Warning– this chapter has violent images and action that might disturb some people.
Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel
“I have to say,” Deremanoi said, “I am very pleased.”
“Thank you, sir,” Mankin said.
They sat together in a sun-lit chamber of the Hegemony’s embassy, the morning after the reception. Mankin felt tired, and a little disoriented. Neither a hasty breakfast nor bath, after he had slept in later than he had intended, had not helped him shed his weariness or his sense of dislocation.
Apparently, he was not alone in that– Deremanoi had ordered tilaak, a restorative tea from the homeland, made up for both himself and Mankin. Mankin’s cup steamed at his elbow. He sipped at it, and said nothing as Deremanoi drained his and started on another.
“You handled that little surprise from Farus well,” Deremanoi said. “Completely unexpected business, I have to say. And what I hear through back-channels about your interview with Marius, Valerius and Procus is quite favorable, as well.”
“I don’t think I impressed Marius,” Mankin pointed out.
“I would have been surprised if you had,” Deremanoi said. “At the very least, in the presence of a foreigner Kaius Marius would have to make noises of disapprobation, suitable to his place as the head of the Order. But in the past he has proven amenable to being influenced on issues by other members of his party. And your very favorable communication with Procus opens the door on that possibility. You will, of course, dine with him next week.”
“Of course, sir,” Mankin said. Procus had extended the invitation the night before when he and Mankin had parted company. “This morning I also received an invitation to dine with a General Rebonius two days before Procus.”
“Ah!” Deremanoi exclaimed, with a sudden animation that startled Mankin. “That is excellent. Rebonius is a leader of the New Way, and as highly ranked as Procus is himself. You seemed to have made a serious impression on the Highborn last night, young man.”
“I can’t imagine why,” Mankin muttered.
Deremanoi gave him a sharp look. “Can’t you? The Venians are proud, and of a certainty they look down on outlanders, but they admire bravery and martial skill. Your exploit of yesterday morning has gone a long way to paving your path into the halls of the Highborn.”
Mankin restrained a grimace. “A shoddy way to do business.”
“You think so?” Deremanoi snapped, looking quite severe. “I suggest you think again. We have a critical task on our hands, Mankin, and we must use every tool the Powers give us. Even the accidents. If you have scruples about how you gain the ear of those who can help keep our people fed this next winter, I suggest you box them up and put them under your bed for the duration.”
Mankin sat straighter. “My apologies, sir.”
Deremanoi hesitated, then shook his head. “No, I should apologize.” He rubbed a hand over his face. “It was a long night for everyone. I was stuck in a meeting with the Massanians until midnight.”
“The Massanians?” Mankin had briefly talked with Deremanoi after his interview with Procus and the others, and secured his dismissal for the night. He had been unaware that the ambassador had lingered on after he left.
“Indeed– now that the Empire and the Harmony have made peace, their new officer, Colm of Shinarn, is here with a warrant to negotiate for the release of those Massanians yet held in captivity by the Venians.”
“Since the Venians and Massanians were at war for essentially a whole generation,” Mankin said, “there must be quite a number of prisoners.”
“Yes– many thousands, in fact, held as slave labor, or fighting in the Arena.”
“But sir, what has that to do with you, or, should I say, the Hegemony?”
“We have no direct relations with the Massanians,” Deremanoi said, “and Colm and his Speaker thought they could extend his warrant to engage in the same talks with us, for those prisoners-of-war of Massanian birth we still hold from our own war.”
Mankin scowled. The Black Party had employed mercenaries from several different nations, Massania among them. Mankin remembered the screaming mass of a Massanian battalion overrunning a Loyalist outpost, and the mutilated bodies his company found afterwards. The Black Party had promised its foreign fighters gold, land and slaves, and many had fought with vicious enthusiasm. For a moment, Mankin’s impulse was to suggest the Massanians could go choke on their negotiations.
He resisted the impulse. There was no indulging his own personal prejudices here. If anything, sending captured mercenaries home would relieve the Hegemony of a burden. And Mankin supposed that he did face a certain test of his own consistency– he could hardly rail against slavery in general and then be in favor of keeping men in chains just because they had fought against him.
All he said to Deremanoi, therefore, was, “I see, sir. Will you be negotiating with them?”
