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Black Pearl 05


The Black Pearl of Pharazionby Cobalt Jade ( 5: The City of CarnalityWe set out in the gray light of dawn, laden with provisions for our journey.We spoke little on the way out of the valley. I think we were both gauging the new degree of trust between us, silently testing its boundaries. The horizon turned pink, then apricot. In the distance I saw dark shapes circle, coming home to roost in a cliffside aerie. "Stymphads?" I whispered."Hello." The booming voice startled me so I nearly fell off my horse. Not thirty away from us up the cliff was the blonde wing-captain who had spoken so frankly the night before. She appeared to be perched on a boulder."You startle us, Aylinn," Shadow said with reprehension."We were just feeding," Aylinn said apologetically. The boulder turned around, revealing the forequarters of one of the ugliest creatures I had ever seen. It was equal parts bird and reptile, with an eagle's wings, a long snaky neck, and the naked head of a vulture surmounted by long quills. Dangling from its wicked beak were the remains of a wild sheep. It reached up with its foot, birdlike, to tug them out of its mouth.Our horses skittered nervously, but the stymphad had no interest in us. It merely fixed us with a red-rimmed eye, then went back to its meal."Swift flyers," Shadow whispered, "but their main weapon is in their voice. They can focus their screeches to take on invisible forms that are capable of knocking their prey out of the air. At certain pitches, they can even topple buildings or turn a man's mind to jelly."Aylinn patted the stymphad as it fed, an absent smile on her face. She sat at the base of its neck in a wood and leather saddle. A series of harnesses kept her from her falling out in midair. With war-mounts like that the rebels had a very good chance of defeating the Queen, whatever sorceries she wielded. I gained a new respect for them.The stymphad finished the rest of the lamb in a gulp. Crisp black bars patterned its feathers, while the exposed skin of its head was bright blue with scarlet wattles...a combination either ugly or weirdly beautiful, depending on your point of view. After eating the creature wanted to linger, perhaps picking up the scraps, but Aylinn gave it a kick and turned its neck with her reins. With a cheery wave she left us, the stymphad winging roughly off the ledge to join its fellows in the aerie.I wanted to ask more questions, but Shadow seemed preoccupied, and I thought it was better to let him have his silence. After the night before, I did not blame him.We used a well-hidden pass through the hills to reach the plains, following the river the hot springs had spawned. By noon we had found the main road again, passing wagons piled with trader's goods and peasants pulling carts to market. All were going to Obn Dhregni, but none, I noted, looked too happy to be going there. The peasants were wary and strained. The merchants tried to be nonchalant, but seemed nervous. Even the nobles in their gilded carriages kept their expressions closed. Only the foreigners seemed to show any interest. The towns we passed did not look downtrodden, but they did not look prosperous either. There was a fear in them, a wariness. "They do well to be afraid," Shadow said quietly. "Anyone in this kingdom, at any time, may be enslaved...sometimes for as slight an infraction as letting their shadows cross those of local nobility." I glanced across the fields. Long lines of slaves toiled in the wheat, all chained neck to neck with enough slack so they might work, yet be unable to escape. To my surprise, none seemed to be wearing clothes."They are only fieldhands," Shadow said angrily. "Why give them the dignity of a shift or loincloth?" He roughly turned the neck of his horse, an agile and nervous bay, and trotted on ahead. I sighed and rode briskly to catch up. He had said he hated the Queen, and now I saw why. But I also saw how that anger could impede common sense and calm rationality. I resolved not to let my emotions get the better of me in the city, no matter what happened. A level head was a better defense than the sharpest sword.In midafternoon I sighted a rose-colored hillock in the distance: Obn Dhregni, the City of Carnality. She was enormous, dwarfing my child's memory of Karistanapool as a lion dwarfs a house-cat. Her skyline had the contours of a torso rising from the plains, garbed in shades of flesh: ruddy sandstone, rose-mauve pumice, pallid marbles flushed with salmon. The shadowed portcullis was her sex, which swallowed the line of distant travelers with total indifference.Shadow pulled his horse to a stop. "I will wait outside while the wolf is upon me," he said. "When the moon begins to wane I'll meet you inside, at the Forlorn Delight. I recommend you lodge there, for it is cheap and close to the palace. I recommend too that you go to Syonhoddaz, the royal palace, to see if you can gain evening audience with the Queen. Her guards always keep an eye out for