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Empress Of Mijak

Empress Of Mijak

Godspeaker - Book 1

(AUS/NZ Release)

PUBLISHER: Voyager
FORMAT: Paperback
ISBN-10: 0732284511
ISBN-13: 9780732284510

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Chapter One

Despite its two burning lard-lamps the kitchen was dark, its air choked with the stink of rancid goat butter and spoiling goat-meat. Spiders festooned the corners with sickly webs, hoarding the husks of flies and suck-you-dries. A mud-brick oven swallowed half the space between the door and the solitary window. There were three wooden shelves, one rickety wooden stool and a scarred wooden table, almost unheard of in this land whose trees had ages since turned to stone.

Crouched in the shadows beneath the table, the child with no name listened to the man and the woman fight.

“But you promised,” the woman wailed. “You said I could keep this one.”

The man’s hard fist pounded the timber above the child’s head. “That was before another poor harvest, slut, before two more village wells dried up! All the coin it costs to feed it, am I made of money? Don’t you complain, when it was born I could’ve thrown it on the rocks, I could’ve left it on The Anvil!”

“But she can work, she –“

"Not like a son!” His voice cracked like lightning, rolled like thunder round the small smoky room. “If you’d whelped me more sons –“

“I tried!”

“Not hard enough!” Another boom of fist on wood. “The she-brat goes. Only the god knows when Traders will come this way again.”

The woman was sobbing, harsh little sounds like a dying goat. “But she’s so young.”

“Young? Its blood-time is come. It can pay back what it’s cost me, like the other she-brats you spawned. This is my word, woman. Speak again I’ll smash your teeth and black your eyes.”

When the woman dared disobey him the child was so surprised she bit her fingers. She scarcely felt the small pain; her whole life was pain, vast like the barren wastes beyond the village’s godpost, and had been so since her first caterwauling cry. She was almost numb to it now.

“Please,” the woman whispered. “Let me keep her. I’ve spawned you six sons.”

“It should’ve been eleven!” Now the man sounded like one of his skin-and-bone dogs, slavering beasts who fought for scraps of offal in the stony yard behind their hovel.

The child flinched. She hated those dogs almost as much as she hated the man. It was a bright flame, her hatred, hidden deep and safe from the man’s sight. He would kill her if he saw it, would take her by one skinny scabbed ankle and smash her head-first into the nearest red and ochre rock. He’d done it to a dog once, that had dared to growl at him. The other dogs had lapped up its brains then fought over the bloody carcass all through the long unheated night. On her threadbare blanket beneath the kitchen table she’d fallen asleep to the sound of their teeth, and dreamed the bones they gnawed were her own.

But dangerous or not she refused to abandon her hate, the only thing she owned. It comforted and nourished her, filling her ache-empty belly on the nights she didn’t eat because the woman’s legs were spread, or her labours were unfinished, or the man was drunk on cactus blood and beating her.

He was beating her now, open-handed blows across the face, swearing and sweating, working himself to a frenzy. The woman knew better than to cry out. Listening to the man’s palm smack against the woman’s sunken cheeks, to his lusty breathing and her swallowed grunts, the child imagined plunging a knife in his throat. If she closed her eyes she could see the blood spurt scarlet, hear it splash on the floor as he gasped and bubbled and died. She was sure she could do it. Hadn’t she seen the men with their proud knives cut the throats of goats and even a horse, once, that had broken its leg and was no longer good for anything but meat and hide and bleached boiled bones?

There were knives in a box on the kitchen’s lowest shelf. She felt her fingers curl and cramp as though grasping a carved bone hilt, felt her heart rattle her ribs. The secret flame flickered, flared … then died.

No good. He’d catch her before she killed him. She would not defeat the man today, or tomorrow, or even next fat godmoon. She was too small, and he was too strong. But one day, many fat godmoons from now, she’d be big and he’d be old and shrunken. Then she’d do it and throw his body to the dogs after and laugh and laugh as they gobbled his buttocks and poked their questing tongues through the empty eye sockets of his skull.

One day.

