Chapter 1: Captive
It had taken him months to acquire knowledge of the secret hiding place, and still more months of careful planning to make use of the information. Long weeks of spying and reconnaissance had gone into his search: a whispered word here, a gentle suggestion there. Bribery and flattery, alliances and deceit.
Finally, all his efforts were about to pay off.
The man rubbed his hands together with tense excitement. Carefully, he slid the portrait off the wall with agonizing slowness.
And there it was, exactly where the old servant had told him to look: the hidden safe of Lord Jasperian of Cadaras.
If life were a courtroom, the man thought, breathing hard with anticipation, I would be both judge and jury.
Expertly, the man twiddled the dial, eyes glinting with satisfaction as he heard the heavy clunks of tumblers falling into place. The safe swung out on oiled hinges to reveal a cluttered stash of gold and ancient jewelry.
The man ignored these. They were not what he was seeking.
There it is. Below.
With a delicate touch that seemed ironic for one with hands so large, the man removed an old parchment scroll from near the bottom of the pile and unrolled it. A cursory look revealed the brilliant crimson seal of the Royal Family splashed across the front.
Did I say judge and jury? I would be a god, playing games with human lives from afar. Controlling and manipulating events to suit me. And I would win.
As he continued to scan the parchment, a dangerous, predatory smile spread across the man's features. With one fluid movement, he shoved the scroll into his breast-pocket and strode quickly from the room. A final, eerie laugh, and the room was silent again.
But the word he had whispered before leaving hung as though poised in the air, crackling with energy and purpose:
If the people of this city were smarter, Arnae thought sardonically, as she darted at breakneck speed under archways and through twisting, narrow alleyways, they would build roads that actually made sense.
"You there! Halt!"
Arnae's heart gave a stuttering leap, but she did not dare turn around. Instead, she continued to bolt through the stalls that lined the market square of Nirima city as though her very life depended upon it. Breath whooshed through her lungs as she drew in great, ragged gasps of the chilly September air. No matter how fast she ran, she was at a disadvantage; her pursuers were on horseback and she was on foot. The shouts quickly escalated throughout the marketplace.
"Cut her off at the fountain!"
"Catch up to her, damn you, you worthless pack of buffoons!"
The last voice Arnae identified as belonging to the palace Slave Master. She assumed the shout was directed at the imperial soldiers, who had not impressed her as being very bright in her two days' experience under their surveillance. A quick glance over one shoulder revealed that the horsemen were trailing closely on her heels, not caring what unlucky merchant's wares they destroyed as they barreled through the city square.
She darted down the nearest alleyway, hoping to outrun them –
Desperately, Arnae lashed out at the assailant who had been waiting to intercept her in the narrow street bordering the marketplace. He let out a howl of pain and pushed her away, but more soldiers had arrived on the scene, and they quickly overwhelmed Arnae and dragged her roughly back to the prison cells, where the newest crop of imperial slaves had been lining up when Arnae had bolted moments before. As Arnae stared at the ground, mentally cursing her bad luck, a pot-bellied shadow crossed her vision. Slowly, she turned her eyes upward until she was facing the paunchy and rather scarring visage of the Slave Master. His many jowls wobbled with rage as he fingered his whip and snarled, "Thought you could outrun my soldiers, did you?"
After two days in the slave chain, the girl was not stupid enough to voice a reply. She stood motionless, waiting for the Slave Master to continue.
She was not prepared for the Slave Master's sudden gesture to the nearest soldier, nor the burning sting of the whip across her back. She stumbled forward and was quickly restrained by more imperial guards. The whip sliced into her skin again, and she clenched her teeth to suppress a scream. If not for the soldiers' tight grip on her shoulders, she might have fallen to her knees from the fiery, white-hot pain.
"Seven lashes," the Slave Master said gleefully, as the lashes continued to fall, "and let that be a lesson to all of you. Never have I seen such a crop of reprobates. All of you are here because you deserve a firm hand. Do not allow yourselves to forget that if not for the generosity of the Royal House, half of you would have been in the gallows yesterday and the rest of you filthy lot would have been scrounging on the streets, burdening hardworking townsfolk and begging for scraps."
"Generosity my a-" someone muttered.
"Silence!" the Slave Master shouted, spittle veritably flying from his pudgy, purple lips. "Now, I don't want to hear so much of a whimper from you beasts for the rest of the trip to the castle, or it'll be twenty lashes each for the lot of you! Have I made myself absolutely clear?"
There were no more protests. The soldiers returned Arnae to the line, where shackles were snapped tightly around her wrists. Though she was still dizzy with pain, Arnae's heart sank as she saw that each handcuff was connected to a general chain that bound all the prisoners together. There would be no more opportunities for escape until they reached the palace.
"That was smart," the fellow behind her in line muttered sarcastically, once the Slave Master had moved out of earshot. "That was real smart."
"Oh, be quiet," Arnae snapped. "I don't see any of you cowards doing anything."
"I'm not saying it wasn't impressive, but it was stupid to try to make a harebrained dash when you obviously had no idea where you were go-"
"Quiet!" barked the nearest soldier, cracking a whip threateningly. The boy trailed off, shooting the imperial fighter an irate glare.
"I suppose you could have done so much better," Arnae muttered, as the soldier rode toward the front of the line.
"Of course. I grew up in the city, after all. I'm Branic, by the way."
"Where are you from? You don't sound like most city riff-raff." Branic shot her an appraising glance. She did not look like most of the ordinary Aryllan stock either; her hair was an unusual color, for one – a red-brown color more common to the rival country of Esca than to central Arylla. Her eyes were also a rarity: emerald green instead of the usual Aryllan brown. Branic frowned. "You're not from Esca, are you?"
"Gee, let's think about that for a moment," Arnae said tartly. "If I lived in Esca, do you really think I would voluntarily come to a country that's my enemy – which, might I add, keeps half of its inhabitants enslaved – and then be stupid enough to get caught and pressed into service?"
Branic looked sulky. He clearly was not used to having his own brand of sarcasm thrown back in his face. "You could have been taken prisoner the last time Arylla and Esca fought," he pointed out.
"Let's see – that would make me... twenty-five? I'm sure I age well, but even so."
"Fine. So you're not from Esca," Branic conceded grumpily. "How old are you, anyway?"
"Seventee - ah!" She hissed in pain as they began to march. Out of pride, she had borne her punishment in silence, but now, with the Slave Master elsewhere, each step was beginning to feel like torture.
".. you all right?"
Belatedly, she realized that Branic was speaking. "I'll manage," she replied curtly, hitching her bag a little higher on her back, trying to adjust it so that it would avoid the stinging welts she was certain were staining her tunic a brilliant crimson.
"If you-" Branic began.
"If I have ter tell yeh to be quiet once more," the soldier snarled, as Branic leapt backward, rubbing his smarting wrist and cursing, "yeh'll receive much worse than a few lashes, d'yeh understan'? Now, get marching, an' I don' want ter hear hide nor hair from yeh for the rest of the journey!" He rode off again, muttering something that sounded like "filthy animals."
Branic and Arnae exchanged glances full of meaning. Silently, they picked up their chains and began to march.
Thank you for reading!
I would greatly appreciate your honest opinions, constructive criticism, writing advice, etc. Right now I'm most interested in what people think of the flow, general interest (is the plot boring/confusing?), amount of description (too much or too little?), and so forth. Please, don't be shy with negative remarks. I don't bite. I promise.
On a side note, this story has been in the works for a long, long time (4 years at my last count). This means that it HAS been pretty much finished, and I plan to post periodic updates. Rest assured that you will not be left hanging.