I wrote this story around a decade ago, but never knew what to do with it. I kept it with all my other Mason Jar bits and pieces, always hoping to find a place for it or the inspiration to write a sequel or something.
Then I started working on Vehan and suddenly, I had the perfect place for this old friend.
I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
(This is the last Vehan story I have planned for the moment. There will be more in the future, but not sure when.)
Content notes: fictional slavery, scars, trauma response, violence, blood, abusive society, longer than my usual post
Something attracted me to him the moment I saw him. I’ve always been a sucker for lots of skin and muscle, but normally I go for long dark hair, not short-cut blondes. Not that it mattered, either way. I was looking for a house haoza, not a bed warmer. I like my men to be able to say no.
Perhaps it was his face that drew me. It is so rare to see a haoza’s face. Especially in the market, most keep their heads down, trying to appear docile.
This one, though . . . Like all of them, he knelt on the market’s display platform, raised a few feet off the street so that a potential buyer could examine the merchandise. The one who caught my eye made a point of meeting the eyes of each person who examined him.
I walked right up to him, ignoring the long line of haoza and the short line of purchasers. The dust caught within my sandals was more of an annoyance — and worth more of my attention — than the rabble there.
I wasn’t surprised that he watched me as I approached. What did surprise me was his expression. Not defiance, but curiosity, assessment. I might have spent some time exchanging stares with him, but a few steps away from the platform I saw his scars. They ran from his chest to his shoulders and probably continued down his back. No field lash caused those scars.
I was so intent on the scars that I barely heard his quiet greeting, “Sen, how may I serve?”
I reached out a hand but stopped myself before I touched the scars. On a sailor, I wouldn’t have thought twice about those scars, but this man was no sailor. “Who took a knotted whip to you, haoza?”
The muscles in his shoulders tensed, and his face, when I looked, was tight and pale. “My . . . My former sen.”
“Was he a ship’s captain?” That might explain the use of the whip: they were the usual punishment on a ship.
I debated asking further but settled for lifting an eyebrow. The smart ones recognize the implicit question, the obedient ones answer. Others aren’t worth my time.
This one hesitated, then said, “I . . . I believe she liked my pain, Sen.”
I knew the type. A lash was painful but not disabling with proper use. A many-tailed knotted whip was excruciating and could cripple or kill, which was why most didn’t use it on a haoza. It was said the gods protected their property, and even in Geifo, killing haoza was still illegal. Though the gods hadn’t done a good job protecting this man.
And with his boldness, he was likely to attract another like that. Someone who would enjoy breaking him.
To this day, I don’t know why I did it. I have my own standards, but I’m not usually one to weep over the brutality of the world. People, be they sen or wahin or haoza, either adapt and survive or whither and die. The wise don’t waste time trying to save every stray that crosses their path.
His eyes, I saw, were golden, with flecks of brown, neither defiant nor subservient. Simply . . . accepting.
I paid half again what I had planned for him without even asking about his skills or training.
It was the best purchase I ever made.
On the way home, I stopped to make several more purchases. The bazaar was crowded, as always. Tables, tents, booths, and barrows filled the square. It was packed to bursting with vendors hawking their goods, haoza on errands, mothers with children, carters looking to sell their services… All, it seemed, yelling at the top of their lungs. Halfway through, we passed a blessed pocket of quiet where half a dozen children and a random assortment of their elders sat listening to the market storyteller. No one interfered with one of Granny Ipnol’s stories.
Most of what I bought was foodstuffs for the next few days, things that would keep well in the summer heat. My new haoza was well burdened before I was done, but he did an impressive job carrying the bags and baskets. Ironically, it was the sturdy fabric I picked up to clothe him in that was more than he could juggle. The bolt slid right off his shoulder. He tried to grab it, but it hit the ground, and a dozen people had trampled the cloth before I could retrieve it. When I straightened, I saw a mix of shock and fear on his face. I didn’t bother to try and say anything in that madhouse, just slung the bolt over my shoulder and headed home.
