Chapter 4 of Horse Tamer. This one turned out pretty long, and what I have in mind for Chapter 5 is probably twice as long as this, so I may need to break it into two parts, or change the order of my chapters.
This piece has an odd provenance. Ana, in various forms, is one the characters of this saga who has been with me for a long time, but her appearance here is radically different from her previous incarnations, about which I may post more in the future. Characters evolve, sometimes by Darwinian gradualism, and then sometimes by a sort of punctuated equilibrium, under the influence of new inspirations. A new inspiration struck me in the last couple of weeks and took Ana in a new direction. Poor woman– her author is such a jerk….
In general, in creating Horse Tamer I am determined to give Mankin a fresh start. I have altered characters, shed plot elements, retained others and introduced new elements. Venia, for example, is a new element, in its entirety. I hope the new synthesis will be fruitful. It does feel good so far.
By the way, I wrote much of this chapter under the influence of some seriously epic music, including The Long Song from Dr. Who. Writing while listening to powerful music can be inspirational, but it can also be dangerous, in that it may make you think your writing is better than it is. Hopefully, that is not the case here.
Warning: this chapter has some serious language. Beware if you are easily offended.
Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel.
They came for her in the late afternoon. Allia had her bathed, and then Cali painted her. “An important night for the master,” Cali told her, as she drew the lines around Ana’s eyes and across her face. “He’s hosting many important people, so many Highborn and wealthy folk. Senators and generals and all. You must do your best.”
It’s always an important night, Ana told herself. No matter the master. Her new owner, Denacles, was a climbing man, working hard to ingratiate himself to those who ruled here in Venia. Ana heard the kitchen gossip, as much as people seemed to think her deaf. He wanted citizenship, and a place on councils and in assemblies. Being a foreign-born just meant he had to climb harder.
Cali finished with her, and she sat in a corner of the kitchen, with a light shawl over her naked shoulders, while the other slaves bustled about with preparations. Ana would have gladly helped, especially with the food preparation, since Cook was not above allowing her helpers little tastes of the fantastic dishes being prepared– meat pies and turtle-soup, stuffed quail and savory olives, cheeses in great, dizzying varieties, ices and cakes, and three great roasted peacocks, arranged on giant platters with oranges and baked apples. Ana, though, was forbidden from turning her hand to ordinary household chores– not only would work damage her body-paint, but many of her fellow slaves still feared her, and made little signs against evil when she was about. That is, when the master was not looking.
At least, Ana thought, it had kept any of the men from trying to rape her. That, and the certainty that the master would castrate and crucify the slave who violated his pet seeress.
At least Cook, Cali and Allia were kind to her. Otherwise Ana had made no friends in the household in the two months she’d been here. There were times when she felt very cut-off and alone. She found herself missing the house of Vykranus, which she had thought a dark and sad place. At least there she’d had friends- old Plius the doorkeeper, Meg the weaver and Silanus, the ancient pedagogue, who had taught her forbidden things. She had grieved when the scholar had died in his sleep, three years ago. He had been the closest thing to a father she’d had since she was eight.
“There are laws in the Empire,” he’d told her. “Laws any man or woman can know and understand, even a slave. Laws even a slave can call upon.”
But they keep so much hidden. The struggle to discover what she wanted to know had been long and frustrating. She’d hoped to find what she needed in Vykranus’ house– but Silanus had died, and then Vykranus had fallen on hard times, after the earthquake. She had been sold to Denacles, who had heard of her, and had determined to add her to his collection of wonders…or oddities, she supposed.
She did not feel much like either.
She heard the guests arriving, heard the greetings and laughter echoing back from the front rooms of the house. The level of bustling visibly increased; then they fixed the collar about her neck, and the girl Hila led her on a chain to the library, to wait. The main dining hall of the master’s house was next door to the library; Ana could clearly hear the conversation as the guests settled in around the tables.
There was more laughter, and some jockeying for positions close to Denacles, which sounded good-natured, but which Ana knew was not. It was as if each guest carried a knife under their robes, forged out of the secret wants and hatreds they nurtured. They only waited the opportunity to wield them.
