The Slave Boy, by Denzel Xavier Scott


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The morning stars Amat and Ma’aat have yet to rise. If only I could sleep until then, but I already have my satchel and I’m already in the fields. Like always, I already curse the dawn. Each daybreak rolls into another, beautiful, with a hint of malice, always its own unique rose of needle-sharp thorns, blossoming anew with fading stars, feeding pigs, goats, chickens, and the blessed parliament of alaqilins who grow restless in the stables.

To the pigs and goats, I offer many delights. They enjoy a feast of stems of cabbages; the greens of carrots, beets, and turnips; dried fish and poultry bones, beaten fine with a mix of desiccated crab husks from the eastern sea and sun-baked crayfish shells gathered from the shallow waters of the rice paddy terraces to the west; and dehydrated maggots, mealworms, and termite larvae bred plentifully on the compost mounds.

Feeding the chickens is easiest, since they eat what they forage from the compost. They spend all of their time walking their delicate feet up and down, up and down, while pressing their beaks into rot. Twice a week I may gift them dandelions, date palm fruit, and whatever else I might come across scouring the beach and forest. Today I offer them nothing.

My work is hard, but bearable. I can make it through the strain. I can push through the exhaustion. I can suffer the heat, the grime, and the smells. I can endure it all until facing the likes of the alaqilins. That labor is often the first misfortune of my days.

For the alaqilins, I offer powdered, dried microalgae collected from the artificial ponds, seaweed collected during ocean fishing dives, sprouted onions, and carrot and beet greens. They of course refuse to eat until every speck of their waste is gone from their sight. How they pretend to be like people.

My shovel breaks into the hills of manure they greet me with. It’s heavy every morning as I pile it on the cart. I stare at them as I shovel, sweat pooling in my kinky, black coils and along the furrows of my cinnamon brow.

The alaqilins stare back at me in kind with their piercing, turquoise eyes. They are all too eager to showcase how little my existence matters to them as they stomp their massive hooves and click their teeth in complete indifference to my rage. Then the barrage of their vile insults fills the air, already made heavy with the funk of their steaming shit.

“Haikwan, you loathsome field hand, don’t you ever get tired of hauling our dung?”

“I swear the boy wallows in it when he drags it away.”

“Filthy, hairless, upright ape! You nexians should just leave us be!”

“He wears the stench of our waste like perfume! Even clean, he reeks!”

In and out of the barn, the wheels of this cart and my legs wobble. The odor is so strong my eyes water. “Please don’t let me fall in front of them this morning,” I whisper.

“Haikwan Yar, you will fall into filth. We make sure of it every day.”

Creatures such as these that speak are the most hateful animals you’ll cross. They have no mind for manners. They lack shame. They think nothing of nexian emotions, as no one thinks of theirs. They are but lowly beasts, with their inane politics and priorities. Yet here I am serving them as if they were the vessels of gods. Low as they are, I am even lower.

“Stupid boy, hurry to me, I have some fresh droppings for you!”

Every alaqilin in the stable lifts his or her majestic tail, a tail I have brushed a hundred times into silky smoothness.

“Hurry! Which one of us will it be?”

“Which of us is lying and which of us is not?”

“Hurry, boy!”

“Hurry here!”

“To me, Haikwan!”

Their laughter wraps me in a cocoon of noise; without fail, my feet expertly find a root to trip over, and I fall face-first into steaming excrement. This is daily, and yet the lashing humiliation of it all never dulls.

“You can’t spend all of your time here with us, Haikwan. Hurry up and do your job!”

Their voices tumble all over. I quickly gather myself, wipe the filth from my eyes, and take up my shovel once more.

Their ability to perform craft allows them to communicate as all nexians communicate, through the universal craft technique of changing sound waves. They speak our language because for the last seven thousand cycles the whole world has spoken the same wretched tongue, though nexians still prefer to at least birth our words with our mouths. For the alaqilins, without appropriate tongue, vocal cords, teeth, palate, or the like, they speak and do so at length, whether you wish to entertain it or not, though it offers them no protection. Such creatures often rely on other means for their defenses, and it is in this, amongst many other things, that one begins to understand their tragedy.

