Rescue Chapter 1
Tashi limped into the dark saloon. Sickly-sweet smoke of lacchsa pipes wafted through the room; she almost gagged. She'd always hated the stuff, and didn't know exactly why she was here, except for the tip she'd gotten about a hero of the rebellion, Zaraj, snatched away in the night.
Trying to stifle her limp, she sauntered up to the bar and sat down on the bench. She rested her arms on the counter and gratefully stretched out her injured leg, which had still not recovered completely despite the medpatch and the best doctor she could afford. She suspected it had not healed correctly and it would never be the same again.
The bartender wobbled up to her. A man—unusual. She felt a sort of kinship with him just from his imperfect stride, an old injury perhaps.
"What'll it be?" he said. He had dark circles under his eyes as if he'd been up all night, and he wore a grease-stained gray shirt and an apron over his pants.
"I'll have a Noontide."
The man nodded and hobbled away to pour her a glass, then clunked it onto the bar so that a bit of foam spilled out onto the stained, pockmarked wood.
Tashi sipped the drink, and struggled not to make a face. She never drank alcohol if she could help it; she didn't know why people wanted to dull their senses, especially with something that tasted so foul. At least this was the lightest drink she could get, and so it would not make her drunk on one glass.
Tashi scrounged for a question to command the bartender's attention before it could be diverted. She had to know if Zaraj had been kidnapped; she'd been scouring the countryside for the past two days, working ever westward on the trail of vague rumors. She hoped it was not true, but there was no one else who felt that it warranted the time and effort. Just because he was a man.
If it had been her father, she would have gone to the ends of the earth for him. She had her father back, though wounded. Jet was safe at home, an infinite distance from this world. Zaraj had nothing, no one. He deserved a better fate. Now that things were settling down, the rebels were carving out a domain free of Lapparan, but it was still a bit chaotic. Zaraj had fallen through the cracks. But this district had to be one of justice—that was what they had fought for. Not least, for justice for slaves, like Zaraj. He did not deserve to be a slave; he should be hailed as a hero, just as much as the women. As much as Jet.
"So have you been working here long?" Tashi asked.
"Two years." He polished a glass. "I know what you're thinking. It's strange for a man to be in my position. But that's the good thing about being out here. A man has more opportunities, more freedom."
Some don't, she thought, though she figured that, as a man, he'd probably be sympathetic.
He waved a hand. "Slow at the moment, as you can see."
A few scattered women sat at tables, smoking, drinking, conversing. There were several men as well, sitting next to women. The activity was quiet, muted, but then, it was early afternoon.
"How is it in general?"
"Good, for such a remote place. We're pretty much the last outpost before the untamed wilds."
She nodded. This dusty frontier town was her last stop; she had no idea where to go if she didn't find Zaraj here. How could one man disappear so thoroughly? It wasn't as if the west was densely populated.
"Do you have any…entertainment?"
"Oh, yes. Any bar worth anything has that. Just not at three-quarter in the afternoon. Come back at ten and five, that's when the action starts. We've got some real beauties, unlike the other bar in town."
She winced inwardly at his obvious marketing ploy. Women exploiting men was abhorrent, but they did it because they were in power; for men to have no shame about exploiting their own sex—she didn't understand it.
She leaned forward, setting her half-empty glass on the bar, and arranged her features into an expression she hoped looked eager. "What sort of entertainment?"
"Oh, all kinds. I tried to get the best possible, as far out as we are. It's why I'm the top of my game—even competing with women in the area."
She nodded. That explained what he was doing. You had to trample others down to get ahead…or at least, that was one way. Tashi had to believe that was not the only way to succeed.
The bartender leaned his arms on the bar, setting down his oilstained towel. "So, what's your pleasure? We have singers, dancers—this gorgeous creature called Masanai who does both. And then we have the more…private kind of entertainments. You can rent a booth in the back—" He waved a hand toward the door that led behind the stage—"and one of our dancers will strip for you. Then we have our upstairs rooms, where you can spend an hour with the company of your desire."
