Sakma’s black hair held tight to a golden ring that clumped the thick, sweaty mess into a neat bun. She never wore her hair down while in the mines. Though, regardless of her efforts to dissuade them, the miners still gawked at her. Perhaps they stared in awe at the greatness of her family and their ability to precisely control the workers; even though the caverns of the mine delved deep throughout the lush green valley and underneath the three surrounding hills and near the bordering sea to the East, spanning miles upon miles of underground pathways. Or perhaps it was because Sakma was the sole heir to the mine, her father being Rehora, the owner. Perhaps it was her innate beauty—Sakma liked to believe this was the reason. Or maybe it’s merely because she is a woman—which, by its own right, had warranted the stares far beyond any beauty the simple miners could comprehend.
She grew used to the prying eyes over time, though they still annoyed her, even more so than their hatred toward her. The reason for which she had yet to discover. Though the evenings among the men often held an air of raucous laughter—as Sakma gave to the men an unending supply of food and drink—the days were grim vestiges of sorrow. During the day shift, Sakma ensured the miners did nothing but work. Anyone caught neglecting their duties, she punished severely. More often than not, the miners died. Sakma enjoyed finding these men. The men did not.
“Do you fools not have work to do?” Sakma shouted to a group of miners down the tunnel, “Every day I come by this shaft and find the three of you talking and gossiping like my father’s concubines. Is that what you are? Well, I shouldn’t suppose you aren’t. In a way, you are all my concubines. I ask little from my concubines. I only ask that they do their work, yet still you fail in that regard. This is the last warning I’ll give to you. Work or die. It’s your choice.” The light-skinned miners never spoke, in-fact they hadn’t spoken a word since the day began. One man had coughed and suddenly Sakma appeared around the corner to scold them. Truly, Sakma had not seen these men since last week. She just felt the need to enforce her power.
Their skin looked sickeningly translucent under the dim firelight. Sakma didn’t know the last time these men had seen the sun, nor did she care. Perhaps that’s why their skin turned light. They lacked the purity the sun god had bestowed upon her and her family. Anyone other than Sakma, and perhaps her father, would’ve felt sympathy for the poor souls. Though the sun gods do not choose everyone.
“Whipping boy?” Sakma called to the big man standing at her side.
“Yes, my lady?” the man said.
“Bring me the old one.” Sakma pointed to a gray haired man that hunched over a shovel and struggled to lift the gravel filled spade.
“Yes, my lady,” the whipping man said. He stomped to the old man, grabbed him by the arm, and threw him to Sakma’s feet.
“Did you know my great grandfather?” Sakma asked.
“Who, my lady?” the man said, cowering and not daring to meet Sakma’s glowering gaze. The miners generally knew to not meet Sakma’s eyes. They were not her equal and though they tried to annoy her to no end, they feared her power.
“Do they not teach you of the past progenitors of this holy place? Reha, the first man to dig into the earth. The first man granted visions of the sun gods’ power. The only man to see the power hidden below the earth in the center of the valley. Do they not teach you the reason you dig?” Sakma kneeled to force the old man to meet her gaze. An act of feigned respect, though one that could mean death for the old man. He cowered back and again refused to meet Sakma’s eyes. Sakma was disappointed. She wanted an excuse to kill the man. Now she’d have to work for it.
“Aye, my lady. They do teach us, I remember now. I remember,” the old man said.
“So, did you know him?”
“Uh, no, no, my lady. I didn’t. He died far before I was given life.”
“You could’ve fooled me. You’ve spent so much time these past days struggling to lift a handful of dirt. A task so simple and so easy I could have any child in the city come work here for it. Yet, I allow you to do it for my father. He has given us all the privilege to work in the holy place beneath the earth. The privilege to find the Power of the God’s. Would you have me squander that privilege on such weak flesh? Do we not take care of the holy men who the sun gods have entrusted to us?” Sakma grabbed the man’s hair and pulled his head up. The man held his eyes shut. “You’ve been staring at me for years, yet now you don’t have eyes to see? Come, give me a look. Have you never seen such beauty up close?”
The man pulled his head down toward the ground. He was a survivor. Few men made it to his age in the mines. He knew exactly what would keep him alive. It would be a shame to kill him, but his usefulness had run out weeks ago. Sakma needed a younger man to replace him. Perhaps a boy, one who would work the mine for the next 30 or 40 years. The man spoke, “I don’t stare, my lady. I don’t. I swear it.”
