Author: Paul aka Darth Pacula
Willow was staring at her with a mixture of relief and expectation, and it was making Tara feel uncomfortable. In her life as a slave, being the center of attention had always been a precursor to pain, be it physical or emotional. And now she was the sole object of Willow's not inconsiderable focus, and it was making Tara feel like a worm wriggling helplessly on a hook.
"Are you okay?" asked Willow, the words coming so fast that they threatened to trip over her tongue. "Do you need anything? A drink of water? Some food? You need some food, right? You haven't been eating for days, beyond the broth I managed to get into you, so you must be famished."
Tara shook her head, not trusting her voice, but Willow bustled away anyway, returning with a glazed pottery cup full of water. She held it out, but swiftly grew uncertain when Tara bluntly ignored it. After several uncomfortable moments of tense silence, Willow returned to the seat she'd placed by the bed, toying restlessly with the cup in her hand. Several times, Willow looked up, as if on the verge of speaking, but every time she subsided without a word.
In the end, it was Tara that broke the silence. "What happened?" she asked, feeling stunned at how weak and raspy her voice sounded.
"What happened?" Willow repeated, caught off guard. "You mean to you?"
"Your feet. The cuts you got on them when we fled Devastapol got infected," the redhead explained. "You ... you were really sick. I was afraid you might die."
"And you would care?" croaked Tara.
Willow's face fell. "What? Of course I would care!"
For several moments, it was obvious that Willow didn't understand the question. Then understanding bloomed in her eyes, and a touch of anger too. "What kind of question is that! Of course I'd care if you died. What kind of person do you think I am!"
"I don't know you," Tara replied softly. "I don't know what kind of person you are."
"I'm the kind of person who doesn't want someone dead without a reason," snapped Willow, feeling hurt by Tara's insinuation, and angered by the fact that she actually cared about the blonde's opinion of her.
"Okay," said Tara. But she wasn't done yet. "But why? Why do you care if I live or die?"
This was the question that Willow had been expecting, dreading. The question that she didn't even know the answer to herself. So it surprised even her when she found herself answering. "I saved you. So I'm responsible for you."
Tara absorbed that statement without the faintest flicker of emotion. "So what becomes of me now?"
Willow forced a weak smile onto her face. "Well, first we get you all better. You're awake, which is a good start, but ..."
"No. After that. What will you do with me? Or am I to be your ... guest for the rest of my days?"
For the first time, Willow realized that she had never considered that. Ever since that moment she had seen Tara for the first time, and resolved to free her from Rren's clutches, Willow had never really thought beyond the moment. She'd never considered Tara's wishes, or needs. Willow didn't even know what those needs and wishes were.
"I don't know," Willow finally admitted. "What do you want to do?"
Tara broke into a hacking cough mid-reply, and Willow leapt forward with her cup of water. After the cool liquid had soothed her parched throat, Tara's lips twisted in a sad little smile. "What does that have to do with it?"
"You're free now," Willow pointed out as she returned to her seat. "It has everything to do with it now."
"Free," murmured Tara. She spoke the word like it was a prayer. "You said that before. Were you lying?"
Willow shook her head, and Tara bent her head in thought. She looked back up. "I don't know what I want. I've been a slave for the past two decades. I haven't been allowed to want anything just for myself for almost longer than I can remember."
"Umm ..." Willow didn't know how she was supposed to respond to that. "There's no rush, I guess. You probably won't even be able to get out of that bed for a while yet, so you've got time." Feeling distinctly uncomfortable, Willow leapt to her feet. When they came, her words were spoken quick enough that they threatened to trip over each other. "I'll let you get some rest, and I'll fix it so there'll be something for you to eat when you wake up."
Willow hurried out of the cabin, so fast that she was only a hairsbreadth shy of running, and when the door had shut behind her, she leaned her forehead against it and took a deep, shuddering breath. "Gods help me ..."