This was in addition to the three men who were, in fact, carrying swords beneath their robes. Ana was not particularly worried– they were all her master’s creatures, and went armed because the city was not safe. She was rather glad, sometimes, that she was usually kept within the house– the tales of the city the other slaves told frightened her.
The first courses were brought in, the pies and soups, to general approbation. The smell of the food wafted into the library. Ana’s stomach rumbled. They never fed her before she Spoke; they supposed it interfered with her inner sight. It did no such thing, but no one cared what she thought on the matter.
Denacles and his guests fell into conversation as they ate, as dishes were taken away and new ones brought in. Ana listened. She understood only part of what was said, but it was because these people shared common understandings she did not.
“A sad business,” one of the men said. Ana saw he was a merchant; some of the wine he imported was being served at this very moment. “Massanio Karvani gave the Empire many years of loyal service. Sad that a man like that should fall prey to temptation.”
“It’s common among these old soldiers,” another man said. This one was a young Highborn, to all appearances very sure of himself and his place in the world; when he walked, it was with a swagger. “They get done with the Army and they don’t what to do with themselves. My father was the same way– absolutely hopeless once he was out of armor.”
Ana nearly laughed aloud; the swaggerer had lived in absolute terror of his father, until the father’s death the previous month.
“You can’t have too much sympathy for Massanio, though,” a third man said. This was a senator, fat, with rings on his fingers. “His malfeasance was incontrovertible. We heard the evidence ourselves.”
“But should he have been executed?” another man said. “Quite aside from proportionality of punishment to crime, are you not afraid the New Way will resent the…finality of his sentence?”
“What of it? Who cares what those moon-headed fools think? Half of them are mechanics and freedmen, the other half old families whose blood is bred out. Time they were reminded who are the proper rulers of the Empire are. As far as I’m concerned, we of the Order need to set a few more examples like Karvani– it would fix that understanding in the New Way’s heads for good.”
“Well, then– as you say,” the other man said– but Ana could tell he was actually unconvinced. She had encountered this man before, as he met frequently with her master– a man of thoughts he never fully revealed, and understandings he shared with no one else. He frightened her.
The conversation strayed to other topics– the war in the far Inner Sea, the prices the lords of the distant Silk Islands demanded for their goods. Her master told a joke about the King of Silk and a monkey that raised a roar of laughter from the guests, but Ana could tell only some of those present actually thought it funny. The rest laughed because they thought it a good idea to laugh at Denacles’ jokes.
More courses were brought in, and more wine. Some of the guests were growing drunk. It was a strange state, impaired but with the delusion you were under control. She had never drunk enough wine to experience the state herself. It was odd enough in others.
Hila had fallen asleep on a cushion when two of the house guards finally came for her. One of them shook the child awake and told her to get to bed; the other picked up Ana’s chain. “Come on, girl,” he said, jerking on the chain. “The Master says you’re to do your best– very important guests and all. He says not to embarrass him, or you’ll find even you’re not immune to the lash. You hear me?”
“I hear you,” Ana said. She said nothing more; it was enough that she could taste the bully’s own fear of her.
They led her out, into the dining chamber. The master and his guests were all arranged as she had sensed on the other side of the wall, the guests reclining in a semi-circle on either side of Denacles. They all looked up as she came in. Ana had schooled herself years before to shut out what she did not want to Know; that ability had saved her innumerable times, in moments of danger, in moments of chaos, when she very desperately needed to know which voices were in her head and which were shouting at her with mouths. Even so, the wash of thoughts and emotions in this chamber nearly staggered her. There was so much going on beneath the surface, rivalries and jealousy and hate, all smoothed over with pleasing fronts. Ana swallowed and forced it all down and behind her, as if she were forcing herself not to vomit.
She could do little about the wash of emotions emanating from the guests. Many of the guests feared her, some at levels of which they were not even conscious. She was used to that; Venians feared anyone they considered barbarian. Others were curious, and a few– mostly the older men– looked at her with lust. She had encountered this before, many times before. It always left her feeling as if she had been crawled over by vermin.
