They had gathered there at the Mouth of Heaven, the dozen of them. High Mother with that ridiculously oversized headpiece she so often wore, as if in denial that the Second Age had ended, or that her husband had died, his reign over. Sistra and Brac standing next to her looking just as pompous and imperious as their mother. Flanking them were the nine sniveling, groveling first women of the petty nobles, now paupers in everything but name, though they’d yet to realize it, as Quaia had.
High Mother turned and the whole entourage turned with her, looking up at Quaia who stood proudly on the top step of the great staircase. Their ridiculous dresses swished and shuffled around them as they spun, relics of the age they clung to. “Well, come down, girl,” High Mother said, motioning at Quaia to descend the steps. “The sail ship has just come into view. Dither and you’ll miss the docking and not know what’s in store for you.”
The petty noblewomen started tittering and whispering around her, sneering at Quaia in that mean-spirited way they’d perfected after all these seasons.
She held her head high and set one dainty, bare foot in front of the other as she began descending the stairs. Her feet were freezing, and her mind was numb from how preposterous it all was. They’d lost nearly everything, and still they performed these rituals of decadence as if nothing had changed. As if they still had any wealth or power, or held any sway in this corner of the galaxy that had fallen dark when that great beacon Zora had flickered out.
The silky shift brushed across her skin as she moved. Touching those sensitive parts of her normally protected by her undergarments, now bare and feeling quite exposed save for the sheer fabric surrounding her. She didn’t like the way the garment made her feel. She’d choose a jumpsuit over a frilly dress any day of the cycle. Thick and padded, protection not just against the dark void but against the leering eyes of males. The shift pronounced all the curves the jumpsuit smoothed. Her bust felt like it was bared, and her bottom, too.
And effectively they were. For good reason.
Two of the first women at the end of the line glared at her, jealous daggers shooting from their eyes. If there were a mechanism to let them take her place she would have gladly used it. But she knew full well their jealousy was not just about her appearance, her pretty face and well-proportioned body, but at the fact it was her Ripening and not theirs. Even their twice daily rounds of aquaia treatments couldn’t mask the creeping wrinkles at the corners of their eyes, and that made them resentful beyond repair.
She straightened her back and stood a little taller when she reached the bottom landing. It was a small consolation, but their angry jealousy at her natural charms, her youth, pleased her. These women of high birth and petty spirits coveted what they could never again have: potential. It soured her mood even more knowing she was indulging the same low feelings she resented in them. But they were all in this spectacular farce together so, as the saying went, when in Horonimus…
“You’ve grown to quite a shape,” High Mother said, raking her judgmental gaze down Quaia’s frame.
“More plump than I remember,” Sistra quipped next to her.
“Silence!” High Mother snapped, casting a scornful look at the woman.
Sistra, duly chastened, stared at the pointy tips of her shoes, her cheeks burning with embarrassment. She’d take out her anger on Quaia at the first opportunity. For the time being, Quaia enjoyed seeing her scolded and silenced.
“Come, Quaia,” High Mother said, stepping to one side and waving a hand toward the Mouth, that great, curved opening at the peak of the station that looked out into the great black void beyond. Once kept so clean and polished, so transparent, now covered in a greasy grime in spots. The crack running from the upper left corner down into the center was too expensive to be repaired. The stazens that had kept it in pristine condition had long departed for greener pastures. And High Mother was still pretending it was a monument to their privilege and not the testament to their misery that it was.
Quaia stepped forward until she was standing two bastions away from the glass wall and looked out into the gaping maw of nothingness beyond. In the distance she could just make out the heavy solar sail of the Andomocles. The body of the ship stretched out beyond the sail. A long, thick tube of silicone and steel dotted with portholes that sparkled with the light from within. The ship that carried Goethen, her soon to be trainer, his crew, and Quaia’s destiny.
“You strike quite a proud pose for a middle-born,” High Mother said. The women at her back began to giggle and this time High Mother said nothing to stop them. Only smiled with those leathery, tortoise-like lips at her own tasteless remark.
