Maia North had not had a good morning, and her afternoon looked significantly worse. As she put her face in front of the camera that opened the secure communications room in Confidelia’s basement and heard the usually reassuring thunk of million-dollar kinetic privacy at work, she wondered if the demise of her pod cappuccino maker that morning should have tipped her off.
The chief executive, super-coding nerd, and high-level sex spy didn’t have a superstitious bone in her body, but she did have a lizard-brain thing about random events probably triggering the apocalypse. The bang from the crazy-expensive, hyperbolically shiny cappuccino maker, together with the jets of scalding hot milk shooting out all over Maia and her partner Gordon’s marble countertop, seemed now like just the kind of thing that should have flashed a cosmic warning to an astute software wizard and international woman of mystery.
Or was it random mechanical failure, after all? Did Relicorp send the thing some malware this morning, just to fuck with my brain?
Maia didn’t think Relicorp owned CaffeMaLuxe, manufacturer of the world’s finest and most expensive coffeemakers, but the delivery of caffeine represented a deadly serious affair in Silicon Valley. She certainly wouldn’t put it past the evil minions at Relicorp Holdings to acquire the company through a blind subsidiary expressly to fuck with Maia North.
I’ll have to check with Joe Barbera to see if Henry Granby is still on the reservation.
Since a very special, very erotic party in Rome a few months before, Confidelia and Relicorp had been less openly hostile to one another. The change had occurred in the wake of Henry Granby, CEO of Relicorp Holdings, marrying a pretty young woman trained as a submissive bride in the Institute’s Thoroughly Trained program.
The Institute’s parent corporation, Selecta, also happened to have acquired Confidelia—and, in a certain very important sense, Maia herself. With the help of some white-hot sex that introduced Jenny Granby to a few of the more shameful aspects of her new life as the young bride of a dominant CEO, Maia had gained a little access to the inner workings of Relicorp.
Selecta’s inroads into subtly weakening Relicorp’s market share through intelligence gleaned in bed, however, didn’t extend to efforts to fuck with Confidelia’s caffeine supply. On the other hand, Maia couldn’t see Henry Granby stooping to such measures, so…
So you’re using the stupid cappuccino maker to avoid thinking about the video on FriendSpace. You know: the reason you’re entering the secure communications room and signing into a conference call with the scariest people in the universe—at least among the women you’re ‘lucky’ enough to call your friends. The reason your morning got so, so, so much worse than even jets of scalding milk on your silk blouse could make it.
“Maia North,” she said, looking at the screen to authenticate herself.
Four faces popped into view in the four corners of the screen.
Sarah Bennett, seventh-level initiate of the Order of Ostia and chief of operations for the Pretorian Guard’s North American division, in the upper right.
Cynthia Hall, lead Ostia field agent of Operation Raptor, based in Paris, in the lower right.
Charlotte Elkins-Nakama, academic dean of the Institute, in the lower left.
The women Maia had expected to see on her screen in such a situation, and good friends with whom she thought she could work out some solution to the current shit show.
Maia had not expected to see, however, the lovely, perfectly made-up face in the upper left of her screen, that of a woman she had never met but knew instantly on sight.
Erin Metz, First Lady of the nation.
Maia swallowed hard, and felt her cheeks grow pink as her eyes went wide. She knew as soon as she saw the First Lady exactly why Erin Metz would get involved in the situation with the video and its wildly spinning aftermath. That didn’t mean that the presence on Maia’s screen of the beautiful redheaded occupant of the East Wing represented any less a catastrophic worsening of her already horrible day.
“Mrs. Metz!” she said, not managing to keep the exclamation point out of the words, hard as she tried.
“Erin, please,” the First Lady said. Erin made a visible effort to force her face into a gracious, welcoming expression, but the compulsion required made the moment worse for Maia, and she couldn’t keep a wince from her own eyes.
Fortunately Sarah Bennett never had any use for sugarcoating with social graces when Pretorian Guard business needed doing. The hyper-intelligent former CIA analyst, one of the very few people in the world Maia thought she might actually not quite best in cognitive skill, made a lovely dinner companion, but she could also savage any associate who took her eyes off the ball. Ripping you a new one hardly described it, when Sarah had the power to tell the master of any of the women with whom she invariably worked that a certain girl needed anal punishment—the existing, old, submissive bottom-hole did just fine for Sarah’s retributive justice.
