At the Slaver's Association
The Caravan Arrives
Paying a Call
There Goes the Neighborhood
At the Realm of Thorns
At the Consortium
Through the Looking Glass
Clipping a Raven's Wings
When Once We Were Mortal
Neighbor of the Beast
The Hunter, Dawn
Realm of Thorns home
The Slaver's Association
The Caravan Arrives
At that time of day when mere mortals were slogging in from the fields, when peasants settled beside their hearths with a bowl of stew and a mug of ale, her day was just beginning; when blood ran in the sky with ink close behind, that was when she began to stir; and when embers began to die along the horizon, that was Rose's dawn.
- - -
She awoke that evening to the sound of tapping - Raymond, it turned out, standing over her and gently rapping, rapping at ... well drumming the end of a pencil across the bottom of a clipboard, measuring out a military cadence that he likely wasn't even aware of, but doing so ceaselessly so that Rose, when she snapped awake, did so with a snarl that curled one corner of her mouth.
Almost immediately she was sitting upright, her legs wound to one side, tugging lazily at the belt of her robe. One by one, candles settled around the intimate chamber began to flicker to life, for the first time revealing the warning in her eyes and the malice in her smile.
Raymond's hand froze in mid-stroke, and the pencil clattered to the floor.
"I see you've returned ...," she hissed, flexing bare hands and digging lacquered nails into the furs on which she reclined.
Raymond looked up to meet her gaze just then. It was a habitual gesture, one that he would never have performed deliberately. He could never bear what he saw there for more than a moment - shades of himself, his own unworthiness reflected in her gaze, and deeper still, the blackness of his own soul swimming in a sea of emerald ... and sometimes, the bright white soul of the girl, staring back at him, mocking him, mocking his damnation ... and always, the sense of himself as prey, vainly attempting to outrun the eyes that were ever upon him.
"Mmm, yeah... Mistress..." The word felt like a handful of marbles in his mouth.
He shifted uneasily, then focused on the list in his hand, wondering when the next blow would come. After all these years, he wasn't even close to becoming inured to the psychic torture - on the contrary, he travelled through this afterlife feeling a lot like a nervous cat, flinching at the slightest movement from her. And perhaps that was his true hell - not what she'd actually done to him, but the neverending anticipation of where she might take his mind next.
"Uh, the caravan's down below... we've got six wagons. I brought exactly what you asked for - those pieces from the Robsart Study, your private library, the wardrobe, the Josephine bed -"
"And the sedan chair?"
"The sedan chair..."
By this time, Rose was up and dressing. At the thought of her preferred mode of transportation, she flicked a tiny, condescending smile over her shoulder, then turned back to the travel trunk, slipping out of her robe and letting it fall to a pool of champagne silk at her ankles.
"The clothes you asked for ... eh, shoes, coats, corsets..."
As he ticked off item after item, Rose lifted a dainty toe and stepped into one leg of her catsuit, then the other, and night swallowed day as the glossy black latex stretched over her porcelain curves.
"Your ledgers, the old business files from your basement storage..."
"The boxes marked 'Consortium'?"
Raymond nodded his ascent but refused to tear his eyes from the list, and Rose hardly seemed to notice - she was far too eager to vacate these cramped quarters and move on to the lush lifestyle to which she was accustomed. With a little squeaking and snapping borne of haste, she wriggled her way into the rest of the suit.
"And what about the stables?"
Here, Raymond's eye twitched, and his jaw clenched. One other thing he'd never grown accustomed to was the sight of men like himself - or what he'd once been - living in slavery, relishing hard labor, accepting a collar. A part of him celebrated that he was very different from them - a slave nonetheless, but enjoying a certain freedom of mobility, and a freedom to be candid at times because it amused Rose to allow him to be so. But a part of him envied those men - Rose's 'muscle boys' - because, from what he sometimes heard out of the darkness of the dungeons or from behind closed bedroom doors, they at least enjoyed some reward for their toils. Raymond's life was drudgery - to him were relegated the most mundane tasks. He was little more than a foot servant.
"Uh, yeah ... a team of four for each wagon, plus the chair bearers, and the maids - that makes thirty."
