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There are no Slaves in Esteria. Only Masters.
A short story.
Hey folks — This is a short story I wrote lately. As a thank you to my premium subscribers, they will get first access and I’ll unlock it for all readers at a later date. This is the first time I’ve published fiction on JoeWrote, so let me know if you’d like to see more by liking this post (click the ❤️ button at the top) or emailing me your thoughts.
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In Solidarity - Joe
The sounds of jubilation carried across the moonlit bay, taunting the ships’ occupants with echoes of fraternization and freedom. With spirits low and their limbs shackled, the men, women, and children lay still in their bunks, quiet and somber.
Ashore, the Lords and Ladies of Esteria sang and danced and drank. It was a feast, customary to be held on the night of Arrival. The planners had been at work for weeks prepping hams and pressing the wine, their task made difficult by never knowing when the masts would appear over the horizon. When a watchboy had run into town and keeled over from exhaustion two dawns prior, all in Esteria had been taken by excitement. There were plans to be made, for both the arrival of the Partners and the feast that welcomed them, though they were not amongst the invited.
The next morning, with the people of Esteria groggy and slowed by the haunting of their wine, the Partners were rowed ashore. For the first time since being driven aboard at spear point, their limbs were free to move, though they were tethered to one another in the boats. The flex of forgotten muscles and the light upon their eyes that had for so long only known darkness slowly brought them out of their stasis, reminding them that they were more than the cargo they’d be made to be. A pen awaited them, not bound by steel or even wood, but a loosely hung line surrounded by the smiling faces that called this place home.
By the time the sun was high, the Partners were together, huddled in the pen inside the crowd. While the Partners donned tattered robes darkened with sweat and soil, the Esterians appeared of a different ilk. Their hair was high and powdered, with long petticoats and flowing dresses the colors of jungle wildflowers. There was a stage before them, and when the man they called Councilor rose upon it, Esterian and Partner alike turned to hear his words.
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“Newfound Partners,” he began. “Let me, the Councilor of Esteria, be the first to welcome you into our home. Your prescience has been long awaited.” The crowd applauded. The Partners looked at each other for answers, but none were to be found.
“You are probably wondering why you are here. That is a fair question, one that I will not hold from you any longer.” The Councilor stepped down from the stage and moved to the edge of the rope. The Esterians parted before his path, and the Partners closest to him retreated.
The Councilor began to walk, his hand guided by the line separating the Esterians from the Partners. “We of Esteria are a proud people. We hold ourselves amongst the highest societies ever conceived. We have a skill for creation, a knack for knowledge, and a lust for innovation. But!” He snapped his cane on the cobblestone as he spun about-face. “Our prowess is not infinite. For each of our skills, we have been fated with a flaw. Though we are ingenuities, we are fragile. Though we are thoughtful, our hands callous easily and our backs grow tired. Our skin is weakened by the elements. All it takes is a half-noon in the field and our skin will turn coarse and begin to peel. Our thoughts turn to mush, and we are unable to provide our ingenious gifts to humanity!” The crowd muttered in dismayed agreement. “The great wisdoms that sit in our minds need assistance to be brought into life, so that all — including you, my dear Partners — may benefit from them.”
The Councilor bound up the stage steps, skipping them in excited stride. “That is why you have been invited here, dear Partners. Together, we shall build something great! With your brawn and our brains, Esteria will continue to remain atop the world, where it has sat for eons and eons. Each of you will be given a great choice today, one that few beings are ever afforded. But, do not place too much stalk in your choice, as you are free to change your minds whenever you please! After all, in Esteria, everyone is free! There are no slaves here. Only Masters!”
The Partners again looked to each other in wonder, the clinks and clanks of their shackles rising up in somber song.
