.. | the gypsy of rhiddeia | chapter 2
The Felari. If only I'd known then what that meant. It is a mystic, ancient study of the arts, known only to a few, desired of by many. Brought from the east by the shore people before their joining with the mainland nomads, the practice had been devised by the gods themselves, then modified through the years by kings and healers. How to give pleasure and comfort and satisfaction beyond mere mortal means, but it is not quite magic either. Courtesans and prostitutes had nothing on those who practiced the four teachings that are central: Potions, Endurance, Positions, and Play. The Alari were perhaps the most liberated of all slaves; they could read and write, were educated, cultivated, diplomatic. There were perhaps a handful of them in the whole realm who were currently practicing, and most lived at the palace. They were rare. And expensive.
Felari teaching itself was a sacred thing; I would have to go through rites and cleansings, then start a life-long course of complicated and intricate tutoring, back-breaking trials of balance and strength and stamina, and still have to manage to retain grace. Always. I would be groomed and pampered for my efforts, but would be sworn to secrecy for the rest of my life in speaking of those sacrosanct gifts I had learned and how I had come by them.
But all this would be explained to me later. A dirty-faced outer-temple youth would have never heard of a such a thing before. The very next day I walked past the palace gates at the elbow of Lord Acamar, wrapped in his scarlet cloak, and squinted up to the sky to see her shady ramparts. I don't think I yet realized that this place and her bowers were to be my home, as my back still smarted from a thrashing received the night before from Writhen, said to make me remember where I had come from. Beneath my bare feet the grassy knoll on which I stood had led hundreds of ambassadors, courtiers, merchants and soldiers to her front gates. There were the great yawning doors made from giant mirrahwood trees, Azurati symbols of long life and fortune, whose daily opening and closing could be heard across the keep grounds as a loud boom echoing against the palace walls and back again. Now the road would bear me, a simple boy with no family and no breeding, whose name was not known nor cared about.
I will not, and cannot, spend long on the telling of my training, for this story is not about my beginnings, in truth. I tell this only because to explain where I am now, one must know where I have been.
Once Lord Acamar, second born and heir apparent, as I learned, had made all the arrangements, it was uncanny to think how quickly my teachers had upturned my simple mind, washed my head clean of ordinary reason and wit, taken from me my most basic instincts, such as opinion and belief. It was a help that I was still very young with little knowledge of the outside world, but their expertise of exact mixes between physical manipulations and the firm twisting of tender emotions and thoughts could have unseated a clan elder's doctrine. There was not room for opinion; that brought objections, questions. To be an Alari, I needed to be without scruples. They wove in me a rich philosophy that soon planted a seed of its own making in my mind. It was not long before it began to take root, and I found myself stifling my own conscience. With the lack of anything else to believe in, I began to believe in the truth of my craft. My former principles were unneeded, and more importantly, unnecessary. I now had new ones that would not contradict what I allowed myself to become.
And what I became was what they'd wished to create with this science of softly stifling the mind- a body, a purely physical body. Almost first to go had been my ignorance of the flesh and how I had once shied from it. Past my first teachings, into my apprenticeship I began to harbor wonder at the beauty of the human body, no longer shamed, no longer fearful of what others would want from me. My art became my way of life. It was so deeply rooted in what was physical and what was natural, and to that I clung, abandoning the teachings of my temple life, that confusingly ambient spirituality that had spurned me. Flesh was real; I could touch it, mould it with kneading fingers. Taste it with my tongue, have its musky scent fill my nostrils. What had the temple given me but mere ideas? Suggestions? The great earth-shake incident notwithstanding, here was what I could believe in- the arm, crooked gently on the pillow in sleep; the tender gap between the big toe and the next that was ticklish to some; a crease in the elbow or the back of a knee; the soft down that covered the whole body of both sexes, nigh invisible but to the slightest of touches and when the light caught just right.
And more than just tangible, my gift was healing, for I found I could help more with it than I'd ever seen come away from days of praying at the altar. The nobleman who dreams of his own death could lose himself in my caresses for one more night at least. The lady who never sleeps could doze against my shoulder, if I could exhaust her enough. I was taught how to bring about passion of both men and women, and stave off my own, which was, of course, never that important. I learned how to mix wine and potions, create combinations of sweet fruits to heighten the senses of my lord or lady, learn the words and how to say them with no voice, just breath.
Though the principle purpose of what I became was to be constantly aware of my body in space and time, and that of my patron, it was not always about pleasures of the flesh. I was also a performer and a diplomat, able to entertain a hall full of guests any number of ways. I learned to master three instruments as per my art, and sing songs to them that made the heart mourn. I spoke my own Azurai tongue, Yildun, the language of the priests, Menserjan, the tongue of the great looming empire to our western borders, and the common speech in case I should entertain a lord or lady of outer provinces. I could sing for three hours straight without straining, and dance for even longer without tiring. Two years before I would never have thought myself capable of such things. Was this enslavement a curse? Or a blessing?
The only thing that had not changed was the presence of my friend. I still called on it in moments of tribulation, of the questioning in my head bursting to break free of the stifle I'd put on them. The first year was full of confused moments, stolen moments on a high windward balcony as I whispered into the air my questions of being, the reason for my existence, my wish for an all enveloping comfort to hold me as it had when I was younger. However, as I moved into my training further, I called upon it less and less, hardly noticing the dwindling need, as those questions were answered by my training, and I began to turn into a true Alari. The Felari, the assurance of my abilities, had, in essence, become a drug to me, making me feel weightless, faultless, and free. An even more fulfilling comfort than some answering breeze against my cheek.
