Emperor Ma Ju Ro the Fourth, known among the people as Ma Ju Ro the Sour, thoughtfully looked out of his panoramic window overlooking the ocean. The nearest continent was somewhere out there, over five hundred miles away. The real world was out there, but he was the only one who knew it.
The calm, but treacherous ocean waves lapped against the western shore of the isle of Syahrs. The cliff of Ma Ju Ro the First, the Ruler, once bore a different title long before the Resurrection, as did the island itself.
On the day the young Ma Ju Ro the Fourth was crowned, Fourth Advisor Cross came to him and requested an audience. It lasted all day. The advisor opened the young man’s eyes to the true design of the world, and it turned out to be far more complex than the people of the Empire had believed, including Ma Ju Ro himself. Unlike what his tutors had taught him, unlike the stories of the priests and schoolteachers, the people of the Empire, as it turned out, were not the only inhabitants of this world.
Long before the Empire, the island had been home to the khhars, a dark-skinned people who were considered backward, but were genetically almost perfect. By the order of the ruling family of the Ra’Ta’Kants, represented by Queen Taira, known as the Sacred Mother, the khhars had been resettled to the mainland. The khhars found their niche in the structure of society in the greater world. They became a martial caste, strengthened by generations of genetic improvements and augmentations.
Their place on the giant island, which would be more aptly named a continent on its own, was taken by the syahrs. Some journalist had come up with the name, and it had stuck for all those who were considered carriers of defective genetic code. The syahrs were forcibly relocated.
They couldn’t gather them all up. Many resisted. The relocation and purification efforts took almost a half century of civil war, but in the end, around a hundred million defectives had been confined to a reservation in the hope that they would die out on their own in total isolation, from hunger and a lack of the conveniences that civilized people were so used to.
But the syahrs didn’t die. Many of the first syahrs had relatives remaining on the continent, friends, sympathetic people who organized deliveries of humanitarian aid: food, tools, clothing and much more. These deliveries were mercilessly cut off, but the volunteers kept finding new routes.
Although, as the years passed, these humanitarian efforts dried up. Family connections were lost, mentions of the syahrs faded from mass media, and within a generation or two, the exiles were almost forgotten. Conversations about them came to be considered tasteless.
In the meantime, the syahrs, even with their defective genetic code, remained human, with all the skills of social organization that came with it. The humanitarian aid wasn’t enough for everyone, and the syahrs began to unite into groups, each of which was led by whoever within it was the strongest.
A primitive war began over resources, over women, over the remnants of the khhar settlements. Groups rose and united, and by the end of the second century after the Great Exodus, several would-be countries and independent settlements had emerged.
The leader of one such settlement, which would later be called the capital of the Empire, was one Ma Ju Ro. No information of his life before his emperorship remained, but it was he, called the Ruler, who captured all the land of the island and declared himself Emperor Ma Ju Ro the First.
Toward the end of his short-reign, the palace was captured in the pre-dawn light by terrifying fifteen-foot-high iron men in black, shimmering metal helmets. Their leader was a handsome and tall blond man with glowing skin. He called himself the racant Cross. Bored and yawning, he explained to the emperor who ruled the world, and who was a mere genetic pollutant.
“The Cross family,” he had said, pinning the emperor with his sharp blue eyes, “will henceforth oversee all activity on the isle of the syahrs, by order of Queen Taira Ra’Ta’Cant. All the island’s resources — fish, fruit, ore, precious stones — must be systematically shipped out and handed over to the Cross family. The cult of the Sacred Mother is to be the island’s main religion, and you will declare a yearly collection and transfer of resources as an offering to her. We will perform a preventive action of intimidation at midday, including visual effects and an appearance of the Goddess before the common folk.”
It remains unknown how much of this Ma Ju Ro the First understood, and how much of it he refused to understand, but by the end of the year, temples to the Sacred Mother Taira had opened all across the Empire, Two-horns was declared the enemy of all humanity, and Ma Ju Ro the First, the Victor, was replaced by Kiloug, also the First, but dubbed the Defender.
The Cross family representative had since then become the fourth advisor to the emperor, humble and unnoticed. But all subsequent empires listened to his advice, and only his. For centuries, one Cross had been replaced by another, but the style of rule over the Empire remained the same: population control, keeping the society’s advancement at the same — low — level, and shipping out resources to benefit the Crosses...
“My lord, all is ready,” the chief imperial medic Lentz appeared behind the Emperor’s back. “The donor awaits.”
