Cassia glanced at herself in the hallway mirror one last time. Her brown hair was pulled back tightly. Recently cleaned blouse and leggings covered her short, slender body. Her shortsword gleamed like polished silver. The tiny ruby in her Slaver's Guild pendant shined fiery red. She smiled at her reflection warmly. She was presentable to Lord Varus.
She walked into Varus' study. The tall, dark-haired man was sitting in a wide chair, reading papers. When he saw her, he smiled and tossed the papers aside. He rose, and gave her a hug. "Ah, Cassia. It is good to see you again."
He moved her an arm's-length away and looked at her. "You have become quite the young woman."
"More 'young' than 'woman,' I think, Sir," she replied.
Varus laughed, then waved at a chair opposite his. "Sit, my dear. How is your mother?"
"Very well these days," Cassia said as she sat down. "I don't think she mourns for Father much anymore."
"A good slaver, and a good friend. How about you? Does the Guild appreciate your talents?"
She shook her head. "I've applied for every post available, yet I still spend my time counting collars and delivering scrolls."
Varus shook his head. "Such a waste. Still, there are few duties for a woman in the Guild."
Cassia didn't disagree with him; it would have been disrespectful. The thought still came over her that, had she been a son, the Guild would have granted her prized duties. Indeed, part of her told her to be grateful that she had even been accepted into the Guild. She ought to be happy to wear any pendant, much less a journeyman's medal.
She noticed a glow in Varus' brown eyes. "Sir, have you summoned me to take advantage of some opportunity?"
"Indeed I have, Cassia." The glow faded. "You have heard the stories of the 'Blue Pistol?'"
"Yes." She repressed a shudder at the mention of his name. What Guild member hadn't heard of the evil gun-man's attacks? Of his vicious killings and robberies? Of his murder of Lord Craxus and his family?
"The Guild wants his reign of terror stopped. I've been formulating a plan, but I need a woman to carry it out. A woman who can fight, but not seem to be a threat. A woman willing to risk her life in service to the Guild."
An odd chill ran down Cassia's spine. Tangling with the Pistol would be very dangerous. But success would bring glory to her, and to Varus. And he always rewarded those who served him well.
"Sir, I an honored that you would ask me. This is an opportunity that I cannot let escape."
Varus smiled broadly. "I knew my Cassia would accept."
It was hard for Cassia to watch her fellow Guildsmen to be cut down. They had treated her as well as they could. Of course she had to do the hard work, disguised as the camp's girl. But at night they treated her as one of them, not as the camp whore. They gave a good account of themselves, fighting to the last even as the Blue Pistol shot them down from ambush. She struggled to resist the urge to fight at their side.
The firefight didn't last very long, not with the Pistol shooting from some distance away. She kept her head on the ground. The only sound was of one of the men, Graius, breathing hard from a chest wound. She waited for the Pistol to approach, turning slowly to look at her comrade.
Graius gasped abruptly. A shot ripped the air. Cassia let out a squeak.
The hammer of a gun clicked.
"Don't hurt me!" she cried.
The hammer clicked again. This time she heard the sound of gun going back into a holster. Footsteps approached her.
The man was practically beside her before she could see anything of him. His body looked average in height and weight. He had fair hair. As he knelt down to her, she saw he had blue eyes and an open face. He looked more like a young merchant than a cold killer.
"Are you the Blue Pistol?" Cassia had little trouble sounded afraid.
The man nodded. "Yes, but my name is Tim Devine. Call me Tim." He looked her over. "Are you hurt?" His voice was calm, almost pleasant.
"Good. Stay here, and keep quiet." He drew a pistol, and walked towards the wagon. His movements were silent and deliberate until he opened the wagon's rear door. Upon opening it he moved quickly, ready to shoot anything that might pose a threat.
As Cassia watched him, thoughts of her mission went through her brain. The pistol he held was the one that he'd dispatched Graius with, but how could that be? It had only one barrel, so unless magic was involved, it could only fire one bullet. This contradiction was as serious a threat to the Guild as the threat of the gun's owner. If she could learn its secret, the Guild could crush its enemies and assure its dominance of the Great Kingdoms.
Further speculation ended when the man exited the wagon carrying a locked chest. He put in on the ground near Cassia. He searched the bodies for a few moments until he found Master Marcus' keyring.
Why doesn't he use his gun on the lock? Cassia wondered. That's what the rebels from Freeman's Point would do.
He opened the chest and examined its contents. "Copper and silver," he said. He glanced at Cassia. "Would you like to be a rich lady?"
She shook her head. "That's Guild money."
"Not anymore it isn't." He searched the camp again. He stopped when he found a shovel. He handed it to her and said, "Dig a hole."
"For the bodies?"
"No. A small hole, but a deep one. I'll be right back."
