Outcast (Part Seven)
Upon exiting the villa, Uxalen held his breath, after passing through the arbor and into the gardens. Three pergolas sat over the u-shaped walkway surrounding an enormous pool of water. Atop them grew roses and violets, both hanging loosely, but well trimmed. Their branches were shaped and woven around the pergola’s support columns from with they had grown out of small plots at the column’s base.
The marble of the walkway, pool and the pergolas was finely polished. The mirrored stone softly reflected the light of the lanterns mounted to the columns. It gave off a pleasant ambiance.
As Uxalen followed the senator, he noted the human’s attention drawn to the ramada on the opposite side of the pool. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” he said. “Saetrum had it remodeled. The cost of the marble stonework alone was egregious. You’ve probably noticed it reflects the lantern light. The Thuja along the perimeter enclose the gardens like a wall, giving us a bit of privacy. Beyond the ramada, where we are heading, lay the rest of the gardens.”
“Why should I care of our destination?”
Flaous laughed. “Merely a courtesy, Uxalen.”
Upon reaching the ramada, the senator took the spark stone and ignited the oil in the fire pit. He gestured toward the recliners and seated himself. Uxalen found himself intrigued; the human’s demeanor differed from other Absonians.
Inside the villa, he carried himself as most men of power would. But here, with only the two of them, Flaous changed. It was almost genuine.
Uxalen narrowed his eyes. It was tempting to probe his mind, but there was no way of knowing how the human might react. He shifted his gaze to the villa’s entrance. Garron was there, standing just inside the arbor, watching them.
Your intent couldn’t be clearer, Inquisitor.
Flaous glanced over his shoulder and sighed. “Such an insufferable organization,” he commented. “Uxalen, I know you’re skeptical, but I have watched you these past few months.”
“And what have you determined?”
“That I am somewhat enamored by you.” He leaned forward. “Your people are such a mystery. Few travel to Absion from the Marshes, yet your Alliance, as you call it, has withstood the war trolls for nearly two centuries.”
“They fear us, fear what we have become.”
“So it appears. Yet, before your people banded together, you still survived them. That kind of strength is something I deeply respect. It reminds me of politics where you have enemies on all sides and nary a soul has the integrity to tell the truth.”
“Speaking of truth. Was what you said in there… about owning me and using me as a breeder. Was it true? If so, it was risky. Few among my kind would have shown the same amount of restraint as I have.”
“But you aren’t like your kind, are you?” he replied. “You’ve been watching us, studying us, learning about us. Saetrum is a fool. He doesn’t understand how dangerous you are.” The senator smiled. “Which is why I am so enamored by you.”
“It only goes to show how little Absonians understand my people, Senator. We are patient and observant.”
“Perhaps,” he said. “Maybe such patience is a trait we Absonians can learn. For you, I think there is something more. I have never met a gladiator who, while enslaved, carried an air about themselves that spoke as if they were free.”
“Because my cage is beyond Saetrum’s control. He does not hold they key.”
Flaous sat back, his expression thoughtful. “A philosopher, now I am more intrigued.”
“Merely stating a fact, senator.”
Flaous pursed his lip, then glanced at Garron. “Such devotion to duty,” he commented. “You’ll never find a group as devoted to law and justice as the Inquisition. I fear though, such devotion clouds the mind.”
“Belief and purpose are powerful things, senator. A person with both, if a force unto themselves. I have observed him and found him conflicted. He would see me dead, if he could.”
“And why do you think that is, Uxalen? The Inquisition will not speak of your crimes to me, despite my station. The only thing revealed to me is that you are a murderer.”
Inwardly, Uxalen cringed. The tag stung as much as being an outcast. “Their perceptions have labeled me as such. I have not willingly slain anyone.”
“Willingly? Curious,” Flaous replied. “You sound as if someone enspelled you. I have heard of cases in the courts, where a murderer used magic to commit his crimes through others as proxy.”
“However, the circumstances, it happened. It was done. And no amount of lamenting will change that.”
“For someone planning an escape, you sound utterly defeated, sauratian.”