With the ease that comes from an eternity of habit, she lifted a thin leather belt from her vanity top and slapped it around her waist, buckling it low over her hips so that the silver chains hooked to one side glittered and pealed like a carillon chorus against her thigh.
"Nearly enough for a complete household staff. The size of the estate remains to be seen, of course," she mused, looking past him with a sort of thoughtful delight, "but should we need any additional help, I've no doubt that the good citizens of Lanrette will be only too happy to oblige."
As though they would have any choice.
Without looking, she stepped into a pair of impossibly high heels, grabbed her gloves from the top of the trunk, and shoved past Raymond, strong-arming him into the wall.
"Aaah, my darlings...," Rose purred, her features suddenly awash in bliss.
There in the alcove, behind where Raymond had been standing, were her beloved pets Rudolf and Gregor. The dobermans might have been statues, so still were they, sitting up straight with their backs perfectly aligned, their ears perfectly pointed.
Rose paused for a long moment, drawing in a breath and tucking the gloves at her belt. When she dipped at the waist, it was deliberately slow - her eyes never left the beasts and her smile never wavered. Extending her arms to either side, she effected the pose of a gracious Madonna. When she snapped, the dogs rose in unison, shifting forward on their sinewy haunches and clicking across the stone floor towards her, to nuzzle against her bare hands (a privelege, it should be noted, that she rarely allowed to her human pets).
"Have they been fed?"
"Eh, not since we left Rhy'Din."
"Excellent," came her velveteen drawl.
The Caravan Departs
A series of erratically twisted catacombs - no doubt left behind by residents from some aeons past - burrowed from top to bottom through the core of the mountain, forming a path from the cavern all the way to the forest floor. The tunnels themselves were oppressively narrow and low - one could only guess at the stature of the creatures that had once inhabited these earthen walls.
Needless to say, Rose found the path short of ideal - less than twenty feet in, she realized that what lay ahead for her was a wholly undignified cycle of ducking and crouching. With an indignant huff, she stopped and brought the dogs to heel, then slipped out of her shoes and took a step forward on bare feet. Without looking back, she lifted gloved fingertips with a flutter.
With only quiet behind her, and then Raymond's confused grunting, she knew that he had not immediately understood what was intended by the gesture. Silently, she ticked off the seconds and added them to a ledger that she carried in her head - until she heard the hasty clicking of a pair of stiletto heels being swept up from the floor and cradled with the clipboard on his arm.
They formed a procession, the four of them - Rudolf and Gregor taking the fore, followed by Rose (now comfortably several inches shorter) with the end of their lead looped carelessly over one hand, the other hand rested at her swaying hip. Raymond brought up the rear, struggling to hold on to his parcels as shuffled sideways through some of the less generous passages.
- - -
However tedious the walk became, Rose refused to go by any other means. It had been far too long since she'd enjoyed the pleasure of her dogs' company. Oh, human men and women at the end of a lead were one thing - a dime a dozen, really - but nothing could compare to the sublimity of a perfectly matched pair of beasts such as these. She felt herself welling with pride as she watched them - the simplicity of their unison was a joy to behold.
Owing to the nakedness of her feet, her emergence into the night air was swift and silent - all at once, the staleness of the catacombs gave way to the bracing cool of nighttime air, and a swollen moon obliged her by casting its glow over everything.
Everything was, of course, a caravan that stretched for fifty feet in either direction - three wagons at the front and three at the back, with a team of men harnessed before each one.
When Rose emerged, in that split second before the slaves sensed her presence, she saw that each one stood at the ready - each one with thick forearms crossed at the small of his back, shoulders straight and chests thrust forward, chins jutting not so much with pride as with a sense of purpose. But every pair of eyes was cast down...
The moment the sweet perfume of roses hit the air, of course, the caravan stirred to life. Beginning with the team closest to the center, each of the chair bearers took a knee and dutifully lowered his head; from there, the two teams to either side dropped, and so on down each end of the line with the slapping of leather and the pealing of harness rings.
Rose stepped from the mouth of the cave and stopped. Her smile was benign, almost docile - but not so inside, where delight blossomed and tendrils of fire wound up from her thighs as her gaze swept up and down the line.
