The Slavers of the great port of Schendi threw a festival for the whole city, on the occasion of the groundbreaking for their new library cylinder.
Even before the Sky was streaked by rosy-fingered Dawn, on the cleared land where the Slaver library would one day stand, a good many stalls were set up to provide free food and drink. Musicians roamed the grounds playing tunes, acrobats leapt and tumbled. Mimes mimed. For those in the mood for a match of the Game, complete sets of Kaissa pieces could be gotten free from most concession stalls, along with a heavy-rence paper game board of tan and brown squares. Citizens, of all ages and all alike in their party mood, began to gather early. There was even the highly unusual sight of a black-robed member of the Assassin Caste within the throng of merry-makers.
There were several pagar kajira alcove-tipis erected for the carnal-minded. Even as the small tents were being staked and the leashed slave girls installed, lines had begun to form in front of the tipis' open flaps. The queues were made up mostly of adolescent males, young bachelors who weren't about to turn down the chance of a rut gratis with a lively kajira. Young maids strolling by in their fluttering Robes of Concealment and veils blushed furiously at the loud and lewd sounds of raw passion emanating from the long row of tipis. Older Free women, somewhat more wise to the order of the things, laughed derisively at the eager, randy youths.
Matronly amusement aside, it was, perhaps, too much to expect that any healthy Gorean male just into his first full flush of manhood could pass up the chance of furring a lively and willing pleasure silk-clad slave girl.
Even in a city such as Schendi, with an extensive Street of Brands district and above average slave population, a young man was unlikely to know the charms of a pleasure kajira, if he weren't the son of a rich house or born into a slaver family. Although the price of a good hunting sleen was many times the price of the average slave girl, owning a kolar'd slut was still an expensive proposition. Even paying for a coin-girl was beyond the normal means of the average young man just growing hair on his chin and looking to make his way in the world.
And the free sex tipis served a greater purpose than merely providing relief to aroused young men, the cultural practice all but eliminated sex-crimes on Gor.
To the delighted, if guarded, surprise of everyone, the Sun shone golden bright in a cloudless Sky on the day of the official groundbreaking for the new Slaver's cylinder. In the sub-equatorial city of Schendi it was mid-winter, technically speaking. And in winter in Schendi it constantly rained.
While it was definitely calendar winter just below the equator, it is understandable that visiting inhabitants of Gor's more temperate zones might take Schendi's hot and humid weather to be that of high summer. But the million or so permanent inhabitants of the great port city knew better. It was winter all right. A native of the region could tell the season by the tremendous amount of rainfall which sheeted into the surrounding jungle, pelted on the rooftops of the city, and flooded the flagstone boulevards and cobblestone streets.
Of course, it rained a great deal in the summer in Schendi as well, more in fact than during the so-called dry season of winter.
But, as has been stated, against all reasonable expectation, Lor-Torvis shone unchallenged on the ground-breaking festivities. It was as if the Central Fire itself graced the event. And, the commencement of the building of the grand new library/school was significant. It marked the public ascension of the Slaver Caste as a real power in Schendi, rivaled only by the fabulously wealthy and global influencial Merchant Caste of the freeport city-state.
The Assassin, a black dagger clearly tattooed on his sunburned forehead, moved smoothly through the assembled masses. A sleen in the fold. He brushed past a haruspex, a soothsayer who was working the crowd. The wide-eyed fortune teller shuddered at the passage of the night-garbed killer and gave a raspy whisper.
At the center of the two city blocks of cleared land, Builders had erected a platform, its floor three feet off the ground. On this stage stood the Administrator of Schendi, of the Merchant Caste, and twelve others, the rulers of the families which comprised the city's Slaver oligarchy. Set atop high white poles, surrounding the platform, long silken banners streamed and snapped in the persistent offshore breeze. There were thirteen pendants in all which waved above the crowd, twelve of them were of blue and yellow and each bore the emblem of a great slaver house, from the howling Jit-Monkey of the Ushanga family to the stylized Ul of the Dhahabu clan. One pennant displayed the emblem of Schendi herself, the Scimitar of Discipline and Shackles.
