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Flesh and Fire: Book One of The Vineart War

Overview

Hailed as "something wholly new" and "extraordinary" in starred reviews from Library Journal and Publishers Weekly, Laura Anne Gilman’s Flesh and Fire is as intoxicating as the finest of wines—and as powerful as magic itself.

Once, all power in the Vin Lands was held by the prince-mages, who alone could craft spellwines, and who selfishly used them to their own gain. Now, fourteen centuries after a demigod shattered the Vine, it is the humble Vinearts who know the secret of ...

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Overview

Hailed as "something wholly new" and "extraordinary" in starred reviews from Library Journal and Publishers Weekly, Laura Anne Gilman’s Flesh and Fire is as intoxicating as the finest of wines—and as powerful as magic itself.

Once, all power in the Vin Lands was held by the prince-mages, who alone could craft spellwines, and who selfishly used them to their own gain. Now, fourteen centuries after a demigod shattered the Vine, it is the humble Vinearts who know the secret of crafting spells from wines, the source of magic, and they are prohibited from holding power.

But a new darkness is rising in the vineyards, and only one Vineart, Master Malech, senses the coming danger. He has but one weapon to use against it: a young slave named Jerzy, whose origins are unknown, even to him. Yet his uncanny sense of the Vinearts’ craft offers a hint of greater magics within—magics that Malech must cultivate in his new apprentice before time runs out. For if Jerzy cannot unlock the secrets of the spellwines, the Vin Lands will surely be destroyed.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781476787459
  • Publisher: Gallery Books
  • Publication date: 4/12/2014
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 1,102,040
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Laura Anne Gilman is the author of the popular Cosa Nostradamus books for Luna (the “Retrievers” and “Paranormal Scene Investigations” urban fantasy series), and the Nebula award-nominated The Vineart War trilogy from Pocket, as well as the YA trilogy GRAIL QUEST for Harper. Her first story collection is DRAGON VIRUS and she continues to write and sell short fiction in a variety of genres. Follow her at @LAGilman or www.lauraannegilman.net

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

House of Malech: Harvest

The boy focused on what he was doing, but not so much that he failed to sense someone pause behind him, too close for comfort. He managed not to flinch as the older slave bent down to whisper. "Nice job you pulled, Fox-fur. Who'd you sweetmouth for it?"

The boy grunted, not wanting to talk, even to defend himself. Talk got you noticed. Notice was bad. Keep your face down, your hands busy, and your mouth shut, and survive. Those were the unspoken rules everyone knew.

After a minute the other slave shrugged and moved on with his own assignment. Left alone, the boy looked up into the sky, his eyes squinting as he searched the pale blue distance. He hadn't sweet-mouthed anyone. Luck of the pick, was all. He wasn't going to question it. He didn't question anything; he just did as he was told.

The brightness of the open sky made his eyes water. There was a bird — a tarn, from the banding — flying overhead in search of a careless or greedy rabbit. Every year they cut back the brush to the ancient grove of trees that marked the end of the vineyard, trying to keep the rabbits and foxes from the vines. They had built stone fences and decanted spells to keep humans away, but animals were harder to convince.

This field, and the rest of it, was part of the Valle of Ivy. The valley was cut into a chessboard of fields, half green with crops, the others brown and fallow, interspersed with the occasional gnarled fruit tree, and dotted with low stone buildings. In the distance a river cut through the fields — the Ivy. The chessboard and the buildings belonged to the House of Malech, one of four Vinearts established within The Berengia, and the only one currently ranked Master. His master. The slave knew nothing of the other Vinearts or The Berengia, or what lay beyond her borders. To imagine anything beyond the vineyard and the sleep house was as impossible as flying with the tarn overhead.

At the far edge of the fields where the boy was stationed, a pair of trees — not quite so ancient, but still wider around than a man could reach — created a shelter for two low structures built of pale gray stone: the slaves' sleep house and vineyard's storehouse, where the plows and tools were kept. Those, and the open form of the vintnery behind him, made of the same stone as the enclosure's walls, were the boundaries of his world. The other buildings behind the vintnery, across a wide cobbled road, might as well have been on the other side of the Ivy, for all he knew of them.

The boy looked away from the sky and downward. Every slave in the House of Malech was working today. Summer had been warm and rainy, but those days had given way to cooler, drier mornings, and the grapes had ripened on schedule, green leaves turning a dark red at the edges, the grapes darker red yet, their skin tight over plump, juicy flesh. He could practically feel the ripeness in the air, waiting. He had learned the hard way not to mention that to anyone, the way the ripening grapes made a noise in his head, inside his bones. The one time he had asked another slave about it, he'd got beaten until his skull had bled, and the overseer had kept him out of the yards for the day.

