Desert World Allegiances
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by Lyn Gala
Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
Description: Being condemned to slavery is a common enough occurrence on the desert planet of Livre, but this time, priest Shan Polli is determined to prevent the corrupt, soul-eating system from destroying one more life. Temar Grazer was sentenced for what amounted to a criminal prank--but Shan soon finds that the dangers extend far beyond Temar's crime. Caught between guilt and hope, Shan must find his true path in either the priesthood or in a man whose strength and survival defies the odds. Can the two men unravel a plot that threatens the entire world before Temar is broken by a system of slavery that has twisted out of control?
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2011 2011
eBookwise Release Date: October 2011
3 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [357 KB]
Reading time: 245-344 min.
"Maybe we shouldn't be doing this," Temar suggested again. If nothing else, they should not be doing this when both moons threw pale light over the fields. Both he and Cyla were fair and blond, and Temar felt like a white flag raised in the middle of a fire-blackened field. The field wasn't black, and the tiny green plants stood out in line against the dry ground, but he still felt exposed.
"Maybe George Young shouldn't steal water from us," Cyla answered sharply. She stopped, and Temar flattened himself to the ground and wished that his sister would listen to him, just this once. "He'll be sorry when we get proof." The bitterness in Cyla's voice made Temar's heart ache. Since their father's death, she had grown harder. It scared him.
"We have proof. Sort of. We just need to wait for the council meeting at season-end."
"I'm not waiting. Not anymore." Cyla's voice was fierce, and Temar was caught between wanting to go home and wanting to keep his sister from doing anything unforgivably stupid. Maybe she saw his indecision because she leaned closer, resting her hand on his arm. "He will be sorry."
"Or we'll be sorry when we're caught," Temar warned. He wished he had the right words to convince her that they were making a mistake.
"Then we don't get caught." Cyla looked over her shoulder at him and smiled. He hated it when she got that expression, the one that never failed to get them in trouble. She winked, and then she was dashing across the field. For the length of several breaths, Temar lay on the warm ground, eye level with long rows of tiny plants that swayed gently in the breeze. Their verdant leaves unfurling from stems that were firm with water. Even before their father died, their own farm had turned into a ragged collection of pipe trap weeds and chokeweed. If Cyla was right, and George Young had their water quota, that would explain why his fields produced so much more than their own. If Cyla was wrong.... Temar cringed at the thought of working restitution days for Young, on his farm.
"Wait," Temar hissed, and then he ran after Cyla. They were close to the Young farmhouse now. Like all farms on Livre, the buildings were tall and narrow, pushed into the rock cliff wall to avoid taking up any more land than required. Most of the planet was a desert, ruled by shifting dunes and sandrats, and every inch of the sheltered valleys was needed to create life.
"See anything?" Temar asked. He flattened himself on the dusty path, next to Cyla.
"Nothing." Her eyes swept the buildings where Young and his workers lived. "We find the evidence and then we go to the council."
"Or we go to the council, show them my water readings, and ask them to investigate and find real evidence for themselves." Temar's stomach started to ache. He was no terraformer or soldier who could live on adrenaline. No, give him a glassblowing shop, or at this point, even a farm free from weeds, with a clear water allotment, and he'd happily live his life being remarkably, blissfully boring.
"They already refused, and this is not the place for a debate."
"No, Naite Polli didn't refuse. He only said we had to wait until season-end, for the regular session." Temar bit his tongue before he started shouting in frustration. Even though they hadn't damaged anything, a landowner could demand at least one labor day from any trespasser, so he really didn't want to get caught. He doubted Cyla had considered that, however. Sometimes she was a little less than logical in how she approached life, and it drove him insane. Maybe if she were younger or just less stubborn it wouldn't have annoyed him so much, but she had these ideas, and then he couldn't get her to see reason. She'd tell him that he was too young to understand that adults had to do whatever it took to get the job done, but since she was only three years older than he was, the argument didn't seem exactly fair. Twenty-one was old enough to know they were both going to be in serious trouble if they were caught on George Young's land.
It was like her request for a special council meeting. If Cyla had listened to him before she stormed off to talk to Naite Polli, Temar would have told her that she was making a mistake. Naite represented the unskilled workers of Livre, and he was a hard man who had very little patience for bending the rules. Of course Naite refused to hear them during season, but not all the council members were that inflexible.
Temar would have gone to Dee'eta Sun. The woman represented the artisans, and Temar had watched her work glass with a skill and patience that he envied, catching the molten sands on the end of her pole and then twirl them into incredible shapes. Dee'eta would understand that sometimes circumstances required you to move faster than you expected. After all, with glass, one second too fast or too slow and the entire piece could warp hopelessly out of shape or shatter into a million pieces. Cyla had thought Naite Polli would side with them because he worked the land, but Temar would have sought out Dee'eta Sun and explained how one more season without water, without hope, and without credit to hire workers, and their land would be as gone as a piece of glass that shattered when the blower moved it to the punty rod.
Cyla studied him, the light of the blood moon making her hair look pink. "We need evidence so significant that they can't wait for season-end." With that, she took off running. The water tanks squatted on tall stilts, the angle of their tilt making them look like giant, white beasts, leaning down to touch the ground. Maybe they were leaning down to eat Cyla. He knew it was a silly child's nightmare, but the tanks still waited to swallow her up as she threw herself to the ground under the closest one. That one was positioned a good six feet lower than the second one, so the valves and meters should be easier to read.
