When she’s captured by Torgeir, an alien, mercenary ex-lordship, she prays her struggle is over. He knows what she is and still wants her.
But there are cracks in the mirror...
Strange things are growing.
A lunatic wants to make her his princess, after he modifies her.
What happened to this girl who was, once upon a time, a perfect human being?
Can even her beloved Torgeir love a girl who is nothing like she should be?
The crunch of revelation is coming and this is one cyber-girl who doesn’t like being kept in the dark.
With one eye, she peeked around the edge of the gray column. From the faint grating noises and the leak of light across the room from the opened door, someone had sneaked into this coldroom full of hanging animal carcasses. The sneaking meant they were looking for her.
Her chest squeezed in tight. Maybe they’d go away.
Now they’d stopped. Were they waiting for her to move?
Her mouth pursed, she stared at the array of weapons on her lap and the floor. She’d gathered them from the rooms she’d passed through while evading everyone. Knife. Long metal rod. Some sort of grey metal and wood gun that might even shoot bullets? It reminded her of flintlock pistols from Earth’s ancient history.
She’d been loping along, dodging fast, and lucky to grab these.
Primitive weapons considering she’d arrived here in a starship. Well, not here here, arrived in town. The covered cart they’d used to get here had been drawn by mule cross doggy creatures and had been so un-starshiplike it was laughable.
Hand to her heart, she checked the beat. Not too slow, not too fast. She’d learned not to panic or the stupid emotional bypass the aliens had installed in her would kick in. Dead minutes she’d termed the phase that would hit her. They thought it’d save her angst or something, spare her worrying about whatever shit her tattered mind might drag into the light?
She hated dead time. She always ended up worrying about it more afterward than whatever fear had made it happen in the first place. It wasn’t that she didn’t fear anymore, just that she knew the limits, could feel when she was going over, and she dreaded going too far so much that she’d learned how to stop herself.
Sometimes she reached the very edge of panic before she could claw herself down.
So... No panic, no panic.
The mantra was effective, even when she was cornered in a shithole about to be... She shuddered. Raped or tortured. If she was lucky, perhaps they’d only make her bake cookies, or play Mahjong, or something. Hah.
The Lords of Sicar and their Traditional Way meant everyone who came out here to the territories had safety clauses in their contracts. Or so she’d been told.
So what had happened to their guarantees of safe travel?
She held up the gun to her eyes, turned it, seeking a ray of light to illuminate its secrets. Dark in here as well as cold. If she was right, this gun had no safety. You just pulled the trigger.
Her butt was aching from contact with the cold stone. The leather skirt, the corset, and light cotton shirt Duggy had advised her to wear to fit in with the natives was great in the sun. In here, a parka and a campfire would’ve been nice.
Duggy. Where was he, and all the others?
Another noise said her intruder had moved closer. Two columns over. One guy only, though.
She peeked again, spotted a knee and a man looking back, and ducked away.
“I see you, girl.
Ella gulped. Maybe panicking and taking a dead minute would be good?
The problem was, without fear to hold her back, she might stand up and try to shoot her way out of here. That would surely be fatal. Her fingers ached from clutching the gun and she eased off the pressure, flexed them.
“You slide whatever weapons you have out in the open, then step out so I can see you.”
From his voice, he seemed puzzled, and she grinned despite the churning of her stomach.
As well as nausea, her fingers ached, she was shivering from cold, and her left foot was itching – as if to remind her that maybe they’d not fixed everything when reconstructing her body.
She exhaled slowly, remembering how she’d just grinned.
Pluses always pluses.
For a few seconds she put her hand in her skirt pocket and held the miniature stuffed koala on her keyring. It was her substitute for a rabbit’s foot. Even if it didn’t work, it still reminded her of home.
How was she getting out of here? She angled back her neck, trying to ignore the animal meat hanging from hooks to the left and right. The smell of blood in here was strong. At least it wasn’t hers.
The windows were tiny, square, and up high. A bird could use those, if they weren’t sealed with glass and barred. The door was alien-guarded by now. This place was a maze and she knew the way out, but it was a long way to the left. Every time she’d tried, someone had been in the way. A bullet in the head was an option some might consider.
The alien hadn’t moved, and she could hear his breathing. He wanted her gun.
“Give me facts. Why should I do that?”
Maybe he hadn’t called in others. She’d heard no other noises out there.
“I saw you brought in, saw you lay out one man with that bronze vase and run off. I’d like to help you.”
