The Scribe’s Daughter
I never imagined my life would end this way. Not today. And certainly not in this place. Yet here I was. It was midday, and had I the ability to tilt my face toward the sky I would have been blinded by the early summer sun, a silent observer of my murder. As it was, I could do no such thing. The beefy arm around my throat immobilized me, and as I clawed at it ineffectively, I felt my life drain away bit by bit, with each unsuccessful gasp for air.
It had all started as a misunderstanding. Yes, I had stolen the apple, of that there was no doubt, but the fact that I stood in the middle of paradise, embraced in a powerful death grip by this clay-brained slab of meat, had come about only by mischance.
The merchant was a tawdry man, odious and duplicitous, with a false sense of his own appeal to those of the opposite sex. However unsavory these traits made the man, they served my purposes perfectly. I had come to the market, specifically to this sheltered niche between a crumbling stone wall and a wagon just a stone’s throw from the fruit seller’s stall, for breakfast. I knew full-well the man’s reputation for lewdness as well as the opportunities it had provided me in the past, and I was certain another chance at thievery would present itself if only I was patient. I wasn’t disappointed.
She was a very young and very unfortunate wife of a fishmonger from the quay. She didn’t know she was unfortunate, but I smiled to myself, knowing that her naiveté heralded my success. The merchant noticed her immediately, and this was my cue to act. Stepping out from the shadows, I snaked my way across the mud-packed alleyway and lightly brushed past a barrel filled to overflowing with apples, sending several cascading to the ground. It wasn’t enough of a commotion to distract the merchant away from the poor girl cornered behind a crate of berries, yet it was all I needed. Bending casually as I breezed past, I picked up one of the orphaned apples. It was as I did so that the man happened to look up, saw me take a bite. He was angry, yes, though not sufficiently so to warrant the loss of his prey to chase me. I smiled at the man over my shoulder and waved. My theft was successful. It was the next thing I did however, the afterthought, which got me into trouble.
It would have been wise to keep going, to be satisfied with the marginal deadening of my hunger pains, but I had to push matters, had to turn again and gesture towards the man with an insult clearly targeted at his salacious inclinations. I only wanted to anger him a little, perhaps just enough to give his wide-eyed young customer an opportunity to escape. Except that the merchant didn’t see me. A city guard did. To say he wasn’t impressed would be an understatement. I took off running.
It was morning, peak hours for the frenzied business of a market, and especially so today. A fleet of ships from Kavador had arrived only yesterday, bearing goods more exotic than the wares usually on offer even for a port city as large as Corium. The traders of that far away land came only a few times a year, and I hoped that the unusually large crowds would act as a screen to my flight. I also assumed the guard would easily give up the chase, thinking me not worth his effort. In both of these assumptions I was wrong.
As I vaulted the back end of a rickety hay cart, I chanced a brief glance over my shoulder only to be rewarded by the shocking sight of at least two hundred seventy-five pounds of heaving, angry, solidly muscular guard no more than five or six strides behind me. I surged on.
Every good thing, including market districts, must eventually come to an end, and with it my best chance of escape. Like a doe that has stumbled beyond the forest edge, finding herself in an open meadow without tree, bush or underbrush for cover, I found myself on a deserted street lined with individual houses flanked by walls of finely cut marble. If I was to get myself out of what my impetuousness had started, it was time to give up on speed and agility and get clever.
Making a sharp right turn, I leapt over a low wall and landed hard, twisting my ankle and nearly falling. Ignoring the pain, I regained my footing and stride and continued on as before.
I was in a garden. And I was alone. Of the city guard there was no sign, and despite my dubious luck so far that day, I hoped I had finally eluded him. Taking a moment to catch my breath, I scanned my surroundings and bent to rub my throbbing ankle. A footpath passed just ahead of me and continued in a straight line for several meters before curving gently around an overgrown juniper tree. Neatly trimmed grasses nestled between each flagstone of the path, and for a precise meter on either side, unrelenting as objects of perfection, decisive and meticulous, likely a good representation of the qualities of the wealthy owners. Zinnias, coneflowers, daisies, hibiscus, begonias and dozens of other flowers in all the colors of the rainbow populated the beds in fragrant profusion, undulating in cascades throughout the garden.
I breathed in the potent fragrance, and for a moment relaxed. Unfortunately it was a day for miscalculations. A shadow loomed, and before I realized it, the guard came at me from behind, beginning his stranglehold. I was trapped, and I was dying in a beautiful garden.
“You think this is the end?” His breath reeked of moldy onions. “You think this is your penance?”
He tightened his hold and my vision dimmed, black spots forming before my eyes as the world spun and blurred even as it faded. It was only a matter of moments before I passed out.
