A meeting with Lady Katrina where men are discussed. Ann's final confrontation, and a new beginning. New demands on the consort. A terrible secret revealed.
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The Legal Stuff: The Warrior from Batuk © 2004, 2007 Aardvark
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Once out of sight of the road, I spurred my mare into a gallop. The cool late afternoon air swept over my face, and the tail of my hair slapped on my back in time with my horse’s stride.
“Majesty!” Katrina called, annoyed at my “unladylike” haste. I didn’t care. As far as I was concerned, I was riding that empty space between the lake and trees to get away from duty and responsibility. I was tired of playing the feminine, composed Queen. If Katrina wanted to catch up she could. She was a superb horsewoman when she wanted to be.
I turned enough to fix her with a wide grin, and waved. “Come on, Katrina, some things must be celebrated!” I yelled, catching her answering smile. After three months, our first engagement had been announced. Several weeks from now, Corrine Borodin, a likable woman with a brilliant smile, would marry someone she clearly adored, a wealthy merchant from Bethune. Her enthusiasm for her man, if it had not been so charming, would have been scandalous among ladies normally critical of any overt behavior.
In the end I did slow a little, allowing her to catch me with her dignity intact. “Tell me that wasn’t fun!”
“Well, yes, but we mustn’t do it too often. The ladies would start to recall all those wild things you used to do.”
“All right. When I act like a Queen, the ladies give me more respect, but … would it be unladylike to say that I enjoy my consort much more than sipping tea in the garden with women who seek flaws in my dress and demeanor?”
“It would, but I know what you mean. You’ve done well so far, better, frankly, than I’d hoped. You’re slowly bringing them around. Don’t stop what you’re doing now.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t -- and it’s getting easier with your help. And what about you? I saw the way you looked at the fine warrior in the red and blue earlier this afternoon. He seemed a strong man, able to dominate a woman with barely a thought.”
She laughed, holding her hand over her mouth. “Dana! What if someone should hear?”
I waved my arm towards the woods and lake. “Out here? There are only the birds and squirrels. You dodge the question. I spotted more than a glimmer of interest between you two. Is there a chance that you might leave the valley someday with one of the fine men we bring to these affairs?”
“Honestly? I don’t know. There’s something to be said for men who actually seek a wife. Nobles here too often consider it a chore, as do some of the ladies, of course.” She lifted a noble eyebrow. “I think you’re corrupting me. I wouldn’t have given a mundane a thought before.”
“You did say that you were as ‘foolishly romantic’ as I.”
“Really?” she sniffed. “Well, perhaps love doesn’t mean quite the same thing to me, not with your talk of your consort and his ‘incredible ability’ to dominate you.”
I laughed. Her aristocratic disapproval was a little too thick to be serious; I wondered if she was jealous. I looked around quickly, still seeing no one within earshot, and began to sing, starting with the slow, breathless introduction of a slave sighing at her master’s feet:
“My love is like a river
That will never end.
I’m bound to you, my Master
A slave cannot pretend.
My love is like a song
That goes on and on forever
I am for you, your prisoner
It's to you that I surrender.”
Then I sang louder, as a slave proud of her master and of who she was. Nearly all serum girls have the ability to dance and sing very well, and I was no exception. The words may have been mawkish, but the song had rhythm and I gave it my best, adding a few exaggerated arm movements and expressions to make sure that Katrina knew I wasn’t begging for a brand.
“When you stole me, Master
Your bravery I had felt.
Tied I was and desperate
Wrapped helpless in your pelt.
Oh! Oh! Master!
You took me bound and struggling
You opened my legs wide.
You entered me with twyll so large
My protests all denied.
Oh! Oh! Master!
You reached so deep inside me
Forced my slave-heart to submit
You brought me to my female core
All this I must admit.
Oh! Oh! Master!
Branded now and collared
Freedom eternally denied
I'm only yours, my Master.
Please give this girl a ride!
Oh! Oh! Master!”
When I finished, we were both laughing, although Katrina held her ears, and her face under her blond mane was a flaming red.
“Goddess! Scandal! Disgrace!”
“I thought it was bad when I first heard it, too.”
She gave me a peculiar glance for a split second. “Ah, when you were Drago.”
“It seems like a long time ago.”
She passed me an odd look. “I don’t mean this to offend, but I can’t see Drago in you. I didn’t know you very well then, of course, but still…”
“I take no offense. I’m Dana now, and the longer I am the better I like it.” I gave Katrina a great big smile.
“I’ve noticed,” she said dryly. “That insufferably pleased tabby face isn’t because you love being a proper lady. It’s that consort of yours, isn’t it?”
I grinned even wider. I was sure she was jealous now. It was a happy paradox: the supposed figurehead of womanly virtue in the valley could brol a man and discard him for another at will, but if the ladies tried it, the scandal would last years.
“Ketrick has a lot to do with it. It doesn’t make it any less true.”
When the sun was at the top of the western mountains, we started back. We took our time, watching the lake and enjoying the view. The mountain’s shadow approached and overtook us. Katrina remained pensive most of the way, but she glanced at me sideways a couple of times. When we crossed the western road and closing on the path to her castle, she turned to me.
“Ah, Dana, about that warrior whom you spoke of earlier…”
I rubbed my chin for a second or two. “Hmm. Do you speak of the devastatingly handsome, strong, virile, dominant man in red and blue?”
She glared at me. “Somehow we crossed paths in the hall, and we talked for a few minutes. I must admit that I do find him somewhat more bearable, for a mundane, than I thought I would.”
I'd thought they'd spoken together for close to an hour, but I supposed that I might have been mistaken. “Amazing. Tell me more, Katrina.”
“Well, I’ve heard that he comes from a wealthy family in Bendar.”
“What a coincidence. Didn’t you say you wanted to visit the city earlier today?”
She turned away, but a pink neck wasn’t normal for her. “It is a natural choice.” she snorted indignantly. “It’s a large, important city.”
“Of course. Are you waiting for me, as Queen, to grant you permission to leave Tulem? I think that as the ruler of your own castle, you have the right.”
“I’m not asking permission!”
“Perhaps, then, you want the hundred golds now?”
“Dana!” she laughed. “Very well. I like him, I confess, and I’m curious. It’s probably no more than that.”
