A Tangled Chain

This is the earliest piece of fiction I'm including on the site. I dashed it off in 1997, basically on a whim. The tone is similar to that of many fantasy-adventure stories, right down to the sardonicism. The plot, on the other hand, is perhaps less than believable. Oh, well. At least some of the people I went to college with enjoyed it. Maybe you will, too.

Odemis fell slack in his chains.  It hurt like hell, but he figured since death would have him lying slack soon enough anyway, he might as well be lazy like a lord in his living hours.  He was hurting inside too, but it wasn’t a clear thing like the pain of grim anticipation.  It was more the pain of uncertainty.
     Jikelli Emoiyre, his master, dragged him ruefully along the cement streets toward the high chateau, within which the Lord Ymn-Getharu was waiting for his tradespeople to assemble.  The man who owned Odemis was thick in muscle and sinew, despite his somewhat chunky appearance, but his mind was narrow and sharp.  He wore a Odemis did not feel very comfortable in his hands.
     They were allowed clear passage by the citizens on the streets, and arrived while the sun was still climbing the celestial dome.  Inside the high chateau, the floor changed to an alternation of flagstone and quartz.  The high ceiling was also an alternation, but it was between white rock and open air.  The floor was striped with shadows.
     The hall was bustling with a fair number of people, most of them prospective buyers.  Odemis had learned that he was the fourth to be sold at the auction.  He did not rate his chances of survival highly.  It was possible that he would be bought by a man or woman who would not work him beyond his chosen limit, in which case he would not need to resort to suicide--but he doubted it.  He would not work for another master as cruel as Jikelli Emoiyre.
     Ymn-Getharu was in his throne, set upon a low dais at the right of the hall.  Naturally, his throne was directly under one of the open stripes of ceiling, putting it in the light.  He rose when Jikelli Emoiyre entered with his slave.
     “They are all here now.  We will begin.  Thettais Neuba, bring your slave to the front of the room.”
     That was Ymn-Getharu for you.  No proceedings.  No foreplay.  Ten seconds was all he had used, and the auction was underway.  Ymn-Getharu was able to command attention quickly, that was for sure.
     Thettais Neuba sold his slave, a teenaged woman, for twenty-six stars.  Considering the current unstable value of the star coin, Odemis decided that Thettais had gotten a poor price.  Still, it was more than he probably would have gotten on the open market.
     In fact, Odemis saw that Thettais appeared quite content with his payment.  Odemis suspected that the teenaged slave had been quite a bit of trouble for Thettais, and wondered if it had been sloth or disobedience which had vexed him so.  The girl’s new master would be unlikely to enjoy her any more than Thettais had.
     Odemis found himself looking forward to screwing the master under whose ownership how would kill himself.  He made himself remember that it was life he sought in the end, not revenge, but he wasn’t very persuasive.  He wanted some man-trader to lose an investment with his death.  He wanted to throw a little bit more turmoil into the mix that already plagued this city.  He wanted to do some damage.
     But it still wasn’t enough.  It wasn’t nearly enough.  Odemis could hardly imagine a way that he could do all the damage he wanted.  But there were always possibilities to think of, and life was high on that list.  Death was also on the list, but it was unfortunately fairly low.
     Another two slaves were sold, these two belonging to a foreigner who had gambled his way to landholder status.  Odemis had heard of him, and hated him.  He hoped vehemently that he wasn’t on the market for new flesh, or he might end up causing Odemis’s death.  Odemis certainly wasn’t going to test the man’s reputation if he were purchased by him.
     Odemis was the next on the floor, with Jikelli dragging him every step of the way.  It had not slipped by Odemis that he might improve his chances of being sold to a lenient master by displaying good behavior, for slaves with good behavior were generally bought by the rich, and the rich were most likely to be lenient.  But Odemis simply could not bring himself to start making things easy for Jikelli Emoiyre at this stage in the game, as much as he wanted to.  It would just be too painful.
     “Will you introduce your slave, Jikelli Emoiyre?”  Each of the other three slaves had been introduced by their masters as a preliminary to bidding.  Odemis was looking forward to hearing what Jikelli would say.
     Jikelli nodded sharply.  “This is Odemis, a sharp-minded, high-endurance field worker from across the north seas.  He specializes in light but long tasks, such as pitching hay.  As you can all see, he is somewhat disobedient--so he will hopefully be bought by someone who is able to keep discipline.  I trust that there is no shortage of such people here, is there?”
