The verdict. Many would prefer execution. Owners and handlers always required an explanation.
“He’s too old and diseased for stud, and health issues prevent function in menial labor. I spent last night conducting a thorough examination, and sources informed me of routine disobedience. His existence only wastes resources. Let him rot in the desert,” the provincial vizier ordered, watching the sentenced individual carefully. She’d lost count how many times she’d seen that pathetic, doomed expression on a man’s face before.
They were always like that. The unbroken ones, anyway; always making it seem like they had feelings.
Every time, if left unchecked, those same sniveling husks tried to campaign with their brethren: an attempt to riot. The public and the government didn’t like admitting the existence of such troubles, so she was left to dump the waste herself. Dangerous work, sometimes, but she could handle it. If she limited herself to one thorough investigation per day, she could give every serious case its due without exposure to too much peril. The other officials often insisted she buy a personal bodyguard, but they didn’t understand.
All men were the same.
She’d be safer in a pit of vipers. Illustrating her point, she expected a notorious insurgent in her court at any moment. In fact, the newly-exiled slave hadn’t even left her halls before an official entered, attended by six guards and a single prisoner in chains. The vizier briefly caught the two convicts’ gazes lock before drifting back to the floor. The “insurgent” was exactly as described.
Rank six. In his twenty-fourth season. Highly rated for his strong lines, performance, and exquisite physique, but bred rarely on account of a temper. Served three seasons in the Imperial Infantry. Apprehended for violent behavior, defiance, suspected treason, and fraternizing with whelp.
Immediately she knew something was wrong. “What is the meaning of this, naib?”
The other woman bowed swiftly. “My Lady?”
The stilted, waddling gait, the hollowed pains on his face, the unfocused eyes…it was obvious.
The vizier’s expression soured. “What have you done?”
“M-My Lady, please! It was the only way to subdue him!”
“Castrating a registered stud without vizier sanction is a violation against the Queen herself. My sources reported him in tact. How do you plan to restore the government’s lost property?” The vizier turned to her attendant. “See to it one of her sons is moved to stud preparation.”
The vizier didn’t miss the distress in the prisoner’s eyes. She smiled at the official. “You should thank us, naib. It’ll be a step up from servitude. Too bad you won’t see any of his fees.”
The official stiffened and bowed. “And the prisoner?”
The vizier hummed, “He’s now useless for stud, and his rebellion makes him untrustworthy as a soldier or house slave, but…”
She scrutinized him. He was indeed handsome, as all ranked studs were, and his last owner let his hair grow; looking very much a chained lion in his shackles. He only bore a couple brands in addition to the rank scored on his back.
So despite his violence, he had been through only a handful of owners. Interesting…
Could there be something that gave this shackled lion purpose or was he worthless now that he no longer functioned?
“I will investigate him tonight. At the very least, he might give us information on his fellow rebels. I should have my verdict in the morning, though I’m fairly certain a vicious beast faces nothing but elimination. Take him to the spare chambers.”
That night would indeed be intriguing, but all would play out favorably.
She was justice.
She could hear his breathing from the hall, and, upon entry, her suspicions were confirmed. The prisoner’s body hung limp from the chains that secured him to the wall, an involuntary spasm accompanying each shuddering breath.
So the opium was wearing off…
She approached, maintaining just enough closeness for her shadow to overcome him in the severe lighting of eventide. “I am Vizier Yaqin, as I’m sure you’re aware. What did your last master call you?”
She knew, of course, but she had to measure his coherence. Pain was a good motivator for divulgence of information.
His head lolled towards her, half-lidded eyes jittery from strain. “Yafeu Tau,” he croaked.
She frowned. Just looking at him, Yaqin could tell he was in poor condition. She’d have to work fast. “Tell me, Tau, the names of those you conspire with.”
His expression warped with a grimace and a groan, “I-I don’t know of what you speak, My Lady.”
She sighed, waving attendants bearing water and herbs into the room. “Now, if you reveal names of the other traitors, I can end your pain.”
His dark eyes dared focus on her then, and he looked every bit the imprisoned lion she’d imagined. “My sincerest respect, My Lady, but whether or not I revealed anything to you, you would end my torment nonetheless. My cooperation does nothing but prolong my agony.”
