Luca tidied up the entire attic. He threw out all the garbage and trash, washed the floors and all the surfaces, pulled the spiderwebs from all the corners and ceiling beams. He tidied mechanically, as if he’d done it many times before, but in reality it was the first time he’d ever done it, and the magic of turning chaos and dirt into order and comfort inspired him.
In the evening he was fed again, although this time along with the other slaves. They were many: Aunt Mo he already knew, then there was the funny girl Reyna and a lean muscular man with a military bearing whose name Luca had not yet learned. The latter took his portion and went back to the gates, where he fulfilled the role of doorkeeper.
Reyna never tired of trying to extract details of Luca’s personal life. She herself had ended up in the capital against her will. Her mother caught swamp fever and never got over it, and the very next day after the funeral, her stepfather sold his stepdaughter to a passing slaver whose route took him through their village. At the very first auction, Master Yadugara bought the girl, and the reason was so obvious that Luca tactfully avoided asking about it. Reyna was twenty now, and had spent almost a third of her life in this house.
After dinner, Luca retired to the attic, got bored and started thinking about his gift. He thought about it purposefully, asking himself questions about its nature, abilities, about how he’d gotten it and who he could become now — not just in this life, but in general — and his mind, digging around in Esk’Onegut’s legacy, came up with answers and knowledge.
Luca, or rather Luca Dezisimu, was a mere vessel. But Luca’Onegut, the personality that was him, that had grown in him after combining with Esk’s experiences, would continue to exist after this life, assuming he ended up with a positive Tsoui balance. Even if it was in another world and another body.
This knowledge led him to thoughts about the Wheel. There was no limit on the number of spins you could make, and the more you did, the higher the Wheel’s level got, but each attempt cost ten Tsoui points. By chasing after new talents, you could drop your Tsoui level into minus points, and with a negative balance you lost your ability to reincarnate.
Luca didn’t fully understand how to get more Tsoui yet. Were points awarded for any deed that benefited universal balance and harmony? And how had the balance of the universe improved when he stood up for his mother and got his first point for it? What did the universe care for an elderly female of an intelligent species from one of infinite worlds? Especially since, as it turned out, her genetic code was defective.
However, none of this understanding changed Luca’s plans at all. First and foremost, he was still a boy — son to a mother and brother to a wayward sister, — and his highest priority was to convince Master Yadugara, if not to heal his mother, then at least to allow him to visit her.
And if all was well with his mother, he would think of how to gain his freedom. He couldn’t help his loved ones if he remained Yadugara’s slave.
The healer and his student returned home late in the evening. Luca had gotten thoroughly bored by then. He was used to spending hours and days immobile. He’d spent his whole life that way. But his new health had brought with it a desire to move that was natural to a boy his age.
With nothing to do, he grabbed a ceiling beam and tried to pull himself up, not as a purposeful act of exercise, but more to catch up on the youth he missed, and to learn the abilities of his new body. He couldn’t pull himself up, so he just hung there, swinging back and forth and waving his legs.
Moonlight trickled in through the small window, but not nearly enough to fully light up the attic.
So Luca hung in the darkness, sometimes dropping off to rest, and his metamorphosis, recognizing the requirement to strengthen the corresponding muscles, decided, somewhere in its invisible plan, to do so as soon as its body could get the required material. Ideally with some to spare, so that the ability’s owner could have the required endurance to grip and pull.
When his arms finally tired, Luca gripped the beam with his legs and hung upside down. It was in this position that Penant found him when he walked in to see if his task had been completed. Narrowing his eyes, he walked around the room, seeking faults. He lit an oil lamp and looked around the room, muttered something and then started shouting.
“What are you doing, Two-horns take you?! Get down from there right now!”
Luca jumped down onto the floor and stood up straight.
“I completed the task, Master Senior Apprentice Penant!”
“I see...” he chuckled. “You will sleep here. Get a mattress from Moraine.”