Cassia dug. He returned leading a saddled black mare. He told her to keep digging. As she worked, he chased away six of the seven mounts the group had. He loaded the corpses into the wagon, removing nothing, not even their coin purses. He took a handful of mainly silver coins from the chest, and put them into a partly-full coin purse tied to his saddle. He then examined the hole she'd dug.
It was slightly narrower than her, but half as deep as she was tall. He nodded to her, brought the chest to the hole, then dumped the rest of the coins into it. He helped her cover up the hole, then moved the wagon over the spot.
"What are you doing? Don't you want the money?" He shook his head. "You could give it to the peasants," Cassia pointed out.
"It would still get back to the Slavers' Guild," he said. He lit up a torch, and set fire to the wagon. "This way, the money just disappears." He freed the two horses that led the wagon.
He helped her get on the one mount he hadn't let escape. "Ridgewood is two days south. I'll escort you there, then you can go where you will."
They departed from the road. It was slow progress through the wilderness. Cassia hoped to engage the man in conversation as they rode. A hissed "Shut up" and an ugly glance dashed her hope. It was well past sunset when they finally stopped at a clearly just big enough for their camp and their horses.
She considered offering her body to him in gratitude for her "liberation." It would be hard to bed a murderer, but there was a chance she could capture him without injury. Mustering up her courage, and diminishing her voice to a whisper, she said, "If you don't wish to sleep alone, Tim,..."
"No," he snapped. "I don't want your thanks. And if I did, I wouldn't be so crass as to demand sex. You don't have to offer your body to any man. Not anymore."
His reaction kept her awake for some time. Didn't he see the chastity bracelet on my right wrist? I can't get pregnant; the spell prevents such an occurence. Is he married? Even if he is, why should he object to bedding a slave? Does he like men? Or am I not the type of woman he prefers? Most men do prefer full breasts and wide hips.
Perhaps he's mistrustful. Yes, that must be it. I should stay with him for a time, earn his trust. I should try to make him like me. No man can go without bedding a woman for very long. Even a skinny girl like me will start looking attractive in a day or two.
When he gets lonely, and starts to care for me, then I can press my attack on the Blue Pistol.
His lips brushed against hers. "Happy?" he murmured, rolling off her.
"Mmm." Cassia drifted to left of the bed so that Devine could lie down. She took his left hand and held it between her thighs. "You are pleased."
Cassia felt oddly warm as she caught her breath. Devine had been enthusiastic, of course; men always were. She wasn't sure when, but it had occurred to her that his pleasure came in part from feeling her pleasure. It was not at all like the night she'd lost her virginity to Varus' son Valoris, or the afternoon a year ago when she'd been able to bed the handsomest slave she'd ever come across. As her breath steadied she felt strong, and eager. The experience was seductive, in a dangerous and thrilling way.
Devine's breathing was also slowing down. His eyes were closed. Was he asleep? Cassia turned away from him, and to the holstered pistol tied to the bedpost behind her.
She reached for the weapon, careful not to disturb him.
She removed the gun. Devine still didn't stir!
The cool grip was somewhat hefty in her small left hand. She waited until the steel barrel was pressed against his forehead before she moved.
"What do you think you're doing?" Devine asked. His eyes stayed shut; his tone was soft. "Do you think this will buy you more freedom?"
"I don't need more freedom."
Devine finally opened his eyes. He smiled. "So the Slavers' Guild is hiring girl assassins now?"
"I am no hired assassin. I am in the Guild."
"Not anymore you won't be." Devine sat up.
Cassia put her thumb on the hammer. "Don't!"
She tried to pull the hammer back. It wouldn't move! She tried a second time, and a third. She tried both thumbs, then her right hand. The hammer would not pull back!
Devine easily snatched the gun out of her hands. He pressed the barrel to her head. He snapped the hammer back casually. "I think it looks bad for you, Cassia," he said mildly.
"Magic," she hissed. It had to be a spell of personal use.
He expected something like this.
"Get it over with," she said. The calm in her voice surprised her. "If you can kill a naked girl in a village inn."
"Oh, no." He shook his head. "You're not going to get off so lightly."
She faced him. "What do you mean?"
The smile faded from his face. "Let me tell you who the 'Blue Pistol' really is, Cassia, so you'll have some chance of understanding what's going to happen. My name really is Tim Devine, and I am from the other side of the mountains. Over there I was known as 'Blue Bart.' I robbed banks to bring down a corrupt banker. I shot a no-good gunman in the back, at night. I killed two men who tried to rape a young widow, after I made them suffer first.
"I am here to destroy your Guild and everything it stands for. My orders, from my government, are to be as ruthless and vicious as I possibly can. I'm not here because I volunteered. It's either this, or I spend my life in jail."
"What are you going to do to me?"
