Chapter One 1 Damian woke up. The sun, shining through the sky-lamp and into his eyes, had given him a headache that began to crowd out what lingered of his dream. In exhausted disgust he rolled onto his side—moaning as the sudden movement made his head throb—and thrust his head beneath the pillow. He remembered dreaming of being female. His waking conscience had transformed the sweetness of his dreaming bliss into a less innocent delight of having total control over her body. Stretching his stiff muscles, he pressed his palms against his temple massaging the pain out of his head. He felt groggy, and awkward with a profound weakness. The skin along his stomach pulled taunt as he writhed beneath the silky sheets, and shrugged off the last vestige of feminine manner with a dry mouthed yawn. The girl of his dream had been a puppet: yet he had been aware of every inch of her nakedness as the sheets rubbed against her skin. She had blushed—a crimson washing over her achromatic face and shoulders—as the ever-present dream observer grabbed her by the hair, rocking her head back to expose her long white neck. Lips parted slightly, teasing—her tongue tickling as it flicked gently over her pearly white teeth, and licked her blood red lips. Where have I seen you? He snapped out of his reverie with a start. From the angle of the sun’s rays, it had to be almost noon. The timepiece on his dresser—an elaborate dome-shaped glass, housing a complex of gears and springs and suspended weights—confirmed his suspicions: it was eleven thirty-seven. He had missed the meeting of council. That was not like him, but he was too groggy to express his growing anger just yet. How could I have let myself oversleep, he wondered. And why do I feel so groggy...almost as if I had been drugged. Suddenly he began to remember. “Tereesan!” he said aloud. But how did he do it, and for what purpose. He looked around his room, wondering how he had gotten home; and the events from the night before began to play over in his head... 2 The door promptly opened when Damian knocked. “It’s good to see you, Damian,” said a woman with the purest traits of Mordian blood. “And you, dear,” she said nodding to Shalis, Damian’s young escort. She must have been waiting for me, he thought. He acknowledged the woman with a slight nod. The perfection of her pedigree breading did not impress Damian, but she had the classic Mordian beauty: long tassels of dark, curly hair neatly framing an aristocratic face; and the torchlight glow from the hall accented her hair with red highlights. The simple dress she wore clung to her waspish waist, and gave stiff support to her large breasts. Her huge brown eyes sparkled as she bowed formally, further revealing her cleavage. “Tereesan and Serria are waiting for you in the great hall.” Her voice was much to intimate for a drudge. She lead them down the hall to the first set of doors, which she threw open with a sweeping gesture. Damian walked inside guiding the pale child beside him into the large open room. Three young dancing girls entertained from a raised platform dominating the center of the room. They wore traditional dresses: conservative whites to contrast with their dark hair and complexion. Tereesan and a woman, wearing a black silk skirt, with the slit-sided cut of a slave’s tunic, and a matching low-cut sweater, were watching the dancing from a divan piled high with pillows. The Mordian woman announced Damian, and Tereesan rose to his feet to greet him. “Welcome, Damian!” he said pointing to the woman on the divan. “I don’t believe you’ve meet Serria.” Damian studied the woman for a moment. She was not from any bloodlines that he recognized, nor could he distinguish any dominant phylo elements; but she was provocative sitting with her long legs crossed to one side. When she saw how Damian looked at her she smiled with a sensuous confidence. He noticed the red choker she wore was set with a blue stone, cut in the shape of an “S” instead of the customary “T” for Tereesan. “And you, Shalis!” Tereesan said taking the achromatic girl’s hand and raising it to his forehead: a greeting befitting the escort of royalty. “It’s good to see you once again.” She blushed brightly, but Tereesan seemed not to notice. He turned to Damian and motioned towards the divan beside Serria. When Damian and Shalis had taken their seats, Tereesan sat down again. “Would either of you care for something to eat?” he asked. Damian bristled at Tereesan’s lack of deference, but Shalis, knew better than to speak for her self. When he had paused long enough to stress Shalis’ silence, Damian turned to answer Tereesan. “I would indeed enjoy that meal you promised.” “Very good.” Tereesan turned to the Mordian woman. “Savyn dear,” he said. “Bring us some food.” Savyn bowed gracefully, and hurried from the room. “Please, sit.” Tereesan said, pointing out a spot beside Serria. “Do you enjoy the dance art?” “I prefer a less artistic interpretation, I’m afraid.” Damian said. He pulled Shalis close to his side, griping her leg possessively in his hand; and a dark blush colored her face. “What of you, Shalis?” Damian said, his voice thick with sarcasm, as he inched his way up her leg. “Do you prefer the dance art, or secular dancing?” He tugged on a few of her fleecy-white, pubic hairs, twining them about his fingers. “Perhaps Tereesan would allow you to dance for us, now.” He looked at the healer, daring him to deny his request. “I would love to see Shalis dance!” Tereesan said with such robust enthusiasm that it made his polite acceptance anything but demeaning as Damian had intended. “Please my lord,” Shalis said burying her head against Damian’s shoulder. “I know nothing of dancing.” Damian kissed her ear, and whispered. “I don’t expect perfection, little pet. I just want to see you dance.” The healer turned to Shalis. “Would you like to request a musical accompaniment,” he said in an intimate tone that excluded Damian from answering. Inside he raged, but outwardly Damian remained calm, and when Shalis looked at him beseechingly—hoping that he might remove his request—he intentionally misinterpreted her gesture, and spoke for her. “I would like her to dance to the Horl-festival-chant,” he said, choosing the ritual dance for its difficult and suggestively sexual nature. “Are your musicians familiar with it?” Tereesan glanced at Shalis. “But I’ve never danced, before my lord!” she objected. “Perhaps, something less challenging,” Tereesan suggested. “My musicians, I’m afraid would not do such a piece justice.” “Shalis could entertain us with a secular dance set to one of the themes from Morlain’s lament,” Serria said, speaking for the first time. Morchir’s-duet holds quite an erotic mood.” “Yes,” Tereesan nodded, turning to Damian. “If one of my dancers may accompany Shalis—I think Jolnima and her would make a striking pair!” “By all means!” Tereesan clapped his hands, and the dancing girls left the center stage—dropping to their knees, in a motionless little row, with heads bowed. “Jolnima is my prize.” Tereesan said, clapping his hands again. The tallest of the girls sprang to her feet, bouncing on her toes towards Tereesan’s place on the pillows. She gave a sprightly curtsey: the wispy tassels of her dress flew into the air as she sank to the floor, and bounced back up. Then she fell to her knees a half arms length from Tereesan. “I won Jolnima from the RoyalPalace on a sporting bet,” Tereesan said. “She had not finished her training then, so I can not claim that she is Royal trained, but she comes from a long line of Royal Dancers.” Tereesan turned to the dancing girl and addressed her personally. “My guest, Shalis, has agreed to perform to Morchir’s-duet,” he said. “Would you accompany her, Jolnima? The dancer nodded and sprang to her feet—taking Shalis by the hands and coaxing her to her feet. She took Shalis under her arm, shuffling her away towards the stage, whispering instructions but never loosing her fluid sense of the dance art. When they reached the other girls, Jolnima quickly doffed her dress, while the other dancers helped Shalis slip the tunic over her head. “Ah,” Serria announced the Mordian woman’s return. “Savyn has brought our food.” Three women, of mixed breeding, marched behind her carrying silver platters laden with foods. They spread the silver out on the floor before the divan as the musicians struck up the first few eerie notes of the duet’s introduction. The girls scrambled to take their places on the stage—they stood back to back: naked bodies, dark beside pale. “Shalis really is quite a pretty child.” Serria remarked as she leaned forward to snare a handful of pickled acorns. So, Damian thought. The acorns are safe to eat. “Do you think she’ll retain her youthful figure,” he asked. “Or will her Romastion blood give way to another phylo?” “She won’t loose her girlish figure.” Serria said with total assurance. She bit into another acorn and drew it into her sensuous mouth. “Are you considering a bid to buy her?” “I find her innocence tempting,” Damian said. They watched her dance: she was not as fluidly graceful as Jolnima, but there was a quality about her body and the initial hesitancy with which she moved that was indeed alluring. “Please,” Tereesan said motioning to the platters of food. “We’ve plenty to eat.” He picked out a biscuit with bits of meat and vegetables. Another platter was laden with fruit salad spiced with herbs and sweetened with thin, light-brown syrup that was probably maple sap; another platter held pickled vegetables, served in a minty sauce; another peppers, tomatoes and other cooking fruits stuffed with minced meats and topped heartily with Rolavian white cheese. Damian selected a few acorns out of the same pile from which Serria was eating; then he turned his attention back to the girls. Shalis watched the way Jolnima moved and tried to copy the dancer. Her hips were not quite as loose, and her body was not as limber, but Shalis improved as the dance progressed. As she began to relax, the charm of her childish awkwardness was replaced by an awakening of her own sensuality. You’re definitely marketable, child, Damian thought. Serria casually placed her hand on Damian’s knee. “Yarvin is rather fond of the girl,” she said with a smile. “You may find it difficult to convince him to part with her.” “I could speak to him for you,” Tereesan said. “If you’re really interested in the girl. He owes me a favor or two: perhaps I could persuade him to part with her.” “In exchange for...what?” Damian took another handful of acorns, and studied the healer as he popped them one at a time into his mouth. “Surely you don’t expect to buy my support so easily.” “Of course not,” Tereesan said with a laugh. “The music is ending,” Serria said. “Perhaps we should have a drink and something to eat before we talk of business.” “After you,” Damian said. Serria smiled, her eyes sparkling. “Of course,” she said. “Is Kumiss and vitriol all right?” “A gentle drop of Golden vitriol would be fine. Is it local Kumiss or is it Zylomian Phydmilk?” Serria shook her head. “I don’t approve of Zylomian methods,” she said. “Just curious,” Damian said, an amused smile playing across his lips as he nodded his courteous acceptance of the less expensive substitute. “Savyn,” Serria said. “Pour us all drinks, please.” Tereesan turned to the dancing girls and clapped heartily as they stepped down from the stage. Quickly the Mordian woman prepared four glasses of ice on a tray, then poured the drinks, and presented them to Damian. He selected one; waiting until Tereesan and Serria had taken sips from theirs before he took his first sip. Damian offered Shalis permission to eat, and wrapped his arm around her waist as she helped herself to the stuffed vegetables. When she had taken several bites, he took some for himself. “You don’t think we would try to poison you?” Tereesan said, raising his glass in a solo toast then draining it dry. “See,” he said handing his glass back to Savyn. She refilled his glass and he took another long drink before setting it off to the side. “Would you like me to sample yours?” Serria asked sweetly. “That wont be necessary,” Damian said taking another sip. The liquid seemed to rush to his head. “A fine vintage!” he said, raising his glass. “And now should we discuss business?” “Of course,” Tereesan said. “I assume you’ve read my proposal.” Damian nodded, sipping at his drink. “An interesting idea: excavating earth from Slutin lake during the dry season to make its reservoirs more lasting the next time the river dries up. But I fail to see how such a project could be profitable. When the river dries up the channels that carry the water dry up as well. The lake would have more water, but how would it be more useful than the cisterns we use now.” “You’re right!” Tereesan said. “A larger reservoir would be useless without a way to get the water to homes and businesses; and the channels that feed the wealthy on the East side will not work. But there is a need for a more reliable water source: the smaller cisterns of private citizens—especially the poor who can not afford anything larger—run dry almost every year, and they must turn to the larger public cisterns. But even these are severely taxed during dryer years and the city charges more than a poor family can afford for a small bucket of water, which they must carry themselves. “Imagine how many would be willing to pay you for water during a dry year if you could deliver it to their home, and give them more water for the same price in the bargain. And think of the businesses, like the paper mill, that shut down part of the year because they use so much water they can’t keep their cisterns full even though they have some of the largest in the city.” “Yes,” Damian nodded, his eyes lighting up with possibilities. “I can see the profit potential, but how do you plan to get the water from the lake to those homes and businesses at a cost that will be affordable, and yet pay for the prohibitive expense of the excavation process?” “The water will be carried to cisterns in specially designed wagons made water-tight with resin, pitch, or pine tar. Someone trained in the earth’s magic could fix up an efficient design with a little experimentation. Perhaps porcelain if we can design a kiln to fire the bed, or if not, liquid rock could be used: poured very thin and reinforced on the outside with Sponge Wood to prevent it from breaking incase it is accidentally hit by something hard.” Damian rubbed his eyes feeling a little tired, but said nothing; convinced that it would pass shortly. “The wagon would have to be large enough to hold a significant amount of water, and some way to download the water would have to be devised. Perhaps some sort of ceramic spigot like the ones on water toilets that can be closed in between uses, and a drain spout fashioned into the body of the wagon so that the water can be directed into the cisterns with some measure of flexibility.” “You’ve obviously given this a good deal of thought,” Damian said, without any hint of sarcasm in his voice. He blinked and shook his head gently, trying to shake the weariness loose and beginning to wonder if it were not something unnatural. But I’ve been so careful, he thought; to Tereesan he said. “How would you get the water from the lake into the wagon?” “That shouldn’t be two difficult either—a floating water wheel run by leg power...if several teams of slaves took turns they should be able to keep up with the demand. Or if you prefer, you’ve trade connections with the Zylomians, through Eapar—buy a couple of full-blood Cordobions, they’ve been breed for leg strength, and are more beast than human from what I hear.” Damian agreed with a nod heavy nod of his head. “A few Cordobions could prove worthwhile,” he said, his lips noticeably sluggish. Perhaps he was ill: vitriol was known to react oddly with flu symptoms and certain other illnesses. “They’re widely used on Eapar,” Damian said. “Very affective...very manageable.” “Then you’re interested?” Serria said. “What sort of...arrangement did you have in mind?” “I have the plan, but I do not have the means financially or politically to back it by myself. You on the other hand, if we worked together, splitting profits and expenses roughly fifty-fifty...And with the proper public relations work we could recruit the services of a sizable number of the towns people, who would be willing to work in exchange for the promise of an abundance of water at reduced prices. And if you increased your plumbing trade, making holding tanks, sinks and toilets more affordable you would find that many of the poorer citizens would be inclined, with the increased availability of water, to install indoor plumbing as well. “Of course, as part of our final proposal, I would suggest that we demand the sole rights to the water pooled in the lake when the river runs dry...” Tereesan paused, leaning closer and staring intently into Damian’s eyes with an odd expression of concern on his face. “Are you alright? You’ve been looking rather pale all evening.” Damian nodded, but said nothing. A spell of nausea was passing and for the moment he was feeling more awake and much relieved. Tereesan shrugged, and went on. “It may be difficult to pass such a provision through council,” he said. “In order to gain support for the project, we will have to explain our ultimate goal, and others will see the potential for profits. To insure our monopoly of the water trade, I suggest that we buy all of the land along the bank from the EastJawlsBridge to the SouthMinzerBridge. My estate runs along the river as you know, and I have managed to buy out a sizable section of the land already, but several of the more conservative owners have been resistant to selling. Perhaps you could be more persuasive, with your political clout! I doubt they would ever suspect we were working in harmony. “I think I’ll go home now, and sleep on it,” Damian said, trying to stand, but the room began to spin and blackness began closing about him. He stumbled, and Tereesan caught his arm. “Are you alright? You’ve been looking rather pale all night.” He couldn’t tell whose voice spoke, and before he could answer he slipped into the warm, comforting embrace of sleep. 