Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23) wrote,
Eildon Rhymer
rhymer23

SGA fic: Born in the Barrens - part 2 of 11

Born in the Barrens – part 2 of 11

Chapter one and all header information is here


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First, a brief note on quickening, since a couple of people have asked. In my imaginary system of alchemy, base metal (which Rodney sometimes calls dead metal) is ordinary metal as it would be in our own world. When an alchemist performs a working on it, the metal becomes "quickened". It's like… well, like super metal, with properties it doesn't have in our world – though the exact properties depend on the precise working the alchemist has performed. Since the verb "to quicken" means "to bring to life", I'd hoped that my made-up alchemical meaning would be obvious from context, but I guess I misjudged things here. Sorry for any confusion.
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Chapter two
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The Genii were a people who liked to have mastery. Their cities were all stone and alchemy, all straight lines and angles. They built high towers towards the sky, then draped them with sparkling toys that swamped the light from the stars. Trees were allowed only in the right places, and were clipped and disciplined until they stood like a military honour guard. Base metal seemed to be an affront to them – a sign that nature was winning. They quickened everything that they could.

And they kept slaves. Rodney smiled bitterly as he leant on his balcony. They kept slaves; of course they did. He had always known that. He had always known.

But their attitude to alchemy had seemed like the worst affront.

He turned his head to look up at the sky. He counted four stars bright enough to penetrate the silver glow of Genii stupidity. He had no idea what their names were. Even after two years, the stars of the north were still strange to him.

The cold was fierce tonight, the Genii winters harsher than anything he had experienced before. Rodney pulled his robe tighter around his body, and traced the patterns needed to coax a little more heat from the iron railing. Warmth spread through his body from his hands, but he found himself shivering, unable to stop.

He had hurt a man. He had inflicted devastating agony on another person, and… and it wasn't fair! The collar was a chance of a lifetime, but it came with a man attached. Rodney's hands itched with the urge to work on it again, to pit his wits against it until it yielded, but apparently he couldn't do that without hurting the pitiful, unwanted slave who came as part of the deal.

Tomorrow, he thought, perhaps, when he's rested. Rodney McKay was never one to quit a project before he had mastered it; that was why he bore the title of Adept, after all. Well, that and his natural brilliance, of course.

His stomach rumbled, and he remembered quite how long it was since he had eaten, and part of that meal had gone to the slave, of course. Turning, he returned to the warmth of his workroom, closing the windows behind him. No, he realised as he saw the scattered plate, most of the meal had ended up on the floor, because I told him to hold his hair out of the way, and he thought that superseded the order to eat. He pressed his head into his hand, feeling the early throbbing of a headache. Why were people so complicated? You always knew where you were with metals. Once you knew the correct patterns and had the right fixing, metals responded in nice, predictable ways that made sense.

Rodney headed for the kitchen. Perhaps I should check on him, he thought. Make sure he hasn't gone and died. His feet made the decision for him, taking him to the door of the slave's room, but there he faltered, not sure whether to knock.

"Er…" His knuckles brushed faintly over the painted door. "There's…" Taking a deep breath, he opened the door. Silver light flooded in from the window, showing the slave lying on his side, his back to the door, with long dark shadows bleeding from his body almost to Rodney's feet. He was utterly still, and Rodney started forward, still gripping the door frame, but then he saw the quick, shallow movement of breathing. "There's…" Rodney cleared his throat. "There's food in the kitchen. Help yourself. You don't, uh… you don't have to ask permission. And drink, too, of course. Just don't touch anything in the red hamper, because they're my special… Gifts, you know, and…"

He trailed away. The slave was probably asleep, anyway. He closed the door quietly, stepped away, and stood for a moment on the slate tiles of the hallway, feeling suddenly small and alone in the vastness of the world, and so very far from home.

******

The slave slept, or so he thought, but the silver from the window penetrated his dreams like the blade of a knife. When he opened his eyes, he saw memories even in the play of shadow.

