Once Upon A Time - Merry Shannon



Chapter Six

"And Father agrees to this." Shasta eyed her tutor dubiously.

Chancellor Kumire nodded. "He said it was a wonderful idea," the young viceroy insisted with a grin.

"A trip to the Ardrenn markets? It sounds so lovely," Brie sighed, batting her eyes at Kumire and clinging to his arm.

Kumire looked down at her. "Well, I'm not sure how lovely it will be, Lady Brie, but it certainly should be educational." He looked back at the princess. "As future queen of Lysteria, you ought to have firsthand experience with the economic system of this great kingdom. I have no doubt that you will learn much, you are quite intelligent for a girl."

She scarcely seemed to notice the chancellor's thinly veiled attempt at flattery, such as it was, and instead turned to Aleria in excitement. "What will we wear, do you think?"

"Princess, as your bodyguard I must insist we come up with a plan so no one will recognize you," Talon interrupted, and Shasta turned to look at him with a frown.

"What do you mean?"

Her guardian's dark eyes were grave. "You are the princess of Lysteria, Highness, and we already know of at least one assassin who has made attempts on your life twice. If you go outside the palace walls, you may face great danger from those who are trying to kill you." He sighed, running a hand through his black hair in a familiar gesture that Shasta had come to recognize as a sign of frustration. "The king has already approved this trip, so I cannot stop you from going, but please consider wearing some sort of disguise, something that will keep the townspeople from recognizing who you are. If word gets out that Princess Shasta is wandering around the streets of Ardrenn, there's sure to be trouble."

She flashed him a wicked grin. "But Talon, that's what I have you for."

He glared darkly, and she poked him in the ribs. "Oh, loosen up, you big worrywart. I was only teasing you." She exchanged glances with Aleria and Brie. "I think dressing in disguise might be kind of fun. Maybe I could wear breeches and smudge my face, and pretend I'm a stable boy or something… I could cut my hair!"

"I hardly think your father would approve," the chancellor interjected in horror.

Talon chuckled heartily, but shook his head. "No, the chancellor's right, the king would never allow it. But perhaps you could borrow a dress and apron from Erinda. We could put Brie in one of your gowns, she's about your size, and you and Aleria can pose as her maids."

"And the chancellor could pretend to be my beau," Brie immediately suggested, her face lighting up.

Talon gave her an odd look. "Actually, I was going to suggest that the chancellor also borrow clothing from one of the kitchen staff. It will be easier for him to walk behind all of you, and point out all the things he wishes you to notice."

"Out of the question," Kumire sniffed imperiously. "I could not possibly wear such… garments… in public. Besides, I think I should be leading the group, not following behind. Lady Brie is right, I shall go as her escort."

Talon's eyes narrowed, but he did not argue. "Very well, Chancellor. I will follow behind Aleria and the princess, dressed as a mercenary. It will allow me to carry a sword, and hopefully discourage any troublemakers from… well, making trouble."

Kumire frowned. "It really isn't necessary for you to come along, boy," he said tersely, though he was scarcely two full winters older than Talon. "I'm perfectly capable of looking after the girls on my own. You will only be a distraction to their studies, stomping around with your… weapon," he eyed the sword at Talon's hip in distaste, "and constantly looking for danger that isn't there."

The princess noticed a muscle twitch in her guardian's jaw. "I have strict orders from the king himself that Shasta is to remain in my sight at all times, Chancellor. You're well aware of that."

Shasta's eyes widened and she choked on a giggle. Talon was so angry that he'd used her first name, without her title or the usual "her highness". She'd never heard him do that before. Both Talon and Kumire turned to look at her in surprise, and she quickly tried to compose her face as best she could. Patting the chancellor's arm, she said soothingly, "Now, Chancellor Kumire, you know Talon goes everywhere with me. You can't expect him to stay behind and miss out on all the fun."

The viceroy looked like he wanted to protest, but finally thought better of it and nodded. "Fine. But I expect you to stay out of our way, and keep your paranoia to yourself." He spun and stalked out of the lecture hall. Talon watched him go with dark eyes.

"I don't trust him."

Brie swatted her brother on the arm. "Oh, Talon, you really shouldn't bait the chancellor so. He's such a lovely man, if you'd just give him a chance."

Talon turned his dark gaze on his youngest sister. "And you… Brie, what in the name of the Goddess has gotten into you lately? Making eyes at the chancellor every chance you get… you're only thirteen winters in age, Brie. You should be concentrating on your lessons, not mooning over some spineless governor's son."

