by A. Melchor and N. Kolm
The sun rose earlier than usual, or so
Behari was thinking as the first rays touched her face from the small
window in her room. She had been lucky last night; no one had required
her services despite her spending all the night serving drinks and acting
like a proper waitress. She guessed her smiles did seem as empty as
Slowly, she rose from the straw which made up her bed, ruffling her
hair and yawning tiredly. She enjoyed the early morning silence, enjoyed
being awake early so that she could savor a few minutes of freedom,
where no one would shout for her, no one would beat or violate her.
She sat for several minutes, letting the sunlight bathe warm her face.
She was not very religious, particularly given her lot in life, but
she almost felt the hands of Zuze'en caressing her face, like a mother
reassuring her that everything would be all right. She sighed and finally
got up. She tied her robes tight and slipped her feet on her sandals,
ready for morning chores at the brothel where her parents had committed
her to since she was a little girl.
Another longing look was cast out the window before she stepped out
of her room, her inner self hardening, raising the shield that made
it possible for her to continue with her life, even though it was not
even worth calling it life.
"You're up early, Behari." One of the older prostitutes was
sitting on the walkway overlooking the building's central garden. She
looked like she was seeing the sunrise not because she'd woken early,
but because she hadn't gone to sleep yet.
"It's better to rise early. At least at this time of day no one
is shouting at me for a few moments of time." she replied sighing
faintly. Most of the prostitutes were rather kind, feeling for the little
girl who could do absolutely nothing about her destiny and tried to
help her get along with life. She was grateful for the help, even if
it did little to make her feel better.
"Yes, you're right..." The woman, not actually much older
than Behari herself, fished inside her robs and handed the younger girl
a handful of jade chips. "Can you be a dear and go to the market?
I'm all out of tea and incense... I'll tell the master I sent you off;
take as much time as you want."
A rare smile crept to Behari's lips and she nodded vigorously, taking
the chips and muttering a feint. "Sure!" before she hurried
towards the exit, afraid to stay any longer in case the master would
not allow her to go.
Beldatz was waking up as she walked its streets. The peasants from
the outlying farmlands were making their way to sell their product,
caravans from inland who wanted to push their wares to the cities along
the Bay of Dawn, and the odd traveler in search of better fortunes.
She soaked in the atmosphere of the city, glad to be outside of the
brothel again even if it was just for a bit of time. She walked slowly,
enjoying each step in this freedom that she craved for so much. It was
at these times when she could again smile. It was these strolls that
kept her alive.
Unlike most of the women working at the brothel, Behari was not indentured.
She was not paying off a debt, or working for a salary. She had been
sold, pure and simple. She did not remember her parents, nor did she
want to, for they had abandoned her in that place for a handful of gold
so they could buy passage out of the city. She belonged to the brothel,
and she had no family to fall back on. She was passed by a small group
of girls her own age, chattering about some rumors about schools closing
down, but she didn't pay much attention to them. She couldn't read,
in any case.
Chasing away gloomy thoughts as best as she could, she made her way
towards the market, clinging tight to the money she had received, not
wanting to disappoint one of the few people who were friendly with her.
"Hey, cutie!" She was greeted as she arrived at the market,
where the small merchants were getting ready for another day of business.
The voice belonged to a Watchman, although Behari could tell that this
was a Guild mercenary, not a true member of the Watch. For all their
rowdiness, the Watchmen were very disciplined when they were on duty.
She looked to the mercenary and immediately down again, hoping against
hope that he would ignore her if she didn't answer or that she could
melt into the ever growing crowd that was slowly gathering here.
"Don't be shy! I only want to talk." The call was mixed
with lewd laughter. Behari swallowed her anger. She was not at the house;
she was not forced to answer the man or even acknowledge his existence.
She gritted her teeth faintly and purposefully strode away from the
Watchman, heading into the crowd of people to disappear from his sight
as quickly as she could.
She bought the tea and incense and realized she had received more money
than she really needed. She could picture the older woman winking at
her, particularly when she had said to spend as much time as she wanted.
So she continued walking through the market, wondering what she could
do to cheer herself a bit up, what she could spend the money on or if
she should save it in case she ever got free.
