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The Curse of the Three Headed God. (Part One)The Curse of the Three Headed God (part one)The Lady Carelia picked her way through the bustle of the market with care, lifting the hem of her long magenta robe to avoid the inevitable detritus littering the dusty cobbles and flagstones of the market quarter abutting the dockyards of the city. Beyond the roofs of the taverns and canopies of the market stalls she could see the tall masts of the sailing ships and the funnels of the steamers; ships from every quarter of the globe that unloaded their cargoes here to feed the commerce of this great sprawling market. Everywhere her ears were assailed by the noise of the market; jostling crowds vying with the cries of stallholders hawking their goods, the baying of dogs, the melodies of travelling musicians, the squeals of excited c***dren and voices lifted in merriment among the crowds packing the tables in front of the taverns and lifting tankards of ale to their lips.She stepped around a spillage of fruits before her and paused to avoid a young, barefoot urchin perhaps six summers old chasing a chicken between the stalls. A woman, most likely the boy’s mother, dashed to intercept him and curtsied hastily to Carelia, muttering an apology, recognising a high lady’s status. Carelia nodded to her distractedly, aware of her position, and continued her passage through the market. She carried a small basket over one arm which was already filling with scents, aromatic oils, spices and small trinkets of jewellery she had purchased among the stalls. Tripping at her heels were her two favourite slaves; Marliesa and Arasti carrying her other purchases between them and looking becoming in their green and silver dresses. The two pretty slaves were attracting a good deal of attention from the men around the market. Carelia frowned as a party of young men at a tavern door whistled in appreciation at their passing. She turned sternly to her two young charges. “You two can stop batting your eyelashes at everything in britches!” she warned them.Instantly the two girls lowered their eyes deferentially. “Yes ma-am… sorry ma-am.” they intoned automatically.Carelia snorted in irritation. “Well see that you heed my words young ladies! You’re the slaves of a high house of Andalay not a pair of common sluts touting your wares in the market place! You’ll behave with the decorum befitting the station of our house or, Goddess help me, I’ll take a whip to you when we get home!”“Yes ma-am… sorry ma-am.” The two girls repeated but, as soon as Carelia’s back was turned once more, they winked at each other. The lady was always threatening them with the whip but she very rarely acted upon her threats. The lady’s friends considered that she was far too soft with her slaves; spoiled them in fact.Carelia sighed to herself, annoyed at her own flash of ill temper. In all honesty she knew that the girls had done nothing wrong unless of course you could count their simply being what nature and the Goddess decreed them to be as wrong. It was high time she had the pair of them mated off! The Lady Amala had long been pestering her with her pair of young studs to that end. In truth the two young men would make admirable husbands for the two girls and the connection with the Lady Amala’s house would be both honourable and profitable. Carelia knew however that she was jealous of her favourites and ever reluctant to let them go. If she was even more honest with herself, Carelia knew that her bad mood today was more than her domestic worries or the petty irritations of the market. It was the ship that was the root cause of her ill ease and dark humour. It lay out at anchor in the roads, sleek, dark and sinister; bearing the accursed flag of Bayeron like a portent of doom over the peaceful bustle of the port. It was the real reason why Carelia was at the market today; to see it, observe it and commit every detail of it to memory. Her mistress would want to know everything about it; no detail too trivial, for the ship was a dagger aimed at the very vitals of the Commonwealth.Carelia had ambled out onto the quay earlier to observe the ship. She shuddered at the memory of it. In a part of her mind which could remain impassive there was a small aesthetic sense that conceded that the ship had a certain graceful beauty in a menacing sort of way. Named “Furchtlos” in one of the half forgotten tongues of the ancients, the ship was itself the culmination of ancient curses and magic. Her contacts had estimated a gross displacement for the ship at over 28,000 tons, making it the biggest warship in the world. Its massive size however was ameliorated by its sleek low profile lines. Nobody knew for certain what its top speed was but it was rumoured to be faster than any other