It took Aylinn, Lassimla and myself a day and a night to prepare for the rescue. But at last we were ready.
I was to go in disguise as dancer, as it wasn't unusual for the concupisceriums to hire outside entertainment. After all, The Star offered more to its clients than naked slaves; music, jugglers, and other performers rounded out the bill. So I assembled my costume and, accompanied by five of Lassimla's Templewards, announced myself at The Star's employee door as "L'raisha, the Princess of Fire."
The entertainment manager looked us over suspiciously. I had taken care to alter my looks with stripes of facial paint and a feathered headdress, and the Templewards had stained their faces and hands with sweetpalm juice to appear as dark as I, concealing the rest of their bodies in long black robes that could be jerked off at a second's notice to grant them freedom of movement. Each carried a drum. They were not musicians, but had easily picked up the simple rhythms I taught them.
"You're a dancer?" the manager said. He snorted. "Hnnh. I warn you, our clientele is sophisticated. They desire novelty, excitement..."
I tossed off the cape. The manager swallowed. I wore little but a wide pectoral collar of brass and a dozen brightly colored silk scarves which I had knotted together to serve as a skirt. And my nippleguards, of course, the tips of the gold-plated cones trembling slightly as my breasts swung free. I saw the manager's eyes widen as he measured their trajectory. Magic could make female breasts larger and firmer, but it could not recreate the mahogany sheen and fine texture of my own.
"Uh, yes. Quite...exotic," he stammered. "You dance, too?"
I chuckled and flicked a dangling feather away from my eyes. "Some music."
Jofar grinned behind the black scarf that covered his nose and mouth. He was my co-leader for this mission and also the most musically talented of the Templewards. His lean fingers began to tap out a rhythm. I swung my hips, bending my knees slightly to wriggle my torso. It was a movement long known to me from the Golden Snake, which I had performed in the Women's Rites in my native village. My hips snapped left to right, back and forth; then I lifted my leg and spun, flaring out the silky skirt. The scarves fluttered to the height of my waist, baring my hips and buttocks. I wore a thong underneath, but the movement was so swift the dark patch of cloth fleshed unnoticed. I might as well have been naked.
When I faced the manager again he had the typical male reaction: slightly glazed, very attentive, with eyes agog. Interesting, considering how much naked flesh he saw every day. But it was also proof positive that, when it comes to eroticism, what is concealed, and the hints of its revealment, are far more effective than total nudity.
"You'll do," he said, turning away to pencil us in on the schedule. "It's only because our regular musicians have not shown up tonight." Jofar rolled his eyes in amusement. They had not shown up because they were lying, bound and gagged, in a dusty warehouse in the Temple District. "You'll begin performing immediately, for one hour sets with twenty-minute breaks in between. Food and drinks are on the house, but if you want company, you will have to pay for it yourself. You'll receive fifty calroons plus any tips. Any questions?" We had none, as the first hurdle had been passed. "Fine. Come this way."
Our job here, the manager said, was not so much to claim the patron's attention as provide alternative amusement, such as when conversations reached a lull. That was fine with me. Our job here was not to amuse them either, but afford a cover for our mission. But I intended to dance well anyway, for I enjoyed it.
The Templewards set up their drumstands as I scanned the walls where the pleasure slaves stood waiting to be chosen. The concupisceriums must have had an unspoken code as to what the proper physical configuration for a female slave should be, for despite differences in height and pigmentation they looked like a row of dolls carved from the same hand. They all gave the same responses, too, when the patrons inspected them: a little gasp, a parting of the lips, raised eyes pleading through cinnabar or topaz or raven-black hair: *Take me, use me. I will do anything you say.*
Across the hall, a similar process occurred with the male slaves. Both sexes were nude, of course, and shaved from their necks down so their genitals were more noticeable. They kept their heads lowered slightly as if contemplating them, eyes aimed at the floor.
But no Marnessa. Well, it was still early; her shift might not have begun yet. Or perhaps she was with a patron already. I sincerely hoped she had not been transformed again, for then I might never find her. I turned to the Templewards and gave them the signal to begin.
For one hour I danced. I paced myself, knowing my physical limits from my long years as a mercenary. The scarves snapped and spun, the feathers on my headdress bobbed like an eagle's crest. My face-paint began to smear with my sweat. I thrust my breasts to the left and right, feeling the loose flesh swing. My nippleguards flashed golden fire with motions, firmly glued to the dark flesh beneath...a pleasing contrast of darkness and light, hard and soft.
I began to feel aroused, the same way I sometimes felt aroused in battle. Some in the crowd ignored me in favor of their fellows, others to fondle the slaves. But many more, men and women both, watched me with clear and unblinkingly concentration, evaluating my flesh as if I was one of the slaves. Were they imagining a collar around my neck, the same gold-plated bronze that graced the throats of the others? What new name would be inscribed upon the dangling tag?
