At last! I have readings to share! I am woefully behind in word count. /o\ But I have readings to share! And they are lengthy. But they are readings! So yes.
Bear in mind that since this is Camp NaNoWriMo, it’s really pretty rough. But hopefully it will be entertaining? Courtney seems to think so, and she has pretty good taste in quality readings, so… Anyway. Enough of my prattling. Go forth and read!
- - -
To the Esteemed Madame Isabella Avora,
House Madam of the House of Fire Blossoms
I am on vacation here from Blackwarren with the Count and Countess Bourgent, who have been so kind as to show me all the sights and enjoyments of the city. Recently, at a most extravagant party thrown by the lovely Countess, I was quite enchanted by the entertainment. Inquiries revealed it was provided by the House of Fire Blossoms on paid loan. Pressed further, the Countess Bourgent enthusiastically presented her most recent purchase from your House for her own enjoyment—who was, I must admit, more beautiful than the ones at the party.
The name of your House has come up in conversation at other parties, and I have seen your wares in the homes of some of my friends and acquaintances. When it was discovered that I would be visiting Port Lysithea, it was insisted by several that I not leave without paying a visit to your halls and perhaps make even a purchase of my very own.
Therefore, I wish to know when it might be possible to visit the House of Fire Blossoms for a tour while I am still in the city. I am still staying in a guest villa of the Count and Countess and can be reached there by courier or by telephone for a few more days yet and look forward to hearing from you.
Her Imperial Majesty the Empress Lisbetta Annelise Septim Blackwarren I
Seabreeze Villas #2D
Presentation Day is a very dangerous day.
The Handlers and attendants of the House of Fire Blossoms rush around the halls to get everything in order—or at the very least, look busy enough that the House Madam will not angrily threaten them with ten lashings in the courtyard. Very rarely does she deliver on those threats that she lobbies on days like these, her rage on these days born mainly of impatience and anxiety, but nobody wants to be the one who tempts her into actually pulling out her special whip. The attendants keep their eyes downcast and a cleaning rag in their hands. When she cries out about dust, at least three jump to the task of eliminating it—even if there is no dust there to speak of in the first place. The House Madam cannot be bothered to be corrected on Presentation Days. Her focus is elsewhere, on the green portfolios that pass from her assistant and into her hands. She pulls out a picture, studies a few sheets, shakes her head and passes the entire portfolio back to an assistant walking hurriedly alongside her. This she repeats with occasional pauses to survey her surroundings, to scream at some poor attendant or to flag down a Handler for the purpose of informing them that their charge will not be presented today.
The assistant’s arms are heavy with with her burden. It will only be a matter of time before they spill to the floor, spreading paperwork and photographs to all sides, but she resists asking for a moment to put down her heavy load. The House Madam cannot be bothered to stop unless it is under her own power. Too much, too much to do! There is still the exhibition hall to sweep clean, the cooks to alert; and she has yet to finish picking—
“Take those selections away. Put them back in the archive—” The House Madam tears a sheet of paper from a notepad kept in her breast pocket and places it atop the stack. “—and then talk to these Handlers. We have only twenty but that should be plenty. Surely, she can find one she likes out of twenty…”
“Of course, Madame.”
“Tell them to have their charges showered, groomed, collared, and in the exhibition hall in one hour. Make sure they’re also leashed.”
“Shall I—?” The attendant nearly drops the portfolios trying to catch the torn sheet that goes flying at her breath. “Shall I also alert the cooks to ready the kitchen, Madame?”
“Yes, of course— You! You—” The House Madam grabs a passing attendant and shoves him near her assistant. “Help her carry those books to the archive.”
The moment the Handlers receive the word from the House Madam’s assistant, they understand that an hour actually means half an hour in House Madam Time, so they work twice as quickly in fetching their charges. In the exhibition hall, the young men are lined up spaced an even measure apart in two long rows—twenty of them with ten on each side, naked save for a simple black collar with a gold or silver nametag attached. They all sit kneeling with hands behind their backs, each with his assigned Handler standing slightly behind him with the collar’s leash in one hand and a crop in the other. Today, the crop is little more than a visual tool to remind the boys not to misbehave. Most of them don’t even need to see it to know just how bad the punishments will be if they act in any way that would reflect poorly on the House Madam. Presentation Days are always important affairs. Tense. One or several of them might be bought up by the client coming to visit! With each sale, the House can make back all of the money it spends giving each of these boys shelter, food, and training. With each happy customer it can continue to maintain its reputation for being the best in the business. And surely, there’s no better goal to have than to be the best, no? Than to be the most successful?
That’s why only a small handful gets selected for the honor of being presented directly to a client for consideration on Presentation Days. Only the best-trained, the most obedient, get the opportunity to be in the same space with their potential new Master or Mistress. The rest must be content with fleeting glimpses and uncertain guesses until a few days before they get handed over, when the in-house interactions begin.
Nobody wants to be the one who gets picked and bought out of a photo in a product catalog on some rich man’s fanciful whim. Some can’t help being anything but, unfortunately, by way of being too stubborn to take to the training. If they’re lucky, they’ll be bought by someone with patience to break them in.
But these boys, these twenty! They are indeed among the best, and the House Madam is always eager to brag to the client about how well-trained they are. Today, however, she seems to be going very heavy on the bragging, almost to the point of it being a nervous tic. They can already hear their Madam well outside of the hall, chattering away with the client coming in. Though a few want to, none of them dare to grin. They all remember their briefing this morning. The client is a special case. Normally, on Presentation Day, the House Madam entertains no fewer than three clients at a time. But today is a special occasion. This is a delicate situation. From the moment she received the missive, the entire House has been in a state of excitement.
It isn’t every day, after all, that the Clockwork Empress herself comes all the way from the capital to make a purchase.
The doors swing open and the House Madam enters first. Despite edging close to forty, she manages to keep herself looking statuesque. She wears suits in classic cuts to avoid the hassle of trying to keep up with the latest fads. Her makeup is just enough to highlight her best features; blush to show off the high cheekbones, eye shadow to bring out the green in her eyes, a lipstick only a few shades richer than her lips. The House Madam’s hair is bottle-brown. Last year, it was bottle-blonde. The year before that, bottle-black.
“In here we have the exhibition hall, where I have already prepared something special that I think Her Majesty will truly enjoy!”
The click-click-click of the House Madam’s heels against the cool marble floor is enough to make some of the young men in the room automatically improve their postures. Behind her are three handmaidens dressed in the colors of the royal court—rich greens and ocean blues with accents of gold—and finally the Empress herself. The young men try their best not to get caught sneaking looks at her. She looks younger than her twenty-three years, as though she should still be in the midst of being educated in the ways of being a sovereign instead of actually being one. Her brown hair is kept in tight ringlets that frame her face and brush her bare shoulders. The sundress that hugs her upper body and billows gracefully around her ankles makes the young men on display and their Handlers wonder if she came fresh from one of the coastal city’s sandy beaches. The golden straps of her sandals twinkle in the light pouring in through the hall’s large windows. They marvel at her mobile throne, for it is truly nothing less than that; upholstered in ocean blue fabric, with the vinyl armrests and all six tires the same vestal-virgin white. The chair’s frame, the wheels’ rims, spokes, and axles look as if they were cast from gold made sturdy for such important work. A large aquamarine stone is set in the center of each of the large wheels and another, smaller one sits on top of the gold joystick she uses to maneuver the chair. The Clockwork Empress looks around, violet eyes taking everything in.
“It’s…” She purses her lips a little, fluttering the fan in her left hand as she tries to find the right word. “Impressive. Expansive.”
The House Madam beams at her guest. “When I first founded this House, I wanted to have a space that would be suitable for displaying my wares to any and all who came with the intent to purchase. I am, admittedly, more accustomed to entertaining several people in this hall at any given time, but when I received your letter, I decided I would be of better service to you if my attentions were not distracted by other guests.”
“I see. That’s very considerate of you,” answers the Empress. Shutting her fan, she points it in the direction of the boys. “I take it these are your charges?”
“Certainly not all of them, my liege.” The House Madam straightens up. “What you see here is a collection of my finest product—”
“Beg pardon, Empress?”
“They’re people, Madame Isabella. Young men, if you will.” The monarch looks at her hostess with only a sliding of her eyes. “Pets, true, but still fundamentally people. I like thinking of them as such even though they’re made to serve. It makes this much more interesting than buying furniture or souvenirs.”
“I—o-of course. Of course, Empress. Pardon my business jargon.” But the House Madam’s face is flushed red with embarrassment—something she will certainly take out on her own boys after the Empress leaves. She clears her throat, gestures down the two rows of youths and regains her business composure. “These are my best, hand-selected personally for you to choose from. If none of these suit you, more will be brought out.”