"Luck of the stars," Temar whispered before he went running after her. She was an idiot, but she was his only family. If she was going to be stupid and get sentenced to work days for George Young, at least he could go down with her.
"So, let's do the test," Cyla said. He could hear the excitement coloring her voice while she screwed a drip meter onto the bottom of the release valve.
"We're going to be sentenced to a week of workdays if the council hears we tampered with someone's equipment," Temar muttered, but he took out his flashlight and put it in his mouth while he adjusted the tiny gears used to measure the water. If they pulled a cup of water, and the measure on Young's tank didn't match their draw, that should be enough to prove to the council that he was stealing water from the common line that ran between their farms.
"Young is going to be sentenced to slavery for a decade when we have our proof."
Temar tightened the connector nut and pulled the flashlight out of his mouth. "No one gets sentenced to that much slavery," he pointed out.
"Yeah, but no one has ever stolen this much water before. Twenty years of water theft should mean at least a decade. I'll have him out digging up pipe traps in the midday sun."
Temar looked at Cyla with some concern. There were days that her anger settled under her skin, making her seem ugly. If Young was stealing water, and Temar agreed with his sister on that one, then the man deserved slavery or exile, but Cyla's joy at the thought made him a little uneasy. Instead of watching her start the test, he wandered back toward the second tank. He'd expected a second set of pipes, leading to the ground watering system, but instead the taller tank led into the first one.
"Cyla, these are run in series," Temar said.
She made an incoherent noise in response.
"Cyla," Temar said, a little louder.
"Then listen. These are set up different than Dad's."
This time she stopped and looked at him. "Dad's tanks were set up back when ships were still landing. Literally. I'd be surprised if Young didn't upgrade. After all, with all the water he stole from us, he can afford the best." She gestured toward the tall house with the dark windows. Unlike their own house, it wasn't lopsided from age and gravity. "I just need to get a one-cup measure, and we can go home."
"Then get it." Temar looked around nervously. Under the bright moonlight, the white tanks looked pink, the newly sprouted wheat took on a purplish hue, and the dusty ground between the rows was striped with shadows from the leaves. A breeze pushed all the seedlings to the west, their leaves dipping down to touch the ground. Cyla was taking her time, and the sour fear in Temar's stomach was solidifying into something hard that made his gut ache. He knelt next to her on the hard-packed dirt.
"What's wrong?" he whispered.
"The valve is stuck." Cyla grunted as her fingers slipped off the tank, and her knuckles hit one of the struts with a dull thud that reverberated softly through the entire tank.
"Unlucky stars," she hissed before sticking her knuckle into her mouth.
"Let me." Temar got his fingers around the valve and tried to turn it. Even if it was stuck, years of pulling weeds had given his fingers an advantage. He twisted the piece, feeling the metal groan under his fingers as it started to yield. Then the unthinkable happened. Something snapped with a crack that echoed through the tank, and water gushed over his hands. Warm water, in quantities he'd never seen, poured over his skin, like a smooth fabric sliding over him.
For a second, Temar was too shocked to even react. He knelt as water--actual running water--spilled over the ground and tumbled over him in unfamiliar patterns. Even when he finally got his hands moving again, he couldn't find any way to reverse the direction of the valve. Something had snapped, and now the nut spun loosely around the end of the pipe. "It's broken!" The water pushed against Temar's fingers as he felt for any mechanical cut off or valve or emergency switch, but there was only the tank and the pipe and water pouring over him in unholy quantity.
"Shut off. Where's the shut off?" Cyla shouted in her desperation, and a siren ripped through the air with its high-pitched wail. She ran to the other side, her feet actually kicking up water that had dirt suspended in it. Mud. The unfamiliar word floated to the top of his memory from school. They had it on Earth, where water ran over the face of the planet, but on Livre, where nearly every molecule of water had been harvested from the larger of the two moons, melted, purified, and then carried to Livre, mud didn't exist. Or it hadn't. Temar found his knees slowly sinking into the softening field.
Footsteps pounded the ground, followed by the sound of men and women slipping and cursing and the strange slap of hands and bodies against water. "Where's the cutoff?" Cyla's scream carried above the siren, above the chaos of the night. Now Temar had his hand flat against the pipe, the water spraying out like the tail of a peacock from a child's book.
Hands caught his arm, pulled him, and Temar slid in the wet earth, falling on his face into mud that pressed itself to his mouth and nose until he pushed back, choking on it. More hands caught him, pulled him, and Temar didn't fight.
* * * *
Shan looked out the thick glass at the twisted trunks of the wind trees and at the barchan dunes. The sand inched south in the wind, and when the afternoon came and the winds changed, the same sand would move back to its original position. More or less. The trunks of the trees were scarred white from the constant attack of weather and wind and sand, but right now, Shan's attention was focused on the three men and two women behind him. He suspected that he was about to lose the argument, and maybe it was the masochist in him, but he refused to give up. Slavery was evil. He would not participate in enslaving others.
The eldest member of the council leaned forward, her fingers steepled in front of her face as she stared at them with great concentration. "This is more than a petty crime." Lilian Freeland's voice was soft, but full of the authority that came with wealth, or what passed for wealth on such a poor planet as Livre. Her sheep and her crops provided for half the valley, and in such difficult times, that was wealth enough. "This is not a child's prank, calling for a simple fine."