Quaia bore the insult with as bored an expression as she could muster. She had no patience for pseudo-regal snobbery. Soon she’d be back at the helm of the Silent Falcon speeding through the long, deep dark while High Mother would be stuck on the station mucking about in miserable loneliness and pretending she was still rich or relevant to anyone.
The solar sail began to furl, the Andomocles gliding silently toward the station on its fading momentum alone. An ugly, phallic totem, its tip pointed at the docking port, it would soon couple with the station and disgorge its cargo of pretentious aristocrats.
“You see the way it sails?” High Mother asked in a feverish whisper.
Quaia resisted the urge to roll her eyes. The old crow was still in the thrall of a power that had long since passed and the rituals they kept as a bulwark against how utterly unnecessary they all were.
“Strong and silent through the quiet night. What grace. What splendor. There could be no metaphor more fitting for its purpose.”
Quaia bristled at the reminder of why they were all gathered here in the first place. She’d dreaded this day since she’d first learned it was coming. But each bit of petty snark, each casual cruelty doled out by a petty noble had steeled her resolve to not just endure, but triumph over this depraved occasion, and with her dignity intact. “It is a sight,” she remarked, trying to sound as bored as she looked.
“It is a sight indeed,” High Mother said, chuckling. “Soon to be far more than just that. You’ve not forgotten, have you, Quaia, to what business the Andomocles comes to attend?” The question was, of course, meant as a barb and not a serious line of inquiry.
But Quaia couldn’t resist the opening. She tipped her head back, holding her chin a little higher, and looked down her nose at the transport. “How could I possibly have done?” she asked. “I’m reminded with snickering whispers each time I pass a pettyw’omn in the gangway.”
The gasps behind her pleased her greatly, but she resisted the urge to smile. She blushed at the sharp crack of High Mother’s morning wand on her rear, but didn’t flinch. It was expected payment for her transgression and, in a way, brought her just as much pleasure as the outrage behind her. That the old crow had to resort to violence in the face of wit only highlighted how she was a slave to her own narcissistic rage.
“You’d do well to mind your betters and keep that grease-grunt language out of your mouth and in the hold while you’re here,” High Mother seethed.
When Quaia didn’t react to the chastisement with the expected submissive bow, she heard the morning wand whistling through the air, then felt it connecting with her behind again. This time she permitted herself a smile, though the whipping stung like flesh ants. She turned and looked High Mother straight in the eyes. “I thank you for that admonishment,” she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “Forgive me for forgetting in whose company I stand.”
High Mother’s jaw jutted out and her eyes burned with anger. “You prideful little slut,” she spat. “Rest assured that Goethen will wipe that smirk off your face by whipping your ass hard enough you won’t walk straight for a cycle.”
Quaia turned to look out the Mouth again. Diverting her attention before it was properly dismissed only enraged High Mother further.
“I’ve no doubt you’re used to spreading your loins for whichever grunt drags you into the brig. You’ve quite a shock coming, Quaia. As you’re soon to find out, Goethen has no interest or care about your pleasure. His mastery of you will come from discipline and discipline alone. And I doubt you’ll find much to smile at under the sting of his crop.” Obviously still unsatisfied by Quaia’s reaction, she punctuated her statement with a final, harsh smack, this time on the thighs.
The strike was painful enough that it brought a tear to Quaia’s eye. She managed to blink it away before it rolled down her cheek. “It is certain you are right,” she replied, finally bowing her head to end the stalemate.
It was certain she was not. Never having spread her loins for anyone, the insult meant nothing to her.
After a few more moments of glaring, High Mother turned to stare out the Mouth again.
The Andomocles had reached the entrance of the docking port. They all watched as its snout disappeared beneath them, the station swallowing it and closing around it, stilling its forward motion. They felt a tug of gravity as the station absorbed the remaining momentum.
High Mother turned to glare at Quaia again. “I shall take great pleasure at watching your impertinence whipped out of you,” she said quietly. “May you endure your Ripening with grace and dignity.” She turned and whipped out the extension on her morning wand, leaning on it as she walked toward the staircase.
