Planet name: Ilavani
Ilayear 2034 A.L.
Old Earth year: 5817 A.C.E.
3rd of Maidou, Early Spring
09:00 Hours, Founder’s Landing Spaceport
MAЁL & CAM
“It’s the Tànaiste!”
Tourmaëline cast a wry glance at his brother, Cam. Cameron Tànaiste, Imminent Heir Apparent and Second in Command of the Righ’sea of Erieria, to be entirely proper. Maël lifted a hand to wipe the grin off his face at the subdued expression of annoyance painting his brother’s visage.
He nudged Cam’s shoulder as they walked through the markets of Founders’ Landing Spaceport. Cam’s Royal Companion, Carnelian swayed on xyr tall shoes beside them. Maël knew how much Cam hated the acclaim, but it was part and parcel of who they both were. Maël nudged his brother again, finally making him grin as they made their way through the crowds surrounded by their personal retinue.
Despite the humanoid crush in the narrow streets, the squadron of royal guards and their servants insulated their core group from the crowds. Outlandish beauty the norm, each person’s genetic construction and morphology were unique and striking. The fantastical aspects of the people at odds with the zipping shuttles rippling dust through the ancient city streets.
Minotaurs and winged beings were common, but all the people were varied and bizarre in mien, much more so than at Yiasa Royal Court. Maël had been absent from court for much of the past few ilayears—each ilayear the equivalent of two earth-years—and he’d missed the variety. Studying with a series of craft-holders to pass his trials had been interesting, if visually boring.
Those with wings or horns and some with serpentine scales or hooves were commonplace. Human-plant hybrids with tree bark in place of skin moved apace with those with long tails and fur. The rarer and more outlandish had tentacles, gills, or fish scales. The heavily-marked, metamo, genetic-constructions mixed with unadu and malga, the Earth human-seeming people. The noise in the stone-cobbled marketplace burbled and leapt as many conversations melded together. An occasional spike of sound, a laugh, a shout, or a cry of dismay crested above the cascading noise.
“I’d forgotten how crowded auction days are.” Cam looked at his brother. “Amusing as it is, it’s oppressive.”
Maël quirked a brow at Cam and shrugged wide, bare shoulders in the spring heat. “I rather enjoy the excitement. Founders’ Landing is the inter-planetary, commercial hub of Erieria after all.” Maël lifted his chin at the crowds. “Look around you, there’s more diversity here on auction day than you see anywhere except our Cloisters. It’s fascinating just to people watch.”
“I’ve been sheltered the past five ilayears. I used to be accustomed to the variety, but, you know… ”
Maël bit his lip, then nodded. “Your trials, I know. You’ve barely left Yiasa in years.”
“If I’d known I’d be the next bloody King, I’d have done things much differently.”
Maël grunted. “You and me both. No one could’ve known how much would change, nor how quickly.”
They were both silent for a moment as they walked, remembering their dead. Maël shook off the old grief strangling his heart and wrenched his thoughts back to their task. The knowledge of their family’s misfortunes never left either of them. Their losses had changed both their lives and saddled both he and Cam with unexpected authority. It didn’t change their task today, though. To get new stock for the cloisters.
They wove their way through the crowded marketplace, Maël making a game of identifying people’s statuses by their facial markings. It kept his mind agile and his skill as a spy top-notch. The patterns of gemstones, tattoos, and scarification, often seen in just a glance before passing, told him much about a particular person’s station in life, their genetic lineage, their profession, and their breeding status.
“You’re right, people watching helps,” Cam muttered.
Cam’s mouth quirked, and he gently shoved his brother. “Know it all wise-ass.”
“Of course! Information is power you know, and it’s what you pay me for.”
“I don’t pay you anything for intelligence work, and you know it.”
“Yeah… about that.” He winked a cat-slit eye at Cam, then grinned saucily.
Cam rolled his eyes and shook his head.
Maël kept smiling, happy he could lighten his brother’s load, just a bit.
People of every station thronged the ancient cobblestones. The scents of food cooking on open braziers and the odor of sweat mingled with early spring air lush with the aroma of warming earth and green plants. Flourishing gen-con life shouted their presence through a myriad of musky scents, sights, and psi-emanations. Their multifariousness demonstrated generations of gene-splicing and tinkering.
Maël squinted up at the anemic light from the twin suns, washing the day in fragile warmth. “Thank the Twins winter’s easing off, I’m so sick of snow.”
Cam turned his face up, the light bathed his dark bronze skin gold. “You can say that again, I hate being cold. It’s wonderful to be outside and not freezing my ass off.”
Maël waved a hand in front of his face. “I could do without the dust, though. This city is always so nasty.”
“I feel like a little boy let out of school early, even with the crowds, and the dust, and the stench.”
