World of Zekira Stock in Trade is a novel set in the World of Zekira. Copyright 2004 Lethe and Droppin the Fork Productions. All rights reserved, no copying for any reason.

Stock in Trade 6

"Did you see that?" Someone asked. Their companion nodded mutely. "How'd she do that?"
Zekrel glanced up with a glare of her dark brown eyes and went back to work. A crowd always seemed to gather when she was sculpting. She'd chosen a parklike grassland near a Steed ranch to work, which might have been a poor choice but she did want to work on a Steed. She'd never been able to get the wing wrist done right, and really wanted to get closer. Her father had always told her stories about Steeds being rather hard to manage, but she was of course speaking in artistic terms and he in more physical ones.
Zekrel's method of sculpting was in fact the reason why people gathered. She would work first in clay, soft and red, getting her hands all mucky and usually her silver-green hair would get plastered to her forehead. The colors of dry clay mixed with the dusting of pale grey spots over her softly brown-ash skin. Zekrel could concentrate on part of her work while people were watching, but the other part... It always caused a stir.
Because when she was finished with the basic sculpt, she would concentrate and turn the clay into a silvery white metal material - palladium to anyone of a more advanced education. It was relatively soft, and rather pretty. She could turn dirt into ore, ore into rock, stone into metal. She never tried changing something into a gas or anything deadly - mercury had been one accident that killed a pet she had, so she remained as far from dangerous toxic elements as she could. But palladium seemed to be relatively safe.
She could paint it, too, which she often did. It took paint nicely. People didn't understand why she wasn't a filthy rich High Holder.
So here sat Zekrel on a park bench across a dirt road facing a dozen colorful Steeds in their privately owned herd formation. The big stallion was prancing around a couple of the mares who laid their ears back and pawed the ground at him. He would flair his wings up, holding his flight feathers as stiffly out as he could, kicking his legs back and rearing up. The girls weren't impressed. The people watching were, but surely the bunch of mares on heat didn't care for his antics one bit. When one of the three dark colored mares finally accepted the slate and blue marked stallion, it was open season for teaching younger visitors about reproduction.
Zekrel finally sighed and had a chance to work a bit more on her sculpture without people staring at her while she did so. It took several minutes for the changes in the clay to become permanent, so she concentrated while she could. When she'd exhausted her psionic power, she leaned back and drew a cloth over her clay-messed face.
"You know, the way your steed poses there really ought to be a companion piece. He's stunning, but he needs a mate." Said a man's voice, directly beside Zekrel. She nearly leapt from the bench, but chose instead to stare at the man with a startled look.
"Sorry - I didn't mean to surprise you. I wasn't aware you hadn't seen me sit down."
"I wasn't much aware that I'd invited you to do so," Zekrel said, a little more sharply than she meant to. She was tired, working like this always wore her out, but she could usually get at least one large clay work done a day - not that she finished a clay sculpt every day! But being tired always brought out a little of the worst in her.
The man might have been hurt by her tone, or her rather pointed chiding. Instead, he kept his calm exterior on, and tilted his head in apology - with a sly and very practiced smile. "I did not mean to intrude. But you must admit, now that there's a stallion, there ought to be a mare."
Zekrel stared at him. He was quite handsome, but in an... untrustable sort of way. He was an Owner by the looks of his clothing, and possibly a rather rich one. His vibrant blue skin seemed lighter around his eyes and lips, drawing attention to them - and Zekrel wasn't sure that he was simply marked that way or was wearing makeup. He had short, swept back pale blue hair, and striking leaf-green eyes, and his smile seemed to widen as she stared at him.
Finally Zekrel blinked and turned back to her statue. She had nothing to say to the man about his behavior - he was rude and it was obvious that he knew it. But perhaps... "You might have a point," she said simply. "But today is not a good day to start another sculpture for me. I'll be resting up."
"Do you sell your work?"
"To strangers? No." Zekrel said. She didn't look him in the eye, but she watched how he stirred beside her, as she gazed at the Steeds who had finished their act and were now grazing peacefully.
"Bhex," he said. It took a moment for Zekrel to realize that he was holding out his dark blue hand in a greeting to her. She continued to stare at his hand, the markings of lighter blue upon cobalt were present along each knuckle and his nails were light blue, it was almost like he'd scraped his knuckles in paint, but the match in color was too close to be makeup or accidental. She thought about her own skin and how it was marked with freckles of grey upon dusty brown. Hmn. Thinking like a Breeder would get her nowhere.
"My name is Zekrel," she finally said, taking his hand and watching his very slight surprise when he realized that she was still quite covered in clay. "And might I ask if you're local? Are they your Steeds I've been watching?"
"Oh no, no," Bhex said while casually trying to figure out a way to clean his hand. Zekrel picked up one of her rags from the bucket of 'clean' water nearby, and waited for him to use it. It was halfway as if he had never seen a washtowel, or perhaps if he were an Owner after all, he probably had people to do that sort of thing for him.
They did, have people who did that, didn't they?
"Then where are you from?" Zekrel noticed that he hadn't prefaced his name with a Status, so she couldn't tell and didn't want to make a mistake by calling him Lord Bhex. She'd done so enough times while meeting her mother's old friends at the Inheritance reading. She'd had a hard enough time getting used to being called Mistress, since her Inheritance gave her enough land to Hold and money to burn that she invested in a Membayar education above and beyond her father's Free Holdings. It was enough for her, it seemed like not nearly enough for her mother's strange High Holder friends. Too bad.
Bhex said, "Mada, born and raised. But I like to travel."
"You're quite far from home then," Zekrel said, "what is it you do, then?"
Still he remained elusive, "I try to acquire things, for people. Land, items, other people. I deal."