"I doubt either intended so much damage." Shan didn't turn around when he addressed the group. Instead, he watched their ghost images in the reflections of the glass. Naite rolled his eyes, but Shan didn't expect anything else. They were brothers, and some tie in the blood meant that, whatever side Shan took, Naite took his own position opposite.
Bari Ruiz spoke, his voice slow and careful. "They are both very young. The young make mistakes."
"Young people break dishes, not water tanks." Naite leaned forward, his large hands braced on the polished table. "Look at the water they wasted, the crops they ruined! Do you know how long it will take to repair the tanks? Our supplies of welding materials and metals are limited, and these two idiots risked permanent damage to get revenge for some imagined insult George Young offered their dead father." His voice rose until it boomed in the small room.
George Young's name put a sour look on even Bari's face, and there was not a more generous and forgiving soul on the planet. Bari had been voted in to represent those who focused on raising children, and his patience was endless... until someone brought up George Young. Clearly, Landholder Young could annoy even the most patient man on the planet.
For a moment, Bari followed the grain of the wood in the table with his finger. "They grieve their father."
"Their grief should not cost the community entire fields," Naite quickly answered.
Shan hesitated, not sure how to convince the older members of the council to show a little more forgiveness. Before he could organize his thoughts, Kevin Starwalker cleared his throat. Lilian tilted her head to the side and rested her cheek on her hands as she considered him.
Kevin stood up, his eyes carefully avoiding all their gazes and his heavily calloused fingers playing with a small carving. Tiny white scars stood out on his dark knuckles, the mark of a carpenter. Shan knew that he would look for a practical solution. Right now, he was pressing his lips together so tightly that they were nearly as white as his hair. "I dislike ordering young people into slavery, but if we don't, what will happen to these two?" Kevin finally looked at each of them, his dark eyes obviously looking for any other solution--any way to protect the community without condemning two young souls.
Shan finally turned and stepped forward. "I can take them into the church until they decide where to take employment. Their father's land can go to Landholder Young, to repay him for the damage." Shan fervently prayed for them to listen to his words, even if he was the youngest on the council. As the representative of the church, his opinion should carry some weight. Hopefully, it would carry enough weight to keep these two young fools out of slavery. Of course, they would still suffer the loss of their father's land, but that wouldn't hurt as much as loss of their freedom.
"Their father's land wasn't worth two tanks of water." Lilian dismissed the idea with a wave of her hand. Like Kevin, her hair had turned white, but she was pale, with washed-out blue eyes that made her look almost fairy like, as though she had slipped out of some Earth novel and landed on Livre. But he doubted a fairy would choose their poor world--a world so poor that they just could not afford to leave able-bodied workers living in cells and eating the food provided by those who fought Livre's dunes to carve out fields.
However, Shan wasn't ready to give up. "We could enter a judgment and order them to devote half their wages to repaying Landholder Young."
Naite's face left no doubt about his opinion. "They aren't trained. The work they'll get will be little more than they need to feed themselves." Naite crossed his arms, daring Shan to disagree with that. Lilian held up her hand to stop any more debate.
"They aren't children," she said firmly. "They may have only meant to damage the irrigation system, but even that would have killed the seedlings, and as the children of a farmer, they knew it. They are too old to claim the ignorance of youth and too young to offer anything in compensation."
"Lilian." Shan stepped forward, begging her with his gaze not to condemn these young people by taking a position against them. "Slavery is not a system that reflects well on us as a community. Every time we pass judgment on someone, ordering them into bondage for some length of time, we damage ourselves--our own souls."
Shan prayed that she would listen to him. He couldn't sit still and allow slavery to take more lives. True, both of them were of legal age, but Temar sometimes came to the church, watching from the shadows. He was such a lost soul, such a young soul. Shan remembered feeling that lost. Someone else had reached out to help him, and now his heart ached with a need to help this young man who had stood in the back of his church and who had obviously never found what he was searching for. Maybe if Shan were a better priest, he would have found a way to connect with Temar before he had done something so idiotic.
"This is an old song," Naite said, his voice heavy with disapproval. "Are you going to sing it every time the issue comes up?"
"If I have to." Shan worked hard to keep his voice and face free from the annoyance he felt.
"I'll sing it for you." Sarcasm dripped from Naite's words. "Slavery is unfair and evil and not godly. But there is a problem, little brother." Naite stood up and walked the length of the table before coming around the end to face Shan. "Cyla and Temar are not being unfairly targeted. They have no good judgment of their own, or they wouldn't have tried such a dangerous stunt. A few years of being treated like the children they are--of having to work and live where they are told and facing the consequences of their actions--that's the best thing for them. I don't think it's unfair to give these two time in a structured environment in order to grow up."
"It's unfair for anyone to lose his freedom."
Naite laughed. "When I was sold for three years, I didn't see you coming to save me, and it's a good thing you didn't. Three years with Landholder Sulli taught me discipline and honesty I never would have learned from our father. Cyla and Temar could use a few of the lessons I learned when I had to work to regain my freedom."
