Friday, November 25, 2011

The Bodies IV.

            All wriggling and busy, they were beautiful to look upon.  Rel was becoming more comfortable with that word, despite being unsure that he used the term correctly.  He felt around the space it occupied in his mind, where it touched other words, either in harmony or opposition.  These considerations hung suspended in his mind, as if from a web like those spun by the glassine orb spinners he tended.
            The spiders liked the cold and the dark but couldn’t abide living in the Winter estate.  Some sort of field or vapor down below was harmful to the little things, so they had a spot in Summer, where they were treated to better fare than most of the Slavemaster’s possessions.  They wove the silk which adorned the walls and bodies of the upper courts.  Through proper drugging and feeding they could produce any color imaginable.  Normally clear, they only gained tint through what they consumed.
            Apart from his duties as a page, running errands and fetching bodies, Rel was tasked with the care of the orb spinners and their little alcoves.  Each niche had an aperture through which the webs were pulled slowly into a fine comb by a clock-like machine, there to be woven in the Silkery.  Care was taken to never harm the little creatures and if they were infuriated by the constant disruption of their gossamer webs their only response was to spin more. 
            Such purity of action had a simple beauty to it, yet at the same time the boy could only take distant enjoyment.  Other worries pressed on his mind, contrasting.  After their dramatic display at court the Fencer and the Trumpeter were now guests of the Slavemaster’s mood, Iyali was chained and sequestered with the lowest of the Summer slaves, and the future, once so absolute and deadly, now seemed dangerously possible.  An ugliness settled on Rel’s mood, all caught up in the web of saffron which the weavers spun.
            He got up and went out into the Summer halls.  He was background to the guards patrolling, they were on the lookout for those not keeping with the Slavemaster’s whimsical social castes.  Certain slaves were allowed in certain places, penalties varied, all crafted for the overlord’s pleasure.  A solemn quiet dominated the avenues around the great hall.  The room remained sealed.
            He left worrying.  The master’s will followed, and those towering concepts of beauty, so often so ugly, framed and confined, became all there was.  It seemed the whole world had been carved out by the mad tyrant.  Against such expression all contrast between lovely best and hideous worst dissolved.  No matter, Rel couldn’t condemn the Slavemaster for his dreams.  They were catching.  All the bodies under his sway had the disease, even those down in cold Winter knew that something warm and bright lay just over their heads.  With luck they too might find their way to Summer.
            Rel searched and searched, not exactly knowing what he needed to find.  Such were the vagaries of life in up here.  As someone used to being chained to his task it was a scary big feeling to be free to choose at all. 
            He was stopped by a gold and silver frieze of a nude woman.  She reclined, larger than life, her eyes hollow.  Though not beautiful, as he understood such things, she did give him an idea. 
            Rel made his way to the lower apartment where palace servants drifted on medicated dreams while not attending their betters.  There he faced the Silken Mistress’s painted visage.  She was fiercely attractive, in opposition to the encroaching years.  It was said she was the first being possessed by the Slavemaster and so was loyal, as well as keenly wicked.  It was her task to corral the various prostitutes, concubines, and other physical entertainers, to keep them preened and pinched and ready for service. 
            “The master in his moods wishes some company,” the boy said nervously.  The mistress took great delight in causing fear and so his natural worry was welcome. 
            “Oh,” she said and took a sip of gold-flecked tea.  “Last I knew he was in a rage over those robbers and that new word of theirs.  “Farezee” was it?  No matter, he’s always in a mood.”
            She left off there, in the middle of acceptance and suspicion.  A natural player at the game of words, the mistress considered her peach and orchid trappings, awaiting an answer.  Rel’s palms began to sweat as he raced for such a thing.
            “His mood is such that I’m supposed to choose the object in question,” he said, letting fear build like a shroud over his true intentions.  “A game is to be played and he needs certain pieces.”
            He said the last part conspiratorially, letting the woman in on this fabricated secret.  Many of the Slavemaster’s underlings were addicted to such play.
            “Do you fancy yourself a keen appraiser?” she smirked. 
            “Of what?” Rel said nervously.
            “Bodies,” continued the smile.
            “Can I tell between beautiful ones and ugly ones, you mean?”