ship afloat and the massive steel armour on it made it nearly impervious to most naval guns. Its own guns were terrifying too. There were ten massive rifles carried in five double turrets capable of deluging an enemy with a tremendous weight of shells well beyond the range of nearly every gun in the Commonwealth navy. Furchtlos was its name and Carelia had had to look up the word in an obscure text of ancient languages. It meant “fearless” and, faster, better armoured and more heavily armed than any other warship in the world, it indeed had little to fear on the seas. Even its propulsion system was revolutionary. There were no belching coal fumes from its funnels. It was said to run on liquid oil driving great steam turbines in its hull. Perhaps that, thought Carelia, might be its weak point. Although those turbines gave the ship its great speed, oil was a commodity not readily available everywhere. Its range might be limited by its access to its fuel. Carelia fervently hoped so because she knew that there was no ship in the combined navies of the Commonwealth that could match it otherwise. In a single stroke, by invoking a curse of the distant past, Bayeron, under its insane leader, had rendered every other warship in the world obsolete. There was no war yet between the Commonwealth and Bayeron. The Bayeron Empire was still too busy absorbing its conquered Eastern neighbours. The ship was here ostensibly on a courtesy call; showing the flag as they called it. Yet those in the know realised that war, sooner or later, was inevitable and the ship was here as a threat; an arrogant brandishing of Bayeron’s new weapon in the face of the Commonwealth’s allies. That one ship could defeat fleets and drive the maritime commerce of the Commonwealth off the high seas and how many more of her sisters were even now spawning in the shipyards of Bayeron?Carelia muttered an oath to herself and shook her head resignedly. Well she had done what she could and she would send her observations to her mistress in all due haste. Hopefully, in far Andalay, better heads than hers would ponder her observations and find some answer to the menace. But for the moment she must ask the Goddess for tranquillity and maintain her composure. It was times such as these she yearned for the green valleys and glades of Andalay, her homeland. For years now she had been in exile here in the Kingdom of Castar with its fierce summers of dusty heat and primitive ways. She was a representative of Andalay in the Kingdom; so vital as a buffer state to the interests of the Commonwealth and, while she endured her long service here, she nevertheless felt homesick for her own country. But her mistress had commanded her to this task and her sense of duty would not fail her until she was released at last.Willing composure on herself she turned to her two slaves. “Come girls,” she said with more gentleness. “I saw some bolts of blue Cathay silk on a stall over there. I have a mind to have some new evening gowns fashioned for you two.” The two young women brightened immediately. If there was one thing that could raise their morale it was the opportunity to indulge their considerable vanity. Carelia shouldered her parasol and led them deeper into the market, her mind distracted by the awful thoughts of war.The Kingdom of Castar still held to its nebulous neutrality although it had friendly relations with Andalay and the Commonwealth. Its foolish king, ill advised by his ministers, was reluctant to enter into any closer alliance with the Commonwealth for fear of antagonising Bayeron and its allies. It was wishful thinking for in any coming conflict the kingdom would be a rich strategic prize and its harbours essential to Bayeron should it wish to wage maritime war on Andalay. Destante, the half insane ruler of Bayeron, would care nothing for supposed neutrality. He would gobble up Castar in an instance should he require it and there was precious little in Caster to prevent it.Castar was barely emerging into the new age. Its industry, such as it was, was barely developed and primitive and most of the land still lay under a deadening rural feudal system that had changed little since the apocalypse. There was only a single railway line in the whole kingdom connecting this port with the king’s capital a hundred and twenty kilometres inland and even that had been largely constructed by Commonwealth engineers. Its army was obsolete and dominated by a corrupt aristocratic officer corps riddled with cronyism and private fiefs. It had a large merchant navy to be sure but its Royal navy was feeble and ineffectual with worn out old ships of obsolete design, discontented crews and foolish, brutal officers. Little wonder that Destante had despatched the Furchtlos here to remind the kingdom of the folly of displeasing his