I spent the night lying in the mud beside the dying fire, my hands tied behind my back and my feet lashed together. The cold, Mother-forsaken rain came down in sheets starting around midnight and then tailing off just before dawn, soaking me to the bone while my three loutish captors snored loudly from beneath the shelter of collapsed branches. I rolled onto my side so the rain wouldn’t hit me square in the face and propped my head up onto a nearby rock so I wouldn’t swallow any of the mud creeping up my cheek. I cursed Bramble and the names of every Riddari I knew. Nothing was worth this.
Rody was the first to awaken a few hours after sunrise. He stumbled out of the shelter, scratching his ass as he stepped beside me and unbuttoned his trousers to urinate not far from my head. He looked down at me groggily, as if he’d forgotten I was there. “How’d ye get so wet?” he asked, feigning innocence. I tried to spit at his ankle but I missed miserably. He roused his companions and they relit the fire to prepare breakfast. Thankfully they ate in silence. I wasn’t offered a single morsel, but I wouldn’t have eaten their slop anyway.
After the camp was broken down and distributed amongst their three packs, Rody ran a rought length of rope around my neck and cut my feet free. “Act out and it gets tighter,” he growled when he saw me straining my neck against the scratchy fiber, trying to find a comfortable spot. I nodded and gave up. If I cooperated, maybe I could lull them into a false sense of security. Then maybe they’d stop paying close attention to me. Maybe they’d leave a knot a little too loose, or stand me up near a rock or tree with a rough edge I could use to saw my way free.
And maybe, if I closed my eyes and wished hard enough, I could’ve grown wings and flown out of there. Fantasies of escape kept my mind occupied and my spirits from collapsing completely, but I knew deep down I was going to be sold to some mah’saiid collector and there was nothing I could do about it. My only real hope was that the buyer would recognize me for what I was and inform my captors of the truth. Surely then they’d see reason, apologize, and send me on my way.
The trappers set a brisk pace through the jungle and back to the road. Pap lead the way, swatting vegetation aside with a bent old machete. The boy followed close behind, bent nearly double beneath a heavy pack loaded with their equipment and the fruits of their hunt. Rody and I brought up the rear.
“Stay in front of me, where can sees ye.”
I tried my best to match the stride of the boy up ahead, but Rody was never satisfied with my attempts. When I went too fast, the rough rope bit into my throat like fire. When I went too slow, he’d shove me in the back and send me tumbling forward into a patch of mud or a nest of ants or a patch of prickly foliage. The bites and scratches healed almost immediately, but my pride was not so easily repaired. Never in my life have I wished death upon another living being, but Rody so infuriated me that I prayed to the Mother asking that he be horribly maimed.
We turned toward the city when we reached the road. Traffic was sparse; more people were heading for the settlement than were leaving it, and nearly all traveled slower than us, burdened with heavy wagons loaded with what could only be described as absolute crap: chunks of broken buildings, twisted pieces of useless metal, piles of ruined clothing, bones and hair and even a tree uprooted from the earth and dropped across a cart. “Idiots,” Rody spat. “Ain’t none o’ that shit mah’saiid. We gots the only thing on this whole road worth a damn.”
Few of those we passed even bothered to look my way, though I tried hard to look as pathetically desperate as I could, limping and coughing and staring at them with pleading eyes. Nefazo, it seemed, was short on idealistic heros and good samaritans. At least Rody had grown bored with torturing me, though I suspect this was just because he was too busy leering at the very friendly, very scantily clad ladies following close behind us. I suppose a roll in the sheets with a couple of flea-bitten, toothless, malnourished, illiterate, diseased strumpets was the best a despicable, dirty, abusive, sociopathic kidnapper could aspire to.
The road turned into a steep slope as we approached the city. Rody’s two lady friends took one look at the imposing incline and turned back the way they came. The city above was nestled in the bosom of an impressive mountain range. It could’ve been beautiful, I suppose, had I the slightest appreciation for construction, but I wondered why the lij had marred the natural beauty of the mountains, why they bothered building in such a difficult location. Such folly could only be the product of a people painfully aware of their own transient existence.
The outskirts of the city were like a scab on a painted face. Random bits and pieces of wood, stone, and fabric climbed all over each other as if expelled from the ground and left where they’d fallen. People lived in the spaces in between, filthy and vile. Hungry eyes watched us pass from innumerable dark corners, held back, I believed, only by the blessed sunlight.
The boy fell back to walk by my side. “Welcome to Terre Haute,” he said. “The real Terre Haute, not the whitewashed little paradise further up. All these people thought it was a good idea to go digging through your ruins. Thought they’d make their fortunes. We ain’t ending up like them. Leave the treasure hunting to the fools.”
“Shut the hell up!” Rody commanded, giving the rope a firm tug that almost put me on my back. The boy rolled his eyes and hurried back ahead of me. “Boy reads too damn much,” Rody growled.
