I’m Charity, and before I saved the world I was just a common thief.
Also a drunk, rabble-rouser, harlot, and blasphemer according to the magistrate who sentenced me to ten years of forced labor in Farshore, the emperor’s new colony across the great sea. You’d think that stepping off of a prison ship on the ass-end of the world was bad enough, but everyone in Byzantia has heard the stories…
I’d only been breathing the air of the New World for a few minutes and I already hated it. No rot of open sewage, no horse’s sweat, or dust clouds stirred up by ten thousand pairs of feet on market day. Just air so clean and cold it burned the back of your throat, full of salt from the sea and pine sap from the forest just beyond the docks.
“State your name, prisoner.”
Three months at sea and he hadn’t bothered to learn my name. To be fair, I hadn’t cared to learn his either, or the names of the other legion soldiers who’d been sent to make sure our chains stayed locked tight during the voyage. Each one looked just like the rest; black hair that had long since outgrown regulation close-crop as days turned to weeks, noses beaked sharper than the bow of our ship, and brown Byzantian skin that had only browned further beneath the fierce sun that beat down on the upper decks each day.
The soldiers had spent the entire trip complaining about the ill fortune that had posted them to a ship sailing to the ass end of the world and taking their bad temper out on those of us chained below decks. The whole journey had been miserable, but the pointless chains they fastened to our ankles every evening had been the worst indignity of all. Where did they think we would escape to, with nothing but rolling sea waves stretching to the horizon in every direction?
He stared at me for a moment, waiting for a family name to go along with my given one, but I had none to add. The Daughters of Vesta had only given me the one when they’d swept me up off the streets, and it was all I’d taken with me again when they’d thrown me out.
“Fair enough, girl.”
He marked it down in his ledger, then gestured down the gangplank. I wobbled my way down the length of wood as best my sore and sea-worn legs could manage and turned to look back at the hulk of timber that had been my prison cell for three long months. The Typhon was a sturdy, ocean-going vessel. Even a street rat like me could see it was nothing like the sleek galleys which glided through the calm waters of the Mare Nostri back home.
Home. The word still sent a twist through my guts. If you’d asked me back before the magister had sentenced me to slavery and servitude here in their new world, I would have told you that I had no home. Only Byzantia’s cobbled streets and twisting alleyways, and the crawlspace above the ovens of the bakery on the Plaza Chrisari in winter. Now that Byzantia and all the other cities of the Imperium were lost to me forever, I found that I’d had enough home to miss after all.
I shuffled down the dock with the other prisoners, linked together as we were by the heavy chain that the ship’s crew had retrieved from the stowage hold when we’d first sighted land. The dock led from the deep water where the Typhon sat at anchor to a forested shoreline broken by a collection of rough-hewn buildings and dirt tracks that ran along the waterfront. Two of the buildings were large enough to serve as warehouses, and one even had a small canal with a winch dock for punts to pull in and unload cargo, though for now it sat idle. I saw the Consortium’s sign hanging over the door of a merchant and lending exchange, a small tavern that was far too quiet for this late hour, and a collection of houses whose walls and beams still bore the white scars and loose splinters of the axe that had planed them.
A few souls had gathered at the end of the docks to stare at the ship, and at us, in undisguised glee. I had no doubt that our arrival was the most exciting event these docks had seen in a long, long time.
“This is Farshore?”
The man chained in front of me kept scanning up and down the coast as though he expected the rest of the city to emerge from the trees at any moment. The despair in his voice would have been comical if I hadn’t been feeling the same way myself. I’d known the colony was young, but I’d at least expected something that a country peasant might be tempted to call a town. All I could see above the small collection of rooftops were trees, rocks, and endless sky ahead of us. All I could hear was a looming green silence broken only by the harsh calls of birds I didn’t recognize, and the unbroken rumble of the ocean surf at our backs.
“Don’t be daft,” one of the Typhon’s sailors snorted as he walked beside us down the dock. “This is just Shoreside. The governor’s keen on turning it into a proper port town. Wasn’t long ago this was just a dock and a stretch of dry beach. The city lies inland a ways.”
A half-dozen soldiers wearing the same legion breastplates and short blades as the one who’d taken my name on the ship waited at the end of the dock. They looked bored, but they unlocked our chains, sorted us into groups, and loaded us into the three wagons that stood waiting with a tired kind of efficiency. The driver snapped his whip, my wagon jolted, and we were off.
“Divines preserve us,” whispered the stocky blacksmith on the seat beside me as he made the sign of Jovian’s Wise Eye with his shackled hand. His failing business had left him unable to pay his debts, and then in irons aboard a prison ship, which he’d spent the better part of the passage complaining about to anyone who would lend him an ear.
“They’ve done a shit job of it so far,” I said. “Don’t see a reason we should expect that to change now.”
