The next day she was standing in the Minister’s office; she was wearing clothes the likes she’d never had. If that was what they gave slaves, theirs must feel even softer. They had given her some fingerless gloves that were perfect to keep her hands warm while allowing movements and to hide the iron star she wore there. For some weird reason it seemed to belong there. She had not realised that the structure was so flexible. The gloves like everything else she wore were in the colours of the cloak she’d worn the day before though it was more a yellow than gold. They were cut that the slave bracelets fell over them protecting her skin. And at least she was wearing an outfit appropriate for a hunter and not some tiny piece of cloth meant to entice men to want her. Out of habit she’d braided her hair and put it under a soft cap of a dark green Felis found for her. But right now she was observing the room waiting for the Minister to speak.
“So Kiaya do you know why I asked you here today?
She bit her lower lip. Was it a trick question? Was she in trouble for taking the gun? He said she could.
“I’m not sure my Lord.”
“You’re not in trouble. I have a sense though that you will cause me some. I’d rather you not.”
“I don’t intend to cause trouble my Lord.”
“Good. So will you take a guess?”
“I don’t know if I should sir.”
He raised an eyebrow at her.
“Do. I allow you.”
“I guess you want to give me some directions as to how I should or shouldn’t teach your children.”
“That’s right. But I also want to hear more about you.”
“I think you’ve already heard everything there’s to know about me my Lord.”
“Oh no, there’s more to you than the oldest child of a family of five. The papers say you’re Master in your guild. You seem awfully young to have achieved this level.”
“They say I’m a natural.” He raised an eyebrow, probably expecting more of an answer but she didn’t know how to explain what she did. “I feel the forest.”
He observed her for a while making her anxious: but eventually he thankfully changed subject. “Maxim said your father trained you.” Maxim? The Captain. “If your father’s a hunter why did he go to the mines? They’re a dangerous place for a man, particularly a father.” Maybe not thankfully then. She shrugged.
“It’s also the only job that pays enough to buy a new stove before winter and pay the large family penalties, sir.”
“Ah yes… why five children? One would think it’s a risk.”
“What do I know sir? Contraception doesn’t come cheap in the districts though I heard it is here in Capital. My parents wouldn’t kill or abandon the child. They just didn’t expect twins.”
“And yet they paid for a year of formal literacy lesson for you. Why?”
“I don’t know my Lord.” He gazed at her so intently she blushed; but that didn’t change the fact she had no idea. “I truly don’t. I didn’t realise it was so expansive. When I did I stopped. Reading and writing wasn’t worth not having proper food.”
“When was that?” She didn’t understand. “When did you stop?”
She thought about it for a moment. Time didn’t measure the same way for them in the districts.
“Six years ago.”
“So you haven’t practiced in six years and you still manage?”
“Oh I did get practice, sort of. I have a friend works in the library. In my free time I went to read and I copied some of the stories to remember how to write.”
“So what’s your favourite book?” She looked at him surprised. He still looked intense as if he were concentrating very hard on what she was saying, as if he didn’t want to forget anything. Did he really want to know? ”I do want an answer Kiaya.”
“Yes sir. It’s easy. The historical Atlas of the old world.”
“It showed me the world: all the places one could visit. You know there were planes. They’re flying machines them that could cross the ocean to the place called the United States. And there used to be one big organisation here with all the countries together: even the Prussians and the Easterners. And people could cross the borders without having to register. It wasn’t perfect I’m sure but people could visit places. It must have been amazing to see new things whenever one wanted to.”
“So you’d like to visit places.”
“Oh no my Lord. No. I’m a hunter. Maybe one day I’ll change districts because hunting in Clermont is difficult but it’s just dreams. They’re things that won’t happen ever but it gives a little magic in the life. Makes the hard days easier.”
“I see. As I said yesterday, when you’re here, we’ll see you get education. But do you want to continue learning to read?”
“It’s ‘may I?’” She must have made a face because he smiled. “You’re asking for permission, not if you’re capable of doing it. And again, if you want to you may.”
“But I … can’t pay.”
“After your duties are fulfilled.” Money didn’t seem relevant.
“Thank you yes. Please sir.”
“Fine. And about your responsibilities…”
He did give her directions about what he wanted her to teach the children. But she would be able to learn how to write and read better.
