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The Usurper
Published by Simon_of_Tabor on 2015/3/5 (4110 reads)
A science fiction series filled with interplanetary adventure, rebellion and mortal combat by the author the The Gorean Saga.

Fourth in the series, The Usurper.

The fourth volume in John Norman's epic Telnarian Histories describes the continuing rise to power of an unsung warrior thrown into the maelstrom of ambition, treachery, and violence that is the galactic empire. When Filene, a former noblewoman masquerading as a slave, attempts to assassinate the ascendant tribal king, Ottonius, she fails and becomes fully enslaved. The story of her education in proper submission is told in counterpoint to the tale of the powerful but primitive warrior who finds himself drawn into intrigues affecting the destiny of a threatened and crumbling empire. This ambitious novel, written on an interstellar scale, follows the latest adventures of a man who has fought and killed his way out of obscurity to become a newly crowned king. As events unfold, he finds himself on a bloody and violent path that may lead to the imperial throne itself.


CHAPTER ONE

"Prepare yourself, Cornhair!" snapped the brunette, who was first girl, and carried a switch.

"'Filene'!" said the blonde.

"Why 'Filene'?" said the brunette.

"It is my name!" said the blonde.

"Why is it your name?" laughed the brunette.

The blonde was silent.

"Speak," said the brunette, "or my switch will play a merry melody on your silken hide, and, as you are, you will feel it, and keenly!"

"Because it is the name Masters have given me!" said the blonde, tears in her eyes. Almost without thinking, she lifted her hand to her throat. She wore, as did the brunette, a Telnarian slave necklace, of the sort favored in some of the provinces. It was all she wore.

"Kneel, Cornhair," said the brunette.

The blonde knelt. Instant obedience is expected in a slave, to any free person, and even to another slave, if possessed of authority over her.

The blonde touched the light, small chain locked about her neck, with its pendant metal disk. The disk, in three languages, including a Herul pictograph, identified her as a property of the Telnarian empire, to be returned, if found, to the office of the provincial governor, in Venitzia. In her transportation to the camp, her naked body bundled in a thick fur sack and hood, the chain had been housed in a soft, leather sleeve, which is not uncommon in the cold, or in a situation where the slave might be exposed to cold. Indoors, or in warmer areas, sleeves are removed from such "necklaces." The reason for this is simple. Men like to see the chain on a slave's neck. Metal against female flesh is sexually stimulating. It is even more so when it is understood that the woman is a slave, and the device is, in effect, a slave collar, which she cannot remove. It does not take long for an enslaved woman to gather that she is now, is expected to be, and must be, a stimulating sexual object.

"You look well on your knees, Cornhair," said the brunette, "—as any slave."

The blonde and the brunette were in a rearward portion of a long tent, one of four at the camp, inside the defense perimeter. These four tents were designed for imperial occupants, even of rank; accordingly, they were floored, insulated, and heated. They were small oases of comfort in the wilderness outside Venitzia, even in the month of Igon, even at the edge of a forest, into which not even Heruls would penetrate, a forest rumored to be roamed by Otungs.

"For what am I to prepare myself?" asked the blonde.

"The camp has a visitor," said the brunette.

"The sought barbarian, he has been found?" exclaimed the blonde. "He, Ottonius!"

"The Master, Ottonius," said the brunette.

"Yes," said the blonde, "the Master, Ottonius!"

Slaves do not address free persons by their name. They address free men as "Master" and free women as "Mistress."

"It seems he recalls you from the Narcona," said the brunette.

The blonde felt giddy.

"You served him on the ship," said the brunette.

"He did but interrogate me and use me for a servile task," said the blonde.

"What task?" inquired the brunette.

"Polishing his boots," said the blonde.

"That is all?" said the brunette, skeptically.

Putting the slave to a servile task, particularly if she has recently been free, before putting her to one's pleasure, is often thought to be instructive. It helps them better understand what it is to be a slave. Interestingly, the performance of such small, homely tasks, caring for a Master's quarters, cleaning his garments, preparing his food, expectantly awaiting his return, and the opportunity to welcome him, kneeling before him, and such, can be sexually stimulating to the slave. Many a free woman fails to understand the joys of submission, and the yielding totality and warmth of a woman's bondage, for slavery, for the slave, is a wholeness, a mode of being, a way of life, a life of surrender, of serving, of love, and devotion. In helpless bondage, choiceless, mastered, and owned, she is contented, grateful, and fulfilled; she is as she would have herself.

"Yes, Mistress," said the blonde.

As first girl, the brunette was as Mistress to the blonde.

