Diana Santee # 6: Esmonia

Chapter One

My mother's house on Tristesse has a really well equipped gym, and for the last few days I'd been putting it through its paces. With Val sick in bed there hadn't been much else to do, but I didn't really mind. Today was the last day of my vacation, and I'd used the time until now to rest and relax and think. I was all ready to start the new assignment tomorrow, but there were a couple of loose ends still to be taken care of.

After showering I went down to the small dining room for breakfast, and found one of those loose ends sitting at the sunstone table shoveling food into his mouth. Val was obviously feeling enough better to make up for lost time, which was really too bad. If that bad cold he'd caught had kept him in bed for another couple of days my life would have been a good deal more simple, but simplicity in my life had disappeared the day Val had walked into it. I had more than one problem centering around him, but first things had to be taken care of first.

"Good morning," I said when he looked up from shoveling to give me a smile of welcome. "Are you sure you're feeling strong enough to be down here?"

"I could have come down yesterday, but I decided not to push it," he answered, amusement growing in his smile. "Since our new assignment starts tomorrow, I wanted to be sure I'd be up for it."

"Actually it's my assignment that starts tomorrow," I corrected mildly, going over to the buffet to help myself to breakfast. "It's nothing terribly dangerous or involved, but it will get complex if you try to come along. Your staying here is a much better idea, so - "

"Diana, I'm not staying behind," the stubborn mule interrupted, bottom line finality clear in his voice. "After you first 'suggested' that I stay behind, I did some thinking. If the choice about my staying or going were yours or Ringer's, I would have heard orders rather than suggestions. That means the choice is mine, and I choose to go. So why don't you sit down and tell me about where we'll be going."

"The planet is called Esmonia, but the situation isn't as easy to handle as you seem to think," I said, turning away from the buffet with a plate of breakfast and a cup of coffee. "I'll tell you what I know about the place, and then you can rethink your decision."

He was back to eating what was left of his meal and so didn't say anything, but the look in his black eyes was more than eloquent. The overgrown mule usually called me stubborn, but I was an amateur compared to him.

"Esmonia was originally settled by the walking wounded," I began after sitting down and tasting my food. "By that I mean it was a large group of badly abused women who got together, ones who hated men and what had been done by them. But they couldn't very well settle a world without having men, not when they needed a fresh supply of viable sperm, so they 'chose' a group of males to go with them. They were only just able to stomach that group because of how servile the men were, and I doubt if it ever occurred to them that the men were walking wounded too. The women were too hurt and angry over what had been done to them to waste any sympathy on members of the gender which had caused them such pain and torture."

"But that was a long time ago, wasn't it?" Val asked while I ate a bit more of my breakfast. "Things must have changed since then, so my presence shouldn't upset the poor things to the point of their running and hiding. And if I'm especially gentle when talking to any of them - "

"Val, that all happened a couple or three hundred years ago," I said, taking my own turn at interrupting. "The original 'poor things' are long dead, but the laws they set up are alive and well and running the planet smoothly. Women are in charge of everything there, and I do mean everything. Men are slaves in all but name, and have absolutely no say about anything at all including whether they live or die. All males are 'wards' of one woman or another, and none of them step an inch out of place. If they do they get whipped to ribbons, and sometimes they don't even have to take that step in order to get it. If you came along with me you'd have to be a male like the ones who survive, and I honestly don't think you can handle it."

"Why can't we go as representatives of the Council?" he asked after a moment of thoughtful chewing. "That would make it safe enough no matter how they felt about me, and the problem would be solved."

"Guess again," I suggested, beginning to get annoyed. "If the Council wanted to be obvious about the visit, they'd send one of their diplomats rather than an agent. Since it's me going rather than a diplomat, it's just about guaranteed that I'll be going as a native. If you came along you'd have to be the same, and I already told you what I think about that."

"How can you possibly know whether or not I can handle it if you don't let me try?" he countered, obviously working to control his temper. "If I try and fail then you'll have made a valid point, but until that happens you're treating an opinion as fact. And if your opinion can be considered a fact, so can mine."