What? Her forehead corrugated. “What’s the catch?”
“Catch doesn’t translate for me. I don’t know what you mean,” he said quietly. “You give up now, you’ll be fine. Hurt one of these men again and they will punish you, badly. You’re headed for becoming a possession of Lord Kalfa’s. He wants you for some reason. Still, he will punish you. So far, you’re providing amusement.”
While she counted to ten, Ella shut her eyes.
What did he mean by fine? A possession was not tolerable. She’d been a possession of sorts already.
“Slide out your weapons.”
“No. We have a clause of safety in our travel documents. You need to enforce that.”
“Null and void. You strayed off the allowed land. You can’t get out of here. I’d help you more if I could but he figures to sell you for a good sum. A hundred thou, I was told.”
She’d known they kept female slaves but this wasn’t right.
“Why are you wanting to help me? And how exactly? Aren’t you into the Way? Wait. Wait...” She thought a few frantic seconds and pressed her knuckles into her head. Money was no good if she was a slave. “If I gave you money? I have two fifty thou in my account.”
“You have that much and you’re apprenticing to a trader ship? You are crazy.” There came a pause where all she could do was watch dust motes drift in the light rays. “I could buy you off him with that. Do what I tell you and it can be done.”
“I can give it to him myself.”
He laughed. “A female? No. Won’t work.”
“Primitives,” she muttered darkly.
Was this a lie? She couldn’t tell. The law the rest of the ’verse worked on varied from place to place plus it had been ruled invalid on many small planets via negotiated settlements in a thousand native courts. The best lawyer, even if she could contact one, was unlikely to win her freedom.
She had to ask. “How can I trust you?”
Silence, for a long time. Again.
“You can. Decide. I can’t prove myself this way or that.”
He was calm at least. Hadn’t tried to rush at her. Maybe they’d sent him in to talk her down? Again, she had no way of telling.
“You have to let me go, straight away.”
“As soon as is safe. I know these men. The Way is important out here. I’ll lose credos if I don’t stay a while. After that, yes, we go back to the city and I release you.”
Credos? Honor on a points system? That word didn’t translate well. They’d implanted a standard translator program when they’d reversed the...she gulped...and made herself not think. Yes. When they’d fixed her.
Talking to his disembodied voice was lending a surreal air to this. Serenity settled over her. This or that. Fate. She’d decided that fate was often the way of the universe. Sometimes you had no say in how things went in the greater scheme of the ’verse.
Warned by noise, she looked around in time to see the flat rectangle of a comm unit slide her way. Ella picked it up. Unlocked, with a bank transfer screen up and ready. The man was happy skirting traditional rules when it suited him. What would his fellow warriors say if she showed them this?
Fingers poised she said over her shoulder. “One hundred thou.”
“Hell no. One seventy. I get danger money, girl.”
Her nose wrinkled at his girl. “One fifty.”
Fuck. She often wondered what Hell really translated from. The aliens had gods but not the same one the Earth’s Christian Hell was associated with.
“Fine. One seventy.” Maybe a lawyer could screw it out of him after.
When done, she spun the comm back to him.
“Good.” She heard him rise and spotted the length of his shadow spill across the floor beside her. “Weapons, then come out.”
After a few deep breaths and counting to some big number, she scooted the gun and the metal rod toward him, slid her back up the column, and stepped out.
The man emerged from his hiding place – no weapon drawn, just a long knife sheathed at his left hip and a gun holstered at his right. From the unadorned red gun butt, it too was unpowered. Traditional.
He still scared her, maybe even more because of his rough appearance.
Lights flickered on. Those were powered. Their rules of the Way were fickle.
Now she could see him properly. Like all the aliens she’d ever met, he was a human with minor embellishments. Apart from the Bak-lal, the universe had stuck with one, fun design.
His hair was sun-bleached blond. When he bent to retrieve her pistol, a few straggly locks swung across his face and she saw most of his hair was cinched at the back. Let loose, it’d be at his shoulders. The man was superbly muscled with bulky shoulders and chest. He wore a loose white shirt and dark leather pants with double leather belts, though one was a weapons belt. His brows and eyes were too golden to seem natural. Most aliens she’d met seemed different in some small way and therefore disturbing. He was also alluring – deadly yet sexy. If this were an everyday situation, she would’ve quietly checked him out, despite knowing he was out of her league.