“Very well, I believe you,” Sakma said. “So you didn’t know Reha, did you know my grandfather then?”
“Was that Rahta, my lady?”
“Yes, that was he. The shrewd old man. Nothing could ever make him happy.”
“I remember him. It was him that gave me my place here. He treated us well,” the old man said.
“More so than I?” Sakma asked.
“No, my lady. Of course not. Not a single one could be so gracious and so illustrious as yourself,” the old man answered. He kept his nose on the rocky ground and his eyes closed.
“You are clever with your words and even more clever with your eyes. I like you. What is your name?” Sakma did not lie. The man was impressive. He refused to break the hierarchy and answered her questions with wisdom. A normal man would never admit that she could be better than her grandfather, a man. Despite all his success, the man had long ago fulfilled his value. A tool cannot last forever, but that does not mean I must throw away the old tool. I can keep it nearby as a trophy of what I’ve accomplished with it. Yes, I like that. My trophy, Sakma thought.
“I am Shem, son of Sehm. My family came during the first settlement, well my father did as a child. I was born in the valley,” Shem said.
“Shem, son of Sehm. I knew him when I was a child. He owned a fishing stand that my father loved. He was a good man. You have a wonderful family. His other son took over the stand. It’s not as good, at least to me, but perhaps you could make it better. Would you like to see your brother?”
“Would you like to see your brother?” Sakma asked. Normally she would be annoyed at having to repeat herself, but she understood how strange the question sounded to one who had spent most of his life in the mines.
“Yes. It’s all I’ve wanted every day since I started here. Not so much that it took away from my duties. I am here to serve the gods, not myself.”
“You have served the gods well, Shem. They are pleased with your work and you will go to your brother. You will not have to worry for food for the rest of your days. Under one condition,” Sakma paused and stared at Shem.
“Anything, my lady, I will do anything,” Shem said.
“When you arrive to your brother’s, the first person who greets you at the door will be mine to do with what I will. Whether that be to take your place, or as my maid. Whatever I see fit. The first one, excluding your brother, is mine. Will you do that for me, Shem?” Sakma straightened her back and stood tall over the still cowering old man.
“In order to return home, I must give up a family I’ve never known.” Shem went silent. His fingers curled in the dirt and his eyes wet the ground beneath his face. Soft sobs dripped from his mouth. “I will do it. I promise.”
“Whipping boy?” Sakma called to the big man in front of her.
“Yes, my lady?” the whipping man said.
“Take Shem to the tower and prepare his release forms. Then have him wait there for me. I will escort him back home to his brother,” Sakma said and turned to the old man, “You have served the gods well.” No matter the pleasure she felt because of the surprise of this old man, she still felt disappointed. She knew the man did not deserve death, yet she still wanted something to punish. The gods demanded it of her. No matter, she thought, One will surely defy the natural order before the day is through.
“Thank you, my lady.” Shem said. Sakma never saw the man stare at her. Even now, as his release from the mines was final and the natural order no longer applied, he kept to it. Truly, he was a man worthy of Sakma’s respect. For once, she was glad of her work.
The mines ran deep under the city, winding back and forth in every direction. If not for the carefully kept maps and landmarks, Sakma—and even the miners—would invariably get lost within the convoluted caverns. The mining under Sakma’s great grandfather, Reha, began in ordered rows with detailed systems. Under Reha’s direction, the mining proved slow and ineffective. Reha’s son, Rahta, did away with the system in favor of delving deeper at the whim of the gods. Rehora and Sakma continued the same practice. The whipping man that accompanied Sakma guided her through the mines with ease. The man knew the tunnels better than most. It was his duty. Before long the sun peeked through the cracks of an enormous stone door blocking the massive cavern leading to the surface. There Sakma waited for some time as the doors opened.
Sakma stepped through as several men slowly pushed the doors closed behind her and the whipping man. She took in the fresh air and stepped out into the full light of the sun.
“Blessed be the gods for giving us such beauty!” Sakma said, lifting her arms to the sky. “I want to witness the signing of Shem’s papers. I want to see the joy on his face. Then I want to watch him meet his family for the first time. Then we will know which I shall have as my own.”
“Yes, my lady,” the whipping man said, the whip at his side bouncing as he walked. Each whipping man carried with him a coiled black whip, the ends frayed into no less than ten tails. Sakma required each whipping man to have blades stitched into each tail, another unpopular policy of hers among the miners. She did not enjoy her miners escaping punishment with life in their hearts.
