The sun beat down on the dusty city square, drawing up beads of sweat on the flesh of the men and women shifting uncomfortably in their chains. They were waiting to be slicked with the golden oil that would make their skin gleam attractively, showing more clearly the contours of their bodies and muscles as they were paraded before the crowd.
Arieh Sef'ea, chains heavy around his wrists and ankles, burned with more than the afternoon heat. Hatred, anger, embarrassment and terror squirmed in his belly, making him glad he hadn't had the appetite for the meager breakfast the slavers had provided that morning. He had offered his portion to the slave beside him, a quiet girl from the western desert province of E'ea who did nothing but cry softly from morning to night, but the blue eyed barbarian across from her had stolen it instead. The girl hadn't seemed to notice.
The slave caravan had been large enough before Arieh was added to it, and in the three days he'd been traveling with them, they had picked up several more slaves about his age, some younger and several older. There were a few exotic, light skinned girls who had joined them at the last stop. Arieh had understood enough of the slavers' rough tongue to know they were prisoners from the war in Agul to the north, captured by soldiers and sold to the caravans after a thorough sampling. Others, like himself, were native sons and daughters taken as payment for exorbitant taxes their parents couldn't afford.
Arieh's sister Rahel, pretty and newly betrothed, had nearly been one of those payments herself. As the soldiers were dragging her away, Arieh had come tearing around the corner of the house, alarmed by the sounds of shouting and pleading. He had been instantly spotted by the soldiers who traveled with the tax collectors as guards. Arieh had skidded to a stop as their kentari, the highest ranking soldier among them, caught sight of him. Cold grey eyes locked onto his face with a calculating light.
"Leave the girl," the kentari had said and jabbed a rough finger in Arieh's direction. "Abheel-takhan likes this type." The man had lumbered up to him and squeezed Arieh's jaw in his calloused hand, tilting his face up and turning it side to side, studying him. It had been all Arieh could do to keep from hitting the man; survival instincts were the only thing holding him back. "Young, pretty, smooth as a girl. He'll be worth more to us."
"No!" Sefar, Arieh's father, had lunged forward, wailing. "He's my son! You can't take my son!"
"Silence, old man." The kentari had knocked Sefar backwards with the hand that was not holding Arieh's face. Arieh had trembled again with the effort of restraining his rage. "You have other sons." Arieh had tried hard not to think about Simen and Dan, neither older than ten years, hiding in the house. "This one is ours."
The last Arieh had seen of his home was his mother, shocked and weeping, his father tearing his rough-cloth tunic in mourning, and his sister Rahel looking horribly, guiltily relieved.
Arieh sighed and told himself not to think about it. It was useless. He'd been thinking about it all day, and all his energy was being eaten up by anger.
The tallest of the blonde Agullic girls, standing a few feet away from him with the other women who were to be sold, said something to him in her soft native tongue, looking concerned.
"I'm sorry," Arieh stammered in Keshen, the common language of the melting pot of cultures that made up the country of Keshe. "I don't understand."
She frowned and he thought that would be the end of things--she probably knew as much of his language as he did of hers. He had already looked away from her when she said haltingly, "You? Okay?"
Arieh blinked, both in surprise at her use of Keshen and in astonishment at the question. I was supposed to be emancipated from my parents and apprenticed to a carpenter this year, but instead I was sold into slavery in place of my younger sister. Sure, I'm just fine, thanks for asking.
But she looked so earnest and worried that he just nodded his head and said, "Yes. I'm okay." His bitterness wasn't directed at her.
In truth, he was as far from okay as he could imagine. They had painted his eyes like a desert E'ean, oiled his hair until it gleamed ebony in the sunlight, stripped him of the tunic he'd been wearing when they took him, painted his body a gleaming bronze, then shoved him, naked, in a group of other young men similarly painted.
All the men and boys standing near him that he could see were handsome, and several pretty, painted girls stood a little distance away. The other slaves, unpainted and plain, were in a different group. Arieh wondered that they would separate slaves by looks. It seemed impractical. But then, what did he know? Riineans didn't keep slaves. None of them could afford it.
Just then, there was a commotion some distance in front of him and Arieh looked up, eyes darting nervously around the throng until he caught sight of the slavers walking down the line, evaluating each slave. When they paused in front of him, the desire to kick at their shins or spit in their faces swelled in him, but his mouth was dry as the dusty ground his feet seemed bound to. He couldn't move, couldn't speak. He wished he could cause their deaths just by his thoughts and longed for the power the heroes of old were said to have. If magic had not deserted Riinea, they would never have been beaten by the Keshen army. Arieh's family would not be poor farmers and Arieh would not be a slave. If.
The traders spoke to each other in their own language, a harsh tongue made up of biting, hissing sounds and rolling syllables. Arieh understood very little of it, but he knew they were arguing about him. Suddenly, as quickly as a desert wind changing direction, they began shouting at each other in Keshen and Arieh flinched in surprise.
"Do you not always keep your most precious treasures in the innermost chamber of your house?" one of them exclaimed, waving his arms about. "He should be sold last, as a prize jewel!"
Abheel-takhar, an old man with a coarse, pointy silver beard and kohl-lined eyes who seemed to be the head of the caravan, put up a many-ringed hand to silence him.
"Do you serve your best wine at a feast after the guests are already drunk and tasteless?" Abheel-takhar countered in a deeply accented voice. "No, you bring out the best dishes while they are still greedy with hunger, not when they are full and slovenly and will make a waste of it." His hand hovered above Arieh's head, not touching but close enough that Arieh thought he could feel the weight of all the rings the man wore pressing down into his hair. "He will go on early, while our guests are still hungry and will pay the price he is worth ... or more."
Arieh could hear murmurs nearby and noticed that many in the crowd were looking over to where the traders were, their attention drawn by the commotion. He realized then that it had all been a ploy; Abheel-takhar was advertising his wares before the bidding began and Arieh was the one on display.