After reaching land again the two friends wandered through the streets of the port. Here, unlike in other cities, the merchants in the doors of their shops threw calls to attract buyers, extolling the quality and prices of their goods, creating a lively and pleasant confusion.
The city was beautiful. Masu looked at the buildings, often of considerable elegance, almost all made of artfully carved stones in various colors. The newer ones had geometrical decorations; progressing towards the castle the decorations represented mainly leaves and flowers; the oldest buildings, which stood under the hill on which was the castle, were often decorated with human figures.
"What magnificent and elegant buildings!" Masu said. "Are these the residences of the lords of this land?"
"Some yes, but most belong to families of merchants."
"Of merchants?" Masu asked in amazement. "But they are the lowest class, just above the slaves! And they have such beautiful homes?"
"Even though they are the next lowest class, the merchants are often much richer than the others, sometimes even richer than some lords. You see Masu, the producers are the third class, as they are essential to produce the goods that enable us to live, like food and drink, timber and stones for construction, also minerals of the earth - jewels for the rich, gold for coins, iron for swords and armors, and so on. The fourth class are the artisans who transform what the producers provide into things, from clothes to houses, from armors to jewelry, and so on. They are less important than producers, but useful, even essential. Then come the merchants, who do nothing new, they simply accumulate and redistribute the goods, buying and selling, transporting them. They are not needed, but they are those which get the greater profit from their trades."
"Yeah, I never thought about it, but I think it is as you say. But then, why are the two most important classes those of the To, the Lords, and the So, the Warriors, who produce nothing. After all you and I... we live of the work of producers, artisans and merchants..."
"Yes, and also of the slaves. But you see, the Lords are like the head of a body: they reflect, organize, make sure that everything goes smoothly. Cut the head of a body and the body ceases to exist. The Lords have great responsibilities - they govern the whole society."
"And we Warriors?"
"You have to make sure that the laws of the Lords are being enforced. You have to fight and eradicate the wicked, be they thieves, murderers, swindlers or something else. You also defend the people from attacks by the Lords of neighboring lands. Without you anarchy would reign, the law would have no meaning or effectiveness. This is why we Lords and you Warriors - even if we do not produce goods - are maintained, as you say."
"But who guarantees that the Lords and Warriors do not abuse their position?"
"Once it was precisely the Taota... Now it is a balance that we try to maintain, at times with war, or showing enough strength to deter a war."
"And yet... I waged my skin for the injustice of my Shiti against me. Nothing has been able to protect me."
"If there was still the Taota, you might have appealed to him... Even a slave could appeal to the Taota, you know? Anyway somehow you defended your class. At the very least you were able to avoid your head to fall for the absurd hysterical anger of a woman. The fact that a Lord can not execute a sentence, but that it must be executed by the Warriors, is a good law, don't you think?"
"But if the lords and warriors agreed, they could decree an unfair sentence against a different class..."
"That class has a way to oppose, if it wants to."
"If the producers stopped producing, or the artisans transforming and building, or the merchants to trade... for the lords it would not be convenient to issue absurd orders to have them executed by the warriors."
"And the slaves?"
"Imagine that they stop working... All the other classes would be in serious trouble."
"In theory, it really seems that everything fits. But under the threat of death, how many would be willing to die, to support a single member of their class?"
"That, cowardice and selfishness, is the outcome of Ma, the cry of pain, and of Fa, the searing pain, that is the god Ku-Mamari-Marima - the false god - and of Ku-Fafalli-Fashulli - the malignant goddess - and this is the part that no one can remove. Anyway, for more than five hundred years, despite the disappearance of the Taota, a balance has been maintained, I think."
So conversing, the two friends arrived at the foot of the hill on which was the castle of the Eight Quarters. A handful of soldiers blocked the road, that was going up the hill among the trees, leading to the castle gate. The Shisi of that group moved toward the two friends.
"Noble Lord, valiant warrior, what brings you here?" he asked them with formal courtesy, but with a veil of suspicion in the eyes.
"I am Tu Toma-Bekere from the territory of Makhi-Kimigasu', the son of Tu Maa-Kes'ere' born in this castle, and my companion is Su Masu-Yari, from the territory of Machi-Sanisu'. We travel to explore the world and ask for the castle's hospitality, as it is due to my rank."
"Exploring the world?" the Shisi asked studying them for a long time: "And what do you get from this... exploration?"
"Shisi! I have nothing to explain to you!" Toma answered in a haughty tone.
