The Bad Dog
He couldn’t forget the way she had screamed.
Like one of the Ladies themselves, she had stood over Han Luratah—a man Darpah had seen dismember scores of fighters in the pits—and she had screamed. The blessing of steel hadn’t save him. And when Darpah had edged close to look, he had seen chips of white on the red grass, and nearly fainted from queasiness.
The way she had stood over him…
The ends of her blindfold had been trailing in the wind, as had the bandages around her hands. Blood had been dripping down her face and down her arms. And the screaming had gone on and on. It had scared him.
It had inspired him.
Darpah could feel the anger inside him, righteous and hot. The screaming still rang in his ears. It made him want to drive nails into his hands and feel that pain again, and fight with bleeding palms and bleeding eyes. Just the thought made his heart beat a little faster.
The little man shook his head, curling up on his cot. That wasn’t a proper way of thinking. He would be punished for that.
They do not know your thoughts, said a treacherous voice in the back of his head. In here, you are free. Darpah shook his head, holding his hands over his ears. No, no, he was a slave, a good slave. He would never be free. He wasn’t meant to be.
Darpah curled up on his cot, fetal, hugging his knees to his chest. He admonished himself, silently. He was a grown man, driven to quaking and shivering like a child by just the memory of what he had seen. This just wouldn’t do. There was work to be done: productive, worthwhile work that would make the master very pleased.
All the same, Darpah could not find the strength in him to rise just yet. He sat on his cot, breathing heavily. He needed to rest before he could work. Yes, this was all in the master’s best interest. A little rest and he’d be much more productive.
Darpah buried his head in his hands, and although he shed no tears, his breath came in short, ragged gasps. What was happening to him? He used to be such a good slave.
No, whispered the treacherous voice, the evil little voice that Darpah simply could not silence. You used to be such a good man.
The man ran his hands through his hair, curling up tighter in himself, trying to contain his sobs. If he was too loud, the other slaves would wake up, and then master would know something was wrong and Darpah would have to tell him, Darpah would have to tell him.
Unless you had your tabula.
Darpah shot to his feet. He didn’t care if he woke the other slaves, as he stepped over his cot and across the straw flooring of the slave room. He pulled his robe roughly over his head, trying to occupy himself with the morning rituals that would banish the voice of dreams and fancies. He wouldn’t listen to the voice. He was a slave. There was only one voice he listened to.
He does not suspect you. You manage his affairs so closely, whispered the voice, as Darpah stepped into the sunlight, folding his hands into his sleeves. He sees the thief in Dandal. He sees the fighter in Chetan. He sees neither in you. But they’re there. You are both thief and fighter.
Other slaves had left a tub of water outside the quarters for them to wash with. Even in the gloom of dawn, Darpah could see that it was dirty and murky, but as he dipped his hands he thanked the master that it was cold. He washed his face, hoping to quiet the voice of rebellion that had haunted Darpah ever since he had been ripped from his parents’ arms into the master’s.
The voice had fallen silent. Darpah dared a nervous smile. He had long ago equated silence with bliss, and as he let the water drip down his chin he reveled in the simplicity of his thoughts. Nothing was wrong. It was very simple, what he had to do.
Darpah walked along the corridor, watching the sea sparkle like jade through pillars. He had the master to thank for that. Without him, he would not have the beauty of the sea, or the breath of the air, or the comforts of this house. He owed it all to the master.
Sovar-l’hana did not make Albumere’s seas. Nor does he rule its skies. He is a small man who casts a long shadow and thinks himself a giant.
“And I cast no shadow at all,” muttered Darpah, to himself. “I am nothing and no one.” A couple attendants, sweeping the hallways and trimming the shrubbery, glanced in Darpah’s way as he passed, but none of them said anything. He knew he talked to himself and they knew it, too. The master’s fidgety little assistant wasn’t worth more than a glance, though.
A little part of him grew angry at the thought, but anger was no emotion for a slave. He bit it down, bowing his head and moving on.
With the departure of Jova the blind, Darpah had thought that perhaps the voice would quiet. It had always been there, it was true, ever since Darpah had been a child, but when Jova had arrived it had gained new strength and conviction. There was something inspiring about the girl. Perhaps it was the way she bore herself, or perhaps it was simply the fact that she had made it so far without a tabula.
Running his fingers through his hair, Darpah shook his head once more. This simply would not do. Jova was inspiring, yes, in the same way a demon of the deep was inspiring. She tempted him towards treachery and chaos, and he would have none of that. He needed to be his best, after all, in the presence of his master.
The doors to the master’s private quarters were impressive, to say the least. They had the same white gleam as the rest of the compound, although they were made of polished oak, and were accented with red paints highlighting the inlays. There stood the proud Ab Ha Al, who founded the city in the days of the desert empire. And there, a passage from the Jade Shanty. Gorgeous. All by the work of the master.
