For the rest of the trip to the palace, Luca prevented his ability from spending any energy at all. Based on his traveling companions’ stressed faces, he guessed the purpose of taking him there. That pity in Yadugara’s eyes that the boy had seen was merely the regret of losing a slave, it wasn’t sympathy.
The carriage stopped when they reached the palace walls. The guard post reported the healer’s arrival and they had to stop at the side of the gates and wait to be met. Yadugara was clearly nerovus the whole time, and even lost his temper with Penant, whipping him with his cane. Luca was willing to bet that he was the first choice of target, but bruises from a fresh beating on the boy’s body would probably not improve the healer in the eyes of those taking the slave.
The chief imperial medic, Master Lentz, came for the boy personally. He looked strict and youthful, had a bald spot on the back of his head, and wore glasses. He greeted the newly arrived healer dryly and asked just one question.
“Where is he?”
Yadugara ordered Luca to come out, pronounced the words required to transfer the slave to the property of Master Lentz, and tried to pull the highly ranked courtier aside to add something important. Lentz tried to wave him away, but Yadugara was persistent. In the end, Lentz allowed himself to be drawn away a few paces, but Luca’s traveler-enhanced hearing caught every word. The key words were about “exhausted coma”. Parts of the puzzle began to make sense: the metamorphosis required energy to work and protect its carrier.
While the healers talked, with Yadugara heatedly trying to convince his colleague of something and achieving nothing but boring Lentz and making him want to leave, Luca looked around the area.
He saw the palace gardens beyond the gates, with a broad cobble path winding through them. Its tortuous path led upwards to the palace itself, and an imperial guardsman stood every twenty paces along it. It was nothing to do with tradition or romantic ritual. It was more from the numerous coup attempts, both by the aristocracy and by people’s rebellions from the poorest districts.
The last attempted coup was in the year Luca’s father died. Many spoke about it at home, and the little Luca had been horrified. The life of the Emperor seemed to him the most important life there could be in the Empire. How could someone try to kill him?
“Follow me, Luca,” Lentz enticed him in using his name.
It was unexpected, but nice to hear his own name. The boy followed Lentz.
As he walked through the gates, he turned back. Yadugara pierced him with a reptilian gaze, the veins in his temples pulsing. Penant, still leaning out of the carriage window, frowned and gnawed on his fingernails. Dezisimu felt no hatred for either of them. From the rational point of view he’d inherited from Esk, they’d acted correctly. They hadn’t even broken the country’s laws! But nonetheless, Luca had no plans to let them go unpunished. He wouldn’t go out of his way to take vengeance against them, but if they happened to cross his path again, he’d repay them a hundred times over.
“Are you hungry, boy?” Lentz asked as they walked. “You are worthy of the honor of sharing part of your health with his imperial majesty, and that means you need plenty of it. Don’t worry, the procedure is absolutely safe!”
Luca cast a sidelong, distrustful glance at Lentz. Lentz merely stared ahead and spoke, not turning to the boy. Would he not even try to hide the fact that he planned to extract the boy’s life? If Esk were with him, he would have laughed, but Luca just shook his head in amazement. Worthy of the honor indeed! Oh, if only he could say what he thought about his majesty and the safety of the transfusion procedure. But instead, he answered simply.
“I am hungry, Master.”
Lentz stopped for a moment, looked at him, nodded, then resumed his rapid pace.
In the palace, the chief medic handed him over to his secretary with orders to wash him, disinfect him and feed him. It would have been better if the food came first, because ‘wash and disinfect’ took a lot more time than the boy Luca could imagine.
He was shaved again, although his hair hadn’t really had a chance to grow since the baths, and covered in something that smelled so strongly that his eyes streamed tears. Then they covered him in a burning powder and forced him to suffer it while his metamorphosis screamed about the aggressive influence and toxic substances all over his skin. Luca forbade his ability from synthesizing the neutralizing compounds that it planned to release through his pores, wanting to preserve energy. I can handle it, he decided.
