Androkles hated to be unarmed in strange territory, but he decided it was a bit early to start treading on local customs. He deposited his xiphos and shield just inside the doorway, out of sight. Then he watched with amusement as the boys followed his example and untied their slings, placing them next to the other goods.
“I’m guessing you expect to eat,” said Agurne.
“I’m assuming you do that here from time to time. And these boys eat like a sack with a hole in it,” said Androkles.
“Once everyone is in from the fields, the beer’ll be passed around freely at the ring, and you can swallow your fill. All travelers have guest-right until we think you’re dawdling and kick you out. If you want anything more than we’re passing around, the women at the ring can trade. Is there anything else you need?”
“Thanks for the care, Master Agurne. Nothing else comes to mind,” said Androkles. The boys were looking out toward the town center with obvious curiosity. Perhaps they wanted to play with the other children. “Oh, there is one thing. Is there a spring or a bath near here? Please tell me there is, and that it’s warm.”
Agurne replied, “It just so happens that there is, which is good, because you smell like someone who’s been pulling a cart all week. Got some good hot baths just a short walk to the west. You’ll find the path if you head out the north gate and circle around the wall. Men in the red door, women in the green. Don’t screw that up.”
“If your women saw me naked, I wouldn’t have to pull the cart. They’d all want to come with me, and they could do it,” said Androkles mischievously.
Agurne laughed and replied, “Our women are pretty good at hiding knives, stranger. You be careful what you try to put where. And by the way, if you want a whore, that’s outlawed here. Exposing infants is illegal and bastards get eaten. If you needed one, you’re out of luck, so plan on getting backed up.”
Androkles was almost mortified. That joke would have been crass even for a soldier, but from a woman in public? Dignity be damned, he couldn’t help but guffaw, so he did, loud and long. Once he could catch his breath, he said, “I’ll behave myself.”
She nodded twice and left toward the town center without saying more. What a strange person.
Once she had gone, Androkles said, “Well, boys, are you hungry? Or shall we go visit the baths first?”
“I’m hungry,” said Pepper.
“Me too,” added Flower, so they went to find dinner.
With the farmers coming in from the fields, the village center bustled with activity. Androkles surmised that the whole village was more or less like a noble’s farm back in the Glories—everyone worked, everything was shared, and then some noble came and took all the leftovers and got richer. Older women and younger girls sold baskets of herbs and fall flowers, and a handful of men sold woolen clothing laid out in rows. There was no blacksmith, Androkles noted with curiosity. There must be one somewhere, though. Perhaps he sold goods from his smithy, instead of laying them out in the evening.
Listening in on the conversations, Androkles learned that they did trade, just not in coin or goods—they traded in something called ‘shares.’ That’s probably what Agurne meant when she wanted the guard Kemen to tally her vegetables.
Kemen himself stood near the altar in the center of the ring, hard to miss. He busied himself keeping track of the exchanges of shares on the roll of vellum he’d used earlier. He looked overworked, but was friendly to the people standing in line nonetheless. Androkles decided he would have to ask him why they didn’t use coins, once he looked less busy.
All of a sudden, Flower gave a startled yelp and clutched at Androkles’s robe. Androkles whirled around, his best glare at the ready, to see two old women reaching to touch Flower’s ears. “What are you doing?” he asked flatly.
“Oh? For good luck,” one replied.
“What do you mean?”
“White animals are good luck,” said the other. “If you touch them you can expect good fortune.”
“He’s not an animal. Beast-men are in the family of men. And he’s mine. If you want to touch him, ask permission,” said Androkles, unsure how stern he dared act in this situation. One should never disrespect the elderly. But still, the kits were his, and damned if he was going to disregard his possessions.
One of the old women snorted and walked away. The other gave Androkles a half-hearted smile and asked with dripping condescension, “May I touch your slave’s ears for good luck?”
“Not me. Ask him.”
“Boy?” she asked, reaching for his ears.
Flower shyly nodded, then leaned his head toward her. She softly petted one of his ears for the briefest moment, then nodded contentedly and slipped away. Several other people emboldened by her example followed suit, and soon a small line formed of eager villagers, happily chatting among themselves and waiting their turn. Androkles tried not to look impatient, although he was simultaneously grateful and confused that they’d made a line instead of all grabbing for the kit at once. Pepper kept close, nervous and protective, holding Flower’s hand and glaring at people. Flower, however, bore the unpleasant attention with something approaching dignity.
Once a few dozen of the villagers had ensured themselves good luck, they dispersed. Soon after, everyone started passing around baskets of food and taking what they wanted. Androkles couldn’t tell exactly whether this was being tallied or if the food was free, but he supposed it was free. When the basket made its way to him, he pulled out a few pickled vegetables, bread, and cheese to share with the boys, and no one stopped him. Noticing that Flower was trying to look inconspicuous, more or less hiding behind him at every opportunity, he took the boys a bit away from the crowd to sit down and eat in peace.
