Within the tight horseshoe of stone that was Street Two, still close enough to the palace to be shadowed by it, Rat’s mansion stood in wait… somewhere. Claudia couldn’t tell which ornate tower was his.
“Here we are,” Rat said with a sprinkle of nervousness. He took a key from his pocket and unlocked the wrought iron gate. The rest of the foundation was hidden by solid white brick walls and shaved smooth at the top. “Haven’t had company in a while. I’m not the best at decorating.”
“You saw my place.”
“A fine point.” Rat pulled on the oiled gate, which opened silently. She nodded and went inside, finding herself in a wide yard of chalky blue pebbles.
“I love these rocks!” She crunched her way to the steps of the porch.
“Thank you! Had them imported. Anything blue feels like Rose Amon to me, especially in this city.”
“Is that your home?” she asked, looking at his decorated suit.
“I grew up there.” He looked down at the shining ivory-and-gold sash. “I didn’t serve in their navy; this suit was more of an informal gift.”
From the outside, Rat’s three-floored mansion was a mystery. There were windows, but each was made of a warped glass Claudia had never seen. It was the size of her fist in thickness, and concealed the interior while allowing in plenty of light. Rat unlocked the double doors and pulled one ring to open the way.
It struck Claudia how empty the home felt. She had expected all sorts of oddities and conversation starters, on mantelpieces or tables, the kind of diverse treasures she had seen in Sallith’s tower. Servants, of course, were also expected. Instead, they were alone, and the place had the barren, open air of a newly-built lodging.
Inside was an atrium with a striking amber floor. The edges were bordered by looping and twirling lines of black paint, and in the middle was a reflecting pool.
“Make yourself comfortable,” he said, kneeling by the pool and fighting to remove his shoes. They clattered this way and that, and he unrolled the leather puttees around his ankles and feet. Once bare, he stuck the tan, hairless soles ankle-deep in the pool of water. He let out a groan that made Claudia blush.
“You know that armor Sallith’s guards wore?” he said. “I don’t know why, but just looking at them made me feel horribly hot and sick. I’m alright now, but I needed to cool myself.”
“I had the same reaction,” she said, although she had been closer to them and couldn’t describe it as ‘horrible.’ “I assume it’s meant to bother potential attackers without affecting the user. Perhaps another magical tool Sallith hypocritically wields.”
“Whatever it is, it’s a ridiculous measure, that’s for certain.”
“So, what did you do in Rose Amon?” she asked, removing her sandals and dipping her feet as well. The cold of the water soared throughout her, like her hot blood was being replaced by cold.
“This and that. Mainly I would hunt spies or assassins who were targeting the royalty to sell them off. I could hear their thoughts well, since they were a cautious sort who liked to rehearse their missions. That got me a reputation for being useful. No one knew how, but I had information. I could solve problems.”
“And I’m supposed to trust you in a plan against Sallith?” Claudia jokingly asked, splashing his leg. This was just what she needed, after overheating to near-collapse in front of Sallith and his guards.
“Sallith’s no royalty, not to me.”
“So,” she asked, crossing her arms over her knees. “You said Sallith has already decided to approve the fights. Did you read his thoughts?”
“Yes, and he definitely will. Not for our sakes, but to kill off Headsplitter. It seems both the King and the two of us want the same thing.”
Her jaw clenched. “Why?”
“His thoughts didn’t give me the answer, but if I were to guess based on that secret contract we saw, Headsplitter’s either not reliable after the contract ends, or dangerous. I’m leaning toward the latter. You listening?”
“Huh? Oh, pardon.” She had been swirling her feet in the water, thinking about whether giving Sallith what he supposedly wanted could still be turned in their favor. “I figured Headsplitter’s death would be a first step to weakening Sallith. Although, we’ll have nine matches. If he dies in the first, that would still entitle us to nine matches with a new champion.”
“I was thinking the same,” Rat said, holding up a finger. “Defeating Headsplitter would create a new, independent champion with no ties to the throne. One who would represent new ideas.”
“I don’t suppose…”
“What?” she said.
“…you feel empathy toward Headsplitter? Based on that document Sallith showed us, he seems trapped.”
“No,” Claudia said. “Some of his victims may have deserved it, but others did not.” Reginald’s cry to Latalla echoed through her. Perhaps he is with Latalla now.
“So then, it’s settled,” Rat said. “We’ll get the strongest fighter we can and send him out first. We’re going to have to move fast if we want to find him.” Rat looked away, scratched his jawline, and took his feet out of the water, dabbing them on a silk towel.
“What is it?” Claudia asked.
“I know someone who can help us,” he said, grumbling as he rose.
Rat needed to change, and Claudia waited in the atrium, studying the lime-gray walls. Unlike the jagged, irregular, and easily-scratched bricks of her apartment, this was something harder, composed, and cold, organized in horizontal bars.
When he came out, he was wearing pitch-colored trousers and a teal chlamys, this time worn more like a partial cape. With his chest exposed, he was clearly no fighter, but not lazy either. Just the right amount of fat and muscle; he had clearly been a working man with a comfortable life.
Too bad he doesn’t have any hair on his chest. Then she slapped her head, remembering that he knew all of her mental observations.
“I’m out of clean upper wear.” Rat said. “And… ugh, I know that Merrian likes this look.”
Once back in the wide sandstone street, they headed toward the middle of the horseshoe point at the vertical meridian of Mirek. Named the Divide, it was a massive path for two-way traffic, used for parades in honor of special visitors when Claudia was little. After Sallith’s coronation, a third of the Divide was rebuilt to pass under the massive Colosseum.
They waited for a cluster of camels to pass so they could reach the eastern curve of Street Two. They were tied loosely together, with their herder seated on the one in front.
“Where are we headed?” Claudia asked, hopping over a crack in the stones that oozed white sand.
“The atheneum. We’re going to see the record keeper of Mirek.”
“Aye. Biggest thyra egg, oldest citizen, most amount of wealth moved in one trade deal. But it’s not just superlatives. Merrian can tell you about the marriage rates, city debt, never-found criminals, anything you’re wondering or seeking.”
“And she can find a suitable challenger for us?” Claudia hurried after his wide steps to cross the Divide. The traffic here kicked up enough sand that one could lose sight of a companion after a few steps. “You seem reluctant.”
“She brings up memories. Some good, most bad, but all hurt to remember.”
“Oh, I see!” Claudia kept on pace with him. “Did you break her heart?”
“The shrew has no heart. An example of everything wrong with the pampered class.”
Claudia frowned. “But she can help?”
“I know she will, that’s the problem. I hope I’m right that this is our best option. We’re here.”
Up most of the eastern curve for Street Two, a high, columned, white marble atheneum loomed nearby. They made their way up the steps, which trailed all the way along the construct’s front side. They weren’t too different from the coliseum seats, and many young, opulent couples rested on them with sun umbrellas.
Up the steps, the open passages throughout allowed a lovely breeze. It was the most open building she had ever seen, well-shaded by latticing in the walls. They left thin vines of golden light along a maze of two-tiered shelves.
Claudia followed Rat east, past busy scholars and to a more colorful area, quartered off and with a shorter roof.
“Now, who can tell us about the Thaumaturge war?” a young woman said, seated on the floor. Around her was a ring of excited children, nearly all raising their hands.
Rat stopped, far enough away for them to watch without disturbing the teacher.