ABBARR: Ashes and Wings

CHAPTER 1. THE BLACK FLOWER

“The dead greet you, Traveler.”

The Necropolis Watcher’s voice was like a song of the northern wind: even on the hottest day it gave you shivers, which ran down your spine like frosty ants.

Esha shrugged her shoulders involuntarily, attempting to drive the shiver away, and responded with the words and gesture, customary in the Desert of Mae:

“The living honor the dead and follow their own way.”

Her bracelets clanged, as she touched her left shoulder with her right gloved hand.

The guardians of the well gathered around the black hole, lost amidst the statues of ancient rulers, heroes, and gods. They were reciting prayers to the Great Abyss, which meant that today someone had moved from the City of the Living to the City of the Dead.  

The Elving girl walked past the tombstones, quickening her pace, as she walked down the Path of the Last Journey to Abbarr – the magnificent city which had once risen in the white mountains of Enkhar, the black flower blooming amidst the golden sands.

“Old as the World itself, sweet like Life, merciless like Death,” that’s what they said about Abbarr. The black market of exotic beasts, artifacts, weapons, potions. The stronghold of pleasures for every perverted taste and a tightly-filled purse. The favorite refuge for outcasts from all around the Big Wide World. And the Necropolis of Rrabba was Abbarr’s mirror image, though smaller of course. After all, the dead were not so whimsical.

Esha had spent almost a month in the Tirkha Oasis, exploring archives. And now, after her long tedious journey through the sands, the only thing she really wanted was to return to her room, rented on the border of the Merchant and Artisan Districts. To eat, to bathe, to sleep, and to eat some more – that was her plan for the next two days. Or maybe three. Ah, for the sake of this cherished ‘Triple To’ plan she was even willing to tolerate the disapproving looks of the guards, so long as she didn’t have to make a detour to the Golden gate.

Leaving the ‘Sleeping Ones’ behind, Esha smiled in anticipation, adding a bottle of cold wine made of tart melorwah fruits to her little list. 

She could already see the stone lacey patterns of the city’s outer walls. To the right there stood the Tower of Might – the heart of the barracks’ and mercenaries’ district, and to the left – the Sinh Tower, which was the ‘petal’ point of the pleasure district. Who knew? Perhaps that’s where the Silurian Senator’s daughter, that had caused a great incident on the last Sky Race, had ended her noble life. One of the daily auctions could have easily given her a new life – that of a ruler’s concubine, a rich man’s toy, or a servant of some elite pleasure house. 

Parme Ilamille. Esha had never seen that woman, but the name was engraved in her memory. A faceless highborn Elving lady had once changed one little Poogaton girl’s life: first the loss of friends, then trials, imminent execution, life among the pirates. And when there was no hope left, the Raven of Vitalon gave her new wings and a new name, making her a part of his crew. That’s how Ashwing was born amidst the salty waves of the Archipelago… And in the sands of Mae Ashry – ‘Esha’ in local language – a mercenary and a treasure huntress, took her place. Sometimes the Elving girl really missed her dashing pirate life on board the Raven Dragon. But it was always better to leave past in the past.   

Esha stopped to behold the sunset: the sun had almost hidden behind the Blade Mountains, which separated the city from the sea. Its rays clung to the central tower of Abbarr like scarlet ribbons. Great Watcher – the city’s largest chronometer – struck the Blood Hour, the beginning of the burial ceremony.

The Elving showed her gate-token to the guard. The beast, all covered in spikes, said in a low booming voice:

“Quart of a ‘doe’ for the night entry.”

“The sun hasn’t set yet,” Esha countered, reluctant to pay.

“Quart of a ‘doe’ for the night entry,” the beast repeated, pointing at the tablet on the wall, which stated that night hours began with the Blood Hour.

After getting change for her Silurian Silver, Esha found a cabman. Listening to the gwahr’s rhythmical hoof beats, she looked through the cab window, getting a quick glimpse at the houses and the towers of Abbar’s ‘petals’. Six districts met in the triangle of the central square; there, in the main tower, Ormu ruled – the golden-horned beast, surrounded by his strongest and wisest advisors.

Esha had visited Abbarr more than once since she’d left the pirate city of Vitalon and the crew of the Raven Dragon. But in this past year she hadn’t been absent from Abbarr for too long. All this time she’d managed to keep to the shadows, not drawing too much attention to herself. Her inn was located quite conveniently between the two most ‘chatty’ districts – Merchant District and Artisan District. She’d been living there, listening to the caravan rumors, having an eye on the magical artifacts, deriving benefits from both.

