It was hot. Really hot.
I'd been wandering the endless dunes of the Death Frontier for what seemed like days but was probably months or vice versa. All I'd had to drink for that amount of time was tepid canteen water and shots of my own urine, in between gulping mouthfuls of sand during my sporadic episodes of hallucination; and that doesn't even account for the time I spent searching for a decent meal and having to eat my own socks instead because I failed. And all of this occurred while I was on the run from the law and for my life.
Not that any of it really mattered or bothered me, 'cause I was free.
Reveling in the magnitude of that one word was all I really did now, and really all I'd done a week ago, and months before that as well. Thinking and dreaming of freedom is all anyone does when they do not possess it. I know this because I am a member of a race that has been enslaved for so long, it has forgotten what freedom means; a race in chains for such a long while, its elders no longer have stories to share of a time when we were free. A race oppressed and discouraged from individual thought or action.
But rather than recite from the history books I wasn't permitted to read (which are incorrect anyway because they're decidedly biased), I think my own experience sufficiently illustrates the suffering of my people. It isn't enough to explain the whys and how's of the entire race, but it's a damn good account of the cruelty, the savagery, the utter terror and intimidation. The story begins with me: young, stupid and un-jaded, at the beginning of my service to that evil bastard. I would go back farther, but what would be the point? It's only a long tradition of more sorrow, heartache and damned bloody injustices done to my people. The real story starts with me. … Anyway, it's a pretty good tale. And my escape from it all is the best part.
"Hey you! Diaz!"
It was the call of the royal emperor, Melbu Frahma … again. Dictator was more like it. Or royal pain-in-the-ass.
Or perhaps dill hole royale. … Yeah, that was good.
I jerked my head up, nearly toppling the cart of fancy hors d'oeuvres before me.
"Coming, coming!" I pushed the cart forward down the hall.
I hated my name. Another stupid Wingly name added to the family. Hell, I bet none of them even remember their real names anymore … but mine was Diaz. My real one. Named for Frahma's grandfather or something, I think. Stupid name. Especially when screamed. It sounds extra stupid. But I guess I should have been thankful—at least according to my mother. It was an honor that His Royal Authority chose to name me after his own blood; it meant he favored me.
But that's just like the Winglies—they try to win you over with rainbows and promises and all sorts of fluff and then WHAMO! they jam a red-hot sword so far down your throat it sears your ass shut. I didn't trust 'em. None of them. Never had, never will, won't start trying now.
I wheeled the cart into the massive, overly decorated ballroom. Magical lamps lined the sparkling walls, where they gave off just enough light to make everything glow. Moonlight spilled through the skylight of the vaulted ceiling, and the Winglies present at the party were all talking and laughing amiably, fancy fruity drinks in hand.
As I entered, hands jabbed forward, snatching up the mini soufflés, dainty crust-less sandwiches and bowls of chocolate-covered berries. My cart was empty before I could make it to the display table. Incensed, I whirled on my heel to bring in another cart, and some lady Wingly in expensive silks and perfume and smelling of trying too hard, bent down and pressed her magenta lips to my cheek.
"Thanks, hon!" she chimed in some nasally accent I didn't recognize.
I sighed. There was really no avoiding it. They were going to do to you what they wanted and that was the end of it. I sauntered off, back to the kitchens, where several of my breed had whipped up another cart full of goodies.
"What's been going on up there?" Claudette asked, placing another set of mini quiches down. She pulled and poked at the plates and bowls, arranging them just so.
I folded my arms and leaned against the doorjamb, trying to look taller than I really was. Claudette was sorta cute. I'd always liked her.
"Nuthin' much. But they're all thick as thieves up there. Or pretending to be, anyway—" I stood up and popped a cheesecake bite into my mouth, chomping a few times thoughtfully before continuing. "—and they're all talking in hushed tones around Frahma like they're afraid of 'im."
"Aren't you afraid of him, Diaz?"
There was that stupid name again.
"No," I snapped. "He's a cross-eyed frog."
Claudette gave me a look, then turned back to the cart. She adjusted one of the plates again and I wished she would leave the cart alone and look at me instead, even if she was being condescending.
"Don't let them catch you eating the food," she whispered, bringing her baby-blues back to me. She looked earnest.
"And don't say stuff like that around them. You know what they do to people who do."
I thought for a moment and shuddered.
"Point taken," I said and grabbed the goodies, heading back to the ballroom.
Claudette waved to me slowly and disappeared back into the kitchen before I'd turned the corner.
Once back in the midst of the party, I actually made it to the table with the tray this time, unloading my cargo and arranging it appealingly. It really didn't have to look good; they all ate it regardless because everyone knew Melbu Frahma kept the best for himself. I made sure my work looked all right, then stepped back and strode about the room, asking if anyone needed anything.
It wasn't the most glamorous of servant tasks, but it allowed me the privilege of information that would otherwise be denied me. It always baffled me that they spoke so frankly in front of us, but then again, when you sincerely believe in another species' utter stupidity, you tend to overlook their capacity for eavesdropping.
"He's done it again, I tell you!" one Wingly man exclaimed, brandishing his champagne glass.
Clearly, he was drunk.
"Done what?" snapped the man next to him, who was trying to look suave.
"Broadened our power, Fulton! Isn't it obvious?"
Fulton rolled his eyes. "That species wasn't a god. It was weak, meant to be destroyed," he said, taking a sip of his drink.
"B, but, but … it wasn't destroyed, Fulton, it was sealed off! Frahma only controls its—"
"You bore me, Nylan. That new moon in the sky grants only a limited amount of power. Even Frahma has limits. Charles's his boss."
Nylan jumped upright. "We'll just see."
"Hm, indeed." Fulton shoved away from the cocktail stand and strode off.
I moved on, wondering what he meant by "new moon" …
I listened in on a conversation between a pair of female Winglies across the room, but when I realized they were only talking about Charle Frahma's latest dress, I moved on again. I paused by the windows in the corner, trying to look occupied with something interesting outside while also appearing remotely available. It's a hard look to master, believe me, but years of practice enable me to pull it off. I listened as a pair of Winglies sauntered by.
"Have you heard the rumors of the uprisings in the valley?" the woman asked, her voice hushed.
Her male companion shook his head. "No, why?"
She shrugged her delicate shoulders, which conveniently sat above the not-so-delicate curve of her breast, all of it revealed by her extremely low-cut gown.
"No reason, I guess," she said, taking a sip of punch, "but I've heard some talk about it. The Humans are becoming antsy … ever since the Frahmas sealed off Soa's plan for destruction."
"Why would that have anything to do with them?"
"Worried about power, of course. I never believed they'd stay placid so long …"
The woman's voice grew wistful and she drained the last of her punch. Noticing me nearby, she cleared her throat.
"Excuse me, servant? My glass is empty. I'd like it full."
I turned at her request and walked off with the glass, praying to Soa that I wouldn't miss the best part of the conversation. Obviously, they were discussing something ridiculously important and even more interesting.
But to my dismay when I returned with the full punch glass, the Wingly woman only flashed me a toothy grin and she and her partner walked off. I'd missed probably the best conversation I would hear all night, but what I had heard somehow changed me. I can't quite say how, because I wasn't sure. But it changed me, woke me up, lit my soul on fire … oh hell, I dunno.
When the gala finally drew to a close and the guests had gotten their fill of rubbing elbows, I began the long process of cleaning up with the help of a few other servants. But just as I stooped to scrub the ornate rug where a cheesecake bite had been ground into it, a heavy, firm hand fell on my shoulder, giving just enough of a squeeze to get my attention. I looked up, into the face of none other than Melbu Frahma.
I dropped the glass I was holding. Thankfully, it bounced on the carpet and rolled away.
"Sir?" was all I could manage to say.
"I prefer 'Your Excellency,' but I can excuse the error this time."
I swallowed. "Uh huh …"
Frahma's face twisted into what I guess was supposed to be a smile. "Come, Diaz," he said. "Follow me to my quarters. I must discuss something with you."
I stood, brushing the crumbs off my knees and followed the Wingly leader out of the ballroom and into the halls beyond.
Oh no! I thought. He knows about the comment I made! I'm a goner for sure! … Or should I just admit it? Maybe he'll have mercy on me and I'll only get sent to prison …
The walk seemed to take forever—up staircases, around corners, down corridors, through doors—I would have gotten lost easily, had I not known exactly where we were headed. Maybe it took so long because I had the chance to replay my own death several times in my head before the final judgment.
When we finally reached his quarters, Melbu Frahma flung open the fashionable double doors to the sitting room and invited me inside, closing the doors behind us. I stood there, trembling like a leaf while he puttered about, preparing himself a stiff drink. He sunk onto the couch and motioned for me to sit across from him.
I tried to compose myself but it didn't really work, so I just sighed and fixed my gaze on the decoration at the top of Frahma's boots.
He took a swallow of his drink, set it on the coffee table and leaned back, lacing his fingers and resting his arms at his sides.
Here it comes, I thought and the trembling started all over again.
"Diaz, you and your family know I am quite fair to my servants—"
If you call enslavement fair at all, yeah …, I thought.
"—and I prefer to treat them well and allow them to have some degree of choice …"
And their choice involves you holding them down and forcing them to make the right one …
"I am a just man, a man of my word, provided I am not crossed with ill-intention or dissent …"
And you torture and put to death those who do cross you. Yeah, let's get on with it.
"… I have found you and your family members to be some of my most faithful, trustworthy servants. I value you, very much."
'But I must admit, Diaz, you are the worst of the batch.'
"And Diaz, you are the cream of the crop."
I sentence you to … huh?
I must've looked dumbfounded or something close to it. Frahma smiled weirdly again.
"Oh no, I know what you're thinking," he said coolly. "I'm not going to punish you for anything, though I disagree with the frog comment. I think I rather resemble an eagle."
My eyes went wide. How did he …?
"Anyway, I've invited you here to say that I have a job for you, if you're interested."
I blinked, still stupefied … about all of it.
"I'd understand if you didn't want to—"
Frahma picked up his glass and swished the ice around a bit. I knew what he was considering; he wouldn't understand. He'd blow you to smithereens if you didn't acquiesce.
"—but I'd love for you to come be my personal manservant. What do you say, Diaz?"
I blinked again, probably looking a bit like the Humans they envisioned us to be. The awkward, drooling buffoons who didn't know how to use a spoon properly without Wingly assistance.
"Well? It's a pretty good deal, if I do say so." Frahma leaned forward, placing his bony forearms on his equally bony knees, his hooked beak of a nose strung out over the coffee table like a baited line I was supposed to bite. He did look sort of like an eagle, and he could probably smell my fear like one, too.