By the stars, he’d earned his reputation.
“Then I put it to you, Tau, how will you prove your worth to me?”
He brazenly kept eye contact. “How can I, My Lady, when you’ve already issued my condemnation in your heart?”
Yaqin’s attendants exchanged uncomfortable glances, and she bade them leave after they’d relinquished the water and medicine. She lit the sconces one by one, the room echoing his infrequent breathing. When she finished, Yaqin knelt to his level. “Careful, Tau. I am not so corrupt a judge to refuse you a chance. You have one night to convince me otherwise, as did all those before you. I will withhold my verdict until dawn.”
He didn’t respond, and she poured the water into a basin and soaked the basin’s washing cloth. Stooping before him again, she held the cloth to his mouth. “Don’t drink too much, it’ll only be painful later.”
Tau ignored her advice, sucking until he coughed. Yaqin sighed. This wasn’t going to be easy.
Tau hung his head and closed his eyes. She waited so long she wondered if he’d fallen asleep. His breath had evened out, and the shuddering had quelled…Really, did his insolence–
“I cannot fulfill my ‘purpose’ any longer. Potential buyers will deem me unfit to work house, field, or guard due to my perceived disposition. To you, I may have no worth. I may be a waste of resources…” A long pause. “But the boys in my handler’s caravan considered me a decent storyteller…”
Yaqin snorted. “Storytelling?”
“You promised one night, My Lady. If my story doesn’t please you this night, I will meet my fate without another word.”
Storytelling. Was he serious? How did he expect to entertain her, a realistic lady of nobility and status, with stories meant for slavelings whilst he hung on the wall like a beaten animal?
He was right about one thing. She did promise him a chance. So she prepared to attend to the herbs for a pain remedy, but he stopped her. “Please, My Lady. Allow me the dignity of a sound mind this night.”
Yaqin levelled him with more than a healthy dose of skepticism.
He swallowed. “I know listening to my pain must be irritating, but I beg you. If this is my last night, I wish to feel every bit of pain left in me. As long as I feel it, I’m still alive.”
It’d been a long time since she’d entertained a prisoner this insolent and demanding. Particularly a man.
Withdrawing a key from her robes, she adjusted the wall’s irons, slackening his chains enough for his arms to drop. After checking his shackles’ security, she stepped backwards to grab a cushion from the room’s bedding and toss it at him. Then she reclined on the bedding and motioned for him to begin.
Tau could barely hold himself upright and managed to lean on the borrowed cushion. He laboriously cleared his throat.
He then launched into a story he’d overheard as a child from his master’s daughters. They’d spoken of wishes and sorcery, of a peasant girl named Iman, whom they met once, living in the bazaar with her family’s slave after her mother’s passing.
“Stop. This girl had no other female relatives? What of the government? Matters of an orphan would require documents and orders from a vizier or local governor. Even the north country would forbid a fledgeling girl to home alone with a man.”
Tau didn’t miss a beat. “All veneration and respect to you, My Lady, I know my place, but interrupting my story will only make it longer for you, and would be considered rude were I a woman.”
Stunned into silence, she huffed and glared at him. Insolent dog.
His voice drifted back into the poetic flourish he’d been using, muted though it was by his condition. He spoke of a woman arriving in the bazaar, claiming to be Iman’s aunt who’d crossed the mountains to seek her fortune. When the woman found out Iman’s mother was dead, she vowed to make Iman a successful merchant and gifted her a golden ring, claiming it to grant wishes.
“Halt. That makes no sense. How would your master’s daughters know this if they only met Iman once?”
Tau glowered at her until she relented, “Very well, continue.”
He picked up where he’d left off, describing how the woman took Iman to the mountains, informing her that a mudslide had overtaken the mountain pass and the only way was through a small cave that only Iman could enter. The woman warned her of thieves hiding their treasures in the mountains, including oil lamps from the royal palace, and ordered her to return if she found any of them.
“Who would believe such a story? This woman is obviously a charlatan, even a child could see that! This whole charade is nothing but a ruse to bring the woman the stolen lamps!”
