There was an urge to simply say yes.
Traveling the stars. The concept intrigued him, though Reave wasn’t certain what all the talk of spheres and flow entailed. This world. This dimension. It was so different from his homeland. The magic felt different. The rules of existence were different. And for the most part, the differences irritated him. He’d felt very little curiosity to explore the empire of the Enforcers and Babbadich to learn more.
Especially since learning that the powers of the empire were required to be born into their Order. Perhaps not an insurmountable obstacle to counter, but one that would require far more patience and diplomacy than he really felt like putting into this place.
But this new empire of Lady Ai’s… that was another intriguing concept. Lady Ai herself did not impress him much, but neither did many individuals of the Enforcers’ empire. The question was: how did the Therians compare in size and power?
If Reave couldn’t raise an army strong enough to do much against this empire… perhaps he could find another to do his work for him. It would be such a shame, after all, if the starting diplomacy between these two powers ended poorly.
If nothing else, travel might lead him to finding a way Home. He’d certainly searched the island thoroughly enough without success. If it hadn’t required taking passage on an empire ship, he might have left decades ago in search of a Gate.
And, of course, there was Haven, his people. A hard decision, to leave behind those he’d made his charge. He contemplated Tara as the girl leaned far enough past the railing to risk falling, though such an accident should only land her on the deck below. Many of those in Haven seemed to have as little concern for their own safety. Yet the elders there had wisdom enough. And, in truth, they’d needed little from Reave for many years now. They certainly never troubled him with any concerns, not that they ever had, directly. Such undemanding vassals.
They had proven capable of taking care of themselves. They should be alright for a year or two. And certainly, he’d be able to return to them if he felt like it.
But there was no reason to give these thoughts to Lady Ai. For the moment, he simply nodded thoughtfully to her offer, and turned the conversation to other matters.
In a short time, the walled city came into view, at first nothing visible but the farms that spread out beyond in a mosaic of patterns. Then the walls and the roofs of buildings drew the eyes, and as the Therian ship descended, what seemed like small dots became more noticeable as people. The ship flew around the city towards the open ocean, curving around towards the long docks that stretched out along the coastline. The water below them rippled before the ship as it settled down as close as reasonable to docks too full to make room for this size of craft, ship noises dying off as they came to rest within the water.
There appeared to be a great deal of commotion upon the land as a large red-faced man came storming out to the edge of the nearest dock, mouth bellowing out something too far to hear and the people around him either scattered or followed him about.
“I do not believe the dockmaster appreciates our arrival,” Reave noted mildly.
Lady Ai merely nodded and proceeded them from the upper balcony back to the deck below where she turned to speak softly with a member of her crew. But before she could set whatever diplomacy she had in mind in motion, Aesha stepped forward to the edge of the deck rail. Her arms moved in a clear pattern, and apparently one that the dockmaster recognized, for the commotion immediately changed to a different sort as the man began bellowing orders. And very soon, nearby ships were departing, making room for the Therian ship to pull up close.
“Interesting,” Lady Ai murmured, with a glance at the elven Enforcer. “I don’t suppose you could… expedite my gaining an audience with the Duke?”
“Very well,” Aesha agreed softly.
Reave settled back, leaning against the nearby turret to wait. His attention wandered briefly to Tara, who was babbling to Paug about what she’d seen from the balcony and comparing it to his view from the deck. She brought up Lady Ai’s offer to visit the Therian empire, noting, to his amusement, “Don’t you think it would be so much fun to see other planets and to fly through space! I’ve kept meaning to leave the island and visit other places, I just never have yet. If Reave decides to go, then I’ll go too, long as it’s okay with him.”
One vassal he’d still be responsible for then, for he saw no reason to deny the girl her adventure. She really was, now that he thought about it, the first villager of Haven who’d actually asked him for something directly. ‘Can we go with you?’ Although her companion at the time had acted as though she erred greatly in even so simple a request. Perhaps he would question her at some point over what issue they seemed to have with bringing their concerns to their liege. It was, after all, their right to ask things of him.