A carpenter made that door. An artist painted it. The historians remembered Ab Ha Al, and the sailors sang the Shanty. Even the wood came from the strength of a lumberjack’s ax. Sovar-l’hana made none of that. He has no right to it.
Darpah knocked softly, and coughed. It was the least offensive way he had of introducing himself.
“Come in and get me dressed,” said an irate voice, and Darpah scurried inside.
The master sat on his bed, naked but for his smallclothes. His gut dripped over his waist, and his cheeks were flushed ruddy. The sheets were a mess, although the baywoman pleasure slave Darpah had escorted to the master last night was already gone. As Darpah approached, he could smell wine.
A bit early for that.
“Shut up,” growled Darpah. He jumped, as he realized he had said it out loud. “M-master! I didn’t mean- I wasn’t talking to- I was…”
“Ha!” said the master, standing and holding his arms out. Darpah slipped a shirt of fine silk over the master’s shoulders, even though his cheeks were red with shame. “My mad dog. It’s a wonder I trust you with anything.”
“I thank you for your trust, master,” said Darpah, pulling the master’s trousers up. He’d have to ask the tailor for a bigger pair. Again. His eyes flickered over the room, looking for other things that needed doing. A good slave did his master’s work without prompting. “Shall I fetch you more parchment? You’ve run out.”
“No more letters for me,” said the master. He lowered his arms with a heavy sigh. “They’ve done what they had to do. Irontower, Ironhide. They’re all so obsessed with that damn metal, ha! Iron rusts. Real blades are made of paper, real poison made of ink. Words are weapons, and this is war.”
“Very wise, master.” Darpah began to make the master’s bed, as the master himself stepped out onto his balcony to survey the city. Like a god.
When will you learn? He is no god.
“You are sure our friends in Irontower received my missives?” asked the master. He didn’t look back, but Darpah knew him well enough to know when he was worried. This was the fourth time he had asked that question.
“Thun is well on his way,” said Darpah, bowing. “He is well protected.”
The master clicked his fingers. “Bring me the tabula. I want to see.”
You see? He thinks nothing of you. Use that. Darpah’s hands hovered over the lacquered box, as a mix of emotions so conflicted that he could not tell them apart bubbled in his gut. It was temptation, it was salvation, it was both…
The master would not be so careless as to leave Darpah’s tabula in the very box Darpah had been sent to retrieve. And even if he was, Darpah could not betray his trust like that. The master was like a god. To him, Darpah owed everything.
The soldier’s tabula hummed as the master whispered, “Show me.” The tabula in the box rattled too, although that was just Darpah’s shaking hands. Take all of them. Unleash them. The power is yours, wield it.
The master put the disk back and closed the box shut. The clasp clicked with a kind of dread finality, and half-relieved, half-disappointed, Darpah put the box away.
“It was convenient Dal Ak Gan came when he did,” mused the master, staring out the balcony. Darpah stood at attendance, ready to act if he needed to. “I hope La Ah Abi knew of his arrangement with the pyramid lords. Correspondence with them might be difficult if she did not, and I hate to think that they never find out I killed a man for them.”
“It would be most unfortunate,” said Darpah.
“Ha! Unfortunate? It would be heretical! I’d have done something for free!” The master turned, resting his elbows on the rail as he leaned back. Suddenly, his face screwed up in an expression of consternation and anger. “What the hell are you still doing here?”
Darpah was used to his violent temperament, and so for once did not quake or mumble. That would only invite more abuse. He bowed his way out of the room as the master watched him go, his potbelly poking out from his shirt. He was right, of course. Darpah had been lazy to spend so long in his presence.
There was so much to be done. Contracts needed to be drafted for the trade deal with Ashak-g’hopti, and the caravans from the west had fallen silent again. The master could not be bothered with petty affairs such as these. Darpah would have to arrange all that. Too much, too much work to be done.
It only made his nerves worse, then, when he found himself stopping in the garden. All the same, he couldn’t help himself. It was too curious a sight to see.
Chetan sat on the marble bench, feeding his mothsnake the rat half of some creature he had caught. There was a gentleness to his expression that Darpah did not often associate with that gnarled face: too often it was twisted in pain as he limped along on that gnarled leg.
Normally, Darpah would have just passed him and moved on. It wasn’t inappropriate behavior: Chetan could care for the master’s animal like soldiers cared for their army’s swords. Darpah had no reason to stop.
But stop he did. He twiddled his thumbs together. He took a step forward. He took a step back. Then he took another step forward.
“Watch where you walk,” rasped Chetan, his voice even more hoarse than usual. He must have just woken up. “Darpah? You hear me? Watch where you step.”
Darpah mumbled an apology, staring at his feet. In the dirt of the garden, a few ladybugs crawled. He edged around them, taking delicate steps. He hadn’t known Chetan to be particularly religious, but Darpah supposed no one wanted to earn the ire of the Lady Summer.
