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The Elvenbane

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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The exchange seemed to be an even one; the red-haired giant with the chain-flail managed to stay out of reach of the trident points, while the swarthy man with the trident avoided having his pole fouled by the chains of the flail. Serina watched them with wide eyes, remembering that she had seen one of the breeder women taken from the red-haired man’s cubicle this morning, her face a mass of bruises.

And she knew already that she was destined to serve these men, or others like them – unless she managed to save herself from that fate.

‘Your fate is in your own hands,’ Jared had said. ‘Always remember that, girl. Make it your first concern to please your Lord, because no one else can make any difference to you.’

The slave-master had already remarked to Ambra, her mother, just how fast she was growing, and how she was going to have to go into training soon. Serina knew what that training was for; Jared had explained it to her with blunt words; explained the difference between a concubine and a breeder. And he had hammered home the lesson that any change in her fate lay only in Lord Dyran’s hands and her own diligence.

She had seen already how true his words were. Only last year they had taken her older brother Tamar away, sold or given him to another elven lord who had admired his fragile grace. Her younger brother Kaeth was being trained now in the assassins’ school, taken there two weeks ago, when his agility had been uncovered during a foray on the Lord’s fruit trees.

She had cried when Kaeth left in the hands of his trainers, and her mother had taken her aside, into her own room, and sat her down on the edge of the bed; told her sternly to dry her tears. ‘The lords rule everything,’ Ambra had said, without pity, but with tears shining in her eyes, tears that Serina sensed she dared not shed. ‘We are fortunate in having a lord such as Lord Dyran to rule us. He rewards us well for good service; there are lords who reward no one and nothing, and punish as their whim leads them. If Kaeth does well, he will be rewarded. He deserved to be punished for stealing fruit, and instead he is being given a wonderful chance. He could have been killed out of hand. That is the difference between our Lord and others.’

‘But why?’ she had cried. ‘Why do they rule us? Who said they could? It isn’t fair!’

Another parent might have cuffed her; might have said: ‘Because that’s the way it is.’ But not Ambra.

‘They rule us because they are strong, and powerful, and they have magic,’ she said, and Serina sensed a resigned sadness in her words. ‘We are weak, and the gods gave us no magic at all. The lords live forever, and our lives are short. If we are to prosper, we must please the lords, for the gods love them, and despise us.’

‘But why?’ Serina had wailed.

Ambra only shook her head. ‘I do not know. There are those who say that the lords are the children of the gods; there are those who say the lords are demons, sent by the gods to punish or test us. I only know that those who please them live and are rewarded, and those who do not, die. It is up to Tamar and Kaeth now, to please their lords. As you must please Lord Dyran, and those he sets over you. Nothing else matters, and neither I, nor your father, nor your kin or friends can help you. They can only hinder you. If you would rise, you must do so alone.’

Serina remembered that, and remembered the glimpse she’d had of Lord Dyran this afternoon, when he had come to see how the training of his fighters was progressing. She’d watched as her proud, stern father bent until his forehead touched the ground; how the other fighters had knelt in obeisance. And how Lord Dyran had seemed a creature out of a tale; tall, haughty, clothed from head to toe in cream-and-gold satin, and cream-colored leather, so supple and soft-looking that Serina had longed to touch it. How he seemed to shine, taking in the light of the sun and sending it back out redoubled. He was so beautiful he made her breath catch, and she had thought, He must be a child of the gods … And the woman with him, like a jewel herself, made Serina ache with envy. The woman was clothed in the softest silks Serina had ever seen, and laden with a fortune in gold chains. Gold chains formed the cap that crowned her golden hair, gold chains depended from the cap and flowed down her back, golden chains circled her neck and arms, and held her cream-colored dress closely to her body at the waist. She was magnificent, nearly as beautiful as the elven lord beside her, and Serina wanted to be wearing that dress, standing in her place.

She recalled how Lord Dyran had taken an imperfectly made sword that her father had brought to him in complaint, and bent it double, then bent the doubled blade back on itself a second time. That strength took her breath away once more, and sent little chills over her. What would it be like to have that strength – or be the one for whom it was gentled?

Then he had the smith who made the blade brought to him. All he had done was stare at the man for a moment, then make a little flicking motion of his hand – but the man had bent over double and had dropped screaming to the ground, and had to be carried out. No one protested or lifted a hand to help him. She had heard later that the Lord had cast elf-shot at him; and that should he ever again pass an imperfect blade, the tiny sliver of elf-stone lodged in his chest would lash him again with the same agonies.

Serina wondered; if her father sent out a fighter judged to be ‘imperfectly trained,’ would the same thing happen to him?

She shivered as she realized that the answer was ‘yes’ and that no excuses would be accepted.

‘If you would rise, do so alone,’ she heard in her mind, and recalled the gold-bedecked woman at Lord Dyran’s side, watching the smith writhe in agony at her feet, her face impassive.

The lesson was there, and easy to read.

