Читать онлайн «The Elvenbane»
A few months ago she had been Lord Dyran’s favorite. A few days ago she had hopes of hiding her pregnancy until the damned brat was delivered. She had planned to get rid of it, then return to the harem to give that bitch Leyda Shaybrel exactly what she deserved. She couldn’t have told Lord Dyran what Leyda had done to her, but she could have found some way to bring her down. Leyda had enemies; all the women of the harem had enemies. It was just a matter of making common cause until Leyda was ousted …
But Dyran returned from Council unexpectedly, and Leyda was waiting …
I will live, I will return, and I will find a way to make her suffer –
Lord Dyran had found their rivalry amusing, and encouraged it, by promising Leyda any number of things, but keeping Serina in the number-one position. When Leyda failed to oust Serina as favorite, and realized that Lord Dyran had no intention of replacing Serina, she had not given up. Undoubtedly she had turned to sabotage.
She must have. How else could I have conceived?
She must have substituted all of Serina’s food for a month with that intended for the elves. That had been several months ago, just before Lord Dyran went off to Council –
The Council lasted eight months. Would that it had lasted longer! I would have been free of this burden, and none the wiser!
Lord Dyran had left before Serina realized she was pregnant.
As soon as she knew, she had been in a panic.
To be pregnant with an elf-lord’s child, a halfblood, was a death sentence unless the lord was very lenient. And even if Dyran didn’t kill her, he’d have cast her off.
That would be as bad as death. To be given to some underling, or to the fighters as a breeder – or worst of all, given to Leyda as a servant –
No, never, not after what she had been, all she had fought to achieve –
All she had fought to achieve … for so long, and so hard …
Serina pinned an errant strand of russet hair back in place, and surveyed her image in her silver-rimmed mirror critically. She nodded a little, and turned her attention to her makeup. She was in competition with the best, and that left no room for anything other than perfection.
The current standard of beauty in Lord Dyran’s harem – as set by the style of his favorite – was for an ethereal, innocent, fresh look. Serina knew very well what Rowenie was using as a model, even if the other girls hadn’t figured it out yet. She was trying to be as elvenlike as possible, fashioning herself after the highbred maidens she’d seen being paraded before Lord Dyran in hopes of a marriage alliance.
That meant pale gold hair worn loose, or garlanded with artificial flowers made of gemstones; creamy rose-and-white complexions; wide, childlike blue eyes; sylph-slim figures. Serina went counter, wildly counter, to that standard. Her hair was a fiery red; her eyes so dark a violet as to be nearly black, and seething with carefully controlled emotion. Her mother called her figure ‘generous,’ but that was an understatement, and said nothing about the slim waist, kept that way by years of dancing lessons, the hips that could distract even hardened gladiators from their practice, and the high, proud breasts that did more than distract them, to the point that her father had forbidden her the practice ground since she was thirteen.
Serina smiled at her reflection, and examined the smile with careful detachment. It would do. She kept the smile, and continued to examine her own handiwork, tossing tiny brushes down on the floor beside her when she was finished with them. The drudges would clean it all up as soon as she was gone.
While the other girls being groomed as concubines bleached their hair, dusted their cheeks with powder, and starved themselves to fit into the delicate skirts and tunics Rowenie Ordone favored, Serina flaunted her differences and learned to enhance them. She found rinses that made her hair even more lustrous and vivid, and painted her lids with purple and violet to bring out the color of her eyes, and brushed rose across her cheekbones. She kept up her dancing lessons and exercised in secret, adding tone and strength to her limbs. And she sought out the teachers of the bed-secrets, and begged extra lessons. Sooner or later Lord Dyran would tire of pale and ethereal, of coy and delicate, of dainty and timid. The Lord was not noted for steadfastness. And when he tired of the cool Zephyr, Serina was determined to catch him with Flame.
She corrected a smudge of deep violet above her eye with a careful fingertip and stood up, smoothing the soft panels of her wine-velvet gown. Let Rowenie keep her pale pastel silks, all flutters and lace. They made almost anyone else look like a pale-pink lettuce, or an overblown cabbage rose. It would not be much longer before the Lord demanded spice instead of sugar.