            “Mmm…something like that.”  This response did not instill confidence.  “For instance, do you find me beautiful?”
            Rel considered with great concentration.  There must, he contended, be a right answer and a wrong answer, but the more he thought about it the more he second-guessed his intuitions.  At last he resorted to flattery.
            “Even to my inadequate eye I can say, in all confidence, that you are beautiful.”  Somehow the room had become intensely warm.
            For several painful seconds the Silken Mistress made no response.  Then she smiled a long, wide bitter smile and took a puff from the ornately fluted hookah resting beside her desk like some sort of armored attendant.  Wordlessly she handed over a key to the boy and gestured to a silk curtain.  With eager steps he left her to the opiate smoke and whatever strange satisfaction she gained from his answer.
            Despite the gauzy silks, the lavish cushions and the coal-heated air the harem was reminiscent of the housing pens of the slaves in the Winter estate.  Here bodies lay in a tangle of drugged ecstasy.  They were all sorts, all colors, types and ages, though the room he eventually found was populated by women.  In one corner Iyali worked at something furtively, apparently in command of her senses.
            The sharp clink-clink ceased when Rel entered.  Two crystalline eyes glared at him as he swam over the silks and flesh.  By the time he made his way to her the noise started up again; Iyali was chipping away at the metal collar around her neck with her long, metallic fingernails.
            “Am I needed for service or is the master still angry at me?”  The gilded woman of platinum, silver, and gold kept her attentions on her work. 
            “Of a sort,” began Rel, unsteadily wedged between two murmuring concubines.  Then he lowered his voice and continued, hoping that the drugged women all around would only think his words part of some dream.  “I have decided that freedom is beautiful.  I can’t say exactly why, but those moments down below, as we fled with the two strangers, hold a high place in my heart.  It’s a risk but I sense you feel the same.”
            She stopped and brought her eyes up to rest on the middle distance, somewhere between now and infinity. 
            “Tell the Slavemaster his games are not appreciated,” was her response.
            “This is no game!” rasped the boy.  “You saw the master’s madness.  Those travelers know something which our tyrant feels only he alone can know.  Soon they too will go into the stew.  Aren’t you the least bit curious about where they come from and why they are here?  They managed to best the Slavemaster’s elaborate security, all for some sort of quest.  They chose to come here; nobody made them do it.  I find this notion addictive.”
            “What makes you think there’s any place else to be?” she asked with a smile.
            “Because I feel it to be true.”
            “Maybe this is all an elaborate game.  Maybe they are slaves groomed and schooled for this very spectacle.”
            “What of the things they carried?”
            Iyali sobered.  “A blade which can cut through anything and an instrument of impossible music,” she mused, truly taken by this consideration.  “The Slavemaster has no true magic, no matter how much he emulates such with his drugs and sciences.  Yet he was terribly jealous of that word, ‘Fairxi.’”
            Neither said anything for a time, only the murmurs and sighs of their surroundings could be heard. 
            “I’ve spoken with other servants; you were the master’s favorite but were cast down for simply being taken prisoner.”
            “We’re always hostage to someone or something,” she smiled wistfully.  “I take your meaning though.  I am willing to attend to your implied plan but make no mistake; I care neither for you, nor freedom, nor any such heart-felt sentiment.  My whims are curious, perhaps warped by the same treatments which transformed my body, and I only choose to go through caprice.”
            Rel was glad to be done arguing.  No telling who was listening or what the other concubines might remember through their drugged haze.  He unlocked the chain tying the lady to the wall and took it up.  He felt a bit nervous holding such a leash, but if she was seen unfettered there would be trouble.  As they left the mistress looked on with a sly smile.
            Fewer guards waited outside the great hall but still the room was sealed.  Rel made to approach them but Iyali stopped.  She was stronger and he found himself struggling against an intractable force.
            “No, no, not that way,” she said with her golden lips.  “Do you have quarters, or better still, a place you labor at some task of the master’s direction?”
            “There is my alcove and the Spinnery where I tend the glassine spiders.”
            “Take me there.”
            So Rel lead the woman off through the marble halls.  The guards grew curious, but there was much drama already in the air.  Those travelers and the Slavemaster’s rage occupied most conversations.
