Serial: An Heir to Thorns and Steel, 17

An Heir to Thorns and Steel is a serialized fantasy novel updating once a week for free on Tuesdays, and again on Thursdays and Saturdays if tips reach $15 and $20, respectively. Single reviews of existing stories posted to Amazon count for $5 toward the tip total.

An Heir to Thorns and Steel
Blood Ladders, Book 1
M.C.A. Hogarth

Episode 17

Almond Salt

      I pulled it off her palm by the long steel chain: so elegantly crafted to be made of so prosaic a metal, but it was obviously not silver. At the end of this chain hung a pendant of sorts, a lozenge of steel stamped with three circles, each inscribed with peculiar marks. “Strange jewelry,” I said, chafing my thumb and forefinger over the thin metal. It felt alarmingly real, but then, so did the genets. Smooth and cool.
      “It’s your name,” the golden one said.
      “Morgan,” I said. “Morgan Locke of Evertrue. Did I introduce myself? Come to that, did you?”
      “Is that what they call you here?” the golden one asked, looking up at me.
      I laughed. “What else? The name I was born with, little mote of gold. Do I have some other Elf name that you will now divulge? With much fanfare? A resplendent name, no doubt, longer than my arm.”
      The gray one says, “Maybe you weren’t paying attention when we said you were a bastard born to a mother who fled out here to the middle of enemy lands? No one knows your name. No one even knew you existed until ten years back.”
      “If no one knows my name,” I said, grinning, “then how—” holding up the pendant, “—was this written?”
      She shrugged. “What do I know about writing?” she asked, baring her fangs at me. “They don’t teach slaves to read.”
      “We’re not slaves,” the golden one said sadly.
      “Yes we are,” the larger one said. “I wish you’d stop being so… so… so accepting.” She lifted her chin and said, “I’m Kelu. My name means ‘slave’, which is at least honest. Her name is Almond-14, because she’s the fourteenth genet bred out of the line of the Almond dam, and all the numbered Almonds before her are dead. So you can just call her Almond, because no one is going to confuse her with her sisters.”
      “I see,” I said, blinking at her. I wondered what seed all these sordid stories had sprung from, what cruel subtext I’d read into my historical studies had prompted me to imagine animal slaves. But then, how was it any worse than the demons eating me alive? I shrugged. “So they don’t teach you to read. Who taught you to speak?”
      “We all know languages, or else what good is it?” Kelu said, ears flattening. “If we can’t understand the commands given to us by our masters,” spit out with such venom that Almond flinched in my arms, “then we’re not very useful, are we?”
      “Ah,” I said, “but you aren’t speaking… ah… Elven. You’re speaking Lit.”
      She shrugged. “So do the humans on the Archipelago.”
      More and more curious. “So there are humans where you live? Humans who know elves?”
      “They serve the elves,” Almond said softly. “As we do.”
      How could prodigies of my over-taxed mind give me raised hairs on the back of my neck? My stomach tightened in unease. I looked at Kelu, waiting to see if she would have some acerbic comment, but she merely looked grim.
      “I see,” I said. “So it’s better to be an elf than to be human, eh?”
      “Of course,” Almond said.
      That sense of unease grew more distinct. I opened my mouth to pursue it when the front door shook beneath Chester’s knock.
      “Back into the closet,” Kelu said, grabbing Almond’s tail and tugging.
      “But—”
      “Her command, and for once it makes sense,” Kelu said. “Humans shouldn’t see us. Come on!”
      Almond leaned up and licked the base of my jaw with a warm tongue. “Sorry, Master, sorry—” and then she let herself be pulled back among my clothes.
      Kelu leaned toward me, hand on the knob, and said, “Don’t give us away. We don’t want to become curiosities in some human’s menagerie. At least the elves let us drink.”
      “Of course,” I said, though I wondered what cruelty she’d undergone to imagine we would allow her to die of thirst. Alas for Chester driving away these oh-so-fascinating visions.
      Kelu huffed and closed the door behind them.
      Again the knock. I pulled myself to my feet and headed back to the front room…
      …I could walk. Oh, there was still pain, but I no longer felt constrained by my own muscle tension. I was so astonished that I stood before the door without answering it, wrapped in my own reverie.
      That third rap had a touch of desperation. I shook myself and opened the door before Chester could knock it down. He was standing with his hand raised, wearing a startled look.
      “I thought something had happened,” he said.