One coin, then another, plinked onto the stage.
The thought made me dance harder. I felt the muscles of my legs bunch, relax, then bunch again as I strutted and spun. Though they might think me a slave, no slave on the floor had my endowments. They were pliant, pampered darlings, soft from lack of exercise, while I was radiant and *alive,*, alive as I had not been in ages. I began to chant nonsense words in my own language: "Ah weh, weh. Ah-weh, weh." My breasts flew back and forth, the nippleguards clinging like a pair of pinching fingers, their warm weight stimulating me further. More coins flew upon the stage.
Then, through half-closed eyelids, I saw her: the former Lady Marnessa rezbet Amicon, now a concupiscerium slave named Wild Nipples. The patron--a plump older man, a merchant--was leading her back to the wall on a leash so she could take her place with the others. As he turned her I saw the dark purple basilisk brand on her buttock. Her eyes were alert, but unfocused...responsive to orders, yet without thoughts of her own. In fact, it was very easy to overlook what little mind she had in favor of her body, which conformed to slave girl norm save her breasts were much bigger. Her curly black hair was as lush as vines, her rosy-bronze skin smooth and flawless.
I signaled behind my back. The Templewards slowed their drumming, drawing the set to a close. I was rewarded with a hard rain of coins. Bowing gracefully, I gathered them up in a scarf I pulled from my waist. They were mainly small tender and useless to us, for the weight would only slow down our escape. I was still pleased to see them though.
The Templewards and I regrouped on the main floor to partake of the refreshments. "There she is," I pointed, whispering. "The one we came for."
Jofar squinted through the crowd. The other patrons, though fascinated with us, gave us a wide berth. "She looks docile enough," he said. "I don't think she'll give us a fight. Pleasure slaves are notorious for their lack of initiative. They will stand trembling in the middle of a house while it burns down around them."
I noted the interest the other patrons took in Marnessa. A young woman her own age was examining her now, brushing Marnessa's dark, curly hair back over her shoulders. She read the name tag on her collar and giggled, staring pointedly at her breasts, then made a comment to her male companion and moved on.
"Be sure to watch her once we're back on stage," I said. "Tell me immediately when she's chosen again." I saw the entertainment manager signal to us, peeved. "We'd better go back on stage."
Again I began my dance, keeping my pace slow. It would allow me to pay better attention to what went on in the hall. The Star would grow only more crowded as the night went on. I frowned; it would make things difficult. Though we could move more freely as performers than patrons our dress made us more noticeable. At least mine did; the Templewards wore nondescript native clothing beneath their robes to blend in. They also carried bottles of alcohol to clean the stain from their faces and hands, something I could not do.
Sure enough, Marnessa soon vanished again, her perky buttocks winking into the crowd. This time a house employee led her away, not a patron. I saw them go up a staircase guarded by a pair of well-muscled bravos. House security, I guessed. I signaled to Jofar.
"Did you see...?" I whispered.
"Yes." He surreptitiously felt under his robe for the tools of his trade--blowgun, knives, rope. "Edim and I will track him, see where he takes her. See you in a bit."
I hoped their disappearance would be taken for a much-needed break. To makes things less suspicious I took up a tambourine, the noisy clatter disguising the pitiful rhythms the remaining Templewards made. "You are awful!" I said in a stage whisper.
They stiffened, offended. "I beg your pardon, Lady Tanimury, but we are not trained musicians."
"That was a joke," I muttered. "Keep an eye on the security men as you play. Note where they're stationed and where the exits are. We may have to leave quickly."
Sooner than I expected the two returned, tugging on their robes as if they had recently re-donned them. Again I called another break. "Where is she?" I whispered.
"On the fourth floor," Jofar said. "The place where female pleasure slaves are rested. The slavekeeper took her into a room there and came out alone. He locked it behind him so we could not see what became of her. The entrance points to the floor are thickly guarded, but the floor itself is less protected. We should have no problem once we get up there."
All the Templewards had leaned in close so they could hear. "All right," I said, and breathed deeply. "Now we make our move!"
They turned over their drums as if to tighten the heads. But it was only to access the items stored inside: pyropigeons, explosive missiles from Turufanx that Lassimla had smuggled into the Temple. Some emitted thick smoke, others showers of colored sparks; the most distressing did both, accompanied by a loud bang. Also in the drums were a selection of slings, which the Templewards quickly distributed among themselves. No one in the hall took note of what we did. Their carnal urges took priority, it seemed.
On my signal the Templewards crouched behind their drums. They loaded the first of the pyropigeons into their slings, aiming them at the marble columns and ceiling in the center of the hall. "One, two..." I counted, waiting until a cartful of liquor was passing, "...Three!"