The master rose from his couch. Ana crouched down by the house’s God pillar, in the lowest abasement, as always. She did not look up; she kept her eyes on the stone floor. It had been swept to immaculateness.
“My friends,” Denacles said, “I do not doubt you have all heard of of my hobby of collecting the curious and the odd. You have seen my singing dwarf, some of you have had speech with my hermaphrodite, and a lucky few of you have feed my unicorn. Here is my latest acquisition– the Kyrian seeress, the one who predicted the earthquake that shook Bharu last winter.”
As if anyone listened, Ana thought. For three days she tried to tell Vykranus of what was coming, what she had seen in the fit that took her in the night. She had finally gotten a beating for her trouble. Oddly, that had saved her life, as she had been in the sturdy well-house, washing her scrapes and soothing her bruises, when the earthquake hit. Half of Vykranus’ household had died, and Vykranus’ fortunes were never the same afterwards. In the aftermath, yes, people had cheered her, but what good had it done then?
“I heard of her,” Denacles was saying, “and determined she would be a fine acquisition for my collection. At great expense,” at knock-down prices “I purchased her and had her brought here. Stand up, girl, let my guests see you better.”
“Yes, master,” she murmured, and stood. She kept her eyes downcast, as she had been taught. She was grateful for the paint, the ritual colors and the dark lines these Venians thought were the signs of a Kyr seer. They had it all wrong, but Ana said nothing. The paint did a little to cover her half-nakedness. For that she was grateful.
“She is,” Denacles said, looking from Ana to his guests, “pretty enough, for a barbarian, and still a maid, which is necessary for her prophetic art,” wrong again, “and therefore she is a precious commodity, my lords and ladies. So, no touching, if you please!”
A gust of laughter greeted his words. Ana could tell some of the men wanted to touch her; she wrapped the erroneous assumption about her maidenhood about her like a coat of chain-mail.
“So who would like to know their future?” Denacles said. “Who among you has the courage to face what Will Be? Although I warn you, lords and ladies, sometimes this girl’s prognostications are couched in ambiguous language– the immediate meaning may not be clear.”
“Isn’t that the way with all these seer-folk?” the young Highborn swaggerer said. “Come now, Denacles, this is just a parlor game, isn’t it? You might as well set us to miming stories for one another.”
Denacles smiled at the young man, but behind that smile Ana saw a hatred so black and sharp-toothed that it nearly staggered her. “Then there would be no harm, my lord Cortenso, for you to be first to have a go,” Denacles said.
Ana did not have to See to see how the swaggerer was taken aback by the suggestion. He instantly tried to cover it up. “It’s all the same to me,” Cortenso said, with a shrug of exaggerated indifference.
“Very well, my lord,” Denacles said. He turned to Ana, reached up and unclipped the chain from her collar. “Do well, bitch,” he whispered in her ear. He stepped back.
Ana lifted her face, looked toward the ceiling. She affected a distant, somewhat distracted look, not because she needed to, but because the Venians expected it. They seemed unable to conceive that a seer might be something other than ethereal.
She dropped her eyes to Cortenso, met his gaze. The young man had a superficial beauty, but the anger, resentment and greed that boiled just beneath his surface repulsed Ana. She smiled at him– you always had to smile, otherwise they thought you were about proclaim their death.
She dropped her guard, the shield that kept out all the voices. Not completely– just enough to focus on this boy/man/monster.
Words, images, sensations– some rough, some clear, some blurred with wine– she traced them all, followed them through the twisting present, tracked them into the writhing future– that which is to be, always shifting, always changing its face, so that usually she could not see clearly beyond a few weeks, at most. It was usually enough, though. As it was now.
Ana spoke. “My lord would do well to beware of ox-carts this evening.”
A moment’s pause, and then general laughter. Cortenso himself looked to be caught somewhere between mirth and indignation. “Oh, come now! Denacles, admit this is a fraud! Ox-carts, indeed!”
