Below is an excerpt from a fantasy work-in-progress. Hope you enjoy!
The city of Sarn is built of red stone, tier on tier of high balcony and tower. By night the stone is black, but it holds the heat of blood until morning, having soaked up sunlight with the jealous avidity of an old man licking up a virgin’s tears. Sarn at night is a place of tombs, of revels.
But all of this is only what is written in books, by men who have not been there. There are no tales told of Sarn, only rumors.
Lining the wharf were iron cages, gilded over with thin, flaking peels of gold. And in the cages were strange, elongated people, people with silver-smooth skin and perfect features, people with long silken tangles of hair that seemed to shimmer and dance over their shoulders and down their naked bodies.
I stared; everyone in my caravan stared. The heat of Sarn’s red stone burned up through the thin leather ship soles of my boots and a fine red dust wafted up through the swirl of our cloaks and into my face. The dust burned like pepper on my tongue and in my throat.
“Where is the welcome?” my captain asked, staring in open dismay at the confusion before us. “My lord, perhaps it were better we should return to our ship.”
“No!” Narus, my youngest retainer tore his gaze off the iron cages and held out his hands to the city, where we could clearly see the tall sharp spires of the Bloody Hall. “Should we hide on our ship like frightened children? My lord, if they will not come to us, let us go to them – let us storm their city like true conquerors!”
In truth, I did not want to return to the ship myself. My throat was afire with the dust of Sarn.
“We will go,” I said, “by that road,” and I pointed down the market street, where the iron cages stood.
“My lord,” the captain protested, but I pushed past him, Narus so close behind me that he trod on my cloak. My other retainers followed, leaving the captain scrambling to assemble a proper guard.
It was more than a slave market; Sarn was a city whose breasts gave suck to the sea while her buttocks perched on the desert cliffs. Everything could and did come to her, either by caravan or ship; and there were things in that market that I had never even heard described in my land. Small glass balls held light captive, cloth rippled with strange colors, exotic spices and queer twittering birds with frail claws and trailing feathers that drooped in the red dust. Jewelry of gold and rare stones, mahogany chests spilling out brilliant silks and gold thread, velvet-furred cats, and cats with no fur at all, books bound in thin leather and each letter painted by a monk’s hand, monkeys, and silvery black and gold fish.
But the slaves were the heart of Sarn’s market. Not just the beautiful ones, those caged as the centerpiece, but also the slaves in the cages of bent and ugly iron in the side alleys of the market, the slaves who were twisted and ugly as their cages, inhuman in horrible ways that made me shudder. They had horns or hairless fleshy tails, or faces mashed inward like pugs, or boars’ tusks, or masses of black curled hair covering their bodies. Their eyes glinted yellow and slitted like cats’, sly in their ugly brutish faces.
One of the Sarnese merchants spied us lingering beside his iron cages and sauntered out of his striped tent, taking in our wealth with a casual glance at our boots and weapons.
“I have a pretty fae who likes to dance,” he said, “she moves like a wave, all curve and passion.” He insinuated his body between us, turning us back toward the gilded cages and his more expensive wares.
“She is all pleasure, for a patron of the arts.” He ran his finger lightly down a gilded cage, watching for my reaction. The fae inside was round-fleshed and pearly-skinned, with masses of golden hair that wound around her ankles and spilled out of her cage and into the red dust. Her hands lay palm-up and limp beside her thighs, as passionate as dead fish.
“Or perhaps…” The merchant gave me an evaluating stare and then turned us toward the cages filled with beautiful men. “Perhaps my Prince would prefer one of these? They are the best of their kind, easily taught in all skills, from acrobatics, to serving, to…whatever pleases my lord.”
I told myself to be impassive, and must have succeeded because the merchant smiled instead of seeking shelter behind his cages.
“Where do these people come from?” I asked. “Do you breed them as you do your camels?” There were so many rumors told of Sarn’s slaves, these fae who do not thrive outside of Sarn, who spindle and die if they are transported beyond Sarn’s port.
“They are all wild-capture; they cannot be bred.” The merchant idly smoothed down the curls of one of the fae men. “Let me make you a gift for your welcome, Prince – whichever of these you favor most is yours.”
My captain’s fingers closed on my arm although I did not need his warning. I knew not to accept bribes from these people, these sly Sarnese. But it did not matter; I did not want one of these strange fae, who watched with the dissipated coolness of cats despite their cages.
“I have servants of my own.”
The merchant shrugged and bowed over his hands as he stepped backward into the blowing shade of his pavilion, the stripes undulating with heat mirage.
“Great heavens,” my captain murmured, releasing my arm. I don’t know whether he was reacting to the fae, or simply the heat.
A horn blew, echoed in cacophony by a dozen more, and my captain’s hand went to his sword. He looked down the market street and his hand fell away in fresh astonishment.
Sarn had come to greet us at last.
A menagerie of strange animals rumbled toward us: camels and lithe desert horses with scarlet tack and pompoms tied to their reins, tiny wild-caught deer crowned by massive gilded antlers and ridden by winged fae, goats, zebras, giraffes, and little dun-colored cats that weaved with military precision through the differently jointed legs. Towering over the other beasts was an elephant, ridden by a man who was neither fae nor Sarnese.
He looked like one of my own people, well-tanned and leanly muscled, with a just-barely tamed tangle of dirty blond hair. He was even dressed more in the style of my people than of the Sarnese: simple well-cut breeches and shirt, tied with a sash and a belt for his sword, although my people didn’t wear such a clash of colors as he did, blues and reds and oranges and purples.
He threw out his arms as he approached and slid off the back of the elephant, the elephant coiling her trunk around his waist to ease his drop to the ground, and walked to us with a slightly effeminate swagger. It seemed deliberately false to me, and I didn’t protest when my captain drew his dagger and stepped between us.
“Who are you and what do you want with my prince?” It was hardly the most politic greeting, but I could hardly blame my captain for his assumptions.
The elephant rider stopped short, cocking his head. “Why, do assassins always come riding an elephant and blatting horns in your land? Shouldn’t you assume I’m here to welcome and greet your prince and react accordingly?” He tutted and turned his attention to me, bowing with an elaborate courtesy that seemed as false as his swagger. I wondered if he were mocking me.
“I am called Gilly, and I am sent to bring you to the Court of the Seven Daughters. Will you be welcomed freely, or must I fight your man for the honor of escorting you?”
My captain put up his dagger, glowering. “We’re not riding those blooming elephants. Not any of the other things either. We’ll walk, if Sarn’s hospitality can’t spring for a carriage.”
Gilly didn’t turn so much as a eyelash toward him, keeping all his spotless attention sorely for me. It felt odd, as though I should be looking for an enemy sneaking up behind me. “If my prince will come with me? Your men may return to their ship, or to their own country, whichever they prefer.”
“We’ll come with the prince,” my captain said. His fingers were twitching in the folds of his breeches, wishing he hadn’t put away his dagger, but clearly feeling he would lose face if he drew it again. “We don’t leave the prince’s side, and we don’t go home until he does.”
“I think you’ll find,” Gilly said, still entirely focused on me, “that your contract clearly states that you only are welcomed into Sarn’s court – as the Bridegroom – for the Sarnese court does not welcome outsiders. The contract also states that should the Sarnese fail to guard your safety, their kingdom will fall to yours. There can be no higher surety than this.”
“You’re not Sarnese,” I said. I knew what the contract said, although I had naturally assumed that ‘you’ meant me and my retainers. That the Sarnese would demand I separate from my servants, I had not considered. I wondered if my father had known when he had signed it.
Gilly shrugged. “Your men cannot make the sacrifices that I have made in order to belong.”