Transformation by Carol Berg
...I could not sleep that night. I tried everything I knew, but never had the cold seemed so bitter or the darkness so filled with dread. Whether open or closed, my eyes could see nothing but the Khelid's ice-blue eyes, and I came near screaming for a single ray of light that might banish them. My haven of darkness became a well of madness. I huddled in the corner; I paced the five steps from wall to wall until I was dizzy and could not stand upright...anything to keep myself from thinking, from remembering, from seeing. I peered at the ceiling until I found the thread of gold that marked the square of the trap door, and I hung onto that thread as a drowning child hangs onto his father's hand. I translated the muffled steps and voices above my head into human beings who had souls, who had eyes that were not demon's eyes. And when all grew quiet and the thread of gold winked out, I moaned and buried my face in my arms.
Not a week this time, Durgan. Not five days or three. If you have a soul, slavemaster, don't leave me here too long or you"ll find a raving lunatic when you open the door again.
One might have thought the demon had taken up its residence in me, feeding on anger I could no longer recognize in myself, because I had forbidden it for so long. I told myself it could not know me. It was not a demon's nature to associate a bodily form with those it had encountered at other times in other places. Yet such reasoned arguments held no sway when I crouched naked in the dark and tried so desperately to lose myself in sleep.
Well, we can always bear more than we believe possible. By the second day from the execution feast, I was sleeping again, though not peacefully. I received three rounds of food and water, and thus I believe three days passed before Durgan dropped his ladder to me again. Though I had regained my composure, I was up the ladder almost before it touched the floor.
The sturdy slavemaster examined me curiously as I knelt shivering in the clean straw of the deserted slavehouse. It was early morning.
"These last days have not been so easy as before, have they? I heard you cry out."
"It's no matter, Master Durgan." A slave barracks was one of the noisiest places in the world to sleep. Most slaves had plenty of fuel with which to feed nightmares; I happened to have more than most. But one could not afford to let slip any hint of madness. Mad slaves were useless and dangerous; they disappeared very quickly, and one didn't ask where.
"Make yourself ready. You"re to be in the First Audience Hall today. I"m told a table sits beside the Prince's chair. You"re to be seated at the table, prepared for writing work, by the first hour of third watch. You can get paper and ink and whatever else you need from the Third Steward. Any questions?"
I asked where the Third Steward was to be found, then asked what I might be expected to be writing in the large drafty First Audience Hall.
"It's the Dar Heged begins this day. There"ll be letters and messages and judgments and proclamations."
"Is it usual for a slave...?"
Durgan cocked his head to one side and ran his gaze over me. "No. Not usual at all. I"ve heard...." He flicked his eyes to the left side of my face. "...that maybe His Highness thinks to have a little reminder of recent events on view when his lords come." Durgan caught himself up and flushed. He"d been thinking out loud rather than answering me. I had just happened to voice the question that was already in his head. "Get on with you and mind your tongue."
"Always," I said, and bowed to him before taking myself to the cistern. On that gray morning I had to crack ice to get to the water for washing. Others had been there before me. The surface of the cistern was a miniature mountain range of ice shards: broken, pushed aside, and frozen to each other again, as if some ghostly hand had done it. The dull shaving knife lay in a scattering of frozen hair of every color and texture. I had yet to see those who shared the slavehouse with me. The men who glided through the palace passageways and kitchens in their fenzai and shorn hair might have been players in a traveling company for all I knew. Only three people in the palace were real. Durgan, for he fed me and spoke to me. Aleksander, who controlled my life. And the Khelid...the demon. I shuddered at the memory and put him out of my mind. There was nothing to be done about the demon.
Durgan was sitting on the floor at the far end of the slavehouse in front of a small brazier, sharpening a long, old-fashioned sword. On my way out the door he glanced up. "I"ve been told you have a name."
I halted, but said nothing, prepared for another taste of bitter truth.
"Ezzarians don't like their names used." He resumed his sharpening, moving the blade rhythmically across the gray stone. It was a statement, not a question, yet it was left open at the end. He was not finished with what he wanted to say. It was very curious.
"You know something of Ezzarians," I said in the same manner, though I was certain that whatever he knew, it did not approach the truth. Privacy…secrecy…was our lifeblood.
"My family is from the south. Karesh."
Karesh was a small town in the rolling southern grasslands of Manganar, perhaps four days journey from the Ezzarian border. We had traded in Karesh when I was a boy, and it had seemed a crowded metropolis to a child from a land of small, scattered woodland settlements. "Karesh has the finest ale in the Empire," I said. "And our miller would buy no other wheat."
"Aye." The thick fingers pressed the shining blade to the stone. The conversation was finished. Much more had been said than words could convey.
I started out the door again, then paused, closed my eyes, and spoke quietly over my shoulder. "Master Durgan, do not cross paths with the Khelid."
From the corner of my eye I saw his head jerk up, and I felt his eyes on my back as I ran across the busy courtyard to the kitchen door, thinking I was the greatest fool ever to draw breath. One kind word changed nothing. Durgan carried a lash...
Copyright © Carol Berg, 2000
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