Slathek of Mahngbhayo had been in Murtaghan, the capital of Korthlundia, nearly a month and had disposed of his cargo and come a fair way towards buying merchandise for the return trip. He sat at a table in the Clothmakers’ Guild Hall, counting the gold coins carefully before pushing them across the table to the linen merchant. He knew the amount was as had been agreed upon, but he loved the way the cool coins felt against his skin and the way they gleamed in the sunlight streaming through the window. He hated to part with them, but he knew the linen he’d purchased would bring him twice this amount when he returned home. He smiled as he thought of the jewels and the art he would buy with them. He’d commission a marble statue for the entry hall of his port home—a young woman riding on the back of a dolphin. Malkekek charged outrageous prices for his work, but the sculptor was the best, and with the profit of this year’s trip, Slathek could easily afford it.
“A pleasure doing business with you,” Abenzio said, sweeping the coins into his purse. “Am I to see the lovely miniature of your sister again?”
Slathek tensed. “You’ve seen it every year for the last ten. Do you think you’ll suddenly remember something you had forgotten?” Still, he pulled his copy of her miniature out from under the tunic and allowed it to be passed around the table. He’d placed the small portrait in a gold locket, studded with diamonds and sapphires. Annke, the captain of one of his three ships, said he was a fool to wear something so valuable around his neck, but Slathek had faith in the sword he wore at his side. It hadn’t failed him yet.
“Such a lovely girl.” Abenzio shook his head, clicking his tongue. “Your older sister, wasn’t she?”
“Yes,” Slathek answered, tucking the miniature back under his tunic. His mother died in childbirth, and Sphry had been like a mother to him.
The barbarian clicked his tongue again, but his eyes gleamed. “Such a shame. So much evil in the world to corrupt innocence.”
Slathek’s lips tightened, and his eyes narrowed. Despite the fact Slathek was half the barbarian’s size, Abenzio had the sense to pale.
“I’m sorry,” the barbarian stammered. “I meant no disrespect.”
Slathek gathered his papers and held out his hand in the fashion of the barbarians. “I’ll expect the merchandise delivered to the docks in the morning.”
Abenzio shook his hand. “Yes, yes, of course.”
Slathek walked back through the crowded streets of Murtaghan towards The Traveler’s Haven, where he always stayed.
Among the numerous stalls lining the street, Slathek caught sight of an herb seller. He stopped and examined her wares. The scent of rosemary and comfrey filled the air, bringing him back to his childhood. Despite the fact he had no use for it, he bought a bag of dried rosemary, paying the outrageous sum the herb seller asked. He wouldn’t lower himself to haggle over a few coppers. He tried to remember what Sphry had used rosemary for, and it saddened him that he couldn’t. At six, he’d known the use of nearly all the herbs in his sister’s stillroom and had wanted to be just like her. He wondered just what had happened to that boy and what Sphry would think of the man he’d become.
* * *
Slath had a pestle in his hand and was crushing dried burdock root into powder for his sister. It was hard work, but when they were finished, Sphry had promised to take him to the beach. Aunt Dnrill didn’t think he was big enough to go by himself, and Aunt Dnrill never did anything fun. She never did anything at all, but cook and clean. He didn’t like Aunt Dnrill who wasn’t really his aunt, just some woman their father paid to look after him while he was away trading. Sphry claimed that now she was thirteen they didn’t need Aunt Dnrill anymore, but it made their father feel less guilty about leaving them so often and for so long. Slath barely knew his father. Even when he was home, he spent most of his time at his office on the docks counting his money and buying merchandise. But Slath didn’t care. He had Sphry. Sphry was a healer and took care of every hurt or sick thing. Slath wanted to be a healer just like her when he got bigger. He prayed daily to the Father and the Mother to grant him enough magic so he could. They hadn’t answered yet, but there was still plenty of time. Sphry’s magic hadn’t become strong until she was ten, and he was only six.
The cauldron over the fire hissed as Sphry added ingredients. She looked beautiful in the firelight; even the other boys agreed his sister was the most beautiful of all their sisters. A wild fox sat calmly next to her on the counter.
“What are you making, Sphry?”
“An ointment for this poor fox, Slath. See, he’s got into something.” Sphry pointed to the side of the fox were the fur had been rubbed off, and Slathek could see the fox’s skin was red and inflamed.
“How do the wild ones know to come to you?” The fox had hardly been the first wild creature to show up on their doorstep.
Sphry wrinkled her forehead. “I’m not sure. Perhaps they can sense me like I sense them. At least, the dolphins can. It’s hard to ask other animals because their minds aren’t complex enough.”
The fox’s eyes followed Sphry’s every movement. Slath was immensely proud of his sister. Her medicines were the best in the harbor. Everyone said so.
