- “Is this the place?”
The duo of girls were standing outside a fairly large tavern-esque building sizing up its appearance. Under a roofed porch illuminated by a lantern containing a dwindling candle giving off small light next to the entrance, a wooden sign depicting a crudely drawn bed and a mug was affixed to let travellers know of their services. Unfamiliar scribbles were above and below the rough imagery.
Though there were numerous windows, it was difficult to see much through it other than vague shapes and silhouettes due to the cloudy glass. The upper floor windows were even worse, covered in a layer of dirt and dust as the owners were not wiping it as often, owing to the fact that they couldn’t even reach it without a ladder or the equivalent thereof. A gray smoke slowly flowed out of the chimney carrying the scent of sprucewood and roasted meat. The age of the building showed on from the discolored planks and beams, an old door fitted into an archway with a knocker, along with the cracked wall masonry. A path around the building led to a simple stable built into the structure, a watering trough was placed near it for the patrons’ steed to stay the night.
- “If I read the name correctly, then yes.”
Stepping up to the door, Alicia was tempted to use the knocker but with a closer look she could see that it was already open. The door creaked softly as it opened when she put her hand against it and pushed. The interior was much larger and spacious than what anyone could infer from the outside. Few of the people staying at the inn were in the main dining area, either waiting for their meal, enjoying their food or washing it down with drinks and chatting. Barmaid serving customers their booze noticed the two and called out.
- “Welcome! If it’s food and drinks, grab a chair, I’ll be with you shortly. Anything else, talk to the man behind the counter.”
The counter the girl mentioned was situated at the back of the hall, in the space below the stairs leading up to the second floor behind the beams supporting the walkway above it. Manning the bar was a man, the owner of the establishment most likely. Balding head, rotund physique, short bushy beard and a fierce gaze. Briskly walking up to the said person:
- “Got a room for two?”
After taking a short time to briefly inspect the two strangers he answered.
- “For tramps, nuffin. For customers, aye.”
- “How much for three days.”
- “Four bronze, fiftee copper.”
⟨ Cold Reader ⟩
- “In a good room.”
- “Nine. Food not included.”
Since Alicia put the requisite funds in front of him, the innkeeper's open animosity quickly disappeared.
- “No returns on early leave. No drinks afdah the sixth bell. Your room’s upstairs to the right, third one from the last. Housekeeper will clean up after you when you’re off. If you’re in, twice everyday on the third bell and the fifth. Have a nice stay.”
Shifting his attention to the waitress girl:
- “Oi, Avila, we have guests staying, open up room sixteen.”
- “Got it! Be there in a moment!”
After quickly returning a tray of empty mugs and drying her hands on her apron, the girl begins to lead Alicia and Rosalia to their room grabbing a lit candle nearby. On the second floor walkway, the floorboards squeaked and creaked every other step as they put more distance between the eating area. The noise of the loud diners gradually died out leaving only faint indiscernible sounds and the occasional bursts of laughter could be heard by now.
After picking through a keyring the waitress unlocked the door to their room. Going in she lit the various candles and lanterns in the room. A portion of the room’s ceiling was slanted as it was part that made up the roof. Stepping inside, the room was furnished well with a desk, chair, fireplace, rug, some storage compartments and of course a bed for sleeping. Two beds in the room were separated from each other with a small end table that oddly looked like a rectangular stool. The rug was anything but soft, however it’s intended purpose seemed to be that of an insulation and decor rather than comfort. After lighting the candles, the girl then turned her attention to the small fireplace at the side of the room close to the slanted ceilings, tossing in some wood and lighting up the tinder. After taking some time making sure the fire wouldn’t go out by itself and seeing that there was enough firewood for the night:
- “Alright, here’s your room. If you need anything please feel free to ask me. Oh, and if you don’t want to dine downstairs I can bring over your meal, just tell me what you want.”
With those words she closed the door behind her and left, indicated by the squeaking floorboards. Although Alicia was doubtful about the sound insulation, the room was satisfactory. But she wasn't sure if her expectations were warped because of her heightened senses. The place was off the beaten path as well, just as she asked of the clerk woman.