interesting foreigners to amuse her. Remember Shezrine is lazy, but cunning. She is not always alert, but if she gets wind of a spy, you will be in great danger.""I will give her no cause for suspicion," I said. I grinned, spreading my arms. "Look at me! Do I look like anything other than a seasoned mercenary?"He leaned over on his horse and gave me a swift but passionate kiss. "I have seen you as the most lewd of harlots. But hopefully no one else will." He sat back on his horse and wheeled it around, aiming for the forest behind us. "Be careful, Jozhande. May the gods go with you.""May the gods go with you," I whispered as he rode away, knowing the risk he took of maintaining his wolf-form so close to civilization. But I knew he could handle himself, as I was prepared to handle myself; and so I rode ahead into the churning crowds, through the portcullis, and the city ate me the same way she had eaten countless others before me.And then I was inside, riding down a wide boulevard edged with mansions and temples, each one magnificent in its color and splendor. Massive stone beasts stood guard at intervals, daunting in their alieness: a winged scorpion with the head of a maiden, a feathered wolf, a poisonous snake crowned by the antlers of a deer. Fountains plumed mist and wetness; towers soared like celestial voices; silk pennants snapped in the breeze.But as I rode further, I began to notice a neglect. The newer structures looked ramshackle, like they might collapse at any moment, while the older ones sported fallen stonework and decades of accumulated grime. Many of proud pink facades had faded to dingy apricot. Elegance was still present but it was fading fast, like an aging concubine, once beautiful, who covers her ravaged face with a veil. I also noticed that the City of Carnality was also the City of Slavery, for everywhere unfortunate men and women were sweeping the streets and bearing palanquins, often beaten and whipped in the process. Even more disturbing, many of the slaves were kept for sexual display. One litter I saw was borne by no less than eight male slaves, and tethered to the back, chained neck to neck, were two rows of five slavegirls each, the beauties all forced to trot at the same speed, none of them wearing any clothes save for belled anklets. To make things more bizarre, no one batted an eye at any of this. Vendors hawked their wares, women gossiped, children played with hoops and balls; and I suppose the slaves were merely another sort of livestock to them.I took a right at the statue of an antelope with eagle claws which brought me in line with the palace. It stood on a little mount, surrounded by a high fence of twisted rails covered with sharp thorns. They seemed to be writhing like serpents. At first I thought it was the heat-haze, but as I came closer I saw they were animated by sorcery. I shuddered. Shezrine was a greater witch than I had thought. I made haste to the inn Shadow had recommended. It was somewhat decrepit, though that wasn't surprising considering the state of neglect in the city. I marched in with my head high. "A room," I said, tossing an Obn Dhregnian coin--a gold--onto the counter. "And send for a servant to take care of my horse."The innkeep regarded the coin as if it might bight him, then swiftly pocketed it. "What kind of room do you wish, Lady Amazon?""Your best," I said expansively. I looked past him into the room where meals were served. Slaves--for in their nudity they could be nothing else--were setting down plates for an early dinner. Their skin bore the pink marks of many paddlings and lashes.The innkeep noticed me staring, and leered. "Any one of them can be yours for a fee of five vanarii." I felt blood rush to my face, though I knew my dark skin would not betray me. I felt like shouting "How dare you!" but I remembered Shadow's warning. I must not call undue attention to myself, and that meant I had to keep my head. "I don't think so," I said coolly. "They are not to my taste."The keeper shrugged, insulted but trying to hide it. I was a well-heeled customer and it was counterproductive of him to take offense. "There's a concupiscerium across the street, if you want prettier bodies.""I just might," I said businesslike, though I did not know what a concupiscerium was. "And now, my room. I wish to settle in before the Queen holds her afternoon court. I intend to seek employment with her as a mercenary."The keeper looked impressed, as I suspected he would. "Number forty-two!" he shouted. A slave dressed in rags came up to take my bags, so bent and cowed I could not even make out his or her sex. So they did not even name them here? How awful! I followed the poor creature upstairs, wondering how I was going to get used to this. My room overlooked the dung-pile of the stableyard. So much for luxury! When Number Forty-Two had left I stripped, then quickly retrieved my ceremonial amazon dress. I wanted to look my most exotic for the Queen. What I unrolled from my pack weighed no more than the scabbard of my sword, and covered