The Warrior From Batuk: Chapter 9

The Warrior from Batuk
by Aardvark

A girl is unhappy, or Angel turns jealous. A meeting with Marco and Drago Giovanni in the tavern. Wanda uncovers a secret. Drago takes a girl home to Paolo's castle. An unpleasant encounter with Alanna Borodin. Drago sends Tyra to the guards, or a spear is bent. Plans are made, or hanging cats by the tails. A lesson on Batuk for the new aristocracy.


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The Legal Stuff: The Warrior from Batuk  © 2004, 2007 Aardvark
 
This work is the property of the author, and the author retains full copyright, in relation to printed material, whether on paper or electronically. Any adaptation of the whole or part of the material for broadcast by radio, TV, or for stage plays or film, is the right of the author unless negotiated through legal contract. Permission is granted for it to be copied and read by individuals, and for no other purpose. Any commercial use by anyone other than the author is strictly prohibited, and may only be posted to free sites with the express permission of the author.
 

This work is fictitious, and any similarities to any persons, alive or dead, are purely coincidental.

 
Photo Credit: 3.bp.blogspot.com


 
Chapter 9
 
 
I opened my eyes and waited until the world came into focus. I was back in my bed in the apartments above The Queen’s Cup. My back and legs felt like a bruise; and my knees were a dull ache. Angel came into view, leaning over my head.

“Good morning, first girl,” I croaked. I raised a bandaged wrist to my neck. My throat was sore, from screaming, I imagined.

She smiled at me tentatively. “I heard what happened.”

“Then you know more than I do. I don’t know how it ended or how I came to be here.” I gripped her arm abruptly. “How is our Master?”

“Our Master is well. While they were beating you, some man said something to the King, and now some other man is in trouble.” She said it like this was my fault.

“Thank the Gods.” Then I remembered my kneecaps. I'd been nearly sure they would be all right. “Angel! How are my knees?”

She shrugged, flicking her hand casually. “The physician said that your knees will be completely healed in a month or so.”

I drew a long breath and sighed. “That’s good to hear.”

Her eyes blazed. “Yes, you will need to be healthy. When you recover, we will fight. I don’t like this game you’re playing. One way or the other, things will change.”

“All right, Angel, what in Hades are you so angry about?”

“You follow orders, but do not submit to my authority!” she snarled.

I shifted to my elbows and tossed the hair from my eyes. There could be only one serious issue with Angel: Ketrick.

“Horseshit. You speak as if Wanda had always followed your orders before. We both know differently. What’s the real problem?”

She sighed raggedly. “There's something between you and our Master, something I can’t touch.”

I shrugged, forgetting momentarily how abused my back was. “True.”

She stared at me. “You don’t deny it?”

“Why should I? We were friends before I was given Ruk’s Serum. It pleases him to allow some of that to continue.”

She dismissed it with a sharp gesture. “No! It’s more than that. I don't know exactly what happened, but you withstood torture — for him.”

“You love our Master, don’t you?” I touched her arm with my fingers. She batted my hand away.

“Of course, you idiot! And so do you!”

“Oh, for the Gods' sakes, Angel!”

“Hah! You think you've won him back with your tricks, but I'll have him in the end.” She got up and went to the doorway. There, she turned to the side to pose, rolled a look of utter disdain at me over her nose, and then thrust her hip in my direction.

It nearly made me regret not fighting her for first girl, but that wouldn't have made her any easier to live with. When she was unhappy, she made everyone know it, and only Ketrick made her happy. Yes, I had my own interest in him, but I was damned if I was going to compete with Angel for him. I sagged back onto the bed. Wonderful, just wonderful.

I slept until late in the afternoon, and woke up again, this time with a hand against my cheek. I knew his touch and smiled before I opened my eyes. “Hello, Master.”

He put his hand on my hair and smoothed it back. “We’re alone, Tyra. I sent Angel and Wanda on an errand. How are you doing?”

“Oh, I’ll be happier when I’m strong enough to return to your bed.” Even he raised an eyebrow at that. Gods, what am I saying?

“Eagles would have been proud of you,” he said in a way that warmed me. “You were superb, but that was a chance you took.”

“Less than the alternative, I think. When I saw Terrence, I remembered him as an honorable, brave man. Such men wouldn't let an injustice stand, and I didn't think it was a coincidence that he was there. He didn't come forward immediately, so I thought that he might need some persuading.”

“That's very close to what happened. 'The trader I'd left a letter for didn't want me to be punished for something I didn't do, but he also didn't want to be directly involved, so he sent Terrence in his place. Terrence was to testify if things looked bad for me. When you collapsed, he announced himself and backed my side of the story.”

“Well, he took his time about it. He didn't have to wait so long.”

“Ah,” Ketrick said, nodding. “I suppose that it's possible, being busy in the rack as you were, that you didn't have the chance to think it through properly. I believe that Terrence was waiting for an appropriate moment to leap into action, say right after you had given up like a normal slave girl and started answering the questions. It wasn't really necessary to go through all that. If you had broken along with your first knee, most would have said that you had made your point.”

My body ached too much for me to let that go. “How can you be so sure? I thought that the King needed something impressive to decide it our way. King Bruno’s decisions earlier that morning were based as much on flair as reason.”

He rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. “Very astute. It's true that your drama made Terrence's words more effective. You were that rarest of creatures, a slave with honor. The King could barely believe it when Bertram tortured you unconscious.” Ketrick lifted me under my arms into a sitting position, and kissed me until the pain went away. “You make me want you more than ever. You would be the finest slave I have ever owned,” he said in a low, powerful voice.

Predictably, I was aroused.

“Tell me, would you rather have me as a slave who would kill you the first chance I had, or as a wife, who would not?”

He laughed boomed in the apartment, and his eyes disclosed amusement. “Get well quickly, Tyra.”

My back healed within the first week, but I spent two long weeks in bed and on crutches while my knees knit before the physician allowed me to walk unassisted. I didn’t see much of Ketrick except at night. During the day he was mainly in the city, contacting old friends and looking for a suitable front to gather information.

In the meantime, Angel and I had come to a truce. Still disgruntled with my special relationship with our Master, she was willing to curb her jealousy as long as she took the favored last turn at night. At times I wondered if it possible to become true friends with her. Her world, like most other pleasure slaves, was wrapped around her master.

