Antras tried to look casual, his hair clubbed up so no one could see its true length, sipping at his beer. “Min—akas…why?” He paused a moment, then dropped his voice even more. “why… fessas?”
It was a good sign he dared ask. I scooted forward and re-filled his mug before topping up mine. “Aitzas… too close…solas… I don’t have enough training. Fessas… can be smart.” I whispered.
“That… makes a certain sense… lad…” He said it louder than I did, as if we were just sitting having a drink and some crisps. There were carved screens between the booths instead of flowers or vines, because unlike Feliras’s Glory, or the Fig, it was too dark to keep plants alive. Besides it was something that the writers’ didn’t seem to care about much.
There was a group at the bar that started to sing with as much tune as was usual when that amount of alcohol was involved. The next booth over had a young man who smacked his mug down on the table a little hard. “The Marble Palace just isn’t supporting research! I’ve written a dozen pieces about scholars who deserve to have their studies funded! And my editor tells me I’d do better covering grass faib games.” His voice took on a fruity quality as he imitated his boss. ‘No one wants to read about stuffy things like that. Dull!’
I started being able to pick lines out of the general buzz of conversation.
“—and he actually had the nerve to change what I submitted! It was perfect the way it was! –“ “Ay tell yah, ‘Ro, its not worth yer life tah have the Marble Palace beat. The Imperator… yah never see Him, and the Heir… yeh don’t want him tah see you.” If the one fellow someone called ‘Ro, was Rorularas Ilkem, he was the writer who specialized in writing about the bloodiest crimes in the city… or in the Empire if it was a slow moon… He very seldom had to resort to historical gore for his column. He looked like a grandfatherly sort of man, with spectacles.
“Really? I heard he’s not so bad… not any more, Tak.” Was that Takinas Furmen? He certainly wasn’t as tall as I’d imagined him.
“Ha! I heard that he pushed his old nurse off a balcony. Just to see her go splat.”
I held onto the edge of the table, hard so I didn’t jump up and yell it was a lie. Fessas. I’m Minakas Akam, fessas. Don’t know about the doings in the Palace. Fessas.
“—the old man is lawyered up and saying I mis-quoted him! I never did, it’s in my notes. The pucker-assed idiot practically wrote it himself and now is shrieking that it’s lawsuit material, I could just –“
“-- and the Divine old man… he’s killed half a dozen slaves in his bed… the ones that all look like the Yeoli king?”
I took a sip of the dark beer to occupy my mouth. Exaggeration. But a grain of truth. As far as I knew, Father had killed only the one, but I wasn’t sure that was right.
This was horrible and wonderful. I had to listen to all sorts of lies, but didn’t have to have everything tasted first. Antras had ordered out of the purse of copper I’d given him to fund my expedition and ordered the bar’s biggest beefsteak. The crisps were hot and crisp, both. Antras and I were just drinking beer out of the same pitcher.
I grinned at him and popped a crisp into my mouth and he put one hand over his face. He had to drop the hand to pick up his knife, when his food arrived. I went back to listening. “—libelous, my ass! –“ “—my boy… I wish him well, but he found a man who makes a lot more money than I do. He’d better stay out of my way or I’ll set his hair on fire… be the subject of one of my own –“ “—heard that the Yeoli king still has him captive, no one knows where he is –“
I peeked over the back edge of the booth to see if I could see the writer talking about the Yeoli war. I couldn’t tell which one it was and Antras had to go out to the garderobe. I think it was more to relieve himself of stress, being out with me in disguise, than to relieve himself of piss but it worked either way.
The fellow who had been complaining about his boy leaving him, winked at me when he caught me peaking through the carved screen. I turned my nose up at him and had another sip of beer. That was when I connected the Yeoli-talker with a chubby young man diagonally across from our booth.
He sat at one of the open tables, looking melancholy. The older man with him nodded reassuringly, offering him a refill from their jug. “You’re too good a war-reporter to be stuck writing about minor chainers in the Mezem and aitza flower arranging shows for long, Sin.”
Sin? Short for Sinimas? If so, it was a good sign. But I couldn’t let myself be swayed by a name. For all I knew his name was Sinuras, or Sinkaras, or… “—Sinimas, just don’t say anything too loudly, or you’ll be writing about new strains of roses or lap-dogs for the rest of your short career.”
