Dawn came to Bri-sean. Unfortunately, even the first rays of the sun can’t improve on the aesthetics of the place. I imagine that at one time, the stone tiers looked forbidding and imposing. Those days were long past.
The enterprising and the clever arrived in Bri-sean a few decades late and found that the landlords of even the deepest, most suffocating chambers of the vast hive-city charged exorbitant rents and expected to be paid in coin or work. As most people who come to Bri-sean have an allergy to halfway honest work and the nobility doesn’t take kindly to freelance crime, they built their own ramshackle homes and businesses from wood and stone that jutted out into space right off the side of the tiers. The looked like thorns festering in a limb.
Sunrise didn’t even make the city more safe. In fact, it was just the opposite. The light of day chased away the cowards who needed shadow and surprise to ply their villainous trade. And when the mongrels fled the field, the wolves arrived; those confident enough in their strength or skill that skulking was no longer necessary. The wise hid their wealth and tried not to draw attention.
I am of the mind that a life lived without drawing attention to yourself might as well be thrown to the wolves anyway. So when I left the third tier palace of the High Consul, I did so in my favorite long coat of white-dyed bat leather, a handful of gold and platinum rings, and my finest silver frames spectacles. My straw-yellow hair was sticking up, thanks to a generous application of trull jelly. It’s the latest fashion in Novrom’s largest cities, especially the expensive blends that included alchemical compounds to make it smell like something other than the special fat layer that occurs under the shells of fifty-foot dragon-turtles.
My travel bag was no less austere, a cylinder of more mundane, but still white leather, closed with finely twisted silk cord. I had a lss impressive bag slung over the other shoulder too; the kind of rough pouch made out of discarded carpet typically used by servants of the wealthy made for themselves. It was filled with left over food from the ball, courtesy of the kitchen staff in exchange for a private telling of The Silver-White Moon, and two half-bottles of Cylla wine courtesy of my own sticky fingers.
We loremen travel light, expecting to earn our room and board wherever we go. Whatever else we need, conjuration can provide. The outfit from the ball, for example? Something I made from a homespun wool shirt, a scarf and canvas sailing breeches. Those three items did the duty of pretty much all my formal attire, because trunks full of clothes are heavy.
Which all serves to say that I had made myself into a walking meat wagon in a land of predators. Nonetheless, I made it nearly to the other side of the tier without incident. And why shouldn’t I have? I, after all, am a very big man and I was walking with the most confident swagger I could muster with the awkward weight of the bags. Even the daylight brigands of Bri-sean can tell a Bad Idea when they see one.
I was starting to feel smug again, when in sight of the airdock where the great flying ships were moored, a hand clapped me on the shoulder. When I say ‘hand’ and ‘clapped’, perhaps I understate the sensation, which was like having a twenty pound bag of flour dropped on me.
“I think,” said a voice that held a casual tone, but was as deep as a glacial crevasse with a bass component like thunder, “That you look like a man that can afford to lose some money.”
Ah. Someone wanted a fight.
Growing up in Rizen, I was steeped in the local culture and one of the cardinal rules was never to start a fight, but never stand down from one you could survive. I was rather sure I could survive anything offered by a Bri-sean hood; I wore a belt that held a sword on my left hip and a six shot pistol on the left and though I was only passable with the sword, passable was good enough once I brought my magic into play.
I turned on my heel with a suddenness I hoped would throw my assailant off balance… and came eye to chest with five hundred pounds of muscle under a covering of shaggy, brown fur. Large I may be, but without strange magics, no man can equal even the average minotaur.
This one was the picture of calm, a far cry from the snarling, slaver-mouthed bull-man that was a popular lie in places where writers and minstrets could get away with making them into the monstrous race du jour for their fictional heroes to slaughter in numbers. Those places tended to be ones with no local minotaurs to defend themselves with civilized argument or equally civil beatings.
It would be a civilized beating too. Culturally, minotaurs only resort to physical conflict for a reason and they feel honor bound to inform the transgressor of the reason for and possible methods of avoiding such a thrashing. Granted, often those possible methods of avoiding such were ‘nothing’, but the spirit of the custom was there.
Fighting him would be plainly useless, so I tried a different tact. “That a fact?” I offered a sincere smile. “You’re a very good judge of men, sir minotaur, because I actually can afford to lose some money.”
