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The Slave Auction
When they brought me up to the auction block, I looked out over the crowd and thought: I would kill you all if I had a knife.
And if I wasn't naked, I amended.
And shackled. I had never felt so helpless, and —
What? You don't think this is the beginning, Talon?
What do you mean by "beginning" anyway? Whose beginning? Mine? I don't remember it that well. Yours? Talon, you're thousands of years old and have stored the memories of as many people. You're the one who wanted to hear this. And you will, but under my terms, not yours.
Let's start over.
The auctioneer's voice boomed out over the amphitheater: "Lot six this morning is a fine specimen. What will I hear for this human Doltari male? He's a trained musician with an excellent singing voice. Just sixteen years old. Look at that golden hair, those blue eyes, those handsome features. Why, this one might even have vané blood in him! He'll make a welcome addition to any household, but he's not gelded, so don't buy him to guard your harem, ladies and gentlemen!" The auctioneer waved his finger with a sly grin, and was answered with a few disinterested chuckles. "Opening bid is ten thousand ords."
Several members of the audience sniggered at the price.
It was too much.
I didn't look any prize that day. The Kishna-Farriga slave masters had bathed me but the scrubbing only made the raw whip wounds on my back stand out in angry red stripes. Copper bangles on my wrists did a poor job of camouflaging sores from long months spent in chains. The friction blisters on my left ankle were swollen, infected, and oozing. Bruises and welts covered me: all the marks of a defiant slave. My body shook from hunger and a growing fever. I wasn't worth ten thousand ords. I wasn't worth one hundred ords.
Honestly, I wouldn't have bought me.
"Ah, now don't be like that, my fine people! I know what he looks like, but I promise you, he's a rough diamond who only needs polish to shine. He'll be no trouble either — see, I hold his gaesh in my hand! Won't someone here pay ten thousand ords for the gaesh of this handsome young slave?" The auctioneer held out his arm and revealed a tarnished silver chain, from which dangled something that glittered and caught in the sun.
The crowd couldn't see the details, but I knew what he held: a silver hawk, stained black from salt air. A part of my soul, trapped in metal: my gaesh.
He was right: I would cause no more trouble. Never again. Controlling a slave via a gaesh was as effective as it was terrible. A witch had summoned a demon, and that demon had ripped part of my soul away, transferring that essence to the cheap tourist bauble the auctioneer now held in his hand. Anyone who carried that damn gaesh charm could command me to do anything they desired. Anything. If I ignored those orders, my reward would be my agonizing death. I would do anything that the holder of my gaesh asked of me, no matter how objectionable, no matter how repugnant.
Obey or die. There was no choice.
No, my body may not have been worth much, but in Kishna-Farriga the going price for a man's soul is ten thousand ords.
The crowd stirred and looked at me with new eyes. A troublemaking teenage boy was one thing. A teenage boy who could be healed and perfumed, forced to obey every whim his owner might command, was quite another. I shivered, and it had nothing to do with the warm breeze that prickled the hairs on my skin.
It was a fine day for a slave auction, if you're into that sort of thing. The weather was hot, sunny, and the air tinged with the stink of gutted harbor fish. Paper umbrellas or canvas awnings obscured the bidders as they lounged on cushioned seats.
Kishna-Farriga was one of the Free States, border city-states that owed no fealty to their neighbors, but relied on shifting political tensions to keep themselves off anyone's leash. Countries who didn't want to deal with each other used Kishna-Farriga as a halfway entrepôt for trade goods and commodities — commodities which included slaves such as myself.
Personally, I was used to the slave markets of the Quuros Octagon, with its endless mazes of private chambers and auction theaters. The slave pits in Kishna-Farriga weren't so elaborate. They used just one open-air stone amphitheater, built next to the famous harbor. At maximum capacity, the rising stone steps seated three thousand people. A slave might arrive by ship, visit the holding cells underneath the amphitheater, and leave with a new owner the same day — all without clearing the smell of dead fish from their nose.
It was all quite charming.
The auctioneer continued to speak, "Do I hear ten thousand?"
Reassured that I was tame, a velvet-clad woman of obvious "professional" talent raised her hand. I winced. I had no desire to go back to a brothel. A part of me feared it would go this way. I was by no means homely, and few are those who can afford the price of a gaeshed slave, without means of recouping their cost.
"Ten thousand. Very good. Do I hear fifteen thousand?"
A rich, fat merchant leered at me from the second row and raised a little red flag to signal his interest. Truth be told, he raised all kinds of red flags. His ownership would be no better than the whorehouse madam's, and possibly quite worse, no matter what my value.
"Fifteen thousand? Do I hear twenty thousand?"
A man in the front row raised his hand.
"Twenty thousand. Very good, Lord Var."
Lord Var? Where had I heard that name?
