginatively named Kiltyrin, and what a strange little place it was. Built straight in the path of a river, the city had bent it to its will, dissecting it into a hundred little waterways and canals, wrapping them up in brick and stone. It made the city looked like a bursting capillary. It was a jumbled place, full of dark stone and slate roofs, gravel and spindly bridges.
The breeze was turning colder now that afternoon was dying, making way for evening. He stared out of the window, half at his grizzled reflection, half at the city, with its veins of dubiously-coloured water. A lone and brave star hovered in the eastern sky, just to the left of a chimney-pot across the street. Farden scowled at it, and shut the window with a thud.
The mage walked to the other side of the room, where a thin sliver of polished bronze had been propped up in the corner. Farden confronted his metallic reflection. It had been so long since he had seen it. Now he curled his lip at it, like an unwelcome guest.
His hair was even longer than his fingers had suggested. It was a tangled, black mop, the ends of which had clumped together in places to form long knots. Even the bath hadn’t helped them. Farden pulled at one and frowned.
Next he looked to his shoulders and chest, probing them with his rough fingers and feeling knots of a different sort, hiding under his dry skin and in between his tired muscles. Every few inches of so, his fingers would come across a gnarled lump, or a puckered indent, or a twisted line. Scars, young and old. Some were camouflaged by the black hair on his chest, others were in plain sight, like the missing finger on his left hand, Vice’s parting gift. He ran his palm across his chest and felt them all, bloody memories, every single one. Farden reached down and lifted his towel up over his shins and knees to look at the scars there too, a tapestry of bloody blades and daggers and sharp, evil things.
Farden turned to the side, slowly, and looked at the tendrils of black script that curved around his ribs. He turned some more, craning his stiff neck so he could see his whole Book, splayed across his back. He noticed that not a single scar dared interrupt the lines of black script.
, he thought. There was a patchwork of scars across his shoulders and spine, silvery, wandering trails like snail-grease, but wherever they met the obsidian ink of his tattoo, they faded and gave way, reappearing in between the lines and runes for brief moments until they died completely. The same could be said of the key-shaped tattoos on his forearms. Farden looked down at them and scowled.
On the bed, Jeasin rolled over in her sleep. Two coin purses sat on the side of her bed; one large and stuffed, the other smaller and lighter, with a few flecks of clay-coloured mud on it for good measure. Farden tiptoed over to the end of the bed, where his clothes lay folded over the curved spine of a chest. His pack and haversack lay on the floor to the side of it, crumpled and tired. New equipment was needed, he thought. That meant the market. Farden had grown to hate them with a passion that bordered on violence. Markets meant magick, and Farden had already had enough of that in his life.
With a snort, he rubbed his forehead. The dull headache had returned to pester him. Farden lifted up his clothes and reached for something gold and red and shiny underneath. He sat on the bed, garnering a sleepy groan from Jeasin in the process, and put the two vambraces on his lap. They clinked as they rolled together.
‘What’s that?’ muttered Jeasin, head entrenched in a pillow. Farden turned to look at her. Her hair covered most of her neck and her chest. Gold, curly hair. Even though her eyes were blind, they looked as perfect as could be. They were not misted, nor scarred, and had her eyelids been opened, she would have stared out of eyes the colour of an empty winter sky. Blue and cold. Farden reached out to move the hair from her face, thought better of it, and cleared his throat with a deep cough instead.
‘Nothing,’ said Farden, sliding one of his vambraces onto his arm. The metal was cold, and at the touch of the mage’s skin, the overlapping scales of steel shivered and rattled. They contracted around his arm until they fit perfectly. Farden savoured the coldness against his skin, cooling his veins, numbing his head. He reached for the second one.
‘What’s that noise?’ asked Jeasin again, lifting her head out of her pillow.
‘Nothing, I said.’
With a groan, the woman sat up. She was stark naked. She reached out and found the mage’s muscled, scarred shoulder, and traced it down to his arm. The mage watched her nimble fingers prod and probe the metal of his vambrace.
‘Don’t you ever leave these off?’
‘They’re safer on than off.’
Jeasin looked offended. ‘Sayin’ you don’t trust me, Farden?’
