weekly (Another Night…) – 9

As Xin-po, the last Warden and one of the cruelest minds in memory, was rumoured to have written in his diary that night,

hammer, blade, and whip,
fire, rope, muscle, and bone.
nothing without fear.

The words had been carved into the bright quartz lintel above the main gate, and through a trick of the translucent stone, the letters glowed in the dark with a pale light, carried along its veins from the torches inside the barracks. The meaning, however, had long been subverted, and now stood for the indomitable spirit of the people of Salah al-Din. Without fear, nothing could hurt them.

Approaching the barracks gate, Gupti summoned an appropriately fake cough.

“Eh?” Dayen, the scar-faced gate guard, appeared behind the iron grill to the side. He swiveled his one good eye toward Gupti. A limp leer hung on his lower lip.

“Iya, Gayen.” Gupti returned the unsettling look calmly, silently imploring him, as he always did, to let them by. He could feel Manadan tensing just behind him.

Dayen squinted once, tightening, then turned back to Manadan. He squinted again. “Apologize,” he said.

“Preposterous!” huffed Manadan, pushing forward. “I’ve done nothing to you, whatever your superlative merits for such ignominious and certainly satisfying treatment, you marginally-witted, inordinately frustrating, living and breathing rationalization for the obstruction, disbarment, and outlawing of all practisement of the arcane, willful or otherwise, and I will apologize for nothing!” He rapped the steel-barred wooden gate with his cane while Hazhi hissed at the outburst and fluttered his wings. “Now let us pass, before we grow angry!”

Dayen grinned throughout this tirade, blinking rapidly in obvious enjoyment.

The cane lifted again, but the gate growled angrily, and then very slowly ground its way back over the deep grooves in the parched ground.

Gupti sighed and thought about getting something for dinner at Sazha’s, over on the corner of 18 and 39. It was no secret the old man was not the best cook, but what he lacked in skill he more than made up for in volume and conversation. A pile of staple storehouse rice cooked with bahma leaf and garlic, a thick layer of usually over-cooked turnip and fekt, and a smothering heaping of the fiery red malhi paste would clear whatever ailments might be present, lingering, or waiting in the wings, squeezing them out through the sweat and tears of simple gastric pleasure.

And then, leaning back from the wide wooden bowls, Gupti would release a burp of impressive scope, which inevitably summoned Sazha, who would tell Gupti a half-dozen stories he’d told a hundred times that week, and one or two that had happened that day. All the while, Manadan would pick out and fuss over the few individual slices of fekt he deemed palatable.

Returning to the spitting match in front of the gate, he watched Manadan try once again to pierce Dayen with a withering, though mis-aimed, look, but Dayen, alive thanks solely to a botched revanance spell he’d attempted to bring his wife back with nearly eighty years ago, was immune to most things, dark looks among them, particularly those from blind men. Instead, his half-sagging mouth hung blandly in response to Manadan’s narrowed, sightless eyes, until the door opened far enough to let them through.

“Have a good night, gentlemen,” Dayen called after them.

“Why don’t you come with us?” Manadan turned slightly, rasing a hand to the look of mock dismay hanging strangely on his face. “Oh, that’s right,” his face flattened to its normal barren anger, “you can’t.”

Gupti followed, shaking his head, as Manadan walked away.

Dayen simply continued to grin with deep, if lopsided, satisfaction. Insults no longer hurt him, either.

Inside, the entry hall was empty but for a trio of troublemakers who’d had too much fun the night before, sweeping the dust-ridden cobblestone floor and complaining about the unfairness of it all, while Watcher Peni kept an eye on them from where he’d propped himself up in the far corner. Gupti raised a hand and Peni returned the motion with a tired nod.

They made their way to the Watch Captain’s room at the near end of the hall.

“You’re late.”

Manadan didn’t miss a beat. “And?”

Leaning over the scrolls and tablets on his table, Captain Radib ab Soleera ap Nagwa lifted his head to look at them both evenly for a long moment. Tattoos of blue and black laced his bald head, reaching down across his temples and the bridge of his squat nose, and looping up onto his strong cheekbones from the back of his neck. He’d done them all himself.

“Just because the world is ending,” he said calmly, “doesn’t mean I can’t make you suffer in the meantime, Manadan.” He paused. “There’s still plenty of time for suffering.”

Manadan held himself still. Hazhi’s tail lifted casually over Manadan’s far shoulder as the Sik-wa settled himself into a resting position, his wings leaning together to create a narrow triangle of skin. Gupti slumped in frustration.

Radib let out his breath and rubbed his eyes with a tattoo-covered hand. “Look, I’m already too tired for this, and the shift’s just started. There’s nothing on the list so far, so just do the beat. You’ve got,” he straightened up and looked at the dark stone tablet set into the wall beside him. Its surface was covered with a chalked grid and chalked numbers, all but one of which was crossed out.

“Aught-five?” he said, surprised.

Gupti was also surprised, and looked over at the Watch assignments, himself. Sure enough, he and Manadan were set for block 05, the slums’ current unofficial gambling arena. No matter how many underhouses the Watch closed, there were always new places for people to find themselves at the wrong end of a bad decision.

Manadan, who had been banned from there three months ago, after a series of escalating private altercations, which still bothered Gupti, didn’t move.

“What was Ifa thinking?” Radib stared at the stone before turning to Manadan disrustfully. “This better not be another trick of yours.”

Manadan simply stared forward, blankly.

“Answer me,” the Captain ordered. “Did you fix this up?”

“No, sir,” Manadan answered tonelessly. “I did not ‘fix this up.’ And,” with the slightest insolence, “I do not do ‘tricks.’”

Radib pulled a hand across his face in frustration and stared up at the ceiling. Turning back to the assignments, he shook his head. “Of course. Everyone else was on time for once. Dammit.”

He closed his eyes, sucked in a deep breath, and then slowly blew it out through tight lips.

“Gupti,” he said finally, peering distrusfully at Manadan. “Keep him in line. If you run into anything, anything at all, call for assistance.” He leaned toward Manadan. “Do not address it yourselves, do you hear me?”

“Yes, sir,” Gupti nodded.

“Yes, sir,” Manadan echoed flatly.

Radib looked at them both, then waved a dismissive hand. “Fine. Go. Just remember: call for assistance down there.”