The Dew of Flesh

By

Gregory Ashe

 

 

Chapter One

 

Blood shattered the sunlight, a spray that cast a thousand fluttering shadows across the dirt road. The woman screamed, dark hair falling in front of her flushed face. Abass could barely hear her over the roar of the street harvest. He pressed against the splintered planks of the building behind him as men, women, children pushed in closer to see. The first stirrings of harvest-madness washed over him, a surge of blood-lust, but his stomach grumbled louder. He forced the harvest-passion down and focused on the crowd.

 

The knife flashed, opening another long gash along the woman’s arm. She screamed again. This harvestmaster was more skilled than most; he would draw as much blood from her as he could before she died. For one last moment the victim stood, face barely visible between the thick strands of hair. She reminded Abass of his sister. Something about the eyes. Then she fell, and the people crowded closer, those in front holding makeshift tarps to keep the blood from touching stone.

 

“Let’s go,” Scribe said, his hazel eyes searching for an exit.

 

“Tair bless me,” Abass said. “We need the coin, and they’re all caught up in the harvest-madness. I’m not leaving a chance like this.” He sprinted forward, knife tucked up against his side.

 

“First Father take you,” Scribe shouted, but then the younger man’s voice was lost in the bloodthirsty screams of the crowd, and Abass was among them.

 

The knife slid out, the tip barely extending beyond Abass’s fingers. He moved quick and fast, stumbling into a heavy-set merchant, the man’s face as red as the blood that he screamed for. A heavy purse fell into Abass’s hands. He felt, rather than heard, the clink of metal.

 

Abass stayed near the edges, where he had room to move. The knife cut purse strings as fast as Abass could dance between men and women. He lifted a silk sash, heavy with golden embroidery, right from the shoulder of one woman. Her blonde hair disheveled, the woman clawed at her face and screamed in the ecstasy of a street harvest, oblivious to his touch.

 

“Stop him!”

 

Abass turned. A wiry man with dark skin was pointing at him. Abass jerked one more purse free and shoved his way toward the edge of the crowd. People pushed back, desperate for a touch of harvest blood, maddened at the possibility of seeing—of being—a miracle. A man could be healed by the blood of a harvest, it was said.

 

A woman barreled into him, her breasts rising with frantic breath. The purses tumbled from his hands, disappearing into the crowded feet below him. Abass elbowed the woman in the stomach and glanced over his shoulder. The wiry man was still coming. Father’s glory, he must have seen me. It was just Abass’s luck to cut a purse in front of the only other man in Khi’ilan more worried about pocket change than a harvest. Abass pushed the collapsing woman toward the man and pressed forward.

 

People at the edge were calmer—shouting, but not lost in the harvest-frenzy—and Abass drew dirty looks as he shoved past them. The dirt road ahead was clear aside from two toothless old women clawing at a bundle of straw, excited at the prospect of the harvest. Scribe was nowhere to be seen. Abass stumbled free of the last line of people, knocking shoulders with a tall man, a broad streak of white running down the part in his dark hair. Taural Dry-Mouth. The salt merchant. Taural grimaced and, as Abass passed, the merchant gave him a strong shove. Abass tripped on a wagon rut and barely caught himself from falling. Then he was free.

 

Abass ran, heart pounding, lungs burning, until he reached the well at the next square. He collapsed on the warped board at the mouth of the well. No one followed. The screams of the harvest rose, impossibly loud, until the cries echoed off the wooden homes and reverberated deep inside Abass. Tair bless me, she looked like Isola. Abass wiped away the sweat with the silk scarf and tried to push the dying woman’s face out of his mind.

 

“The Father himself must have reached out and knocked the sense out of your head,” Scribe said.

 

Abass looked over. Scribe stood on the board a few feet away; the boy rarely came any closer to Abass than arm’s reach, as though afraid Abass would hit him. Not as if I found him at the edge of the grave, starving in the street.

 

“It was perfectly safe,” Abass said. “No one even noticed I was there.”

 

“By the stones, that one fellow would have had you if I hadn’t tripped him. He’ll be lucky if he’s not trampled to death by that mob.”

 

Abass opened his mouth to respond, but at that moment the screaming peaked, reaching a crescendo that made Abass turn and spit in disgust. In a matter of heartbeats, the screaming cut off completely. The harvest-madness surged inside him, the last flicker of a candle flame, and then went out. The street harvest was over. Down the street, Abass could see the mob beginning to break up.

 

“Let’s go,” Abass said. “I want to be out of here before they come back to their senses.”

 

“The Perch?” Scribe said, jumping to land lightly in the muddy earth.

 

“No,” Abass said. “I’m hungry, and we’ve no coin. Besides, someone invited us to pay him a visit.”

 

“Who’s that?” Scribe asked.

 

“Taural the salt merchant.”

 ———

Scribe vanished through the window. A moment later, one hand—fingers stained with ink, as always—reappeared and motioned for Abass to follow. Arms burning, Abass twisted and pulled himself inside.

 

Abass landed and looked up. He found himself face to face with a large, sullen housecat. The cat stared and then gave a long, languorous stretch, before turning its back on Abass.

