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SUCH HAD been the breadth and depth of the old slave’s suffering that he did not question what he had to know was a suicide mission. He merely nodded, then stood to clear the table.
“Leave the dishes,” ordered Otoro. “I will clean them. Go and get your belongings and get back here.”
This the old man did. Otoro heard the door close. He washed the dishes and big stock pot, then went to the study, where he lifted a small seamless hatch in the floor of an empty closet.
The hatch was thin and deep and contained a fine fennaca bow, which he pulled out. He reached inside again and brought up a small gold-blue oval that shimmered unnaturally in the gloom, then one more time for a small wooden box. He closed the hatch and backed out as he heard the front door close.
“Back here!” he yelled.
The old man appeared at the door of the study. He carried a small duffel bag, the same type all slaves were given, barely large enough for a change of clothes. He stared at Otoro, waiting.
“Skip the cellar,” said Otoro. “Put your shit in the second bedroom and get back here.”
The old man disappeared. Otoro sat at the desk. There was a second chair in the corner; Firr Rourn returned and sat in it after Otoro ordered him to. He stared at the bow and at the glowing oval ball and the box, all of which were displayed on the desktop.
“You are still a man, aren’t you?” demanded Otoro, glaring.
Firr looked up. He nodded.
“Then act like one. In this house you do not need to wait for me to order you about like some simpering dog. I have no patience for it.”
“I haven’t seen a fennaca bow in ages,” said Firr after a brief moment of quiet. “And—” he pointed—“what’s that?”
“That’s better,” said Otoro. “That? It’s an aecxal egg. Inside it is an Arrowsparrow.”
The old man’s brow furrowed. He stood and came close, staring.
“It almost looks like a sea horse egg. It’s too large, though …”
“It once was a sea horse egg. A Mathematician altered its basic function.”
Firr Rourn didn’t ask permission; he gently lifted it and studied it up close. Otoro sensed a slow dawn of strength and confidence return to his spirit. There was sharpness to the Portmaster, and a swift, penetrating intelligence. Otoro had sensed them earlier; they were unmistakably present now.
“Arrowsparrow?” asked Firr, putting it down as softly as he had lifted it.
“A means to communicate with the Mathematician.”
“A Mathematician who dares defy the Lord Emperor?”
That was enough to snap his attention away from the egg. The air of the room became tense and expectant.
Otoro waited for the inevitable question.
Firr glanced at him with a visage of shackled hope and trembling fear. “What … is this king’s name?”
“Conor Kieran Faramond Benedictus the First.”
Firr inhaled sharply.
He let the old man soak that in, which he did over the course of five minutes of solid silence. His eyes were wide, and he stared at his hands after sitting once more. Otoro watched him steadily.
“He lives,” Firr breathed. “He … he lives …”
“As does his kingdom.”
He jerked his chin up. “Kingdom?”
“Mutineers,” reported Otoro. “They fled with him when he fled Vanerrincourt, or joined him on the way.”
“On the way where? The Lord Emperor rules all.”
“There is a world beyond the Eastern Edge and beyond the reach of the Black Coffin. Since you’re Vanerrincourtian, you would know that is where he was born. That is where he returned.”
Another long stretch of silence followed.
“I’ll use the Arrowsparrow later,” said Otoro, standing. “I just wanted you to see it and the bow so you’d believe me. Examine them all you want.”
He left the room and the old man to his thoughts.
He was reading in the kitchen when Firr appeared under the doorjamb. It was well into the night, almost forperodt. Otoro had thought he had fallen asleep. But it was apparent that he hadn’t slept at all.
“Butcher,” said Firr quietly, staring.
Otoro put his book down, stared back.
“That’s what they call you. Butcher. The Tracluse. Your comrades.”
“They say you’re a demon, that even demons fear you.”
“And what do slaves say?”
Firr’s countenance darkened. “Are you mocking me?”
The Portmaster hesitated. “They—we—I—believe in a reckoning. We pray for it every day, every minute of every day, every second …”
Firr stood braced in the dark under the doorjamb.
“And Otoro the Butcher … well, he’s near the top of the list of those to be reckoned with, isn’t he?”
The old man didn’t answer. Instead he asked: “Why?”
What amazed Otoro was that the question wasn’t asked accusingly or angrily.
“Why am I a butcher? Why am I an executioner? Is that your why?”
Otoro stood and approached him. Firr watched him steadily as he loomed overhead. If he felt fear, he didn’t show it.
“You and yours see me as a life-taker,” said Otoro just beneath a growl. “You have no idea what life really is.”
He pushed angrily past him.
“We have much to do, and little time,” he said without looking back. “I suggest you rest, free man. Rest and take in fully these days. They very likely will be the final ones of your life.”
Firr had prepared breakfast by sunrise. Otoro, entering the kitchen, rubbed his eyes. “I take it you didn’t sleep.”
Firr sat at the table, his plate half empty. “Your name carries weight,” he grunted after shaking his head. “I kowtowed at the market and dropped it. The eggs are fresh, not even a day old—which I’ve never seen before. There’s thick bacon, too, and warm bread …”
“You went to the market? It was open at this hour?”
Firr scooped eggs into his mouth. “It opens early for the slaves of high-ranking Tracluse like you. Low-ranking Tracluse and their slaves come later. The slaves of the high-rankers are long gone by then.”
