Excerpt for Jepaul by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



Also by Katy Winter


The Ambrosian Chronicles


Book 1: Warlord

Book2: Children of Ambros

Book 3: Circling Birds of Prey

Book 4: The Dawn of Balance

Book 5: Light Dancing on Shadows

Book 6: Quenching the Flames

Book 7: Metamorphosis





JEPAUL


By


KATY WINTER



Published by The Furhaven Press


Smashwords Edition


Copyright Katy Winter 2017

All Rights Reserved



ISBN: 978-0-473-38897-3




DEDICATION


TO PAUL



CHAPTER ONE


The light energy pattern faltered then pivoted, as though, incredibly, it listened. It remained static, hovering. The cry was faint but came again more strongly, until the third sound was muffled and lost through the mists of time and space. The light energy still paused. Then it reversed its direction at impossible speed. It projected itself through darkness, near the brink of the abyss that it skirted, and coursed through emptiness and past worlds innumerable until it reached Shalah. And there it hung, waiting.

Quon, Maquat Dom Earth, disbelieving, turned his head sharply upwards as if he sought something elusive, sensed a presence, then saw, briefly, a startling image that went as fast as it came. He gave himself an admonitory shake. His concern was with the cry that came from one bullied and at times savagely beaten, but this time the cry was truly one of pain and anguish, as fleetingly gone as the image he’d so briefly glimpsed. The Maquat made haste to find the child.

Jepaul heard the thundering hooves and continued to run as fast as panic allowed. His boney chest heaved with exertion and his heart simply hammered in his chest with fright. Despairing at the sounds gaining on him, he finally crumpled and lay gasping for breath, aware three horses drew up around him, their flailing hooves barely away from his head.

A Varen dismounted to stare down at the boy, his expression more sympathetic than coldly disinterested as he held down a gauntleted hand.

“You can't escape us, child,” he said calmly. “The Varen are everywhere. Wherever you try to run, we'll find you.”

Jepaul lifted a scared face to the Varen who still regarded him.

“You chased me.”

“Yes. You've been named. Despite your youth you must answer to the Red Council. How old are you?”

“Eight syns,” mumbled Jepaul.

“Indeed you're still only a child. It seems harsh you be treated this way, boy, but I obey orders in the nature of our kind. Come, show me your caste so I know I have the right child.”

Jepaul shrank close to the ground.

“Master,” he whispered, huddling abjectly.

“Are you emtori caste as we were told?”

“Yes.”

“Then you're very lowly. You can't ride with me being so.” The Varen gestured to one of the silent riders, waited while the man fumbled in front of him, then took the thrown rope that he stooped to wrap firmly about skinny wrists. “You'll not be dragged, that I promise you. We'll slowly walk the horses so you'll not have trouble keeping up with us.”

“You're kind,” murmured Jepaul humbly, aware this huge man could break him in two with his bare hands. He got a kindly look before the Varen mounted and made his horse walk.

Quon, hidden in the bushes not far from the home Jepaul had almost reached, watched proceedings in frank horror. When the small group disappeared he sat trembling. His old limbs felt like water. Forcing himself to concentrate he tried to sort out the implications of what could happen to this wraith of a child. Jepaul might be inordinately tall, but he was like a wisp he was so fragile-seeming and insubstantial, his bones easy to break and slow to mend.

Stoned by children who shunned a low caste boy, Jepaul often sported awful bruises and cracked bones. His odd eyes were invariably sad yet incredibly soulful, wide and appealing. They were amber which was unusual enough. What made them uncanny and seem to penetrate the subconscious of the viewer, was the depth to them and the wide black pupil. It could dilate to cover the whole iris or merge to a slit. That difference also made him a target.

Jepaul came from a line of low caste, though he vaguely heard tales that once his ancestors had been anything but humble and were once honoured. Now they were reviled. He didn't know why. Nor did he understand his difference. He was an only child. His mother died shortly after his birth and his father disowned him before he came to the age of being accepted as a son at three syns. He always said Jepaul was a genetic throwback. He was considered to be an abomination that should never have been allowed to survive.

Quon wondered why he was so newly and peremptorily drawn to the city where the child lived. It was there he found an orphan left to fend for himself or starve. At only three syns old, Jepaul had been, in effect, left to die. Quon had cared for Jepaul for most of the boy's life, so, understandably, it was to him Jepaul had tried to run for protection when chased by the Varen or when hurt by his peers and elders.

Now Quon had to make the decision to return to a court and world he'd been alienated from for many, many syns, though he still wondered what prompted him to be where he was at all. He thought it was probably Salaphon and that brought those bonded with him to mind. He’d been in touch with them, on and off, as he wandered Shalah, Quon increasingly alarmed by the world he inhabited. So much had gone wrong over the syns. With a sigh the old man got slowly to his feet, grasped at his staff, and began a slow arduous walk behind the horsemen.

As he walked, Quon wondered what had alerted those in power to a child he'd tried so hard to hide from their attentions. He worried that Jepaul had acted out of character in some way. Alarmed, he tried to hasten. As he did, he thought back to when he first saw Jepaul. It was so vivid. Again, in mind’s eye, Quon saw the very small child who stared up at him, the little pinched face showing eyes that made the old man stare down harder.

The eyes were very big, deep-set and fringed by long, dense eyelashes that were as black as the finely etched eyebrows set high above the eyes, but it was their colour that was startling. They were lustrous amber. And the irises were most unusual for one born on Shalah. The child looked starved, deeply scared and, as Quon drew nearer, he cringed lower into the ditch where he’d been dumped days before.

The boy was clad in rags and he was barefoot. Quon’s eyes became riveted to those feet – this child had five toes on each foot. The old man swallowed a sudden obstruction in his throat. Alarm shook him. The child, seeing the man’s eyes settle on his feet, went very white and cowered lower, his feet curled under him in an effort to hide them. The boy was abject. A stirring of pity caught the old man. Immediately, impelled but unsure why, he stretched down a gnarled hand to the boy who again looked up, his expression wary and scared. The child gingerly took the hand and allowed himself to be pulled from the ditch. This wisp of a child was as light as a feather and like a wraith.

