The Warrior From Batuk: Chapter 11

The Warrior from Batuk
by Aardvark

Lady Dana requires Ketrick's services and seals her fate. Tyra is forced to betray a friend who never was. Another Lord is killed and the valley teeters on the edge as the plot unfolds.


Viewing Note: This story should be viewed with the Papyrus font installed on your Windows platform in the c:/Windows/Fonts directory. Microsoft Word 2007 installs this font automatically. It may also be obtained on the Internet through free font sites


 
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 11
 
 
Dana knocked on the door. Wanda answered. Squeals from within told me that Ketrick and Angel were engaged in some diversion.

“Mistress, what can I do for you?” Wanda asked politely.

“I want to see your Master. I am Lady Dana.”

“Yes, Mistress. I will see what my Master says.”

Seconds later, she was back, bowing and showing the way. “Please come in, Mistress.” She and I entered. Ketrick came from the other room, with Angel trailing, adjusting her slave tunic.

Ketrick grinned in welcome. “Lady Dana, a pleasant surprise. Please take a seat. Would you like cool siolat or some Gendorian wine?”

“Later perhaps. What I need is some privacy,” she said, flicking a glance towards Angel and Wanda. I admired her equanimity. As she sat, she held her hands interlaced in her lap -- I suspected to keep them from shaking -- and her posture was casual. Only a patina of moisture on her brow and the faint bloom across the top of her breasts expressed the depth of her desire.

“Angel, Wanda, go downstairs and give my compliments to Mekor. Tell him that you are available to serve for the time being.” They bowed and left. Angel gave me a curious look on the way out. “Now, what can I do for you, Lady Dana?”

“I was Lord Drago and this is Amelia. I call her Tyra, now. You’ve heard of the incident that made me a woman, of course.”

“The whole valley sympathizes with your plight and demands justice, Lady Dana,” he said, rolling his hand in a gallant, aristocratic gesture I’d never seen him do before.

Dana sighed. “Ketrick, I have ... I have a favor to ask…” She stopped, steeling herself to form the right words.

“Let me make this easy,” he said, chuckling disarmingly. “You have needs, and are here to have them satisfied. Am I correct, or will I be apologizing soon?”

Dana's color deepened, embarrassed to find herself so transparent, but she persevered. “You’re right. I want your services. Tyra recommended you as an honorable, discreet man.”

“If you were followed, such services might be deadly to me. Lady Dana, I mean you no insult, but why should I risk my life?”

“I don’t think I was followed, but as far as the world outside the door knows, I’m here trying to sell Tyra back to you.”

He nodded. “A plausible story -- for the first time -- but after that, no. I’ll do this for you from our friendship, but after tonight, you must find solace elsewhere. I’m sorry.”

“I understand. I suppose that I should thank you for this much.”

Ketrick spread his hands generously. “It’s nothing, Lady Dana. I will enjoy your body as you will enjoy mine. What could be more natural?”

“Ah … yes.” Dana replied, shifting her bottom in the chair. “I, ah, may not seem myself while we are together. You see…”

“You will be using a fantasy?”

She stared at me. “I thought it was a secret, Ketrick.”

“I know it exists,” he said, “but only Tyra knew exactly what it was. She must be loyal to you to volunteer the knowledge. I know that within a fantasy, I could force you to submit, and when the fantasy ended, you would be back to normal. In other words, Lady Dana, you would be completely satisfied without the attendant risks.. How much do you require?”

“I think I’ll need the full treatment. Those urges are, ah, extremely distracting.” Her laugh had a sharp edge. She twitched in her chair.

“Then you shall be used hard and well. Please, make whatever preparations you require.” He crossed his arms and waited.

We undressed and switched clothing. Dana helped me with my hair, fumbling it a couple of times in her haste, but within ten minutes, we were ready.

“Say the word,” she panted.

“You’re going to love this,” I said sincerely. “Priest.” Her eyes changed only subtly, her aristocratic mien dispersed, but she still blazed to be taken. “Wait here while I negotiate, Tyra.”

“Yes, Dana,” she said breathlessly.

I crossed the room to where Ketrick stood. “She thinks she’s you?” he asked, amused.

I shrugged. “Her idea. I don’t know how long the fantasy will last. If it ends prematurely, she is supposed to tell you to stop before she really submits.”

“Right. Making a slave of her now wouldn’t be productive.”

“I want to find a way for Dana to stay free,” I blurted before I could think about it.

He looked down at me in surprise then thrust his chin in her direction. “Look at her! She’s a natural slave and needs a man. You’re the exception; there will be no more.”

“She’s not Drago now, just a woman who wants to be free.”

“This ‘helpless woman’ was ready to invade Batuk and kill your people,” he said, his eyes cold as a frozen lake. “Given the chance, she would have you skinned.” He growled at my continuing frown. “She’s more dangerous than ever. Get used to it: there is no chance at all that Dana will be free at the end of this, and if she gets in the way, she dies.”

I suddenly saw myself from his point of view. Far from the stalwart warrior he had known, I had become a vacillating female, making irrational demands. What is wrong with me? He’s right!

I'd become too close. I wanted to protect her. If she were to be free then I'd have to tell her about the afkal and not pretend it was a mix of herbs. Could I trust her with that secret? Was I insane? I would have grabbed my head and shaken it had Dana not been watching. My mind was awash with feelings that interfered with what must be done. I would resolve this conflict and restore order later, I vowed, but for the moment, I couldn’t deny my emotions.

“Ketrick!” I hissed through my teeth. “I’ll do my duty, but I despise this part of it.”

“Betrayal is never easy, even in the best causes,” he said in a voice softer than before. “If there are options, I will try my best to take the one that keeps Dana alive.”

He'd spoken to me like a woman instead of a warrior; although well-meant, it was a slap across the face. I refused to be ashamed of being a woman, but Ketrick and Batuk needed a warrior, now, purely committed to the cause, not a sentimental female! I stood a little taller and narrowed my gaze. “I won’t allow her to be a danger to Batuk. If I have to, I’ll kill her myself.”

He took my shoulders in his powerful hands and nodded. “Good. I have someone to brol. Bring her over here and I’ll give her a dominating ride she won’t ever forget.”

“Tyra, come here,” I ordered. I watched the poor woman approach, rubbing her legs together as she walked. Ketrick took her in a master’s kiss that made me weak. Dana barely fought it, submitting to his will in a few seconds. Her picked her up in his arms as she lay gasping, and retired to his bedroom. Minutes later, moans, and soon afterwards, howls of unbearable pleasure, echoed throughout the apartment. When an hour passed, I heard the screaming of a woman in thrall, a constant string of wild orgasms that touch the very core of the pure female. After this, Dana would never be the same; she would be more accepting of her womanhood now, more aware of her needs.

Dana’s fantasy expired after two hours. She begged Ketrick to continue, and he complied. When I saw her again, she listed in her walk, her nether regions sore and her internal muscles fatigued after the unaccustomed usage. She wore a silly smile. Naked and musky, she walked into my arms and cried on my shoulder.

“I was a woman tonight and, by the Overlords, I loved it! I was forced to submit. He forced me to be who I am. I couldn’t hide it!”

She went on and on. In the main, I shared her joy. I knew what it meant to discover the truth about one’s self, where no denial is possible. Every natural slave who submits knows the feeling. Books had been written on the subject.