And he resented it when I called him a stubborn mule. I sat and studied his determined expression for a moment, but the truth was I had no choice at all. The Council had decided that staying behind did have to be his decision, so all I could do was help that decision along.

"All right, then we'll let you give it a try," I agreed, showing nothing of how much I disliked the idea. "Get out of that chair, boy, and stand yourself in the middle of the room! Boys don't sit in the presence of their mistress unless they're ordered to."

He hesitated a heartbeat over the snap I'd put into the commands, but then he set his fork down and rose to obey. The only time Val took orders from me was when we were working, and he'd obviously made himself understand that that was what we were doing right now. Since he was right about that, I took myself firmly in hand. No matter how much I disliked what I was about to do, it was business so I'd do it. And as I'd thought a few days earlier, I might not end up disliking it all that much.

I let Val stand in the middle of the floor for a moment while I ate a bit more, then I turned to look at him. He stood as he usually did, with broad shoulders back and head held high, and that was the first thing that had to be changed.

"Put your head down and keep your eyes on the floor, boy," I directed as soon as I'd swallowed. "You also have to bring those shoulders down a bit, to get that air of pride out of them. Boys on Esmonia don't have any pride, and if one of them tries to show some anyway it's whipped right out of him. Remember the word servile, since it's now your new watchword."

This time there was no hesitation over my orders, but the change didn't do all that much good. Val with his head hanging and shoulders rounded was still Val, since that's who he was on the inside. His confidence in himself was still completely clear, but there might be a way to change that.

"You're still not doing it right, boy," I told him, leaving my own fork and chair to walk over to him. "A boy on Esmonia is subject to the whims of any and all women at all times, and their stance and attitudes reflect that. They have no right to complain no matter what's done to them, even if it happens to be this."

I put my hand out and touched him intimately, his being completely unclothed making it simple. My home world of Tristesse is a nudist world, and it had taken some doing to get Val used to walking around completely natural. He still didn't look at the matter the way we natives did, but at least he'd gotten past the point of being constantly red-skinned with embarrassment.

Or at least he had until I touched him. His skin darkened as his head started to rise and his lips parted to complain or yell at me, but then he remembered what we were in the middle of. He was being tested to see how well he did, so that head went down again and he didn't utter a word. Of course the embarrassment didn't leave him either, and I could almost see his jaw clench as he realized that I had no intention of letting go very quickly.

"You're getting closer to the right attitude now, boy," I commented as I fondled him while watching him carefully. "You know you have no choice but to take whatever's done to you, and if it's something that makes you suffer then you suffer in silence. But what I'm doing to you now is a privilege, one you're supposed to enjoy. Make me know that you're enjoying it."

If anything he grew more embarrassed at that, knowing as he did that anyone could walk into the room at any minute. The thought was inhibiting him the way few other things in his life were able to do, and that made it impossible for him to "enjoy" being touched. I tickled him for another minute or so without being able to change the situation, but at least he kept his head and eyes down.

"All right, boy, if you aren't able then you aren't," I finally allowed, taking my hand back. "That shy streak could get you into a lot of trouble, but we'll let it go for now. Instead I want you to run to my room and fetch my cigarettes and lighter - and I do mean run. If you dawdle even a little you'll regret it, and don't forget to acknowledge my orders by saying 'Yes, mistress.'"

"Yes, mistress," he managed to get out, then turned and left the room at a trot. At that he seemed more relieved than annoyed at being given the chore, but then I realized the attitude was perfectly natural. If he was busy running around doing chores for me, I couldn't make him stand still to be touched.

I'd pretty much lost my appetite for the rest of my breakfast by then, so I got my cigarettes and lighter from the buffet where I'd left them and took them back to my chair. I lit up as soon as I was seated again, then began to speak to myself silently but sternly. Val had to be discouraged from going on the assignment with me, and if I didn't do it then no one else would. I hated the idea of treating any man as a slave, and Val was a lot more than just any man. The way I felt about him…

At that point I could have kicked myself, for not realizing sooner what an opportunity I'd been given. Val had come to mean far too much to me, but I'd also finally made myself understand that nothing but pain - and death - could come to him if I let him pursue his interest. Giving him up and walking away was beyond me, but making him walk away would serve the same purpose.