Promptly Rosalia went towards one of the beds to lay down and stretch. Despite the comfortable journey without a lot of walking, the time spent on the road had worn her to the core. She had not yet completely recovered from her escape, the bruises on her cuffs were still pulsing with pain, she simply had gotten used to it to not notice it anymore.
- “Are you hungry?”
- “Only a little peckish… I’m fine, really.”
- “Then I’ll go for a little walk, have some gander around town.”
- “Oh, of course! You don’t have to worry about me.”
- “Here you’ll need this if you change your mind.”
Alicia placed a small pocket of coins with enough fortune to transform the life of a plebeian on its head, despite the fact that it wasn't even a change of pocket for anyone from a noble family. For broke Rosalia however, it was more than enough.
- “Thank you, I promise I’ll return the favor. Even if I have to work myself to the bone with crude labor-”
- “Yeah, I get the point, you don’t have to go any further. Besides your injuries haven't healed yet, don't go adding more stitches to it.”
As the door slowly closed by itself behind her…
‘Time for a little setup…’
As soon as she left the inn she turned around a corner to a quiet alleyway, away from anyone’s sight.
⟨ Mirror Image ⟩
Leaving behind a copy in hiding it served few purposes, first was to keep an eye on Rosalia while she was away and if needed it was for a quick return via Transposition. It’s second purpose would come later in the night.
Whilst they were taking care of the lodging Alicia’s Araneae had a good grasp of the layout of the city. There were few places of interest that she wanted to have a look at, namely there were few places outside the town’s walls. While all villages were expected to and are self sufficient in terms of food, towns and cities instead relied on the surrounding villages and wildlands to sustain itself. Though often looked at with disgust from the upper class they supplied their foods. And since the guardsmen and other peacekeepers were scarcely found in these ‘beyond the wall’ areas, the streets were run by thugs and mugging and thievery were rife. Of course these criminals were eventually caught and funneled to a certain type of establishments.
As she passed beyond the buildings cast in fiery orange from the setting sun she found herself in front of one such place. Entering the modest building, she came into a sort of reception area with what could only be described as a small stage with curtains in at one side and at the other an open archway leading to a dimly lit corridor breaking into rooms. A show stage to promote the ‘merchandise’. The interior was dead silent from one the doors and a young man in a uniform like attire came forth looking to investigate the sound. As he noticed Alicia;
- “Excuse me dear customer, we are about to close.”
- “Is your owner here?”
- “Yes. Do you have business with the master?”
- “You could say that, take me to him.”
Alicia caught the under the breath muttering to himself that was not supposed to be heard saying. “but there are no meetings left for today…”
- “May I ask who it is that wishes to speak?”
Trying to identify her, the man was clearly trying to catch a glimpse under her hood.
- “A very big spender…”
Pulling out an envelope she passed to the man who after recognizing the seal on the binding wax ushered her in.
- “This way please.”
Walking through the gloomy corridors she was led to a small room with divan seatings and a short table with flowers on top of it. The room was well furnished with paintings of landscape, carpet flooring, sconce lighting.
- “Please make yourself comfortable while I inform the master.”
With those words he closed the door behind her and left. As she took a seat not long after there were faint taps on the door. She was roughly tracking the man’s position based on his footsteps and this wasn’t him or the owner of the establishment. She could faintly make out a sound of something being pushed which meant one of few things.
- “Come in.”
Woman dressed in a servant’s clothes came in pushing a tray of crockery, carrying a faint herbaceous scent. The girl quietly prepared a small cup of black tea and placed it in front of her.
- “Thank you.”
After serving the tea, she sidled up against the wall in the corner to make herself as inconspicuous as she could.
Bringing the tea to her lips she sampled the burgundy liquid.