The blonde recalled how the barbarian had taped her mouth shut and bound her, kneeling, at the foot of his bed, and then slept. How her feelings had wavered, and disturbed her, how she had wanted to hate him, and had, at the same time, helpless at the foot of his bed, longed for his hands upon her body, holding and caressing her, with thoughtless, severe, possessive authority, as a slave may be held and caressed. How well the slave knows herself, nothing, and owned, and trembles with a responsiveness no free woman can understand, save in her dreams, thrashing in bonds, or grasped in the implacable might of her Master's arms.

"Why then would he wish you at the supper?" asked the brunette.

"I do not know," said the blonde.

"Your lineaments are acceptable," said the brunette. "That is probably enough."

"Four will serve," said the brunette, "you amongst them. Perhaps, if you beg prettily enough, he may, after the men are done with their business, as the conclusion of an evening's collation of wine and tarts, bed you for his pleasure."

"What is wrong?" asked the brunette.

"Nothing, Mistress," said the blonde.

The heart and body of the blonde churned with tumult. It was with difficulty that she restrained herself from reaching to the floor, to steady herself. It would be unwise, of course, to break position before a superior.

It was as though she suddenly found herself on a plank, unsteady, frightened, precariously located, a yawning abyss disappearing, leagues below.

The time was at hand, for which she had waited, for so long, enduring such hardships, and humiliations, as though she might be naught but another meaningless slave.

Surely no more than one or two in the camp, those who would supply the tool of assassination, whose identity or identities were unknown to her, knew her true identity, that she was not a slave, at all, but, rather, was a free woman, the Lady Publennia Calasalia, and a free woman not merely of the honestori, but of patrician stock, indeed, one once of the Larial Calasalii, before being disavowed, because of waywardness and debts, even to the obliteration of her name from the relevant rolls of lineage. Long ago, in a private audience, late at night, with sober, cunning Iaachus, the Arbiter of Protocol in the court of the Emperor Aesilesius, he aware of the miseries and nigh destitution of her lot, she had been recruited to perform a tiny task, in which no more than a single drop of blood need be shed, but a drop on which might ride, so delicately, breaking not even the surface, the fate of worlds, and the winds of power, reaching to the ten thousand sectors of an empire, for small things in a single palace, or court, or audience room, or hallway, an order given, a glance exchanged, a nod, might be eventually felt, borne on the wings of light, and piercing the charted thresholds and passes of space, to the farthest outposts of the limitanei, verging on the remote, threatened perimeters of the empire itself.

"Perhaps he will find you of interest," said the brunette.

"'Of interest'!" exclaimed the blonde, angrily.

The brunette looked at her, puzzled. What an odd cry, she thought, from a slave. "You had best hope so," she said, "lest you be whipped, discarded, sold, or slain."

"Of course, Mistress," said the blonde, lowering her head, humbly.

Soon, she told herself, this dreadful matter, with its humiliations and degradations, would be done. The chain then, with haste and abject apologies, might be removed from her neck.

She could not remove it herself, of course. It was on her, as much as on the neck of any slave. How fearful it would be, she thought, to truly be a slave! How she might then pull at that chain, helplessly, wildly, fearfully, and know it truly on her, signifying to all who might look upon her what then she would be, a property, as much as a pig or dog!

Happily it would soon be removed, when her task was done.

Again she touched the necklace.

How fearful to think of being truly a slave, a helpless, lovely, purchasable object, one no stranger to thongs and chains, to gags and blindfolds, to hoods and harnesses, to cells, kennels, and cages, a creature which must kneel, submit, obey, and strive to please, something to be ranked as loot, something to be listed as cargo, something which might be routinely vended from a thousand, indifferent platforms on a thousand, indifferent worlds.

But she would soon be rich, and once more highly placed, with position, and power.

How she would enjoy a hundred vengeances. How she might then buy the brunette, and others, who had slighted or abused her, and teach them then what it might be to be the slaves of a free woman!

But who would supply the delicate knife, light and slender, needlelike, so finely ground, with its transparently coated blade?

Might it be blond Corelius, so handsome, and ironically polite, who had so often treated her as though she might be free, perhaps knowing she was truly free? Or had he been merely mocking one he deemed a helpless slave? Might it be severe Ronisius, who treated her no differently than he did others, assumed slaves, or was this part of a subterfuge on his part, that little attention be brought to her? Or it might be a higher officer, say, Lysis, supply officer of the Narcona. The knife would not be entrusted to a lesser figure, surely. It must be he, then, a higher officer! Certainly it could not be short, ugly Qualius, with his shuffling gait, his porcine countenance and porcine manners, a tender of livestock on the Narcona, that being brought to Venitzia, who had occasionally brought her her gruel, and feasted his eyes upon her as she crouched hungry, wishing to be fed, in her cage. But Phidias, himself, the captain of the Narcona, was in the camp! How anomalous that was! Why should one such as he brave the long trek to the forest, a dangerous journey through frozen terrain, perhaps under the eyes of furtive, lurking Heruls? His post was surely on the ship.

