The first time Lady Ashlynne Myrafloures saw the prisoner who would be known as Number Four, he was nearly naked, lying facedown in an ever- widening pool of his own blood. She could not see his face, covered as it was by a tangled mat of long black hair. His back was a broad expanse of bronzed flesh, most of it laid open by the lash. A dirty bandage, stiff with dried blood, was knotted around his right thigh.
She watched in horrified fascination as three of the mine's biggest guards fought to hold the prisoner down while a fourth guard attempted to collar him.
Stubbornly, and surely knowing he could not win, the prisoner struggled to fight them off, his fingers digging into the hard ground for purchase, his whole body trembling violently with the effort it cost him to resist.
Stay down. The plea was a silent cry in Ashlynne's throat. Please, just stay down.
But he didn't stay down. He went still for a brief moment and she could almost see him gathering his strength; then, with a feral scream of pain and rage, the prisoner surged to his feet, every muscle taut and quivering with the effort, his eyes blazing with defiance as he made a last desperate attempt for freedom.
She cringed as Dain plied the whip with stunning, terrifying accuracy.
The sinuous strip of thick black Parthian leather whistled through the air, tearing open the skin on the prisoner's left cheek. It was a cruel weapon, that lash. Her father had often spoken of Dain's skill. Dain wielded it with an expert hand, her father boasted; he was able to flay a man's back to the bone or flick a fly from a karu-atar's ear with equal skill. She had always thought her father was exaggerating, but no more.
As many times as she had heard of Dain's whip, this was the first time she had seen it in action. There were other, less barbaric, more refined methods of inflicting punishment, but her father had always maintained that there was nothing quite so painful, or so devastating to a man's pride, as an old-fashioned flogging carried out in public. It was also, he had once asserted, a remarkably effective deterrent to those who were made to watch.
To her horror, she knew her father was right.
"Dain! Enough!" Parah, chief overseer of the mine, strode into view.
Looking disappointed, Dain let the whip fall to his side.
In the end, as she had known he would, the prisoner lost the battle. She couldn't help but admire his courage even as she wondered at his wisdom.
Certainly he had known he could not win; certainly it would have been far less painful simply to submit to the inevitable.
Humbled and bloody, he fought until they forced him to the ground, where they held him down spread-eagled on his stomach. A hoarse scream of outrage erupted from his throat as a heavy lynaziam collar as wide as the span of her hand was locked around his neck; lynaziam manacles were also
fitted to his wrists and ankles.
He would soon learn the folly of further resistance, she thought sadly.
Dain had only to activate the controller in his hand to bring Number Four to heel. Pressure applied to the top of the control panel would send blinding pain searing through every nerve and sinew of the prisoner's body; if depressed three times in rapid succession, the result was a slow, agonizing death. Pressure applied to the sides of the controller activated the magnets located within the manacles on the captive's wrists and ankles. Pressure to the left side would cause the thick bands on his wrists to snap together, turning them into unbreakable handcuffs; pressure applied to the right side of the controller brought the shackles around his ankles together, effectively hobbling his feet so that he could neither walk nor run. No man alive possessed the strength to force the manacles apart once they had been activated.
She had been told the cruel restraints quickly subdued even the most recalcitrant of prisoners.
There was one more indignity for him to endure. She heard Parah shout, "Number Four," and Dain came forward carrying a glowing brand.
A hoarse cry of pain emerged from the prisoners throat as a large number four was seared into the flesh of his left arm, high up, near his shoulder.
Then he was jerked to his feet.