“Can’t we go back into the pens and common areas where you keep them? I rather like seeing them in their natural habitat.”
“Mm, I must recommend against it, I’m afraid. Some of the newer ones have brought a bug into the facility and we’re currently completing our cleansing of the area. B-but worry not, my Empress; these young men have all been certified clean and healthy by our House Physician!”
“I should hope so.”
They draw closer to the line together, the House Madam still giving her sales pitch while trying very hard to make it sound like casual conversation. The boys are brought in from all over, from as far as the southern Palm Islands to as near as the next city over. Most are sold into servitude at a young age by families with too many children they cannot afford to maintain. However, a surprising minority exists composed of those who came to the House voluntarily at an older age. The ones who come voluntarily, they seem to do so as a means of getting the education and training in social graces they would not otherwise be able to receive in a life spent tilling soil or raising pigs. For them, a life as some rich person’s pet is much more favorable than working themselves into an early grave as a hand-to-mouth farmer or factory worker.
“You say that so strangely,” says the Clockwork Empress, “as if the Empire doesn’t need the farmers or factory men.”
“Oh, well, certainly, Empress. Certainly! But we have so many of them as it is, and so many otherwise talented minds go to waste simply by their station in life. So they come here to learn, to better themselves.”
“Understanding the price, I hope.”
“Of course! We never want to mislead them here. The voluntary ones are given a full tour of the facility and made completely aware of what to expect before signing themselves over to us. If they get cold feet before then, they are free to go.”
“And the unwilling ones?” asks the Empress.
“The ones sold to the House? They are usually too young to understand why their parents are giving them away. We give them normal schooling—literature, math, science, art, and so on—until sexual maturation in the teenage years, at which point we add education in the erotic arts.”
“And the physical portion of the sexual training—”
“Begins at sixteen.”
“Not at all.” And here the House Madam actually dares to look a little offended. “While I respect that other Houses have different methods to train their charges, I have found that physical training on younger ones can be a difficult experience. By sixteen, the body is much more settled in and the extra time lets them grow accustomed to their future position.”
“Further,” adds the House Madam, “it allows us more time to cultivate their knowledge in various subjects. For instance, some of our charges are quite excelled in the art of dance, and some have even found their freedom by way of being purchased by some of the world’s foremost troupes.”
“So I’ve heard…” The young woman looks at the men sitting on their knees. She smiles a little. “Their posturing is exquisite. Have they been in that pose for long?”
“Only an hour or so, but they are trained to hold it for much longer.”
“And the collars?”
“Standard for presentation.” The older woman watches as the monarch nears a brown-haired youth with pale skin, smiling a little when he obediently tilts his head backward so the Empress can read the gold tag. “They have names.”
“We do not deny them that bit of identity. It makes cataloging them easier. Should you choose to purchase one, however, you are more than welcome to rename him.”
“Hm.” The Empress moves her chair backward. “Stand him up. Show him to me.”
The Handler barely has to tug the leash. The young man rises, turns in a small circle. One of the handmaidens bends to murmur something into her mistress’s ear, something that makes her smile a little. The Empress gestures for him to kneel again and moves over to the youth across from him, a pretty black-haired boy with skin and eyes the color of rich coffee. His golden tag reads Seraph.
“Seraph,” says the Clockwork Empress after making him stand and turn, “in what do you excel most?”
The young man hesitates long enough that the House Madam clears her throat. “The boys are not normally accustomed to being prompted to speak by a guest without worded permission.”
“I see. Well, speak, then.” The Empress strokes the young man’s cheek with the back of her hand. “Tell me, Seraph, what you believe your best talent is.”
Seraph licks his lips. He looks ahead as he begins to speak until the Empress tells him to look in her eyes. The gentle command makes him uncomfortable, but he manages not to have a quiver in his voice as he says, “I am—I have been told that I am a grand practitioner of oral pleasure, my Empress.”
“What if I am not interested in oral pleasure?”
“I am skilled in other ways to please any who might own me. I would not disappoint you.”
A blond youth with big blue eyes claims expertise in manual stimulation. Another brunette excels in the use of toys and other sexual devices. One with a head full of close-cropped auburn waves and brown eyes claims a high pain tolerance. Onward and so forth, down the line to each kneeling young man, the Empress makes the same inquiries after studying their bodies. Her studious expression troubles the House Madam. Usually by now, a client has given favorable looks to at least two or three potential favorites. The Clockwork Empress has yet to even express actual interest in a single one, and she is onto her tenth before she says anything different from her questioning.
“They’re quite the confident bunch, aren’t they?”
“Beg pardon, my Empress?”
“The boys, Madame Isabella. They’re confident about their skills. Eager to share what they’re good at doing in an effort to make themselves more marketable.” The Empress frowns a little. “I hope this isn’t something you’re teaching them on purpose.”
The House Madam looks confused. “I-I’m not sure I follow. We teach them to enjoy the nature of service. To be graceful submissives who take pride in what they do to bring their masters and mistresses joy.”
“Pride can be a troubling thing. It can make them uppity. Unruly. Don’t misunderstand me, now. There is something entertaining about a pet with a little bit of a…bratty streak and encouraging an eagerness to serve is always appreciated, but pride…” The Empress clicks her tongue as she wanders down the row of waiting young men. “I deal with prideful creatures far too often for my liking in my day-to-day. I don’t need it from a pet.”
The older woman clears her throat. The Handlers glance at each other. This appears to be going south rather quickly! What will happen if she leaves unsatisfied? The Empress is known for her taste in luxuries, in the latest fashions. If she leaves saying the slave boys of the House of Fire Blossoms are too prideful for her liking, what will that do for business? The ones with boys that have not yet been made to stand and turn cast discreet looks to their charges, all of them sending the same silent message: Be demure. But how? How can be more demure in such a situation? They try. A few of them succeed in affecting the right persona, but when asked the questions, they answer in the same way as the others have. The Empress’s handmaidens murmur amongst themselves. Worry becomes more noticeable in the House Madam’s eyes. True, they have others who are just as ready for presentation, but it’s so rare that her ability to deduce what a client likes fails her! Her mind begins piecing together a backup plan, begins drawing names from her internal inventory. Surely, the House Madam has someone the Clockwork Empress might like!
“You.” The Empress has stopped before youth number nineteen, a young man with a head of unruly black curls and strikingly masculine features. “Stand up. Show yourself to me.”
“Yes, my Empress.”
His voice is soft, the whole of him demure without actually trying like the others. As he rises to his feet, he keeps his brown eyes lowered to the ground. A blush creeps into his face as he turns to show off every part of himself. The young man can feel the Empress’s violet eyes running over his skin; taking in the roundness of his shoulders, the toned muscles in his arms and chest, the definition of his hips. One of the handmaidens comments on how tall he is. Another of them comments, with a little giggling, about the ghost of freckles haunting his nose and cheeks. The Empress says nothing in response to these comments. Instead, she tells the young man to resume kneeling and he thanks her in that soft tone, as though he cannot believe he still has her undivided attention. The young man—the golden tag on his collar reads Eron—keeps his gaze lowered to the floor.
“How do you pronounce your name, boy?” asks the Empress. “Tell me. I like knowing the proper way.”
“As ‘Aaron,’ my Empress.”
“Such a strange spelling… Is it your name from birth?”
“No, Empress. It was the name I adopted when I first came to this House, in honor of my home.” Eron blinks and his long, dark lashes appear to brush his cheeks. “In my home, we revere a god who oversees performance in all its forms, primarily dance.”
This detail intrigues the Clockwork Empress. “Do you dance?”
“If it is wished of me to dance,” answers the youth.
“Look at me.” She slides her hand under his chin and tilts his face upward, the tips of her nails digging enough into his skin to make him notice. His brown eyes are full of some unnamable mix of emotions. Something like reverence, perhaps, but there is also fear there. Nervousness. It makes her smile. “Are you afraid, boy? Is this your first time being presented for purchase?”
“Yes to which?”
“To both, my Empress.” Eron swallows.
“Hm.” She sits up in her chair, crosses her arms. To the House Madam she asks, “How old is he?”
“Twenty-five years old, my Empress.”
“And he has been here how long?”
“He first came to us when he was seventeen.” The House Madam does her best to hide her renewing optimism. Perhaps she’ll make a sale after all! “Do you find him favorable?”
“He has potential, though I must admit that I had no grand intention of leaving with one of your boys,” answers the Empress. “Still….he has potential. He is certainly the prettiest of the present lot. Not that the others aren’t attractive—certainly, they are in their own fashion—but this one… Where are you from, Eron, that they worship a god of dance?”
“The Palm Islands, my Empress.”