Maël and Carnelian—Li—laughed, xyr contralto voice intertwining with Maël’s velvety base. He wrapped an arm around Cam’s shoulders as they walked. “You’ve almost finished your trials. Things should ease up now.”
“Hey, remember hassling that vendor?” Cam nodded his head discreetly at a minotaur shopkeeper.
Maël grimaced. “Unfortunately, I was a bit of a shit growing up.”
“Only growing up?”
“Ha. Ha. I’ve matured… a little.”
Maël rolled his eyes. Everyone was so Twin’s damned serious.
As they strolled through the outdoor marketplace toward the street leading to the auctions, Sub-Commander Simon’s pace faltered. Without further signal, the brothers quartered the area with intent gazes. They focused on a minor disturbance across the square at an otherwise nondescript building built of bleached planks.
Simon motioned to his guards and within seconds they’d formed a double column around the princes and their core companions, creating a corridor allowing Cam and Maël to move freely toward the building.
Six of the Ard Righ’s—the A.I. that governed many aspects of life on Ilavani—Silver Wardens exited the building with clockwork rigidity. Ever since the rebellions, it’d become increasingly rare, bizarre in fact, to see the Wardens gathered together in any number. The liquid silver of their eyes, the network of silvered veins in their faces and necks made them stand out, even in this crowd of extraordinary creatures.
Their faces were serene, though many wore battle rumpled clothing. One bore a bleeding wound. Each of them wore the uniform of the Wardens, unrelieved black from head to toe. Black jackets with the symbol of the Ard Righ embroidered in silver thread on the left breast, the back, and upper right arm. Black laser pistols and steel blades were holstered underneath the coats. The Wardens moved with swift, mechanical efficiency.
The gen-con’s faces were blank and disinterested in their surroundings. Too much so. They followed the Wardens obediently, their feet shuffling in the dust and their eyes downcast. The gen-con were far too docile, even for indentured servants—they showed no interest in anything around them—no emotion, no fear. Maël took a step to the side as Cam exercised his status and summoned the head of the Wardens to request information.
The woman wearing Commander’s stripes came over and took a knee at the edge of the cordon, bowing her head to the princes’. Other than the liquid silver of her eyes—sclera and iris both—she looked human, lacking most of the obvious physical markers of a Warden. The brothers knew Adroit Silver Warden Philodox well. She’d been the Ard Righ’s liaison to their father’s court for the past ten years.
“Tànaiste, Highness,” she said to the brothers, saluting fist to heart and waiting to be addressed.
Cam flicked his hand. “You may rise and approach.”
Philodox stood, moved within the cordon of guards and took up parade rest stance between Cam and Maël. Then she looked back to the group as they were escorted out of the building by the other Wardens.
Maël watched the blank-eyed gen-con with hawk-like focus as the Sentinel-level Wardens guided them away, he listened closely to Cam’s interrogation of the cyborg.
“Adroit Philodox, is this part of the thrall investigation we requested aid in?”
“Yes, Tànaiste.” Her voice held a measure of the toneless lack of modulation most Silver Wardens spoke with. “As requested, I have had my troop scouring your father’s demesne for information on these creatures. These are not the first we have found, but neither the Ard Righ nor I have ever seen the like. Your father is correct: someone has been breeding… ” Her staccato voice trailed off as she searched for words. When she continued, just a trace of humanity crept into her tone. “The best way to describe it would be someone has been crafting creatures barely able to care for themselves. They have been selling them to brothels all over Erieria, Astirewyre, and Niveralay. We have just raided a comfort house made up exclusively of the poor creatures.” Philodox shook her head. A leftover human habit from before she’d gone through the Silver Change and an indication she, unlike the Sentinels, still felt emotion.
She sighed. “There is no record of a contract for their services, no record of anything there should be. No bond contract, no training certificates, not even a bloody crafters’ affidavit. They do not even have indentured tattoos. The only records we have found, either in their owner’s databases or minds, indicates the creatures were purchased outright, in direct contravention of the Laws of Consent and Indenture. Sadly, the poor things cannot even speak.”
Maël’s voice thrummed with anger. “Are you saying those creatures don’t have the mental acuity to consent to their usage?”
“That is exactly what I am saying, Righ’sa Tourmaëline, they lack speech, they do whatever they are ordered to, and from what mental scans of them tell me, they completely lack higher mental function.”
“That’s…” Maël’s voice trailed off for a moment, and when he continued his voice held disgust. “That’s worse than abuse, that’s rape.”
Maël crossed his arms over his bare, tattooed chest and watched the shuffling gen-con with a frown on his cat-like face.
“Please report to Alexander Righ when you’ve finished downloading to the Ard Righ,” Cam instructed Philodox.