Quaia closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The old bitch could squawk all she wanted about impertinence and minding betters. When the moment came, when the crop bit into the soft flesh of her rear, Quaia would not give her the pleasure of a single wince or teary eye.
She’d been steeling herself for this day for seasons. Her Ripening would come, and it would pass. And when it passed she would be a freedw’omn, her obligations to the station dissolved along with what little authority High Mother had over her now. The Silent Falcon had been stocked and fueled, its bow pointing toward the entrance of the hangar and all the potential of the vast blackness beyond.
She heard the doors at the top of the great staircase hiss open. The swishing and shuffling of the dresses stopped. She opened her eyes at the sudden, unexpected silence. Her eyes opened wider at the realization that there had been no fanfare, no great proclamation of Goethen’s arrival and there were no minstrels playing now.
“What is the meaning of this?” High Mother asked, her voice even haughtier than usual.
Heavy footsteps clattered down the steps. Not the soft treading of expected aristocrats at all. Sounded more like an infantry battalion thudding down with guns drawn. Unable to resist her curiosity and momentarily forgetting her resolve, Quaia glanced over her shoulder and drew in a sharp breath.
Two dozen men of the Imperator’s Own were thundering down the steps led by a tall, broad-shouldered Voklish male in a captain’s uniform. His hawkish eyes and brow were tempered by softer features than were normal for a Vokl. High, round cheekbones, an aquiline nose and a strong jaw, with mass of burly beard that looked like that of a barbaric human. Fur emerged from beneath the cuffs of his uniform. He stopped in front of High Mother and performed the usual salute, an arm stretching diagonally across his chest and then a sharp bow. “Captain Sten Torian,” he said, his voice practically a shout.
“What is this?” High Mother balked. “Where is Goethen? Where are the nobles? This is a high feast of Ripening and not some brutish assault!” She punctuated by stamping her extended morning wand against the floor. “By what authority do you board this station and come trampling in here like a herd of muffalos?”
The captain glanced sideways at his lieutenant, who stiffened, staring off at some point far in the distance. “Was the communique not sent?” he asked.
“Sir! The communique was sent, sir! As instructed, sir! Three cycles past!” the lieutenant barked.
Quaia couldn’t resist turning to look at the unfolding drama. She thought she saw High Mother trembling as her rage took hold. Next to her Sistra turned a bright shade of red, her eyes opening melon-wide. This afforded her a clearer glance at the captain. He was two heads taller than she, his impressive physique obviously hardened by seasons of service. Out the cuffs of his uniform she saw the usual tufts of dark fur the Vokl wore as tribute to their ancient, warring heritage. His presence was imposing. More to the point it caused a very curious feeling to flutter in her middle, just above her core. For a moment her heart soared with the hope that this misunderstanding might result in her Ripening being canceled.
Praise the Sun.
The captain looked from his lieutenant back to High Mother. “At the Imperator’s wish it has been written. The high priests have been absolved of their ritual duties after an… incident. The commission has imposed their mandate on me.”
“Incident? What?” High Mother squawked. She turned and glared at all the entourage, her fist shaking with rage at her side. “Why was I not told?” she bellowed.
Sistra did her best to shrink at her side.
“You,” High Mother barked. “With your red face and your wide eyes. What do you know of this?”
A fat tear rolled down Sistra’s cheek.
The captain eyed her with his stern gaze.
“High Mother,” Sistra whimpered. “I beg your forgiveness. I beg your mercy…”
“Stop begging and out with the truth!” High Mother roared, shaking her morning wand above Sistra’s head.
“I… I acknowledged receipt of… of the communique,” she said, eyes glued to her feet.
“And then why did you not tell me?”
A slight smirk formed on Quaia’s face at seeing Sistra on the receiving end of High Mother’s scorn and fury.
“I thought… I thought it was a mere formality. A mere confirmation that the Ripening was to proceed. I… I did not read it.”
Quaia nearly felt a pang of sympathy for Sistra. With High Mother quaking in front of her, obviously about to unleash a humiliating punishment and in front of the whole assembly of clucking pettyw’omn, too. To her surprise, High Mother got control of her trembling hands, stood up as straight and tall as she was able at one hundred and seven seasons, and stared down her nose at Sistra. “Bend your back and lift your skirts,” she muttered through pursed lips.
