A/N - As some of you know I had a couple computer failures recently. Never fear, I did manage to save all my drafts of my current Supernatural fic! (You Can Keep Holding On) - and I'm working on the next chapter of that right now. But I also found something else, a stack of original fiction that I was working on circa 2012, something that started to expand into a four-volume fantasy series of original fiction. I then got sucked into Supernatural fic-writing and haven't gone back to my original series since, but I'm thinking of maybe polishing it up this winter once I finish the Holding On fic, aiming for self-publishing.
So, this is a trial balloon... would any of you be interested in something like this? Would any of you want to hear anything more from this world, a whole series' worth?
This is a chapter from Volume 1, which is titled "The Aero-Pilot." I'm just going to throw it at you blind, out of context, and see if it can fly on its own.
Rissa had already been living in local time for a little over a year, so it came as little surprise when one of the hulking assistants abruptly appeared one morning. She was stacking splits of firewood by the side of the longhouse, right at the entrance to the fort, listening idly to the bobolinks singing in the downhill fields. Just as she turned toward Marle, who was nearby chopping the limbs of a fallen elm into neat lengths, a flash of azure light caught her eye from almost a half mile to the south.
She paused in her wood-stacking task, peering down the long grassy hill. The flash had come from the base of the hill, where the sleepy old river made a wide curve around a promontory of land. On this promontory was a ring of gnarled cypress trees, and inside the ring of cypress, barely visible from here, was an ancient circle of standing stones.
Marle paused in his chopping too when a brief clap of thunder came a moment later, a dull and distinctive thud that made the ground shake slightly, followed by a rush of wind that went scouring in all directions from the standing stones. The cypresses bent in the sudden gale, and the birds all went silent as the entire field of mammut-grass on the hillside bowed down and shook, a sinuous ripple passing through the tall grass stalks as the rush of air passed by.
The southern gate had opened.
The trees gradually stilled; the mammut-grasses straightened. The bobolinks tentatively resumed their singing — first one bolder bird, and then the others. But Rissa and Marle kept watching.
Soon there was a shine of metal. A single assistant came into view, sunlight glinting on its smooth carapace as it worked its way patiently through the tangled row of ancient cypress-limbs. Despite the assistant's size (easily the height of a cave-bear, and twice as bulky) it dodged the ancient cypress limbs with surprising agility and care, bending this way and that as it moved, as if it were under instructions to not to break a single twig off the old trees.
Once free of the cypresses, it came gliding smoothly up the hill, metallic carapace gleaming, body seeming almost motionless as the six hinged legs motored smoothly away underneath. The tall mammut-grasses bent in its wake as it worked its way slowly, but steadily, up the hill — directly toward Rissa and Marle.
Even after all these years it was still unclear if the assistants were machine or beast. Whatever they were, they always commanded attention — and caution. Marle took a step closer to Rissa, hefting his axe as the assistant marched tirelessly closer.
"Relax," Rissa said, eyeing how Marle was gripping his axe. "It's just going to tell me I'm due a leave." She turned back to watch the assistant approaching. "I've been local a full year. Halfway through my term. I'm due a leave whether I want it or not."
"I'm aware," said Marle, tightening his grip on the axe.
Rissa cast him a warning glance. "You know as well as I do that an axe is useless. It'll only anger it."
"I don't see you setting that little knife aside," Marle said, with a pointed look toward Rissa's right hand, which was indeed resting lightly on the wood-and-sinew hilt of the trusty flint blade tucked in her belt — easily the oldest weapon in the fort, and still her favorite.
"I'm just resting my hand," said Rissa.
"I'm just resting my axe," replied Marle.
There was nothing they could have done to defend themselves in any case, should the assistant choose to eliminate them. Knives and axes both were utterly useless against those impervious metallic hides. Whenever an assistant decided that an agent had outlived his, or her, usefulness, there was nothing that could be done.
Still though, Marle held his ax, and Rissa kept her hand on her knife, fingers stroking the old sinew bindings restlessly as the assistant approached. It came to a smooth stop bout three paces away, facing Rissa calmly.
"Agent Nineteen, you are to take a leave of active duty," the assistant informed her in a fluting voice. (As always, it seemed an oddly liquid and melodic voice for a creature so imposing).
Marle gave her an inquiring glance; the assistant had spoken in Trakian, Rissa's native tongue. It was an ancient language, one that Marle, who'd grown up speaking the Celtic and Pictish tongues, did not know.
It always brought a pang to hear the language of her childhood. Hearing Trakian, even if just via the eerily alien voice of an assistant, still evoked a wisp of childhood memories of the steppes. Once again, it seemed, she could almost see the distant herds of three-toed horse, and the mammut, and the plains dark with aurochs; once again she saw the rainclouds sailing over the open steppe, and felt the icy wind that poured off the feet of the great glaciers.