Revulsion cut through her; she fought to disguise it with mild interest. She had to admit, she had been quite sheltered—though she doubted she'd ever think this kind of thing was okay. "So, how much do these…encounters cost?"
He gave a laugh. "Encounter—that's a good one. You must come from the East."
"I did…when I was younger."
"Out here, we are a bit looser with our language, and our diversions."
That's not the only thing you're 'loose' with, she thought. In the east, they at least keep up the pretense of morality. Though even I got a hint of what went on behind closed doors, the degradation of some of those poor men, before we moved when I was ten….I thought it would be cleaner in the west. Less stifling and corrupt. In a way it is…in some quarters. Other places are filled with tyranny…still others with lawlessness. And then there are the decent, honorable people….I admit, there are still more in the west than the east, proportionately anyway.
"It costs more to bed a man than it does to just stay the night alone. In some inns it doesn't, but here—we've got top quality, and so we bill for it. Believe me, you won't be disappointed. A third of our business, in fact, comes from our beautiful young men who know how to please. They would be honored to entertain a lovely young woman such as yourself." He regarded her judiciously. "You look like you've been far, and you have some money to spare on a bit of relaxation."
She turned away so he wouldn't see the disgust on her face. Or the blush that warmed her cheeks. At least she was tan enough it was probably invisible…. She hated to think of herself in such a role, because even if she was the kind of person who went in for…that sort of entertainment, she could never imagine herself enjoying another's suffering. Because she knew this much: Most of the men were coerced. They did not choose this life. Even if they did, they were often beaten and wanted out, but their owners would not let them. If they were not slaves to start out with, they became slaves by default.
But she had to at least feign interest for the sake of Zaraj. She hated the thought he might have ended up here after all he'd suffered under Lapparan.
"Would it be possible to see the…merchandise?" She tried not to choke on the word. "I would like to see a selection of what I am purchasing before I make a decision."
"Of course, of course. Would you like to see them now, or order another drink first?"
She couldn't stomach another drink. And dreaded what would happen next. But she might as well get it over with. If she didn't find any trace of Zaraj here, she'd try out the other bar in town, and every other place until he was safe under her protection.
Beneath her long coat, her pistol hung heavy in her belt. She hoped she would not need it.
"I'd like to see the men," she said.
The bartender nodded and waved to a young woman, who came up and took his place at the bar.
"What's your name?" she asked.
"Rancasal. You can call me Ran."
She followed him back behind the door, past booths draped with gaudy red and yellow curtains. At the very back was a private "group viewing room," as Ran called it, with a velvet-lined bench along the edge near the back door, and a small stage with a more elegant red curtain.
"Go ahead, take a seat." Ran motioned to the bench. "I'll go get the men. They're resting up right now, but they're always ready to entertain a guest." He smiled and disappeared behind the curtain.
Tashi sat down, leaning against the wooden wall. Her leg ached; she wished for one of those magnificent medpatches that Jet had given her. But even her tansa leaf had run out, and so she'd just have to make do for now til she could scavenge more.
Creaks and groans from the floorboards above. Pounding of bare feet, boots. Voices, some languid, some energetic, some fearful. Then footsteps down the stairway, and the curtain rustled. Ran emerged and walked down to stand on the floor between Tashi and the stage. A moment later, two women stepped out and stood on either side of the stage. They were clad in elegant black and silver uniforms, their hair bound back with a hint of glitter.
A line of men filed out and stood on stage, side by side. They had a lot less on than the women—just tight black and silver pants. Some were tall; some short; some heavier, some thin, but Ran was right—they were all especially good looking. They had handsome faces and toned, pleasantly-proportioned bodies, which were sheened with a faint shimmer, and they moved with an effortless grace. Probably because most were trained as dancers. There was even a Fed among them; he had the typical golden-brown skin and black hair of his race. Most of them had pleasant expressions; few seemed to have scars. Perhaps this was one of the rare brothels that treated their men well. If so, it was probably due to the fact that a man ran it, one who seemed to have the well-being of his charges in mind, despite his focus on profit. Perhaps because of it—as men who were happy and willing would probably perform better.