My home is not exactly what I would call ‘modest’, though, for the most part, a single haoza is enough to care for it. And I enjoy a bit of cleaning now and again. Beating rugs can be very soothing. I was poor as sen go, but thrift gets one through times of no money better than money will get one through times of no thrift.
The wall enclosing the house was eight feet tall, of good granite. My mother had replaced the functional gate of my grandfather’s day with a decorative metal archway. The grounds are my pride, with a half dozen gardens blending one into another. In the summer drought season, I sometimes hire a haoza or child to come around once a day and water them. Otherwise, the only hand that touches them is mine.
Once inside, I directed him to the kitchen to put away the food. “When you are done, report to me in my study. It is down the hall from here, the third door on the right.”
“Yes, Sen,” I heard him murmur. There was a strange catch in his voice, but he was moving before I could get a good look at his face.
The haoza, who had not thought of himself as Dominic Bransur in over a decade, followed his new sen’s directions to the kitchen. Dominic Bransur would have died before letting himself be captured and sold as a slave – haoza as they called it on this cursed world. That proud man would not have been able to imagine the horrors the haoza had survived. Some days, the haoza still felt Dominic’s shame and humiliation at the things done to him, the things that he had done. Mostly, he tried to forget Dominic. He tried to survive each day without becoming one more broken wretch like so many haoza at the market.
The haoza was a survivor: it was the only thing left for him to be. Whatever happened, no matter how painful or shaming, he survived.
Whatever this new sen did, he would survive it.
These thoughts carried him through the house and into the kitchen without seeing where he was. The kitchen stopped him cold. It was large enough for a half dozen cooks to work together and had a real oven. The pale brick walls were lined with cabinets. . . And it was empty. No cook, no pot boy, no one to take the packages or tell him where the food should go.
It was a cruel trick. There was no way to tell where everything went, so no matter what he did, he would anger the cook. Even D . . . even before his capture, he had known better than to interfere with the cook’s domain. But if he did not put the food away, he would be punished for disobedience. And that on top of the punishment he would receive for letting the fabric fall in the market. Worse, the sen had picked up the fabric before he had been able to reach it and carried it home herself. . .
He pulled his thoughts back to the present. Fretting over how she would punish him was a waste of time, and got no work done. He set the various packages down and began to open the cabinets.
Sometime later, he returned through the halls of his sen’s home, following the directions to her study. The food had been put away as best he was able. As he walked, he focused within himself, leaving behind all thoughts of that marvelous kitchen. He did his best to sink into the core of himself, to be better able to endure whatever came next.
The door to the sen’s study was open. He hesitated a moment, then walked in, knelt, and prostrated himself on the floor.
In his brief view of the room, the haoza had seen his new sen standing behind a desk. Two windows at her back were open to the light breeze and sun. The floor beneath his face was patterned stone. Lovely to look at, but already digging into his knees . . .
“Oh, for goodness sake, get up!”
He froze, shocked as he hadn’t been in years, then sat back on his heels. It was difficult not to wince as the weight of his body drove his knees and feet into the edges of the stones.
“Stand up! You’re no good to me crippled.”
The exasperation in her voice sounded more like his old nanny than any Sen or Master he’d ever belonged to. He was still wrapping his head around the strangeness of it when he realized he was already on his feet. Belatedly he murmured, “Yes, Sen.”
He focused on the wall behind her, waiting for what would come next. He felt a spark of hope, quickly squashed. Surely if she didn’t want him crippled, his punishment wouldn’t be too severe.
She made a sudden sound, too annoyed to be called a sigh, too drawn out to be called anything else. “Look at me.”
He made himself meet her eyes. It had been easier to do in the market when his fate wasn’t yet in her hands. When he hadn’t failed at the first task she set him. Her eyes were a cool blue, set in a wide face that looked like it smiled often. Not all smiles were good ones. She had brown hair pulled back into a braid that fell across her left shoulder.
She was speaking, he realized, but so softly he had to strain to hear her. “-afraid. Not what I expected from- BLACKSTONE!” The sudden curse made him jump, and he focused on slowing his breathing, listening to his sen, now speaking loud enough he heard her clearly.
