Zilbrant the Traitor
The adult villagers stood in four long lines—red-faced and shamed, white and trembling, sly and darting quick looks here and there, all according to their natures—naked under the gaze of the man on the thran.
The tax-collector was only a man, for all his face was painted chalk-white as any Varr, his lips rouged red and his braided hair stiff with dark pomade. Zilbrant could smell his perfume from where she stood. He was wearing something cheap and strong to mask the odors of the trail.
The underlord's two menservants sat their own thran with bored indifference, worried only by the restless, riderless animal on a long lead. The unburdened thran was frisky, eager to nip anyone within reach. Zilbrant watched the long neck whip back, then stretch out. The hard-lipped mouth snapped shut just a fraction short of the tag end of one servant's fluttering sash.
The tax-collector lifted the reins slightly, and his animal walked down the lines, claws carving deep gouges in the hard earth of the village square for one, two paces. It retracted them, drove them into the soil again, uneasy with the crowd of sweaty, frightened people.
The talons were thicker than Zilbrant's thumb, and her eyes followed them. Thran could kill with a casual blow. They weren't good for riding on paved roadways, but the underlord's route had lead back into the hills. That would be why he rode a hunting animal.
The tax-collector's tired black-rimmed eyes swept down the row of old men. He scarely gave them a glance before he waved them away. They scattered, some grinning with relief, others anxious for those still on display. The old women were released, eager to check on the crying children penned in the houses.
Then the tax-collector rode more slowly down the queue of young men. Four or five were cut from the herd, and the rest scrambled into their clothes in clumsy haste. The people of Athe were modest.
Zilbrant raised abashed eyes from the ground in time to see Tolnac piss himself, his urine first coming in awkward jerks and spurts, then turning to a solid stream in his terror at fouling himself.
The underlord, amused and disgusted, dismissed him.
The other young men huddled together looked at one another. Zilbrant saw the intention form on Radness' face—but nothing would come. He stood there, fists clenched, head down, waiting.
The tax-collector had seen too. "They like cleverness," he said in his cold, contemptuous voice. He touched Radness on the shoulder with his whip, barely hard enough to sting, then turned his thran to ride very leisurely down the line of young women.
He enjoyed looking, Zilbrant could tell. She stared at her bare toes to hide her anger. She heard the crunch of the soil tearing open come back up the line and stop in front of her. The whip tapped her under the chin to make her look up. "You," said the icy voice. "All the others can go."
The women fled like startled sweetlars. The young men took a moment longer to understand that they, too, were free. They ran, whooping with relief, pretending to chase the naked girls.
High in the saddle of the thran, the underlord beckoned.
Zilbrant stepped forward, feeling her new breasts bob awkwardly. One servant tossed a folded robe into the air. The bundle hit her in the face. She fumbled, found one sleeve and then the other, pulled it closed and fastened the sash. The other servant wheeled the riderless thran around, held the stirrup. She put one foot in and swung up as her grandmother had instructed.
The servant strapped her in.
She was high above the ground, seated side-saddle, her back pressed against the padded edge of the seat that the girl already knew was going to feel sharp and hard by the end of a day's riding. Her hands folded around the cloth-wrapped box her family handed up to her. It held the few things they had prepared for her to take with her.
One servant tapped her sharply on her knee. She handed the parcel back down as he reached for it. He tucked the box into a pack, laced it closed. He shouted some query to the other servant, tugged his thran's head down and mounted.
They were ready.
Zilbrant looked down at all the familiar faces she might never see again, trying to be sure she would remember them as they were. Mother. Father. Her three sisters. Brother. Grandmother.
The girl froze, staring at her grandmother, felt the soft cloth slide on her naked skin, the heat of the thran beneath her. She heard the jingle of the harness, the squeak of saddle leather—
It was a long moment before she understood what she saw. She had never before seen such naked envy as she saw on her grandmother's face. Zilbrant looked at her newly-smoothed hands resting on the grips of the saddle, thought of her grandmother's fingers, rough with years of working clay.
Zilbrant had never wanted anything more than to be like Grandmother.
Her grandmother made beautiful things. Her work commanded high prices, was respected in villages that had never heard of Athe. Every autumn traders came, their wagons filled with straw and pea vines, ready to pack Vennette's pots safe for their long journeys.
And Grandmother envied her this.
Zilbrant lifted her head, looking, for the last time, at the undulating line of the mountains that had edged the sky all her life. The children ran screaming with excitement at the thran, the strangers. She could hear the laughter of women, the satisfied rumble of men.
They were glad she was going.
She, and not someone else.
The tax-collector said something about the timing of the next visit, and lifted his reins. The two servants did the same. The animal beneath Zilbrant grumbled and surged into motion. The girl lifted her chin. She must remember that she was lucky. That was what Grandmother's face had said. Of all of them, though they didn't know it, she was the lucky one.
Her fingers flexed as she remembered how her grandmother had caressed the handle of her mirror smooth. Let him be kind, thought Zilbrant, let him be handsome. Let me be clever enough, let me be wise enough to please him. Eyes dazzled by the sun, Zilbrant rode down into the great world.
She was on the trail beyond Satness before the tears came.
Copyright 2016 Catherine Mintz. All rights reserved.