“Be patient, if you please, my lord,” Denacles said, from behind Ana. His calm words hid a blooming anger, and dread– he was suddenly worried that his new toy would humiliate him. Ana saw what that would mean for her. She forced herself to focus on Cortenso, refusing to be distracted.
“My lord,” she said, her Venian just touched by the burr of her Kyr birth, “has suffered a loss. It weighs heavy upon you.”
“Hmm, very good, barbarian, now you’ve managed to predict what has already happened,” Cortenso said, sneering. Some of the guests laughed again. “At this rate you will tell us the sun will rise in the east tomorrow morning.”
“You will find joy again,” Ana said, “when you find that which bears the symbol of your heritage, in the place of your mother’s hopes. A golden circle, within a box of cedar.”
Cortenso’s eyes flew open wide with surprise. “My mother’s cedar chest? How did you…? My father’s signet ring? Is that where it is?”
“My lord’s heart will be relieved,” Ana said.
“Does this make sense to you, my lord?” Denacles said. Ana sensed the recession of her imminent death.
“My father…hid his signet ring, and did not tell anyone where before he died,” Cortenso said. He stood hastily. “I must beg your forgiveness, Denacles– but if this is true, I have to see to it at once.” He scowled. “If she’s making up tales, though, you will hear of it.”
“Certainly, my lord,” Denacles said smoothly. “I would have it no other way.”
Cortenso bowed, and left in haste. Mind the ox-carts, Ana thought after him.
As he left, Denacles said, “Who else? Who else wants to know their future?”
Several guests spoke up at once. Denacles smiled– he had them now, and Ana could tell how much this pleased him– and picked an older man in rich robes, who reclined close by his young wife. They made quite a contrast, as he was gray-headed and she could be no more than a year or so older than Ana herself. “Illio, you are very eager. I would think an old fellow like you would be content to let the future come at its own pace.”
“I have new things to concern me,” Illio said, and he smiled at his wife.
“Very well,” Denacles said, and he nodded to Ana.
She stepped forward. “So, what do you see for us, outlander?” Illio said. “Any portends of untied boot-laces?” He was amused, but there was a twinge of fear underneath his gruff demeanor.
Ana smiled again, but this time she turned to the old man’s wife. The girl was frankly frightened of her, although she tried to hide it.
“It is well, lady,” Ana said. “Do not be afraid, of me, nor of what you carry in your womb. Your joy is complete.”
“What?” Illio said, startled. “What is she saying? Imeda, is she saying you’re with child?”
The girl flushed bright red, but gave her husband a nervous smile. “I…just learned today, husband. I did not tell you at once, I wanted to find the right moment….”
“For good news like this, any moment is good!” Illio said. He sat up and laid a tender hand on his wife’s belly. Then his face clouded. “But how is this prophecy?” he said, looking at Ana. “More likely, you know the signs of pregnancy in a woman….”
“My lord shall know the truth of my words,” Ana said calmly, “when your wife bears a boy and a girl to you in one birth.”
Illio gaped, then laughed. “Well, then, it will take nine months to test this saying out, but it will be worth the wait!” He leaned over and kissed his wife.
The guests clapped. Ana wasn’t sure if it was for the tender scene or her prophecy. Venians were so strange….
“Who next?” Denacles said, beaming himself.
“I am feeling the need for a little soothsaying,” the fat senator said. “Things have been going well for me. Want to see if my luck will hold.”
Ana stepped toward him. Opening her mind to him was stepping into a shallow, but fetid, pool, full of rank things. She steadied herself, and smiled again.
“Hail, Senator Marco Gremanius, Elder of the City, former consul, protector of the traditions of your fathers,” Ana said. “It is known, lord, that you have labored mightily to build your house and to establish it as preeminent in the Empire. I tell you now, very soon your family will see you honored above all others, and the city will turn out to pay respect to you.”
The senator’s face grew more avid with each word. “When? How soon?”
Ana smiled wider. “Within the week, the Senate will vote you special honors of the Fifth Order, and your statue will be erected in the Lesser Market.”
