Luca only later learned what had happened at the baths. The durability of the bones and skin of his head, the joints of his right arm and his buttocks had increased by more than a hundred percent, but it stopped there. After that, no matter what he touched, it didn’t happen again. He couldn’t figure out what had happened on his own, and Esk’s spirit was silent.
All the boy managed to figure out was that the strengthened and improved parts of his body were the same spots that had been damaged when he’d punched the wall and been struck by the cane. The bruises from Penant’s beating had almost gone when he sat before the barber. But that beating had brought him no more improvements.
As they walked out of the baths, he took advantage of the fact that Penant walked ahead and punched a wall hard. He didn’t feel the sharp pain he’d felt in the prison, but his punch left a fist-shaped imprint in the building’s facade.
The walk to the healer’s home was amusing. Penant, scared that he’d almost killed or, worse, maimed his master’s property, blathered at Luca all the way from the public baths to the house about the details of life with the healer.
The main thing the boy understood was that their master was strict and quick to punish, but just. Penant himself had once been like Luca, although he hadn’t been sentenced for attacking someone, but for vagrancy. You could panhandle and beg all you wanted in the capital, just as long as you slept under a roof at night.
The guards caught Penant, or Pen as the ten-year-old orphan had been called on the streets, on one happy — so he said himself — night. The night before, the boy had fallen out with the head of the band of street urchins that he’d been sharing a roof with in an abandoned hut on the outskirts. They banished him to teach him a lesson, and Pen had to sleep on the street. Some bored city patrolman grabbed there while he was sleeping and lifeless, otherwise he’d have run away.
The very next morning, intending to send him to a foster home, put his penalty up for auction.
And so in just one golden day, Pen had become the property of Master Yadugara for five years. And three years ago, when his term expired, he took the position of the healer’s junior apprentice. He adored his master and was truly thankful to the heavens and all the gods in it for the night the guards had caught him. Although he darkened and said nothing when Luca asked him how much Master Yadugara had profited from all this.
The cubbyhole in the attic of the healer’s house couldn’t boast of even the semblance of comfort Luca had in the prison cell. At least the roof wasn’t leaking there. The whole place was filthy, strewn with garbage, covered in cobwebs, and the ceiling rafters hung lower than the boy’s height so that he had to constantly stoop. Years of dust glimmered in the beams of sunlight from a tiny window.
“Your place is here,” Penant said. “Tidy up and await further instructions.”
The senior apprentice left, and later Luca saw him drive away somewhere with Yadugara. Even later, when he wanted to take out the trash he’d collected, he found a huge brunette blocking his path down the stairs, mopping the steps. She gasped and raised her head.
“Holy mother! Who are you?” she cried, pointing a fat finger at Luca with a droplet of dirty water at its tip.
“Luca,” he answered.
“Ah... So you must be Master Jadugara’s new boy!” the woman nodded in understanding. “And the old one is... all gone...”
“Who are you?” Luca set the garbage bag at his feet. “And where did the old one go?”
Ignoring his questions, the woman wiped her hands on her apron, shook her head and asked her own.
Expecting nothing good, Luca remained silent, but unwillingly swallowed. His stomach rumbled.
“I’ll say...” she said thoughtfully. “So thin! Alright! The master will be away a while. Since he took that bastard Penant with him, that means the patient is heavy. He left with his surgical case so he might even be operating. What’s in the bag?” she nodded at the offending item.
“Garbage from the attic.”
“Take it outside and throw it on the heap in the back yard. When you come back, follow the smell of cooking,” the woman said with a laugh.
Easily lifting her bucket of water, she started walking down the stairs, then turned back.
“Call me Auntie Mo.”
“Alright, Auntie Mo,” Luca nodded.
Not counting the attic, the master’s house was three stories high. The first floor was for the household and servants, and Master Yadugara saw patients on the second. The third floor was the living quarters, with the bedrooms of the master and the senior apprentice and an office with a library. Penant explained this to him, telling Luca where he could go and where he absolutely couldn’t.
The boy carefully tipped out the trash, sneezing as he shook the dust out of the sack and threw it over his shoulder. Before he went back in, he stopped at the well to wash his hands and face.
