In this emptiness of time I have never known a place as peaceful for me as in the slave internment, completely walled off from the monsters, a warlord’s asset to be protected and fed. But even inside there were dangers, for in a place where there is nothing to gain and nothing to lose, there are still men, and in some ways they are the most dangerous monsters of all.
Eret, the leader among the slaves, left me alone for a while, neither harassing me, nor inviting me to his fold. I was careful not to assert myself against him, and he didn’t seem anxious to test me, but some of his underlings showed signs of annoyance and displeasure. None seemed to know anything about Enta.
I had better luck with the keepers. I told them stories and made them laugh. They didn’t believe I killed a gobahr, but it didn’t matter, they enjoyed the telling. A guard named Tumat told me how he killed a porgrent, and it was my turn to laugh.
A few of them had seen Enta when she came through, but didn’t know what the traders did with her. She was too young for slave work and the warlord Breshkan forbad concubinage at her age. This little fact, knowing that she would not be misused in this way, carved a shaving of mercy in me that, should I ever confront the warlord in this merciless time, no matter what else, he might receive my gratitude.
I played Pantishat with several of Eret’s pack, a game of chance using cards, dice, and spoons.
“You didn’t kill no gobahr,” said Kem, a fierce Labrine, and one that I’d rescued from a collax.
I shrugged. “All right.”
The game turned aggressive, with heavier betting and challenges to roll, but I played it cool, stood my hand and took it from them.
“You’re a liar,” said Harge, another one from Kem’s chain.
My senses flared a warning. This wasn’t friendly jibing, they baited me. Stebby bustled up behind them and rolled his eyes to my left. A glance confirmed that more of them gathered behind me.
I stood and scooped up my winnings and pocketed them. “I think we’re done here.”
“I don’t think so,” said Kem.
I was now surrounded, and the keepers on the walls yelled for them to disperse, but they didn’t move.
I cracked my knuckles. “What do you hope to achieve, Kem.”
I estimated half of Eret’s men now surrounded me. These weren’t warriors, but I estimated a quarter of them might put up a decent fight. I would surely defeat them, but they might find that thin line of luck to kill me, and I had no desire to hurt them.
Kem spat. “Order.”
“Words of a slave keeper,” I said.
This is the problem with living one’s life in the unforgiving hell that is this world—I only ever fight to kill, because the alternative in the wild is my own death. If I fought these men to win, I would kill many of them. I had to discourage them with the most convincing show of strength.
The man I chose was unknown to me, and he stood behind Harge, his arms folded, biceps flexing, the corner of his mouth twitching. Other than me, he was the biggest man among them.
I picked up a spoon, leapt over the table, and reached him before he’d barely uncrossed his arms. I punched him square in the chest. A rib cracked and he grunted. I spun around him and put him in a hold with the spoon handle at his jugular, then pulled him out of the circle so no one stood behind me.
The keepers yelled from the walls. “Don’t kill him. He is Kasto.”
I glared at the crowd with the meanest look I could muster. I had to hold back a laugh. “I can kill this man with one quick move. You saw how fast I took him. What chance do you believe you have to survive a fight with me?”
Some of them started to back off, but three moved closer. I pinned the first one with my eyes. “After I take out his throat, I will break your knee.” I turned my eyes on the next one. “And I will break your neck.”
“What about me?” asked the third.
“I estimate you will be convinced when I finish the other two.”
The third one backed off, and the other two followed. I had hope that I could escape this without spilling blood.
“You will have no trouble from me if you give me none.” I released my hold on the man and stepped back. His arms dropped and he hunched over holding his chest. “If you still demand it, let’s go.”
The crowd started to break, but the man I’d held turned around and slashed at me with a blade. The conditioning of the wild took over, and I twisted his wrist, took his knife away, and buried it in his heart, twisting to do the greatest damage. I pulled it out, and the man dropped to the ground, his face in the dirt.
The crude, dull blade dripped with his blood, and the crowd scattered, some new fear in them.
“Mallocrest.” Tumat the slave keeper called from the wall. “Bring the knife to the pen.”
I walked to a fenced in part of the internment. Tumat let me in, three keepers pointed pistols at me as he took the knife. “You played that well,” he said. “But you chose badly.”
I turned as Tumat checked my clothing for more items. “They saw what happened to him. I think they’ll leave me alone for a while.”
“I’m certain they will. They will stay very far away from you. The man you killed was Breshkan’s cousin, sent here for punishment.”
“No.” There are few things in these hellish times that surprise me, but my jaw was slack.
“He will kill you, of course.”