Just as Agurne had said, it wasn’t long before pots of drink were passed around. Androkles grinned from ear to ear when he discovered that it was proper beer and not more of that awful, watery fruit wine he’d had several days ago at the inn. It sloshed thick, foamy, golden, and delicious. Strong, too, wonderfully strong. He could feel the god of wine’s touch after only a few long swallows. The nobles in the Glories tended to look down on beer as a barbarian drink, but everyone who ever served in the army knew better: the Glories didn’t have all of the finest things of the earth. Just most of them.
Flower and Pepper weren’t sure how they felt about the beer, and they didn’t drink very much of it. They did, however, scarf down every scrap of food that Androkles had taken and sat there looking hungry afterward. With a sigh, he got up and came back with more, which they also ate greedily. At this rate, they’d be back to normal in a week at most.
When the villagers started producing instruments and tuning them, the boys’ ears perked up like a cat hearing a bird. They both stood and tried to get close enough to see without getting far enough from Androkles to appear disobedient. Utilizing one of the most useful skills learned in the army, he drained the rest of the pot of beer in a single draught, gave a contented sigh, then stood and said, “Let’s go listen in, shall we?”
Their music used an unfamiliar scale and sounded strange to his ears, but the drums kept an invigorating beat, and the pipes made a lovely harmony. They had stringed instruments that looked similar to a lyre, but they were a bit louder and only had five strings, not nine. The music went on and on, unbroken, as men and women gathered behind the altar, linking arms and standing patiently. The crowd started to gather in closer, edging him out. Androkles’s height allowed him to see over all their heads, but the boys couldn’t, so he lifted them on his shoulders rather than let them push their way to the front.
Androkles couldn’t hear the music progressing in any kind of pattern, but all at once it stopped. Then, after scarcely enough time to gasp, the choir and drums and instruments resumed together in a blast of sound. It was quite impressive, even compared with the plays in the Glories. They seemed to be singing several things at once which made it hard to pick out the words, but it seemed to be a hymn to the gods, or perhaps their one goddess. The song went on and on, and he started wondering if they were improvising, but all of a sudden the music seemed to resolve itself and come into clarity for a final note, and then it fell silent again. Everyone who had not been in the choir began clapping, the boys included. Flower, in particular, clapped so vigorously that he lost his balance and nearly fell from Androkles’s shoulder. A sharp pinch under the ribs gave sufficient encouragement for the kit to calm down.
After shuffling around a bit, the choir began another song with a much slower tempo, about a pair of lovers who die in a war. They sang a third song that seemed to be about a marriage proposal from a god, but it was hard to tell on that one, since people kept clapping during the parts with the rude jokes. After a fourth song about a hero Androkles had never heard of, the choir and accompaniment split up and dispersed in the crowd. The music didn’t stop, however; instead, singers and musicians tried to space themselves out far enough that they wouldn’t drown out the others, and everyone began playing whatever they wanted.
Flower tapped Androkles on the head and pointed at a group of children who were singing together in unison and asked, “Can we go over there, Master Androkles? Please?”
The children’s choruses at most Dikaian festivals had always bored him, but the beer was in the process of making him merry, so he chose to indulge the boy.
“Let’s go see them! Why not?” he said, a bit more loudly than he intended.
The village’s children were so distracted by his approach that their song fell apart. The tallest man they’d seen, muscular and scarred, dressed in brighter colors than anyone, and carrying two Skythander kits—that would definitely be distracting.
He sat down, and Flower and Pepper hopped down and looked at the children, eagerness on their faces. An older girl of somewhere between ten and thirteen years with a long, brown braid down her back led the little choir. With an air of authority, she said, “Let’s do it again!” and clapped her hands twice loudly. The children began singing again as she led them. It sounded somewhat like one of the parts of the first song the adult choir sang, but it was hard to tell. The lyrics were simple,
Praise her name!
Flower kept edging closer and closer to them like he couldn’t get enough of what he was hearing. By the time the song finished, he stood practically close enough to reach out and touch the older girl. She turned to him and said, “Do you want to try and sing with us?”
He nodded, shyly bowing his head to conceal a huge grin, then walked over and stood next to a long-haired boy. Androkles noticed that Flower was blushing, but he couldn’t tell if it was because the kit was so happy, or so nervous, or a combination of the two. Even ignoring Flower’s cat ears and tail, he certainly looked out of place with his bright red and yellow clothing, white hair and yellow eyes. The boy actually looked rather like a flower; it was hard not to chuckle at that. The adults around pointed and chatted amongst themselves, surreptitiously giving Androkles curious looks from time to time, but none came to speak to him.
The girl gave a signal and the children began singing again. Flower picked up with them perfectly, not missing a beat or getting a note wrong at all. Androkles wasn’t even sure he could hear him because the kit’s voice blended so well. Once it was over, the girl, in a tone of voice that was properly patronizing of younger children, said, “That was really good! You did such a good job.”
Flower blushed and said, “Thank you.”
She asked, “Do you know any songs from Skythand you could teach us? I don’t know any.”
Flower thought about it for a moment, then said, “I know a song from the Glories. Can I sing that one?”
“Sure. Just by yourself?”
“It’s okay. I’m used to it.”
“Well, go ahead then.” Then she backed up a little bit to indicate that he should begin.
