Sachiin saw glittering colours as the back of his skull struck stone with the force of his own weight. His assailant added her mass to the blow, leaping on him from their portantina into the narrow street with her hands around his throat. Her robe gown, heavy with cloth-of-gold and blackwork roses, almost obscured him from the startled slaves who had set their chair down at the first sign of a struggle within. Keeping him pinned, the woman swung the silver pomander from the chain about her fist and brought it down on Sachiin’s face, stoving the filigree on his brow. It clattered away across the paving and fell against her skirts when she climbed to her feet. With a white hand she attended to the black hair that had escaped the gauze beneath her hood, turning a face to him that was, for all the amendments imposed by gender, hauntingly akin to his own until its customary expression returned.
“Get up.” she sneered, stepping back into a puddle that had its origin in the oozing, groaning stories of the tenement behind them, her painted slippers soaked to their heels.
Abandoning their posts, his Sudanese bearers came to rouse Sachiin amid his apathy and reluctance, and he sat down upon the broken stone. His assailant leant forward and seized a handful of his hair, staring into his eyes.
“It does not please me to punish you, but if I do not have your devotion, be sure I will have your obedience. Speak to me again in that manner and I will gut your beasts, and you will walk.” The bearers she referred to stepped back as she turned, bowing her head to pass beneath the door of the chair into the shadowed luxury of its interior. Sachiin took the seat before her slowly, pressing the sleeve of his tunic to the wound opened on his brow. Their ride tilted briefly sideways and their journey through the filthy quarter recommenced.
Women and numberless children stared down on them through the woodwork of its sagging balconies, their harrowed faces telling of flight from pestilence and banditry into the Florentine slums. In their despair they had taken on the colours of their surroundings, shifts and leggings stained to a few dull shades of feculent dun and ashy brown, their skin the hue of stale fish-flesh. The woman in the portantina watched them from its tasseled door.
“My only wish is that the Pest would take them all and be good enough to burn the leavings.” A weighty pendant set with pearls hung from the pale fur of her collar. “Why do you wear these Syrian rags? Must you always bring the desert with you?” she muttered, raising the pomander to her nose as she regarded his simple attire.
“I was content there.” said Sachiin quietly.
“You are content there because you can debase yourself in feckless disorder and the blood of these creatures with your worthless brother. Such profanities are good enough for him, because he is profane and no better than that which he slaughters... you are my āmrta, and when you shame yourself, you address that infamy to me.”
"It is as honest a trade as wedding close-bred dotards and cheating their heirs." She leant forward as though to clout him again. “You can not hope to dispose of many more before the rest bolt from their stalls.” he murmured, unrepentant.
Her serpentine composure returned.
“How vulgar of you.” She took up her pendant and touched it to her chin. “Why should I not have as many husbands as I deem necessary to my comfort? There is none born I shall not outlive... save for you, my love... though you vex me.” The woman lay back her skirts to rest the sole of her foot against his stomach, eyes shining in the sunlight reflected by the ditch streams. Her lips drew back in a black smile. “It vexes me also that your brother did not keep to the Levant, where his conduct is of no account. What choice do I have now but to go to Bamberg and attend to this latest scandal of his? And I detest the Allemands."
"Rana, whatever you have heard, I do not think it true..."
"The Paris dralna speak of nothing but Kala'amātya and his dread, snake-swallowing sorceress... and what leaves their lips flies on black wings from Calais to Bukhara.” she smirked.
“If he has found someone able to abide him, what can that be to you?”
She grinned again, eyes almost as wide and as glossy as her pointed teeth.
“It is to me as our union is to him... repugnant. Intolerable.” She flicked her hand at him in an impulsive gesture that caused the heavy rings encircling her fingers to clatter against each other. “And do not think yourself clear of it... the dralna are enraged that he has wandered, and where there are slighted witches there are brothers and husbands to hear of nothing else, by day or night... you’ll find no wolves to run away to war.”
Sachiin closed his eyes and lost himself in the slow, undulous rhythm of their progress, escaping the sight of her for as long as he dared.
“If he is happy, I care nothing about it.”
“Happiness is not his due.”
“Is not the Church burning dralna and baelna alike in the north?” he suggested wearily.
“What of it?”
“Leave Kala'amātya’s witch to the fires.”
“I would no more neglect to wound your brother than he would pass the chance to strike at me.”