“I’m glad for you, Dana.” I told her. And I was. But now I was aroused.

Ketrick appeared in the door naked with a cup of siolat in his hand, seemingly ready to go another two hours, which he probably was. “Dana, Tyra has a steady source of men to satisfy her. You have no such supply.”

Dana smiled. After that brolling, her body was perfectly at ease, her unlined face seemingly at peace with her true self, the Gods, life, the planet, and the stars. “Yes?” she said.

“Until you find someone else, there’s no reason why you can’t visit the guards as Tyra with a little practice.”

“I’ve thought of that. But could Tyra impersonate me if I were indisposed beneath a guard? An incautious moment, and I would be on the blocks beside her being sold.”

“She was heir to Eagles at one time, a family similar in many respects to royalty. Doesn’t she live with you and know you better than anyone else? Teach her what she needs to know, and she can teach you the necessary details of the guards.” He grinned. “Of course, you could always get married.”

She waved her hand at him. “You jape. The only reason a man would marry me would be to take power.” Dana glanced in my direction. “Could you ‘be’ me for a short time -- in public?”

“I think so, Mistress.”

“We’ll have to find out,” she answered, tapping her finger against the couch thoughtfully. “We will return now before my brother becomes concerned.”

“If I might make a suggestion, Lady Dana,” interrupted Ketrick as she began to rise, “why not enjoy the night? We should be seen eating and enjoying ourselves. Bring Tyra. She’ll lend credibility to your purported reason for being here. We could talk about her sale and amuse ourselves.”

“That’s … hmm … probably a good idea. Where do you suggest?”

“Morgana’s Hope.”

“A good choice. What’s the entertainment tonight?”

“Maggie the Barbarian dances the drefa-cefnell in the main hall.”

“That would bring comment. A lady would be unlikely to watch a woman remove her clothes slowly.”

“I was thinking of the privacy alcoves in the minor hall. The food is good, too. I don’t know about you, Lady Dana, but domination makes me hungry.”

She blushed. “Then you should be ravenous.”

When we arrived, I knelt in slave position chained to a ring while Dana and Ketrick fed me bits and pieces of their meal. In full slave mode, it was pleasant and satisfying. The floor in that section boasted thick carpets that were easy on my knees, and a flute played a relaxing melody. Ketrick and Dana discussed my sale for potential listeners, referring light-heartedly to my various physical and mental attributes, both good and bad.

After a moment, Ketrick unhooked the chain from my collar. “Come with me, Tyra,” he ordered. I followed him through the lobby to the main hall. There, the normally subdued men of Tulem yelled wildly as Maggie the Barbarian twirled an undergarment while shimmying a pole as if it were a gigantic twyll. She was shameless. Her green eyes kindled in lust, complementing her tossed and unruly copper hair. My eyes met hers, and touched her untamed hunger. Men brushed me as I passed by the crowded tables. I reacted to them instinctively as any unrestrained natural slave girl would in a room full of aroused and happy men.

I crawled inside the slave alcove wet and eager. Ketrick followed just behind. He pulled the tunic over my shoulders, removed his clothes, and quickly had me on my back and open beneath him. I squirmed in the thick pelts to demonstrate my helplessness. He restrained me without much effort.

“Does this mean you didn’t bring me here to talk?” I asked prettily.

He laughed heartily. “For that I will make you beg for it,” he told me, and gave me a kiss that kept me quiet for a while. Although all strong men are capable of forcing a natural slave to submit and release the female inside, to the girl, to have the man she desires above all others dominate her is far better. Ketrick managed to squeeze much into a half-hour. It wasn’t enough for me, but time was a factor with my Mistress waiting.

“Tyra, the army ordered the wagons last week. I estimate that we have about three weeks before the invasion starts.”

I sighed, but it wasn’t anything I hadn’t been expecting. “I’m a little surprised that the families aren’t up in arms about Ivan and Paolo’s murders. The Giovannis are fairly sure that some of the Borodins are responsible, but no one is talking about starting a vendetta. They seem willing to wait for the Borodins to leave.”

“These aren’t normal times. My sources tell me that the families and the King formed a sworn alliance, where the object is to see the last of each other as soon as possible. But all alliances can be broken. I’m starting over. This time it’s Mario, and, if I have a chance, Alfredo, the other two Giovanni Lords. If that doesn’t start a war, then nothing will.”

“The nobility is scared. They’re on their guard.”

“Killing them now will be difficult.”

It was an incredible understatement. “I would think so.”

“I don’t have much choice. To be honest, I’m concerned. If this doesn’t work, I’ll be forced to create a bloodbath. That’s something I don’t want; it would be messy and more dangerous than I like.”

“Then I’ll be the optimist for both of us. What do you need me to do?”

“Information about the families isn’t critical any longer. Our options are dwindling. I’ll need you free in case the worst happens. That means becoming Lady Dana, and the sooner the better.”

“You set her up beautifully with the suggestion about the guards. I should be able to switch with her then, but making it permanent would be a problem. It would look strange if ‘Tyra’ simply disappeared, and Dana is being watched,” I said, telling him about Dana’s meeting with Marco.

“You’ve done an excellent job with her so far. You’ll think of something.”

“Dana -- Dana is still forming, I think,” I said, looking away. “She’s nicer than she used to be and she trusts me. I could use that against her,” I said, the words tasting like excrement. “We are closer to friends now than mistress and slave.”

He took my head in his large hand and forced me to look up into coal black eyes. “She isn’t your friend, and she isn’t your ‘twin.’ I’ve had you both this evening. Dana is not you. We don't have the time to discuss it. You’re going have to take my word for it.”

He had three hundred years of experience on his side, but I resented the casual way he classified us. How would you know, anyway? You see it from only one side. When I was a man, I'd made my own evaluations of natural slave, had thought I was right most of the time, but this was Dana and me! I knew something of women from this side, now, and I was no longer so willing to allow a man the automatic right to judge us.

I bit the corner of my lip, feeling more powerless and small than I had in some time. Of the tens of thousands of girls you’ve known, Ketrick, how do I compare? It was a question I didn’t want answered, and a reminder of how much Ketrick had come to mean to me. Am I then so weak? But how strong could I be in this man’s world? As a serum girl, I wasn’t the kind to bring home to the family: my choices were limited. He was the only man I knew who desired me as a freewoman, knowing who I was -- although he made no secret that he would prefer me as a his slave. Who else could satisfy my needs? Who else could accept me as I am?

I forced my pounding heart to relax. By the Gods, the tortuous twists and turns of my mind lately. There was a war to be won, and my emotions were running like dogs loose in a field of rabbits. All women couldn’t be that adrift between emotion and reason. It had to be a matter of practice to separate the two.

I lay my hand on Ketrick’s powerful forearm. “Batuk must be saved. I’ll do what I must.”

“As must we both. I have something for you.” He pulled out a familiar shape from his pants, a leather cylinder.

I groaned in disgust. “I hate those things. I wish you knew how it felt to carry one around.” He only grinned. I shook my head, already resigned to an uncomfortable ride back. “What’s in it this time?”

“Darts and a bottle of shalimar. Be very careful with it. A knick and you would be dead.”

I felt suddenly queasy. “A leak and I could be dead, too. It isn’t going into your saer.”

“Without risk, where is the excitement, the thrill of living? Don’t worry, I was careful; I plan on visiting your saer frequently.”

“Well, in that case….” I had little choice anyway. “How will we communicate?”

“Try to be available. I’ll find a way when I have to and so will you.” He touched my cheek. “We have to get back now.”

“Right.”

Dana was unusually quiet most of the way back to the castle. It was cool, and I was thankful for my horse’s warmth. The moon lit the way well enough through the trees lining the road; the clopping of the horses and a few night insects were the only sounds. It wasn’t until just a few miles away from the castle that she spoke.

“Tyra, is it always like that?” she asked hesitantly.

“Not all the time. Ketrick is extraordinary, but it’s rarely bad. I think you discovered tonight that being a natural slave has its advantages; most women will never understand what it means to give themselves completely.”

“I’m confused. Most of my memories are those of a man. I remember forcing you to submit not long ago, but it’s as if it were another life.” She turned her head, removed a corner of the bothersome veil and let it drop. She waved her arm in a circle encompassing the world. “This is like a rebirth. I feel things differently. My body’s needs have been altered greatly. My perceptions of men and women have changed.”

“It becomes normal fast enough.”

“Who am I, Tyra?” she asked me wonderingly. “I’m not Lord Drago anymore. I just submitted to a man who took it for granted that I was a natural slave.” She sighed, tossing her head unconsciously. It was a comely movement and the long black tresses swept her back gracefully. “He was right. I recognized my own responses -- when I was able to recognize anything, that is. I can’t deny what I am.”

“You have a natural slave’s responses, true, but you are the Lady of the castle, and free. Except for the urges and the furtive means of your satisfaction, isn’t this the finest mix of the free and slave? When I was free, I could have never aspired to such heights. Just being free, doing something that kept my interest, perhaps being married to a good man, was all I dreamed of. You have so much more and eventually you could manipulate things to greater advantage.”

She smiled wanly. “Your attempt to break my mood is appreciated. In truth, I am disturbed because I am not disturbed by what happened tonight.” She drew herself up deliberately. “Enough. This is as good a time as any to fill you in on events. Some you know already, having been with me most of the time. That will continue; you should be by my side the entire day if necessary.” She paused to reattach her veil as a commoner on a horse passed, going the other way. He waved politely to the fine lady. She, in turn, acknowledged his existence with a nod.

She dropped the veil again when he was gone, and resumed: “There's always been tension between the Giovannis and the Borodins, from rude behavior and vendettas to skirmishes across the valley -- at times bordering on war. No one was safe until we made peace a couple of hundred years ago, absolutely dividing the valley. Now, there are too many of us. There are only so many positions worthy of a noble: the rule of villages under the castle’s control, certain positions in the palace, and in the castles. When those were exhausted, many of us became bravos and wastrels, having the privileges of the class, but none of the authority and responsibility a nobleman should have. The ladies languish for suitable men of stature.

“It finally reached the point where expansion beyond this beautiful valley became necessary. Batuk was chosen. It’s taken years of negotiations, but the Borodins agreed to leave Tulem for a city they could rule completely, as well as a sizable compensation for their losses here.

“With the agreement our hatreds cooled — or so it was thought until these inexplicable killings and my ... my disgrace. A pity Tam Polgher was murdered. He had the confidence of the King and both our families — and yet, the truce still holds.” She regarded me. “We attack Batuk in three weeks. Everyone hopes that this cycle of revenge has run its course. Can you think of any more background you need to pretend to be me for an hour or two?”

I could think of a few things she hadn’t mentioned, but none that wouldn’t be dangerous to bring up.

“Our hair and eyes are different,” I prompted.

She barely shrugged. “I’ll return my hair to its original color tomorrow afternoon and use a washable coloring dye from now on. I use eye drops for the eyes that are easily changed with a neutralizer. The hairstyle can be simplified. And now it’s time to ask you what I’ll need to know of the guards.”

“Well, some of them are fairly crude compared to Ketrick. It’s nothing that you haven’t demanded of me when you were Drago, but they are often enthusiastic.” I explained what a typical session in the guard’s quarters might be, and even in the waning moonlight I saw her blush.

“How did you manage?” she asked, disgusted, but I sensed curiosity as well.

“They are men who follow their natures. Most are very appreciative. I thank them afterwards and mean it.”

“Of course. You are a slave,” she explained.

“I would enjoy them anyway. I think that you would too. You’ll need to be more convincing. I have techniques to please men I can teach you, but the main thing is your attitude. You must be proud to serve well.” I straightened in my saddle, brushed back my hair and brought my head up to look at the mountains straight ahead. “You have great worth to men. You are the most attractive of women, a natural slave. You feel deeper and enjoy more than other women. Freewomen despise you because they’re jealous. A slave walks proudly, yet is humble. You must learn how it feels.”

The castle was not far away by then, and a few guards were in view. Dana watched them for a time. “I must be convincing,” she stated firmly. “There can’t be a hint that there are two of us. Teach me what I need to know.”

“Yes, Dana.” We rode through the well-lit gate past the curious guards, wondering, no doubt, what we were doing out so late. One of them smiled at me. I smiled back. I remembered him fondly; he had always used me well.

The next day, in the late afternoon, we began. The first hour we changed our hair and eye color. For the simplified hairstyle, I used a trick my sister showed me with a pin and clip. The results were simple and elegant; my hair made a large, thick knot with the hair coming through the top. Instead of the twenty minutes another might need to pin it up, I could do it myself in several seconds. After I donned her clothes, she wriggled into a yellow slave tunic and we went to the mirror together. We stared at each other. I was a Lady in the finest clothes with my slave. She stared at herself and touched the vaec on her thigh. Except for her uncertain demeanor, she could have been me.

“I understand, now, Tyra. I don’t emit the quiet pride, the self-respect you have.”

“I wish there was time to really train you. A real slave is put in slave position in front of a mirror for a week to just stare at herself. The next week is spent saying ‘I am a slave girl’ over and over until the girl knows completely who she is. After that, the training begins. The girl soon learns that resistance is useless, that way always resulting in correction. She learns that, in the end, no matter what she does, a master always gets his way. A slave is allowed no rights, no privileges. Everything she wears, everything she eats, comes from her master. She owns nothing, least of all herself.

“When she fully understands this, a transformation overcomes her; she understands her needs and purpose in life. Her existence is to please her master, and through the joy of her submission, be well pleased in return. She desires men to dominate her, to bring her to that place where she can be only herself. She is unashamed because she is not permitted shame. She is proud because she is the essence of a pure female and knows that men desire her above all others. Do not pity the slave, Dana; she can only be herself. There is great delight in it. Peace and, very often, great kindness flows from deep within the woman’s heart. Few women know who they were meant to be. A slave has no doubt.”

Dana’s reactions during my explanation intrigued me. Her nipples firmed through the thin fabric; her breathing deepened and her eyes dilated. By the end, she appeared ready to be taken.

Being aware of this, she blushed a faint pink. “I presume you went through this training?”

“No. What knowledge I have I acquired at a slave camp in a week. I wouldn’t recommend the full training for you, it might make you unsuitable to command men. I’ll try to teach you how to walk and feel men like a slave.” I sighed. “This might be difficult. I’m not a man and can’t pretend to be.”