The minotaur didn’t respond right away and I could see why in his eyes and body language. This didn’t happen. People stammered and tried to beg off, or they’d play the brigand and try to draw steel on him. Neither reaction earned a man more than broken bones or new scars and they lost their money anyway. But I stood there smiling genially as if we were old friends sitting by the fire.
In the moment of confused silence that coincided with these thoughts, I took a real look at my would be attacker.
The minotaur carried himself well for a brigand, but without the swagger of a seasoned minotaur warrior. Moreover, his hands, while rougher than a human’s, lacked the calluses of wielding a weapon in both battle and practice. In fact, the only calluses he had were on his fingers.
Between his well polished horns, one of which was adorned with a fitted ring of gold, grew a wild, thick mat of black hair. While it hung lose at the moment, it still retained a telltale curl.
More importantly, he carried no weapons. He didn’t need one, having hands more than capable of crushing a human skull, but a male minotaur without at least one weapon in particular while traveling abroad was, in the eyes of his culture, naked.
At last, he shook off the fugue of my bizarre response and tried to get back down to the business of robbing me. “We agree then. So prepare to lose that money.”
I rubbed my chin, thinking it over. In my haste to be rid of Bri-sean, I had neglected to shave and there was a little bit of itching stubble there. “I’d really rather not.”
The minotaur snorted hotly in my face, his eyes narrowing. I stepped into that moment between surprise and rage with my counter offer. “But… I am feeling generous today.” The absurdity of that statement derailed his mounting anger, at least for the moment, giving me time to go in for the verbal kill.“What would your pawdah say about you walking about without your gnak-yu, hmm?”
If the previous few moments of interaction had put him off kilter, this knocked him on his proverbial ass. Humans aren’t supposed know the significance of the gnak-yu. Hairless bastards like us only see it as a big sword for slashing things instead of what it really is; a symbol of self, family and worth. We aren’t even supposed to know the correct word, using instead by the crude Common designation ‘daizaku’.
But not only had I gotten that right, but I knew about the tradition of pawdah, the mentor who teaches young males about the role of males in minotaur society. Humans ask about one’s father or mother, who are important to be sure, but not the person a young minotaur’s decorum and honor reflect on most heavily.
My highest marks were in world cultures and non-verbal communication when I attended the Bardic College. I think if normal schooling included the first, the Age of Tragedies would have ended much sooner.
By now, he was so turned around by having his expectations subverted that he felt the need to explain himself. “My pawdah can think nothing now. He went to the Well to join the Source many years ago.”
Something sadly forgotten thanks to a lack of cultural understanding is that it was the minotaurs that originally gave the world the core of conceptual model of the afterlife that we now know to be true: The Well of Souls with the Source of All Souls at the bottom. Granted, they never envisioned the Afterworld, the Path of Bones and Spirit, or the Seven Interlocking Hells of Inferno, but neither had anyone else.
“But surely his memory suffers for his dahsun to be seen walking in the light of day without his gnak-yu?” I needled him. “I’m fairly certain your parents wouldn’t approve either. Something terrible must have happened for you to be without it.”
An unhappy sound happened deep in his throat. Most people would have thought it was a growl, but I knew minotaurs and recognized it as equivalent to the small gasp a man would make when confronted with something frightening or upsetting.
“Just hunger.” The minotaur averted his gaze to the cobbles.
Wasn’t expecting that. Maybe it was just that I was too distracted by the lure of the story to see the absurdity inherent in it, but I always imagined that a minotaur would die before selling his daizaku. It was obvious and retrospect; except in an uncommon few, the drive to survive was stronger than culture or fear. Stronger even, than the iron bond of a minotaur’s honor.
And it shamed him. I could almost taste the deep, cutting shame from the moment I mentioned his missing weapon. I almost wished I had used the Word to attack his mind.
“Is it here?” I asked. If it were another human, or an elf, I would have laid a hand on his shoudler to show solidarity. For minotaurs though, unsolicited physical contact is their way of throwing down a gauntlet. That is to say, I would have caught a beating for it.
He tossed his head, causing his black mane to fan out even more wildly around his horns. For his kind, this was a reply in the affirmative. “I left the house of my eldermother to earn my life when my twelfth shulnath was tied and came to Bri-sean.”