Over two dozen golden, oiled bodies, of the brawny stock that Rose had always preferred, knelt in waiting. Every one was adorned in leather tack - the standard uniform was a pair of leather straps crossed over the shoulders and around the waist, meeting at a ring in the center of the chest to leave those bulging pectorals for the most part bare. The chair bearers enjoyed the privelege of wearing close-fitting pants and hard-soled boots, but for the rest of the teams, it was loin cloths and sandals. Every one bore the same bracers and thick leather collar.
Now this, she thought, languishing in the sight of all those heads bent in servitude, was her own paradise. Traipsing the universe in high style, dining with kings and lying with emperors, was all well and good - but this, THIS, is what she was made for...
She passed the dogs' leash to Raymond, shoving it into his already overfull grasp without so much as a backward glance.
The scents of sandalwood oil and perspiration had drifted up to mingle with the balsam and cedar in the air. With hands brought to rest at her hips, and the soft crunch of ground moss under bare feet, she strolled languidly past the first group on to the second, inspecting them all by moonlight. Her chin tilted, her gaze drifted, and she paused periodically to tug at a leather strap here, a lock of hair there.
On a whim, she drew up before one of the slaves and came to a stop. He was still, providing her with no indication that he was even aware of her presence, other than that studied calm. And then she noted a muscle in his jaw flexing, tightening.
She reached for him then, tracing the curve of his ear with a single gloved fingertip, then leaning slightly to cup his chin. A vein at his temple began to throb, and his features softened, taking on a look of quiet agony. He did not lift his eyes, but it was clear from the emotions at war on his face that it was what he most desired in the world at that moment.
As much as she was tempted to toy with him, there was a countryside to traverse and an estate to be settled, after all. She would not oblige him, not right now, but still she lingered a moment longer to torture him. She drummed her fingers playfully along the bottom of his chin, then rolled her thumb across his lower lip - agonizingly slow, so as to leave the taste of leather behind on his mouth.
And that was when he made the mistake of giving in to his own hungers. His tongue flicked out just enough to brush the end of her finger. It was a delicate touch and the merest flash of pink, so slight that it might have gone unnoticed by mortal eyes.
Not to Rose's inhuman sight - her eyes flashed wide, half with anger, half with delight, and she seethed through bared teeth. Her grip tightened so that she was holding the front his jaw in a vise, her thumb rolling down on his lower lip enough to expose the slender thread of skin that kept it anchored to his gums.
This was no delicate man, mind you, but according to the terror in his eyes and the moisture welling at their corners, the pressure she placed on his lip was tearing painfully at the small piece of flesh.
But in concert with the torture, an odd phenomenon was occurring - Rose noted, with a smirk of satisfaction, that his chest had thrust slightly forward, as though he were straining to press himself against her thigh. And his nipples had grown hard, like tiny pebbles. Unable to resist, she lowered herself a little more, and with her free hand snapped a fingertip briskly across one of the nipples, then leaned back to watch his shock ripple through the cords of muscle.
She gave the lip one last tug and whipped her hand away, then. The slave fell forward slightly, struggling to keep his balance - he maintained enough grace not to use his hands to catch himself, but his muscles tightened deliciously as he fought to straighten back into position. He never looked up, but beneath the shade of golden lashes his eyes were darting to and fro in a panic.
"What is your name, pet?" she crooned, dipping at the waist and bringing herself close enough so that her breath cooled the curve of his neck and the smell of her perfume sent his jangled senses swimming.
"If it pleases, Mistress, this slave is named... Gerald..." His voice was coarse with tension, but he didn't miss a beat.
A pang of remembrance struck at her then, as she recalled that the name had also belonged to her one-time Favorite. No other had been so favored since.
She straightened and stood for a long moment, watching as the flush on his skin began to fade and his breathing slowed to a normal pace. The information - his name - was filed away for a later time, to be recalled once they had arrived at the estate. For now, a long journey loomed ahead.
Spinning on her heel, she strode back to the middle of the caravan, to her sedan chair. As she approached, another rolling flourish of her hand signalled the chair bearers to rise. They crouched beneath their respective poles at the chair's four corners and, supporting the poles on their shoulders, brought it to a perfect height for Rose to step up and in.