“How must you look to the inquisitors?" he muttered. Rana’s hand shrunk into a fist once more.
The tight-waisted lanes opened into a flagged piazza crowded with merchants' tables. Satin blue flies swarmed over the carcasses of quartered sheep and pigs depending over the butchers’ stalls; wattled fowl peered from tiny osier cages, their canine guardians slavering over bones beneath blood-soaked oaken trestles, belled collars ringing as their jaws worked. The day heated the windless square to a close turn, lifting its perfumes and fetors into lolling strata, the scents of wine jars and strewing herbs, offal, oils and fulled hides wedding the stench of tunics and breeches rank with the leavings of forgotten meals and sweating trysts. Mounded wastes cast from the kitchens and ordure pots of the dwellings lining the square lay heaped on either side of it. The bearers paused together and set down their burden, debating the most efficient route. Inside the portantina Rana received his desultory rhetoric with a look that Sachiin knew too well.
“In all my time beneath the clouds I have looked upon your brother even in his absence. I see his wickedness inside you, hear his evil spilling from your mouth... in Egypt he is too close, in Samarkand, and in Germania he is too near to me...” she assured him. “Which of us would you choose, Sachiin, if the choice were yours to make?” He sat without moving while she slid forward into his lap, lowering her head and stroking his throat with her tongue.
“By tormenting him, you make it a simple matter.” he told her while she pushed a hand between his legs.
“If Kala'amātya does not wish to be tormented, he may go into the sea and leave no choice to trouble you.”
Dragging himself free, he threw back the green drapes and stepped down onto the flags, sending the bearers back to his villa before committing himself to the crowd. Rana scowled over its heads while it pushed by her. Behind her, the broad and sun-browned face of a Cypriot cloth dealer assumed its most ingratiating smile and invited her in gallant terms to examine his stock, purveyed from India and beyond the Black Sea. On the table a loom-width bolt of heavy abr silk unfurled before her like the banner of some magnanimous divinity, soaked in blurry parrot green, nectar-pink and matchless, dizzying blues that crossed each other in the weave, married into lavish cyan and warm, drowned purple.
“Lovely enough for you.” the man assured her. Without replying she began to wind it from his grasp, defeating his polite attempt to arrest the process. Rana turned from him, put back her hood and examined the cloth against the sky, seeking out its flaws, its glowing colours cast upon her face.
The trader frowned and extended a hand to prompt the return of his merchandise. When she did not concede it, he turned toward those fellows who might stand witness to the contumely and they came from behind their tables, wearing rough coercive grins as they jostled her, attempting to wrest the fabric from her grasp. The smell of cloves puffed from the spice dealers’ sleeves as they joined the fracas. A fist caught the neck of her gown and she seized its wrist, allowing her grasp to slide along the captured hand until the pressure she exerted began to crush it, splitting the binding gristle and pushing glistening splinters of bone through the back of its palm. Its owner bawled, eyes huge inside his head, his spittle striking her face, and in reply she bared her teeth and wrenched his arm through a sudden, violent orbit that snapped its most protracted bones against each other. In the face of his breathless screams she left him to fall against his astonished companions.
Rana walked into the crowd with the silk wrapped beneath her arm, finding Sachiin and treating him to her gleaming look of exultation. Without a word to her he drew her swiftly after him, weaving amid the stalls and tables toward the edge of the square, where he pulled her into a sunless walk between two tenements.
“Will we buy passage north or ride alone?” she sighed, draping the abr around her long neck and stroking it against herself. “The hour I put your brother's witch into the ground may be the one he comes to know he cannot best me, and crawls away into the sea... and in this great work, Sachiin, I do desire to leave directly.” she added, walking to the end of the way and stepping out across a little rivulet of bloodied water flowing from the butchers’ quarter.
“I cannot leave without attending to my house.”
“There is no need.” she told him. He stared at her, then lifted his hands and pressed them to his eyes and whispered to himself. Rana smiled at his dismay. “This morning I discharged your people in your stead...” she related, as though blameless. Sachiin took his hands away and looked at her. “Your chamber whores were discourteous to me... they were like to have perished in this pestilence at any count.” The sight of him raised in her a dark appreciation of the futility sucking at his limbs and vessels like a thousand gnawing mouths, inducting cold inertia like a venom. “Save your despair for your brother, you faithless wretch, since I believe you fond of him.”
C O N T I N U E D N E X T W E E K
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