Post by Timeon on Jun 24, 2014 16:18:52 GMT
Asking for directions had never been so terrifying. Piero dala Vachio had been a foreigner in the Republic all of his life, and although he was back in the Dominion now, he felt more foreign than ever before - and not in a sexy exotic way, either.
Nobody gave him any trouble, though. He had one last package to drop off, and it was to the quartermaster, who lived in the heart of the city. As always, the streets were rather empty. In the distance, cannons boomed, causing the distant city walls to groan and bumble. Some sort of worm had been mending those walls. The portmaster's coinage had been marked with a worm symbol, too. Piero had a pretty good idea by now regarding how Lunium had survived this long.
Stepping into Lunium's central plaza, his suspicions were confirmed. In the very heart of the city stood some sort of palace. Perhaps nest was a better word, because it was not a building designed to accommodate any man. Cannonfire interrupted his thoughts. Then something began to rise from amidst the bizarre architecture of the palace. It was the worm. This worm was no soft, pink creature of the earth. Slithering out from its nest, the worm seemed to blend in with the cobbles and walls around it, pulsing with a grey hue that matched the coins which bore its visage.
He watched the worm writhe between city buildings, towards the walls, surely intent on repairing them as it had probably done every day since the start of the revolution. Once it was out of sight, Piero shook his head, all comedy gone from the moment. Then he remembered the directions he had been given, and approached an ornate building with red curtains just across from the palace.
Just as Piero was about to knock, the door opened.
Rough hands grabbed him, pulling him inside. The door slammed shut behind him.
"You're the outsider boy." a dusky voice wondered aloud. Piero was in near-darkness, and he started to panic. He reacted as he always did when panicking; with wit and charm.
"Outsider, yes. But I'll be an insider, to your heart."
Piero observed his surroundings. The man who pulled him in had his hands on the pommel of a sword. They were in a lavishly decorated room, a stark contrast to the rest of the city. A portrait hung on the wall, depicting a blazing sun on a throne. The Radiant Lord?
"Who is-" somebody asked, appearing from behind another set of red curtains, a jug and cup in hand. "Ah, a visitor. Quaint. Bring him inside. Do it quickly."
Piero was ushered into some sort of office, drowning in odd-looking objects, statues and wine-stained papers. His host waved the guard away.
"So, who are you? There's been word in town about you. You just went to the portmaster, didn't you?"
"I've got a package for you." Piero blurted, eager to be done with the charade. "From Mazzei."
His host squinted suspiciously.
"Give it here."
Piero obliged, pulling a small metal box from his backpack. It had been sealed tightly shut, without even a keyhole in sight. The quartermaster fingered it, running his hands across it greedily.
"Wonderful. Will you be staying for dinner?"
"Of course you will." The man whose name Piero didn't even know clapped his hands. The guard stepped inside. Piero caught the quartermaster giving him a knowing look.
Piero saw blackness. I was hard to breathe. He punched and kicked, realising that a bag had been thrown over his head.
"Don't struggle, boy. You'll not be harmed." he heard the quartermaster say.
The guard was too strong regardless. Piero was half-dragged through a series of halls, stumbling and clawing at the bag. Every time he tried to remove the bag or run, he received a punch to the stomach, or a smack. Then he was pushed into a room, and the door shut behind him. He pulled off the bag and saw no difference - he was in darkness.
Feeling his way around, he found that he was in a completely featureless cell. He lay back, thinking of the journey that had culminated here. Had it all been for nothing? Piero had sacrificed for family. Mazzei had always been trouble, but he had come this far, for family. It had done him no good. Would his family risk everything to get him out of here? Lorenzo...
Eventually he opened his eyes, realising he had fallen asleep at some point. He waited, but nobody came.
Then there was roar, like the cannonfire outside. This was different, though. It was too loud to be a cannon. The ground shook. Piero waited, but nothing else happened. Eventually, he went back to sleep.
He was jolted awake, hungry and thirsty, to have the light punch him in the eyes, blinding him.
"What did you do?" Hands reached around Piero's throat. "That fucking package. What did you do? The Wise Worm is dead. The Wise Worm is dead!"
A smack. A punch. Mazzei...
"Mazzei betrayed us." somebody else said. "Leave the boy. He probably had no idea what he was transporting."
"We're all dead. The Republic will break down those walls now. A week. A month. Lunium is lost."
"Leave him." the other voice repeated. Piero heard the footsteps recede. The door slammed shut.
Now he could hear the distant sound of thunder, of cannonfire, and this time, it never ceased. He went to sleep, and awoke to it. Still, no food was offered. After his fourth rest, he was starving, and still, nobody came, and still, the cannonfire continued.
Finally, the door opened.
Weak was he was, Piero took a risk. He stuck his leg backwards against the wall, and propelled himself forward with all of his might. It hurt too much to focus his eyes, but he charged anyway. He collided with someone, sending him flying. Piero did not stop to check who. There was only one direction to go, and Piero took it, darting down the hallway. He was soon face to face with the portrait of the Radiant Lord, and that gave him the direction he needed. The front door was open. Outside, he found the plaza alive with chaos. Soldiers were fighting. He wanted to cheer for the Republic, but he was not so sure he wanted them to win, either, or that they would think of him as a friend.
"Hey, I killed the Worm!" Piero could say, but who would believe him?
Then he saw that the two sides fighting did not include the Republic. The intruders bore the banners of the Empire of Malvern.
Post by HED on Jul 6, 2014 21:38:22 GMT
Unfortunately for Piero, running away from a battle arouses as much attention as running into it. While normally arousing people was something he prided himself on, he very much did not want to be stabbed to death by soldiers, be they from Lunium or Malvern. As such, he cursed his natural allure as he ran, chased by soldiers whose allegiances he did not have time to ascertain. He ducked into an alley, leaping over crates and broken furniture and scrambling up a wall. Lunium was not his city, but this wasn’t too different from shaking the guard back in Sabria. At least, he hoped it would be.
Piero scrambled across rooftops, stealing the occasional glance down to the street to check on the soldiers. Coming across a gap, he leapt over an alley. He fell short, barely grasping the edge of the next building and pulling himself up. After a few more roofs, he ducked down and then doubled back, eventually taking refuge in an attic through a hole in a roof. He heard his pursuers curse, and give up the chase. He stayed there for a while, listening to the sounds in the alley, in case they changed their mind. Piero found himself wishing he had been a better history student, for he knew very little of Malvern and how to pander to them if he were caught.
Some muffled thumping noises came from below, and Piero panickedly looked around for a weapon of sort. He grabbed an old fire iron, and cautiously searched for a way to the room below. He had just realized that he had crawled on top of a trap door when the rusted hinges gave way and he fell below. He landed with a painful thud, and groaned as he pushed himself up. Piero saw a man and a woman on a bed, staring at him, and realized what the thumping had been. He averted his eyes, embarrassed.
“Sorry, sorry, just passing through,” Piero said. “Please, continue with your business. I’ll be going now.”
After wandering through the streets for a while, Piero managed to find his way back to Luigi’s house. Most others on the streets had been panicked and running in the direction opposite of his. He had no real plan, but he hoped that Lucia could perhaps take him out of the city with less preparation due to the chaos. He knocked on the door but there was no answer. The situation being dire, he had no patience, and opened the door anyways. Piero entered slowly, and was suddenly bludgeoned on the head with a hard object.
He looked up to see Lulu, naked, holding a very stale loaf of bread as a weapon. “What the shit?” Piero said.
Luigi yelped upon seeing Piero. “Sorry! I thought you were… I don’t know, not you.”
“Why are you naked?” Piero asked, but as soon as he said it he realized the truth. She had been planning to surprise him, and Mazzei’s trick had ruined that. Mazzei had ruined a sexy surprise. Piero would never forgive the heartless bastard. “That monster!”
“What?” Luigi was confused.
“Nevermind. Where is Lucia?”
“Here is Lucia!” Piero jumped, and turned to see Lucia standing right behind him. “Why is Luigi naked?”
“One of life’s great mysteries.” Piero said. “Lucia, you must get me out of the city.”
“Have you learned to swim?”
“No. But I think you owe me a return trip.” Piero saw the look in Lucia’s eyes, and understood that he was right. Lucia was honor-bound to get him out of Lunium.
“I want to go too!” Luigi said suddenly.
“Absolutely not!” Lucia said. “Much too dangerous. And seriously, why are you naked?”
“I don’t care if its dangerous!” Luigi responded. “Piero, make him bring me too. I love you.”
“Umm, you know, I think Lucia is right about this.” Piero said.
Luigi burst into tears and slammed the door shut on Piero’s face. He stood there, awkwardly silent, with Lucia looking at him unhappily.
“I think I should go... comfort her.”
“You have done quite enough.” Lucia said harshly. “Come, Lucia will take you now.”
Lucia led him through the dirty streets, and Piero recognized that they were simply heading back to the way they had come in. He still clutched the fire iron, prepared to give any attackers a good strong poke. Lucia walked with a relentless pace, forcing Piero to keep up. Piero was soon too out of breath to ask any questions of Lucia, of which he had many. They came to the gate where they had encountered the guards before, and saw the same guards, bloody and dead on the ground. Before they could flee, soldiers came from around the corner and attacked. Lucia drew his sword and made a valiant effort to fight, but a blade caught him in the neck. Piero dropped his weapon hastily. The soldier that killed Lucia walked up and looked him in the eye.
“You are now a prisoner of Malvern. Resistance would be… unwise.”
Post by Timeon on Sept 4, 2014 17:46:37 GMT
Piero dala Vachio was sure that this would not be the last time that a bag would be thrown over his head. Freedom was proving particularly elusive. Amidst all the shouting and pushing, Piero half expected to be murdered at any moment. He could still hear fighting raging through the city, and the familiar thud of gunpowder joining in the noise.
"Put him with the others."
Somebody tripped him. He landed on his side, elbow smacking into the ground. Piero gritted his teeth, and tried to curl protectively. The sound of fighting was now peppered with repetitive sobbing from all around him. After a short struggle, he managed to push the bag off his head using his bound arms. There were people lying all around him. Piero pushed himself backwards in shock, his first reaction being to think that they were bodies. When the sobbing continued he realised that they were just people like him. Malvern was taking a lot of prisoners. But for what purpose?
Nobody paid any attention to him. Everybody seemed too caught up in their own self-pity.
"Well, suit yourselves."
He began to search for a way to escape. The cords binding his hands had been expertly done, but his feet were free. Piero rolled into a better position and hopped onto his feet. Looking past the grieving townsfolk, he realised that he was in some sort of square. The way out, however, was blocked by a barricade and several wicked looking soldiers. They were staring at him. Piero turned around and sat back down, taking the hint.
Within an hour, the soldiers rounded up the prisoners, and began to march them towards a familiar place - towards the office of the portmaster. Piero passed down the same narrow steps, prisoners behind him and prisoners in front of him, in a single file. At one point somebody slipped. With a horrified scream, the poor woman spiralled through the air and down towards the ravines below. Piero chose not to look at the outcome. She was not the last to fall. The man in front of him cursed that he would never be a slave, and jumped. It happened very quickly.
Soon Piero could see where the Malvernians had come from. A small fleet had docked beside Lunium, hugging the cliffside. There was not much of a port below to speak of, but it seemed to have done the job. The prisoners were gathered below, and then split up and put onto the various ships. Piero was thrown down into a rowing bench, the likes of which the Dominion used up north. He was starting to get a good idea of what fate awaited him.
"Damn." Piero stated, taking in his situation. He looked to the man next to him and was surprised to find that he had never before seen somebody this different. Piero had spent most of his life amongst Falorans, but even then, he had met his fair share of foreigners from other parts of the Dominion. He had even slept with a whore from Samar, once. Yet the slave beside him was of some ethnicity he had never before seen, his skin the colour of clay. The slave glared at him with eyes narrower than Piero thought possible.
"Well, hello to you too." Piero began, bullying his way past his own common sense. "Although it would probably be better to focus on escaping, I suffered a lot of social anxiety at one point during my youth. During that time, I would avoid talking to new people, even though I knew I would be seeing them a lot. That plan backfired because I would see them so often that they became acquaintances anyway, except we were always stuck in close proximity, and the only polite thing to do was to ignore one another."
The slave kept staring at him. Eventually he mumbled something in some strange language.
"Ok then." Piero said and looked ahead.
Within the hour, whips were cracking, and Piero found himself rowing for the first time in his life. Lunium began to grow smaller behind him, and with a clenching feeling in his gut, Piero realised that Jovinium itself was shrinking behind him too.
The slaves had to sleep where they rowed. Dinner was shit at best, and really shitty at worst. Piero handed his cold gruel to his bunkmate.
"Here you go, you ugly bastard."
"I am not ugly." the slave grumbled. Then he scratched his patchy scalp and shrugged. "Eat your soup, or you will die. You must be strong."
"Oh, damn. I did not know you spoke Faloran. Haha." Piero slapped the slave on the bank jovially. "How crazy."
Even now, the slave did not seem amused. Being a slave must be terrible, to destroy all good humour in this fashion, Piero mused. Then he realised that he himself was probably a slave now.
"Well, might as well make the most of it." he took his first spoonful of gruel. "My name is Piero dala Vachio, by the way. I am kind of a big deal back in Sabria."
"Shut up." the slave grumbled, and stared out across the waves. There was no land in sight, and the sun was slowly sinking lazily into the watery wasteland of nothing. "You will not last long here."
"So. What's going to happen now?" Piero managed through a full mouth.
"I do not know." the slave stated in monotone. Then he sighed. "Can you read? Write?"
"Depends what counts." Piero said, before finishing his last spoonful.
"Here is some advice to you, from somebody who has been doing this a long time. If you can prove to them you'd make a better slave doing something other than rowing, then they'll take you to Malvern and sell you at the market there. It's not a bad life on land, I hear."
"I don't really want to be a slave." Piero exclaimed helpfully. He immediately felt stupid for saying it. "I mean, I'm obviously going to try to escape."
The slave looked at him as if he was stupid. Maybe he was. Piero shrugged and listened.
"There is nowhere to go, Faloran. You belong to the Empress now."
Post by HED on Dec 24, 2014 8:09:25 GMT
Piero had lost track of the time he had been at sea when his ship finally docked in Malvern. If someone had asked, he have told them that it was purposefully done, to spare himself the mental torture of counting the days. The truth was that Piero was just careless and lost track of time even under careless circumstances. He still remembered how he had accidentally spent three days in one of the shadier districts of Sabria. He missed his cousin Gemma’s wedding and she’d never forgiven him. Piero liked to think he had good luck when it came to weddings.
The slave drivers had gone a little easier on Piero with the whip once they realized he had value beyond his arms. However, his back still ached, and he feared that the marks left would scar him forever. He comforted himself by telling himself that scars could be sexy, a sign communicating a confusingly arousing mix of vulnerability and toughness. Piero did not need to be whipped to shuffle off the ship. Quite the opposite, he would have gleefully skipped off the boat if not for the all the chains and slaves. He spied his old bunkmate, who had a difficult foreign name that he had never been able to remember.
“Bunky! Thanks for the advice!” Piero shouted, which earned him a lash.
They loaded Piero with the other valuable slaves into a crowded cart before he had the time to savor the feeling of standing on solid ground. He spent most of the ride crowded between a man with an uncomfortable amount of extra skin and a man with an uncomfortable amount of tattoos. Neither of them smelled good, but Piero didn’t suppose he smelled good himself and so forgave them for that. Remarkably, after a few hours he fell asleep, and an indeterminate amount of time later he awoke to find them approaching the walls of a city. Piero supposed he might have been impressed if he knew what this city was, but as it was he just saw walls and didn’t care much about them.