Ma Ju Ro the Fourth nodded, relaxing.
“How much will we be able to transfuse?”
“At least fifteen years, I think. That crook Yadugara, the one who found the donor, managed to perform the procedure on himself. He took twenty years at least. Do you wish the bastard punished?”
“Give him the promised reward,” Ma Ju Ro the Fourth shrugged uncertainly. “I don’t know, decide for yourself.”
“We shall give him the reward,” Lentz nodded so fervently that his glasses almost fell off. “And then, should we punish him?”
“If we punish everyone, there won’t be anyone left to find donors!” the emperor muttered, annoyed. “Reward him and let him make himself scarce.”
Lentz nodded again, though not with the same enthusiasm. His disappointment flashed in the reflection of his glasses. Two-horns take Yadugara! Lentz could have used those years himself! And that rogue Yadugara had even tried to teach him how to perform the transfusion procedure correctly... Him! The chief imperial medic!
The bastard muttered something about the donor having to be in an exhausted coma for the procedure to work, because he has extremely high resilience to it. Hah! Lentz had a time-tested anesthetic formula that he’d used on many subjects. What could Yadugara possibly teach him? That arrogant fool! If the donor was in a coma, the transfusion could kill him faster than necessary!
Lentz led his ruler to the specially prepared room that had always been used to perform the miracle of rejuvenation. Ma Ju Ro took off his armor and tunic and shivered. He was not embarrassed of his nudity, and it was warm in the room, but the prospect of rejection or failure in the transfusion process scared him every time. It got harder and harder to find a new donor each year. Either the population was dwindling (although how could it get any worse?) or bastards like Yadugara were keeping the donors for themselves.
The donor lay on the next cot, unconscious. He was clearly a drained boy, scrawny and ugly with age beyond his years, with narrow shoulders and a childishly fragile neck. Ma Ju Ro thought the boy moved. He looked closer. He had only imagined it, it seemed.
“Once you start it, leave and order the place locked down,” Ma Ju Ro said, not wanting anyone nearby in his time of helplessness.
“As usual, my lord! I will return in precisely twelve hours/ As you know, more than that...”
“I know!” the Emperor interrupted Lentz in annoyance.
Wheezing, Ma Ju Ro climbed onto the cot, making it screech in complaint.
Over two hundred pounds! Lentz thought. What a whale! He knows all about the strain on his heart! But he still eats like a pig!
He suppressed those seditious thoughts and got to work. He injected the Emperor with a sedative, and in a few minutes, Ma Ju Ro snored peacefully. Then Lentz connected the tethers to the ruler’s body and initiated the transfusion.
He stood for a while to ensure that the procedure had begun, then hurried to leave. If the Emperor learned that he’d stayed nearby for some reason, there would be questions.
A minute later, the door was locked from the outside, and silence reigned within.
According to the plan, the donor was meant to stay unconscious right up until he died. Instead, he opened his eyes.
The cobblestone streets blushed a warm crimson in the light of the setting sun. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, nor so much as a light breeze to refresh the face.
Somewhere on the outskirts could be heard the shouts of street criers, summoning all comers to the evening prayer, but that would be unlikely to help Kora. Last time she had attended a prayer service in honor of the Sacred Mother had been before her father had departed for the realm of Two-horns.
Back then, the service had seemed somehow magical. People dressed in beautiful clothes had come to the temple, attentively listened to the priest and praised the goddess. Now, on the other hand, Kora realized that she probably wouldn’t even be allowed within the temple walls in her dirty rags, no matter how strong her faith might be. It was a mere fair of vanity, lies and sycophancy, a congregation of rich citizens, nothing more than a place to show off. Their eyes greedily darted around, assessing the others: who had a more richly sewn frock, who had larger gemstones, who had a fatter purse? Kora knew that the day would come when she would walk arm-in-arm with her chosen love. Her dress would be better than all the rest. But for now...
Using her last strength to drag a wooden bucket cracked on one side, she poured the soapy brown water into the drain. The girl’s muscles cramped with fatigue, and she hurried to rub feeling back into her numb shoulder.
Her mother couldn’t get out of bed at all. The neighbor women said that all her symptoms pointed to swamp fever, an illness not to be taken lightly. Her mom needed a doctor right away. It would cost three silver coins to call one out, but the family didn’t even have fifty coppers to its name.
This work was so hard! The girl didn’t know how her mother did it day after day. In horror, Kora imagined her future as a washerwoman and shivered from the mere possibility.
