Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23) wrote,
Eildon Rhymer
rhymer23

SGA fic: Born in the Barrens - part 3 of 11

Born in the Barrens – part 3 of 11

Chapter one and all header information is here


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Chapter three
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Food was delivered through standing orders with local traders, supplemented with gifts and bribes. Rodney McKay, Rodney had thought bitterly more than once, the master alchemist who will prostitute his talent for the promise of a fondant fancy. But there were no ornate boxes on the doorstep this morning. There was no tempting aroma of sugar… and say what you liked about the Genii, but they made the best sweets. They were a strange people – all hard lines and military mastery, but addicted to glittering alchemy and sugary concoctions crafted with exquisite care.

The air was like ice in the early morning. A small company of soldiers marched past, their breath frosting in the cold. Kolya wasn't leading them himself, of course, but they still acted as his eyes and his ears. Kolya was a powerful man. Cowen didn't like Kolya and thought he was getting too powerful. Who had said that? Oh, yes, the slave, and what did a slave know about anything?

But it was true, Rodney realised, as he locked the door and headed to the kitchen with his latest spoils. He had worked in the palace long enough to overhear a dozen interactions between the two most powerful men in the kingdom, and he hadn't really thought about them much at the time, but now, looking back…

The slave was already in the kitchen, just standing there, one hand resting lightly on the table. Rodney froze in the door; felt a sudden urge to retreat… but, no, this was his house. A slave was supposed to fit in unobtrusively, wasn't he? When they weren't issuing orders, Genii masters ignored their slaves, acting as if they were invisible.

Rodney lowered the piled-up boxes onto the table. "I guess I should tell you to do the unpacking." His voice was still rough from sleep.

"Of course," the slave said, "my lord--"

"Oh, stop it." Rodney snatched a long currant stick from the nearest box. "That's what the Genii call me. I'm more used to 'Adept', really, just that. Even more used to being called 'McKay', actually. The my lord' thing… It's just--" He snapped off the end of the stick, and breathed in the aroma. "--flattery, you know? It doesn't mean anything."

The slave looked at him, his eyes suddenly sharp. "It might not mean anything to you, my lord, but when a slave calls someone wrongly…"

He didn't finish it. He didn't need to finish it. Rodney had seen enough in the chains to be able to imagine how it would unfold: a master dishing out pain, using an imagined lack of respect as the pretext.

"Well…" Rodney cleared his throat. "I'm saying now that you can call me 'Adept McKay' or just 'Adept.'" He took a mouthful of soft currant bread. "I need to think of a name for you. I can't just think of you as 'the slave.'"

The slave's hand tightened on the edge of the table.

As Rodney chewed, he ran through possible names in his head. Something from a story? A sly joke at the expense of a rival? Something inspired by the slave's appearance? He was lean, dark-haired, and seemed inordinately fond of looking at the sky. Something to do with that, perhaps.

He looked up. The slave hadn't moved, but there was something about his expression… Rodney frowned. "You don't want a name?"

"Names are given, my lord-- Adept McKay," the slave said. "Given by masters."

Rodney swallowed, and pulled off another chunk. "Then tell me what you want me to call you." He waved the stick around to punctuate his words. "What name do you call yourself?"

The slave blinked. "I don't." The furrow was back between his eyes. "I don't need to. I'm me. I don't need a name to… to experience what I do."

"Oh." Suddenly the bread seemed far less appetising. Rodney chewed slower and slower, then retreated to his workroom for important work and preparation for another long day at the palace.

******

He was alone again. You can do anything you like.

He couldn't seem to stop counting the chimes, just because he could. When they reached twelve, and still nobody had come, he returned to the washroom, and spent so long in the sparkling shower of water that his skin wrinkled, pulling against the scars.

It was hard to drag himself around the house. His body felt heavy and his limbs ached, even though nobody had hurt him for an entire day and a half.

At least he managed to sleep a little, and the star was still there when he felt the call of night and the window. He dozed a little, and it was gone when he woke, but he remembered that stars moved across the sky with the passage of hours, and when he pressed himself close to the glass and looked up as high as he could, it was still there.

He heard Adept McKay arrive home, of course – heard the sound of the door opening, and started away from the window, his heart pounding. You had to be alert to every sound. You always had to expect… He pressed his face into his hands, wiped the day clean from his face, and headed out into the slate-grey hallway, where too many things echoed in the wide walls and beneath the high ceiling.

"I've been thinking," Adept McKay said, his eyes skittering away from looking properly at him, "about that collar of yours."

