The food lay in an undulating arc across the span of a low table, reaching far across the Great Hall. It was a table used only for warmasters and their merriment. It was a place to celebrate victory. There were platters, all silver and gold and all shining, piled high with food slaughtered earlier in the day. Decanters of wine were placed beside them. Then large goblets. The cushions were fluffed. The lights were low. The slaves were well-groomed, forcing smiles as they waited. They were very uncomfortable but trained not to show it. To feign pleasure and be caught in the act was an atrocity. It was punishable by Drule Law.
The king and his warmasters soon arrived.
There was much talk as men knelt to sit on cushions before the table, eying the food. They were starving. The final planetary sweep was long, much longer than necessary, and they hadn’t eaten since early morning. They eyed the women as they filled their glasses and spoke in Drule on purpose, delighting in their sudden revulsion and fear. Anything Drule frightened the slaves; it’s why all their planets were conquered. It was amusing that a language frightened humans more than a lazon sword. The guttural sharpness of a Drule tongue paired with a wandering eye of a warmaster had one women spilling wine from the decanter.
The warmaster shook his head, wiped a dirty hand down the front of his shirt and admonished her like a child with a wave of his finger. She was staring at his claws, but she was lucky. He was in good cheer. He spoke to her in Basic, “Lap it up, and I will let it slide.”
The woman gasped. “I can’t drink that,” she said, betraying her fear. She never took her eyes from his hand, watching as he moved to scratch under his chin, then behind his ear.
Her luck was quickly running out, and the warmaster looked to the Drule beside him. He gave a sarcastic laugh. “She says she can’t drink it.”
“Oh? Why not?” the second warmaster asked, turning his eyes up to the slave. “Warmaster Karrok has given you an order. Even a slave knows what happens when a blind eye is turned to the will of a man with rank.”
“It’s… blood,” the woman croaked even as she fell to her knees beside Karrok. “I can’t… I can’t do that.” She leaned over the table and closed her eyes. There was a hand in her hair that gave her a final push and a then chorus of laughter.
A third warmaster gave Karrok a nudge and switched to Drule. “You can never make wine of her now. You know that, right? You can’t taint a human with another human’s blood. It’s disgusting.”
Karrok shrugged. “I doubt you would even know the difference.”
The king knelt on large cushion at the head of the table, looking over the room with a smile. Yes. These were good men. Good men who today secured yet another prize for the Ninth Kingdom of the Drule Supremacy. To the victor went the spoils. The great Demon King took pride in that his realm was quickly earning the scorn of the more populated, established kingdoms of the Supremacy. King Zarkon’s bounds were expanding at an exponential rate. They were a backwater planet no more. The Ninth Kingdom was a strong and deadly force with conquered worlds rich in resources. There was a seemingly endless supply of lazon, and every planet among the Drules wanted it as their own.
Zarkon leaned forward, elbows on the table and waited for a slave to fill his glass.
He liked this one, a tall blond with a lithe body wrapped in colorful silks and gold. She approached him slowly, holding out a large decanter of wine, but not with any trepidation. She teased him on purpose, and he didn’t mind. She wasn’t being coy; he knew this slave despised him more than all the others, which was exactly the reason he kept her so close. He enjoyed her loathing, her perseverance, her iron-clad will.
He fantasized often about her. Today he just watched as she poured him wine.
The slave’s eyes were on him as he took a drink, then licked his lips. Zarkon was satisfied—she hadn’t even flinched—and rose with his glass held high. “Men, today was undoubtedly propitious, a day that truly favored Korrinoth over all others.” There was a dramatic pause and warmasters smiled at one another. They were still reveling in their victory. King Zarkon continued, “After long months of arduous battle and unavoidable casualty, we have secured another planet for resources and slaves. And this one, men, this one little planet in the far corner of the Denubian Galaxy, is so rich in lazon it will have even the First Kingdom down on its knees just begging for a taste.”
Zarkon knew how to play to his warmasters; he was a warmaster himself before he ever took the throne. Zarkon threw back his drink, and his men cheered. Korrinoth was a small planet in its own right, much smaller than any of the others in the Supremacy, but it was very resourceful and perhaps the most adept kingdom in the most valued areas of Drule commerce: slave trading and strip mining.
In fact, Korrinoth was so ruthless in conquest, people all over the Denubian Galaxy, began calling it Planet Doom. Zarkon liked that very much.