Piero was slightly disappointed to discover that he would not be sold at auction. The thought of various people competing for the privilege of his presence had rousing his ego from its slumber. Instead, he found himself sittings in mud in a dismal courtyard while finely dressed people oogled him. He did not quite care for it. Eventually, a man in a fine, brightly colored robe approached the plot where Piero sat. He was trailed by a handful of enforcers and a couple of recently purchased slaves.
“Damn, where’d you get her?” Piero’s slavemaster asked, eyeing a girl trailing the man. “She’s a real beauty.”
“On behalf of Lady Telete, I purchased this creature from an businesswoman named Corinne, come in from the east.”
“Telete is buying again, eh?” Piero’s slavemaster asked.
“Milady is indeed.” The man said, his tone light. “She has need of a scribe familiar with Faloran dialect.”
Piero’s ears perked up, but to his surprise the man with the excess skin was called up instead of him. He heard the slavemaster say something about how the man had been a scholar in Lunium. Despite the man’s obvious superior qualifications, Piero felt a little insulted at being passed over. Then he remembered that this was a slave sale, not a job interview. Despite that, he was envious. Being a scribe sounded vastly preferential to being a rower. Just when he had accepted the loss of opportunity, however, the buyer’s face turned to one of disgust.
“You are aware of Lady Telete’s standards, are you not?” The man said, displeased. “She deals with the Empress herself. Her creatures must be of a certain... aesthetic appeal.”
The slavemaster wracked his brains, and after an obnoxiously long time he recalled Piero’s existence and brought him up. The man evaluated Piero thoroughly, at one point grabbing his face to better examine bone structure. Eventually, he gave a look that was approving, though not quite enthusiastically so, and had a serving boy pull out a contract for him. While Piero’s sale was finalized, he was transferred into the small train of slaves behind the man. He noticed the girl, the slender beauty his slavemaster had admired, looking at him, her dark eyes not so slowly scanning his vaguely clothed body. Piero sensed opportunity.
“I don’t know about you, but my family is certainly going to be disappointed in me. Then again, that’s nothing new. I’m sort of the dashing rogue, bad-boy type of the bunch.” He did not receive a reply, and he considered the possibility that she might not speak his language. “What’s your name?” He pointed to himself. “Piero.”
Piero grinned mischievously. For a moment, he almost forgot he was a slave.
Post by Timeon on Feb 7, 2015 0:37:36 GMT
Piero dala Vachio's bindings dropped into the dust with a dull thud. The man who had bought him raked an effeminate hand through Piero's hair, twisting his head sideways. His green eyes held the glow of unspoken secrets.
"We'll see how long your attitude lasts, sirrah."
"Oh. But I'm looking forward to finding out too, master." Piero said with the faintest hint of sarcasm.
"I am not your master. You may refer to me as effendi." the man said, raising his head and flaunting his massive curly beard. "I will teach you our custom, worry not, sirrah. Now come with me. The Mother of All Cities waits for no man, and the sands trickle away. Lady Telete expects us before the noon meal."
The man swung on his heels, hands folded behind his back, and waltzed towards the nearest alley leading out of the courtyard. Lyala followed him, allowing Piero a faint smile. When Piero did not immediately follow, his former slavemaster cleared his throat.
"Don't want to get lost on purpose now. He already marked you with the magic sigil of Lady Telete's house." The slavemaster put a finger to the side of his nose. "If you run, they will find you and execute you in public."
Piero hurried after the man, falling into step behind Lyala.
Taking a right turn, the dull courtyard gave way quite suddenly -- to the Mother of All Cities.
Unexpectedly, Piero found himself in the middle of a gigantic street, ten thousand impatient souls smacking shoulders under the furious morning sun. Though the city was built of yellow stone, the city itself was hardly yellow. Canopies of scarlet and azure stretched over every doorway and market stall. Nearly stumbling as a one-eyed scholar knocked past him, Piero looked down. The floor was all mosaic, images of mythical green and purple enacting scenes from legend or history. A hand jolted into view from around the multitude of legs to claw at his pants. A dull eyed beggar began slinking towards him, mouth rasping foreign words.
A boot knocked the man in the head, sending him rolling into the crowd. Piero looked up and found the man who had bought him grinning at him, though the lines around his eyes were hard with displeasure.
"Drug fiends, sirrah. Beware. Sometimes it is not money they want. Stay close. Though the Archons of Malvern watch over us - Long May They Be Blessed - there are many who take advantage of their glory and mercy. You will learn, sirrah. You will learn."
They pushed into the crowd of orange silk and strange perfume. At first Piero struggled to control his movement. Not even Sabria could be this busy. But then Piero began to get the hang of it. It was an ebb and a flow. Letting the pulse of the crowd flow through him, Piero could move with it, let it drag him along. When the crowd began to ease up, for a single moment, Piero dared to hope that he had come to the end of the street. Instead he saw a monster trudging down towards him, people moving to avoid it. Piero almost yelled, preparing to run - except there was nowhere to run. The crowd's movement had pinned him before this beast, moving towards him with dark intent.
A laugh at his side jerked his attention.
"That is just an elephant, Piero." It was Lyala. "It's a beast of burden from the far south. I saw one once, as a child. One of the Archons of this city takes that form..."
Instead of getting crushed, Piero found himself pulled along beside the giant beast, until he had passed it. It did not even spare him a moment's notice.
A great wailing and singing began not long after, the next trial on this odyssey down a street. Once again the crowd thinned slightly, and Piero saw they were giving room to some performers. Men and women in brown robes were spinning and dancing, sometimes arm in arm, in the middle of the street. Their chants drowned out the babble of the crowd. At first, Piero did not understand them, but then realised they were just talking some weird dialect of Faloran."From the land of a thousand suns,
Where the great journey of the Falorans began,
From the Homeland of Archanicus,
Who brought our Faith to Man,
The fire shall laugh again,
And we shall all go Home..."
He began to lose track of the time, or where he was, as the crowd continued to thin and thicken. They were a snake, constricting around and suffocating the heart of the world.
When Piero was finally pulled from the crowd, his ears felt numb with the roar left behind. The bearded man who had bought him helped him to his feet.
"You will need to be educated. You were a dirty peasant from Lunium, weren't you? Lunium is Malvern's now. And so are you. But if you are from the Dominion, you have their poison in your mind. They think Spirit is greater than Man, but they perverted Archanicus' faith. You will learn the truth here, sirrah. Spirit and Man are equal. We are the Spirit's Chosen People, in the Heart of the World."
His smile was all too authentic. There was nothing more terrifying than a fanatic. Lyala helped Piero along, as they found themselves ascending a wide set up steps towards a fortified building overlooking one of the side streets. At the door, the man knocked and sang a short, sad refrain. The door opened, and they were led into the estate of the Lady Telete.
They found Lady Telete at lunch, seated on cushions in a large round room in the heart of the compound. She must have been in her forties, but she held herself as if she were far younger. A couple of streaks of grey were all that betrayed the Lady Telete's age. And for some reason, there was a bull sitting in the courtyard as well, though it did not have a bad smell. The beast made eye contact with Piero, and a voice rang in his mind.Do not look upon the Lady Telete with such dishonest, disrespectful eyes. You will soon know your place.
A talking bull. A Spirit...
Piero had not met many spirits in his life. Being a resident of the Republic tended to make that a scarcity. Piero tried not to show his discomfort. A talking bull...
"Welcome to my household." The Lady Telete said, gesturing for Lyala and Piero to sit. Lyala courtesied and took the smallest cushion available, sitting upon it quite daintily. Piero tried to be equally graceful, but nearly tripped over himself. He saved the moment with a charming smile.
"Hey." he said. Then he sat down.
Lady Telete ate in silence for a time. Then she motioned to some of the servants in attendance, who brought Piero and Lyala refreshments of their own, including some strange fruit which Piero had never seen before. Catching him staring at it, Lady Telete smiled.
"That is called a banana."
Piero bit into it. It was waxy and nasty.
"You must peel it first."
He did so. Then it was not so bad.
"You know my name. What is yours?"
"Lyala." Lyala said, inclining her head. "From the province of Eukos. My home was destroyed by the savages. I am paying off my debt to the Lady Corinne for rescuing me..."
"Piero." said Piero. "From... everywhere."
"Oh?" Lady Telete inquired, raising a quaint little eyebrow. "Your accent is most strange, I admit. Are you well-travelled?"
Piero was not sure whether he should tell the truth or not. Besides, he was not even sure what he counted as. Born in Varantium, raised in Sabria's alleys...
"You would be more useful to me if you were from the Republic..." Lady Telete hinted.
And then Piero told her a very embellished tale of his life, leaving out all of the bad parts.
Lady Telete ate and drank in further silence for a while. At last she spoke up.
"You must tell me all about this self-styled prince and his monarchists... Gustavius Tremeier Victurio."
"Armant Freic." Piero said instinctively, using the colloquial name of the Varantian noble whom half his family fanatically supported. Only a little too late did Piero remember that Malvern was supposedly afraid of Armant Freic, since Armant claimed that his lineage from the last emperor of the Faloran Empire was even purer than the descent of the Malvernian Empress herself.
"I'm not a fan or anything." Piero added. "Unless you want me to be, you know?"DO NOT PLAY GAMES WITH THE LADY TELETE.
The bull's obnoxious metallic voice resounded in Piero's head, making him flinch.
"Enough, Sunmer." Lady Telete said. "Excuse my spirit. He is overly enthusiastic. And... a little bit racist towards anything from outside of Malvern."
"It's fine!" Piero pointed out. "I get that a lot in Sabria, not being native and all of that. You know? Oh, well, I suppose you wouldn't?"
Lady Telete chuckled slightly.
"Oh, I do know. I was born the bastard child of Malvernian royalty and a lowly slave. My spirit makes an exception for me. But enough. You are to be a household servant and a scribe here, Piero dala Vachio. I will also require your expertise on the Republic, and on Varantium... and of course, on Armant Freic. There are a lot of forces at play in Malvern. Many who fear Armant Freic. Many others who want to put him on the throne of Jovinium, and unite Jovinium with Malvern. And one thing which always stands out to me either way, Piero, is that Armant Freic can hardly really prove his lineage, can he? He has documents, tradition, yes... but..."
Piero was not sure what she was getting at. The Lady Telete dismissed Lyala and the servants, leaving her alone with him and the familiar.
"But it would be rather easy, don't you think, Piero dala Vachio, to 'find' another long lost descendant of the last Faloran Emperor, with a great claim to power?" She looked at him knowingly, a dark smile edging up her face. "A long lost descendant who would find great wealth and power, if he obeyed..."
Post by HED on May 15, 2015 9:46:20 GMT
"But it would be rather easy, don't you think, Piero dala Vachio, to 'find' another long lost descendant of the last Faloran Emperor, with a great claim to power?" She looked at him knowingly, a dark smile edging up her face. "A long lost descendant who would find great wealth and power, if he obeyed..."
Telete trailed off, not finishing the sentence. Piero stared at her blankly, wondering if she would continue. Eventually, he decided she’d had ample time to if she wanted to.
“I think I get it,” Piero said, nodding his head. “Freic has a secret twin brother?”
Telete pressed her hand to her brow, and Sunmer snorted angrily.
“You are dismissed, Piero dala Vachio.” The lady rung a bell, and a couple servants came to fetch him. “Take him to the sleeping quarters. And get him some decent clothes. We don’t want him being too much of a distraction.”
Some time later
Piero squinted his eyes as the rising sun shone through the window onto his face. His quill scratched on the parchment noisily. He worked slowly; penmanship was not his strong suit, and Agos demanded quality results. The wrinkled, hairless old scribe, who frequently reminded him that he had been serving Telete’s family for generations, grimaced as he watched Piero work. Piero imagined that he resembled a naked rat more than ever.
Lady Telete had apprenticed Piero to Agos after he’d been in her household for a week. That first week had been the most restful he’d experienced in a long time. The Lady had ordered her that her new servants eat and rest, recover the strength from whatever ordeals had brought them to her service. At the end of that week, he was directed to the easternmost room of the compound, where he met Agos. Whatever purpose Telete had in mind for Piero, she evidently intended for him to fulfill the role he had nominally been purchased for as well.
It was clear that Agos did not think him qualified to be an apprentice. Of course, Piero didn’t think he was either, but disapproval still hurt his feelings. As he reached the end of the letter, he set down his instruments.
“Let me see that,” Agos said, reaching out with a skeletal hand to grab the letter. “Hmm.”
“Hmm?” Piero turned around in his chair. His back cracked noisily in relief.
“Almost legible.” The letter was crushed in a fist. “Again.”
Piero sighed, watching the ball of parchment fall into a pile of its predecessors, and turned back to the desk. His hand ached, the ever present soreness the came from months of handwriting, but he knew that Agos had the right to make him hurt worse if he took a break without permission. Another sheet of parchment was drawn from the pile, the quill was picked up, and a new draft begun. He’d not bothered to keep track of them. The words no longer meant anything to Piero, but when he’d first read the letter he was meant to duplicate he recognized it as a dinner invitation. The Lady Telete was hosting a party of some sort.
The muscles in his hand began to cramp, and so it was Piero’s turn to grimace. He knew he was doomed. Surely enough, his hand twitched, accidently drawing a rogue line across the parchment. Agos smacked him across the back of the head.
“I can’t believe this,” Agos said. “I didn’t think it was possible, but you seem to be getting worse.”
“Not my fault!” Piero defended himself. “My hand is sore.”
“That’s not excuse. Weakling.” Agos sighed. “I’ll just do this myself. You’re done for the day.”
Feigning disappointment, Piero sunk out of the room into the hall. As soon as he was sure that Agos could not see him, he broke out into a large grin and put his hands behind his back. When not specifically assigned to a task, Telete allowed her slaves relative free access to the compound. As such, Agos had just gifted him a few hours of freedom. He took a left turn, and headed down into the gardens, looking for Lyala.
The gardens was the sole open-air area of the compound, overlooking the streets of the city below. Planters had been formed from the trademark yellow stone, filled with plants that Piero didn’t know the names of. Lyala had been assigned to water the plants, which all the slaves agreed was the most enviable position in the household. To Piero’s delight, it was custom for the rich to create redundant positions for the purpose of showcasing their most beautiful slaves. Telete was very rich indeed.
In the weeks since entering the household, Piero had the pleasure of getting to know several extraordinarily good-looking fellow slaves, many of whom were women whose names he could not pronounce and whose speech he could barely understand. Lyala, however, remained an enigma. She caught everyone’s eye. No matter how much anyone spoke to her, nobody seemed to know her better. They all knew her story, where she was from, but attempts to describe her failed. All anyone could say of her was that she was beautiful.
Piero wasn’t really bothered by that, so long as one of the personal secrets she was concealing was not a nasty disease he’d have to worry about contracting. He’d been very fortunate in avoiding that and would hate to finally have his luck run out. It already had in every other way.
As Piero strolled into the garden, he saw Lyala pouring water into the potter of a plant with white flowers.
“Hard at work?” Piero said as he walked up to her, smiling.
Lyala smiled back.
Piero gestured towards the flowers. “Those new?”
“I’m supposed to call them butterfly peas,” Lyala said. She moved closed to him.
“Supposed to?” Piero echoed back. “They have another name?”
Lyala blushed for a moment, then Piero watched as her face contorted in disgust. Her eyes looked to the right of him.
Piero turned, following Lyala’s gaze. On the top of a fruit tree, where previously there had been nothing but air, sat an enormous grey vulture. Piero had forgotten how incredibly ugly vultures were. This one was especially grotesque, piles of skin forming patterns on its bare head. It stared at them, unmoving. It was hard to imagine such a creature entering the garden silently. Yet it had. Something about it grabbed Piero’s morbid interest, as it had no doubt done to Lyala a moment prior. Lyala moved behind Piero, shrinking from the gaze of the bird. Raising his arms, Piero took a step forward. At that, the bird took flight, rising high into the cloudless sky.