“Hold your tongue, girl,” said the pudgy seamstress seated across from me. I had no idea why she was here, but she hadn’t offered her story during the trip, and I hadn’t cared to ask. “Or if you must tempt ill fate, at least wait until I’m not seated so close to you.”
“Who’s to say the gods can even see us from across the waves, or stretch their oh-so- exalted and glorious hands far enough to reach us if they could?” I snapped at her.
“The Divines see all, know all, and are in all.”
She spoke the familiar words with reverence, as if they offered the ultimate answer, though they still sounded as hollow as ever to my ears. “We are alive, are we not? What greater sign of their favor do you require?”
I spat over the side of the wagon in answer but decided to waste no more words on her. The passage had taken its toll, true enough. Seven of the forty-one souls who’d begun the trip had perished before we made landfall, but I saw no great Divine hand in my survival. I’d lived because I was too damn stubborn to do otherwise. I had no great hopes for my future here on the ass end of the world, but I’d be damned if I was going to meet my end retching out my guts in the dark, and that was all there was to it.
I rubbed at the chafed and swollen band where the chains had dug into my ankles, and thought about how easy it would be to dive over the side of the wagon and disappear into the tree-line before anyone could stop me. Easy though it might have been, I knew it was just an idle thought, a way to pass the time as our wagon lurched and jolted along the rough dirt trail. I’d heard enough stories about our new home on the passage over that I would have sooner tried
I’d heard enough stories about our new home on the passage over that I would have sooner tried my luck at swimming back to Byzantia than brave those woods alone.The magister who’d sentenced me had expected me to be grateful for his great mercy in sparing me from the headsman’s block. As we rode beneath the shadow of trees taller than a temple spire that stretched out their branches like they meant to pluck me from the wagon and devour me, I thought again that it would have been an even greater mercy to just take my head and be done with it. Before Tiberius the Wanderer had made landfall in this accursed place they would have done just that, but the First Colony of the Byzantian Imperium was badly in need of bodies to work her fields and various labors if the mother city wished to continue receiving the wealth it had come to rely on.
When Tiberius’ ships had returned with holds filled with riches and word of a new world ripe with fresh opportunities and land for the taking, volunteers had rushed to the docks in the thousands, but the next fleet of ships to return from Farshore brought the whole truth with them, inconceivable though it might have been.
Mythics. Creatures from the ancient legends had swarmed out of the shadows to kill and raid. The sailors spoke of Elves in the forests and Dwarven raiders prowling the seas in great warships, of bestial Orcs roaming the western plains, and feral Halflings who swarmed through the jungles of the south in search of victims for their strange blood rites. Worse monsters still were said to prowl through forests and lurk within caves, ready to pounce on the soft, foolish creatures who had come to their shores so unaware of its dangers.
Every child knew the old stories of brave heroes sent by the Divines to battle the inhuman menace that had once plagued humankind and kept us trembling within our walls at night in the distant past. One of the first lessons Sister Gizella taught me was of the Grand Crusade, when the legions of First Emperor Alexius had swept the last of the mythic creatures into the sea, but I had always assumed that her lessons were no more real than the tales of Chressus and Partho.
Some claimed the sailors’ tales were nothing more than sun-addled madness, but the death rolls posted in the marketplace soon had others thinking twice. It wasn’t long before the supply of volunteers dried up. It had begun to look like Farshore colony would have to be abandoned, no matter how rich her forests and mines might be, until some genius in the imperial court hit on the idea of sending those convicted of less serious crimes in their stead.
Farshore had already celebrated its sixtieth year by the time I came of age, and the passage of sailing ships leaving Byzantia’s docks loaded with prisoners or returning with holds filled with fresh timber, gold and silver ore, furs, and other goods had become a regular occurrence. Now here I sat, rolling along in a wagon like a sow led to slaughter, and trying hard not to jump at every cry and rustle from beyond the forest’s edge.
We endured the rest of the ride in silence. Our wagons made poor time, and by my guess the minutes had stretched to nearly an hour. Just as I’d begun to wonder if Farshore colony was as much a drunken sailor’s tale as the mythics I’d yet to catch sight of our wagon crested the hill we’d been climbing and broke through the trees to give me my first good look at the city filling the valley below.
I t wasn’t much to look at. You could have tucked the whole lot of it into Byzantia’s east end with room left over. But the sight of straight walls, sloping rooftops, and other evidence of human habitation in this strange and wild land sent a warm comfort through my bones.
Our wagon wound down the dusty road, and as the city grew closer, I saw that even though it was somewhat smaller than I’d expected it was well built. Buildings of wood and stone, some boasting three stories and more, crowded together behind a sturdy wooden wall lined with watch towers. The flag of the Imperium, five golden stars on a field of red, snapped in the breeze atop each of the towers, a defiant spot of color within the endless expanse of muted greens and browns that surrounded it. The sun was beginning to set behind the mountains to the west, and as we wound our way through the valley the glow of lanterns, candles, and tavern fires flickered to life throughout the city.