His bed was soft. Softness invited him to dream.

He sat up, and the pain had solidified in his body, becoming a constant, savage ache. It was sharp on his shoulder, though, and he raised aching hands, trying to ease his shirt away from Kolya's mark, but the fabric had stuck. Even that movement felt strange. The chains had gone from his wrists. The chains had gone. The chains had gone.

Pain dragged him down as much as the chains had ever done. He stood up, groping for the support of the wall – and how strange it felt not to hear the metallic chink of chain-links accompanying every movement. He could lose himself in the silence, he thought.

His master – 'don't call me that' – had told him to help himself to food, and it was probably a trick, probably a trap, but you had to obey orders. If they wanted to hurt you, they'd hurt you anyway, no matter what you did. And hunger was a living, grasping thing, like a knife twisting in the belly, and he had always been thirsty, always been bleak and shrivelled and dry, ever since he had been born in the barrens, in a place that had never seen water.

The door opened at a touch, and he sagged against it for moment, his mind reeling with the fear and the possibility of an unlocked door. It was too vast to contemplate, and so he walked a familiar path, one foot in front of the other, managing to keep upright, his lips pressed tight against any sounds that might want to escape. The slate was cold against his feet, but he knew where to go; he had taken the measure of the place as soon as he had been brought in, looking at each door, forcing his mind to think, to think, until he had deduced their purpose.

It was darker in the kitchen, the window showing a square of near-black. The smells hurt, but he let his nose guide him, until his hand found a coarse round of spiced bread, its surface pitted with currants.

He held it in both cupped hands, and lowered his head over it, breathing in; and because he was alone, tears pricked his eyes as he inhaled one more time, and then started to eat.

******

Rodney woke to find himself in his chair again. Not even he could keep flame-iron radiating heat for a whole night without renewal, so the workroom was cold, his breath frosting a little in the air. Bread and grapes were scattered in front of the hearth, and the chains still lay where they had fallen, made of dead metal, but still bearing memories.

He stood up, stepping over the scattered detritus of long days of working. Books were spread out on the workbench, and he remembered working late into the night, struggling to unravel the secrets of the collar, fighting the urge to drag the slave from his bed, resisting the urge just to creep in and look at the collar one more time while the slave slept.

At least the slave hadn't killed him in his sleep, which was something. Rodney had dreamed of quiet movement in the night; had woken to find only silence, but had tumbled from his chair and hurled himself at the workroom door even so, to desperately trace the patterns that would lock it.

Those same patterns yielded instantly to his touch. The hallway was cold and bleak, decorated in the Genii way, all harsh lines of black. It felt achingly empty.

Rodney faltered at the slave's door, thought better of knocking, and headed for the kitchen.

"By the flame!" he gasped, his hand rising to his chest. His first thought was that the slave was dead, but already the slave was stirring, waking up with a gasp, only to freeze, utterly still. Rodney scraped his hand through his hair. "Why on earth would you sleep on the floor?"

The slave finally let out a slow, taut breath. "I'm sorry. I--"

"You're allowed to sleep on the floor." Rodney frowned sharply. "It's just… It's cold, and… and hard, and I gave you a bed." Though when had Rodney last slept in his own bed? "It's just…" He raked at his hair again. "Why would you want to do that? Did you faint? Is that it?"

"I could see stars from here," the slave said quietly. "It was too bright in there."

"Oh. Yes. The Genii with their sparklies," Rodney sneered. He still hadn't entered the room.

"I didn't mean to." The slave managed to push himself upright, his scarred hand gripping the edge of the table. "I came for food and I...." He faltered. "What do you want me to call you?"

"Adept," Rodney said. "'My lord Adept' if you're feeling particularly servile." He twitched his nose. The smells of the kitchen were as appetising as ever. "Now they've given me a slave, I guess I should be using you to cook my breakfast."