Which meant I had to pretend there were no hidden motives behind the "training." That, in turn, said I had to go back to eating my breakfast as though nothing was bothering me, but at the moment I wasn't quite up to the effort. I decided to smoke half the cigarette before doing the proper thing, and that was when Laura walked in.

"Good morning," she said with her usual pleasant smile as she glanced around. "You look nicely well rested, but where's Val? I thought he was also in here eating."

"He's running an errand, but he should be back in a minute or two," I answered, then gestured toward a chair. "Why don't you sit down and see what you think."

"Think about what?" she asked, heading instead to the buffet to get a cup of coffee. Her still-pretty face showed no hint of disturbance, since she didn't yet know what was going on. But she'd find out soon enough, and I had to have her on my side before then. She tended to want to protect Val from me, and this time she couldn't be allowed to do it.

"He's decided he's going to Esmonia with me," I explained, making no effort to hide how much I disliked the idea. "He refuses to listen to reason, so I told him he has to be a real Esmonian male in order to go. The stubborn mule thinks he can manage the role, so we're in the midst of finding out if that's so. If the need arises, you'll have to do the same thing I'm doing."

"You're treating him like an Esmonian male, and you want me to do the same?" she asked with shock, turning away from the buffet with her coffee to stare at me. "But, Diana, I could never do that! I've been to Esmonia, and I'd never treat any man that way, most especially not Val."

"Would you rather see him going just as he is?" I asked quietly, holding her gaze. "Since you've been to Esmonia, you ought to know what would happen to him. If you can't bring yourself to help with his training, can you at least just sit there and not interfere? I don't want him to believe he'll find someone on the planet to protest whatever I do. I think we both know he won't."

"No, he certainly won't," she agreed with a sigh, finally coming over with her coffee to take a chair. "All right, I promise I won't interfere with whatever you do, but please don't be too hard on him. He may be able to stand it, but I don't think I can. And I don't really know how you can."

"I'm a professional and I've got self discipline, I have," I muttered, stubbing out my cigarette before reaching for my fork again. "Just make sure you don't let him know how much I hate doing this. I won't go easy on him either now or later, and he has to understand that emotionally as well as intellectually."

"So his mind won't trick him into believing he's safe," she said with a nod and a sigh. "The only thing that will make him safe on that world is leaving it. Are you sure you can't talk him into staying behind?"

"I really have already tried," I assured her after swallowing the mouthful of food I'd taken. "What he's going through is his own idea, so don't feel too sorry for him. If he really wants it to stop, all he has to do is say so."

"Which he probably won't do," she agreed with another sigh. "That leads me to wonder which one of you is more stubborn, since we still haven't settled the question about the party tonight at Lila's. It's your last night here, and she was very positive about expecting you."

"A party at Aunt Lila's is the way to spend the last night before you hang," I said, making a face. "That way you don't really mind dying. And I doubt if Val would want to - "

I broke off the thought abruptly, suddenly remembering the scene Val had made with my aunt and cousins the last time he'd seen them. If he found it possible to stick to his role with the three of them in the same room with him, I'd feel a lot better about taking him with me. Being submissive with them would win him an acting award no matter what competition he went up against…

"On second thought, a party at Aunt Lila's might be just the trial by fire Val needs," I said slowly with an absent nod. "If he can get through that, I won't have to worry about him on Esmonia."

"You'd do that to him after what went on between them a few days ago?" Laura demanded, more appalled than outraged. "The humiliation will be so terrible for him that he won't be able to go through with it."

"The time will be easy compared to what Esmonia will be like, and if he refuses to go through with it he'll stay behind," I said, in no mood to be anything but bottom-line. "If he's going to lose it, I'd rather he do it here."

Her face paled at the thought of what losing it there could mean, and that put an end to her protests. But she still looked so unhappy that I had to say something to cheer her up.

"Don't worry, Laura, I'll make sure everything works out right," I said, putting a hand on her arm. "And don't forget there's a bright side to all this. He got used to going natural, so maybe he'll get used to taking orders. If he does, my life is bound to be a lot more pleasant."