I understood her, nearly envied her, the bliss she enjoyed whenever Ketrick was near. It was the same with Wanda, although they expressed it differently, as a volcano and the swell of the rising tide. It was inevitable that a tiny, insistent voice spoke at the edge of my mind, growing stronger the longer I was with them, Would it be so bad to be what I was made to be?

There was plenty of what I called “Tyr” around. When I thought of him, the warrior set me straight on that idea. As seductive as life in Ketrick’s stable often was, it was not me; I needed to get away. For long stretches, I went to the window to watch the streets, imagined myself outside in freewoman's clothing as Tyra, freewoman. Finally, the time came when I was well enough to be brolled in Ketrick's bed. That night he used me well, the first time in a month that Ketrick hadn’t held back for fear of injuring me, and practically the first time in that long I'd had an excuse to speak with him privately.

“Ketrick, I’m ready to work in the tavern.” I whispered, lying against him in the silks.

“Are you sure? The physician advised another week.”

I nodded. “I can manage. I need to do it.”

“Good. I’ve made a few friends in the palace and have contacts inside the Giovanni and Borodin castles. I’m buying a hardware store. That should keep me informed to some extent on the contracts and what people are doing. What we also need are the rumors, the hatreds and rivalries. I need detailed information of relationships between the factions, and the King.”

“And people will say the most interesting things in a tavern after a few drinks.”

“Yes, often it’s a lot of pieces of interesting things that make sense when put together.”

“Of course,” I replied, a little annoyed at him for stating the obvious. “I was the commander in Eagles, in case you’ve forgotten.”

His hand paused on my rear end. “It’s sometimes easy to forget, Tyra. Forgive me.”

I sighed, remembering how close I came to becoming who I pretended to be. “Forgive my abruptness. I sometimes forget it myself.”

“Certainly.” He held me quietly for a time, then, “Do you miss being a warrior? Would you go back to being Tyr?”

I laughed quietly, as not to wake Angel or Wanda. “Hades yes.”

“You have regrets?” he asked, teasing my left breast delectably.

I watched him carefully; he rarely asked an idle question. “I was born to be a warrior. I had a life. I had a slave I loved, and held the respect of my men and family. Now I fight just to be free. Would I regret you? I think you know the answer already. Do you know something? Being a woman isn’t all that terrible. There are compensations for some of what is lost, but these damned urges!” I shook my head, furious again, as I always was when I thought about it. “But one cannot argue with what is. My name is Tyra l’Fay. I am now and always will be a woman.”

“I prefer Tyra.”

His words warmed me like a soft pelt on a cold night. “There are times when I’m content to be Tyra -- times like this.” I fell asleep very soon afterwards.

***

I started in the tavern that morning. I used a fantasy, being myself, but adding a preference for nobles.

Normally, I couldn’t stand the aristocracy. They wore their green or blue sashes as if it was proof of superior life. They paid for nothing. Disrespect was punished either directly, or by the blue-clad enforcers, who, it seemed, were never too far away when they were around. Most of all I didn't like the way they affected the commoners, who barely minded it, and deferred automatically, as they were their due.

Mekor welcomed my help in The Queen’s Cup as much for my notoriety as my help in the tavern. The slave who held up under torture was a curiosity, and many wished to sample me.

A few days after I started, around midday, I approached a pair of nobles isolated at a table by the window. The fantasy was hard at work: when I knelt to take their order my nipples were already firm. They had the black hair and hooked nose of the Giovanni’s. Both were well built, their muscles well-defined, filling their gold embroidered silk tunics. The man to the left was the taller of the two with a neat goatee and mustache, the other, clean-shaven. His arrogant gaze towards my breasts pleased me.

I bowed my head modestly. “How may I serve you, Masters?”

The clean-shaven one spoke. “Ultimately, that remains to be seen,” he said, smiling at his little joke. “Marco, what do you say? A bowl of the Queen’s spiced stew and Bron’s Bread?”

“That would do.” I felt his eyes upon me. He took my chin in his hand and moved it higher so he might examine me closer. “You were the slave on the rack?”

“Yes, Master.”

“Drago, this is the former raid leader from Batuk. I watched her testify before the King. She is not the usual pliant siolat girl.”

Drago raised an eyebrow and looked me over. “She's a pretty one. Perhaps I’ll use her later. Cold siolat with the stew?”

“Yes.”

I bowed and left. Marco and Drago together had to be the sons of Paolo Giovanni, the ruler of the first castle we'd passed on our way to the city.

After Drago finished eating, he brought me to a special alcove reserved for the nobility,a bit larger than the norm, about the size of a bed with room enough to stand. He preferred his slaves helpless, and manacled my hands to iron rings in the walls. Preferring the nobility in my fantasy, I screamed for him in my slave orgasm, calling him “Noble Master.” He enjoyed the words, for he filled me seconds later.

“What is your name, slave, and why did you call me that?” he inquired. I was pleased he asked my name. From my experience in the siolat taverns, few cared.

“My Master calls me Amelia, Master. In Batuk, we don’t have nobility. The government there is a Council of Administrators.” I hesitated, but if he liked me and liked to talk, it was a good time to find out. The worst he could do was beat me for insolence. “Master, if you don’t mind me asking, how did the nobility start in Tulem?”

He didn’t beat me, instead, he was amused by my interest. “The aristocracy in Tulem goes far back. Over a thousand years ago a band of several hundred brave men and women crossed over the pass and entered the valley. My family led them. Luigi and Angela Giovanni are the founders of Tulem. Since then, it has been the Giovannis’ fate to rule here, and we have accepted the responsibility.”

Even through the fantasy, I distrusted his version of events. Power is taken, not given. Regardless, his mastery and confidence thrilled me, and I pressed closer. He stroked my breast casually, probably pleased to acquaint someone new, even a slave, with his greatness.

“So, Master, are the Giovannis the true aristocracy? What of the Borodins?”

“They are also aristocracy,” he admitted reluctantly. “They chose a path of deceit and betrayal to gain their position, attaining their rule almost three hundred years ago. But the Giovannis hold no grudge -- especially as matters have a way of working themselves out.”

“In Batuk, there is no ruling class. The Council is elected by citizens.”

