Kinslayer Chronicle Part 11
I may or may not have accidentally concussed myself over the last couple of days. Consequently, this next chapter of the Kinslayer Chronicle is a little late. I’m sorry, team.
Chapter 8 – The City of Dreams
There exists on the coast of a great inner sea a city of such size as to appear like an encroaching mountain on the expansive shore. Still are the waters that lap against its dry piers as hungry eyes look over the ramparts to shores too distant to see from the worn stone. It is not a hospitable place. The first settlers were nought but simple herders and fishers looking to catch what they could from the waters and plains. But south of the city stretches a long steppe and control of it had long rested in the hands of a domineering warlord dynasty. Their’s was a harsh rule that drove many people to seek escape from the Dahrmour’s iron grasp. Many of the refugees fled north and came upon the small settlement. It claimed no fealty to the tyrant and its people preserved their independence through stalwart stubbornness and a valuable alliance with the local nomads. The walls of the city thickened and more hands held to its gates. In time, the nuisance of the village had grown into a troubling city. But the warlords couldn’t just siege and conquer. For the city had grown wealthy as well. Separating the Dahrmour’s plains was a large mountain range that proved problematic for traders hoping to continue east. The tariffs raised by the warlords grew worse and worse as their war campaigns drew longer and longer and alternative routes became more desirable. When once overland paths had become blocked, a guild of interested parties turned to plying the waves. And while wood for ships would have to be imported, there was but only one fortified and prepared location for such travel. Thus, the city of Divanhane was raised on the backs of foreign interests looking to subvert the control of the power-hungry Dahrmour. Its wealth was practically assured on the maiden voyage as the first ship pressed off into the salty depths. Even if the Dahrmour wished to interfere, they had long ignored the northern development on their doorstep. By the time the intrepid merchants had crossed and returned with wagons bursting with valuable commodities, it was far too late for the warlords. As their tariff revenue dried up, more and more wealth poured into the ancient walls. By the time the Dahrmour moved their forces to take what they thought was rightfully theirs, a sizable mercenary army was awaiting along the plains and salt coast. A fleet anchored just off-shore. The battle was short and the results conclusive. Divanhane was independent and independent it would remain. Thus, grew the City of Dreams. And grew it did. More and more came to its banks. Thicker and thicker burgeoned the walls. The city became a shuddering, bulging, bloated mass upon the enclosed sea and those that were drawn to its tales of splendour and wealth were just lured into its honeyed depths to feed an insatiable hunger that longed for more: more trade, more food and more people. The streets themselves were clogged with people. Shoulder to shoulder they shook despite the heat. Their frail bodies were clothed in nothing but dirty and bleached rags as they shambled on through the mindless crowd. The streets were clogged streams, filled with more waste than the choked stone tunnels that drained the sewers into the dead sea. Carts attempting to plow through were bogged by the filthy fingers that spilled over the rails. Cracked nails wormed with minds of their own, searching ever tirelessly for scraps and castoffs. I can scarcely remember my earliest days behind those stone walls. My oldest memories are wisps of sensations. Dominant was a dark cold that clammed the skin and made the smallest of teeth chatter in a city constantly gasping beneath its own heat. I have recollections of wandering the piers, dipping filthy feet into the staining waters choked with refuse pitched from the streets. The smell of salt and desperation hung heavy over the city like a perfume. So many came to its streets with dreams of riches and opportunity. The city was always in need of able bodies to man its walls. The merchants were always looking for hands to operate their ships. But when bodies were in great supply, skill became cheap. The merchants, ever saving more coin, paid less and less for labour forcing more and more families into the suffocating streets. And always were the walls under siege. But it was no uniformed army that assailed the faded gates, the stones once vibrant hues rubbed into nothingness. For beyond the rusted portcullis were the huddled, wailing hordes of refugees. They arrived, fleeing the tyranny of the Dahrmour. They arrived, seeking shelter from the sweltering expanse. They arrived, souls spurred by the long stale rumours of wealth and opportunity. They squatted before the gates and cried for entry. Those that were refused found what comfort they could on the short grass and waited for entrance – one way or another. Desperation was the only currency they exchanged. The stories of the Walls of Divanhane are infamous. Had I not seen it with my own eyes, even I would have never believed the tales of mothers tossing their babes through the closing gates knowing they would not raise until the morning and hoping some generosity would be spared for a mewling, abandoned child in the fair streets. If the walls were not so high nor so thick, perhaps those mothers would have held their children close. For passing the gate did not grant entrance into paradise. Upon the other side they swarmed like locusts – those that had managed to sneak through. Every measure was taken to bar them but the poor proved far more resourceful than the patrolling guards. Each gate opened into a veritable slum. It was impossible to pass without a legion of palms raised as husky mouths pleading for any charity. But most that walked by were destitute wanderers and workers themselves. However, exhaustion and hunger wore any recognition from the beggar’s eyes. While the streets were clogged, the alleys were impassable. Around every