"I see," Zekrel said, but it was patently obvious to both of them that she was lying. She began to get nervous, and to hide it decided that cleaning her arms and face up, and packing in for the day, would be in order.
She noticed that Bhex didn't quite offer to help her, until it came time to pack the newly metallic steed statue.
"My buyers are quite picky about what they look for. I would have to say," Bhex said while settling the statue into a wicker box she'd brought, "that this would be an ideal piece to show them. Has your work ever been in an exhibition, Zekrel?"
At that, the young Mistress straightened. "You ... you could do that? I mean, put my work somewhere?"
"I could put your work anywhere." The way he said it, the roll of his eyes, and the slight grin on his lips would have told anyone that he wasn't just talking about the steed statue.
Anyone but Zekrel. She was after all an aspiring artist. To have her work shown anywhere that higher Status folk would see it, was an honor. She knew that her work was mostly "popular", she made Steeds and spires and small creatures to give away to children. She would have to produce something far better for a more 'advanced' audience.
Bhex helped Zekrel tuck her supplies away in her carriage - she would be driving it herself he noticed. It was a modest little Ground Steed that drove it, and Bhex had little liking for the wingless creatures. Of course, he didn't know that Zekrel had had this one bred for her and was rather fond of it.
The smiling blue man offered Zekrel a small printed metal card, embossed with his name, and at last the young woman knew for sure that he was a Lord. The card had several contact numbers on it, one in each large office he apparently Held, on each Land.
"My, you do get around, don't you?" Zekrel commented, as she hooked the reins off of their clip and settled them into her hands.
"I do. Keep that in mind, my dear, and please contact me when you are ready for some... exposure."
She was a bright girl. She wasn't very experienced, though, and the insincere smile that Bhex gave her didn't make her want to throw his business card away.
All Zekrel could think of was what she'd be making to show off to he and his buyers. Buyers! Imagine that? Up until now she'd only done one or two things for money - she just loved making her artwork. Bookends and a pretty commemorative urn were all she'd really been paid for.
She had so many ideas, but no energy to create. When she got to her home, a modest house some ways away from the actual Observation Hold which she'd indeed Inherited, she paced about but in the end wound up flipping through half a dozen art collection books to see if there was something that hadn't been done a million times before.
Over the next few days, as her inspiration mounted and her power came back in force, Zekrel decided that a slightly larger piece would be best, and a couple small but perfect items to frame it. Zekrel had tried doing human subjects, but they never turned out the way she wanted. People told her they were 'fine' which meant they were 'adequate' and to an artist, that just wasn't enough.
So she shied away from any piece that involved a specific person, and went for a more abstract approach. Zekrel loved watching professional dancers, and had collected vids of a number of important competitions over the last few hundred years. She studied them intensely and finally came up with a main piece. An essential dance, with three people, was the Tree-flier dance. The individuals she watched had not won their competition, but they had always been Zekrel's favorite dance trio. A married couple and their most favored Slave, all three long dead since the competitions she'd watched were very old.
Zekrel set to work with her clay. She dug it herself, from a pit area near her Hold - in fact she wanted to buy the land, or annex it at least, because no one else was using it save some other artists. Mixed with a bit of fresh water, the lumps of red-tan clay became easily molded and pliable. She would be using a lot of it, and was fairly glad that when she was finished with the piece, the metal version would actually weigh considerably less than this clay did!
Two base mounds, the idea of motion and flow. A third, set above and beside them, showing off the flier's approach. Her favorite part of that dance was when the mated pair would toss the 'loser' of the dance into the air and celebrate them - it would be their turn later. This moment, captured in a rough form, was how she left the piece that night.
The next day, after wetting down the clay and circling it endlessly to decide what details to work on first, Zekrel concentrated on essential forms like arms and knees, twists of torso, angles of heads. Since she did not have to fire the clay or finish it in one sitting, Zekrel did not need to worry about the piece breaking or having different levels of dryness to the whole piece.
It took a week, but when she was finished carving pieces off and adding others, the Tree Flier Dance piece was nearly complete. She wanted to add two side items - now what would they be?
She decided upon a little pair of grouped instruments, the ones used most often when playing music for this dance. A pair of drums, one on each piece, a horn on one and a flute on the other, and two violins. She was good at solid lines like they offered, and finished those quickly - they were not quite the length of her hand, while the main dancers were taller than her arm was long.
When she knew the piece was done, as done as it could be in clay, she rested and meditated quietly in the garden near her work shop. Then, in the afternoon, she began to transmute the clay into metal.
Because she had a decent amount of experience at this work, she knew to start on the outside, and work in. The clay was more than dry enough to have no concerns over it collapsing. And that way, she could scoop out the remnants of the clay and keep the piece even lighter. She certainly didn't have enough energy reserved to transmute the whole thing solid!
The evening came, and she was asleep. Found by one of her Bayaran in the morning the very next thing she did was to finish the piece. The smaller items came easily, the day after that.
And finally, Zekrel was ready to call Bhex.

"Do you see how the lines are so flowing? I love it. I'll take it."
"I saw it first, Lady Wol, what do you say to asking the artist to auction it?"
"I think it's a dear idea. I will have it." Wol said, and the pair of Ladies made for the popular girl who was surrounded by High Holders and Owners alike. Her pretty silvery-green hair had been done up professionally (how else to do one's hair?) at Bhex's request, and she wore a long gown in which she clearly felt uncomfortable. She held a glass of wine which she hadn't taken a sip from yet, and in her other hand was a small piece of cheese she had no taste for.
Bewildered, and shocked that her work was causing such dismaying response among Bhex's friends, Zekrel held her hands up and begged the people around her to please leave her a moment to think.
