I’d never seen a creature like him. Hul’s gossip-mongers reported that he’d been travelling the harsh northern heath for several moons to reach the city, and I could see he was thin and obviously ill-nourished from his journey. Even with my servants’ cursory attempts at dressing and cleaning him, he still looked whey-faced and travel-worn. What a contrast he was! We city-born were all olive-skinned, a mark of our superiority. I had no pits or freckles on my face from rough outdoor life, my skin was smooth and my muscles well-formed. In comparison, the captive was skinny, extremely pale, and his beard was nothing but a straggly scrub of hair.

But there was a lustre to his flesh that set him apart and his hair particularly caught my fascination. It wasn’t the familiar black of my race, but had red, autumn-rich tones instead, although in its current condition it lay lank about his shoulders like the dull, dead leaves underfoot. I wondered absentmindedly whether he dyed it for some reason of cult, and I would discover his natural, plainer colour between his skinny legs. I knew of some pleasure slaves who did that to make themselves appear more exotic. I could believe he was some half-caste, an aberration of birth from one of my even more sexually liberal cousins roaming the outside tribes for rough entertainment. It happened frequently and excited little disgust nowadays.

But then there were his eyes. They’d startled me from the first, for they were autumn-rich as well. I’d never seen anyone in the city with eyes like that. The outside castes had common brown or grey, and although most of my peers were also brown-eyed, theirs had the clear, piercing shine of privilege that set us apart from the rabble.

No one had ever displayed eyes that looked as if they would change with the seasons. Dark colour at first glance, but as I looked more carefully, I could see golden threads in the iris, flame-red flickers and expressions of warmth and wind and weariness…

“Name?” I snapped, annoyed I was so easily diverted.

He didn’t look away, and I was struck by his lack of fear. He must have known that I could have him whipped or even hanged at the drop of my elegant palm.

“My name is Oriel, sir,” he said. His voice was low but masculine enough to be a surprise. I’d thought him barely out of his adolescence, despite the beard. but it seemed he was older than I’d imagined.

“Oriel?” I laughed aloud, knowing he would see my bright teeth and the curve of my rich lips. It was distracting for many, I knew. “The name of a creature of the Air, when you appear to be nothing more than one who crawls in the ditches of Earth. Did you steal the name?”

“No, sir,” he said quietly. “You can call me something else if you choose.”

I frowned. Ridiculous fool! “Where have you come from, Oriel? You don’t have the look of anyone I’ve ever seen in the city. Where’s your homeland?”

He shrugged, very slightly. The blanket slipped from one of his shoulders, exposing the pale skin so that it shone in the lamplight of my chambers. I found my eyes drawn towards the young flesh but blamed such a malaise on my overindulgence the previous night. Even though my reputation was predatory, I really couldn’t see that this callow youth would satisfy any adult appetite of mine. I may have been less than ten Earth turns older than he, but my sophistication and maturity were obviously far beyond his.

Why, then, did I feel a most uncharacteristic nervousness?

“I don’t remember any homeland,” he said without a trace of pathos. “I’ve been a traveller since I was a child, and I live where I’m given shelter. People have often been kind to me.”

“Why do you think you deserve shelter, Oriel?” I asked, curious despite myself.

“I don’t expect it,” he said quickly, and his eyes flared with some angry spirit. “They offer it to me. I accept it and serve them as they wish.”

“Serve them?” His looks intrigued me, but his passive attitude irritated me. “Are you an escaped slave? A professional bed-mate?” I reached forward and snatched the rest of the blanket from his upper body. He made no move to cover his naked torso. I searched the pale skin for a brand but found nothing except the clumsy bruises I’d seen before and scratches from the journey over the heath. “I see no mark of ownership on you, no punishment scar from the prison camps.”

He bit at his lower lip, the skin easing out from beneath his small teeth. “I don’t belong to anyone, sir. I serve people because they protect me, because they connect with me.”

“Why?” His eyes narrowed at my question. “Why should anyone protect a scrawny twig like you, Oriel? What is it you offer them, that you tempt them with? I can see you’re an empath and maybe one with unusual skill. Perhaps you twist those skills to fool the idiots you meet, pretending to understand their deepest desires and offering to help them attain them, all for the reward of coins and food and a warm bed….”

“There’s no pretence!” His face was flushed now, and his voice rose in volume. “I take nothing but shelter, and I move on as soon as they’ve finished with me.” He struggled upright, though still on his knees. “I don’t think people are idiots, sir. I’ve been sheltered by kindness and tolerance. I thought to find it here, but I’ll move on if not.”

I shook my head impatiently. I needed no childish temper here. “Be silent!” I stood swiftly and grasped the whip. With a single flick of my wrist, it curled around his arm and tugged his protests to a startled halt. “I’m the one who’ll tell you whether you move on or not. What did you do to the garrison captain who captured you?”

“Nothing.” He gasped. “Is he hurt?”

“Not that I know. But why has he been stood down from his duty? Just from meeting a nobody like you?”

“He protected me when he found me,” the youth said simply. “He sent all the others away and took me into his own quarters. He connected with me, so I had to serve him. He had a lot of pain. It hurt me very deeply, too. He asked for my help.”

“Asked?” What was the strange creature going on about? “Was this a physical pain? Are you a herbalist healer of some kind?”

He frowned as if frustrated by my inability to understand. I should have whipped him there and then for his insolence, but my curiosity got the better of my anger.

“No sir, he didn’t ask in words, of course not. No one talks to me in that way. In fact, he denied any connection with me at all, when he was questioned. But both the pain and the desire were heavy in his mind, and when we connected, so did his needs. His mother’s very ill. She’s far from the city, though I don’t know where, and he’s been told there are only ten moons before her death. He couldn’t go to her. There was no one to help him.”

“So, you helped him.” The contempt and disbelief were barely hidden in my sharp tone. “You accepted his protection, and in return you had to serve this grieving son, is that right? And let me guess what happened then. I assume another message came that the old woman was completely healed and will go on to live many more Earth turns, praising her miracle deliverance at the hands of her devoted son and the charlatan that you obviously are.”

He looked back up at me, and I felt an unpleasant shiver throughout my whole body. “There’s no such message yet,” he said through tightened lips. “But there will be. Why do you doubt it? What possible motive could I have to trick a devastated man like him? Or you?”

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