"You were once the Lady Temione, were you not?" I inquired.
"Yes, Master," she said, lifting her head a little from the dirt, where, before me, in the camp of Cos, on the south bank of the Vosk, north of Holmesk, she knelt, head down, the palms of her hands on the ground.
"Lie on your right side before me," I said, "extending your left leg."
She did so. In this way, the bit of silk she wore fell to the right, displaying the line of her hip, thigh and calf. I saw the brand, tiny and tasteful, yet unmistakable, fixed in her thigh, high, under the hip. It was the common kajira brand, the staff and fronds, beauty subject to discipline, worn by most female slaves on Gor. She had the toes of the left leg pointed, lusciously curving the calf. I saw that she had had some training.
"You may resume your original position," I said.
She returned to it, a common position of slave obeisance.
I noted that her hair had grown out somewhat, in the weeks since I had last seen her, a free woman on the chain of Ephialtes, a sutler whom I had met at the inn of the Crooked Tarn, on the Vosk Road. He had been kind enough to act as my agent in certain matters.
"Tell me of matters since last we met," I suggested.
"It was at the Crooked Tarn, was it not?" she asked.
"Perhaps," I said.
"Or was it in the camp of Cos, near Ar's Station?" she asked.
"Perhaps," I said.
"I with others was once there blindfolded, and displayed," she said.
"Oh?" I said.
"Yes," she said.
"Speak," I said.
"As master recalls," she said. "I was detained at the Crooked Tarn, as a debtor slut."
"Yes," I said.
"And forced to earn my keep." she said.
"Yes," I said. Her use had cost me a tarsk bit. Had I had a slave sent to my «space» it would have cost me three full copper tarsks, for only a quarter of an Ahn. I had had her for a full Ahn, for the tarsk bit. That was, because, at that time, she had been free. She would be worth much more now, clearly. I noted the collar on her neck, metal, close-fitting and locked. It was easy to see, even with her head down, because of the shortness of her hair. It had been shaved off some weeks ago by the keeper of the Crooked Tarn, to be sold as raw materials for catapult cordage. Women's hair, soft, glossy, silky and resilient, stronger than vegetable fibers and more weather resistant, well woven, is ideal for such a purpose. The concept of "earning one's keep," in one sense, a strict legal sense, is more appropriate to a free woman than a slave. The slave, for example, cannot earn anything in her own name, or for herself, but only, like other domestic animals, for her master. To be sure, in another sense, a very practical sense, no one "earns her keep" like the female slave. She earns it, and with a vengeance. The master sees to it. The sense of "earning her keep" of which the former Lady Termione spoke was a rather special one. It was rather analogous to that of the slave, for, as I recalled, the keeper of the inn appropriated her earnings, ostensibly to defray the expenses of her keeping. A result of this, of course, was to make it impossible for her, by herself, to subtract as much as a tarsk bit from her redemption fee.
"In the morning, early, after the evening in which I had been carried, bound, to your space, to serve you, I, with other debtors-"
“‘Debtor sluts'," I said.
"Yes, master," she said. "-were redeemed. We were overjoyed, thinking to be freed, but found to our dismay that we were put in coffle, to be taken northward on the Vosk Road to the vicinity of Ar's Station."
''I see, ' I said.
"But before our redemption our heads were shaved by the keeper, for catapult cordage."
"I saw the pelts on a rack, outside the inn," I said. Her hair had been a beautiful auburn. That hair color is popular on Gor. It brings a high price in slave markets.
"A man named Ephialtes, a sutler of Cos, paid our redemption fees."
"It was he, then, who redeemed you?" I asked.
"I do not think so, Master," she said.
"He was acting as an agent then?" I said.
"I think so, Master," she said. "Though apparently one with powers to buy and sell as he pleased."
"On behalf on his principal?" I asked.
"Doubtless, Master," she said.
"You may kneel back," I said.
She straightened up, and then knelt back on her heels, her knees wide, her hands on her thighs. I had not specified this position, one of the most common for a female pleasure slave but she had assumed it unquestioningly, appropriately. It had been a test. She had passed. It would not be necessary to cuff her.
I listened to the sounds of the Vosk River in the background. "Though we were free women, six of us, as you recall, including myself, we were apparently to be marched naked, chained by the neck, in coffle behind a sutler's wagon."
"You objected?" I inquired.
"I and another, Klio, perhaps you remember her, did."
"And what happened?" I asked.
"We were lashed," she said. "It was done by a terrible person, one named Liadne, put over us as first girl, though we were free and she a mere slave!"