I reached over and touched her hand. “You’re the best judge of that. I also note that you choose to meet him outside the city and away from all prying eyes. By all appearances he’s a fine man, and he has an excellent reputation or he wouldn’t have been invited, but be careful, Katrina, you aren’t used to this.”
She drew herself up in the saddle. “I’m no neophyte to the ways of love. I’ve had my moments.”
I shrugged. “So, you would fail the inspection to the White Tower. But you’ve also said that you’ve never been in love. You could be tempted in ways you’ve never been.”
“That’s not true … Ah!” she exclaimed. “I’m lying to myself. I see Corrine so happy, and you have eyes like the moon when you’re with your consort. I want to feel what you do. But I swear that I would see several men, at least, before I’d ‘do’ anything. I’m too old to be a love-sick fool.”
“Fine, but please get my advice on any man you decide might be a potential mate. I have a unique insight into men, remember.”
“I’d value your opinion of a man if and when he appeared in Tulem, but I won’t guarantee anything -- especially outside the valley. I can just imagine you alighting from a gilded coach, circling the man I choose, inspecting him for his suitability to bring me to the silks.” She rolled her eyes. Then, deciding it wasn’t enough, she snorted.
“Whatever you say.” I raised my hands in protest. “Just be careful. I don’t want to see you hurt.”
She and I returned to her castle as if nothing had been said, making plans for the next soirée, laughing about affairs and gossip, but she laughed a little too hard, spoke a bit too loud. I resolved that she would have a small package of a dark brown bitter substance included in her bags when she left.
Wanda met me at the door of my apartments, her face running wet with tears. Behind her, I heard crying, a terrible wailing that went on and on, the kind that only stops with exhaustion.
“By the Goddess, Wanda! What going on?”
“Mistress, Ann’s exercise did not go well this afternoon.”
I glanced to my bed where a poor girl sobbed hope and dreams away. I took a breath to calm down; it would do no good to get upset. “Where is Ketrick?”
“He’s out in the city. He told me to tell you that he would be back late tonight.”
I wanted to blame him for not being there — grossly unfair because he might have been out for any number of reasons. He might have helped. Brolling Ann always made her feel better, although not so much of late.
Ann’s frustrations had built over the past three months, and the exercises to improve her imagination and concentration, although helping her to some extent, had just brought her ever more tantalizingly close to success without quite bringing her across.
What to do? Each day brought another test, another failure. She’d hung on to hope longer than most would have, and fought as hard and persistently as anyone I’d ever known.
I walked to the bed and sat down beside her. Ann lay face down in her servant’s dress, sobbing into a pillow. She allowed me to stroke her hair and place a hand on her back. After a while she turned her head, looked up, and rubbed her eyes.
“Dana,” she said, extending her left hand. I took it.
“You’ve had a difficult day,” I said.
“I tried my hardest this afternoon and failed again. I thought I had a chance this time. I’m not so sure anymore -- about anything.”
“I won’t give you false hope. I thought we would have had results before now. We could fail; you might be a slave in days or weeks. But everything might still work out. Do you believe me?”
“I have to if I’m to stay free.” She rolled over onto her back. “I still think it’s possible. I’m so close sometimes.” She shook her head wearily, gnawing on her lower lip. “It’s like the other woman, the woman I try to become, doesn’t really want me to succeed. It doesn’t make sense. The other woman is me. I create her.”
“You have the will. It must be something else. You must find your own match, someone you could be comfortably.”
“I tried that sometimes, varying the person to become; I’ve had no luck, of course.” She frowned. “But I’ve been trying hard on technique and exercises for the past month. Are you saying I should go back and try a different person?”
“I think it’s worth the attempt.” I placed my forefinger gently to her forehead. “The person you can be lives somewhere in here. Try your best to find her. But first get some sleep.”
She stared at the ceiling for a while. “Did you know that this room is very similar to the way it was under Queen Prudence’s reign? Most of the tapestries and curtains are identical.”
I laughed. “So that’s where they found the inspiration for these pink drapes, animals and pictures of children. I’d thought it was designed by a woman from the palace.”
“I’m surprised that you haven’t changed them.”
“I would have, except that Katrina thought they were a lady’s decor. I let them be to remind myself how I should behave.”
Ann swung her legs around to the side of the bed and stood. “I’ll get some sleep now, and think about what you’ve said. We can try again tonight if you’re willing. I’ll try as long as I have strength.”
I nodded. “We shall succeed or we shall not, but there will be no excuses.”
She gazed at me with those beautiful eyes, so close to everything in her heart, and I took her in my arms. She held me close for a minute and eased her breathing against my breasts. It felt like comforting a child, but it was no child who looked back afterwards. Behind unutterable sadness, a small hot fire shone through, a flame I’d seen before in the eyes of some of my warriors before a fight. To see it in her tightened my throat into immobility.
“To the end, Dana, you and I,” she said in her soft voice. “Whatever happens, I’ll have no regrets.” She turned and walked back to her room. I watched her go until tears blurred my vision.
“Goddess, what now?” I said, rubbing my tears away with the heels of my palms. I lay down where Ann had just risen, the place still warm from her body, and looked at the ceiling as she had,. Lying there, I imagined her in a slave tunic with a real brand. She would be happy as a slave. If she were trained and had a strong master, she would be ecstatic.
“No!” I said under my breath. “That is not for Ann.” As long as she was trying, then so would I. I stayed awake, running through ideas in my head, but failed to find anything new. Mentally worn out, I fell asleep staring at a tapestry of children at play; wondering if I wasn't missing something.
I felt a nudge to my shoulder. “Mistress, wake up. Ketrick is back.”
It was night, and the wall lanterns were throwing reddish shadows through the diaphanous curtains surrounding my bed. I sat up and stared.
“What time is it, Wanda?”
“Almost the ninth bell, Mistress.”
“Is Ann awake?”
“Yes Mistress, about an hour ago.”
A tall figure approached, brushing past the curtains idly as if he owned the apartments and my bed, which wasn’t far from the truth. “Ketrick!” I exclaimed, getting to my feet and sliding into his arms. “Goddess, I’m glad you’re back. We must speak. I have special need of you tonight.”
He held me, bemused at my enthusiasm. “I serve to please, Tyra. What is this special need?”
“I need you to be here, and to play along when Ann tries to enter her fantasy tonight. You’ll know when the time comes.”
