'Nature has left this tincture in the blood, That all men would be tyrants if they could.'
The swordsman made no sound as the bandages came off. With distaste, Taeshin saw they had yellowed. There was a sharp smell in the room, of herbs and corruption. He found he was breathing shallowly and had to concentrate to bring calm once more. His slave Marias held a mirror up for him to see, averting her own gaze so that he had to guide her.
‘Up a little. Your left hand forward. No, the other – there. Hold it there. Look away, Marias. I order you.’
It was an effort to keep his voice steady. Taeshin could barely contain his own revulsion when he looked on the rippling black skin that stretched from his armpit to his navel. It looked like a line of spider bites, somehow risen from within, in a way that terrified him. Taeshin glared at the shining bulges, controlling a desire to draw his knife and cut them out. He felt fouled, invaded, as if some strange plant had laid seeds in him. Just brushing his fingertips across the darkened band made pain soar. In the presence of his slave, he clamped his lips and breathed through his nose until it had passed. Despair touched him then. He could not train; he could not fight. In truth, he could barely stand straight, his body in a constant war with his will.
He shuddered, waving Marias away. She knew better than to risk a look at him after he had forbidden it. Taeshin took his responsibilities seriously. The literature of Shiang warned of the dangers of letting a slave go unpunished. Entire households could be ruined by a master too weak to command obedience in his own home. Like every other free man in the city, he kept a short whip on a nail by the front door. He had used it on the day he had brought her back from the slave market, to establish his authority. Later that first night, she had read the page in his pamphlet on slave ownership that suggested it.
Taeshin had not enjoyed striking a woman, she had observed in private wonder. He was used to facing opponents of enormous skill and strength, Mazer masters with steel swords and armour. The experience of chastising a female slave had been slightly humiliating in comparison. That had been a revelation to Marias. To spare Taeshin, she had worked hard not to give him cause to take the whip down again. She didn’t think she could bear the gruff awkwardness and throat-clearing a second time.
‘Shall I ask for Doctor Elman to attend, master?’ Marias asked at the doorway, looking down at her pretty bound feet.
He glanced up, suspicious of mockery. Taeshin hated the feeling of weakness, the knowledge that even Marias could have overpowered him in that moment. It was hard to endure the touch of bandages – the thought of someone actually striking the black lumps was appalling. Death would surely follow. He could not defend himself, never mind complete his duties at court. He was a lord’s guard who could not fight. Yet he had nothing else, no family, no savings. Taeshin had borrowed heavily to buy a house more suited to his status. If he lost his place at court, he would simply starve on the street. He might sell his armour to one of the younger men, but it had been his father’s and he thought he would prefer to die before that. Taeshin wondered how long he would keep that sense of honour when he was weak with fever and the need to eat. Some men could, he knew. Others seemed strong, but they were hollow vessels, liable to break at the first great test. He was not certain which he was.
‘Doctor Elman cannot help me with this.’
Taeshin felt sudden tears come and was grateful the girl stared resolutely at the polished floor. He felt a sense of peace steal over him as he made a decision. He would go into the hills around the city and find a quiet place to sit, where he could see for many miles. He would wash himself and clean his weapons, one by one. He would compose a final poem to be read by those who came looking for him, placing it in a wax-cloth fold with his work contract and the deed to his house. He was not a wealthy man. Marias would be returned to the market with the rest of his household goods, to be sold. He shook his head as he watched her.
His parents had died years before, when he was still a little boy. The aunt who had raised him had always been weak, beset by fevers that left her oyster-eyed and help- less. Whatever restless ambition he owned had come from within, rather than anything that had been imposed on him. He made his own way and took pride and even identity from that. The old lady had clung to life just long enough to see him to adulthood. She had been found cold a few days after he’d been accepted into a noble house.
Taeshin imagined his home being sold without anguish. It was actually a relief not to have to think about such things any longer. He felt lighter, just for having made the decision to die.
He felt lighter, just for having made the decision to die.
He had not dismissed Marias, so she remained, one foot placed before the other, with her head lowered, perfectly still. Taeshin contemplated the roll of clean bandages at his side, ready to bind him. The thought of the pain he would have to endure to put them on was enough to make him hesitate. It would be easier with Marias to help, but then she would know how the disease had spread. He bowed his head, feeling calm flood through him. This was his last day.
‘Marias, look upon me,’ he said.
He waited until she raised her head, watching closely as her eyes widened and her face grew pale. He hid a wince of discomfort as he rose to his feet and held out his arms. ‘No ordinary wound, Marias. It comes from within. It grows . . . worse.’
She came forward as if drawn on a thread, unaware of her own steps as she stared at the black flesh. Her hand rose to touch him and he had to struggle not to step back. ‘We could petition Lord Ran to examine you . . .’ she said faintly, shaking her head. ‘Taeshin, you should not have kept this hidden. How long?’
