Gentle Chains (The Eleyi Saga Book 1) (7 page)

“I want to test her,” Kristoff says and the Pente squints at me.

“She’s tall, but a bit on the scrawny side,” he says doubtfully.

“She’ll fill out,” Kristoff says. “Brielle, spread your wings.”

I hiss, and his eyes harden. It’s the only warning I’ll get. I open them
carefully—the little shop is so cramped I’m afraid I will catch them on a
counter or sharp edge.

The weapons dealer whistles once, startled. I tuck my wings close as the
two men watch each other, Kristoff waiting while the other thinks.

“Follow me.”

Kristoff relaxes a little and we follow the Pente through the dim shop.
He pauses and taps a command on a small screen mounted on the wall, then he
pushes through a door and into a large, open room. It’s so bright compared to
the store, my eyes water. “Have you tested her yet?” he asks Kristoff as he
rummages through a pile of wooden weapons.

“Haven’t had a chance.”
           

The arms dealer grunts and continues searching. Kristoff leans over and
murmurs in my ear, “Deevid is an old, retired glad. Used to mentor Argot before
old age took him out of the arena and politics put Henri in the owner’s seat.
He still has the best instinct in the business.”

Deevid finally turns and hands me a hurkya, a long wooden weapon with a
wicked hook on the end. He also gives me a coiled whip.

Then he steps away and the room goes dark, so black I can’t see
anything, not even my hands clenched on the hook before light flares. A beast—scaly-backed,
running at me on four legs, its mouth open in a roar—charges forward and I
stumble back, falling out of the way.
A hukron.
Native of Section 83,
it’s massive, merciless and hard as fuck to kill. And its teeth and spikes are
coated with a paralyzing venom.

It whips around, impossibly agile, and charges me again.

I snap the whip, the sharp crack singing through the air. The hukron
falters and I stab out with my hooked staff, aiming for the eye as it rushes
me. At the last possible second, I hurl the weapon and roll to the side, and
the hukron vanishes.

A gladiator stalks toward me with a heavy sword. He is wearing a helm
but no armor, and I scramble to my hooked staff, spinning and sweeping it in a
wide arc as the glad closes in. He dodges easily and swings his blade down,
grazing me as I dance backward. Pain sears up my arm and I grit my teeth, struggling
to hold the staff as he comes at me again.

The whip coils against my feet and I scoop it up, throw it in his face.
It slows him for just long enough for me to slam the blunt end of my staff into
his stomach and he doubles over. The glad vanishes suddenly and I go still.
There is a screech, metal and stone grating against each other and a shape made
of shadow and smoke and flame looms above me, wild and gorgeous.

Draken.
What
humans once called dragons—that is the closest description anyone could find of
the dangerous creatures made of mist and fire.

Without realizing it, my weapon has dropped, the hook digging into the
dust of the arena floor. The draken regards me solemnly, a heavy presence
brushing my mind. I shudder under the psychic assault, almost falling.

Then it belches fire. My wings and hair ignite and I scream.

I fall into a crouch as heat burrows into me, and then it’s gone, faster
than it came, and I’m left hunched, blinking in the suddenly bright, empty
room. Deevid and Kristoff stand to one side, watching me like I’m a fascinating
insect. I lick my lips and demand, “What the hell was that?”

Kristoff frowns, and but doesn’t say anything about my impertinence.
Deevid answers instead, “That’s a holostim, Brielle. A simulated test to see
how you’d fare in the arena.”

I straighten slowly, back aching. “And how did I do?”

Kristoff shrugs, “Better than I’d expect. Until you saw the draken and
froze. Not the brightest move if you’d like to survive long. Aside from that,
you have a natural talent—it’s raw but there.”

I look away, embarrassed. How do I explain that seeing a draken was like
seeing a god, a creature of ancient legend, alive and breathing? Breathing
fire, no less.

“I was startled,” I tell him.

“She’ll make a good glad,” Deevid says, “And a pretty picture on the
sands, with those wings. She’s savage enough to last a while”.”

“But?” Kristoff prompts, and the old Pente squints at me.