Two years year after leaving Fhermyna, my teachers released me fully into the Felari. My training was far from over; it was expected to take near the twenty or so years I would be performing actively to perfect. The remainder of my education I was to develop on my own, from my experiences. To learn, adapt and adjust with a flexibility only the familiarity of a thousand different situations could afford me.
That very day Acamar had me bidden to him come evening time. Though I had been trained well and thorough, I was still a bit unprepared to be led into his private chambers, and left there by the page to stare alone at the great canopied bed. Since the day he had brought me here I had seen him only a handful of times up close, but more often in the distance as he attended court, sported with weaponry in the courtyard, rode his prized steeds on the paddocks or did a hundred other activities afforded to a wealthy sibling of the crown. But my heart was not beating through my chest as I had expected it would. Rather, a serenity had clouded my mind.
Lord Acamar entered not long after, dressed in simple but expensive robes of midnight silk, as if he had already prepared for an early evening. His blond hair was braided loosely, a few wisps escaping into his eyes.
"Well now," he said, handing me a goblet of his favorite spirit. The rings on his hand glinted in light emitted from the blazing fire in the large grate. "What stands before me is not the dirty child I brought here. Your teachers call you a brilliant student. They say you've mastered your art faster than any they've taught before. Did I not have an eye for you two years ago?"
"My lord," I said with a slight inclination of my head to acknowledge that if not for him, I did not like to imagine where I would be. By his lazy dark eyes I saw myself as his creation, and on this, my first night ‘out', he would partake himself, and see what he'd achieved.
"Sit," he said, gesturing gracefully to the edge of the bed. When I had settled, cross-legged next to the pillows, he sank down next to me and gestured for me to drink.
"If I gave you leave to speak freely, what would you say to me?" he asked. His voice was velvety smooth.
The wine was warm on my tongue, but I needed no spirits to make me comfortable in a situation that would have, two year previous, had me blushing like a maid. My practice was rooted deeply and I knew it well. I knew what I could do him, what I could make him feel, and that gave me a certain power over him he could not have anticipated in bringing me here.
"Why me, my lord? Why did you choose me to take from that place?" I asked softly, letting my voice breathe for me. "What did you see a year ago?"
His eyes had become more hooded, a sign that his pleasure was heightening with anticipation, and the sound of my soft, husky voice. He reached out with his hand and traced the line of my lower lip. "Oafs like Writhen have never been in society, though he deals to it every day. He would never have recognized your true value. I know that color like this-" he touched my hair, glowing a dark copper in the firelight, "and these-" his fingers lingered on the corner of my eye, "are too expensive even to pay for."
I allowed a small smile under his caresses, strengthened by what I had already done to him without his knowledge. He was a prince, and he was praising me, a slave. It was a whisper of my teachers to me- "They may reign over the land and all they see, but they do not know, nor will we ever tell, that there is a realm where they become our servants." It was called the Melee, a state of heightened pleasure and sexual activity that I could extend for hours, days if I wanted to. And I planned to.
By the time I released him from the Melee two days later- his personal servants told me he'd slept on even for another day after that- the palace had begun buzzing with activity. I pushed the accomplishment from my mind; arrogance would not do. Besides, the Ten-Year Reign was upon us, and I was now to be made tribute for the second time in my life.
His Majesty Vega Kelb al Rai was a strong man of forty and three when I met him. He had already reigned nine years since his father had died, leaving him to rule Azurai with a wife, an aging mother and three younger brothers. On the anniversary of his ten year rule I was presented officially among great fanfare as a gift to him from Lord Acamar and his teenage younger brothers, Windin and Garen. Handsome youths, I had often glimpsed the younger brothers at court but Acamar held them on tight rein. They were not permitted to sport with me.
His Majesty had black hair that was beginning to tip at the temples with gray, a thick beard of men who'd done their share of military campaigning, though in this peaceful age it was more for show and tradition and to make his power apparent to those he ruled. He wore the distinctive crescent crown of the monarchy, which he only removed when he slept, and always kept the royal locks in a war plait, as was custom of his house. He reminded me much of a jackal in temperament and even his voice had a raspy quality when he said, "Bring me my Alari," when he thought I wasn't in earshot. He never called me by name. To him I was what I was, his Alari, his attendant in the finer points of kingly delights. I never heard my own name spoken by him for all the time I was at the Palace.
He appreciated the gift from his brothers with the grace and ceremony of a king, but did not use me as Acamar had. His Majesty had a wife of his own that he was devoted to as I never would expect a king to be, and she had a slight but gracious disdain for me and my purpose, though she esteemed enough the value of Acamar's tribute.
So instead, I was dispatched out to the diplomats and courtiers, the lords and ladies of court, whomever warranted favors. I lay with them all equally, each sex had their enticement for me and I had become unable to choose favorites in this no-opinion state in which I rested. To be passed around was not exactly what I had been trained for, but my teachers told me this did not matter. It was more time, more experiences to practice my skill as I waited for the day to come when the king would want me exclusively.
I accepted this truth as they had taught me, along with all the rest. I had become my body, and told myself that I was not happy with my situation per say, but more importantly content with it, a much more permanent state of emotion. My teachers had, in effect, through years of practice, philosophy and punishments, taken from me the seeds of that which I'd never been allowed to develop fully- myself. To myself and all others I was only a boy who should be considered very lucky indeed, and could not take for granted the fortune I had, though it never had the form of gold.
And the gods? What of their wrath? There had been none, and I took it gladly as a sign that I was at last fulfilling their want for penitence, no matter how pampered I was in the process. It would seem that I might have finally made my peace with them, and they might allow me to live my life here unbothered at last.