The tarn had disappeared while he'd looked away. Now not even a cloud marred the expanse of blue, the sun already high overhead and surprisingly strong for the season. A faint breeze came down off the ridge, carrying a salty hint that cooled the sweat on his skin just enough to make it noticeable. The boy shifted, making himself as comfortable as he could, glad at least to be out of the direct sunlight, out of the fields. In the distance, past the vintner's shed, beyond the dark gray bulk of the sleep house, two score of slaves, stripped down to their loose-woven pants, worked their way up and down the groupings of waist-high vines, carefully stripping the ripe bunches from each plant one handful at a time, bending and rising in tune to some unheard rhythm.

He had done that, for three Harvests before this one, once he was old enough to be trusted. Your hands cramped after a while, and every finger cracked and bled, but not a single fruit was damaged if you could help it; each straw basket on their backs, once filled, was worth more than the slave carrying it. That was the first thing learned the very first day a slave was brought into the vineyard. You learned, and you survived, and, if your master was kind, you might even make it out of the yards, out of the sun and the rain, and away from walking stooped all your waking hours until you slept that way, too.

His master was not kind, but neither was he particularly cruel, and the boy had made it out of the yard. Barely.

Barely was enough. He could sit, and his back did not hurt, and his skin was not blistered by the sun. The Washer who traveled their road would say it was because he let the world move him rather than trying to move it. He didn't see how he could do otherwise. But there was much the Washers preached that he didn't understand.

A harvest-hire guard stood on the top of a slight rise at the edge of the field, watching the activity. A stiffened lash in his left hand tapped an irregular rhythm against his thigh as his gaze skimmed over the area being harvested. He was there more for tradition than need. It was death to steal a clutch of grapes. Death to taste one. Death to waste one. Nobles could afford spellwine, and free men might drink of vin ordinaire: slaves could not even dream of either.

The boy shifted, feeling warning prickles in his bare feet that told him he had been still too long. He looked away from the guard, letting his gaze rest on nothing in particular, waiting. That was best, to simply wait, and not draw attention.

When a basket was filled to near overflowing with fruit, the slave carrying it would place it to one side of the trellis-lane. A younger slave, not yet trusted with the picking, would come down to fetch it, leaving an empty basket in its place to be filled in turn. That slave would bring the full basket down, away from the vineyard itself to the crusher, a great wooden monster construct twice as high as a grown man and four times the length.

That was where the boy waited. His responsibility was to monitor the fill level of the wooden crusher, making sure that the right amount of fruit was added, no more and no less.

The other slave had been right; it was a good job. It was also an important job, a sign that the overseer was not displeased with him, and he felt the responsibility keenly. But the truth was that it was boring, and his legs kept falling asleep.

An old slave, his wizened limbs useless for anything else, watched from the other side, sitting in a raised wooden chair to make sure that every fruit was placed into the great wooden monster and that no slave sneaked even one fruit into his mouth. He was also there to ensure that no fingers or clothes were trapped in the process. Every year at least one slave was maimed or killed that way, the weights and beams catching the unwary or the careless. The boy had worked six Harvests since the Master bought him and seen the results: slaves missing fingers and, in one case, an entire arm, crushed to uselessness and cut off before it could turn black and stink.

Two baskets were emptied into the maw of the monster, then a third. The old slave nodded at the boy, licking his cracked, dry lips in a way that reminded the boy of the lizards that sunned themselves on the low stone walls between the vineyards. The boy looked away again, focusing all of his attention on the crusher, as though that would make the old man go away. Harvest stories weren't the only ones told in the sleep house. The younger slaves knew to stay away from that one's hands in the darkness, or when they used the shit pits at night.

The slavers had men like that, too. He had been younger then, too young, and not as careful. But the slavers were past, done with him now that he belonged to another.

The other slaves might fumble under blankets or up against shadowed walls, willingly or not. Here the boy learned how to say no without saying anything at all, to evade reaching hands without giving offense, and even as those his own age began to look around with an interested eye, he felt no desire at all, not even to use his own hand, as the others did. Fortunately, hard work and a sudden growth over the winter had finally turned his rounded limbs into harder muscle, so a slave grabbed at him at his own risk now, and the overseer had shown no interest in flesh, save that it did the work assigned to it.