Trakian was now extinct. Well — almost extinct. One other agent, none other than Bel himself, doubtless still would recognize the tongue. But it was hardly a comfort to know that the only other surviving speaker of the language of her youth was her oldest sworn enemy. (If indeed Bel even still lived. Which Rissa was not even much interested in finding out.)
"It's just a leave, as I thought," whispered Rissa to Marle. He relaxed very slightly as the assistant continued.
"You are granted three months of liberty to familiarize yourself with local culture," the assistant continued, its blank eye-facets turned incuriously toward Rissa, its domed body as still as a statue. "You are granted an allotment in native currency of your choice."
The assistant paused for a brief span of time that seemed carefully calculated, as if allowing a pause for comprehension according to the assistant's best estimate of human processing speed. It then inquired, its voice so even that it was hard to discern that it was now asking questions, "What is your choice of destination? What is your choice of currency?"
She knew where she should go. Leaves were precious; they were the only time when one could do mostly as one wished. It was never true liberty, of course — agents on leave were still under control in all the essential respects. Still under command, and still expected to work ceaselessly at learning the local language and customs, even if briefly freed of specific assignments. And, indeed, it was essential to learn those customs, and the language, for not uncommonly agents found themselves stranded and alone in local time. Survival was always a hundred-fold easier if one could speak the local dialect, and knew where, and how, to secure safe lodging and obtain a bit of food.
Rissa ought, therefore, to visit a potentially useful culture of the time. The ideal choice would be a nation that was somewhat economically and politically calm; one that was not in the middle of famine, war, political purge or natural disaster; one that was not very violent; one where she already knew her way around to some degree; and, in the best-case scenario, one where a woman of her coloring could travel alone with some hope of relative safety. (Her hair was not a very bright red, but the auburn highlights were difficult to hide, and the freckles on her face could only be imperfectly concealed.) The nation of Keftia was the obvious choice. She had lived there before— though, of course, that had been very long ago, and the memories were not exactly pleasant. The language, too, had changed utterly since her last term of residence. But it was high time she put those old memories behind; and high time, too, that she took the pains to familiarize herself with the new dialect. In Keftia she would have some resources at her disposal; she could probably still find her way around in the old neighborhoods around the Cathedral of Stars, which even after all these years still stood intact in the center of Keftia's City of Angels. The Cathedral was even still the focal point of the dominant religion. Keftia was clearly the best choice.
"What is your choice of destination?" repeated the assistant patiently, its fluting voice dispassionate. "What is your choice of currency?"
She really ought to choose Keftia.
"Manu," Rissa heard herself saying. Marle's head jerked toward her, his eyebrows shooting up. She ignored him and added, "Manuvian currency, please. Sol-coins, in fairly small units. Sixties and twenties and fives would be good."
The assistant performed a stilted nod and said, "As you wish. Report to the western gate at local sunrise tomorrow. The necessary currency will await you within the gate."
Without any further niceties it pivoted neatly and strode off down the hill, directly toward the southern gate.
Rissa and Marle watched in silence till the gate opened once again, and closed.
"Let's finish with the wood," said Rissa, turning at once back to her work. She picked up an armful of split wood and carried it a few paces to the neat stack of firewood that she'd been building by the side of the longhouse. But Marle did not lift his axe to get back to work, and just stood stroking his long gray beard with one hand, eyeing her doubtfully. She ignored him; she stacked her wood, walked right past him back to the chopping block to pick up a second armful of splits, and had stacked those too before he finally spoke.
"Manu?" was all he said.
"Late summer there now," Rissa told him, now loading up with a third armful of split wood. She straightened with a grunt, carrying her new load toward the woodpile. "I hear the colors on the Manuvian mountains are lovely this time of year. And the passenger pigeon migration should be in full flow. It's supposed to be pleasant."
"If any stretch of time in a violent backwoods slaving culture can be called pleasant," remarked Marle, who still had not returned to his work. "Wouldn't it be easier to return to the Cathedral?"
Rissa shrugged, wiping some shards of bark from her tunic and turning back toward Marle's chopping block for yet another armful of splits. "Everybody I knew in the City of Angels is gone, you know that. Things'll have changed. The dialect's evolved. I don't even know the city very well anymore."
"As opposed to Manu, where you've never been at all and know nobody?" pointed out Marle. "And never even knew the language?"
"I'll pick it up," said Rissa. "It'll be good for me to tackle a different language family. I've always avoided the Turkic tongues — it's long past time, really."
Marle sighed. "Just tell me straight — you're not going looking for that aero-pilot, are you?"
Rissa remained silent. She scanned the ground for any more small splits of wood, but she'd already picked up all the logs that Marle had split, and he was showing no signs of getting to work on any of the remaining logs.