Two-horns take this poverty! She wanted to hurry and get married so she could live like a human being!
Returning to the tiny family home, the girl cast her tired gaze over the dilapidated little room and the laundry hung all over on ropes. The heat and the constant washing of laundry made the room as damp and stuffy as the public baths. That thought made her chuckle. The baths! Some people actually willingly went and sat in the sweltering heat from white-hot stones! Kora herself had never been there, but she had friends from the brothel near the market. They were only a couple of years her senior, but they’d seen more than the sinners from under Two-horns’ tail...
Her mother moaned quietly in the corner. She hadn’t regained consciousness since the evening of Luca’s trial. The girl sat down tiredly on the edge of the bed. Sticky sweat covered the woman’s pale face. Her cheeks were sunken, her eyes puffy with dark circles beneath — far darker than usual. Kora wiped her mother’s brow with a damp apron that had been washed so many times it had holes in it. She stared through her mother with a glassy gaze, anxiously biting her lip.
Where was she going to get the money? Kora knew only one method available to her...
The sun finally sank beneath the sharp-pointed roofs. The first lights began to shine in the houses. The girl quickly made herself look relatively presentable and quickly walked up the street, toward the only goal she knew. If anyone who knew Kora saw her now, saw her brow knit in a frown and the fine line of her pursed lips, they would envy her decisiveness.
She was going to the inn in the hopes of making some money. There was only one person who could help her — Vindor. He was an old man permanently displeased with life. Tall, gaunt, but bowed by the hard lot of a one-legged shoemaker. He was once a gladiator at the Arena, where he’d lost his leg and the best years of his life. But his strength of spirit and skilled hands, which sometimes seemed to work all on their own without bothering to consult his alcohol-drenched brain, kept him from falling all the way to rock bottom.
In the girl, he found a grateful listener. When he span out old stories of the Arena after a glass or two, stories of past victories and glories, she listened with half an ear, but made the appearance of sincere interest. Kora was very young when she first discovered the secret of how to stay in people’s good graces: all she had to do was listen to them.
In any case, the old man treated Kora well. He never hurt her, and he fed her from his scant stores. And the girl was willing to accept certain minor inconveniences in her struggle to adapt and survive. It didn’t take much with Vindor, after all. She just had to listen and smile sweetly.
Of course, there were days — one or two per week — when the old man lost control of himself. His mood turned particularly vile and his hands got a little too free. That wasn’t uncommon in their district, especially at the market, so the girl took it in her stride. Anyway, Vindor always made amends with a coin or two, and the girl’s agility helped a little more to disappear from his pockets unnoticed. All in all, it was worth it.
The old man didn’t abuse her, and there was a certain threshold he didn’t cross. Normally he limited himself to merely pressing up against her in a dark corner of the inn, breathing heavily and stinking of stale whiskey, greedily fondling her barely formed breasts and stroking her backside. By the standards of the slums, he was a true gentleman.
Kora knew that she was beautiful. She’d heard that too often from all kinds of people, but how could she hope that some prosperous member of the capital’s high society would see it in her? It was silly!
With the way her life was going, sooner or later she would give in to her friends from the brothel and join them on their path. It wouldn’t save her from poverty, but at least she’d always have food and shelter. So far, Kora had somehow kept herself from that fate, whether through some miracle or just disgust. It was better to steal than risk catching diseases that could make her nose fall off, like what happened to Crooked Servilia from their district...
Kora pushed the inn’s heavy door open. A heady mix of sour beer, smoke and male sweat filled her nose. But through these partly familiar spells also came the subtle, barely perceptible scent of roasted offal. Her mouth began to water treacherously, and Kora remembered that the hadn’t eaten since the morning, and that had been the usual fare of sickening potato skin soup.
She quickly glanced around the inn. Sadly, the old man Vindor was nowhere to be seen. Cursing her ill-fated plans, the girl hurried to leave before Nemania saw her. When Kora went there with the limping old man, the owner of the inn’s only district watched her with his flashing, predatory eyes, but kept silent. That money-grubbing crook would sell his grandmother for a copper, but he wouldn’t let a regular customer go, even a not particularly wealthy one like Vindor.
But this time, danger reached her in a form other than Nemania. Irma — a thirty-three-year-old barmaid who would provide certain off-the-menu services for tips — looked worn out in spite of her far from old age. Her eternally greasy slick hair and a crooked scar on her lower lip — a gift from an ungrateful client — did nothing to improve matters.