That thought in mind, when the fourth basket was emptied into the belly of the crusher, he darted forward and looked inside. A dark line, the stain of years of pressings, marked the three-quarter point. The boy waved his hand in a circular motion, and one more basket was dumped in, then the heavy door was slid shut. The boy stepped back, out of harm's way, as the crusher was turned upside down with a creaking, moaning noise, like a giant moaning in his sleep. Pressure in the form of giant bladders was applied, another slave working the bellows to fill the bladders until given the command to stop, and then deflating it again. Once, he had been told, slaves did this work with their feet. Too many grapes were lost that way, the process too slow. He wondered about the feel of grapes under the soles of his feet and between his toes, tread upon like dirt, and could not imagine it.

"A good harvest, this year."

The boy tensed, his shoulders hunching up around his ears even more than usual. He had been so preoccupied with his boredom and his prickling legs, he hadn't noticed the overseer leaving his usual post and coming to stand behind him.

Stupid, stupid, he thought, trying to become invisible. The overseer had never hurt him, but you never knew what might catch his attention, and unlike the other slaves, you could not ignore him, or make him go away. The overseer was all-powerful. Even the season-hire guards were scared of the overseer.

"We shall see."

The other voice was deeper, dryer, unfamiliar but instantly recognizable by the power it carried. Even the wind stilled, and all activity halted for half a breath, then started again even more quickly than before, as though hoping to make up for that lapse. Even the insects creaking in the hedge called faster, louder.

The boy's heart squeezed dry in his chest, and his earlier fear was nothing compared to the shaking of his knees. The Master was there. "Idiot," he whispered fiercely to himself. Of course the Master was there. The Master was everywhere. Every inch of the vineyard was his, and he was in every span of soil, every clutch of fruit.

He owned everything, controlled everything. Decided everything.

It was safer in the fields, no matter that your knees and shoulders ached, to only face the overseer and his whip, and not the Vineart. Like a rabbit sensing the tarn overhead, he froze, and prayed to remain unseen.

The grapes, sun warmed and ripe near to bursting, didn't care who was watching them. Under the gentle pressure of the inflating bladders, the blood-red skins broke, and the crushed pulp and bits of skin dropped through the grate at the bottom, while the remnant of stem or leaf remained within the belly of the crusher. Another set of slaves carried the bottom pan to a large wooden vat off to the side, and carefully poured the contents into a great wooden barrel. The pulp would — like the other crushings of the day — be taken into the shade of the vintnery itself, where, the boy knew vaguely, it would be run through one of the two presses, even larger than the crusher, to create the liquid mustus and, from there, somehow, magically, spellwine.

Working the press was the most dangerous job of Harvest. Even to breathe too deeply of the smell was not allowed to a slave. And yet, the desire he felt, to draw it into your lungs, to maybe feel the touch of the magic, was almost irresistible.

You resisted. Or you died.

The boy stepped forward again; no matter how wobbly his legs or anxious his breathing, no matter how much he wanted to remain still, it was his responsibility now to ensure that all of the pulp had been emptied out, that no stems or leaves were left, and the presser was ready for another load of fruit.

The process would be repeated over and over again, until all the grapes had been stripped from the vines, or the first frost settled on the fruit, whichever occurred first. If the slaves valued their skins, they would win over the weather.

The aroma of crushed grape-flesh tickled his nose as he checked the inside of the crusher. Even as he coughed, he felt something was wrong. It was a pressure like a storm overhead, only stirring in his guts: as when something bad went into the stew and everyone had to use the pits all night.

"Nothing, nothing, you felt nothing" he whispered, barely audible even to his own ears, and stepped back into place. He could feel the presence of the overseer and the Master at his back, although he dared not look to see what they were doing. If the grapes were precious, the steps between harvesting and mustus were even more so. That was the second thing every slave learned at their very first Harvest. The mustus was where the value of the grapes were determined. A good Harvest meant the Master was pleased and the winter would be a good one, with enough rest, and food, and perhaps even a midwinter festive with music, if gleemen traveled through the area. A bad Harvest...

There hadn't been a bad Harvest in years. The boy would have made a sign to avert even the thought, except it might have attracted attention.

A downward push of his hand to the aged slave indicated that the barrel was clear, ready for another load, and the cycle started again.

"All the signs are positive," the overseer said, as the slaves went about their work. The two men took no more notice of them than one might of oxen drawing a plow, and the boy began to breathe a little easier. "The fruit has run clear in the first crushings, and there has been no sign of rot in any of the fruit."

