Authors: Rachel Dunne
“What did they have to show you?”
“They found a storeroom full of string. Just piles and piles of balls of string.”
She laughed at that; her face always lit up when she talked of the children. “I'm sure they had a tale of why the string was so important, didn't they?”
“Something about spider eggs. I told you, they're still idiots.”
She threw a shelled nut at him with a snort. He threw it
back to her, knowing better than to eat anything that came off her worktable. “Strange, that they would want to show you of all people.”
“I was just the first poor fool they stumbled across. They would have shown anyone they could find. You said you had something for me?”
It took a moment for her to answerâshe was likely balancing whether or not to pursue the topic. “I do,” she said after a beat, smiling again. “Haro, would you?” The manservant bowed slightly and drifted into the adjoining room. Dirrakara wiped her hands against the front of her shift as she walked around the worktable and came to stand behind Joros, her hands resting lightly against his shoulders. It made him slightly edgy, the touch combined with not being able to see her. Her breath tickled against his ear, and her hair tumbled down over his chest, and a slow shiver worked its way up his spine. Joros could feel her smile against his cheek as Haro returned and she said, “Here he is. Your present.”
Haro dragged in the tallest man Joros had ever seenâstick thin and wearing soiled clothing, and there was a burlap sack over his head that muffled his cries somewhat, though not nearly enough. “Help me please help me I'll do anything please please please.” A mindless gibbering that set Joros's teeth on edge.
Haro set a foot to the back of the tall man's knee, toppling him like a tree. He certainly fell with an impressive crash. “Please help please please I didn't do anything help me.” His wrists were tied behind his back, but it was more complicated than thatâstrips of cloth were woven between his fingers, twisting and immobilizing them. That was a strange thing.
“What's happening help me oh please please let me go.” Haro knelt on the tall man's back, keeping him pressed to the floor.
Joros twisted around to face Dirrakara, eyebrows raised. “What is this?”
“This is Anddyr.” She walked to stand at Joros's side, and he saw she held a hand-sized earthenware jar. “And this is skura.” The jar's lid came away with a twist, and a sharp, pungent smell filled Joros's nose. The jar was full of a thick black paste that looked as unappetizing as it smelled. “We're going to see what happens when the two mix. Give me your hand.”
Joros hesitated; there was something distinctly eerie behind her eyes, and he had a healthy amount of mistrust for her even when she wasn't showing him tied-up men. She kept looking at him expectantly, though, and he finally held his hand out to her. For that kindness, she jabbed a knife into his palm.
“Bloody fecking hells!” he bellowed, and yanked his hand back. She managed to catch some of his blood in the jar, not that he could have done much to keep it from her. “Twins' bones, woman, you could have asked.” She ignored him, eyes intent as she mixed his blood into the black paste with the tip of her little knife. “What is this?” he demanded again.
“Watch,” she said, and went to kneel at the man's head, the jar held in one hand, the knife in the other.
Haro pulled off the burlap sack, revealing greasy black hair around a pale face and pale eyes, the latter of which were panic-wide as he continued his steady stream of pleading. Haro reached around the tall man's head, pressing thick fingers against his cheeks until the wailing stopped and his mouth popped open. Joros winced as Dirrakara put the knife into his open mouth. She drew it out, the black paste wiped off
on his tongue, and Haro let go of his face. The wailing flared again, and Dirrakara watched him intently, fluttered a hand at Haro until the servant rose from the tall man's back. Joros watched, too, not sure what he was looking for. “Please help me help please help helpâ” The tall man's pleading ended with a strangled noise, and his pupils grew rapidly wider, the black eclipsing the pale blue. He stared at nothing, jaw slack, the sudden absence of his words making the silence greater. Joros was about to fill the long silence when the tall man began to shriek. It was a raw, nightmare sound, and his lanky body convulsed along the floor, great spasms that jerked his limbs in every direction.
Joros was half out of his seat before Dirrakara reached a hand toward him, not taking her eyes from the tall man. “Wait,” she said breathlessly, and the man gave a final shudder as he fell silent and lay still on the floor.
“What in all the hells did you do to him?” Joros demanded, and the tall man's head snapped up with unsettling speed, those wide-pupiled eyes fixing on Joros.
Dirrakara grinned like a proud mother, rested one hand on the tall man's greasy curls. “I've made him yours.”