“I am a fool. You’re worried about that mess in the market.”
He stared at her, with no idea how to respond, what he was supposed to do or say. . . What did she expect him to be thinking about?
She walked around her desk and came to stand in front of him. “I’ve never whipped a horse for tiring, never beat a dog for losing a scent, and I never have, never will, punish haoza or wahin because I set them a burden they couldn’t carry.”
The haoza felt his knees go weak in relief, and the room spun around him. The ‘priests’ had mouthed things like that, as pious sentiments. But the haoza had long ago realized that the sen of this city believed no such thing. Could this one be different? Did he dare hope?
“When the cloth slipped, you tried to grab it, but your hands were already full. Mine were empty, and I am neither so old nor feeble that I can’t carry a few bolts of cloth for a short distance.”
She smiled, a strangely mischievous expression, “You don’t know how to react to me, do you? Not many do. I’m an eccentric.”
Nothing he had suffered in the last dozen years had prepared him for this. He felt his mouth hanging open slightly and closed it, fearful of giving offense to this strangest of Sens.
Her smile cleared, and her face became solemn. “If nothing else, I give you my word, never will you suffer anything like this-” she gestured to his scars, “in my home or at my hands. Neither whip nor lash will ever mark your skin while you are in my service. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Sen.” He pulled his thoughts back under control. He was being foolish. He understood that very well: he understood that a sen’s word meant nothing when given to a haoza, but no haoza with any self-preservation would ever say such a thing. For now, what mattered was that she was not angry with him, that there would be no punishment tonight. “Thank you, Sen. You are kinder than this haoza deserves.”
The sen waved a hand, dismissing his gratitude. “Now, there are several things I need to cover, and there will be a great deal for you to familiarize yourself with. My last haoza, Aram, was growing too old to keep up with the care of this place, and you will be taking over his duties.”
“At my request, Aram has retired. You are permitted to visit him if you choose, for two hours every other day to learn from him how he managed my home.” She paused and raised one delicate eyebrow.
Retired? Who ever heard of a haoza who was allowed to retire? But he knew better than to ask the sen. Perhaps this Aram would answer his questions. “Thank you, Sen. With your permission, I would visit him tomorrow after I have learned more about your home and met the others who serve you.”
“Sorry to disappoint you, but I have no other staff. It was only Aram, and it is now only you.”
He felt the blood try to drain from his face and forced his breathing to slow. No others meant the burden of her temper would fall only on him.
“I should have taken the time to learn your skills before finalizing the sale. As it is, any lack in your abilities will need to be rectified. In the meantime, we shall muddle through.”
“I do hold small entertainments on occasion and I have built a reputation on being able to manage with a single haoza what many cannot pull off with a dozen.”
“I understand, Sen,” the haoza replied, “I have served at entertainments similar to what you describe.” And tried very hard to forget what had been required of him at those ‘entertainments’. “I believe I can meet most of your needs, save that I can only cook plain fare, and I do not know how to clean fine fabrics.”
He relaxed slightly as the sen nodded. “Do not go into the gardens without my express permission. If you need something from the kitchen or herb gardens, inform me, and I will see to it.”
She turned away from him to continue the paperwork she had been working on when he entered. He watched her work, not knowing if he should consider himself dismissed or not. Eccentric, she called herself. Well, it was politer than bat-shit crazy. The light from the windows created a halo on her hair.
After a minute, she glanced up, one side of her mouth quirked up in an ironic smile. “In case you didn’t notice, I don’t hold with much formality. You don’t need to stand around waiting for me to dismiss you.”
Well, that answered that question. He bowed, “Yes, Sen,” and turned to leave the room.
He froze and turned back to face her again. “Yes, Sen?”
“I am Apchinga. You may call me ‘Sen,’ or ‘Sen Apchinga’ Understood?”
“Yes, Sen Apchinga.”
“Good. What was your name?”
He froze. Why did she keep asking these questions, saying these things no one else did? “My . . . my prior sen called my Jesalin.”
