“Now my son, I suggest that these Yeoli slaves be moved deeper into the Empire and you should place the more domesticated slaves into your new district. You will have less problem that way.”
“That makes sense, Divine Father. May I look more closely at them?”
He waved an expansive hand, and heaved Himself up onto His feet, so I had to jump up. “I am fatigued by all this excitement, my minimal, have fun. I shall be returning to the comfort of the city tomorrow. You may follow along when you have settled your gifts.”
“I hear and obey, Illustrious Sire.” I waited until He proceeded inside, his beneficence completed, leaving me to contemplate my thousand unwanted gifts. I walked down and stood in front of them. Their eyes were all on me, trying to see where fate had hurled them, what kind of person held their lives in their hands. There was a lot of fear. A woman second down from the front shifted slightly. She was not as healthy as some of the others with visible bruises on head and face and limbs and if the pale marks on her wrists were any sign, she had been a warrior. Possibly still recovering from injuries or torture. She stared me in the face with no sign of fear. It reminded me of Shefenkas.
I turned to the officer in charge. “Put them all away for the evening. Pull out that one and chain her in one of the breeding huts. See that her injuries are checked before you lock her up.”
“As you wish, Spark of the Sun’s Ray.”
I went inside to the sound of the shuffle of hundreds of feet as the slaves were taken back to the holding barns. I had to come up with something. I had to come up with a way of fixing this.
I sat down in one of the Winter Palace's cozy chairs, thankful that I didn’t have to fight my way through companions and servants. I wondered if that was one reason Father didn’t like it. Outside, out here, he wasn’t swarmed like a royal bee, with his every whim granted.
On the table my Chamberlain had placed the ownership papers and the jar of their crystals… the trophies ripped off their necks. I just imagined the look on Shefenkas’s face, finding out I owned hundreds of his people and a big chunk of his country. I rubbed my hands over my face. Muunas help me.
It was late when I dared sneak out into the grounds. The slave barns were discreetly tucked behind the cypress, downwind so that the odour of overheated humanity wouldn’t offend the Imperial nose in whichever Age. The slaves were carefully kept clean but people still smelled if they were kept in a barn.
I had a stack of ownership papers, each one with the section for manumission filled in with my signature. I had had to write a cramp into my hand to do them all but if I was going to do this I had to have these papers. And the jar of Yeoli crystals, with a carry strap over the top. I wasn’t use to carrying all this myself and appreciated my servants more.
I was unhappy to wake the woman, especially since she was healing. The medic’s report had said she was recovering from a javelin to the shoulder and multiple bruises, including bone bruises and contusions. I hoped she was the person I needed. Yeoli women were very different from Arkan women, if I believed Shefenkas and he’d been the only person who had the guts to tell me truth.
I unlocked the hut door and slipped inside. The alcohol lamp had been left to low and I realized that her eyes were open just from the glint in the dimness. I had woken her just by opening the door. “Sorry,” I said in Enchian. Then realized I didn’t know if she understood the language. This was all pointless if I couldn’t explain myself. “Do you speak Enchian?”
She sat up as I turned up the light, set down my packet by the door and the jar. “Yes.” They'd shaved her head when they pulled her out of the coffle and she looked wrong in the slave’s tunic, like a highbred horse in carthorse brasses. There were fading bruises and contusions showing on her limbs and one still red and purple angled over her temple, forehead and upper cheek. Her eyes flickered to the things I left by the door then back to me. I sat down to bring my eyes down to her level.
“What’s your name?” I tried not to squirm under her suspicious eyes.
“Ancherao.” She said. Then, “Shae-Lemana.”
“You heard the announcement in Enchian, so I figure you know my name, but I’m Minis. You were a warrior?” Something I said creased her forehead but I wasn’t sure what thought caused it.
“Milakraseye. Commander of a thousand.”
“And you’re healing up well?” It was like pulling teeth. My mind shied away from that particular image. It was a Mahid trick… I’d seen grown men reduced to babies by having their teeth attacked. “The medic said you still needed some time.”
“Well… as can be expected.”
Of course, she was recovering from being either shipped from, or forced to walk from the middle of Yeola-e to the middle of Arko. She was doing really, really well coming from a forced march like that. Being shipped wouldn't have been much easier. I took a deep breath. I couldn’t put it off any more.
“What would you do to get your people free?”
“What would I …” she repeated, startled. She stared at me. “What… would you ask?”
