Zazesspur: Through the Eyes of a Child
had been the seat of Tethyr political power - a small city of beautiful
and stately buildings. During the 'Ten Black Days of Eleint' which
followed the deaths of the king, prince, and general the city was sacked;
looted and burned by the angry mobs.
Despite this the city's population had doubled within a week of the burning as the refugees, loyalists, and former nobles fled from all parts of Tethyr to the only center of stability they knew.
Today it was three times as large as it had ever been, the greatest and most populous city in Tethyr. The old city, which had been put to the torch, became the center of the new city, the newer parts sprouting up and radiating out from the former ruins in a mazelike wheel.
The outer edges of this 'wheel' were little more than a tent city, where merchants hawked their wares and where the poorest of the city's residences lay.
Joram kept Athos close to his side as they made their way through the city. The crowds were heavy and Athos was distracted. The boy was amazed at the myriad of sights and sounds that assailed his eyes and ears.
Just inside the eastern gate a pair of dirt-encrusted beggars moaned and pleaded with the passing throng. One had a dirty rag tied over his eyes and a cane by his side, the other had no legs below the knees. Both held out dingy wooden bowls in hope of a few copper pieces.
Catching sight of them, Joram halted and fought his way across the way to get to them. He dropped a Tethyrian silver piece into each bowl before walking on. Athos noted that both boys snatched the valuable coins from their bowls as soon as he and Joram had passed, leaving only the few coppers which had been there before. He also noticed that the boy with no legs sat strangely, as if he were kneeling on real legs instead of resting on his rear. Curious.
"Look there!" exclaimed Joram after the two beggars had passed out of sight behind them. "Jugglers!"
Athos looked to see what fascinated his father so, but saw nothing extraordinary. "Where?" he asked, standing on tiptoe, thinking that perhaps his view was blocked by passerby.
"Just there," said Joram, pointing again and privately wondering at the boy's lack of perception, "not more than a score of paces distant."
Athos watched the two men for a moment, then looked up at his father in surprise. "Why are you so excited, father?" he asked, perplexed. "They are doing nothing a normal person could not."
The two men were juggling a series of small swords back and forth between them. A small crowd had gathered around them, applauding appreciatively every now and then as the jugglers performed a particularily intricate trick.
Joram chuckled, taking Athos by the hand and leading him away. "You should try to do what they are doing sometime. I think you will find it far more difficult than it looks."
The boy frowned. He didn't see how that could be, and resolved to try this 'juggling' himself, as soon as possible.
A movement to the left caught Athos' eye. A young boy of twelve or so was walking behind a fat merchant, his right hand moving within the pouch which swung freely at the merchant's side. The boy looked up, feeling Athos' eyes upon him. He gave a weak smile.
Athos smiled back, and gave a little wave. The boy nodded and scampered off a moment later, something in his hands. He joined a group of other boys his age, and they darted off into the crowd, snickering. The merchant walked on, unaware that anything had happened.
Before Athos could puzzle out exactly what had happened a tall skinny man dressed in flowing robes stepped in front of him and grinned gap-toothedly. "Does the young master like toys?" he asked in Amnish accents, holding out a stuffed animal pelt cut to look like a came which had obviously seen better days. His breath was noxious.
"No thank you, sir," said Athos, backing away.
"It's alright, Athos," said Joram, urging the boy forward. "How much for the toy?"
The swarthy man smiled, his eyes narrowing. "Ah! You have a good eye, sir! This very toy was once a possession of a young prince of far distant Thay! It being a priceless heirloom, I cannot let it go for a paltry sum."
"I can offer you no more than two silvers," said Joram apologetically, turning away.
"A moment, kind gentleman!" protested the man. "Ordinarily I would not dream of doing such a foolish thing, but as my poor family is in dire need of money, and because the young master looks so disappointed... I offer you the chance of winning this prized toy in a game of chance."
Joram turned back, interested. "A game of chance?"
"A mere distraction for one of your intelligence, good sir," said the man, gesturing to a rude wooden table standing at the side of the street. "I possess three cards, one of which bears the sigil of the sun." He had now reached the table and fished from some pocket three worn cards. "I will show you the card bearing the sigil of the sun, then place the three cards face down on the table and mix them up. If you can keep track of which one is the sun card, you win the toy." As he spoke he laid the cards down and began shifting them, demonstrating."
