The Throat may have predated the Big Rupture, although the theory was hotly debated at the Grand Academy. The yawning sinkhole used to mark the western border of Benga Loa in ancient days but in time superstitions surrounding it faded and the city grew around it. Meanwhile the Engine Children built downwards forming a kind of city within a city. Merchants of every race were welcome to ply their trade on the upper levels but lower, close to the water that pooled in the bottom and flowed out and down into the great rift river things were decidedly more hostile. Here in the Low, the Buried Sons were the ruling power and they did not welcome outsiders, Kef or otherwise.
Juon supposed he could count himself lucky for finding a Buried Son for a husband. Marmont was smart, talented, insanely handsome and insanely well respected within the Sons. Juon would have been more than content with simply experience the bliss of true love but if true love came with new ridiculously lucrative business opportunities far be it from him to question good fortune.
He pinched Marmonts bare elbow affectionately, dancing back a step when the shorter man went to slap him in the stomach.
“I’ve never been down this far! Very exciting!” Juon grinned.
“Try to control yourself, will you?” Marmonts gaze flicked to a group of Sons hefting pick axes over their shoulders. He nodded curtly at one of the women who saluted briefly before setting out across one of the many rope bridges strung across the Throat with her fellows. “I don’t need you making a fool of me.”
Juon ducked under one of the red lanterns that hung over the wide decending staircase. It was still crowded in the Low but the population had become markedly more homogenous and uncaring about the comfort of taller peoples. A young man shouldered Juon unnecessarily as he passed and Juon shrugged it off. His parents had always taught him to show deference when not on his own turf but Juon noted the boys face should the youth ever find himself outside of it.
“You wound me.”
Marmont snorted. “I’ll have to take you through The Whetstone to get to our contact. It’s the best route to the waterline. I won’t let anyone give you any trouble but for the love of breath don’t make any.”
“Wounded!” Juon clutched his chest and Marmont rolled his eyes.
Juon brushed another lantern out of his way, not bothering to duck this time. It was actually rather pretty down here, thousands of the red paper lanterns holding glowing stones were strung across and around the vast sink hole illuminating the thick tree roots that reached down towards the water. All around them faces carved open mouthed for the entrances to dwelling by some long dead civilization spilled their inhabitants. The carved brands on cheeks and foreheads more recently painted bright blue. Stairs, walkways, bridges everywhere. To an untrained eye the Throat might look haphazard, but Juon could recognize an elegant practicality to the design. Welcoming at the top it was planned to confuse anyone not of the Children towards the bottom. Switchbacks and choke points to corner intruders should the need arise. And the need had, frequently. The last time the Watch attempted to storm the Low in pursuit of smugglers they were slaughtered to a man, trapped in the net of the Throat.
Juon had always had a vast appreciation for clever traps.
They had come to the lowest reaches now, to a deck built around one of the gaping stone mouths.
Marmont flashed his engraved token to the thick armed youth standing at the entrance as a matter of courtesy. The girl only had a token portion of the tattoos and brands Marmont did. A novice in the Sons then. She held an arm up in front of Juon as he moved to enter behind Marmont.
“You’re fine, Settlebranc, this one stays outside.” Jaw set, she did not waver.
“He came with me and he stays with me.” Marmont said gruffly.
“And what business could this Kef have in the Throat? Master?”
Juon spread his arms and flashed his most genial smile.
“Master Juon Tiro.”
Her arm stayed up but her face was now uncertain. His family name reached far, wide, and deep. His husbands rough bark was the finishing blow to the girls confidence.
“Novice. When I bring a guest to this hall it’s for a reason. Now drop your arm and move away.”
She did, muttering a shamed “My apologies, Brother Settlebranc.” If her eyes hadn’t been cast downwards she might have noticed Marmont take his hand away from his second best hammer, the one he reserved for the more indelicate work of cracking skulls.
More suprises once they were in the tavern. Farrow looked up as they entered, hurt crossed his features then a guarded scowl.
“Ah, your old lover is here. How nice.” Juon remarked and nodded cordially in Farrow’s direction. Marmont was decidedly less cordial. He jerked his head at Farrow, tounge out he touched two fingers to his throat, and flicked them dismissively. Farrow’s scowl deepened and he turn away to start a conversation with a man at his elbow.
“You don’t have to be so malicious, Mar.”
“You can’t be defending that piece of shit.” Marmont said as they descended the concealed stairs in the back of the bar.
“Wouldn’t think of it. I just don’t see the merit in kicking a man that hard when he’s down. It must be a constant struggle to be incompetent and be thrown over for a perfect man like myself.” Juon slung an arm around Marmonts neck. Marmont tolerated it.
“No one was thrown over. I was done with him before we met.”
“I know, but I like to think I won a competition.” Juon grinned. He tried not to admit that he liked possessing someone so desired.
They reached the bottom of the stairs to the meeting place and Juon the lover became Juon the business man. Gingerly he stepped out onto a wide flat rock that sat at the base of the stairs. He stood, hands on hips and looked out across the still dark water. A moment later a pale shape broke the surface and slithered towards them. The huge white salamander and it’s rider slunk up onto the rock with them.
“Wahey, Tiro!” The sleek white haired rider dismounted and spit the hollow piece of wood stuffed with withergrass Baseians used to breath underwater into her hand. ”
“Paleah! Good to see you!” Juon greeted her warmly. “You have something nice for me?”
“Very nice, very nice, Tiro!” She flashed her pointed teeth and pulled a sack from the reed saddle on her salamander. She dropped it to his feet and crouched to rummage through it. She came up with a twisted branch of red coral.
“From the river under the Hanging City.” Paleah said proudly. “Hard to find then hard to get. Had a nosebleed for a week from diving that deep.”
Juon took it from her and turned it in his hands. It could be broken up, polished and set into jewelry. The price it would fetch with the well heeled in the patrician quarter was staggering. Paleah was looking over his shoulder at Marmont with wide, pale eyes.
“This your new man, Tiro?”
He didn’t look up from the coral branch and waved at Marmont behind him. “Oh, I’m sorry. Paleah, my husband Marmont Settlebranc. He was the one who made this transaction possible in the first place.”
Marmont shifted under her appraising eye until she grinned. “Niiiice, Tiro.”
Juon flipped the branch overhand and nodded. “Good. I’ll take it. What do you want?”
“No shell, silver. You have silver for me?” She asked.
From the pocket stitched into his outer robe Juon pulled seven silver ingots and dropped them into Paleahs webbed hand. “Pleasure as always, Paleah.”
“Hey, hey! Anytime, dear Tiro! And my regards to the rest of your family! Let them know the Marshas Dren appreciate the patronage.” One smooth motion and she had mounted her salamander again and slipped noiselessly back into the water. She waved before submerging.
“Olac, Tiro! And goodbye, handsome new man!”
“The company you keep, JuJu.”
Juon laughed and slung the sack over his shoulder and pulled Marmont in for a kiss. “Come on, let’s go scandalize your brethren some more on the way back home. Maybe I’m crueler than you. I do sort of like seeing the look on another mans face when he realizes he can’t have you anymore. It gives me a sick thrill.”