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.
The boy cried in the shadows of the hollow, his belly rumbling, his eyes red, his cheeks streaked and glistening. He held a disk in his hand, his back pressed against the sap-coated innards of the great tree. The clean clothes that mama had tearfully put on him were already soiled. He had fallen asleep at home, somewhere warm, somewhere safe, but had been jerked awake by the tugging, hurtling through darkness, the world expanding and contracting around him.
He was tired and lonely and scared when the voice shouted, “We got one today, Engers!”
A pair of hands reached inside and pulled the toddler out. The boy blinked his eyes, scrubbing his face in the dappled sunlight. At its high point in the sky, it shone directly down and peaked through the twisted branches of the tree above him, which was surrounded on all sides by high stone walls.
The woman holding him up pursed her lips and turned him from side to side. The boy felt tears emerge in his eyes again, and as he started to cry he felt a sudden harsh pain on the side of his face. He tasted blood in his mouth and began to bawl even louder, until the woman hit him even harder on the head.
The toddler hiccupped once, and fell silent, sniffling despite himself.
“Did you have to be so rough?” asked a teenager standing behind the woman, pulling at the shawl around his shoulders.
“Oh, it just takes a smidge of discipline, young lord,” said the woman. “See? He stopped crying already.”
“May I hold him?” asked the teenager, edging forward.
“Of course, Engers,” said the woman, handing the toddler off to the boy like he was a slab of meat. “How does it feel to hold your first slave?”
The teenager’s hands were clumsy and weak, and he nearly dropped the toddler as he held him under the shoulders. “He feels heavy,” said the teenager, laughing. He turned to the boy and set him down, tickling his nose. “Hey, there, little guy. What’s your name?”
“We don’t let them keep their names,” said the woman, quickly, before the boy could answer. “Even if they do remember them. Best to just start fresh, don’t you think?”
“Oh, alright, then,” said Engers, and he reached into his pocket. “I’ve got a list somewhere, wait a hollow’s hop…”
“I don’t like springborn at the best of times,” said the woman, as Engers examined the long sheet of paper. “But I guess this one will grow into it. He doesn’t look nearly strong enough for good fieldwork, but we’ll try him at it, anyway.”
“Ah! Here’s one I like,” said Engers. “Bax. How about that, little guy? Does Bax sound like a good name?”
The boy looked at the teenager’s honest face, to the woman looming over him, and he nodded his head mutely.
“Speaks as much as the Lady Spring, doesn’t he?” said Engers, grinning. “I’m sorry, Kerry, I was reading: what did you say?”
“Nothing you have to worry about,” said the woman. “One last thing…”
She put her hand on the boy’s back (he flinched) and bent down to pluck the disk out of his hands. The boy reached out, a protest forming on his lips, but at the tightening of the woman’s hand on his back he looked down and didn’t speak. “We’ll just hold onto that for you, Bax.”
“Come on, Bax, let’s go and play,” said Engers, taking Bax’s hand and leading him towards the door in the stone walls. “Shh, shh, it’s OK. Life is nice here in Alswell. Don’t be scared.”
He opened the door, and two giants of men nodded their heads to him as he passed.
“Young lord,” said one, shifting the lance to his other hand to give a little salute.
“M’lord,” said the other, his chainmail rustling as he too saluted.
“Cropper, Hardy,” said Engers, nodding to them as well.
“You should visit Langs,” said either Cropper or Hardy. “He’s had his for a fortnight, he says it’s been getting a bit temperamental.”
“How about that?” said Engers, ruffling Bax’s hair. “You want to go visit Langs?”
“OK,” said Bax, softly.
“He speaks!” said Engers, laughing and clapping, and Bax dared a little smile. “You have a sweet voice, Bax.”
“Thanks,” said Bax.
Bax started when the woman spoke. She was just behind them, but he had not noticed her. “Not ‘thanks’. Thank you, my lord,” she said.
“Thank you, m’lord,” Bax mumbled.
Engers led him on, through a dirt path winding through the field. Neatly cultivated rows of plants surrounded them on all sides, although if Bax stood on tiptoe he could see tiny cabins on the horizon.
