~Rio de Janeiro, Brazil~
~May 16, 2080~
He slowly lifted the demitasse of fragrant espresso to his full, perhaps slightly pouting, lips as he leaned on the railing of the balcony that overlooked the vast estate known as O Paraíso—the haven. Eduardo St. George, blue eyes so dark they almost appeared black, scanned the horizon, midnight brows, drawn together in a thoughtful scowl. He was the second tai-youkai of South America, and he called these lands his home. Back in the day, he’d stood in the same spot, took in the same landscape with a smile, with the unabashed naivete that came with the idea that every day was beautiful, that the ugliness that lingered in the darkened corners of the world at large had yet to come to roost here—not in his domain.
He was wrong.
‘Almost . . . two months . . .’
It felt like an eternity. Almost two months since the last communication, and that . . . worried him . . .
Not for the first time, he had to wonder if he hadn’t made a colossal mistake. He wouldn’t have agreed to it, though, if he hadn’t insisted—if he wasn’t entirely certain that it was something he needed to do. Even so, Eduardo couldn’t help but to ask himself over and over again if he hadn’t been a little too fast to allow him to go. Maybe he should have waited, tested him, made more of an effort to make him understand just what he could easily be walking into . . . Sending in someone who admittedly had very little in the way of experience in this kind of operation . . .
But he hadn’t had a choice, either, and he knew that, too.
“I will not lie. It will be difficult—perhaps impossible . . . When you come back—if you come back . . . do not delude yourself into believing that you will be the same man. Something of this nature could take months—years—if you’re successful. If you’re discovered, we won’t be able to get to you fast enough to save you, to pull you out of there, and . . . It may be too much to ask of you . . . Are you certain that it’s a chance you’re willing to take?”
The expression on his face hadn’t changed during Eduardo’s briefing. The determination on his face, the fire that burned behind his gaze . . . The South American tai-youkai had to appreciate that, damned if he didn’t. Living up to his pedigree, as it were, he supposed . . .
“I know the risks,” he replied. “I’ve considered this since the day I heard of it. That video you sent of the girl—Korin . . . It cannot be allowed to go on. I don’t expect that it’ll be easy, and I don’t think that it’ll be fun. But . . .”
Shaking his head, Eduardo started to rise to his feet. He just needed to move. He thought better when he was in motion. “I . . . I will send one of my hunters in. This whole idea . . . I cannot guarantee your safety, and—”
“You can’t do that. That’s why you mentioned it, to start with. The last time you tried, they found out, and that guy . . . Well, he never came home, either. We both saw what happened to him . . . Your hunters—even your newer ones—are known to them, and tying even one of them up in this indefinitely? You can’t do that. You already said so yourself.” Gaze shifting to the side as he slowly blinked, he stared out the huge window that had been retracted back into the wall, allowing the fresh air, blowing off the ocean, to fill the airy space. “What they’re doing . . . It’s wrong. It’s wrong on every level. It’s . . . It’s evil . . . Upon the honor of my family, I cannot in good conscience sit back and pretend that I never heard of it.”
“And your family?”
“What about them?”
Eduardo leveled a look at him. Bravado and a certain level of belligerence weren’t going to convince the tai-youkai. “Do they have any idea that you’re here? That you want me to allow this?”
He narrowed his eyes. “I talked to the ones who matter,” he said. “They may not agree with why I want to do this, but they understand the need.”
Wandering over, filling two glasses with scotch—he figured that they both needed it right now—Eduardo handed him a glass before stepping back around the desk again. He’d showed him that video—the one that he’d half-hoped would convince him not to take on what could easily be a suicide mission, and yes, he’d watched as he’d flinched, scowled, looked almost sickened at the contents of that video, but in the end, all it had done was to reinforce his conviction that he had to help put a stop to it all . . .
“It’s because of the ones I care about,” he said, the rich timbre of his voice taking on a more thoughtful lilt, a quiet sense of contemplation. “If . . . If I can do something to eliminate this kind of thing? If I can ensure that there is one less nightmare, lurking in the dark . . .? Then it’s worth it to me—even if I never come back.”
“You’re a good man,” Eduardo said with a slow nod. “I pray you’ll still be a good man when you walk away from all of this, too—that you’re able to walk away from it all . . .”