Serina edged the stool in front of her dressing table back with a careful foot, so as not to tear or crease her gown. There wasn’t much room in this little cubicle; just her bed, stowage beneath it for undergarments, a hanging rack for gowns, and her dressing table, mirror, and little stool. But it was more room than she’d had with her mother; just a little closet hardly large enough for her bed. And she intended to have more, soon.
She left her little cubicle, keeping to a graceful, swaying walk as though the Lord himself were watching her. After all, who was to say that he was not? The elven lords were all-powerful, and it might well be that the Lord would choose to spy on the unguarded moments of his harem. Her father claimed he did so with the gladiators.
She glanced at the tall, green-glass water clock in the center of the indoor courtyard as she pushed aside the curtain to her cubicle to show that she was gone. Sunlight streamed in through the frosted dome of the skylight above; by the level in the glass delphin’s tail, there was plenty of time before the Lord made his daily visit to his concubines. In fact, most of the curtains still hung across the doors of the little swans’ cubicles, showing that the younger concubines were either still asleep or disinclined to leave. Serina was a ‘little swan,’ a girl in her first six months of office. In fact, she had only begun her post as concubine a week ago. Most girls did not survive the initial six months; most were ignored, and after a mere six weeks were sent down to the breeders, to become the living rewards to the Lord’s most successful gladiators.
Serina’s own mother was one such; and she had been lucky. Jared Daeth was the most successful ever of Lord Dyran’s hundreds of single-combat fighters. He had won so many duels for the Lord that he had stopped counting, and only the odds makers kept track. Ambra had been his reward on his retirement, still unbeaten, to become a trainer; he had taken to her, and she to him, and the Lord had indulgently agreed to allow them to pair permanently.
Most of the girls rejected by the harem-master were given to any successful fighter who wanted a woman, and few of those men were as gentle and kind to their women as Jared. Serina had seen some of them the morning after; bruised and sometimes bloodied, weeping – and on one, never-discussed occasion, dead. Often the girls were bred once a year to the best, to produce more fighters for the Lord’s stables. Once their bearing days were past – provided that repeated childbearing had not killed them first – they became the drudges of the Lord’s household; the laundry-women, pot-scrubbers, cleaners and sweepers, often in service to that very harem where they had enjoyed a brief place in the sun.
This worked in odd ways; many of the little swans, certain from the beginning that they would never catch the Lord’s eye, made their demands as infrequent upon the drudges as possible. They chose garments only of white, or some other color easy to clean, garments with little or no ornamentation. They asked for nothing out of the ordinary; they cleaned their own cubicles. Serina knew that the laundresses cursed her for her vivid scarlet, purple, and emerald gowns, and the sweepers for the disarray in which she left her quarters. She didn’t care. At the very worst, Lord Dyran had noticed her; she’d seen to that, running to do his bidding before the servants themselves could react to his orders, offering to dance anytime he looked the least bored or distracted, or dancing even when he had not called for it, anytime the musicians played. She had seen his eyes upon her, and the eyes of some of the other elven lords he had entertained as guests. At the very least he would give her away to a visiting lord, should one admire her. At the best –
At the best, she would supplant Rowenie.
She would never, ever even permit herself to contemplate a future as a breeder and drudge. That was tantamount to anticipating failure. She would not fail.
And success would bring luxury not only to herself, but to her mother and father. With luck, they would be allowed to become overseers at one of Dyran’s distant breeding farms, far away from the Lord’s capricious whims.
She crossed the carpeted floor of the courtyard, carpet that mimicked the grass she never saw anymore. Her bare feet made no sound in the deep pile of the carpet. All slaves went barefoot, except those who had to work outside the manor. When, as a child, she had asked why, her father had laughed. ‘How far can you run on bare feet?’ he’d asked. She’d never figured out the point of the joke.
