The slave master looked up and down at her when she stood in front of him. He looked like an overgrown pig with tiny eyes and greasy hands. She hoped this was the only time she saw him. The guards explained what had happened in the train.
“We don’t take kindly to trouble makers here young lady.”
“If you think I was going to allow them to rape me, you are wrong… sir.”
He squinted his piggy eyes.
“Untouched?” She nodded.
“Interesting. Obviously you can fight. Anything else?”
“Read and write.”
Now he looked sharply at her, surprise in his porcine features.
“Why would I?”
“Prove it.” He handed her a blank piece of paper; it seemed the oily sense of him was true for there were spots of grease on the sheet. Still the fact that he could spare one for the exercise showed the wealth of the city. “Write down your name, your age and your district.” She did before returning the page. “So Kiaya of Clermont. What other skills do you have?”
“I’m a hunter.”
“As good as a writer?” She detected something in his tone. He was making fun of her. But she still answered with as much pride as her status allowed her.
“I’m registered with the guild. And for your information, I only ever had one year of formal lessons in reading and writing.”
Again he seemed surprised. She knew people like her didn’t usually read. Her parents once decided that she must read and write. It was something rare among the workers and third class. In fact she hadn’t realized how expansive the lessons were until one of her friends called her a “rich brat”. They weren’t rich for sure but she had lessons. When she confronted her parents they admitted that the literacy lessons meant they had to do without meat for three days. So she stopped going though she would borrow books from the library when Angie worked at the main desk. It wasn’t a big library and mice had eaten most of the books but the stories opened a world of possibilities and magic. And Angie never made her pay. In exchange for the books she only ever asked for a kiss. Kiaya had never kissed a boy but Angie taught her how to kiss. She liked Angie in secret but she also knew she didn’t love her so the kisses didn’t mean much compared to the richness of the stories. Only now there would be no more books and Angie would have to read her letters to her parents. Would she do it if Kiaya weren’t there to kiss her?
“I take a 50% cut on the sale. The rest is yours and whatever you get after that. Who knows what hides under the dirt? Might be you won’t need 5 years to pay your debt after all. Bring her to the baths. Get her cleaned up. An untouched hunter who reads should bring the price up. Hopefully you clean up nice Kiaya.”
“I don’t want to be a whore.” She said more out of fear than anything else.
“You will be what they want you to be. There is a debt to pay. And if you’re good at it you might even make some money. Incidentally can you sing or play music?”
“I’ve never learned. But as you said, there’s a debt to pay.”
The lash caught her arm surprisingly fast.
“Don’t show attitude young girl. This won’t get you far here. Get her cleaned up.”
They brought her to the baths. It was a very large building, and very beautiful too. She didn’t think there was one building in Clermont that looked as neat and well made, not even the mayor’s house. And he was rich; that’s why he was mayor. At the entrance there were women, some of them wearing the same bracelets she did others the navy blue dress of servants. The guards staid at the gate while the women led her inside. There were no bath in her village; one had to walk 15 kilometres to reach the closest one and it was nowhere near as fancy as this one. These baths were… what was the word? Luxurious. She kept looking left and right; the white tiles looked like they were made of marble or something, beautiful and bright, reflecting the light. One of the girls took her hand gently. The skin on her fingers was soft not like hers. It seemed the girl was thinking the same.
“You’re a worker.” It wasn’t really a question.
“A hunter yes.”
“Why are you here? Don’t hunters make good money in the outer regions?”
“It’s a long story.”
Hunters didn’t always make good money: in Clermont hunting had become difficult. Game was becoming scarce with rich people settling down and taking possession of the forests of the area, killing more animals than they needed and leaving the corpses to rot. Her father had to go to the mines…
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t been nosy. I’m Samalia.”
“There are very few hunters who come to Capital. And girl hunters… I’ve never heard of any. It’s more girls like me.”
