Ghosts of the Old City: An Evening with Zahra

Working on a long-form essay about leaving academia and flailing along at Camp NaNoWriMo have eaten up my writing time this week. In lieu of a proper post, here’s another excerpt from Ghosts of the Old City

Above Zahra’s head and beyond the carefully crooked alleys of Old Sakurdrilen, the three lights burned. Within the walls, though, the city sang a darker tune as the last wisps of day fled the sky. Oh, the coffee houses and restaurants were safe enough. Little troubled the grounds of the University or the neighboring offices of government and business. But outside, on the streets, Old Sakurdrilen crawled with all that hid from the sun. Prostitutes and pickpockets, fortune tellers and cut-rate alchemists…if you could not find what you wanted—for some price—on the night streets of the old city, it was not worth having.

This is what they don’t understand. Zahra thought. This is why I dare the Owls. And why I’ve no coin to pay them off. At night, she danced over walls, through locked doors. She played tunes with her picks and knives and made and lost fortunes by morning. Zahra prowled Eelsward. There would be time for adventure later. For now, the wine in her stomach desperately wanted company. Rolen would have food. He might even have a story to send the evening forward.

Her brother’s shop was half underground. The upper floor was filled with curios and oddities, sailors’ talismans and relics collected from around the world. The heart of Rolen’s business, though, was in the basement. People left their names upstairs and their coin below, or traded valuable nothings for heavier purses. The basement smelled alternately of hot metal and exotic incense. Rolen kept the lights dim. Even if he hadn’t been her brother, he still would have been Zahra’s favorite shifter.

“Good evening, miss. Rolen’s downstairs.”

Zahra nodded curtly and headed downstairs. She didn’t like her brother’s taste in women, nor that he tended to leave them in charge of the shop whenever he was conducting more serious business below.

“Rolen! What have you got to eat?”

Rolen grunted and set down his tiny pliers. “Hello, sister dear. You got the gig, I take it?”

“Is it that obvious?” Rolen nodded his reply. Zahra relented. “Yes, yes. We got the gig. And he paid half up front. It is a fine night to be alive. But what have you got to eat?”

“Half a roasted chicken, what’s left of this morning’s bread, and some carrots.” But Zahra had already spotted it on the table behind the workbench. She casually vaulted the bench to rip a leg off the chicken. “Help yourself.”

Zahra swallowed and grinned. “Thanks. How’s business?”

“Slow. But that’s not a bad thing, you know. Not all the time. The Watch has been pushy lately. I don’t mind the quiet. It gives me a chance to spread some money around where it won’t bother them.”

“Alyn tried to talk you into investing again?”

“When doesn’t he? But he knows better than to push it. If I wanted that life, I would just take it. I can be happy Alyn is succeeding without wanting to be him. I don’t know if he’s ever understood that.”

“It wasn’t always like that.”

“We’re not ten anymore, Zahra. I don’t need him to be the fastest, strongest, smartest brother ever.”

“You left out ‘most honest.’”

“Pfeh. That, he can keep.” Rolen picked the pliers back up and resumed removing the jewels from a necklace. “I thought you’d be out with Talu and Pavon.”

“Pavon and Talu,” Zahra said, “are busy becoming a couple. They don’t need me along. Besides, can’t you smell the city tonight? They would not come out with me.”

“All I smell is my food that you’re eating. Like I said, it’s been quiet. Even for the Owls, I hear.”

“Don’t tell me about them. They—“

“You can’t just laugh them off, Zahra. They’ll kill you if you push them too far. Don’t think they won’t.”

“I don’t want to join their stupid club.”

Rolen plucked an emerald out of its setting and placed it in small dish. “They don’t care what you want. They care what you do. It might not be so bad. They have a lot of, ah, resources. Kit and tricks you don’t know. Why do you push against it so hard?”

Zahra’s answer was quiet. “They’d make me quit playing. Dad wouldn’t want that. And mom wouldn’t want me to be involved in any of this stuff in the first place.”

“If this Toja gig opens the right doors for you, do you think you’ll stop?”

“A night like this, and you ask me that? You’re such an ass.”

“I mean it! You can’t have a foot in the day and a foot in the night. Not here. You have to fall one way or the other, and nobody’s going to be there to catch you.”

“You work your shop in the day.” Zahra retorted.

Rolen shook his head. “I keep up appearances. It’s not the same thing.”

“Nobody’s caught me yet!”

“You think I didn’t hear what happened? I get Owls down here sometimes.”

Zahra somehow turned biting a carrot into a defiant gesture. “So?”

“So give me some credit. You have to either get out of the old city or pick a side.”

“What I need is a score for tonight.”

Rolen sighed. “We’re not done with this conversation.”

“Well?”

“Milliner at the center of Lec. Gold buckles, gold leaf. Morsi lace.”

“For hats?”

“Who knows what the gentry’s wearing this season? It came up from the harbor this afternoon. Easy stuff to shift, but I can’t give you too much for it unless you take the whole lot.”

“How much?”

“To sell? I’ll make it an orb an ounce. Half-groat a yard for the lace—not much market for that.”

“That’s the best you can do?”

“I hear he bought new locks to go with the shipment. He’s worried about the Owls.”

Zahra pulled a stool to Rolen’s bench. “How new?”

“Parukhi. That’s all I know. My tip didn’t say anything else about the locks, just the valuables.”

“Useless! They could be almost anything.”

Rolen grinned. “The owner got new locks. Because he worries about the Owls. That isn’t enough for you? That is not the action of somebody who means to cheap out.”

“You think they’re good ones?”

“I’m sure they’re good ones.”

Zahra bounced to her feet. “Fine, then. You’re sure?”

“God’s breath, Zahra! Yes. Yes, I’m sure. Go see if you can pick them already.”

Zahra gave her brother a peck on the cheek. “Thanks. For the food, I mean. I’ll see you before sunup.”

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