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Negotiations (Edgeplay in Mayhill #1)

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And now that he has come to welcome his lover and to take pleasure in his company and converse, it comes home to him what a depth of friendliness he has found, and he is filled with amazement, for he perceives that all his other friends and kinsmen have nothing to offer in comparison with this friend in whom dwells a god. . . . So he loves, yet knows not what he loves: he does not understand; he cannot tell what has come upon him; like one that has caught a disease of the eye from another, he cannot account for it, not realising that his lover is as it were a mirror in which he beholds himself.

—Plato: Phaedrus (translated by R. Hackforth).


CHAPTER ONE

Loren had grown reconciled to the fact that he would never be a god. No one would ever kneel at his feet and offer him undying worship. No one would ever pledge complete obedience to his will or offer the supreme sacrifice of body and heart.

It would have been nice, though, to be a demi-god. To worship at another man's feet and then, just for a short time, to accept the other man's worship. It was a vision that gripped him, luring him back time and time again to the frequently boring weekly meetings of the Mayhill Sexual Education Society, popularly known as the Black and Blue Club.

As Loren made his way down the dimly lit stairs leading to the club's cellar meeting-place on that autumn evening in 1985, his mind was focussed on trying to find something to say to these people that he hadn't said a dozen times before. He was one of the founders of the club, so he had belonged to it now for eight years, long enough to give several dozen talks. And since most of the people in the society had been there for the same eight years, it was becoming increasingly difficult to be original. Like being forced to teach a Philosophy 101 class every year for the rest of one's life, Loren thought with a sigh as he pushed open the door to the brightly lit basement.

Then he stopped dead in his tracks.

He knew immediately that a newcomer had arrived. The Black and Blue members, often tediously unoriginal in their sexual tastes, were equally unoriginal in their socializing. Under ordinary circumstances, the members would be paired off like animals from Noah's ark: long-term couples mainly, with a few dating couples, and only a very few people, such as himself, who played the field. He would drift from pair to pair, smiling and pretending that he wasn't the mateless bachelor of the group.

Tonight was different. The time was barely five-thirty, a half hour before the talk was set to begin, but already the room was crowded. Word had evidently spread quickly, as it often did in Mayhill. And nearly everyone in the room was jammed into one corner, surrounding the newcomer.

Loren, who disliked looking eager, made his way over to the abandoned refreshment table at the other end of the room, trying not to be conspicuous as he eyed the newcomer. Despite the welcome party massed around him, the newcomer was partly visible, for he was several inches taller than any of the other men, and up to a foot and a half taller than the women. Another man was standing in front of the newcomer at the moment – one of the Esses, his arm protectively curled round his em in an evident effort to keep her from throwing herself at the newcomer. So all that Loren could see was the top half of the newcomer's face: attentive eyes, honey-gold skin, and dark hair that curled loosely in a manner that made him look like a Hollywood sex god. Loren wished that his own hair was so well-behaved.

The potato chips at the refreshments table were as stale as always, the red fruit punch was too sweet, and the chocolate cupcakes were utterly inedible. Loren sampled them all, this being his best excuse for staying on this side of the room. He eyed the small podium at the center of the long wall, the whiteboard stand beside it, and the folding chairs lined up neatly in front of it. He doubted that anyone would be watching him this evening. Not unless he placed the newcomer next to him and used him to demonstrate the finer points of obeisance.

Darn, that was a tempting thought. Loren reached for the punch ladle, his mouth having suddenly gone dry.

In the next moment he spilled the punch onto the table. It ran like blood over the white tablecloth, then dripped down onto Loren's slacks. Loren barely noticed, even though these slacks had managed to last him for six years. The crowd at the end of the room had parted, giving him his first full glimpse of the newcomer.

A body like that of the man who had beach sand kicked in his face, after the man had undergone his wonderful transformation with the help of Charles Atlas. A face that the Hollywood sex god would have killed to borrow: full lips, high cheekbones, and a perfectly shaped nose, neither too broad nor too narrow. Strong hands, bare of any ring. More of that luscious sun-golden skin. And a uniform of bright blue, with gleaming buttons.

