…and so it begins

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything; too much going on in my life, most of it of the “No fun, go home” variety. But I’m slowly working my way back into things.

This one is fairly long – over 4k words. And also of the “No fun, go home” variety, for Ari. Figured it was about time to give you the beginning of the story; now you’ll know the stakes, and the trap Ari is in – caught between a rock and a hard place.

Trigger warning.

* * *

 

Month 1, day 40 – 40 days on Thanah

The Agora

Khamasur, the Master of House Kel Arain, had rarely been so pleased; opportunities such as this did not often present themselves, and he meant to take every advantage of it that he possibly could. From his place across the square he watched the two women interact, his pale eyes missing nothing. He knew the older woman to be his enemy’s Keeper, a competent and able administrator. But the other—oh, the other! The red-haired one was just the tool he needed to destroy his enemy, and she might even serve as the toy he wanted when her usefulness was at an end.

He watched as the two completed their meal, and the younger one cleared their table. She was fit, he saw, unlike many of the other women the Gatherers had brought. Most of them were layered in flesh, like geese being fattened for the table, but this one was lean with muscle even with her curves. He took in her movements; smooth, with no wasted motion, but with an underlying confidence and power, like someone who regularly tested herself against an opponent in the skamma—the fighting ring. At the somatemporia he had noted the scars on her arms—knife scars, if he was not mistaken, but he knew he was not. It was unusual to see a woman who fought with knives; most were afraid to be cut. If she was not, she was unique in all his experience.

He followed and watched for nearly an hour before making up his mind. More than once she had paused, head up like a dog scenting predators, looking around as if aware she was being watched. Each time he had hidden himself from her, busying himself in one booth or another until her attention waned. Abruptly he raised a hand, and his gray-clad Armsman was instantly at his side. “The red-haired woman,” he murmured. “Take her and bring her to me.” He turned smoothly and was away without waiting for a response, knowing it would be done.

“Master,” the man replied, acknowledging the order even though the pale man would not hear, and, using a com unit, called for two men from the entourage to meet with him. He also warned the driver that their Master was on his way. It was never wrong for them to be prepared for him.

The Armsman kept an eye on her as she moved through the Agora, keeping her in his line of sight but staying out of hers. Not once did she seem aware of his scrutiny, as she had of his Master’s; it was the intensity of that concentration that had attracted her attention. The Armsman’s dispassion was his shield.

After some time two more men in gray uniforms approached him, and he pointed out their quarry. One of them grinned and elbowed the other, but the Armsman coldly told him to mind himself, that the girl was for the Master. The other man sobered instantly, and ducked his head. The three followed their mark as the two women wandered the rows, watching for their prey to separate.

At last came their chance. Ari lingered at one booth to look at something that had caught her eye, and Kanti, unaware, went on to the end of the row and turned the corner. The Armsman signaled to his men, who immediately flanked the red-haired woman. Each man caught an arm, and one bent his head, telling her to come quietly. None of the three men was prepared for her reaction.

Ari jerked her arms against their grip, ducking down and shoving backward on one foot to throw them off balance. The first man’s hand slipped, letting that arm free, and she snapped a side kick at him, just missing his crotch. He went down with a yelp. Ari used the rebound to recover, and raked her sandal down the other man’s shin. She turned her arm in his grip and caught hold of his wrist, pulling him forward over her hip into a throw. She kept her grip as he overbalanced and added her other hand, pulling back on his arm and putting torque into it. She heard a bone snap as he fell, and bared her teeth in a tight, feral grin at his shout of pain.

The first man was up again, charging her with arms wide. She sidestepped, ducked under his arm, grabbed it with both hands and redirected his momentum past her. He flailed his arms in an attempt at keeping his balance, barely catching himself on the post of a nearby shop; only the booth’s guylines kept both from going down. The Armsman shook his head in amazement, watching, then started forward, pulling something from his belt. The first man spun off the booth’s upright back toward her, throwing a wild punch, but Ari flung her arm up in a block and then knuckle-punched him in the nerve plexus under his armpit. He howled in pain and went down hard.

Ari bounced back a step, checking for the second man, and never saw the Armsman coming from behind. He stepped in close, threw his left arm around her neck, and jabbed her in the back with something. White light flared in her skull as all her muscles seized in galvanic response; then she went limp and slid to the ground.

