Written by Eric Lewis / Artwork by Lee Kuruganti
The Slavemaster's Penance
“Stop that man! Slave, stop!”

Trogus tore through the muddy
streets of the harbor half-blinded by
the sun, lungs and legs burning. He
didn’t know what city he was in.
Didn’t even know what country he
was in, only that he was free and on
solid ground.

Not solid enough though. His bare
foot landed in a clod of filth so soft
and slimy it could only have come
from human bowels, sending him
sprawling with a greenish-brown
splatter flying behind. He was up
again in seconds but it was enough
for his pursuers to catch sight of him.
Their shouts grew louder and nearer.
Get away, Trogus thought with the
animal part of his brain,
have to get
away
. If he did, the goons on his tail
would take his place at the oar—
punishment a man would do just
about anything to avoid.
Have to
run faste
r. Ragged scraps of clothing
fell away as he ran leaving an easy
trail to follow. He turned down a dark
alley praying it led to escape.

It didn’t. It led to a dead end and a
brick wall he just missed slamming
into. Was there time to go back and
try another route? Trogus jumped
against one wall, falling short of the nearest window ledge. He tried another—even further away. Footfalls echoed
down the alleyway. He was cornered.

Two huge men with shaved heads and tattooed muscles blocked his path. One carried a club, the other chains
looped in his fists. Trogus would die before going back in those chains again. At least he hoped so.

“Fool,” spat the whipmaster, out of breath despite the size of his biceps. “What…was you…thinking? No one
escapes the cruise. Come here-see if ya can pull oar with broke legs!” The other one raised his club high.

But before a blow could fall the thug’s head jerked, and red-brown crumbles spilled over his shoulders. His eyes
went wide and he began toppling over. Because of his bulk it seemed he fell comically slow. “Wha—” said the
whipmaster just as another brick smashed against his skull. “Aaargh!”

Wasting no time on silly things like questions Trogus wrenched the club out of the fallen thug’s grip and bashed his
face, the crunch reminding him of the meatless bones that’d too often been his dinner. He wailed on the man until
the face was a quivering mess of red jelly, pausing only when the alley echoed with a muffled scream. Trogus looked
up to see the whipmaster’s face turn purple with a look of puzzlement. He collapsed to the stones and in its place
stood a new figure, this one smaller and more shapely but every bit as fierce.

It’d be an understatement to call the moment an awkward silence what with two bodies—one living, one decidedly
otherwise—lying between them. Everything about the woman screamed thief and killer—the short cropped hair, the
close-fitting clothes over tanned and toned muscles, the weapons at her waist—was she about to turn on him
next? “Th-thanks,” Trogus said nervously.

“Didn’t do it for you,” replied the harsh voice. She pocketed a garrote and knelt over her victim, then cut a belt
pouch away with her knife. “Least, not entirely.” She moved to the other body.

Trogus let the club fall from his shaking hands. “Who—who are you?”

“A slave, like you. Or used to be. Suppose you could say I’ve moved up in the world.” She cut the dead man’s
purse also.

“But how did you know I—”

“I saw you running from that ship. I know that type o’ boat and I can put ten and two together. Seemed like an
opportunity all the way ‘round.” The woman hefted the pouches and grinned at the jangling coins inside. “Come
on,” she said, “I guess I owe you a drink, and you look like you could use one. Not to mention a bath.”

~ * ~

“What is this place?”

She handed him a cup of something. “Dirty Deke’s. Not the classiest of joints, but—”

“No, I mean where am I? What country?”

“Ah, kept you down below did they? Never saw the light of day I wager.”

Trogus nodded. “Just through the oar holes sometimes. We were…two months at sea? I can’t be sure.” He took a
sip of his drink- some kind of watery honey rum. “Then it was a rusted-off shackle, a guard looking the wrong way
at the right time…figured I had nothin’ to lose.”

“You figured right. You’re in Silverport. Marimine Vadrasalle.”

Trogus raised an eyebrow. “The Marimines Isles? As in, the Banks?”

“As in. You’re just a stone’s throw from the greatest power in the world.”

“Huh.” Trogus looked around at the ramshackle quayside taphouse with its ramshackle customers. “Somehow I
thought it’d be nicer.”

The woman laughed. “Everyone says that. It
is nicer around the banking halls and estates, but you won’t get
anywhere near those. Silverport’s the mud all that finery’s built on.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Well for one, slavery’s outlawed in the Isles, so there’s that. Also it was the first place I washed up after I got
tossed overboard. I had to stow away to get out of Pelona.”

“Sounds rough.”

“Not compared to what came before it ain’t,” said the woman with a sudden scowl. “Don’t ask.”

“How about your name at least? Lady buys me a drink I’d like to know who to thank.”

“Ooh, you’re a smooth one! You can call me B’zal, but don’t go spreading that around—fugitive slaves can still be
retaken. Treaties or some nonsense.”

“You could just change your name. Should be easy enough in a place like this.”

She looked hard at him. “Yeah well, a lot of bastards took everything else from me. They ain’t takin’ my name too.
Fuck that.”

“Fair enough,” he nodded. “Well my name’s Trogus, and I’ve got no idea what to do now. Didn’t figure I’d get far
enough to need a plan.”