The man hit the woman again, so hard she fell to the pounded dirt floor. “You poisoned my seed five times and whelped bitches, slut. Three sons you whelped lived less than a godmoon. I should curse you! Turn you out for the godspeaker to deal with!”

The woman was sobbing again, scarred arms crossed in front of her face. “I’m sorry – I’m sorry –"

Listening, the child felt contempt. Where was the woman’s flame? Did she even have one? Weeping. Begging. Didn’t she know this was what the man wanted, to see her broken and bleating in the dirt? The woman should die first.

But she wouldn’t. She was weak. All women were weak.
Everywhere in the village the child saw it. Even the women who’d spawned only sons, who looked down on the ones who’d spawned she-brats as well, who helped the godspeaker stone the cursed witches whose bodies spewed forth nothing but female flesh … even those women were weak.

I not weak the child told herself fiercely as the man soaked the woman in venom and spite and the woman wept, believing him. I never beg.

Now the man pressed his heel between the woman’s dugs and shoved her flat on her back. “You should pray thanks to the god. Another man would’ve broke your legs and turned you out seasons ago. Another man would’ve ploughed two hands of living sons on a better bitch than you!”

“Yes! Yes! I am fortunate! I am blessed!” the woman gabbled, rubbing at the bruised place on her chest.

The man shucked his trousers. “Maybe. Maybe not. Spread, bitch. You give me a living son nine fat godmoons from now or I swear by the village godpost I’ll be rid of you onto The Anvil!”
Choking, obedient, the woman hiked up her torn shift and let her thin thighs fall open. The child watched, unmoved, as the man ploughed the woman’s furrow, grunting and sweating with his effort. He had a puny blade, and the woman’s soil was old and dusty. She wore her dogtooth amulet round her neck but its power was long dead. The child did not think a son would come of this planting or any other. Nine fat godmoons from this day, or sooner, the woman would die.

His seed at last dribbled out, the man stood and pulled up his trousers. “Traders’ll be here by highsun tomorrow. Might be seasons till more come. I paid the godspeaker to list us as selling and put a goat-skull on the gate. Money won’t come back, so the she-brat goes. Use your water ration to clean it. Use one drop of mine, I’ll flay you. I’ll hang you with rope twisted from your own skin. Understand?”

“Yes,” the woman whispered. She sounded tired and beaten. There was blood on the dirt between her legs.

“Where’s the she-brat now?”

“Outside.”

The man spat. He was always spitting. Wasting water. “Find it. When it’s clean, chain it to the wall so it don’t run like the last one.”

The woman nodded. He’d broken her nose with his goat stick that time. The child, three seasons younger then, had heard the woman’s splintering bone, watched the pouring blood. Remembering that, she remembered too what the man did to the other she-brat to make it sorry for running. Things that made the she-brat squeal but left no mark because Traders paid less for damaged goods.

That she-brat had been a fool. No matter where the Traders took her it had to be better than the village and the man. Traders were the only escape for she-brats. Traders … or death. And she did not want to die. When they came for her before highsun tomorrow she would go with them willingly.

“I’ll chain her,” the woman promised. “She won’t run.”

“Better not,” growled the man, and then the slap of goat-hide on wood as he shoved the kitchen door aside and left.

The woman rolled her head until her red-rimmed eyes found what they sought beneath the kitchen table. “I tried. I’m sorry.”
The child crawled out of the shadows and shrugged. The woman was always sorry. But sorrow changed nothing, so what did it matter? “Traders coming,” she said. “Wash now.”

Wincing, breath catching raw in her throat, the woman clutched at the table leg and clawed herself to her knees then grabbed hold of the table edge, panting, whimpering, and staggered upright. There was water in her eyes. She reached out a work-knotted hand and touched rough fingertips to the child’s cheek. The water trembled, but did not fall.

Then the woman turned on her heel and went out into the searing day. Not understanding, not caring, the child with no name followed.


