In a world at war, a slave girl’s lethal curse could become one kingdom’s weapon of salvation. If the curse – and the girl – can be controlled.
Excerpt from Chapter 1
“Fourteen circles for fourteen owners.”
I shade my eyes to block the sun’s reflection off the distant mountains currently doused in snow and smoke and flesh-eating birds. The yellow flags above me snap sharp and loud in the breeze as if to emphasize my owner’s words that yes, she’s quite aware such a high count is utterly ridiculous.
Waiting for it . . .
“Fourteen?” the sweaty merchant says.
Ha! There it is. Eleven years of repeatedly being sold, and it’s sad, really, how familiar I’ve become with this conversation. Today, if Brea has her way, I will meet my fifteenth, which I suppose should actually bother me. But it doesn’t.
Brea nods. “Fourteen.”
I smirk and turn to watch a gimpy minstrel roaming through the marketplace, which is the closest I’ve ever been to Faelen’s High Court. The poor guy is singing so wretchedly off-key, I want to giggle, except he might be newly returned from the war front, so I don’t. Besides, his odd version of the old ballad “The Monster and the Sea of Elisedd’s Sadness” reminds me of my home up in the Fendres. Have you been there? I want to ask him.
Instead, I look over as the enormous merchant grunts his nervousness and retreats from me, giving the ground a superstitious spit. He eyes Brea. “Fourteen owners says either yer lyin’ or she’s got the dark-death disease. Whichever it is, you best get her out of my way. I got a money business to run.” He makes to hurry off toward the selling stand, almost tripping in his fur-trimmed shoes.
I grin. Yes, run away in your too-little boots.
“Wait!” Brea grabs his arm. “Nym doesn’t have the disease. She’s just . . .”
The merchant scowls at her grip on his sleeve.
She releases it, but her roundish face turns stony with determination. “She’s just too uppity for the poorer folk, that’s all. There’s only so much a master can take of a servant who thinks she’s made of better than the rest.”
What in hulls? Is she off her chump? My laugh bubbles up and I choke it back, waiting for her to choke on her lie. He creeps closer and slides a look of dislike down my partially hooded face, my chin, my half-cloaked body. “She don’t look uppity. She don’t even look decent enough for the favor houses.”
Whoa. I bite back a prickly remark about his mum birthing him in one of those dung havens and look away. Neither of them deserves a reaction. Using my practiced haughty pose, I face the lively crowd gathered like giddy children in front of the selling platform. Five, ten, fifty people. They’re all smiling as if the circus with its panther monkeys and manic dwarves were performing instead of a fat guy in little boots exploiting children. Seems even decent women are desperate for extra hands while the men are off fighting a war we’ve no hope of winning.
The merchant chews his puffy lip and studies me, like he expects me to help coerce him. Is he jesting? I raise an eyebrow and glare at him until, finally, he grunts again and pulls up the cuff on my right arm.
His gloved fingers run over each thread tattooed around my wrist like tiny bracelets. “One. Two. Three . . .” He numbers the circles slowly, fourteen in a row inked into my skin with the juice of the black mugplant. I almost feel like I should clap for him.
Good job, I mouth. You know how to count.
The merchant’s face twists into a snarl. He gives me a vicious pinch below my elbow and pushes my sleeve higher up my arm onto my shoulder. I shiver and, narrowing my eyes, start to pull away, but Brea leans into me.
“You hold yourself together,” she sputters close to my ear. “And for fool’s sake, keep your hair covered, or so help me, Nymia, I’ll break your fingers again.”.
I bite my tongue but refuse her the satisfaction of dipping my gaze to my slightly misshapen left hand, which I’m now curling into a fist.
“How old are you?” the dealer growls in my face.
“Seventeen,” I growl back.
“When was she first sold?” This question is for Brea, but I feel his bristly glove squeeze my skin as if he expects me to alert him if she’s dishonest.
“Age six. Her parents died when she was five and then she lived a short time with a midwife who had no use for her.” She says this last part with a slice of disgust in her voice that’s directed at me. And as much as I try to force it down, the hateful shame swells up to eat holes in my chest. She’s got me on that one. Two parents, one midwife, and fourteen owners I’ve ruined, the latest being Brea’s own husband. And it doesn’t matter that I tried to warn every single one of them.
The merchant’s eyes constrict. “There somethin’ else wrong with her yer not tellin’ me?”
“Nothing’s wrong with her. She’s perfectly fine. Just give me three draghts and she’s yours.”
“Three draghts?” I murmur. “How generous.”
Either she doesn’t hear or chooses to ignore me as the merchant rubs his huge, stubbled jowls and considers the offer. Although I can already sense he’ll take it. Three is cheap. Beyond cheap. It’s pathetic. I consider feeling insulted.
The minstrel limps by, practically giddy as he continues his fabulously bad recount of the Monster and the Sea. ” ‘Twas the night compassion forsooooook us.” He’s singing, referring to the night an agreement was struck between Paelen’s past king and the great, flesh-eating Draewulf. The price of which had been Faelen’s children. “And the big sea, she roared and spit up her foam at the shape-shifter’s trickery and our foooooolish king.”
I swallow and feel m amusement over how much he’s enjoying himself catch in my throat at what I know comes next.
“The ocean, she’s begging for our salvation. Begging for blood that will set our children free.”
And for a moment I swear I can feel the sea waves calling, begging my blood to set us all free.
Except just as with the Draewulf, my blood comes at a price.
“Blast the crippled croaker! Would someone put him out of his misery?” the merchant shouts.
A louder shout and then a cheer interrupt the inharmonious tune. Someone’s just been bought for a higher amount than expected. The merchant looks at the stage behind us and smiles. Then, without glancing at me, he says, “Done,” and fishes into his hip bag ot drop three draghts into Brea’s open palm.
Congratulations, Nym. You’re officially the cheapest slave sold in Faelen history.
Brea hands the reins of my collar to the merchant and turns from him, but not so quickly as to confirm his suspicion that there’s something else amiss with me. Just before she leaves, she leans into me again, and her black hair brushes against my cheek.
“Pity you weren’t born a boy,” she whispers. “They would’ve just killed you outright. Saved us all from what you are.” And then she’s gone.