When I reported to Captain Bakar that morning, I had no idea that the slaves had been involved in an uprising. Well, I had heard things, but no one had mentioned any real trouble. The rumor mill had placed some of the new captives in some trouble, but that was nothing new. Regardless, every officer I saw looked quite grim.
Before I could even greet him properly, Bakar bellowed, "Why were you not on duty last night?"
My heart nearly stopped. "I was not scheduled to be on duty, sir."
In a calmer voice, he continued. "Is it not standard procedure for all officers to be on duty during transport?"
Damn. I tried to think quickly. Before I could speak, the captain said in a much louder tone, "It is standard procedure for all officers to be on duty during transport! Explain yourself!" As he yelled, he walked over to me, so close his nose almost touched mine. "Explain yourself or I will find someone else to explain in your place."
I tried not to flinch. Michiru! He knew. "Sir, I... I was with a young lady," I stammered.
Before I could steel myself, Bakar knocked me to the floor. "You are an officer first. Your obligations to Thera come first!" Lowering his voice again, he said, "We suffered a great loss last night and you are to blame."
He opened the door and motioned two officers to enter. "Take this civilian," he said as he pointed at me, "and the Lady Michiru to cells. They will be joining our other guests." To me he said, quite obviously enjoying the look on my face, "You will regret your dalliance with my niece." In my mind, I heard his voice finish with: and so will she...
Before I was thrown in the cell, the guards stripped me of everything but a tunic and light pants. They did so in front of all the captives, so they would know who I was. Once inside, the other prisoners did their best to avoid me. Everyone was silent and I began to wonder who would kill me first: these men or Bakar.
Just as I settled down on the dirty floor, I heard a woman screaming. I tried to block it out, having heard the screams from this deck before, but the fact that it was Michiru's voice killed me. I ran to the door and shouted her name through the grate.
Her screams stopped and I heard her sobs as she cried my name down the hall. I wanted to shout more, but a young ork boy pulled me away from the door. "It will be worse for her if you yell," he whispered. "Come, sit with me."
"My name is Vidoc," I said and extended my hand.
The boy shook in a warrior's greeting which surprised me, he couldn't be more than twelve years old. "I am called Marac. That was my father's name, but I have taken it since his death." He smiled at me. "You are a Theran soldier, aren't you?"
I nodded, feeling more defeated than after any battle.
"Is she your wife?" Marac gestured toward the door.
"Michiru?" I looked away from him for a moment. "She would have been in any other lifetime."
Marac put his hand on my arm. Smiling when I did not pull away, he said, "If you could be with her again, would you help us?"
"I haven't got much to lose either way, do I?"
"Sleep then, I will wake you later."
I must have slept for days because I had enough dreams for a lifetime. Some were sweet and of lovely Michiru. Some were dark and violent about the death of Bakar. And some were frightening visions of my impending torture and slavery, my former comrades in arms watching me dance for their pleasure. When Marac woke me, it was nearing dawn. The night had passed uneventfully. "There is much to say and not much time," he said. "Come with me."
He led me to the back of the room where a circle of men sat. No introductions were made, but an elf acknowledged my presence. "You should know," Marac whispered, "that Donov, the elf, is somewhat clairvoyant. You would do well to listen hard to whatever he says."
"We will reach the end of our path soon and part ways. Follow the way and all will be well." As I looked at the elf, I saw that his eyes were a milky blue. He turned to me. "I would speak with the soldier alone."
The others around him scattered, except for Marac. "Soldier, you once enforced our fate, now you join us in it. The question is now where your loyalties lie. Are you still a subject of Thera or are you a victim of it?"
"I will never be a victim of Thera!" I saw Marac reach out to quiet me and ducked away. Right into Donov's fist.
"Quiet! You hold no rank here. I ask you again: are you with or against us?"
Realizing the truth of the old elf's words, I said, "I'm with you."
The elf waved Marac away. "I said alone." Marac moved away, but stayed ready to protect Donov. Donov smiled at me and moved closer.
"Your arrival here has been expected. And your survival is necessary. Before you ask, I cannot answer your questions, only give you information I already have. You will follow us into slavery, but Michiru will be with you. Your abilities as a musician will be tested, but you will see freedom one day."
"A musician? I have no talent as a musician." I frowned at Donov.
"Then you must learn," he said with a wry smile. "They are coming for you."
He turned away as a guard came in. "Vidoc," the guard yelled. "Captain Bakar will speak with you."
Relieved, I went with the guards. Perhaps Bakar had seen that it wasn't my fault.
To spare gory details, Captain Bakar was nowhere. Instead, I was beaten with another group of slaves.