 

“Thank the tair it wasn’t a dog,” he muttered.

 

“I wouldn’t have told you to come in if it had been,” Scribe said.

 

“Didn’t say you would have,” Abass said. The boy had been pricklier lately. “What do we have here?”

 

The bedroom was massive—Abass had lived most of his life out of a room a quarter of the size, and he had thought himself well off. Rich carpets, Istbyan to judge by the pattern, covered the floorboards. Silk hangings, done with green and brown embroidery, hung around the rumpled bed. Scribe stood at a bureau, emptying a small box into a sack tied at his waist.

 

“Jewelry?” Abass asked. He walked to the bed and began ripping down the hangings, wincing at the noise.

 

“Nothing great,” Scribe said. “Cheap bastard probably saved the good stuff for his mistress.”

 

Abass rolled the hangings around one arm. The sound of a footstep made him pause, hand going to his knife. Scribe dropped a pile of parchment and reached for his own blade. Abass spun, but he saw only the sullen cat. It had jumped from its shelf and crossed the room to investigate the bed.

 

With a laugh, Abass continued to wind the hangings. “Just that heart-of-stone cat.”

 

Scribe relaxed and sheathed his knife. The boy folded the documents neatly and thrust them into his sack before moving on to another drawer in the bureau.

 

Abass lifted the mattress, but found nothing of worth. He left the bed sheets, soiled to the point that he did not fancy touching them, and peeled back the rug.

 

“Ha,” he said, grinning and running his fingers under the edge of the trap door. Scribe caught his grin, his eyes lighting up at Abass’s delight. “I knew there had to be something good in this place.”

 

“Well hurry,” Scribe said. “It’s the middle of the day, and the street harvest is over. Someone is bound to be back here soon.”

 

Abass wedged the tip of his knife under a board and pried the hiding spot open. Two metal coffers, each the length of his arm and no more than a hand’s span wide, lay in the recessed compartment. He pulled them out, surprised at how light they were, and placed them on the floor.

 

Footsteps sounded outside the door, this time unmistakable. “I told you we were taking too long,” Scribe said. He grabbed his knife and moved to the door.

 

With one quick twist, Abass made an improvised sack out of the hangings and dropped the coffers inside. They clattered, and the footsteps stopped.

 

“Come on,” Abass said. He tied the bundle loosely around one shoulder and swung himself out the window to land on the narrow ledge.

 

A crossbow bolt buried itself in the frame of the window. Abass flinched and almost lost his balance, but he dug his fingers into the sun-bleached wood and hung on. In the yard behind the manor stood a dozen guards, all holding crossbows, and a stout, middle-aged woman with a face as red as the sun.

 

“Scribe,” Abass said, “don’t come out here.”

 

“What’s going on?” Scribe said.

 

“You heart-of-stone bastards,” the woman shouted up at them. “Did you think you could pillage my house like a bunch of god-slaying rebels? I’ll have you dead before the eses can see you hang. Shoot them!”

 

Fingers burning, Abass kicked off the wall and pulled as hard as he could. He swung in the air as bolt clacked and shattered against the wall, striking the wood where he had been a heartbeat before, and then he was through the window.

 

He crashed into Scribe and the two of them hit the ground hard, tumbling across the rugs until they reached the bed.

 

Abass found himself lying atop Scribe and grinning down at him. Head spinning, Abass said, “You alright?”

 

Scribe scrambled out from under Abass as quickly as he could, his face twisted up in irritation. “You stupid, stupid fool. What did you get us into?”

 

“Not to worry,” Abass said, trying to ignore the pain growing in his fingers. “Nothing we can’t handle. The guards are going to be coming up the stairs any moment now. There are an even dozen of them, although I imagine they left one or two in the yard to keep an eye on us.”

 

“And you want to try and cut your way out of here?” Scribe said. “You’re an even bigger idiot than I thought.” He pulled a dagger free from his belt, flipped it up, ready to throw. Abass’s stomach dropped. Movement sounded below in the yard.

 

“Wait just a second,” Abass said. “What in the names of the tair has gotten into you? I taught you never to throw a blade—”

 

Scribe spun away from him and walked calmly to the window. He leaned out, and Abass heard the crack of a crossbow. His heart leapt into his mouth. A moment later there was a scream. Scribe disappeared through the window.

 

Abass sprinted after him. A lone guard stood in the yard, his empty crossbow on the ground, and Scribe’s knife buried in his shoulder. Footsteps, and the door to the bedroom crashed open behind Abass. Guards burst into the room. Without a second thought, Abass pulled himself back through the window and along the ledge after Scribe.

 

They climbed down the clay storm-pipe as quickly as they could, but it seemed to take an eternity, and every moment Abass waited for a crossbow bolt to find him. He jumped to the ground as soon as Scribe was clear, and his teeth rattled at the impact.

 

Angry shouts told him the guards had not given up the chase. Abass turned to look for Scribe and saw the blond boy disappearing over the wooden fence. Hitching up his make-shift bundle, Abass ran after him.

