Ayre of the Last God
(Book III of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY


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L'Valin trembled as she waited in the darkened hovel for R'Min's answer, the rain quietly falling outside. Beside her, two huddled shapes sat on the floor, leaning against the walls. Wrapped in several moth-eaten blankets, they looked like piles of rags - but she knew that the keen eyes of the beggars watched her.

"Mrr... A copper talent, 'Val - that's it."

L'Valin gazed piteously at the one-eyed tom-cat before her. He was hideously wretched, and was, perhaps, the ugliest creature to ever live. His right leg was twisted and nearly useless, his left eye a milky-white orb. Both had been like this since birth - though L'Valin knew the rumor that he'd been dumped on a dung heap and raised by scavengers to not be true. The tom's right arm was palsied and withered, a childhood disease having struck him down at the age of eight. His ash-colored fur was mere patches and tufts scattered hither and yon across bare, sickly-grey skin - no healer knew the cause, yet though it looked hideous, it wasn't contagious. The tattered rags that covered his body only preserved the sensibilities of others from being exposed to further horrors beneath. Yes, R'Min was, indeed, perhaps the ugliest creature to ever live. Still, L'Valin spoke to him respectfully - one should always speak respectfully to the King of the Beggars.

"Mew... Please, R'Min... It is a long journey... I'll need to at least buy a skin for water..." L'Valin begged quietly.

"Mrowww... You shouldn't go at all, 'Val. You'll never make it," R'Min replied, and waved his withered paw at her. "Mrr... Look at yourself. When was the last time you ate?"

"Mew... I..."

"Fsst! You've been snorting catnip instead of eating, I'll wager. And look at yourself! You're filthy, 'Val. If you don't get off the weed, you're going to die. And you're going to go with this... Horse? All the way to the lands of the mus?" R'Min said with a snort at the massive stallion, standing behind L'Valin in the darkness of R'Min's small hovel like an ebon shadow. "Fsst! You'll never make it."

"Mew... Please, R'Min," L'Valin begged. "Mew... It's made of silver... It should fetch at least a silver talent, melted down. I need more than a copper, R'Min... Please..." L'Valin leaned close, bowing her head, and whispered. "Mrr... We... We had something pleasant, once..."

R'Min was silent, gazing back at her. Though he may have been trapped in a body that was withered, twisted and horrifying, R'Min was still an ordinary tom of thirty-six years of age, and had an ordinary tom's needs.

R'Min's word was law among the beggars. It was he who decided differences in territory, and he who determined who was allowed to beg at what corner of the maze-like streets of Raldad. His hobbling gait set many business-owners to shuddering when they saw him approach, and searching through their coffers to find a pawful of coin to send him on his way. By simply sitting on the street outside a business, R'Min could drive away those of more sensitive dispositions, and those who feared perhaps contracting whatever disease might have rendered the repulsive tom the way he was. Even the constables refused to touch him, for fear of catching whatever sickness might have caused his fur to fall out. At his slightest word, a hundred or more wretched, bedraggled beggars of all ages and descriptions could descend on a single street at once, driving away all the customers for hours - or simply robbing the businesses blind with a hundred pairs of nimble paws. A thousand or more eyes, ears and paws were at R'Min's command - and the eyes and ears of a beggar often saw and heard far more than many would suspect. When R'Min had first appeared on the streets of Raldad thirty years ago, a beggar was simply a bundle of rags to be kicked aside. Now, none of the common-folk dared such an affront. The beggars were everywhere, and they were always watching. And, as an old saying of the cats went, 'Even the beggars have claws.'

Yet, despite his power on the street, R'Min had his limits. There simply were only a handful of she-cats who turned to begging, and most only because they were too old, diseased or maimed to whore anymore. Even of those few, though they held him in respect (and perhaps no little fear), they did not offer their bodies to him. He was simply too horrifying - a freak, twisted and maimed by a quirk of birth and a lifetime spent living in the gutter. No whore would touch him, either, save that they were truly desperate - and often even the desperate ones would retch and flee once they saw the hideous deformities that lay beneath his rags. As such, R'Min had spent most of his life gazing quietly at the she-cats who passed by his view, frustration and anger burning a hole in his heart.

Until L'Valin.

Three months ago, she had arrived, seemingly from nowhere. R'Min had sized her up, as he did all new whores noticed on the streets by the beggars - there was always the chance a blind whore might show up, someday. This one was not blind, but was a catnip addict - R'Min's sensitive nose could easily smell the scent of it upon her. A catnip addiction was an expensive thing, and few whores could afford it. R'Min took a week's worth of coin, and had bought an ounce to offer a trade to the new whore. He knew not where the hundred or so scars he saw on her pelt came from (though he guessed, from their appearance, she had been tortured), and he cared not at all. His own appearance was a thousand times worse, and besides - if one could ignore the scars, as he could quite easily, her figure was quite attractive.