“Samalia. Stop talking.” One of the navy blue robed women barked. Was it going to be that way? Servants would act viciously towards the slaves who were in a direr situation than theirs? Samalia fell silent and helped her undress. The girl took a quick look at her pendant as she dropped it with her shirt.
“You won’t be allowed to wear it at the auction.” She whispered.
“Can I keep it though?” She replied in the same tone. The girl frowned as if she didn’t understand why someone would want to keep such a thing but she answered still.
“Oh yes, Sometimes they give us pretties, things that we can keep. But it depends where you go. It’s not too bad here. When a man likes you, you can pay your debt faster. But you…” She stopped blushing.
“I’m not refined enough for this place.”
“I didn’t mean.”
“That’s ok. Were you born here?” The young woman’s lips formed a thin line.
“Maybe you clean up nice. You do have a beautiful body.”
That’s when Kiaya realized she was naked. Beautiful… Angie said so once. That was the only time she fled without a book; she had been scared of what was about to happen. She wasn’t ready. She feared Angie wouldn’t see her afterwards but she had. She even apologized.
Another girl came in and they led her into a room that was extremely hot. Within moments she was sweating and the girl who had just joined them took a weird object that she ran along her skin scraping the grime away. It was long before they stopped; she must have been fair dirty even though she had washed in the river the day before leaving. Then they entered a room slightly cooler where they helped her step into warm waters.
Together with Samalia they helped her wash her hair and body. The way they touched her made her skin tingle; she had no doubt that the two women could make a man want to offer them pretties. Even now she felt warm and flushed. The other girl giggled.
“You don’t need much. You’ve never bedded a properly trained person. Were your lovers untouched?”
“I’ve never…” She breathed blushing. The two girls gaped.
“Never? But how old are you?” She hesitated.
“19.” Their shock increased. “Why? How old are you?”
“I’m 17.” Samalia’s friend said. “But my first time was at 13.” That was awfully young, only five years older than Kira.
“And I’m your age. But I’ve been doing this since I was 14.”
She was the one in shock now.
“How long have you been slaves?”
“I’ve been indentured since I was 12.” Samalia offered with bitterness. “My father was a good for nothing who gambled all his money and my mother’s as well as my heritage. He left us with so many debts that not even his parents acknowledged him; they would have been ruined. He killed himself the coward. He couldn’t bear to be a slave. My mother died of shame. But I will pay until I am 25 if I’m lucky.” The tone belied the sense of insouciance she showed before. “Iona was born a slave.”
“My mother died in childbirth. She still owed twenty years.” Iona shrugged. “I still owe them six years.”
“Six?” That didn’t add up; but then she’d never been excellent at counting.
“Of course. They can’t make us start to work before we are 5 or 6.” That still didn’t work; would she not owe another eight years then? “Then we can do some chores as can make a little money like cleaning houses and the likes. Around 10 they can make us go buy the food and cook. But I was beautiful. And the bath master wanted me to be part of his collection. The men, they like me. I’m good at this. Who knows maybe he will want you. You may not be the usual type of girls here but redheads are rare and some of our clients like their girls more athletic. How long are you here for?”
“I signed up for five years.”
“You signed up? Why?” She hesitated… she didn’t really want to say. But they had shared their stories. And she could do with friends especially if she was going to be working here.
“My father lost his leg in the mines. The fines would have cost my parents the house. With five children they were already taxed a lot.”
“Why would they have five children? Don’t they use birth control?”
“Birth control isn’t easily found in the outer regions. And it’s expansive.”
“Really? It’s so affordable here. We can’t have the Capital overcrowded. We wear these.” They showed her a circlet at their ankle; she knew of these. The system was injecting some hormones that controlled the female reproductive system. But they cost thirty credits in Clermont. “They’re about two credits for a year.”
“Anyway. I think it’s courageous that you came here to protect them even though it was stupid of them to have so many kids. Maybe we can make sure the bath master likes you.”
They pulled her out of the water and Iona gasped.
