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And a great calamity shall befall the nation after the second earthly death of the Chosen male’s seed, for the endowed and the unendowed alike of the already beleaguered land shall find themselves in chains, with little hope of return.
—page 553, Chapter One of the Prophecies of the Tome
Whump! . . . whump! . . . whump! . . . The two massive sledges came down on the large, simple block of wood in perfect unison, one after the other, monotonously marking out the beat. Its cadence rarely varied. A sledge in each hand, the awful, barely human creature continued to bang out the mind-numbing rhythm as the filthy slaves seated in rows before him toiled endlessly.
Whump! . . . whump! . . . whump! . . .
Built for war, maneuverability, and speed, the ship was unusually large. Christened the Defiant, she carried four full masts and a hundred oars. The cramped oaring stations lay one deck down, and smelled of sweat, urine, and slow death.
Fifty such rows stretched down the dark interior of the hull, a single, wide walkway separating them into two equal halves. Six male slaves toiled in each of the divided rows, making six hundred of them on this deck alone. They had few breaks. They were forced to row whenever the wind was directly behind them, or the ship was in the doldrums, or simply, it seemed, when impatience overcame their new taskmasters. And even when they were allowed a few moments of rest, they remained chained in place, unable to stretch their muscles to rest their weary backs.
The slaves wore nothing but soiled loincloths. Their callused, bleeding hands were chained together and their feet were in shackles, communally chained to the deck. Escape was impossible. Even if one or more of them somehow freed themselves of their bonds, there would be nowhere to go except overboard, to drown in the icy waters of the Sea of Whispers.
They had been at sea for fifteen days. Legend had it that no ship had ever sailed farther than that—ships that tried never returned home.
One of the slaves looked down at the number carved into his oar handle. Number Twenty-Nine. That was his name now—a number, assigned by his captors. It was meant to be dehumanizing, he was sure, but he had seized on it as a symbol, a reminder that his life was not his own, that the slave manning this oar was not his true self. Twenty-Nine. He would use that as his name as long as he remained captive. But someday, somehow, he would be freed, and then he would take up his family name once again with pride.
He glanced out the small oar slot near his station. More ships like this one were out there. Occasionally he could see them, their sails full and their oars slicing through the restless, froth-tipped waves—an inexplicable armada of shame.
His muscles on fire, Twenty-Nine pulled relentlessly on the accursed oar. His hands cramped sharply. Once they had been those of an accomplished artisan. But he knew they would no longer be capable of such specialized work. He could barely straighten his fingers anymore, on those rare occasions when they happened to be removed from the handle.
Seething with hatred, Twenty-Nine looked up at his taskmasters, the monsters who had captured him, chained him, and forced him to labor on their ship.
They were horrific. Once they may have been human—but no more. They were tall and muscular, and their skin was pure white, alabaster, almost translucent. Even when there was a deficit of light, their pale, flawless flesh seemed to shine, as if their bodies carried no blood whatsoever. Twenty-Nine had often wondered if they would bleed, if cut.
The four fingers and thumb of their hands ended in long, pointed talons, rather than fingernails. Their powerful chests bare, each of them wore an odd, black leather skirt, floor length, and divided down the front for walking. The toes of their black leather boots protruded from beneath the hems. A spiked, black leather collar encircled each one’s neck.
Each creature carried a short sword in a scabbard hung low behind his back in an ingenious arrangement that allowed the hand to reach naturally down along the outer leg to draw the blade. Twenty-Nine had already seen several of them do so, and their speed had been staggering. Somehow they managed never to catch the swords in the bright red capes that were attached to their spiked leather collars.
Their faces were grotesque. The heads were long, angular, oversized. A shiny metal skullcap covered the top of their white, hairless craniums, ran down between the eyes, then split down either side over the bridge of the nose. Each half extended down the sides of the cheeks to the jawbones, running back to encircle each ear before joining again with the top, leaving the creatures’ eyes, mouths, and ears exposed. The ears that protruded from the gaps in the masks were exceptionally high, pointed, and seemed to hear everything. A variety of earrings dangled from them. The wide, wrinkled mouths held black tongues and dark, pointed teeth. For eyes, they had long, narrow slits hiding orbs that were solid white, without irises or pupils, and quite vacant. Still, they missed nothing.
