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The Elvenbane

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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She was still so hot –

The sun overhead was like the bright lights of the arena, too bright to look at directly …

Today the Lord was garbed in a pure sapphire-blue, and his eyes reflected some of that blue in their depths. Serina thought he was even handsomer than he had been the first time she saw him. ‘In a very real sense,’ Dyran said lazily, as he strolled with his hands clasped behind his back, inspecting Jared’s latest crop of duelists, ‘I owe something of my prosperity to you.’ The men were arranged in a neat line before him, wearing their special leather armor, each set made to facilitate his – or her, there were a few women in the group – weapon’s specialty. They stood at parade rest, like so many sinister statues, helms covering their faces so that only the occasional glitter of an eye showed that they lived.

Serina peered out from under the cover of an old tarpaulin flung over a pile of broken armor heaped atop one of the storage closets. She’d learned how to climb up here when she was five or six; at nine now, she barely fit. A few more inches, and she wouldn’t be able to squeeze in behind the pile anymore. That meant she probably wouldn’t be able to steal any further glimpses of the training, so she had resolved to take full advantage of every opportunity that came along now.

‘Thank you, my lord,’ Jared replied expressionlessly. ‘But it was you, my lord, who gave me the training, and saw to it that I was well matched. It was you who placed me in charge of training the others. I had only the raw ability. You saw to its honing, and made use of it.’

‘True, true … still, you’re a remarkable beast, Jared. Over a hundred duels, and never a loss.’ Dyran stepped back and regarded his slave with a critical eye, his head tilted a little to one side. ‘I daresay you could still take any one of these youngsters, and win. Would you care to try? A real duel, I mean, not just a practice.’

Serina knew her father well enough to know that Dyran’s ‘offer’ shook him to the bone. A ‘real’ duel – that meant to the death. Jared, against one of the young men he’d trained himself. Jared’s experience against a younger man’s strength and endurance – Jared fighting someone who knew what his moves were going to be before he made them.

‘It would be an interesting proposition, my lord,’ Jared said slowly, so slowly that Serina knew how carefully he was thinking before he replied. ‘But I must point out that it could mean the loss of your chief trainer. It would mean the loss of your chief trainer for a month or so, no matter what. I’m not as spry anymore that I can avoid every stroke, and I’m too old to heal in a hurry.’

Serina waited, holding her breath, for Dyran’s response.

He threw back his head and laughed, his long hair tossing, and both Serina and her father heaved identical sighs of relief. ‘I couldn’t risk that, old man,’ he said, slapping Jared on the back, exactly as Serina had seen him slap a horse on the flank; with the same kind of proprietary pride. ‘Not with a half dozen duels scheduled for this month alone. No, we’ll keep the losses among those we can replace, I think. Carry on.’

Dyran strolled away, still chuckling, as Jared marched his men back towards their quarters –

The bright lights of the arena … How many times had she stood under them? The lights illuminated the audience as relentlessly as the fighters, for the elven lords came to the duels to be seen as well as to be spectators themselves. And they never disputed her presence there, however much it was against custom. They had seen how Dyran wanted her there, and none of them dared challenge Dyran on his home ground. She had made herself indispensable, but it had taken more work than any of them guessed, for no other concubine had dared to do the things she had done …

No other but me, she murmured to herself, her mind and body floating somewhere strange and bright. None but me.

Serina had learned early how to keep up with Dyran’s long, ground-eating strides without looking as if she were hurrying. She would never, ever allow herself to look less than graceful. One slip, and she might find herself replaced.

But this was an important part of her plan to make herself Dyran’s permanent favorite. She went anywhere with him that she could, provided she was not specifically forbidden to accompany him. Rowenie had never left the harem; Rowenie had never lifted a finger for herself, much less waited on her Lord.

So Serina followed Dyran everywhere, and waited on him with her own hands. Not adoringly, no – invisibly. So that he never noticed who was serving him unless he looked straight at her. Which he had done in the first few months of her ascendancy, and been surprised to find her there, with the goblet, the plate, the pen and tablet. And never did he see her looking back at him with anything other than a challenging stare: Dispute my right to be here, if you dare! Yes, he had been surprised. Then amused at her audacity, at her cleverness. Now he depended on her, on her ability to anticipate his needs, something he’d evidently never had before.

That she could surprise an elven lord was a continual source of self-satisfaction for her. A lord like Dyran had seen nearly everything in his long span, and to be able to provide him with the novelty of surprise would make her the more valuable in his eyes. Or so she hoped.

