The noise assailed her ears and made her shrink back against the back of the male pushing her through the bazaar. Everything was so strange, so alien. What was she doing in this place? Who was she? With a muttered oath, her captor stabbed her in the back with the handle of his rifle, and she stumbled.
At least she was under no misapprehension that the weapon was there to harm her. Even amongst the chaos of the marketplace, she could detect the predatory glitter of other traders, could feel their gazes move up and down her body, assessing, calculating. No, she was sure that her guard, and his weapon, was there primarily to protect his investment--her.
But it was difficult to concentrate. As for the past four days, her head continued throbbing, sending waves of blunt pain hammering through her brain. It was all she could do to place one foot before another.
Left, right. Left, right. A jerk on the chain around her neck brought her to an abrupt stop and she once more started to take notice of her surroundings.
Helson V. She had heard her captors talking about the planet during their nighttime meals. Hell's Market, they joked. A place where you could buy whatever your heart desired. At which point, they would normally cast looks in her direction and laugh raucously.
She didn't know anything about the planet. Wasn't even sure where it was. But she did know the guards were right on one count--it was indeed hell. She was sick from eating what her captors considered food, but they forced it down her throat, knowing that a weak subject would bring a correspondingly weaker price. They had also thought hygiene a luxury, though. Except for sparse toilet breaks, when she was constantly watched by one of the snickering guards, she was given no chance to bathe or clean herself. They had stripped off the tatters of clothes she wore, shrouded her in some stinking sheets that were slippery and cold to the touch, and led her off on the march to the Market on Helson V.
Once, she had tried to reason with them, but they were obstinate bordering on incomprehension. They were poor natives of the planet who had stumbled across the crashed shuttle and discovered their prize. They were so poor they couldn't even afford transport to the famed Market but had to slog it out on foot, their captive a glittering prize that they kept as hidden as possible. In her quiet, dark moments, she couldn't really blame them.
Coming back to the present, she looked ahead of her, at the eight steps leading up to what she presumed to be a stage. She could see figures standing immobile while several handlers walked around them. The noise was more focused here, money bids being shouted into the air, ribald comments, and there were no more doubts--she was going to be sold. Eventually, a bell sounded and the figures were led off, presumably to a holding pen while the ownership documents were prepared.
There was a commotion behind her. "Just her! Just her!" Then sounds of something solid hitting flesh. One of her captors walked in front of her, yanking at her chain and she followed him up the steps.
The reality was even worse than her imaginings. There were hundreds of people in front of her--humanoid, insectoid, drones--and she started to feel afraid. Gods, but she even longed for the relative peace of her captivity against this ... this open ogling.
The auction-master, a thin strappy man stroking a whip, took his time as he circled her, a feral smile curving his lips.
"A golden nymph," he finally announced to the crowd, breaking their tension. The language of the galaxy was Cirlian Formal, maybe even Cirlian Lower on the less-advanced planets. She mentally described his accent as Cirlian Gutter. It gave her some small satisfaction, and she straightened her spine. She was not going to let this drain-sahmpren intimidate her.
"A prize indeed," he continued. "A fine addition to one's spawn-nest. Or even as the star attraction in a discerning entertainment establishment."
There was much jeering at this.
"I start the bidding at a mere ten quatroons."
She kept her gaze forward and steady, not looking down into the mass of life forms bidding for her body. Because that's all they would be getting--her body. No matter what they did to her, she would try to retain her dignity ... even if she couldn't quite remember her mind.
The bidding climbed steadily. Ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-three.
The auction-master looked toward the group of natives who had brought her in, but they swore and shook their heads.
Gamely, the auction-master turned again to the crowd.
"Only twenty-three quatroons?" he taunted. "For this lovely? Look at those features, unblemished by illness or disease. All limbs strong and capable of servicing many forms." He lifted one arm, brushing the makeshift sleeve back with his whip.
"Golden skin," he declared, then rubbed at her arm until she flinched. "And natural too. Surely that's worth a few extra quatroons? She will be the envy of every party you give."
The bid had time to hang in the air, uncontested. With disgust, one of her native captors strode on stage and, with one brutal movement, ripped her garment downwards.
She stood, naked, exposed to the crowd, hearing the 'aaah' of excitement move through them. She wanted to cover herself, but her wrists were manacled against her thighs, and she only had a few inches of movement, not even enough to cover her groin.
The gaze of the crowd moved up her body, caressing her long, shapely legs and the promise of pleasure covered by a triangle of copper curls. Grazing the slight mound of her abdomen and stroking the shadowed skin between a pair of uptilted, firm breasts, tipped by circles of dusky brown.
The auction-master had a hurried conversation with the native before turning again to the crowd.
"I have it on impeccable authority that this female is untouched," he finally announced. "A virgin. And, I am forced to admit, a rarity to this humble market. Surely that is worth a premium?"
"Fifty quatroons," another voice finally declared into the relative silence.
She looked then for the source of the voice and found a pair of hard obsidian eyes, filled with boredom and contempt. Even from this distance, there was something about him that sent a shock through her. It tightened her groin and hardened her nipples to erect pebbles.
"Ah, that's more like it," the auction-master crooned, although whether he was referring to the bid or her physical response was debatable. "Fifty quatroons. Do I hear a competing bid?"
Other heads had turned at the sound of the bidder's dark voice and mutterings began spiraling through the crowd.
Tangus, she heard from her position at the top of the dais. Mercenary. Ruthless. Will kill for what he wants. Dead trader who tried to double-cross. Not worth the risk.
And it appeared the swirls of conversation won, because there were no competing bids.
"Fifty it is," the auction-master declared, while the natives hugged themselves with joy and the bell tone sounded. One of the auction-master's assistants appeared at his gesture and walked her off the stage and down the other set of steps into an open pen, walled off by strands of sizzling energy.
Still naked, she stood there and watched as a phalanx of hard-faced men approached. They didn't need armor for her to know that these were space-combat veterans. The lack of expression on their faces said it all.
On cue, they parted, and she saw the man who had bought her and the body that belonged to that pair of dark, cold eyes. And, despite her discomfort, she could see it was a magnificent body. The anonymous gray jacket could not hide the breadth of his shoulders, and the snug, color-matched pants clung to the contours of thighs as hard as his expression. As he took the data pad from the dealer, she noticed large hands and strong, capable fingers, thought of them running over her body, and the breath caught in her throat.
He scanned the pad briefly, thinning his lips in disapproval.
"What's your name?" he barked.
If she knew that, she would know the answers to at least part of the puzzle.
"Name," he repeated.
She shook her head. "I ... I don't...."
But he cut her short. "Have you sold me an imbecile, Rakk?"
The administrator smiled. "Her, ah, handlers told me she is capable of intelligent conversation."
The man she presumed was Tangus grunted. "Too late to do anything about it now, I suppose," he grumbled. "Just as well I didn't buy her for her intellect."
He put his mark on the pad, authorizing the fund transfer, and threw it back on the table. Since the moment he bought her, he hadn't given her more than a passing glance.
"Daurent," he said, and a younger male behind him stiffened and stepped forward. "Take her back to the Strike. Put her in the chamber next to my quarters. You know what to do. I have a bit more to do down here, but I'll be back in two hours."
Daurent nodded and took her by the elbow.
"And Daurent?" The company halted. "She stinks. Make sure she's clean before I see her next."