‘Ah yes my favorite flavor… Black tea accented with flavours of citrus and Dirt… You know I should really try boiling one of those plants around the forest… might get something better… I was looking forward to some tea too… It didn’t immediately give me a gag reflex that’s a passing grade so far… How much do I need to give for a box of hundred piece tea bags? Yeesh. Having the guild’s backing in cases like these is pretty nice… Investment and networking with them wouldn’t do me bad it… ’
Not long after the assistant man came back holding the door for another person. It was a tall, lean man with an indistinct appearance, draped long in robes that hid most of his bodily features that came clutching a ledger of sorts. The man looked more like a mage than a merchant. He apologized for the delay in a soft but clear voice.
- “Greetings. Forgive us for the wait. Are you here for a purchase or a contract?”
‘There it is… Let’s see what you have in your noggin…’
⟨ Cold Reader ⟩
‘Hmm… Interesting… Purchase is quite obvious in this case… contracts however… are like an indentured servant’s contract…’
- “Straight to it hm… Perhaps. If you don’t mind I wish to browse.”
- “Certainly, what are the qualities you are looking for in them.”
He said before cueing the assistant who held the ledgeresque book near her cycling through its pages.
‘Oh boy. Can’t understand anything about it… But isn’t this quite short for everyone…?’
- “I would like to see for myself. As for qualities it doesn’t matter for now.”
- “By all means.”
When he answered the assistant went for the door and shortly thereafter came in leading the ‘goods’.
‘Wait wait wait why are they not clothed?!’
As many nobles, aristocrats and even merchants looking for a concubine or a servant preferred to inspect the bodies of slaves without any coverings, many slave traders forgoed the hassle of dressing and stripping their property.
‘It’s a goddamn sausage party! Why the-!’
- “Virile and well disciplined and of able bodies, I assure you of their capabilities as a bodyguard.”
‘YEAH THANKS ALOT FOR BRINGING ATTENTION TO THEIR CROTCHES!’
The trader had mistakenly thought Alicia was a bored noblewoman looking for a plaything to accompany her during ‘lonely nights’. For their husbands these purchases were bodyguards or ‘Just a dashing set of muscles for her own safety’. It wasn’t his fault that he jumped to conclusions either, that was what most high standing women in cloaks came here for in the end. It didn’t help that she also didn’t specify the purpose of the servant.
After realizing her mistake she cleared her throat to bring the owner back on track of the subject matter.
- “Excuse me it appears that you have misunderstood my intent. Perhaps it is better for me to go look by myself…”
- “Of course we’ll return them to their compartments.”
- “How many do you have?”
- “Over twenty.”
- “Really now…? I don’t quite believe that is all you have.”
- “Pardon missus our other stock is… not quite ready for browsing… they lack… training shall we say.”
- “I’ll be the judge.”
- “-…A former merchant’s slave sold off to pay reparations, she's well suited for bookkeeping, on your right is…-”
The trader gave short introductions to the various slaves they passed through. During which Alicia was collecting her thoughts on the slave culture of the kingdom and most likely the word at large. Contract slaves were in a type of indentured servitude where someone sells their body and labor or takes out a loan, this has a finite duration between a year to a decade. Of course normal free citizens accused of a minor crime that cannot pay the fines are often turned into an indentured servant where they earn their freedom through work. And in some other cases it is even considered a valid career working for the local government for people who struggle to find professional employment.
While it may seem like a decent enough system there are ways to abuse it when it is carried out by a personal firm. Placing the slave in a catch twenty-two with arbitrary and often confusing terms of contract that allows for a lifetime of slavery. And when the slave outlives their usefulness they decide to toss them to the streets by randomly concluding their contract. After almost a lifetime of toiling when they’re frail, old and without value to anyone, they are ‘rewarded’ with a life in the gutters to fend for themselves without a place to stay or any possessions to their name. This was much more affordable that even some wealthy citizens could hire them.