He stepped on something thorny and yelped. The woman tittered while Engers examined Bax’s foot and swept the thing aside with a hand. “Nasty thing, the thorny flax,” said Engers, patting Bax’s shoulder. “You get them over the ground sometimes, hollows know why.”
They kept walking, and Bax eyed their boots enviously. He had no shoes, and kept tripping over his own feet as he looked down while he walked.
“These are the flax fields,” said Engers, brightly. “The people out east prefer cotton, but all’s well in Alswell, and all. A little further south we grow tea and sugarcane, and-.”
“He doesn’t need to know the business, young lord,” said the woman, sharply. “He just needs to be able to work it. Probably not a word you said got into his head, poor thing.”
Bax looked down. He didn’t say anything.
“Well, in that case we’ll just—Bechde! Well, I’ll be! We were just going to visit Langs!”
“Engers, this is a pleasant surprise,” said a lady in tight dress, seated on the back end of a wagon trundling around the bend. The waving stalks of flax were so high that Bax had not been able to see her, or her wagon. She waved a fan in front of her face daintily and smiled, showing pretty white teeth. “I was just escorting the workers back around to Greeve.” The lady blinked. “Oh, what’s this? What a darling young boy you’ve got there!”
Bax sniffed. For some reason, all of a sudden, among these bright and happy people, he felt like crying again.
He didn’t listen as Engers and Bechde began talking animatedly. He just stood there, waiting in the hot sun, wondering when he would be able to go home again.
He heard a soft psst and looked up. Poking out of behind the lady, peering through the covers, was a little girl with wide eyes. She waved at him, and made a face at the twitter and chatter of Engers and Bechde. Bax sniggered, and the girl vanished under the tarp again before the lady could see her.
And then Engers took him away, off wherever slaves went in Alswell.
“No more,” sang the field leader. Thunk, went the axe into the tree. “No more.” Thunk. “No more!” Thunk. “Farmer lord.” Thunk.
Bax wiped the sweat from his brow, squinting his eyes as wood chips flew from the tree. “We won’t take-.” Thunk. “No more.” Thunk. “Not ‘til we ask-.” Thunk. “The Ladies Four.”
The rest of the woodcutters hummed with him. They might not have known the words, but they sang with just as much feeling, just as much pain and fatigue in their voices.
“Ask ‘em why-.” Thunk. “My hands are bleeding.” Thunk. Bax tightened his grip on the axe. The blisters on his hands had healed at this point. They would not bleed for another day or two.
“Ask ‘em who-.” Thunk. “Took the hollow seed in.” Thunk. Bax looked up at the great oak hollow they were working around, with its twisting branches and flaking bark. The tabula in its hollow winked innocently, as if they did not hold the terrible power every slave in that clearing knew they did.
“Ask ‘em why-.” Thunk. “That man still breathing.” Thunk. Everyone thought of someone different when they said that. Some resented the farmer lords, and wished them dead with that line. Others prayed for mercy for their fellow slaves as age beat down on their backs as much as the whips of the taskmasters and the heat of the Alswell sun.
“Ask ‘em when-.” Thunk. “This life I’m leaving.” Thunk. With an ominous creak, the oak began to slowly tip over. “Timber!” shouted Bax, backing away as it collapsed in a great, shuddering heap. Loose leaves scattered all over the ground, and with one last gasp the oak came to a rest.
Bax backed away as the taskmaster lead more slaves to load up the tree onto the timber sled, sweat glistening on his chest, breathing heavily. The taskmaster looked up and snapped his whip in Bax’s direction, and the slave flinched. He looked away, as his grasp tightened on the axe.
That man still breathing…
Bax trudged away, to begin work on the next tree. The timber from the oaks was well and good, but it was the hollow at the center of the grove that the farmers really wanted. They would build great stone walls around this one, too, and Greeve would have a steady supply of slaves for as long as he had the clout to keep it from the other farmers.
“All’s well in Alswell, brother?” asked Fisk, leaning on his lance.