That set off a twinge in Joros's gut; it sounded just like one of the spooky things the damned boy-twin would say. “I don't understand.” He hated admitting that, hated her a little for bringing him to say it.
She deftly untied the ropes and cloth that bound the tall man's hands, letting his arms flop to his sides as he continued staring disconcertingly at Joros. Dirrakara rose and knelt beside Joros, reaching out to wrap her fingers around his wrist. He resisted, not at all convinced she wouldn't stab him again;
there was enough blood dripping into his lap that he didn't need her help adding more. “Anddyr, love,” she cooed, “the cappo is hurt. Won't you help him?”
The tall man rose, taking a long time to gather his long limbs beneath him. Once he got to hands and knees, he wavered as if a gentle breeze would topple him back over. He crawled until he knelt before Joros, who tried to shy away as the tall man reached out, but between Dirrakara, the tall man, and the damned chair, he was blocked in. Long fingers touched his bleeding hand, and the tall man fluttered the fingers of his other hand, weaving them haphazardly in the air as though he were at a loom that was trying very hard to dodge his touch. A coolness flowed from his fingers onto Joros's hand and, amazingly, the blood stopped oozing. Beneath a film of red, he watched the sides of the shallow puncture knit themselves together, and the pain faded almost entirely.
Joros had seen a mage only once before, and that man had called fire from the sky.
“What is this?” he asked once more, and this time his voice was a whisper.
Dirrakara was beaming, one hand on Joros's shoulder and one on the mage's. “This is what I've been working on for years. You must understand why I had to keep it such a secret. Uniro was firm on that. I'm calling it skura,” she said, and pressed the jar into Joros's hand. “He'll need it three times a day, at least, to keep him calm. Less, as time goes onâjust enough to keep control over him. The most . . . significant effects will be apparent over the next few weeks. After that, it's simply a matter of keeping him in the proper state.”
Joros examined the jar so she wouldn't see his face. He had to clear his throat twice, swallowing the faint taste of bile, before he could speak. “How does it work?”
Her shrug was purposely casual. “I've been developing the recipe for years. There are a few ingredients that react most curiously with Highlands blood. Docility, susceptibility to suggestion, acute attention . . . really, qualities anyone could hope for in an assistant. There are side effects, of courseâhallucinations, a period of uselessness after dosing, as you can see, but I think I've almost perfected the recipe.”
“And the blood?”
Another shrug, and she wouldn't meet his eyes, though a smile played on her lips. “Necessary. Anddyr is yours now, attuned to you.”
“Like a seekstone?”
“Something like. More a reminder that leaving you or your valuable blood would destroy him.” Joros waited, letting the silence stretch until she hurried to fill it. “The skura will change the way his mind works over time, I believe. All my testing has suggested it. If he tries to stop taking it, he'll drive himself mad. He won't leave you for fear of it, and it will teach him . . . restraint, in dealing with you.”
“He's dangerous, then?”
“Of course, love. That's the point. But that's what the skura is for. It will keep him controlled and safe as a kitten. Look at him.”
The mage still knelt before Joros, a vacant smile on his face, hands folded docilely in his lap. His eyes flickered at any slight movement Joros made, but he otherwise seemed the consummate simpleton.
“He'll be the first of many mages to join our ranks,” Dirrakara said, pride burning in her voice.
Joros stared at the jar, turning it in his hands, felt the mage's eyes following the motion. She'd been working on this for years, she said, and this the first he'd heard of it. Secrets were the lifeblood of Mount Raturo, the currency of the Ventallo, and yet, somehow, a soft smile had made him think otherwise. He was very careful in how he said, “I wasn't aware the Ventallo were looking for slaves.”
Silence stretched out. The mage's breathing was loud, even. Haro stood against the far wall, his eyes alert, muscle-thick arms flexing over his chest.
“There are many things you're not aware of,
” she said softly, turning the title into a faint insult. “You would do well to remember that.”
Joros met her eyes, and didn't break the contact as he inclined his head ever so slightly. “As you say, Tredeira.”
The silence stretched again, their eyes locked, and she was the first to weaken. He'd known she would be. Her face shifted into a pout, and she draped herself across his lap, finger tapping against his chest. “Why do you have such trouble accepting gifts?”