Upon my return to the group cell, Donov sat by me. "The reason you are here is not because of a slave revolt. A group of adventurers attacked the ship, their mission mostly failed. Several new captives were freed but the guard don't want word of such an embarrassment to spread. Your captain cannot allow word of this to reach farther than this ship, least of all to his superiors. So, instead, he placed the blame on you, especially since I've heard he did not care for his niece's presence here either."
The last two days finally began to make sense. The new captives had been unusually quiet and accepting. All seemed well, too well of course. A revolt would have been much noisier and the commanders outside the captains tally office would not have looked at me with such grim sympathy.
My career, my life -- all amounted to nothing. And all for the glory of Thera. My home, the motherland, abandoning me. It became clear that even before my birth, I was meant to fuel the Great Empire onward. My parents, my brothers - victims of propaganda. The thought hit me with such force that I hoped I was overreacting and not falling for some Throalic party-line. The idea was a bit drastic, but there was a basic truth contained in it. I wouldn't be the human I believed I was unless I was an individual. I was never a citizen of Thera, I was simply "of Thera."
"So," I said to Donov, "slavery is to be my catharsis."
Donov smiled a fatherly smile. "If you realize that now, soldier, you are already past the worst."
I had worried that Michiru would be treated worse than I until I was able to speak to her briefly thanks to Marac and his friends. She had assured me that all was well, despite the bruises I saw on her arms and face. The skin had not been broken, but I suppose I should have commended her bravery. Instead, all I felt was anger that her uncle could have condoned this behavior. Now, both of us were dead to our families in Thera.
Michiru's father would be very angry with his brother, but there would not be much he could do. I knew very well what story he would be told, Captain Bakar himself had forced me to write many lies about the unfortunate demises of notable people. It would be suspicious if every such message came from him, or so he had told me.
Once we were all locked up again, Rouk, a friend of Marac, had told me more about Michiru's treatment. They did not keep her in solitary confinement, but rather, they kept her hands bound, her eyes covered, and magically gagged except to eat. Despite the circumstances, I found myself smiling. My Michiru was a very talented illusionist and elementalist.
As I thought about how she might use her magic to free us, Rouk slapped me. "Pay attention. I am only teaching you because Donov requested it. How do you ever expect to learn the ways of the Troubadour if you are always thinking of your woman?"
"I'm sorry, Rouk." Apologizing to these people was something I never thought I would do, but now, too many things had changed for me to keep up my arrogance. I needed them as much as Donov said they needed me. "Please go on..."
Before he could go on, three guards opened the door and pulled Rouk, Meste, Marac, myself, and several others out. Donov shouted to us,"Remember my words and we shall all be safe!" The guards laughed as they shackled us all togther, Rouk at one end and myself at the other. We were prodded alone like animals through the halls.
Commander Dorrul, who had been promoted to replace me, put his hand on my shoulder as we trudged along. He and I had been friends long ago, in training. "So, Vidoc, how goes it?"
I resisted the urge to mimic his words and tone, knowing full well that I would do so perfectly. "Well, the sauna was a little warm last night, but otherwise I can't complain."
Dorrul laughed. "Glad to see you haven't lost your sense of humor. Anyway, I talked with Bakar last night and he said there was still a chance you might be freed. I'm still on your side, jaraleh. Stay strong."
I winced at his term for me. I resented that my former peers believed I was a slave kept solely for Bakar's amusement. I vowed to make Bakar regret his descision.
We were eventually led down to the rowing deck of our vedette, the Resolution. I looked around with interest. I had, of course, been down here before, but this time, I was to be chained to my bench, my hands unable to move from the huge oar. It was happening to-- My heart nearly stopped when I saw Michiru already chained to her seat and blindfolded. Only Rouk looking back at me stopped me from crying out her name.
Strangely, Rouk and I were placed together. "Don't worry, the rowing is mind-numbing. Soon you will be able to concentrate on my teachings again."
It was then I noticed that Rouk's arm muscles were more well defined than any officer. "You've done this before?"
"They rotate us every other week or so. They think it keeps the slaves alive longer, but it's really more about hope." Rouk said, "The pain will pass, just stay strong."
We rowed for hours, truly back-breaking work. But through it all, I felt my first accomplishment as a Troubadour form in my heart. My muscles hurt more after one day than ever before in my entire lifetime. That night, though we were in a different cell, I felt more at home than in any other place on this ship. And as I told my story to my cellmates that night, I felt the truth of Donov's words. "There it ends, for such is the truth of the thing."
I could feel it when we docked, the gentle rocking followed by absolute stillness -- or so it had always felt to me since my first time on an airship all those years ago. An hour had nearly passed when a steward came to retrieve me for the Captain. The mood in the shared cell had lightened significantly since the beginning of my imprisonment. I joked lightly, commenting on the sheer delight I felt to be called to Bakar's presence.
Outside the cell, the smile faded from my face. I turned to the steward, "What does he want with me now?"