Though capable of many abilities, some even enviable, like purifying the air of toxins with their graceful antlers, purifying bodies of water with a mere touch of the long barbels near their equine mouths, encouraging plant growth wherever their hulking hooves tread, alaqilins are not creatures that inspire terror. No acid to spray, no claws to rend with, no fangs to shred flesh to pieces, and the sad creatures have no other craft to independently make use of on a battlefield. Smart and swift and proud as they are, they’re weak.

That is why they are amongst us nexian folk as pets, trophies, or beasts of burden, and they hate us for it. They hate us with a pure and simple disgust that is right and just to anyone with eyes and any sort of caring in their heart.

I look at their golden antlers wrapped in thick sheets of sepia-toned rubber and their tips covered with blue ceramic spheres. Their majestic legs dressed with scales, feathers, and fur are shackled with tungsten chains, and their wings are caged in tungsten bars as I maneuver around their hulking forms. I look at the collars and chains of tungsten that bind their imposing necks. I see the unmistakable bruising from their agitation and their defiance of their hopeless oppression.

My shovel is so heavy. I can only imagine every single one of these wretches does their utmost to empty their bowels during the night. That too is their struggle against their masters. But I am not a master, just another slave of this grand house like they are, and they know this, but what difference, truly, does that make?

As I haul their feces out to the compost mounds, the breeze that wafts in from the sea gives me momentary relief. It’s truly momentary, though. The smell and heat of excrement, rotting crop waste, and carcasses mangle the soft ocean breeze into submission and baptize me before I even see the mounds.

It takes all my strength to approach and turn over the cart. When I return to the stables, the alaqilins neigh and whinny as a chorus, harmonizing in their tormenting song. It’s but another horrible gift they offer that is more than just reward for the many horrors offered to them.

They hate all nexians for the many times we’ve sold off their children in front of their eyes despite their tearful pleas. They hate us for branding them. They hate us for hiding our knowledge and demanding that they stay ignorant and low. They hate us for making them labor and offering them no pay or any right to partake in our world. They’ve been wronged so much and so terribly. The cries of their brethren occasionally butchered for meat when profits become tragically scarce scar enough of them.

There is so much rage, ever-present rage, for every person that the alaqilins meet—man, woman, and child. Being in their company is a walk through an endless cloud of stinging gadflies. They wouldn’t dare let a nexian endure peace so long as they remain in chains, snatched from their nesting grounds along the sheer Golgotha Cliffs. For those nexians capable of practicing high craft, alaqilins are silent creatures. Those blessed ones filter out their voices entirely with the ease of a blink; their complaints, their cries, their pleas, and their curses vanish.

After much time passes, their singing has finally begun to quiet. Their bodies ache to soar. The song of their shackles catches the air momentarily before the clinging metal lets it go.

I would gladly kill these manacled children of the sky. Their tragedy is not foreign to me. I would kill them to end their misery and mine. Maybe a bevy of carrots served with nightshade and water hemlock. That should be a painless death. Though they are cruel to me, I wouldn’t want them to suffer. I may hate them for how they treat me, but I can’t deny the reason for their disgust or their conviction in it.

Freedom for them isn’t real. They’d always be hunted if they ever managed to escape. Their only true way out would be death, but their loss means the loss of food from my mouth and skin from my back, and even more plights, I’m sure, and the alaqilins know my cowardice well. They see it. They can see that I, Haikwan Yar, will always be the browbeaten one, berated daily by bitter-talking animals. How pathetic. I have sympathy for them, but as I am now I would never help them. My heinous, middling comfort is greater than their lives.

The twin suns are starting to rise. My arms ache so much, and yet this is the beginning of my day. The alaqilins soon begin to bow their heads to eat as I clear away the last of their droppings. Their pride has driven them into desperate hunger. When I am finally free of their sight, their heads drop completely. I wonder what it’s like to have such pride. That’s one of the few things I wish I shared with them.