Joros bit back the first three replies that came to mind and said instead, “He seems like more trouble than he's worth.” His hand moved up her back, fingers burying in her thick hair. Across the room, Haro silently drifted away. The mage still knelt before them, eyes flickering.
“He's a good boy. I'm sure you'll find use for him.” Her hand flattened against his chest, the smile returning to her lips. “And I'm sure you can think of some way to thank me properly.”
The mage, Anddyr, was a mumbler. He ducked through the doorway
to Joros's chambers, peering into the corners and muttering to himself before settling his back against a wall and curling his long arms around his knees. He sat there, staring and mumbling and flinching, and the only time he did anything different was when Joros would move. No matter how small the motion, the mage's eyes would focus on Joros with the intensity of light through a pinhole.
It was unsettling, to say the least, and it put Joros strongly in mind of the damned boy-twin. The only difference was that this particular maniac could tear him to pieces with a twist of his fingers. Dirrakara had assured him that her skura would keep Anddyr docile, but Joros didn't like the risk of the mage gaining his mind back and turning first on his new master.
He had to pen a quick reply to his shadowseeker in the capital, Mercetta, before he could turn his attention to the mage, and by the time he sealed the missive, the muttering was already beginning to grate. Joros reminded himself of the mage who'd called fire from the sky, took a calming breath, and said in the most pleasant tone he could manage, “Anddyr, why don't you come here.”
The mage startled, blinked owlishly, and then slowly rose to his feet. He walked like a new-birthed foal just learning the skill, tottering to Joros's side and standing there blinking like he'd just woken. “Sit,” Joros said, gesturing to the other chair nearby, and the speed with which the mage hurried to comply reminded Joros of Dirrakara's words,
a susceptibility to suggestion . . .
He settled into the chair, and almost looked like a normal person again, something small changing in his face. “How
did you come to be here, Anddyr?” Joros asked, still trying to sound pleasant. It didn't come easy to his voice, but he considered it worth the effortâa small amount of kindness might be enough to stay the mage's powerful hand should he ever fly into a maniacal rage.
The mage blinked again, opened his mouth. Nothing came out right away, but Joros resisted the impulse to prompt him. Finally he managed, “I was accosted.” His voice was rough, likely from all the screaming he'd done under Dirrakara's supervision. “On the West Road. Where am I?”
“Ah . . .” Joros gave his answer some thought. He wouldn't have chosen to keep a virtual slave, but it seemed he had little choice in the matter, and this would be the first step in breaking the news to the broken man. Potentially, the first chance to see what explosive form the mage's anger took. “You're from the Highlands, yes?” An easy question with an obvious answerâsomething in the Highlands blood made mages. Any children born of mixed Fiateran and Highlands stock had a tendency to not make it to the Academy quick enough to tame the boiling of magic that came on young mages so suddenly. With his powers already proven, this mage had clearly trained at the Academy. Anddyr nodded a vague affirmative to the question. “You've seen the Tashat Mountains?” Another nod. “This is a mountain as well, though more impressive than any of the Tashats. It's where you'll be living now.”
The mage's wide eyes fixed on Joros with an unsettling clarity, and though he spoke only one word, it was layered with understanding: “Why?”
It was rare that Joros ever spoke with full honesty. Past attempts had taught him that doing so rarely worked to his
own benefit. There was a crackling in the air, though, a strange hazing between Joros and the mage that made the hairs of his arms stand. So while he didn't speak with
honesty, it was with more than he afforded nonmages, who couldn't set the very air afire. “I don't know why you were taken, or why I was chosen. I don't know why we've been thrown together, and that's the honest truth.” Claiming something as true was more likely to make the listener believe itâthat was a wonderful trick he'd learned. He claimed all sorts of things were true. “I know it's a poor lot you've been given, and I'd set you free if I could, Anddyr.” Saying the mage's name seemed to sharpen his eyes, and Joros wanted the mage focused on the sincerity he made sure was dripping from his words. The tone was just as important as the words themselves. “But we're bound together by something beyond my understanding, and I don't think there's any getting away from it. We'll both just have to make the best of the shit hands we've been dealt.” The mage was still staring, the air still crackling; a voice in Joros's mind whispered,
a susceptibility to suggestion . . .
“I'd like us to be allies, Anddyr.” That sharpening of the eyes again, and then a softness spread through the mage's face, the dry air dissipating like a storm.