There came a methodical knocking at the door. From the evenness of the rhythm, I could tell that Ashley was fully tranced. I'd have to wake her up somehow- but I already knew exactly how to do it. I opened the door, escorted her into the suite, and started undressing her, but instead of having at her immediately like she clearly wanted (and like a small part of my mind wanted, I put her in an orange leotard, a frilly skirt, and a darling little tiara. Hey, I'd warned her that if she ever came to me that out of it, I'd turn her into a ballerina.
As I quietly commanded her into a sexually charged, yet utterly graceful routine, both the inappropriateness of the action and the undertones in my voice were bringing her back to alertness. I moved in closer as she awakened more and more, until we were well into each other's personal space and her hands were up my skirt. Her eyes met mine, drawing me in as I drew her in. I started to pull off her skirt as she undid my blouse, and I couldn't help but shiver when her hands touched my bare skin.
I don't think I could count how many times I'd fucked or been fucked since Ashley brought me to the Grove. It'd be a pretty large number, considering the other members of the Twelve, Sarah, the Candies, and the amount of times I'd ordered room service. But this wasn't fucking. There was more to it than that. For the first time in too long, the woman in my arms was actually reacting to me, becoming more alert, more attentive, and that only made me burn that much brighter. I entranced her, she enthralled me, and we came together as one.
It was the best orgasm I'd ever had. For the first time, I'd made love. Real emotion, real feeling, real passion, not some kind of ploy, not a trap or a scheme or an appetite being filled- this was what I'd been missing.
Ashley stirred next to me, giving me a smile to die for. "Guess you got lonely at the top," she said, punctuating it with a kiss.
"You could say so," I replied.
"Well, it's the first time I can ever say I woke up during room service. You must be good. I mean, Mistress has us the most out when we're doing room service."
"Keeps you good or keeps you quiet?" I asked.
"Both, I think," she said. I told myself not to panic just because her voice sounded more distant than it had in a long time.
"Stop that! We're not at the warehouse anymore!"
"Right about that. If we were, I'd be dominating you," she said slyly.
"Oh, well, we can't have that, can we?"
And we went at it again, overwhelming each other physically and mentally. There's no feeling in the world like the simultaneous sensation of controlling and being controlled. It was even better than the sex- and the sex was pretty amazing. Time lost all meaning.
When we finally did wear ourselves out, it was several hours later and I was a little sore. Still... "This is definitely better than being busted up in the bottom of a swimming pool," I told her.
She grinned at me. "Or doing ballet, I suppose."
"What, again?" She looked confused until I pointed to the abandoned outfit.
"Oh shi- you didn't- you did! Well, I'm not doing that again. That's a major sacrifice for me to make, you know."
"Oh, I know, but you looked so cute..."
Ashley proceeded to completely ignore my rank and status by whacking me over the head with a pillow. "So what do you do up here that's so important that I haven't seen you since you got called up?" she asked coyly, but I could tell that this wasn't the place or time to discuss such things.
"We'll talk about it later. I didn't have you bring gear for nothing," I said with a smile. I focused on her and watched as she went blank- but this time of my volition, not Sarah's. She was mine, more than ever, and not Sarah's. It was nice to have something of my own. I summoned Mandy and we headed down to the skating pool. After an hour of tricks- well, okay, she did the tricks and I tried to go more than a foot without falling off the board- I felt that I'd purged enough of Sarah's influence and replaced it with mine that I could talk to Ashley as a person who I knew trusted me and shared my views. I released Ashley, and we took turns trying to implant tricks into Mandy, both of us laughing at our abilities despite Mandy's lack of confidence and skill. Security was still watching, so I brought up what I'd been thinking more obliquely than I'd thought.
"You ever ask Mistress about the Twelve? You're our best recruiter, after all. You deserve-"
"HA! Me? Never! You think some skater girl'd be in that group? Look at you! You started out as a preppy princess, and now you wear blouses that cost more than everything I own put together and skirts I couldn't fold into an elbow pad. You've got your own cute little assistant, a room the size of a house, and full run of Mistress's profits. You really think a misfit like me would be into that? Psssh, I'd get bored in a second. I like recruiting and working for a living. What do you do up there, sit around in some kind of think tank so you can figure out new ways to keep us half asleep while you take turns eating out Mistress?" Her voice got louder as she went along.
So that was how Sarah had kept Ashley from moving up in the ranks. I knew a way around that. "Oh, we go out- that's why I have Mandy. We have to keep an eye on the competition. And Mistress stays out of the way- we mostly help each other. It's a lot more interesting than you think. That's what I wanted to talk to you about. I think there's gonna be a spot open in the Twelve soon, and if you want, I can recommend you to Mistress for it," I said, presenting the idea to her just to get her to think. I knew how powerful Ashley was, but I had a feeling she was being held back. I was starting to feel why she wasn't a member of the Twelve, but along with that came the recognition of why I was so fond of her, and why she was the person I needed to execute my plan.