“How did you do that?” She pointed to the pinkish scar that ran from her navel down to her groin.
“A boar. I’m lucky I’m alive.”
“But no one…”
“You don’t know that Iona.” She knew what they meant.
“It’s ok. I don’t care.”
“Maybe we can hide it, at least for the auction.”
“I don’t care.”
“No you do. There’s not one master who will want a slave marked like that. We’re to be shown and paraded. If you can’t be they’ll keep you to the meanest tasks. You will need more than five years to pay your parents’ debt. Trust me.”
So she did. She did clean up nice but for that scar apparently. Iona and Samalia dressed her hair in a fancy way and with some cosmetics they covered her scar.
“Girls it’s time, what’s taking so long?” It was the same blue robed woman as earlier who entered even as Samalia and Iona hooked the button of the sheer skirts to her hips. The woman looked at her appraisingly.
“Well… well. Who would have thought? You don’t look half as ugly as I expected. Your name?”
“Well come Kiaya you’re to be auctioned now. Seems the slave master found enough people interested to have you sold today. Surprising considering how dirty you were. What did he see? Is she really untouched?”
She demanded of the girls who nodded. The woman turned expecting her to follow. Samalia pressed her pendant into her hands.
“Good luck,” she whispered with a smile. She returned it. Maybe she’d be back with them. At least she’d have friends.
She caught up with the servant at the same rearranging her pendant. She ended up wearing it inside her palm using the chain as a bracelet and hooking up the other end to her middle finger. Surprisingly the star bent slightly fitting perfectly into her palm as if it were meant to be there. Suddenly the woman stopped bringing her to a halt. She opened a door and pushed her through. Two pairs of hands seized her arms and she tried to shake them away. When one bent her arm, she kicked one in the groin causing him to collapse and grabbed his weapon from his hips. But another pair of hands was right there seizing the gun and forcing her to let go. They brought her elbows behind her back and forced her to be immobile. Somewhere beyond them she heard laughter. She could see a crowd but she could not quite distinguish anyone’s face.
“A hunter from Clermont ladies and gentlemen. She can fight as you can see. She signed the papers for five years.” Some prices were shouted. “Now, now. Wait a moment.” It was the slave master. “She can also read and write, though the latter lacks in style. But she is from the outer regions after all and she’s only got one year of formal training.” More laughter rose in the room but some voices demanded a starting price. “And finally, gentlemen if you please.” They pulled her somewhere. She still couldn’t see though she knew why. There was a glaring spotlight following her every movements and blinding her. They brought her arms down on the side and she felt shackles lock around her wrists and ankles. Weren’t the slave bracelets enough? A hand unhooked the skirts and she found herself naked from the hips. “To spice things up, the young lady who is 19 is still untouched, which makes her a mighty prize. So let’s start the auction at fifty credits for a year. Do I hear fifty-five?”
He did. And more… she didn’t really follow. By the time the slave master said “done,” she knew that even after he took his cut there would be 2 years worth of money sent to her parents to pay. But had she been bought for the full time? And who bought her? They led her back down the spotlight now off allowing her to put the skirts back on; the slave master was signing the papers and told her to countersign it. She couldn’t read the name of the buyer.
“So Kiaya, it seems you are fetching after all. It’s been a while but I was tempted to bid today.” She found she was glad he didn’t; his eyes held something disgusting and she was happy she wouldn’t serve him. “They paid for 2 years.” He said before she could ask. “Will renegotiate then. A few people were ready to buy your full term but you and I wouldn’t have made as much money.”
She must trust his word but it seemed that despite his awful appearance he was fair.
“That’s not important. You will do what they say.”
“I know. But still.”
“You’re going to the estates of the Royal Minister.”
“To do what?” She was genuinely baffled. Why would the Minister want someone as crude as she?
“Whatever they ask.” The slave master retorted shortly. “Do not make me look bad young lady because if you do, you will pay.”