Deremanoi grimaced. “That’s what took me a good portion of the evening, to convince Soll and Colm that I have no powers to negotiate this issue on my own. I will have to refer the matter back home. I think it likely I’ll be given a commission to start talks, but, in the meantime, the Massanians will just have to be patient.” Deremanoi smiled. “Colm told me he was sorry he had missed meeting you. He said he was eager to see your skill with a sword. He said he would invite you to bout with him sometime soon.”
Mankin, remembering the size of the Massanian, grimaced.
Deremanoi’s smile faded. “One more question, Mankin. Junias Valerius– what was your impression of him?”
Mankin did not answer at once. “I found him very difficulty to read,” he said at last. “He seemed polite– surprisingly so– but he gave nothing away about how he felt. Quite the opposite of either Marius or Procus, in fact.”
Deremanoi nodded. “It was something of a rhetorical question. Valerius is a powerful man in the Order, but he is not known for revealing his inner workings. He holds a seat in the Senate, but he does not lead there– he prefers to spend most of his time assisting the Triumvir Manico.”
A power behind the throne. Mankin wished he had known that before he had gone into the interview.
“In any event,” Deremanoi said, “you can mostly likely expect an invitation from Valerius very soon, as well. And that young man, is all to the good. This is how business is done in this city– we will plead our case over fine dinners and while admiring their stables. The formal meetings with the Senate are just that– if we have not convinced the Senate before we present our appeal at their doorstep, we will have failed.”
“I understand, sir,” Mankin said, although the thought dismayed him. “I rather hope it does not all depend on me.”
Deremanoi smiled at him. “Oh, I have my own schedule of luncheons and viewings of the moon in reflecting lakes,” he said. “But I am a known quantity, old and familiar with use, as it were. Whereas you, you are young and comparatively new– or as new as things get in this jaded place.” The smile turned rueful. “As I said– we use the tools we have been given, Mankin. It is all we can do.”
The two of them had a piece of business to tend to that afternoon. Together, with their guard following, they went down to the Fortress of the Martyr’s Rock. This fortress lay a half-mile south of the Temple of the Sky, and seeing it Mankin wondered for what purpose it had originally been built, and why. It commanded no eminence or height, and didn’t even have a decently-cleared killing field around it– houses abutted right up against its walls. Whatever its original role, however, he and Deremanoi had business within in its current role, as the central prison of the Empire.
A vice-governor of the fortress met them at the northern gate, and escorted them inside. His men, several of them, carried lanterns of the ordinary sort, as the party went down three flights of worn stone steps. They entered a long corridor, ill-lit by a few lanterns hung on the walls. Mankin’s nose was immediately assaulted by a stink of urine, feces, wet stone and unwashed bodies.
At the end of the corridor was a heavy door. The vice-governor pounded the butt-end of his staff on it. It opened from within.
Beyond was a spacious chamber, comparatively well-lit. Burly, sullen men stood back at the vice-governor’s entrance, bowing their heads. Mankin, entering, resisted the urge to put his hand to his nose. The chamber stank of blood, voided bowels, and vomit, far worse than the corridor.
Staka of Brenaj occupied the lone chair, in the middle of the room. Mankin saw he was, indeed, the man who had escaped from the wharf. Beyond that, Mankin did not know him, as he had told Deremanoi. Staka was a dark-haired, slight fellow, who would have been unremarkable in any crowd in the Hegemony. Now, though, he would have attracted stares, and, perhaps, horror and pity.
Staka was tied to the chair, evidently so he could not escape the punishment that had been visited on him. His face was covered in blood; one eye swollen closed and his lips were torn and bloody. His chest and shoulders were covered in dried blood and bruises. At the moment his head lolled forward, as if he had swooned. His right arm terminated prematurely in a bloody bandage. Both of his arms were chafed raw where the ropes bound him.
“Here he is,” the vice-governor said, speaking quite as if he were showing off a prize hound. He stood by the chair with an unconcerned air. “He’s been very reluctant to tell us anything, but we persevere.”
To Mankin they looked very likely to use Staka up before they got any answers. Mankin had no great affection for the man, but it galled him to see anyone, much less a countryman, tied up and bludgeoned senseless. Perhaps another approach. “With your permission, sir,” he said to the vice-governor, “I would like to speak to the prisoner.”
The vice-governor raised his eyebrows, but then bowed to Mankin. “Certainly.”
He stepped back. Mankin stepped forward. He bent down, trying to see if Staka was even conscious. Mankin nearly reached out to shake the man, but just then Staka raised his head. His one open eye wandered about for a moment before fixing on Mankin. “You,” the man whispered. He sounded hoarse, as if he had been screaming.