“Hmm. You got any experience as a cutpurse?”

“Erm, no.”

“Bouncer?”

“’Fraid not.”

“Scribe?”

“I can make my mark and count to a hundred.”

B’zal sighed. “Well what are you good at?”

Trogus thought for a moment, then shrugged. “Pulling oar?” They both laughed bitterly.

~ * ~

Trogus kept his head down in Dirty Deke’s until hearing the sweet sound of his ship casting off.
Probly figured one
slave and two crew was loss enough,
he thought, doubting the whipmaster would dare go back after waking in the
alley empty-handed. Near sunset he ventured outside to examine his new surroundings, looking repeatedly from
the handful of money B’zal had given him—his cut of the take apparently—to the teenage prostitute lounging
against the flickering street lamp, wondering which would be the less despicable option. Turned out his drink wasn’t
all that watered, and it made the calculation more difficult.
It’s been a long time after all, he thought, but…

“You’re not doing her any favors just standin’ there,” B’zal admonished. “Do or don’t—makes no difference to
anyone else, not here. There are way worse occupations.”

“Excuse me for still having some shred of conscience left,” said Trogus, embarrassed.

B’zal laughed. “Some. Yet, you
are still standin’ there. Pragmatic—I like that. In fact…” B’zal seemed to argue with
herself a moment, then nodded. “Come on, there’s someone I want you to meet.” She took hold of his arm and
pulled him back inside Deke’s.

“But—”

“The doxy’ll still be there tomorrow.”

B’zal sat him at a small table in the furthest corner, away from the drone of the crowd. A robed, ferret-like woman
joined them. “Trogus, this is—”

“Ech!” The woman hissed. “My name not important be.” She eyed Trogus with a sneer. “How well know you this
smelly man?”

“Well enough.”

“And how long for?”

“A few hours.”

“What?!”

“He’s the likeliest candidate to come along in awhile,” said B’zal. “Unless you’ve changed your mind?”

“No. Seller of information only be I, not mercenary!”

“Whoa, hold on,” said Trogus, “candidate? Mercenary?”
What have I got into?

B’zal leaned in close. “You ever heard the name Nequenga?”

“That’s…a place somewhere up in Marzahn, right?”

“It a copper mine be,” said the strange woman. “Named after the blackest bastard that ever drew breath, Nequenga
the Elder. Bad you think you had it, but better by far if a slave have education or any skill, even pulling oar.
Otherwise to the mines you go, and in Nequenga’s mines you go in and come never out.”

“They say his mines’ve killed more people than the Gray Plague,” B’zal added. “More than the Argovani civil wars.
More even than Phynagoras.”

“No one killed more than Phynagoras,” said Trogus with that certainty particular to popular wisdom.

“Well it’s not like anyone’s keepin’ count is it? Anyway the mine dried up and the old monster escaped into death
two years ago, peacefully in his sleep under sheets of golden silk. Had his harem buried alive with ‘im too, gods
burn the prick.”

“Well that is a sad story, but what’s your point?”

“The story ain’t over. Y’see, there’s another of the name—Nequenga the
Younger. And by all accounts he’s even
worse than his father.”

“The slave markets of Marzahn,” the robed woman said, “a sorrowful sight be. No cruelty a stranger there is.
No…what the word is? No
atrocity unknown, every day. But lately something changed. Fewer and fewer slaves, all
bought up they are. Markets run dry. Younger Nequenga burns through his inheritance, grasps at every life he can
get hands on—women, children, old and weak. Bulk deals for babies he makes. Babies! Harder than a Thazovi
jongleur he haggles, drives down prices then ships off all to some purpose unspeakable.”

Trogus frowned. “Why children? If he’s got a new mine somewhere—”

“I think he has an eye toward surpassing even his father’s evil,” said B’zal. “Forget about buying people one at a
time. My guess, he’s breeding a whole
nation of slaves. Can you imagine!”

“Truly long-term thinking,” interjected the information dealer. “This at least must one admire.” She stood. “Excuse
you me please, the meeting shall I arrange.” She vanished into the crowd.

“Meeting?”

“Trogus, I’m not just in Silverport to eke out a living as a thief and stay drunk until I keel over someday. I’ve been
saving up.”

“Saving up…for what?” Trogus was already sure he didn’t want to know even as he asked it.

“We’ve tracked this Nequenga the Younger down. I know where he is and where he’s going to be. And I’m going to
go murder the bastard. And I want you to help me.”

“Me? I…”

~ * ~

“I don’t understand,” Trogus slurred an hour and two more drinks later as they walked along the quay, B’zal
examining ships like they were livestock. “You got everything! Money, marketable skills—black market, anyway—and
freedom. Why you wanna throw it all away on some damn fool revenge quest?”

“It’s not just revenge,” B’zal insisted, her speech clear and strong although Trogus could’ve sworn she’d matched
him cup for cup. “If it were, there are easier targets. Despite everything I’ve been luckier than I deserve. So have
you. I feel I owe a debt.”

Trogus broke out in a throaty cackle. “A debt! That’s rich. Sounds like Pelonan superstition to me. No one gets
what they deserve in life, except by accident.”