"I apologize, you're right, noble Tu. Mine was just curiosity, I did not mean disrespect."
"Curiosity is a laudable quality, when well directed. But now send one of your men to the castle to ask for hospitality for myself and my partner."
"It will be done, noble Tu. Just be kind enough to wait."
While the Shisi returned to his men to give orders, and one of the warriors walked briskly up the road leading to the castle, Masu whispered to Toma: "You put him back in his place! One feels that in your veins flows the blood of authority."
Soon after, the warrior who was sent up with the message, returned with four other soldiers, three Su and a Shisi. The new Shisi, consulting briefly with the Shisi on guard, went to the two friends.
"If you will follow us, we accompany you to the castle..." he said making a slight bow to Toma.
"Has hospitality been granted?" the Lord asked.
"One of the castle's Tu is waiting for you, and he will tell you what was decided," the Shisi replied with a flat voice.
The two friends followed him. With two warriors at their sides and the fourth behind them they began to climb. From the corner of his eyes Masu watched the warriors that were walking alongside them. He knew from experience that these four were there as a guard of honor, but also for security reasons.
Masu discreetly observed in particular the warrior to the right of him, a handsome man he felt vaguely attracted to. Unconsciously, Masu brought a hand to his ruby. Fiddling with it, he gasped: the ruby had become very hot. On the alert, Masu wondered from where came the black magic that obviously made it so. Continuing to fiddle with the ruby, he looked down at it: in the reflection was the image of the warrior to his right, but unlike the other figures, its shape flickering inside the ruby was not clear, more like a dark gray mass...
Masu put his hand over his head like to arrange his long black hair, but instead he suddenly grabbed his strong and heavy sword and drew it, turning towards the warrior.
"Watch out!" he shouted.
Everyone stopped and the other escorting warriors drew their swords in unison. Masu launched himself on the warrior next to him, who withdrew a little, while pulling out his sword in turn. They clashed with a loud clang of steel. Masu unexpectedly managed to strike a blow and to procure a deep wound to the thigh of his opponent. Meanwhile Toma had instinctively extracted his own dagger, wondering what was going on.
Masu and the warrior dueled for several minutes, while he also had to defend himself from the attack of the other soldiers. He was afraid of not being able to resist for long, at four to one, despite his skill with the sword. Then he saw the stupefied face of a warrior who had attacked him from behind, and whom he was facing now.
He quickly turned back, escaping him, to face again the warrior who he had attacked first. He saw he was slowly slipping to the ground, while turning into a white tiger. Behind him he heard the voice of the Shisi exclaim something the others repeated almost in unison:
"It is not Ta'sha, it is a mask!"
The white tiger, that was bleeding from a hind leg, lunged at Masu, opening it's jaws full of long sharp teeth. But now the other three So of the castle had ceased to attack Masu, and came at his side, facing the beast. The big white tiger jumped towards Masu, who quickly lowered himself, and while the tiger was passing over him, one of the other warriors managed to hit it in the side. The tiger landed behind Masu, not far from Toma.
Under the eyes of the men it turned into a big black snake, bleeding from it's side and tail. The snake got into an upright position and hissed at Toma, ready to pounce on him. One of the castle's warriors assaulted it from behind, but the snake lowered it's body, lifted it's tail and gave a strong blow to the warrior's legs, causing him to fall heavily. Quick as lightning it got up again, turning to attack Masu.
But Toma, not at all scared, jumped on the slippery body. Embracing the strong snake he sank the dagger into it.
The snake seemed to sag, thus avoiding being captured by Toma, and again transformed, this time into a large red hexapod. The warriors were at it and beat it on all sides with their swords. The hexapod lost four of its paws, it's green blood spilled on the ground, fuming. Then the hexapod transformed again, this time taking on the appearance of a small, beautiful child, completely naked. For a brief moment the warriors hesitated, but Masu, who was now behind the mask, with a large horizontal slash cut off the head of the child making it fly away.
The body of the child became gray, collapsed like an empty sack, smoke rose from the shapeless heap on the road until only a large dark spot remained. The head had landed nearby and this also turned into a gray mass, that in turn was consumed in a dense black smoke. It disappeared, leaving another dark spot on the road.
Toma picked up his dagger, wiped it off with some leaves and put it back in its sheath. Masu noticed that he was pale, but had not lost his proud bearing. Then Masu kicked with his foot some sand from the road over the dark patches the mask had left there.
"He died, at last..." the Shisi murmured, still slightly shaken.
