A sliver of sunlight hangs above the edge of the field. We’ll be done with work in a few more minutes. Nira pretends to pick thogg beans, moving her hands between the stalks and her basket, which looks full. I keep picking, occasionally glancing into the sky as the first twinkles of starlight shine through the darkness.
When the sun finally dips below the horizon, a howl splits the air; Salas and the other planters drop their hoes, strip off their shirts, and run through the field. One weaves through the stalks so close to me he nearly topples my basket. His tongue hangs over his lip as he laughs.
Is that supposed to make me want him? It works on Nira, at least, whose head swivels on her shoulders as she watches them go. Her tongue curls along her lip.
“Can we go out?” she asks me.
I hoist my basket, grunting from the weight of all the beans.
I could argue I’m tired, or that Salas and his friends are annoying, but I could use a night out.
Nira and I wait as the other pickers hand off their baskets to the wagon driver, who loads up the last of our day’s haul and gives us our copper coins.
“Look out!” says Salas, bumping me from the side and upending my basket. Beans fall everywhere as I fumble my hands through the air.
“Asshole!” I shout after him, dropping to the ground to try to collect my harvest. It’s getting impossible to see.
“Come on!” the driver growls as a chill wind rushes through the stalks. “It’s gonna rain, I have to go!”
“Sorry!” I mumble, scrambling for all the beans. Nira gets down to help.
“Promise me you won’t fuck him,” I say.
“Not Salas,” she replies, nodding. “Not again.”
“You didn’t!” I gasp.
She shrugs. “What? He’s hot, and I was bored.”
I shake my head, barely able to look at her. Of all the lowlifes… “When was this?”
“A few weeks ago. Sorry I didn’t tell you.”
Together we lift the refilled basket to the driver and accept the money, but he gives us a nasty look as he mushes his oxen. As soon as he leaves, my body begins feeling the day’s exertion. Slumping against Nira’s shoulder, I limp toward town, barely able to keep up with her.
My body aches—legs and back mostly. Kneeling and bending to pick beans all day has gotten me used to something being sore at any given moment. Sure, it’s nice to glance at the hot planters’ muscles shift as they break the soil, but I’m sick of always hurting—of always being wiped out at the end of the day and struggling to find a comfortable way to sleep. But what else am I supposed to do? There’s no other work on Thoggorin. If it’s not planting or picking thogg beans, it’s cooking or canning them. I told myself when I turned eighteen I’d try to find something better, but that was three years ago, and nothing new has come along.
I perk up a little when we reach town, hearing revelry and songs wafting through pub windows. Musicians play the two-strings and we can smell the beer long before we march into Wilgur’s Sprout House.
“What do you want?” Nira asks as we step inside, smelling the heavy aroma of stewed beans and sweat. “I’m buying tonight. Whatever you want.”
“Really?” She must have coin to spare. “Spicy stew, beer, and stim-bark.”
Nira grins. “On it.”
I let my head slump against the rough wooden counter while she puts in our order. Closing my eyes, I hear heavy thumps as planters arm-wrestle, jostling the tables as they get slammed down. Cheers last for far longer than feels appropriate as they congratulate each other and the loser chugs. I used to enjoy watching them, but it’s the same thing night after night. I can feel divots in the tables, ground down by their elbows over the years.
Nira nudges my shoulder when she comes back. Setting down the full tray, she sloshes four mugs of beer, two piping hot bowls of stew and a platter full of bark.
“Dig in,” she says.
I start with the bark, gnawing on it and filling my mouth with popping crystals. They taste earthy and brown the tongue, but after a day of hard labor it makes for a quick wake-up call. Nira goes for the stew first, making her usual mmm sound after each bite.
“What’s in it?”
“Dunno. I thought they said it’s got Yivviy extract but I don’t taste it.”
I try a bite and it’s really good. Whatever they used for spice, it didn’t come from here. It must be expensive—a good jar of flavoring imported from another system can cost a week’s wages.
A group of men howl as they barge in, nearly making me choke on my beer. Seeing Salas and his friends, I bury my head between my arms, hoping he won’t notice.
