As mentioned, this is a prequel to Sons of the Desert, which you don't necessarily have read first (although I hope you do). It is a backstory for an OC I created, and I promise that Scar is actually in this story, but not for a little while yet.
Here's a brief glossary of Ishvalan terms I have come up with:
Halmi: Ishvalan version of mescal (roughly 100 proof), a contraction of halik (silver) and mitat (fire)
Vatrishi: street musicians
Falsha: prostitute. plural falshaii
Zhaarad: Master, term of respect. plural: zhaaradii
Saahad: Master, term of respect specifically for priests. Plural: saahadii.
I really didn't feel like going home. Up until about six months ago it actually was a home, even though it didn't look like much. Now I didn't know what to call it. My bed was there. My stuff was there.
My dad was there.
But somebody had to make dinner, not that anybody else would eat it. Katri said she didn't like to eat before she danced. She said it made her want to puke. Fine. It would keep.
Dad was just living on halmi, grief, and anger.
I couldn't afford to do that. I was the one keeping us all together, such as we were. I had to go into Ishval proper (a term that had two meanings to it—we weren't proper) and find a place to play where I wouldn't get chased off.
Beat it, your dirty desert rat! You're driving my customers away!
You need to move along now, boy. You've been there long enough.
Granted, there were some who appreciated my singing and my lute playing. They'd listen for a bit, toss me a few coins, then move on. I couldn't depend on them too much, though.
My best take was usually from the soldiers. I even put Amestrian words to some of my tunes, which they seemed to like. They didn't look down on me the way other Ishvalans did. They just looked down on me because I was Ishvalan, which was kind of a step up. Also, it was nearing the turn of the century and they were feeling festive. We didn't think it was such a big deal.
Today I had a pretty decent take. I bought some oranges, a very small bag of tea, a jar of honey, and some flatbread. I rolled them up in the hem of my shirt and finally started for home. When I got there, the sun was just setting. I pushed open the burlap curtain that was our front door and stepped into the first room.
Our house was a mish-mash of bricks and mortar, boards, patches of canvas and burlap, anything my dad had been able to scrounge up over the years. It was sturdy, more or less, and it boasted two rooms. Katri and I slept in the front one (she took the farthest spot from me she could get) and Dad slept in the back. He'd actually been pretty proud of our little place. Now he didn't care much.
I stood for a moment, listening for signs of life. "Dad?" I called out tentatively. "I'm home. I got some flatbread. It's a little stale, so they gave it to me cheap. I got oranges, too. And tea. You want me to make some?"
"He's not here, Dejan!" A rustle of fabric signaled Katri's arrival. She marched in and gave me her usual wary glare. "You got oranges?"
"Yeah. You want one?"
She just held out her hand. No please, no thanks, no nothing. What did I expect? I handed her an orange. She could manage an orange before we went to Vashto's. She could dance up a storm, but I think a lot of her problem was just nerves, not that she would admit it. It sure made my stomach turn to see the way the men watched her. They knew they weren't supposed to touch her. Even the soldiers knew that. Anyone who tried would have to deal with my dad, who had gotten a lot meaner lately. Besides that, she was just a kid. She might be shaped like a woman, but she was only fourteen, a year younger than me.
So why was a fourteen-year-old girl dancing in skimpy clothes in a tavern-slash-brothel?
Because we were vatrishi, and this was how we lived. My dad played the fiddle, the lute, the bagpipe, whatever he felt like that night. I was his drummer. Katri danced. And that was all she did, I swear! Old Vashto sold them halmi that he and my dad made, and beer when he could get it. Sometimes my mom would even come in and sing. Once the customers were loose and relaxed, Katri came out and got them horny. Then she disappeared and the men would take their custom to the rooms in the back where the falshaii waited for them.
We did this every night. For a while, it was actually kind of fun. When my dad and I really got going, we were good. It was sort of like a party every night. Then my mom died.
I'm not going to go into a lot of detail. She started getting sick, we never made enough money to afford a real doctor, and by the time my dad swallowed his distrust and his pride and went to the priests, it was too late. They offered to help us out, say a bunch of extra prayers and get us medicine to at least ease Mom's pain, but by then Dad was so bitter and angry at God that he spat on their charity. He buried Mom himself. He was never quite right after that.
I put the rest of my purchases on the little table. "So where is he?" I asked.
