“Your father is a dog, Xivo!” Full of fury, the insult flew ahead of a thrown brick. Xivoli Kontas ducked under its arc and tore away from the protective grip of his friends, darting across the nearly empty street towards the youth who had hurled both.
The nearby foundry on the Street of Picks lent an orange glow to the faces of the overhanging buildings, but it was the cool moonlight that showed Xivo his target. Arno Greggaro, son of Krios the merchant. Three lads wearing Greggaro ‘flashes’ on their left shoulders loomed just behind the snarling youth, standing tall with the threat of violence.
Wisely, Xivo stopped in the middle of the street. The few people still walking home, mostly bordars coming off work at the foundry, gave the young men a wide berth.
“Come on, you coward!” Arno taunted, holding up his hand to make a crude gesture.
“My father won the seat,” Xivo responded, forcing himself to control his breathing. “All your fire is just envy and bitter wine, Arno.” He reached down to his side as he spoke, resting his hand on the hilt of his makeri, the short thrusting stiletto he wore. They all wore one, or a variation on the design, a privilege of birth.
“He bought the seat,” Arno hissed. “Like he pays for his whores.”
Xivo smirked. “Your father can’t afford to pay his mistresses?”
Now it was Arno’s turn to be held back, but his friends succeeded. Xivo’s friends reeled him in, then guided him away. Together, they ignored Arno’s diminishing insults until they’d walked beyond the reach of his voice.
Xivo toyed with the smooth, spherical pommel of his weapon and imagined murder.
The makeri, like its big brother the makerno, had no edged blades. By traditional Archene law, edged weapons over a certain length had always been denied to citizens, preserving the status of the lordly Kontas and their falk-bearing attendants. The City Seniority, which Xivo’s father had recently been elected to, had banned any weapon over a certain length. The result was a classic hypocrisy of life in Dassos, for the sons of the senior hyparchs were the first to wear short versions of the banned weapon, sidestepping the law. Xivo’s was triangular in cross section, the edges blunt all the way down to the vicious, hardened stabbing point.
“I could have taken him,” Xivo said, still stewing in frustrated rage at Arno’s disrespect.
“Not all of them, Xivo,” Fedelo said. He put an arm around his shoulders, a gesture that Xivo returned automatically.
“Ah, you’re right. You’re right.” They walked in lockstep for a moment or two. “May Death bugger him rightly,” Xivo muttered. His friends murmured their agreement.
“Why are we sober?” Avido asked, suddenly. Xivo broke with Fedelo, and they both turned to regard the larger youth. Of the three of them, Xivo was the shortest, a full head shorter than Avido who was built like a gatehouse tower.
“We have work to do,” Xivo said, keeping his voice low. “We can’t do it well if we’re pissed.”
“One of your Pa’s opponents?” Fedelo wondered.
“Just delivering a message to a debtor,” Xivo said. “A wealthy debtor. Forno the Baker.”
Avido whistled. “Not a little dog, then.”
“No,” Xivo agreed. “This one barks and bites. He thinks he can afford to put Pa off, now that he’s busy with being a hyparch.”
“Foolish. Your father’s a banker first and last.”
“Exactly, Fedo.” Xivo reached out and tousled Fedelo’s hair affectionately. With his other arm he drew Avido in closer, so that the three stood close in whispering conference on the street corner. “Here’s what we do…”
The night had grown a little chilly by the time they put his plan into action. Avido threw a chunk of masonry through the painted shutters of Forno’s primary bakery, just off the Temple Square. Almost at once, running feet sounded from the stairway within the building. Two men armed with cudgels, one half dressed, ran out into the moonlit street. Avido was already well on his way, sprinting across the cobbles away from the square.
“Cur!” One of the night guards yelled, giving chase. The other followed, turning off into an alley, anticipating Avido’s route up ahead.
Xivo watched them briefly, then before they were quite out of sight, wriggled out from under the empty cart. He’d been lying in the pool of shadow underneath it, ignoring the grime on the cobbles. Brushing himself down, he went swiftly to the door of the bakery and tried it.
They’d left it unlatched. Trusting that Fedelo was watching out from the roof of the brewery opposite, Xivo slipped into the bakery and closed the door behind him.