“You take foolish chances wandering out of the house, especially these days. Did you not listen to me yesterday?”
“I listened,” said Firr with an edge in his voice. “If I be a man, then those foolish chances are mine, and I will take them with all reasonable calculation. Or were you blowing Tracluse smoke up my ass?”
Otoro glared, then sat across from him and dug in. The eggs were excellent; so too the bacon.
“Where’d you learn to cook?” he asked after taking a sip of siddehaf.
“I didn’t,” answered Firr. “My wife did all the cooking. I’d talk to her as she prepared food. I remember what she did.” He looked down at his plate sadly.
“Let me know the next time you step out. It is not a demand, but a simple request, as an equal concerned for the safety of another. You say you dropped my name?”
“Continue to do so—please.”
At “please” the anger in the Portmaster’s eyes began to fade away.
“Tell them—please—that you are bound to me,” continued Otoro. “I’ll give you identification to confirm it. They’ll be far less likely to murder you if they know you belong to me. Do that much, Firr Rourn the Free Man.”
Firr nodded again, then gave a dismissive grunt and went back to eating.
“I’m not Tracluse,” said Otoro.
“I know,” answered Firr without looking up. “It’s unbelievable, that. But I know it now.”
Firr held the aecxal egg in his hand once more, examined it.
“I can’t believe he’s alive. I just can’t accept it.”
Firr gritted his teeth. A pained smile formed on his lips.
“That reckoning you slaves pray for,” said Otoro, “it’s coming. The king is going to deliver it.”
“I met him,” Firr said quietly. “The Sly Devil had just given him the throne. I was at his coronation. There was a ball. I’ll never forget the day my wife and I got an invitation to it. We weren’t part of the Court’s inner circle, not even close. But the new king … he didn’t care about circles. We stood in the receiving line for two hours. I met his fiance first.” He laughed breathlessly. “What a beauty! My goodness! I gave her a bow, and then went to bow to him, but he insisted on shaking my hand—shaking my hand! A king taking a commoner’s hand! And then he said to me—I’ll never forget it—‘You remind me of a priest I knew a long time ago.’ I stuttered something like, ‘Sire—?’ He then told me a story about how, when he was very young, he was homeless and alone. A holy man—a priest from the world beyond the Eastern Edge, from the world he went back to, the one you told me he’s returning from—had taken him in, had fed him and encouraged him. I looked just like him, apparently. He said he thought of him all the time. He was the soul of grace, the new king. I honestly felt like he and I could have been friends. Me, a Portmaster, friends with the King of Vanerrincourt!” He laughed again. It was not a happy sound. “My God,” he croaked, tears welling up and spilling down his face, “my God … how I wish I could’ve served in his new kingdom! Such a man! I can’t imagine the loyalty he inspires! Oh, how cruel is this existence!”
“You are serving in his kingdom,” said Otoro. “You are now. I serve him, and you are in my household, which means you serve him now too. The king accepts no slaves, and neither do I. Be the free man you are, and you too can count yourself a citizen of the Saeire Insu.”
Firr’s face registered alarm. “He named his kingdom … with a Galarragian phrase?”
“Galarragians number many among his mutineers.”
“Do you?” said Otoro, glaring.
“Many Vanerrincourtians died in wars with that shithole country,” growled Firr. “Judge me for my patriotism, and I shall judge you for your ignorance.”
The challenging glint in Otoro’s eyes softened. He grinned. Firr’s hot glare cooled as well, but only after a minute of considered quiet. “ ‘The Ten Fingers of Insurrection,’ ” he said.
“How is it you know Galarragian?”
“I was a Portmaster. Knowing many languages was part of the job.”
“Some. There are Zephyrs with him?”
“And Neptonians, and Junites, and Galens, and Arrows and Pyrrhos and four others, including your hated Galarragians and beloved countrymen.”
Firr’s stare turned to awe. “What are his numbers?”
“I don’t know,” said Otoro, shaking his head. “Maybe two hundred fifty of a thousand.”
The Portmaster nodded contemplatively. He’d completely forgotten about the glowing aecxal egg in his hands. “Mutineers indeed!”
His face fell. “But even with those numbers he stands no chance, no chance at all!”
“Perhaps,” said Otoro. “Perhaps. But whatever chance he has, we can increase it, even if by the width of a baby’s hair. Crack that egg.”
Firr looked at it, then brought it down on the hard desktop. The sound it made was just like a normal egg, but instead of runny yolk issuing from it, fingers of odd, sparkling yellow light did.
“Let it go,” said Otoro.
Firr let the egg go.
It went to roll off the desk, but the light halted its progress and held it in place. The gloom of the room was vanquished for a few moments, and then the light dissolved, disappeared.
Standing on the desk in the middle of dissolving eggshells was a small bird, royal blue and bright yellow. It glanced up at Otoro and gave a friendly tweet.
“Arrowsparrow,” said Otoro, letting it hop on his index finger. “This is how I’ve communicated with the Saeire Insu all these years.”
Firr looked up. “Does the king know—?”
“Know that you are …”
The old man nodded.
Otoro thought he would feel anger. He didn’t. Instead he felt something entirely surprising: relief.
“He does. It is the mission he himself gave me—to be an Imperial executioner.”