I looked up, into his eyes. He raised his brows, that odd grin still plastered all over his face. I wanted to say no; punch him right in that hooked honker of his … but I didn't. I wanted to get up and run like hell … but I didn't. I couldn't. My stupid ass sat right there, looked him straight in the eye and said, "Okay," because it was the only thing I could do. He had my hands tied and there wasn't an inch of rope in fifty yards around.
Two weeks later, my personal items and living space had been transferred from the lower floors of the palace to a small closet just off Melbu Frahma's own quarters. The transition from butler to monkey boy wasn't really much of a change; to some it shouldn't have been a change and to others it probably seemed like a kick in the balls rather than a promotion, but I didn't see it either way. The closer I was to Melbu Frahma's good side, the more of a chance I had at staying alive, and that's the way I wanted to keep it.
My new duties were little different than the old ones, and they were easier, if anything. My position still afforded me the luxury of hearing important Wingly conversations, and being near Frahma all the time meant interesting things happened often. Most of all, though, my job gave me the opportunity to leave the palace, visit my new places and meet new people.
My family—mother, father, sister and all the ancestors—had been serving the Frahma clan for as long as anyone could remember. My father, Junas, was the head Guard of the Gate, watching the gates to the palace for as long as I'd been alive. My mother, Sorla, was Charle Frahma's ladies' maid, but had at first served in the kitchen. My younger sister Anais was married to Melbu Frahma's head bodyguard, Jessup, and she was some servant for Urele, Melbu Frahma's daughter. So they all thought it was peachy keen that I'd been offered the job of footman to the most powerful and influential man in all of Endiness. I wasn't so tickled, but like I said, I felt better alive than I probably would dead.
I've never been much of a hit with the ladies (Soa only knows why), so it became a huge pain in the ass when thirty summers of my life had come and gone and everyone was wondering why I still hadn't settled down with a lady friend. Now, slaves weren't really allowed to pick their mates unless they had unusually kind masters, were unusually favored, or asked for permission. I, unfortunately, fell in the last group. Don't get me wrong; I probably could've been included in the second category too, but the match Frahma would have pegged on me made me want to scream ... or puke.
Unfortunately, the one girl I actually liked and wouldn't have minded marrying was stuck in that god-awful hell of a kitchen and never would be considered a suitable mate for me, a supposed "favorite." But hell, I figured I'd give it a shot, and I gathered up my resolve to ask.
It was a relatively average afternoon; Frahma was looking through massive piles of documents at his desk (pardons, various licenses and execution notices, probably). I approached with caution, unsure if he would explode with rage or turn around calmly (it was about a fifty-fifty chance with either of them).
"E,excuse me, Your Excellency? I, I have a request ..."
To my relief, the Wingly dictator shot me a glance over his shoulder, snorted and turned.
"What is it, Diaz? Can't you see I'm a little busy?"
"Oh yes, I do, Sir, but ... I wanted to ask your permission."
Frahma frowned. "My permission? For what?"
"To be married, Your Authority, Sir."
He paused for a moment, turning the idea over in his egg-like head. Then, he said, "And who would you prefer to marry? I'm assuming you have to ask because it's not the match I chose for you."
I shuddered again at the thought of Lorena. "It's ... it's Claudette. From the kitchen."
Frahma sank back to think again. "Hmmm ... she the blonde one?"
I nodded sheepishly.
"Well, you know it would really be breaking with tradition, Diaz—" The Wingly stood, stretched his arms above his head and turned to face me. "—It's unorthodox for a highly prized slave like you to be mated with such a ... a ..." He struggled to find the word.
"Commodity? Ruffian? Filth?"
Frahma waved his hand and nodded. "You get the point. But I suppose if it's what you want, I can afford to sacrifice my reputation a bit for you to be happy—"
"—however, know that I have bigger plans for you, and you shall still submit to my will."
My grin leapt from my face, but somehow, his threat didn't scare me all that much. I was going to be married ... and to the girl I wanted more than anyone else.
A month later, Claudette and I were married. It had been a simple ceremony, as they always were, though we had a ton of guests and quite luxurious food, thanks to the kitchen. Claudette's belongings were moved upstairs with mine, and Frahma moved our quarters to a bigger closet just down the hall. It was enough to fit a small mattress, our clothes, some personal items and still have enough room to move around a little. Frahma had even provided us with a small bureau.
The wedding night was awkward and average, as probably all wedding nights are, but it wasn't long before Claudette wound up pregnant. Life went on; she gave birth and it was a little girl we named Libria, but whom they called Beatta. Life went on some more; Claudette got a promotion of her own and we had a boy we named Fitzhugh, but whom they dubbed Tamaran.
Everything was all sparkles and rainbows and promising, so it was right around this time that another change occurred, and not one any of us liked. But more on that later.
One of my duties, in addition to tending the dictator hand and foot, included keeping the library neat and organized, and I was given several quite lengthy opportunities to explore the place and its vast sources of Wingly knowledge. Of course, I had to be familiar with the resources anyway, in case Frahma asked for a piece of reading material; I was quite adept at finding the requested book and returning with it in a short amount of time. But it was in this way that I learned some things I probably shouldn't have. I spent a great deal of time in the palace library, pretending to label and dust and reorganize the materials, but really I was climbing the towering ladders again and again, sneaking books to my quarters and returning them before they were missed.
My favorite part of that library was a scarcely-touched corner of the far west end; a dusty old section filled with countless accounts of the past. I was surprised to have even come upon them at all, since so much of the other source material, including history books, referenced Humans as "dull, dim-witted creatures whom Soa intended to be mastered by other species."
In fact, most Wingly sourcebooks, as I later discovered, had essentially re-written history to glorify them and their flying ancestors, putting to rest free thought. One encyclopedia article described the beginning of the world like this:
The Great Creator Soa, commissioned by God to bring forth Creation, sowed a seed which grew into a great tree. This 'Divine Tree,' brought forth from its branches the species of the earth, with the greatest of them being Winglies, the 107th fruit. Drawing their magic power from the life source of the Divine Tree, the Winglies dominated all, as they had been given the most intelligence and free will. The Archangel, it is said, descended to the earth to bestow on the Winglies access to all of Soa's Creation and command over all. And so it is written, that Winglies came to dominate the world as the primary and supreme species.
Now, the encyclopedia article wasn't all wrong; everything up to that Archangel part was fairly correct, with the exception of the Winglies having the most intelligence, but the source materials I'd found in this particular corner of the library brought forth information that basically decried the 'Wingly supremacy' bit a bunch of bullshit. Those books contained story after story and accounts by the thousands of Humans as equals to Winglies in the eyes of Soa; that he'd created them as allies—one to rule the ground (i.e. Humans) and the other to rule the skies (Winglies.)
Worse, the books told endless tales of the days following the Creation, when Humans had lived a free existence as simple herders and farmers. While the Winglies were busy building their colossal floating cities, Humans lived peacefully on the ground below. That is, until they were cruelly enslaved by the Winglies, who'd met little resistance in the Humans in the wake of their immense magical power.
While these books gave me hope for the future of the world, I knew I had to keep my discovery a secret. Who knew why the Winglies had allowed such material to survive to posterity—those books were probably the only copies of their kind left in existence. But what they all failed to understand was that teaching me to read spelled bad news for them. I'd been taught—like my family and others who worked for the royal family—to read and write and do simple arithmetic in order to be of some use as clerks or nannies or sometimes as governors. We were groomed, privileged.
Unfortunately, as it always did, my intelligence and big mouth got me into trouble.
But before I get to that, and long before any desire to run away or rebel ever entered my mind, I met someone on one of the occasions I accompanied Melbu Frahma on an excursion. I would argue it was Fate, though I'm sure neither of us was aware of it at the time, but it changed my life. And, for all intents and purposes, probably everyone else's too.
I suppose I'd always assumed that other Human slaves had just accepted their status as perpetual servants to our winged overlords. My mother and father, my sister, Claudette, just about everyone I knew was settled into their life as a slave, largely because none of them knew better or at least any different. Most of us had been born into slavery, and couldn't remember a time of freedom. So my entire world view was turned upon its head when I met Zieg.
I was probably thirty-eight or so at the time; he was just a kid, no older than twenty but probably closer to fifteen or sixteen. He wore the armor of a guardsman and carried a broadsword much too big for him, though he looked like he had the potential to be quite tall. He possessed the awkward assurance of adolescence, and carried himself well, despite the gangly length of his arms and legs. His hair was short in front and slicked back across the crown and above the ears in the style of the military. And he had a last name, for Soa's sake. A family moniker, something no slave possessed. Zieg Feld was new and interesting to me.
"Set down over there, by those shops."
Our party had been traveling for several days, on foot because Mirr was the only Wingly city constructed on the ground due to its purpose. The bastards couldn't determine which souls were allowed to live without first allowing all species to reach that temple of false security and broken hope. Besides, His Royal Authority, king of cowards, refused to travel the same way twice and required at least two guards by his side at any given time.
Frahma stepped down from the sedan chair, arranging his robes of state.
Preening again, I thought. Maybe eagle does fit him better than frog …
Immediately the crowd nearby scattered, making way for His Hiney-Ass.
"You can all wait in the city," Frahma snapped, glancing at the chair-carriers. "I've got some things to attend to in the Tower." Frahma turned to the two body guards he'd brought along. "Jessup, Rylan … Come."
The two burly, armored men stepped forward, drawing their swords. Frahma led the party off but paused and turned after only a few steps.
"Diaz?" he said.
"Yes, Your Excellency?"
"Keep an eye on these fools." The dictator waved an arm, indicating the members of the advance guard.
I nodded, surprised that he hadn't asked me to come with him and even more shocked that he had placed me 'in charge' while he was away.
"Yes, Sir!" I replied, perhaps a little too enthusiastically.
Frahma nodded, and he and the guards sauntered off. A couple of the chair-carriers glared at me, then flopped onto the ground and pulled cigarettes out of their pockets, lighting them and taking long, grateful puffs. Flavius and Kallan, the other two advance guards, stood to the side, chatting quietly. I knew them. They were two of the usuals on Frahma's advance guard team, with Flavius being the commander. The third party member was frequently switched out, depending how well he did in battle.
"That Zieg kid's pretty good," Kallan remarked, rubbing his stubbly chin.
Flavius nodded. "Yeah. Trained under Aslow."
"Where'd he come from, anyhow?"
"Dunno." Flavius shrugged. "Aslow dragged him in one day. Looked pretty scruffy. A street urchin … ruffian, I guess."
"He lookin' to move up to the higher ranks?"
Again, Flavius shrugged. "Dunno … he's good 'nough, though."
