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The Elvenbane

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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‘So you did, my lady,’ Dyran replied, leaning toward her with an odd gleam in his eye. ‘And once again, you were correct. Tell me, which of the two of them do you think likely to be the better commander?’

He’s been so – strange – about Lady Alinor. She’s challenged him in Council, and he doesn’t like it. But he’s been challenged before, and he never acted like he is with her. It’s almost as if he wants her, wants to possess her, and she keeps rejecting him in ways that only make him more determined to have her. Serina shivered, and did her best not to show it. Dyran had never been this obsessive about anything before. She wasn’t sure what to do about it – or even if she dared to try.

Lady Alinor laughed, laughter with a delicate hint of mockery in it. ‘Ondine, of course –’ she began.

A single, brazen gong-note split the air, silencing the chatter, and causing every head to turn towards the entrance to the sands. A pair of fighters, one bearing a mace and shield, the other, the unusual weapon of single-stick, walked side-by-side into the center of the arena. The mace-wielder, with shield colors and helm ribbons in Lord Jertain’s indigo-and-white, turned smartly to the left, to end his march below Jertain’s box. The other, with helm ribbons and armbands in Vossinor’s cinnabar-and-brown, turned at the same moment to the right, to salute Vossinor’s box.

Both elven lords acknowledged their fighters with a lifted hand. The gong sounded again. The two men turned to face each other, and waited with the patience of automata.

Dyran rose slowly, a vermilion scarf in his hand. Every eye in the arena was now on him; as host to the conflict, it was his privilege to signal the start of the duel. He smiled graciously, and dropped the square of silk.

It fluttered to the sand, ignored, as the carnage began.

In the end, even a few of the elven spectators excused themselves, and Serina found herself averting her eyes. She’d had no idea how much damage two blunt instruments could do.

But Dyran watched on; not eagerly, as Lady Alinor, who sat forward in her seat, punctuating each blow with little coos of delight – nor with bored patience, as Sandar. But with casual amusement, a little, pleased smile playing at the corners of his mouth, and a light in his eyes when he looked at Alinor that Serina could not read.

And when it was over – as it was, quickly, too quickly for many of the spectators – when all of the other elven lords had gone, he made his move. Toward Alinor. A significant touch of his hand on her arm, a few carefully chosen words – both, as if Serina were not present.

White with suppressed emotion, she pretended not to be there; pretended she was part of the furnishings. Certainly Lady Alinor took no notice of her.

The Lady stared at Dyran as if she could not believe what she had heard – then burst into mocking laughter.

‘You?’ she crowed. ‘You? I’d sooner bed a viper, my lord. My chances of survival would be much higher!’

She shook off his hand and swept out of the arena, head high, her posture saying that she knew he would not dare to challenge her. If he did, he would have to say why – and being rejected by a lady was not valid grounds for a challenge.

Dyran went as white as Serina; he stood like one of the silent pillars supporting the roof, and Serina read a rage so great in his eyes that she did not even breathe. If he remembered she was there – he would kill her.

Finally he moved. He swept out of the arena in the opposite direction that Lady Alinor had taken, heading for the slave pens.

Serina fled for the safety of her room and hid there, shivering in the darkness and praying he had forgotten her. After a long while, she heard muffled screams of agony from Dyran’s suite.

He’s forgotten me, she thought, incoherent with relief and joy. He’s forgotten me. I’m safe …

If I dared, I would shift and fly off, Alara thought in disgust. The last scene replayed in Serina’s memory had left the dragon limp and sick.

The duel was bad enough. The Kin had no idea that this was the kind of thing that went on in these duels. The sheer brutality of two thinking beings battering each other until one finally dropped over dead – moments before the other also succumbed – was something Serina took for granted. It was that, as much as the duel itself, that made Alara ill. How could she – she didn’t feel anything at all for those two men, she basically just reacted to the blood and injuries. She would have been just as nauseated seeing someone gut a chicken. Probably more. Those were her own kind, and she watched them slaughter each other to settle someone else’s quarrel without a second thought!

But then, her reaction when Dyran chose some poor, hapless victim to torture – to feel joy that the victim was someone else –

The dragon forced herself to calm down, closing her mind to the human’s for a moment, telling herself that it didn’t really matter. These weren’t the Kin; they were Outsiders. It shouldn’t matter what they did to each other or what was done to them.

Yet she was utterly disgusted by the way the woman had let herself be manipulated, geas or not. The human was intelligent, she saw what was happening, and Alara guessed that she had come very close to breaking her own geas a time or two. Yet nothing of what she saw mattered to her; only her own well-being, her luxurious life. Perhaps at one time she would have felt something – but that time had vanished with her childhood.