Sen Apchinga startled and looked him up and down, “You prior sen was either blind or a sadistic bitch. Combining the scars with that name, I’d say sadistic bitch.” That raised eyebrow invited him to comment.
“She was . . . frequently harsh, Sen Apchinga.”
Sen Apchinga’s other eyebrow rose to join the first. “Harsh.” She shook her head. “She should never have been allowed haoza, and I will speak with the priests on the matter.
“Regardless, I did not ask what your last sen called you, I asked your name.”
The haoza felt a rage and despair he had not known in years. His hands clenched, his eyes burned, “I am a haoza, I have no name… Sen,” he had to force the title out, though it burned his tongue to say it. He went too far. Even this madwoman would punish him severely for his insolence.
The sen blinked at him, nonplussed. Then she shook herself. “Oda,” she ordered, come here, pointing to a spot next to her desk. She wasn’t angry. Even through his own rage that scared him. The calm ones were the most dangerous.
He glanced to the door. “Now, haoza.”
Each step seemed an eternity, one following the next as his vision narrowed until all he could see was the next step, the next step.
A stool sat on the indicated spot. One he was sure had not been there earlier. “Sit.” He sat, facing her, his head level with hers. She watched him, that damn eyebrow demanding.
He said nothing. She would punish him, he knew she would, and he would survive it. She would . . . She would . . .
But she just sat there, watching, waiting, while the rage and fear and confusion built until he could scarcely breathe. “HE’S DEAD!” Without realizing it, he exploded to his feet, the stool clattering behind him. “Dominic Bradsur is dead! He died 12 years ago when he was pushed down the stairs and landed in this God-forsaken world!”
He was shocked to find himself inches from the sen, screaming in her face. His hands . . . Gods help him his hands were clenched around her arms, his fingers clamped so tight that his broken nails had drawn her blood.
He had killed himself.
He backed away, no thought but horror and the need to run. Run before she summoned the guard, before . . . he tripped over the chair, fell back. He tried to stand, couldn’t, couldn’t make his body work.
She rose and came to stand over him, her blood dripping down her arms and forming a small puddle before his eyes. She knelt down next to him. She spoke, but her words made no sense, “Every day we die, Dominic, and every day we are reborn. You survived. There is no shame in that.” He couldn’t imagine what she saw, staring so deeply into his eyes, couldn’t make his mouth work, to beg, to plead. After a moment, she stood, “I’ll be back in a few minutes. Don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone.”
She stood and left, closing the door behind her. He heard the scrape of a key in a lock and knew there was no escape.
He curled up on the merciless floor and allowed himself to weep until darkness swept him away.
Dominic slept through the rest of the day and the entire night. I don’t know if he was that tired or if his spirit was trying to protect him in the only way it could. From his name and words, he was one of those strange travelers who arrived on Vehan from far places ruled by far-off gods. Such folks were known from time to time – my mother’s best friend had been one such who had been named sen at her testing. She said the oddest things at times.
But from Dominic’s words, something had gone badly wrong sometime after his testing. Where had been the priests who should have protected him? What was wrong with the sen who had owned him? Worse even than my grandfather, who had finally been demoted to wahin for his cruelty. The way many of my fellow sen treated their haoza had long bothered me, but this spoke of a massive failure in the temple even.
I would have answers, and sooner rather than later. Though not that night.
The morning sun shines right through the office windows, so it isn’t surprising that he woke early. Actually, on that floor, the surprise was that he slept through the night.
I’ve often wondered what he thought that morning. Waking on that torturous floor to a mug of beer, a pillow under his head, and an open door.
Of course, he wouldn’t have known that every outside door was secured. Whatever other sen might have done, he was my responsibility now.
The next I saw him, I was kneading dough for the day’s bread. Flatbread again since I hadn’t had the energy to make it the night before and let it rise.
He was limping as he came in – I hadn’t been joking about that floor crippling him. My bastard of a grandfather designed it that way. It took time to gather the supplies, but in the following months, the two of us tore up that floor and replaced it.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when he came to me and prostrated himself again. It irritated me. I hate staring at the backs of people’s heads. Not that he had learned that yet.