Brie's mouth dropped. "How dare you," she hissed furiously, but Talon lifted a menacing eyebrow.

"I mean it, Brie, I want you to cut it out."

"Both of you cut it out," Aleria interrupted, her voice calm but firm. "I'm tired of you two arguing about this all the time. Brie, tone it down with the chancellor. He's our teacher, not your personal prince charming. And Talon, you really have to stop being so overprotective." She touched the sleeve of his uniform gently. "I know you care about us, and you worry so much because you care, but the chancellor's harmless. Just because he doesn't wear a sword and swagger around all the time doesn't mean he's not a good man."

Shasta observed this little family spat with a pang of envy. Most of the time the three siblings treated her like she was one of them, but there were still moments like this one when she was reminded that blood was thicker than water. She couldn't help wishing that she could have what the three of them did, a bond that went back to childhood, where each one had their own role: Talon, the oldest, was obviously the protector, while Brie, the youngest, was rebellious and a free spirit. As the even-tempered middle child, Aleria most often served as peacemaker between them, somehow knowing exactly what to say to calm them both. Shasta tried to remember if she and Daric had once had similar roles; she supposed they had, in a way, with Daric as the responsible, mischievous one where Shasta was more creative and carefree. But her own brother had been gone more than a full winter, and while her guardian and two companions helped to alleviate the loneliness, there were still times like this one when she was reminded sharply of his absence.

She broke from her reverie when she noticed her guardian watching her, and forced a bright smile. "Come on, ladies," she said to Aleria and Brie, taking each of their hands. "Let's go back to my chambers and send for Erinda, and Brie can start trying on some of my gowns."

She ran hand-in-hand with her two companions into the corridor, with Talon following closely behind.

The markets of Ardrenn were an entirely new experience for Shasta, and she had a difficult time trying to soak it all in as their little party wound up and down the dusty streets lined with shops and small carts. A thousand intermingled smells, of cooking food and rotting fruit and horse excrement blended together in a combination that was both interesting and disgusting. Merchants shouted at the people passing by, shoving scarves and jewelry under the noses of the girls and promising values that their competition could not match. The noise and bustle was extremely exciting, and Shasta's head was constantly turning this way and that as she tried to make sure she didn't miss a thing. The deep hood of her cloak made it even harder, but Talon had insisted that she wear it, keeping her hair and face covered and shadowed so as not to attract attention.

As they moved down the streets, Kumire would point out a particular cart or shop and tell the girls whether the wares were cultivated, handmade or imported, and how that affected its cost and value to the customer. He made them stop and listen as a robust, pink-faced woman haggled with a grocer over the price of beets, and then gave them each a single coin and assigned them to practice their own haggling skills by purchasing something marked at least twice the amount.

Shasta looked over the colorful carts carefully, trying to decide what she wanted. She passed over displays of colorful silk handkerchiefs and ripe fruit, homemade flutes and woven baskets. She stopped in front of an old woman sitting on the ground, a blanket spread out in front of her upon which were arranged a sparkling array of polished stone jewelry. Shasta had plenty of jewels, real jewels of great value, but she had never seen jewelry like this before. She knelt and picked up a bracelet that caught her eye, a strand of shimmering pink stones, each one irregular in shape but polished smooth. The princess pushed back her hood to get a better look. "Are these… rocks?" she asked the old woman, who eyed the princess' dingy brown dress and spotted apron with disappointment written clearly on her lined face.

"Of course, child. They're quartz."

"Quartz?" She tried the strange word on her tongue. "They're pretty."

"All the way from the mountains of Thessaly, child," the woman replied. She knew this ragged servant girl wouldn't have enough money to purchase the bracelet, but it was nice to have someone to talk to who showed a bit of genuine interest in her wares; most people in Ardrenn couldn't afford such trivialities and passed right by her without even looking. "When I was about your age, my friends and I used to collect pink quartz along the stream banks and make long necklaces. We believed it would bring us true love."

"Did it?" Shasta asked curiously, and the old woman chuckled.

"For some."

The princess turned the rosy stones in her fingers. "How much does it cost?" she wanted to know.

The old woman sighed. "Five gold pieces, my child."

"Oh." Shasta's face fell. She might have been able to haggle the woman down to two, but she didn't want to offend her by offering her less than a quarter of the bracelet's price, and she only had one gold piece to spend. The woman noticed her disappointment and shook her head.

"How much do you have, girl?"

