(Book I of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 1999 BY
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Xaa mutter-growled a quiet profanity, and Merle had to agree with him. Tinker had been overjoyed to learn that he would be allowed virtually free reign - and he had used that privilege. Now, in the center of the courtyard, was a brazier of coals, and an ugly-looking iron sitting in it. There was also a small sack that Tinker had set next to himself, and he stood by it, waiting. T'vril was being led out to Tinker by her guard, and she looked extremely nervous.
Tinker looked about at the mus gazing at him. They did not look happy. For a brief moment, he wondered if this was the right thing to do. Then T'vril was standing next to him. "Are you sure about this?" he asked quietly.
"Mrr... Yes, Great Lord Tinker. It is the only way to show them that you have completely mastered me, and that I am no threat. It is also what I want," she said, smiling.
Tinker looked up into T'Vril's alien, emerald-green, slit-pupiled eyes. Was there a trace of fear there? He couldn't tell.
"Miaow... Don't just let them stare at you, Great Lord. Do it. Show them that you are greater than they."
Tinker nodded, then screwed up his courage. He turned to the assembled mus, and spoke up in a loud, clear voice. "I have done that which you could not do. I have mastered this cat. I declare her to be my property, and no longer in need of being guarded. She will be totally loyal and subservient to me, and will act as my translator from now on, as well as my personal assistant."
Xaa translated, then gazed at T'Vril. "You are up to something, Cat. The Little One never would have thought of this himself. You are behind this, somehow," he growled.
T'Vril trembled nervously, then translated what Xaa had said for Tinker. Tinker's tail lashed in irritation. "What do you mean? You doubt that I have mastered this cat? I'll prove it!" he snapped, then turned to T'Vril. "Strip."
T'Vril nodded, and slipped out of the simple kimono her captors had provided for her. As Xaa glared at her, her tail flicked tightly between her legs, covering her sex, the tailtip quivering between her breasts.
"To show that she will not be carrying knives or keys to locked places or anything else that you may not wish her to have, she will remain nude at all times," Tinker announced, and T'Vril quietly bowed her head, placing her paws behind her back. Xaa quietly translated what Tinker had said, his voice growling.
Merle stared, in shock. The other mus gazed on with expressions ranging from disbelief and shock to disgust. Xaa, however, simply glared at T'Vril, and she trembled in fear when she caught his gaze.
"Kneel," Tinker ordered. T'Vril quietly knelt beside him, and he picked up the bag that sat at his feet, producing a metal contraption that was two half-circles of steel with a hinge between them, and at the other end a simple slot and a barbed tang. "Observe: This collar is made so that once closed, it locks. It cannot be opened again afterwards," he announced, then held it out to T'Vril. "Put it on this way up, so my name will be right-side up," Tinker ordered, dropping the leather sack in front of T'Vril.
T'Vril took the collar from Tinker's paw, her own paws trembling, then slipped it around her neck and closed it with a loud click that echoed in the quiet courtyard. Xaa again translated what Tinker had said. The silence in the courtyard was utter and complete.
"But I know this isn't enough to convince you. Especially you," Tinker said, pointing at Xaa.
"Not hardly," Xaa growled in reply, then spoke up while T'Vril translated what he had said. "The Little One says that he knows what he has done so far is not enough to convince us, especially me. It seems obvious to me what he intends. Merle, go inside. I don't think you need to watch. Lord W'mefa, I recommend you allow anyone who isn't up to watching to go inside."
W'mefa spat. "I don't know if I'm up to watching it," W'mefa replied, then turned to the crowd. "Any servant who wishes to leave, may do so. All warrior-caste, stay," W'mefa ordered.
"I'm staying. I'm a warrior, I'll watch this to the bitter end," Merle said, but she took Xaa's paw nervously and squeezed it.
"So you are, Merle. So you are," Xaa replied, and W'mefa nodded.
Several of the servants left while Tinker hesitated. T'Vril whispered to him. "Miaow... Go on, Great Lord. Do it. Show them your strength. Please."
Tinker reached to the brazier and picked up the branding iron, then stepped behind T'Vril. "A collar can be cut with a hacksaw. It isn't permanent. This is," Tinker said. Yet, he then hesitated again.
"Mrr... Press hard, Great Lord," T'Vril said, and placed her head on the ground, biting into the leather sack.
Tinker gritted his teeth and pressed the iron hard into T'Vril's right buttock. He nearly dropped it at the muffled yowl from T'Vril, the sizzling of burned fur and scorched flesh, and the smell. It was done - Tinker's initial was clearly branded into T'Vril's buttock. It was a small mark, one that could be easily covered by Tinker's tiny palm. Even so, it somehow seemed larger. Tinker nervously set the iron aside, then pulled out the jar of bloodmoss unguent he'd taken from the castle infirmary and smeared it into the lines of the brand. He hoped what he had learned weeks ago from the mus when he was trading medical information was correct, and was relieved to see it was. T'Vril instantly stopped moaning in pain and began to purr at the touch of the bloodmoss.
"There," Tinker said, closing the jar and dropping it back into his pocket. "As you can see, the cat accepts this voluntarily. She is my slave, my property. I have mastered her completely, something you could not do. You have no need to guard her anymore, she will be totally subservient to me."
"Yes, Tinker. It's done. You have shown us that the cat is willing to obey you completely, and can be trusted not to hurt you - at least not until she gets what she wants from you, whatever that may be. You have also shown us your true heart, and the heart of your people," Xaa growled, and spat. The mus gathered around muttered their agreement, as Xaa continued. "Oh, don't worry. We won't bother to place any guards around her anymore. You are free to come and go with your little slave anywhere you wish. But there is one thing you had wrong, Tinker," Xaa growled.