“All’s well in Alswell,” said Bax, nodding. He looked up at the trunk of the tree, figuring out where to cut so that it would fall away from hollow at the center. He didn’t want to damage the most precious part of today’s work.
“You go on and rest a little, Bax,” said the alsknight, as Bax began to chop once again. With the arrival of the taskmaster, the singing had stopped. “I can see you sweating enough for a dozen.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Bax, drawing out his words. He didn’t stop working. “Soon as the taskmaster gets done drawing fi’ty line on my back, I’m gon’ have to give that a little cogitating.”
“Heh, you a funny one, Bax,” said Fisk, patting the slave’s shoulder even as Bax drew the axe back for another swing. Bax had to pull back and let his arm fall to prevent himself from decapitating Fisk. “But go on and have a look-see over there. Pretty little filly, isn’t she?”
Bax followed Fisk’s finger and saw Janwye, also hard at work pulling timber onto the sled. Whatever Fisk was imagining, all Bax saw was the grinning little girl in the back of the wagon, making faces at a sad boy to cheer him up. He really did almost decapitate Fisk, then.
“Pretty little filly,” repeated Fisk, licking his lips. “And I’ve love to ride her, know what I mean?”
“She like family,” said Bax, and he swung his axe as hard as he could into the oak. It bit deep, and to his great satisfaction several woodchips went flying into the alsknight’s face. “So you best think real hard about what you say next.”
“Oh, how do you know what family is?” said Fisk, grinning, although anger was smoldering in his eyes. “You had Fallow in the same hollow or something?”
Bax was about to say something testy in reply when suddenly he felt a cold energy seize him. Like some invisible hand tugging at his spine, his body jerked upright and his arms began to swing of their own accord, swing harder and faster than was safe, so that his muscles screamed in protest and the blisters re-opened on his hands. He moved so fast as to be frenzied but so methodically as to be mechanical.
Beside him, the leering smirk had vanished from Fisk’s face; he was now upright and rigid, gripping his lance tightly. His eyes looked like, on the inside, he was screaming.
“No slacking,” growled the taskmaster, and then he moved on.
Fear kept Bax’s arms moving even as the taskmaster walked away. He supposed he should have been lucky, that he had only been commanded not punished, but the total lack of control, the cold realization that he was a prisoner in his own body—that was something Bax did not want to repeat.
Fisk didn’t talk to him anymore. Even if he was an alsknight, the farmers still owned him as much as they owned Bax. If they caught him lax on guard duty, it was back to the fields for him, and the Ladies knew Fisk couldn’t have many friends in the fields if he had become an alsknight.
“No more,” the field leader began again. “No more! No more, my lord…”
Bax laid on the straw and old rags, trying to ignore the smell and heat of the hut, poking his finger through the little hole in the wall. Sometimes winter rats crawled through, and Bax would let their cold breath play over fingers before they snuck away and disappeared. Bax closed his eyes. If only he was a winter rat, who could walk with a sheen of frost on his back to guard against the hot sun, who could squeeze through the tiny cracks and holes in the walls, who could grow fat on crumbs that the farmer lords threw away.
Someone kicked in their sleep next to him, and Bax tried to edge away. It was hard; floor space in the hut was limited, and a dozen people slept here every night. They also cooked here, ate here, and occasionally shat here if they felt like being rude, although none of the farmers actually cared if they did. It was their muck they had to live in, after all.
The taste of cornbread and grease still lingered in Bax’s mouth. He licked his lips. It was more than just hunger that gnawed at his insides. Anticipation crawled inside of him, and Bax could not dismiss it.
Trying to disturb as few people as possible, he rose, tiptoeing over the others towards the door of the hut. No one stirred; they were all sleeping deeply. They needed the rest for the long day they had tomorrow, like today, like the day before, like the day before that.
It was easy for Bax to leave the hut. The farmers posted no guards around the slave quarters; they didn’t need to. It was the tabula boxes and field lords that the alsknights guarded. No matter how far a slave ran in the night, they would always end up in the same place by morning, with whips and brands waiting for them.