The second man had climbed to his feet, holding his arm; he came over and kicked her in the face, catching her cheekbone. The Armsman angrily stiff-armed him, warning him off, and told him to ready their vehicle. The man left hurriedly, scowling. The Armsman and the other man together picked Ari up and quickly carried her out between two of the booths. Despite the action most of the fight had been quiet, and it had been quick; only now were the people nearby beginning to react.

In the next row Kanti had just realized that Ari was no longer with her, and started back around the corner. When she saw the City Guard hurrying toward the gathering crowd she started to run.

* * *

House Kel Arain: the atrium

Master Khamasur waited in his office, leaning against his desk in a languid pose. His dark hair was the only color about him, the focal point in an atrium of white marble, pale wood, and filmy white draperies. A moment ago a runner had come in to tell him that the Armsman had returned with the woman, and Khamasur had composed himself to receive his reluctant guest.

The Armsman and his subordinate came up along the arcade that separated the atrium office from the outer hall. Khamasur glanced aside to watch them, and realized that they were half dragging the woman between them. He shoved away from the desk in instant fury, his pale eyes snapping.

“Deimo, what is this? I ordered you to bring her to me, not to beat her senseless!”

The subordinate stopped several feet from their Master, fearing to come closer, and nervously dropped the woman’s arm, letting her half fall to the floor. She was conscious and able to catch herself, but clumsy with her hands bound together, her other arm held. Backing away, the man blurted out, “She fought us, Master! There was nothing else we could do!”

The Armsman, Deimo, lowered the woman to the floor and released her arm with an irritated shrug, distancing himself from the other. “I have never seen anyone who fought in the style she did.” His tone held grudging approval. “She broke Krio’s arm. I had to use the shock rod before the Agora was in an uproar.”

Between them Ari raised herself on her forearms, saying thickly, “Wha’s matter wi’ you people? Can’ you ever jus’ ask a person?”

Khamasur cocked an eyebrow, looking down at her. “And you would have come for the asking?” His voice was smooth and cultured, his manner urbane and somewhat amused.

Ari pushed herself up to sit on her hip, pushing her hair back from her eyes with both hands. “Prob’ly—prob-ab-ly not.” She shook her head to clear it, too late realizing her mistake; she retched and vomited, then pushed away from the mess. Her head pounded, and she closed her eyes tightly against the dizziness and pain.

Khamasur withdrew in disgust, going back to his desk. He picked up a little bell and rang it once, sharply; a maidservant ran in, and he gave terse orders. “Bring a bowl of water and a towel, and something for her to drink. And have someone clean that,” he flicked a hand at the mess. He looked at the two men, shaking his head angrily. “Deimo, unbind her. Then both of you get out of my sight.” The Armsman did so with alacrity, not wanting to annoy his Master further. The other man disappeared even before the Armsman had finished loosing the restraints.

By the time the servants arrived Ari was on her feet, albeit swaying a bit unsteadily. Khamasur had gone back to his pose against the desk, hands and hips on the edge, legs extended and crossed elegantly at the ankles. The servants bowed their heads to him as they entered, though he ignored them. One of them offered a bowl of water to Ari, who thanked the girl; then she washed her hands and face and dried them with the towel. She rinsed her mouth with what was in the glass—something citrusy, like lemon water—and spat the mouthful into the bowl, then drank the rest of the water gratefully. Then she simply stood there, breathing, as the servants finished their cleanup and left.

Khamasur watched her for several moments from under his lashes, taking in her stance, her body language. The more he saw of this woman, the more intrigued he became. At last he lifted his head and looked directly at her. “You know, you are in something of a quandary—what is your name?

“Ari Dillon.” Her words were clearer now, the slur fading.

“Ari Dillon.” He repeated the unfamiliar sounds. “Hm.” He paused, looking at her in calculated curiosity. “You are in an awkward position, Ari Dillon. You are not only barren, you were deliberately neutered. You do understand that you fall under an Assembly Kill Order for that? Yet the Black Dog took you under his protection. I take it that your Master—”

“My Lord.” She interrupted, clearly and coldly, and he paused, turning his head toward her.

Again he cocked an eyebrow, arrested. “Indeed? Interesting.” He smiled dismissively. “I take it that your ‘Lord’ did not tell you that his protection effectively ends at his gate. Once outside those gates you are subject to the law of the City, and any citizen who takes offence may act upon it.”