Uxalen tensed, the human was sharp, perhaps too sharp for his own good. “Only because my prison gnaws at me slowly, senator. I have not lost hope. I will never lose hope, but I still feel.”
The senator shifted to the fire, its light dancing in his eyes. “If beasts could feel as men, what woes would their hearts sing?”
“It’s an ancient proverb,” he replied. “From a less civilized time in Absion’s history.”
“Before Absion was Absion, when battles with orcs and trolls for territory were commonplace.”
Flaous smiled. “You know your history.”
“I’ve been many places, Shyre was one of them.”
“The Great Library,” he said.
Uxalen nodded. “It was informative and why I came here. I wanted to learn about a people who had the strength of iron.”
“And what have you learned about my people, Uxalen?”
“Valor and honor are everything to you. Loyalty, strength and the Rule of Law, as I have often heard referenced, share that table. These define you. But they also shackle you. Whatever the Inquisition was is not what they are now. Their zealous devotion to maintaining order and upholding justice has blinded them.”
“Rule of Law,” Flaous mused. “Do you know what that means, Uxalen?”
“I cannot say I do, Senator.”
“The Rule of Law is the idea that the state’s established laws are just. They exist for the people’s protection from things they can neither comprehend nor see. When a law is made, it becomes just, and only by council, meaning the Senate, can we deem a law unjust.”
“The Inquisition enforces the law and by Rule of Law, they act to protect the Absonian people. No one is above the law, not even me. Only the emperor, as the chief lawmaker, is immune.”
Uxalen cast a glance at Garron. The Inquisitor’s steely gaze was fixated on him. It was interesting, but also made sense. Their abilities stem from a belief in an abject truth. A line between right and wrong. If their belief was compromised and tied to an ideal, then the rules would change.
Therin lies your conflict Garron. You are clinging to ideals established in your youth and under different circumstances, you would be right. Saetrum’s self-interest conflicts with your sense of duty. He is your Law.
“I’m going to purchase you Uxalen, regardless of what others might say,” Flaous said. “I’ve already made Saetrum an offer.”
“I know. It was inevitable someone would. I have seen bids for the other gladiators throughout the evening.”
“Such is the way of things,” Flaous replied. “At least you wouldn’t be a slave.”
“You would set me free, Senator?”
“That I cannot do, but under me, you would be freer than anyone in your circumstances could have hoped for.”
“But as a breeder, with my children bound into your service.”
“As a sauration who was granted a family, a home, and a place to belong,” Flaous replied. “Let the world assume what it will, but we will know the truth. In exchange, your offspring will, in time, be granted proper citizenship and eventually their freedom.”
It was tempting. Uxalen felt his heart leap at the prospect of having a home and family. Flaous had miscalculated though. “You misunderstand my people. The female chooses her mate, and it is for life. I cannot choose for her.”
“Then we shall find you a mate, but the offer remains,” he said. “No man I know of would pass up an offer of such freedom, Uxalen.”
“You’re right, senator, no man would. I am not a man, I’m not human.”
“Then tell me, Uxalen, how far would you go to gain your freedom?” Flaous asked. “What is your price? How far are you willing to go?”
“Freedom, senator? Freedom is an illusion. All are bound by something and none are truly free.”
“Then tell me, sauratian, what binds you?”
Uxalen extended his right hand, black flames igniting within his palm. “This, senator, is my prison. This infernal power I was born with. This power that snuffed out the lives of my clutchmates before we even hatched,” he replied. “Little by little it chips away at me and if not for my restraint I would have heeded it and brought the coliseum down upon your heads.”
Flaous stared at the black flame, a chill flowing through him. The sauratian’s eyes changed, a red tinge filling them. His scales were different, becoming jagged. In the dim lighting, it made his appearance sinister and monstrous.
“Shadow magic,” he whispered. This was the Inquisition’s secret. This was why they wanted Uxalen dead. Only Saetrum acquired him before they could act. What a clever man you are, Saetrum. You flaunt Uxalen in front of them out of spite. It’s the perfect revenge for what they did to your father.