The slave's hand half rose to it, then fall down stiffly to his side, hand clenching into a fist. Don't, he thought. Don't. He could feel his heart racing. Don't touch it, he thought. Don't try. And he knew, oh, he knew, that he would fight before that happened again. Even if the alchemist could kill him with his powers, he would fight before he ever let that happen again.

"It's Wraith-work, obviously." McKay was still further away than an unarmed master needed to be to hurt him. "And you said that the slavers found you in the barrens. You don't remember anything before that?"

Should he say it? It was just dreams, but you obeyed a master, and you told him… No, no, you didn't. You didn't show him what was inside. You didn't let them see those things that had the power to break you. Some things you never said at all.

McKay snapped his fingers. "Come on. It's a simple question. Do you remember anything before that?"

He shook his head. His mouth was very dry. Dreams, he told himself, and dreams couldn't hurt him; dreams didn't reveal anything true. "Sometimes I think I might remember people, pale people, not… not like people at all. And I had to get away from them."

"I knew it!" McKay snapped his fingers triumphantly. "You were a prisoner of the Wraith. Of course you were. Then you escaped, but your brain was all… frazzled, because of the collar, so you ended up getting captured by the Genii."

He remembered the barrens, parched and bleak. He was still there, with cold grey beneath his feet, and an enormous sky above him, pressing down.

"But the real question is: why." The alchemist was pacing, fizzing with excitement. "Lots of people have been captured by the Wraith, but we've never seen a collar like that before. I know someone – know them quite well, actually – who was their prisoner for far too long – they hunted him, you know, for sport – and even he didn't have one. So why you? Unless it was experimental technology and you drew the short straw and became their test subject. But why scramble your memory? They don't normally care about things like that. With Ro-- With the person I mentioned… I think the memory was a plus to them. More... grief, you know?"

"I don't know, Adept McKay." His voice sounded strange to him, faint and distant. I don't want to ask, he thought. I don't want to know. I can't know.

******

Another day performing nonsense. Another day working as a glorified decorator. Under day spent under the falsely jovial eye of Cowen. Another day with Kolya stalking past, looking at him as if to say, What have you done with my slave? Once, Rodney had edged too close to a door and had heard Cowen shouting, and he had hurried away and busied himself with a light fitting, and had tried not to notice when the door had burst open and Kolya had come stalking out, smashing a passing slave to the ground in his fury.

Another day.

This time, the slave was in the kitchen when Rodney finally returned home. The man was so still that Rodney thought for a moment that he wasn't aware of him. Then he realised that of course the slave was aware of him. His stillness was no different from the way that Rodney had fluttered over the light fighting when Kolya had stormed past. It was all just another way of watching.

"Can you hurt me?" the slave asked, but only after a very long time has passed, long enough for Rodney to pile a plate with the choicest delicacies that he could find. "With your power, I mean." Then, when Rodney didn't immediately answer, he bent his head, and said, "I'm sorry, Adept McKay. I shouldn't have spoken without--"

"No, no." Rodney flapped his hands. "What idiocy is this? Of course I can't hurt you. Alchemy isn't… Well, yes, I guess I can make things that other people could use to hurt you, and I can make metal hot – but anyone can do that, of course; that doesn't require alchemy – and… But, no, I can't… you know, cause pain with a touch – reach into your mind. No fireballs and zapping. Alchemy isn't like that."

"General Kolya…" The slave stood up and moved to the window, but not before Rodney could see how his hand rose almost to his injured shoulder. "He said you could. He said that if I disobeyed you, you would--"

"That's ridiculous!" Rodney cried. "That's just typical of the lack of understanding these Genii have for true alchemy. The sooner I can get away from this place, the better, back to where people at least understand something of the true nature of what I can do."

"I think," the slave said quietly, "that he knew it wasn't true." His hand curled slowly at his side. "It was just another way to control me." The hand became a fist. "But you did, Adept McKay. You did hurt me."

"By the flame!" The chair scraped loudly as Rodney sank down into it. "That was…" He rubbed his face. "Apart from that, which I won't do again, I can't do much to hurt you. I'm not a fighting man. I don't know how to defend myself from physical attack."

The slave turned round; looked at him.

"I shouldn't have told you that," Rodney said. "Stupid, McKay! I'm supposed to be clever! Yes, tell the slave just how incapable you are of defending yourself should he take it into his head to try to kill you."

"No, it wasn't," the slave said, and he tripped over the words as if they were new to him, "very clever." But he smiled, just the ghost of a smile, and Rodney almost smiled back.