No matter. In only a short time, whatever rank Aesha held had proven enough sway to gain them immediate audience with the port city’s ruling Duke. Lady Ai invited Reave along, and Tara and Paug followed more because no one told them they could not. The weren did not concern Reave. Though Lady Ai might be under a different impression, the creature was not Reave’s, thus any trouble he might cause not Reave’s responsibility. Tara, however… As the small group was escorted into the opulent corridors of the Duke’s keep, Reave moved over to the girl, placing an arm lightly about her shoulders to pull her close. “Don’t take anything,” he warned softly, mindful of her previous mention of learning from a thief.
Tara blinked at him with those wide brown eyes, (such a disappointing shade, he thought idly, underneath such vibrant red hair) though she didn’t try to pull the innocent act he’d already noted her playing with Lady Ai. “Of course not,” she smiled cheerfully. “I only do that to people I don’t like. Or if I’m trying to see how someone will react. Or if I’m really bored. But I figure it’ll be more interesting just to listen to all the undertalk for a while anyway.”
“Yea. Nobles never say what they mean, they always talk under the surface instead. That’s what Alathorn always said, so I want to hear all the undertalk.”
A blink. She was an interesting girl, Reave thought, especially for a commoner. He let her be, still keeping an eye on her, but generally settled that she wouldn’t be much trouble for a time at least. He could spend his time listening to the ‘undertalk’ as well, examining it for anything that might gain him later advantage.
After only a brief pause with servants, the Duke came to meet them personally, ushering them into a large meeting hall decked out with comfortable seats and trays of fine light foods and wine decanters. Briefly, Lady Ai made request for her ships resupply needs, and the broadly smiling Duke proclaimed that they were to consider themselves to have free reign of the city, and offered the services of his own supply master and servants to speak with and escort her crew to whatever they might need to purchase the next morning.
Tawdry real-life needs taken care of, the two settled into a long involved discussion of their respective empires, not saying much but both hinting at great power and strength and riches. Without comparing actual figures, it would be hard to be sure, but unless Lady Ai lied, it did appear that the Therians encompassed enough worlds to make them very close, if not larger than this Empire of Everlasting Eves, though he thought the nearby empire probably older. There was a brief comparison of ships where, off course, both Duke and Lady Ai made disclaimers that the ships currently on hand to be viewed were merely small representations of their people’s true capabilities.
In all, neither empire representative wanted to risk offending a potentially powerful rival, while at the same time, both wished to emphasize their own vastly superior strength and capabilities.
It was quite amusing, though Reave was relieved when the audience finally concluded. Verbal matches and diplomacy, necessary as they had been for him to learn, and as useful as they might be to him now, bored him quickly. He sighed inwardly. It was much more pleasant to talk directly, and to back one’s words with action rather than subtle threats. How many court games might he have to play to put these two empires at odds? Hopefully, he could find a way to bypass such measures altogether and still achieve his goal.
A nice, long, bloody war. That would give him more than enough action.
As they headed back to the docks, Lady Ai struck up conversation with Aesha concerning her supply needs, apparently not content to let such matters rest in the hands of underlings. Though it soon became apparent that her concerns were on her particular needs, rather than that of the ship as a whole. “It is apparent that the city has changed a great deal since I was here last. So strange. Little more than a week for me, and a century for all here. I recall that the upper district was on the north side of town. I suppose I’ll have to re-discover the best place for delicacies and wines, unless you have any recommendations?”
How much time during Kakurine’s challenge did Lady Ai and her companions waste wandering about the town? No wonder Lady Ai spoke of the priestess dropping by multiple times to push them back on track. Reave himself had tarried a time or two for combat, taking over a day in his fight with the pole-armed woman before they finally declared the match a draw, but he must have been called in as a Champion much later than her group if they’d had the time to wander about so much and still beat him to the mountain.
“Are the better kept slaves still held in that warehouse to the northeast of the town square?” Lady Ai was asking. “I fear I lost both my purchases from before. My favorite I put in Babbadich’s care. I do hope he took good care of her. While my people were good enough to send along my Emily on the Dolosus, I’d like to purchase two or three more, if I can find a few well-kept girls.”
There was a brief silence.
“You… keep slaves?” Tara whispered.
“The Empire of Everlasting Eves does not allow slavery,” Aesha informed quietly. “The rules are held more laxly in the outer reaches of the Empire, such as this was in… your time, but we put a stop to such lapses many years ago when we began putting more focus on our expansion across this world.”
