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Ten Ruby Trick
Privateer Van Gast thrills in capturing treasure; delights in pulling off elaborate scams; and has an outrageous reputation with the ladies. But there is only one woman for him: fellow privateer Josie?seductive, brave and unpredictable. He's hoping to make their relationship permanent, until he raids the wrong ship. Now slavers are stalking him, his crew is verging on mutiny and Josie has disappeared.
When she reappears with a new mark wanting Van Gast's help running the ten ruby trick con, he senses trouble. It seems like Josie has joined up with mage-bound slavers to turn him over to their Master. Van Gast is about to take the biggest risk of all?and find out the true meaning of trust and betrayal.
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Title: Ten Ruby Trick
Author: Julia Knight
Black into white into blue into grey into black; the patterns kept Holden's mind in check. He kept his eyes cast down. You didn't look at the Master unless invited. You stared at the floor and kept your eyes on the tessellations of the tiles, the way the patterns interlinked. Sensible, orderly. Straight lines, symmetrical patterns, constants to soothe a disordered mind. The patterns were always the same.
"You've performed well, Commander." The Master's voice grated through the magic that encrusted every inch of him. "You may look up."
Holden had never been asked to look on the Master before, though he'd seen him from a distance. Hesitantly, he let his eyes rise up the dais to the litter of cushions, all dyed a deep purple as befitted the Master's rank. Over those, past the Master's bonded women, indolent, dead-eyed but adoring, and on to the Master himself, full of wonder and dread.
Magic crept over him in lumps and bumps, his hands like crystalline tree roots, his arms misshapen from the need to remain still, his back hunched from the weight. Greasy clumps of brown hair stuck out between groups of crystals on his scalp. Remorian mages, mages of the power, weren't like ordinary men. They were born the same, cried and suckled the same, but almost immediately magic began to accrete on their skin, to exude in tiny, delicate crystals through their pores. They built over time into a crackling suit of power. The Master's eyes were mountains and craggy valleys in a shining relief map of his face. By his mouth the crystals thinned where he moved to eat or talk, and flaked away power with every bite or word.
The Master looked over Holden's shoulder and a delicate frown cracked his forehead. The Master's intended bride and a common sailor stood shivering in the sultry heat. Even without looking at them, Holden could feel their terror washing over him, the shock at the first sight of the Master, the clenching dread of what they must know would come next. If only the racketeers hadn't chosen that ship to raid for the fulsome dowry in the hold. If only loneliness and proximity and the thought of long years marooned hadn't led the sailor to defile the Master's bride.
"Holden, bring him forward."
"Yes, Master." He turned and pulled at the sailor's arm. The nut-brown skin of a mainlander was tinged with grey around worried eyes, and his damp dark hair stuck to the sailor's face in tendrils. Beads of sweat trickled down his cheeks, darkened his grubby linen shirt and added to the scent of terror.
Holden pulled him forward and the man seemed powerless to resist, a limp weight he had to drag. Finally, shaking and sweating, the sailor stood before the Master. Holden laid a hand on his shoulder, a tiny gesture of reassurance. The sailor would suffer pain but it would be followed by blessed numbness, a release from uncertainty, a single-minded devotion. The bond allowed no room for fear, anger or envy, any of the petty emotions of the unbonded. He would become one of a useful, peaceful society, one with no crime or hatred. It was a good thing. A good thing.
"There is no shame in screaming." Holden intoned the words of bonding, ones he remembered well from the day he'd come of age when the milk-bond of youth had been taken off and the mage-bond of adulthood put on. "There is no shame in crying. There is only duty, devotion, loyalty, obedience. This is your service to the Archipelago, to the mages of the power who rule us well, in peace and prosperity." Then extra words, just for this man. "This is your service to repay your crime."