But the Assassin, who surveyed the scene with the alert raptor gaze of a circling tarn, knew that by all rights there should have been another flag among the collection, the cross-bones and skull ensign of the League of Black Slavers.
It was the Black Slavers, after all, who were footing the entire bill for both the festival and the erection of the Slaver cylinder. This was an open-secret within the city. But, the Assassin noted with a small grin on his cowl obscured face that it wasn't the First-Captain of the League who hosted the event, it was the City Administrator.
Here, too, there was irony.
Until the very recent past, the Merchant Caste had been considered inferior by the High Castes of Gor. However, with the widespread and growing acceptance of codified Merchant trade law the Merchants had grown into the richest of all the castes, far outstriping the Scribes, Warriors, and Physicians. As the keepers of the only international law ever enacted on the world, Merchants had also risen to be the highest de facto caste, if judged on the amount of economic and political influence they wielded. They held the fate of entire cities in their hands and everyone knew their collective power would only grow with the coming years.
Yet, as the Merchants had been reviled in times past, they in their turn looked down upon the Slaver Caste. Indeed, Merchants considered Slavers nothing more than a sub-caste of their own. The Slavers disagreed. According to Slaver history, Schendi had been founded by slavers. Merchants had come to the port only after it'd been safely settled and the threat of attack by rain-forest tribes neutralized. In Schendi, unlike anywhere else on Gor, there were Slaver families as rich as Merchants.
Needless to say, there was a certain cultural tension between the two castes within the city-state. The presence of the Administrator was a sign of how significant was the Slaver project. His presence further attested to the rising power of the Slavers, that a Merchant was compelled to give his implicit blessing to a rival caste enterprise, a cylinder which would rise one level higher than the Merchant's own high-rise.
If the Merchants were uncomfortable with their relationship with the city Slaver Caste, their relationship with the League was far more complex. The Assassin knew, as well as the Administrator, that Black Ox himself, First-Captain of the League of Black Slavers, was the library's real sponsor.
The League, with it's eleven ship fleet, kept Schendi's sea-lanes clear of competing pirate bands throughout the year. With its year-round plundering, north and south of the Equator, the Black Slavers constantly pumped revenue into the port city's economy. Also with its looted riches, the League fattened the assets of the banking houses on the Street of Coins, not to mention their various business concerns and real-estate holdings throughout the city.
For example, the cleared land where the festival was being held had once been host to row upon row of Black Slaver owned insulae. Insulae, what on Earth would be called residential hotels, were shabbily build wooden structures meant to generate maximum profit with minimum upkeep. But the thing about insulae was that they were candle and oil-lamp lit and they tended to burn down fairly frequently. For three-hundred and fifty years the League had owned the insulae, rebuilding each shabby tenement time after time through the years. But, after the last fire, which had nearly consumed the entire two blocks of insulae, Black Ox had decided to dedicate the land, in the heart of the Street of Brands District, to the library.
Whereas most ill-informed outsiders assumed Schendi tolerated the League, either out of fear or because of the indirect protection it gained from sheltering the depredators, the truth was Black Slaver money was a good part of the riches to be found in Schendi. Far from being a necessary evil, the League of Black Slavers was a full partner in the fortunes of the city and had been for uncounted centuries. One needed to merely consider the fact that wealthy Schendi had neither a standing army nor navy, yet the freeport had never been attacked.
It wasn't the Merchants who would-be raiders feared. It was fighting the green ships of the League which jellied their bowels.
For some long minutes the Assassin studied the figure of the Administrator up there on the stage, dressed in his flowing robes of white and gold, as he recited a prepared and verbose speech. One never knew when familiarity of a certain face might come in handy. But, eventually, he looked away from the politician, the merchant wasn't the target of his hunt.
His slitted gray eyes searched the rest of the group on the stage.