            The room where the spiders spun their drugged treasures was long, wide, and low.  Above lay the Silkery, a place of which Rel had no knowledge.  With a simple gesture Iyali cut the linkage where the chain was affixed to her collar.  Her nails had finally worn through the metal.
            “Much better,” she said and began examining the simply patterned stone wall.
            Most of the walls in the Summer palace were smooth-cut marble.  Where the Slavemaster wished to make an aesthetic statement he pinned his art, a curtain, frieze or statue.  Grids of obsidian and alabaster panels, each about a meter on a side, were common adornments.  These patterned things were so ubiquitous that Rel had quickly ceased to notice them.  Now Iyali investigated each one with care.
            There was a click as two squares opened on hidden springs.  Beyond, a narrow passage stretched. 
            “As cryptic and convoluted as his mind,” muttered the gilded woman.  “The master likes to have such in most important rooms.  It keeps us slaves paranoid as well as allowing him secret transport around the palace.  These doors are as varied as his moods; some are counterweighted to close on their own after a set amount of time, others are one way, or lead to blank walls or death traps.”
            Rel was stunned.  What other hidden things rested behind the carven walls?  He had little time to think on this as the lady took his hand and lead him beyond.  With another click the door closed behind them.
            Small sconces with pale chemical fires provided what little light guided the two.  Without realizing it Rel had gone from leading her to being lead.  He had sparked rebellion in Iyali who now drove them forward, up spiraling steps and down steep ramps.    
            Suddenly she stopped and hushed quietly while fiddling with a slant in the ceiling, up to which a small series of stairs ran.  On silent hinges she opened a narrow door.        
            They exited from a giant stone mouth in the grand hall, one of the many massively disturbing fixtures there.  A scent of incense and blood greeted them.  Inside the travelers rested against the wall to which they were chained.  The Slavemaster had been at his sport and the two showed signs of his careful attentions.
            It only took a second for the single guard to notice.  He hesitated between ringing the alarm gong and dealing with a painted woman and a maimed child.  He chose his path eagerly and came forward, his jagged sword drawn.
            Iyali cringed and retreated.  Something fierce within Rel made him hold his ground while the swaggering thug approached.  The metal-faced man tasted the air a few times with his blade and chuckled.  Looking about for any means to defend himself the boy’s eyes fell on a wide brazier of coals used to heat the room.  Slowly he backed up next to it.
            With a laugh the man charged only to rush head first into a spray of burning motes and embers.  His scream was muffled by his enclosing helmet.  Still holding the brazier the boy swung the burning hot thing down on the guard again and again.
            The body went still but when Rel crept forward to see if the man was alive a gauntleted hand pulled the boy’s legs out from under him.  As soon as he landed the guard was over him, strangling the air from his lungs.  His gold hands pressed against the attacker ineffectually and his vision began to go black at the edges.
            Something broke into a thousand pieces.  Rel, in his asphyxiated stated was reminded of being freed, the chain which he had chosen being cut loose by the Fencer’s black sword.  Only as the air came back to him did he realize that the guard had gone still and he struggled out from under the metal-clad bulk.
            Iyali held the fluted neck of a wine cask, the sort which littered the hall when the Slavemaster entertained.  This was a radiant sight.
            “A good show,” she said as she dropped the glass remainder.  Rel’s ears burned a bit; she had used him.
            There was no time to worry about such things.  Even if no one heard the commotion more guards were sure to arrive soon.  The Trumpeter sat curled up against the wall, hands over his ears, with a look of sheer terror on his face.  The Fencer, however, was in a far worse state.
            The man’s right arm had been flayed up to the shoulder and from this red mass a porcupine coat of needles protruded from each nerve.  He was still conscious, cold eyes staring off into the middle distance.  Slowly he breathed through the pain.
            “Give him some wine,” said Iyali, gesturing to the Fencer.  Then she leaned over the catatonic musician, pried a hand loose, and whispered something into his ear.
            “Such sweet music,” gasped the Trumpeter as the boy listened intently.  He was becoming suspicious of this woman, with all her hidden strengths and professed weaknesses. 
            “My voice is yet another product of the Slavemaster’s art,” she said with some fatigue.  “It’s everything short of magic.”
            The Fencer took the wine weakly but turned to focus his eyes on the boy.