B’zal’s face went red, which was an accomplishment given her olive skin tone. “Don’t you quote Vinian’s Razor to
me—”

“I’m a pragmatic man, remember?”

“—people are dying in those mines, every day!”

“People die every day all over the world. There’s nothing you can do about it.”

“Except in this I can. No one even tried to stop the Elder and he got away with it. I’m not letting it happen again. I
owe a debt. And now so do you.”

“Wha—how d’you figure
that?”

“Would you rather be back on that ship chained to the oar with smashed legs? I saved your ass—way I see it
you’re on the hook.”

“And if I say different?”

B’zal shrugged. “You told me yourself you got no prospects, no coin. Not everyone here speaks ‘Vani, but they’ll
recognize that bondage tattoo on your neck you try to hide, maybe even think to cash in on it. How long you
expect to survive without help? Maybe you were right—you don’t need a long-term plan after all.”

Trogus sighed. “But why me? I’m no killer.”

“Tell that to the tough you smashed into dog meal.”

“That’s different—I was fighting for my life!”

“So fight for someone else’s. A lot of someones’. Is it so different?”

Trogus slouched, exhausted by drink and debate. “I’m really starting to hate you.”

B’zal smiled. “Good. Hate’s fuel for the fire. Use it. I got a back room at Deke’s—rest up tonight. Tomorrow we
start planning.”

Instead of resting up Trogus spent his cut on the young whore, certain he’d be dead before getting another chance.

~ * ~

“Pleased to meet—oh…” Trogus extended his hand without thinking about it. Then the haggard, broken fellow
sneered and lifted his arms, and where hands should’ve been sleeves dangled limp at the ends of what Trogus
realized too late were hacked-off stumps.

“That s’posed to be funny?”

“Um, uh, I’m so s—”

“Forget it,” snapped B’zal. “Our mutual friend said you had the bit of knowledge we sought. Do you?”

“Mayhap,” replied the weather-beaten Marzahni, “but no friend o’mine nor worth my trust. She said you had the
shine to buy it. Lemme see.”

They met him in a part of town so seedy even the criminals avoided it, where the buildings crowded in all around
and above you and a body could go unnoticed for weeks. The public square cut the odds of an ambush some
though the corner wall they gathered near still allowed a measure of privacy. B’zal held up one of the purses she’d
cut from Trogus’ pursuers, careful not to let the jingling of coin bring unwanted attention. “You can count this if
you want, but I wouldn’t recommend it here- you’d not get far.”

“Aye, I ain’t new to the ‘port. Set it down there.” He tapped a burlap bag on the ground with his foot.

Trogus shook his head. “Hold on. I
am new, but I still wanna know what we’re buyin’ first.”

“Hmm, not so dumb as you look. Alright.” He held up his handless arms again. “This was my last gift from old
Nequenga after workin’ the kitchens of his villa ten years and more. On the coast near the mines it is. Now, the
drains go right to the sea, and the kitchen trash dumps into ‘em. Gets clogged all the damn time. Not long before
the old snake kicked it they sent me to clear it out. Almost big enough for a man it was. Long story short, I had an
eye to escape and I took my chances.”

Trogus rolled his eyes. “I know where this is going…”

“Don’t be so sure,” growled the man, “I said
almost big enough. I got stuck. Two days squirmin’ through shit and
chicken bones, I couldn’t go forward nor back. When they pulled me out the Master hisself heard about my daring
attempt.” He started to laugh but then coughed and spat onto the cobblestones. “Thought I was dead. Instead he
cut off my hands…and other things that ain’t currently relevant…tossed me into the ocean. Guess he thought that
was a worse fate. Woulda been but for a fishing boat happened along, netted me up and took mercy.” He leaned in
close. “I’ll tell you folks, you don’t know pain til you got a bunch o’ bloody stumps in salt water.”

“Good gods,” Trogus breathed.

“Ha! Can’t say if it was god’s gift or devil’s wrath, but here I be all the same.”

“How does this help us?” B’zal tightened her grip on the purse. “You said the drain’s too narrow.”

“Exactly my young lovely. Always needed fixing, never was. Damn near richest man in the world but tightfisted as
one o’ them banksters up the hill was old Nequenga. You show up in the guise of plumbers with a nil-due bill—mark
my words you’re in, no questions asked.”

“Plumbers!” Trogus turned to B’zal open-mouthed. “This is your grand plan?”


She fidgeted, looked around the square to make sure no one took interest in their conversation. “I don’t know. It
all seems a bit ridiculous…”

“Ah, that’s the beauty,” said the man, “it’s so stupid it’s bound to work! All the confusion over the old man’s
estate, a lot could get overlooked. I can give you the names of the house stewards been clamorin’ for years to fix
them pipes. They’ll have no choice but to believe you.”

“And if they don’t we’re dead and you nowhere to be found after.” Trogus frowned at B’zal, tugging at the itchy
new clothes she’d bought him. “What do you think?”

B’zal reluctantly dropped the purse into the bag at their informant’s feet. “I think we’d better figure out what
plumbers look like.”

~ * ~

B’zal had indeed been saving up. When she told Trogus she’d chartered a vessel to take them up the Marzahni
coast he expected three boards held together by barnacles, so as he crossed the gangplank to tread the topdeck
of a real, honest-to-gods oared sailing ship he whistled low. “You know, it just occurred to me you might really be
serious about all this.”