The courtyard of the little swans gave out on a similarly carpeted, white-walled corridor lined with the doors – real, wooden doors, not curtains – leading to the quarters of the full-fledged concubines. Most of the doors were still closed, as well. The concubines had their own bathing rooms, and did not have to use the common room shared by the little swans. Serina had made it a point to be up, bathed, dressed, and in place well before the rest, again on the off chance Lord Dyran might be watching. For one thing, she enjoyed having the bathing room all to herself. She got to pick and choose among the soaps and oils laid out, and never found herself with a shortage of towels. For another reason – why not? She had little else to do.
A single shimmering curtain of light divided the concubines’ quarters from the great hall where Lord Dyran took his ease; a visible reminder of the elven lord’s magic power. It was completely opaque and of silvery color, over which ever-changing rainbow hues crawled and flowed. Neither light nor sound passed the wall of liquid iridescence, and Serina felt a tingle and a hint of resistance as she passed fearlessly through it. Her father had told her that these curtains could be set to stun, or even kill, but that had never happened in his lifetime. She supposed the curtain was there to prevent intruders from entering the harem – she couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to escape it.
As usual at this hour of the morning, Serina was alone in the hall. She didn’t mind; among other things, it gave her the opportunity to prowl the place and look for any changes that the Lord might have made overnight. He was given to using his magical powers to effect changes without warning. The most drastic had been the time he had caused an entire jungle of plants to spring up overnight, seemingly rooted in the floor. Rowenie had been delighted and the entire harem had played at being shepherdesses all day – Dyran had even indulgently created a sheep or two. The next day, the plants were gone.
Serina blinked in surprise as she looked about. There was one very obvious change this morning: the marble mosaic floor was no longer patterned in a delicate, pale green with pastel flowerets. Now it was a cool, deep blue, of lapis lazuli, with no patterns at all. The cushions placed in piles at the edge of the room had likewise changed to deeper, vivid colors. Up on the dais at the end of the room, the Lord’s couch was still the same; thickly upholstered in his house colors of wine-red and gold, but the favorite’s cushion was now a wine-red to match. The white, unembellished walls remained the same, but the domed, frosted skylight above them now had a center inset of vivid stained glass in an abstract pattern of reds, blues, violets, and emeralds. Serina could dimly see cloud shapes moving through the clear colors, and made out a colored pattern cast by the light through the glass on the dark blue, gold-veined floor.
Serina fingered the textured gold of her collar as she gazed about, wondering what this change meant. Had the Lord finally tired of pastel prettiness? Did that mean he was ready for richer fare?
A whisper of sound alerted her to the presence of someone else in the room. She whirled, startled, at the sound of a footstep behind her.
The Lord stood, poised on the threshold of the entrance behind the dais, waiting for her response. He was wearing his house colors, in an elaborately draped silken tunic, one hand on his hip, the other resting on the bejeweled hilt of his dagger. His hawklike face seemed calm, but she could see in his eyes that he was curious about her – or her reaction to the changes he had made.
Serina sank immediately to the floor in a graceful curtsy, her skirts falling around her, as if she knelt in a pool of her own heart’s blood. She remained that way, head bent, staring at the velvet softness of her skirts, as the Lord’s slow footsteps told her that he approached her.
‘You may rise, my swan,’ came the indulgent, velvet-soft voice.
My swan! she exulted. That means he’s promoted me!
She obeyed, rising as slowly and gracefully as she had bowed, her gaze rising past the strong, athletic legs in tight leather breeches and wine-colored suede boots; past the casually unbuttoned tunic, with gold embroidery winking at her from the collar. She continued to raise her eyes after she stood erect, bringing them up to meet his emerald ones in full challenge, instead of keeping her chin modestly down as Rowenie would have done.
‘So, you have a spirit with fire.’ Lord Dyran chuckled, his thin lips forming a smile. ‘I like that. Do you wear my colors thinking to flatter me, my swan?’
‘Is that not my purpose, my lord?’ she replied immediately. ‘Is not all I think and do for one purpose only, and that to serve your pleasure?’
‘Would you truly serve my pleasure?’ He did not wait for a reply, but seized her wrist and pulled her toward him, bringing his mouth down demandingly on hers.