After that day, she started to know the Minister’s children; she couldn’t begin training them without speaking with them. The Captain or the Minister himself when he wasn’t busy sat in the sessions. She must never ask inappropriate questions so she let the children lead the conversations. Meryl was a studious girl a year younger than her; she knew a lot about the outer regions, most of it read in books. She was curious and asked questions about the way the workers lived. She felt the books were lacking in information about that. Meryl would learn well; she was eager to know and learn more. Amelia was a capricious child, a little like Kira. But where Kira couldn’t be indulged because there wasn’t enough money for a new doll every month or even every year, her parents and siblings had spoilt Amelia. The girl would require a different approach; how she could use the skills to get what she wanted. Gregory was something else; he would learn to see if that allowed him to get her interested in him. He’d remain focused until she bedded him. That made another incentive for her not to, if she had cared to disobey his father’s orders.
She’d been in the Capital for a month when it happened. The sirens started wailing in the property. These happened sometimes in Clermont but it wasn’t like there was anywhere to go but the cellar of the small house. Here in the Minister’s household though, Maxim and his men gathered them all and directed them to a bunker and ensured they were all inside. Her heart was beating really fast so loud she felt it in her hands. They remained there a while waiting for the alarm to abate.
“Have you experienced attacks before?” Amelia asked.
“The lightning? Yes Miss.”
“What are your protections like in the outer regions?” Meryl asked.
“Not great Miss. We lose a few people every time. We can only hide underneath the houses, sometimes in the granaries. Only the mayor has a bunker.”
“Don’t they come?” Meryl asked.
“I’m sorry.” She didn’t understand. The lightning strikes scared everyone inside; only fools remained outside. They never really saw anything.
“Meryl… The Protectors can’t save everyone. They defend the important people.” Amelia answered. Kiaya bit her lips causing Gregory to laugh.
“You think the people in the outer regions are important too Kiaya, don’t you?”
“You think the guardians should fly out and help the outer regions too.”
“That’s enough Gregory.” Lady Laila interrupted. “It’s obvious she has no idea what you are referring to. Kiaya,” the lady continued gently, “the attacks are not coming from nowhere. It’s bombs not lightning.”
“Is it not?”
“Don’t you know anything?” Amelia asked.
“I’m sorry.” What else could she say? She didn’t know what they talked about.
“Amelia not everybody has schooling.” Meryl said. “What does war mean to the people in the outer regions? They have to survive. It’s already a world at war.”
“It’s rather a world of thieves.”
“Gregory, that’s enough.” His mother said.
“Well she stole my weapon on her first day here. What’s to stop her from taking it now, kill us all and escape?”
“I wouldn’t.” Why would she do that?
“You could.” He said.
“I wouldn’t. And no. I couldn’t… Sir.” She remembered the title. “One, the guards are here and I expect Captain Maxim would stop me before I could take your weapon.” The soldier nodded acknowledging her assessment. “Two, your father paid for my bond. And he paid fair; why would I risk that? It’s a noble way to pay my debt that I’ve been offered. I didn’t expect to be this lucky.” She bowed slightly to Lady Laila. “And three you may not know it but we hunters live by a Code and breaching it is a serious offence.” Meryl gasped. “Your father trusted me with your training. As such your lives are sacred; hurting you would make my life forfeit. We may be thieves my Lord Gregory but we live by a code of honour and loyalty.”
“Who would kill you?” He asked surprised.
“Hunters here in the city.” Captain Maxim answered for her. She turned to him. How did he know that? Oh of course.
“You registered the countersigned papers with the Guild. You know our rules.”
“The royal Minister does. He knows most of what there is to know for the kingdom to remain stable.”
“The hunters have a guild?” Amelia asked. “Why? They’re workers.”
“Of course they do.” Meryl said softly. “Hunters can’t hunt without being registered. It’s illegal. And many workers have their guilds; that helps protect their trade and keep them less poor.”
“We can go.” Captain Maxim interrupted. He looked at her and she knew to stay put. When they were all out he came back. “Well… it seems you may have caught our master’s son’s interest.”
“I thought I wasn’t supposed to, sir.”
“I’m actually impressed. You remained courteous despite the insults traded.”
“Oh… I don’t think they know they are insults sir. They haven’t been raised…”
“Kiaya, they know. Don’t think for a moment they don’t. Don’t try and become their friends. They won’t be. Ultimately you don’t belong in the same world.”
“I know. I just…”
“You’re kind. Surprisingly so considering the world you grew up in. Have you thought of my offer?”
“Will he allow it?” They both knew who he was.
“Then yes please. Sir.”
“Tomorrow 6:00. It won’t interfere with your duties to his and Lady Laila’s kids.”
“No sir. It won’t. Sir?” she continued when he turned to leave again.
“What’s doing the lightning?”
“Planes Kiaya.” And he left.