No, all the farmers had to do was confiscate any weapons the slaves might have, keep the rope or rock out of reach. Suicide was bad for business.
And even if he found a way, Bax thought, Greeve had so many slaves that the loss of one made no difference. He padded across the dirt, the calluses on his heels scuffing against pebbles and gravel. He didn’t mind so much, anymore. When all was said and done, it was just part of living. Better to keep living, than to be petty.
The only tree in the compound was an old bent willow, its drooping branches waving in some wind only it could feel. Bax sat at its base, his legs straining as he slid down. It had been a harvest day, today. His back was sore and his fingers were covered in scratches and cuts from the flax bolls.
“Hey, Bax,” whispered a voice, and Janwye sat next to him. She yawned and put her head on his shoulder, and he straightened his back a little.
“Comfortable?” he asked, petting her hair. “Do I make a good headrest?”
“Better than the floor,” she said, batting his hand away. “Lady Summer, I’m tired.”
“Mm,” said Bax, softly. “Where’s Mealark?”
“Sleeping.” Janwye snuggled a little closer to Bax. “She had a rough day of it, today.”
Like today, like the day before, like the day before that. Bax’s gut twisted again, not just hunger, not just anticipation this time. “You ever get the sense that we could be doing something better, Janny? Something greater?”
“Every day,” said Janwye. “Actually, Bax, I…”
“Yes?” asked Bax, a little too quickly.
“Oh, Ladies, I’ve been putting this off for too long.” Janwye sat up, her legs folded under her. “Bax, I’ve been meaning to tell you, but I just- I couldn’t find the right way…”
“I’m leaving,” she said. She look on the verge of tears, but she didn’t cry. Janwye never cried.
Bax’s heart plummeted faster than he thought possible. Janwye? Leave? It was so strange as to be surreal. Janwye couldn’t leave. She couldn’t. She was family. “Where? Why?” Bax croaked, his mouth very dry, the pains in his gut forgotten.
“Bechde told me a week ago. An old marbleman, named Marion, he-.”
“She sold you?”
Janwye nodded, looking away. “An offer she couldn’t refuse, she said. She wouldn’t tell me how much I had sold for, but…Bax, I’m scared. I saw him. He dressed like one of their marble generals, and he’s balding and fat and wrinkled and what if he- what if…?”
Bax pulled her in, wrapping his arms around her in a great hug. He rocked her back and forth, whispering comforting nonsense into her ear.
“Anybody else know?” he asked, after a while.
Janwye shook her head. “Bechde said she was already breaking one of the terms by telling me. This man, he doesn’t want anyone to know. You’re the first person I’ve told, Bax.” She pushed her way out of his embrace. “You have to promise me—promise me—that you won’t tell anyone. I don’t want Bechde getting in trouble.”
“Even after she did this to you?” said Bax, incredulously. “Treat you like shit, sell you like a piece of meat?”
“OK, Janny,” he said, after a pause. “I promise.”
Janwye nodded. She turned around and sat against the tree again, sighing. “Oh, Ladies, I said it all wrong. Don’t be worried about me, Bax. I know you’re going to worry. But I’ll be fine. Wherever I’m going, I’ll be fine.”
Bax wasn’t so sure. He stared at his feet, not knowing what to say. “When are you leaving?”
“Can we not talk about it?” asked Janwye. Her voice was rising, and Bax had to put a finger to her lips as the sound began to carry through the night. “Please, Bax? Let’s just not talk about it. Let’s spend this night like we would have if I hadn’t gone and blabbed it all out.”
The way Janwye said it, it made it sound like this was their last night. Bax’s breath caught in his throat. He stared at Janwye for a long time, at the way her hair fell around her face, at the constant emotion and life she had, at the way she moved and talked and breathed. He tried to keep it all in his head and remember, just in case this really was last night they had.
Janwye might never cry, but Bax felt like he might.
He took a quiet breath to calm himself, and then cleared his throat. “But of course, m’lady,” he said, kissing Janwye’s hand like an alsknight would court a fine apprentice-daughter of a farmer lord. “Anything you desire.”
