Maidens and Drakels Ch. 01bymagicsplash©
Even at night, the cold Northern sky was bright, illuminated by the huge sea of yellow stars splashed across the pitch black canvas like fireflies against the darkness of a cave. A vast Airship sailed noisily underneath its celestial grandeur, spewing thick pillars of dark smoke from its towering exhaust pipes into the frozen clouds of mist and soot that swirled incessantly around its steel-plated hull. It was a rumbling machine of roaring engines and clanking gears, entirely devoid of portholes or wasteful decorations, and menacing black cannons jutted from its side like spikes, promising certain death to any pirates foolish enough to test its defenses. Beneath it rested neither sea nor land- only the vast emptiness of open sky, and an occasional floating island. It was the Aurorus, the flagship of the Arcadian fleet, returning from conquest loaded to the brim with treasures, slaves, and victorious soldiers. If it had been anything less than magnificent, it would have been an insult to the Emperor himself.
In its belly, two girls huddled together, cradling each other in their arms. Both were beautiful, and they looked to be of the same age. One had soft brown hair which curled very lightly against her head, hot green eyes, and sensual features. The other had straight golden locks, innocent blue eyes, and was sobbing into her friend's soft chest.
"Shh, Sophia." The one with brown hair said, holding the other girl close. "It's okay, we'll make it through this. The Arcadians can take our homes, but they can't crush our spirits- right?"
"But they can May, they can." Sophia sobbed, wrapping her arms around her friend's chest, and burying her face in her dress. "I've seen... I spent every summer of my childhood in Arcadia's countryside... y-you don't know the terrible things they do to slaves there."
"Sure I do." May whispered softly in reply, "We had slaves in Leyland too, remember?"
Sophia shook her head violently. "It's not the same." She said, "In Leyland, slaves at least had rights. If you killed them, you were prosecuted for murder. If you treated them cruelly, they were set free. In Arcadian, everything in different."
"How so?" May coaxed, stroking her friend's hair soothingly.
Sophia's gaze flicked up, and May flinched as the full force of her friend's powerful blue eyes bore into her. "It's all just a sport there, May," She whispered. "To break a girl's spirit- to turn her into a mindless sex doll. To put a man in the fighting pits and make him wrestle with drakels- drakels bred to kill. And nobody cares, May. It's just how things are done."
May couldn't suppress a shudder. In Leyland, the drakels were a nuisance. They stole sheep from farmers' fields, and would occasionally attack a passing Airship only to be warded off by the sailors on board. But in Arcadia, they had been domesticated-with terrible results. The thought of fighting one of them, with their big black leathery wings and cold yellow eyes, made her shiver with primal fear. But for the benefit of her friend, she swallowed the lump in her throat, and steeled her features.
"I see." May said, her voice grim as she stared up at the dank wooden ceiling above the slave bay, "You're right Sophia. I am ignorant. I don't know what it's like there. But that doesn't matter. I still won't let them break me down. Even if it means I have to die, I'll stay my own person. I belong to nobody but myself." She took Sophia's chin, and tilted her face up, kissing her friend on the forehead. "Promise me you'll do the same." She whispered, "For our people."
The other girl hesitated, but then reluctantly nodded. "I-I promise." Sophia replied.
The Aurorus landed on the east side of Treest, an Arcadian city. It was the biggest centre of commerce in the Empire, and the island upon which it sat was connected to Arcadian itself by a massive steel cord known as the 'silver belt', which ran with gondola-trains by day and night. This meant that in their spare time, the nobles of the capital city could easily take the trains to visit in their afternoons, and be back home in time for tea in their evenings, providing an ideal situation for merchants.
The slaves were herded out onto the main sorting dock, alongside livestock and shipments of water, fruit and vegetables. They were made to stand in a line, while the Hounds (as the royally-sanctioned slavers were called) trod up and down , and coldly inspected each slave one by one. May felt like a cow being sold for the slaughter.
The elderly, the men, and the children were put to the far left, while the pretty girls were sent right. Those with purple bracelets, like Sophia and May, were immediately separated into a special group of their own, no questions asked, not even for the older and plainer ones. The purple bracelets were the tokens the Hounds used to mark those of noble blood. The girls who wore them would be taken to a special auction house, where they would be bid upon by the rich and powerful Arcadian elite. To many men, the prospect of enslaving and degrading a formerly proud noble appealed to their twisted sexuality, and the Hounds wanted to wring every copper piece they could out of their lovely acquisitions.