“You do have some plan, some device that I might feel the presence and needs of men as acutely as you do?” she asked worriedly. “If I can’t act the slave in public….” She shuddered.

“I think you have the means within you. Do you remember your desire to clench tightly to him, the increased sensitivity of your skin just after he had forced you to submit?”

By her expression, there was little need to respond. “Yes! Gods, how I wanted him. His touch was incredible. Just a brush of his hand or lips launched a swell of sensation and pleasure.”

I smiled, remembering it myself. “That’s it. Now you must imagine the anticipation of a special man touching you, knowing the pleasure of his touch. Can you do that?”

“Tyra, I’m not sure. I don’t have the imagination you do. I have to imagine someone I know. Maybe if I tried to imagine every man as a potential Ketrick?”

I shrugged. He was certainly a worthy model. “Why not? If I may suggest as a test, walking outside in the courtyard. There'll be enough men to practice on.”

She blushed again. “I think of Ketrick outside, his touch and the feel of him; this might work.”

Judging by her state, I agreed. “Excellent. Now we need to create a fantasy where you are me, just proud, and aware of men. All we need is for you to feel it for a little while. Once you’ve done it, it’s hard to forget.”

“I think I can do that. And you?”

“I’ll create a fantasy of my own where I'm you and want to stay out for about a half-hour, then come in,” I lied.

Not long afterwards we descended the stairs together, I in Dana's dress and she in a pretty yellow slave tunic. The sun cast deep shadows across the courtyard. A brief glance told me she was less nervous than I. Of course, she believed that she was me. I worried more about my own performance. Dana was safe; I doubted that she would be tested too often with me around. I, however, could be, if any of Dana’s acquaintances wanted to talk to me. If I weren’t convincing, Dana might decide to discard the idea, and if I were too convincing, she might get suspicious. I looked around. The courtyard was unusually busy this time of day. Besides the few dozen servants and attendants, commoners whom I could safely ignore, were perhaps two-dozen of the nobility. Several lords in fine embroidered tunics, and ladies, in dresses of subdued colors, like mine but with a narrower green Giovanni trim around the hem, either walked the grounds, or collected in small groups mostly near the garden.

I headed for the garden. A few nobles drifted away at my approach, still awkward to be around the natural slave Lady of the castle. I adopted a confident, easy pace. I didn’t want to engage them in conversation where my lack of knowledge might show, so I greeted them with “Good afternoon,” and a friendly look. Most were aloof, still uncertain after weeks how much respect to give a serum girl who might “fail” at any moment, even if she was the Lady of the castle. I spotted a familiar face.

“Good afternoon, Captain Malchor,” I said, inclining my head.

He smiled slightly, and checked my eyes and posture -- for signs of stimulation, I supposed. “Good afternoon to you as well, Lady Dana. You're in good spirits.”

I took a deep breath, inhaling the floral scents of the garden. “It’s a fine day, too fine to be indoors.”

He nodded. “That it is. We missed Amelia last night. Your slave is a favorite with my men.”

Dana bore his comment well, her demeanor holding more pride than before. Her body settled into an attractive pose for the Captain of the Guards, and I had to stifle a laugh. “As are your men with her. Perhaps she will pay you a visit tonight, Captain.”

“The guards anticipate her return. I wish you good afternoon, Lady Dana.” He bowed and left.

I chose to stay in the garden. As Tyra, slave, I’d never seen all of it. Southern flora grew in this strangely warm valley in the mountains. Roses, tulips, and others I couldn’t identify startled the eye with color. An enclosed brook ran through it, the circulation provided by a narrow shaft running up the side of the wall to a slowly turning wind wheel. I watched my reflection in a quiet part of the brook from a low bridge, a black-haired woman in a white veil.

“You weren’t always so meditative, sister,” came a voice I recognized.

“I didn’t have so much to be meditative about, Marco,” I replied cautiously. The man, even though I'd known him from the Tavern, was still an enigma to me. Dana hadn’t talked to him since the visit to her quarters. He joined me at the rail where his immediacy forced me to note how handsome and well built he was.

“You’re doing better than I thought you would, but I’m still watching you,” he informed me in a jovial but not-too-friendly tone of voice.

I looked up, annoyed. “Must we discuss that? You and I have said all that needs to be said.”

“You went to Tulem last night.”

I nodded impatiently. “Yes. To Ketrick, the man who sold me Amelia, and then to Morgana’s Hope.”

“You stayed long in Ketrick’s apartments,” he said pointedly.

So, we had been followed. I used the lie Dana had prepared. “I was attempting to sell Amelia back to him. He didn’t meet my price. He brolled her in her new body, took me out to negotiate, and then he brolled her again. All in all, an exciting evening.”

He nudged his chin in Dana’s direction where she stood inconspicuously at the end of the bridge. “I’ll buy her.”

I made a rude sound. “I’d never sell her to you, or any other resident of the valley.”

He smiled, amused rather than disappointed. “Really? Why not?”

“You know. If you owned her, brother, brolling her would be like incest. Making her submit would be obscene. And what if I sold her to someone else in the valley and it was discovered that we were identical? Her owner would be brolling a duplicate of the Lady of this castle and might even share her with others.” I shook my head firmly. “No, I’m keeping her.”

He nodded. “Probably wise, at least until enough time has passed to safely change her DNA again — or yours -- if you can last that long.”

“Let it go, at least until the Borodins have left. I feel fine. I’ve already told you what I’d do if I felt I couldn’t control myself. Why won’t you accept it?”

He shifted his attention to Dana. “Amelia, come here!” he ordered. She scuttled forward quickly and stood by me. He studied us both with a hand under his chin. “Amelia seems to be hot.” He bent under her slave tunic and checked her. “Yes, she is hot and wet.” He looked at me with an evil grin and took a step towards me with two fingers raised. My eyes widened.

“Don’t even think about checking me, Marco!” I yelled, backing away rapidly.

His eyes twinkled mischievously. “It was a joke, Dana. Where is your sense of humor?” He tsked theatrically and shook his head as if fun had departed the world. “It’s obvious that there are still significant differences between you two. Very well, I won’t worry about you for now. It would be disruptive to remove you at this critical point anyway.“ He bowed halfway while I stared at him in frustrated fury. Then he turned and left us.

I supposed that both of us had passed our tests. I was angry and Dana was aroused. After we returned to the apartments I released Dana’s fantasy: “Fortress,” I said.

She blinked and looked at me in shock. Tears were in her eyes. “So, that’s what it’s like,” she said, rushing into my arms.

I held her, stroking her hair as she soaked my shoulder, not knowing what comfort was needed or for what. “Dana, I’m sorry, but I don’t understand. What’s wrong?” I asked.

She heaved one last sigh and raked her fingers through her loose blond hair, pulling it behind her. “Tyra, is that what it feels like? Is that what it’s like to be a slave?”

I rubbed my face, at a loss for the right words. “I can’t say for certain without knowing what you felt, but you looked like a slave. Did you enjoy it?”

Dana dropped her jaw and examined me as if I were mentally flawed. “Yes, I enjoyed it! Even when Marco touched me, it … it wasn’t as he were my…” She flushed crimson and looked away. “I … I wasn’t offended. My ego was gone, replaced by deep female desires. I didn’t think. My body let me know what to do — it was marvelous, Tyra!”

“Oh. Yes. Being a slave can certainly be wonderful,” I said, trying to mean it. And I did, more or less: the need to submit was a part of me and would be forever — I had just never felt like celebrating it.

Some of the calmer, controlled Dana returned. Her forehead creased in thought. “You were surprisingly good, Tyra,” she said, considering me. “You weren’t me completely, of course. There are private things you couldn’t possibly know about. Marco has a peculiar sense of humor, for instance, that takes getting used to, but….” She gave me a piercing look, then said, “I’m satisfied that this arrangement can work. You must learn more about my duties and how the castle operates.”

“Yes, Dana.” I said, taken aback that it was moving so fast.

“I’ll visit the guards tonight. Is there anything else I should know?”

This was coming too fast. “A review of the guards -- and what they like… Dana, are you ready for this? Your last fantasy at Ketrick’s lasted barely two hours.”

“You did say that it increases with practice,” she reminded me.

“It does. If you are fatigued it lessens, with practice it increases,” I said quickly, alarmed by her recklessness. “Please allow me to retrieve you after two hours.”

“Yes. That would be wise,” she said.

After supper, I prepared her for that night. Her turn-around was as odd as it was impressive. She asked me questions about pleasing men, and I did my best to oblige. Even advice on dyff and teur was devoured eagerly. I walked to the kitchen and ordered dinner, making sure a sausage of suitable size was included for practice. At her insistence; it was as Dana in Dana's bed and shift that I slept that night, and she as me in mine.

The mechanical alarm awoke us at the appointed hour just before midnight. I prepared the mix. She inhaled enough to make her receptive.

As she lay on the bed, I guided her through it. “Dana, tonight you will Tyra. The guards will know you as Amelia.”

“Yes, I know. I’m already at that place to become you.”

“You’ve learned well.”

She reached up and took my hand. “It’s hard to think of you as just a slave. I consider you much more.”

“I’m as much as you allow me to be,” I replied.

“I allow you to be my mistress from time to time. Most would say that is a lot.”

I chuckled. “Yes. But it’s done in a good cause -- it keeps you free.”

She pursed her lips. “Tyra, why were you confused when I told you how much I enjoyed my time as a slave?”

“When I was free I used the fantasies to get relief from the slave and slut urges. I loved those times. I felt the pull of it, the need to be fully owned and dominated, but I never gave in to it; I loved freedom more.”

“I see,” she said, looking up towards the ceiling. “Most say that it is the natural destiny of a natural slave to be a slave. Do you agree?”

“I used to ask myself that question many times. I think the happiest women are slaves. They say that the deepest love is between a love slave and a love master.”

“Yet you fought it.”

“Often a girl doesn’t know she is a slave before she becomes a slave. I had the means to stay free, and I used it. And now, so do you, Dana.”

She smiled and squeezed my hand. “You’ve given me this gift. I will use it to see both sides. My destiny, whatever it may be, will be through my choice, not compulsion to the serum girl urges.”

I looked into her eyes, trying to understand this most oblique statement. I wondered if even she was sure what she meant. I wanted to understand her, to warn her that she played a dangerous game. Perhaps it was because freedom had been handed to her; she hadn't been forced to fight for it; she didn't know how seductive the urges. Perhaps.... And in the end, it didn't matter what she thought, what she felt. Her destiny, whatever she decided, was not hers to choose.

Dana still held my hand. I looked down and made myself smile, like the worst sort of thief, and imagined the slave she would become — if I didn't decide to kill her first.

“Yes, Dana.”

“Good. Now I must go back to that place and become Amelia, the wanton slut who submits to guards. I will enjoy being you.”

I had no doubts at all.

I set the alarm for two hours and met her at the door. Dana’s face had a tinge of pink, and her eyes drifted longingly towards the guard’s quarters. She wore a diaphanous green slave tunic that revealed a great deal. “Priest,” I said, beginning her fantasy. “I’ll be at the guards in two hours to collect you. Tell the guard on duty.”

She smiled eagerly, a hot slut who couldn’t wait to be brolled. “Yes, Mistress,” she replied, clapping her hands in joy, and almost ran down the stairs.

In the meantime, I removed the leather cylinder Ketrick had given me from its hiding place under the bed. After cracking the hard sealant lining the top, the deadly cargo, wrapped by cotton surrounded by waxy paper, slid onto my bed. The most striking were five long steel darts, their needles deeply scored with poison grooves, suitable for penetrating armor at close range. Also included were two-dozen smaller, rough-pitted dart needles, a tightly wrapped bundle of feathering, a small amount of glue, and, most importantly, a small bottle of a viscous green substance. Ketrick had labeled the bottle with a passable picture of a skull so I would have no doubt what it was.

I made a thigh harness for the long darts by cutting pieces from a leather coat I retrieved from a trunk of Drago’s old clothes and sewed pockets for them in the same way I’d found effective for me in Eagles. Not wanting to damage Dana’s dress, I took off my clothes. I threw one dart into a chair before I had to get ready to retrieve Dana. The motion and release felt right and, with a solid “thunk” the dart struck hard and fast, the point piercing the wooden backing and upholstery close to where I’d aimed it from across the room.

Standing naked with hands on hips, I threw back my head and laughed; the new body felt wonderful with a feeling of robust health, much like my older Tyra form. No one would mistake me for a warrior, certainly. With breasts, wider hips, and the smooth flat muscles of a woman, I would never fight again as a warrior, but this I could do. For the first time since coming to Tulem, I didn’t feel helpless.

When the alarm clanged, I was ready. I finished adjusting the dress on my hips and with a final turn in the mirror, I left Dana’s quarters to pick-up the hot slut of the moment.

It was quiet on the courtyard. Only a few flickering courtyard lamps broke the serene darkness under the waning moon. As I approached the guards’ quarters, I heard men’s voices and answering feminine laughter. I saw her then, a guard’s hand manipulating her breast. Dana had survived her fantasy with time to spare.

The guards straightened at my appearance. I noted who was on duty and smiled under the veil at the one who'd been fondling the Lady of the castle. “Hiddle, did Amelia please everyone satisfactorily?”

The rough man with the thick mustache nodded. “Lady Dana, a hot serum girl is always a treat,” he rumbled. He reddened, realizing just then whom he was talking to. “I’m sorry, Lady Dana. I meant no offense.”

I projected annoyance to stay in character before forgiving him. “Is she satisfied?”

“I, ah, think she has some left, Lady Dana.”

I sighed, shaking my head affectionately. “Amelia, you are such a slut!”

“Yes, Mistress,” she murmured. Her head was bowed submissively, but I knew that stance, the contented cast of her face. Dana had been well-brolled.

“Let’s go. It’s time to go back,” I said. I made sure she was following and began the walk across the courtyard.

I waited before we returned before I asked her questions. The plan was to let her fantasy run out naturally to see how long it would last. “Tyra, were the guards dominant tonight?”

“Oh, they were, Dana,” she said as in a dream, her hips swiveling from side to side as she recollected the past two hours. “I think I need another hour to be completely relieved,” she said, looking at me hopefully. “The guards are strong men with powerful desires.”

That we could agree on. “Tyra, you are such a slut.”

“Yes, Dana.”

I had her clean the apartment and make tea, make-work activities to keep her occupied. I waited over an hour and a half, impressed to see her still in character, but it was getting late; we would have to rise in a few hours for the day.

“Tyra!” I called. She stopped mopping the floor and came to me.

“Yes?”

“Fortress.”

She flashed a brilliant smile at me. “Actually, the fantasy ran out about a half-hour ago.”

I stood quickly and bowed. “I’m sorry, Dana, I didn’t know!”

“Because I didn’t want you to know. I wanted to see if I was convincing. It appears that I was.”

“You were. You move well, and your submissive posture is excellent.”

“That’s what I wanted to hear. Sit beside me on the bed.” When I sat, her demeanor seemed nervous and slightly embarrassed. “I enjoyed last night very much,” she said. “I loved the guards, of course, but I wanted to feel what a slave would feel during the day. Obviously, being a slave isn’t all submission and pleasing men: it is other things, some drudgery and the like.” Her eyes lit up. “I didn’t mind it. Imagining you as my mistress, I actually enjoyed doing what I was told.”

I wasn’t sure what to say. “Dana…” I hesitated; then began again, hating this double role I was playing. “Dana, don’t you think this might be a game to you?”

She smiled. “I think that you care about keeping me free more than I do. Of course, cleaning doesn’t mean much, but it does make me think.” She squeezed my hand firmly. “I'll have to leave Tulem someday. This castle is a trap. We can’t keep switching nights with the guards indefinitely. I know Marco. He isn’t going to let go of his bone. When the Borodins depart, he’ll watch me in earnest, and I will be caught.”

“Surely something is possible: a secret lover, an apartment in the city or the palace?”

“It might work for a few months, but I’m too visible. Anything I do in the valley would eventually be found out.”

“Perhaps Ketrick can take you out of Tulem and set you up in another city far away where they have slave clubs.”

“True,” she said, averting her eyes, “although being a freewoman alone in a foreign city hiring oernids or visiting slave clubs is not what I want.”

“Are you thinking of submitting to a man?” I asked, shocked.

“I'm not saying that!” Jabbing a finger between her breasts, she said, “You have no idea. I'm a noble, a member of the aristocracy.” She thrust her hand north, towards the gate. “Out there, I'm nothing. I'd be alone, a foreign woman in a strange city with no one who knows me.” Dana shot me a glare. “I'm weak, and men could take me whenever they want. Not much of a life to look forward to.” She turned her back to me and walked to window, gripping the iron bars and gazing into the darkness. “Sometimes ... sometimes, I think that, whatever I do, I might be just delaying the inevitable,” she said softly, bowing her head.

Damning myself, I saw an opportunity and took it. “All of this, the guards, isn't really a good representation of what you would find in another city. I could be you for a day and you could get a taste for what it might be like out there, get used to it. Ketrick would be ideal, but you must not stay longer than a day, Dana. He is a very powerful, dominant male.”

She pulled her head back and stared at me. “That wasn’t what I was thinking!”

I backed away immediately, bowing halfway. “I’m sorry, Mistress! I was presumptuous!”

It was inevitable: her eyes lost their animosity as she thought of Ketrick above her and between her legs. She began pacing, her hands locked behind her.

“I suppose that, theoretically, it would be possible to ... try myself with Ketrick,” she said. “The castle mainly runs itself. I supervise more than run the departments. Tyra, you have been watching me.”

“All the time.”

“You’ve seen the routine? You know the people, the schedule, the lists, seals and papers?”

I nodded.

“Tell me,” she ordered. She crossed her arms and waited.

I described a typical day, addressing the people and items she’d brought up. “The castle’s methods are similar to Eagles. I learned to do the complete accounts for my family after I became a serum girl.”

“Impressive. There’s little enough to do for the next week or so. This morning we will see. If you understand the process well enough, I could tell my departments to handle the routines for a day while you remain indoors as much as possible.”

I bowed. “Dana, please don’t see Ketrick for more than a day. You know how marvelously dominating he is and how much better he makes a girl feel than the guards. He could make any natural slave shake like jelly.”

“I am in no danger. I’ll simply tell him to treat me as one of his own for a normal day. and I will see for myself how best I can manage. He might even be able to advise me.”

That morning and afternoon I watched Dana go through her routines in the castle carefully. Dana tested my knowledge at the end of day, and told me I that I would likely be adequate in an emergency.

We left the castle in the morning, just after breakfast. The mist over the lake to our right had almost dissipated and the sun was just coming up over our part of the valley. To our left, farmers and villagers were leaving their modest stone houses for the fields, shops, and city. I was dressed as Dana, and rode the lead horse with Dana trailing. She came forward when we were out of sight of the castle.

“Have you ever seen a finer valley in your life?” she asked.

I shook my head. “Never,” I admitted honestly. “It amazes me every time I see it.”

“I’ve never known anything different.”

“There are some amazing places: the graceful towers of Ademar, the palace in Teshruk, even the Fortress of Batuk has its majesty, and there are greater places on Zhor. Life is long. Perhaps you will find a place you will love as much.”

She shook her head. “Your home city is always first in your heart. That never changes.”

“Truth.”

We rode past the farms and villages, packed tightly all the way to the mountains. Seen one way, it was the best-organized use of land I had ever seen or heard of. The subjects of Tulem were content, healthy, and peaceful. Seen another, it was an inhuman dystopia. There was no room to expand a farmer’s holdings, and it was accounted rare to change one’s occupation. The garden valley owed its perfection as much to the culling of ambition in its inhabitants as to the cultivation of its fields. It saddened me; compared to Batuk, Tulem had the soul of a beehive.

Approaching the gates, she brought her horse alongside. “This is the time I will start acting like you, and you, me. Remember, bring me into his office where Ketrick and I may negotiate in private.”

“Yes, Dana. I should talk to him first, though. It would look very odd, otherwise.”

“Of course,” she said impatiently. “Just don’t take too long.”

We passed through the gates and were soon were outside Ketrick’s store. Angel and Wanda stood behind the counter. They bowed to me, thinking I was Dana, and smiled. I barely acknowledged them, and chained Dana’s collar to a convenient ring. Ketrick was inside behind the window, busy with paperwork. I knocked, and he waved me through. I entered, closing the door behind me.

“Lady Dana, what can I do for you?” he asked, rising to his feet.

With Dana finally out of sight, I leaned my back against the door and exhaled. “I’m Tyra.” I motioned behind me with my head. “Dana is on the chain outside.”

“Excellent. You’re ready to switch with her then?”

“Yes,” I said, glaring at him. It had to be done, but he was too unemotional about it.

“All right, let’s get this in the open,” Ketrick growled, coming around the desk to tower over me. “What are you so angry about?”

I looked up into his coal black eyes and planted my hands at my hips. “Go ahead, Ketrick! Make her a slave; force her to cross her wrists and tattoo her thigh!”

“So, she is not this ‘twin soul’ you thought she might be?” he asked with the slightest of grins, as if he had known the answer all along, which, after taken her measure a few days before, he probably thought he did. Taking my measure that same night, he might think that he knew everything he needed to know about me, too. Damn the man!

“No,” I said with ill grace, “she isn't me. If I were her, I'd have jumped at the chance to be a freewoman anywhere, but we didn't grow up the same, did we? She and I can't talk about it, can we? And it doesn't matter anyway, does it?”

“Well, you may be assured that Dana will not be worrying about it by the end of the day.”

“You won’t kill her, will you?”

”Not if she can’t connect us to Batuk. She will believe that I’m a foreign merchant taken with her beauty and nobility. I will lead her to believe that you were tricked, and are simply a poor slave out of her depth, forced to continue to pretend to be her. With luck, this will all be over soon, and I will sell her to a caravan traveling to some distant land where they will change her body and never permit her to return.”

“Thank the Gods,” I sighed. “I know that she'll be happy eventually. Dana is our enemy, but --”

He placed his large right hand on my shoulder. “I will try to let her live.”

I was going to say something more, thank him, make him promise to keep her alive, but that was stupid. What is wrong with me? Dana is deadly. “I’m going to need some relief in a couple of days or so. I won’t be able to visit the guards anymore, and for the lords and ladies, spotting signs of arousal in their serum girl ruler is a favored pastime.”

“You can expect some help in three or four days.”

I suppressed a groan; that was a long time to be without a man. I turned to go, but as I placed my hand on the doorknob, I paused. “Ketrick, thank you for not killing her outright.”

“I don’t kill lightly, but if she becomes too much of a threat, I will.”

“I understand. It’s just that … I’m being a hypocrite. Do what you must do.”

I returned with Dana. She “negotiated” with Ketrick and paid him five silvers for a day of slavery. I watched this farce with disgust, yet I didn’t know a better way to leave her. Dana turned to me afterwards and gave me a hug, then told me not to worry. She even waved goodbye to me as I left.

I rode back to the castle alone. The veil concealed most of my tears, and I wiped them away as best I could when I drew within sight of the castle walls, my castle walls. When I returned to my quarters I collapsed on the bed and cried. Dana was probably already a slave. Drago the man, and now, Lady Dana, the freewoman, were gone.

There was no time to wallow in the loss of a friendship that never was. There were routines to perform, men and women to meet to make everything look normal. I cleaned my temporary brand off with the solvent, pleased to find only the barest trace of the organic tattoo left underneath.

At lunch, I sat at Dana’s accustomed place at the head of the main table and faced the stares and inquisitive glances of my lords and ladies. Not feeling particularly festive, I found it easiest to be arrogant, initiating conversation with those who stared the longest. I knew something of most of them from listening to Dana, and inquired about the health of their favorite tavern girl or mistress.

This brought me a few stares, but more amused glances, recognizing the game I played. My “sisters,” Gina and Daphne, viewed my repartee with something between derision and disgust, which suited my mood just fine.

Most of the afternoon was spent making darts and modifying dresses to rip at a pull. I practiced unhindered in my apartment, accustoming my new body to unarmed combat. Free in Tulem for the first time, I worked out my frustrations by throwing darts into the back of a chair until the wood was nearly splinters.

I returned to dinner more sanguine. Later, back in my apartments, I heard a knock at the door.

“Messenger!”

I pulled the door open to a wiry man with a swordsman’s arms and shoulders in green riding leathers. “Lady Dana, your cousin Mario has been murdered!” he shouted. “Lord Niccolo Giovanni calls a meeting at his quarters in Tulem.”

I’d expected something like this sooner or later, but that was fast work. “Gods and Overlords!” I cried. “How did he die?”

“Lord Mario and his two guards were ambushed not far from his castle. They were all shot with a bow, Lady Dana.”

My already great respect for Ketrick's prowess increased a notch. Shooting men on horseback was not easy. “I assume that you will be riding back with me?” I asked.

“Yes, Lady!”

“Good. I’ll need a minute or so to get ready. Go to the guard’s quarters, explain the situation to Captain Malchor, or whoever is on duty, ready two guards to ride with us and meet me down at the stables with four fast horses.”

“Yes, Lady Dana!” He bobbed and left quickly, bounding down the stairs two at a time. I found a green split riding dress and pulled it on. I was at the stables in less than three minutes, before the horses had been completely saddled, and very soon thereafter, we were on the road to Tulem, the messenger in the lead, with me behind him flanked by Malchor and Jedha.

The moon provided enough light to see, but not so much that it was safe to ride at our pace. Certainly, if there had been any assassins in the shadows we wouldn’t have had much success seeing them. I wasn’t concerned, of course, but the guards’ faces, what I could see of them, were tense. It was a fast half-hour to the city gates, down illuminated streets close to the palace and through a guarded archway into the cobblestone courtyard of Niccolo Giovanni’s fortified residence. Handing our horses to stablemen, I left my companions, lifted the hem of my dress and ascended a flight of stairs.

Niccolo awaited at the top, pulling nervously at his neat beard, perhaps two finger widths long, which descended from the underside of his chin. He glowered when he saw me, and waved me through an open door impatiently. “Hurry! Dana, you are the last here!”

Considering that I was from the furthest Giovanni castle, I wasn’t too surprised, and I was certain he wasn’t either. Fury and grief wore lines in his face. We were enemies, but I pitied him. There was no place where he could legitimately lash out for the death of his son, no face to which he could assign hate. I touched his arm with my fingers in the woman’s way. “I’m very sorry, Lord Niccolo,” I said quietly.

He stiffened and glared down at me. Clearly, to him, I was a serum girl lady, an obscene contradiction that should be in a collar. I held my head high, like an aristocrat would, and passed around him.

Two men were inside. Alfredo, Niccolo’s son, was well-muscled, with a striking Giovanni nose, and handsome in a severe way. The other, was Franco, a nervous, distraught fellow in shoulder-length hair combed directly back from his scalp, the deceased’s oldest son. Both watched me enter with the distaste for natural slaves who pretended to be noblewomen, mixed with uneasiness. For all they knew, with all the goings-on, they might be next in line to wear a dress and halter.

I nodded to Alfredo, and spoke softly to Franco, placing my hand on his shoulder. “I’m very sorry to hear of your loss. Your father was a fine man.”

He accepted my touch better than Niccolo, and nodded politely to my words. “Thank you, Dana, as was your father, Paolo.” I decided then that I liked Franco. That level of civility to a serum girl bespoke unusual tolerance in a noble.

The room was elegant, and was spacious with only four occupants. I took a seat in a soft red chair next to Franco, facing Niccolo and Alfredo on the other side of the long, polished table.

Niccolo continued to glare at me tediously, but said nothing. It seemed that I, as Dana, was there only because my absence would be more scandalous. He may not have pleased with my appearance, but I was just a beetle in the broth compared to his son’s murder. He slammed his hand on the table. “This must stop!” he shouted.

“Father, this could only be the Borodins,” Alfredo asserted in a low, driving voice. “They take advantage of us at this late date, thinking we will not strike back.”

Niccolo sighed hard and ran his fingers through his short, thick hair. “Son, by the Overlords, I wish I were as sure as you. Marcus Borodin was as surprised as I was when he heard the news. He sliced his hand in front of me tonight and swore by the blood on his knife that it was no one he knew of. I’ve known him for over a hundred years and I believe him.”

Alfredo looked to the ceiling and clenched his fists. “But father, that leaves us with nothing! If I am to die, I want to know who kills me! Surely you know that I am next on this murderer’s list?”

“I am aware that it is a possibility,” Niccolo corrected coolly. He regarded us, meeting our eyes one at a time, narrowing slightly when he met mine. “We will start at the beginning.” He recounted the sequence of murders to that point. “Does anyone have anything to add to this?”