Janwye waved a hand in front of her face and made such high-pitched mock giggle that both of them collapsed in stifled laughter.
“You know, Bax,” said Janwye, as she wiped the tears from her eyes. “I’m a bit glad that Mealark is so tired today.” She groaned, putting her head in her palms. “Oh, shit, that came out wrong, I shouldn’t have said it like that. What I mean is I just-.”
“I know what you meant,” said Bax, and she didn’t need to say anymore after that.
They talked that night, talked about the field groups and Greeve’s court and the work they had to do, and even though Janwye had told Bax not to mention it eventually the conversation came around to what the Stronghold was like, and what they ate, and how they dressed.
“I hear they have gladiators there,” said Janwye. “You know, like pit fighters.”
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” asked Bax.
“I think…a good thing. At least they give the slaves a chance to fight back.”
“Fighting each other, though? Kicking and biting and scrabbling the dust while some fat general in the stands watches? While he eats grapes and strokes whores?”
“At least they’re fighting something,” said Janwye. “You can’t fight the sun, or the harvest, or the hollows. At least they get a chance to be actual people.”
“You thinking of becoming a gladiator, is that it, Janny?”
She pushed him up against the tree and bared her teeth at him. “You ain’t never seen how hard I fight, Bax boy.”
He laughed and, as Janwye leaned across him, stroked her hair again. She didn’t bat his hand away this time.
“I’ll miss you, Janny.”
She sighed. “I’ll miss you too.”
Kerry fussed around him, straightening his clothes, scrubbing his face judiciously. “Well, you did grow into it, didn’t you?” she said, an old woman now with a bent back and a wheeze in her voice. “Look at you. Nice set of clothes, combed hair, and your lovely springborn voice and no one will ever think you’re a slave unless they see the brand.” She slapped him on the back. “Best keep your shirt on, then, Bax, eh?” She said it like it was a joke, but Bax didn’t laugh.
He went over Engers’s instructions in his head. It was a simple courtship ritual, just the first step in the elaborate Alswell process. Bax would pass the message on to the lady, and give her reply back to Engers.
He adjusted the cravat around his neck and squirmed on the inside. He understood that he had to look the part, but nonetheless he felt puffy.
“Last touch, Bax,” said Kerry, waddling his way with a pair of soft leather boots. Bax stepped inside of them and let Kerry tie the straps. At last, the slave boy was finally good enough for shoes.
“Off you go now, go on,” said the old woman, shooing him away. “Bechde’s manor isn’t far, you know where it is. And don’t get too much dust on those clothes! You’ll have to clean it off yourself.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Bax, bowing his head and backing away. His boots slapped on the stones as he left the chilly castle corridors behind him, and stepped out into the bright Alswell sun. He was already beginning to sweat under his layers of stiff vests and cotton dress shirts.
Bax supposed it was better than fieldwork, but all the same he felt like he had somehow betrayed his brothers and sisters in the working groups as he walked along the fields and saw them, smudges on the horizon, bending and cutting, bending and cutting, bending and cutting.
Someone had to be the messenger for the farmer nobles and their lace-filled, shawl-wearing, puffy society. Better it be Bax, then, the slave reasoned, as he walked along the road. For once, he could stand with his back straight as he walked.
“Finest morning, Lady Bechde,” muttered Bax, under his breath, practicing. “Lord Engers sends his regards and seeks your company in the coming moons. Ahem, finest morning, Lady Bechde…”
The manor was just ahead. Each of the manors technically belonged to Farmer Greeve, but the lords and ladies that were his personal favorites essentially owned the various mansions that dotted the fields. Bax supposed that, at a certain point, they must have all been slaves too, but sometimes the farmers would choose some particularly lucky child to pamper and raise since Fallow. Lady Bechde seemed like one of those children; from what Bax had seen of the perfumed woman, it looked like she hadn’t done a day’s hard work in her life.
The elaborate front of the manor, with its high arches and true-glass windows, loomed before him as he approached. He straightened, preparing himself. If he did a good job at this, Engers might keep him on as a formal messenger, and then Bax would never have to work the fields again.
And then he saw her.