Except, like idiots, we’re sitting at our favorite table. I realize this too late, as Salas saunters directly toward us.
“Aylee, Aylee, Ayleeeee!” he crows, breaking off a piece of my bark and chewing it up. “Look at you! You got those pants pretty dirty; spent a lot of time on your knees today?”
He laughs at his own joke more than his friends. Nira hiccups the start of a chuckle but silences the rest after one glare from me.
“Screw off,” I say, spitting at his feet. “We’re trying to enjoy ourselves.”
“I could help you with that,” he replies, winking.
“Not interested. Get lost.”
He smirks and reaches for another piece of bark, but I slap his hand before he gets there.
Shaking his head and hand, Salas laughs some more.
“Okay, Aylee. Maybe next time. You can’t resist me forever!”
“Bet I can!”
Nira sighs, watching him and his friends go. I don’t blame her.
It’s a shame Salas is such a tool—he’s handsome and has an unfathomable amount of stamina. He works the thogg fields for hours without a break, and half the time his cock lifts a tall tent in his pants—it’s obvious how he occupies his mind while working, especially since he’s always got an eye on us pickers.
But he’s such an annoying piece of shit.
“If it makes you feel better,” says Nira, “he finished really fast. It wasn’t that great. I didn’t come. I mean, not right away. He had to use his—”
“Nope!” I blurt, covering my ears. “Not hearing this!”
“Sorry,” she says, pulling my arms back.
“How can you hook up with him?”
Nira shrugs. “Take a look around. They’re all like him. May as well bang the hot one.”
I suppose she has a point. Doesn’t make me particularly want them though.
“You ladies could do better.”
Both of us turn as a man approaches our table. Tall, muscular, and grinning smugly, he pulls an empty chair from another table and sits down with us.
“Excuse you,” I squeak, trying not to stare. Wearing a sky blue tunic and spotless white pants, he’s clearly not from Thoggorin, and he wants us to know it. Gray specks sprinkle his short, dark hair but his skin is smooth and healthily tanned. “Can we help you?”
“No. I’m here to help you,” he says, pulling a flask from his tunic. “My name’s Sloat, and I’d like to offer you both the opportunity of a lifetime.”
“Oh, great,” I mumble.
He’s a scammer, no doubt here to cheat us thogg-farming, mud-covered naive rubes out of what little savings we have.
“We’re not idiots,” I say. “So you should just—”
“Hear me out,” he says, taking a sip from the flask. He offers it to me, but I shake my head. Nira accepts, taking a long drink of whatever it is—likely some fancy liquor from half a galaxy away.
“What are you trying to sell?” I ask.
Sloat sets a holo dot on the table; it projects an image of an island of some kind, a verdant mass of land surrounded by vast oceans.
“How would you like to live here?” he asks.
Nira and I laugh.
“We can’t afford it,” Nira says.
“You won’t need money,” he shoots back. “I’m inviting you. That’s all you need, if you agree to the terms. Can I start from the beginning?”
I reach for his flask and take a long drag; the hard alcohol’s earthy and strong, but smooth. What I just drank would probably cost a year’s salary, but that’s my charge for listening tonight.
“This is Sahkessa. It’s full of young, beautiful men and women, recruited by me. We spend our days relaxing, partying, and fucking. No one works. Everything is free.”
Even Nira rolls her eyes.
“How gullible do you think we are?” she asks.
“I know how that sounds, but it’s true.”
“Then what’s the catch?” I cut in.
“We don’t invite just anyone.”
I take another sip of his fine liquor and pass it back to Nira.
“Then why us?”
“You’re beautiful,” he says with no hesitation. “We haven’t had women from Thoggorin before. Most are too muscular from farming. You two are pickers, right? You’ve got some tone but not too much, and you both have a lovely complexion. I know at least twenty handsome men who would be thrilled to meet you both.”
Nira blushes and stares down at the table. Feeling heat warm my cheeks, I force myself to turn away.
