Weekend Wind Down – Blood-Right

For Caer the days that followed the caravan’s visit to the mithan plateau were tense. His Zoukai spent most of their time spread out across the countryside watching for signs of any others who may have visited the mithan and followed the tracks left by Alexa’s caravan. They had turned over a small camp of outlaws and seen off a better armed group of brigands, leaving their bodies staked by the roadside. But so far there was nothing to suggest they were being tracked by anyone who had seen them leave the road and visit the mithan.
Caer had done what he could before they left the crash site to make it seem as though there had been nothing of value taken from the wreck. But Zoukai and caravansi were seldom fools and with the possibility of great wealth, the slightest suspicion could be enough to persuade a greedy caravansi that they were worth attacking.
Caer’s position was made more difficult by Alexa, who refused to take any extra precautions in the defence of the caravan, claiming that to do so would merely serve to draw the exact attention to themselves that they wished to avoid. So he took his own precautions and said nothing to Alexa. Then as if that were not enough to keep his thoughts fully occupied, there was also the problem of the Kashlihk.
The night after they had come down from the mithan with the last of the plunder, he had been disturbed whilst eating. The Kashlihk had attacked Zarul. Caer had got to the tent where the offworlder was being kept to find Shevek helping the young Zoukai. The Kashlihk seemed unhurt, lying drugged on the pallet bed. But Zarul was obviously in pain.
It took Caer very little time to be sure that his hurt was not serious, the worst wound having been to his pride.
“He’s mine, Captain.” Zarul hissed angrily. “He attacked me. I claim my blood-right.”
In any other circumstances Caer would have supported Zarul without question, even to the point of defying his Caravansi. But the offworlder was no ordinary slave and Caer knew Alexa would blame him as Captain, if he allowed the death of the offworlder and cost her the loss of his value.
“You have no blood-right,” Caer said coldly. “This man wears no brand.”
Zarul lost his temper. “What does that matter? He is still a slave. He is to be sold in Alfor by the Caravansi.”
“The Captain is right. Zoukai cannot claim blood-right for an unbranded man.”
Shevek’s dry voice seemed to restore Zarul to reason. Caer felt a sudden gratitude to the old horseman. He had not expected any support from that quarter. Honour was a strong point for Shevek.
“Go and get some rest, Zarul,” Caer said quietly. “Someone else can keep guard here.”
“But I have been dishonoured.” Zarul insisted.
“If there was dishonour it was of your own making. This man is sick and weak, he has been drugged well enough to make even a pony sleep for a day. You are Zoukai and if you cannot win a fight with him in that state, you are not worthy of the name.”
Caer’s words made the blood drain from Zarul’s features. His eyes darted to Shevek, but the old Zoukai said nothing and his face was expressionless. Zarul shot a final angry glare of resentment towards Caer, then spun around and stormed out of the tent.
“His blood will cool, but the hate will not,” Shevek predicted.
“He is a fool,” Caer snapped.
The crisis past, Caer realised he had allowed his own anger to show, which made him angry at himself. Shevek looked at him thoughtfully.
“With respect, my Captain, he is young and wisdom does not sit upon youthful shoulders. You stood by the letter of Zoukai honour, but Zarul by its heart.”
“Are you saying I was wrong?” Caer demanded. “You were quick enough to agree with me.”
“You are my Captain and the right was yours by the letter of honour,” Shevek reassured him. “But Zarul was not wrong. This man is a slave, branded or not, and he is kashlihk. You may have saved him for the Caravansi this time, but if this happens again all the Zoukai will think as Zarul and then you will have to have him killed no matter what price may be lost to the Caravansi.”
The old Zoukai was right. Caer knew he might be able to face down Zarul but word would soon spread and there would be a lot of ill feeling if it was felt that their Captain was not upholding his Zoukai’s honour.
“It will not happen again,” he said with finality. “The Kashlihk will be kept chained until he is trained to obedience.”
Shevek nodded his approval.
“Your will, my Captain, but this man will not break to the whip. He will wear whatever chains you put on him until we reach Alfor.”
At the time Caer had not believed him. He had broken even the most stubborn of slaves to his will in the past and saw no reason this one would not be the same. But as the days had past Shevek’s words took on the ring of prophecy.
To begin with, once he had regained consciousness, Caer had made the Kashlihk walk with the caravan, tethered to a wagon to keep up his fitness. It was a long way to Alfor and the Captain wanted his prize to be in prime condition when they got there. But the man had shown too much spirit and once had come close to freeing himself, so now he rode in the wagon again, securely chained and cared for by the herb woman and the slave girl from Keran who could speak his outlandish tongue. The Kashlihk was only permitted to exercise once the caravan had halted and Caer could supervise him personally. Unlike the other slaves he did not fear the Zoukai or cower before the whip and sometimes Caer was forced to wonder if he even valued his own life.
In these tense and difficult days Caer’s only relief was to be with Alexa. The Caravansi had summoned him to her pavilion on their first night at the mithan and every night since, seeming never to tire of his body. She did not speak to him of the day’s affairs and would cover his lips if he spoke of them, running her hands over his flesh, seeking his most intimate and pleasurable places and whispering words of intent, until he no longer cared what might happen and had no thoughts beyond her and the moments they were together.
Zoukai made jokes about those captains who became lovers to their caravansi, but then most such caravansi were aged men grown bored of their slave-girls. No one joked about Caer’s visits to Alexa’s pavilion, their eyes would follow him enviously and even the older ones seemed to see it as a mark of special distinction. In truth, Caer did not really care what they might think. Rolling on the furs her breasts cupped in his hands, Alexa was his woman and not his Caravansi and he would have killed any man who spoke slightingly of her or himself for it.

From The Fated Sky part one of Fortune’s Fools Transgressor Trilogy by E.M. Swift-Hook

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