With his free hand, he brought up a finger and traced it down my cheek. “No, this is not how you will die,” he hissed before releasing the pressure. I gulped in a lungful of sweet air before he continued, “I know a special place for boys like you. A place you will fetch a fair price. A place you will be valued…”
He licked his lips in anticipation, and I felt his excitement as he contemplated what his luck had brought him, that he would sell me for a hefty profit, would then be entitled to a first go at the new merchandise. The thought distracted him. It was all I needed.
I turned my body slightly, enough to put my left foot behind the man’s right leg. With my left elbow I jabbed at his midsection, pushing, tripping him backwards over my foot. It was meant to throw him off balance, and it did the trick nicely, distracting him enough that he released completely his grasp of my throat so I could slip away. While it was tempting to turn and kick the man savagely between the legs, wisdom took hold and I fled, finding a place to hide until I was absolutely certain the guard had given up his search and left.
I now took some time to walk the garden path, to appreciate the beauty around me, to see with my own eyes the things kept hidden away behind walls as a protection from me and others like me – the poor, filthy and worthless. The smell of the place was heady, almost sickly sweet with the syrupy smell of blossoms, a far cry from the refuse-infused scents of the streets and alleyways near my home in the heart of the poorest district of Corium, the city of my birth.
I was nearly to the far side of the garden when I came to a marble pool. Having just run across what seemed like half the city, I was hot and very dirty. It looked like as good a place as any to wash myself, so I sat down on the edge and bent towards the water, discovering a face reflected back to me on the calm surface. I wasn’t impressed by what I saw. The eyes that met mine were green, and though they were framed by long lashes, they were entirely too close together. The lashes swept smudged cheeks displaying a smattering of unfashionable freckles. A stray wisp of equally unfashionable copper brown hair had escaped the confines of a felt cap and blew gently in the light wind. All in all there was nothing remarkable or noteworthy about the face staring back at me, and the fact that I owned it was not a matter that concerned me greatly. With a sniff, I cupped my hands and splashed them into the water, disturbing the reflection and sending out ripples across the placid pool. What was a reflection anyway? It mirrored the exterior of things only, and that darkly so. Depth and dimension of a thing was proved out by time, touch and exploration, by revelations that gave lie to the deceptions that the surface sought to make real.
After scrubbing my hands and face, I straightened and stood, and only then did I notice them watching me. Several young serving girls tended to the preparation of what appeared to be the makings of a garden party. The appearance of a bedraggled boy into their pampered midst had elicited their curious but wary attention.
“Hello,” I said to them. My smile was pleasant enough, but my very presence was an affront to them, and my greeting wasn’t returned. Before long the girls returned to work, though the leader of the crew kept half an eye on me all the while, thinking I might cause trouble. That’s what my kind was good at, after all. Little did she know that I had no immediate plans to cause mischief, for whether they understood it or not, these servant girls and I were on the same side of the vast gulf that separated the haves from the have-nots. Though they worked in a wealthy household, they themselves were not a part of it and never would be.
My scalp itched, and as I reached up under the band of my cap to scratch, a gust of wind came up and whipped it from my head, blowing it towards the silk-draped pavilion the girls had just finished erecting. A cascade of long copper-brown hair fell from confinement, blowing freely about my face and neck. Six pairs of startled eyes opened in shock as the realization struck. This boy in bedraggled trousers and a patched shirt was no boy, but rather a young woman, skinny and dirty, but a woman nonetheless.
I retrieved my cap, but when I turned, I nearly collided with a woman blocking my path, staring down her long patrician nose at me. “Gutter rats in our haven,” she scoffed as she stepped closer. I stood my ground. “How dare you invade this place with your pestilence, you vermin infested son of a…” she paused then, considered my long hair and delicate facial features, and her mouth twisted into a sneer, “…or should I say daughter of a muddy street cur and a mongrel…”
Likely she would have continued on in this vein for some time, but I wasn’t about to let her. Without thinking what I did, I slapped her face. What happened next was unintentional, but I won’t pretend not to be pleased by the outcome. The slap so discombobulated her that she staggered backward, her momentum stopped only by the pool. With a startled cry, she tumbled into the water. I didn’t even bother to wait for a reaction; it had been two days since I’d eaten a meal, and despite the partial apple I’d nearly inhaled not long before, I was hungry. Let the old carp in the pool fend for herself. It was how the rest of us lived.
Our home was both a place to live and our place of business. It fronted a small side-street in the busy market district and was divided into two rooms: the front for the display of my sister’s wares and for each of us to conduct business, and a small back room out of which we lived and worked.