“As you wish, Tànaiste.” She bowed, fist over heart.
Cam thanked her and released her to follow her troops.
“What the fuck?” Maël asked. “How long has this been going on?”
Cam shook his head. “Two weeks that we know of. I’m surprised you haven’t caught wind of it. We’ve got the Wardens looking into it because it’s crossed three international borders.”
“I’ve been distracted with my apprenticeship trials. I only got back to Yiasa last night. I still should’ve known about this.” Maël nibbled his lower lip, fangs flashing. “I’ll be speaking to my second about what’s important enough to disturb me about for certain. I’m glad you and Dad have the Wardens leading the investigation. It’ll make it easier to have the impartiality of the Ard Righ involved. Is Dad pissed?”
“Furious, Father’s worried it’ll affect the confidence of his councilors.”
Maël shook his head, a frown creasing his brow, making his blue diamond marking stones flash. “There has to be a huge underground organization to spread these things around the whole Righ’sea and into two others. Have they been found everywhere in the Kingdom?”
Cam nodded, his arms crossed over his loose white shirt, and snug red vest.
“My spies have mentioned a drop in their clientele, but I hadn’t heard about these… thralls. The bulk of my agents are guild companions. I doubt they’ve encountered these things, they move in high society, not low. My other agents must’ve known, which means my second does.” Maël jerked his chin at the run down shack that the Wardens had taken the indentured thralls from. “That brothel is one of the less reputable in Founders’ Landing, it’s not a surprise the owner made use of mindless sex slaves. Still, it sickens me.”
Cam turned and led the way back to their group. Maël gave the order for the troops to continue. They walked on, the general hubbub of the market slowly resuming its boisterous noise.
Maël forced negative thoughts and worries from his mind, for now. He let his eyes roam, considering the city. Founders’ Landing had been built like old Earth cities and reeked of age. The way their ancestors had constructed the city—full of right angles and tall buildings—lent an air of wasteful utilitarianism to the place. If it hadn’t had emotional value to the Ilavanian people, the decaying lump would’ve been razed to the ground and rebuilt long ago.
“As fond as my memories are of this place, it really is disgusting.” Cam shook his head.
“Of course it is, it’s made of mud-brick and cut, dead, stone. The drainage is atrocious, and I’m not even going to think about the sewage system. The smell speaks for itself.”
“Still.” Cam looked around. “We had fun here as kids.”
Maël chuckled and shoved Cam gently with his shoulder. “We did.”
Maël glanced at his brother. For the past five ilayears he’d had to travel to the auctions without Cam. Often, he’d had to fly dragonback from distant craft-holds to see to the business of buying stock for the main income-generating business in their kingdom. Cam had been so busy making up lost time with his trials that he’d had to avoid the added responsibility.
Maël had been surprised when Cam wanted to join him today. But when his brother had said he’d desperately needed a day of amusement—an escape from his growing duties—as their father groomed him for rule, Maël had been pleased to have his company.
The fact that Cam had to make a point of asking for time to spend with his brother and their lover, Li hadn’t escaped Maël. If they were lucky, they’d find some special wares to purchase at the reserved gen-con auction they were going to. If not, they at least had the day to spend together.
As the crowd parted for them, he paused often to intently examine the offerings of both crowd and street vendors. As usual, his presence drew attention. The glances were understandable considering Maël’s fey, cat-like beauty, firmly-sculpted body, and minimal clothing. Like many practicing companions, regardless of gender, Maël went shirtless, showing off his extensive companion’s tattoo. The ink covered more than half of his exposed flesh in brilliant strokes of blue, green, and metallic silver. Both Maël and Li were companions by trade. Maël’s tattoo was a mark both of high status and an indication of the long years of study and practice he’d put into the arts and sciences of giving both pleasure and pain.
He wore a wide, brown leather belt; a hand-span in width wrapped around his waist. The dark brown of the leather complimented Maël’s golden-brown skin. Two thick, gold, wire-work, bracelets—ornately crafted to depict the willow tree of Erieria—encircled his muscular wrists. Maël also wore his guild companion’s bright gold torc and arm bands, they glinted in the sunlight.
He’d left his hair to fall in a disordered mass to his waist. The heraldic willow tattooed on the outside of his shoulder—above the bicep—peeked through a loose lock of the tiger striped mane. It indicated he’d trained at the Sarayan Cloisters of Erieria. The Erierian Cloisters were one of the top three courtesan training schools in the thirteen Ilavanian Righ’sea. He strolled along the covered merchant booths, and his gold-handled flogger swayed in time with his steps. Hanging from his hip, the flogger symbolized his status as Master of the Cloisters. Maël lost himself in appreciation of a piece of artwork and heads turned to look lustfully at him. He ignored the pressure of their gazes, lost to the artist’s skill.