3 A weight pressed against Damian’s forehead. He felt like curling back into his bed and sleeping for another three or four hours. I was so careful, he thought. How did they do it? The wine, or maybe the food...but I never touched anything that someone else hadn’t tried. Instead of sleeping, he forced himself to sit up. His head throbbed but he wanted to learn what had happened at council. Perhaps they had some reason for wanting him to miss it this time, and the sooner he dealt with it the more likely he would be to stem any damage they might have stirred up in his absence. He stood, his head spinning furious. When the spell passed he automatically rolled the bed sheets into a ball and threw them at the foot of the bed for Moraka, his maid; then he headed for the bathroom. What drug did they use? As he passed through the door to the bath, he glanced at the mirror above the sink and saw in it the bone white reflection of Shalis. He blinked and looked again but she had not gone away: her face was slightly flushed, and she was breathing rapidly—staring wide-eyed back at him. I’m dreaming, he thought. He touched his cheek with his fingers—but it was her cheek—and he traced down to the firm yet delicate chin, intensively aware of the chipped, red paint on his long fingernails. Vigorously he rubbed his eyes, held up his hands and looked at his thin, Romastion-white fingers. He looked back at the mirror. Shalis was still staring at him. Her face, framed by the shock white locks, was just as he remembered: a picture of innocence and vulnerability—yet the fear in her eyes held a hardness he had not seen the other night. He stroked the soft strands of her worm-silk hair in total disbelief. It did not hang thick and straight like Pedigree Romastion hair, but tangled about her head in soft waves that fluttered slightly in a breeze he did not feel. “It’s black magic!” he hissed. “That’s not me!” He pulled back the door and stared at Shalis’ body in the full-length wall mirror. For the first time, he became aware of breast: small, firm lumps on his chest. He moved his hand, watching as the child responded on the other side of the mirror. It was a strange sensation. She moved in perfect harmony with his thoughts. He moved his hands and she touched the small bulbous nipple of her breast. An unexpected thrill ran through him, and he closed his eyes shutting out the sight of her. He made her hand touch his body: his alien body; traced delicately across his shoulders; along the sides of his ribs. They were ticklish as his had never been. He opened his eyes looking at her flat stomach; her long, coltish legs; and dainty feet. Despite his self-loathing, the sight of her aroused a deep possessive fascination in him. He twisted a nipple savagely between his fingers, shuddering convulsively at the pain that rocked through him. Such a low threshold of sensitivity, he thought. Excitement flooded him with an overwhelming sense of control and power, more intoxicating than anything he had ever known. Of all the women he had owned—of all the women he had used, and abused—none had been more completely in his power. Never had the proof of his control been so immediate, and intimate. This is real, he thought. I possess this body completely. Instinctively his hand found the gap between her legs. He shivered at the touch and drank in the warm, musty smell or her flowing juices. He thrilled at her need; thrust his hand deeper. She gasped eagerly—crying out in a breathy voice that felt strange in his throat. She was helpless putty in his hands, only they weren’t his hands—they were soft, weak hands with poorly painted fingernails. Suddenly a desperate sense of loss washed over him, and he fought against the sinking feeling that threatened to drag him into oblivion; but his legs gave away beneath him and he melted to the floor at her increasingly insistent touch. Chapter Two 1 For a long time afterwards he lay on the floor—breathing heavily and slowly regaining his strength. He opened his eyes and lolled his head to the side. Shalis lay on the polished wood floor inside the mirror: Her hair was damp with the sweat that had already dried from her face. Tears of frustration and anger had stained her pale cheeks red. That’s me! He sat up, wiping the tears from his eyes and steeling the ebb of his emotions. That’s my fear! he thought biting it back. My anger! I must control it, or it will control me. He realized that he was clenching his hand and forced himself to stop. That was her habit, not his; he would not submit so easily to it...his body might be weak, but not his mind. He would force her body to learn new habits. He clenched his teeth, although it was no longer a second nature reaction as it had been for his old body; and he studied the effect it had on Shalis’ face... My face now. I am Shalis: a perpetual child...not even a pure pedigree, but a Romastion hybrid. He grimaced; then his eyes grew wide as he thought of further implications. As a woman he could not own property or holdings. My business partners will be eager to grab up my properties if they learned that I am not here to protect them. I will loose everything, and get stuck as Yarvin’s slave, in the process. A sharp lump of fear stuck in his throat, and he breathed deeply trying to calm himself. Touching himself he found the dampness between his legs still flowed thick; the tingling sensation began to return. He cursed his new body. Its chemistry was all passion and instinct; the flight response to intense and difficult to control...the flesh to sensitive and tender. Where is my old fire; the eagerness of my fight response? He bit his lip drawing blood. I will not be ruled by this body, he raged. He wanted to rake his face with his long fingernails; to hurt this body in some way, but he held back. His body was one of his weapons now. I will not be mastered by anyone or anything! I may be a slave; Yarvin’s second hand chattel...but I’ll find a way...What was done can be undone. If only I can find out how it was done and by whom. He studied his female reflection in the mirror. She was tired and sweaty; hair disheveled—yet the intensity of her appeal was painful. He enjoyed her humiliation as much as he despised his own weakness. I must accept this female form...it has limitations that I cannot afford to ignore! If I am to conquer her limitations, I must do so using the strengths that have not yet deserted me. My mind is still sound...it may be poisoned by the residual toxin from this body, but in time my resolve will purify those toxins, and I will have complete mastery of my new body, such as it is. Noise! He heard footsteps coming down the hall! Quickly he jumped to his feet, making a belated effort to compose himself. Warmth washed over his face as he became suddenly very aware of both his nakedness and the presence of Moraka. Shalis’ ghost white body startled Moraka! She jumped back and was relieved to see the child’s pronounced embarrassment. “I beg your pardon,” she said, blushing slightly and averting her eyes when she realized she had been staring. She did not retreat; but stood at the door waiting for Damian to cover himself. Well, what is it?” Damian said, listening to the strangely accented voice that came out of his mouth, but also aware that it contained a certain commanding quality similar to his old voice. He leveled a cold stare at Moraka, pleased that he could still make his maid flinch with his tone. Then Moraka’s face hardened with firm resolve and scorn. “Who are you?” she asked. “Where is Damian, child?” She emphasized the last word harshly; and to Damian’s horror he found himself cringing at the maid’s scorn, and his heart sprang into his throat, threatening to choke him. Shalis’ body reacted in its own way, beyond his control. It was a mistake to antagonize Her, he thought. All Moraka knows is that I am a female guest, and a child. I would never stand for such insolence from a woman...least of all a child! He curtsied awkwardly; his clumsiness enhancing his embarrassment. “Forgive me!” he said. “My name is...Shalis.” The name sounded repulsive on his lips, but he extended his hand in formal greeting. “And Damian? I haven’t seen him come down yet today.” He turned his head for fear that Moraka would see the uncertainty in his face as he tried to think. His face and body burned hotly under Moraka’s scrutiny. I should have planned for this. “He’s...” He focused on the door to the bathroom, realizing that he was taking to long. Maybe she’ll think its just embarrassment. Think! Think! “Damian’s in the bathroom,” he said, without facing her. Moraka cocked her head, craning her neck to get a glance past the open doorway. The bath was not very far from her line of sight. “He told me,” Shalis said stepping in front of Moraka and taking her hand gently—a gesture that neatly blocked her view. “You would supply me with a change of clothes. Something about having some things left behind by one of his former women.” “I’ll just wait for him to come out, if you don’t mind. He may want me to do something else for him.” “You can do what you want, but he did say you should take care of it immediately. Moraka pursed her lips in a frown. “Very well.” She lowered her eyes to look at the floor. “I’ll be back with some things shortly.” She bowed, and retreated quickly down the hall. When she was out of hearing, Damian sighed with relief; and ran to his writing desk for paper and pen. He tried the top drawer and found it locked as always. The key, he assumed, would be on a chain around the neck of his male body—wherever that might be. Fortunately he kept a duplicate set of his important keys in the floor safe and another set in the safe at his office. The floor safe was next to his desk. He spun the dial furiously to clear it then carefully worked through the pattern of turns, which aligned the internal pins. Inside, in several small leather pouches, was the sum of portable wealth to be found in the house: less than 500 taotes of minted money, and a few pieces of fine jewelry, gems and raw pieces of precious stone and metal. On a black, velvet padded tray lay the keys, and a duplicate ring bearing Damian’s official seal. Carefully he set the money and tray on the edge of the desk—closed the safe, and opened the desk drawer with the key. He pulled out paper and pencil for writing and an inkpad to lend his official presence to the note. What do I say, what do I say? Moraka would be coming back very soon. He thought for a moment then dipped his pen in the ink well and began to write: I have been called away to... Suddenly he realized, he was not using his old hand writing. He was not sure what he was doing wrong, but the script was awkward and the shape of his letters was not right. Perhaps it was the way she wrote...if she even knew how. He wadded up the marked paper and tried again. This time he tried to remember how his male fingers had used a pen. He worked meticulously; concentrating, frowning as he moved his fingers slowly over the paper. He had written several words before he could imitate his old movements passably well. Then he took a fresh piece of paper and began again. When he had finished the note he pinned it to the message board and ran back to the desk: placed money and the tray of keys in the drawer so Moraka wouldn’t see them; then hurried to the floor bath and turned on the water. It splashed around the tub and floor. When he heard Moraka’s footsteps down the hall he closed off the faucet and soaked some of the water up with a towel. A few moments later, when Moraka entered the small room, he was stooping to pick up the towel. He looked up and smiled. Moraka’s arms were full of clothes and beauty articles, but she looked around, her suspicion plain to see. The bath was obviously empty, but Moraka said nothing. “He’s already gone,” Damian said insouciantly. Casually he directed Moraka to lay the things she had brought on the counter, and he began sorting through the clothes, perfumes and jewelry placing various items into piles. The clothes were old, and some were worn, but they were elegant and stylish. “I told him you wanted to see him but...” he shrugged. “That didn’t seem to impress him. He left a message on the board, though.” Moraka scowled; glanced at the message board. Damian sat beside the floor bath and opened the hot water valve, listening to the water draining down the pipes from the heating tanks. The water was little more than warm to his touch. “There’s no hot water!” Damian blurted out angrily. “Now how am I supposed to take a bath in cold water?” Moraka slapped Damian, leaving an angry red handprint on the side of his face. It quickly disappeared as his face flushed brightly. He was shocked and angered at first, but as he realized why she had done it, he was mortified. “I did that for you, child.” Moraka said, reaching for his hand, and when he made no effort to pull away, taking his hand gently in hers. “Do you know what Damian would do if he heard you talking like that...even if it was only to me.” He nodded, his body trembling in a cold sweat. “I’m sorry,” he breathed, the softest whisper. Moraka stroked his head, and her touch was soothing to his female body. “Alright, child...I’ll go open the heating vents, and light the firestones. The water should be hot in a few minutes.” She turned and went to study the note on the message board. When she had read it she smiled and closed the door behind her. Damian sighted a breath of relief. His body was still trembling. That was stupid! Stupid, stupid! His hands shook as he pressed them against his eyes: his dainty fingers cool against the fire in his head. If I make a mistake like that in front of a man... A sharp chill sweep through him. From now on, he thought. I must think of myself in female terms! Even in my thoughts! That way I will never forget...lest I should make an even more serious slip. My body is female. As long as this is true, I am female. I cannot afford to think of myself in other terms...I am a child; a free slave—Yarvin’s second hand chattel. Even if I can devise a way to maintain control of my holdings...no! Damian is the one who has holdings; and I must find a way to gain control of them before others beat me to it. His belongings are not mine. I have nothing, and must never openly say different. For I am no longer Damian. I am Shalis. 2 Shalis hurried to the bedroom, glanced around until she found the slaves tunic she had worn the night before beside the bed. She riffled through it, looking for the secret pocket that would hold her title papers. Finding it, she took the document out and quickly looked for the sale price, but there wasn’t one. To her surprise she was a free woman! Yarvin was her fieflord, but she was not bonded to him. Thus she was free to realign her allegiance to Damian’s estate, (or any other that would take her,) as her fancy struck her. It would be a simple matter to have a magistrate draw up papers. However any legal documents would mean nothing without Damian’s consent to incorporate her into his holdings, and that was a significant legal procedure requiring the notarization of a Zanadian magistrate. Damian could create the document that would make himself responsible for Shalis, but without the nugatory consent of the motherland via the magistrate, it would be invalid. For such a matter, Damian would not have to appear in person: a runner could be sent with a request document officially sealed with his wax seigniory. Unfortunately Damian’s seigniory was in the safe at the club office. Shalis would have to find a way to get the stamp if she was to have any chance of salvaging Damian’s holdings for herself. Any plan of action she could imagine would require the wax and seal to officially validate legal documents. Many would further require a Zanadian magistrate to witness Damian’s signature on the papers to make them legally valid. But first things first, for now she had to think of a way to get by the security at the club, and gain access to Damian’s office. Sitting down at the desk to think, she took the pen in her hand, and after a moment began drafting a formal request for incorporating Shalis into Damian’s holdings. She stamped the document with Damian’s signet ring, which had no actual legal force, but carried the weight of tradition. When she had signed the document she began drafting orders that should give her access to Damian’s office at the club under the pretext of cleaning. The club’s security was excellent. Shalis would not be left alone while she cleaned, but once she and the guard were alone in the private confines of the office, she could use her body as a weapon; her body was attractive. Most men would find her appealing. Even the best guards could be tempted at times to indulge in a little friendly recreation. The club office contained a bar, and the right powder sprinkled into a man’s drink could put him to sleep within minutes. She grimace thinking of what she might have to do until then, but at the same time her body was responding in a different manner. She shivered, and placed both documents in separate envelopes, then signed Damian’s name on the front of each. From the bottom drawer of the desk she took out a small ivory strong box. Inside, along with other more deadly powders and oils, were the small paper packet with the powder she would need to make the guard sleep. A second packet would kill him. She took two just in case. As she closed the drawer she smiled. The first step was done. Eventually she would have to come up with an excuse for Damian’s hasty departure; and correspondences from Solali would have to be faked. But she would face those and other problems later, when she had had time to sort things out. She placed the envelopes and the packet of powder into one of the hidden compartments in the desk. Then she went to the hall and looked both directions from the doorway. The hall was empty and quiet. Going back into the bedroom she removed the picture from the wall safe and quickly turned the dial. The lock clicked open, and she reached inside for Damian’s Personal Choker. It was made of the finest imported Verimeese Black Velvet, with a large “D” cut out of ruby, Damian’s birthstone. I never thought I’d take this out again! She smiled at the irony. Now I’m giving it to myself. Brushing it’s softness against her neck, she remembered with sadness the woman for whom Damian had bought it: Rodjuh had been a full blood Srowidian, with an angelic face: the delicate Srowidian nose, and firm chin; the full lips which she painted red to match her long curly hair; and sparkling green eyes that flashed in the light of a fire like emeralds. The sudden memory sliced through her like a sharp pain. For many years it had been dormant. But now the feel of the velvet against her skin brought the past back with a vengeance. I have inherited the Srowidian’s damnable emotionalism, she thought darkly, as she wiped tears from her eyes. I am a female, now. A child. This is expected of me...very well then, she told herself. Let me seem the simpering little minx. If my body is a weapon, then let my vulnerability be a weapon also. Their kindness is a weakness that I will use. Such thoughts were a bleak and cold comfort. Damian had vowed to keep the choker—which Rodjuh had never worn, but that he had bought for her—locked away, never intending to take it out again. Now it was fortunate he had not thought to sell it. Closing the safe and replacing the picture, Shalis composed herself. Now is not the time to dwell on memories or show silly emotions, I must save them for a time of need. She went to the bathroom, testing the water with her hand. It was not hot yet, but the chill was gone, and she began to fill up the tub. Kneeling on the floor, she swam her hand seductively over the water, and poured in some of Moraka’s scented bath oil. When the tub was full she eased herself into its cool fragrance and began to scrub. Several minutes later, she jumped out of the bath, her wet hair smelling fresh and clean, her skin glowing from the vigorous scouring. She toweled off in front of the mirror and daubed himself with talcum powder and scent. She picked a leg-ring out of the things Moraka had brought and slipped it on. It was a spiraling snake model, of high quality metal that could easily be shaped to fit around her leg. To wear, she chose a light sarong cut short and simple and a lacy, but slightly worn blouse with subdued colors and eyelet snaps down the front. For jewelry she picked out a gold, cross-link bracelet, and a ring with a sapphire stone. There was an assortment of other robes and dresses; cloaks and longer furs; and several necklaces, which she discarded in favor of Damian’s Personal Choker. Locking the choker in place, she studied the way it looked on her in the mirror. It accented the sarong nicely. The rest she stacked neatly on the counter before going downstairs to check on the breakfast Moraka had promised. As she passed the message board in the hall, she stopped and smiled, rereading the message she had left: I have been called away to Solali on emergency business and will be living there until further notice. Have my messages and business correspondences sent to the general postal at Solali and I will collect it when I can. Afford my lovely houseguest with any services or resources as she requires; and with the best of manner. Damian 3 Zedeenia, one of Damian’s slaves who frequently did house chores was dusting in the foyer when the girl Moraka had told her about came down the stairs. She watched her eagerly—noting her appearance and the way she carried herself—but when the girl glanced at Zedeenia’s and did not acknowledge her, she looked away; pretending to dust, but stealing glances now and then as the girl passed. Then she quietly followed the mysterious girl—via other rooms—through the house