“Janny,” whispered Bax, as she rode out of the courtyard on the back of a beautiful summer elk, its fur russet brown, long and sleek and clean. But she was more beautiful still, her hair combed behind her ears, a plain white shawl around her shoulders. On the other ladies of the Alswell courts it made them look gaudy, but on her it was majestic.
And then he saw the man riding next to her.
He would have, in Bax’s opinion, been the picturesque dashing knight if he hadn’t been so obviously foreign. He rode his horse (and Bax couldn’t tell what kind of horse it was: honestly, it seemed rather dull) with natural skill and ease, but he wore pants of tanned leather and no shirt at all. A barbed whip hung from his side, and his hair, long and greasy, was in a braid that reached his waist. Bax had no small amount of muscle himself from those years in the fields, but this man had the stature and physique of a trained warrior, not a starved worker.
Bax’s mouth went dry. He did not seem like a marbleman, but Bax had not stepped foot outside Alswell since the Fallow. For all he knew, this man could be the epitome of the marble legions.
There was nothing for it. Bax ran, all pretense and manners forgotten as his boots slapped on the dirt path. “Janny!” he shouted. “Janny, hey!”
Janwye reared in the summer elk and looked around in confusion. When she saw Bax, her eyebrows furrowed in confusion. Then, to Bax’s great relief, her mouth split in a wide smile.
“Bax!” she shouted, slipping off the elk and running forward. “What the hell happened to you?”
Bax looked down at his cravat and vest and gulped. “I got fancy,” he said, finally. “You- I mean you look…wow.”
The other man rode up behind them and dropped off his horse to the ground, lithe, like some predatory cat. He straightened and gave Bax an intense look-over. “Mosh sag bu,” he muttered, quietly. “Wey ab al, fot hak sen.”
Before Bax could say anything, Janwye looked over her shoulder and said, “Pu al ab! Sen hak Bax, al iro tu sat.”
“You speak foreign,” said Bax, before he could stop himself.
Janwye laughed. “You can thank him for that, he’s too lazy to learn the king’s tongue. That’s Rho Hat Pan.”
“He’s a friend. Just a friend,” said Janwye. She put her hands on her hips. “By all the Ladies, Bax, it’s been so long. I was going to visit, but these damn fields are so big, I had no idea where to start…”
“It’s OK.” Bax kept looking Janwye up and down. She had changed so much. “So, are you…?” Bax couldn’t seem to finish his questions.
“I’m back,” said Janwye, smiling. “For now, at least. As a free woman. I’d figure I’d see what Bechde needs doing, maybe come back around again. Do some favors for some friends, if I need to.” She reached for a pendant around her neck, and Bax noticed for the first time that she was wearing a little wooden disk with a crescent moon inscribed on it.
“Are you going anywhere?” asked Bax, looking at the horse and the elk.
Janwye bit her lip. “Yes, we have to…yes. Stick around though! We’ll be back!”
Bax nodded. “OK, then. I’ll be right here for you, waiting.”
And they hugged each other just once before going their separate ways.
Greeve looked tired. What little hair was left on his head had gone white with stress and age, and there were deep bags under his eyes.
“Banden Ironhide threatens war,” he said, eyes closed, as if just saying the name caused him pain. “The pup swears he will have our food and grain or else he will summon the might that destroyed the Seat of the King and take it by force.”
Bax looked to Engers and Bechde and Langs, all standing at attention before their surrogate father. He stood behind them, with Janwye and Mealark, at attendance and awaiting orders.
He exchanged a glance with Janwye. Even after all these years as a proven free woman, she still stood where the slaves stood: albeit, where the privileged slaves stood, but where the slaves stood nonetheless.
“I’ve sent letters to the Stronghold,” said Greeve, opening his eyes again. They were a clear blue, and still as sharp as ever despite the age that bent his back and wrinkled his brow. “To Jhidnu. To Kazakhal, even, although the Ladies know what good the frog-eaters will do. But for our close allies…it requires a more personal touch.”