"Keep walking Vidoc." He paused. "I liked you Vidoc, we all did. Why did you have to make such a mess of everything?"
I rolled my eyes. It hadn't been my fault, and the thought that one man could be responsible for the escape of the new slaves had really begun to irritate me. Unless, of course, they actually believed me to be the cause. But I knew better than that and so did Bakar, unless he was lying now as well.
"Just do what he says, Vidoc," the steward began, "I'm sure things will be fine."
I threw him a forced smile just before he shoved me into the Captain's cabin. I bowed as I always had, refusing to kneel to someone I'd seen drunk as often as not. "Bakar, it's good to see you again."
"Since it's obvious to me that you wish to spend more time rowing," Bakar grinned even though he knew that I was aware of our docking, "I won't keep you long. Word has come to me that you are quite the performer. Somehow, this rumor has spread beyond this ship. We have been invited to Admiral Tularch's festival. He will be promoting several officers and, though I am not among them thanks to you, he wants you to perform. Do not embarrass me." He passed me and pounded on the door.
The steward opened it enough to peek inside. "Vidoc will be preparing for his performance. Put him in solitary for the rest of the day." Bakar laughed. I smiled dourly as I passed him. Patience is learned and I had learned at least some of it.
I slept soundly in solitary confinement, pleased with the opportunity I had been given. When I woke, I was more refreshed than ever before. Michiru had crept into my dreams again, but I had become sure that she could care for herself and that we would be together again.
My clothes had become dirty and torn since this ordeal started. I knew the point was to humiliate me further by presenting me to Tularch and his associates, so I did not expect to receive new clothes. I wasn't disappointed. Creatively wiping my face clean and smudging it with fresh dirt actually achieved the desired effect. I was ready to perform.
The room was properly darkened for a Troubadour's performance and the guests were bade to sit quietly for the slave performance. I was not the first to perform and I hoped I would not be the last. My friends needed time, more time than they had been given already. Dorrul ripped off my blindfold when my turn had come and he gave me a shove into the stage area. He was clearly angry that he had again been ordered to guard me. I grabbed his cloak as he pushed and held on. I needed it for my performance. He hadn't expected it and it ripped fairly cleanly from him.
There were a few gasps from the audience, either from recognition or my act, but I was glad to see the people already stunned. I placed the torn cloak around my shoulders and stood with my head down. When the great hall was silent again, I looked up, as if viewing the open sky. "I am a Soldier of Thera."
I took a step forward and began to imitate a sword fight. "Glory for Thera," I shouted. This went on for several minutes, long enough for everyone to realize that I was no ordinary slave, and perhaps for them to believe that I was of Thera.
"I obey you, my Captain. Bakar, you are a true leader." I swept the cloak around me as I bowed low to where he sat, far down the table from the Admiral. "And you, Admiral. I swore myself to your service eight years ago. I served you faithfully, without question."
I ripped the cloak from my shoulders and fell, as if I had been pushed, to my knees. I spit on the cloak and wiped my face clean. Not the most polite way to accomplish the task, but the only effective means I had. I motioned to the other slave performers who broke free of their guards and came to join me. We sat together in two columns and pretended to row. I began to sing a familiar song and the others joined in. Just as the audience began to feel the sway of the music and join in as well, I held up my hand and we stopped.
I stood and grabbed the cloak again. The other slaves stood with me. I stepped toward the Admiral's seat as far as I was able and, feeling the slaves behind me, I tore the cloak in two. I heard the nearby guards prepare themselves to draw weapons should I step over the line.
I had recognized three of the other slaves as former soldiers as well: Jesche, Hemei, and Anou. "As we were torn from the ranks of Thera's militia, so lies this Commander's cloak before you. For all you have given to your people, you have done less for them than we have for you this night." I dropped the halves on the floor. "And as this cloak falls in two pieces, so shall this Empire. It has nothing to stand on but the backs of its slaves!" I turned to Bakar. "And I will hold you up no more, Bakar."
Jesche grabbed a sword from a guard near him and shouted, "Landal to arms!" I recognized his family's battle call and the invocation of his great-grandfather's name. Landal had been a great Theran Grand Admiral in his day. To invoke it now, as Jesche had done, was as close to suicide as I cared to come. Hemei and Anou also grabbed swords and stood with Jesche.
My only recourse was to take the distraction as my opportunity to leave. I hoped Marac and Rouk had taken care of everything they had planned outside. And that Michiru was there, waiting for me.
By the time I reached the dock, the guards all over had been alerted. There had been magical lights in the streets, but in the buildings, torches and lanterns were still the standard for the night crew. I knew in my heart that Jesche, Hemei, and Anou were dead -- their spirits were finally free. Demas and Ibaulan, two friends of mine from training years ago that had apparantly fallen, had joined me as the group of escaped slaves tore through the city. The steps to the ships were clogged by soldiers. My men and I cut them down with their own weapons and trampled over their bloody corpses. It was a strange feeling to know that these men had once considered me kin and to know that they had died to my hand.