Quon looked at the boy’s very cropped hair, copper/auburn lights playing through the dense curls in the sunlight. He frowned in an effort of memory but the fleeting thought was gone. He studied the child again, aware of an odd feeling, almost one of nostalgia. He let go the boy’s hand.

“Who are you, little lad?”

“Jepaul, Master.”

“I answer to Quon, child, not master.” The child stayed silent and still. “You are very, very thin, little fellow.”

“I’s left in the ditch. Unwanted,” came the reply.

“I see.” Quon eyed the child thoughtfully. “You were left to look after yourself?” The child nodded. “Who by?”

“Mesmauve.”

“Who is he?”

“Father.”

Quon frowned again. At that the boy’s lips quivered in such a way it made Quon immediately touch him reassuringly.

“Why?”

“Mesmauve said I’s to die. He said I -.” The child paused. “Shame him,” he added in a broken whisper.

“Why do you shame him? Because you have five toes on each foot?”

“Yes,” came huskily, the small voice breaking.

“And the torc you wear?”

“Emtori.”

“So you’ve been left to starve?”

“Yes.”

“And what is your name again, little fellow?”

“Jepaul.”

“And how old are you, Jepaul?”

Jepaul shrugged and stayed silent. Quon again eyed him meditatively as well as measuringly. Then he sighed very heavily and leaned on his staff while the boy, curious now, eyed him in turn.

“You’d better come with me, child. At least I’ll give you something to eat. Has anyone else offered to feed you or to care for you?” Jepaul shook his head slowly and sadly. “How long have you been here?”

“Five days.”

Quon’s temper, remarkably slow to rise, began to simmer when he looked up and down the broad road. It was criss-crossed by leafy avenues, with people and vehicles constantly coming and going, but everyone studiously ignored the sight of an emaciated child and a very, very old man. Quon muttered. Then he felt a hand slide into his, turned, and looked down with a faint smile, only to be touched to his very soul by the radiance that shone out from this waif when he smiled back. It touched every part of Quon. This was a most unusual child indeed. He was quite other-worldly.

So it was that Quon took this child of lowest caste. He tracked down Mesmauve who snarled at mention of the boy’s name and spat a foul epithet at Quon, but at least the old man got answers to Jepaul’s lineage and background. He also learned that the child had emtori duties. The answers made Quon wend his reflective way home.

He came to the city-state of Castelus because he felt impelled to do so. He knew he had to be where he was, when he was, but he was profoundly puzzled. He sensed a strange bond with this waif who now lived with him in the house Quon rented only days before. Quon cared for him and watched him closely. He could see and sense something different about this child. He wondered if Jepaul had hidden and unsought gifts that made him unique and probably unlike others on Shalah, though he didn’t immediately sense telepathy that should alert anyone to the boy.

The frail child grew into a frail boy; maltreated by all other than his protector, he was shunned by most and bullied by those he served as emtori. He had to accompany a merchant’s son to school. He toted the older boy’s books, and fetched and carried all day without respite. He had no food either and stood all day. If he faltered he was severely beaten.

Quon had sleepless nights as he pondered the fate of this wraith of a boy. Jepaul’s strange eyes were often alight with a glow unlike anything Quon had ever seen in anyone born on Shalah: the boy’s spirit was afire because he was so extraordinarily imaginative and it was to his small and magical world that he withdrew. And what would be his fate? Was Jepaul, this child of light and creativity, a soul of enchantment, a poem of life himself, to endure a hellish world in the factories and sweatshops that stood awaiting him?

Quon was thinking about all this as, grasping his staff tightly, he moved as fast as old bones would let him. It was at that moment he felt the oddest sensation. It was almost visionary. He sensed a being close to him. The sensation swept over him, touched deep within, then was gone. He had a split instant vision of a man's far distant outline. And it had followed hard on the anguished cry that Quon, startled and unsettled, realised he’d heard in his mind. And it was Jepaul.

“I'm coming, child,” he muttered. “I'm coming.”

Jepaul found himself in a place he'd never seen, because one of his caste wouldn't dare approach such magnificence. The palace of the Cynas of the state of Castelus, huge and crassly opulent, was aggressively and assertively placed on a hill and surrounded by monstrous walls that were intimidating just to look at. Even the approach to the nearest gates was built on massive proportions, dwarfing those who guarded the walls and entry.

The Cynas was unapproachable. He was deified and untouchable. To people, like Jepaul, he wasn't real simply because he was rarely sighted. It was said he was venerable and once, so long ago now, had tried to rule with compassion and justice, unlike now when his reign was synonymous with awful cruelty. It seemed he was set ever further apart from those he ruled. Those to whom he gave power weren't wise. Nor were they sparing in their use of terror to maintain a social system that kept the majority subjugated and ignorant, while those in power gained ever more wealth and influence.

Too frightened to look where he was taken, Jepaul stumbled along. He finally reached the base of the slope that would take him and his captor through the massive walls and into the palace. The walk seemed interminable. It was there that the Red Council of Castelus held session. All Shalahs knew about the Red Councils in city-states across their world. They were to be feared. They stayed close to their Cynases and wielded immeasurable power. Jepaul knew only a little about the shadowy Red Council of Castelus. But he knew enough to recognise it was a state instrument of unmitigated repression and the power exercised by its seven members never gainsaid. Their word was law. He suddenly whimpered like a kicked dog. Hearing the sound below him, the Varen dismounted, gave his horse to a companion whom he dismissed along with the other, and then stopped to stare down at the boy.

The child was so thin and insubstantial the Varen paused, his gaze coming to rest on a thick thatch of unruly auburn curls cut short as was proper for one of such caste. Long hair was only worn by high caste. The boy was strangely appealing and pretty in an oddly touching way, but his looks were unlike any other on Shalah.

“Boy,” the Varen said softly. Jepaul instantly raised his head, the big eyes frightened and questioning. “What's your name?”

“Jepaul, Master.”