The air smelled of flour. Stairs ran up to the workers’ rooms on Xivo’s left. The room was richly appointed with wood panelling and brass, the floorboards rubbed pale by the footfall of customers over the years. A long counter separated the front of the shop from the door through to the bakery itself.
Xivo vaulted the counter, landing as lightly as he could. His ears pricked for noises other than his own. Footsteps above? Yes. Someone was still upstairs, probably bakers and their apprentices rather than more night guards. It was unlikely that Forno himself would be up there—he typically spent his nights in his big house on Fig Hill, touring his four bakeries only once the sun had risen.
The bakery had two wood-fired ovens. One was stacked with kindling ready for the morning, the other burning low, just embers visible through the open door. A young boy slept on a flour sack bed in the corner, a poker in his hand. His job, probably, to keep the one fire going and light the other. Xivo crossed the room and knelt beside the child. He put out his hand and shook the boy’s shoulder to wake him.
“Wha?” The boy jumped awake. He shuffled back from Xivo, blinking.
“There’s going to be a bit of a fire, kit.” Xivo said. He put his hand on the pommel of his makeri. “But you’re a lucky lad, and you escape the flames, don’t you?”
The boy’s eyes widened with fear. Then he nodded quickly.
“Good boy. Show me the flour, show me a candle, then get out through the back.” Xivo pointed to the small door in the far wall that led into the bakery’s small courtyard. “Who’s upstairs?”
The boy got to his feet, hands trembling. He glanced up at the ceiling.
Yes, somebody was awake up there. Xivo felt the thrill of risk lurch in his chest. “Apprentices, bakers?” Xivo pressed. The boy nodded. “Don’t worry, I’ll leave the stairs clear,” Xivo promised. “They’ll get out. Now, show me the flour sacks.”
The fire spread quickly. Xivo set it in wicker baskets on shelves waiting for bread, under the shop counter, and lastly in the store room. He ran after that, aware of the chance of an explosion in the flour dusty air.
He reached the front door just as it swung open, revealing the plump face of one of the night guards, an expression which switched from frustration to fury in an instant. The man raised his cudgel, his left arm snaking out to grab Xivo by his collar. He was a big fellow, taller and wider than Xivo. Spittle flew between his lips to land on the young man’s face as the guard snarled with rage. “What did you do?” Smoke was already filling the room.
Xivo twisted as the cudgel fell, taking a glancing hit on his shoulder. It still sent a shock of pain through him that almost dropped him to the floor. Before the cudgel could come again, Xivo kicked out, catching the guard’s knee. He violently shrugged himself free of the man’s grip, taking a step back. His way out was blocked, and the courtyard door now surely lay beyond a growing blaze and a pall of unbearable smoke.
Someone thudded into the back of the guard, making him yell. Without thinking, Xivo drew his makeri and shoved it point first into the guard’s belly. A half dozen street-fights and the martial tutor his father had paid for guided his hand, twice, three times. The resistance to the makeri’s point was taut at first where clothes, skin, and a layer of fat blocked the way, but the stabbing weapon had been made to pierce mail. It slipped in up to the hilt each time, the third time grating on a rib.
Xivo stepped back as the guard fell to his knees, shock making the man's pink face flaccid, his mouth gaping as blood began to flow through his shirt, running over his hands. He had dropped the cudgel.
In the doorway, Fedelo stood frozen in surprise. His own makeri was still at his hip, he had tried to tackle the bigger man with just his bare hands. Xivo met Fedelo’s eyes. Shouting came from upstairs, questioning, then panicking. Feet drummed on the stairs.
With a gasp that kept Xivo’s vomit from rising, the young man fled, pushing Fedelo ahead of him. They ran down the empty street, turning into one of the alleyways that connected the back of shops and houses between Market and Temple squares. Avido was there as planned, slumped under the first floor overhang of a house like a beggar. He got to his feet as they arrived.
“Is that blood?” He reached for Xivo, who shook his head, gesturing for Avido to step back with one of his hands. He still held the soiled stiletto in his other hand. Hands, shirt, and weapon—all of it was slick with blood.
“Don’t touch, you’ll mark yourself.”