ambitions.Yet canlı bahis for all its backwardness the kingdom still remained a hub of commerce largely founded on this port of Kingshaven and, while peace persisted, the market here was still among the most vibrant of the non industrialised world. Everywhere Carelia looked there was evidence of this continuing vibrancy. Whole streets in the market quarter were given over to the merchandising of cloths and textiles from all over the world. There were whole squares whose merchants peddled spices, oils, exotic herbs and dried fruits from every corner the far flung maritime commerce of the west visited. There were stall upon stall of gold and silversmiths; their trestle tables groaning under the weight of precious metals and gemstones. From the livestock pens there was the constant lowing of cattle, sheep and goats and the cackling of fowl while the largely horse drawn economy of the kingdom saw a thriving sale of thoroughbred horses from lands noted for their fine stock. . There were stalls with more exotic a****ls; brightly coloured cage birds, monkeys, ornamental fish, strange reptiles, exotic llamas and even a caged leopard; anything the well to do might take a fancy to as a pet. There were timber merchants dealing in foreign imported and expensive woods, furniture stalls, whole swathes of the market devoted to expensive imported porcelain and a bewildering collection of artefacts and merchandise from the distant corners of human civilisation.There was also more local produce, for the market attracted great commerce in grains, fruits and vegetables from the kingdom’s neighbours and fishing vessels from the seas abutting the kingdom landed their catches here to be vended in the fish market. The market was huge and a continual buzz of activity. It was said in the kingdom that anything the heart could desire could be bought at Kingshaven market. People came from all over the kingdom to trade here, packing the inns and guesthouses and flooding the economy of the port with their money. The streets swarmed with people haggling over the wares on offer, drinking at the taverns and ale tents or being entertained by the minstrels, jugglers, dancers and street magicians who plied their trade among the throngs. The inns, taverns and brothels thrived and everybody walked the dusty, litter strewn streets in opiated oblivion of the dark forces that threatened this happy commerce; dark forces represented by the looming menace of the ship lying forebodingly at anchor out in the roads.Carelia closed her mind to her misgivings and turned to her own contribution to the market’s commerce. She ordered two bolts of fine blue silk, inset with silver thread, and turned aside to purchase a comb of fine green jade for Marliesa for she thought it would look becoming set in the girl’s golden tresses. For Arasti she paused at a fine cordwainer’s stall to look at some high quality, calf leather slippers for her to try on. Arasti had small but pretty feet and she almost purred with vanity as she admired them set in the delicate and finely crafted slippers. After buying a few more trinkets, Carelia then led them to a tavern terrace where she allowed a pause in proceedings, treating herself to a goblet of rich imported Gallapian wine. Her two slaves she limited to refreshing sherberts. They had poor heads for alcohol and were apt to become silly and giggly after a glass or two of wine and make a disgrace of themselves in public. Carelia sipped her wine under the shade of the tavern awnings and nibbled at a bowl of green olives as her two slaves looked about them excitedly, drinking in the sights and sounds of the great market. An excursion to Kingshaven and the market was a rare treat for them and a break from the mundane domesticity of life in Carelia’s country home near Castaria. They were in holiday mood and Carelia smiled to herself at their infectious excitement. She glanced at the two beautiful girls, their eyes shining in animation; feeling proud of them and loving them greatly.It seemed she was not alone in admiring them, for, no longer had they been seated at the table in front of the tavern for five minutes, when they were approached by a man. The man was clearly rich with expensive robes and bedecked in gold jewellery. But there was little to suggest nobility or gentle manners about him. He was fat and corpulent and his bald head was sweating copiously under the heat of the midday sun. His stubby swollen fingers gleamed with gold rings and gemstones and there was a massive gold chain about his neck. Flanking him on either side, a step behind, were two massive, half naked, muscled young men, bearing the collars of slaves and armed with scimitars and pistols in their belts. Carelia fancied that, by their tall stature and dark looks, that they were probably Darmanians; members of the late warrior caste of that distant land, valued as fiercely loyal slaves and fearsome fighters; perfect bodyguards for a man of wealth and admired by ladies for their handsome features. Carelia’s two slaves regarded the two Darmanians with interest but they merely sat impassively while their master made his obsequious obeisances to Carelia with a low bow.