The other type is much more straightforward in its function. A slave in its entirety is owned by the master and freedom is never guaranteed. With the strict stratified society embedded in the caste system even their children are considered a property of the master. How they enforce compliance of the slave is interesting. A set of objects called bindings of allegiance is used which seems to be a poor replica of bonds of subjugation that it is trying to mimic. Or that’s how Llynbel identified some of the metallic collars, cuffs and anklets found from the Brigands tossing them aside in disgust. Though weaker than the Bonds’ all powerful effects of complete domination.
The bindings held the same type of enchantments. Where the bonds could apply any number of stipulations in absolute compliance, bindings can do so for only a few clauses the most common of which is ‘You may never take part in an action to harm your master’. While it weakly enforces any other commands from the said master. She was curious about the whole process as it could pose a risk to her, the twins or the girls at the lodge. Reason for that was when she later came across the objects…
>Possible protocol compatibility detected with skill: “Domination”. Trigger activation of foreign objects for full analysis.
She guessed that Alma wanted to see it in action to ascertain some usefulness but Alicia was sceptical about even trying it.
In this world’s human culture, slavery was an accepted part of society. Their labour was used ubiquitously from agriculture and construction to service and entertainment. Now as the ‘front’ goods were already shown… they turned towards stairs leading down below ground. Entering the stone tiled dungeons she was brought to a row of cells… There were few that she really thought who could help her with the work on the lodge and establishing a proper settlement but she was reserving that judgement until she saw everything at offer.
Here slaves in training were kept. Their eyes held a mixture of emotions but defiance and fear were most prominently seen. She understood why the owner was apprehensive about showing them to her.
- "Here is our back stock… Some of them require a little bit more training to be… of agreeable quality. However we also hold our more… exotic goods here as well."
Intrigued by his words she continued on, this time paying attention. In one cell an elf-like woman caught her attention, unlike the elves of Velauhart she was more voluptuous and had a more mature appearance. The biggest difference was her ears. They were shorter and droopy compared to what she was used to.
- "An elf we received from a brothel that was taken down. Although eager to 'serve' she needs some service etiquette and a modicum of decency beforehand."
- “I see…”
As she continued on, she saw a curled up person in one of the cells. Although she almost overlooked her, through pallesthesia she noticed the odd vibrations coming off of her far too different from normal human breathing. Her black hair had strange spots and streaks of gray green making her believe that she was diseased.
- “This is…?”
- “Ma’am has a distinguishing eye. She’s a young lithiline.”
When he pointed out Alicia noticed the outline of her feline ears.
- “The guards brought her in. She was caught stealing food from market stands. Unfortunately she’s far too temperamental to be-”
- “I’ll take her.”
- “Erhm…? Would the ma’am like reconsider? She’s already a handful to even us.”
A sharp glare was her answer. The girl stirring up from the commotion looked at the two people conversing outside her cell, her rounded pupils narrowed to a slit and her ears flattened back, hissing. A clear sign of aggression.
- “If you insist… I am willing to part with her for six gold fifteen silver considering her exotic origin.”
With a scoff of disbelief Alicia walked away prompting the man to follow.
⟨ Whispers ⟩
- “Let’s be real. She’s a deadstock that you can’t profit from. Untrained, obviously lacking discipline and those claws aren’t filed, is she even civilized enough to speak? And you value her with gold?”
- “You speak truly milady but it is too-”
- “You’ll lose more money trying to groom her into a servant and failing while her fleeting beauty rots away in a dungeon. You’re already bleeding coins as it is just keeping her.”
It was a painful truth about an insecurity he had, plucked right from the recesses of his mind and spit back at him through Cold Reader.
- “In sooth, you should be paying someone to take her off your hands. Maybe the guards will do it for you for free.”
A little twisting of the knife in the wound was all that she needed for the man to relent. Although he could have sold the Lithiline to less reputable, illegal traders as a last resort, they would figure out at that point he was desperate to be rid of her and would degrade the value even further to the point of not being able to recoup the investment sunk into her.
- “Madam speaks truly, I will waste money and time. Name your price. I shall see if it is fair.”
- “Three and a half.”
- “In gold?”
- “Whatever else is there?”
