Gandras, as seen through the eyes of anyone in this world, is a grand city. I mean in scale, not in beauty or the quality of its culture. No, the place is an absolute dump.
But through the eyes of a twelve-year-old boy who had never seen a town bigger than Krantz at a measly six or seven thousand people, well, the place was just gods-damned enormous. I remember being able to see the bloody walls almost as soon as we left Krantz, and that was a solid seven miles upriver.
We approached from the north, through the fruit country. The plains around Gandras are said to be some of the most fertile in the world, and I’ll believe it, as there is so much wine and cider produced in the city that the stuff is more common than piss—even the good stuff. Hell, one can pick up an exquisite brandy in the city for less than it costs to pay a beggar boy to shine your shoes!
At any rate, so massive and so famous is Gandras’ fruit production that even the fields outside the city have names, and one can generally tell a wine produced from grapes of Abalni from the wines of Obolon.
As for Gandras itself, an entire district is devoted to wine and cider and brandy production. That would be Arisi.
A word on the city, for posterity of course, as I’m sure any damned fool reading this drivel within a few years of the telling would know the layout of the city and some of its history: Gandras, and more specifically Samye Canton, was a free city until about ninety years ago. When I first arrived in Gandras, Samye had only been under Concord control for less than seventy, and the city bore all the sanitizing marks of an invasion.
Saint Zoran was said to have come from Gandras originally, and, having met with derision for his ideas, had found his way to Pruvykhu only after many years of wandering. It came as little surprise to anyone then that the Concord’s Inquisitors had been especially hard on the city after the conquest, with their renaming of everything remotely pagan being the least of the city’s troubles.
As it was, the seven districts of Gandras were renamed, each for one of the seven faces of the Concord’s faceless god—seven faces that are, of course, taken from the original seven pagan gods to begin with. Ironic how history works.
There’s Mealdesi, named for the Lord of Life, and the headquarters of the Concord’s government in Samye Canton. The Piliakilnis fortress in Mealdesi is probably older than Pruvykhu, but that hasn’t stopped the Concord whitewashing its walls and removing all trace of Samye’s past from its grounds, replacing centuries-old statues and tapestries with freshly sanitized marble images of Saint Zoran. The district, like each of the seven, is entirely walled in, a remnant of the slow expansion of Gandras.
Danguskis, named for the Lord of the Sun, is the northernmost district and also the home of the city’s barracks. It was through the north gate of Danguskis that Damek and I entered the city.
Arisi, as I’ve said, was the center of the city’s wine, cider, and brandy production, and is named for the Lady of Growing Things.
Wundantis, named for the Lord of Waters, is the second oldest district of the city behind Mealdesi. It is also the heart of the city’s religion, with temples to each of the seven faces of god to be found in the district’s Alkankort square. It is also the home of the majority of Samye Canton’s minor secular nobility, as the petty bans all wish to be seen as close to the god of the new religion.
Mijlantis is at the heart of the city, fitting for a district named after the Lady of Love. It is also the home of the Inquisition’s Augandwars fortress, built atop the hill that is Gandras’ highest point. Ironic bastards.
Pannosi is the southernmost district of the seven and named for the Lord of Fire. It is the city’s primary market district and the home of some of the wealthiest bastards in all Samye Canton.
Finally, there is Goliskis, named for the Lady of Death. It is there that all the worst sorts of this world congregate, in the place where only the Lady Golis cares for them. It is interesting to note that the Gurinsikort, the pauper’s region, is located in Goliskis’ western edges, hard up against the Pannosi fat cats. Also of note is the presence of some twelve theatres in Goliskis. Acting is hardly an honorable trade, after all.
And that is the craphole called Gandras, and Damek and I stepped into that turd early in the afternoon of an autumn day that is impressed on my memory like a hot iron on a cow’s arse.
I spent a long time gawking at everything I saw, at the cramped spaces, at the masses of people, at the size of the buildings. Eventually, Damek had to pull me aside down an alleyway and beat some sense into me.