"No, a mask does not die. His spirit is looking for another living being weak enough to settle down into..." Toma said while he was regaining his colour.
"Ta'sha was not a weak man... All but that..." one of the castle's warriors said.
"The masks transmigrate from one body to another, finding ever stronger bodies. Maybe he was already strong since he was a small child, considering what we saw at the end," Toma said.
"How did you know Ta'sha was a mask?" the Shisi asked to Masu.
"Intuition..." Masu said; he saw a nod from Toma for not revealing the power of the Tear of the Kaoka.
"If you hadn't wounded it, forcing it to change it's shape, and to reveal for what it was, we could have killed you..." the Shisi pointed out.
Masu touched again his ruby - now it was cold. "My time was not come yet, obviously," the warrior answered with a shrug of his shoulders, while he put his sword back into its sheath.
"Anyway you're a fighter of great value, very skilful and strong..." one of the warriors of the castle remarked.
"It's not for nothing that II have chosen him as a companion for my journey..." Toma said with a sly smile.
They resumed to climb toward the castle. Masu said to Toma, in a whisper so as not to be heard by others: "I was the one to choose you as my traveling companion, Toma... Do not forget it..."
"A warrior doesn't choose a Lord, don't you know how the world works? Let's say we chose each other... Is that better?"
Masu nodded: "Anyway, I did admire your courage and your composure... You would have been a good warrior yourself."
"Well, who knows? And you perhaps good a Lord... but I still have to find out..." his friend replied with light irony.
"Maybe... but I have to learn a lot of things yet," Masu said cheerfully.
They were received by one of the Tu, who was old enough have known Toma's mother. He promptly gave orders to allocate two guestrooms in the castle reserved for that purpose. He asked Toma how long they intended to stay; the young Lord answered they could stay for just one night, because they had to continue their journey. Masu nodded - his friend had remembered that because of his curse he could not spend more than one night under the same roof.
The Tu who had welcomed them led Toma to his mother's relatives for a visit . From them he obtained a change of clothes and a good supply of gold coins. Together with Masu they were shown the rest of the castle complex. One of the eight original castles was used by the Shiti and his large family; another one had the State Rooms where the Shiti administered justice and gave parties. Also there were the offices of his treasurer, and of other Lords who worked alongside him in the affairs of state. Another castle was used by Lords who lived permanently at court, two were used by warriors, and the last one was for guests, where Masu and Toma had their rooms.
The luxury, especially in the castle for the affairs of state, was truly amazing. The stone walls were completely covered with tapestries in beautiful colours, representing the Theogony and Antropogony according to the myths. The columns were covered with brocades, different colors for each room, with geometric shapes woven in with gold thread. In each room the floors were covered with carpets, specially woven in order to fit it's shape and size and to match the color of the brocade on the columns. The wooden doors were inlaid with polychrome panels, each representing a different kind of plant or animal. Finally, the windows were fitted with panels of translucent alabaster, finely carved in bas-relief, which spread the light in a warm and pleasant tone.
Masu, who had always thought that the triple castle of his Shiti was magnificent, realized he had never seen anything so luxurious and full of refined objects of art... He wandered around the rooms, stairways and corridors with a permanent expression of astonishment plastered on his face. The Lords were also dressed in an incredibly luxurious way. The opulence was such that, after a while, Masu found it overdone, too much for him. Only the two castles inhabited by warriors were decorated with more simplicity and functionality.
In the evening the two friends attended one of the parties that the Shiti usually gave in castle. In addition to an overabundance of food and drink, dinner was enlivened by musicians, dancers, acrobats and jugglers. The young slaves who served at the tables were of both sexes, all of rare beauty, dressed in short green tunics - the Shiti's color. Often the guests, men and women, groped under their clothes without any restraint, so that soon quite a few of the boys had visible erections that raised the front of their short tunics... A strong atmosphere of open lewdness pervaded the party halls.
When the Shiti signaled the end of the party by standing up and clapping his hands three times, all the guests stood up and, after bowing to the Shiti, went out, many of them taking one of the slaves in their rooms, a boy or a girl that had caught their fancy. With a smirk Masu noted that also Toma was taking a handsome young dancer with him... "Aha! It seems that the good Toma wants to try again the pleasure that one can have with a boy!" the warrior thought amused.
One of the slaves came up to Masu: "Can I ask you a favor, warrior?"
Masu looked at him curiously, and thought that the slave was quite daring to address him in this way. Perhaps being used to serve at court had made him less reserved and shy than a slave normally should be. Or maybe in that territory slaves enjoyed greater freedom than in his land...