“And yet, so fair-skinned? How so, young man, when the islanders are known for skin touched always by the sun?”
“My father was a man of the capital, my Empress.” Eron bows his head, as if admitting this causes him shame. “U-unfortunately…I look most like him.”
The Empress leans down and redirects his gaze back to hers. “Perhaps not so unfortunate. (She straightens, draws in a little breath.) Well, then, Eron. In what do you excel?”
The answer comes out of him effortlessly. “In whatever my mistress desires of me.”
For the first time in the visit, the young woman looks genuinely impressed. “And if I desire something you do not know how to do?”
The tip of Eron’s tongue briefly passes over his lips. “I would ask that my mistress allow me to learn, to teach me what pleases her, so that I might continue making her happy, since that is my ultimate purpose and goal.”
“I see.” Another little smile appears on the Empress’s lips. “Now here is a boy who borders on the edge of perfection. Hypothetically speaking, Madame Isabella—”
“Yes, my Empress?”
Her smile widens. “Your eagerness to sell me one of your boys is much too obvious! I would be lying if I said I was not a tad wary of ulterior motives.”
The older woman draws herself up, her face growing serious. “I have no motive other than to satisfy the whims of my ruler, regardless of the cost.”
“Even to your own pride?” After a beat, the Clockwork Empress laughs a little, gentle and carefree. “Forgive my jesting. My sense of humor has a way of landing me on the wrong side of people. In honesty, you appear to run a very secure House. The Sirs and Madams of the capital could do with learning from you.”
The moment of sincerity is a little disarming. Inwardly, the Handlers breathe a little sigh of relief. Perhaps they will all be spared a lecture from the House Madam because of it!
“Now then!” continues the Empress, gesturing to the young man. “How much for this one?”
“With respect, numbers are not something I am accustomed to discussing in front of them as a group, having learned in the past that cluing them in on what they might be worth can lead to a dangerous amount of competition among the young men. And they are already quite competitive as it is, being boys.” The House Madam finally indulges in a smile of her own. “However, if you like, since it is quite a marvelous day, we might take the discussion outside to the balcony over lunch.”
“I think that would be lovely, Madame Isabella. Would it be troublesome to bring him out with us? Dressed, I should think, from the waist down in something that flows.”
As long as a purchase is happening, the House Madam is only too pleased to acquiesce to these demands. “I will have his Handler prepare him to be brought out after we discuss the business end of this transaction. Now shall we, my Empress, to the balcony?”
- * -
Lunch on the second-floor balcony consists of roasted fish presented on a bed of lettuce and surrounded by shrimp resting on smaller pillows of rice. The heat of the sun is tempered by a cool breeze sweeping in off the coast. In the glow of day, the mobile throne of the Clockwork Empress shines and twinkles. It brings out the thin threads of gold hidden in the tight curls of her hair. Across from her sits the House Madam, sunglasses shielding her eyes from all the brilliance of the early afternoon, staring down at an open portfolio full of the chosen boy’s information.
“So,” says the Empress after some silent moments spent savoring the local cuisine, “what precisely are we looking at in terms of price? What determines it?”
The House Madam looks up. “There are a number of factors. His age, health, his talents—he’s a quick study with musical instruments, that one.”
“Always has been.” She glances into the portfolio. “His health has always been fairly good. Only ever really caught sick once or twice when he was younger. He can be a bit more slow to starting in cold weather, but something about the rain… He enjoys it. I suppose it reminds him of home.”
The Empress nods. “A good downpour can be inspiring. Can you modify him? Physically, I mean.”
“How so, Empress?”
“My sister once had a pet who could change her eye color at will. I was always absolutely fascinated by it,” answers the young woman. “Can you make it possible for him to do the same? Though his eyes are lovely as they are now…”
“It can be arranged. The procedure is very simple, very straightforward,” answers the House Madam. “Is there anything else you wish to have done with him? We can provide him with specialized training—”
“No need. I will see to that myself, though the thought is considerate. I would, however, like him to be smooth.”
“Mm. From the cheeks down.” The Clockwork Empress’s eyes light up with amusement as she downs a forkful of fish. “I don’t desire it from a standpoint of wanting him to look younger than he is. I simply prefer the smoother look. At least with starting pets.”
“Have you had others, Empress?” The question is so common in the House Madam’s work that she wonders why it took her so long to ask it.
“No, this will be my first purchase. I have played with the pets of others, though, much to my husband’s chagrin.”
“The Emperor doesn’t approve?”
The amusement in the young woman’s eyes seems to briefly intensify. “The Emperor is old-fashioned. However, I made sure he knew what he was getting when he married me. I have certain tastes he is not so willing to indulge and I am not so willing to give them up simply because I am married to the Emperor Regent.”
“But are you not a regent as well, my Empress?” asks the House Madam. “It’s my understanding that power is divided equally between you two.”
“Because I demanded it to be such! Had I left the entirety of negotiations to my father, I would have been little more than some pretty thing with an empty title. Empress Consort! Please. No woman with a wealth of intelligence and sharp instinct should strive for such a goal.”
The House Madam chuckles. “If only more dared to be like you, Empress. Now, then, this modification I can do as well. What of his hair?”
“His hair? No, no. Do nothing to his hair save ensure that it is clean. I quite like the unruliness of it. And having something to pull is always a good draw.”
Another chuckle. “Understood.”
“Something strikes me as curious. You’ve had such a perfect specimen of submissiveness on your hands for the last eight years, a beautiful one on top of that, who is also blessed where it matters. Why is this the first time he has been presented to a buyer?” Resting her chin on her hands, the Empress leans forward. “Is there something important I need to know about him? Some…deficiency of which I should be aware?”
The House Madam lets out a long breath. She closes the young man’s portfolio, places it on the table by her plate. Her gaze drifts out to the view of Port Lysithea below. “To be perfectly honest, Empress, he was not always as meek as you have met here. Breaking him in took some effort.”
“You make it sound as though he came against his will.”
“Not entirely. He did surrender himself to our training of his own will, but once the reality of being trained in the ways of submission sank in, there was a period of intense resistance. He wanted to be trained on his terms rather than ours. It happens once in a while. The trick for dealing with them is patience and a firm hand.”
“And it appears to have paid off quite handsomely. It still doesn’t explain why the wait to present him to other clients, though I suppose I should be counting my blessings to that one!”
“Well, to continue being honest, I began to wonder if he might be better suited for life as an in-House trainer, or perhaps given his freedom to become a Handler. Once the boy settled into accepting his new role, he took to his lessons very well. I couldn’t just sell him to anyone. I have seen many potential owners come and go, but there were none I felt had quite the right energy for him.”
“I have no doubts that he will make you proud. He is responsive to you.”
“Well, he has to be. He’s trained to be, isn’t he?” asks the Empress.
“N-no—well, yes, but that’s not in the way I mean. It…” The House Madam searches for the right words. Finding none, she resigns herself to answering with, “When you’ve had him a while and if you choose to share him with others, you’ll understand, my Empress. The relationship between a pet and their master is a very special one. Very unique. That’s why I was so selective with presenting him and why I have no trouble selling him to you. I think you above any will appreciate him the way he should be appreciated.
“Of course, in stating that, I must admit that we now come to that most unpleasant of topics—the nature of cost. Your requested modifications are not unreasonable, nor are they very uncommon. There is, naturally, a small risk attached to the eye procedure—”
“—but we will do our best to insure against it.” She makes a note in the portfolio with a pen retrieved from within a pocket of her suit jacket. “Pairing that with his age and his health, his talents and the like, I would say an ideal price for the boy is somewhere around…seventy-five thousand.”
The Clockwork Empress blinks. “Seventy-five thousand?”
“Base price for a boy his age is fifty thousand, but factor all of the extraneous details plus grooming… Quality is not cheap, my Empress.”
“So I see, but seventy-five thousand cogs? The procedure for the eye color alone barely costs two thousand on its own—and that’s from the best of doctors!”
“Yes, and it if were solely the eye procedure and nothing more, then the price would be fifty-two thousand, but this isn’t simply one procedure on an otherwise healthy, ordinary young man. This is years of training, schooling; hours spent breaking him down in order to build him back up into something worthy not just of being owned but to serve.” The House Madam leans back in her seat. “Seventy-five thousand is fairly inexpensive compared to what he would fetch in some of the Houses in the capital, is it not? And there most of the Houses only train their slaves in the art of physical pleasure! What point is there in having an uncultured, empty-headed pet, one you can’t take out with you if you choose for fear of him saying some ignorant thing?”
“I was not privy to the notion that many who take their pets out with them actually allow them to speak.”