“It’s me,” Mankin agreed. “I don’t know you. There’s nothing between you and me, nothing between our families. Am I wrong?”
“No,” Staka croaked.
“So you had no feud to settle. You joined in the attack on me and my man, then, out of partisanship? Or did Chumaki just pay you well?”
Staka sat up straight; his eye blazed. “Damn you! I’m no hire-sword! I believe in our people!”
“Glad to hear it,” Mankin said. “So do I. Did the others believe as strongly you do?”
Staka glared at him for a moment. He breathed hard, either out of rage, or because holding his head up was a great effort. “Not everyone. I told Chumaki and Rela we should have taken only men we were certain of….”
“Rela,” Mankin repeated. “That’s a name I don’t know. A friend of yours?”
Staka, realizing his mistake, clamped his mouth shut.
Mankin sighed. “Staka, I still have nothing against you, despite the fact you tried to kill me. Too bad I have no say in what happens to you.” Deremanoi had already told Mankin that Staka was a dead man; as far as the Imperials were concerned, he had already been tried and convicted. “You can ease your going, and your conscience, by telling us who exactly the instigators of this attack were, besides Chumaki. If you do, you’ll also spare other Attau here in Venia trouble– my lord,” this to the vice-governor, “am I wrong that the Empire will sweep broadly in search for the conspirators?”
The vice-governor smiled, as if appreciating what Mankin was doing. “Our investigation will necessitate bringing in as many people as possible. Unless we have names.”
“As I thought,” Mankin said. “So, Staka– I am sorry for the state you’re in. Truly. I would not have attacked you in the street. The war is over, and this didn’t have to happen. You have a chance, though, to do one right thing before you die. Name the names of your ringleaders, and spare our people more trouble.”
“Go to hell,” Staka said.
Mankin sighed, and stepped back. “I’ve already been there. Think on what I have said.”
Deremanoi told the vice-governor he had nothing to say. He and Mankin stepped out of the room. The vice-governor followed, still smiling. “Young sir,” he told Mankin, “I commend you. Really, this man had been silent as a rock before you came. You may have some natural talent as an interrogator.”
Mankin resisted the impulse to hit the man. “Perhaps it’s the common background,” he said. “If I may suggest, giving him some time to consider may be fruitful.”
“Certainly,” the vice-governor said. “Even if it isn’t, at least we have a new name. We shall follow up on this Rela at once.”
It was a relief when Mankin and Deremanoi regained the street outside the fortress, and smelled only horse dung and wood smoke. “There are times,” Deremanoi reflected as they headed back toward the embassy, “when being a Speaker is something like being a commander– there are some duties you just can’t delegate.” He glanced at Mankin. “We will have to attend the execution.”
“I know, sir,” Mankin said.
They walked three paces or so before Deremanoi said, “Did you mean what you said? That you were sorry for him?”
“Oh, yes,” Mankin said.
“He tried to kill you.”
“So have better men than him,” Mankin said, and he spoke not another word all the way back to the Embassy.
Blood dripped from Ana’s mouth. It spattered on the stone floor of the library. The drops were very red against the cream-white of the stone.
“Do you understand now, bitch?” Denacles asked. He stood over her, breathing hard. “Do you grasp what I mean by, ‘Say only what I tell you’?
“Yes, m-master,” Ana answered, not lifting her eyes from the floor. She could barely talk– her lips and mouth were already swelling. The beating had sent her to her hands and knees. The floor was hard.
“You said that before. Hopefully this lesson will drive the point home.” Without warning Denacles kicked her in the side. White pain shot through her; she cried out and fell over. The stones of the floor were very cold against her skin. “Fail me the next time, slut, and you will get worse. You’re no use to me if you blurt out the first thing that comes into your head.”
Denacles hesitated, then sighed and knelt down beside her. She flinched, expecting another blow, but instead he spoke softly. “I don’t take any pleasure in disciplining you, woman,” he said. “I suppose, since you’re a Kyrian, I have to expect some natural stupidity. I am a tolerant man, in most ways, and I do make allowances– but if you’re unable to follow the simplest instructions, you’re a dead weight. And dead weights get thrown overboard. Am I clear?”
“Yes, master,” Ana said, as best she could.
“So, just so your poor master can know what is going on, what exactly did all that mean about Alatanus and his wife? ‘Seek the wise woman of Antrias’?”