I'd talked to Jessup before during a visit with Anais, and he'd informed me that one had to be quite skilled and experienced in battle to become a body guard for any of the high-ranking Winglies, let alone Melbu Frahma. And passing the rigorous test following the training certainly wasn't easy either. But I'd seen this Zieg kid in battle on the route to Mirr. The guardsmen had warded off a couple moss-dressers in the forest and battled a particularly nasty flying rat, and Kallan was right. Zieg was good. It was like he wasn't afraid of anything.
Now, he sat on the flagstones of Mirr's sparkling streets, his chin in his hands. He stared out at the city. I'd been there before and already marveled in its beauty once, but perhaps he was a first timer. I walked over and plopped down next to him.
"Good looking city, huh?" I said.
Slowly, he turned his head to look at me. Something flickered in his eyes, like he was shocked someone was talking to him. But he didn't say anything. He merely regarded me for a moment and then turned away again.
Not talkative, huh? I thought. Hmm …
"So … you, uh, been here before?" I asked.
"I was born here."
His voice was low-pitched and slightly raspy, like he hadn't used it for a long time. But he spoke firmly and I almost considered moving away and ceasing the conversation altogether. I'm sure that was his intention, so I didn't. Mysterious things get to me, and I was already way beyond knee deep in interest.
"Well, everyone's born here," I said. "Where else do you hail from?"
Zieg shot me a deadly look. I thought for a moment that he would break his posture and throttle me. But he didn't so I went on.
"Personally, I was born and raised in Kadessa. But it's so nice here. I would've liked to grow up—"
"Why are you talking to me?" Zieg snapped, turning to face me. "I have nothing to say to you."
Now I could hear the boyishness in his voice. A squeaking tone that told the world its owner was old enough to reproduce but not quite old enough to say anything worth listening to.
"Well I'm certainly not going to speak to those bastards!" I cried indignantly, motioning at a group of Winglies minding their own business by an ice cream shop.
"Don't you have friends to talk to? Family?" Zieg narrowed his eyes. His tone was vicious.
I stared at him. "Well, I—"
"Figures," he spat.
"It figures what? That I'm wealthy? Privileged? Better off than you?"
Zieg climbed to his feet, revealing an agility I could never hope to imitate. He drew his broadsword with lightning-like speed. I felt my blood rising to its boiling point, and I fought to keep my temper down, but Zieg swung his sword and I ducked just enough to prevent him from lopping my head off.
Quickly I launched to my feet, straightening my posture to match his height, but I came up short, as I so often do. So I just held my hands up in front of me, hoping he would cease and desist. The others were starting to watch with raised eyebrows.
"FELD!" Flavius screamed. "Put that away! Are you trying to get us all sent to Mayfil?!"
Zieg jumped to attention, facing his superior officer. He scowled, saluted and sheathed the sword, then collapsed back into position on the curb. I sat back down as well, refusing to give up,
and he sighed heavily.
"So, you have a last name," I said. "You weren't born a slave, were you?"
Zieg sent me a nasty look and dropped his chin into his palms. "Nope."
"How'd you get yourself into this mess, then?"
Zieg sighed again. "Why are you so curious? Got a crush on me or something?"
"Would you rather I had asked you your sign?" I quipped.
Zieg snorted. "It's fire, if you care."
"Now see? You're lucky. I was born non-elemental. Good. We're making progress. Now tell me how you got yourself sold into slavery."
Zieg turned to face me again and shook his head, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. "You're not going to leave me alone, are you?" he asked, almost laughing.
I smiled back. "Nope."
Zieg rolled his eyes and shoved his head back into his hands. I picked up a pebble and skipped it across the shimmering slate flagstones. It clacked along for a good thirty feet and spun out near an aged Wingly standing by an expensive-looking store. He looked up and frowned. I turned quickly and pretended not to notice him.
"Bet it's a bitch walking across those in the rain with those hobnailed boots you guys wear," I offered, turning back to Zieg.
"So where'd you come from? Why are you a slave when you have a freaking last name?"
"Being a guardsman isn't slavery," Zieg retorted, closing his eyes. "We're hired out for money."
"Do any of you ever see that gold?"
"Then it's slavery. You're too young to be this jaded."
"I'm sixteen!" Zieg protested.
"Too young. I'm thirty-eight with two kids, a wife and an evil dictator master I gotta worry about, and I still don't have a face nearly as long as yours. What's bothering you, kid?"
Zieg ground the heels of his palms into his eyes and then cracked his knuckles. I waited patiently for him to finish. Finally, he sighed and turned to me.
"You're a royal slave," he said shortly. "You wouldn't understand."
I frowned. Not this argument again. It was a serious mistake to tell any slave that he or she was more or less privileged than another.
"Excuse me, but we're all in the same boat," I fired back. "You think I wouldn't sell my soul to the Devildom to get myself and my family out of it?!"
Zieg just stared at me.
"Well I would." I kicked at another rock with the toe of my boot. "I'd do it twenty times over."
"Well I'd sell my soul to have my family back at all," Zieg mumbled.
I looked up. "What happened to them?"
Zieg picked at a fingernail. "Murdered. They needed the space for expansion outside Mirr. We lived on the outskirts, and they just came in and burned the whole damned block down."
Humbled, I stared at my feet. "I, I'm sorry …"
"But I got out," Zieg went on. "Sometimes I wish I wouldn't have. I wish my little brother or older sister was here, in my place. After it happened, I cursed Soa, Fate and anyone else I could blame for the tragedy. But I guess Fate got back at me, because here I am, working for the very bastards who burned down my home and wiped out my family." He looked at me. "Ironic, isn't it?"
'Shit happens' was all I could think to say, so I just kept quiet. I would've put a friendly arm around the kid's shoulders, but I avoided that too, in case Zieg felt the need to chop my head off again. I felt bad for him; he'd really had it rough. Worse than me. Worse than Claudette. I was about to say something witty to cheer him up when I heard the whistle for us to form up. Melbu Frahma was striding toward us, Jessup and Rylan close behind him.
I stood and held out my hand. Zieg stared at it for a moment, then took it and I pulled him to his feet. Keeping my grip on him, I jerked him forward. He probably thought for a moment I was pulling him in to kiss him and resisted at first, but I yanked harder, keeping an eye on Frahma.
Standing on tiptoe and leaning my head over his shoulder, I whispered, "I'll find us a way out of this. Trust me. … Nice to meet you, Zieg."
I stepped back, leaving the poor kid to gather his bearings and get back into position. And as soon as Frahma and I were nestled back in the sedan chair, our party exited the gates of Mirr, headed back in the direction of Kadessa.
"You all behaved yourselves, I hope," Frahma said, flicking through a pamphlet.
"Of course, Your Authority, Sir."
"Good." He turned to me, a wicked grin on his face. "And I've got a surprise for you when we get home, Diaz."
I tried to smile, but it probably came out as more of a grimace. If I had known at the time what was going to befall me, I really would have grimaced … and on purpose, too.
Melbu Frahma raised his brows benevolently but his eyes flashed with murderous intent.
"Are you contesting me, Diaz? This isn't a request; it's an order."
"B, but you said you like to give your servants some freedom of choice!"
"That was before I decided that your children are superbly useful."
I stared at him blankly. Claudette stood behind me, quietly supporting me and bravely bearing the burden of whatever Melbu Frahma thought to throw at us.
Frahma was grinning maliciously, like he thought it was funny that he'd just ruined any happiness I once possessed. Hell, he probably did find it funny …
Claudette approached me, placed a gentle hand on my shoulder, and planted a small kiss on the back of my neck.
"Do as he says, dear," she whispered, quivering.
I felt bad. Again. But it was my job, my duty, and ultimately, I knew I had no choice. My decisions mattered to Melbu Frahma like blades of grass mattered in the path of a typhoon.
I turned my head to Claudette but kept an eye trained on Frahma. "I am so, so—"
She placed a finger across my lips. "Shh … It's what you must do. Besides, I wouldn't mind being a surrogate if—"
"Oh, there will be no surrogates under my care, madam," Frahma quipped. Evidently he had supersonic hearing.
Claudette turned her watery blue eyes to the dictator. His sunken face was serious again.
"Very well, Master," she said, curtsying, but I saw the hurt in her eyes. She flashed me a look that tied my guts in knots, and fled the room.
I took a deep breath and braced myself.
"How very romantic," Frahma cooed.
Like you would know, I thought. You probably killed your own wife…
"I'm sorry, Diaz, but this must be done." Frahma laced his hands together behind his back, as if he were hiding something. I gritted my teeth and frowned.
"You gave your wife two very lovely children, and now you must give some to me," he continued. "The women will be hand-picked by me, so you need not worry about finding any yourself."
Not like I could. It's a miracle Claudette agreed to have me.
"I will determine the place and time of any interactions, and the women will report to me regarding the status of their condition."
Oh yes, far be it for you to let anything be outside your immediate control.
"… And all interactions will take place under my supervision."
Frahma's wicked smile returned.
Outraged, I felt like leaping forward, wrapping my hands around his scrawny neck and strangling the life out of him, but I remained glued to the floor through sheer force of will.
"So I get to be the star in your sick, personal pornography?!" I cried. "No!" It was one thing to request another "duty" of me, but this?—It was quickly driving me to the end of my rope.
"Hm. Remember what we discussed, Diaz," Frahma replied, coldly. "This is not a request."
"But I don't want to have to do it while you watch!" It was all I could do to keep my voice under control.
"Come, come. Why the modesty? You Humans are all so private. Winglies partake in the act of copulation for pleasure as well, and often in the open. It's a simple fact of biology."
I'd heard about the ridiculous orgies and risqué parties in which Winglies indulged. Nauseating, colorful stories of sodomy and ménages a trois flashed through my mind. No doubt Frahma had hosted them before and even participated in the fun.
I shook the thoughts away and stomped my foot.
"But that's not the way Soa intended it!" I blurted.
"And how can you be so certain?" Frahma's eyes twinkled maliciously, his tone venomous.
"I, I …"
"I thought so."
I paused, trying to gather my thoughts, but all that flashed before my eyes and ran through my brain was rage.
"You Winglies are dirty creatures," I hissed.
"Excuse me?" Melbu Frahma turned to me, his eyes wide like he had never dreamed such a thing would ever leave my lips.
"You heard me."
Frahma's mouth turned downward in an ugly sneer, and he ran to the cane rack by the door. I knew what was coming. It would be my first one; the first of many more to come, and I didn't care. I was going to stand firm.
Frahma returned, carrying a frightening piece of torture equipment: a leather whip, its end split into a tassel of many painful strands. The ends were fraying, damaged from obvious use.
"Bend down!" Frahma roared.
I dropped to my knees.
Frahma reached down and ripped the shirt right off my back. He reared back and struck.
White-hot pain ripped down the right side of my back. It felt like someone had seared my flesh with a fireplace wood poker. I wanted to scream, cry out, beg for mercy, but I didn't. For once in my life, I didn't give in. I took a second blow, and my knees buckled. I fell forward onto my hands, but I stayed put. Frahma roared in rage like an animal, and brought the whip forward, striking me with all his might.
