Heddera pressed the warm sonic node into the channel that separated the Dekteron’s fourth arm from his secondary shoulder blade. With a low hum from deep in her diaphragm, the pitch of the node changed and the Dekteron snarled his pleasure. For symmetry, she applied another node under his third arm on the other side and sang a dissonant twin pitch that shifted into a harmonic. His body arched so hard he almost fell off the table. She placed her hand on his back to steady him.
“Jo neech tat?” she asked in Dekon.
The Dekteron paused, then answered. “Gerth erat.” It was a crude way of saying that he wanted more and didn’t want to be asked again. She had what she wanted; complete control.
Lowering the lights, she continued to place nodes and to sing. Some nodes were like buttons and they slid under the many crevices and grooves of his bony body. Some were long, snaky things that Heddera used to arouse and pull away or bury in the most intimate areas. There were times when her voice split into triple notes bringing unendurable tension that had him writhing almost as if in pain, but when she finally decided to please it always brought riotous pleasure.
This Dekteron was easy. Heddera could read him with little effort or thought. Usually she would not deign to tend to one of such low rank but the Sovereign had requested it. And she had worked too long to get into the Sovereign’s good favor to consider refusing. However, it was not a lost cause. This one did have information she could use, that the rebellion could use, though it was of a different sort.
For the finale, Heddera took several of her signature crescent nodes and pushed them into their special places. Then, instead of placing the other ends in the machine, she took the rod ends and slid them into the fluted skin on either side of her throat and along her ribcage. Just the vibration of her breath caused her client to growl. Starting with a soft hum she syncopated her tones to keep him in suspense. The nodes fed both ways and though she received no pleasure, Heddera could feel his anticipation.
It was amazing that the alien invaders had found a way that she, or any Escheral, could pleasure them; their bodies were so different. Theirs rough and craggy, hers smooth and lithe. But the Dekteron thrived on the ephemeral gratification of the flesh and her voice supplied that. It was a great weakness for them.
She hummed a long perfect note and his exhilaration spiked. She stopped it abruptly, did it one more time, and then asked her question. “What is the route of the arms shipment?”
At the moment the question registered he started to turn. She changed from humming to singing the note full voice, freezing him on a razor’s edge between ecstasy and anguish. “Tell me or I will keep your body suspended until your mind flees to insanity.”
The low-ranked Dekteron took no more convincing. He gave the route and she sang, bringing him the Grand Pleasure. At the last moment she changed the pitch down two notes and back up three. She did this four times in quick succession. This would make him forget that they ever spoke beyond the act. When she ceased, the Dekteron was a happy, molten pile of flesh and bone. Heddera withdrew the nodes and left the room with the information.
The Sovereign moved elegantly across the floor of the Great Ballroom, spinning his wife with practiced precision as Heddera watched. Holographic cameras projected their presence at the State Gala in another part of the palace to keep his personage safe. His golden body suit clung to him, showing off the multiplicity of crags the Dekterons saw as beautiful. With the flowing cape, its contrast to the burgundy marble floors and his wife’s white gown made every movement dramatic and important. Heddera watched and remembered dancing here just a year before when this had been the King’s hall. Her King’s hall. A dagger of resentment stabbed in her gut.
After the first dance, the Sovereign shed his showcase wife and moved on to his courtesans. Each wore a different color dress designed to emphasize his strength and grace. Only one dress nearly equaled his show and that was Heddera’s, all silver and pearls. She was the only Escheral amongst his ladies. It was a concession for her conquered people. But he had found pleasure with her as well. While she had not been the King’s highest courtesan, her voice brought her high favor in the Sovereign’s court, the finest dress, and the final dance. It was her chamber he would go to that night. He had no idea how much she despised him.
When finally the night was at an end, they danced. Heddera sang softly with the music, adding suggestive tones and occasional notes of pleasure that would resonate even without the nodes. Her movements flowed with his and the lights glistened off them both. The effect was spectacular. They needn’t be in the room to know the crowd was applauding. It resounded through the walls. When the music ended, he danced her out of the ballroom and into the hallway.
“I always hate those miserable events until I dance with you.” He spun her, not letting the lack of music stop their dance. Heddera simply laughed the way he wanted to hear and teased him down the hallway to her room.