"No, no, no... I tell you it's five! Five! Count the little beads:
five!" A girlish voice rose above the growing din. Behari spotted
the owner, a girl was haggling with one of the vendors, showing him
an abacus and pointing back at a cartload of fish. "Look; take
it or leave it; I have to make sure the fishers deliver this cargo and
I have loads of things to do!"
Behari had seen this girl once or twice. Even in a city as big as Beldatz,
it was impossible not to remember her odd appearance. Fair skin, golden
hair, very much unlike everybody around, particularly Behari, whose
tan skin was a shade darker than other people in Beldatz as her parents
surely hailed from the southern provinces of the Empire.
She inclined her head and decided to listen in on the girl a bit more.
She closed in and looked some other way, doing her best to remain unnoticed
by her, but curiosity about the fair skin and golden hair made her get
very close to hear what she was saying.
"Look, Niriko; I know that's the price, but I can't afford to
pay that much today." The merchant was saying.
"Don't tell me; I only help the fishermen move their stuff around
and not get ripped off. So, what do you say? Two imperial izpis for
the whole cargo or I take back the fish you can't afford to pay?"
"Fine, fine... leave the fish...." The merchant hung his head
and went to the back of his stall.
"Yay!" The strange girl giggled and shot her arms up in triumph.
Behari chuckled softly beside herself. Already, she envied the fair
skinned girl for her freedom. She was doing things on her own; something
Behari had not done in her life.
"Hi, there." The strange girl addressed Behari out of the
blue. "Can I help you with something? You look kind of lost."
"Ah...n...no" Behari stuttered, caught in the act of observing
the girl. "I'm sorry!" she added and quickly averted her gaze,
moving backward away from the golden haired girl called Niriko.
"Niriko! There you are!" Another girl joined them, tall and
with a full figure, but still a childlike smile. "We're late for
"Crap! Go ahead, Zin; tell the teacher I was helping my dad with
something." Niriko said and turned to yell at the merchant. "Hurry
up, will you?"
"Right, right... the third time this week." The taller girl
smiled, and then turned to Behari. "Oh... do I know you? I don't
remember you from school..."
Behari stopped dead in her tracks and looked down, shaking her head.
"I...no... you wouldn't know me. "
"But if you don't go to the harbor school... it's getting awfully
late for you; you're going to miss your first class." The tall
girl mused while the merchant handed Niriko a small sack.
"I...I don't..." Behari wished she had not intruded upon
Niriko's privacy and drew back even further. She felt small and very
dirty when compared to these girls.
"Right, have to run now!" Niriko smiled, even at Behari.
And she took off, leaving the cartload of fish and a friend.
"Well, I have to go to." The tall girl bowed lightly. "I'm
Zintzi Okitari... are you a friend of Niriko? That girl makes friends
left and right."
"No...I'm...I'm no one..." she shook her head and disappeared
backwards into the crowd, hiding from her embarrassment.
She wasn't followed, nor did she expect to be. She chided herself over
her show of weakness. She couldn't show weakness, not even when she
was out of the house. One crack in her mask and her entire world could
collapse on top of her. She weaved her way through the people and decided
to go to some place where she could buy a little food and something
to drink. Something for herself and not the damn food she got in the
She found a small restaurant serving travelers; there were not many
sailors from the docks, as they would still be working at this hour,
but mostly passengers or would-be passengers for one of the ships. Behari
saw a group of dwarves from the Ironscale clan who had settled up a
little distance from the city proper.
She went into the restaurant and looked for a place a little away from
the other customers. Then she waited to be served, which would be a
first in all her life.
"Good morning." A young woman received her at the door. "Are
you here for some breakfast? Come right in! We just received a shipment
of pineapples, or if you like something hot, you should try our wrapped
"Something warm would be very nice." she said quietly and
smiled slowly as she was led to one of the tables and sat down.
The dwarves laughed in their strange language. Their throaty voices
were full of cheer and pride, even if their words were totally alien.
The restaurant started filling up as the morning wore on, and shortly
Behari had a plate in front of her with freshly prepared meat bundles,
wrapped in corn dough and the corn's own leaves. A complimentary jar
of hot chocolate was set next to the plate, and the waitress bowed lightly
Though she was ravenous for some good food, she disciplined herself
and ate slowly, savoring the taste of each bite and enjoying the feeling
of the hot chocolate running down her throat.
"I know you." A young man approached, leaning on one of the
free chairs. "I'm sorry, that's a lousy pick up line, but I'm -sure-
I've seen you somewhere..."
