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Black Pearl 13


The Black Pearl of Pharazionby Cobalt Jade ( 13: Two Sides of a CoinI woke on the altar steps late the next morning. The other priestesses had made their offerings as I slept, leaving behind bouquets of pale creamy lilies spotted with carmine and heaps of fresh fruit. I stretched and yawned. I felt completely refreshed and full of energy, quite unlike the erotic languor that had recently affected me. I glanced at the other food offerings with an envious eye--warm bread, cheeses, roasted meat. All intended for the god's consumption. "You may eat what you want," Lassimla said, appearing with a tray holding a teapot and two jade cups. She grinned at me, disarmingly boyish. "The god will not mind."I broke my fast with some of the fruit and cheese. The high chanting I had heard last night resumed from a wide balcony above our heads. Morning prayers, probably. I recalled my adventure of last night. "Is it possible the Queen's men are watching the Temple?""If they were, my Templewards would sight them and use their blowdarts. They can be tipped with worse poisons than e'phrem. They are sworn to protect the Temple, having been raised here since infancy. They have no match in the arts of stealth and you can vouch, I'm sure. Shezrine will not be taking you away in chains if they have any say about it!"I had forgotten about Marnessa in the events of the past day and night, but now her plight reentered my mind. I still considered myself the reason for her enslavement. After all, if I hadn't been at court that day, the Queen might not have given her demonstration. "Lassimla, is it possible to unmake one of Shezrine's slaves?"Lassimla put her cup down, a contemplative look on her face. "I don't know. We in the Temple have certain erotic rites we use to intensify pleasure and identify more fully with the roles we play, but whether they would work against sorcery is an open question. No one has ever tried, as far as I know. Shezrine forbids it.""Would you try it?"She narrowed her eyes, cupping her chin in her hands. "Perhaps. I would like to see if it's possible. If it is, the Queen will find herself suddenly short of playthings." She dunked a piece of bread in her tea with a savage gesture. "The white bitch is a crime against nature."The sharp language startled me, but then Lassimla had suffered personally under her orders. I finished my meal with a series of gulps. "I must meet with J'Wabra today, for he'll be worried about me, but I'll be back. We can talk more then.""I'll send some Templewards with you to see you off safely. And you don't have to stay at an inn again, either. The Temple owns a townhouse at the edge of the merchants' district which is far more secure. You can stay there if you want.""Thank you, " I said. On impulse, I embraced her.She was surprised, this strange creature who was both sexes and neither, but returned the clasp warmly. "May Tontaxir go with you," she whispered. "Now go!"The Templewards were as good as their word, though I neither saw them nor heard them as they escorted me, if it can be called that, to the Inn of Black Dog. J'Wabra brightened when he saw me, a full-toothed grin that made his bland, round face glow like a moon at its fullest. Several empty mugs attested he'd been waiting quite a while. "By Tontaxir's testicles, we all thought you were dead..."I slid into the worn wooden chair across from him with a tankard of bitter ale in my hand. "Nearly. I was saved, in fact, by one of the many love-games this city holds dear.""Which was?" His painted eyebrows raised in speculation. Being a eunuch, he had lost most of his facial hair."I'd rather keep it private, but it featured a strip of torn silk. Now listen." I kept my voice low, not wanting to attract attention. "The Duke pledged us his support, and named three other families who would willingly take up arms if they thought there was a chance Shezrine could be defeated. One of them, the Dhroon, has a sizable military force...which includes three wings of stymphads hidden in the cliff at the edge of the city. Aylinn, a Hharangi rebel from the hills, is their captain." I then explained about Lassimla and the Temple.He looked thoughtful. "If this was purely a contest of military might, the snake-birds and jihad might tip the scales in the rebels' favor. But it is not. Remember Shezrine's magic.""I intend to find her weak spot," I said, with more confidence than I felt. "Other sorcerers have great powers, but their magic usually hinges on a small and insignificant object. A ring, for example. Lose the ring and you lose your magic."JÕWabra frowned, finding it hard to believe; the people of this city knew little of the workings of magic. "If Shezrine does have a magical object such as that, she keeps it hidden.""She need not wear it. It may be stored in a place of safety--towers, dungeons, secret chambers. Do you know of any?""Lady Amazon, how would I know of a secret chamber? Shezrine hardly confides in me. I am but a second-level slave groom."He knew nothing. And the courtiers who knew would hardly declare their knowledge to a foreigner. "Let me ask you another question, then. If such a place existed, would others know of it?""I don't think so," he said after a brief silence. "Shezrine confides in no one.""Typical despot," I sneered."No, it is not because she is trustless. She is far too confidant of herself to nurture suspicions. I think she sees herself as a singular being who has nothing in common with the rest of humanity, and hence no reason to discuss her plans with them. Not even her court knows of her doings.""Can you give me any information on her habits or