Maia couldn’t help squirming in her ergonomically perfect chair at the thought, in fact. She remembered the last time Sarah had told Maia’s master and Pretorian Guard chief, Gordon Ernkat, that his capta needed a lesson. Maia had missed a crucial detail in a report, and so she had worn the big black punisher in her anus all evening, including at the dinner table, perched desperately on the edge of her chair. Gordon had made the discipline extra effective by keeping his deep-chested, ultra-sexy body just out of her reach, until the plug in her backside had made her so needy she had begged him to take it out and use her there.
“Maia, what do you have?” Sarah asked in a flat voice that Maia knew from experience concealed a great deal of frustration.
So bad did the situation look that although she knew exactly what Sarah meant, Maia had the urge to answer, “A bottle of wine waiting for me at home.” Then she would get up and leave, and someone else could save the world from economic collapse.
No, not even save. Someone else could fight the losing battle to make sure the world’s onrushing disaster happened in such a way that a few havens of civilization could be saved, to build a new and hopefully better but really, presumably just as terrible civilization from the ashes. The soft landing, many Guard and Ostia operatives had taken to calling it, recently. The term had a good deal of inherent irony: if the predictions on which the Guard founded its actions held up, both soft and landing were hilariously optimistic words for what would befall the world even if all went perfectly.
“Nothing good,” she answered, though, trying to keep her voice as flat as Sarah’s. “The good news is that the video didn’t come from us.”
“That’s not good news,” Erin said flatly. “If it came from the Guard at least we would have a chance at rooting out the source.”
“Erin,” Sarah said levelly, “it is good news. Just not very good. The last thing we want to deal with, when the enemy is up to something, is a mole.”
Maia bit her tongue to keep from saying that even though the video hadn’t come directly from a mole, as she had ascertained that morning, that fact certainly didn’t mean that there wasn’t a mole inside Confidelia, or Selecta, or—worst of all—the Pretorian Guard.
“Where did it come from, then?” Cynthia asked. Maia could see why the answer to that question would represent Cynthia’s primary concern: Operation Raptor had agents in harm’s way, in precisely the place where it seemed the video must have originated. Yet the thing had blindsided her just as it had blindsided everyone else, including Maia. “If you can say that it didn’t come from us, you must have figured out who it did come from?”
Maia nodded, but her heart rose into her throat because now she had to say what had made her want to go home and drink wine and forget about saving civilization’s last shreds.
“It came from the Groupe.”
“Shit,” said Cynthia and Sarah simultaneously. Erin’s eyes went wide, and she looked at someone off camera. Surely not the president? If not, Maia supposed, probably someone just as important, if not more, like the Director of An Agency That Legally Didn’t Exist.
Charlotte, whose own face wore a puzzled expression—understandable, because unlike the other four women she wouldn’t immediately see the troubling implication—asked the question in her eyes.
“Why would the Groupe Synergistique want to play Discipline?”
“Hold on one sec, Charlotte, please,” Sarah said, the please coming out as such an afterthought that Maia nearly winced again. Charlotte, for her part, had worked so often with Sarah now that she only flicked her eyes upward for a quarter of a second, if that. “Maia, drill down for a moment, just so I’m comfortable. How do you know it was the Groupe? What’s your certainty level?”
“Ninety-nine-point-nine-nine,” Maia replied. “Now that we have both the CP and FC in the bag, I have GPS metadata that can’t be spoofed by anyone but me, and I know it’s not a deep fake, either.”
Erin’s face darkened considerably. “For the benefit of, shall we say, lay ears that happen to have a sixty-four percent approval rating at the moment, could you say that in English, please, Maia?”
Maia managed to keep the frustration off her face, and she even managed to bite back a polite suggestion that one of the probably three to five techies in the White House’s secure briefing room could maybe throw a glossary for tech babies up on Erin’s teleprompter.
“Sorry,” she said, letting her blood simmer down a little and only slowing her speech down enough to ensure comprehension without mocking the female leader of the not-so-free-these-days world. “I meant to say that my company, Confidelia, having through a very successful Guard operation six months ago acquired the rival communications technology in addition to our own cryptoviral sec… sorry, security… now has access, more or less, to every wireless communication sent and received, worldwide.”
That made Erin frown and look off camera again, where Maia supposed from the First Lady’s changing expression that she received confirmation of the remarkable disclosure. Maia waited until Erin’s attention had returned to her image on the distant DC screen, then continued.
“Part of that access, in almost every case, involves the location where the data originated. That’s independent of the metadata you see on your phone, for example, alongside a photo, just to be clear. That metadata can be scrubbed very easily. The metadata I get from CP—the Confidelia Protocol—and FC—either Free Connection or Fuck Confidelia, depending on whom you ask…”
Maia sounded the m at the end of whom very clearly, trying to put all her frustration at Erin’s holding things up this way into the hum that emerged from her closed lips. It didn’t help.