Turning back to Lyala, he looked her in the eyes, recognizing the presence of fear. He stared out beyond her, following the vulture as it flew away. Once, his curiosity would have made him chase after it. He would have bounded across rooftops and merchant carts and whatever else in pursuit of this strangely arresting bird. Piero grew suddenly very aware of the magic sigil that he was marked with.
Being reminded of enslavement was a distinctly unpleasant feeling, and so he turned around in search of distraction. He let out a sigh of relief when his eyes rediscovered Lyala. The sight of beautiful women always rose his spirits, and other things. Even when they were distressed, which Lyala clearly was. He put a hand on her shoulder.
The shout came from the entrance to the compound. Agos stomped out, clutching letters in his hands.
“At last. There you are, blasted boy,” He said, handing a satchel to Piero. “Take these to the Lady Telete. She’ll want to sign them.”
Piero sighed, taking the bag. He looked back at Lyala.
“Now!” Agos shouted.
He slunk off to deliver the goods to his mistress.
Post by Timeon on Oct 4, 2015 1:25:58 GMT
Piero dala Vachio retraced his steps towards the private apartments of the Lady Telete. At this time of day she would be enjoying tea. If not, she would be at work, writing. The satchel swung in Piero's hand with every step he took, taunting him with the mystery of its contents. He was not fool enough to find out.
I'm a delivery boy, he cursed. Delivery had taken him from Sabria to Lunium. Out of trouble, his family had thought. Look at me now. Nothing good comes from delivering things.
The Lady Telete's arms were outstretched, two pale slaves wrapping yellow cloth around her. Their eyes widened upon Piero's approach, but they dared not stop their work. Telete's head turned slightly, like a bird of prey watching him sideways. Her mouth twitched.
"How go your studies, Piero dala Vachio?"
"They're fine." Piero lied. He held up the package lamely before him, as if it could stop Lady Telete from pecking out his eyes. "Agos sent me."
"Good. I wanted to discuss a few things with you, Piero dala Vachio." She paused, expectantly, then continued. "You can put the bag down, Piero."
After he had done so, Piero pre-emptively took a seat. By now, Telete must have finished dressing, because the servants had fallen to their knees, heads bowed in silence. Telete stood there, framed by the balcony and the light of the sun behind her, making her look like a shadow creature out of a nightmare. Her face was not gentle, though she moved with an unfamiliar grace.
"How can I help you?" Piero asked, hands on his knees, half-chewing his lip. Ready to run away.
"Well, Piero. I was hoping you would tell me exactly how it was that you escaped the Republic." Lady Telete paused for emphasis. "How you escaped High Inquisitor Gori and his order, when Armant Freic did not? Your poor cousin."
"My poor... yes." Piero caught on. "My poor cousin. Yes. How terrible!"
Lady Telete chuckled sweetly, sitting beside Piero and folding her hands before her. The servants remained kneeling aimlessly in the background. Piero could not stop staring past Telete at them, wondering what their lives were really like. If his was going to be just like that.
"Piero." Telete placed a hand on his. "It must be such a burden to be one of the last true scions of House Palaienid."
"Oh, you could never empathise!" Piero groaned dramatically. He was almost too enthusiastic, he was sure. Sarcasm could be hard to hide. "So terrible, yes."
Telete's claws dug into his hand. She remained smiling.
"I'm going to introduce you to a few other folk from your part of Varantium, Piero. Contenders for your new position. They might make better pretenders than you, they might not. We will see."
Ah, so that was it. Piero had wondered - why me? And here it was. He was not so special after all. He had competition. And the price of failure - well, there usually was a price of failure - at least in the Sabrian theatre pieces he had seen.
"What must I do?" Piero asked, then looked back to the servants. "And, shouldn't we, uh, watch what we say? Word travels fast, you know. Don't want the Empress of Malvern catching wind of your little scheme."
Lady Telete's eyes shone with sudden delight.
"Oh, we have a lot to teach you about our ways, dear Piero dala Vachio. Those servants do not speak the Faloran tongue. In fact, they don't speak at all. They're savages from the jungle. Broken. Taught what is needed of them with hand gestures. They fulfil a very specific role in our society. They are, Piero dala Vachio, the perfect slaves."
Piero coughed back sudden revulsion. Telete held him down, fingernails spreading the skin of his hand thin.
"I'm not sure I want to know much more about Malvern, my lady. Sorry."
"Piero dala Vachio." she stated. "The only way out of here is going to be by marriage. You, marrying the Lord Seneschal's daughter, and making her our new Empress. That, or a quick death. Because you know too much, my dear boy. You're either in this till the end, or you sink to the bottom."
"Why me?" Piero somehow managed to hold her gaze.
"Because you happen to be from the right part of Varantium. You've got the accent, the face, the blood. Distant, yes. But it's there. And you're not alone. Others have it too, and you'll have to fight if you want to be the one to survive. This is Malvern, boy. When the Great Houses aren't squabbling in the Imperial Court, then the eunuchs are vying with the Magisterial College over the carcass of our realm. This, my boy, is Malvern. Filthy blooded and ignorant though you may be, there is a hope in you, though dim, that you can rekindle the fire of Empire."
"Are you finished?" Somehow, the time for grovelling had past. The slave mark upon Piero might be there till he died. But he did not plan on letting that be the case. If Telete wanted something from him-
"Make sure it is not you who are finished, Piero dala Vachio." the Lady Telete let go of his hand. The air left her quite suddenly, and she reclined into her chair. She made a hand gesture to the servants, who rose gently and moved to prepare tea.
"I'm sorry, Lady Telete." Piero found himself mumbling, even if he did not quite mean it. "It's been rough. It's not that I don't like spending time with you, don't misunderstand me. But I'm a little homesick."
His partial honesty took Telete unawares, it seemed. She looked him up and down, then nodded.
"You are an interesting man, Piero. Play your part, and I guarantee you that you will see Sabria again."
But there was something sour and sinister about those words, Piero thought. They sat and drank tea together, and Telete told him more of Malvern, and of herself. It was an opportune time to notice the murals and artwork in Telete's apartments, and just as good a time to remember how she had decorated her estate. All of it began to fall into place as she spoke. She spoke of the Hunter, one of the Archons of Malvern, represented through pictures of conquest and cunning. The Hunter was patron of the armies of Malvern and of its noble houses. Telete had even met him once, as a child. She had been a royal bastard, after all. Or so she said. Then she gestured at her slaves. They were eunuchs. Bound closely to the Voice of Malvern, second of the Archons. And last of all was the Scribe, who lorded over the Magisterial College and its magi-officials.
"You must learn to embody each aspect which makes a Malvernian proud. You will be taught the bow, to honour the Hunter. You will pact a spirit, in the fashion of the Scribe. And you will learn to meditate and pray, to speak like the Voice. All of the high arts of being are necessary to make you a man and a citizen. Our Empire is vast, but there are very few true citizens, Piero."
"I plan to try, Lady Telete." Piero said simply. Whether he meant it or not was something time could only tell.
Piero's lessons continued for a month before he was summoned before the Lady Telete once more.
The time had come, the Lady Telete explained, to introduce him to his competitors. And the task of proving who would be fit to be the true heir of the Palaienid would be settled in a competition. A competition of seduction, Lady Telete explained with mirth in her eyes. The victor of this competition would be the one to successfully woo a noble lady and receive a proposal of marriage within a week. The contestant with the most eligible bride-to-be would be victorious. As for the marriage itself, of course, well. Piero would have to vanish before the wedding could be arranged.
Agos led Piero dala Vachio to the estate gates that night, where Lady Telete awaited with her servants and a palanquin. A grand feast awaited, celebrating one of Malvern's religious holidays honouring the Archons. It was time to meet his competitors. Time to mingle.
Post by HED on Nov 9, 2015 2:35:12 GMT
As soon as he was released from Telete’s presence, Piero ventured to the lower impluvium of Telete’s complex. He’d taken to meeting with Layla there, its location being isolated enough for privacy but not distant enough to be accused of shirking duties if caught. Neither of them had done much in the way of befriending other slaves, but being bought at the same time had become something of a bonding experience for them. And so they met, and talked, usually insubstantial chatter about their day's work. Today, however, Piero had been taken to meet with their owner. He knew Lyala would ask about that, and wondered how much he would tell her.
The sun reflected off of the water, still pooled in the impluvium from the last rain. Only those deflected solar rays, glittering on the water and the stone around it, broke the shadows of the room. The rippling surface of the water thus made itself evident on every lit surface in the room. Those golden ripples cascaded long the lithe form of Lyala as Piero stepped softly into the room. Her black hair swayed as she jerked her head towards him in response to the noise. Piero held up his hands, as if he were surrendering. Her posture relaxed, and she stepped towards him. They stopped, facing each other, at the head of the pool.
“Damn,” Piero whispered, smiling. “I was hoping for some alone time.”
“Oh.” Lyala frowned. “I can leave if you want.”
“No!” Piero mentally chastised himself for forgetting Lyala’s difficulties with sarcasm. “That was a joke. Stay, please.”
“Okay.” Finally, she returned Piero’s smile.
“Well then,” Piero said. “Anything fun to talk about?”
“Danae told me a nasty rumor about Agos and those jungle slaves,” Lyala said. “But I would think you’d have the interesting story to tell.”
Piero sighed. “My meeting with Telete, you mean?”
“She just wanted to say hi,” Piero said, looking to the side. On the bottom of the pool, he observed tile portraits of strange looking creatures. The archons, he guessed.
“This is one of your jokes, yes?” She asked.
“You’re catching on,”
“So,” Lyala said. Her dark eyes stared at him intently.
Piero looked around, and then took Lyala by the arm. He walked with her into the shadows behind the columns. He could barely see Lyala’s face, but he could see a look a concern spread across it.
“She’s taking me to some sort of social event,” Piero spoke, voice lower than his previous whispers. “A feast, or a ball, something like that.”
“And you’re to wait on her?”
“No, I’m…” He paused. “I’m her guest. I think. I won’t be there as a slave.” Piero averted his eyes, staring at the floor. “She wants me to… seduce someone. Get them to propose in a week.”
“That’s what she’s been training you for?” Lyala’s voice sounded angry. “To be someone’s concubine? You deserve better.”
“No, no no, it’s… it’s a test. She wants to see if I can do it.” Piero explained. “I’m not marrying anybody.”
Lyala paused, looking down at her hands. “It isn’t about if you can seduce, is it?” She looked up at Piero, who bore a confused look on his face. “It isn’t about that at all. It’s about how you can judge someone’s character. Find someone desperate enough to marry in a week.”
“Uh, right. Absolutely. My thoughts exact,” Piero said. He’d never thought of it like that, but hearing Lyala say it, he felt that she was correct.
“But why?” Lyala asked. “What is she planning on using you as? A spy?”
“I don’t know,” Piero said. “Maybe.”
Lyala walked away, back to the impluvium. Piero followed slowly, observing her silhouette. Her head looked down, into the water below. There was no sound save for their breathing. He stood at her side, and followed her gaze. Her dark eyes stared back at him from the water.
“What does she want with me?” Lyala whispered, and Piero felt she was not talking to him. “If you weren’t bought just to be a slave, then what about me? Why am I here?”
Piero gazed at Lyala’s beautiful face in the water, and saw the answer. She was just a trophy to Telete, a decoration. Lyala was expendable, and he resented Telete for it.
“When is this event?” Lyala asked, still looking down.
Piero looked at the side of her head. “ Tonight.”
Lyala turned towards him, and grabbed him arm. She looked straight into his eyes, with a seriousness he’d seldom seen from her. “Be safe.”
Footsteps echoed from the hall, and Lyala dropped her arm away. Piero and Lyala turned their backs to each and and walked away, taking opposite exits from the atrium, as if they had just been passing through.
Piero tugged at the cuffs of his new clothes as he stood outside the gate. They fit perfectly, something he was quite unused to after ages of poverty and slavery. After being put through the examinations and fitting of Telete’s chief of wardrobe, Agos had escorted him to the estate. The stone pillars rose behind the gate, dimly lit by roaring fire in bronze pits below.
“Get inside,” Agos ordered.
Piero turned back to the skeleton of a man. “I don’t know how to open the gate.”
“Not the estate, you imbecile.” Agos leered. “The palanquin.”
The Palanquin, an ornate box the color of midnight sky, was nearly invisible in the shadows. The servants, more jungle slaves, had set it on the ground. They looked grateful for the rest. Piero knew that Lady Telete was inside.
“Me?” Piero asked.
“Of course, you.” Agos sighed. “Walking into the premises is beneath your station.”
“I’m a slave,” Piero said.
“Not tonight.” Agos gestured to the box.
Piero walked towards the palanquin, and as he neared the box, Agos opened a door inside. The dark of night was pierced by a gush of crimson fabric and a flood of candlelight. He stumbled on the step up, and tumbled onto the carpeted floor of the palanquin.
“Come now, Piero,” Telete said, peering down at him. She wore a bold purple robe. “These are not the back alleys of Sabria.”
“Won’t happen again.” Piero pushed himself up onto the seat across from Telete.
Telete looked at him, eyes narrowed. She gave a knock on the side of the palanquin, and the door was closed. Piero felt the box being lifted up smoothly, and soon they were moving.
“Tonight is the First Ball of the Hunter,” she explained. “You’d do well to be aware of your surroundings.”
“I thought I was supposed to be the hunter tonight,” Piero said with a grin.
“See that you don’t become the hunted. It is the Hunter’s occasion. Passion is encouraged.” Telete frowned at him. “You should speak with more respect for the Archons. Unless you want to make your competitors look the better options.”
“Speaking of competitors,” Piero asked. “Who are they, exactly?”
“The chosen of my competitors.” Telete responded. “They will, I think, look much like you. You’ll need more than a handsome face to survive.”
“So, I’m your only choice?” Piero asked. He bounced his leg slightly as the palanquin moved. He could hear muttering voiced outside.
“Piero, my boy.” Telete gave a slightly smile. “Do you really think I’d undermine your confidence like that?”
The box was set down.
“Remember your instruction.” Telete said. “Say no more than what is needed. Leave no trail to be traced.”
The door opened, and Piero squinted his eyes at the burst of light. Telete exited first, helped down by a man in unassuming dress. Piero followed, part of her train, in the open air. They walked, accompanied by a small escort, down a torch-lit colonnade. At the end of the walk they reached a stairway, ascend into a proper building. An immense door was set open at the top. Melodies drifted out into the night air through the doorframe.
“Presenting the Lady Telete!” A eunuch announced as they reached the landing.
Piero looked before him, through the doors. A pulsating, shifting mass of people presented itself, brightly colored and fast moving. He felt a bead of sweat drop down the back of his head. He followed Telete into the crowd.
Closer to the entrance, people crowded around high tables, murmuring and laughing. Slaves walked by, offering small bits of food and drink, appetizers. Beyond the reception area, the floor was crisscrossed by dancers, executing elegant choreography. A small orchestra played music Piero had only heard when sneaking into sophisticated functions that Marco attended in Sabria. Suddenly, the lessons he’d been taking once a week made a good deal more sense to him.
“The feast will be served in two hours.” Telete explained, turning to Piero. “Find yourself a dining partner.”
Piero said nothing, staring at her blankly. She was abandoning him to the crowd.
“Go on,” she said, her voice encouraging. “Mingle.”
An hour and a half later, Piero found himself leaning on a table, alone. Despite being simultaneously sexy, free and single, when it came time to mingle, he had thus far proven very much unsuccessful. Indeed, the hall was full of noble women, soft skinned and perfumed. He’d spoken with many of them. Piero remembered what Lyala had said to him. This was no mere game of seduction. Gaining a proposal of marriage within a week would indeed require more than a handsome face.
