Down the hallway waited a line of men and women attired in red tunics with white trim. Handler beckoned to a stocky man a few years older than Mella. "Abel. This one prepare for auction today."
"Yes, Handler. Full prep?" The way Abel's full lips curved into a pleased smile made Mella's heart sink.
"No skills has she. Full prep."
The first room Abel took her to held a huge open shower. "Strip. Leave your clothing on the bench. Clean yourself." He leaned against the wall and crossed his arms.
He planned to watch her? Her hands went cold. "I can shower alone," she said, lifting her chin and giving him a frosty look. "Go outside."
"Doesn't work that way, girl," he said. "Get used to it, and fast."
She glared at him.
"You know why Handler picked me to process you?"
She shook her head, too angry and too scared to speak.
"Because the sooner you get used to a man's look--and touch--the better."
Even though she'd known something like this would happen, she felt the blood leaving her head. No one had seen her naked since she was a child.
"Strip and shower." He touched the three-foot metal rod hanging from his belt. "Next time you disobey, I'll use this." His eyes brightened, as if the thought of hitting her pleased him.
She had no choice. Mouth tight, she turned her back to him. After ensuring the monster's last message to her was safely buttoned in a pocket, she pulled her clothing off. Naked, she walked into the shower, and the spray came on. His gaze made her skin crawl. A dispenser slid out of the wall, and she used the unscented soap. Quickly. She ignored how good the warm water felt. Maybe if she stank, she'd go to the mines and not some whorehouse.
"Enough. This is just to get you clean for the doctor's exam." The man jerked his head toward a small cubicle. When she stepped in, warm air blew out of numerous jets, drying her body. Her wet hair tangled over her shoulders when he pulled her back out. Naked.
"Next stop, the doctor."
"What about my clothes?"
"You'll get them back after your indenture is up." He grinned, his gaze running up and down her body. "Slaves wear clothing provided by their owners. You have no owner yet, so no clothes."
But...the holocard. Her proof of Nathan's guilt. Her fingers twitched, and then she crossed her arms over her bare chest. Perhaps it would be safer here, locked away. Who knew what might happen to her belongings once someone bought her? "I understand." Resigned, she followed Abel down a long hallway.
As Mella stared at the stained wall, a female physician examined her, poking fingers into her mouth, checking her heart and lungs, and examining her private areas as if she were an animal. After using a small scanner, the doctor passed her back to Abel, saying, "No disease. Healthy and strong, if a bit undernourished. Not a virgin. No pregnancies. The report for the buyer will be ready in a few minutes."
And my teeth are fine.
Abel nodded, grasping Mella's upper arm. When his fingers brushed the side of her breast, she tried to step back. "Nope, don't bother, girl. Each time you flinch away, I'll touch you more." Still holding her arm, he ran his hand over her bare breasts.
Horror streaking through her, she gasped and hit him in the face as hard as she could. After yanking her arm from his grasp, she turned to run and got two steps.
His rod slapped against her leg.
Pain. Her muscles convulsed. Agony seared her body. She couldn't even scream. When he pulled the device away, she crumpled to the floor.
He dragged her to her feet and waited until her legs stopped shaking. Stabs of pain shot through her with every movement.
"The z-rod has a charge in it, and that was the lowest setting," he said. "Every person in processing and auctioning carries one." And then, as she stood stiffly, he ran his hands over her breasts again.
She didn't flinch, although her teeth gritted together so hard, she heard a grinding noise.
He patted her cheek. "Doncha worry, girl. Next time someone does this, you're going to beg for more."
He was wrong. He was totally wrong.
The next room contained attendants clustered by a round pool to the right. The left held more staff and several long tables with slaves lying on them. The people looked at her. When she moved her hands to cover herself, they laughed. Abel pushed her forward.
In the warm pool, attendants with soft brushes scoured Mella cleaner than the shower had. No wonder Abel hadn't cared how well she washed. They shampooed and conditioned her hair again, then dried it and brushed the snarls out until it flowed silky smooth down her back. The lotion they used bore the light, airy fragrance of Nexan flowers, one of their prime exports. At each stage, the attendants handled her indifferently, treating her body as if they'd never heard of privacy. Other women and men also were being cleansed in an assembly-line fashion.
When the attendants finished, Abel led her across the room to a table much like a doctor's exam table. "Sit here for a second."
She gave him a suspicious look. "What now?"
"A word to the wise, girl. Your future owner will punish you for speaking without permission."
An older man with dark brown eyes hurried over to them. Behind him followed a female attendant carrying a tray with a glass of fluid, a small jar, and some odd-looking machinelike things. Mella wrapped her arms around herself and stepped back. Dear Prophet. What were they planning to do now?