******

The workroom, the kitchen, the washroom, the bedroom, and the small room that showed him his star. He added a sixth room on… was it the fourth day? He marked every hour and he counted every chime, but the days still ran away from him. Sometimes it seemed as long as a cycle between McKay leaving in the morning and coming back at night, while other times it passed in a blur.

The sixth room was set up for entertaining, with high-backed chairs facing in towards a large central space. The table at the edge of the room was thick with dust. The mirrors showed a face he didn't recognise. The chairs were empty, but he knew rooms like this. The next time he looked at the mirror, he saw a circle of men and women watching with rapt attention as he knelt chained on the carpet, his master circling him with a knife in his hand. He turned away from that, and saw another mirror – every mirror showing a scar, every scar showing a memory.

He was frozen, unable to move. The window was large, and he saw a war engine passing in the road outside, looming closer and closer and closer out of its cloak of steam.

The rest of the day passed in memory, lost in it, drowning in it.

******

The slave had prepared him a plate of food and poured him a drink. Rodney sat down heavily in the chair. "I think I could get used to having a slave," he said. It was exactly the sort of selection he would have chosen for himself, even down to the quantities being just right.

The slave said nothing.

Rodney tried to concentrate on his food, but it was just so hard with someone else standing there, watching him. He gathered up his meal, intending to take it to his workroom, then stopped, frowning. "Are you sick, or something? You don't look well."

But even as he said it, it was no longer true. The slave's face went blank, and he straightened up, clasping his hands in front of them, slipping them into his long sleeves.

"Sit down," Rodney found himself saying. "Eat something yourself. Just don't expect me to make polite conversation. I'm not good at talking. Well," he added, as he wiped the bloom off a grape with his thumb, "I am quite good, but not at small-talk over dinner. After all the prattling and noise I have to endure during the day, I need this time to think."

The slave said nothing.

"Of course," Rodney added, when the first few mouthfuls were gone, "nothing that I say can ever count as small-talk, really, on account of--" He bit off a mouthful of meat. "Knowledge to impart, and so on." Perhaps his voice rose slightly at the end.

"What is alchemy, Adept McKay?" the slave asked. He still hadn't made any move to gather food for himself.

Rodney stretched his legs out happily. "Alchemy is power over metals – glass, too, and crystals… anything with a strong metallic component. Every kind of metal has a secret name… Well, 'name' is what we call it, but that's anthropomorphising it, really. You need to know the right words to command it, and it's about saying those words, and making the right patterns." He mimed, tracing patterns in the air with food-stained fingers. "And you need the right fixing, too, or nothing responds. That's often our principal work – researching alchemical fixings, trying new mixtures."

"What is it used for, Adept McKay?" the slave asked dutifully.

"Well, the Genii use it mostly for decoration," Rodney told him. "When you have power over a metal, you can make it shine. But it's so much more than that. You can quicken metal to do virtually anything you want it to, within reason. You can use it for defence, of course. A-- Well, cities, I've seen cities with alchemy infused into every part of them. But I think it's cheapening it by asking what it can be used for. It's all about knowledge for the sake of knowledge. It's about furthering your understanding. It's about mastery."

"Mastery?" the slave echoed, and there it was, exposed.

"But different from…" he began, because of course it was; he was nothing like the Genii, nothing at all.

"Is it like sorcery?" the slave asked.

"What?" Rodney frowned sharply. "What do you know about sorcery?"

"Nothing." The slave's hand closed on the back of the empty chair. "I heard the other slaves talking about it once. They made it sound like a story, but--"

"Alchemy's nothing remotely like sorcery," Rodney snapped. "Sorcery's about showing off, with all that control of the elements nonsense – fireballs and flying and the like. It doesn't have anything like the depth of alchemy. You're born a sorcerer, you know – born with your gift, don't have to lift a finger to get it, just have to wait until it decides to manifest itself. Alchemy… Well, you're born with the gift, too, but well over half of it comes from study. You…" His voice trailed off. He took a sip of his drink, and saw that his hand was shaking. "Of course…" His voice sounded thin, and not like his own voice at all. "Sorcerers are little more than a myth nowadays. The last sorcerers left this part of the world thousands of years ago, and went south across the sea. You shouldn't listen to stories."

"No," the slave said, but he helped himself to a small plate of food, and started eating, and perhaps he was a tiny bit less pale than when Rodney had first entered the kitchen.

"Make sure that you don't," Rodney said. It was probably best not to say anything else, he thought.