to the dining hall. The girl did not seem to notice Zedeenia as she made herself busy taking and dusting objects from off the mantle above the fireplace. Moraka, if she noticed Zedeenia, was more interested in Shalis: she took one look at the girl and her mouth fell open. Zedeenia couldn’t imagine why until she saw the black velvet choker around the girl’s neck. Why would Damian give his choker to such a young girl, Zedeenia wondered. And a Romastion at that! “I left the things you brought me on the counter,” the girl said, and her accent marked her further as coming from common stock. Yet there was something about her voice that was not slavish or vulgar, just as there was something ambiguous about the way she carried herself, and the commanding tone of her voice. “If you would straighten up a bit and put the clothes in one of Damian’s closets, along with anything else you can find that I might need.” Moraka cleared her throat. “You look much better, now that you’ve washed up a bit,” she said. “Are you hungry? I rewarmed the breakfast Damian didn’t eat. But it’s after noon, I can fix a heartier meal if you would care to wait half an hour?” “Breakfast is fine, thank you,” the girl said sitting down at the head of the table, in Damian’s specially padded chair. Damian is the only one who sits there, Zedeenia thought. Even a common girl should know enough not to make such a mistake! But if Moraka noticed, she did not say anything. “And could you have someone fix up a carriage for me,” the girl asked. Her voice was pleasant, but it was unmistakably a command and not a request. “I want to go into town after I’ve eaten.” Moraka turned to Zedeenia and nodded. She knew what the head woman wanted and she curtsied for reply, but to her surprise Moraka spoke: “Tell Megaar that Shalis will need a coach...and make sure he selects a driver capable of escorting her safely.” Moraka shot Zedeenia a warning glance that was enough to turn Zedeenia’s blood cold. She curtsied again and hurried away wondering what had spooked the old woman. Whatever it was, Moraka would be in a foul mood if Zedeenia botched her instructions. From experience, she knew that Moraka could be a harsh head woman if a worker’s performance reflected poorly on the old woman. From the side entrance of the main house it was no more than Two hundred feet to Megaar’s office in the slaves residence. Zedeenia knocked on the door out of politeness, hesitating just a moment before entering. Megaar sat at his desk, with his feet propped up and a leather-bound book spread out on his lap. When he saw Zedeenia he raised his eyebrows out of habit, and placed a strip of cloth between the pages to mark his place. He waited without speaking until she reached his desk, then he smiled and nodded. “Well,” he said good-naturedly. “What does he want, now?” Smugly Zedeenia said: “This isn’t for him! It’s for his house guest, a young lady named Shalis.” She smiled at Megaar’s expression. “Moraka wants a carriage made ready. And, she wants a capable driver to double as a bodyguard.” “A young lady, you say?” “A girl really,” Moraka said, then thoughtfully: “Of course she is Romastion, she may be older than she looks. It’s so hard to tell with them. But in any case she’s not for you! Damian gave her is choker.” Megaar obviously didn’t believe her. “Is he going to town with her then,” he asked insouciantly. “Damian’s already gone, stupid!” “I didn’t see him,” he objected. Zedeenia sighed heavily. “Well he is,” she said sternly. “Moraka said he left this morning, and she’s all in a fuss over this girl—so you better believe me and do as I say.” Megaar raised his eyebrows appreciatively. “She’s really wearing his choker?” Zedeenia rolled her eyes in mock exasperation, and turned her back on him haughtily, but as she left Megaar’s office she was smiling smugly to herself. 4 As Shalis ate she rethought her plans. So many things can go wrong, she thought. What happens if someone becomes suspicious? They will look for someone to blame, and my very actions will condemn me. No matter how careful, my best plans will not stand up to the close scrutiny of an investigation, and it’s just a matter of time before someone begin to wonder where I...Why Damian has so mysteriously disappeared; or why...he has suddenly begun to entrust important matters to runners and little girls like me. And there was something else that had begun to bother her. Where is my body? If I have Shalis’ body, then someone else must have...his. But who... and how will they react when they come and find that I’ve been pirating the estate that they thought to inherit? Or has he calculated my reactions into a larger and more devious plan? “What’s the matter, dear?” Moraka said as she pushed another sausage onto Shalis’ plate. “I was just thinking about Damian,” Shalis said. “I was wondering what he’s doing right now?” She made no attempt to mask or hide her emotions, and her instinct proved to be right for Moraka thought she was worried for Damian while he was traveling on business. “He’s capable of taking care of himself,” she said. “He worked his way into his fathers business by running the trade routes, you know.” Shalis poked at the yolk on her eggs and sopped up the runny center with her biscuit. “What a funny thing,” Moraka said. “That’s how Damian eats his eggs.” But Shalis didn’t hear her—she was thinking of Tereesan, and wondering what part he had worked in the dark, and fulsome magic that had given her a female body. He hardly seems like one capable of performing death magic, she thought. It was said that the Necromantic sciences were not compatible with the healing arts. But is that just superstition among the common people? Surely Tereesan had a part to play: a pawn, perhaps, to some greater power. Some unknown power greater than Tereesan’s—that makes for a dangerous enemy indeed. The maid was talking, but Shalis didn’t want to listen. She had to make up her mind what to do; and time was running out, no matter what she chose. I can’t go back to Yarvin,” She thought. “I’d rather die than be stuck working coaches for the rest of my life! But what options do I have? I could take what money and possessions I can carry and run like a thief in the night to any one of the southern cities beyond the Zanadian provinces. It’s illegal to sell or own slaves there; and the money I have would be enough to live for a few years. But what would become of me then. What could I do to make a living there that would be any better than the stables at Bromin and Kerodyn. She sighed and looked at Moraka. The old woman was watching her intently, and when their eyes met she smiled before she spoke. “You haven’t been listening to a word I’ve said, have you?” “I’m sorry,” Shalis said, genuinely embarrassed. “I was thinking.” “You can’t be that worried about Damian,” Moraka said. “Do you want to tell me what’s so heavy on your mind?” Shalis smiled without much conviction. “Thank you, Moraka,” she said. “But I think I need to work this out on my own.” Yet even as she spoke, her body was urging her to talk; she needed to tell someone something to release the pent up emotions and frustration. Vulnerability is my weapon, she thought, and her voice broke: “What does he want from me, Moraka!” The intensity in her own voice startled Shalis, and Moraka was taken a little back as well. “Damian?” she asked, not understanding, as Shalis had expected. She nodded, willing to listen to Moraka’s soothing voice. If she chose the wrong road there would come a time when she would need a friend; and suddenly Moraka seemed like she would make a very good friend. “He’s a difficult man to understand,” Moraka said gravely. She took Shalis’ hand in hers and held it gently. Letting the raw honesty of her emotions show, Shalis thought of her voice as a tactical weapon to gain Moraka’s sympathy; yet it was also a purge to sooth her doubts and fears. “He scares me,” Shalis said. “I wish I knew what he wanted from me. I wish he hadn’t gone away.” “To be honest with you child, I’ve been wondering myself, what he sees in you. Oh,” Moraka said when she was Shalis’ hurt expression. “Not that you aren’t attractive enough. And he’s had plenty of lovers, not all of them grown women—but...” She shrugged and breathed a heavy sigh. “He’s never given anyone his choker...not since...well, not in a long time.” Blinking back tears, Shalis shuttered at the memory; but she was seized by a morbid curiosity and before she could think better of it she asked: “Who was she?” For a moment Moraka just looked at Shalis sharply, and neither said anything. Then there was a subtle change in the woman’s expression and Shalis was surprised at her surety that Moraka would tell her if given time. Have I learned more about you, through the years, than I’ve guessed? It was a disturbing thought. Again Shalis was preoccupied with her thoughts, and though she did not realize it, the emotions on her face, cut to Moraka’s heart. “Her name was Rodjuh,” she said. “And she was born in the province of Krasaun.” “You were friend?” A dark mood flashed across Moraka’s face, and as quickly faded. “Yes, we became close.” “Tell me about her,” Shalis said, her heart fluttering as she spoke. “What was she like?” “She was flawless Srowidian,” Moraka said, a smile touching her lips. “Full blood pedigree. We used to tease each other about our pedigrees: I was born Briemarian, and she was always saying: ‘I wish I had been born Briemarian;’ while I of course had left the palace when I was little more than six.” Although Shalis was well aware of Moraka’s background, She let her eyes grow wide. “You were one of the dancers?” It had the desired effect: Moraka beamed. “Indeed,” she said. “I was a royal dancer: property of the emperor.” “Your so graceful,” Shalis said. “I should have known. But then...” “How did I end up here?” Shalis nodded, glad to move the subject away from Rodjuh, the memories were to painful still. “Tell me!” she said. “Tell me the whole story.” Moraka hesitated only a moment. “My talent showed at a very early age,” she said. “I became part of the child’s troupe at the palace before I turned three. By the time I was five I was chosen to entertained the emperor and his guests, and before I was six I had become the emperor’s first and given more than a dozen solo performances to ambassadors and heads of foreign state.” The strength of her own curiosity surprised Shalis. She had never heard this story from Moraka’s point of view; and she found herself eager to find out just what had happened to make the older woman fall out of grace. “Shortly after my sixth birthday I reached puberty, and was quickly removed as the emperor’s first. My year wasn’t a sixth part old, a mere ninety-eight days—I still remember the day—and they removed me entirely from the emperor’s entertainers and placed me with one of the traveling troupes.” Shalis understood. Briemarians were bred for dancing skills, but they were also bred for beauty; and they were a new breed, not fully perfected, not as nearly identical as many other pedigreed breeds. They still produced offspring that had to be weeded out. As a child Moraka may have been cute, and her tremendous skill keep her worthy of consideration. But when she reached puberty, she did not bloom as fully as other dancers. “I keep my pedigree papers,” Moraka said. “But I was neutered so that I could not corrupt the breed.” “Moraka, you don’t have to tell me,” Shalis said, but she knew the older woman would not stop now. “No, it’s alright,” she said. “It doesn’t bother me any more. At the time it was very hard. I was so bitter. Next to dancing, the only thing I longed only for was a child. Now it seemed both dancing and children had been taken from me at the same time.” Pausing, Moraka motioned to Shalis’ plate and asked: “Are you finished.” Neither of them had eaten anything for several minutes. Shalis shook her head and let Moraka take her plate. She stacked it with other dishes. “Come into the kitchen, if you want, and I’ll tell you more about it,” she said. Gathering up more dishes, Shalis followed Moraka into the kitchen and helped where she could to put things away. Damian had never been able to find anything in the kitchen though, and as Shalis she was no better at it—so she sat at the kitchen table and took to watching Moraka work. “Or course, I still danced,” she said. “But it was never the same. I felt my disgrace harder than most: I had been the emperor’s first—very proud of it, and not afraid to boast, even when my teacher’s warned me not to. Then suddenly I wasn’t even in the emperor’s personal troupe! “All the other girl’s knew why, and what had been done to me—some even teased me about it. I became rebellious, and resentful. My practice sessions became difficult chores that I dreaded; and before long I was hard pressed to hold my own with the other girls in my troupe. After that, I stayed at the palace for less than a sixth part of the year. “Perhaps I should have stayed with it. Dancing was a good life, and traveling would have been more interesting than palace life if I would have only opened my eyes and enjoyed what was around me. After a few years I could have become a teacher, or a guardian: one of the communal mothers who watch the dance children. Instead I left the palace with papers that said I was free.” Leaving her work for later, Moraka came and sat in the chair next to Shalis. She took the child’s hand and continued her tale. “It was not long before I was out of what little money I had earned at the palace. I was forced to become a street child, but I was not used to a hard life: sleeping on the streets, and going days without food. Growing up in the palace, I knew nothing of survival outside. Within a half a year I became so desperate that I went back to beg the palace to take me back...but when I finally came to the gates I knew that I couldn’t do it. I would die before I went back! And I almost did. I was starving, begging for food. Occasionally I would get a job working all day just so I could eat a decent meal. “And just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse the cold weather came; and I nearly froze in the night. That was when I knew that the only way I could stay alive was to offer myself for indenture; which I did that very day. “Foolishly I refused to tell them that I could dance, and I knew no other trade of value; moreover, I was sterile so no one would take me for a mate. And my youth, and frail body were not made for heavy labor. Few wanted me, and those that did were free to drive a hard bargain. “Masrond, Damian’s father drove a hard bargain as well,” Moraka said. “But I think it was the best I could get. I would not have lasted much longer on the streets, even with the free meal from the auction blocks. So I took his offer and was indentured for ten years. At first I was livid when Masrond employed me as a dance girl at his club.” Tears ran down Shalis’ face but she laughed, and Moraka joined her. “Of course,” Moraka said. “He knew what I was all along—Briemarian’s only come from the palace, and none leave unless they are sterile—but for his business, that was not a liability, and I think I proved to be more capable than he expected. After a time I came to enjoy dancing again, although I never regained the drive and passion of my youth. “It was at the club that I meet Rodjuh,” Moraka said. “I was thirteen, she was six: the same age I had been when I came to the club, although she had already reached puberty well over a year earlier.” I don’t want to hear about this anymore! Shalis thought, but part of her body knew that that was a lie, and she could not hide the sad longing in her eyes. “She was a better student than most of the girls,” Moraka said. “And she knew what I was, and who I had been—although how she knew I never learned.” She paused smiling at her memories. “She was temperamental, too: sometimes sweet, but given to foolish outbursts. She had the prettiest green eyes I’ve ever seen. Her whole face light up when she looked at you.” I remember, Shalis thought, tears forming in her eyes. “Ah, she was a favorite with the customers, I can tell you,” Moraka said. “And when Damian began to take an interest in her I really wasn’t surprised, even though she was several years older than him.” “What of her life before you meet?” Shalis said hoping to change the subject to less painful things. In all his life he had never heard Rodjuh talk of her past; morbid curiosity had again taken hold of Shalis, despite the memories it brought. “We talked very little about that,” Moraka said. “I know she was born in the province of Krasaun; and I assume, like most Krasaunians her father was poor, and when his mate bore him no sons to carry his line, he sold another daughter to the slavers, to ease the burden of the next child. “I remember her saying she had thirteen sisters, but only remembered five, all younger than herself. The very young, of course, don’t bring a fair market price. The traders must house them in costly nurseries because they are to little to fend for themselves in the slave pits, and not old enough to perform slave duties that would otherwise be required of them. But why she didn’t remember the oldest sister I don’t know. Maybe her father did not hold to tradition and sold her as well.” “Maybe her real mother died in childbirth, and the oldest took her place in the family,” Shalis suggested bleakly. “Perhaps,” Moraka said. “But in any case, Masrond bought Rodjuh at the auction blocks when she was six. She became the daughter I never had; for I was old enough to be her mother—but sometimes we were more like sisters. We were very close; and I delighted in teaching her: not only to dance but the delicate points of all I knew. “When I was sixteen and a half part old, I was ready to become indentured for another ten years if I could only stay at the club, to be with Rodjuh and the other girls that I had grown to love; but in my heart I knew that it would not be. I was not young any more, and although I was not really old I had not aged well. I danced often enough, but fewer requested my services. “I keep myself busy teaching the new girls to dance, and serving drinks and when the club closed I took to helping with the domestic chores. It may have made a difference, but I was not given a second indenture, I was offered employment: Masrond was getting old, and he required a personal attendant to serve him. I was told that I could still teach the girls, as long as Masrond remained healthy, and did not require constant attention. That was the best I was likely to get so I accepted the terms, even though I had saved enough money to live comfortably for several years. “As the next few years passed I found that I was not unhappy with my new duties, even when Masrond fell ill and required most of my time, it was not a burden. Rodjuh and I saw less of each other, but we remained close. “After Masrond died, I was allowed to stay on. Damian took over his father’s business, and moved his office to the club so that he could be near Rodjuh, whom he had become rather fond of. He was only ten but he was very much a man. “Less than a year later, Rodjuh came to live in the house. Damian had grown to love and trust her. And when a few years had passed he gave Rodjuh her freedom, thinking that she loved him and would consent to be his mate. Instead she ran away with a traveling silver merchant named Foxil who hailed from the southern city of Merssal.” A great sob wracked Shalis’ body, and Moraka came to her and held her close, wondering at the intensity of the child’s emotions. “She never said good-bye.” Shalis said, in a broken voice. Moraka misunderstood, and shook her head. “Maybe she worried that I would tell Damian rather than let her go,” she said, still holding Shalis tight. “Or maybe she wasn’t sure she would be able to leave me if she had to say good-bye. The slave pits had left a terrible scar on her. Even though she never spoke of it, I could tell she hated the idea of belonging to someone else. I could not understand why she