She looked up from her food and her eyes showed fear momentarily. "Ah...I'm
sure you must mistake me for...for someone else." she said in a
"No, no... " He squinted his eyes in thought. "I never
forget a pretty girl's face... let me think... say, if I don't get it
right, I'll pay for your breakfast, but if I do, then you have breakfast
with me, deal?"
Hoping against hope he would not guess her 'job' she nodded fearfully
and chewed a bit of the meat.
"A party...must have been a party because I was drinking... yes!"
He smiled in triumph but then his expression changed. "Uhm... sorry...
sorry you're right, I must have confused you with someone else... but
as agreed..." He put a few chips on the table. "Here's for
your tab... sorry..."
And then he walked away. It was obvious he had finally recognized her,
but apparently didn't want to be seen with her.
She sighed faintly and looked at the plate in front of her, then to
the coins. She knew, the right thing to do would have been to bring
the coins back, but she couldn't afford the luxury of noble thoughts.
So she stuck them into her pocket.
The young man sat on a table with a few other men, and Behari saw them
look over at her direction, one of them laughing and all of them teasing
the young man.
She sighed deeply and finished her food and drink, then, her consciousness
gnawing at her, she stood up and paid for her food and drink with the
money her colleague had given her. Then she went to the young man rather
directly and put the coins on the table. "You won sir. I have no
right to take these from you." Without another word she turned
and walked away.
"Hey, girl!" One of the other men called her. "You went
to the trouble to bring the coins, so why don't you join us now, eh?"
"Stop it, Telzin." The young man who had approached her said.
"Leave her alone."
"Don't be a wuss, boy."
"It is not my place to be in your company." she said, not
turning around. "I thank you for your offer, but I cannot accept."
"Ah, these aren't working hours, eh, you little whore?" Another
man said quite loudly.
She shivered visibly, trying to control the anger that welled up inside
her, but this time she failed. Clenching her fists she whirled to the
man who had spoken, her features mirroring the anger she felt. "You
goddamn bastard! You have NO idea why I do this, no idea what I have
to endure. You sit there, spending your money when you don't even appreciate
it!! You have no idea what it means to be in my position, so shut the
The man stood up, more amused than angry.
"You dare raise your voice at me?" He said, and soon all of
his companions except the youngest started to rise.
"Kind customers, please don't cause any trouble..." The young
waitress addressed the men and looked apologetically at Behari.
"There won't be any trouble because the little girl will apologize
to us, right?" The man said scornfully.
"Not to you, you SCUM!" she yelled. "You have NO right
to say such things to me! And I have every right to raise my voice when
I see fit!"
"Oooh, feisty isn't she?" The man walked menacingly, and
his friends surrounded her. "If you won't apologize, then maybe
you could give me a sample of your... work, right boys?"
The rest of the men laughed.
"Now you feel strong eh? Surrounding a girl like me with your
thugs. What, five against one little girl?" she said with sarcasm
dripping from her voice. "Mightily brave you are!"
The man was not up to witty banter, but instead shot his arm forward,
grabbing and yanking her hair violently.
"I'll teach you to speak to me, you stupid whore..." He grunted
as he pulled again.
But the girl was used to pain worse than this and instead on flinching
and starting to cry as he might have expected, she turned and bit into
his arm with all her might, ripping a chunk of flesh from the place
where her teeth sank in.
"ARRGH!" The man screamed and slapped her hard enough to
send her to the ground. "You little minx!"
The man reared his leg to kick her, but suddenly he was falling face
forward, his leg pulled from his back. The rest of the men looked and
found one of the unique shows in Beldatz. A skrii'qek was calmly standing
there, holding the man's leg with his large paw. The birdman was of
the shorter and stockier raptor breed.
"I believe." The birdman said with a croaking tone. "That
the lady wishes to be left alone."
Behari held her cheek where the man had slapped her but got to her
feet again quickly, wiping the blood of the man from her lips and staring
at the birdman with large eyes.
"Found yourself a nice birdie?" One of the others spat at
Behari and launched a kick of his own, but a large wing suddenly spread
between them, blocking the attack. With a ruffle of feathers, the wing
struck the second attacker and sent him reeling back.