Well. This was something new. When the Mayhill police force sent its officers to the Black and Blue Club, the officers were usually disguised in mufti.

Loren became aware finally of the dripping punch and reached toward the napkins, only to find a hand offering several napkins to him. The hand belonged to Melody, who was carrying her ubiquitous umbrella and had her husband in tow, though for once her husband's gaze wasn't glued upon her. It was glued upon the newcomer instead.

"Checking out the latest fly caught in our cobweb?" she asked Loren with a smile.

Loren didn't bother to deny it. "I thought he might be here to inspect us."

"Heavens, no – he came here with a recommendation from one of our former members. I do wish," she added reflectively, "that the ems would give him a little more room. He looks as though he's going to bolt out the door at any moment."

Loren thought otherwise; the newcomer was smiling now, speaking to an em who was crowding up to his chest as she stared up at him with worshipful eyes. Loren sighed. Sloppy training. But then, she probably hadn't received any training at all. Ems and Esses often didn't, these days.

He tried to make his voice casual as he asked, "Has he shown interest in any particular female em?"

"No, nor in any particular male em." Melody's voice was dry.

Loren raised his eyebrows. Melody's testimony on such matters was usually to be trusted; she was a sharp-eyed observer. "Well, then," he said, "I suppose I should ask whether he has shown any interest in you."

She laughed. "No, nor has he approached any of the other female Esses here. And Dick stopped by briefly to leave a note for you. Our newcomer's head didn't so much as swivel in his direction."

That settled it, then. Dick was a tall, self-assured man who was often mistaken for an Ess, to his amusement. He could generally be counted on to catch the attention of any male-attracted em in his vicinity. If the newcomer hadn't gone for Dick, then he was probably an Ess.

As his uniform hinted. Loren had already guessed that the new man hadn't arrived garbed this way out of hopes of playing that he was cadet to a higher officer.

"Oh, well," said Loren. "One out of two isn't bad. I can live with his being an Ess. Provided you're right that he's interested in men."

"Well," said Melody, "it's fairly obvious that quite a number of men are interested in him. —Vernon, stop staring, dear. You know I have a jealous streak."

Her voice held no more than a slight snap. Loren expected her husband to immediately turn whimpering to her, like a dog curling its tail between its legs. Instead, Vernon continued to stare at the newcomer with a dazed expression. "But I'm not gay. I'm not even bisexual!"

"Yes, dear." Melody's voice was patient this time. "Close your mouth, Vernon. You're drooling."

Vernon closed his mouth quickly. Melody hooked the collar of his shirt with the curved handle of her umbrella and pulled him down onto his knees. "Remember, dear," she said. "You belong to me. No one else."

"Yes, ma'am," Vernon said in a penitent voice and kissed her hand. But Loren noticed that his eyes wandered back toward the other side of the room as he did so.

Melody sighed. "Loren, you would be doing this club a very great favor if you snagged that young man before the other ems start clawing each other's eyes out for his favors. At least if he has you, you can give him a tip or two about how to turn away unwanted attention."

Loren snorted. "Oh, yes, I know a great deal about that problem. You're being overly optimistic on my behalf, Melody."

"Mm, I don't think so." Melody's gaze returned to the newcomer. "I think he needs a tactfully guiding hand. If he's as intelligent as he seems from his conversation, he'll know that. Besides" – she smiled suddenly – "he'll be butter in your hands after you give your talk."

Loren tried not to dwell on this thought as he stood at the podium a while later, pretending to read Dick's note. Actually, the note was only a single sentence saying that Dick would not be visiting the bar tonight, as he had volunteered to work overtime so that a fellow worker could have the evening off. Dick was always good about letting Loren know when he would be unavailable to serve as back-up bartender – this, despite the fact that Loren and his partner did not yet earn enough money to be able to pay Dick for his occasional substitute services. "A community service," Dick called it, a phrase that always made Loren glow with warmth. A decade ago there had been no community to which Dick could have offered his service.