had to go, but I could not hold it against her.” She sighed. “Damian was not so forgiving. I don’t think he ever got over her. Until perhaps now, when he met you.” No, Shalis thought, feeling the searing pain of old wounds torn open. I never did! Tears streamed down her face, and she sniffled pitifully as she remembered what Damian had done out of vengeance: the very day Rodjuh left he had hired a band of mercenaries to pose as thieves and raid Foxil’s caravan. They killed the Merchant. And Damian never learned what became of Rodjuh, but she had been part of the mercenaries pay and he assumed that eventually she had been sold into slavery again. “It’s an awful story,” Shalis said her voice full of regret. “Yes,” Moraka said. Her eyes were dry, but she was looking at Shalis with a new depth of understanding. “Isn’t love a funny thing? Who can say for certain what Damian sees in you...why he gave you his choker!” She shook her head sadly, and Shalis sensed a deep felt remorse in the older woman. “Maybe I understand a little,” she said. “Your so innocent, and sensitive; so vulnerable and naive.” Shalis couldn’t help a small smile. You think so, she thought, suddenly realizing that as the sorrow lifted, the tension and fear were also gone from her chest. She took a deep breath: caught the fresh clean smell of fragrant soap. Shalis knew what she wanted. She wanted it all. Death is better than being at the mercy of others. If I can’t get what I want it won’t matter, but if by some miracle I succeed... The smile on her face grew wider. “You must have a weird sense of humor child,” Moraka said. Shalis looked at her and laughed, hugging her close. She was not surprised at the strength of the emotions that sweep through her. “I was just thinking how glad I am that I finally meet you,” she said. To herself she couldn’t help but wonder: Are they still just words? What did I get myself into by letting go, by opening the door on my emotions? And when I need to, will I be able to close that door again? Chapter Three 1 “Your carriage should be ready by now,” Moraka said patting Shalis on the arm. “If you still plan to go into town I’ll have the driver bring it around to the front.” It was nearly three. By the time Shalis put together the things she would need and made it to the club office, that part of town would be crowded and dangerous. She thought of waiting until morning when the night people would still be asleep, and the streets—quiet and deserted by comparison—would be safer to travel, if only because it would be easier to see trouble coming. But time was critical. Every day that she delayed made the chance of failure greater, and already her chance of success seemed less than good. “Yes,” she said. “I shouldn’t keep them waiting. I have just a few things to put together first. Do you have a box I can use to carry things in?” “What size?” “Oh,” Shalis said, holding her hands up about a shoulders width apart. “Something about like this I guess.” Moraka nodded and went down into the food cellar. After a few minutes she returned with a rough wooden box just slightly bigger than Shalis had asked for. “That’s perfect!” Taking the box from Moraka she went to the pantry to look for cleaning materials, and began placing them into the box. From the look on Moraka’s face it was obvious that she was curious what Shalis was going to do with them, but she didn’t ask any questions, and Shalis didn’t offer any explanations. When Moraka was reasonably certain that Shalis would not need any help finding things, she went to talk with Megaar. When Shalis had everything she could think of that she might need she set the box down by the front door, and went up to Damian’s bedroom. As she entered from the hall, she thought she saw the door to the guest room closing. Quickly she looked around! Nothing seemed to have been moved. She ran to the door and opened it—but the guest room was quiet and empty. Going back into Damian’s room she checked the room carefully: the hall door, the closets, and the bathroom before looking into the desk drawers and the secret compartments to see if anything had been moved or stolen. Nothing seemed out of place and after a moment of searching she was satisfied that whoever it was had not found anything important. She changed into the slave tunic; retrieved the envelopes and the packet of poison from their hiding place in the desk, and put them in one of the concealed pockets of her tunic. Then wrapping herself in the long, plain fur cloak, she went back downstairs. The box of cleaning materials was still where Shalis had left it; and Moraka was not around, so she picked it up herself. When she came to the front door she balanced the box on her knee, and was reaching for the knob when Brandon, one of the largest, and best trained fighters of Damian’s menial holdings pushed the door open. Shalis almost dropped the box: it felt much heavier than it looked, and its size made it awkward for her new and smaller body to hang on to. “Here, let me get that for you,” Brandon said graciously, taking the box easily in his arms and balancing it on one hand so that he could hold the door open. Just outside the door, Moraka was waiting. “Thanks,” Shalis said, holding in check the sarcasm that would have characterized Damian, as she motioned to the box. “It’s not that heavy, just awkward.” Moraka nodded; obviously embarrassed that Shalis had started to carry the box before she had gotten Brandon. If she had to get Brandon herself, then that means she couldn’t find Zedeenia, Shalis thought with a grimace. “I would appreciate it if you would keep everyone out of Damian’s room,” Shalis said lightly, as she followed Brandon towards the carriage. “You saw someone in there!” Moraka asked, chasing after Shalis, her eyes cold and bright. Zedeenia was the only other serf in the house, and Shalis knew that she would be punished severely for being in Damian’s room. One thing Damian could not stand was having any of the house servants but Moraka in his room. Over the years in Damian’s service, Moraka had, by necessity, developed a hard edge. She was not one to easily forgive the failings of her underlings, and her punishments were swift and severe. “I saw the other door closing as I entered from the main hall,” Shalis said. Moraka frowned. “I’d better have security look around, just in case it was a prowler,” she muttered to herself. Then she looked at Shalis, and her voice was firm and grim. “It wont happen again, I assure you.” I’m sure it wont, Shalis though with a smile as she imagined what Moraka would do to the girl: perhaps setting her to cleaning out the sewer drains and water holding tanks, or have Megaar work her on keeping the water tanks full for several days. Or perhaps something altogether less practical and more creative. When Brandon had loaded the cleaning materials onto the forward seat he offered Shalis his hand. She took it and stepped up into the coach. “What time do you expect to be back?” Moraka asked. “Not for three or four hours, I should think.” “I’ll fix dinner for around eight then, if that’s alright.” Moraka closed the door and tapped twice to let Brandon know that he could leave. “That will be perfect,” Shalis said, leaning out the window. Brandon slapped the reigns against the horse and the carriage lurched forward with a creak. Shalis waved at the old woman, pleased with the response it brought to her face; and Moraka watched the carriage until it pulled onto the main road and disappeared into the bare leafed lot of trees that lined the roadside along Damian’s estate. “Where to?” Brandon asked when they were on the main road. “Safks,” Shalis answered. The curious look that crossed Brandon’s face amused her. Safks was a rough part of town. Not the sort of place that a young, free girl was likely to go in the evening unless she had some significant purpose. “Take Cartues Road up the east side.” Shalis said. “That’ll avoid the congestion on West Cartues, and should save us some time at this hour.” Brandon shrugged. “As you wish,” he said, turning back to the road, convinced that Shalis was not a stranger to Safks, but not reassured by that knowledge. Understandable to be worried, Shalis thought, thinking of her jewelry which she had not remembered to remove when she changed into her slaves tunic. No sense in tempting anyone needlessly! Brandon was capable enough with the sword that he carried to discourage most would be thieves, but, as they rode, Shalis removed her all of her jewelry, except for Damian’s choker. I should have requested Damian’s personal carriage, she thought, wishing for the safe that it had built into the floor. She sat back—looked out the window at the tiny puffs of yellow and white blooming on bushes and trees—thinking about what to do with the jewelry. She noticed the spring grass, that had just a few weeks ago—before the breaking of spring brought the rains—been yellowed and withered, was bright with the greenest green she could ever remember; and as she continued to look at the vegetation around her, she found a curious delight in the vibrant colors, that she had never before imagined. The color of every tree and flower seemed marvelously clear and tantalizing. Slowly it occurred to her that she was looking at the world with new eyes: seeing things in a way that Damian’s old, and fading vision, if indeed it had ever seen colors like this, had certainly not in many years. It was a subtle difference. An ability to perceive distinct shades in the leaves of different trees that before would have appeared simply green. The hues ran darker as well as brighter. Lacy young leaves twinkled lightly in the breeze. A bird dropped swiftly to the ground and pecked at something, then flew back up into a tree to her nest. Suddenly, Shalis became intensely aware of the sounds around her—it wasn’t that she had not heard them before, but it was as if the volume had been turned up dramatically. She heard the twitter of many birds and other animals, the clacking of the carriage wheels over dry earth and stone, and the sound of the water running through the channel along the side of the road. It was one of many channels from Slutin: the oxbow reservoir that supplied the town with water from the Nydias river. “What a lovely day,” Shalis murmured. “Did you say something?” She looked at Brandon and caught the motion of his head as he looked back at the road. Inside, the carriage seemed unbearably gloomy; and she wondered that he had chosen to ride inside. “I was just noticing how quickly spring has come this year,” she said. “I hope we’ve seen the last of cold weather! I love the spring, it’s my favorite time of the year.” Damian had never given much thought to the seasons, but Shalis knew that she had spoken true: she loved the spring. Every part of her body told her so. She took a deep breath and was filled with heady warmth, moist and sweet. The smell made her think of the large fragrant flowers that grew blood red in the spring, and she was not surprised when she looked out the window and saw several large, bushy vines growing along a fence row; filled with the flowers. “I like autumn best,” Brandon said. “When the leaves are all changing colors; and there’s vegetables ripe from the garden.” She smiled, closing her eyes, and saw clearly in her mind a beautiful autumn scene of brightly colored trees. The vividness of her memory surprised Shalis. She opened her eyes and looked back out the window, eager to see the autumn colors first hand. 2 Brandon drove North on East Cartues, as Shalis had suggested. It was a quiet, scenic route through a rich residential area, scattered with parks, wooded lots, and fine restaurants. Past East Jawls road the parks began to disappear, houses were smaller and closer together, and mixed freely with a number of small businesses. By the time they reached Slyvin road warehouses and bulk supply dealerships began to appear. He saw the solid stone pillars of the NorthBridge rising up above the buildings before he heard the River. “You can let me out here,” Shalis said when they were in front of the club. Brandon glanced at her but did not stop. Instead he turned down the back alley to the establishment’s stables, and stopped there. He opened the door, and extended his hand to help her down. “Put this in your pocket,” Shalis said, slapping the jewelry into his hand; stepped down by her self; and headed for the back entrance. Flustered, Brandon stuffed the jewelry into his pocket and quickly gave the stable boy instructions to tend for the horse and carriage; then chased after her. By the time he caught up with her she was already at the employees entrance. “I’m very sorry, madam Shalis,” the man in the lobby said, “but this is an exclusive men’s club.” Holding back the obscenities that characterized Damian’s speech when he got mad, Shalis simply sighed and walked back out to the street. She’d be damned if one of her own employees was going to throw her out of her office establishment just like that. She had to think, come up with a plan. It was too light to sneak in a window, but she had to act fast or she’d arouse too much suspicion. Her plans wouldn’t be able to stand up to close scrutiny for some time, but she had no money, Damian was always recognized and bought on credit so he wouldn’t have to carry cash. She walked around back to the showgirl entrance along the alley side, and knocked on the door. Nothing! Again she rapped on the metal, hurting her hand. It opened and a huge muscular man stood in the doorway: Baraan. “Sorry I’m so late!” Shalis said, keeping her head up so he could see Damian’s chocker. She walked right past him. “Just a minute, cutie!” Said the bouncer, grabbing her arm painfully tight. “I don’t remember seeing you walk thru this door before.” “I was hired last night. Damian told me to come in this door.” Shalis sighed as if she was used to such harassment. “Do you mind,” she pulled her arm free, “or should I try the front door?” The bouncer smiled, and nodded. As Shalis walked towards the stairs she could feel the bouncer’s eyes on her long bare legs. “Hey,” Shalis looked over her shoulder, cursing the bouncer for being such a bastard, “It’s the door behind you!” “Damian said to go up the stairs to his studio.” “Well, he’ll have to take you up himself because I never received any such instructions.” Nor would there be any way to give him any. “I’ll have to go get shay to let me up then!” “You do that.” Baraan said smiling. He knew damn well Shay wouldn’t say anything one way or the other. 3 Damn him! She didn’t have time to waste. If she didn’t get the new information into the computer soon her plan wouldn’t work. She had to do it before anyone started to miss Damian and looked at the files, after that they wouldn’t be valid. That gave her probably a good deal less than twenty-four hours since he had already uncharacteristicly missed an important political board meeting. They might even now be starting a search for him. She walked down the hall. At the far end a lot of noise was coming from one of the side doors, and she knew it led to backstage. Most of the doors were opened. She glanced at the names on the doorplate and then inside, at the girls all dressed out in sex-rags. They didn’t mind that she looked in. She was beginning to feel the dampness between her legs. Every door led to a dressing room, and she wished that as Damian she had built a back way up to the office. “What’s your problem, doll?” Shalis turned and saw Shay, his tense face seemingly on the verge of exploding in a rage. “Why aren’t you decked out, yet?” “My first day!” “So what else is new? What do you do, dance?” “No, I...” “Strip?” Shalis didn’t know what to do, “No!” “Sing?” Shalis knew she was running out of options but she had no idea if this female body could sing or dance. “Mudd fight, or wrestle?” “No!” “Then what the hell are you in my area for!” He yelled. “What do you do? You do, do something? Or maybe you’re just the household fuck!” Shalis blushed and nervously fingered the black chocker. “He said I was supposed to meet him upstairs, but the guard out back wont let me go up.” Shay clenched his teeth looking towards the ceiling as if counting the support beams and rip chords. Slowly he closed his eyes, lowered his head and opened them again. It looked like his clenched teeth were the only thing holding back the storm which would otherwise be inevitable. “Look doll, I don’t care what you do. That’s not my end. You’re sure you don’t strip or fight? Your certainly an eye-full.” “No,” Shalis apologized. “Then get out of my way, will yah doll.” “But couldn’t you just tell Baraan to let me go up?” She pleaded, knowing it was lost on the old bastard. “Look bitch, I don’t have time to be holding your hand. Your a big girl now, if Baraan wont let you go up you’ll just have to wait for Damian to take you up to a fuck-room himself. Now either get the hell out of my hall or start dressing, before I do it for you.” She was about to protest when he shouted, “move it cunt!” She ran down the hall not stopping until she reached the back door. By then she was out of breath and she waited several minutes to compose herself. Baraan was a good guard; he wouldn’t let her go up. But maybe Baraan wouldn’t notice her. And if he did she could always say that Shay told her to go on up the stairs, which wouldn’t strictly be a lie. And should be enough to keep her out of any trouble. As a last resort she could wait until dark and go up the fire escape. She walked out of the dressing room hall with conviction, and started to ascend the stairs without so much as a glance over her shoulder to see if she had been spotted. No one said anything. Victoriously Shalis reached the first floor landing, and worked up the nerve to look for the bouncer, when suddenly she was grasp around the waist from behind. An experienced hand striped the snaps down the front of her red lazy man’s shirt and slipped inside, cupping a breast. Despite her surprise, it sprang immediately to attention, and Shalis cursed her new ultra-sensuality. It was obvious her attacker was pleased by her response. He slid his arm from around her waist, under her skirt pushing the fabric up, exposing her panties. With equal expertise he penetrated these boundaries, his fingers exploring the fur between her legs. “Stop it!” Shalis cried when she had overcome her shock. “You can’t get away with this you bastard!” He laughed and lifted her off the ground, one arm under her ribcage, his hands cupping her breasts; and set her kneeling on the steps. “Damian will fire you, I can promise you that!” “Your a criminal,” he chuckled. “Caught in the act.” “Legally yes, but ethically no.” Her panic was obvious, but she couldn’t help show it. “As you recall, Damian told me to meet him in his room upstairs.” “You’re out of luck, bitch!” He dug his arm into her abdomen, forcing her breath out of her. She felt his hardness through his jeans, and realized her skirt wasn’t covering her. Her cheap clothing didn’t help convince him. “Besides he isn’t here yet, and I told you already you couldn’t go up.” She heard him taking down his pants, and disgusted panic rose up inside her. “Alright, I’ll make you a deal...” she swallowed down her disgust, after all she was a female. “You let me wait at the top of the stairs when you’re thru and I wont tell Damian anything!” Baraan just laughed, she could feel his hard dick rubbing against her leg. “I can get you money. Lots of money.” She said, and he pushed inside her. It happened so quickly: he thrust violently, and searing pain ripped thru her. His hands were on her hips, Pulling and pushing, forcing his body against her unmercifully. He moved one hand up to her breast, pinching and scraping while the other slide down to her crotch and dove into her front. She had gone slightly dry and numb by the shock from the rear, but he began to massage the dampness back. His hands probing her body brought waves of sensation to wash over her spine. Waves that wouldn’t stop, and she hated loving the feel of him. She was