"Oh? What's that?" Tinker replied, screwing up his courage to reply after T'Vril had translated.
"We didn't master T'Vril for one simple reason. We didn't want to," Xaa growled in reply.
Xaa looked down to Merle. Merle's face showed how stunned the whole scene had left her. Xaa gently tugged her paw, and led her back into the castle.
The sight of Xaa leaving seemed to act as a signal, and all the rest of the mus began to leave the courtyard, walking to the various doors that led into the different areas of the castle. Soon, Tinker and T'Vril were alone.
"Great. They all left. Now how am I going to get the balloon finished for the airship? I can't do the work myself - it's just too much, and I'm too small," Tinker grumbled.
"Purr... Pay them no heed, Master. They are jealous of your strength of spirit, your power of will. I shall help you. I am larger, and stronger. Simply tell me what to do, and I shall do it."
Tinker looked across to T'Vril, who now knelt meekly beside him. "Well, alright, that would work. But 'Master'?" he asked.
"Purr... Of course, Master. I am your property, to use in any way and at any time you deem fit."
Tinker grinned. "Well, then later tonight, we'll find out just how far that goes. But for now, I need some help assembling the framework for the balloon. Come on - let's go. And pick up that brazier - we'll need it to heat the iron to drill the holes in the wood for the pins."
"Purr... Yes, Master," T'Vril replied, lifting the brazier easily and padding after Tinker's retreating form.
"I don't know, Merle. It seems unlikely any mus will ever help Tinker again, unless there simply is no other way for him to finish the airship. I think probably the most we'll do is provide him the raw materials he's going to need, like the silk and the wood for the air-bag," Xaa said, pouring another cup of tea for Merle across the dinner table before them. The candles in Merle's quarters flickered in an errant draft, and Merle sipped the tea quietly for a moment before replying.
"I guess I can understand that," Merle replied, frowning.
"Merle, the way Tinker treated T'Vril, making her his branded slave, was exactly what T'Vril's people do to those they capture in war. Those who wish to live are forced to submit - usually through starvation, beatings and torture. Those who refuse to submit, even in the face of this abuse, are killed. But those who willingly submit are treated differently. A slave who must be forced to submit is always watched, never trusted, and often beaten. A slave who willingly submits, on the other hand, is treated far better. The cats consider the brand of ownership to be a great honor for a slave, one that is earned, and the ultimate acknowledgment of their acceptance of their fate. It is only given and taken willingly, and it is a permanent acknowledgment of their submission. The collar could be cut off by a smith, but the brand is for life. Our people find this disgusting and totally without honor to break a person's spirit in this way, warping them to your will - and the cats are very good at bending captives to their will, which makes it all the more hideous, to us," Xaa growled.
"Maybe he didn't understand because of what he saw at the dinner party?" Merle suggested.
"No. Her treatment then was simply because she refused to stop trying to claw and bite N'Char and his assistants. It was the only way to bring her before W'mefa and insure that she would not attack him or anyone else while W'mefa explained the reality of the situation to her. Our promise to her was real - she has not been mistreated by us, and so long as she behaves, she never will be. The T'Chang have fled, so there no longer is any reason to keep her - any more information we might glean by talking to her is useless, now. And yet, there no longer is anyplace to send her home to, either. Perhaps this is all for the best - at least we know where she is, and that she will be occupied, for the moment. Yes, she will be very occupied, bringing her plan to fruition."
"Her plan?" Merle asked.
"Merle, this can't have been Tinker's idea, he's far too timid, and hesitated repeatedly - but the fact that he went through with it is very telling of the true heart of his people. That means it was her idea. As such, she wants something from him. Since the obvious result is that we will be extremely reluctant to help Tinker, since we would consider him not only to be the same rude little creature we already thought he was but now also see him as being totally without honor, it's apparent she wanted to set it up so she would be his primary assistant. My guess is that she is hoping to be able to learn the secrets of his people. But that, of course, isn't likely to happen."
"Why not?" Merle asked. "I mean, she'll be right there."
"Yes, but Tinker isn't going to want to give away his secrets to her anymore than he wants to give away his secrets to us. You're his best friend, his friend since childhood, and he still destroyed your invention and your friendship with him rather than risk his secrets getting out. So, in the end, she'll learn almost nothing. Most likely, when Tinker leaves, she'll try to go with him. And if I know Tinker, he'll take her along," Xaa growled.
"Huh? Why would he take her along? She's a cat!" Merle asked, surprised.
"For exactly that reason, Merle. I believe he honestly thinks he has dominated her, mastered her, and bent her to his will. He'll want to go home with her as his slave, and show all his people how wise and powerful he is."
"Oh, no!" Merle said, realizing what that would mean.
"Exactly," Xaa said, seeing her face. "She will then make every effort to get back to her people and tell them where the mice are, and what kind of technologies they have. The cats will then make every effort to get to the Wild Woods and capture the mice, enslaving them and forcing them to make the technology they need to destroy us. The musties, they will simply overwhelm with numbers and wipe out."
"No! Please tell me you could be wrong, please!" Merle begged.
"I could be, Merle. But I don't think I am. And you know I'm not wrong," Xaa replied quietly.
Merle nodded sadly. "What do we do?"
"For the moment, nothing. We let Tinker complete his airship. We let him continue thinking T'Vril is his obedient slave, and use her to help him do it. Then, when he is finished, we act. If Fate is willing, we will stop Tinker from fleeing with the airship, and stop T'Vril from bringing harm to his people and yours."
"I hope so," Merle said, and hugged
Xaa tight. Xaa wrapped his arms around her gently, and hugged her
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