“When I get back to the House of the Black Dog I will be sure to look into that,” Ari said pointedly. “I assume, of course, that I will be going back?”

Khamasur smiled indulgently. “That will depend entirely on you,” he said, looking at her directly. “Which brings me to my proposal: when you do go back, you will do so as my agent. There is certain information I wish to know about your Master’s—” he smiled again, not quite a smirk, “Forgive me, your ‘Lord’s’—activities. You will seek out this information, and you will bring it to me when next you leave his House.”

“And I should do this why?”

Again Khamasur smiled. “Oh, dear,” he said with false sorrow, “I had so hoped it would not come to this.” He reached down and rang the bell again. Moments later the Armsman, Deimo, came in with a young black girl—Shanyse Patterson.

Ari saw her and felt her heart stop. Shanyse saw Ari and her face lit up in delight; she started to skip to Ari, then darted a glance at Khamasur and thought better of it. At his gesture of permission she walked over to Ari and smiled, and with all the awkward grace only a young teenager can muster said, “Hi, Ari! What happened to your face?”

“I made a mistake,” Ari answered tonelessly, meeting Khamasur’s eyes over the girl’s head. Then she looked down and forced a smile for the girl. “Hey, Shanyse! How’s your mama doing?” She hugged the girl, over her head giving the pale man a look of cold rage.

“She doin’ okay,” Shanyse chattered on. “She keepin’ busy, but she still cries a lot sometimes ‘cause she missin’ my nana an’ grampa. I miss them, too, but I don’t cry so much.”

Ari took her shoulders and shook her a little, looking down into her face. “That’s because you are a smart, brave girl.”

Khamasur stirred and languidly clapped his hands three times. “How touching, a reunion of friends of mere moments,” he said drily. “Tell me—it is Shanyse, is it not? You have been doing your lessons?”

The girl straightened immediately, answering him. “Yes, Master Khamasur.”

“Very good, child. Can you tell me this: what is your well-being, and how does a House provide it?”

Shanyse stood up even straighter, and recited “My well-being is what I need to live: food, and clothing, and shelter, and health. My House provides these to me in exchange for my loyalty, my service, and my obedience.” She nodded decisively on each point.

“And if you should behave badly?” the pale man asked. “If you should disobey, or betray this trust?”

Shanyse gave him a worried look, and sidled closer to Ari, who reflexively put an arm around her shoulders and hugged her close. In a small voice the girl said, “I would be punished.”

“And how would you be punished, child?” His words and tone were all kindness, but there was something in his pale eyes that gave it the lie.

“I could lose my priviges…” Shanyse started slowly.

“Your privileges,” Khamasur corrected her. He moved forward to stand directly in front of the girl, looking down at her.

“My privy-le-ges,” she hurriedly repeated, “or I could be beaten.”

“And if the infraction was severe?” Though his voice was soft still the girl flinched, and rage flashed through Ari like lightning.

“I–I could be put out of the House to make my way on the street with the rats, or—I promise I won’t never do nothing for you to kill me!”

“Now, child,” he said, reaching out and stroking her hair gently, “I’m quite sure that you would never do anything so bad as to warrant that.” He put particular emphasis on that one word, looking directly at Ari. “But now I do have to make one small change to the rules for you, Shanyse.” He dropped his hand to the girl’s shoulder, squeezing lightly, all the while looking directly into Ari’s eyes with sly humor. “You see, something very special has happened, and that means that I must make your good friend Ari responsible for your well-being. It is her behavior in the next little while that will decide how this House treats you. And we all know that Ari is a good person, so she would never do anything that would let harm come to you, isn’t that so, Ari?”

“That’s right,” she answered. Her voice was calm and level, but her eyes were hot and full of promise.

“Excellent!” Khamasur stepped back and clapped his hands together with a bright smile. “Then that will be all for you today, Shanyse. You have done all I could have wished for.” He reached out again and tousled her hair. “Say goodbye to Ari now, and tell Nomio that I said you might go and play.”

Shanyse turned and hugged Ari tight, then scampered out at Deimo’s heels. Ari stood there staring straight into Khamasur’s eyes until she was gone.

The pale man smiled again with heavy lidded eyes and sauntered back to his desk, toying with something on the surface. When Ari was sure Shanyse was gone, she took three quick steps forward, snarling in English, “You son of a bitch!”