"Mmmm, I love the idea, but you don't know me as well as you think. I'm much happier serving you," she replied. She slid a hand down the back of my pants and I leaned back and let her straddle me. For a moment, I thought I'd lost control and the whole plan was about to fall apart, but then she whispered in my ear exactly what I wanted to hear from her.
"You want me to help make you the new mistress. I can't wait," she purred. She kissed me a couple of times and started toying with my buttons before a loud crash disturbed us.
"Ow," Mandy said, sitting on her butt in the bottom of the pool. She wasn't badly hurt, but she was banged up enough to let us know how she felt despite not having a mind of her own. The sight of her sitting there rubbing at what was going to be a bruise any day now started me in a fit of giggles. When Ashley joined in, it got even funnier, and I started rolling around on the ground laughing.
In the guise of picking me up and dusting me off, Ashley found another excuse to whisper in my ear. "You knew we could talk today because Mistress was busy. Good luck as the new One."
I pulled away and stared at her like she'd grown an extra head, then grabbed Mandy and raced back into the building. If that was the scuttlebutt, then there was going to be a meeting of the Twelve sooner rather than later, either to confirm or deny, and it wasn't going to look good for me if I showed up dirty, rumpled, and in baggy skating pants. As it was, I barely had enough time to get into something more presentable before I received the text message warning me of the meeting.
I was still the last to arrive, and I felt a little self-conscious as everyone's gazes turned to me. We were twelve including Sarah, and I knew what that meant. I seated myself and waited for Sarah to start the meeting. She didn't waste any time. "I lost my dearest friend today. I know most of you noticed that she skipped last night's celebration, and part of the reason I gave you the day off was so that I could prepare for this meeting. Rosa asked to leave, and I let people go if they ask me to. After 25 years, she had had enough. She was our One, a mistress of her craft, and a leader to our group. She leaves with our love and gratitude, but now we must turn to the business of her replacement."
Her voice was absolutely dripping with sincerity so false I was surprised no one else reacted to it. "As you know, I judge more than just ability when choosing the One, since that person has to run and organize everything within our little family, subject only to my suggestions and orders. I consider your loyalty, obedience, seniority, and drive when working through your positions. With that being said, I'm pleased to elevate our Four, Cara, to be the One and my closest aide." I stepped forward to much applause, but already I was trying to think through the implications.
To say I wasn't expecting this, even with Ashley's warning, was an understatement. I'd always thought Rosa had had the tightest leash on her, and this absolutely screamed 'power play' at me. Sarah led me into her office, closed the door, indicated that I should sit down, and started talking.
"As you may have suspected, Rosa is dead." Wow, and I hadn't been expecting her to be that direct at all. "I shut her brain off. It's a power I only use in humane situations, and this was one such. She took a lot of damage during the battle, and she would never be the same. If I had let her live, I would have had to make her even more of a puppet than the Candies, or let her go as a deranged schizophrenic. I'm sure you'll agree that this was the best of three unpleasant options. The records will show that she stroked out peacefully, in her sleep, without prior warning. I had her body shipped back to her family in Mexico, and given that her letters home were about prosperity in America, I'm sure they'll give her a splendid funeral."
And with that, the matter of Rosa was done with, as far as she was concerned. I could see it in her eyes. She'd raised the question and answered it, and that should have been enough. "Does that settle your curiosity? I know you would have been trying to find out what happened. I don't know what you did while I was... helping Rosa... but when I came back, I realized that I would have anarchy without you as my One. I'm sure you'll have to apologize to Keisha, and possibly Nancy, but that's something I can't help you with."
Interesting. I hadn't thought of it that way, but I knew enough people on the lower floors, and my handling of Mandy had become enough of a legend that even people outside the Grove knew about it. That was something I could use, and something most of the rest of the Twelve wouldn't have thought of; I knew by then that most of them shared Julie's view, that the people from the lower floors were nothing more than servants.
Sarah was talking again, and I listened carefully. "We need to present a united front, Cara. Let us rule as one. As strong as you are, I've never felt that you had full faith in me, never worshipped me as so many of our girls do, never understood why I act the way I do," she said. I could feel her throwing her full strength at me, strength that was enough to command someone's heart to stop, strength that had been refined over twenty years and built up with every soul she had conquered, but strength that was growing old and tired from long use. I gathered my thoughts to keep her from overwhelming me and tried to think of the one question that would break her stranglehold.
And then it hit me what I could ask. Thinking of women in orange hot pants and purses stuffed with bills, I asked, "Why do you sell them into slavery? I thought you were better than that." I could hear the strain in my voice, and I knew I couldn't hold out if she attacked me one more time.
She pulled back with a chuckle that chilled my blood. "One Candy is worth more than all the junk you marketed over the phone put together. I've made billions off them and paid for every one of your little junkets that way. Your Alisa was worth ten thousand dollars once I got done with her. Why does she still trouble you so?"
