"He could not leave this room without his father's permission. And he could not imagine going to his father and saying, 'Please let me go gather moss so that my slave can have a proper New Year for once.'"
What can you give a slave who, by law, can own nothing? That is the question faced by Peter, the teenage heir to the throne of an empire. Despite his father's desire that the imperial heir maintain a formal distance from servants, Peter finds himself drawn in friendship to the younger boy who serves as his slave.
But a shocking revelation on the eve of the New Year forces Peter to confront his own motives for keeping the slave close by. And that in turn will help him understand the deeper meaning of the gift-giving festival.
This holiday novelette of romantic friendship and a young man's quest for true manhood can be read on its own or as part of The Three Lands, a fantasy series on friendship, romantic friendship, romance, and betrayal in times of war and peace. The series is inspired by conflicts between nations during the Roman Empire and the Dark Ages.
The Three Lands is part of The Great Peninsula, a cycle of fantasy series (Young Spies and The Three Lands) about an epic battle between cultures, set at a time when a centuries-old civilization is in danger of being destroyed.
"Well," said Peter uncertainly, "it looks a bit like a Balance of Judgment."
He glanced over at his new slave-servant to see whether he agreed. Andrew was kneeling on the floor, carefully rolling bits of clay and attaching clay crossbars to them so that they held a vague resemblance to the Sword of Vengeance.
For a moment, Peter thought Andrew would not reply. It was becoming increasingly hard to tell which comments the other boy would reply to. If asked a direct question, Andrew would of course respond; that was part of his training. But slaves were also trained not to speak to free-men unless spoken to, and Peter had not yet figured out a way to convey that he wanted to hold ordinary conversations with his slave.
Could any conversation be ordinary, when the other person had no choice but to speak if bidden to?
Andrew said, without looking up, "I suppose that we'd need an Arpeshian to tell us."
Peter laughed. "And I don't know any Arpeshians. Do you?"
"A couple. They were young children when your grandfather, the Chara Anthony, suppressed the first rebellion in the dominion of Arpesh."
Peter started to make some light-hearted remark about Andrew being well-versed in Emorian history; then he bit his lip. No doubt all of the inhabitants of the palace slave-quarters were well-versed in the parts of Emorian history that related to wars in which the Emorians had taken slaves. Andrew could almost certainly give a detailed account of the Border Wars between Emor and Koretia.
To cover his chagrin, Peter said, "The Balance is hard enough to make." He gave another doubtful look at the object in his hand, made up of scrap bits of metal joined together by sticky sap. "I don't know how we'll manage to make the Book."
"You needn't worry about that." Andrew reached over to gather a bit of clay, and as he did so, his back came into sight. He was wearing a slave's tunic, of course, which meant his back was bare . . . except for the bandages there. "I know how to make books."
"You do?" Peter asked, surprised. He had turned his eyes away; he still could not stand to look at Andrew's back, even though the bandages hid what Lord Carle had done to him, barely a week before.
If Peter had been beaten nearly to death, he thought he would have spent the next six months moaning in his bed. Instead, Andrew seemed determined to rise from his sickbed. Peter wondered whether Andrew believed that he would be sold back to Lord Carle if he did not immediately show his worth to his new master.
Peter would have as soon impaled himself on the Sword of Judgment as give Andrew back to the master who had ordered an eleven-year-old boy to be beaten so harshly. Lord Carle had meant well, no doubt, but Peter still could not imagine why the council lord had found it necessary to go to such measures. As far as Peter could tell, Andrew was an extremely obedient servant.
Perhaps too much so. Peter looked down once more at the pathetic little object in his hand that purported to be the Balance of Judgment. Judgment weighing vengeance and mercy.
"We've forgotten about the Heart of Mercy," he said suddenly.
"I know how to make that too," Andrew replied, inspecting the tip of the clay sword in his hand.
"You're a wonder," Peter said, setting the lopsided Balance aside and rolling over onto his stomach. They were in his chamber, of course, which meant that the only places to sit were some stiff-backed chairs, the bed, and the floor. Andrew seemed to prefer the floor, though Peter had invited him onto the bed each day since the younger boy became his slave. Peter supposed this was due to some Koretian custom; he resolved inwardly to ask Andrew about that. After all, Peter's ostensible reason for having Andrew as his slave was to familiarize himself with his empire's southern dominion of Koretia. Peter's father – who was legally Andrew's owner – had said that mastering Andrew would help Peter learn how to rule his subjects.
"How did you learn to make crafts?" he asked Andrew.
"From a friend."
Peter waited, but no further details emerged. Finally Peter said, "Was he a craftsman?"
"He was a boy. But he lived with the priests, and they trained him at artisan work, in case he should need such work when he grew up and—" Andrew shut his lips tightly. He bowed his head, as though concentrating all his thoughts on the clay he was flattening with his fingers.
Peter felt then that he deserved the beating Andrew had received. A friend. A boy whom Andrew had known in the Koretian capital. Probably the boy had been enslaved during the final battle there, if not killed outright. And Andrew had been forced to speak of him.
To Peter, Chara To Be, son of the ruler who had conquered Andrew's native land.