Reluctantly Shasta held up her coin. "Just one." Carefully she put the bracelet down. "I don't suppose you have anything you could sell me for one gold piece?"

The old woman eyed her for a long moment, then gave a resigned smile. "Tell you what, girl. I'll sell you the bracelet for one coin, if you promise to come back one day and tell me when it's brought you your true love."

Shasta's eyes lit. "Really?" She put the coin in the woman's hand and picked up the pink bracelet.

"Promise me, now," the woman chided with a grin.

"I promise," the princess agreed, fastening the pretty stones around her wrist and then meeting the woman's eyes with a delighted smile. "Thank you!"

The old woman waved her hand. "Yes, yes, well, get on out of here now and go find that love of yours."

Shasta nodded and jumped to her feet, remembering to pull her hood back up over her face before running back to where the chancellor and the rest of her group were waiting. Proudly she showed off her new purchase, and Kumire nodded with approval. "Well done, highness. An impressive bit of negotiating." He looked around and then nodded. "Come, I have something else for you to see."

The girls and Talon followed the chancellor down the street, and he came to stop in front of a large, dark building. "The auction house," he announced. "This is where some of the most important business in Lysteria takes place."

Shasta eyed the nondescript structure with its faded wooden sign dubiously. "What do they sell here?"

Talon, Aleria and Brie exchanged glances.

"Some large farming equipment, and livestock, but mostly slaves," the chancellor replied proudly. "Ardrenn has one of the most profitable and successful slave markets in all of Lysteria."

"Father says that slavery is a despicable practice," Shasta said doubtfully, but the chancellor shook his head.

"With all due respect to your father, your highness, he is sadly misinformed. Slavery is one of the oldest and grandest institutions of this kingdom, dating all the way back to the first conquerors who united the twelve provinces and built this very city using slave labor."

The princess remained unconvinced. "If that's true," she argued, "then why have five of the twelve provinces outlawed the practice of slavery within their borders?"

Kumire scratched his neck uncomfortably. "Well, there are those who feel that slavery is somehow unethical. But what they do not realize is that the institution of slavery is a vital part of all of our lives, even for the slaves themselves. Everyone must work to live, Princess Shasta. Some, like yourself, are born to lead the work of others. And some are born to be the laborers. That's the way the world functions." He swept an arm towards the street. "The produce you see for sale here today was all farmed by the hands of slaves who tilled the ground, planted it and cared for the crops. The very bread in the bakeries is made from wheat that was cultivated through slave labor. The weavers who made the silks, even the hands that rowed the ships to import it to this market, were all slaves. Even the provinces who have outlawed slavery still depend upon the crops and manufacturing of the slave industry for their survival. Without slavery our kingdom would fall into financial ruin within a few weeks, and the weak, those incapable of working without leadership, would be the first to starve."

"I suppose," the princess replied slowly, still not looking at all satisfied.

Brie let go of the chancellor's arm for the first time that afternoon and stared at him, hard. "So are you saying, chancellor, that Talon and Aleria and I were born to be laborers?"

He cleared his throat nervously, apparently having forgotten that two of his young students were former slaves themselves. "No, of course not, Lady Brie. You and the Lady Aleria, and your distinguished brother, were obviously born for much greater things. Mistakes do happen, naturally, but as you can see, they have a way of righting themselves. You are no longer slaves, are you? In fact, you are members of the royal household. Anyone who is not meant to be a slave would never remain so for their entire lives. One only has to look at you two lovely girls to see the truth of that."

Talon just glared at the chancellor darkly, but Brie took his arm again with a brilliant smile. "That's better."

Chancellor Kumire shifted uneasily under the dark soldier's gaze. "Come, ladies, you must be hungry. We will retire to that pub over there," he indicated a gaily painted building with a hanging sign depicting a chubby, notably topless mermaid swinging over the door, "so that you may experience a typical meal of the common folk."

He led them away, Brie on one arm and Aleria and Shasta following behind, with Talon bringing up the rear. As they entered the pub and stood just inside the door, a matronly-looking hostess bustled up to them with a cheerful grin.

"Well now, my lady, my lord," she greeted them, eyeing Kumire and Brie in their elegant clothing and assuming they were in charge of the little group, "Welcome to the Siren's Song Tavern!" She then caught sight of Talon, and the sword and knife at his belt, and her eyes widened. "Sir, I'm afraid weapons are not allowed here. I must ask you to please check them there by the door."

