The red brand steamed and hissed as it was dipped into the water, flakes of dead skin peeling off the mottled iron. Hook stood, watching, his eyes shining, but he shed not a single tear, nor did he move a single inch. His internal screams drowned out his own thoughts, even as his face remained passive, immobile, almost bored.
The old man tapped Hook’s jaw with his knuckles, and squinted. Hook could do nothing to stop him, as he was inspected like a piece of meat. “This is what you brought me?” the old man said. “He looks fit for fertilizer.”
The alsknight named Fisk didn’t say anything. He just watched as the man with the brands proceeded down the line, and the old man followed along behind him. Hook watched with his eyes, as he could neither turn his head nor his body to see them.
“Mm, a small one for her,” said the old man, clicking his tongue. “The other farmers like their girls unblemished. On her foot, there you are. Fisk, raise her foot.”
Hook didn’t even hear the buzz of the tabula, the command was so easy and automatic for the alsknight. It was a terrible power, one that Hook had severely underestimated. He realized now how foolish his dreams of easy living on the border between Shira Hay and Alswell had been. How could he have ever stayed out of the grasp of that kind of power? If only he could go back to warn himself. If only he could go back to warn anyone.
They had tried to warn him—him and all the boys—but Hook, and therefore Hook’s crew, had never listened.
To them, the alsknights had just been another kind of inferior racer. They were supposed to be clumsy and slow, easy to trick and outwit. Any plainsman worth his wits could outsmart an alsknight, or so they thought, but in the riots of Shira Hay, Hook had seen firsthand their training: their speed, their discipline, their precision.
Hook watched out of the corner of his eye as the bent-backed old man snapped and barked at all of his attendants. The row of human beings lined up before him were completely and totally his property. Hook almost could have laughed at himself, and a part of him, a shattering, tenuously sane part of him, wanted to. He had thought himself the pauper king of a peasant kingdom, but right here, right now, he saw what true power was, and how far he had been from it.
“They’re mangy vermin,” said the old man, as he came upon the last person in the line. “No better than ratbeasts. This is what you bring me?”
“My lord Greeve, with all due respect,” said the alsknight, Fisk. “I am fortunate to have left the plains with my own life.”
“Your life? As if your life is worth anything.” The old man’s voice was rising. “You return with not even a quarter of the force I sent to Shira Hay. You have not only failed to gain an ally in the duarchs but you have also made an enemy in them as well, and you think to compensate for your failures by dredging up the filth of the plainsmen gutters. Where is the help I sent for? Where are the men I sent to fight this war? Where is my son?”
Fisk stuttered. “Your son, my lord? Engers? He was not-.”
The line of slaves did not move as the old man struck Fisk squarely across the face. The other attendants froze, watching, as Greeve advanced on the alsknight. He put his cane to the quivering man’s throat, and said, in a low, husky whisper, “Finish that sentence, survivor Fisk, and make the loss of my forces in Shira Hay total and complete.”
The silence stretched on, as the cloying air grew hot in the dimly lit slave’s hut. Fisk did not finish his sentence. No one said a word.
Greeve took a deep breath and looked around, as if he was about to give some sweeping command, but no command came from his lips. He hobbled away without saying anything, and the line of slaves was left to stand and sweat as Fisk picked himself up.
Hook heard whispers behind them as the other fieldmen prepared the slaves’ new home for them. “We are lost,” whispered a balding man with ruddy cheeks. “Have you heard? The outer fields have already begun to burn.”
“And where’d you hear that?” hissed an old crone, sweeping away the soiled straw in front of Hook.
“Refugees, Gomora,” said the bald man. “The ones that flee into Alswell, anyway. The smart ones sneak out past the enemies, go out into the rest of Albumere, away from here.”
The woman grunted, but said nothing.
“I’m not staying. I’ll go to the coast, take a ship out to Farsea, and make my living in the wilds. If a wild clanchild of four springs can make it out there on their own, why can’t I?”
“What do you know of being wild, Saxdon?” The woman clicked her tongue and Hook marched forward to sit on the newly swept patch of dirt. Even if she did not hold his tabula personally, he did not dare disobey her. “The Ladies won’t be there for you in the wilds. It’s hollow magic, savage magic that rules out there.”
“Superstition and nonsense,” said Saxdon. The woman did not look convinced. “Either way,” he continued. “Wherever I am, tabula will work. I’ll just take one or two from the amber box and-.”
