(Note: The text that appears below is a pre-release preview which is taken from a version of the manuscript prior to final proof reading and formatting. As such, it may contain minor errors or typos which will be corrected in the final version of the novel.)
KOTA OPENED THE DOOR to her cabin aboard the Beloniform and let Nadani step inside first. She fought to keep a frown off her face at the awkward way Nadani was walking, knowing it would do no good to get angry at the captain of the pirate ship. He’d find himself at the end of a rope not long after they reached Proximus. The sailors under his command would probably face a less severe punishment, if only because experienced void sailors were valuable enough that they’d be indentured, rather than hanged. Not the justice Kota would like to see, but she supposed it was one of the reasons pirates were willing to surrender, rather than go down fighting.
“Take the window seat,” Kota said as she headed over to the spot on the wall where her bag hung.
“I didn’t think anyone other than the captain got private accommodations on a ship,” Nadani said.
“It depends on the ship,” Kota said. “The Beloniform’s business is carrying passengers and high value cargo. That’s why she’s more heavily armed than most merchantmen.”
Kota knelt, opened the chest that was on the floor under her pack, and pulled out a pair of binding cylinders, then closed it back up and grabbed her pack. Once she had that, she walked over and set them on the window seat.
“Lemon?” Pyter asked from his spot on her shoulder.
“After dinner,” Kota said.
“But I hungry now,” Pyter said. “We had big fight.”
“I know,” Kota said. “If you want, you can have another biscuit to hold you till dinner.”
“Want lemon!” Pyter said.
“I said after dinner,” Kota said. “If you eat it on an empty stomach, it will just make you sick.”
Pyter jumped down into the window seat, and hung his head, pouting. It only lasted for a moment before he looked up. “Biscuits, then lemon!”
Kota laughed and leaned down, kissing him on the head before she pulled the food wallet out of her bag and unfolded it. “Biscuit now. Dinner later, then lemon.”
“Pyter, healing magic,” Kota said as she pulled the biscuits out of the food wallet.
“You hurt?” Pyter asked as he looked her over, worry coming off him in waves.
“Not me,” Kota said.
Pyter turned to Nadani. “White lady hurt?” he asked.
“Yes,” Kota said.
“I sorry,” Pyter said. He bumped his head against Nadani’s arm. “Momma make you better.”
“That’s right,” Kota said. She held out a biscuit for Pyter. “Here. Go eat this in the hammock while I work.”
Pyter took the biscuit from her hand, and jumped into the air, flying over to the hammock without complaint. Kota listened to the sound of him chewing on the biscuit as she packed the food wallet back up.
“He’s well trained,” Nadani said.
“He has to be,” Kota said as she fished out a sharp knife from her pack. “My job is dangerous. If he doesn’t do what I say, when I say, he could get hurt. I tend to give him his head when we’re alone, but he knows in the field, or when I’m working, he has to behave.”
“Still, it speaks to your skill and care for him,” Nadani said.
“I raised him practically from the egg,” Kota said. She knelt in front of Nadani and set the knife on the deck. “Sorry if this seems a bit forward.”
“What are you doing?” Nadani asked.
“I’m going to trim your hooves,” she said. “They’re overgrown, aren’t they?”
“How could you tell?” Nadani asked.
“I grew up in a mercenary training camp,” Kota said. “We kept goats for meat and for milk, donkeys and mules for pack animals, and war horses for the troops. Tending them was one of my first jobs. If you’ve spent as much time around goats, horses, donkeys, and mules as I have, it’s easy to spot one walking on an overgrown hoof. Now, right foot first.”
Nadani lifted her right leg and held out her hoof. Kota caught it in her left hand, supporting the back of the hoof as she looked at the two claws. There was nothing impacted in them. In fact, aside from being overgrown, they were meticulously kept.
“When were they last trimmed?” Kota asked.
“About five weeks ago,” Nadani said. “I normally trim them regularly, but after Alborin acquired me from my last master, he wouldn’t let me have a knife, or even a file.”
“Bastard,” Kota said. “Let me know if this makes you uncomfortable.” She used a small bit of cleansing magic to clean Nadani’s hoof and was surprised when Nadani giggled. She looked up at her.
“What’s funny?” she asked.
Nadani shook her head. “That tickles,” she said.
