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Righteous fury, p.6
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       Righteous Fury, p.6

           Markus Heitz
 

  She could hear the slaves talking—she could tell their voices apart now—then there was a clattering of plates and the crackle of the fire being raked with a poker. She could imagine where they were all sitting and what was happening: the young älfar trainees were preparing the food for Sinthoras, while Kaila cooked separately for the slaves. The scents of gourmet food wafted from one side and mixed with the simpler smell of broth from the other. She imagined Kaila busy at her pots and pans, the women trimming vegetables, and one of the men putting a new log on the fire.

  She remembered how Kaila and the others had treated her when she had first arrived, unable to understand why she had become a slave of her own accord. It had been purely because she so admired the älfar; she was keen to study their art and wanted nothing more than to live near them—near one älf in particular.

  But Raleeha would never see any of that ever again. Not even her master’s face.

  The returning thought saddened her, but she tried not to cry because that would make her wounds sting and the tears would wash out the healing ointment.

  Raleeha felt a draft, then heard a rustle and a chair scraping along the floor. “Have you heard about your family? They’re getting to be the most powerful in the north of Ishím Voróo.” It was Wirian, full of gossip as usual. A smell of cooking fat accompanied the young slave girl and Raleeha was surprised how strong her sense of smell had become since losing her sight. “They are saying Farron has just won another victory against some other barbarians.”

  “Who is saying that?”

  “Esmintaïn’s slave told me at the market this morning. His master is one of the älfar who meet up regularly to discuss the current situation in Dsôn Faïmon.” Raleeha felt a touch on her shoulder.

  “Aren’t you glad?”

  Raleeha did not answer. Wirian was implying that if her brother became powerful enough, she would be able to shrug off her slave bonds whenever she wanted. She had recently been paying more attention to her rebellious inner voice, but in her heart she knew that she would not leave, even if her family were in a position to enforce the liberation of all the Ishmanti hostages and prisoners.

  Wirian moved her hand from Raleeha’s shoulder. “What is it?”

  “Nothing,” Raleeha lied, as she sifted through her store of memories, pictures, and impressions, starting from her first encounter with Sinthoras at his easel, then the day she first saw the city he lived in.

  She had learned so much about their culture and had come to understand why the älfar were so different: älfar thought was conducted at spiritual levels never attained by the imperfect human mind, her master’s grace toward her allowed her to belong to a world superior to Ishím Voróo, something she had always wished for.

  How could she ever adapt again to the primitive huts, drafty castles and nomad tents of her family’s lands? In the winter you froze, in the autumn your clothes were always damp, in spring there were clouds of midges and in summer you had to spend all the daylight hours helping in the fields or with the sheep-shearing. In the evenings she had been expected to sing and dance for her brother’s drunken companions instead of being able to paint. Even as the sister of a prince her life had been hard and unrewarding. It was unrefined and she had no access to the art that meant so much to her.

  Here, on the other hand, she was surrounded by luxury, culture, and beauty. Raleeha would forgive her master for what he had done, I knew the rules and I did not obey them, she told her inner voice of protest. She would die rather than leave Sinthoras. She would find some way to express her artistic talent, with or without her sight. Perhaps this would enable her to reach entirely different heights, as the älfar themselves did?

  Raleeha touched her hair. She wore it in long braids draped with a night-colored veil embroidered with stars. She knew her master liked it, even though he hardly ever looked at her.

  Sometimes she imagined Sinthoras selecting her as his private playmate . . .

  She liked to imagine him spending time with her until he had found his ideal älf-partner. This was about as likely, of course, as her getting two brand-new eyes: älfar did not commune with other races, and certainly not with slaves and servants, whether they had volunteered of their own free will or not. She sighed.

  “Have you any other news?” she asked Wirian. Raleeha could hear the other woman moving around the room, busying herself with some task.