me only slightly more than one of my childhood aprons. First came the nippleguards. These were pointed conical caps of gold-plated bronze (I could not afford real gold) that fit over the tips of my breasts, acting both as a shield for and an enhancement of the nipple. I had commissioned this particular pair from a jeweler in Turufanx. They had to be glued to fit firmly so I used sweetgum sap, which was dissolvable only in alcohol. In addition to giving a firm hold, lovers found the remains most delicious. On my wrists went bracers of gold-plated bronze, and another wide metal band went around my upper left thigh. Two more bracelets, one of bone, one of feathers, went around my upper arms. After that I unfolded a scrap of fur from a vourhain I had killed and skinned myself. The rest of the pelt was a memory, but I had kept this part because of the striped tail. I drew the skin between my legs, keeping it around my loins with the chain around my waist which suspended my sword. I pulled the fur tightly between my buttocks, the better to display the rounded muscles of my rump, and laced a pair of gilded leather sandals up my shins. I have never failed to draw attention in this costume.Why, do you ask, do female warriors dress so? The answer is simple. What better way is there to distract and befuddle a male opponent? And as many of us were trained under the tutelage of this or that goddess, the undress also serves to remind us and others of our womanhood and the goddess we serve. Who needs armor when the goddess herself protects us? Such a belief can be a powerful boost to morale, making the warrioress believe she is invincible. I have also suspected, from my own physical reactions in battle, that the tight pull of our loinwraps--not to mention the tantalizing pinch of our nippleguards--serves to arouse us, and like male warriors, we channel that arousal into battle-lust. But the true reason for our dress is probably a combination of all these reasons, plus the undeniable fact that we create a better spectacle than a male warrior who is similarly unclothed.I made last adjustments to my hair and clothes, then went back downstairs. The innkeeper aimed a lewd glance at my rear as I passed. I grinned. That only proved his stupidity, as there were more than enough naked slaves to ogle around here without insulting a well-muscled amazon!I went quickly to the palace. It was an intimidating sight this close. The iron rails gave off horrible screams when they scraped together, drawing blue sparks which spat onto the cobblestones. In spite of the noise a large crowd had gathered to seek an audience for the evening court, the cream of the city's merchants, artisans, and officials. At least Shezrine tried to be democratic, though I had the feeling it was just for show.I announced myself to the guards, who were waiting stiffly in maroon and black uniforms. "My name is Lady Jozhande Tanimury," I said, letting my voice ring out. "I heard the Queen has need of experienced officers for her armies. I come here to see if the position is suitable for me."The guards goggled, then quickly tried to hide it. I guessed I had made an impression. They conferred. Finally the left-hand one gestured with his spear, as I had hoped. "Stand over there. The Queen will see you today." Smugly, I joined the chosen ones on his right. The other supplicants glared at me resentfully but respectfully. "Our queue is full. The rest of you come back tomorrow. Move along, now. The gate will be opening."Grumbling, the rejected moved back from the wall. I wondered what he had meant, for I saw no gate in the clashing rails, only a pair of guard-towers. But the other guard had taken a silver whistle from of his pocket and blew a shrill note. I was amazed to see the rails recoil from the noise, making a gap large enough to run through. "Quickly!" the other guard ordered. "Don't dally. The wall is held at bay only while the note is heard." He pointed, practically herding us through. We did not need encouragement to run. If anyone dawdled too long, he would emerge with his body sliced in several pieces from the razor-sharp thorns. The guard with the whistle was the last one through. red in the face by now, he ended the note, and the iron rails clashed together and renewed their deadly dance."Come this way," the guard said, and led us to the palace.Syonhoddaz was a marvel, impossible to describe save indirectly. Baroque crenellations covered very inch of its skin, carvings of creatures and flowers, luscious nudes, ripe fruit. To either side of us stretched the parade grounds, with gardens in the distance. Above us, dangling from poles lining the path, were those criminals deemed too irredeemable for even the basest slavery. They were locked into tiny iron cages so their heads were bowed and their knees drawn up, and were left there until their bones fell through the grates. Some were still alive, their faces blackened with thirst. At other cages, flocks of dark birds fed in a solid, squawking mass."Shezrine's justice," Shadow