Dawn is near when I enter under Porlese’s main arch. Despite the early hour and grey light, the cobbled streets teem with people. Slaves, I realise. Men and women about chores others do not want to be bothered with.
They are marked with a black circle, and it sits upon their chins. It is a horrid disfigurement, and most are not aligned to the soft pad; some are haphazardly placed to appear as a giant mole. Some are so far from round, they appear as scars. By the stars, I pray Horin, Siri and the others have not received the mark.
There are children on the streets too. Some are slaves; most are urchins seeking coin by running errands.
Everyone is too thin. Despite the claims of riches in Porlese, where even the beggars do well, it seems such mind-set does not extend to the slave population.
I desire to throttle someone.
As my horse clip-clops through the busy streets amid tall, painted buildings – I have named him Forest – few look up. Clearly someone on a horse is to be feared here. I stop to dismount, leading Forest on, hoping to make eye contact.
No one looks at me.
I am about to approach an older man scraping mildew from a wall, when a lad runs up.
“Mister, a coin for a loaf?”
I have little by way of coin, though Lyra shared what she had left from Siri. “Tell you what,” I say. “Take me to where we may both buy a loaf. Tell me something I need to know and I’ll get you one.”
The urchin nods. This one is hungry. “What you need?”
“Where do they keep the new crop of slaves?”
He stares at me with too wise eyes. “Are you mad, mister? Keep your loaf!” He runs away.