4536 words (18 minute read)

Chapter 8

“Hello, my friend,” Bogdan appears from the crowded square. “Are you ready for Liberation?”

“I’m ready for libation,” I smile.

“Are they not one and the same!” He laughs. “I’ll buy you a drink, the finest drink a day of service can afford!”

“And I shall do the same for you!” I fall in next to him as we walk to the waterfront.

Unlike Bogdan, who has volunteered for service, I won’t be able to wave today’s service token for a free drink at the bar. Criminals don’t get tokens. I’ll be paying by the reputation of my house. I feel a little odd being in my servant’s gown, but I see many people walking our way wearing the same.

“Hang on,” Bogdan says as we approach a boarding house near the waterfront. I want to grab something from my home.”

I wait out in the street as he dashes in. I don’t know why I expected him to have his own place. He mentioned having a family, so I’d assumed they’d have some place to live on their own. I wonder how old he is. I wonder how old his children are. Does family even mean children?

I’ve made so many small assumptions about Bogdan, I wonder if any of them are true.

Bogdan emerges from the boarding house a man transformed. He’s splashed the grime of the day off his face and hands, and he’s put on simple, dark pants and a tan shirt. Maddeningly, he’s also put on a hat.

Oh, what a hat.

“That’s... very...” I search for a compliment.

“Yes?” He asks with an exaggerated nod of the head.

The feather - oh the feather - flops down in front of his face. He blows it aside with a practiced breath.

“You look ridiculous!” I laugh.

“I know!” He joins the laughter and puts an arm around my shoulder.

“The secret, you see,” he begins as we resume our walk, “is to not be forgotten. When I am old, I want people to rally to bring me Nectar. I want a mob to make me young again, and for that to happen, you need to do something to be remembered.”

“Well, Bogdan,” I say. “You won’t be forgotten.”

The hat is made of woven reeds from near the old floodplains. It’s brim is almost as long as my forearm, and the weight of the edges require strings to run from the top of the hat to the brim to hold the whole thing in place. Capping it all off is a single, long feather - from what bird I cannot even guess - that has been dyed a bright, outlandish pink.

I feel embarrassed to be seen with him, but I’m also so overjoyed to see something so silly. The hat is a garish architectural masterpiece, and I want to see it worn to a meeting of the Board of Dynasties.

We’re close to the river bank now, but I can’t hear the water over of the sound of music and laughter. Liberation is ahead, I’m sure of it, but the party starts long before getting there.

Vendors line the street bartering for goods or services of all kinds. There’s not as much weight being traded here as was being done near the House of Service, and I see no Imperial pages or weightmen. This is barter at its best and loudest.

I’m not used to so much noise. We have to push past small crowds gathered around makeshift shops. The street is lined with them, businesses in front of businesses, and everyone has a hawker shouting at the tops of their lungs.

“You alright?” Bogdan leans down to my ear.

“I’m fine,” I say. “There are no crowds where I come from.”

“Like I say,” he begins, “the palace and Brilliance are different cities. This, here. This is Brilliance. This is our city. This is what the enlightenment is about.”

His grand gesture sweeps across the crowd and hovers for moments to highlight the beauty of it. A fire spinner directs people to a street alchemist. Alluring women and men shuffle across tables and call out the wares of a wine dealer. In the palace, art and dance are shared for their own sake. They are the attraction. Here. The dancers draw the eye to goods.

The dances here are wilder and more passionate. Perhaps, when your living comes from dance, you have passion or you die.

I want to join them.

“Not yet,” Bogdan grabs my arm as I step towards one of the impromptu stages. “You need your free drink and a bite to eat before you enter that arena.”

As we pass the belly dancer winks in my direction. Maybe she was looking at someone else. It doesn’t matter. I want to return.

Liberation is less a pub and more an empire. The walls and doors of the building proper have swung up and seating has been dragged out into the street. Neighboring warehouses have opened their doors and a band plays in each one with waiters and waitresses shuffling across in all directions.

By daylight, Liberation is hole from which to drink; by night, Liberation is a court of its own.

It’s even arranged like a court. Most seats are turned to face the rear of Liberation proper, and, beyond a dance floor, a small collection of persons preside over the event. In the tallest chair, a woman with a familiar face oversees the festivities.

“Is that Iskra Skala?” I ask.

“Oh yeah,” Bogdan says. “She’s here most nights. There is always a regulator to watch the proceedings.”

“What do you mean by proceedings?” I ask.

“You’ll see,” he says. “Drink first. Food first. Priorities!”

Bogdan holds this service token in the air and withdraws a string threaded through a half dozen more. Each ceramic token has a hole punched through it to make way for the string, but they also carry a black mark scorched into their surface.