“Be glad. You didn’t want to do whoring. The Bath master was ready to pay a lot of money to have you. But he couldn’t match the Minister’s offer. Maybe it’s your hair. Redheads are rare.” He seemed to be thinking of something. “Really rare.”
She didn’t understand; there were redheads in her district. Granted none had the same shade as her, which was a deep dark red, but still. More guards appeared on the side wearing a different livery; theirs was gold and green. One of them held a cloak in the same colours.
“Is she ready Master Petrus?”
“She is. Here are her papers and her clothes.” He handed the leader a bundle of her things. She’d have appreciated the shoes if she were going to walk. But they ignored her. “I shall call at the Minister in 2 years time then.”
“You know better. He will bring her back or send you the remaining amount for the three years if she is satisfactory.”
The slave master bowed deeply. The guards moved around her.
“Will you behave girl or should we shackle you?” Their leader asked sternly. He looked like someone she didn’t want to cross. She bit her lip and shook her head.
“I’ll behave sir.”
“Good.” He put the cloak on her shoulders and surrounded by the men she followed the leader. It appeared she wasn’t going to walk far; in fact when they exited the building, which appeared to be a Plaza attached to the baths, there was a carriage waiting. She knew in a past long gone, these were pulled by horses. Now they were mechanically driven but remained just as beautiful as the pictures in the books. There were no such luxuries in Clermont for sure. One guard hopped on the driver’s seat and grabbed the handles. Another opened the door and signalled her in. Were slaves transported in such beautiful things? She hesitated.
“Get in,” the leader groaned in her ear. She did. And he followed her inside.
“I’m sorry. I…”
“I don’t care. When you’re told to do something you will do it.”
“Yes sir.” The man remained silent for a long time. Or at least it felt a long time. “Sir? Where are…? Why…?”
“Ask your question girl. What do you want to know?”
“Why are we here? I mean. Do slaves travel this way usually? I wouldn’t imagine so.“
“No, usually not. The Minister ordered it. I obeyed.”
“It’s not my business to ask. Neither is it yours girl.” She looked away. The man continued in a softer tone. “I understand you signed the papers to help your family. It’s usually parents who come. You’re courageous but you will have to learn your place. You’re no longer free. At least not for the next five years. Disobedience will earn you punishment.” She looked up. “Not physical – the Minister doesn’t care much for the whip – but fines; a day more owed in debt, or more depending on the offence. The Minister is fair but he doesn’t accept insubordination. You don’t want your five years turned into ten?”
“Then do as you’re told.”
“I heard you incapacitated three men in the bullet train. Is it a fact?”
“And you’re a hunter?” She nodded. “Who taught you?”
“How did you get the scar?”
“The scar the bath servants hid in your lower belly.” She shrugged.
“A boar sir.” He looked startled: the most emotion he’d shown so far.
“And you’re alive. You were lucky. So care to learn more about fighting?”
“Think about it.” And he didn’t say a word for the rest of the trip.
Soon they stopped and he stepped out opening the door for her. This really didn’t feel like the bonds she had expected but she wasn’t going to complain. She stepped out into a beautiful alley surrounded by gardens unlike any she’d ever seen before. Everything looked grander and more beautiful than in the outer regions. Even the sun seemed to shine brighter; she shaded her eyes with one hand.
“Don’t.” The Captain, he had to be the captain, said. “Arms to the side.” She did and he removed the cloak. What he did with it she didn’t know; she obviously must look ahead. She walked feeling the pebbles that formed the alley against the sole of her feet. By the time they arrived at the end, her feet hurt but she didn’t say anything. Instead she bowed in front of the man who stood at the gate.
“My Lord Minister, Kiaya from Clermont.”
“You should be kneeling child.” The man said. She did. She signed up for five years not one day more if she could avoid it. “Good. I see my Captain’s already taught you some rules. I trust I won’t see the sort of behaviour you displayed at the Plaza.”
“My Lord, Kiaya.”
