'I heard Zhamelle hitting someone. What happened?'
Shapeis relaxed when he heard Julyeis's voice behind him at the entrance to the kitchen. He returned to tending his patient, a girl with blood across her face, as he answered.
'That bitch treated her client with less respect than he thought he deserved. His tip was short of a few coppers and Zhamelle was not happy. So she decided to beat the shit out of Kaalis when she went to tidy the room.'
The girl looked up at Julyeis: 'I did nothing wrong! She used her fists on me!'
Julyeis didn't bother to hide the anger in her eyes. She moved quickly to Shapeis's side, taking the cloth from his hands to continue cleaning the blood away from Kaalis's broken nose and split lip. Then she checked her face from different angles.
'There'll be no need for stitches, but the bruises will be large. I want you to stay out of Varoul's sight until the worst of the swelling has gone. We don't need him getting concerned about us just now.'
'What about Zhamelle?' asked Shapeis.
'Fix some hot water, man, and make me a steam. I'll deal with that one in my own time. You' - she pointed at him - 'you will do nothing! No words, no glances. No attitude! We will not give Zhamelle any reason to come down here! Nor Varoul, understand?'
Shapeis shrugged. 'She would not be stupid enough to mix with Servants.'
'Fix my steam, and one for Kaalis too.'
He turned away, happy in his stomach to comply with the order. Quickly he prepared the drinks: plain tea for the women; a stronger lutestran steam for himself. Julyeis disapproved of his use of the drug, he knew, but he had two clients later who liked to be whipped: he preferred to deliver the service with a muffle of narcotic between himself and the action.
When the last of the steam had condensed into the cup he carried them over to the women, now sat by the small hearth at the back of the brightly lit room.
'You made her dress in goat-wool,' he said to Julyeis as he handed her the drink.
She didn't smile. 'I thought you would appreciate it.'
'I did. I liked the story that went with it too, the harvesting at the special time to keep the devils and demons away. I almost laughed when she put it on!'
'You are well trained, lad. And I wish it had been my idea.'
'It wasn't? Who else would want to play such a cruel trick on the girl?'
'No!' said Kaalis, quickly recovering from her hurts.
'Oh, yes!' said Julyeis. 'I had specific instructions: the Lady was to be dressed in cheap clothes for this lesson, and was to be encouraged to fuck the buckman. Apparently the peasant look is a big fashion in the Old City at the moment and she didn't want her daughter to be shocked by the idea. She took the shift, too. I told her to keep it hidden in her bedroom and to wear it when practicing her massages.'
Shapeis laughed - a short, deep hack of breath. 'The mother worries about such trivial things? She should worry more about the girl's body!'
'Why?' asked Kaalis. 'I thought she was pretty, for a Tall One.'
'She is pretty, I'll give you that,' he said, 'but she danced on the end of my nub like a sack of onions!'
'There's no need for that!' said Julyeis. 'She knows nothing except the writhes and groans stitched into her reflexes. What I don't understand is why the mother left such training to the last minute.'
'Well, if the girl was destined to become that sort of courtesan …' he could feel the housekeeper's disapproval of "that sort" by the way she dipped her voice as she spoke the words, '… then the training should have started months ago. I get the impression that plans are changing, that maybe Lady Temis has learned something lately that may affect her daughter's contract once she gets to the Old City.'
'What could it be?' asked Kaalis.
'I've no idea, child. Perhaps the Emperor is dying …'
'Hush!' said Kaalis, her hands going to her mouth. 'It's dangerous to even think such a thing! My friend, she told me Tall Ones can tell even the silent words in a person's head!'
Shapeis laughed at the girl's superstition. 'Your friend lies!'
'Even so,' said Julyeis, who gave him a dark look as she spoke, 'Kaalis is right. We should be careful about what we say, and thoughts can write themselves on our faces without us even noticing. We won't be wanting attention from the Tall Ones just at the moment.'
'Because we've got a guest coming to stay. A special guest.'
Julyeis went to collect her guest an hour before the next dawn. Shapeis accompanied her, mainly because he wanted to; he rarely got an opportunity to leave the bordello. Both wore long shifts with hoods even though the air was already warm; Shapeis kept his hood raised over his horns to minimise the stares from curious early risers. Wherever possible, Julyeis chose to use back streets rather than the main thoroughfares. To bypass Market Square, where the first stall-keepers were beginning to arrive, they walked alongside the main sewer under the cobbled space.