Once the burning powder was washed off, he was taken to the bath. Some fat old woman with nothing but an apron over her naked body dealt with him there, wheezing as she trimmed his nails and rubbed him with sand and a bronze scraper, raking off not only dirt — or indeed, no dirt at all, just skin. Then his metamorphosis reacted without warning, both regenerating his skin and absorbing part of the scraper.
The fat woman couldn’t understand how the scraper had worn away so quickly. All she could do was mutter to herself.
“Looks like I overdid it...”
Her mouth agape, she looked the boy over for injuries, but found nothing. Luca carefully kept his eyes away from her pendulous breasts and didn’t complain.
After his ablutions were finally over, he was sent to a separate room in the servants’ wing. Then dinner was brought in, in two trips. Nothing too refined according to the traveler’s tastes, but a divine feast for the yesterday-healed poor cripple. And more importantly, there was lots of it!
He’d never eaten such tasty food, and Koerlig — assistant and Lentz’s secretary, a small nimble man with mischievous eyes and a face mottled with pox scars, — had let slip that Lentz wouldn’t take him to the procedure looking so ragged, and that he’d be fed for three more days.
And so it was. The morning began with giving various samples for analysis: blood, urine, feces, spit. All this came with a mechanical examination of the body, measuring his chest size and lung volume, comparing his height and weight with the standard for his age. Lentz was trying to figure out how many years Yadugara had taken.
Then he was brought a hearty breakfast, after which Koerlig took him to the ocean and forced him to swim.
Luca overheard Lentz saying to one of his colleagues, “This will strengthen the body and increase the possible transfusion volume.”
At first he joyfully floundered around within thirty feet of the shore, the water only up to his knees, but over time he got braver and started going farther and farther out, trying to stay afloat on the surface. And so he discovered the ecstatic experience of weightlessness, when, lying on his back, he felt his body floating on the waves, the salty water stroking him.
His Metamorphosis ability used the sea water in full, pulling in and absorbing salt for some goals to strengthen him that only it knew.
Then, again under Koerlig’s tutelage, the boy ran along the beach, where sand had been brought from the south of the Empire. He breathed the salty, pure sea air and felt his heart beating, growing and becoming stronger and more enduring.
Unfortunately, there was no way to escape from the palace without them coming after him, so he just used this gift of idle time and relative freedom to restore his strength and study his own ability. Or rather, abilities — after all, even the most ordinary actions of which his body was capable were new to the former paralytic.
Even Lentz was astounded by how quickly Luca gained strength, boosted by his metamorphosis. Phenomenal! he said. It’s a shame we don’t have time to study him in detail. The Emperor is in a hurry...
Every morning, as soon as he’d woken up and before he’d even gotten out of bed, His Imperial Majesty would summon him and demand that the transfusion procedure be performed immediately. He couldn’t wait any longer.
In his forty two years, Ma Ju Ro the Fourth felt like a rickety old man. Many ill-judged nights of drinking, the Tassurian weed prescribed by First Advisor Naut, and steady gluttony were killing the Emperor faster than new donors could be found.
Another problem was his indiscriminate attitude to women, who could carry hidden diseases sent by Two-horns the Tempter. Sure, Lentz checked the regular courtesans almost every day, but Ma Ju Ro could point to the first lady he liked the look of at a ball and she’d be immediately dragged to the throne so that the ruler could satisfy his lust before the eyes of a public that was no longer surprised by anything...
By the end of the week, His Imperial Majesty’s patience ran out. The reason for this was the embarrassment that arose in him when, despite all the efforts of three of his courtesans who were enacting a truly unthinkable fantasy with surprising success, his primary weapon failed him.
So the next evening, right after dinner, Koerlig took Luca to Lentz in the medical wing.
Then the boy was laid down and the chief medic injected him with a depressant that was guaranteed to turn any person into a limp vegetable for at least twenty-four hours.
Luca’Onegut, realizing that the important thing right now was not to screw anything up, ordered his metamorphosis not to fight the intruding substance, to let it work and neutralize it only when the previously identified transfusion procedure starts. He had been studying his abilities systematically over the last few days, and he’d practiced this a few times, initiating something when certain conditions are in effect.