Setting the empty demitasse on the thick porcelain saucer in his hand, he let out a deep breath, ignoring the ocean breeze that flipped his long, dark brown, almost black, bangs into his eyes. That day over eight years ago tended to replay in his head at least once a day, sometimes more. The sense of foreboding that he’d felt at the time had slowly grown, magnified . . . and he continued to ask himself if he’d made the right decision, allowing him to go . . .
And now, it had been two months—two months since he’d dared any kind of correspondence . . .
“I’m guessing that you’re thinking about him, aren’t you?”
Letting out a deep, almost defeated, breath, Eduardo nodded, but didn’t turn to look at his mate. So lost in thought that he hadn’t sensed Chelressa’s approach, he ought to be berating himself for allowing such a lapse. He had bigger things on his mind, though. “I am,” he admitted.
Chelressa uttered a commiserating sort of half-sigh as she stepped over to lean against the railing beside him. “You’re considering sending in someone to get him out, aren’t you?”
Sometimes, she knew him a little too well, didn’t she? Of course, being married to someone for over four hundred years . . . It would be a little strange if she didn’t know him like she knew the back of her hand, wouldn’t it? “If he doesn’t make contact by the end of the week . . .”
She smiled at him, her brilliant violet eyes, sparkling, as she caught the long strands of her ash-blonde hair in one hand and laid the other against his forearm. “Don’t sell him short, Ed. As much as you might want to think otherwise, he would not have taken it upon himself to go in if he didn’t feel that he was capable of seeing the mission through.”
“Hubris can get you only so far,” Eduardo insisted quietly. “It’s one thing to think that he knew what he was walking into. I fear . . . I fear that he didn’t. How could he? He saw those damned videos, yes, but . . . but if he made the mistake of thinking that that was only something done to a spy . . .? If they’ll do that to a spy, just what the hell would they do to one of their own? You and I both know that . . . that it isn’t something he could do without absolute commitment: mind, body, soul . . .”
Chelressa sighed softly. “You’re thinking about her again, aren’t you?” she asked, but it didn’t sound like a question. “About the things she told you . . .”
He didn’t deny it. The first videos . . . ‘Korin . . .’
He’d found her, wandering the streets near O Paraíso, and something about her . . . So lost, so fragile, and so very afraid . . .
“I . . . I don’t exist, do I? On paper, on anything that matters . . . I’m nothing . . .”
“Nothing is a harsh term. What’s your name?” he asked, frowning at the waif of a girl. Lost in the folds of a nondescript tan dress that hung around her small frame like a sack, she shivered slightly, rubbing her bare arms. The temperate breeze blowing off the water stirred her hair—hair that was probably a beautiful shade of red, but was so matted and grimy from the days and days of wandering alone that the color was all but masked . . . She was one of the lucky few. She’d been bought by a master who had seen fit to remove her collar, to set her free when he lay on his death bed—he had emancipated all fifteen of his slaves. Eduardo didn’t know where the others had gone. Neither did she . . .
She seemed confused by his candid question—a question that should have been easy enough to answer. “I . . . I don’t have one,” she said. “My master . . . Sometimes, he called me Korin . . . He said I looked like a Korin . . .”
Eduardo’s frown deepened as he shrugged of the light jacket he wore and stood to drape it over her shoulders. She shot him a quick, scared look, and he managed a little smile to reassure her as he sat back down in the small and quiet café near the water. “That’s a pretty name,” he told her. “Korin . . . Yes, very fitting . . .”
For some reason, his statement only seemed to further her acute distress. “I . . . Could you . . .? Can you take me back?”
“Take you back? Back to where? Your master . . . He’s dead, is he not?”
She shook her head, ducking her chin a little more. “No, I mean . . . Can you take me back to the camp? They could resell me or . . . or . . .”
Eduardo sighed, reaching for the glass of gold cachaça. “I’m sorry . . . I will not return you to that place.”
He could sense her vast upset, her disappointment, and it bothered him that she would rather return to a place like that than to have her freedom to do whatever she wanted . . . “I . . . I would rather be there than here,” she whispered, scrunching up her shoulders as she frowned at the platter of food before her. She hadn’t touched a thing. Eduardo suspected that she wouldn’t, either. “I . . . I don’t understand anything here . . . And the sounds, and the smells, and . . .”