corner and beneath every shadow lay the boney, wrinkled legs sticking sickly from worn rags. These bodies, for they were little else, lay side beside like discarded dolls. Each limb slowly shook to life at the sound of approaching footsteps. Sunken eyes turned, lit by the barest glimmers of hope. Mouths agape, sounds wholly inhuman would echo from parched lips. Sometimes it was coherent but usually it was a scratchy, guttural cough and a moan of rasping despair. The lungs squeezed little else from hoarse throats that had long forgotten speech. It was impossible to distinguish man and woman in those masses. It was just a writhing carpet of flesh seeking brief respite in the shadows. But always the hands reached upturned, supported on brittle protruding bones that pressed against the dry sky as if they wished to escape the withering husk into the wide heavens. The first time time wandering across these “forsaken trails” was unsettling. Only the fleas were fat as they jumped from body to body. For it is said for every honest citizen of Divanhane, there are five begging. But when you wander the streets, you wonder if there are truly any honest citizens. It was impossible to not see the problem of the poor, but there was no outreach. Guards merely tried their best to pen them in their poor districts but even that proved impossible. So great was the destitution that it spilled to the wealthy sections of town, shambling rags just as common amongst the green vined homesteads as the mouldy wrecks of the docks. The merchant caste sought shelter in their heavy palanquins. Borne by many hands, they were lifted above the groaning masses secure behind heavy curtains. Most of these vehicles were borne by small bands. As mentioned, labour was cheap in Divanhane and it cost practically nothing to hire a personal train of six or eight men to bear a single member through the dusty streets. It was the wealthiest that had the fewest teams. Only they could afford the strongest or pay to keep them fed, watered and trained. While many watched from the stones at the colourful clothes and glittering adornments trying to gauge who carried the fattest purse, it was actually the health of its servants that was the real tell. So much coin was spent on cheap dyes and second rate cloth. And beggars were poor judges of quality. They would see the most worn wool as a sacred treasure, let alone be able to identify silk from angora or even coir. But as with everything, we tend to see what we wish and so many threw themselves before lesser merchants, pleading and begging for scraps that would never come. Not that the richest were benevolent. There is an art in begging and it comes from knowing your fellow man. You have to see beyond their disguise – the image they dust themselves in before they step from their door – and read into their hearts. The wealthiest were often the stingiest, their arrogance and selfishness forbidding them from ever assisting those dying beneath their noses. Their litters were more like fortresses and their carriers had a fierce, almost hungry look. You could see in their eyes and their arms that they were only rewarded for succeeding in their job. Marks of punishment or idleness were the signs of the greatest wastes of time. No, the palanquins to seek were the ones with the contented carriers. They were well cared, healthy and humoured. They spoke of a master that saw them more than just a beast to bear them above the unmentionables. Inside beat a heart that could see past the dirt and filth to see a fellow scraping along the streets. Compassion is the most expensive traits and those were the palanquins that you threw yourself before. Yes, scribe, I begged. I prostrated and I pleaded. I did what I must to survive. For there were only two kinds that skulked the streets of the City of Dreams. They were the rich and the poor in a sense. But the rich weren’t the ones with the most coin in their purse but the most food in their belly. The poor were simply the food for others. Inevitably, the rats were the rich but man is capable of much to keep themselves from being the poorest. If you were to ask me who was the wealthiest within Divanhane, I would tell you it was the mother rat. She was never wanting. Whether it was the stilled limbs of a forgotten body, abandoned and ignored in the shadows of the streets or the succulent wares of a merchant prince’s stores impossible to protect. Holes exist in every guard and no merchant could keep the vermin from slipping through. Things had a tendency to disappear in the crowded streets and no amount of coin could afford the unfaltering guard or the impenetrable lock. How they tried, though. How the rich locked themselves in their apipaito; the lavish mansions with terraced walls and green trellises that rose on what raised ground there was so they could survey over their city of dust. How they guarded their doors and windows with watchful eyes suspicious of every flitting shadow and skittering sound beneath their garden. Their quarters were like small military encampments, patrolled with such frequency by foreign mercenaries and guards who could tell little from locals and refugees. They were poor hounds, easily avoided or misled. For the clever rat, every home had a hole. For the observant rodent, one could watch and learn from others. So simple is a lock, a masterful piece of magic if ever there was one weaved. So many foolish people flock to its allure, putting faith in its false promise of security. But they are uncomplicated devices. To those who watch and listen, they can learn the tricks to make them as valuable as a pile of dirt. They can make them as secure as the wind on the plains. Yes, I stole. I snatched and I sneaked. I broke into those apipaito and even the homes or establishments of the less well to do. Wealth in Divanhane is a fluid thing, passing from the poor to the rich and back again. In the dust and the heat, it becomes clear that all is theft. The rich charge exorbitant prices to people who can barely afford them. They buy at such a point that it would make a beggar weep. They pay magistrates and city watch to twist the