My arms quivered under my own weight, my brain forcing them to withstand the pain and keep me upright.
"You WILL obey me!" he screamed through gritted teeth. "You WILL do as I say! Filthy, dirty Human!"
Again and again he struck, bringing the tassels against my skin and creating hundreds of raised ridges over my back. Blood trickled down my sides in streams. My body screamed in agony, but my brain said otherwise.
Stand firm, Diaz, it shouted. Stand firm for what you believe!
"Winglies are your rulers! Winglies are your rulers!" Frahma chanted, his speed slowing as he grew tired of swinging the whip. "We are your masters! You bow to us! We're smarter, better…"
Eventually, my body gave way before my mind, and I collapsed in a heap on the floor, breathing
heavily. Blood spattered the carpet around me and trickled from my mouth, where I'd been biting my tongue.
"There," Frahma breathed, triumphantly. "That'll teach you to cross me."
He made his way around my motionless body so he could look me in the face, the sound of his boots reverberating through my aching limbs. I looked up at him through half-lidded eyes. He only scowled back.
"You will meet me tomorrow outside this room at ten o'clock in the morning. And you will engage in intercourse with those women tomorrow to beget children under my supervision. Understood?"
"Yes," I chirped. Pain rocketed through my body as I spoke. "Ugh …"
"I'll get your wife," Frahma snapped. "She can come in and clean you up. I expect it to be finished in fifteen minutes, at which time I will return. If it's not done, the both of you will receive an even harsher punishment than I've demonstrated here."
And he stomped off.
Claudette ran into the room only moments later, crying and shouting, "Baby, what happened? What did he do to you?"
I didn't bother to respond. I was too weak, too exhausted and dejected. I had been broken.
So this is what it feels like …
Claudette hurried to clean me up and move me out of the room, and once I was settled back in our bed in our quarters, she hurried to clean up the mess back in Frahma's. I wanted to sink into sleep, but it resisted my advances. So I lay awake, rehashing the beating throughout the night, even after Claudette came to bed, worn out and sad.
Be strong, I kept telling myself. Be strong.
But my strength had hardly returned by dawn.
So, the following morning, as ordered and with an impressive collection of brand new slash marks down my back, I showed up at the door of Frahma's quarters. He emerged only moments after I arrived.
"You know it pained me to have to do that last night, Diaz," he said calmly, turning to lock his door. "It's something I had hoped never to do."
I'm sure, I thought bitterly.
But outwardly, I said, "Quite all right, Your Excellency. It's a new day."
"That's my boy, Diaz!" He cleared his throat and started down the hallway, motioning for me to follow.
We made our way down the Grand Staircase to the teleporter device, where Frahma set the destination as Mirr, and off we sped to the wintry northern regions of Endiness.
Once inside the Genesis Tower, we checked in with the desk clerk and headed upstairs to a laboratory off the second floor. The room jutted out into the air like some crazy, floating glass orb, the windows sparkling with magic. Soundproof cubicles containing beds lined two of the walls, and technicians in white lab coats scurried about, carrying racks of test tubes, balled up laundry and several things I didn't recognize.
All of the Winglies stopped moving when Frahma and I entered, and they all bowed, curtsied or saluted him.
"My male servant, Diaz, has arrived!" Frahma boomed. "Prepare the first female!"
The Winglies all turned to ogle at me, and I suddenly remembered what it was like to be a teenager with a hovering parent. I nearly died of embarrassment, but before I could protest, the Winglies had whisked me away and dragged me into an exam room where my every body part was measured, squeezed, poked and strapped to something scary-looking. But in the end, I emerged unscathed, and began to prepare myself for the real tests …
It was awkward. Way awkward. You can't breed creatures who possess emotions and intelligence and free will. Such creatures aren't like dogs, or Runners, or even dragons, which breed during season and possess no scruples about unintended observation.
I'd just stood there for several painful moments, my hand vainly attempting to preserve what little modesty I still possessed. The woman, Jenna, and I had introduced ourselves outside the room, before either of us had ever removed a stitch of clothing.
She was nice. Good-looking. Probably no more than twenty-one or twenty-two. Tall and curvy, with wavy dark hair and eyelashes so long they nearly curled back to touch her eyebrows.
"You got a husband?" I asked. I hadn't meant to ask such a personal question, but it popped out in reference to my own sad state of affairs.
"Yeah," she replied. "He works in the Coliseum, scrubbing it clean after the matches."
"So … why is Frahma breeding you?" I couldn't bear to add the 'to me' part.
Jenna shrugged. "Not sure. Mica and I have children. A little girl. She's beautiful."
"I bet …"
Now, she was sitting on the bed, the sheet pulled to her waist and an arm across her breast.
Frahma had said, "Commence" several times through the two-way intercom, but still, I stood there. I could tell he was getting frustrated, but how, exactly, was I supposed to do this? Just start going at it like an animal? Spend a little time romancing her?
"Commence," Frahma insisted again, his voice firm and cold.
Well at least something's firm, I thought, and by the way Jenna was looking at me, she was evidently thinking the same thing.
Then, she rolled her eyes and motioned me toward her. I sat on the bed. She leaned in close and whispered, "Here, we'll pull the sheets up. If he wants porn, we'll make it soft-core."
I smiled. At least she could joke about it.
And with that, I'd tried to put modesty out of my head and stopped imagining the pressure of Frahma's eyes on my back. Somehow, I'd found my mojo and managed to finish, and Jenna had done me right by moaning, giggling and generally acting like she loved it. I bet that stupid bastard got his rocks off listening to that performance.
The second woman wasn't quite as easy to deal with. She was utterly silent, had barely told me her name (it was Celina), and she wasn't nearly as attractive as Jenna. We got it over with, and I was on to the next one. Marissa, Rochelle, Sabine, Eloise … they were all a blur. And I went home, exhausted and in dire need of a lower back massage and leg rub.
Claudette had refused to speak to me the first night I came home, scented with the pungent cologne of sexual encounters. Even after bathing twice, she scrunched up her nose at the sight of me. She was probably only imagining a lingering smell, but it broke my heart just the same.
Eventually, it became easier … for me, at least. Modesty gradually evaporated, replaced by brazen frankness, which even Claudette began to notice at home. It was ugly. It was distasteful. But I didn't have a choice. Most men would have jumped at the chance to cheat on their wives without remorse or guilt, but not me. It felt just as dirty as if I had gone out cheating every day; Claudette still looked at me with love in her eyes, but now it was a pitying love. A distrustful love.
Many moons passed, and I received word that the first batch had turned up at Mirr, all of them healthy and happy. Three boys and five girls, one set of twins. I was permitted time to visit each of them and help the mothers decide on names. I didn't necessarily find it right or appropriate, because most of them had domestic fathers as well, but I did it because it was asked of me. So Rayvine, Wymina, Timander, Sage, Bree, Bono, Layana, and Cryton became a part of my family, but not of Claudette's.
Pleased, Frahma increased my schedule to four times a week and began talking me up to his slave-owning underlings. I had suddenly become some kind of freakish Human stallion, hired out to breed beautiful, useful servants.
The only time after the first few where it hadn't been so cut-and-dried was sometime around my thirty-ninth birthday. I'd been forced to celebrate with a comely young woman, who possessed mile-long legs and a shock of curly blonde hair. Her blue eyes had sparkled in the light when we'd met and I was suddenly reminded of my beautiful Claudette, sitting at home, knowing her husband was out knocking boots with a hundred other women 'cause he was forced to.
"I'm Clara," the girl had said, holding out a long, thin hand.
I'd taken it, and said, "You look so familiar. Do you know Claudette?"
The girl only smiled. "I'm her little sister."
My heart had just about fallen out my ass.
Knowing that my fate as a living man rested on having sex with Clara, I had simply shaken my head and done my duty. Poor Claudette. Her pretty little niece, Sharyn, was really her own children's half-sister.
Things returned to normal in my life, or at least as normal as they could be for a man whose job it was to plant his seed in fertile young women on a daily basis. I probably had the healthiest prostate gland the world's ever seen.
Encouraged by my apparent obedience, Frahma promoted me to personal clerk, and dubbed my son Tamaran, now fourteen, his new footman. Little did he know, I was still reading what he deemed "political garbage" in the library, and convincing my children to read what I brought home as well. Claudette disapproved, but it didn't matter. My life had gone to hell in a hand basket, and suddenly the risks associated with striving for freedom no longer seemed so deplorable.
It was nearing my forty-first birthday when Melbu Frahma's mean streak cropped up again. I'd been going about my duty, as ordered, and women all across Endiness had borne nearly a hundred children by me. Claudette had once joked that I was creating my own little army. Looking back, I marvel at how right she was … but I digress.
In the latest bunch of babies, born four years after my first ones, three had slipped past the watchful eye of the Committee on Birth at Mirr. These select Winglies, under direction from Melbu Frahma, determined which babies would be permitted to live after birth, or indeed, which infants would even survive to birth at all. Of these three particular infants, all born under the thunder elemental sign, one came out with a deformed leg, another entered the world blind, and the last, the poor dear, was stillborn.
An intelligent being might have blamed at least part of the issue on my increasing age, if they would've blamed it on me at all. I tried to explain to the dictator that he needed to examine his Birth Committee, but he wouldn't have it. Ah well.
Frahma went above and beyond, his paranoid side getting the better of him. Without thought, he deemed the babies' disabilities my fault, and so we wound up in the center of Town Square in Mirr, Frahma standing in the middle of the square, surrounded by the mothers of the latest batch of servant children … and me.
Soa bless them, my kids with Claudette were now old enough to realize what was going on. Tamaran, still reveling in his role as Frahma's manservant, had recently turned fifteen, and Beatta, so pretty now and attracting all sorts of attention from boys, was seventeen. They knew they possessed a hundred or more half-siblings. They knew their dad's primary job was to screw countless women in the hopes it would beget new and better servants for His Royal Authority, Melbu Frahma. They knew the whole, sad charade was slowly driving a wedge between their parents.
Tamaran had accompanied Frahma to the Birth City, as I had, but his sister and mother had even come along, certain something bad was about to happen. I guess they thought I would need the moral support.
So there we were, all standing around in a big circle, Frahma deeming himself ring master.
"DIAZ!" he boomed.
I crept forward sheepishly, facing him with all those people watching. He clapped a gnarled hand on my shoulder and handed me his staff. It's probably when I learned to hate the thing. Not only was it a symbol of his all-encompassing power, it radiated magic so sickeningly powerful it made my stomach turn inward on itself.