So they still existed. And they were hurting people. But planes were for transporting people. What did that mean? People could still visit places? She felt a smile spread on her lips; she wasn’t sure why. The world was a bigger place than she knew.
“No, it’s too tight. Relax. Step back. Relax your hold. Back up. Down. Protect your left. No. Higher.” The orders came fast a stream she could barely follow. She was too slow. “Stop!” She did letting go of the blade and keeping her arms stretched slightly lower than her shoulder. “At ease.”
She brought her hands to her sides as he knelt to grab the weapon from the ground. The skies were turning a soft shade of pink, as the sun was about to rise. They had been at this for almost a turn of the hourglass and she had been training for a couple of months now but she couldn’t seem to get the hang of it. The guns had been easier.
“Kiaya, this is not a dagger that someone will try to steal from you. You’re holding on too tight. It’s supposed to be an extension of your arm not a stump.”
“I’m sorry Sir.”
“Being sorry is not the point. You’re not focusing.” He seemed to think about it. “I’ll show you another way.”
He stood behind her and though he was much taller than she, his body espoused the shape of hers in a way that surprised her. She exhaled suddenly a lot warmer than the chilly temperature of the late winter night warranted. His arms reached around hers and he placed the hilt in her hand, which he covered with his own. As if they were one body he guided her in the movements he wanted her to achieve. His knees made hers bend with his and his fingers almost controlled hers. The softness of his touch belied his strength. And though she knew there was something unnatural to having to people holding the same sword she felt as if she understood some of what he meant. The way he guided her hand and how the blade rested loosely in it more flexible, more ready for action in a way. “Do you feel it?” He breathed in her ear. She found herself incapable of talking and nodded instead. He let her go and the blade suddenly felt heavier as she blew out the air she hadn’t realised she held in. What was that? She was a little breathless as Angie sometimes was after she kissed her.
“Let’s try this again.” She tightened her hold on the hilt slightly as he stood in front of her. That time he started slower and she followed; it felt a little easier. She was still awkward but she had finally comprehended what he wanted her to do. As soon as he sped up though she couldn’t follow and when his blade caught hers and disarmed her in one switch she tried to grab the hilt but missed it catching the sharp part instead. It burned as the sword cut a thin line into her fingers. She closed her hand over the other where the iron star remained. Her hands seemed to pulse with the throbbing of blood in her fingers.
“Why did you do that?” The Captain asked gruffly. He took her hand observing it.
“That was stupid. I thought…”
“You thought you could keep your blade. What did I tell you?”
“To let it go when it was hooked.”
“Why did you not?”
“I got scared. You were taking it… I know I know it’s not a knife someone’s trying to steal. It’s hard to forget sir. I’m a hunter.”
“I know. I get it. Let’s take care of your hand.”
“That move was stupid. Let’s not add another that would cause you to lose your fingers. How would you shoot?”
He looked at her and though nothing in his gaze should provoke it she felt butterflies dance in her stomach. For some curious reason when she looked at his moving lips she saw them as inviting rather than forbidding. She leaned forward almost unwillingly but he let go of her to go to his quarters leaving her gasping for air. What was that? He returned bringing back some sort of cream that he spread over her fingers. It stung somewhat but then seemed to soothe the throbbing. Then he enveloped her fingers into a bandage covering her hand with his once more. For some reason it made her entire body flush.
“We’ll leave it for a couple of days.”
“But… yes sir.”
A few days later she found she was demanding the same focus from Gregory that the captain had of her.
“Look ahead. Tension. No! Pay attention.” She stood behind him and pushed her hand into his back. “It’s been six month sir. You’re sloppy.”
“You can’t talk to me like that Kiaya.”
“Master Gregory. If you were being half as distracted in Captain Maxim’s training he’d have you flogged for good measure.”
“No he wouldn’t. He can’t.”
“You know exactly what I mean. If you expect to earn the respect of the people in the outer regions you need to…”
“Who cares about their respect? They’ll have to do as I say.”
“If you can’t see us as more than cattle sir, you will never understand the outer regions and what you can do for them.”
“It’s not about what I can do for them. It’s about what they can do for me.” She shook her head. It seemed she wouldn’t get through to him. She’d succeeded with Meryl, managed with Amelia but the Minister’s son was quite stubborn about what he was entitled to. “Same between you and me Kiaya. Ultimately you know I will only do what you ask if you do what I want.”
“You’re wrong. Ultimately you will do what I ask because you want to show your father that you’re capable of being as great a man as he is.”
She stepped back as the bow hit her face. She felt the blood run down her cheek but she didn’t bring her hand to it. She had overstepped her boundaries and he would make her pay.
“Don’t talk to me about my father.”