As we approached the wall, the driver of the lead wagon shouted up at the soldiers standing watch atop the gate, and soon the heavy wooden doors rolled open to allow us to enter. We rumbled through the yawning doorway, and then the gate crashed shut behind me like a portal to the seven hells.
My first sight of Farshore’s streets felt oddly familiar. With rooftops and awnings to block the view of the wild lands beyond the walls you could almost believe you rode through any other Byzantian city of moderate size and means. Bakeries and taverns, clothing shops and houses of exchange all lined the streets, with the windows of the homes and apartments above them standing open to let in the fresh air and sunlight. Buckets were thrust out to dump the evening’s wash water and stronger waste into the street below. Men and women went about their evening business, most giving our wagon only a brief passing glance. I even spotted a few street urchins and stray dogs, though far fewer of both than I was used to seeing in a city.
But in many ways those similarities only made the differences stand out even stronger. For one thing, the clothing here was a strange sight. It was heavier and more practical than the light, colorful garments that filled Byzantia’s streets. The voices that I heard calling to one another from shop windows and across plazas all rang with a strange accent as well. They all spoke Byzantian, but their tones were short and guttural one minute, fluid and musical the next, and I heard a number of unfamiliar words mixed into their speech.
We rode past one shop whose sign I didn’t recognize, a rounded glass beaker filled with a bubbling green liquid. I glanced through the door and caught sight of jars filled with eyes, tails, teeth, and worse lining the shelves within, and the strange odor that flooded my nose as we rolled past nearly sent my lunch up into my throat.
Then we took a turn down a new street and things got truly strange.
A smaller wall cut through the city, tracing a straight line from one side of the outer defensive wall to the other to separate one pocket of the city from the rest. Our wagon rumbled past a small gate guarded by two soldiers. The dusk had grown heavier now, but I could still make out shapes moving amongst the streets and buildings beyond the gate, and few of them looked human. Some were no larger than children, but walked alone or in pairs as though they had business to attend to. Some were far, far too large, with hulking shoulders and long, thick legs. One of those shapes stepped into the light that spilled from a window. Its skin was gray, its black hair was long and matted, and I swear I caught sight of a row of pointed yellow teeth curling up over its lips before our wagon rolled past the gate.
The more I saw of Farshore, the more I realized how far from home I truly was. Finally, our rolling tour came to a stop before the steps of the largest building I had seen yet, the local Temple of the Five Divines. Its twin stone spires soared into the air above me, casting their shadows over the nearby rooftops like the wings of a falcon ready to pounce on its prey. The soldiers ushered us out of the wagons and formed us into two lines at the base of the steps.
“Time to see what new life the Divines have in store for us, eh?” The blacksmith who’d ridden next to me in the cart tried to sound jovial, but fear and tension weighed down his words.
The others shuffled their feet, looked up at the buildings around them, and made pointless conversation as they awaited their fate. I kept my mouth shut and my eyes on the ground. They could all accept the hand they’d been dealt without protest if they wished, but not me. I had a plan. Escape at the first chance I got, then beg, borrow, or steal what I needed to book passage on a ship back to the real world. No matter what it took, no matter how long I had to bide my time, I was going to find my way back home.
“Catella Lascari, seamstress, step forward.”
As the guard captain called her name, the woman who’d lectured me during our wagon ride walked around the altar to stand before the temple nave, while those of us who remained stood beneath the feet of the statues of the Five Divines that loomed large on the wall behind us.
Farshore’s Patriari, the legion officers, nobles, and principle citizens of the colony, walked among us with an uncomfortably keen interest. They’d been drawn by the promise of fresh labor for their various enterprises like city dogs circling a butcher’s wagon.
“Thirty-three years of age and convicted of adultery. Sentenced to four years good service. Notable skills include the sewing and mending of garments.”
So much for your lofty piety, madam.
By the way the woman squirmed and kept her eyes fixed on her feet you’d think they’d hauled her out there naked, but holding these proceedings within the temple walls instead of the market square was another one of those mercies the magister had spoken of back in Byzantia. Once our debt was paid, we would become honest citizens once more, and then we might be glad that only two-score others knew of our various sins.
After a short round of bidding, the seamstress was claimed for the barracks by Knight Captain Alexius, a stern-faced man with salt and pepper hair. No doubt his soldiers would thank him for it when they greeted the winter months dressed in new uniforms. Each of those gathered here had been granted a certain degree of credit, determined by their station and the importance of their duties and businesses to the colony, with which to bid for the contracts of the newly arrived convicts.