My gaze lingered on the man. He appeared ordinary: of medium height and weight, nondescript but pleasant, his dress stylish but not extravagant. He had black hair and olive brown skin — typical of Quuros from west of the Dragonspires — but his boots were the high, hard style favored by Easterners. Jorat, perhaps, or Yor. In addition, he wore a shirt of the Marakor style rather than an Eamithon misha or usigi wrap.
No obvious weapon of any kind.
The only remarkable qualities about Lord Var were his confidence, his poise, and the fact the auctioneer recognized him. Var didn't seem interested in me. His attention focused on the auctioneer; he barely glanced at me. He might as well have been bidding on a set of tin plates.
I looked closer. No protection, hidden or otherwise, and not even a dagger in one of those unpolished leather boots. Yet he sat in the front. No one crowded him, though I'd spotted plenty of pickpockets working the crowd.
I'd never been to Kishna-Farriga before, but I didn't have to be a native to know only a fool came to this auction house without bodyguards.
I shook my head. It was hard to concentrate. Everything was noise, flashing light, and waves of cold — which I suspected were from a fever. One of my cuts had become infected. Something would need to be done about that soon, or I would be the most expensive paperweight some poor gull had ever purchased.
Focus. I ignored the crowds, the bidding, and the reality of my situation as I slipped the First Veil from my eyes and looked at him again.
I've always been skilled at seeing past the First Veil. I had once thought this talent would be my redemption from the Capital City's slums, back when I was naïve enough to think there was no fate worse than poverty.
There are three overlapping worlds, of course, each ruled by one of the Sisters: the world of the living, the world of magic, and the world of the dead. We live in Taja's realm, as do all mortals. But I'd learned from a young age that my talent for seeing past the First Veil, into Tya's magical domain, was a terrific advantage.
Only the gods can see past the Second Veil, although I suppose we all do when we finally travel to what lies beyond, to Thaena's realm — Death.
The point is that wizards always wear talismans. They stamp such trinkets with their own auras to guard against the hostile sorceries of other mages. Talismans can take any shape. A smart wizard conceals their talismans from casual observation by disguising them as jewelry, sewing them into the lining of their clothes, or wearing them under robes. You might never know if someone is a wizard ...
... unless you can see past the First Veil yourself, in which case that talisman-enhanced aura always betrays a wizard's profession.
That's how I knew Relos Var was a wizard. He wasn't wearing any obvious talisman, but that aura was terrifying. I'd never seen an imprint so strong before, nor an aura stamped so hard, sharp, and crisp.
Not with Dead Man, not with Tyentso ...
And no, lovely Talon, not even with you.
I couldn't remember why Lord Var's name was familiar, but I could sum the man up in a single word: dangerous. But if I was lucky ...
Who was I kidding? There was no luck left for me. I had angered my goddess, lady of luck both good and bad; her favor was gone. I did not even dare to hope that Lord Var would treat me better than the others. No matter who won me this day, it didn't change that I was a slave, and would be so until the moment of my death. A normal slave might hold out some faint hope of escape or buying his or her freedom, but a gaeshed slave can't run, and no one would ever free them. They are worth too much.
"The bid is twenty thousand. Do I hear twenty-five thousand?" The auctioneer wasn't paying attention anymore: he thought the sale all but over. He'd done well to fetch twenty thousand. That price exceeded his expectations.
"Twenty thousand, going once, going twice. Fair warning —"
"Fifty thousand," a clear voice said from the top of the seats.
Murmurs spread through the crowd. I strained to see who'd placed the bid. It was a large stadium. I couldn't see the speaker at first, but then I noticed who the rest of the crowd had turned to watch: three seated figures in black hooded robes.
The auctioneer paused, surprised. "The Black Brotherhood bids fifty thousand. Do I hear fifty-five thousand?"
The man they called Lord Var looked annoyed. He nodded at the auctioneer.
"Fifty-five thousand. Do I hear sixty thousand?" The auctioneer was awake now that there was a bidding war.
One of the three black-clad figures raised its red flag.
"Sixty thousand." The auctioneer nodded at them.
Half the crowd looked at Lord Var, the other half stared at the robed figures. The auction had just become an entertainment sport.
"Do I hear seventy-five thousand?"
Var nodded again.
"I have seventy-five. Do I hear one hundred?" The auctioneer saw the black-clad figures' flag raise again. "I have one hundred from the Brotherhood. Do I hear one-fifty?"
"One-fifty. Do I hear two hundred?" The red flag raised. "I have two hundred. Do I hear two-fifty?" Var frowned, but made a quick wave of his fingers. "I have two-fifty from Lord Var. Do I have five hundred from the Black Brotherhood?"
The desire to vomit hit me hard, and not just because of sickness. Had a slave ever sold for so much? There was no use that justified such a price; not as musician, not as catamite. Unless —
My eyes narrowed.
I wondered if, against all reason, they somehow knew who I was, knew what I carried. I almost reached for the gem around my throat. The Stone of Shackles was worth such a price, worth any price, but I had used the only spell I knew to hide what I wore.
I might be gaeshed, but I couldn't be ordered to hand over what no one knew I possessed.