One day, one month. One year, two, three. Four… Five years at the palace taught me enough about human nature to boggle the minds of scholars. How long would I have continued so? Twenty more years actively, surely. By then it was expected that I would have my own pupils to teach. As of now I was rounding my fifth year at the palace and stood a lean youth of ten-and-eight years, known for a particular grace and quiet mystery, and for my rare coloring that held the highest in Azurati favor- dark red locks, grown long in courtesan style, peachy pale skin, and green eyes of the sacred isles. My own King had even said there had never been a more beautiful Alari to his knowledge.
In that last year came the sudden death of his wife of fever, and he had called on me to ease his grief. With my gifts and attentions I helped ease his distress, without use of the more carnal conduct; that was not what he needed. That came later, once his grief had passed. I became his exclusive property after that, and in the great sweeping halls of the palace I would catch Acamar's stealthy glance and his slight nod. I was now where he had intended me to be all along.
My King was gentle enough with me I suppose, and in the year I attended him he had even cultivated a fondness for me that I deigned to call love. But I was also aware that I knew as much about love as a field hand knows about sewing loin-garters. His Majesty's love came in the form of generous food and bed, silken tunics and sweet wine when I pleased him. Every now and then a pat on the head or shoulder, or even, on the very rare occasion, taking the effort when he bedded me to be sure I'd had my fill as well. Those things were love to me, I'd never known any other.
His love, however, also came in the form of his lash and harsh tongue; for I suffered from both a right amount of times when I had failed whatever duty bidden me, which fortunately was rare, and only he had the power to order me beaten. The harshest punishment, twelve lashes and two days in a private gaol cell, had come when my King had sent me to a visiting noblewoman as a goodwill gesture- no greater honor could befall a court guest than the King sharing his personal Alari, even more so than the King himself sharing her bed. She'd been from Rhiddeia, a western province of the Menserjan Empire. I knew nothing of her business in the Palace, nor did I really care to know. Slaves caught up in court intrigues usually came out on the bad side, and up to this point in my life I had staunchly closed my ears to knowing anything more than what I needed to. I was safer that way.
In the end, the lady, a regal, honey-haired beauty, had received me well enough but had been of a frigid nature, and had not found me pleasing. The King I suppose had never met a woman who failed to warm at the touch of men in his experience; indeed my place was taken by some lowland princess, courtier or lady often enough. So it was twelve lashes he hadn't even been present for, time to heal in a cell where even the guards could not reach me to sport, and back to my duties. Even though I have never forgotten that day, nor have the scars fully faded from my back, I still believed I had the King's love.
After five years I hardly recognized myself even; I suppose it was lax of me to put my learning before the humility I had learned at temple. I had deemed the gods satisfied, but I should have known they would not leave me be if I had the slightest bit of joy in my life. So one night, my world changed a third time.
I had spent the unholy hours of the morning romping between a throng of haremena, delighting despite myself in their praise and adoration of me. I loved women and their soft skin, breasts I could loose myself between if they desired a playful lover. How their flesh gave to the press of my fingers if they needed a stronger lover. These were courtesans, a harem of them so to speak, and my King had allowed me to cavort among them so that they may learn some of my secrets without my direct teachings, which would have been forbidden. He wanted his diplomats pleased enough if he could not share me with them.
But now I was washed, weary and uncommonly sore as I sauntered to my King's chambers, where he had bid me come when I had had my fill, so to speak. He slept on his back, as was his habit, and snored so loudly I imagined the great red canopy of his bed to be floating as a ship's sails.
I watched him sleep for a moment, but the hour was late and I needed sleep myself, so I did not rouse him. Instead, I passed through his immense chambers into a second one that was my own living quarters when he didn't have need of me. Smaller, private, but decorated just as lavishly with red velvet and gold tassels. Every inch of the stone floor was covered in thick carpets, woven with designs of famous, foreign battles in dark, seductive colors. Battles were always fought on distant soils it seemed, as the Wood and mountains protected us. I was still young and confident in my gifts; however, time would not allow me to revel in such childish trust for long. I knew nothing of wartime, it had not been heard of in our land in fifty years. Often enough my King sent his soldiers out to the provinces, squelched uprisings along the coast of Iberniah and the occasional Menserjan band raids that came through the mountain passes, but there had never been cause for worry of anything likely to affect me in any case.
That was why when I bedded down for the night, alone, I was troubled and confused by the deafening silence that suddenly flooded my head. I lay there, staring up at the ceiling tiles, listing to the nothingness. My heart beat in my throat and ears, that was all. My body was tense, my fingers curled into fists at my side, and I lay stiff as a corpse for several long moments.
What was it? I had not felt such a calm in the air around me since al Rai began to shake the earth that one day in my youth. I waited, I listened. Nothing came.
Outside my window, somewhere on the lower walls of the palace a bird called, and I bade myself to relax. I could suppress it now, this apprehension, with the ease of my training. As easily as I could make an anxious lord sleep, so I did to myself, and felt my body relax into slumber
History taught that the gods always chose human battlefields for their wars. A large and powerful family, they were constantly battling each other; all under al Rai, of course. He was supreme and almost never involved in the squabbling of his lesser gods. He was the god of the soul, whom had created all there was, including man. This didn't mean, however, that man was above wars of power and greed, that would have put them above the lesser gods, and disrupted the balance of the heavens and the land below. Al Rai had the power to end the wars, but only when he saw fit.
Thus, on that early dawn in my eighteenth year, when a vast and powerful Menserjan army overtook the fortress and palace I'd called home for little over half a decade, I forgot my teachings and invoked the god's name for the first time in years.