I faultered in my steps, but Demas pushed me on. Clapping his hand on my shoulder, he said, "Come friend, we've work to finish!" He grinned that teenage grin he'd managed not to lose and ran up ahead of me. I could trust him, and he knew he could trust me.
At the top, I could see Rouk waving us on. Three men were tossing bodies of the remaining dead guards overboard. I signaled my men and we broke into a run. Just as I was about to enter the ship, I saw a spark rising. I stopped to watch as it grew into a star and kept rising. The light became so blinding I was forced to look away, but I could still see the shadows created by this false day. It cast a grim shadow over my people, suitable for the night's work.
I ran through the ship, anxious to get to the deck where Michiru would be waiting for me. When I saw her, I almost called out her name, but I saw her casting a spell. Everyone near enough to the rails had stopped and was staring out at the city.
The ship began to move and several people lost their footing. We moved up and away from the docks. Michiru glanced back and Rouk nodded before taking off. The ship rose above the city and turned. No one had told me we would be leaving before getting the slaves from the other ships.
I ran over to Michiru. She had narrowed her eyes as she looked over the city. Her breathing was deep and even, her concentration greater than I had ever seen before. Beads of sweat broke out in her forehead and her fingers began to tremble. I turned to look out over the city where she was gazing.
The buildings began to fall in the center of the city. A cloud of dust followed the buildings and began to billow outward. The effect spread outward from that center point at an alarming rate, some buildings falling over of their own accord, some falling after being hit by other buildings. The eerie bright light from the star that only Michiru could have conjured gave me the impression of a decaying skeleton breaking apart.
A peculiar smile spread across Michiru's face as she watched the buildings crumble. I could hear the screams of the people left below and could even see some of them flailing about. Michiru wavered and collapsed. I barely managed to catch her. I lowered her down to the deck but kept her in my arms.
"I had to do it, Vidoc. We both have a duty. Mine ends here. But you," she coughed violently, "my love, you must go on. I'm no Nethermancer, but I know I will love you even in death." She shuddered and blood began to trickle out of her nose. "Hold me up so that I can see the city. I have one last task before me."
I had no choice but to do as she asked. I put one arm under her legs and lifted her into my arms. I turned so we could both look out over the destruction she had wrought. It was evident that some of the still living mages in the city had tried to clear the dust from the air.
As I held her that smile returned; and her body tensed in my arms. Some of the airships had left the dock, most notabily Admiral Tularch's. Michiru coughed again. I had never known her to be weak, but she seemed so frail in my arms. She moaned as we both saw the blood she coughed up. "Put me on my feet, Vidoc. I want to stand on my own for this."
Again, I did as she asked, knowing now that it was too late to help her. She leaned heavily on the railing, but raised one hand toward her artificial star. It flickered momentarily but I kept watching the city below.
The disturbance started at the center of the ruins. The dust had been mostly blown away by those on the ground. The rubble was covered by dirt and rock and seemed to explode as it filled up the the open spaces and covered the destruction. In a matter of seconds, the displaced earth that had caused the catastrophe had been returned, a final covering of what had become a massive grave.
Michiru collapsed again and I was unable to move, to even look away. When I realized what she had done, I turned to see Rouk standing halfway across the deck. "Get us out of here," I shouted to him.
Bending down, I picked up her limp body and carried her into the captain's chambers. When I knew we were alone, I closed her eyes. She had breathed her last in favor of the slaves. I covered her as if she were merely ill and sat next to the bed. I could feel the tears fall down my face and I did nothing to stop them. I had lost her. The salvation of these people seemed to be a little thing next to what she had done. I could do nothing more than to remember her and bury her in the free land of Barsaive.
The words had formed in my heart first and had spread through the cities like fire. I told Michiru's story to everyone I met. I wrote it down for every city archivist and for the Great Library. She became the Hero of Innatis' Eternal Day.
Her star had shone over the city of Innatis for thirteen and a half days. The destruction lasts to this day. Admiral Tularch has named me, Demas, and the others as enemies of the state. He has attempted to take credit for the death of Lady Michiru, and failed. We succeeded in returning to Barsaive.
In rememberance of those we lost, my men and I have planted a small forest. One tree for each man and woman who fell that night. I buried Michiru's body myself at the center of that forest. Of all the great things that have been done to end slavery, I value her sacrifice the most. Others, however, consider mine the most notable. I am credited with planting a seed of doubt in the Theran people.
Now, after all these years of thinking I was Theran, this new identity is hard to accept. I will never forget what was done to me, to my love, to my soul. But at least I am what I always wanted to be. A citizen. Of Barsaive, but I truly belong here. And there it ends, for such is the truth of the thing.