“Sovar want something from me?”
Before he could stop it, a little gasp emerged from his lips. To use the master’s name—his old name, his common name—without the honorific attached to it bordered on sacrilegious. “No, I- I just wanted t-to walk in the garden,” said Darpah, unable to contain his stutter. “The master does not-.”
“Use his fucking name.”
Now, that was inappropriate behavior. Chetan was even more irritable than usual today, but Darpah knew how to deal with him. The master was the master, and should be addressed as such. It was an honor to serve him, and defiance would only merit them pain.
Darpah couldn’t say any of that. The words just wouldn’t come to him. All he could think of, for some reason, was the screaming of Jova the blind.
“May I sit?” asked Darpah, finally. Chetan’s nod was so small that Darpah might have just imagined it, but he sat anyway. The mothsnake turned its head toward him, forked tongue flickering out under vacant, compound eyes.
“Sitting’s no task for slaves,” wheezed Chetan, leaning back and stretching out his legs. Darpah tried not to look. It made him queasy. “He’ll be wroth if he sees.”
“He’s been drinking,” said Darpah, his voice barely above a whisper. “He won’t see.”
“Hmm,” grunted Chetan, and fell silent. They sat together, watching the bare branches sway in the wind. The ladybugs disappeared into the mulch. It struck Darpah as odd that they would emerge so late into winter, but the pontiffs did say that they were warmed by the Lady Summer’s fire.
Darpah felt no such fire. He bent over, stuffing his hands in his sleeves. The rising sun did little to warm him.
“Word on the street is that the Waves are rising,” said Chetan. He didn’t look at Darpah.
The slave attendant blinked. The Waves, the city of light’s commoner class, were not ones for raising their heads. The Waves went where the Wind blew, as the saying went. But recently…
“The master makes me read his letters to him,” said Darpah. He bit his lip. Why was he saying this? He didn’t give himself time to doubt himself. “Banden Ironhide has been sending letters to all the plutocrats. He won’t allow any bayman caravans over the spice road until the slaves are freed, he said. Wh-which is ridiculous, of course. I- I would have no home if I was freed. No work. No safety.”
Chetan coughed, his whole body shaking as he hacked out a mouthful of phlegm. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Aye. We’d be in the streets. We’d have nothing.”
You’d have yourself! You’d be free!
“But the Waves are rising,” said Chetan, again. “And with King-not-a-King Ironhide to lead them…they may drown this city yet.”
Darpah shuddered. Just how many had heard the screaming of Jova the blind?
“Will you take me to Sovar-l’hana, now?” asked Chetan. He shifted, preparing to rise. “I’ll be glad of it if you tell me first. These old bones need to know before they have to spend a night under the streets.”
Darpah stared at the dirt, where the ladybugs had gone. He wanted them to come back, wanted to watch them scurry through their simple, little lives and lose himself among them. But they were gone. “I- well, I don’t want to…but…I’m supposed to tell the master when…” Darpah couldn’t finish the sentence. He didn’t know where it was going.
“We’re not his dogs, you know. No matter how much he tells us we are,” said Chetan. It was the most rebellious statement Darpah had ever heard him say. If the master knew, he would be furious. He would punish them. Just the thought made Darpah whimper.
Chetan watched him, and the scars over his mouth stretched as he laughed. “Ah, the Ladies know me. Of course we’re his dogs. And no dog wants to be a bad dog, even if they all want to be wolves.”
Screams, and waves, and wolves, and little voices that might have just been dead thoughts rising again. It was too much.
Darpah started to cry. Great, fat tears rolled down his cheeks as he sucked in breath, but it felt like his chest was collapsing, felt like someone had put needles in his blood and they were poking at him, all over his body. He felt, dimly, Chetan’s hand on his shoulder—awkward and clumsy, but there nonetheless. Darpah did not know how long he cried. A shamefully long time. There was work to be done.
And when he had at last regained control of himself, when at last his eyes were dry, he asked, softly, “Which street?”
“You said the w-word on the street was that the Waves are rising,” said Darpah. He sniffed, and rubbed his nose. “Which street?”
Chetan looked at him for a long time. “I’ll show you, if you like. Another day, when there’s more time.”
“Thank you, Chetan,” said Darpah, and he rose. For the first time in a long time, he noticed how heavy the collar on his neck was, noticed how empty his belly was and how bent his back was. “Excuse me. Sovar-l’hana has much work for me to do.”
Darpah began to hurry away, but not before Chetan made one last remark. “You didn’t say it,” he wheezed. “You didn’t call him master.”
No, Darpah realized, with a start. He hadn’t.
And it felt good.
Posted on August 12, 2014, in Chapter 6 (Ebb & Flow), The Bad Dog and tagged adventure, Chetan, creative writing, Darpah, fantasy, Krish, novel, original characters, Sovar-l'hana, story, web fiction, web serial, webfiction, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.