Setting the cadence, the beatmaster among them continued to pummel his twin sledges down on the solitary block of wood as the slaves pulled relentlessly on their oars. Pacing between the rows, others of the blanched monsters moved up and down the shifting, pitching deck. Carrying knotted nine-tails or long-handled tridents, they would without hesitation lash or stab any slave they felt to be shirking his labors. The slaves called these guards “bleeders.” The deck of the ship was stained with the blood of those who did not keep up the pace.
“Water,” number Twenty-Eight suddenly begged, falling over onto the deck. Twenty-Nine tried, despite his short wrist chains, to help him back onto the bench before any of the bleeders saw what had happened, but he knew he had to continue rowing or be beaten himself.
He looked up to see one of the creatures approaching. It was then that he felt the warmth, smelled the stench. Closing his eyes briefly, he tried to blot out what was happening, but could not. Twenty-Eight was vomiting bile on his feet.
Twenty-Eight retched again, curling his trembling body around one of Twenty-Nine’s vomit-soaked feet. “Help us . . . ,” he sobbed. “Why won’t anyone help us . . .”
The bleeder was standing over them. Without hesitation he shoved the three prongs of the trident into Twenty-Eight’s left calf. The blood gushed forth, flowing down the slave’s leg in bright rivulets. For a long moment, Twenty-Nine thought he might be sick.
Giving the trident a vicious twist, the bleeder yanked it from Twenty-Eight’s leg.
“Back onto the bench—now!” the bleeder shouted. His voice was low, guttural, and commanding. He was standing so close that Twenty-Nine could smell his putrid breath. Somehow Twenty-Eight did as he was told. Seated on the bench once more, he bent over and retched again. His empty stomach had nothing left to expel.
“If this happens again, the prongs will go directly into your worthless eyes,” the bleeder hissed. “Do you understand?” He pointed his trident at the strange brand on Twenty-Eight’s shoulder. “You are not of endowed blood, Talis. Therefore, you are quite expendable. You live only to serve this ship.”
With a sneer, the creature continued down the bloodstained aisle to abuse another man who had fallen behind. Functioning on fear alone, Twenty-Eight somehow resumed rowing.
Twenty-Nine looked over to the left shoulder of his friend, at the word that had been branded into his skin. Talis. He had no idea what it meant, but he believed it to be from a long-lost language his father had told him of, something he had called “Old Eutracian.” His father and his father’s father had all handed down tales of a mysterious, beautiful language, now long since abandoned.
The same word had been branded into the left shoulder of almost every oarsman just before they were forced to board the vessel at the coastal city of Farpoint. The rest were marked with a slightly different word: R’talis. He had no idea what either word meant.
Pulling on his oar, he glanced down at the aisle dividing the rows of slaves. Latticed gates lay flush in the floor, held fast with huge iron padlocks. They led to the lower decks, where still more slaves—men as well as women—were held.
At the docks, the women and the men had been herded together. Twenty-Nine had been puzzled to see that they were all about the same age: somewhere between thirty and thirty-five Seasons of New Life. Then, after a small quantity of their blood had been taken, they had been branded. Those given the designation R’talis had been carefully boarded first and were treated marginally better. For example, he had never seen an R’talis forced to toil at the oars.
Lost in thought, he let his mind drift just a bit too long. Before he realized that his pull on the oar had slackened slightly, the knotted nine-tails came whistling out of nowhere.
Snapping loudly, its leather straps seared their way into the naked skin of Twenty-Nine’s back, making him scream. Trying to regain his focus, he screamed again, perhaps more loudly than was truly warranted.
It was good enough for the bleeder with the whip. Apparently satisfied, the creature turned his white, opaque eyes to someone else, weapon arm raised.
Suddenly a latticed doorway in the deck above opened and a stairway descended with a crash. Sunlight and sea air streamed in as a figure slowly climbed down. Twenty-Nine narrowed his eyes. He had seen this being only one other time since boarding the slave ship, and knew him only by the private name he had silently bestowed on him: the Harlequin.
Even though the slaves continued rowing to the mind-numbing beat, every pair of eyes was now focused squarely on the Harlequin.