And I have ample cause for pride, she thought, gliding in his wake, taken for granted as his shadow. If nothing else, this self-appointed servitude was far more entertaining than staying in the harem, trying to while away the time with jewels and dresses and the little intrigues of the secondary concubines.

Today Dyran’s errand took him to a part of the manor she’d never visited before; outside, in fact, to a barnlike outbuilding with white-washed walls, a single door, and no windows, just the ubiquitous skylights. She hesitated for a moment on the threshold; blinked at the unaccustomed raw sunlight in her eyes; felt it like a kind of pressure against her fair skin, and wondered faintly how the field-workers ever stood it. She had been outside perhaps a handful of times in her life – when she was taken from her parents and the training building and barracks and moved to the facility for training concubines, again when she became a concubine and was taken to the manor itself – and most of those times she had been hurried along in a mob of others, with no time to look around. She found herself shrinking inside herself at the openness of it all. And the sky – she hadn’t seen open sky since she was a child. There was just – so much of it. So far away – no walls to hold it in –

She fought down panic, a hollow feeling of fear as she gazed up, and up, and up –

She closed her eyes for a moment to steady herself, then hurried after Dyran. She wasn’t certain how much more of this she was going to be able to bear …

But they were back under a roof soon enough. She paused behind Dyran as he waited for a moment in the entry. She welcomed the sight of the familiar beams and skylight – the gentle, milky light – feeling faint with relief. So much so, that she did not notice, at first, what it was that Dyran had come to inspect, not until Dyran cleared the doorway and she got a clear view of the room beyond.

Children? Why would he need to see children?

There were at least a hundred children of both sexes, mostly aged about six or thereabouts. All of them wore the standard short tunic and baggy pants of unbleached cloth, the garb of unassigned slaves, the same clothing Serina had worn until she was taken to be trained at age ten. The elven overseer had ordered them in ragged lines of ten, and they stood quite still, in a silence unusual for children of that age. Some looked bewildered; some still showed traces of tears on their chubby cheeks, some simply looked resigned. But all were unnaturally, eerily silent, and stood without fidgeting.

‘My lord.’ The elven overseer, garbed in livery and helm, with a face so carefully controlled that it could have been carved from granite, actually saluted. ‘The trainees.’

The trainees? Now Serina was very puzzled. What on earth was he talking about?

‘Have you tested them?’ Dyran asked absently, walking slowly towards the group of children, who one and all fixed their enormous eyes on him with varying expressions of fear. ‘It wouldn’t do to send Lord Edres less than the very best.’

Lord Edres? What did he have to do with children?

‘Yes, my lord,’ the overseer replied, never moving from his pose of attention. ‘Reactions, strength, speed, they’re the top of their age-group. They should make fine fighters.’

Now Serina understood, and understood the references to Lord Edres. Dyran’s ally and father-by-marriage trained the finest of duelists, gladiators, and guards; Dyran had begun a stepped-up breeding program with his fighters as soon as the ink on the marriage contract was dry; no doubt part of the bride-price was to be paid in slaves for training. These children were evidently the result of that program.

‘I believe they’re ready for you, my lord, if you’re satisfied with them.’ Now the overseer stepped back several paces as he spoke, as if to take himself out of range of something.

‘Yes, I think they’ll do.’ Dyran raised his hands, shaking back his sleeves – and she felt a moment of unfocused fear, as if something deep inside her knew what was going to happen next, and was terrified.

Dyran clapped his hands together and Serina was blinded by a momentary flash of light, overwhelming and painful – when her eyes cleared, the children stood there still, but all signs of fear or unhappiness were gone. Each wore a dreamy, contented smile; each looked eagerly from Dyran to the overseer and back, as if waiting for an order to obey –

A tiny fragment of memory: standing in line with the other ten-year-old girls. Lord Dyran, in brilliant scarlet, raised his hands. A flash of light. And –

Serina shook her head, and the tiny memory-fragment vanished, as if it had never been.

‘Exactly what are these going to be trained for?’ Dyran was asking the overseer. The other removed his helm, and Serina recognized him; Keloc by name, and one of the few of Dyran’s subordinates he actually trusted.

‘Half of them are going straight into infantry training; line soldiers, my lord,’ Keloc said, shaking back his hair. ‘A quarter’s going into bodyguard training, the rest are for duelists. Lord Edres wanted about a dozen for assassins, but I told him we had nothing suitable.’

‘Rightly,’ Dyran replied with a frown. ‘I’m a better mage than he is, but that doesn’t rule out the chance of him allying with someone who’s as good as I am and breaking my geas. It would be a sad state of affairs to find assassins with my brand on them making collops of my best human servants.’

