Right after the court, once they’d left the prison, Luca’s master condescended to say a few words.
“My name is Nestor Yadugara, slave. That’s Master Yadugara to you. This,” he nodded toward the boy next to him, “is my senior apprentice, Penant.”
Not knowing how to answer, Luca just nodded. The senior student looked like a normal boy around eighteen years old, if it weren’t for a certain strangeness. A certain slouch, somewhat dry skin, a slight shortness of breath. Although they’d only walked a couple of hundred paces, all this together created the impression that Penant was getting old before his time.
“Your collar, slave... If you go more than a hundred paces from me without permission, you die,” Master Yadugara continued dryly. “If you do anything I don’t ask you to, you die. If you touch me without my permission, you die. Got it?”
Luca unwillingly touched the power collar, nodded and then immediately felt a cane crack across his head. His vision blurred and the pain brought him to tears.
“When master asks you a question, you answer!” Penant hissed cruelly.
“Careful now, Penant! Are you going to carry him if you knock him out?” Yadugara asked spitefully.
“Sorry, master, next time I will match the strength of my strike to the severity of the slave’s misstep.”
“And I’m sure next time will come very soon. This idiot doesn’t seem like someone who gets the point the first time. Speak, slave! Eh?”
“I don’t seem like someone who gets the point the first time. I understand.”
Penant’s next strike made it obvious that he was lying about matching the punishment to the sin. The senior apprentice laughed, and his master couldn’t hold back a crooked grimace at the sight. After his laughter subsided, Penant explained:
“Say ‘master’ when you speak to the master, worm!”
“Yes, Master Senior Apprentice Penant! Your wish is my command, Master Yadugara!”
Luca continued muttering everything they wanted to hear, at the same time reading a message before his eyes: something about the need to strengthen the bones of the skull...
“Look at the master when you answer, you...”
“Enough, Penant,” the old man said as his senior apprentice raised his arm again. “Give me that cane back and take him to the baths. Make sure they scrub him clean and shave him. I don’t want him to stink and spread lice all over the house.
“It shall be done, master!” Penant nodded, returned the cane and, squeamishly urging him on and shoving him, led Luca away.
Yadugara climbed into the waiting carriage with practiced ease and said something to the driver. “Clear the road!” he shouted, driving right into the crowd.
Since the senior apprentice had forbidden him to turn his head — Look straight ahead, oaf! — Luca looked at the world sidelong. This was the part of the capital where people of means lived. It hadn’t changed much since he’d strolled through here when his father was still alive. Or rather, his nanny had strolled through with little Luca in a pushchair. The memories had faded, blurred, but he recognized some things.
For example, the public baths that Severus had loved to visit. Luca even remembered that he’d been here as a small child with his father, but maybe he was just imagining it.
A cruel hit in the back swept away the wave of nostalgia.
“Move it, slave!” Penant commanded him.
Luca picked up his pace, examining the senior apprentice sidelong. Then he decided to risk a question.
“What does our master do?”
Penant was so surprised at Luca’s insolence that he answered without thinking.
“Master Yadugara is a great healer. Even the palace uses his services!”
Angry at himself for answering and at the slave for daring to open his mouth unasked, he clouted Luca around the ear. The strike was so strong that Luca stumbled over a step, flew a dozen feet and hung there, holding the staircase’s metal bannister.
Lifting himself to his feet, he tried to let go of the bannister, but couldn’t pull his hand away. It was as if stuck to the warm wrought-iron railing.
Fearing another blow from Penant, he used his other hand to force his fingers to unclench themselves and tear the hand away from the bannister.
He managed just in time. The senior apprentice had just reached him and stopped by the door to the baths. Luca looked at his traitorous hand and stared dumbfounded as the barely noticeable gleaming specks of metal from the banister seemed to be absorbed into his very skin. A couple of seconds later, his palm was clean again.
Transformation interrupted! Not enough iron in body!
Luca’Onegut, based on an analysis of aggressive environmental influences and damage taken, an increase in the survival capability of your body has been initiated:
— skull bones strengthened by 0.001%
— right hand bones strengthened by 0.002%
— right hand skin enhanced by 0.0013%
— posterior skin enhanced by 0.00001%
It is recommended that you immediately strengthen your entire skeleton and enhance your entire skin!
Luca didn’t bother following the recommendations. Instead he cleared all the text covering up his view just by wishing it away, then rushed to open the door.
Penant entered and headed across the hall to the bath attendants without a backward glance. After coming to an agreement with them, he looked around in search of Luca and saw him frozen at the entrance.
The senior apprentice narrowed his eyes. He couldn’t understand what was happening to the slave, who was hanging off the door handle and squirming instead of just coming in.
“Slave! Luca!” he shouted, using his name for the first time. “Here, now!”
The boy didn’t respond at all. Except that his face twisted even further.
“Damn you, you little brat!” Penant exploded. “Just wait, I’m about to...”
The slave managed to tear himself away from the door and fell onto the floor while Penant was still a few steps away. Master Yadugara’s senior apprentice didn’t stand on ceremony. He set about teaching the boy the only way he knew how. He furiously rained down strikes on the boy’s prostrate body, and only a sudden fear of the prospect of destroying his master’s property stopped him before he killed the slave.
“You alive? Huh?” he shook the boy’s shoulder. “Luca Dezisimu!”
The boy opened his eyes, spat out some blood and nodded.
“Yes, Master Senior Apprentice Penant. I’m alive.”
Overcoming his disgust, Penant helped him rise and walk inside.
Master Yadugara’s senior apprentice was frightened and angry, so he didn’t even notice that of the large bronze door handle shaped like a bird’s head, nothing now remained.
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.
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