Chapter Twenty: Trading
The leonines tied Talyn's wrists and feet. Gestures were unnecessary for kamai, except insofar as good manners dictated that you should signal what you were doing, so Talyn didn't even try to stop them. If he resorted to kamai in front of the girls, it would be because he'd abandoned his attempts at mannerliness.
"Good prisoner," purred the leader woman in Leraal, patting his hair condescendingly. His ears were still rounded. "Someone pay bring you home? We send word, tell them, pay, bring boy home."
"They belong to their uncle," he told the woman, nodding his head at the girls. "He lives two days north of here."
"Yes? And you? Got wife at home, got father, got..." She looked at him a bit closer while her companions loaded Mekath and her sister onto Talyn's camel. "Not kid. Got uncle, too, like those kicking girls?"
Mekath was trying to kick her captors, but she wasn't very good at it with her feet tied, and when she caught one across the elbow she got a light claw-free cuff on the face for her trouble and a warning snarl.
"No one's going to give you money to get me out," Talyn said.
"Okay," replied the leonine, shrugging. She picked him up - she was strong, though not as strong as Leekath - and set him on the camel too. Some additional fiddling with ropes secured him and the girls there.
He could have forced the camel to run off, but the leonines could catch them; they'd proven that well enough, and now they were three people and a deliberately-overlarge load of water on a single animal. Talyn started concocting and discarding other plans.
He really didn't want to watch another little girl realize he was her "enemy".
The leonines camped in the shadow of a tall rock formation. The setup didn't look permanent, but it wasn't the sort of thing they'd want to uproot every day, either.
And there were other humans there. About half of them were tied up. The others were apparently trusted unsecured, maybe because they were actually collaborating with the leonines, maybe because it would be suicide to strike off into the desert alone and on foot.
The four leonine women who'd captured Talyn and the girls were apparently half the adult female population of the pride. The other four were busying themselves with assorted tasks - one was poking at the fire, to get it started blazing again overnight, one nursed two infants simultaneously, one was trying to teach one of the untied humans a few words of their language, one was grooming the sole male adult's mane. Cubs ran to and fro on other errands. Two half-grown boys were baiting the tied-up humans, poking them with sticks from the firewood pile and laughing when they reacted, or when they sat there stoically. A girl was swishing her tail through the sand and sewing a pattern into a long red wrap, and one of her sisters or half-sisters was minding the younger kids.
Mekath and her sister couldn't sustain a high level of terror forever. Their expectations had already been contradicted when the leonines didn't eat them immediately on capture, and they'd heard the conversation about ransoming them to their uncle and were trying to evaluate how likely he was to want to bail them out. Mekath was trying to calculate her value. She would be old enough to sell to a husband in a few years, but the leonines could demand more than she was likely to fetch, especially factoring in room and board for both of them in the intervening period.
Talyn was trying to adjust his various rejected plans to see if any of them worked any better when he was trying to free a dozen people instead of two. Unsurprisingly, none of them did.
The four women in the returning party added Talyn, Mekath, and the sister - Talyn still had not caught the younger girl's name; she was singularly quiet-minded and Mekath only thought of her as "sister" - to the string of tied prisoners.
"Names?" asked the woman who spoke Leraal. "I Asha."
"Talyn," Talyn said.
Mekath was obstinately silent; her sister piped up meekly, "Senthel."
"And you?" asked Asha, nudging Mekath with her foot.
Mekath still wouldn't answer her, so Asha shrugged. "We call you Bug until you say something you like that we call you."
"Her name's Mekath," said Talyn, annoyed.
Asha shrugged again. "She not say so, we not call her so. Talyn, you got nobody home for you?" she asked, turning to him.
He wished he could think of a way to manifest his rapidly growing understanding of Asha's native language. Maybe they'd try to teach it to him and he could pretend to have an eidetic memory. "I've got people at home," he said. "But they're not going to pay you for me." Because he didn't actually have to be there, and he would bust himself out by kamai rather than let someone who loved him reach into their pockets to finance slavers.
He might not look Mekath or Senthel in the eye when he did it, but he would do it.
"They not like you?" suggested Asha with a snicker.
Talyn didn't dignify that with a response. "Why aren't they tied up?" he said, nodding in the direction of the mobile humans.
"They good prisoners," Asha said sagely. "They useful. These -" she waved at the other captives - "eat food, drink water, not useful. If we not sell them soon, we eat them." She clacked her teeth together menacingly. "More humans running around to find. War of gods. So many, running around." She snorted.
The other humans in the string - a broad assortment, men and women and children - were variously paralyzed by fear, holding out hope that they'd be bought back by family or friends, and righteously defiant even in expectation of their eventual deaths and consumptions at the hands of lion-devils. The ones who were freely walking around were pragmatic or faithless or just particularly afraid of being eaten, and their families were dead or estranged or poor or some combination.