He looked at me inquisitively, but asked no questions. “I’ll do my best,” he said.
I kissed him on the cheek and strode quickly to Ann’s room.
She was sitting on the bed in her servant’s dress, brushing her hair. She looked up as I entered. I knelt down and took her shoulders in my hands, startling her with the strength of my grip. “Ann,” I said. “Listen to me tonight. Listen carefully and follow my instructions.”
“Yes, of course, but why…?”
“I have an idea I might try, and wear your shift tonight instead of a dress.”
A pipe of afkal later, Ann lay on my bed again. She closed her eyes and willed herself to relax.
“Ann, are you ready?” I asked, giving her hand a last squeeze.
“Yes. I’m in the copse again. I’m wearing a comfortable brown and green dress in late afternoon. The weather is clear and warm, but not hot. A slight wind blows through my hair and the leaves over my head. I hear the sound of a small stream to my right, and a carpet of grass grows under my feet.” She breathed deeply. “I take a breath and smell the rich air, full of plants, trees, and sap from the hanging trees nearby. I am safe, calm and feel wonderful.”
For the moment, peace and happiness smoothed her face, making her younger.
“A woman walks a winding path towards you. She knows you. Can you see her?”
“Yes,” she exhaled. “Her name is Ann and she walks towards me from the setting sun. I know her.”
“She is my height and weight. Her hair is like polished silver and the tail of it glows from the sun behind her. She smiles at me through eyes of the deepest blue. She wears the gray robes with silver trim of the associate scholar, and walks with grace and beauty. She looks exactly like me, except for my hair and eye color. Her father was Merton, the librarian in Tulem, and her mother was Radine. She is twenty years old.”
I looked to Wanda across the bed. She was already in tears. What Ann was trying exhilarated me. What more beautiful way to start over then to take the name of the unborn daughter who had died with his wife, and invent a life that she might have lived? Oh, Goddess! Ashtar, grant her wish!
Yet, I had my doubts if this would work. A fantasy had to be real to the person trying it. All Ann really needed was a fantasy, any fantasy, to work once. From there she could build on her success. If she could become this wonderful vision then I would rejoice, but I questioned if she weren’t taking on too much.
“She’s coming closer, Ann. She is so close you can touch her. She’s inviting you to approach her, to be with her. Look into her eyes, Ann. What do you see?”
“She’s looking at me; her eyes are willing me to join her. She is me, Dana. She wants to join with me, to become her and live as her. Oh, Dana, I want it so much!”
“Ann wants you to join her in the gray scholars dress with silver trim. You and she are the same. Move forward and step inside. Become Ann, the daughter of Merton and Radine. Step inside, Ann. Become her!”
“I can feel her. We are so much alike. I feel her. I … I … Damn!” She brought her hand across her eyes and was a gnat’s heartbeat from bawling when I decided that I wouldn’t let it happen again. I grabbed her arms, forcing them to the side.
“Stop it! Ann, listen to me.”
“Dana, I…” She took a few fast breaths and swallowed. She couldn’t stop the tears, but she managed to stop her descent into despair -- for the moment. “Yes, Majesty.”
I met her eyes, staring deep. “Get back to that warm wonderful place in the woods. I’ll lead you where I want you to go. Trust me.”
“I don’t know if I can do this much longer,” she wailed. “Everything I’ve tried, every time!”
I released her arms and leaned closer, using my right hand to smooth back an errant lock of hair. “You and I, Ann, remember? To the end, you said. We’re doing it again, but this time, my way. Go back to the copse. Take your time to get it right, but do it.”
She gave me a weary look, but recovered some of her tenacity. “Very well, Majesty, to the end,” she said. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes.
It took much longer this time, but finally:
“I’m in the copse again. I’m still wearing a comfortable brown and green dress in late afternoon. I feel the warm wind, hear the stream and smell the rich summer air. I’m calm again, Dana.” She sighed. “It’s a happy, comfortable place.”
“Good. A woman approaches from the west on the winding path we know so well. She is a few inches taller than you with long black hair styled into a noblewoman’s tail. She has the tiniest hook of a Giovanni nose and is quite pretty. Her dress is long and elegant, the fabric rich and tasteful. Her colors are purple and white.”
“Queen Prudence, yes. She is a kind woman. Her husband died in a hunting accident and left her lonely. “
“Majesty.” She began to stir.
“Stay. There’s no reason to leave the copse. Queen Prudence is not your enemy -- far from it. Picture her, Ann. Now, describe her.”
Ann relaxed. Her breathing returned to normal, and the tension in her shoulders and arms slowly melted away into the bed. She licked her lips and began again. “It’s a wonder to see her. She usually smiles like the moon, mysterious, dark, cool ... and she’s sometimes aloof, at least in public. It was difficult for her after her husband died. She had no true friends, but many who would take advantage.”
“Not you, though.”
“Not I. Even then I loved books, words, and knowledge. I never threatened her.”
“She’s smiling, Ann. She’s glad to see you.”
“Yes.” She smiled imperceptibly, still in that safe place in the woods. “It’s a real smile. She has a way of holding her head when she thinks. I smell her hair. I … I remember other things.”
“What other things?”
She’s often sarcastic, especially about the nobles. She despises Borodins in general, although she rarely shows it.” The corners of her delicate mouth turned down slightly, and she spoke hesitantly: “Majesty, it’s hard to see her now. I remember us together. The first time I kissed her was in her apartments. She was crying about something a lord said in court. I don’t know what possessed me, but I took her in my arms. She was soft and warm; her hair smelled like lilacs.
“When she stopped crying, she made a motion I’ll always remember. She tossed her hair to the side and reached up for me, her dark eyes longing and lips parted. I didn’t think, just bent my head and kissed her, gently at first, but stronger as she pulled me closer.” Small ridges formed on her brow and her voice grew agitated. “Majesty, it’s hard to see her. I’m not the same; I look up to her now. How can she want to see me like this?” She began to stir.
I took a chance and placed my hand on her shoulder. “Shh. Ann, those are wonderful memories. She knows who you are. She loved you. She would not turn away. See her smile? She’s here for a reason: to thank you for everything you’ve done, to see you again. See her, Ann. She stands before you, confident, calm, kind.”
“She led a difficult life in trying times. You were her rock, the one person she counted on. She would want you to be happy. What else do you remember?”
“Her laughter, louder than one would expect. The way my name sounded on her lips. The way her neck stretched back, and over; the way she held me in the dark, and the way her eyes rolled back then refocused hungrily when I first took her. Most of all, the sweet pain when I secured her right to a consort, knowing it could never be me.”
“She loved you, Ann.”
A pause. “Yes.”
She’s here to help you to be happy. She wants the best for you. Look at her. She wants you to be her, for just a moment, to share her body and spirit.”
“Do not deny her gift! She gives herself willingly. Look in her eyes, Ann. See her love. Remember. Remember what you gave her. She wants the same happiness for you. Now walk to her.”
“I’m walking to her. I see her face. Oh! It’s the way I remember, but it’s so strange to look up, to feel small.”
“Walk to her, take her in your arms. Let her comfort you.”
“I’m a woman now, how can I…”
“She knows that! One last time, Ann. Take her in your arms; allow her embrace. You’re together again. You feel her arms around you, your old love; feel her love, Ann.”
“Yes…” she breathed.
She wants you to join with her. She isn’t a dream; she’s real. She beckons you. Take that final step forward, merge with her.”
“She’s looking down at me. Her lips are parting. It’s like the first time between us, except twisted around.”
I glanced at Ketrick. He’d kept quiet the whole time, but from his stance, he was fascinated. He pointed to both of us, pressed two fingers to his lips with one hand then pressed them to two others in his other hand. Then he grinned. Knowing men, he was probably looking forward to watching, but I had to admit, what he had in mind might work.
“Ann,” I said, slow and clear, “when you join, you will be in your apartments. You’ll see three people. The slave is Wanda. The lady is Lady Dana, a Giovanni lady you know slightly. The man is your consort. His name is Ketrick.”
“I understand. Majesty!” she panted. “She’s bending for me, so close, closer.”
Apparently her mind had decided not to “walk in” to a body, as I liked to think of it, but rather to kiss her way in, logical in a way -- at least for Queen Prudence, considering their history. Regardless, this was the point Ann usually failed. I wondered if she really needed the actual touch, but I wasn’t going to take any chances.
I lowered my lips to hers. Ann had become accustomed to being kissed like a girl, so I kissed her hard, like a man with a free woman he loved, pouring everything I had into it. In a way, I did love her, like an older sister to a younger sister. I wasn’t attracted to Ann physically, but I would have done much more than kiss her to grant Ann her freedom. Then I slowly brought my lips away and stood, praying silently while my heart raced.
Ann stretched, lifting her arms over her head. Yawning gracefully, her delicate mouth opened in a yawn. She opened her eyes, sat up and looked around. It wasn’t much, just a few small movements, but I nearly staggered. This was not the Ann I knew.
“Dana,” she said -- imperiously.
I cleared my throat as innocuously as possible. “Yes, Majesty?”
“How long have I been asleep?”
“Not long. It’s close to the tenth bell. I was about to depart -- with your permission, Majesty.” I curtsied.
“Of course. Visit me again, Dana.” She smiled, but it was the cool version Ann had described, sincere enough, but not very warm. For some reason that bothered me, even though I’d told Ann to regard me as just a slight acquaintance. She faced Ketrick and gave him the good version, though. As her consort, she would, naturally.
I turned and started away, but made sure I passed close to my fiancée. “Brol her ‘till she can take no more,” I said very low. “I have no idea how long this fantasy will last.”
“I’ll do that,” he replied, barely moving his mouth. “I never thought I’d say this, but I hope she stays free.”
I left the apartments to the sounds of sighs and clothing being removed. It would soon become the screams of a natural slave discovering her female core. Ann had gone for months without submitting; it wouldn’t take long for her to ignite in Ketrick’s arms. I would weep for happiness later when I returned. In the meantime, submission always made me hungry.
The only time I dared go to the streets without guards anymore was at night, only to a few places on the northwest, an area that I avoided as Queen, and then, only rarely. Even with blonde hair, blue eyes and minor makeup, my face was sometimes given the uncertain glance, although, as far as I knew, I’d never been “made.” Ketrick disliked me doing this, but he understood that sometimes there was need for privacy. Ann and I stood under a streetlight, waiting for a group of three men and two women to pass. Then we started again, walking slowly towards the northwest gate.
“Yes, I think you’re ready,” I said. “You’ve said so yourself.”
“I am. I’ve been delaying it.”
I grinned. “Could it be that you enjoy being a maid in the palace? Kernul gives me a report. Your work so far has been excellent. The other maids like you, and you seem to have adjusted to your new quarters.”
“I’m living every day. It doesn’t matter to me if I scrub the floors or wash ladies undergarments. All is new again. I’ve made a few friends who only know me as Ann, twenty year-old daughter of Merton and Radine. One of the other maids has warned me about this lord or that lady, and gives me advice on men. It’s a hundred leagues from what I’ve known, and still sometimes hard to believe that this is me.”
“You were a part of the library for many years. Is it possible that you’d prefer something new?”
“I’ve thought about it.” She cocked her head to the side. “But since warrior and queen appear closed to me, I’ve decided to stay with academe. I’m considering teaching.”
I laughed. “Children or at the University?”
“I’ll have to go back to school again for several years; that will give me time to decide.”
We arrived at the northwest gate. We walked through, nodding to the guards there, who stood strong and tall, wielding long spears. One grinned back, in the way of men, appreciating the shape of our bodies, but they would defend us to the death in case of danger. We continued on across the road, past the trees lining the lake, and down to the water’s edge. The moon was full and high in the sky with just a few clouds. The mountains around us glowed from moonlight at their snow-tipped peaks.
“You might meet a man in school. In fact, you’ll need a man to keep your urges at bay.”
Ann smiled, her brilliant eyes reflecting the light of the moon and stars. She kicked away her slippers, held her hands out, and spun around a few times in the grass, spreading her skirt wide, exposing her strong slim legs. She stopped, facing me, and let the skirt wrap around her before falling straight. It was a lovely thing to watch, and, as most of the things her body did, it was effortlessly feminine.
“Dana, don’t worry about me. I’m happy, happier than I’ve been in centuries. The urges are with me, but I embrace them. Men don’t frighten me; I enjoy them very much. You and Ketrick have shown me how strong I can be, and how wonderful life is. I like who I am. Given the choice, I would not go back.”
She walked into my arms, and I held her close.
“Dana, there’s a question I’ve wanted to ask you for months. Why did you kiss me the time I became Queen Prudence?”
“Oh. I didn’t think you knew. I wasn’t sure you would actually kiss Queen Prudence, so I made sure you kissed someone. I’d hoped that you thought I was her.”
“I wasn’t going to kiss her,” she protested, “just touch lips -- a symbolic gesture. It nearly shocked me right out of the fantasy to feel her tongue in my mouth, giving it her all.”
I sighed. “Ah, well. It seemed the right thing to do at the time. Was I any good?”
“Not bad, but Ketrick is better.”
“Yes ... I’ve been told that before,” I said. At her questioning look, I added, “Never mind. Exams for the Scholars Guild start in a week. Are you ready for them?”
“I helped write some of the tests. I won’t have a problem. I’ll miss you, Wanda, and Ketrick.”
“If you need help, you know where I live. Don’t hesitate to come to me.” I gave her a final squeeze. “To the end, Ann. I’ll miss you.”
She squeezed me back. “To the end.”
“More tea?” asked Katrina, as she poured a cup for herself from her new tea carafe. It was part of a magnificent matched set of white porcelain inscribed with flowers and trees under translucent blue glaze. A fashionable statement, it was from the last city she’d been to, Ademar, Angel’s city, renowned for its ceramics and silks.
In fact, Katrina’s sitting room was a display of fashion statements from cities she had visited recently. We sat on the elaborately carved and gilded chairs from Bandar. On the walls hung visions of pastoral life, paintings from Teshruk. The incense, leatherwork, and the tea we were drinking came from Batuk.
“More tea, please,” I replied, moving my cup closer. “You’ve set a fine example for the other ladies. You’ve visited how many cities so far?”
“Six,” she said, pouring tea into my cup, “but you know that I don’t like to talk about such things.” That was so outrageous, she smiled.
“Well, whatever the latest adventure, you’ve been enjoying yourself. Whether it’s from the men you meet or your new interest in shopping is yet to be determined.”
“You cast a coarse net, but I will answer. It could be a little of both.”
“You’ve found someone? Katrina! You must tell me.”
“Very well, but only because you’re the Queen.” She placed her cup to the side and leaned forward, her blue eyes sparkling like gems. “His name is Sephram Ronade, and he has noble blood! Well, part noble at least. His grandfather is the third son of old King Uffer.”
Literally hundreds in Ademar were related to the royal family. Even Angel had a loose connection through a scandalous affair over two centuries before involving a princess of the royal house, but Katrina surely had known that. “Impressive. Would you like me to examine him?”
“Unnecessary,” she said coolly. “He’s a fine man, and high in the Army. He is,” she paused dramatically, “Watch Commander of the East.”
“That gives him direct command of over two thousand warriors, an important man.”
She smiled. “Powerful enough not to be overawed at my position here.”
“No question, Katrina.” I affirmed. Then, speaking hesitantly, I said, “It’s not my business to intrude, but how serious is this? Could you even be thinking of marriage?”
“It’s too early to say. Sephram is a young man half my age and is eager to make me his. He hints at giving me a child immediately, or even two. Goddess! Imagine me being a mother to two children. But I told him that I couldn’t consider it for at least a year or more. I have obligations in the valley, for those Borodin women who depend on me for direction, and to you. You’ll need my help to weather the storm that’s coming.”
“What storm? Seven women have married this past year. Three nobles have left the valley. I’d hoped for more, but at this rate the nobility will be at a tolerable level in about six more years.”
“This is precisely why you need my help. You have no idea what’s going on behind the smiles and bows. The problem, as usual, comes from the lords,” she said disgustedly, rising to her feet. “Were men as reasonable as women, no one would ever have a problem.”
“Let me guess. The lords want to choose women from outside the valley, like the ladies. Except that the lords don’t want to leave.”
She spun to stare at me. “You have heard this already?”
“Ketrick mentioned it as a possibility.”
“It’s just starting -- the beginnings of rumblings -- but men always covet the best for themselves. The slaughter in Alexander’s castle killed the Borodin leaders. Most were at least a century or two old and their wives, now widows, were of a similar age. Although still as beautiful as any woman, they are too ‘mature’ to appeal to the young bucks, who prefer women more easily amazed by a young man’s wit, and astonished by the feel of his powerful chest and arms.” She held herself closely at the last, a feminine movement that made me hope that she was still taking slave bitters.
“What do you suggest?”
“We must speed up the process. Instead of six years, it should conclude before real trouble starts, in three or four.”
“I agree. The sooner the better.”
Katrina sat and shifted to face me. “I hesitate to suggest it, but the more men who come here, the more choices the ladies have. Your consort has a discerning eye, and an uncanny sense of what appeals to women. If he might be persuaded to gather more…” She broke off, looking hopeful.
“That would require him to be away more often, even weeks at a time -- for a stretch of years.”
“I’m sorry, Dana. I have an idea what you would lose, but it’s the most effective means to that end I know. Other men and women have tried, but your consort chooses the finest.”
It would allow us to leave Tulem years earlier, but all I could think about that moment was being away from him. That was bad enough, and I would also have to find another consort for the interim, one that I didn’t want.
I sighed. “I’ll talk to him tonight.”
Two years passed since that meeting with Katrina. I stood on the balcony in my robe in the early morning, watching the sunrise. Ketrick had been gone for nearly a week and wasn’t due back for another five days. My consort of the moment had satisfied me earlier, and had already left. I’d taken to a rotation of four whenever Ketrick was out procuring men for our slowly dwindling population of ladies. My consorts were all decent men, and I treated them well, with respect, but it’s different with a man who knows that he serves only to satisfy his sovereign’s needs, and any man who wasn’t bothered a little by being the Queen’s relief I didn’t want between my legs. In some ways being taken as a slave was preferable. At least then, there was no doubt who was dominant.
The compensation for this sorry state of affairs was that twenty more ladies had joined the ranks of the happily married, including, surprisingly, Marcus’ widow, a woman older than Ketrick, who had married a lusty warrior a tenth her age after he had somehow pierced her centuries-jaded heart.