"Which aero-pilot?" she finally said.
"Oh, just that one who fetched up on your mountain in that tiny little wreck of a zeppelin a year or so back." said Marle. "When you came back with that hurt arm, and went off and slept in the stables with the yearlings for a solid week afterwards rather than talk to anybody. The one whose image you requested from the assistants afterwards without telling me, that image you hid in the library archives." Rissa colored a little as Marle concluded calmly, "That aero-pilot. Tell me you're not that foolish as to go haring off after him."
Rissa finally looked up at him. "All right. I did think maybe I'd look into it a bit."
Marle just let out a rough sigh, his shoulders dropping. "Riss—" he began.
Rissa protested, "You're making it sound like a wild quest of some sort. It's not. It just stayed on my mind a little, is all. Just thought I'd go look around Manu a bit. Poke around some, see if he did end up there."
"First off, " said Marle, leaning the axe against the chopping-block and setting both hands on his hips, "You don't even have to go to Manu, because in case you've forgotten, that mountain is on the border of Manu, between Manu and Keftia—"
"—and the path from the gate goes down the Manuvian side," explained Rissa. "It's the natural path he would have followed from where I left him. He couldn't possibly have descended the Keftian side anyway; you may not have kept up on the news but that Keftian path was obliterated by landslides a century ago. And there's no way he could have scrambled down those cliffs in his condition anyway. If he survived at all, he'll have ended up down the Manuvian side."
Marle looked skeptical. "You know, don't you, that any local who somehow manages to get off that mountain alive ends up in the Manuvian slave markets, right?" he said. "And life expectancy for an unvoiced slave in Manu is all of, oh, three months at most, I'd estimate. It's been, what, over a year?"
"Nearly two," said Rissa shortly. "Look, if you're not going to chop any more wood, I'll head inside. I've got to pack."
She turned to leave, but Marle's hand fell on her shoulder. Irritated, Rissa turned to face him, ready to argue. But she fell silent at the unexpectedly sympathetic look in his eyes.
"Riss," he said quietly. "Don't waste your time. That zeppie pilot's dead by now."
"You don't know that," she couldn't help objecting.
His hand tightened slightly on her shoulder; whether to restrain her, or comfort her, she wasn't sure. "Even if he isn't dead," said Marle, "what would you even do if you found him? You've only got three months. You'd just have to abandon him again after that."
"What kind of argument is that?" she snapped. "If we can only help someone temporarily, don't help them at all? That's absurd. At least I could give him a chance. Notify his family, maybe? I don't know."
Marle lowered his hand, frowning at her. Rissa held his eyes, glaring at him. But Marle just looked puzzled.
"Why this particular pilot?" he finally said. "You only knew him for — what, half an hour, at most? Am I right?" Rissa nodded, and Marle said, "With some people I'd suspect an attachment of the heart, but even if you were a moony young maid, which you aren't, you can't have fallen in love with the fellow in just thirty minutes. Why, then?"
It was a fair question. And Rissa didn't have an easy answer. She wilted a little and had to look away, turning to gaze out at the fields. The bobolinks were still singing out there, their black-and-gold feathers catching the light as they soared up and down in their bouncing song-flights. Usually it cheered her to see them fly, but now they only brought to mind the little zeppelins that were now flitting about in the Keftian skies above the City of Angels. Such clumsy craft they were, unlikely and fragile... especially, of course, the damaged little scouting zeppie that had come crashing onto her mountain.
Why did they have to invent motorized flight? she thought, for at least the hundredth time. Fools... didn't they know they're supposed to stay primitive? Hunt and gather, children, just hunt and gather. Maybe a bit of agriculture, maybe some cities, but please stop inventing things!
Marle added, "It's just a bit, well, a bit small-picture to be worrying about just one among thousands."
"I know. I know," said Rissa, with a heavy sigh. "Sun and stars, I know."
"If you want to help some random lost soul have a better life," he said, "just go sit a spell in the Cathedral and cast a few glamours-of-solace on one or two of those petitioners who wait there for years. Mostly hoping you'll show up. You're their savior, Rissa." Marle's voice softened. "You're their Lady of Solace—"
"Don't call me that," spat Rissa, anger flaring at the absurd old name. "I'm no savior, nor a lady, you know I'm not, you know I'm just an agent—"
"I know that, but they don't," Marle pointed out. He waited a breath, watching her, and said, "Thousands pray to you for help every day. Why this one?"
Rissa stared out at the golden fields, still watching the little birds.