It was Bhex's clear voice that cut through their chatter, "the artist needs some space, Ladies, Lords, High Masters. Please allow her a bit of breathing room!" They moved a little, and he went back to her side protectively.
Shielding her from the others, Lord Bhex grinned widely with a drink dangling from his fingers. "They absolutely love you, they adore you."
"I'm... I'm not all that good," Zekrel breathed. Bhex encouraged her to drink her wine, telling her it would relax her a bit. She took a long sip, and blinked. The wine was sweet, potent, and caused a bit of a swoon. But she didn't drop the glass or slide to the floor - Bhex gently supported her.
"Take some deep breaths," he suggested. "Now, we've got to get back to them, they're going to start requesting soon enough and if you do as they asked, and have an auction first, you'll know what kind of price to demand for any custom work. Do you see how it works?"
Mutely, she nodded. She was still rather overwhelmed by all this, but she realized that her work did have a charm that perhaps these cultured folk hadn't seen in a long while. She dearly hoped that she never lost that charm. It meant the world to her.
What meant more to these people, was the shine on the piece, or the elegant drape of a dress, visual things that Zekrel didn't much understand. Certainly, making a piece 'look' right was more important to her than if it were anatomically 'accurate'. Her eye was artistic, and theirs seemed to appreciate that much at least.
So it was that three days later, in an auction house that Bhex often used, a number of pieces that Zekrel could part with (and had been shown at Bhex's insistence, when he saw her collection of dozens of pieces no one had seen) were put up for money. Lots of money.
Because he was quite good at his job, Bhex took only the most minor amount as an agent, for this auction. He wanted Zekrel to be happy and overwhelmed and rolling in money for the time being.
It would all come back to him in the long run. That was what he was always sure of.
When Bhex insisted that Zekrel take her pieces on tour, she almost balked. Would it not be easier to take people to the art, rather than the other way around? But he calmly assured her that this was how it was done nowadays, and people were far more likely to travel to a show later, if they had the chance to see it near their homestead now. Mada was their first destination, his homestead was the place he decided to host her works. Most of his local buyers were there, quite familiar with him and his deals.
A lovely coastal town in Kiran, called Telva, was next. Seven pieces had been pre-ordered while they were still in Mada, and Zekrel didn't have the faintest idea how to work while on tour. She had clay with her, not very much of course, but when she said something about wanting to head back home to work a bit, Bhex almost lost his normally sedate temper at her.
"You can't interrupt the first tour you're on. We've got all the information you need for the art commissions, so just smile and accept their deals and I'll take care of all the paperwork."
With some hesitation, mostly because she'd never encountered someone with such a forceful, yet swaying personality, Zekrel agreed to stay on tour. They hit two more cities before she got the chance to head home. More than a month on tour - and only three days of that she had devoted to her artwork at all.
Her Bayaran had kept up her homestead while she was gone, and with some regret, was paid off in full by that time. Zekrel didn't have time to take on another - even though she could easily afford to, she just was kept so busy that she didn't even notice when Bhex brought in one of his own to take care of the grounds and household duties. A Slave, not Bond, was permanently planted near Zekrel if she needed anything.
She shortly got to work - and directly after that, got used to the idea of a permanent attendant to get her food or remind her to go to bed. Single-mindedly, and with an intensity that only an artist has, Zekrel worked on each piece, one after the other, that had been requested and paid-in-half during the tour.
Seventeen weeks later, every one of them was paid in full, received, adored and placed in whatever area of honor the buyer had wanted it. Exhausted, Zekrel decided that if she held another piece of clay she'd probably fuse it into a spike and kill herself with it.
"Now now, there's no need to talk like that," Bhex sweetly purred at her over a dinner brought by another two Slaves of his. "When you're ready to return to your studio it will be there. Everyone understands how important rest is for a great artist."
"You speak such flattery," she muttered over a mouthful of well-earned food. She surely had been strengthening her powers, especially when she was asked to create a piece with multiple different mineral elements in it. "I just hope that some of those pieces don't wind up being melted down for money. I mean, that is real gold and plat I'm shaping, after all."
Because she was tired, or perhaps because Bhex didn't want her to respond, Zekrel missed the rather annoyingly greedy look on his face. He knew of at least one buyer who'd paid a pittance for one gloriously golden lump which was in fact promptly melted down and used as collateral in an investment the next week. Such was the life of a businessman like Bhex.
And he was tired. But not so tired that he didn't want a nice night of drink and romance. Zekrel didn't much think of him in any real way romantically - but that was never a problem for one such as Bhex. It wasn't that he planned on wooing her into bed.
He could just do what he was doing right after dinner. Effectively cold-cocking her brain into believing she was having a long relaxing bath, while he had his way somewhat less than gently with her body. In the morning, she wouldn't remember anything but what he had inserted into her mind.
He knew that he was riding a rather narrow line. She was fertile, her family line proved that. He'd researched this woman. Her unusual background stopped at the Raising of a certain Slave into Animal Mastery, but he well knew there was more to it than just a random Slave. She was valuable in terms of breeding matter.
But would he have the power to blot out an entire pregnancy?
Bhex arrived at Zekrel's hold the next weekend to find her back at her studio, this time working on something for her own self. A tinge of anger went through the Lord, how could she squander such power on herself when there were paying customers waiting? Well, all right, to be fair there weren't any right at the moment because he hadn't submitted her work to the galleries he'd been meaning to get them in.
She was a hard worker - almost as hard as some of his Slaves. That was her father's genes surely. That old man wouldn't pose any difficulty in keeping away from his precious daughter. She was already far more important than he was, socially. He didn't have the guts to confront an Owner. A small part of Lord Bhex wanted him to. Just so he could be excised from the situation permanently.
