“Sit down.” Solas gestured to the empty chair in front of the cold hearth. There was a small table with a tray of food waiting and Zion tried not to stare, perching on the edge of the seat.
“Eat. I know what it is to have a boy’s hunger. Eat,” Solas urged.
Zion reached for a piece of bread that still steamed, marveling at the soft, fragrant center. He could not remember the last time he ate fresh bread. Once he finished the half-loaf, he wolfed down the soft, white cheese, salty olives, and sticky-sweet dates. There was wine in the goblet and he drank it sparingly, unused to the taste.
“That wine is from my home. Do you like it?” Solas asked when Zion relaxed into his chair, he had remained silent while Zion ate, dark eyes watchful.
Zion swallowed the last mouthful of cheese and wine and nodded.
“You do not ask where I am from,” Solas said, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees and Zion noticed his clothing for the first time. He was no longer dressed in the boiled leather and drab rough spun cloak of a guard. His trousers were dusky blue and the tunic he wore over his shirt was embroidered with bright red at the neck.
“You spoke the tongue of my people today in the Market. There are not many who know it,” Zion answered, feeling the sheathe knife in his sleeve press reassuringly against his forearm.
“True enough.” Solas looked pleased. “How long have you been here, Zion.”
Zion shrugged and tried not to look longingly at the empty plate, wishing he had savored the olives more slowly. “I came with my mother and sisters before they closed the gates to refugees.”
“That was over four years ago,” Solas said, almost to himself. “How old are you?”
“Ten-and-four, I think,” Zion said. “I lost track of the days after the fire.”
Solas nodded and Zion found himself telling his strange benefactor about his mother and three older sisters. Tall Sacha, clever Anak, and Maial, the one everyone called the little beauty. They had escaped the flames that ravaged the ramshackle wooden shacks near the docks where they were living at the time, but he lost hold of Sacha’s hand and fell into the water during their flight. She tried to turn back to find him, but the panicked mob swept on. They did not stop to worry about what they trampled beneath their feet. He did not remember who fished him out of the briny water where he bobbed alongside fish heads and other floating detritus. Rael caught Zion trying ot pick his pockets a week later and, instead of calling the guards of taking a finger and a thumb for the crime, he took Zion down to the catacombs. Once there, Rael fed him, clothed him, and began to teach him the craft of thievery. Solas’s eyes narrowed at Rael’s name but he did not speak until Zion had concluded his two years spent working for the Thief Master. Zion looked up at Solas at the end of his tale.
“I stole from you master today. I cannot return what I took.”
To his surprise, Solas laughed. “That man is but one of many masters I have served. I am certain he will not miss what you took.”
“You are not his servant, then?” Zion asked.
“Do you still have the coin I gave you?”
Zion withdrew it from his tunic and placed it on the table. Solas did not pick it up but touched the face that stared towards Zion with one flat eye.
“Do you know what this is?”
Zion shook his head.
“The man on this coin was once a great ruler—like our beloved Emperor.” Solas’s lips twisted bitterly. “He thought so highly of himself that he demanded his face be placed on both sides of the coin, rather than just one. This angered the priests—for the opposite side of the coin was always used to honor the gods, thus preventing their disfavor. The emperor then demanded that the faces of the gods and honored warriors in the murals and mosaics and etchings be destroyed, along with any statues that were not created in his likeness. He said that none would be honored in stone or clay but him. So the stone masons and painters and sculptors—weeping over their brushes and mallets—destroyed their masterpieces. Before this edict, the great ruler’s city was known as the most beautiful in the land. Soon, it was rumored that the king would order the temples themselves torn down, that their stones and gold be used to create the grandest temple the world had ever seen. What god would be celebrated in this edifice? the people wondered.”
“The great king,” Zion interrupted in spite of himself.
Solas nodded and continued, “Once the priests and the people realized what he intended, they were outraged. A mob formed at the gates of his palace and his guards began to prepare for a bloody battle. However, that night, the king fell terribly ill and was dead by morning. The gods had shown their vengeance, the priests said, and raised up another king in his place—a wise, gentle man who respected the gods.”
Zion curled his lip at the conclusion to the tale. “There are no gods.”
“You believe in nothing?” Solas asked, picking up the copper coin and turning it so the lamplight burned along its edges.
“A true god, a powerful god, would not sit silently in a temple made by the hands of slaves to serve the needs of the rich.” Zion met Solas’s gaze squarely. “I believe in taking what you can and in life and in death.”
A smile spread across Solas’s face and he held the coin up between his thumb and forefinger. “The priests sought to destroy these coins after the death of the arrogant king—the coins were blasphemous, they said. But there were those who liked the idea of being ruled by the priests little better than they liked the first king. These same men were the ones who banded together to carry out judgment on that arrogant king—to send his immortal soul to the darkness while he slept.”
Solas put the coin’s edge on the table and spun it like a top.
“Men like me.”
Zion’s heart was threatening to crawl into his throat. Solas was an assassin–that much did not surprise him. He had to be more than a simple mercenary, Zion had decided before he came to the Broken Staff. But this man was not just an assassin. The legends and whispers he’d heard fell into place—men who killed and left strange coins on the eyes of their victims. Coins no one had seen or used for hundreds upon hundreds of years. Shadowmen.