"I didn't…" The slave was staring straight ahead, and Rodney was suddenly reminded of actors who hid their true faces with masks. "I am sorry, my lord Adept, I--"

Rodney flapped his hand, stopping him. "I prefer cold food, anyway," he said – the sort of things you could grab without taking too long away from your work; the sort of stuff that could be put on one side and forgotten for hours while you worked. He went to the ice box, instinctively muttered a few words to renew the alchemy that kept it cold, and selected some sliced sausage. "Can you cook?" he found himself asking. "I thought the Genii used slaves for… well, for working around the house or for shovelling coal or for running errands or…" His words trailed away. "Not for…" He bit his lip, unable to say more.

"They set me to work like that at first." The slave's voice was flat and emotionless. "Then they noticed that I reacted a… certain way to punishment. They decided I was suitable for more… specialist purposes, and they sold me to masters who liked--"

"Hurting you." Suddenly the sausage seemed less appealing. Rodney looked at the dried blood at the slave's shoulder and at that sharp point of a scar that showed at the throat of his shirt. "You should…" He swallowed; tried again. "You can eat something yourself, you know." He pulled out some more sausage, putting several slices on a plate.

The slave took it, and Rodney could see his throat working against the collar. Then Rodney frowned, peering at the slave more closely. The collar was more dull today, no longer pulsing with power when the slave moved. "I weakened it!" Rodney cried in triumph. He lunged toward, touching it, but the magic was as strong as ever, cold and hostile against his fingers. "Weakened its hold on you, anyway. Say something." He snapped his fingers harshly. "Come on. Say something."

"What do you want me to say, my lord Adept?" The slave's voice was quiet and level. The plate trembled in his hand, clattering against the hard wood of the kitchen table.

"By the flame!" Rodney took a step back, scraping both hands across his face. "Talk about anything you like. The sky. The table. About what the sausage tastes like."

The slave blinked slowly. His eyes looked different when he opened them again. "One of my masters used to eat sausage like this," he said, as if he was reporting nothing more than the time of day. "I could smell it on his breath as he--"

"Stop it!" Rodney rasped. He was right, though, and he tried to clutch desperately to the excitement, despite the slave's attempts to ruin things. "It isn't working on you any more when you talk. By the flame, I did win the first round!"

The slave was still clutching the plate, but his other hand rose wonderingly almost to his throat, then fell again, gripping the edge of the table. "I hadn't noticed. I…" His smile was fragile and faltering, and it was something that Rodney suddenly couldn't bear to see.

"Well, more work is obviously required." Rodney gestured sharply. "I have to go out today – important work, you know, that no-one but me is skilled enough to attempt – but after I get back… You'll come to my workroom." His voice wavered, not sure whether to go up at the end in a question, or down as an order.

The slave was looking straight ahead again, all expression masked. "And before that, my lord Adept?"

"I've got to manage your day for you?" Rodney flapped his hand, then stopped himself, catching himself on the images the chains had told him. "Listen, I… Just do whatever you like. I'll lock my workroom so you can't get in and ruin my work, and you can't go outside, of course, but I haven't got anything special anywhere else. Do what you want. I…" He pressed his lips together; stopped with his hand on the door handle. "I didn't want you, you know. I haven't got any use for a slave."

The slave was silent, his face revealing nothing.

"Look," Rodney said, as his back twinged from another night spent sleeping in a chair. "Go to the washroom. Get cleaned up. Wash away that--" He waved his hand in an inarticulate circle. "Find some clean clothes." Just keep out of my way, he thought, but he didn't say that. "Just do what you want," he said. "I'll be back in the evening."

Then, grabbing some more food, Rodney returned to his workroom to ready himself for the day ahead. It had never felt quite so much like fleeing before.

******

Do whatever you like, his master had said, but he had never had time to himself, not since his birth in the barrens. He had spent whole days alone in chains before, locked in the darkness, with nothing to do but wait for the hours to pass. Sometimes he had been chained upright, days and nights passing in a blaze of agony. Once he had been left alone for a whole cycle, his wounds slowly turning to scabs and then to scars, food handed out to him only after the hounds had been fed.