“It’s all right,” he assured her, reaching across the table, patting her hand gently. She choked back a sob, drew a tumultuous breath. “Don’t worry, Korin. I’ll . . . I’ll help you . . .”
Reaching up, laying a gentle hand against his cheek, turning his face toward hers, an ocean of concern, churning in her eyes, Chelressa tilted her head to the side, and she tried to smile. It was thin and weak and not at all one of her heartfelt expressions, and he grimaced. “You weren’t wrong,” she told him softly. “That place . . . He’s your best chance to get the information you need—your best chance to put an end to it, once and for all.”
“I feel as though I sent him in there . . . to die,” Eduardo admitted. “He’s strong, but . . . I cannot begin to fathom the perversity that lives there. How much can a mind—can a soul—take . . .? How far can you bend a good man before he breaks . . .? It’s been over eight years, and the way he says things in his communications . . .”
“Have faith, Ed. God loves him. You said so yourself, that if anyone could walk in there and survive to walk out again, that he could. You said it was there, in his eyes—and you have never been wrong on things like this. You have the gift to read others—to see what lies below the surface. Trust your instincts. You’ve never been wrong before.”
He tried to smile back at her. He knew he failed when she sighed softly, and he turned his gaze back out across the horizon once more. “I hope you’re right, Chelly . . . I hope you’re right . . .”
~The Isle of Virgins~
~Off the Coast of Venezuela~
~May 18, 2080~
Striding into the dark but opulent office of the isolated mansion, Caipora, as he was called, shot a cursory glance at the unwelcome visitor, already settled in the severe, straight-backed desk chair behind the heavy obsidian structure. Deliberately ignoring the interloper as he stepped over to the wet bar to pour a glass of cachaça, he sniffed it for any sign of drugs, then slugged it back before refilling it.
Paulo Castelo chuckled, kicking his feet up on the desktop as he leaned back in the black leather chair with his fingers knitted together behind the back of his neck. “As pleasant as always, Caipora . . . All right, no greetings. I’ll just cut to the chase, then. I need to know if you have any of the girls ready.”
“Depends on what you mean by, ‘ready’?” he countered, tossing back the second drink and setting the emptied glass down with a heavy thud as he pivoted on his heel to face the python-youkai.
Brow furrowing—he didn’t have eyebrows—Paulo made an exaggerated show of his mock-surprise. It was always like this with the little bastard. Paulo liked to think that he was above him on the food chain, but Caipora didn’t quite think so. On the other hand, Paulo also knew better than to push too far. He’d learned not to try to intimidate Caipora the hard way, after all . . . “I think it’s a pretty clear-cut question,” he said. “I’ve got a buyer who wants to forego the auctions—and he’s offering a very pretty sum in order to gain our compliance.”
“What’s he’s looking for?” Caipora remarked, reaching behind him, pressing the button hidden on the underside of the bar. Exactly fifteen seconds later, the office doors opened, revealing fifteen naked girls, all of them around the age of fifteen or sixteen, who padded into the room in silence, their eyes downcast, their backs, straight and proud. Unlike some of the younger ones, these girls didn’t wear the leather collars—collars that were embedded with sutras that would purify them instantly if they tried to remove them. They didn’t need those now, however. Now, they each had been injected with a microchip that kept track of them, no matter where in the world they were. The only way to rid oneself of that tracker was to die. So tiny they were undetectable, they were injected under the skin in the right breast, but the saline solution that they were suspended in allowed for the tracker to migrate over time, and where they ended up in the body was anyone’s guess. Those same trackers also carried a second use, as well. If the girls ever tried to escape, a lethal shock could be dealt from any computer with access in the world, and all with the simple click of one button.