It must be he, then, she thought.

How could wise, cunning Iaachus, Arbiter of Protocol, who, it was said, was depended upon by the empress mother herself, and was perhaps the mind and will behind the throne, have chosen a better agent to transport a small, black, flat leather case between worlds, thence to bring it from a rude provincial capital to a mysterious rendezvous at the edge of a dark forest?

It must be he, she thought.

But perhaps not!

He may know nothing of the knife.

She did know matters of moment were afoot, as perhaps many in the camp did not, recruitments and alliances, matters supposedly of political and military consequence.

Would not an agent less conspicuous be more judicious?

"Clean and groom yourself, Cornhair," said the brunette. "You are to sparkle."

"Yes, Mistress," said the blonde.

"Slave cosmetics, and slave perfume," said the brunette.

"Such?" inquired the blonde. They were, after all, in a wilderness camp, far even from the modest comforts and amenities of a provincial capital.

"Surely," said the brunette. "You are not a free woman."

Little did the brunette know, thought the blonde. How she would pale, and cringe, if she knew she were free.

We would then see in whose hand the switch reposed!

The blonde thought of the subtleties of the dressing table, before which she might kneel, and avail herself of the assorted pencils and brushes, disks and vials, on its surface, and in its tiny, shallow drawers. How different those articles and supplies were from those with which she had once been familiar, ordered at great expense from a dozen worlds, long ago, before she had fallen on straitened times. How little she had thought of such things then, the darins slipping through her small fingers like water, before the glistening, spinning wheels and the tiny plates on the marked tables had turned against her. She had fled creditors on more than one world, only on another to once more drain family resources and accounts.

How she despised that miscellany, suitable for slaves, on the low table.

Even the mirror was small, and cheap, mounted in its unpainted frame. How different it was from the large, broad, ornate, expensive mirrors she had had installed in her various boudoirs, particularly before falling upon her straitened times.

"How are we to garb ourselves?" asked the blonde. "In serving gowns, as at the captain's table, on the Narcona?"

They were ample, flowing, long, tasteful, and modest.

"You are no longer on the Narcona," said the brunette.

"How, then?" said the blonde.

"In tavern tunics," said the brunette.

"Surely not!" said the blonde.

"Why not?" inquired the brunette.

"They are so tiny, so short, there is so little to them, they are too revealing."

"They are fit for slaves," said the brunette.

"One might as well be naked," said the blonde, petulantly.

"If the men grow drunk, you may well be," said the brunette.

The blonde shuddered.

"Accustom yourself to what you are," said the brunette. "You are a slave, a property, to be exhibited, or displayed, in any way Masters might wish."

"Still!" protested the blonde.

"Do not fear," said the brunette, "there will be no free women present, to beat you, because you are beautiful and owned by men."

"Such tunics are disgraceful," said the blonde.

"Not on a slave," said the brunette.

"They are too tiny, too short, too revealing," said the blonde.

"You will wear them," said the brunette.

"As Mistress wishes," said the blonde.

"Men like them," said the brunette, "and do they not excite you, as well, the display, the revealing to all who look upon you what you are; do they not well impress upon you your helplessness and vulnerability; do they not mark you as a mere property, an object whose very raison d'être is to delight. Have not women been bred over millennia for the pleasure of men? And what is an enslaving but putting the confirmation and seal of legality, of implacable law, on the decree of nature? And surely the touch of such things on your skin, a rag, a rope, a leather strap, a collar, heats your limbs and belly."

"Please do not speak so!" cried the blonde.

"And is there not a reciprocity here, between women and men, between slaves, and Masters?"

A tiny cry of anguish escaped the blonde.

"Have I dismayed Cornhair?" said the brunette.

"Of course not," said the blonde, looking away, adding, "—Mistress."

"You are a slave," said the brunette, "a plaything for men. Make them cry out for the having of you. What other power do we have?"

"Where are the others?" asked the blonde.

"They prepare themselves elsewhere," said the brunette.

"I am then different, special?" said the blonde.

"Apparently," said the brunette.

"How so?" asked the blonde.

"I do not know," said the brunette. "But I do not think you are surprised."

"Mistress?"

"There are subtleties here," said the brunette, "things I do not understand."

"What sorts of things, Mistress?" said the blonde.

"Do not concern yourself," said the brunette.

"Has it to do with a Master, or Masters?" asked the blonde.