“That metadata,” she continued, “to which I have a special key that lets me see if anyone is faking it—spoofing—is very hard even to find, even for a cryptoviral nanosec expert. In this case, on this video, I know that it hasn’t been altered and it came from a phone that belongs to a known British Groupe member—a financier named Sebastian Fredricks.”
“We call him Subject Y,” Cynthia put in. “Middle manager. Goes to parties.”
“Where they play Discipline?” Charlotte asked, clearly beginning to follow but still needing a little assistance.
“Apparently,” Sarah said shortly. “Where was he when he sent it?”
“In Paris,” Maia said. “The metadata—the regular metadata, I mean, which he or someone else could easily have spoofed—says the video was taken at Jules Herrier’s chateau.”
“But it could have been anywhere, then,” Erin said, the uncertainty making her voice sound a little frantic.
“Erin,” Sarah said, “that’s technically true, but we have no reason to think it wasn’t taken there, and it being taken there is consistent with everything else, despite the video taking us by surprise. Wild speculation won’t do any good.”
“That’s easy for you to say, I guess,” the First Lady retorted. “You didn’t just see your disappeared best friend strapped to a whipping block on someone’s lawn, screaming for mercy as she has her ass fucked as part of some game, with her disappeared husband nowhere in sight. You didn’t just read a story on Seenit about how the global super-rich are playing kinky sex games and something needs to be done about the Metz administration’s apparent friendliness to a corporation that caters to dominant billionaires.”
Maia swallowed hard, remembering her first sight of the ten-second video. Jessica Logan, just as Erin had described her, getting it in the ass from a dark-haired man who was definitely not Kevin Logan, crying out very ambiguously as she strained against the leather straps of the block to which someone had bound her. All of it happening in a pavilion that anyone who had ever played or witnessed a game of Discipline would recognize as the area where the game’s contests were resolved.
The ancient game, which very few people on Earth had even heard of, beyond the inner circles of the Institute, Selecta, and the Pretorian Guard. Played by the Guard’s enemy and involving a young woman who had vanished with her husband the previous week, on a French vacation that was actually a Guard mission: Jessica Logan, who happened to be Erin Metz’ best friend, and who now seemed a captive of the Groupe Synergistique.
David Mancini wished he could try to infiltrate the chateau himself. He hated having to send a columba—a junior Ostia agent who had only joined the organization six months before—into the lion’s den of Jules Herrier’s impregnable fortress.
True, the chateau looked innocent enough despite its grandeur, but to call what Herrier had done to its sixteenth-century defenses through the magic of technology an upgrade would be like calling what had happened to Paris in the same intervening period a few changes. Paris still felt old, and Herrier’s chateau still looked medieval, but both of them could kill the unwary visitor who failed to discern the lions’ claws.
To put it a good deal less poetically, David thought as he looked across the conference table at his wife Cynthia when she had finished the call with Maia, Charlotte, Sarah, and—he still found himself having trouble believing it—Erin Metz, the girl they had to send into the clutches of the Groupe could very well not emerge alive. Cynthia had made it out, but only because she hadn’t known she was an agent, and hadn’t had a cover to maintain. As Herrier’s concubine, captured and trained for his pleasure, she had only had to behave as the Institute had known she would, allowing the Pretorian Guard to gather intelligence on the activities of the Groupe Synergistique Herrier had founded to oppose the Guard’s nearly invisible dominance of the world’s energy markets.
David himself had received training as a Guard agent before Cynthia even knew she represented an important intelligence asset. Distressed at her disappearance, he had been about to follow her to France on a tip from a friend who had seen her. A visit from the Guard had changed his life: the dominant sexuality he had never felt comfortable expressing suddenly became the thing that would save the girl he loved—not to mention his relationship with her.
He smiled at Cynthia now, beaming genuine confidence into her troubled blue eyes despite his own misgivings about what he felt sure they would have to do. Yes, a girl would have to go into Herrier’s chateau just as Cynthia had done two years before, but though he wished he could try to go himself in place of a new recruit, they would ensure their agent’s safety by whatever means necessary.
“Who is it going to be?” he asked her. The call had ended with action items for each of the women’s teams: David and Cynthia’s had to get eyes inside the chateau as quickly as possible.
