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weekly (Another Night…) – 8

3

Manadan stood in front of his apartment, his hook-topped walking stick tucked in the band of his waistcoat, his fragile fingers crossed neatly in front of him, his thin ears listening to every movement on the street before him. On his shoulder, Hazhi sniffed and scented, his serpentine head swooping and swaying beteween the wavering uprights of his wings.

Three tenements away, Gupti just spotted them through a chance gap in the throng and a sudden grin glittered in his eyes. Quickly, before the man or the Sik-wa could pick his scent from among the rest of the dust-covered people, he slipped down the next alley between buildings. The crowd had lessened considerably, as many had reached their homes by now, but there were still plenty of people and shadows to hide among.

As he slipped along the backs of the next two homes, he lifted his eyebrows high and raised a finger to his lips to forestall the greetings. This wasn’t their regular area, but most tenants here knew him from his association with the foul-tempered Manadan, and they treated him like a martyred saint as a result.

Smiling satisfiedly to himself, Gupti hurried quietly down the last alley between the houses. People moved past him in the other direction, but all obeyed his furtive silence; Nasra and Qini, the old Jamba twins with ropes of grey hair hanging to their knees, held each other’s hand as they smiled in return and gave him encouraging signs.

Padding softly to the front corner, he took a long slow breath. He could move quietly when he had to, and the people moving along the street would further deaden his movements, as well as distract the obsessive little bee-keeper.

As he slid his head slowly around the wooden corner, Manadan walked purposefully past the alley entrance, joining the crowd. “You’re late.”

Un-dismayed, Gupti moved after the gaunt little man. He’d been trying, off and on, to catch Manadan by surprise for more than a year, now, without success. It was as much habit, now, as anything else.

Passing Manadan, he lifted a hand to Hazhi, whose forked tongue licked at the faded remnants of honey on his fingertips. “Did you tell him, little one?” he asked the Sik-wa playfully.

“You are too well known and too well liked,” Manadan said without pausing, “while I am universally loathed. When the rest of the slaves notice you trying to sneak up on me, they cannot restrain themselves. One could hear their ignorant, excited whisperings in a dead sleep.”

Gupti didn’t reply. It was probably true enough, but there was no need to rub it into the rest of Manadan’s wounds. Also, though Gupti certainly did not know all Manadan’s thoughts, he had learned early on the cursed man was always touchiest at the beginning of the shift.

He took his place a pace ahead and a little to the left. From time to time, Manadan’s cane would graze the side of his sandal for reference, or Hazhi would emit a small squeak or hiss to help his foster father right himself or avoid an eddy in the stream of people, but for the most part, Manadan made his way by his own meticulous sense of direction and years of counting the steps of most every road in Salah al-Din.

After several minutes of walked in the relative silence of the shuffling crowd, a wide circle of lampposts at the far end of 24 came into view, illuminating the two-story patchwork of wood, stone, and iron within. Great rectangular blocks of pale red sandstone and milky quartz, ranging in size from large to monstrous, sat bolted into a brackish iron girdle that formed the foundation. At the gates, the grey, petrified stumps of trees extinct hundreds of years ago framed the wide doors cobbled from the wreckage of more recent fires. Mortared hilt-first into the top of the first story, a wicked medley of weapons confiscated from generations of criminals formed a vicious crown of thorns.

Above this barbed deterrent, ran a waist high railing of tar-covered planks. The tops of the reinforced boards had been cloven into points which gouged upward like a magnified version of the lower jaw of a Goar rat Manadan used to have in his study. Like those of that long-dead animal, each of these teeth had tasted its share of blood.

Revolt was less an act of sudden explosion, here among the bottom of the bottom, than it was a fact of almost predictable regularity. Had someone cared to record the events of the Salah al-Din, an unlikely event in the best of times, that record would not mark such occurrences as upturning the steady routine and constant fabric of daily life, for there was only one fact of life in the times before: pain. All else was illusion.

The only change revolutions had ever brought was in how much pain was endured. Revolutions were short, savage, and powerfully crushed every time. Thus, it was not before the memory of the last revolt could safely be colored in the memory, not of those precious few who may have survived, but of those who came after, and those who came after them, that the threat of another revolt could rear its head. Only then could even the angriest of the populace rationalize the need to destroy their oppressors and the tools of their oppression.

Indeed, every piece of the North Quarter Barracks had been burned up, blown apart, or torn down over its lifetime, as often from within as from without. Before, it had housed jailers as well as criminals, and from time to time, the one was not enough of a match for the other.

Not surprisingly, the last major expulsion had ripped through the barracks when news of the end had come. At that time, the jailers had still been King’s Guards, brutal, angry creatures assigned from ouside the slums by those who only set foot within Salah al-Din to satisfy some private thoughtless whim or some long-meditated act of malevolent depravity which could only be overlooked when no victims of any consequence were involved.

Thus, when news came of the end of existence, when it was finally understood by all to be the truth, those that had placed the Guards in power immediately turned away to save themselves, and there was no hope for those now abandoned, regardless, or because, of the power they had wielded up to that one moment.