“Yes my Lord.” She already hated the subservient tone in her voice but she had signed up for five years. It was for her parents, for her family.
“Good, you can stand up.” She did. “I will introduce you to my family. Have you taken care of children before?”
“Yes my Lord.” She didn’t see what she could teach children of a rich family.
“My son and daughters need to learn what it means to live in the outer regions. You will teach them how to hunt and how to mingle with the… population.”
“I will allow the question today Kiaya because you are new to this but not after. I value obedience.”
“Yes my Lord. But I fulfil expectations better when I understand them. Do you intend your children to go and live in the outer regions?”
“There are, as I would imagine you know, representatives of the royal family in every single one of the districts.” She didn’t dare interrupt but yes she knew that. “However our rulers don’t have enough children to send in every one of the twenty-two regions. And so it falls to families close to the monarchy to send one of their own to sit as governors. When they come of age, my children will be sent to spend a year or two in order to determine whether they are worthy of the task. I would ensure that they are.”
“But few women come from the outer-regions. And female hunters are even more rare. That is why you purchased my bond.”
He stopped and placed his fingers on her chin forcing her to look at him. She probably shouldn’t have spoken. She would have apologized but his grey eyes were somewhat hypnotizing and forbidding. At that precise moment they pierced her as if he were reading her. She found she couldn’t talk.
“I see you understand fast. Good.” She had another question but she dared not ask it. “You probably wonder why I didn’t purchase a man’s bond.” She did. She nodded. “I wouldn’t trust a man with my daughters unless I knew his mettle. Five minutes at the Plaza isn’t enough. My son… well he gets bored easily. The fact that you are untouched will keep him interested. You are NOT to let him bed you. He will try and you probably will want to. Most women do. So let me be clear. If you do you will regret it; I will make sure no one will buy your bond. Understood.”
“Absolutely my Lord.” She swallowed. But if the son was old enough to want and bed her how old were they? Were they actually children?
He let go of her and resumed walking as she followed.
“As long as you’re under my roof I will see to it that your education is taken care of. The slave master said you could read and write; was it true?”
“Yes my Lord. Not well though.”
“So we’ll take care of that. What are your weapons of choice?”
“We aren’t allowed…” His gaze stopped her. He knew the workers weren’t allowed mechanical weapons. “The bow and sling my Lord…. And knife.”
“Maxim will test you on all of this. Do not lie.”
“I wouldn’t my Lord.”
“You wouldn’t lie about anything?”
“I understand I am lucky my Lord Minister. Even in the outer regions people know you’re fair. I’ve never been a slave. I may not even be a good one but you won’t have to worry about my being lazy or lying. My father never accepted either from any of us: laziness meant no food and lying meant the belt.”
“My kind of man your father. Hopefully you will…” A petulant voice interrupted. Uncertain of what was expected Kiaya dropped into an awkward curtsy.
“Father. Meryl won’t let me borrow her dress. Oh, you brought a slave from the market. Meryl, Gregory, mother. Come see.”
“Really dear, a slave. Don’t we have enough of them? How many will you help pay their debt?”
“Kiaya you can stand. Dear, Kiaya is a huntress from the outer regions.”
“Ah…” The tone in the Minister’s wife changed. “She doesn’t much look it right now.”
“Well… the servants at the bath wanted her to look her best. Took a lot to outbid the Bath Master.”
“And I know how much you loathe the man, dear. I take it she’s untouched.”
“You know him well.”
“And you. Look at me girl.” She met the woman’s gaze; beautiful almond shaped blue eyes were appraising her.
“My Lady.” The woman laughed.
“You’ve not been a slave for long, have you?”
“She signed up for five years a few days ago.” The laughter stopped and she heard a gasp behind the woman.
“Did she now? Why?” The blue eyes went back to her. She didn’t really want to answer that question here where everyone could hear but what could she do?
“My father lost his leg in the Clermont mines, my Lady.”
“The incident a few weeks back?”
“How many children?”