Bhex pretended to be interested in this odd little piece she was making. It was hardly the size of her fist, but intricate. She'd done a lot more work shaping the metals after she'd transmuted the clay, so her abilities had in fact gotten much stronger in the weeks before. She didn't bother to beat herself up for a detail here or there, when she knew she could correct it in the finishing.
Good for her.
Bhex supervised the next gallery run, and this time Zekrel didn't really need prodding to take wine and biscuits and cheese and bits of polite society finger-foods, mingle and talk with the patrons. She seemed to actually be enjoying herself, by the time this two week stint was over. Another eight commissions, and another half dozen works sold in the gallery. She was making quite the name.
He was making the name for her. To her, it was delightfully convenient to have Bhex there to handle things for her. She could concentrate properly and work on her art, and he would most certainly find people who wanted it all. He'd done so for even some of her oldest pieces. Ones which she had never really been interested in selling, until then.
Two years went by. And then, rather abruptly, the artist-about-town had to go into seclusion because of her health. So much work, so many parties, they had taken their toll!
Or so Bhex announced. She would indeed be taking a well needed rest, working now and then. But the year she took off was one determined work-out for Bhex as well, because at the end of it the infant he sequestered away to one of his specially Bred Slaves was one she'd never even meet.

"She's quite depressed, I'm sorry. You'll have to come back later," said the Slave to one of the curious visitors that Zekrel would normally have loved to see. She was depressed. The loss of a child - even one she never even realized she was bearing - had a deep impact. Her work did not suffer in a way that anyone could tell.
She poured herself into it, and Bhex gently reasserted himself into her life after more than a year absence. To all appearances, she'd taken a break and now was back in the swing of things, as a moody artiste would be. Her work load wasn't nearly as strenuous when she got back to it, Bhex wanted to extend this cash cow as long as he could.
Four more years of touring followed by studio work on commissions kept them both busy. Bhex also 'managed' several others, but none were really in her league and none of them ever even saw Zekrel. When it seemed Zekrel was in good enough spirits, Bhex gently nudged her decision to write a new will. After all she wasn't married and didn't much think she'd find anyone worth having babies with (Bhex cringed, but he knew it was all for the best that she be kept both in the dark and silent), and she would be able to re-title to Owner if she wished.
It was three more years that Zekrel started to take the wear and tear more seriously. Though she was only fifty, she felt so drained all the time. A bit of a break was what she desired. Abruptly, while Bhex was out on one of his other tours, and when his Slave Taldan was off doing something unimportant like finding groceries, Zekrel located her old carriage, hooked it up to one of Bhex's Steeds, and went off to a country retreat.
"Oh, Lady Zekrel! We weren't expecting you this summer," said the Membayar behind the counter at the main office. "And congratulations, I must say!"
Zekrel almost waved off the plump woman's smile and almost bashful expression as one that a fan of her artwork would give. Until she saw herself in a mirror near the courtyard doors beyond.
She was pregnant? Rather much so, in fact. Zekrel fell to her knees, and the Mistress tending the retreat gasped. She got help in the form of two of her own Bayaran and escorted the Lady into a private suite.
"Should I contact your -" the Mistress started to say but Zekrel started and her eyes went wide.
"No! No, I'm here alone, and I want no one to know. I cannot stress that enough... No one. I ... have to think things out..."
There was a strange desperation in her voice that the Mistress wasn't sure how to interpret. But she honored the Lady's wishes. It was odd, because Zekrel didn't really respond when anyone called her Lady. Perhaps she'd retitled so recently that she still wasn't in the habit?
Zekrel sat in the private rooms, curled up with her fingers knotted around her knees. She stared at her belly - huge. She was sure that she'd have to have been this way for about... what, six, seven months at least? She wasn't all that familiar with Breeding to know. She had the oddest feeling of memories, fleeting things of pain and distance.
"That ... foul bastard," Zekrel whispered. She could remember barely enough over the last several years to know that now since she'd been away from Bhex's influence, she was of more sound mind. He'd taken her body? How? And when? It wasn't so much that Zekrel didn't remember doing work, or touring about the world with the gallery set. But ... everything else, like taking meals or gathering clay which she loved to do otherwise, they were all a blur. She did seem to remember taking an awful lot of baths. Far more than she would typically - she liked the feel of the dried clay on her arms and forehead. And like her Worker-born father she didn't mind a little grime here and there. Her nails were utterly manicured - how could they be that way and still work with clay?
Absently, Zekrel turned to a table and looked over a candle-holder. It was almost pure silver, heavy. She didn't need to even wave her hands near it to shape it into something new: a solid golden snake coiled and ready to strike.
She stared at her hands. "I've gotten that good and didn't even realize it?" She whispered to herself.
The next few days she spent in confused silence and was kept private from the rest of the guests. But soon enough, Bhex's Slave located the carriage that he knew he'd seen in the Hold's storage area. He boldly demanded to see the Lady, and presented an odd but legal document that allowed him to act as his Lord's direct agent. They could never stop Lord Bhex if he'd been there, anyway.
The Mistress softly opened the door to the suite where Zekrel lay, and cleared her throat. "I'm so sorry, Lady Zekrel," she said, and Taldan burst into the room. He was a tall, four armed man, who clearly had heavily Bred features. He might have even been spliced together, by an expert geneticist. He was far more than a convenience, Zekrel realized now. He was a guard. Not to keep people away from her, but to keep Zekrel where she was wanted.
"Stay away from me, you filthy Slave. I don't Own you but you'd better believe I'll punish you like I did if you come near me."