This time, a smile curled across Tau’s face, and her blood boiled. Whether it was rage or embarrassment, or both, she couldn’t tell. She snarled and reclined away from him. Perhaps he wouldn’t be so arrogant if he thought his story put her to sleep.
Yet he continued, detailing Iman’s descent into the mountain, only to stumble upon one of the lamps her ‘aunt’ had mentioned. It felt valuable, and Iman thought something so beautiful shouldn’t be hidden away, so she took it and turned around, as the woman had asked…only to find her exit suddenly blocked by mud and stone.
Yaqin grinned to herself. She knew it. The woman was a charlatan. Tau had lost, she’d figured out his story’s little twist. With that satisfaction, her eyes grew heavy. If he still spoke from his place slumped by the wall, she could no longer hear him.
Tau was asleep when Yaqin awoke. She summoned her attendants to the room. Yaqin handed off the leftover herbs, muttering, “Make sure he takes it, and keep him on standby should I send for him.”
Nearly dawn. It was time.
However, even after she’d seated herself on the dais of her court, she couldn’t stop thinking. What had happened to that little girl? She’d fallen asleep before she found out. Obviously, Iman had to have survived, otherwise there would be no story…right? Had anyone investigated the girl’s disappearance? Did local law get involved? Did anyone open a case for her? Orphaned peasant or no, Iman deserved justice.
But the sentiment was fruitless. Tau hadn’t given her the information she requested, and now his life depended on her opinion of a story she hadn’t allowed him to finish. She promised one night, and she didn’t even grant him that. She wouldn’t tolerate a notion of corruption hanging over her heart; even livestock deserved justice.
What could be done? His sentence declaration was due in mere moments and she hadn’t even reached a verdict…
Yaqin heard the rhythmic clacking of sandals down the halls, and she knew she’d run out of time. She had to make a decision, and fast.
“A jinn, are you serious?”
“That’s how the story goes, My Lady–”
“Enchanted creatures just magically appearing out of a ring? And by touch? Why didn’t it appear before?”
“Do you wish me to stop, My Lady?”
Yaqin hated that satisfied glint in his eye, but she had to know. She’d managed to buy him another night without looking suspicious, hoping to finish and gather more information.
Tau was doing better, he’d eaten a little, and the medicine had dulled his pain; he even sat upright, grand gestures accompanying his hypnotic rhetoric. As long as his shackles remained tightly in place, she didn’t mind his theatrics.
He went on, even imitating the jinn in a booming voice when it asked Iman why she cried. The jinn transported her outside, the lamp still in her hands and the ring still on her finger. And she embarked on her journey home.
Just when Yaqin thought he was done, his tale spiralled off, taking her with it. A second jinn, riches, adoption into royalty, and an expertly executed revenge. She was unsure when she became lost in it, but it was deep into the night when his tale finished. His eyes implored her, and he spoke up again, “Is that satisfactory, My Lady? Do you wish for another?”
It should’ve been a question she expected from a prisoner delaying his fate, but would she be satisfied with her verdict with only one example? One thing was definite. As audacious as he was, Tau definitely didn’t deserve exile. Public execution as a masterless gelding would be utter humiliation, and, if he was secretly instigating a riot, would only make him a martyr and cause further unrest. Just a little longer, and she might get him to say something useful.
“Very well. One more.”
Seven days. It’d been seven days. Yaqin knew what he was doing, always leaving off a story at the worst time or beginning another only to not have time to finish. She still hadn’t received information out of him, but he was unlike most men. He was not only unbroken, he was steadfast. Even now it was clear he prefered exile to revealing the information she desired. It made her wonder just how widely his rebellion had spread. She had to break him slowly.
Tau had just finished scarfing down perfumed stew when she appeared in the doorway, scowling just in time to catch his eye and watch him boorishly slurp the bowl dry. His sweat and oily mass of hair were also distastefully distracting. Her revulsion must’ve been obvious, as he coughed trying to swallow after looking at her face. He bowed his head. “A story tonight, My Lady?”
“First…” Yaqin withdrew a blade from her belt, deliciously watching the nervous bob in his neck. She entered and knelt, filching his cushion and placing it before her. “Sit, Tau. Your hair is disgusting.”
His confusion evident on his face, he glanced between the cushion and her knees on the stone.
