by Sarah Ann Watts
Chapter 17: High Prince Jirair
I hear the murmur of voices within, and a young blond man, naked but for a cloak slipping off one shoulder, face flushed with wine, confronts me.
He grasps my wrist and pulls me in to the room. There are couches around the walls crowded with every variety of sexual activity and in the centre, a tableau of naked bodies writhing together in a parody of the sacred coupling of the twelve gods and goddesses.
There is a scent like death, and it doesn’t take the braziers spewing fumes or the slack eyes and flesh flecked with blood to show me that these servants of the Goddess are engaged in a ritual that will kill. Even in my father’s kingdom, I had heard of this rite.
The blond leers at me and rips my tunic with his knife, shredding the thin fabric. The blade is so sharp I don’t feel the sting, and he wraps one arm around my throat and licks the trail of blood. Then he fastens his lips on mine and thrusts his tongue deep into my mouth.
I feel the pulse drumming in my ears, and my eyes darken even as he chokes the life out of me, until his grip slackens and he says, ‘Gods. I’m bored. You, slave, bring more wine or I’ll strip the flesh from your bones. I could flay you and make you wear your skin like a cloak. Would you like that? Or would you bleed all over me like all the others. They die so fast!’
He throws me aside and I run, slipping on the wet tiles, seeing a red haze as my vision clears. Somehow I find the door. It closes behind me and I stand, shaking. It was so fast that it hardly felt real, but my chest is sticky and my lips are torn and bleeding.
I gather my wits and flee down the corridor. I pause at the top of the grand stairway, glancing from side to side; there is nowhere else to go.
As I hesitate, another door opens and Kras grabs me by the arm, ‘In here, quick.’ He closes the door.
We’re in a small room and a service stair leads down. Kras is robed in a crimson tunic, his hair is washed, scented with sweet herbs and he wears a king’s ransom in jewels.
He holds me until I stop shaking and then he says, ‘Can’t you stay out of trouble for one minute? I made sure you would sleep until midnight.’
No wonder I feel like I’m floating outside my body looking down at the bruised and bleeding shell in his arms. ‘So the wine was drugged?’
He shrugs. ‘What did you expect? How else would you have proved so compliant?’
This makes me laugh, and once I start I can’t stop. Words are wisps of thought I can’t grasp. I want to tell him there was no need for wine to ease the way, I was always susceptible, but I wipe the blood from my mouth and stretch my lips in a broken smile.
This infuriates him, and he hustles me back up the stairs towards his rooms. ‘I was going to come back for you. You and I have an appointment. There is someone expecting us. I have a commission for you, if you will accept it.’
I shrug and it hurts. My speech slurs. ‘If you’re talking about the blond who threatened to strip the flesh from my bones because he was thirsty, no thank you.’
He hits me then, hard across the face so that I am left blinking.
‘What did you do that for?’
‘You saw him?’
‘Yes. One of the regulars is he?’
‘High Prince Jirair? He’s only the Empress’ son and heir to the throne. Do you think he would know you again?’
‘I imagine he was so drunk he’d bed his own mother.’
I think Kras is going to die of shock. He clamps his hand down hard on my mouth and I sink my teeth in, drawing blood. I owe him something, I’ve been through a lot but I’m not going to be slapped around by some painted prince of cats.
He jerks his hand away and curses me. ‘Damn you, Kyran. You want me to call the master and let him send you to them to play with? You’re lucky Jirair only asked for wine. If he remembers you, if he asks for you... then you’d better hope I get to you first with a knife and am friend enough to use it on you.’
‘I’d use the knife on Jirair rather than let him touch me again.’
He shakes his head at my folly and hustles me up the stairs.
He pulls open a door to a room like mine, this must be where he sleeps when he isn’t ‘working’, pushing me in with such force that I stumble, put out my hands to save myself and end up pitching against the window frame. If it was open, I’d be halfway to the street and passers-by would soon be scraping me off their shoes.
Kras bolts the door behind us and scrabbles feverishly in a chest for a couple of cloaks. He throws one to me along with a jewelled dagger, the kind that is worn for decoration. I pull it from the sheath to test if it is any use and promptly cut myself.
Kras raises his eyes to heaven but this time he knows better than to lay hands on me again. He belts two long-bladed knives around his hips and ties a strip of silk around his hand to staunch the bleeding. ‘I should wash it with wine to get rid of the poison.’
I can’t blame him for that gibe. ‘I’m sorry.’
He shrugs impatiently and tells me to hurry. I sheathe and belt the dagger, and he nods once in swift approval. He strips off his jewels and hastily scrubs the paint from his eyes. Time enough to save questions for a more leisured moment, but he seems younger than I thought. There is an edge that warns me not to treat him lightly.
He goes over to the window and, using his silver key, unlocks it and slides up the sash. This room is at the back of the house, opening onto a squalid alley where there is rubbish piled in heaps. A sewer flows through it, a stark contrast to the marbled splendour out front. Nevertheless, we are still three storeys up. He stands on the window sill and gestures for me to follow.