Talon put a hand on the hilt of his sword protectively, and the tavern hostess sighed, looking to Brie for help. "My lady, I really must insist that your man there remove his blades or else wait outside. I run a respectable, peaceful business here and we're not looking for any trouble."

Brie nodded politely. "Of course, madam," she replied sweetly, then shot her brother a dirty look. Talon tightened his grip on the sword defiantly, but the princess put a hand on her guardian's arm without meeting his eyes.

She heard his sigh of annoyance as he reluctantly marched over to the weapon rack by the door and removed his sword, and the knife in his belt. At the tavern hostess' sharp glare, he sighed again and pulled another knife from the inside of his vest, and one from each of his boots, dropping them with the others. Still she did not look satisfied, and with an irritated roll of his eyes Talon rolled up his sleeve and removed the small dagger he had strapped to his forearm.

Shasta watched him produce these blades, seemingly from nowhere, and her eyes grew larger and larger as the pile on the rack grew bigger. She stared at him in surprise as he strode back to the group looking quite perturbed, but did not have the opportunity to say anything as the tavern hostess immediately beckoned them to follow her to a table and benches in the corner of the room. They took their seats, and as she did so Shasta's stomach rumbled quite loudly, and she blushed when her companions grinned at her.

"I forgot to eat breakfast this morning," she protested defensively.

"Well, miss, we'll soon have you fixed right up," the tavern hostess assured her cheerily, putting a thick sheet of parchment with the tavern's menu written in neat, curling script onto the table in front of them.

After a meal of thick, savory meat stew served with hunks of dark bread, the princess was indeed feeling much better. The food was very different and tasted a bit strange to her palate; Shasta was used to lighter, more refined fare. She did, however, particularly enjoy the tea she had requested; it was coarser and stronger than the delicate imported blends served at the palace. She was now regretting having enjoyed quite so many cups of the stuff, though, and caught the tavern hostess' arm as she passed by their table.

"Pardon me, but do you have a…" she searched for the right word, "powder room that I might use?"

The busty woman stared down at her. "Well, aren't we just the queen of all Lysteria," she chuckled amusedly. "That's a fancy tongue you've got there, little miss. We don't have… uh… powder rooms, here, but there's an outhouse in the back if you have need of it." She jerked her thumb towards the back door.

"Thank you." Shasta stood, and Talon rose to join her. She turned and looked at him with a shake of her head.

"Talon, you can't follow me out there."

His eyes narrowed. "But…"

"I'm the maid, remember? Brie's the noblewoman. How would it look for her hired blade to leave his mistress unprotected in order to accompany her maid to the… out-house?"

He did not look happy, but he sat back down. "Two minutes," he said firmly, and she lifted an eyebrow at him.

"I'll do my best. Relax, I won't be gone long." Shasta slid from the bench and headed for the door the hostess had indicated.

The hostess returned with a full pot of tea and refilled everyone's cups, and Talon sat sullenly listening to Brie chatter on with the chancellor. She turned her cup in her hands, then tapped her foot, and finally started drumming her fingers on the table.

Aleria reached over and covered the older girl's hand with her own.

"Stop that, Talon, you're making everyone nervous."

The soldier's dark eyes returned to the tavern's back door. "She should be back by now," Talon muttered impatiently.

"Just give her some time. Remember, she's never eaten this kind of food before. Perhaps it's not settling well. Be patient."

Talon grumbled, but stilled her fingers. Minutes went by; the hostess came with their bill and laid it in front of the chancellor, who counted out coins from his pockets onto the table. The matronly woman returned and collected the coins with a small curtsy of thanks. Still Shasta had not returned, and Talon could take the wait no more.

"I'm going to look for her," she announced, rising to her feet and striding over to the weapons rack to retrieve her sword and smaller knives. The hostess clucked her tongue disapprovingly as Talon marched through the tavern, sword clanking, and left through the back door.

She spotted the outhouse that the woman had been referring to, a small, narrow hut with a bright blue door that was giving off a very distinct and pungent odor. Her keen sense of smell caused her nose to wrinkle with distaste; she couldn't imagine the princess using such a thing, but she supposed if Shasta had to go badly enough… Talon marched over to the little outhouse and rapped on the door. "Your highness?"

There was no reply, and she knocked again. "Highness, answer me." When she was greeted only with silence, Talon yanked on the door handle. It came open easily, as it was unlocked. The outhouse was empty.