At the far left, clothed in pastel-blue and yellow dyed linen Robes of Concealment and properly street-veiled, stood Uhura. She had only lately come into the stewardship of the House of Mkuku, the second best slaver market in the city. Her father had been killed during a buying trip upriver. He'd fallen overboard and was eaten by river-sharks before he could be pulled to safety. Although Uhura would never sully herself with actual hands-on capture and training of slaves, she was an expert at running a slaver's mansion and none under her employ or slave-steel doubted that she was in charge. Uhura was most definitely mistress of her domain.
The Assassin moved his glance from her, for the woman was not his prey either.
Each slaver in turn came under his scrutiny, he noted their features and looked at the next in line until he reached the man farthest to the right, R'o, Master of the House of Dhahabu. The Dhahabu market was acknowledged as both the largest and the highest quality in the city. It was also an ancient enemy of the Mkuku. The multi-generational feud between Mkuku and Dhahabu had very nearly wrecked both houses. It was R'o and Uhura's father who had stitched together a shaky truce.
Coincidentally, Black Ox was the son of R'o.
The killer looked away from the stage, his quarry was absence from that group of worthies. His gray gaze moved to the large pavilion which rose behind the stage. The great tent, its center apex rising up some twenty feet from the bare ground, was of satin dyed in morning blue and yellow-gold. The sides of the gargantuan tent were rolled up and within could be seen the numerous representatives of the lesser slave houses of Schendi. A sectioned off portion segregated the Free women and children from the men and pagar-kajirae.
Socially speaking, Free females and pleasure-silk slave girls are natural antagonists. It was best to keep them separated.
Rich food was served on silver platters, delicacies from across Gor, brought to Schendi in the holds of the ships of the League. Fine wines and paga of excellence flowed from slender-throated pitchers poured by infinitely skilled slaves. Girls danced in pits dug into the ground and sand-filled, contesting their graceful movements against one another.
On an extensive and ornately woven carpet, sitting cross-legged, was the infamous Black Ox. Exulted sat the First-Captain. He was a big man, big hands, big feet, and well over six feet tall. His skin a rich dark brown, as were his eyes. A broad nose and generous lips helped to form a masculine and handsome face. His wide shoulders were covered in a blue and yellow aba of intricate brocade. The sleeveless robe left his powerful arms bare. He wore blue trousers with yellow piping and sandals. A silver stud pierced his left earlobe. Grandiose and boisterous, he was every inch the pirate-king.
He sat before a table with the hundred-square Kaissa board inlaid in its top in gold and aged whale-bone ivory. No paper game-board for the Fleet-Master, thought the Assassin. A much smaller man, in the garb of a Poet and his dark face frowning in concentration, sat opposite the admiral.
To either side of the big slaver were the much talked about pleasure-girls of Black Ox. His blonde la en kajira behind him and to his right and his red hair la se kajira to his left. Singly, either slave was dazzling, as a set of chain-girls they were incandescent. Their white skin made them even more exotic among the varied deep hues of Schendi's majority Black population.
The blonde, Angel, had been born Free. A daughter of a Turian merchant, she'd been captured by the Wagon People of the great plains far south and inland of Schendi. Years later, she'd been recaptured, by a Bazi warrior in the pay of Turia during a raid on the camp in which she served. The warrior had been a good friend of Black Ox, when the man had died the First-Captain had taken the kajira under his personal kolar, the first girl ever bestowed that honor, and installed her into the League's pleasure garden. She'd performed for years as maid to the ransomed Ubara of Ianda before being promoted to First-girl only a few months past.
Her hair was a cascading silken gold fall of curls which draped to her ass when she stood. Angel's face was heart-shaped. Her open and expressive eyes, expertly outlined in kohl, were the sweet clarified blue of a restful Thassa. Her nose was pert. Her lips full and her cheeks held a natural-rued blush. A golden kolar banded her graceful throat, etched upon it was the legend, property of Black Ox. Her shoulders were lightly tanned, as was the rest of her red-silked petite form. Her breasts, as with most kajirae, were very full with prominent nipples. They sat high and firm on her chest. Her waist was pinched by heredity and her hips were full. Her ass, like her face, was heart-shaped. Her mons and the twin-fruit of her sex were clean-shaven, so that her well-developed clit was obvious. Her legs were coltish with soft thighs and nicely defined calves. She had dainty feet.