"Do not concern yourself," said the brunette.

"Perhaps I have been spoken of, or you have noted my behavior being unusually observed or monitored?"

"The things are subtle, hard to place," said the brunette.

"Perhaps you have seen one with a closed package, a small, flat box, one storing it, one who might have glanced at me?" said the blonde.

The brunette regarded her, puzzled.

"Perhaps I am to be given something, a gift?"

"A gift?" said the brunette.

"Yes," said the blonde, "a gift, in a small, flat, black, leather case, perhaps an anklet, a strand of beads, a bracelet."

"What are you talking about?" asked the brunette.

"Nothing," said the blonde.

"Are you mad?"

"No, Mistress."

"You smile?" said the brunette.

"Forgive me," said the blonde.

"Consider our group," said the brunette, "shipped from Lisle on the Narcona, brought to Venitzia on Tangara, and then carried here, into the wilderness."

"Mistress?" said the blonde, uncertainly.

"Are we not a very unusual group, an anomalous group?"

"How so?" asked the blonde.

"There are twenty of us, twenty," she said.

"Mistress?"

"Surely you are aware of what we all have in common?"

"We are all slaves," said the blonde.

"Other than that," said the brunette.

"What?" asked the blonde.

"Not one of us is branded," she said.

"So?" said the blonde.

"An unbranded slave is extremely rare," said the brunette. "Many markets will not handle an unbranded slave. Many ships will not transport them between worlds. You can understand the commercial and societal wisdom of marking slaves. It is an almost universal practice. On many worlds, it is required by law."

The blonde smiled to herself. She was not a slave, of course, but, if she were the only unmarked girl in the group, that would have surely excited undue speculation and interest. Accordingly, brilliant Iaachus, in his cunning, had arranged that she would not be conspicuous in her group on account of the absence of an expected slave mark, perhaps the tiny, tasteful "slave rose." If she was not to be marked, for she was free, then let the others, true slaves, lowly and owned, be unmarked, as well.

"Perhaps we are too beautiful to mark," said the blonde.

"Do not be absurd," said the brunette. "All slaves are to be marked, and the more beautiful the most of all, for they are the more costly merchandise. One does not wish to lose them."

"I see," said the blonde.

"So why are we, slaves, not marked?"

"I am sure I do not know," said the blonde.

"I long for the brand," said the brunette.

"You long for it?" asked the blonde.

"Yes," said the brunette. "I want to be a slave. I have wanted to be a slave since I was a young girl. That is why I want to be marked, to have my nature, destiny, and meaning proclaimed publicly on my body. I am not ashamed to be a slave, for it is what I am, and want to be. I revel in it, I exult in it! It is my joy! I want to love a man so deeply that I will accept nothing short of utter bondage at his hands. I want to submit to him, and love and serve him, wholly and helplessly. And I want him to want me so fiercely that he will be content with nothing less than my categorical possession; I want him to want me so much that he will be satisfied with nothing less than putting me to his feet, in his collar, as his indisputable property."

The blonde began to tremble.

Why should the words of the brunette, a mere slave, concern her, she, a free woman?

"What is wrong, Cornhair?" asked the brunette.

"Nothing," said the blonde.

"You are disturbed?"

"No."

"I suspect," said the brunette, "that you are in some way special. But how is it that you, if you are, might be special?"

"Perhaps I am particularly attractive to Masters," said the blonde.

"You do not yet know your collar," said the brunette. "You are still much like a free woman. Your body is stiff, and wooden. You lack the modalities of the slave, her sensuousness, her fluidity, her subtle movements, her grace, her vulnerability, her sense of being owned, and desired, and desired as the slave she is, her pleasure in such things, and her joy."

"The barbarian asked for me!" said the blonde.

"Perhaps he recalls you from the Narcona," said the brunette.

"Doubtless," said the blonde.

"But why should he choose you?" asked the brunette.

"Why not?" asked the blonde.

"You are beautiful," said the brunette, "but you are not yet a suitable slave."

"Perhaps I will never be a suitable slave," said the blonde.

"Perhaps not," said the brunette, "but I assure you that you are eminently suitable for the condition. I have seldom seen a woman, even at a glance, more obviously suitable for slavery."

The blonde stiffened, in fury, hating the brunette, but felt uneasy, rejecting the sheet of flame which had suddenly flared in her belly.

How fearful it would be, to be truly a slave!

"Why you?" said the brunette. "There are others, several others, better slaves."

"But nonetheless it was I for whom he asked," said the blonde.

"He is a barbarian," said the brunette.

