On the streets of Allanak, the dust-choked streets of Allanak, the tired and weary streets of Allanak, the wind blows along the worn stones and it sighs as it passes the line of beggars outside Drov's Temple, rags tied about their faces, it sighs as it coils around the tower of Whira, which stretches up to the sky, highest point in the Elementalist Quarter, it whimpers as it passes through the Templar's Gate and the heads surrounding it, their eyes watching the soldiers march back and forth along the blackened pavement.
And there in Allanak, on Drov's Street, it brushes over the pavestones, each sixth one marked with the sign of Drov, the ripples indicating shadows, and it stirs the leaves of the perpetually dying plants there, which grow in clay urns along the sides of the street, their leaves withered and yellowed since the day they first let them uncurl. When it comes to the end of the street, it circles the jamb of the tall, clay-brick house there, moving upward to stir the curtains of a second story window where, on the day of this story, there stood a girl.
Not a remarkable girl, dark of hair and eye like most of the citizenry of Allanak, and with skin browned by the rays of Suk-Krath, although her features were not unpleasing to the eye, her lips a trifle thin, admittedly, and her brows a little thick, but still fresh with youth, and moving with the awkwardness of one who has just reached her full height. She stood in the window, out of reach of the sun, and the shadows of the dusty room were cool around her. In the corner of the chamber, in the unlit darkness, something stirred and a voice spoke.
"Have you made your choice then?" it demanded. "Have you made your choice?"
She simply shook her head, watching the afternoon light spill across the street. The Elementalist Quarter is quieter than the rest of Allanak, and she could not hear the wagons rumbling along Caravan Way, or the cries of the water sellers in the main bazaar. Beneath her, the street was silent and still, except for the restless worrying of the dust by the wind, which tugged it into swirls, and cast it over the sills of the houses with a liberal hand.
Behind her, the shadows rustled and muttered to each other. She continued watching the street, and as the sun slanted and crawled in the window at an angle, it grazed her hands, and then her face, and then the intervention of a rooftop threw her again in darkness, and the evening began.
In the Gaj and Gladiator tavern, the room stank of sweat and spilled ale. The gritty tiled floor was sticky underfoot, and someone had burned the meat they'd been cooking in the pits, sending an undercurrent of smoke through the air. Edrick didn't mind, didn't mind the smell or the shouting, or even the oppressive heat that lay like a blanket across the room. He was a sergeant of the Tzai Byn now, a sergeant, with three shares of every mission, not a trooper's single share, and sleeves with two knots at the shoulder instead of one. And with the promotion, there had come a purse, and he was engaged in the Byn tradition of spending it all on booze.
He gazed with whiskey-sodden fondness around his table, trying to focus on the faces of the men who'd be his warband. Mostly humans, a couple of half-bloods and dwarves, and one full blood elf, who tended to keep to himself, but had agreed to come out to the celebration. Edrick lifted his bottle with an unsteady hand towards the flickering torches illuminating the room.
"To the Byn!" he demanded, and downed the dregs of his bottle.
"To the Byn!" their voices answered, and they drank in turn, one of the half-bloods looking a little queasy.
"If you're going to spew, spew outside!" Edrick shouted across the table at him and staggered up himself as the halfie stood.
"Gotta take a piss," he grunted, tugging at his swordbelt, and set out in a rolling stumble around the crowded tables towards the door.
The night slapped him in the face as he ducked out the archway. Caravan Road was torchlit, no wagons passing back and forth now, since the city gates had closed, and overhead the stars glimmered like...he wasn't sure, but stood a few moments, face tilted upward, taking in gulps of the cool air, feeling the whiskey tilting in him, weighting his limbs.
"Life's sweet," he thought. "Sweet. How long till I make Lieutenant? Two years, maybe?" He smiled to himself in a wave of dizzy congratulation.
A few drinkers struggled themselves out of the tavern, while others wandered in, and he shifted away from the doorway, slouching himself into a comfortable position against the dusty wall, still contemplating the cloak of stars across the sky. Motion of the street caught his eye, and he wrestled his gaze from the glitter, down to see a woman across the street, paused, watching him. Cloaked and veiled in black, and all he could see was the slant of her dark eyes, watching him.
"Come and watch the stars, little darling," he coaxed, and patted the wall beside him with a broad, meaty hand. But she shook her head, with a little laugh as dark and sweet as horta wine, and beckoned him in turn.
He pushed himself away from the wall, and followed her.
The streets of the Elementalists Quarter are narrow, and engraved on the pavestones are the sigils of the elements each street serves: the round circles that signify Ruk, the plane of Stone, or the oval leaves that are Vivadu, Plane of Water and Life. If you go far enough, you find yourself among the alleyways of the lesser elements, and the stones are marked with the jagged lightning bolts of Elkros, or the square markings of Krok, who no elementalist seems to serve. And finally you find yourself on Drov's Street, and its twisting lanes.
From far above, the girl was a blot of darkness against the grey-green stones, the man unsteadily following her a similar shadow. He caught up with her at the head of the street, reaching out to tug at her arm.
"What's the hurry, little darling?" he slurred, the fabric of her cloak taut between his fingers, pulling her to him. She came, pliant as a green branch, into his grasp, twisting slim arms around his neck, gazing up with eyes dark as her veil. He bent towards her lips, but she laughed again, eluding his kiss.
"Are you mine, man?" she whispered into his ear. "Are you mine for now? No comrades to come chasing you?"
"All yours," he said with a slow and solemn nod. Untangling a hand from her cloak, he reached to the side of her veil, unpinning it with drunken delicacy, looking down at the face revealed, a face like any other Nakki woman's face, but looking up at him with promises.
"Come where we'll be more private," she whispered. "Here, this doorway." She tugged him into a doorway, sliding herself against him, hands tangled in his hair.
"How much will this cost me?" he wondered, then thought of the coins remaining in his pouch and smiled, stooping again to seize her lips.
"The choice?" a voice whispered behind him, and he swore irritably, half turning to see the intruder and glimpsing only darkness in the doorway.
"The choice is made," the girl whispered, and he looked back at her in confusion. Then hands reached from the shadows towards his face and he felt his eyes burning at their longfingered touch.
The darkened houses kept their silence, nothing stirring, as Edrick screamed.
On the streets of Allanak, the dust-choked streets of Allanak, the tired and weary streets of Allanak, the wind blows along the worn stones and it sighs as it passes the line of beggars outside Drov's Temple, rags tied about their faces, concealing the hollow pits, now filled with shadows, that once were their eyes.