If it was Sinimas Menden… I’d liked the pieces of his he’d written, that had been allowed by his editor. He was younger than I’d imagined him.
“Thanks, Uncle, I’ll keep it quieter.”
“That’s my brother’s boy, I think you ought to request Intharas send you back out to Yeola-e, they’re just settling in for winter. Nothing terribly controversial to report on, but you’ll be in place for the spring start.”
Spring start. The old man’s talking like the Yeoli war is the start of a new faib season. My view of the room was suddenly blocked by the fellow who’d winked at me. “Hey there, boy.” He was pretty drunk. His face up closed was full of saggy wrinkles and his eye-liner was smeared. He looked a little like a ring-tailed rat and his breath was bad.
Antras? Where was Antras? I sat back in the booth, further away from him. “Ser, ahy… um… m’ man’s jus’ in t’—“ He sat down in the booth on the side nearest me… and I slid around the bench away from him, putting the table between us.
“Com’on, k – hic -- kid… yer cute… jus’ a quickie inna back alley, hmm? Aym a – hic -- nice guy…” I didn’t want to either run, or unleash Imperial wrath on this drunk. He smelled sweaty as well as his breath being bad. Not only was the stale wine and flat beer mixed on his breath, he’d eaten the fried onions. The look in his eye reminded me of the looks I’d seen on both Father’s face, and Ilian Kallen’s. Crisps and beer backed themselves up into the back of my mouth and I swallowed hard. He wanted me to go into the alleyway and take his stinky, wrinkled old dick in my mouth… I had to swallow again and wiggle a little further away from him, right on the edge of the bench, ready to bolt, tucking my hands away out of sight.
“Hey there.” Antras said from behind me. Thank the Ten. “Who’s yer admirer, Minakas?”
“He han’t introduced his-self, ser.” Antras gestured me to slide out of the booth, tucked himself in between the drunken writer and me, before putting his arm around me protectively.
“Ah… sorry, kid. Ahym – hic – Herinas Rurenem, at yer ser – hic – service.”
“Hev a drink, Herinas,” Antras gestured with his chin at our half empty pitcher. “So… yer a writer fer ‘t Pages?”
“Hic -- yeah –“ Thankfully he dropped his attempt to get me to serve him. I took a deep breath and clung to Antras’s hug making no attempt to move out from under it.
It was a very comforting arm. I snuggled in close. He tilted his head down to me and actually hugged me, understanding that I’d been uncomfortable. It was all right. “S’ a beauty boy yeh got there… ah…what didja say yer name was agin?”
“Thenk yeh, Herinas. ‘m Hantras… He’s a sweet ‘eart isn’t he?”
“Sweet mouth…” Antras laughed and leaned over to re-filled Herinas’s cup. Fessas. I’m fessas. I was glad the man was all but falling down drunk and probably wouldn’t remember any of this.
I whispered in his ear… “Ask him the young man’s name over there, please?” He grinned down at me as if I’d said something funny, poked me in the ribs so I giggled.
“Silly boy,” I looked down and hoped that Herinas would think I was blushing shy. Antras re-filled all our glasses even though Antras and I didn’t need it. Herinas, pretending he hadn’t been trying to get me to serve him in the back alleyway, raised his glass to toast the good weather we’d been having, and a few other things… finishing the rest of the jug.
“So… Herinas… who’s your young friend there? Or is he a friend of yours?” Antras finally got around to asking.
Herinas was blinking drunk now… “Who…oo? Oh… him… Sin’s ‘is name… Sin-i-mas… Menden…work w’ im… he… he was doin’ wool-hairs war… go—got called baaaack…” his last burp was just short of a vomit and Antras pushed me out ahead of the anticipated disaster.
He paid for us at the bar, just as Herinas realized he was in danger of losing his liquid late supper and headed for the garderobe door. “Com’ along, Minakas,” Antras was completely comfortable flinging his arm over my shoulders as we left. I peeked back to see if Herinas made it… or if he had, in fact lost it. What I knew of writers was that they tended not to lose their booze.
“He was pretty disgusting, Antras,” I whispered. He nodded and just said. “Let’s get you back to your right place, Minakas… hmm?”