With a friendly smile, the female attendant handed her the drink.
"What's in it?" Mella asked, peering into the glass. "Some tranquilizer?"
Abel shook his head. "I promise there's no sedative or tranquilizer in there. It's fruit juice. You'll stay on the stage until someone buys you. The temperature is warm outside, and the Indenture Hall doesn't let their merchandise get dehydrated."
She eyed the glass. Her mouth felt like the Sahara in summer. With a sigh, she drank it. Sweet, almost like apple juice.
"Lie down, please," the old man said.
Naked, on that table? She scowled at him. "No way, I--"
Abel slapped the rod at his side.
She lay back, the leather cold against her bare skin. Her breath quickened when Abel pulled a wide strap across her biceps and chest. Another one went over her forearms and stomach, almost too tight, and she began to panic. She couldn't move. "Let me go." She struggled within the restraints, jerking from side to side to try to loosen the straps, but nothing gave.
Ignoring Mella's thrashing, the attendant helped Abel secure each of Mella's legs. Then to her horror, the lower part of the table separated, splitting her legs apart into a V shape. She strained against the straps, futilely trying to draw her thighs together. She subsided, panting. Cold air brushed her private areas and made her shiver.
After pulling a chair forward, the older man sat between her legs, and she felt something warm moving slowly across her outer lips, tingling slightly. A depilator, she realized. He was removing the hair from down there as if she were a man with a beard. This was so, so wrong. She shuddered uncontrollably as the thing moved over her.
Abel and the attendant pulled her buttocks apart, and the depilator worked farther down, closer to her ass.
"There," the man said. "All bare. She's quite pale skinned, isn't she? I like the pink coloration."
"Short and round and pale--very exotic. She'll bring a good price." Abel took a scoop of lotion and rubbed it onto her nipples.
The man patted her down below, and she jumped at the feel of his warm hand on her bare skin. "Very soft. Yes, she'll be popular. Give me the lotion." The man dipped his hand into the jar and spread the cool lotion all over the shaved area, rubbing it in thoroughly.
The sensation was so...different with no hair between his fingers and her skin. She tried to squirm against the sensations beginning to roll through her at his intimate touch but couldn't move.
"She's starting to feel it," he said to Abel and patted her bare leg. "Get her up onto the stage."
Unhindered by the dry desert air, the sun scorched Mella's skin as Abel led her outside into the noisy plaza. Stores lined three sides of the market area, and the far end held the colorful booths of the ship traders. Shouting and bargaining filled the edges of the square, and laughter came from children playing tag in the center near a fountain. The fragrances of spice, sweat, perfumes, and cooking food mingled in the air.
Outside the Indenture Hall stood the two auction stages, nearly filled with slaves, all tall and thin and dark. Typical Nexans. When the crowd around the wooden platforms turned to watch Mella, she flushed, all too aware of her nakedness and the way her full breasts jiggled with her walk. When she tried to hang back, Abel's grip on her arm tightened. He pulled her past the first platform crammed with muscular naked men and women.
"Good workers. Be able to work from dawn to dusk. Healthy specimens," the auctioneer on the stage yelled to the crowd.
Mella tried to stop Abel. "Put me up there. I want to be a worker."
He laughed. "You don't have the muscles to work the mines, and you wouldn't bring nearly the price as a worker as you will as an unshuline. Sorry, girl." He dragged her to a platform, which held tall, dark-haired women and one slender, pretty man--all Nexan. Two of the women stood quietly; two more had their arms chained overhead.
Chained and naked? Mella yanked against Abel's grip. "Let me go. You can't do this to me."
One of the market staff in the distinctive red tunic trotted over. Abel pushed her to him. "She's not cooperative. Don't leave her unchained."
"Thanks for the warning," the man said. His hand, twice as big as Abel's, wrapped firmly around her arm. "Come, little miss."
He pushed her up the stairs onto the stage, and she heard the customers laugh as she struggled. Terror like a cold wave rushed through her, and her skin went clammy, despite the heat. Another muscular staff member hurried forward, and ignoring her struggles, the two men lifted her hands, clipping the snap ring on her cuffs to chains dangling from a bar spanning the length of the stage. She glared at them, pleased to see she'd scratched one man's face. She tugged at the restraints. Nothing gave. How can this be happening?
To make everything worse, they knelt and cuffed her ankles too, pulling her legs wide open and fastening the cuffs to rings embedded in the stage floor. As they stood, one called, "Ready for viewing, Master Lucan."