“I'm reluctant to see you hurt, Jepaul, but if the Red Council demand your presence, none can deny them.”

“I know,” whispered Jepaul, helplessly kneading his bound hands.

“And the Varen always find their quarry.”

“I know that too,” mumbled Jepaul timidly, his eyes bravely searching those of the older man.

“Is there no one able to help you, or speak for you?”

“Quon.”

“Where is he?” Jepaul shrugged expressively. “Was it to Quon you ran?”

“Yes.”

“He's your father?”

“No,” murmured Jepaul fatalistically. “My father abandoned me when I was three syns old and my mother's dead. Quon cares for me.”

The Varen felt stirrings of pity for this attractive waif.

“Once you're in the court audience room, child, I'll try to find this Quon and bring him to you.”

“You're kind.” Jepaul smiled shyly, the smile illuminating a thin face and transforming it. “Only Quon's ever been kind to me.”

“Come along then,” said the Varen, then he stopped. “If I take off these ropes, will you try to run from me?”

Jepaul looked at his surroundings and sighed.

“There'd be no point,” he replied with surprising maturity. “If I did you'd find me and be so cross you'd probably thrash me.”

The Varen eyed him, then grinned in spite of himself.

“Quite a lad,” he murmured, occupying himself with wrestling free knots that had tightened.

Freed, Jepaul rubbed absently at chaffed and reddened wrists, and he made no sound when he felt his left hand taken in a firm grasp as he was led forward.

He knew they had reached their destination when he was halted at enormous doors he could only gape at. They towered over him. Each was so ponderous, it took four guards to haul back one intricately moulded and gilded door that ran almost from floor to a massively high beamed and painted ceiling. Jepaul was over-awed.

When he felt able to raise his head for a tentative peer, he saw seven cloaked and hooded figures in a circle in the centre of the hall. At that sight, he knew an instinctive and inexplicable panic that told him to run. A shudder ran through him, so deep the hand holding his firmed reassuringly.

A voice came sibilantly from the circle.

“Place the child in the centre where the shadows are least.”

Jepaul jumped and uttered a yelp as the hand holding his led him inexorably to where a finger pointed to the middle of the circle. It briefly opened to let him through.

“Leave him there!” came the barked command from elsewhere in the circle.

The Varen obeyed and precipitately backed, conscious the boy cast him a terrified, bewildered look and tried to follow him. The circle closed. Jepaul couldn't move. He was held rigid. The Varen bowed, let out his breath and retreated, determined to find the child's protector. He knew time ran against him if the Council had issued a summons.

Jepaul stood silent, aware of a flow of power that encircled him and held him in whatever way the Council wanted. He blinked and his eyes were mere slits of black.

“You're of Merilyn's line?”

“So they tell me,” he answered hesitantly.

“Don't you know?”

“I don't go to school other than to help others of higher caste,” answered Jepaul honestly and humbly. “The emtori don't learn.”

“Who is your mother?”

“Daphre.”

“And she's dead?” Jepaul nodded. The voices seemed to come at him from all about the circle and echoed eerily in his head. “Your father?”

“He's Mesmauve. He rejected me. I'm outcast.”

“Why did we feel your cry in our minds days ago?” Jepaul looked genuinely flummoxed. “You showed telepathic ability, boy, something emtori may not have. To use it, as you flagrantly did, earns you the sternest penalty.”

“I - I'm not that way,” stammered Jepaul, his hands up defensively.

“What happened to you days ago? We traced the cry to you.” Confusion on the young face was so patent there was a long silence. “You don't recall then?” Dumbly, Jepaul shook his head.

At that instant, he felt minds like razors cut neat deep tracks across his brain. He squirmed, screamed, fell to his knees and clasped his head in his hands. When the sensation didn't stop but intensified, he fell flat to the floor and moaned out his pain with deep wrenching sobs. The release left him unable to breath. His raised face, terrified and pathetic, was bleached and the big eyes were wild. He heard conversations in his mind but was detached from him, then a sharp sibilant voice made him turn his head.

“Stand, you!” He stumbled to his feet. “Remove your boots.”

Feeling as if he was in a nightmare, and also feeling dreadfully sick and giddy, Jepaul obeyed. He stood barefoot. Jepaul was born with five toes on each foot, not the four of Shalahs, a taint that cursed his family from generation to generation. It was revealed now in this only son of the long ancient line of Merilyn.

“You used telepathy. You say you didn't, son of Mesmauve. We believe you've no knowledge of how or why you did such a wicked thing and you understand little if anything of such an act. It seems to have occurred solely when you were beaten. Still, you're tainted and emtori. That makes your use of any mind ability an obscenity and a blasphemy. No one of your lowly caste can be permitted to walk freely after doing such a thing. You have nothing to offer our society and are thus quite expendable. Your life, child, is forfeit from this moment.”

Jepaul spun frantically around. His eyes searched for any sign of compassion but saw only remote hooded figures. The circle of power was broken. The shadows about the figures deepened. Jepaul sank to his knees. He felt himself roughly hauled to his feet by a Varen he didn't recognise, the man's face an inscrutable mask of cold indifference. The boy hung limply, shock making him unable to respond.

“What's your will?” asked the Varen of the silent circle.

“He's guilty. Take him, cleanse his body, purify it of vile taint, then deliver him to the heavens. Make the despatch swift since he's still a child. Bring the body to us once the deed's done, no later than early sun. He fasts to help speed the purification.”

“It will be done,” promised the Varen. His hand closed like a vice over one of Jepaul's.

“No!” gasped Jepaul, coming to life and struggling for all he was worth.

He was swung into strong arms and clasped against a powerful chest in a crushing grasp that held him helpless as he was carried from the hall. He sensed he was carried a long way. Then the Varen's stride slowed, he entered a small ante chamber and stopped next to another Varen. Jepaul felt his head tilted sharply back. Fingers gripped his cheeks to make him open his mouth before liquid was poured effortlessly down his throat. He briefly gagged, then went limp.