Luca fell unconscious with those thoughts, and when he woke up, Lentz was gone. He himself lay in full darkness, with someone breathing heavily and loudly nearby.
Shining text before his eyes told him that the psychotropic and anesthetizing agents in his bloodstream had been neutralized, because an ‘unsanctioned withdrawal of energy reserves’ was detected.
Accelerating interchange processes...
Luca decided to wait for as long as he needed for the procedure to end, and lay listening patiently as the breath of the man nearby steadily grew quieter.
The Emperor didn’t have much life left in him, and by midnight, Luca had regained only part of what he had lost, gaining youth at the cost of the now late Ma Ju Ro the Fourth. Or rather, soon to be late. His numbers were all under ten percent.
Without catching the tethers, Luca sat up on his cot and thought of what to do next. He knew he had to run, but where to? His knowledge of the Empire’s lands were limited to the district in the slums where he lived now, and the district of his parents’ former home. What lay beyond the capital? How large was the Empire? Were there other islands nearby? Did there really exist a land of mutants somewhere beyond the mountains? That was where, rumor had it, all those infected with Two-horns’ curse in the mines were exiled.
Luca either heard or imagined some sound, and immediately after it, messages filled up his vision.
Absorbed: 5.27 years of life force.
Tsoui points: +21. Current balance: 22.
Ability level two reached!
Gained the capability of copying other lifeforms of the same kind.
To avoid abuse and for the sake of universal balance and harmony, this ability may be used only once a year (in Wheel time).
In the moonlight, Luca looked over at the body lying nearby and smiled.
The morning of the new day had long since faded into noon, but Yadugara was still in his bed. No, he wasn’t sick. On the contrary, adrenaline still rushed through his veins from the sleepless night he’d spent in the company of the passionate Reyna. Each new transfusion procedure overjoyed him like an exquisite and rare treat, each representing another extension of the time left to him. He savored his newly obtained youth and the vibrant health and roiling hormones that only it could provide.
But this time everything was different. His body wasn’t just younger. It was as if he had soaked up all the thirst for life and passion for the novel and unknown that the country boy Dezisimu had. He seethed inside. His body demanded a new dose! More, more, more! These long-forgotten feelings were so heady and intoxicating. But it was harder to find a new donor with each passing year.
His brain released the torpid tendrils of disappointment into his veins. They stretched toward the mage’s heart, entwining it and squeezing the life out of it. His prey had fallen from his grasp and gone instead to that fat bastard! Ma Ju Ro was unworthy of transfusion! Better he lay down and die, that spineless, dull pig!
Yadugara anxiously suppressed his seditious thoughts and looked around. There were whispers in the palace that the Emperor’s carefree mother may well have borne her son by a man other than her husband, but there was no point in thinking about that. The watching oracles — old women who survived through their wisdom — might intercept his rebellious thoughts. Of course, nobody believed them to be effective, but the healer had always prided himself on his caution. You never know.
However, thoughts of the fifteen years of life he had snatched away were an excellent remedy for his bad mood. However painful it was to lose Luca, the healer’s hopes for the former slave’s sister warmed his heart, encased though it was in narcissistic ice. He would drain every last drop from that creature! And this very day, no less!
Their initial analyses and tests showed positive results — it was incredible! Two full-fledged donors, rich with decades of life, had been found in such a short time! The elder Dezisimu may be lost to him, but the girl, what was her name — Kora? — was at his full disposal.
Yadugara stretched in pleasure and smiled as he thought about visiting the House of Inspiration, a high-class brothel that took pride in the fact that the Emperor himself had frequented it in his teenage years. He had no time to finish the thought. Someone came rushing loudly up the stairs and rapped on the door.
The man hissed in anger, lazily swung his legs off the bed and spoke in an amiable tone.
“I’ll kill you.”
He stood up easily and freely, no longer feeling the sickening familiar arthritis in his knees that had plagued him for years. He smiled, tensed his muscles, crouched and jumped, almost reaching the ceiling with his outstretched arms.