R'Min continued to gaze into L'Valin's face, remembering. Her arms, paws, feet, neck and lovely face were about all that were unmarked, and to all ordinary standards of beauty, the dozens of scars cris-crossing her pelt left her naked body repulsive. Yet, even beneath the filth and grime that covered her now, L'Valin was still beautiful to his baleful, single eye. R'Min remembered that night, the first time...

He had finished, grinding himself into her in an ecstasy of pleasure as she gently, oh-so-gently scratched the bare skin of his back with her claws. She was a skilled and consummate lover - where she had learned, he had no idea, but she had made the experience the most powerful and moving of his pathetic life. As the wave of pleasure faded, he had hastily slipped himself from her, reaching for his rags to cover himself. He did this so that she might not see him as her own pleasure faded, realize the disgusting thing she had just coupled with, and claw him in shame and anger. It had happened before. Yet, before he could leave, he felt a gentle paw upon his withered arm.

"Mrrr... Where are you going?" she had asked. "Purr... The night is still young..."

And there, on that night, exhausted, spent and happy, R'Min had finally slept topping a female, which in his culture was the only way a male could gain his true maturity, by receiving a part of her adult spirit as he slept. Only females could truly mature on their own - males could not, and denied the Warrior's Rest, they remained forever immature in the eyes of his people. R'Min had not had the experience at sixteen, as most males in his culture did. It simply was impossible. He was too hideous. Yet L'Valin had shared her spirit with him, and this was a kindness he simply could never repay. He had waited twenty years for that moment - and it was everything he had ever hoped for, and more.

R'Min gazed at L'Valin, and his heart softened. As he looked into her eyes, he felt nothing but pity for her. She was filthy, starved - probably dying of starvation, yet unable to feel it through the catnip's haze. She was in the last stages of addiction, and there was nothing he could do. It was strange, to him, to feel pity for anyone. He, of all creatures, was the most pitiable thing on Oerth, and he had never felt pity for any other, no matter how sad their situation, simply because he felt his existence was far, far worse. Yet, now, as he looked at her, he felt deep pity... And sadness. He knew that if he said 'no,' she would simply try someone else... Someone who might not give her fair value for the silver ring in the stallion's ear... Someone who might simply take it, and give her nothing.

"Mrr... Alright. A silver, 'Val. For what we once had..." R'Min replied, and nodded to one of the bundles of rags against the wall. With smooth, feline grace, the beggar rose, a knife flashing in the dim light. The stallion whinnied fearfully, reading the cat's intent in his mind.

"Mrowr! No! Don't cut him! Don't hurt him, please!" L'Valin yowled. She leaned against the stallion, wrapping her arms about him protectively.

R'Min nodded. "Mrr... Just use the clippers, R'Nit. Just clip it open - don't cut his ear."

The beggar nodded, the knife disappearing as easily as it had appeared. A heartbeat later, the beggar withdrew a pair of clippers, such as they used to cut small locks on jewelry-boxes they might steal. The stallion bent down, and in a moment, the deed was done.

R'Min looked at the little tag for a moment. A vain thing - a thing of the wealthy, western clans, it marked the stallion as being quite valuable. How he had escaped, musclebound as he was from years of heavy labor and probably unable to outrun anything (and valuable enough so that he would be hunted down), was beyond him. A year ago, R'Min would have seen the stallion as an enormous windfall. He'd have probably taken the stallion to one of the two slave-traders in Raldad, and sold him for a goodly sum to be shipped to the west again. Now, Lord R'Narr's edict had made that impossible. There were no more slavers in Raldad. The stallion was completely worthless, save for his earring - and now, not even for that. R'Min slipped the earring into a pocket, and after a moment, held out his good paw. In the palm was a small silver coin. "Mrr... Take it, 'Val."

"Mew... Thank you, 'Min..." L'Valin replied, reaching to her neck once she took the coin. Having no other pockets, she slipped the coin inside her catnip bag, then dropped the mud-encrusted bag beneath her dress again. She stood there silently, as if searching for words. R'Min remained silent, unable to say what was really on his mind. Finally, L'Valin spoke again. "Mew... Goodbye," she said softly, then took the stallion's arm and walked outside R'Min's little hovel.

R'Min stared after her a long time. There was so much he had wanted to say to her... And yet, he knew nothing he could say would make any difference. Now, she was gone, and he would never see her again.

Quietly, the King of the Beggars wept.

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