In which my companions and I pass into servitude, and spend our first evening as bondlings.
My name is Tuerqui, formerly Princess Margaret of the Blood Victoria. But, to start with a few preliminaries…
There was, in those days, a glut of slaves, and the reason for that glut was war. This will, perhaps, arouse visions of victors carrying off the vanquished in chains – and sometimes it was so, but that is by no means the whole of it. War meant high taxes which, in turn, meant evasion or inability to pay; tax gatherers were ever quick to seize defaulters: human bodies, in lieu of cash. The wars allowed rogues to slip over frontier rivers to capture neighbouring civilians; armed conflict also ensured that worse villains could take human plunder for more devious, often political, reasons.
My father, as a proscribed person, cannot be named. But, without risk of writing treason, I may identify him as the blackguard who will be known to history as Usurper II of Lundin. Given the glut of bondlings at that time, it may be inferred that my enslavement was politically motivated on account of my parentage. It may also be germane that I was betrothed to the Crown Prince of Dawzet.
It would be a grave error to infer from my father’s wickedness that his opponents were necessarily benign. As a for instance, I am quite sure that the Duke of Lester, complicit in my enslavement, was as wicked a fellow as one could well wish to avoid. I am less inclined to blame my cousin Jenna, who had good reason to fear a return to my father’s Grim Tower. The scars House Sergeant Billy Blunt, the torturer, left on her body are a memory I’d prefer to efface.
In the early years of his reign, my father must have found it expedient to form an alliance to the east, for he married a daughter of that powerful Essex lord, Earl Clement VI of the East Wood. After bearing Usurper II a son and a daughter, my mother reached some sort of agreement with my father by which she returned to the Belle House, her ancestral home. Its environs are the scene of my first memories.
My life as a princess was far from a constant round of pampering: I had the misfortune to be consigned to a schoolroom in which a governess named Miss Lace made repeated use of a cane and a strap. Of course, Miss Lace’s instruments of chastisement were far less fearsome than Billy Blunt’s hideous engines in the Grim Tower. For all of that, I was frequently subjected to a very sore bottom: not only for my own faults, but for those that my spiteful cousins – not Jenna – succeeded in attributing to me. However severe my spankings as a royal child, one advantage of a princess’ estate over slavery is that the food is generally better; although – as I recall my father’s slaves snaffling Solstice geese – I appreciate that it is not always so.
When I was fifteen, I received as a gift from my father a dusky skinned captive whom I named as Inqui. Although my mother attempted to mask the fact, father had sent the bondling especially for my use. This was not so much an act of generosity, as an investment in his plans. His design was that I would secure for him a splendid alliance by marrying a Crown Prince – and such a putative bride should not arrive in Lundin without her attendant slave.
A couple of months later, my father called me to Lundin, with the prospect of a forced marriage to Crown Prince Fredric of Dawzet. Inqui accompanied me, as my body slave. My father’s home, The Palace Victoria, is both large and complex – so I was assigned Fliti, a second slave, as my guide through the labyrinthine passageways. Fliti and Inqui became my first lovers.
The affairs of war delayed my marriage and, as Surrey folk conducted ever bolder raids, my father and his ministers came to consider Lundin too dangerous a city to keep me. For that reason, I was dispatched toward a place of safety in the north. Perhaps father was reluctant to remove soldiers from potential battle zones; quite certainly, he wished to save money. Jenna, her slave, Beddibelle, Inqui, Fliti and I were assigned places in a public caravan; our guard proved inadequate.
On the second evening of the journey, we reached Watt’s Ford Gap Services. There, I sat down to dine with the Duke of Lester, the Dowager Duchess of Louess, the Prince of Brister, the duchess’ daughter, Carlotta, the prince’s daughter, Heliotrope, Cousin Jenna, and the captain of my guard, Sir Dagobert. Our meal never arrived; instead Cap’n Gentle and his pirates burst into our presence. The cutthroats killed Sir Dagobert, the prince and the duchess; Carlotta, Heliotrope and I were led from the dining room in chains.
Part way to the canal, Inqui greeted us; she was now unharnessed and dressed in a smart suit. At her request, a pirate unchained us, but we were not to be liberated. Instead, my former slave told us to change into dresses of the sort worn by waitresses or maid servants. This was a kindness: a ruse to disguise from our fellow captives that we were the true objects of the slaving raid; there could be little doubt that avoiding a troublesome cargo, riven by enmity, also aided the pirates.
“In these things,” Inqui told us, “your fellow bondlings will think you were waitresses or maids in personage before you were enslaved. As the whole point of this raid is to capture you three, you’ll be well advised to keep your companions ignorant that you were once ladies. They’ll very likely blame you for their fate – and, in a way, justifiably so. If anyone asks what you were before tonight, just say that you’d rather not talk about it – the goddesses hate lies.”