The boy risked a glance sideways, to gauge how close to danger he stood. The overseer was a short, square-shouldered man, head shaved and arms tattooed; a former oarsman who had come to the estate by way of a broken and badly set leg and a debt he could not pay off. He was brutal and unflinching, and he was feared more than anything in the vineyard save the Master himself. And the boy was still far, far too close to both of them, and had no way to move without drawing unwanted notice.

The dryness in his chest moved up into his throat, and there wasn't enough spit in his entire body to keep his tongue from swelling from fear. His bowels were shivering, and his skin felt cold despite the sun's harvest warmth.

"Leave me to do the judging," the Master said, and although it was spoken mildly, the overseer bowed his shaved head to accept the rebuke. The Master was not cruel; in fact, he rarely entered the slaves' world at all, save when he walked the fields to inspect the crop, but he was the spell caster, the winemaker, the master of his fields, and not even a Berengian prince might challenge him without risk. He was the one who bought them from the slavers and they lived — and died — as his fortunes rose or fell. The overseer made sure they knew that — once bought, the price for slacking off was death, because the Master would not keep a lazy slave, and no Vineart wanted a slave trained by another.

"Wait," the Master said suddenly, holding up his hand, and every breathing soul froze. "Let me see a sampling from that crush."

"You, boy!" the overseer called, and the boy started before realizing the call was directed to another. The overseer never called them by name, although he knew them all by sight. "Bring the Master a sampling!"

The slave who had been waiting, crouched off to the side, for just such an order was a tiny thing barely a decade old, and without enough brains to be afraid. It bent a bare knee in obedience, and then ran to fetch the spoon off the wall of the vintnery. The spoon was crafted of purest silver, flat at the bottom with deep sides, and a long handle, and only the Vineart was allowed to touch it to his lips. The slave child wiped its pale hand on its smock, lifted the spoon off the hook with reverence, and then climbed up on a makeshift ladder of two planks set on bricks in order to be able to reach into the vat.

The boy held his breath, watching out of the corner of his eye. The vat, a great wooden barrel, was twice as high and four times as wide as the child, and dipping required perching on the rim and hanging on with one hand. The slave was tiny; there was no reason for the sight of it leaning against the side to fill the boy with a worse fear than even the Master's presence. And yet, a sense of dread filled him as he watched. Moving carefully, the slave child leaned forward and dipped the tasting spoon into the vat of flesh and juice, scooping out a bare mouthful into the silver depression. The dipper wobbled, and the slave child grabbed at the side.

"Sin Washer save us!" a voice cried out, quietly terrified.

The ground underneath was not even, or perhaps the slaves had not cleared the platform properly when the vat was wheeled into place for this harvest, or it might have been merest chance, or the silent gods' ill-wishing that caused the weight of the slave child to tip over the huge wooden cask; it teetered slowly before crashing down with a terrifying, sloshing noise.

"Right it! Right it, damn you!" The overseer strode forward, his short, thick crop slashing out at bodies he deemed not moving quickly enough. "You, and you! Move faster!" The slaves were throwing themselves under the side of the vat, using their bodies in vain to move it back into an upright position. Several others had grabbed containers and were trying to scoop the crushed pulp up off the ground before the valuable liquid soaked into the dry-packed dirt and disappeared.

In the chaos, only two forms stood still. One was the Vineart, his lean form aloof and above the fuss, even as the precious liquid was lost.

The other was the boy, feeling a light spray of moisture mist against his face and neck.

He licked his lips and spat instinctively, terrified that someone might have seen him possibly drink, however unintentionally. Yet he did not race to help save the spilled crush, even as a tingle of it sat on his lips, coated his tongue. He stood off to the side, his damp mouth open as though to speak, his body completely still, his dark gaze riveted on the scene, and did not move.

He couldn't move, not to save his own worthless life. His lungs could barely take in air, and the prickling in his legs was forgotten under the onslaught of sensations in his nose and throat. He should be panicking, but his thoughts were oddly calm, focusing on one single fact: there was something missing here, something that should be happening, and wasn't. It made no sense, and yet it was. He knew it, as well as he knew the feel of his own skin. Where others were panicking, he felt the desire to laugh.

The overseer noted him standing there like a wooden dolt, and jolted forward, his thickly muscled arm reaching out to grab him, shove him into useful work. The boy felt those fingers start to close on his upper arm, but the Master snapped his fingers and, as though yanked by a chain, the overseer backed off, glaring at the useless slave, but restrained.