Three gold and twenty-five silver. It was a modest price way below expected commercial value of a lithiline slave. They would be sold around from anywhere between eight to eleven gold pieces but that was only if the said slave was trained well, eager to ‘please’ and had decent enough looks in addition to at least one professional skill. What he had was a possibly feral juvenile without any training or known skill. Though she has the looks for it right now, it might be lost as she reaches her species maturity. Right now she was, as Alicia said, a deadstock with his current price and uncertain if it would gain or lose value as time went on. If he took her offer on the other hand… he would at most be breaking even. In addition he would be able to use space for another slave that is much more easily handled with a pliable mindset for growth. What impressed him was her in-depth knowledge on the subject matter. She wasn't a mere bored noblewoman trying to find entertainment, she was an educated maven of the trade. Weighing in the options in his mind for while he came to his conclusion.
- “I accept…”
‘You know… Cold reader is quite scary… it’s always the things that people that are worried about that surface most clearly in their minds… Imagine if diplomats had this… yikes. Well I could have gone further… but I think he’ll start sussing me out from how much private information I know. Besides, if you can look past his dubious career he’s surprisingly decent for a slave dealer… I can't find any traces of violence in his memory either just…’
- “Are you sure you do not need any bod-”
- “I am absolutely sure!”
Back in the meeting room, after giving him the funds he had his assistant count it as she made most of her payment in silver.
- ‘we should not… help…?’
- ‘Currently we can’t take them in. We’re already dealing with the last batch. But the question is do they really need OUR help? Let’s say we buy up as many of them as we can and set them free; Where will they go? Do they have anyone that they can rely on? How will they feed themselves? If we can’t see through to it that they all get to a better situation, a half hearted attempt to help will only harm them. Without anyone to rely on they’ll either fall into a criminal lifestyle and end up back in here again or willingly go into indentured slavery which might be arguably better in the end there’s a reason they all ended up here let’s not make assumptions and decide for them…
At least here they have constant food, however bland, thin and tasteless it is, a place to protect them from the weather and some healthcare and protection as no sane person would buy an ill, injured or defective product. If hell if they’re obedient enough they’ll even get education as it adds to their value. We might do more harm than good, intervening needlessly.’
- ‘challenging… is it bad to help others?’
- ‘It’s a good thing to try and help those in need, but remember that sometimes what people think they want might not be what they really need. They need much more than just freedom.’
Eventually the counting was done and the assistant tried to return the excess payment.
- “Keep it.”
- “Is there a reason for that?”
- “I’ll come pick her up within three days from today, until then I hope you can keep her here?”
- “Most certainly. Then…”
- “Yes, that is to cover any of her expenses, oh and give her at least a rag?”
- “We have tried but their species have a particular dislike towards wearing clothes.”
- “Then at the very minimum try something?”
- “By all means. Please mark your signature here, then we can move on to the imprinting process… or perhaps you would like to do it when you return?”
The tall slave trader said, pointing to a paper binding.
‘Signature…? Is it like what Rosalia did with her letter? What do I just infuse the paper with mana? And the imprinting process…? Oh that must for the bindings, rightio…’
Before the assistant could give her a quill and ink she had placed her left index fingertip on it pouring her magic onto the paper. With a faint white glow her fingerprint was engraved on top of it. The color of the mark was shifting from one hue to another in pearlescent white even without changing the angle of view.
Everyone else was stunned silent, it was extremely rare someone would use their seal for something like a slave’s contract but what is more baffling was the nature of it. These magical seals were normally invisible to the magically inept and barely visible to those who aren’t. The opacity, color and feel of the seal was based on the user’s total magical energy pool. The owner was in awe because not only was it clearly visible to him but to his magicless assistants as well judging from their amazement staring at the paper, for it was their first time seeing a seal.