  “An älf-woman has sent a messenger to request a further meeting with the master,” Wirian went on. “She’s been here quite a few times. I think her name is—”

  “Yantarai,” Raleeha quickly supplied. Yantarai was relatively old, even if älfar tended not to show their age. She had given birth to seven children—seven girls—which made her an esteemed celebrity in Dsôn. As the givers of life, älf-girls counted for more than älf-boys. If she were seriously interested in Sinthoras there might soon be a mistress in the house to serve, not because Sinthoras would fall prey to her charms, but because she could enhance his social status. Raleeha knew her master’s ambitions on this score; she knew how he longed to receive the Honor-Blessing from the Inextinguishable Siblings and how he dreamed of playing an important part in the state. That was why he had not so far cared to select a partner, even if älf-women were lining up at his door. Raleeha clenched her fists. “The master is not at home.”

  “That’s why she has left a note for him.” Wirian giggled. “They’re flirting with each other, aren’t they?”

  Raleeha uttered a groan of disappointment. If Wirian queried her reaction she knew she could put it down to the pain of her injuries.

  When Wirian started to enthuse about being allowed to attend an älfar wedding, Raleeha found it intolerable.

  “I’ve got something I must do,” she said, interrupting the flow of Wirian’s fancy. She stood up and made for where she supposed the doorway was, locating the exit only after walking into the corner of the dresser. She wandered without knowing where she was going, one hand trailing on the wall. Abruptly, she felt ornately carved wood underneath her fingers. She drew in a sharp breath. She knew these doors, they led to her master’s rooms.

  Raleeha paused for a moment and then, against all the rules, entered his bedchamber. She walked to the bed and bent over it, breathing in the incense-laden fragrance from his pillow and stroking the fabric as if it were his face. The thought of Yantarai lying next to Sinthoras, sharing his bed, made jealousy flare up. What right had that älf-woman to set her sights on Sinthoras?

  Raleeha stood up. She knew she was being ridiculous, Yantarai had many more rights than she did: as a simple slave she had no influence over her master’s decisions and under älfar law she had no rights at all. There was no question of social advancement for her.

  The first days in Dsôn had been hard for her: Sinthoras had told her nothing about the way things were done, or about the laws of the älfar state. She had picked up the information from the other slaves and her own observations—taking notes and making sketches as she went.

  Leaving the bedchamber, Raleeha walked back into the corridor and into the restroom, which she was allowed to enter—she opened the tall windows on the east wall. Children’s voices could be heard outside, just like back home, and there was a fresh smell in the air: the smell of the east wind and inspiration. The signs were favorable, she would get to grips with her old tasks under these new circumstances.

  She left the restroom and went upstairs to her master’s studio. She had never dared to show him any of her own drawings because she would have felt like a child bringing an adult its little scribbles—and as long as he was angry with her there was no point.

  Balancing on the studio ladder she practiced locating the pots, jars, and brushes on the high shelves. Her sense of smell helped her identify the various pigments and varnishes, and she could always get one of the other slaves to verify her guesses. At first she had thought it impossible, but slowly, she began to see how to get by.

  She gained confidence as she we
nt, spending the whole day relearning which shelves things were kept on, asking for help from the other slaves, until she was shaking with exhaustion and could hardly grip the rungs of the cell ladder. Her eye sockets smarted and she was hungry and thirsty.

  She returned to the communal kitchens where her supper—the remains of the soup—and the others awaited her.

  “Here she is,” was Kaila’s greeting. “We’ve got a new boy, just arrived,” she said, then her voice moved away slightly, toward the boy. “Here, introduce yourself.”

  “Good day.” The young male voice did not sound confident. “I’m Quanlot. My family are the Sratins.” He shook hands with her carefully.

  Kaila laughed, then turned back to Raleeha, “Quanlot is twelve human years old and very skinny.”

  “Thin as a rake,” called Wirian. “A broomstick with hair.” The slaves laughed and some of them banged the table with their spoons. Raleeha was embarrassed by their behavior.

  “Sinthoras bought him for sweeping the chimneys and cleaning the air ducts,” Kaila explained, turning back to the boy, “I’m sorry, but you’ll only have half portions at the table—master’s decision—if you put on weight you’ll be sold, or worse.”

  Raleeha felt her way back to her seat. All she knew about the Sratin family was that they excelled in lying and cheating. “Did you want me for something?” she asked Wirian.