"Father," said Athos, "I don't want the toy, really."
Joram stepped forward. "It sounds simple enough. But I'm only betting one silver."
"Agreed, agreed!" The swarthy man was eager.
The merchant picked up one of the cards, displaying it to Joram. It was the sun card.
"Once upon a time," he began, gesturing broadly with his left hand, "the sun was captured by an evil demon." In a deft movement he placed the sun card face down with the other three cards. "The demon spirited the sun off to some lower plane of existance - perhaps Tarterus, or maybe Hades." Now he began rearranging the cards, picking them up and placing them in different positions. To his credit, the cards moved quickly, but it was fairly simple to keep track of the card which must have been the sun. "Now, the world was a dark and lonely place without the sun, and many adventurers and brave souls ventured out, seeking the demon to ask for the sun's release. He turned them all away with this riddle. Perhaps you, sir, will be able to bring back the sun." He finished and leaned back, smiling, to allow Joram to make his choice.
Joram reached forward to where the sun card must be, but Athos caught his sleeve.
"The sun card isn't on the table, father," said Athos. "I saw him slip it into his sleeve as he gestured during the story."
The swarthy man looked surprised, then indignant.
"Is that true?" asked Joram.
"Of course not!" snapped the man, putting on a great show of being offended. "I am insulted at being so wrongly accused! Now, make your choice!"
Athos reached forward, quickly overturning all three cards at once. None of them bore the sun sigil.
Joram was furious. "I choose the card within your pocket, charlatan!"
Already the skinny man was racing off, darting through the crowds and melting into the flow, his cards forgotten.
Joram looked at Athos. "You have a very sharp eye. I'm sorry that he made off with the toy."
Athos picked up the three cards teh skinny man had left behind. The moon, a skeleton holding a scythe, and a beautiful woman made of ice. "I didn't want the toy anyway, father."
Joram smiled, then rumpled Athos' hair.
"Let's go," he said. "We've a full day ahead of us."
* * *
That evening, they
supped in the tavern room of the The Singing Crossbow, the inn they would
be staying at.
"And what will you have with your meals, sirs?" asked the serving wench, a plump girl of seventeen or so.
"Water and unfermented goatsmilk, please," replied Joram. She nodded pleasantly and moved off.
"Look father!" said Athos, picking up his silverware.
"Be careful with that," admonished Joram as the boy tossed the utensils in the air.
"Juggling," said Athos after a moment as the knives and forks began an intricate circular dance in the air. "It's easy."
Joram was astonished. "You have a gift, boy," he murmured. "But you'd better stop. You don't want to attract attention, and I don't think the barkeep appreciates his silverware being tossed about."
The boy nodded and caught the dancing silverware, placing it back on the tabletop.
The serving girl returned after a short time, bringing their meals: steaming rabbit stew and an exotic looking salad full of leafy vegetables of colors and textures Athos was not familiar with. They dug in heartily.
Well into their meal, a man stumbled into the tavern and wandered to the bar. He began singing lustily and off-key melody. His face was unshaven and his hair was wildly tousled. The Singing Crossbow was not the kind of establishment which catered to crowds of raring drunks. It was a quiet place, and the man looked wildly out of place.
He surveyed the room unsteadily for a few moments, barely keeping his feet. His bleary eyes fell on the table where Athos and Joram sat, and he waved merrily. "Ho friends!"
"Ignore him," instructed Joram. Athos looked down at his dinner.
The man was undeterred. He stumbled acros the room towards their table, and sat in one of the empty chairs heavily. He giggled. "Hello, my quiet friends!" he said, clapping Athos on the shoulder. "I am Luskag, and I am a dead man!"
Athos wished he were somewhere else.
"Take note, Athos," said Joram. "This is what alchohol does to a man's mind."
Either the man didn't hear the gibe or he decided to ignore it. He leaned back and propped his feet up onto the table. He was still smiling stupidly. "I tell you I am a dead man! Aren't you curious about death? Have you no questions to ask a dead man while you may?"