Upon my return, I found my sister Irisa engrossed in her newest project, an assortment of metal objects arranged in an intricate pattern on the floor before her. She sat there motionless, head cocked sideways, with one eye squeezed shut. She studied the metal pieces with her other eye, and her mouth was screwed up into a pucker as though she was sucking on a lemon. I knew better than to interrupt her bizarre meditation, for though I didn’t understand how, she found inspiration with this method. I danced around her, trying my best to sidestep the display.
It was early evening, the time most merchants closed their shops for the day, so I closed ours as well. If we had attracted any business during my absence today, likely we would never have known with my sister left in charge. She was so intent on her newest creation that most anyone could have walked off with the entirety of our earthly possessions, and she wouldn’t have noticed. It was probably best that we owned nothing worth stealing.
I placed a small sack of food on the back table, my newest theft since leaving the garden, then undressed. The cooler air of the darkened room pricked at my naked skin, a delightful contrast to the hot and dusty city streets I had just escaped. Taking a bucket of water from the corner, I washed more thoroughly than I had been able to do at the garden’s pool then pulled on a simple cotton chemise, choosing to neglect the rest of my attire and dripping wet hair in favor of eating. Rummaging through a small box in the corner, I found a knife and cut up the dried meat, cheese and bread I had retrieved from a neglectful merchant. Likely it was meant to be his evening meal, but I supposed I needed it more than he did based purely on my estimation of the circumference of his girth compared to mine.
When my portion of the food was gone, Irisa appeared beside me. She glanced at me briefly, taking in my transformation from thieving boy back to young woman of seventeen, flashed me a bright smile, then quickly ate her portion and returned to her work. We remained silent. There was nothing to say, for life rarely held any marvels worthy enough to warrant the waste of speech.
Next I intended to begin mending the handle of a bucket, for I was a tinker, and mending things was my trade; but before I did so, I wanted to make some tea, so set a pot to boil over the small fire. This task was interrupted by a familiar knock sounding on the back door. I flung it open to reveal a short, rotund and balding man whose only remaining hair clung to the sides of his head like a wooly mountain sheep. He strolled casually through the door as if his presence was expected, even eagerly anticipated.
“Swine.” I said the name flatly, though I couldn’t help that my mouth twitched at the corners. It was hard to suppress my amusement over his acceptance of my taunt. His real name was Sveine, but Swine was what I always called him. His face registered irritation, but he didn’t correct me. He never did.
He waltzed further into the tiny room with an air of importance, his eyes sweeping the shadowed corners out of habit. If he noticed my sister or the work she was doing, he made no indication. Irisa looked at him and went back to work. She knew she needn’t bother with his visit. While he made his usual survey of the room, I turned back to the small fire, stoking the burning coals to coax the paltry flame into a more vigorous blaze. The water was starting to steam, and, once it started to boil, I would add a handful of leaves to make tea. So far Swine had not spoken or made any indication as to the purpose of his visit, though I was pretty sure I knew why he was here.
“You have money you be owing me. It is most needful that you, ah…” He paused, searching for the right word. I kept my back turned to him, stoking the fire to hide my mirth. “…provide me with payment…” Another pause. How this man maintained a bustling trade I would never understand. “…at your quickliest… no, this is not right…” I think he was getting exasperated. I continued tending the fire so I wouldn’t have to turn around, revealing my face which was red from stifled laughter. He continued on a while longer in the same halting speech, words sputtering forth in fits and starts like a geyser. I had stopped paying attention. The water was finally boiling nicely, so I added a handful of leaves to brew.
I noticed the silence and realized that Swine had asked me a question.
“You listening? Do my talking you mind?”
I turned back to Swine, all the while considering the iron poker I held in my hand, considering the relative merits of poking him with it. Disregarding the notion as unnecessary even while wholly satisfying, I set it down and replied, “I don’t mind that you are talking so long as you don’t mind that I’m not listening.”
He sucked in his breath and stared at me, beady eyes flashing. “Monies due soon. You remember. I am not the fool to take your impudence.”
I was impressed. Impudence was a big word. “I don’t think you are a fool. But then, what’s my own humble opinion against hundreds of others?” He was a filthy little man, and I was tired of the exchange. Somewhat to my surprise, rather than turn in disgust and leave me in peace, which was the way conversations like this typically ended, he moved towards me, his mouth turned up at the corners in a disgusting leer. I resisted the urge to retreat a step, held my ground instead.
He stood there for several moments, his eyes raking over my body, and I discerned calculation behind his leer. He made no move to touch me, but already my mind was racing, trying to remember where I had put the knife in case I needed it. I eyed the discarded poker and knew I couldn’t reach it. My hands were behind me, so I felt around until I found a newly sharpened quill resting on a small ledge. It wouldn’t kill, but it could inflict sufficient pain and permanent damage if used in strategic locations.