letters of their law to confiscate the property of their enemies. Those that they catch are interred in the Holes. They are sent to live amongst the rats. And in those dank pits, the rich and the poor blend together. But only one ever escapes. Only one ever gets out into the greater hole of the city. But a child isn’t born a thief. He isn’t brought into this world a liar. My earliest days on the streets of Divanhane are a blur of hunger, heat and misery. So quick is material wealth stripped from you. So fast are those that share your aching pain to turn upon you. Any memories of my parents were gone before I could remember them. There was just the hunger and the pain. There was the rough stones at night, and the groaning of grumbling stomachs and afflicted flesh. In the dark you seek what warmth you can, pressing up against strangers and strange bodies. In time, the fleas and flies become a second layer. You hardly notice the itch or the unconscious fingers as they search at widening holes in your shirt. In the morning you awake to resume your wanderings and your endless hunt. If you think there would be mercy for a child in those streets then you would be wrong. So often are they used. So often are they just tools for the more clever. Compassion pays the most to the lost ones and there are those with hungrier eyes and stronger fists that would press those hands into service. Bloodied and bruised make all the more pathetic. Shafra was his name. He was a boy nary six seasons my senior. A tall, lanky runt barely on the cusp of manhood. He had the dark hair and eyes of the locals. No one knew where he came from but he was not born into this life of filth and misery. Perhaps he had stolen away on one of the ships as they sailed across the dead sea. Maybe he had arrived with a hopeful merchant family that quickly got consumed by the wealthy merchant princes in their garden fortresses. Not that it mattered. He ended where so many others do but unlike those that form the forsaken trails, he learned quickly about life on the street. He found me on the steps to the docks, a half piece of fish clutched in my fingers. I can scarcely remember how I came to possess such a feast. Perhaps I had wrestled it from the birds. But just as I had stolen from those smaller than I, I too would become victim to the bigger animal. I can remember his face clearly emerging from the alley. It seemed to coalesce from that darkness. The eyes carried the shadows in them as he looked my way. A flash of yellow, crooked teeth and I knew. I sat for but a moment to enjoy the soft sea breeze before he fully formed from his emptiness. At his side were a few of his gang. Lesser boys but few that I recognized. Those that I did were meagre creatures that I had long written off to the suffocating alleys about the gates. But they found new life beneath the direction of Shafra even if they peered about in that distracted way that the weak always do. They looked without seeing. They were little more than extra hands for Shafra to command. But Shafra had no interest in their plays, and he strolled towards me, his long arms lanky at his side. I wasn’t sure what to do. I was like a scared little rabbit pressed against a corner. I had never seen such hunger before. At least, not that kind of hunger. I made to escape but the young ones never run fast. The older have longer legs and longer reach. I was tackled to the ground, the flesh of the fish crumbling between my fingers. Shafra drew to his feet, looming over me and grabbing for my prize. I foolishly tried to hold on to it. Between our brief struggle, the meal was ripped asunder and scattered to the ground in useless, crushed pieces. The birds were upon it, bold enough to wrest the scraps from the scrambling fingers of the children. Shafra regarded me with such ferocious disdain. “Flea ridden mule,” he hissed, his foot lashing out. His toes caught my ribs, striking again and again in the tattered rags of his shoe. “You stupid, flea ridden, pox-covered mule! Don’t you know whose territory you’re in?” “That was mine!” I cried. For my insolence, I got a pair of knuckles into my face. “You best get me some copper, mule!” Shafra ordered. “Ruining my lunch like that, you maggot. I want a copper for a stone of meat else I’ll take a stone’s worth from your own hide! You hear me! This is Shafra’s land and you will pay me for it!” They beat me that day. They beat me every day I stepped into their territory without his copper. I still have the mark where he bit me on my arm. Some marks stay with you your entire life. For it was not the guard that was the greatest threat to the rat. It was the other rats. We didn’t hold any reservations. In our eyes we didn’t see a destitute child. We only saw competition. Before the palanquins we were desperate darlings. But in the shadows and the alleys we were cruel overlords. Worst, we were the hardest to escape. Unlike the guards in the mail, we were small. We could follow through the cracks and the holes. We could scale the terraces and trellises and discover the cleverest holes in the rooftops. The bigger the rat, the harder the bit. The only way to survive was to be smarter. You couldn’t be quicker. You couldn’t be more pathetic. Whimpering and crying could stall the armoured fist of a mercenary, but the children just laughed at tears. They knew all the tricks. Shafra taught me an important lesson. He taught me that the biggest threats aren’t the obvious ones. Guards did sweeps in a vain attempt to bring some sort of law to the crowded streets of Divanhane. They had the weight of the law and the coin of the merchants behind them. But even though they were wrapped in steel, they didn’t know where to bite or punch to hurt the hardest. They didn’t how to scrape the fungus from the dank basements and mash it into a paste that you could spit in the eyes and cause blindness or delirium for days. They didn’t know how to follow you like an unwanted shadow, to watch and see where you crawled to hide from the city. They didn’t know how to wiggle into the darkest corners that you thought were safe. And they didn’t know how to make you really hurt.