People part out of the way as we approach the bar, apparently fresh service tokens get priority.

“Back again, Bogdan,” the tall man behind the counter says.

The bartender’s curly, black hair is cut close to his head. Long strings of silver dangle from his ears and the closest thing to a shirt he wears is a long, silk scarf of red and green. He’s well muscled and sweating from the heat of the crowd. His dark skin is broken by many scars, but I can’t guess at the cause.

The tall man takes Bogdan’s fresh token and marks it with an odd, blue wax. With a flash, the wax shines with green light, then falls again to darkness. This process leaves a blackened scar across the token.

“We’ve always got to check,” the barman says as he lances a hole through the token. “Just a drink today?”

“A drink and a meal,” Bogdan rattles his six strung-together tokens, “I’ll serve every day if this is the reward.”

The barman looks at the days marked on the tokens and smiles.

“A straight week of service earns you a meal,” the barman whistles over to the kitchen and points to Bogdan. “Sanja will see you get fed.”

With that, the barman pours my companion a topful cup of drink before looking to me.

“I’ll have a meal and a drink,” I pause to look around at the others making their orders.

Some are using the traditional bartering of the Enlightened people - a silk scarf or a small piece of jewelry - and others are paying in the stamped coins of weight. I spy one or two holding up house sigils and buying with credit.

I’m sure it will be fine. No one will frown at the presence of the Heir of Service. Right?

I doubt myself, but I don’t really want to go without food or drink.

I draw my necklace out from under my gown and let the coral pendant of the Kasun Dynasty hang in full view.

“You may collect your fee from my house,” I say.

“Yes, ma’am,” the barman says.

He whistles and indicates me to the kitchen as well, and pours me an equally full cup.

As I turn away, I think I see the barman make some sort of motion, towards the stage, but I can’t be certain. He’s pouring drinks and taking orders faster than I can imagine in this crowd.

I assure myself that it’s nothing.

Bogdan and I pull up stools to watch the dancers revel on the floor ahead of Iskra Skala’s throne. I try to keep my eyes on her - I know that her presence here must be important - but my eyes are constantly drawn to the dancers. High Regulator Skala is not doing anything interesting. She’s chatting with her associates, even joking and laughing, but I cannot hear them over the music, dance, and chatter of Liberation.

The band, with their instruments both familiar and foreign, pound out a syncopated beat. It’s easy to feel the rhythm. It gets into my feet and my hips. I want to join them out on the floor, but is it right to do so in just a dirty servant’s gown?

I watch the revelers. Some are well-dressed: not palace well-dressed, but plenty well for here. Most, though, are here just after service. Many of these wear coats or cloaks over their gowns, but the gowns hang out underneath. One-in-four dancers, though, are dressed like me. Drink and the inebriation of the crowd have outshone any shame they might have in their dress.

They dance. Sweaty and happy, they dance.

A woman arrives with a bowl of stew. How long did I simply sit and watch?

I look over at Bogdan as he eats his stew and watches the festivities. Some people stop by to greet him. They ask about his family and loved ones. It’s clear that he’s well known and maybe even a local celebrity.

While that is clear, it’s also clear that he’s suffered a lot. His skin is rough from constant exposure to labor and sun. When he relaxes, his face transforms from a smile to a scowl. He even looks a little malnourished beneath all that muscle.

Each day he does his labor and collects his tiny sliver of Nectar. Some days he drinks it; some days he trades it away. The Nectar is only enough to keep him alive, but it’s not enough to keep him young. Is this what Brilliance is to most of its citizens?

“Bogdan,” I wait until he’s swallowed a mouthful of stew, “how long have you lived like this?”

“As Long as I can remember,” he replies.

I’d hoped to hear he was down on his luck after some misadventure. I want to know that this day-to-day drudgery is just one rough step on a life of joy. If this is a forever thing...

“And how does it end?” I ask.

He stares across the dance floor for a moment and that frown returns to his face.

“Either I choose to stop drinking the nectar, or I anger the wrong person,” he shrugs. “Either way I end, it’s a killing. Either at the hands of another or myself.”

I don’t want to ponder that. I don’t want to muse on the beauty of my city and my people being a gilt facade over countless lives of suffering. With the crowd and the music, I can distract myself from these harsh realities. Today has been difficult enough already, I don’t need to let my thoughts torment me as well.

In total silence, Bogan and I drink in our stews and the scenery. It’s a lot to take in, and the stimulation both visual and aural is intense enough to bring us into a sort of trance.

My spoon clacks against an empty bowl.

“Oh!” I say.

“You were hungry,” Bogdan smirks, “or maybe something else has made you forgetful.”