These alaqilins and I are slaves of the high house of Hypel, of Mistress Ishidori Hypel. No chain has ever bound me like the blessed parliament of alaqilins that I steward, and Mistress Hypel I believe would never sell me away from my family, if I weren’t already a war orphan like many youths of Vega, but I am a slave. As a member of the Anathematized, those who cannot practice high craft, my people are doomed to lifelong servitude in exchange for protection. Thus we, the powerless, cannot live without the mercy of the Auspicious, those who practice the true sacred art, the high craft. Such is my life. Such is the reason that I am bound to the Hypel estate and the Mistress’s mercy like these beautiful, but utterly pitiful beings.

With the alaqilins fed, and the hours of the early morning spent, the other tasks need doing. First comes foraging from the forests of the Hypel estate. I fetch my two baskets from beside my mat of bamboo, cheap shiro, and white coconut coir, throw the straps of the largest one over my back, and run as quickly as I can into the woods. I am always the last to join. Other field hands have been here for some hours, collecting fruits, herbs, medicinal grasses, and mushrooms.

“You had fun with the alaqilins again, I see!” yells Duxon as I try to race past him and the others with their nearly overflowing baskets.

“How do they always make you fall?” asks Mucti as he adjusts the blue cloth of his makeshift turban.

“Better him than us. Those animals are a poison to the soul,” says Fren, stooping over in a tall patch of grass.

“You won’t hunt and forage with us, Haikwan?” asks Puzon from amongst the branches of the tree overhead, his basket full of birds he’s killed with his slingshot.

They’ve scoured this area and plucked everything worth having clean.

“Not today, boys. I’ve my own quota to meet too, or it’s no supper again.”

Sometimes, I would climb the trees and collect fruit, but that is not the case today. The best I can manage is to collect what has fallen. I continue walking past them, closer to the beach, to fetch coconuts and date palm fruit. Since the others move together, everything behind them is gone, but everything ahead is easy pickings. Just in the short walk to the beach, my eyes spy red berry clusters whose vines have settled into the knothole of a tree, a group of tightly bound mushrooms resembling shucked oysters stretching out of a decaying tree trunk, and underneath, a collection of plump larvae, including a few silkworms.

In transitioning from the cool forest floor to the sinking sands of the beach, I unfasten my sandals. The beach’s lavender and rose-colored sands burn my feet before the sensation eases into a simple warmth. Coconuts, dates, and fruit of the oil palms are scattered under this tree and that. I haven’t the energy to try and climb for more and I do not have as much skill employing my sling with my low manipulation craft as Puzon. Without the others to laugh at my failure, though, I make my attempt.

With a smooth pebble I quickly find, I swing my sling round and round. At first, the stone misses the clutch of coconuts entirely. I swipe my hand to force it back on course, but the push of my almost nonexistent manipulation craft sends it flying. I lack the dexterity and stamina to refine what level of craft I’m even capable of.

Again and again, pebbles speed past the coconuts until just as I come to peace with my failure a pebble pierces one of the coconuts and the whole clutch of them comes crashing down upon the soft sand. Utterly exhausted, I smile in the face of such sweet rewards, but the smile is brief. I watch a blue sonyum carefully eye my prize from the sea. It’s clever, small, believes entirely in its quick feet, nimble acrobatics, and knows terribly how much it has the advantage.

Out of the water races the little opportunist with its ultramarine coat dressing its simian frame, and its turquoise scales shining along its underbelly. The amphibious monkey already has a hand on the branch about to drag the entire clutch into the water when I manage to strike it with a stone. The fear of such a loss makes my aim certain. The shock on its golden snub-nosed face moves me. As it rubs its small injury, truly no more than a scratch, I see in its eyes it is the creature’s ego that I wound, particularly as I snatch the branch out of its reach. For all its mischievousness though, I gift the rascal three coconuts, which it snatches away quickly with one to each hand and the last wrapped in its tail as it races upright like a nexian back to the sea before diving into its depths. That’s my solitary bout of undeserved charity for the day, I think to myself as the blue sonyum disappears, but it’s such a profound misreading of fate.