David outranked his wife, as far as the making of decisions for their Guard station in Paris went, in close parallel to the way he had taken her firmly in hand where the rest of their marriage was concerned. The unique, parallel organizational structure of the Order of Ostia and the Pretorian Guard, though, meant that Ostia agents did the majority of the communication, leaving Guard agents to evaluate, to assess, and to decide.
David had learned early on that because this framework provided such clarity, he could ask for, and receive, Cynthia’s opinion with genuine frankness: she knew the decision rested with him, and so she felt comfortable advising him honestly. It worked the same way at home, a beautiful thing to which he hoped he would never quite get used. To know that even when Cynthia acted up, the way all submissives did from time to time in his experience, her husband’s firm hand or his stout belt on her bare bottom would remind her of their relative responsibilities, made life seem, very often, a dream of wedded bliss despite their pesky duty to save the world.
Thus he had no qualms about asking Who is it going to be? because he knew Cynthia understood that David wasn’t asking her to make the choice, but to help him make it.
“Barbara Edwards? We know he has a weakness for Americans.”
Cynthia’s smile at her allusion to her own past with Herrier told David that his own confidence had infused her at least a little, despite the crisis that confronted them.
How did Jessica Logan end up inside that chateau? Where the hell is her husband?
David and Cynthia hadn’t even received a courtesy notification about Kevin and Jessica Logan’s presence in their region. In fact, even now after the conference call they didn’t know for sure that the couple, who served as the principal liaison between the Guard on the one hand and Selecta and the Institute on the other, had been in France, or what the fuck they had been up to, wherever they were.
He trusted the Guard’s highest echelons—and Sarah Bennett in particular—enough to think that the organization’s leadership at least felt sure the Logans’ mission didn’t have anything to do with the Groupe. Or, David reflected darkly, maybe that mission had been so sensitive that even the two operatives most concerned with trying to stamp out the Groupe once and for all couldn’t know it, for fear that David and Cynthia might fall into Herrier’s hands themselves.
Now that the Groupe had apparently survived the CIA roll-up the Guard had precipitated the previous year, that kind of secrecy probably only constituted the prudent approach, after all. The reason David couldn’t infiltrate the chateau himself lay in his cover having been thoroughly blown at that stage of Operation Raptor, when they had all thought they had gotten the job done, and they could trust the CIA to take care of the Groupe. David and Cynthia, moles inside the Groupe for a year, had escaped from the chateau with the other Guard operatives just as American intelligence had literally broken down the doors.
But then they had observed, almost entirely helpless, as a single member of the Groupe had gone to prison for fixing a single regional energy market. The Guard hadn’t thought Herrier had enough money or influence to buy the CIA—especially with Andrew Metz in the White House—but they had clearly miscalculated. The various members of the Groupe hadn’t stopped impeding Guard efforts to regulate energy markets and regional administrations in the service of the soft landing, and the situation had only grown more dire for the future of civilization in the past year.
Most galling of all to David and Cynthia, Jules Herrier had remained in his technological fortress southeast of Paris, but with his actions now entirely invisible to the Guard. Worse, although his Groupe still had no accurate idea what the Guard, the Institute, and Selecta had to do with one another or what they intended, no member of the Groupe would ever avail himself of the Institute’s services again. Even if Herrier couldn’t be certain that Cynthia had become an intelligence asset at the world’s premiere training facility for submissive concubines, he could keep his dominant libido in good enough check to acquire his girls elsewhere.
Somewhere, David now had to make sure, the French magnate would find Barbara Edwards, or a girl like her.
He turned to his monitors, on the big worktable he shared with Cynthia in the Operation Raptor control room deep beneath the Ile de la Cite. The Guard’s pretorium and mithraeum dated to the earliest days of Lutetia, but with the revival of the organization in the twentieth century they had expanded far downward, especially during the construction of the Metro lines underneath the Seine.
On a subterranean level three floors deeper even than David and Cynthia, blonde, blue-eyed Barbara lay upon a shelf bed cut from the bedrock and adorned with a goose-down mattress and silken sheets. Her leo had just entered, to enjoy her for the third night of her initiation.
Barbara’s eighteen-year-old body had on its slender limbs, pert chest, and trim hips only the leather by which her master would restrain her for his pleasure—by which he had indeed already restrained her, in order to enjoy her mouth on her first night and her vagina on her second. Tonight he would use the collar, cuffs, and belt to secure her in place as he used her anus for the first time.