“My Lady!” the man began “The sun shines brighter on our humble market today that you should grace it with your presence.”Carelia wrinkled her nose in distaste. The fat man’s perfume was vulgar and overwhelming without seemingly affecting the underlying odour of his bodily perspiration. “Yes?” she demanded with a touch of austerity. “How can I be of assistance to you good man?”The fat man smiled broadly and bowed flamboyantly once more. “I happened to be passing by My Lady when I chanced to see the fine two young slaves accompanying you. I wondered if perhaps you had brought them to market with the intention of finding a good price for them. My name is Aristo Demanagles; merchant and trader in quality slaves throughout the kingdom and I have many rich and favoured customers of noble birth eager to acquire such fine young slaves as your two fillies. Should you be wishing to find purchasers for them I can guarantee you the best possible prices and my commissions are most reasonable My Lady.”Carelia regarded him aloofly. So he was a slave trader! Well she supposed there was nothing against the law in that although the Goddess knew that the slave trade in Castar was but a shadow and an aberration of the high principles of slavery in her homeland. She looked again at the fat man’s obvious trappings of wealth, Business was clearly booming! These were times of war and conflict in distant parts and hardship and poverty closer to home; fertile ground for the slave trade. This would not be the only merchant growing fat on the pedalling and marketing of humans displaced by conflict or sold by their impoverished families into servitude. Carelia lifted her eyebrows archly. “These two girls are my personal hand maidens my good man and not for sale.” she told him imperiously.The man bowed even more flamboyantly. “Of course My Lady! Forgive me but these are hard times and even the most genteel of ladies must occasionally part with her most treasured slaves to make ends meet. It was only natural that I should inquire.”Carelia’s irritation increased. “I am not so impoverished yet my good man that I should vend my personal hand maidens to a market dealer to be pedalled to a Kingshaven whorehouse!”“No, no My Lady! Of course not!” The man was sweating even more under Carelia’s disapproving glare. “Perhaps in that case I might interest you in purchasing some fine new stock. I have a number of very personable young house maids in my coffle or perhaps you’d care to look over some of my male stock. I have a number of Darmanian bucks at very reasonable prices who will make fine bodyguards for your Ladyship once they are broken in. These are troubled times My Lady and a lady of high birth and means will feel much more secure with a pair of swordsmen at her side and they’ll make fine studs should you wish to breed your fillies.”“Thank you but no! I am not in the market for new slaves. The Goddess knows I have my hands full with the ones I have!”“Well should you change your mind My Lady please take my card.”Carelia took the proffered card with as much haughty grace as she could muster. “Thank you my good man. Now if you will excuse us I will wish you a good day!”The man bowed low and backed away but the encounter had done little to improve Carelia’s humour. She turned to her two slaves who were still admiring the lithe athletic bodies of the two departing Darmanian slaves. “The pair of you can put those lascivious eyeballs straight back in your heads or by the Goddess I WILL sell you!”“Yes ma-am.” The two girls lowered their eyes obediently. There was a murmur coursing through the crowd packed around the stalls in front of them; an uneasy murmur and low grumbling. Curious, Carelia looked up to discern the source. A party of sailors were wending their way through the throngs. Carelia caught her breath for the sailors wore the naval uniform of the Bayeron Imperial Fleet and the name “Furchtlos” was embroidered on their caps in golden braid. Carelia narrowed her eyes and watched their progress carefully. The man were very smart; their uniforms pressed impeccably and their buttons and shoes polished to a gleam. Doubtless the master of the Furcthlos would have ensured that his shore parties were looking their very best before allowing them shore leave. They were, every one, fine looking tall men and it was plain that they had been hand picked for bahis siteleri their good looks to carry the name of their ship ashore. Doubtless