The seats were slowly filling up now as Melody sent her husband to retrieve the goggling onlookers in the corner. Loren glanced up from time to time, though the sight in front of him was no different than it ever was. A crowd fairly evenly divided between ems and Esses – that would be unusual at his workplace, where the ems outnumbered the Esses, but it reflected the stability of the club's membership. Nearly everyone here was in a state-sanctioned marriage or on the way to joining one; they didn't need to worry about losing their jobs if they were seen too often in a lover's company.

Most of the Esses here were male, most of the ems were female. No lesbian couples – the lesbian community in Mayhill was very small. No gay male couples either – the gays had their own venue now, and Loren was the only one of the club's original gay members to continue to attend meetings regularly. A shame, the splitting of their community like that, but Melody had never seemed overly concerned. In Mayhill, it often seemed, everyone knew everyone, regardless of where they spent their leisure hours.

Loren glanced at the crowd again as the remaining members filed into their seats. Most of the members sat on chairs; a few of the Esses, such as Melody, kept their ems on the floor beside them. It was a remarkably homogenous picture. Only half a dozen ethnic groups, all from Europe. No blacks or Asians – they were scarce in Mayhill, where the word "integration" still needed to be spelled out for schoolchildren who often had learned no such concept at home. The only darker skins that provided variety to the crowd came from the members who, like the newcomer, had evidently spent much time in the sun.

Loren forced himself to gaze down at his notes, which he had already decided to discard; the complex lecture he had planned would not suit this particular occasion. The newcomer had taken a seat in the back row. Loren had mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, it meant that Loren's audience wouldn't be distracted by the sight of the handsome policeman. On the other hand, it meant that Loren wouldn't be able to watch the man as much as he would have liked.

Loren turned away from the podium and picked up a marker hanging from a string at the top of the whiteboard. The club members, who had been exchanging light chatter, immediately quieted. That was one of the advantages of lecturing to a group of people who all knew something, to one degree or another, about the importance of obedience. Loren smiled at this thought as he uncapped the marker.

"Ess . . . and . . . em," he said, writing down "S&M" on the whiteboard. "Who can tell me what this means?"

He turned round to find that nearly everyone was looking at him suspiciously. They were used to his trick questions by now. Finally an em glanced at her Ess for permission, then said, "Sadism and masochism."

Loren nodded. "Correct, ma'am." He always used formal titles when lecturing; it was easier than trying to figure out whether newcomers were ems or Esses. "Sadism and masochism. Or, if we are referring to the participants in S&M, the sadist and the masochist." He wrote these words below the appropriate letters and turned back to the audience. "For the benefit of newcomers, could someone here explain what is meant by these words, in the context of our own community?"

This time, the answer was quicker. "A sadist doesn't mean what it says in the dictionary, someone who creates pain for cruelty's sake," said one of the female Esses. "The sadist creates pleasure for her masochist by use of carefully limited pain. It's like if you give your husband a bite while you're making love – that's sadism. You don't do it to be cruel; you do it so that he'll enjoy himself. As long as he likes it, it's okay."

There was a murmur of agreement from the rest of the audience, everyone bobbing their heads up and down like courting penguins. Loren suppressed a sigh. One of these days, he decided, he would have to give the club a lecture on the ethical complexities of giving another person what that person wants. He could supply the group with abundant quotations from satisfied child laborers, battered wives who refused to leave their husbands, and most pertinently of all, Uncle Toms. Perhaps that would shock a few of the club members into living an examined life.

But not tonight. Tonight he would pitch his lecture to a beginner's level, for the newcomer's sake.

"Very well," he said, leaving it ambiguous as to whether he agreed with the previous speaker. "An Ess is a sadist, who gives pain for pleasure, and an em is a masochist, who receives pain for pleasure. What else do these letters stand for?"

Silence. Loren sighed inwardly. He could see in front of him at least three couples who ought to be able to give him the answer; he himself had prepared the rite for one of the couples. He forced himself not to drum his fingers on the podium. "Anyone? A hint: You need to reverse the initial letters to find the proper answer."

Still no response. Then, just as Loren was about to give in to the impulse to roll his eyes toward Mount Olympus, a voice said quietly, "Master and slave?"