“Just now huh? Better late than ever.” She kneed him out of the way and dropped their luggage—clothes, some
coin, bits and pieces of whatever they imagined plumbers used, and beneath it all weapons. The sack hit the deck
with a hollow thud just as a light rain began to fall over Marimine Vadrasalle. “Great. Well no matter, the captain—”

“Wishes to cast off right away.” A tall blond Cynuvik came striding behind B’zal, his walrus mustache chiseled into a
permanent worried frown. “This place is not safe—I hear tell of escaped slaves prowling the port! Can you believe
it?”

B’zal and Trogus glanced once at each other. “Shocking.”

The crew wasted no time in taking on fresh water and a bit of cargo then shipping out. As abruptly as he’d arrived
Trogus bade farewell to Silverport. From a distance the great banking houses dominated the view of the island,
drowning the filthy harbor beneath outrageous displays of wealth. “No turning back now,” said B’zal. The reality of
what they were doing hit Trogus all of a sudden, and he felt dizzy.

The captain happened to be passing by and reached out to steady him. “You are well friend?”

“Yeah,” he said, “just not used to bein’ topside I guess.”

The captain shrugged. “Far better under a little rain than with the poor souls below…”

Trogus glared up at the man. “What? Wait, you don’t mean…?”

“What?”

“Is this ship slave-oared?”

“But of course! Winds alone cannot get you there this time of year, and all free rowers are scooped up by King
Osmund’s navy, the old goat.” The captain walked away to some other task, bemused by the stupid question.

A sudden rage Trogus had thought whipped out of him boiled up. “I don’t believe it! I thought we were going to
help the—”

“Lower your voice!” B’zal reached around Trogus’ neck. “And hike up your scarf—keep that tattoo hid. First we
have to get there. One thing at a time. Plumbers wouldn’t care about it, neither must we until the deed’s done.”

Trogus snarled wordlessly. “Fine. Fine! You win, again. But let’s get one thing straight—when it is done your
debt’s paid, my debt’s paid,
everyone’s fuckin’ debt is paid! And then you and I are gonna have a decidedly more
equal arrangement.”

B’zal nodded. “Fair enough.”

“Fair’s got nothin’ to do with anything it seems.”

The rain stopped, and when night fell they strung hammocks across the deck. Trogus slept not a wink as the
synchronized grunts of the men below echoed up.

For a week they sailed eastward, hewing to the chain of islands poking out of the Western Ocean. The last three
days was open sea, and the captain kept to the foredeck gazing nervously at the sky. Trogus said little, glaring at
the Cynuvik when he passed by his hammock, angry not only at the sound of lashes cracking beneath him but also
that his first taste of freedom in almost two years was marred by it. When he did sleep he dreamed of keelhauling
the captain.

At last a morning fog cleared to reveal the red cliffs of western Pelona on the horizon, and Trogus joined B’zal at
the prow. “Make you homesick any?”

“Hardly. If I never set foot in that country again it’ll be too soon.”

“Where to now then?”

B’zal jerked her chin to the left. “North. Two more days. Hope you brought a robe—I don’t think your pasty ass
could long stand the sun.”

“Humph, I didn’t. I just hope this guy’s really there—be a long way to go for nothing.”

“He’ll be there.” B’zal pulled a packet of papers from a satchel she always held close. “Here, this is a letter from
Nequenga’s steward of the villa to the man himself. Don’t ask how it got into my hands, but you can see the edges
are singed—it was probably meant to be burned but didn’t quite make it.”

Trogus squinted at the spidery script. “What’s it say?”

“It says…” B’zal bit her lip. “It says he’s got too many slaves gathered there and the steward can’t deal with them
all himself. ‘Your Magnificence has too long put off visiting Your northernmost property, and disposal of such a
great mass of inventory now requires Your wise and guiding hand.’ It includes a copy of his latest bill for ten
thousand half-starved captives lately bought from Ghresh. He anticipates the Master’s arrival on such and such
date with great affection and reverence, blah blah. Disposal of inventory! He’ll be there, and so will we.”

The cliffs fell away, replaced with featureless desert beach. Near Marzahn was the northern edge of the known
world, and its interior known only to the hardiest of adventurers to brave the burning sun and oceans of sand.
Beyond that Far Marzahn was a land of myth and wild rumor where it was said no man could live.

Thank the gods we’re staying on the coast, Trogus thought the second his feet again touched dry land. Very, very
dry. They sat in a cotton-roofed suuq, at a stall bar where one of the coffee-dark locals plopped a bowl of dates
and a pitcher of sour wine before them. B’zal uttered something unintelligible in thanks.

“The ship’ll wait three days in port,” she said to Trogus, “if we’re not back by then we’re probably dead and beyond
need of ‘em.”

“What’d you say this place is called?”

“Ossowengo. I think half the town exists just to support Nequenga’s villa, and the other half the mine.”

“But you said the mine’s defunct, dried-up. So what are these ten thousand in your letter here for?”

