Navarre picked himself up from the stinking mud. His back was blistered and sore where they had struck him repeatedly with their cleverly improvised tools of torture. Lengths of rotten, discarded rope might not serve to tether fishing boats any longer, but they could be used to flog someone. He knew that firsthand now. He would not forget.
Slowly, stiffly, his back a blaze of inflammation and pain, Navarre picked his way through the slippery mud back towards the gracefully arching bridge and away from Charcotiere and the neglected street of mostly abandoned asylums and hospitals that had been built to handle the flood of broken-minded refugees and displaced persons in the wake of the last mindwar. It was an unlovely place, pain and fear lurked in the shadows and crevices, madness still echoed in the stones of the buildings like tuberculosis. There were things that prowled the dark recesses of the burned-out shell of the Saldroon Asylum, furtive, whispering things that remembered the bad days and who would trade strange secrets for a crust of bread or a sip of goat's milk.
Navarre looked back at the district of his birth, the playground of his childhood, the one place all of Devukarsha wished that it could just turn away from and forget as though it were a blot, a stain, some sort of lingering tumor that made everyone uneasy and uncomfortable to be reminded of. He leaned against an ornate lamp-post at the foot of the beautiful bridge that was almost a sculpture extruded from some artist's fever-dream that combined the organic curves of Art Nouveau with the more angular yet irregular patterning of Art Deco into something fresh, new and elegant, as though by its very beauty the architectural feature could somehow block or stave off the dim horrors of the Charcotiere. But Navarre knew better than the nameless, mostly forgotten designer of the bridge. Such things as shambled about in the sub-basements and tunnels of this destitute place had long memories and much patience, in their own way. They had taught him much as a child, a lonely orphan whom no one paid much mind. They never even realized or ever cared that he had taken to wandering the alleys and subterranean service roads and the interiors of the broken, burned and decaying old buildings. No one cared. That was a fundamental truth of Navarre's existence, one that had been hammered into him over his short, brutal and unkind childhood. The world is not fair. That lesson he had had ground into his bones and being by the endless succession of bullies who had risen to positions of dominance amongst the orphans by virtue of their fists and knees.
He looked down over the sloping rail of the bridge and stood there watching the oily water of the Misiericorde Canal slosh and heave in the lamplight. In a way the bits of flotsam and jetsam bobbing up and down in the dirty water comforted him. He could better understand his place in the universe when he stared at the water and its garbage. An orphan's lot is not a pretty one, nor a particularly good one, despite the mealy-mouthed platitudes of the Conservatives and their rhetoric concerning the sanctity of human life and the welfare of children. Navarre knew first-hand that they only cared about their own children and the heirs to the mercantile houses, the commercial clans, those born into the already established and well-to-do families that could afford a Name and a minor title. The politicians who sometimes came to 'inspect' the orphanages often pointed out that the orphans had every opportunity to be adopted into one of the Twenty Guilds, be made part of a Craftsfamily, be given a name and taught a trade, so that they could become contributing citizens. It was a bad joke that didn't even smell anymore. The Guilds took care of their own. They were almost as bad as the genist clades that inherited their bigotries like allergies. It was a rare thing that a Guild would stoop to adopt an orphan from one of the squalid little child-gaols along the Misiericorde Canal.
No one had adopted Navarre. He had survived the barely veiled violence, intimidation and rape that took place behind the keeper's backs or under their noses. Most of the time he was left to his own devices, as he was a sickly child, melancholy and his eyes disturbed anyone who looked too closely at them. Others trained and practiced in the use of weapons and the demanding and difficult techniques of the pits under the jaundiced eyes of gladiators who had won a momentary reprieve from the blood-hunger of the mob and were training orphans like themselves to take their place in the arenas. The mob demanded nothing less.
Sometimes he had been forced to participate as a practice-partner for one of the more promising bullies to beat upon. If he tried to defend himself too strenuously, he would pay for it later when the bully would seek him out and pound him bloody when he was asleep or too tired to do much in the way of protecting himself from their bizarrely impotent rage. No amount of violence ever seemed to slake the smoldering, broken hellmouth of shame, anger and pain that they all carried within and amongst the deepest roots of their very souls. Navarre was nothing if not observant. He saw clearly how the system operated. What was expected of him. He also saw opportunities where no one else noticed any.
Had he been born into a legitimate household Navarre might have become an artist-sorcerer like the great Drevahn or Cey-zu, but such was not to be. But he still slipped out of the orphanage, crawling through tunnels and apertures too tight for the bulkier and brawnier orphans to follow. And at night, beneath the conflicting shadows of the two moons, he would sneak off across the canal and go exploring the ruinous urban wilderness of the Charcotiere and the dark secrets that waited for him there. Sometimes he would scrawl amateurish grafitti on some wall, imitating the florid and exuberant images he had seen on the sides of cargo barges in the canal. Othertimes he would go to the untended orchard-forest in the once-squared courtyard of the Niskay Campus. The apples were slightly bitter, but far better than anything he would ever get to eat after the bullies made their rounds and confiscated the best bits for themselves.
On a whim Navarre pushed himself up from the rail and began to walk back into the heart of the Charcotiere, the lingering wisps of his nostalgia dissolving into the night air like tenuous ghosts who had done their deed and were now quiescent. He walked past the scene of his most recent humiliation and kept walking. Past the crumbling facade of the Anatomy Theater with its white-stained statue of Saint Rudbeck out front, beyond the gaping maw of a burned-out hospice, onwards through the gathering gloom and cold, clinging fog that was rolling in from off of the canal, Navarre strode onwards like a man on a mission.
Into the darkness he went, past the discarded and disreputable remnants of a bitter thing best left unremembered, unexamined and buried like a sore under some quack's duck-fat salve and a dirty bandage so that it could fester away quietly, unseen and undealt with for the shame, the horror was still too much, oh simply too, too much for Polite Society to bear.
Some people could embrace denial. Some people could get by with a little understanding, as long as it was miniscule and inconsequential, undemanding and soft like a puff pastry they could gobble up when they were nervous. It made no sense to Navarre, he could not understand why so many of his fellow orphans were so undemanding, so willing to accept their lot, to let themselves be victims of the system, of the keepers, of each other. They were bastard children of the mob, the biological debris that floated along the less reputable edges of humanity like garbage bobbing about in a murky canal that had no beginning, no end, only suffering and pain and a senseless, pointless death at the hands of some bully driven to heights of violence by the self-same mob that had given them birth into this nightmare, a mob that no longer knew how to experience ecstasy, a mob that was toxic and tainted and corrupt and devouring itself in blind hatred and self-loathing.
He bit into an apple dappled with the evening dew. It was bitter, but familiar and in a way comforting.
"Welcome home young sir," came a sussurant, sibilant whisper that slithered across the dirty stones towards him like a phantom snake in the night.
He finished his apple. Spit out the seeds. Closed his eyes and let out a soul-shuddering sigh that signalled his capitulation in the face of his unmistakeable realization.
"Will you teach me? You once promised that you would." The slightest crack in his otherwise smooth voice made him feel like a small child all over again. It was a feeling that he hated with a passion that few could match and fewer could appreciate.