“Tell me,” he continues, drawing our attention back to him, “are your sexual appetites being met?”
“Sometimes,” Nira answers.
“No,” I say.
Sloat motions at the hologram, zooming in on an endless white beach. Gorgeous men and women stroll up the shore, play in the water, and lounge under the sun.
“Sahkessa is about pleasure. We indulge. We experiment. If there is a carnal desire you have yet to experience, you will find it here. All that we ask if that you be open to giving back all the pleasure you receive. And as the primary recruiter for Sahkessa, I love to make dreams come true—I visit woeful worlds like this and pluck a few lucky souls from their tedious lives. I want women aching to escape, and hungry for all their desires to be met.”
“That’s us!” says Nira, taking my hand.
“Hey!” I cry. “This can’t be for real.”
Every cell in my body wants to believe it is, but it can’t be.
Sloat gets up and takes his flask back.
“Come to my ship. I’ve got several recruits on board, waiting to start their new lives. We could even have a little fun together. I’ll prove to you both that when it comes to giving pleasure, no one in the galaxy does it better.”
I grab Nira and get her up from the table.
“We’re not sleeping with some sleazy scammer!” I shout. “We may be from the ass of the galaxy, but we’re not complete idiots!”
Sloat laughs. “Ass of the galaxy… Look, I promise my offer is completely genuine, and I’d be happy to prove it. If you change your mind, I won’t leave for another few hours. Come find me at the dock.”
“Don’t wait for us,” I snap, pulling Nira by the wrist to leave.
“See you soon!” he sings as we go.
We start feeling the alien liquor on the way to my parents’ home; by the time we get there, my head seems to floats serenely above my shoulders. I nearly trip going through the door. No one’s left a lamp lit, leaving the inside completely dark. My eyes barely adjust in time for me to spot Dad lying across the floor. Sleeping soundly, his gut rises and falls in a gentle rhythm; worst of all, he reeks of fermented thogg beans.
“Oh, fuck!” Nira gasps, covering her nose as she steps over him. “That’s awful! Does he have to drink that shit?”
“It’s cheap,” I growl, pressing on. “You get used to it.”
Dad burps, rolling over onto his side. I take Nira’s hand and pull her to the couch on the other end of the room, which comprises most of our house.
“Really? I’d rather live on the street.”
“No one’s stopping you,” I grumble, regretting it instantly.
Even in the dark, the look on Nira’s face cuts me in half. I’m sure she knows it’s the beer, but I shouldn’t make light of her situation—crashing with me and anyone else who will have her. My family may be a nightmare, but at least I still have one.
“Sorry,” I say. “I’m just sick of this place. You know how much I dream about leaving this planet?”
“You’ve mentioned it.”
Groaning, Dad sits up and fumbles around in the dark, I guess to search for a drink.
“Sloat’s offer would be really tempting if it were true,” I say, ignoring him.
“Aylee? Offer?” Dad grunts, waking up. “What’s that?”
He lights a lamp without warning, forcing us to shield our eyes.
“You should have been home hours ago,” he says. “You went out?”
“What do you think?”
“You got paid today, right?” he says, lurching toward us. “Hand it over.”
“Excuse me?” I slip off the couch and try to sidestep, but Dad closes the distance. “Get out of my face!”
“You spent it all, didn’t you?” he barks, his thogg bean breath nearly making me retch.
I gesture for Nira and me to go, then tell Dad, “It’s none of your business.” Today’s wages rest against my thigh—between Nira and Sloat I didn’t spend any coin tonight, but that doesn’t mean Dad can just take my earnings.
“What am I going to tell your mom when we can’t pay for this place?” Dad asks, waving his arms over his head. “We’re broke, Aylee!”
“And whose fault is that?” I counter, darting aside and eluding his reach.
He doesn’t try to chase me at first, giving me and Nira a moment to put some distance between him and us. When he shouts for us to come back, I take her hand and break into a sprint. He follows us to the entrance, hollering and banging the walls, but we don’t stop. We hear him raging from blocks away, but we don’t stop until we’re out of breath, at the other end of town.