“It does?” Kota asked. She looked down at Nadani’s hoof. “That explains so much.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh. There was this surly old nanny goat that tried to kick me every time I cleaned her hooves. I knew she wasn’t in pain. I would have felt it though my magic. I thought she was just cranky, but apparently, she didn’t like being tickled.”
Nadani smiled at the story and Kota was struck again by how beautiful she was. She felt her cheeks start to heat and looked down at Nadani’s hoof again, hoping that Nadani didn’t notice her blushing. She took a deep breath, steadying herself as she lowered Nadani’s hoof to the deck.
“Just a second,” she said as she picked up the knife. She carefully ran her finger along the blade, using her magic to sharpen it and hone the edge. Once she was satisfied with it, she reached down and picked up Nadani’s hoof again.
“I need you to be very still,” Kota said. “Can you do that?”
“Of course,” Nadani said.
Kota very carefully used the knife to trim each of the hoof’s claws in turn, cutting away the horn until the bottom edge was even with the soft flesh pads. Once that was done, she moved back to the heel, and trimmed the horn there flat and even with the edge of the horn on the claws, as well as the flesh pads. When she was done, she set down the knife, then lowered the hoof to the floor, and reached for the other one, carefully repeating the process. When she was finished trimming both hooves, she reached for one of the binding cylinders and put all the hoof trimmings inside.
“What’s that you’re doing?” Nadani asked.
“It’s never a good idea to leave pieces of yourself laying around,” Kota said. “If we were in my office back home, or my new one on Proximus, I would just set up a brazier and go ahead and burn them in an alchemical fire, but that’s not something I want to do in the middle of the Aetheric Sea.” She held up the cylinder. “Once I remove your brand, it will go in here as well. Then I’ll seal it with a bit of magic, and you’ll be able to be sure no one can use what’s inside against you. We’ll burn it as soon as we get to Proximus.”
“Are you always so careful with the safety of people you just met?” Nadani asked.
“I try to be,” Kota said. “A lot of people don’t realize the kind of horrors that someone could inflict on a person with something as simple as a spot of their blood, a nail clipping, or a lock of hair.” She stood up and set the binding cylinder down next to her bag, then put away her knife, and pulled out her ritual kit.
“Go ahead and stand up and see if I did a good job on the hooves.”
Nadani stood up and walked around the cabin for a moment before turning back to Kota. “You did an excellent job,” she said. “I think you did better than I do.”
“You probably don’t trim the heel,” Kota said. “The farrier who trained me said a lot of people don’t, but if you flatten the heel, it puts less stress on the bones in the hoof.”
“I’ll remember that,” Nadani said.
Kota smiled and sat down in the spot where Nadani had been sitting.
“I hate to ask this, because I don’t want to make you feel like you’re still a slave, but getting the collar and the brand off will be a lot easier if you kneel down in front of me with your back towards me.”
Nadani looked at her for a moment with those solid black eyes. Kota waited patiently. She could feel the disbelief coming from Nadani. Sometimes she really wished that her magic didn’t let her feel other people’s emotions. It felt like an invasion of privacy.
“You really believe you can remove a Slaver’s Guild brand?”
“I’ve done it before,” Kota said.
“Really? Because I’ve heard powerful mages say it can’t be done.”
“Mages don’t understand magic,” Kota said.
“I think most mages would disagree with you.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Kota said. “A mage knows magic the way a knight knows a sword. They know how to use magic to create simple, repeatable effects.”
“But you do know magic?”
“I know magic the way a blacksmith knows a sword. I know how to select the ore, how to smelt it, how to consolidate it, how to work the metal and shape it to create the sword. But I can also make a knife, a dagger, a hammer, a nail, a sickle, a scythe, a wagon wheel, or anything else you need.”
“That’s quite a claim,” Nadani said.
Kota gestured to the deck in front of her. Nadani walked over and turned her back to Kota, then knelt.
“Thank you,” Kota said. Nadani nodded slightly.
Kota looked down at her. The dress Nadani was wearing left her back completely bare from just above her tail up to her neck, and Kota swallowed as she took in the sight of Nadani’s snow white skin stretched over well-defined muscles. It brought back memories of the women’s bath house in the training camp where she grew up. Walking in and seeing all the soldiers, their bodies toned by months of hard training, filling her younger self with feelings she hadn’t understood.
