"Submit to the present evil, lest a greater one befall you."
Phaedrus, Book 1; Fable 2, 31
Following a succulent pause, Schönen turned towards one of the display cases at the front of the shop, her excitement barely contained beneath a facade of regal calm.
"Right over here," she chirped, thrumming her fingertips along the top of the glass. "These are some of my recent designs, although, if you want something custom, it'll take a few days... "
"A few days?" the gentleman gasped, his features drawing down into a long scowl.
"Yes, a few days." Suddenly, the bliss was gone again from her demeanor. She coiled back, like a cobra preparing to strike, and the rapping against the glass took on an impatient tone. "It takes time to cut these patterns..."
"Oh, I didn't realize," he sniffed, and again, that lace handkerchief rose to his temple.
Of course you didn't, you ignorant fop, she muttered inwardly. Doing her best to maintain a pleasant composure, she waved her hand aside, to usher him towards the array of brands. Beneath the pane of glass, spread out on a bed of rich mahogany velvet, were myriad intricate designs - suns and moons, tribal thorns and chains, angels' wings and spider webs - all summoned to life from the same soulless galvanized steel.
Then, turning curtly on one heel, she swept towards the back room, slapping aside a heavy velvet curtain, and calling over her shoulder as she went, "Take a look at what I've got there, and let me know what you think."
Moments later, that curtain was parted again, by the nose of a stainless steel examination table, visibly cold and almost painfully sterile, and the clicking of her heels was overwhelmed by the rattle of a set of old wheels, badly in need of oil and tightening. As it creaked to a stop, her eyes strayed towards the slave boy, who, for the first time, was showing a sign of alarm - oh, his features were as solemn as ever they had been, but a tiny droplet of perspiration was beaded at the side of his forehead... and the room temperature of the shop was a reflection of the early autumn chill outside...
Amusement haunted her features, only to be erased an instant later, as her imperious customer jabbed his fingertip against the top of the glass.
"I like this one... the prickly stem thing..."
"Thorns," she muttered, her lips pressed tight to hold back the snarl that was fighting to get out. "They're thorns."
"Ah, yes... of course..."
The gentleman discarded his prissy mannerisms long enough to strip his own slave from the waist down, while Schönen set about unlocking the cabinet. As she removed the tray containing the stylized vine, the movement caused the pattern to shift from its neat array, revealing that the thorns were actually comprised of over twenty unique pieces of shaped metal. It would take more than twenty strikes to the skin to complete this brand, but then, that was why Schönen's designs were so ornate... no sense in sparing any misery when the creation of such sinister beauty was at stake...
The shards of metal took their place at the corner of the examining table, just adjacent to another plate, this one containing a propane torch, and a wide assortment of tin snips and pliers, all arranged side by side according to length, like a set of doctor's instruments.
"Given any thought to where you want the brand placed?" she asked, with just a tinge of sarcasm lacing the saccharine of her voice. As she reached to the counter, to pluck at a box of latex gloves, her eyes again drifted towards the slave boy. From what she could tell, he did not have any previous brands, but she could only see his torso. Did he know what was coming? she wondered. Would some of that impudent coldness be shocked from his eyes when the first piece of white-hot steel plunged into his flesh?
"About his neck, like a collar... a permanent collar," chirped the gentleman in reply, obviously delighted with the idea, as though it were his own original concept.
With her back turned to him, she rolled her eyes, and a tiny sigh of annoyance was muffled by the (snap) of latex as she slipped the first glove on.
The human neck, particularly that of the human male, with its odd protuberances, is a landscape of curves and angles, with barely a level surface between them, and located just beneath the skin are a number of vital arteries, veins, and glands - all of which, combined, was bound to make the process both painful and dangerous.
"Would you put him on the table please? And be sure to strap him down," was her only comment, her delighted musings on the risk involved safely buried beneath the matter-of-factness of her manner.
A tug and a snap, and the ring on her right index finger was off, and nudged carefully to the back of the counter, to make way for the second glove.
