Night fell on the starving city, and the desperate poor came out to their prey.
Dalsaman had been invested for over a month, and anything that might have been called food was long since gone. Bread was ever the first to soar in price, and two weeks the beylan and her officers ate quail with oranges and crushed almonds while the peasantry ate sawdust and stabbed strangers for an ounce of flour. Hali had seen it before.
She crept along the top of a milliner, and the faint smell of old dyes made her think of her father in Khair. Father impoverished the family with one foolish investment after another, and late in his life took to dying his clothing to make them seem new, lest anyone should catch the scent of his penury. They smelt the dye, though, and through it his desperation. Mother continued to wear new dresses every season, though. Father’s desperate rarely extended beyond himself. Even the children were treated to new dresses and toys. He went so far as to have a sword forged for Jivril when he turned ten: a thing of beauty, Uurish steel with an ivory handle and gilded hilt, a Makhian emerald set in the pommel. He had borrowed heavily for it. At times he seemed to truly think his family did not know how bad things had gotten, and they were happy to play along. Anything to put off the inevitable.
When Father hanged himself and Mother fled to the Solulan to give herself to the divine sisters, Hali had spent a short two days considering her options. There were still times when she felt guilty for dumping Jivril with the ‘family fortune,’ a heavily mortgaged estate and a ruined family name, but despite his last present from Father, Jivril had always been better at sums than she had. He had the makings of a merchant, and his gentle disposition was better suited to caring for little Anji. He would recover the family estate someday, she knew, just as she knew she would someday reclaim the family honor. To default on a loan was almost as bad as to fly from battle, but between Hali and Jivril, the Parsad name would one day become great again.
She would always bad about stealing the sword, though. She told herself Jivril would never need it, but that lie turned sour when she sold the sword herself for a horse and saddle. A paladin was a noble thing, but a paladin without a horse was a glorified squire.
Beneath her, a drunk was lurching along the street, bereft of bottle and hope, sex and gender obscured by rags and filth. Whatever they had drunk, it had no doubt been on an empty stomach. Hali slipped down the side of the building and kept to the shadows as she followed the poor creature.
Sure enough, three streets down, they happened upon a pair of skeletal rogues in search of something. “You!” the taller one called to the drunk. “Any coin on you?”
“There’s a toll for passing Tadhir Street,” the second one said, plumper and dressed in rotten clothes that had once been fine. Whatever ill had befallen this pair, it had passed long before the Monosi hordes had come to town.
The drunk stumbled onward, oblivious to their taunts. The taller one grabbed them and shook them. “Hey! Show your respect, maggot!”
“There’s a toll,” the plump one repeated, one hand straying to their belt. “Show some respect for the Watch.”
If these are city watch, I’m a divine sister, she thought to herself. She moved her hand to her sword handle. It was a plane wooden handle, wrapped in good leather that was worn into familiar, comfortable grooves. The steel was Ikhan, but nothing to scoff at. It was a good sword, more than a match for a pair of brigands
The drunk moaned, not understanding them, and tried to turn back whence they had come. The tall one shook them again. “Last chance, ya stinking cur!”
The plump one pulled their dirk. Even from ten yards away, Hali could see it was cheap Yenai iron, not even fit to cut shipping ropes. She drew her sword.
“Only a savage cuts open a cur,” she said. “Are we Mornal dog-eaters now?”
The plump one cried out and stepped back, but the tall one kept their composure well enough. “Tadhir Street’s got no use for poachers. Off with ya.”
“I’m not poaching.” She lifted her blade and let the half-moon glint off it. “I’m hunting.”
The plump one found their courage somewhere and stepped forward, holding their dirk out like a lance. “We’re not afraid of you. There’s two of us.”
“I see one knife,” she said. She did not have her shield with her, and she was clad all in leathers, lacking even mail, but she was unconcerned. “Point me to the watch’s quarters.”
“What? We are the watch.”
“And I’m the Mother of Fish. Point me to the watch’s quarters, and I’ll leave you be.”
The tall one suddenly shoved the drunk aside, who promptly tripped and fell to the ground. “You got any coin?” they asked.
“There’s a toll,” repeated the plump one, like a Vainan parrot that only knew one phrase.
