His broken and bleeding fist healed before the night was over. Luca didn’t know when exactly it happened. Terant, now awake, was just like the boy’s father; fierce in the Arena and gentle in the home. He stroked Luca’s head.
“I can’t promise that everything will be fine, but I know one thing for certain: even after the darkest night, dawn always comes. Sleep, little one, and think not of what tomorrow will bring. Sleep.”
The khhar knew nothing of the Wheel, of travelers or the reward that the boy was trying to test out. With his own interpretation of events, he just tried to console the boy.
Luca lay down and fell to sleep at once. Then, when he woke up, he tried to pull together all the fragments and multitude recollections from the previous day.
“How are you, little one? I’d wish you a good morning, but... I don’t think they do breakfast here,” Terant said. “And rightfully so, I guess. Why feed those that will belong to a new master before the day’s end?”
Luca rubbed his eyes, yawned, stretched and shrugged his shoulders. He’d been happy to eat even just once a day. And nobody was obliged to feed him. But why not dream? Any moment now, he’d hear the footsteps of a guard approaching the cell door, and he’d throw some stale bread crusts through the bars! That would be a great start to the new day!
“Two-horns!” Terant exclaimed. “Just look at that! I almost pulled it taught without noticing!”
Only now did the boy see that one of the khhar’s legs was bound not to a chain, but to a very fine, thin thread, a colorless line. It was hard to see it, but once he saw it, he couldn’t tear his eyes away. It flashed with reflected light in the most bewitching way. As if the line was catching beams of sunlight and absorbing them.
“Do you know what this is?” the khhar asked.
Luca shook his head.
“It’s a tether. Tethers like this are one of the few things that the racants agree to share with your Emperor. They are stronger than an iron chain and lighter than a washing line! They are a creation of Two-horns made flesh. They bind themselves to the prisoner’s nervous system. Anyone insane enough to try to pull it out loses their entire nervous system with it. Death comes before they can even scream.”
They heard a guard’s footsteps and the clatter of keys. Luca perked up: maybe they were bringing foot?
“Luca Dezisimu, approach the cell door! Now!”
The boy turned to Terant in confusion.
“Be strong,” the khhar nodded farewell to him. “Remember what your father said.”
As the guard spurred him on, Luca walked back along the same path he’d walked the previous night, when he’d been brought in, but when they came to the stairs, the guard took him down another corridor, not to the prison exit. All the cells they saw on the way were packed full of people. People lame, crooked of limb, monstrous, covered in wounds and scabs. The prisoners fit in perfectly with Terant’s story of the Empire’s genetic pollution. Luca looked at the guard’s face and noticed that even he had such defects; a low forehead, a cataract on one eye...
“What’re you starin’ at?” the guard barked and clouted the boy around the head. “Come on, scum, move it!”
His crooked blackened teeth, which had always seemed an ordinary and normal occurrence in Luca’s world, suddenly no longer looked normal. Esk’s legacy was making itself known again, from an unexpected direction.
What a monster! the boy thought, but tried to start a conversation all the same.
“What will happen to him?” he asked.
“The khhar I was with.”
“The black boy? He’ll be punished or bought to fight in the Arena.”
“Who will buy him?”
“Enough chatter, boy! Forget your loverboy!”
The guard gave him a swift kick and Luca increased his pace to stay upright, rubbing his fresh bruise. Some text appeared in front of him telling him he’d taken damage and that his soft tissue was regenerating. A heartbeat later, the pain disappeared.
They finally reached the other wing and climbed some stairs to a street. The broad closed yard of the prison was full of spectators, gawpers and relatives of those awaiting judgment.
Judge Cannon — a gnarled old man barely holding off the desire to fall asleep right at the table — mumbled something. The aide standing next to him made a loud declaration.
“In the name of the Emperor! The life of Rakhim Darishta is declared the property of the Empire from now until the end of his days. The slave Darishta has been sentenced to stone for his numerous sins against the people of the Empire in the Oltonius Mines!”
The convict, with tethers at his arms and legs, cried out.
“That judge is a sell-out rat! Suck my-”
A dogpile instantly formed where Darishta had stood and objected to his sentence. The guards enthusiastically beat the dissident until he stopped making any sounds at all. Then two of the largest guards grabbed the body by the legs and carried it out of the yard.
The judge looked at his notes and either whispered something again or just yawned. Either way, the aide stood up straight and gave a signal. Luca’s escort kicked him in the back, shoving him into the center of the yard. Luca opened his mouth to say something in his defense, but nobody even bothered to ask him — Cannon had already decided the matter.
“The boy Luca Dezisimu, who stands accused of causing bodily injury to one Karim Kovachar, is sentenced to pay a fine of fifteen gold pieces! Seven of them will go directly to Mister Kovachar, seven to the Empire, while the last gold piece will pay for legal fees!” the aide’s voice rang out. “Accused! Are you or any of your family capable of paying this fine here, now and in full?”
“Luca!” his mother’s voice rang out, followed by the clear and clean voice of Kora.
“Brother! He’s standing on his own! It’s a miracle!”
“Mom! Kora!” Luca shouted in joy. He started to run toward his family, but tripped over the leg of a guard with a good sense of timing. The crowd laughed.
The judge looked toward Luca’s family with displeasure and gave a signal with his hand. His mother and Kora were dragged before the nebulous gaze of the high judge.
Kora was still smiling happily at the sight of her brother healthy, and not helpless as he had been all his life.
“Prisca Dezisimu, Sir Judge!” the mother answered in tears. “Luca isn’t guilty! My boy couldn’t even lift his arms until yesterday...”
Cannon made the slightest gesture with his forefinger and the aide shouted deafeningly, interrupting Prisca.
“Answer only what you are asked! Woman, are you capable of paying this bastard’s fine?”
“I don’t have that kind of money,” Prisca whispered.
“I’ll find it! I’ll get it! Give me a day!” Kora rushed toward the judge and he flinched.
The guards grabbed the girl, but she kept trying to wrestle herself away.
“Take them away!” the aide commanded, and the guards carried the women off, ignoring their cries and wails. “Who among those present wishes to purchase seventeen-year-old Luca Dezisimu as full property for a period of five years?”
The crowd murmured, discussing the boy’s characteristics. The aide looked over the crowd in frustration, leaned down to the judge, listened to him and changed the conditions.
“Fifteen years! Who among those present wishes to purchase the seventeen-year-old Luca Dezisimu as full property for a period of fifteen years?”
The people stayed silent, exchanging glances. Someone coughed and a hand went up.
“I guess I’ll take him. For twenty five years, if Sir Judge would allow it...”
Judge Cannon nodded his blessing, and Luca saw his future master — a lean swarthy man with a huge beak of a nose. Luca pegged him at forty at first glance, but then looked closer at his pockmarked face and the liver spots on his hands and added another twenty years to his estimate.
The buyer counted out some coins and, without rising from his seat, proffered them to the aide. The aide appeared by his side in an instant, took the money and cried out triumphantly.
“In the name of the Emperor! The life of Luca Dezisimu is declared the property of Mister Yadugara for twenty five years henceforth.”
“Heh-heh...” the judge chuckled. “A wonderful purchase, Mister Yadugara! Fresh blood! Hah-hah-hah! Fresh blood!”
Alex (Aleksei) Bobl is a literary agent and a science fiction writer, author of 13 novels. An ex-paratrooper, he used his military knowledge and experience to write his debut novels for S.T.A.L.K.E.R., a bestselling science fiction action adventure series set in a post-apocalyptic Chernobyl.
This account is publishing texts written by authors of Magic Dome Books.
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