I just stood there, staring at the staff, wondering why on earth Frahma had given it to me. I suppose I knew, deep down, what was coming, what he would have me do. I toyed with the notion of killing Frahma, right then and there. I had the will, the power to do so now. It would be quick and easy. He wouldn't feel anything, and I'd be free. … Or would I?
No, I thought. No, you wouldn't. Thayus will take over and throw you in prison, or better yet, behead you in front of everyone.
I looked up at the Wingly dictator, but Frahma had other things to attend to; he called forth the mothers who had recently given birth to a child of mine. Slowly, they marched forward, some carrying the infants, others leading by the hand the ones who were just learning to walk. All of them trembled with fear, for both their children's lives and their own.
I swallowed hard and tried to mentally apologize to each of them.
"I am doing this to set an example for the rest of you," Frahma said, his voice echoing over the strangely silent courtyard. "This is what happens to you when you attempt to subjugate me."
Frahma turned and stormed back toward me. He held out a hand, waving it around in a symbolic pattern, and I felt the power in the staff grow deadly. It shook me, body and soul, and I struggled to contain it. It wanted death. Murder. Genocide.
"Diaz!" Frahma shouted. "Swing the staff! Rid the earth of the scum you've bred into it!"
I continued to stare at the staff. It jumped to life in my hands, begging to be swung. I gripped the thing so hard my knuckles turned white.
I can't. Not this. They deserve a chance. It wasn't their fault. It wasn't their mothers' faults. It wasn't even my fault …
"Swing the staff, Diaz!" Frahma bellowed again.
I stood there, frozen to the spot, staring the staff down. It looked different. Frahma had obviously altered it, along with his power. I had never felt such intense influence come from the staff before. Then, I saw it. That little glass globe he carried with him all the time. The one that mirrored the new moon …
"SWING THE STAFF!"
"I can't," I said, and dropped to my knees. "I can't do it."
My hands went limp and the staff clattered to the ground, rolling away. I covered my face in my hands and choked back sobs. So many sobs …
"You sniveling idiot!" Frahma shouted in rage, and he stormed forward, snatching the staff off the ground.
In one swift motion, he whirled around, waving the staff in a great, arching circle. Bright green magic streamed from the end of it, showering the crowd. My stomach turned and I clamped my eyes shut. I suddenly heard screaming and crying. Pain. But I kept my eyes shut. I didn't want to see. I wanted it all to be over—I wanted it never to have happened.
Frahma cackled wildly, and I cracked an eye open. My first sight was of Claudette and Beatta, clutching each other in the crowd, their mouths agape and eyes wide. The next thing I saw was total genocide. Babies—MY babies—lay strewn in the street, their tiny brains spilling onto the ground, the bright red in stark contrast to the blue-gray of the flagstones. Others were still clinging to the breasts of their mothers, their mothers clutching them back and sobbing. Still others had just collapsed on the spot, their little faces forever frozen in agonized screams.
What have I done?!
Frahma held the staff up in victory, a terrifying focal point for the bodies in the Square.
"And such will be your fate if you cross me!" he bellowed.
And then he turned to me.
"Shall I kill you too?" he asked, his voice vicious and seething. "To rid the earth of any more trash?"
Trembling and still crying, I turned my head up, my hands held before me in a pathetic prayer gesture. The pose of a beggar.
"P, please, Your Excellency …"
Frahma grinned wickedly and turned to the crowd again. "That's what a loyal servant does," he cooed, and yanked me to my feet.
He thrust me back toward the crowd, which parted to allow me through, and I sank into Claudette's arms. I realized, vainly, that I had missed an opportunity. A chance to rid the world of the scum that was Melbu Frahma.
Neither Claudette nor Beatta said anything more about the event, and I was thankful. Thankful to have their love and support. Thankful that the other children's lives had been spared. Thankful that I wouldn't have to live that horrific scene again except in my nightmares …
But not even having to watch the deaths of my own children could deter me. I set about searching freedom even more vehemently. Claudette and I gradually drifted apart, though I loved her no less. I continued to offer my services to the female slaves of Endiness, under the observation of Frahma, and yet another round of servant children was born, this time, all of them healthy. Thank Soa.
It was on one of these said excursions, two-and-a-half years later, that I happened across Zieg again.
I was walking behind Frahma, and Zieg was evidently performing one of his advance guard duties. He looked older, more mature. He had grown into his arms and legs, and powerful muscles now rippled beneath his armor. He was a commanding presence, enjoying the kind of assuredness that came from being the best. I caught his eye, and he raised his eyebrows in recognition.
I should have thought before I did it, but I paused and called out to the Wingly dictator.
"Your Royal Authority, Sir!"
He glanced over his shoulder. "What, Diaz?"
"I, uh, I've got to use the restroom. May I have a moment? I will meet you upstairs."
Frahma narrowed his eyes. "Fine," he spat. "But make it quick."
I trotted away, glancing back to make sure he had moved on. Sure enough, despite my debauchery, he still trusted my word and had walked away, taking the teleporter to the second floor.
"Zieg!" I called.
His head jerked my way. "Diaz?"
"The one and only," I said, bowing deeply. He laughed at my mockery.
"How have you been?" he asked, approaching. He shifted the broadsword at his hip, its weight pulling his belt into his flesh.
"I suppose all right. Yourself?"
"Same shit, different day."
I nodded in agreement and shifted my eyes to the floor. Zieg now wore heavy boots. They looked like they could kill a man with one blow to the gut.
"I heard about what happened," Zieg offered, quietly.
I looked up. His face was earnest, but clearly he had no way to express his sympathy. So I just nodded again.
Zieg glanced around and leaned in close, surprising me since his younger self had been so wary of proximity to anything or anyone.
"You still interested in that freedom stuff?" he asked. "'Cause I've been thinking about what you said …"
I sighed. "Yeah, I am. But it's more complicated now. Frahma's got a pretty tight rein on me. I doubt I would ever be able to get away."
"What do you mean?"
Rolling my eyes because I knew my time was running thin, I said, "Because of my current duties."
Soa's toes, the roles are reversed …
I shook my head. "It doesn't matter. Look, Zieg. If freedom means anything to you, we've gotta work together."
I glanced over my shoulder, just to make certain the asshole wasn't looking for me.
Zieg raised his eyebrows and said, "Well, just how do we do that?"
I frowned. "I'm not sure yet. I'll let you know when I figure something out… But hey, listen, I gotta get going or the Royal Dickhead is gonna want to cut mine off. Send me a message or something, or stop by if you can. We'll talk sometime."
Zieg gave me a little half-smile. "I would, if I could," he said. "My own duties kind of keep me away from that sort of thing. But I'll let you get back to, uh … whatever it is that you're planning to do."
I held out my hand and Zieg took it firmly, pumping it a couple times.
"Nice to see you again, Diaz," he said, and I ran off, waving to him over my shoulder.
Frahma didn't question me about my supposed bathroom break, and the visit to the Genesis Tower was relatively uneventful. But once we returned home, the sheer magnitude of what I'd done hit me like a Wingly-generated fireball.
Gah, stupid name …
Frahma called me into his study, where I paused in the doorway. He swiveled his fancy upholstered desk chair to face me.
"I am aware of a certain conversation of yours that does not please me in the least."
I stared at him blankly.
"A conversation which took place earlier this afternoon," Frahma continued, linking his fingers and crossing his legs. He always managed to look so casual when he was irritated.
"What conversation might that be, Your Excellency, Sir?"
Frahma frowned and peered at me from under barely-there brows. "The discussion you shared with one, Zieg Feld, commander of the Royal Advance Guard."
Hmm … so he's the commander now …
Again, I stared blankly, feigning confusion or ignorance.
"That man is a known rebel," Frahma continued, lowering his eyes and looking away. "A political advisor of mine is quite familiar with him, as Mr. Feld serves him as a personal guard. I can't fathom why Flavius allowed the fool to replace his command. Mr. Feld is a potential troublemaker. A malcontent. I would that you avoid contact with him."
"But, Sir, I—"
"Stop lying, Diaz." Frahma brought his icy eyes back to my face. "No one likes a liar."
Funny you should say that, I thought. Hypocrite …
"Shall I admonish you for the content of said conversation as well?" Frahma's tone turned sickeningly sweet. "Or shall the punishment be for the unbecoming nickname you called me?"
I just swallowed. Frahma swung his leg off his lap and stood, suddenly towering over me like he never had before.
"I will not tolerate discussions of insurgency in my household, Diaz." His voice was cold. "You Humans were meant by Soa to be ruled, and that's how we—meaning, Winglies—intend to keep it."
Only because you know if anyone ever found out the truth, you'd lose your grip on the world…
"This world would cease to turn without our rule," Frahma said, his voice low. He casually inspected his thumbnail, then brought his eyes back to mine. I nearly jumped out of my skin at the fact that he'd just read my mind … again.
"And you sincerely believe that?" I asked.
Frahma's mouth curved downward. "We believe it because it is the truth."
"Perhaps only in fictional tales."
Frahma frowned, his eyes flashing maliciously. I felt my blood boiling.
"I seem to recall having this conversation before, Diaz," Frahma growled. "One that took place with you sprawled on the floor and I with a whip in my hand."
We stood there, just staring at each other for a few seconds. And though I don't know what possessed me to do it, I reached back to slap the asshole, but his arm flashed forward, quick as a blink, and grabbed my forearm in a steely, ice-cold grip. If he had squeezed, it probably would have shattered my limb like someone snapping a chicken bone.
"You weren't just attempting to strike me, were you?" Frahma asked, his eyes blazing. I could almost feel the desire for murder pumping through his veins.
My forearm muscles relaxed, and I sighed deeply.
"No Sir," I replied, my shoulders slumping.
"Good." Frahma released my arm, shoving it back to my side. "I didn't want to have to get my whip out again."
I lowered my chin but my eyes remained trained on the Wingly dictator. He backed away slowly, toward his desk. I found myself wondering whatever had happened to my intention of staying on the emperor's good side. I suppose it had flown out the window when I became his footman. Or perhaps when I'd had the audacity to request my own mate. Or when I started reading the library materials. Whatever, it didn't matter now.
"You are dismissed, Diaz," Frahma snapped. "And I promise you, if I ever discover plans of escape—" He lowered his face so close to mine that his hooked beak of a nose could've poked my eyes out. "—I will contrive a punishment so severe you will regret you ever heard the word freedom."
I lingered for a moment, narrowing my eyes and staring daggers at Frahma. We were enemies now. Perhaps we always had been. But certainly now, more than ever, and I wanted him to know. This meant war.
I turned and stormed down the hall into our cramped quarters, threw my portmanteau on the bed and began rooting through my few belongings. I tossed clothes in heaps onto the bed, followed by several of my books, and that's when I pulled out that reference book containing all the stories of Human freedom. I stared at it for a moment, and then promptly began tearing the pages from it, handfuls at a time, throwing them into the suitcase as well. My favorite, though, the part describing Humans as rulers of the ground, I folded into quarters and stuck it into the breast pocket of my vest.