The Vineart studied the boy, his eyes hooded and his expression thoughtful, then turned back to watch the attempted cleanup.

The boy barely noticed any of this, other than relief when the overseer backed off. He was too caught up in the attack on his senses, and the odd feel of something missing, to worry about his own safety.

Finally, the vat was righted, and the salvaged mustus returned to the container. It had been no more than a span of moments, but more than half of the liquid was lost forever, soaked into the dirt, the pulp and skins ruined beyond reclamation. The smell hung, tempting and damning, in the afternoon air.

Filled with a terrible rage that colored his face near-blue, the overseer grabbed the offending slave child by the ear and threw it down on its knees before the Master.

"Lord Malech, this worthless piece of shit awaits your judgment."

All of the slaves stopped once again, and watched. The Vineart stared down at the slave, his long, tapered fingers stroking the fabric of his trousers thoughtfully. The boy, still frozen, staring at the now-righted vat, found his attention drawn away by that small movement. In style, the Master's clothing was not so much different from those of the slaves he owned; pants and a sleeveless tunic. Unlike their cheap, mud-colored garments, however, his were made of finewoven cloth in a richly dyed crimson, the color of a sunrise, setting off his olive-toned skin. A heavy leather belt was wrapped twice around his hips, buckled with a metal clasp, with two leather bags and a smaller, short-handled version of the silver spoon hanging from it. He wore sturdy low-heeled leather boots on his feet, unlike even the overseer's bare and dirty toes.

"Kill it," the Master said.

No voice protested, not even the slave child; its fate had been sealed the moment the barrel was overturned. To waste, or cause waste...The crime was clear, and the punishment well established. The overseer nodded and drew back his whip, bringing it down on the back of the slave's neck with enough force to break it instantly.

The sound of the crack carried into the air, and — unlike the smell of the crushed grapes — dissipated there. The body collapsed, crumpled into something no longer human. Just meat.

Someone let out a long, shuddering sigh, and a sob was quickly muffled.

"Enough!" The overseer turned and glared at the remaining slaves. "You, toss it into the pit, bury it with the rest of the refuse. The rest of you, back to work! The harvest will not happen on its own!"

There was a rustle of movement as all the slaves rushed to obey his orders, and then Vineart Malech raised a hand once again, a single ring glinting silver on his index finger. Every figure stopped cold, including the overseer. "That one."

All eyes turned to follow the Master's hand.

The boy's heart shriveled and dropped all the way down between his legs when he realized that finger was pointing at him.

"Bring it here," the Vineart continued.

The boy closed his eyes in resignation. He was dead. The Master was never wrong, and the Master never took note but to order death. He clasped his hands together and bent his upper body down, his gaze now on the ground as was appropriate for a slave in disgrace, but otherwise the boy showed no fear. How could one already dead, fear?

The overseer wrapped a hand around the boy's forearm, but he didn't need to drag the slave; he went calmly, almost willingly. There was no purpose to resisting. When he reached the Master's feet, he bent farther into the dirt, placing his forehead on the ground in full surrender.

In his abject pose, he could not see what happened around him. Vineart Malech looked down at him, then flicked his fingers at the overseer, indicating that the rest of the slaves were to be sent on their way. He could hear most of them scurry off, trying to become invisible so that whatever was about to happen would pass them by. A few tried to linger, but a crack of the overseer's stick made them rethink their curiosity.

"You."

"Master." The boy's voice had just broken a few weeks before, and he was embarrassed at the way it wavered on the first syllable, and then steadied in a firm tenor. "Yours is the hand and the will." The ritual words came to him, as the slavers had taught him the first night, reinforcing the lesson with beatings. Once his voice was back under control, the words were flat, neither terrified nor toadying, but merely expressing a response to a query. He had perfected that tone in the years since the slavers had sold him to the House of Malech, but until now he had used it only in response to the overseer, so he did not know if he had it right.

The Vineart apparently found nothing objectionable in the tone or the words, only his action — or lack thereof. "You did nothing to aid the spill."

"No, Master." He saw no reason to lie; the Master had seen him do nothing. He could hear the overseer lifting his stick again, prepared to beat him for his answer, but the Master stayed the blow.

"Why?"

The boy was silent, his body stiffening as though preparing for the inevitable blows to fall. Where a certain death had not shaken him, the question did. What could he answer? How did you speak excuses when you were dead?

"Why, boy?"