Once she had taken him as far as her voice could alone, she placed the first node. As was the Sovereign’s pride, he maintained control. All of his highest-ranked officials had great control. But he liked the game, to see how far he could make her go before he gave in. Heddera was very careful. She never brought him to the fullness of the Grand Pleasure nor did she interrogate him. If he ever learned how much control she could have over him, she would be dead come morning, or worse.
Tonight he held out until she straddled his stomach with every node buried in them both, save one. That space he did not know about. It was the one that would go to her true center and touch her innermost being. He told her how he loved the sight of the silver nodes disappearing under her midnight blue skin. She sang warm and pleasing, steadily raising the pitch and splitting the tones. Finally, he let himself go and rode the sonic vibrations to a single high note that he sang himself. It was the first time he had ever sung with her.
When she had removed the nodes and they lay together he spoke to her gently. “I have sung with you. You have my trust and my pledge.” He paused. “Next time, do not hold back.”
The two generals the Sovereign sent her had been both a gift and, she suspected, a test. Their demeanor was always of the highest regard and they showed her the respect the Sovereign demanded of them; thus the gift. But she was also certain that they were reporting back to him. If she could roll his greatest generals then he would know what she was truly capable of.
Still, she had gotten a great deal of information from them and now she composed a letter to her brother. On paper first, so she could work out the code; then she would type it into the mail terminal that palace security monitored. They had a dozen codes and she wrote him letters every few days even if she didn’t have strategic data, to reduce suspicion.
The letters he wrote back held little information about the rebellion. Occasionally he would tell her if a personal friend was hurt or killed, but always in code. She mostly knew what she gleaned from the occasional news report. With the State controlling the media, even most of that wasn’t true. But when her brother spoke of the crop seedlings taking root, she knew the Escheral rebellion was growing.
Heddera thought about her next encounter with the Sovereign and she feared it, though she put nothing of it in her letter. The last time he had taken every node and still had control. Of course, she had not sung in her purest voice and did not truly know the limits of his restraint. She did not want to give herself to him; did not want her soul to be tied to the merciless bastard that crossed lightyears of space to devastate her people. Her singing would have to be perfect and she would fine-tune the nodes to equal perfection. She would control him, and give him the Grand Pleasure and hold him to the word of his pledge not to kill her.
Finishing the code, she typed the letter and vaporized the original. With this information the rebels would be able to take back at least three outlying cities. They would do it discreetly, over time so as not to give her away. Heddera was far too valuable on the inside for them to risk her life with impatience. She prayed for the day she would not be risking her life at all.
It was not the night of a gala event or even a private celebration, but a warm, meaningless night with many stars that the Sovereign next came to her.
Heddera started slow, establishing control from the beginning. She ordered him to stand in the middle of the room while she peeled his clothes off silently. There was nothing she cared to see but she smiled at him as if he were the most beautiful man in the galaxy. Her silken robes danced over his rough skin as she danced around him in silence. Finally, she came close and placed her mouth over his throat. Heddera paused as if she were going to do nothing and then hummed low in a deeply intimate gesture. His spine stiffened. She had caught him by surprise.
Throughout the night she teased and surprised him. Every time he thought he knew what she was going to do she prolonged the suspense and did something different, or she did what he expected, but never in the way he expected it. Heddera took the Sovereign to new heights of pleasure and he allowed it.
When the sun had just started to peek over the horizon the Sovereign held himself suspended above her. His body trembled with restraint as the vibrations of her pure voice amplified and caressed through every node in his body. She changed pitches down for a moment of relief and then up even higher. He shuddered but still held back. His gaze caught her eyes and she couldn’t look away. There wasn’t desperation or want in his eyes. There was power.
“Give me all of yourself.” His whisper was inviting though she knew it was not a request. Heddera could not answer without breaking her note so she split her beautiful tone into a primal chord, trying to break his control. His body tightened, impossibly so, and still his eyes held her.
“I can see it in your face. There is more and I want it.”
In that moment, Heddera knew she was lost. Accept or refuse, she would lose everything. She reached under her pillow and withdrew the final node and its deceptively tiny receiver. If he were Escheral he would have had the anatomy to touch her true self and she would touch his. But the node would give the Sovereign what he wanted. Her.