The newcomer's voice, Loren was delighted to find, was as rich and golden as his skin. "Correct, sir," he said quickly before his audience could be distracted by this fact. "Master . . . and . . . slave." He wrote the word "master" under the word "sadist," and the word "slave" under the word "masochist."

"Sadist and masochist, master and slave," he continued. "Two sets of titles that do not necessarily occur together. There are plenty of sadists and masochists who are only interested in inflicting and receiving pain for pleasure, and who have no interest in any form of dominance and submission. Likewise, I've known one Ess, trained to be a master, who was uninterested in practicing sadism. So let us examine tonight what the essence of mastery and slavery is, apart from the possibility of combining it with sadomasochism." He paused; his throat was growing dry, and his audience's eyes were beginning to glaze over. Time to let the audience take charge of the conversation for a while. "Perhaps," he said, "some of you could explain why voluntary, absolute servitude – known in S&M as slavery – can be argued to be legal in this country."

He let the conversation wander for a while as the members attempted to provide legal defenses, in a manner that his partner could have sliced through in a second. He took care to turn his gaze toward each new speaker, but out of the corner of his eye, his gaze was forever fixed on the newcomer. The man looked to be about the age of Loren's partner, in his mid-twenties. A few years out of college – a college education was likely, given his profession. Assuming that the uniform was authentic, but Loren thought it must be. If nothing else, Mayhill's police would be zealous about arresting any civilian wearing their uniform.

Which suggested a certain carelessness on the newcomer's part, to arrive in a costume that could so easily reveal his identity. Equal opportunity employment had not yet arrived in Mayhill; the man could be fired simply for being attracted to men, much less for the rest of it. Carelessness or naiveté? Either prospect put a damper on matters. He couldn't afford to let himself fall into the hands of a careless sadist, not given the kind of games Loren liked to play. As for naiveté . . . Well, perhaps that could be remedied. It all depended on which way the newcomer was leaning. Loren had no desire to drag a fresh recruit into scenes stronger than he was ready for.

Loren interrupted a particularly inept attempt to explain the difference between S&M slavery and white slavery, saying, "Since we're short on time, I think we should continue on to the demonstration portion of this talk."

Several of the club members leaned forward, renewed interest on their faces. Loren let his gaze skim over the audience, seeing no one but the newcomer. Darn, but it was tempting to bid the newcomer forward and instruct him to kneel down. Some of the Esses here would be willing to do that, for the fun of it. But Loren couldn't take the chance of offending a new Ess. And he disliked playing in front of crowds anyway.

He managed to wrench his thoughts away from the newcomer. "Melody, would you be so kind as to come up here with your em?"

Melody walked forward, smiling, followed by her husband, who had his eyes carefully cast down as he followed at her heels. He was directly behind her rather than half a step behind, to the left. Melody, having been cut off from the sort of traditional education that Loren had received, had created her own rules during the first years of her marriage, and Loren was quite willing to admit that the rules were elegant in their own right. As Melody reached the front, she turned and made a gesture with her hand. Vernon, without looking up, sank onto his knees, his legs spread far apart to provide access for his Ess. His hands rested lightly on his thighs, ready to serve his Ess. His gaze was directed somewhere in the vicinity of his belly button.

"Now, then," said Loren, "the Ess and em before you are not bound in a master/slave relationship, either by contract or by spoken word – though I believe that you two are fond of playing master/slave scenes." He glanced at Melody, who nodded. Vernon remained silent and motionless.

"Although this is not a classic master/slave relationship, it incorporates certain features that can be found in such a relationship," Loren continued. "Would you be so kind, Melody and Vernon, as to demonstrate how you greet one another when you are being formal?"

Melody, leaning upon her umbrella, stared down at her silent em for a minute. Then she said, "Good evening, Vernon."

"Good evening, ma'am," Vernon promptly replied, his gaze still fixed downward. "In what way may I serve you?"

Melody spun the umbrella round with her hand and used the handle to raise Vernon's chin. She smiled at him. Thus given implicit permission, he smiled back.