Nira looks west, toward the spaceport docks—toward Sloat, and his made-up paradise world. “Aylee…”
“Don’t say it.”
She nods, but the look on her face doesn’t change.
“It’s a scam,” I argue. “It has to be.”
“We’re close by, though. We could check it out.”
Nothing good can come from this—a deal that tempting has to be a trap. The alternative, however, would be going home. I can’t do that, at least not right now.
“Fine,” I say. “Let’s see if this is for real.”
Nira adopts a faster-than-normal pace, quietly leading me to the spaceport. She grins to herself. Is she thinking about how handsome Sloat was? Is she worried that this is a giant racket and we’re walking into a trap?
Is she hoping as strongly as I am that this is for real?
But if it is, what happens if the other recruits are far more beautiful and enticing, and we’re not chosen? I’m not sure I could cope. After living as long as I have on this crappy planet, I should have learned not to hope for much.
Calling this place a spaceport means pretending it’s something more than a series of landing surfaces with an office complex and marketplace in the middle. Strips of bright diodes illuminate the docking zones. Spotlights shine into the sky. During the day, vendors fill the market, offering liquor, stims, and occasional delicacies from other worlds.
It’s dead when we arrive, which at least makes Sloat’s ship easy to find; his is the only one here. All the transports full of thogg beans have departed, headed for planets at all ends of the galaxy. They’ll be back tomorrow for more, a never-ending exchange.
His craft is smaller than the usual cargo haulers we’re used to seeing. This one’s small and sleekly designed, with a sliver-like shape. It’s a luxury transport—made for pleasure and leisure, not practicality. I’ve never seen anything like it.
“Does this seem right to you?” Nira asks, noticing the hatch to the ship wide open, a glow from inside almost beckoning to us.
“He could be waiting for us to show up.”
I can hardly believe myself, actually looking for excuses to dive deeper into this lunacy.
“You having second thoughts?” she says.
“I’m way past the second ones. Stay behind me. If I say we run, we run.”
Nira nods. “Fine.”
I head in, struck by the stark cleanliness of the interior: no smashed beans on the floor, no dirt or dust tracked in by ox hooves, no missing panels or exposed circuitry. As soon as I step in, I turn around, half expecting the hatch to slam closed behind me, but nothing happens.
“Sloat?” I call out. “Are you here?”
He must be around, judging by the open hatch, but he doesn’t respond. However, I do hear muffled, feminine laughter from inside.
“Come on,” I say to Nira, waving her to join me.
We head through the short corridor, which opens into a spacious cabin.
“Holy shit,” I gasp.
Nira’s jaw drops.
Inside the cabin, eight women stand against the walls, their ankles and wrists fastened in place by thick metal cuffs. Silver tape covers their mouths, and they’ve been stripped down to their panties, revealing their beautiful features and shapely figures. They must be pickers, like me and Nira. Two sets of cuffs remain unoccupied.
“Let’s get out of here,” says Nira, gripping my hand so tightly I have to shake her off.
“We have to help them,” I reply, peeling off the tape from one woman’s mouth. “It’s okay, we’re going to get you out of here.”
“No, put it back! We’re going to Sahkessa!” she shouts, her speech accented from the northern Thoggorin continent. I almost don’t understand her at first.
“Yes! Put it back! You’ll get us kicked out!”
Speechless, I fix the tape over her lips and step back.
“You’re all here willingly?” Nira asks the group.
They all nod at once, smiles reaching their eyes.
Then we hear footsteps coming from the hatch.
Snarling and humming through their gags, the women glare at us.
“Quick, hide!” Nira whispers, pulling me toward a door on the other end of the room. It opens with a whoosh, allowing us to slip inside a storage closet.
There’s not much space between the wide shelves, forcing us to stand right up against each other. I try to hold perfectly still, terrified of knocking something over. We breathe as softly as we can; I listen carefully as the footsteps get louder.