held helplessly unable to fight back like she wanted to, but at the same time she was stroking his hand tenderly and trying to turn her self around. He talked constantly. “I told you, you couldn’t come up here, bitch. Now your mine! Do you like it? Pretty bitch!” Suddenly a deep voice was talking. Not Baraan, but then joined by Baraan’s. The arm dug under her ribs, lifting her to her feet, while the hardness was still inside her. Another set of hands pawed her breast, lips finding hers with too much force. A tongue licking her teeth. Hot, bad breathe. She swung out; then her arms were pulled together before her. Metal clinked and her hands were bound in cuffs. The second guard ducked under her arms, entering her in the front, with a savage thrust. She had begun to dampen, but was still tight as he jolted in front, Baraan followed in the rear. She gasped for air, but it was rammed out of her again. A hand clasped over her mouth. Her cursed body began to respond to the abuse. As one rammed up the other was on the way down, and she rocked her body in helpless anticipation; riding the crest of pain. 4 She lay on the ground in the darkness of the alley. It had begun to rain. They had toyed with her for what seemed like hours: then they made her stand without her clothes, her hands cuffed above her head around the railing of the stairs. When they were certain Damian wasn’t coming in they beat her badly and threw her out into the alley, threatening to have her arrested if she ever came around again. They had tossed her clothes on the cobbles beside her, but she had not put them on. Instead she had lain and cried. She could tell they were watching her. Damn them. They had ruined everything. It might very well be too late to pull off her plan, and she would never be able to explain her bruises which felt terrible, or why Damian hadn’t shown up today or why he wouldn’t show up to chastise the guards personally. They were still watching her, and she began to worry that they would come out and harass her some more so she sat up and began to gather up her clothes. A few people, gathered at the end of the alley, were watching her curiously. It took the car lights shining down the alley to scatter them. The car drove up beside her and stopped. She knew whoever was inside could see her nakedness, and she tried to pull on her clothes without exposing herself, but it was impossible. Softly the car door opened. Footsteps were coming up beside her. She curled up into a ball, trying to hide herself. Alone on the streets in such a state she was fair game for anyone who wanted a piece of her. “My God, child! What happened to you?” She looked up on recognizing the voice. She had never thought she would be happy to see Tereesan, but she wrapped her arms around the healer’s neck and sobbed “Oh, Tereesan!” She felt foolish, and hated herself for it; but she couldn’t help it. No matter how much Damian had despised this man in the past, Shalis was helplessly emotional about seeing him. Now she might have a chance. If Tereesan would take her under his wing she might have a chance for a decent life without her plan. “Now, now!” Tereesan said soothingly. It was obvious he was startled, but he helped her to her feet, and draped his coat over her, then he collected her things and bundled them up. “Your bound to catch your death out here, like this.” Until now she hadn’t realized how cold she had been. He put his arms around her in a fatherly way, and led her to his car. “What’s your name, child?” He opened the door for her, and helped her into the front passenger seat. “Shalis.” “My, my. What a coincidence!” He said sliding behind the wheel. “There now Shalis, everything’s going to be alright. What were you doing in this neighborhood anyway?” “I was being raped and beaten,” she said caustically, her indignant sense of independence suddenly returning. “So I can see!” He said soothingly and pulled out of the alley. When he was safely on the street, he looked over at her inquisitively. She hadn’t started to put her clothes on “You must not be from around here. This certainly isn’t the safest neighborhood. I’ve found girls beaten and left in this alley before.” “I didn’t know that!” she said matter-of-factly. Having succumbed to accepting Tereesan’s help was beginning to gall her. “A sweet young girl, barely turned fifteen. She had been sold to the club for the duration of one week. As far as I can gather, her parents were under the mistaken notion that she would be singing...Well, the club seemed to have other plans. They used her as a plaything for their sadistic customers.” “There’s nothing illegal about that!” Shalis snapped, she couldn’t remember the actual girl, but she knew the club had good lawyers. Tereesan took her statement for a question. “It isn’t technically, Shalis...oh, you can be sure they’re too clever for that. I’m sure they have their lawyers carefully check all their contracts. And I’m sure there was an obscure clause in the fine print which made it all legal, but then I happen to know that the parents had not intended to have their daughter returned to them disspirited and half dead. “Oh? I’m sure her parents were above an occasional abuse!” Shalis said sarcastically. “They sold her services because they needed the money. Why should they care how she comes back, except that they can’t sell her again as quickly.” Tereesan caught the sarcasm, and his face seemed to melt into a sad expression. “Oh, you poor girl! I don’t doubt that you’ve had a terrible time of your life. But all parents aren’t like that, honestly! Some really do care about their offspring. Boy or girl.” Shalis blushed guiltily at the misunderstanding. “Do we have to talk about this.” “Oh dear!” Tereesan said. “How thoughtless of me, and after what you’ve just been through.” He smiled brightly, and they drove in silence for a short while. “Where are we going anyway?” “I was taking you to my house.” Shalis looked over at Tereesan, a little surprised even though she shouldn’t have been. “We don’t have to go there, if you’ve somewhere else you’d rather be taken. I just thought perhaps you’d like my wife to take a look at those nasty scrapes and bruises.” “I thought you were the healer!” Tereesan smiled, “Oh, you’ve heard of me? I’m surprised.” Shalis couldn’t think of anything to say, but it didn’t seem to matter. “Well, we’re both quite competent. Although I must admit that my wife is a little better at some things than I am.” “Can she get rid of these bruises?” “That? Why those are nothing, we’ll have you looking new again in no time.” 5 Hot water had caused the mirrored walls to steam up. When Tereesan came in he flipped the hot air switch and the fans began to whirl, forcing dry air from the vents. The humidifier switch was by the towel rack. He turned the selector to “Extremely dry” and flipped the on switch. Shalis had fallen asleep in the floor-bath; her head was nearly in the water. “Hey sleepy!” He said shaking her arm. Slowly, as if drugged, she opened her eyes. “You must have fallen asleep,” he said, “I got worried when you took so long.” Shalis sat up, “Where am I?” “Your at my home,” he said pulling a towel off the rack, holding it out. “Here.” She stood up and he draped it over her shoulders. “Your clothes are dry, the maid should be here with them any moment now. When you are done she will lead you to the dinner room. Don’t be too long unless you want your food to be cold.” “No! I wont be.” Shalis dressed quickly, feeling very much in control again, despite being in a stranger’s house. Tereesan was a foolish humanitarian, but then in her situation she would take every advantage of that. It was Tereesan’s companion, Serria who worried Shalis more. There was something unsettling about the beautiful, dark haired woman, and her relationship with Tereesan. The other night Shalis hadn’t so much as seen her, but tonight it had seemed, when they arrived, that she had been waiting for them. She opened the door for them as they walk up, and directed Tereesan to take Shalis straight to the bath as if she were the master in the house. Then she explained that dinner was almost ready. The maid came in. “Are you finished ma’am?” Shalis was buttoning up her lazy-man. She nodded. “Well, she mumbled to herself, “if I’m going to, I’d best go meet her.” “You might as well,” the maid said. “They’re both good people and she doesn’t bite despite the way she might seem.” Shalis laughed embarrassed that the maid had heard her. “Come on child, you just follow me.” Tereesan was sitting at a small cubby-table. Beside him, with her long legs crossed casually, sat Serria. She was wearing an attractive black satin miniskirt, with a matching top cut quite low for what Shalis imagined were Tereesan’s tastes. And she had let her hair down. Earlier it had been tied in a bun. Now Shalis noticed that she wore a red chocker around her neck, set with a blue stone in the shape of an “S” instead of the customary “T” for Tereesan. One empty chair had been left for Shalis, but she approached cautiously. Serria looked up as she came near, and smiled a lovely sensuous smile, her eyes sparkling with interest. “Sit down, please!” She said. Shalis looked at Tereesan for permission, but he continued to eat, not even looking at her. “I hope you feel a little better now,” he said. “Much, but I seem to have lost my personnel chocker. You didn’t by chance find it, did you?” “I’m sorry?” The magician said. “I didn’t see it... It’s really such a shame women wear chokers at all, I think. Don’t you agree?” “I suppose so.” Shalis said. “But they are important.” “Don’t worry baby!” Serria said patting Shalis’s hand tenderly, her eyes studying the younger girls. “I’m sure you’ll find it sooner or later.” Shalis nodded looking up at the magician’s woman curiously. She wasn’t sure she liked the intimate way the other woman touched her. “You certainly are beautiful, child!” Serria said. Shalis was thinking the same thing about her, but then compared to herself there really wasn’t any contest. “Tereesan’s told me you are quite a skilled healer.” “I do have talent in a few areas.” “She’s too modest,” Tereesan said. “I’m always telling her that but she refuses to take credit for her work.” Serria smiled wickedly, and shot Tereesan a icy glance. “You’ve become quite proficient, Tereesan. Letting me claim any credit would only hurt our business.” Tereesan shrugged and sliced off a portion of the tender meat on his plate. 6 It wasn’t anywhere! Shalis had even scraped her hand into a water filled pothole, but she had not found the chocker anywhere. Now she stood outside the back door trying to get enough nerve to face Baraan. She held the can of mace Serria had given her in her hand, behind her back. She knocked! Again! The door opened. At once he recognized her and smiled. Stepping back she said, “I believe you have a personnel chocker of mine.” Menacingly he stepped out the door, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “I had a black chocker, with a ruby D.” She took another step backwards, “I know you have it.” “Admit it bitch, you came back for more! You just can’t get enough of me.” As he grabbed for her arm, she brought the can of mace forward. “Fucking bastard!” He pulled back chocking, one hand over his eyes. Swiftly Shalis brought the heel of her knee boot into his crotch. Then he was on the ground, and she was smashing her knee into his face. Pain shot up her leg, but as he slumped to the ground with blood streaming down his face, she was knew it was worth it. His pockets were empty except for ten taotes, which she slipped under her skirt, into her panties. House keys were around his neck. Although she could not find his wallet she slipped his keys around her neck, dropping them down her lazy-man’s shirt. There was no way she could move Baraan, but she sprayed mace into his face again, and walked inside and up the stairs. In the drawer of the post guard desk, she found his security check card. She took that and continued up the stairs. It was simple to avoid the alarm lasers, and open the combination door lock to Damian’s office. Closing the door behind her, Shalis walked in and sat at the huge desk. It felt wonderful to be back at the controls. She turned to the computer, and began punching keys. When she was done she proof read the computerized instructions and smiled. Her first directive was to terminate Baraan. Then she ordered that an Omega coder activate the plate switch for the house computer as soon as possible; then she changed Damian’s permanent residence to Solali. Lastly she promoted Moraka one pay grade, and gave the maid a small bonus for sustained performance. When she had finished and everything was secured properly, she closed the combination door, and creep cautiously to the window in the hall. The foyer at the bottom of the steps was abandoned, but she had to assume that they had found Baraan by now. She slide open the window. It was dark out. She climbed out on the fire escape landing and closed the window behind her. When Damian was very young he had played on a fire escape, but that had been years ago. Shalis didn’t expect the metal to make so much noise as the other end lowered to the ground. But it was the only way to get down, and certainly represented fewer hazards than going out the same way she’d come in. It didn’t seem to matter. She stepped off the bottom and the steps slowly rose back up into the air, the metal screeching once again. “Who’s back there?” It was one of the outer grounds guards; she recognized his voice. She clung to the shadows along the wall and hurried down the alley towards the back street and the employee entrance. Hearing her footsteps the guard ran after her down the alley. She wouldn’t be able to outrun him so she turned around, pretending to button up her shirt. Without looking at him, she dropped her hands to her side. Painfully he poked her chest with his finger, “well, bitch!” His fingers slipped down unsnapping every snap with one move. “Why’d you run? What were you doing back here?” Every bastard in the world must practice that move she thought. He seemed placated by tracing her breast. He tweaked her pencil-sized nipple, and even smiled raising his eyebrows slightly. “Who were you with, cunt?” Suddenly she was frightened. He might recognize whose keys were hanging between her breasts. “Please, leave me alone!” She said pushing his hand away. “I don’t want any trouble!” The guard slapped her across the face, and she almost fell down. Everything turned black. A hand was grabbing her shirt, and a voice shouting at her. Slowly it came back. He was dragging her down the alley and into the back entrance. Into the foyer. He threw her into a chair against the wall, her head whipped back, savagely. “Speak up bitch!” “What?” She couldn’t stop the tear rolling down her face. “Listen bitch! A friend of mine is in the hospital...if you can’t explain why you’ve got his key chain around your neck your in for a long little party with me. Then if you can still walk, we’ll go down to the police for a little talk with them.” “Please, I can explain!” He pulled her to her feet. “You better, bitch.” “I...” She had to think! “I was supposed to meet him!” What did that have to do with the key? “I was supposed to meet him at his house, when he didn’t show up...” He raised his hand to slap her, “Your a liar.” “No, honest! I’m telling the truth.” Shalis could tell her body was a terrible liar. She had no control over its subtle facial emotions. Everything about it was new. “I think your lying,” the guard said. “But your little story wont be hard to check out.” He grabbed her by the arm jerked her up, “There’s a phone up the stairs. If you’re telling the truth I’ll apologize. If not...” He threw her towards the stairs; the phone was at the guard station on the middle landing. She let her ankle twist and fell to the ground, only half faking a squeak of agony. “Get up slut.” “My ankle. I don’t think I can.” Only slightly more gently he pulled her to her feet. She put her weight on the foot, and there was a twinge of pain. It would be enough to make her act seem believable. She tried to take another step and collapsed under her weight. He held her up. “I think it’s broken,” she said. “It better be,” he growled, “because if it isn’t, it will be.” He bent down to touch her ankle and she brought her foot up into his face, with all the strength she could muster. He fell backwards cursing. She was out into the alley, the front of her shirt flapping freely; her breast bouncing slightly as she ran towards one of the side streets. Looking back she tripped, just as the guard came out the door. She got up and ran on, cursing her stupid legs for being so slow. She could feel the guard slowly gaining on her but she didn’t dared look back again. A burning sensation began to swell in her knees. Out of the alley she darted, across a softly carpeted lawn, and into the shadows of an old open shed. The close walls amplified her heavy breathing and she walked deeper into the musty shed. Her foot caught and she fell over a pile of wooden boards; a nail piercing the exposed flesh of her leg. She stifled a scream; barely holding back the second scream as she pried the board free. Dampness oozed from the hole. “I know you’re in there bitch! Come on out now.” He was breathing heavily also. “It’ll only make it worse on you if you don’t.” Slowly she stood up. Trying to still her noisy breathing, and her pounding heart. She felt weak, and put her hand out in the dark to avoid tripping again. Quietly she moved, the board still held in her hand giving her courage. Its weight felt good. It was solid. “Too late, cunt! I’m coming in after you!” Stepping forward, she saw the guard silhouetted in the doorway. There wasn’t much light but she could see him edging forward a shinny object waving in his hand. Angrily she swung the board with all her might, hoping to knock him unconscious. She watched as the board connected with his neck. Heard the harsh sounding snap and saw him collapse into a heap on the ground. Chapter Four 1 Shalis couldn’t find the Damian choker anywhere. She had turned up every inch of Baraan’s spread in a frantic effort to recover it. She found 239 taotes and slipped that under her skirt with the other 10 taotes, but that wasn’t an equal payment for her losses. The Damian choker was worth over 1,000 taotes. She went to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. After her long search she was thirsty and hungry. She found a few things to snack on, and tossed them into a small sack. Then throwing a vase in frustration against the wall, she conceded her failure and left for the magician’s home. 2 “Amazing!” Shalis moaned, watching Serria’s hand as it brushed painfully over her leg wound with the mysterious fluid. The flesh began to bubble where the fluid touched, but sealed the puncture hole leaving a slightly tender scared area. “The scare will heal completely in about three days.” “That’s amazing!” Shalis repeated, stroking the flesh. Her touch tingled almost painfully. “How does it work?” “The secret is a very special stone which is ground up and heated with other materials.” Serria said. “But that’s all you’ll get out of me. The rest is a secret.” Shalis laughed leaning back so the magic user could bath the scrapes on her shoulders. “We seem to have adopted the position of your personal nurses.” “I’m sorry!” Shalis said angrily out of frustration and pain. “I didn’t mean to put you out. I’ll leave.” and she began to stand. “Don’t be silly.” Serria said holding Shalis down easily, and glaring at Tereesan reproachfully. She was much stronger than she appeared. “We want you here, as well as except you.” She slide her hands around Shalis’ arms and began to sponge her breast somewhat more than maternally. “But for your own good, you could try a little harder to come back in one piece when you go out.” Serria dropped the sponge into Shalis’ lap and Shalis jumped. It seemed as if the woman had done it on purpose. Tereesan picked the sponge up and began to wipe over Shalis’ legs and stomach. “It’s not that we don’t just love to nurse you up, but it’s not good for your beautiful body.” As Serria said ‘body‘ Tereesan pressed harshly against the nail wound in Shalis’ thigh. Cringing Shalis suppressed a yell. “I’m sorry.” Tereesan said, brushing lightly over the hole. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” In fact Shalis wasn’t sure whether it had been pain or pleasure. “It was nothing,” she said, noticing that hands had replaced the sponge, gently caressing her bare breasts, tweaking her nipples, and becoming more seductive. As if the hands sensed in the subtle movements Shalis tried to suppress that they had complete control over Shalis’ body. “What are you doing?” Shalis asked casually. As she looked up the Tereesan began to lick the damp between her thighs with an expertise that startled Shalis. “Oh, my God!” She breathed. “You don’t like it?” Serria said bending over to kiss Shalis on the mouth, her hands still working on her breasts. “Oh no!” Shalis moaned. “If you want us to stop,” Serria said, knowing that her little redheaded friend was essentially incapacitated. “We will.” Shalis groaned between breaths. She said nothing but pushed back against there gentle pressures. “Sure baby doll, sure.” There was a wet tongue against the dampness of her legs and she opened them for its sweet caress. “We wont leave you.” They continued for what seemed like hours. Until Shalis was nearly exhausted. How they could last so long completely baffled her, after all they were the ones doing all the work. At last Tereesan began working her with the sponges again. Then he daubed suave on his finger and spread it over Shalis’ leg wound. “There now, go wash this off and in a few days you’ll be completely healed.” Serria pulled her to her feet and Tereesan slapped Shalis’ ass surprisingly hard. “Go freshen up, you’ll feel better,” he said. “It will take the edge off the smell of this stuff.” 3 Each of Shalis’ wounds had been cleaned and disinfected. She had been bathed, oiled and perfumed. Now she stood in the air room and let the wind caress her. It felt good on her bare skin, against her healing wounds; its fingers streaming through her hair. She loved the cool, warm feeling of the water evaporating. Often she would lean or twist as if she were about to engage in some vigorous dance move and watch her muscles in her thighs, her calves, her stomach, and arms. She had almost forgotten how beautiful she was, even despite the scars on her legs. “You look absolutely splendid!” Serria said. Startled Shalis jumped. “Oh,” she breathed embarrassed. She wished it had been Tereesan who had caught her admiring herself. “Thank you!” Serria came closer, “Are you dry?” She asked, stroking Shalis’ arm to feel for moisture. “Yes.” “Come then, I have some good, new clothes for you to try on.” She flipped the switch, turning off the air fans, and Shalis followed her out the door to a large mirrored dressing room. “You don’t understand, I want my old clothes back.” “Don’t worry, baby.” She stroked Shalis’ hair. “I’ve got to get back to my house.” She smiled as if she understood something Shalis did not, “Don’t worry baby! I’ve got it all. I just thought you’d like a few little twinkles.” She pulled open a cupboard, hidden in the mirrored wall and laid a stack of clean, freshly scented clothes before the redhead. “Take what you want, babe. It’s all for you.” Before Shalis could answer Serria had slipped out the door, and Shalis was alone with the rags and the mirrors. All her old rags were there, neatly mended and cleaned. She began to look through the rags; found a slinky, black lace bikini, which she put on. She moved her hips experimentally, watching the movement of the lace and muscles, as they interacted seductively. She found a pair of leg-socks, and pulled them on, rolling the top down to form large cuffs above her knees. They went well with the black lace, Shalis thought, and they hide the ugly scrapes and bruises on her legs. Pulling on the skirt, she noticed where it had been torn and mended, very nicely. The door opened and Tereesan came in. “They look very nice. The socks, I mean.” “Thank you. They cover my legs.” “Yes! They go nicely with the skirt too.” Shalis looked in the mirror noticing how the cuff of the leg socks was pleasingly composed between her knee and the tassels of her skirt. She moved, letting it brush across her thighs. “Very nice,” he said lightly “We will be ready to eat when you’re finished, child.” 4 Shalis had left. In the dinner room, the magic users sat eating. “I think he’s ready.” Tereesan said. Serria said nothing. Without smiling she fingered the red stone of the Damian choker, which she held in her lap. “I think he’s ready.” Tereesan repeated. “No.” Serria corrected. “He is not ready. When you can think of him as a her, then perhaps he will be ready.” Nodding his head, Tereesan signified his submission. “Soon thou, my love.” Serria smiled. “Very soon!” 5 “No!” Shalis insisted, “I just want a velvet choker.” “A black...” “Yes, a black velvet choker. Is that such a God damn difficult concept to grasp? You act as if its illegal. I’m an independent woman!” “I told you. This store does not cater to independent women.” The salesman replied, firmly standing his ground. There was no change in his expression or stance. “That’s what the store says, but what do you say? I’ll pay you double what the choker cost.” “That’s not enough.” “How much then?” She asked. Shaking his head, he said. “You know what I want...There’s a room in the back. And the choker is yours at cost.” Smiling sardonically, she nodded, “Lets get it over with then.” And she followed him as he led the way to the back. As he passed by a door labeled ‘view room‘ he knocked twice and continued to a room with ‘storage‘ written above the woodwork in red streaked lettering. “What was that for?” She asked, walking in after the salesman, noticing a large mat that lay on the floor. “Undress,” he said. Slowly she began to strip the snaps down the front of her Lazy-man’s shirt, her fingers flaying gently over her breast. Anger was swelling inside her, but to her disgust the anger, also served to excite her. She loosed the skirt and began to slip of the snake leg ring, over the leg socks. The rubbing began that penetrating tingling like when the magician had used that healing fluid. “Leave on the socks.” A strangers voice commanded. She looked up and saw a handsome blonde man standing beside the salesman. Both men were smiling happily at the sight of her naked breast. “Raunk says your paying double today.” the blonde man said, coming to her and clasping her shoulder. He had surprisingly strong hands, yet gently he stroked her hair. “He said nothing about paying double to me!” “You want the choker don’t you?” From behind her Raunk pushed her to her knees while the blonde began to unbutton his shirt. She heard a zipper grinding slowly behind her. She felt nauseous and tried to bolt for the door, but Raunk tackled her, pulling her up on her knees and wrenching her arms behind her. He tied her elbows together. Then he pushed her head, guiding her towards his open zipper. “You better do it right, if you don’t want to die!” The blonde hissed smacking her ass smartly and impaling her from behind. 6 She was finally left alone. She rolled half off the mat onto the cold tile floor, and it shocked her back into the reality of the moment. She sat up. Her arms had been released, but her legs burned terribly. Everything ached, with a wild furry, like the magician’s fluid caressing her, moving over, violating just as the two had done moments before. She cursed the healing potion now, but she knew it was working. At least her clothes were still clean and untorn even though she couldn’t credit the two with being careful. When she emerged from the back Raunk greeted her pleasantly as if for the first time. “May I help you, miss?” “A black velvet choker, and a D shaped red stone, please. Capitol Rowan lettering.” Raunk nodded and went to the stock room. Shortly he returned with a mounted personnel choker replica of the Damian. She studied the stone and put it back on the counter. “It’s not a real stone, and the choker isn’t real velvet.” Raunk was surprised by her expertise, but he recovered his composure and scoffed, “I’m not forcing you to buy it. But take my word for it you wont find anywhere else that will sell you anything better. Most stores don’t take kindly to women buying chokers so they can fake being independent. That is illegal! So don’t press your luck.” “I am independent!” “Sure lady.” He smiled, “That’ll be 250 taotes” Shalis looked up haughtily, barely holding back her violent emotions. “250. You gonna pay?” “I know the business. This cheap-shit crap is worth less than 200 taotes.” “If you don’t want it just say so.” “We had an agreement!” “And I’m keeping it.” “I’ve paid more than double already.” “Suit yourself.” Raunk said scooping the choker off the table. Something clicked in Shalis’ mind. “Stop!” She said, holding out her hand. “I’ll take it.” He handed it to her, and she took Baraan’s wad out and threw it on the counter. “Keep the change.” She said haughtily, and turned storming towards the door. “Wait! I have to count it,” he cried. But she was out the door and running down the back alleys before he had decided to chase after her. 7 The maid opened the door a crack and peered out suspiciously. “Oh. It’s you.” She said letting Shalis in. “I’m tired,” Shalis said walking to the stairs, “I don’t want to be disturbed any tonight.” As if to speak, the maid opened her mouth, but she said nothing. Shalis smiled, and said. “Good night, Maria.” The bedroom was dark. Without flipping on the overhead she went to the bed and dropped onto the mattress exhaustedly. Tomorrow would be time enough to make more plans. She buried her face into the pillow, and sighed. I could be pregnant she thought as sleep began to creep over her mind. She would remember to check it out and buy some protection in the morning…. …Shalis was awakened violently. “The stick’s up!” The militia soldier said pinioning Shalis to the bed with his knee in the small of her back. Yanking her arms painfully behind her, he clamped handcuffs on her, and jumped back. Another militia grabbed her by the hair and arm. He pulled her to her feet and twirled her around. “What the hells going on?” Shalis said. The hand twined into her hair yanked her head back savagely. The first militia put a paper beside her face and smiled. Menacingly his black mustache curled up beside his lip. “Madame Shalis? Your under arrest.” He waved to the other, “take her away!” Hands were pushing her out the door. The maid was standing open mouthed in the hall; her eyes darted fearfully from the militia to Shalis. “Go on, take her away!” 8 Shay sat at his desk looking at Baraan’s hospital bill. He had never been close to Baraan, but he didn’t like paying the bill while he was laid up in a bed. All because of some stupid bitch. And the other guard, the one she had killed. He had been a good man. A damn good watchman. Shay clenched his teeth, and realized she was the one he had been talking to. Playing dumb. Had she been trying to gain access to the upstairs office? But why? And how could she have gotten into Damian’s office without knowing the layout of the alarm lasers, unless she was an expert... That made no sense at all. And what had happened to Damian. No one had seen him all day. It certainly wasn’t like him to slip secretly into his office. And how would that be possible, even if Baraan had been sleeping, Damian would have woke him up and docked his pay. The bit about firing Baraan just wasn’t like Damian. Nor was the sudden move to Solali. The possibility that Damian might not have written the message was unsettling. It implied that the bitch had managed to break the Omega Coder program, which was supposed to be impossible. Only the Omega Coder who had coded the system and the intended user where supposed to be able to crack it. If she had done it... And what had she done to Damian. Shay had never been Damian’s best friend, but the guy had not tried to make management decisions for the club; Shay liked him for that if nothing else. He shuttered. If the bitch hadn’t been caught she could have robbed them blind. But he had her now. He would pay off the other bidders and claim her ass. He would enjoy keeping her from causing any more mischief. She’d do some fights. He’d recoup some money from her work. Then he would rag her out, and who ever wanted her could stuff her for mounting for all he cared. 9 “She’s gotten herself in a bit of a fix.” Serria looked at Tereesan with a mischievous smile. “So it would appear.” She said, spearing a sautéed mushroom with her fork. “So it would appear.” “Perhaps its time. We could bid for her at the bail hearing.” “Perhaps.” Serria smiled sarcastically. “We wouldn’t be the only bidders thou, if we tried to buy her sentence. There are those she stole from who might want a bit of vengeful play.” “They’ll bow out for a few hundred taotes.” “The small one’s maybe, but I don’t think Shay would. I’m sure he wants her. He may not respect beauty but he can recognize it, surely. And don’t forget he has a sizable advance, since both guards were injured while working, both of their medical advances will be transferred to Shay unless they forfeit their insurance benefits. That plus, anything his lawyers can get for disability pay, and who knows what else they can think up.” “We can’t compete with Shay,” Tereesan agreed. “But you could snuff her and buy the corpse from the militia.” “What would the cause be? What excuse would we have for knowing about it? No, I don’t think we could do it with out raising a good deal of suspicion. Even if we could the time factor would probably be too long with all the red tape. And then if we could manage to revive her, Shay could contest our rights to possession. Since she would have been given to us as a corpse he might very likely win such a case.” She took a sip of Aphid Milk. “No! We can’t afford to play for her now. Besides it would be harder for us latter if they thought we wanted her. It will not be so hard to buy her dead, once she has become Shay’s personal property and is thus his responsibility.” Chapter Five 1 For three days Shalis slept on a cot in a small cement cage. The militia had already taken her rags, and given her stiff sacks to wear. They were too small to fit properly; pinching at her skin when she sat down. She took them of before long, and they stayed off. She was surprised none of the guards tried to take advantage of her. But there had been quite a bit of publicity over the guard’s death; and her arrest. There were always extra guards on duty, and though they came back frequently to check on her they made no move towards her. She heard two of them talking once when the door had been left open a crack. “What I wouldn’t give for a few minutes with that redhead babe.” She didn’t hear what the other replied, but she was glad for what ever it was, because the first said. “Only making small talk.” That was all she heard, but no one tried anything the full three days. She thought her luck had turned bad on the third day, when as she lay on the cot with her spiff sacks draped over her like a blanket, a militia soldier slide open the cage door and said. “Come with me, girl.” Patiently he waited for her to dress, without turning his head away. She looked up at him, and his eyes were on her body. When she was done she stepped down out of the small living space. He took her arm and led her down the hall. “What happened at the bail?” Shalis ask. “You were sold to Shaw.” 2 Shalis was awake. Glitter shone in the mirror where the sun shimmered thru the curtains, nicely framing her face as she put rouge on her cheeks. She sat on a hard wooden bench. Chains bound her hands together awkwardly but she painted her face carefully, tracing over her lip, and along her eyes. “Hurry up! Spiff.” Lenamora said: she was a pretty blonde who did the body paint jobs for Shay’s girls. “I’m almost done, Lena.” “Fuck your face, I’ll paint it myself!” Lenamora said, grasping the chains that bound Shalis’ hands and pulling her to her feet. “Put your hands over the Dumis rack.” Obeying, Shalis draped her chains over the two metal hooks of the rack that hung from the ceiling. Suddenly the rack began to rise pulling her chains tight against her wrist, holding her hands about a foot and a half apart. “Do you put it this high for all your spiff’s?” Shalis ask. “Only the ones I want to fuck with! Now, keep your mouth shut before I put you on your tiptoes.” Lenamora wet her brush in the paint on her spatting easel and traced over Shalis’ breast in quick torturous strokes that sent chills through Shalis’ body. She shuttered. Lenamora laughed, her hand was between Shalis’ legs, petting her fur, licking tenderly inside. The brush traced swiftly lower over Shalis’ stomach. There were heavy footsteps Shalis recognized as Shay’s. “Is she ready?” He boomed. “I’m good, I’m not God!” Lenamora said halting her assault on Shalis. “When does she go on?” “Fifteen.” He said leaving. “She’ll be perfect in ten.” Quietly Lenamora watched Shalis. She loosened the straps on her primcot and rewrapped her breast. Again the brush began to trace Shalis’ skin with quick flirting strokes. “What do I get?” “You’ll see.” Lenamora said, walking around behind Shalis and pulling her hair back into a ponytail. “You’re getting the full artistic treatment today.” The brush was on her face tracing frantic designs around her eyes and on her cheeks. Next her neck and back, then her legs were attacked by Lenamora’s paints. They went on cool and dried within seconds. Finally Lenamora was done. Without releasing Shalis she rolled a full-length mirror stand in front of her. Shalis just stared in amazement. It was a fantastic paint job, mostly shades of blue, and cloudy white. Her pubic hairs were orange: flickering representations of fire that faded into yellow then white and turned to blue again at her belly button. Her breasts were a greenish blue. They shimmered as she moved, like drops of water about to drip onto the fire below. Under her arms the hair was painted a brilliant red. A bright foliage green spilled down across her shoulders, little green fingers reaching down over her deltoids and around the tips of the greenish blue on her breasts. The rest of her body was painted blue with white clouds that flowed with the curves of her muscles. Only at her neck, near her face did her own skin show through. If she hadn’t known better Shalis would have thought she was wearing a body suit. “Its beautiful!” She said. “Don’t lie, honey!” Lenamora said, “It looks like shit.” She brushed the fallen red hair out of Shalis’ eyes. “You bring out the best in it thou. Your hair does.” And she let down the ponytail and fluffed up Shalis’ hair letting it shower down over her shoulders. “It is beautiful.” Shalis said. “It doesn’t matter, it won’t last long.” Lenamora laughed without a trace of humor. Then, without releasing Shalis she turned and left. 3 The stage was black with silence, as everyone waited for the next show to begin. Shalis hung in the air from the Dumis rack behind the stage curtain. They opened slowly and she could sense the crowd on the other side. She could hear the mutterings echo through the audience like a chorus of rustling clothes. Her arms ached, from being suspended in the air. The cloth around her wrist had saved the rope burns that might have worn into her skin. Bright lights flashed into her eyes, and the Dumis rack began to lower her into the ring, center stage. Seviena, Shay’s daughter—a shapely, barely clothed girl—walked towards Shalis bouncing her hips casually. She cut the ropes from Shalis’ arms with a large knife that she moved with confidence and precision. She was young; perhaps seventeen, and the crowd loved her. She swayed her way across the ring, prancing childishly, and holding the ropes into the air. At the same time a loud