“I have an idea. But it needs your help and your own people might spit on you until you get back to Olinyera. My problem is that Father wants me to be a typical conquering slave owner. He doesn’t know that I won’t own Yeolis, or a fingerwidth of Yeoli land. For a friend’s sake.”
There it was. I’d opened up to a slave. If they truth-drugged her they’d find out and I was as erased as my older brother. It was unlikely, because she was female. Father or the Mahid would never suspect a female of being dangerous, even when presented with evidence to the contrary. She didn’t say anything for a long, long moment, thinking about what I’d said, staring at me. Her eyes were a light brown, almost gold. I started pulling at one of my buttons. Only plain silver out here in the Winter Palace.
“If he finds out,” I finally blurted out. “He might punish or kill me. Umm. I think I can manage it.”
“If you can free us,” she said quietly. “My lips are sealed.” She sat up, more comfortably instead of looking like a wild animal about to attack. The wooden neck-collar was locked to the wooden chain and then to the wall, and her hands were linked by bracelets held apart with a rod to keep the fingers from touching no matter how hard someone strained. “What do you want me to do?”
“I’m going to pretend. I'll have the whole lot of you sent back to your homes. Because you have the expertise to bring the vines back. There will be some time before incomes could be expected in a newly conquered territory.”
“We do, of course.”
“So… that stack of papers…” She looked over at them. “They’re ownership papers for all of you. I’ve signed the manumission section on every one.” It wasn’t a big cabin so I reached behind me, snagged the packet and riffled through the stack. First name only. It was an ‘A’ name so close to the top. “This one’s yours.” I handed it to her.
She leaned forward to take it with one shackled hand. Then looked at the ornate script and silver that was my personal seal. With total incomprehension of course. She couldn’t read Arkan. “The section on the back is the important one. Maybe one of your people can translate it for you. But you can’t use them until you are back in Olinyera.”
“Who…do I show this to?”
“To any Arkan in occupied territory who stops you and demands them.” She was staring at me with an intensity I found very uncomfortable… I quit pulling and twisting on my button and put the end of my hair in my mouth instead.
“So I should hang onto these until –“
“—You’re back in Olinyera and that it's called Minisania. This is the problem. I have to keep pretending that I own you. That…” I nodded at the papers. “is more to prove to you that I mean what I’m telling you.”
“So we’ve got to pretend we’re slaves…”
“It’s going to be tricky because I have to talk my staff into sending you back. And you’d be escorted. The guards think you’re slaves. And if anyone sees the light here they’ll figure I’m in here playing with one of my new toys. Torturing you or trying to turn you… or something…”
“Best all but me think we’re slaves until we get there…”
“Yeah… They might think I’ve forced you into being an overseer or something. That’s why I said your people might spit on you. It’s a rough plan and I’m only a kid. I’m doing the best I can.”
“Ah.” She listened thoughtfully as I kept pouring out this half-mucked out idea.
“It’s not typical, I know, for you to decide for semana… but it’s war.”
She signed chalk absently. “But when we get back… we just go back to our houses? And live as before?”
“I figure you personally will head out to join the troops still fighting. I wouldn’t try to stop you. And keep those papers in case anyone asks.”
“Not most of us. Most of us are not warriors. They are signed with your name?”
“Yes. I’ll have to send a bureaucrat with you but I’ll send the dumbest, most amiable one I can find.”
“If we show them to Arkans, they’ll know.”
“As long as they aren’t in a position to complain to Father, I’m safe. And the bureaucrat… if he or any of my other people get attacked or hurt I’ll wash my hands of you.”
“So the bureaucrat won’t be in on this…? He’ll be giving us orders…”
“As I said, I’ll find a stupid, amiable bureaucrat. I will not own Yeolis but I won’t offer up my own people before them. I’ve only partly thought this out. I’m trying to lose this in a bureaucratic sea of paper.”
“It sounds like it would be best for us to disappear from Olinyera one by one. At least the warriors.”
“Yeah.” I dropped my hair out of my mouth and went back to torturing my button.
“And everyone else would stay. Home is where they want to be. The warriors want to fight, of course.” She looked at me thoughtfully. “My crystal was taken from me. If you’ll accept an oath from a Yeoli without a crystal, I’ll swear.”
I smiled and reached to snag the jar and pop the lid off to reveal the crystals from all the thousand. “I don’t know which one is yours but it’s in here somewhere. These are from all your people.” I set the jar in front of her and she stared at them, then up at me. It struck me what was so strange about talking to her. Her hands were restrained.