“Sir, do you need any help? This is the private estate of my master, Mistress Hypel,” I ask as I come across an old man sleeping nude on the beach as if he owns the place.

“No, I’m quite all right, but if you could spare me a few dates, coconuts, and oil palm fruit I spy amongst your belongings I’d much appreciate it,” retorts the naked stranger.

The white-haired fool thinks to ask me for what he should gather himself. How vile. Against my better judgment, I stoop down to hand him what he asks and I regret it immediately. He grabs my wrists and draws me in closer, and the smell of alcohol that wafts from his body is so intense it’s almost as if he’d soaked himself in a bath of wine and spirits for days. And as shocking as it is to be bombarded with the scent of a drunk, that’s not what offends me, or at least that’s not what offends me so deeply that I feel my teeth clench in disgust. It’s his hands.

“I just noticed, could you spare me some mushrooms and some of those red berries you have there as well.”

His words can’t wake me. His skin is as soft as a baby’s. He hasn’t worked a day in his life. He doesn’t know the humiliation of toil, and here he languishes the day away. Even drunk as he is, his strange blue eyes, eyes of folk who hail from the northern places, like Stados, Burnstrad, Brut, Vivaldi, and the like, don’t look haggard. His snow-white, loosely coiled hair is full like that of someone a quarter of what I presume is his age, and somehow his pale skin is unblemished even as he should be burned by the suns that blaze down upon this beach. There are not enough lotions, ointments, or creams in this world that could keep so much unprepared, pale white skin from the twin suns’ wrath.

“Fellow, can you spare some of those mushrooms, berries, and…are those silkworms? Please spare some of those as well, kind servant of the great Mistress Hypel. I promise this will be the last I ask of you, and you will receive a great reward.”

“I doubt that,” I mumble unthinkingly as he smiles at me with a mouth full of pearl-white teeth. Vagrants are never so hygienic. Most servants, even most common folks I encounter at the markets and the like, are never so hygienic. But the masters shimmer with the wealth they’ve poured into themselves in appeasement of their own vanities. Is he a master like Mistress Hypel? And if he is a master, surely that means he is an Auspicious as well? Will he take offense at my mistake? Is he my dreadful death? Am I to lose my head for a slip of my foolish tongue?

“Excuse me,” he says still with a smile, but his eyes now sport a hardness that runs through them like the blue lake of his irises has transformed into sapphire.

My tone softens quickly, and quick as thunder dances behind a bolt as I reply with a well-practiced, obsequious smile I’ve conjured since childhood painted on my face. “Pardon me, sir. Wrong choice of words. It is not that I doubt the end of your requests nor your promise of reward. I am pleased I can offer even this much and am ever eager to fulfill more.”

“How splendid. Although wholly disingenuous, I do appreciate the quickness of that tongue of yours that so easily fabricated such repugnant lies. It’s familiar,” says the stranger with his sapphire eyes watching me and his monk’s smile unperturbed. “You deceive as easily as the Un’qedeshas who offer prophecy and flesh in the Pilari temples of our wretched country of Vega. Was your mother amongst these, perhaps?”

Surely I am a fool who longs for death, because as my hands offer all that the stranger requests of me, as I endure the insulting of my dead mother as if she were less than a dog, I could not help but laugh like a guileless child, wide-mouthed, showing all my teeth, which shine as the teeth of the common folk sometimes do. It’s all I can do to withstand my discombobulation as my rage and the impotency of its expression mingle.

My laughter surprises me the moment that it’s born because it does not instantly lead to my ruin, as I could only assume that it would. It’s startling how the sapphire of this stranger’s eyes softens before me and the quiet lotus of his calm smile blooms into dancing laughter that echoes the beats of my own. I get to keep my head another day, it seems. The moment the mysterious stranger’s laughter stops, though, and what follows immediately after is when I fully see that he would not simply be my death as I dance with this pale devil while entranced by his peculiar rhythm. He would be the cause of my utter obliteration.