The one standing outside the door listened. It seemed they’d realized what they’d done and they were now shaking in fear. In the healer’s house, it was strictly forbidden to disturb the master’s rest. Be there fire, flood or plague, none would dare distract the master from his affairs.
The desperate knocking at the door was replaced by a timid tapping. Truly, the consequences shouldn’t be too dire. Yesterday Yadugara could have banished his underling to the basement for several hours for such an offense, regardless of his mood.
Today everything was different. Regardless of who was behind the door, Yadugara would keep the punishment to a light whipping.
He smoothed the edges of his silk pyjamas and pulled the door wide open. He saw young Reyna, her eyes red with tears.
“What’s wrong, girl?”
The girl fitfully clenched her fists at her breast, trying to gather herself, but her lower lip trembled and her tongue failed to obey, frozen in fear. Yadugara sensed disaster and his heart began to pound.
“Speak, damn you!”
His good mood jumped straight off a cliff. Frowning, Yadugara moved Reyna aside and shouted in a low voice that boomed throughout the entire house.
“Penant! Senior Apprentice! Abyss take you! Come here, now, before I come down there and pull your stupid head off!”
“He isn’t here...” Reyna uttered, hiccuping and snivelling.
“Calm yourself!” Yadugara grabbed her by the shoulders and gave her a good shake.
The girl’s teeth chattered a couple more times, then she swallowed and seemed to get a grip on herself. At least, her stupor passed and she managed to blurt out some words.
“I brought her lunch as you commanded, Master I swear on the Sacred Mother, I...”
“Stop!” The healer pulled his hand from the girl’s clinging grasp in disgust. “Who is ‘her’?”
“The girl! The creature’s sister! I did everything as you wanted, sir! She’s gone! She... She...”
Yadugara began to realize that his long-awaited guest had scorned her host’s hospitality and left his cozy home.
“What?!” the healer roared. “She what?!”
“She... ran away.”
Yadugara pushed his lover to the wall with such force that she hit the back of her head and fell down in a heap on the floor. Paying this no heed, he was already running down the steps two at a time, roaring and nervously plucking at his fluttering silk pyjamas as they strained to contain him.
A blood mist filled his vision. If the girl suspected something, then losing a donor wasn’t even the worst of it. Lentz could find out everything! The idiot Penant had let slip at dinner that he’d taken Luca to the palace, and if the sister went to her brother, Yadugara would never see the donor again!
Morons! He’d cut them all into little pieces with his scalpel and feed them to the chinils. Nobody could be trusted! Why wasn’t he woken? It was all falling apart! Where was everyone?
It was as if the home had died.
“Who let her out?!” Yadugara shouted. “Penant, you filthy rat, I’ll strangle you!”
Not a sound came in answer. The man ran out onto the porch. The sunlight blinded him for a moment, and a cold gust of wind gave him a sobering slap. His veil of fury fell.
Clenching and unclenching his fists, Yadugara sighed and went back upstairs to beat the truth out of the only witness to what had happened that he had.
Kora stopped. She had a stitch in her side. Her breath came out in wheezes. The toes of her bare feet were on fire from striking against the pavement.
What now? Where could she run? She couldn’t go home, that would be the first place they’d look for her. Mom was there! Although she was unconscious with a fever. They’d be too squeamish to touch her.
She’d made such a fool of herself! Why had she trusted them?! The fact that she’d been fed tall tales all the previous day and then locked in a room come nightfall clearly showed that she’d gotten into the kind of trouble she’d never dreamed of before. Karim was right.
And maybe back then she would have been able to twist her way out, but not now.
Her gaze slid to the prize clutched in her small fist. Sparkling with cut facets and multicolored gemstones, the silver candlestick glimmered in the sunlight. Kora couldn’t help but admire its fine filigree stand, entwined with leaves made of wire, and its crest in the shape of flowers.
Remembering herself and glancing around furtively, she sat down and covered the object in mud, so it wouldn’t stand out in the dirty and fetid district. People’s throats had been cut for less.
She was such an idiot! She had nowhere to go now, and this trinket was weighing her arm down. Who would she sell it to? It was too noticeable, too expensive. She should have chosen something small.