     Odemis was as surprised as anyone at Jikelli’s words.  Ordinarily, even the most rueful master did not use cruel words to describe the very slave he was selling, but Jikelli had broken this rule.  It was probably wise of him too, Odemis concluded, for his final taunt had started the crowd roiling.  Jikelli had successfully turned the obvious fault of his slave into an advantage, as no one wanted to be thought of as unable to keep discipline.  The first bid was ten stars, and the figures continued to rise for some time.
     After about five minutes of bidding, Odemis was beginning to get sick.  The bids had long since gone beyond the level of practicality.  It had become much more a contest of prestige as the bidders dropped out, and it was clear that the remaining six or seven bidders were in it for nothing else.  It was another example of the awful state this city was in; when a person could not participate in a simple auction without putting his or her reputation on the line.  Odemis loathed it.
     He decided to put in a joke call of thirty-five stars himself, just to see what would happen.  Despite being unfamiliar with the laws of this city, Odemis very much doubted that a slave could legitimately bid for his own purchase.  But it was worth a try, and besides, it would be fun to stir things up a little more.  “Thirty-five stars!” he said.
     Strangely, no one made any effort to suppress Odemis, although the crowd did pause for a moment.  The gaunt man in the back of the crowd bid “Thirty-six stars!” and the auction continued from there.
     Odemis was a bit surprised.  Apparently he was allowed to bid, although he might have misinterpreted the silence.  Still, he had nothing to lose.  He struggled slowly with his chains until he was standing, and then bid “Fifty stars.”  This time the crowd looked at him, and the silence was longer.
     “Fifty-six,” said a heavy, black-bearded man with crossed arms.  He seemed fairly sure of himself, as if he didn’t need the prestige of being known as a disciplinarian, but he could use it anyway.  Another man bid fifty-eight, and the one woman remaining in the bidding bid sixty-one.  The auction continued.
     Now Odemis was sure of his right.  Suddenly, his tongue brushed against the gold fillings in his teeth.  He realized that Jikelli had once told him that gold was very rare here.  Very rare and very valuable.  Odemis realized that he just might have money to pay with after all.
     He did not know how much a little filling would be worth, though, and the bidding was getting uncomfortably high.  Odemis turned to the Lord, Ymn-Getharu.  He risked the crime of interruption.  “My lord,” he said, “how many stars would make the equal of three little pieces of gold, each about half a cubed centimeter in size?”
     Ymn-Getharu frowned and leaned forward toward Odemis with an alarming quickness.  “You dare to speak.”
     “It pertains to further bids I may make in this auction.”  Odemis tried to keep his voice bold and saucy, just in case he had misinterpreted things and he wasn’t allowed to bid after all.  If that was the case, he wanted to be seen as impudent rather than ignorant.
     The lord answered him.  “Most here would give you around one hundred stars for such nuggets as you have described.  But I will point out that rather than buy such things from you, a prospective master would do better simply to buy you and then torture its location out of you.  Of course, I could do with a bit of gold...”
     The crowd had fallen silent.  Odemis shrugged.  “Eighty stars,” he called, which was higher than any bid thus far.  A rumble of voices began again, and almost immediately the auction resumed.  Odemis was disappointed.
     One hundred stars, the lord had said.  Possibly Odemis might be able to squeeze one hundred fifty out of someone present, but he could not count on it.  And he was not at all sure that each of the fillings in his mouth was fully half a cubic centimeter either.
     A thin man, apparently in his late twenties, bid ninety stars over the woman’s eighty-eight.  Odemis could understand why the man was so eager to get the prize which Jikelli Emoiyre had so cleverly placed upon his shoulders.  The man was clearly a weakling, evidenced by his pale skin and flat arms, as well as by his voice.  A purchase which epitomized discipline would be of great value to him for advancing his standing in society.  But he was outbid.
     Desperately, Odemis called out “One hundred stars!” and turned to face the lord.  But Ymn-Getharu was watching Jikelli, who was obviously quite pleased that his taunt had struck its toll.  Eventually, the lord turned back to the auction, which was up to one hundred thirteen stars, and Odemis caught his eye.
     “My lord, you mentioned that you yourself could do with a bit of gold.  Would it be worth one hundred fifty stars to you?”
     The lord looked casually at Odemis, then turned back to the auction without answering.  The strong man said “One hundred thirty.”
     Odemis heard Ymn-Getharu murmur to himself, “I never paid nearly so much for any of my slaves.  Such a war it’s become.  These people crave status, but none of them is fit to be a lord.”
     Odemis strained in his chains.  Jikelli glared at him.  Odemis said “Is it true, my lord, that all your subjects are your own slaves as well?”
