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.