“Some do and pay dearly in social gaffes. The way a pet behaves in public reflects on their owner and nobody wishes to be the laughingstock simply because their pet is innocently ignorant. That’s part of the reason we teach our boys about social etiquette, so that they might have a sense of context for why their master or mistress may require certain things of them depending on the situation. After all, a submissive’s world is shaped by a knowledge and understanding of rules, and there are moments in which ‘because I demand it’ is hardly a sufficient answer for the unasked question of why a rule must be followed.
“If you are still not convinced on that argument that seventy-five thousand cogs is an exorbitant amount, picture it, my Empress, as an investment in good social standing. And for no extra charge, I can have him ready for you to take him with you by tomorrow afternoon.”
The Clockwork Empress purses her lips. Even rulers must submit to the demands of commerce, it seems! She collects her glass of sparkling water. “Payment would be due when?”
“When you come to collect him. Or we can do payments in installments. However is most comfortable for you is most comfortable for me,” answers the House Madam, clearly pleased.
“Then I will bring you your payment on the promise that he will be ready by tomorrow afternoon.” The young woman raises the glass to her lips, only to stop as if recollecting something. “I don’t want him collared.”
“Beg your pardon, my Empress?”
Movement from the doorway interrupts the conversation. Eron stands with his Handler, who still holds the leash attached to the collar around his neck. The young man’s gray pants ripple and move with the breeze. They flow with every step he takes towards the table. In the sunlight he looks less fair, or at least less likely to burn red from overexposure—a benefit, perhaps, of being a native of the Palm Islands. The House Madam notes the pleased look on her client’s face in silence.
“Exquisite,” murmurs the Empress, tenting her fingers. “Certainly a worthwhile investment.”
The House Madam gestures for Eron to sit between them. He does this with practiced grace, sitting on his heels with his hands resting on his thighs. The Handler is dismissed, something that appears to visibly shock the boy’s caretaker, but these are special circumstances that are best handled with as few people involved as possible. Then again, perhaps the Handler is already succumbing to the reality of his departure from under their care and guidance. The House Madam makes a note to speak with them about learning to better hide their emotions in the presence of clients—especially once so esteemed as the Clockwork Empress. For now, she smiles at the youth, green eyes twinkling with the joy of having made a sale.
“We were just discussing you,” says the House Madam. “It seems the Empress has taken quite a liking to you after all, Eron. You’ll be leaving us very soon for the capital.”
“Though not right away,” interjects the Empress. “I still have a few days yet in this city. It would be good to have a companion of sorts. My handmaidens are good company, but this is meant to be as much a vacation for them as it is a wonderful side effect of their duties. (The handmaidens giggle.) Oh hush, girls! You know it to be true!”
“And we are grateful for the opportunity, my Empress! Certainly, we are!” says one of the handmaidens.
“I should hope so!” The Empress turns back to the young man kneeling nearby. “In any case, the next few days will give us time to learn about one another before returning to the capital.”
“All the better that you two should start off slowly, as his eyes will need rest the first day or so.” The House Madam looks down at Eron. “You’re going to have quite the busy day tomorrow, my dear! Starting bright and early, so I hope you’ll be able to sleep well tonight.”
“Shh, none of that now. It’s a nice day and we’ve just met. Which reminds me—” The young woman gestures for him to come close enough that she can take his nametag in hand. “I want this collar removed when I come to collect him tomorrow.”
“Hm?” That in itself is not so unusual. “Will you be brining one of your own for him to wear?”
“Nothing quite so restrictive yet—and certainly not anything with a leash—but that can wait until tomorrow. I want to enjoy this for a moment; to get used to his presence.” The Empress reaches out and strokes Eron’s hair. “You can relax your posture if you like. Are you hungry? Would you like a treat?”
Eron looks up at her, his future owner, brown eyes warm and acquiescing. “If it is what my Empress wishes to give me, it will be gratefully accepted.”
She pats him on the head. “Such a precious investment! Here. (With two fingers, she collects one of the mounds of rice and shrimp.) Open.”
For a moment, he hesitates. Food directly from the fingers of the Clockwork Empress, the co-regent of the Empire and, truly, one of the most powerful women alive! Most men would be dying for such an opportunity, would be willing to eat it off the floor if she dropped it. And here he is, on the threshold of having the opportunity to have more, to be closer to her than perhaps even her own husband is to her and it…it feels strange. This isn’t a meeting of equals, after all. She is buying him like she might buy a souvenir of her trip.
Still, it doesn’t do well to keep the Empress waiting, does it?
Slowly, with only the smallest hesitation left, Eron leans in and parts his lips.
- * -
Day descends into evening. The Empress leaves around dusk but not before her fingers ruffle Eron’s hair and she tells him to sleep well; though he opts instead to thank her, he has doubts about that sleep will come to him tonight. His mind is full of thoughts that fill his stomach with butterflies. At last! After eight years of training, of maybes and rejections and being passed over for countless Presentation Days, it has finally happened to him. Eron has been bought. On his first Presentation Day, no less! By the Empress herself, of all people! Not by one of her handmaidens or some loyal follower hoping to place themselves in her good graces. By the very one and only Clockwork Empress. Fed by her fingers, even. The moment comes back to him as he sits with the others in his age group for dinner, the others having all of the excitement he should be exhibiting but cannot seem to feel. There is only nervousness, there. Fear. Worry.
“Oi! What’re you so glum about, hm?” He feels the slap to his back before he sees the blond youth sit down. “You can’t be making sad faces tonight, Eron. You’re going to the capital, Eron! To Blackwarren!”
“What’s more; he’s going with the Empress.” From across the table, Seraph looks at Eron with a little bit of envy. “Who seems to have the strangest taste in slaves, if I do say so.”
“Only because she passed you up!” answers the blond, the collar of his tag catching the light in a way that makes it impossible for Eron to read and refresh himself with the name. “I heard from Sam that you were the first one she spoke to.”
“I was. But a woman like that, I’d sooner pass on myself if I had the choice.” Seraph collects a bread roll from a bowl in the middle of the table and breaks it in half. His square face is set in an expression devoid of amusement. “It’s said not even her own husband will go near her. What sort of Emperor is he that he doesn’t take what he has all rights to? Better yet, why marry her at all?”
“Hey!” calls the redhead a few men down. “What’s Seraph complaining about down there? Is he still sore about not getting picked?”
“I’m not sore. In fact, I’m quite glad about it. At least I know my talents won’t be going to waste! Poor Eron will be counting himself fortunate if he becomes more than a nursemaid to her.” And the older slave has himself a good chuckle alone at this.
“Oi,” says the blond, “if the House Madam catches you talking like that, you know what you’ll get. Twenty lashings in the courtyard and no orgasms for a month.”
“Proof you are still so very new here, Arett.”
“She seems…” And then Eron stops. What? She seems what? He thinks of her sitting on the balcony, threads of gold shining in her brown curls; the brief touch of her fingertips to his lips after she fed him shrimp. The other men look at him, waiting for him to finish. “I feel I’ll be well-suited there. If the Empress had need of a nursemaid, why would she come looking here? We’re not exactly trained to heal the sick.
“Anyway, Seraph, there are a hundred reasons for royalty to marry. Isn’t her father some kind of king or duke or…something? He had land or an army or…” Eron shakes his head. “I vaguely remember.”
“How do you ‘vaguely remember’ the biggest wedding in recent history?” asks Arett. “It was only four years ago!”
“You would be surprised. The boy is rather dreamy-headed, and when focused on something he also has a tendency to lose himself in whatever that something is,” Seraph says, setting the uneaten half of the bread roll on his plate. “You would do well not to follow his example. Aloofness of a kind might get you into the bedchambers of some wealthy master, but many grow tired of it very quickly. Some who have gone using that act have wound up right back here or in worse places.”
“Somehow I feel like that’s one thing I won’t have to worry about,” Eron says.
“And what, pray tell, makes you so confident?”
The young man from the Palm Islands looks visibly surprised to realize he spoke that thought aloud. He clears his throat. “I just… The Empress seems very…”
Possessive is the word that comes to him only later, as he is standing under the showerhead in the bathroom. A little bit before dinner ended, the House Madam came with his Handler to fetch him. No longer will he sleep in the dormitory he has shared with the other men in his age group. Tonight, and tonight only, he will sleep in one of the suites reserved for those who have been bought. The thought is strange to him. Even now, standing alone under the showerhead for the first time in eight years, feels strange. The awareness that there are no other voices bouncing off the walls, no need to worry about being jostled out from beneath the torrent of warm water, makes Eron wonder if this is all just some silly dream.
Something about the word, about the way it feels so terribly accurate in regards to the Clockwork Empress, sends a shiver down his back. After tomorrow, Eron will be possessed. Owned. He will be property. True, there are laws in place that put him a few rungs above furniture, but it changes little. Property is property.