"No matter," said the blonde. "He is a captain. He is charged to recruit comitates. He is no simple bumpkin from the forests, lost when separated from his sty of pigs or patch of roots. He is an officer. He was held in honor on the Narcona. Surely he has visited cities, frequented markets, perused slave shelves and cages, been in the brothels and taverns, and is no stranger to marked chain-sluts."

"So why would he want you?" asked the brunette.

"Because of my extraordinary beauty," said the blonde.

"Perhaps he is curious about you," said the brunette. "He may be wondering if you, despite your seeming inertness and rigidities, have the makings of a slave."

"I am extraordinarily beautiful," said the blonde.

"There are things in this camp, and things about you, I do not understand," said the brunette.

"It seems that I am to prepare myself alone," said the blonde.

"I think it is just as well," said the brunette. "You are not popular with the other girls. You hold yourself apart from them. You behave as though you were superior to them. This is resented. Many times, were it not for my switch, they would have dealt roundly, and effectively, with your impatience, your lofty manners, your impudence."

"A slave is grateful," said the blonde.

"You are not," said the brunette, "but you should be." The brunette then turned away, but, before exiting that portion of the long, warm tent, turned back. "Prepare yourself," she said. "See to it! Be ready, soon!"

"Yes, Mistress," said the blonde.

"When the gong sounds," said the brunette, "proceed to the kitchen, to be given your flagon or tray."

"Yes, Mistress," said the blonde.



The blonde, naked save for the tavern tunic, knelt before the mirror, and returned the tiny tube of lip coloring to its place on the table.

She hooked her fingers over the chain on her neck, with its disk, and drew against it, once or twice.

Hateful thing, she thought, but it is, in its way, attractive.

In her days of liberty and wealth, of travel and extravagance, she had had high collars of rows of jewels closed about her neck, nine such rows, collars worth fortunes, and these had been well matched by the bracelets on her arms, the rings on her fingers, the diamond tiara fixed in her bright hair. She was well aware, so bejeweled, in her off-the shoulder gowns, lengthy, silken, and shimmering, of her striking appearance at the gaming tables. How beautiful she was, and yet she suspected that many of the men present might have been more struck by the glitter of jewels and the brandishing of position and station, than the lovely, living manikin which served as the cabinet of their mounting, and the tray of their display. Few, it seemed, in such precincts, looked past the blaze of taste and wealth to the model by means of which such things were exhibited. Lady Publennia Calasalia did not much care for men, save for what benefits might be derived from them. She had, of course commonly seen through and scorned a variety of suitors, most of whom, clearly enough, even of the honestori, were merely interested in accruing to themselves the advantages which might appertain to an alliance with a patrician, particularly a wealthy one. But these advantages, eventually, muchly diminished, as various accounts became unavailable to her. No longer could she draw on her family's wealth on a dozen worlds. Later, her very name was excised from the Calasalii's rolls of lineage. For better than a year she had lived in nigh destitution, supported only by a pittance begrudgingly extended by her outraged family. Soon she had been reduced to marketing her jewels, her goods, and slaves, to inhabiting humble quarters in poor districts, even to patronizing the women's public baths, and had but one slave left of her former retinue of slaves, a small, exquisite, redhead, Nika, whom she had often beaten, perhaps because there was little else at hand on which to vent her anger and frustration. Men who had sought her hand now avoided her, and would not extend her loans. Then, somehow, it seemed, eventually, her plight had come to the attention of a sympathetic, mighty figure, Iaachus, the Arbiter of Protocol in the court of the emperor, Aesilesius.

She looked at the simple, plain, light, attractive chain on her neck. Any beast, even a dog, she thought, might wear such a collar.

And the fools who saw it on her would think she was a beast, a slave! How little did they know! How wrong they were!

She recalled her jeweled collars. How conveniently they might be affixed, or removed.

How different from the chain, with its disk, now fastened on her neck!

She wondered if the men who had looked upon those jeweled, sparkling collars had more seen her, or the collars. Were they not dazzling, so bright, so calling attention to themselves as to blind a vision which might, otherwise, have noted a woman? Did they not divert an attention away from what was incidental to their display, a rack, a platform, a woman? What was most important here? What would be the prize? How would one see the woman, as a woman, or as an instrumentality by means of which a putative treasure might be secured? Which, jewels, or woman, would be the essence and motivation of some projected quest? Or had she affected such displays that she might conceal herself behind them, fearing to be looked upon simply, primitively?

In the case of a slave, things were muchly different.

Slave goods are presented objectively, directly.

In the case of the jeweled collar, the woman displays the collar; in the case of the slave collar, it is the woman which is displayed.

She jerked at the chain on her neck. She could not remove it. Men had put it on her, and she would wear it.

But it was attractive.