The song she sang slowed until it moved with every other beat of her heart. He waited. When she raised her hand toward his mouth, he opened it. The transmitter rested on the tip of her third finger which she extended until it rested against the folds of his soft pallet. She pressed it into the skin, just below his skull.
Removing her hand she took the last node and placed it first against her throat. The vibrations from her singing startled him and he began to shudder. It took several moments before he regained control. His eyes glared with different kinds of heat now. Anger mixed with desire and passion, compelling her to continue.
The small, diamond-shaped node would only fit one place on her body and she opened that place for the first time in her life. Just below her sternum she revealed a soft, green pocket of flesh. She gasped at the sudden exposure and almost cried for what she was about to lose. The Sovereign probed it gently with his fingers. Then he leaned down and stroked it once with his tongue, then again. Trembling, she held her breath and there was silence.
The Sovereign took the node from her hand and placed it deep in her most intimate space. Her whole body quivered from the physical penetration as love and hate clashed violently in her heart. She felt like she was going to burst with the conflict in her soul.
Her skin closed over the node. Once again the Sovereign lowered his mouth to her center. But this time he sang. It was a beautiful, visceral note that resonated in her being and she stopped shaking. He raised his face to her but she didn’t need to hear his command. Heddera started singing.
Rhythmic tones pulsed from within her. The Sovereign rocked back and forth, following her lead. She took him through every pitch and scale, fast and slow, split and triple notes and he rode every wave with her, sometimes hanging on by the thinnest thread. Then she found the note he had sung. She sang it back to him, rich and resonant from her deepest center. His body bucked off of her and she moved to be on top of him. His back arched and she pinned him down with her hips. Modulating the note slightly she had him writhing. Suddenly, she recognized the key.
While she continued singing his note, she added the note from the core of her being as well. His whole body spasmed with ecstasy and after only three beats she possessed him. The Sovereign’s eyes locked with hers and she didn’t know if it was clarity or rapture that she saw. She was his will, his being, his very heartbeat. Heddera could have stopped his breathing right there, but she would never have made it out of the palace. After giving him the Grand Pleasure she gave him the greatest gift of all; a pleasure that had been denied her King and thousands of her people. She let him live.
After their encounter Heddera expected to feel emptiness in the heart the Sovereign had plundered. She had given of herself and he could not give back. But through the singing he had left something within her. He left darkness. The gap in her soul that was supposed to be filled with the love of a new husband was instead filled with malevolence that was not hers.
And yet the core he touched created love for him. It did not distinguish good or evil, it only knew to give. Heddera had never known so much pain. The conflict was a double-edged blade buried in her gut and the fact that she was forced to love him only made her hate him that much more.
When the summons came calling her to the Hall of Judgment she didn’t flinch. Her heart was hard and ready. The first three days she had spent crying. The next three she had embraced the darkness he gave her and learned to hate more deeply than she knew was possible.
She didn’t know why it had taken him six days to decide on her destruction. How could he let her live when she could control him like that? For a moment, the love she couldn’t deny fanned the flame of hope that he might actually care for her. But as she walked down the marble hallway to her fate, she despised that flame.
Heddera entered the large, stark room and to her surprise, the guards treated her with deference. At the front of the room, the Sovereign and three of his advisors sat around a black, half-circle of a table with a working-class Escheral man standing in the cut-out space of its center. She approached stoically and stood four steps to the man’s left, outside the Circle of Judgment.
The Sovereign saw her and gestured for her to join him. That’s when she realized she was not there to be judged at all. The knot of tension within her eased. The advisor on his immediate right evacuated his plush green chair and bade her to sit. When she had taken her place she looked at the man that stood before them. His dark blue skin was ashen and his face was swollen and distorted with the marks of a harsh beating. When she looked more closely she realized she knew this man. He was the head of accounting at her brother’s printing company, and probably a rebel.
“This man was caught stealing from the palace kitchen. It is not known how he got on the grounds,” the Sovereign said. “The panel is deadlocked. While I usually have the final say, he is one of your people. I will leave it to you to cast the deciding vote.”