Once her weapon was tucked into his belt, he examined her again, from her toes to her face, slow and measured. The Sicar tribesmen were always brazen about looking at women. She’d almost become accustomed to the treatment. If they knew what she was, they’d not be so interested.
To conceal her nervousness, she spoke. “Are we going anywhere soon? I’d rather get this –”
“Turn.” He made a circle with a finger.
Frowning, she turned. The knife was slim and sheathed, and tucked where he couldn’t see it, under the skirt.
When she was facing away, he said, “Stop.” Then he approached.
Without thought, her fists clenched. She made herself relax them. When his hands touched her waist though, she stiffened.
“Be calm. I’m just inspecting you.”
“For what?” she asked, teeth gritted.
His hands slid over her, everywhere. A man handling her like this made her jumpier than a colt but she stayed mostly still.
“You’d get worse if a true slave. It’s not that I don’t trust you, but I don’t. Be still. I have to get a little intimate.”
When he slid a hand between her thighs, she jumped again and muttered her curses under her breath, knowing what was about to happen. He found the knife where she’d tucked it upside down into the side of her underwear, pulled it free, and tossed it away. The small smack when it hit the stone floor echoed the drop of her heart.
“That was not good. Now I know I can’t trust you. Put your hands at your back so I can tie them. What’s your name, girl?”
“You don’t have to do that.” Trembling was stupid but it happened anyway. Count. To. Ten. She calmed. “I won’t do anything. It was just insurance.”
“Do what I said or I will make you. If you misbehave, you will endanger me as well as yourself. Now!”
Fuck. Slowly, she put her hands behind her and felt him lash them together.
He turned her around and put his hands on her shoulders. “Your name?” While she struggled to decide whether to answer, he studied her body, her breasts even. She flushed hot but managed to hold his gaze, keeping her chin defiantly lifted. “You’re younger than I thought? Age too. Tell me both. Planet of origin. That too.” As if to lessen the aggressiveness of his questions, he paused then added, “I’m Torgeir Rakkel.”
Before she could answer, the door was blocked by another man. He entered. Three more filed in after him. All of them were big and armed with sharp things and mean glowers.
“Caught her?” The first, a bearlike man with a red beard, chuckled. “I should’ve known. You were always good at tracking, Lord Rakkel.”
Lord? Torgeir Rakkel wasn’t some minor tribesman but one of their leaders. He’d be sworn to uphold the old ways. She went to step back but he only smiled and caught her arm.
If he’d lied to her, she was in trouble. So much fricking trouble.
“Yes.” He didn’t look at her though his grip tightened on her arm. “I sniffed her out, followed her hot little female trail. I’d say she’s in heat.”
The laughter from the men made her cheeks even hotter but she opened her mouth to retort.
At that, Torgeir leaned in and murmured, “Don’t talk unless you want your panties in there as a gag.”
Her eyes almost bugged out from the effort of stopping herself. How had he known?
Talking was not a good idea. Or maybe he just wanted her to think that? She still didn’t know if he’d told her a big lie to get her to surrender. Tears threatened to spill, but she held them off by force of will.
The long, embarrassing walk to the dining hall, with her hands bound and these men laughing over her plight, kept her mind swirling with fear and hope.
The journey with Duggy and the other trader, Finch, had been straightforward until they’d arrived at the Carmagga holding. Before they’d done more than climb from the cart, a horde of warriors had charged in, shooting, killing the opposing men. They’d thrown down and restrained those who didn’t resist, which had included her and the whole trading column. That was standard operating procedure when accidentally involved in native disputes. The widowed Lady Carmagga and her sister had also been captured. It was a lightning raid and she’d imagined some hostage taking and ransom, but being unrelated parties the traders should be set free.
That hadn’t happened. They’d been brought here and she’d been informed of her up-and-coming sale as a slave to some interested people with a special Earth girl order list. Hence, her escape.
This alien, Torgeir, he must be true to her. He must. Lord or not.
When they pushed open the double doors to the dining room, she faltered.
The two women were being raped, systematically from the looks of the gathered men, while held down on the tables. Though there were no screams, only grunts and moans, writhing limbs and pumping male bodies, all the usual signs of passion, the women were bound and held down. This must be rape.
She delayed, walking slowly, as bear man stalked to the head of the biggest long table and Torgeir led her onward.
Again, he whispered to her. “It’s okay. Not what it seems. This is what happens when unmated and propertied women come into the hands of men who have taken their land. Lord Kalfa has been eyeing the Carmagga lands for a decade.”
