Slavery, 60

Sometimes You Don’t Know Something Is Bad Until You’ve Done it, but Sometimes You Know before

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Tonight was the night.

Daniel tried not to feel nervous as he disentangled himself from the pile in Theodore’s bed, climbing over the edge and strapping on his knife harnesses, dressing in the clothes he’d left just under the edge of the bed. Ozzy was doing the same, silent.

As Daniel stood from pulling on his boots, he heard movement on the bed and a hand clasped around his wrist. He looked down at Simon, outlined in moonlight. He looked scared. Daniel smiled at him. “Go back to sleep.”

“You’re leaving again,” Simon whispered. “This is the fourth night in a row.”

“I know,” Daniel said. He’d known Simon was awake the other nights too, but neither of them had said anything. “This is the last night.”

“Okay.” Something about the way Simon said that said he knew why. “Are you coming back?”

“Of course I am,” Daniel said, leaning down. He’d taken his collar off. He kissed Simon softly. “Promise.”

“Okay,” Simon repeated. And he let go of Daniel’s wrist. “Be careful.”

“I will.”

Simon nodded, and lay back down beside Hugh, watching Daniel. Daniel checked over his equipment one more time, making sure that everything was in the pockets where it was supposed to be, and then headed for the door. He waved at Simon, who waved back, and went out into the hallway with Ozzy.

They didn’t talk until they were out of the house, silently slipping into the snow, which crunched loudly under their feet as they made their way to the back wall. “Are you ready?” Ozzy asked Daniel.

“Would it matter if I wasn’t?”

“Not really.”

They climbed the big tree together and helped each other over the wall, climbing down silently. The moon was almost full, giving enough light to move by but also enough light to be seen by, so they stuck to the shadows as they moved west down Gold Street. The glare of the snow made the black of their clothes stand out, and they stayed as far away from the main street as they could.

They’d walked this same path every night for the last few nights, so Daniel knew it by heart, but he was still careful to be alert. He didn’t want this all to go wrong because he’d done something stupid like not notice a patrol or something. They didn’t talk, and Daniel ran through his plan in his head as they went. It was straightforward and it would work. He’d observed Georg’s routine over the last few days enough to predict what he’d do. It would work. And if it didn’t, he had a backup plan.

“What will you do if he’s not alone?” Ozzy asked as they neared the house. A test, Daniel knew. They stopped opposite the house, in the cover of a tree that hung over Georg’s neighbour’s wall.

That didn’t stop him from feeling a spike of worry. “Wait until he is.” The house was smaller than Theodore’s, with slightly less expansive grounds but better walls and more guards.

“What if he stays not alone right into his bed?”

Georg didn’t have anyone he shared his bed with that Daniel had seen. “Then I’ll wait until they’re asleep. Everyone is alone in their sleep.”

Ozzy smiled. “That’s not how it feels sleeping with all you guys. Okay, go.”

Daniel nodded, took a step towards it, and realized he wasn’t being followed. “You’re not coming?”

Ozzy shook his head. He’d come into the house with Daniel every night to scope it out. “Your job. You need to do it on your own. You don’t want to raise the possibility that I did it for you.”

Right. Daniel swallowed, nodding. “Okay.”

“I’ll be out here when you’re done. Good luck.”

“Thank you.” Daniel turned, leaving Ozzy under the skeletal tree. Avoiding places on the road where the snow was undriven, he went around the back of the house. The wall was tall and topped with broken glass, and had a small guardhouse at the back, which guarded the servants’ entrance.

The roof of the guardhouse didn’t have any glass on it. Daniel approached it at an angle that would keep him unnoticeable from the small windows. The sides of the guardhouse weren’t easy to climb especially with ice on them, but if he stayed between the windows, he could use the corners of the frame and sills as footholds. It was slow going because he had to be careful not to get too close to a window, but he made it up to the roof like he had the last three nights, crawling across it and peering into Georg’s yard. A chill was running through his body for laying on the snowy roof, making sure nobody was around.

There were no windows in the interior side of the guardhouse, so Daniel turned around, slid down backwards, toes just barely brushing the top of the doorframe. He pressed his feet flat against the wall and pushed back, falling backwards and kicking off from the wall in a flip that had him landing hard in the snow, his knees and ankles protesting. But he did it, quickly darting behind a tree so that nobody would see him. When he left, he’d have to clamber quietly up the door using the handle and stand on the narrow doorframe, leaping to get his hands on the roof before pulling himself up. But he’d worry about that later.

The grounds were patrolled, so Daniel moved carefully, sticking to shovelled paths and hiding behind the trees when he heard someone coming. Then he ignored the doors, which were guarded on the inside, and darted around to the east side of the house. There was a window there to a cellar pantry room that didn’t shut properly, and he got it open, sliding inside and shutting it as best as it could shut behind him once he was in. The cellar was dark and full of wine. Daniel knew where the door was, and was soon out in the hallway, creeping up the servants’ stairs.