That explained the curls in his hair. Shulnath are intricate knots tied in a young minotaur’s hair every year on the anniversary of the day they were named, some six weeks after birth.
Minotaur develop faster than humans, something I feel is a contributing factor to the continued lack of understanding between the our races. When a human child is starting his formal education, a minotaur is in puberty and when a human reaches puberty, the minotaur is already considered a full fledged adult.
Most minotaurs keep their knots until they marry and their spouse unties them. This one had untied them himself, probably to aide his fierce appearance among humans and other races.
From the story already related, I put the rest together based on how Bri-sean operated. “But once you got here, everything had a fee; climbing between the tiers, going into certain bars, walking down certain streets.” He nodded wearily at this. “Soon, you were spending all the money you earned on moving around or on joining a guild for protection. Either way, you were trapped.”
It was a very common story of Bri-sean. Desperation fueled the place and it in turn manufactured that emotion by the barrel.
“Have you ever considered leaving it all behind?” Another question I knew the answer to, but I knew where I was headed with it.
A pair of defiant, brown eyes met my gaze. “You know bits and pieces about the life here, but if you ask that question, you’re still a gibbering clown who will lose everything to this city.” He rumbled angrily. “Where would I go? To my eldermother’s house in shame? If that were even an option, the caravans charge more gold than I would see in a year unless more wealth heavy peacocks like yourself come by on a monthly basis.”
He wasn’t even thinking of robbing me anymore. If he was, he could have quickly noticed that my rings alone could buy his way out in a private wagon with meals included. I quirked my brow. “What about an airship?”
Another flame hot snort, this one in exasperation. “More expensive. More out of my reach. Is there something wrong with your mind?”
From his perspective, I didn’t move, but that was only because I tapped into the Word and worked a delicate subharmonic that caused his brain to skip a thought. In the time it took to sort out the bad signal, I was holding a thin panel of wood.
Words and number were scored into it by heat; word like “Callen”, “Aurora Majora”, and “Palace Garden Room” and numbers amounting to what looked like enough gold to carve out a small, quiet barony.
“Probably. But I am a man with a ticket away from here courtesy of the High Consul Domiterey himself.” I pressed the ticket into his gigantic hand. “My gift to you, my friend.”
Large, brown eyes squinted as he read the ticket. I imagine probably needed spectacles, but was either too proud, or too in debt to get them in the rough and tumble city of Bri-sean. But he didn’t need perfect sight to see that it was indeed a genuine airship pass to Spinar in the west of Callen.
Not only that, but it was aboard the Aurora Majora, a ship so elegant with passengers so exclusive that even he’d heard of it, a thug haunting the tiers for his bread and haunches. Taken together, all this made him regard me with even more care.
“Just who are you?”
I offered him a normal, western handshake just to add a bit more uncertainty and thus, control to the situation. “I am Tracern Ridsekes, Loreman of rank from the Bardic College of Harpsfell.”
His thick brows knotted together. Like most people, he’d met more than one loreman in passing. Someone I knew more than likely had visited his home village on occasion, talking their way into learning the ways of his people.
Wheels turned in his head and I saw the idea being born before he did. If I was so rich and well connected…
“Well, loreman,” He finally said, “This takes me to Spinar, but it solves none of my problems. I have no gnak-yu, and in Spinar, I know no one. At least here, I know where to buy cheap, stale crusts.”
Smart. His pride wouldn’t let him ask directly, of course, but he knew exactly how to ask me about work without losing face.
“I can make sure you know someone.” I assured. “Once you arrive, ask around until someone direct you to a place called Bastard Took My Horse. Tell them I told you to speak with Marn Talishum. You’ll recognize him easily; very tall, elf-blooded. The tip of his right ear is shorn off and he behaves exactly as you would expect from a man who would do that to prove an ashing point.”
Marn’s establishment was a unique marvel in Spinar; a theater where you sat at a table and were served food and drink with your show. Many taverns had singers or bards, few had fully produced plays and dancers.
And they were always on the lookout for ushers, waiters and guards for the dancers. Plus, Marn had attempted the loreman’s path himself and though he washed out, he was worldly enough to treat a minotaur with respect.