******

The knife marks at his shoulder had long-since scabbed over. As he stood in the washroom beneath the sparkling water, he saw that the scab was already falling off in places, revealing the dark pink smoothness of freshly-healed skin.

Healed, he thought, because he thought that as many as seven days might have passed, and nobody had hurt him.

He didn't know what to do. Life was about surviving what his masters did to him. It was about that foolish, that desperately important refusal to let them break him all the way. It was about being prepared for pain. It was about struggling for every thought and fighting for every word.

Days now were things of endless emptiness. His thoughts came without him having to fight for them, but he had no idea what to apply them to. He was tiny in a vast room of possibility, and had no idea how to take the first step.

By his reflection in the fragments of metal on the washroom wall, he thought that he might look different already, less wounded and less thin. But if he was changing, what would be become?

Healed, he thought. He touched the marks on his chest; the mark on his shoulder that he would never lose. But still scarred. Always that.

******

There was one door in the palace that Rodney had never been allowed through. "The relic room," they told him, when he finally dared to ask.

He gathered his phials and his fixings, cleared his throat, and pretended not to care at all. "Is the High Lord Cowen likely to--"

"Am I likely to what?" Cowen asked.

By the flame! Rodney almost said it aloud. He bit his lip, and struggled to keep hold of his armful of phials. A black one slipped free and shattered, spilling a pool of black almost to Cowen's toes.

"I'm sorry." Rodney almost lost a second phial to his natural inclination to gesture with his hands while talking. "I didn't mean--"

Cowen took a deliberate, fastidious step back. "A slave will clear it up. With his tongue." His serious look held for longer than necessary before he laughed, as if to indicate that it was a joke. "What were you wondering about my intentions?"

"I… I'd noticed a room I hadn't gone into," Rodney said. The sun was slanting in through the windows behind Cowen, and the alchemy was dazzling, alive not just with light but with eager, glittering power. "I was just wondering if you were going to ask me to… well, to go in. Enhance the relics? Give them a setting worthy of them?"

"Perhaps I will," Cowen said. Did he always go round with a guard of very large soldiers, or were they a new development? "But I have a few days' of work to get out of you in the parade room first."

Parade room. Rodney swallowed. Kolya's kingdom. "Yes, High Lord," he said.

Cowen turned and began to walk away. Rodney sagged with relief, then jerked himself upright again when Cowen turned. "And my gift still pleases you?" It was spoken with his usual mildness, steel wrapped in silk.

"It does," Rodney rasped. "I mean, he does."

"Good," Cowen said, "because I would hate to displease my most accomplished alchemist."

His tone, Rodney thought, said something else entirely.

******

Time went faster when Adept McKay was talking. It gave him something to anchor himself on, and made the world smaller and less suffused with choice. McKay liked talking, and his eyes and his hands became like living things when he lectured about alchemy. All the slave had to do was ask, and then concentrate on making the right reactions.

"What do you do," he asked one night, "when you're out of the house?" That was on a day when outside was cold and white, when his star was lost behind clouds, and when McKay had come in stamping and slapping at himself, with snow sprinkled on his shoulders.

"I'm working in the palace," McKay said, "at High Lord Cowen's special request."

They only ever talked in the kitchen. After the meal, and sometimes half way through it, McKay vanished into his workroom, and the slave spent the rest of the evening in the same way that he spent the days. Sometimes it made things worse to know that someone else was there, separated only by an unlocked door. Sometimes, though, it made things feel better. Once, he had stood outside the workroom door for the whole time between one chiming and the next, listening to McKay mutter under his breath as he worked.

"I'm a glorified decorator," McKay said bitterly. "And, of course, I had to work for months doing exactly the same in the nobles' houses before Cowen even noticed me and thought to summon me to the palace. A whole year of it." He rubbed his hand over his eyes as if he had a headache.

"Is it hard work?" the slave asked.

"The work itself isn't difficult," McKay said, "but it just goes on and on. And any sustained work requires concentration. And they just keep on watching me all the time. These Genii… They're so suspicious."

The slave wondered if he could sit down without being asked. He pulled out a chair, gripped it tightly, and lowered himself tentatively into it. McKay didn't even look up. The slave thought that it might even hurt a bit, the small curl of feeling that he felt at that.

"You aren't Genii?" he asked, the chair stiff at his back.

"By the flame, no!" McKay looked angry, and the slave stiffened, but McKay just carried on, waving his hand jerkily. "I've been here nearly a year. The worst thing is having to guard my tongue all the time. I'm not very good at it, really. They know I'm not Genii, of course, but they don't know…" He stopped – a sharp gesture with his hand, and his lips pressed firmly together.