  “Yes,” she replied. “Can you tell him how the black-eyes like things done?”

  “Does he even want to be told?” she objected.

  “Yes, I do,” said Quanlot. “The more I learn about them the longer I’ll stay alive—and the sooner I’ll escape.”

  This defiant answer left the other humans speechless with shock. Nobody moved, then there was the sound of a slap and a grunt from Quanlot.

  “Never say that again,” warned Kaila.

  “B—But—” the boy stammered.

  “The mention of escape carries the death penalty,” Raleeha said, starting to eat. “And it wouldn’t be a quick death,” she added. “It would be punishment, not relief.”

  “You sound just like one of them yourself,” Kaila said, disapprovingly.

  Raleeha swallowed a few mouthfuls of the thick and tasteless broth—how she would love to partake of her master’s food. “If you want to learn then listen, Quanlot Sratin, we begin now.

  “The älfar state is governed by the Inextinguishables—two sibling rulers who make all their decisions together. They are a couple—the älfar are not bothered at all about their being brother and sister—and unlike our barbarian homeland, the älfar don’t have a class society, älf-men and älf-women are mostly equal in status and so are the various professions and trades. The warriors, of course, are responsible for protecting the state.” She had some more soup. “Did you get all that?”

  “Yes,” murmured Quanlot.

  “Show particular respect to älf-women who have produced many children,” she warned him. “You’ll recognize them from the strands of color in their hair. Infant mortality rates are very high here, so they are revered.”

  “The infant mortality rates are made up for with their immortality,” Wirian chipped in. “Only fair.”

  “If they’re immortal, do they always stay with the same life-partner?” the boy wanted to know.

  “Älfar do occasionally marry, but tend not to so as not to be bound to the same person for eternity. On average, they change partners every twenty divisions of unendingness.” Raleeha’s thoughts had drifted back to Sinthoras, how she would love to lie by his side.

  Quanlot’s curiosity was in full swing. “What are the young älfar doing here? They’re not slaves like us, are they?”

  “Of course not, these are young masters in training,” she explained. “Älfar children mature fast and their education goes in seven-year stages: they start their apprenticeship at fourteen and stick with it until they reach twenty-one divisions of unendingness, after that they go to a master to complete their training.” Raleeha pushed her plate away and felt for the bread with her hands. “Children are always brought up by the mother, with the father having little say, but he might teach them craft skills, for example.” She smiled in what she thought was his direction and broke off a piece of bread. “That’s all quite different where you come from, isn’t it?” She was growing very tired now. “Have you noted everything I’ve been telling you, Quanlot?”

  “Yes,” he said.

  “Good. More tomorrow.” She got up to go to the slaves’ quarters and Wirian followed. The two women got ready for bed. One by one the other slaves joined them in the room, and as Raleeha listened to them talking about their day she nodded off, sitting up against the wall. In her imagination the wall she leaned her head against was her master’s shoulder.

  Raleeha smiled as she drifted off to sleep.

  Ishím Voróo (The Outer Lands), älfar realm Dsôn Faïmon, Dsôn (Star-Eye)

  4370th division of unendingness (5198th solar cycle),

  summer.

  Caphalor saw Sinthoras lying prostrate before the Inextinguishable Siblings’ double throne. Immediately after being introduced, Caphalor respectfully followed suit and lay down at the foot of the dais, glancing sideways to look at Sinthoras.

  His features showed total rejection and Caphalor noted black lines of fury creeping across his face. The other älf must have been really angry to see him here.

  Caphalor gave Sinthoras a spiteful grin and the fine black lines abruptly increased in number.

  Caphalor had no idea why his rulers had summoned him; finding Sinthoras there was also a puzzle, the two of them had nothing in common.

  “Caphalor,” said their sovereign lord, his tones refined. “It pleases my heart to see you here.”

  Caphalor made a slight movement with his arms to acknowledge this gracious welcome.

  “You may both stand.” The command came from the two rulers simultaneously.

  Servants brought a screen three paces high and placed it between subjects and sovereigns, thus protecting the warriors from exposure to their rulers’ incredible beauty.