“I don’t have to pick mine out… any crystal is sacred.” Shefenkas and Mannas are a lot more emotional than she is. She is a lot more like what I’m used to. It made it easier to talk to her in some ways. I was used to it.
“I’ll give these into your keeping then, until you can sort them out.” She pulled the jar close, the fingers of both hands touching the pottery gently. That was when I saw there were tears in her eyes. Her one hand flipped in the restraint, trying to sign yes.
“Thank you.” Her voice was so quiet it was almost a whisper. “Minis.”
“You’re welcome, Ancherao.”
She picked one out with the tips of her fingers closed her fingers around it as though it were a life-float and she a drowning ma… um woman. “In the witness of All-Spirit I swear on my crystal I will not divulge anything that has been said here nor what is in those papers out of the proper time, second Fire come if I am foresworn.”
“Thank you.” I twisted up the edge of my tunic. “Would you swear to never divulge this even to your Semanakraseye?”
“If you wish… I so swear. Not that I anticipate a chance to tell her.” I blinked, startled.
"Isn't your Semanakraseye male?"
She did the shackled version of the Yeoli shrug. "Yes, but he's a prisoner, so his sister is acting semenakraseye."
“Oh. All right. Yes. So, can I unlock you?”
“I don’t mind. I won’t attack you.” Her eyebrows were really obvious when they went up like that.
“You’ll be able to sleep better and… if we’re on the same side I don’t need to be scared of you.”
“No, you don’t.”
“From what I see of Yeolis you could probably break me in half even if you are a… umm…” I thought better of it but she smiled for the first time.
“Even if I’m a woman?” She said and I blushed. “Thanks for the compliment.” I could see her trying to figure out how I’d been exposed to Yeolis at all, much less how I had one for a friend.
It took me a moment or two to pull out my keys and unlock the chain and the wrist restraints before I dropped them in a corner. She stretched herself in a way I’d seen Shefenkas do, shaking out loose muscles and examines parts of her wrists that had been rubbed raw by the shackles. “I’ll get those looked at in the morning for you.”
“Minis… thank you.”
I found myself making the throwing away motion Shefenkas did, sometimes. “It’s all right, you’re welcome.” She watched me in the lamplight, the look in her eyes puzzled and I got more awkward again. “Umm.” I looked away from her eyes so like and so unlike Shefenkas’s. “This war wasn’t my idea.”
“Of course not. You’re a child,” she said. I nodded.
“My birthday isn’t really until next eight-day. I’ll be twelve.”
“We know whose idea it was.”
Rather than talk about that I changed the subject. “I think I can put off Father asking about wines coming from my new estates for a while… since the vines haven’t been tended…or destroyed in the war… whatever…”
“Well, normally we’d be selling them. In the market, and to the wine merchants.”
“I hope I can ask your help with that.” I pulled on my hair. “This is such a half-baked plan…”
“Where would the wines go if you owned them? I mean, we grow grapes and make wine…We don’t mind seeing them go if we are recompensed for them.”
“Oh, anything off an estate of mine goes straight to my storehouses and my factor would send some on for my household to use and sell the rest.”
“Hmm.” She ran her hands through her hair, thinking. “The vineyards that were battled over won’t produce for a long while…”
“I could have my factor come and pick up the wines. My bureaucrat would think they were just coming to me normally.”
“And the money comes to us secretly? Are slaves allowed to own money, buy things?”
“Usually. But not buy anything except at their master’s behest because it’s all his anyway. Most slaves are saving up to buy themselves free if they have generous owners who give them gifts and tips… but not war captives. That’s policy.”
“Can slaves own land? Doesn’t someone else own our land, by Arkan law, now?”
“Um. I do.”
She gave me the first real smile I’d seen.
“That makes it simple. You are a very wealthy young man.”
“Um. I guess.” I quit twisting my button and tapped the pile of paper. “I mean… until you can get home. The ownership papers for the land are in here too, I nearly forgot.”
This time only one of her eyebrows arched up. “Then we are selling the wine to you… though apparently giving it to you unpaid. You sell it to whom you wish. You must have your own bureaucracy.”
“I do. My own secretary and my chamberlain handles all of that usually. Father wants me to learn more. It’s one reason he gave you to me, but I’m going to be learning different lessons than he thinks from this – how to hide payments in other things, for one.”