Sometimes he had been put to work. Some masters hurt him hardly at all, only when their day at the palace had been particularly bad. He had spent two whole cycles building a pavilion with his own hands, out in the cold and the rain, to save his master the cost of oil for the engines. He had been set to work building machines, and he had served at dinner, well-wrapped so that nobody could see his scars.

He could think again. Words were no longer hidden from him. He could…

He broke that thought off; went to the washroom. It was cold and shiny, made of dark stone and metal. Silver sparkled faintly in the ceiling, and he had no idea what to do. Bathing was a cold pail of water thrown over his head in a freezing courtyard. Sometimes it was a lukewarm vat of water and a moment of privacy. Sometimes it came with clean clothes, when his masters said his smell offended them, but it had never been like this.

One corner of the room was speckled with drying water, and he headed over there, and pressed his hand experimentally against something that looked like a switch. Water started to cascade down from above, cold at first, but warming up, suffused with silver sparkles.

I should take my clothes off, he thought. He was alone, absolutely alone, and…

…and he had words, and didn't know what to do with them. His thoughts came quicker and easier than they had ever come before, but he had no idea how to use them. He had no idea what to do.

The water rained down on him, soaking his clothes to his skin. His shoulder screamed with the familiar pain of water on a fresh cut. Slowly the dried blood was melting, bleeding pink across his shirt. The water hissed slightly on his collar, as it always did. Then he legs buckled suddenly, still scoured by the events of the night before.

He ended up on his knees. No-one came. He began to lift the shirt over his head, biting his lip to keep from moaning when it eased fully free from the knife marks on his shoulder. The wall was inlaid with numerous patches of shining silver, and he saw patches of his own reflection a hundred times over. Many scars told a story that he could remember. Other scars, though, he had no memory of getting. Had the memories blurred into one, or were these the marks of life before the barrens? One in particular, low on his hip, was faint and white, and he touched it now, wondering…

No, it was not a good thing to wonder. There was nothing before the barrens. He had to believe that there was nothing, because it was better never to have possessed something, than to have had it once, and then lost it.

******

Rodney had not expected Cowen himself to appear behind him as he bent over his work. A fixing had spilled onto his hand, and he was cursing under his breath, simultaneously trying to wipe it off and trying to recover the pattern of the working.

"Adept McKay." Cowen spoke with his usual cold-edged humour – a smile on his lips, but never in his eyes. "I trust you received my gift?"

"Yes. Yes. I did. Yes. High Lord." Rodney wiped his hand on his robe. "Thank you. It was most generous of you."

"Enough to make your tongue less scathing today?" Cowen's mouth curled even more.

Answers were not always required. Rodney muttered something suitably servile. Did Cowen know, he wondered, how some of his richer citizens treated their slaves? Of course he did. The Genii way was built on cruelty, with everyone rigidly in their place.

"Perhaps the creature will be able to fetch and carry for you," Cowen said, "and help you to concentrate on your work. You were absent yesterday."

Rodney was very aware of his breathing, loud and fast in his ears. "It was the day of rest, High Lord."

"But not for those who truly want to please me." Cowen slapped him roughly on the back.

Rodney spluttered, caught by surprise, and Cowen left him there, coughing. He was still coughing when a menial came over and told him that he was to turn his attentions to the dining room today. "More sparklies?" Rodney asked, when he was able to. "What a surprise. When will you Genii realise that there's more to alchemy than glitter?"

They knew he came from far away, but they didn't know how far. He had wandered, he told them, his true home forgotten long ago during his lifelong search for wisdom. He had told them that he would only be in the city of the Genii for half a year, or perhaps even less. That had been almost a year ago. They couldn't get enough of his work. If he announced today that he was leaving, would they even let him?