Georg spent the evenings in his downstairs library before retiring to bed. He read for a few hours, then returned to his study to put his work for the next day in order and have a drink of water before crossing the hall and going to sleep. Daniel wanted to check the library to make sure he was there, but that was an unnecessary risk when he already had to avoid house security all over the place. He wondered what Georg was so worried about.

Daniel counted in his head as a patrol passed him, then slipped out into the hall. It took him half a minute longer than it should have to pick the lock on Georg’s study, but he didn’t need to be in there for long. He stayed in there only for a few seconds before leaving, crossing the room and going into Georg’s bedroom, which wasn’t as large as Theodore’s but did contain a small sitting area with a stoked fire that one of Georg’s servants would have lit a while ago.

Then he waited, trying not to let his mind race with all the ways this could go wrong. Georg could change his routine, or stay up late, or another servant could come in and see him, or…

The sound of the study door opening across the hall got Daniel’s attention. He’d hid in there last night and watched Georg without being seen. He went in, put the work on his desk, straightened it. Poured water from the pitcher on the windowsill, drank it down in one gulp. Set the cup down beside the pitcher, checked his work one more time. Then left, shutting the door. Daniel visualized all that, and heard the door shut at the exact time it should have. He sighed.

The bedroom door opened, shut. Georg came in with a sigh. Daniel didn’t say anything, watching him untie the laces on his shirt, untuck it from his pants, notice him. “Oh,” he said, pausing. He glanced at the door, at Daniel. “Good evening.” He sounded worried.

“Good evening,” Daniel said, not moving. He had nothing in his hands, didn’t seem threatening. “Sorry to bother you.”

He shouldn’t be talking. He should have hidden under the bed or behind the door. This was stupid and it could get him caught.

“You’re Theodore’s boy,” Georg said softly, coming closer to him. Daniel was still counting in his head. “Daniel, if I recall. Did he send you here?”

“No,” Daniel said, soft. He looked Georg up and down. “I’m sorry to intrude.”

“No doubt. I shall have a word with my security.” He wouldn’t. “I can think of only one reason why you might be here. You’ve run away from him, have you?”

Why would that be Georg’s first and only assumption? Daniel would have assumed he was here to rob him. And he could only think of one reason why Georg’s mind had gone where it had. “Can you help me?” he asked in small voice. “Help me get out of the city?”

Georg came over, sat opposite Daniel. “I can’t imagine why you’d think I can do that, young man.”

“You’ve done it before.” If not, then Daniel was going to look stupid.

But Georg’s face in the firelight told him he wasn’t about to look stupid. “May I know where you heard that?”

“People talk. Servants, slaves. We hear things. Rumours.”

“Rumours are extremely dangerous,” Georg said. He sat back in his chair, reaching out as if for a glass that wasn’t there, then put his hand in his lap. “Especially about people like me.”

“Who are people like you?” Daniel asked. He was getting a sense of it. Georg was someone who helped slaves escape Merket. He felt a pang in his chest as he realized that was probably why someone wanted him dead. Daniel was here to make sure he didn’t free any more slaves.

“People who believe slavery is a barbaric system that should be abolished at once,” Georg said with a small smile. He looked at Daniel sadly. “I am from a city in Aergyre called Oktchan. You’re probably aware that slavery is practiced throughout the empire as well.”

Daniel nodded. He knew that.

“If anything it is even more horrendous than it is here,” Georg went on. “It is not only the rich who own slaves. Most people of means do. And they are treated appallingly, even more like disposable objects than you are here. Slaves make up almost a quarter of the empire’s population.”

“You were one of them,” Daniel guessed, throat clenched.

“That’s right. I escaped, came here. Imagine my dismay when the land of freedom had slaves in it too.” Georg shook his head. “So I devoted myself to freeing them. I can do that here. Back home, I will only ever be an escaped slave. But here I am a wealthy man, and can use that to my advantage.”

“But it’s a secret,” Daniel said. “You’ve never told anyone.”

“Would you?” Georg asked, shifting in his chair. “In this city? I’d lose all respect, and all ability to help. I do it quietly, and I’m not the only one. I funnel slaves out through the theatre, to White Cape, mostly. I recall Theodore telling me that’s where you’re from. We’ll have to send you somewhere else, I’m afraid. Your home is the first place Theodore will look for you.”

Daniel nodded. “Why would you help me? I don’t have anything for you, I don’t…”

“Why wouldn’t I help you, Daniel?” Georg asked kindly. “If you need it, why wouldn’t I help you?”

