Glenda Larke: The Last Stormlord

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Glenda Larke The Last Stormlord
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    The Last Stormlord
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Glenda Larke

The Last Stormlord




Scarpen Quarter Scarcleft City Opal's Snuggery, Level 32

It was the last night of her childhood.

Terelle, unknowing, thought it just another busy evening in Opal's Snuggery, crowded and noisy and hot. Rooms were hazed with the fumes from the keproot pipes of the addicted and fuggy with the smell of the resins smouldering in the censers. Smoky blue tendrils curled through the archways, encouraging a lively lack of restraint as they drifted through the air.

Everything as usual.

Terelle's job was to collect the dirty plates and mugs and return them to the kitchen, in an endless round from sunset until the dark dissolved under the first cold fingering of a desert dawn.

Her desire was to be unnoticed at the task.

Her dream was to escape her future as one of Madam Opal's girls.

Once she'd thought the snuggery a happy place, the outer courtyard always alive with boisterous chatter and laughter as friends met on entry, the reception rooms bustling with servants fetching food from the kitchens or amber from the barrels in the cellar, the stairs cluttered with handmaidens as they giggled and flirted and smiled, arm in arm with their clients. She'd thought the snuggery's inhabitants lived each night adrift on laughter and joy and friendship. But she had only been seven then, and newly purchased. She was twelve now, old enough to realise the laughter and the smiles and the banter were part of a larger game, and what underlay it was much sadder. She still didn't understand everything, not really, even though she knew now what went on between the customers and women like her half-sister, Vivie, in the upstairs rooms.

She knew enough to see the joy was a sham.

She knew enough to know she didn't want any part of it.

And so she scurried through the reception rooms with her laden tray, hugging the walls on her way to the kitchen. A drab girl with brown tunic, brown skin, brown hair so dark it had the rich depth of rubies, a timid pebblemouse on its way back to its lair with a pouch-load of detritus to pile around its burrow entrance, hoping to keep a hostile world at bay. She kept her gaze downcast, instinctively aware that her eyes, green and intelligent, told another story.

The hours blurred into one another. Laughter devoid of subtlety drowned out the lute player's strumming; vulgar banter suffocated the soft-sung words of love. As the night wore on, Scarcleft society lost its refinement just as surely as the desert night lost its chill in the packed reception rooms.

Out of the corner of her eye, Terelle noted Vivie flirting with one of the younger customers. The man had a sweet smile, but he was no more than an itinerant seller of scent, a street peddler. Madam Opal wanted Vivie to pay attention to Kade the waterlender instead, Kade who was fat and had hair growing out of his nose. He'd come all the way downhill from the twentieth level of the city because he fancied the Gibber woman he knew as Viviandra.

Behind the peddler's slender back, Terelle made a face at Vivie to convey her opinion of her sister's folly with the peddler, then scurried on.

Back in the main reception room a few moments later, she heard nervous laughter at one of the tables. A man was drunk and he'd lost some sort of wager. He wasn't happy and his raised voice had a mean edge to it.

Trouble, she thought. Rosscar, the oil merchant's son. His temper was well known in the snuggery. He was jabbing stiffened fingertips at the shoulder of one of his companions. As she gathered mugs onto her tray, Terelle overheard his angry accusation: "You squeezed the beetle too hard!" He waved his mug under the winner's nose and slopped amber everywhere. "Cheat, you are, Merch Putter-"

Hurriedly one of the handmaidens stepped in and led him away, giggling and stroking his arm.

Poor Diomie, Terelle thought as she wiped the stickiness of the alcohol from the agate inlay of the stone floor. He'll take it out on her. And all over a silly wager on how high a click beetle can jump. As she rose wearily to her feet, her gaze met the intense stare of a Scarperman. He sat alone, a hungry-eyed, hawk-nosed man dressed in a blue tunic embroidered with the badge of the pedemen's guild.

"This is empty," he growled at her, indicating the brass censer in the corner of the room. "Get some more resin for it, girl, and sharp about it. You shouldn't need to be told."

She ducked her head so that her hair fell across her face and mumbled an apology. Using her laden tray as a buffer, she headed once more for the safety of the kitchens, thinking she could feel those predatory eyes sliding across her back as she went. She didn't return to replenish the censer; she sent one of the kitchen boys instead.

Half the run of a sandglass later, she saw Vivie and Kade the fat waterlender heading upstairs, Madam Opal nodding her approval as she watched. The sweet-smiling, sweet-smelling peddler was nowhere in evidence. Terelle snorted. Vivie had sand for brains if she'd thought Opal would allow her to dally with a scent seller when there was a waterlending upleveller around. A waterlender, any waterlender, was richer than Terelle could even begin to imagine, and there was nothing Opal liked better than a rich customer.

Terelle stacked another tray and hurried on.

Some time later the bell in Viviandra's room was ringing down in the kitchen, and Madam Opal sent Terelle up to see what was needed. When she entered the bedroom, Vivie was reclining on her divan, still dressed. The waterlender was not there.

"Where's the merch?" Terelle asked.

"In the water-room," Vivie said and giggled. "Sick as a sand-flea that's lost its pede. Drank too much, I suspect. I was bored, so I rang down to the kitchen. Now you can have a rest, too." She patted the divan and flicked her long black hair over her shoulder. "And Kade's not a merchant, you know. He lends people water tokens. Which means you should address him as Broker Kade. Terelle, you have to learn that sort of thing. It's important. Keeps the customers happy."

"Vivie, if Opal catches us doing nothing, she'll be spitting sparks."

"Don't call me Vivie! You know I hate it. It's not a proper name for a Scarpen snuggery girl."

"It's your name. And you're not Scarpen. You're Gibber, like me."

"Not any more. Opal's right when she says 'Viviandra' has class and 'Vivie' doesn't. And why shouldn't we be lazy occasionally? I deserve a rest! You think it's easy pandering to the tastes of the men who come here? You'll find out when your turn comes."

"I'm not going to be a handmaiden," Terelle said. "I'm going to be an arta. A dancer, like the great Arta Amethyst. In fact, I am going to be greater than Amethyst." To demonstrate her skill, she bounced to her feet, undulated her hips in a slow figure of eight and then did the splits.

Vivie groaned. "You are such a child! You won't have any choice in the matter, you know. Why in all the Sweepings do you think Madam Opal paid Pa for the two of us? So as you could be a dancer? Not weeping likely!"

All hope vanished as Terelle glimpsed the darkness of her future, crouching in wait just around a corner not too far away. "Oh, Vivie! What sort of handmaiden would I make? Look at me!"

She hadn't meant to be literal, but Vivie sat up and ran a critical gaze over her. "Well," she said, "it's true that you're nothing much to look at right now. But you're only twelve. That will change. Look at how scrawny Diomie was when she first came! And now…" She sketched curves with her hands. "That jeweller from Level Nine called her luscious last night. A plum for the picking, he said."

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