Still, better a new home with the Empress than turning out like Seraph.
Ah, Seraph! Cynical, surly, overconfident Seraph. If Eron was the betting type, he would wager his few belongings that the man is holding out for the chance that he might reach the age of thirty without being purchased so that the House Madam will give him his freedom (as it is written in each contract). Seraph has dreams of running his own House, of making money in the buying and selling of nubile, eager girls. How he even ended up here is still something of debate. The reigning theory is that for him, these years of training are little more than business-centered research. It would at least explain why he always feels the need to discuss the flaws of every client to reject him—no matter how many times it has gotten him into trouble.
The familiar voice of his Handler yanks him out of his thoughts. Quickly, he turns off the faucet and collects one of the burgundy towels. On the wall. Marat is standing by the foot of the bed, hands clasped around a slim wooden box. Eron stalls. He swallows. He knows the box. Even though he has not seen it in little over seven years, he knows what it is, what it is for. His fingers go to his tag. How it seems like only yesterday that Eron was paired with the patient Marat, who stumped and frustrated him then with their ambiguity!
(“I don’t understand. Are you male or female?”
“I am both and neither all at once.”
“But how does that even work?”
“It simply does. Same as anything else. I am simply Marat and I am your Handler. No more, no less.”)
“I suppose you know why I’ve come, what this is.” The sad tone in their voice does little to put Eron at ease. “Did you ever expect that this day would come?”
He shakes his head slowly, fingers still clinging to his tag. “Do you have to? So soon?”
Marat nods. “House Madam’s directive. The night before a slave is entrusted to his new owner, their collar is removed. Sometimes, he is immediately fitted with one provided by the owner, but your new mistress has asked that you remain without a new one.”
“I’m not ready.” The words tumble out of him before he can stop them. “I always knew—s-suspected, I guess, that my turn would come but now… I’m not ready. I don’t want to leave.”
Marat smiles a little, green eyes looking all the more brilliant surrounded by the black eyeliner. They sit on the edge of the bed, resting the box on their knees. “Seven years ago, you told me nearly the same thing. Do you remember?”
“Only too well.”
Eron crosses the room and settles down next to his Handler. For a while, they sit together in silence. He can feel Marat’s eyes on him, studying him. With their slender, cool fingers, they try to brush the hair back from his face, chuckling when it defies their efforts and falls right back into place. A fortune, Marat says; Eron should count it a fortune that the Empress wants no scissors to come near his curls, that they are likely part of the reason she bought him. Those of the Palm Islands are renowned for their curly hair, aren’t they? He only manages to nod. His curls, his kind brown eyes; these seem to be the only things he inherited from his mother. Not even the naturally pointed ears of the Palm Islanders made it down to him! Too much of his father’s imperialist blood, his grandmother was fond of saying. It left him diluted. Impure, she would say on days when she was cross with him or something he’d done.
And yet somehow favored enough by an Empress!
“You are more than ready for this,” Marat tells him softly, tilting his face up to theirs. Their green eyes regard him warmly, like a parent to a child. “I have done my best in avoiding lies with you these last eight years; I will continue to do so now. It will be frightening. It will be difficult. You’re leaving the safety of this House, of the only other home you’ve known for so long, and you are entering not only into the service of another, but into a larger world more complex and complicated than you can begin to imagine. There might be times you consider running away or doing something that might return you to us—”
“Marat, I would never think of doing something that would dishonor—”
“Listen to me now, Eron. Just listen.” They cradle his face in one hand. “To give all of yourself in service to another is never easy—harder still, when you make the decision late as you did. Do you remember how stubborn you were at first? How many Handlers did you go through before me?”
The young man blushes a little. “Three.”
“Three, and here we have a sense of routine to which you have grown accustomed. Here we almost spoil all of you despite our use of the rod or the whip.” Marat chuckles. “My dear, I cannot begin to recount how many have left these doors that have come back or vanished completely, broken in ways we could neither have predicted nor accounted for. I would just as soon not tell you to avoid putting silly fears into that pretty head of yours.
Gently, Marat leans in and presses a kiss to their charge’s forehead. They take Eron’s hands in their own, their grip warm and comforting. It reminds him of their first pain session together; how easily Marat talked him through every step, how gentle and reassuring they were even as they were firm in their wielding of the flogger.
“I wish I could promise that your life outside of this House will be as simple as it is here, but where you are going, you are best not coddled by wishful lies. It will be hard, Eron. The Emperor is a man of tradition, and the Empress… Well, you’ve met her. There is a strong chance he will not like you, nor the idea that you will more than likely share her bed, even if he himself leaves it vacant.”
“Then it’s true—?” Eron starts.
“There are variations on the details. Perhaps your mistress will explain to you further tomorrow, but that is not my concern. My concern, as it has been for this last handful of years, is you. That you are well-trained, I have no doubts. I did my best and I almost believe that you are my masterpiece. I might just retire after you leave.”
“And deprive future boys of your great tutelage and strong arm?”
“You talent for flattery is still exceptional, I see.” Another chuckle, though the sadness is returning to Marat’s voice. “It hurts my heart to see you go, even as it swells with pride for you. This is a grand opportunity, Eron. Do not hide from any sadness you might feel in the days ahead. Instead, take it on as you did with your training. Endure it with grace.”
Eron looks down at his hands. He wants to tell Marat that he will do these things in a voice filled with confidence. Instead, in a soft voice that wavers, he manages, “I’ll try.”
Marat gives his hands a reassuring squeeze. “When it comes, you will. But first things first. We cannot delay this any further than we have.”
“Not even a moment longer?” asks Eron.
His Handler shakes their head. They point to the floor in front of them. “Towel off, then take the position.”
Nodding, the young man rises. The towel is folded and placed at the foot of the bed. Gracefully, Eron lowers himself to the floor before his Handler, facing away from them. Behind him, he can feel Marat coming to their feet, silently prompting him to bow his head and gather his hair away from the collar’s buckle. A younger slave might jump at the feel of their Handler’s fingertips sliding into the space between leather and skin. Such a reaction would be seen as a sign of immaturity or lack of proper training. Eron remains still, though he feels a pang of sadness in his chest as Marat undoes the buckle.
“From this moment, our journey together has come to an end. Tomorrow, you will begin on a new path with a new master to guide and command you.”
The collar comes away and Eron stifles a shiver.
“Honor them as you have honored me, in action and in word, and you will bring pride both to them and the House that trained you.”
Marat bends down and places a kiss to the bare nape of his neck. Eron closes his eyes, willing away the tears that threaten to escape. When his Handler—
When Marat takes Eron’s hands and assists him in rising, it fully strikes the young man for the first time how their dichotomy encompasses their entire being. Not only male and female, but young and old as well. The guiding parent and the harsh disciplinarian. The
“Th-thank you.” Eron swallows. He embraces them. “I will miss you terribly, Marat.”
“And I will miss you, my dear. I will certainly miss you.” Marat pats his arm. They take his chin in hand. “Now get some sleep. Tomorrow begins early.”
Sleep is frustratingly evasive. The bed is comfortable, the blankets soft, the room blessedly dark and quiet. It eventually dawns on Eron that the silence is part of the problem. He has gotten so very used to sounds lulling him to sleep—others breathing, snoring, moaning; ticking clocks, footsteps, the fountain in the courtyard—that being so removed from it all only serves to make him more anxious. He rolls onto his side, clutches to one of the pillows. If only Marat had stayed with him! Just at least until Eron fell asleep! But Marat would likely chide him for such a thought, for while emotion control was part of his training, they always made it clear that it was not the same as emotion suppression. Emotion can and should be felt, but a submissive should do his best to maintain his composure at all times, especially in the presence of his master or mistress.
But you’re not before the Empress now, are you?
No, but tomorrow, he will be. If he gives in to the sadness tightening in his chest, the women who will be in charge of making him look “presentable” will have a challenge on their hands. What new pet appears before his mistress with a puffy face from crying? What sort of example does that set for the newer slaves?
Eron hugs the pillow tighter to himself. Even if sleep refuses to come, he shuts his eyes. His mother’s face comes to mind, patient and lined with age before it seems it should have been but beautiful all the same. How full of sadness her eyes were when he left home! How sad but also how full of love, full of hope that her son would find the work and fortune he sought and promised to bring back to her for her benefit as much as for his own. It occurs to Eron then that he has not written her in some time. How long? About a month, perhaps. The realization makes the young man sit up in bed.
A month with no word from him. She must be worried sick.
Even more so, since she has no idea how he finally managed to find work. How could he tell her? Eron meant to break the news to her somehow, within the first year, but visits to family were only allowed during holidays or emergencies. What sort of holiday would that be, breaking the news to his mother that her only son was training to become someone’s slave?