I sat bolt upright in bed moments before I heard the great crash and boom that was the fall of the south tower. What had woken me? After the resounding boom faded there was just that same deafening silence for several interminable moments, like the calm before the storm-wrought wave crashes to shore. Then sound began to filter in, and I leapt from my bed and rushed into the next set of chambers; my King was not where he'd been when I'd fallen asleep. His clothes and personal arms were gone, and as I had suppressed my senses to allow for sleep, I had not heard him leave.
But how had I not heard the commotion before, now that the sounds were beginning to deafen in my ears? I realized that our quarters were secluded deep within the sanctuary walls, with the south watch tower being the nearest guard barrack, and beyond that, the coast. If the attack came from the open land at the front gates, I would have only heard the south tower fall; there was no telling if the north, west or east towers still stood. I felt like a newly blinded man, terrified, subject now only to the whims of his lesser senses.
Activity thrummed through the very walls, and then I began to hear the distant shouts of men. My senses were suddenly picking out every nuance of sound and I even fancied the floor reverberating beneath my feet with marching and drums. Trembling, I grabbed for His Majesty's red silk robe to cover myself; it hung off me like a Vermish whore's.
There were footsteps now in the hallway outside where there had been none before. Where was my King's guard? With him I hoped. I felt safe enough where I was, secluded among the familiar finery of the royal bedchambers. I don't suppose it had occurred to me what was really going on outside the heavy wooden door I stared at so unwaveringly, nor to spare a thought as to the real danger. My King was my lord, he was faultless and infallible, honorable and clever. It hadn't quite crossed my mind yet that this night could end badly, not even when two soldiers battered down that oak door before my very eyes.
I crouched against the royal bed, backed as far away from them as I could get. They glanced at me as if I were just a dog cowering in the corner and began to ransack the room. From the few times I had attended court I recognized the black and white insignia on their helmets but could not place it; there were just too many to keep track of. I flinched; furniture was overturned, pottery shattered against the walls behind priceless tapestries, which were ripped down as if they would reveal more to the room. How many invaluable relics they destroyed I couldn't guess. I was frightened, I wanted them to leave. I often wonder, though, how different my life would have been if I could have kept my mouth shut. After all, I'd managed silence for years already-
"He's not here," I said in the common tongue, hoping they would know it. They both stopped to look at me and I instantly second guessed my wisdom in speaking. They began speaking in their own tongue to each other. How could I have expected common foot soldiers to know any language but their own Menserjan?
"What did he say?"
"You think I speak that gibberish? Get the seal and let's go."
Ah, the royal seal. A priceless carving of gold and ivory that had been passed through generations. The ivory had come from the tusks of animals that had long ago roamed the barley fields before the woods had sprung, but could be found no longer. Irreplaceable, it was the symbol of my King's power and the endurance of his family. The second guard upturned the large writing table in the corner of the room, found his heavy, golden prize and gestured to his companion. He shoved it in his hip satchel as if it were a mere trinket.
"Wait, what about him?"
They both looked at me. I could see their eyes flashing through the slits in their helmets.
"Suppose we take him? Could be a fine prize."
The first guard gave his answer in grabbing my forearms and yanking me off the bed and out of the chamber.
No boy in the palace my age had ever seen what war looked like, but I got it first hand that night. The metallic scent of blood filled the air, and that of burned flesh. We quickly met the road that had brought me here, and as I looked around I saw that the two remaining watch towers were burning, they would not be long for falling. Orange and red flames licked the smoky night sky at heights birds never flew, and as I stared upwards, frozen, I felt the buckling of my knees as if I too would plummet to the earth.
The soldiers dragged me through the dirt by my arms and I resorted to kicking and yelling in my own tongue for my life but there was no face that I recognized. The green knoll that I had watched His Majesty play rackets on not the day before was muddied and torn and black, the banners that had once flown high on the breeze were gone to the muck, trampled under the feet of strangers. The magnificent white walls were scorched black with ash and smoke, smeared with blood and filth. Fallen ramparts and parapets lay as ruinous boulders on the ground, bodies crushed underneath their weight or in the path of their roll. Arrays of arrows protruded from the wet ground in neat lines like the strings of my instruments. Everywhere there was death and the sound, gods, the sound of it to my musician's ears was annihilating. Twice I fought the urge to retch my guts out at the sights and smells. I stopped my struggles for a few moments, hoping they would drag me through the field quickly to our destination and delay here no longer. I couldn't bear to see this devastation anymore.
As if in answer to my prayers I was bodily lifted onto the back of a horse and with all speed spirited away from the red fire and black ruin into the cool night with tears burning my eyes.
We raced through the streets of the chaotic town, its wooden hedges and walls and roofs burning, giving off a heat that seared my face and nearly dried my tears before they fell. The Menserjan encampment was just beyond the capital village walls, hidden by the foothills of the Mothallah. The mountain range ran north and south along the breadth of my country and their south easterly curve made up our southern border. The army must have come through the passes just as the snow finished melting, avoiding the trading season, and thus bandit season, by a few weeks. There was an out-posting there, but the rotation of the stations along with the re-supplying would have left it undermanned for a few crucial days. Even fully manned, a few well-placed scouts and snipers could have cut them off. Our country had seen a time of peace that had stretched out just long enough to make such slipshods acceptable.
Deep within the encampment I slid from the horse onto solid ground again, my King's red robe was spattered with mud and worse and I was cold, so cold from the inside out. I could control the chattering of my teeth but it was my legs that threatened to fail beneath me. A wretched chill of fear had begun to blind my better senses. I wrapped my robe tightly around myself; the thin silk offered no real cover or comfort, but I fancied I could still smell the scent of him on it, and this was all a dream. Real enough, however, was the large canvas tent that loomed before me, illuminated from within and shadows cast like eerie puppets on its flails.