“Blonde,” he stated, waving a hand to indicate that any of the slaves that did not meet that criteria could go. Most of them turned and filed back out of the room once more, leaving behind only four of them. Hauling his feet off the desk, the soles of his boots, hitting the bare, black marble floor, hard, Paulo stood up, wandered over to the girls, taking his time as he grasped breasts as though he were weighing them, ran his hands up and down their bodies, searching for any hidden imperfection, any flaws in the silkiness of their flesh, pinched nipples hard with cold precision to see if they would flinch, slapped them across the face, bending them over to inspect them from all sides—denigrating them, always. Three of them passed the examination without a change in expression. The last one—an egret-hanyou—758949—gasped when he grasped her breast a second time and squeezed hard, before she managed to bite back the sound. Paulo instantly retaliated by slapping her soundly with the back of his hand, hard enough to send the girl, sprawling to the floor.
He started to unfasten his belt, his meaning clear—to punish her for her perceived error. Caipora was faster, stepping past the purveyor, grabbing a handful of 758949’s hair to haul her to her feet and to shove her out of the room and into the hallway. “I’ll deal with her later,” he growled, narrowing his eyes on Paulo in warning.
Apparently satisfied that he’d keep his word, Paulo grunted, turning his attention back to the other three girls who hadn’t moved—hadn’t even flinched. “This one,” he said, grabbing the girl in the middle by the arm and yanking her out of the line. Stooping over just far enough to shove a hand crudely between her legs, he stuck a finger up into her, checking her hymen to make sure it was still intact. Satisfied that it was, he finally grinned at Caipora. “And she is done with her training?
“She’s completed the final phase, yes,” he replied.
“Good. Have her readied. I want a demonstration of her skills before I take her with me.”
He watched the slender little youkai as he turned and strode out of the office. Before he crossed the threshold, however, he turned his head, his smile taking on a menacing kind of lilt. “Watch your ass, Caipora.”
Caipora didn’t respond, waited until he was out of sight before giving the girls one curt nod. “You,” he said, stopping the one who had been selected. “Report to the bathhouse.”
She said nothing, her eyes still downcast, her golden hair, catching the stingy light, but even in the dimness, he could discern the hint of a blush on her cheeks.
Leaning back, crossing his arms over his broad chest, he watched her go with a scowl. Left alone in the quiet of the office, he let out a deep breath, rested his elbow on his forearm as he slowly rubbed his forehead. ‘Watch your own ass, Castelo . . .’
The Virgin House.
He had heard of it—at least, legends and rumors, but he hadn’t believed it entirely, not until almost a year after he’d come to work for the organization, but he hadn’t set eyes on the place until last year when he’d gotten word that he had been summoned to see a man they called only Anhanguera—the Brazilian devil—a dragon-fish-youkai that few had ever seen, let alone spoken to. Yet, he’d called for him specially . . .
“They tell me that you are someone I should be aware of,” Anhanguera said, lazily sitting back in the mud-brown chair, resting his ankle on his propped knee, folding his hands together over his stomach. The rich chocolate of his skin seemed to glow in the dimmed room—a room where all the curtains were drawn, where only a single lamp on the far side near the door was lit. Even then, he didn’t remove the smoky glasses that hid his eyes, and when he smiled, the double row of sharp, pointed, jagged teeth, showed. He was old—deceptively so—dressed like an old-fashioned plantation owner—a gentleman from a time long past, yet he possessed the audacity to ignore the edict to hide one’s youkai nature from prying human eyes . . . “Sit with me.”
He stared at him for a long, long moment before slipping into the chair across from him, but he didn’t speak.
“They say you are cold and calm, efficient and controlled. They say that you neither lose your temper nor do you allow transgressions to go unmarked. How many have you subjugated?” The youkai chuckled at his own joke. Then he waved a hand in dismissal. “Tell me. Do you like your job?”
“I do my job,” he corrected, his voice, low, gravely. “No more, no less.”
“So you do,” Anhanguera mused. “I’ve seen men walk in, become complacent. Then they grow slack or they grow tainted. You . . . You’ve worked for me for almost seven years now, yet your actions show no trace of the mental degeneration that ultimately leads to perversion. How is this possible?”
He shrugged, unsure just what the old man wanted to hear. “I do my job,” he repeated, as though it explained his actions.
“Invariably, I must kill them all—even you when the time comes,” Anhanguera remarked in as casual a way as though he were discussing the weather. “When their brains devolve to the point where they cause more harm than is necessary . . . Cherenga . . . in the last year alone, he has cost me five slaves—five of them. Do you know how much money five slaves are to me?”
Shaking his head, he frowned but remained silent.