"No," said Joram acidicly, turning back to his stew.
"What? None?" The man's breath stank of cheap ale. "And you, boy? You have no questions?"
Athos said nothing.
"You are rather lively for a dead man," said Joram. "Your breath may stink like a day old corpse, but you are still very much alive, I think. Just drunk."
The man swung his feet off the table and leaned forward, grinning. "I am not believed?"
Joram shook his head. "Go away. Leave us to our meal."
The man leaned back again. "I am not believed," he murmured almost thoughtfully. "You are newcomers to this city?' he asked, then laughed. "To our fair city?"
Joram studiously ignored him. After a moment his gaze shifted to Athos.
Uncomfortable, Athos finally gave a slight nod.
"Ah," said the man, nodding, "newcomers. You wouldn't know how our thieves' guild operates then, would you?"
"We don't associate with thieves, stranger," growled Joram.
The other man shrugged. "Incidentally, I am a member of that guild myself. Or, rather, I was a member. Five days ago they called me before the guild council and charged me with witholding the percentage that every guildmember must pay when they make a score." He winked at Athos. "They said I was cheating them. They were right, of course. I do it all the time. I've just never been caught at it before." He shook his head solemnly. "They pronounced me a dead man."
Joram was ignoring the man, but Athos found himself trying to follow what the man was saying. "They didn't kill you right there, on the spot?' he asked.
The man smiled. "No need. they always execute a rogue member the same way - in public and very messily. Serves as an example to other guildmembers, you see."
Athos shook his head, not understanding. "But you aren't dead yet. Why not flee the city?'
The man's smile melted away. "No use in running, boy. The guild has a long standing agreement with an assassin." His face went grim. "They say he's part demon, and I'm inclined to believe them. I've seen his handiwork before." He shook his head again. "One thing's certain. You can't run from him. He'll find you."
"What's his name?"
"His name?" The man chuckled. "In his business, a name is power. I don't know what his name is. I doubt that anyone who did would live for very long." His voice dropped to a whisper. "People call him the Viper."
A chill worked its way down Athos' spine. For a moment a superstitious dread hung over the room.
"Remember this, boy. He is the true ruler of this place. To see him is to know terror. If you live your life in poverty and misery but never cross his path, count yourself fortunate."
The man scraped back his hair, standing suddenly, looming above the boy. He threw back his head and howled. "Viper! Come and take me, you filth!"
He sat down heavily on the floor, missing his chair, and collapsed in gales of laughter.
"Come Athos," said Joram, "I've lost my appetite. Let's get to bed."
As they mounted the stairs Athos heard the man bawling at the barkeep. "Dwarven spirits, man! Fetch me your strongest dwarven spirits!"
* * *
There was no moon that
night, and the city of Zazesspur was cloaked in blackness as thick as pitch.
A ghostly wind played across the rooftops, whistling softly, eerily.
Athos stood at the window, the room dark and quiet behind him, looking out at the tiny points of light that marked streetlamps and windows, pondering. Joram was in bed, his breath making a tiny shushing sound as his chest rose and fell slowly.
The inn was still. It had been for hours. No doubt the doors were shut, the tavern room carefully cleaned and empty, the patrons either retired to their rooms or gone out into the night. And yet Athos couldn't sleep. He wondered what had become of the drunken man. Perhaps he had taken a room. More likely he had drunk himself into a stupor, and the barkeep had thrown him out into the street.
A piercing wail rang out suddenly, shattering the night. It was a cry of desperation, of terror, of pain, and with terrible certainty Athos realized it came from a human throat. The cry was abruptly cut short.
Joram jerked awake. "What was that?" he whispered loudly. "Athos?"
"Here father," whispered Athos, terrified. The cry had emanated from somewhere within the inn.
The cry sounded again, closer and louder than before. It was a man's voice, crying in agony. Athos had a sudden vision of the drunken man, wounded and fleeing his assassin.
Joram began rooting around in the darkness, searching for something. There was a click, and then a flare of light. He had lighted a small lamp. Athos could see that in his other hand he clutched a knife. "I'm going to see what's going on," he said, heading for the door. "You stay here."
"No father!" protested Athos. "Don't go! Stay here, where it's safe!"