"Move." There was a sharp foot in my lower back, and I found myself rolling through the tent flaps and suddenly on my knees in the dirt. Though my slave's intuition bore me otherwise, I looked up and around as much as I dared. It was a king's battle suite- it could be nothing else. The man I assumed as such presently sat at a large, portable wooden desk, looking over his parchments and seeming to not appreciate the interruption. Even the soldiers behind me kept their silence until he favored them with a second, more patient look.
We waited. He perused his scrolls and seals for several moments, motionless but for the quickness of his yellow-amber eyes, warm and moist in the torchlight. I stared up in awe and wonder at the face of my King's enemy, a king in his own right. Most Menserjan men, high-born most certainly, have tawny skin that tends to bronze in the sun, light-colored hair, light eyes, and are very tall and lean in stature. I watched him, this very fine, very Menserjan-born man who surely held the key to my life or death with his very gaze.
He had clearly seen many battles, attested by his sun-browned skin and the hard set of his jaw. A small scar ran from beneath his left ear to the curve of his shoulder, just revealed by the strap of his armor and the tilt of his head. But his true mark was the thick honey-colored hair that was bound loosely back from his face, resembling a lion's mane how the shorter locks fell into his eyes. He was tall I could tell, stately, and held his posture with the poise of court. The gleam in his amber eyes was intelligent, and his battle regalia of fine black leather and black linen was unsoiled. He looked sharp, striking, and couldn't have had more than thirty years on him. I wondered what My King would think upon setting his eyes upon such a young conqueror.
Presently the man rolled his parchment and stood up. He loomed over me and I swallowed the image of myself as a low rat in the dirt. The two guards each took a step back and saluted with their fists to their chests, then the one nearest presented my King's seal and spoke in Menserjan.
"The seal, my lord, the palace has fallen."
"I know the palace has fallen, Wasat came ten minutes ago. Where's Errai?" His voice was low, deep. That of a man used to being obeyed.
"Errai we have not seen, my lord. But this-" My shoulder was shoved forward as if to reiterate my presence on the ground among them. "We thought might make a good tribute for your campaign."
The man's eyes hardly set upon me before he waved his hand dismissively. "I've no need for him here. Put him in with the others."
Respectfully bowing his head, the first guard stepped forward. "He was found in the royal bedchambers, my lord."
Coerced to take a second look, the man above me leaned down and took a torn piece of my robe between his fingers. He was smart, and knew fine silk when he saw it. "Perhaps he's just a kitchen boy, looting the rooms before you could get there." He looked me in the face and I felt like I was looking into the ocher eyes of a lioness at the end of the hunt. My heart thudded in my chest.
"Perhaps, my lord-" The second guard grabbed the shoulder of my robe and wrenched it off me. I tried to keep my covering but I heard the battered silk tear and suddenly there was nothing on me but the cold of the night. "What thief loots naked?"
The Menserjan gave a short laugh at my expense, but it was not out of humor. I schooled my expression into bewildered embarrassment as best I could; not a huge leap, of course, but they did not yet know that I could understand them, and surely it would be to my advantage to keep that secret as long as possible.
The king waved a hand and the two guards respectfully took their leave. In his presence alone my courage thus far began to fail. What would a king want with another king's prize? Would he torture me to mock his conquered? Kill me? Sentence me once again to the more lowly dregs of slave life? Or would he take me to his bed as I had heard was the way commanders took others' wives as prizes of war?
"Say your name, sirrah. Speak." Though his accent was thick, he knew the common tongue, so I would have to play my role.
"Sellæus, of my King's House, Kelb al Rai." My own name sounded strange on my tongue, I gave it to him formally, trying to be as respectful as I could while crouched naked in the dust.
He appeared to not appreciate it or care. Impatience clouded his voice. "I know your king's house, sirrah, I've just taken it," he said, seating himself again and taking up his compass and parchments. I remained were I was, shivering and trying to ignore the scrape of gravel against the more tender parts of my body.
"Tell me, what was your position in his house?" There was the scratch of his sharpened quill pen on paper.
I lowered my head a little, biding time to think. A kitchen boy's fate was in the gaol or in the grave surely, but perhaps if I was to stay alive, I should use myself as a bartering tool. This was my new king, whether it be for years of my life to come or the next ten minutes; surely he knew what it was to have finer things. Slowly, I said, "I was his familiar, sire."
"Religious fanatics with catamites in their closets," he mumbled. He looked down at me with the slightest tilt of his head but I could not read his expression. "Stand up."
I obeyed, being used enough to nakedness not to shy from him, rather, it was the cold that made me hunch my back. He stood up to look me over, though in his eyes he probably saw nothing more than a skinny wretch, covered in dirt and muck, shivering like a child in winter. His hand reached out, grabbed my chin in a vice-like grip and forced my head up.
"The idea is intriguing, but not so very new; having the slave of a king under new rule. What would you say, Sellæus, of the House of Kelb al Rai, if I took you as my own? Would you show me your secrets?"
I had to choose my words carefully. From his expression, cool and calculating, I read that he was not serious in this intent. Rather, he was testing me. It seemed a dangerous test as well; he was a man who could read me like a book if I lied to him, and his patience was paper thin. It was best to be truthful. After all, I was still alive thus far. ‘I am no warrior, there is no shame,' I told myself.
"I fear death," I said softly. "If I may save my life by serving a new king then I shall do so."
Again, that strange look. But he let my answer pass and I wondered if he really even cared what I said at all. He still held my chin in his hand. I was frozen stiff as if he held my very soul. "Then you hold no loyalty to your house? To your dead king?"
