233 The Madame“s Chains*
"Ebony," Neva spoke, breaking the silence in the room as those inside worked on repairing old pieces of clothing and cleaning them.
Ebony looked up from where she sat, mending a pair of pants that no doubt belonged to one of the warriors from their size and state. Neva's gaze was expectant and Ebony immediately placed her needle and thread aside along with the pants as she stood and weaved her way through the others. Neva closed the door behind them so that they stood in the hall.
"The Madame has requested that you serve her this evening," Neva said.
Ebony's eyes widened, "I...of course".
Neva caught her arm. As the one that usually served the Madame, Neva was one of the more trusted slaves, and far higher ranking than Ebony. Ebony had no idea why she'd been requested, but she knew it must have had something to do with the encounter she'd had with Lord Revierre.
"Remember, no matter what is spoken, heard or seen, nothing leaves that room," Neva's tone was low, almost imperceptible, but Ebony caught the warning for what it was. Ebony nodded her head in understanding, then moved down the hall away from Neva.
The Madame's wing was without a doubt one of the nicer places on Herguard. It comprised of several floors, essentially an entire living space all on its own that meant she needn't go anywhere else in the castle, and was connected to the underground network of tunnels.
Ebony bowed to the guards that stood outside the underground entrance, "The Madame has requested me? I am Ebony".
The guards waved her through and Ebony entered the lower level. She entered through the kitchens, and took the plate of tea and biscuits with her as she ascended the stairs to the second floor where the main sitting room was.
The room was darker than usual. The curtains were mostly drawn, and the small sunlight that had managed to break through the fog surrounding the island barely made a dent in the darkness. A single candelabra was lit on the table in the centre of the room, but the Madam was not on any of the chairs surrounding it.
The Madame instead stood to the side, perhaps as casual as Ebony had ever seen her. Her hair was down, pin-straight, long and black in colour. She had her back to the door as she stood beside a large bird cage, whispering to the animal within. A large blanket coloured like a sunset was thrown around her shoulders, her arms locking it close to her body as she fed small pieces of fruit to the exotic looking bird within the cage.
Ebony entered silently, placing the tea on the table with the candelabra and pouring a cup gently. The Madame's movements paused as she noticed Ebony's presence, then she placed the bowl of fruit down and instead put a hand on the cage. There was a long silence between them as Ebony finished pouring the tea, then stepped back from the table and kneeled down to await further orders.
"Why do you think I requested you, Ebony?" asked the Madame.
Ebony hesitated, not wanting to speak out of turn, but answered the question, "The deal is off".
The Madame gave a slow smile as she turned to Ebony, "You can do better than that".
Ebony hesitated again, daring to meet the Madame's eyes, "Are you offering me a deal?"
The Madame gave a short laugh at that, "Ha! No, you are one slave out of thousands that have ever set foot on this island. If I offered deals to all of them, I would never have gotten to where I am".
Ebony raised an eyebrow, "But you do offer deals".
The Madame said nothing as she looked to the floor, then she tapped the cage behind her, her rings tinkling on the metal bars, "This bird was quite the cruel gift, yet I can't seem to part with it. So pretty and loyal, even if I take the time to let it out and stretch its wings it will not fly away. Yet every moment I care for it I am reminded of the fact that I too am nothing but a bird in a cage. I have no freedom, no choices, no will...not even a name".
The Madame stepped over and sunk into the seat just a few metres from Ebony, taking the cup of tea that Ebony had poured, "I am nothing but a bird in a cage, all because the Master wished it so".
Ebony dared not speak as the Madame appraised her. She took a sip of the tea, then placed the cup down, "You do not seem convinced".
Ebony risked speaking out of turn to reply, "You seem to have done well for yourself, for a bird in a cage".
The Madame chuckled, "I suppose it looks that way from where you are standing, or rather, kneeling. But gaining your pity for my plight is not my goal in telling you this".
Ebony waited as the Madame looked around her shadowed room, then took another sip of tea.
"I am warning you, Ebony," the Madame said, her tone softer as she lost her amused smile, "Because if you continue as you are, you will surely break. It may not be the first time you are forced, nor the second, you have a strong will, sufficient enough to last a while at least. But I saw how you froze in that room. How you could do nothing as the shame of your position filled you. If you let that shame take you over, perhaps you will be able to keep your will intact a while...But it will break eventually, and you with it".
"So I should just roll over and accept it?" asked Ebony, a tone of anger in her voice, "Is that what you did?"
"I had no choice," said the Madame, "Not before or after I was trapped here".
"So you're saying I do?"
"You have your will, do you not?" asked the Madame, "To have your own will implies you have a choice. You may think you do not because certain decisions would end in pain or death or worse, but you still have that choice".
"You cannot choose to die?" asked Ebony, a frown finding its way onto her face.
The Madame gave a sad smile, "Such a clever girl…that was the last choice I was ever given. To die or to live. At the time I was young, terrified. Now, after two centuries of this, I wish I'd had the courage to choose the other option".
Ebony's eyes widened, "Two cen...that's not possible".
The Madame sipped her tea again, "There are many ancient and powerful things out there. Things that are much darker and more terrifying than you could imagine. When the love of my life and I got a hold of one of these powers, we wished and wished and wished until that power was taken from us. It was only then that we looked back and saw the consequences. He didn't waver, he stepped deeper and fell into the darkness. But I hesitated, horrified of what I'd become. Then he dragged me down with him anyway. Now he keeps me pretty and gives me nothing to complain about, but a cage is a cage no matter how gilded, and I stopped loving him long ago".
Ebony hesitated before she spoke. She knew of ancient powers. Rassa had been proof, but when he'd eluded to not being the only one she'd never really taken a moment to process it. Just how influenced was their world by the darkness?
"The Slave Master..."
The Madame nodded, "I cannot leave unless he dies. I think time has shown old age is not an option for either of us, and on this Island, nobody would dare look at him wrong".
Her eyes turned back to Ebony, "Do not make the same mistake, Ebony. Do not give up your will in return for comfort, for the cage, even if it means that one day you might break".
Ebony lay awake that night, pondering all that the Madame had said as she played with the tracking charm in her hand. Ebony had not expected that there was so much more to this Island. That there was something even darker beneath its already corrupted foundations. She had expected even less that the Madame would admit to it. But as the Madame had said, Ebony was smarter than to take the warning at face value. Her instincts told her that beneath that warning, hidden in the story she had told and the pain beneath the cold and uncaring facade, was a plea. The Madame wanted off the Island. She wanted out of her cage.
But was Ebony really capable of giving that freedom? Of giving her back her will? It seemed like something beyond Ebony's capability to give.
Ebony sighed, rolling to the side of her sleeping mat as she clasped the tracking charm. The lines flickered to life, and she looked at those that travelled north with a faint smile. She'd follow them soon. She'd go back to see how her family was doing with Aegin.
As she turned to close her eyes, Ebony noticed a fifth line. It was barely visible, so faint that she swore she was imagined it, a mere trick of the light. But even when she rubbed her eyes and reactivated the charm, there is was, flickering and faint as it pointed towards the East. Her eyes widened. Her lips whispering the name of the individual she knew to be on the other end of that line. The person who she'd thought was dead.