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Chapter 20




When Wanshig reached fifteen he began working with Alferth. Alferth was a tax taker, which gave him avenues into kinless commerce. One afternoon Wanshig pulled Whandall away from his friends, back to the courtyard of the Placehold house.

"Taste this," Wanshig said. "Just a sip."

It was a small clay flask. The fluid inside had a fire in it. Whandall almost choked. "What-"

"Wine."

"Oh. I know about wine."

That made Wanshig laugh. "Well, you're clever in spots, little brother, and you know how to keep your mouth shut. Can you think of a way to make the kinless bring this stuff in to sell?"

They shared the bottle unequally. "Outside Tep's Town there are taverns," Wanshig said.

"How do you know this?"

"Tellers," Wanshig said. "And do you remember Marila? She was a Water Devil, and she listened at home. Stories of other lands. And of the docks."

"And what are these taverns?" Whandall asked.

Wanshig smiled dreamily. "Gathering places. For men, or even men and women together, to drink wine, be together with friends, celebrate. There are wine shops everywhere but here. Why not Tep's Town?"

But wine was doing a slow burn inside Whandall. "Yangin-Atep's fire," he pronounced. "Magic?"

"Yeah."

Wine felt good. Whee, Whandall thought, and he felt words bubbling to his partly numb lips. Resalet ran away, he thought. He left my father to die. Things he didn't want to say to any Placeholder, ever. Lordkin don't work for anyone.

Shig said, "I don't work for Alferth. I work with him."

He'd said it out loud! Whandall slapped his hand across his mouth. He tried to say-

"No, little brother. You have to work with. Otherwise you're all alone," Wanshig said. "Sometimes it's hard to tell which is which. It runs the other way too. Some Lordkin work. Some kinless take things."

"-said what?"

"Kinless loses his work, what can he do? Got to have food. Blanket. Shoes. He gathers them. We'd kill him, sure-he doesn't have the right-but why would anyone catch him? Something's missing, nobody asks who gathered it. Never mind that, little brother. Why don't the kinless keep wine shops?"

"Wine shops? If it feels this good?" Whandall gestured widely; Wanshig ducked. "Someone wants wine, just smash in the door! If it's too strong, go for help. If the winetender tries ... we beat on him, kill him, maybe. Kinless would be crazy to keep this stuff around."

"Taverns, then. Make them sell drinks one at a time."

Whandall, with wine buzzing in his ears and his blood, could feel what was wrong with that. Kinless and barbarians might drink wine and keep their self-control. In the Burning City men would drink; then unguarded words would bubble through their lips and they would fight. No tavern would survive.

Shig said, "The most we ever get here, someone pops up on a street corner with maybe eight of these little flasks. When they're gone, he's gone. He's not there long enough to be robbed."

"Where's he get it?"

"The flasker? Lords and kinless get some wine through the docks, from Torov and Condigeo. If the rest of us find out, we take it, of course, so they give some to the Water Devils. And there's another place."

They wobbled as they stood, and Wanshig led him north. Whandall's head cleared quickly. The wine was gone. There hadn't been much, just enough for two.

The houses north of Tep's Town ended at the forest. Wanshig led off northwestward. Whandall was sober now and full of questions, but Wanshig only smiled.

Here the forest withdrew from the city, leaving a delta of meadow, the Wedge, with a slow stream, the Deerpiss, meandering down its center. Whandall had known of the Wedge all his life, and only began to wonder as Wanshig led him up the stream. Why hadn't the meadow filled with houses?

Where the Wedge converged to a point, a two-story stone house straddled the stream like a blockage in a funnel. On either side the road would be wide enough for wagons, but gates blocked both sides.

Two men emerged from a second-story door. One started down the ladder.

Whandall had seen Lordsmen's armor and lumbermen's leathers. Both men wore what lumbermen would wear, like what the boy Whandall himself had worn. Both men were masked in what might have been lumbermen's leathers, but were not.

Wanshig ran at the rightward gate. Whandall followed at speed. Wan-shig climbed the gate like a monkey, with Whandall right behind him. Lordkin didn't ask permission; they went where they would.

The two armored men scrambled to the ground and lifted weapons. They carried... not quite severs. Hafts ended in straight blades sharpened on both sides.

Whandall didn't hear what words Wanshig spoke, but the men stepped aside, glancing incuriously at Whandall as he dropped to the ground. They were climbing back up as Wanshig led off along the stream. The forest had closed in at the banks.

Now out of earshot, Whandall asked, "What was that place?"

"Guardhouse," Wanshig said. "After our fathers took Tep's Town, we made the kinless build that across our path. The path is gone, but the Toronexti are still here. They let anyone through, but they take part of what they're carrying. It's custom. These days they guard something else too."

"The path. I could tell Morth-" He bit it off, eons late. Was it the wine, this long after? "I have to see him, Shig. Don't worry, I won't do anything stupid."

Wanshig seemed unsurprised. "How did he kill Pothefit?"

"I haven't asked yet."

"Don't ask. But find out."

Where the stream bent to the right, Wanshig walked straight into the forest.

The tall straight spikes must be young redwoods. Mature redwoods had been felled here; huge stumps remained. Wanshig led them a careful crooked path around morningstar plants, nettles, spear grass, red-and-green clumps of touch-me. Whandall was ready to snatch him to safety, but his older brother had learned.

They'd traveled a couple of hundred paces before the trees opened out. Here were croplands, a wide expanse of vines planted in straight rows. Kinless men and women were at work. There were Lordkin about too.

Wanshig and Whandall watched from their bellies. Wanshig said, "The Lords get some of their wine here, but of course they need somebody to protect it. That's where Alferth comes in. He got the Toronexti to do it. He leaves them half."

"What kind of half?"

"He cheats a little. They cheat a little." Wanshig began creeping backward. "I wanted you to know. If you've got any ideas-"

"Do we really want more wine in Tep's Town?"

"We do if it's ours."

But wine makes us kill, Whandall thought, and mostly we kill each other. Lords drink wine without problems. Kinless can handle it. We teach kinless to control themselves. Barbarians learn or die. With us, though ...

He said, "What we were drinking, did it come from here?"

"Right," said Wanshig.

"What the lookers give us, is it-"

"Better. Smoother."

"It's not the best, I bet." Wanshig glared, and Whandall said, "Lookers know we don't know the difference, so they buy cheap. Some barbarian somewhere knows how to make better than we've got. We should find him and talk him into working for us."

Wanshig shrugged his eyebrows. Talk? Barbarians brought in wealth. The Lords would spit fire if a barbarian was kidnapped. Alferth wouldn't dare.

But better wine would be better for the city than more wine, Whandall thought.











Chapter 19 | The Burning City | Chapter 21



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