"The Black Brotherhood bids a half-million. Do I hear 750,000?" The auctioneer's voice broke. Even he seemed stunned by the price rising from his throat.
Lord Var hesitated.
"Lord Var?" the auctioneer asked.
Var grimaced and turned to glare over his shoulder at the three figures. "Yes," he said.
"I have 750,000 ords from Lord Var. Do I hear one million?"
The figures in black didn't hesitate.
Lord Var cursed aloud.
"I have one million ords. Final warning." The auctioneer paused for the required time. "Sold to the Black Brotherhood for one million ords. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new record!" The end of the staff pounded down on the floor.
I fought the urge to join it.
The Kazivar House
— that back.
Of course, I took the stone back; it's my turn to tell your story now.
Why yes, I do so get a turn. Why should I not? It amuses me, and you're in no position to argue. Since you don't wish to start at the beginning, I shall do so for you. There's no point in you trying to keep parts of your tale from me. You aren't protecting anyone's memories, not even your own. So, I will tell you your story, because I want you to remember how it went, seen through someone else's eyes. Indeed — through many eyes, from many points of view; for that is what I am now. No one can change that. Not even you, my love.
Stop struggling. The bars are stronger than your skull.
Let me tell you a story about a boy named Rook.
Ah. I thought that might catch your attention.
As you know, his real name was Kihrin, but he liked the name Rook because it was both his aspiration and occupation. Rook was a burglar: a very special burglar, a Key. He loved to perch, fingers clamped to the highest ledges, alone with the birds, his thoughts, and his crimes. He dreamed of soaring, freedom, and a world where no one would ever chain him.
Alas, we rarely get what we want, do we?
He was fifteen years old: not yet an adult in Quur, and yet too old to be properly called a child. Like all people caught between two worlds, he hated and longed for both. He hadn't considered himself a child since he was twelve, when his teacher had died and he paid his first dues as one of the Shadowdancers's Keys.
Perhaps Rook was even right, for no one stays a child in the slums of the Lower Circle for long. Those poor waifs who hitched themselves to gangs like the Shadowdancers grew faster still.
Rook's methods possessed one flaw, one misstep that would spell his doom.
He was curious.
Rook had spent almost a week planning the best way to rob the house of a wealthy merchant in the Copper Quarter. The merchant would be away for two weeks, attending his youngest daughter's wedding, giving Rook all the time he wished to explore the vacant house.
Except when Rook arrived, he discovered someone was already there, someone with motives very different than his own.
If you asked me today if there was a single action, one event, which might have changed the course of what followed, I will unfailingly point to this: the day you broke into that Kazivar House and let curiosity bid you stay, when a wiser man would have fled.
But you did not, and so I call this the beginning.
* * *
The young man stifled a curse, balanced himself on the edge of the windowsill, and scanned the bedroom in the faint light. There was no sound save that of screaming coming from inside the house. After a pause, Rook remembered to breathe. He dismissed the tingling in his fingertips as fear and finished sliding through the narrow opening of the villa's upper window.
As he entered, he tucked the key ring of strips back into his belt. Most of the strips were made from wood — bamboo, mahogany, cypress, even distant, exotic woods like pine and oak — but a few rectangles were also crafted from glass and ceramic tile made from local clay. Using those strips as a guide revealed if a house was enchanted, if someone had spent metal to hire Watchmen to spell windows and doors against intrusion. Keys like him practiced no magic of their own, but they could see beyond the First Veil and divine if a door, a lock, or chest was more than it seemed. For a thief, such knowledge was the difference between success or an ugly, short end to a criminal career.
The window frame was carved teak, the panes made of cloudy glass. Perfectly normal. No traps, no enchantments.
The screaming though. The screaming from inside was not normal.
Someone inside was in pain, such that even a Key-thief like Rook had never known in all his fifteen street-smart years.
The young thief closed the window behind him and let his eyes grow accustomed to the dim light. He wondered who was being abused. Was the current resident (that merchant what-was-his-name?) the one being beaten? Or was he the one handing out the awful punishment, his trip north to Kazivar nothing but a convenient alibi for satisfying a fetish for torture or worse?
The bedroom Rook entered was large and daunting, filled with the ostentatious filigree and tile work for which imperial craftsmen were famous. Cotton sateen covered the massive bed, tapestries lined the walls and divans, and elegant figurines of heavy bronze and jade sported across the boudoir countertops.
The north wall was open and a giant balcony overlooked the covered courtyard in the center of the villa. The screams came from the courtyard garden, on the ground floor.
Rook relaxed as he realized he couldn't be seen from below. This was important, because tonight anyone but his blind father would be able to see: all three moons were out, adding their glow to the violet, red, and shifting green aurora of Tya's Veil. It was a sorcerer's night. A night for working magics or sneaking past them, because Tya's Veil appearing in the night sky meant it was easier to "see" past the First Veil into her realm.
Excerpted from "The Ruin of Kings"
Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Williamson.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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