The Traders came a finger before highsun the next day. Not the four from last time, with tatty robes, skinny donkeys, half-starved purses and hardly any slaves. No. These two Traders were grand. Seated on haughty white camels, jangling with beads and bangles, dangling with ear-rings and sacred amulets, their dark skin shiny with fragrant oils and jewelled knife-sheathes on their belts. Behind them stretched the longest snake-spine of merchandise: men’s inferior sons, discarded, and she-brats, and women. All naked, all chained. Some born to slavery, others newly sold. The difference was in their godbraids, slaves of long standing bore one braid of deep blood red, a sign from the god that they were property. The new slaves would get their red braids, in time.

Guarding the chained slaves, five tall men with swords and spears. Their godbraids bore amulets, even their slave-braids were charmed. They must be special slaves, those guards. In the caravan there were pack camels too, common brown, roped together, laden with baskets, criss-crossed with travel-charms. A sixth unchained slave led them, little more than a boy, and his red godbraid bore amulets as well. At his signal, groaning, the camels folded their calloused knees to squat on the hard ground.
The slaves squatted too, silent and sweating.

Waiting in her own chains, the crude iron links heavy and chafing round her wrists and ankles, the child watched the Traders from beneath lowered lashes as they dismounted and stood in the dust and dirt of the man’s small holding. Their slender fingers smoothed shining silk robes, tucked their glossy beaded godbraids behind their ears. Their fingernails were all the same neat oval shape and painted bright colours to match their clothing: green and purple and crimson and gold. They were taller than the tallest man in the village. Taller than the godspeaker, who must stand above all. One of them was even fat. They were the most splendid creatures the child had ever seen, and knowing she would leave with them, leave forever the squalor and misery of the man and the village, her heart beat faster and her own unpainted fingernails, ragged and shapeless, bit deep into her dirty scarred palms.

The Traders stared at the cracked bare ground with its withered straggle of weeds, at the mud brick hovel with its roof of dried grasses badly woven, at the pen of profitless goats, at the man whose bloodshot eyes shone with hope and avarice. A look flowed between them and their plump lips pursed. They were sneering. The child wondered where they came from, to be so clean and disapproving. Somewhere not like this. She couldn’t wait to see such a place herself, to sleep for just one night inside walls that did not stink of fear and goat. She’d wear a hundred chains and crawl on her hands and knees across The Anvil’s burning sand if she had to, so long as she reached it.

The man was staring at the Traders too, his eyes popping with amazement. He bobbed his head at them, like a chicken pecking corn. “Excellencies. Welcome, welcome. Thank you for your custom.”

The thin Trader wore thick gold ear-rings; tattooed on his right cheek, in brightest scarlet, a stinging scorpion. The child bit her tongue. He had money enough to buy a protection like that? And power enough that a godspeaker would let him? Aieee …
He stepped forward and looked down at the man, finger-tips flicking at her. “Just this?”

She was enchanted. His voice was deep and dark like the dead of night, and shaped the words differently from the man. When the man spoke it sounded like rocks grinding in the dry ravine, ugly like him. The Trader was not ugly.

The man nodded. “Just this.”

“No sons, un-needed?”

“Apologies, Excellency,” said the man. “The god has granted me few sons. I need them all.”

Frowning, the Trader circled the child in slow, measured steps. She held her breath. If he found her unpleasing and if the man did not kill her because of it, she’d be slaved to some village man for beating and spawning sons and hard labour without rest. She would cut her flesh with stone and let the dogs taste her, tear her, devour her, first.

The Trader reached out his hand, his flat palm soft and pink, and smoothed it down her thigh, across her buttock. His touch was warm, and heavy. He glanced at the man. “How old?”

“Sixteen.”

The Trader stopped pacing. His companion unhooked a camel whip from his belt of linked precious stones and snapped the thong. The man’s dogs, caged for safety, howled and threw themselves against the woven goat-hide straps of their prison. In the pen beside them the man’s goats bleated and milled, dropping anxious balls of shit, yellow slot-eyes gleaming.

“How old?” the Trader asked again. His green eyes were narrow, and cold.

The man cringed, head lowered, fingers knuckled together.