“But she’d make a better trainer. Even in the holostim, the draken
hesitated at the sight of her,” he says at last.

Kristoff makes a frustrated noise, and shakes his head. “Ja Argot won’t
agree to that after he sees her fight. He won’t hide her in the cages when he
will make money in the arena.”

“Do you want to live?” Deevid asks without preamble and I blink. His
mind is rough, but not completely uncaring, and there is genuine interest, as
if I’m a challenge that he’d like to puzzle with.

“Of course,” I say, working my way through his emotions.

“Then become something the Ja has never shown the audiences,” he says,
and I frown, glancing at Kristoff. His eyes are distant. Deevid’s advice has
given him reason to think.

The old man turns and re-enters the tiny shop. “A whip and tips for
those wings. She won’t fly, but they can be weapons if she uses them properly.
And that hurkya—it’ll give her a longer reach, which she’ll need in the arena.”

“Armor?” Kristoff asks quietly.

Deevid pauses, looks back at me. “When she’s done training, contact me.
I’ll send what she needs. Including her wings.”

As Kristoff holds out his wrist for the arms dealer to scan, my mentor
grins, startling and young. “How many of the others have been by?”

Deevid snorts, scans Kristoff’s wrist, pulling creds from the embedded
chip. “Three today. But I’ve only seen one other new slave. A bat-winged
fellow. Watch him; he’ll be fodder on the sands.”

With that rather dismal assessment, he hands over my newly purchased
weapons and I follow Kristoff back to the boarding house.

 

I’m sore. So unbelievably sore. A bruise has blossomed on my shoulder
where I landed when the hukron charged me and it hurts to breathe. When I woke
up this morning, I didn’t think I could hurt any more. Now, two hours before
dinner, I know I was wrong.

 
Kristoff stares at me with
indifference and I lift the wooden hook again. “I thought training didn’t begin
until we reached the jakta,” I say and Kristoff grins.

“I’d be bored just sitting in the room, and this edge might save your
life.” He rushes me suddenly and my staff swings up, too late. His wooden
swords slaps across my neck, and I hack, trying to breathe. Kristoff sighs.
“Dead. Again.”

My prowess the day before in the holostim has vanished. I’m fumbling and
slow and have yet to actually hit him with my weapon. It makes me angry, and I
shove his practice sword away. Lash out with my hook. He pins it with one foot
and pushes the other on my throat, just enough pressure that I’m paying
attention.

“You aren’t trying,” he says, and anger shivers through his voice. “You
do realize what Argot means when he says that the training determines your
place, don’t you?”

I shake my head, trying to keep from throwing up. “What?”

“The worst trainees are fodder. Slaves who are put in the arena to die,”
he says flatly and my eyes widen. “And quite often, their mentors are sent with
them. I don’t much care what happens to you, but I’m not dying in the arena
because you are sore.”

“Does it occur to you that maybe I need to build up my strength before
you beat me to death with a wooden stick?” I snap and he swings out, delivering
a ringing blow to the side of my head. My head spins, and I dry heave as the
pain wins, doubling me over. Through it all, his psyche never flickers.

“Watch yourself, Eleyi. You’re a slave, and this attitude won’t be
accepted by the Ja, Prator, or Primus at the jakta. I’m barely tolerating it,
and I have an unusual threshold for bullshit.”

I shake my head, trying to shake the ringing in my ears, but I have to
sink to my knees. Tears gather in my eyes and I blink them back, furious.
I
want to go home.

I struggle to my feet, reaching for the wall to steady myself. He
watches me, his gaze assessing as I lift my sword. Kristoff sighs. “Let’s go
for a run. Tomorrow we leave for Pente and there isn’t much to do on the ship.
The least we can do is start your conditioning now.”

 

Later, I lie awake long after Kristoff slips into sleep. My body is
screaming in pain, every muscle stiff and tight, and the floor makes it
impossible to get comfortable. My head throbs from his blow this afternoon. But
what bothers me most is not the ache of my body or head—it’s the utter solitude
in which I find myself. All the Eleyi around me are locked off, minds hidden behind
mental walls I don’t have the energy to breach.