B’zal took a sip of the wine and grimaced. “Yech. I’m a bit hazy on the local dialect, but from what I gather they
came on a few large ships and were taken straight to the villa real secretive-like. The crews shipped out again right
away, didn’t even stay for a drink. The stallkeep was very annoyed at that.”

“Maybe that means we’ll get a good deal on a room,” Trogus mused.

“I don’t think they do private rooms here. At best they’ll let us sleep by a cookfire. Believe it or not the desert gets
tits-stiffingly cold at night.”

“Worst of both worlds. Could do with a nice warm working girl instead, though I don’t suppose there’d be any
hereabouts.”

“My heart bleeds,” B’zal sneered. “Eat your dates.”

A bit later a heavy hand landed on Trogus’ shoulder. He flinched before turning around, pawing at his concealed
knife. “Oh,” said the hand’s tall owner in a deep basso voice, “please to be excusing my friend!”

“You speak ‘Vani,” Trogus said, surprised. “Of a kind anyway.”

“Yes, learned am I. Also, business man. To be overhearing of your latest words, my friend. A girl you wish, yes?”

“Uh, well…”

He spread his arms wide triumphantly. “A girl I have! Nice warm, wet girl all ready just for you. And at primo price!
Yes?”

Trogus glanced at B’zal, who sat looking amused at the awkward exchange, then back at the stranger. “Well you
see, um, I don’t actually have any—”

B’zal pushed two silver coins across the bar.

“—money. Huh.” The man scooped up the coins with a smile a snake would blush at.

“Go,” said B’zal with a roll of her eyes, “frolic. Best to keep you on a short leash than in a cage I guess.”

Trogus stood. “When I get back I’m gonna explain to you the incredible inappropriateness of that remark…when I
get back.”

“Uhuh.”

The Marzahni led Trogus to a clay hut a short distance from the suuq. It was dark inside but for a tiny hole near
the ceiling, and a recessed cubby was blocked off with a stretch of fabric. The man gestured toward it. “Through
here.” He pulled a small time glass from the folds of his white robes. “Half of one hour is all to you my friend. More
is assured by more silver. Enjoy!” He inverted the glass and drifted from the room.

Left in a hurry, Trogus thought. She’s probably ugly. Still, beggars can’t be choosers. Forcing a wry grin he began
unlacing his breeches with one hand and brushed the curtain aside with the other. “Hello? Good news my dear,
your gallant stallion has arr—” His eyes were a moment adjusting to the dark, and when they did Trogus wasn’t
sure he saw what he thought he saw.
It can’t be, he thought. He threw the curtain fully back to let in some more
light.

His head began swimming; his stomach lurched as if with delayed seasickness. Splayed out on a table before him
lay what had once been a woman, perhaps still was in a technical sense though now more horror than whore. She
was alive, but with eyes glassy and unfocused. Drugged senseless, which might’ve been a mercy given her state:
both her arms and legs were gone, cut off at the joints. Only a torso with a head remained. The stumps- healed
with surgical precision by the look—quivered slightly as though in mockery of the informer in Silverport that’d sent
them here. What was left of her mumbled delirious nothings through a gag tied over her mouth. Some sickly-sweet
smelling goo had been slathered over parts of her body.

Trogus’ own limbs gave out and he staggered backward. “Oh…”
Ohgodsohgodswhatisthiswhathaveidoneohgods…
B’zal’s words came back to him: There are way worse occupations. In that moment he almost wished he were back
on his slave ship chained to the oar and ignorant of Silverport, of Nequenga the Elder or Nequenga the Younger or
this accursed place. Almost. He fought to his feet and with a ferocious growl took out his knife.

~ * ~

The pimp swaggered from the hut happy to’ve roped a foolish foreign customer at last. With the mine out of
commission it was weeks since any had come along desperate enough to drop two silvers on his butchered salvage.

But only a few seconds after exiting he heard the swish of the hut’s outer curtain. He smiled. “To be finishing
already my friend? It must have been a long jour—aaaiergh!” Only years of painful experience in the back alley
brawls of Ayala alerted his reflexes in time to avoid the blade plunging toward the pimp’s back. Mostly. It tore
through his robe and slid down the side of his deflecting arm, and a thin line of red soaked into the pristine linen.
“What in gods’ names—you are mad!”

His attacker came again, a storm of twisted fury churning on his face.
Dissatisfied customer? What is he to be
expecting here on the edge of nowhere
? He dodged another swipe and a gathering crowd simultaneously gasped in
horror and gaped in fascination. The pimp couldn’t blame them—so little of interest happened these days.
If a show
they wish…
He pulled his own weapon- a kind of long razor-tipped flail inherited from the last idiot who’d come for
him. He twirled it high about his head and the crowd cheered.

~ * ~

Somehow B’zal knew as soon as the commotion started that whatever was afoot involved Trogus. She sighed,
downed the last of the terrible wine and trudged into the searing heat. “Godsdammit,” she moaned.

The pimp whipped his flail at Trogus, who missed having his face slashed into fishbait by a hair’s breadth. Trogus
dove to the side, slipped and fell on his rear and the pimp yanked the flail back to him. B’zal fought her way
through the crowd of spectators, some of whom looked to be placing bets on the outcome. She burst into the
space between the two. “Wait!”

