Sweat beaded on his brow. Once he'd had a name. He'd had a place. Now the soft summer sun beat down on his bare head with the force of a Gen's displeasure.
As did the rest of his life. The swaying haunches of the mule before him mocked his own impotence. Like her, he had no get, nor any chance for such. He scratched at the healing scars on his arms, then zlinned for his master.
Sharm Lord Sergei, young, bright, powerful and more fearsome than any angel had saved him. But saved him for what? A lifetime behind a mule. The deep furrow beneath his feet was rich with the promise of new life.
Small writhing things twisted themselves deeper into the black earth. He'd been told, as a child, such had been the work of centuries. All he knew was the heady scent of living soil.
It too mocked him for his inadequacies. If he'd been born to this life, he'd have never seen Rodina's flesh torn open beneath his bare feet. If he'd been blessed with a future, he'd have never felt her kiss on his bare cheek.
He looked up to see Sharm Lord Sergei's piercing gaze meet his. He dropped his eyes to the rich loam. The mule's bushy tail swatted at the big black flies trying to sting her flanks. Like her, his denuded arms did no good to anyone.
It had all been so simple once. To grow up, to grow old, to die among family and friends. He'd hoped to see children spring from his loins. But such had been denied him.
And not by any great cruelty of his new masters. He could remember some things. A man's face, only his eyes visible above his veil, looking on him with soft glances. A woman's face, her black eyes twinkling with mirth, looking on him with laughing gazes. It was not so long ago, his memory tried to tell him.
Soft green droppings were turned into the soil by the action of the plow, even as his bare feet crushed their dampness into the earth. No longer did it matter to him what he did. Not truly.
For he'd fallen from his position. Those he'd called family knew not what had become of him. To them he'd died. He was no man. Cursed and enslaved by his body.
"Are you well enough?" Sharm Lord Sergei's voice carried no further than the mule's flicking ears. The renSime next to them heard nothing by the steady footfalls of bare feet, both hoofed and calloused.
"At your will." He could speak the words of submission. That was all. Other words were denied him. Those words he'd once dreamed of speaking to a lover, a friend, a companion, a child. All gone beneath Sharm Lord Sergei's power.
"I'd have a true answer." There was pity to his nager, darkening it.
He could say nothing, for there was no truth to him. Only more darkness. He'd come to know need. He'd come to accept it. He'd learned his place. He looked up into those damnable, blessed gray blue eyes. They'd given him life as they'd slashed away his humanity.
"Ah," the single syllable brought color to his cheeks. It could be said they'd burned in the sun. If only his skin were not so dark. Chernoye his tormentors called him. The black one. It fit. "Is this what you wish to do with your life?"
No one had asked such a question of him. No one had looked on him with aught but pity. Not even as hemp ropes had crushed half his tentacles. Not even as he'd screamed the howl of a tortured animal.
He shook his head, unable to answer what he willed. Even as Sharm Lord Sergei had stolen his voice, he'd left him able to answer such direct questions. But the black one had no speech. Words could not fit in his mouth.
"Then tonight you will come to me." His command was irresistible, as was Chernoye's answer.
"At your will." His eyes were dry, even as tears choked his blocked throat.
Sharm Lord Sergei, Vanya, leaned on his desk. He'd nearly forgotten he'd asked Yuri Kapovavich to visit with him. The young son of two very minor lords of Maryam, he'd managed to escape Maryam's brutal attempt at extermination. For Yuri had turned out renSime, not sharm lord as expected.
Such was nearly unheard of now. Mostly for such as he were left to die in change over. It was too cruel to bring them to life as Simes, Maryam said. Vanya did not agree.
Yuri knelt before Vanya's desk. Vanya nodded to his guards to leave them. Clad in rags, his fallen state was painfully obvious.
"What would you do, Yuri?" He asked the young man. He'd found the poor stripling bound by the arms to Maryam's walls late one night when Vanya'd been out with friends at a nearby pleasure house. Vanya's handfasted partner, Larisa had demanded Vanya save him.
He'd agreed with her entirely, as he always did. In five short months they were expecting their first child. He wanted nothing to darken Larisa's mind right now. "You may speak, Yuri." He cursed the necessity of muting the lad, but until he accepted his new life, he'd only destroy any peace he might ever earn among the other renSimes.
He shook his head no.
"I've not tormented you." He tipped the lad's chin up. Black eyes stared into his. Behind them Vanya could sense the madness lurking in wait. Yuri was not sane. He never would be. There were too many changes Vanya'd had to make in his mind. "You are free to live at peace here." He promised, hoping his words would make sense in the maelstrom of darkness behind those midnight eyes.
Again his shook his head no.
"Do you wish to write it down?" His hand caressed the renSime's fragile seeming jaw. Vanya had no fear for loosing control of his renSimes. He loved all of them, with a passion that sometimes scared him. They were the life of Sergei, and the other Demense. Without them, no one would eat, or have clothes to wear, or have shelter from winter's storms.
Yuri began to shake his head again. Vanya handed him a wax tablet and stylus. Parchment, precious and rare would be for later. His hand froze above the smooth surface. He wrote one word, "Freeholder".
Vanya closed his eyes and sighed. "It will be a difficult path to follow, youngster." He had to warn him. Most who chose to leave the Demense so young often died of attrition before their first year was out, if they did not return to the Demense. "You will not be able to return if you leave."
He held out his arms, dark stains over his destroyed tentacles gnawing at Vanya with claws of guilt.
"Yes, because of your injuries." He nodded, clenching his teeth. "Sergei did not do this."
Black eyes softened as the lad's throat moved. Vanya waited for the words to come out, but they didn't. He tapped the tablet.
"One year," he tried to get him to stay, just for a while.
The lad shook his head no. The stylus flickered over the tablet. A winged figure appeared in the amber wax. It grew out of the surface, Lord of all it surveyed. The creature's face was familiar, with harsh features set off by an arched nose and broad, high cheekbones. When he'd finished, Vanya brushed his finger over it. Even to the touch, it felt as if the angel had left its own impression on the soft surface.
"I shall call thee, child of art and the angel, Mikhail." He brushed the lad's black hair. "And if you need, come to me." Mikhail left the tablet in Vanya's hands. Yes, this would be more than payment enough.
Vanya reached into his pocket and pulled out a gold year. He could more than afford it. Mikhail closed Vanya's hand over the coin. He turned his face away.
"I can't return your voice to what it was."
Black eyes blazed at him in anger.
"Then what would you have of me?"
Mikhail pointed to the winged figure.
Vanya cocked his head to his side. Another drawing appeared in the wax, a tiny baby, swaddled in cloth which looked soft even in such a crude medium.
"I will not give thee my son." His eyes widened, hoping Mikhail were not such a figure out of myth. A tiny smile played on his lips as he shook his head no again.
A third figure appeared, this time behind the infant, holding it gently, Vanya himself.
"You wish for me to care for my own son?" He gasped, trying to understand and only finding confusion. Mikhail nodded yes, his head bowed over the tablet. "I would do so anyway."
This time Mikhail's shaking of his head was ominous.
"Are you saying he will be condemned at birth?"
He nodded, grimacing.
"How do you know?" Vanya had foreseen no such thing. But then he could not forsee for those close to him. A chill tightened his skin. No, even if his beloved Larisa died giving birth, he'd not condemn his son or allow his son to be condemned. He'd at least then have someone to remember her by.
By the time he'd completed his thoughts, Mikhail Chernoye had gone, leaving the tablet behind.
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