“Focus, you little pisspot,” he growled. “You can’t walk around drawing so much gods damned attention to us. We’re in Danguskis, gods damn it, and if one of those Concord hard-arses pays us any sort of attention, it’s off to the pauper’s prison for us. In this city, the less you stand out, the more you fit in. Get it?”
“What’s that suppo—”
“Do you get it?” Damek snapped, slapping me upside the head. “No more questions until we reach Goliskis. Now, act like a blind man’s aid and lead me proper!”
I took his old, leathery hand and led him back into the busy Danguskis streets. People jostled us, caring little for the fact that Damek was blind and I a small boy. The city, as I was quickly learning, had little regard for the weak and infirm. There was a place for such people, and it was located in a small corner of Goliskis called the Gurinsikort.
It took us nearly half a watch before we managed to find our way to Arisi. As we passed by the large factories and distillation plants, Damek said, “If you ever need to get well and truly pissed, lad, you come here. There are corrupt bastards everywhere who’ll pass you a glass of fine wine for a song. This entire district is controlled by the Concord now. Used to be that the city’s liquor production was a private operation, one of the few truly private industries in the world, but that’s well and truly passed. But the thing is that most of the men and women who work here are the sons and grandsons of the men and women who worked here before the Concord arrived, and they remember what life was like before Saint Zoran’s monsters took over everything. As I said, you’ll find plenty of bastards in here willing to give wine away by the bottle just to screw their new masters.”
“Then why aren’t there more people walking about pissed out of their minds?” I asked, noting the surprising absence of drunkards.
“Just you wait until nightfall,” Damek replied. “There’ll be so many drunks in Arisi that the garrison of Danguskis chooses instead of lock the district gates rather than try to police the damned place.”
“That bad, huh?”
“Worse. And if you’re lucky, you’ll get to see it all in action at some point.” He yanked hard on my arm. “But not now. Now, we have to get going, find us a place to sleep for the night. The sidewalk fills up pretty quickly in Goliskis, and the alleys ain’t safe enough to crap in after dark. But I know just the place for two enterprising bastards such as ourselves.”
“Sounds lovely,” I muttered as I continued to lead Damek through the wine district.
Gandras is a curious place in its layout. There is little that makes sense about it, and that is probably because it was built gradually over a period of many centuries. For example, despite the fact that Goliskis and Arisi share a wall, there is no gate from one district into the other because there was no city gate along that stretch of wall when Arisi, the older district, was originally added to Gandras. Instead, if you want to get from the wine district to the theatres, you have two options: either you enter Wundantis and then cut through Mijlantis—which is an option that appeals only to the clinically insane, given that it takes you directly past the Augandwars—or you can travel the length of Wundantis and then circle through Pannosi, which is the direction we took.
I can’t say much for Pannosi—or won’t for now—but as we passed into Goliskis, it seemed as though we had stepped into a different world altogether. I stumbled to a halt, and Damek tugged his hand free of mine to give me a moment.
“Looks like hell, doesn’t it, boy?” the old man said, his voice tinged with an odd emotion.
I turned my head to look at him. “How do you know?” I said. “You’re blind.”
“But I wasn’t always. I’ve told you as much before, though it’s damned clear you’ve got wool in that head of yours and not a single measure of brains. Damn it, boy! This place has always been a dump. But, gods, if it ain’t home to the best of us!”
“Home?” I asked.
“Spent many a night in these gutters, lad. But tonight, well, tonight I introduce you to the finest establishment in Crapville. Tomorrow will be early enough to begin teaching you how to make a living, as per your mother’s wishes.”
“That bitch!” I said, half angrily, half gratefully. Truth was, I hated her gods damned guts for sending me into a place like the Gurinsikort of Goliskis. “Well, damn,” I muttered moments later. “Let’s get the hell on with the rest of my life.”
“The most sensible thing you’ve said since we met,” Damek replied. “Now, lead me down this main road until we come to the third street on your left. You know which one your left is?”
“Of course,” I snapped. “I’m not a damned idiot.”