“How is everyone doing?” Sloat asks, his voice booming even through the wall. “Everyone comfortable? Good. Are you excited? You are all here because you’ve made the best decision of your lives. In a few hours, you will start new lives on a world where the pleasure never stops. So, try to get some rest, if you can. I’ll see you all later.”
We listen as his footsteps recede and a hatch closes.
“Shit, let’s go!” I mutter, fumbling in the dark for a control panel to let us out.
However, before I find it, a lifting sensation makes us feel very heavy. It only lasts a moment, and then it’s gone. If that’s what I thought it was, it means we’re—
“Too late,” whispers Nira. “Sorry.”
The ship has lifted off—we’re probably already out of Thoggorin’s atmosphere.
Should we step out and beg Sloat to take us back? What will he do if he finds us? I don’t want to know. My brain starts whipping through new plans.
Hide until we arrive, sneak out, and find a transport back home.
Or, get out, lock Sloat in this closet, pilot his ship back ourselves.
Or, get out, find an escape pod, and take it somewhere well-populated.
Stay hidden, and make it to Sahkessa. Have a ball—if the place is really what Sloat says.
“We’ll stick together,” says Nira. “We’ll be okay.”
Shifting in place to try to get comfortable, I bite back a curse.
“Again, I’m sorry. This was a bad idea.”
“It’s fine,” I reply. “Let’s just make the best of it. I have a plan.”
Whispering into her ear, I go through it: wait for the ship to land, sneak off, and pretend we belong here. If we act like we were recruited the same as anyone else, maybe no one will notice. That means avoiding Sloat completely, which I’m happy to do. And if this planet is truly paradise, we’ll enjoy every second of it.
For what must be at least three or four hours we fight our fatigue to stand still and not make too much noise. Sometimes we hear the women outside moan and mumble, but mostly they keep quiet as well. When we finally feel a distinct lightening, I let out a sigh of relief—we’ve landed.
“Good morning, ladies,” Sloat says. “Remove your gags as we disembark. You will have one hour to refresh yourselves, then you will gather at The Flirt. If you have trouble finding it, ask someone. Everyone here is very friendly. Just don’t be late, or you will be disciplined. Is that understood?”
The eight women voice their assent, and soon the room settles back into quiet.
“I think they’re gone,” I say, opening the closet door.
Cool, fresh air hits us as we spill out. Glad to be free of the cramped space, I inhale deeply, then tiptoe toward the hatch, constantly watchful for Sloat.
“Come on, it’s clear.” I smile and take Nira’s hand. “Are you ready?”
She bites her lip and looks toward the exit. “You bet.”
The second we emerge from the craft, we stop. To our left, a pair of verdant green mountains rise high into the sky, while on our right, a brilliant blue sea stretches toward the horizon. A stiff breeze whips against my cheeks, carrying away my tears. Nira sniffs as she stares into the ocean.
“I never thought I’d see one,” I say.
She nods. “It’s so… big.”
Between the water and the mountain lies miles of beautiful terrain, dotted with small buildings. White beaches stretch along the coasts. From a glance, Sahkessa definitely looks like paradise. Even the spaceport looks amazing: the path from our landing pad leads to a facility that looks to be made of glass, a structure more elegant than anything we’ve ever seen on Thoggorin. Atop the building stands a tremendous stone statue, a nude woman holding a fruit of some kind to her lips, a naughty smile evident in her raised cheeks and wide eyes.
“You think that’s The Flirt?” says Nira.
“Probably,” I say, spotting rows of chairs set at its base.
“Hey!” comes a voice from behind us.
We both spin around, startled by the interruption.
A man strides toward us, his gaze focused and intent. My legs turn to saplings, nearly buckling. He’s astoundingly gorgeous. His chiseled jaw, regal cheeks, and dark blue eyes convey focused intensity. Dark slacks and a matching jacket cover his body, but tightly enough to indicate the sheer mass of muscles bulging from everywhere. I’ve seen plenty of fit farmers back home, but none with such an exquisitely sculpted physique. Though suntanned, his skin looks healthy and smooth. As the wind ruffles through his short brown hair, he looks like he should be a planetary king of some kind.