Khamasur spun and surged up from his stance with no warning, his right hand a blurring fist. The movement was so fast and so savage that Ari had no chance to react or avoid the blow, and she went down hard, skidding back on the polished floor. Khamasur’s face was a mask of rage as he stood over her, spitting “That, for your disrespect!” And then as quickly as that his rage was gone, and the faintly mocking smile was back. He straightened and stepped back. “Actually,” he said with dry humor, “as I understand the idiom it would seem to apply more appropriately to your ‘Lord.’ As for me, I believe the proper phrase is ‘sick bastard’—although here the latter term lacks… relevance.”

He went back to his pose at the desk, leaning against it nonchalantly and inspecting his hand. There was a smear of blood on it. He flicked a glance toward Ari to see that she was watching, and slowly licked the blood off his fist with evident pleasure. He took in her narrowed eyes and clenched fists; saw the muscles jumping in her jaw and the way her breath came hard and fast, and he smiled in satisfaction. “A fighter, are you?” he asked softly, but there was a peculiar emphasis to the question, almost hungry. Then his tone changed; a sharp command. “Take off your clothes.”

Ari’s eyes flicked to his, heat meeting ice, and turned sick inside. His arousal was obvious; his eyes avid, his skin flushed, his breath coming faster. She hated to feed whatever sick fantasy he had in mind, but what choice did she have? She knew where she stood; she knew what was coming. He was the one with the power—and nothing outweighed the safety of a child.

Khamasur smiled as she reluctantly obeyed, watching intently as she slowly rose, unbelted her tunic, drew it over her head, and let it fall to the floor. He pursed his lips, taking her measure, while she stood silently staring inward at nothing.

He pushed away from the desk, prowling forward like the predator he was, and his smile now had a cruel edge. “Take it off—all of it,” he said with deliberate malice. “I want to see you.”

She unfastened the breast band and let it fall free; he inhaled with a sharp hiss at sight of the scars on her breasts, and he stepped forward, reaching but not touching, following their shapes in the air. “Oh,” he breathed. “Someone has been here before me, I see.” Then he stepped back again and gestured impatiently.

Ari unfastened the drawstring of the shorts and slid them down over her hips, then kicked them off. She kept her face impassive, giving nothing away, knowing he was watching. She had learned that the last time—give him nothing.

Never realizing that it gave him everything.

Khamasur prowled around Ari, bare inches away. When he spoke his breath washed over her skin, hot and moist. His words were a croon, not quite voiced yet not quite a whisper. “I can smell the blood on you,” he breathed. “Its taste was sweet.” He lingered over the words, urging, yearning, their bodies so close she could feel his heat. “I can smell your anger, your rage. You want to fight me, I can feel it. Your muscles are quivering with want. If you were a man, you would be hard as iron.

“Fight me,” he whispered, leaning in toward her. “Fight me.” He inhaled the scent of her hair, and when he turned there was a wrongness in the light in his eyes.

And then again he stepped back, the heat abruptly gone. He looked her over in cool appraisal, his voice matter-of-fact. “Has your Master seen this?” he asked, then caught himself. “Oh, I forgot—you don’t like that word, now why is that? Did someone master you before, teach you your proper place?” He stepped in again, face to face, unable to stay away, and his voice went soft and whispery once more. “The others think you a warrior, but I know the truth. The scars on your arms speak of a knife fight, but these—oh, these tell such a different story.” He stepped in closer, body to body, his palm on her belly, stroking the scars sensuously. When she flinched back, wild-eyed, he followed with that uncanny swiftness and fisted his fingers into the hair at the base of her skull, bowing her back while pulling her hips hard into his. He smiled as she froze under his hands; froze like a frightened animal, and an avid malice came into his eyes.

“Did he try to gut you, your savage lover?” he whispered into her face. “Or was this where you tore out your womanhood to kill his child?”

“No!” Ari gasped, shocked into speech. “I would never—

“Never what? Never kill a child?” Khamasur smiled savagely, triumphant, and yanked her upright against him. “I know you now. I own you now,” he hissed, their lips almost touching. She started to struggle against him but he clamped his free hand on her throat, digging his fingers in hard. “Body and soul, I own you—you will do anything I ask, and all for the sake of a dark-skinned child you’ve known for less than an hour. I wonder—would you do the same for one you’ve never met? Would you trade yourself for any child?” Abruptly he kissed her fiercely, then opened his hands and she fell to the floor, her legs gone weak. He pulled off his robe, dropped his trousers and kicked them away. He was beyond aroused, he was rampant, and the light in his eyes was no longer sane.