     Ymn-Getharu looked at him, as if he had been expecting further comment from the slave.  “It is true, though I have rarely had cause to assert my right.  Any lord is owner of those he rules.”
     “You would consider a slave to be worth far less than one hundred stars, I surmise?”
     “Yes.  This is why I do not bid.”
     This time, the bidding war had not halted when the slave in question had begun to speak.  It had continued, and as Odemis turned his attention back to the prime bidders, he began to sense unspoken messages passing through the crowds.  He realized that the contestants were not bidding just for status.  They were bidding for their own safety.  The pale youngster was clearly uncomfortable about the sum of money he was promising, yet he continued on, as he knew that to back out at this stage would mark him as weak; weaker than if he had not bid in the first place.  And this, Odemis thought, would most likely be a dangerous name for him to bear.
     Odemis turned back to Ymn-Getharu, drawing a scowl from Jikelli Emoiyre.  Jikelli stood some few paces away, clenching Odemis’s chains tightly.  Odemis motioned toward him with his head.  “How much for Jikelli Emoiyre?”
     “Excuse me?” said the lord?
     “You want gold, don’t you?  I’d like to buy my master, Jikelli.”
     Jikelli took a step forward.  He halted, with one foot in front of the other, as if deciding whether to advance or retreat.  “Such a thing is not permitted,” he said.
     “Why not, Jikelli?” asked the Lord Ymn-Getharu.
     Jikelli’s mouth opened a sliver.  His eyes were suddenly extremely active.  He stood still, thinking.  Then he said “There would be no meaning to ownership, if a slave could buy its master.  Power would come from wealth, and nothing else, as it does in many other communities.  There would be nothing to distinguish us.”
     “Oh, I disagree with that, Jikelli,” said Ymn-Getharu.  “A slave can only purchase its master if it has the money, a rare enough occurrence that it does not upset things.  And you are my slave, after all.  I can do what I want regarding you.”
     This time Jikelli took a step back.
     “Odemis, I would like a cubic centimeter of gold.  For that, I will sell you Jikelli Emoiyre.  Can you provide it?”
     Odemis was amazed at the casualty which with his suggestion had been considered.  He almost revealed the location of his gold to the lord on the reasoning that a man of his standing would be forced to keep his word on such matters.  But then he remember that this man was the lord of all present, and he could do as he wished.
     “I can, and I can get for you the gold in three days.”
     Ymn-Getharu considered for a very short time, then nodded.  “Three days is satisfactory.  You now own Jikelli Emoiyre.  If in three days’ time, you have failed to produce--”
     Jikelli broke in, pleading “You must be telling a jest, my lord.  I have served you well, and this foreigner not at all.  I have pledged to you my every effort, and this stranger does even know you.  If you are indeed joking, then please make it clear.  I hope dearly that my lord would not be so rash as to take from me--”
     “I am not taking anything from you, Jikelli.  I am giving the rights of your obedience to this man Odemis.  I own them, after all.”
     Jikelli nodded sharply.
     “But you still own Odemis, as well as all your other slaves.  That has not changed.”
     This was yet another surprise to Odemis, convincing him even further of the craziness of this city.  If he could own Jikelli even while Jikelli owned Odemis...  What would come of it?
     “In that case, my lord, I have no choice but to command my slave, Odemis, to relinquish his ownership of me.  Do it now.”  Jikelli tugged on Odemis’s chains.
     For the first time, Odemis glimpsed a smile on Ymn-Getharu’s tall face.  The man was right to smile; this was ridiculous.
     “I shall obey, my master, but I command you to do the same.  First.”
     A soft-faced man of forty or so bid one hundred forty-six stars.  The rest of the crowd seemed finally to be paying attention to the events on the dais.  The crowd murmured, but no one else bid.
     Jikelli looked desperately at his lord.  “I commanded him first.  Does he not have to obey me first?”
     Ymn-Getharu’s smile grew broader.  “You are correct, Jikelli.  Odemis must relinquish his ownership of you, and only then need you relinquish your ownership of him--as long as you do it first, for he did specify that.”
     Odemis didn’t know if that was supposed to make sense, but he decided it wouldn’t hurt to take quick action.  “I command you to make no further commands!” he said, and then “I command you to kill yourself.”
     “I command you to retract your command forbidding me to make commands, and that you forgive me for making this one,” hissed Jikelli.  “Oh yes, and then kill yourself.”
     “This is getting rather amusing,” said Ymn-Getharu.
     The frontmost members of the crowd began speaking angrily, and some moved forward.  Ymn-Getharu’s guards appeared from the shadows and kept them away.