“What are you two doing?” he asks.
My eyes dart to the item hanging from his belt—some kind of whip. Sloat did say something about discipline…
“We’re looking for… orientation,” I mumble.
“Who are you?” Nira asks.
“There,” he replies, pointing at The Flirt. “And I’m Vondre, head of security on Sahkessa. What are you two doing here alone? Why didn’t Sloat see you off?”
My heart’s been pounding ever since I first saw him, but now it pumps harder.
“We needed a few more minutes,” I reply, trying not to cringe.
He can tell I’m lying. He can see right through me.
No, I’m being paranoid. I’m just an overwhelmed farm girl who’s never been more than a mile from home, let alone visited another world.
“He left you alone, in his ship?” Vondre asks.
“We, uh… we… promised to be good.”
Nira giggles nervously.
Scowling, Vondre takes both our wrists in his grip. He holds us so tightly, his hands feel like iron. He inhales deeply.
“You’re sweaty. Did Sloat have his way with you during your journey?”
“No!” I say immediately.
We must still be a bit of a mess from being stuck in that closet.
“We’re just… really excited… to be here,” I add.
“Yeah,” says Nira. “We’ve wanted it… wanted this a long time.”
Vondre grunts, pulling us toward the path leading to the facility. “Residents are expected to behave themselves at all times,” he warns. “Initiates like you especially will be disciplined for infractions. That means not lingering in restricted areas.”
Nira and I try to break out of his grasp, but to no avail. Forced to follow his lead, we march as directed—not that I would disobey an order from him. His commanding tone awakens a powerful ache between my legs.
“Is that understood?” he asks.
“Yes,” I squeak. “It is.”
“We’re going,” says Nira.
Vondre lets us go, and we quickly scurry away, hurrying toward the welcome center.
“Holy shit,” she whispers to me. “He was really fucking hot. Almost as hot as Sloat.”
I laugh. “You thought Sloat was hotter?”
“No way. Vondre for sure.”
Nira snorts. “You can have him. What gives him the right to march us out like that? Who does he think he is?”
“The head of security.”
She rolls her eyes at that, but lets it go.
After a short walk down from the landing pads, we enter the welcome center. The inside opens up into a vast hall with a central column running down the middle. Arranged in a wheel, several stations fill the middle of the hall, and surrounding them are hundreds of tables, booths, and kiosks. Incredible aromas waft from the many serving stations, making my stomach rumble. Laughter rises above the din of conversation echoing throughout the hall.
Maybe a hundred men and women dine and converse, openly leering at the women who came on Sloat’s ship. The eight of them sit together scarfing down meals like they haven’t eaten in days, not noticing the attention. However, the gazes soon turn to me and Nira.
“They’re looking at us,” she says.
“Stay calm, act normal. Let’s get some food.”
We make our way to the serving areas, expecting to see workers handing out plates or bowls like they do back home. Instead, all we see are dark screens. They’re all the same, too, even though we’ve seen plenty of different types of cuisine around the hall.
“How are we supposed to… I don’t get it,” says Nira.
“Just say what you want.”
We spin around to see Vondre behind us again.
“Huh?” I say, my eyes drawn to his wide shoulders.
“Just tell the cookers what you want,” he explains.
“There’s no one to make it?” Nira asks.
“The machines can synthesize nearly any dish from every inhabited world in the galaxy. If you don’t know specifically what you want, give it some clues: meat or vegetable, mild or spicy, and so on.”
I don’t hesitate.
“Fruit, sweet,” I say.
A light goes on behind a screen, and after a moment it opens, revealing a bowl filled with a variety of colorful fruit.
“That’s amazing,” I mutter.
“Fried bird with spicy sauce,” Nira says, practically shaking.
Damn, that sounds good too.
“Enjoy,” Vondre says, wandering off.
I turn to watch him go, biting my lip, somehow forgetting about the food. Once he’s gone, Nira collects her dish and drags me to an empty table.
Both of us groan when we bite into our meals.