“Because I didn’t run away from Theodore,” Daniel said, looking at the fire. He felt like his collar was choking him and he wasn’t even wearing it. “I’m not here to escape Merket.”

Georg hesitated, sitting still. “Do you want help freeing the other slaves? Your friends?”

Daniel did, so badly. But he shook his head. “Rumours are dangerous,” he whispered. “Do you think a rumour is worth killing over?”

“No,” Georg said, watching Daniel carefully now. “Ah, I see. You’re not a slave.”

“Not all the time.”

Georg sighed. He seemed really nice. “May I ask who does think a rumour is worth killing over? Is it Theodore?”

“No.” Daniel shook his head. He stood up. Georg didn’t. “I don’t know who it was. But this isn’t Theodore’s style.”

“Good,” Georg said quietly. He seemed content with that. “I’d hate to have been betrayed by a friend.” He watched Daniel. “You don’t have to do this. I can help you.”

Daniel shook his head. “No. You can’t.” It was too late for that.

“Surely someone in your position understands why what I do is important,” Georg said. He was so close to pleading. Daniel couldn’t listen to him beg.

“I do,” he said, leaving the fireplace and heading for the door. “I think that what you do is really important. I’m glad someone’s doing it. You said you had friends?”

“Yes, and I won’t be telling you who they are.”

“Okay.” Daniel put his hand on the handle.

Georg watched him. “You don’t need to leave.”

“Yes, I do. I can’t stay.”

“I’ll still help you; I won’t hold a grudge. You’ve clearly decided not to kill me. There’s no reason for you to remain a slave too.”

Daniel closed his eyes for a second to push back the surge of emotion that rose in him. When it was past, he opened them again and said, “I’m sorry, sir. I’m glad you were doing what you were. I hope there are more people like you in the world. But I killed you before you walked in the room.”

Georg frowned, and Daniel watched him try to move, realize he couldn’t.

And Daniel stepped out into the hallway, opening the study door again. He took the pitcher of water off the windowsill and went into the adjoining privy, pouring the rest of the water down it before putting the pitcher back.

By the time he’d put it back, shut the study door and gone back into the bedroom, a good person was dead.

Daniel sat there with him for just a minute, watching his head sit there against his chest, a few tears gathering in his eyes. He wasn’t sad. He was angry. That someone had gotten him of all people do this. He felt used. Violated. But that was what he’d chosen for himself, wasn’t it? Freely, he’d chosen this life. And he had to live with the consequences of that. He couldn’t blame anyone but himself.

So Daniel got up, wiped his face, and left Georg Shalestone’s bedroom. He snuck out of the house without any problems, banging his knee against the guardhouse while he climbed up to the roof. That was the extent of his trouble. A man was dead, and Daniel had a bruised knee.

It had been probably an hour and a half by the time he rejoined Ozzy, who sighed as soon as he saw Daniel’s face. “You talked to him, didn’t you?”

Daniel nodded, leaning against the wall under the dead tree. “I know I’m not supposed to.”

“It’s okay,” Ozzy said, leaning beside him, looking up at the moon. “We all do, the first few times. It helps, if you can find out that they’re a bad person, find a reason why they deserve it.”

“He didn’t. He was a good person.”

“Yeah. That’s why we learn to stop talking to them.”

“Yeah,” Daniel said.

“Hey.” Ozzy inched closer, took his hand. “You okay?”

Daniel nodded rather than lying. “I want to go home,” he whispered.

“Yeah,” Ozzy said, pulling him closer. “Come on.”

“Don’t you have to report to the guild?” Daniel asked as they walked, a chill wind blowing. Ozzy would have to tell them that he’d done it. And that he’d done something he shouldn’t have.

“I can do that in the morning.” Ozzy’s voice was soft.

“I don’t want to get you in trouble.”

“I get myself in trouble just fine without your help,” Ozzy said, squeezing Daniel’s hand. “Hey. You did well.”

Daniel swallowed, not able to look at him. “Thank you.” He could do it again. He knew that. No matter how he felt now, he could do it again. And he would.

The cold of the wind had seeped through Daniel’s clothes and into his body by the time they were back in Theodore’s house, sneaking up the bedroom to climb back into the bed with the other boys. He put his collar back on before he got into bed. Simon immediately rolled over and put his arms around Daniel. “You’re freezing,” he muttered, half-asleep.

“Sorry,” said Daniel, hugging, feeling Simon’s warmth against his skin as Ozzy crawled into bed on his other side, cuddling him. “I’m so sorry.”

Simon just nodded against his chest, already asleep again. Trevor was snoring. Ozzy covered Daniel’s hand with his.

Elsewhere in the city, a good person was dead. And here, in this room, Daniel fell asleep warm and surrounded by people who cared about him.

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