‘You must be out of your mind.’
‘We’re leaving. Now.’
‘You’re going to fly?’
He sucks in his breath at that. ‘No, climb. Can you follow?’
I hesitate but then I become aware of a sound I have been hearing for some time, heavy footsteps coming our way and then the door shakes as someone pounds upon it with a heavy fist.
‘Are you coming?’
I swallow and join Kras on the window sill, not glancing down. I never had vertigo when I could fly, but now it is as if even this drop is beckoning me to my death. The blows are getting impatient, and I can only hope Kras has a plan.
He glances sideways at me. ‘Not down. Up!’
I see there is a rope hanging as if he prepared for this escape. I have to wit enough to save questions for later. With the ease born of long practice, he uses the rope to walk up the wall. I have heard of this skill but have never needed to use it. Fear and the drug give me courage. Before I have time to think, I am following, and he pulls me over the parapet where we are hidden from the street. We lie panting.
Kras pulls the rope up after him. A squad of heavily armed retainers emerges onto the street. We wouldn’t have stood a chance if they’d caught us. At least, I wouldn’t have. Kras, I’m not so sure.
‘What now?’ I ask.
He gestures out across the city. ‘We wait. Then, when the hue and cry has died, we go over the roofs. There is a ship in the bay. They are waiting for you, Kyran. All cats are grey at night.’
We wait until the armed men return to make their report and then Kras says, ‘We should go now, before they’re sent out again. They’ll search the house first. That should buy us some time.’
‘Why are you doing this for me?’
‘I’m not.’ He is already crossing to the next roof. ‘Get a move on. The ship sails at dawn.’
We scramble over the roofs, crossing on a plank that is left concealed by the first gap. Kras must have come this way many times before, and I have trouble matching his pace. I’m unhappy crossing the void on this slender plank and unhappier still when he makes me jump.
We pass the shell of a recently burnt-out inn; it is smoke-blackened, with charred timbers. Houses on either side have been pulled down to halt the flames. I smell a stench like roasting pork. I retch and hurry on. I never thought my curse would stick.
By the time we reach the harbour and slink into the crowds, I feel I could sleep on my feet, but Kras doesn’t let me. The seafront quarter is lit up like day even though it is now the third hour in the morning.
Drunken sailors spill from the taverns, and Kras has put back his cloak and carries his knives openly to discourage anyone interfering with us. He urges me to cover my head and show my knives, too. We pass unmolested, with some perfunctory harassment from the whores.
Me in my slave’s tunic they pay little attention to, but Kras attracts whistles and catcalls, and he takes it as his due.
* * *
He strips the torn silk from his hand. I note the mark left by my teeth is gone. As we reach the next pool of light, he straightens and seems to grow in stature, a young warrior from the court slumming it in a poor quarter with his slave in attendance. His face shifts into one I recognise only too well, the blond prince, Jirair.
‘How did you do that?’
‘You mean you can’t?’ He looks startled for a moment, and I see the youth Kras looking out from his eyes and then he laughs. ‘No one will touch us now. Let’s save the explanations for later. This face bothers you?’
It does more than bother me. I want to kill Jirair. My hand is on my dagger, and Kras spares me a derisive glance. ‘I shouldn’t, not if I was you.’
I swallow my pride and follow. He is my only guide in this city.
Finally, we leave the waterfront and, drawing his cloak close, he leads me over a network of piers and jetties faintly illumined until finally we come to a merchant ship moored by the quay.
An upturned boat on her deck looks strangely familiar. Kras pushes me into the shadows and then moves quite openly towards the ship. There is a seaman on deck keeping watch; I wonder what he sees or if he sees anyone at all in the moonlight.
Kras walks up to him, raises his dagger and knocks him out with a single blow behind the ear. The seaman crumples and then, to my surprise, Kras kneels quickly to listen for his heart before beckoning me to follow.
As I step onto the ship, I feel the air thicken and I glance up to see that even the waves in the harbour are silent. Moving swiftly, Kras launches the boat and lowers it. He and I skim down the side of the ship. There are oars in the boat, and Kras says, ‘So, Kyran, can you row?’
We slide away from the merchant ship. I recognise her now and the boat. The Lady Karishma is an old friend. Kras laughs softly, and we begin to row together to where the great schooner rests like a ghost at anchor in the bay. His face shifts to mirror my own and he says, ‘Remember me?’
I get a shock seeing myself through his eyes. I look older and there are shadows under my eyes and lines I don’t remember.
‘You’re a soul thief!’
He shrugs. ‘Hard names break no bones. I’m a night child. You knew that. I steal desires, not souls. What I am shouldn’t matter. It’s who you are that does.
‘I see a slave in rags, hostage to fortune, a leaf that drifts and is crushed by every boot that passes. You can’t run forever. The ship will take you home.’
‘And will you come with me?’
Kras sheds my face. He flicks water from his oar, a shimmer of spray. ‘If you want me.’
Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts