The Question of Value and Worth-Part 1

A Jp with D2wintr and Rosmary

((Ohamet, Zatar))

Orla was shaken roughly awake until her eyes opened and she could just make out the young face of the house girl known as Soo in the dim light above her pallet. Orla saw it was dawn, and though she could have slept for hours longer she knew that was not an option she had any more. She was a bit sore from her manhandling by Lucretia the previous day, but forced herself out of bed and followed Soo to a courtyard in the house's east wing where it appeared that all of the other slaves had gathered for what she could only guess was morning worship of the local deity. A massive gold and bronze statue of a strikingly attractive humanoid male stood against the western wall reflecting the glory of the rising Zataran sun.

Like the rest of them, Orla was instructed to take her place kneeling on a small woven mat before the great statue of Ar. She spotted An’neer knelt in the front row right at the foot of the idol.

“When the bells sound, you must bow to our god like the others or you will be punished,” Soo warned with cruel relish.

Another slave spoke up in a less hostile tone. “It does not matter if Ar is your chosen god or not. It is required by law that all slaves worship him and place no other deity before him. Do you understand, my sister?”

Orla took a moment to respond as she glanced around at the slaves that were all kneeling reverently on the mats. Devout and dedicated to Fernoia, Elder Goddess of the Wilds, of Life, Nature, and Chaos, she would have been uncomfortable simply glimpsing a religious ceremony for another deity. To be forced to actually participate in one was at first unthinkable to her—but as usual her better judgment took hold. She knew the infinitely wise and discerning Fernoia would understand the impossible predicament that she was in and would therefore not be offended by the superficial gestures of worship she might make to this Ar, a god she hardly knew anything about. And so she nodded to the two slaves of her acceptance of this state of things.

“Yes, I understand,” Orla replied, feeling as though she were in a muzzy dream.

The air was filled with a young masculine voice of an initiate priest recounting an ancient prayer. With the first passage finished a cymbal sounded and all of the slaves in the courtyard bowed in unison. The prayer consisted of three verses in total, each ending with the ring of the cymbal. The slaves in turn bowed to the statue of Ar by placing their foreheads toward the ground, but not touching it.

The meaning of the words were entirely lost on Orla who knew nothing of the Zataran language. She might have cast a translation spell if her magic were not being blocked by the iron laced collar, but she thought perhaps it was best she was left in ignorance, as that way she would continue to be more mentally removed from these devotionals and able to perfunctorily perform them with less unease. If she would be allowed to remain in ignorance, that is. Since it was law that all slaves worship Ar perhaps she would be formally instructed in the faith and made to know all the prayers and scriptures by heart? Orla fervently hoped not. She was usually very curious about a great many things, but other religions had never held much interest to her, even if she knew their gods were probably every bit as real as her own. As the cymbal rang out she prostrated herself before the idol just as the others did, knowing as the new girl she was almost certainly being watched.

After the morning prayer ceremony was completed the kinder slave girl introduced herself as An'nad and bowed politely to Orla. “It is nice to meet you. Don't mind Soo, she's just jealous.”

“Jealous of what?”

“She is one of the head girls, but we are far more valuable and prized.” Seeing Orla didn't understand, An'nad explained, “Soo is but a house girl and easily replaced. We are pleasure slaves and our value only increases over time. My cousin An'neer is among the first rank of slaves and the Mistress's favourite.”

Orla nodded. “Yes, uh, I gathered they were close.”

“She is also the greatest earner. It is important to build fast relationships with the visiting men to succeed here and An'neer can do this in her sleep without even trying. She no longer bothers to even remember any of their names,” the night elf said, laughing.

“The visiting men?” Orla prompted questioningly.

“The Mistress's guests. We strive to make their stay with us as pleasurable as it could possibly be,” An'nad explained with a wide grin.

Orla closed her eyes, feeling like she was going to be sick. So this was a house of ill repute just as she suspected...

An'nad noted the change of expression and smiled reassuringly. “Don't worry. The men are going to like you a lot.”

Orla tried to change the subject, not wanting to hear any more. “Whither is everyone heading off to?”

“Next we all have breakfast, but you are to be appraised today and the Appraiser has already ordered that you should not be fed before the tests.”

Orla had very little to eat the day before and had not realised how hungry she was until hearing this. “Appraiser?” she said, surprised and confused. “What manner of tests am I to be given?”

“The Appraiser will conduct a number of tests covering a wide range of things to assess your value and worth.” An'nad smirked, leaning closer to Orla. “He will even watch how you eat so he can determine your place of origin and background status. Apparently a great deal can be learned by watching how one conducts themselves during a meal.”

Orla cocked her head in interest at this. She would not have thought of such a thing and wondered what this Appraiser might glean from that by watching her? She hailed from a relatively obscure woodland society largely unknown outside the Skeldergate, and which had been extinct now for more than a century. Growing up she had closely observed the humans in the rural villages beyond the forest in Verden and over time absorbed their culture, their rules of etiquette, and manner of speech so that she could easily walk amongst them. Later in life she had been taught courtly manners and graces by Miss Xaulder in preparation to be sent out into the world, specifically Dalen in order to cultivate an association with the inner circle of the nobility that ruled the neighbouring kingdom. There in the capital city of Opra Dale she had lived a number of years learning their ways.