It wasn’t clear when it had happened, but she’d started to see a competitor in Kora. Each time she saw her, she tired to run her off, or sometimes to keep her from getting in at all. Like now...
“Where do you think you are, little fly?” she asked in unfriendly tones, her hands at her sides. “Grow some tits first, harlot!”
Kora didn’t deign to respond, though she liked arguing for fun, sharpening her already sharp tongue. Instead, she spat disdainfully at the barmaid’s feet and quickly ran outside before Irma threw something heavy at her. It had been known to happen.
Finally, a breeze! As she came outside, Kora flung her arms out wide. Where, oh Two-horns, where has that old man gone in this hour of need?! Her mom was getting worse, and in despair the girl realized that she’d need to find money for a doctor and medicine no matter what it took. Should she steal again? But she’d promised Prisca that she wouldn’t...
Thoughts of money were overwhelmed by the dull ache in her back and the soreness in her knuckles from where they’d rubbed on the washboard. She’d done nothing all day but drag buckets and press sheets heavy with water, and she’d half broken herself hanging them all up.
Kora thought for a moment as she stood by the door to the inn, and failed to notice another danger: Karim’s crew had appeared from around a corner. To the right of him walked Fat Peter, the fishmerchant’s son, cackling, with gleaming smooth cheeks. A little farther away, to the left, Jamal bared his rotten teeth. Not a single glimmer of intellect showed in his grubby face and idiotic smile. Sometimes Kora thought that Jamal could easily gut his own mother when he bared his teeth like that.
“Well, whore, is your cripple of a brother still alive? Or did they put him out of his misery?” Karim laughed at his own joke.
Kora jerked as if slapped. Anger boiled within her. She could have just spat and run away, but she’d missed the moment and now she was cornered by three boys in a very sour mood.
The girl thought feverishly about what to do. She couldn’t run, that’d just spur them on even more. They’d have fun chasing her down, grabbing her, they’d twist her arms, grope her, maybe even kick her. And she had no time to get hurt now! She had to somehow outwit them.
“Hah! He isn’t a cripple anymore! He got into a good home! His new master feeds him real meat, not that disgusting gruel your dad thinks of as food! Luca has good clothes and his own room! Maybe I should even thank you. Or should I throw stones at you too? Maybe Master Yadugara will take me in then as well. I wouldn’t mind hanging around all day and eating my fill!”
Karim’s eyes widened and his nostrils flared. He must have painted himself an entirely different picture, one of Luca being whipped to death in the mines. But this version worked for him too. The boy roared in laughter.
“The cripple has gone to Master Yadugara? Idiot girl! Everyone knows his slaves die quickly!”
Fat Pete grunted like a pig behind him, and Jamal rumbled a low bass laugh. Kora always started fuming quickly when it came to her family. She gritted her teeth and clenched her fists. She took deep breaths like her mother had taught her, tried to steady herself. This wasn’t the time for a fight, and the odds clearly weren’t in her favor. Measuring all three with her baleful gaze, she tried to squeeze past the boys.
“Out of my way, Karim, I’m in a hurry.”
“I’m not done with you yet!” The big guy shoved her so hard she barely stayed upright.
“Get away from that girl!” said a sonorous, authoritative voice as if from nowhere behind their backs.
The boys, not expecting such insolence, clenched their fists and turned around to teach the clever interloper a lesson.
It turned out it was a girl. Tall, full-figured and very beauitful. All three stood dumbfounded with their mouths hanging open.
“Close your mouths. You’ll catch flies. Kora, come on! Hurry!”
Kora didn’t need telling twice. She dodged around Fat Pete and quickly ran behind the strange girl’s back.
“Who are you anyway?” Karim got enough of a grip on himself to say, but with none of the previous confidence in his voice.
“I live in Master Yadugara’s house, you grubby little lout.” The girl laughed deliberately, baring her fragile white teeth previously hidden by her full lips. “You just try touching me, you’ll get torn to shreds!”
The girl turned around with a flourish and walked away, with her head high, back straight and hips swaying. Karim’s gang were still struck dumb, whether by the mention of a man whose dark reputation preceded him, or by a woman more beautiful than anyone in the slums had ever seen.
In the meantime, the unknown girl quickly scampered down the street, away from the inhospitable inn. Kora barely kept up with her.
“I’m Reyna,” the girl said, turning. “I have some news from your brother Luca.”
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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