too they were under Draconian orders of good behaviour for they were regarding the chaotic bustle around them with aloof indifference and ignoring the touting of the tavern owners and the market whores with reserved frigidity. Should they need any reminder as to their conduct there was an officer accompanying them. Carelia cursed under her breath. The crew of the Furchtlos had resisted any attempt to break their reserved isolation so far. Carelia had four or five young women in the dockside whorehouses in her pay and under urgent instructions to ply their trade with any crewmember from the accursed ship and extract whatever information they could from them in pillow talk. It had proved fruitless for the ship’s crew had resisted all the lures the whores of Kingshaven could muster. They always came ashore in parties accompanied by officers and, should they visit a tavern, would sit quietly by themselves and drink carefully and modestly not even indulging in the occasional tavern brawl. They were always polite and courteous and infuriatingly controlled. The local population regarded them with deep mistrust and wariness. Carelia finished her drink thoughtfully. There was some last business to attend to before retiring to the hotel; informative and interesting business if sometimes a little disagreeable. She needed to look over the slave market. The fat slave trader who had so impertinently accosted her to inquire whether she would be interested in selling her hand maidens had reminded her of this duty. Of course she had not the slightest interest in buying any new slaves. Even if she had of had such then the last place she would have come searching for them would have been the Kingshaven slave market! But, whenever she came to Kingshaven for the market, she made it her business to look over the slave trade in the port. There were few better indicators of economic realities and political and social upheaval in foreign parts than the slaves in the slave market. The discerning eye could garner valuable information with a short stroll through it.Carelia rose from her table, leaving a copper coin or two for the serving wench. Arasti and Marliesa jumped to their feet as she rose, the ornamental gold chains about their necks tinkling prettily. Carelia regarded them with fond amusement and raised an eyebrow. “Well girls let’s go along to the Slave Market and see if we can get any better offers for you two!” she teased them gently. The two girls lowered their eyes sulkily and pouted. Carelia grinned at them; as usual, the sight of them raising her spirits.The slave market was centred about a square in the middle of the sprawling general market and, judging by the crowds, business seemed to be booming. Carelia knew that the masses of people were an illusion however. She doubted if one in ten of the people thronged about the stands and stalls of the slave traders could actually even afford a slave let alone be seriously considering buying one. The slave market was a gathering point for gawking spectators. Those stands where particularly comely young women were being vended were the most popular, with crowds of leering men pressing close as the merchants had their wares strip naked for the perusal of prospective buyers. Parties of giggling young women were drawn to the stands where strong looking male slaves were being paraded in chains and skimpy loincloths. Clever merchants would have had them oiled so that their skins would shine over their hard muscles. Young women found the sight irresistible. Carelia found the spectacle distasteful. Carelia’s presence among the masses did not pass unnoticed. She was clearly a woman of high rank and wealth and carrying the mark of the fairy; a high lady of Andalay with her two slaves in tow. The slave merchants were eager to press their wares to the fore and disappointed when she passed by with little apparent interest in them. She passed one stall where a very pretty girl was striking a pose on a raised dais. Her toga lay in a crumpled heap at her feet and she was quite naked while the merchant selling her was extolling her charms and virtues to the crowd. The girl looked to be in her teens and clearly bored. It was doubtless not the first time she had been exposed to the leering masses. Carelia recognised one of the proprietors of a Kingshaven whorehouse regarding the girl with some interest. The woman was a valuable informant for Carelia. Carefully, Carelia drifted closer.The woman curtsied to Carelia in exaggerated fashion. “Good day My Lady! You grace us with your presence!”Carelia nodded at her. “A good day to you too Amantha.” She nodded in the direction of the girl on the dais. “Are you interested in this wench?”The woman furrowed her brow and looked thoughtful. “Possibly… if the price doesn’t go too high My Lady. She seems presentable enough….Syran by the look of her and they’re usually good quality. She’ll need training of course but then most do. Were you interested yourself My Lady? If so I shan’t bid against you.”Carelia shook her head. “I’m not buying Amantha. The Goddess knows I have enough on my plate keeping my eyes on the worthless slaves I have already!”Amantha chuckled. “Your coffle is hardly worthless My Lady!” She nodded at Arasti and Marliesa. “These two alone would fetch a fortune at market!”Carelia snorted drily. “Yes and I’ve had one parasite today offering to act as agent for me should I wish to divest myself of them.”Amantha raised her eyebrows. “Where did you leave the head My Lady?”