“Twelve. Forgive me. Honest error.”

The Trader made a small, disbelieving sound. He’d done something to his eyebrows. Instead of being a thick tangled bar like the man’s they arched above his eyes in two solid gold half-circles. The child stared at them, fascinated, as the Trader leaned down and brought his dark face close to hers. She wanted to stroke the scarlet scorpion inked into his cheek. Steal some of his protection, in case he did not buy her.

His long, slender fingers tugged on her earlobes, traced the shape of her skull, her nose, her cheeks, pushed back her lips and felt all her teeth. He tasted of salt and things she did not know. He smelled like freedom.

“Is she blooded?” he asked, glancing over his shoulder at the man.

“Since four godmoons.”

Intact?”

The man nodded. “Of course.”

The Trader’s lip curled. “There is no ‘of course’ where men and she-flesh abide.”

Without warning he plunged his hand between her legs, fingers pushing, probing, higher up, deeper in. Teeth bared, her own fingers like little claws, the child flew at him, screeching. Her chains might have weighed no more than the bangles on his slender, elegant wrists. The man sprang forward shouting, fists raised, face contorted, but the Trader did not need him. He brushed her aside as though she were a corn-moth. Seizing a handful of black and tangled hair he wrenched her to the tips of her toes till she was screaming in pain, not fury, and her hands fell limply by her sides. She felt her heart batter her brittle ribs and despair storm in her throat. Her eyes squeezed shut and for the first time she could remember felt the salty sting of tears.
She had ruined everything. There would be no escape from the village now, no new life beyond the knife-edged horizon. The Trader would toss her aside like spoiled meat, and when he and his fat friend were gone the man would kill her or she would be forced to kill herself. Panting like a goat in the slaughter-house she waited for the blow to fall.

But the Trader was laughing. Still holding her, he turned to his friend. “What a little hell-cat! Untamed and savage, like all these dwellers in the savage north. But do you see the eyes, Yagji? The face? The length of bone and the sleekness of flank? Her sweet breasts, budding?”

Trembling, she dared to look at him. Dared to hope …

The fat one wasn’t laughing. He shook his head, setting the ivory dangles in his ears to swinging. “She is scrawny.”

“Today, yes,” agreed the Trader. “But with food and bathing and three times three godmoons … then we shall see!”

“Your eyes see the invisible, Aba. Scrawny brats are oft diseased.”

“No, Excellency!” the man protested. “No disease. No pus, no bloating, no worms. Good flesh. Healthy flesh.”

“What there is of it,” said the Trader. He turned. “She is not diseased, Yagji.”

"But she is ill-tempered,” his fat friend argued. “Undisciplined, and wild. She’ll be troublesome, Aba.”

The Trader nodded. “True.” He held out his hand and easily caught the camel whip tossed to him. Fingers tight in her hair he snapped the woven hide quirt around her naked legs so the little metal weights on its end printed bloody patterns in her flesh.
The blows stung like fire. The child sank her teeth into her lip and stared unblinking into the Trader’s careful, watching eyes, daring him to strip the unfed flesh from her bones if he liked. He would see she was no weakling, that she was worthy of his coin. Hot blood dripped down her calf to tickle her ankle. Within seconds the small black desert flies came buzzing to drink her. Hearing them, the Trader withheld the next blow and instead tossed the camel whip back to its owner.

“Lesson one, little hell-cat,” he said, his fingers untangling from her hair to stroke the sharp line of her cheek. “Raise your hand or voice to me again and you will die never knowing the pleasures that await you. Do you understand me?”

The black desert flies were greedy, their eager sucking made her skin crawl. She’d seen what they could do to living creatures if not discouraged. She tried not to dance on the spot as the feverish flies quarrelled over her bloody welts. All she understood was the Trader did not mean to reject her. “Yes.”

“Good.” He waved the flies away, then pulled from his gold and purple pocket a tiny pottery jar. When he took off its lid she smelled the ointment inside, thick and rich and strange.
Startling her, he dropped to one knee and smeared her burning legs with the jar’s fragrant paste. His fingers were cool and sure against her sun-seared skin. The pain vanished, and she was shocked. She hadn’t known a man could touch a she-brat and not hurt it.