He laughed uproariously. “And what a clumsy system. There is no such inefficiency here. There are the rulers and the ruled.” He shook his head. “Pretty Amelia, it’s not natural what has occurred in Batuk; the ruled cannot truly rule themselves. Inevitably someone stronger will come and sweep such pretenses away.”

“Master, is it always strength that proves the best way?”

He considered me curiously. “That’s an odd question from a former warrior. Winning is all that ultimately matters on Zhor, and he who has the most powerful forces inevitably wins.”

“Militarily, all things being equal, that is true, but in my experience there are other factors.”

“Of course. There is the intelligent application of force, supply, terrain, deception, treachery…” He tossed his wrist casually. “Is this what you refer to?”

“Yes, Master, but there is also the quality of the men and women. Often, it is the determination and initiative of the individual that makes the difference.”

“Pah! Overrated. True strength is found in the will of a unified force, not among scattered individuals.”

I sighed into his strong chest. “Undoubtedly, you are right, Master.”

He laughed again. “You are a delightful slave, Amelia, but it's time I left.” He left me then, pulling on his trousers, tunic and sword.

It took me less time to clean up and wriggle into my slave tunic. I left the alcove just behind him and bowed respectfully as he and his brother left the tavern.

I served well during lunch and well past the dinner hour. I was disappointed that so few nobles took my full measure, but there were enough fine men to satisfy my urges. Ketrick picked me up when the tavern crowd thinned.

Angel and Wanda were already back from Ketrick's new store. They were more tired than usual. Ketrick had put them there to be pleasing and helpful to customers. Eventually, they would know much about projects, repairs and other miscellaneous things in the castles and elsewhere in Tulem, but first they had to learn their part of the business, and Ketrick worked them hard. Naturally, Ketrick hadn’t discussed the real reason they were working there.

In Ketrick’s arms that night, I told him of my encounter with Drago and Marco.

“That was well done. Drago is next in line to rule Paolo’s castle.”

I shrugged. “He didn’t tell me anything, though. He barely alluded to taking Batuk and I found out nothing except the Giovanni version of history.”

“It’s enough for now. You retained his interest as a beautiful intelligent slave. He’ll be back. How is his libido? Did he satisfy you?”

“What?”

He held a finger to my lips. “There's a reason I ask. I have an idea I’ve always wanted to try.”

“Hmm. Nobody has your deep well of energy in the silks, but he’s better than average, and I didn’t exhaust him. I think he left me because Marco was waiting.”

“That’s good. Try to stay on excellent terms with him. If he tells you something, fine, but it’s more important to keep his confidence.”

“Well, his personal confidence is certainly outstanding. He believes that Giovannis rule because they are rulers. Circular logic like that does wonders for the ego. He enjoys an interesting argument. It’s possible he hasn’t heard too many contradictory points of view.” I looked up sharply. “Ketrick, are you planning to sell me?”

He winced the smallest bit, but answered me without hesitating. “It’s almost certain that I will sell you at some point. There's no other practical way of getting inside their circle.”

I held him to avoid showing him my tears. I didn’t know why I even bothered to try; my emotions came through far too easily. I sobbed into his shoulder, and he held me for a long time. “I’m sorry,” I said, rubbing my eyes, “I won’t cry about it again. Do what you must.”

The next two weeks in the tavern were similar to that first day. I didn’t learn much except that the Giovannis and Borodins despised each other, which was common knowledge, and a few furtive references to a special dislike or hatred. The aristocracy, it seemed, was trained to keep their life and resentments private.

Drago took me many more times, each time ending our session on the silks with a discussion. Bing a former warrior fascinated him. Gradually, my perspective of him changed. Drago wasn’t a bad man: his arrogance and view of the world came from his upbringing. When I argued one point of view or another, he listened. After a couple of weeks, he looked for me to serve him. In the tavern the other girls teased me, calling me, “Drago’s slut.”

The first break came from Wanda. Her way to ferret out rumors and politics was to respond to a customer the longer he talked. A hundred years of experience had taught her the subtleties of the male. An especially worthy piece of information earned a man a trip to the back room to be expertly relieved.

A fortunate carpenter from Paolo’s castle remembered an incident about ten years before. When Paolo’s father was poisoned, he had overheard Paolo raging at Ivan Borodin. The staff was still under orders never to mention Ivan’s name.

Wanda’s screamed like I’d never heard her that night. When she tapped me on the shoulder I was already long awake. The night lamp cast her clearly. Afterglow softened her face, making her appear more innocent than her years, and her eyes held a trace of awe. “Thank you for selling us to the finest master on Zhor. Amelia, he touched my core. I was a pure woman tonight!” I watched, amazed as this beautiful but seasoned slave collapsed gracefully in her bed, curling up next to her pillow like a child.

My urges never needed much to bring them to life, and I rolled to feet, already wet. When Ketrick finished with me he hadn’t touch “my core,” but I was limp as only the well-used can be. “Ketrick,” I whispered to his ear, “you were pleased with Wanda today.”

“I thought you would recognize the screams of a woman permitted to be only herself. Every once in a while I try my best. I can’t do it too often -- it ruins the slave -- but Wanda earned her reward.” He rolled to face me. “Wanda has possibly given us the wedge to pry apart this truce between the Giovannis and the Borodins.”

“Do you have something in mind?”

“Ideas but nothing firm. Obviously, the focus will be on Paolo and Ivan. The difficulty is making trouble between them look real and not something caused from the outside.”

“I … If you need me to, I think I could get into Paolo’s castle. Drago likes me. If you offered me for sale he might buy me.”

He examined me very closely. “Are you ready for this? I doubt that Drago could completely satisfy your needs. If he tired of you then you would likely become a pleasure girl for his guards or servants. If you were there too long you could lose yourself.”

“It sounds like you’re trying to talk me out of it,” I said, smiling uneasily.

He sighed heavily. “No. I’m trying to talk myself out of it. It’s an excellent opportunity to get on the inside. I worry about you,” he admitted.

“We knew there would be risks. I am free in my heart and have the citizen’s obligation to defend my city.”

“I respect that, of course. Even if Drago decides to buy you, it may be some time before I could contact you. You’ll have to hold Drago’s interest for a month or more. Can you do that?”

“Haven’t I held your interest at least that long?” His smile was my reward.

I was nearly asleep when I heard him say, “Whatever happens, Tyra, I will not abandon you in Tulem.”

That brought me awake. I rolled to my knees, and looked down at him in rage. “Don’t you ever say that to me again! If necessary, you will leave me behind.” But, while the warrior seethed, the female inside me basked like a flower in the sun. Here was a man willing to risk everything for me. Half of me wanted to slap him; the other half wished to mount him then and there.

He’s a man. What can you expect? “Ketrick,” I said softer, “please understand. My oath to Batuk is everything.” I grinned. “However, if you are captured, I assure you that I will not leave you behind.”

“Urr! Normal freewomen are bad enough,” he said in disgust, “but you…”

I silenced him with a kiss, and wriggled until he was inside me. That lasted about two seconds before I was on my back, and not long afterwards I screamed my pleasure beneath the man I desired most in the world.

***

I pretended not to know what was going on the next day in the tavern. Ketrick had told Mekor that he wanted to sell me to Drago and offered him a agent's fee. Drago arrived as usual. He sat at his normal table by the window, and I started off to take his order.

Mekor took my arm, told me to go the kitchen. From there I watched through the curtain while they bargained for me. The natural slave hoped that Drago would pay well for me, and I wished to be a two gold girl.

Mekor finally bowed to Drago: one way or the other the deal was concluded. I waited nervously as Mekor came for me. He pulled me aside. “Drago will be your new master if he approves,” he said gruffly, pointing towards his table. “Go serve him now, then go with him when he leaves.”

“Yes, Master.” I went to his table, served him food and drink, and then served him again in the alcove. This time it was more serious. He dominated me as usual, but inspected me, checking my responses.

Before he dressed, he regarded my nakedness with a grin, and squeezed a breast playfully. “Amelia, I will own you soon.”

“Yes, Master, Mekor told me.”

“Are you pleased, Amelia?”

I looked up from one of my better poses. “A slave is always pleased to serve, Master.”

“Of course,” he said impatiently. “But will you be pleased to serve me more than your master?”

I bowed my head submissively. It was possible he would beat me, but I thought I knew this line of questioning. “Master,” I said humbly, “unless my Master permits, I cannot answer personal questions about him.”

He smiled. “Excellent. I’ll expect the same loyalty from you.”

“Yes, Master.”

Drago collected Mekor from the office and we left the tavern, walking south down the street. I kept to the rear and to his left, the normal slave place. Following Drago was surprisingly easy; the streets were crowded with carts and men that time of day in this, the commercial area of Tulem, but he was a nobleman, and subjects instinctively deferred to him.

Tulem's market was old. Batuk’s market was dynamic, often expanding or changing. Here, the stores were built solidly, as if for the ages. The sidewalks were worn and the flat gray paving showed signs of replacement where wagon wheels passed. Walking past establishments that sold everything from the mundane to the exotic, we entered Ketrick’s store, Eastside Hardware.

Ketrick left his office when he saw us come through the door. “Lord Drago, Mekor, does this visit mean what I think it means?”

“It does,” Drago said. “Mekor is a tough man. He managed to take two golds for her.”

So, I was a two gold girl. I found that it meant little to me. Wanda, and Angel, finished with her customer, watched us. In a few minutes we would be parted, perhaps forever.

“She's a bargain, Lord Drago. It was difficult to sell her.” Ketrick motioned to his office. “Do you wish to take possession now?”

“I do.”

“Very good, then. I have the documents prepared.” Ketrick took a chain and secured me to a ring on the wall, then he entered the office followed by Drago and Mekor.

Angel and Wanda approached me hesitantly. “Amelia, this is a surprise,” Angel offered feebly.

That irritated me. I had hoped for a better goodbye from my friend and former love slave. “I’ll miss you, too, Angel. Don’t worry. Lord Drago seems like a fine dominating master, and yes, I’ll be all right.”

She bit her lip, and at least tried to look like she would miss me. “I didn’t expect it would be you. I really thought Wanda or I would go first.”

I took her hand and Wanda’s, who had come closer. “Life is long, and maybe we'll see each other again. It’s a pity -- you’ll have to work very hard now to satisfy him. I won’t be there to help you anymore.”

Wanda and Angel gave me a quick hug, and it was over. The office door opened and my new master appeared, tucking some papers into his tunic. “Lord Drago owns you now, Amelia,” Ketrick informed me when he came through. I bowed to my new master.

Drago disconnected the chain from the wall and swept his arm towards the door. “Come, Amelia,” he said.

“Yes, Master.” I followed him out to the street without a backward glance, assuming the slave’s place behind him. He led me to the palace stables where his horse was already saddled and waiting. Upon mounting the gelding he held a hand down to me.

“Take my hand, Amelia. You will ride with me.” I took it and swung up in front of him. “We’re going to my father’s castle. It will be your new home.” He motioned to the busy city streets around us. “Have you ever seen a finer city?” he asked proudly.

It seemed he was in a talking mood. “No, Master. I’ve seen Batuk, Ademar, and Teshruk. In most ways, Tulem is by far the finest of them all. The valley is beautiful and the people are healthy and well-fed.”

“The valley was not always thus. A few hundred years ago there were malcontents among the commoners who caused strife. It took a strong hand from the Giovannis to make the paradise you see.”

“Master, what sort of strife? It appears very calm now.”

“There were excesses. Some did not care to be reasonable, or to follow guidelines made for the good of all. There were even some who contested Tulem’s rightful rulers.” He mentioned this last as if such challenges defiled the Gods. “How would you have dealt with it, pretty Amelia?”

“In Batuk, there are always challenges to the Council. If the members don’t perform well, the people can and do replace them. This kind of challenge is a part of Batuk law.”

He chuckled. “Here, the aristocracy is the law. We have an awesome responsibility to maintain the tranquility of the valley, and we must not be constrained in our duty. But answer my other question. How would you have dealt with the strife caused by recidivist non-conformers?”

“Master, few on Zhor would even think to try. People are not the same, and therefore strife is inevitable. There are the weak and the strong, those who think differently, those who persevere and others who do not.”

He laughed. “Yet, my pretty Amelia, it was done in Tulem. How?”

The idea was grotesque. Why try to control life? Why put a cage around someone? The answer was so obvious that I almost missed it — and with it the valley lost its sheen. “Master, Tulem is different from most cities. It’s easy to put anyone outside the gate.”

“Yes! That's exactly what happened.” I was rewarded for a correct answer, or perhaps my breast was pleasing just then because he took it in his hand and squeezed the nipple, sending a jolt of pleasure through me, but it was less than it might have been.

“Are malcontents still exiled?”

“Of course. Although there are few left who do not conform, each year those who do not respond properly are sent away.”

By the Gods and Overlords. I didn’t have to imagine the effects of hundreds of years of human pruning. It surrounded us. Except for the aristocracy and warriors, only the weak and easily led were left inside the valley. The wolves ruled the sheep in Tulem.

We passed the picturesque castles of Alfredo and Mario with their exquisite gardens, well-kept lawns and colorful pennants. Paolo’s castle, slightly larger than the others, came into view around a bend of trees and hedges, the light gray and white walls breathtaking against its mountain background. Drago turned down the paved side road and entered the castle through an iron reinforced wooden gate, several guards in Giovanni green saluting him as he rode through.

The interior had long ago been modified from its original purpose as a stronghold. It was still a rough square with wide towers at each corner, but the outer walls had been carved out to form apartments, storehouses, a barracks, kitchen, and even a garden and pool. The interior wall of the keep had been torn down, leaving a courtyard of gray stone blocks surrounding the old palace in the middle. A dozen workmen and servants walked purposefully, while noblemen and noblewomen ambled at their own pace.

We dismounted at the stable, and a man in leathers took the horse. Drago turned to me, his new purchase, and grinned. “Come with me,” he said.

I followed him across the courtyard, holding my head up as any slave would, proud to be a complete woman and desired by men. We passed a cluster of nobles by the garden: the men, dashing with swords and green sashes, the ladies with hair bound high, bedecked in dresses of pastels with green trim. The men watched me with varying degrees of interest, and my well-honed slave responses reacted. The women cast me disdainful looks or just ignored me. Drago’s brother detached himself from the group and caught up with us, grinning as if I were a fine joke..

“Drago, I can't believe it! Alanna will not be pleased.”

“Before I descend into domestic banality with her, I will enjoy myself.”

Marco chuckled. “I’m with you in spirit, but Father will be less amused.”

“I’ll deal with that tonight. He may be more understanding than you think.”

Marco clapped his older brother on the back. “I hope so, for your sake. I’ll see you at dinner.”

“Of course.”

We stopped at the slave quarters where Drago selected slave tunics for me and amused himself watching me use the standard positions, becoming petulant, angry or shy in various outfits. Finished there, I followed him back to a tower close by the main gate. Drago’s quarters were at the top. The room was circular, entirely wrapped around the wall of the staircase.

“Familiarize yourself with my quarters, but disturb nothing,” he said when we arrived.

“Yes, Master.”

Thick blue carpet covered the floor, a possible reference to his antipathy to the Borodins, whose color it was. Tapestries lined most of the wall space. A small fireplace served as heater, and had a place for pots and grill. His furniture was a compromise between strong and comfortable, cabinets were filled with books, and a wine rack stood in the corner out of the sun. A small ceramic water latrine lay separated by a wall from a sunken tub in a small room to the side.

There were two beds: a small one in the back by a window overlooking the inside of the castle that I supposed would be mine when I wasn’t required in Drago’s. His bed was large and solidly made, set far back from the outside looking window. The bed looked good now; the movement of the horse against my saer had aroused me on the way over.

“You feel it, now, don’t you, the urges?”

I nodded. An experienced man would almost always know. “Yes, Master.”

He had me run a bath. After I prepared it, he lowered his himself into the water. Unlike Ketrick, who had several old scars he’d never bothered to have removed, Drago’s body was smooth.

“Not bad, but I prefer a little less hot water.” He sat for a moment just looking at me. “You are beautiful, Amelia.”

“Thank you, Master.” He still wore an appraising look. “Would you like me to clean you?” I hinted. He had never said, but I suspected that I was the first slave he owned.

“Yes. Join me,” he said.

I washed him all over. Not sure what he wanted, I began to arouse him, but he stopped me with his hand, so I just finished and dried him off. He took me in his arms and kissed me, a hard master’s kiss that brought me to full heat. He grinned. “I think it’s about time I took you.”

“I hope so!”

He laughed. And Drago took me in his bed, allowing me no freedom save to squirm, submit and scream.

“Amelia, these are trying times,” he said later.

“How so, Master?”

“You’re from Batuk.”

“I was, but to my family, I'm dead.”

“You would not like to return?”

I shook my head. “No, Master. I would disgrace my family. Master?”

“Yes?”

“Do you think your father will force you to sell me?”

He jerked at the question. “I could sell you right now. Perhaps I should.”

“Oh! You could, Master. You are strong!”

He rolled my nipple between his thumb and forefinger as he thought. “It can do no harm to talk about it. My father desires a quick wedding to Alanna. She is fair enough but insipid.”

It was a common complaint about freewomen after a man had experienced slaves. It was still a sore point with Mother and Father. “Master, why not marry her and keep me, too?”

“Alanna is the daughter of Lord Ivan Borodin,” he replied patiently. “The Borodins would be insulted. Take a slave? Perhaps, but only after a child is born.”

I didn’t like what I was hearing. Drago was using me as a diversion before his wife closed off that pleasurable option. He seemed uncertain, wondering now if he should have bought me.

I quoted the old sage, Herth Tarr: “A man is strongest when he knows himself. A woman, when she sows doubt and confusion. Master, you are strong. You will do what you need to do on your terms.” I sighed and snuggled against him while he pondered my words.

“It is difficult to go against such proven truths,” he said, this time with more determination. He swatted my rear end with authority. “Time to rise.”

I rolled to my feet and donned the diaphanous pink tunic he’d selected for me. He dressed as well. “Stay here, Amelia. I’ll be back to feed you after dinner,” he commanded; then departed.

An hour later, someone pounded on the door. A shrill voice screamed at me to open. I was almost sure that this was Drago’s betrothed, Alanna. I opened the door and bowed, feeling the wind as she passed by. “Where is he?” she shouted.

I looked up to enraged blue eyes under a mass of pinned-up blonde hair. Without the fury blotching and distorting her features, she was probably very pretty, but not as pretty as I, a point she was sure to note. I held my head high, proud to be the pleasure slave of Drago Giovanni. “Mistress, my Master is not here now, but you may wait for him.”

Her eyes narrowed to slits. I, a mere slave and the object of her rage, was treating her as a guest. “Mistress, would you like me to get you something to drink while you wait for my Master?” I asked her brightly.

Alanna knock me to the floor with her fist, and spat on me on her way out. I made it to my feet rubbing my jaw, closed the door, and wiped away the warm spittle. I had done what I could for the moment. Now it was all up to Drago.

Drago returned later that evening looking grim. “Rise, Amelia,” he growled.

I did so, my heart skipping a beat.

His expression became a victorious leer, and I relaxed. It seemed that I was to remain his slave, at least for the time being.

A few days after he had won his right to me, a problem I thought might surface, did. As I lay against his side after an hour of domination, all he could manage that night, a terrible emptiness remained within me, demanding to be filled. Frustrated, I sought to create firmness where there was none, but I was not rewarded.

“Amelia, you are a slut,” he said.

I lifted my head to respond. “Yes, Master. I’m sorry.”

He sighed. “You can’t help it. You’re just a serum girl.”

“Yes, Master,” I replied sorrowfully, returning to work.

A pause, then: “By the Overlords, Amelia, how did Ketrick satisfy you?”

“Ketrick is remarkable, but even for him it was a strain. He lost sleep. I’m sure it was a relief when I went to work in the tavern.”

“It’s beginning to affect your concentration. I look forward to your insights and odd points of view. It’s annoying to find you constantly aroused and in need.”

“I’m sorry, Master!” I exclaimed in anguish.

“I'll give you to the guards occasionally. You will let me know when you need them.” He slowed his breathing. In a moment he would be asleep.

Aroused and in need described me accurately. My skin was hot and sensitive; my saer flushed with desire. “Master?”

“What?”

“I need to go now if you want my best tomorrow.”

“Serum girls! Amelia, go and don’t return until you are satisfied!” He rolled to his side, very deliberately away from me.

“Yes, Master.” I crept away silently, slipped into a sheer tunic, and brushed my hair smooth. I descended the cool stairs in the dark and jogged across the moonlit courtyard to the guards’ quarters.

When I explained my master’s instructions to the guard outside the entrance, he called for the watch leader. After a short explanation, he escorted me inside. Most guards were already asleep, but a few played cards or huddled over a board game. I was relieved to find a sufficient number of guards interested in me. Left with them, the guards took me for over three hours. Finally, I left their pelts and thanked the guards for using me so well and helping me satisfy my Master’s commands. They, in turn, expressed willingness to use me again when I was ready. I returned to Drago’s bed after a quick wash a few hours before daybreak, rested and completely sated for the first time since my sale.

The next day he woke me in the morning with a rousing slap to my flanks. “Amelia, set out my riding clothes. Set out an undergarment for yourself. You will be astride a horse.”

“Yes, Master.”

I obeyed then went to breakfast at the slave quarters while he breakfasted in the great hall with most of the nobility. In the few days in Paolo’s castle, I knew the names and faces of almost twenty noblemen and women, and a rough idea of how Drago felt about them. A few overheard comments indicated deep resentment of the Borodins, but nothing specific.

When Drago returned, we left the castle, with me riding a small mare tethered to a ring to Drago’s saddle. Once on the road south to the city, he gave my horse’s tether more slack, and motioned me forward.

“Pretty Amelia, I would be hard pressed to find a more beautiful leader of warriors.”

I blushed. “That’s all in the past, Master. No one would follow me now, least of all warriors.”

“True,” he said, and then he reached far to his left and pinched my right breast playfully, “unless they desired a pretty slave wriggling beneath them in the silks!”

I laughed. “I spoke too soon.”

“Are you still capable of judging warriors?”

The way he asked made it seem important, and I framed my reply accordingly. “I can’t fight anymore, but my father always thought I had a fine eye for detail. I don’t think that I’ve lost any of that, Master.”

He nodded. “We shall see. We ride to inspect the warriors.”

“The warriors, Master?”

“Part of the combined forces of Tulem, Amelia. You will evaluate them for me.”

Can this be a test? I couldn’t pretend to be a fool or ignorant. Drago knew me too well and, as a part of this game, would be weighing every word.

Our path took us past the city to the south. From there, Drago led me to the top of a low hill overlooking a large military force, the largest I had ever seen. Most armies were small. The cost to maintain a sizable army for any amount of time can be ruinous, yet there it was, spread out over a mile. A quick estimate put the number at close to twenty thousand.

“Your first impression?”

“Master, The only reason for an army this size is to defend against another army’s aggression or to conquer a city. I know of no other army close-by anywhere near this size nor any city-state that threatens Tulem.” I waved towards to the field of horsemen on maneuvers, and groups of warriors practicing with spears, wooden swords and javelins. “I can only conclude that this is an army being prepared to attack another city.”

He leaned forward and grasped my right arm in a painful grip. “Amelia,” he asked, staring intently into my eyes, “what else do you see?”

I took a deep breath. “Master, this army is going to invade Batuk!”

I felt his pleasure, although his face remained impassive. “And what is the basis of this astounding conclusion?”

“I wondered why, after more than a two hundred years of profitable peace, Tulem decided to dispute the borders. It makes sense now in hindsight as a pretext to start a war, yet I am still puzzled, Master.”

“Indeed?”

“Yes, Master. The Fortress of Batuk is very strong. Even if an army could swarm the outer wall, it could not take the Fortress. Unless…” I put my hand on my chin and pretended to consider the matter.

“Unless?” Drago prompted impatiently.

“Unless this attack was planned long ago, unless there are already agents of Tulem in place in the Fortress!” I finished, speaking as if I had just come to a terrible realization. “Master, is this true?” I cried, my eyes becoming wide-open pools of horror.

He shrugged. “And what if it is true? Did you not already say that inequality is normal, that strife is inevitable, and that there are the strong and the weak? If Batuk is too weak to defend itself, wouldn’t a successful invasion prove the natural superiority of the invaders?” He laughed. “Come now, even the Overlords agree, else why would they allow these things in the world?”

Privately, I had to agree. When a city fell, few on Zhor mourned its passing besides the inhabitants. I was angry with our council, but even angrier with my fellow citizens for choosing well-oiled tongues over strength and wisdom. If Batuk lost, it would be a bitter lesson learned at the cost of our freedom. I would that we learned the lesson, but not under the heel of an aristocracy.

“Yes, Master, if Batuk lost a war with Tulem they would deserve to lose.” I pouted like a slave, though I felt stronger emotions.

“Good, pretty Amelia, you are consistent.”

We rode down the slope into a far section of the training area and dismounted. He pointed to a group of about one hundred heavy spearmen in green and gold tunics over chain mail. “These are part of my unit. What do you think of them?”

Drago waited patiently as I watched for a few minutes. “Most are fairly good. That one in the dark cap is very good.”

“He's the best of the lot. I heard that you were very good. Could you have beaten him?”

I nodded. “Yes, Master.”

“Really? What are his flaws and how would you defeat him?”

I pointed to his feet. “Master, he has a bad habit. His back foot is always planted just before he charges. It gives him a powerful drive, but limits his balance. It’s also a giveaway to his intent. Against an observant opponent he would be dead. One need merely wait until he commits, block the first thrust and move in.” I shrugged. “Of course, in actual battle, few would have the time to analyze such details; otherwise, he is a fine fighter,” I admitted.

He waved a burly spearman over. “Yuri, Gregor plants his foot when he charges. Pair off against him, block the first thrust and move in.”

He bowed his head. “Yes, Lord Drago!”

The match was over quickly. Gregor feinted several times, but when he lunged, Yuri was ready for him. Drago laughed. “I will not tell Yuri who told me that. A man must not owe a slave anything.”

I bowed my head. “Yes, Master.”

Drago and I walked through the section, and for the next few hours he monitored the practice and made himself visible to his troops. He seemed generally satisfied.

We mounted and left the field, riding back the way we came. The army looked ready to me. The cavalry seemed practiced, the formations were tight and the men’s spirits were high. With the wedding of Drago to Alanna, I had thought I had a solid three-month window before the attack on Batuk. I wasn’t so sure any more.

“Amelia, you surprise me. You do know weapons and fighting. What did you think of our army?”

I looked at him sadly then lowered my eyes. “It’s a powerful force. Depending on the depth of treachery lurking within Batuk’s walls and Fortress, the army could take the city after a difficult fight. There are just not enough men in Batuk to defend against so many.”

“And this makes you unhappy.”

“Many will die. Batuk will fight hard with what it has. I am only a slave, Master, but I will weep for Batuk when the city falls.” Drago was not a cruel man; he rode forward and allowed me to cry in peace.

He dominated me that night and tried harder than ever before to satisfy my urges. I awoke in the morning to his eyes. He had been watching me sleep. I stretched, knowing he liked to see me like that, and smiled. “Good morning, Master,” I said sleepily.

“Rise, Amelia, we visit Alexander’s castle this morning.”

I got to my feet, excited. This would be the first Borodin castle I visited. ”Yes, Master.”

Alexander’s castle was only two miles away, just opposite our castle on the other side of the lake. The lake was exceptional: sculpted centuries into a perfect rectangle about five miles long and a half-mile wide, it ran directly north-south, across the heart of the valley. A few brightly colored pleasure boats with billowing white sails shared the expanse with fishermen in dull brown and red dhows and prams. This early in the morning, when the waters were nearly quiescent, they seemed to float in the air amidst the steep snow-capped mountains reflected from behind.

For the moment, my mission was forgotten. Even the road we traveled was thickly lined with yellow and blue flowers, their sweet fragrance wafted to our noses by the gentlest of breezes.

“Master, this is beautiful!”

“I take it that Batuk is not so well favored?”

“It is not; although, it has a stark charm of its own. Its features are dominated by the black Fortress. Tulem is like a garden.”

He nodded as if what I said had confirmed something he had known all along. “Many never leave the valley except to visit the towns and nearby cities. Inevitably, they fail to compare to Tulem’s majesty. Everything one needs and could desire is right here.”

I didn’t agree: to me, Tulem’s beauty was diminished by a sense of confinement, but I wasn’t going to argue the point with him. Looking around the valley, I tried to see it through his eyes. From where we were, impossibly steep mountains pierced the ground, forming an impenetrable barrier to the outside Tulem's Gate was hidden behind a fold in the terrain, completing the illusion. To Drago and most of the nobility, this was the world. Here they ruled utterly and were secure. Beyond the gate lay uncertainty and fear.

This was an opening for a reasonable question from a slave worried about her Master. “Master, how could anyone bear to leave this sanctuary and rule Batuk?”

“There’s no harm in telling you the rest of it now. The Giovannis will stay. After the fighting is over, the Borodins will rule in Batuk.”

That was more than passably interesting, but as a slave, I couldn’t ask the questions I really wanted to ask. “Yet, you still must marry Alanna Borodin,” I pointed out.

He sighed. “Batuk must be truly backwards. You have no idea of the obligations of the ruling class. For hundreds of years Giovannis and Borodins kept separate. Old feuds and rivalries created hatred and jealousy between us. Now at the parting, the heads of the Giovanni and Borodin families, Niccolo and Markus, have decided to end the enmity between us for all time, burying the old differences through marriage. I will marry Alanna to end a blood feud between our two castles. Two other marriages will conclude similar unpleasantness.”

“What will the King do afterwards? The succession…”

He laughed. “The King!” He shook his head. “Don’t worry about politics, Amelia,” he told me sternly, “it does not concern you.”

I bowed my head. “Yes, Master.”

He stroked my hair softly. “You were made for other things, pretty slave.”

At his touch, I leaned against his hand. He wasn’t a bad man, really. Drago was only a few years older than I was, and, given the chance, would grow to become a fine man. I hoped I wouldn’t have to kill him.

We passed Ivan’s castle where Alanna lived, and eventually took a tree-lined road to the right. Alexander’s castle was newer than the Giovannis’, built at a time when defense against an assault or siege wasn’t so important. More of a residence than a castle, it was a high square building with a slate roof and a generous courtyard in the center. We left our horses outside with a stableman in blue and brown and walked to the front.

As soon as the castle had come into sight, I’d started looking for places in and out. It didn’t look easy. The windows I could see were inlayed with solid iron bars. Of the dormers set back on the steep roof fifty feet up, only one, thicker at the sides, looked as if the bars might open on a hinge.

