Ashfall: City of Shade

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Unbounded

Book 2

GRETA

“How was your yester-evening, Keon?”

My armor clinks sharply as I sit at the table.

There’s so much food. I’m glad most of it is already on my plate. I would not know what to choose. There are so many platters and swirling little mini ones mushed between. This room alone is bigger than the wide space my sisters share.

“Good,” I mumble. Brommy’s wife has so many scars. It’s hard not stare at them for they cover her neck and arms in stripes and zigzags. “What is that on your face and arms, if I may ask, Mirth?”

Brommy cuts into leftover fish from our trip to the dock. “Sometimes I forget you are colorblind. You probably can’t tell! It’s paint, three stripes on our arms. Look here!” he laughs showing me his own markings on his bicep. “They are treatch—marriage treach. Tattoos of our vow. I have a few other treatch showing my rank as Adler’s war-strategy advisor. This triangle shows my wealth...”

So they aren’t scars after all.

Adler has so many. Not all of them were in the shape of lashing, or lines, now that I think about it more. “Which one is for marriage?” I ask.

Mirth points to the three stripes on her arm and neck. Brommy only has one stripe though, it forms down the center of his throat and disappears into the collar of his tunic.

“I have had two husbands before your trainer. Both died in the desert serving under the god of the sun,” Mirth picks up her goblet, the sleeve of her tunic rising enough to let me see her dark painted nails. “It is, unfortunately, a common thing,” she finishes while picking at her mashed pastry crumblings.

How many wives has my god went through? There must have been at least a hundred lines on him. They did not look like all even lines though as Brommy and Mirth wear. Some of them were bumpy, not all though.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” I say.

Mirth shrugs, stabbing her knife into the fish on her plate. “So, my husband tells me you are of the desert,” Brommy hands her a napkin, but she waves him off. “And that you are sharing our ruler’s bed. I must give you an examination as requested by the empirical family.”

“Enoch told you no such thing,” Brommy argues rapidly. His eyebrows raise. “What are you thinking spewing such a claim?”

“Well, it won’t matter unless our god returns. Has Brommy told you the news?”

“No,” I tell Mirth.

Her words are exactly why Adler must rely on his new wife for help. I don’t want Enoch to think such a thing about me.

Brommy holds the bridge of his nose. “We are going to offer you our home to stay in. Slaves take care of our home-keep so you won’t have to clean. You will be granted a nice room-”

“I want to stay in the hospice.”

“Greta-”

Mirth glares at Brommy.

“How did you know that is my real name?” I ask the two of them.

Brommy did not tell me this. He said I was to come for dinner. I am not staying in his home and letting Mirth examine me. Why must I be examined?

My trainer looks as uncomfortable as I do.

“G-go on, Keon,” he explains. “Let her have a look at you. We do not want you getting sick or spreading disease.”

“My sisters already went over my health.”

Mirth stands up with a small smile. She passes Brommy and tugs on the back of my chair. Brommy leaves the room along with my sense of security as Mirth begins prodding at my tunic wrapping.

“This is normal. It is called a well check. Are you well? Let’s find out,” she says while tugging on the sleeve of my tunic. “I must have a look underneath. It is my occupation to examine such things. Do not be timid now, off with it.”

With a blush, I step out of my tunic. Mirth picks up a small wooden plack and begins writing on it with an ink scribe pen. She pokes my arm with her finger, mumbling something about my grey complexion while writing things down.

“...stunted growth.”

“Stunted?”

Mirth helps me back into my tunic. “You are very young still, but your size appears to be much smaller than it should be for your age. Your head only reaches to my elbows and my height is average, Greta. Your chest is abnormally pale and flat like a man’s,” She moves some of my hair carefully, fingering through the strands on my scalp. “Your hair is wiry and...very thin. Balding in some areas even. The desert has worn you.”

Her long braid swings behind her back as she sits back down on the marble bench of the table. I sit beside her.

“Tell me how I can grow and get strong like you,” I whisper in awe of her knowledge and beauty. Her shape isn’t thin like a slave’s, but thicker and curves in a pleasant way. I can tell from the way her snug tunic falls over her body.

“Can I come back in?” Brommy calls from the other room.

Mirth sets down the plack and scribe pen. “Yes.”

“Is she healthy?” he asks while watching his wife.

“Yes, perfectly,” Mirth answers. Then she looks at me. “Perhaps our light will help her grow some. I did not imagine she would be as short as a young child! You told me she is a guard. Such struggles you must face, may I call you Greta, yes?”