‘Exactly so, my lord,’ the overseer replied. ‘Did you sense any resistance? I didn’t specify an exact number to Lord Edres, only a round figure. I weeded out what I could, but I’m not the mage you are.’

Dyran looked out over the sea of rapt young faces. ‘No,’ he said, finally. ‘No, I don’t think so. These should do very well. Excellent work, Keloc. You’re getting better results with these than with the horses.’

The overseer smiled a little. ‘It’s easier to breed humans, my lord. So long as you keep an eye on them, damage during breeding is minimal, and they’re always in season. And you’ve always had good stock, my lord.’

Dyran chuckled, with satisfied pride. ‘I like to think so. Carry on, Keloc.’

The overseer clapped his helm back on and saluted. ‘Very well, my lord.’

Alara was disappointed, though not by the clarity of the woman’s memories. It wasn’t going to be possible to pose as either a bodyguard or a concubine, she decided. That was really too bad; either position would have been ideal for gathering more information than the Kin had access to at the moment. At least one thing was explained: it looked as if the elven lords encouraged rivalry among their humans, while maintaining control over them with spells – or at least, that was what happened with the humans they allowed close to them. So they kept the humans at odds with each other, while looking to their lord with complete loyalty.

He had spoken of a geas; Alara wondered what it was they really did, how it was set. Was it just to keep the humans from being disloyal to their lord? Or was it more complicated than that? The father and mother kept saying that ‘everything comes from the Lord.’ She wondered if that was part of it too?

But it couldn’t be foolproof; Dyran had said something about ‘resistance.’ Which had to mean the geas could be fought, or even broken, by the human himself …

She wondered if one of the Kin could break it, too …

Well, even if they couldn’t get into the ranks of the fighters, Alara could at least see one of the duels through the woman’s memory.

It could be very enlightening.

Serina drifted on clouds of light, too overcome with lassitude to wonder at anything. A few moments later, she found herself standing behind Dyran, in her place behind his seat in the arena. He was not alone.

The arena was alive with color and light, and buzzing with conversation. Serina replaced a red velvet cushion that had fallen from Lord Dyran’s couch, trying to remain inconspicuous and very much aware that she was the only other human in the audience.

She had followed Dyran out to the arena, even though it meant crossing under that horrid open sky to do so, and he had made no move to stop her. Nor had anyone barred her from his side when he took his place in his private box with his guests, V’Tarn Sandar Lord Festin and V’Kal Alinor Lady Auraen. The Lady had given her a very sharp and penetrating look when Serina entered behind Dyran, but when she made no move to seat herself, but rather, remained standing in a posture of humility, the Lady evidently made up her mind to ignore the human interloper.

All three elven lords were in high formal garb, in their house colors, wearing elaborate surcoats stiff with bullion, embroidery in gold and silver thread, and bright gemstones, all in motifs that reflected their Clan crests. Dyran sported gold and vermilion sunbursts, Lord Sandar wore emerald and sapphire delphins, and Lady Alinor pale green and silver cranes.

The occasion for all this finery was the settling of a disagreement between Lord Vossinor and Lord Jertain. Serina wasn’t entirely sure what, exactly, the disagreement was about. It did involve a disputed trade route, and a series of insults traded in Council – and it was by the ruling of the Council itself that the duel was to take place.

‘… and I, for one, am heartily sick of it,’ Lady Alinor murmured to Dyran as she dropped gracefully into her seat. ‘Jertain might actually be in the right this time, but he has lied so often that how can one know for certain? I truly believe that he doesn’t know the truth of the matter anymore.’

‘The Council is exceedingly grateful to you and Edres for providing the means of settling the damned situation once and for all,’ Sandar said, with just the faintest hint of annoyance.

Dyran only smiled graciously. ‘I am always happy to be of service to the Council,’ he said smoothly, handing Lady Alinor a rosy plum from the dish Serina held out to him.

He’s been working toward this for months, Serina thought smugly, offering the dish to Lord Sandar as well. This way the Council owes him for getting a nuisance out of their hair, and neither side can expect him to take a side. No matter who wins, he wins. Not to mention the favors owed for providing a neutral place, and fighters matched to a hair.

‘And what about the dispute between Hellebore and Ondine?’ Sandar asked Alinor. ‘Is there any word on that?’

‘Oh, it’s to be war, as I told you,’ she replied offhandedly. ‘The Board is going to meet in a few days to decide on the size of the armies and where they’ll meet. After that it will be up to the two of them. I told you they’d never settle an inheritance dispute with anything less than a war.’
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