Piero had spoken with three kinds of women. Firstly, there were the women who were already married. A tall woman with straight-cut hair, dressed in black, who spoke with a accent almost too thick for him to understand. A large-waisted woman in green that wore her hair up, who talked of the theatre. A short woman with wrinkles on her face. A subset to this category were the woman he had been unable to talk to because they were already deep in conversation. As Telete predicted, many of their conversation partners looked a good deal like himself.
Next were the women he could sleep with. Finding a woman to sleep with was no great challenge; in fact, true to Telete’s warning, more than a fair few had tried to seduce him. Pretty girls, with elaborately styled hair, enticing eyes and plunging necklines. Ordinarily, Piero would have loved to play along, but that would not go according to plan. He knew the type, and knew that he was nothing more to them than an object to play with. They wouldn’t let him stay through the night, let alone want to marry him.
The third category were single women who, simply speaking, seemed far too sane. Piero had already begun forgetting them, for their normalcy. He could convince them to propose, maybe, after a long courtship, months in the works. A week would avail him nothing. He had just been talking with a perfectly lovely woman who appeared to be nearly thirty, an expert on Cataran travel literature. Her company was altogether pleasant, but Piero had seen no point in wasting his valuable time on a lost cause. He’d mumbled an excuse about being thirsty and wandered off. He sipped on a much too sweet drink and pressed a hand into his forehead.
“You look like you’re enjoying yourself.”
Piero turned his head to see a stocky man about his height, dressed in stiff black fabric with a dark beard. An ornamental sword sat at his hip.
“Oh, tremendously.” Piero replied, rolling his eyes.
“Denios Troklos,” the man said, offering his hand.
“Piero,” He responded. Lifting his elbows off the table, Piero turned around and shook the hand of the oddly friendly stranger.
“Just Piero?” the man asked, raising an eyebrow.
“I’ve always found being just myself to be fine,” Piero said. He knew that a family name was a detail that could be traced.
“If you were fine with just yourself, you wouldn’t be talking to so many woman.” Denios said, with a smile.
“Have you been watching me?” Piero asked. He gave Denois a closer look. The beard obscured his facial features. His posture was distinctively perfect. Piero straightened his back.
“Not intentionally. Just happened to notice you.” Denios paused, evidently uncomfortable. “So what are you looking for?”
“Oh, you know, something new.” Piero sighed. “Preferably long term. Someone to share my life with.” Piero flinched at his own cliché.
“Ah, well, if that’s what you’re looking for,” Denios said, chuckling to himself. “I think I’ve found your girl.”
Denios pointed to something behind Piero. He turned, following the finger to the sight of a tall woman dressed in white, her light hair curled up in a bun. She was standing alone on the other side of the reception area.
“Who would that be?”
“Ianessa,” Denios answered. He raised his eyebrows and leaned in. “Seriously? Nothing? Tough crowd.”
Piero realized that Denios had been making a joke, one he didn’t understand. “Ianessa?”
“You new in town or something?” The bearded man asked.
“I wouldn’t say that,” Piero muttered.
“Well, the Lady Ianessa has been married five times in three years. Every marriage has ended in death.”
“Her husbands’?” Piero asked, intrigued.
“And others. A couple got passed off as group suicides,” Denios explained. “Nobody knows if she’s just well connected or if she’s really good at hiding the evidence.” He shook his head.
“Handsome young men, all of them. Not rich or famous, just foolish enough to marry a woman they’ve only known for a few days.”
Piero’s eyes went wide, and he patted Denios on the shoulder. “Thank you, my new friend.” He set his drink down and began to walk away.
“What for?” Denios asked. “Where are you going?”
“I have a Lady to talk to.” Piero said, without turning his head back. He felt a foolish grin spreading on his face. His heart rate quickened. He was in love with the bad idea.
Post by Timeon on May 16, 2016 17:43:33 GMT
There was nothing obvious about the Lady Ianessa to make Piero think he was talking about a psychopathic killer bitch. Nothing except the word of the bearded gentleman, Denios Troklos. A potential competitor, or a random noble. Maybe something else entirely. The foreign and yet vaguely familiar music played around him, marking the First Ball of the Hunter. Dignitaries pranced to and fro, some bedecked in costumes to honour the Hunter of Malvern. Some interpreted their Archon as a bird of prey, others as a wolf, or even a shark, marking their worship with masks of iron or cloaks of fur or leather, embroidered in patterns that required an antiquated or schizophrenic imagination. There was a phrase Agos enjoyed telling over and over which came to Piero's mind now, that Malvern wore a thousand faces. It was not an original thought, but it was true.
"Excuse me?" the lady tilted her head. "Are you paying attention?"
Piero blinked. Then he raised a lecturing finger in the air in answer. And blinked again.
"But of course, my dear Tiffany."
"Ianessa." the lady said with a faintly sarcastic smile. "It's not a very original trick, you know. To pretend you have forgotten a woman's name, to appear distant and desirable."
"Oh, oh my." Piero managed, for no woman had said anything of the sort to him before. He had spent a lifetime seducing peasants and barmaids. This Malvernian noble, now she was different already. It was not just the clothes. It was the mind. "To be honest, if I was doing that, then it was subconscious. Ianessa. But I see your point."
"Yes, exactly. Those tricks become, as one says, internalized." with the light of amusement in her eyes, the Lady Ianessa sipped her wine, never ceasing to stare at Piero as she did so. Keeping the cup close to her velvet lips, stray curls no doubt strategically falling across her face, the charming Lady Ianessa sighed.
"You're somewhat classic yourself, my lady." Piero commented, half-defensive, more so intrigued. "The stare. The innocent eyes."
Lady Ianessa laughed in the usual forced way women laugh to appear sophisticated. Except in Ianessa's case, it was not forced. No, Ianessa was the sort of woman who the peasants and barmaids copied and tried to act like, and in doing so appeared cheap. Ianessa could get away with it. She was genuine in being a cliché. It made Piero lick his lips nervously. He caught himself glancing towards where Denios Troklos had been sitting, the man who had sent him here. For suddenly, Piero felt he was no longer in control of the situation.
"You've found me out." Ianessa giggled once more, taking another sip of her wine. Yet, had he found her out? Was she referencing her reputation as a cold blooded murderess? Was she going to murder him? She must have seen the look on Piero's face. "Oh, you've heard the rumours, then? You talk and act and as are informed as a foreigner. A slave, even. But if you know my reputation, then it means you're a foreigner talking to me with purpose."
Oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit. She knows.
Two ways to deal with it. A mountain of lies. Or some half-truths.
"Yes, I'm here to marry you." Piero admitted. "I'm a foreigner, too. You're right about me, Ianessa."
Oh, now her attention was all on him. Now Ianessa was excited. She bit her lip, moved her cup to drink, then let bit into the gold with one tooth before drinking. She laughed, and the music of the First Ball of the Hunter seemed to reach a crescendo. Or maybe Piero was imagining it. The Lady Telete's words came back to him. See that you don’t become the hunted. It is the Hunter’s occasion. Passion is encouraged.
"So forward. I don't even know your name." Ianessa said, placing her empty cup on the tray of a passing slave. The slave wore the face of a grimacing ape, carved in copper. Piero made brief eye contact with him as he passed, and he howled inside. Deep inside. This was the city of a thousand faces. The ancient Empire of Malvern, realm of slaves and poison and intrigue and- Beneath the copper mask, the slave was screaming silently. Or not. He kept walking past Piero, oblivious, lost in the music and the games around them. And he was alone with Ianessa again.
"My name." Piero repeated, dry lips parting with slight resistance. "You'll learn it. Later. I'm not done with you yet. The game, Ianessa. There's a game to be played."
"A game indeed." Ianessa affirmed. "I do like you. You've charmed me. It's working. But you know my reputation. Five men dead in three years. I know what they say about me. Is that all you know? Is that why you are interested? A connoisseur for danger? The last man to marry me did so because he thought it was exciting. He died anyway."
"You killed them?" Piero asked, impulsively. Horrified. Excited.
"No." Ianessa rolled her eyes, making Piero feel nothing short of stupid. This woman was condescending beyond her façade. "Of course I did not. I am a woman of the lesser nobility. I could not murder five men and escape the justice of the Empress by any means. I thought you smart and sharp. You're just another tourist, are you not? Where have you come from, seeking your thrills? The Republic? Varantium? Are you of House Suren? House Sistorian? A spy, perhaps, or something equally mundane?"
"Oh, not at all." Piero confessed, battling against her onslaught of pity and disgust. "No, I'm part of something far more exciting. Whether you killed those men or not has nothing to do with it, I promise."
She raised a delicate eyebrow.
"Oh? Now it sounds to me like you're letting me in on something I should not know at all. How exciting. Do you want to work with me, stranger?"
"I-" Piero started. "That depends. How did those men die?"
"I was the lover of a powerful man, long ago. The brother of the Empress. But I grew bored of him, and he of me. I got married. But he changed his mind, killed my husband, tried to win me back. It did not work. I married again. He killed again. The third man to marry me did so promising to protect me and to avenge my former husbands. He failed. The fourth man to marry me was the brother of the third. He wanted to stop the Empress' brother as well. He, too, failed. The fifth, as I have told you, was merely excited by the prospect of the danger of our marriage. I tried to use him. He was worthless. He died like the others just the same."
Piero found himself staring. Sweating.
"Why are you telling me all this?"
"Because you said you are a part of something greater. That implies power. Politics. I want to escape this web I am in, stranger. Maybe you know a way. I am not a monster. But I am hunted by one."
Post by HED on May 23, 2016 1:12:52 GMT
Port de Iachia, Varantium, Holy Dominion
Piero dala Vachio was staring up at a family portrait when his father found him. The painting was hung in the center of the main hall of the family manor. Cobwebs crossed between the tarnished gold frame and the dark wood of the wall. In the painting, an infant Piero was held in the arms of his elder sister, Dionora. Behind them stood their father, Sebastian dala Vachio, and their mother, Chiara. None of them looked very happy. His aunt Paolina had told him that painting took too long to capture the joy of a moment. Piero felt a hand tousling his hair, and looked up into the face of his father. There was a vitality in Bastian’s eyes that the paint did not capture. There was sadness, too.
“I know you miss your mother, Piero,” Bastian said. “I do too.”
“Will she be home soon?” Piero asked, looking back up at the painting.
“I hope so,” Bastian said, kneeling down so that his head was close to Piero’s own.
“How did you meet her?” He kept his eyes locked on the painting.
The expression portrayed on his mother’s face was ambiguous. Beneath her dark cloud of hair, Chiara’s eyes were piercing orbs. Piero felt that his secrets were laid bare. Of course, the only secrets he had were part of the make-believe games he played with the head maid’s daughter. His mother had conveyed that same sense of omniscience in person.
Bastian sighed. “It was almost twenty years ago now. There was a winter ball in Falor, honoring a delegation from the Arbiter. Noble families from all over the coast were invited.”
Piero listened to his father’s nostalgic storytelling intently.
“As the dala Vachio family was – and is – the most prominent family in our town, I was obliged to go. Usually I tried to avoid such social functions – most of the old families were mindless fops. This event was no different. Old men in gaudy dress, too absorbed in their own concerns to realize anyone else was even alive. But through the crowd I caught sight of a woman more beautiful than any I had seen before.”
Piero’s eyes widened. “Was it Mom?”
“Yes, yes, it was your mother. Of course, I have to talk to her immediately. I crossed the room like I was in a trance – I nearly knocked over a woman from Nazra on my way over.” Bastian chuckled. “Imagine my surprise when this otherworldly beauty tells me she’s from Port de Iachia – my city!”
“And then you got married?” Piero asked.
“Well, it wasn’t quite that simple,” Bastian said, before adding. “But yes, later we were married.”
Piero watched as his father stood up. Bastian took him in his arms and carried him down the hall.
“For a while I thought it was so strange, that it took such an occasion to meet somebody from my own town. Only later did I find out that your mother had known exactly who I was.” Bastian explained. “Chiara had gone to that ball looking to find me.”
The Mother of All Cities, Empire of Malvern
"Because you said you are a part of something greater. That implies power. Politics. I want to escape this web I am in, stranger. Maybe you know a way. I am not a monster. But I am hunted by one."
Piero knew well that people were often the very things they swore not to be. His own life held proof enough of that. His cousin had always insisted that she was not a prostitute. Agos insisted that he was not a pervert. Piero himself had assured countless women that he was not a scoundrel. Yet Vendramina shared a senator’s bed in exchange for coins. Agos molested the voiceless slaves. And Piero had escaped many beds under the dark of night. No matter what Ianessa said, Piero suspected she was a monster indeed. Perhaps not the monster he had assumed she was, but there were many kinds to be.
He swallowed. Monster she may be, but he had nowhere else to turn.
“So, what, you want me to kill the Empress’ brother?”
“Of course not.” Ianessa’s eyes narrowed. “More powerful men than you have tried. Didn’t you listen to me? Or were you too busy sweating?”
“You’ll find I’m great at multitasking, especially when sweating is involved.” Piero grimaced at his own comment. It had definitely sounded better in his head. “I heard you, but you weren’t very specific about what you meant by ‘escape’.”
“Escape is power. Escape is influence strong enough that I can trust my own armed guard not to turn a blind eye to an assassin butchering whatever man I bring into my bed.” Ianessa sneered. “My monster is legally untouchable. And practically speaking, the royal guard makes him physically unassailable.” She paused. “No, you cannot aid me like that. You would fail. A man ten times your strength would fail. I don’t need protection, I need power.”
“I’m the man for the job.” Piero responded, thrusting out his chest. “Power, that’s me, powerful and passionate.” He stepped closer to Ianessa, his side bumping into the high table. “Satisfaction guaranteed.”
He could smell Ianessa’s perfume. It was a subtle scent, unlike the overpowering varieties worn by all the other woman in the room. Nightshade blossom. The noblewoman’s mouth was flat, but there was a smile in her eyes.
“Oh, is it?” She whispered.
Before he realized what was happening, Ianessa’s hand swiftly found its way to his crotch. Piero stifled a yelp of pain and the ignoble noble woman groped him. Her face, now inches from his own, bore an inquisitive – or rather, evaluative – expression. Piero assumed his own face reflected his conflicted discomfort. The animal headed elite of the masked crowd passed them by; if they noticed what Ianessa was doing, they did not care. Apparently satisfied by her appraisal, she released her grip. Piero groaned with relief.
“Hmm, yes, I think you’ll do.” Ianessa said, with a slight grin.
Piero paused, and took a deep breath. “That was one unconventional proposal.”
“Oh, no,” She laughed, covering her mouth with a hand. “That was no proposal. You’ll have to earn that. After all, I think that’s what you want. Not me.”
Piero pressed his lips together, suppressing a frown. He had been too forward. Ianessa had realized that it was the proposal itself he desired. Unless he could convince her otherwise, she had seen the weakness of his position, that he was as much prey as predator.
“If you think I don’t want you, Lady Ianessa, you’re rather mistaken.” Piero looked down at the astoundingly low neckline of her dress. Her the white gown was tenuously laced together over her chest. Each side seemed to detest the other, as if they were threaded with opposing lodestones rather than gold. His ogling stare had been a play action to make his cover more convincing, but he no longer had to act. Fear no longer masked his arousal, though he was definitely still afraid of her.
“Oh, I do hope I am.” Ianessa twirled one of the curls of golden hair that elegantly fell from her bun. “But you’ll get neither my proposal nor my body until you’ve proved to me that I’ll benefit.” She grasped his hand. “Come, dance with me.”