Once the sorting was done, the Hounds tied each slave's hands together cords of brown leather, and led the shackled group of noble girls off the docks and into the market city itself. May cast a glance behind her as they left the ship that had brought them further than twelve thousand miles from their homeland behind for the last time.
The city was far more lively than May had expected, and despite her justifiably sour disposition, she was impressed by its size and prosperity. It was covered with tall red brick town houses, paved stone alleyways, and elegant aerial walkways. Its people were a diverse crowd. There were coal black Tahinians, and waif-like Emestrians. There were sulking beggars, and tall men dressed in silks. There were no gardens to speak of, but that was to be expected- water was scarce on most islands, and only the very richest had the luxury to spend it growing flowers and grass. Leyland had been lucky to have one of the world's few natural lakes by its capital, and its people had been spoiled for it.
Frequently on their walk, May caught sight of hawkers selling freshly fried meats, tools, dried brown tobbaco, and trinkets gathered from all over the world. They passed several shops that had their store front signs painted with a curious mark- a lightning bolt caught in a fist. May recognized the symbol, but she wasn't sure what it meant. Cocking her head, she nudged Sophia in the side with her elbow.
"Wasn't that symbol printed on some of your old guns?" She whispered.
Sophia glanced up, and when she caught sight of the symbol, nodded her head. "Oh yeah. That's the sigil of the Taglight family." She said, keeping her voice low. "They're not too popular in Leyland, but here, they're huge. They make all sorts of things -clothes, toys, candies- but most of their profit comes from guns and Airships. Their engineers are really top class. The official military engineers are a bit of a joke in comparison. " There was an unmistakable pride in the way she spoke.
"How do you know so much about them?" May asked, with a frown. It bothered her how ignorant she was about Arcadian culture. How could she fight something she didn't understand?
"Before the war, my family used to have really strong connections with them." Sophia admitted. "I stayed at their estate during all my summers here. They had two boys about our age, and both were really nice to m-"
"- stop chatting!" A Hound barked at them from the front of the queue. May glared at him, but he raised his baton threateningly, and she reluctantly turned her face away from her friend and quieted down.
They continued along the busy streets until eventually, they reached a station built right at the end of the silver belt. May's jaw nearly fell out of her mouth when she saw the vast iron cable, thick as an airship, anchored deeply into the island's solid rock. It was almost too elegant to be man made. It looked to her like a strand of spider web that had been taken, enlarged, and dipped in molten steel until it had cooled and turned silver, and stretched out like a tightrope between the islands.
They were sent into the station, and loaded into a cramped gondola-train that smelled like sweat, tears, and misery. May wrinkled her nose in disgust. They smell of slavery. She guessed that they weren't the first group of slaves to travel to the auction house in this train, and that would probably wouldn't be the last. The Arcadians had been invading other countries for twenty years now, and every time they annexed a new province, the markets of the Empire swelled with a fresh batch of product. Leyland had only been their latest acquisition.
The gondala-train came to life with a wheezing cough as its steam engines fired up, and it lurched to a shaky start, chugging towards its destination by pulling itself along the thick steel cable that held it aloft, only open sky beneath it. Looking around, May sought out Sophia's eyes and gave her a reassuring wink. The train was an utterly new experience for May. Leyland's abundance of water meant that its primary source of income was agriculture, and it had never been forced to industrialize. But though the sight of the whirling clouds underneath her was terrifying, she put on a brave face for her friend. The real horror was waiting for them at the end of the line.
Elsewhere in Arcadia, far away from May and her plight, the soft morning light fell into a bright and tastefully decorated room. It had two clear glass windows, an oak dresser, an antique grandfather clock, a golden chandelier, an elegant night stand upon which rested a small gas lamp, a teak desk covered in neatly folded stacks of letters and business accounts, and a large bed with beige covers, which held a man who seemed to have just recently woken up after a long sleep.