The elastic thongs of the slings snapped in unison. The pyropigeons shot high into the air, smashing their thin clay casings against the marble. I had steeled myself, but even I was not wholly prepared for the results. Pandemonium broke out as sparks rained on the crowd, followed by clouds of thick black smoke. Hell indeed had come to life! The patrons made a panicked flight for the doors; furniture overturned, bottles crashed. I saw Jofar was right about the slaves. Most of them stood dumbly where they'd been abandoned, waiting for someone to tell them what to do.
The Templewards continued to shoot one pyropigeon after another, oblivious to the mayhem, as Jofar and I made our exits through a stair on the side of the stage. Shouts for order echoed behind us as we slammed the door shut, thumping up the stairs.
We emerged in the stately paneled halls of the second floor. The noise, and the stench, had already alerted the denizens. Sweaty, half-undressed patrons began popping out of the private rooms, some trailing clamps or other unusual items. A few burst out naked, the sad shape of their bodies distinguishing them immediately from the panicked slaves. As Jofar and I ran to the next staircase I caught glimpses of what they fled from: slaves bound so artfully they looked snared in spider's webs, while others were strapped on frames of wood or benches of stone. I knew they were in no real danger, yet I couldn't help feeling guilty. A few continued the last orders of their masters, mindlessly pleasuring each other like automata that needed a turn of the key to stop. But not all the slaves were mindless. Some were running themselves, with determined looks on their faces as if they intended to escape that very night.
The security guards tried vainly to impose order. They had their hands full calming the patrons and did not notice us, taking us for yet more refugees.
We found another staircase and ran up to the third floor, then the fourth. The sound of the chaos was dimmer up here but the smell worsened; the Templewards below had finished off the barrage with a quintet of noxious stinkpigeons. Unlike the rooms below there were no scarlet carpets, no erotic frescoes; worn wood and cracked plaster took their places. Apparently, slaves were undeserving of such luxuries on their private turf. By the number of doors many slaves could be quartered here, though the space between them told me the rooms were quite small.
"There's the door, my Lady," Jofar said.
We stopped. The door had a wooden rack that held six plaques, each inscribed with the names of the slaves who slept there:
Insatiable Saucy Buttocks Honey Tongue Wild Nipples Cream Pitcher Shameless
I lifted Marnessa's plaque and turned it over:
Approx. Age: 17 42-23-32 Hair: Black, curly Skin: Drk. Beige Build: Gracile
How depressing, the whole of one's being condensed to a brief and rather mundane sexual description. But we had another problem. The door was locked.
Fortunately, it was a flimsy door. Jofar's knee and shoulder were enough to smash it in, and the jarred-awake slave girls stared up at us with terrified eyes.
I rushed inside. The room was tiny, with two wooden bunks on either side separated by a center aisle about four feet wide. It had a single window. The bunks had soft pads on them, but that was the only concession to comfort. Other than that, the room was a cell. Each girl lay flat on her back, her wrists chained apart to the top posts of the bunk and her ankles chained apart to the bottom ones. I later heard it was so they would not touch themselves sexually, or touch each other sexually, while unsupervised. Such freedom could severely undercut a slave girl's training. There was no satisfaction for them, no release, unless it came from serving a patron.
Marnessa's bunk was in the middle. The ones above and below her were empty; no doubt Saucy Buttocks and Shameless were still entertaining patrons below. Marnessa just stared at me, trembling. I expected her to blurt "Please don't hurt me," or some such thing, but apparently slaves hadn't the pluck to do even that.
Nevertheless, it was wise to be careful. "Not a word out of any of you!" I said severely, showing them my knife. They whimpered and squirmed, but kept their lips sealed.
"Watch the door," I said to Jofar. I leaned over Marnessa's bunk. "Quiet," I whispered. "I'm a friend. I'm not going to hurt you. I'm here to rescue you."
"But Mistress..." Marnessa gasped. "You cannot steal me!"
I knew pleasure slaves had been conditioned to captivity, but I was unaware to what degree. "I said quiet." I shoved one of my silk scarves in her mouth and tied another around her head, keeping the improvised gag in place. I rolled out the felt package of locksmith's tools Lassimla had given me and began to pick the locks on her wrist cuffs. The subtle, spicy scent of female arousal told me the remaining slaves had become quite excited by their roommate's abduction. I turned around and sure enough they were watching, the three pairs of nipples stiff as corks. I gagged them as well, partly for safety, partly to oblige them.
The cuffs were easy going; I doubted the staff had ever considered the possibility of theft. The locks were purely a psychological restraint. When Marnessa was free I ordered her to stand and bound her wrists and ankles with the last two of my scarves. I was now nearly naked myself. She stood passively as I bound her, still not believing this was all happening to her. "Jofar!"