McKay was often angry, but it came out in words and in gesticulations, and it was always forgotten a moment later. It wouldn't last, the slave thought. He just hadn't yet found what would drive McKay to violence. It was best to be cautious, not to push. No, no, it was best to push, because at least then he'd know. It was better to know than to limp around in this endless uncertainty. He didn't know what the rules were any more.

"You're keeping secrets from the Genii," he said. He looked at the grain of the wooden table, running his finger along its curves. "You came here deliberately with a very particular purpose."

McKay picked up a bunch of grapes and started plucking them off one by one, dropping them to his plate but not eating them. "I told them I wasn't good at undercover work. I've always been one to say what I mean, without minding too much about the consequences. Why on earth they chose me, I don't know. I mean, yes, an alchemist of some skill was required, but nothing that most of the others couldn't have done. I think…" He plucked off the last grape, and frowned at the bare stem. "I think they might have been wanting to get rid of me, you know?"

The slave didn't even want to breathe. There was nothing in the world but this. "Are you close to finding it," he asked, "what you came here for?"

"Perhaps." McKay scraped his hand across his face. "There's just too many of them, watching all the time. It would be a simple thing to force my way through the locks, of course, but they just won't stop watching. "

"Does--" the slave began, but McKay interrupted him.

"I shouldn't have said any of that." His voice was quiet, rather than angry. "It's just… it's been a whole year and I haven't been able to… And you asked, and… And it's not as if you've got any reason to feel any loyalty to the Genii yourself, after what they did to you… And you never see anybody but me, but I might have visitors one day, and then…" He rubbed his brow again, fingers digging deep. "I told them I wasn't good at this. So now you know. My life in your hands, and all that. It feels…"

He trailed off. The slave moistened dry lips. "I know how it feels," he said.

"Oh." McKay cleared his throat. "Yes."

And dinner was over for another night, but the slave didn't move from the table, not for a very long time after that.

******

Another morning, another day, another night.

Rodney worked on the parade room, and every time he looked up, one or other of Kolya's men was watching him. Sometimes Kolya was there, too. Once Kolya disappeared into his office with his closest officers, but Rodney moved to the far end of the hall, to work on the trophies there, so when they all emerged, it would never even cross their mind to remember that he had quickened the locks on Kolya's door, and that metal had memory.

Soon, the metal whispered, long after Kolya had gone. We will move soon.

"I think Kolya's planning a coup," Rodney told the slave that evening.

The slave nodded, a hint of that old furrow forming between his brows. "I think he might be," was all he said.

"Well, I don't want to be here when it happens," Rodney said. "It's bound to be messy."

"I don't…" the slave began, then stopped. Of course, Rodney thought, if Kolya displaced Cowen, then he would be free to rule that Cowen's gift to Rodney was null and void.

Rodney ate in silence for a while. Cowen had spoken to him again, hinting that he might be allowed into the relic room within a couple of days. He had no idea who would accompany him, of course. He had no idea how big the room was, and how many relics there were inside.

"I'm not a thief," he said, suddenly feeling the need to justify himself. "It's something the Genii don't know what to do with. They won't miss it. They don't even recognise it for what it is. But it's something that might make all the difference to us."

"Us?" the slave asked.

Rodney shook his head. He had said far too much already. The crazy thing was, of course, that it actually felt good to have somebody who knew part of his secret. But this…? This wasn't his secret to tell.

But he wanted to tell it, he found, and that was probably the most crazy thing of all.

******

"What do you do all day?"

The question stopped him breathing. Clenching his hands into fists, the slave forced himself to let out a slow breath.

"I should have asked before." Clutching his robe around him with one hand, McKay looked angry, his face jagged with frowns. "It's been… what? Sixteen days? You can't go out. There's precious little housework to do. I told you not to cook. Can you read? It doesn't matter if you can, though, does it, because I told you not to go into my workroom, and that's where most of the books are. So what do you do?"

He had no idea how to answer. He had no idea what the answer was. Sometimes he spent the days quaking with memories. Sometimes he traced his own scars. He counted the chimes, and he counted imaginary chimes in the spaces between them. Whenever the star was visible, he watched it, but where his mind went when he did so, he did not know.

Days passed in silence. The only times he remembered clearly were the times when McKay was at home, when then there was variety to the long slow hours.

"I don't…" He tugged his own robe tight. "I don't know. Things."