The man yawned as the sun's rays tickled his eyes, and he stood up, glancing at the grandfather clock in the corner. It was precisely six in the morning. His waking hour. Good. If he had awoken any later, he would have called himself a lax fool, and remained irritated for the rest of the day.
This would not have been unusual. Lord Conrad Faulkner was, even on the best of days, a very irritable man. It was a trait natural to his Faulkner blood. Like their sigil, the wild black Drakel, the Faulkners were widely renowned to be cold, merciless cutthroats. They were the family that always seemed to be involved when something in Arcadia went wrong. Every scandal, every untimely death, and every unfortunate act of piracy- if you followed the trail back far enough, your search would likely lead you to the grounds of their old shambling Manor on Lux Lane- although more often than not, you would end up dead in the process. That was just how the Faulkners did business.
Despite or perhaps because of this fierce reputation, the Faulkners had prospered. They were among the richest and most influential families in all of Arcadia, and it was always a good idea for an up and coming merchant to maintain good relations with their head, lest he find his entire fleet mysteriously spirited away over night.
Conrad stood up and neatly made his bed. His servants would have done it for him, but he didn't believe in being inconsiderate. That was not how a gentleman behave- and for the head of the Faulkner family, at least the appearance of civility was necessary. It encouraged loyalty among his servants when he treated them as kindly as he did, and it took only two seconds of his time. A servant had better access to his master's secrets than anyone, and if loyalty was not encouraged, there was nothing to prevent them from selling those secrets to the highest bidder. Conrad had many enemies would would be more than willing to pay out a generous sum for anything that could incriminate him.
He crossed the room to his plain grey mirror, and smiling tightly at his reflect, took his razor from its place atop the dressed, and began to shave his face clean of hair. This was another courteous gesture. An unkempt man was an untrustworthy man. Conrad took great pride in his appearance, and did everything he could to keep his body in top condition. He was tall, muscled and athletic. His hair was a dark black, and his eyes were cold and grey. His nose was straight, his hands smooth and precise, and his nails cut and clean. He was very handsome, but in a steely, frozen sort of way.
The shave took little more than a minute. Once he was groomed to his satisfaction, he placed his razor back on the dresser, crossed the room, and sat down at the teak desk. He began to review his papers with a frown. There were several outstanding loans he had made to various members of society, as well as long financial reports from all of his various pirates. Some were doing well, and others needed to consider that they would like to have written on their gravestones.
There was a polite knock on the door- two taps, a three second pause, and another tap. That would be the butler. "Come in Edward." Conrad said, glancing up from the desk.
A young man, clearly fresh out of his apprenticeship, entered the room carrying a silver platter topped with expensive white china, and a large plate of eggs, bacon, and toast. "I have your breakfast, sir." Edward said, setting the plate down on the desk. "And Count Stoker is here to see you. He says he is in no rush."
Conrad sighed, and steepled his hands against his face. "Very well, show him in." He said, reluctantly. The Count was an old friend of his, it was true, but he lacked tact and cleverness altogether, and often trod a little too heavily on Conrad's thin nerves. Stoker's mind was like a sledgehammer: with great effort and a fair bit of luck, it could occasionally smash a hole through a wooden wall, but it could never perform surgery without killing the patient.
Conrad was quietly eating his second egg when Stoker entered the room, dressed in a dark suit, and smiling like a fat cat given milk. "Conrad!" He said, throwing his arms up in the air in brotherly greeting.
"Jonathan." Conrad said, stiffly. He did not accept the hug- instead, he stood to his full hight, and proffered his hand, his eyes cold, but not angry. Stoker shook it enthusiastically, his grin never leaving his face.
"How have you been, my good man?" He asked, as he pulled up a free chair, and sat down next to Conrad. His eyes wandered to the paper in his friend's hand, and Conrad promptly flipped it over, slamming it down on the desk.
"I'm well, thank you." Conrad said, "and yourself?"
"Oh, good as I ever am!" Stoker replied. "The wife's been giving me a little bit of trouble lately, but I persevere." He let out an amicable chuckle, inviting Conrad to share in his misfortunes. But Conrad would have no part of it.
"Would you like me to have one of my men sort her out?" He asked, his eyes never leaving Stoker's.