He put a hand on the back of hers. ‘Habit. And no, I don’t trust anyone.’
‘What are they then? What makes ‘em so precious?’
‘Old family heirlooms. They’re nothing,’ he told her. An easy lie.
Jeasin sniffed, shrugged, stretched. She ran her hand back up the mage’s arm and down his back. The mage naturally shied away from the feel of her hand across his Book. ‘I wish I could see it,’ she said.
‘Count yourself lucky that you can’t. Why do you think I come to you, instead of the other girls?’ A half-lie, this time. Somehow it was harder.
Jeasin ran her hand through her golden locks and smirked. ‘Sure. You come to me ‘cause I’m blind. That’s the reason.’ She lay back on the bed. ‘So I take it I owe this little visit to the Duke, then? You off to see ‘im?’
Farden hummed a “yes.” He looked down at his vambrace and shook his head. He had forgotten about the Duke. He pinched the metal between finger and thumb and it slithered apart. It soon found itself firmly back in his haversack, hidden in a nest of dirty clothes.
‘Why don’t you stay ‘ere, tonight? Keep us company.’
‘Trying to squeeze more coin out of me?’
‘Usually, but no. Either way, I can make it worth your while.’
Farden hesitated, and then shook his head. ‘It’s not safe.’
‘Be safer for us girls havin’ a mage like you in the house.’
‘I was talking about me.’
‘As if’n anybody in Kiltyrin would dare challenge you. Need to protect my girls.’
‘You’ve got more than enough coin to hire some men. Do that.’
‘And why do that when I can ‘ave an Arka Written instead?’
Farden thumped his fist on the end of the bed. Jeasin jumped. ‘I told you to keep your mouth shut about that. I am
a Written,’ Farden growled. ‘Not any more.’
Jeasin folded her hands behind her head and tutted. ‘Funny. Thought that tattoo thing on your back said different. Told you, I’ll make it worth your while. No charges.’
Farden hoisted his pack over his tired shoulders and pulled his hood over his head, checking his belt. He had only the dagger; he had burnt the longbow and its arrows in a campfire two days before. Evidence, there would not be. He knelt and picked up a sack, a sack he had been carting around for a week, and slung it onto his back. ‘I’ll see you soon, Jeasin,’ he said, moving to the door.
Jeasin scrambled to her knees. She pulled the blanket around her body, anger flickering across her face. Her eyes searched about wildly. ‘What kind of man are you, to turn down an offer like that?’ she spat.
Farden paused for a moment. ‘A man that can’t be relied on,’ he grunted.
The door shut behind him.
Jeasin threw her hands up in the air and tossed herself back into her pillows. She listened to the clomping of the mage’s boots as they hurriedly receded down the wooden hallway. Damn that mage, she cursed. Pinning him down was like trying to hammer a nail into a wriggling river eel. Jeasin lifted her head and let the sounds of her cat-house fill her sensitive ears. The whooping, the moaning, the dull thudding. Normality, for now. More and more girls came to her every day, looking for a shiny coin and a way off the streets. Jeasin thumbed her nose. Coin, and her girls. Her two little cares in her dark little world. Jeasin closed her eyes and let herself drift into it.
She didn’t get long. There came a timid knock at the door and a little voice called her name.
‘Jeasin?’ it ventured. It was little Osha.
‘What?’ she yelled.
The door inched open and a little face to match the little voice poked into the room. Osha had a pointy little face like a mouse’s. She was still young; only just ten, if Jeasin remembered right. She was a housegirl, born and raised, literally speaking.
‘There’s a man here for you,’ she whispered, pointing to somebody behind the door.
There was always a man somewhere in this house
, sighed Jeasin. ‘Tell him I ain’t available. Give ‘im to Latissia.’
Osha bit her lip. ‘He says he wants you.’
‘Well, I’m busy. Go ‘way.’
Osha ducked her head behind the door and Jeasin heard some hushed mumbling, too quiet for even her to pick out. The little girl quickly returned, flapping her paw-like hands. Her nails were painted a bright, gaudy blue. The product of the boredom of one of the other girls, stuck between appointments. ‘He says not for, er,
… He says it’s business. A proper…’ More mumbling from behind the door. ‘A properstition.’