“Would you accept my offer, if you could become free of this power?”
The dark flame vanished, and the sauratian’s appearance returned to normal. “If that were so, then I would have a counter.”
Flaous, smiled. “Name your price, Uxalen and I shall see it done.”
“I will tell you what I seek, then you will hear what it this knowledge will cost you.”
They had been gone for a while and the party was beginning to wind down. Eleesa stole her emotions, locking them inside and turned to her latest dance partner. He was a merchant by the name of Hector Leacian.
He was fair looking and not lacking in confidence. His cheshire smile successfully weeded out the more annoying men who had thronged to her. Still, Eleesa positioned herself where she could take him by the throat with her Iron Hand should the need arise. He was drunk, like the others, and the man’s eyes gave away his intentions.
“I’ll be blunt,” he said. “I plant on bidding on you before the night is out. We could do so many wonderful things together, you and I, Eleesa. Your devices would make you the most coveted person in all of Absion! Why, even the guilds would come crawling to our doorstep!”
“So long as I crawl regularly to your bed, Hector. Isn’t that right?”
His cheshire smile grew. “It wouldn’t be a disappointing arrangement. I have no wives or any other. If you were by my side, a marriage would mean you could be free.”
“That’s if you win the bid and if Saetrum feels he can do without me.”
He pursed his lip, then frowned. “Saetrum wastes your talents my dear, just look at that arm. Imagine the maimed and broken from war troll raids. Imagine how they could be made whole, as you are.”
It was unexpected, but despite his other intentions, it was the first bit of honest emotion Hector had shown the entire evening. How curious. “If I were to refuse entertaining you in the bed, where would I stand?”
He showed a twinge of disappointment, but it faded as the merchant in him surfaced. “That would depend on the depth of your talents. I only invent in that which proves its worth.”
“Then we shall see how the nights ends, Sir Hector. But I will leave you with this parting gift.” Eleesa leaned forward until her lips were close to his ear. “Iron limbs and parts only function properly with firestone gems. I believe they are illegal in Absion,” she whispered. “You need special permissions just to obtain them.”
When she pulled away, the defeat Eleesa saw in his eyes was plain. He had no such authority, confirming her suspicions. Hector Laecian was a small merchant, grasping for things beyond his reach. He and Saetrum were just alike.
“I wish you well, sir Hector,” she said. “May the best bidder win.” He nodded and turned away, vanishing into the thinning crowd.
With everyone too inebriated to notice, Eleesa slipped around the dais where she and Uxalen were expected to remain when not entertaining guests. The Inquisitors in attendance, as Saetrum promised, were keeping a watchful eye on everyone, and her. The only exit not under watch was the one leading toward the gardens. That had been Garron’s responsibility, and he was nowhere to be seen.
Stupid man! He probably skulking in the shadows waiting for an excuse to hurt you, Uxalen.
Cautiously, Eleesa approached the archway, trying not to draw attention to herself. When it was clear no one was watching, she slipped through the archway and followed the hall. When she came to the end, Eleesa saw Garron, lurking on the other side of the open doorway, under the arbor leading into the gardens.
Slowly she stepped up, and he spun on his heels, gladius drawn. She lifted her Iron Hand, deflecting the blow. The surprise on his face drained, anger replacing it.
“You don’t belong here, thief. Get back to your perch!” he growled.
“Neither do you, Inquisitor,” she cut back. “Do you really hate him that much?”
“He’s murdered children, he doesn’t deserve the praise and glory offered to him. He should have been executed or Purged.”
“Do your senses tell you that?” she asked. “Or your superiors?”
“I only sense darkness within him. The taint of the Shadow Arts.”
“Is it possible he didn’t choose this, Inquisitor? That he is a victim as well?”
He narrowed his eyes. In the dark and pale lamplight, they seemed to ignite. “The Eternal Flame does not lie, it only reveals truth.”
Eleesa turned away, leaving her back exposed as she retraced her steps up the hall. “As you say, Inquisitor, but we shall see. I think only villain here, is the one you serve.”