“Their son will fall sick,” Ana said. “Deathly sick. His life will hang in the balance, unless they seek out the wise woman of the Antrias. She will have the knowledge to save his life. I am sorry, Master, I don’t know what the Antrias is….”
“The Antrias is a district of the city, you stupid slut, outside the walls to the west. It is filled with poor scum who labor in the workshops and mills. A Highborn like Alatanus would go there only out of the direst need.”
“His son,” Ana said, “will be very sick, master….”
“And is the only hope of his house,” Denacles finished. “Yes.” He peered at Ana as if she were an interesting insect. “Perhaps this will not turn out to my disadvantage, after all. If Alatanus’ son lives, he will be grateful. Yes…but still, you were very stupid to blurt it out. Do it again, and it may be the last time you do anything. Do you understand?”
“Yes, master,” Ana said. It was barely more than a mumble now.
“I will hold you to that.” Denacles stood, then said, quite casually, “Dumb bitch– you got blood on my sleeve.” He left.
He sent Allia in to see to her, along with Salvanus, one of the household guards. Salvanus carried Ana to the bathhouse. Allia chased him out, and tended to Ana’s hurts. She bathed her, and the water was tinged pink with her blood. Allia put ointments on her cuts. She had the younger woman rinse her mouth three times with a mixture that stung the lacerations on Ana’s lips and cheeks, but afterwards soothed them. Her mouth was still swollen, so bad now that she couldn’t really talk. Allia compensated by supplying most of the conversation as she put poultices on Ana’s bruises.
“It seems hard, outlander, but Denacles is a man who expects to be obey,” Allia said. “You have to learn that, girl. I’m not saying he should have beat you so hard– but it could have been worse.”
Yes, Ana thought, she supposed it could have been– she had, apparently, no broken bones, nor had Denacles knocked her unconscious at any point. None of her teeth appeared to be loose. Denacles had been careful not to permanently disable her, or injure her so badly that her recovery would take too long. It could have been worse– but what it was was bad enough.
“I would have expected you to have learned by now, after all these months,” Allia said. “Please think about what you’re doing. It is the fate the gods have decreed for us, that we are to serve in this life. We please the gods when we are obedient to those who stand over us.”
Ana wondered if Allia really believed that. She knew the woman had been a slave since birth, in one household or another. Was it her way of accepting her place? Was it her means of killing the dreams of her youth?
“The master,” Allia told her, “says you are to rest, and that there will be no readings for a week or so, to allow you to get better. See, he’s not cruel for the sake of cruelty, child.”
Ana said nothing, but Allia’s words turned her stomach. No, indeed– his cruelty has a purpose. Cruelty was a tool to Denacles, an implement he wielded with nearly dispassionate precision. Just as Ana was a tool he used to climb higher and higher toward citizenship. Ana wasn’t sure if that were not worse than being hated.
Allia dressed her, gently, and Salvanus carried her to her room. “You rest,” Allia said as Salvanus laid her on her bed. “Try not to move too much. I’ll check on you later, child, and wake you in the morning.” They left.
When she was sure they were gone, and all that was left were the distant sounds of the city going to bed, Ana conducted a full inventory her hurts. No, Denacles had been very careful…and he knew just how to hit her, and to hurt her, in ways that would heal and not incapacitate her in the long run. It was not the worst beating she had ever received, but it was the most precise.
For a few minutes then, laying on her side, Ana wept. She wept, not because of her pain, nor out of shame at what she had become, but for lost dreams.
She stopped after a bit, though. It did no good. And I’m not quite ready to give up my dreams…not yet….
Moving carefully, gasping at the flashes of pain that shot through her, she half-crawled to the back corner of the room. She removed the brick and took out the book of laws. Allia had left a candle burning, so there was no need to light hers.
She went back to her pallet. Part of her just wanted to rest; but another part wanted no rest at all. What she truly wanted, now and always, was out. She wanted to be done with all the Vykranii and all the Denacles of the world, with beatings and performances and speaking what was not, instead of what she knew. She wanted her freedom, and if Denacles beat her every day, it still wouldn’t drive that out of her.
I will read this, Ana told herself, opening the book. I will read it, and if the answer is not here, I will find another way. The gods, all of them, could stand witness to that. And if Denacles suffered humiliation in the process, why, that would just be sauce on the dish.
Ana ignored her pain, bent her head, and began to read.