routines, then?"He shook his head. "No one keeps tabs of her comings and goings. She is notoriously unpredictable. She may disappear for days, then turn up as if she had not gone missing at all. If you insist on searching Syonhoddaz, though, begin at the towers. And I implore you to be careful. She keeps many safeguards."I did not want to return to the palace--not least because of the depraved ritual I had witnessed, which served as a hearty warning--but I knew it was the only way to discover the Queen's secret weakness, whatever it was. "How did Shezrine become a sorceress, anyway?" I asked. "She was raised in the art," J'Wabra said. "Her father Subbobor, a sorcerer himself, trained her to be his successor. Her mother was a slave, as he wanted to avoid the intrigues of marriage."So the evil Witch-Queen of the city of slaves was herself born of a slave! Interesting. "Does she have any siblings?""Sixty or seventy perhaps, though what happened to them, I don't know. Subbobor knew he needed an heir, so he was very methodical about his breeding. He devoted himself to the task for one year, choosing two hundred of the most beautiful slave girls for his private harem. He would bed up to ten a night. When they got with child they were isolated from the rest and given the finest food and medical care. They were but prize brood mares to him. When the child was born he tested it for magical talent. How I do not know. If it passed the test, it and its mother remained in the palace. If not, both were sold in the markets. "Each year the tests were given. The weak were culled and the strong cultivated. The little families were confined in a special wing of the palace. Nothing was spared for the childrenÕs comfort or education. But each year there were less and less. "Nine years from the start of the program he gave the remaining children their final test. Shezrine was the strongest and he chose her to be his heir, discarding the remaining slaves and their young. Can you imagine what she felt as he took her tiny hand and led outside the breeder's quarters, into a world she had never seen? Never had she known the touch of a free and loving mother, nor the guidance of a trusted father. She was merely a vessel to Subbobor, a means to carry on his line. I loathe Shezrine with every atom of my soul, but I sometimes think of how her upbringing has warped her. I do not forgive her atrocities for that, but it does give me some understanding of her.""Uh-huh," I grunted. Privately, I thought Shezrine's deeds were unforgivable by any measure of justice. I flipped the barkeep a coin and swung my rear off the stool."Where are you off to know?" J'Wabra complained. "You've only just gotten here, and we have other things to discuss.""To my room to freshen up. I've got a long day in front of me."#The first step in rescuing Marnessa was find her.My first stop was Ajaskafari Market, where new slaves were dispersed. Dressed in the baggy silk trousers and cleavage-bearing vest the women of this city favored, I hoped to pass as the exotic foreign wife of a merchant. I did not take my sword, but was well-armed with knives. One of them held a cache of poison.My walk took me through one of the more disreputable parts of the city. I knew the surest way to attract trouble was to act like a victim, so I walked with my head high, my eyes and ears alert. Nevertheless a thief did try to snatch the beaded drawstring bag I wore at my waist. He tasted my knife, and quickly staggered away with his hands to his earÉthe half that I left him.I came at last to the market, a large bazaar of sheds and tents that housed the merchants and their goods. I noted the quality of the merchandise had declined along with the rest of the city. The jewelry was cheap brass poorly set with glass jewels, while the vegetables wilted in dusty piles. In contrast, the manacles, slave collars, and leather crops were all finely crafted and gleaming with polish. The slaves themselves waited chained to posts or to iron rings in the ground, heads down in the dusty sunlight. Some wore rags; some wore nothing. They were a far cry from the beauties Shezrine kept in her castle.I turned away from these unfortunates and went to the auction block, a high platform set in the middle of the square. Ajmid had told me that auctions were held every five days. The block was empty now, however, so I went to the offices below the platform. Again I received the impression of laxity. There were none of the papers or calculation frames I expected to see in a place of business. The men on duty lounged insolently and regarded me only slightly less than they would a gob of spittle on the earth. The only woman there looked like a slattern; her bosom rolled over the top of her bodice and her stomach protruded like the round gut of a barrel. Nevertheless she seemed more approachable than the men."Excuse me,"I said. "I'm looking for a slave.""Next auction is in three days," she said in a bored voice, a reply that was given all the time to people like me to get rid of them."I'm not looking to buy one," I said firmly. One of the men leered at me. I turned my back. "I'm trying to find out where a particular one was sold."Now she looked suspicious, unsure of my motives. Slaves were considered dispensable here. One did not form attachments to them. "Do you have a description?""She was a female pleasure slave from the royal palace," I said. "A head shorter than I, with wavy dark hair, pale green eyes, and dark tan skin. PrettyÑ""Aren't they all," the slattern said sarcastically."Around seventeen years of age, IÕd say." I couldn't think of any other distinguishing features. Beauty is much harder to describe or remember than mediocrity or ugliness. That was the horror, perhaps, of Marnessa's transformation. "Do you remember?"A thoughtful frown crossed the slattern's brow. "I do! The quiet one, with the frizzy hair."One of the other men laughed, showing a mouth filled with chipped, discolored teeth. "Yeah, a piece of ass, that. Sold to one of the conk-houses." He meant a concupiscerium, but conk, a colloquialism of this city, also meant the basest form of sexual intercourse. It was an obscenity seldom invoked in polite society.I flipped him a coin. "Do you remember which one?"He seemed to think. It was likely he might lie to me in the hopes I'd give him another coin. I decided to make sure he would not. "If you lie to me," and my dagger went to my hand, "You will never enjoy the company of a slave girl again, although there might be men who would still think you attractive, though I cannot imagine why. Now, do you remember?"An impression, that. "No," he said finally, letting out a breath. He would not take the risk of duping me. "It was one of the expensive ones, though, from the buyer's clothes."I gave him another coin, a smaller one, showing him I could be generous. He did not have to volunteer that. "Buy yourself some tooth-powder," I said coolly.In the market again I struck up a conversation with a merchant who told me the most expensive concupisceriums were located in the north of the city. There were four that fit that title: The Star, The House of the Seven Sisters, The VirginÕs Wise Darkness, and The Golden Plums. Four stops I had to make that day.If I may divert from story at this point, I'd like to point out that the concupisceriums were a social institution unique to Obn Dhregni; in other lands they would be called brothels or whorehouses. However, there were differences. The chief of them was that the concupiscerium served both genders, unusual considering that in most societies prostitution is a male vice...and a threat, for women claimed it lured their menfolk away from the hearth. But the concupiscerium offered more than just sex. It provided a place for friends and business associates to meet that was more intimate and luxurious than a tavern, and this had made them the backbone of the city's entertainment industry. Though like all the other longstanding traditions of the city they were showing their shabbiness, victims of the decay that had come with Caramaithzes rule.My first stop, The Golden Plums, could have been any eathouse or inn from the outside. A wooden sign wobbled in the breeze, painted with the three gilded plums that gave it its name. Decorative woodwork topped the facadeÕs arches and lintels, but the carmine-rose paint was faded and peeling. Bells tinkled softly as I pushed the door open.Inside, all was cool and dark, with scented candles flickering. A woman sat in a booth to take admissions. She was beautiful yet sexless, the perfect host for a place such as this. "Welcome to the House of the Golden Plums," she said. Her voice was warm and cultured, and, absurdly, I did feel welcome. "Our prices are twenty vanarii to watch, fifty to participate." It was very high, but then these were places that catered to nobles and the wealthy merchants of the city. I sighed and handed over my money. "No, you pay over there." She pointed to her left, tactfully ignoring my ignorance.I turned to look. Beyond a curtain of beads were two young slaves in niches in the wall. A girl to my left, a young man to my right, both on their knees with their backsides in the air, chins pressed to the floor of their niches. Their hands were bound behind their knees so they couldnÕt move. The tightly bound girl held two hollow phalluses between her buttocks, each with a slot for coins. "The top slot to watch, the bottom to participate," the hostess repeated.I had only paid enough to watch, so the coins would go in her rectum. Flushing with embarrassment, I departed with my precious cash. Each coin made a silvery chink as it entered. As misfortunate would have it I had lots of small change, and the uncomfortable ordeal seemed to go on forever.When I had finished the girl wagged her buttocks, making the coins inside rattle loudly. She said, with a catch in her voice, "Thank you for your patronage, Mistress. You may go in now.""Number forty-five," the woman at the booth said threateningly.The girl burst into tears. "I'm sorry, Mistress Valada, I f-f-f-forgot, I forgotÉ" A panel opened at the rear of the niche and the pearl-covered arm of Mistress Valada began smacking the girl's rear with a stiff black strap. The coins inside her jingled loudly under the onslaught. I even heard a few fall on the floor."All food and drink is half price for single women before the sixth hour," the young man said hollowly, his eyes glued to the punishment his coworker received.I passed through the curtain. It seemed impossible the people of this city took such things in stride, but they did.As I expected, the concupiscerium was nearly empty at this early hour. Only a few well-heeled patrons were sprawled on the divans, taking their pleasure of the naked slaves. Other slaves carried ewers of wine or arranged flowers in vases, and yet more waited on their knees at the roomÕs edges, ready to jump up and serve the newcomers. Which one did, gliding up immediately and scurrying to my side. "How can I serve you, mistress?"He was a big boy, a head taller than I was, with the golden skin of the people of this city. His dark hair fell in his face, He would not look at me, though his attention was totally fixed on me. There was something appealing and vulnerable in that. Shyness always brings out oneÕs protective instincts. But, like a coin, those instincts can