Even freedom didn’t matter to her. Only pleasure.

I really should just abandon her here to die, Alara thought, feeling as if she had bitten into something rotten. She didn’t owe the woman anything. She wasn’t of the Kin. She wasn’t even worth saving. Alara could almost agree with the elvenkind about these humans, how base they were, how much they really deserved to be slaves. She could at least agree with Dyran’s faction, anyway.

Alara had often discussed politics in her guise as a low-ranking elven lord, or had them discussed in her presence as a human slave. Having served as an elven page for several Council sessions, and eavesdropped in many ways and many forms on others, Alara knew considerably more about elven politics than Serina had ever learned, especially where the treatment of humans was concerned. Oddly enough, for all his cruelty, Dyran was one of the better masters. The Council faction he headed held that humans were something – slightly – more than brute beasts. He allowed his human slaves to rise as high as overseer, as he had Serina’s father. He obviously believed what his party used as their platform: that one could despise, or even pity one’s human slaves, but that there was potential there to be exploited. So long as human greed and elven magic held, humans could be allowed a bit of freedom on their leashes, and permitted to make decisions on their own. Such freedom was profitable to the master, after all – it meant that he needed fewer elven subordinates, whose loyalty might be in question, and whose interests were undeniably their own. The humans owed everything to their lords; the elves might well decide to seek greener pastures. Humans were simple in their greed; elven emotions were more complex and harder to manipulate, even for a master like Dyran.

From what Alara had gleaned, Dyran’s faction was slightly in the minority. The majority of the Council were of the other party; the party that felt that the humans were dangerous, near-rabid creatures, unpredictable and uncontrollable. That every human should be kept under guard, with the strictest kind of supervision; coerced into their duties, with that coercion aided by magic whenever possible. And that those humans that showed any signs of independent thought must be destroyed before they contaminated the rest.

Predictably enough, Dyran’s faction contained most of the younger elves, who looked upon the survivors of the Wizard War as reactionary old fools, frightened by an uprising that could never recur into watching their very shadows.

But Dyran knew something that Alara was fairly certain he had not told the others, who had been born after the Wizard War. She knew he knew this little fact, because he himself had brought up the subject, more than once, in Council.

Human magic was still cropping up in the race. And the elves had no idea how or why.

Most of the younger elven lords thought that human magic had vanished after the last of the halfbreeds had been killed and the human ‘mages’ had been identified and destroyed. That simply wasn’t true, as this woman Serina proved so clearly. Though untrained, she had been strong enough to trap Alara’s mind with her own. Granted, that was largely because of the strength of her fear and hatred, since this ‘natural magic’ was fueled by the power of emotion. Still, Alara was a shaman of the Kin, and it took a powerful force to trap and hold her for even an instant.

The elves had been trying to breed the ‘mind-magic’ out of their humans for centuries, yet the ability kept showing up, over and over again. No matter how carefully they studied their slaves’ pedigrees, no matter how many children they destroyed as soon as the ability manifested, the powers kept recurring.

Some children were hidden, of course, kept out of the way of overseers until they learned to conceal their gift – and once collared, of course, the situation was moot. Another problem: despite careful pairing, some supposed ‘fathers’ were not the real sires of ‘their’ children. Human fertility had baffled the elves since they had taken this world for their own; and human inheritance baffled them still further. Elven magic was inherited in simple ways; two strong mages produced powerful children, a strong mage mated to a weaker produced something in between, and two weak mages (like Goris, Dorion, or Goris’s unfortunate daughter) produced weak mages. Never did a mating produce a stronger mage than the strongest of the pairing. Never did a strong pair produce a weak child, only to have the power reappear in the next generation. Power simply could not be passed that way.

But that sort of inheritance pattern occurred all the time in humans, and the elves were utterly bewildered by it.

So the elf-stone-studded collars always carried two stones, as Serina’s had (and apparently sometimes a third to make sure the human wanted to wear it) – and one of those stones nullified human mind-magic if kept in physical contact with the human. Every human slave wore one from the time he or she was taken from the parents; they were fitted with collars as soon as they were placed in training, from the simple ‘This is a hoe’ that began for the dullest of the slaves at age six or eight, to the complicated training of the concubines and fighters. The simplest were made of leather with a metal clasp, with the owner’s brand burned into the leather and the stones embedded in the clasp itself; those were the collars Alara had seen. She’d never even glimpsed anything like Serina’s gold, begemmed piece of fantasy jewelry; that was why she had nearly been tricked into seizing it.