“Would you rather sit on the floor?” she challenged, hazarding a measured scan over his body. His movement was lightning as he seated himself, his chains clanking in his wake.
Yaqin lifted an eyebrow. “You prefer shorter hair?”
“Please, My Lady.”
She clucked her tongue at him and recoiled the moment she touched his greasy mane. As long as he was well-restrained and she possessed a blade, everything would be fine. It would be fine. “In return, you will tell a story that will interest me.” Hopefully a confession.
“Yes, My Lady.”
His next tale started with another humble beginning.
Talieh was a stone cutter from the south, whose sister Kazm had left and made a fortune as a stud handler. Talieh was satisfied with her life, and her work was used for elaborate tombs, though she and her daughter made little money. When she decided to visit a tomb to see her work finished, she found a gang of forty grave robbers loitering about its walls. Upon investigation, she discovered them using an enchantment on her stones to open a gateway into the tomb. Talieh followed, discovering all the treasures they’d amassed hidden inside. Taking a single bag of gold pieces, she fled. When her sister returned, finding the stolen gold by accident, she pressured Talieh for the secret.
As Yaqin listened to him, something nagged at her. His face. Why did he look so agonized? He tried to hide it with grandiose speech and probably assumed she didn’t notice, but she did. Finally, she’d started to break him.
His story continued as her blade shore through his locks. Blinded by greed, Talieh’s sister used the enchantment to enter the tomb, only to forget the enchantment when she went to leave. By then it was too late, and the grave robbers returned. Talieh fetched the body, bestowing the task of masquerading it as a natural death to her clever young so–daughter…
Yaqin stopped cutting. “Tau. You almost said ‘son’. Tell me what you’re thinking of. You’ve never stuttered or missed a detail before.”
He flinched. “A-Apologies, My Lady. I shall continue.”
“No, Tau. You will tell me what you’re thinking.” She wrapped a chunk of his hair around her hand and pulled. “Now.”
Tau exhaled, taking his time to comply. Yaqin saw his forlorn eyes, and allowed him a moment. After all, she was finally getting somewhere.
“My first handler registered me in this province years ago. When I recently returned, I…encountered a boy, the first child I sired after my registration. A bright, curious thing, full of life.” Tau chuckled bitterly. “He enjoyed my stories, until the day they took him into stud preparation, citing his pleasing appearance and strong lineage,” he spat.
Yaqin couldn’t help leaning to observe his countenance, and bile arose in her throat at the sight of that pathetic, doomed visage she’d seen on every other man. This was what she wanted, right? To break him…
“So, your expression when I sentenced the official’s son…” she prompted.
He glanced back at her. “You noticed that?”
Yaqin lifted an eyebrow. “I am justice. I have to notice everything.”
“I…couldn’t bear the thought of another boy being sent to stud because of me.”
Yaqin laughed. “You’re so naïve, Tau. You know what would’ve happened to your whelp and the official’s boy when they reached maturity had they stayed slaves…”
Tau shook his head. “You don’t understand, My Lady. As a slave, you can pretend invisibility at times, but…” He turned to shamelessly seek eye contact. “Sending a man to stud is execution from the inside.” This time, he was the one to withdraw. “I…tried to stop them from taking him, it took nine men at once to overwhelm me, and here I am.”
No surprise. It didn’t take six armed guards to escort a normal prisoner, let alone one newly gelded. The thought made her glance down at his thick iron shackles, just to be sure. As long as he was chained, she was safe. She hummed, “So that’s what your charges were for? And the charge for treason?”
“My lady, the moment I tell you anything, I have brought the blade upon my neck, for you will have no more use of me.”
After cropping his hair to a reasonable length, she slid her fingers through it, a smirk touching her mouth, “Not necessarily. You haven’t told me how Talieh’s child fools the public.”
Tau tried to conceal his satisfaction, but she noticed that too.
She didn’t want to tell him.
Yaqin watched him mimic a perfectly enacted duel with vicious birdmen using an invisible scimitar and playing out the scene as dynamically as shackles would allow. It was the seventh night of the most exciting story yet. A sailor named Asefeh who’d been marooned on shores the world over, encountering giants and monsters and cannibals, always using her wit to execute a daring escape. She’d return home with fathomless treasures, only for her wanderlust to lure her back to the sea again and again.