Together they trotted out onto the dance floor, putting arms around each other. Piero let Ianessa lead, primarily because he never really learned how to dance. What he had done in the past, moving in time with rhythm to impress girls, that had never been dancing. It was simply a convincing imitation of dancing. Quick thinking and fleet footed, Piero knew that most observers would have no idea of his cluelessness about choreography. But no matter how confident he appeared, he knew that Ianessa was in control. Her dancing was elegant, flawless and demanding. Keeping pace was difficult. For a long time they danced, silent except for their breathing.
The next song began, a slower paced tune. Ianessa turned and looked Piero directly in the face for the first time since the dancing began. “Now, tell me who you are.”
“Piero,” he said, pausing to think of a fake last name. “Piero Troklos. Is that all?”
“Hardly. I didn’t ask for a name, I asked who you were.” Ianessa said. “I need to know if you’ll give me what you owe me.”
“How exactly am I supposed to prove that?” Piero asked.
Ianessa stepped closer to him. For the first time, he realized that she was taller than he was. She pressed her mouth to his ear, whispering. “Convince me.” His body quivered involuntarily.
“I…” Piero’s voice trailed off as they continued to sway to the sound of strings. He saw only one path forward, but he knew Telete wouldn’t like it. “If I’m being honest, I don’t have power right now. But the person I work with, the Lady Telete –” Piero saw a spark of recognition in Ianessa’s eyes. “If you help me help her, soon I’ll have more power than I’ll know what to do with. If– err, when that happens, I’ll give you what is owed. I’ll give you freedom.”
He decided it was best not to mention to Telete how many details he’d given to Ianessa. What she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.
Ianessa frowned. “And if you don’t last until then?”
Piero had no doubt the memory of five previous husbands was in her mind. “I don’t need to marry you,” He explained. “Understand? It’s a weird test, from the people I’m involved with. Influential people. Weird, influential people. I just need your proposal. If we don’t marry, I shouldn’t be a target, right?”
At that moment, a set of large gongs was rung. All dancers on the floor instantly stopped moving, including Piero and Ianessa. The deep sound billowed through the room like smoke, lingering and reverberating through their bodies. Piero could feel it in his ribs. The crowd on both the dance floor and the reception area turned to the source of the noise at the far side of the hall. A colorfully dressed servant stood before the bronze instruments.
“Gentlemen, Ladies, beloved of the Hunter, the feast is ready to be served. Please make your way to your tables”
Ianessa withdrew a palm-sized chip of wood, ornately painted and carved. He recognized various characters and words on the piece. Agos had taught him about these – crests, that identified certain prominent locations. Anybody who knew the city could tell who gave them out and where they were from. You could hand one to a cart driver in place of directions.
She slipped the crest into the folds of his clothing, and then pulled him to her. As she kissed him, Piero could taste the earthy, metallic flavor of her lipstick. Then Ianessa pushed him back. Turning, she began to walk away.
“Shouldn’t we eat together?” Piero asked. A drop of sweat dripped into his eye, and he blinked vigorously.
Ianessa paused for a moment, shaking her head. “Don’t you know anything about Malvern’s traditions?” She turned her head, showing a grin. “Engaged couples aren’t supposed to be seen together before the wedding.” She walked away, vanishing into the crowd.
Post by Timeon on May 29, 2016 23:46:08 GMT
The seating arrangements followed certain patterns and customs which Piero could just about remember from his education. If anyone had asked him to explain any of it, though, Piero was sure he would struggle to put it into words. Dinner was as much of a dance as the dancing itself. He found himself, much to his brief surprise, sitting next to Denios Troklos, the man whose surname he had robbed when forging an identity to present to the Lady Ianessa. The very man who had brought Ianessa to Piero's attention. Now Troklos was next to him, an intimidating shape in his black fabrics and black beard. The ceremonial sword was gone, if ceremonial it was. For now.
"How was she?" the heavy man said in all of his grace, adjusting the endlessly strange silverware before them on the table. Piero became aware of the man staring at him. "The Lady Ianessa."
"I don't know what I was expecting." Piero admitted, looking into his empty plate, following the intricate gold leaf patterns inching across it. "Why are you so interested?"
"Because I sent you to her." Denios did not even turn to look Piero in the eye while saying. "Obvious I would be curious, no?"
"You're a little too interested." Piero found himself being direct once again. Just as he had told Ianessa just enough of the truth to either get himself killed, or make a powerful ally. Or something else entirely.
Denios Troklos kept his faint smile, gaze sweeping across the gigantic table and its many ornamental guests.
"I'm just making sure nobody gets hurt who does not need to get hurt. I warned you about the Lady Ianessa. And helped you along at the same time. I have Malvern's interests at heart."
Piero looked away from Troklos, fighting a shiver. He had a fair idea that the large man next to him was somewhat more dangerous than he had been letting on.
"That's very flattering, Troklos."
"You're a flattering young man yourself." Denios Troklos said, finally looking at Piero. Piero saw no cold fire in the man's eyes. Just a grandfather's kindly warmth, which was strange, seeing as Troklos was nowhere near old enough for that kind of inspiring wisdom. "Listen. I think we both know how tricky Malvern can get. Whether you are an outsider or not, you are no fool. Scheming is complicated here. But you are an honest type. Direct. You are not pretensious. That means you are being used. You probably know you are being used."
Piero was almost growing tired of people around him being a few steps ahead. He promised himself that once he grew used to this country, he would be so many steps ahead that he would either be far away from Malvern, or on top of it.
"Are you friend or foe, Troklos?"
"Friend." Troklos said with a glimmer in his smile. "Not to your slave driver, but to you. Personally. Because you are a good young man. If you want to know who I am, I have already been honest with you. I am Denios Troklos. Ask around."
The food came as a mountain of shellfish, most of which baffled Piero for its peculiar appearance. Tentacles oozed out of shells, and there was no eating without cracking, peeling or digging. Most nobles present did a respectable job of working through the food, though Piero himself found that he was making a mess. Fortunately, the trouble had been anticipated. Servants were able to clean most of the mess with magic. Magic. Such a luxury. Piero remembered the ramblings of his monarchist uncle Domenico, rallying behind Armant Freic. The world's upper classes, Domenico had howled over several bottles of wine, had a monopoly over magic. Magic could solve illness, pain and hunger. It could till the fields. Yet the upper classes used it to wipe their asses. Then Piero's mother had silenced Dom... Telling him to watch his tongue. So long ago.
"Something on your mind?" Troklos asked, wiping his fingers. "You look sad and afraid."
"Just remembering something." Piero managed, shoving away memories of his real home. The one they had left behind in Varantium.
"Remembering somewhere far away?" Troklos asked.
Piero made no show of acknowledging what the man had said. More food came, and with it came drink. The slave mark that Piero wore bubbled to his mind, and with Troklos breathing down his neck and the ocean of intrigue and judgement dancing around him, burning his nose and tongue with its unforgiving power... it all led him to drink. He dared the Lady Telete to see him, to challenge him with her gaze, dare him to stop. But Piero kept the wine flowing. And Troklos soon obliged him. Within an hour they were both drunk.
"You know, I was being quite serious." Troklos said, emptying his glass. "I've got your back."
"Don't mind if I join the conversation, gentlemen." a fat old woman sitting to Piero's left interjected. He had given her the cold shoulder for the past hour, but she was once again trying to force herself into his good graces. "I do believe it would be outrageous of me to miss an opportunity to talk to the good Denios Troklos."
Troklos gave Piero a wink, as if acknowledging that he had been honest about his identity.
"By all means, gorgeous lady."
Piero leaned back, so that he would not be caught in the middle of their exchange. As subtly as was possible, which was not subtle at all, he poured himself more wine.
"How is your family, Troklos?" the plump lady gurgled.
"Young Paulus continues his studies amongst the Speakers. He will do this empire proud, I swear it. He would do anything for our Empress, even slit my throat. And what of your family, Lady Maximina?"
They prattled on, Piero paying attention only to what he could learn about Troklos. Troklos, it seemed, was a man of both wealth and immense taste. He had an estate, which Piero figured must lie outside of the city. But not for lack of importance. Maximina asked about individuals from Troklos' family or estate who would be well placed in the imperial court and beyond.
"And what about you, young man? What is your name?" Maximina asked, pressing herself ever so lightly against Piero.
"Piero." Piero answered.
The lady looked expectantly at him, waiting for a surname or title.
"Piero Troklos." Denios interjected with another wink at Piero. "A distant relative of mine, come from the provinces to visit."
Ah, Piero figured. The identity he had given to Ianessa. Could Denios Troklos have eavesdropped? Magically or otherwise? He half expected the man to turn out to be the Empress' uncle. After exchanging some pleasantries which were ironically not pleasant at all with the Lady Maximina, Piero stumbled away from the table to throw up. The wine was getting to him. When he reached a balcony and began to heave over the edge into the cobbled streets below, he rose to find the Lady Telete assessing him.
"Made any new friends?"
"Not really." Piero said, wiping his mouth. "One or two."
"More importantly." Telete continued, talking over him. "Do you have a future wife yet?"
"Obviously." Piero swayed to and fro, offended.
Telete twisted his arm. He grunted, but it did not really hurt. She was getting old.
"Don't mess this up." she hissed, then marched off.
When Piero returned to the table, Denios Troklos was gone. He never came back. The party began to die down when the desserts arrived, and the Lady Telete appeared behind him to drag him away early. Piero gladly accepted, for resisting the Lady Maximina's attentions was becoming unsustainable. They found the palanquin outside, and began the journey back to the estate. Piero did his best to let Telete's conversation attempts wash over him, using the pretext that he had drunk himself into unconsciousness. It did not work.
"Straighten up, boy. I know a fool like you can handle his drink. Throwing up over the balcony and onto the servants or no."
"Ohhh." Piero wooed. "I hate everything."
"Well I am sure you do." Telete sighed as the gates to the estate opened. "But what better way to express that than to conquer your enemies, Piero! My enemies. Either that or you go crying to your mother."
"Ohhh my mother." Piero howled, covering his face.
"Tell me about Denios Troklos. You sat with him all night. Do you know who he is, you tragic foreigner? He serves the Archon, the Voice of Malvern. He is the mailed fist of our faith and religion. A killing man."
Then the sound of shouting. A flare of light. Telete wove her hands through the air, blue fire at her fingertips.
The palanquin was lowered, and Telete and Piero ushered out. Agos was there, his sweaty pig-like face blinking by firelight.
"They've finally struck! To arms! For the Lady Telete!" he shouted at the guard around them.
Agos hurried them into the estate itself, which was apparently the safest place to be, break in or no. Within half an hour, however, Agos reported that there had not been an attack at all. Only a kidnapping. Lyala was gone.
Post by HED on Jun 15, 2016 1:21:59 GMT
City of Malvern
Arite shuffled down the cramped stone corridor, gently clutching an armful of scrolls to her chest. Except for the soft crinkling of the scrolls and the sound of footsteps of tiles, the silence of early morning was unbroken. Soon, the hustle and bustle of business would begin. The scrolls she carried to her mistress, Lady Corinne, were physical markers of the beginning of the day’s commerce. As a courier, Arite knew nothing of the specific contents of the scrolls, save for the fact that they were not to do with Corinne’s main business of slaving. Such business was exclusively conducted within the slave market. Likely the scrolls were supply orders, in preparation for their next trip west .
Mina, her bodyguard, followed her. While Arite recognized the necessity of a personal guard in the city’s lower quarters, Mina’s presence put her on edge. The very existence of her bodyguard was a reminder of the danger of the city. On her own terms, Mina herself was an unsettling sight. She towered over Arite and possessed the muscular, broad-chested physique of a boxer. Mina seldom spoke, and when she did Arite usually found herself wishing she had not. Despite her apprehensions, Arite knew that she would have been mugged already had Mina not been beside her. Slave-traders, dealing with large amounts of coin, were tempting targets. Even their employees, like Arite, were often attacked if found on their own. Mina’s unpleasantness was a small burden to bare if it spared her a robber’s blade, or worse, the loss of her mistress’ property.
They emerged from the hallway into the Slaver’s Yard, adjacent to the muddy courtyard of the slave market. The smell of smoke filled the air, a usual scent in the area. Slave-traders lived there while selling in the market nearby. The ground was a spiderweb of cobblestone streets and dirt platforms. Caravans of wagons were circled up within the dirt clearings and covered with tents, forming various independent compounds. Fire were stoked all day to cook breakfasts and dinners. Corinne’s compound was at the far end of the yard, her five wagons arranged in a star formation.
As Arite approached the compound, she noticed an abnormally large plume of smoke ascending from within. She had seen this before, when Corinne had welcomed delegations from houses wanting to buy her merchandise in bulk. The creation of a feast suitable for such numbers of people necessitated a great deal of fire. Arite had not been informed that such negotiations would be occurring, but as a messenger this was not necessarily abnormal.
“Lady Corinne, I’ve returned,” Arite shouted, entering the circle of Corinne’s wagons.
The scent of smoke became overpowering as they walked in. Besides the crackling of flames, Arite could hear nothing at all. She froze momentarily in the entrance. There was none of the noise that a large feast would cause, either from the chefs or from the consumers. There was not even the normal sounds of the compound at morning. Arite heard the sound of Mina unsheathing a sword. Walking a few tentative steps forward, she turned her head to the left, and saw that the smoke was emerging not from a cookfire, but from one of the wagons in the circle. The tent above the wagon had redirected the smoke into the middle of the compound. In front of the wagon stood the scribe that curated Corinne’s records, unmoving as a statue.
Mina grunted an order for Arite to stay put, and rushed towards the wagon. Arite realized that the burning wagon was the archive. Mina shook the old scribe by his robes, but the old man simply fell to the ground. She then ran to call for a fire brigade, but Arite knew that it was only to save the other wagons. The scrolls within the archive, no doubt already lost to the flames, recorded every transaction Corinne had made in her career. All records of what slaves she had sold – and who had bought them – were destroyed.
“Lady Corinne!” Arite repeated. “Corinne?”
Arite looked around, and saw that the entirety of Corinne’s crew stood before each wagon, just as the scribe had. The number of actual permanent employees was small; mercenary crews cycled out locally, and housed separately when in Malvern. Corinne’s personal wagon was the only one without somebody standing blankly before it. Arite approached the wagon with unsteady steps. Her mistress should have been seated within, working on business, but there had been no response to any of Arite’s calls to indicate her presence. Neither was she standing enchanted with the rest of the crew.
Pushed her way inside the tent that covered the wagon, Arite heard a splash of liquid from below and felt a warm liquid saturate her shoes. As her eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, she realized that she had stepped into a puddle. Curious, she looked up and beheld the inverted face of Corinne. The scrolls dropped from her arms, splashing in the puddle. She attempted to scream, but all sound died in her throat.
Corinne’s body, rope tying her limbs tight together, hung from the top of the mighty tent pole by her ankles. Blood steadily gushed forth from eyeless sockets. Arite realized the grim nature of the liquid soaking her feet. Corinne’s hair, usually pristine and golden, was caked together in a slab swaying gently back and forth.
On the table behind Corinne’s hanging corpse sat a single, ashen grey feather.
Telete’s Estate, Empire of Malvern
August, the Night Before
“Are we there yet?” Piero asked, again, as he swayed back and forth in his seat.
“You’re already inside,” Telete said, irritation evident in her voice.
“Oh, right.” Piero burped. “Where am I again?”
The two of them sat alone in the dark palanquin, which Agos had sequestered in a windowless stone saferoom. Piero turned his head to stare out the open door. He saw an unadorned room of polished, slightly yellow sandstone. Only then did he remember that the lacquered black door of the box had been left open at Telete’s insistence, as the chamber of dark wood and thick red cloth had a tendency to trap heat.
“Drunken fool.” Telete shook her head. “We’ve been secluded for our own safety.”
“Shafety?” Piero spoke with a slur. “What’s going on?”
Telete growled and pressed her hand to her face. “There’s been an attack. On my estate.”