A surge of panic flooded through Talon's mind as she looked around frantically, trying to determine where the princess had gone. If someone had taken her, there should be tracks, and she began examining the hard-packed earth beneath her feet for any sign of a struggle. It was then that a familiar voice tore through the air.

"What in the name of the Goddess do you think you're doing?! Stop that at once!"

"Shasta." Talon drew her sword and sprinted towards the sound of the princess' screams.

Shasta had been less than impressed by the tavern's toilet facilities. She'd never used such a dirty, stinking little building before; she didn't even want to make contact with the rough wood seat, let alone use the strips of coarse parchment that were stacked on the filthy planks of the floor against her delicate skin. But, gritting her teeth, Shasta told herself that it was all part of the rustic, commoner experience. If others could relieve themselves in such a place, so could she; and besides, she simply could not bear the pain of her straining bladder any longer.

As she stepped from the outhouse, firmly convinced that this was the most disgusting thing she'd ever done, and looking forward to her evening bath very much, a disturbance from behind her caught her attention. She heard several loud cracking noises, and a woman's cries of pain.

Running over the low hill behind the outhouse, towards the source of the clamor, Shasta was shocked to see a man standing in the road with a long black bullwhip, repeatedly striking a woman in a shabby, nearly threadbare dress. Nearby there was an overturned basket with heads of lettuce scattered in the dirt. The woman was lying prostrate on the ground, crying out as the whip tore through the fabric on her back, leaving long, bleeding welts. As she rolled a bit to her side, trying to avoid the biting blows, Shasta blanched as pale as the stained apron she was wearing. The woman being beaten was very obviously pregnant.

The princess bolted towards them, joining the ranks of the crowd that had already begun to gather to watch the spectacle. "What in the name of the Goddess do you think you're doing?!" she shrieked furiously, stepping between the man and his unfortunate victim and throwing her arms out to halt his attack. "Stop that at once!"

"Little wench! Get out of the way." The man spat on the ground and glared at her.

The princess' eyes widened. "I most certainly will not! How dare you speak to me that way…do you have any idea who I am?"

"Don't know, don't care." The man pulled his arm back again. "I warned you."

"Princess!!" Talon charged through the gathering crowd, just in time to catch the bullwhip before it could strike Shasta in the face. The thin leather whip snaked around her guardian's forearm in a coil, but he didn't even flinch. Holding the whip in one hand, he called over his shoulder to Shasta. "Are you all right, your highness?"

These words grew a gasp from the ground, a gasp which was followed with exclamations of amazement and disbelief as Shasta drew back her hood, revealing the long golden brown hair and delicate facial features that any citizen of Ardrenn could recognize. "It's her!" "It's the Princess Shasta!" "What's she doing here?" There were an equal number of exclamations as they recognized the princess' guardian as well. "Isn't that Talon the Marvel?" "Oooh, he's so handsome, isn't he?" "Was he really a slave once?" If Shasta hadn't been so angry, she might have been amused; she wasn't aware that Talon was such a legend among the people.

The man with the whip also realized quickly who this little girl in a plain housemaid's disguise really was, and immediately dropped to his knees in a bow. Talon loosened the whip from around his arm, kicking it away, and trained his sword on the man in case he should try anything else. "Forgive me, your highness, I didn't realize-"

"That you were about to strike the daughter of King Soltran with a bullwhip?" she finished for him, her voice shaking with rage. "What kind of a man would beat a strange girl in the street, much less a woman who is with child?"

"Your highness!" Chancellor Kumire came running up, puffing at the sudden physical exercise, followed by Aleria and Brie who stood staring at the scene Shasta was making.

"What's going on, Princess?" Aleria asked, and Shasta let out a growl that would have been funny if she hadn't been so genuinely incensed.

"This… gentleman," she spat out the word with deliberate sarcasm, "is whipping the life out of this poor woman."

"Please, highness," the man interrupted abashedly, "she's only my slave girl, and she just ruined a week's worth of wages with her clumsiness." He indicated the ruined lettuces in the road.

"I don't care if she burned your entire crop to the ground, you sadistic brute. Goddess save me, she's pregnant!" Shasta turned and knelt beside the woman, who was not moving, though a soft moan from her lips let Shasta know she was still breathing. A pool of blood had formed beneath her skirts, staining her legs; it was far too much blood to be caused merely by her wounds, and the princess had a terrible feeling that something was very wrong.