So he was dead. Inside I felt my heart ache in small mourning for the man who had fed, clothed, beat me and doted on me for years of my life. I forbade the tears from my eyes and the tremble from my voice. There would be no rescue, this was my new situation. I had to survive this.
"No, sire," I said, realizing that the tears were not of complete sadness, but rather a result of my rising, abandoned fear. What was I to do now?
"To whom do you hold loyalty then? If you say to no one I shall have you flogged for your capriciousness."
Stick with the truth, you fool. How to answer such a question? Well, I was trying only to save my own skin, was I not?
"Myself, I suppose, sire."
"You say this, even if you were my slave? That you would have no loyalty to me?"
He'd baited and trapped me. My skin prickled a little. "Of course I would give what loyalty was warranted, sire."
Hold, what in the four realms had possessed me to come up with that answer?
The back of his hand sent stars through my vision and me to the ground once again. I spat the dirt from my mouth but thought better than to get up all the way. Crouched on all fours with my forehead to the ground was as safe a place as any, and looked appreciatively submissive too, from his standpoint. My jaw blazed; he wore no less than three heavy silver rings on his right hand.
"I should give you to my soldiers, Azurati, to bring you down a notch or two." He sat down again, I heard the creak of his chair. "A slave, yet you speak out like a spoiled brat. I suppose that's to come from being at the bedside of a king who's never seen true battle and grown thick with wine and meat."
It was no longer my place to defend my King. He was dead, and like a sinking body would bring me down as well if I held to him any longer. How could I tell this man that for almost five years I had been virtually silent in all matters outside my craft, and now that he made me speak, I could hardly control what came out?
"I beg your forgiveness, sire," I hastened, "I spoke out of right."
As I chanced a glance up he stretched back in his chair and I was again reminded of a lion. "Most lords and ladies would rather a slave bite their tongue to save it than say what is really on their mind," he said. "I have never preferred that way. In my house betrayers die an early death because their own reveal them to me. Tell me, what is it you're thinking now, all crouched in the dirt? Be honest, sirrah."
"Only that I hope to become your familiar, sire."
"Why is that?"
The safest place for me was at the side of my enemy, but to give him an apposite answer, I took a deep breath to pause and think. I had already told him I wished to live; to say it again would be seen as sniveling. The next truth?
"So that I may at least have a bath before I begin to smell like your soldiers, sire."
His laughter was rich and deep. It reminded me of the dark chocolate I'd had a chance to taste, thick and buttery. The man settled back and gave me that odd look yet again. "You shall have one soon, I'll grant that. I myself can only stand the smell of battle so much, and you reek of it." His voice was less threatening now, and only carried the typical mocking manner of aristocracy to sirrah.
I bowed my forehead down. "Thank you, sire."
"And now we come to it. You think yourself the familiar of a king now?" He chuckled at my confused look. Was he toying with me or was I really mistaken? All this time I had been addressing him as ‘sire', and he had let me. In my realm even such a small fraudulence was treason. But I was also starkly aware that though we stood on Azurati soil, this was no longer my land.
"Your mistakenness is almost flattery, sirrah. I am his Western Summoned. Lord Ayer of the House of Mynor."
A Summoned. I had heard a little about the Menserjan ways in my schooling. With such a looming mass of a country to our west, politics required such knowledge- that from the corners of the Menserjan realm came four men, highest in their rank and skill with steed and steel to lead the armies of the land. The advantage was that each was familiar with their terrain and people, since the Menserjan Empire encompassed all those it conquered; it was a land of provinces. Each Summoned could be dispatched back to their homeland where they could wage battles with expertise, and save the other for his own land. I had not fallen into the hands of a king, but this lord was a very powerful man nonetheless, and dangerous.
He swept his hand in a gesture that I may settle back again. Slowly I sank from my knees to my haunches, watching him the whole while with doubt, humiliation and not a little indignity. He still called me ‘sirrah', still passed me off as a lowly valet. In outside society I may not have been respectable, but within my palace's walls but for the King himself, I had been treated a treasure.
"You're a haughty boy to think you'd go straight to the King of your conquerors," Ayer was saying, idly pulling back the mass of his hair to bind it better. My blood began to boil in my veins. I was a familiar of kings- my King. No matter if he was now the dead king of a conquered people, he was still due his respect and so was I.
Hold again, what was I thinking? This impulsive pride in myself and my home was unfamiliar, where had it come from? I had already once felt the sting of his hand; indeed the last thing that should have been on my mind at this point was salvaging my pride, which I had no business encouraging anyway. That had gone out years ago with my training. This man was my enemy; his people had slain my King over whose body I had not been allowed to weep. I could see in my mind the swords of the guards that had brought me here, caked with the blood of my people, their armor and leathers spattered with it.
"Tell me," he mused, "Why should I keep you from the gaol? Why should you be any different from the whores my soldiers sport with in the streets of your city?"
A thousand fates that could be mine flashed before my eyes at his crude words. What would happen to me were I thrown in with the rest I was determined never to find out. However, to spout off my qualities, verbally at any rate, was not a talent much looked for, thus I stumbled over my words and could not meet his eyes.
"I can do a bit of healing, my lord, mixing simples and tonics, and I can serve a table to your Menserjan ways." His eyes betrayed that this was not impressing him. I sucked in my breath and tried again. "I am instrumental, I can sing and play-"
"The lute, zither and the lyre, my lord." For a moment, I thought I had found my worth.
"What need have I for music in camp? Come now, there must be something else your king found you useful for."