            “My sword,” he said softly.  “Where is it?  He should’ve had it here; such are the demands of irony.  He was supposed to gloat and ask me about it and through some ruse I could’ve regained our freedom and yours as well.”
            “I guess he’s too smart for that,” said the Rel, feeling a bit sorry for the Fencer.  He licked his lips.  “Does it hurt?”
            “It’s a work of art,” smiled the swordsman bitterly.
            Sweating with fear Rel tentatively went to pull out a needle.
            “Stop!”  Iyali’s warning stayed his hand.  “I’ve seen the Slavemaster use this technique before.  While some of those are inducing pain others are deadening the body’s natural reaction to such.  It’s a way for him to torture people without them showing the discourtesy of passing out.  If we were to take out the wrong needle he might go into shock, or worse.  I wouldn’t know which would be the right ones to remove; would you?”
            Rel stayed his hand but deep down he didn’t know if what she said was true.  She had helped him come this far, but as she had stated at the outset her reasons were rarified and all her own.
            “We must reclaim our treasures,” stated the Trumpeter, now that Iyali had banished whatever horrible music the Slavemaster had put in his ears.  “My trumpet…and that other thing of the Fencer’s.”
            “Assuredly they are in the Slavemaster’s galleries up above,” said Iyali. 
            “And the Fairxi?” asked the Fencer as he rose weakly to his feet.
            The woman just shook her head.  She didn’t know, nobody did, except the Slavemaster himself.  The word itself was terror in this place, terror at the tyrant’s jealousy.
            “Why not just leave?” she pleaded, her sapphire eyes sparking in the lamplight.
            “We’ve come this far,” reasoned the Fencer, who had taken the guard’s blade and tested its balance. 
            “But you are maimed!” said Rel.
            “Only my right arm,” smirked the swordsman.  The Trumpeter shared this smile.  “While your Slavemaster is a grand torturer he is also pliant to a good story.”
            “Tell a man all about your exploits and you can hide the smallest details amongst the words,” laughed the Trumpeter.  “Such as being right handed when in fact you favor your left.”
            “It’s decided, for us at least, we delve upwards, into the Slavemaster’s glittering secrets.  A ghost compels me forward.”
            The Fencer’s good mood and determination were suddenly tempered by the sound of the hall doors opening.  A host of guards came in bearing hot coals, cruel implements, vats of liquid and quivering jellies.  Party favors intended for the Slavemaster’s guests, though the surprise was entirely on the them.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Bodies III.

            A week or so passed and Rel was a new person for it.  With his new hands, cunning devices of springs and pulleys integrated with his flesh by meticulous surgeries, the boy tapped fingers made from purest gold on the desk of his little Summer room.  The drugs given him by the Slavemaster resolved all pains of his former life, leaving him time to ponder his tiny window.
            Outside the glacier of Lamm spread out like a second sky battling for the horizon.  The world beyond was blue above and white below, two bars of paint across the canvas of the world.  For the first time since waking up that day when the travelers arrived the feeling returned.  The Trumpeter had labeled it beauty, and at the time Rel was unwilling to admit as much, having seen the horrible beauty of the Slavemaster’s Winter estate.  Now that he was part of the upper world, having been renewed by the Slavemaster’s art, this label gained a new and haunting life in his mind.
            The boy set out to lay this phantom to rest.  It wasn’t too far to the grand hall.  He followed passages made of pink marble, carefully cut by slaves deep below in the underground quarries and fitted together at odd angles.  The place offered up new worlds of discovery at every turn.
            Rel found the Slavemaster alone in his audience chamber, as was often his want.  Around him towered walls of rose quartz, decorated with lush silks, gold tiles and silver chains, necessities for the less grateful. 
            Often he would sit like this for hours.  It was how he considered future plans and designs, projects to be realized in the themed connubial quarters, or the laboratory, or the pits. 
            The man himself sat upon a backless throne, reclining against one side with a bored look on his long face.  He was in the process of entering middle age but still had a youthful, laconic quality.  Purgation had left him lean and he had a habit of smiling.  Like many aspects of his character this was an indulgence.  He wore long gowns which trailed behind him, made from scales meticulously shaped by his many adoring servants.  Today’s was jade and open in the front, revealing a chiseled physique covered only by a loincloth.