It was the first time since she had entered his household that she had used his name. Taeshin blinked at her, unsure how to reprimand a slave who took such a liberty, yet whose eyes glittered with tears that were surely proof of some affection. He could not understand her. Marias had been a bargain at the slave market, which he’d thought might mean she was a danger to her old master, or perhaps to his children. There were some slaves who grew only more sullen when they were punished. Yet she was all he had been able to afford and there was no wife or children in his household, nor even a dog to guard his door. He smiled at the thought of his innocence and that tiny room above a bakery. He’d risen, like the bread that had warmed his first floor. He’d passed the trials to serve Lord Hong, beating two thousand others in the Mazer steps. His master demanded and paid for the best, so that all lords might fear his soldiers. Only six months before, Taeshin had been selected for the lord’s personal guard. His new home reflected that rise, with six rooms and fine, polished wood. He was twenty-four years old and he had expected to take a wife in the new year. He remembered telling Marias of his plans, excitement filling him. It seemed an age before, when he had been immortal, his flesh still unmarked.
‘I thought it was bruising,’ he said, craning his neck to look down. ‘You know I train every day – I am always in pain. Bruises or cracked ribs are nothing. No physician can treat them, either way. They always say to rest, which I cannot do, so I bind myself up and wait to heal.’
He could feel sweat trickling down his cheek, another sign of weakness that brought with it a touch of anger. He was as fit as it was possible to be. His legs and arms had endured ritual beatings with canes from a young age, forcing bone growth that made them stronger and more dense. In armour or without, with a weapon or unarmed, he was one of the elite warriors of the city of Shiang. To be made weak felt like a failure of will. He had devoted himself to excellence, and in that devotion there had been moments of perfection. They shone like jewels in his memory, when in his strength, he had moved like silk through the fingers of the world. Before his flesh had swelled into buboes that made him gasp and ache.
A voice called from the street outside, making them both freeze. Taeshin knew the impatient tones of his master’s son and he reached for his armour like taking a breath. Her hand stopped him.
‘Bandages first. Sit straight and I will wrap and knot them.’
‘Anjin has a key,’ he murmured. ‘He will not wait outside for more than a second.’
‘Then we will have to hurry.’
Her hands moved swiftly as she wrapped clean bandages around him. To reach, she had to come in close, bumping her face against his chest almost as an embrace. It was not an unpleasant sensation, if he hadn’t been expecting his master’s son to appear in the doorway.
He hissed when she drew the strips tight. Marias apologised under her breath as Taeshin rose to his feet, already reaching for the tunic lined with silk. She tugged that over his head and then heaved the armoured jerkin from where it rested on the back of a chair. That piece split along one length in a strip of buckles, so that he imagined a clam closing on him as he put his first arm through.
‘Taeshin! Where are you? Will you make me come in?’ The voice was imperious, as the father’s never was.
Taeshin admired Lord Hong, but the man had been cursed with an eldest son he did not deserve. Still, it was not the place of a lord’s guard to question, only to obey. Taeshin was as ready as he could be, with sweat running down his face, and his side feeling as if he had been speared, but upright and in armour. He reached for his sword and groaned aloud. Marias took hold of the scabbard and belted it to him. Once more, he found he was enjoying what felt like affection from her. She sensed his interest and snorted.
‘Concentrate, my lord and master. If your illness is revealed, I will be sent back to the slave market. I prefer your household! So stand straight, Taeshin!’
He blinked at her, though both of them heard the key turn in the lock and he did not reply.
Lord Anjin entered the house with his gauntlets in one hand. The other held a bunch of keys like a landlord. He was scowling and flushed as he came in like a gale wind, scattering a stool across the floor. He halted when he saw Taeshin standing at the bottom of the stairs, in armour. The young lord was not to be denied his anger so easily, however.
‘I know you heard me, Taeshin! I have five men waiting in the street – and they all heard you would not come. Are you so weary of my father’s service? Is that it? Shall I release you from your oath?’
The younger man had come further in as he spoke. Anjin was no swordmaster, but he was still young and fast. When he caught a flicker of movement on the steps above, he drew his sword and dropped to first position, ready to be attacked. He flushed when he saw it was only the man’s house slave.
Anjin glanced at his father’s warrior, seeing only a dark seriousness. Taeshin was not fool enough to be caught laughing at his master’s son, no matter how he had been startled. It was a reminder that Taeshin was actually one of the better ones. Some of his father’s guards would have spread the story of Anjin drawing his sword on a young woman all over the markets and teahouses.
The nobleman sheathed the blade with a flourish. He glanced once more at the slave now kneeling on the uppermost step, with her head down. He considered having her killed while he was attending his father and Taeshin was busy with his duties. Women gossiped, unfortunately. It would be for his father’s reputation as much as his own.
He told himself he would decide on the way to the palace.
‘Come, Taeshin, you have kept me waiting long enough!’ As his father sometimes did, Anjin clapped the swordsman on the shoulder. The young lord did not see how colour drained from Taeshin’s face, nor the slight stagger before he righted himself to follow.
At the top of the stairs, Marias watched them go with a dark expression. She detested the arrogant little lordling, so full of his own importance that she thought he might burst. Anjin held the power of life and death over Taeshin, as much as any slave. In that at least, they were the same. It was in her interest for Taeshin to thrive and grow well, she told herself. There was no conflict in wanting him to rise. Yet she was also in love with him, which complicated matters. She thought again of the ugly marks along his side and shuddered. The sound of hooves and jingling mail had moved away outside. She only hoped Taeshin would be able to conceal his weakness for another day. She bit her lip at the thought of what she must do.