quickly flip over to show us their sadistic side. It is what makes us human. And the fact we have control of it makes us human. "Bring me some wine," I said. "Something red and mellow."He bowed and hurried off. What was I to do now? I knew I should speak to whoever was in charge of this place, but perhaps I could get my information from the slaves. On the far side of the hall two female slaves performed in an alcove decorated as a rich womanÕs bedchamber. One had her hands tied above her to a clotheshorse with satin ribbons while the other pleasured her with the handle of a hairbrush. No one watched.My slave came back with the wine and knelt at my feet. I had seated myself by then and took it from his hand. I tipped his chin so that he looked up at me. "What is your name?"He did not look away from me. His eyes held the darkness of one who is drowning. "Number One Hundred Fourteen."Terrible, to have a number instead of a name. His chin was smooth as a girl's. So was the rest of him, save for the bushy fleece around his cock. I didnÕt think I would like it in bed, not after experiencing the fine texture of Shadow's skin. On the other hand, Ajmid had been quite smooth. Oh, what was I thinking!Out of the corner of my eye I saw a nondescript, uniformed bravo looking at me. I had paid to watch, and watch was all I would be permitted to do. If I touched the tender young genitals in front of me he would surely come and discretely request a price for it. I let the man's chin drop. Not a boy, for all the softness and vulnerability. It had been easy to make the mistake, for these slaves were very coddled, without the hard labor or coarse food of the common folk. Well treated...but also well used. "Tell me, have any new slaves come into this house in the past two days?""No Mistress."Well, it was hard to say if he knew the truth of it. I had him fetch the highest ranking slavekeeper he could find and put to him the same question. "No Lady Tanimury. No new slaves have come to this house."I sighed in frustration. There was little else I could do here without spending more money. I went in search of the next.The Star was the second stop. It was a larger, livelier place, with none of the overdecorated frowsiness that had marked The Golden Plums. It was also cheaper, a mere ten vanarii, and I did not have to deposit the coins in anyone's orifice to enter. My questions of the slaves yielded nothing, however, so the floor supervisor generously offered to conduct me to the Procuress. The Procuress bade me to sit while she cleaned and cased a set of ink-pens on her desk. A tiny woman she was, with thick black hair held up with combs. She did not look like she should be doing this kind of job. She looked like she should be teaching schoolchildren. "We bought five slaves at the last auction," she said. She consulted a ledger. "Describe her to me."I gave her a description, mentioning she carried the basilisk brand of the Queen. "That would be Wild Nipples." the Procuress said crisply. "We name our slaves for their distinguishing characteristics. Why do you want to know?""I saw her at auction," I said. "I fancied her and wanted to make a bid, but was called away when she came up for sale. When I returned she had already been sold. I would pay you twice what you paid for her.""That would be quite expensive, even if we were inclined to sell her." The Procuress named the price. I did not have that much money on me. Ajmid would, but I did not think he would lend me it for such a thing as this. He had seemed to disapprove of it.I shrugged as if it didnÕt matter, then thanked her and left. It looked like I was going to have to resort to kidnapping. It would be difficult, but not impossible. At least she wasn't going anywhere.On my way home I passed a noisy gambling hall. Five naked slave girls knelt in the dust of the yard as their masters caroused inside. Each was tethered to a single ring in the earth by fine chains running from their labia, which were pierced with gold rings. men walked in and out, indifferent; mules clopped by on the street, children cried at the tug of their motherÕs hands. No one looked at the tethered slaves. No one had reason to, as it was a routine sight here. But someone did, a ruffian who crouched down to feel of them as they squirmed and struggled. He knew full well they couldnÕt get away. Again, no one on the street bothered to look. But finally, one of the gamblers did. He leapt from his stool and strode outside, shouting angrily at the ruffian for the encroachment on his property. The molester fled. The gambler glared after him for a second, then went back to his ale and his cards. He did not even glance at his whimpering slave.The indignity of it washed over me. Such a humiliation, to be tethered with others in that demeaning way while any could feel of them...but another part of me secretly wondered what it was like. Did all in this city fight such battles within themselves? The slave girls were whispering now, trying to comfort the one who had been most manhandled. They could be punished for speaking, I heard. The people of this city liked their human toys dumb, dumber than even the beasts they used to draw them to market.#Later that evening I met with Aylinn and told her about Marnessa. "I've a mind to rescue her," I said. "Will you help me?"Her ice-green eyes went wide. "Are you mad? No one kidnaps pleasure slaves.""Why not? It seems to me it would be very easy. They do whatever you tell them to."She had no rebuttal for that. In truth, no one kidnapped pleasure slaves because they were so cheap and common. "Trust me," I said. "I have the perfect plan."


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