They reached the river a little above the lower docks. Two strangers were waiting in the mists, sat on the bank of the river near a poorly maintained boat carrying a cargo of cabbage and yams. As Shapeis drew closer he could see that one of the strangers was a child.
'You said nothing about a child,' he whispered.
'Neither did the Story Keeper,' she responded. She looked around then quickly signalled: come.
The other stranger - a woman by her shape, Shapeis guessed - responded with a signal of her own. She took the child's hand and started to walk towards them. Julyeis did not wait for them to catch up; she turned and started back towards the sewer entrance. Shapeis followed, not bothering to look back.
Only when they had reached the relative safety of the sewer tunnel did Julyeis stop.
'We need some light, lad!'
Shapeis obliged, turning on the torch they had brought with them, though its illumination was feeble; the small spring boxes that powered it were mostly unwound.
As soon the guests reached the safety of the tunnel, the two women started hand-talking. The older stranger carried most of the discussion, weaving her hands through space in gestures and comments, her face miming and grimacing as the silent conversation continued. Shapeis trained the torchlight mainly on her face and hands so that he and Julyeis could pick out the nuances in the woman's chatter, only rarely turning the light on his companion when she needed to sign a response to a direct question.
Throughout the performance the child stood silent and unmoving, a little behind the woman, her eyes lost in a gaze of brickwork patterns.
Then the talking was done. Together the four of them began their journey back to the bordello beyond the warehouses in the Western Quarter. The torch springs finally failed as sunlight breached the city walls.
Back at the bordello, they entered as quietly as possible, moving directly to the Servant quarters hacked into the bedrock beneath the foundations.
'I'll make some steams,' whispered Julyeis. 'You fix the stew, and find that bread Varoul left yesterday.'
Again, Shapeis did as he was told without question. He was curious about these guests, and intended to stay on Julyeis's happy side to learn as much as he could. He watched them now. The woman had already removed her cloak and was attending to the child - a girl who could be no more than eight or nine years old, he judged. Both were filthy and their clothes were little more than rags.
'They'll need to wash,' he said. Julyeis nodded an agreement and broke off from tending the steamer to sign a quick chat with the woman. She, too, nodded an agreement before continuing to tend to the child.
Shapeis understood hand-talking: he had learned it, secretly, on his home farm alongside the other children being raised for their various purposes. Even so, the woman signed with a definite accent: her fingers failed to make the expected inflections for tense and mood and some of her signs were skewed or new, meaning Shapeis had to concentrate harder than normal to get the gist of her words.
The child was not typical, he thought. Throughout the journey, and now in the Servants' quarters, she had shown no interest in him, Julyeis or even the woman. She walked when she was led somewhere, sat and stood when pushed down and pulled up. But otherwise she did nothing, looked at nothing, reacted to nothing.
He attracted the woman's attention and signed: Is the little one deaf? Blind?.
No, the woman signalled, her right palm outwards and fingers splayed. She sees and hears only the Creator.
Shapeis was sure he had misunderstood, but carried on signing - aware that his speech was slow through irregular use. You have names? Will you share your story with me?
Not yet - the time is not good, the woman responded. But I'll give you our names. I am called Kebezzu when I am among friends, and this is my charge: Sosunda.
He was busy working from mid-morning, and received his last client some time after sundown. This one - a woman - had asked him to dance for her, performing one of the more erotic Laoma fire-dances. Shapeis met her request, though his mind was elsewhere. He dressed in a short toga and set small fires in metal pots around the room. Some of the steps were out of place - and he completely forgot one of the short, intimate hand runs near the climax of the routine - but the woman was beyond caring at that point. Taller than him, and fatter than average, the woman had masturbated herself through the whole performance.
He took her roughly at the end, not bothering to check how moist she was between her legs, rutting her mercilessly from behind to prevent her hanging from his horns. Soon enough she was screaming for rapture. He acted his way to climax, not delivering his salt to her womb; he knew the client, high on the lutestran leaves she was chewing, would notice no difference.
Then he bathed her, massaged her, got rid of her. Varoul himself, tall and gaunt with decaying molars, took her money as she left. Shapeis returned to the room to clean up, and was joined a couple of minutes later by Kaalis, dressed in a hooded shift to shadow the raw bruise now spread across her face. She froze when she heard new voices in the main hall: the slow, dragging tones of Zhamelle greeting her latest client, but someone else had already prepared a room for her on the first floor and she seemed eager to get her client to bed.