The menial stayed with him, hovering nearby with the air of someone who had been ordered to help, but who entirely lacked the wit or the skill to do so. "Are you a slave?" Rodney found himself asking.

The menial stiffened angrily. "Certainly not."

"Oh." Rodney felt uncomfortable, his stomach clamped as if with nerves. "Where do you Genii get most of your slaves from?"

"Captured in war, my lord Adept."

Rodney was making the back of every chair shimmer as if they had been scattered with stardust. His hands began to ache. "And are they…?"

The door opened. Just a slave, Rodney thought, as someone came in with an enormous pile of plates.

Just a slave?

He gripped the back of the chair. How often had he seen them about the palace? Slavery was abhorrent, of course, and yet another sign that the Genii, for all their straight lines and engines, were little better than barbarians, and that Rodney was far better than them. But how often had he noticed them, had he really noticed them? Two more slaves came in, and when Rodney went to the window, unable to stop himself, he saw another slave labouring in the courtyard, clearing debris from a fountain, knee-deep in near-frozen water. They were like spirits, he thought – invisible until something changed inside you, and you noticed them.

How many of these slaves bore terrible scars beneath their clothes?

"My lord Adept?" the menial was saying. "Are you…?"

"I… didn't sleep well," Rodney managed, remembering how his own slave had slept on the kitchen floor; how he had gone for a whole day with barely a bite of food because Rodney hadn't thought to tell him he could eat.

It just went to show how right he was to be doing what he was doing, of course. The Genii deserved any punishment they could get. And he, Rodney McKay, stood head and shoulders above them, both in skill and in morality and…

By the flame! He resisted saying it out loud, but only just. "Captured in war?" he asked, keeping his voice as level as he could manage. "That's how you get all of them?"

"Or bought from slavers," the menial said, "though that's usually the girls. We've been at peace for four years, as you know. We had a good crop for a while before then." His voice was loud, filling the room, but the slaves gave no sign of hearing him. Their heads bent, they were working on the table. They had thick metal bands at their wrists, but none of them wore collars. They all had square jaws and fair hair, while his own slave was lean and dark-haired and tall.

What do you know of the Wraith? he almost asked, but that, too, he bit back just in time. He wasn't used to guarding his words. He had secrets – of course he did – but it didn't matter how rude he was to people as long as he did good work. Even so, it had taken him far longer than he had expected to come to the attention of High Lord Cowen and invited to work in the palace. Perhaps if he had guarded his tongue a little less in those first few days, he might have achieved his goal long ago.

Back to work, he thought, as he returned to his child's-play workings. His fingers itched with the urge to work on the collar again – just to walk out of here and go back to his cold, bleak lodgings, and do whatever he wanted, and not to toe the line of petulant, jumped-up lords.

He pulled another phial of fixing from his pocket, and concentrated on the chair. When the door opened again, he didn't look up – just another slave – but when he had finished, weary over the sparkling furniture, he saw General Kolya looking at him from the doorway.

Rodney froze, newly-quickened metal harsh against his palms. I saw what you did, he thought, as his thumb traced a K on the back of the chair.

And Kolya smiled, as if to say, I know you did.

******

He could do anything that he wanted to do.

The slave sat on the kitchen floor and watched the blue square of sky. Sometimes a bird flew past – a distant speck.

He lay down for a while, thinking that he might be able to sleep, but he wasn't able to. His mind felt full, frothing with thoughts that kept him from sleeping, but he couldn't pin down a single one of them.

He ate, but not much.

When the chimes sounded, he counted them. The space between the chimes seemed like an eternity. He imagined footsteps in the silence, and the rattling of chains. He strained towards those distant chimes, and he counted every one, every single chime.

He pressed his hand to the glass, and felt it cold.

His clothes dried slowly. He found a discarded coat in the room he had been given to sleep in, and put it on. Had he ever felt fabric that soft? He found a blanket, too. Was that what warmth felt like?