Rise alone and fall alone. If he had cared half as much for me as he did for the purity of his blades – but I was less than a blade, and he had a replacement standing ready.

As she took each step, each breath in agony, there was a hotter fire burning in her mind. Once Lord Dyran had grown tired of her, she was of less use than one of his pensioners. And he no longer cared what happened to her.

The pensioners – once she had scorned them; the weak in power, or elven ‘lords’ fallen on hard times, who had lost too much in the ever-renewing duels. The duels were fought by their trained gladiators, but they represented very real feuds, and the losses incurred when their fighters lost were equally real …

Twice as pathetic were the sad cases whose magic was too weak to accomplish more than self-protection. Though these ‘pensioners’ could not be collared, they could be coerced in other, more subtle ways. They often served as overseers, as chief traders, and in other positions of trust. They were neither wholly of the world of the High Lords, nor pampered as luxuriously as the treasured slaves, such as concubines and entertainers. Serina had pitied them, once.

No. Better to fall, she thought, than eke out a miserable, scrabbling existence like theirs …

Better to have reigned at least for a little while; to have stood at Lord Dyran’s side, and answered to no one but her master … to have feared only purely mortal trickery. Unlike the pensioners, whose every action was a move in a game they did not understand.

‘So,’ Dyran said, regarding the top of the trembling overseer’s head, as the elven subordinate knelt before him. ‘It would seem the quota cannot be met.’ He was all in black today, and the milky light from the skylight overhead made his hair gleam like silver on his shoulders. He had a look about him that Serina knew well, a look that told her his mood was a cruel one, and she hoped he would appease it on the person of his overseer.

‘No, my lord,’ the elven overseer replied, his voice quavering. There was nothing in his appearance – other than his clothing – to tell a human of the vast social gulf between himself and Dyran. His hair, tied back in a neat tail, was just as long and silky, just as pale a gold. His eyes were just as green, his stature equal to Dyran’s. Both had the sharply pointed ear-tips of their race, and both appeared to be fighting men in the prime of life. The overseer wore riding leathers; Dyran fine velvet. But there were differences between them not visible to the human senses; differences that made Dyran master. ‘There have been too many injuries, my lord, to –’

‘Due to your neglect,’ Dyran reminded him silkily. Serina saw that his goblet of wine had warmed, and replaced it with a chilled one. He ignored her, all his attention bent on his victim.

The overseer blanched. ‘But my lord, I told you that the forge chains needed –’

‘Due to your neglect,’ Dyran repeated, and settled back into his ornately carved wooden chair, steepling his long, slender hands before his chin. ‘I’m afraid I’m going to have to teach you a lesson about caring for your tools, Goris. I believe you have a daughter?’

‘Yes, my lord,’ the overseer whispered. He glanced up briefly, and Serina noted that he had the helpless, hopeless look of a creature in a trap. ‘But she is my only heir –’

Dyran dismissed the girl with a gesture. ‘Wed her to Dorion. He’s been pestering me for a bride, and his quota has been exceeded. We’ll see if his line proves more competent than yours.’

The overseer’s head snapped up, emerald eyes wide with shock. ‘But, my lord!’ he protested. ‘Dorion is –’

He stopped himself, and swallowed suddenly, as his pupils contracted with fear.

Lord Dyran leaned forward in his seat. ‘Yes?’ he said, with venomous mildness. ‘You were about to say – what?’ He raised one eyebrow, a gesture Serina knew well. It meant he was poised to strike, if angered.

The overseer was frozen with terror. ‘Nothing, my lord,’ he whispered weakly.

‘You were about to say, “Dorion is a pervert,” I believe,’ Dyran told him, his voice smooth and calm, his expression serene. ‘You were about to take exception to the fact that Dorion prefers human females to tedious young elven maids. As do I. As you finally remembered.’

‘No, my lord,’ the overseer protested, barely able to get the words out. Serina noted that he was trembling slightly, his hands clenched to keep from giving himself away.

Dyran held him frozen with his eyes alone, a bird helpless in the gaze of a deadly viper. ‘You would be correct to believe that Dorion prefers his concubines to insipid little elven maids. Nevertheless, Dorion intends to do his duty and breed an heir, however distasteful and depressing that may be. As I did. And you have a suitable daughter. Nubile, of breeding age. Barely, but close enough. Nubile is all that Dorion requires; frankly, I think he might even prefer it if she were unwilling. You will wed her to Dorion, Goris. See to it.’

The overseer went white-lipped, but nodded; rose slowly and painfully to his feet, and turned to leave.

‘Oh, and Goris –’

The overseer turned, like a man caught in a nightmare, his face gray with dread.

‘See to those forge chains yourself. You have enough magic for that.’ The elven lord smiled sweetly. ‘That is, if what you have told me is true. Barely enough, but that will do. If you show you are willing to exert yourself on my behalf, I might arrange for your daughter to be divorced once she breeds.’