He found himself in a cage. It was capacious and reasonably comfortable, the rugs thrown on the floor warm and soft. The liquid he was constantly given was sweet but strong. He lost all sense of time. His pupils dilated and he thought he floated outside himself more and more with each chalice he was given to drink. The hours passed. With no food inside him and only the constant drinks, he sank ever deeper and was completely disoriented.

The purification was cruel and awful. He howled at the excruciating pain of it. Every part of him inside and out felt on fire as liquid was constantly poured into his every body opening, even his ears, so the purifying liquid could do its work time after time. When the rites were complete and the boy allowed back in the cage he looked like death. Those who worked on him guessed the step to that state wouldn't be lingering.

He was left alone on the floor of the cage, the boy unable to make any sense of himself or his surroundings. He was in severe pain too. When commanded to, he drank with pitiably shaking hands. In time he lost all understanding. The only sensations he had were associated with the dreadful aftermath of purging as he slipped mercifully towards a coma. His limbs became numb. By now the hour was advanced and dawn would be upon the city within, at most, three hours. Jepaul was ready for the final stage of execution.

He heard a voice. It was very far away, but he definitely tried to hear it. It was insistent.

“Jepaul! Jepaul!”

He mumbled, tossed on the rugs and began softly to cry. He felt a gnarled hand grasp his. From the depths of semi-consciousness, he clung to it with every ounce of strength he possessed. Then he began to fade again, only vaguely aware of jumbled voices, half-heard words, but deep anger in one man's voice close to him. Then he was lifted. He drifted completely away.



CHAPTER TWO


Jepaul was lifted high on rough cushions. He felt sick and dizzy. His eyes now appeared normal. His tumultuous pulse was slowed. He breathed a little fast still and he hurt all over, but he was very much alive. His natural spirit reasserted itself. He might be shaken and battered, but he responded fervently to anything Quon told him to do.

“Jepaul, we have an audience with the Cynas. You must try to shake off the effects of the malver.”

“What's that?” asked Jepaul, wide-eyed and coughing.

The latter hurt. Quon eyed him askance.

“The drug given you, child. It was a massive dose - enough to kill a kidri. At least they were going to let you go barely conscious.” Quon scowled and added morosely, “Thoughtful of the Red Council, I suppose.”

“Would they still execute me?”

“Be sure of it,” came the curt reply. “You're under reprieve, Jepaul, nothing more.”

“They poured liquid into me, even my ears,” whispered Jepaul. “It burned. It was like being eaten from the inside.”

“Ritual bodily cleansing and purification,” snarled Quon. He put a gentle hand down to the mop of curls that were extremely dishevelled and clung to the young face. Quon brushed them back. “That'll take you a few days to recover from, my boy, I can tell you. I thought you were dead when I saw you lying so quiet and still.”

“I felt like it,” whispered Jepaul numbly, an imploring hand out to the old man. “Will they do it again?”

“If your reprieve isn't granted, Jepaul, yes. You see, I don't try to treat you like a small child. You're young, but not so young you can't face the truth.” Quon considered the young face. “You said the Red Council was in your mind, child, then spoke of your crying out when you were beaten days ago. What do you remember?”

Jepaul wearily shook his head, aware his hand was comfortingly held.

“Not much, Quon,” he mumbled. “They say I'm a telepath but I'm not. If you are, they find you very young and take you to train in the service of the Council or the Cynas, but no one took me or looked at me.” He thought, then added mournfully, “I'm emtori, so that explains that.”

“Maybe,” said Quon briskly. “I doubt you're telepath either, but since it seems you did show some strange aberration we can hope the Cynas will look more benevolently on you than the Red Council. You should thank the Varen, too, Jepaul. He sought me out and brought me to you, a kindly and unexpected act. Most Varen don't indulge in kindlier emotions. The Varen who helped you answers to Knellen. Remember the name, Jepaul.”

“I will.”

“Now, child, try to get to your feet. I want you standing when you are brought into the presence of the Cynas.”

Jepaul slipped uncertainly from the somewhat rude bed that supported him, sagged weakly at the knees and grasped at air. Quon was beside him with a supporting arm.

“Quon,” managed Jepaul, hands up to a swimming head.

“Come, boy, try taking a few steps, then we'll rest so you can get your balance.”

It was a tricky few moments that saw Jepaul stagger and totter, but after a short while he got his balance and was able to walk slowly but more confidently. His insides still felt squeamish and the lingering effects of the purging would take longer to recover from.

Quon chattered inconsequentially. He also laughed at the boy so much, Jepaul began to recover and grinned back. Quite quickly he began to move more easily. The only drawback was the effect of cleansing that had him seek relief in bales of straw set behind the bed for the purpose.

“I'm emptied out,” he groaned, reappearing and drawing up hide pants that he belted.

“Best you are,” responded Quon unsympathetically, regarding him. The pained expression on the young face set Quon off again. “Think, boy,” he admonished, on a chuckle. “Get rid of it all now, so when you appear before the Cynas you'll not be embarrassed.”

Jepaul got a helpless fit of the giggles.

His appearance before the Cynas was intimidating for Jepaul. Not only was it because he knew his life was in this individual's hands. It was also because the audience chamber where the Cynas reposed was so sumptuous the boy couldn't credit his eyes and it over-powered him. Only a fraction of the opulence and riches about him would stop many from suffering hunger in the city. Tremors shook Jepaul.

The Cynas himself sat ensconced on a dais hung with hand-painted silk. Screens protected the august personage from draughts, though the design and embellishment of the screens was unlike anything Jepaul had ever seen. Low caste women, clad in the skimpiest and flimsiest of garments, circled the dais or slowly waved fans over the Cynas.

Jepaul was confronted by an old man of spare body but untold strength in arms and hands. The Cynas had been a renowned athlete in his day, one of the finest on Shalah. It showed in musculature still the envy of younger men, even if the frame these days was spare. The ovoid-shaped head was mounted by sparse white hair. The beard was long and flowing, the mouth down-turned and the lips drawn into a tight, uncompromising line. The eyes were like shafts of flint, cold, assessing, piercing and utterly unnerving.