He said nothing, but I could feel the words – questions, demands, confusion, running rampant in him. I had nothing to say, but he obviously wouldn’t say anything until I did.
His voice was rough and deeper than the day before, “Why, Sen?”
I sighed; I couldn’t help it. I delayed answering by pushing a strand of hair out of my face, smearing flour all over my forehead.
“That’s several questions, isn’t it Dominic?” It was the first time I’d said the strange name aloud. Its edges were sharp on my tongue.
Even with his face to the floor, I saw him flinch at his name. I would need to find him another.
The dough fought back against my kneading, demanding my attention. I couldn’t watch it and him at the same time.
“I ask every haoza who enters my service their name. It is an easy way to earn some bit of true loyalty, which is much more useful than simple obedience. Your reaction was . . . unique.”
The dough was ready to bake. I set it aside to take to the neighborhood cookshop. Unlike most, this house had its own oven, but I saw no point in heating it up for just two rounds. The steps to bread are straightforward, the same each day. I covered the dough with a cloth and turned to look at Dominic.
“I took something from you yesterday. Backed you into a corner and took the only thing you had left that belonged to you alone.”
I looked down at him, exasperated and uncertain. “As for why I did not summon the guard, a dog whipped too hard will snap, a horse spurred too hard will buck, and a man pushed too hard will lash out. I don’t blame the dog, or the horse, or the man. I blame the person holding the whip.” Not knowing what else to say, I shrugged and brushed my hands off, scattering flour across the floor. “I could have summoned the guard. I saw no point. You had no intention to harm me, and I doubt you will forget yourself that way again. If only because you have no way to be certain that I will forgive a second attack.”
Tired of looking at the back of his head, I slipped my toes under his chin. Obediently, he lifted his face until he was looking up and meeting my eyes. I saw in his eyes a confusion of anger, fear, and uncertainty, “Do you have anything further to say?”
He spoke, in a quick and servile manner, at utter odds with his expression. “Yes, Sen. Thank you, Sen, for giving me another chance, I never intended you harm, and I know I do not deserve your forgiveness.”
I sighed and turned to the barrel of wash water. “A pretty speech, all the proper words. I think your eyes speak more truth than your mouth at the moment. Let us assume then that all the forms have been observed, pious gratitude, dire threats, so on and so forth, and move on with the day.”
I felt his eyes on my back as I washed my hands. He disappointed me. I had expected more from him, from the haoza who boldly met my gaze in the market yesterday. Who judged me even as I judged him. Foolishness. I knew better. Other cities might be different, but here haoza were the property of the gods in name only and learned to keep their heads down.
“What do you wish of me, Sen?” the low, raw voice surprised me as I dried my hands, continuing before I could respond, “My life depends upon your whim. I am grateful and amazed that you did not call the guard and have me executed last night. But I also know you can still call them today, or the next day, or the next. My life is yours now. And I wish I could hate you for it.” I had to strain to hear his final sentence, a bitter, anguished whisper.
“Stand up.” I kept my back to him while I dried my hands. Behind me, I heard soft scuffing on the floor and nearly stifled groans as he obeyed. “What I wish of you is the truth, no more and no less.” Bracing myself, I turned, facing him, looking into his eyes. He did not flinch or look away. “I am not so foolish as to think you have any reason to trust me, but I hope in time I can give you one.” I was surprised to find I was smiling. “And I am glad you can’t quite manage to hate me.”
He . . . Dominic . . . Drat it the man needed a name . . . Stared at me, clearly not believing, but I could live with that.
“Why don’t you set the table for breakfast? Plates are in the cabinet by the door.”
It only took a few minutes to get a summer breakfast together. The last of yesterday’s bread, a handful of fruit, and a hunk of cheese doesn’t take much preparation. He was quick enough to set the table but had set it for one person. I wanted to tease him but didn’t think either of us could handle it. “Get yourself a plate and come sit.”
The poor man stared at me with his mouth agape.
“Well, go on. The food doesn’t bite, and neither do I.”