"Tell me..." he replied, looking at him.
It was a boy of about eighteen, of a rare beauty. There was in him something manly and sweet at the same time, making a nice contrast.
"Can you allow me to be the one to accompany you into your room?" the slave said; he blushed a little.
"Since when does a slave choose who to accompany?" Masu asked in a mock grumpy tone.
"No... No, valiant warrior, mine is just a humble prayer, not a choice, or a demand. I would never dare to..."
"And why would you want to accompany me into my room?"
"All through the dinner you were looking at me, so I was hoping..."
"But I've not touched you, even with a finger, while you were serving," the warrior pointed out.
"You have not touched any of my mates... but you did not look at anyone as often as you looked at me, so I thought maybe... If I'm mistaken, please forgive me."
"If I have not touched you even with a finger, maybe it's because I was not interested in you, don't you think?"
"Yes, I did not think... forgive me..."
"Then what did you think?" Masu asked curiously, realising that he actually felt very attracted to that beautiful boy.
"That maybe... maybe you... unlike many... you did see in me more that just an object to use..."
"A slave is not an object, he is a human being," Masu said.
"But one that is treated like an object... to be bought and sold without being asked... that is just like being a thing. Almost nobody thinks the way you do... And I would... if you want it... I would be pleased to tell you with all my body how much I'm grateful for your way of... looking at me."
"I see a very beautiful boy before me..." Masu said, smiling for the first time.
"Never as beautiful as you, warrior," the slave replied; again he blushed a little and looked down for having dared to address a free man, even more, a man of so high a class, second only to the Lords.
"Well, you convinced me. Come on then," Masu said, more and more conquered not only by the beauty but also the personality of the young slave.
"Thank you, valiant warrior..." the boy muttered. His eyes gleamed for a moment, before assuming the look of a respectful slave again.
Masu was moved by that brief shining in the eyes of the slave.
"What's your name, boy?"
"De R'o is my name."
"My name is Masu-Yari, R'o."
"Yes, Su Masu-Yari, your name is on everyone's lips here in the castle."
"Everyone knows how you identified a mask and killed him."
"Without the others... I don't know if I could have succeeded on my own. It is not all my doing."
"Modesty is a rare virtue, especially among warriors..." the boy noted.
"It's not modesty, just realism. A good warrior must know his strengths at least as well as he should know his limits."
"That goes not only for warriors, Su Masu-Yari."
"If we have to share a bed, even if only for a few hours, you better just call me Masu."
"A slave should not..."
"Forget, at least while you're with me, being a slave."
"How can I forget what I'm remembered of since my birth?"
"I can at times forget to be a warrior."
"Going down a ladder is easier than to climb it... especially if you have a heavy weight on your shoulders."
Masu more and more liked the guy and his personality. "A naked Shiti and a nude slave can not be distinguished..."
"Perhaps not while they sleep... But a Shiti looks, talks, moves and thinks in a way quite different from a slave."
"Yes, you may be right, kid... And yet you reason very well."
"It's not your fault that you're born into slavery, as it is not merit of a Shiti being born a Lord."
"But it is your merit you have become a warrior and a brave warrior."
"Perhaps. Would you have liked to be a warrior?"
"No warrior chose me as a child to raise me up as his Seha. Maybe I was not strong, or brave, or fit enough."
"Or perhaps those who rested their eyes on you did not see sharp enough to see who you really are."
"In any case, Su Masu-Yari..."
"I asked you to call me only Masu."
"Forgive me, habits are hard to die."
They entered the room that had been assigned to Masu. The warrior carefully closed the door to the hallway, and also the one that led to Toma's room. As he locked it, he heard moans of pleasure coming from there: apparently his friend was already in full swing with his dancer, engaged in a very sensual ballet, he thought with a smile.
"R'o, come..." he said, sitting on the edge of the bed and stretching an arm toward the boy.
The slave reached out to him, coming closer. Masu took his hand and drew the boy to him. He made him sit in his lap and began to caress the boy under his short green tunic.
"What must I do, Su Masu?" the boy softly asked.
"Whatever you want to do. From now on we are only two males who want to give and take pleasure. Only two bodies that want to enjoy each other, with each other. If it's hard for you, to climb up a step with a weight on your shoulders, I'll go down one, until we are, at least for these hours, at the same level."