But it had been forty days. And Yaqin still couldn’t get him to talk. She’d waited too long, and it was too late.
Even if she pardoned him, there was nowhere for him to go. No one to take him in. He had displayed obstruction of law and violence, after all, and his reasoning would be inane to this world’s “sense of justice”.
Catching sight of the haze of dawn from the window, she knew.
She had to tell him.
He didn’t hear her, too absorbed in his tale. Yaqin interrupted louder, “Tau! The Queen has scheduled your sentencing for this morn. We have to go!”
He froze. “What?”
“I took too long carrying out a verdict for your case, and the Queen made a formal announcement before the people that all open cases must be resolved before dry season preparation begins. Yours was first on the list, due today.”
A strange coupling of rage and panic sunk into his eyes. “She did what?” He dropped to his knees and lurched towards her. “Before the whole kingdom?”
She flinched, then rose and stood with arms akimbo, “Don’t think your little rebellion will be your rescue, she didn’t tell anyone where the prisoners were being held. No one even knows you’re here.”
His rage-panic only mounted. “No. No no no no no, My Lady we have to go!”
She thought Tau was different, but in the end, he was just like all other men, doing whatever it took to prolong their worthless existences, regardless of what happened to those who got in their way. How dare he lure her into a state of security only to try to escape!
Yaqin drew her blade, yanking the chains attached to his wrists. He stumbled to his feet, and she held the knife to his throat, hissing, “We’re going, Tau, but you will follow my directions. Your fate is long overdue.”
She paraded him before her as they stalked down the halls, her blade pressing into his back. Still, he objected, “No please, My Lady, turn around. You don’t understand! Please! Listen to me!”
Yaqin sneered, “I’ve listened to you for forty nights, and you’ve told me nothing.” She ignored the soppy, frantic look he gave her and marched faster, the blade digging into his back. When they reached the court, the curtains were drawn and the lampstands were unlit. Darkness.
Where were her attendants? The court guards? She hadn’t seen anyone in the halls either. They were gone.
She secured his chains to a mount on the dais steps, intending to light the lamps. Before she could stand, however, a hand clamped around her wrist, sending a jolt of recollective terror bristling through her body.
Tau pulled her closer, whispering, “You have to go, My Lady! Anywhere that’s not here.”
“And abandon my post, are you mad?” She couldn’t believe she ever considered pardoning him. This man had no limits, no capability of obedience. Now she knew exactly what verdict she would pass down.
Suddenly, thundering footsteps echoed through the halls, and, all at once, the sconces were lit, illuminating the faces of at least a dozen men. One called, “Tau, did she hurt you?” As she scanned over the faces, one of them looked oddly familiar…
That slave she exiled…
Her eyes slowly widened in understanding.
There was one person who knew where he was…
“Tau, are you unhurt?” another man shouted.
“I knew it.” She watched her prisoner, though his eyes tracked their intruders. “You…you’re their leader.”
Tau whispered, “Run, My Lady.”
That’s when she saw clearly. Every invader was armed and angry.
She’d be safer in a pit of vipers.
“We’d let you go, My Lady,” one man declared, “but your judgments have sent many a good servant to a torturous death in the desert. It is time you know justice.”
Tau tried to capture her gaze with one last word on his breath: “Run.”
It was for naught. Fear had engulfed her. All strength fled her legs and she sunk like a stone to the steps, her blade raised in shaking hands as a last defense. Years of her peers’ advice about a personal bodyguard came flooding back.
Tau, on the other hand, stepped in front of her, watching the trespassers. “My Lady. If you will not run, you must release me.”
Yaqin’s response trembled despite herself. “No.”
“My Lady, you must!”
Her skittering eyes finally diverted their attention to him. “Are you insane?”
“Unchain me, vizier! They will kill you!”
“Kill me if you must, I will not release you! I am justice!”
A feral lion’s growl erupted from Tau’s lungs, and he seized an unlit lampstand, spreading his stance to prepare a defense as he faced his fellow men.
“What are you doing, Tau?” the spokesman asked.