Cam stood with his arms crossed over his vest, watching Maël as he lost himself, again, to artwork. His brother’s lust for art almost exceeded his need for sex.
The crowd grew closer to him and Cam repressed a smile. He shook his head. Incredibly skilled in the arts of sensuality, Maël’s control of his other gifts sometimes lacked. Whenever he became distracted or emotional, repression of his metaphysical gift of Expressive Aphrodisia faded. The lovely shopkeeper of the stall that he stood in front of fussed with her hair, then licked her lips. Her gaze intently caressed Maël’s facial limning, his tattoos, and everything physical that Maël had to offer. She trailed the fingers of one hand down over a heavy breast to caress the full curve of her belly.
Chuckling a little, Cam looked up to Li and canted his head sideways, drawing xyr attention to Maël.
Xyr lips quirked in shared amusement, and xyr eyes crinkled in fondness as xie too shook xyr head. “He’ll notice soon enough.” Xie laughed softly. “He’ll get out of it with his charm, as always. Though he may end up buying some artwork.”
Cam looked back to where Maël stood laughing with the storekeeper, his head thrown back. Cam loved Maël’s free spirit, his ability with people and humor, his lust for life. He’d always been the naturally less austere of the two of them. Maël could make anybody laugh, bring anyone pleasure. Cam grinned up at Li as his brother’s laughter lifted his mood. Also a professionally trained, tattooed, guild companion, Cam’s beloved Li—his heart-mate and twin-flame—stood watching his brother, xyr other lover in their polyamorous vee.
Xie was Cam’s titled Royal Companion, a bodyguard and a gifted assassin—but above all, xie was one of the people he couldn’t live without. From xyr vantage high on xyr chopines, xie watched Maël with deep affection in xyr eyes. It always pleased Cam that two people he loved so well cared deeply for one another. They walked on as soon as Maël rejoined them, his color high, a smile on his lips and a well-wrapped piece of art in his possession.
“Well, that’ll teach me to look too closely at artwork!” Maël shook his head with a rueful expression and handed the art to his curvy, black-haired, secretary.
Cam gestured to the auction house ahead of them. “Don’t get too distracted in there, hmm?”
Li walked near them both, scanning the crowds for threats.
Cam’s gaze caressed Li’s familiar form appreciating how xie moved. Xie swayed gracefully, almost dancing on xyr platform shoes. They were as much a status symbol as Maël’s torc, arm bands, belt, and flogger. Only registered guild companions were legally allowed to wear the chopines, torc, or armbands and they increased Li’s height substantially.
Li stood taller than most unadu males, even in bare feet. Tall, slim, and well muscled; xyr spare curves were like those on a well-balanced dagger, sinuous and deadly. Li had turned xyr body into a well-honed tool for both xyr erotic and deadly arts. Sunlight gleamed in red highlights from the waist-length fall of xyr straight black hair. Xie wore flowing formal robes exposing xyr left arm and flashing hints of xyr bare thigh through a slit in the skirt. It bared the intricate, metallic, companion’s tattoo spiraling from the tip of xyr left ring finger in a complicated coil to disappear beneath xyr clothing. Though xie could have worn the torc and arm-bands, just as Maël could have worn the chopines, they’d each chosen their preferred symbols of rank.
Li’s aurelian skin highlighted the dark, orange-pink, black, and white, of the gems inset between xyr eyebrows and accentuated the intricate tattoos and guild scars on xyr face. Li watched the world through serene, wide set, angular, bottle-green eyes, and despite the packaging of a highly pampered companion, Cam knew xyr to be implacably deadly. His leashed sociopathic tiger.
He reached out and took xyr hand in his, lifting it to kiss xyr knuckles. Xie squeezed his fingers and looked down at him with love before letting go. Xie had to have xyr hands free. Xie didn’t look like a guard, and that’s where xyr power lay. In secrecy.
Even here in the thronged walkways, full of fascinating visual stimuli, xie and Maël drew attention. If it hadn’t been for their unique and striking looks or their royal lineage tattoos, their completed companions’ tattoos drew direct stares from the surrounding throng. Few people stuck through the sensual training long enough to make their marks to such an elaborate extent. Few who hadn’t come across them in battle ever expected either of them to be so deadly. Yet… something about the way they both moved set off a thrill of warning in those watching, and Cam watched it happen. Eyes widened, lips parted, skin grew flushed. As used to his companions as he was, Cam enjoyed seeing others’ reactions to them.
Their group walked eagerly to the doors of the warehouse. The ship landing in the distant courtyard was from one of the best labs on old Earth. They invariably sent high quality goods of various gens, and the Erierian cloisters needed the influx of new stock.
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