Zaraj was not among them. It was a relief, in a way; if the men here were not slaves, then he would never have come to work for such a place. Hopefully he was not at the other inn either; she doubted that both bars in town treated their men well.
"Any of these interest you?" said Ran.
She let her eyes flit over the men who sold their bodies each night, and wondered how anyone could willingly accept such a job. Though there were few ways to make a living this far on the frontier…
Tashi stood, knowing that to just leave would arouse suspicion. And she had to be absolutely certain Zaraj was not here. "Mind if I get closer?"
Shoving down her trepidation, she strode across the red-carpeted floor and up the steps to the stage. She felt out of her depth pretending to be interested in buying a man’s body, something she had never imagined herself doing. But the men looked at her with mild interest, and she had to feign interest in return.
She gave the line of ten men a cursory glance, then strode over to a man in the middle. He was tall, blond, muscular, tanned. His blue eyes boldly appraised her. He gave a bow as she stopped in front of him, holding the position, but still meeting her eyes.
"What's your name?" she asked.
"How do they treat you here?" She spoke barely above a whisper, not wanting Ran to hear.
"How do they treat me, mistress? What matters is how I will treat you. I would be delighted to minister to your every need. I am well-versed in the art of pleasure; I can be what you want of me—rough, gentle, subservient, dominant…anything in between. There is nothing I will not do, no new thing I will not try. I am one of the more experienced men here, but if you want me to act virginal, that's within my repertoire." He flashed a brilliant smile.
She gave him a smile back, a bit disconcerted. He was a charming creature. She'd never been propositioned so boldly…but then, she'd never been in a brothel before. She was not tempted in the least—she would not give into immorality—but she couldn't help but feel an attraction toward him. Probably more disarming because she was not used to such situations. She forced herself to put on the invisible steel armor of professionalism. She didn't want to get sidetracked or worse, found out, because she got caught off-guard.
She walked past the blond man and stopped in front of the Fed. He was smaller, about Tashi’s height, and instead of exuding boldness and good humor, his eyes did not meet hers. He held his hands crossed in front of him, almost a protective gesture. Scars laced his chest.
"Do they mistreat you?"
"N-no, mistress," he said, in a barely audible voice. "They are very good to me here."
His response hardly reassured her. She whirled to face Ran. "Do you mistreat your men?"
"No, no, they're very good, very obedient. We only punish them as a last resort. Don't want to scar them up."
"What about this?" She touched the Fed's arm, near a hash of scar slashes. He flinched, but did not pull away.
"He came with those. It's a trademark of all Fed slaves—they don't exactly serve us willingly."
"He's a slave?"
"Yes. A very obedient one."
I'm sure. You wouldn't give him a chance.
"How many of the men are slaves?" She tried to keep the accusation out of her voice, though she caught a hint of it in her tone.
"Only about four or five of them. My bar attracts the best; I don't need to force them."
"Do you have any others?"
"Are none of these to your satisfaction?"
"I asked if you had any others."
He bowed. "Yes, my lady. We have others. But they are in training, and not ready for your perusal."
"I want to see them."
"I'm sorry, it's simply not our policy."
She dug in her inner coat pocket and brought out the pouch of silver coins. Not many remained. She dug out two of them, tossed them to Ran. He caught them in midair, then inspected them. "I don't think—"
She tossed him a heavier silver coin—an arkris, with the portrait of the Empress on it—and he nodded. He beckoned her back behind the curtain, down a hallway, and through a door to the outside. Sunlight blinded her for a moment. She caught a glimpse of her horse, Nadiras, tied in front of the bar. Then Ran led her back over gravelly ground, sparsely populated with grass, to a log shed. He opened the sturdy steel door, enclosing her in darkness. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust. Sunlight filtered through the cracks between the logs. In the center of the room was a bed. And face down on the bed, his arms and legs tied to the bedposts, lay a man. His back was raw from a recent whipping. He had shaggy, shoulder-length brown hair.
He opened his eyes, and even in the dimness she could see their brilliant blue.
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