Outer Flower, 52

Challenge and Insult

“The dice are weighted,” repeated Elymas.

A collective gasp. Durrin uttered an oath.

“I didn’t . . . I haven’t . . .” Though he stammered, Quellen’s mind was clear. This, he knew, was the beginning of a nightmare. “I have not loaded the dice.”‘

Quellen protests the dice

“No excuses,” barked Elymas. “Where did you get them?”

“From you, sir, they were–“

“From me?” The tone was incredulous. “I gave you these dice?”

Quellen flushed. “Not directly sir, that’s not what I meant. The dice were in a pouch, in the pocket of this robe.” Shaking now, he turned out both pockets. “I received it from a Sacred Servant like all the rest. That one there. “

He pointed at Strout. The silence was deafening.

“Are you implying that my loyal servant Strout placed weighted dice in your rulla pouch?” Elymas’s voice was a weapon, a lash.

“But the dice are not weighted!”

“I say they are.”

It was a battle he was destined to lose. With a snarl, Elymas flung the dice on the ground at his feet.

Quellen stood still for indeterminate minutes, staring at the ground. When he looked up, the others were gone.

He thought he was completely alone until he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. A short, barefoot man clad in a dirty, patched tunic stood behind a wheelbarrow, staring. Quellen recognized him at once as a Dabber, one of the race of people inhabiting the bogs around the Salt Marsh Sea. Darker and two heads shorter than the average Casorian, they were viewed with suspicion and dislike by the city dwellers, their colony relegated to the lower-caste quarter, where the most downtrodden lived. There, it was rumored, they performed strange midnight rites in their own language, which to the unfamiliar ear sounded like a series of explosive, animal-like grunts and squeals.

Why they’d ever been permitted in the city was anyone’s guess, but Elymas brought them from the Salt Marsh in wagonloads. Those not working in the fields were employed by Elymas himself at the castle. They seemed to run the halls at all hours of the night. This one had been wheeling a barrow of potatoes but had stopped to give Quellen a sympathetic stare.

He wanted none of it; indeed, the man’s concern unleashed a tide of anger and he shouted, “Why are you staring, bog man? Get back to work!”

Then, in the same manner as Elymas, he turned on his heel and left.

He’d spent the rest of the day and that night too in the stable, hunger at last forcing him to face the others in the dining hall. No one acknowledged his presence and from that point on, it was as if he didn’t exist. He’d find stones and shit, once even a snake, in his bedding. If he dared walk beneath the galleries, he’d be covered with spit.

What caused him to stay? What caused him to endure shunning, ridicule, and even danger, when everything inside him urged him to flee?

Pride, maybe. A stubbornness rooted in the knowledge that he’d been wronged. A wild hope that somehow, some way, he’d be cleared of the lie. But most of all, a desire to shield his father, not from the knowledge that he’d failed (for though the old man had been flattered by Jessum’s prophecy, Quellen wasn’t sure he believed it), but that he’d failed so soon.

The wind whipped the tears from his eyes. He’d been a disappointment to his father since he was small. It had started at pig slaughter. A blow to the head of a boar had caused him to cry out in pain, and after the beating, his father cried privately in shame. Which only made Quellen to wish to be beaten more. But his father had denied him that relief, giving him only silence and a measured distance over the years.

Until these last three months when slowly, very slowly, the wound between them had begun to heal.

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