"I feel responsible," she finally confessed. "He should never have landed on the mountain at all, but he did. He should have died when he crashed, and he didn't. He shouldn't have seen me, and he did. And then he tried to help me.... At first he was well hidden, you know; he likely would've been fine, but instead he tried to come to my aid and that's when the assistants spotted him. What happened to him was because of me, Marle." Marle was already shaking his head, but Rissa went on with, "And it's not right, what the assistants did — it's never been right, what they do to any poor local who wanders onto that mountain. I know it's just one case, but I was involved, and I just want to see if I can do anything."
Marle said, his voice very gentle, "It wasn't your fault."
Rissa tried to nod, but instead just felt her head droop. "The thing is..." she finally confessed, "I promised him I'd come back for him. And I didn't. I promised, and I didn't."
Marle frowned at her. "Wait — I thought you didn't know modern Keftian?"
Rissa shrugged. "I don't. I was speaking Trakian — I didn't think, I just blurted it out. He won't have understood me. But I promised just the same."
"You're holding yourself to a vow that the other person didn't even understand?" Marle sounded incredulous. "And a vow that was, may I point out, a very stupid vow in the first place? Probably impossible to keep?" When she didn't reply, Marle rolled his eyes and said, "Rissa, walk away. You had nothing to do with it. It was just colossally bad luck for him, that he happened to crash near the mountain gate, and that the gate happened to open just then. Once he was there his fate was sealed. It's simply not your fault."
"I know. I know. I know it's not really my fault. But, Marle... if you had seen how he looked at me—" The scene was suddenly bright in her mind's eye, and she couldn't help trying to describe it, turning to Marle to say passionately, "He thought I would help him, I know he did. When the assistants grabbed him, he called to me, and he was begging me to help. I mean, I don't know his tongue, but I'm sure that's what he was saying.... And just as I feel I know what he said, I think he knew what I said, as well." Absurdly, she could feel her eyes stinging at the memory. So she squinted toward the sun as if checking the time, hoping that Marle would mistake the glinting in her eyes for just an effect of the bright light.
The sun was, in fact, sinking lower; it would soon be sunset. Only one more night; it was time to check her travel-bag, and say her farewells.
"I know there's not really anything I can do," Rissa added. "I know it's a waste of time. I just want to see if I can find out where he ended up. And if he's alive, maybe I can get a message to his family back in Keftia. That's all. Then I'll have done what I can. And I'll have kept my word."
"You're certainly right that it's a waste of time," said Marle. "I hate to bring this up, but, I'm sure you remember that time when you spent a whole, what was it, six months, trying to save that Celtic fellow that one time, who'd been carried off by slave raiders? You got him back home and a month later he died anyway. Killed by plague if I remember right. And before that there was that little llama-herder girl that you took in, the one who was due to be sacrificed, and she ended up dying too. And before that — "
"The Celtic boy got one more month with his family before the plague struck," interrupted Rissa, her jaw set. "The llama girl lived nearly a whole year. Of course they might die later. They might die awfully, just one day later. But even if they get just one more day, they get that one more day." She turned to look Marle right in the eye, and her next words came out heated and passionate: "It's not about saving them forever. Nobody lives forever. We all know that. I just want to see if I can get them even a day of peace before they die. Even if I can get them just one more good day, it's worth it."
An odd lopsided smile had crept onto Marle's face as she spoke, and when she at last fell silent, he reached over and squeezed her shoulder again. "My dear child. How is it that you haven't had all the compassion bludgeoned out of you by now like the rest of us?"
Rissa squinted at him, a little confused, and Marle said, "Our Lady of Solace, indeed. Riss, you say it's all a sham, but have you ever considered that you might be the genuine article?"
The Manuvian Plains - One Month Later
Rissa was long past discouraged.
She knew she should have aborted this hopeless mission at least a week ago. But she had attained a certain slow momentum in her quest, and some sheer stubbornness, or maybe just a mental inertia, seemed to keep her going. She'd visited nearly every major Manuvian slave market by now, many of them two or three times; she'd traveled to all the major trading cities near the Cursed Mountain (as it was called on this side). She'd queried endless slave-stock traders in her broken Manuvian, seeking any recently sold slaves who'd had the aero-pilot's Keftian coloring — that higher-class light brown skin and straight dark hair, so unlike the paler blonde coloring that was typically more common among slaves. And she was dangerously low on funds now, with absolutely nothing to show for it. In just this first month she'd blown nearly her full three months' allotment of Manuvian sun-coins, most of them wasted on travel funds, slave-auction fees, and it had to be admitted, a few purchases to free a couple of particularly woeful-looking young slaves who seemed like they might be able to actually make a go of it alone, if only they could be freed.
But she had utterly failed to find the pilot. And she was in a permanently foul mood as well, for the slave-stock markets of Manu were indescribably depressing. With each stockpen that she visited, each pre-auction tour of the rank and filthy cages in the back, each fawning stockman who tried to conceal the abuse he'd visited upon his charges, her mood soured further. And further, and further, till she could barely wait to set this whole hideous nation behind her forever.