"Yes, Landholder Sulli is a good man," Shan agreed. He held up his hand to prevent his brother from getting them all off track. Naite defended Tom Sulli the way most men defended their parents or their lovers, but Shan didn't think his brother had ever been in Tom's bed, during or after his time working for the man. "You were lucky, and I thank God for that every morning, but not all people are as good as Tom Sulli. What happened in Blue Hope--"
"Blue Hope is not here!" Naite threw up his hands and walked away, his back stiff with anger. "That sandrat in Blue Hope paid for what he did, and I would never put up with hatefulness like that in our community." Naite dropped into his chair on the other side of the table. "Just because one sick pervert in Blue Hope abused a slave does not mean that the system is corrupt."
"And just because Tom Sulli helped you turn your life around does not mean that the system works." Shan felt his carefully hidden frustration rising in his chest.
"The system has worked for fifty years. It works better than expecting the laborers to raise crops and feed people who are jailed. Trust me, if criminal convictions led to jail time, half my workers would be out stealing water in order to get condemned to a little rest and free food." Naite laughed like he had made a huge joke, but then Naite's sense of humor had never been his best trait.
"The fact that the jail system failed does not mean that the system of slavery is our only alternative."
"No, it's just the best one."
"It is evil." Shan pronounced each word carefully, because he could feel a need to scream them recklessly.
"There's slavery in the Bible." Naite smiled, a smug expression that clearly suggested he'd planned that little attack.
"So are incest and infidelity and hate. God is not endorsing any of these acts. God did not wake up on the eighth day of creation and say, 'Let there be slavery.'"
"He didn't say, 'Let there be sanctimonious priests', either, but look what we have, anyway." Naite had a smug look on his face now, and Shan could feel the childish need to tackle his brother to the ground and start pounding on him.
"Naite Polli." Kevin Starwalker spoke the name, and even though he didn't have any inflection in his voice, he still managed to make his disapproval clear. Naite leaned back, his dark face pinking slightly.
"Perhaps you should look up the root word in sanctimonious," Shan said, not even feeling guilty about the fact that he was getting the last word only because Kevin had stepped in.
"Perhaps both of you should look up the meaning of manners," Bari said, his voice a whisper that might not have been heard, only the room had gone silent, save for the wind whistling against the metal joints of the square building. However, when Shan glanced over, Bari didn't offer an apology. "We must think of what is best for Cyla and Temar. If we take their wages, they will not have any sort of life. A term of slavery would allow them to finish their punishment and move on."
Kevin spoke up. "They could learn from some hard labor. Their father may have blamed George Young for his troubles, but his crops died because he never took care of them. Disliking Young is one thing, but blaming him for theft is unacceptable. He's honest, even if his values leave something to be desired. If Cyla and Temar work the fields, they'll learn what their father should have taught them." Clearly Bari and Kevin were both leaning toward condemning two young people to slavery. Shan didn't even bother looking at Naite. He looked to his last hope--Lilian. She had withheld her judgment until now, which meant she was unsure. When the woman felt passionately about an issue, she had no qualms about manipulating and cajoling the rest of the council to do whatever she wanted. However, this time she had remained largely silent.
Lilian was staring out the window. The sand in the air reflected the sun, so that the landscape shimmered in shades of gold and red. The flickers of light shone against the thick glass and spawned prisms and rainbows that scattered across the dull, gray walls of the room. She fingered the wooden talisman that hung from a cord around her neck. "Slavery is not to be taken lightly. What happened in Blue Hope is a reminder of the seriousness of such a judgment."
"Absolute power corrupts absolutely," Shan agreed, hope chipping away at the sinking feeling of defeat in his guts. Dee'eta Sun made a small clicking sound that might have suggested she agreed with him, but she remained silent.
"This is a difficult situation, and some of us are going to leave here unhappy." She stopped, and the room fell silent.
While on paper the council might be a meeting of equals, some were more equal than others. Lilian's years, wisdom, and her friendships with half the town gave her voice a weight that the rest of them lacked. "If these young idiots had skills, they could work off this debt. The fault for that is their father's, but it doesn't change the fact that any restitution would cripple them for their entire lives. While I don't vote for slavery easily, I think this time, it is the only choice. The debt will be paid, these two will have some time to grow up, and maybe they can learn some skills which will improve their futures."
Shan had to smother a very unpriestlike desire to slap the smug look off his brother's face. Naite was the poster child for slavery--the perfect example of what the system was supposed to do. As much as Shan did thank God that Tom Sulli had treated his brother so well and helped him heal from their father's abuse, sometimes Shan wished that his brother's papers had been purchased by George Young. Maybe then Naite would have been as passionate about abolishing slavery as he was about defending the system. Maybe. Naite was so stubborn, he still might argue for slavery, just to annoy Shan.
And now Shan could do nothing to help Cyla and Temar. His guts coiled and churned unhappily. Cyla was a beautiful woman, willowy and pale, with a sharp tongue and sharper temper. She was a second cousin to Lilian's granddaughter, and the two shared the same ethereal look.
Temar was the same, and as a boy, the look was even more striking. He had blond hair and blue eyes and very long fingers. When Shan had been no more than ten or twelve, he had seen Temar's mother hold up her young baby's hand and declare that he would be the church pianist one day, with hands like that. Shan remembered being envious of that child because, back then, the thought of living in the church had seemed like a wonderful and impossible dream. But now, Temar's life would not be one to envy.
No, Shan had failed to protect them. He wondered if he would sit and listen in confession as they whispered about anger and shame and a weariness that wore at their souls or if they'd avoid the church and carry this burden alone. And one day, what happened at Blue Hope would happen in Landing. When that day came, Shan wasn't sure if his vows to protect his people or his vow to protect the sanctity of the confessional would win out.