She thought of offering them one last warning, but she was weary granting patience to fools. Instead she strode toward them, her blood as calm as the Yenai Sea.
The tall one backed away, startled. The other wanted to retreat as well, but pride condemned them to step to the right and thrust toward her gut. She slapped the dirk away with her free hand and buried her steel a foot into the stranger’s plump belly. As they slowly breathed out their life’s last breath, she planted her boot on their stomach and ripped her sword out even as the tall one tried to circle to her left, her shield side. A shame. Both these brigands knew enough to cross to her shield arm, shieldless as she was. They might have made good watchers.
She could see the apprehension in the brigand’s eye, and launched herself forward. Lack of training won out, and the stranger through their large hands before their face. Hali deftly sliced open one wrist and kicked the tall brigand to the ground as they seized their hand screaming.
She planted her boot on their shoulder and leveled her blade at their neck. “Point me to the watch’s quarters.”
They were already shaking as they pointed south. In the moonlight, she could make out a dark beard as they spoke. “Ten blocks or s-so… Street of S-Spears. Two east.”
She dropped the assailant from her thoughts like a rock and headed off. She briefly thought of checking on the drunk, but the thought left her soon enough. She had the city to think of. One by one the three dying creatures floated through her thoughts as she silently rushed to the watch’s quarters. In her mind, each one had Jivril’s face.
Dalsaman was enormous, even bigger than Khair, and it had been long years now since Hali had lived in a city. Most of her quests were discharged on the roads, guarding cattle or chasing bandits or marching back to the Fire Mine to put down yet another rebellion. Yet for all that, she still remembered her early days and nights in the Shadow Wars of Khair, when she had been more an assassin than a paladin, still desperate to earn a horse and saddle. Before she sold her brother’s sword.
She shook the thoughts from her head as she emerged from a narrow wynd into a small square, dominated by a block of a building, two stories tall, whose windows danced with a merry orange light. Even in the half-moon, she could see the two sentinels before the doors wore the green and pale blue of the House of Ividar, the beylan of Dalsaman and prefect of Dejitsa.
She was pleased when the two sentinels pointed their spears at her. “Who goes there?” called the large, broad-shouldered one.
“Dame Hali Parsad. I come on behalf of Divine Commandrix Ges Ra Ividar.” Even in the dark, she saw their eyes widen at the name. “Bring me to the high commander.”
“We’ll bring him to you,” the taller, slimmer one said.
They brought her into a cozy antechamber just inside the quarters, with a homey hearth still blazing kindly in the east wall. The room was dominated by a table of good, Dalsaman pine, with four chairs upholstered in reinforced Uurish leather, an obscene luxury meant to demonstrate the wealth of the city. There was very little room between the chairs and the walls, and the walls were festooned with shelves, filled with butter jars, spice boxes, and even tiny tubs of frozen bone gem, forged by the wizards to keep the cold in and preserve meats. Hali quickly noticed that every one of the containers was open, and empty.
“The baylic sent you?” asked a gruff, businesslike voice. Hali turned to see the commander: scraggly bearded, of advancing years, with bagged blue eyes and a square, froggy face. They grit their teeth as they eased into a chair, and Hali saw a number of teeth missing as they eased to a sit.
“May I have your name, Commander?”
“Arfador, yes. Arfador vin Vaddos. From Khabar, you’re no doubt wondering. What news from the Palace?”
“I’m afraid I have been misheard, my Lord,” she said. “I come from Divine Commandrix Ges Ra Ividar.”
His face fell at that. “The beylan’s cousin. Yes. Do you mean to say you come from… outside?”
“I snuck through the siege lines and over the wall.”
He drummed his meaty fingers upon the Dalsaman pine. “That must be quite a tale.”
“Not so quite, my Lord. It is nearing dawn, after all, and the Monosi seem as fond of drink as any harlotan.”
“Good for them,” he grimaced. “Dalsaman’s been famished for two weeks, but we’ve been dry for three. Tells you how we city folk deal with adversity, yes.”
“We, my Lord?”