She was, in a word, exquisite.
Angel's demeanor never varied from soft-spoken, even when admonishing a girl under her supervision. With the Free she was shy and flawlessly obedient. Her papers stated she was of high slave heat. The Assassin could believe that. He felt the tug of the slave's sensuousness even over the distance which separated them.
The redhead, Pele, was not the shy type. Indeed, her legally registered slave heat was the highest recorded in Schendi. She was an outrageous flirt, the cause of more than her share of induced-erections among the male population of the League's hidden cylinder. Only the fact that she was the First-Captain's private stock kept her from being constantly used by the men she so easily and highly aroused.
Her red mane was a variegated voluminous war-flag, twisted into a thick braid, which fell to the bottom curves of her firmly plump asscheeks. It was rumored that she was a wild-bred passion-girl. Such was easy to believe from the haughty, almost challenging expression in her eyes. It was said that the First-Captain often used his five-bladed whip on her, so that her lithe and snowy body was oftimes covered in ramberry colored welts.
As with Angel, the second-girl's eyes were also blue. But Pele's were the azure of an uninterrupted morning Sky. Because of the emergence of a recessive gene in her ancestry, the girl was red-haired and blue-eyed girl despite having been born of the swarthy and black wine brunette Tuchuk, of the Wagon People. Pale-skinned, the oval-faced slave had delicately sculpted ears which were ringed with small silver hoops. Silver too was her kolar, inscribed as property of Black Ox. An aquiline nose, also properly ringed, was at odds with her full and sultry lips. Her slender shoulders were dusted with freckles. Her breasts were large, even for a kajira, but so symmetrical that they did not seem too big for her carriage. Her pale coral-nipples, seemed perpetually hard beneath her transparent red silks. There was a small tuft of hair above her mons and the swell of her glistening cuntlips. A final silver hoop graced her long clitoris. Her round hips supported a succulent ass, generous thighs and long legs.
Although her stomach didn't yet bulge, the slave was two months pregnant.
Assuredly, the sluts of Black Ox were a sight worth seeing.
The Assassin cleared his mind of the momentary distraction of the beautiful kajirae and moved quickly but unhurriedly through the milling crowd, closer to Black Ox's position.
There were many people all over the world who wished to do Captain Black Ox harm.
This wasn't paranoid delusion on the part of the good captain. As leader of the piratical League of Black Slavers he was a wanted man across the face of Gor, expect in his home port of Schendi. In the Schendi, Black Ox was a tax-paying and respected citizen. More than that, he was the only son of the powerful House of Dhahabu. As a consequence, he didn't think of himself as a wanted man, nor as a criminal. Black Ox saw himself as a member in good standing with his caste, who happened to be the leader of a large-scale and very successful slaving operation.
The fact that people wanted to kill him, that there was an ever-increasing bounty on his head with every passing year, was merely a by-product, a natural outgrowth, of his savage profession. All of which was far from his mind as he looked about the pavilion and out the open sides at the gathering.
He was well-pleased that the festival had turned out so successful, as happy as everyone else that not only had the rain had held off but that the Sky was actually cloudless and that the damp, steaming land was graced by sunshine. Colorful and raucous-voiced birds skylarked overhead, seeming as free of care as the holiday crowd below. The wheeling and diving avians kept a sharp eye out for any crumbs or tidbits that might be dropped to the ground.
The library project had grown out of the First-Captain's enforced stay in port, prompted by an extensive overhaul of his ship, while the rest of the fleet had headed north, to ravage the sea lanes and coastal settlements during the Northern Hemisphere summer. In the League, it is said, to keep a Black Slaver in port when there is booty to be had is to cage the panther. But Black Ox, a man capable of thinking as well as fighting, had managed to turn a temporary negative into a long-lasting positive.