  “Sinthoras,” their lady said. “Tell us what you and your friends have learned about Ishím Voróo.”

  Caphalor saw Sinthoras’ shock at these words and his curiosity grew.

  “O, Inextinguishable Ones,” Sinthoras began hesitantly. “I come to inform you about the campaigns of the barbarian tribes in the north: Farron Lotor, head of the Ishmanti barbarians, subjugates one barbarian leader after another, vanquishing them in battle or converting them to his cause. The army’s numbers may swell to several thousand if he gains total power; according to my calculations it could be as much as 100,000.” He was watching the silhouettes on the paper screen intently, as if standing face to face with his sovereigns. “As well as this, the trolls have been carrying out organized attacks on the Tandruu barbarians, and they obviously mean business: each of the troll units has around seventy mounted fighters, and so far ten units have been deployed. They have been trying out new tactics against the Tandruu, it’s as if they were practicing for something—but I do not know what. I am also concerned to learn that the botoicans—feared by the other nations because of their magic—are attempting to invade fflecx territory from the west.” He held himself erect and raised his arms for emphasis. “The poison-blenders haven’t been attacked for hundreds of divisions of unendingness, if the botoicans aren’t daunted by them, what will their next objective be?”

  Caphalor had heard these rumors, but the barbarian numbers Sinthoras was citing were far greater than the estimations in the marketplace. Sinthoras and his friends must have a good network of observers and spies on the ground feeding information back to the capital. Caphalor had to admit a certain admiration for the älf.

  “On the other side of our borders everything is in flux: armies are assembling and this morning Samusin sent us his west wind, a harbinger of war—it won’t be long before battle determines the victors among the barbarians and beas
ts, and I am convinced they won’t stop until they’ve formed an alliance against our own Star State. What I say is: let us preempt any attack, we should be motivated not by fear but by foresight. In order to protect our own kind it is vital we wage war on Ishím Voróo. Victory will be ours and the ensuing peace can then be enjoyed: the peace won by the greatest triumph ever to be celebrated in the Legends of the Älfar.”

  After a moment’s reflection, Nagsor Inàste thanked Sinthoras for the information he and his colleagues had collected and turned to ask Caphalor’s opinion, his voice soft as velvet.

  “As your graces have summoned both of us, I assume you are interested in hearing two opposing views on how best to protect our homeland,” Caphalor began slowly, glancing over at Sinthoras, who made an impatient gesture. “My view is that we should reinforce our borders and turn Dsôn Faïmon into a veritable fortress. We could construct a high wall immediately on the far side of the defense moat and—”

  “Nonsense!” cried Sinthoras furiously. “The more land we have the safer we shall be.”

  “We do not have enough soldiers to control the regions we already govern, let alone mount an attack.” Caphalor faced his opponent and saw that Sinthoras was about to lose his temper: that would be good—it would show Sinthoras up and his plans for a belligerent multi-fronted campaign would die a death. Caphalor’s tone was assertive and challenging. “And I wouldn’t like to rely on the loyalty of the slaves and serfs we’ve forced into servitude for our defense: if we sent them out to the battlefield, we wouldn’t be able to guarantee that they would fight for us.” He folded his arms. “And there’s a further danger: we would have to deploy every single warrior we have, the vassal nations might take advantage of the situation and destroy Dsôn Faïmon from within.”

  Sinthoras glared at him. “I’ve worked everything out to the last detail. We only need half of—”

  Caphalor’s smile was false as he interrupted the other älf. “Admittedly we are exceptionally skilled warriors experienced in dealing with superior numbers, but the unexpected can always occur. You know the fflecx and their poisons. What if they supplied our enemies with a substance that could kill off hundreds of our soldiers so that the entire front collapsed? Reserve troops would take too long to organize and we would not be able to repel an attack. Dsôn Faïmon would be in dire straits. I don’t think you and your Comet friends have properly weighed up the risks.” Then he grinned maliciously. “Comets fly across the sky and burn themselves out, that’s why I favor the Constellations; they shine for all eternity.”

 
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