The Godless Land

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I.

Shaking, Pietro held the blade of his dagger to the man’s neck.

“Come on!” his father cajoled him. “If we let him live, he’ll tattle and we’ll have to give up the gold and maybe get in trouble.”

Pietro looked into the man’s eyes. They were pleading. Did this man have a wife? Children? Were they counting on him? Would they mourn his death for the rest of their lives? They would never see him again.

“You’re soft,” his father said. “I raised a softy, didn’t I?”

“I’m sorry,” said Pietro. “I can’t do it.”

The father stepped behind him and drove a dagger up into the man’s back. The man’s eyes rolled up in the back of his head and Pietro winced as he collapsed to the floor, bleeding.

His father wiped the blood off his blade with a gauze. “I’m real disappointed in you. Your grandfather would be ashamed. Hell, I’m ashamed.”

“I’m sorry, father,” Pietro said. “When I look into his eyes—”

“Don’t look into the eyes, then, if it bothers you!” his father shouted. “You’re a wimp, boy. A wimp!” He glared. “Now mother’s winter fete is going until midnight. Once that’s done, I’m taking you and we’re going to old man Arturo’s house, and you, my son, are going to kill him. Either that, or I’ll kill you.”

Arturo was a harmless, senile man who paid Pietro’s father a monthly sum to “keep him safe.” The payment was injustice enough. Pietro couldn’t kill Arturo.

As they walked back home, Pietro thought to himself. He didn’t know if the murderer was really his father. He had often suspected he was adopted: his hair was wild and untamed and dark black, unlike the white-blonde of his mother and the reddish-brown of his father; and he was hairy, unlike them, and he couldn’t kill like they could.

The city where he lived was an equal recipient of his hatred – the city of Peregoth, the grand capital of the whole empire – even though it was the world center of trade, and people flocked here for opportunity. It was corrupt: corrupt like a great tree rotting from the inside, with the outward appearance of might, yet ready, at any second, to collapse.

At age sixteen, the age he officially became a man, his parents had begun taking him along on their “jobs,” and only then had he learned of their true business and that they were rich because they stole, extorted, embezzled, and murdered.

The fete was in full swing and the high society of Peregoth had gathered in the grand hall. In the corner, his mother was holding a goblet of wine and laughing with the captain of the City Watch; Pietro didn’t think the high-ranking official knew about the source of their wealth, but he wasn’t sure he would care.

Pietro went upstairs to his room. He could not murder Arturo and live with it; he could not live with the image of the old man’s innocent, pleading eyes. Even now, he didn’t think he would be able to live after seeing his father kill that man. At least, he could not live with his parents. When he was young, he thought he loved them.

He put on a cloak and climbed out through the window. Little by little he descended, taking advantage of footholds where he could. He got down to the ground floor and felt the cold of the stone on his bare feet.

And he ran, and the sound of the fete—the pipes and pouring wine and laughter and idle chatter—fled away from him, and he never saw his parents again.

An hour passed in the dimly-lit, shadowy streets of Peregoth, and Pietro remembered that of all parts of the city, the docks were the most busy – and therefore, he guessed, the least dangerous – at night. He hurried through the streets, and made it to Harbor District, the city’s center of trade, where the noise of flutes and violins and singing echoed and scent of roast meat and vegetables wafted up in the starry night.

He went into a tavern, where some half-clothed woman was performing an exotic southern dance on a table. A swarthy sailor, surrounded by cronies, sat in the corner with a mug of ale.

“Hey, boy!” he called out.

“Yes?” said Pietro.

“What’s your name?”

“Pietro!” he said, and crossed the room.

“You look sad. What’s bothering you?”

“Well, my mother and my father are criminals, and they want me to kill people and I can’t do it, by gods, I can’t do it,” Pietro said, surprised at how honest he was being, “and I just want to leave this horrible city and never see it again, because I hate it here so much—” He was tearing up.

“Well,” the sailor said, “The name’s Lefty – Lefty ’cause I fight with my left hand – and I can take you away from here. We’re going south, far south, further than the maps show. Further than hardly anyone besides us have gone before. Beyond the southern kingdoms, into what is known as the tropics. We’re bringing back a shipment and we could use an extra hand. We leave tomorrow morn.”

Pietro lifted up his dagger. “I’ve got this. I can come, and I’ll be a great help!”

“I’m sure you will be,” said Lefty. “Now have a seat and I’ll buy you a drink. How’s a dark northern ale sound?”

“Great!” Pietro said.

Lefty sure seemed nice, and definitely not a murderer, and his ship would take Pietro far from his murderous “parents” and far from the great city that sat proudly on many waters, soon to collapse with the gravity of its corruption.

They set sail the next morning and Pietro stood on the quarterdeck, smiling the whole way as the winds blew and they left the harbor. The gigantic bronze Colossus that peered over the thousands and thousands of ships – painstakingly built centuries ago in an effort to guide sailors – grew smaller and smaller in the horizon. Soon they were gone from the busy, well-traversed waters around Peregoth and the surrounding islands.

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