speaker boomed. “Gentlemen! Shalis... the outlaw.” Seviena turned and pointed towards Shalis with a sweeping gesture that ended in her hips and the crowd went crazy, with hoots and cheers. “This is a challenge match, so throw the rope out, and may the best man get it!” Seviena tossed the rope into the crowd and several men scrambled towards it. When the applaud had died down she turned to the ring’s ropes and pulled the top one up to make room for an older, larger woman who had been waiting patiently on the side. “Oh, shit!” Shalis said, seeing the woman’s bulk. She wasn’t unattractive but she was easily five inches taller and fifty pounds heavier than Shalis. She glared as she climbed in the ring. “And our champion,” the crowd roared with a mixed applause. “Malina... the destroyer!” The bell chimed. Slowly Shalis stepped out to meet the huge bulk. Malina stepped confidently, quickly reaching out and grabbing Shalis’ arm. It startled Shalis, the speed and power with which she was spun around. Malina lifted her, and threw her to the mat; then kicked her in the side, leaving Shalis breathless. Shalis’ eyes were wild with fear and hurt. She tried to stand, but Malina sent a blow to her neck that put her back on the floor. She was hauled to her feet by her hair. Malina lead her across the ring and slung her into the ropes. They caught her at the throat. Bouncing of she ran squarely into Malina and fell to the floor again. She rolled over onto her stomach, waiting for the next blow. Hands grabbed her hair and pulled her to her feet. Her knees buckled and she fell directly into Malina’s raised knee. Malina pummeled Shalis onto her stomach digging her fingers into Shalis’ eyes, and pulling her head back as she rocked and bounced gleefully. The crowd loved it. All Shalis could manage were gasps of breath. Then the heavier woman jumped off, pulling Shalis to her feet and landing a fist into her stomach, doubling Shalis up with pain. A knee came up catching most of Shalis’ left breast, and sending her sprawling to her back to the canvas. Malina dropped down on top of Shalis’ face wrapping her large arms around Shalis’ back, smothering Shalis’ face in the flesh of her stomach just below her buxom breast and lifting her up slowly, teasingly for the crowd. Shalis’ back arched painfully. Malina put her weight into lifting up with her arms. Slimy flesh sealed off Shalis’ air. She walked up into a backbend, but Malina keep the pressure going. Shalis’ feet began to leave the ground. She felt nauseous. Her mouth grouped for air; sucked in a breast nipple, and instinctively bit down, grinding her teeth as she had never done before. She tasted blood. Felt the arms that had held her release her. She fell. Her teeth were jerked as if she’d been kicked from inside her head, but she held her mouth closed as she fell. When she came up, Malina was curled up on the canvas bleeding. Shalis’ own mouth was blood soaked. She smiled as she realized the crowd had grown silent. Then she spat the nipple and blood from her mouth. It dripped down her chin and onto her own breast. The audience gasped. Shalis threw up. 4 Tereesan looked over at Serria. “Why didn’t you do it?” He asked as they filed towards the isle. “She’s rather resourceful don’t you think?” “Serria?” His voice was gentle, coaxing. “Why didn’t you do it?” “She hasn’t learned yet.” Serria smiled. “I didn’t know you wanted to teach her a lesson.” “I didn’t either, but I do. Alright?” “Alright.” “I was just about ready to do it when she pulled that nasty little trick. It would have been perfect to have her suffocate. But I didn’t want to do it with her winning the match. It wouldn’t have been proper, somehow.” “She is rather resourceful, isn’t she?” 5 “I thought he wanted me to win!” Shalis said haughtily, pulling on the ropes that tied her hands behind her back. “Isn’t that the fucking idea?” “Shut up, stupid bitch!” Seviena said, slapping Shalis’ bare leg with all her might. “Now sit still, before I get some of this in your eye.” She swabbed iodine on the scratches around Shalis’ eye and seemed to take pleasure in watching Shalis wince. She forced her knee between Shalis’ legs, pressing it against her stomach. “Malina was a good friend of mine. It should have been you, given to that bum with the rope. You should have been disqualified.” “Sorry to disappoint you.” Seviena slapped Shalis’ leg again; then rammed her knee into Shalis’ chest. “You think your real tough, don’t you.” She pushed her knee harder. “Just remember, you get what you ask for.” “What does that mean?” Seviena smiled cruelly, as she swabbed iodine over Shalis’ cheek for a third time. “You’ll find out,” she hissed. The door clattered open, and both girls looked over as Lenamora stepped into the room carrying a tray of food. She had apparently kicked the door open. “Thank you, Lenamora, you can leave the tray on the table.” “Sorry kid!” Lenamora said. “I brought the food, I get to feed her.” Seviena’s eyes blazed. “I want to!” Lenamora was an independent and held the right, but Seviena held rank. “Fine.” Lenamora said casually. “But I’m not your servant, if you want to feed her go fix her food yourself.” Seviena stood up wrapping the bottle of iodine in her rag. “Fine! I’ll do that,” she said, walking with her showgirl walk towards the door. Lenamora sat down on the bed beside Shalis. “What do you think your doing?” Seviena asked. “What does it look like?” “You can’t feed her! I’m going to fix her food right now.” “I’m not stopping you.” “But by the time I get back you’ll already have feed her.” Lenamora looked shocked. “Why Seviena! I do believe your mind is finally getting sharper. In a few more years you might even learn to spell your name.” Seviena snarled an incoherent reply, and stormed from the room. “Well,” Lenamora said turning to Shalis with a smug smile. “Congratulations! You’ve made Shay look like a zookeeper.” Shalis looked up and smiled bitterly. “Thanks!” She said, then: “What’s that supposed to mean?” “They’re saying you’re an animal. That inside that pretty skin of yours you’ve got the heart of a wildcat!” “What was I supposed to do? Let her smoother me. They’d have loved that.” Lenamora slid the tray across the shelf towards Shalis. Her smile was sympathetic. “Eat!” She said dipping her fingers into a bowl of goop. “I suppose I’d attack you if I was untied.” “You might.” “I know...It’s the only way you figure you can get me to eat that slop.” Lenamora laughed and stuffed her fingers into Shalis’ mouth. “I like you better this way.” She said. “Oh, God!” Shalis spat the white goop from her mouth. “That’s sickening. I hope you don’t expect me to eat it.” “I’m not a bitch like Seviena, she’d force it down you.” “She’s not very fond of me, is she?” “I feel I should warn you thou. That’s all there is to eat.” “A good way to keep us girls thin.” Lenamora smiled, studying Shalis for a moment. “Your a right brassy little bitch.” There was a look of near admiration on Lenamora’s face. “How is it that haven’t been in trouble before. I mean where have you been hiding yourself all these years.” They looked at each other. Shalis remained silent. “You don’t handle it very well.” “What?” “Whatever it is you wont tell me.” Lenamora touched Shalis’ breast gently. Neither one spoke; the hands caressed lovingly. “What’s going to happen to me, Lena?” “You’re probably going to be fighting men now.” Lenamora said. She laughed. “If I were you, I’d try to become friendly with them. Because if you don’t. Well, they can get pretty rough.” The hands were moving lower. “Kiss me.” Lenamora said, and their lips touched in a sweet union. “Don’t. Not here!” Shalis begged. Lenamora dropped to her knees. “Why not. Finding us together wont shock anyone. Its part of my pay!” “No, please!” “Oh, yes!” She hugged Shalis’ legs and kissed her lap. “And I want to make you feel good. I want you to feel so good it hurts.” She kissed Shalis again with no protest given. 6 Someone was pounding on the door. Shalis got up, and opened the little peep window to her room, and saw Baraan smiling at her. “Well bitch, I guess you’re going to get what’s yours, now.” “I thought you were fired!” He looked sharply at her. “I was!” He snarled, “But shay likes me; and he thinks I got a raw deal, so he hired me as a wrestler. Fact is he’s gonna let me have a go at you to even up the score for what you did to me and to Savic.” “You attacked me!” “He already said I could bruise the merchandise as much as I want as long as I don’t let you die. He wants to get several good beatings from you before he strings you out.” “No!” She said sarcastically. “Oh yes, cutie! Almost a shame to waste that pretty face, but believe me this is one time I’ll enjoy it.” She slammed the window closed. Baraan laughed and turned away. She could hear him outside the door as his footsteps became fainter. “I’ll bet you will,” she said sitting back down on the musty cot. 7 Lenamora unlocked the door and entered the small room carrying Shalis’ food. “No, no, no, no, no!” She scolded as Shalis reached for it. “If you insist on being like that I shall be forced to have your hands tied behind your back.” “Oh, Jesus Lena. Not this again.” “Be quiet and don’t be a spoil sport.” “I’d just like to feed myself for once.” “And take away my fun.” Lenamora stuffed a handful of the gray goop into Shalis’ mouth and she sucked the fingers clean, then leaned back against the wall. “Better be careful, you’ll start liking this stuff.” “I doubt that!” She laughed, then thought about it a moment. “It does taste a little different.” “Better?” “Yeah. What’d you do?” “I added some spices.” There was a short silence as Shalis showed her appreciation by taking another mouthful and carefully licking Lenamora’s hand clean. “Seriously Shalis.” Lenamora waited for Shalis to look up. “Be careful tonight. I heard Shay telling Baraan he was free to be as rough as he wanted with you as long as he didn’t do serious damage to your face. He knows a pretty face goes a long way with a crowd. But it is an escape grudge match, and I don’t think Baraan likes you.” “Baraan paid me a little visit of his own.” Lenamora scooped up another handful of goop. “What did he want?” “Maybe it was just a scare tactic, but he seemed to think my face should be a prime target.” “I doubt Shay would be upset enough to fire him.” Lenamora said. “You’ve still got the man-killer brand on you; and it will be a long time before people can forget that. Especially with your red hair.” “Great!” Shalis turned away. “I don’t know how much you value that face, but if you love it as much as I do you’ll keep it covered with your arms and take the beating to your body.” Lenamora wiped her hands clean on a rag, and ran one through Shalis’ hair. The other hand touched Shalis’ stomach and traced up to cup below her breast. Lenamora climbed up on the cot behind Shalis letting her hands snake around to flick at the fur between Shalis’ legs. Shalis leaned slightly forward with a shaky sigh, and slid her hand down over Lenamora’s thigh. “You’ll have great fun massaging me after that, wont you?” “I will.” Lenamora laughed, forcing her fingers sharply between Shalis’ legs. Chapter Six 1 “Do you like it?” Shalis studied Lenamora’s paint job. It was mostly abstract brown and dirty greens, with a few brighter spots of color that looked something like butterflies. The face was pretty, but colorless, and sad. “It makes me look pathetic.” Shalis said, tilting her head and raising her chin. “That’s the idea: raise some sympathy in the audience. If you could get them cheering for you to win, it wouldn’t be long before you’d be fighting women again.” “Thanks, but by that time I don’t think it will matter much.” Lenamora heard the serious sarcasm and laughed nervously. “So he’ll beat you to a pulp either way.” She shrugged, and increased the tension of the dumis rack against Shalis ropes. “Thanks for the moral booster!” “You don’t need a moral booster, you need a miracle.” “Please, I could do without the optimism.” “Well, it’s show time, anyway.” She leaned forward, one hand tangling itself in Shalis hair. Then, Lenamora kissed Shalis hard on the lips, and stepped back. “What was that for?” “In case you’re not as pretty when you come back.” Lenamora said with a small, but halfhearted laugh that betrayed her seriousness. “Would you do it again, please?” Lenamora leaned forward and kissed Shalis gently this time. “Good luck, kid.” She said, hitting the button that started the Dumis rack moving up into the air. She watched as the rack rose up into the darkness overhead, then quietly said. “You’re gonna need it.” 2 “I think she is more than outclassed in this match.” “I can not argue with that.” Serria said with a smile. Shalis, suspended from a Dumis rack, was being lowered into the spotlight, at the center of the ring. When she touched the ground with her toes the rack stopped. “Gentlemen! Shalis...the killer outlaw.” Seviena gestured towards her with typically playful hips as the crowd roared. Baraan was walking up to the ring, and Seviena moved over to hold the ropes up for him to slide under the bottom. Numerous strips of clear plastic stretched between the ropes forming a barrier to human sized objects but allowing fighters to grab the ropes with out much hindrance. “And her opponent,” The crowd roared. “In an escape grudge match... with no rules: Baraan ...the punisher.” The crowd exploded as he stepped to the center and raised his massive arms over his head. He slapped Shalis stomach open palm, with a loud smack. The announcer stepped in quickly and pushed him back. “There will be no time limit.” The announcer continued “The end of the match will occur when Shalis either forces her opponent to submit,” Baraan threw his hands above his head and gave a war hoop; the crowd hooted back. “Or escapes from this ring which has been specially prepared with plastic strips to impede her escape.” He moved to the ropes and pulled on the plastic to show the crowd. “Or in case she should fail to do that...” A raucous of laughter went up from the crowd. “Baraan may allow her to concede the match at any time,” He shook his head vigorously, and roared. “Or it may be cancelled by the physician who will be monitoring this match.” Seviena walked over to Shalis raising a large knife above her head; and cut the ropes from Shalis wrist. She walked around the ring holding the ropes up to the crowd’s cheers. Then tossed them into the crowd. They landed in Tereesan’s lab, and he quickly pocketed them. “Good work,” Serria said, opening her eyes. “Your work?” She nodded, “I’d like to think I helped a little.” “Let the contest begin!” The announcer shouted. Baraan walked out towards Shalis. She stepped back, took a look around the ring. Baraan was cutting off the ring. She turned and ran to the corner post and tried to jump over the containing ropes. Several in the audience jumped from their seats and caught Shalis in the middle of her jump, shoving her back into the ring so that she fell half over the rope. Baraan lurched after her, grabbing her by her left leg and pulled her back into the ring. She held on desperately to the top rope, still trying to climb out of the ring. He stretched her out horizontally, above the floor then gave a sharp pull. As Shalis lost her grip Baraan let go, and she fell to her stomach. She curled up, and waited to see what he would do. Grabbing her arm he hauled her to her feet. She backed into the corner behind her, while he moved to cut off the ring; and quickly closed in. Desperately she ran with her head into his stomach, trying to kick him in the crotch. “A real swift move.” Serria said. “Even if she were the same size as him, she wouldn’t be a match. She knows nothing about fighting, that’s obvious.” “She’s fended for herself in the past!” Serria said. Baraan had grabbed Shalis by the wrist and was twisting her arm savagely behind her back; wrenching at the shoulder socket as if he wished to pull her arm off. Tears were streaming from Shalis eyes. She stomped at the floor. “Such a brave lass, not to cry out.” Serria scoffed. But Shalis did cried out, as Baraan used the leverage of her arm to force her to run into the ropes. When she rebounded he clipped her across the neck with his arm while lodging his knee in her gut. She collapsed and he grabbed a handful of her hair. Lifting her to her feet he clubbed her neck with his arm. She began to fall back but he caught her up, pressed her above his head and slammed her bouncing onto her back. As she tried to sit up he jumped on her stomach with his feet, slamming her back to the canvas. He bounced then dropped to his back driving his elbows—one into her leg just above her knee, the other into the side of her neck and collarbone. She rolled over when he got up, trying to curl into a ball on all fours, but she couldn’t get the arm Baraan had twisted to cooperate; and he kicked her other arm out from under her. She fell on her face and he stomped on the back of her leg. With an elbow smash he attacked the small of her back. She sprawled on the mat. He grabbed her ankle, twisted it back against her thigh then repeatedly struck her other leg around the back or her knee and thigh. Baraan stood up, still holding to the leg. He pulled her leg up until her hips left the ground then lay on the leg forcing it back in a wide arch, her toes pointed at her shoulders. Her double-jointed back curved at an alarming angle as her foot touched her shoulder. She kicked out with her free foot and caught Baraan in the crotch with a glancing blow that merely angered him. He yanked her leg sideways, twisting it at the knee. Shalis started to roll over then Baraan quickly reversed his twist so that the force of her roll increased the strain to her knee. Pulling her up by the hair, he rammed her head into the corner post buckle. She fell to one knee. He caught her up again, and kneed her in the back. Then he caught her up in his arms, fell to one knee, and let her drop onto her back over his other knee. “I think she’s going to lose consciousness.” Tereesan said. “He’s paced it well, but she’s taken to much abuse.” Baraan was lifting her, face up, above his head, and he threw her to the center of the ring. She landed on her knees, her face slammed into the canvas by the force of her momentum. She crumpled, still moving; but obviously unaware of where she was, and probably of what was happening to her. Serria mused over the idea and shook her head, “No! She’ll wish she could, but I don’t think she will.” “You’re not going to...” “Yes, I am.” Serria said. “Now be quiet. I have to concentrate.” Baraan began walking in a circle around Shalis, watching as she floundered on the floor. Never letting her get to far from him. He turned to the crowd, and raised his arms, and they cheered for him. Smiling, he flexed his muscles and shouted. Then he turned back to Shalis and began circling again. She was hugging herself into a ball. “Get up, bitch!” He screamed at her loud enough for the crowd to hear; and they roared with pleasure. Shalis however did not move. He rolled her over into a sitting position and caught her by the hair before she could fall over. “Get up!” He shouted, pulling her up a foot then pushing her down, full weight onto her tailbone. She yelled out, and shuttered. “Get up!” He repeated the hair pull and drop; and she repeated her yell and shutter, groping at his arms as he did it again. He let her go, and she rolled back to the floor, crawling to the ropes. She pulled herself up using the ropes to keep her full weight off her knee. Baraan waited at an arms length for nearly a full minute, watching as she tested her leg, then slowly began to limp. Someone in the crowd began to boo, and others took it up, but Shalis head had cleared a little, and she was moving around better before Baraan moved in on her. Limping back away from him she finally ran into the ropes. Suddenly he slammed his palms into her chest. She fell back against the ropes and was thrown back out into his ramming palms. Again she fell back on the ropes. This time