Yet she could not stop looking.
Is it because I've lost everyone else? she wondered, as she entered yet another stock-market for one more pointless search. This particular stock-market — for sale of human stock, that is — was unlikely to prove useful; it was quite far to the south, hundreds of miles from the Mountain and indeed the entire mountain range. She was now well into Manuvian plains country, a hot and dry and scalding expanse of grain-fields and open savannah. Most of the slaves in this market would be sold as companion mahouts for the little dwarf-elephants that were the common beasts of burden in the area, with pairs of slave and ellie often even sold together as a bonded working team. The aero-pilot was not going to be here.
Marle is right, I'm taking this too personally, she thought, making her way down the dimly lit stock-aisles. Why do I keep going on these stupid quests to find some lost wanderer? But still she looked, pacing slowly, cage by cage and aisle by aisle, through the entire market.
She paid little attention to the stockman who inevitably attached himself, like a limpet, as soon as she'd stepped inside. This almost always happened; the stockmen always made a beeline to her, drawn by her careful selection of upper-class clothing (richly embroidered cape, wide embroidered pants and fine black leather riding boots; it was the custom in Manu for gentry-women to ride their quaggas and halter-deer astride, so the split pants and riding boots advertised her as a woman of the landed class). The stockman couldn't know, of course, that the fine clothing was just for show, nor that Rissa actually had very few sol-coins left. He kept trying to coax her back to the front aisles where the more expensive slaves could be found, as well as the most profitable of the stock, the slave-ellie working pairs. Rissa simply ignored the stockman, making her way, aisle by aisle to the back rows of the vast domed market arena.
She eventually found her past to the last aisle entirely to a ramshackle assemblage of half-junked cages that were outside the building entirely, forming a shabby row in a back alley that was under full exposure of the burning Manuvian sun. The stockman, who had been pacing slowly by her side for a good twenty minutes by now as she meandered deeper and deeper into the market, now stopped, bowed, and said, "I'll leave you to your perusal, Lady. Just call if you need anything, anything at all."
Rissa nodded, and he vanished back inside to attend to more likely buyers. She knew this meant that this sad outermost aisle must be where the bargains would be found — if the sick, the elderly, the dangerous, the crippled, and the insane could be called bargains. The useless slaves, in other words. The ones at the very end of their working lives — or well past the end.
These unhappy souls, it turned out, were kept in small individual cages rather than chained in the traditional eight-person line, for some here were ill and contagious, and some were violent.
This is pointless, Rissa thought, as she began to work her way down the narrow alley. Marle was right.
But you made a vow that you'd look for him, she reminded herself. The gods keep their word. Our reputation hinges on it. So keep your damn word: look for him, as you said you would, even if it's pointless.
She continued down the aisle, glancing alternately left and right. The familiar task had a dreary monotony that, over the weeks, she had turned almost into a very slow dance: take two steps forward, give a sharp look at the slave on the left, then another look at the slave on the right; two or three steps forward, to the next pair of cages; repeat. And repeat. And repeat.
It always took some discipline to maintain her focus, to keep assessing each and every face, trying to compare it to her memory of the few blurry images the assistants had captured of the aero-pilot. She'd studied those images over and over, back in the fort. But he'd been a Keftian dirigible officer then, of course, in Keftian air-scout uniform and with his hair braided back in the Keftian military style. She knew he woule not look the same now (assuming he were even still alive). It had been nearly two years, after all. She'd even made a little game out of it: Imagine what the aero-pilot might look like if he were bearded now. Imagine what he might look like if he were very deeply suntanned. Imagine what he might look like if his hair were all shaved, or grown very long, or hacked roughly short; imagine what he might look like if he'd been scarred, or branded, or tattooed, or his ears cut off, or—
Step, step. Look left, look right. Female slaves could be immediately ruled out. Any man taller than Rissa herself could be ruled out as well, for she still remembered how she stood eye-to-eye with that aero-pilot, when she'd slid off her panting horse. The pilot had been fresh from a zeppie-crash, of course, bedraggled and scraped up, his mouth agape as he took in what must have been a shocking sight (the most shocking part being not Rissa herself, but the real living horse that stood beside her, which must have seemed to him like a myth come to life). It had been a brief and ill-fated encounter, but she did remember that he'd been roughly her own height.
Any man very short was not him either, nor anyone very aged, nor any young boy. All the blond slaves could be ignored, and those with brown hair, and those with tightly curled hair. Straight black hair, she reminded herself. Dark eyes. Eyes never change. Remember his eyes. Not just the soft brown of the irises, but the shape of them, the slant of his eyelids, the particular angle of his brows. Eyes never changed.