Everything froze. The pimp glared at her, eyes blazing. “Well, what?” He held his weapon up, ready to strike if B’zal
cleared his way.

“Um…I don’t know. Just wait. What is going on?”

“He attacked me,” shouted the pimp, “drew blood! I did nothing!”

“N—nothing! Nothing? He…he…” Still on the ground Trogus choked up dust and bile.

“Shut up! It doesn’t matter.”

“But he—”

“Shut up!” B’zal fumbled through her satchel, scooped out what silver she could grasp and thrust it toward the
pimp. “I’m sorry. It was a…a misunderstanding. He’s an idiot. Will this cool your temper?”

The pimp sneered down at the handful of coins. “Maybe it be.” He snatched the money away. “But if ever see I this
vagh do’tsveh again…”

“You won’t. I promise you won’t.” B’zal yanked Trogus to his feet. “Come on!”

She dragged him far from the prying eyes of the citizens behind one of the bigger clay houses and began raining a
hail of blows down on him. “What is wrong with you? Are you trying to get us killed? We come all this way and—
what the actual
fuck?”

“Would—argh, would you stop,” Trogus managed to stammer through the curses and slaps. “Stop it! You didn’t
see…see what I saw.”

She paused mid-strike, eyes squinting in suspicion. “What did you see?” Trogus tried to describe the wretched
scene as best he could, knowing words couldn’t convey the horror with any kind of truth.

“Merciless gods,” B’zal said, her anger not dissipated but at least deflected. “I hope you had the decency to kill her.”

“No, I just ran. Again. But I am going to go kill
that bastard—”

“We can’t—”

“Fuck that!”

“We can’t! Else we’re blown and all this comes to nothing. Afterward do as you like but until then we have a greater
good to worry about.”

“A
greater good,” Trogus sneered, “I ain’t seen no good great nor small since I first had chain put on me.” He
leaned in and took a handful of B’zal’s shirt in his fist. “This better be worth it.”

“Get off!” She shoved him away. “Don’t you lecture me. No one made you get off your ship or onto mine. Be glad
you had the choice. You want sympathy? For yourself, for that chopped-up girl? Sorry, mine’s spent.”

“Why?” Trogus threw his arms to the cloudless sky. “And why this man, why here so far from everything? What is
he to you?”

“I told you once, don’t ask,” B’zal said. “Listen, you can help me in this or not. But get in my way and I swear I’ll lay
you down right next to Nequenga.”

~ * ~

Without money they rested in the shadows of houses, then shivered without fire until morning. Nequenga’s villa
was perched on a rocky hill overlooking Ossowengo surrounded by a plain of sand. It wasn’t hard to find—the walls
shimmered white like a mirage and refracted sunlight into a million colors if you faced its opal-plastered façade at
just the right angle. Colonnades of bright green marble stood out like mossy trees defying the desiccation of the
desert, and a fortified wall of black basalt stretched behind the estate towards the old mine a mile distant—the slave
quarters. A cool sea breeze wafted across the plain but it did little to soothe B’zal’s anxiety.

“Looks more like the Temple of the Polytheon in Artamera than a house,” she remarked. Trogus said nothing,
shifting the rucksack full of “plumber’s gear” from one shoulder to the other. “Not that I’ve ever been there of
course, but I’ve seen drawings—”

“Let’s just get this done,” said Trogus tonelessly.

“Fine.” They made the rest of the trek in silence.

The villa loomed before them, then it loomed above them, then it loomed overtop them as they climbed the steps
and crossed the shaded portico. They faced a great door of Qassorian oak that would withstand centuries, carved
with a multitude of figures both human and inhuman, scenes banal and very, very profane. B’zal took a deep
breath, wrapped her hand around the heavy iron knocker and heaved.

Clangggg… It reverberated in their teeth and their skulls and across the plain, taking an age of the world it seemed
to die away. “Better knock again,” said B’zal. “I don’t think they heard it in Porontus. Certainly can’t ignore us now.”

“Great.”

They waited. Minutes passed and B’zal really did consider knocking a second time when the door belched a low
thrummm and vibrated. A clank, then it screamed open a crack. A small bald man with chubby, childlike features
appeared in the space. “Yes?” His voice was high and lilting like a girl’s.

A eunuch, B’zal thought, fighting down revulsion. “H-hello? Hello!” She put on her best fake smile. “B’zal Pipewright
of Everwest Pipewrights, here to fix your pipes! Er, and my assistant. So sorry we’re late—you wouldn’t believe the
time we had getting here. Or maybe you would actually. You know—”

“Ex
cuse me,” said the eunuch with confused irritation, “could you kindly start over? Pipewright? I’m the steward
here and I know
nothing of this.”

“Why, yes. Isn’t this the seaside villa of the great mine magnate Nequenga? You requested a drain repair and
expansion. Quite a while ago, actually…” B’zal began rummaging through a stack of papers produced from her
satchel. “Yes, here it is. Listed contact is a steward…Konopalli? Am I saying that right?”

“Oh,
him,” the steward droned in his weird singsong cadence, “now it makes sense. Kono was always taking
liberties with the house expenses, as if it were still the old days. I’m afraid he
died about a year ago aged ninety-
three, gods assoil him. Took your time getting here! But I’m afraid we’re quite busy at the moment.”

