A Story of Uncertain Depths
“You said I was safe! But you lied! And you hurt me!” She shrunk into the the chair sobbing heavily. She wanted a way out of the room but he was standing in front of the door.
Fab Manich stood almost frozen, watching the small whimpering figure curl into a high back velvet cushioned chair. Her small fists clenched the thick dress she’d worn from the rescue ship. Only moments before, she’d screamed for him to get away from her. He’d entered the room where she’d been escorted and instructed to wait, posing two options: live with him in Istantine-Bouthe, being well-taken care of or, stay in Fruis to survive as some Fruisian servant or petty worker in the city. Before he’d been able to say much of anything, she became frantic, yelling. After finally getting her to quiet down, he’d stood only a few steps away from the door, hands up. The moment she said ‘you hurt me’ he understood. The memory of her face as she squirmed under his weight flashed in his mind. From the night of the attack until present she had been quiet and absent. He’d since had no time to see about her, believing she’d been traumatized and would be best nursed by the women on the rescue ship or by the Fruisian doctor.
“I never hurt you, girl.”
With muffled sobbing, she groaned “You lie, you lie.”
“No.” His shoulders dropped. His hands which had been tensely up at his sides, now rested at the end of crossed arms. “No, I never even undressed you.”
“Then why were you… you were…” she didn’t want to have to say anything. He was a lying pervert who had taken advantage of her while she slept.
Almost embarrassed, Fab looked towards the window facing east where in the distance with some effort, he could make out mountains. Just beyond he knew lay canyons of orange and brown. For a moment, he wished to be far from this room. What was he feeling? Shame? Fear? Why?
“I wanted to take you. Then I would have let my crew have you. And at this moment, you would be another casualty of the attack.”
Her sobs audibly grew softer until she was just sniffling. She looked at him, eyes wide, confused.
“But I never touched more than the hair on your hair and cheeks on your face.” he paused, chuckling at himself. “I slept before I could even help myself.”
She couldn’t quite tell if he was being truthful or deceiving her once again with his expressionless face. As she slowly uncurled herself in the chair, she realized that being fed and given a silly costume was all meant to woo her into being comfortable before becoming prey. She couldn’t decide if he had made a choice not to harm her or if he’d just been too drunk. Her fists unclenched around the skirts of her dress and she sat, almost giddy, staring into nothing.
He took a hesitant step towards her, testing if she’d react. After a moment, when he realized she sat there looking a little relieved, he took a few more slow strides towards her. She was like a child in his eyes and yet he was drawn to her. He’d shown restraint. Mercy was not a currency he dealt with. It was no longer an inclination natural to him after all these years. But why her? She was simple looking and possibly simple minded. Just a poor wretch escaping a poor and dying nation. Her survival this far was confounding.
At some point, she noticed the general had crossed the room and now knelt by her. His green eyes were so blank and his face, that only moved while he spoke, was now fixed upon her and hard. She peered into his untelling face, for a second wondering if it wasn’t as untelling as it seemed. She looked down at her hands, inwardly shaming herself. Don’t be stupid, he’s probably more cunning than any of the other preying men she’d encountered in Ernos. Men who had offered her food, who had offered her hope, only to grope and grab before selling her to the mines. Why could he be any different from them?
“Polla, you have a chance to live better than wherever you’ve run from. My home could be your home. Or you can choose the life of peasants working endlessly to eat, to live.”
“Why, why is that my only choice? Who decides?”
He grinned. “If you don’t come with me, they will decide. They will take your name away and give you a new one. They’ll assess your worth and decide your fate for you. But at least you’ll be here in Fruis. This is where you wanted to be right?”
She frowned, looking up past him at the door. She recalled how she’d been escorted by strangers from the moment she’d arrived. She had never been left alone except for the few moments behind locked doors after being told to wait or while she slept in strange beds in locked rooms. She’d been watched and shepherded like a goat. No doubt she’d continue to be ruled by strangers. Which is worse? I still feel trapped. I left Ernos to get to freedom, to lands beyond the waters where there was soil that bore food and she would no longer be just an orphan sold like bags of fruit in the markets.
“I want to decide how I live. And I want to live in freedom.”
“You won’t find freedom here.”
“What if I do?”
“How would you go about that?” He pulled the small nearby table close and sat, waiting.
“I’ll make money. I’ll work. And then when I have enough money I’ll have my own home and my own field. Then I’ll farm and sell my goods like the people in the market.”
“Quite the plan.” She didn’t react to his tone. “How long do you suppose it takes to earn enough to buy land here, let alone build a home? Or to buy someone else’s farm? Do you suppose they’ll let you buy land here? You don’t belong to this country. You have no real education beyond basic foundations given to most orphans.”
“I don’t know but it doesn’t matter if I’m free! And why does it matter to you? What do you want from me?”
The question gave him pause. He didn’t quite understand this pull towards wanting to help her. He was growing annoyed at himself. “It takes seven years to gain citizenship in Fruis. It takes high wages to buy land, wages often provided to merchants, tax collectors and soldiers. It would take possibly ten years worth if you could save everything you earned. Citizenship is earned. Not even the sellers in the market truly own their land. They borrow it. But the soil will never let you starve so long as you spend your days and nights toiling for scrap wages. Even a servant gets just enough to eat and sleep in a bed but never enough to have true wealth. Buying power, Polla, is reserved to citizens with great wealth. Merchants have influence, tax collectors control the balance of power, and soldiers enforce the laws that keep peasants lowly. Do you understand?”
She could tell he was being honest. He wore that same face when he told her she was safe, except he spoke differently. No one wanting to do you much harm ever spent so much time convincing her to do anything. He hadn’t really lied yet even if he’d wanted to hurt her before, he could have done so in this room but he hadn’t. But why did she matter to him? Why not leave her to the mercies of the Fruisian ways?
“What do you want from me?”
He was stumped and it showed. “I don’t know.” Catching himself, he said, “I want to give you a chance to live I guess.”