She shook herself and focused on the thing that didn’t belong there. First, she removed the scarf she’d used to cover the slave collar for the trip from the Bloody Aether to the Beloniform. It was easier to sell the fiction that Nadani was a hostage if no one ever saw the collar. Once the scarf was removed, she turned her attention to the slave brand.
It wasn’t really a brand, so much as an enchanted tattoo. Kota could feel the evil in the thing, the malevolent nature of the magic that created and sustained it. She hated it even before she had seen in the first time and staring at it only made her hatred of it grow. The thing was a perversion of magic, and she would be glad to destroy it. Unfortunately, she had another task first.
“I’m going to start with the slave collar,” she said. “They’re easier to deal with.”
“Very well,” Nadani said.
“You’re not allergic to silver, are you?” Kota asked.
“Silver. I need to use either silver or gold as part of the process. Silver is better. It’s a stronger conductor of magic than gold, but if it will burn you, I’ll use gold instead.”
“No,” Nadani said. “I used to carry my master’s dinner to her on a silver platter. It never bothered me.”
“That’s good,” Kota said. “It will make things easier when I get to the brand. Is it okay if I touch your hair, neck, and back?”
“I belong to you now. You can do as you wish.”
“No,” Kota said. “You belong to no one.”
“We’ll see,” Nadani said. “But yes, you may touch me.”
Kota frowned at that, but she took it as permission. She lifted the long braid of Nadani’s hair and tucked it between her horns so it would stay out of the way. Then she opened her ritual kit and took out an adamantium graver, a small hammer, and a small block of steel. She slipped the block of steel between the slave collar and Nadani’s neck and used just a bit of magic to hold it in place.
“I’m starting,” she said. “Be as still as you can. I’m working with a sharp tool, and it will cut you if it touches your skin.”
Kota started working, using the graver and the hammer to cut across each of the runes engraved in the collar, rotating the collar link by link, using the piece of steel as an anvil to strike against, until she’d marred every one of the runes. As she cut through the last one, she could feel the magic in the collar drain away, until it was just simple iron links, devoid of any power. She put the hammer and the graver away, then using the same magic she’d used to cut away the manacles, she cut the slave collar off Nadani’s neck, and dropped it in the second of the binding cylinders. Finally, she released the magic holding the piece of steel to Nadani’s neck. She put the small, makeshift anvil back in her ritual kit, and turned back to Nadani.
“You need a break?” she asked.
“I would like to stretch my legs for a moment,” Nadani said.
“Go ahead,” Kota said. “There’s a costrel and a wineskin on pegs by the hammock.”
“Done?” Pyter asked. Kota looked over to see Pyter watching Nadani with worried eyes.
“Not yet, sweety,” Kota said. “But she’ll be okay. I promise.”
“Okay,” Pyter said. He turned to Nadani. “I sorry you’re hurt.”
“Thank you, little one,” Nadani said as she took the wineskin from the peg.
“You want another biscuit, Pyter?” Kota asked.
“Please!” Pyter said.
Kota took a moment to dig out another of the ship’s biscuits and carried it over to Pyter. She held it out and he took it from her gently, holding it in his front claws as he bit a chunk of it off and chewed. He watched Nadani with worried eyes the whole time he ate.
Kota didn’t blame him. She watched Nadani too, feeling how much Nadani was fighting against the excitement she felt, and feeling how much she expected to be disappointed. Kota waited until Nadani finished her wine and hung the skin back on the peg, then headed back over to sit down at the window seat.
“This will take less time than the collar,” Kota said as she started gathering what she would need. She took out a phial of oil, a phial of silver filings, a small mixing pot, and a brush.
“That’s good,” Nadani said.
“It will also hurt,” Kota said. “The brand is made up of small particles of magical pigment embedded in your skin. The first thing I have to do is create a binding circle. In order to do that, I will have to drive silver particles into your skin. That will feel much the same as when you received the brand. Once it’s bound, I will be able to extract the pigment, but it will fight me while I do it, which will hurt even more. If you want, I can give you a potion to help with the pain. It will put you in a trance, and you won’t remember anything that happened afterwards.”
“I would prefer to be aware,” Nadani said.
“Okay,” Kota said. “But once I start removing the brand, I will not be able to take any breaks. If I do, all the work I’ve done will be lost, and we’ll have to start over. If you want me to stop at any point, we can, but if we stop, you will have to take the potion before we start again.”
