Sefu studied the gaunt, shuffling girl in the shapeless black robe, and when he was certain, he winced.
"Is that Leyli?" Olhas asked, his brown hair plastered to his long, narrow skull. Wary of the dehydration that could mean debilitation and even death to his race, the lanky gillman had just moments ago paused at a fountain to dunk his head and hands.
"Yes," Sefu said. She was horribly changed from the grinning, teasing imp of a little sister he remembered, but still, yes. "Maybe I should talk to her by myself."
"I wish you would," Olhas said, the ruddy slits in the sides of his neck dilating and contracting. "Nothing's more boring than other people's family problems." Which hadn't kept him from insisting on accompanying his friend on this particular errand.
Dodging camel-drawn wagons and a fat man bouncing along on an axebeak, Sefu headed across the Avenue of the Hopeful, named for the self-proclaimed gods-to-be who preached, worked dubious miracles, and generally made pests of themselves along the busy thoroughfare. Meanwhile, Leyli took up a position in front of a market stall offering religious medallions to worshipers of every stripe, from folk who venerated the Dawnflower to those who abased themselves before the Prince of Darkness. As her brother neared her, she held out her bowl to passersby and started chanting in a monotone for alms.
Just seeing her at a distance pained Sefu. Up close, it was worse. The raven hair she'd once spent endless hours tinting and curling hung lank and greasy. She had the yellow remains of a bruise on one sunken cheek, and seemed to stink not just of sweat but also of infection. Worst of all was the deadness in her eyes. For a moment, he wondered if she even recognized him.
Then she sighed. "Sefu."
"Yes," he said. "This..." He waved his hand at the begging bowl, her dirty winding sheet of a robe, and everything else. "I don't understand. What are you doing?"
"Didn't Mother tell you?"
It was at least a little encouraging that she realized their mother must have written to him and implored him to come home to Absalom. It meant that—despite her blank, somehow hollowed-out appearance —her mind was still working.
"She said you're worshiping one of the charl—I mean, the folk who claim that when they're ready, they're going to take the Test of the Starstone and become gods."
"Yes," she said. "Domitian, god of penance."
"Well, as far as I'm concerned, you can worship anyone you like. But you don't have to do it like this. Come home. Mother needs your help in the bakery."
"No, she doesn't, and I do 'have to do it like this.' All of the master's followers live in the temple. It's the only way we can undertake the rituals of atonement."
"What do you have to atone for?"
She stared at him. "Don't make me say it."
"You're going to have to if you want me to understand what you're talking about."
She grimaced. "All right, then. The deaths of my husband and unborn child."
He felt like someone had punched him in the stomach. "Leyli! Tell me you don't believe that. How could either of those be your fault?"
"I was greedy. I had spiteful thoughts. I lusted for other men."
"And you think the gods punished you for it by pushing Melaku off the scaffold and making you miscarry? If the world worked like that, there wouldn't be a person left alive." He put a hand on her shoulder. "You're not thinking straight, and small wonder after what you've been through. Come home for a day or two—"
"Hey," someone growled.
Sefu turned. Three tattooed half-orcs, with the burly frames, greenish hide, and protruding lower canines of their kind, were sneering at him. Intent on Leyli, he hadn't noticed their approach. Unlike her, they were dressed in decent clothing, but its somber color suggested that they too followed Domitian.
Trying not to look obvious about it, Sefu shrugged back the short sea-green cape of his Wave Rider uniform, exposing the bronze sword pin underneath. He'd won it fighting in the arena when he was a foolhardy adolescent, and in his own estimation, it was a trivial thing compared to the honors he'd earned since serving in Absalom's sea cavalry. But to ruffians from the city's gutters, it might convey a good deal more.
It didn't cow the half-orcs, though. They looked like they still thought they were the intimidating ones. "You're keeping her from her work," said one with crimson eyes. "Drop a coin in her bowl and move along."
"Or, if you want her," said a second, whose badly broken nose resembled a swinish snout, "we can talk price."
