The third night of the Sword Festival, General Kroban returned with his army to his home planet, Vion 4, at the heart of the Bridge Cluster. He had conquered the Sherdon system, with its three habitable worlds—one of them very rich indeed—and received a hero’s welcome from the popular assembly and from the emperor himself.
Jalinda, captured on Sherdon 2 and sent to Vion 4 ahead of the general, waited naked that night in his chambers, tied to his bedpost and trembling with fear. In the afternoon the general’s housekeeper had come to tell her that the general’s fleet had just come out of hyperspace and into high orbit.
“You must come with me,” the middle-aged woman had said. “We will prepare you to welcome him in his bedchamber as befits a conqueror.”
“I don’t understand,” Jalinda had pleaded, though she had heard enough about General Kroban in the three months she had lived on Vion 4 to have very strong, and very frightening, suspicions.
The housekeeper, Yeb, gave her a sympathetic look. “You must make up your mind to do exactly as you are told, Jalinda. That will not spare you the whip, I am afraid, because the general is the sort of man who enjoys whipping good girls just as much as he enjoys whipping bad ones, but it will spare you injury at least. You must try to learn as quickly as possible what pleases him, and he may well come to be kind to you, before too long.”
Jalinda could only repeat, even more weakly, “I don’t understand.”
Yeb heaved a deep sigh. “I’m so sorry, dear. Everyone in the household thinks you’re a sweet, obedient girl, and I’ve come to think of you like my own daughter these last months. But the general is the general, and he has his ways.”
“He whips girls,” Jalinda whispered, but that was the least of what she had heard.
“Dear, you’re only eighteen, and from what you’ve told me you have lived as sheltered a life as any girl could live in the Bridge Cluster, with the Vionian conquest at your doorstep. That’s why the general chose you when your world was conquered, and I’m not allowed to tell you very much at all about what will happen tonight, so you have every right to be confused and frightened. The general likes to take the innocence of girls like you: it pleases him to frighten you and, I am afraid, to punish and to humiliate you. It will be much easier if you try to accept it and to show yourself eager to obey him, no matter how shameful what he demands seems to you.”
Then Yeb had led her down from the chamber in the women’s tower where the general’s concubines lived, to an enormous steam-filled hall far below the planet’s surface, tiled in the blood red that seemed the Vionians’ favorite color, and full of the scent of fragrant oils rising from the hot baths scattered throughout the hall. Among the baths were benches and chairs upon which naked girls lay or sat, undergoing a sort of treatment from other women that Jalinda, who had grown up in a world that knew no luxury, did not understand—though she sensed immediately that luxury must play a part in it, as it seemed to play a part in everything here on Vion 4.
“You must take off your clothing,” Yeb said as soon as they had entered. They stood in a corner of the room where the wall featured a series of pegs upon which it seemed the girls in the baths and on the benches and chairs had put their own clothes. Mostly the girls wore the loose, diaphanous robes of concubines on Vion 4, but here and there Jalinda saw the more ordinary clothes worn by most of the people across the Bridge Cluster and throughout the galaxy. Jalinda knew something about those cultures, though her education on Sherdon had been restricted by the war to a few documentary vids about the past and about life on other worlds.
Jalinda herself wore that kind of clothing; she had been permitted to retain it since her arrival on Vion 4, though the girls around her in the women’s tower all wore the concubines’ robes that only came down to their knees and let the eye practically see everything underneath. Like everything else that befell her, no one had told her either why concubines wore those embarrassing things or why she had been allowed to keep her shift dress and simple synth-cotton underwear of briefs and a halter top.
Mirrors adorned the wall here in the changing area, and as Jalinda, blushing, began to obey Yeb’s command, she saw herself reflected many times over. It occurred to her again, as it seemed to do once a day or so, to curse the prettiness that had caught the soldiers’ eyes, so that they had sent her to the Vionian headquarters.
But Jalinda’s auburn hair, fair skin, and green eyes had saved her parents, hadn’t it?
“Go with these men quietly, and your mother and father will go to a special facility for favored citizens,” the lieutenant who had commandeered their house for its food stores and its electronics had said. “Never forget that if you obey your Vionian master, your parents will be safe. If you are respectful and obedient, and please him as he deserves, he may tell you how they are doing, once you have arrived on Vion and had your first night.”
First night. The only thing Jalinda knew about what would happen when the general returned home victorious—for the general always won, always conquered the planetary system he set out to conquer—lay in those two words. “All we can tell you, if we don’t want to be whipped by the majordomo,” had said Herana, the kindest of the other girls, who came from Sherdon 7 and had been taken in the previous year’s campaigning, “is that you must try to be a good girl, especially on your first night.”
“But what is it?” Jalinda had pleaded, as they sat at the table in the little refectory where all the girls ate supper, usually before disappearing to the men’s quarters according to the list drawn up and announced at the end of the meal by the majordomo, a fat, sweaty man with a bald head who wore a black robe that made him look menacing in his ugliness.
“Herana to guard captain Fredor,” the majordomo would usually say, and Herana would turn to the girl next to her, Gela, and roll her eyes.
“At least he doesn’t whip you,” Gela would usually say.