Sickened by what she had seen, Ashlynne was about to turn away, intent on hurrying back to the peace and safety of the jinan, when the prisoner looked up. She drew back, her heart pounding. She was not supposed to be down here, would surely be punished if her presence were made known. Had he seen her? She peered around the tree she was hiding behind, and his gaze locked on hers. The power of that look, the sheer fury of it, held her spellbound, like a rabbit caught in a snare. She could not determine the color of his eyes, but she could feel them boring into her, as hard as the rocks scattered upon the seashore. Tortured eyes that burned into her and through her, making her suddenly ashamed of the soft blue velvet of her dress, the white ribbon in her hair, the unblemished gloves upon her unblemished hands. Ashamed because it was the endless toil of men like this one who provided the funds for the outrageously expensive clothing she wore, the fine house in which she had lived her whole life, the very food she ate.
Why had she come here? She wanted to turn away, to run away, but his gaze held her fast. Never, in all her life, had anyone looked at her as this man was looking at her.
Never! She was Ashlynne, daughter of Lady Jadeleine and Lord Marcus Myrafloures. She was accustomed to being treated with deference and respect. But this man, this dirty, bleeding criminal, looked at her with open contempt, as if she were some form of dirt to be shaken from the soles of his feet.
With a soft cry of dismay, Ashlynne lifted her skirts and ran up the path toward home.
"It's very quiet you are this evening," Jadeleine remarked at dinner that night. "Is something amiss, my daughter?"
Ashlynne had been toying with the food on her plate. She looked up at the sound of her mother's voice. Jadeleine wore a gown of emerald green that matched her eyes and complemented her complexion. Her hair, a shade darker than Ashlynne's, was short and curly. As always, she looked beautiful, calm, serene.
Ashlynne shook her head. "No, nothings wrong," she replied politely.
"You look quite pale," her father said. "Are you ill?"
"I'm fine, Father. Truly." Ashlynne pursed her lips and then said, in a rush, "Magny mentioned that some new rebel slaves were transported from Romariz today. She said they were rebels from Daccar and Riga Twelve, and quite fierce."
Jadeleine and Marcus exchanged troubled glances.
"Indeed?" Marcus lifted one brow, his displeasure at learning that Ashlynne had been gossiping with the overseer's daughter clearly reflected in that simple gesture.
Ashlynne nodded. Magny was Parah's only child. It was from Magny that Ashlynne learned all the latest gossip from the mine and the city. She was a year and a half older than Ashlynne. Her parents considered Magny wild and willful and a bad influence, but she was the only other girl in the area close to Ashlynne's age.
"I had no idea you were interested in what went on at the mine," her father said, looking somewhat amused. "But if you must know, several slaves did arrive this morning."
"In good health?" Ashlynne asked, and then wished she had not. In all the years they had lived here, she had never before shown any interest in the captured rebel prisoners who were sent to toil in the mines.
She could see by the expression in her father's eyes that he was thinking the same thing. "Those who survived the journey are well enough," he replied.
Well enough, Ashlynne mused, remembering the bloody bandage on Number Four's leg.
"How many did we lose?" Jadeleine asked. Business was rarely discussed at mealtime, but tonight seemed to be an exception.
"Only three. Two died of a fever while onboard ship. One attacked an officer and was terminated. The remaining six will be put to work after they've been quarantined."
Despite all of the modern technology at their command, ore from the mine was still dug out of the ground using human labor. Ashlynne had never wondered why until now. Surely robots could do the work faster and more efficiently. There had been a time when robots and androids had been used for practically everything. Ashlynne had been glad when their popularity waned. She had never liked them. Soulless creatures, they had made her feel uncomfortable.
She looked up, about to question her father, when she realized he was studying her intently. He was a tall, handsome man. His dark brown hair was sprinkled with gray; his eyes were blue. Some claimed he was austere and unforgiving, but she had never known him to be so. True, he was strict at times, but never cruel. In addition to his responsibilities as owner of the mine, he held the highest seat of power in the Tierdian government, and as
such, he and his family were regarded as royalty. Because of her father's wisdom and diplomatic skills, Tierde had been at peace for the past twelve years.
She smiled at him. It wouldn't do to ask any more questions about the prisoners, she thought, not now. He must never know she had gone riding outside the compound, snooping in places she was forbidden to go.
