Ozzy headed toward the risk district. It was called this not because it was dangerous, though it was, nor because it was run down, though roofs did have a tendency to cave in without warning, but because many years ago it was the only place one could gamble, the only place a guy like Ozzy could put something at risk in the hopes of getting some much needed return on investment. What did he gamble on? He bet on his own strength and wagered his good health.
He had taken some bad wagers before—fought three dogs in an arena, headbutted doors off their frames in a competition against some red-headed brute, allowed his back to be tattoo practice for a wannabe sailor. He wasn’t going to do any of that again. Walking down the sidestreet, he thought about what the night would bring. He had to find a quick job, and since it was late in the evening, the better jobs would all be gone; helping build something or looking tough while walking someone somewhere probably wasn’t in the cards tonight. Tonight he’d fight in the ring. His jaw set and his fists became loosely clenched.
Fights were not easy work. He’d have to talk and negotiate. He hated haggling about money with these avaricious types. Talk and haggle, threaten and growl, the absurdest little game of mankind. What’s more, the same tavern masters who made money rigging his fights wanted what small bit of money he made in the fray spent in their establishments. And so even after the fight, he’d fight again, sometimes morally, sometimes physically, against the coercive talk of bullies, gangs, sirens, and said tavern masters. What misery. Strength was his talent, and the risk district was the only place he knew which allowed him to exchange it for coppers late at night.
It was twilight, and a small crowd gathered in the street distracted Ozzy for just a moment from his straight-ahead-dead-pan look which he made when heading into the deep slum. He overheard some words preached in the center of a semi-circle crowd:
“… over these others give me the strength of the wilderness, where the arbors are temples raised by the hand of nature, where weather beaten boulders can be our altars.”
Ozzy stopped walking. He had never heard this preach before.
“Arguments about architecture?” scoffed the preach. “What value are these compared to the value of a brook and a wild grove? The whole earth is a temple! Churches are good and necessary for crowded cities; otherwise good people would not uphold them. But why confine ourselves? Why not take to the streets and throw up our hands there for all the town to witness? How powerful would that be? While crimes and myths are told in the streets, should not truth also be declared there? The good do good in secret and feel alone. Mothers work in their homes. Fathers toil in the secret struggles outside the home. But the evil collude and steelman each other’s brazenness. Let us not be blind, as so many priests today are. We ought to give our cares to the joys of life: wine, conversation, moderation, and prayer.”
Ozzy did not understand what this strange, twanging cleric said, but it sounded… interesting. It sure didn’t sound like slum talk. He reset his thoughts—back to business. His jaw set , his fists clenched, Ozzy continued on his way.
After a few steps he was stopped.
“Polumet.” The cleric extended his hand. He was a foot shorter than Ozzy.
“Ozymandias Hobgoblin, right?”
“That’s right,” Ozzy wondered how he knew his full name. He did not like his full name.
“A cart driver, whom I met as I was coming into town, told me your name. You prefer Ozzy, though. How are your fights?”
“Okay. I need more work.”
“It’s excellent what you do, mmhmm. Is your right hook as mean as they say?”
There was no trace of sarcasm or small talk about it. So Ozzy replied. “It can hurt some people. Doesn’t feel so great to me neither.”
“Hurts your shoulder, does it? Well, I imagine that growth there isn’t all sweet.” Polumet gestured towards the slightly raised lump above Ozzy’s back right shoulder.
Ozzy eyed him, saw he was wearing black boots worn grey, a torn grey robe with a brown hood hanging on his back. The cleric’s hands were tucked into the sleaves of his arms, and one hand fiddled with an object there. Ozzy wondered if it was a knife.
“Your jaw, son, looks as purple and tough as amethyst,” said the preach, pointing towards a discoloration along Ozzy’s chin. “We’ve got some amethyst back in the Auring.”
“The Auring Forest, 12 days south, if one makes good time. It’s a beautiful place and tough. But I won’t leave here until we help the spirits of those who need it, hmm. And tomorrow I’ll teach you how to shoulder roll in your fights.”
Polumet then took off and reaching behind him pulled a small book out of his hood. He opened it and started reading to himself as he walked away.
A phrase had stuck in Ozzy’s mind. He strode quickly down the street, encouraged, more ready to do what he needed—make a deal for a fight, promote the fight himself, fight the fight, and go home. His younger siblings and mother, all of whom he helped support, were waiting for him. He turned down an alley thinking to himself that phrase the preach had said, “the strength of the wilderness.”
Meanwhile, The Algardi’s had invited Gerard over for dinner. Antegenor was in town, so Gerard was beaming and ready to ask him about bardic life. Gerard liked the Algardi family a lot; they were kind, intelligent, and intense. They didn’t seem poor to Ozzy. They lived in a way that even the richest people would envy—dinner together, conversation about art and literature and life, peacefulness in arguments, fire in enthusiasm. It was genteel poverty. In other words, the Algardi family had higher aspirations for their spirits than for their pocketbooks.
The Algardi kids: Antegenor, Via, Alexi, and Lorenzo. Mr. Algardi brought the last dish from the kitchen to the table, and, once everyone was seated, he pronounced, “Thanks to the toil of time, the luck of the season, and the labors of your mom, we are free to eat. Bon appetite!”
For a few minutes everyone quietly enjoyed the meal: golden peppered hen, buttered bread, and pea soup.
Mr. Algardi began asking questions. “Lorenzo, how was your day?”
