They play at being king and queen and yet are king and queen all the same. None of these lords and ladies would suspect that the real king lives in another castle. A small, run-down fortress in the middle of nowhere, its walls weathered and bricks cracked, but the master of that castle is the one pulling all the strings. This is the way Elziah likes it: moving through the shadows, his machinations manipulating with subtle precision, a seeming nobody, secretly holding all the control. He enjoys the envious looks from others at court as the king directs him towards a line of slaves; a reward for a job well done.
“Please, pick a gift for yourself,” the king says.
“Thank you my liege,” Elziah replies, slowly walking down the line, contemplating who might be useful.
Tom manages to stand very still, staring at the wall, despite the pervading pain from last night’s punishment. He’s trying to be the perfect facsimile of the slaves by his side. For once he doesn’t want to draw attention, after all he has heard rumours of this minor lord (saying the man on a whim occasionally orders the killing of dozens of slaves) and has no desire to be chosen by him. Tom clenches his jaw as the lord stops in front of him, and carefully maintains his gaze, refusing to show fear. Fingers are on his chin, moving his head from side to side, inspecting. All he can do is silently hope he isn’t what the man is looking for.
His heart sinks. He takes a breath. Another day, another master, it’s all the same in the end. This is what Tom tells himself.
They’re barely within the walls of the tattered castle when the questioning begins. Tom gets the feeling that if Lord Elziah isn’t happy with his answers he will be swiftly joining those rumoured massacred slaves. His body is rigid as he stands before his master.
“Do you enjoy following orders?” asks Lord Elziah.
“I enjoy whatever my master wishes me to enjoy,” Tom answers simply.
“No, no, no,” his master says dismissively, “where is that defiance? I know the king doesn’t punish trivialities and from your stance I can see you’ve been punished recently.”
“I made a mistake, I was punished so that I could learn to do better next time.”
Lord Elziah scowls, “Well you’re lying at least, that’s a start. It wasn’t a mistake and whatever it was you don’t regret it.”
Tom’s mind spins, he has to think, has to figure out what answers his master wants. The stock slave answers were clearly undesirable, which made his gut clench, the stock answers were always the safest. It could be that his master wanted him to show defiance so he could tear him back down, break him. That was a game many masters liked.
“Do you enjoy following orders,” his master repeats.
He’d have to get it right this time, clearly the lord wanted a truthful response, but also a thoughtful one, hesitantly he answers,
“I’ve learned to take satisfaction from it at times, it’s the only way to survive.”
Tom feels a rush of relief as his master smirks in reply, he chastises himself, as much as pleasing his master is a good thing- this is likely all part of a big trap.
“So what big bad thing did you do that caused your punishment.”
“I gave some of my food to another slave,” he states confidently with remorseless defiance. If this is a game, he might as well play it his way, it will end the same.
“You are an intriguing one,” Elziah says, with an amused smile, the lord begins to circle him, assessing predatorily, he continues, “Have you ever refused to obey a direct order?”
Tom’s insides feel like they’ve been shredded at the words and all that remains is coldness. There is no way out but the truth and possibly it’s this truth that his new master is waiting for. The truth that he is a miscreant, a disgrace to slaves, deserving of whatever cruel punishments may befall him; that’s what his masters all seem to think anyway. Fear, unrestrained now, crushes every other thought, but he makes effort to remain immobile, through force of will doesn’t tremble, and whispers,
His master merely continues smiling and Tom wonders again whether Lord Elziah wishes to enjoy himself beating him into submission. However he’s already beginning to suspect it’s something else entirely.
“Would you kill if you were ordered to?” His master’s gaze burns as the man continues to circle.
“I have in battle,” he replies quickly, glad for the subject change despite its content.
“Hmm, how did that make you feel?”
Tom tries not to let his incredulousness show, sick of the pretence, “I did what I had to.”
“That doesn’t answer my question, think Tom, I need you to think, you can figure out what I want,” Elziah says, coming to a stop in front of Tom and peering into his eyes.
“Well, I didn’t like having to kill a bunch of slaves who were also just following their orders,” he says curtly, only just managing to keep from viciously spitting the words out. The questioning then dives along yet another surprising non-sequitur.
“If I told you that you are allowed to refuse an order here, what would you think of that?”
Tom feels strung out, exhausted by whatever battle of wits Elziah thinks is taking place, decides to just go with his gut and do something that may be crazy but feels right, voice frustrated he shouts,
“This, whatever this is, you’re acting like it’s an even playing field when you know it’s not. You’re delusional if you think I can just raise myself to your equal. You have power over me, you always will. It doesn’t matter how capable of independent thought I am. It doesn’t matter how capable of defiance I am. And it doesn’t matter how smart I am. You will always win and your victory will always be a hollow one.”
Tom keeps a bold expression on his face, despite shaking inside. His master’s mouth is still pulled into that awful amused smile, as the lord gestures for one of his other slaves to approach.
“Kill him,” his master orders.
He freezes. Nothing. He feels nothing. This is it then. He has screwed up for the last time. He feels the urge to laugh. He waits. No one moves and nothing slices into him. That’s when Tom realises he’s the one being handed the knife. He’s the one being ordered to kill the other slave.
The blade is heavy in his hand. His head is full of imagining what will be done to him if he disobeys, endless foodless, sleepless, beating-filled days, blood and torment and agony. He’s frozen on the spot. He has killed before, this wouldn’t be the first. If he doesn’t do it someone else will. It doesn’t make him feel better. Tom doesn’t even know if that’s what his master wants. It still feels as if he’s in the middle of an unpassable test. Sweat drips along his spine. He’s quivering now because he knows what he has to do. Tom closes his eyes, purses his lips, opens his eyes again and clears his throat. Forces the word out strongly,
Lord Elziah’s smile transforms into a massive knowing grin, the knife is taken away- Tom doesn’t have the wits about him to see where it goes, he’s too disoriented. But somehow sends back a watery smile of his own because his gut tells him to.
“I’m going to show you something,” Lord Elziah says, gesturing for him to follow, “I don’t usually do this so soon, but I think you’re a special one.”
Tom follows his master down a long series of stone steps, realising they are heading underground. Though still wary he feels far more relaxed, he has a sense that this is something important, something he’s being trusted with. So he decides to ask a question, surprised by how little he has to force the casual tone he wants to effect,
“Why would you share your secrets with a slave?”
“Because we all have secrets.” His master raises his sleeve and there is a mark, it has been burned away but Tom knows what had been there.
“You were a slave,” Tom says with astonishment, mind awhirl with the revelation.
“Someone helped me, like I’m going to help you. Now, let me show you the real castle.”
Tom asks nothing more despite wanting to, this isn’t the time. The longer they walk, the more there is to find. The underground tunnels wind long and wide, leading into vast chambers. They finally reach one of the doors, glancing inside he sees a large hall filled with armour and weaponry, the next doors open to similar halls. Tom sees people soldering armour and weapons, sparks flying as they stay intent on their work. Some rooms have groups sparring and others have walls and tables lined with maps, for people plotting out battle plans. He’s astounded by the sheer size of it all, the more he sees, the more amazed he becomes. The place must be filled with thousands of people. It occurs to Tom that these are the slaves who have been ‘killed’. Well, that’s one way to amass an army without anyone knowing.
He should probably find the whole thing troubling, but he doesn’t. He thinks he knows what this is before the words come.
“Welcome to the slave rebellion.”