I had the barest glimmering of an idea. “Who has something to gain from this?” I asked.

Alfredo glared at me. “The Borodins, you idiot serum girl!” he shouted.

I ignored him and continued: “There are the Borodins, of course, but it could be just a few malcontents. Batuk would also have something to gain, and so would the King. We should try to eliminate each possibility one at a time.”

Alfredo opened his mouth to yell something, but Niccolo restrained him with a hand on his shoulder. “Let her speak,” he said. “Go ahead. This treads on some old ground, but maybe you have something new.”

“Thank you, Lord Niccolo. I believe Marcus Borodin when he tells you he knows nothing of a plot to kill Giovannis.” I spread my hands. “What does it gain Andrei, Alexander or Marcus, a little satisfaction at the risk of being assassinated themselves? I can’t believe that the Borodin castle lords are involved; however, there might be a faction at work that would like to kill us, some disgruntled Borodins who would rather stay in the valley than move to rule an angry populace in Batuk.”

Franco regarded me. “Batuk is a city of commoners. They will be ruled by those who are their natural rulers, the same as here.”

“I thought so at one time, but I don’t anymore. My slave is from Batuk, a former warrior and a remarkable creature. Her insights forced me to consider that the commoners of Batuk are different from our own. The city of Batuk could be defeated, but the Borodins wouldn’t be safe on the streets for many years, if ever. I think you know this, too, Lord Niccolo.”

“The Borodins were warned.”

“Maybe they didn’t believe it until recently. I offer it as a possible motivation. They might feel cheated and betrayed. A few hotheads might have hired assassins.”

He considered it briefly. “I doubt it. Someone would know and report it. What’s next?”

“Lord Niccolo, is it possible that Batuk knows of our plans to invade them? Could they have sent a team of assassins to start a war in Tulem?”

He grinned very darkly. “Ruk’s Serum gave you a convoluted woman’s mind, but you give them too much credit. Absolutely not.”

“How exactly do we know this?”

“As you know, there are dozens of agents in the city and Fortress,” he explained impatiently, “including a senior Council member. Don’t you think we would have seen something? No, they are like sheep waiting to be sheared.”

The information on the senior Council member was interesting: there were only two.

“Is it possible that Batuk is aware of agents in the city, Lord Niccolo? Wouldn’t they keep such knowledge very secret?”

“Enough! You seek phantoms. Speak with the King’s spymaster if you need further convincing. We also know everyone who is in the valley. Do you have anything else?”

I raised a finger. “One more. The King isn’t stupid; he’d be worried about an assassination after the Borodins were gone.”

He glared at me. “Unlikely. The King would not risk a war that would kill his relatives.”

“And yet, someone is doing it!” I stood abruptly, lifted my dress and shift above my hips to show what I was, and held a breast in my free hand. “Look! Look, Lord Niccolo, what has been done to me!” I wailed. “I, also, want revenge! It’s happening; there can be no question of it, and yet you have just rejected every possible source! Unless you can think of somebody else that wants to kill us or make us serum girls, you must think the unlikely and impossible. Paralysis will bring death or a lifetime of service in an alcove!” I sat, folded my arms and waited for the inevitable eruption.

Alfredo leaped to his feet and leaned across the table. He held a finger in my face. I followed it back to a strong arm that I couldn’t help but think could restrain a woman easily, and then on to a face quivering in fury. “You will never speak to my father like that again!”

“I don’t think I’ll have to,” I said soothingly. Ignoring the digit before my eyes, I chose instead to frown at an imperfection on one of my fingernails.

“Pah!” he exclaimed disgustedly, and sat back in a huff, his scabbard clattering noisily against the table.

Franco took my forearm in a tight grip, interrupting my personal grooming. “That was not well done. You have changed from the Drago I knew.”

I resisted making the obvious rejoinder. “I have only my duty left. I will do it as I see fit,” I assured him coolly. I stared into his eyes. “Release my arm!”

“Hold!” commanded Niccolo, raising his hand. “Franco, let her go. This is neither the time nor the place -- and she may have a point,” he admitted grudgingly. “No matter how unlikely the source, we must consider it and take precautions.” He pondered in silence for a time deep in his chair, his face furrowed in thought. “There might be a way to protect ourselves, or at least come to know who the murderers are.”

Niccolo leaned forward. “I completely reject the possibility of a force hired by Batuk. Batuk is not unknown to us; we’ve been watching it closely for years. It’s utterly impossible for the Council to make a decision that we wouldn’t know about. They would have the most reason, but it’s not them. We must look elsewhere.

“If it’s the Borodins, then they are more ruthless than I thought. Recall that the first killed were of their own, a Lord and his wife! To slit the throat of one of their own Lords just to provide misdirection for a vendetta?” He shrugged wearily. “Anything is possible in these last days and I suppose a few might see this as their last chance to even old scores. Yet, this doesn’t make sense. Why would any sane Borodin provoke us with actions that could start a war?

“Reluctantly, I also have to consider the King. I would not have thought it of him, but I can’t be sure of anything when nobles are being killed almost every day.

“I think we can assume that when the Borodins leave, the killing will stop. Alfredo and the rest of you, stay inside as much as possible and leave only with a very heavy escort. I don’t think it’s any of the Borodins themselves that are doing the actual killings. The entire Borodin family had alibis when Paolo was killed and when Dana was injected. This is the work of hired men or the King’s followers.”

Alfredo stared at his father. “Surely you don’t expect to just let them get away with this? Father, they killed my brother and uncle! Their bodies cry out for justice!”

Niccolo slammed his hand on the table again. “Don’t you think I know that, you imbecile? I have to be sure of the right target. Either someone is trying to provoke a civil war, or someone is being very, very clever.” He stood and faced us. “This meeting is over. Return to your castles.” When I made to follow Alfredo and Franco, Niccolo took my arm. “I want to talk to you, Dana.”

I nodded. “Of course, Lord Niccolo.” He closed the door and motioned to a chair.

After I sat, he took a seat directly across from me and faced me levelly. “I want you to resign your authority in the castle.”

“I’ll be happy to — just as soon as the Borodins leave Tulem.”

All traces of his smile vanished. “You will do it now.”

I observed him curiously. “You have no authority over my castle, Lord. In my opinion, rule is best left in my experienced hands until the war is won. What precisely is your objection?”

“Must I say it? You’re a serum girl! Inevitably, you will disgrace us.”

I shook my head. “I’ll leave before that happens. I’ve already discussed this with Marco, and he has agreed. Unless I can’t control myself, I’ll stay until this crisis is over.” I rose from my seat and bowed my head. “Once again, I am sorry about Mario. He was a fine Lord and man.”

“Get out, Dana,” he replied coldly. I nodded slowly and retired as quickly as dignity would allow, wondering at his rudeness.
 
 

To Be Continued…

&nbsp
Poor Dana, but I have a feeling that she'll end up satisfied someday. There are surprises ahead, and the action hasn't really started yet. Hang in there. Soon.... ~Aadrvark



If you liked this post, you can leave a comment and/or a kudos!
Click the Thumbs Up! button below to leave the author a kudos:
up
24 users have voted.

And please, remember to comment, too! Thanks. 
This story is 12595 words long.