"Now now, such words," Taldan said, waving two of his hands and leaving the other two able to swiftly take care of anything else. "Come along back home. You've work to do and there is no reason to sit in here alone moping."
"... Moping? I'm pregnant!"
"Yes, and most women in your condition tend to have better sense in their heads than to skip away in a carriage and leave themselves vulnerable." The Slave was good - he'd been around Bhex all his life.
"I don't even remember enjoying getting this way, Taldan, so unless you've some magical explanation for me, Bhex is going to have a lot of talking to do."
"I'm sure he will," Taldan said, with a bit of menace. The Mistress of the resort bit her lip, and could clearly be seen to ponder if she should smash the Slave with a vase nearby, but that thought was cut short when he gripped her chubby throat with one random hand. "She was never here. I was not here. Any questions?"
The Mistress, terrified beyond belief, shook her head and blinked an apology to Zekrel. Taldan then turned to the artist in question, who had pressed herself into the corner of the huge bed she'd been on for the whole day.
"Now are you going to be able to walk, or should I carry you? If I must carry you, I might be forced to keep you silent. It is your choice."
"It's never been my choice before," Zekrel growled, "why start now? Come and take me if you must. I won't leave peacefully."
If Bhex had been there he would have done one of several things, after this moment. He'd have silenced Zekrel and made her walk along side, which didn't happen. He'd have tried to calmly speak to her and get her to come along quietly which also didn't happen. The third option, one which Taldan truly wished to exercise, would be the 'keeping everyone from remembering the loud screaming that was coming from the Lady as she was forcibly removed from her retreat and kidnapped back to her Hold.'
She was in a foul mood when Bhex arrived. He had been on another Land, and in the middle of a very important meeting, when the call went in that he was absolutely needed - right now - back at the Studio. Both of them were so angry that it was a blessing to Taldan that he was not going to be kept in the room for this confrontation. He'd never seen Bhex so angry - and no one had ever seen Zekrel like this.
Yet she was powerless when Bhex asserted his mental control over her yet again. Years of this treatment had left her mind ragged and unable to defend itself. Though she was a psionic with powers of matter manipulation, she was certainly no telepath. And Bhex was one of the very best in the world.
Zekrel slumped, and her dark eyes went vacant.
"She'll be out for a while. Tell me how this happened," Bhex asked Taldan outside. The Slave explained the situation, and profusely apologized for the error. It was his fault she'd gotten out - and he was more than willing to accept any punishment.
"No, I think... I think this shall be over soon enough, Taldan. One way or another." Bhex had lost all sense of subterfuge on this matter. "Keep your eyes on her from now until I tell you not to. Every waking moment, and sleeping as well. When I am with her, you may rest. Not until then."
"Yes Lord Bhex," Taldan bowed deeply - he was rather glad he hadn't been punished. But where else was Bhex going to find such a perfect lackey at short notice?
The last two months of Lady Zekrel's pregnancy went on in a sullen, angry and rather fruitless silence. She didn't work - she outright refused to do so when she wasn't being forced. When she was being forced to shape things, Bhex had to all but move her hands for her. He didn't know how to use her power, but he could turn it on and off at will. Few people could match his ability - save one particular person.
His six and a half year old son, with Zekrel, who was tucked away still but had been well cared for by Bhex himself now and again. The boy knew right off that his situation was special. Now, he expected a sibling soon. When Zekrel went into labor, Bhex blanketed the area with a forgetful mental mist.
Zekrel was not in much pain. Not as much as her first birth. Bhex assisted her as he could but largely, he didn't even bother to call a Breeder or Healer. He had Taldan summon a transport which would take the new child away quickly and safely.
"You did this to me," shrieked Zekrel. Her dappled grey-brown skin had darkened with the effort of pushing, and she was almost helpless to stop Bhex from almost yanking the child free when it came. She screamed, almost endlessly.
When the child, a girl, was cleaned and bundled - and quieted down - Bhex returned to the side of the woman he'd been working on for the last decade. His dark face showed a calm, perfect anger. Zekrel was limp from her effort, and sobbing kept her from screaming.
Her breath caught in her throat - mostly due to Bhex's strong, manicured hand around it. He squeezed, and her hands lamely tried to pry him away. She clawed at his face, but he batted her hands away with his left. "Now don't bother gasping or trying to get help. You're done for. You're quite finished. But your service to me has gone on long enough that I think I'll explain this to you. In words you might be able to understand, simple beast."
Zekrel's consciousness was fading, already half-exhausted by the birth. She couldn't respond, but she stared at his bright green eyes with a fierce hatred and confusion.
"You never understood the collectors, Zekrel. Never. Your simple ways were charming to them, and your artwork was ... interesting to some of them. And yes, some have been melted down and used for other more purposeful needs. I'm so sorry." The lie in his voice was only there because he didn't care to stop it. "But now you're going to do me one last favor. You've provided me with two wonderful and powerful children - yes, two, dear, there was a boy six years ago - and your artwork has gotten me quite rich of late."
He throttled the last bit of life out of her with both hands, a strangely satisfying groan coming from her crushed throat as he did so.
"And now, with you dead, the collector's value on your work will skyrocket. Thank you, Zekrel."
Bhex stood, brushed his hands off and made sure that there was no blood of his anywhere, and none from the birth on his suit. Dirt disgusted him - and blood wasn't the easiest thing to clean from silk!
"Put her in the tub, do something inventive," Bhex said to Taldan, "I'll expect you in Mada within the week, and I'll have my son start training with you when you get back."

"Is that all I have to do?" Zherxee sighed, and Taldan gave the flippant boy a bit of a glare.
"Your powers are growing daily, but if you let your training lapse they will fade. It is very important to use them as much as possible."