“Tonight is a celebration to you,” Zarkon said and the warmasters answered their king’s generosity with another round of cheer. He grinned, looked to the slave at his side, then spoke his final words in Basic. “So please, whet your every appetite. Eat, drink and indulge in all I have provided. It’s yours for the taking, men. You’ve most certainly earned it.”
Holding out his empty glass, Zarkon watched the warmasters tear into the food. They ripped through large pieces of raw meat with wide, feral grins of satisfaction and entitlement. No human liked to watch a Drule eat. No silverware, just claws and fangs and lots and lots of wine. Even the most basic of needs was a huge sadistic play.
The slave kneeling beside Zarkon, however, filled his glass without so much as blinking.
She was a strange one, Zarkon thought as he watched the various reactions of the other slaves. One woman was wincing, looking away as she poured a newly-made warmaster another glass of wine. The warmaster was occupied with ripping apart the hindquarters of freshly slaughtered beast. His mouth was full of blood-red meat, glistening with threads of yellow fat when he reprimanded her for skimping on the wine.
Another, the same woman Warmaster Karrok scolded earlier, was hunched over the table fighting back tears as she fought to tear apart another warmaster’s meal into smaller, more manageable pieces. Zarkon shook his head when the warmaster gave in, barked orders for the woman to stop making a mess and started doing the work himself. It would have been awhile before she even made even a bit of progress. Her nails were flimsy, brittle. They weren’t made for ripping apart flesh like a Drule’s.
Zarkon pulled the slave at his side close, and issued to her a command. “Fetch me something to eat,” Zarkon said. The slave inclined her head, unsmiling but dutiful.
He watched her go, admiring from afar when she bent over the table. She knew how to tease, yet she never yielded completely. It was very attractive. Zarkon’s mouth watered as her hands slid through the platters of meat without so much as flinching. It pleased him that she remembered cuts he liked best. He would never tell anyone, most of all his warmasters, but it were small things like that that made this one woman the king’s favorite.
He wanted to move her from the harems, to keep her far from the others and all to himself, but knew it would cause court upset and confusion. The Demon King was wont to destruction in any form. A woman, especially one as attractive and willful as the slave he so favored, would only bring about his ruin. He knew this better than anyone else; it was ingrained in the mythos of his people. All great men were brought to ruin not by his harem, but by a single woman. A beautiful woman who bewildered and beguiled to steal his heart first, then his lands, and then finally, his people.
The thought terrified and amused him greatly. The Demon King of Korrinoth, one who rained doom upon countless planets, wrought stronger and crueler with an ever-present bloodlust, was afraid of a beautiful woman.
His men ate with relish while his favorite slave lingered beside them, striking conversation. He saw the surprise in their eyes when she spoke to them in their mother tongue. She was different all right. Very different. Everyone could see it.
“The little chit speaks Drule,” Zarkon heard Warmaster Karrok say. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth to hide his surprise. “So, what exactly did you hear, lonknta?”
Zarkon growled, but the slave offered the warmaster a flirtatious laugh. She was just compared to a beast known for being in heat nearly all year round. It was some of the meat his men were eating. Zarkon gnashed his teeth at the comparison, itching to rend the man apart for the insult, but he chose to ignore the exchange. The slave said nothing about it. Either she didn’t know what he had called her or she didn’t care.
“I heard enough. You have a quite colorful vocabulary,” said the slave. It was proper etiquette to acknowledge a warmaster’s rank in conversation lest a slave suffer consequence. She was also speaking in familiar Drule, as if the warmaster were her equal. She was doing this on purpose. She would not acknowledge him. Instead, she ran a hand down the Karrok’s back, then leaned closer to whisper something in his ear. Zarkon watched their exchange carefully, and she turned her eyes to watch him too. Karrok shook his head.
“You play with fire, human,” the warmaster said. “You’d do right to offer submission. Leave, lonknta, so I can eat.” He snapped his teeth at her, then pushed her away, casting a sideways glance at his king.
The slave got up, smiling down on Karrok. She was happy about something, and the light in her eyes her seemed to brighten. She returned to Zarkon with his meal. She was about to feed him a piece of meat, far too big to swallow, when Zarkon grabbed her wrist.
“What did he say to you?” Zarkon asked. “Do you know what he called you?”
Her fingers tightened and blood ran down her arm, but she said nothing.