“This is the best thing I’ve ever tasted,” she says.
I reach for a piece of her bird at the same time she takes a long and narrow orange-colored fruit.
“Incredible,” I grunt, tossing my head back blissfully. I’ve only gotten to eat meat a handful of times, and even when I did, it was never so tender or juicy. Animals on Thoggorin are all tough and lean, used to eating beans—same as the people.
“I don’t care if we get caught,” says Nira, sauce dripping from her chin. “This was worth it.”
I laugh. “Definitely.”
We eat too quickly, famished from our long journey on the ship, but before we can go for seconds, the other new women finish and get moving. Wanting to fit in, Nira and I follow them. We descend a long spiral staircase into a strange facility, weaving our way through arrays of equipment being ridden by numerous men and women.
“What is this place?” Nira asks.
On one side are banks of flat devices where men and women run in place, the surface beneath them moving. Next to them, people pull on bars to lift stacks of heavy plates. On the other side of the room, people stand in rows, jumping and turning, all moving to music while a woman leads the routine.
For all their efforts, they seem to be accomplishing nothing. I want to ask someone what they’re doing, but I keep Nira moving, sticking with the other Thoggorin women.
Thankfully, we soon reach the showers and wash up. The water is cleaner than any I’ve ever encountered back home, and the cleansing soaps and lotions smell like endless fields of flowers. Nira and I can’t help groaning as a thin line of Thoggorin dust snakes its way to the drain—the water feels heavenly. We only stop when the others do, finding fresh pants and tunics that have been left for the initiates.
The other women notice that we’re following them, shooting us sideways glances. Are they afraid of us getting found out, and being punished in association? Or do they just not care? Either way, they say nothing, even as we trail them to The Flirt for orientation.
We sit in rows at the base of the towering statue, while in circles around us hundreds of men and women spectate, chatting with unmistakable eagerness. They don’t hide their stares—mostly the men, but more than a few women. Then again, we stare back—like Sloat and Vondre, they’re all breathtakingly beautiful.
“Are you nervous?” Nira asks.
I smirk. “Regretting the spicy chicken?”
“Yes. No. Well… no. Still worth it.”
“It’ll be fine,” I say.
Of course, as soon as the words are out of my mouth, Sloat steps to the front of the statue and gestures at the crowd for quiet.
Nira and I slump in place, thankful we took seats in the back row. Still, it’s hard to imagine he won’t see us.
“Women of Thoggorin, welcome to Sahkessa!” he says in a deep, loud voice. “You were selected to be here not just because of your beauty, but for something much more important: your desire. Your desire for a more rewarding life, your desire for the kind of pleasure few will ever know. Here on Sahkessa, you will not toil endlessly in bean fields—you will fulfill your wildest fantasies!”
The women cheer, practically screaming. I nudge Nira with my elbow, but she’s already letting loose.
“Throughout your stay, you will sample, and you will be sampled, by our talented, insatiable lovers. You will taste every flavor. If you prove yourself to be as skilled at giving pleasure as you are receiving, you may just find yourself awarded the greatest joy, the ultimate bliss one can achieve. Just remember, here you are safe. You will be cared for, you will want for nothing. May your stay be long and unforgettable.”
Sloat bows, and everyone erupts into applause. Nira holds my hand so tightly I wince.
Several stone columns rise from the floor, each one bearing glasses full of golden liquid. Within moments, people are on their feet and reaching for one.
“On Sahkessa there’s enough for everyone!” Sloat shouts. “Now, I encourage all of you to make a new acquaintance. If not one of our new initiates, then another resident you just haven’t encountered lately. Have fun!”
I nearly knock a glass from Nira’s hand, but everyone around us is drinking—not just the other initiates. I reach for one myself, when Sloat marches straight up to us.
“My my, where did you two come from?”
“Nira, run!” I shout, stepping into Sloat’s path. She doesn’t hesitate; she sprints away as fast as she can go.
He grabs my wrists and twists them behind my back, tight enough to make me shriek.
“Very sneaky,” he says. “What are we going to do with you?”