Sistra’s eyes darted to the coterie of men standing on the great staircase, then to High Mother’s entourage behind her. “High Mother, please,” she whispered. “Please, not here?”
“I said bend your back and lift your skirts. Or I’ll have the captain do it for you if you so wish.”
Sistra swallowed and wiped a tear from the corner of her eye. Her face went pale as she realized the hopelessness of her situation and the coming humiliation. She bent at the waist, put her hands behind her back and lifted the heavy skirts, putting her equally frilly undergarments on display for all to see. Then she bent forward further, baring her rear even more prominently and giving everyone a glimpse of the soft, pink folds nesting beneath it covered in a pale and downy hair.
Predictably, her companions began to titter at the sight.
“Silence!” High Mother raged.
The women quieted.
High Mother hooked the crook of her morning wand into Sistra’s underthings and yanked them down her thighs.
The guardsmen on the stairs kept their eyes high and straight ahead, though it seemed to take great effort. Quaia was more interested in the reaction of Captain… Torian, was it? His jaw shifted in distaste beneath his beard.
High Mother’s wand whistled through the air and landed with a crack against Sistra’s bottom cheeks. Almost immediately a large, red welt began to form. This was repeated six more times in keeping with High Mother’s great devotion to the Seven Suns of Punishment.
Sistra, to her credit, took her discipline with unexpected stoicism. But when the final blow had been struck, and the wand pulled away from her rear, it was clear to all who cared to look that the lips of her womanhood had engorged and wetted. They glistened with the clear sheen of her arousal even as her face continued to burn in shame.
High Mother whipped the morning wand again, retracting the extension she used as a cane. She turned to Captain Torian with her chin jutting out. “So then what next?” she demanded.
“Is this the maiden?” he asked, nodding at Sistra who was fumbling with her underwear, trying to get it up her thighs.
“The maiden is over there,” High Mother replied, pointing a crooked finger toward Quaia standing by the Mouth.
Quaia stiffened as the captain’s eyes wandered her way. That funny feeling, that ticklish sensation formed in her stomach again as his gaze came to rest on her. All her practiced dignity evaporated and suddenly she felt more helpless and exposed than she ever had. Trying to stand straight and proud felt awkward and put on. Still she held her chin high.
The captain stepped around Sistra and walked briskly to where she was standing, his heavy boots clacking on the polished floor. “And what is your name, if I may ask?” He stared directly into her eyes, either not distracted by, or too professional to let them wander down, her scantily clad body.
“Quaia Sangsen,” Quaia replied.
He threw another salute and bow before standing up to tower over her again. “Captain Torian of the Imperator Guard.” He looked at her for a moment. “You’ve been expecting this day, no doubt?”
“I have,” she said, unable to keep a wryness out of her voice.
“Then I hope it won’t come as too much of a disappointment that the protocols have changed somewhat.” He raised his voice so that all could hear. His tone, almost polite toward Quaia, hardened into an authoritative condescension that must have made High Mother’s temper flare.
Quaia, suddenly feeling as if under a trance, looked back at him in muted confusion, and her mouth fell open. The captain at a distance was imposing. The captain this close was terrifying in an unexpectedly delightful way.
He continued to look at her, while High Mother began to sputter.
“I asked you a question.” It was his voice, his lips moving. “The protocols have changed. I hope you will not be disappointed by the change.”
She was obviously expected to speak. “I… hope not?” she said quietly, totally confused.
High Mother was now yelling, but the sound came to Quaia as though through leagues of water in the storage tanks. The only thing she could process was the Vokl in front of her, who had somehow caused her heart to begin beating furiously and confusion to reign in her mind.
And everyone else’s. High Mother’s distorted warblings were still being emitted, next to Quaia’s ear. But they didn’t pierce the bubble that had enveloped the captain and Quaia.
Unexpected, she thought.
And what the Suns did it mean? Where was Goethen?