Sefu's mother hadn't warned him that Domitian had turned Leyli into a streetwalker as well as a beggar, probably because she hadn't known. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I'm Leyli's brother," he said.
"That's all right," said the smallest and most human-looking of the three. "We don't judge." His companions laughed.
Sefu supposed it would be a mistake to start a brawl. He felt on the brink of launching himself at the half-orcs anyway.
Behind him, Olhas's pleasant baritone voice said, "Something's plainly funny. How about letting me in on the joke?" He gripped Sefu's shoulder, silently urging him to stay calm.
"You're going to be the joke," Red Eyes said. "You and your friend, if you don't run along."
"That's possible," the gillman said, stepping forward to stand beside Sefu. "I can do some funny things. Let me show you."
He murmured three rhyming words and swept his hand in a slow horizontal pass. His fingertips left a trail of gray vapor swirling in the air.
Hoping that the minor display of sorcery had daunted the half-orcs, Sefu said, "We are leaving. But Leyli's coming with us." Without taking his eyes off the ruffians, he reached out to her.
But she didn't take his hand. And the half-orc runt—who was nonetheless as tall as Olhas and as broad-shouldered as Sefu—said, "I'm going to be nice one more time. Go away. Otherwise..." He reached down and pulled a length of ash—a cut-down spear shaft, perhaps—from his boot. His companions produced their own clubs.
A cudgel could kill, and Sefu would have felt justified in drawing his broadsword. But those who'd paused in the midst of their own business to watch the confrontation might think there was a significant difference between a civilian's blunt hardwood and a soldier's sharp steel.
"Think about what you're doing," he said to the half-orcs. "There are people looking on."
"To Hell with 'em," said the Runt, and then he and his comrades charged. The gawkers scurried to distance themselves from the imminent violence.
Sefu sidestepped and hooked a punch into Red Eyes's kidney. The half-orc grunted, stumbled to a halt, and turned. Meanwhile, Sefu had time to see the other two ruffians spreading out to flank Olhas, who hadn't drawn his blade, either. There didn't seem to be any strange glimmerings, writhing shadows, or other telltale signs of magic around the gillman, but Sefu hoped his friend had managed to cast a charm of protection anyway.
Then Red Eyes came at him again.
The half-orc advanced more warily this time, feinting with his club—virtually a mace with an iron knob on the end—in an attempt to draw reactions and learn how his opponent preferred to defend. Sefu was sorry to see that. It was unfortunate that the cultist had a weapon, a longer reach, and, by the looks of him, superior strength. It was worse that the brute knew how to use them.
Red Eyes raised the cudgel as if to strike Sefu's head. Sefu lifted his hands as if to protect it. The half-orc made the same threatening action a couple moments later, then whirled the club down to smash his foe in the ribs.
And if Sefu had reacted as he had the first time, opening up his lower body in the process, the trick might have worked. Instead, guessing what Red Eyes intended, he lunged, and though the half-orc's arm thumped his flank, the club only cut through the air behind him.
He drove a punch at Red Eyes's throat. Red Eyes flinched, and the blow caught him on the jaw instead. Pain flared in Sefu's knuckles, but the cultist reeled backward, too.
As he did, Sefu caught another glimpse of Olhas's part of the fight. The Runt was floundering on the cobblestones, trying and failing to stand back up in the midst of a patch of glistening gray grease. Meanwhile, Snout drove Olhas backward. But as the gillman retreated, his mouth moved—reciting a spell, almost certainly. When it was done, he stopped retreating, and, caught by surprise, Snout blundered into striking distance. Olhas punched him in the chest.
The gillman wasn't much of a boxer. The art was useless in his undersea home, where water cushioned every blow. But magic must have compensated for his lack of skill, because Snout's knees buckled, and he collapsed.
Red Eyes recovered his balance, bellowed, and rushed Sefu. The club lashed back and forth in wide arcs that left him open at the end of every swing. As Sefu gave ground, he smiled. Anger had made the half-orc sloppy. He simply had to pick his moment—
Weight landed on his back and nearly pitched him forward into the Red Eyes's next blow. Arms wrapped around him, seeking to pin his own limbs to his sides.