"How much would it cost to buy all your human prisoners, the ones walking around and the ones tied up too?" Talyn asked Asha. He knew she wasn't going to offer to let him prove himself as a "good prisoner" until he'd spent a night or two under their "care" - the rationale, when he looked deeper, was that new prisoners might say anything out of immediate fear, but after more exposure to "the People" they'd be less likely to obey out of terror alone. A lower-level background fear was preferred.
But he could still talk to her; they hadn't gagged him like they had one apparently mouthy old man.
Asha blinked at him, confused, but her thoughts were answer enough - they negotiated and haggled for ransom prices, and did the same when they sold humans to other leonine prides. Prices varied: women were usually ransomed for more but sold for less, since humans could resell female relatives (or, if they were already wives, they were expensive to replace) but leonine masters found men more useful for hard labor. Mekath's calculations about her value were likely to be informative. "You not have it," Asha said aloud, rather than voicing these complications.
"Maybe I do," Talyn said. He didn't think it would be hard to pay them in wild camels - which wouldn't act terrified of the toothy people until Talyn was long gone - instead of in coins.
"Not," Asha laughed, and she walked away.
Talyn sat and thought, watching the sun set.
Without much to do besides think, and listen to others, Talyn picked up a great deal of the leonine pride's language before everyone bedded down for the night. He hoped to stay up late enough, or else get up early enough, that he could talk to a leonine without any human witnesses.
The leonines didn't hate magic. This pride had a light in it, he'd seen: she lounged around half-naked to soak up sun, and healed her pridemates' cuts and scrapes, and was treated with immense respect even though she lacked seniority among the wives, and was excused from potentially injurious work. If the pride would let Talyn go, he could run home, get some enchanted trinket from Esmaar - maybe a waterspout - and trade it for all the prisoners they had, and lead everyone where they'd been going.
But that was if they'd believe him, if they'd let him go. Or he could try the camel idea, although they might want a large number of camels and he didn't know how long it would take him to find such a quantity.
And if they'd let him make the trade without letting on to the prisoners what he was trading.
His fellow prisoners would probably all be beyond suspicious, but if they didn't have details about how he got them free, their freedom itself might inspire them to trust him well enough that he could at least get Mekath and Senthel to their uncle and wash his hands of the mess. He felt so much less responsible for these people when he wasn't there among them, listening to them feel.
He was missing school. He couldn't even practice his gestures with his hands tied and Ryganaavlan humans watching him.
He missed Leekath.
Talyn looked around, frustrated with the wait and the possibility that the humans wouldn't all close their eyes before the leonines all did. He issued the subtlest command to sleep that he could to his fellow humans: the tied ones a few at a time over several degrees, the free ones when they wandered by and weren't occupied with a task.
"Excuse me," he said darkly, in the leonine pride's tongue. "I'd like a word with whichever one of you is in charge here."
Heads turned his way; young cubs started whispering to each other. The maned center of the pride stood and stalked towards Talyn where he was tied. "You know our words," he said in a low rumble that almost woke Mekath; Talyn shoved her back to sleep impatiently. "How? You care that little for your gods' favor? Learned it from an escaped prisoner?"
"I'm not like the others," Talyn said vaguely. "I'm Talyn. What's your name?"
"Nyahis," the leonine man replied, regarding Talyn with interest. "And how are you unlike the others?"
"What do you want to free them? All of them?" Talyn asked. "And release them safely with water and provisions near human civilization, not just send them out into the desert to die."
Nyahis's ears flattened. "What do I want to lose our good workers, our emergency food supply, our show of strength to other prides, and our trade goods, in a single blow? You don't have anything like that."
"If you didn't already have a light, you'd take one of those," Talyn said. That was a guess, but a good one. Nyahis's thoughts confirmed it as soon as he'd spoken. "You'd take a mage, too."
"You don't have one to offer me," Nyahis said.
"If I did, would you tell all the other prisoners about it?" Talyn asked. "If I handed you a mage - or something worth as much to you as a mage - would you tell them that I was associating with magic-users and trading with devils or would you let me keep that to myself?"
Nyahis laughed aloud at that. "You want to trade me one mage for these prisoners, I won't tell the other humans. You want to go among them pretending to love your gods? I don't care. But I don't have any mage who's here but who won't do as I say, who'll kill us in our sleep and sink into the sand or fly away. Lights can be threatened. Mages can't, unless you have another one."