Dyran laughed as the overseer plodded to the door, his head bowed, his shoulders sagging. Serina knew why he laughed. If Goris had ‘just barely’ enough magic to mend the forge chains, that meant that he would be lying flat on his back with exhaustion for weeks afterwards, and be unable to use what magic he did have without suffering excruciating pain for a month or more.

As for Goris’s young daughter, the elven overseer Dorion would undoubtedly bed her as soon as he wed her, and keep bedding her lovelessly until she conceived, then abandon her for the arms of his concubines.

Dyran reached for his wine and waited for his seneschal to bring him the next piece of business. Serina refilled his goblet as soon as he removed his hand from it. She had no pity for Goris’s daughter. If the girl wanted to succeed, she would have to be as ruthless as any other elven lord or lady. If she could not manage that, she deserved what came to her.

Goris doesn’t know that his forge chains were sabotaged. That was one of the many advantages of being at Dyran’s side constantly; when the damage was first reported, Serina had been privy to the report, and to the knowledge that they had been weakened by magic. The saboteur might even have been Dorion; for the moment, however, Dyran chose to assume it was the work of one of his rivals on the Council. It might well have been; that kind of sabotage was typical for the Council members, as well as those who aspired to Council seats. It was just one more move in the never-ending cycle of feuds and subterfuge.

It was a game that Goris and Dorion would have played, had they been equal to it. But their weak positions and equally weak magic ensured that they would always be in the service of a stronger elven lord. Only one thing stopped the elven lords short of outright assassination of each other: births were so rare among them that an elven pair might strive for decades before producing a single child, and once wholesale assassination started, the perpetrator would find himself on the top of everyone’s list as the next victim.

With an entire world to plunder, one would think that the overlords would despoil and move on. But the elven lords did take a reasonable amount of care with their properties – which sometimes made Serina wonder at this unusual restraint. They did not take an equal amount of care with their human resources, however; humans birthed often, and there were always more slaves on the way when the current batch was used up. Only the special, and the skilled, were valuable.

‘If you would rise, rise alone.’

Serina was very careful to keep herself counted among the ‘valuable.’

She was proud of Dyran; already in the past few months he had eroded Lord Vyshal’s power by planting a rumor with just enough truth to be believed that he was thinking of divorcing his current lady and arranging another marriage. He had traded information on the vices of Lady Reeana for that bit of news. And he had managed to buy out the entire iron ore trade secretly, making himself the sole possessor of the most vital component of steel production. Now even his competition would have to come to him – or else tax themselves and their resources in discovering new deposits of the mineral.

But his most recent triumph was his own marriage, an amazingly fertile marriage, that had produced an unheard-of set of twins.

The next business was with the overseer of Dyran’s farmlands. Since Branden was a depressingly honest sort, and there was nothing more boring than listening to a recitation of weather and expected harvests, Serina allowed her mind to wander.

Lady Lyssia … Serina’s lips curved in a slight smile. Lady Lyssia, Dyran’s espoused, then divorced, wife had never been any threat to her position.

V’Sheyl Edres Lord Fotren had a daughter, Lyssia by name. And unwedded, despite her father’s position in Council and wealth as the supplier of the finest trained gladiators to be had. Lyssia had taken a fall from a horse in her childhood, and as the result of that fall, was possessed of just enough wit to feed and clothe herself and play simple games. In short, though physically in her early twenties, she remained at the age she had been when she took the fall: about five.

Not the most exciting of conversationalists – unless you’re willing to listen to her babble about her dolls.

Because of that flaw – and because those who knew of it often assumed that the defect in her mind was the result of breeding and not an accident, she had never been considered as suitable material for marriage. But she was her father’s only child; despite many attempts, he had never been able to produce another to supplant her as heir. Those of elven blood lived long, but not – as the humans believed – forever. Her father, beginning the long, slow decline into elven old age, had been growing quietly, but increasingly, desperate.

Which was where Dyran entered the picture. He despised the women of his own race, preferring to seek his amatory adventures in the talented and trained arms of his concubines. But he needed an heir; and more, with an alliance to Lord Edres, he would be in a position to arrange many duels, supplying the means and the weapons with absolute impartiality for those who kept no fighters of their own.

He presented himself as a suitable mate; Lord Edres was ready to take an overseer for the girl by then, and risk having a grandson with weak magic. Dyran must have seemed god-sent. The contract was set up to be fulfilled once two living children had been produced; one to be Dyran’s heir, and one to be Edres’s.

Dyran intended to fulfill that contract as quickly as possible, and he was one of the few elves whose magic worked on the level of the very small as well as the very large. Any powerful elven lord could call down lightning; Dyran could knit up a bone, and more, if he chose. And using his powerful magics to enhance his own fertility and that of the girl, he mated with the child with the same indifference as one of his gladiator-studs. The experiment succeeded so well that he had kept the means of it secret, to be used at some later date. At a time when most elves were satisfied with one child in a decade, Dyran fathered male twins upon her. One went to her father’s house as a replacement heir, much to the Lord’s relief. The other came with Dyran, to be lodged with all due pomp in the nursery.
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