* * * *
Temar sat in the feed shed that served as a temporary prison, trying not to lose himself to the panic that soured his stomach and made his mouth dry. Standing in Young's muddy field, Cyla had done all the cursing for them, repeating all their accusations about Landholder Young stealing their father's water and ruining his farm. She hadn't convinced anyone. No, work-hardened hands had grabbed them, and Temar didn't have any illusions about what would happen now.
If he'd had any doubts, the fact that the council had ordered their shoes taken and then had him and his sister locked in separate sheds spoke volumes. They had no hope of escape now, not that there was any place to escape to. Unlucky stars. Sometimes Temar thought he'd been born under the unluckiest of all of them.
He heard a voice outside the shed and jumped. His heart pounded so heavily that his chest ached with the force of it. Part of him wanted the guards to come. They'd either sentence him to slavery or exile him. Either seemed better than waiting in the dark. If the sentence was exile, he didn't have a lot of illusions. He'd only last a few days out in the barchan dunes. In the deep valleys, shielded by massive rock walls, humans could build farms and thrive. In the towns, with their windbreaks and houses, humans could survive. Out on the open desert, humans died. If the sun didn't kill him, the sandcats would. Temar would die before he could walk half the distance to the next town.
Pressing himself back into a corner of the empty shed, he breathed the grain dust and considered the distances between Landing and the surrounding territories. Sadly, he knew enough math to calculate the loss of his body's water if he walked across those hot sands in the day, and he knew the probability of running into sand burrs or pipe trap plants if he walked them at night. He actually wished he hadn't excelled in school. Right now, a little ignorance would be bliss.
Cyla might get more mercy. Ever since the medicines had run out, so many women died in childbirth that they would have to think twice before exiling a young woman. The thought of Cyla being exiled made his stomach clench. His butt was going numb, so he shifted his weight forward and pressed his forehead to his knees. How did this all go so wrong? His eyes burned with tears. This was all his fault. He never should have followed her out into that field. He should have stood firm, and maybe she would have backed down. Then again, maybe she would have gone out on her own. Would that have been better?
"We just need proof," she'd insisted. Cyla's words echoed through his memory. She had sounded so desperate, like she might break if he refused to help her. He was an idiot, because he should have known to run the other way when she looked at him with that expression.
If only he could have convinced her to stay home, the two of them would have been safe. Instead, they were about to be either exiled or contracted out to the highest bidder. Their slave prices would go to Landholder Young, and then that excrement of a sandcat would finally be able to say he had destroyed the entire Gazer line.
Temar couldn't stop the tears. He tried to. He knew they could open that door and drag him out any second, and he didn't want anyone to see him cry. But no matter how much he wanted to put on a strong front, his nose insisted on stuffing up and his head ached and his tears slipped out. He tried to push aside the fear and pain by focusing on another emotion--anger. Temar conjured the image of Landholder Young, his blotchy skin with whole patches of gray that stained his dark neck and chin, his balding head with another blot of gray and scaly skin, his fat fingers and his squinty eyes. His eyes were set so deep in his face that he looked like someone had taken him as a child and shoved their thumbs into his eyes, pushing them way back into his head.
Instead of helping him control his tears, the anger only made him cry more. When the crying grew so bad that his breath came in ragged gasps, he tried distracting himself by calculating square roots or counting the number of interplanetary governors he could remember. It wasn't enough to cut through the terror. Landholder Freeland was the eldest, and she would want him sold or exiled. His crime was against the land, and since he and Cyla owned land, they should have understood the horror of that. They weren't townies who had done some accidental damage while goofing around.
Temar's chest tightened as he realized that they probably didn't own land anymore. Their father's land was a poor strip between two larger farms. One of them would happily pay for the land, poor though it might be. If the council exiled him and Cyla, Landholder Young might even get his father's land to repay him for the lost water. At that thought, his mind darted off in another direction, and this time guilt washed through him at the thought of all Young's water spilling out onto the dry ground in heaving surges. The memory made Temar sick to his stomach. He turned away from that thought as quickly as he could. Maybe when he wasn't so terrified for himself, he could take more time to stop and feel guilty about the damage they had done.
The priest might speak for them--argue for slavery over exile. That was one vote Temar was almost sure he could count on. And his brother, Naite, spoke publicly of the need for more young people to be taken in hand as slaves. Pretty much any offense sent him talking about how those who weren't raised well needed the training slavery provided. He might be equally ready to keep them in the territory.
Dee'eta Sun.... Temar thumped his head against the shed wall. He had so badly wanted to purchase an apprenticeship with the woman. Glass sang for her, twisted into impossible shapes and revealed colors that no one else could duplicate. He'd had fantasies of her seeing his own sad attempts and inviting him to her workshop. Instead she was, right now, discussing what a failure he had turned out to be.
Getting to his feet, Temar ordered himself to not think about any of it. Unfortunately, that only made the thoughts and the fears and the lost fantasies all crash in around him. He felt like he was in the middle of a glass shop, and he'd dropped one piece, but in trying to catch that piece, he had clumsily knocked over a half dozen more. And as he turned and turned, desperate to save some piece of falling glass, he was destroying everything, and he couldn't find a way to stop. He should just stand still and let the glass fall to the ground around him. That was the only logical way to prevent himself from doing even more damage, but he couldn't not try to save something, and the more he tried to save some small piece of the beauty he'd wrecked, the more pieces were shattered by his flailing.