Tara found herself staring at the door Willow had exited through. Let's face it, thought Tara, she didn't leave, she ran away. Am I that disgusting? Tara found herself running her fingers through the sweat-slicked tangle of her hair before she stopped herself with a bemused snort. You already know she's not attracted to you, you silly fool! And why should she be attracted to someone like me?
And why would I want her to be? If she's not lying to me, if I'm finally free for the first time in twenty years ... I don't ever have to do what someone else wants. She felt a sudden thrill of excitement at the thought. And there was also a sliver of fear too.
For the first time, Tara found the course of her life in her own hands, something she'd been dreaming of ever since she'd first realized the depths of her situation. But now that she'd achieved that dream, Tara found it ... a little bit terrifying.
For all of her life, Tara had never been allowed to make a major decision for herself. Before being sold into slavery, as a child, her life had been governed by her parents, and afterwards, by her owners.
The sudden heady freedom of if all, the sheer scope of possibility that suddenly loomed before her ... it was daunting in the extreme. Because freedom had always seemed so far away, a dream that had always seemed far beyond her reach, Tara had always treated it exactly like that, a dream. She'd never considered what she would do if that dream ever came true, because Tara had never really believed it ever would.
So, in the end, Tara decided to follow Willow's advice, and sought refuge in sleep, which swept over her with distressing ease.
When Tara's eyes next flickered open, there was another person in the room, and this time, it wasn't Willow. The last vestiges of sleep were sweep away in an instant on a tide of fear and adrenaline, and Tara snapped upright in Willow's bed, clutching at a blanket to conceal her nakedness. She instantly regretted the move as her weakened muscles screamed in protest.
Emitting a strangled cry of pain, Tara fell backwards into bed, her eyes instinctively squeezing shut in sympathy. When she managed to force her eyes open again, the newcomer was looking down at her, eyes furrowed in concern.
Tara shrunk back, and her visitor frowned, the braided tendrils of his oiled mustache quivering with the motion. "I mean you no harm," Shenj-do stated with quietly offended dignity. He sighed as soon as he'd finished speaking, fully expecting his words to be met with the usual expression of blank confusion. He was surprised then, when Tara replied in his own tongue, broken and hesitant with disuse, but clearly his mother tongue.
"Who ... who are you?"
Shenj-do met her words with a broad smile that flashed a mouthful of gleaming white, delighted beyond words to hear another voice speaking his own language. He introduced himself with a short bow. "I am Shenj-do Bel Al'hannos, Child, and it has been my most humble pleasure to nurse you through your affliction."
Tara blinked, caught unawares and unexpectedly touched. He called me Child ...
The underlying tenet of Caliphite culture was family. To the denizens of that far away desert realm, nothing was so important as family. As a reflection of that, no member of the Caliphite society was reckoned an adult until they were married, be they five years old, or fifty. And when they did marry, it was forever. Divorce was anathema to the Caliphites, and remarriage forbidden.
As a result, the correct honorific for an unmarried person was Child. But Tara had never before been addressed as such, despite one of her master's having once hosting an exiled Caliphite noble and his extended family for a several years. Such courtesy's were not extended to slaves, for, after all, they were nothing but possessions.
To anyone else, to someone less versed in the cultural mores of his people, Shenj-do's greeting might have seemed inconsequential, possibly even a little condescending. But to Tara, it meant more than she could measure.
Moving stiffly, wincing at the bone-deep ache in her limbs, Tara made the traditional gesture of welcome, bowing her head and pressing the knuckles of her loosely clenched fists together in front of her face. Shenj-do returned the gesture with sombre formality, simultaneously displaying the tattoos on the back of his hands that gave the names of his family, on the right, and on the left, his wife. A subtle annotation on his left hand also declared him a widower with no living children.
That goes a long way to explaining why he is way out here, thought Tara. With a dead wife, and no children to carry on his family name ...
Now that these social niceties had been addressed, Shenj-do hurried about his tasks, giving Tara another dose of his potion, an aromatic but bitter concoction that, in his words, would strengthen the ties that bound soul and flesh together. He also changed the dressings on both of Tara's feet, neither of which were a pretty sight. But Shenj-do seemed quite happy with the progress of the healing wounds.