As Serina’s memories had confirmed, the elves controlled the fertility of their human concubines with fanatic strictness. What Serina did not know was the reason why. Elves were not only cross-fertile with humans, they were more fertile with humans than with their own kind. Nowhere near as fertile as humans were alone, but there had been enough elven-human crossbreeds to make a formidable force in the Wizard War.

All the elven factions destroyed the offspring, should a slip occur, as soon as the pregnancy or resulting child was discovered.

The halfblood wizards had come very close to destroying their former masters, closer than the elves cared to admit, even in the chronicles of the times. When she was researching the war at Father Dragon’s urging, Alara herself had been forced to read between the lines to discover how much damage had actually been done, by finding the rolls of the dead, and the account of destruction of property as noted in the surveys at the end of the war. Entire elven Clans had been wiped out; many, many of the strongest mages had learned too late that the human mind-magic not only combined well with elven powers, but could even increase the sorcerous strength of the wielder; from doubling it, to squaring it.

If it hadn’t been for a schism that developed within the ranks of the wizards, the elves would be the slaves, the hunted. She wondered what position the full-humans would have had in that society. And would the halfbloods have kept any elves around to ensure that their kind continued? The elves surely wondered about that before the conflict was over. That factional fight on the verge of victory was the only thing that saved them. With luck like that, maybe they had a reason to think of themselves as children of the gods –

Serina moaned and Alara turned her attention outward, watching the human woman speculatively. The former concubine should, by all rights, be dead – she should never have been able to escape. If her lord had been anyone but Dyran, she’d have been struck down by magic as soon as her elven master learned of her pregnancy. Dyran somehow underestimated her – or her rival had. By the time the guards came for her, Serina had made her escape, bare feet, inadequate clothing, fear of open spaces, and all. Somewhere in her was still a spark of courage, an echo of the child that had found a way to watch the fighters practice, a hint of the woman who had the strength of will to defy elven custom to claw her way to Dyran’s side. No one else had ever dared do that; Alara had never heard of a human concubine dancing such close attendance on her lord, whether or not custom permitted it. That will and wit had given her the seed of rebellion, and survival instinct had overcome every mental and physical obstacle standing between herself and flight.

It certainly wasn’t maternal instinct that drove her; Serina’s thoughts had revealed that she considered the child she carried to be nothing more than a dangerous burden. She knew the elves hated the halfbloods, and that it was death to bear one, should the lords discover it, though she had no idea why. The humans, never taught to read or write, had no record of the Wizard War. Only the Prophecy spread by the Kin kept alive any distorted echo of what had occurred. And the Prophecy was nothing that had ever come to Serina’s ears; in this, as in many things, the concubines were sheltered from ‘contamination’ by lesser slaves.

Alara knew from being inside Serina’s thoughts that if she had gotten any notion what the desert was like, she never would have fled into it. But she knew nothing of anything so simple as weather changes, or how the sun could punish and burn the unwary. She had escaped the manor and the grounds, fled past the cultivated gardens and out into the area no longer irrigated and kept verdant by Dyran’s magic. She had seen the vast stretch of sand lying under the rising moon, and had thought only that the soft sand would be kind to her bare feet. She knew a little of tracking from Dyran’s discussions of hunts with his guests. She saw the wind scouring the sand and realized it would hide her tracks, and she knew that on shifting sand the hounds would be unable to find her scent. She had never thought about the sun, and how warm it would get during the day with no shade, or where she would find water or food. Her first day of staggering blindly over the sand had taught her to rue her choice, but by then she was utterly lost. She had been so sheltered that she had no notion that the sun rose every day in the east and set in the west, and without landmarks she was helpless. A thunderstorm the first night had given her water and revived her; clouds had shadowed the sun and kept her going on the second day. But on this, the third day, she was near to the end. Alara found it impossible to care very much, except in the abstract, as a kind of indicator of what might be happening to other women bearing halfblood children.

Alara wondered … if Serina managed so nearly to keep this child a secret, even with a rival waiting for her to slip, it really was possible that there were still other halfbreeds in existence. The casual rape of a fertile field-hand, a mistake in the contraception treatments, an affair by a younger elf with a simple servant or a breeder – there must have been a dozen ways a conception could occur. Human traits would tend to overcome elven …

Depending on what they looked like. That pale elven skin and white-gold hair would give them away. You couldn’t hide that in a crowd of field hands …

Wait; she remembered something about that …

Father Dragon said something about the halfbreeds. Elves didn’t brown in the sun, but halfbreeds did; they tended to inherit their human parents’ hair color, but the elven green eyes with the oval pupils. As long as a child kept its head down until it learned to conceal its eye color with magic … and the collars only blocked the human magics, not the elven. For that matter, since the halfbreeds tended to have stronger magic in the first place, they might even be able to work around the collars’ inhibitions.