I wonder if it will always be like this: long days that leave me aching,
and longer nights filled with nothing. Tears sting my eyes and I shake my
head—no. I can’t live like that. I’ll die first.

 
 
 
 

Chapter 10

Juhan’tr

 
 

SPACE IS LIKE A cold blanket, wrapping me in a cocoon of ice and
emptiness. It’s different here than it was on the slave ship—there are no
psyches pushing at me. It is the curious quiet in my mind that makes me acutely
aware of how alone we are. The only thing I hear is Sadi and Tin talking,
quiet, hushed, excited.

She bought it—my quiet acceptance of her insane plan. She didn’t even
think to question my motives. I’m almost embarrassed for her—that kind of blind
trust is dangerously naïve.
 

It took very little effort on my part to convince Sadi to help me look
for Chosi. She offered to have Tinex hack the slaver queen’s records, find out
who bought my sister. It will take time, time that we will use to seduce the
cybertulres—tabloid news feeds that people adore—and through them the people of
the Interplanetary Alliance. It’s all broad strokes of a plan that is risky and
ludicrous.

Frankly, I don’t care. It’s merely something to distract me while I wait
for information.

 
“Juhan?” Tinex says, a slight intrusion
that shakes me from my thoughts and brings me back to the ship. He’s extends a
small stack of clothing. “We’re approaching Ariede.”

I take the clothes, glance at them questioningly. They’re nice—but then,
if we’re going to Ariede, the seat of the IPS, that is to be expected.

“You need a shower. And fresh clothes—you reek of the slave houses.” He
says the words without inflection, but they sting. I can’t meet his eyes as I
take the clothes and he directs me to a shower stall.

There is a tiny computer screen that blinks to life. A green orb appears
as I step into the stall. “Enter command,” Leen voices calmly.

“Um,” I stammer, staring blankly at the screen. Eleyiar rejected tech,
and talking computer systems unnerve me.

“Not a viable command.”

I wonder for a heartbeat what a viable command
is
before I say,
hesitantly, “List options?”

The computer rattles out a list of shower choices, and I latch onto the
first one. Warm water gushes down from the invisible faucet, streaming through
my hair. My wings beat once, twice, water rushing over them, sluicing the dirt
and grime away. The bite of soap stings my eyes and I begin to scrub. Glitter
mingles with dirt and dust and water, swirling around my feet, vanishing into
the drain, carrying away the evidence of my time in the slave ships.

I didn’t realize how desperately I wanted to be clean until I am.

“Do you wish to end shower?” the computer asks as the water pressure
decreases, and reluctantly I give an affirmative. The water puddles around me
as I stand in front of a heat shield, and the hot air stirs around me, briskly
drying my too-long hair, my wings. My hair stands in uneven tufts, and I smile,
remembering how often Chosi complained about the heat shield we used to dry
back home—she hated the way it was impossible to control her curly hair, the
spark of static electricity it left. More often than not, she’d ignore the
shield, and let her wings and hair dry naturally.

I shake the memory as the heat shield turns off, reaching for the
clothes Tinex has provided.

The pants are black, a supple synthetic material. I tug them on,
startled by how well the fit. I wonder where they found an Eleyi style vest. It
slips over my shoulders, lacing midway up my back, covering me without
hindering my wings in the least.

I pull on a pair of ankle-high boots, ignoring the knife sheath.

An intercom chimes, and Sadi’s voice fills the room. “Can I see you for
a moment, Juhan’tr? I’m in the cockpit.”

I swallow hard as my stomach lurches at the pull of gravity, and step into
the cockpit.

And bite my tongue when I see her.

Sadi is dressed in a loose, thin shirt, synth leather pants so tight
they make mine look loose. A pair of boots with a gold seal—her family crest—comes
up to her knees. Her hair is swept into a high knot, spilling down her back in
a dark wave. What startles me is not the clothes, but the color.