As had been the case the other time Twenty-Nine had seen him, he was absurdly dressed. His long-sleeved, black-and-white-checked doublet was fastened down the center with shining gold buttons. Highly padded epaulets broadened the shoulders, and short, white ruffles on the raised, circular collar and cuffs of the doublet lengthened neck and arms. The almost obscenely tight, bright red breeches ended in black, square-toed shoes with raised heels and highly polished silver buckles. Rings adorned almost every finger, and a matching gold necklace hung to his breastbone. The long fingernails were also red.
Strangest of all, his face was painted.
The effect was chilling. His face was stark white; his lips were deep scarlet. A bright red painted mask surrounded dark, piercing eyes. Angular and foreboding, its edges swept back sharply from the eyebrows and lower lids into the stark white field surrounding it. The haughty, prominent nose was severely aquiline, the jaw surprisingly strong. An inverted red triangle was painted beneath the lower lip.
His hair was dyed a bright red, and was pulled back tightly from the widow-peaked hairline to the rear of his skull.
Fastened to his belt was a device that looked like two small iron spheres, one black and the other white, attached to either end of an alternating black-and-white knotted line. The line was coiled up and hung neatly from a hook on his belt at the right hip. Sometimes, usually when he was deep in thought or watching something he found to be particularly stimulating, the Harlequin would reach down and grasp the twin spheres, then gently rub them together, producing a soft clinking sound. There was something unnerving and perverse about the action, and Twenty-Nine cringed whenever he saw it.
Taken as a whole, the Harlequin looked like a freak on view at a province fair rather than the leader of the fearsome taskmasters controlling the oarsmen. But whomever he turned his eyes on quickly learned the truth. This was no fair, and his intentions were sincerely deadly.
The Harlequin whispered something to the bleeder keeping time, and the monster stopped pounding on the block of wood. As they had been trained, the oarsmen immediately ceased their labors. The silence was deafening.
“Raise oars!” the bleeder shouted. Immediately all of the slaves pushed down on the handles of their oars, raising them up out of the restless Sea of Whispers.
The slaves dutifully began to pull their oars into the ship and lay them down in the aisle separating the rows. Gasping, exhausted, they tried their best to remain quiet.
“We have arrived at the first of our destinations,” Harlequin said to the bleeder. “I shall need forty of them.” He placed his hands upon his hips. “You may have the honor of selecting them for me.” His eyes hardened. “Make sure you take Talis only,” he added.
“As you wish,” the master bleeder answered. Rising from his seat, he began walking down the length of the bloody aisle, pointing to slaves seemingly at random.
A cold sense of dread shot through Twenty-Nine as the blanched creature stopped directly before his row. His broken, bloody hands were trembling. He held his breath and kept his head down and eyes lowered.
“You,” came the simple command.
Twenty-Nine looked up. The bleeder was pointing to Twenty-Eight. Feeling guilty, Twenty-Nine let out a long breath.
Other bleeders began unchaining the chosen forty. They were forced to stand; many at first went crashing back down to the bloody deck, their legs too weak and cramped to hold their weight. Eventually all of them, including number Twenty-Eight, began shuffling stiffly toward the stairway where the bizarre Harlequin stood waiting. Twenty-Nine tried to give his seatmate a look of encouragement as he walked away, but Twenty-Eight wasn’t looking at him. As the slaves began climbing the stairs, the Harlequin examined each of them closely.
Another of the chosen men was weeping openly. He was pulled out of the line. The Harlequin drew him closer.
“Do not fear,” he said, almost compassionately. “You go to a far better place.” With that he released the man to the bleeders, and they forced him up the stairway. “Choose two more.” The bleeder did so, and the Harlequin followed the last of them up the stairs.
It was at that moment Twenty-Nine realized things had changed.
He could sense no movement: The ship was no longer rocking back and forth in the sea, as one would normally expect. There was no creaking of the ship’s sides. There was, in fact, no sound whatsoever.
And then the temperature began to change.
It started to become cold—impossibly so. The slaves in their meager loincloths began to shiver; their breath turned to clouds of vapor.
Twenty-Nine bent over, trying to conserve body heat. Then he had an idea. Sliding as far into Twenty-Eight’s vacant seat as his chains would allow, he peered across the shivering bodies of the other four slaves in his row, trying to get a better look out the small oar slit.