As Sakma and her whipping man stepped into the courtyard of a stone tower, a woman’s voice screamed from behind the great stone doors to the mine. The doors—which had only just then finished closing—burst open in the most spectacular fashion in which only giant stone doors can burst, blisteringly slow. For this reason, every soul in the mines knew to keep urgent matters above ground. Sakma hated waiting for the doors and hated more waiting for someone else on the other side of them. She turned to face the stones as they creaked open to reveal the ghostly white face of a serving girl, one of the hundreds of women assigned to care for the miners after their work.
“What is so important, Nebtan, that you wasted all our time with the show of opening these forsaken doors?” Sakma said through the crack.
“I’m sorry, my lady, but some men attacked their serving girls as they sat down to eat. They were in a rage, a fury. They screamed at them, shouted at them. They cursed them. The whipping men stopped the miners before they hurt the poor girls,” Nebtan said, her billowing white dress caked in black dirt and mud from her run through the mines.
“So what? They are brutes, and they act like brutes. Do what you always do, set them aside for me until I deal with them. How is this any different from other acts of defiance? I have business to attend to and it does not need to be interrupted by such trivial matters. Do you understand that? Think carefully before you speak, Nebtan, because I have been patient until now and you do not wish to test my patience,” Sakma stepped up to Nebtan as the doors finally opened enough to make space for either woman to step through. Sakma towered over the tiny Nebtan.
“The shouts, my lady, they did not direct them at the serving girls, but at you and the gods. They cursed the gods for sending you and denounced their belief. They told the other miners to do the same. The men, they said the gods are not real,” Nebtan whispered her last words as to not be heard by the whipping men guarding the doors.
Sakma made no motion or expression to show anything but irritation for Nebtan. She stood for a moment and then looked back to the tower and her whipping boy. At the base of the tower two sun gods, Akamra and Rehanta, stood tall in statue form. They watched over the mines and kept the miners safe. The two gods stood firm each day as the miners dug away at the earth beneath them. If they had heard such blasphemy from the very men they so painstakingly protected, they might destroy not only them, but the entire city. Sakma would not allow such a disgrace to befoul the great work she and her father continued.
“Go before me and tell all who heard to wait in their place. If any have already gone gather them to the nearest feeding hall along with the defilers,” Sakma said.
“Yes, my lady,” Nebtan said as she turned toward the darkness of the cavern behind her.
“Hurry now, I will not wait any longer than I need!” Sakma called to the serving girl. As Sakma turned away from the mines, toward the tower, the great stone doors scraped against the dirt behind them, echoing deep into the dark chambers beneath the city. The trouble beneath her could wait until she finished her duty and gave to Shem his rightful due.
Sakma turned to her whipping man and said, “Come whipping boy, we must see to it that Shem is released and taken home with dignity.”
“They wait for you, my lady, I’m sure,” the whipping man said. The whip hanging on his waist bounced against his leg, the razors scratching at his skin.
Walls encased a garden courtyard between the mine entrance and the base of the tower. Miners lived within stone hovels that lined the walls of the courtyard, magnificent oak trees shaded the hovels from outside the walls. Not a single hovel had a door, only slits that Sakma claimed were most definitely windows. The only way in and out of one of the stone houses was a small shaft leading down into the mines. Sakma and her family before her were gracious enough to allow the men to live above the ground and taste a small gift from the sun gods. Sakma was most generous of them all, for she had been the one that added the windows where before they were merely small holes.
More whipping men—these men carried swords along with their whips—stood guard over the tower entrance. They stepped aside and allowed Sakma through and gave her whipping man a sheathed sword. No one carried weapons in the mines, other than the whips. Sakma banned blades when a group of miners attacked a guard and stole his weapon. They killed one other guard before the others stopped the mutineers. Whips proved harder to steal, harder for the miners to use if stolen, and more effective at enforcing policies—so much so all guards throughout the city carried whips along with swords. Sakma needed an excuse to rid the mines of swords anyway, the bloody mess they left behind took too long for the serving girls to cleanup. Besides, Sakma liked a slow punishing execution far more than a quick merciful one.
Inside the tower, Shem stood at the back of the open room. A circular stairway leading to the upper floors lined the outer edges of the tower. More whipping men guarded the stairs, the doors leading to the courtyard, and the doors to the city. Sakma went to the old man. He cowered back from the light of the opened doors and shielded his eyes with his hands.