“But you do a hell of an impression of one,” Damek replied. “So humor me.”
I took his left hand and said, “This is left.”
“That’s your right, moron.”
“Your left, grandpa.”
My skull ached for a long while after he cracked good me with his walking stick—doing so openly now that we were in the one part of the city that the Inquisition seemed determined to leave alone to rot, the one part of the city where nobody gives a damn about anything. Gods, but I’ve seen rape happen in the middle of the streets of the Gurinsikort and not a single damned soul stopped, no one gave any indication that something untoward was taking place. They’re a hard bunch of bastards in that part of the world, let me tell you.
“Fine,” Damek noted after he’d cracked me one. “You know which left is. Well, you take the third left and then the second right. Our home for the night will be the first door on the right once we round that corner. Think you got that, puss-for-brains?”
“There wouldn’t happen to be a sodding pole or two along the way I could lead you into, would there?” I asked hopefully.
“Keep that up, and you’ll be wearing my stick up your own arse before the night’s through.”
I took him by the hand and proceeded to guide Damek through the streets of Goliskis. Dark faces, furled in shadow, gazed at us from doorways and out of windows. The sun was creeping down into the west with the onset of night, and all sorts of bastards were preparing themselves for an evening of drinking, sin, and crime.
I managed to lead Damek straight to the home he’d mentioned, and the old bastard raised his stick and rapped three times on the solid wooden door. When I say “solid,” I mean the thing was built like a door on a gods-damned fortress. The wood must’ve been eight inches thick if it were an inch, and the lock and hinges looked like they could withstand a right battering.
I asked Damek about it, and he said, “Lady Alzeta has had some trouble in the past with undesirables. Keeps the place bolted up like a citadel to deter any more, and she has faithful friends who’ll knock the crap out of anyone who tries.”
“Sounds like a charming woman,” I said ironically.
“And you’d better damned remember it, too, you mouthy little prick! Lady Alzeta is the best friend you’re likely ever to have in this world—after myself, of course.” He paused, waiting for a response, then repeated, “Of course!”
I cleared my throat. “Of course, of course,” I said quickly, then muttered, “Bastard!” beneath my breath.
“Call me what you like,” Damek said with a smirk on his face, “but I’ve raped you about a hundred times less than any other bastard in my position would have.”
“But you haven’t…oh!” I said slowly.
Just then, a small wooden slat in the door pulled back and a pair of ancient eyes peaked out at us. I saw the eyes widen momentarily, and then the slat slammed shut and the bolt was drawn back.
An ancient crone who could make a cow’s arse look beautiful stood in the doorway, studying the two of us. “Damek, you son of a bitch,” she croaked.
“Right back at you, Lady Alzeta,” Damek exclaimed, throwing open his arms to her.
She cackled as she received his embrace. “Good to see you, you old bastard. Come in, come in. Who’s the runt?”
“This is Rio,” my master replied. “Dumbest bastard in all Samye Canton, but he’s got a pair of eyes, so why the hell should I complain?”
Lady Alzeta ruffled my hair affectionately. “Welcome, little Rio. Doesn’t look half bad,” she said to Damek, as she shut the heavy door behind me.
“Only picked him up a few weeks ago. Mother got chased off by the Inquisition.”
“He’s the one, eh? Poor bastard. Still, adds one more who’ll be there when the revolution finally comes.”
“Like hell it will. Inquisition and the Concord have us clamped tighter than a duck’s backside—”
“And that’s watertight!” I said, finishing off one of Damek’s sayings that I’d heard a thousand times already.
The old man glared at me for the interruption, but Lady Alzeta giggled—or, rather, cackled, as I don’t think her throat was capable of much else—and said, “My, but he’s got a mouth on him and not afraid to speak!”
“Damned annoying if you ask me,” Damek said. “Now, is anyone else in?”
“Not yet,” Lady Alzeta said as she turned and led us deeper into her domain. “Not yet, but Cross-eyed Taras and Rurik Nine-fingers are due back soon. Ban Volos will be in later, as will Crazy Kenya and his boy Mladen, who were out to see about working an angle on some letter they received by mistake.”