Pet, his mind corrects. The Empress wants you for a pet. Whatever that means.
Since sleep appears to be out of the question, Eron climbs out of bed and goes to the desk, hoping to find some sort of paper and pencil or pen with which he might write something the House could send on his behalf. Perhaps Marat would be willing to deliver it for him, since they will be the one to deliver his portion of whatever price the Empress paid for him directly to his mother. That request, he remembers, came as a bit of a shock to the House Madam, as most often, the men are given their portion as a stipend to buy belongings or items their master may wish for them to own.
In one of the desk drawers, he finds stationery bearing the House’s logo of a dragon fruit flower colored crimson. In another, a black fountain pen. Eron turns on the lamp, sits down, and after a moment’s hesitation, puts pen to paper.
By the time you read this, I suspect you have or will come to learn the truth. I’m sorry for keeping the truth from you for so long. I almost wish I could say I was coerced, kept here against my will, but that is not the case. I chose this. Carefully. Soberly. I chose it. The only regret I have is not telling you sooner, lying by omission. But don’t worry, or at least try not to; I have been well cared for and well-trained in my arts, and this has been noticed by many, including the Empress herself. My services were purchased by her today while she visited. I go to her tomorrow afternoon and will return with her to Blackwarren by week’s end to serve at her side.
That’s where this money comes from. It is my portion of what was paid for my services.
Mother, please take what Marat gives you. I know how an inclination towards pride runs in our veins but please… I’m asking you to put it aside just this once. Take the money as my gift to you. Use it however it will benefit you and my sisters. Sera will be finishing school soon, the twins just entering secondary, aren’t they?
I miss you all very much. I suspect it will be a while yet before I’ll be able to write again as I’ll be spending time learning about my duties and how to behave in the palace. Perhaps when I’ve worked for her long enough, the Empress will be inclined to grant a request to come home for a few days. I hope, at least, that I’ll still have one to visit after this letter.
I love you. Hug and kiss the girls for me.
He almost signs it Eron out of habit but catches himself before the nib touches paper. Not that name. His real one, the one his mother gave him. As a postscript he adds an assurance that he has kept all parts of his name clean by adopting an entirely new one in its place.
She may own my body, but my soul remains mine.
The part of his mother that holds fast to old superstitions will find some comfort in that. It’s why she held fast to the tradition of giving her children three names when most only gave two?
Oh, Mother. Please understand and still count me your son after tomorrow.
Leaving the letter unfolded to let the ink dry, Eron returns to bed. It barely feels like he has closed his eyes for long before Marat is gently shaking him awake. Their features are more rounded than they were last night, gentler. The curve of their waist and hips is more noticeable.
“Wake up. It’s time.” Something in the notes of their voice is gentler. “We haven’t any time to waste today. Did you sleep well?”
“I don’t…know…” Eron sits up, rubbing his eyes. “I don’t think so. What time is it?”
“An hour before the first sun. Get up!”
“I’m trying, Marat. I’m trying—” A soft sound escapes him as pops and cracks escape from his back. “Is the Empress here?”
“Not yet, but I overheard there being plans for her to come around for breakfast to finalize her deal. I’m not sure why. Perhaps the House Madam thinks she sell a second boy to her in the process of waiting for you to be ready.” They laugh. “I doubt it. If the Empress wanted more than one, she would have likely picked him along with you. Come.”
“Where are we going?”
The bathhouse first, though still not the community one he used to use with his peers. This one is a private one on the floor above, decorated in the same red and orange tiles but certainly much more spacious. The entire room smells sweet with incense and fresh flowers. Against one wall is a shelf lined with bottles of scented oils and soaps. Against another wall is a table like the ones in the massage room in the pleasure wing. A large tub sits in the center of the room, already filling with steaming water. Marat only has to point to the tub before going to the shelf. One of the House’s many attendants, a round woman with her long brown hair tied in a ponytail on top of her head, comes in pushing a little table lined with all several straight razors and a jar of cream. The table, she brings by the tub. Marat notices.
“No, no, my dear. We’re waxing him today. Get the station ready for when we finish here.”
“How much wax?” asks the round woman.
“Tell the girls in the supply room we’ll be doing a C-to-T on the Blackwarren boy.” Marat nears the tub, bottles in varying colors filling both hands, their tone businesslike and almost cold. “They’ll know what you mean and give you everything you need. When you come back, I’ll show you how to use the machine. Leave the shaving materials here, however; there are a few other boys need preparing for a party thrown by some Count Someone or Other in one of the beachside villas.”
“Yes, Senior Handler. I—”
“No, none of that! None of that. Marat. I’m old as it is. Don’t make me feel older.” Setting down the bottles on a little cart, they smile at the attendant. “Now go. Hurry along. This morning’s preparation is the most important of the day.”
The girl is barely gone long before Marat drops the businesslike air and mutters something about trainees. They stifle Eron’s laughter over the matter with a warning that a similar fate awaits him, should the Empress choose to buy herself another “pet” later on. He will have to train them in what she likes, how to behave, what to say and when to say it, and so on. If he is smart, he’ll be so good at serving her that the Empress will want to spend her money instead on spoiling him, perhaps even serving as his patron for performances.
“She seems rather taken with the knowledge that you can dance,” Marat says. “Use it to your advantage. Some of the well-known performers in the theatre were once in service to someone at some point.”
“So they say, but Marat, I’m fairly certain I was not bought for my dancing.”
“Oh, not bought for his dancing, he says! Here—” Marat gives him a toothbrush already loaded with toothpaste. “Keep your mouth occupied long enough to let me finish pouring wisdom into your pretty head.”
Eron decides it best not to smart off in response. Handler or not, when Marat says to be quiet and listen, even the House Madam knows to fall silent—albeit more begrudgingly than most.
“Listen. It’s true all Houses do things differently regarding their charges. In most, you would be a slave in every definition of the word whether you came to us of your own will or not. Had you gone elsewhere, your freedom might have been at the mercy of those who bought and sold you.
“Here, because you came to us free, you have options. Here your status is akin to the indentured servants who trade work for travel and lodging. At thirty, had you not been bought, your freedom would have been returned to with a stipend agreed to in your contract.”
“But I have been purchased,” Eron says after spitting a mouthful of foaming paste. “The House no longer owns me—”
The Handler tugs lightly at his suds-soaked hair. “Toothbrush back in mouth! I’m not finished. Now, true, the Empress purchased you yesterday, but what the House Madam has hopefully made clear to her is that she has only purchased your contract. You are bound to her in service until the day after you turn thirty.”
They pause to rinse his hair of the first wash. The water is hot but not painfully so, and the feeling of Marat’s fingers working through the young man’s hair helps put him a little at ease.
“When your contract expires,” they say, “your fate becomes your own. You may choose to extend your service by another five years. Or, if you’ve been smart and cultivated a good relationship with your mistress—if you have served her well and done your best to please her—you might be able to parlay that into patronage.”
“I could have her back a career in the theatre,” murmurs Eron. “In dance.”
“Praise his namesake; he’s as smart as he is talented!” The Handler looks down at him. “Consider it. Always consider your future and how your actions in the present affect it.”
The way things currently are, there seems to be too much to suddenly consider. Eron barely has even a clue as to what his new Mistress may like, if she may want him in her bed immediately or if she will prefer to wait. Marat tells him what little they can. It seems to Eron, however, that they may not be telling him everything. Is it because his mistress is the Empress? This is hardly a time to keep intimate details about her private! And if her husband is so old-fashioned…
“Marat—” His thought is interrupted by rinsing of conditioner from his hair. “Marat, what about the Emperor?”
“What about him?”
“Well, the chance that he may not approve, or…or find displeasure with me—”
“He will. If the Emperor is still as tightly-wound as I remember, then he will most certainly dislike you on principle.” Marat exhales a little sigh. “There has never been a marriage more obviously for power than theirs, but he likes to pretend that they have fallen in love over time.”
“Have they?” asks Eron, soaping himself with the gel the Handler gives him. “I mean, apart from the empty marriage bed—”
“They haven’t broken out into civil war, so I suppose there is still some hope, but I doubt it. Too different, too head-strong.”
“Both!” Marat makes a judgmental sound with closed lips. “Rinse up! Dry off. I want you sitting on the waxing table by the time I get back. I have to find out where that girl went or what’s keeping her. Honestly, of all days to stick me with an aspiring Handler!”
