Part I - Homecoming

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Painted whore of a city

Leaning out over the River Bloat

Her flesh caked with chalk and myrrh

To hide the rot beneath.

I see the flutter of her khol-smeared eyes

As she beckons us to climb the winding stair.

I cannot resist her.

- Hejanus Lok, The Book of Solemn Laughter

Vessa threaded her way along one of the Rat Quarter's main thoroughfares, skirting around the usual assortment of street sorcerers and acrobats, merchants hawking fried spiders, and ragged urchins dashing about looking for money bags to slit. A feral galagan lizard snapped its jaws and flared its neck spines as Vessa passed close to the corpse of a dog it had claimed, and she aimed a kick at it. The creature hissed and scuttled away, pausing to glare at her balefully before vanishing into an alley.

Vessa was annoyed, as she was late for a meeting with a potentially very lucrative client. Twenty days already in the city without a real job, and she was in danger of losing the first decent contract that had come her way. Damn Alberon. He'd said the ship would be unloaded before noon, yet here she was, evening creeping into the sky as she hurried to the Grot,

She needed some real money. Though, admittedly, she'd never managed to invest so sensibly before when she'd hit one of her financial highs. But this time it would be different. No more dreamsmoke and hundred-talon-a-night courtesans. A fireplace, a few tables, and the swords hung over the bar.

Maybe she'd buy the Grot . . . if she could ever get there.

The street ahead was seething with people. Two platforms had been set up, one on either side of the road. Crowds of about equal size thronged both; on the right, an older man in a spotless white robe hemmed with gold paced back and forth, haranguing his listeners, while to the left, a reedy fellow dressed in black matched him with shouts and wild gesticulations.

"In the beginning there was light, and then darkness crept into the world like a thief . . ."

"In the beginning, there was cool darkness, and then the searing light appeared . . ."

Vessa snorted. Idiots, both of them. Aradeth the Golden and Xeno of the Shadows. Day and Night. The Sun and the Moon. These faiths were common down south, in the Silken Cities, but this was the first time Vessa had seen them in Malakesh. Three years away and everything had changed. There were two others in their pantheon, goddesses of the dawn and twilight, but those must not have worked their way this far north yet. Usually, they were all out together, screaming and whipping up their followers into a frenzy. Twice, in fact, Vessa had survived riots caused by these fools. Hopefully, the Red Duke would keep them in line here in Malakesh.

As Vessa forced her way through the shifting crowd, she collided with a fat man in a butcher's apron. He turned towards her, his face twisted in anger and his blood-spattered arms raised, but then quickly ducked his head and mumbled an apology when he saw her standing there. Vessa accepted this with a gracious nod of her head, restraining a small smile. She always seemed to get a bit more deference in Malakesh - maybe it was her black skin, uncommon on this side of the world, or her near six span of height. More likely it was the blood whorls tattooing her arms and the swords strapped across her back.

She pushed on, avoiding the middle of the street, where the milling crowds nearly brushed together. A regiment of guardsmen dressed in the red-and-copper livery separated the two sides, the hafts of their halberds making a fence of black iron that kept the situation from deteriorating further. Sometimes Vessa didn't envy the duke - the heat and the dust and the noise of this city stirred the passions of the people here into a frenzy. Her time away in the cool, rainy south had certainly taught her the value of peace and quiet . . . yet after a while she'd found herself missing the chaos and excitement of Malakesh. That, and the money.

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