Jepaul was on his own. The Varen had led him to the dais and it was at the foot of it that the boy fell, head pressed to the first step in caste obeisance and humility. The Varen, Knellen again, stood to attention behind the boy.

“Why was this boy condemned by the Red Council that someone seeks such a reprieve?” demanded the Cynas, his voice emotionless.

Knellen bowed, then spoke.

“Honoured One, the child was condemned because it was said he had telepathic abilities. That is anathema in emtori. He's also tainted. He's the last of the Merilyn line.”

“Is he?” mused the icy voice. Despite his prostrate state, still Jepaul knew he was thoroughly scrutinised in a way he'd seen students dissect small creatures at school. A shiver gripped him. “You have the taint of your contemptible line, have you?” went on the voice.

Jepaul's voice sounded pathetically small.

“Yes, Honoured One.”

“Show me.”

Jepaul obediently uncurled and stood, head still bent. The Cynas bent forward expressionlessly to survey the ten toes, long and slender, on incongruously large feet. Jepaul would be a very tall man if allowed to grow to manhood.

“And you're emtori?” Jepaul nodded. “It's presumptuous, to a marked degree, that you imitate your betters by pretending you're telepathic, young one.”

“I've not done anything deliberately, Honoured One,” explained Jepaul desperately.

“No,” agreed the Cynas, with the faintest flicker of interest. “Yet the Red Council think you may, possibly, have a slight ability. Interesting.” The Cynas mused again. “The penalty for such gross impudence is death. You know that.” Jepaul nodded dumbly again. “Do you have anything to say for yourself, in your defence, before I call to have you taken back for execution?”

Before Jepaul could speak, and he shook so much and was so choked with tears he'd have struggled to utter a sound, he heard what he thought was Quon's voice. Only this voice was vibrant with a depth of anger to it new to Jepaul. He turned his head, blinded by tears.

“Is it now the way of the noble Cynas that he amuses himself by tormenting and condemning innocent children?” came the scathing question.

The Cynas swung round incredulously in his chair, rage flaring in his eyes.

“Who dares speak so to me?” he demanded wrathfully. “Bring that one forward.”

Knellen gently propelled Quon forward. The old man stood erect, eyes blazing with contempt, his voice one of bitterest scorn.

“Once you stood for justice, Jamir, and you were a man of intellect who cared for those about him. Look at you now. What have the syns done to you? I see what you are. Your nobility is a facade, your vaunted philosophy of equality for all nothing but an empty sham. You come from a very long line of philosopher rulers raised to benefit those they ruled. Now look at you and those about you. How ashamed you should be.”

“What is your name, you impudent old dog?” gasped the Cynas in disbelief. “Those like you, who spoke so out of turn, were supposed to have passed on or were eliminated!”

“More likely it’s what you hoped for,” came the curt response.

“Where have you been, old man?”

“Travelling Shalah. I'm not one of your poor, crushed citizens. Do you get out of your golden throne at all or are you glued to it?”

“Insolence!” stormed Jamir, gobbling with anger. He eyed Quon measuringly, his temper died and he sank back. “How long have you been in my city?”

“The last four syns or so. I found and befriended an orphaned child. Does that come as a surprise to you? Would you have done the same?” Quon shook his head. “No, not now.”

“Why do you befriend the boy?”

“Shalah benevolence,” sneered Quon. “You're supposed, oh noble ruler, to be the epitome of it.”

“I can still have him executed out of hand,” warned the Cynas irritably.

“No,” replied Quon, shaking his head. “Had I reached the Palace earlier you'd not have laid a finger on that child, be sure of that.”

He threw words at Jamir with scorn in a way that made Jamir sit erect and alert. He tried to decide who this fiery old man was, because he sensed something familiar, from a very long time ago, something elusive but dangerous that he should recall to mind. Had Jepaul looked at Quon he'd have seen a different face from the one he was used to.

“Would I not, old man? I am master here, not you. You come as a supplicant, remember?”

“Have you forgotten the oaths you took, those long, long syns ago, Jamir?” asked Quon, his voice deceptively gentle. “You did make them. They were witnessed. Most you've ignored or broken, but not this one, Jamir, not this one.”

“What are you talking about?” demanded Jamir, his temper again on the rise.

He frowned down, strangely disturbed, into the lined face that showed this old man knew well who the Cynas was, and knew him from long, long ago. That, in itself, was unsettling and made Jamir move with unaccustomed caution. He hoped to sort the identity of this figure who flayed him with ridicule and contempt but the facial features were quite unfamiliar. He gritted his teeth. Clearly a show of temper was highly unwise. He quashed it with an effort.

“There was once an ancient Order. I believe it no longer exists, Jamir. It laid down the rules to be observed in the governance of peoples, that rigid interpretation flouted by you and those like you who took sacred oaths but now ignore them. How unwise.”

“I don't forget,” growled Jamir. “I well remember the oaths I took and need no lessons from a befuddled old fool such as yourself. If you have anything to say as regards this annoying bit of childhood, do so now. Speak!”

“I demand the right of any child condemned,” stated Quon clearly. He eyed Jamir. “Or have you forgotten?”

“Refresh my memory then,” invited the Cynas, on a snarl.

“Any child aged under twelve syns may not be executed out of hand for any crime of which he or she is accused. A child must be given the three options. I invoke that ancient right for Jepaul.”

“That goes back a long way,” argued the Cynas flatly.

“You're bound by it,” came the smug response. “It was law long before your caste system evolved. Such a charmingly designed social structure for you to live by, Jamir. You all stand condemned for your betrayal of the Order.”

“That's enough!” bellowed Jamir, half-rising then again sinking back. “I concede the right.” He turned his head to stare down at the boy. “Look at me, Jepaul, son of Mesmauve.” Jepaul stared up at him, fascinated and repelled at one and the same time. “You may choose cleansing, exile, or face execution.”

Jepaul went to speak but was forestalled.