Katri bit into the orange's skin and ripped off a mouthful of rind. She spat it out on the floor.
"Pick that up!" I snapped at her.
She gave me a sullen glare, but she picked it up and went to the door with it. Pushing the curtain aside, she tossed it out. Then she sat in the doorway, pulling off pieces of orange peel and tossing them as far as she could throw them, a game that would keep her occupied for a few minutes.
I went to the door and stood behind her, leaning on the doorframe and looking out. "So where is he?" I asked again. "Did he already go to Vashto's?"
"Him and Vashto went to check their bottles," Katri replied, flinging a piece of peel at a cactus wren, making it fly off.
I sighed. That might not be a good thing. They had to check to see if the next batch of halmi was ready yet. That would include sampling some of it, so Dad would be a little toasted before we even got started.
I sat on the floor and leaned against the doorframe. I studied Katri's profile out of the corner of my eye. I've known her since she was little, and she kind of blossomed early. She had a delicate, sweet face and some very impressive curves. She also had a mouth like a drill sergeant. She caught me looking at her and she punched me in the chest with a hard little knot of a fist.
"What the hell are your starin' at?" she demanded.
She didn't have a lot of force behind that punch so I just smiled. "Nothing."
"Uh-uh! You're a liar, Dejan!" Katri muttered. "I don't like bein' looked at like that!"
"I wasn't looking at you dirty!" I protested. "I was just looking at your face. You're pretty, you know."
Compliments troubled her. She scowled. "Nuh-uh!" she mumbled.
"Yeah, you are! You're really pretty!" I gave her a little nudge with my knee.
She leaned away from me. "Stop it!" Her tone had gone from irritable to anxious. I'd gone a little too far.
"Sorry," I said quietly. "I'm the last person you have to be scared of. I wouldn't let anybody hurt you. You know that, right?"
"What the hell are you two sitting there for? Goddammit, Katri, get ready!"
Katri scrambled to her feet and disappeared into the house. She wasn't afraid of my dad. She was probably the only person he was even remotely kind to in his rough way. But she did what he told her to do.
He strode up to the house. He was tall and he was thin. Thinner than he'd been before. He was a scarecrow that had no purpose. I worried about him a lot. If he fell over dead, Katri and I could still make it on our own, but I didn't really want that to happen. I just wanted him to be like he used to be.
I got to my feet. "I got some food," I said. "It's on the table."
He pushed me inside. I could smell the slight smokiness of the halmi on him. "Get ready. It's payday for the soldiers." He kept track of stuff like that. We would be starting early. The soldiers would come first, while there was still some light.
The Ishvalans wouldn't show up until well after dark. They'd be craftsmen, merchants, husbands, fathers, "respectable" men. They didn't necessarily want to be seen.
"Dad, you should eat something," I said, heading toward the corner where my bed was and grabbing the strap of my drum. I used the more versatile finger drum for when Katri danced.
He just went back into his room. I heard some rustling and then the plinking of string and the scrape of a bow. The fiddle was always his favorite. He'd taught me the drum and the lute as soon as I could hold them. He'd started teaching me the bagpipe and the fiddle before Mom died. Then he stopped.
I stuffed a piece of flatbread in my mouth and wrapped the rest up in an old cloth before Dad came back out, fiddle in hand. A slight tinkling of metal signaled that Katri was getting her outfit on, and she emerged from behind the blanket hung in front of her bed. She had another blanket wrapped around her shoulders.
Dad gave us both a quick, business-like glance and jerked his head toward the door. We stepped out into the twilight and through the rag-tag community that was the vatrishi camp. My dad was only about thirty-two or thirty-three, only a little more than twice my age at the time, but he was the unofficial leader of the vatrishi. There were older, wiser men with cooler heads, but none of them were anywhere near as good as my dad. It was something he used to take pride in.
Vashto's tavern looked a lot like our house, only a little sturdier and a lot bigger. A couple of soldiers were just walking in, and we paused slightly to give them a head start. Katri and I slipped in and tucked ourselves into a corner. Dad waited for the two Amestrians to get their drinks before he went up to the bar, which was really just a couple of long tables butted together end to end. Behind the tables stood a wiry old man whose right shoulder was noticeably higher than his left shoulder. It didn't stop him from playing, though. He was the one who taught Dad the fiddle, then Dad surpassed him. Vashto took it fairly well.
