Hugh stood still, almost terrified, as Khilia slowly walked up to him.
“Aww, you’re just a big softy. I know how to fix that.” She grabbed his belt and pulled herself in closer.
“I’ve never… done this before,” said Hugh.
“How old are you?”
“Fifty,” he replied.
Khilia looked up at him and smiled. “That’s a long time to wait… I promise, I’ll be worth it.”
Hugh could have sworn he heard bells ringing. In fact… he was sure he heard bells ringing. Khilia blinked and started to look uncomfortable. Then, there was distant screaming.
“What’s going on?” asked Hugh.
“It must be a fire,” said Khilia.
Hugh walked outside, and there was smoke billowing up from the middle of the city, as well as the red and orange flicker of flames at the plume’s base. He ran through the streets toward the blaze and came to a row of houses on fire.
Crowds of people stood in the street nearby, watching from a safe distance, but one man was on his knees, arms raised, near one of the houses. Hugh approached and he heard the man yelling that his children were inside. Hugh asked him how many and where, and the man said there were five on the second or third floor.
Hugh climbed the front of a nearby building that was untouched by the fire, then walked along the rooftops to the home with the kids inside. He squeezed through the stairwell to the third floor and struggled to see through the smoke. Hugh kept his belly to the ground while crawling through the home.
“Hello?” Hugh yelled every few seconds, though he could hardly see where he was going. When his arm was fully extended out in front of him, he could barely see past the elbow.
Hugh tried to make a mental map of the floor, and before long, he reached the stairwell to the level below. He turned and followed a wall back around the room, finally coming to a bed. Hugh coughed before lifting the bed a bit with his shoulder as he reached far to feel around underneath.
He felt something soft, an arm or leg. He pulled them close to him and felt around more. He found another and clutched them close. He looked for more and could not find any. He looked at the two in his arms and they looked lifeless.
He crawled with them back to the stairwell, and slid face-first down them. His knees and elbows knocked on every board the whole way down. He set the two children on the stairs and crawled into the second floor.
He shouted, but he could barely even hear himself over the roar of the fire. He was much closer to it now, though he couldn’t even see the glow of it through the haze. He could feel the heat, though.
He crawled again on his belly, until he came to a wall. He followed it around and came to a door to another room. He followed the last wall back to the stairwell, grabbed the two children, and made his way quickly through the middle of the room, groping around blindly with his free hand. He hadn’t realized it until now, but he had gone from squinting to completely closing his eye some time ago.
He set the two children down in the doorway, and began to search the next room. He immediately found a bed, but there was no one underneath. He found another stairwell… and he was overwhelmed by the heat. Hugh coughed and quickly backed up. He followed the other wall back and found another bed.
The sound of the fire roared and crackled, but Hugh was sure he heard a scream. He groped around and felt someone. He collected another two children, who lay limp in his arms, but he could not find the fifth. He checked around one more time, but he had to get out of there. He could not stand the smoke any longer in there.
He stumbled back to the doorway where he left the kids, and it seemed like the fire had spread to the first room. He reached for a body and he felt movement. He also thought for sure he heard another scream. He grabbed for the sound and pulled them to him. He collected up the two children lying in the doorway and without even thinking, put his head down and ran crouched over, since he was too tall to stand up completely.
He hit a wall hard with his shoulder. He backed up a bit and kicked it with all he had. He felt it give, but only a little. Hugh started seeing spots, even with his eye closed. He fell into the wall, back first. He pushed as hard as he could, but his feet slipped out from under him and he went to the ground. He got into a crouch and leaped as hard as he could into the wall.
He came crashing through, but his legs didn’t clear the edge. He dangled out a gaping hole with smoke streaming out over him. He managed to wriggle out and tuck as he fell, hitting the ground on his back hard.
He lay there gasping for breath, his eye still pinched shut. He felt no movement in the bodies he held. Someone dragged his arms off the children and they were lifted away, one by one. Hugh stayed down for some time, until his breathing came easily. He slowly got up, blinking his eye. Everything was blurry.
The fire had started in the kitchen of the home next door, when the woman tending it nodded off. Before she even realized, it had spread to the next domicile, the home of the family with the children Hugh went in for. She was awoken by yells of “Fire!” outside her window.
Of the five children Hugh pulled out, three were already dead, and a fourth died not long after being brought out. Only one survived. Hugh wouldn’t find out until later, though, because he made many trips with a tub, bringing water from a nearby fountain to the fire.
After one of his trips, Hugh saw some people standing near the blaze, including the father of the children he pulled out. Hugh approached them and he surmised that one of the better dressed men was actually buying the homes that were on fire, as well as the homes adjacent to them. Hugh went back to carrying tubs full of water.