Jean Mercator, the leo assigned to train the Guard’s new columba, stood six feet, two inches tall. He wore his hair close cropped, and a neat black beard trimmed in an elegant French style complemented his broad, well-muscled frame so that he looked at the same time like a handsome businessman one might see on the Metro and a menacing, aggression-prone spy from a Euro spy thriller.
David hit the mute button in the corner of the window that showed him the scene in Barbara’s cell. She had risen to a sitting position on the stone bed, pulling the covers up to her neck.
“You know you aren’t permitted to hide your body, columba,” Jean said in lightly accented English. “Drop those covers right now, or you know what will happen.”
Barbara’s eyes went wide. She did know, because she had received a whipping from Jean at her recruitment interview, when Cynthia had called him in to deal with Barbara’s rebelliousness.
Like most Ostia girls, Barbara had answered an advertisement for aspiring models who were curious about kinky fashion and willing to travel outside their comfort zone. Cynthia, as her recruitment officer, had made the girl aware very quickly that what Barbara supposed was a modeling agency with a bit of escort service on the side would demand a journey well outside her comfort zone, and Barbara, rising to the challenge, had signed the astonishingly broad release form that gave the Ostia Agency the right to demand her naked service.
The Ostia recruitment process didn’t actually rely on the permission given by the release. Barbara Edwards had seen the ad because an artificially intelligent cyber-agent developed by the Institute had seen her tickets from Baltimore to Paris, her age, and her gender, and had begun to scrape her social media feed. Finding certain important indicators that Barbara harbored hitherto-repressed submissive desires, it had passed the girl’s growing dossier on to the Guard’s Paris pretorium.
There Cynthia had given the cyber-agent the go-ahead to serve the ad to Barbara, whose response—not merely her tapping it but also the very speed at which she had moved the cursor, since the cyber-agent had also installed tracking software on her phone—had told Cynthia how to proceed. Not every approach worked with every submissive girl, but Barbara, the data said, like many other such girls, would rise to a challenge. She would sign the release if Cynthia made her feel like her adventurous spirit had come into question.
The release itself, as a legal document, didn’t matter at all. What mattered was Barbara knowing she had signed it. It gave her mind and heart and pussy the room her Ostia recruiter and her Guard trainer needed, to begin her initiation.
“Do I have to get the mastix, Barbara?” Jean asked softly.
The girl gave a little cry. Her hands clutched convulsively at the red silk sheet.
“Please…” she whispered, and then remembered the beginning of her training. “Please, leo.”
She lowered the sheet, past her nipples, her blue eyes fixed on Jean’s chocolate-brown ones.
“Further, columba,” he said. “I want to see the cunt I fucked yesterday.”
Barbara shuddered. Her eyes darted to the wooden stand, prominently placed in her initiation cell, next to the posts where her trainer had tied her, to take her virginities on the previous two nights. There hung the mastix, the Guard’s most traditional means of correction: a nine-tailed whip with braided and knotted leather lashes attached to a polished wooden handle.
Jean had dangled the tails of the mastix over her bottom, her pussy, and her breasts, so Barbara could feel them, on the first night of her initiation. When he had punished her in Cynthia’s office, a much more conventional place of business on the third floor of the Second Empire building far under which Barbara now had to display her already well-fucked pussy, her trainer had used a punishment strap. Never having felt the mastix used in correction, Barbara feared it terribly, just as she should.
“She’s not perfect,” Cynthia said, drawing her husband’s eyes away from the arresting scene in the initiation cell, “but she’s definitely the best we have on hand. And we need to get moving.”
David nodded. “Agreed.” He tapped a key. “Jean?”
On his screen, Jean tapped his chin to indicate he heard David through his implanted comm device. He had advanced a step toward Barbara, and at the same time he acknowledged David’s voice he reached down with his other hand to rip the sheet smoothly away from the girl’s grasp.
“You’re prepping Barbara for immediate placement. I know it’s not ideal, but try to get that started tonight.”
He toggled off the comm, and turned back to Cynthia.
“We need something else, I think. Both to help Barbara and in case she gets into trouble.”
Cynthia nodded, her brow creasing. “What about Jenny Granby?”
David felt his eyebrows go up. He couldn’t suppress a thrill of pride at Cynthia’s astute suggestion, and a fleeting glimpse of possibly foolish hope that maybe they could get this done after all. He could see a great many obstacles in the way, though, so he tried to look more pessimistic than he felt as he nodded back at his wife.
“Possibly. Get in touch with Sarah and ask?”
“Of course,” Cynthia responded.
On David’s screen, Jean had taken out his leash and begun to move with it toward Barbara, who again cowered back against the stone wall of her cell.