"I will give fifty pieces of gold to the first person who brings me a healer," Shasta shouted at the gathered onlookers, several of whom immediately took off in hopes of earning such a large sum of money, more than most men could make in a month. She gently touched the woman's face. "Shh, don't try to move," she said gently as the slave opened her eyes. "Help is coming." She placed a hand on the swollen belly with concern. "Your husband, we should try to find him."

The woman shook her head. "No… no husband," she managed to whimper, and Shasta's eyes widened.

"Oh. Well, the baby's father, then, where is he?"

The slave blinked up at Shasta with confusion, and then her gaze slid over to her master, who was still kneeling in the middle of the road at the point of Talon's sword. Then her eyes closed again with exhaustion. Shasta's face darkened. "Oh, you have got to be kidding."

She stared at the man on his knees. "You… you bastard." The crowd of onlookers gave a horrified gasp at the princess' curse, but she paid no attention. "I should have you horsewhipped and hanged," she hissed, angrier than she'd ever been in her life.

"Your highness, really, is it worth such excitement?" Kumire broke in. "She's just a slave girl, after all."

Shasta fastened her burning golden gaze on the chancellor. "A dog on the street doesn't deserve to be beaten like this, let alone a woman with child, slave or not."

"Highness… your highness, I've brought the healer, like you asked." A young man came running towards them, followed by an older woman in white robes who was puffing along behind.

"Pay him," Shasta ordered the chancellor, who reluctantly counted out the reward the princess had offered. She turned to the healer. "Please, this woman needs help."

The healer took one look at the princess' drab attire and then at the prostrate woman on the ground and sniffed. "But this is merely a slave, miss."

"You may address me as Princess Shasta Soltranis, and I'm well aware that she is a slave. If you don't help her right now then so help me…"

"Princess." Her guardian's deep voice had a calming affect, and she turned to look at Talon before taking a deep breath and nodding.

"I'm sorry, Madam Healer, I'm just a little upset right now. Please, is she going to be all right?"

The old woman felt for the slave's pulse at her wrist, then checked again at her neck. She leaned forward and put her ear to the still lips, and after a moment shook her head. "I'm sorry, your highness, but this woman is dead."

"What?" Shasta rose to her feet, her head spinning. "No."

"Really, your highness," Kumire began, but the princess rounded on him with fury.

"Is this your 'grand institution', Chancellor? Laws that allow a man to beat the woman who is carrying his child to death in the street?"

"Princess," Talon said again, and Shasta turned towards her guardian, burying her face in his shoulder.

"Take me home, Talon. I want to go home now."

Shasta sat quietly in her chair by the window, but she was not reading her book as usual, and she hadn't even yet summoned the chambermaids to prepare her bath. She'd been like that for hours, just staring blankly out the window, her face pale and drawn. Talon watched her with concern from the corner of her eye as she absentmindedly rubbed the leather under her fingers with a soft cloth. She'd polished just about every piece of leather equipment she owned, and was now just going through the motions in order to have something to do. Talon wondered if she should try to talk to the princess, who had been silent and withdrawn ever since they returned to the palace; but she didn't know quite what to say. She'd never seen Shasta this upset before.

"Talon, you were a slave once, weren't you?" Shasta's voice broke through the quiet.

Her guardian looked up and stopped her polishing. "Yes."

"Is it always like that?" The princess' eyes glowed amber in the lamplight, and Talon sighed.

"Some masters are kinder than others," she replied. "Not all of them beat and starve their slaves."

"Were you beaten?"

The dark soldier shifted her gaze to the boot in her lap. "Sometimes."

Shasta rose from her chair and came to sit on the carpet by Talon's feet. "Tell me."

Talon shook her head. "You don't want to-"

"Tell me. Please." The look in her young charge's face was insistent, and Talon took a deep breath.

"Our showmaster, he was a greedy man, and cruel, but he also knew that an injured or half-starved slave would bring no profit to the troupe. We were beaten with belts and sometimes canes if we made mistakes, or if he felt that we weren't working hard enough, and our bellies were rarely full, but he was careful never to inflict bruises or wounds that would show in performance, or to let any of us get so thin that we looked as if we were mistreated. We performed all over Lysteria, sometimes in the provinces that do not allow slavery, and he didn't want to offend anyone in our audience. My sisters and I, we were lucky."

The princess rested her head against Talon's knee. "I just don't understand it. I don't understand how people can be so cruel to one another. No matter what Kumire says, slaves are people just as much as their masters are, and they deserve to be treated that way." She shook her head. "That man today. He killed his own child. Why would he want to have a child with a slave girl, anyway? He obviously didn't care about it."