Moving slowly, falteringly, he touched the door, but withdrew his hand without doing anything more.

Slowly, slowly it became dark, and silver sparkled in through the windows.

He perched on the edge of a chair, clasped his hands tightly in his lap, and looked down at them, rocking gently. Silence crept like a knife-blade across his shoulders.

Water was cool. It was always there, no matter how often he went back for it. No-one ever came to snatch it away.

When he lost his grip on his blanket, it fell to the floor. He stooped to pick it up, but his limbs gave way and everything lurched with dizziness. It was darker by the time he found the strength to roll onto his back, to lie there looking up at the ceiling, blanket tangled between his fingers.

He ate some more bread, tearing off tiny chunks, feeling the coarseness of the crust and the softness of the inside, and when he had finished eating it, he licked every last crumb from his fingers.

His shoulder hurt, and he pressed his hand to it, curling his fingers inwards, but then it hurt even more.

He found a wall in a small back room, hard and firm at his back. Through it, brighter even than the leaking silver light, he saw a single star.

******

Rodney's lodgings in the city of the Genii had never felt like home. There was too much of the Genii about them, and sometimes they felt more like a prison than a place to live. Still, the house was his own, and when he locked the door behind him, nobody else could get in, not even General Kolya and his flint-eyed chosen men.

On the way back from the palace, Rodney had found himself gasping at every shadow. Even so, he paused outside the door for a moment before opening it. The slave was inside. He made the place feel more dangerous, as if a cleft had been opened in reality, letting in the danger of distant vistas. Written on his skin was a reminder of how merciless the Genii could be to those who crossed them. His bowed head made Rodney feel inadequate, as if every word that he said was wrong.

But around the slave's neck was a collar infused with Wraith metal-magic. After a day spent labouring on useless fripperies, this at last was work worthy of Rodney's skill.

He opened the door, then closed it quickly behind him, smoothing back the sundered patterns with a word. The silence was cold and expectant. "Are you…?" His voice trailed away. Rodney touched the switch that controlled the light. Like so much else in the city of the Genii, it was cold, clear silver.

The slave appeared from the small storeroom Rodney had never found a use for. "My lord Adept."

Was it just the silver light, that he looked so pale? Rodney half started a dozen different things to say, then settled on the slave's choice of clothes. "I thought I told you to get dressed."

"In your own clothes?" The slave blinked, his hand tightening on the door frame. "I found a blanket and a coat…"

"And your own filthy clothes underneath them." Rodney sighed. "Listen, I'll give you something to wear. This… I'm not used to this, you know?" He sighed again; tried to still the entirely ridiculous nervous fluttering that he felt inside. Normally he threw out words, never pausing to wonder what sort of effect they had on the person who heard them. "Why can't you react to things like a normal person?"

"Because--!" The slave's head came up, and there was a spark there in his eyes, just for a moment. Then he let out a breath, and the sharpness that had been there in that first word was gone, replaced with his usual quietness. "I am sorry, my lord Adept."

Rodney scraped his hands across his face. "Look. Come to my workroom. I want to see what progress I can make on that collar."

Turning his back on the slave, he walked briskly to his workroom. He could lose himself in the battle. He could lose himself in the rare challenge that came from doing work worthy of his skills. It was uncomplicated. Well, it was complicated, but in all the best ways. He wouldn't even have to look at the slave's face.

He heard the slave follow him in, but he didn't turn around to make sure of it. "Sit down." He snapped his fingers. "Where you were yesterday. Come on."

He heard not even the faintest sound of movement.

The leaf-green fixing, he thought, or the golden one? He had fresh ideas to try from his late night studying, although study was limited, of course, unless you had the object in question to hand. Holding both phials together in his left hand, he turned round. "Come on."

The slave was standing in the doorway, utterly still except for his breathing.