But one of the things she sensed about chains, and collars, far transcended the provinces of aesthetics, and bespoke itself of cognitive matters, of meanings. Did not the collar on a woman's neck say, "I can be owned," or, if she is a slave, "I am owned"? Does it not say, "I am goods," "I can be purchased," "I am a slave," "I can be yours"? "Would you not care to own me, Master?" One does not see a slave as one sees a free woman. One steps aside for the free woman; one is heeled by the slave; one notes the free woman; one seeks the slave; one honors the free woman, one wants the slave; one defers to the free woman; one commands the slave; one courts the free woman; one buys the slave; one admires the free woman; one puts the slave to her knees; one esteems the free woman; one puts the slave to one's pleasure.

How is it, wondered the blonde, the fine Lady Publennia Calasalia, that men prefer a half-naked, collared chit to an exalted, splendidly robed, noble free woman? How is it that they bid so avidly in markets for a lascivious beast, writhing to the auctioneer's whip? What is wrong with men, she wondered, that they do not see the superiority of a free woman, any free woman, to the weeping, moaning, and thrashing of a slave in her chains, begging piteously for at least one more caress, even a tiny one?

The Lady Publennia Calasalia, with anger, recalled an incident in one of the opulent gambling palaces whose portals were once open to her, perhaps one in Lisle itself, seat of one of the imperial palaces, in which a fellow near her had brought his slave with him into the hall, in defiance of proprieties, and knelt her near the table, head down. "She brings me luck," he had explained, insouciantly, responding to her acidic reminder of his indiscretion. Surely he knew there was a room off the main vestibule where such beasts might be shackled, for a small fee. Indeed, even small bowls of porridge were provided, included in the cost of the temporary housing. Indeed, there were even poles outside the gambling palace to which they might be chained, free of charge, awaiting the return of their Masters. "She brings me luck," he insisted, "like a lucky piece, or charm." Lady Publennia had then, muchly irritated, returned her attention to the table, and the dizzy orbits of the tiny golden sphere spinning about in the bowl of the large, shallow wheel. She had later looked down at the slave, a girl with light brown hair, kneeling, head down, with her knees closely together. How uneasy was that pathetic creature! She knows she does not belong here, Lady Publennia had thought. She is afraid she will be whipped and ejected, perhaps to one of the poles outside with its waiting, now-opened ankle manacle. I hope it will occur! And then she discovered she had lost another fifty darins. It was small comfort that the insolent recreant at her elbow, he so apparently oblivious of his breach of indisputable decorum, had not fared any better. Later, when the troublesome fellow prepared to withdraw, and somewhat worse off for the evening's play, she had remarked that the slave, as her presence had failed to bring him good luck, might be beaten. "Would you do so?" he had asked. "Certainly," she had said. How the girl had then trembled. "No," he had said, "there are better things to do with a pretty slave than beat her." "I see," she had said. "What are they?" she asked. His demeanor had then changed, alarmingly. He had seemed to loom over her, his mien displeased, and she had become suddenly aware of her smallness, and slightness, before his powerful height, and frame. She had the sense he might, had he wished, have broken her in two. "If you were not a free woman," he said, quietly, "I would show you." Her knees suddenly felt weak, and she feared she might actually be struck, indeed, disciplined. She almost sank to her knees before him, trembling, her head down. Then he was again a light-hearted gentleman, ingratiatingly frivolous. He snapped his fingers, and the slave sprang to her feet, keeping her head down. How quickly she obeys had thought the Lady Publennia. But then slaves were to obey, instantaneously, unquestioningly. Certainly she had switch-trained her own little Nika to do so. "You have brought me luck, little Nutmeg," he said. "Without you I would doubtless have lost far more." She looked up at him, smiling. Why is she happy, wondered the Lady Publennia. Why is she not unhappy? Does she not know she is a miserable, meaningless slave? She seems so pleased, so radiant! How dare she be happy! The fellow then turned away, and the girl followed him closely, a bit behind, on his left side. What a silly name, 'Nutmeg', thought the Lady Publennia. But she doubtless answers to it quickly enough. Slaves, of course, are named as the Masters please. Perhaps she had once been free, and had had a fine name, but now she is only 'Nutmeg', clearly a pet name, a slave name, but now her name. Then the Lady Publennia recalled, kneeling before the cheap vanity mirror, before a small table, in a tent in the wilderness of Tangara, that there were those in the camp who referred to her as 'Cornhair'. She had noticed, during the gambling evening, to her annoyance, that the attention of many of the men about had often fallen on the kneeling slave. Certainly the slave was a distraction. Why did the men bother to look upon her; she was only a slave! There were many free women in the room, many bejeweled as richly as she, the Lady Publennia, but it seemed it was the slave to which the attention of the men had often strayed. The Lady Publennia had watched the fellow, and his slave, leave the room. Several of the men had also witnessed their departure. "The lucky dog," remarked a fellow. "I wager she is a hot little thing," said another. Lady Publennia watched the pair until they had left the room. The slave did not walk like a free woman, but, of course, she was not a free woman. Lady Publennia felt disturbed. There seemed subtle differences in the slave's movements, and walk, something different from that to which she was accustomed in free women. She did not understand it at the time, but the slave, as she is a beast, owned, and a sexual creature, is free to move naturally, gracefully, sensuously, as a woman's natural, feminine body moves, innocent of the body language implicitly expected in, and prescribed for, the free woman. The tunic the girl wore had clearly identified her as a slave, as did the collar on her neck, but the tunic had been clean, well-pressed, tasteful, and relatively modest, as such garments go. Indeed, it had fallen below her knees. Her arms, of course, had been bare. That is common in slave garments. In a sleeve a knife might be concealed. I wager, had thought the Lady Publennia, that that single, simple rag is all she has on. And in this wager the Lady Publennia would have been successful. The slave is often denied certain forms of undergarments, particularly those which might have a nether closure. They are for free women. The slave is to be conveniently at the disposal of the Master, at any time he might be inclined to make use of her. She is, after all, a slave. The fellow who had exited with the slave had lost something like seventy-five darins. The Lady Publennia, that evening, had lost more than a thousand.