Ashlynne turned her attention to her dinner while her parents resumed their conversation. She stared at her plate, made of fine china, at the heavy silver flatware, the elegant candlesticks in the center of the table, the fragile crystal glassware that glistened in the candlelight. Her plate was filled with a variety of steamed vegetables, fluffy brown rice and fresh fruit, and she wondered, for the first time, what type of fare the mine slaves received.
Funny, she had never wondered about that before. Never wondered, or cared, until now.
Magny had told her the most recent batch of prisoners were mercenaries who had been captured fighting against the Romarian cause, and that most of the captives were from Daccar. The inhabitants of that distant planet were a dark-haired, bronze-skinned race, rumored to be barbaric in the extreme, and said to be enemies to all but their own kind.
After dinner, Ashlynne followed her parents into the back parlor. She sat down at the piano, playing softly, while her mother and father discussed mine business. Tierde was the last free planet in the quadrant that produced baneite, the rare black crystals that were a primary source of power for the star ships of Romariz and Trellis, as well as several of the other planets in the quadrant.
Her fingers moved over the keyboard effortlessly, hardly aware of the tune she played, her thoughts focusing on Number Four, as they had ever since the moment she had first seen him. She had rarely seen any of the slaves close up, save for the ones who occasionally worked inside the compound. If Magny had not dared her, Ashlynne knew she would never have found the courage to venture down to the landing bay. Her father had forbidden her to go anywhere near the place, and now she knew why. She wished, suddenly, that she had listened.
Leaving the piano, she went outside. The twin moons of Tierde lit her way as she walked along the narrow footpath that led to the far side of the yard.
She stared up at the moons. It was the Term of Tranquils. Riasna shone a pale, pale blue at this time of year. Brell was a golden amber. Legend had it that Brell and Riasna had been lovers. When Riasna died, her soul had gone to live in the sky. Unable to live without her, Brell had hurled himself from a cliff. In taking his own life, he had angered one of the ancient gods, who had decreed that, because Brell had done that which was forbidden, he would be cursed to spend all of eternity pursuing his love, able to catch her only four times each year at the beginning of each new term.
When she reached the back wall, she climbed up on a large flat rock.
Standing on tiptoe, she peered over the top of the wall. Far below, she could see the ocean, the light of the twin moons shining on the water, playing in the waves that tumbled over the shore. And near the ocean, the mine, and the squat shapes that were the mine's outbuildings, were visible. Number Four. She pressed her hand to her left arm, trying to imagine the pain he
had endured as they burned his flesh. He was down there somewhere, huddled in one of the small stone cells that housed the slaves.
What was he thinking? Was he one of the rebels? Had he left a family behind? Magny had told her that some of the prisoners refused to adapt, refused to obey. Rebellious and unmanageable, they were terminated, their bodies tossed into the endless depths of the sea. Would Number Four be one of those, an intractable creature who would choose death over servitude? Jumping lightly from the rock, she wandered through the gardens, pausing to admire the way the moons' light shimmered on the water in the small pool at the base of the waterfall. The garden was like a faerie land, with its tall gray-green ferns and the profusion of colorful flowers.
With a sigh, she returned to the house. Her parents were in the main room, reading to each other as they often did in the evening. They shared everything the running of the mine, a love of books and birds and science.
She watched them for a moment, and then, feeling as though she were intruding, Ashlynne bid them goodnight and went upstairs to her room.
Later, as she lay there in the dark, warm and safe in her own bed, Number Four's image rose up to haunt her. Dark bronze flesh streaked with blood. Eyes filled with hatred. What color eyes? she wondered. Long black hair, matted with dirt and sweat. Wide shoulders. Legs as solid as tree trunks. Arms corded with muscle. A jaw roughened by a coarse black beard.
Number Four, so-called because that was the number of the dead slave he was replacing. Number Four She fell asleep still thinking of him.