“Oh, it’s no trouble—we’re used to working around obstacles. If you’d just show us to the kitchens-”

“Ex
cuse me, but as I _men_tioned we are very very busy and on top of that I’m not sure the Master can afford
such an extensive operation right-”

“Oh, but it’s already paid for!”

“Eh?”

“Yes.” B’zal went digging again to produce a long sheet of paper adorned with a very impressive-looking seal
stamped at the bottom. “The contract was paid in advance, held in escrow by Bank Isle-Euderico until execution.
See? Zero due. Now, as I
mentioned, it was a very long journey and we’re quite anxious to close out this account.”

The eunuch scowled at being mimicked so but eyed the seemingly legitimate Bank contract with Konopalli’s
signature and the great big zero at the bottom indicating full payment. “Just the two of you can do this job, can
you?”

B’zal nodded and patted the bulging rucksack. “Oh yes—well we can make a start. Modern technology makes it
quite an efficient process. You’ll wonder at how you endured so long before!”

“Well…fine. Just stay out of the way!” The door opened fully and he led them through a cooled entryway where
clear water flowed in pools on either side. The sudden increase in humidity almost made it hard to breathe. On the
back of the steward’s neck Trogus noted an old tattoo not unlike his own.

Beyond the atrium lay a long hallway of more marble and colorful mosaics. “Impressive,” said B’zal, barely
containing her contempt at the extravagance.
How many people died to build this?

“Oh, you have no
idea. But what the young Master is planning now— it will exceed any mere stone structure in
grandeur. Overshadow
all the deeds of the Elder…”

“Yeah?” growled Trogus. “Do tell.”

The eunuch put a hand to his mouth. “Oh, but I’ve said too much! Forget it for now. You’ll know soon enough—the
whole
world will know. The kitchens are this way. Please do try to stay out of the way, and don’t bother the
Master!”

The biggest kitchen lay at the far end of the villa, and it was currently in heavy use—animals roasted on huge
hearth spits, pots roiled and the aromas of herbs and baking bread permeated the air while servants scurried to
and fro as though preparing a banquet for a visiting king. Easy chatter one wouldn’t have expected from slaves
cast an ambient hum over it all. Trogus and B’zal went to the furthest section of the room where they stood over
the dump drain pretending to discuss matters plumbatory.

“We’re in. I almost can’t believe it,” B’zal whispered as she lowered the rucksack from Trogus’ back to the floor.

“Now we gotta find the fucker. This is a big place.”

“We’ll have to split up.” B’zal dug the weapons out of the sack- knives aplenty large and small, clubs, a couple of
garrotes and one short sword apiece, all superficially disguised as some kind of professional gear. She handed
Trogus a copy of the villa’s floor plan. “Need to get ‘im alone in case he has followers that might dispute matters.
Many rooms have at least one drain—act like you’re looking for a clog in one of—”

“Ssh!” Trogus froze, eyes wide. He jerked his head towards the other end of the kitchen. B’zal risked a glance and
her spine went cold as a droplet of sweat from her forehead disappeared into the drain. She’d never laid eyes on
him before but there could be no doubt—here was the Master.

The father had been quite advanced in years at the time of his death, so Nequenga the Younger wasn’t all that
young—nearing forty at least. He had the bearing of a Master, wearing robes of shimmering green and gold and
white, like a walking version of his own villa. Tall and bearded and dark and scowling but, B’zal noted almost with
disappointment, lacking the air of casual brutality she’d expected.

The entirety of the kitchen staff hushed and sank to their knees. Some even prostrated themselves on the filthy
floor, and B’zal felt a new upwelling of disgust.
He forces them to worship him, she thought. I was right—far worse
than the father
.

“My lord,” they intoned with seeming adoration. Nequenga’s gaze swam across the kitchen. In the heartbeat before
it passed over them B’zal dragged Trogus to his knees along with her. “Blend in,” she hissed.

Nequenga nodded to a matronly woman who seemed to be in charge. “Rise old mother, please. All remains well? We
have honored guests yet to feed after all.”

“Yes, my lord,” replied the woman, “very well. In fact, workers are even come to clear that troublesome drain.” She
gestured toward Trogus and B’zal, and B’zal’s heart skipped a beat. She gripped a knife tight in her hand.
Don’t
come over here
, she prayed to any god listening, not yet…

“Ah,” grinned Nequenga lightly, “excellent. But certainly you two should not kneel. Carry on!” And with that
Nequenga turned and disappeared through the door in billows of silk.

“What should we do?” asked Trogus.

“After him, but…casual-like.”

“What does that mean—”

“Just go!”

They sauntered—as much as was possible—out the door almost a minute after the Master, heads bent down at the
floor plans as though deep in meditation.

“Which way?”

“Left—I saw him turn left out the door. I think.”

“Quietly!”

Down the stone hallway lit by skylight they crept, careful to make no loud footfalls. Downward and darker until a
brick wall faced them, and a hallway branching left and right. “He can’t have gone far,” said B’zal.

“I’ll go left, you go right,” Trogus declared. “If I find him…?”

“If you find him you kill him. Then meet back here. After that you can loot the place if you want but I’m getting out
of here.”

“With pleasure. This…this is it, innit?”