“From Aunt Mo?”
“I have no information about your blood relationships, slave. But yeah, from Mo. Be ready at dawn, I’ll come get you. Master Yadugara wants to carry out some... research.”
“Consider it done, Master Senior Apprentice Penant!”
Penant chuckled again and left the room. Luca waited for his footsteps to fade from the stairway, then he went down to Aunt Mo for the promised mattress. She was nowhere to be found, but he did run into Reyna.
The girl sat before the mirror in the lounge, putting on make-up.
“What’s up?” she asked antisocially.
“I’m looking for Aunt Mo, Reyna.”
“She isn’t here.”
“Where is she?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea. Get out of here!”
“Um... Are you alright?” Luca decided to ask. The girl’s behavior had changed sharply from what he’d seen before. “Reyna?”
“It’s none of your business!” She sneezed, which sent a cloud of powder into the air around her. That sent the girl into a fury. “Disappear, small fry!”
“Could you at least tell me where to get a mattress? Master Senior...”
“Leave!” She jumped up, grabbed the boy by the ear and dragged him out of the room. “I don’t want to see you here again! Out!”
Discouraged by this, Luca shambled upstairs. Where had the happy and friendly Reyna gone, the one that sneakily gave him an extra big portion of offal mush at dinner? Luca had grown up among women, and he’d come to realize that sharp changes in mood were to be expected from them. But Reyna’s transformation into a hateful viper was too sudden.
Once he got to the attic, he collapsed on the wooden floor, rolled into a ball and fell asleep.
Luca woke up in the middle of the night, freezing. He decided to walk around and squat to get his blood flowing and warm up, then he tried to sleep again. He finally managed it when the first rays of sunlight began to shine in, which made his awakening even worse.
“Get up, slave!” Penant kicked him in the side, but Luca just mumbled something without opening his eyes. “Up!”
Angered, the senior apprentice kicked him in the ribs with all his strength. The boy couldn’t ignore a strike like that and leapt up, his head spinning in confusion. He wiped his eyes and yawned unwillingly.
Penant cuffed him around the head.
“Downstairs, now! Wash your face and go to the master’s office!”
Luca took a few uncertain steps to the door, staggered, and then took a heavy kick to the backside. The educational measure worked: it gave the slave a sense of urgency and he picked up his pace. Penant smirked crookedly. Even this little bit of authority filled him with a feeling of significance and an intoxicating sense of superiority.
After the terrified Luca flew down the stairs and hesitatingly knocked at the master’s door, his heart was beating like a trash sparrow’s wings. The realization that the hot-headed healer would be unlikely to help his mother scared him more than his hypothetical punishment for being sluggish and late.
He heard some muted voices from within the room. Luca knocked louder, then heard steps and someone unlocking the door from inside.
“The slave Luca,” Penant announced after opening the door.
“Sit him down,” Master Yadugara commanded, apparently focused on examining something in a vial as he held it up to the light.
The healer agitated the transparent liquid, chuckled in satisfaction and poured it into another vessel. The liquid changed color to a bright yellow, and Yadugara clicked his tongue in excitement.
Penant had already pushed Luca onto a long and low chair. He placed Luca’s arms and legs into special depressions in the chair, then restrained each limb with straps. Yadugara squeezed his cheeks painfully and forced his mouth open wide.
“Drink!” the master ordered, pouring the burning saccharine liquid into the boy’s mouth.
The liquid didn’t dampen his throat. On the contrary, it made it dry as a desert. A fire lit in his stomach, his eyes darkened, and heard his heartbeat like war drums in his head.
“What’s that for?” Luca’s throat was dry, but the master still understood him.
“Take a spit sample and cover his mouth and eyes,” he said to Penant. “He hasn’t had breakfast, I hope?”
“No breakfast, master! I kicked him awake and sent him to wash and then straight to you.”
Luca heard the master washing his hands.
“Then let’s get started!”
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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