Once that was done, he unveiled a bowl of steaming beef broth, replete with boiled chunks of vegetable, and a heel of freshly baked bread. At the sight of the food, Tara's appetite returned all at once, and she fell ravenously upon her meal. Shenj-do appeared quite gratified at the vigor with which Tara attacked her meal, and made to leave with a quiet farewell.
Pulling herself away from the broth-soaked hunk of bread she'd been chewing on, Tara called out once more before he could leave. "Master Al'hannos?"
Tara paused, considering how to word her question, and whether or not to ask it in the first place. But in the end, there was something about Shenj-do that left Tara inclined to trust him. "Willow ... your captain .... can I trust her?"
To her relief, Shenj-do paused, visibly giving her question serious thought. She'd been afraid that he would give a quick, glib, and thus an ultimately untrustworthy answer, or react angrily.
"The captain of the Wild Rose is ... at times a reckless and excitable Child, but yes, I believe you can trust her to deal fairly with you, so long as you deal fairly with her."
"Thank you for your honesty," replied Tara with a slow nod. "And thank you for my life, master physician."
Shenj-do chuckled. "I am no physician, Child," he explained with a broad grin. "I am the ship's cook."
As a trading city, where ships came and went every hour of every day, dock space in the bay of Devastapol came at a premium. Each and every berth was hotly contested, and in some cases, blood flowed when coins alone would not press a person's case.
Which made the private dock that Trick and Faith waited beside even more noteworthy. High walls topped with shards of broken glass formed a courtyard on the very dockside, allowing cargo and passengers alike to be transferred away from the prying eyes of the masses. Any thief courageous or foolhardy enough to brave the walls would soon regret their decision, for hard-eyed men with sharp steel walked the inner perimeter, while others chaperoned slavering, brutish hounds that constantly strained at their leashes.
Faith paid her surroundings only cursory attention; in the course of her duties, she had often been required to infiltrate much more fearsomely guarded facilities. Besides, as this dock belonged to her master, she had every right to be there. But years of brutal training had long ago ingrained the habit of constant vigilance into Faith, so she still subconsciously timed the guards' patrol schedules, and kept up a constant scan of her surroundings.
Beside her, Trick painted a much more redolent picture, clad in his finest, most garish silks as he loitered with a cocked hip, ostensibly studying his manicured nails. Faith was aware of the disdainful looks her compatriot was receiving from the dock's guards as they walked their routes. All they saw was a foppish dandy ... and that's all that Trick would let them see, up to the point where he killed them without a moments pause. Faith had to admit, Trick was one of the few people outside of her fellow Nasherene that could give her pause.
Faith transferred her gaze back to the water in front of her. The same walls that formed the courtyard also stretched out into the water itself, blocking most of the light cast from the lanterns and flaming torches that randomly dotted the rest of the wharfs. In the depths of this exceptionally gloomy night, when the skies were sheeted from horizon to horizon in heavy thunderclouds, this left the water an impenetrable shade of obsidian.
Something about that water spoke to the darkest, reptilian recesses of Faith's mind, instilling within her a curious sense of unease. It bespoke of darkness and blood, the mainstay of Faith's life, but in such a way that it sent a primitive shiver down the assassin's spine. The water's consistency didn't help to make a positive impression; left turgid from the accumulated filth and detritus of a busy city that was regularly dumped into it, it looked like an especially vile soup rather than seawater. Soup that was bubbling.
Faith's eyes narrowed. Bubbling?
The phenomenon gathered pace, until a thirty-by-ten foot portion of the harbor's surface was bubbling away like a pan of simmering gravy. A hidden shape rose into partial view, seen only as a darker-still silhouette beneath the stygian waters. Faith found her hand on the hilt of one of her many hidden weapons, without remembering willing her limb to move.
"Hold," Trick sighed lazily, to all appearances utterly unperturbed, and Faith obediently released her hold on her weapon.