When the stranger’s laughter stops and that serene mask crawls back onto his face, the coconuts, dates, palm oil fruit, silkworms, berries, and mushrooms swirl in a hoop suspended above our heads. Up from the ground, sand rises and takes the shape of a cauldron, which immediately becomes engulfed by an orb of dancing flames until the silica within the sand forms glass. A glass cauldron emerges from the formless kiln as the flames abate, and beside it, a geyser formed from sand commanded to drill into the aquifer beneath our feet. Such feats transpire only for the stranger to collect trace amounts of iron out of the groundwater to settle as a sphere in the air and as a small mound in his glass vessel. Just as swiftly as the geyser burst into existence, the waters reverse their flow back into the ground as the vein to the aquifer seals.

Coconuts crash against each other overhead as more unsettle themselves from the nearby trees. I see that the stranger truly took his time to ask me for nothing he could not effortlessly gather himself. It’s dumbfounding to serve as merely a witness to both this stranger’s mastery of manipulation craft and the absurdity of his casual nudity in broad daylight. Why did he ask me for anything at all? It bothers me that my work does not wait for me and that there will be consequences for witnessing all of this, but it’s so rare to see someone flagrantly brandish this level of craft.

Some of the flesh of the coconuts squeeze themselves dry of oil. Others burst for the sole purpose of unraveling their coir so that some fibers weave themselves into sandals and a matching braided belt and others weave themselves into neat little bundles. The hard shells catch fire until they become ash-dark as dried blood.

The few silkworms in their short time in my possession produce faint threads of silk, which the stranger builds upon by expanding the protein fibers with organics contributed by ever more coconuts until he has enough to weave. Wispy threads of silk weave themselves just as they come into existence as the stranger commands until a silk kaftan shines before us.

This haughty stranger smiles like a madman as he makes a show of himself building clothes to dress his nude figure through an assortment of foraged goods and his immense dexterity in employing his craft. A pair of sandals, a braided belt, and a kaftan come into existence in no time at all as seawater flows into the air, and rids itself of salt, sand, and other such elements before the stranger converts the water into vinegar in the glass cauldron. The mix of iron and vinegar creates a mordant that allows the stranger to begin dyeing his new clothes. First, the coconut coir bundles stew away, forming a rich deep brown that consumes most of the kaftan except the hem, which is subsequently dyed red from completing the same process, but with berries stewing away instead of coconut fibers. The coconut ash rushes towards the kaftan in various forms staining the fabric with spider webs, little birds, and floral designs that the stranger embroiders with silk woven through beads of multicolored glass made during the birthing of the glass cauldron.

It’s the most bizarre and fascinating spectacle watching the stranger start to embody his station as one of the blessed Auspicious. “Shall we get going…boy, what should I call you?” asks the stranger.

“Haikwan. Haikwan Yar, sir. Going where, sir…and by which title do you hail?” I ask, still reeling from all my eyes have stolen as I notice the positions of the suns.

“First, thank you. I’ll assist in the completion of your chores. And next, we will visit Mistress Hypel so that I can purchase you. I haven’t found someone so foolish in many a cycle. Surely you’ll make at least an entertaining jester during what I hope is my greatest adventure,” says the stranger, refusing to name himself.

“I beg your pardon, but you barely know me, why do this, sir?” I ask, startled by the proposition of being removed from all I’ve known for the past ten years.

“You see what I’m capable of. Caution is for those who lack the power and the resolve to use it. I possess both in abundance. Should I wish, I could reduce armies of considerable size to ashes with very little effort. In fact, I’ve done so. What do I have to fear from the likes of you? Besides, foolish as you are, you realize as an Anathematized that this is your only route to freedom from this cage, yes? Isn’t it better to die in the midst of an adventure than to continue your miserable life as a simple slave? Now, name the tasks you were to complete. Amat and Ma’aat grow weary of this world,” says the stranger.