“Do not wonder dear Partners,” continued the Councilor. “I will explain. In the coming minutes, you will meet the Masters of Esteria. These are the finest of the fine, having surmounted all else to earn their place atop our community. Each will present you with an offer. You may accept it, or you may deny it. Those who accept will work in partnership with the Master until a time of either’s choosing. If a Partner chooses no offer, then they are free to go their way, though they will be held in disregard throughout Esteria.” His voice dove low, “Lazy parasites are not welcome here!” The Esterians tisked and shooed in agreement. “But I digress. You have heard enough of me for the day! Let us begin. Lord Sain, please come forth!”
The Councilor left the stage and a tall, slender man in belly-high tights took his place. “Esteemed Partners,” said the man. “My name is Lord Sain, and I am the best choice you will have today. I come from a long line of worthy Esterians, each who has shepherded the farms and factories now under my name. If you choose to work with me, you will be fed, clothed, and never mistreated. My farm is the finest in all of Esteria. Those who work for me will dine like kings!”
The Partners talked amongst themselves. When Lord Sain stepped from the stage, a third went with him.
The next man took to the stage, his limp helped only by a cane of finely carved oak. “Good partners. My name is Master Lodge. All the buildings you see before you, in fact, all upon Esteria, have been raised under my enterprise. Those of you who come with me will build and refine our architecture so that it may remain the finest across the world! And, of course, as you will be under my stewardship, all of you will live in the finest of accommodations. No cramped quarters or room sharing for you! You will reside in large, grand houses with sprawling foyers and beds twice the size of your person!”
The gaggle of Partners murmured with excitement. When Master Lodge stepped from the stage, half the remnants went with him. Only a quarter of the original Partners remained.
The next to rise before them was a lady, her skin powdered as white as daisy pedals. “Good day. I’m am Lady Seems. As you look upon our Esterians, you will note their fine dress. Not one is without a custom-tailored suit or gown, stitched by the hands of those under my employ. It is an honor to dress our humble citizens, though I cannot do it alone. If you choose to come with me, you will aid our cause of dressing Esteria in the finest gowns and suits in the world! And of course, you will be amongst them! Those who work for me are given first choice of their garments. None of you shall don tattered cloths no more!”
Convinced, the remaining Partners filed out of their pens and began to follow Lady Seems up the hill to her factory. All except one. A lone woman, her hair the dark gray of a storm cloud, stood in the pen.
“You there!” the Councilor called. “Those are the only Lords and Ladies seeking service today. Which do you choose?”
The woman shrugged. “I choose none.”
“Very well,” said the Councilor, his face twisting with disgust. “That is your right. But you should know, those who do not work for Esteria enjoy none of her fruits. Let’s see how long you choose a life of sloth when your belly rumbles and the rain falls cold upon your head! Ah, here it comes now!” He held out his hand to catch the first drops falling from the sky. They were cold and seeped through the woman’s ragged wear, freezing her to the bone. With glares and snarls the crowd dispersed, leaving the woman to stand alone in the town square.
Over the next month, the Partners took to their new tasks. The farmers under Lord Sain harvested the food for all and did indeed eat like royalty. The builders under Master Lodge raised new houses and offices, which the Esterians occupied and appreciated greatly. Their work was arduous, but the rest was luxurious, though it was less than the hours spent with hammer and nail in hand. Lady Seems kept to her word, giving the Partners in her stewardship the finest garments they had ever seen. They worked with fine clothes upon their backs, though the silk was soon tarnished by the blood dripped from their overworked fingers.
At the start of the second month of their residence in Esteria (they counted the days on the large calendar marked in the town square), the Partners grew dissatisfied. Some began to leave their employers. Two of Lady Seem’s seamstresses, tired of the monotonous nature of their task, went to Master Lodge, hoping to work on something more exciting. Master Lodge lost five of his workers, as two went to replace the seamstresses and three to the fields of Lord Sain. They had seen Partners from a previous Arrival fall from great heights and wanted to work on the ground where plummeting to an early grave was of no concern. As they passed each other in the square, those coming from the out-of-town field headed up the hill, and those coming down the hill headed to the builders’ lot just beside the town square, they stopped for a parlay. It had been a while since they had spoken. They remarked on the nature of their work, and little good was said.