            “I am disturbed,” said the Slavemaster without turning to face Rel.
            “I don’t mean to displease but I have a worry,” said the boy.  He had come to realize the power this man had over hearts.  Effortlessly he could make one feel hate one moment, fear the next and love for the first two before a single breath was taken.
            “Come closer,” was the man’s only response.  Rel moved up to face his master’s green eyes.
            “Beauty bothers me,” said the boy who quickly qualified this statement.  “I mean that the idea of beauty haunts my mind.  I had no knowledge of it before, and considered such a state to impossible in this existence.”
            “But now you are unsure,” said the Slavemaster flatly but a smile arose soon after.  “I am well-versed in beauty.  It is my ultimate reason.  You are a part of it, Rel, a small part.  If only I could distill my notions on the subject into an elixir and pass them on, but that is for the gifted alchemists to do and for us icebound to merely ponder.  In short, I am at a loss as to how to help you.”
            “I was considering contrast as a cure,” said Rel, who felt fear at the edges of the conversation, as if terrible dangers lurked behind certain words.  “I would like to return to the Winter halls.”
            “I see the wisdom in this.  It is done.  Here is a token of my authority; it will grant you passage bellow.  First, see to it that the silken mistress knows my wishes concerning tonight’s entertainment.  The guests are to be denied psychotics, I have need of clear minds, and the entertainment to wear lilac, but not too much of it.”
            The Slavemaster handed a narrow lacquered wand to the boy who took each of these commands into accounting, as this was his duty.  Before leaving, realization took him.
            “Will this same token allow me to return?”
            “An astute child; here is the token of return.”  With this the man produced a small mirror of burnished platinum and drifted back to his thoughts.
            After informing the well-painted woman in charge of the Slavemaster’s vast stock of pleasant company Rel hurried down to the ascendant chamber.  How different he would look down below, with his gown and shoes, coat and cap.  A sly wish that he wouldn’t be recognized took hold of his heart.
            When he arrived at the contraption, a thing of the Slavemaster’s own design, the guard looked at his token of descent dubiously but threw the switch anyway.  All a whirl the boy returned below, into blue light and shadow and ceaseless alien tunnels.
            He wasn’t prepared for the cold.  A week ago his numb body would’ve hardly noticed the freezing temperatures.  Now he shuddered and gladly took the coal lantern offered by the lower guard, as much for the heat it provided as the light.
            After some searching he at last discovered the vault he sought.  Here the lowest slaves were kept; the unruly, the weak and the worthless.  Their prison was a giant metal sphere made of tightly wound bars.  Two familiar faces greeted him with the haggard stares of dead men.  The Fencer and the Trumpeter looked frail as eggshells.
            “Hello prisoner,” rasped the Trumpeter with a broad smile.  “We had wondered that you might be worse off than us and it would seem I have the right of that wager.”
            He looked at his companion when he said this, who gave a grim smile of his own.  The Fencer held his stomach in obvious pain.
            “Are you being starved?” asked Rel.  These two were far worse off than the other prisoners.
            “A self-imposed austerity,” explained the Trumpeter.
            “I’d rather die a man than live a cannibal,” said the Fencer with such force that the other slaves, who had been wheezing quietly in the dark, went silent.  “Tell me, what kind of magic does the Slavemaster practice?”
            “Magic?  He is a master surgeon, sculptor, critic and apothecary, but as for magic, well, this is Winter.  His powers are entirely icebound.” 
            “He has cured your hands!” exclaimed the Trumpeter.
            “Prosthetics, see?” and the boy showed the seam between flesh and artifice.  “I have you two to thank.  Your adventure brought me to the Slavemaster’s attentions.  He was sufficiently amused to repair my frostbitten limbs, supply me with lodgings and work as a page.”
            “Why are you here then?” asked the Fencer venomously.  “To mock us?  To prance about in your fancy coat and sing of this vile decadent?  Let me educate you on the matter of decadence; it always brings a fall.  I have dreams of such things.”
            This stream of vitriol almost drove the boy away.  Cold rage sulked behind the Fencer’s pale eyes.  Still, there was something earnest in his words.  He raged after a solution to all the hardship Winter offered.