Hook flinched instinctively when Fisk appeared directly behind the fieldman servant. “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that, friend,” said Fisk. Though his face was bruised and purpling, the cold light in his eyes made both servants pale. “We all need to bond together in these difficult times. Now I understand if recent events have demoralized you, but we need discipline more than ever now.”
Both servants bowed their heads deferentially, and Fisk walked away, but the moment he was out of earshot the woman named Gomora muttered, under her breath, “Coward.”
“That Fisk is a Summer-burnt coward and he knows it,” spat Gomora. “How was he the only alsknight to survive the plainsmen riots? He did it by skulking and hiding, that’s how. No wonder he brought nothing but rats here, he’s a rat himself…”
They drifted away, and Hook was no longer privy to their conversation. He sat, rigid and stiff, until all the fieldmen had left and the slaves were left to tend to themselves. Only then did he at last relax, slumping, and groans and winces stirred across the hut as the other slaves also became at ease and felt the new scars on their bodies.
They didn’t even have the courage to scream anymore. Hook was silent as he flexed his shoulders and back, even as the pain burned like lines of fire there. Once, in what seemed like a long time ago, he would have been angry. He would have been plotting terrible, terrible revenge.
Now he was just praying that they would leave him alone for the rest of the night.
Hook stared at the ground, his face not moving. Even when he could, now, he found it hard to change his expression. He wondered where Penna was, now. The kestrelgull had been there the whole time when Hook had been captured, but there had been hardly anything she could do as the alsknight nearly strangled Hook from behind. Of course, they hadn’t let Hook keep her tabula, and she had disappeared when they dragged Hook away.
Wherever she was, even if she was dead, she was freer than him. Envy crawled in Hook’s gut, but just as soon as it reared its ugly head he suppressed it. Hook hadn’t felt much of anything since he arrived in Alswell. It was better that way.
Slowly, gradually, so that no one would pay attention to the movement, Hook clamped his hands over his ears. It didn’t help to block out the buzzing. Even when his tabula was not active, Hook heard its humming, like the whine of a small insect inside his head. It was enough to drive a man insane.
Hook stared blankly at the ground, his hands so tight on his head that he imprinted red pressure marks on the side of his face. Even as his eyes began to dry, he didn’t close them.
When he had run his gang in Shira Hay, he had often giggled at the loons and fools that sometimes begged near the Twin Libraries. He and Scrabble, or Shimmy, or on some days even Stink, would laugh at the demented madmen, mock their odd manners, and after that had bored them, throw rocks at the beggars to get them to clear their turf. That kind of madness, the giggling, constant mirth, Hook would have now welcomed.
This madness was humorless. He could not think anymore. He seemed to hear everything, but the words drifting over his head he could barely process, while the constant, ceaseless buzzing inside his mind never seemed to stop.
As the other slaves settled in, Hook tried to summon his old anger. He remembered it, that blinding rage, but he could not seem to feel it. He traced the scars on his back, and the fresh wounds where the brand had been pressed into his skin.
“They ruined you,” he said, to himself. “They takes you away. Hurt ‘em back. Hurt them back. Hurt them.”
He stared at the ground, muttering to himself, waiting, but his heart only felt cold and clammy with fear. If they heard him saying that, they would take his tabula out again, and what little humanity Hook had hoarded to himself would be burned away. He couldn’t risk being anything other than perfectly obedient.
The air was starting to grow musty around him. Even though the stench made Hook light-headed, he didn’t move. He hardly moved at all, nowadays, unless someone told him to.
The alsknights, he had discovered, could do things with tabula he had never even dreamed possible. For him, the tabula had just been a means of mobility; he had prided himself on how he could sling Penna towards any of his enemies in the city with that old rod of his, but now Hook was learning how much of that power had gone wasted. He had never imagined the potential a man had if he could make someone do anything, feel anything, be anything.
The first time Hook had disobeyed, out in the grasslands as the escaping Alswell caravan wound its way back to the fields, he had been commanded to feel pain. It had been, without a doubt, the worst experience Hook had ever had in his life, for his mind had summoned all of his worst experiences and pushed them all just a little further in that one instant of pain.
When he obeyed the next time, he had been commanded to feel pleasure. It had been the polar opposite, a soft cloud to ride high into the sky of ecstasy and bliss, and as much as Hook didn’t want to admit it, the pain made the pleasure all the sweeter. It was…
It was addicting.