“What?!” Piero shouted. Panic became visible on his face and he fell to his side on the palanquin seat. “Oh noooooo.”
Rolling her eyes, Telete rose and exited the palanquin. Piero could hear the click of her shoes on the stone as she paced in circles around him. Memories of their troubles arrival came back to him, and he calmed somewhat as he realized the security of his position. He had little in the way of friends amongst the others in the Estate. Most of the other slaves had taken notice of the easy treatment he received and resented him for it. Only Lyala had made any connection with him.
Despite the heat, Piero could not muster the energy to leave the palanquin, or even to remove his stiff new jacket. After what felt like hours to Piero, he heard a door open.
“All is clear, my Lady,” Agos’ voice announced. “We misjudged the nature of the incursion.”
Hearing Agos’s voice, Piero picked his head off the red cloth of the seat. Stumbling to his feet, Piero wandered out the palanquin. Much to his satisfaction, he did not fall on his way out of the box. Agos, a naked mole rat of a man, stood between an open oak door and Telete. Piero marveled at the wide variety of functions that the man performed. He was evidently not the simple scribe he had assumed.
“Explain yourself, Agos.” Telete demanded. “Now.”
“It wasn’t an attack, but a kidnapping,” Agos explained, rubbing his hands together. “A robbery, really. One single slave was taken. Nothing else was damaged, and nobody was hurt. No disturbance at all, except the one slave.”
“Who?” Piero blurted out as he staggered to meet them at the door.
“I believe she was named Lyala,” Agos stated. “Nobody essential.”
Piero’s heartbeat quickened, and he believed that he felt his head clear. He pushed past Agos, who cursed back at him, and walked through the door into the hallway.
“Piero dala Vachio,” Telete shouted after him. “Where exactly are you going?”
“Lyala.” Piero blurted out. “Lyala, kidnapped. Must help.”
“You’ll do no such thing.” Telete crossed her arms. “Even if you weren’t in such an impaired state.”
But Piero was not listening, but had continued marching down the hallway. He passed by a large open hallway on his left and kept on walking.
“Wait, stop!” Agos shouted. “You can’t–”
“Sure I can,” Piero said. “Why not?”
As he stepped forward, Piero felt himself falling. It took a moment for him to realize that it was not just a trick of his inebriated sense, but his first collision with cold marble convinced him of the reality of the experience. He tumbled down the stairs without the slightest bit of dignity. He settled at the bottom, on his stomach. He attempted to push himself up, but slipped to the floor with another thud.
“Oh,” Piero said softly.
Groaning, he admitted defeat and dropped his head to the floor. Twisting his body, Piero managed to flip himself onto his pack. The cold stone felt comfortable on his sore and overheated body. He heard concerned voices from the top of the stairs as he drifted off to sleep.
As Piero blinked his eyes open, the familiar tiled ceiling of his sleeping quarters gradually came into focus. groaned. Blue tiles were inlaid within white plaster, creating the image of a garden. A ray of sunlight poured through the window above him. Piero had never been more glad that the bed was not placed within direct silent. His head pounded, which he could not conclusively credit to either his fall or his drinking the night before. Only half awake, he remembered nothing of the night. However, he had woken up after many a drunken falls in his time in Sabria and recognized the sensation. Looking at his body, he realized that he was wearing nothing but a fresh pair of cloth shorts. While he slept, he had been stripped and bathed.
Agos sat by the bed on a wooden stool, staring at him with half-closed eyes. The wrinkled creases on his face seemed to dip lower than usual.
“The sleeper awakes,” Agos said, and released a deep sigh. “About time, you miserable idiot.”
Piero rubbed his eyes with a hand. “That’s not what your mother said.”
The old man grimaced at him. “We’ve been over this, Piero. That’s a terrible response.” He paused, and then added. “And not because you utilize it excessively.”
Piero stared at him blankly, and repeated, “That’s not what your mother said.”
Agos rolled his eyes. “The Lady Telete will be glad to hear that your fall has not altered your behavior,” Agos said, standing slowly. He constantly shook with the slight tremors of age. “I, on the other hand…” He shook his hairless head and turned for the open doorway.
“Agos, wait.” Piero sat up and leaned against the wall. “Last night…”
The old scribe stopped in the doorway, turning his head back. “Yes?”
“Umm,” Piero said, and fell silent as he began to think. Bit by bit, memories returned to him. The Hunter’s ball, the drinking, Lady Ianessa, the vomiting, the moping, the attack on the estate… “Lyala.” He said, as much to himself as to Agos. “Lyala was kidnapped.”
“And you made such a fuss about it,” Agos said.
“Well?” Piero said. When Agos said nothing, he continued. “Have you rescued her yet?”
“Just why exactly are you so concerned?” Agos replied. “I’d have thought you be happy for her.”
“Happy?” Piero said, setting his feet on the floor. “Why in the world would I be happy?”
“I really have to explain this to you?” Agos said, voice seeping with frustration. Piero gave him a glare and a slight nod. “This girl gets stolen out of slavery, and you think she needs rescuing from that? As far as I’m concerned – and bet the rest of the slaves feel the same – that was the rescue.”
“How do you know?” Piero said, raising his voice and standing. “How do you know that whoever kidnapped her isn’t some doped up lunatic? How do you know she isn’t in danger?”
“If she was here, she’d be a slave,” Agos explained. “Where ever she is now, she’s only maybe a slave. But maybe she’s free. When I was her age, that was a chance I would have taken.”
Piero fell silent. He had not stopped to consider such a possibility, not really. There was something else about what Agos said that caught his attention. “What are you saying?” He asked. “That you were a slave like us?”
“No, I’m saying I was a slave like her,” Agos said, anger in his voice. “You, Piero dala Vachio, are not a slave like any other that’s lived within these quarters. You have been pampered. Clothed, educated, fed well, disciplined lightly, worked leniently.” He pushed Piero down onto the bed. “You are a guest at a boarding academy, and your graduation gift might be the whole damned country.”
Piero started to stand back up, but decided against it when he saw the anger on Agos’ face.
“I was fifteen when my mother sold me as a slave, to Telete’s grandmother. On contract for a dozen years. Not a life contract, but when I finally had my freedom...” Agos leaned down and stared Piero in the face. He attempted to turn his face away, but Agos grabbed it and held it still. “I wasn’t free at all. I didn’t know how to live outside the estate. If I hadn’t gotten a job from the family, I’d have starved to death in a back alley somewhere. I never learned how to do anything other than serve. I still haven’t. But if I’d gotten out earlier, younger...” Agos let go of Piero’s face and turned, sighing. “No, I was never a slave like you.”
Agos stepped back towards the door. Piero opened his mouth as if to speak, then closed it and silently stared at the floor, while Agos breathed heavily. Without lifting his head, Piero spoke. “You never answered my question.”
“No, currently Lyala has not been apprehended.” Agos explained. “Telete has decided that at this moment, it is not a matter worth expending her resources. Once the estate is secured...” Agos shrugged. “I’m sure you’ll be summoned to her within the week. Ask her yourself, if you’re really so inclined.”
“Oh, I almost forgot.” Agos added. Piero lifted his head to look at him. “Training is over. You’re to report to the copy room. First day as an official scribe.”
When he had dressed in his usual clothing, Piero made his way to the copy room. Located at the lowest portion of the estate, the building was a long, beige rectangular prism, lined with narrow windows at the top of the walls. He had been to the doorway of the building many times, to procure supplies for his private lessons with Agos. Always he had been handed the materials by a slave at the doorway, never allowed inside. Within, private documents and letters concerning Telete’s affairs were reproduced. Security was considered a serious matters. This time, however, the slave lead Piero inside.
Piero beheld rows upon rows of desks. At each was a seated a slave, bent over with a quill in hand. The scratch of the quill on paper was the only sound in the air. Each desk had a large, unlit lamp sitting on it, obviously to prepare for the late evening hours when the sun’s light would be insufficient. Large stacks of various sizes grew on each desk. When a stack reached a certain height, another slave would fetch the papers while the scribe continued to write. At the head of the room, a supervisor sat at a desk reading a book.
The slave that had let him into the room directed him to the sole empty desk within the building. As Piero sat down, the slave walked away without a word. He looked up to the supervisor, expecting instruction, but corpulent man gave no indication of diverting his attention away from his book. Piero found a quill and a sealed bottle of ink at the far end of his desk. On the left sat a small stack of pages already covered with writing – the materials he was to copy. Next to it was a blank collect of pages. He picked up the text of the top of the pile and read the first entry written within.
Piero scratched his head. He had been expecting more invitations to events, letters to business contacts, official works. He could not imagine that everybody in the room was copying history texts. While Piero did not know what exactly Telete spent her time doing when not plotting to control Imperial successions, he doubted bookselling was involved. raised his hand in the air. When there was no response, he began to wave it back and forth with gradually increasing speed.
The supervisor spied Piero’s waving out of the corner of his eyes, and looked up from his book. “What are you doing?”
“Raising my hand.” Piero said.
“I can see that,” the supervisor said with a growl. “Why?”
“I have a question.” Piero stated. He raised the text into the air. “I’m supposed to copy this?”
“Yes, you are.” The supervisor answered. “And you’d better start doing that soon, if you don’t want to be whipped.”
Nodding uncomfortably, Piero picked up the bottle of ink and attempted to twist off the cap. His hand, unable to gain traction on the smooth glass, slipped around the stopper. He tried once more, pressing his hand tightly on the glass, but all this accomplished was the production of a high pitched squeaking sound. After a half dozen more attempts, each with their own particular loud noise, Piero noticed the supervisor staring at him with a red face. Piero forced himself to chuckle and gestured to the bottle with a shrug. The supervisor’s expression remained unchanged. Sticking the bottle under his tunic, he grabbed the cap with the cloth and twisted hard. The additional friction brought the stopper out of the bottle faster than Piero had anticipated, resulting in a splash of ink that left a black stain across his white shirt. Delicately placing the ink bottle back on the desk, Piero wiped his hands on his pants and picked up a quill.
After copying the text on the varying scientific accomplishments of ancient Falorans, Piero looked over the next text. It appeared to be a partial summary of Malvern’s martial history.
The text went on to discuss of the Malvern-Sali conflict up to the time of the Battle of Shatterbridge. Piero felt has hand aching by the time he was finished with the work. At that moment, a door opened behind him. A woman walked by, a slave, holding a pitcher in her hands. Piero recognized her as a Salimon. The women of Sali had been described in detail by the text he had just copied – the olive skin, the prominent nose, the black hair. He found himself empathizing with the tales of soldiers who came home from battle in Sali lovesick for a local girl he left behind. After she poured a drink for the supervisor, she looked at Piero for a moment. It was brief, but long enough for Piero to be sure that he in particular was the target of observation. The Salimon slave then turned and exited, just as quickly as she had come.
Piero sighed, disappointed that he was not to receive a drink himself. His mouth was growing dry. Sensing the glare of the supervisor, he began copying the next text. It was a discussion of origins of Malvern’s Triumvirate of Archons.
The text continued, describing the history of the three Archon cults in the time since independence. Piero sighed again. It was going to be a long day.
The day was long indeed, as was the day after, and the one after that. Each day, Piero would report to the copy room and reproduce a stack of texts dealing with historical, social, and political matters. Each day, the Salimon girl would come through to refill the supervisor’s glass, and would stare at Piero. Each day, Piero hoped to be summoned to meet with Telete, and returned to his quarters disappointed. Each day, Piero was preoccupied with daydreams, worrying about Lyala.
On the fourth day, Piero walked out of the copy room shaking his aching hands. The sun was setting behind him as he headed up to the garden to relax. Once there, he leaned against a clay potter. In the pot Piero recognized the butterfly peas that Lyala had been watering, the gentle white ovals. He closed his eyes, feeling the warmth of the sun on his face as he reminisced.
A soft, female voice interrupted his daydreaming. “Somebody’s living the easy life.”
Piero opened his eyes and looked up to see the Salimon girl. She was wearing a dress made out of the same white cotton as his own clothes. Based on the jar in her hands, Piero assumed she had come to water the plants. From where he sat, her head eclipsed the setting sun. Her dark hair was transformed into a brilliant corona. She smiled wryly.
“Looks can be deceiving,” Piero mumbled back. “What’s your name?”
“Your’s first, pretty boy,” the Salimon girl looked at him with predatory eyes. He felt transported back to the Hunter’s Ball.
“Piero,” He said, looking up at her. He noticed that the light of the sun outlined the shape of her body under her dress.
“Nahid,” she said, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear.
“Well, Nahid, I’ll have you know that my respite is well earned,” Piero said.
“Oh, I’m sure.” She smiled and began watering the plant above his head. “You do know that Angilas goes easy on you?”
“Sure,” Piero said. It was hard not to notice that while other scribes would finish several stacks of papers during the day, he had only just barely produced a full stack during his time working there. Yet the supervisor never had a word for him, so long as he was writing. “But my hand still aches.” He stretched out the fingers of his writing hand and clenched them together.
“Not too much, I hope,” Nahid said. As she finished her watering, drops fell down onto Piero’s head.
“That’s what this one’s for,” Piero said, raising his non-dominant hand. “I’ve been told I’m practically ambidextrous.”
“You’ll have have to show me,” She said, grabbing his raised hand and pulling him up.
“It would be my pleasure,” He responded, grinning. “When does your shift end?”
Still holding his hand, Nahid started walking away. “It just did.”
In hindsight, Piero wished he had been considerate enough to bring Nahid to his own quarters. When Nahid complained rhetorically that there was no privacy in the communal slave bunks, he nodded along in agreement. However, it was the first he had actually heard of the bunks. He had never discussed sleeping locations with Lyala, and had just assumed that his private room was the standard. It was hardly a nice room, after all. Piero, embarrassed by his own ignorance, said nothing about his private room. As such, Piero found himself copulating with the Salimon slave girl in an stuffy broom closet in an obscure corner of the estate.
When they were finished, Piero dropped his head back onto a dry mop and stared at the ceiling. Nahid patted him on the chest and began disentangling their limbs. He sighed as he felt her weight lift off his body. After cleaning herself off with a spare towel from the closet, Nahid threw a towel at Piero.
“I suppose easy access to towels is one of the advantages of doing this in a closet,” Piero said, grabbing the piece of cloth.
“That’s been my experience,” Nahid replied, threading her body back into her dress.
Piero sighed again and stared back at the ceiling.
Nahid rolled her eyes. “For your sake, pretty boy, I hope that sigh wasn’t a possessive one.”
“Oh, no, that wasn’t about you,” Piero said. “I was just thinking about Lyala.”
Nahid laughed, briefly. “The one that got ‘kidnapped’?” she asked. “Lucky girl.”
“Lucky.” Piero repeated. He could hear the skepticism in his own voice. It seemed that Agos was right; the other slaves weren’t concerned.
“Nobody in their right mind is going to risk breaking into a place like this just for a pretty face,” Nahid said, once more looking down at Piero’s face from above. “And anybody crazy enough to try that wouldn’t be good enough to get away with it. No way it was anything but a rescue. Family, probably. It's been known to happen.”
Piero shook his head. “No matter how much I hear that, I can’t feel good about it.”
“Don’t be selfish,” Nahid said.
“I’m not. I’m just…” Piero paused. “I don’t know.”
“You couldn’t have known her more than a few months,” She replied. “You’ll forget her in a few more.”
“I don’t think so,” Piero said, sitting up. “I have – had – this friend back home. Met him when I was young, new in town. Son of a noble, you know, never taken a punch in his life. I’d known him for only a month, when I get cornered by a gang. But damned if Marco didn’t charge right in and try to help me. And I would’ve done the same for him. You don’t abandon friends.”