            “I have seen much in the Summer rooms,” began Rel after some thought.  “But still there is more I don’t understand.  Perhaps it’s my brain which is frozen, and only thaws slowly.  So many words escape me, though the concepts they represent are part of my experience.  At one time the Trumpeter intuited the far visage of the glacier of Lamm as ‘beautiful.’  I thought him mad, as I had only witnessed that word in relation to the Slavemaster’s work.  In my heart it did not feel the same as when I beheld that far, icy horizon on a clear day.  But now I have seen Summer, another of his creations, and am not so sure.  In that place there are rooms of color, rooms of sound, so compelling I’m willing to allow them to be beautiful.  There are figures too, those who have been collected or sculpted according to the Slavemaster’s eye and hand, such as Iyali who you met once before.”
            “What has any of that to do with us?” stated the Fencer, coldly cutting to the heart of matter.
            “You two provide contrast, without which I’m lost on a sea of experience.”
            He had grown close to the spherical cage as he revealed his heart, perhaps a bit too fully and therefore incomprehensibly.  Rel didn’t realize how close he was until the Fencer’s sly arm lashed out and pulled the boy close to the bars.
            “You bring me back my sword and I’ll provide all the contrast you’ll ever need.”
            “Temol,” stated a voice from the dark passage leading into the room.  “Go remove that offending arm from the gentleman in the cage.”
            A guard trotted in and the Fencer let Rel go.  Next came the Keeper with a host of armored misanthropes. 
            “I bring good news,” smiled the leather garbed lieutenant.  “The Slavemaster wishes for your company this evening.  There will be a feast and with luck you won’t be the main course.”
            “An excellent proposal,” cheered the Trumpeter.  “And if I am to provide my own bounty to the fete I must have my instrument returned to me.  I’m a musician, which is something I’ve told nearly every living body which has entered this room.”
            “It is customary for the Slavemaster to play his own,” said the man in enigmatic reply as the thugs undid the complex locking mechanism and wrestled the Fencer from the cage.  The Trumpeter came willingly and behind them all Rel followed, wondering why he hadn’t been sent with the news, suspicious and a bit afraid.
            Dreams of flesh lounged about in the great warm hall of the Slavemaster while outside a Winter storm howled at the unknown form of his keep.  None were allowed outside the walls to view the edifice, which the creator deemed unfinished and forbidden.  All who entered the realm of the Slavemaster did so through the numerous tunnels.  The slaves which carved those blocks and set the great sheets of metal were put to the sword so as to not give away the splendor which their tired eyes witnessed and their broken hands built.  They then were fed to new generations as part of a cycle which the tyrant found poetic.
            The prisoners were led into the grand hall, its pink and gold walls decorated with lush silks and concubines color coded in accordance with the Slavemaster’s whim.  There were guests too, rich and auspicious petty despots who ruled Winter in place of the magi and creatures of legend.  There were brigand kings and bandit princess and one lone woman in silver armor who listed at the edge of things.  Those willful slaves too beautiful to cast down into the cold halls were on chained display and fitted with gilded collars.  Amongst them Iyali sulked, so recently brought low by the actions of the two travelers.
            “Please and welcome,” gestured the Slavemaster from his seat atop the court.  The guards went to chain the adventurers but were waved away.  “They have no fight left.  Leave them at the center of things.”
            The Trumpeter performed his best flourish, but remained seated, huffing with the effort of simply sitting upright after the journey from below.  The Fencer glowered from where he lay, part curled up with starvation’s pangs.  Rel went to tend the various guests and stock, serving pale wine made from glacier grapes.
            The first order of business was a bit of what the Slavemaster termed “light entertainment.”  Creatures he had wrought from human stock were produced, small things of pink flesh and large, vivid eyes, whose sculpted breathing apertures made fair noises as they sang about the guests.  These were a great and unique delight for later that evening they were to be roast and candied as the meal itself.
            Then special drinks were served.  These, the host informed all, were cordials brewed in organs he had grown specifically in promising subjects.  He assured all present that these were flavors which existed nowhere else but in his dreams and that none were poison.  Rel hurriedly went about filling tall flutes with amber, magenta and sepia concoctions.
            The promised meal was served, heavily spiced and steaming hot.  All were offered but the Trumpeter and the Fencer refused, much to the delight of those watching.  Even the slaves chortled at such misery as there is nothing so balming to those in pain than to see others in a worse state.    
