The longer I waited for him to wake up, the more scared I became that he might not. He lay there for days, not moving, barely breathing, the glow of his red sigils faint.
I drove myself crazy, wishing there was more I could do.
The Nazoks came by to sneer, and even the one who’d won the bet seemed disappointed that we were both alive.
We barely had enough water to wash his wounds.
I couldn’t tell how dehydrated he was because he had weird plates under his skin. I could barely dress his wounds because I had to shred my rags for bandages, and trying to keep those clean used more of our water.
On the third day, a sleazy Nazok showed up at the cell and sneered at my meager attempts. “What’s the point? You know one of you will die anyway. Shouldn’t you let it be him?”
Maybe that was true. Maybe the smarter thing would have been to let the wounded man just die the first night.
That way I’d be sure he wouldn’t attack me, wouldn’t drain my blood like all the rumors promised.
But I just couldn’t do it. He was here. He needed help.
And even if I regretted it later, I couldn’t turn away.
Maybe I was just stupid.
“Then why do you care?” I snapped.
The Nazok snorted then tossed a gossamer wad at me. As it floated to the ground, I thought for a moment about what wonderful bandages it would make. “Get dressed.”
I blinked, my brain having trouble catching up with the shift in conversation.
“Conii has summoned you to an evening with Garlku.”
I’d lost track of time, so focused on the Vinduthi, I hadn’t thought about what the comparative restraint the guards had shown me for the last few days must mean.
Conii, the leader of the largest gang of Nazoks here on Thodos III, had been working to build an alliance with the Fanaith.
Not that I’d known about any of that before being dragged here.
But apparently their local chief had caught a glimpse of me back in the old auction house, and Conii had decided to make me the candy to sweeten the deal.
Thankfully Conii was smart enough to understand scarcity made the heart grow fonder… or something like that, and only occasionally let him see me.
There were two more things about his visits that made it almost bearable. The chance to learn a little more about the layout of this place, and a chance to clean up.
“I need a shower first,” I managed, clutching the dress to my chest, doing my best not to look at my roommate. What would happen to him while I was gone? Would the guards take the opportunity to undo all my hard work?
But it didn’t matter.
I couldn’t do anything about it anyway.
“Your race doesn’t always look like that?”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh, good. It hasn’t met a human before.”
He slapped me across the cheek and my head jerked to the side, popping my neck. “I’ve met enough to know you’re taking quite the risk talking to me like that. Put on the dress, filth.”
“Garlku will not be pleased if I come to dinner smelling like an Ewani,” I said, holding my cheek.
He gritted his teeth against the flood of rage he had to restrain.
A slap was one thing, the kicking it looked like he wanted to give me would be something else.
Instead, he dragged me to the closest washroom.
“Ten minutes. Make them count.” Ten minutes wasn’t nearly enough to reverse the effects of the last few weeks since I’d last had a chance to really wash up. It was perhaps in my favor that most humans looked at least half-starved on Thodos III.
I spent most of my allotted time letting the water run over my hair and skin. I only got those opportunities when Garlku had an evening off, and I wanted to make the most of it.
I twisted my wet hair into a bun – no one would know the difference – jumped into the silver dress and ridiculous heels and swiped on some lip dye, pinching my cheeks to make them look a little less like death.
“Hurry up in there!” the Nazok growled, pounding on the wall of the washroom.
“I’m ready,” I snarled, oozing as much sarcasm as humanly possible. Some species didn’t understand the human predilection for sarcasm, but I didn’t think it was lost on this one.
He opened the door and grabbed my wrist, roughly pulling me out of the washroom and dragging me down the hall.
“You’re to be kind and courteous for the duration of Garlku’s interest in you. I don’t understand what he sees in something so repulsive, but you will not humiliate us by mocking him.”
“I know, I know, best behavior,” I said as I tried to stay on my feet.
We entered the dining room, and I immediately smelled the fishiness of Garlku’s body odor as he squished his way across the room to greet me. Fanaith were relatively humanoid, and I wasn’t sure all of them were as objectionable as their leader, but the ones I’d met were.
“My lady,” he said as he took my hand in his and inclined his smooth gray head, the dead eyes giving me chills.
Fanaith didn’t have fins, but with the cold sliminess of Garlku’s touch and the shape and color of his body, it was almost more unsettling that way.
“You’re looking lovely this evening, though I wish that dress were on the floor.”
Thank the Void for years working as a dancer. The species may change, but the lines never do.
He growled deep in his throat, a primal sort of groan that sent prickles across my scalp. “How I wish you weren’t human. Your sweet, pure scent tells me you would be a delicacy beyond all others.”
I tried not to signal my disgust. I needed to firmly remain within the good auspices of this monstrous thing if I were ever to leave this place. “My lord,” I acknowledged, curtseying deeply. “I often wish the same.”
Working for tips made lying to lecherous males of whatever species as natural as breathing.