Was this some sort of test? A sick joke? Heddera looked at the Sovereign but his dark eyes were serious and told nothing more. Trying to be calm, she turned to the accused.
“Why were you stealing?”
His eyes pleaded with her before he even spoke. “To feed my family. I am worried about my younger sister Reddefinia. She is so weak she has not spoken for days.”
Heddera could not believe it. That was the childish name she had insisted her family call her when she was five. This was a message from her brother. She hadn’t contacted him since that night and he was worried. He was risking the life of one of his people to check on her. From the look on the man’s face, she was certain he had not planned on getting caught. Without hesitating, she asked another question.
“How did you get onto the palace grounds?”
“I came in with the groundskeepers. I did not think the palace would miss just a little bit of food.”
She looked back at the Sovereign. There was the slightest smile creasing his lips as if he found the proceedings amusing.
“Where lies the decision?” she asked.
“Death or the amputation of his right arm.”
Heddera knew the shock had to be showing on her face though the Sovereign did not react to it. This was disgusting; death for a loaf of bread? When she could safely find her voice she spoke. “Have you considered mercy?”
Now the Sovereign looked truly amused. “Will your people like me better if I show him mercy? Do they like their leaders to be soft?”
“They want their leaders to be kind.”
He regarded her as if he found what she said to be interesting. Without a glance at the accused man, the Sovereign spoke to the guards. “Very well. Take only his right hand and send him off with a day’s worth of food.”
Heddera wanted to object, to fight for the man’s unmutilated freedom but she had bought him all she could. He would lose his hand because of her self-pity. She was surprised when his eyes held gratitude instead of anger. As he was taken away she mouthed an apology to him.
The Sovereign dismissed the guards and his advisors leaving the two of them alone. This close and quiet she could feel the rhythm of his heart through their invisible connection and she wondered if he could feel hers.
“I have been asking the servants about what we shared the other night. They tell me that was supposed to be for your husband.”
The servants were all Escheral. For their own sakes they had told him the truth. Heddera gave a small nod of assent.
“Do you want to be my wife?”
“No. I believe you treat me better as your courtesan.”
He laughed an honest laugh. “You are probably right.” The Sovereign paused. “The people know you are mine now, but you are still one of them. I want you to help me win the hearts of your people. I want to take away their reason to rebel.”
In a handful of words the Sovereign had revealed his ignorance and his trepidation to his enemy. Heddera marveled that only a half-hour before she was sure she was going to die. But with this turn of events, she focused on how to shift things in the rebels’ favor.
“My people want to know their leaders and believe they are good people that care about them. But you hide behind holograms and force fields so thick it is as if you walk in a fog. That they do not trust.”
“I must protect myself.”
“Isn’t that the job of the Royal Guard? Do you fear what our King did not?” He stiffened at the mention of their King and Heddera recognized not to push the subject any further. “Let my people get to know you. Then they will feel as I do.” She caressed his arm and sang the first few notes of a seductive song. He closed his eyes until she was silent.
“My advisors will object.”
“You are the Sovereign. You will do as you wish. But I am yours and I am Escheral. I know my people and I will help bring them to you.”
Reaching over, he stroked her center through her silken dress. She was at once drawn to him and repelled, but she showed only delight at his touch.
“You have given me much to consider. More discussion is required in private consultation.”
“We can continue in my chamber.”
The Grand Banquet Hall was a jumbled mass of colorful fabrics as Dekteron and Escheral alike sat around the table in their finest gowns and suits. The Sovereign sat, without any force field, in the middle of the table with his wife on one side and Heddera on the other. The seating then alternated his advisors with their wives and his courtesans in descending tiers of favor. Across the table the Escheral contingent was made up of the wealthy merchants and businessmen that had benefitted from the invasion. While the Escheral guests posed no threat, they made for good propaganda about how the Sovereign was reaching out to the people.
This was the third such event the Sovereign had held at Heddera’s behest. And with a hundred guests, it was also the largest. The room was noisy with dinner conversation and silverware tinkling on fine porcelain. Loud exclamations rose in the crowd every time the servants brought out a spectacular new dish; the Sovereign was at his most charming.