But Serina had planned for this moment from the very instant she entered the harem. Rowenie would have shrunk away with artificial shyness; Rowenie would struggle a little, feigning modesty. Serina did nothing of the kind. She molded her body against his, running her hands over his body in the ways she had been taught, returning the demands of his kiss with demands of her own. She had no idea how he felt, but she was on fire with need, her loins burning, when he broke away from her and put her at arm’s length.
He looked as cool and calculating as before; he shook back his long, white-gold hair over his shoulder as he released her, and smiled a little as he rubbed his square chin with a long, graceful hand. ‘My Lord Ethanor admired Rowenie at dinner last night,’ he said, after a long moment. ‘I gave her to him.’
It took Serina a few heartbeats for his words to sink in. When the meaning of them penetrated, she stared at him, not daring to speak, but afire with wild surmise.
‘Such diligence as yours in my service should be rewarded,’ he continued, when he saw that she understood him. Then he held out his hand. ‘Come, my swan. I would like you to see your new quarters. Then – after a suitable interval – we shall reveal your new status to the rest of the flock. Hmm?’
She shivered with excitement and anticipation. And a little dread. Lord Dyran’s tastes were said to be somewhat exotic …
But she was trained for that, and a life of luxury and power awaited in return for what he demanded. He would not damage anything so valuable as the concubine who alleviated his boredom.
And he was waiting for her reply. ‘After a suitable interval,’ she said, placing her hand in his. ‘Of course, my lord.’
For one short moment, she relived her triumph; then she was back, her body still placing one foot in front of the other, like a mind-controlled slave.
Every bit of exposed skin burned with a torment that had passed beyond pain long ago. It was so hard to think … So hard to remember who and what she was, and why she should keep fighting to stay alive.
I am Serina Daeth, daughter of – daughter of – Jared Daeth. Trainer of gladiators to Lord Dyran –
Little Serina perched on the edge of a bench high above the arena, up in the shadows where the lesser elves sat when the Lord entertained. The arena itself was not very large; it probably didn’t seat more than four or five hundred, and the floor, covered with soft sand, could not hold a combat involving more than four men. This was strictly a dueling arena, meant for challenge-combat and not much else. It was a sign of Lord Dyran’s wealth that he maintained his own arena. It was also a sign of the number of challenges he played host to; either his own, or those arranged for others. Like the other rooms of the manor, it was lit by day by a large, frosted-glass skylight. The seats immediately surrounding the combat area were covered in leather padding; those up here were simple wooden benches. Nevertheless, humans never took these seats when there was a real combat underway.
But the combat in the arena today was strictly for practice, though it was performed at full speed, and with real, edged weapons. Good weapons, too, straight from the Lord’s forges.
Jared had taken his daughter to see the forges today, as a part of her education in the reality of being bound to Lord Dyran, and she had been suitably impressed with the fires, the heat, the smoke, and the huge, brawny men and women who worked there. Most valuable of all of Lord Dyran’s slaves, the forge-workers received attention and reward even above a successful duelist.
‘We have a good lord,’ Jared had said in his stolid way. ‘Good work is rewarded. The Lord could ignore us, or treat us like cattle; many lords do. Just you remember that, girl. All benefit and all reward come from Lord Dyran.’
The iron from which steel blades were made had to be pure; it was smelted ten times to remove any contaminants before it underwent the final process of smelting with charcoal and air to make it into true steel. Then, when it had undergone that transmutation, the smiths took it and made it into the weapons for which Lord Dyran was famed. No few of the elven lords came to Lord Dyran for their weapons, or so Jared told his daughter.
For the fighters of the elven lords’ armies, they made fine swords, spear- and axe-heads, and tiny, razor-sharp arrowheads that could not be pulled from a wound, only cut out. For the duelists, however, the gladiators and other fighters, the weaponry was far different – weapons meant to wound rather than kill. Chain-flails, maces, short, broad knives, metal-barbed whips, tridents – all meant to prolong combat, all requiring great skill in the handling.
The two fighters in the arena now, practicing under her father’s careful eye, were armed with gladiatorial weapons. One had a trident, the other, a chain-flail; both were also armed with knives.
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