“Ah,” Lady Ai nodded, though she seemed not at all abashed. “Then I suppose it is only fair to inform you that my own empire has a different view on such things. Though we do not keep such servants in the manner that I saw exhibited in this place. Therians treat our slaves quite well. They are honored as permanent members of the household, and given happy, secure lives. You will find in my lands not a single one who would give up my ownership for the uncertainties of freedom.”
“But…” Tara trailed off, looking at Lady Ai with a stricken impression.
“Different people have different ways,” Reave told the girl gently. “Many cultures will enslave their criminals, or those they defeat in wars, as an alternative to killing them. And given such as the alternative, many agree to such enforced servitude.”
“Haven wouldn’t.” Tara told him boldly. “Haven would rather die. So the Empire better remember that if they decide to go back on their word and start being slavers again.” She glared briefly over towards Aesha, then flushed and looked down. “Have to be polite,” she murmured, almost too softly to hear.
“Haven is Mine,” he told her. “And I will see to its safety. But if you wish to travel beyond, to view other people and other lands, you must realize that they may do things that you, personally, disagree with.”
“Do your people buy other people?” she asked him with wide eyes.
He paused a moment, a flash of unwanted memories causing him to hesitate. But her wording made his response simple. “No, we do not purchase intelligent beings.” Not when there were so many ways to make those you wanted come willingly, without need for chains. But it would not help her to hear the details of the practices of his homeland.
“Come and meet my Emily,” Lady Ai urged. “If you can find fault in her treatment or in her happiness, I would be only too glad to hear of it."
Lady Ai continued to speak of her empire, attempting to paint a magical picture where all the slaves were happy, carefree people, content to work away their lives in the gentle servitude of another. The interesting thing, to Reave’s mind, was that she actually seemed to believe many of her own words. Oh, she acknowledged that there were the occasional Therians who did not treat their property as they should, but she referred to them as rare exceptions to an otherwise perfectly run world. Could it be possible, by any stretch of the imagination, that a noble in charge of her own lands be so naïve? Or was she simply a better actress than he gave her credit for being?
He noted Aesha also watching the Therian with a blank, shuttered expression. It did not suit him at all that this empire might gain advantage over this new potential threat to their power. Perhaps the Therian noble would allow him the role as her advisor. He would be willing to lend her some protection against the machinations of Aesha’s Order.
Emily turned out to be an interesting possession. She was a beautiful, white-haired Therian girl, with soft pouty lips and a delicate grace. In many ways, he found her more attractive than Lady Ai, for all that the noble lady was the higher technical beauty. Lady Ai’s features were sculptured to an extent that simply could not be natural. As a member of a people able to change their own appearance as a matter of course, Reave found Lady Ai reminded him greatly of the over-perfected nobles of his own courts. Hadn’t they even done cat-features for a time, as part of one fad or another? But Emily’s few flaws simply added to her appearance, and her habitual subservience was quite pleasing. Though he would not care to own her. She seemed… fragile.
It would be hard to imagine her lasting long if not underneath the protection that slavery brought her.
“You enslave other Therians?” Reave asked of Lady Ai, ignoring the conversation going on between Tara and Emily as his vassal attempted to figure out why Emily wasn’t upset over her status.
“Emily is only half-Therian. Her father was human. As such, she is merely female, and, unfortunately, considered much less among my people than even those entirely of another race.” Lady Ai sighed softly. “It is something I am trying to work against, the prejudice against those of two-breeds. Two of my own daughters are half-Therian, and I intend to see to it that the elder inherit my lands. If I’ve the time to see such things through…” She shook her head briefly, then smiled. “But that is another matter. To your question, no, Therians are not listed among those enslaved.”
“Merely female?” Reave questioned. Strange wording. From what he had seen thus far, the Therian crew was made up entirely of females, not to mention Lady Ai herself. He’d begun to wonder if males might play a more subservient or protected role in their society.
“Oh, Therians, full Therians, are not limited to one gender,” Lady Ai explained. “We are both. Except for the half-breeds. They are always female.”
Both? He looked Lady Ai over with more curiosity. “Interesting. I have never been… both, before.” Nor with someone who was both. Something new to experience.
Lady Ai smiled somewhat suggestively and began to speak further when some thought made her pause. “Where is Paug?”
She hadn’t noticed the weren’s absence? She really did need an advisor.