She parted the velvet curtains and disappeared inside, but a second later, her arm reappeared through the fold and she pushed one curtain back, leaning forward so that her curls fell across one shoulder. As though she had only just noticed Raymond's presence, she gestured him forward and plucked the shoes from his grasp.
"Raymond, take care of the dogs."
"Wh- ... where should they ride?"
"Where were you going to ride?"
"Eh, in the lead wagon."
"Then put them in your place. You'll be walking."
- - - -
The mountain range just across the Lockheed border was at least four nights' ride from the Lanrette capital city of Drunther, and so the large party of wagons and slaves was forced to stop periodically. The first two nights of travel passed uneventfully - each morning, in the last grey hour before dawn, the caravan pulled to the side of the road to pitch camp.
After overseeing the pitching of tents and assuring that her properties were settling in for the day, Rose took to the sky, disappearing before the first fingers of light crept over the horizon. Where she slept during those days, even Raymond did not know - he spent the long daylight hours bunked down in a wagon, watching over the dogs but somehow unable to shake the sensation that she was still watching over him.
She always reappeared after sunset, just as the slaves were putting out their cook fires, looking sated herself and once more ready to take to the road.
On the third night of travel, it became evident that they were nearing the capital city. Dense woods gave way to wide open fields, outlines of farmhouses to the silhouettes of manor homes - suddenly, they were no longer on a rough hewn forest path, but a highway blanketed in gravel.
In the late hours through which they travelled, few people littered the road - in two nights, they had only seen as many individual horsemen passing by in the opposite direction. But now, as they drew in on Drunther, late-night riders were becoming all the more common.
With its tasselled wagons and harnessed attendants, an affair as ostentatious as Rose's caravan would have been impossible to miss, but no single party that they encountered was large enough to consider a challenge. Still, they did draw curious stares from the handful of passersby - presumably because teams of human slaves pulling carts were not only an uncommon sight, but also an illegal one, within the boundaries of Lanrette.
Early on the fifth night of travel, the sound of scores of booted feet pattered on a country lane, growing increasingly louder and joined by the rumble of wagon wheels as it approached a fork in the road. The hulk of a house could be seen looming in the near distance, and at the split, the wagons turned off towards the south postern, while the sedan chair and its attendants continued to the north, onto the narrow lane that led to the front of the estate.
A thicket of bent elm trees formed the only gate; the party passed through it onto a cobbled drive awash in shadows. The moonlight was exceedingly bright that night, and it cast the distorted outlines of columns and topiaries down the length of the path.
Ahead just a few hundred feet rose the angles and corners of a stately manor house, sitting like a stolid watchdog over its piece of the countryside. Nothing on its face spoke of frivolity - at three stories high and a dozen windows wide, the house was substantial, but mature and immutable. In its gabled symmetry lay no trace of the pompous or feminine.
It was, all in all, a proud house that made no attempt to frighten. Even the deeply indented east and west wings extended as companionably as an armchair. The silvery glow of its weathered ashlar walls seemed to cast a gaze down on the surrounding property that was, if not precisely friendly, not deliberately uninviting, either.
It took several minutes for the sedan chair to travel the distance from the trees to the base of the stone staircase. All the while, Rose watched with casual disinterest through a slit between the curtains. When the chair came to a stop, however, she emerged almost before the chair could be lowered, stepping out precisely halfway between two Grecian statues that flanked the balustrades.
Her steps were almost eager - as eager as she ever allowed herself appear - with hurried crunching on the gravel drive, and the tails of her coat swimming after her.
With gloved hands folded patiently together and resting aside, on one hip, she turned her pale features up to bask in the glow from the walls, and purred her satisfaction:
"Aah, what a delightful gift ... Tara does know my tastes well."
- - - -
Some time later, Rose wandered slowly through a darkened portrait gallery in the east wing. Her pace was deliberate and unhurried, almost ominous - each click of a patent leather heel striking marble was allowed to reverberate down the length of the hall, echoing and finally fading before the next step fell.
Only a very few lamps were fixed to the walls in this part of the house, and none of them were lit, but the curtains at the end of the hall were drawn, allowing enough moonlight in so that everything in the gallery was still partially illuminated. Every few feet, the unfamiliar features of someone else's ancestors swam inside a gilded frame, traced in fine lines and shades of grey, shrouded in blotches of shadow.