Step, step. Look left, look right. Remember his eyes. To the left, a young girl curled in a corner, racked with spells of deep grinding coughs. Rissa hesitated, a twinge of sympathy rising up, a brief fantasy flaring to life of buying the girl, freeing her, earning her undying gratitude, returning her to whatever home she'd been taken from...
A home which probably no longer existed, or never had existed at all. Rissa felt at her coin-purse; alarmingly light. Only funds enough for one more purchase. And she had given her word....
If we weep for each tragedy, we would weep ourselves to death in a single day, she reminded herself.
Gritting her teeth, she turned from the girl to the cage on the right, where a huge, surly man paced restlessly in place, now and then simplly swaying side to side like a bored bull. A crudely hand-lettered sign of birchbark was bound to the cage door: it read, as far as Rissa could make out: CAREFUL, THIS ONE BITES.
More importantly, the man was too tall. Rissa moved on.
Step, step. Look left, look right. Remember his eyes. To the left, an old, bent man drawing patterns in the ground with a stick; to the right, an empty cell with a brownish-red stain covering half the sand.
Step, step. Look left, look right. To the left, a silent man huddled on the sand. The sun was strong here and he'd arranged himself tightly in a small, narrow patch of shade, arms drawn around one knee, the other leg stretched out in front of him along the strip of shade, staring dully down at the sand. To the right, an grey-haired old crone rocking in a corner, chanting to herself.
Step - A faint tremor of recognition sparked in Rissa's mind. She froze in mid-step, and turned back to the previous pair of cages, to look once more at the silent man who was sitting in the little strip of shade.
Remember his eyes.
Her mouth fell open in shock.
Rissa experienced a moment of doubt. This was too unlikely. She must have made a mistake. She moved closer and crouched down on her heels to get at eye-level with him, gripping the rough-hewn wooden bars of the caging and pressing her face right up against the splintery wood for as close a look as possible.
Imagine what he would look like, Rissa thought, if his hair were shorn very short, to a prickly scruff; if he had not been fed well in some time, and had become very thin; if he had a deep notch carved into one ear; and had been beaten recently about the face; and if all the emotion were to vanish from his face — all awe, all fear, all concern, everything that she'd seen in him in that brief encounter on the Mountain, all gone. Imagine what he would look like if he were seated silently on the sand in a tiny strip of shade, one knee drawn up to his chin, one leg stretched out, a slave-collar round his neck and a shackle on one foot, staring blankly at nothing but the sand.
It was him. It was the aero-pilot. "You," she breathed, so softly she could barely even hear her own whisper. "You. I've found you." After so long searching, it was bizarre to see his face again, as if the blurred image in the well-creased photograph in her satchel had somehow taken form, jumped out of her satchel and started walking around all on its own. The long-ago day on the mountain sprang to mind once more, more vividly than she'd been able to recall it in months; she saw him all anew as he'd been that day, standing up from behind the grassy mound on the mountain, his hands raised to calm her, speaking gently; his face and arms covered with scratches, his Keftian scouting outfit badly torn, the wrecked zeppie a mess of canvas and rope tangled in the trees behind him. She remembered how his eyes had widened with shock as he'd taken in the sight of her horse; and the worry and concern that had appeared next, when he'd realized she was hurt.
The alarm had come into his eyes only later, when the assistants appeared. The desperation and terror, a minute later still.
Now she stared at him as he sat dully on the sand, crouched in his little sliver of shade. He was leaning on the wall a little oddly, slightly twisted so that only the side of his body contacted the wall.
"Pilot?" she said.
He raised his eyes, and looked at her with absolutely no expression.
Tentatively, she spoke what she believed to be his Keftian given name (or so the assistants' files had indicated): "Tamos?"
Tamos was Keftian for "river," and the word came awkwardly to Rissa's tongue; she wasn't sure she'd pronounced the vowels or the terminal S correctly. Did they slur the terminal-S in Keftia these days, as they had in the past? She didn't know. His gaze flickered over her face for a bare second, his head unmoving, but there was no light of recognition in his eyes — neither to the sound of his name, nor to the sight of Rissa herself.
He soon looked away, closed his eyes, and leaned his head sideways against the wall, apparently uninterested in any further contact.
She'd known he wouldn't recognize her. All of his memories of that day on the Mountain would have been erased. Along with all his memories of all the days before. Everything of his life before, his home and his family and his entire history, his knowledge of his own name, his very ability to speak, would all have been erased. This was what the assistants always did.