With a grimace, Zherxee turned his attention on a bottle filled with clear bubbly liquid. He touched it, and his ten-year-old hands felt things that no other nearby, save Taldan, could sense.
"It was manufactured in the glassworks downtown. The mineral water comes from it's same spring." He said. He furrowed his eyebrows, and added, "and someone's drunk from it recently."
With some effort, the young boy located the tiniest fractions of cell matter left over from the drinker's lips. Since they had long since died after being away from their body, he could treat them as objects, instead of living things. Zherxee tilted his head, and said, "Slave Alben drank this, didn't he?"
With a proud smile, Slave Taldan nodded. "Yes, that's right. Good work."
"May I go to the pond now?" Zherxee sighed again, his long drawn out desire was clear.
"Go. Your sister may be joining you, with her nursemaid."
The young man was growing quickly, and his mud-violet skin was becoming marked with pale grey dots over his eyes and fingers, rather like his father's. His bright metallic sea-blue hair contrasted solidly with his dark skin, made him quite easy to spot. His tiny sister, a bundle of energy already at three years old, had two colors distinctly on her own skin, a dark blue color mostly, and on her palms, underarms and other softer skin she had a dark brown. Her eyes had never stopped changing color, he'd noticed.
Taldan wondered what their father had in mind for these two. He knew that the plan to give himself at least one heir had worked perfectly, but why two? He never questioned vocally, but he was certain that Bhex knew of his doubts.
Slave Utek came by with her young charge Bhez, who squealed happily at the sight of her brother, and nearly bowled him over into the small round decorative pond. "I'm not sure what to do with her half the time. She refuses to read, but she continually tries to pry into my memories."
"Imagine that," Taldan said without surprise, "her father's daughter."
Utek scoffed, but knew he was right. Bhez would be at least as powerful as her father was, but probably had a vague sense of conscience to her. Both Slaves hoped for the best.
They had to rush to the pond when it looked like Zherxee was going to dunk his sister into the shallow water.

Casually throwing on a mask of a smile, Bhez greeted her father's guests. She turned to her brother after they entered the estate, crossed her currently-golden eyes and stuck out her tongue.
==Oh stop. They're better than the Beast Lords he was entertaining last week, aren't they?== Zherxee mentally commented.
++Feh,++ Bhez thought back.
The party was a small one, designed mostly to locate new blood for Bhex's business ventures. He would ask questions and pry a bit mentally. If he encountered any resistance, Bhez would take care of that. Her tiniest nudge could cause a riot in a meditation garden or soothe the angriest Bond.
Zherxee's job would be to keep track of their movements in the house. Some things had gone missing here and there, and they intended to find out who among Bhex's 'friends' were taking them. Zherxee reached out his mind to a nearby table, where one minor Lord was leaning. He got a feel for the man's aura based on that touch, and would remember it if he found it where it didn't belong.
"She's such a young thing, and already fully passed her exams?" Someone asked of Bhez, and it was time for her to go flirt with the Owners. Zherxee gave a private grin, and she thought the better of sticking her tongue out again. She was twelve, blossoming into a beautiful Lady. Her elder brother was handsome in the same way that their father was, with a sharp cut to his jaw and now that he was older he kept his hair trimmed almost into a flat-top. Every Lady present wanted to know if he was available.
Which he was, of course, but just not to them. He had little taste for the women that his father wanted him to associate with. He had more dangerous prey in mind. A High Holder party was next on the agenda, since their father had retitled up recently, and the engaging women found in those circles were far more to his liking.
He wasn't entirely certain, because she wasn't properly sexual yet, but he thought that his younger sister found them that way too. Now that could be entertaining.
A small strangely mental 'ping' went off in the young man's head, and he drifted off away from the chattering Owners, into a side room, where he slipped into the rest of the estate. The long hallways had tall doors leading to this library or that display room, all the upstairs was off limits to all but the most personal friends.
And that was where he had to go. A private room, filled with artistic treasures that his deceased mother had created, was where he'd felt the aura he concentrated on before. Calmly, Zherxee climbed the stairs into the upper hall, and listened carefully.
The group of Bayaran that his father bonded were all attending the guests below, and the Slaves mostly had the night off. Father believed in work where it was most appropriate. That meant largely that their normal staff was gambling in their quarters or sleeping, entertaining themselves as best they could, rather than being in the hallways waiting instruction - and unable to watch for thieves.
"It's strange isn't it," said Zherxee to the Lord who stood awkwardly trying to remove a little silver box from a display, "that a man who obviously has taste and talent cannot see fit to buy his goods the old fashioned way. Instead he has to steal them from others."
"I - I, that is, erm," Lord Polla stammered, his orange-tan face growing red with embarrassment. "Now look here, this belonged to my family," he started to lie but with a tiny blink from Zherxee he just put the object back. "I don't expect this to be spoken of," he announced as if he had a say in the matter.
"Spoken of exactly to whom?" Zherxee asked, closing the door behind him. He entered the room quietly, catlike. "And to what end? Three other pieces have gone missing, not coincidentally when a certain Lord Polla had been present in the house the day before. I would like to inquire about those other items, Lord Polla." Though he spat out the name, the rest of Zherxee's words were smooth and almost pleasant. Hypnotic. He felt the Lord's heartbeat gain pace, but let out another smooth purring statement. "I think you ought to, when you get home, take those pieces and put them into a nice shipping carton, and send them back to us here. They did start out here."
"I - I ... but I don't have them..." Polla said, and Zherxee's hypnotic gaze and tone dropped abruptly.
"What?" He said, sharp.