“Hey!” he heard a voice say behind his back. “Luca?”
The boy turned around and his face lit up with joyful surprise as he saw the strained face of his sister appear above the ten-foot-high wall. He waved.
“Luca! Hah! They shaved you clean! Hah-hah-hah! Baldy, baldy!”
Luca ran to the wall and a happy smile lit up his sister’s face.
“I swear on Two-horns’ corrupted mother, you really are walking! You can run, brother! Argh...” His sister’s face disappeared from view, then reappeared. “This wall is slippery, bro, nothing to get a foothold on... Can you come out?”
The smile fell from the boy’s face. The seemingly ordinary leather strip on his neck, which was actually a slave’s collar — called a power collar due to the unseen power hidden within it — wouldn’t let him leave his master’s yard without permission. He shook his head, pointing at his neck.
“Is it enchanted?” Kora asked. “Don’t worry, I’ll find enough money to buy you back! The important thing is that you weren’t sent to the mines! Nobody ever comes back from them...”
“Kora, don’t! You and mom need the money more, and life will be easier for you now without me as I was! They’ve given me a room here,” Luca said, bending the truth by calling that wretched attic a room. “They’re feeding me! Look! They even took me to the baths and gave me clothes!”
He span in front of his sister, showing off his new outfit. The clothes almost fit. Penant had given them to him when they returned from the baths. He needed to be convincing to stop his sister from getting into any trouble or danger for his sake. Then his mother would be left all alone!
“Mom...” Kora’s face turned more serious. “She’s sick, Luca. She has a fever, she’s burning up! I don’t know what to do! Your master is a healer. Maybe he has some kind of medicine? Maybe you could convince him to visit us? Mom would be so glad to see you...”
“I’ll talk to him, Kora. I’ll make sure I talk to him! Today, right away, as soon as he comes back! But if...”
An wrathful roar interrupted him.
“Luca! Cursed boy! What do you think you’re doing?”
“Oh, damn. It’s Aunt Mo!” Luca jabbered. “Kora! I have to go! Hug mom for me! And don’t you dare...”
“Luca! I’m going to beat your skinny ass! Come here, now!” the woman kept shouting as she approached. “Who’s that there with you?”
Kora laughed and let go of the top of the wall. Luca heard her moan as she landed, then she cursed Two-horns’ mother and shouted:
“Hold on, brother! I’ll be back!”
“Don’t get into any trouble, Kora! Do you hear me?” Luca kept shouting before Aunt Mo grabbed him by the ear and dragged him back into the house,
where she did everything she’d promised. She beat his skinny, though metamorphosis-strengthened ass, which Luca endured without a wince, then fed him full of fried offal with onions and potatoes . The boy had never so much as seen so much tasty food at once, let alone eaten it.
She averted her gaze as he thanked her endlessly. It seemed to Luca as if tears appeared in her eyes, but she turned away and he couldn’t tell for sure. Raising herself heavily, Aunt Mo got him another portion and rapped the bowl on the table.
Looking at her drowsily, he took the spoon, belched and reddened in embarrassment.
“Aunt Mo,” he asked, “what happened to the person who was here before me? You called me the master’s new boy, and said the old one was gone... What does that mean? Does Master Yadugara like to share his bed with boys?”
Luca had heard of such things from Kora, though he poorly imagined how it worked. His sister didn’t know the nuances either.
“All-holy mother!” Aunt Mo ran her finger across her right cheek three times, invoking the mother of the gods. “Think before you let such filth out of your dirty mouth. The Master Healer is fond of young flesh, but only that with a hole between its legs, you foolish boy!”
“Enough! Don’t you ever dare ask anyone about the master again! Do you understand me, Luca? And definitely don’t ask him any questions like that, or any! Otherwise you’ll see your final sunset in the grave, do you understand? Back up to your room!”
Luca slid off the high chair, thanking Aunt Mo again and, barely able to move, slowly climbed up to the attic. Whatever she said, he’d have to ask the master a question today for his mother’s sake.
Penant did say he was just and generous, after all.
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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