What he saw did not encourage him. The ship seemed to be in the grip of an impenetrable gray fog, the likes of which he had never seen. Growing up in the coastal city of Farpoint, he had seen fog banks roll in, to be sure. But this was decidedly different. As if it had a life of its own, the fog began to slither into the boat, tendrils reaching in through the oar slits and falling down the stairway from which the Harlequin had descended. It quickly filled the deck. As it increased in density the fog replaced the smell of the salt sea with a cleaner odor, such as one might inhale on land after a brisk, cold rain.
Then came the voices: many voices whispering as one.
“Pay us our bounty or we shall first take your ships, and then your bodies.”
Almost immediately Twenty-Nine could hear desperate, tormented cries from above. Then everything became eerily silent again. The ship continued to sit motionless, but at last the fog still surrounding them began to thin, and he could see the terrified faces of his fellow oarsmen.
Craning his neck, Twenty-Nine saw that the sun shone brightly once more. Then the splashing noises began.
Instinctively, he started counting them. As he watched through the narrow slit, he could see the occasional bloodied body plunging into the sea. There were forty splashes in all.
Then he heard snuffling, snarling, grunting sounds. They reminded him of one time he and his father had been ocean fishing. Twenty-Nine had been young, and had made the mistake of accidentally tipping an entire bucket of bloody fish offal overboard. Sharks had swarmed.
As had happened then, eventually all went quiet. Straining to get the best possible view, Twenty-Nine could see the red, spreading stain of blood as it stretched across the surface of the impossibly placid sea.
Then the topside deck hatch opened noisily again, and the Harlequin reappeared. Blood dripped from the hem of his doublet. Gently wiping it off with an embroidered handkerchief, he descended the stairs and walked to the master bleeder.
“Fill the vacant seats with replacements from below,” he said casually. “Talis only. And be quick about it.”
Several bleeders moved aside the oars and unlocked the grates in the aisle floor, then descended into the darkness. Soon the replacements came up and out, furiously blinking their eyes in the brighter light of the oar deck. They were assigned to their stations and roughly chained into place.
Twenty-Nine tried to smile hopefully into the face of the frightened, confused slave now seated next to him.
Then he felt the great ship rock and heard the accompanying creaking of her sides. He heard the scurrying noises of the topside bleeders as they went about their labors above. Slowly, the Defiant began to make way.
The Harlequin looked to the pacemaster. “Battle speed,” he ordered. “We have time to make up for.”
“Very good,” the pacemaster replied. But an unusually worried look had crowded in upon the corners of his face. “But before we commence—are we safe?” he asked. “Are we through it?”
“Oh, indeed,” the Harlequin answered casually.
“And the human offerings?” the pacemaster inquired, taking up his twin sledges. “Their numbers sufficed?”
“Oh, yes,” the Harlequin answered, walking to a comfortable-looking chair placed before the slaves. He smiled. “I think it safe to say they all disagreed with something that ate them!”
The bleeders broke into raucous laughter. Reclining into the softness of his upholstered chair, the Harlequin threw a leg up over one of its arms.
As the slaves slid their oars into the restless sea, the pacemaster resumed the beat, and the Defiant truly began to make way. Reaching down, the Harlequin took the twin iron spheres into his hand and began clinking them together, exactly matching the pacemaster’s beat.
On the same ship, another slave lay shackled to the floor, one of hundreds packed cheek by jowl in the lower deck. His eyes were hazel. His straight, sandy hair was pulled back from his face into a tail that was secured with a bit of worn leather string and ran down almost to the center of his back. Before being chained down he had been branded with the word R’talis, as had many of the others imprisoned with him. He was strong and in the prime of his life, but in the darkness of this hold it didn’t matter. Nothing did.
With no way to raise himself up, there was precious little escape from the constantly nauseating stench of human waste, not to mention the ever-present vomit from those who continually succumbed to seasickness. All the slaves marked R’talis were fed and hydrated enough to keep them alive. Still, his lips parched and his clothing soaked, his hollow stomach felt long past the point of hunger. He had no idea that his ship was part of a large flotilla of slavers. Nor did it matter. All he wanted was his freedom.
A few hours earlier, the ship had inexplicably stopped, then suddenly resumed course. He did not know why.
He could do nothing but listen to the moaning and sobbing of his fellow captives as the ship pitched sickeningly through the violent Sea of Whispers. Trying to keep from vomiting, he closed his eyes. His parched tongue reached out to touch the dark mole at the left-hand corner of his mouth.