She made a sound of ridicule at that, but the heavy worry in her eyes did lighten a bit.

"If you count on that, I see a very difficult future ahead for you," she said, grudging something of a smile of amusement. "And by the way, the party tonight won't be attended natural. Lila thought the idea of a costume party was much smarter."

"An idea she couldn't possibly have gotten from you," I said dryly into her very innocent expression. "Well, this time you've outsmarted yourself. Val and I will go as an Esmonian couple, and I know he'll love his outfit. I can pick one up for him in Freedom City this afternoon."

Laura shifted uncomfortably where she sat, but she didn't say anything. She'd probably have pretended not to know where to get what I wanted if I'd asked her, and my already knowing where to go seemed to disturb her. She began to say something, but that's when Val suddenly reappeared.

"I can't find them anywhere," he started, just a little bit winded from running up and down the stairs, but I interrupted immediately.

"The proper form of address is 'mistress,' boy," I informed him coldly. "Start over and say it right."

He was trying so hard he barely hesitated.

"Mistress, I can't find your cigarettes anywhere in your room," he reported in a meek voice.

"Of course you can't, boy," I snapped in true Esmonian fashion. "They've been right here beside my hand all the time. Next time don't be so stupid."

He watched me take a cigarette and light it, and that look crept back into his eyes.

"I think it's time we took a break," he murmured, standing a good deal straighter. "There's something I want to do."

"What sort of something?" I asked, disliking his expression as much as the sudden amusement Laura now showed. Instead of answering immediately, he first walked over and leaned down toward me, putting his hand on the back of my chair.

"I'll give you three guesses," he invited, keeping his gaze directly on me. "I warned you about making me look foolish."

Val was big and dangerous and it wasn't beyond him to carry out his thinly veiled threat, but it wasn't going to happen right now.

"I knew it would never work," I said with a shrug, casually leaning back in my chair and stretching my legs out to cross them at the ankles. "That's nothing compared to what you'd have to take on Esmonia. Many of the women there do everything they can to make their men look foolish, and you can ask Laura if you don't believe me. She's been there and seen it first-hand. You'd better face it, Val. I'm leaving alone tomorrow."

My own gaze told him I wasn't joking or threatening, and possibly even showed the relief I felt. I really didn't want him to go with me, and that couldn't have been more clear. He hesitated longer this time, his mind working behind those eyes, and then that look faded and he stood straight again.

"I beg your pardon, mistress," he said meekly, hanging his head. "It won't happen again."

"There's only one way I can be sure of that," I said, watching him closely. "My Aunt Lila wants us at a party tonight, and if you can get through the evening without blowing it you can go. What do you say?"

The choice was his, and he raised his head again to study me for a moment.

"Diana, I can't get rid of the feeling that you're having fun again, but you've got yourself a deal," he said, the words completely certain. "I'm not going to be left behind, and tonight will show I don't have to be." Then his head and eyes were down the way they were supposed to be. "Do I have your permission to leave now, mistress?" he added quietly.

"No, you don't," I answered, suspecting why he was so eager to leave. Laura was in the room, and he hadn't decided on a "break" until he'd been made to perform in front of her. "Go and stand quietly in that corner until I find another chore for you."

Once again he moved with hesitation, but he did obey me. He stood himself in the corner with head down and shoulders rounded, and all I could do was shake my head at Laura.

"I'm going to have to work on that with him," I said to her as I reached for my coffee. "If he hesitates like that every time I give him an order, this will never work."

"Oh, I don't think he's doing all that badly," she disagreed, working to sound hearty and approving. "There were men on Esmonia who didn't obey with lightning speed, but only because they weren't very bright. He can always pretend to be one like that."

"The ones who aren't very bright are tolerated only in certain instances and for only a short time," I told her, not about to let her make Val think he'd be safe. "If they're field workers and can follow orders, they're allowed to live in their barracks and do their jobs. If they're not and they happen to annoy the wrong woman or women, they're … put out of the way. I seriously doubt if we'll be handling the assignment in some field."

Once again Laura was silent, and her skin had paled a small bit. I suddenly realized that sitting there and talking to her wasn't a very good idea, so I finished my coffee and got to my feet.