I name the tasks and off we go, levitating from one end of the estate to the other. First, we venture beneath the ocean waves in a bubble, snatching fishes from the surrounding surf. A task that normally takes hours of diving, reduced to mere minutes. Next, we salt some of the catch to preserve, while some are gutted immediately and placed on ice in the underground ice chamber to deliver to market posthaste once the day’s quota is reached. We make use of the entrails by salting them, too, for various sauces. Some sauces are simple, requiring only salt as the main ingredient for fermenting as I pack them down in our variety of clay and ceramic pots, amphoras, and calabash gourds. Others are more elaborate to begin, requiring salt, lime, chilies, palm sugar, garlic, and ginger. These ingredients we gathered from the orchards and plantations. This too takes minutes instead of hours. Bambara groundnuts are harvested in one of the fields to prepare a stew as a centerpiece dish for an important guest visiting the estate this evening. I’’m included in the regimen of servants tasked with serving the household this evening, despite my day spent in the fields. I wash at the river and walk to the servant’’s entrance of the estate’s main complex to gain my garments and assignment, wherein I learn that I will serve as waitstaff for Mistress Hypel and her honored guest.

I’m not at all surprised that the honored guest is none other than the stranger that I’ve spent my day with, no longer dressed in the silk garments he prepared himself, but in a much more detailed ensemble of black silk embroidered with midnight-blue pearls. Mistress Hypel has prepared a feast that I’ve never known her to prepare for even some of Vega’s most prominent members of the aristocratic houses of Xerven, Ulmel, Orlan, or Du’tre.

At the feast’s center is a smooth bambara groundnut stew garnished with fried sweet basil. That dish is flanked by pearl couscous; hollowed, honey-baked sweet onions filled with a decadent, spiced purple-yam-and-coconut-cream concoction; a silky okra stew rich in peppers and spices; fried plantains; black-eyed pea fritters drenched in tahini sauce; and fruits harvested from the orchards, including our most prized lucuta berry, which grows only in this region of Vega and ripens only during this time of year.

“Dramatic as always, aren’t you? Who wears that much silk in this day and age, when fine shiro is so versatile and sustainable,” starts Mistress Hypel.

“Silk is timeless,” he retorts.

“It’s unnecessary and indulgent,” says Mistress Hypel.

“That’s what’s wrong with your generation. You all shun the path of pleasures like it’s beneath you,” says the stranger.

“I can’t believe you could still say drivel like that after all these years, former High Meister Sedex. Even after pursuing the pleasures of discovery to the extent that you created the weapon responsible for this nightmare we subsist on, you still claim that. By the gods.”

The stranger that I’ve spent the day with is the former High Meister, Cornelius Theophany Sedex, of the governing council of this wretched country of Vega. His current title, though, is that of the living calamity “inadvertently” responsible for the songbird contagion that massacred two-thirds of the world’s population, including my entire family. As soon as I heard his name, everything went black. Mistress Hypel’s laughter cut through the darkness as I took in the sight of my hands holding a knife to Sedex’s throat.

“So this is the servant you spent your day with? How doomed you are. You’ve killed enough good slaves over the years, I suppose. Haikwan is quite useless. Take him for free and go away from here, old friend.”

“Haikwan, pack your things swiftly, we haven’t a moment to lose,” Cornelius says with a smile, unfazed at my tears or the blade that I still have at his throat.

I throw down the knife, remembering my place in this broken world. I have nowhere to go except to this creature of death, so I pack what little I own in all the world and stop by the alaqilins before returning to Sedex’s side. As we leave beneath the cover of the twin moons, Y’bur and Edaj, I do not look back. I merely imagine the quiet calm of the dead alaqilins I poisoned that will be discovered by their new handler in the morning. Goodbye, you hateful wonders. Be free now in the way I still cannot.

Denzel Xavier Scott debuted as an author of genre literature in November 2021 in Beneath Ceaseless Skies with his short story, “The Black Rainbow.” His debut poetry collection, Delphinium Gospel, will be published by Emerge Literary Journal in April 2024. He earned his BA in English from the University of Chicago and received his Writing MFA at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in his hometown, Savannah, GA. His essays, literary fiction, nonfiction, and literary poetry appear in Spillway, Rattle, Decomp, Pidgeonholes, Empty Mirror, The Cortland Review, Random Sample Review, Linden Avenue, among others. You can find him often on Twitter in real-time at @DenzelScott.

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