Every place seemed to have its own unique vibe.

She noted there was clearly an order to how things worked in Lucretia's household. The slaves were apparently allowed a full hour in the morning to attend such things as prayer and breakfast. This was a period of limited freedom that allowed for time to also attend to personal grooming and exchanging gossip. Orla watched the girls applying cosmetics to their faces and those of their friends and styling each other’s hair, seeing that it was properly brushed, braided, and fashioned in the styles that were no doubt approved of by the Mistress of the manor.

Orla rarely wore cosmetics, having little real need like humans did due to her unnaturally perfect complexion derived from her fey heritage. But catching a glimpse of herself in a mirror she saw that she was hardly looking her best and that her features were uncharacteristically pale from fatigue and stress. After brushing her hair into a semblance of order, she dabbed a touch of rouge to her cheeks to give them more colour. Satisfied more or less by what she saw in her reflection, she glanced at An'nad and the other girls who were intensely scrutinising their own faces in the mirrors as though their lives depended on their looks to be flawless, as she imagined might well be the case given the extreme harshness of their slave owner Lucretia. At the thought of the frightful woman, Orla gave herself another check in the mirror and decided to outline her silver-shot blue eyes with a little kohl so they looked more striking. She remembered a piece of makeup advice given to her by Miss Xaulder: “You can highlight your eyes or your lips, but never both at the same time.”

But in lieu of the Avatar of Fernoia, there was someone else from whom she might learn from discrete observation. Knowing the slave girl An’neer was Lucrietia’s favorite, Orla paid particular attention to the mysterious night elf. An’neer seemed to be the lone exception in attending to her own self without the aid of others, carefully applying her own makeup as well as brushing and styling her own golden hair while she ate and gossiped throughout with her circle of friends and hanger ons. It did not seem to Orla as though An’neer much trusted these companions, always maintaining a neutral, guarded expression throughout.

Another thing Orla noticed was that An’neer barely touched her own breakfast, instead sharing much of it with the other girls while she conversed with them, and therein lay another oddity in that An’neer seemingly spoke little to not at all with the others and instead let them speak at length while she herself only added the odd word now and again just to nudge the conversations along.

A toll sounded and the gathering of slave girls promptly concluded with them departing to attend to their own assigned duties and tasks whatever they may be. An’neer finished what was left of her negligible meal and then strode directly toward Orla to collect her.

“You are to be professionally appraised,” An'neer said. “Follow me.”

Orla biddably fell into stride beside the night elf and they walked the length of the house as An’neer remained silent and said nothing more. The pair passed from one hall to the next until arriving at a set of double doors leading into the manor’s western courtyard.

As An’neer led her forward it was clear that the Appraiser had been waiting for Orla's arrival with something less than a patient disposition. He was a middle-aged gentleman with a small pointed beard and a wire-thin moustache dressed in robes made of expensive fabrics adorned with grand patterns. While there was no question regarding the man’s air of refinement it was also clear to her almost at once from both his facial expression and the way he carried himself that he was a most petty individual with an inflated sense of his own value in the world. Following in his wake were a handful of retainers, a group of much younger men who while almost as well-dressed, seemingly lacked the sophistication and worldly experience of their master.

Orla was accustomed to interacting with supercilious Dalish noblemen, but aware she was the subject of the man's close scrutiny, and not to mention those of his male assistants, made it a different situation altogether for her and she felt nervous and decidedly underdressed in her skimpy slave attire.

An’neer bowed politely, motioning to Orla of whom the Appraiser raised a single brow offering a look of puzzlement. "I was told I would be appraising an elf." He gestured rather flamboyantly with his hand. "This... this is not an elf. I do not know what this is, but this is no elf like I have ever seen, nor any half-elf either, come to that. She appears to be a combination of features of several different races, elf, human, and perhaps even halfling somewhere in her strange ancestry. Yes, she is something very unusual, quite unique indeed. But to be fully prepared I should have been informed ahead of time..."

An’neer could see he was genuinely irritated and for her part bowed again politely. “I do apologize Appraiser, we believe Orla comes from a rare bloodline that is not often seen in this part of the world. We suspect she is not an elf so much as a close cousin of our kind, and thus highly prized I am told.”

Not an elf? Orla was taken aback at An'neer's reference to her racial origins. Had she been found out and identified as a fae elf or did they mistake her for something else entirely? She knew very little about Zatar’s population beyond the fact it was mostly human and night elves. In Dalen that had been full of all manner of races and creatures she always managed to pass herself off as a half-elf of some type and to the less perceptive, a human occasionally. Even Ursa had not seemed to recognise her true nature.

“Her uniqueness may or may not add to her value, but that is for me to determine, isn't it?” The Appraiser curtly turned from An’neer and offered a polished smile to Orla as he sat at the table and motioned for her to be seated across from him. “Please, feel free to enjoy whatever you would like, my dear.”