The night before, after some so-called ‘medical research,’ Reyna had let Kora into a room and then instantly slammed the door behind her. She’d heard the crunch of the lock as the key turned.
The girl was lost. Luca wasn’t in the house, but at first, they’d tried to convince her that her brother would be back. That self-important Penant, who strutted around like a peacock, told her that he was in the palace, but Kora noticed the flash of Yadugara’s angry gaze, and the senior apprentice immediately corrected himself, saying that her brother would return soon. One day soon. All she had to do was wait.
Luca was in the palace? Did they take her for a complete fool? Kora didn’t believe a single word from them after that, and the locked door in the room finally convinced her — nobody there was on her side. Her brother was probably already dead, and the same fate would have come to her if she hadn’t escaped.
Estimating the thickness of the bars on the window, Kora quickly glanced around the room and then put her eye to the keyhole. At the last moment, she saw Reyna calling someone called Daler as she walked away. If they put a guard outside her room, her chances of escape would be paltry.
The girl was used to adapting quickly and taking decisions instantly. Survival at any cost was the only goal in the life of anyone who lived in their district. The skill came down through the mother’s milk, and it forced the dwellers of the slums to rise each day from their sorry excuses for beds and go out to find food.
That was when Kora’s gaze landed on the ill-fated candlestick. It had the fine wires of a flower ornament coiled around it. Not hesitating for a second, the girl twisted out one of the wires and broke it. Running to the door and falling to her knees, she started to fashion a lock-pick out of the wire. The old man Vindor had taught her this once.
Her thin fingers with their broken dirty nails shook and disobeyed her. She kept dropping the lock-pick on the floor. She held her breath each time, listening. Finally, the crooked end of the wire caught and pulled at the weighty lock catch. As if it was doing her a big favor, the catch lazily and slowly turned, releasing the prisoner.
She didn’t remember running through the house and garden, hopping the fence, rushing barefoot through the empty alleyways. Only now, standing and trying to calm her galloping breath, did she realize that she’d stolen something. And if she’d nearly been sent to the mines for some soused apples, then for this...
She couldn’t return what she’d taken even if she wanted to. It wasn’t her conscience that bothered her. On the contrary. Master Yadugara had a whole cabinet of trinkets like this one. He wouldn’t even notice right away that one had gone missing.
On the other hand, Kora could sell this expensive bauble and get treatment for her mom! Now that her illusions about her brother had been dispelled, she was ready for everything. She tried not to think about the fact that the city watch would probably be looking for her. She needed to solve problems as they came up, as the alcoholic former gladiator had taught her.
Getting her bearings, the girl saw the familiar crooked and discolored sign of the inn.
Vindor! That was who would help her!
Opening the heavy and screeching door slightly, Kora saw just an empty room with flies flying around near the ceiling. Of course! It was still morning! All the local drunkards would be sleeping off last night, some at home, some in a nearby ditch.
The barmaid Irma jumped out from behind the door and grabbed the girl by the arm.
“Where do you think you’re going, harlot? You come in here like it’s your home! I’m going to tell Nemania that you’re looking around for something to steal, he’ll sort you out!”
“Let me go!” Kora said quietly.
“Why are you here?”
The barmaid’s cunning eyes landed on the dirt-covered candlestick. One silver flower bud stuck out from the clumps of mud.
“Two-horns’ impure mother! Are you sick of living?!” Irma whispered, covering her mouth in shock. “Where did you get this, tramp?”
The gears in the barmaid’s head began to turn. Her nostrils flared and her eyes turned crazy. She was already imagining the heap of shiny new coins that could be gotten for selling such a thing. She’d be able to pay off all her debts and leave that damned innkeeper!
Keeping hold of the girl’s wrist, apparently afraid that she might run away, Irma quickly tore off her filthy apron and shouted to someone inside the building.
“I’m going out for a while!”
Pushing the girl out into the street, she dragged her skinny, newly appeared guardian angel into a nearby alleyway. Kora had no more strength left to fight and flee.
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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