He points to a man in a servant’s gown not far away on the dance floor. The man has adorned himself with two fine, silk scarves, both tied in big knots on either hip. He shakes from side to side as he dances and the movements of his hips is hypnotizing.

And, yes, he’s the one I’d been keeping my eyes on.

“The hunger I suffer from cannot be sated with stew,” I say, handing my bowl and cup to Bogdan.

“Good hunting,” Bogdan says as he takes them.

The beat is easy for me, and it is perfect. I keep my weight low and let my hips carry me forward. I cross the floor with my eyes locked on my quarry. He’ll notice me closing in on him, his eyes will grow wide, and he’ll either stand or flee. If he bats an eye or looks away, I’ll find someone else to keep company tonight. If he stays - if he lets our bodies say our introductions - maybe we’ll get along even after the party.

This is just the first exciting part of a long line of exciting parts. It’s a preamble - an overture - to a night of dancing that will play out on the floor and - if we’re lucky - in the sheets.

His eyes see mine. His eyes are brown and his pupils wide. I wonder if he’s on something or just happy to see me. There are countless party concoctions on the streets and in the palaces of Brilliance. Each one of them is a different joy. If he doesn’t have any to share, I may want to score some of my own.

Three strong drum beats break the rhythm of the music and the notes of the band die down.

The scarf-hipped man looks to the stage and careful vacates the floor. I do the same - though I return to Bogdan and my drink.

“You’ll get another chance,” Bogdan says. “You caught his eye.”

“There are other parts of him I desire to catch,” I say, “but I can be patient. Just watch how patient I can be.”

Bogdan chuckles, and I think he doubts my statement as much as I do.

My family is great a lying, but I don’t share their talent.

“Hear, hear!” One of the High Regulator’s companions calls over the crowd. “Hear the case of vendor Predrag against Nina and Novak of Silkstream Alley!”

Case? Why would they be trying a case outside a House of Justice? And who is here to represent Service?

A pair of tired and dirty citizens are pushed onto the floor. They wear pants, shirts, and scarves of surprising quality. They’re in rough shape and need of cleaning, but the craftsmanship of the patterns is visible beneath the grime.

Both of them share a similar brow and worried look, they could be siblings. Their skin is the same cherry-wood brown, and they even wear their curly hair back in the same kind of bun.

“Nina and Novak,” the same speaker addresses the pair. “You stand accused of larceny - theft - of stealing from many establishments of Silkstream Alley. You were caught in the act by the regulators of Justice while leaving the establishment of Predrag the merchant.”

The crowd boos loudly. Some shout “criminals” and “give ‘em a beating!”

Iskra watches this with one hand resting on the cudgel beside her chair. She’s smiling, and she waves a hand to silence the crowd.

The accuser speaks again: “What say you to these charges?”

The man - presumably Novak - stumbles forward and prostrates himself before the High Regulator of Justice.

“Please,” he shouts. “We were desperate. We needed food and Nectar!”

Silent, Iskra Skala rises from her seat. She stands still for just a moment, and the crowd seethes with tension. No, they aren’t tense. They aren’t scared. They’re excited.

I’ve watched too many tragedies; I know when an audience is filled with bloodlust.

There is a short scrape as the head of the cudgel slides off the ground.

“How desperate?” Iskra says as she lifts the man’s chin with the head of her cudgel.

“We’ve fallen behind in our orders,” he says. “We’ve fallen into debt. My sister cannot work.”

He’s on his hands and knees. He’s crying, shaking.

With a single swipe, he clatters to the ground. Iskra’s club caught him under the arm. It was dramatic, but gentle: more of a throw than a strike. She’s playing to the crowd, and they cheer in response.

“Tell me, Nina!” Iskra holds he cudgel over the fallen man’s head. “Why did you fall behind?”

“Please,” the woman speaks immediately, “don’t! My hand. My hand is broken!”

The woman shakes a mangled fist at the audience.

“A tegu bit me, savaged my hand!” She cries. “We have naught the Nectar to heal it.”

Iskra gestures with her hand and a man with a surgeon’s look rushes to Nina’s side.

“Novak,” Iskra chides. “Tell me Novak. What gave you the right to steal from Predrag?”

“He’s rich, we all know it!” Novak cries. “He won’t miss it! He’ll have plenty to barter. Plenty to trade!”

With a savage kick, Iskra sends Novak rolling across the floor.

“Get up you son of a bitch!” Iskra shouts. “He does not steal from you! He does not chain you with debt! None of that! Yet you have the gall to steal from him!”

Novak stands. It takes some time, but he manages to climb to his feet. He’s wheezing, and there is terror in his eyes.

Iskra looks over to the surgeon, who nods to her. The message is clear: Nina’s hand is broken.