Shapeis continued collecting the fire-bins and Kaalis mopped and cleaned the sunken bath. When they were finished the girl put out the lamps while he checked the hall. Varoul must have retired to his office, leaving the way clear for the two of them to reach the hidden door to their quarters below.
Nobody was in the kitchen. He left Kaalis to prepare steams for them both and went in search of Julyeis and the guests.
He found them hand-talking in the space she called her office, the child asleep on the floor between the two women. Without asking permission, he knelt on the smoothed stone near to where Julyeis sat to watch the conversation.
The woman - Kebezzu, Shapeis remembered - seemed to be discussing rumours she had heard on her journey upstream to Bassakesh. Petezbarre is closed, he told me. The roads are guarded and the port blockaded. A total quarantine, with not even Tall Ones allowed through.
And how long ago was this? queried Julyeis, her lips jutting the question from her face.
No more than five days ago. He was the man who arranged our passage from Rhus Barre.
Shapeis knew little about geography. Rhus Barre was a settlement somewhere downstream, before the Taete joined the Vaeyuu River; Petezbarre was a seaport somewhere on the east coast, far away from the world he knew.
And he had good sources?
A cousin who Serves in the Temple there. The aether has been seething with the news, apparently!
Julyeis kept her hands still for a few seconds, considering the information. Reluctantly, she shaped her hands and her face into the questions she didn't want to ask. Why? What do they fear? Strife? Rebellion?
I do not want to think that. Few of us survived the slaughters of those unhappy times.
Kebezzu shrugged her shoulders, but her face made plain the fear she felt in her bones.
At that moment Kaalis arrived with the steams, and Julyeis - who seemed thankful for the distraction - set about their distribution. Shapeis received his lutestran steam and sipped the hot liquid from the rough edge of his clay-glazed mug. He smiled his thanks to Kaalis, even though the drink was weaker than he preferred it. As the commotion continued he considered the child, sleeping on the floor, oblivious to the sound of scraping chairs and clattering spoons. Now the dirt had been cleaned from her he could see that she was older than he had first thought - eleven or maybe twelve rather than eight. But she was small, as if she had been underfed for years.
She appeared to be normal in every other respect. Her hair was a nondescript curl of black and her skin was dark olive-brown, though scratched and scabbed - if she had ever worked, then she had worked outside, he surmised. He decided to venture a question.
Placing his palms together, he brought his hands to his chin, his thumbs covering his nose and his eyes staring directly at Kebezzu. She noticed his request and nodded. Rustily, he started to sign.
It is strange to see Servants travel without Tall Ones - why?
We are without Tall Ones, friend Shapeis, she responded, slowing her movements to accommodate his interpretation skills.
Why? Who do you Serve?
There is more to Service than mere ownership. I am owned by the Creator, and my Service is dedicated to His creation.
Shapeis frowned at the answer. And those who don't Serve, who don't understand the purpose of our Service - the Tall Ones - they accept this?
The woman shook her head slowly. Such people pollute our Service; we prefer to keep our activities from their notice. There are places in the jungles and mountains where Tall Ones do not go. Places made by Servants after the great slaughters many years ago. I come from such a place.
A city of Servants?
Kebezzu's hands laughed: No, young one. Hovels they are for the most part, clearings in the jungles wide enough for a small crop of yam. Nothing more, and yet they suffice.
And you were born there, in this place without Tall Ones?
Again, the slow shake of the head. These are not places to be born in, rather places to discover, a safe space for us to perform the Creator's work in peace, without distraction.
Why? Is our Service not worthy?
True Service should be freely offered beyond the bounds of shackles, yes?
Shapeis was surprised when Kaalis, crouched behind him, broke her silence.
'What's so special about freedom?' she whispered, not bothering to wave her hands into the phrases. 'Life's as hard for most Tall Ones as it is for us. At least we don't have to beg for food.'
But for the first time in his life, Shapeis did not share Kaalis's certainties. He glanced again at the sleeping child, then signed his request:
Will you share your story with us now, friend?
And the woman called Kabezzu nodded, and stood, and unfolded a new vision for his mind.
Copyright © 2010 Rik Roots. All rights reserved.