Claudette stood in the doorway, her hands on her hips, her long blonde hair, now steadily turning gray, draped over her shoulders. She watched me, her eyes widening when I tore the pages of the book.
"Diaz! What's going on?" she asked, finally, her voice shrill.
I looked up from my hasty packing.
"We've gotta leave, Claudette. Right now. Frahma's hot on my trail and I gotta get outta here."
Claudette bowed her head. I could tell she was considering the words 'hot on my trail,' and when she looked up again, she wore an expression of disappointment, sadness and broken hope.
"Oh, Diaz," she whispered slowly. "This isn't about … is it?"
I only set my jaw and nodded grimly.
I heard her choke back a sob as she dragged out her linen drawstring bag. She piled a few sets of clothing into it, then sat on the bed and bawled. I ignored her though; I knew Claudette, and she was a follower. She would follow me if I asked, even against her better judgment. The kids came into the room to see what had caused their mother so much distress, but I immediately took over.
"Libria! Fitzhugh! Grab your belongings! We're leaving!"
They stared wide-eyed at me, then their mother, and back at me. They weren't used to hearing their Human names.
"Go!" I bellowed.
They scattered and Claudette sniffed, resuming her own packing. By ten o'clock that night, we were ready. Each of us possessed only a single small bag with items of importance, and I led my sad little family downstairs and outside to the courtyard before the palace.
The guards were out. My father one of them, no doubt. Claudette and the children hid in the shadows, behind the nearest wall of the closest building. The moons were out and stars sparkled in the dusky blue sky. I crept around the corner and slowly approached the guard at the palace gates, careful not to let my shoes clap on the pavement.
But he heard me anyway.
"Halt! Who is it?!" I heard the 'shing' of metal-on-metal as he drew his sword.
I dropped my bag and held my hands up. "You first!" I called.
"I am Lyle, a Guard of the Gate! Now who are you?"
Shit. I'd been hoping it was my father. Not that he'd have let me get away with this, either. As far as he was concerned, I'd been a derelict ever since the first whipping incident.
Knowing I wouldn't be able to retreat now, I stepped into the light spilled to the ground by the magical street lamps.
"Diaz?!" The guard jumped back, his battle stance faltering. "What are you doing?"
"Listen, Lyle … I need a favor. I'll repay it."
"And what is that?" He brought his sword back up, refusing to relent.
I sighed. "I need you to allow my family and I to pass through the palace gates."
"I cannot answer that at this time."
"Why not? You're evidently doing something wrong!" Lyle took a few steps toward me, distrust filling his eyes.
My brain raced to think of a plausible excuse.
"No, sir. We are going on a trip to Ulara, acting as a decoy for His Royal Authority."
Lyle paused for a moment. "I didn't hear of any trip to Ulara."
"You wouldn't have," I continued, calmly. "It's a secret expedition to scope out a summer home for His Excellency."
Again, Lyle considered what I'd said. Then, slowly, he spoke.
"You're lying … your family wouldn't be coming with you. Maybe Tamaran, but not the women. You're escaping, aren't you?"
I took a deep breath, attempting to keep calm. "No, we—"
"You wouldn't have bags. His Royal Authority would send them separately. You're escaping!"
"Lyle, please, we—"
But before I could even finish my sentence, the shrill call of a whistle rang into the still night. Twenty guards came forward out of nowhere, all brandishing weapons and closing in on me. My family stepped out of the shadows and ran to me, as if they believed closeness would protect all or any of us. The courtyard exploded with light, and before I knew it, Melbu Frahma had appeared in the center of the mass of guards.
This is it, I thought. My life is officially over.
Claudette whimpered at my side, now terrified for her own fate, rather than just mine. It was a welcome change, but it annoyed me as well. I'd risked her livelihood before, and only now, when she had followed me blindly for so long, did she choose to worry about her own skin.
Frahma's face curled into a sinister expression of glee. He snapped his fingers, and the man I thought was Lyle flickered and suddenly became a Wingly guard, a grin just as ugly as Frahma's written on his face.
"Do you think I'm stupid?" Frahma asked casually, moving forward.
I shrugged. "Well, I—"
I clammed up, cowering with the rest of my family.
"Though I am not surprised you still chose to run away," Frahma continued, "I am shocked you chose such a stupid manner of escape. I thought you, of all my servants, Diaz, would be intelligent enough to figure out a creative means of exiting."
I scowled at the insult but remained silent.
"I warned you about the punishment," Frahma said, "and now you've forced me to follow through. My, how quickly things have progressed."
He pulled his staff from behind his back.
Oh no, not that thing again, I thought ruefully.
"I thought it was in your best interest to have a family of your own, Diaz. I thought it would do you good to have the love and support of a wife and children. But evidently, they have done you little good. Instead, you have bred me a race of insolents. Rebels. I should ignore this last measure of stupidity on your part, and do away with those children you've beget with other slaves—"
Frahma paused, stroking the staff, petting it like it was a favorite animal companion. He then looked up, straight at me, his eyes glowing with hatred.
"—But I've decided on a much more extravagant punishment. Come forward, Diaz."
Wondering what could possibly be worse than having to watch my own children put to death, I stood and walked forward, forcing myself to hold my head high. Frahma watched me calmly, but I knew rage still boiled in his brain.
When I was standing directly in front of the Wingly dictator, he smiled that wicked twist of a grin and handed me the staff.
I looked down at it. The thing was simple enough, just a twist of willow wood, with a glowing, green orb on top, embedded into the spindles of twig. Once again I held that rod, its head radiating insurmountable magical power. Again, I held it and I stared.
Frahma turned his attention to my family, now crouching and shuddering in the center of the courtyard.
"You three, stand up," he commanded.
They did what he asked, still shaking in terror.
"Feel that power, Diaz?" Frahma asked, glancing over his shoulder to me. "I want you to use it. Use it, and destroy them."
"What?!" My brows knit together and I fought to hold back the wave of tears stinging my eyes. I looked up at Frahma, my vision blurry with saline. But it was still enough to see that he grinned like a crazy person, his face openly revealing the perverse pleasure he drew from our pain and misery.
The guards behind us, blocking the gates, watched the grisly scene, some in fear, some in interest, some in horror.
I again looked at the staff and clutched it so tightly my knuckles turned white. I didn't want to. Not this. Anything but this. I wished I had never wondered what could be worse than the incident with the children …I wanted him to torture me. ME. He could do anything he liked to me. Whip me, pull my fingernails from their beds, slash my vital arteries, break my every limb … anything, but punish me by punishing my family. My innocent family. It was my fault, this time. All … my … fault.
"Go on, Diaz," Frahma purred, still calm.
I looked at my family. All three of them, still so young. Claudette, only just turned forty, her blue eyes still sparkling like they had the day I'd married her. Those eyes pleaded with me to resist. Begged me to save them. And Beatta, now nineteen and engaged to some kid under the surveillance and care of Prime Minister Dorian Thayus. She possessed my dark hair and her mother's eyes. She looked so pretty and innocent, standing there bathed in moonlight. And Tamaran … poor Tamaran. Perhaps he would be better off dead, like I would have been at his age. He was clearly following in my footsteps, a curse I wouldn't wish on the worst of people.
"'Tis the price you must pay, Diaz," Frahma said, firmer now. "Kill them."
Don't do it, Diaz … Don't do it, Dad … I heard their pleading voices, a chanting rhythm in my head.
"NO!" I shouted.
"That is not an option," Frahma hissed. "Either you kill them, or I kill you all!"
"Then do it!" I cried. A collective gasp erupted from the guards and my family. "Do it! I don't know why you haven't before when you had the chance!"
Frahma wrinkled his ugly face into an even uglier sneer.
"Because you will do as I say before you die," he snapped.
And he flew toward me, taking only three great strides to close the distance. He reached into his robes and drew out another instrument of torture. To most, it looked like a simple whip, but to those who were familiar with its destruction, it was much more. He held it up, the tiny barbed ends on the tassels glinting in the light of the street lamps. After striking with that, those barbs sunk their teeth into flesh and ripped it from the body.
"You kill them right now, Diaz, or I swear to Soa, I will—"
I stared Frahma down … and flung the staff to the ground. It clattered, bounced a little on the street and rolled a few feet away.
Frahma reared back and didn't even bother to rip my shirt off this time. He placed his boot on my back, kicked me to my knees, and swung the whip.
The first blow felt like falling onto a bed of glass, but the pain was nothing compared to the second. Frahma ripped the barbs from my flesh to take another blow, and Claudette cried out as blood spurted from the wounds, spraying blotches of red onto the pavement.
"Do as I say!" Frahma roared. "I will teach you to dismiss me!"
Again, he reeled back and brought the whip forward, those little barbs tearing the skin and
muscle and sinew from my back. My head spun from loss of blood, the pain travelling up my spine and ricocheting around my cranial cavity. I felt my eyes rolling back in my head, and my arms collapsed under my weight much sooner than they had last time. But Frahma kept going.
"Diaz!" Claudette screamed. "Oh Diaz! Your Excellency, stop! Please stop!"
But he didn't listen. Again and again and again, he struck, bringing forth more blood and littering the courtyard with little chunks of my flesh.
"Your Authority, stop! Daddy!" Beatta cried. Tamaran joined her with his own chorus of pleading requests.
Finally, with my entire back a singular open wound, the dictator's blows drew to a halt. He paused, breathing deeply, and licked the blood from his lips.
"Get to your feet, Diaz, and get this over with before I change my mind."
I pulled myself to my knees, and Frahma yanked me up from there, handing me the staff once more. Again, I stared at it, balking at the thought of murdering my own family.
My brain suddenly flashed back to the incident in Mirr, in front of that crowd. The murder of those infants, and my missed opportunity.
Somewhere deep within, a voice told me, This is your chance. Do it, now. You will not have another opportunity …
"Just do it, Diaz!" Claudette called, her hands braced on the shoulders of her children. It was her nature to endure sacrifice. She could tell I was wavering. "Do it and save yourself!"
I stared at her, my heart breaking with every word.
"DO IT!" she screamed, her eyes wild.
She braced her legs, the nighttime breeze blowing her hair about her like she was some kind of warrior goddess. Beatta stood behind her, her pointed chin aimed toward the moons, long, dark eyelashes tickling her cheeks. And Tamaran sank into a martial arts stance, preparing himself for the onslaught of death.
And I knew what I had to do. There was no other choice.