“Charity of Byzantia, step forward.”
I swallowed hard and moved to stand in the space that the seamstress had just vacated. The Five Divines stared down at my back, while Farshore’s gentry circled around me, and I couldn’t decide which of the two left me more uncomfortable.
“Twenty-one years of age, and convicted of thievery, public drunkenness, resisting of arrest, assault on representatives of the law, licentious and indecent behavior, and blasphemy.” I saw more than a few eyebrows raise as my list of crimes rolled on.
It would have saved us some time if you’d just said “convicted of trying to survive.”
“Sentenced to ten years good service. No known skills or abilities.”
Well, that won’t do.
My list of various offenses already did me no favors, but if the good lords and ladies of Farshore colony thought I had nothing to offer, I’d surely be bound for the fields or a mining outpost before the sun had set.
“That’s not true! I can read and write.”
One of the requirements of continuing to reside with the Daughters of Vesta had been that I attend well to my studies. Their patron was the goddess of wisdom and learning, after all. I’d given them hell for it, of course, but in the end I’d learned what they’d wished to teach me. I’d even come to enjoy those lessons, but if you ever breathe a word of that to Mother Shanti I swear I’ll gut you like a carp.
“I’m familiar with history and the classics, and I’ve a decent head for figures if you don’t rush me overmuch.”
Even in my wildest dreams I doubted that anyone would risk taking on someone with a history like mine as a clerk or bookkeeper, but there was always a slim chance that one of those present was desperate. Very, very desperate.
“A lady thief who reads Porathus and Scytho? Now I have seen everything.”
The gathering chuckled at the joke as a man walked up to give me a more thorough inspection. He was several inches taller than me, heavy set but not exactly fat, and kept his hair and beard well-trimmed to match his fine clothes.
“Governor Caligus,” the guard captain said as he saluted.
So, this is the man himself.
I’d heard of the governor back in Byzantia even before I got nicked. The emperor had sent him to take command of Farshore after the previous governor died of a fever, and he’d done enough to improve the colony’s fortunes and reputation in that time to lead some of the Imperium’s more optimistic citizens to volunteer for the ocean crossing once more. I gritted my teeth and offered him a proper curtsy as he circled around behind me.
“It seems a shame to waste such a delicate young creature on hard labor. Perhaps we can find a better use for your many talents, eh?”
He came to a stop in front of me once again with a smile on his face and a light in his eye that was anything but fatherly.
I’ve never held to any pretense of beauty. My jaw is too square and my hands too rough. I crop my soot-black hair with a dull knife when it’s grown too long, and the one time I got my hands on a box of rouge and blush I sold it to the first corner doxy I could find for a pouch of coppers and a decent meal. But although I wasn’t born beautiful, neither was I blessed with enough ugliness to keep men’s eyes away from me completely. I have legs, breasts, and breath in my lungs, and I’ve found that for most men that’s more than enough to attract their unwanted attentions.
“What say you, girl? Wouldn’t you like to come work for me? I assure you that employment in my household comes with all manner of…benefits.”
I knew how this worked. Now that he’d shown interest none of the others would dare to bid for me even if they’d wanted to. I felt a cold chill crawl its way up my spine, but I gave him my best smile to show him that I still had all my teeth. He leaned forward for a closer look.
As soon as he’d come close enough, I drove my knee between his legs as hard as I could. I may be many things, but I’m nobody’s whore.
The governor collapsed to his knees, clutching his privates and gasping for air as the gathered gentry erupted in a mixture of startled gasps and hearty laughter. “Come near me again and I’ll take your bits clean off, you shit eating bastard.”
I went for his face, but the guard captain caught my wrists and pinned my arms behind my back.
“Aaaaaagh!” The governor finally found his voice, sounding for all the world like a zitar with its strings stretched to breaking. I knew I was about to pay for my moment of defiance, but I would rather endure a whole lifetime of digging in a mine than ten years as a bed slave. “Take this demon to the arena pits!”
Double shit. I didn’t think of that.
Despite Farshore’s strangeness, it seemed that a fondness for arena games was one of the few legacies of the old world that had survived the time and distance intact. In Byzantia the crowds loved few things more than a contest of arms to honor the Divines, especially one that ended in blood.
I was rather partial to the arena myself. Its crowded stands had always proved a ready source of unguarded pockets to pick, but the thought of being the one to stand out there on the arena sand while the crowd screamed for my death drained all the strength from my legs.
The guard captain hauled me away, twisting my shoulder in its socket with a shock of pain as he marched me towards the door. I saw no pity in the faces of those who watched my departure, only varying degrees of anger, disgust, and cold calculation, as those with a fondness for gambling tried to decide their wagers on how long I’d last. I doubted many of them felt inclined to wager in my favor, and at that moment neither did I.