My head dropped. It was all I was ever useful for; indeed, it was the reason for my existence.
"I know the Felari, my lord."
His dark eyebrows raised. "The Felari, hm? I've heard of it," he said, tapping his chin thoughtfully. "Then you know the noble gifts? You can read? Write?" He leaned down close to me. "Bring about pleasure from a man more times than your gods could enjoy in a night?"
I suppose until now he had thought me a simple pleasure slave, as his soldiers had. He wasn't an ignorant fool. A good general knew the ways of the land he was fighting.
I lowered my head a little, evenly subdued. "Yes, my lord," I answered.
"Well I'll have none of your wicked mysticism in my camp," he said suddenly, sternly, drastically changing tone. "It's black magic, so I understand, to work the marvels you do. Mind trickery, brainwashing. Deception. I'll have none of it, am I understood?"
Trickery? Deception? Is that what my ability looked like to those on the outside? I had never thought that to someone not blessed with faith in the gods, who themselves had divined the secrets I'd learned, my gifts would appear as so. I could make someone sleep if I so desired. I could bring about raging passion when it was not looked for. I could sooth the mad and anxious with a touch, or drive the somber into agitation. If he had ever been witness to these things, how could he not but think me some kind of mind-magicker?
He waited for my answer. Obedience, I was thinking. He seemed to me now a man capable of almost anything, now that I had brassed him off with my impudence. I lowered my head again and whispered, "Yes, my lord."
Lord Ayer nodded, satisfied. Then, as if in afterthought, he said, "This enchantment your kind works. I suppose it's a skill you have to want to perform if you're to do it correctly?"
"No, my lord. I do as I have been taught." I wondered what he was getting at.
"But not always?"
"Not always, my lord."
"If I decide to keep you out of the pits, do you swear not to use such trickery on me? At any time?"
He eyed me seriously. What he didn't seem to know was that I was not bound to oaths I made. To be so required honor, and that in turn required principles, of which I had none. With my pride, those things had been stamped out of me long ago. Still, he didn't need to know that.
"I swear it, my lord."
Satisfied with my answer, Ayer turned amber eyes on me and seemed to really take me in for the first time. My new master's anger was gone now, replaced by curiosity. He reached out and fingered for a moment the shaggy locks of my hair that had fallen into my face, then brushed it back to see the color of my eyes, presumably. I wondered what it was he saw.
"It's strange," he mused, speaking of my hair, "what you Azurati find attractive. Such an odd color, and to be in your eyes so?"
As he stood there studying me, a flower under glass, I tried to remain quiet and not look at his eyes. With the change in his voice, something very unwelcome had begun stirring in my veins when his gaze met mine. It was a thing Felari teachings called the Want, and it had suddenly flared up in me at his proximity. It was, loosely defined, an instant temptation. An immediate, unrefined, animalian attraction that was rooted in all that was physical, nothing else. I could consciously conjure it in others, but now it had been conjured in me. This man was my enemy, but my body desired him, no matter how out of place the feeling was. He smelled of leather and horses and a sweet chew that had often been on my own King's breath. But the familiar recollection was bittersweet- beneath his wandering gaze, Lord Ayer's darkened eyes were hard and remote, as if he cared as much about me as he did his bastard children, wherever they were. My loose mouth be damned, how much more could I betray myself and my training than this?
My salvation lay in a sudden distraction. From outside the tent I could hear marching steps and hooves beating the ground. Wails of sorrow and pain from the captured floated dissonantly among the growing din, along with the whinnying of horses taken for prize and the squeal of pigs taken for the celebratory feast. His troops were returning with their spoils of war.
Lord Ayer stepped to the flap of his tent to inspect what went on along the outside of it, and called out. "Fergan! Tell Errai I want him here at once as soon as you see him." Then he closed he flap and turned back to me. I held his eyes for a few breaths longer than necessary before I had to look away from his amber gaze.
Moments later a reed of a man stepped into the tent, looking crafty and calculating, with a glance at me that was anything but welcoming. He stood taller than I, and wore the sparse, mobile armor of a horse invoker, an expert. Most of his long body was bare; he wore only a shoulder armor harness with thick leather straps that crossed his chest, a simple kilt and grieves. He had black hair that was thick and fell over his eyes to the point of hiding them, but when he tilted his head to look down at me, his onyx black eyes gave me a chill. He had blood on his face, smeared and spattered all down his body in fact, mixed with mud or worse, and all over he had the hardened look of battle, complete with fading scars and a few dripping new wounds that would leave more. He had the dark, copper skin of a foreigner to both Azurai and Menserja. I had never in my life seen someone like him.
Lord Ayer took a moment before acknowledging him, as he seemed to do with everyone in his presence. To me it was a mark of the aristocracy, this way of keeping yourself above others. When he turned, however, his tone was more civil than with his guardsmen. "Errai, I need you to take this creature down to the pond and get him cleaned up. If I'm to make use of him he'll do no good smelling like a battlefield."
The darker man gave me another once over with his eyes. It appeared that he'd rather handle the entrails of a slaughtering than have to be within five feet of me. "Better battle stench than Azurati perfume," he said, his voice soft and low, and thickly accented. It made me think of dark silk, waving gently in the warm afternoon breeze. But his eyes, rimmed with thick, dark lashes so that they appeared almost painted, were like polished blackrock, and just as hard.
Lord Ayer gave a humoring smile and gestured that I get up. He gave my shoulder a slight but demanding push at my hesitation. Without waiting for me Errai left the tent.
"Take care not to offend him, Azurati," Ayer said. "He's Galilani, and no great lover of your people. I haven't yet decided what to do with you, so I can't be responsible or troubled if he decides to drown you."
