‘My father says I’m not to play with you, you’re a dirty fatherless foreign brat!’
Kor-Sen, a skinny eight-year-old, was pinned by both arms against a crumbling mudbrick wall, held by two large henchmen of the plump, well-dressed speaker. For months he had been trailing after the other boys – young girls did not play in the streets of Sen-Mar – and had been allowed to join in their games from time to time. He would be allowed to make up a team if they were one short of a side for the eternally popular pastime of pursuing an inflated goat-bladder up and down the twisting streets. He might be allowed to carry something particularly heavy for one of the wealthier boys. One of them might now and then grant him a sweetmeat or a sip of sherbet from their purchases when they decided to impress the poorer children by spending their own money – bronze or even silver coins – at the market stalls. He was usually the one left behind to take the blame when the rush and tumble of their games caused the collapse of a stall or the scattering of some household’s washing, and in this way he acquired many bruises. Yet until this day he had been happy. Until this day when the two big boys, poor and dirty boys like himself, had suddenly grabbed him on the orders of Sal-Mor, fat and oily Sal-Mor whose father owned half the weaving sheds in the artisans quarter, and whose rents gave a sorry double meaning to the word ‘fleece’.