Even more importantly, for the moment, he was winning the Kaissa match. By his calculations he'd have his opponent's home stone in check in five moves. The wagered copper bit the Poet had put up, against Black Ox's sack of twelve double-weight gold tarn pieces, was as good as in his belt-wallet. As the pirate waited for his opponent's next move, he casually held out his embossed iron cuppa for his First-girl to refill.
Then it happened.
At the periphery of his vision, he saw the wink of sunlight glint off something in the crowd outside. It could've been the chroming of light off an pendant around a sandal-maker's neck, or a spark off the enameled kolar of a fish-monger's slave. Something of no import.
However, Black Ox was a seaman. This meant that unlike a landsman, he couldn't afford to take his environment for granted, not when a change of the color of water beneath the ship's keel could mean the presence of sharp-toothed rocks just below the surface, or anomalous white-caps in the distance that could just as well be a squadron of enemy ships bearing down on his position. Decades of training compelled Black Ox to look up from the board and see what had snagged his attention. Over the heads of the crowd he saw the Assassin, thirty feet or so away, raise his crossbow and aim.
The Assassin too had seen the glint of sunlight. It'd come from a jewelry vendor hawking his wares. Just to the side of the black robed hunter, the jeweler was holding up a silver ring set with amethyst, the better to show off the stone's color for a customer. It was the lavender stone which had caught the light and flashed it from its depths. Although the sparkle had not washed out the Assassin's vision, it was dazzling enough to affect his aim at the moment he pulled the trigger of the bow.
As the bolt left the weapon the Assassin knew that the missile would go wide of its mark.
The danger plain and immediate, Black Ox was in the process of heaving himself up off his carpet when fire erupted white hot in his right arm. He looked down to see the crossbow-bolt buried in his forearm, pain crackled around the outraged nerves of the deep puncture. Blood had begun to stream ruby-red from the wound. The half-filled cup fell from numb fingers, to dully clank down onto the carpet, spilling its pale yellow contents. He growled in his throat, gaining his feet and knocking over the Kaissa table in the process, game pieces scattered to the carpet. The startled Poet fell back in surprise.
Black Ox bellowed, a primordial expression of pain and rage, as he charged forward out of the tent toward the man who'd shot him.
The moment the first errant bolt had cleared his weapon, the Assassin had begun to recock the crossbow. He quickly ratcheted the bow back to its armed position and withdrew another arrow from a quiver sewn into his robe. He did this calmly, without fear. He didn't consider escape.
For nearly two hundred years he'd practiced his craft. The Assassin was a consummate professional and once a professional Assassin had accepted coin his priority was killing the prey, not his own safety. He would fulfill the contract, then seek escape. In the first moments of confusion following the slaying he should be able to use the crowd to his advantage, to gain the vast Schendi harbor area and to stow-away on a departing ship. But first the prey must be brought down.
He was aware of the huge Black Slaver charging at him but the Assassin did not panic. He smoothly withdrew the bolt, placed it in its slot and raised the crossbow once more to his face, squinting with one eye, in a classic shooting stance. The First-Captain was dead in his sights, nearly blocking out the rest of the world as he pounded closer.
Black Ox, his mobile lips pushed back in an ugly grimace, saw the Assassin raise his weapon again. He lowered his head and broad shoulders and barreled into the would-be killer, ramming him in the mid-section. The Slaver heard the air whoosh loudly from the tackled Assassin. He also heard the twang of the crossbow fire, the bolt passing harmlessly above his back as he slammed the Assassin into the dirt.
Still bellowing, Black Ox sat on the attacker's chest and with his right arm hanging useless at his side. He clamped his big, callused left hand over the Assassin's throat.