The Lady Publennia again, in the mirror, regarded the light, simple chain fastened on her neck. Yes, she thought, it is attractive, and she had little doubt but what, if a man should look upon her in such a device, that it would be she, she herself, who would be seen.

She thought of the barbarian, remembered well from the Narcona, he, Ottonius, for whom a small dagger was to lie in wait, laden with its venom, not unlike the fang of a viper.

Who would bring her the dagger?

What would be her opportunity to strike?

Presumably, even now, a hoverer was being readied to transport her safely, swiftly, after the deed, to Venitzia, whence the shuttle would carry her to the waiting Narcona, in orbit, and then she would be wafted away, presumably to Lisle, the Narcona's port of registry, or another world, to bask in new riches, exult in renewed station, and revel in the perquisites of power, accompanying wealth like a golden shadow.

She flushed with anger.

How furious she was that he had put her, a free woman, even of patrician stock, to the polishing of his boots, and had then taped her mouth shut, and tied her, for the night, unused, at the foot of his bed!

He was a barbarian, not even of the honestori!

How she hated men, and what they could do to women, if they pleased!

She recalled the brunette.

"Perhaps he will find you of interest," had said the brunette.

"'Of interest'!" she had exclaimed, angrily.

How horrifying that would be for a free woman! But is a free woman not a woman, and, if her freedom were torn from her, like her clothing, and she were put to her knees, naked, in the shadow of a whip, with a marked thigh, and that lovely, light, locked chain on her neck, with its pendant disk, would she be different? I do not think so. She, too, would now be a slave, a property, merely another stimulating sexual object.

Bring me the dagger, someone, she whispered to the mirror.