“Way of other kinds to provide payment. You consider…” He paused and flashed repellent yellowed teeth, took another half step towards me. This time I did involuntarily react, backing further against the wall. Putrid sack of pig dung that he was, he outweighed me considerably, and I had no delusions about who would be the loser if he forced himself on me. He reached out tentatively as if to touch me then reconsidered. I wretched away from him so violently that he startled.
I have no idea what he expected or how he thought I would react to his overture, but clearly my recoil was beyond his comprehension. He stood a little taller, puffing out his chest in annoyance. His face was red, rage filled. “Monies due!” he spat and swung about, charging through the open door into the alley.
I shouted after him, “Do you have to leave so soon? I was just about to poison the tea!” It was a great parting shot. Honestly, I was a little disappointed not to get even the smallest glance back.
I shut the door, then turned and rested my head against it for a moment. Noticing that my hands had started to shake, I closed my eyes, inhaling deeply then letting it out slowly again.
My mother died when I was eleven, leaving my father alone to care for me and my sister. Since Irisa and I were old enough to tend to all of the necessary household duties, our lives continued on in the usual way. Father earned a meager wage as a scribe-for-hire in the marketplace, selling his services to anyone who had both need and money. Correspondence and simple business contracts were the meat of his trade, though sometimes he took on a job that required travel outside the walls of Corium.
After my mother died, the frequency of these trips increased, though I thought little of it until one time, three years later, when he left on another journey. For all I knew, this occasion was no different than any other, except that this time he failed to return. He had always been extremely closed-lipped about his work, and Irisa and I knew better than to ask questions before his departure, so his disappearance was a mystery, and one which had no hope of being solved. It was easiest to presume him dead.
Between the two of us, Irisa and I managed to earn enough money from our individual trades to pay rent on the hovel where we worked and lived, and in a good month there was enough left over to buy a little food and a few other necessities, though more often than I wanted to admit, our food was acquired by thievery. My sister was the elder of the two of us, by two years. She made beautiful things from whatever scrap material she could find; bits of leather, rope, cloth pieces, etc. From small purses to shoes and jewelry, there was nothing that she had not tried. Her work was rather ahead of its time, so her clientele tended towards the eccentric or fashionably inept. Perhaps she was a visionary, but I cared little and would have been happier if she had crafted the practical over the imaginatively dramatic. We were born of the same parents, but two more different creatures would be difficult to find.
In the best of times we had not been close, being as dissimilar as oil and water. Irisa was quiet and easy to dismiss, while I was decisive, spoke my mind. Our father and mother had applauded Irisa’s unassuming nature, as her demureness was a model of what a well-bred lady was meant to be. But we were not well-bred ladies, and secretly I think our father was pleased with my spunk, though he never admitted it.
It was clear, even from our earliest years, while both of our parents still lived, that Irisa would always need someone to take care of her, provide for her, and the evidence of the years since our father’s disappearance bore this out. My sister was soft-hearted, concerned for those who had even less than us, always sharing what little she had with others. I admired her compassionate side but thought it more prudent to balance a giving nature with practicality — if we starved to death, we would be of no use to anyone. I was happy to share, but I would not starve myself in the process.
Despite our differences, we had managed quite well together. No matter what I thought about her work, it was Irisa who earned the largest share of our money, while my thieving fed and clothed us. My father would not have been proud of what I had become, and those few around me who knew what I did thought me a criminal. Yet when survival is at stake, which of my accusers would not be hard-pressed to do as I have done, to steal, to thieve, to act not as a lady but as a street rat, willing to do anything short of the unthinkable? Steal, yes — but I would rather die than whore myself. In this, Irisa and I were agreed.
My breathing calmed, I shook off my unease and retrieved my tea. I poured a measure for myself and took some to Irisa.
She studied me for a moment then said, “Kassia, you shouldn’t be so reckless.” It was something she told me all the time. Ever the cautious one, my sister. But cautious didn’t keep us fed. It was an old argument and I didn’t want to argue with her. Not now. I was too tired.
I gave her an empty look then took my tea to a spot near the fire and sat down on the hard-packed earth floor. The enormity of our situation hit me again, and I fought back desperately against overwhelming feelings of despair. Swine was a problem, and he would never leave us alone; at least not until he was paid one way or the other. Irisa and I had been very fortunate these last several years; we had always managed to pay our rent. Until now. But how to come up with the money this time? These thoughts consumed me long after the paltry fire had smoked itself out and the night crickets began their song. I pulled a blanket around my own shoulders and sat hunched before the barren hearth, attempting to divine answers from the ash. Late into the night I came to a decision. If I refused Swine’s offer, I was left with only one choice, no matter how unpalatable.