After she finished, he started to rub the marked area with his fingers in disbelief. Here another peculiarity arose, one could feel the nature or the affinity of one’s magic through their seal. Warmth like it was freshly branded meant fire element, grainy texture like if one was rolling a bunch of sand between his fingers meant earth and so on. Hers had quality never seen before, it had texture like that of smooth silk caressing his fingers and… something else he couldn’t fathom. This meant that this lady- no this mistress possessed energy unknown quality of such quantity that it was visible to the naked eye.
‘Did I screw something up…? Why’re you looking at me like that… Hello?’
- “Is something wrong?”
- “No, Nothing at all.”
- “I would like to get it over with today. Shall we move on then?”
- “O-Of course!”
She was brought to a different room that was mostly empty. The Lithiline girl was taken in in bonds by a pair of helpers, she was languid under the influence of a sedative.
- “My men are going to hold her in place while you're fitting the bindings. By chance do you have any preference on the appearance of the collar? We have just received a batch of fashionable gilded models, only for twenty silver.”
- “The standard models will do fine.”
- “Please if you will…”
‘Well Alma make sure you’re paying attention…’
As she attached the collars on the girl’s slender neck and clicked it shut, one after the other, a domino of events occurred. First it felt as if her essence was being instilled on the collar, then…
>Compatibility Analysis underway… Processing…
>Viability assessment underway… Processing…
>Analysis complete. “Domination” skill educement information acquired.
‘What a lovely… encouraging educement options I’ve gotten… Those are not worrying at all.’
>Report. Mind altering effects of the foreign objects can be overridden by ‘Domination’.
>Unable to dispel. Insufficient data. 34.1%
When Alicia was finished with her ‘purchase’ the night sky was waiting for her outside. She made her way back to the inn she was staying with Rosalia. ‘I completely forgot I was supposed to get something for Rosalia’s wrists… It’s late now… I could just spin her a silk bandage… Oh I know what I can do. Alma can you help me synthesize something to heal her wounds?’
>Processing request. Solution: Accelerated production of tissue factors of salivary glands acquired from the species ‘Lupus Tromero’. Admixing general antiseptics, Antivirals. New skill acquired.
‘Oh so that’s why the wolves are always licking themselves… I should have caught on to it sooner. Salvaged! Alright here we go…’
⟨ Weaver ⟩
When she arrived, the sixth bell had just rung indicating the lateness of the night. After tapping on the door to announce her arrival she entered.
- “I’m back.”
Rosalia was dressed in a nightgown sitting behind the slanted writing desk reading a book she found from somewhere turned around greeted her.
- “Welcome back, how was your walk?”
‘I shouldn’t tell her that I almost got sold ‘bodyguards…’ Is that a nightgown…?’
- ‘Alice did you make that?’
- “It was intriguing… Here show me your hands.”
Although it had come a long way in its healing process starting to form scabs around the edges, it was still a gruesome sight to look at. From her cloak she pulled out a pristine dressing, darkened with dampness. As soon as she placed the bandage on the injury a refreshing coolness overtook the residual pain as she wrapped it up. The elastic swathe self adhered without the need of tight knotting.
- “I uh… Yes. Thank you.”
- “Have you eaten yet?”
- “Of course, the chef is quite the cook.”
- “That’s good, rest now you won’t always get the opportunity.”
- “I will. After I reach a good stopping point.”
She looked at the open book resting on the table.
- “Then I’ll head to bed early, don’t get too engrossed in reading now.”
With those words Alicia reached for the bed. It is a given that she didn’t need sleep but… she had a role of a ‘normal’ person that she had to play into.
Few hours later Rosalia blew out all the candles and didn't take long for sleep to take hold over her. That’s what Alicia judged based on her heartbeat and breathing pattern.
‘I’ve never thought of it like this but listening in to someone’s heartbeat without them knowing is creepy… I mean I wouldn’t want a giant spider disguised as a human listening to my heart… It could be plotting something. Anyway…’
⟨ Transposition ⟩
Swapping locations with her mirror image created earlier, she was now outside the confines of the building, standing atop of it. Night's crisp breeze was pleasantly reinvigorating. Night was still too young for the sleepless…
‘Let’s go for a real walk shall we…?’