Hi, hello, in case you’ve been worried, I’m still here–one semester of graduate school done and finally remembering my poor, neglected blog. If you’re still reading, thank you. If you’re new, thank you as well! It’s not Friday, and this challenge of Chuck Wendig’s was from months ago, but I liked both the challenge and the story that came from it. In this challenge, we picked 5 words from a list. My words will be at the end so you’re not on a scavenger hunt for them throughout the story. If you like this, check out more Flash Fiction Challenges I’ve done, especially Circus. As always, comments and suggestions are encouraged!
“You know why we have so many gods?” The beggar’s sightless eyes gazed to the left of where Zion stood, his face pocked as by disease or acid. “There’s a god fit for everyone. The Emperor and his like have their Warrior and Virgin in their golden temples.”
“Who listens to your prayers, old man?” Zion asked, squinting towards the market.
“The Hermit’s the only one for the likes of us’ns.” The blind man tilted his head, shaking his tin cup hopefully.
“There are no gods,” Zion said. “And if there were, they wouldn’t care for us.”
He turned and trotted down the dusty alley, feeling the stones grow warm beneath his callused feet as he approached the sun-drenched square. The cacophony of sounds assaulted his ears, yells of merchants and hawkers speaking a variety of languages, squawking chickens and bleating sheep, and the chime of the bells sounding midday prayers from the temple on the hilltop. He slunk between merchants; one of hundreds of orphans skulking hopefully around food carts and begging on corners. He thought of what the beggar had said and curled his lip. He’d seen paintings of the Hermit and puppets dressed in his gray rags, often carrying a shuttered lantern. Old men in rags were not gods, he thought. He turned away as the fat man whose pocket he was picking halted in front of a stall. Gold coins disappeared from Zion’s skinny, bronzed fingers into various pockets in his loose tunic and the shirt beneath. He looked innocently up at the merchant and held out a cupped palm, murmuring for a copper or two for some bread and mimicked the coarse, broken beggar tongue spoken by thousands in the city.
The man sneered down at him, pulling his robes away as though Zion was infectious, “Away, street scum.”
Zion turned his face towards the merchant’s guard. He was as different from his elephantine master as two men could be. He was tall and thin—but Zion could see that his wiry arms were muscular beneath his shirt and leather vest. Two swords hilts showed above his shoulders and Zion poised himself to disappear, flexing his bare toes against the sandy stones that paved the square, as the guard looked him over.
“What’s your name, boy?” he asked.
Zion stared at him. The guard had spoken Zion’s language, one none of the cityfolk knew, and spoken by only a handful of refugees.
“Zion,” he answered finally.
A smile plucked at the corner of the tall man’s lips and he reached into the leather pouch at his belt, pulling out a flat copper disk. He grabbed Zion’s wrist and turned his palm to face the blazing sky. Zion was too surprised to struggle and the man released his arm after laying the disk in Zion’s hand. The fat merchant was staring, his fleshy mouth parted in confusion.
“Come to the Inn of the Broken Staff tonight, after the evening prayers, and bring this with you,” he said, closing Zion’s fingers over the metal circle.
“A friend of yours, Solas?” the merchant asked.
Zion saw the look of hatred that flashed across the strange man’s face before he turned back to his master and gestured that they should move on. Zion ghosted through the square, not bothering to pick another pocket, feeling the copper disk growing warm in his fingers. When he reached the safety of a shadowed doorway down another alley, he opened his hand and looked at the piece of metal in his cupped palm. It was much larger than a coin, but it had a face carved on each side like some of the foreign coins he had seen. He tried to bend the thing, it was little thicker than his thumbnail, but stronger than it looked. The face carved in profile was not one he recognized. There were statues of the Grand Merchants and the Emperor everywhere but this face was different—harsher, somehow. The way a wolf looks beside a hound. Zion slipped it carefully into an inner pocket sewn into the breast of his tunic. The tall man would not expect him for hours, but Rael would not be pleased if he arrived later than dusk.
He jogged through the warren of streets, skirting the refuse on the ground and narrowly avoided being splashed by the contents of a chamber pot as it was upended from a third floor window. No matter the shade of your skin or the amount of coin in your pocket, everyone shits the same, Rael always said. Zion doubted the Grand Merchants would appreciate the sentiment. There were more beggars the farther he went from the grand bazaar but fewer bothered him. They knew he was one of Rael’s boys. Everyone in the beggar world knew of Rael—though few would ever be unlucky enough to see him. Zion ran a hand over the pockets beneath his clothes. He had done well today at the market, but he could have done better. He reached the grate in the side of the old temple and glanced around. The only one to witness his actions was a scrawny dog that had trailed him hopefully for several streets. Zion knew better than to encourage the dog to linger by feeding him. When he first joined Rael, he had smuggled a kitten down to the catacombs and fed it milk-soaked bread and fish heads. He still remembered the kitten: black as oily smoke from the torches in the catacombs and glowing, yellow topaz eyes. When he cuddled it next to him at night it purred so hard both their bones seemed to rattle, When Rael found the kitten, he had snapped its neck and cast it onto the refuse pile, daring Zion to remove it, to show any emotion for the little thing. Zion slid the grate aside and ducked through it. In the darkness, time ceased to have meaning, but Rael would know if he was late.
Somehow, Rael always knew.
Words: Hermit, Acid, Orphan, Hound, Topaz