The shantytown gradually faded into small squat buildings made of a single material, usually stone or raw chunks of the local trees. I couldn’t imagine living in such a dark, dank space, but apparently these mortals cared little for the breeze or the sunshine or the haunting beauty of the moons and the stars. The next neighborhood was even less inviting, the walls and roofs thick and square and intimidating. The people became cleaner, their hair tamed and their skin polished, their clothing layered and intricate and crisp. It was if money and status gave one the power to keep the real world at bay.
We stopped before the massive iron doors of a building twice as tall as its neighbors. Tendrils of steam wafted skyward from three stout chimneys atop the roof. Pap banged the pommel of his machete against the door, sending a metallic hum rattling through my teeth. A small slit squealed open to reveal a pair of beady, suspicious eyes.
“Ugh, not you again,” the man on the other side of the door squeaked. “Master Lancois is not in the market for squirrels or their hides or their bones or whatever part you want to sell this time.”
“Tradiciol, my friend, I come bearing a singular opportunity!” Pap declared, speaking slowly and carefully in a terrible parody of intellectual speech. “Why should your master set and wait for a bunch of dirty jungle humpers to bring him mah’saiid treasures when he can go right to the source with a mah’saiid of his own?”
I couldn’t help rolling my eyes. Rody slapped the back of my head.
The ferret-like eyes swiveled to examine me, but only briefly. “You have a point,” Tradiciol replied. There came a series of clicks and whirs as the locking mechanism disengaged, and then one of the doors eased open just far enough to admit Pap’s ridiculous girth. The rest of us followed him inside.
The anteroom was a massive, cavernous space lit by the ethereal, flickering flames of a pair of torches mounted in heavy iron sconces in the far wall. Tradiciol stood beside Pap, half as tall and half as wide as the big trapper, his silver hair and powdered face shimmering in the half light. He pulled a lever on the wall once we were all inside, slamming the heavy door shut behind us. My fate, I felt, was sealed.
Tradiciol looked me up and down. “Quite the specimen you have there. Master Lancois will be pleased. Follow me.”
The attendant lead us down one of the many hallways branching off the main anteroom like spokes on a wheel. Master Lancois had quite the collection of mah’saiid relics. We passed a jade fresco of Guil Ghemmal stripped away from its original home and reinstalled on the wall of the hallway. I stopped to admire a table set with blue and gold clay pottery obviously from the Third Insistine Era before Rody shoved me forward. The arches in the ceiling were sandstone laced with veins of gold, obviously lifted from a mah’saiid structure. This Lancois knew his mah’saiid–surely he’d recognize that I wasn’t what Pap thought.
The hall ended at a heavy set of double doors hung from ancient, golden hinges. The air here was humid and warm, as if we’d stepped into a swamp. A vast cloud of steam wafted out from the next room as Tradiciol opened the door and beckoned us inside.
“Visitors!” a deep voice bellowed gregariously from somewhere in the fog. “Tradiciol, where are your manners! Lower the steam so my guests and I can do business face to face!”
I heard the heavy clank of another lever, and then a series of clicks as the wooden slats in the walls flipped upwards to allow the steam to escape. The room cleared slowly, finally revealing a great pool of white and black marble set in the floor, the crystal clear water bubbling with heat. Seated against the pool’s far wall was the largest man I’d ever seen, a great hairless whale of a lij with a bulbous body glistening with sweat. His face reminded me of a canine I’d seen once, an ugly beast with big jowls and a droopy brow that looked rather dumb but also rather content. A long, narrow strip of what appeared to be platinum studded with enough jewels to buy half of Terre Haute dangled from his left ear. Six naked women flanked him, three on either side, beauties in every sense of the word save for their shaved heads.
Lancois locked eyes with Pap and frowned. “Oh, not you again. That last batch of pelts gave my ladies an awful rash, and that liver paste did nothing for my ingrown toenail. Get out.”
Pap was unabashed. “If ye insist, my dear Master Lancois,” he said, feigning defeat. “But then I’d have to sell this here mah’saiid to Fenssaint the Spade, and I knows he won’t give me as good a price.”
The large man’s gaze swung in my direction. A wide, shimmering grin spread across his chubby face. He’d replaced all of his real teeth with gold replicas. “My apologies, Pap. You were right to come to me. Will five hundred copper suffice?”
Lancois rubbed his chin with one meaty finger. “A fair price for a mah’saiid. Tradiciol, escort Pap out and see that he’s paid. And throw in a few pounds of salted beef while you’re at it.”
Pap bowed deeply to Lancois, then he and the other trappers followed Tradiciol out.
“S-s-sir,” I stammered once the others had gone. “I do believe you’ve been swindled.”
“Swindled? How so? Six hundred copper is more than a fair price for a mah’saiid,” he said mischievously. “But six hundred copper is a bargain price when one is purchasing Fae.”