“On his shoulders for the time being Amantha!”Amantha chuckled once more. “You let him live My Lady?” She shook her head. “Life in the country must have mellowed you out Ma-am! You grow soft!”“The Kingshaven constabulary get a little squeamish about corpses in public places Amantha.” She paused to look once more at the girl on the dais. “So how much were you thinking of paying for this wench?”Amantha shrugged. “I don’t want to bid for her in open auction. If I get a chance I’ll ask the merchant for a private viewing and offer him a hundred crowns. He’ll beat his breast and rend his hair with laments of impoverishment, tell me the girl is as dear to him as any daughter and insist that he couldn’t possibly part with her for less than three hundred. I’ll call him a liar and a thief and tell him the girl’s a worthless slut that I’m only taking off his hands because I need a wench to scrub the scullery floors. With a bit of luck I should be able to get her for less than two hundred.”Carelia raised an eyebrow sardonically. “She seems barely out of nappies Amantha! I would wonder if she is suited for a life in your…. your establishment.”Amantha looked defensive. “I look after my girls well My Lady. You know that. She’ll have her own room, fine clothes and money in her purse and I make sure that my girls are looked after when they’re past their working life; a good husband or enough to set them up on their own. I take care of my girls My Lady; not like some I could mention.”Carelia raised a hand. “Please Amantha! I am not doubting it for a moment. To other matters. Have you any news on the “Furchtlos”?Amantha nodded and glanced about her furtively before lowering her voice. “There’s nothing off that cursed ship My Lady. They’re keeping her crew tight about them. Last week however there was another Bayeron ship in port; a new type I’ve never seen before. She was a motor ship and called in for fresh food and water. Only had a small crew to her but we had a couple of the officers in my place while she was here and they were a bit more free with their tongues once my girls got to work on them. They wouldn’t say what their destination was but their cargo was interesting. The whole ship was one big tank it seems. They carried nothing but a large quantity of oil.”Carelia stared at her, her brain buzzing with the implications. “Oil?”“Yes My Lady! Motor oil! It seems the Bayeron’s have a number of ships like her. It makes you think doesn’t it?”Carelia nodded slowly. “Yes…. yes it does. If Bayeron is sending out advance vessels full of fuel oil for the Furchtlos and whatever accursed sisters follow her then they can extend the range of those warships well into Commonwealth waters and beyond. They could even establish oiling stations in remote archipelagos far beyond their own ports and project power to the very shores of Andalay!”“If those oiling ships remain undetected and unhindered My Lady.” Amantha pointed out.Carelia nodded at the wisdom of that. “Yes that’s true. Sink those ships and you strand Furchtlos far from the safety of her own harbours.”Amantha looked at her slyly. “If t’were me My Lady I’d tell your people to hunt those oiling ships down and any safe haven they might try to establish before Bayeron has a dagger aimed at the heart of the Commonwealth’s maritime commerce.”Carelia nodded. “Yes! Fuel! That’s her weak spot! Fast and as powerful as she is she has to have fuel to drive her or she’s just a mountain of floating steel! Thank you Amantha. Your information is most useful. One good turn deserves another. The old Star Hotel on the waterfront near the Gold Star terminal is up for sale. You’ve wanted a new property down that way for a long time. I know the current owners and with my recommendation I don’t think the price will be astronomically high.”Amantha’s eyes grew bright with avarice. “Ah really? Yes I know the place. I looked it over a year or more ago and thought it would be eminently canlı bahis siteleri suitable then. Do you think you could put in a good word for me My Lady?”“I’m sure of it! In the meantime keep your ears to the ground. Anything you can learn about that Goddess forsaken ship and her logistic support I want to hear about.”