Redallek Castonar fled through the driving rain, heart pounding as the night-police tracked him. The high walls on either side of the street left him no choice but to keep on running. From experience, he knew he would find no grip there, and the thought of the trackers overpowering him once more was too much to endure. Not now, not when he’d come so far this time. He had to reach his destination; he had to find safety, and soon. It was his last chance. They were closing in on him.
He kept on running, the scars on his feet opening to bleed again on the rain-soaked cobbles. Please the lower gods he wouldn’t slip. That would be fatal. A piercing whine and something flew past his shoulder. They were firing at him, the bastards. Truly they intended to finish him off for good. No live-man reward for them, although after three failed escapes his death-price wouldn’t be that much different. How he hated them.
The clouded night meant he couldn’t see properly and Redallek stepped on a gutter-snake. He heard its deadly hiss and leapt upward and sideways to escape it. Another bullet whined past his cheek, closer this time. He didn’t have long. They were nearly upon him. The snake fell back, its head half-severed by another stray bullet.
As Redallek slammed against the wall, it gave way and he slipped through the harshness of stone and mortar into warmth and glaring brightness. He landed on something soft. He was in a rock-palace, the playhouses of the rich and the idle. The man on whose plush rug he was lying spreadeagled and panting would, in a few short moments, be handing him back to the night-police for execution. Most likely. It wasn’t the ending to his daring escape he’d planned, but maybe—just maybe—he could still make it work.
“And who, may I ask, are you?”
Redallek scooted backward, feeling the slip of dirty rain on his fingers as he scrabbled for grip on this soft-as-feathers carpet. When he looked up, he saw a slim, fair-haired man somewhere in his mid-forties dressed in a green silk tunic with gold brocaded cuffs. The stranger held a long glass of pale fizzing liquid in one hand and a pain-rifle in the other. It was pointed at him. Redallek thought he was the cleanest-looking man he’d seen in a long while, and also the most beautiful.
He hadn’t expected such a reaction.
Because of it, all the honeyed words he’d planned to say to this man vanished and instead, he could barely think of his own name. The man stepped forward, and Redallek knew he was too late.
At the same time, the entrance he’d fallen through erupted in a flash of black fire and the night-police hurtled in. Redallek turned toward them, snarling. The owner of the house swore in the old tongue, and Redallek heard the swooping whine of the pain-rifle as it exploded in the direction of the police.
The pure lunacy of it left him breathless and caused the police to stop in their tracks. Their body shields were, of course, enough to leave them unharmed.
“How dare you invade my home!” the man shouted. “First this escaped slave and now you. Explain yourselves. Now.”
The unmistakable tone of command filled the air, but, as the night-police shifted and muttered, Redallek felt a hand grip his shoulder. When the man spoke again, his voice was right beside him.
“I will not give you a second opportunity to speak, nighters,” he said and, this time, the softness of his tones made Redallek shiver.
The lead patroller took a step forward, his orange eyes glittering in the light.
“Take off your mask when you speak with me,” the blond man said, and the night-policer obeyed at once.
Redallek turned away. He had been so long in the dark that the brightness of his pursuer’s gaze made him blink. He hated their faces, too—that unworldly mix of flesh and bone and machine that nothing could move and nothing could overcome. They were forged from despair, as the myths told him.
The next moment, he found his head pulled back so he had no option but to look at the night-police again. He did not wish to close his eyes to his own death, only avoid it if he could.
“Do not make any decision to act that I have not laid upon you,” the stranger whispered, his breath tickling Redallek’s ear. “Not a twitch, not a turn, not a whisper. You have shamed me once, and it will not be permitted twice. Understood?”
Redallek did not have the ability to nod, but he had to make some response. He licked his lips, wondering if this, too, was something not permitted, but the stranger made no comment. He only waited.
When Redallek spoke, his voice was ragged from long disuse. Slaves and prisoners were rarely allowed to speak and he hardly recognized himself.
“Yes,” he managed at last. “I understand.”
He swallowed, the ache in his throat from more than unfamiliarity, but loaded also with tears. It had been so long since he had spoken at all. Somehow, the stranger’s hold on his neck gave him an unexpected sense of steadiness, as well as keeping him firmly in place.
“Good,” the man said. “Explain yourself now, policer.”
The night-patrolman saluted, and his orange eyes glittered even more. “Forgive our intrusion, Councilor Tetran. This slave escaped from one of the workhouse prisons in our domain, and we have given chase to bring him back again.”
Councilor Tetran was, of course, one of the leading members of Tetranal’s ruling elite, itself named after the founding family. He was the only one of the council who refused to live in the city’s protected zone. An interesting and a dangerous choice.
“Again?” Councilor Tetran queried, loosing his grip on Redallek at last. “He has fled you before?”
“How many times?”
A pause before the policer answered, “This is the slave’s third time of escaping, sir.”
Councilor Tetran snorted. “You are not very adept in controlling those who belong to you, I see. This is something I will raise at the next council meeting. But as the slave has tried to escape three times, I assume his execution will be scheduled to take place at once.”
The night-policer nodded, and Redallek felt the breath grow even harsher in his throat. What would it be then? Death by fire or death by water? By the earth, he prayed it would be the former. It would be quick and its bright, hot anger would echo his own. He was not a man of peace whom the water-god would welcome.
“Then again,” the councilor continued. “It seems a shame that a slave who has managed to escape farther out of the inner city than any in the past years should have to face an ignominious death for his courage. Moreover, whether willingly or not, he is a guest in my pleasure-house and to allow harm to come to him would be against any known courtesy.”
The night-policers were silent. All Redallek could hear was the sound of his own irregular breathing. All he could sense was the slow spin of time between being alive and the possibility of being dead.
Then something in the air changed, and the patrolman took two steps back and replaced his mask.
“As you wish, sir,” he said, with another salute. His voice was muffled behind the mask, but audible. The amplifiers they used saw to it. “We will leave the slave to your enjoyment. Dispose of him as you will. He is dead to us. Good night to you, and again we are sorry for the inconvenience to you and yours.”
Within seconds, they had gone, and all that was left was brightness and silence. Redallek swallowed. Councilor Tetran released him, and Redallek tumbled to the floor. The councilor took no notice, but made no move to harm him as he stepped toward the entrance. A swift punching of buttons activated the back-up stone wall. At the same time, a door Redallek hadn’t seen behind him opened slightly, bringing with it the sound of voices, laughter and music.
“Hey, Jarrod!” the gruff tones of another man drifted out. “What’s going on out there? Haven’t you got those policers under control yet? Don’t tell me you want help.”
This new man sounded older and drunk, too, Redallek shouldn’t wonder. His questions brought a fresh wave of laughter out from the party, and Councilor Tetran grimaced.
“There’s nothing here I cannot take care of, my friend,” he said. “In my own good time. Return to the entertainment and I’ll join you presently.”
The inner door swung shut in response to the councilor’s command, and Redallek was left alone with him.
After a few moments, during which Redallek kept absolutely still, the councilor spoke.
“You are an interesting specimen, that is certain,” he said, as if musing to himself. “You’re unconscionably dirty, but that can be solved by my servants. You have courage and, because of it, you will not die today, at least not by my hand, though you will, of course, have to be punished in some measure. What is your name, slave?”
“Redallek, sir,” he replied.
“Redallek,” repeated Councilor Tetran. “For the mountain-hawk. Also interesting. For your hair color, however, I will call you Red.”