From out of nowhere the stockman reappeared at her side, seemingly having telepathically sensed that a possible sale was unfolding here in the farthest back aisle after all. "Ah! You have most cleverly found a most wonderful bargain!" he began, a wide smile creasing his features. "This young strong worker here has been woefully overlooked by most of our buyers. He really shouldn't be in the back aisle here at all, of course; it's just that the front lanes were full till just today. In fact, I came back here because I was just about to move him up to the second lane — he really should have been there all along, he's quite a good worker, worth quite a bit in fact—"
"What's his history?" Rissa interrupted, only half paying attention to the stockman as she studied the aero-pilot. He had not stirred at the stockman's arrival, and was still resting with his eyes closed and his head tipped against the splintery wall. He seemed almost to have fallen into a doze. Now that his eyes were shut she was less sure of her identification.
"He's a third-generation worker at least, no more than two-and-twenty years of age, bred and born in one of the highest houses of Manu," the stockman lied cheerfully. "A most excellently trained worker of numerous and varied skills. He has served since boyhood as a general houseservant, and in addition to general cleaning and maintenance he is skilled in general carpentry, small repairs and harness-working—" (The lies are really stacking up, thought Rissa) "— I am told he is an excellent cook as well and particularly useful as a stable-hand; he has fine skill as a mahout, and a particular knack for calming the dumb beasts, which makes sense, of course, because he himself is — ah! How can I have forgotten to mention the most valuable feature of all!" The stockman was in full flow now, his voice taking on the ringing cadence of an announcer at a pre-auction stock show. "You really have picked out the most incredible bargain, for this young strong fellow here happens to be a mute! He cannot speak at all. As you might imagine it is most beneficial to have a slave that cannot speak. If your ladyship has not had the pleasure of one of the Unvoiced...?" The stockman trailed off momentarily, the rest of his question merely hinted. Rissa shook her head, already sure that she wouldn't like where this was going.
The stockman beamed, continuing, "Not only can a mute not talk back, heh, which is quite an advantage right there, but, just think of this, he cannot repeat things he overhears. If you get my meaning. In fact, he cannot even understand what he overhears, so there is nothing for him to repeat anyway! And he cannot describe anything that one does — or has done to him — or has him do to one — one cannot possibly wish for greater discretion! If, just hypothetically, if a well-bred lady should ever have need of certain services, yet desires the greatest discretion..."
Rissa's hard stare seemed to be unnerving the stockman a little, for he hesitated there, cleared his throat self-consciously, and finally continued (in a more subdued tone), "... or if one's lordship should wish a serving-boy for business-meetings, one who cannot repeat any business conversations that might be overheard, this fine worker would be just the fellow. He is intelligent enough to follow commands, have no worries about that; nothing wrong with his brains in the least. It's true he won't understand speech, but you need only know a few simple hand signals. He has been a superb asset to several of the finest family-manses of Manu, and has only ended up here due to a financial difficulty of his last owner, one that could have befallen even the best of families— they had to liquidate their very best stock, you see— there's nothing wrong with him in the least—"
"Bring him out," interrupted Rissa.
"Oh, but of course! I'll just get my assistant to rouse him out and clean him up a bit, and they'll meet us over in the central court presently. If you can just follow me —"
"Bring him out here. Before me. Right now."
The stockman hesitated again, but seeing the determined look in Rissa's eyes, he at last nodded. "By the way, as I was just about to mention, he is a bit tired. He may be a bit slow moving. It is merely fatigue from some... ditch-digging we had him doing just yesterday. But he is sturdy and sound, and easy to manage, and hardly requires any oversight at all." The stockman was drawing a stout leather crop out from under his belt as he spoke. "He's really in excellent condition, it's just it's difficult to sleep out here in the alley. UP, BOY!" he hollered suddenly, dragging the stub end of the crop across the wooden bars with a rattle.
The slave — the Keftian aero-pilot Tamos, if Rissa was correct — roused from his doze with a start. He glanced at the slaver with clear apprehension, and his gaze darted to Rissa. He seemed instantly alert, but didn't dare hold her eyes for long, soon dropping his eyes deferentially to the ground.
The stockman hollered "UP!" again, adding an impatient lifting motion with his hands. As the slave began to get (slowly) to his feet, the stockman said to Rissa, "As I was saying, one must use these hand gestures with the Unvoiced stock. This hand signal, palm up with the fingers moving like so, means Rise, this other one means Sit, this one means Come here, this one means Stop —"
Rissa should probably have been paying more attention to the hand signals, but her attention was fixed now on the slave. Now that his eyes were once again open, she was certain again that it was him, and she chanted his name silently to herself, trying to make it stick. Tamos. That is Tamos. Not a faceless slave. Tamos. But as she watched him still trying to get to his feet, she frowned, first in puzzlement and then in worry. He was moving with great gingerness, rising very slowly, with something awkward about his motions as if he could not — or chose not — to bend his back at all. It also became clear that the leg that he'd had out straight in front of him could not, in fact, be folded very easily. Some problem with the knee, maybe? He had to haul himself to his feet by pulling himself up the wooden cage-bars with both hands. The stockman tried to conceal this, shuffling noisily in front of Rissa to unshackle the aero-pilot's leg-chain from the stout corner-post of the cage. Once the aero-pilot was finally upright, he followed the stockman's impatient tugs of the chain out to the aisle where Rissa and the stockman both stood. But the slave was still moving with a careful delicacy. It seemed he might be trying to conceal a limp; there was the barest hesitancy in each stride, at the moment when he bore weight on the hurt leg, and something slightly off-tempo about how he swung that leg forward, an unevenness to his footfalls.