“Of course My Lady!”Carelia waved a hand toward the dais. The merchant had grown convinced of the futility of trying to sell the girl to a crowd of onlookers and had sourly ordered her to put her toga back on. “It doesn’t look as if you’ve much competition for that wench Amantha. I’d go and have a word with the merchant now if I was you.”Amantha straightened up in business like fashion. “Yes of course My Lady. If I may be dismissed?”“Carry on Amantha!” Amantha curtsied and departed quickly in the direction of the merchant’s stall. Lost in thought Carelia turned away, her two girls tripping at her heels and exchanging glances between them. They passed a stand where a there was some brisk bidding for half a dozen young, dark looking Amelcan girls who looked thoroughly miserable stripped naked in front of the jostling crowd. The merchant was pushing one of them to the fore and turning her around to afford the crowd a better view. Carelia frowned. The girl looked sulky and rebellious and it seemed to be doing her little good. There were red whip marks on her skin. On the next stall was a strong looking man being closely examined by three prospective buyers. He was older, probably in his thirties and dressed in a loose shirt and britches with a leather apron. His bare arms were rippling with muscles and there was an air of resigned dignity about him. Carelia noticed him with interest. The sign on the stall proclaimed that he was a blacksmith. If so then he was worth a considerable amount of money. The pretty young girls and fine looking young studs might attract the most viewers but the real cognoscenti kept their eyes peeled for those slaves with marketable trades. Skilled slaves of quality were some of the most expensive and sought after.“My Lady! You grace our market with your presence! May I interest you in a fine exotic addition to your house?”Carelia started. The merchant accosting her was from the next stall. He was a thin and ill kempt individual, bowing obsequiously and waving a hand towards a group of chained slaves huddled in collective misery at his stand. Carelia regarded him contemptuously and looked at the collection of slaves in undisguised distaste. On the face of it there was nothing to make his coffle stand out among the many on view in the market. They were mostly youngsters, girls and boys; Cravellian for the most part although there were a pair of Syrans on offer as well. They seemed to be of poor quality however and, judging by their dirty appearance and unkempt look, possibly ill treated. Carelia allowed her voice to a dangerous low purr. “And what pray could such as you possibly offer my household good man? You hardly have anything befitting to grace a high House of Andalay amongst this sad collection!” The man waved his hands dismissively. “Ah My Lady! I can see you are a lady of discerning taste. I would not stoop to offer you these sweepings of the slums! I have however one girl that would even be fine enough for your exalted House My Lady. As fine a filly as you could wish for and of the most impeccable lineage!”Carelia snorted in disgust. “I find that hard to believe!”“But it is true My Lady. She came in on my brother’s ship just yesterday!” The man lowered his voice conspiratorially. “She’s a Carthalanian My Lady! What’s more she bears the brand of the Imperial Court of Carthalay!”Carelia’s eyes bored into the man. “What lies are these? Are you to have me believe that one such as you would have in his possession a slave of the Imperial House of Carthalay! The Empire dissolved twenty years ago and the Imperial court s**ttered across half the lands of the Southern Ocean!”“Indeed you speak the truth My Lady! But they say there are still pockets of Carthalanian nobility in many places in the Southern Seas and the traditions of the Imperial House live still. The girl was taken by corsairs I am led to believe. She has the brand of one of the old Imperial families tattooed on her shoulder!”Carelia snorted in disbelief. “Do you take me for a fool man? Anybody can fake a brand and peddle some worthless girl as the slave of a noble House!”The man shook his head vigorously. “No My Lady! The brand is authentic I swear it!”“Show me this slave and by the Goddess if you are trying to befuddle me with lies I shall see you regret it!”