I breathed a prayer of gratitude to whichever god might have been listening that Fanaith had a deep cultural disdain for interspecies sexual unions, especially those with slave races. He’d explained it once as being “incumbent upon his nobility to preserve the purity of his bloodline,” which somehow increased my revulsion even as it rescued me from any more serious advances.
Still, there were no guarantees that his “better judgment” would always keep him in control, so I tried to remain polite without endearing myself to him completely. It was a fine line to walk.
“Do sit down,” he insisted, directing me to one end of a mercifully long table laden with delicacies of his home planet. If the best part of our arrangement was the immunity from corporal punishment, the worst by far was the food.
Bloody tissue swam on platters, and raw tentacles sprouted from bowls. The drink a server poured for me smelled like briny muck, and whatever the thick slab on my plate was, it spurted when I tried to cut it with a fork and knife. I would have thrown up if I had had anything in my stomach, the knife skittering away across the plate.
Despite my hunger, there was just no way I could do it.
Except, a wonderful, terrible idea crossed my mind.
The next time I cut, I pushed the knife hard in my hand, bracing myself for the pain as its edge sliced through the meaty part at the side of my thumb.
“Ow!” I screamed as my blood gushed everywhere and I pressed my wounded hand to my chest.
Maybe this was a mistake. But maybe, maybe I’d be lucky for a change.
To my horror, Garlku’s nostrils flared, his pupils dilated, and I could have sworn I saw him salivating. He stood up, and for an awful moment, I thought he would spring across the table at me and tear at my flesh.
What else did I know about Fanaith?
Should I have realized from their meals that the sight of blood was an aphrodisiac?
Stupid, stupid Mera.
Instead, he took up a napkin and held it over his nose and mouth. “Get her out of here! And try to salvage the dress! I spent a fortune on that!”
It was nice to know Garlku’s feelings for me ran so shallowly.
I was quickly and firmly escorted from the room and down several passageways to the infirmary.
While the Nazoks had to follow Conii’s orders and keep Garlku happy to a point, they never obeyed him with total enthusiasm, especially where I was concerned. “Call us when the blood’s out,” one of them growled, and they were gone.
I knew they hadn’t gone far. There was no chance of escaping right now, but I could at least get something back to the suffering Vinduthi in my cell.
I’d been here before a few times, back in the beginning of my imprisonment here, when the guards hadn’t realized how fragile humans were.
Hopefully nothing had changed from my last visit. Holding my breath, I checked the cabinets, then I quickly gathered what I needed and tied it to my legs with bandages underneath the folds of the gown.
Next, I ran hot water in the sink and wet a cloth with it, smearing the blood deeper into the front of the dress while it was still on me. “Oh, no!” I exclaimed. Nothing happened.
“Dammit!” I shouted a little louder, and a Nazok came into the room.
“What kind of an idiot are you?” he snarled. “You don’t know how to get blood stains out of your own clothes?”
I bit my lip and tried to squeeze out a tear. You’d have thought panic would make it easier, but you’d be wrong.
“I’ve never had to get it out of anything this nice before! What should I do?”
“What do I care?” He chuckled to himself. “Garlku ain’t gonna be happy about this. We’ll see how long his affection lasts now. Maybe we can finally sell you off, recoup the investment after you’ve worked off your bill for a bit.”
I practically saw all the things he’d like to do to me cross his mind, but I couldn’t afford to worry about that just yet. Feeling like a drug smuggler, I just wanted to get back to my cell without them finding my stash.
Time for some more acting.
“No!” I raised my voice to a piercing cry. “Take it and have it laundered! Give me my old clothes back! Please!” I reached for the Nazok’s hand as if I would beg him.
He jerked his hand back and spat in my face. “You’ll sit in your mess and be happy about it, filth!” He pulled me in front of him and shoved me out the door so I tripped and fell. I rolled into a ball to keep my legs from splaying out and revealing everything.
The Nazok guard kicked me in my ribs. “Get up! I’m tired of dealing with you, you little slut! Get back to your cell!” I scrambled to my feet and limped toward my cell on a broken heel, exaggerating the limp so he wouldn’t kick me again.
Once in my cell, I whimpered for a while and gradually let my sobs taper off. Best to let them think they got to me.
After what I hoped was a reasonable amount of time, I carefully unwrapped the pilfered supplies from my legs. Then, trying not to make too much noise, I scooted over to the wounded Vinduthi.
It wasn’t much. Clean bandages and antiseptic. It was all I’d been able to find in the short amount of time I had.
But it was so much more than we’d had before.
Finally, I had done everything I could. Carefully, I ran my hand down the side of his chiseled cheek.
Maybe it was because of the medicine. Maybe it was just my own wishes.
But did he finally look better? Still injured past what I knew any human would be able to recover from, but the wounds seemed to be closing up, just a tiny bit.
Probably not. Just all in my head, another desperate wish that wouldn’t come true.
I curled up into a miserable ball and tried to go to sleep, trying to fill my mind with memories of my life before, every good thing that had ever happened to me, wrapping the past around me like a blanket.
Until a rustling sound cut through my dreams.
The Vinduthi was waking.