Maybe the town should exile him while they still had some glass on the shelves. Maybe if he wasn't around to be such an idiot, Cyla would have given up her vendetta before this happened. Maybe if he understood people, instead of books, he could have found the words to convince her to let go of her anger. He sighed. Maybe he had no control over any of it. That last was more than an unlucky star. That was a whole constellation of unlucky.
Something scraped against the door, and Temar retreated across the empty floor. A moment ago, he'd just wanted to get this over with, but now he wanted nothing more than a few more minutes in this dusty and dim room. In here, he was still Landholder Temar Gazer. He wanted to be able to claim his name this last time, because when they pulled him out, the council would strip him of his land and probably strip him of his last name and sell him as a slave. If the stars truly hated him, they would allow him to keep his name and turn him out of the settlement to die in the sand. And right now, Temar didn't want to know.
"Time to hear judgment, young water thief," Naite Polli said. He was a dark shadow blocking the door, so that the light streamed in around him. Motes of dust danced in the beams, and Temar swallowed, not sure whether the title of "water thief" or fear of his sentence kept him from walking forward willingly.
Worker Naite sighed and stepped into the shed. He was a huge man with a hawk nose that dominated his face and gave him a dark, predatory look. In his hand, he held a rope, and Temar couldn't take his eyes off that length of yellowed cord. "I know this is hard, boy." Naite gave a wry chuckle. "I remember this very shed, and I remember Kevin Starwalker coming in to get me. I nearly pissed my pants, I was so afraid. I was sure someone would be writing a song about how many mistakes I'd made. In your case though, they really might write a song, but you'll survive that too." Naite ran a thumb over the rope and stood looking at Temar silently for several seconds. Temar knew that Naite was waiting for him to do something or say something, but fear had turned his insides to stone, so that he couldn't move at all. Naite sighed. "I know what you're feeling, but you need to face the consequences of what you've done."
Temar caught his lower lip between his teeth and fought against a terror that would make him throw himself on Naite Polli and beg forgiveness--or make him dash for the door to run through the sands until he fell into a pipe trap plant and broke his ankle. Then sandrats could mob his body. He wanted desperately to do anything except stand still and let the man put that rope on him.
"You'll live, boy. Your pride may take a few hits, but if you're so full of yourself that you don't mind spilling two tanks of water, your pride needs to take a few hits."
"I didn't mean--" Temar cut himself off. Worker Naite didn't want to hear his excuses or his apologies. His father and Cyla had both gone to the council, claiming that their farm's water had been stolen, and all they'd gotten was a reputation for being a little hot-headed and a lot crazy. In Cyla's case, the hot-headed part was actually true, and after a few years of drinking pipe trap juice, his father's sanity had certainly been in doubt. However, Temar wasn't foolish enough or angry enough to make his own situation worse by being one more raving fool, accusing others of the very crime he had committed. He hadn't meant to steal Young's water, but he had. He hadn't meant to damage the equipment, but again, he had. He had no proof that Young had ever hurt his father, but the proof against him and Cyla was stacked up like bundles of grain.
"You aren't the first to do something he never meant to," Naite said, his voice far gentler than Temar had ever heard it. Usually Naite was the sort of man who bellowed orders to workers across fields. Naite stepped forward, and Temar mirrored the movement by stepping back. His back hit the wall of the shed, and he had no more room to retreat, so he could only watch as Naite closed in on him. A work-roughened hand reached for his wrist, and Temar neither helped nor fought as he watched Naite wind a length of rope around his wrist. Naite reached for his other hand and repeated the complex patterns of knots and loops, so that Temar was tied with intricate bindings. A long leash trailed from the knots around his left hand, and Naite took that in hand and pulled. Temar had no choice but to step away from the wall. His eyes felt sore and swollen, and he could feel the tears threaten to start, once again.
Naite slapped him on the shoulder, as one man might do to another. "You'll be fine, boy. You'll be better off than those seedlings in the field you washed out. It's been a lot of years since anyone on Livre has seen honest mud, and hopefully after this, we won't have any more young people decide to play these games with water."
Temar set his teeth deep into his lower lip and stared at his bound hands. Whatever he said would be seen as an attempt to justify what could not be justified, and if he railed against Landholder Young, the council might well decide that he was mentally unbalanced and potentially unsafe.
Knowing no other way to mitigate the trouble he was in, Temar waited as Naite stood in front of him. Temar's bare feet looked tiny next to Naite's heavy, leather boots, and Temar amused himself by imagining himself so tiny that he could walk along the folds in the leather. He could shrink down so small that he could walk out between the cracks in the door and vanish from sight. He could slip between grains of sand and live in the shade of a wind tree leaf.
The rope tether pulled tight, and Temar followed out into the sun as Naite led him to the squat council building. It had once been a huge complex, but most of the metal had been bastardized for equipment, leaving only one small structure with thick glass windows stood in the center of town. Most buildings in town had steeply leaning walls, built to shrug off the wind, but this one was a box, with upright walls that defied Livre's winds instead of bending to them.
The sand was hot under his feet and slid between his toes as he padded after Naite. A woman with a young girl at her side sat against the council building and wove, her fingers twisting and braiding rope, like the one binding him. She watched from the sides of her eyes, her gaze darting from him to her work and back to him. If Temar were a townie, he would know her name, but he only knew those he had schooled with. Like Tith Starson, who leaned against a parked sled and watched him. Temar could feel his face heat, and not from Livre's sun.