"Step outside, miss." The birdman said. "This will get
Behari nodded and hurried outside quickly, but remained close enough
to see what was happening inside.
There was a lot of noise, the sound of a broken chair or table, but
then, one by one, her attackers came flying out of the restaurant. The
skrii'qek stepped out calmly.
One of the men rose and charged the creature, but it was prepared; it
hopped with its strong legs and struck at the man with a roundhouse
kick that sent him flying back to where he had originally landed. Behari
noted the wicked talons on the birdman's feet, but also noticed that
he had not used them to wound his opponent.
"You seem to be hurt." The skrii'qek walked in little hops
in the manner of his people.
"Not seriously" she hurried to say. "Thank you very
much, m'lord." she said and bowed deeply.
"I am called Larriki." The birdfolk bowed in return. "I
shall walk you to your destination; I am afraid these men will not be
content with the result of this encounter."
"That would be much too kind, lord." she said, shaking her
head slightly, respect and appreciation seeping through her voice. "I
do not wish to impose trouble on you."
"It is no trouble." The birdman cocked its head, looking
at her with a large amber eye. Its beak was curved and made for rending
flesh, but the words coming from it were kind. "And it is my duty
to assist the needed."
With the small fingers coming from its wings, the skrii'qek pointed
at the medallion of Zuze'en hanging from his chest. He was a priest.
Behari nodded softly and bowed again. "My deepest gratitude then."
she whispered and nodded in the direction in which she would need to
The birdfolk priest fell in beside her. The birdfolk were not meant
to walk, and Larriki's little hopping would be deemed humorous, if not
for the overly grave appearance of the raptor breed.
"What is your name, child?" He asked eventually.
"Behari." she answered simply, feeling strange but very secure
now that she was under the protection of the priest.
"You are not in school, but I see a sharp mind behind your eyes."
"Life teaches you a few things..." she said with mild bitterness
in her voice and a soft wistful smile on her lips. "I wish I could
go to school."
"It is a pity that so many girls like you will lose that chance."
He said enigmatically. "You will have company soon, for the governor
has agreed that girls do not require formal education, and the gates
of schools will be closed to them."
She inclined her head faintly. "Well, I still won't have company,
kind lord." she whispered and shook her head.
"Indeed?" He turned his head sharply, but she wasn't sure
if it was surprise or the jerking movements of the birdfolk. "Have
you not friends or sisters attending school?"
"I have no one... at school, no..." she said, thinking of
adding the last part of the sentence a second too late.
"Your clothes are fine, and you are clean." He answered.
"You are no street urchin, nor used to hard labor." He nodded.
She lowered her head and continued walking, guessing it was only a
matter of moments before the birdman would leave her side and take to
the sky or walk someplace else.
"You feel shame." The priest said, his tone lower. "You
follow the path of the goddess Izketzira, called the Devourer of Souls
by those who do not understand Her ways. Yet I see you really belong
"I had no choice in which path I should follow." she said
bitterly, her fists clenching again as she remembered why she was what
She was surprised by the gentle touch of soft feathers around her shoulders.
"Truly... but you choose how you walk the path."
"I do not know where I can choose my lord. I have no life of my
own, my life belongs to my master. He owns me." she replied with
sagging shoulders, though she felt secure still in his presence.
"He may own your body, Behari." The priest said. "He
has no claim to your spirit. That belongs to Zuze'en. I saw you in that
restaurant.... I saw the light of the sun reflected in your eyes. Your
path is running through a dark swamp, but you choose to walk straight,
your head above the waters. Dry land is closer than you think."
She heard the words and wanted to believe them, but somehow, the dark
swamp as he called it, drowned out hope for her at the moment. Still,
she gave the priest a light smile, thankful for his kind words. They
reached the brothel, his winged arm still around her shoulders. He turned
to face her directly.
"The sun hides her light from us at night." He said, his large
golden eyes staring straight at her. "But there is always dawn.
He looked at the house, and they both heard the sound of morning chores
being carried on. He turned back to face her.
"Your dawn will come soon, little one; when you see daybreak, wake
up, do not hesitate, do not delay; grab the light of the sun and do
not let go."
She took his words in and nodded softly, promising herself that she
would do that. She had no other option anyway.
"Thank you, m'lord, for your help, both physical and mental."
She smiled lightly and nodded, then took off towards the brothel, steeling
herself for the day to come.