The man coughed, then wheezed as he felt his windpipe being inexorably crushed. He let go of the crossbow and own hands scrambled over his attacker's fingers, trying to find a purchase, a way to peel back the steel grip. But it was no use, the enraged Slaver was the far stronger man. The Assassin felt panic begin to tinge his thoughts. Not only was his Primitive Cortex, his hindbrain, reacting to the contraction of his air-supply but he could feel the extreme pressure of Black Ox's vise-grip beginning to crush his windpipe. He was growing light-headed, no longer the dominant predator, the Assassin had become a caught prey-item.
By accident, more than by design, his left hand batted against the shaft of the quarrel still stuck in his opponent's forearm. In desperation, the Assasin seized the bolt. He jerked it, twisted it, grinding the arrow in the fresh wound.
Black Ox howled. It felt as if his entire arm had been dipped in acid. He could feel the bolt shaft scraping bone as the Assassin cruelly twisted the thing. But this wasn't the first life and death struggle the pirate had found himself fighting. Instinctively, he leaned forward, bringing his weight into play. Increasing the stress on the man's throat. And, while the loss of blood and shock conspired to sap his considerable strength, he was more than powerful enough to shatter something as fragile as a trachea.
The Assassin heard his own death rattle as the delicate bones of his windpipe gave way under Black Ox's assault. Over the span of his long career he had witnessed the death of a thousand of his victims, men, women and children. He now experienced for himself the sense of outrage, of feeling cheated of the days still due him.
Despite nearly two hundred years of an unblemished record, the Assassin died in shame, his prey living on.
Black Ox held on to the crushed throat for long seconds after the Assassin died. I'm alive, he thought, greatly relieved, as always after defending his life.
Pain from his stirred injury nearly made the big pirate swoon, he saw the world begin to gray over but he fought it, his instincts telling him that it was urgent for him to regain his senses. He bellowed again as he unwrapped the Assassin's dead finger's from the arrow shaft aslant in his blood-covered arm and released his hold on the corpse's shattered throat.
It was then that it registered to him that someone back in the tent was keening a high-pitched scream into the morning air. He struggled to stand, succeeding with some great effort, and swaying on his feet he turned around.
The path he had plowed open through the crowd only seconds before had not collapsed. It was as if the people were afraid to intrude upon the berserker, the way fish will stay clear of a shark's wake. With that clear line-of-sight he could see directly into the pavilion, at his carpet, at the upset Kaissa table. He could see that it was Pele who wailed.
And he could see the slumped figure of Angel draped in Pele's arms. Black Ox felt his body turn ice cold. The pain in his arm went away. The rage went away. And abject fear gripped his heart.
"No," he grunted, feeling his testicles crawl up close to his body.
He didn't remember stumbling back under the awning of the tent but suddenly there he was looking down to see Angel who had fallen across Pele's lap. The First-girl's transparent red silks had rucked up over her hip, clearly revealing the expanse of curved tanned flesh still warm but no longer animated. Her golden tresses had spread over her shoulders, with wispy strands covering her beautiful face. The ugly shaft of the crossbow quarrel protruded from her breast. The blonde had been shot through the heart by the Assassin's second bolt. Livid red blood ran from the wound.
And, of course, she was dead. No longer a vivacious and willing girl, now merely a thing.
But how can that be, Black Ox heard a voice inside his head ask. Less than a minute ago she was pouring wine. Less than a minute ago she was smiling.
At the approach of her master, Pele ceased wailing, but her gorgeous face was a ruin of grief, her mouth still formed an O, a silent scream as she helplessly looked up at Black Ox. Her lovely eyes swam in tears. The strength left Black Ox's legs and he sank heavily to the carpet, stained now with both his and the dead kajira's blood. In an unconscious gesture of comfort, he reached out and stroked the Second-girl's head. She pressed back hard against his hand, seeking security.
The Slaver was far too much of a civilized Gorean to show his grief in public. However much he might have loved his First-girl, and he had loved her with a pure clean-burning flame, in polite society a slave was merely an animal, after all. The affection for one's pets was not a thing for general consumption. An emotion display would be considered unseemly. Black Ox was a prince of the city, to borrow a barbarian phrase, and he would comport himself as such.
he lifted Angel's head from Pele's lap and lowered it to the carpet. Black Ox then struggled out of his aba, with the shaft of the quarrel still lodged in his arm, and tenderly draped the robe over Angel's supine form.