Before I could change my mind, I turned on my heel, clutching the staff and whirling it in an arc, as Frahma once had to kill my other children. I pointed the staff right at Frahma, its end glowing bright green and hurling magic from the sphere that drove its power. Suddenly the world was in slow motion, and I watched the realization of death flicker in Frahma's eyes. It was odd to see him so frightened. It made me happy, giddy. As quickly as the fear had appeared, though, Frahma's face contorted into a sneer and he laughed. The magic tumbled at him, but before it arrived, Frahma conjured a spell and flung it forward. The magic bounced off the invisible shield and altered its course right toward my family.
That evil bastard watched, his eyes glowing with glee as the horrible streams of green magic wrought their destruction, satisfying the dictator and his staff's insatiable desire for murder. The magic ripped through the air, choking its victims with its terrible power, but I heard no screams or cries, and I watched as their bodies collapsed on each other in a broken heap, the life passing from their eyes. They clung to each other in death as they had while living … still relying on me to carry the name of our family onward.
I threw the staff to the side and fell forward, completely drained, but the tears still spilled from my eyes.
"And that," Frahma huffed, "is that. You serve me and me only, Diaz. You should have known better than to cross me."
I was surprised that's all he said. No threats of death, no challenges for me to maintain my loyalty, no sentencing to some unalterable, horrible fate. He simply walked away, leaving the guards to clean up his mess.
I can't explain how badly I wanted to die right then. I wanted more than anything to succumb to the pain, for my soul to chase those of my family to Mayfil and beyond. I couldn't bear the thought of my little Claudette, her soul lost and wandering in the inky darkness of the end. I couldn't stand the idea of Libria and Fitzhugh's souls, toyed with in the wake of the Devildom. I'd felt their spirits pass through the veil, and I wanted to die with them. But somewhere, deep inside me, the little voice of liberty still cried out … And it was stronger than ever.
To tell you the truth, I don't know why I was there. Crouching in the darkness, concealed in the shadows between Melbu Frahma's custom-painted armoire and the dressing screen. The dictator's sleeping form lay in his elaborately carved, four-poster bed only a few feet away.
I listened for the quiet, rhythmic breath of sleep escaping from his mouth, and lunged.
But let me explain.
I probably could have killed him, right then and there. I've kept a small knife in my pocket ever since he wiped out all of those babies—my babies—just in case I ever got the opportunity and had the guts. But that's not really what my intention was. I was hiding there for a different reason.
Frahma's staff—the ominous scepter he carried with him at all times, the sole symbol that he was all-powerful, all-knowing, all-glorious—rested in its place in the cane rack by the door. Its power source glowed faintly from within the crystalline sphere topping the staff; it was the only thing I'd ever seen the bastard carry around with him all the time, and then he'd gone and slapped it on top of that stupid walking stick of his. I'm entirely surprised he hadn't ever beat any of us with it ... then again, maybe he had.
I wasn't sure, exactly, what that thing (they'd called it a Crystal Sphere, I think) did, but I knew it was super important, it fueled Melbu Frahma's endless magical power, and it was scary as hell. Pretty much every Wingly in Kadessa was afraid of it and probably everyone everywhere else, too. I knew that whatever that thing was, it had somehow changed the Wingly dictator (for the worse, most would argue) and that it had been a point of contention between he and Charle because she'd moved out of the palace only a few weeks ago.
I'd come to destroy it. Break it into a thousand tiny pieces. Snuff out that eerie greenish glow forever. Don't ask why. Again, I can't really explain 'cause I don't even know what the thing is for, but what I do know is that it's powerful as hell and breaking it would be my chance to get the hell outta dodge. Besides, I didn't have much to live for anyway.
So, I lunged.
But unfortunately, bad luck befell me again and I tripped, landing hard on the carpet with an 'oof' so loud I was sure Charle heard it from wherever she'd moved to. I scrambled to my feet, peering into the darkness and clutching my chest as if I could somehow shove my hand through my ribcage and shut my heart up by force. Frahma mumbled something and rolled over, the sheets rustling with his movements. I held my breath until I heard his soft snores again.
I breathed out a sigh of relief and tiptoed across the room to the cane rack. Carefully and smoothly, I lifted the scepter out of its cradle and held it before me, trying to imagine what Melbu Frahma felt each time he held the thing. All I could feel was wave after wave of untapped energy and magic, radiating from the center of that knob on the staff. It was comforting and powerful and deadly all at the same time. I hated it.
Holding the staff in a fierce, white-knuckle grip, I brought my arm back, prepared to smash that crystalline globe, once and for all. I wanted to do it. I wanted to do it so badly it burned a hot hole in my stomach. It was vengeance; justice for those poor infants not given a decent chance to live, revenge for the death of my family, karma for every wrongdoing in his evil past.
But something reverberated in my bones and made me pause.
I stared at the Crystal Sphere, aquamarine mist swirling and bending upon itself inside the glass. I gritted my teeth and scowled at it. The mist kept twirling around as if I weren't even there.
Die, you bastards! Let this be the spur to your eternal damnation! I thought quickly, and brought my arm forward.
At first the staff seemed heavier than it actually was when I had first picked it up, and for a moment I thought I would be carried away with the force of my own throw. And then, in one huge whirlwind—in a fraction of a second—Melbu Frahma leapt from his bed, screaming, "Noooooo!" and dove for the staff. His hand cradled the Crystal Sphere, long, gnarled fingers curling around it. He jerked the staff from my grasp and rolled to his feet, all in one swift motion.
With a wave of the scepter, the torches on the walls roared to life, revealing Frahma in his embroidered dressing gown and me wearing an expression of pure terror. The flames crackled and danced, reflecting the burning hatred in the dictator's eyes.
He started toward me, but I didn't wait around to watch this time. Nope, not this time. Apparently there was still more fight in me than I'd thought, and I ran like hell.
I tore down the palace corridors, the Wingly dictator flinging blasts of magic at me with every step. I thanked Soa that I had been given the grace of speed and agility, though I lacked any sort of finesse or skill in any other physical activity. A fireball seared the air overhead, singeing my hair, and I began to wonder whatever had possessed me to want to piss him off again.
I rounded a corner and found myself at the Grand Staircase. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw Frahma, barreling toward me like an angry bear, so I did the only thing I could. I backed up to get a running start, and took a flying leap over the banister.
Sailing through the air was exhilarating, and for a split second, I was mildly jealous of the Winglies for their capacity to fly. But I didn't have much time to consider it, because I started falling ... and fast. I probably would have made it to the chandelier if I'd been just an inch or two taller or had bothered to exercise my legs a little better. Ah well.
I chanced a look at the ground, only to see about a hundred members of Melbu Frahma's guard, waiting to snatch me out of the air or clean up the remnants of my broken body once I hit the tiled floor. On one hand, I hoped my fate would be the latter option, since I wasn't really sure what the punishment was for people who tried to destroy the Emperor's power.
Had anyone really ever tried that before?
Anyway, I was surprised to see both a mix of Humans and Winglies ... and there was Zieg. He'd struck me as a good kid. Useful. Probably more so than I'd been. His eyes were trained on my fall like everyone else's, and as the ground grew closer and closer, I noticed his expression. It was like he was terrified that my fate was his own, and the fate of all Humans—like he felt sorry for me. And suddenly, I had new resolve to live.
I remember plowing into a sea of ogling bodies and the pain that ripped through my every limb, and I vaguely recall seeing Zieg standing over me for a moment, saying something, barking orders. I remember a hulking guard picking me up to drape my body over his shoulder ... and then the world went dark.
When I came to, I realized I was in a prison cell. Dark, dank and absolutely putrid. Moldy straw heaped in a corner comprised a bed for the several men locked in a single cell, and a shallow trench along one wall served as the toilet, the obvious source of the acrid smell.
I sat up, holding my head and trying to stop the room from spinning. I fought with my stomach to avoid vomiting into my lap, but sadly, I lost that battle, adding my own flair to the already awful stench of the place. I reached up and gingerly touched my head; almost immediately, white-hot pain ripped down the side of my face and through my eyes. It felt like my brain was on fire. When I pulled my hand away and was finally able to open my eyes again, I saw my fingertips were drenched in a sticky red mess ... blood. My blood.
Again fighting the urge to toss my cookies, I considered where I was. I knew the place, though I'd never been there in my life, and I'm sure it was no place good, considering how it smelled and what I'd recently done. My vision was blurry, but I glanced around the cell. It was relatively empty except for me and two others. One of them was a Giganto who appeared to be at the end of his existence, probably at the hands of the Winglies who ran the Coliseum. The other man was bone-thin, with a long mess of tangled hair and a hollow look in his eyes.
"Excuse me," I said weakly.
Neither of them heard me.
"Excuse me!" A little louder this time, and Tarzan turned, staring at me over his shoulder with a glare so hot it probably could've melted Kashua.
"S,sorry, I just wanted to know where we are ..."
The man grunted, like he had forgotten how to use words. I waited, and for a moment was worried that I would die or be executed before I was able to find out where I was and where I'd been since I'd tried to break Frahma's favorite toy.
Then, "Prison," the man mumbled. "Death row."
My eyebrows shot up. "Death row?"
He coughed. "Yep."
I turned this around in my brain for a bit, mulling over the idea of being executed. "Death row" for the Winglies meant first up in a Coliseum match; it basically guaranteed death. Not the end I'd really intended, but then again ...
Heavy, hobnailed boots clapped on the stone walkway outside the cells. Probably a guard. Inmates flocked to the iron-barred doors, clinging to and clawing beyond them, begging for a meal or a bowl of water.
Like animals, I thought.
The footsteps steadily grew louder, and my brain screamed at the noise. I'd obviously not been incarcerated long enough for my head wound to heal properly.
The guard stopped in front of our cell. He was Human, which surprised me, but I resisted the urge to trust him. As far as I was concerned, with him out there and me behind these bars, he was another one of them. He cleared his throat and unfurled a piece of parchment.
"There a Diaz here?"
The two other prisoners suddenly jolted to life, clambering to the door and shouting, "Me, me! I'm Diaz!"
It took a minute to register, but I crawled forward.
"That's me," I said, clutching my gut against another round of nausea from the sudden movement.
The guard snorted and hauled me to my feet, his eyes traveling me up and down. My stomach lurched, and it felt like my head was going to explode.
"You're coming with me," the guard spat finally. "Got an order from the boss."
I wondered who their "boss" was, whether it was Frahma himself or some Wingly underling unworthy of a definite name.
Meh. They were all unworthy of names, if you asked me.
The guard jerked me out of the cell and into the long, dark corridor beyond. We started walking.
"You owe the Commander of the Guard an awful lot of gratitude," he said. "He saved your life."
Confused, I turned my head to face the guard, my brain still fuzzy and fighting the act of walking.
"What do you mean?" I mumbled.
He shrugged, his grip just as firm on my arm. "You know … Zieg, the commander of the Royal Advance Guard. Took Flavius' place."