A hand touched his shoulder, and he flinched.
“Hey-hey, Hook,” said a boy, his face dirt-smeared, his skin cut and bruised, but his eyes bright. “It’s me! It’s Shimmy!”
Hook squinted. Was it Shimmy, his old crewmember? If so, what did it matter? They were both slaves now, both powerless.
“Come on-and-on,” said Shimmy, and his voice was so energetic that Hook had to look up. What did Shimmy have to be so happy about? “We all Shira Hay here, right? We all together! Now they say we gon’ get split up-and-up soon, but we ain’t gon’ let that happen, right, boss?”
“Who say what now?” said Hook, suspiciously.
“Get up,” said Shimmy, pulling on his hand. “Quiet now. I show you!”
Hook trudged along behind the fellow slave, his sore legs protesting as he rose to his feet. He edged his way around the cramped floor, around other captured plainsmen sleeping or resting or simply staring at nothing like he had been, following Shimmy towards wherever they were going. Perhaps, Hook mused, Shimmy had also gone insane.
“Right here. See him? Don’t make no fuss now, he’s a hidin’,” said Shimmy, pointing, and Hook followed his finger towards the near grown-old sitting with his back to the wall. He was nursing a girl that Hook almost recognized, tending to the new scars on her foot.
The near grown-old looked up and met Hook’s eyes, and Hook felt a cold flash as he realized who it was.
“You wit’ him?” asked Hurricane, gesturing with his head toward Shimmy.
Hook nodded slowly, not trusting himself to speak.
Hurricane grunted in approval. “You helpin’ us get out of this shithole, then.” He stood, rolling his head and cracking his neck, and as he shifted his stance Hook saw something glint gold in his hand: a tabula. Whose was it?
Shimmy grinned widely and nodded when Hook looked questioningly at him. “He ain’t no slave,” said Shimmy, in an excited but hushed whisper. “He come to break us out!”
“I come to break her out,” said Hurricane, putting an arm around the girl’s shoulders. “You two comin’ if you can pull your own weight.”
“Wait-wait,” said Hook, shaking his head. It didn’t make sense. “How you still got your tabula? What you do, huh?”
“Followed y’all. Snuck in. Never caught in the first place,” said Hurricane. He was constantly looking to the side, although what he was watching out for Hook did not know. “Tattle got some sort of a plan. Gon’ do what she says to get Veer out, is all.”
“You go and get yourself branded just for her?” asked Hook, incredulously.
Hurricane’s arm tightened around Veer’s shoulders. “They ain’t branding you if you already branded,” he said, and his eyes dared Hook to ask another question. Hook didn’t.
“So what’s the plan?” asked Shimmy, eagerly. “How you getting us out?”
“You want spe-ci-fics, ain’t none. Ain’t no plan ‘til Tattle make one. She working on it, now. But we thieves, and we gon’ steal you out.” Hurricane sniffed and gave the hut a long look. “Anyone else here feel like making free, you find them. We gon’ need all the help we can get.”
Shimmy was nearly bouncing on his feet with excitement, but Hook remained more skeptical. The girl, he noticed, also looked subdued.
Hurricane let the girl go. “I go now. Meet up with Tattle, see what we can do. We gettin’ you out, I promise.”
“Why can’t we go with you now?” asked Shimmy, a pleading look in his eyes.
“How you gon’ get out of here without you tabula? No way, no how,” said Hurricane. “Gonna take the amber box, first. That’s the only way to do it.”
With only a curt nod, he walked away casually, through the opening of the hut, into the deepening night. No one made any attempt to stop him. No one made any move to hold him back. Why would they?
The girl shuffled away to a private corner, and Shimmy did as well, after a lengthy pause where Hook did not speak to him. Hook did not feel like talking now, too busy pondering the possibilities in his head.
Escape. As Hook considered it, his thoughts immediately turned to the potential punishment. It would hurt if they were caught, and they would be caught. The alsknights had demonstrated that. It was simple: they had the power, and the slaves didn’t. There was no way this would ever end well for Hook. Unless…
Hook realized with a sickening twist in his gut that he would be given the pleasure again if he ratted these people out. Was Hook really going to sell out their last chance for freedom for some temporary high?
Of course he would. He was doing them a favor: their last chance was no chance at all. They would never escape. The power of the alsknights was absolute. Hook laid down to sleep, betrayal already on his mind. The old man had called them all rats, and Hook wasn’t about to deny it.