After a few more trips, teams of men began tearing down buildings near the fire, using axes and hammers to topple them at their base. Before long, the builds fell and the rubble was methodically moved away from the blaze.
The man Hugh saw buying the properties came up to him.
“You can stop, best to let it burn itself out, now.”
Hugh set down the tub. “Why did you buy burning homes?” he asked.
“It’s not the homes I am after. I want the property.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
The man waved his hand at the crumbled and smoldering homes. “These people don’t have the money to rebuild, but I do. If they didn’t sell to me, they would have nothing but an empty lot to sleep on. Now, they can rebuild their lives.”
Hugh stood watching the flames die down for a bit, then went over to the father who was mourning his children.
“I’m sorry,” said Hugh, putting his hand on the father’s shoulder.
The man was stooped over one of his dead daughters, but he got up and hugged Hugh.
Hugh looked down at him. “I’m sorry I was only able to save one.”
The man pulled away from Hugh and looked him in the eye, his face black with soot. “Earlier this year, I lost my wife. Today, I have lost four children. Without you, I would have nothing left. You say you only saved one, but you’ve saved everything I now have. Thank you.”
“Well, not everything. That man over there paid you for your lost home.”
The man frowned. “That vulture paid me a pittance, not even enough money to rent a room for more than three months.”
“But you can always work your way back up.”
The man shook his head. “I worked out of my home. I make fine textiles, and years worth of inventory just burned up. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“Come live with me until you are back on your feet,” said Hugh.
“I couldn’t possibly impose upon you like that.”
“I insist, come on.”
Hugh lifted the four dead children and carried them while the man and his son walked behind. When they arrived, they went out back and Hugh built a large pile of wood. They burned the bodies on the massive pyre. Khilia, who had remained in Hugh’s home, followed them when they went out behind the home and watched the whole funeral.
Hugh showed the father where the room he could stay in was, then retired to his room with Khilia.
“I’m not much in the mood for that right now, sorry,” Hugh said after she lay down next to him.
“Don’t worry, I’ve already been paid,” she said, snuggling up next to him. “For all I care, you could just pass out now.”
“I’m not really tired,” he said. “I’ve never failed like that before.”
“What do you mean? You saved his son, and you recovered the bodies of his other children so that–”
“So that they can be burned on a pyre instead of in his house?”
Khilia sat up and turned to Hugh. “Yes. So that he could properly say good bye. I can’t believe you would do what you did, and I really can’t believe you see it as anything but an amazing act of selfless courage.”
“I just keep thinking about whether I could have saved more of them if only I had done it differently.”
“Maybe,” she replied, “Or maybe, if you hadn’t run out of here at the first sound of the bells, you wouldn’t have saved the one you did.”
Hugh glanced over at Khilia. “Maybe,” he said.
“Do you know how many men in this city would have left the company of a naked woman to run into a burning building?”
Hugh shook his head.
“In my experience, just one.”
“I don’t need to be flattered by someone who was paid to… please me.”
Khilia shoved his shoulder. “I was paid to fuck you, not flatter you. You can buy sex from me, but you can’t buy my honesty.”
They lay there silently for a bit, before Hugh said, “You know… if I was at the party, I probably wouldn’t have heard the bells over the noise, and if I had just gone home alone tonight, I might not have realized what the bells meant. I might even have just slept through it. You’re the reason I knew there was a fire.” He turned to face her. “Thank you.”
“We need more people like you in this city. People don’t help others here unless it benefits them.”
“There was a man who was buying the homes that were on fire.”
“Yes, fire sales. That’s why the bells were commissioned, so that wealthy men could rush to the scenes of fires with teams of workers to buy the land being burned up as a condition for putting out the fire. Sometimes they even wait for a fire to spread to a building they’ve always wanted… sometimes they supposedly start fires.”
Hugh shook his head. “How does someone do that and then live with themselves?”
“That’s how people get ahead. No one gains without someone else losing.”
“That isn’t true,” said Hugh. “The farmer plants seeds from the year before for the next crop. The miner pulls raw ore from the ground. A shepherd shears his sheep and creates new wool. Even those who work with raw materials through their craft add something to the whole process. People don’t have to lose in order to gain.”
Khilia smiled, but with only half her mouth. “Those who have the most would have to work by the sweat of their back for centuries in order to accumulate the wealth they have gained in just a few years by exploiting others.”
“That sounds to me like theft,” said Hugh.
“They would say they’re just smart enough to seize an opportunity.”
“Every thief imagines themselves to possess a special cunning.”
Khilia lay her head down next to Hugh’s and looked up at the ceiling. “You’re too honest for the city, Hugh. I hope you are careful while you’re here.”
She fell asleep before he did.
To be continued…