Nothing at all had transpired, even if it had felt like seven years since the answer to her question, seven years of the Vokl staring at her with his peculiar, unreadable eyes. Her heart flipped and a cool feeling she didn’t recognize at all moved in her abdomen.
“Then we shall get started,” he said, his voice calm but loud enough to dwarf the incessant protestations of High Mother. For a fleeting moment, his eyes raked down Quaia’s frame, and she almost felt as if he had touched her as he did so.
She quivered. His arm shot out to the side, his eyes never leaving hers.
“Quiet that woman!” he ordered.
Quaia’s mouth fell open, but she couldn’t suppress the smile that turned the corners up as the guards accompanying this strange Vokl stomped toward High Mother.
Who, it turned out, had some sense after all because she fell silent.
“Please,” the captain said. “Let us convene in the Great Room.”
“What protocols? What change? What incident? This is not a military matter! This is a rite of faith!” High Mother railed. She shuffled along the floor toward the captain and Quaia.
“I am not at liberty to discuss those details, Madame,” the captain explained. “You would have found everything you are allowed to know in the communique. I can say that the Imperator’s wish is that the Ripening be brought in line with the more scientific approach his glorious Excellency has applied to other aspects of the Federation’s rule.”
Quaia was staring at him. High Mother’s histrionics had no effect on him, and he obviously feared her in no way. Yet he remained calm, almost… polite, as if he were providing a service to her and wished to have her return patronage.
Quaia, for her part, was still reeling from the news. For seasons on end, she had been dreading this day. She had prepared herself mentally for the humiliating, debauched Ripening, under the guidance of the deranged maniac Goethen.
But Goethen was not here. In his place was a Vokl, saying the old-fashioned ritual was to be more… scientific?
“Scientific?” High Mother crowed, as if reading Quaia’s thoughts. “This is an article of faith! A holy passage! What next? Are we to measure a woman’s coming of age in quidbits? No bards? No minstrels? Just you and your unholy conglomerate of brutes to help us welcome a woman’s coming time? Blasphemy!” she raged.
The captain gave each finger of his gloves a sharp tug, removed both, folded them neatly, and pressed them into the chest pocket of his blazer. He cast a skeptical gaze at High Mother. “Due respect, Madame, of course. But the Second Age has passed. Your husband, glorious be his memory, is no longer principal in this Federation. This is a new time now. You are welcome to lodge grievance with the commission if you please. But my instinct would be to keep your concerns to yourself and let us do our work. We are here at the Imperator’s behest. Any quarrel with us is a quarrel with him.”
He glanced around the great room, straight at High Mother’s pretentious headdress, then up at the Mouth of Heaven in all its soiled gloom and seemed to quickly surmise the situation. “And, if you’ll pardon my candor, it would seem to me that you are somewhat… dated in your understanding of the direction in which the Federation is headed. You may see a priest or two yet for a station blessing or some such. But there will be no feast or wandering quorilinist to celebrate the puncture of a maidenhead.”
High Mother’s chest puffed out and her jowls shook at the captain. “How dare you…” she sputtered, eyeing his uniform up and down.
Quaia, faint from all the talk of science and measurements and maiden’s heads, and lightheaded from the lifting of Goethen’s awful presence at her Ripening, nonetheless had a giddy moment at seeing High Mother so humiliated.
“I am of the House Avaria! A Sister of the Second Order!” High Mother screamed.
The captain stood stock still, staring her right in the eye and looking like he had every intention of waiting out the tantrum.
Two of the first women caught each other’s eye. They exchanged looks of great concern before shuffling from the flanks of the procession and toward High Mother. They both gave a slight curtsy to the captain, who responded with a polite nod and tight smile. They came to stand next to High Mother and one leaned in to whisper in her ear.
Quaia’s giddiness surged at what she thought was, surely, a timeless act that had played out with each changing cycle of power in the Federation. Two women who, while not all that bright, were clever enough to understand that Torian’s man was now Imperator and, thus, their benefactor and not the other way around. Whatever delusions of grandeur High Mother still harbored seemed to be quickly and efficiently shattered by the captain. They were all at the mercy of his charity. It took some time for the two women to quiet High Mother down.