He ducked back inside. We couldn't stay here long, as the smashed door was a dead giveaway to our presence. "I need your cloak."
He ripped off the heavy black garment and we wrapped Marnessa within it, tying it closed so she was a vaguely human-shaped bundle. Her frightened eyes peeped out one end, her little pink toes the other. I wished I could reassure her, but we had to make time.
I flung open the shutters and looked out. This side of building faced a warehouse, which was good. We had no witnesses other than a few escaping pleasure slaves who were ripping off their collars as they ran. I wished them well, but knew it was likely they'd be recaptured before dawn. When they had passed I climbed out onto the window ledge and made my way to the roof, a lead drainage pipe providing convenient access. Thick clouds hid Wolfmoon and Poritrin, another reason why we chose to make the raid tonight.
I checked the roof, then let down a length of rope to help Jofar hoist Marnessa up. She was surprisingly heavy for her build. It must have been all that mammary tissue. Jofar climbed up after her, jerking up the rope behind him. It was too dark to make out Marnessa's face, but I could tell she was trembling. She hadn't liked the acrobatic maneuvers we'd forced on her. But she would soon have to endure another one.
Jofar untangled the last item he had bound to his waist: a finely woven purse net. He spread it on the roof and I took my place in its center with Marnessa, who was beginning to squirm like a excited grub. I held her firmly around the shoulders, keeping her in place. Jofar drew the edges of the net up and over us, gathering them above our heads. He knotted the string. Both Marnessa and I were now easy prey if our enemies suddenly burst onto the rooftop. In all likelihood they would not, but it was still a risk.
Jofar shot his last pyropigeon high into the air. It exploded in dozens of brilliant orange sparks. He then drew out a short stick which he extended by a series of snaps into a six foot pole. He poked it through the drawstrings of our net and held them up high.
Marnessa started to whimper from within her wool cocoon.
"Shush," I said. "It won't be long now." I drew the edges of the cloak up over her face to keep her quiet. "Pray to your god that this works, Jofar!"
"It will, my Lady. Lassimla has dreamed its success!"
I wasn't so sure about that. A series of high-pitched pings confirmed Aylinn's stymphad had targeted our location. "It comes, my Lady!" Jofar said, both elated and terrified. "It..."
Then the stymphad rushed upon us like a vengeance from the gods, a creature blacker than the night, blacker than a storm, for Aylinn had dusted it with ashes to conceal its bright scales. It snatched us up in one cruel claw, the net jerking us up and away. The Star and its outbuildings disappeared in a kaleidoscope of images: panicked crowds spilling onto the street, scattered patches of light where torches were lit; Jofar vaulting away to the warehouse next door, trailing a rope so he could rappel himself down. Each grew smaller and smaller as the stymphad carried us higher. An icy wind tore through the openings of the net, raising goosebumps on my flesh. I envied Marnessa her cloak. She had grown quiet now. I wondered if she was all right.
At our height the city was silent, though we ourselves dared not say anything, for sound carried from above. There was the west flank of palace, there the pale tongue of the falls. Aylinn took care to keep our journey smooth. She had charge of this leg of the rescue mission, and it was a matter of pride with her.
Finally we began to descend. Marnessa began to whimper again. She had made not a peep during the flight, though the rigidity of her body betrayed her terror. I wondered how she felt at being snatched away by a bunch of strangers. Had it been more or less traumatic than being made a slave in the first place? The stymphad flew lower and lower until I recognized the white dome of the Temple. The townhouse, my temporary quarters, lay only eight blocks beyond.
Lower, lower. The townhouse came into view. As Lassimla had said it was well-protected, a high wall being its most conspicuous defense. The garden rushed up to greet us. Between two of the trees was slung a large net. How well had Aylinn trained her mount?
In another second the hooked claws released us. We fell like a stone between the palms. The net stretched severely, but broke our fall. The stymphad flapped swiftly away, disappeared into the night as if it had never existed at all. Several torn branches spiraled down after us.
For one second, two, I collected myself, breathing deeply, then used my knife to free us from the nets. The wild ride had unnerved me more than I'd thought. I stood, willing the minute trembling from my limbs, then turned to attend to my victim.
Marnessa was so quiet that I thought she had fainted, but I heard a moan emerge from the muffled cloak. I quickly unwrapped her. She still lay in a rigid position, wrists tied before her, mouth working on the gag.
"There. That wasn't so bad, was it?" I said.
As before, she just stared, each anxious lungful of air jouncing her breasts up and down. The knot tying her wrists had loosened ridiculously by now, but she would not free her hands. For some reason that annoyed me, that she would passively accept such a flimsy means of restraint. I untied her ankles and helped her to stand. "Come," I said, taking her by the upper arm. "Into the house."
She was weak and unsteady on her feet, but obeyed me unquestioningly.
On to Chapter 15
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