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.