Chapter 16

Zalbard watched the black storm gathering outside the Spire. Like most such storms, it was already reaching proportions that the natives of other worlds would call a hurricane. Here, it was just another storm.

Not, of course, that the Spire was in any danger.

He glanced over his shoulder. His bed was quilted with silk - genuine silk, imported from a more fortunate world than his own. Another luxury of his position. It was not the soft bedding that drew his gaze, however, but its occupant.

It had been more than three weeks now since the Master had first given him his reward, and he had made good use of the time.

But still, Althena’s will held.

He frowned.

True, he had not had nearly as much time as he’d had with her sisters. And exhaustion alone - more hers than his, for a Cetra’s stamina was ill-suited to competing with an Esper’s - ended his enjoyment sooner than he would have liked.

But with the others, there had been, at the very least, some glimmer of desire. Zalbard’s methods were quite scientific, really. It was not difficult to establish a pattern with them.

When he was pleased, they were, as well.

When he was not pleased...

He glared at the figure, half-hidden by her long, blue hair.

When he was not pleased, well, they were not, either.

On this world, there was only pleasure and pain. All else had been stripped away from the Espers by their harsh prison. Death was quick and brutal and, above all, often. They made good use of their short lives.

In the Spire, life was no less brutal. But here, it was an orderly brutality, meted out in carefully controlled increments depending on one’s position, and Zalbard was near the pinnacle of that order. As long as he did not earn the Master’s disfavor, as long as he did not allow ambitious subordinates to overthrow him as he had his predecessor, there would be no pain. Only pleasure.

And sleep. It was to sleep that Althena retreated, an escape to dreams that Zalbard himself could not hope to emulate. His dreams were not pleasant things, cold and dark and most often ending in his death at the Master’s hands.

Angry that she should have an escape that he was denied, he stalked over to the bed and yanked off the silken sheets. "Get up!" he snarled. In the long term, it was foolish to deprive his charge of her rest, for she would be less enjoyable in the future if she were exhausted.

But this was not the long term.

This was now.

For just an instant, as she awakened, Althena still wore a small smile, some vestige of whatever pleasant dream she’d been lost in.

"Up!" Zalbard shouted. He raised his hand over her, ready to bring it down for a harsh blow.

He must control himself! Such mindless brutality would merely cause her to resent him. Pain must be inflicted only, only at the proper time, as punishment.

There would certainly be plenty of opportunities to do so. Althena had to be punished almost constantly. She would not give in. Always, her resistance was there.

No doubt it was her attachment to that accursed Destined One, the Player, Ghaleon. "Arise, dear little -Heir-," Zalbard said, his voice brought back to silky control, partly by his will, partly because he had lost the jealous rage.

Althena’s smile faded as she saw where she was.

Zalbard leered at her, enjoying the change in her expression, the way her body tensed with fear at the sight of him.

For just an instant, instinct took over Althena’s half-asleep mind, and her eyes flashed red. She opened her mouth, no doubt to begin a song that she had known since before she was born, a song that was a part of her very essence.

Zalbard clapped a hand over her mouth, his deceptively thin fingers shutting her oh-so-dangerous, oh-so-beautiful lips. The hand stifled her song, and it stifled her screams. He was not in the mood for those this evening.

Though her eyes, welling up with tears of rage, still spoke of the defiance in her will, her body could not resist forever. Before long she lay, limp and unresisting.

But that was all.

Zalbard was a scientist, an artist! How was it that she did not respond to his touch?

Soon. Soon, she would acknowledge her desire. An hour, a day, another week at most. It was inconceivable that it could be otherwise.

But not this hour, it seemed.

When he was done, he got up without another word and, shrugging on his robe, stalked back to the window.

His predecessor had made the mistake of allowing the -Heirs- to see that Espers, too, could be pleased.

Zalbard would make no mistakes.

Behind him, Althena’s sobs faded as she fell back to sleep.