There were elven women who headed their Clans … and needed heirs. She wondered if any of them ever toyed with the idea of making an official alliance, then quietly stepped over to the slave quarters. And would those halfbreeds look the same? The child’s mother would probably put an illusion on the child from birth to make it look elven. There might well be some halfbloods among the elven women, even now.

But even a halfblood with an elven father could probably make it into adulthood, if he was hiding in the ranks of the common servants or field hands. And then he’d reach adulthood. That meant a collar, and possible detection. What would he do then, she wondered.

He could run. She knew there were ‘wild’ humans, although the elven lords didn’t like to admit the fact. At least one of the great hunts last year had been for two-legged prey. There were plenty of places to hide – the Kin might not even find them, given that there were plenty of areas in the wilderness they didn’t care to frequent.

The woman was quiet now, sleeping in the shade of the wall beside the pool, her exhaustion overcoming everything else; she had drunk her fill of the pool, and its magic had healed her burns enough for her to sleep, but the water’s very purity was working against her. It wasn’t only moisture she lacked, it was minerals lost in perspiration and the damage the heat had done to her already overburdened body. The sleep she had slipped into would probably tip over into shock before too long. Alara came very close to feeling sorry for her at that moment, and only the memory of Serina’s own callousness towards her fellow humans kept her from sympathy.

She and Dyran were well matched, the dragon thought cynically. He was right when he accused his underling of thinking of him as a pervert. The older elven lords had been saying for years that his ‘sympathy’ for humans was due entirely to his sexual fixation on them. Most of his generation kept one or two concubines at most, and then only because they had no intention of doing without when their ladies were indisposed. And the ladies did tend to be ‘indisposed’ a great deal, poor things; it was the one weapon that the weak ones had in dealing with their mates …

But the elders were discreet; they didn’t talk about their concubines, often they didn’t even admit that the women were concubines, and they kept the women closed up in special quarters. They certainly didn’t go about openly with human females, allow them to dance attendance on them in public situations.

But Dyran – to the other elders, he was like a man who not only openly mates with animals, but one who flaunts his preferences as if to dare the rest to challenge him on his behavior. It was only his magic power that kept them from doing just that – he wouldn’t kill anyone, it was against law and custom, but he could certainly work a lot of sabotage magically. And his duelists were better than anyone else’s. And then there was the number of nasty little secrets he had collected about the rest of them.

She reflected on all the things she had learned about Lord Dyran over the years; little tidbits stored away against a later time. It took a lot of concentration; draconic memory was excellent, but dredging up information relegated to long-term storage required a near-trance state, and a great deal of patience.

There was no doubt that he was sybaritic and self-indulgent; one had only to look at his estate through Serina’s eyes to know that. No expense was spared for his comfort and pleasure. But most of the elven lords were like that, if they could afford to be. And as soon as one of the elvenkind rose to any amount of power or acquired wealth, he immediately set about making himself as cozy a little nest as he could manage. The luxury trade was a profitable one for many elves, and no few Clans had built fortunes that way; silken fabrics, jewels, perfumes, delicate foods and rare spices and incense, all things found, grown, excavated or created by the hands of their slaves. Very few elves could create things out of the thin air, as could Dyran, when he chose to expend the considerable energy this required. The most they could manage were illusions; most convincing illusions, but still, illusions. Though that in itself was another profitable trade; there were elven illusion-artists, and their services were in high demand.

But on the whole, especially for the higher elven lords, reality was always preferable to an illusion. Elves were acquisitive by nature, and hungry for new sensations, and things of beauty. And for those elves who were the laborers themselves, the apparent idleness of the High Lords kept them in a continual state of envy. The height of ambition for many elven lords, especially the pensioners or underlings, was to be in a position to be able to do nothing unless it were pleasurable.

Since Dyran was one of the elders, he had spent two or three centuries doing just that. Which was probably why Serina had been such an attractive piece of property; she had been able to surprise him, which made her very valuable to a being as jaded as Dyran had become over the decades.

Now that he had acquired the leisure to be idle, and had exhausted the possibilities of sloth, he sought other pleasures. His chief amusement, recreated in miniature in his harem, was to manipulate the lives of those around him by exploiting their weaknesses and emotions. Hence the way in which he encouraged rivalry, even feuding, among his concubines and underlings.

Like what he did to that overseer of his … Alara stirred uncomfortably at the memory, and realized that in her preoccupation with her own memories, she had transformed back to her draconic form entirely. If there had been anyone here to actually see her, a lapse like that could have had terrible consequences.

Well, the only one here was Serina; the woman was unconscious, and it probably didn’t matter.
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