"I had to sell them. Why else would a man of my Status be stealing? I'm almost completely broke. Had to sell my last Slave off, and cancel my bonds already. I can't afford to lose any more!" He began to panic, and Zherxee gave a quick, almost unconscious nudge to his sister downstairs. "You don't know what it's like, your father is far richer than any of my other friends - he can afford to lose these little trinkets!" Polla whined.
Moments later, Bhez found them, she could hardly miss them in fact. Polla's distress was apparent from below, in the ball room. It was a good thing not too many other Owners were as highly Bred as they were - because they would surely have detected something going on, like their father had.
"Zherxee, why is he sweating like that?" Bhez asked sweetly. "Come now, Lord Polla. There's nothing wrong that a little work can't solve. Come and tell me your problems. Come along," she said, pulling his hands and leading him to an alcove where there was a bench, opposite another work of art by the late great Lady Zekrel.
Polla found his distress abating near this little girl, and he let out a sobbing sigh. "I'm sorry. I know it's wrong, and I know it'll probably land me Bonded soon enough. But that's where I was going anyway, it was only a matter of time..."
That said, Zherxee and Bhez exchanged a look from behind the man's slumped shoulders. Bhez sweetly asked, "how would you like to be my first Bayaran?"

With a false sniff and wiping of a nonexistent tear from her eye, Lady Bhez waved at the sad face of a Slave as he was being taken away to his new home.
"He was my first Bayaran, and my first Permanent Bond, too..." She said wistfully. "I just don't know what I'll do without him."
"Probably lose less silverware," muttered her brother, and she smacked him on the shoulder.
"Don't ruin the moment with reality," she spat with a laugh.
They turned and sought out their friend Breeder Haloq, a burly woman who was far better educated than her appearance would indicate. If she didn't wear her Breeder's pin, most people would assume she was merely a Worker. That was part of the charm of having her as a friend and lover. The brother and sister pair both were amazed at the woman's stamina, and she eagerly took them both on.
"Now that that's over with, can you please come with me to my new Hold? Please? You won't believe it. It's a huge lab, and I can't wait to start using it." Haloq said. She bounced up and down and caused a bit of energy between the pair watching her rather large breasts.
"Of course we will," Zherxee smiled. "Your carriage or mine?"
They were pleased to note that her new digs were still in Mada. Neither of the Owners wanted to go romping around the countryside. They both preferred the artificial to the natural, even to the point of their little pond from their childhood, which was all manufactured.
Haloq drove her own carriage, and though she had been an Owner before getting her Breeding degrees, she rarely used her Slaves for such things as driving. She truly enjoyed commanding things, and a Steed was just as good as any other creature. Haloq was a control freak - but her weakness was that she also greatly enjoyed the thrill of not being in control, which was something that both Zherxee and Bhez loved to exercise. One was rather more physical about it, while his sister was able to use her powers to do so. They both fascinated Haloq.
When they reached her new lab, it did impress the pair. It was a large, well-maintained and clearly well-used facility, obviously for a sixth-degree Breeder.
"What are you going to do with all this stuff, Haloq? You aren't allowed to use these devices yet." Bhez said.
"Yet," Haloq grinned. "I don't have to settle for a Fourth Degree you know. It's not that big a step into engineering."
The siblings gazed at one another with some disbelief, "not that big, only three years of intense study and testing, feh!" Bhez announced.
"I can still do it and I want to, anyway. That last High Holder paid off this place for me, you know!" Haloq bragged, glancing around at the gigantic lab. "They were so desperate for a child, I can't believe it."
"Rugrats," Bhez shuddered, "eew."
"You don't have to like them," Haloq said. "But they are why I got into the business. I'm hardly fertile anyway. This will give me the chance to do more with my own rather impressive self."
They laughed, not harshly - because they knew she was right. A powerfully strong, hardy woman, unBred, would be a fine addition to anyone's line. She had no trace of mutation or psionics, but she was determined and willful, bright and fairly well-adjusted. All of those, traits that most people desired in their offspring.
Of course, those things would only be put into a blender, should she decide that Zherxee was the right man for her splicing or studies... Or his sister Bhez.
Her red-orange skin might blend well with his, and she'd already commented that their hair would look marvelous if combined - his metallic sea shade and her brilliant yellow would obviously put a terrific spin into green. While they would talk of these things for long hours, Bhez would listen and take notes, but rarely contribute. Her only interest in Breeding was 'could it manufacture a Slave who liked being manipulated, would do as she said without trouble, and could handle being tossed about a little?' Haloq assured her that it could.
"In fact I promise you, the very first thing I create out of my studies, will be a Slave for you. I'll even start looking right now for the right potential mix."
Privately, Bhez knew she added 'I'll start with myself', and the Lady hadn't even inserted that thought for her!
For the moment, though, the trio had fun breaking in some of the more enjoyable looking table surfaces.

"You don't have to carry the creature if you don't want to, Bhez," Haloq rolled her orange eyes. "I mean, even I can bear the child for you. If you really want me to." Half a moment later, Haloq added with a challenge filled grin, "coward."
That sparked Bhez of course, but it still didn't convince her that the spliced offspring she was commissioning should come from her own body. She claimed it would ruin her figure, even if only briefly, and that who wanted to have a Slave brought forth from your own body - that was meant for Inheritors, after all. She was just slightly uncomfortable with having the Slave she wanted also be part of her own genetic structure: she had kind of wanted a playmate in the fullest sense of the word, one which she might have privately enjoyed as a bendy sex toy. But she could buy enough of those.
So naturally Haloq who eventually wound up carrying this first Splice of hers laughingly grumbled that it would fall to the responsible one - and the one of higher Status?