Naite pulled open the door to the council building, and their feet tracked sand inside. With his eyes on the floor, Temar couldn't see much, but that was a blessing. He didn't want to see the condemnation or the pity. In fact, all he wanted was the answer to one question.
"Cyla?" Temar whispered his sister's name. Naite hesitated and raised his hand that held the leash. Temar tracked the movement as Naite's hand stopped just short of his arm. He watched the loop of the rope between his bound hands and Naite's fist. Oh gods. Don't let them have exiled her, he prayed. He tried very hard not to think about his sister's body lying in the sand with the sandrats and wind pulling flesh from her bones.
"No one may know a judgment that hasn't been given," Naite said. He pulled his hand away and dropped it.
"For God's mercy, Naite, you could at least reassure the boy."
"Shan." Lilian Freeland's voice rose above the two Polli brothers'. Temar closed his eyes and struggled to breathe. They were going to exile them. His legs turned so weak that, had his knees not been locked, he would have fallen to the ground.
"Young Temar, your sister will get no worse punishment than you." Lilian stepped up in front of him, and Temar studied her feet and the worn cuffs on her jeans. His father had always spoken so highly of Landholder Freeland, of her ability to run a farm and command respect and ride a tractor through a sandstorm. She'd risked her health with no fewer than seven children on a world where water and medicine were both far too rare, and she was like a sandrat that kept living, no matter the odds against it. However, he suspected her opinion of him was not as high.
Bracing himself for the certain death sentence they were about to pronounce, Temar raised his chin and tried to find some lingering wisps of dignity. He'd fall on the floor and beg if it would help, but they had already voted, and his begging wouldn't improve matters now. Lilian looked him in the eye, and Temar felt a warm tear roll over his cool cheek.
"Your crime is too serious to ignore. We have decided that you are responsible for 800 square rods of seedlings being ruined, the loss of two tanks of water, and a measure tap being damaged." When she lined up all his crimes so neatly, Temar felt nauseous. It was half a lifetime's wealth that he had destroyed in one night.
"You are sentenced to slavery for no less than ten years, unless, in the testimony of your master and the determination of this council, your service is so exemplary or substandard to warrant amending your sentence."
For a second, Temar thought he had heard wrong. They were enslaving him and not exiling him. True, he had never even heard of a slave being sentenced to ten years, but it wasn't death. It was a hope for life and for eventually regaining his freedom. Temar was so surprised that he swayed, as if the emotional blow had physically knocked him off balance. Bringing his hands up, he had to catch himself on Naite's arm.
Naite's hand came up under his elbow and steadied him. This time, the tears that slipped out of Temar were of relief instead of fear. He wasn't going to face exile, and since Lilian had promised him that his sister's punishment wouldn't be worse than his, that meant she was going to be safe too. A month ago, he would have railed against ever being enslaved, but right now, it felt like a great stroke of luck.
Not all of the faces in the room looked particularly happy, though. Dee'eta Sun, a woman with shoulders almost as wide as Worker Naite's and a white streak in her black hair, watched him with a guarded expression. Any chance he'd ever had to be an artisan was gone. By the time he'd earned his freedom, he would be too old to apprentice, and he'd likely be an unskilled worker for the rest of his life. That was still better than exile.
The priest, Shan Polli, didn't even bother to hide his unhappiness with the judgment. Shan was a smaller version of his brother. Where Naite was a monster of a man, Shan was tall and sinewy... and intimidating. His leaner frame made his beak-like nose and sharp eyes more frightening, even though Naite had the same features.
Sometimes, when his father was well and truly drunk on pipe trap juice, Temar had used church as an excuse to walk into town and sit in the quiet and just listen to the sound of the wind whispering through the cracks in the boards. He'd been young when his mother died, but he remembered sitting in her lap and listening to the hum of the church. It was a rare and cherished memory--one that he clung to after his mother had died and his father slowly turned into a drunk. Many times Temar had sat in the last row, listening to the wind against the roof and Shan's voice, watching the man move with a precision and grace and power that Temar had rarely seen in anyone.
"Don't think this will be easy. You're going to learn to work and respect the land that you seem to have so little regard for." Naite's words were gruff as he pulled his hand back, leaving Temar to stand on his own feet.
"I know," Temar whispered. Now that the fear of exile had passed, the fear of slavery was starting to creep in. As long as they didn't sell him to Landholder Young, he'd survive. He just wasn't sure that anyone would pay a slave price for him, and without a buyer, his papers would go to Young to repay him for the damage.
"I very much doubt that you do understand." Shan spoke for the first time, and Temar ducked his head, eager to avoid the disapproval he could hear in that voice. He should get used to it. Even after his slavery ended, he would likely be known as a water thief for the rest of his life.
"Two landholders have requested your papers." Lilian quickly filled the silence left in the wake of Shan's comment. "I don't think you'll be surprised to know that Landholder Young filed a request."
Temar looked up, horror drawing his gaze to the councilwoman's face. Lilian gave him a small, crooked smile. "I think our reaction was similar to yours," she said, humor in her voice. "He's angry, so I think we can all agree that you are best placed somewhere else."
"Yes, ma'am," Temar agreed. The thought of Young having rights over him was enough to make exile sound pleasant.