“Five my Lady.”
“And you’re the oldest.” She wasn’t asking. It was the logical thing. “I see. These are our children. Amelia our youngest.” She bowed to the girl who looked to be 16 or so. She looked very much like her mother but also like a child used to getting everything she wants. She knew she mustn’t judge but they all had the air of spoiled children. “Meryl is our second. And Gregory our son and oldest.”
When she met the young man’s eyes she knew what his father had meant. He had his mother’s almond shaped eyes but his father’s colouring. He was a handsome young man but there was indeed to him that sense of entitlement. She could see in his gaze the hunger.
“So father she’s untouched.” He asked and she shivered. “Did you bring her for me?”
“Gregory.” His mother interrupted.
“Actually Gregory,” his father answered coldly, “Kiaya is here to train you and your sisters in the art of the hunt as well as teach you the life in the outer regions.”
“Oh but father we have studied that.” Meryl answered in a serious tone.
“Studied it… yes. Out of books. She will teach you what it is like.”
“Isn’t it what the year we’ll be spending there is supposed to do?” Gregory asked slyly. She found she didn’t like the gentleman at all. Or maybe his pompousness.
“My Lord?” She turned to the Minister. His wife laughed again.
“Not a slave at heart. Not at all.”
“Yes Kiaya,” he answered his gaze promising punishment if her interruption wasn’t legitimate.
“Would you allow me to show him?”
His eyebrow rose. “Here? In this garb?” She nodded.
“If you’ll allow it.” He nodded in turn. “Mister Gregory, you are carrying a 2326 Chamelot-Delvigne 8mm model built in the St-Etienne Manufacture. It sells at 150 credits and on the black market for 500 credits.”
The young man whistled.
“You know your weapons for a slave.”
“A huntress first my Lord. Now I will take it from you in less than thirty seconds.”
“Impossible. Only I can unlock the protection. It’s fingertip recognition.”
“Yes. And we all know that in the districts. That’s why we learn how to do this.”
She walked up to him and his eyes couldn’t seem to look away from hers. It was when his face contorted in pain and he let out a yelp that she stepped away the gun in her hand held onto the side that they knew she wouldn’t use it. The Minister walked to her and seized the weapon. She bowed again and stepped back. “I’m sorry about your wrist. It’ll get better in a few minutes. You should always wear gloves my Lord. And never trust a woman who comes right at you; chances are she will take your weapon or has an accomplice that will do it while you gape at her.”
“Can you teach me how to do that?” The young Amelia asked abuzz with excitement.
“I’m not sure your father would approve Miss,” Kiaya said bowing, “this is a mean for thieves to procure firearms illegally. But for women who would be abused by men with weapons it is a good protective move.”
Gregory laughed again, a little bit more genuinely this time.
“Father, she’s entertaining.”
“That she certainly is.” His wife answered shortly. “Get to your preparations. We must meet with the ambassador within two hours. Amelia don’t start whining again; Meryl cannot lend you a dress that won’t suit you. You will wear the dress Pearl prepared for you. Felis.”
“Show Kiaya to her room and see to it that she has appropriate clothing for the tasks she will fulfil for us. Dear…”
She no longer existed so she followed Felis; the woman wore clothes in the same colour as the guards. She too wore the slave bracelets and yet she didn’t look half as miserable as Iona and Samalia did. She had been lucky indeed but she knew it would be a challenge to keep the Minister’s son away from her.
“He will want you badly.”
“What?” She looked at Felis.
“Lord Gregory. Any woman who doesn’t fall for him, he wants very much.”
“That isn’t why I’m here.”
“You’ll be lucky if you can keep him at bay. He’s not a bad man but he’s a naughty boy who likes women.”
Felis didn’t seem to think it was such a bad thing; she might have been among the women who wanted him.
“Well I guess I’ll have to show him I’m not a woman.”
“Oh but you are Kiaya. You are. Regardless of what you wear. He’s seen you in this.”