“I will not ask you to stop,” Nadani said.
Kota wasn’t entirely sure of that, but she began mixing the silver and the oil, working it into a thick paste. Once it was ready, she looked at Nadani. Nadani took the signal for what it was and knelt in front of Kota again, pulling her braid forward and draping it between her horns so it wouldn’t get in the way.
Kota used her magic to pick up the brush and apply a thick layer of the silver paste in a perfect circle around the brand. Once it was in place, she cleaned the brush and put it away, along with the mixing pot and the phials of oil and silver. Then she took out a phial with a locking top and used magic to suspend it in the air near Nadani’s back.
“Would you like something to bite down on? It can help with the pain.”
“I will be fine.”
“Try not to move,” Kota said. “You can scream if you need to.”
Kota braced herself. She’d done this three times before, but only one time with the person awake, and that had not been a pleasant experience. She would much rather Nadani had taken the potion, but she would never force it on someone.
She took a deep breath as she gathered her power, focusing on the silver paste, letting her magic find each particle of silver and seize hold if it. When she had all of it, she drew her power back, and then pushed, driving the silver into Nadani’s skin, forming a binding circle that went all the way through. Kota felt the pain coming from Nadani, saw her muscles tense, but she didn’t have time for that, because the brand went wild, flowing back and forth, trying to find a weak spot in the binding circle. She could feel rage coming from it, like a trapped animal.
She reached for it, pushing her magic down through the layers of skin and grabbing the pigment, piece by piece. It fought her, it tried to run, tried to hide, and when neither of those worked, it dug in, trying to anchor itself. She could feel the agony coming from Nadani, but Nadani didn’t make a single sound. She just sat, still as a statue.
When Kota was sure she had every piece of the pigment that made up the brand, she pulled it all to the center of the binding circle, then went around again and again, until she was doubly sure she hadn’t missed anything. Then, she used her magic to open holes in the skin, like thousands of tiny needle pricks, and she drew the pigment out of them along with the blood that came with the breaking of the skin. She pulled it through the air, and put it into the lockable phial, using her power to hold it in place once it was all there. It still struggled and fought, but without its host, its power was fading quickly. Kota turned back to Nadani, and searched again and again, making sure she hadn’t left anything behind before she pulled the silver out. She felt another wave of pain come from Nadani but forced it out of her awareness as she guided the silver and more blood into the phial. Once it was all there, she closed it, locked it, and sealed it with her magic. Then she put the phial into the binding cylinder with the hoof trimmings, closed it, and with a power word, sealed the cylinder into a single piece with no opening.
With the malevolent magic of the brand locked away, she quickly turned back to Nadani, and poured healing magic into the wound in the middle of her back, knitting the damage she’d done, closing the tiny holes she’d opened, and washing away the blood. When the skin was finally whole, she used her magic to soothe the inflamed area, which drew a small shudder from Nadani.
“Sorry,” Kota said as she reached out and adjusted Nadani’s braid, laying it down her back where it belonged. “My magic is always a bit cold.”
“It’s okay,” Nadani said.
“The good news is that I got it all. The brand is gone.”
“Truly?” Nadani asked.
“Truly,” Kota said.
Nadani stood up and turned to look at her.
“You set me free,” she said.
Kota could feel the shock and disbelief coming from Nadani, and wanted to reach out to her, to reassure her, but she couldn’t. If she did, there was too much chance that Nadani might interpret it as a claim of ownership, and Kota couldn’t risk that, so she did the only thing she could. She smiled.
“I did,” she said. “Just like I said.”
The sound of flapping wings filled the room, and Kota turned to see Pyter sailing in their direction. He landed next to her on the window seat and turned towards Nadani.
“You better now?” he asked.
“I am,” Nadani said.
Pyter stepped forward, putting his front feet on Kota’s leg, and stretched his head out towards Nadani, who looked down at him, confused. She glanced up at Kota, who mouthed ‘pet him.’ She reached out carefully, rubbing her hand over his head. He leaned into it, pressing his head firmly against her hand, and purred loudly enough that the sound filled the cabin.
“I think he likes you,” Kota said, which brought a smile to Nadani’s face, which in turn brought a flutter to Kota’s heart.
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