"You are from the east?" The half-orc said by way of introduction. He was easily as big I was, much darker skinned and with a greater abundance of facial hair. But he was also impeccably groomed, with well tailored, expensive clothes and an air of sophistication about him that impressed me. How could he carry himself with that kind of confidence? Didn't it make him a magnet for hostility?
I straightened up from where I had been leaning over the railing of the boat, feeling more than a bit awkward. Polite conversation was not a skill I possessed. Picking out nice clothes was not a skill I possessed. Hell, being well groomed was not a skill I possessed. I felt like a wharf rat standing in front of some well-bred nobleman's hunting dog. "Unh," I grunted by way of an answer and then stopped. For once in my life, I would not play the fool. Not in front of this man. "...yes. Yes, I am." I hesitated a moment, searching for something to say that wouldn't be too dimwitted. "You speak both languages."
"Yes, I have found it an invaluable business tool. Is this your first journey into Darkdim Crux?"
Business tool? Who was this man? He was amazing! "Well, yes, it is. I'm... escorting a friend. Are you... You have a business? I..." Here I stopped for a moment. I was pretty sure I was being an idiot. "I apologize, but I had no opportunity to meet another... person of mixed blood in the city I grew up in."
He chuckled a bit and leaned his elbows on the rail to look out over the smooth, gray-green waters and the stands of papyrus that lined its banks. "I have heard that our kind are uncommon and even unwelcome in the far north and east. Indeed, at times I have troubles with merchants from those locales." He gave me an appraising look, then commented, "For all that the east frowns so much on the concept of owning slaves, they seem to have difficulties accepting that a half breed could do business without a master."
"Can I ask you an impolite question?"
His eyebrows swept out sideways almost to his hairline in a grand arch that I think was shaved or plucked; he lifted one of them now as he looked at me. "So long as I may reserve the right to decline an answer."
"You look wealthy. You say you have no master, I assume you work for yourself and the business is your own. You walk like you're as good as or better than the humans around you. ...Hasn't anyone tried to kill you yet? Or at least put you in what they think should be your place?"
The half orc stared at me for a long moment, then gave a broad smile that showed his lower tusks without a single shred of shame. "Who says they haven't tried? I am Ahman Abd'Zhejaran Najir, humble rug merchant of Noksheoth Heights." He gave me a bow, with a graceful flourish of his hand that left me envious. "And you, my friend?"
"Um. Osgun. Just Osgun."
"Very well met, Osgun. Grant me the most gracious of favors and allow me the pleasure of buying my new friend a drink." He waved toward one of the tables on the aft deck and led the way, gesturing to a server and speaking in the western tongue, presumably for two drinks. "Please, my friend, sit."
"Uh, thank you." The server came by with two goblets, filled with a light, clear substance. I thanked the server as well, and took a tentative sip. And was a little disappointed. "Wine."
Ahman smiled a little as he looked at me, as if reading my thoughts on the choice of drink. "Shall I tell you a story, Osgun?"
"Uh, sure. I mean, that would be nice." Where was Riordan when I needed him? He was never at a loss for words.
"My father," he began, swirling the wine in his cup, "was a warrior of the plains and deserts. My mother and her village were his victims. She gave me the gift of life, the name of Ahman, and little else. I was sold as a slave when I was still quite young." He looked up at me while this sunk in, and smiled again. "Half orcs bring a good price at the slave markets here in the west. We are quite strong, but we are more intelligent and reliable than our full-blooded orcish brothers. We are esteemed in these lands as personal guards and ring fighters, often serving wealthy men and sometimes amassing considerable wealth and even celebrity status fighting in the ring. You have, perhaps, heard of the Wabal-thawr?"
"The, ah," my friend waved one ham-sized hand. "The Dirty Bull. No? He was wildly popular for his unconventional tactics. Not, perhaps, the pinnacle of what our kind can achieve in terms of culture, perhaps, but well loved by the people nonetheless. He fought for years, then went on to become the personal bodyguard of one the elder kings in the City of the Dead. After I was sold, I, too, learned the ways of the warrior. I became Ahman Abd'Zhejaran. The name means 'slave of the Zhejaran guild', they who purchased me in the markets, so long ago. I bore the name then for the same reason I keep it now. Pride. The guild gave me a trade, skills, brothers, sisters, family. The Zhejaran send their best to Noksheoth Heights, to fight in the blood rings, to guard the wealthy, to shed blood for the undead. I was among those chosen to journey to the Heights, and through my skill with the blade -- skills given to me by the Zhejaran -- I won my freedom and the favor of some wealthy patrons. As a free man, I chose for myself a new name, one I will pass on to my sons and daughters. I became Ahman Abd'Zhejaran Najir. Through some clever investing, some luck, and the influence of some kind patrons, I have established a business for myself that meets my needs and assures the comfort of myself and my young wife."
He paused for a moment to contemplate the sunlight glinting through his wine and then took a sip. "You asked if anyone has tried to 'put me in what they think should be my place'. I apologize for taking such a circuitous route to answer your question, but I felt the answer could not be understood without knowing more about what 'place' I am in. I wear my place for all to see, in name, in form, in mark," he held up a solid looking wrist with a beautiful, sinuous tattoo boldly visible underneath all the hair. It was vaguely chain-like and I assumed it was a mark given to slaves. "'Place' is a concept more complex, perhaps even more restrictive in the west than in the east, but I have earned mine and people here do not begrudge it of me merely because my father was not human." He looked at me and then smiled broadly with dark humor. "Here in the west, a man born without noble blood or money is dirt, no matter if the blood in his veins is human or not."
"That's really amazing, Ahman," I said, and meant it. "Your wife&?"
His eyes lit with amusement at the question I wasn't sure how to politely ask. "Human. A lovely daughter of a common merchant like myself. From a family not as prosperous, perhaps, and therefore grateful to gain such a solvent son-in-law. I will answer your next question to spare you the breach in taste of asking: Were I a champion of the rings and a successful merchant without the taint of orc in my veins, most likely I could have married a daughter of a more prosperous family, but again I say to you, here in the west what matters most in blood is nobility. If you do not have that, then your life has no value but what material wealth you can amass or skills you can develop, be you human, orc or dog."
I leaned forward over my cup. "Where I come from, the more skills I show or money I got, the angrier people around me get. As long as I don't show anyone up, I'm okay."
"That is the impression I have received in my dealings with your people. Who is this friend of yours you are escorting, Osgun?" He caught my hesitation almost instantly and added, "Are they from the east or are they native to my land?"
"From the Heights, actually. That's where we're headed."
"Excellent. I think perhaps you might enjoy spending some time here in our land, but it can be a treacherous place without a guide. Should your friendship not be so close as to afford you good council or a place to stay, you must come to my shop."
"Thank you. I would be ...honored."
"You must find time to stop by and pay a social call while you are in the Heights, even if you have no need of my hospitality. It would please me."
I promised that I would and then made an excuse to take his leave. My head was swimming with something very similar to awe. I had met another half orc, and he wasn't a brute, or a criminal, or a savage, or an asshole. He had every wealth I could ever imagine myself wanting. I was relieved, I was delighted, I was jealous, I was humiliated at how little I had accomplished and how crude I was in comparison... I headed down to our little cabin, bursting with news.
"Aw, Ozzie made a friend," was the first thing out of Riordan's mouth. "Who'da thought there'd be two big, ugly, sensitive guys on the same boat?"
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