A Child of Charn (cont.)
“Come,” Anthen said, taking her arm and leading her out of the crowd. “The rest is just more of the same. It’s best if you don’t witness it.”
There is more, Saffla thought numbly. More slaves, more creatures, more chariots and drummers and cruelties. She hadn’t realized before how keyed up she was. Anthen steered her down a deserted side street.
Every door and window had been shuttered. Was it to avoid that siren call?
“Did Princess Jadis really make them give themselves up?” Saffla stammered.
“Perhaps,” Anthen said matter-of-factly. “But all of them have that power. Sometimes they like to use it. They are cruel and capricious. Never forget that.”
“They are not entirely human either. On one side, they have Jinn blood, on the other, the Nevilim. We ordinary humans are nothing to them. But, it may be that the princesses had to nothing to do with it. A spectacle like that affects people in strange ways. Some who already have that tendency to abandon themselves, give up their lives.”
Saffla didn’t like being lumped in with the latter. They went down another street where, thankfully, there was an open shop, the owner wanting to take advantage of the crowd’s thirst when it dispersed. Anthen bought for Saffla a shaved ice drink sweetened with fruit juices. “Your brother would kill me if I hadn’t taken care of you.”
“He knew?” Saffla said between slurps.
“I followed you,” Anthen said. “And yes, he saw you leave your chores.”
They sat for a while at the small bistro table, Saffla’s legs dangling from the chair. “What will happen to all those people who got up and followed the dragon?”
“It’s best you don’t know.”
“Anthen! Tell me.”
“Drink your ice.”
The same spirit that made Saffla skip her chores and go to the boulevard made her insist now. “I want to know. How can I stay away from another Gifting if I don’t know why?”
Anthen sighed. “Look, I shouldn’t be telling you this. This is a thing for your parents to say. They are responsible for your civic and moral education. But since you ask, I will. Please do not say I did so, or anything else I will say. My attitude is not the one a proper Charnian should have, or a subject of the Empire, or Son of Lillit. If I spoke against any of them, I will be in danger. Not may, will. There are others who feel as I do and they, too, will be endangered.”
He looked at Saffla very seriously then so she shuddered, and not from the cold ice of her drink. “Do you understand me, Saffla?”
“Yes,” she said, and to emphasize it, nodded fiercely. She liked Anthen. She wouldn’t betray him
“Then let me tell you.
“Those who came from the crowd, even that wealthy woman from the litter, this will be the last their families see of them. At Lillit’s Temple, down the street, they will be consecrated, shaved and oiled, and made up into a new phalanx joined fore and aft, left to right, just like you saw. The Gifting will continue, down the boulevard to the Great River, where a slave barge awaits them, to take them to Charn-the-Center.
“You have never seen it and I hope you never will. A place glorious and terrible, with massive towers piercing the sky, the streets full of luxuries, merchants, magic. The nobles ply the sky on dragons or enchanted carpets or giant birds, and on the ground, great tuskbeasts and other creatures the likes of which you have never seen. The tallest of the buildings is the palace of the Royal family on the Hill of Araat, which has stood for thousands of years. Downwind from the palace, closer to the river, is the great temple complex of Lillit. Day and night its fires burn, sending up black smoke, the blood of sacrifice, the stink of it in the wind which blows away from the heart of the city, down the river where the barrios of the poor lay.
“What causes that stink, you ask?”
It was a rhetorical question and one Saffla was not expected to answer. But she had a horrifying idea of what it was.
“Human bodies. Human blood. Those slaves from the barges which arrive from all over the Empire, arriving day and night, who are unloaded and marched to the temples groaning in their chains.
“The Great Temple of Lillit rivals even the palace and is as old. Inside, there is a giant vertical wheel carved from one block of stone, so huge you cannot imagine it. It might be the height of that hill. They call it the Wheel of Anh. This wheel has gears that fit smoothly and precisely into slots on the table below, which is its twin in size. In each slot, a slave is placed, the table turns, and they are ground as corn into blood and scraps of flesh by the blunt teeth of the gears, and thus pass through a grate in the bottom into a mixed sluice of charnel that is poured into the temple’s furnaces, which burn day and night with great logs of wood, whole trees consumed each day, sending them up in smoke.
“Under this great Wheel there are perhaps hundreds of slots.
“And why do the slaves just lay in each slot, for the Wheel to pass? They are the ones chained to mechanism that turns the wheel, hundreds of them whipped to march and turn, until they collapse and are placed thus. Hopefully, they die first before being crushed.
“In the process, in the terrible suffering and sacrifice, a magic is created, called the Pact of Lillith. From it, the Royal Family gains their power.”
Saffla stared at Anthen’s face as he spoke, forgetting about her drink which had become distasteful. She trembled thinking about the fate she avoided, about the fates of the others, and yet, she still felt a yearning, one that she would never speak ever to anyone, to witness for herself such a thing. Even if she had to give herself up as a Gift to do it.
“You want to see it, no?” Anthen said, guessing her thought. “Don’t think that’s entirely magic. It is human nature, the nature of us, we common folk of Charn. We are born and bred to it on this accursed world.
“And should,” Anthen continued, “and I have this on good knowledge, the Great Wheel of Anh ever stop its carnage, even for a second, the Royal family loses their power and their magic. They will never say it or speak it of course. That is why the Wheel ever thirsts for blood, and so do they.”
With her hand Saffla knocked the paper cup of ice away, scattering it on the hot ground. The terrible pictures danced in her head. “Can it stopped?” she said in a small voice. “Ever?”
Anthen looked about him warily. His voice went to a whisper. “There are some of us who are trying. Say no more of this please.”
Saffla nodded. Small tears came to her eyes. “I want to go home.”
“I will take you.”
She was too big to be picked up and carried anymore, yet she dearly wished it was so. Anthen held her hand, steady as a rock as she began to sob. Somewhere, the procession continued, or had passed; she didn’t care. She, Saffla, might be still be a child in form, but in innocence she was not.
“You suffered from heatstroke,” Anthen said as they came to the walls of the farm. “Dazed, you wandered out into the city without knowing what you were doing. I happened to find you and brought you back. Agreed?”
Saffla nodded through hiccups brought on by her sobs. “Thank you, Anthen.”
He let her go.
She wiped her eyes, stumbling across the stables and slave’s quarters on her way back to her family’s hut. Her skin felt tender and hot, and she was likely quite red, giving credence to her story. She thought of all the lives that would be snuffed out that day, and the following days, hundreds, thousands of slaves. Did the Royal family really need all that blood to keep the sun from going out? She squinted at the reddish globe. Perhaps that was a lie, like the one about the slaves’ fate.
She knew should be angry at the Royal family, but that too was useless, she was to them as an ant on the ground was to her. The small had no influence on the large. One lazy move by the human, and the ant would be wiped out forever.
All that burned within her, creating a furnace like that of Lillit’s great temple.
One of the passing slaves dropped a load of bundled grass intended for the goats. Without thinking of what she was doing, Saffla picked up a stone and threw it at him. It bounced off his shoulder and he yelped.
“Stupid slave,” she said, and averted her eyes.