* * *
Slath held his sister’s hand and skipped at her side. “I’m going to build my biggest sand castle ever today. Big enough to have a thousand rooms, and I’m going to be king of it.”
“We don’t have a king,” Sphry reminded him. “We’re a republic. Adults, like daddy, vote on the laws.”
Sphry had explained this to him before, like she’d taught him how to read and write. His father said he’d hire a tutor for Slath when he got back from trading this season, but Slath hoped he’d forget again like he did last season. “In my country, there’s a king, and I’m going to be it.”
Sphry laughed and, fortunately, didn’t bore him with any more lessons about why it was wrong for one person to make all the laws.
With their shovels and buckets, Slath and Sphry made a castle as high as Slath’s waist. When it was finished, Slath pointed to the bottom right corner. “This is where your stillroom will be,” he told Sphry. Beside it he used shells to build a fence. “Your herb garden will be here, and there will be lots of woods behind the castle where you can gather mushrooms and such.”
“I think I’d be very happy in such a castle, but are you sure you want to be king? They have an awful lot of responsibilities. You wouldn’t have much time to help me grind roots.”
Slath shrugged. “I’ll be a king only if I don’t have enough magic to be a healer like you.”
“Why not be a merchant like father?”
“No!” He jumped to his feet and stamped his foot. “I’ll never be like father. He doesn’t care about us. He doesn’t care about anything but making more and more money.” He started to tell her what the other boys had said about their father, but Sphry got that dreamy look on her face.
“They’re here,” she said. Slath didn’t have to ask who. Only the dolphins gave her that look. As she stood and walked toward the water, Slath saw a dolphin do a flip and dive back into the water. Slath laughed. They were silly creatures. When Sphry told him the stories they told her, he nearly burst his sides laughing. He hoped some day to be able to hear the stories from the dolphins themselves, like Sphry could.
* * *
“Where is your sister?” Slath’s father burst into the study in the middle of yet another boring lecture from Slath’s tutor on the governments in nearby countries. Robrek claimed that because trade depended on the policies of various governments, his son needed to understand everything he could about them. Slath had tried to tell his father that he didn’t want to be a merchant, but Robrek never seemed to hear him. Slath no longer knew what he wanted to be. He was starting to despair about becoming a healer. Even though he was eight now, he didn’t have the slightest hint of the gift. Sphry told him to be patient, but that was easy for her to say. She was only fifteen and already the strongest healer in the port city.
“I don’t know,” Slath answered. He almost never got to spend time with his sister during the day anymore, except on holy days.
“She didn’t go down to the beach, did she? I warned her the pirate ships had been sighted.” The pirates often grabbed young girls and sold them in faraway lands. His father wouldn’t tell him why they only wanted girls, but Slath figured they made the girls do the disgusting thing that his father paid women to come to the house and do with him. Sphry said that was how babies were made, so Slath decided he didn’t want to be a father. The way his father groaned and the woman cried out when they did it made Slath think it hurt a lot. Sphry said she didn’t know.
Robrek sent his servants to every place Sphry might have gone. Slath ran to their favorite spot on the beach. But Sphry wasn’t there. The dolphins were playing off shore, and again Slath wished for enough magic to understand them. Sphry sometimes gathered things from tidal pools in the rocks at the far end of their beach, so Slath went toward them, looking and calling for her.
When he climbed on the rocks, Sphry wasn’t among the tidal pools either, but then Slath saw it—Sphry’s gathering basket, the basket that used to belong to their mother, his sister’s most precious possession. It was lying among the rocks tipped over and trampled. “No!” he cried gathering up the broken pieces. He frantically searched the shore for her, but at the base of the rocks, he noticed a place where a boat had been pulled ashore, and he knew they’d taken Sphry and with her everything that was bright about his world.
* * *
When Slath put the broken basket on his father’s desk, Robrek’s face went white. He fingered the pieces as if he didn’t know what the object was, then grabbed Slath and hugged him as Slath never remembered being hugged before. “We’ll find her, Slathek. We’ll bring her back. This I vow by the names of the Holy Mother and Father.”
* * *
Slath and his father walked through the slave market in Neaseria. They had been tracing the path of the pirates for nearly three months now. His father had learned that this market was where they disposed of their goods. Slath and his father wore gloves and scarves wrapped around their heads, covering their faces like the Bendouins did. His father said that they mustn’t be recognized as Mahngbhayons or the slave traders might not be as forthcoming. They passed cage after cage full of men, children, and old women of all different shades and hues—some as black as ebony and others so white Slath wondered if they were ill until Robrek told him that was the normal color of their skin. Some of the men were covered with hair, even on their faces. The eyes that looked at him from the cages were full of rage, hatred, or despair. He felt sick at the thought of his sister in a cage like that, but when they found her, they had plenty of gold to buy her and bring her back home. Then things would be like they used to be.