Anhanguera sighed. “For a well-trained slave—a male—I can easily sell one for a million. He cost me five of them—maiming them, damaging them beyond what is useful to me. He outright killed a couple of them by snapping their necks like twigs. Cherenga’s rage took him over. That will no longer be a problem.” He smiled, but there was no humor in the expression. “Dursal is now in his position.”
His frown darkened. Dursal had only been with the establishment for a few of years, if that, and had only been promoted to the Gauntlet a few months ago. And now, he was the overmaster of the facility?
Anhanguera chuckled, almost as though he’d figured something out about him. “Your name is Diego, they said. Is that right?”
The old man nodded slowly. “No, it’s not. Names are not important to our operation—not common ones, anyway. Only a select few graduate to possess a name that instills fear—instills awe . . .” Brows furrowing as though he were narrowing his eyes, Anhanguera was silent for several moments. “Caipora, that cunning and wily bunch that bewitch and lure the disillusioned to their ends . . . You . . . You shall be their leader. Henceforth, you shall be Caipora.”
He nodded. He’d heard rumor of this before, that this man—Anhanguera—that if you were honored to receive a name from him, that you were special—blessed, even. No one that he’d met in the organization so far had been bestowed with such a dubious honor.
It turned his stomach, even as he slowly nodded. “Thank you.”
Anhanguera lifted a hand, crooked two fingers to draw him forward. Ignoring the sense of trepidation that crept up his spine, he stood, strode over to stand before the old man, hands clasped behind his back—the proper way to present oneself to his betters in this place. Anhanguera leaned forward, unzipped his pants, pushed them down his thighs. “Very good . . . Nice length, incredible girth . . . What a magnificent display of raw male power,” he approved, grasping Caipora’s cock, his balls, and massaging them gently. “I suppose the other enforcers are dying to get a taste of this . . .”
Gritting his teeth as blood flooded into him, he kept his gaze fixed over the man’s head at a point on the wall, hating the part of him that simply could not ignore the intimate touch, regardless of who it was, doing the touching . . .
Anhanguera nodded, settling back in the chair, flicking his hand to indicate that he could pull his pants up again. “Perfect . . . perfect . . .”
Anhanguera chuckled. It sounded rusty, disused: stagnant. “You are a fine looking one: perfect for the new position I will give you: overseer of the bathhouse in the Virgin House. In time, if you please me—and you will please me, my Caipora—you shall become overmaster.”
He frowned. “The Virgin House?”
“You’ve not heard of it? I thought it was legendary amongst my ranks. The Virgin House is just as it sounds. It’s where we train them—teach them all they need to know. You . . . You will train them . . .”
“I’ve heard of it,” he said, grimacing as he stuffed his erect penis into his pants once more and forced the zipper up over it. “Overseer of the bathhouse? How is that a promotion? I’m minor master here . . .”
“It’s a promotion, believe me . . . Unless you are content to remain where you are?”
“Thank you,” he forced himself to say, reminding himself that he dared not argue with this particular man. He was the top—the head of the snake . . . and he wanted desperately to chop that head off . . .
And he’d been here for almost a year since that day. In that time, he’d worked his way up and out of the bathhouse and into the role of trainer.
Shaking off the lingering memory, he yanked the thin leather strap affixed to a stout wooden handle, wrapped in black leather, coiled up and hanging from a loop on his belt, free. When he looked up again, it was to find 758949, kneeling on the floor, hands folded in her lap, chin tucked to her chest just inside the doorway.
Deliberately blanking all of it out, he felt his feet move forward as his mind disengaged, almost seemed to hover above him, as though he were looking down upon what was happening through a certain separation. His fingers, uncurling just enough to let the end of the lash fall. Drawing his arm back, snapping the lash down over 758949’s skin . . . Observing through the veil of mental removal as the thin stripe of blood welled up, the heady scent punching him hard in the gut as he drew back for the second strike.
Ten lashes, all totaled: ten streaks of blood, dripping down the slave’s slender back. 758949 didn’t make a sound as he rolled up the lash and snapped it onto his belt once more, waiting for her to get to her feet.
“The bathhouse,” he commanded, his tone as dull as his eyes. “Have them treat your wounds, then report to the kitchen. See if they have a use for you for the rest of the day.”