“Fight me!” he said fiercely, arms wide and ready. “Fight me, or I’ll kill you where you lie.” Then, when she still did not move, he roared, “Fight me!

From her huddle on the floor Ari whispered, “If I fight you, you’ll kill her.”

Khamasur leaned in and replied softly, dangerously, “If you don’t fight me, I’ll kill you.” His body was tense, its energy barely leashed.

Ari sat up and gathered herself into a ball, stretching her muscles. “Don’t hurt her,” she begged.

Khamasur licked his lips, stalking her. “If you fight me here, I won’t.”

Ari stood slowly, painfully. “One rule, then,” she said.

“No rules!” Khamasur barked, stepping closer, his breath coming faster.

“One rule,” Ari countered sharply, taking a chance, then cajolingly, “It’s to your advantage.”

Khamasur straightened somewhat from his crouch, looking almost like a sulky teenager. “What?” he asked sullenly.

“Just remember,” Ari said, “if you break me I can’t get the information you want.” She stared into his eyes in challenge. “Deal?”

Khamasur licked his lips again, and the crazy light went on again behind his eyes. “Deal.” Ari nodded, her face tight.

“Alright, you sick bastard,” she said. “Let’s dance.”

* * *

The fight was short, the outcome inevitable. Two blows to the head and a taser shock had put paid to Ari’s coordination, and however fit she might be Khamasur’s speed and agility in all ways simply outmatched hers. Added to that was his unfamiliar fighting style: a mixture of boxing, wrestling, kicks and strikes that, when she thought of it later, would remind her of the mixed martial arts she’d heard of back home. She couldn’t dodge him, and she couldn’t predict him, and it was no more than a few minutes of futility before he had her dazed and pinned.

What happened after was also inevitable.

* * *

When he was done with her he stood, shrugged on his robe, and rang the bell. It was Deimo who came in, as always, to clean up his Master’s messes. He barely glanced at Ari as he crossed the atrium, keeping his face impassive; he, too, had learned it was wise to dissemble.

Khamasur poured himself some wine; he was thirsty after his exertions. “Give her her clothes,” he ordered, gesturing with the wine cup. “Put her out on the street and show her the way to her Master’s—” he checked himself and laughed “—to the House of the Black Dog.” He sauntered out of the room, never looking back at either of them.

Deimo looked down at the defeated woman, noting the bruises already darkening on her skin; noting, too, the old scars that marked her body. He shut his eyes hard, shaking his head slowly, then took a long breath and bent to help her up.

* * *

Deimo did more than Ari would have expected, given his Master’s instructions. After she dressed he walked with her to the Household’s gate out of the compound, but instead of simply sending her on her way, as he had been ordered, he called for a metafora—a taxi—and waited with her inside the courtyard until it came. He stood one step up on the flight of stairs, watching her below; seeing how she moved, noting her stance. She was badly beaten, he knew, but she stood erect. Her expression was grim, but her head was up: angry, defiant. There was a stone bench at the foot of the stairs, but still she stood, refusing to give in.

It bothered him.

He was silent but restless, shifting from foot to foot, not looking at her. At last he muttered something to himself, sounding somehow both angry and ashamed. Finally he sighed and said quietly, “I do what I am told.”

Ari barely nodded, shivering in the thin afternoon sunlight. “You could leave here.”

“My family,” he said simply. “My friends. My House.”

“Gods,” Ari said, and shook her head.

Deimo spat on the ground. “The gods are deaf in Kel Arain,” he said bitterly.

Ari nodded. They weren’t all like him. It was enough.

When the metafora came, Deimo gave the driver several coins. “Take her to the Agora,” he said. “Take her where there are other metafori. Leave her there and come straight back here.” To Ari he gave more coins, and said quietly, “Wait until he leaves, then take another to your House.”

Once more Ari nodded, unable to speak at the unexpected kindness. She rested a hand on his arm for a moment, then painfully climbed into the metafora. She did not look back.

* * *