Baraan moved to the side and hooked his arm around her neck, pulling her backwards into a headlock. With his fingernails he dug at her eyes, and clawed at her face. Then Squatting down and twisting her weight, he bent her over his back and grabbed a leg. When he stood she was draped around his back. He flexed his arms pulling her painfully forward. The crowd roared and he ran with her on his back towards the corner post, turning at the last moment so that she took the full force of the blow. Without releasing her, he walked to the center of the ring, flexed his arms again, and dropped onto his back. She bounced several inches of the floor, landing again with him on top of her; his arm still around her neck. She was gasping for breath. He rocked sideways, pulling her breast off the floor with his momentum. Letting her head flopped back to the canvas, he straddled her and pulled her arm straight back over her shoulder. She tried to keep them from him, but she was to weak. He placed his palm on her shoulder and twisted her arm. It went suddenly loose in its socket. He jumped off her, and grabbing a handful of hair, pulling her full weight up by it. Her body hung lifeless, in front of him; her shoulder was lumpy and looked deformed. He turned to the crowd: they were cheering; and he smashed his open palm into her face. The doctor was moving towards the ring, shouting for Baraan to let him check the girl out. But Baraan took her by the neck and thigh and tossed her from the ring. She landed on the concrete floor with a thump. A crowd formed around her and the doctor was trying to push his way through. “Well,” Serria said, opening her eyes and smiling. “Part two was a success.” She held up a small blue gem for Tereesan to see, then slipped it into the folds of her black breast wrap. “Your sure it worked?” “Like clock work.” Serria nodded to the commotion by the ring. “It wasn’t hard to coax her out when there was that much pain.” “I suppose not.” He stood. “But did we have to do it that way.” “That’s what I like about you, you’re so sensitive. She’ll remember this though. Maybe she’ll have learned something.” They followed the crowd towards the isle. “Let us go collect her. We must hurry, her bodies badly hurt.” 3 “I can’t see why you’d quibble over a dead body, when I’m willing to pay the death expenses.” Tereesan said to Shay. “I have the rope, and I’m further offering you a small fee.” “Don’t give me that rope crap.” Shay snapped. “She’s got to be alive for the rope to count for anything. If it’s her dead body you’d like to abuse, you have to pay for that.” “I find no pleasure where there is no emotion.” Shay snarled. “Spare me. She’d deserve the worst you could give her.” He turned away to think. “A body is simply useful in my art.” “Your art?” Tereesan smiled wryly. “Must we exercise our wits?” “I’m not fond of your art.” “Be that as it may,” Tereesan continued. “She will do me more good than you. I will pay the death expenses, as I’ve said.” Shay looked up and clenched his teeth then turned away again. “You mentioned a small fee. Is that in addition to the death expenses?” “Say 500 taotes.” “Isn’t she worth any more than that to you?” “Is she worth that much to you?” “Probably not...I had thought of stuffing her.” “Not a very appealing prize anymore is she.” “Alright, I’ll sell her to you.” Shay scowled. “Good, then if you’ll sign here,” Serria held forth a pen and a slip of paper, smiling. “We can make it official.” 4 Serria unzipped the body bag. “She took quite a beating I’d say.” Tereesan took a tube of salve, and began rubbing it over Shalis bruised flesh. “Yes.” Serria pulled the blue stone from the folds around her breast, and massaged it against Shalis temple. “We must hurry, the body is fading fast.” Tereesan worked the salve as she worked her magic: stroking Shalis temples as she fell into a deep meditation. She moaned; pinched Shalis nose and breathed deep into the girl’s mouth. “Begin.” Serria said in her husky, sleepy trance voice. Tereesan wiped the salve from his hands onto Shalis chest, quickly massaging it up to her shoulder. He took two metal plates with plastic handles and placed them on her chest and flipped a small switch on one. Shalis body jumped in a short spasm, then relaxed. “She’s back in.” Serria said shortly. “Bring me the heal stone.” 5 Shalis woke with the sun in her eyes. Hands were tracing over her heavy thighs with a gentle caressing that tingled. “Finally decided to wake up?” It was Lenamora’s voice. Shalis lifted her hand to her head, noticing a stiff tenderness in her shoulder and neck. Her whole body ached. “What happened?” She tried to clear her head, and remember. “You forgot to cover up.” Lenamora said, pressing her hand against Shalis tender cheek. Shalis caught her wrist and pulled her down until her head blocked the sun and she could see her friends face: she looked very tired. “How long have I been out?” “About five days, I think.” Shalis looked up to see if Lenamora was teasing, but she was serious. “No wonder my head feels like a rock.” “Actually you died for a while, Tereesan brought you back.” Shalis laughed, and let go of Lenamora’s wrist. “Would you get rid of that damn sun, it’s giving me a headache.” “Sure, kid.” She got up and closed the curtain, then came back and sat down beside Shalis again. Footsteps came from the hallway, and Tereesan appeared in the doorway carrying something. “So, she’s finally awake.” Lenamora turned around. “Just opened her pretty blues.” “Good, maybe you should get some rest now, Lena. I’ll watch her for a spell.” Shalis could smell soup. “I’ll be fine.” Shalis said seeing Lenamora’s hesitation. She took Shalis hand in hers and squeezed gently. “I think that’s a good idea.” She said at last, standing and walking from the room. Shalis watched her leave; then tried to sit up. Her head began to spin. Tereesan was at her side quickly pushing her back down to the bed. “Easy now.” He said stroking her hair. “Take it slow. You’ll be up and around before long, but your not ready for it yet.” He picked the soup bowl up from the nightstand he had set it on. “Would you like something to eat?” She put her hand to her head. It felt terribly hot, and her fingers felt cold. “Yes. How long has Lena been here? She doesn’t look like she’s sleep in days.” Taking her head he raised it a little and put the bowl to her lips. She took a few sips as he talked. “We called her shortly after we brought you here.” He waited for a reaction from her, but when he saw none. “She’s barely left this room since, and that’s been nearly four days.” “Why?” Shalis said laying back. “It’s obvious! She’s in love with you, my dear.” “Why?” She asked again. “Good question!” He smiled good-naturedly. “Unfortunately I haven’t got a clue... Well, that’s not true really. I suppose it’s probably for the same reason we all love you. Now, lay back and close your eyes. I’m going to open up the curtains again, if you don’t mind.” Her eyes were feeling heavy and she closed them, letting her head sink down into the pillow. “Why do you want the sun on me?” She asked weakly. “It gives me a headache. “It’ll pass,” he sighed. “For now close your eyes and sleep. There’ll be time enough for explanations later.” 6 Shalis woke with a full bladder. Lenamora was sitting asleep in a chair beside her bed. Slowly Shalis sat up. Her head spun for just a moment but it went away when she took a deep breath. After waiting for a few moments she stood, steadying herself with her arms. Her stomach felt slightly queasy, and her legs and torso were so weak and tender that it was hard to walk; but she did. She reached the door before Lenamora woke and jumped from her chair cursing. “Where the hell do you think your going?” She took Shalis arm. “I’ve got to pee, or I’m gonna bust.” “It wouldn’t be the first time!” She laughed, at Shalis embarrassment. “Why didn’t you wake me?” “I’m a stubborn independent.” “Not anymore, sweet cheeks.” Suddenly Shalis laughed. “Why aren’t you at Shay’s place?” “I quit!” Lenamora said, then: “What brought that up.” “Sweet cheeks. It sounds like something he’d say.” “Remind me not to use it anymore, then, will yeah.” “It’ll be my pleasure.” 7 That day Shalis ate lunch with the others at the table. It was the first time she had seen Serria since the fight. She came to the table after the others were seated and took Shalis hand in hers. “I hope you’re feeling better. You gave us quite a scare for a moment there.” Shalis smiled but could think of nothing to say. “Help yourselves.” Serria said, seating herself. Shalis was famished, and ate with vigor; which pleased the others. From the opposite side of the table Lenamora keep watching her, and exchanging occasional glances with Serria. “Tell me all about it.” Shalis said. “I want to know everything that has happened.” “It’s not a very pretty dinner story.” Lenamora said. “It’s alright Lenna!” Serria said. “You can tell her.” Lenamora glanced at Tereesan and he shrugged, so she turned back to Shalis. “Baraan beat you pretty badly.” “I think I remember most of that!” “The ring doctor tried to stop the fight...but he was a little late...he said you were dead.” “Which was technically correct.” Tereesan added. “So they purchased your...dead body...and brought you here, where they brought you back to life somehow.” Shalis turned towards Tereesan and raised her eyebrows. “Come now, my dear, you can’t expect us to give away our secrets.” Serria said with a grin. “And that process is one of the most secret of all our arts.” “And the most physically taxing.” Tereesan added. “Suffice it to say, that the process takes much foresight. But in the end, it has all worked out as planned.” She shrugged. “All is well that ends well; isn’t it?” “As planned!” Shalis said. “Oh, indeed.” Serria said. “We’ve guided your adventures from the start.” She pulled the Shalis choker from her pocket, and handed it to Lenamora, who didn’t seem to recognize it. “Are you sure she’s strong enough for this.” Tereesan whispered leaning over and taking Serria’s hand. “We’ll find out if she’s not!” She snapped, pulling away, and looking intently at Shalis who seemed to be in a mild shock. “From what start?” “From your first female morning.” Serria laughed. Shalis glanced at Tereesan; he lowered his eyes. She looked at Lenamora, who gulped hard; and shot a glance at Serria. “Don’t get upset with her, she wasn’t in on it.” Serria said. “We hired her after the fight to come work for us, and she agreed.” “I’d like to know. What the hell you two are talking about.” Lenamora said. Serria smiled. “Of course!” Tereesan cleared his throat. “Using a variation of the same process that allowed us to bring Shalis back from the dead, we transferred Shalis’ life-force into a female body. He shrewdly accepted the change with an uncanny ease, and choose to call himself Shalis.” “You mean...” Lenamora began. “Why don’t you ask her yourself?” “Yes!” Shalis said. “The very same. I remember that you invited me to your house...” “Getting you to come was the most difficult part of the whole plan.” “But how did you get me back to my house.” “A relatively simple, but taxing teleportation.” “Why? Why did you do it?” “Don’t be so dramatic.” Serria laughed. “Your not the first, and I’m sure you wont be the last.” Lenamora couldn’t believe it. “You mean you’ve done this before. How many times?” “Only a few.” “But it’s always been totally successful.” Tereesan said. “I myself was once female.” “You!” Lenamora said. “That explains your proposals then, doesn’t it?” “Yes. My real name is Dashni. I am apprentice to Serria in the arts of necromancy, and a master in the arts of healing.” “But I’ve known of Tereesan for years!” Shalis objected. “I’ve only replaced him recently.” “It was a tremendous sacrifice.” Serria said gently, taking his hand. “She was an exceptionally beautiful girl. With long curly red hair, and lovely blue eyes.” “Me!” “Yes. You have adopted her body.” “Why?” Lenamora ask. “Surely you can understand the advantage of having control of such a powerful man as he was. He has a substantial influence on the law board.” “Besides,” Serria laughed, “he used his power most unpleasantly.” “Yes, I guess I did.” “But someone else will take his place!” “Exactly my dear.” Serria said. “But not as you seem to think. We still have the body. Once a suitable substitute has been found we will transfer her to the body. The process will start over again.” “All of your transplants wont respond as well as Tereesan, and I have. What happens when they seem to go crazy: telling everyone who they are; or what if they can’t cope with it and commit suicide.” “Most unpleasant scenarios.” Serria said. “But if they commit suicide then they are not a problem.” “And who would believe them if they were to tell.” Tereesan added. “But we know.” Shalis said. “You value your lives, and freedom to much to tell.” Serria said. “I am sure of that. And if you do tell, and point to us: with our reputation, and yours; such an accusation would not go far. At worst we would have to work more carefully and perhaps delay our next transfer for a short while.” “As for those who might, as you say, commit suicide: we monitor all transfers for the first several hours,” Tereesan said. “Just as we did with you. I would dare to say we can determine how they will react within the first hour with a high degree of accuracy.” “You for example, Shalis. I knew you would handle the change with relative ease. Within the first fifteen minutes you had accepted the change and decide how to deal with it. You were too taken with yourself for us to be very concerned.” “We spent a long time studying your mental profile before we chose you. We will continue to study our cases and few of our predictions should be wrong. Few will try to commit suicide.” “But some will!” Lenamora said. “You have to expect some loses in any war! But by monitoring them, we should be able to reclaim most. Just as we did Shalis at the fight.” “But why did you wait for the fight?” Lenamora ask. “Why not buy Shalis from the jail.” “Three reasons. First, we don’t have the means to vie for buying criminals and second, we thought that Shalis could be useful to us if she learned to sympathize with women.” “Oh, I appreciate the lessons!” Shalis quipped. “And third, so Damian would have a valid excuse for supporting our newly proposed reform on the disposition of females convicted of crimes. And since Tereesan was responsible for saving Shalis’ girl, the two of them would of course have cause to slowly develop a well publicized and public friendship.” “All very cleverly planed,” Shalis agreed. “Won’t people become suspicious when they see dead people walking around again. Especially when they’ve change radically.” “Nearly dying is a traumatic experience.” Tereesan said. “And no one pays much attention to the viewpoints of women. As in the past, privacy will be the key to switching males into female bodies.” “And raising the dead will enhance Tereesan’s reputation as a healer! It’s hardly a crime. I suspect the worst will be that bodies will be more expensive to requisition from now on.” “Business has not been very good lately, anyway.” Shalis laughed. “Bringing me back to life will give you more business. I don’t think it will gain you any respect.” “I can live without respect.” He answered lightly. “I have been for years.” “Very well.” Shalis said. “There are two questions I still would like to know the answer to.” “Ask them.” Serria said. “What part does Lena play; and why did you tell me this.” “Partly because I didn’t think you would try to buck the system now.” Serria said. “But really, it wasn’t really for you at all. It was for Lenna. We’d like her to take over your old body.” 8 Shalis looked at her male body. Wrapped in a cloth that sparkled with little blue chips, it was well preserved. Except for the skin being slightly blue, it might have been someone sleeping instead of a lifeless shell. It was very strange to look down at his body. It wasn’t a bad body. It was tall, and muscular, and even handsome in a too familiar way. “You weren’t a bad looking man.” Lenamora said, touching the face with her hand, realizing that it had once been Shalis. She looked back at Serria. “What about my body? Will I have a say in who gets it?” “We’ll try to consult you. However, for the good of the cause, we reserve the right to make the final decision.” Lenamora nodded. “And what about Shalis.” Tereesan looked surprised. “She will go back with you, of course.” Lenamora turned to Shalis. “Could you accept that?” “It depends on our arrangement, I suppose.” “I will need your expertise in business areas.” “And I will need substantial freedom.” They both smiled, and Shalis nodded. “Very well then,” Lenamora said. “I’ll do it.” Chapter Seven 1 “Where have you been?” Shay said when he saw Damian burst into his office. “You’ve caused me a lot of grief.” “On a little vacation.” “So, what do you want?” Damian never came into the stage area, let alone into Shay’s office unless he had important business. “I’ve got a rehearsal in five minutes.” “I’d like an explanation.” Shay looked surprised. “Your girl?” Damian nodded. “What kind of an explanation do you want? She’s a killer.” Damian slapped his hand down on the table, and Shay looked up startled. “Okay,” he said, controlling himself. “I’ll let what has happened pass; but she may be coming through this way now and then, and I don’t want anyone giving her trouble.” Shay’s jaw sagged. “Yeah, sure.” “The first person that so much as talks back to her is out the door; and on their ass.” “What ever you say.” “When you see her you see me. She gets complete access to anything I do; and her decisions are as valid as mine. I’m taking her on a little tour of the place now, let the rest of the crew know that she’s around.” “You’ve got her here, now?” “Sure, she’s waiting for me out in the hall.” Shay stood up. “This I’ve got to see.” The wheels in his greedy little mind were turning. He followed Damian through the door into the foyer. Shalis was there. Her arm rested in a sling, and she limped, but her color was reasonably good, and she was definitely alive. She smiled smugly. “Hello Shay! So nice to see you again. I hope we hit it off better this time than the first time we meet.” She extended her hand for a handshake. “Oh, and by the way. I’ve decided not to do anymore ring work. It’s hell on my complexion you know.” Damian laughed. Shay couldn’t speak. He took Shalis’ hand, and forced his mouth closed. “Don’t be so dramatic.” She said. “It was serious, but not fatal.” “How?” “Tereesan does wonders in the arts of healing.” Damian said. “I had never realized how truly talented he was.” “But she was dead!” “Tereesan thought so too at first. But he managed to bring her around. She’s recovered quite well, don’t you think?” “Yes, remarkable.” “We’d best be going now, but don’t forget what I said about passing the word along.” “No, of course not.” The two walked hand in hand out the back door. When they were on the street Shalis said: “That was an awful thing to do. I loved it!” “It was rather fun, wasn’t it.” Damian said. He smiled and Shalis saw a trace of the old Lenamora. “Its nice to control him after all these years.” “I can’t wait to meet Seviena around the place sometime.” “Should be a classic, love.” Shalis smiled and snuggled. “I’m not sure I like what they’ve done, but if it had to happen, I couldn’t have chosen a better replacement.” “Thanks, I guess.” He laughed. “When I woke up...that first morning...I was shocked when I saw my face in the mirror. I couldn’t believe the beauty I saw in that piece of glass. I’d never seen anything lovelier.” She blushed, and smiled shamefaced. “It sounds conceited, but it wasn’t, because it wasn’t me.” “I know.” “Even thou I didn’t believe it was real, I always thought I’d wake up and it would end, but...I fell in love with her that morning.” “I guess were both in love with the same girl then! Shalis looked into Damian’s eyes; down into the depths of his soul, which was still Lenamora. “Not anymore.” She said.