I still remember when the streets of the entire Central Plateau were lit by Tarakan lamps. Now, only a few blocks away from the ever-lit square, the back streets were almost pitch-black, and the inhabitants were of a more sinister type. I passed several groups of people huddling on street corners, standing around heating stones and open bonfires. The people were idle, drinking and talking among themselves, but I knew they were just waiting, like beasts of prey, for someone like me to come along and be dinner.
Quite early in my mission, I reached the conclusion that weapons were of no use to me. I owe many of my victories, as well as several near-death experiences, to my quick thinking and fast talking. Yet for all my self- reliance, I became painfully aware that I was walking in a dangerous part of the city with a heavy purse that jingled with every step I took. Heads turned and calculating stares followed my pace. A few of the more enterprising young men began following me, jostling for position and waiting for an opportunity to pounce.
There are not many times when my glowing red eyes are a blessing, but this was one of those occasions. I turned my head so my followers could see the fiery pupils from the depths of my cowl. Had I possessed a scythe, I could have achieved a better effect, but my glare was enough, and the shadowy entourage dispersed quickly.
I was born after the horrors of the Purges, when tattooed people like me were hunted and killed. The markings appeared on my face shortly after my thirteenth birthday. Although I was devastated, I was spared the suffering that most of my kind endured thanks to parents who were kind, loving, and— more important—wealthy. My father knew the man who is now my LoreMaster. Master Harim saw my potential, took me as an underling, and made a fine profit from my father's coin. Notwithstanding the morning I discovered the tattoos that had appeared on my eyelids, my life until this assignment had actually been quite secure and relatively trouble free. I can honestly say I was content with my post as a secondary scribe at the Guild of Historians and looking forward to copying data and deciphering old books and salvaged Tarakan pads for the rest of my days.
Then one day, my LoreMaster sent me on this little errand. I remembered the moment I stepped out of the tower and into the real world, still believing in humanity. 'Well, that feeling's definitely out of my system now.' "Reading scripture can be satisfying," my LoreMaster would tell me often, "but there is no greater adventure than going out there and finding knowledge by yourself."
"Sounds dangerously close to Salvo-speak, LoreMaster," I half-teased him.
There was not much about the Salvationist's era, despite being recent, post-Catastrophe history, that my LoreMaster had not mentioned to me countless times. I could almost silently mouth the words of his next sentence.
"Very colourful cussing, I have to admit," he chuckled. "It's been a while since I rubbed shoulders with a Salvationist crew, but I suspect their speech is still as imaginative today. The Salvationists were right at least about one thing: there is no greater thrill, I tell you, than to salvage technology and dig information out from the ruins with your own hands."
"Or pry it from a dead man's hand," I added without thinking.
LoreMaster Harim frowned, took his pipe out of his mouth and pointed it at me. "You, my dear boy, have been reading far too many Salvo-novels, and don't even try to deny it. I know where you stash them."
I blushed. "Purely for research," I mumbled, "about social cohesion in times of struggle."
The old man muttered something almost inaudible, which nevertheless sounded like Salvo-speak to me, before declaring, "Well, son, you can pack your saucy novels away. I am sending you on a research mission. Something terribly important may have just happened, and I need you to investigate it. Fully. There is a woman, an ex-Salvationist. Her name is Vincha."
I felt my heartbeat accelerate as my LoreMaster mentioned the Salvationists....