The only real color allowed to blossom in the room was the red slash of Rose's lips, curved into a tranquil half-smile.
When one acquired the possessions of several lifetimes, moving in to a place was no longer a question of simply walking through the door and announcing oneself to the house. The beginnings of settling here had been a dusty, noisy affair, accomplished with the barking of many orders and much snapping of fingers. While most of her slaves were occupied with the task of bringing in crates from the wagons, her maids were kept busy pulling sheets from the furnishings already there.
From other parts of the house, Rose could still hear the low rumble of activity - the unpacking would go on through the night, punctuated by the occasional slam of a door or the thump of some item tumbling to the marble floor - or worse, the crash of breaking glass (which was in some perverse manner like music to her ears).
They were fools if they did not think she noticed every sound and kept a careful tally of their clumsiness. But if she was troubled by any of it, it did not show. As she strolled up to the picture window at the far end of the gallery, hands clasped and resting on her shapely posterior, her expression remained serene, lips a placid line and eyes gently narrowed.
The only door into the gallery opened, spilling a yellow glow into a small pool on the floor. That door slammed closed again immediately, as if the entrant understood that the light was an intrusion on Rose's own darkness. Seconds later, Raymond's shambling steps could be heard sweeping over the marble, followed by the inevitable clomping of a bootheel as he stumbled over some piece of furniture in the gloom.
Rose turned casually, resting her gaze on him as he caught himself. His shoulders were tensely drawn, and he moved with a sort of oafish caution. Before he could focus on her outline against the window panes, she took one step to the side, angling herself into the corner and blending instantly with the indefinable charcoal shadow of the curtains.
"I'm down here, pet," she murmured, a hint of amusement teasing the words to a gentle, echoing laughter at the end.
Raymond latched on to the sound of her voice and perked, moving forward with a little more assurance, but yet his steps were overly wide, tentative, and his hands stretched slightly before him.
Rose watched with cruel fascination, still and deadly silent until he was within a dozen feet of her.
"The damned are generally better accustomed to moving about in the darkness - for someone who's been in limbo for so long, I'd expect you to have better night vision."
However cultured her tone, the sudden sound of words jarred him nonetheless, and her lips twitched playfully when she saw him jump. But Raymond was lost for a retort and so, denied a sparring partner for the moment, she simply rolled her eyes and turned back towards the window.
Outside, a lush meadow rolled away from the house to the north. Topiaries lined the driveway, but otherwise the lawn was bare, rising and dipping in gentle knolls. The grass was neatly trimmed, so that clouds passing under the moon created dark lines that rippled all the way out to the treeline. The effect was downright hypnotic.
"So, eh..." Raymond, finally finding his voice, had to clear his throat before continuing. "They're, uh, unpacking the bed and the wardrobe now ... but where should I tell them to put it?"
Rose blithely ignored the question, instead lifting a gloved hand and dropping a finger against one of the window panes.
"Do you see that building there, at the edge of the wood?"
He had to sidle close - close enough to be wary of her presence - to follow where she was pointing. Looking out the north-facing window, he could see the drive on one side, but as he craned his neck, there was an outbuilding to the east, butted up against the treeline and barely visible around the corner at the side of the main house. Only a stucco corner and the edge of the tile roof were visible, but the building looked to be about half as tall as the manor itself, possibly a stable - or a small warehouse.
"Yeah, yeah, I see it - so what?".
The gloved hand remaining at Rose's hip curled into a fist, and a jolt of uneasiness - nothing more - tightened across Raymond's chest.
"That, pet, is the future."
- - - -
Rose had, during the course of the week's travels, taken note of the makeup of the countryside. Even the normal gloom of night could not mask the despondency settled over this land. With its tumble-down buildings and fields lying fallow, the scowl of desperation in the face of every traveller they had encountered ... Lanrette was clearly a land awash in the pestilence of dire poverty.
A traditional slaving house would have a difficult time turning a profit here - undoubtedly, there were few who could afford to buy, and the nearby Slaver's Association had almost certainly cornered that market.
No, what Rose had in mind was a slight variation on the flesh peddling theme - few people in Lanrette could afford to buy, but the place was overflowing with healthy stock - ripe with possibilities for export.
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