 

He cleared the fence and ran along the dirt roads of the city, through the cluster of opulent estates near the salt merchant’s home and into the city itself. When he could, Abass took the narrow alleys or side streets, and twice he cut through Sleeping Palaces, sending echoes along the massive, abandoned stone corridors. His flesh prickled as he ran, and he prayed to the tair to forgive him.

 

The sun stood almost at the horizon when he finally felt safe. He had lost Scribe at the fence, but the boy knew well enough not to go back to the Perch until he was sure he was safe. And when I see him again, I’m going to give him the Father’s own glory of a beating. Throwing a knife like that—it made a dark knot at the bottom of Abass’s stomach. Nothing good came of throwing a blade.

 

Sweating and out of breath, Abass made his way past familiar buildings, circling too familiar streets, until he reached one of the oldest Sleeping Palaces. In some places the roof of the massive building had collapsed, leaving it open to air and rain, but the central tower still stood.

 

The Perch was his favorite place in the city. Scribe had named it; before, Abass had just thought of it as “the place.” Somewhere to get away from everyone except Scribe. Somewhere to be happy, if that were possible in this madhouse of a city, where a street harvest could take you at any time. Abass thought of the wine that had been cooling in a dark room of the Sleeping Palace and smiled. He was ready to relax.

 

Sparrows fluttered into the air as Abass climbed over a section of broken masonry. He always entered from the rear of the Sleeping Palace; few people used the stone-paved street that ran behind it, and he had no problem climbing through the ruin to reach the tower unseen.

 

The Sleeping Palaces were miracles; the homes of the tair, the gods-made-flesh, who had long since left Khi’ilan to rule the other Paths. And are now dead, Abass thought, thanks to the rebels. It seemed an impossible thought, that a man could kill a god, but the rebel Paths had purged the tair. Only in Khi’ilan, the original home of the tair, did one of the gods-made-flesh still rule. And even here, whispers of rebellion reached them, word of armies coming to free the people of Khi’ilan. An impossible thought, but no more impossible than this massive tower, held up without pillars or supports, as though carved from the bones of the earth.

 

Abass made his way up the vast steps, built for something three times his size, keeping his gaze away from the open stairwell that plunged back to the ground below. The tower was silent except for his steps; few people dared to trespass the abodes of the gods-made-flesh. Even if those gods were now gone and dead.

 

About two-thirds of the way up the tower, Abass turned off at the landing he had marked with a piece of chalk and followed the hall out to an enormous balcony, shielded from the elements by a stone overhang. This was the first of the Sleeping Palaces, it was said; it stood at the old heart of Khi’ilan and looked out over the city, facing the tair’s temple and palace that stood at the opposite edge of the city.

 

Scribe stood at the balcony, his sack of loot on the ground at his feet. He turned at the sound of Abass’s boots on the stone.

 

“We need to talk,” Abass said as he untied the hangings and let the coffers drop to the ground. He rubbed his aching shoulder. “What you did today, with the knife, and the way you spoke to me, it was—”

 

Scribe took two steps and punched him right in the face. “You stupid, tair-blessed sot,” Scribe said as Abass stumbled back. “You could have gotten us killed, all because you think you know best. Did it occur to you even to ask me what I wanted to do? What I thought would work? No, I just had to follow along, do what you say.”

 

Abass rubbed his throbbing jaw. “By the stones,” he shouted. “You didn’t have anything to say about it before we got into trouble!”

 

“As if you would have listened,” Scribe said. “I’m only three years younger than you, Abass. Three. And you treat me like you would some annoying little brother, tagging along when he’s not wanted.”

 

“You weren’t too proud to listen to me when you needed it,” Abass said. “You couldn’t even take care of yourself.”

 

“That was almost eight years ago,” Scribe said. “I’ve seen seventeen summer harvests now. Things change, Abass. People change. I’m not a child any more.” He let out an angry breath. “We’re done, alright? Don’t try to find me. And stay away from Naja and Segi.”

 

“They’re my friends too,” Abass said.

 

Scribe pushed past Abass and disappeared into the hall. Abass, still rubbing his jaw, gave the bundle of loot an angry kick that sent it tumbling across the balcony until it hit the stone wall with a muffled clank.

 

Abass leaned on the low wall, looking out over the city. Scribe’s behavior didn’t make any sense; it was as though he were a different person. Abass shook his head. I gave the boy a life when he would have died on the streets, he thought. Now he gets mad when I do the same kind of work that kept him alive when he was starving to death. He looked down to the base of the Palace, trying to push away his irritation at Scribe. Abass felt sick to his stomach; Scribe had looked at him the same way Isola had, all those years ago.

 

The house near the base of the Sleeping Palace stared back at him. It was all too familiar; Abass had grown up there, although he had not been back for many years. The view of the house was the reason he had come to the Perch in the first place. He liked to watch it, to watch them, to feel like he still had a connection to them. See who came and went . . .

 

He leaned down, resting his chest on the stone to get a better look, as fear gripped his heart. Scribe was forgotten. The pain in Abass’s jaw, forgotten. There were men in front of the house, and a cart. A black cart, drawn by black horses.

 

The cart they used to take people for the High Harvests.

 

 

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