Talyn had an uncomfortable moment of speculating about the leisurely lifestyle of the pride's light, who was also one of Nyahis's wives, but it seemed like the man had been speaking hypothetically. "A mage was just an example. You like magic, you can use magic, if I can get enough magic into your hands you'll trade for the prisoners' freedom."
"You know spells?" Nyahis asked. "But then if I untie your hands so you can teach them, you can disappear." He made a gesture. The Ryganaavlan leonines, as a population, knew a handful of out-of-date wizard spells, but Nyahis's pride in particular didn't have any of them. The knowledge was jealously guarded.
"I know a few spells. Anyway, if I just wanted myself freed I'd be long gone, ropes or no ropes. I want the prisoners out, too, and I want them out without knowing that anything magical was involved, because it would upset them," Talyn said.
"You'd be gone, hm?" Nyahis asked skeptically, eyeing the ropes around Talyn's wrists. "Just like that."
"I doubt this rope's cheap, and I need you in a diplomatic mood, or I'd prove it right now," Talyn said. It occurred to him a second too late that he could probably shapeshift out of the ropes - but he didn't know how that would interact with his autonomic defenses, like stoneskin, and if he startled Nyahis he could wind up with a face full of claw marks. Revenn had never shapeshifted much, and hadn't looked into it enough to know all those details. "I'm not a mage. I'm something else, something new to this world, and I'm a wizard too." Or he would be when he graduated.
"Prove it," Nyahis dared.
Talyn rolled his eyes and conjured a glob of water, which he floated in front of his lips and drank out of the air until it was gone.
"Real water?" Nyahis asked, interest sharpening. "Or mirage magic?"
"Real water, but I can do 'mirages' too," Talyn said. "I'm not from Ryganaav. I'm from Esmaar. I'd just offer to escort your whole pride there but I'm not sure if they'd want to retroactively punish you for having eaten people. What I can do is go there, get a magic item, and bring it back for you to trade for the prisoners."
Nyahis's ears swiveled forward thoughtfully. "Or you could run away and never come back."
"I could run away and never come back now," Talyn said. "I care about the humans. I could just set them all free without help now. I care about them not being terrified. So I want you to let them go. I'm willing to go to Esmaar on a shopping errand for you to get that."
Nyahis's tail was lashing back and forth slowly. "What will you bring us?" he asked.
"How about a waterspout?" Talyn said. "It will conjure water for you whenever you want. You'll never be thirsty again."
"This is a little object you can carry with you?" Nyahis asked. "All that way? It might be lost or stolen. Do you know a spell to make water?"
"Not off the top of my head," Talyn said. "But I could go look one up and come back and teach you for the prisoners."
"A spout," Nyahis said, "and a spell. Hmm." He scratched the nape of his neck through his mane. "But how long will it take you to fetch these things?"
"Depends," Talyn said. "I made a magic transport place close to Pridetaal, but that'll take me almost a day to fly to. If I make one here, I can be there and back in just a few degrees, but I need to borrow some energy from either your pride or the prisoners."
"By all means, help yourself to anything you can take from the prisoners while you are tied up," Nyahis said, smirking.
The string of humans was tied close enough together that Talyn could in fact tap them all without needing to move much. He shrugged, and built a transfer point right under himself, carefully avoiding the visible glass that had happened with the Pridetaal point.
"Now," Talyn said, "remember, I don't want the other prisoners to know I can do magic. They'll stay asleep for a while. But after I get back, I'm going to turn invisible and follow you to make sure you keep your word. You can tell them you ate me or something to explain where I went. And when they're all home safe, I'll give you the stuff and teach you the spell." He switched to mindspeech. <You'll be able to tell that I'll be here anyway, though,> he said.
Nyahis had opened his mouth to speak again, but Talyn transferred back to Esmaar.
There was a transfer point in a shopping center in Paraasilan that one of Rhysel's students had requested. Talyn jumped there, went into the nearest store, and bought a cheap waterspout. Then he went back to the transfer point, jumped to Rhysel's tower, and hunted through his schoolbook for a water-conjuration spell, which he memorized.
Then he turned invisible and jumped back to the leonine camp.
<Here I am,> Talyn sent to Nyahis. <You can reply by thinking at me. No need to talk.>
<Let me see the waterspout,> Nyahis answered.
Talyn checked to make sure that all the humans were asleep, and then let the invisibility illusion drop away from the spout alone as he pulled it out of his pocket and willed it on. A fountain of water splattered into the ground. He draped it in illusion again and stepped back quickly as Nyahis's hand darted out for the object. <You get this and the spell when you've let everyone go home,> Talyn admonished.
<How do I know you won't just leave with it after we've done what you want?> Nyahis wanted to know.