The nobles, too, had left the valley, continuing their rate of departure at three a year. At that rate, the nobles would be down to the level I’d wanted in less than two years, with the ladies following a year later.
“Angel, Wanda!“ I called. Angel had joined us temporarily while Ketrick was out. I’d taken down her ridiculous sideways ponytails when Ketrick dropped her off, and made her a maid in my apartments. She wasn’t a very good maid, but she was learning.
“Yes Mistress!” They both presented themselves to me as I left the balcony.
“Get some breakfast from the slave kitchens and return. Then run the bath.”
After they were gone, I exercised with the old slave forms, to keep my flexibility and strength. When they returned, I’d already worked up a good sheen. A few moments later after pouring the water, Wanda and Angel joined me in the bath, satisfactorily hot for the cool morning.
Ketrick maintained her in superb condition. With her hair down, except for the vaec on her thigh, and the color of her hair and eyes, she was my twin again. Her life centered more around Ketrick than ever before. As consort, Ketrick could hardly lead her on a leash around the city. Her time with him was limited to the days in his apartments when he wasn’t busy. He usually took her on trips outside Tulem, but I had the better bargain, sleeping with him every night he was in the valley, which explained her pout when she was around me.
I leaned back and closed my eyes, letting the bath carry away my concerns for her. There was nothing for it. I could accept her as Ketrick’s slave after we were married, but her pride would make her miserable.
When I returned from lunch at Katrina’s castle, Kernul and Selmin were waiting for me outside my quarters. Their faces proclaimed bad news. Both of them together meeting me outside my apartments meant that it was serious and delicate.
I invited them through as I entered. After we settled into chairs and exchanged pleasantries, as a lady should before discussing anything important, Selmin leaned forward earnestly:
“Majesty, it concerns your consort’s slave.”
“Yes?” I asked, wondering what trouble Angel could cause in the hour or so a day I allowed her out of the apartments.
“Your consort disguised her appearance, but she’s been wandering the palace lately looking much like a slave Queen, admittedly with different hair, eyes, and dress.”
I sighed, kicking myself for not realizing that someone in the palace would take “offense.” “I understand, Selmin. From now on, her meals will be sent to my apartments and she will not be permitted to leave.”
Selmin glanced quickly to Kernul before continuing. “It’s more than that I’m afraid.”
“Angel only leaves to eat, and returns immediately,” I said, frowning. “Someone, it appears, is looking for a scandal.”
He lowered his head marginally. “Exactly so, Majesty. Your Chief of Staff discovered a plan to embarrass you.”
Kernul said, “A group of lords and ladies who oppose your marriage plans want to remind the valley that your consort owns a twin of your Majesty, that he is, to put it delicately, ‘having it both ways.’ Damaging your reputation, they hope, would halt the ‘sale of the aristocracy’ as they call it. When your consort returns, they plan to bring the slave out and expose her. It's serious. Reflect upon the thousands of men who have taken your DNA twin to the alcove.”
“That would be embarrassing. What do you suggest?”
“Take her out of Tulem, or change her appearance, Majesty.”
“Do you concur, Selmin?”
“Majesty, sell the slave immediately to the first passing caravan.”
“Thank you both for your warning. I don’t own her anymore, but I think Ketrick would understand if I changed her appearance. In truth, it should have been done before now. It would be best if I handled this myself as a statement of my will.”
After they retired, I found Angel in the maid’s room. When I told her that I would change her DNA, she cried.
“Mistress, my Master likes me this way!” she bawled.
“I have no choice. Ketrick would do the same thing.” She immediately collapsed to the bed and sobbed. I rolled my eyes. She was a slave; I shouldn’t have to argue with her. I put my hand on her shoulder and squeezed it gently. “Angel, Ketrick told me he preferred women with black hair, dark eyes, and tinted.”
She stopped crying instantly, and turned her head. “Really, Mistress?”
“Yes. It could be that you would please him more in that form. If you stop annoying me with useless talk, I’ll find you a body like that and make it your own.” The sudden change from despair to joy was remarkable. “Good. Now, get ready. Put on your ‘Baby’ look. We’re going to see Abul the Slaver.”
But when we arrived, Abul was gone. Angel, Wanda, my two guards, and I stood on the outside reading a sign promising Abul’s return in four days. By Angel’s crestfallen expression, I wasn’t sure who was more disappointed. “Wanda,” I said low, to keep it from the guards, “Ketrick had a supply of Ruk’s serum for special occasions. Do you know where he kept it?”
“Mistress, he told me to keep it a secret,” she whispered back.
“Considering what’s at stake, I’m sure that he’d want me to use it. Tell me.”
“Mistress, I’d have to show you. It’s in his apartments.”
I glanced at my guards. Outside of the Slavers Guild, and me, of course, Ruk”s serum was illegal in Tulem, not to mention the questions that would pop up in Ketrick was known to have a supply.
“On second thought, you go tonight. There were at least six sealed syringes there the time I saw the case. Ketrick was out of blondes, so it’s an excellent chance that at least one would be marked for something close to black hair, dark eyes, and some skin coloring. Select the best match and bring it back, along with some of Angel’s clothes to give you a reason for being there.”
When Wanda returned that night, I sent for Lees’n. As he injected her in the maid’s room, I comforted Angel, stroking her long blond tresses. “Your Master will return soon after you wake up, Angel. I’m certain that he’ll be pleased to see you.”
“Thank you, Mistress,” she said dreamily, just before she lost consciousness.
The next morning, her changes were marked; she would be shorter, and her hair had become a duller blond as a prelude to the big changes in the days to come.
The second morning, her form was more advanced. She had leveled-off about two inches shorter. Her hair was coming in a lustrous black, and her breasts had grown a size.
The third morning, her face and body had taken on their final shapes. Angel’s skin still had the unfinished waxy look of the nearly transformed, but with still a half-day to go, I knew what she would look like. My blood ran cold. I couldn’t even hope I was wrong. I knew every line of the emerging face; I’d seen it in the mirror often enough. It had been my own, the face I’d first seen as a serum girl in Tisa’s quarters.
I’d wondered why someone had given me a very rare type of Ruk’s serum. It was expensive. If someone had wanted to ruin me, why hadn’t they used a cheaper, more common form of the serum? Now I had my answer.
I laughed like a madwoman. It was all I could do not to run screaming into the streets. I think I did go mad for a moment. Without knowing how I got there, I was on the floor with Wanda holding my shoulders, slivers of broken glass and shards of pottery surrounding me.
I pushed her away and stood, staring down at my slim, pretty hands, now covered with cuts and gashes, leaking onto my pretty dress with its pretty gold flowers lovingly hand sewn for hundreds of hours. I tore at it with everything I had, but couldn’t rip it away with my woman’s strength. I screamed in rage, having to undo each hook of my stomacher one by one to get the hated thing away. When it was finally off, I stepped on it, rubbing it into the floor.
“May the gods curse you!” I yelled. I strode towards the spear on the wall in only my shift. Wanda placed herself in front of me and went to her knees.
“Mistress,” she wept. “I don’t know why you’re so upset. Beat me if you wish, but please don’t kill yourself!”
I gritted my teeth at her in fury and was about to yell at her for daring to interfere, but she didn’t know any better. “I’m not going to kill myself! Get up Wanda.”
She gave me an uncertain glance, but complied. “Yes, Mistress,” she said, backing away.
“Go to your room. Now,” I intoned coldly, not bothering to watch her go. I picked up the spear and started a pattern that I hadn’t tried in years. I will not cry like a woman! I thought of the time I’d met Ketrick and of our times wenching and drinking in taverns in Batuk.
Even then he’d been measuring me for a collar!
“Hee-yah!” I yelled, thrusting my blade into an opponent that now had a face.
He’d needed me to complete his mission in Tulem!
“Aiiii!” I screamed, stepping forward and slashing a head from its body with a two-handed swing.
My rage built, making me careless. A red line formed above my knee from an errant spin of the blade. I didn’t feel it. Ketrick had wanted to make me a slave from the beginning. Despite my determination not to cry, tears formed, making the exercise dangerous. I didn’t care. I had loved him, loved him as a woman. I would have married this treacherous dog from Hades! I would have bore his child.
“How could you do this to me!” I shrieked. “Yiiieee!” With that, I threw the spear as hard as I could, burying the blade a quarter-way into the wall through a four hundred year-old masterpiece.
I collapsed to my knees and wept. I was trapped inside a form I did not want any longer; into a love I must now destroy; into urges that would force me to do that which I now despised. If there was a worse betrayal for a man I didn’t know of one.
I rose to hate and resolve; there was only one thing left to me.
Ketrick returned on time in the early evening two days later, and I greeted him at the door with a kiss that promised much. “You were gone too long,” I said.
He smiled. “Finding men for discerning women takes time. Time I would have rather spent with you.”
His hands roamed my body, accustoming his hands to my contours after a week’s absence. I let him and bent to his will. He took me very soon afterwards, forcing me to submit.
Much later, in his arms, I said, “I’m thirsty. Would you join me in a cool siolat?”
“Why not?” he said. I smiled and prepared our drinks.
I waited until he fell asleep, then an hour longer to make sure, and tied him up, hands and feet. I gagged him with a slave tunic and slave cords, and rolled him off the bed, straining to bring the big man into a sitting position. I waited cross-legged on a pelt, my spear and a syringe by my side until the drug wore off in the early morning. His eyes opened abruptly. Startled at where he was, he tested his bonds, looked at me, and relaxed -- all in less than five seconds. I was impressed. But that wasn’t going to save him.
“Angel, come here!” I snapped.
Angel left her room weeping. She’d seen herself already and knew how furious I was. She assumed the slave position in front of her bound master.
“Master,” she sobbed, bowing her head.
I let him get a good look at her then I untied the gag. I barely trusted myself to speak, but I said, as dispassionately as possible, “Death or Ruk’s serum, Ketrick.”
There was no fear in his eyes, just great sadness. “Don’t you want to know why I did it?”
I placed the spearhead an inch from his throat. “I already know why you did it! You used me, you steaming pile of pig excrement. You desired me as your slave, betrayed me, made me a serum girl, one who had called you friend!”
“I did it to prevent your brother from murdering you. Met would have killed you.”
I laughed coldly. “If that’s the best you can do, I will kill you now.” I pointed to the cowering, weeping slave before him and glared. “Look at her! She is, and I was, exactly what you described as your ideal woman. It was no accident that you chose that DNA.”
He nodded. “If I had to make you a serum girl then I wanted to give you an excellent body. I am a superb master; you would have been happy with me. I found out that Met and Der were cooperating. I followed Der and watched a meeting between them. He was reporting your movements. Your brother Met would have killed you, Tyra,” he said, with the confidence of a seer at a telling. “After three hundred years I know murderous intent.”
“If Der was betraying me, you braying ass, then why didn’t you just tell me?” I screamed in his face.
He shook his head. “Der was your childhood friend. If I told you that he was betraying you, who would you have believed?”
I would have struck any smile away with the butt of my spear, but he kept a straight face. His conceit had no limits. “You didn’t know that! Enough! You betrayed me then used me. I was a warrior. You stole my manhood and my life, you arrogant bastard!”
“If I hadn’t acted then you would have been dead over three years ago,” he repeated.
“How did you give me Ruk’s serum?”
“You were injured after the morning practice. I knew the physician would use a patch to seal your wound, so I injected the top patch when I saw you approach the infirmary.”
I closed my eyes and remembered the cool patch against my arm, the moment of my transformation. “I see,” I said thickly. “Why did you go to Tulem?”
“I’m not suicidal; at first I didn’t plan to go to Tulem at all. I would have looked for spies, hoping to capture one or two — a difficult task in a city the size of Batuk but one I'm used to -- and brought them to the council to wake them up.”
“I captured you. You would have been a serum girl if I hadn't given you a chance!”
“Not really. When you offered me a chance to become weapons master, I saw it as an opportunity to influence Batuk from the inside. If you had not, my ransom would have been paid by another agent. It's all true. When you stayed free, you were the partner I needed. It was a natural fit. You wanted to save Batuk, and I wanted you, at first as a slave, and then later, as a freewoman. If you’re going to kill me, then do it, but don’t let your hate destroy you. If the choice is between Ruk’s serum or death, I choose death.” He sat there staring at me; no fear, just terrible regret.
I couldn’t listen to him any more. I wept like the woman I had become as I tensed for the final lunge. I still loved him; when I killed him, a huge part of me would die, but what he had done, no man could possibly forgive.