Neither Inqui nor I had always maintained strict truthfulness. While I hope that I’m no blasphemer, I think that the goddesses may sometimes smile upon the feisty fibs told by their more favoured subjects – in the naturally human and fallible rough-and-tumble of life. It may be that my former slave envisaged that lies would lead to inconsistent stories, arousing our fellow bondlings’ suspicions. And a slave lying to her mistress would be a treason against the submission that is, properly understood, her greatest treasure.
Fliti wore riding things, obviously about to depart on horseback; she kissed me before our parting. We three girls of noble or royal birth found ourselves added to eight captives from the common folk; the presence of commoners intended, so the pirates said, to make the grim business look more like an ordinary slaving raid. Having adopted the name Lady Isobel, the former Inqui was to act as our mistress and trainer. Now, our mistress had harnessed and branded us; thus we were enslaved, carried against our will in the hold of a canal pirate boat.
As she placed her arm about my waist, a girl asked: “What’s your new name, love?”
“T-u-e-r-q-u-i,” I spelt my new name. “I’m not sure how it’s pronounced, but I’ll find out soon enough.”
“That’s unusual, I wonder why she called you that?”
“I don’t know. What did she call you?”
“Spanquibelle, because she said I have a spankable bum. What do you think?”
“Spankable enough,” I admitted, as I glanced at her prominent buttocks.
Busti, another of my companions, said: “I once knew a girl called Choose-day.” Or, at least, that was how Busti pronounced the unusual name. “That began with T-u-e.”
“Come to think of it,” I replied, “Tuerqu’s Well, near where I was brought up, begins with T-u-e, but it’s pronounced Ch.”
“Perhaps,” a thin girl now marked as Raiqu suggested, “that slave’s name is pronounced as Chalky. She does look a bit pale.”
“I’m sure we all do,” Slippa said, “after what we’ve been through.”
My barbecued thigh hurt a little less than it had a quarter of an hour before; the wet rag covering my fresh, raw brand proved surprisingly effective. An incongruous smell from a bottle of pungent cleaning fluid partially overpowered that of burnt meat. Chattering girls’ raised voices now sounded louder than the moaning and snuffling of those who still sobbed. A lantern bobbed in response to the sluggish motion of the canal boat; in the lamp’s lambent light, a confusion of shadows danced.
As I now consider the matter, years after the event, I’m surprised to note how young we girls were. I was sixteen, little more than a child, although my father had thought to have me married at the age of twelve, fifteen at the oldest. My fellow bondlings’ ages differed from mine by no more than a year or two. Even Lady Isobel, who seemed to me a fully mature woman, had yet to enter her twenties.
The tiller man, beyond the bare awning posts, and silhouetted against the sky, spoke to a fellow cutthroat. “A good haul of livestock, tonight: ponies and slaves both.”
His companion asked: “What would you know of horse or slave flesh?”
“Plenty! When I were little more than a lad, I rode into Yocker with the Colonel Bland’s Crimson Hoof Boys.”
In happy lands, where the rule of law is more than a hollow mockery, road travellers may shelter in a caravanserai, far from the sea, safe from piracy. In the Meadowlands, the politicking of dukes and squabbles of barons allow pirates to navigate the canals to the despite of the highways. Thus it was that I’d been seized in that bloody piratical raid on Watt’s Ford Gap Services. The Duke of Lester had been present in person, condoning murder – and the enslavement of eleven young women, including me: all of us now harnessed and branded.
“My brand!” Spanquibelle gasped. “Never known anything to hurt so much.”
“Yeah,” Raiqu agreed, “I’ve chatted with a few slaves, in my time. Wish I’d asked one of them how long her brand continued to hurt.”
“It can’t be forever,” Chit said, “otherwise slaves would limp for the whole of their lives.”
My brand was about three inches square of roasted flesh. Its top line comprised the name Tuerqui, burnt into my thigh with metal slugs that could be inserted into, and removed from, the business end of the branding iron. The mark of Cap’n Gentle, the pirate, had been seared below the seven letters: a sign resembling a curved letter X with a little tick to the right. At the base of the scorched area was 1207, my registration number.
Spanquibelle said: “At least, Chit, you have a short name. How do you think mine felt, as it burnt into my thigh?” Momentarily, she lifted her wet rag to reveal a name fully five inches across. “How do you think it feels now?”
“Sorry,” Chit apologised, but without much contrition in her tone. “You drew the spider lady…” I think this referred to a gambling game: played, perhaps, in the Meadowlands. “…but Raiqu’s name isn’t much shorter than mine.”
Slippa said: “It’s like my future had been written on a scrap of paper and tossed into the flames.”
Spanquibelle corrected her: “More like, in your case, it was screwed up into a ball and chucked into the canal.”