“It could be worse,” one of the Partners said. “We could be like her.” He pointed at the cloud-haired woman who had not left the square since the day of Arrival. She sat upon the base of the town statue, roasting a rodent of some kind upon a crooked stick. “Back and forth they go,” the lady muttered. “But they never look up.”
The Partners turned from her, said their goodbyes, and continued on to their new Masters.
The next month saw more Partners choose another Master, and the one after that even more. Those who had gone to Lady Seem for relief from physical labor found the hours exorbitant, and there was almost no time to enjoy their fine dress in the presence of others. Those who’d gone to Master Lodge, hoping for some purpose in their work, grew dismayed at the cycle of rents. Though their ceilings were high and their beds wide, each week the Partners paid fees to a man who had never lifted a hammer for the privilege of living in a room they had built. And those who fled to the fields of Lord Sain, hoping to enjoy fresh air and fresh vegetables found themselves alone in barren fields, plowing for hours on end with no companionship except a poor farm animal.
With each day, the dissatisfaction grew. Soon the Partners found themselves back in the employ of their original Master, having tried working under each of the three and never once finding dignity. The sewing dulled their minds until they no longer felt human. The building put them at great risk and stuck in debt to Master Lodge. The farming was arduous, and though their meals came straight from the vine it was never enough to fill a stomach hungered by long days in the open fields.
One day, after their souls had broken and they left their workplace not knowing where they would end up, a gaggle of Partners found themselves in the town square. None had any desire to go up the hill nor to the lot nor into the fields.
“Back and forth they go,” muttered Storm Hair, not minding any but herself. “But they never look up.”
The Partners ignored her and debated which employer would make their lives best. After much back and forth, a conclusion was reached. There was no good employer. Whatever they gained from one they lost from the other. Whatever good one offered, there were twice the negatives. What began as a soft discussion soon became a fiery mob, marching up the mansion steps and banging on the mansion door, demanding to see the Councilor. He soon appeared on the balcony above them, the smell of fresh-caught fish wafting down from his fine afternoon suit.
“Hello fellow Esterians!” he called. “How may I be of service?”
The politeness halted the mob in its tracks. After a moment of uncomfortable silence, “We’re unhappy,” was all one Partner could muster.
“Oh!” cried the Councilor. “Good heavens, that weighs my heart heavy! Tell me your complaints, and I shall see what I can do!”
One by one the Partners gave their petition. The construction under Master Lodge was too dangerous; many had perished. The sewing and hemming under Lady Seem was tedious and nulled the mind until the Partner was no more than an animal. The farming in Lord Sain’s fields was laborious, mixing the worst aspects of the previous too, all while under the eternal Esterian sun. As the Partners spoke, the Councilor nodded and listened with interest. He exclaimed and cried out at every tale of hardship, even wiping a tear from his cheek. When no more was to be said, the Councilor gave them his word he would see their concerns were addressed. Servants were sent to summon the Masters at once. In no less than a half hour, they were present.
“Good Masters,” began the Councilor. “It has been brought to my attention that some of our Partners have complaints with your industries. Master Lodge, are you aware Partners have fallen off of your scaffolding? A great many, if what I hear is true! Master Sain, are you aware of the strain and toll a day’s farming does in your fields? This man can hardly walk!” He pointed to a lame Partner, his back contorted into a hunch. “And Lady Seems. What have you to say? Are you aware your shops are dull? They sound like prisons! I, councilor of Esteria, demand recourse be taken at once!”