     “Do I need to obey his command after I explicitly ordered him not to make any more commands?”
     “I’m afraid so, since he did ask you to forgive him.  But you don’t need to do it immediately.”
     Was this a game, Odemis wondered?  “I retract my order and forgive you, but I then reinstate the order again, and I command you not to command me to retract any more orders, including this one.”
     Jikelli looked at Ymn-Getharu.  “Can he do that?”
     “Yes.  He is your master, you know.”
     “Well, as his master, I have the right to physically punish him, and I intend to do so.”  Jikelli pulled the chains tighter.
     “I command you not to--”
     “I command you to shut up, and to forgive this unpardonable offense--”
     “Well, if it’s unpardonable, then I can’t rightly pardon it, now can I?”
     “Do it!!”
     Odemis yanked himself some slack within his chains.  “I command you to--”
     “Ah ah ah!!  Shut up, remember?”
     “I command you to retract that, and while I will forgive you for--”
     “I command you to stand still while I--”
     “No pulling!  I command you not to pull on the chain!”
     Jikelli wrapped the chain around Odemis’s neck.  Odemis fought as well as he could, and managed to place a nasty kick on his master’s shin.
     Jikelli Emoiyre prepared to return the kick, when Odemis said “No kicking!”
     Jikelli snarled, and began to do something else, but Odemis shoved him.  Jikelli said “My lord, this slave has not obeyed my order to shut up.  See that he is punished!”
     Ymn-Getharu was looking at the crowd.  “Is one hundred forty-six the final bid?”
     The crowd was dumbstruck by the spectacle on the dais.  No one would even think of bidding, except for one tall man with straight blond hair and a rusty complexion, who bid “One hundred fifty!”  No one else spoke.
     “I command you to feed yourself to serpents!” Jikelli was saying.  Ymn-Getharu glared at the two of them, rolling in the floor and tangled in chain.  “Guards, separate them.”
     The guards did this.  Odemis and Jikelli stood apart, their expressions menacing.  Ymn-Getharu addressed them.
     “You two must learn to obey, or you will be punished.  You may, of course, follow your instructions in any order you choose, provided that the relevant commands include no instructions as to such.  But you must execute them all, or you will be punished.  Lariledd, have you been listening to them?”
     A short, somewhat heavy but not stout woman came forth from the left wall.  She bowed her head to Ymn-Getharu, and said “I have my lord.”
     “Will you recite the orders issued to each of these two?”
     “I will, my lord.  To the slave: relinquish control of Jikelli Emoiyre, retract your command regarding commands and forgive Jikelli for disobeying it--which I believe you did--kill yourself, forgive him again for disobeying the order, shut up, shut up again, stand still, and feed yourself to serpents.  To Jikelli: relinquish control of your slave before he does the same for you, make no further commands, kill yourself, do not command Odemis to retract any further commands, retract your order for Odemis to shut up, do not pull on the chain, do not kick.  That is all, my lord.”
     “I see.”  Ymn-Getharu was no longer smiling broadly, but his voice and face still indicated amusement.  “Well?  Who will go first?”
     “My lord,” said Odemis, “have I fulfilled his orders not to do something simply by not doing them immediately?  Or need I permanently not do them?”
     “You must never do them until he says you may.  And I do not wish either of you to make any further commands at this point.”
     “I am now standing still,” said Odemis helpfully.
     “That is good.”
     “I retract my order to shut up,” Jikelli announced, “although it doesn’t seem to have made a bit of difference.”
     “Good,” said Ymn-Getharu.
     “I am pleased to announce my lord, that while you and Jikelli Emoiyre were speaking, I shut up; not once, but twice!”  Odemis bowed, an awkward thing for a man wearing chains.
     “And once more, I offer my sincerest forgiveness for your audacity.  You are but a child mentally, and a child cannot be held responsible for such offenses.”
     “Such insolence!”
     “Good,” said Ymn-Getharu.  “I believe that leaves only the matter of your relinquishments and your suicides, with yours being at the wrath of a serpent, I believe.”
     Jikelli and Odemis did nothing.  They had no idea what they could do to get out of this.
     “And now,” said the Lord, “is the bidding concluded?”  No one spoke, and Ymn-Getharu continued.  “I believe the final figure is one hundred and fifty star coins.  Is that correct?”
     The man who had made the bid nodded.  He came up to the dais, and Ymn-Getharu gave him the chains connected to Odemis.
     “Heffis Travathoe, is that your name?  Have I remembered it correctly?”