“I invoke the right. I speak for him.” The quelling frown Jepaul got from his mentor made the boy quail and stand silent. “Cleansing leaves the boy damaged. He'll be useless for anything, even the most menial tasks he does now as emtori. That option is rejected since he must be able to care for himself as an adult.

Execution is unacceptable. The boy had an aberration. Severely beaten he called out in anguish. That he was heard by others than those who thrashed him remains a wonder to me. We all surpass ourselves at moments of great need, pain or crisis. It means little. You should know that. Exile is the option he chooses.”

“Then let his exile begin.”

“The boy suffers from the massive dose of malver given him,” reminded Quon gently. “Since it was administered in error, the child must be given the time to recover. That was so very cruel, Jamir. He's but a child, only eight syns old.”

“Then,” said Jamir through clenched teeth, his voice brittle with frustration and anger, “the boy is released and none may touch him before he and you, old man who seems to know so much about the ancient ways, will be exiled from this state - not just this city, but from my whole state. You feel contempt for me and what I've created. Let's see if you can live apart from it.” Jamir's lip curled. “No one can survive being totally outcast as you'll both be. If you're found in Castelus again, the purification the boy underwent will be nothing to what he'll endure, nothing.”

“Your threats, Jamir, leave me unmoved,” responded Quon calmly. He saw how Jepaul shivered and gestured the boy close. “The boy's life is forfeit if he returns to Castelus, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Then hear this, Jamir. I condemn you, unequivocally, as corrupt and cruel. I call upon those ancient powers, that you scorn, to witness my words.”

“What? You have the sheer insolence to threaten me? A vagrant old fool and a boy? What effrontery!” Jamir was out of his seat, his expression ugly and his stance one of absolute threat. A stillness to the air, then a rippling of energy, silenced him until he recovered his complexion and uttered menacingly, “You're exiled with the boy, remember, both of you pariahs who'll be shunned wherever you go on Shalah. Remember, you brought this on yourself.”

“I've been an exile now for longer than I can remember, Jamir. Your threat is meaningless.”

“You've three days to leave this city. You've ten weeks to be gone from Castelus from the day you ride through the city gates. You return here and I'll be waiting for you.”

Jamir watched the old man and boy escorted from the huge hall by Knellen, then he ordered the Red Council to appear before him. Jamir rose and strode towards the hooded figures as they entered the throne room, his lips drawn back from his teeth. The Red Council, scarlet cloaks swirling round them, walked two abreast except the leader, then gathered about the Cynas, their sibilant hisses loud and their breaths rasping as if they took in air with an effort.

“You asked to speak with us,” wheezed one, lifting his hooded head. The folds of the cowl lifted from his neck as he spoke.

“The old man, whoever he is, knows me,” said Jamir angrily. “He insulted me, then threatened me.”

“Threatened you?”

“He invoked an ancient curse.”

“You have no fear of that surely?” mocked a Councillor. “The power of the Ancients is long gone from Shalah. We saw to that. There is no threat to any of us.”

“This old man spoke of the days of the Island and Salaphon,” growled Jamir, restlessly prowling away from the assembled group then back again.

“In so many words?” demanded another red-robed figure incredulously.

“No,” replied Jamir, stung by the note of ridicule. “But the curse he called upon me is from those times and none other than one who has resided there, and studied to become a Master, could make it. Believe me, I know. I served on the Island once.”

“We know,” purred a hissing voice right next to the Cynas. He stepped back instinctively. “We set your steps along a better path - or have you forgotten what you owe to us?”

“No,” whispered Jamir. “I do not forget.”

“See that you don't,” advised a third figure. He glided to Jamir, rested a hand on the Cynas's shoulder to see if the man recoiled, then, satisfied, he spoke again. “What we offer you contents you?” Jamir nodded. “Then this incident is nothing. It is no more than an unsettling one from an old man who may know of certain past things and traditions but has no understanding of them. The curse he called down on you has no substance in reality.” There was a low laugh from the assembled Council. “If the Island still existed, Cynas, we would know. If the Masters still lived, be assured we would have touched them by now and they would serve us, as do others like yourself. Believe us when we tell you that no Master would have stayed quietly over the syns as those like you began to rule so differently from the ways of Salaphon.” Another laugh swept the group. “No, my friend, you have nothing to fear from the past.”

Jamir gave a reluctant smile.

“You're right,” he said finally. “That a child and an old man should so irritate me is ridiculous.” He paused, then said in an arctic voice, “The child showed telepathic ability?”

“Undoubtedly,” responded yet another Councillor, switching his cloak about him as he stepped forward.

“It doesn't trouble you?”

“Why should it?” was the disinterested response. “We believe it was an aberration. We all do. The reason we sentenced that pathetic scrap to death was to ensure no precedent was set. The child had shown no such gift before and certainly did not do so again. The time he did he was being stoned, was in pain and in fear for his life. It's not unknown that such circumstances make an individual able to behave outside himself.”

“So we let him go?'

“But certainly.” The hooded head bowed to Jamir.

“And the old man?”

“Why not?” The hooded head bowed respectfully again, then lifted so that the Cynas had to look deeply into the depths hidden from all others. “If you wish to track them, then do so. You have an excellent choice to escort them and ultimately deliver them back to you at an appointed time, if that is your desire - haven't you?”

“The Varen,” stated Jamir delightedly. “Of course. I thank you, Red Council.”

He turned away but was recalled by a gentle hiss and a tug on his sleeve. He turned back immediately. He found that one of the Council, silent until now, held out his hand, palm upward. Jamir looked down into the palm. What he saw there made his mouth twist into a cruel smile of triumph as he carefully took the minute basket and cradled it.

“Shall I do it, or will you?”

“The pleasure should be all yours,” bowed the Councillor. “We breed them for your use, Cynas.”

Knellen was recalled. He bowed to the Cynas, his expression schooled to blandness.

“The boy seems to trust you, Varen. He didn't flinch at your touch,” said Jamir coldly, his eyes glowing as he gloatingly fingered the casket.

“No, Honoured One, that's so.”