The old man was carefully polishing glasses with an immaculately clean cloth. His glasses were his pride and joy. It gave his establishment a touch of class. There were a couple of other places a little further out, but Vashto's had the best reputation, relatively speaking. There were taverns in Ishval Proper, but all they did was serve food, beer, and watered-down halmi or halmi mixed with fruit juice. They also served as informal meeting places for influential citizens and the occasional low-spoken protest. No one cared about politics at Vashto's.
Vashto glanced up and jerked a nod to Dad. "Looks like a good house tonight, Shua," he remarked.
Dad just grunted in reply.
Vashto cocked an eye at me and Katri as he handed my dad a swallow's worth of halmi. "Her ma was asking about her."
Dad glared for a moment. "Tough shit," he muttered.
Vashto shrugged. "It was just in passing. Didn't mean anything."
My dad had a decent amount of respect for the women who worked in back, but he had taken it upon himself to yank Katri out of there before she had to follow in her mother's footsteps to earn her keep. She was a wild child, very likely half Amestrian, and my parents did what they could to teach her a few manners and give her as good a home as they could. She had no musical talent whatsoever, but she was a natural at making up dances whenever Dad practiced.
Dad turned and surveyed the room. A couple more soldiers entered, and the place was starting to fill up. He took his fiddle and looped the strap around his neck, settling the butt of the instrument against the hollow of his shoulder. He started playing. It wasn't so much a tune as just improvising, but the men at the tables grew quieter to listen.
God, he was good! In moments like this, I was so damn proud of him it nearly brought tears to my eyes. I could just sit and listen to him all night. It made me feel like there was still a little hope in the world.
Katri sat tensely next to me, her eyes closed. It wasn't time for her just yet, but she was getting herself prepared. She knew what she was doing, and she always put on a good show, as much as she hated it. She once confided in me that she blanked out the faces of the men and just concentrated on the music.
My dad ended to a patter of applause and he gave a bow of his head. He'd put them in a good mood, put them at their ease, and most of them went for another round of drinks. By ones and twos, more came. There was definitely going to be a good crowd, and even a few Ishvalans had shown up, sitting in the far corners.
Lanterns were lit and hung, and Dad nodded to us. We stood up and I took the blanket Katri handed to me. She had on a dark red skirt that started low on her hips and stopped above her knees. Her top was made of the same fabric and hung loosely from thin shoulder straps down to just above her navel. It had little round bits of metal sown at the edges of the top and the skirt that tinkled when she moved and also weighted the edges down. This was the only time she wore it, and she took extremely good care of it. My mom had made it for her from fabric that we got cheap from one of the Xingese caravans. My dad had to swear up and down that he wouldn't let anybody lay a finger on her.
The men around the tables stirred attentively in their seats and the room quieted again. I moved near my dad and made a few flutters on the edge of the drum head, and I ended with a sharp tap to the middle, which made a deeper sound. Dad laid his bow to the strings and started with a slow, deep note, rising serpent-like up a minor scale. Katri raised her arms above her head and with a dip of her knees, she started to move.
Sometimes she followed the rhythm I laid down, sometimes I would drum in time to the movement of her hips. Dad basically followed us. They weren't listening to him anymore, anyway. The tables were arranged in a kind of horseshoe shape, leaving a space in the middle where Katri did her act. She didn't show off any more skin than she needed to. What jiggled underneath was often enough. Many of the men were regulars, and they knew the drill. They might make a playful, desultory swipe at the edge of her skirt as she twirled by them, but that was about it. There were some newcomers, though. I had to keep my eye on them, as little as I liked to see the looks on their faces. I tended to pay more attention to what Katri was doing, especially lately.
If I ever touched her, Dad would break my arm. Hell, she'd break my arm. But come on! I was fifteen. As protective as I was of her, how was I not to look? I guess I got distracted. My fingers moved up and down on my drum, deep, high, deep, deep, high. Her hips swung in perfect time. I couldn't even tell which one of us was setting the rhythm. She dropped to her knees and leaned way back, drawing the hem of her skirt slowly up her thighs. I hated it when she did that, but I kept up a steady trill for her until she twisted around to hop back on her feet in a single, fluid movement.
The soldiers ate it up. One of them a little too much. He looked new and must have come early. A little too much halmi on an already overheated brain that wasn't used to it always raised the stupidity factor. As Katri stepped by him, swinging a hip in his direction, he reached out and put his hand up her skirt.