His big blue eyes narrowed. “I’ve lived in Dalsaman for forty-three years, Dame. My name and my blood are Khabarese. Everything else is Zaljan.” He rubbed a bare spot on his jaw. “Y’know, the great thinkers of Yaalk say that our bodies are made of tiny grains of magic that die and are reborn, like the storm shrike. Could be every part of my body that set foot in Khabar is long dead, and everything you see now’s spent its whole life in Dalsaman. Yes.” He peered off at the wall. “Like to die here, too.”
“You seem awfully pensive, my Lord.”
“Little else to do, this late at night, Mother be thanked. Most of the worst sorts have killed each other off, else are rotting in the palace dungeons, yes. The nights are desperate, but quieter now. A small blessing amidst these curses.”
“Quieter? You have some well-rested men, then?”
“A few. We’ve lost a few too, yes. And of course we’re all starving as bad as the peasants now.”
She did not doubt the beylan’s larders were still holding salted hams and rock-hard beef, and it would be foolish not to share that with the people protecting the palace from their dying citizens.
She must have quirked an eyebrow at that, for his eyes flared briefly.
“Dame, did you spy any rats on your way to the quarters? Any stray dogs or cats?” He leaned in, and his whisper was hoarse and hard. “People are dying in the streets, mere sticks with skin stretched over them. Did you see any of their corpses on your way here?”
She sat back at that. “Well, my Lord,” she said at last, “it’s likely the siege will end tomorrow, for good or bad.”
He nodded slowly. “I had heard as much. My kids on the walls assured me there’s been quite a bit of stirring in the barbarian camp. And now here you are, as it were.”
“As it were.” She considered being coy for a second, but quickly dismissed the thought. “Commander, how many troops can you bring to the northern gate?”
“Is that where they mean to break through?”
She bit on her laughter. “They mean nothing. ‘Barbarian’ is too kind a word for these folk. But we mean for the watch to be at the north gate.”
The rest of their talk was amiable. Commander Arfador showed great respect for the Commandrix and her family, insisting that her cousin the Beylan had managed the city well up until the siege. He even brought out a small tin with a couple of tiny slices of stale bread, each with one or two drops of old mustard on them. Hali did not want to take their food, and her gut stirred guiltily thinking of all the supplies at the encampment. She should have brought them some.
Nevertheless, she broke bread with the commander, so to speak.
“We thank you,” he murmured before taking a delicate bite of the tiny serving of bread.
“We thank you,” she said automatically. She swallowed hers in one gulp.
Dawn was growing near, and Hali was growing overwarmed by the hearth, when a pair of young guards arrived to tell the commander the company was assembled.
They rode out to the north gate. The commander rode a sorrel mare that was all skin and bones. The gelding they had lent Hali was worse: a broken barrel on broomsticks, piebald skin stretched over it. It was at least obedient, and the commander assured her the creature was no coward.
When they reached the north gate, the night was already starting to lighten. In the pallid violet, she saw a small sea of troops in emerald green and a blue so light it seemed ghast in the dying evening. Every soldier present had a slim spear in their hand and a long dagger in their belt. Only their captains had breast plates, but all wore ringmail byrnies and conical helms with nasals, the rims wrapped in emerald green.
“I leave them in your hands,” the Commander said, handing over his officer’s sword.
She eyed the weapon. It had a few nicks in it that had not been properly whetted out, but it was good Uurish steel, with an Uurish hilt that looked to be inlaid with pearl, its handle wrapped in Uurish leather. The pommel was bare, a heavy bulb of cruel iron.
“You’re certain, Commander?”
“I’ve got five-hundred more troops waking up in less than an hour. They’ll be wondering about our defenses, and I mean to lead them.” He pressed the weapon upon her. “I have a good feeling about you, Dame. I had a daughter named Hali. Well, a son named Halil, but still.”
Hali drew her own sword and managed to hesitate only briefly before trading with the commander. “I’ll think of your son as I wield it.”
He smiled brightly at that, his teeth shining brightly against the gaps where the others had vanished. “I’d rather you thought of Monosi heads.” He rode off without another word.
Hali looked out over the wash of strangers and held up the commander’s sword. As one, they hoisted up their spears, but made no noise. It was yet early, and they had secret work to do.