"You look stupid in that blanket." The words left him without him meaning them to. He felt a ridiculous urge to apologise for them, to say that he was always insulting people, that it was just his way. "I'm sorry, but..." He shook his head. His workroom had always felt safe before, like his own little kingdom. "Look, I know it hurt yesterday, but it was worth it. I made real progress. Now I just need to…" He gestured with the phials, waving them in a circle to fill in missing words.

The slave still didn't move. "I counted chimes today," he said, "all the way to twenty."

Which was a ridiculous thing to say, quite ridiculous, and Rodney didn't have time for this. He lunged for the slave, meaning to grab his arm and physically drag him into the workroom, but the slave made a sharp hissing noise under his breath, and recoiled, both hands coming up sharply, and his eyes, his eyes were blazing.

"I'm sorry," Rodney gasped, and the slave hadn't struck him, not quite, but only because Rodney had snatched his hand back just in time. "By the flame! I wasn't going to hurt you."

"You were." The slave was still breathing fast, the collar pulsing in and out of sight at the top of his bunched-up blanket. "I'm sorry, my lord Adept. I shouldn't have… I'm sorry." But he still looked dangerous, despite his quiet words, despite his bare feet and his ridiculous costume.

"Well, maybe it would have hurt you," Rodney had to admit, sinking back into his chair. The phials were still clutched in his left hand, and he hadn't spilled a drop. "But it's for the best, you know. I hope to get it off completely, and then… memory, you know? Your lost memory coming back?" I'm doing it for you, he tried to say, but he couldn't force the words out.

The slave seemed to shrink as Rodney watched, growing more dull, gathering his emotions inwards like a man gathering a coat around his body in a storm. "I apologise," he said. "Whatever you want."

The slave perched on the edge of the chair, and Rodney told himself that this was a triumph. The golden fixing first, he thought, as he stood up and went over to the slave. The slave had already prepared himself, bending his neck, lifting his hair up and out of the way.

Rodney stood over him, patterns and bindings already prepared and waiting on his tongue. This was his chance to master something that no human being had ever mastered. This was his chance to shine.

He placed his hand on the slave's back, just below the collar. The blanket slithered down as he did so, and he could feel the slave's taut breathing through the thin fabric of his bloodstained shirt. He remembered how the slave had writhed, clawing at his neck. He remembered how he had begged Rodney never to hurt him like that again. He hadn't begged like that in any of the glimpsed visions that Rodney had seen in the chains, even when… even when they…

"I can't," Rodney rasped, and he stepped back; gripped the phials so tightly that they almost crumbled. "By the flame!" he shouted. "I never wanted you, but you came with this, and now I can't even… I can't…"

The slave said nothing. Slowly, one by one, strands of dark hair slid back down over his neck, until the collar was completely hidden.

"I can't do it!" Rodney screamed, and then he snatched his hand back, curling the fist against his chest, because he had almost been about to hit the slave; he had almost been about to hit him.

The slave said nothing, but he straightened up a little, his head no longer bowed, as if he was staring straight ahead. Waiting, Rodney thought. Expecting punishment.

Rodney raked his hand through his hair, and the shadow-cursed phials were still in his hand, clutched and useless. "I don't know what to do," he found himself saying, and he meant far more than just this evening's work.

The slave shifted slightly, showing Rodney the side of his face. "Are you going to sell me?"

"With Wraith-work around your neck? Of course not. Besides, Cowen won't like it if I do. I still don't know why he gave you to me, but he did, and I'm stuck with it. I really can't afford to give him a reason to exile me, or something worse."

"General Kolya wanted to keep me," the slave said, his expression still hidden. "The High Lord Cowen thinks that Kolya's getting too powerful. Perhaps it was more a way of asserting his power over Kolya than anything to do with you."

And Rodney knew just what Kolya wanted the slave for. "No," he said, sinking down into his own large armchair, "I'm not going to sell you. But I still don't know what to do."

He wasn't sure if he was imagining it, but he thought the slave whispered, "Neither do I," immensely quiet, no more than a breath.

******

On to chapter three
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