            The Fencer said something rough and quiet.
            “What was that?” asked the Slavemaster.
            “If it’s entertainment you’re after I know a few tricks,” said the Fencer with what temerity he could muster.  “All I need is that icicle you found on my person and I’ll make a carving of you.”
            His offer was met with general laughter.  Rel thought the man had gone mad, or perhaps enthralled, by the way he kept his eyes locked onto the Slavemaster.  Yet, there was that wildness to him which refused definition.  He wondered if the tyrant’s will affected the man.
            “It’s a rare, rare thing to be in conflict,” mused the Slavemaster.  “Here you come, invade my home, murder my charges, and rile my stock, and yet my heart cannot condemn these actions.  There is a beauty in what you do and in those things you carried, that trumpet and sword.  And beauty is what I live for.”
            “There is no beauty to cannibalism,” reasoned the Trumpeter.
            “Incorrect,” smile the Slavemaster, growing bored.  “There is the beauty of economy.  Look out over the ice; what do you see?  Do you see the green fields of legend?  Do you see orchards and rice paddies or crops of any kind?  No.  It is true that a few anemic species of ice-adapted flora have carved out a niche on our frozen world, but it is also true that these are rare sprigs of life and far too scarce to provide more than a few casks of wine or loaves of bread.  Besides, why torture ourselves scrabbling after a few weeds when the greatest delicacies arrive on their own two legs.”
            There was a strange spell hovering over the crowd, an enchantment growing in spite of the grisly words coming from the Slavemaster’s honeyed lips.  When he spoke it seemed the most natural thing in the world, reasonable, even attractive.  His words were gauzy, soft, a maze of silken sheets where the mind lost itself. 
Rel caught himself before falling too far into the enigma and refocused his attention on the two travelers who, it seemed, were immune.  There the Trumpeter sat, confused, inoculated to this madness through the bulwark of his own.  It looked as if he was trying to imagine the taste of such a feast and found the results unpleasant.  The Fencer just seemed to get angrier and angrier until he was a man possessed.
“Bodies are the greatest resource down here on icy Winter,” continued the Slavemaster as he wetted his throat with bloody wine sipped from a crystalline goblet.  “They are raw materials, clay to be sculpted into more pleasing forms, canvases to paint, laboratories full of valuable humors, cattle to be slaughtered for sustenance, and eyes to look on all I do and enjoy.”
The Fencer let out a snorting laugh from his internment on the cold marble.
            “I’m glad I could provide entertainment,” smirked the Slavemaster, though his face held nothing but contempt for the dying man.
            “What of the mind?” chuckled the Fencer.
            “A minor appendage of the body,” replied the Slavemaster.  “An overgrown monitoring system bloated on reflection and understanding.  From this cursed place comes the entitled notions.  I try not to think about it too much as it is a waste of time to stare into one’s navel.”
            “And the soul?” laughed the bitter swordsman from his hellish spot of floor.
            “An invention of the untrustworthy mind.  Show me a soul as lovely as my creations in chains over there and you will make a believer.”
            “Maybe you could perform a bit more,” contended the Trumpeter, fearing where the conversation was going.  “I enjoy watching the effects of your sorceries on others”
            The smile fell from the Slavemaster’s face. 
            “I have no magic,” he said gloomily and his gloom became the audience’s.  “Once I was apprenticed to Eogy the Thaumaturge, a man as old as the sky and wealthy beyond our dreams both in terms of gold and magic.  I was a nobleman’s son, of the same kingdom as my guests from the Grey Dunes over there.”
            He gestured to where a band of robed cutthroats lay amongst cushions and slaves, each according to their tastes.  Indeed they seemed brothers to the decadent on his backless throne.  They, in turn, lifted their glasses to the host.
            “I would have had power, yes, then I would believe in the soul.  I was born into wealth and power, but here was a chance at the most unassailable of beauties.  Yet, on the day I arrived at Eogy’s pyramid another one, a stranger, came.  He challenged my master to come with him or face ruin.  Their duel left nothing but smoke, the matter of his ancient demesne transformed into wisps of light, leaving me alone on the blasted tundra of the southern dunes.  I remember seeing that stranger, now known as Sol, across the ice, red hair trailing like tentacles in the breeze.  He had nothing to say to me.”