Even on Eleyi, where we live in self-imposed exile, we know the
significance of purple. And this, this is not just the violet hues of a wealthy
family, or a bright shade of minor nobility. Sadi wears a deep, rich plum, so
dark it is almost black, with a shimmer of iridescence. It’s the color of
power, royalty, the highest social orders. And she wears it like a second skin,
as natural and regal in it as she was in Tin’s old practice leathers.

It occurs to me that I am playing a dangerous game, attempting to
manipulate a princess.

She eyes me, and approval sparks across her, a deliberate lowering of
her mental walls. I shove aside my flutter of nerves, forcing an empty smile,
and her eyes harden. “That won’t fool anyone. You need to make this believable,
or we can just go to Eleyiar now. If you can’t be the ardent lover, then be
cool and shy. I don’t particularly care, but make the cybertulres believe it.”

I frown at her. “They won’t know yet, will they?”

She breathes a brittle laugh, and it strikes me how different she is
already. The carefree, laughing, cursing girl I had begun to adapt to is
missing, replaced by someone cold and regal and beautiful.

“I’m returning home. Even if they thought it was from my academy, the
cameras would be waiting. As it is, I’ve been missing for over two weeks. The
sharks were circling before we hit the atmosphere.”

There, hidden under the arrogance, is bitterness, a slight note in her psyche
that sours my stomach. She turns back to the computer panel, long fingers
skimming and tapping commands. “Find a seat,” she says over her shoulder. “Tin,
have you purged the system?”

The bodyguard murmurs, making it clear he hasn’t. She twitches, impatient,
and addresses the Leen. “How many of my father’s people are waiting?”

“There are two of Senator Harvine’s staff waiting for the Leen.”

Her voice is tight when she asks, “And cybertulres?”

“Two dozen.”

She nods and straightens. “Upon docking, initiate shut down. No one is
allowed access to the Leen. Dump all records.”

“Ill advised.”

She snarls a curse, and Tin looks up from the computer. “The records are
clean.”

Some of the steel slips from her spine and she nods, relief washing over
her. She glances over her shoulder at me, and smiles, a tiny, sharp smile.
“Ready?”

I swallow hard and nod. The Leen bumps ominously before coming to a
rest. I hear muffled voices, the shriek of spacecraft whistling overhead. I can
feel hundreds of thousands of souls, all of them buffeting me like a tiny piece
of driftwood on a wave, tossed in a sudden maelstrom of emotion.

I gasp, and Sadi is at my side, so quickly I am not sure when she moved.
I want to shake her off but there is a game to play and I am desperate. The
cool quiet of her mind is a bliss that I hide in. She shivers as my psyche
brushes hers, deeper than I have before. I breathe, focusing on the emptiness,
forcing the other minds away, forcing my gifts away until they fade into a
constant white noise that I can ignore.

“You okay?” she murmurs, her breath brushing against my skin. There’s an
intense intimacy about this—about my mind wrapping around hers. It would take
nothing at all to alter everything about her—I shove the thought down.

There are lines I won’t cross. Instead I squeeze her hand and ignore the
jolt of her psyche as I flash her a weak smile.

“I’m fine.”

“We can wait, if you need,” she offers. I straighten, wincing as pain
lances through my head. I grit my teeth and shake my head, pulling away from
her mentally.

Looping her arm through mine, she plasters herself to my side, startling
me, and gives Tin a miniscule nod. I don’t have time to protest before the ramp
slides open.

We step off the Leen into a balmy summer. I have a heartbeat to take it
in—the wide open space dock, the soaring arches of the city, the pale violet
sky, the exotic birds and colors, the distant palaces and the monstrosity that
can only be the Capitol building, where the vast Senate sits and decides the
fates of people across the galaxy.

And then a vid screen is in front of me, and questions are being
shouted, an incoherent babble. Sadi is being swarmed by the screens, tiny and
pecking. Somehow, they pull me away from her, and I shove my mind out, pushing
aside the psyches around me as I reclaim her arm, pulling her into my embrace.
She lets a smile turn her lips and goes on tiptoes to kiss my cheek.