Talon cleared her throat awkwardly, and Shasta twisted her head to look up at her guardian. "Oh, don't look so nervous, Talon. I know how babies are made, I've read all about it in my natural science books-- the chapters my tutors always skip over in our lessons." There was a wicked sparkle in her eye. "I understand how it happens, I just don't understand why that slave girl would have been willing to mate with such a man."

Talon looked away, feeling her cheeks redden. "Princess, a woman…" she tried to find a graceful way to explain. "A woman doesn't have to be willing, for a man to… mate… with her."

Shasta's brows drew together for a moment. Talon could see her turning over that statement in her mind, and then understanding dawned on the younger girl's face. "Oh." She paused, looking confused again. "But why would he want to mate with her, anyway, if he didn't care about having a child?"

Talon squirmed uncomfortably. "Well… men don't always…" Her mind raced, trying to come up with the right words, and she found herself wishing very much that she could be anywhere but in that room at that moment. Shasta was waiting patiently for her reply. "They don't always… mate… in order to have a child."

"Then why?"

Talon ran a hand through her hair. "I really don't think we should be talking about this."

"Why not?"

"Because, Princess, it's not an appropriate topic of discussion…"

Her face contracted stubbornly. "But no one else will tell me anything," she complained. "Everyone just treats me like I'm made of glass. I'm tired of things being 'inappropriate' and 'not for my delicate ears.' Damn my delicate ears."

That brought a smirk to Talon's lips. "Oh, all right, fine."

Shasta turned and sat back on her feet, looking up at her guardian expectantly, and Talon sighed again. "Highness, some men get pleasure out of forcing themselves on women who are weaker and cannot stop them. They don't do it because they want children, they do it…" she shook her head as thoughts of her mother threatened to destroy her composure. "I guess they do it because it makes them feel powerful."

Shasta considered this for a moment. "That poor, poor woman," she breathed finally. "That's just… it's… revolting. Completely and utterly revolting." She was silent again for several minutes. "Tomorrow morning, I'm going to go have a talk with Father," she declared. "I want this 'grand institution' out of my kingdom, forever." Talon blinked at her as the princess stood. "And now I'm going to go call Nurse to start my bath."

True to her word, the very next morning Shasta marched to the door of her father's study immediately after morning prayers at the temple, and knocked briskly on his door.

Who is it?" Soltran's voice came from behind the heavy oak panels.

"It's Shasta, Father. I want to talk to you."

"Come in."

Talon opened the door for her, and she stepped quickly inside, plopping herself down in a chair before the king's desk without waiting for an invitation. Her guardian followed silently, closing the door behind them. Soltran looked up from the papers scattered across his desk and smiled at his daughter, despite the lines that were creasing his forehead. "What is it, Shasta?"

Shasta decided not to waste any time beating around the bush. "I want to know why we haven't outlawed slavery in the seven remaining provinces."

Her father was startled. "What?"

"We went to the Ardrenn markets yesterday, Father, and a man there beat a slave woman to death with a bullwhip in the middle of the street. Father, she was pregnant." Shasta felt a rush of anger return at the memory, and her hands balled into fists against the arms of the chair. "This whole slavery thing, I know you've always hated it. Why is it still permitted in Lysteria? It's an abomination!"

King Soltran regarded his daughter gravely, and shook his head. "I must say, Shasta, I wasn't expecting you to take such an interest in matters of state so soon." He fastened his gaze on the princess' dark guardian, who stood at attention behind her chair. "Corporal Talon, I hope you haven't been trying to influence her in this."

"No sir," Talon replied firmly, and Shasta shook her head.

"No, Father, this isn't about Talon. It's about Lysteria, and the fact that thousands of people, right now, at this very moment, are considered nothing more than property in the hands of others. Chancellor Kumire says that Lysteria can't survive without slavery, but I think he's wrong. People would survive just fine if they'd work together for a change, and carry their own share of the labor rather than forcing others to do it for them."

The king rubbed his temples wearily. "Well, I agree with you, Shasta, but it's not that simple."

"Why not?" she demanded hotly, and he raised a brow at her.

"Well, for one thing, Lysterian agriculture and trade rely heavily on the slave industry. Slaves farm the land and care for our cattle and livestock to produce the food we eat. They spin the thread and weave the fabric we use to make our clothes. Slave labor allows us to cut wood and stone, to erect houses and shops and temples. It builds our roads and mines our coal. The slave trade itself is part of the backbone of our economy. If it were to be outlawed, hundreds of people would lose their homes, their fortunes, their way of life."

