Lost Colony Ch. 11-5

He decided to pass one more day in Seille. His diet on the crossing of the southern ice had been depressingly bland, with the one meal he had enjoyed at the Portal as the sole exception. He would visit the weekly market, stock up on fresh food, and resume his journey north. After a second rare night of sleep on something other than a campsite or the floor of the air car, he rose early to see what the market held.

Fruits and vegetables provided the first clue to how varied the two continents were. Despite being roughly at the same latitude as Santi, the produce available in Seille might as well have been from a different planet. A fruit like plums that he hadn’t seen in the west was abundant to a ridiculous extent, spilling out of baskets to be trampled without notice. Sparr had drunk plenty of wine, but here several varieties of table grapes also fought for attention, green, red, and a blue so dark as to appear black. He tasted, and loved, each.

Herbs were also plentiful and varied. Sparr caught whiffs from bundles of culinary herbs hanging to dry, pots of stew bubbling with earthy notes, mulled wine with sweet spices, and savory skewers of marinating game. He bought an inexpensive basket and started to fill it, then overfill it. Sparr wanted to follow every scent, taste every novel fruit or vegetable. His appetite, dormant during the crossing, woke with a fury.

But for every fresh experience, he was reminded of something which, depressingly, remained the same. The gladiator ring wasn’t open on market day, but Sparr made out the familiar outline, marked with stakes. Tomorrow, or the day after, it would come alive, swarming with slaves desperate to stay alive one more day, professionals with no other option than to risk their lives, bookies, liquor vendors, and hordes of bloodthirsty observers.

And there was the slave auction. Sparr hoped to be gone before the market of human misery got underway, but there was no mistaking what would unfold. A platform at the edge of the square already bustled with activity as servants set up chairs for masters yet to arrive. An imperious city official bickered with a stout slaver. Sparr’s journey on Kaybe had begun as a slave. Having no wish to relive the experience, he hustled away.

He almost made it. With Bogg’s pack straining under the weight of more fruit than Sparr and he would ever eat, the pair headed for the exit of the market just as the auction got underway. He paused at a stall selling plain but sturdy-looking boots. A pair caught his eye, but as Sparr haggled with the young man who ran the shop, he couldn’t help but overhear the slave auction getting started.

“Now, folks, folks…” the official began. His voice was reedy and strained, as if speaking to such an unruly crowd was an imposition. “I’m told we have a special to begin today’s bidding. A woman with, if you are a believer, magic powers!”

Sparr haggled with the boot merchant, but kept an ear on the auction. Bogg rested contentedly at his side, already stuffed with scraps.

“Watch!” shouted the stout slaver Sparr had seen earlier. With his back to the auction block, the man dipped one finger into a cup of mulled wine, steaming in the chilly morning air. Then with a flourish he held up his hand. “Tell us, witch! Which finger has tasted the wine?”

The crowd stood, pressing forward to get a better view. Slave auctions were common enough, but one offering the sale of a witch was surely a novelty.

“Please,” a voice cried out from the block. “Please, I… I can’t. I can’t anymore. I can’t see!” The voice was familiar somehow. Sparr, intent as he was in haggling over the boots, found his attention torn.

“Tell us!” the slaver roared. He turned first to the block, then back to the crowd, a glint of anger in his eyes. “I assure you, good folk of Seille, she has the gift.” He repeated the motion, dipping one finger into the hot wine, then raising his hand. “Which finger?” he bellowed.

“I can’t!” The voice came from a petite woman, cowering on the block. Her eyes were dark, as if she wore a mask. Abandoning the boot merchant, Sparr felt himself moving toward the scene.

“Twenty tokens,” a man called out from the crowd. “A bed slave, nothing more!”

A few in the crowd chuckled, but the slaver was becoming increasingly angry. He paced at the front of the crowd, his thick, pale flesh lit by the mid-morning sun. “No,” he said, a note of desperation creeping into his voice. “No, I tell you. This is no bed slave. She can see the unseen!”

“She can see my unseen bed chamber!” a heavily made-up woman of middle years laughed. “Twenty-five tokens.”

A few more in the crowd laughed, joining in on the joke. “See can lick my unlicked balls,” a man said, lewdly clutching at his groin.

Sparr stumbled toward the stage, half in denial, half in growing recognition.

The slaver, increasingly angry, turned back to the block. His eyes flashed with rage, with failure. “Bitch!” he screamed. “Do the trick!”

The woman, the slave, fell to her knees. “I’m sorry,” she sobbed. “I can’t. I’m blind!” She was tiny, shaking with exhaustion.

It was Tracee. Sparr’s friend and one-time lover from the Odysseus looked pitiful on the auction platform, small and broken. What the hell was happening? How had a member of the crew ended up a slave?

Rage and disbelief rose up in Sparr. Pushing through the crowd he clutched at his pouch. In it, he knew, were too few tokens. Uncaring, he shoved his way to the front. The slaver glared at him, skeptical of Sparr, but eager for any chance to make a profit.

“Forty-two tokens,” Sparr grunted. He pressed his pouch into the brutish slaver’s hands.

“That’s shit!” one of the crowd laughed behind him, a man wearing a tri-colored sash that indicated his position in society. “I’ll pay fifty just to-“

Sparr spun, looming over the man. “Fifty just to what? Tell me!” Rage filled him. His fists clenched.

The man gawked at him, speechless. “I’m sorry, I-“

“Then shut up!” Sparr bellowed. “Just shut up!” He turned back to the slaver, trying to regain his calm. “Forty-two tokens.”

The slaver stood his ground. He was shorter than Sparr, but thicker of build, solid and intimidating. He wasn’t afraid of anyone. For a desperate moment the two faced off. It might have turned into a fight, but with no potential buyers remaining, the slaver yielded.

“Take the bitch off my hands,” he cursed, pocketing Sparr’s tokens. Several guards had drawn near at the disturbance, but the slaver waved them back. “Don’t want to see you again.”

Sparr dashed to the auction block. Gingerly, he scooped Tracee into his arms and pushed his way back through the crowd. Bogg followed, growling in agitation.

She was even lighter than he remembered, and showed signs of poor nutrition. Tracee was dressed in an Alliance uniform, tattered and streaked with dirt. Her wrists were rubbed raw where she had been bound, and her skin was hot with fever. Sparr’s anger rose anew.

“I’ll extend my room one more night,” he informed the gawking innkeeper before hurrying past. Once in the room, he lay Tracee on the bed. Sparr dug into his pack until he found the antibiotic tablets. “Swallow this,” he urged. Tracee seemed barely coherent, but when given a sip of water, swallowed the tablet.

She had lost several kilograms on a frame that had already been lean. Her trousers slid past her hips as if they were a size too big, and when Sparr tugged away the top, her ribs showed in high relief against sunken skin. Alternating between cursing Kaybe and offering Tracee soothing words, he washed away the dirt, checked her wounds, and tucked her into bed.

“I’m blind,” she muttered weakly, repeating the same phrase he had heard her use at the auction.

Tracee had been born with a rare birth defect that left her sightless, but wore sophisticated lenses that more than made up for it. The lenses usually provided some indication of the direction she was looking, and made it easier to read her expression. Today they were dark.

“It’s okay,” Sparr said. He tugged up the blanket and gave her hand a squeeze. “Rest now. You’re safe here. It’s me, Alain.”

Tracee rolled onto her side, clearly exhausted. “You’re not Alain,” she whispered, already half dreaming. “Alain’s dead.”

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