Dumbly I stumbled out, wishing he cared at least enough for my health at the moment to give me a cloak. Like a child after his father's feet I trotted to keep up with the long-legged pace of the Galilani. I stared at his long back, watching the lithe muscles shift, flex as he walked, wondering if I had ever seen a man so in top form. Just above his hips there was a vague dark tattooing, fading it seemed, and the same patterns ran up his forearms from some hidden beginning underneath his wrist guards.
He weaved expertly through the throngs of battalions that had settled down in their individual encampments. The smell of burning wood and cooking fires began to fill the air, and there was bawdy song and celebration bursting from every fire round. The Menserjan warriors had won their battles, but I had survived.
Bathing in a frigid black pond was a new experience for me; my skin smarted sharply with the cold as I worked to scrub off the dirt and soot. I had been so used to steamy baths of perfumed water and an oil rubdown afterwards that my flesh was soft and pale, no match for the harshness of the elements. With my teeth chattering like they would clatter out of my head, I bathed with my back to the Galilani, who stood on the shore as still as a pine tree with his arms crossed across his chest, a horse blanket tucked beneath his elbow that I had not seen him grab. He said not a word to me. From lord Ayer's words I half expected to feel a throwing knife in my back every time I came up from washing my face.
"Hurry up, Azurati," he said. Though his accent was thick, he spoke to me in my own tongue. Strange knowledge for a foot soldier and magicker of horses. He tossed the horse blanket at me. As I wrapped myself in it the smell of animal sweat and straw hit my nostrils, but I tried not to notice. It was a welcome cover to the cold, now that I was soaking wet as well.
We trekked back through the field at the top of the hummock that sided the black water pond. Red and orange dots of campfires speckled the extensive field below between the dim white dots that were their canvas tents. In the distance was the glow of my burning city just beyond the horizon. Everywhere there was noise; such a rattle of voices in song, the cry of animals and jingling of harnesses and gear. Even the roar of the fires. They would camp the night and make use and celebration of their spoils, care for their dead and begin on the morrow with refilling my palace home with their own banners, fittings and inhabitants. They would rebuild, the world would go on, my country would continue whether it was under Azurati rule or Menserjan. We were a conquered people now, a province, but what was that to me? My only concern, and it was my first lesson as a prize of war, was what the following few minutes of any given moment would bring. It was a lesson I should have learned years ago.
When we reached lord Ayer's tent the man was gone, but Errai took it upon himself to decide, for the moment at least, what to do with me. He gave me a soldier's loin wrap and allowed me to keep the blanket, but bound my hands.
"There's no use in running," he said as he secured the knot. "You're in a camp full of soldiers on the lookout. They could skewer you with the rest of the meat and gnaw on your bones, and it's so early in the game, I doubt anyone would ever miss you." He'd knelt close, and I could smell the sour blood from his armor. "But they're not the least of your concerns, not when I'll be watching for you."
But when his black eyes lashed up to mine, I saw what I had not noticed before in the dark: that I was gazing into the soul of a killer. A ruthless, remorseless, trained killer. He seemed almost inhuman.
My heart beat in my throat and temples long after he'd vanished through the tent flaps. I don't remember having really ever feared another human being before for my life, not like this one. I had always been subject to beatings and worse, but never had I feared death like the one this man would give me if he had reason to. In the cool night I felt the pangs of irony as I wished for lord Ayer to return quickly, if only to stave off visions of black onyx eyes that wished me far from here, in this world or the next.
But I was left alone. Long before the noise outside dimmed, I made myself sleep to avoid rotting the night away in fear and uncertainty. I would need my strength.
Unfortunately, I had no control over dreams. Long stretches of the Pleione Forest hurtled beneath my feet as if I were soaring above it; the doves from my King's menagerie, white as new snow, flew alongside me. Then one by one they began to fall away, plummeting in wild spirals until I felt my own body surge. A mighty wind howled so loudly I couldn't hear my own scream, as terrible storm suddenly raged within my veins, pulling at my heart like grappling daggers. Below me the trees were dripping with blood, writhing and screaming, burning-
I surged upwards and looked wildly around, my breath loud in my ears. Had I called out? How long had I dozed? The tent was darkened; someone had extinguished the torches, leaving me only with shadows dancing from the outside on the will of the moon and wind. But was it not dawn yet? I had been curled into a ball, nested as best I could in my itchy horse blanket. Slowly now I stretched my legs out and felt the trials of a few hours ago attesting in my muscles already. I could still hear voices from without but they were soft, as if a hushed command had fallen over the encampment.
From the corner of the tent I heard a soft grumble of sleep and found my new lord and master there, his lean body flung across a cot, bereft now of his heavier armor, an arm cast over his eyes, hand tangled gently in his own hair. He wore only a tawny linen shirt and his riding breeches, and he'd fallen asleep with his boots on.
My mind raced at his vulnerability- how was I to take advantage of it? Or would it even be prudent to do so? The Galilani's black eyes swept me back into a fear I hardly understood and I double guessed myself. Even if I could have severed the rope that held my hands, how was I to go about it silently? And then where would I go? The lord had not left any of his weapons where I could find or reach them easily. At that, I wondered if he had considered me before falling asleep, or did he feel me a threat at all? After all, here he slept peacefully not twenty paces from me, bereft of armor or weapons. No, he didn't fear a blow from me, not a seasoned warrior such as himself.
I sank back to my knees amid my blanket and chewed my options. Was it worth the risk of a night flight into the unknown darkness with no weapon, no clothes and nowhere to escape to? Dawn surely would come soon and I was still alive thus far. Should I wait to see what would it bring for me?
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