had said. "Be careful, very careful, in what you say and do within the palace grounds."I looked away, concentrating on the palace spires.Through another gate we went, this one of wood so magnificently adorned with gilded nudes it seemed to be alive, and through this we came out into a wide courtyard which faced the west side of the palace. We stood in an informal group to the side, chattering nervously to ourselves, for none of us knew what to expect. We were the chosen, though whether we had been picked for our looks or degree of wit none could say. Most of the chatter concerned our rivals for the Queen's attention, that very same group of slaves I had passed on the road to the inn. The captives from Bontatris.Again, I was fascinated by their plight. They must have known by now the fate that awaited them in this city; the question was of what degree. What must it feel like, to be so naked and helpless? They shuddered silently as they waited, still chained, not making a sound except for the same muffled sobbing. Their keepers, armed with long whips, made sure they did not fidget. A gong sounded, jarring me from my reverie, its deep voice rebounding from the walls of the inner court. The Witch-Queen of Obn Dhregni came out onto the balcony where she might have a splendid view of the shuddering slaves, and they, incidentally, of her. I gasped in spite of himself. She was very pale, as the lotus is pale, with a pearly, iridescent glow beneath her skin, and her hair was a river of palest cream, too. I had never seen anyone so light-skinned. I wondered what race she was. As pale as her hair was, however, her eyebrows were dark, and her slanted eyes were darker yet, with more than a hint of cruelty in them. Her silvery paleness was repellent, but fascinating at the same time. She held court nearly nude, wearing little other than a pair of thigh-high boots and a collection of crystalline shards draped around her hips on a chain, and against my will I felt my sex grow moist. Above the waist she wore slightly more, and I was shocked to see the nature of her garment. The Queen's bare nipples had been pierced with silver rings, with a third ring decorating the fold of skin above her navel. Silver chains connected these rings, forming a triangle across her belly and bosom that dangled a variety of pendants--pearls, gems, trinkets of silver and gold--so that from a distance, she might have looked like she was wearing a jeweled bodice. I immediately thought of the lascivious connotations of such an arrangement. It was no surprise that such ornaments be standard in Obn Dhregni. Her body jewelry swayed as she walked to her throne. I imagined it making a tinkling, silvery sound. I felt clumsy and barbaric in comparison, my own dress, or undress, feeling primitive and dirty. She paused before the throne and looked at us. That was the signal for us all to kneel, and the gong rang again. "Hail to Queen Shezrine." The scabbard of my sword scraped my thigh as I knelt. I counted to ten before the speaker bid us rise again.When I looked up again Shezrine was seated. She slouched lasciviously on the velvet cushion, her thighs spread, and propped one elbow on the cushioned armrest. I had seen many rulers in my career, and most occupy their thrones with dignity and a show of attention, no matter how dull the ceremonies; but Shezrine postured like a spoiled child, leaning her head against her hand as the speaker began to detail the many treasures sent to her from Bontatris. Some was mundane, such as urns of lamp oil or baskets of dates. Other loot was unique. There were fine horses, with costly trappings and gilded chariots; and bolts of silk and rolls of brocades, then casks of gems and ingots of precious metal. The Queen barely batted an eyelash at all this. As it was announced, each treasure was laid before her in a long line. Then they came to the slaves."Fine slaves to enhance your city, your majesty, culled from the captives we captured in the fighting.""I would examine them," the Queen said. I was close enough to hear her voice, and it was deep, exotic, lazy, with a strange accent that was different from that of the other denizens of the city. She came down from her platform. She walked right by me, and I couldn't keep my eyes off of her. Her long, lush body was taut and athletic, her limbs firm and well-toned. She walked with slinking motions because of her high heels, and every step she took made her flesh bob and bounce like the waxy petals of a flower. Her breasts were magnificent, very full and proud, the hard, pink nipples angled to the sky. As she passed I caught her scent; it was sweet but slightly unwholesome, like decaying orchids. I stole a quick glance at her rear. Her buttocks switched saucily from to side, only barely hidden by her skimpy belt of crystals. The high leather boots she wore emphasized their paleness and roundness. I saw a flash of color wink from her left cheek, a strange tattoo of sorts, but it was quickly hidden by her long white hair, and I did not see it