758949 didn’t flinch, didn’t utter a sound, but simply bowed. Then she turned and slipped back out of the room once more.
His brain didn’t return to him as he watched her go. Several long minutes ticked away, drowning out the sound of his own thoughts that were more like whispers in the dark than concrete ideas. When his mind finally resynched itself, he was drinking a glass of cachaça, and he closed his eyes for a long moment. It was the only way, wasn’t it? The only way to keep from slowly, methodically, losing his mind . . .
As long as he could keep it together, maybe he stood a fighting chance . . . maybe . . . But as long as the evil that lived here, died, then he could count it all as acceptable loss . . .
He didn’t know how long he’d been staring at that insular spot on the far wall just beside the row of windows that overlooked the sun, setting over the sea. He’d been sitting here in the same spot as his mind floated out there, somewhere on the horizon, but an entirely mechanical voice in the back of his head whispered to him that it had been long enough, that ending it would be acceptable now.
It was maddening, wasn’t it? The same disassociation that helped him to keep control of himself—everything about himself—was the same sense that lent an unreal quality to everything that he knew.
The girl—759548—had already demonstrated most of her skills—the dancing she’d been taught, her ability to play the piano well, the skill with which she could serve refreshments while demonstrating the appropriate demeanor of a virgin slave. She’d pleasured another woman, had established her ability to give a full body massage, and everything else she could be asked to do as par for course. She was showing her ability to give a hand job and then a blow job now. The only thing left . . .
As the ice of winter would thaw on a shallow and beautiful pond, the sensations that returned to him did so in a slow gush. Gritting his teeth for a moment, he steeled his body for a moment before shoving 759548 aside, not roughly, not gently, the suction of her lips, breaking as she stepped back, caught herself, his penis springing from her mouth with a sloppy kind of squelch. “Move on.”
759548 wiped her lips with the back of her hand and stepped toward him, crawling onto the sofa, straddling his lap. He heard the squeak of Paulo Castelo’s chair, felt the approach of his repulsive youki as he slowly circled the sofa, beady little eyes drinking in everything as he jotted notes on a tablet in his hand. Perverted little bastard watched as 759548 spread her ass cheeks, as she positioned herself over Caipora’s cock before slamming herself down on him hard, her anus, opening wide to him, without a change in expression, without a sound, other than the slight elevation of her breathing in the quiet. Even with the distraction of the slave, bouncing up and down on his dick, he could smell the precum, dulled by Paulo’s sensible slacks, and that smell made his stomach lurch unpleasantly. He was getting off on watching, and it was anybody’s guess as to whether he was turned on by the slave or by Caipora himself . . .
The rigid tightness of the girl’s ass made him bite down hard on the soft skin of his cheek. The instant pool of blood on his tongue rioted through his stomach in a vile and unraveling kind of way. The act that should repulse him, simply because of the perversity of the action, and yet, he grew harder, thicker as her ass tightened and released around him, pulsing with a cadence that rattled straight to his brain . . .
“What do we teach them? What’s the point?”
“We teach them everything—everything . . . They learn from us, all the ways of the carnal flesh—everything, same as the Gauntlet, but the pussy is off-limits . . .”
759548 pumped herself up and down on him, bouncing on the balls of her feet, braced on the sofa cushions on either side of him. Skin flushed, high and pert breasts upthrust, she bit her bottom lip to keep from moaning, but it was too much for her as the first of her whimpers echoed in the room. As if by rote, Caipora reached up with one hand, wrapped around her throat, gave it a squeeze, and the whimpering stopped as she increased the pace.
The act felt like something twisted, broken, yet the pleasure that shot through his body was real. As often as he’d tried to separate his brain from the act at times like this, he couldn’t. She wrung the very essence of him, milked him for all she was worth. Her body spasmed, tightening around him with a death grip, and he let his head fall back, forgetting for the moment that the little troll was still watching with his hand rubbing idly at the front of his pants. The hold she had on him bordered on painful, and, with a loud grunt, he grasped her hips, bringing her down so hard that she gasped as his flow surged out of him, deep into her, hard and fast, thick and burning . . .
