"Ledwin growled, 'I trust the slave is dead. The last thing our landstead needs are perverts wandering about causing trouble.'"
In a society where the rank of master or slave defines every aspect of a person's being, what do you do when you're a master and you envy your slaves?
This question is debated by the men who have gathered for the quarterly meeting of the High Masters of the Dozen Landsteads. It seems an impossible dilemma; in the Dozen Landsteads, one's rank is determined at birth. A master or a slave who wishes to hold a different rank is considered shocking.
The masters sitting in that room, receiving the service of slaves, would be even more shocked if they realized how deeply this question will affect their nation's future. Only one man there could tell them, but he is not yet free to reveal his secret.
This suspenseful speculative fiction novella (short novel) can be read on its own or as the second story in the "Master and Servant" volume of the Waterman series.
Masters' children played upon the courtyard flagstones, young boys and girls making a hurried and serious consultation with each other over the conditions of the play. The decision was reached: a young boy stepped forward, looked around shyly at the adults who were watching with amusement, and knelt down before one of the girls. The boy gave an uneasy grin as the girl ruffled his hair in a masterly fashion.
"You ought to marry, Celadon."
The young High Master cast his gaze down and shook his head. He had been watching the children until a few minutes before, but now his attention was focussed upon a line of slaves carrying his wardrobe through the narrow, heavily guarded door that led to the winding stairwell of the newly completed tower. Perhaps it was only his imagination that told him the guards were watching, not the slaves, but himself, judging their new High Master with penetrating scrutiny, reading what sort of man he was from his gestures and posture.
Celadon managed to raise his eyes; the very effort exhausted him as much as though he were a weak man trying to lift a heavy stone. To his relief, the expression of the master beside him held nothing but friendly concern.
Celadon shook his head again. "I don't – I don't see why there's a need, Pentheus. I already have an heir."
Pentheus smiled, and his own gaze switched over to the young boy who was continuing to play at being a slave. "Now I will sound as though I'm asking you to strip my youngest son of the honor you have bestowed upon him. That is far from the case – Basil is well suited to inherit your rank, and I was pleased that you recognized that fact. But there are more reasons than children to marry, Celadon. You might find it easier to bear the burden of your rank if you had a companion to provide comfort to you in your leisure hours."
Celadon found that his gaze had dropped again. Cursing himself inwardly, he forced his eyes up and said, "I'm not sure— That is, I don't think my inclinations take me that way."
He kept his eyes carefully fixed upon Pentheus as he said this, but the lesser master's gaze drifted over to the male slaves, who were continuing to carry Celadon's many formal gowns into his new residence.
"Ah," Pentheus said. "Well, I can't say I'm happy about that, but at least I can be sure you would never force a slave. So the rumors I've heard are true? You've taken a bed-slave?"
Celadon gave up the struggle to keep his gaze level with Pentheus's. "I— Yes."
"Then I wish you happiness with him, Celadon; I need worry no longer that your nights will be lonely. Now, about the upcoming quarterly—"
"I don't know!" Celadon knew that his voice sounded desperate, and he tried to modulate its tone. "I haven't decided yet. I'm just not sure . . ."
"Celadon, you have been saying that for the past month. Sooner or later, you must make up your mind about the topics that the High Masters will discuss. You cannot remain silent through yet another quarterly; no true master—"
He stopped abruptly at the approach of a slave. The man knelt at Celadon's feet; without looking up, he murmured, "Master, a messenger has arrived for Master Pentheus."
"Mm." Pentheus eyed the slave, clearly wondering whether he should be the one to chastise the slave for his interruption of the conversation. He looked over at Celadon, but the High Master did not speak, so Pentheus said only, "That will be from Druce's homestead; I asked Sert to keep me informed as to Druce's condition. If you will excuse me, master?"
He gave Celadon a formal bow for the sake of the slave who was continuing to kneel at Celadon's feet. The High Master opened his mouth, then closed it again, uncertain how to respond. This caused Pentheus to give Celadon another sharp look, but the lesser master turned away and began walking through the courtyard toward the gate, where the slave-messenger from Druce's homestead was being held in waiting by the guards.
Celadon turned back to look at the slaves. They had finished bringing the wardrobe into the tower and were now carrying a series of chairs; Celadon saw that one of the chairs was high-backed and bore the symbol of the golden sunburst. He closed his eyes.
A soft cough beside him startled him into consciousness again. He had forgotten the slave who had brought the news about the messenger; the man had evidently given up hope that Celadon would order him to rise, and had risen to his feet on his own initiative. Celadon cleared his throat and said, "Thank you. You may return to your duties."
To his surprise, the slave did not move. He was wearing the heavy tunic of an outdoor slave, and it occurred to Celadon that the man might be lingering in the courtyard in order to avoid returning to the blustery winds outside the castle walls. Celadon knew that he ought to reprimand the slave for this, but he could not seem to find the words.
Of course, he never could; that was the problem. Feeling his chest grow tight, he swung his gaze away from the slave, dealing with that trouble as he had dealt with all troubles since he took the High Mastership, by remaining silent. He could feel next to his right hand the hard sheath of his dagger, and he had a sudden wild impulse to throw the dagger onto the ground and see how everyone reacted. His gaze travelled over to Pentheus, who was deep in conversation with the slave-messenger kneeling before him. Nearby, Pentheus's son bounded up from his knees and began to argue with the girl who had been mastering him.
"Summon me to your presence."
For a moment the words did not register, so unexpected were they. Then Celadon swung round awkwardly and found that the outdoor slave was still standing beside him. His gaze was level upon the High Master.
"What?" said Celadon, convinced that this new nightmare must be of his imagination.
"Summon me to your presence." The slave's words were soft, but there was a hardness at their core that stunned Celadon momentarily. He stared at the slave open-mouthed, trying to put his whirling mind to rights.