"Fair winds, sweet Angel," he murmured, so that only Pele heard.
In short order, Black Ox's arm was attended to. Under guard, the Second-girl was sent back to the League's cylinder along with the dead en kajira, and the festival continued. The excitement of the foiled Assassination, the death of the beautiful and expensive kajira only added to the excitement of the day. Black Ox had also made sure to give the Poet the purse of double-gold tarns, wagered in the forfeited Kaissa game. All would later agree that it had been a most memorable festival, one that would be talked about for years.
In the botanical gardens courtyard of the League's hidden cylinder a tower of wood, about six feet high, had been built into a pyre. Within that pyre, shroud in red linen, lie the body of the fallen Angel.
The dusky Sky was bruising purple toward true night when all of the dozens of pleasure kajirae of the cylinder filed singly into the courtyard. Each carried a small unlit brass oil-lamp. Known as the Ravishment Lamp, or lamp of love, the spouted lantern was traditionally lit in the sleep-chamber when a master wished to thoroughly use his slave girl. The lamp was as much a symbol of a pagar kajira's enslavement and devotion as was her kolar.
As the slaves entered the courtyard and crossed the flagstones they moved to the pyre before pouring a dollop measure of the oil from their lamps onto the wood. The oil had been scented for the occasion with Angel's signature perfume, so that the wood, and hence the night air, carried the dead girl's bouquet.
After silently, gracefully, performing the ritual of oiling the wood, the assembled kajirae arranged themselves into three concentrate circles around the pyre, the most senior and favored girls composing the inner circle, the newer and less skilled chain-daughters forming the outermost. They all knelt into their nadu, except for the Second-girl. Pele lit her lamp with her master's fire maker. The new and well-clipped wick caught the flame and she steeped from the inner-circle to the pyre.
"Tal, sister," she whispered, with wet eyes, as she looked at the shrouded figure.
She and Angel had never been friends.
After her owner, a First-girl is absolute ruler over her master's pleasure garden. A slave-ubara, as it were. To maintain a razor-edged sharpness among the girls demands a certain amount of ruthlessness. More than once Pele had felt the authority of Angel and she had naturally enough resented it. As the only two girls to wear Black Ox's personal kolar they couldn't help but be competitors. The fact that the First-Captain had chosen to honor Pele by breeding her with his own seed had not made the First and Second-girl's relationship any easier. But, Pele felt, that competition to strive higher in their master's eyes had made them both better kajirae. And for that she was both grateful and respectful to her former mistress.
"You always served with fire and perfection. May you sit by the Great Mother's side."
Then she touched the short fire of the lamp to the doused wood. There was a soft whump as the flame caught in the flammable oil. In the suddenly brightened courtyard, Pele returned to the three-rowed circle, passing among the kneeling kajira, lighting the lamp of each. The scene was other-worldly, the slave girls in their fluttering silks seeming more beautiful spirits, drifting in the night, than actual flesh and blood beings. Their very postures bespoke their wretched sorrow.
As far as the rendering of the dead, the Gorean axiom is to burn or bury the Free, to throw the criminal and slave to the sleens. In the aftermath of Angel's slaying, Black Ox had turned that saying on its head. In the afternoon, after he'd returned to the League's cylinder from the ground-breaking festival, he'd gone down to the Iron Pens and had personally, one-handedly, savagely chopped the Assassin's body into small chunks with an ax and kicked them into the fighting-sleen pit.
The act hadn't dampened his sense of bereavement even a little bit. He hadn't expected that it would. The loss of Angel was an open wound he expected would never truly heal. Under the archway of the courtyard, he stood with a vast, whistling emptiness inside.
Beside him stood an old woman. She was Kauahae, the former Ubara of Ianda.