Presentation Days are unpleasant for all involved. Eron wonders if most of the snap and firmness in Marat’s today is to mask any sadness they might be feeling over the impending parting? How much longer? Soon, it seems! Much too soon! If only time could be asked to go slower, or perhaps the Empress asked to wait an extra day; but making a monarch wait for what they’ve rightfully paid is probably rude—even more so, when she is the highest-ranking monarch in the Empire. And time? Who can slow time? Scientists and mages fight over claiming the bragging rights daily, but no one has quite figured it out yet. What purpose would it serve, anyway?
Marat returns with the round attendant, who looks completely embarrassed and keeps her gaze focused on the cart she pushes in front of her. Eron raises an eyebrow.
“We’ll discuss your conduct after this is over and done with,” Marat says to the attendant. “Just be grateful it was me and not the House Madam that caught you!”
“Yes, Senior Handler.”
This time, they do not correct her. “You’ve cost me precious time. If you’ve made my charge late for his appointment with the Physician, I’ll make sure the House Madam does find out and takes appropriate measures with you. Understand? You cannot expect to become a Handler if you insist on behaving like everything runs on your schedule! (Marat lets out a short sigh.) Go. I don’t need your assistance further today.”
The attendant looks up, her eyes wide and shining. Her mouth quivers. “But I—”
“Don’t make me tell you twice! I don’t have time for delays or for shadows today. Go help the girls in the storeroom until someone else needs an extra pair of hands. I’ll tend to this myself.”
Marat may as well have slapped her, she looks so horrified! Mumbling some apology, the attendant hurries out, rear end wiggling from the speed of her shuffling feet. Eron stifles the urge to chuckle. Marat barely notices her departure, muttering something about unnecessary delays as they cut strips.
“Your new mistress wishes you bald from the cheeks downward. Gods only know why she wants us to do it the same day instead of waiting to have her people do it to her liking or even why she wants such a thing at all—” they click their tongue in disapproval. “There is something personally off-putting about total hairlessness… Still, an order is an order. Lie back.”
The pain of being waxed is something that, despite all of Eron’s training and conditioning, he has never grown to enjoy. Wax play with candles is one thing, but there is something rather difficult to find any sort of joy or pleasure in the application of a practice intended to rip out hairs from the root in clumps and patches. Some of the boys in the House have skin too sensitive for the treatment, a thing most of them learn the hard way during their first and last session. General consensus at the House of Fire Blossoms is that the only thing worse than waxing for for hair removal is the epilator machine that the House Madam purchased a couple years ago to finally combat the problem. If she only knew what they called it out of earshot!
“My fortune must be good—mmf!—since you found the wax,” Eron says.
“The, ah, the wax—? Mmf!” He lets out a sharp breath. “Better this than the weed eater.”
“Weed eater? Hold still, Eron.”
“I told you to hold still.” Marat straightens up, frowning a little. “The epilator would probably get this job done a lot quicker, which is beneficial since you have an appointment with the Physician. On the other hand, it would also leave you red as a lobster. The House can’t afford that.”
“So wax it is?”
“Wax it remains. Is it too hot?”
Eron shakes his head. “Not really.”
Every strip glued and pulled leaves that much more of his body tingling with pain. Marat swiftly develops a steady rhythm of spreading the wax, laying the strips, and pulling them quickly. They do their best to minimize the reddening of the skin, the discomfort; some of it is inevitable. When they get down to his genitals, the discomfort is a certainty. After that, the stinging pain is tolerable…until he has to turn over, anyway.
“Fortune is yours that you aren’t so hairy by nature. We would have been here much longer than predicted otherwise.”
“I don’t suppose—” But Eron stops when he feels the Senior Handler’s fingers spread the cheeks of his rear end. “I suppose it does.”
“Completely hairless,” Marat says. “I should have waited for you to bathe after the treatment.”
He is led, stinging and red, from the bathhouse to the Infirmary Wing. The Head Physician is waiting for him there in one of the operating suites. Eron looks to the Senior Handler, who only gestures to the empty chair already set up in a partially reclined position.
“I was expecting him already dressed!” says the Physician.
“I would rather not risk ruining whatever he wears,” Marat says.
“Fair enough. But all this redness?”
“Waxing session. The client wanted him today and was not the least bit interested in waiting a day or so.”
“I see. Well, considering the client…” The doctor grins knowingly. He puts a gentle hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Lie back now, Eron. Just relax. Marat, if you please, the straps—”
They lash Eron down at seven points. One to each ankle and to each wrist. One goes around the chest. Two straps hold his head to the chair—one around the chin and the other around the forehead. Humming, the Head Physician affixes speculums to both of Eron’s eyes, following them with drops. As he patiently explains the procedure, a nurse lowers a silver machine until its slender eyepieces hover close to the young man’s face. Eron sees nothing but darkness down the tubes. It fills him with a cold dread. Stories about this machine have circulated among the boys, haven’t they? How it changes them… The procedure is irreversible! Irrevocable! Eron swallows, bites his lip. He thinks of his mother, of what she might think if she knew what they are about to do to him.
The sound draws him back to himself, to the darkness staring out at him. A very tiny pinpoint of light appears in each small tunnel, growing steadily larger by the second.
“I see a light,” Eron says.
At his control panel, the Physician nods. “Mm-hm. That’s normal. Focus on that light, Eron, a-and try not to move. This will only take a moment.”
“Will it hurt?”
After a moment of uncomfortable silence, the Physician answers, “You might feel some pain, but the experience is different for everyone. Just hold still as best you can.”
Eron thinks of answering that the restraints have that pretty well covered, but the white light is nearer and larger than it was moments ago. A steady hum fills the room. The young man clenches his fists. He wishes he could shut his eyes but every attempt is an uncomfortable reminder that they are being forcefully held open by the speculums. There is no alternative but to accept what is coming. Accept the change. Lie back, relax as best as possible—
The pain comes immediately after Eron’s sight is completely engulfed in white light. It feels like the light is burrowing into his head, pushing past bone, into brain; boring two holes through the back of his skull. Burning heat courses through his veins. He understands now, as his body writhes and bucks off the chair as best as it can, why so many restraints are necessary. No amount of soothing phrases from the Head Physician nor reassuring tones from Marat would make Eron—or anyone else, for that matter!—want to stay put of his own will otherwise! A few horrifying thoughts manage to break through the white-hot wall of agony: What if this is the wrong machines? What if they are using the wrong setting?
Dark stillness overtakes him then, peaceful and cool. Eron can hear himself breathing. He can hear Marat calling to him, their hand stroking his forehead. Slowly, cautiously, Eron opens his eyes. Marat stares down at him, concern in their green eyes.
I can see, he thinks to himself. I can see that Marat looks concerned. That’s a good sign.
They hold up several fingers. “How many?”
Eron sits up in the chair, only now aware the straps have been removed. He blinks. “Three.”
Marat holds up a few more. “Now?”
They put down some of their fingers. “One more time.”
“Very good.” Marat steps back, gestures for the Head Physician to come over. “He can see, but his eyes are the same color.”
“Oh, that’s normal. His natural color is the base color. At first, eye color will change based on his mood, but he’ll be able to control it better with practice. Any color he can think of, Eron will be able to produce.” The doctor pulls out a small penlight. “Don’t worry. This one won’t hurt at all. Just need to test your eye response…”
Satisfied with the success of the treatment, he lets Eron go with instructions to practice at least an hour daily in front of the mirror. Marat murmurs something about unnecessary roughness out of the Physician’s earshot. They stand Eron up and study him with a frown. Another wash! As he is now, he is far from presentable.
“A shower this time. We haven’t any time to draw a bath…” Marat clicks their tongue. “Out of the Empress and Madam Isabella, I don’t know who to blame more for this rush. I’m almost tempted to ask for double my share of the imperial coinage in compensation!”
They send Eron with two attendants to the showers for a second wash. By the time the attendants finish with him, Marat has prepared clothes in the private suite. Trousers made of flowing teal silk, silver slippers, and a silver sash adorned with tiny medallions that jingle with each movement. Dancer’s clothes. Eron smiles a little as Marat enters with underwear in one hand and a flowing silver tunic shirt in the other.
“Limited time, limited choices,” they say. “Or in your cases, no choices. Dress!”
Even on limited time, the clothes fit as naturally as his own skin. He turns for Marat’s careful inspection, puts up with their poking and prodding. (This is standard fussing for the Senior Handler. Getting in the way of the process results in being shushed or getting hand-slaps.) Out of nowhere, they produce needle and thread to strengthen two or three of the medallions on the sash. They tie anew the knot made to fasten it around Eron’s waist, then slide it around; first on the hip, then the left, then to the middle before finally returning to the right hip. Marat steps back to survey their work. Their lips twist and pout.
“Well, it helps that you’re so naturally beautiful. Not many of the others have that. You, I could cover in mud and you would still fetch a tidy sum from some spoiled aristocrat.”