"Stand back, Athos," commanded Joram, brushing by the boy.
Athos reached out, grasping his father's sleeve. "Don't go!" he said urgently.
Joram ignored the boy, and opened the door. The hallway was pitch black. He stepped out, peering down it.
Athos stood rooted to the spot, afraid to leave the room.
Joram held the lamp higher, and started down the hallway. "Who's there?" he demanded.
The light, and Joram, moved out of sight, to the right of the doorframe. From where he stood, Athos could only see the weird shadows cast by the small light moving on the far wall.
"Blessed Tyr!" he heard his father exclaim in horror, "What are you doing?"
The the light was extinguished and Athos heard his father scream.
And suddenly he knew that his life was in danger. He knew - knew! - that if he wished to escape the assassin he would have to be silent. Paralyzed with fear, he sharnk back against the wall, sweating, ashamed of his cowardice. This was not the way heroes behaved in stories. How dare he hide here! His father needed him! Had he no more love for his father than this? It was a betrayal! And yet he could not move, could not think. He was powerless against his own fear.
And now, in the very hour when he needed to be silent most, he found that he could not. His heart rang in his ears loudly. Quiet! he ordered himself. Silence! His breathing was so loud that it seemed to him that it must be heard throughout the inn. He held hs breath for as long as he dared, placing his hand over his mouth. Be silent! He felt hot tears streaming down his cheeks, and he was ashamed of that too.
A tiny rush of wind touched his face. Someone or something brushed past him in the darkness, and stopped. He fought down the urge to shrink back. Be still! Be still! He shut his eyes tightly in terror.
And then he was alone. Perhaps he had been still enough. Perhaps the assassin had been fooled.
Be Still! The assassin hasn't left! He's waiting, waiting for you to betray yourself by moving, by making a sound! Every minute became an hour, every breath an agony.
And he waited, determined that he would not move.
He stayed there until morning came, frozen by fear, his muscles trembling from the effort of holding himself still for so many hours..
Eventually, when dawn came, he realized he was alone. As the light grew, he dared to look into the hall. When he caught sight of the carnage, bile forced its way into his throat.
The city guard arrived later.
"What happened here?" the captain asked the innkeeper.
"A thief who was slated for death was executed last night." The innkeeper was almost nonchalant. "Apparently the other man was fool enough to get in the way."
The captain nodded. "The Viper's work," he said dismissively.
The Viper! thought Athos. The assassin the drunkard spoken of!
The captain made as if to leave. "Well, there's nothing more to be done here," he said, looking at the innkeeper. "I don't envy you, having to clean up that mess."
"Wait!" said Athos, grasping the hem of the captain's tunic. "Aren't you going to find this killer and bring him to justice?"
The captain laughed and turned away. "Who is this ignorant brat?"
"The other man's son," replied the innkeeper. "Which reminds me." He turned to Athos. "Unless you have some money, you'd best be on your way. My inn is not a haven for vagrants and orphans."
"What?" asked Athos, hardly understanding.
"Do you have money?" asked the innkeeper.
"My father had all the gold."
"There wasn't any gold on him when I found him," said the innkeeper. "You'd better go."
Athos felt a flash of rage go through him. He hurled himself at the man, only to be snatched off his feet by a nearby guardsman. "Liar!" he shouted. "I saw you take the money from his body!"
The innkeeper produced a gold piece, and slipped it into the captain's waiting palm. "Do your duty, captain."
The captain chuckled. "We'll escort him out for you." He gestured, and a second guardsman stepped forward to help his companion with the boy. Together, they managed to seize the struggling boy by the feet. Athos was carried upside down, swinging back and forth and unable to get a grip on either of his captors. They carried him down the stairs, to the whooping and hollering of their comrades, and hurled him face first into the mud outside.
Athos scrambled to his feet and ran. Behind him the soldiers' laughs faded.
He didn't stop until his lungs were on fire and his legs gave out beneath him. He looked around him and realized he had no idea where he was.
He huddled against a wall and sobbed.
"Can't you cry somewhere else?" whined a nearby beggar. "You're going to ruin my business."
Athos ignored him, and clutched the only possession he had left to him.
Three worn playing cards.