"But it's already illegal in nearly half the country," Shasta protested. "And those provinces get along just fine without it."

"That's not entirely true, child," Soltran corrected gently. "The provinces in which slavery has been outlawed still rely heavily on imported goods from the surrounding provinces… goods that are manufactured through slave labor. And while it's true that they farm and mine and build on their own lands without the use of slaves, the result is a shortage of supplies, and therefore higher prices. Many people have been driven from these provinces and into the neighboring lands by a cost of living that is too high to bear."

The princess sat quietly, thinking about this. "They outlawed slavery all at once, didn't they?" she asked pensively, and the king nodded. "Well, no wonder." She met her father's eyes. "Of course it would do terrible damage, to just release thousands of slaves all at once. The slaves would have nowhere to go, no land or money of their own. Towns would be flooded with men looking for work, which would mean wages would decrease while prices were rising. Soon no one would be able to afford to live. The freed slaves themselves would probably suffer worse than anyone else."

Soltran was impressed. "You've been paying attention to your economics lessons," he commented dryly.

"But slavery hurts us too, Father, and possibly in an even more terrible way. It turns people into animals. Slaves are treated like livestock, and their masters become bullies who don't even see them as people anymore. When you give one person power to possess another, everyone loses their humanity."

"I agree," the king nodded, waiting to see where she was going with this.

"So, slavery is an evil thing that brings suffering, and it should be abolished, but to do so would bring even more suffering, at least until the economy stabilized.." Shasta bit her lip in concentration. "Why can't we phase it out?"

Soltran leaned forward in his chair. "What do you mean?"

"Well, obviously it would be devastating to everyone to just walk in one day and free all the slaves at once. But if we had a plan to slowly free them, a few at a time, and set them up with their own bit of land to farm, so that they could live off the product of their own labor…" her voice picked up excitement as she spoke. "Instead of freeing them completely, they would work like… indentured servants… for their masters for a few more years. The law could demand that masters begin paying their slaves a fair wage, and in return the slaves would pay a portion of their wages back to their master for their room and board. If the slaves could be taught to save, then at the end of their indentured period they should have enough money to purchase their own land and set up their own farms, where they could live off the products of their own labor."

The king rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "You know, Shasta, that's actually not a bad idea." He picked up a quill and began scribbling notes on a sheet of parchment. "It would be more complicated than that, of course, and I would need to speak with my advisors to determine what sort of wage and term of indenture would be necessary to allow that sort of savings. Then there would be the matter of assuring that masters paid their slaves honestly and did not overcharge them for housing or food, while still ensuring that the costs were fair enough to prevent the slave owners from falling into poverty themselves. It would be difficult to enforce. Very difficult, but not impossible, I don't think. We could even set up the plan so that current slave owners have several years to prepare for the program if they choose, and provide tax breaks as incentives for those who begin right away." The end of the quill danced in his hand as he wrote, and he suddenly looked up and met his daughter's eyes. "I can't make any promises, Shasta, but I've been looking for a way to get rid of slavery since I first took the throne, and this is the first time I've heard a suggestion that might actually work."

"Do you think the provincial governors will go for it?" she asked with big eyes.

"Some will be harder to convince than others," he admitted. "My uncle, the governor of Mondera-"

"Chancellor Kumire's father?"

The king nodded. "Yes, Kumire's father. He will not be easy to win over, he owes most of his wealth and comfort to the slaves who work in his mines. But I believe, with enough support from the other provinces, that he will have no choice but to comply."

Shasta leaned back in her chair and nodded. "He'll just have to."

"Shasta, I'm going to begin holding talks with the provincial governors about this, as soon as next week if possible. It may take some time, the last thing I want to do is incite a civil war, but…" he smiled proudly at his daughter. "I want you there for every one of them. This may not be something we can achieve in my lifetime, but if we fight for it hard enough I think you may live to see the day when all of Lysteria is free."

The princess' mouth dropped open. She'd never been invited to any of her father's political conferences. A huge grin spread across her face. "I wouldn't miss it for the world," she declared firmly.

"Only fourteen winters old and already starting to think like a ruler," Soltran observed bemusedly. "Your brother Daric would be very proud of you."

It was the biggest compliment he could have given her. When Shasta left the king's study, she was beaming ear to ear with a smile that lasted for days. Little did she know that the events she'd just set into motion would cost her more than she could ever imagine.

Part 7

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