again.She walked down the rows, silently inspecting each youth and girl, sometimes pausing to pinch a shy nipple, cup a limp cock. With a snap of her wrist she made her selections. Five slaves were culled from the herd and chained together, then driven through a utility door under the stairs."They are hers now. They will serve in the palace, and be branded with her crest," said a voice behind me.I turned to see the puffy, clever face of a eunuch with sharp black eyes. He seemed ironic, stating an obvious fact for my digestion. Perhaps the contrast between my undress and the slave's undress amused him. "And what of the rest?" I said."They will be auctioned off on the morrow. The crowds will be thick, as everyone knows a new shipment of slaves has come from Bontatris." He froze as he noted the feather in my ear. His eyes flickered. "Do we have mutual friends, Lady Amazon?"*The rebels.* I had found one of their contacts in the palace, or he had found me. "Only a friend who travels behind me when the sun is low, and beneath me when the sun is high," I said carefully."Ah." He laughed, rich and full. "I should have known. The one you speak of is *quite* well known to me, though we have never met. I am honored to make your acquaintance. My name is J'Wabra, and I am a second-level slave groom in the Queen's palace. And a friend of the rebels, as you know.""Lady Jozhande Tanimury," I said, and we quickly shook hands. "I have a message from Deneir and the Hharang concerning the recent war in Bontatris...""The Queen," J'Wabra said mildly, directing me with a subtle glance to where Shezrine sat on her throne, which had been brought to the level of the courtyard so she could sit. The other guests were lining up for their presentation. "Attend to court now. We will talk later."I hurried to join the others, as it would be most unseemly to ignore a royal presentation. The slaves were marched out of the courtyard for their auction, of no further consequence now that the ceremony was over. I couldn't help giving them a last glance.One by one the others were presented to the Queen, then it was my turn. I bowed low, with as much control as I could. I was very aware that this woman, if she knew of my connections, might lock me in one of those tiny cages, or worse. I rose, looking at her directly. Up close she was even more of an enigma. Her dark eyes slanted up while her lips curved down like those of a panther, giving her mouth a decadent set. "Lady Jozhande Tanimury, your Highness," I said. "I am an experienced mercenary, healer, and military officer. I seek employment in your army. I have eight years of experience to bring to the position, as well as health, stamina, and the ability to command."Shezrine steepled her fingers before her, elbows resting on the padded arms of her throne. "A female mercenary. How unusual. What land are you from?""Pharazion." "I have never heard of it." Her anthracite eyes bored into mine, studying me with intense and calculating interest. "Are all the folk there colored as you?"Her interest was not birthed of curiosity or boredom, or even the lascivious speculation any might give me in my near-nudity; it sprang from a dark well of hunger that sought to plunder the secrets of my soul. And quite suddenly I felt as completely in her power as the poor slaves had been, though she was just as unclothed and vulnerable as I. I trembled as if a strange, cool breeze had wafted across my path, and with my shudder the garnet teardrops suspended from the ends of my nippleguards shuddered too. The Queen's body jewelry trembled as well, as if in return of the emotion. But in a second, it was over. Had I imagined it? Or was Shezrine's interest only in the contrast my dark flesh made with the moon-paleness of hers?I said, "All of us Pharazii are dark, your Highness. We believe it is the only proper color for people."I took a risk in making the joke, but Shezrine only laughed. The spell was broken. "You must tell us more of this land when we sit down to feast. And are all the people warriors like you? If so, that is most impressive. Perhaps I should hire a whole army of your countrywomen." With a languid gesture she dismissed me, and the next guest came up to be interviewed.I let out a long breath. I had not been aware I was breathing so tightly. I did not like Shezrine. I had been prepared to dislike her ever since I had surprised her soldiers in their rape, and now I found my preconceptions bearing fruit. I wondered what sort of life her slaves looked forward to.I did not have time to wonder long, for Shezrine suddenly stood. Four well-muscled male slaves took up her throne, preparing to carry it back inside. "Come, a feast has been prepared for us," she said. "The night is young, and I have planned many entertainments for the foreigners among you. You will experience firsthand the wealth and hospitality of the Caramaithzes, and of Obn Dhregni herself."The gong gave a last ring, a dismissal, and I followed the others inside.


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