“You'll make some reason to ride with them. You'll report back to the Red Council on everything they do.” Jamir beckoned the Varen forward and placed a small oblong glass in his hand. “You know what that is?”

“Yes, Honoured One, it's familiar.”

“You'll use it, regularly. You know to oblige.”

“Yes, Honoured One.”

“Betrayal by a Varen is a serious offence. You understand that?” The threat in the voice made even Knellen's stoicism waver. “The purification for a recalcitrant Varen is a delight, I can assure you. The boy may have felt his insides burn. Yours would erode, slowly and enjoyably, but only after other pleasures.”

“I understand, Honoured One.” Knellen felt as if a red hot skewer had entered him already. He stayed impassive.

“I'm sure you do,” nodded Jamir, his face now an implacably cruel mask. “You'll be recalled at an appropriate time and rewarded in whatever way you deserve. Until that day you will serve, and the only one you will serve, Varen, is me.”

Knellen bowed. He was about to leave, when he felt himself caught and thrust to the floor. He was held prone, his tabard was torn apart, then his shirt was ripped open, to leave his left shoulder laid bare. He heard the quiet sibilant hiss of one of the Red Council who held him. He recognised the casket held above him and shuddered, ripples of revulsion coursing up and down his spine as the Councilmen kept him still.

With wide eyes he stared up at the Cynas who carefully opened the casket, tilted it gently, then shook a minute thing onto the Varen’s skin. It was like a shaft of ice. With a touch of dread and foreboding, Knellen helplessly had to grit his teeth as a writhing, hideous thing marked him, then plunged under the skin and began to burrow. He gasped at the profound pain of it. He couldn't see how the thing left its sigil and tiny winking light before part of it withdrew with a flourish.

He waited, now in a detached way, as a tiny part of the skeleton of the creature was crushed and its body liquid spread across the point of entry on the shoulder. Suddenly, Knellen knew an urge to vomit but repressed it. He knew his personal fight to survive now began and wondered if he could possibly win. With this creature inside him, he doubted it.

From his kingly seat, the Cynas smiled benignly. This Varen would act as directed in whatever capacity was demanded of him. It was a pleasing prospect. Jamir decided a celebration was in order.



CHAPTER THREE


Castelus was one of the large city-states of Shalah. Their societies were ruled by Cynases who were once elected by the people. Originally the Cynases had respected, educated, articulate Councillors trained in proper governance of cities with whom they could, and did, consult. They were sage advisers. But as time passed the Cynases became increasingly aligned with, and dependent on, those who purported to be not only a religious order with fanatical leaders, but ones who claimed they knew better ways of governance of the city-states. The Cynases listened to them and allowed themselves to be corrupted by them. They became, in time, increasingly cruel and rapacious.

Eventually these religious leaders became known as the Red Councils and it was they, through control of the Cynases, who proposed and encouraged the imposition of the caste system. Long, long ago, rulers were trained by an Order known as the Order of Salaphon. Its most senior and gifted adherents were taken to be trained on what was called the Island where they became learned in all aspects of wise and compassionate rule. The needs of their people were considered to be paramount. Slowly but inexorably all that had changed. Now Shalah was mostly under the governance of Cynases who were more than cruel and oppressive; in turn, they were under the influence of the Red Councils to whom they increasingly ceded control and law.

Quon, the Wanderer, saw the abuse of power, but he was only one Maquat Dom of the Five. He was ancient and he was deeply tired. He told those bonded to him but they, too, were ancient and weary and they remained on the Island, Quon’s concerns and reports noted but never acted upon. The Doms believed Shalah would right itself given time. It was only with Quon’s odd sense of urgency to curb his wandering and go to Castelus, that an awakening occurred and alarm bells began to ring. It was sensed that something untoward occurred on Shalah, something ominous and profoundly threatening that could menace the very existence of this world.

Quon, as Maquat Dom Earth, sensed it most. And he also suspected the small boy he befriended was more than just a child. He couldn’t quite place why he thought that, then decided he was being fanciful and imagining ghosts that didn’t even exist. With asperity he kept giving himself mental shakes. That was until he sensed an outer aethyr disturbance and saw an image that shook him. It had coincided with Jepaul’s cry of pain that saw him summoned by the Red Council.

Today, on Shalah, society was highly structured. It was led by the Cynases, most often in thrall to their Red Councils. They were followed by the religious guards known as the Varen, then merchants, traders, travellers, artisans, crafters and tradesmen. Scholars, if any were left from purges, were now lowly in status and considered social outcasts. At the very bottom of society were orders of menials. Jepaul was of the very lowest caste. As a genetic throwback he was unwanted and owed no respect. Any form of mental gift was only tolerated amongst the highest orders of society such as Cynases or members of the Red Councils.

Those below that status suspected of any mental gift were immediately executed (a reprieve never considered) or forcibly cleansed. The latter process left a citizen mildly brain damaged but acceptable to society and reduced straight away to emtori rank. Exile was never an option, so for Jepaul to be exiled was a rarity. The caste system began with the highest ranked merchants and ended with the lowest and most untouchable, contemptible emtori.

Jepaul was in high spirits. They'd been three days out of the city. He thrived away from the smoke that seemed an ever-present part of city living, where factories and foundries for the forging of metals for weapons abounded. In those places emtori toiled ceaselessly, often through the night and into the morning.

Only the last remaining protective law for the lowest caste saved Jepaul from a similar fate, but not for too much longer. He wasn't yet nine syns old. In another syn he'd be bound to a factory, day in day out for the rest of his short, unhappy life. He'd be merely one of thousands who straggled there in the very early hours of the morning, in the dark, to be belted into their harnesses and refused all access to light and air until they were unbuckled again come nightfall. Only then were they allowed to leave for rest. Food was poor and in short supply. Sometimes emtori got none. Water was rationed.

Those who ran the factories treated emtori like slaves. There was no mercy shown them. They had no rights. They were considered untouchable and unworthy of pity or compassion. Nor were those they served averse to applying leather thongs that stung savagely and left nasty cuts on bent sweating backs. Mesmauve, Jepaul's father, had often proudly shown his scars to whoever he thought might admire them and frequently referred to them in front of his son, with the intent of frightening the child even more than he already was. Jepaul's dread of such a life was very real.

