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 they were. Slowly, she rose from her straw mat, 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 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 before she could even remember.
She cast another longing look 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 yelling at me.” 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 robes 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. 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 deep bronze 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 school!”
“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. “See you!”
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 Tainoz… 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.
She found a small restaurant serving travelers; there were not many sailors from the docks, as they would still be working at this hour; 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 meat bundles…”
“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 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 before leaving.
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 low voice.
“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.
“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 hell UP!”
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!”
“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. “How 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 ugly.”
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 he was prepared; he hopped with his 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 don’t want to cause you any trouble.”
“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 needy.”
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.
“Thank you.” She whispered and nodded in the direction in which she would need to go.
The birdfolk priest fell in beside her. The birdfolk were not meant to walk, and Larriki’s little hopping would be deemed comical, 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 priest’s protection.
“You are not in school, but I see a sharp mind behind your eyes.” He said.
“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.”
“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, adding the last part 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. “I see.”
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 to Zuze’en.”
“I had no choice in my path.” she said bitterly, her fists clenching again as she remembered why she was what she was.
She was surprised by the gentle touch of soft feathers around her shoulders.
“Truly… but you choose how you walk it.”
“I don’t know where I can choose. 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. Always.”
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 for your help.” She smiled lightly and nodded, then took off towards the brothel, steeling herself for the day to come.