“Answer me, slave!” The room fell silent. His warmasters were looking at him and the women immediately fell into a posture of submission.
“It matters little what the blues say to us humans,” she said. It wasn’t the slur that bothered him. It was the fact she was bold enough to lock her eyes with his. A normal slave, a woman with any sense, would avert her eyes. Despite the blatant disobedience, Zarkon had to admit there was a strange kind of power in her, and it was a power that made him lose everything. It threw him into the darkest most dismal sea in Korrinoth to be consumed by his madness. It was arousing.
“It matters greatly,” Zarkon said in Basic. He grabbed her by the hip and pulled her into his lap, playing claws down her thigh. “Answer my question or you will force me to make an example of you right here in front of everyone. The warmasters. The slaves. Your friends.”
“I have no friends here,” she hissed in Drule. She would not break her gaze from his, and he wondered if there was something special in his eyes as well. “You took away my friends the day you came to Arus. Worse still, that same day you took something even more precious than a couple friendships; you took from me my freedom. Demon King Zarkon, I want to be free.”
He struck without thinking, ripping into her shoulder with his teeth, wrenching skin from bone and pulling it apart. Everyone screamed. Some of the slaves ran for the doors of the Great Hall while others cowered behind the warmasters, sobbing uncontrollably. A few men had enough of a heart to hold them close. One even hid a slave’s face within the jacket of his sweat- and blood-soaked uniform.
Zarkon licked his red-stained lips. The slave in his lap was quiet save for her quickening breath.
“King Zarkon.” Warmaster Karrok stood with a fist over his chest, his eyes looking not at Zarkon but past him. “I meant to you no disrespect, addressing the slave in such a way. I only called her that in jest. A joke. She is a slave after all.”
Zarkon touched the slave’s shoulder, picking at the torn flesh as he listened to his warmaster. Blood slicked his fingers, and he took another taste. “My wrath is not for you, Karrok, but for this whimpering slave.” She wasn’t whimpering, but his men needn’t know that.
Karrok inclined his head. “I understand. But know I only told her to avert her eyes. To offer you submission, my king. Nothing more.”
Bloodied and shivering, her shoulder weeping into his hand, the slave still stared at him. Not through him like Karrok, but at him, as if she were his equal.
Zarkon smiled. She was tough, willful. He liked the thought of breaking her, and that day would come soon enough.
“What is your name, slave?” Zarkon asked. He could hear his men whispering. Allowing a slave any personal property, even something as small as her name, was unheard of in any of the Ten Kingdoms. It was a foolish thing to do. It gave slaves ideas and sowed the seeds of mutiny and ruin.
Zarkon told himself didn’t care. She was but one slave. What could she possibly do to ruin the great Demon King of Korrinoth? However, he again thought of his people, the history of men whose lands were razed and captured planets despoiled by those more fit, all because of a woman.
“No Drule, king or not, is worthy of hearing my name,” the slave said with a smile.
Zarkon smiled back. She was losing too much blood to stay conscious. When her eyes began to roll back and her trembling stopped for the moment, Zarkon tried again. “What is your name, slave?”
She twisted a fist into his robes, desperate to keep her eyes fixed on his and answered.
“Adaline,” Zarkon echoed. She was slipping away. “That is your one freedom, Adaline. You get no more. Not now. Not ever.” Why was he making an exception? The look of disbelief on the warmaster’s faces was enough to make him reconsider. He was testing their loyalty, that’s all. Yes, it was a test to see who would follow him into the depths of madness itself. Who would be there in the bowels of the underworld, still loyal to the great Demon King?
Zarkon pushed Adaline from his lap. She landed in a heap on the floor. “Tend to her wound.”
Karrok stood when no one else would, lifted the slave into his arms and took her to the infirmary. He did it out of duty, not out of any fondness for her. Another warmaster opened the door for him. Karrok was a good example of devotion. He was loyal to a fault and it rubbed off on others. With his favorite slave gone, the warmasters went back to eating, sharing stories of battle. The slaves already erased the king’s brutality from their minds and went back to work, filling every man’s glass again and again.
Zarkon ripped into a chunk of meat, then spit it out. It wasn’t the same, though, his men seemed to be enjoying it. Another slave spilled wine and was forced to lap it up. Everyone was in good cheer.
“Who will be with me in the underworld after I am brought to ruin?” Zarkon asked himself as he swallowed a swig of wine straight from a decanter. “Probably Adaline.”