“With all respect, I must point out your bias,” Eron says.
“Nothing of bias, hush. I’ve been doing this a very long time, my love. I have seen many come and go, many who thought they could—who believed it with every cell of their being that they could live this life—and found they couldn’t.” A fond look crosses their features. Taking one of Eron’s hands in theirs, they place something cool and metallic into it. “Your kind comes so very rarely, Eron. When you go, a piece of my heart goes, too.”
They close his fingers around the item before he can get a look at it, but the feel of it suggests a chain with a pendant. A small parting gift. Eron tries to swallow the knot tying itself in his throat. He thinks of something to say, something eloquent. When he opens his mouth, however, all that comes out is:
They embrace tightly. Eron presses a kiss to Marat’s cheek. When they part, Marat touches his face. They look pleased.
“The doctor has done good work once again.”
Before Eron can ask to see what they mean, an attendant knocks at the door. She holds two bags in her hands; one of which he recognizes as the one he arrived with eight years ago, the other a red duffle bearing a large white dragon fruit flower on its side.
“The Empress and the House Madam are awaiting your arrival in the exhibition hall.”
Eron draws in a breath. He draws back his shoulders. Marat steps forward and takes the bags from the attendant with a quiet word of thanks. The door is left open in her wake. The Senior Handler looks at his charge for the last handful of years. Nothing more need be said. Both of them know that this cannot be put off any further. Not unless they want to risk angering the most powerful woman in the Empire, anyway.
“Marat—” Eron stops. Hesitates, more like it. He goes to the desk and retrieves the letter he wrote the night before. As he folds it, he says, “This letter… When you go to the Palm Islands to give my mother my share of the fee—”
Marat puts down the bags. They slide the folded letter into an inner pocket of their suit jacket. “It will be delivered.”
Eron nods. The flicker of a smile crosses his lips. “Thank you.”
The Handler merely nods. They collect the bags again. A businesslike air overtakes them. They stand much more rigidly than before, with their shoulders squared and arms resting comfortably at their sides.
“We’ll go through the courtyard. That will give you time to compose yourself and to say any goodbyes you might wish to offer some of the other boys. We’ll have to walk through the covered area, since the Head Physician said you mustn’t spend much time directly in the sun for the next few days.”
The young man takes in a small breath. “Lead ahead and I will follow you as I always have.”
The men waiting for him in the courtyard cheer Eron’s passing. They clap for him, shout goodbyes. Some begin to loudly sing leaving songs that he recognizes from his childhood, ones that he taught them over the years. Their tongues still stumble over the pronunciation. They pitch their voices comically high for the response verses. Still, the songs ring true and they fill Eron’s heart with a bittersweet joy. He will miss them, these boys; these friends, these lovers and students of pleasure; these men both young and older who, in their own way, became a strange sort of family. He will miss them all terribly; misses them now, even, as he grows closer to the double doors of the exhibition hall.
“Ready?” asks Marat.
Eron draws in a deep breath. He clutches the gift they gave him. “Not really.”
They turn their head and flash the smallest of smiles, one that would perhaps be reassuring if only they did not look so quietly sad in their eyes.
“Look now! Here he comes with his Handler!”
The House Madam’s overly-cheerful voice echoes within the expansive hall. The Clockwork Empress is with her, the same handmaidens from yesterday surrounding her mobile throne. One of them holds a small box in her hands. One of the others steps forward to meet Marat halfway. She curtsies before them and takes the bags in their hands. Eron follows Marat to stand before the Empress, who smiles up at him in a way that reminds him of a cat with a new plaything. He bows before her, kisses the back of her hand when presented with it. It takes effort to hold still when the Empress touches his face.
“Are you nervous, my dear? You may answer honestly.”
“I am sad, my Empress.”
“To be leaving.” Eron straightens up when the Empress gestures for him to do so. “This has been my home. These people have been as my family. Marat— (He looks at his Handler.) Marat has looked after me through well and ill.”
“I see.” She nods. “It is understandable, and certainly, I would assume they are sad to see you go as well?”
“It will be difficult at first,” Marat answers, “but such is the way of our business. I can only hope that you will take care of him and guide him as well as I have tried to do this last handful of years. He will treat you well for it.”
“I should very much hope so. I have heard you to be among the best Handlers for miles around.”
Marat looks pleased. “Empress, you flatter me. I only strive to give my best to my charges so that they might, in turn, give the best of themselves to their future masters and mistresses.”
“And such an ideal is to be commended! Certainly, it should be encouraged among all Handlers who expect to be half as successful.” The Clockwork Empress raises a hand. The handmaiden with the small box steps forward. “The Head Physician explained to me that your eyes would require shielding from the sun for a few days. He offered me a phial of drops to administer if you must be out in the day, which I have accepted, but I also thought it best to bring you something that might also help. (The handmaiden offers Eron the box.) Consider it your first gift.”
A pair of sunglasses sits inside, its black metal frame crafted with twists near the round, deep green lenses. That they fit Eron perfectly surprises him little. No doubt, the Empress probably had them custom-made for him to wear. She certainly has the coin and the power for it, doesn’t she?
“Thank you, my Empress.”
The House Madam clears her throat. “I-I must remind you, I’m afraid, of the subject of payment. You will forgive me for being so direct, my Empress, but you did promise that you would bring it with you—”
“And I have not gone back on my promise. Marlena—” The empty-handed handmaiden steps forward and hands the House Madam a folded slip of paper. “I do believe that this will more than suffice, will it not?”
The older woman looks only too pleased with the contents of the paper. “Yes, of course! Of course! This will do perfectly.”
“Then I may take him with me now, correct? Has he eaten?”
“Not even a bite,” says Marat. “His morning has been too busy.”
“Then that is how we will begin.” The Empress nods to herself. “Now, Madame Isabella, I trust you have his stipend prepared? Or shall I come back for that once you’ve cashed the check?”
The question yanks the House Madam out of her joyful haze. “Aha, mm, yes. Ah, the stipend. There is a small matter to deal with concerning Eron’s stipend—namely, that he will not receive one.”
The Empress’s violet eyes narrow in concern. “Pardon?”
“It’s part of the contract he negotiated with us. His portion will be sent to support his family in the Palm Islands.”
“Oh?” She looks at Eron. “Is this true? Who at home is there to support?”
He tells himself not to give away his discomfort. It feels wrong for the House Madam to casually reveal something so personal like that to his new mistress. Even if it is merely part of the business, what if she uses that information against him? Lords it over his head to make him go past his own limits? Still, the Empress asked him a question. It must be answered. Slowly, Eron nods.
“My mother,” he says, “a-and my sisters.”
“I see. That’s very noble of you. Very commendable.”
“Thank you, Empress.”
“You’re very welcome. Right, I think we will be going now. I’ve made reservations for lunch at a little place a stone’s throw from the ocean. Are you allergic to any foods in particular?”
Eron shakes his head. “No, Empress.”
This puts a pleasant look on her face. “Splendid! Then I think it will be an enjoyable afternoon for us both.”
One can dream, he supposes.
A most impressive carriage waits outside for the Empress, one that stems as much from its ability to accommodate her motorized chair as from the quiet sort of way it boasts about the amount of money spent to buy it. The carriage and the two mechanical horses pulling it are draped in the Empress’s colors both inside and out. Eron’s luggage is packed on top and held securely with straps. Two of the three handmaidens sit on a bench outside to pilot the horses. The third, the one who held the box with Eron’s new sunglasses, deftly secures the Empress’s chair with straps before taking the seat to her left. Eron sits in the plush seat across from her, moving some of the small throw pillows to make room.
“You look quite surprised,” the Empress says to her new charge. “Have you never seen these before?”
“Not this kind,” Eron admits.
“Hm. True, these are a bit rarer, but they more than pay for themselves over time.”
With a small jolt, the carriage begins to move. Eron turns in his seat. How many times has he done this, watched as the towers and red outer walls of the House of Fire Blossoms grew smaller and smaller in the rear window? Countless times. The difference between then and now is that, eventually, the gates would once again fill his tired view. This time, there is no going back. It is no longer his home.
“Eron?” The Empress’s voice contains notes of concern. “Are you all right?”
No, of course I’m not. Not right now. My heart hurts too much to be all right, to be happy that this day has come.
He thinks of nodding anyway, of trying to make his voice sound normal or even happy, until he catches the ghost of his reflection in the window. The sight makes him lift his sunglasses enough to realize that he need not speak a word of his sadness, merely turn to look at his new mistress for her to understand. Eron’s eyes give him away entirely. After all, what other emotion is one supposed to infer from eyes that have gone from the warmest brown to a deep, rich blue?