Tau grimaced. “This isn’t what I wanted, brothers. If one of us was to be incarcerated for violence, it was to be me alone. I cannot let you hurt her.”
“Why do you defend her? Look what she’s done to you!”
Tau shook his head, twisting to stare at Yaqin. She did her best to quell her shaking, but it mustn’t have worked, for Tau bent and tilted his head. “My Lady. Don’t look at them. Focus on my voice. Asefeh has one more adventure I haven’t yet recounted.”
Tau then squared his shoulders towards his adversaries. Their confused stares narrowed into hostility, and the spokesman confirmed, “You’re sure you wish to betray your own? For the sake of she who would have you executed?”
“I have not betrayed you. This was not our vision. It matters not what she does with me, but what I do with the time I have left.”
“Then you have made yourself our enemy.”
“So be it.”
As the first of the men sprinted towards him, Tau yelled back to Yaqin, “Asefeh’s final voyage began as a diplomacy mission.”
Tau blocked the first man’s spear with the lampstand and kneed his attacker’s stomach. “On the way home,” Tau continued, “Asefeh’s ship was commandeered and she was sold into slavery by foreigners.”
The second man didn’t even reach him, as Tau clubbed the man with the lampstand’s head so hard it sent him and the lamp itself rolling across the floor. Three more flanked him, he parried twice and blocked the third, hooking the lampstand into one man’s elbow. He spun, sending the man careening into the other two.
Yaqin watched Tau, his wrists shackled together and his feet chained to the dais upon which she’d collapsed. He held off every attack that approached, incapacitating his opponents but never killing any of them. And the whole time, he continued telling his story, peppered with the growls and roars of battle.
What was this man?
She couldn’t understand. He had no reason for this. Why didn’t he go with them?
“And finally, with a ship full of gifts of ivory, she returned home. This time, weary of her travels but thankful in her spirit. It was the last time she ever set sail.” Tau finished with a heaving grunt as he used his makeshift weapon to fling a man straight over his head.
Yaqin couldn’t take it anymore. She had to know. “Tau, why are you doing this? Why don’t you let them kill me?”
Tau took a fist to the ribs and snarled, returning the punch with a blow that made his opponent wheeze. “Because.” Clearing his throat, he stood tall, throwing off the assailant and gazing back at her, “You’re the first person to give me a chance.” He shot her a dangerously wry smile. “And the first woman to listen to my stories.”
The chained lion was untouchable. Tau stood alone in the court at brawl’s end, sweating in his restraints, his enemies sprawled about the floor, groaning from their injuries. He returned to her immediately, kneeling. “Are you hurt, My Lady?”
She knew then, her verdict.
“Are you certain about this? I can still send you back.”
“You’ve already sentenced me to exile, and my brethren to field labor. As far as the public knows, my bones are bleaching in the desert. I have nothing to return to.”
“And your son?”
“I never told him who I was, and he was sent with a preparation handler moons ago. I have no way of finding him. Besides, if I am to be anywhere, this doesn’t sound so terrible.” He gestured respectfully towards her.
“Here, then.” Yaqin placed a small silver cuff in his outstretched hand. “So long as you wear it, this world will know that your worth extends beyond your exterior.”
“What of you, My Lady?” he closed his hand around the gift.
She spoke, facing away from him. “If I am justice, you are mercy. There is nowhere you’d fit better than at my side.”
Yaqin entered the bazaar, shuffling through its bustling crowds to reach the records and registration booth near the provincial governor’s palace. The woman at the booth peeked up from her writing. “Yes?”
“I am Vizier Yaqin. I’m sure the Queen informed you of my transfer?”
The woman nodded. “Ah, yes. Welcome to the northern province, My Lady. Have you anything to declare?”
Yaqin stepped aside to formally present the man standing behind her, a tall, impressive figure with a handsome disposition and an embroidered band keeping his wild black hair away from his ears. He stepped forward, and Yaqin introduced him. “This is Raheem, my personal bodyguard. I’d like to put him in my registry.”
The woman studied him, her eye holding on the silver cuff on his ear. She seemed surprised. “A eunuch. He must be very valuable indeed.”
Yaqin grinned, glancing sidelong at her bodyguard, “You have no idea.”