The main entrance was through a tunnel. Just inside it, a massive iron grating peeked through a slot in the ceiling, ready to be dropped in an emergency. Where a moat would have been, gardeners cared for rows of long-stemmed flowers surrounding two oval pools. One gardener stood in the pool, the water above his waist as he trimmed the plants.

We passed by four guards with heavy spears standing inside. They wore long tunics of Borodin blue with white trim, and I judged them alert enough. Once through the gate tunnel, we emerged into the light of the courtyard. Instead of a small palace like Paolo’s castle, its centerpiece was a large garden with a central fountain. The nobles were cast different as well; their sashes were blue as opposed to my master’s green, and instead of black hair and the distinctive Giovanni nose, the Borodin nobility had universally blond hair and blue eyes, a matter of centuries of inbreeding.

“You’re early, Drago,” spoke a cool voice from the side. A slim Borodin about Drago’s height sauntered towards us. He glanced at me with distaste. “And you have brought your slave. Doubtless, she is to table dance at the meeting.”

“Good morning, Nikolai,” replied Drago with a smile. “You might thank me that I brought her later.” He turned to me. “Amelia, go to the central fountain and stay there until I return.”

I would have liked to hear more, but I could only do as he commanded. “Yes, Master.” I turned and walked straight to the fountain in the center of the garden, its waters cascading in a solid sheet over the sides of a white marble bowl into a larger bowl beneath it. I stood and watched over the bushes and flowers, hoping to spy something useful.

At first there was little to see other than a crowd of Borodin lords, some ladies, and later, several Giovanni lords. I matched faces with names as best I could, and strained to hear snips of conversation, although the fountain’s noise made it difficult. Soon, the men, in small groups and singly, passed through a pair of open doors in the left adjacent wall, the meeting room.

Four more Giovanni men arrived through the main gate, and made their way towards the meeting. I recognized three: Paolo, Mario, and Alfredo, the heads of the Giovanni castles. I knew the last by his description and the way the others deferred to him: the man with the neat beard was Niccolo Giovanni, the head of the Giovanni family. They were the last. A guard closed the doors behind them with a heavy thud. By my count, all the heads of both families, and perhaps two-thirds of the lords in the valley were inside.

This left the courtyard to several workmen and a few roving clusters of ladies. A clutch of three blondes entered the garden. I did my best to join the background, but it was too much to hope for. A pair of Borodin eyes looked me up and down as if I were a filthy beast, but all her disdain couldn’t deny that I was prettier than she was, and that men preferred me.

“What a preening, arrogant slave,” she said, hands on hips. “You’re Drago’s slut, aren’t you?”

“Yes, Mistress,” I replied.

One of the other women took her arm. “Come on,” she said. “Let the slave be. Besides, Alanna already has plans for this one after she is married.”

Whether that was true or just something to make me worry, the first woman nodded, and then the blondes passed on, leaving me alone again.

I was resigned to wait out the meeting when I barely heard a familiar voice. “Tyra!”

I froze then looked around casually. A workman one bench over adjusted a boot, his belt of tools set temporarily beside him. Ketrick’s hair was long and brown, now; his skin was darker; the face sported a full mustache; and his eyes, when I saw them, were light brown, but the voice was the same.

“Yes!” I hissed over the sound of the water. I moved closer and turned to face the other path to the fountain. “Go ahead, it’s clear,” I whispered as loud as I dared.

“What have you found so far?” he uttered, as he examined his boot for pebbles.

Quickly, I told him details of the army, the marriages, the Borodin’s plans for Batuk, and my status in Drago’s quarters.

“Not bad. That confirms everything that I've heard. I wouldn’t worry about the army leaving for at least a month, though.”

“How do you know that?”

“They need food and supplies for nearly twenty thousand. That means wagons to carry them. The warehouses contain enough food and supplies for a decent campaign. But they don’t have the wagons yet and it will take about a month to make them.”

“A month.” It was a terribly short time, but it would have to do. “What have you decided?”

“In a week I'll kill Ivan, followed closely by Paolo, if possible. That should make things interesting.”

“Huh! Like hanging cats together by their tails.”

“That’s the idea. Then your work begins. I’m leaving a leather cylinder containing everything you should need. There are instructions inside, but use your best judgment. I have to go now. I’ll see you when I can.” He walked away, but as promised, he left a tan cylinder behind. I groaned; as a slave, there were only two places where I could hide it and only one I would consider.

As best I could measure the sun’s shadow, the meeting ended about an hour after it started. The doors opened and the lords streamed into the courtyard. Their strides were confidant; their demeanors bright and satisfied. Paolo and Niccolo stopped together in the yard opposite Alexander, the Lord of the castle and his wife. Niccolo gestured to the sky, making some unknown point. Alexander grinned, nodded, and laughed. This was not the picture of discord between the families we’d hoped for.

Drago left the building with Nikolai and waved for me to come to him. I walked towards them as normally as anyone could with a cylinder in their saer.

Drago smiled at his companion as I came close. “Nikolai, this is my gift to you, the famous raid leader from Batuk. You may borrow her for the rest of the day. Any questions you have about your new city she can probably answer.”

“I will not accept a slave’s instruction.”

Drago laughed and held my right breast in his hand, guiding me around to face the Borodin. “Look at her. If you ask a slave something of her birthplace, that is hardly instruction. See her stand, mute, until you order her to answer a question about her home. Is she a teacher, or is she a book to be read, bound in a pleasing cover?”

Nikolai’s aspect grew more thoughtful. “Hmm. True. It is our responsibility as rulers to know our subjects. As well, her answers could be construed as her interpretation of her people. Whatever she says would then be instructive, but not instruction.”

Drago slapped him on the back, a familiarity Nikolai didn’t care for. “Very good, my friend! Bring your friends with you and interrogate her. Discover the people you are about to rule. I’ll be back in a few hours. Send her to the slave quarters when you’re through.” Drago pivoted on his heel and strolled away whistling a happy tune.

Drago’s last glance clarified matters. If Drago wanted the Borodins to know their new subjects, it wasn’t as a favor. I bowed my head submissively to cover a smile and waited for Nikolai’s commands. I would be happy to show the Borodins what they could expect from their new subjects.
 
 

To Be Continued…

 



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