"If we're going to be ready for tonight, he and I had better get to that practicing," I said when she looked up at me. "We'll see you later, Laura."

"All right," she agreed with a sigh, understanding that there was nothing she could do for Val. "I'll see you both later."

I patted her shoulder before heading out of the room, also gesturing to Val to follow. We made a silent procession upstairs to my room, and once we were inside I turned to my "boy."

"When an Esmonian male is given an order, he obeys it immediately, without thought," I said, examining him again with my eyes. "Any hesitation can be taken to mean that the boy is deciding whether or not to obey, a situation that's totally and completely unacceptable. Let's run through a few standard commands, and get you used to obeying without thought."

Since no vocal response was called for, Val very properly made none. That was a point in his favor, but it didn't mean we could forget about the drill. I gave him a string of ordinary commands, like sit, lie down, stay, and roll over, and he obeyed only fairly well. It was still clear that he wasn't used to obeying, but the whole thing was beginning to make me sick. I'd thought it would be fun to make Val obey, but it wasn't.

"All right, let's drop it for now," I finally told him, needing the break myself. "We'll wait and see how you do later, at the party."

"Yes, mistress," he answered meekly, his head still bowed. "And what am I to do until later?"

"Val, stop it!" I said sharply as I moved closer to him, hating the idea of going on with that. "You can do anything you like, so stop fooling around."

"Who's fooling?" he asked as he suddenly grabbed me and pulled me to him. "I'm always this obedient."

"Sure you are," I agreed with a laugh as I reached up to put my arms around his neck. "And since this is your first day out of a sickbed, why don't you decide on something really fun to do. If you can't think of anything, I have a suggestion all ready and waiting."

"Ah, but I have an idea of my own," he answered, letting his palms slide slowly over me. It looked like his idea was a match to mine, but only for a moment. He suddenly let go of me, and then took my hand. "Let's go for a sun bath."

"A sun bath?" I echoed, refusing to let the platonic handclasp pull me along toward the door. "If that's your idea of an idea, you need rethinking time. What I had in mind was - "

"But I don't care what you had in mind," he interrupted, turning to give me that look full strength. "We're not working now, so I'm the boss. Do I hear any arguments?"

"Are you doing this because of what you just went through?" I asked bluntly, not about to back down. "Because if you are - "

"What I just went through isn't the issue here," he interrupted again, then abruptly took me by the waist and lifted me into the air. "What the two of us might be going through in another minute is more to the point. I say we're going out for a sun bath, so what do you say?"

The look in his eyes was as strong and steady as the way he held me off the floor, no mean feat considering my size. Val certainly was reacting to what he'd gone through, and so had decided to return the favor - only in real life. He'd resented having to be obedient, but saw nothing wrong with forcing me to do it for real. That double standard he lived by was annoying as all hell, but this wasn't the time to argue it.

"Sure, let's go sun bathe," I said, only without the growl I felt on the inside. Ever since the time on Tanderon when I'd tried to force Val to go home, I'd discovered I couldn't hurt him. He, however, had no such compunction about me, and it wasn't beyond him to decide to get even by putting me over his knee. My only option was to avoid that fate rather than resist it, especially at a time, like now, when pushing him into it would take very little.

"That's my good girl," he said with satisfaction, setting me back on my feet before taking my hand again. "We'll sun bathe until lunch, and if you behave yourself we just might come back here afterward."

His generosity smote me to the quick, but then I remembered the errand I had to run and felt considerably better.

"I can't do that," I said while following him out. "After lunch I have to go into Freedom City for a while, but it won't take me long. I know just what I want to get, and where I have to go for it. As a matter of fact it's a present for you."

"Then I won't ask you what it is," he said, glancing down at me. "Presents should be a surprise."

"Oh, this present will surprise you, all right," I assured him soberly. "I'm willing to bet you'll never forget it."

"That's my good girl," he said as he let my hand go in order to put an arm around me and squeeze gently. The gesture was so condescending I wanted to scream, but that would have disturbed the household. Instead I thought about my shopping trip, and in no time at all I was back in a good mood.