Ahead was a gaudy tent. Robrek said it was the last place he wanted to find his daughter, but the first place they needed to look. Sphry was beautiful. She wouldn’t be sold to work some planter’s fields. The tent was full of girls; they weren’t in cages, but chained by the neck to posts placed throughout. They wore nothing more than two small pieces of cloth—one wrapped around their breasts and the other around their privates. Neither piece covered much.
When they went inside the tent, a huge man with ebony skin hurried up to them. “Welcome!” the man enthused. “What type of girl can I interest you in? We have samples from across the world.”
Robrek matched the man’s accent almost perfectly when he answered. Robrek had a knack for languages, which Slath was discovering he’d inherited. “I have seen a girl like the one I want. Creamy brown skin, black hair, emerald eyes, and small enough to fit under my arm.” Slath’s father went on to describe Sphry in detail as if she were one of those women he wanted to make disgusting noises with. Slath vowed to kill any man who did that to his sister.
The slave trader grunted. “Sounds like you want a Mahngbhayon. They’re hard to come by. I had about a half dozen of them a month ago brought in by Salomian pirates. They’re the only ones you can get Mahngbhayons from since they have an unique way of acquiring them, if you know what I mean.” The man winked and nudged Robrek, and Slath wondered why his father didn’t break the man’s neck. “Too bad I sold the lot to traders heading for the northern countries. Apparently dark skin, but not too dark, is seen as exotic up there.”
Robrek stared straight ahead like a dead man as they left the slave traders’ tent. “We can’t follow until spring, Slath, my lad. The seas are far too dangerous now. If only we’d found this place a month sooner.”
* * *
That winter Slath’s father sold his old ship and bought a larger, faster one. He learned what items of trade the cold countries coveted and filled the ship with them. Now nine, Slath insisted on new tutors who could teach him the languages of the cold countries, but most of all he insisted on a fencing master and a well-made sword. His father gave him everything he asked for. He applied himself to his studies as he never had before, and by the time for safe sailing arrived, he knew the rudiments of five new languages, and his fencing master declared him adequate with a blade.
It was a three month journey to the cold countries, and Slath continued to practice both languages and the sword throughout. He helped with any of the sailing tasks that would increase his strength or balance. His father noticed nothing of what he did, but spent his days either on deck staring at the northern seas or in his cabin staring at a miniature of Sphry that had been painted shortly before she was taken. He’d had a copy made for Slath as well, and Slath always wore it around his neck under his tunic. Slath took it out several times a day to look at his sister’s face, but he didn’t waste time staring at it as his father did. He got straight back to practicing his sword work or speaking to sailors who knew the languages of cold countries. He would help find his sister. Then he’d kill the men who forced her to make those disgusting noises.
Slath had the chance to practice his languages as they searched the slave markets of port after port, but he found no use for his blade that year. They’d found no sign of the slavers who purchased his sister from the Nesearian harbor and no sign of Mahngbhayon slave girls. It was years before they found the trail again.
* * *
Slath and his father walked along the docks of Murtaghan, the capital of one of the smallest of the cold countries. The people of Korthlundia had pasty white skin and looked like giant, animated corpses whose hair refused to stop growing. Slath thought them closer to animals than to humans. Now sixteen years old, Slath had grown more than adequate with his sword, and he spoke over a dozen languages of the cold countries, including the barbaric grunt of the Korthlundians.
His father’s eyes, which had grown deader and deader every year they returned empty handed, grew feverishly alive as they followed the directions to the auction house which dealt illicitly in foreign whores. Slavery was illegal in Korthlundia, but it still flourished in the underground market. From the outside, the slave auction house looked like any of the hundreds of other warehouses that fronted the harbor. Inside, nearly every surface was covered in red velvet. They found the owner—a hairy giant, missing half his teeth and with the foulest breath Slath had ever encountered. His father held out the miniature of Sphry. “It would have been nearly seven years ago.”
The man laughed without taking the picture. “You think I remember every tits and ass that passes through here.”
“Perhaps you remember this one.” Robrek’s voice was tight as he put a handful of silver coins on the man’s desk.
The man leaned forward in his chair, swept the coins into his hand, and took the miniature. He smiled widely. “Oh, yes, I remember this one. Fiery temper she had. She objected to what men were doing with one of the other girls, so we had good fun with her instead.”
Slath drew his sword and pointed it to the man’s overlarge belly. He’d sworn he’d kill all who had her. “You’re talking about my sister!”