“A pleasurable prophecy, indeed!” Gremanius said. If he had been a dog, Ana thought he would be licking his chops; his puerile delight with what she was saying nearly turned her stomach. “Of course, I will hold you to it, wench, and you, too, Denacles.”
“Of course, Senator,” Denacles said. Ana sensed a renewed tension in him; he was less than pleased with the specificity of Ana’s prophecy. Trouble hovered.
A couple of other guests asked for their fortunes, but Ana sensed that most were leery– she was being entirely too specific, not at all what the Venians were used to in soothsayers. She gave the last two pleasing little promises– a good week in business, the return of favorite son from the eastern reaches of the Empire– and then Denacles held up his hands. “I’m afraid,” he told his guests, “that we have taxed our seeress tonight. Her gift is fragile, and I would not wear her out….”
“Your pardon, Denacles.” It was the closed-minded man. ” I would like my fortune told. If it is no trouble.”
Denacles hesitated. Ana sensed something in him she had not seen before– genuine fear. It was as startling as lightning on a clear day. And if Denacles was frightened, Ana wanted no part of this man.
“Certainly, Samarius,” Denacles said. He could hardly refuse the request of a guest, although Ana sensed he wanted to, wanted to badly. “It is no trouble.”
Ana stepped toward the man. He was lean and dark; he watched her with eyes that missed nothing. Ana lowered her guard.
She shivered. It was like plunging into a snow-bank, with brittle ice crackling around you. The senator had been all surface greed and gluttony; this man, this Samarius, was deep darkness, with shadowed gears within gears, plans well-laid and well-calculated. There was, in fact, something unhuman about him, something that denied the validity of any compunction.
The man would trample infants if they lay in his path.
Ana swallowed, forcing herself to stay steady on her feet. “My lord,” she said, “very soon you will have your heart’s desire.”
Samarius smiled. Ana did not like it. “And do you know what my heart’s desire is, little one?”
Ana realized he had whispered it, just for her. “Yes,” she answered.
Samarius’ smile widened. “Good.”
He knows. Ana did not know how he knew, but she was certain he understood her Gift. Perhaps better than she did.
Denacles came up behind her, took her arms. “I am sorry, Samarius, but I must really insist that this child rest. You can see how fragile she is.”
Samarius inclined his head. “Of course– I am sorry if I caused her any distress.” Ana knew it was a complete lie, but he spoke it as carelessly as someone else would remark on a mild spring day. “An entertaining display, nevertheless, Denacles– I congratulate you.”
Everyone made similar noises. Denacles signed to Ana and the guard. Ana bowed to the guests. The guard re-shackled her and led her from the chamber. To her disquiet, though, he did not take her back to her room, nor to the bathhouse to have the paint washed off her, but back to the library.
There they waited. The guard said nothing; they both abided in silence. Ana’s silence grew more and more worried, but she said nothing.
She heard the dinner-party begin to break up, people making their excuses and thanking Denacles for an evening that was entertaining, delightful, fascinating, depending on who was thanking him. While some of the guests were still leaving there came a commotion. Cortenso had returned, in a stunned state; he and Denacles were far enough away, at the front of the house, that Ana could not make out their conversation. But she picked up, not just the shattered state of Cortenso’s nerves, but a blossoming gratitude toward Denacles.
A little while later Denacles came into the library. Inside himself he was a roiling boil of emotions, so mingled up Ana could not separate them out. He took Ana’s chain from the guard, told the man, “Wait outside.”
Ana had only a moment’s warning. The door closed behind the guard, and Denacles picked her up– he was so much bigger than she was– and slammed her into a wall.
“Master…please,” she got out.
Denacles grabbed her by the throat, holding her upright, his grip hard. “You little cunt,” he whispered in her ear. “You really can tell the future.”
“Master….” she choked out.
“I thought maybe it was trick, but that fool Cortenso, he found his father’s signet ring, right where you told him he would,” Denacles said. “Then, on the way back, an ox-cart broke loose on the Way of the Virgins and nearly killed him. Did kill one of his lantern-bearers, and just missed Cortenso. So the young idiot is now eternally grateful to me, and is ready to help. All because you know what is to be.”
