This is a sequel to “Gifted,” a story set in a Duchess’ harem in my Tir na Cali setting.
Stephen stared at the slender box with the single key. The other gifts had ranged from neutral, co-worker, distant-relative sorts of Christmas presents (Yule, this fucked-up place had no Christmas, just a knockoff holiday they called something different, even if there was feasting and presents and even a day, thank God, of vacation, even for the toys, even for the prisoners of war) – normal, neutral gifts – socks, even, cufflinks, a coffee mug – to the humiliating and confusing.
But this. The born slaves, the skinny pretty-boys who might as well be girls with cocks, were staring at him, staring at the key as if someone had just given him a million dollars, as if someone had just unlocked the goddamned slave collar and handed him a plane ticket back home. And it was just a key.
It wouldn’t unlock the collar. He’d spent hours in the bathroom fiddling with a paper clip and just gotten an electric shock and a whipping for his efforts; whatever closed the collar, it didn’t take a normal key. The door to their prison was guarded by the implacable harem mistress and locked from the outside; it wouldn’t get him out of here. It wasn’t a car key. What the hell did it mean?
“She wants you to be in personal service to her,” the most effete of the lot, Wensleydale, explained. Steven tried to hide the nausea; the little bitches that had been born into this were snitches, and took every opportunity to try to get the American-kidnapped slaves into trouble. He’d gotten more than his fair share of beatings for speaking ill of the women who he was forced to service before he’d realized he couldn’t trust anyone in the harems. Even the other Americans would stab him in the back if it kept the heat off them for a day or two.
The Californians all looked pissed, muttering among themselves, trying to figure out why the bitch would want him. Why wouldn’t she want Efran, who had been serving her so well for the last year. Why she wouldn’t pick another Californian born-slave, with their immaculate pedigree, like some sort of show dog, and their well-trained manners. Pets, all of them, proud of their leashes and their shiny collars, barking for treats.
Steven knew, and it made him a little bit ill, staring at the damn key on its little chain. Ursula didn’t want someone tame. Sure, they were fine to show off to her friends, like a new purse or a piece of jewelry, but, in the end, they belonged to her grandmother and all she was doing was showing off the family jewels. She wanted a rough-cut diamond, she’d said. She wanted someone she could polish herself.
He’d told her to fuck off. She’d hit him for it.
He’d told her to fuck off again, and tried to hit her back. He’d expected her to send him away for a whipping. He was getting used to the whippings, although he wondered how long before they realized that he preferred the beatings to the use under the self-righteous, selfish, arrogant bitches that called themselves Ladies and helped themselves to his body.
She hadn’t sent him away. She hadn’t even fucked him that day. She’d had him cuffed and bound and used him as a footstool for the next two hours, but, whatever she’d told the harem mistress, it hadn’t involved the abuse, because he had, for the first time in months, not been reprimanded when he was returned from a Lady’s bedroom. He’d even gotten dessert at dinner, something that normally seemed reserved for the spoiled, entitled born slaves.
Things had been going on like that for months. He’d fight her, and she’d send him back with a glowing review. If he didn’t fight, she used him like all her bitchy cousins and aunts and sisters did, and sent him back with enough praise that he didn’t get beaten. It was as if she wanted him to fight, which worked out well enough for him, since he really liked fighting. It reminded him he was still alive, still human, somewhere inside the way they treated him.
But this, this key, this meant that the game was changing, and he didn’t know why, or into what. This meant she was moving him out of the harem rules, out of – he was horrified to find himself thinking of it this way – the harem’s protection, the breathing room of serving more than one woman, of being sent back to his bunk at night. It meant, he thought, serving the bitch full time, whenever and whatever she wanted.
Wensleydale was still looking at him, not quite with the naked awe and envy of the other born-slave lapdogs, but with curiosity. He seemed to know what was going on, and he seemed to be willing to explain it. More, Steven had never caught the skinny blond guy snitching on him.
“So what does it mean?” he asked, quietly, under the hubbub of the rest of the harem. “This thing. This being in personal service. What is it all about?”
“It’s what it sounds like.” The blond flopped down on the foot of Steven’s bed, and held out his hand for the box. Feeling stupidly hesitant to give it up, Steven passed it over. “It’s a way out of the harems. It means that you don’t get passed around anymore like a napkin, used by anyone who wants you like a box of tissues. It means you only have to answer to one woman.”
“Okay. But what does it mean? Is it just the same thing, in a different room?”
“It can be.” The boy leaned back against the footboard, and looked like he was trying to remember childhood stories. “I mean, I’ve heard. I’ve never been in personal service.” He winced. “I think that would be worse than just being in the harems. To be serving a lady and fail so badly that you got sent back here in disgrace.”
“Try being free and then getting shoved in here,” Stephan muttered. “But, so what have you heard? If it’s just like harem service, but twenty-four-seven and for just one wom… Lady, then you’d think it would be better to be back here. I mean, there’s a little breathing room, here.” He gestured wryly at the barracks-like space. “Some time to yourself. They have that in the kitchens, too, right, and in the fields?” Wensleydale nodded. “So why would it be all that cool, to give that up for… a key? Can I turn it down, or is this one of those ‘offer you can’t refuse’ sorts of gifts?”
It took the kid a minute – “kid,” because, beardless and slender, none of the born slaves looked like men, even though Wensleydale had enough stories to suggest that he was at least thirty. The idea of turning down the key seemed to horrify him, and, tiredly, Stephen wondered if he had another beating coming.
“Turn it down?” he finally repeated. “I don’t know. I don’t know anyone who’s ever tried. A Consort’s ring, that you can turn down, but that’s… different.” He stared longingly at the key. “Why would you want to turn it down?”
“Because I don’t know what she wants,” Stephen exploded, although habit kept his voice to a loud whisper. “What does it mean, ki- Wesleydale? This whole thing?”
“People talk about it differently. Some people say it’s, like you said, same thing, different room. But my older brother was in personal service to Lady Priscilla, and then she offered him a Consort’s ring. That’s the next best thing to being freed, and you get to speak with your Lady’s voice.”
“Sounds lovely.” There was clearly something he was missing. “So it comes with degrees of suckitude or the lack thereof. What’s she going to expect out of me?”
That made the boy blink in confusion. “Expect out of you? What do they all expect out of all of us?”
Stephen sighed. “If I could figure that out, you wouldn’t be able to play tic-tac-toe on my back, now would you?”
“I figured you were doing that on purpose. I didn’t think you didn’t know what you were supposed to do.” Now, now he looked horrified, and a little bit guilty.
“What I’m supposed to do?” He looked sidelong at the kid. “Lay there and take it like a bitch, you mean?”
“Obey, and make it look like you enjoy it.”
“Same thing, different words. Efran enjoyed it, and look what he got. I fight her every step of the way, and I get a fucking key.” Look like you enjoy it. It was good advice, if he was minded to give in. If he’d given in, maybe she wouldn’t have given him the damn key.
Wesleydale shrugged philosophically. “Maybe she enjoys a challenge?”
“Well,” Stephen sighed grimly, “I guess I’ll give her one.”