      “Just slow getting to the door,” I said, smiling, and stepped out of the way so he could enter. “I didn’t realize how late into the day it had gotten.”
      “Almost supper,” Chester agreed, pulling off his coat. “Have you eaten?”
      “Not since breakfast,” I said. “But I’m not hungry.”
      Chester eyed me. “How can you eat so little?”
      “Habit?” I said. I had never really wondered. Better not to overeat than to do so and end up wracked and losing the meal a few hours later. “I don’t know. Would you like tea?”
      “Always,” he said, seating himself at the table. I went to the cupboard to take down the tin and found my fingers knotted up in the steel cord. A very persistent hallucination, that one. I glanced at it once more and moved to set it on the counter.
      “What have you got there?” Chester asked.
      “Tea?” I said, holding the tin.
      “No, no,” he said. “The necklace. I didn’t know you were taken with jewelry.”
      I set the tin down. The bottom took a long time to reach the counter. “You mean this?” I asked, letting it drop from my hand to the length of its chain. It swung, pendulum-heavy, glimmering.
      “Yes,” he says. “Looks curious… is that a design on it?”
      He could see it. By God, he could see it. I couldn’t believe. I walked toward him and offered it to him and he took it; I was so busy staring at his fingers touching its surface that I didn’t notice him sitting up until he exclaimed, “Morgan! Where did you get this? This is amazing!”
      “What?” I asked. “What do you mean?”
      “This pendant,” he said. “It’s a pedigree! A pedigree in the ancient glyphs!”
      “You can read it?” I asked, staring at him.
      “It’s not a thing to be read,” he said. “Not the way you mean. It’s not language. It’s… a system of marking a person’s place. Far easier than deciphering the language, I tell you. All the old stele are signed with them. Here, look.” He lay the pendant down. “Three circles. This first tells you the birth order and the sex of the person… in this case, he’s a second son. The second circle tells you the two Houses that combined to produce the person… whether they did so in wedlock and the current status of the person—if he’s dead or alive. These marks above the two House signs… they tell you the status of that House when the person was born: were they prominent? Rich? Part of the nobility? Or falling down the ladder?”
      I was trying very hard not to shake. My voice, I hoped, was nonchalant as I said, “And this particular person?”
      “Mmm,” he said. “One House very well off, probably… I think this sign is nobility. This other is also, but without any markers for how well off they are… strange, that. Perhaps the jeweler didn’t know? The union that produced this second son wasn’t… ah… legitimate. The person’s still alive.” He tapped one of the signs. “This one—the father’s House it is, you can tell by the sign next to it—I’ve seen before. Very important House. Here, wait.” He set the pendant aside and reached for the folio, flipping through it at speed but somehow still with care for its fragile pages. “Ah! Look!”
      I looked over his shoulder to find myself confronted with the image of the honey-eyed king.
      “See,” he said. “He wears it on his scarf.”
      “Blood of kings,” I murmured.
      “So the evidence suggests,” Chester said, enthused. “This final circle tells you the House of the person now and his status in it. Important, as sometimes people seem to mysteriously show up in third or fourth Houses… men and women both. Perhaps you can marry or be adopted into whatever House is most advantageous? It’s hard to tell. But in this case, we have the royal House again and… no sign above it. Curious. There should at least be something there. What a mystery this person is!”
      My fingers had gone numb. He could really see it. Not only that, but he told a story similar to theirs. I turned and went to the closet, leaving a bewildered Chester behind me.
      “Locke? Where’d you get this, chap?”
      I opened the door. They stared up at me.
      “Close the door!” Kelu hissed.
      “You’re real,” I said. “I’m not imagining you.”
      “What in the name of angels are you talking about?” Chester asked, his voice closer. “You’re not having another fit, are you?”
      Kelu reached for the door. I held it out of reach.

***

…you didn’t think I would write a normal story, did you? :D And yes, that’s Morgan’s name up there under Almond, in the picture.

4 reviews or $20 (or some combination thereof) away from our Saturday bonus! Otherwise, we return to Morgan, Chester and the genets… on Tuesday! Where we learn even MORE astounding (and horrific) secrets!


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