She stood up well before he had recovered himself, but she held her composure well despite the sound of her pulse that he could still feel in the reverberations of her youki. Forcing himself to sit up, he glanced over at Paulo. “Are you satisfied?” he asked, his tone much emptier than he felt. He’d learned how to control that long ago—it was one of the first things he’d taught himself.
Clearing his throat, Paulo nodded once, his eyes trained on 759548, who was merely standing there, chin to her chest, her hair falling over her face since it had escaped from the soft braid while she fucked him. “Very good,” the little vermin said, sounding a little too much like the geeky kid in school who had one too many juice boxes before recess. “I’ll call and make arrangements. Have her ready to leave within the hour.”
“Bathe yourself,” Caipora said after Paolo had strode out of the presentation room. “Tell them you require a transport robe.”
The girl left the room without a word, leaving him alone at last, and he let out a deep breath. On the one hand, the training he was to oversee had been grossly interrupted by the intrusion of the acquisition agent. On the other?
No, he really didn’t have the energy to put the girls through their paces, not right now. Besides, it wasn’t unheard of to postpone lessons for a day when Paulo or one of the other purveyors showed their ugly mugs here. Even so, it wouldn’t do to let the girls have free time. As they were, they didn’t know what to do with such a luxury, anyway.
Glancing up as a very young girl slipped into the room, bearing an ornate wooden tray with a pitcher of water, an empty bowl, and a stack towels, she glided over the floor, extremely graceful in movement, only to stop beside him, settling the tray on a short table nearby.
She took her time, pouring warmed water into the bowl, in submersing a fluffy white cloth into the water as the fragrance of herbs perfumed the air.
He frowned. He’d heard that there were a few new girls arriving today. It was the first time he’d seen this one, though. If she was any older than ten, he’d lick his own ass. Small, ridiculously delicate, with healthy rosy cheeks on alabaster skin—pale blonde hair—almost a bluish white—that curled just slightly in tendrils that had escaped the serviceable braid that hung down her back . . . He couldn’t see her eyes since she kept them lowered, as was customary, but something about her . . .
She didn’t look like the rest of the slaves, did she? The ones that were bred—slaves from the start . . . They tended to be a little more robust, tended to have coloring more similar to the region. This child . . . She wasn’t born in the breeding village . . .
If she noticed his acute interest as she wrung out the cloth and stepped over to wash him, she gave no indication, and she didn’t hesitate as she washed him gently, carefully using the cloth to clean away the lingering traces of the sexual encounter. She turned around, inadvertently sending a wave of her scent directly to him—light, gentle . . . innocent . . .
She set the used cloth aside and dampened the next one, squeezing the cloth in the water exactly ten times, just as she’d been taught.
She repeated the process—washing him thoroughly, discarding the cloth, reaching for a new one, wetting it down—five times. When she finished, she bowed, the oversized slip she wore ballooning out around her tiny frame. It was a simple gown, the same as all girls wore if they were under the age of twelve when they started their real training in the Virgin House—simple white cotton without embellishment that was more of a slip than an actual dress. Around her delicate neck was the stark and startling black leather collar—the one that would kill her if she tried to escape . . .
As she started to gather the tray again, he stopped her. “Number,” he said, wondering vaguely why it bothered him more than usual.
She hesitated for only a moment. “428355.”
She gave a barely perceptible nod.
“How old are you?”
“Ten . . . almost . . .” she replied.
“Do you know who I am?”
Again, she gave that hesitant nod. “You’re . . . You’re a master,” she said.
He nodded and reached out, catching her chin with gentle fingers, lifting her face so that he could see her eyes: pale blue eyes, shades darker than her hair, ringed in a navy blue that faded into the lighter shade . . . Startling eyes . . . Bewitching eyes . . .
She flinched, obviously uncomfortable with lifting her head, even though she hadn’t had a choice in it. He let go, let his hand drop away from her, and she ducked her chin immediately.
“Can you deliver a message for me?”
She bit her lip. “I . . . I think so . . .”
He nodded as he stood, as he pulled on the robe he’d discarded for the demonstration. “Tell the head of the kitchen to put the girls to work. I’ll resume their lessons in the morning.”
The girl gave one curt nod, then retrieved the tray and hurried out of the room.
Caipora frowned at the empty doorway for a long, long time.