Quaia would have given her other arm to know what whispered truths passed between their pretty lips and High Mother’s weathered ears. The pleasure at seeing her rage deflate, at watching her step into the light of realization of her own helplessness, was sinful. Watching the crooked smile she forced at the captain was like arranging a fresh summer cherry on a clotted cake.
As the two women returned to their places in the line, High Mother arranged herself and her back stiffened. “Forgive my outburst, Captain,” she said quietly, her voice gargling with age. “I have had a heavy time grieving my husband. This unexpected change, obviously, took me by surprise.” She glanced back at her entourage.
All took this as a cue to nod and lower their heads thus enabling the old crone’s inexcusable behavior.
She would not be long in the Crow’s Nest, her quarters at the top of the station, Quaia thought. Not once the infighting about succession began. She took no pleasure in that knowledge because she’d always abhorred violence but that was normally how these things ended.
The captain’s eyes moved to Quaia, and she felt like they hardened into an intense displeasure. It cooled her entire body, but she was resolved to face Goethen, so if this guy thought he could intimidate her, he should have put on more of a freakish ghoul act. She tipped her chin up slightly and looked away, as though something more interesting had caught her attention.
But she could still feel his eyes on her, burning through her skin.
Perhaps this was not an ideal substitution.
On the bright side, Quaia was certain his stark, military manner was equally enraging to High Mother who was used to the floral orations of aristocrats. It was quite a pleasure watching her struggle to hold her tongue.
The ruckus died down in spurts and then faded to titters, then ultimately silence, because the captain simply waited for it to do so, with his steely, unreadable affect.
“With that out of the way,” the captain said, once the silence had become uncomfortable, “his Excellency the Imperator asked that I extend you the courtesy of attending the first part of the proceedings as an audience. There will be little of the pomp and fanfare you are used to, I’m afraid. But as a gesture of goodwill, you may watch if you please.”
High Mother’s eyes filled with rage again. The captain merely shifted his gaze to her, however, and she dissolved into a weak mess.
Quaia watched the rage melt with pleasure as it ran headfirst into the sanitizing sunlight of reality. Whatever power High Mother had possessed had passed. Her time was over now, and her duty was to obey the new seat of power. It was exquisitely pleasing to watch this play out on her face.
The pleasure was short lived.
The captain raised his hand, snapped his fingers, and broke into a brisk stride toward her. His men and women in uniform burst into action. Half of them mounted the stairs and quickly returned with large trunks painted in military grays and greens. The rest began to arrange furniture against the walls, clearing a wide space at the center of the room.
Quaia watched it all executed with such efficiency and precision it looked as choreographed as a Balongian harvest dance. Which was a bit terrifying. She was suddenly uncertain that any great change was in store for her.
Oh, well, she thought. She’d been steeling herself for this moment for seasons. It didn’t seem in imminent danger of becoming any worse than what she had been expecting.
Torian came to stand directly in front of her, blocking her view of the rest of the chamber. Expecting him to do something, Quaia looked back at him, but he gazed into her eyes long enough for a hot blush to rise to her cheeks. She saw his eyes glance down, briefly, to her scantily covered body, lingering just a little on the bits so shamefully exposed. When his eyes rose back to hers, her heart started to beat faster.
She’d never met a man, or alien, who’d had an effect like this on her. Even more disconcerting was the not-so-gentle pull she felt toward him. As if he possessed a gravity far greater than his size allowed. Her mouth went dry and her palms a little damp.
“Have you had a man inside you?” he asked abruptly.
Audible gasps sounded from behind him. The first women, used to the puff-chested ceremonies of Goethen’s Ripenings, were obviously astonished by the lewd, direct query.
Quaia’s face blushed hotter, and a profound shame worked through her torso, deep into her belly. Somehow managing to keep her composure, she stared straight into Torian’s eyes.
“I have not,” she whispered.
He held her gaze for an uncomfortably long time again. Behind him his underlings bustled, unlatching and opening the great trunks, pulling out foldable tables and apparatus before removing the trunks to one corner of the room, saluting, then standing at attention to await their next order.