"By the flame, I didn't think!" McKay was pacing, all sharp gestures. "I've kept you locked in a cage." His anger was bright sparks. He's angry at himself, the slave realised. "I should have…"

"It doesn't matter, Adept McKay," the slave managed to say.

"My people disapprove of slavery," McKay said, still pacing. "It's just that I'm not… not very good with people. I don't think. I'm an arrogant man. I say things, and people… They might feel bad for a minute or two, and snivel a bit, but it doesn't have a real effect. I'm just… not used to this."

The slave shook his head. "It doesn't matter." He could feel his heart thudding in his chest. He didn't want questions. He just wanted… He wanted…

"But it does," McKay said, his hands finally falling still.

******

"Tomorrow," Cowen said, "or maybe the day after," but then he asked Rodney to create hanging stalactites of silver in his garden, and it was cold outside, so cold.

Kolya was everywhere in the palace, his back erect, steps loud and brisk. Soon, his eyes said. Perhaps even tomorrow.

It was a simple thing that evening to craft what he wanted to craft. Rodney left his workroom an hour after dinner and headed across the hallway.

He found the slave still in the kitchen, still sitting at the table, his posture stiff in a way that reminded Rodney of the earliest days. "Is something…?" the slave asked, then swallowed. "You don't normally leave your room after dinner."

Of course. Rodney shook his head. "Nothing's wrong. I've just been thinking… I shouldn't keep you inside. I'm not a Genii, to condone slavery. But…" He wondered how honest to be. "I don't want to you to run away," he said, "not with that collar on you. That makes you immeasurably valuable to me."

"I won't run away," the slave said.

"But I made this." Rodney uncurled his fist, showing the two halves of the silver talisman. "It's simple alchemy, really. You wear one half, and I wear the other. They're two halves of the same thing, and the metal knows that, so if ever I wanted to find you… Of course, if you were another alchemist we'd even be able to have a degree of rudimentary communication, but since you're not… It will at least tell me which direction to look."

"You're…" The slave swallowed. "Marking me?"

"Of course not," Rodney snapped. "It's just… Hold out your hand."

The slave was slow to obey. When he did so, he did it with the guardedness of someone who was ready to snatch it away at the slightest provocation.

"It won't hurt you," Rodney said, hearing the sharp edge of irritation in his voice. "It's a bracelet, see? Not even tight." The slave's wrists were healed, leaving only pink scars. "There," Rodney said, sealing it with a pattern and a word. "And now I need to put on mine." He had fastened his to a long silver chain, and he put it over his head, tucking the talisman in behind his robe along with the other one. "There," he said again, with a smile. "I'll change the locks tomorrow so they don't depend on alchemy, and that's that. You can go out during the day."

Rodney smiled. The slave was staring at his wrist, and didn't smile back.

"You know secrets about me," Rodney said, "things that could get me into a lot of trouble, but I'm letting you go out. It's… it's a gesture of trust. I'm trusting you, and you won't go betraying that, now, will you, because I didn't have to do it. I did it because it's the right thing to do, and, huh, I can do selfless, after all, despite what certain people say."

The slave's smile was fleeting. "Thank you, Adept McKay."

******

Outside, he thought. He could go outside. He could unlock the door, and step outside.

The stars were outside, and the night's sky. The sun was outside, and sometimes birds swept down, before soaring up into the scattered clouds.

He stood with his hand on the door, then leant forward so that his head was resting on the door, too.

The hallway was vast, echoing with possibilities. Outside was vaster.

I don't want you to run away, McKay had said, but what was the point of running away? You had to have somewhere to run to. You had to believe that somewhere, beyond this place, life was better. He had run from these Wraith, McKay had said, and had ended up with the Genii. If he ran from the Genii, would he end up somewhere worse?

The hallway was vast, but suddenly it felt almost small. Outside was worse.

Outside had Kolya. Outside had all his other masters. Outside had people who had watched him suffer and wanted him to scream. Outside had…

Cold bled in through the door. You're free, McKay's eyes had said, but of course he wasn't. The world outside was the prison. Here, inside here, perhaps, just perhaps, was a small patch of safety.

"I can't," he said, "I can't," as he heard footsteps, loud outside the door.

******

"They're old things," Cowen said, "and of little interest to me. The focus of the Genii should be on the future, not the past. But I'm sure there are some who will appreciate you working your magic on them."

A servant opened the door to the relic room, and Rodney followed him in. He felt detached from his body, not really there at all. After a whole year of drudgery and exile, the moment had come.

The door was barely closed behind him when the screaming started.

******

On to chapter four
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