As the Partners applauded, the three masters huddled. Their correspondence was quick, as if rehearsed to the beat of a well-timed tune. “Dear Partners,” Master Lodge cried out, speaking for the three. “It is not our desire to harm you in any way. We apologize for the inconvenience that you might have endured while contributing to the project of Esteria, though we must remind you that all Esterians must undertake risks and work with great effort, or our nation will face great ruin. It is for the good of Esteria that we three shall take the following precautions. First, there is to be music played in the shop of Lady Seams. Let the soothing sounds help your minds wander in wonder, as long as it does not come at a cost of production. Lord Sain, in a most generous act, will hire a physician to come to his estate at the first of every odd month. He will attentively listen to your ailments, and heal as needed. And finally, I myself, Master Lodge, will too reach into my own pocket to assuage your concerns. From this day forth, if a Partner working under my tutelage suffers a tragic end, half their day’s wages will be put aside in an account. Once that account accrues a sufficient fund, we shall build a memorial to these brave Partners, so they may live on in our memory.” Master Lodge finished with a “harrumph” and the tap of his cane on the stone. The echo filled the square, with no other sound to contest. “Now, I thank the good Councilor for calling us to attention. But the day is growing old, and Esteria needs our efforts. To work!”
The Councilor clapped his hands high above his head. “Thank you, good Masters. Together, the two wings of Esteria have brought our precious bird to flight.” He turned to the Partners, not giving a breath between his adoration of the Master and his following command. “With matters concluded, it is time for each of you to choose the Master to which you will contribute. Though I doubt you will choose slothfulness given the generosity of the Masters, may I remind you: if you omit from the Esterian Way, you will be an outcast, left to fend for yourself.” He nodded so slightly at Cloud Hair, who had been watching the episode from her usual perch. Mute, she remained.
“Now, which will it be?”
With the shrugs of surrender and the occasional remark about their victory, the mob began to break. At first, a single woman stepped out and turned towards the shop of Lady Seam. Two more followed, diverting to march up the hill towards the Sain Estate. With each emigrant thrice followed, until the mob was no more — just a swarm of specks each going their own way, their power dissolving with each step they took away from one another.
That is, all but one. A sole Partner, his hands dotted with needle wounds and his knee still crooked from weeks behind the blow, stood still, calling after them, “Do not go! This is not freedom! This is slavery!”
“Dear man!” the Councilor cried, his breast filled and his chin held high. “Do not use such a disgusting word. We may not see eye to eye, but that is no need for such a dishonorable and dishonest charge! There are no slaves in Esteria! Only Masters!” With that the Councilor whirled, whipping his coattails just quick enough to avoid getting them caught in the heavy oak of the Mansion doors. There was a heavy slither and a boom as a cross bolt slid into place, seeing the door against any who wished to enter.
The lone Partner stood in the town square, lost and without anywhere to go. Then he heard the murmuring and remembered he was not alone.
His tired feet cried with each step on the cold stone, but he did not notice as his eyes were fixed on Cloud Hair, drawn by her mystique. A step before her he halted.
“So, you see it now?” she asked. “You see what they really are?’
“Yes, I do.”
She nodded and spread her blanket out for him to sit. Every fiber of his being sang in thanks as he took a seat, resting for the first time in far too long. He basked in the sense, letting his bones and muscles and tendons breathe until he realized that was not all that had been lessened by taking a place beside Cloud Hair. Along with the physical release, a weight that had set the moment his feet touched Esterian soil was lifted from his soul. It had grown with each day, multiplying as every task of the Masters took more and more of his humanity. But now it was gone, as was the perpetual panic that he would not find his rightful place in this nation, that he was a sloth and a failure, a demerit upon Esteria’s honor. His place was here, with Cloud Hair, unshackled from the chains they called freedom.
“What do we do know?” He asked.
“Nothing,” she said. “Our numbers will grow soon. Double, I reckon.” A rainy week later, she was vindicated.
“Now what?” The Partners asked. “We are freed from the Masters. But what are we to do?”
She smiled at them lovingly, as a mother teaching a child. “You are mistaken. All are enslaved while Esteria still has Masters.”