As her dress slipped down, so did I, but I held on long enough to give her an answer, maybe to show her that she couldn't have me that easily, maybe to show her that I had some kind of defense, maybe just to spite her.
"She was mine before she was yours."
When I woke up the next day, in a strange bed, I could hear someone stirring in the kitchenette. I stumbled over and saw Mandy, wearing one of my plush robes, stirring a cup of coffee. She had a pretty way of doing it, pouring in the milk one way as she stirred it the other, creating a spiral. I was going to have to do that on the road someday as a focus object.
She saw me and handed me the coffee. "Welcome back, Miss Cara, and welcome to 241. I'm sure you'll like it here."
There wasn't much of a difference between my room and Rosa's old suite, other than the size and some of the large crystals still hanging from the window. "Only one more room to see here," I said.
Mandy giggled. "As you wish, Miss Cara." She took my place in bed, curled up, and was immediately asleep. I headed down to the work floor and was greed with applause, but I couldn't help but notice that we were down to ten of the Twelve. Anya was missing.
"Anya is still distraught over Rosa, as they were very close friends," Sarah said, her commanding tone not inviting questions.
I was never one for taking hints. "So did you send her home?" I asked.
"Hard work is the best medicine. I've always wanted an international extension," Sarah replied. I was ready to counter, because I was familiar enough with her doubletalk to know that that wasn't an answer, but she was exerting her full influence over me and it weighed on me like lead. The message was clear: I could question her once, but not twice. As I sat there mutely, she continued, "Cara, you'll have free reign of the Grove while I and the others prepare the search. I'll want one brought up from within and the other taken from the outside."
Wanting to show willingness, I sat down with the sleeper directory to see if there was anything there that could help us find the next member of the Twelve, but it was hard to concentrate. There was a lot of tension in the air, more than I'd felt even before the fight in New York. Even Julie and Erica were quiet.
And even in that quiet, Keisha managed to sneak up on me. "Make sure these are your recruits, not Sarah's. I believe in you," she whispered.
After narrowly avoiding jumping out of my skin, I answered her, "What?"
"Don't be stupid. I know your plan. Whatever you do, don't suggest Ashley for the Twelve. Let her bring down that wing. You'll have whatever help I can provide from my end."
Oh. Oh. That changed everything, and for the better. If I had the head of security on my side, I could do a lot of things and have Sarah never know about them. And having Keisha's tactical mind on board had already helped. I texted Ashley. "Find a girl good w/ danglies, bring her here. Send her most loyal to recruit," it said.
Morgan looked over my shoulder, and my heart leaped into my throat, even though there wasn't anything really incriminating in what I'd written to Ashley. But all she said was, "I think I know someone who fits that request. Mind if I pull up her website?" I did mind, but I wasn't going to let on, so I let Morgan tap an address into the browser. "Here she is. An artist in Greenwich Village. Ooh, look at the sparkle on that. It would make Rosa proud." She printed the page for me and presented it to me with an endearingly nervous look on her face.
"If she can create rhapsodies in orange, she'll be perfect," I said warmly, letting Morgan know she'd picked a good one. I headed down to the motor pool to pass the information along to the recruiter. I bumped into Evelyn- literally bumped into, we collided in the hallway. When we disentangled ourselves from each other, there was a self-satisfied look on Evelyn's face that I hadn't thought had been there before, and an envelope in my back pocket that I knew hadn't been there before. No time to worry about that, though, because the recruiter was waiting for me. I didn't remember her name off the top of my head, but she was one of Julie's backup singers, for lack of a better word- yes, definitely someone I wanted out of the building for this.
I saw the glances in my direction as I got upstairs and back to the offices. I knew something was up, something big, even if I didn't recognize it consciously. I was still trying to figure out what it was I was sensing when the elevator door opened.
"My, don't you smell horny today!" Daphne yelled, squirting me with perfume, then dancing out of the way as Keisha and Tamara barged inside. I thought I heard her follow them, but the sweet smelling perfume was starting to make me dizzy and hot.
The elevator doors closed, so someone must have pressed a button, but I couldn't see it for the camera that Tamara shoved in my face. I tried to squirm away, but the motion excited my body even more, and there was nowhere to escape to, not with Keisha holding me tight. "Relax, Cara, it's what must be done. Put your faith in me. I know where you belong," she whispered, holding me steady and forcing me to look into the wildly spinning lens of the camera.
We continued sinking, and I realized, as much as I could, that we were going down to the basement. But between Daphne's perfume and Tamara's gadget, it was getting hard to think at all.
"Don't worry," Keisha said softly, and that was enough to push me over. My will to fight had been completely drained, and I had no choice but to surrender to the heat inside of me. The world faded away, and I was certain that if it ever did come back, I'd be in a chair with my hand between my legs.