She thought of speaking but only did a fiery wide-eyed glare. Okay?
“It’s truth. Once they bondmate with a man of Kalfa’s they will be the same as married. A few days at most, statistically, then it will be done.”
Her swear words failed her.
The insufferable man smiled and shrugged. “It is the Way.”
Not her way. She couldn’t help watching as yet another tribesman lowered himself over one of the women and began plowing into her. That she reached up and wrapped her rope-tied hands about his neck, as if to pull him closer, was odd.
“That’s...” The rest of her angry words were cut short by Torgeir lightly slapping her face.
Shocked, she rocked on her feet, desperate to get away but her hands were tied. She tugged and twisted, only to feel the ropes at her wrists tighten.
“Panties, remember? Unless you want that to be you?” He waved at the sexual exhibition but she refused to look again. He bent until his mouth was adjacent to her ear. “Good. This is sensible. Watch and be good.”
That his warm breath on her ear had stirred her made her shudder again. She shouldn’t react so when a man had her bound. That she’d moistened below was appalling when she was in the middle of an orgy-like disaster. All she had to hope for was that an alien lord be true to his word? She was doomed.
“Now, Lord Kalfa.” Torgeir slapped her ass. “How much for her?”
“Her?” Bear man laughed and spun around to settle into a big chair at the top of the table. “Why? She’s spoken for, though I was planning on having some fun with her first.” He leaned forward and examined her thoughtfully. “I want to see if these Earth women are as good as people say they are.”
Oh crap. He didn’t mean good at gardening. Her breaths came faster and her heart was racing too.
Torgeir clamped his hand over the back of her neck.
“This girl? Maybe. What did you say they’d pay you? Fifty thou? I’ll pay seventy.”
“No. I promised her.”
“To an outsider? Seventy-five.”
“Not enough.” The man stroked his beard. “You seem keen.”
“What do you expect? I’ve been off working as a Preyfinder for years. Now I’m free to do as I please, I please to buy and fuck women. Sell her. I will give up the Om I hold over you and I’ll give you seventy.”
She could hear surprise in bear man’s voice. His eyebrows rose to his hairline and remained there for some seconds. The room seemed quieter too, as if a shockwave had rippled outward. An Om must be worth something to them.
This was going to work, but she’d paid over so much more than this. She tried to grace Torgeir with an extra strong glare but couldn’t turn within the arc of his hand.
At least he was doing what he’d said he would – buying her. But...what if he did desire her? The large hand at her neck, the rope at her wrists, and the pulse of blood there because he’d tied it too tightly, all these reminded her of how impossible escape would be if Torgeir turned on her.
At last Kalfa stirred and gestured. “Wrap her eyes. She has an insolent look about her. Eighty. If you give up the Om and you fuck her here and tell me if she’s any good.”
She should run. Torgeir seemed to sense this and his fingers clamped in.
“Eighty? No. No watching me fuck her.” Casually he pulled her over, shoved her face first onto the table, and dragged down her underwear while he kept his palm planted on her lower back. Before she’d managed to do more than gasp a few times, he was tying the panties over her eyes. “There. Now, where were we?”
Today was a day for sensible cotton panties and she’d worn black and lacy. How silly to be mortified about that – from the cool draft, it was likely she was revealing all of her private area to anyone who bothered to look.
“At eighty. You know this other man, this foreigner, he wants her bad. I think he’ll go higher.”
With his hand on her neck, Torgeir kept her pinned though now and then his finger strayed and he stroked her ear lobe. “You’d sell this succulent female to an outsider? You can’t.”
He slapped her ass again. Squirming only resulted in him holding her down even firmer.
“You don’t want the Om?”
What was this Om?
The sound of her heartbeats drummed harder every second. The chair Kalfa sat in squeaked, as if he adjusted position while he thought about what to do, with her. This could not be happening.
If she told them she was almost a cyborg, Kalfa would let her go. Or he might kill her. The Sicar people hated borgs. She wasn’t one really, but he might still do it. Revulsion might make him release her or she might be killed. She didn’t know. The theoretical small print on their Way was so convoluted that no one raised outside of their system was sure of anything, one hundred percent.
Torgeir might be so disgusted he’d let her be sold too. That was the most likely result.
Ella sighed, shut her eyes beneath the cloth of her panties, feeling her lashes brush the lace, and she said nothing. Despair rose in her until it seemed her heart would wither into a knot of useless scarred flesh before this day was done.