But the auctioneer didn’t even blush. “Every whore is someone’s sister. Now put that toy away before you hurt yourself with it.” The man spoke as if he were a child. Since Slath’s people were much smaller, Korthlundians were always mistaking him for younger than he was.
His father put his hand on Slath’s sword arm. “However much he deserves it, put it away, son. We’re here to find Sphry, not avenge her.”
“I’m here to do both.” Slath glared at the auctioneer who paled as he realized Slath’s size didn’t coincide with his age or ability.
“Now look here, you can’t condemn a man for doing his job.”
“Slath, put it away. I won’t see you hanged for killing such trash.”
Slath hesitated. It had never occurred to him that he might face consequences for killing his sister’s debauchers. Slath sheathed his sword.
“Who bought her?” his father asked, adding a few more coins to the pile.
“I don’t rightly recall,” the man said. “But whatever brothel it was, she’d hardly still be there. Sailors use up whores fast.”
“We’ll try them all,” Slath’s father insisted.
* * *
Slath blanched as they went through the first brothel’s front door. Girls wearing nearly nothing, many Slath’s age or younger, stared at him with hollow eyes. Slath couldn’t help the tightening in his groin at the sight of so much flesh.
A plump woman with large breasts hurried forward to greet them. “Welcome, sir, what can I interest you in today?” The woman’s eyes widened as she caught sight of Slath. “The boy isn’t for sale, is he?”
Robrek slammed the woman against the wall. “This boy is my son.”
A huge man grabbed Robrek from behind and threw him out the door onto the cobblestone street. Remembering what his father said about being hanged, Slathek merely got out his miniature of Sphry and asked about her. The woman shook her head.
The next brothel wasn’t as bad as the first. Three woman—one white, one brown, and one black, lounged on couches. They weren’t chained, and they wore robes of a transparent fabric. Slath could see the full outline of their bodies. Slath tore his eyes away from the women, but as his father talked to the brothel owners, Slath’s eyes kept drifting back to the women, running his eyes over their bodies, and wondering what it would feel like to touch one. He’d heard the sailors talking of the pleasures of a woman’s body, but he’d had no chance to find out for himself.
Hours later when they finished making the rounds of all the brothels in the harbor district, Slath’s groin was throbbing, and he could thinking of nothing but room after room of nearly naked women—any of which could be had for a few coins.
After Robrek went up to bed, Slath sneaked out of the inn and back to the brothel district. He entered the one that had seemed the cleanest and where the whores had seemed the most eager to serve. He handed over the coins to the brothel owner and chose a whore as black as ebony with huge breasts and firm thighs.
* * *
Hoping his father wouldn’t know where he’d been or what he’d done, Slath whistled as he walked back to the Traveler’s Haven. But his father was waiting for him at one of the tables near the door. “So do you think you’re a man now?” his father asked. “Do you think bedding your sister makes you one?”
Blood rushed to Slath’s face. “She wasn’t my sister!”
“She’s somebody else’s sister, somebody’s daughter! Those women are little better than slaves, like your sister is!”
Slath ran from the inn. At the dock, he tore off his clothes and dived into the water of the harbor. The water was frigid, far colder than it ever got in Mahngbhayo. But not cold enough to cool his burning shame. He swam for the rock out in the harbor that the sea lions used. It was farther than he’d realized, and he was shaking with cold and exhaustion by the time he pulled himself onto it. The sea lions barked at him, but kept their distance. “Did you speak to her like the dolphins did?” he asked the beasts, but he could hear them no better than he’d been able to hear the dolphins. Only Sphry had had that magic, and he’d dishonored her. He vowed he’d never sleep with another whore. But as the sun began to rise, he realized what his father wouldn’t admit. It had been seven years since Sphry was taken. His sister was dead, and the family fortunes were dwindling due to his father’s obsessive search. It was time to stop looking for her and tend to other matters. If his father wouldn’t, then he’d have to.
* * *
The bark of the sea lions took Slathek by surprise. He hadn’t realized he’d been that close to his ships. He stopped and gazed on the three ships he now owned. While his father searched fruitlessly for Sphry, Slathek had made the family prosper, becoming a sharper trader at eighteen than his father was at forty-five. But as Slath looked at the sea lions, he realized he’d dishonored his sister far more thoroughly than that single night with the whore. Sphry was the magic of his childhood—a magic that healed and mended. He’d replaced that magic with the cold comfort of gold.
Perhaps he wouldn’t commission the dolphin statue after all.
My work has been published on Short-Story.Me and was chosen for inclusion their annual print anthology. My novel, The Goddess’s Choice, is forthcoming from Reliquary Press. I teach writing and literature at Auburn University.