<This is pretty useless to me. I can already make water out of nothing; you saw. And if I wanted a waterspout I could buy another. They're cheap in Esmaar. I'm not going to cheat you.>
Nothing more of moment happened between that and the pride settling down for bed, save Asha, who sat up to guard the camp.
<You'll probably just go out and catch more humans, won't you,> he observed, for lack of anything better to do until he decided to go to sleep.
Asha opened her mouth; he interrupted her, <Just think at me. You don't have to talk aloud.>
<Can you always read thoughts?> she asked him suspiciously. <Or only thoughts I think at you?>
<I can't help but read thoughts,> he sent cheerfully. <It's sometimes annoying, actually. But that's how I learned your language today.>
<You're probably going to just catch more humans,> Talyn prompted.
<They're very easy to catch, lately. We didn't use to deal in them. But as long as they stay easy to catch, they're worth the trouble to take.>
<I'm kind of surprised you even want to ransom them for human money,> Talyn sent.
<The People don't have our own mints. Humans would destroy them; they destroy anything we build. We barter amongst ourselves, often as not, but some humans don't care so much for their gods and will trade with us for coins. Not our pride, much, but the one I was born to did that, and we meet other prides who will be able to use the coins and will trade for them.>
<Don't you destroy stuff humans build?> Talyn asked. <I only ask because you do kidnap and eat them.>
Asha snorted. <We eat them, but we don't hate the way they hate us. Our gods don't command us to kill and destroy for no purpose. Hunger commands us to kill only so much and no more. After that there can be fighting, for status and space and anger, but not for gods and not to death. Gods can kill anyone they like anyway.>
<What are yours like, then?> Talyn asked.
<Gods don't write books. They don't name priests,> Asha said. <They don't care much about People or anything else. They have their own lives, and sometimes bits of those lives fall on us, like sand shifts if People walk over it.>
<Huh.> It occurred to Talyn that he now knew more about Asha's religious beliefs than he did about Leekath's. He still scrupulously avoided reading his girlfriend's mind about her species' faith, because he was afraid that if he didn't she'd shield all of her thoughts - and so what he knew about what went on in vampire temples could have been scrawled on the back of his hand. In large letters.
<But gods have good ears,> Asha went on. <If enough People thank them for good things or curse them for bad things, they may notice, and maybe they won't care, but maybe they will.>
Talyn yawned, and flew up to a ledge on the mesa to sleep on overnight. He messed with the ledge for comfort and safety - a lip around its edge, sponginess to the rock under himself so he didn't wake up black and blue. He could have gone back home overnight, but he didn't want to be caught off guard when the leonines started letting prisoners go, or eating them, or whatever.
In the morning, Nyahis divided up the non-meat food the pride had around for the humans, distributed water containers too, and pointed all the humans in the direction of the river, which they'd be able to follow to their destinations with careful rationing. The explanation the released prisoners received was that they were too much trouble to feed and the pride didn't want to waste time trying to sell them off.
Talyn was announced to have been eaten overnight by Asha, who supported this story with a toothy grin while shooing the humans into the dawnlight. She claimed that he had tasted awful, and that she expected he'd had enough time to rub off on everyone else.
Talyn watched everyone go - Mekath and Senthel fell into the temporary protection of an old woman who was headed to the same town and had met their uncle.
"Still there, Talyn?" Nyahis called aloud, when the humans were out of sight - though not out of recapture range, Talyn noted.
"I'm here," Talyn shouted from his ledge. "I'll give you the spout now, but let's wait a couple angles to let them get farther before I teach you the spell. I wouldn't want you running out and capturing them all again, you see, and it's slightly harder to remove a spell from your mind than a waterspout from your possession."
He tossed down the device, turning it visible halfway down. "Just want it on, and it'll be on," he instructed. Nyahis caught it, and immediately bestowed water on all of his wives in order of seniority, and then the children based on their recent accomplishments and according status. He watered himself last, and kept the water spout tied to his neck with a twist of leather.
The pride went about its business - though Asha cast occasional glances up at where Talyn's voice had come from - for the first half of the morning, and then Nyahis said, "I'll have that spell now, Talyn!"
True to his word, Talyn flew down, became visible, and patiently walked Nyahis through the gesture and the words. The patriarch didn't want any of his wives or children to learn it without more careful thought, because the wives could be seduced away and the children wouldn't be a part of his pride forever, but he picked it up himself without much trouble. His clawed hands were less dextrous than Talyn's, but Talyn had shared his first tier theory class with two leonine girls and remembered a few things about how the teacher had gone about adapting gesture instructions for them.
"Satisfied?" Talyn asked Nyahis.
"Quite," Nyahis said with a wide, thin smile.
"Grand," Talyn said. He took two steps to his transfer point and blinked home.