It had taken a little longer than they expected for Haloq to acquire her Sixth Degree status. She'd taken her time learning everything as carefully as she could, because she didn't want to make any mistakes later, on her own. The business of Breeding was cutthroat: hardly any higher Degree Breeders would share secrets to those who weren't already apprenticed to them, and certainly if one made a mistake they'd be the laughing stock of the community for decades. Haloq wasn't interested in being laughed at.
She rather more enjoyed the praise that her peers gave her, when she had located two further contributors to the mix she was making for Bhez. Their coloration was so similar that any extra material that she might forget to work on would merely be duplicating rather than canceling out the more desirable dominant colors, while the powers and few mutations would clearly work to their advantage. Bhez's only seeming mutations were that her coloration was mixed, and her eyes would change constantly - and those things didn't really qualify as mutations, so far as the Breeders were concerned. She didn't have horns sprouting from her forehead and she certainly didn't have some skin disease.
Bhez was told to look at the charts, and she did so with a bit of confusion. "What exactly am I looking for, Haloq? You know I only kept up with your studies to see if I could pronounce half the words you read."
"Your son," Haloq waved her red-orange hand over the long printout, "I think you'll find him to your liking. I'll carry him, just to prove that I can. I'm actually starting to look forward to it."
Bhez and her brother looked at each other, and then around at the machinery in the room. Zherxee asked, "so... where exactly is this offspring, if not on paper?"
Haloq grinned and held up a small vial, silvered to prevent unnecessary ultraviolet exposure. "That's what he's here for," she tossed her head at another Breeder, one who was a Fourth Degree but had agreed to do their cell insertion.
"I have to say that your work is a pleasant surprise compared to some of those others this year," he said, looking over the lab, "and I also would like to add that if you ever - ever - need an assistant or want to start a full clinic, I'd leap at the chance to work here."
Haloq laughed brightly, "get your own lab!"
They disappeared shortly, and within half an hour the strange deed was done. Haloq had been taking hormone treatments and using an advanced pheromone system to tell when she was most likely to have been fertilized, had this other Breeder help her remove an egg of her own, and then one from Bhez, then the other two donors - neither of whom were female. She worked on those cells for three weeks, first having to examine each one completely. Her disappointment in her own cells was tempered with the success of the experiment. She knew after reading the full DNA printout that there would be few if any mutations and just the right kinds of subtle powers for her friend.
Bhez didn't even have to pay for this one, it was the project that she'd announced as her 'final' for the Sixth Degree program. Once the fertilized egg mixture was printed out and registered with her instruction college, she'd been awarded the Degree - everyone knew that it would be a success. Now if only everything during her induced pregnancy would go properly, the child would be well known in her circles!
Zherxee seemed to be feeling left out. While he and his sister shared practically everything under the sun, including their sexual pleasures, Haloq warned them away from including their genetics. Haloq assured him that while the project with his sister might have benefited from having his genes in there too, there would always be far higher chances for serious mutations, and besides, he didn't want a Slave as a child. Bhez seemed okay with having one-quarter responsibility, now.
The trio had to briefly split up, while Haloq was going through her pregnancy. Bhez took over more of their father's estate sales and art exhibit management, while Zherxee landed himself a Hold on some obscure island. What he wanted with an island was beyond anyone's guess.
At last, after an exhaustive year for everyone, Haloq invited the pair of siblings back to her lab for the birth - to hopefully pass on this wonderful heavy gift she was building.
True to form, the child was as expected - named Qhaleb, born Slaved, he had patterned skin of deepest brown with violet markings on fingers and face, metallic pale green hair, and a mix of tan and dark brown to his eyes that sparkled. When Bhez saw this wet, loudly mewling child that was somewhat hers, and felt suddenly a strange connection to him, she knew that the free price tag on this work was something she'd have to work on rectifying - Qhaleb was well worth every work of art in their collection, and just as proudly displayed.

"Is she going to be called my sister, or is it okay to not tell her that part?" Qhaleb asked his Lady/mother, who glanced at Zherxee. The daughter that Haloq gave him was a far more conventional splice, just the two of them, and had a stronger psionic presence in everyone's mind than her ten year old sort-of-sibling.
"She is Qez, until she passes her exams," Zherxee announced, "and no, currently she is not your sister."
Qhaleb nodded. He was an extremely practical young boy. Since he knew his place, but also knew his lineage, and was almost painfully intelligent, he would often ask questions like that. No one felt the need to hold back their responses, either. He was a Slave - therefore he was not a relative. If he eventually Inherited a title above that, certainly he could call his genetic sister-and-a-half whatever they liked. But not until then.
He accepted that, easily and completely. His mother commanded him not to dawdle with his new not-relative, and he came along with her when they were needed at the Gallery.
"We've got to go, sorry, sweets... Haloq, when you're able, I've got a friend who has been looking for someone to help him produce an heir, and I figured you would be up for a bundle of money."
"As long as they don't need me to squeeze another child out," Haloq sighed with a broad grin, "I'll be ready but not for about another year."
"You're getting all motherly suddenly?" Zherxee chuckled. There was something so happy about their Breeder friend when she was holding on to the child she'd born - her second, and she was barely even fertile! Either the accomplishment of having beaten all natural odds and doing so, or just the rush of natural hormones after the birth, made her beautifully happy.
Haloq bundled the baby into her father's arms, while resting comfortably in the Hold that Qez would know as her home. Mada was a very good place to raise a child, but she was born on the island where the famous new Tumbling Mist resort rested. Most probably, she'd be turning into a Breeder like her mother, since Haloq assured Zherxee there was some extremely beneficial spontaneous psionic change in her genes.
The dark red-violet of her skin still glistened, but she was alert and wide-eyed already. Qez gurgled, stuck her hand up into the air right into her father's eye. "You sure she's not yours?" Zherxee asked after his sister, but she had already left the room.