Nerves fluttered in her belly. The chamber had fallen eerily silent, High Mother and her entourage now seated in the chairs lined up by the wall. She glanced at them to see High Mother holding her nose disdainfully high and looking straight ahead, obviously still humiliated by the dressing down Captain Torian had given her in front of the others. Suddenly that seemed less pleasing than it had moments ago.
Before the Andomocles had docked she’d felt dread, and hadn’t expected things to get any better. The impending ceremony, and all the ways she might be shamed and humiliated, though, were known to her.
The uncertainty of not knowing what, exactly, the captain was going to do to her now felt —surprisingly—far worse. It twisted into a heavy discomfort at the very bottom of her guts.
Captain Torian raised his hand and snapped his fingers once more. Two of his lesser aides came bounding up to stand on either side of him. He locked eyes with Quaia again.
“Remove her robe,” he said quietly.
The aides stepped briskly forward. Both put a hand on each of Quaia’s shoulders and the one on her right pulled apart the back of the shift she was wearing. This exposed her back and bare bottom to the chamber, though thankfully she was facing forward so no one was able to see. It was when the aides pulled the robe away from her body that she felt the full weight of the humiliating spectacle descend on her.
She did her best to keep her poise. Standing tall and staring straight ahead even though she could feel the gazes of the first women and High Mother searing into her flesh. The reaction was immediate and unexpected: her nipples hardened, becoming so tight they almost ached. A hint of moisture seeped from her sex, dampening the soft folds of her core.
Captain Torian stepped to one side, revealing the full arsenal of equipment that had been arranged behind him.
Quaia gasped. Momentarily forgetting about her own nudity, she gazed at the tables, filled with neatly arranged implements. Her eyes came to rest on the most bizarre and formidable-looking contraption, what looked to be some sort of examination bench with a padded center and arm and leg rests protruding out from that. It rested on a swiveling dais. The most disquieting thing about it was the straps that dangled from the ends. Straps obviously meant to hold the subject lying on it in place.
“Kindly escort the maiden to the examination table,” Captain Torian said to his aides.
Each took her by the wrist and led her toward the contraption.
She glanced nervously side to side at them. Their expressions were as stoic as the captain’s, and they seemed intent on following every order he gave without question. Realizing she had little choice, she allowed them to guide her toward the seat.
Torian’s eyes fell to her womanhood. His expression remained unchanged, but it almost threw Quaia off her game to see him looking at her. Not a single man had ever seen her in this vulnerable a state. She steeled herself against a deepening humiliation. What occurred instead was most puzzling.
The heaviness in her stomach vanished. It was replaced by that same fluttering, nervous feeling she’d had earlier. A titillating tingling that sank between her legs and drew more moisture from her body. When Torian stepped forward, she drew in a breath and held it, her lip trembling nervously as he walked around the platform on which she was perched.
He held out a hand, as if they were some ancient couple going on a ‘date.’ Confused, she took it anyway, more out of curiosity than anything else. His hand was large, and strength coiled in his unusual fingers. She almost felt as if she’d been shocked by him. An electric tremor ran up the length of her arm and across her back.
But this was no romantic date: it was an examination before the entire court. Nothing had really changed about any of this, just that the Vokl running it was much better looking, and better mannered than Goethen.
He guided her to sit down, which she did. She looked straight ahead as he gently placed her ankles in the stirrups and fastened the straps, holding her legs open and spread wide. She shifted in the seat, reverting to her original plan: she was going to pretend like none of this affected her one way or the other.
The Vokl’s eyes met hers after he fastened the final strap around her wrist. “It’s not too tight?” he asked her.
Quaia stared back at him, unable to respond for a moment. Her eyes went to her arm, where his fingers still rested in the strap, so close to her skin. “I…” she began. Then she shook her head, feeling like an idiot. She had no idea how to respond.
He smiled, and she thought she heard him say, “Good,” before moving to the center of the platform and speaking so that everyone could hear.
Looking sideways at her, he gestured to an aide. “Turn the subject so our guests might have a clear view of her,” he said.