“I wish he would, sometimes!” Herana replied. “I have half a mind to bite…” She glanced over at Jalinda in an odd way, and dropped her voice to a whisper intended for Gela but still audible to Jalinda’s ears. “To bite him tonight, to see if he will.”
There were three other girls who had been sent from Sherdon 2, whom Yeb said would have first nights with other officers of the high command; they, too, still wore their regular clothing. One of them, Renda, sat next to Jalinda at the table where Herana would drop these little hints about what the men to whom the concubines had to go did with them.
“Why would you bite him?” Renda asked. “Why not, you know, just say, I don’t want to do what you say, or something like that? I mean, if you really want a whipping, which seems strange, but whatever.”
Herana had shot Gela a look, at that, and both had giggled and then looked back rather sympathetically at the new girls. “You’ll understand about the biting soon,” she said. “I promise. You probably won’t like it, but you’ll understand it. And… don’t try it. If you find yourself wanting a whipping—and I promise you you’ll understand that, too—do just what you said, and say you won’t obey. You’ll get your whipping. Just make sure you get it from your master and not from the majordomo.”
Jalinda shuddered, remembering the day she had arrived in the women’s tower and the inspection by the majordomo, all four of the new girls naked in a line as he walked up and down in front of them and then around them making mystifying comments that she could not understand but could tell had a terrible, degrading aspect, while a scribe took notes on a tablet. Jalinda had received the most praise—”Fine, small bottom, a very tight ride. Quim looks tight as well. Red hair on quim quite pretty; might be allowed to grow back a little after first night. I think she’s for the general himself, don’t you?”
The scribe had nodded obsequiously.
“Who am I for?” little blond Warta had squeaked, next to Jalinda, as if she couldn’t contain her curiosity and the words had just slipped out.
The majordomo turned away from the scribe with a look in his eye so cold that all four girls cowered back. “Did I not tell you to remain silent?” he asked in a low, menacing voice.
He stirred his robes with his right hand and Jalinda noticed something hanging at his belt that she hadn’t seen before: a long black thing, made of leather, with a wooden handle. Slowly and deliberately, without taking his eyes from Warta, he unhooked the strap from his belt and raised it. Then he slapped it against his palm. Poor little Warta with her white-blond hair jumped at the sound.
“Take five steps forward, girl, and bend over to touch your toes. The rest of you girls, watch closely what happens to a concubine who can’t obey me.”
Then, with his hand upon Warta’s waist and drawing their attention all the while to how loudly the girl cried out and how vivid and red the marks from the strap were, across her buttocks and thighs, the majordomo whipped the girl mercilessly, for five minutes. Warta hadn’t been able to sit down for days, and she cried every time she had to put on her tight-fitting synth-cotton underwear, which Yeb had told her she must do despite the state of her bottom.
None of the new girls had received a whipping after that; the majordomo’s example had proven extremely effective.
On two occasions, though, all the girls had had to watch the morning punishment of concubines reported by the men to whom they had gone the night before. These girls, bound naked over a wooden punishment horse, had each received twice the strapping Warta had gotten, over twenty minutes, their bottom upturned and their legs spread, so that Jalinda could see—as of course the majordomo’s words had made her suspect—that concubines in the women’s tower had their private curls removed for some reason.
As their bottoms danced under the strap, and their screams and promises to be good rang through the refectory, where these disciplinary actions took place, Jalinda found to her shame and confusion that she couldn’t keep her eyes from turning to that place between the whipped girls’ thighs. She had been taught to call it her private part, and now she had heard the majordomo call it a quim, she thought.
As the girls received their whippings, their bare quims had seemed to move in a way that Jalinda, though she didn’t know why, found terribly thrilling. The bottoms clenched and unclenched in agony as they received fiery line after fiery line across them, and between the thighs the quims, shamefully exposed to the eye as a girl’s private part, Jalinda knew, must never be, seemed to move as well, the little pouts of their pink secrets helplessly showing the viewer more of what a girl was honor-bound to keep hidden.
One of them, indeed, had been punished “for touching herself between her thighs,” and the thought of that wicked act, as Jalinda instinctively knew it to be, and of how it would feel to touch herself there, seemed to pervade the terrible experience of watching the raven-haired girl punished. Jalinda found to her dismay that her own private part had a funny feeling in it as she watched the other girl receive her just reward on her bottom and thighs, the spot so very close to the place where the offense had occurred—the spot, it seemed, men had decided represented the best place to punish girls.
Now, in the bathing hall, Yeb said, “Hurry up, Jalinda, please. Lorela is waiting to prepare you.”
Jalinda, who had just taken off her shift dress and her breast halter and stood only in her white synth-cotton briefs, turned to see a willowy older girl in a concubine’s robe. She didn’t think she had seen Lorela before; there must be many floors of the women’s tower, she realized, for most of the girls and women down here, whether in the baths or out of them, seemed unfamiliar. For a moment, she felt a little dizzy as she contemplated the vastness of the Vionian Empire that this implied: twenty girls on a floor, twenty floors, twenty towers on twenty planets. All those naked girls, taken for… first nights.