The boy bowed his head even lower, but had no answer.

The first blow that landed hit his backside, hard enough to shake his slender body, but still he did not speak.

The second blow moved up to the ribs, hitting under the thin top, and the stick came away bloody. He felt the blood dripping, but did not believe it. Could you still bleed when you were dead? The urge to laugh bubbled up again, and he wondered if he had gone mad.

"Boy?" The Vineart's voice had changed, from cool to curious, as though the slave's resistance had truly piqued his interest. "Why?"

"Master. I do not know why."

The third blow was directly between his shoulder blades and sent the slave sprawling flat on the ground. His body shook, but he did not move from the position, not even to lift his face out of the dirt.

They posed there, the three of them, in a motionless tableau, even as the slaves worked around them, casting frightened yet curious glances over their shoulders. He could practically hear their thoughts: The slave should have been dead by now, and yet wasn't. The Master was not one to hesitate to punish any infraction, any insolence or challenge. Why was the boy slave yet breathing?

Any change in routine was terrifying, even if it involved less violence rather than more. They wanted him dead, to make things right again. He understood. He felt the same.

"You do not know why," the Master said. It was a statement of fact, and so the boy did not respond.

"Do you have a name, boy?"

The question made no sense. Slaves did not have names, not ones the Master would know. Even the overseer was known only by his position, not the name he had arrived with. Nicknames, like Singer, Old Tree, or Fishtail, those were common. A name implied value. A name indicated worth.

It was a question, one asked of him directly. He had to answer it, somehow. The boy lifted his head from the dirt, expecting at any moment to feel another blow, this time on his neck, breaking it.

"Boy?" The Master's patience was clearly wearing thin.

The words seemed to come as though not from his own mouth but from a long distance away, lost and unexpectedly reclaimed. There had been a name once, back when he had a mother and father, and a home that did not smell of sea breeze and grapes, but horse and cold, snow and fire smoke.

"Jerzy, Master." He swallowed, having to force the name out after years of disuse and silence. "My name is Jerzy."

The Vineart nodded, as though this confirmed something he had expected. "What did you feel, Jerzy? When the crush spilled?"

What did he feel? The question again made no sense. "Nothing, Master."

"Nothing."

"Nothing, Master." He dropped back down to the ground, awaiting his punishment. What answer had the Master wanted?

"Ah. No tingle? No desire? No need to run your fingers through the liquid, to feel it touch your skin?" The words were like hooks, trying to pull something out of him.

"I...Master, I...there is something wrong with it, Master." The words spilled out of him before he even knew what he was going to say. Idiot, he thought again, and braced himself for the next blow, expecting it, at last, to be the deadly stroke.

The Vineart's expression didn't change, but he nodded once again, as though finally satisfied.

"Come with me. Now, Jerzy."

The Vineart turned and walked away, toward the taller stone building behind the vintnery that housed the Master's living quarters. The House of Malech. Forbidden territory to even approach, for a slave. The overseer aimed a kick at the slave in order to get him moving, but the boy rolled and was on his feet, nimbly avoiding the blow. The paralysis that had held him earlier was gone, and his entire body felt alive again. He was alive. He wanted, very much, to remain that way.

His face still averted, his shoulders hunched from years of habit, the slave followed his master away from the harvest and everything that had, until then, been his life.

The overseer's whipstick cracked in the air behind them, and his low growl sounded over it: the boy flinched, even though it was not aimed at him. "Back to work, you worthless bits of flesh! The sun's still up and there's fruit to be taken in! Stop wasting the Master's time!"

The boy, following blindly, almost mindlessly, felt the dry soil under his feet give way to sun-warmed paving stones, and then to the rougher cobble of the wide pathway separating vintnery from the Master's own building. He paused, risking one last glimpse over his shoulder. Already the vintnery seemed impossibly far away, the vineyard and sleep house farther yet. He felt no regret, no sense of loss to be leaving it behind. And yet, something made him stop.

Before the sleep house and the fields, there had been only the slavers' caravan. Weeks filled with endless hours of walking, of traveling from one market to another, praying to be chosen, to be overlooked, to die, to survive.

"Are you coming?" the Master asked, still in that same dry, incurious voice. "Or do you wish to stay in the fields?"

The vintnery was safe, in its own way. For the past however many years he could remember, it had been his home. But no, he didn't want to stay there.

Head bowed, the boy followed his master across the pathway, under the green arches of the entrance proper, and into the House of Malech. Copyright © 2009 by Laura Anne Gilman

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