Flower looked at Androkles, who nodded reassuringly. The boy then sang,
Shine while you live;
Suffer nothing at all.
Life exists only a short while,
And time demands its toll.
Dance with pure joy,
And sing with mirth,
Drink wine and eat your fill,
For death must come someday.
Androkles had heard nothing like it in his life. The boy’s voice flowed sweeter that the greatest Chorister he’d ever heard. He sang high, even, and clear, sort of like a woman. His voice was pure and innocent and absolutely enthralling. Androkles’s jaw dropped, and he didn’t even care who saw it.
After the song ended and Flower fell silent, the crowd didn’t clap for a few seconds; just long enough for the poor boy to begin looking incredibly uncomfortable. Then, as if realizing where they were, everyone in earshot began clapping with tremendous enthusiasm, and a few people even whistled. Flower just sort of held his hands behind his back and played in the dirt with his toe, looking at the crowd from the corner of his eye with a relieved smile. He seemed unsure how to respond to their attention. The boy sang like a Muse, then was meek and humble about it afterward. Unbelievable.
And now Androkles had another reason to think he had been right to save the kits. And another reason to know that giving them up, when finally he found a place for them, was going to be painful.
Gods, he felt like he needed a sage or priest, to see if the boy had been touched by a spirit or one of the Muses. That had been almost supernatural.
Turning to Pepper, he asked, “Can you sing like that, too? Is that a Skythander thing?”
The kit replied, “No, Master Androkles. I can’t sing at all. My old papa used to say I sound like a frog, but he was being funny instead of mean.”
The crowd kept clapping despite Flower’s shy attitude and shouted for more songs, and the kit’s demure little smile grew into a broad grin of self-pride. His self-esteem visibly grew by inches, and he stood straight and proud, although he seemed a bit surprised. He nodded about a dozen times, trying to indicate that he would sing another, and when people finally got the idea, they quieted down.
He took a deep breath to begin again, but then, out of nowhere his smile faded. Tears formed in his eyes and he started shaking, and Androkles wondered if he was about to cry. Sure enough, it didn’t take long for him to lose his composure. He sat down on the ground and started softly crying into his folded arms. Androkles quickly walked over and picked him arm, Pepper in tow, and carried them back to the unfinished hut where they’d left the cart. He got a lot of curious looks, but no one stopped him.
By the time they arrived at their destination, Flower had quieted down, resorting to sniffling and wiping his smooth, reddened cheeks over and over with his sleeves. Androkles sat down and held the boy in his lap, hugging him tightly. The beer was making him overly affectionate as well as merry, he realized, but he didn’t care. Flower said, “I’m sorry, Master Androkles. I didn’t mean to cry. I’m sorry,” he said.
“It’s no matter. Everyone can see you’re a child, and they do such things. What made you start crying?”
The kit thought about it for a moment, then answered, “I got too happy, because no one ever liked anything I did before. Papa used to laugh and throw little pebbles when I sang. But this time everyone liked it, and you liked it. And then I thought about that and it made me start crying, and I couldn’t stop.” He looked at the ground for a minute, seeming ashamed, then meekly asked, “Did I make you embarrassed?”
“What? No, by the gods! I’ve never heard singing like that before. It was one of the finest things I’ve ever heard! Why would I be embarrassed about your singing?” Androkles knew what the boy meant, but he feigned ignorance.
“No, I mean about crying and you having to rescue me again.”
“No one cares about that. Everyone knows it’s hard for a scrawny little thing like you to stand in front of a crowd. I wasn’t embarrassed at all, and you shouldn’t be either. Next time you will be stronger.”
Flower thought about that for a moment, then said, “I will, Master Androkles. Did you like the song? It was the one you sang that one time.”
“Of course I liked it. You should sing more often,” said Androkles.
For a moment, Androkles continued to hold the little kit, and Pepper sort of patted Flower on the head. Pepper looked like he wanted to help but wasn’t sure exactly where he fit in. After a moment the black-haired kit asked, “Can we go practice with our slings?” Then, looking at Flower, “Do you want to?”
Flower nodded and Androkles assented; it seemed a far better idea than having them just sit around. Flower unexpectedly gave him a kiss on both cheeks like a son would for his father, which Androkles found charming and troubling at the same time, since he didn’t want them too attached. Still, it was nice. Made him wish he had sons, for the thousandth time. Pepper, following Flower’s cue, did the same.
Androkles ruffled their hair and said, “Don’t go far, just outside the gate. And scream as loud as you can if anything happens, like if one of these barbarians grabs you or something. I think I’ll grab another pot of beer and come find you in a bit.”
The boys hesitated, but he shooed them onwards, and they left holding hands, eagerly gathering stones as they went, as though there’d be none beyond the gate, and looking over their shoulders at him every fourth step. He waved, then headed back toward the village center. That beer had been strong, and the pathway kept lurching side to side, making him unsteady.
He was in a mood for socializing, and his boys would be fine. Soldiers usually fought deep in their pots, after all, so if they needed him to cut something open he’d be fine. It didn’t take him long to find another pot and empty it. Several onlookers watched in amazement as he drained the whole thing.