“What is your trade, Novak?” Iskra growls.

“I’m a silk-weaver, ma’am,” he replies.

“And you, Nina,” Iskra says.

“The same, ma’am,” she replies.

“The ones who drove you to this,” Iskra says. “The ones who threatened you. The ones who wielded debt like Justice’s truncheon... Where are they?”

A shout goes up from the audience as someone pushes the crowd apart. Then another. Then another. In all, five people begin to flee. They looks well-dressed, well-fed, and terrified.

“Regulators!” Iskra points to the fleeing financiers. “Drag them back!”

Cheers and hollers erupt from the audience as people join the chase. Some block the street, others hold doors, one even holds two bottles inverted as though they were batons.

“Nina and Novak,” Iskra shouts. “Your sentence is thus! Your debt is owed to me, we will sort that out in time. Report to service and bring a single dram - EACH! - to Merchant Predrag each day of sun. Do this for six months, and your crime is atoned. You will be fed here all that you need to live.”

Iskra grabs Novak by the arm and throws him to Nina’s side.

“If either of you steps out of line,” Iskra growls, “you’ll be mangled so that no amount of Nectar will bring back your limbs.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the siblings grovel. “Anything you say, ma’am.”

“Good,” Iskra puts her hand on Nina’s shoulder. “Now let’s get you your hand back.”

Nina’s eyes go wide first from joy then from dawning fear. Yes, Nectar can restore a broken limb, but it needs to be set first. Mangled as Nina’s hand is, she may need several treatments before she is restored to normal.

“Stay,” Iskra says to Novak as his sister is led to a door behind Iskra’s throne. “Your sister will be fine.”

Iskra steps away, slips her cudgel into the holster by her side, and claps four times. On the fourth clap, the band joins in. The music resumes, and the people clamber to buy Novak a drink.

“Enjoy the show, little one?” Bogdan says to me.

“No,” I say. “I liked the righteousness of it - of course I did - but...”

I drift off. I can’t find the words to express my troubles. Sentencing is the role of Service. Penalties must be assessed by the city’s need. When the city’s need is great, sentences are longer and harsher. Justice, yes, plays a role in the enforcement of sentences and apprehension of criminals, but that is it. Iskra has made herself Justice and Service.

“She has stepped out of line,” I say, more to myself than in answer to Bogdan’s question.

By enforcing her own sentences, Iskra has done something else: she has reduced the pool of criminals supplied to service. That’s why the house has been so empty in the mornings. Yes, there have been plenty of volunteers, but there are few criminals in the palace district.

This makes sentences longer. This drives up demand for Nectar since more of the labor is doled out to volunteers.

I need to know what this does to the balance. Ruza keeps the balance - a constant record of the supply and the demand for labor - how has the balance been affected by this?

“Bogdan,” I begin. “How long has Iskra run Liberation?”

“I don’t want trouble,” Bogdan says.

“You’re not in trouble, Bogdan,” I say and see that he’s not addressing me.

I turn to see two regulators standing behind me.

“High Regulator Skala requests the presence of the Heir of Service,” the taller of them says.

I sit, mouth agape for a moment, before realizing that I should respond verbally. I want Bogdan’s answer, and I need to see if this is the kind of situation I should run from.

“Sure thing,” I say and point to the door Iskra left by. “She’s through there, right?”

“Yeah,” the taller one replies.

“I swear on the honor of the Kasun name, that I will go now to Iskra,” I say. “I request both a fresh drink, and a moment to finish my conversation with this man.”

“Acceptable,” the tall man says and indicates to the bar.

The shorter regulator walks to the bar to order the drink, and the tall one leaves through the door leading to Iskra. My name carries weight here, and no one is trying to strongarm me into subservience.

This is not a time to run.

“Bogdan,” I say. “How long has Iskra been running this place?”

He looks to the regulator at the bar, then at the crowd that is giving us plenty of space.

“Years,” he says. “Maybe a decade.”

Maybe it is running time.

“Look,” he whispers. “Life’s gotten better since Liberation opened. A lot better. I don’t want you putting a stop to it.”

His eyes are earnest, and concern wrinkles his brow.

“I’m not going to stop Liberation,” I assure him. “And I believe you when you say it’s better here. What I want - more than I want anything - is to know why ‘better’ for you isn’t more like ‘good’ is for me.”

I put my hand next to his. Aside from the scar that still mars my palm, my skin is youthful and free of the callouses of labor or the searing of the sun.

“I can drink from a fountain of Nectar,” I say. “And people here are beaten over drams.”

I walk to the bar and thank the regulator for handing me my drink.

“Let’s go,” I say to him before I lead the way to Justice.