B’zal nodded. “Yep.”

“Good. I’m gettin’ sick of your company.” He stalked down the left passage and disappeared into shadow. B’zal
went right.

The hallway ended at a single door. Behind it someone stirred, but she heard no voices. She took a breath.
It’s
now or nothing
, she thought. She drew her sword—no need for secrecy now—and kicked the door in.

“Oh, what is it for the love of—
you!” It was the eunuch steward. He stood in front of a table piled high with papers.
B’zal was across the distance in a moment with her sword at his throat. “Yeahhgh!”

“Shut up,” B’zal spat. “Where is he?”

“Who…?” He squeaked through her clenching nails.

“Who do you think? Your fucking Master!
Where. Is. He. I’m gonna make an end to ‘im for you.”

His eyes bulged. “Wha—no!”

“No?
No? Why not? Don’t you wanna be free?”

“You’re insane…I am free. We all are!”

B’zal relaxed her grip the tiniest fraction. “What? What do you mean? Don’t you dare cry out now.”

He breathed hard, careful not to faint onto the blade at his jugular. “I mean I serve as a freed man you crazy bitch!
Well, half a man…on a very comfortable pension. What do you mean bursting in here—”

“Bullshit,” B’zal cried, “I saw how you kneel before ‘im like he’s some god. What about the ten thousand he
bought? You’re trying to confuse me—”

“We kneel out of love and respect,” whined the steward, his odd cadence abandoned. “The kitchens work to feed
those ten thousand back to health.”

“Why, to work them to death in some new mine? You sack of shit, my
father went into those mines! My brothers
went into those mines! I’m here to collect on their blood. And all the others. I saw the papers—he goes through
slaves like sand in a time glass buying all he can. Just like his father he’s a monster beyond words and I’m going
to—”

“But…you’ve got it all wrong!” The steward’s mouth hung open and trembling. “Nequenga’s disgusted by what
his father did. Ashamed! Don’t you understand? This is the penance that will wash away all that came before. All
the slaves he’s buying up—he’s been
freeing them.”

W-what???” B’zal felt suddenly lightheaded, her vision blurred. The steward struggled out of her grip.

“Look for yourself—these papers are catalogues of mass manumission.”

“Manu…” B’zal stumbled over the unfamiliar word and the files on the table. Bills of sale from markets in Pelona,
Marzahn, Ghresh. Names, numbers, and certificates that struck whole lots of them from bondage. The deference
the servants showed, the documents, the ships—all at once it made sense, and she realized the terrible truth of it.
Her sword clanged on the floor. “No…”

“It’s true! He uses his fortune to gather as many as possible and resettle them in Far Marzahn—”

“Nothing lives in Far Marzahn!”

“That’s what everyone thinks, but it’s not so. Parts are lush, green if you know where to look. There’s a freedman’s
colony there already. If your kin survived the Elder they’ll be there now. The young Master knows the scandal of it
would bring chaos, even war, so he does all in secret until the slave markets are squeezed out of business. Why,
Nequenga the Younger is a modern day saint, perhaps the best man in all the world!”

Shaking, B’zal struggled to keep upright. “Gods…Trogus!” She took off running down the hallway with a flurry of
papers flying behind her.

~ * ~

Trogus turned another corner. Ahead he heard a trickle, and a quick sniff of the air told him where he was.
Indoor
shithouse
. He padded forward and peeked around the entryway. He saw a flash of green and gold, then pulled
back. The Master was having a piss.
Might as well let ‘im finish—be mess enough in a moment.

When the trickle became a tinkle and then died out Trogus pulled his sword and strode into the privy. Two or three
slaves were in the corner of the long room folding cloth and ignored him. He crept up behind Nequenga and in the
space of three steps many faces flashed through his mind. The mercenary marine who’d captured and sold him into
slavery, the whipmaster, the captain of the ship that’d brought them here. The pimp in Ossowengo.
Kill them all.
Fucking kill them all now. Now!

Nequenga turned to see Trogus’ sword falling toward him. “Wait, stop!”

Seconds later B’zal burst into the room. “Trogus, stop, it’s all a mistake! It’s—oh, no…”

Trogus stood with heaving breaths over Nequenga’s body, a spray of blood coating the walls and dripping into the
drain no one had ever got around to fixing. He turned slowly to B’zal, his sword and face and hands sticky-red. He
smiled. “Don’t worry, it’s done. He’s dead, like we planned. Most assuredly dead. Your debt’s paid.”

The servants cowering in the corners began to wail. B’zal dropped to her knees and wept. “No, it’s not. Oh no, no
no. Trogus we were wrong—
I was so wrong. He…he didn’t deserve this.”

Still in the killing trance Trogus gazed down at the mass of ruined flesh that had been Nequenga and shrugged. “No
one gets what they deserve in life. Except by accident."
THE LORELEI SIGNAL
Eric Lewis an organic chemist in the Pittsburgh area weathering the latest
rounds of layoffs and trying to remember how to be a person again after
surviving grad school. His first fiction piece, “Demon of the Mount,” recently
appeared on the blog Short Fiction Break, but “The Slavemaster’s Penance” is
the first time anyone’s actually paid him for words. It’s all a bit strange.