“Does the light of the gods hurt you?” Sakma asked.
“No, my lady, it is too much for one as unworthy as I,” Shem said.
“You will come to know your worth. Come, your release is final. I will accompany you to your family’s home,” Sakma said, taking the old man’s hand and guiding him out of the tower and into the city. The white stone city sparkled in the sun’s light as it grew from the valley. A river ran through the city center and supplied water to irrigate the many gardens the citizens tended. The buildings near the tower rivaled it in size, though as Sakma led the man further toward the Eastern coast the buildings shrunk until they were but large stone boxes compared to those at the city center; though still large enough for a small family. Or a large family. Sakma didn’t know or care how much space the people outside the mines needed or used.
The port-side market spread thin over the Eastern shoreline. Wooden docks held firm against the weak waves and easily carried the weight of the hundreds of merchants, citizens, and soldiers that roamed the district. A small shack stood out at the edge of the market, occupied by a single elderly man. The whipping man lead Sakma to the shack. The fisherman greeted them with a smile.
“Hey, my lady Sakma, the joy of the Valley. The gods do well today, don’t they?” the man said.
“The gods do well each day, Jehat. It is us that must make our days good. And today I will make yours,” Sakma said.
“Will you now? Rehora must need food, a lot of food. I can help with that. What do you need?”
“Nothing. I have something better. Shem, come forward.” Sakma pulled Shem forward while forcing his hands to his side. “Well, are you not pleased?”
“You give me a slave?” Jehat scratched his chin. “I don’t need a slave. I have enough mouths to feed. Give him to the dock men. They could find use for him.”
“Shem, tell him.” Sakma noticed his skin had turned an unusually bright red.
Shem opened his eyes for a moment and then squished them shut before he said, “Jehat, do you not remember? It’s me. Shem. Your brother.”
“Shem…” Jehat stared at the man by Sakma’s side. He stepped out of his stand and grabbed at Shem’s arms. “No one comes out of the mines. They sold you to them. They sold you.” Tears rolled down Jehat’s cheeks. “Is this real, my lady Sakma? My brother?”
“Yes, it is real. You’ve been good to our family. Your prices are fair, you respect the gods, and you support our miners. Your brother has earned his keep and earned his release. Keep him. He’s yours to do with what you will.” Sakma said.
“Thank you, my lady. Thank you! The gods are well today. They are well!” Jehat shouted. All the while, behind the fisherman’s stand, a small wooden door creaked open, and a girl peered her head through, curious of the commotion.
“Papa,” the girl said, “what’s the yelling about? Mama told me to tell you that no customers will come when you shout like that.”
“Tenyet! Come meet your great uncle. He’s been gone awhile, but he’s back now! Praise the gods. See, Tenyet, I told you the gods would bless us. We are dutiful and they have given to us. As I said!” Jehat said as the girl came up to him.
“What’s wrong with him? His skin is red,” the girl said, poking at Shem’s arm. Shem winced in pain and pulled his arm away from the girl.
“Do not be rude, child. Greet him as you would me!” Jehat demanded.
“That will be good for now,” Sakma said. She turned to her whipping boy. “Take the girl. I have business to attend in the mines. She can watch.”
“Yes, my lady,” the whipping man kneeled down and grabbed the girl.
“Papa! Where are they taking me?” she screamed while punching at the whipping man.
“What are you doing, my lady Sakma?” Jehat shouted.
“We are due an extra soul. I gave one back and you must return another. Your brother made the deal, and that is the law of the mines. Take your brother and enjoy the time you have with him. I have need of your Tenyet. She is strong. Oh, look at her fight, my whipping boy. This will be a joy. She is a fine trophy!” Sakma said and turned away from the two old men.
“You knew of this, Shem? And you come here anyway?” Jehat said to his brother. Shem stayed silent. Jehat pushed Shem to the ground and ran toward the whipping man carrying Tenyet. The whipping man whirled around with his sword drawn and thrust it into Jehat’s stomach. Jehat grunted as blood spilled from his mouth. His body fell to the ground and the whipping man cleaned the blade on the old man’s clothes.
“Papa! Papa! Get up! Don’t let them take me! Mama!” Tenyet screamed as the whipping man and Sakma continued through the market back toward the tower. Sakma was glad. It had been a good day so far, a great day even.