“Yes,” I nod.

Brommy hands me my optical lense from the table.

Mirth lightly takes my arm, guiding me away from the table. Their home is big and fancy like a smaller version of the palace. Square stone is cut across the floor and dozens of hanging shiny objects dangle above our heads high up on the ceiling.

Our footsteps echo loudly as we walk into another room after passing a series of curtained rooms.

We stop in front of one of the arched entrances. Mirth pulls aside the heavy looking curtain. Brommy leads me to the big cushion in the middle of the room. He places a long pillow on top of it. Mirth lights a hanging lantern nearby the entrance after closing the curtain.

Brommy watches Mirth over his shoulder. “Now Greta, you’re going to get your hair trimmed. Mirth thinks it will help you keep better groomed,” he mumbles. “Enoch will be here soon to aide you in making the night. You are free to come and go as you please.”

“Okay, Brommy,” I say while watching Mirth close the curtain behind him when he leaves. Her smile is gentle as she approaches me.

“Have a seat, Greta.”

She kneels down, her face deep in concentration as she goes about using a tiny pair of two very sharp knives to cut my hair. It smells weird. She dips her fingers again in a small bowl full of sticky oil.

After finishing trimming my hair, she rubs the oil all over my head. Then she gets up and fills a basin from a strange fountain hanging over the wall. Mirth pads back over to me. She instructs me to pour the water over my head to rinse out the goop.

She hands me a small warm cloth.

“Dry your hair,” she explains. “Enoch will be here soon.”

Mirth looks me over slowly, making me feel strange as I watch her oval eyes. Her hair is very neat, not a strand out of place.

“You are special. When our god returns with a new wife things will be different. You will become something new. A daughter.”

“My sisters told me different,” I think out loud.

Her voice turns bitter, “They were not wrong,” she begins slowly. “You should know many whores gave birth to the offspring of our god before your coming. I shelter them here for they fall into poverty,” she admits. It makes me stand up quickly when she rips the curtain back open. Mirth moves out. She guides me to the curtained room across from us. “In here, Greta.”

My heart sinks seeing at least ten little babies surrounding three mothers.

“How long have they been in here?”

“Ten years.”

None of the mothers blink or glance our way upon our entering to their crowded space. This is how our god treats his children -- where the ones who slept with him in the darkness remain discarded here to be hidden away for years?

“Why are they here?” I whisper.

“The empress, dear Greta. Sleeping with our ruler was a public crime. Adler sheltered them here so they could live. He is merciful, don’t you think? Hundreds of other women over the years have given birth here and moved back out once they got back up on their feet. They live on their own now with their new families. Often times, they give their children away and live independently.”

“Does Enoch know?”

“Of course. His whores and invisible children will be located here too.”

Her blunt answers sting.

These children are not all babies. Enoch lets his half-siblings be kept in a place like this? My arms shake at my sides. Their city is so beautiful and large, surely there is a better home they can have then tucked away in this cramped place. I didn’t think Enoch planned on doing such a thing himself though.

Would he?

With a grunt, I grip the curtain, tearing it from the beam it hangs down from. Mirth gasps, but does not stop me as I stomp and kick the cloth out of the doorway.

“Go! You can leave now,” I tell the group. Mirth comes up behind me, pressing her front against my back as her hands settle on my shoulders. “Dear Greta, we cannot free them being women. Only an empress could free Shelliv of their status and even then the decision would weigh upon the emperor.”

The children crowd around us, hugging me, and hugging Mirth’s legs.

Their mothers look as old as she. Some children are even taller than me. It does not smell good in here like in my room, but I will not be staying here after discovering this.

Something tells me they didn’t get to choose to be placed here.

“What is the meaning of this?” Brommy asks while taking in the sight of the ripped curtain.

He covers his mouth seeing the children and mothers now standing by our sides outside the room.

I remain firm. “They are going free.”

“...free?” Brommy murmurs.

He gives Mirth a nervous glance as I look up at the two of them. There are many rooms in their home with curtains. I will not stop. I walk to the next one over.

“Wait, free? Who...freeing?” Brommy’s voice raises as I pull down the curtain.

More children and their older mothers run out of the room. It smells bad in here too, like throw up and pee. I cough a little bit while Mirth helps me take down the other curtains. Brommy still stays behind looking lost in his own home, but he makes no move to stop us.

After Mirth and I finish going room to room, we return to my trainer.

There must have been over fifty women living in here and at least twice that amount of children...Adler’s children.

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