            Silence dominated the hall, with every eye downcast, reflecting on this sorrowful tale from the time of the Uplifting.  The Slavemaster was a natural performer, his magic that of the tongue and the ear.  Only the Trumpeter and the Fencer were resistant to his spells, and maybe Rel too, as he watched the goings on with increased interest. 
            “I grow tired of myself.”  The Slavemaster drained his goblet and let the stunning thing tilt loosely in his hands as he slouched against the side of his throne.  All eyes were on him but the man took no pride in such attention.  His heart rested on things external to his great banquet.  He focused on his glass, slowly watching it slip from his fingers.  Its beauty held no interest for him.  Now it slipped a little more and more still, barely held in his long fingers.  With a jingling crash the delicate crystal hit the marble floor.  Green eyes soaked in the beauty given up at the moment of destruction.
            “Now I have shown you myself, as history has sculpted it,” began the Slavemaster, brightening, “only fitting that you describe yourselves to me, or least inform me as to why you slew my guards, invaded my home and so forth.”
            His eyes were not on the Fencer and the Trumpeter; those green lenses rested intensely on Iyali.
            “I seek a cure to diseases such as yourself,” said the Fencer, who had managed to sit himself upright.  “An Answer.”
            “Winter’s Riddle, you see,” added the Trumpeter nervously.  “A reason to the ice and brutality; a way to thaw the mind and soul.”
            “Oh?” commented the Slavemaster.  “You seem a bit unsettled, musician.”
            “It probably has to do with the company,” lied the Trumpeter.
            “I know the Answer to Winter’s Riddle,” said the Slavemaster as he arose from his seat and approached the two men.
            “Oh?” said the Trumpeter with increasing fear.
            “Yes.  In delving into flesh, so to speak, I happened across the truth of it all, some of which I have already intimated.  Specifically, there is no mind, no soul, just cold cause.  The Riddle is its own reason; a bright mystery lying in contrast with the truth of the matter.  Life is brutish, short, and ugly.  When we are willing to give up the search for the Answer, to even entertain such a notion, to forget that such a concept ever existed, then we will be ready to live on Winter.”
            “How do you propose to achieve proof of this?”  The Trumpeter was hopeful now.
            “I’ve learned that what others call torture is most efficacious for my purposes.  Not only does it impress upon the subject the harsh pain of Winter, but it denigrates the practitioner; both are reduced by the relationship into forms more primitive and honest.  Right now I have a drug which can freeze a man’s blood yet leave them alive, conscious that jagged crystals have formed in their veins.  Also there is a certain visage I need to express; that of two men sewn together.  It being a work of efficiency I would necessarily have to remove the brain and replace it with a protein slurry capable of keeping the flesh functional, yet accommodating.”
            The Trumpeter’s face went pale. 
            “Minds, as I said before, are such inhospitable things.  They stand in the way of truth, and truth, my two new friends, is beauty.  I would hope we could all agree upon that.”
            The Fencer realized what was about to happen but was too feeble to restrain his friend.  The Trumpeter nodded and opened his mouth.
            “We come for the Fairxi,” he said starkly.  “The other bit about the Riddle is honest and true, but is a more nebulous goal.”
            There was general confusion, the Slavemaster included.  The audience looked about and muttered.  Fairxi?  What could that be?  Who could it be?  Was it an object or a subject?  None could puzzle out the name’s meaning or origin.  Yet, it was the shock on the slaver king’s face which showed the brightest and then quickly turned black.
            “Everyone out!” he commanded with a shudder.
            A polychrome chaos erupted.  Painted slaves were unshackled and dragged their minders out with them from fear of the enraged madman.  Guests who were kings and princes back in their own stinking courts scrambled for their compartments and hid with their purchases.  Servants began their cleaning duties, but were shooed out by the guards at sword point, who in turn were ordered not to return.  The Slavemaster seethed with unbearable anger, cut with another emotion, one which eluded Rel’s limited vocabulary.  Then the master’s gaze fell on the boy, the last remaining servant in the room.
            Before he fled from the terrible presence of the Slavemaster he saw the Fencer, sitting there, smiling, lips at the edge of a laugh.  It was beautiful, in contrast.