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"He could not leave this room without his father's permission. And he could not imagine going to his father and saying, 'Please let me go gather moss so that my slave can have a proper New Year for once.'"
What can you give a slave who, by law, can own nothing? That is the question faced by Peter, the teenage heir to the throne of an empire. Despite his father's desire that the imperial heir maintain a formal distance from servants, Peter finds himself drawn in friendship to the younger boy who serves as his slave.
But a shocking revelation on the eve of the New Year forces Peter to confront his own motives for keeping the slave close by. And that in turn will help him understand the deeper meaning of the gift-giving festival.
This holiday novelette of romantic friendship and a young man's quest for true manhood can be read on its own or as part of The Three Lands, a fantasy series on friendship, romantic friendship, romance, and betrayal in times of war and peace. The series is inspired by conflicts between nations during the Roman Empire and the Dark Ages.
The Three Lands is part of The Great Peninsula, a cycle of fantasy series (Young Spies and The Three Lands) about an epic battle between cultures, set at a time when a centuries-old civilization is in danger of being destroyed.
Peter looked down once more at the pathetic little object in his hand that purported to be the Balance of Judgment. Judgment weighing vengeance and mercy.
"We've forgotten about the Heart of Mercy," he said suddenly.
"I know how to make that too," Andrew replied, inspecting the tip of the clay sword in his hand.
"You're a wonder," Peter said, setting the lopsided Balance aside and rolling over onto his stomach. They were in his chamber, of course, which meant that the only places to sit were some stiff-backed chairs, the bed, and the floor. Andrew seemed to prefer the floor, though Peter had invited him onto the bed each day since the younger boy became his slave. Peter supposed this was due to some Koretian custom; he resolved inwardly to ask Andrew about that. After all, Peter's ostensible reason for having Andrew as his slave was to familiarize himself with his empire's southern dominion of Koretia. Peter's father – who was legally Andrew's owner – had said that mastering Andrew would help Peter learn how to rule his subjects.
"How did you learn to make crafts?" he asked Andrew.
"From a friend."
Peter waited, but no further details emerged. Finally Peter said, "Was he a craftsman?"
"He was a boy. But he lived with the priests, and they trained him at artisan work, in case he should need such work when he grew up and—" Andrew shut his lips tightly. He bowed his head, as though concentrating all his thoughts on the clay he was flattening with his fingers.
Peter felt then that he deserved the beating Andrew had received. A friend. A boy whom Andrew had known in the Koretian capital. Probably the boy had been enslaved during the final battle there, if not killed outright. And Andrew had been forced to speak of him.
To Peter, Chara To Be, son of the ruler who had conquered Andrew's native land.