At the last second, Angel leaped forward to block me. “Mistress, please don’t kill my master! Kill me instead!” she wailed.
“Angel,” Ketrick said to her softly. “Get out of the way.”
She threw herself on him, sobbing, “No! Mistress, if you take his life, take mine as well!”
I placed the head of the blade under her chin. “Get out of the way!” But even deathly pale under her new olive complexion, she refused. It was like a blow to the stomach. I considered kicking Angel aside and thrusting the blade between Ketrick’s ribs, but I couldn’t quite do it. She and I had been through too much, and as much as I despised him, Angel loved him more than life.
I spent tense seconds with my hands rigid on the spear, in the midst of a red haze. Everything in me demanded that Ketrick die for what he did. Breasts that would not have existed except for him lay heavy on my chest. My desire for him enraged me. Deep inside, I still wanted him, still hoped for a place where we could be together, house, husband — children. Watching Angel protect him with her body, I toyed with the idea of injecting him with his own serum. I doubted Angel would love Ketrick so much if he were a svelte redheaded slut.
In the end my will to kill him failed me, yet I could not let him go unpunished. I marched stiffly to the door, pulled it open and motioned to two guards on the other side. I pointed to Angel. “Bind that slave and gag her.” This was done in less than a minute; Angel didn’t protest besides whimpering a little, knowing it was useless.
As for Ketrick, I glared at the bound man.
“Bring a lash!” I screamed.
One of the guards bowed. “Immediately.” He left at a run, returning a few minutes later with a five-tail, a man’s whip. Under an expert’s hand it could strip flesh to the bone. Fortunately for Ketrick, I lacked a man’s strength. I lashed him until I was tired, spraying the area with droplets of blood until his back was a mass of cuts and bleeding flesh. He was strong: he made no sound until the end, and even then it was no more than a grunt.
I tossed the lash to the side. “Untie them. Permit him to get dressed. Give him a chance to return to his apartments and collect his belongings. Allow him no weapons until he leaves Tulem, and be very careful, he is extremely dangerous. If he and his slave are not beyond the gate by noon, kill them both!”
Ketrick looked up from his knees while the guards cut his bonds. He was angry, but buried beneath it was the same look I’d seen when he told me he wanted to be with me always. “I meant what I said to you — that and more.”
A lump lodged in my throat, for I believed in his own way that he loved me. “I’m letting you live for Angel,” I said in a hated girlish growl. “If I ever see you again, I’ll kill you.” I turned away, unable to bear the sight of him any longer.
“Angel, come here,” I said. She managed to pry herself away from Ketrick long enough to come to me.
She bowed her head, still weeping, but this time for joy. “Thank you for saving my master, Mistress.”
“You’ve won. He’s yours.” I moved my head, about to walk away, when she spoke.
“Mistress, may I say something?”
I nodded, finding it difficult to do more.
“I know that we haven’t been close friends, but it is my greatest wish — besides being with my master — that you don’t become bitter. Life is long. Please don’t let this overcome you. I … I like you the way you are.”
Womanly tears I couldn’t suppress any longer poured over delightfully feminine eyelashes that I now abhorred. “I can’t forgive him, Angel!”
“Perhaps in time, Mistress? I think he spoke the truth.”
“He … didn’t have the right to do what he did.”
I pulled her into my arms and squeezed her against me. Our breasts meshed, and our bodies pressed, woman to woman. Squeezing my eyes closed, I willed myself to forget, and brushed her hair back gently with my hand, the way I had done so often before as Tyr. It was certainly the last time I would ever see the woman I’d stolen, mastered and fallen in love with; it was another reason to hate him: Angel would have still been mine.
“Goodbye Angel,” I whispered. “I wish you well.”
I kept my back turned until the door shut behind them. I could imagine what they had seen, a woman in a blood-flecked shift, fighting off tears. Well, they’re right.
I sagged to my knees and cried. Like a woman.
It’s over. He’s gone, the son-of-a-bitch!
Oh, Ashtar, he’s gone!
I shrieked, pounding the floor with my hand. It shouldn’t have happened. I shouldn’t be a serum girl.
I would have accepted my fate if it had been Met. I had accepted it. By the Gods, a part of me still loved him. “Why Ketrick? Why did it have to be you?” I wailed.
I stopped, frozen in rage, wondering what in Hades I was doing. What sort of person have I become, weeping over the worst kind of thief? How soft I was now, how female! Had I really thrown away my strength, my warrior spirit to become this?
Betrayer! You made me a woman. You tried to make me forget who I was.
“Mistress, are you all right?” Wanda sounded frightened, probably wondering if I was going to try to kill myself.
I wiped my tears away and came to my feet. The slave I’d once kept as an afterthought was my only confidant in the valley, perhaps my only real friend, but friends have obligations to each other. Wanda, in her own way, was in love with the bastard.
“I have my duty to Batuk. If you want to go with Ketrick, I’ll free you.”
“Mistress? Is this what you want?” This time she sounded shocked.
Goddess, why am I crying again? How weak you are, Tyra l’Fay! Hades no, I don’t want you to go, Wanda. I would be lost without you.
“It’s ... I’m not a man, Wanda. I can’t give you what you need.”
“The guards are enough for me, Mistress. I want to belong to you.”
I pulled her to me, and held her until I could speak again. Our roles had changed so many times; what were we to each other? “I’ll keep you until you want to be sold, but tell me if you see a better master.”
Having her with me was water in the desert, but it wasn’t enough. I hated. All those times in his arms, forcing me to his will, making me happy to be a woman, making me want him... By the Goddess! He had ignited me -- and the worst of it was, I could still feel his body; I still craved his strength, his dominance.
When I looked in the mirror, I saw a woman. I had come too far to be anything else, but underneath, Tyr seethed. He would never forget how his life had been stolen, been remade to another’s use — had fallen in love with the man who destroyed him! And neither would I.
I picked up the spear from the floor. I used to be one of the best with it, and had allowed my skills to deteriorate. In my woman’s hands it would likely not defeat a competent warrior, but when I wielded it, at least I knew who I was.
This was a very tough chapter for Tyra, but puts her on a path she might never have taken. Stay tune for a few changes. Will Tyra find a way to overcome her hardship? Will she ever see Ketrick again?
Keep those comments coming. I love them! ~Aardvark
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