“Of course My Lady! Please step this way!” At his stand the greasy little merchant pushed a young girl forward. She looked frightened and close to tears. Her hair was a tangled mess and she was covered in grime. The short toga she wore was soiled and torn. For all that, Carelia found her interest stirred in spite of herself. The girl definitely had the exotic look of the Southern Ocean to her and the claim that she was Carthalanian not a completely improbable one. It was still beyond belief that she was indeed the ex-slave of a noble Carthalanian family related to the Imperial household of course but any Carthalanian was a rare sight indeed these days. “Drop your gown girl and let the lady look at you!” the merchant commanded. Carelia thought the girl would burst into tears but, with trembling fingers, she obeyed, letting her soiled rags slip to her ankles and standing there miserable in her nakedness, her lip quivering.“You could at least have cleaned the girl up before displaying her!” Carelia admonished the merchant impatiently. The merchant shrugged as if he had better things to do with his time than wash down some wretched slave girl. Carelia beckoned to the girl. “Come here girl and let me look at you.” she said, not unkindly. The girl obeyed although she was trembling with fear. At close quarters Carelia was able to examine her in more detail. She was no more than sixteen she considered and, underneath all this grime, undoubtedly a very pretty and exotic looking girl. She was slender; too slender it seemed. She looked as if a few solid meals wouldn’t go amiss. Her hair was long and black but in a hopeless tangle and doubtless crawling with lice but the girl’s face was undoubtedly shapely and she had a long elegant neck. Her hips were slim and her breasts small but well formed and shapely and her legs were long and becoming. Carelia turned over her hands to look at them. The hands told you a great deal about a person. This girl’s hands were slim and elegant and, importantly, the palms were soft and un-calloused. This was not a girl who had been employed in hard manual labour. Carelia lifted the girl’s chin to look into her eyes. They were dark brown, soulful and filled with fear. “Do you speak Andalay girl?” she asked her softly. Andalay was the common language of the Commonwealth and half the civilised world.“Only little lady.”Carelia nodded. The girl definitely had the hint of a Carthalanian accent. “What is your name girl?” she asked.“Kalena Askantare Morin es Clande di Montamarina.” Carelia blinked in surprise. The name was indeed of noble lineage. Kalena Askantare high slave of the House of Montamarina! Of course she could have been trained to say that but the House of Montamarina was an obscure line of the Carthalanian nobility and few who had not studied the subject would have known it. There was something else too. The girl looked broken in spirit for the most part but there’d been a flash of pride as she’d recounted her name. The name was significant to her…. it was all she had left in the world.“See her brand My Lady!” the merchant urged. Carelia turned the girl around. The girl was so dirty it was difficult to see the brand tattooed on her shoulder. Carelia called for a pail of water and swilled some of the dirt away to examine the brand. At first glance it looked authentic enough. The Imperial designs were plain to see above the brand of the girl’s house and if they were fake then they were very good fakes; far better than she would have expected of a merchant of this standard. There was another mark just below the brand. Carelia washed a little more dirt away the better to examine it. When she could see it she froze.The tattoo was one she recognised from her years of study but it filled her with dread. It was a small depiction of a three headed deity; the mark of the three headed God! In all the terror out of the dark years there was no curse that carried such horror as the curse of the three headed God. It was a dark shadow of ancient times so terrible it was said to herald the end of civilisation and so dangerous that only a very few people in all the world were thought to know anything of it at all. Certainly this merchant could never have heard of it. There were only a handful of close confidants in the whole Kingdom who knew of it and they never spoke of it. Even those who knew of the curse were unclear as to its nature. It had long been a legend that the sorcerers of the Carthalanian Empire were the only people who fully understood the curse; a curse that could bring down ruin on the world.How came this young girl by the mark of such a dreadful curse? It was imperative for Carelia to know. She doubted no longer that this young slave was indeed the slave of a high Carthalanian family and one who had marked her with this dreadful brand. Carelia peered closer. There was a tiny line of numbers inscribed beneath the three headed God on the girl’s shoulder. It was a meaningless figure as far as she could see…92,235. She pondered for a moment in puzzlement but the number rang no bells with her.Carelia straightened up slowly and turned to the merchant. “So! How much do you want for this girl?***************************

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