The handsome warrior took the boy's face in his hands and pressed his lips on his: they were soft, warm and promptly parted. After a while the two were kissing deeply, and soon both of them were fully excited. Masu felt the boy quiver in his lap. His hand stroked the slave's hard erect penis.
"Can I... can I undress you, Su Masu?"
"Sure you can. You must not ask, just do."
"I would not do something that you do not like... I only want to please you."
"If you do something I do not like, I'll let you know and stop you. Do not worry about that."
"Yes, Su Masu..."
The warrior stood up, to allow the boy to undress him.
After a while they were both naked on the comfortable bed, and the boy was in the arms of the warrior.
At one point Masu asked R'o: "But you... do you like doing it with a man?"
"Yes, very much."
"Have you ever done it with a woman, a girl?"
"Just once with a slave girl... and I did not like it. And you, did you ever have a woman, Su Masu?"
"No, not me. Some warriors do, but only few. Why do you like it best with a man?"
"Because... I don't know, I just like it. Especially with a man as handsome and strong as you, a virile man."
"You too, although so young and gentle, are virile... and that's why I like you."
"Do you think I'm manly, even though... I only like to... take it?"
"What does it matter? Being male is a matter of character and attitude. A man is not less virile because he gives himself to another man."
"Then… will you take me?"
"With real pleasure."
"How do you do you want to take me, Masu Su?"
"From the front. I enjoy watching my partner's face. And you? How do you like to do it?"
"I also like it that way. On all fours… I feel a little like an animal, although it depends on the one who takes me."
"Do you have a lover, boy?"
"How can a slave have a lover? He doesn't own his own time, and who knows where he will be tomorrow? Even if someone takes you as his personal slave, it's enough that he gets tired of you to sell you, to give you away, to let others use you as he pleases."
"Yeah... I never thought about this."
"Is Tu Toma-Bekere your lover?"
"No, just a friend. I do not have a lover."
"And... would you not want one?"
"Yes, maybe, one day... And you?"
"I know that I can't have one, so I hope I will never fall in love... not to suffer too much. We slaves are only one step above the animals, but in the same class. And animals do not fall in love, they just fuck ".
"But you're not an animal..."
"Yet I'm in the same class."
"As well as the plants... And you're not a plant, right?"
Masu was feeling a growing tenderness toward the boy. He thought it was not fair that he felt so humiliated to be asking himself whether there was no real difference between him and a vegetable or an animal. Had the gods truly determined that slaves, animals and plants were only steps within the same class? Why had they decided that?
Masu though he needed to make the boy feel that, although he belonged to the lowest class of society, he was still a human being, and much more than an animal or a plant.
So he began to make love with R'o with all his passion and tenderness.
Soon the boy was highly excited. The proof was that he began to murmur "Yes... yes Masu," no longer using the title of "Su".
Masu, at first by a rational decision, then instinctively, devoted himself fully to the pleasure of the boy. What surprised him was that, by doing so, his pleasure was acquiring a different flavour, more beautiful than usual. In addition to the physical pleasure, he was getting a great spiritual satisfaction from that union. Vaguely he thought that possibly there could be more joy in giving than in receiving. Devoting himself to the boy whom he only just met, and barely knew beyond the surface, was giving him back more than he was giving himself.
R'o seemed to have lost all his shyness, any reluctance that his condition required him to wear of slave. Gradually he began to participate in that union with all of himself. He just kept calling him by his name, almost in a sweet prayer, softly repeating "Masu... Masu... Masu..."
Finally, when the strong and handsome warrior took the boy to the summit of pleasure, his face was radiant. While he was hanging on to the warrior's strong body, almost clinging to him and still quivering for the strong and beautiful orgasm, the strong member of Masu still firmly and deeply driven in him, the young slave began to cry softly.
Masu understood that those tears did not originate from pain or sadness, but from a overwhelming joy. He knew that the taste of tears changes depending on the emotion that causes them, so he collected one and tasted it, and he was sure to be right in his analysis.
He held the boy in his arms, rocking him with tenderness, waiting for the storm of emotions he had aroused in him to calm down.
R'o looked at the warrior's handsome face, then, in a low voice, asked: "Why, why did you do this to me? Why? You should not have... you should not have..."
"Yes, I had to. I did so because, as at times you may think to be equal to a plant or an animal, or when other people want you to believe that, remembering this moment you will know, deep inside and with certainty, that you are a human being. Never forget that, R'o."
The boy nodded, then softly asked: "Will you let me sleep in your arms? Sleep with you tonight?"
"With real pleasure, young man, with great pleasure..."