Stoker was aghast. "No, Gods no." He said hastily, throwing his hands up into the air as if to ward off some invisible blow. "It's just a little lover's quarrel, that's all. There's no need for your, uh, help."
"That's good." Conrad said, dryly suppressing a smile. "I always liked Maria. It would have been a shame to see her pass away so young."
For a few moments, there was silence. Stoker stared hard at his friend's face. "I can never tell when you're joking, you know." He finally said, "and now you've got me flustered. Here I was, coming to you with an offer of entertainment, and you bully me like this!"
"Oh I see. How rude of me." Conrad said eyebrows rising. "Entertainment?"
"Yes, entertainment, right!" Stoker exclaimed. He set his hands down on the desk, and leaned forward conspiratorially, as if they were in crowded bar and he did not wish to be overheard. "When was the last time you had a woman, my friend?" He asked, with a sly grin.
Conrad gave a slight frown. "Just two days ago, Stoker."
"Two days-?" Stoker said with astonishment. Then his eyes narrowed knowingly. "Oh, you mean a prostitute." Conrad gave a quick dip of his head, indicating that indeed, he did mean a prostitute.
"I thought as much." Stoker said, with a shrug. "I don't know what it was about Lydia, Conrad, but ever since her death- you really haven't been yourself. There was nothing you loved more than breaking a good slave in. Nothing more satisfying to you than that sweet moment when some pretty little thing's will snapped, and she became yours. But now it's like you've lost all your old passions entirely."
"My sister's death had nothing to do with that, Stoker." Conrad replied coldly. "I just... grew up, and moved on to other pleasures."
"Oh?" Stoker asked, leaning back in his chair. "Like what? Sitting in your room all day, plotting dark deeds, and cheating honest families out of their life savings?" He nodded pointedly towards the paper Conrad had set face down on the desk, and at the window, to the hustling city outside. "Admit it. You want to experience what it's like to own a slave girl again, and you just don't know where to start!"
Conrad sighed. This was exactly Stoker's problem- he would always get himself involved where he wasn't wanted or needed. But evidently, his heart was sat on this. "Very well, enlighten me."
Stoker's grin split across his face. "There's an Auction today at the Jubilee Auditorium. Fresh slaves from all over Leyland and Emestris. All of noble birth. I mean to pick one or two of them up myself -for the missus and me to bond over, you know- but she can't stand to be in the same room as me right now, and I have an extra ticket. Won't you come along?"
Conrad considered the offer. He didn't really want to go, but if he refused his friend now, he was likely to have trouble with him down the road. And Stoker was right. Recently, Conrad's life had settled into a rhythm. Things were getting boring. Routines were becoming stale. It was long past time he bought himself a new girl, and livened things up. With a nod, he agreed
The gondala-train journey seemed to take hours. By the time it was done, May had a cramp in her leg from sitting pressed up against the wall for the whole trip, and Sophia had almost fallen asleep. They were let out by the side of an imposing white building made of worked marble, which glared white in the afternoon sun. The flag of Arcadia, a blue star on a red field, flew proudly on its roof. It reminded May of a Cathedral, except that seemed dedicated to the power of the Emperor, and not the glory of God.
Each girl was assigned a Hound dressed in a black suit, and told he would be responsible for preparing her for the auction. They would be paid a two-percent commission on her sale. May have her Hound an appraising glance up and down, not unlike the one she herself had been forced endure earlier at the docks. He had short brown hair and a lanky build. "Well, you don't look so tough." She said, with a challenging smile. The Hound responded with a large grin of his own, revealing his yellow, decaying teeth, of which he was missing several. The stench was unbearable, and May turned her head away in disgust. "Does it run in the family?" She quibbed.
The Hound ignored her remark. "Follow me." He said, his voice bland. With a reluctant sigh, May decided to do as she was bid. Her rule was only to resist when she could see a clear benefit to doing so, or at least, no way in which things could end extremely badly for her. In this case, she could find none- her hands were still tied, and his baton was rather monstrous looking.
He led her through the front doors and into the building's spacious white hallways, which were decorated with paintings, vases, and other pieces of art. Some of the works were quite famous, and May couldn't help but wonder if they had been purchased legitimately, or simply stolen from various countries during Arcadia's wars of conquest. Probably the latter.