I remembered Liadne. She was lovely. I had first met her under her master's wagon, shivering in a tarpaulin, in an icy storm. I had used her but had paid her master for her use, leaving a coin in her mouth. I had had Ephialtes, the sutler, purchase her in the morning. I had thought she would make an excellent first girl, to introduce her free sisters into some understanding of their womanhood.
"We were then obedient," said the girl.
I did not doubt but what Liadne would have kept them, arrogant, spoiled free women, under superb discipline. That had certainly been my impression, at any rate, when I had seen them lined up, kneeling, naked, coffled, and blindfolded, in the camp of Cos near Ar's Station.
"We were taken to the Cosian camp, near Ar's Station," she said. "There we were kept naked, in coffle, and under discipline. One morning we were displayed in blindfolds."
I had not wanted them to know, or at least to know for certain, that it was I who had redeemed them, not simply for the pleasure of it, but for my own purposes, as well. This was not that unusual. Captors do not always reveal their identities immediately to their captives. It is sometimes amusing to keep women in ignorance as to whose power it is, within which they lie. Let them consider the matter with anxiety. Let them speculate wildly, frenziedly, tearfully. It is then time enough to reveal oneself to them, perhaps confirming their worst fears.
"The next morning," she said, "when I awakened, two of our girls were gone, Elene and Klio, and there was a new girl, a slender, very beautiful girl, also free, like the rest of us, on the coffle."
"What was her name?" I asked.
" 'Phoebe'," she said.
"Tell me of her," I said.
"She wore her collar and chain lovingly and well, most beautifully," she said. "She obeyed Liadne from the first, immediately, spontaneously, intuitively, naturally, with timidity, and perfection. It was as though she intuitively understood authority and her own rightful subjection to it. Though this new girl, like the rest of us, save Liadne, was free, I think I had seldom seen a woman, so early in captivity, so ready, so ripe, for the truths of the collar."
"She had perhaps fought out those matters in the sweaty sheets of her own bed, for years," I said.
"As had certain others, too," smiled the girl, looking down.
"You are beautiful," I commented, regarding her face, and lineaments, in the light of the nearby fire.
"Thank you, Master," she whispered.
"Was this new girl proud?" I asked.
"I think only of such things as her capacity for love, and her bondage," she said.
"But you said she was free," I reminded her.
"Of her natural bondage," she smiled."
"She was not then, in a normal sense, proud?"
"Not in ways typical of a vain free woman, at any rate."
"But yet," I said, "this new girl, unlike the rest of you, was wearing a slave strip."
"Ah, Master," said the girl, "it is as I suspected. It is you who redeemed us."
"Of course," I said.
"The new girl would not speak the identity of her captor, but, I take it, it was you who brought her to the coffle of Ephialtes."
I nodded. I had, of course, warned Phoebe to silence, with respect to whose captive she was, as my business in the north, at least at that time, had been secret.
"Her docility on the chain, its beauty on her, her eagerness to obey, and such, suggested that it might have been you, or someone like you," she said.
"And I thought it might have been you," she said, "from little things she would say, or knowing looks, or responses to our questions, or shy droppings of her gaze. In such ways can a woman speak, even when she is pretending not to. I think she was shyly eager to tell us all about you."
I nodded again. I was not unfamiliar with the small talk, the tiny riddles, the hints, the delights of conversing slaves. I had little doubt that Phoebe, and without too much provocation, might have revealed more of me, and of our relationship, and past, and such, than I would have approved of. She was marvelously feminine. It would not really do, of course, to whip her for such things, as she was free, and, even in the case of slaves, masters tend to be tolerant of such things. They make the girl so much more human.
"Was it you, too, who took Elene and Klio from the coffle?" she asked.
"Yes," I said.
"What did you do with them?" she asked.
"Did a slave ask permission to speak?" I asked.
"Forgive me, Master," she said.
"What is your name?" I asked.
" 'Temione'," she said. She wore that name now, of course, as a mere slave name, put on her by the will of a master. Slaves, as they are animals, may be named anything.
"I sold them," I said.
She looked at me.
"You may speak," I said.
"Both of them?" she asked.
"Yes," I said. I had sold them one morning, in the siege trenches. They had given me the cover I had needed to get to the walls of Ar's Station.
"Tell me of Ephialtes, Liadne, the coffle, and such," I said. I remembered the six debtor sluts I had redeemed at the Inn of the Crooked Tarn, the Lady Amina, of Venna; the Lady Elene, of Tyros; and the Ladies Klio, Rimice, Liomache and Temione, all of Cos.