She thought of her slave, small, exquisite, red-haired Nika, whom she thought was awaiting her, in a tiny, dingy room in Lisle. As she recalled the slave in the gambling palace, and had been muchly displeased with her, she decided that, upon her return to Lisle, Nika would do nicely as a proxy for that other slave, and would receive the switching which she was in no position to administer to the other, a switching Nika would long remember. Her other slaves, many highly trained in a variety of domestic tasks, the dressing of free women, the marketing and preparation of food, the care of garmenture, the singing of songs to the lyre, and such, one even a specialist in the carving of meat to music, she had disposed of, one by one, in various markets, but she had retained Nika, who would have marketed for the fewest darins. A free woman, and certainly one of station, requires at least one slave, even in the throes of near destitution. We mentioned earlier that the Lady Publennia frequently beat Nika, and had speculated that that might have been because there was little else at hand on which to vent her anger and frustration. On the other hand, Nika's back and legs had not been immune from attention even in the Lady Publennia's more halcyon days. First, the Lady Publennia, as many free women, was a most impatient, demanding, and exacting Mistress. The slightest perceived imperfection in service, a supposed tardy response, a brief lapse of attention, a wrinkle in a garment, a disk of rouge out of place, slippers misaligned in a closet, a bath ill drawn, improperly heated, or wrongly perfumed, many such things, would earn a woman's serving slave the admonitory sting of her Mistress' switch. Too, as is well known, it is always easy to find reasons to strike a slave, even the most frightened, zealous, and desperate-to-please slave, if one wishes to do so. Perhaps the Mistress is not satisfied with the arrangement of flowers in a vase, perhaps she is not pleased with the view from her terrace on a cloudy day, perhaps she did not care for a party or theatrical event recently attended. But, second, in the case of Nika, there seems to have been an additional, and subtler, matter involved, something beyond the typical domestic hazards of a slave's trying to please a temperamental, impatient Mistress. On the streets, the Lady Publennia had noted that Nika was often noticed, even regarded, by free men. This attention, accorded a slave, had muchly displeased the Lady Publennia. They might admire herself, if they wished, but surely not Nika, a mere slave. How stupid are men! Can they not see that a free woman, in her robes and hauteur, in her noble dignity and arrogance, resplendent in the raiment of station, is a thousand times more beautiful than a helpless, needful, half-clad slave? And once she had caught Nika inadvertently, naturally enough, I suppose, apparently without thinking, returning the smile of a free man. How dared she? What a reflection on the dignity of her Mistress! This wantonness had cost the slave much. Did she not know that she was a woman's slave? Thereafter Nika often accompanied her switch-bearing Mistress on a leash, blindfolded, with her hands tied behind her. "She is naughty," the Lady Publennia had explained to one or another free woman encountered in the street. "I do not know what to do with her." "Switch her," was the usual suggestion. After all, this sort of situation was not wholly unprecedented amongst Mistresses and their serving slaves. "Excellent," the Lady Publennia would say, and then give the slave two or three swift strokes on the back of the thighs. But now, unbeknownst to the Lady Publennia, Nika was no longer in Lisle, on Inez IV, but on Tangara, and, even now, in the traces of a sled, drawing it for two men, Julian of the Aureliani, a minor naval officer but kin to the emperor, and Tuvo Ausonius, a former civil servant on Miton, and was approaching the camp.

The Lady Publennia again recalled the slave in the gambling palace. How she had scorned that simple tunic in which the slave had been garbed. And yet, clearly, she noted, it was far more ample, tasteful, discreet, and modest than that which she had been forced to don, a tavern tunic, fit for tavern slaves hurrying about in the half-lit, low-ceilinged rooms, serving their Master's customers, whose use, at the patron's discretion, might accompany, say, a second drink.

Who would bring her the dagger, that proposed, convenient article of assassination, with its slender, yellow, oval handle, and slim guard, and fine narrow blade, with its invisible coating, as unseen as air, as patient as acid?

She had seen it only once, in a small room late at night, in the imperial palace on Lisle.

Then it had been returned to its case.

It was well the implement had a guard. It would not do at all for the hand which would dare to wield such a thing to slip onto the blade, even to the tiniest break in the skin.

She doubted that he whom it might strike, or scratch, would suffer much, or long, perhaps no more than a moment, one of comprehension and misery, not that such matters would be of much concern to those who might mix and brew the coating. The important thing was that the matter would be quickly done, that there would be no time to search out an antidote, even to cry out, or summon help. This would allow the assassin the time to slip away and board the waiting hoverer.

She knew the blade need not be driven into the victim's body. It would be enough for it to touch the skin or be drawn across it, just enough to open the skin. Indeed, the blade was so sharp that, if things were lightly done, the victim might even be unaware, for a moment, that he was dying.

But she hated this Ottonius, for he had put her to a slave's work on the Narcona, she, of the patricians, and had silenced her with bands of tape, and tied her to the foot of his couch.

Perhaps she might drive the blade into his body to the hilt!

The blade's guard would permit this. It would protect her.

But she wondered what it might be, to be taken into the arms of such a man, to be held there, helplessly, crushed with the same passion, possessiveness, and indifference which might be accorded a slave.

She did not understand the likely repercussions and consequences of her task, but she gathered it was important.

It had to do with politics, and power, and perhaps even with the fate of an empire.

She knew the empire was eternal, but there were rumors, far off, of crumbling walls, of crossed borders, of lapsed, lost, or surrendered worlds, of transgressed spacelanes, of remote smithies in which alien ships, in their hundreds, were being built and fueled.

Who, or what, might stand against the darkness, like night, rising over far worlds?

What forces, what men, in a thousand effete worlds, devoted to luxury and pleasure, might be strong enough to stand against storms of hungry wolves, their eyes burning in the night, now prowling just beyond watch fires of civilization?

She knew her task.

That was enough.

Its implications were for others to assess.

We have little reason to suppose that she knew, or much cared, what might ride on the stroke of a tiny blade, and a drop of poison.

The empire was eternal.

At that moment, a gong sounded, and she rose to her feet, turned, and hurried to the kitchen.

It would not do to dally.

The brunette, the first girl, carried a switch.

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