As Greeve leaned on his cane and hobbled to his feet, Engers and Langs rushed to his side to help him stand. They helped him to the table at the center of his chambers, upon which the map of all of Albumere was splayed out.
Greeve coughed violently, his body seizing up as he leaned on the table. His three children-apprentices stood by his side, concerned but silent. The proud farmer would take none of their pity.
“Here,” said Greeve, after the fit had passed. “Beyond the mountains. Langs, you will take what supplies you need, what protection you require, to go to Mont Don. Speak to Prince Gaelen, beg him if you must.”
Langs cleared his throat. “Mont Don, my lord? They are…”
“They’re a joke in the Seat,” muttered Greeve. “And that’s exactly how Gaelen, the little guttersnipe, likes it. Don’t underestimate the mountainmen. Make your preparations now, go on. It’s cold up in the north.”
Langs nodded and walked away briskly. “Mealark, come,” he snapped.
“Bechde, you’re going to have to go far, and by foot,” said Greeve. “See Keep Tlai at Temple Moscoleon. They have always been our allies.”
Bechde pursed her lips and said nothing. For once, the lady seemed to be more than just frills and gossip.
“I’d say take a ship, but the saltmen have been getting cheeky. It’s too dangerous. I’d say go through the Seat of the King, but we all know why you can’t do that. The only way is through the deserts of Hak Mat Do.” Greeve sniffed. “Be ready for a long journey, sweet Bechde. Go on, get ready.”
Bechde left, and Janwye turned to follow behind her. Just before Janwye walked away, Bax grabbed her hand. They exchanged a look.
“We’ll talk later,” said Janwye, smiling, and then she left.
Before Greeve could speak again, Engers said, hesitantly, “My lord, if I may…why Bechde? You know she does not have the, erm, fortitude to endure such a long travel. Let me go in her stead.”
Greeve shook his head, and began to cough again. Engers patted him on the back and waited. “I want her as far away from here as possible when this all goes to shit,” said Greeve, shuddering. “And I need you for the hardest part.”
“The hardest part, my lord?”
The old farmer pointed on the map. Bax couldn’t see where, but Engers’s reaction made it clear enough.
“Shira Hay? They- they hate us, my lord.”
“And they’re the only damn ones close enough to help once Ironhide decides to make his move,” snarled Greeve, slamming his fist on the table. “I like it less than you do, Engers, but if we don’t have Shira Hay we won’t live to see any of our other allies arrive.”
“I understand,” said Engers, quietly.
“Go on,” said Greeve. “We’ll discuss the duarchs at length once we’ve gotten things moving around here.”
Engers walked away as Greeve stumbled back to his bed, and Bax fell in behind him.
As the duarch pulled the knife from his gut, Bax felt a sick, hot pain begin to throb throughout him. His fine emissary’s clothes had already soaked all the blood they could, and now he could feel it dripping onto his hands.
He stumbled backwards. Through the red fog that was beginning to envelop his mind, there was some primal instinct to run away, to get back, but the duarch had already grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him in.
Bax felt sudden weakness in his limbs as his pathetic attempts to pull free yielded no fruit. As the duarch put the knife against his throat, he scrabbled against his neck: not to stop the knife, but to grab the box hanging around his neck.
The beetle inside buzzed. This one was for Mealark.
Bax crushed it in his hand and hoped against hope that she would not worry too much about him. Mealark never had been able to calm her nerves.
And then the knife sliced across his throat and Bax could only think of how he was choking, how he couldn’t breathe, how the world was dissolving into red and black and white and nothing.
He stumbled to the edge of the bridge, teetering over the brink, gagging. With a single prod, the duarch pushed him over.
Then he fell towards the water and fell towards the sun, fell up and fell down. A thought drifted across his bleary mind that he should die with a happy memory. He focused. His last thought was of her, of the way her hair fell around her face, of the constant emotion and life she had, of the way she moved and talked and breathed.
With what strength he had left, he reached for the second beetle box around his neck and crushed it. I’m sorry I failed, Janny, he thought. Now stay away from here. Get as far away from this place as possible.
And half a world away, one of the tabula in Janwye’s pack shattered.