The tall, emaciated auctioneer strolled over and walked around her as he consulted the infounit in his hand, touching the keys to check the information. "Thirty-nine days. Healthy. She'll bring a nice price." To her horror, he fondled her breasts, ran his hand down her stomach, pressed between her legs, and even stuck a finger inside her. "Wet already."
She felt herself quicken to his touch. Her hips uncontrollably tilted into his hand. "No," she whispered as her breasts tightened to hard nubs. Her whole body felt sensitive. Even the gentle breeze that brushed against her skin increased her arousal.
He grinned and tapped her cheek. "You can't fight it, little missy. We lace the drinks with an aphrodisiac, and the lotion on your skin contains something to make you very, very sensitive." To illustrate, he ran a finger around her nipple, and the feeling shot straight to her groin.
She clenched her teeth to contain a moan. Sweat beaded on her brow.
The auctioneer turned to the crowd. "The slaves are ready for your inspection, gentle sirs."
The stage filled with men and a few women, who walked around the slaves and examined them. A swarthy man in his sixties walked up to Mella. "Love the coloring," he said to the auctioneer. "Look at how pink her nipples are." He pinched one, and Mella squirmed as a craving for more filled her. "Ah, she's a hot one."
After a moment, never letting loose her nipple, he shook his head. "Too much energy for me. I prefer someone quieter." He moved toward one of the unchained women.
Engulfed in a haze of need that heightened with each intimate touch, Mella lost track of the men and women. Some stroked her breasts. Some touched the V between her legs so intimately that she pushed against their hands, whimpering. One made the attendants lower her chained hands and bend her forward so he could probe her rectum. "Not used there before, I see. I'd enjoy instructing her in the delights." He pressed a finger inside her, and she could only quiver with shock and hunger.
Returned to her standing position, she closed her eyes, wanting only to shut it all out. Yet her private areas throbbed, needing something so badly she could scream. A warm hand cupped her face, and she inhaled a familiar scent--light citrus, soap, and man. It was--
"Sleeping on the job, little thief?"
She opened her eyes to see Kinae Dain smiling at her, amusement in his gaze. Glaring at him, she snarled, "Go away. If you'd just let me go, I'd be free now. Not left here for brutes to maul."
"Ah. I am sworn to uphold the law. Setting you free would have forced me to break my oath, and that I will not do."
A man with honor? One who kept his promises? She found truth in his level gaze. He was no skulking coward like Nathan, but she hated the Nexan anyway. She tried to pull her face away, but he wouldn't release her.
"I haven't bought an indentured slave for several years, and never an unshuline. But looking at you..." His smile flashed white in the darkly tanned face, and crinkles appeared around his eyes, making him seem human, real, for the first time. "Looking at you, I'm thinking that I might enjoy your company."
"You just want a body to have intercourse with."
He tilted his head. "Well, yes, that is part of it. You have a lush body crying out to be savored." Holding her gaze, he slid his hand from her face, down her sensitive skin, past her collarbone. Lifting one of her heavy breasts, he cradled it in his palm and rubbed his thumb over her peaked nipple. A surge of pleasure washed through her, and her eyes half closed as he continued the sensual assault. His other hand touched her lower, hard fingers stroking through her wetness.
She moaned, pressing against his touch, and her wanton actions horrified her.
Hand still pressed between her legs, he moved close enough for her to feel the warmth of his body and see a thin white scar over his eyebrow, another on his chin. "You think about it, Mella. I don't whip my people or mistreat them. If you want to come home with me for your term, I'll buy your contract...but you will be an unshuline, and I'll expect you to uphold your part of the bargain."
"I'll rot in hell first," she hissed.
Shaking his head, he stepped back, and she almost cried at the removal of his touch. Her hips tilted forward involuntarily, and when he saw the movement, he only smiled. "I'll stay for a few minutes of the auction, in case you change your mind," he said gently. "If not, then I wish you well and that your service not prove too arduous."
Leaning on his cane, he limped off the stage, and a feeling of loss filled her, as if she'd driven away the only friend she had here. Only, he was no friend. But he'd said he didn't whip his slaves. Maybe she should have gone with--
Then the next man stepped up to her. He stood so close that the auctioneer didn't notice when he pinched Mella's nipple hard enough to bring tears to her eyes. She bit her lip to keep from screaming. The lust filling his eyes as he relished her pain made her feel sick to her stomach. And scared.
He gave a cruel laugh. "You will do nicely for what I have in mind. I'd have liked to hear you scream before buying you...but that can wait."
"Take your seats, please," the auctioneer yelled. "The bidding begins now."