“I’m a slave,” Nahid said, raising an eyebrow. “I don’t have friends anymore.” She kicked his balled-up pants over to him. “Better get dressed, pretty boy. “
Before Piero could say anything, Nahid opened the door and walked out. It stayed wide open, blinding him with sunlight. He hurriedly put on his pants and then ran to the door. He glanced around, hoping that he had not been exposed. Down the corridor was a shriveled old lady, another slave. She smiled at him and waved. Smiling uncomfortably, he put on his shirt and set off to the mess hall.
Piero’s copyroom routine continued as usual for the subsequent three days just as it had for the preceding three. He did not see Nahid outside of work again, which did not disappoint him. Quite frankly, he had found her to be unpleasantly jaded. Not that he regretted sleeping with her. Piero could tell that, aside from the physical attraction, Nahid held as little interest in him as he did in her. This sort of arrangement was something of a familiar comfort to him. In Sabria, he had more than once slept with girls who his sisters assured him – correctly – were highly disagreeable.
On the eighth day after the Hunter’s Ball, Piero once again reported to the copy room. Settling in at the now-familiar oak desk, he picked up the sole text that was placed on his station.
What followed was something he had not encountered within any of the other documents he had been charged with copying: illustrations. The text on the imperial lizard contained numerous images. A diagram placed great importance on the subtympanic shield as an identifying piece of the iguana anatomy. Other diagrams explained the correct size and arrangement of the spines, the patterning on the dewlaps.
All these diagrams Piero attempted to copy accurately. The diagrams identifying the coloring of the iguana, however, proved a challenge. He only had access to black ink. Just as he was about to raise his hand to ask the supervisor for some colored ink, Nahid walked in. As she poured Angilas his water, she whispered something in his ear.
“Piero,” Angilas said aloud. “You are done for the day.”
“Have I done something wrong, sir?” Piero asked.
“You follow her.” He pointed at Nahid. “Now.”
Replacing the stopper on his ink bottle and setting his quill down, Piero hurried to his feet. Nahid opened the door and left without a glance at him. He followed after, the door nearly hitting him on his way out. He caught up with her as she was halfway up a large set of stairs.
“What’s going on?” He asked, panting. “This isn’t about the other day, is it?”
“Not that, pretty boy,” Nahid said. “Agos told me to fetch you to him. That’s all I know.”
Piero sighed with relief.
At the top of the stairs, they found Agos waiting. The old scribe muttered words of thanks to Nahid and then sent her away. Turning to Piero, he told him that their Lady Telete had summoned him.
“Congratulations, Piero dala Vachio,” Telete said. “You won.”
Lady Telete was seated on a cushion across from Piero, her familiar Sunmer seated behind her. Her robe was a mint green. Piero sat uncomfortably on a cushion of his own. Agos stood silently in a corner.
“Awesome!” Piero said, fist pumping. “Wait, what did I win again?”
“The competition of seduction,” Telete answered.
Piero stared back with a blank face.
“The Hunter’s Ball. The proposal.” Telete paused after each item in her list. “Lady Ianessa.”
“Riiiight,” Piero said, nodding. “I’m getting married. Or something. I think.”
Telete pressed her palm for her forehead. “Not yet, and certainly not to that black widow of a bride you seduced,” she said. She pulled Ianessa’s chip out of a fold in her robe and tossed it to Piero. “But eventually, yes, to the Lord Seneschal's daughter.”
“Right, and what’s her name again?” Piero said, pocketing the chip. He owed Ianessa a debt.
“All in good time, Piero.” Telete smiled. “You have a few steps more to go. Agos tells me you actually hit the target with every shot in your last archery lesson, so soon you’ll be fit enough to please the Hunter.” Telete paused. “And your studies in the copy room have been thorough.”
Piero nodded. He had figured that out himself. His position in the copy room was a smokescreen, a way to educate him through copying of texts.
“Once you pact a spirit – your familiar will be the Malvernian Iguana, which you should be familiar with now – you’ll be ready,” Telete continued. “After that, you’ll be positioned in public. You’ll meet the future Empress. And then…” She paused. “It will be a new era, Piero, not just just for Malvern.” She grabbed a scroll and began to read from it.
“Panic has arisen throughout the Dominion since word of the Arbiter’s death in April has spread. Armant Freic – also known as Gustavius Tremeier Victurio III – released a public statement in response to the news…”
Piero’s eyes widened. It had been a long time since he was a child in the Dominion, but the Arbiter’s Common Law had still formed the basis on his life and education in Varantium. He could not imagine the Dominion – could not imagine the world – without the Arbiter. He hadn’t even considered the idea that Archons could die. Real life was very different from his history books.
“Shit,” he whispered to himself.
“Indeed,” Telete said. “The Dominion’s stability is gone. There will be war, civil or otherwise. It could be a year from now, or a decade from now. No doubt the Republic sees the opportunity. Malvern certainly does.” “Exciting times ahead, Piero. You may go.”
Piero did not rise. “Lady Telete…” He started.
“About Lyala,” Piero said. “Agos said you aren’t searching for her?”
“Hardly worth our time,” Telete said, and then smiled. “But really, it quite the bit of good luck for us.”
Piero stared, incredulous.
“This break-in gives us the pretext to increase security without suspicion. And what’s security right now, will be our enforcers later. If there’s trouble, which given our pursuits is likely. I’ve already doubled our staff, with more on the way. The guard’s house is fast on its way to becoming a barrack” Telete rubbed her hands together. “Moreover, the intruder used magic to infiltrate us. I’ve contracted some top-notch magic security experts. Yes, we will be quite ready for the challenges to come. All without arousing suspicion.” She smiled again. "We're certainly ready in case anybody comes after me to tear my eyes out."
"That's... weirdly specific," Piero said.
"The Lady Corinne was found murdered a week ago. Hung upside down with eyes removed," Telete explained. "She was a slaver. We bought Lyala from her. Probably the same culprit in both crimes."
“She could be in danger!” Piero shouted. “You’re exploiting this for yourself, instead of helping her. I could be rescuing her!” The words came out without premeditation.
Telete laughed. “Chivalry is a lie, Piero. Men do not save women. Women save themselves. Men are just one of their many tools to do so.”
“At least tell the city guard about her!” Piero insisted, standing up.
“The last thing I need is the city guard looking into my affairs,” Telete said, frowning. “Forget Lyala, Piero. There are more important things for you to think about.”
Piero glared silently at her.
“Do you understand?” Telete asked.
“Perfectly,” he said, clenching his fists.
“Then you are dismissed,” she said. “Resume your studies.”
Piero walked swiftly out of the room, brushing off Agos. He would be studying indeed. It would take close attention to figure a way out of the estate, so find Lyala. But if nobody else would give a damn about her, Piero resolved, then he would.
Post by Timeon on Jun 15, 2016 4:40:35 GMT
Telete’s Estate, Empire of Malvern
Piero did not mention Lyala again. He would let them think he had moved on, had stopped caring. He continued his duties under Angilas, studying the obscure, the profound and the mundane. As he did so, the estate began to change around him. It was no longer confusingly exotic in a way that made everything look the same. Now things had meaning. Reclining on a magnificent red sofa, curtains swooning in the warm breeze before him, Piero could look out at magnificent Malvern and recognize it. Beyond the limestone lions and statues of deceased ancestors lording over the estate, Piero could spot the tremendous towers of the Imperial Palace lording over the metropolis. No mortal mind could envision such immensity. The laws of nature would decree that such a building must buckle under its weight, surely. But no, the Palace - a city within a city - was said to be ever growing. Growing upwards into the heavens, Agos had said. And some also claimed it grew down, spiralling into the earth. A fortress to bridge the world of spirit and man, ever made larger and more terrible, its very foundations held together by runic magic whose language had been forgotten by the Archons themselves.
And here Piero was, slightly stiff, both from sore muscles and from untended desires. The world was far larger than he had ever thought. And a part of him wanted to see it all. But another part of him had seen enough. Lyala was out there, in that insanity, that chaos. And she needed his help. Did he love her, he pondered? Or had she just become the one to get away. Literally.
"Or maybe I'm just a decent person to want to save her from a psychopath." Piero muttered under his breath.
Shadow fell across him as a gust punched the curtains past his sight. Dry leaves swirled atop the terrace, a few coming to rest at his feet. He bent down from the sofa and picked one up. How long had it been since he had seen green? He crushed the leaf in his hand, letting the coarse bits fall through his fingers or stick to his sweaty palms. Ashes to ashes, dust to- Pits below, but the bloody Arbiter was dead.
Looking out at the gigantic Imperial palace beyond, Piero suddenly felt less small. Because even Gods could die. And the Lady Telete knew it. She knew it well enough to challenge Malvern itself. And he was stuck in the middle of it. Unless he found Lyala, and got out. Somehow. Took her back to Sabria, to his uncles and cousins. Head throbbing with other people's memories and arcane schemes, Piero covered his head and sunk his face into the pillows upon the couch.
He lay there until he felt hot breath snort down his backside. Half screaming, half growling. One leg kicked, but he grunted in pain as it hit stone. No, not stone. It was Sunmer, the leathery bull Spirit who served as the Lady Telete's familiar. Its amber eyes burned into Piero's own, drawing him into them. He tried to push himself away, but one hand found only air, and then Piero was on the ground. Sunmer stood above him, hot breath on Piero's face, horns of black obsidian lowered towards him.The Lady Telete is growing old for a human. Her womb is dry. But humans are short-lived. And so, forever young.
the bull's voice intruded into Piero's own thoughts. This is what a landslide must sound like, Piero thought, as Sunmer pressed deeper into him. And it is for this reason, slave, that each House has a patron such as I. I have served this House for three centuries. THREE CENTURIES.
"I'm sorry-" Piero managed, trying to push his way out from under Sunmer. But the bull closed the distance in one heavy step, head lowered further.All our hopes entrusted to you. A foolish gamble. An impossible hope.
"Then, why?" Piero croaked, his eyes wet. Sunmer's breath nearly blew his head into the tiles.The Lady Telete bore no issue. Her womb was dry long before her first grey hair. A curse of the flesh that has run in her bloodline, boy. Her House will die with her. She places in you all the hopes of her once great lineage. A desperate gamble. You humans think your sentimentality a virtue, but it can also blind. I tell her tales of her forefathers, for I fought and served beside them in my three centuries. I make her remember a time that is lost. And she weeps by candlelight, to know that all which is beautiful is dying. That she is the last of her House. And so, too, Malvern's music is music of mourning. There is only life in the past for this Empire now. Only the past moves us. Only that which is already dead. For the sun ceased to rise for us when Radiance betrayed Heaven.
Piero just lay there. Breathing heavily. Hoping to not die.I tell you this, little child, so that you might understand that your antics and your alcohol and your fornication will undo one of the last seeds of hope for one whom I love. The Gods betrayed us. All save Three. Heaven is sick. The Lady Telete sees in you a cure for that. I beg you, do not disappoint her. If we do not succeed, then there will come a day when the sun will cease to rise, as all that it stood for is corrupted. You are a part of something greater. I warn you so that you learn. Adapt. Become the sword you are needed to be. If you have any notion of family, then you must understand me. In this household, Telete has made you her son and heir.
Behind the bull, the silhouette of the Imperial Palace looked suddenly sad. A failed project of meaningless stone, stretching in every direction in search of answers never given. Sunmer the bull pressed one horn into Piero's shoulder, surgically enough to draw a pinprick of blood. Then it snorted in Piero's face once more and sauntered out of the room, humming what Piero thought were religious hymns.
One Sunmer was gone, Piero felt a surge of bravery.
"If a Spirit is a living idea, then what the fuck kind of concept are you?" he muttered. "Spirit of Bullshit.
Piero had been raised thinking that Radiance and the Arbiter were Gods. Then they had fled to the Republic, and the Archons had become demons, a cancer upon humanity. And in Malvern, well. Piero was still not sure what Spirits were here. Equals? Hardly. Religion meant nothing to him. Family? Yes, family was different. But Telete was no mother to him... a sharp pain kept him down. Telete was no mother to him, but neither had Chiara been. Mother.
The shock of the assault upon him was there with him still, a numbness in his limbs. He lost enough self control, just enough, that he could not get his mother out of his mind. Telete and Chiara blurred into one, the monster and the mother overlapping. Chiara. Where are you? Then came the memories of Port de Iachia.
The following day, the city of Malvern fell silent. Helping in the gardens, it took Piero some time to notice, but then the other servants fell quiet, too. One by one, like a creeping dread, Malvern's people felt compelled to turn towards the Imperial Palace. After minutes of silence, a song arose from what seemed like the very earth and ground and heavens. As it began to grow in volume, each hum rippling through Piero's skin, fingers of music reaching towards his inner being, Piero saw that the music was not coming from nowhere - it was coming from a golden cicada perched on one of the flower bushes in front of him. The insect rubbed its legs together, its giant jewelled eyes considering him with divine intelligence."The Voice."
Piero stated, understanding. One of the Archons.
But this cicada was one of many. Surely enough, the other servants had gathered around another golden cicada just farther down the hedge. And from it came the same song. It quickly grew into a lament. And it was a lament which Piero recognized. Honey and perfume swirled about him, as if smell was just as intrinsic a part of this song as sound. The music was familiar. Then it was clear to him. This was an old melody, favoured by Telete whenever she thought she was alone, though Piero was never far, of course. The cicada continued to weave an increasingly intricate tune, a lament to the last Palaienid Emperor, Augustinos the Seventh, who had been slain by Radiance in Falor. The dirge was practically the undeclared anthem of Malvern. Hardly two days went by without hearing it somewhere. It was the song of a people betrayed by their Gods. And for the first time, hearing the Voice sing it, Piero felt moved. The song seemed to take him elsewhere, taking him by the hand to lead him away from the world's meaningless suffering. Everything that had ever happened to Piero suddenly became a part of a larger tale, and it all had meaning. Nothing had been in vain. Once more, he remembered Port de Iachia. This time, it came flooding back with crisp clarity. Memories he had long since forgotten returned with the fervour of a divine wind. The Voice looked into his eyes, and he looked back, feeling like his pains were understood. As if everything in his life that had gone wrong had been because the harmony of the world had been upset, as if its music had been infected by a discordant tone... and he heard it now...
... and the tone took him further back. These were not his memories, but they were at least his imagination, when he read the scripts he had been asked to copy, or heard Agos' tales.
Across the sea, farther than most men ever hope to travel, stands an ancient city much like Malvern. Its name is Falor. It was once the capital of the known world, and much like Malvern, it was a place of beauty and music where Man and Spirit worked side by side, seeking the answers to Life and Heaven. In its very heart, an Emperor plays a boardgame known as Runekeep with a God. The game lasts many days, many years, many decades... Eventually, the Emperor is too old and tired to play the game. A new Emperor is crowned, and the game continues. He, too, grows old, and the Emperor is replaced by another. Eventually, the game has gone on so long, that no new Emperor understands the moves that have been made. Only the God does. The God has been patient. And so, the Last Emperor strikes, gambles all... and loses. He struck too early. For the Eclipse passes days later than predicted. And the God strikes down the Last Emperor... And Falor falls. And the world is consumed in bloodshed, as brother turns on brother, and sister on sister, father against child. Spirit against Man. A civil war lasting for countless years, until the Arbiter restores order. And Radiance goes unpunished. Endless refugees, fleeing south to Malvern. The Emperor's cousins, the last of the Palaienid.The last of the Palaienid.
That is not true. That realisation was enough to pull Piero from the song of the Voice. He felt confusion, and noticed that his cheeks were wet with wears. From Port de Iachia he had gone back into the very origins of his people and culture, and everything had made sense. But the Voice was wrong. Armant Freic lives. And by failing to say that much, Piero realised he was falling for the Empire's religious propaganda. Its collective madness, driving it ever further into nostalgia for something that probably never existed. Piero dala Vachio stumbled back onto his rear, crawling away from the golden cicada's siren song. All around him, he could see the servants of the estate weeping. The music was beautiful and tragic, and Piero did understand them. Just as he had lost Port de Iachia and his mother, so too had the people of Malvern lost everything. But this was not his home.