     Heffis nodded once more, somberly.  He evidently was not at all happy about having bid again.  He dug in his coin pouch for fifty stars, and also extracted a bar of metal which Odemis assumed was worth one hundred.  He handed both to the Lord, who handed them to Jikelli.
     “Odemis, it seems that you have a new master.  Since you are no longer owned by Jikelli, you need no longer follow his orders.  You are now the property of Heffis Travathoe, whom you see before you.”
     The lord strode to Jikelli.  “Jikelli, your slave no longer belongs to you, so I recognize that you can no longer relinquish him.  You do, however, have another order pending, and that is to kill yourself.”
     “My lord,” said Jikelli Emoiyre, “I really, really, really don’t want to kill myself.”
     “Ah,” said Ymn-Getharu.  “Well, in that case, I suggest that you arrange something with your owner.  I will suggest to him that he be lenient in your fate.”
     Odemis thought quickly, knowing he had little to lose.  “Tell you what, Jikelli.  I’ll retract my order for you to kill yourself if you’ll just do something else.  Buy me back from Heffis, here, and set me free before doing anything else.”
     Heffis brightened slightly.  “Well, he’s a troublemaker, it’s true, but they’re the very sharpest kind.  For this smart fellow, I’m going to have to ask one-and-a-half hundred stars.  Do we have a deal.”
     Jikelli, in something of a rueful daze, returned Heffis’s money to him and took the chains holding Odemis.  He started to pull roughly on them, but remembered his master’s earlier command.
     “I set you free, Odemis,” he muttered.  “It’s not like I’d ever get any work out of you anyway, loafer that you are.”
     Odemis grinned.  “Well, Ymn-Getharu.  I suppose I’m still your slave, aren’t I?”
     “Yes, that you are.  But you have a slave of your own.”
     “Well, I’ve been thinking about that, my lord.  This Jikelli fellow, he can give orders, but I believe we’ve both seen that he can’t take them very well.  Frankly, I don’t think I’d have much use for him.  So I’d like to cancel our deal, if that’s all right with you.”
     Ymn-Getharu sighed.  “I ask that you bring me one of the three pieces of gold you mentioned in exchange for the time you have already owned him.  You may keep the other two.  Jikelli, you are no longer the property of Odemis.”
     “I am immeasurably grateful,” Jikelli hissed.
     “Thank you,” said Odemis.  “In that case, it appears I have two more pieces of gold to my name.  I expect you’d be interested in having them?”
     “I would, and I could order you to bring them to me.  But that would not be very kind of me, nor would it be fair, and I always try to be fair.  It is one of the things that keeps me in good mental health, and that is something my position demands.”
     “I can appreciate that.  In that case, would you be willing to allow me to buy my freedom?”
     The Lord Ymn-Getharu paused for a very brief instant, as was his way, and then burst out laughing.  “Yes, Odemis, bring me the other two pieces of gold and you may have your freedom.  You’ve earned it.  In any case, a man like you shouldn’t be taking orders.”
     Odemis smiled.  “Have you a dentist, my lord?”
     “A dentist?  What for?”
     “I’m going to have to sacrifice three of my teeth.  But it’s been worth it, believe me.”  Odemis smiled again, wide enough to show the first of the gold fillings.  Ymn-Getharu laughed again, a little quieter this time.
     “That’s all right, Odemis, you can send me the gold in the future.  I’m sure that a man who comes from a place where they put precious metals into people’s teeth should have no trouble finding it.”
     “I will bring it to you and more, if I can.  However, I am not at all sure that I will be back this way.”
     “Well, in that case...  Would you care to spend a few weeks officiating for me?  I’m sure you’ll be good at it, and you may even enjoy it enough to work off your debt.”
     Straight, and to the point.  How could Odemis not agree to work for a man like this?
     “I’ll do what I can, my lord.  What sort of things will I do?”
     “Well, to start, you can preside over the rest of this auction.  It gets tiresome after a while, although you and Jikelli have certainly changed that.”
     A laugh could be heard faintly from the crowd.  Another voice shouted to “Get on with the selling!”  Soon, the crowd seemed to have reached agreement on this point.
     “In that case, will the fourth slaveholder please come to the front of the room!” yelled Odemis.
     It was surprising how quickly he developed an appreciation of the strange ways of this city.  In a few days, Odemis was settled in at the high chateau, and he found that he was actually enjoying his duties; some of them, anyway.  Funny, he thought to himself, how much of a difference it makes when you look at something from the top instead of the bottom.  Maybe he’d come to like that slimy creature Jikelli Emoiyre yet.
     But then again, maybe in his position it didn’t really matter.  Odemis laughed.  What a despicable tyrant he’d become!