In the Morning
When Stranger stopped speaking an early morning had dawned, chasing away the darkness of night from the sky, but leaving behind a disturbing oppression in the shadows that clung to the corners of Cunning’s bedroom. The slaver who had seemed slightly stunned ever since Stranger began force-feeding him dangerous secrets, which he was probably coming to realize he had very much not wanted to be in possession of, squinted his eyes and tilted his head, as though by changing his perspective, he could somehow catch sight of the prince, lurking inside the caravan guard and outlaw. Whether or not Cunning’s efforts met with any success, Stranger couldn’t tell, but the way the slaver’s face had gone white told Stranger he had gotten at least some of his points across.
“There are a few reasons why I decided to tell you this story”, he said. “First, so you would realize that it’s not in your best interest to make your city friends aware that I have any sort of ties to this town. I trust you’d agree?”
Cunning blinked rapidly, and Stranger could almost have sworn he heard a whirring noise as the man’s machine-like brain kicked into gear, and he nodded.
“Yes”, he said. “Of course. No one can know. If the Ruler… gods, he’s your cousin, isn’t he? Never mind, forget I asked, but if he heard you ever so much as took a piss anywhere near here, he would have the entire town torn to the ground. Maybe burned and salted as well, just for good measure. Fuck. I’ll probably have to kill a few very good, very profitable clients over this mess.”
He managed to work up a momentary glare of resentment before seeming to remember that holding a grudge against the man sitting across from him, holding the sword that might very well have disemboweled a City Ruler, might not be a good way to look after his long-term interests, and quickly schooled his features into neutrality.
“Good”, said Stranger. “I believe that takes care of the first of our business transactions. You tell nobody about me, make sure nobody else tells anyone about me, and in return your city doesn’t get razed to the ground. In addition, I give you my word never to come back and remind the people who live here that once, I stole from you and got away with it. On to the second order of business. My family.”
Cunning snorted a laugh, and Stranger sat back, raising his eyebrows.
“Sorry”, the slaver said, “but honestly. After hearing what you did to your father after he dared to lay hands on your sister, do you honestly think I’m dumb enough to go anywhere near them? I leave them the hell alone, and my entrails never see how they like the outside of my body. It’s a trade I am more than happy to agree to.”
“Good”, Stranger said. “Then, for the part you are likely to find disagreeable, but try to keep in mind that the only reason I haven’t decided to kill you is that I think it would be slightly more reprehensible than to leave you alive. With one caveat. Your slaves.”
Cunning’s smile dropped from his face and he started protesting. Stranger held up a hand to stop the outraged babble, and after a few more curses and a tirade about ruining his livelihood, the brothel owner subsided.
“I won’t demand that you free all your slaves”, Stranger said. “But I do insist you look after them better than you have been. No rape. No mistreatment, no beatings, and no torture. No forcing your slaves into prostitution. You have enough sex workers downstairs who are free and have chosen their own trade. And no children. If they’re under eighteen, whether they’re free or slaves, you give them the choice to leave, or to stay as they please. Those who want to leave, you can send to Warlike. She’ll take care of them and make sure they find good homes.”
Cunning gritted his teeth, looking red-faced and mutinous, and when he finally spoke, his voice was a low, rough growl.
“And if I refuse?”
“Then I guess you’ll find out exactly how far you can count on my reluctance to act like my father’s son.”
It didn’t take Cunning long to decide that he had no interest at all in testing that reluctance any further than his question already had, and to accept all of Stranger’s terms, in exchange for the promise that he would never have to see him again. As compromises went, Stranger thought, it left a great deal to be desired. But then, it was said to be the mark of a good compromise when nobody came away from it feeling happy.
He left Colony Five that day, fully intending never to return.
He spoke to no one on his way out of town, and nobody saw him leave.
In the morning, the boy woke in Stranger’s bedroom to find himself alone. Stranger had left in the night and hadn’t woken him to say goodbye, and if it hadn’t been for what happened later that day, that might have made him feel sad. But by midday, children he knew from his life in the brothel had begun to show up, arriving alone or in pairs on The Rotten Core’s doorstep. All of them were wide-eyed, and seemed unable to believe what they were saying, as they told Warlike in hesitant, fearful voices, that Cunning had freed them, and promised she would help them to find a safe place to stay, and people to make sure they were taken care of. Warlike welcomed them with open arms, and the boy found that he didn’t feel sad or abandoned. Not anymore.
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