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“Who’ll be the first to bid on this fine specimen of a Mandarite war-criminal?” the slave merchant called out. Several women opened their mouths to shout their replies, but a different voice cut through the others. A baritone voice, sharp with censure, silencing everyone.
“—I am no Mandarite war-criminal!” The outburst came from the rune-bound mage. His blue eyes swept the crowd with tightly leashed anger. “Nor am I some Natallian slave! I am a free citizen of the sovereign Isle of Nightfall, kidnapped unlawfully from my people by the Mandarites!”
“…A likely story!” the slaver sneered.
“Bring a Truth Stone, if you doubt me,” the mage demanded coldly, “and place it in my palm! It should work even with these bands that the Mandarites placed upon me. See for yourselves if my words are lies.”
“Silence, Mandarite dog!” the slaver disparaged. “The captain who brought you said you were known among the rest of the war-slaves for being a liar. Let’s start the bidding at—”
“—I want to see him touch a Truth Stone,” Serina called out, tightening her gut to project her voice over the murmur of the others. The uncertainty in the crowd made her mind race. She had to know for certain whether or not he was indeed a foreigner, fulfilling one of the requirements of the ritual. Inspiration struck with that thought. “I want to know exactly how powerful a mage he is, before I’ll pay a single copper.”
That got the swell of voices to start babbling with some enthusiasm in her favor. Grumbling, the slaver gestured for one of his servants to bring over a Truth Stone from the market’s offices. Slapping the white marble disc into the foreigner’s palm as soon as she brought it back, the slave trader ordered, “Wrap your fingers around that, and tell us your name is Maeve the dancing girl.”
The twisting of the foreigner’s mouth was too sarcastic, too sardonic to be considered a smile. “…My name is Maeve, and I am a dancing girl.”
Uncurling his fingers, he displayed the black marks where his fingers had wrapped around the white surface of the stone, balancing the disc on his palm. After a few moments, the stone turned pale again. Squeezing it a second time, the mage spoke.
“I am Lord Dominor of the noble family of Corvis, Lord Chancellor to Her Majesty, Queen Kelly of the sovereign kingdom of Nightfall.” Opening his fingers, he displayed the pale, unblemished surface of the Truth Stone. Clutching it again, he continued briskly, his voice sharp with vehemence. “I was kidnapped and imprisoned against my will by the Mandarites, and kidnapped against my will by the Natallian Navy. If you do not wish to invoke the threat of serious repercussions for the indignities your people have inflicted so callously upon me, an innocent bystander who has nothing to do with your war, a bystander who refuses to have anything to do with your war, then you will set me free immediately!”
Again, he showed the stone. Again, it was clean, unblemished. For a moment, doubt hung thick in the air. Then a woman wearing the Royal Livery nudged aside two of the women at the barrier between the buyers and the courtyard. “How powerful of a mage are you?”
“What does that matter?” the prisoner called back, lifting his chin. “I am not some war-criminal to be bound in chains and sold to the highest bidder.”
“—Answer the question,” Serina found herself calling out, “and we’ll consider setting you free!”
There were a few disappointed grumbles at that, but not many. Most of the women gathered were still interested in his abilities as a potential father of mage-born daughters, despite the revelation that he was indeed a foreigner.
“Answer the woman!” the slaver ordered him, whapping him in the back of the legs with the loops of the coiled whip he held.
Wrapping his fingers tightly around the stone, the mage answered with an arrogant lift of his chin. “I am the third most powerful mage not only in all of Nightfall, but one of the ten most powerful mages in all of our neighbors to the west, in the Empire of Katan. And I have yet to meet a spell I cannot master…including Ultra Tongue, as you can hear for yourselves.”
Uncurling his fingers, he tilted his palm outward, displaying the pure, unmarred surface of the Truth Stone.
“—A thousand gold!” someone shouted. It startled the chained foreigner into dropping the Truth Stone. Another woman shouted, “Eleven hundred!” A third yelled, “—Twelve!”, and a fourth, “Twelve hundred and fifty!” From there, the bidding began in earnest.
Most of the crowd dropped out by the time the bidding reached twenty-five hundred. The slaver had quickly demanded cold, hard proof of the money being offered, which weeded out some of the buyers. The remainder offered jewels as well as gold, some of the wealthiest in the crowd literally stripping the wealth from their necks and wrists as proof of their ability to pay. Serina held back to see just how high the others were willing to push the limit. She had more than enough wealth to—
The woman in the Queen’s Livery raised her arm, drawing the attention of the others, and silencing the bidding with her assertive call. “—One rainbow pearl!”
That caused a startled rustle in the crowd. The slaver, all but visibly drooling at the wealth being offered, shook off some of his avarice in exchange for practicality. “Prove it, and I’ll consider your offer!”
“Bring out the sun, and I’ll prove it,” the government servant retorted. “You know as well as I do that there’s no proof without sunlight, or the light of the double-Moons.”
“—I’ll do it,” Serina called out as a few of the mages in the crowd began squabbling over who should have that task. Meddling with the weather was a tricky prospect in the best circumstances; she didn’t want to ruin the weather patterns with a permanent change. Not when all that was needed was a brief opening in the clouds, which would suit her own needs.
“Who are you?” the liveried woman challenged her. “Why not let Mage Theresse, here, clear the clouds from the sky? I know her abilities, but I do not know yours.”
Mage Theresse, a plump older woman, blushed and cleared her throat. “Because that’s Lady Serina, milady Servant. Everyone knows she’s a far better mage than I.”
“Lady Serina? Guardian of Koral-tai?” the Royal Servant asked, arching one of her dark brows. “What would the Guardian of a nunnery need a man for?”
Trying to not let her cheeks heat, Serina planted her hands on her leather-clad hips. She didn’t want anyone in Natallia outside of Mariel and Mother Naima—who could be trusted—to know that she was working on a means of changing the Natallian way of life. “…Because I myself am not a nun?”
Ribald feminine laughter greeted her words.