“Oh, he wandered off after the Duke said we had free reign of the city,” Tara noted, rejoining them with a somewhat lighter expression on her face. Apparently her talk with Emily had calmed her down for the moment. “Probably to explore the city. He was talking before how he’d never gotten a chance, what with people getting so mad at him about silly things.” She tilted her head thoughtfully. “Do you think he might be in trouble? Lots of people might think he’s a monster if they don’t stop long enough to talk to him. I even thought he was at first.”
“He does have a tendency to consider as food those who don’t have names,” Reave commented. “Or who don’t think to give their names when asked.”
Lady Ai groaned. “We’d best find him then.”
And so, out to the city again they went. So much potential for trouble, Reave thought, this little group had. A wonder that Lady Ai would invite them along. But if she didn’t rescind the invitation after whatever mess Paug was into, he thought it might be a very interesting trip.
Amazingly enough, Paug was not into much trouble, though the number of guards standing about him might have something to do with that. The guards were not threatening or holding the weren, though they often gave the large creature wary looks. Instead, it seemed their instructions were to calm the populace. One noble, at least, had thought ahead.
Though there was one gentleman who they were having trouble calming.
“Those are Imperial property! I simply cannot risk them being ruined. Do you see the claws on its hands? It could destroy centuries of research in seconds if not careful. No, don’t tell me the Duke will take care of any damage. If I allow a single one of those books to be damaged, the library is ruined! The Empire won’t permit a single copy in my possession ever again! So you will find some way to get that… that thing to put down the tomes and depart!”
“He’s just reading,” Tara said, looking over at the librarian with some disgust. At a nod from Aesha, the guards allowed them past their ring where the weren was plopped down on the floor next to a whole pile of books, apparently absorbed completely in the current text open on his lap. He was very careful, Reave noted, in turning the page, seeming to understand quite fully what a clumsy movement might do.
Paug looked up at Tara’s greeting.
“Have you been just reading all this time?” Tara wondered.
“Scribe-man say books cannot be taken outside building. So Paug must stay to read.”
“You haven’t caused any… other trouble, have you Paug?” Lady Ai wondered.
“Paug not cause trouble. Paug do what Duke say is okay. Have free reign of the city. Paug…” the weren paused for a long moment and pronounced the next word one syllable at a time. “dip lo ma tic. Not eat anyone, even if not have names.”
Tara clapped her hands happily. “I taught Paug diplomacy!” she announced proudly. “But Paug,” she looked to the weren, eyes level with his while he sat. “Another thing about diplomacy is that people don’t always say what they mean. Just because the duke said free reign of the city doesn’t mean he was for real. We still have to get permission and stuff for where we go, or people get mad. I don’t think you’re supposed to be in the library.”
“Paug not have free reign of the city?”
She shook her head. “No, not really. Though the duke did say it, so even though some people will get mad, it’ll be his fault, not yours. But remember how being diplomatic means not doing things that will make people upset if you can help it?”
Paug nodded in agreement.
“If you… enjoy reading, perhaps you can find a place to sell you some books in the morning,” Lady Ai suggested. She had calmed, and seemed more amused than upset now. “I would advise such if you decide to join me in my trip. It is quite long, and time in the flow can become boring if you cannot find some way to entertain yourself. I will, of course, see that food and drink is provided for, as well as any basic living needs. But it is getting late. Shall we retire to my ship for the night? Shopping should wait until morning.”
Paug gently placed the book his was reading back on top of the stack next to him. He then removed a curious-looking helmet from his head--which he placed into his bag--and stood, ready to depart.
“This should be a very interesting trip,” Lady Ai murmured, echoing Reave’s own thoughts.
The stateroom Lady Ai offered Reave said something about the Therian culture. It was a large room, a good thirty feet deep and over ten feet wide, of a size to fit Paug easily, for all that the Therian had offered the weren use of the cargo hold instead. Most of the furnishings and decorations were sparse. A small desk and chair. A dresser topped with a large oval mirror. Some decorative carving on the top and bottom baseboards of the polished wooden walls. The only wall hanging a strange round device circled with numerical symbols that moving pieces within the center pointed towards. The thing ticked somewhat annoyingly as the parts within it moved.