The silence is stunning. Sadi settles back on her feet. “I would like to
introduce my consort, Juhan’tr of Eleyiar. I’m sure you have questions, and we
will give one interview. Please speak to Tinex about that.”

I try to ignore my anger and the unmoving screens as she laces our
fingers and tugs me to where the Senator’s people are waiting.

“Hello, Larkin,” she says coolly, kissing the older man on the cheek.

“Sadi. Your father expected you home some days ago.”

She pauses, her head tilted. “I was...detained.”

The small bald man has a neat air about him, and I let my mind brush
his. A man of order and rules, who lives by lists and knowledge—and one
completely thrown by my appearance.

I have no place in the Senator’s neatly ordered life, and Larkin doesn’t
like intrusions.

“Is there a problem, Larkin?” Sadi asks, her voice silky.

He visibly flinches, shakes his head. “Then let’s go home,” she
suggests, a smile curving her lips. Interesting—his reaction has me curious.

Tinex is behind us, a large shadow. And behind him, the vid screens, the
cybertulres. “They won’t be happy with just one interview, Sadi,” he rumbles as
we enter a small planet-bound hoover craft.

“They’ll have to be,” she says simply, leaning against me.

“Ms. Renult, the Senator is not pleased with you,” the other man says,
the first time he has spoken. Sadi stills in my arms, and I feel a slight
shudder go through her as I glance over at him. He’s unremarkable, of average
height and looks, thin but muscular—someone easily overlooked. Dark eyes, pale
skin and hair pulled back in a knot at the back of his neck, he has the relaxed
air of a man in complete control—but his mind is a blank slate.

“When is he ever happy with me, Brando?” she asks lightly.

Brando stares at her, his expression blank. “He won’t like you talking
to the press.”

She shrugs, and the tiny craft lapses into silence, broken only by
occasional electronic noises from the auto-pilot. Brando closes his eyes, so
emotionless I am somewhat surprised to see him breathing. I wonder if this is
where Sadi learned to lock her emotions away—although, she seems almost afraid
of him, so maybe not.

“Where is Papa today?” she asks suddenly.

“A meeting with the ambassadors from the Lyern system,” Larkin answers
promptly, as if the schedule of such a busy man is something he has memorized.
Sadi doesn’t shift, but I feel her mind, waiting just outside my mental walls.

Whatever else she does, Sadiene Renult respects the etiquette of mental
speech.

-Father is going to be furious.-

I lean my head against hers, closing my eyes as I feel Brando staring. -
You
expected that. Even wanted it,-
I answer, challenging.

-Of course. But he’ll try to separate us. And I
need you to stick to the story,-
Sadi says, a hint of steel filling her aura.

-Is that an order to your slave, lady?-
I
ask, and I don’t bother to hide my anger.

She flinches, and I feel the tension that fills both Tin and Brando as
she pulls away, mentally and physically.

Guiltily, I reach for her mind, but she’s walled herself off, rising to
stand as the craft slows.

“Come on, Juhan. Might as well face the music,” she says, her voice
light and cheerful. There is nothing in her voice that hints at being angry or
hurt.
 

Brando’s eyes, cold and untrusting, follow me as I rise, as she links
her arm through mine, and we step off the shuttle craft.

The Senator’s estate is spacious, a wide swatch a green grass and flowering
fruit trees bordering the landing strip. The smell of ripe fruit and something
pungent that I can’t identify hangs heavy in the air, like a blanket I can wrap
around me.

As we enter the mansion--a large white house with elegant columns and
lavish arches--a shriek fills the air and a human girl races down the marble
stairs to throw herself at Sadi. For a half-second, I expect Tin to stop her.
Brando relaxes.

A wave of pure adoration hits me, so thick I almost gag. Sadi is
laughing, rubbing the girl’s back, and there is a sparkle of mischief in her
eyes as she kisses her mop of curly black hair.

“Have you been behaving?”

The girl’s head pops up, and she grins, lighting up her tiny face and
brown eyes, “Hell, no. Daddy is ready to kill me.” The smile turns smug. “Or he
was. You’re here now, so I’m the good daughter again.”

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