“I don’t need you to teach me how to do this.”
“I can still take you and you’ll be punished. Who do you think he will believe?”
“I think your father knows what sort of a man you are sir.” She suddenly understood something. It had nothing to do with her. “It’s his respect you want.”
“Shut up!” He pulled his gun and directed it right at her. “I’ll kill you.”
“I’ll stop talking.” She pressed her lips together.
“I could kill you now. Who would care?”
“Don’t. Please.” He came closer.
“See! You’re not as proud now little slave.” He pushed her on her knees.
“Killing me won’t give you anything.”
“Well at least he’ll stop looking at you as if you were his proudest achievement.”
“Ever since you came he’s changed. You’re just a slave.”
“I am. But I’m here…”
“You’ll do what I say or you die.” He held the gun at her throat even as he fumbled with his belt. Oh no. That wasn’t going to happen. She turned suddenly grabbing the gun and elbowed him in the groin. He fell with a yell as she held onto the weapon and stood over him shaking with anger.
“Don’t threaten me young man. You’re a spoiled child. And you’re not nearly as skilled as you think you are. You wouldn’t last a day in the outer regions.”
There was a commotion behind her and guards rushed in the captain leading them. She let go of the gun and knelt hands behind her head. The look of pure loathing in Gregory’s eyes when he stood promised pain.
“Why were you alone?” the Captain’s voice was cold. She hadn’t noticed; she’d been focused on her lesson. She didn’t know. Well it seemed Gregory wasn’t the only one who wouldn’t survive one day outside the Capital. How could she have missed that? She should have noticed the moment the guard left and didn’t return.
Less than ten minutes later she was kneeling in the Minister’s study, the Captain standing behind her a knee on her back that she wouldn’t move. Gregory was pacing back and forth in the office.
“I want her punished Father. She threatened me. She had a gun pointed at me.”
“She had your gun pointed at you Gregory. Why did you have your gun out?”
“She took it, with her move.”
“Is that true?”
“Yes my Lord.” She felt the Captain’s knee shudder against her back. Gregory’s face fell slightly. It was true: she had taken the gun with a move. Not that she’d only one.
“Why did you take it?”
“To make a point my Lord.”
“What point?” She looked at the Minister’s son. His eyes held fear. So the threat was also upon him. He knew he mustn’t touch her. “Kiaya you’d better answer.”
“That your son isn’t ready for the outer regions my Lord.”
“Wasn’t there another way to show such a thing?”
“I guess my Lord. But since the guard was gone it was the fastest way.” She felt the tension again in the Captain’s leg.
“That’s your story?”
“That’s what happened my Lord.”
“So be it. You brought this upon yourself Kiaya.”
“I know my Lord.” How many days would that cost her?
“Gregory; she will be punished.” His face lit up. “By you.” And darkened again.
“Yes. It’s time you learn. Being the master comes at a price too. You will be the one whipping her. Ten should do it.”
“You want her punished. She has admitted to threatening you for no reason that satisfies me. You will carry the punishment. When you are in the districts you will have to judge and sentence. You need to be aware of what it entails. So you will learn.”
“Let’s be done with this. Maxim.”
“My Lord.” He seized her arms and pulled her up abruptly. She hadn’t entirely realised the man’s strength until now. He almost carried her with his own arm ensuring that she felt the discomfort of having her hands tied behind her back and held too high to move. Within moments they were in the courtyard where she had trained with the guards for the past few months and he had untied her hands before shackling her to a pole. Without gentleness her shirt was torn in the back revealing it to whoever had decided to stand in the courtyard at that time.
“Here Mister Gregory.”
She heard the captain’s gruff voice as he handed the whip to Gregory. Not knowing when it would hit her was excruciating, the wait even more frightening than the knowledge she was about to be hurt like never before. The first lash took her by surprise causing the tension she hadn’t realised pulled her back releasing as she fell against the pole. It didn’t hurt as much as she expected though.
“Harder Gregory. She’s not feeling it.”
Oh she was feeling it… The second lashing came harder making her gasp; on the third she felt her skin being pealed off her back and she bit her cheeks. On the fourth she felt the tears run down her cheeks. Afterwards she could only try to breathe in order not to be overwhelmed by the pain. She might even have screamed; by the time it was over a sort of daze had settled over her and she almost didn’t sense the hands that unshackled her before she fell on the ground. Someone stood over her.
“Have you learned your lesson?”
“Yes my Lord.” She murmured her teeth chattering in pain.
“Gregory, are you satisfied?”
“Yes Father.” He sounded subdued almost in awe of what he’d done. “I…”
“Good. Hopefully this will be the last I hear of this.”