But taking up the entire back third of the room stood the boast of the Therian stateroom. The bed. It was huge, opulent. Covered in soft cushions and pillows and filled with a slightly firmer, yet yielding mattress. Tara jumped in it immediately upon entering the room, and took much apparent enjoyment in being swallowed within its depths.
For, upon the girl’s own request, she was sharing the room with Reave.
This was due to the Therian ship possessing only two staterooms for guests. Reave was offered one, Aesha the other. Lady Ai, perhaps sensitive to the gender issues of other races, suggested that Tara room with Aesha, but the girl was quite adamant at not wanting to stay with an Enforcer. Reave had rather enjoyed the look on Aesha’s face when the girl had turned to him and wondered if she “had” to stay with her.
The Empire was not welcome among his villagers. Though they might have to pretend otherwise, for their own safety, it was satisfying to have the fact emphasized for this particular Enforcer’s benefit.
“Reave?” Tara wondered, head popping up from the mountain of pillows. Yet another beauty whose sight he could enjoy upon this ship. Though Tara might better be described as cute, rather than beautiful. Except for that brilliant red hair, brighter than polished copper. It was truly her crowning glory. And… something about her personality, her energy, made her entire form seem bursting with life.
“Are you going with Lady Ai?”
He considered a moment, but saw no harm in voicing his decision. “I am.”
“You don’t think she’d try to capture us and make us into slaves?”
A narrow, humorless smile crossed his lips. “I think she would be… very unwise to try.”
“Emily seemed really happy. That didn’t make a whole lot a sense. How could she be happy? And she was clean and well-fed and had really pretty clothes. That’s not how they talked about slavery being.”
“It is... akin to owning horses, or other animals. Some masters treat their property well. Some do not.”
“Well-treated or not, I wouldn’t ever want to be property. You wouldn’t let her make me a slave, would you?”
“No.” He walked over to the bed and placed a hand gently under her chin so that she looked up to him. “You are Mine,” he promised her. “Join me in this journey if you desire, and know that I will not allow another to keep you against your will.”
She calmed, looking up to him with a rather appealing level of trust. Such an intriguing girl. He wondered if she might be interested in sharing his room for reasons other than avoiding the Enforcer.
“I’m going too then!” she decided cheerfully, with no indication that her thoughts might be leading in the same direction as his own. He stepped back from her purposefully, letting his hand fall away. It had become his habit to treat his devoted followers in Haven quite gently, not that they’d ever given him reason to do otherwise. He had no intention of breaking that habit with her. If she desired more from him, she could let him know. After all, there were many other prospects upon this very ship.
Though only for some of his desires. He was, after all, a guest.
He sighed, a bit wistfully, as he recalled his time running about with the Unseelie Court, often being invited to join them in their harrowing activities. What joy he’d taken in the looks of terror on the faces of those mortals unfortunate enough to have crossed their path. A faint smile, darker than before, graced his lips as Reave remembered the punishment he'd gotten that time for being caught red-handed in such mischief. His father was, he supposed, a benign and wise ruler, but simply did not understand that the boring life of court and noble competitions really held little interest to him.
He wondered briefly how his family was doing. Most likely they were continuing on in their tiresome ways of endless balls and political maneuverings with one another. Perhaps there was a battle or skirmish he was missing, but overall he thought it better that he was where he was. Among mortals. A bit of a smirk caught the edges of his lips as he was certain his father would have quite a few things to say about that. Ah well, Reave was a young Sidhe, if one could call six hundred and… twenty-nine? so, and he really was far more interested by the conflicts mortals seemed to get so easily into.
Caught up in his own thoughts, he almost forgot that TaraLee was there. He found himself startled to find her still watching him from the bed. But she merely yawned behind a hand, then turned over to sleep. She did seem to become so quiet when she was tired.
Tired. A quick contemplation of his own physical state revealed that he was in need of rest soon himself. He did not need much, a couple of hours a night left him quite well-rested, thanks to the help of the simple silver band worn on the middle finger of his left hand. But he had skipped out on that rest the night before, and he knew from experience that the ring would eventually drag him under if he would not go willingly. An annoyance, the need for sleep.
But, it should be safe enough, for the moment. The door was locked, and a simple spell would warp the wood so that it remained so, despite any attempts to pry from the outside. And he would be awake again long before the girl finished her own rest. If he waited a touch longer, to ensure she slept soundly, she should never know that he rested at all.