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Autumn, the Month of Ashes.
The serpent banner of Om-Ret fluttered over the great souk of Ankar, crowning the jumbled din of camels, horses, men, slaves, tinkers, dogs, whores, hawkers, cutpurses, soldiers, and merchants with a constant flapping sound like the wings of gulls. Scarlet, son of Scaja, swiped at the gritty red dust on his face and surveyed the colorful row of furled ribbons the tradeswoman laid out for him.
"For your wife, little Byzan?" she asked him coyly, her golden eyes glittering above the hem of her embroidered veil. Here, far north of Byzantur, all Morturii men and women who were not soldiers or whores hid their faces behind layers of filmy gauze or bright-colored cotton or jeweled silk. Scarlet was not Morturii and hid nothing.
"Sister," he answered shortly, and pointed to the red ribbons. "The blue and green, too, and a yard of the white silk and a yard of the green," he added, mentally wincing at the price. The woman bowed as he paid her with half of a silver sellivar. He collected his package and left, threading his way through the crowded, stinking alleys of the marketplace. Avid seagulls, fresh from feeding on entrails thrown from the many fishing vessels crowding the glittering bay, swooped low over the crowds. One black-winged gull darted past him, wings slashing, and stole a fragment of flesh from a meat-sellers stall.
"Greedy!" the man cried, shaking his fist after the departing bird.
Scarlet came to the Street of Doves and Flowers and pursed his mouth in distaste, for he disliked having to take this route. He navigated his way past a noisy ghilan, a two-story dwelling whose function wasmade known by the series of carved frescoes that depicted a young, shapely woman being chased through a lush forest by an armored Morturii soldier. The soldier pursued her through various stages of undress, with the last panel culminating in the soldier mounting her thighs amid a flowering field.
Next on the street was a bhoros house, constructed almost identically to the white-walled ghilan, with fine bronze screens at all the windows and the doorways tiled in blue. The main difference were the frescoes, and in the last marble panel before the street opened up into the wide main avenue of the souk, a laughing young man lay sprawled on his back in the grass with a lean soldier kneeling over him, both of them very bare.
Scarlet came upon a kneeling Fate with eyes like two raisins pinned on a shrunken apple; all he could see of her behind her veil. The crone extended her wizened hand to him.
"Read your fate, red-coat?"
He shook his head and went on, intent on making his way back to Masdren's stall. Morturii, the land of metal and magic, abounded in soothsayers, seers, fate dealers, and crones. They were almost as prevalent as the blacksmiths, armorers, and master weapon-smiths, and in some parts, the land was under a permanent pall of black smoke from the smithies.