Once Jepaul got a thrashing. An older boy, of considerably higher caste, found fault with the way the younger boy carried his work to school. The luckless emtori child was bent over a stump after school and thoroughly whipped. Jepaul still bore the scars. Quon had pondered Jepaul’s future with both misgiving and a horror compounded by despair at what he had witnessed daily since he came to Castelus. The rest of Shalah was now gripped by the same indifferent cruelty but Castelus made Quon shiver with premonition, apprehension, guilt and revulsion.

Now he watched Jepaul walk without the ever-present cough that used to shake him until he was breathless. His sallow skin colour improved, he recovered fully from the drug and to Quon's delight he began to eat as a boy of his age should. He didn't pick listlessly at his food. He laughed and ran, skipped, whistled, and grinned when Quon or Knellen surveyed him. Jepaul was actually happy for the first time in his life. Curls, usually lank as a symptom of poor health, now shone, and the eyes stayed brightly inquisitive. A child blossomed.

Over the ensuing weeks he snared small creatures that he contentedly cooked. He learned how to skin a creature in only moments, could have a fire set and blazing faster than anyone and was willing to do anything. Quon seemed content to let the days pass, his comments to his companions few. The Varen, not talkative or demonstrative by nature, stayed taciturn as well, the pair so quiet it left Jepaul to his own devices. What made Quon eye the Varen was a conviction that the man was subtly changed from their first meeting. The old man hadn't questioned Knellen about his wish to accompany them, but he had a shrewd suspicion what prompted Jamir to send a Varen. He was one of an elite, selectively bred group trained to ignore the kindlier emotions and who owed absolute allegiance to their Red Council and, through them, to their Cynas. This Varen, however, appeared to the older man to be under stress of a unique and troubling kind. This showed in the eyes and haunted expression that sometimes flickered across the face, to be replaced by the stolid impassiveness of the Varen. It was this that led Quon to reprimand Jepaul for teasing.

“No, Jepaul. Leave the man alone. Have you nothing better to do than try to make fools of those older and deserving of respect?”

Chastened, Jepaul slunk away, his glance at the Varen apologetic. He simply got a stare but no other reaction.

This evening, when the threesome sat about the fire, Quon turned his head to study the young profile beside him. He stared thoughtfully at the elegant neck that carried the torc. The caste torc hung very loose still, because the boy wasn't yet grown into it, the narrow band a permanent reminder of Jepaul's social status.

The caste mark on his throat was invisible until the boy turned his head to Quon's scrutiny, then the colour caught the firelight and briefly flared. Any mark did in the light, especially sunlight. Jepaul was indelibly marked and condemned because of it. It made Quon shiver. It was cruel. Never could this child rise above the station in life allotted him, however gifted he might be, in whatever capacity. Such a social philosophy was anathema to Quon.

He knew that the torc was the second placed about this young neck and this second one would be with the boy for the rest of his life. It was known, he knew, for some torcs to eventually become part of the skin and grown over, like a diseased swelling. It was that thought that made him determined to remove the torc as soon as possible.

“Jepaul, how is a torc removed?” he asked conversationally.

Jepaul shrugged, his eyes back on the fire.

“Torcs stay for life, Quon. The Unc who closed it about me told me so.”

“It's made of vos, isn't it?”

Again Jepaul shrugged.

“No one tells emtoris anything, Quon.” He paused and got a nod. “They take you to the factory where the torcs are made. You lie on the ground.” He saw a raised eyebrow quirked at him and gave a wide grin. “You must lie on the stomach so they can put your arms and legs in straps to hold you still. They remove the old torc and put a new one on.”

“Did removing the old one hurt?”

“Yes,” confirmed Jepaul, with a nod and a hand up to his throat. “It was very tight, so taking it off made my throat bleed. They had to cut skin. That's why I was held down.”

“How did they remove it?”

“I didn't see.”

“Did they cut it?” Jepaul shook his head. “Heat it?” The curly head shook again. “You've no idea then?”

“No, Quon.”

“Damn,” said Quon under his breath. He glanced speculatively at the Varen. “Any ideas, Knellen?”

“No,” said the Varen, without a blink. “The boy's emtori so the torc stays for life as he says. It's his place in society; he must stay in it.”

“Yes, true, while he was part of that society,” agreed Quon calmly, “but you forget, Knellen, that the boy's been evicted from that society. It makes him stateless but also without caste or status.”

The Varen took the point and considered it.

“That's unarguable,” he finally conceded. “Still, the way of the Unc isn't known to the Varen. We don't wear torcs so have no knowledge of their makeup, design or use, other than as symbols of caste and status.”

“At what caste level do they no longer impose torcs?”

“At ovan, Quon,” came the considered answer.

“How many ranks above emtori?”

“Six.”

“Then the boy had no chance, had he?”

“No,” concurred Knellen coldly. “None at all. He's at the bottom and considered by all in society as completely expendable. His survival is remarkable.”

“Then, Jepaul,” said Quon softly to the auburn head now bent at the Varen's words, “I declare you no longer an emtori, nor tainted, but a free boy able to grow unstunted by a society that rejected and humiliated you.”

Jepaul lifted his head, uncertain he understood his mentor.

“Quon?”

“One day, my child, that torc will be gone and you will walk with your head held high.” Jepaul grasped at the old man's hand. “But until then, little fellow, it's time you rested. Sleep peacefully, Jepaul.”

Quon felt the boy relinquish his hand and smile wistfully at him then at the Varen. He watched the frail, slight figure go a little way beyond the fire, pull off boots, unlace a very heavy embossed jerkin then crawl down on the straw pallet. The boy pulled across and round a heavy cover that was very warm. Jepaul snuggled into it.

Quon's attention came back to the Varen.

“Knellen,” he began thoughtfully, “you come with us at Jamir's command. I assume it's to spy on us and report back, but can you tell me why, and can you explain to me why you were chosen?”


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