“God above, Xivo…”
Fedelo bent over, hands on his knees as he panted for breath. “It’s my fault,” he managed to say. “If I hadn’t…”
“No.” Xivo unlaced his shirt, pulling it over his head, mopping his hands and the cold steel of his makeri with the cream coloured linen. He shoved the weapon back into its belt loop, then tossed the soiled shirt into the rags and detritus that muddied the gutter beneath the alley’s upper windows. “No, it was my move, Fedo. I don’t regret it, my shoulder is screaming.”
“Injured?” Avido asked, looking around nervously. Distant voices broke the silence, but they didn’t seem to be coming closer.
“Not badly.” Xivo tried to calm his breathing, but it seemed to want to match his racing heart. He felt cold, but he was sweating profusely. “Go. Home, or to Kontas House. Papa’s guards will let you sleep there.”
“What about you?” Fedo asked, brow creasing with consternation.
“I’ll visit Pavera,” Xivo said, forcing a grin. “She can give me an alibi. I think I’ve left a shirt there as well.”
“Have fun,” Avido said. He started off at once, heading away from the sound of voices.
“I’ll be fine,” Xivo promised Fedelo, who seemed reluctant to take his leave. “Go.”
Finally alone, Xivo wove through the dark backstreets until he found the garden wall of the kafna that Pavera ran. Her eatery and bar faced onto one of Dassos’ quieter thoroughfares, but the balconet of her bedroom faced towards Temple Square. Xivo climbed the wall, landing in the little oasis where Pavera let close friends and favoured customers drink their coffee in the day. The air in the small garden was heady with lavender and rosemary.
Xivo climbed the wall of the building using a wooden trellis for handholds, careful not to disturb the reluctant grape vine that clung there—he didn’t want any grief from Pavera over damaging it.
The doors of the balconet were open, as expected. Pavera’s curtains shifted a little in the breeze. Xivo smelled smoke on the air, and as soon as he’d climbed over the rail to safety, he turned and looked out over the rooftops. Dawn was still a long way off, though the sky was greying, beyond the curved roof of the City Temple.
Above Peel Road, though, the sky was stained orange. Xivo couldn’t see flames, which was a strange kind of relief. The idea was to hurt and scare the stingy baker, not to set ablaze to Dassos’ busy streets.
“Did all go well?” Pavera asked sleepily. Xivo turned to see her crossing the room barefoot, wearing a cotton and lace shift. She was only a few years younger than Xivo’s departed mother would have been, nearly twice his age. Still, she was shapely and full of a sensual grace that captured Xivo’s mind surer than any of the giggling virgins that his father sent his way.
Xivo glanced down at his hands. Blood had got under his nails. “Not exactly, my love,” he said, grinning sheepishly.
“You’ve lost your shirt.”
“It didn’t have anything on it by which I can be identified. I had to… I think I killed a man tonight.”
Pavera reached out and cupped his chin with her slender fingers. A tress of her black hair slipped free and caressed the slope of her breast, bare above the neckline of her undergarment. All of a sudden Xivo wanted her badly. The headiness of the urge made him blink, suddenly dizzy. “Did he hurt you?” Pavera asked.
“No. Yes, my shoulder.” It was still tender.
“Will you be found out?”
“I don’t think so. They might pull him from the fire…”
Pavera looked past him to the glow over the rooftops. “I hope that isn’t burning down any of the places I like, my stripling.”
Xivo shook his head, ignoring her use of the nickname he hated. He thought of the fire-boy who had seen his face—maybe—and felt a spike of doubt. There would be rumours at least. Papa would hear of them.
Xivo shoved the anxiety aside and reached for the shoulder of Pavera’s shift. She watched his hand brush the filmy material down the slope of her shoulder, her dark eyes twinkling. Firelight. Xivo shook his head, banishing the thought. His fingers brushed the material until the shape of Pavera’s shoulders no longer held it up, so that it fell, first from one shoulder, then altogether to the floor, pooling around her feet.
“Xivoli,” she whispered, using his proper first name in that way he loved, but his lips stopped her from saying more, and hers returned his passion with unrestrained liberty. Her hands were already tugging at the lacing of his trousers. He abandoned all thought, his eyes closed, hands free to do as they wished, mouth full of the taste of her, mind overtaken with Pavera—her shape, her scent, her taste. Her desire responding to his own.
It wasn’t until the morning, when the sun lit up the pale yellow wall of her bedroom and woke him, that he remembered the blood under his nails.