“Gods,” Damek said, “but they’re all still together? I thought for certain the bastards would’ve dispersed long before I got back.”
“Not much place to go anymore,” the lady said forlornly. “But Mladen won’t be half pleased to have a mate to keep him company while the bigger boys are out drinking and carousing.”
“I want to drink and carouse too,” I said.
“Now, now,” Damek muttered, “we don’t want a repeat of Krantz. Can’t go about disappointing all the whores of Samye. It’d reflect poorly on me.”
“Still the horny bastard, eh?” Lady Alzeta asked. “Gods, Damek, did you drag this poor sod into one of your dens?”
“Call it an education,” my master replied, “and I sure as hell don’t need a lecture from you on how I train my aids.”
“Gods, no,” she said, holding up her hands, “but if he were my boy, I’d take better care of him. Looks so young and innocent.”
“I’m the biggest and damnedest bastard you’ve ever met,” I declared, puffing out my chest and donning the meanest glare I could.
“Are you now?” asked Lady Alzeta, a glimmer of amusement flickering in her still-sharp eyes. “Well, excuse me, little master.”
Damek grabbed me by the back of my neck. He pressed his lips against my ear and hissed. “What did I say outside about watching your mouth? Piss her off and we sleep on the streets, and you won’t like what happens to little boys on the streets in this part of the city. Apologize and accept the lady’s compliment.”
I shook myself free of Damek’s grasp and looked up to Lady Alzeta’s smiling face. Clearly she’d heard everything the old bastard had muttered in my ear. I looked down at my feet and mustered the most shameful face I could. “Sorry, Lady Alzeta,” I mumbled.
“Gods, you really are a moron, aren’t you?” Damek said. “Cut the amateur dramatics and look the lady in the eye. No one wants to see a whiny pissbody pretend to be remorseful.”
I ground my teeth, met Lady Alzeta’s eyes, and said, “Go to hell, old man. And shove your remorse right up your arse. You’ve been nothing but a boil on my bum since we met!”
Lady Alzeta exploded with laughter, and Damek, who must’ve been about to club me to death with that stick of his, joined her as soon as he saw that I hadn’t in fact angered her.
“Son of a bitch, Damek,” Lady Alzeta said after she regained control. “You really can pick them. The boy eats free tonight for that beauty! Make yourselves at home. There’s a cot or two upstairs that may only be lightly infested with fleas, but I offer no guarantees.”
She turned away and hurried off to busy herself with other matters. As soon as she exited the room, Damek snatched my arm again and squeezed hard.
“Listen, you dumb bastard: don’t ever antagonize that woman again. Do you hear me?”
“Antagonize? Damek, the woman was laughing her arse off louder than she would if she caught sight of that little dangle between your legs.”
“So you think you’re a big shot now, the biggest bastard?” Damek’s grip grew firmer still, and I began to squirm. “You are nothing but a dumb shit, and by the gods, I will throw your arse out on the streets if you make me look bad again.”
“What the hell are you on about?” I asked, though my voice was more whiney than demanding as my arm began to grow numb.
“That woman and this gang are the only thing standing between us and the rest of this damned corrupt district. Do you hear me? Goliskis is not Maluns. There are bastards outside that door who eat little turds like you and spit out the bones.”
“Then why the hell bring me here?”
“Because every man—even me—needs a family. Without a family, even one comprised of that old bitch and the quintet of morons who live with her, you will have no screen against hard times, no screen against the rest of this world.”
“Are you going soft on me?”
Damek hit me hard in the face with his fist, and only his continued firm grip on my arm kept me from hitting the floor.
“What do you think?” he asked.
I spat blood onto Lady Alzeta’s nice, clean floor. “I think, deep down inside, you love me.”
“Bah!” Damek released my arm, and this time I did hit the floor, clattering my head against the wood. “Just try not to screw things up,” he said as he turned and made his way to the stairs.