"Ben Gratu has offered a fair price."
Temar closed his eyes as relief flooded him. Ben owned the farm on the other side of his father's land. He was a fair man who had always gone out of his way to offer the family a few kindnesses or a spare flat of seedlings. "Thank you," Temar managed to say. His legs felt like jelly, like the time he'd fallen from the valley cliff wall, only to be caught by the safety rope at the last minute. That sudden burst of fear and then the realization that he hadn't been crushed into a bloody mash left his body limp with relief. That's how he felt now.
Shan took a step forward, his sharp eyes focusing, so that Temar felt uncomfortably trapped inside the man's gaze. "Should you need anything, you know you have the same right to come to the council that anyone else has, correct?"
Temar frowned, not sure why Shan would imply that Ben Gratu would ever do anything that warranted coming to the council. However, he answered as politely as he could. "Yes, sir."
Shan sighed, clearly not happy with the answer.
Naite looked angry enough to chew glass. "Brother, we are not Blue Hope, and I hope you are not suggesting that Ben Gratu is anything like that pig shit they had hiding in their territory."
"I am not suggesting anything." Shan snapped the words out, and the two brothers glared at each other. "I am simply reminding Temar that slavery does not mean that he loses all his rights."
"Any rights he loses, he loses out of his own foolishness."
Lilian held her hands up. "Enough!" she commanded. She was a tiny woman, shorter even than Temar, and he was small compared to most people on Livre, but both brothers stopped at once. She looked from one to the other in clear disapproval.
"There are days that I question the wisdom of having both of you on this council. Were it in my power, I would ask your groups to name another." She turned away from them and walked to the table. Sitting down in a chair on the near side, she looked over the whole room, like an artisan considering her supplies and finding them lacking. Finally, her gaze settled on him.
"Temar, you do keep your right to speak to the council. You have a right to food and water. You have a right to be safe from injury or danger. All other rights and names that once were yours now belong to your master. Do you understand that?"
Temar nodded. He didn't trust his voice, not when his emotions were pressing so hard against him.
"You will work where ordered, live where ordered, and obey your master. You will be restrained however your master determines." Temar went cold at the thought of being tied and tethered like a beast, the way he was tied now, but he also knew that would be Ben Gratu's right. He nodded again.
"Child," Lilian said softly, "if Ben restrains you, it will be to keep you from making an even more disastrous mistake. If you damage your master's property maliciously, show recalcitrance in following orders, or attempt to escape, the only punishment remaining will be exile. If you are placed under exile, your name and image will be sent to all the territories, and no settlement will share water with you. Do you truly understand that?"
"Yes," he agreed. His voice cracked halfway through the word.
Naite pulled the rope leash tight. "It's not that bad, boy. I got fairly good at plowing a field when chained to the wheel." Naite almost made the experience sound amusing.
"Naite, take the boy to his master," Lilian said. "I suspect we will need more time to speak with his sister."
Temar's head snapped up at the mention of Cyla. "Could I...." He looked around the room with a desperate hope that they would allow him to see her. Bari and Kevin studied the papers in front of them. Dee'eta watched with that same impassive face she'd worn the entire time, and Shan had an expression that Temar couldn't hope to interpret, but it wasn't good. It was Lilian who answered him.
"You were told to go to your master, and you are ready to disobey already. You need to remember your place." The matronly warmth she had shown just seconds ago had vanished, and she frowned at him.
"It's not so easy to give up your freedom," Naite answered for him. "He'll learn." Naite gave a sharp tug on the rope leash, and Temar had to stumble forward to keep his balance.
"Naite!" Shan said sharply.
"You'll learn to weigh your words before you assume that your needs are more important than the rules," Naite said to Temar, ignoring his brother. He strode out of the room with long strides, and Temar was forced to trot after him, his arms stretched out in front of him as Naite half dragged him out of the building and to the waiting sand sled. Silently, Naite threaded the rope leash through the handle of the door, pulling Temar's wrist close to the polished wood before tying the rope off. Given a few hours of privacy, Temar might be able to use his teeth to free the knots, but with a few townies standing around and watching, Temar was going to be forced to stand by the side of his new master's sled, tethered and waiting.
He blinked and turned his head away from the hot wind. For long seconds, Naite stood next to him, his body making a long shadow against the sand. "I know how hard this is, boy."
Temar glanced up, not sure what he was supposed to say. Naite made no secret about having been enslaved himself, but he hadn't faced ten years.
"It does get easier. And the ability to think before acting is a skill worth developing. Work hard to please your master, and Ben will give you credit for it. He's a fair man, and you could shorten your sentence by earning his respect." Naite gave him another slap on the arm, and then he was gone. Temar watched Naite walk toward the line of storage sheds, lined up along the edge of town to keep the worst of the winds off the houses. As he walked, his footsteps made divots in the ground that slowly vanished as the wind shifted the sands. Out of some perverse need to test his bonds, Temar pulled against the leash, but he didn't have more than an inch of room, and the bindings were far too well tied for him to free himself, even if he put in an honest effort to do so.
Instead, he watched Naite go into another of the empty feed sheds. Before Naite could come out with his sister leashed and ready to hear her sentence, Ben Gratu came out of the general store, already slipping his sand veil over his hat as he walked toward the sled. Time to learn to be a slave to his master. Temar's stomach was knotting already.