“M-master.” Sparks began to fill Ana’s vision.
Denacles let her go. She fell to the floor, gasping. “Master, as I told you….” She coughed, coughed again. “As I told you, I cannot See more than a few days ahead, and never perfectly. I do not See everything.” Indeed, she had not foreseen this burst of anger by more than a second. She massaged her throat. “Sometimes, I do not understand what I See. But I have told you the truth about the Gift.” Not all of it– no one knew of her ability to sense feelings, and to see surface thoughts. She had kept that secret. Except perhaps from Samarius. The thought worried her.
Denacles, standing over her, said, “That business with Gremanius, what was that about?”
“He will die in four days,” Ana said. Her breath came easier now. “His heart will explode.” While trying to couple with a slave girl, but that was an unnecessary detail. “The city will vote the honors I mentioned.”
Denacles stared at her. Then he started to laugh. “And his son, Regnus, will succeed him. Regnus, who is three times the man and one-fifth the fool– who will be more of a mainstay to the Order than his father ever was. Yes. It is good I’ve cultivated their family.” He shook her chain. “What of Samarius?”
“When Gremanius dies, there will be a shuffling in the secretariat of the Senate,” Ana said. She wasn’t even sure what a secretariat was, but the word was there, in the mind of Samarius, a great, golden idol of a word. “Samarius desires to be appointed to it, and Regnus will bring him in as an aide. And his heart’s desire will be realized.” For now.
Denacles laughed again. He gaze was if he stared across the future himself. “And I am friend to both. Oh, this falls out well.” He focused on Ana. “Get up.”
She did, staggering a little. Her throat hurt.
“It is good you spoke the truth tonight– it will establish your bona fides, so to speak. But you are never to speak the truth again, unless I tell you to.”
“Master?” Ana said.
Denacles jerked on her chain. “Do I have to explain it to you, you stupid little cunt? You’re my slave. You will do what I tell you. And your Gift– it is in my service, as well. To me, you will always speak the truth. Always. I will expect to hear from you daily. To other people, you will say what I tell you to, when I tell you to. But you will tell me what you find out about them.” He paused. “I won’t be trotting you out very often, as I did tonight– you’re a precious commodity, I need to keep the price high. Do you understand?”
“Yes, master,” Ana said.
“Good,” Denacles said. “Ricanius!” That was to the guard outside. The man came back in to the library. “Take her and have Allia give her a bath. Get your rest, girl– we will have a great deal of work to do in the next few days.”
Ana bowed. “As the master wishes.”
Allia did indeed give her a bath, dressed her and then fed her, even as the rest of the household went to bed. “The master’s pleased, although he is gruff about showing it,” which Ana thought was like calling a thunderstorm a light drizzle.
Bath and meal done, they locked her in her room, as they always did. Outside the high, barred window Ana heard the sounds of the city settling in for the night– the calls of the night watch to one another, the distant barking of a dog, the sound of the night wind. Ana could see a scattering of stars in the opening.
She was exhausted, and her throat still hurt, but she forced herself not to fall asleep. She waited until the house quieted. When she was sure, she got up, moving quietly. Down in the far corner of the back wall she located the loose brick with her fingers. She removed it as silently as she could. There was an empty space beyond, some error in the construction of the house, a void within the wall about the size of Ana’s head. She had found it soon after her arrival in Denacles’ house, and put it to good use.
Now to use that forbidden knowledge Silanus had taught her– Ana reached into the space and took out the small book she had stolen the week before from the master’s library, along with the stub of a candle she had acquired from Cook. She lit the candle from the lamp burning high up on the far wall, and then sat down by her pallet. She had to be careful, and she had had only a little while yet to try to penetrate mysteries, but she did this every night, and she was making progress.
She opened the book– Laws of Servitude and Bondsmen, the cover said. This is what Silanus had taught her, and it was power beyond her own Gift. Which, of course, was no gift at all, but a curse that had fallen on her as a child. This was her road to freedom.
She bent over the book, the candle in her other hand, and began to read.