Excerpt: Well Met in Molos

The sun has sunk below the horizon, the streets and markets of Molos have returned to life, and Tiglis has travelled halfway across the city for a party. The season is the uncertain in-between, with the year turning towards its hottest months, yet the people of Molos still remembering the cool season when business could be conducted not too long before or after midday. As growing heat makes more and more of the daylight hours intolerable, the people of Molos become short-tempered, their business frantic and their fights vicious.

Tiglis sees that about her even now, surrounded though she is not by the poor, the honest, the hardworking, and the occasionally criminal, but by the richest, the most powerful, the most indolent, and those most likely not to break the law but to live outside it. For tonight, the merchant Gabrio has thrown open the doors of his opulent mansion to all who can win, beg, steal, or be granted as their right an invitation. Tiglis employed more subtle means to acquire hers, and the name upon it—the name she wears tonight—is Orianna.

Tiglis knows about Gabrio: He was not born in Molos and certainly has nothing of the desert in him through blood or upbringing. However, he has lived so long in the Empire’s westernmost and northernmost city, and has been so generous with spending his fortune among its artisans and traders that the wealthy—their coffers full—have graciously forgotten he is not its born son. He helped their forgetfulness by fitting in. He did not buy as his home one of those mansions most closely mimicking the architecture of his home city—those buildings nauseatingly irregular of outline. No, Gabrio selected as his home a house like Molos in miniature: with massive walls all around (although only half as high as those protecting and securing Molos), with great imposing doors upon the street (although dwarfed by those gates keeping out the desert to the north and the soft wetlands to the south) and with every room and doorway opening inwards to the centre of the house, where an open courtyard mirrored the great market square in Molos’s own centre.

The one thing Gabrio has never sought to conceal is the source of his fortune, and so it is that tonight Tiglis joins the men and women strutting through his mansion and its great internal courtyard. Around her, the rich and avaricious drink Gabrio’s imported wines, eat his imported delicacies, and conduct their games of insincere flattery and calculated manipulation.

The fashion for men has been, this past year, for elaborate shirts within even more elaborate coats but tights that expose the calves. Women, having bared most of their breasts and arms for several years, are now sheathed in fabric from neck to ankles and shoulders to wrists, with loose styles that hint, rather than display, and are coy, in contrast to last year’s boldness, yet seem somehow to display even more than they used to.

Young and old, men and women, all follow the changing patterns. Thus are the traders, tailors, and dressmakers of Molos kept in employment.

Thus dressed as Tiglis never would, Orianna mingles with the crowd. She knows only a little about who is who but is quickly able, as she flits past conversations and studies guarded expressions, to sort Gabrio’s friends from his enemies.

She is aware at all times of the faces around her and what their expressions reveal. Although she has taken great pains to make sure she is well worth watching, she needs to know what those who watch her see.

She is slender and young and short enough to appear delicate, and has chosen this night to appear barely older than a girl, with breasts pushing modestly at her blue cashmere dress. Her desert skin she has lightened to a gentle olive hue that surprises Molos natives but is recognised by some Molos visitors as hailing from the far side of the Empire’s lands, in the east where land ends. Her bright blue eyes, bequeathed to her by her desert-born mother, she has no way of changing, but has no need to: Among those who hold themselves haughtily above the desert-born and expect dark skin to always be matched by dark eyes, blue adds to the impression she has come from a far-distant city. An even more effective disguise than her powders and oils is her bearing and her manner, which tonight are cultured and refined and rare to Molos, where the desert seeps into even the most effete soul. She carries herself nervously and gazes about her with wonder that attracts glances of mocking condescension or calculating avarice.

She flits between rooms and through the great internal courtyard as lightly and unpredictably as a lacewing fly, conversing only briefly with other guests and speaking always in a breathy, excited, carefully precise voice tinted with an accent recognisable as foreign to Molos. To most of the assembled company, she knows she is merely a naïve, if pleasant, novelty among the mass of guests with their brittle laughter and their constant verbal sparring for social, economic, or political advantage. Yet she is no more naïve than they, and knows full well that some are scheming how to take her for themselves, for their sons, or for service in their private harem or public bordello.

Such treachery is only to be expected; all desert-born know that the wetlands of the Empire breed deception, dishonesty, and dishonour. In Molos, desert and Empire blend uneasily, and although the city’s heart pumps desert blood, its money and civil power are entirely wetland in origin.

Orianna comes at last, in her apparently random journeying, to the room where the choicest of delicacies are served, the finest of wines poured, and the sharpest envy most openly revealed. For there, behind the glass panes of a locked case, the pride of Gabrio’s collection outshines his mosaic floors, the peacocks that squat haughtily in the trees of his courtyard garden, and even the most colourfully dressed of his wealthiest guests.

Orianna slips easily between the few guests present, employing her beauty and her short stature to mollify those who might have been offended at her boldness.

She gazes with unaffected rapture at an opal the size of a large man’s fist, carved to the shape of an egg and inlaid with finest golden script she cannot quite, from the other side of the glass, read.

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