And so, he was able to walk out of Lady Telete's estate, with nobody to stop him.
Post by HED on Jul 5, 2016 0:14:34 GMT
City of Malvern
Stepping out of the gates of the Estate – left open by a drooling, entranced guard – Piero breathed deeply. He had not realized how constraining the walls of the Estate had truly been. Despite that, his heart was beating loudly. He could not suppress his nerves. Piero had no clue when the Voice would finish. He started walking down the street to his right, which sloped downhill.
While the sights of Malvern had become familiar to Piero, the streets were still relatively unknown. He had not seen them since he was first brought from the slave market to Telete’s compound. The only time he’d left the estate since then, he’s been stuck inside of a palanquin. Still, he remembered the decorative runners of silk strung between the buildings, the uneven stone streets, and the smells of spices.
What was missing was the noise of the city. There was no murmur of distant commerce, no singing of praise to the Archons, none of the normal day to day noise of urban centers. There was only the constant tone of the Voice. Since he had broken free of its spell, the sound of the Voice had shifted from a song to an irritating tone. Unchanging as it was, he knew that if he did not take care not to listen to it, he would become lost once more in the nuances of the noise and memories they conveyed.
The streets were mostly empty, which was not terribly surprising. Telete’s estate was located in a fairly isolated area of the city, which suited her scheming well. Even so, each block had at least one golden cicada perched on the side of a building. More than once he thought he saw figures in dark clothing, but upon glancing back realized the street was empty. He decided it was just his nerves playing tricks on his mind.
When Piero had walked down a few blocks, he encountered a group of seven men in colorful robes. They were circled around one corner of an intersection. On the wall before them was another golden cicada – the Voice. The men were sobbing – one had dropped to his knees. One of them held a cat in his arms. Piero couldn’t tell with any certainty, but it seemed that even the animal was entranced by the sound of the Archon.
Piero continued on, musing over the sight he had seen. He realized was the Voice must be an invaluable tool used to engineer national unity within Malvern. In the Republic, the government’s missives were read out by ordinary men. Here the will of the leaders was conveyed by a God, and through ideas instead of fallible words. When the trance was over, the people of Malvern would feel a shared purpose unparalleled in strength throughout the world. They would have purpose, identity, direction –
“Fuck,” Piero said, stopping as he reached the next street. He didn’t recognize it at all.
He had no idea where he was going.
That was not quite true – he had planned on following the path he had taken from the slave market to Telete’s estate in reverse. But a few streets in, he had no certainty of how to proceed. Memory, that famously faulty tool, had failed him. That failure awakened him to a larger flaw in his plan: the site of Corinne’s death was probably clean, the place filled in by a new slaver. Searching for clues there would be pointless. Even if he had owned a map of the City, he would be lost. He needed a new plan.
Piero pulled the Lady Ianessa’s chip out of his clothes. He would have to call in a favor from her – one more thing to owe her. Perhaps she knew a way to mask his sigil. With luck, she would have contacts within the City Guard. If he could involve himself in their investigation into Lady Corinne’s death, he might find a lead to Lyala. The problem was that he could read only half of the symbols inscribed on the chip. They were not the ordinary alphabet, but a Malvernian shorthand used for addresses and the like. Though a cart runner would understand it, he had no money, he could hardly hire a cart to take him across the city. Even if coin was no issue, every other intelligent creature within the city was hypnotized. There was only one option: he had to go back. And quickly.
Piero hurried back to the Estate. With luck, he would be able to ransack Agos’ quarters for a map. Just as he was about to step inside the boundaries of Telete’s estate, a voice pierced through the hypnotizing hum of the the Voice.
“Well well well, pretty boy,” Nahid spoke. “Now this is a surprise.”
Raising his head, Piero beheld the Salimon slave girl. Nahid stood in the shadows, leaning against the sandstone walls. He had assumed that he was the only one able to free themselves from the Voice’s trance, but a second after he saw Nahid he realized his surprise was mistake. She was from Sali – ancient enemy of both Malvern and Falor. She had no place in the reverie of nationalist nostalgia.
Piero cleared his throat. “Nahid, I –”. He paused as she raised a hand in protest.
“Save it,” Nahid said. “I know why you left. Why’d you come back?” Her face bore no trace of its usual playful smile. “Got lost?”
“Psh, getting lost, do I look like a twelve year old to you?” Piero asked. “By the way, if you say yes to that it means you’re a pedophile.”
Nahid rolled her eyes. “You came back for a map.”
Piero was shocked by her insight. “How dare you! That’s a very offensive accusation where I come from!” He paused. “You wouldn’t happen to have one?” He pulled Ianessa’s chip out. “Or be able to read this?”
Nahid walked over to Piero and took the chip out of his hands. Piero watched as she brushed her hair out of her face and examined one side, and then the other. Evidently finished, she slipped the chip back into the folds of his clothes and patted his chest with a smirk.
“The good news for you is, it isn’t too far,” Nahid said. She explained that if he continued down the hill and through the small marketplace at its base, it would be at the top of the next hill on the left.
“I won’t ask why you’re heading to a noble house,” She said. “Good-bye, then, Piero.” She turned and began to walk away. The drone of the Voice filled the silence.
Piero stared at her as she walked away. “Why aren’t you leaving too?”
Nahid paused, shaking her head, and then spoke without turning. “Good luck.” She walked out of sight.
The Voice was still humming away when Piero reached the market. He could not tell if the tone was the same or not. Either way, seeing the marketplace under the sway of the Archon was a fascinating sight. The each member of the crowd was exactly where they should be, opposed in pairs or trios on opposite sides of carts. Other were between carts, carrying a recent purchase. Uniformly, however, they stared towards the center of the market. Mixed with the sounds of the cicada-god were the intermittent sobs of the crowd.
Piero slowed down as he passed in front of a fruit cart. Cautiously, he picked up a delicious looking pear. The vendor did not move. Like all the others, he was transfixed upon the Voice. Piero bit into the fruit, and then immediately spit it out. The flesh inside was warm and mealy. He placed the half-eaten pear back on the pile of fruit.
He passed through the rest of the market, haphazard rows of carts full of every product he could imagine. At the far side of the market, he paused in front of fish cart. The dead black eyes of the fish stared up at him. The fishmonger had stumbled to his knees in front of the cart, and had his hands clasped together in front of him. His product, left uncovered in the hot sun, was letting off a thick stench. Behind the cart was a man Piero presumed to be the fishmonger’s apprentice, strangely dressed in all black with an unremarkable face.
Pitying the fishmonger, Piero reached up and extended the canopy of the cart. The fish were drenched in shadow, though he thought it was probably too late to keep them from spoiling. Nevertheless, Piero grinned at the thought of his own good deed. He looked up and stroked his chin, where stubble was beginning to grow again, as if posing for a portrait.
A hand striking out to grab his throat broke Piero out of his self-congratulatory reverie. The man in black – not an apprentice fishmonger after all – stared at him blankly. Piero trashed wildly at him, breaking his grasp but knocking the cart. Fish spilled on the cobblestones below. As he turned to run, his foot slipped on a stray herring. For the second time in as many months, Piero hit his head hard on the stone and felt sleepy. Before he could stop himself, he closed his eyes. The smell of rotten fish dominated his senses.
Piero felt a bag of rough cloth being pulled over his head. He opened his eyes, but saw only darkness. It was a different sort from the darkness of his closed eyes or of the shadowy alleyway. This was an artificial blackness. He struggled to move his arms and legs, but realized they had been tightly bound. His head was ringing from the force of the fall. Going limp, he felt his body being lifted. Meanwhile, Piero felt his mind drifting off into the void that was neither dreaming nor waking.
Post by Timeon on Oct 3, 2016 17:32:49 GMT
Not too long ago, Piero dala Vachio's reaction to getting kidnapped might be to kick and scream, to put up a fight. But slavery and the cruel, oppressive thumb of fate pressing down upon him had made him a little more docile. Kick too much and the thumb of authority was likely to press down all the harder. So instead, Piero went limp, letting himself get bundled up and carried between four relatively strong arms. No amount of crying and screaming was going to get him out of this. No, he had to wait for the right moment. He did, however, cry a little.
Piero's general sense of direction warned him that they were going down an alley. Moments later, the bag was torn from his head, and he found himself staring into a black and bitter face, heavy with judgement. Green eyes blinked through the alley's shadows, though Piero could feel many more hands than just this man's own holding him in place.
"Telete's boy. We have you now." the man stated without softening. "Wise, perhaps, to run from her. Or foolish, to wander so far. We will see."
Then cold hands forced liquid into Piero's mouth, and his world shrank back, until the darkness of the man's skin extended through all of Piero's vision, until Piero saw no more.
When he awoke, he found himself on a soft surface. Soft, but wet. Confused only for a moment, Piero grasped and floundered, finding himself in a bed which was soaked through with either piss or sweat. A torch burned on a nearby wall, letting him get an idea of the room around him. No windows, he noted immediately. The only distinguishing feature was a tapestry hanging by the only door - a tapestry depicting an all too recognizable event. The Breaking of the Bridge - Shatterbridge. The Bridge spanned the length of the tapestry, divided in the middle by fire and flame. It was an image carved and woven into most public spaces in the Faloran Republic. Here in Malvern, Piero noticed it had an extra touch. The explosion destroying the Bridge seemed not to come from the centre of the tapestry, where the rebels would have placed the gunpowder. No, the masonry was not falling down into the sea in this image - it was blasted upwards. And the source of the explosion was from below. Radiance. The Radiant Lord. The Archon of Varantium. Tyrant of the Dominion. Seated at the bottom of the tapestry, it was as if his light was arching upwards, destroying the Bridge. The message was clear. The Dominion had brought ruin upon itself. And Malvern, ever forgotten, ever sidelined by the Wars of the North, watched on in silence and dread. In this tapestry, it was not just the Republicans who were the rebels. It was Radiance himself who was a rebel, too. An unruly child. Piero smirked despite his situation, realising how far his education had carried him in the past months. Not so long ago he would have just seen a pretty picture. Though, to be fair, it did not mean he was any more fascinated by the lot of it. He was more motivated than ever to get away from it all, really, understanding just how terrible the game of politics really was.
But the message that had been left for him by the door had been received. And when the door opened, Piero found himself staring at a familiar face.
"Somehow, I should have known." Piero found himself muttering aloud. Telete's words came back to him. "Do you know who he is, you tragic foreigner? He serves the Archon, the Voice of Malvern. He is the mailed fist of our faith and religion. A killing man."
Denios Troklos smiled back. An all too recent and mysterious an aquaintance to not be the one to kidnap him. Much like in the First Ball of the Hunter, Denios was dressed with vulgar and casual simplicity. His black shirt did little to disguise a bulge of chest hair. Denios smiled with a carefree laziness, seating himself by the side of Piero's bed. Much like his shirt failed to hide his chesthair, Denios Troklos' smile did nothing to hide his brutal intention. If he was some sort of inquisitor, then he had probably taken such an interest in Piero because he suspected that the Lady Telete was plotting against the Empire.
"You should have known, yes." Denios said, his eyes unchanging, lines and wrinkles arching from them to betray his judgement. "You called yourself Piero Troklos at the First Ball of the Hunter. I hope that means that we can become friends. I was very surprised when the eunuchs informed me that you have a slave tattoo. But it helps to explain why you ran away from the Lady Telete. It also means that you have a chance to survive this, because you are merely a tool in this conspiracy. One does not punish the assassin's dagger, after all."
Piero felt as if he had his back to an abyss. One wrong step, and the pack of wolves that had him cornered would push him over the edge. Yet going forward meant that the wolves would have him, too. The only option was to hold his ground. And so he did. Maybe Troklos pretended to know everything, hoping Piero would slip up. Piero had to do one thing he was actually good at. Piero had to gamble. He had to play the game.
"You want information. I have information." Piero admitted. "But I'm not going to give it for free. You can promise me my freedom, yes, but that doesn't mean I'll actually go free. As soon as I tell you what you want, I'm probably a dead man." Plus, I need your help to find Lyala, Piero thought. He had some investment in Malvern now, in a life generally devoid of investments. Lyala might not even really give a damn about him, but she was something to fight for when he lacked all else. Maybe. At least until he decided otherwise.
Denios Troklos placed a hand on Piero's shoulder, the deathly smile not leaving the inquisitor's face.
"You just confessed to conspiracy, Piero."
Piero smiled back, half uncaring of the cliff behind him or the wolves ahead.
"That confirms I'm valuable." Piero glanced at the tapestry behind Troklos. "You're a holy man. I know about heresy."
"It's not heresy I care about, Piero." Troklos said, taking his hand from Piero's shoulder. He rose from the bed and approached a half-shadowed desk, barely visible in the torch light. When he returned, he was holding two cups of wine. He offered one to Piero. If it was poison, Troklos was offering him a way out. Piero slurped it greedily. "The Lady Telete is an idealist. A true believer. That much is obvious. She probably believes more than I do in the sanctity of the Archons. But this is more meaningful than idealism. More tangible than faith or destiny or ideas. This is about power, Piero."
"Power." Piero mouthed. Troklos nodded, catching recognition in Piero's eyes. "From the glory of high status, to the pleasure of carnal conquest. To the satisfaction of defeating one's enemies. Or merely access to good food. Power. It gets a bad name. When it appears in our histories as being the motivations of great men, we think them petty. Nonsense."
"Is that what you want? Power?" Piero asked. "What you think Telete wants?"
"Nothing quite so simple. Telete wants the Empire to be powerful. I want the Archons to be powerful. We see our own power reflected in the success of greater ideas. So long as the Voice of Malvern is heard, I am powerful. Telete sees the weakness of her House and the decay of the nobility as the decay and decline of Empire. Of course she would think so, if her experience of Empire is a fruitless life. But I am a realist, Piero. And you are a slave. Slaves are realists. So, as I told you in the beginning. I think we can be friends."
"Maybe." Piero admitted. In secret, he even hoped. But he was not so foolish as to trust a hairy inquisitor he had only met once before. One who had toyed with him at the First Ball, coming up with excuses to observe and study him as part of a larger design. Troklos was the kind of person who found ways to put strings on people and make them dance. Piero knew the type from the Sabrian crimelords like Mazzei who had gotten him into this disaster. Telete was that sort of person too. But Troklos was just better. "I'll consider helping you if you prove you're interested in helping me. I need proof you're not going to throw my body in a canal after I've told you what you need to hear."
Denios Troklos finished his wine and sighed.
"I'm not that sort of man, Piero. I don't need to be. Tyrants and thugs rule through fear, but that is a weak hold on power. The bond between Archon and Believer, between Father and Son. Now that is an unbreakable chain. Belief. Friendship. I have gotten to the position I am in now through loyalty and trust. I repay trust. Those who do not never last long. Tyrants fall eventually, Piero."
"Yes." Denios affirmed. "So tell me what you want. And I'll confess this much to you. Because I want to build trust. Lady Telete is not my enemy, Piero. She is just another player in the imperial game. I noticed your appearance out of nowhere and I noticed the importance she places in you. So I had you watched and followed. Everyone of importance in Malvern spies on everybody else. When you walked out of Lady Telete's estate, you were followed by Telete's own agents and by the agents of many other nobles and magisters, all trained to act even when under the Voice's influence. It should have been obvious to you that this was the case, otherwise all slaves would escape every time the Voice acted. Piero, the only reason you're here with me instead of back at Telete's mansion is because my agents are just better than hers. Telling me everything doesn't mean she dies. I know her well enough to know she means well for the Empire. Maybe I could work with her Maybe not. But you are my tool now, Piero. Remember that."