"Ephialtes is well," she said, "and seems much taken with Liadne, as she with him. Two days after the fall of Ar's Station a mercenary, who had apparently seen much action, passed near the wagon of Ephialtes. Liomache, seeing him, startled, terrified, tried to hide amongst us but he, quick, and observant, had seen her! He rushed over to us. She could not escape, of course, as she was nude and helpless on the chain. Such niceties constrained us well, no differently than if we had been slaves. She cried out in misery. He pulled her up and shook her like a doll! "Liomache!" he cried. "It is you!"
"No!" she wept.
"I know you," he said. "I would know you anywhere. You are one of those sluts who lives off men, who runs up bills and then inveigles fools into satisfying them. I remember however that when I first met you you had been somewhat less successful than usual, and were being held for redemption at the inn. How piteously you misrepresented your case, and begged me, a lady so in distress and a compatriot of Cos, to rescue you from your predicament!"
"No! No!" she said. "It is not I!"
"You well made me your fool and dupe!" he snarled. "I paid your bill for three silver tarns, a fortune to me at the time, and put in travel money, too, that you might return to Cos!"
"It is not I!" she said.
"And for this I received not so much as a kiss, you claiming this would demean our relationship, by putting it on a «physical» basis."
"It was not I!" she wept.
"Well do I remember you in the fee cart moving rapidly away, laughing, carrying my purse with you, waving the redemption papers, signed for freedom!"
"It was not I!" she cried.
"Then he cuffed her. We gasped, for he had done so as if she might have been a slave. This took the fight out of her. He then thrust her back, and looked at her. 'But, said he, 'it seems that someone was not such a fool as I, for here you are, on a chain, in a warriors' camp. She could only look at him then, tears in her eyes. She knew that she had lost. 'Oh, cried he, 'how many times I have dreamed of having you in my power, of having you naked, in a collar! He turned her brutally about, from side to side, examining her. 'Excellent! he cried, 'You are not yet branded! She sank to her knees before him, her head in her hands, weeping. 'Keeper! cried he. 'Keeper! Ephialtes, who had been called forth by the commotion, was present. 'She is for sale, or my sword will have it so! cried the mercenary. In short, she was soon sold, for an enormous price, two gold pieces. She was startled that he wanted her so much. To be sure, the gold was doubtless that of Ar's Station."
"So that was the fate of Liomache?" I said.
"I saw her the next day. She was naked, in his collar, and branded. Indeed, she told me, proudly, that he had branded her with his own hand, it was a beautiful brand, and had been well done. She was also in a yoke. She seemed not discontent."
"Did you see her again?" I asked.
"No," she said, "though she is perhaps somewhere in this very camp."
"What of you?" I asked.
"The keeper of a paga enclosure, a man called Philebus, saw me the next day. It was not possible, of course, for us to conceal ourselves. Only too obviously we would come easily to the attention of even idle passers-by. He expressed interest. I was displayed, and said the "Buy me, Master." So simply was it done."
"You seem more beautiful than I remembered you," I said.
"My master tells me that I have grown much in beauty," she said. "I do not know if it is true or not."
"It is," I said.
"Thank you, Master," she said.
"When you left the coffle, then," I said, "it contained only Amina, Rimice and Phoebe."
"Yes," she said.
"I wonder if the coffle is still in the camp," I said.
"I would suppose so," she said. "But I do not know."
"Do you know anything more of them?" I asked.
She laughed. "Phoebe wants explicitly to be a slave," she said. "She scorns to hide her feelings and longs for the legalities which would publicly proclaim her natural condition. I do not think Amina has ever forgotten your kiss, that of a master, when she was helpless at the Crooked Tarn, chained to the outside wall the storm raging. Rimice, the curvaceous little slut, is already more than half a slave, as you know. All, I think it is fair to say, are itching for the touch of masters."
" 'Itching' " I asked, amused.
"A slave's expression," she smiled.
"And you?" I asked. "Are you «itching» for the touch of a master?"
She leaned forward, her eyes moist, beggingly. "I am already a slave," she whispered. "I do not itch for the touch of a master. Rather I scream and beg for it!"
"They may have all been sold by now."
"Yes, Master," she said.
"They were all choice items," I said.
"Yes, Master," she said.
"You know nothing more of them?" I asked.
"No, Master," she said. "But I suppose that they, in one way or another, are still with the camp."