It made her wonder what else she did not know.

When he was finished he pocketed the jar and stood, staring down at her. “Do you have a name?”

A stupid question. She-brats were owed no names, no more than the stones on the ground or the dead goats in the slaughter-house waiting to be skinned. She opened her mouth to say so, then closed it again. The Trader was almost smiling, and there was a look in his eyes she’d never seen before. A question. Or a challenge. It meant something. She was sure it meant something. If only she could work out what …

She let her gaze slide sideways to the mud brick hovel and its mean kitchen window, where the woman thought she could not be seen as she dangerously watched the trading. The woman who had no name, just descriptions. Bitch. Slut. Goatslit. Then she looked at the man, shaking with greed, waiting for his money. If she gave herself a name, how angry it would make him.
But she couldn’t think of one. Her mind was blank sand, like The Anvil. Who was she? She had no idea. But the Trader had named her, hadn’t he? He had called her something, he had called her --

She tilted her chin so she could look into his green and gleaming eyes. “He - kat,” she said, her tongue stumbling over the strange word, the sing-song way he spoke. “Me. Name. Hekat.”

The Trader laughed again. “As good a name as any, and better than most.” He held up his hand, two fingers raised; his fat friend tossed him a red leather pouch, clinking with coin.

The man stepped forward, black eyes ravenous. “If you like the brat so much I will breed you more! Better than this one, worth twice as much coin.”

The Trader snorted. “It is a miracle you bred even this one. Do not tempt the god with your blustering lest your seed dry up completely.” Nostrils pinched, he dropped the pouch into the man’s cupped hands.

The man’s fingers tore at the pouch’s tied lacing, so clumsily that its contents spilled on the ground. With a cry of anguish he plunged to his knees, heedless of bruises, and began scrabbling for the silver coins. His knuckles skinned against the sharp stones but the man did not notice the blood, or the buzzing black flies that swarmed to drink him.

For a moment the Trader watched him, unspeaking. Then he trod the man’s fingers into the dirt. “Your silver has no wings. Remove the child’s chains.”

The man gaped, face screwed up in pain. “Remove …?”

The Trader smiled; it made his scarlet scorpion flex its claws.

“You are deaf? Or would like to be?”

“Excellency?”

The Trader’s left hand settled on the long knife at his side.

“Headless men cannot hear.”

The man wrenched his fingers free and lurched to his feet.

Panting, he unlocked the binding chains, not looking at the child. The skin around his eyes twitched as though he were scorpion-stung.

“Come, little Hekat,” said the Trader. “You belong to me now.”

She followed him to the waiting slave train, thinking he would put his own chains about her wrists and ankles and join her to the other naked slaves squatting on the ground. Instead he led her to his camel and turned to his friend. “A robe, Yagji.”

The fat Trader Yagji sighed and fetched a pale yellow garment from one of the pack camel’s baskets. Barely breathing, the child stared as the thin Trader took his knife and slashed through the cloth, reducing it to fit her small body. Smiling, he dropped the cut-down robe over her head and guided her arms into its shortened sleeves, smoothed its cool folds over her naked skin. She was astonished. She wished the man’s sons were here to see this but they were away at work. Snake-dancing, and tending goats.

“There,” said the Trader. “Now we will ride.”

Before she could speak he was lifting her up and onto the camel.

Air hissed between the fat Trader’s teeth. “Ten silver pieces! Did you have to give so much?”

“To give less would be insulting to the god.”

“Tcha! This is madness, Abajai! You will regret this, and so will I!”

“I do not think so, Yagji,” the thin Trader replied. “We were guided here by the god. The god will see us safe.”

He climbed onto the camel and prodded it to standing. With a muffled curse, the fat Trader climbed onto his own camel and the slave train moved on, leaving the man and the woman and the goats and the dogs behind them.

Hekat sat on the Trader’s haughty white camel, her head held high, and never once looked back.