"Show us what you got under there, girl!" he drawled.
Katri hardly ever dropped her guard, even at home. When she let out a startled cry, her rhythm and concentration broken, she sounded terrified. It was something that always lurked below the surface but never showed itself. It hit my ears with such a shock that I reacted without thinking. Even before my dad could make a move, I lunged forward and pushed the soldier as hard as I could against his chest, sending him and his already rickety chair backwards into the soldier seated behind him. He, in turn, fell back against the table, tipping that over and sending three of Vashto's precious glasses and a half bottle of halmi crashing to the floor.
Lucky me, I landed on top of the heap. When the soldier got over his initial surprise, he realized I was lying on top of him, my face just a couple of inches away from his. He wasn't pretty to start with, and he got a lot uglier as rage replaced surprise. He was drunk, he was muscular, he was mad, but I was quicker, thanks be to Ishvala. I rolled off him and ducked under the closest upright table, my drum still slung over one shoulder. Unfortunately, I underestimated his reaction time. I felt a hand grab my ankle and I was dragged right out of my drum strap and out from under the table. I was pulled to my feet by a handful of my hair, and through my watery vision I could make out a fist heading toward my face. I squeezed my eyes shut.
The fist never connected. The grip on my hair was released and I fell back on my ass. It had suddenly gotten really quiet. I opened my eyes to see my dad standing over me, holding a knife to the throat of my assailant. This tableau lasted for maybe three seconds. A couple of soldiers grabbed my dad by both arms and, to do them justice, they did the same to the other soldier, pulling the two of them apart. I scooted backwards out of the way.
I thought Vashto was going to cry. He scampered out from behind the bar, his hands raised placatingly.
"Peace, zhaaradii, please!" he begged. "Nothing to worry about! Just a little mischief! No harm done! Shua!" He gave Dad a frantic, wide-eyed look. "Give as a tune!"
"Sorry, Vash," my dad muttered back. His arms were still pinned. "I'm a little busy."
One of the soldiers stepped forward. He had three bars and three stars on his shoulders, and the men all turned to him, their posture going straight.
"You can let go," he growled. He turned to my dad. "I should say that you folks need to learn some manners, but I'd have to say the same thing about my man here. So I won't report this."
My dad rolled his shoulders as his arms were released. He slipped his knife back into the waistband of his pants at the small of his back. "Fair enough," he replied easily. "My son's got the brains of a gnat. I apologize."
My assailant backed off with a sullen frown. "I thought this was a damn whorehouse!" he grumbled.
"It is," my father informed him. He jerked his thumb back over his shoulder toward where he figured Katri was standing. "She's a dancer. That's all." I couldn't see Dad's eyes from where I was, but I expect the tacit message in them was touch her again and I'll slice off your balls. "Got it?"
The soldier apparently didn't quite get it, but he didn't argue. Vashto had been collecting the bits of his precious glasses and the broken bottle. He then pushed the table and the chairs upright and backed away with a pathetic, bobbing bow. "There now, that's all right then! No harm done! Round of drinks on the house!"
That made me start. Vashto never did that, he was such a cheap bastard. But it seemed to mollify the crowd. They got back to their seats and hunkered over their table tops, waiting for their free liquor. But the mood was strained.
"Katri!" Vashto called out, beckoning to the girl. "Let's have—" He stopped suddenly at a look from my dad, who bent down over me.
"Take her home, you dumb shit!" he hissed close to my ear. "That free round's coming out of my pocket!"
That didn't surprise me. I slowly got to my feet and turned to Katri. She had backed up against the wall, her arms folded tightly around her waist. I picked up the blanket and draped it over her shoulders. She gave me an angry glare, mainly because she had to do it to someone and she knew I'd take it, and I steered her out of the tavern.
We walked home without a word. I had a heavy, twisted feeling in my stomach. I felt like what I did was right, but all that booze was going to cost us. We'd probably have to pay for the broken glasses as well, because the Amestrians sure as hell weren't going to, and they were expensive.
For a moment, though, I felt a glimmer of hope. My dad had pulled a knife on an Amestrian soldier to defend me. That was pretty neat when I thought about it. Then my heart sank again. The wrath that would be unleashed on me over this escapade wouldn't come from the military. And I doubted very much that my dad would just sleep this one off.
The "fiddle" that Shua is playing is based on a Balkan gadulka, and Dejan's drum is based on a dumbek or tablah.