Orla's spirits rose a bit as the man adopted a friendly manner and invited her to partake of breakfast with him. She remembered what An'nad said about it being a secret test to determine her background. Because she did not want to be closely linked to the Skeldergate woodkin who in their day had something of a bad reputation, she decided to lean into the cosmopolitan person she had been in Opra Dale and exude the kind of graceful air of a Dalish noblewoman, calling upon her memories of Eliza Telsana and Kalena Valade for inspiration.

“That would be lovely, thank you,” she said, flashing a winning smile. It was then that she saw the table contained a vast selection of delicious food items from all across the continent, as well as some choice items that she had never seen before. The golden place setting itself was a work of art consisting of no less than twenty-three individual pieces oddly arranged, some of which were clearly in the wrong place and order. The Appraiser sat back in his chair and observed her reactions with watchful eyes.

Folding her arms, An'neer leaned against the courtyard wall, ignoring the appreciative stares of the Appraiser’s assistants as she watched a scene unfold that she had seen before so many times.

The bountiful variety of breakfast food filled Orla with astonishment and a delighted smile lit up her little face at seeing the elaborate table set. Prior to arriving in Opra Dale, Miss Xaulder had shown her something similar and taught her about all the different spoons, forks, and knives, and their special usages in case she was ever invited to a formal dinner engagement at a noble house. Orla had found these lessons in high society etiquette both interesting and pleasantly whimsical, and still remembered it all quite clearly.

“Goodness, what a marvellous spread,” she remarked, not having to feign her enthusiasm.

Thinking these tests might actually turn out to be rather fun, she seated herself at the table and ever so casually rearranged the table setting in the Dalish fashion and then helped herself to several of the most recognisable and appealing food items, steering clear of the unfamiliar ones despite her genuine curiosity about them. Aware the Appraiser was watching her intently now, she slathered fig jam on a couple of slices of gold leaf bread with a jam knife and made a great show of deftly cutting her fruit selections into dainty, bite-sized pieces before eating them with a fruit fork off a fruit plate like she were some grand lady.

An'neer turned from watching as the doors opened and Silver entered the courtyard. “What are you doing here?” the night elf asked the outlandishly handsome human slave, her voice sharp with irritation.

"Mistress said I could watch the other new slave being appraised," Silver said.

“What? That is highly inappropriate.” An'neer frowned as he brazenly took a seat at the table and began loading up his own breakfast plate.

Orla was pleasantly surprised to see Silver and his friendly face only set her more at ease. Was the young man here to be appraised as well? she wondered, knowing he had arrived here not long after her. Silver observed how she made her plate before following suit to know how to do it right, and she cast him an encouraging smile.

The Appraiser did not know what to make of Silver's presence and after exchanging a confused look with An'neer elected to ignore the other slave before turning back to Orla. "Now, let's get to know each other, my dear. What were you called? Was it Oolah?"

“Orla,” she corrected, smiling back.

"You are a well-mannered young thing, Orla, and have clearly associated with the upper classes. You are from Verden, obviously."

“That I am.”

The Appraiser assumed an even more pompous tone of voice. "The combination of the vowel sounds are distinctive to Verden, but your dialect with its lilt and musical intonations is not one I have heard before. Pray tell where in Verden are you from?"

“The Lake Istal region,” Orla answered, accustomed to her accent sometimes raising questions. Her first language was Aetherian, and she had learned Common by listening to rural villagers that lived near and around the Skeldergate forest. She cut a piece of the delicious white cheese. “I am surprised you know so much about Verden.”

"It is my occupation to know a great many things," the Appraiser said loftily. "Elven age, however, can be difficult at times to judge accurately. How old are you?"

“I am in my fifty-first year,” Orla answered, and didn't add: “In dog years.”

The Appraiser exchanged looks of approval with his assistants. At only half a century old she would be considered in the first bloom of youth for an elf, much as she still was by fae standards, and she guessed that this increased her value and worth in their eyes. He looked at one of his assistants, who scribbled notes onto a piece of parchment. He gave a nod, "Now Orla, on to the next question. What are your best talents and skills you can offer to your owner?"

Orla gave a sour look at the last two words before recovering her poise. “Well, I am a rather accomplished gardener, herbalist, and horticulturist. That is where my greatest talents lie, with growing and cultivating plants. I have actually won awards for my herbs and flowers. I possess little skill as a food cook, but I can brew herbal medicines quite proficiently.”

"Indeed," the Appraiser said, his eyebrow raised skeptically as if she might be exaggerating or even lying. "I intend to put those claims to the test. What about your skills as an entertainer? Can you dance, sing, or play any musical instruments?"

Orla gave a half shrug. “I suppose I can dance and sing a little, but not at a professional level…”

"I will be the judge of that," the Appraiser told her as behind him his assistants moved about, preparing the battery of tests she was to undergo. "Rest assured you will not be able to sneak any skills or talents past me. Before this day is out I will know all there is to know about you, Orla. You will be left with no secrets at all."

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