Sefu threw himself backward and down. It kept the club from bashing in his skull and also slammed his new foe against the pavement. The arms around him loosened. He wrenched himself free, rolled away, and saw that it was Leyli who'd grappled him.
It amazed him that she'd actually tried to help someone hurt him, but he didn't have time to fret over it. He was on his knees, and Red Eyes was already looming over him. Hoping he could manage it before the club hammered down, he gathered himself to tackle the cultist.
"Stop!" someone shouted. "In the Chamber's name!"
The bass voice carried the ring of authority, and, furious though he was, Red Eyes backed away from Sefu. A few feet away, Olhas and the Runt, who'd finally escaped the patch of slippery ground, also stopped fighting. Everyone looked at the half-dozen guardsmen in the gray woolen cloaks, for of course it was their glowering corporal with his close-cut salt-and-pepper beard who'd shouted the order to desist.
Breathing heavily, Sefu drew himself to his feet. His knuckles throbbed, and he tried to shake the ache out of them. "I'm glad to see you," he told the corporal. "These bastards attacked my friend and me."
"That's a lie!" snapped the Runt.
Olhas waved his hand to indicate the ring of spectators. "Here are witnesses to say what really happened."
For a moment, no one seemed eager to do so. Then a boy with a satchel of rolled-up prayers for sale, prewritten supplications the illiterate could lay on altars, burn in ritual fires, or toss into the chasm surrounding the Starstone Cathedral, said, "The half-orcs started it." Other folk muttered in agreement.
"All right," said the Runt, "I admit that one of us may have struck the first blow. But only to defend this young woman. The Wave Riders meant to kidnap her."
"That's ridiculous," Sefu said. "Leyli is my sister."
"Whoever she is," said the Runt, "she's of age, and she didn't want to be dragged away. She even fought the Wave Riders alongside my friends and me."
The corporal looked at Leyli, who, like Snout, was picking herself up off the ground. "Is that true?"
Leyli looked down at the cobbles and swallowed. "Sort of. I told Sefu I didn't want to leave, but he wouldn't listen. And then, when people were fighting, I had to try to help my brothers in penance."
"Your 'brothers' who struck the first blow," Olhas said. "Your 'brothers' who fought with weapons while our hands were empty."
"You used magic," said the Runt. "That's a lot more dangerous than a couple sticks."
"All right," the corporal said. "I'm not going to arrest anybody. This time. But I want to see you Domitian people walk off in one direction and you navy boys go in the other."
"You must be joking!" Sefu waved his hand at Leyli. "Six months ago, she was healthy and happy. Normal! Look at her now!"
The Graycloak shrugged. "She says she's where she wants to be."
"Olhas and I serve Absalom, the same as you do—"
"That's why I haven't arrested you already," the corporal said. "Now, all of you, clear out."
The half-orcs grinned in a way that made Sefu's fists clench again. Olhas took him by the arm and hauled him away, past vendors of incense, idols, and other religious paraphernalia, as well as a god-to-be demonstrating his alleged divinity by eating fire and swallowing swords.
"Well, you tried," said the gillman after a while. "I suppose you'll need to spend some time with your mother before we head back to Escadar."
Sefu scowled at him. "This isn't over."
"My friend, I understand your feelings, but the Graycloak had a point. Leyli has a right to follow this Domitian if she chooses."
"She's not in her right mind! Grief already had her teetering on the brink of craziness, and then he or his cultists did something to push her over."
"Maybe. But still, if she won't listen to you—if she believes those stinking half-orcs are her real brothers—what can you do about it?"
"I can go see Domitian himself."
The sorcerer sighed. "Then I suppose that means I'm coming, too."
Coming Next Week: Arguments with a would-be god in Chapter Two of "Lord of Penance."
Richard Lee Byers is the author of more than thirty novels, including the first book in R. A. Salvatore's War of the Spider Queen, and the co-creator of the critically acclaimed Young Adult series The Nightmare Club. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. For more information, visit his website.
Art by Colby Stevenson