"Thank you," said Loren and waited until Melody and Vernon returned to the audience, amidst light applause.

"Now," said Loren, "what is it about that exchange which marks it as a master/slave relationship?"

Blank expressions. There were always blank expressions when he asked questions that everyone thought had obvious answers. He waited, as patiently as he could. Finally a male Ess said, "He knelt to her."

"He knelt to her, showing his respect to the one who masters him. Yes, good. What else?"

A female em cried out eagerly, "He waits until he has permission to— Ow! Why'd you do that?" She glared at the Ess next to her, who looked embarrassed that his discreet pinch had been so widely advertised, but nevertheless held her gaze until she turned pink.

"Oh. Um." She ducked her head and waited until her Ess nodded. Then she said in a subdued voice, "The slave waits till he or she has permission to speak."

"Good," said Loren. "In long-standing master/slave relationships, that rule may be broken frequently, but in theory at least, a slave cannot speak until the master or mistress gives permission. What else?"

"Obedience," said a male em quickly, having taken care to look toward his Ess for permission before he spoke.

"Obedience, as was just demonstrated by the slave's willingness to obey his mistress's orders concerning posture and speech. What else?"

The club members exchanged glances, then whispers. No response was forthcoming. Loren sighed – openly this time – and leaned forward onto the podium. "What else shows that this is a master/slave relationship? Something very obvious, something that anyone here who has been in a long-term S&M relationship should be able to notice, regardless of whether you are masters and slaves to one another."

The club members' expressions turned to puzzlement, then to consternation. Everyone looked at one another, waiting for the other to speak. Loren had to set aside an impulse to bury his head in his hands.

From the back came a quiet voice. "The master makes the slave happy."

Loren let his gaze drift back to fasten upon the newcomer. This time he did not care that everyone in the audience was turning to look at the newcomer. The newcomer deserved this moment in the spotlight.

"Thank you, sir," said Loren softly. "That is indeed the essence of mastery. The master guides the slave, nurtures the slave, but above all the master cares for the needs of the slave. That is what is most important in a master/slave relationship; everything else that has been mentioned – respect, obedience, specific rules for accomplishing those goals – is only there to support the central task of the master caring for his or her slave."

He straightened up and waited for the gazes to return to him. He did not bother to remove his own gaze from the newcomer now. It would be natural for him to address this speech to the audience member who had made the needed breakthrough, and the newcomer was showing no signs of letting his own gaze drift.

"All of you," Loren said, his eyes on the newcomer, "are sadists and masochists. Only a select few of you are likely to become masters and slaves, other than in passing scenes, performed for play. The master/slave relationship is the most serious S&M relationship that can be entered into, and it ought not to be undertaken lightly. But to a certain extent, all S&M relationships carry the essence of the master/slave relationship. We call what we do play, we speak of performing scenes – but we forget that the origins of the Western theater lie in sacred performance. The gods watched over the Greek actors, ready to strike them down if they performed their play in a blasphemous manner. Whether gods exist or not today, our small plays continue to be holy within the context of our various beliefs.

"For all of us, theists and atheists alike, to be an Ess or an em requires hard work and commitment. The em must be committed to allowing another person to take charge of his body and sometimes his life. The Ess must be committed to the responsibility of caring for the em who has offered up his sacrifice in this fashion. It is a terrible responsibility. I want to underline that. Every time we play, every time we engage in fun and games, ems require Esses to take on the heavy burden of holding another person's life in balance. Every time we play, Esses take into their hands the life of someone who could be harmed by what they do. In rare cases, the harm could be irreparable. We all know the reasons why we believe this risk to be justified. What I would like you to contemplate as you return home tonight is this: Do I have what it takes to justify placing the weight of my life in another person's hands, or taking into my hands the weight of another person's life?"

There was a long, unbroken silence. Faintly, Loren could hear the cars passing on the street upstairs. No one moved. The newcomer's gaze remained fixed on Loren.

Finally Loren picked up his notes and shuffled them together, the sign that his talk was through. He heard the audience loose a collective sigh, and he would have been tempted to smile, if not for the fact that the question he had just asked touched him too deeply.