She looked up meeting Gregory’s eyes for a moment; something passed in his gaze that she couldn’t guess. But something had changed. The Minister was already inside the house as if nothing had happened. Why had she done that?
That was the question the Captain asked her once everybody had gone back to their tasks and he brought into his own quarters by the courtyard. The Master wouldn’t let a healer look at her back so it fell to the captain to ensure that the open wounds didn’t fester. She was on her stomach in a bed in the small infirmary that was at the entrance of his apartments while he was dabbing some ointment on her back. It burned a lot but not as much as her wounded pride: she had screamed. The pain had been overwhelming though. And she thought the Minister didn’t favour the whip. Apparently sometimes he did, which meant he knew she’d not told the whole truth.
“Why did you do it?” The captain hissed.
“Don’t play smart with me. I know you lied. You didn’t know the guard was gone. I saw it on your face when I arrived. So what happened?”
“Is it so important?”
“You didn’t need to go through this.”
“Why Captain? Do you care?”
“I don’t like people being punished for something they didn’t do. And the Minister isn’t stupid. He knows you lied. That’s why he used the whip.”
“Then maybe it wasn’t about me.” She flinched as he pulled at one of the threads of skin that her back now was.
“It’s your skin I’m trying to salvage. It is about you. Did you really do that just to show Gregory that despite his actions you could be loyal?”
“You’re giving me too much credit. I’m not that good a person.” She gasped.
“Explain yourself.” For some weird reason she answered. She didn’t really owe him a response. Or maybe she did; he’d taken care of her in a way.
“I hoped to make him feel bad. And I didn’t lie. I did take the gun; I did it to make a point. I did want to show him he wasn’t ready. He thinks of us as nothings who can be easily subdued. We’re not cattle willingly going to slaughter. It wasn’t a lie. Not really. And now he owes me a debt even if he hasn’t realised it yet.”
He chuckled and she winced again panting slightly.
“Sorry. Not that good. But you’re most certainly an interesting person Kiaya.”
“Look, if he learned something about loyalty today, it’s good. But to say it was my first intention would be a lie. I must say that there was such fear in his eyes when the Master confronted him that I wondered what his punishment would be for forcing himself upon me and I didn’t want to know.”
“So that is what happened.” As if he hadn’t guessed already. She turned her head to meet his eyes. He shrugged. “He’d be in a lot of trouble. Sent to the front in the East.”
“I told you before. The master doesn’t accept disobedience… not even from his children.”
“But it’s his son’s life.”
“In this case – as in every other – he has his reasons.”
“You seem to know a lot about our Master’s secrets.”
“Only what he thinks he needs to tell me. Be still.”
She rested her chin on her arms leaning back on her stomach as he put some sort of bandage over her back taping it to the sides, his movements perfunctory and precise. He knew what he was doing. Yet his touch was kinder than she could expect.
“How long have you served here?” She asked after he finished and she sat up.
“I was born here. My father worked for the Minister before me. When I registered as a soldier he offered me a job. I staid. I wouldn’t go anywhere else.”
“I don’t understand how his son didn’t pick up lessons about loyalty from you, sir.”
He laughed; it was a nice sound. Too bad he wasn’t laughing more often.
“I told you before. The Minister is a rare man; his children don’t look at us as anything but servants. He’s tried and failed to teach them we are human beings in the same way they are. That’s why he wants them to spend the time in the outer regions; not that they could rule them but that they learn from them.”
“Did he spend time there?”
“When he was a child four years; his father was governor in the Normandy region. And he spent one year in the Strasbourg district some twenty odd years ago.”
“At the border?”
“Yes. He saw first hand what the war was doing to the regions. I was young, maybe 9 years old, when he came back but he was changed. More resolute my father said. Some months after that they wanted to dismantle the guilds. That would force the price of many services down; he fought most of the Council on this. The king took his advice and visited the regions. Kept the guilds in place. Soldiers who go to the front are given a higher pay and are supported when they come back. In past centuries many army veterans had trouble re-entering society; he’s made it easier for us.”
“You fought in the war?”
“I did my two years; mandatory if you want to be registered. It was ugly. Though right now I wonder if it ever was as ugly as your back.” She laughed and winced again. “You’ll have scars unless the healer does something.”
“I don’t know if he cares.”
“Oh he does.” He paused.
“I know… I’m worth more money if I’m in good shape.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Right she thought looking at him. He held her chin in much the same way the Minister had on that first day. And like that day she felt as if his eyes – they were green – pierced her. And she shuddered with something that was neither pain, nor cold.