Heddera watched him. He had chosen to wear a deep blue body suit and cape that matched her skin beautifully. The silver brocade and trim mimicked the nodes they shared almost every night, though no one else understood the symbolism. She regretted that sharing had gotten easier; because when he smiled generously and laughed with all of his guests it was hard to hate him. Worse, the part of her that loved him was able to do just that.
The Sovereign also wore the silver necklace that she had given him as a gift. It was braided metal with clear embedded crystals that amplified the effects of her voice without the need for the nodes. Heddera could excite him simply by speaking in the right pitch. The necklace was her brother’s invention and had passed through the newly developed network of palace servants that were loyal to him. In turn, she had given him the Sovereign’s vital frequencies and security information she had obtained from one night’s pleasuring of the head of the Royal Guard; her job was done.
Dinner finally ended and the music started. The small band of Escheral musicians played traditional rhythms underneath Dekteron styled melodies. They had rehearsed well for this event. Applause rose but the crowd didn’t. All eyes turned toward the Sovereign. He stood boldly and looked around him. His eyes fell upon his wife and grazed over her. Tonight he bypassed the perfunctory dance with her, turned, and held his hand out to Heddera. She did not need to look to know hatred was shooting out of his wife’s eyes.
Heddera rose and followed his lead out to the dance floor. Standing poised, they waited while the music faded out and the next song began. Before they started to move she leaned into him and hummed the note that would resonate through the necklace, giving him great pleasure. He did not show it physically except that his smile grew. It was the least she could do to let her inner heart give him that one, last kindness.
Then the dance began. They glided across the floor spinning and turning; their steps matching the rhythms and catching every change. Rather than joining in, the crowd clapped along with the music, enjoying the spectacle.
The Sovereign had a tight grip around her waist when he suddenly froze. Heddera lurched with the stop of the momentum and was held fast in his arms. His eyes looked at her in alarm and a moment later the pain assaulted her. She felt the frequency that was destroying him. The unbearable ache radiated from the center of their most intimate connection. Locked together they sunk to their knees. Blood oozed out of the Sovereign’s eyes and nose. Heddera cried. She could sense people rushing toward them, but her world was very small now. He toppled and put his arm out to stop himself, releasing her. But she collapsed with him in tears and pain. There was more blood from other places, inside and out. Only a few breaths and she felt the exact moment he died.
Dark lights sparkled in front of Heddera’s eyes and her head roiled in confusion. Her body felt as if she would die too, but she knew she wouldn’t. Escheral spouses did not die with their partners but they felt the death in whatever manner it took. It was why loving couples prayed to die in their sleep.
There were many hands on her now. Not the rough hands of the Dekteron Royal Guard as she expected, they must have thought she was dying too. No, they were smooth hands, Escheral hands, and together they bore her across the room. Heddera was aware when they left the ballroom and started winding through the palace hallways, but she did not have enough sense to keep track of where they were going. She cried while they carried her, her body trembling to her core. The sudden loss, even of the man she hated, and loved, was too great.
They entered a darkened bedroom and laid her on a thick comforter that sucked her into itself. The cool, luscious softness brought her back to awareness of her body. She took several deep breaths and realized that the pain was gone, and so was the Sovereign’s darkness. A hole though; a deep, empty pit resided in her now and she never felt more alone. She wasn’t sure which was worse, hate or emptiness.
Words came out of the darkness and she realized there were still many people in the room. “We must go.”
The hands started to take her again but she waved them off and stood shakily on her own. They guided her and suddenly she was hurrying through a secret passage, underground but near the surface. Heddera could hear the sounds of rioting. When they broke out onto the back east lawn she could see it wasn’t just rioting. This was more organized, more heavily armed. All out war. Her brother had managed to recruit an air force and hijack some ships because the battle raged in the sky as well.
Heddera smiled slowly and that surprised her. From that empty pit, she knew it was the Sovereign that taught her to appreciate revenge. The hole inside her filled with glee at the thought of every Dekteron in the capital lying dead. She would never have felt that before. Her smile oozed into knowing laughter. This fight was possible because of her; she had beaten him.
The core of herself that embraced revenge also embraced her Victory, growing the feeling until the space within her overflowed in triumph. Heddera stood tall and strode away from the palace – into the hands of her people.
No one would be her master ever again.