Decades ago, long before he'd become First-Captain, Black Ox had kidnapped her and brought the woman to the cylinder, to hold her there until the Ubar of Ianda forked over the ransom for her. He never had, instead the island Ubar had installed a younger girl in his Free Companion's place and moved on with his life. After a few months the naturally gregarious Ubara, lonely for company, had moved out of her suite of rooms and into the Pleasure Garden with the kajirae. She had resided there ever since. Both she and Black Ox watched the pyre's flame climb high into the night. They didn't step into the courtyard proper because they were Free and the funeral was for a slave, something that was beneath their official notice.
"Angel was the best abigail I ever had," the ancient Ubara, sniffed. She dabbed at her red and puffy eyes with a handkerchief. "No maid at my court was half as accomplished."
"I'm sure Angel would feel there could be no higher praise," Black Ox said, his deep voice thick and raspy.
"I think as well that she would be happy to know that her death aided her master in some small way to defeat an enemy bent on killing him."
Black Ox shook his head in the negative, as he adjusted his arm in the sling, gingerly flexing his fingers. "No. I wasn't the Assassin's target."
The Ubara frowned as she looked up at the Fleet-Master. "I don't understand."
"It's simple. I was looking directly at the Assassin when he pulled the crossbow's trigger. He wasn't aiming at me. He was aiming to my left. The urt intended to kill Pele," he said, nodding toward the Tuchuk girl who knelt now, back in her place unmoving, near to the roaring flames.
The Ubara frowned behind her gossamer house veil. "But why would anyone hire an Assassin to kill a slave?"
"Because she is unique, because she is the only slave who carries my child, my potential heir." Again his glance went to the Second-girl. "Whoever sent the Assassin didn't want me dead, they wanted me to suffer."
"Ah," the ubara nodded. "Unusual motivations, if true."
"Aye. Not the normal course of things to be sure. Not the way men usually do business, neh? It denotes a certain subtle, feminine turn of mind. Don't you think?"
The ubara's first thought was that the Admiral was implicating her, then she realized his true meaning. "The Lady Uhura?"
"Aye," Black Ox confirmed, the firelight reflected orange on his dark face. His lips were compressed into a thin line. "She's no more forgotten that her brother died on my knife than I have. And now, with her father gone and Uhura in charge of her house, she seeks to balance the scales. She must've heard about the child, of my affection for Pele. Her only mistake was being too devious, she didn't send the Assassin for me. She's missed her opportunity and now its my turn."
The ubara sighed, briefly fluttering her thin veil. "So you take up the feud again."
Black Ox shook his head once more. "No. Neither my house, nor the city's Slaver community in general can afford such a destructive conflict at this time. But life is long, great lady, and somewhere in Time I'll find my chance for vengeance. In the meanwhile, I'd prefer that Pele not know she was the intended victim."
"She won't hear it from me," said the old woman. "But I'd wager she's already figured it out for herself. That girl is a thinker, as quick-witted as any I've known. Free or slave."
Black Ox gave an affirmative nod. "Aye, that she is. Before her, I'd never found another I'd even considered fit to mother my children. Free or slave, as you say."
His dark gaze settled once more on the kneeling kajira, highlighted by the lamp in her hands and pyre's flames. "She's precious beyond price to me. This I say without shame, I'd have preferred that the very rock of the Sardar Mountain have crumbled into dust before witnessing the evil day that took away my Angel. But, better that the stars themselves snuff out before Pele is taken from me."
The Ubara remained silent, accepting the honor the First-Captain bestowed on her, by allowing his true feelings to be expressed. And she knew that Uhura, of the House of Mkuku, was doomed.
With nightfall came the end to the brief spell of fair weather over Schendi. Tendrils of cloud crept into the Sky, masking the three moons and erasing the hard glint of the Galaxy's countless stars. As the kajirae, the Ubara, and the First-Captain stood vigil, the rains returned in quiet patters, the warm drops hissed into the flames of the pyre.
Night wept over Schendi and the fallen Angel.