As she turned back, the slave was already spread out, staring blankly up at the webbing of water marks on the ceiling, while his owner fumbled with untangling the nylon straps that hung from the table's underbelly. Amusement stole into Schönen's eyes once more as she watched, and while her gaze drifted from the bumbling master to the slave still maintaining a mask of detached serenity, she reached for the torch...
She pressed the ignition button...
And three pairs of eyes widened suddenly, two with shock and surprise, and the third with something akin to arousal...
Were it not for the setting, she might have been a doctor about to perform some illicit surgery, or perhaps a mechanic, about to do some body work...
She was in charge for the moment, at play on the fields of a slave's body, gifted with free rein at the behest of his owner, and as the propane torch hissed to life, spewing its white-blue heat an ominous three inches from the barrel, she took full advantage of the position, lowering the flame dangerously close to the man-child's chest, a move that caused the gentleman owner to swoon a bit with anxiety.
But the only reaction in the slave's eyes was a stern, determined freezing, as though he were denying the heat of the torch and focusing directly on the ceiling lights overhead.
This barely detectible defiance only spurred Schönen on, eliciting a grin of sinister relish, and from then on, her eyes were locked with his, their molten lava depths a reflection of the flame spurting in her grasp.
This, it was clear, would be no ordinary job, but rather a delectable war of wills, at which she had the clear advantage.
Tearing her gaze away for only a moment, she reached to pick up a pair of insulated pliers, and snap up the first piece of the puzzle in their wiry jaws. Her amber lenses were immediately snapped back to focus on the slave, to be met with a chilling stare.
Oh, more defiance! This was too much... the flames of laughter in her eyes only leaped higher, reflective of the gushing heat from the torch. It mattered very little that his opposition was so resolute - so long as she held his vision captive, he was fodder for her mind games. In fact, as they say, the bigger they are, the harder they fall, and this slave's determination insured that his fall would be absolute by the time they were done.
As she lowered the first piece of metal into the propane flame, the galvanized steel crackled and hissed, and perhaps she should not have performed the operation so close to the bare skin of his chest, but the sparks that leapt from the steel were only enough to jolt his skin to awareness... not enough, thankfully, to leave permanent marks that would ruin the overall composition of the design...
This first sliver of steel was one of the smaller pieces of the pattern, and as it bathed in the heavenly glow of propane warmth, its tenor shifted rapidly from shrill silver to sunburst orange, and then to phosphorescent white. Bear in mind that her eyes were still trained on his, and as she noted the ardent glow in her peripheral vision, those amber orbs slid to the side, guiding his own gaze towards the blazing hot metal. Like a puppy dog, he followed, but still, not one jot of emotion registered in his features.
With an abrupt click of the ignition switch, the flame blinked out of existence, swallowed back into the torch, and with just a moment's pause to judge the proper angle and placement, she lowered the white-hot steel to his neck.
The sizzling and popping of skin startled even her, but it was a delighted, childish sort of surprise, as though she had just come running out on Christmas morning to find her first bicycle waiting under the tree. She knew all too well the agony the boy must be going through. A glance to the brand on her own chest was evidence enough of that. But for her, the pain had been intoxicating, a rite of passage that she had embraced in all its divinity.
Evidently, this slave felt no such rapture. His eyes remained frozen, but as the barely discernable fingers of smoke rose before them, something of desperation lurked there, a silent scream of agony in the place of a body that was too terrified to move, for fear of causing the pain to shift.
The steel was left in place long enough for the sickening odor of singed flesh to hit the air, and then lifted away, to be discarded with a metallic ringing in a pan at her side. As the charred aroma swam before all of their noses, Schönen glanced up in time to see the gentleman pale, and shortly thereafter, the sound of rummaging was heard from the back room - apparently, the smell had reached Turk, and he was on his way to join in the party.
Meanwhile, the slave remained still, locked into place by either fear or renewed spirit, and though his body complied easily to the burning, he seemed to remain unyielding... but no matter... there were nineteen more pieces to go...
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