But rumors of Ashwing leaked through the sand, crawled to the walls, finding tiny cracks to get inside. Quiet whispers and sidelong glances carried those rumors through the city streets, poisoning minds, like tiny tentacles of black filth, enkindling fire in the eyes of those who hungered for reward.

They didn’t fancy Elvings much around here, on the beast territories, except perhaps as slaves on the auctions; they paid rubies for a pureblood Elving there, and rubies were the most valuable currency of this world. Enmity between the Creator’s beloved children and monsters, molded from the bits and pieces of creation, bloomed both in Abbarr and Siluria. The law of Silurian Soaring Islands didn’t let this flame blaze up, but here, on the territories that were not plotted on any official maps, Elvings preferred not to show up.

***

The ‘Triple To’ plan worked out splendidly. Esha woke up in a great mood, with yet another hunger attack. She pulled her hood over her face and headed to the Merchant District. Her unremarkable black clothing still let her pass unrecognized. But even the most insignificant interactions, contacts, habits and connections were leading her to the dangerous line. Since Fanger – her workmate and friend – had left Maetharu continent, and embarked on a journey around the Archipelago, she had to look for new contracts by herself, trading off the artifacts she found in the ruins. Esha knew: the day she would have to leave the sands and hit the road again was just around the corner.

She could smell the fruit-and-vegetable bazar long before she could actually see it: the scents of exotic fruits, minty freshness of the cold morning tea with tart undertones of lemrah tempted her sense of smell before her eyes could see the bright medley of the merchant’s stalls.

“May the sun rays not burn you, Val Sturion,” she greeted the merchant.

“May the desert keep your footsteps, Valla Ashry,” the elderly beast with admirable curved horns responded. Despite the age he was still quite sturdy.

Esha stopped by the apple basket and picked one; it was simply perfect, the color of imperial blood amber. All Sturion’s goods were of the best quality. Every morning on the earliest hour, thanks to the hired boys, his stalls were filled with thoroughly washed and thoroughly picked fruits and vegetables. The flawed fruits and vegies were neatly put in the baskets nearby – for those who couldn’t afford the best. Esha knew, that before Sturian had become a respected merchant, he’d been through a lot of hardships. He’d known hunger and poverty, and something even worse – something he didn’t like to talk about. And as he gained his feet, became independent, and opened his own little store in the fruit district, he always remembered: good days could evaporate like a drop of water in the desert, disappearing before it even touched the scorched sand.  

Esha looked at the black pavement, the white marble columns arcs, and numerous little bridges and stairways with sadness. She’d miss this ugly city, miss the merchant’s jokes, and the songs of the little Allaty-girl who lived across the street, and joyful tournaments in the Beaten Harbor tavern, and the Great Watcher’s striking…

“Raven’s little bird…” she heard a whisper behind her back.

Fire lit deep in her eyes; her fingers clenched the apple so hard it split, spattering juice. Without looking behind her back, she heard someone’s rapid footsteps departing.

“Ah, it’s always so tricky with these fruits,” Sturion shook his head sympathetically, handing her a handkerchief. “Hard to guess the right time between plucking them unripe or letting them sit there for too long.” 

“Right you are, Val Sturion,” Esha agreed, wiping her hand. “It’s hard to tame time itself…”

“… All we can do is befriend it,” he finished the favorite local saying.

Further down the street children were playing noisily. Esha darted a glance: next to the notice board several older beastslings cackled, making fun of their younger friend. Domination and submission. Strength and weakness. The weak had no chance in this city. From an early age everyone here had to fight for their right to survive. Under the blazing sun of Abbarr everyone did that in their own way: through wit, dexterity, talent, beauty, muscle, or a powerful patron.

Having paid to the merchant, Esha approached the notice board. She wasn’t interested in work today; something else attracted her attention – a poster of the Great Arena. She reached out with her gloved hand, pilled the poster off, creasing it. Purple flame flashed in her eyes.

 

———————

‘Doe’ – one of the five types of coins in the Big World. One hundred ‘does’ equal one ‘dragon’.
Val/Valla – a respectful way to address a man/woman in the lands of Maetharu.

1 2 3 4 5

ABBARR: Ashes and Wings