My brain hurried to catch up. "Yeah," I said, "how do you know him?"
The guard stopped, glanced around, and shoved me into a side hall. He removed his helmet, and suddenly, I was staring into the face of Zieg Feld.
"What are you—?"
Zieg lurched forward and clapped a hand over my mouth.
"Shh …" he said, glancing over his shoulder for spies. He turned back to me. "I ordered everyone to get back when you jumped over that banister. It took a lot of underhanded switch-plays and some considerable convincing, the likes of which I don't really have the time to explain, but Frahma left you to me, probably 'cause he figured we'd both wind up dead anyhow. But if I wouldn't've been there, he'd have stomped all over you … probably obliterated anything left with that staff o' his."
I tried to wrap my mind around the fact that Zieg was seriously risking his life to help me escape.
"Why did you—?"
Again, he clapped the hand over my mouth and spoke quickly in hushed whispers.
"I'll explain sometime, Diaz. I will. But right now time is short. I can't explain it, but I felt compelled to help you. Like you said, we're all in the same boat, and if one of us can get out, then …" He let his sentence trail off suggestively. I nodded.
"So you've gotta get away. Your trial is tonight, in Zenebatos. You'll be convicted, but the punishment won't be death. I saw to it."
Zieg looked straight into my eyes, moving even closer.
"I'm counting on you, Diaz. We all are. The way is open for you to get out of this. Throw off your chains."
I swallowed and nodded again. Zieg shoved his helmet back onto his head, and we were off again.
With his disguise back in place, he led me through corridors and eventually into the bright sunlight, which stung my eyes and made my head pound all over again. He shoved me onto a transfer cart and tilted my head back, pouring a healing fog down my throat and over the various lacerations on my body. It tasted like the combination of aged wine and sour honey, but it was the sweetest feeling. My body tingled all over and my vision returned, but the best part was that I could actually sit up and move without feeling the need to keel over.
"So who's the boss?" I asked, brushing some dirt from my torn sleeve. "What's he want with me?"
Back in his role as guard, Zieg jostled me around until my position in the cart satisfied him.
"Shut it," he snapped, buckling me in. "His Excellency has generously decided to spare your pathetic life. He's sold you to a gig much better 'suited' to you, he said."
"And what is that?" I asked hotly, playing along.
"Something about testing at Aglis, I dunno." Zieg shrugged and wheeled me onto the teleporter outside the Coliseum gates. "Guess you'll find out soon enough, huh?"
He attempted to send me a look of compassion and sympathy. It failed miserably.
And with that, we erupted as a beam of light, headed toward the formidable courts of Zenebatos.
The next thing I knew, Zieg had disappeared and I was standing before the Honorable Judge Nomos of the Great Court of Zenebatos, the world spinning below the glass floor. I tried not to gawk at it because my brain was vehemently trying to convince me the floor didn't really exist; my knees struggled to keep my weight upright.
"Guilty as charged, Your Honor," the head juror lapto said, buzzing toward the judge. It was a squirrely little thing with an automated voice, flying around on those stupid teleporter disks because it didn't have the life-force of its creators.
Poor excuse for justice …
"Diaz!" Nomos boomed. "You have been generously offered another opportunity at life at the hands of His Royal Authority, Melbu Frahma!"
"Thank you, Your Honor," I mumbled.
"And for that, you are sentenced to withstand magical testing as a lab guinea pig for the rest of your days on earth."
I didn't bother to protest. There was no point. Being a test subject at Aglis meant death, just as if I had been sentenced to battle the Virage in the Coliseum. A Wingly guard led me out of the courts and back to the main teleporter, possessing no scruples about crushing my bicep with inhuman force.
"It's back to Kadessa with you now," he quipped. "Gotta join the rest of the scumbags bound for Aglis. You'll be walking."
Any other time, I might have been surprised. Aglis was another of the Wingly flying cities, located in the middle of the ocean, in the midst of the Broken Islands. I didn't quite fathom how we'd be walking to a flying city located above water, but I guess the Winglies set out to surprise us with new and improved torture and punishment.
So by the end of the week, I'd been stripped of my clothes and bound in chains on my wrists and ankles. My shackles were connected to those of other slaves, and so on until a chain of about thirty of us existed. We headed out for the trail, a long, winding and treacherous path passing around the edge of the Death Frontier, our shackles jangling and clanking with the shifting movements. Some of us were old enough to be dead already anyway; others looked as young as six- or seventeen. It appeared to be a relatively even mix of men and women, and I wondered how many of the others' lives had been "spared." I wondered if any of them had committed such audacious crimes as mine, or if they had been falsely accused and wrongly tried.
I supposed none of it mattered. We were all headed to our doom anyway.
The first few days on the trail were rough; my muscles screamed in agony from overexertion, and by the end of the first night, my feet were in such pain from the blisters that I opted to sacrifice my modesty for comfort and wrapped them in my loincloth. It was just as well; we were nearing the edge of the Death Frontier, where the sand was so hot during the day it seared the skin right off the bottoms of your feet.
When the slave traders leading our motley group decided to set up camp near the end of the sixth day's push, three of us had already died. One old man probably succumbed to exhaustion, a middle-aged woman had presumably gone insane and strangled herself in the night, and another woman, only slightly younger than myself, had given birth on the move, her baby dragging her entrails out with it because the traders had no time to stop for the woman to rest. I felt bad for them all, but mostly, I clung to my own notions of survival.
It was that night that we set up camp, though, that something happened. The traders had built a fire and were warming themselves in its flickering light, cooking the dinner they wouldn't share with us. Some of the other slaves were lying down, trying to catch the much-needed rest we all deserved, while others searched desperately through the gravely sand for a meager meal. I simply sat and stared.
I stared out at the desert before me, the inky darkness of night sinking beyond the mountains of rock and sandy dunes. The wind blew wavy patterns in the sand, and rustled my unruly hair. It was refreshing and invigorating. The Never-Setting Moon, as it had recently come to be called, hung, pregnant and glowing, over the desert, granting an eerie light to the world around. Small slivers of the smaller moons poked out from behind the clouds, but few stars sparkled; I would normally have taken it as a bad omen, but tonight, it strengthened me.
I don't know what ever made me think I could do it. Maybe it was the same sense that had dared me to break Melbu Frahma's staff. Maybe it was the voice in my head telling me I could make it, that I would live. Either way, it was stupid. It was foolish. And I was gonna do it.
Judging by the moon, it was sometime around midnight when the traders settled down for the night. I glanced around me; everything was silent. Most everyone was sleeping or dozing off, and the whistling wind provided just enough sound cover. I made my move.
Careful not to move too quickly and holding the chains taught so they didn't jingle, I stood and took a few steps. The men chained near me protested at first, irritated at being disturbed, but they quickly allowed me to continue once I explained my plan. I crept toward the traders' packs, intent on stealing the axe poking from one of them. It was slow going; I had to pause every few seconds to readjust my chains and check on the guards, making sure they were still lost in dreamland. By now, several other prisoners had awoken and were silently cheering me on or jeering at me.
Finally, I reached the packs and cautiously slid the axe from the pouch. Its sharpened blade gleamed in the moonlight, beckoning me with the call of freedom. I paused and took a deep breath, stilling my pounding heart.
I'm so close. I'm so close … don't screw this up, Diaz.
I glanced at the sleeping forms of the traders and considered lopping their heads off or gutting them. It woulda made a pretty scene for Frahma and his ignorant underlings to discover. We all would get away, and start up our own free Human village, here in the desert …
It wasn't the traders' fault they'd been given the grisly duty of leading us to our doom. Obviously they had done something in their pasts to warrant treatment as lesser Winglies.
I turned and shuffled back to my spot a little quicker than I had moved to the packs. It was too exciting to have the axe in my hand and be this close to getting away. I originally possessed the intention of freeing all of us, but with the end slaves attached via an ankle shackle to each of the traders, I knew it wasn't possible. I would have to choose, and hope that the others would later have the courage to free themselves. Deep down, I knew many of them wouldn't; they'd succumb to the pressures of the Winglies and die at the hands of Aglis scientists, but for me, this one bold move was a personal declaration of war. I'd had enough.
I swung the axe and it fell on my chains with a solid 'thwang.' I glanced over my shoulder at the traders, but they were still sound asleep. I wondered if Zieg had somehow managed to slip something into their drinks—some sleeping draught or whatever—but I put the thought out of my mind. I wondered instead, then, what it would take to wake them, but decided that I would worry about it when (and if) the time came. Swing after swing, the axe fell against the chains, sparking and splitting the iron, little-by-little. Several times the traders rolled over or scratched an itch on their butts, but still they remained quiet, trusting that all was well.
It was nearing dawn when I broke through the chains holding me to the prisoner on my left. She was young, probably no older than twenty, with desperation in her eyes. She wanted to come along, but she was so thin she probably wouldn't have made it another day or two. I doubted freedom would fare her much better and moved on, down the line to a man with hollow eyes and a scraggly beard. He appeared sound, and though he looked a little crazy, he would probably be useful against creatures in the desert. The prisoners between us were a fair sampling of our entire group: seven of us in total, four men, three women. The other two men were relatively healthy-looking, and the women weren't pregnant or weak, at least.
I swung the axe, quicker and stronger this time, spurred by the thought of actually getting away.
A collective gasp ran through the crowd of prisoners, a sound of rejoicing and terrible fear, but I pressed on.
So close … so close … so close, ran the chant in my brain.
Again and again, the clang of metal on metal rang into the night. Dawn was now on the horizon, the first rays of the morning sun piercing the darkness above the dunes. Slowly, the joint link wore away, iron giving way to steel.
So close … so close … so close.
"Hurry!" the man next to me hissed. He was watching the traders, who were now beginning to shift in their sleep and re-enter the waking world.
Quickly, I bent backward and swung the axe a final time. It severed the final chain and we stood. Though they knew their fate lay elsewhere, a cheer went up from the slaves who remained tethered to the traders. One of the men rolled over and opened an eye. He looked right at us and my breath caught in my throat.
Go back to sleep, I willed.
But the stupid bastard shook the slumber from his brain and rolled to his side. "Hey, what're you think you're—"
"RUN!" I screamed.
And with that, we took off into the desert, our chains clanging loudly with every stride and streaming behind us like we were some kind of skeletal, phantom prisoners. My call woke the other trader and they both got up to chase us, curse words flying from their mouths, weapons in hand. But we were fast. Too fast. We were riding the swift winds of liberty, and nothing could catch up with us now. The traders quickly gave up and returned to the camp, evidently realizing the value of the many over the few.
A man to my left cackled like a loony and another howled like a wolf. I felt like joining them. I'd succeeded. We'd gotten away. We had beaten Fate, and we were free.