She gasped as the aide swiveled the platform, turning her until her splayed legs were facing in the direction of High Mother and the entourage. A wave of humiliation crashed over her as she saw a crooked smile form on High Mother’s lips.
Torian held out a hand. “The cleansing instrument, if you please,” he said quietly.
She glanced nervously to the side as the indicated aide shuffled to one of the tables. He picked up a long and narrow syringe, to which was attached a silicone tube and marched it over to Torian, saluting as he handed him the implement.
Torian held it up against the light and tapped it a few times with his fingers before walking between her legs and setting it a few lengths from her bottom. Holding his hands behind his back, he turned to face the entourage. He took a few steps toward them, the women rearranging themselves in their seats and glancing nervously at each other. “Kind and gentle women,” he intoned. “It is my understanding that your celebrations of the Ripenings here on the station were… somewhat… of a drunken, festive occasion.”
A chorus of gasps and giggles sounded from the assembled women until High Mother quieted them with a hiss.
Torian, his expression somewhat grim, turned to one side and strode three paces before turning back to face them again. “As I have mentioned, his Excellency would prefer to treat this rite of passage as a more clinical endeavor. Certainly, this young maiden,” he said, waving a hand toward Quaia, “must have the opportunity to mark her coming of age. A memory to anchor her, should a suitable mate decide to take her for his own. A ceremony to mark the end of one journey and the beginning of another. I invite you now to witness her cleansing. Rest assured that the rest of her induction into her sexual awakening will be thorough and intimate. That, however, you will not be invited to witness.”
High Mother scoffed and shook her head before falling into a lengthy muttered rambling.
“After the cleansing has been completed I will retire to my ship with the woman Sangsen and complete the rest of her training myself. In private. You are free to celebrate as you wish. My stay will not be long, and I will have her back in your care in far less time than the old tradition required.”
Quaia’s belly squeezed at what he’d said. Though she was exposed, bared fully to the audience in front of her, that did not quell the excitement that began to bubble deep within her. She searched for its source in her mind and came up nearly empty. Before Torian had set foot in the great chamber, this had been nothing more than an exercise in patience and grit. Now, thinking of retiring to the Andomocles under his care was causing her skin to prickle and her heart to skip.
She stared at him as he paced back and forth. Powerful. Handsome, too, yes. She couldn’t ignore that fact. He exuded that commanding calm of a strong leader and a no-nonsense air that made him even more appealing.
Her thighs stiffened as he stepped between her legs, her body’s instinct kicking in to protect her softest parts both from his touch as well as his gaze. She no longer cared about High Mother, or Sistra, or Brac, or what any of them thought of her. Her sole concern was Torian. Torian who made her weak at the knees with just a glance. Torian who seemed unmoved by her bared body. Torian whom, suddenly, she felt a deep need to impress.
He lifted the syringe with its long-pointed tip and tapped it with a finger again. He lowered it between her legs, then looked up and stared deep into her eyes. “If you relax it will be easier,” he said.
Her body trembled as she felt the back of his hand brush against the inside of her thigh. She gasped when she felt the tip of the implement press against her bottom. As he slid it slowly in, she wasn’t able to suppress the mewl that escaped her lips.
There was nothing new about this, she told herself. This was the way it was always done, and from what Torian had said, this was the final public humiliation to be endured. She would remain stoic about it just like she planned, and get out of here as fast as she could once it was all over.
She could not have expected that when the warm liquid began to fill her, her exposed pussy would weep moisture the way that it did, and quiver with excitement. As the liquid in her ass began to expand in her dirtiest cavity, the full sensation only made it worse for her. Though she tried not to look at the faces in front of her—she had planned for this, and trained herself to look at the space just above their heads—she still caught glimpses of them. They watched with smug sneers, obvious titillation, and clear enjoyment. It was obvious they could see for themselves how her body was responding.
Whatever, she thought. It was this, and then on to private humiliation with Torian—her stomach flopped—and she was out of here.
She set her face into a stony, disaffected glare, and endured the remainder of the treatment.