Lorenzo was six, “Good!” he squeaked. “Mom showed me, uh, how to sail a ship!”
“How did she do that?”
“With a map!”
“What was on this map?” Mr. Algardi asked very seriously.
“Stars,” replied Lorenzo.
“Do you know the names of any stars?”
“Umm… there’s the north star… that’s all I remember.”
“But Lorenzo, how can stars help you sail a ship?”
“They tell directions, Dad.”
“That’s interesting. We will have to talk more before you go to bed.” Mr. Algardi turned the Mrs. and smiled.
Mrs. Algardi smiled back to her husband and turned toward Gerry, “Gerard, how was your show today?”
Gerry was not expecting a sudden question. Food was crammed in his mouth. He chewed. Panicking at the delay, he chewed faster. Remembering that he saw David Lamb and that a real member of the bards, Antegenor, was sitting at the table staring into his pea soup (probably thinking about some brilliant story) Gerry panicked a bit more, swallowed his mouthful of food, and croaked, “Good.”
“What were the shows about?” Mrs. Algardi asked.
More questions! Gerard thought. Can’t she see I’m suffering?
“The show was about a bandit, who sneaked into a castle to steal some jewels from a princess’ room, but when he got there he became distracted by all the make-up at the princess’ vanity. He put on a brunette wig, and painted his face to look monstrous, when the nurse came to the room and saw him, she fainted. The princess returned from shopping outside saw the burglar’s face and laughed at him. The burglar apologized, turned to go, but before he got out the door, the princess whacked him upside the head and turned him over to the guards.”
Everyone’s face suddenly looked rubbery, shocked perhaps, then all the kids and Mrs. Algardi laughed, “That’s a good one!” Gerard was relieved. Chatter broke out everywhere.
Via was saying, “…and Gerard threw his voice a few times!”
Gerard felt like a real bard for moment. The praise made him blush.
Antegenor suddenly said, “We’ll see how long your shows keep up.” Quiet settled on the table. “The Orders of Priests and even the Divination Council it seems are increasingly ill-favored towards the arts. The Orders keep preaching anti-bard rhetoric, and the Council has been oddly silent. Some people say a purge is coming.”
Mrs. Algardi said, “Don’t overreact. There has always been some animosity from the preachers towards the so-called “bardic distractions.” It’s not new.”
“This time it’s different,” Antegenor murmured. “There’ve been visions. Either Council sees something which makes them want us suppressed or the clerics have usurped the Council somehow.”
Antegenor was increasing in anger. Suddenly, three figures sitting on chairs appeared on the table before Gerard. As Antegenor described the events and characters on the council, Gerard saw them clear as day before him, but no one else seemed to see. “Amanda Eisen is resigning. Amanda was the best of them—truly worthy of the name divine. The newest member of the Council will probably be Neljä. She’s very young and seems very approachable; obviously, the other two haven’t influenced her yet, Quintus the iron-minded authority, and Hextor who is corrupt.”
“Careful how you talk in front of your siblings, Teg!” Mr. Algardi warned.
“We trust the council because they can see the future,” Via explained to Gerard. “If you shut people who can see the future out of ruling, then you wind up with lots of half-crazed prophets warning of destruction, and then destruction happening. The only reason we have had stability for so long is because three prophets oversee the government and can intervene to avert destructive forces before they become too great. Antegenor thinks they’ve been subverted somehow.”
Dinner went on nicely, but Antegenor was distracted and didn’t want to talk about bardship.
Two hours later, Ozzy’s fight began.
Round 1: Ozzy jabs right. Jabs right. Backs up. Steps right. Steps right. Jabs right. Hooks left. Misses. Is hit on the chest. Lowers his right shoulder. Is hit in the right shoulder. Is hit right ribs. Steps back. Leans in to a jab. Gets clocked in the left side of the head. Stays up. More jabs thrown back and forth.
Round 2: See ‘Round 1’ (plus a few more hits to his chin).
Round 3: Ozzy jabs right. Cross left. Steps left. Jabs right. Is jabbed. Is jabbed. Hook left; it lands heavy on the poor schmuck’s noggin. Ozzy jabs right. Another hook. Miss. Gets two in the body. Moves left. Gets clocked in the right side of the head. Goes down.
When Ozzy made it out of the risk district, money is his pocket, body mildy aching, he turned down Creek Street to get to Kilts’ Quilts where Gerard would clean him up before letting him come home. A small figure was standing at the corner of Kilts’ waiting. Ozzy was tired and did not want to talk to anyone.
“Good fight,” Polumet said.
“I’ll show you how to shoulder roll tomorrow after work. You need to learn how to shoulder roll if you want to get better at fighting.”
“Yeah. These streets are terrible, very terrible. How is anyone supposed to live in streets like this?”
“There is no street cleaning in this area,” Ozzy said.
“Starting tomorrow there is. I’ve got this guy; we can load the refuse into his wagon, and he’ll dump it off outside of town. It’ll take a few days, but we’ll get it done.”
“Who is that?” asked Ozzy, wondering who would volunteer his cart for three days to moving slop out for free.
“He took some convincing, this guy named—” I can’t afford to work for free, Ozzy thought. “Leon,” Polumet finished.
“Leon! He left town already. Besides, he’s a cheapskate.”
“No, I got him to come back and volunteer.”
Then being tired, Ozymandias staggered into Kilts’ where his brother inspected him for bruises and cuts.