He hid it fairly well, though — enough so that Rissa wondered if he were worried about appearing unsound. What happened to slaves who never got sold?
"You see! Just a bit stiff because he's been sitting all day," said the stockman, following Rissa's gaze toward the slave's feet. The stockman jerked the chain a few more times as if to try to make it look that the unevenness in gait were caused by the chain.
"He can barely move," said Rissa, appalled.
"No, not at all, he's just a bit stiff—" repeated the stockman, when Rissa reached out to the slave.
She had only intended to grasp his upper arm to lend him a bit of support, but he flinched away from her hand, twisting to the side and half-raising one arm as if to cover his face. As he did so, the leg he'd been quietly favoring gave way under him, and he crumpled down with surprising suddenness, falling heavily to his side. He hurriedly scrambled up again, but had to turn his back, so as to haul himself up by the cage-bars by his arms once more. The back of his rough cotton tunic was crusted with dried blood.
"Never turn your back on a lady, you fool!" yelled the stockman, cracking the slave across the shoulders with the short leather crop. The aero-pilot let out a hoarse grunt of pain and nearly collapsed again.
"STOP THAT," barked Rissa. "DON'T TOUCH HIM."
It wasn't till the stockman blanched and took a step back that she realized that a wisp of glamour-of-fury had crept into her voice.
"He's hurt," said Rissa. She was unable for a moment to get herself under control, and the thin skein of glamour-of-fury unrolled around her, spreading out into the adjacent cages. All the other slaves were staring at her now, eyes wide; the stockman took two instinctive steps back; and even the aero-pilot, as injured as he clearly was, spun to face her, flattening himself against the wall. She took a slow breath, ordering herself Calm, calm, calm. Be calm. Be calm.
The glamour-of-fury slowly dissipated, though both stockman and slave were still staring at her. Rissa added, attempting a more normal tone, "He's injured. This is an injured slave."
The stockman now seemed torn between a desire to flee the scene entirely, and an apparently bone-deep reluctance to abandon a possible sale. After a moment's hesitation, he brightened and said "Perhaps the good lady would consider a discounted price?"
Rissa pulled her coin-purse from her belt.
A few minutes later and the lost aero-pilot was hers.
Even despite the discount, Rissa had to pay over an alarmingly large fraction of her dwindling stock of sun-coins. The stockman counted them meticulously before he removed the sturdy holding-chain the pilot had been wearing, fitting him instead with cheap leather shackles on both ankles, attached together with a two-foot length of roughly woven rope. (Rissa would have argued for the pilot to be freed right then and there, but that would inevitably attract too much attention). She then found herself hustled out the end of the back alley with the aero-pilot limping along behind, rather than being led back out the front where she had entered. It seemed they'd been sent out the back so as not to scare off other clients with the sorry state of her purchase.
A moment later she was standing in the side alley with the aero-pilot standing quietly at her side. He could take only short steps with his feet bound by the rope; his hands were bound together too, fastened tightly at the wrists behind him with a long cord of poorly cured aurochs-leather.
The stockman shoved a quickly scrawled bill-of-sale at her and tossed her the end of the long leather cord, saying "Remember, absolutely no returns or refunds on the sales from the back alley, I think I mentioned that before, didn't I? Now don't forget to put your own owner's collar on immediately, with your insignia, so that if he should happen to get away, he'll be marked as yours; and of course you're aware these leather ankle-pieces are temporary only, a courtesy that we provide, and you should switch to better ones immediately. Any escapes are not our responsibility and that's been upheld by the city judge, by the way. Delightful doing business with you! Pardon me, I simply must run!" He darted back into the back alley, hurriedly locked the gate behind him and vanished into the interior of the building.
Rissa stood in the dusty side-street looking at the aero-pilot. He was still as a statue.
"Tamos?" she said eventually. Again there was no response. His gaze was directed downward, fixed at a neutral spot on the ground. But he seemed very alert now, tense and poised, and she was certain he was listening.
Sun and stars, she thought. I found him. I found him. I can't believe I found him.
This isn't part of the plan.
The plan, of course, had been to search for him but to never find him at all.
"I found you," she said to the silent slave at her side. "Now what in damnation do I do with you?"