With the burble of disturbed water, a wedge of black iron, heavily riveted, breached the surface of the harbor like the fin of a shark. A symbol was embossed on the side in yet more iron; a stylized cog-wheel bisected by a lightning bolt. The emblem of the Clockwork God.
Her sense of disquiet made some sense now, for the adepts of the Clockwork God were loathed, and feared, across every civilized nation. Strictly speaking, the Clockwork God was not a god as such, but an idea. An idea that every church and religion that existed declared an abomination. The idea that men were above the God and Goddesses, the idea that men could create Gods.
The adepts of the Clockwork God denied the existence of the Gods, and believed in nothing but the power of their own arcane science. And such power was not insignificant, for it was the only thing that had kept their cult from extinction. Hated and feared by every god-fearing soul, an adept could expect nothing but to be killed on sight, so they lived in the shadows, the dark, lonely places of the world. And for their hubris, for their denial of faith itself, the Gods had cursed them, every one, with madness.
A more skeptical person might label that claim a stereotype, propaganda by the clerics and priests that felt their status quo threatened by the idea of the Clockwork God. But it still wasn't far from the truth. Be it by divine curse, the inherent frailty of the mind susceptible to the teaching of the adepts, or some side-effect of their own secret technologies, the adepts were insane. But it was an insanity that could be used, channeled, by those with the courage to try.
"Sir ..." Faith essayed, unused to the very idea of questioning those under whose command she had been placed, "Is this ... wise?"
Trick half turned, his face partially obscured by shadow. "Do you fear them, Faith?" he asked, a cutting undertone of mockery in his voice. "You, under whose knife hundreds of lives have ended?"
"I ... distrust them," Faith replied stiffly, bristling at the slight. "Their motives are their own, and do not necessarily coincide with those of our master."
"It is our master's will that bids us use these fanatics," countered Trick. "What other way could you hope to catch your prey, gone these past two weeks? From what we've gleamed, yonder vessel is perhaps one of the few that could out pace the Wild Rose."
Nodding curtly, Faith acknowledged her orders and watched as the adepts submersible crept closer to the dock where they waited. It had risen higher in the water now, and the wedge they had first seen proved to be joined to a long broad tube, two thirds of the way down its length, like a tower upon a castle wall.
A loud rattling clatter arose from inside the tower as the vessel's side ground against the dock, and from its side opened a domed hatch the size of a man in diameter. A tall figure, swathed in raged, hooded robes, ducked through this portal. The adept moved towards where Trick and Faith waited with an odd, halting gait, a rhythmic wheezing sound coming from underneath his robes, like a blacksmith's bellows.
At closer inspection, the adept proved to be nearly seven feet tall, and the bootless feet that poked out from the bottom of his tattered robe were clawed and forged from steel. One of the hands that drew back his hood had two missing fingers, the absent fleshy digits replaced by ones of metal that whirred and occasionally twitched.
Beneath that hood was found a balding pate, and a pallid male face of surprising youth. His lower jaw appeared to have been ... removed somehow, and replaced with a contraption of brass, steel and wire that left his mouth covered by a grill-faced box. The voice that emerged from this box was cold, flat ... inhuman.
"You. Are. Trick." The adept's voice appeared incapable of inflection or emphasis, so Faith was left wondering if that was a statement or a question.
Trick apparently decided it was a question, and said, "I am Trick."
The adept's face, which had been staring directly in between Faith and Trick reorientated to look directly at Trick with a disturbing level of focus. "The. Passenger."
Trick inclined his head at Faith, and the adept transferred that unblinking gaze to her. His head jerked in a spasmodic nod. "Good. Come."
With his instructions delivered, the adept turned clumsily and lurched back inside his submersible without waiting to see if Faith would follow.
"You know your orders?" Trick asked as Faith made to follow.
Faith paused, reciting her objectives in a mechanical tone. "Find the Wild Rose. Using intermediaries, destroy the ship and all her crew. Be sure the whore is dead, and any who may have spoken to her. They must not reach the Starfall Isles. I am to only take personal action if all else fails."
Trick smiled, but that golden-toothed expression was devoid of anything resembling human happiness. "Good hunting."