“I have to say, I never had this problem when I was your age.” I looked up in time to meet her eyes and the twinkle in her eyes, even after all she’d been through, caught me. I twitched a grin at her and she grinned back.
“I figure I’ll send the wine payment through ‘maintenance and infrastructure’ fees.”
“It sounds convincing.”
“Um. I’m probably going to be paying for the roads to be re-done, bridges re-built… things like that.”
“I suppose we’ll have to suffer that.” Her wit was almost as dry as Shefenkas’s. Then she smiled again and I noticed that despite the bruise over half her face she had a good smile.
“My friend told me Yeoli women are the more practical ones, usually, and Father would never think of me talking to a woman, much less plotting with her.”
“Hm. Your friend? A Yeoli?” I just signed chalk at her. “He… she? Taught you a few things.”
“Yeah. And I’ve been reading.”
“I don’t know that we are more practical than our menfolk… we are less emotional, though. And it’s a good thought talking to a women when most other of your people wouldn’t.”
“Thanks. If I hadn’t been able to give you your crystal back to swear on, I would have gotten you to swear on your Saint Mother’s sword.”
“Are you getting ‘Know the enemy lessons?” I just shook my head. “Sounds like you’ll be ahead.” This time she reminded me of Ailadas. I shrugged.
“More like getting to know my friend lessons.”
“Hmm. You wanted to get close… to a Yeoli?”
The button came off in my hand and I dropped it, picking at the broken threads underneath. “Yeah… That person… has been very good to me. They taught me to be polite.” She stared at me again as if she were trying to puzzle something out.
“I’m glad to hear it. Polite? A Yeoli?”
“Well it was that or have my Mahid break the door down. No one else would or could have. I had no restraints on me and no one else dared except for my friend. Kind of like you…”
“That must have been one very brave person.”
She had no idea. I nodded and made the chalk sign together. “Yeah. Totally not scared of me or my power. So… over the next few days I’m going to be looking for an amiable, stupid bureaucrat. Father is… thankfully, heading back to the city tomorrow so I’ll be staying behind to ‘take control’ of all of you. And being a brat in public.”
Again there was the thoughtful look on her face. “So, you fake it? Being a brat, I mean.”
“If I’m rude it's what people expect… though I’ve recently reformed a lot. Father wouldn’t like me deferring to lesser people.”
“He doesn’t… they don’t welcome your change? Why hide it?” I could see I’d have to explain Father to her somewhat.
“Father doesn’t like it if I have lesser beings get close to me or help me. I should depend only on Him. If I get too ‘soft’, or people get too close to me, He gets rid of them. They ‘disappear’. It’s easier and safer for other people to make them dislike me.”
“Ah. But if you’re nice to ‘everyone’, he can’t pick anyone out. Unless he wants to – lock you in a tower or something.”
“That would make sense if I weren’t expendable as an Heir. He might put my little brother in my place.”
“For being too polite?” I could see the same kind of look I sometimes saw in Misahis’s eyes, in hers. Both Haians and Yeolis thought the same thing? I’d have to think about that later. “I appreciate your secret kindness to us, then.”
She just didn’t understand. I liked the idea of places where Father’s behaviour was that strange. “He’s done it before. I just found out I had an older brother I never knew about.” The puzzled look on her face grew even stronger if that were possible.
“How… how could you have an older brother you didn’t know about?”
“He must have failed Father in some way and Father had his existence erased. I think I’ve just found his grave in the Marble Palace though it doesn't have his name on it.” She looked sick as she thought it through.
“Erased. Meaning… all record?” Her brows knit together as if she were angry.
“And no one is allowed to speak of him, by Father’s decree. He is to not have existed. I don’t know what happened between them. He was… I guess… a little older than I am now.”
“That’s… harsh… And you are afraid the same could happen to you.” She was getting it. It wasn’t a question.
“That’s my Father.” I shrugged again. “And he’s just picked a new baby brother for me… I should let you rest. I hope I can figure out a few more things in this plan tomorrow.”
“I’ll work on it as well.” She reached her hands out toward me and I took them. Just like Shefenkas. Thoughtless use of the hands. I was startled when she kissed them. “Thank you.”
It made me feel guilty that I was in this position in the first place. I didn’t want Shefenkas to ever find out I’d owned any of his people or his country. “I feel ashamed that I’m in this position… but you’ll be free if we work together.”
She let go my hands finally. “Don’t be ashamed. I think you’ve chosen this no more than I have.”
“Gods night to you. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Good night, Minis.”