He reached for something on his gun belt. "I'll show you how foolish you were to join the Guild. I'll make you experience the pain your friends inflict on others. I'm not going to kill you, Cassia.
"I am going to punish you."
An instant later, everything went dark. Cassia awoke on a hard floor with an iron collar around her neck. Someone was shaking her. A rough voice ordered, "Get up, you scrawny bitch!"
She glanced around. She was being hauled out of a wagon an hour before sunset. There was another wagon ahead, and both were stopped on a road. Between the wagons, a round, short young woman tended a pot over a fire. She was being dragged towards the other woman.
"Help Leda with the stew," the man holding her snapped. He tossed Cassia to the ground. Cassia glanced at the man. He was tall, fair-haired, and middle-aged. He wore a Guild pendant around his neck.
"What's going on?" she asked. "I'm Cassia, daughter of..."
The man slapped the back of his hand across her face. "Get to work!"
"That Tyrus was right," another man, dark and fat, said. "She is going to need some breaking in."
"Breaking in?" Cassia's breathing quickened. "Please, take me to Lord Varus. He knows who I am. He got me accepted into the Guild!"
Both men laughed. "Oh, we'll take you to Varus all right," the dark one said. "He'll like you. He likes the younger girls."
Reality slapped Cassia harder than any man could. The meaning of Devine's last words to her became clear as glass. You have not won yet, Blue Pistol, she swore silently as she began to cook. I can endure the two days it will take to get to North Field. When Varus sees me, he'll remove this collar. And then I will stop at nothing to pay you back for this humiliation. I will watch you suffer before you die.
Anticipation helped Cassia endure being led through the slaves' entrance of Varus' manor. This time, instead of meeting him in his study, she was brought to a small upstairs bedroom. She wore the same short, rough dress that she'd been in the past few days. The collar was gone, but was replaced by leather straps that bound her wrists behind her.
At least they were decent enough to heal up my bruises, she thought as she waited.
A glance at the room sparked her memory. This was the room she'd stayed in when she had visited! This had to be good sign.
The door opened, and Varus strode into the room. She bowed her head. "My Lord,..." she began.
The man holding her shook her once. "Don't speak till you're spoken to!"
Varus brought up a slender and ornate copper collar. He gently slipped it around her neck. "Untie her, Sulla." The man unbound her wrists. "You've done well, Journeyman Sulla. You may return to your companions. Your master has your share." The man bowed to Varus, then left.
Cassia looked up at Varus. "My Lord, I..."
Varus frowned. "Be silent. You failed me, Cassia. Six Guildsmen dead and this season's profits gone. And is the Blue Pistol dead? No. He laughing at us. I thought you had inherited your father's strength. It seems you have inherited your mother's weakness."
"He was expecting such a deception, my Lord. He..."
Varus silenced her by ripping open the top of her dress. "A weak young girl like you should not have been admitted to the Guild. I will overcome my lack of judgment."
He brushed the back of his right hand over her breasts. "I know that you were staying in this very room when you first bled. I considered seducing you then, but my wife was two rooms away. Valoris said you were a needy girl, barely interesting in pleasing him. Well, Cassia, you will learn to please. That way, you can earn back what your failure has cost me."
Cassia wanted to sleep, but was afraid to lose awareness. She tried to cry. The tears would not come. She crushed her pillow against her body. It wouldn't shield her. Nothing could. She was too tired to stay awake, but too afraid to rest.
Cold thoughts crossed her mind. The rest of my life is going to be like the last few days. I can't escape. I am a slave.
The room suddenly quivered. A distant rumble followed the shaking. A large bell began to ring. Sounds of movement drifted through the manor house. A man shouted to the outside. Horse hooves and footsteps clapped towards the residence.
Cassia held the pillow closer to her. She didn't want to know what the commotion was about. She glanced around the room, hoping to find a place to hide. She considered getting under the bed, but decided that such an action might only get her into deeper trouble. She wrapped herself tighter in the bed's sole blanket.
Now gunfire boomed from inside the manor. Men cried out. Women screamed. More footsteps.
The bedroom door burst open. Varus stood in the doorway, dressed in his night-clothes and brandishing a sword. "Not only a failure, but a traitor as well." He yanked her off the bed and out of the room.
Cassia wanted to beg, but she had been begging for days now. More pleading would accomplish nothing. She let him drag her into the hallway.
"Don't move," a familiar voice ordered.
Varus turned, spinning Cassia in front of her. They were face to face with the Blue Pistol. He aimed a gun at Varus, his face somber. Varus shoved Cassia to the floor. The Pistol snapped back the hammer of his gun.
Varus dropped his sword. "Spare me, and I'll let you go."
Varus took one bullet to his chest. He involuntarily knelt down. Devine fired a second round into Varus' head. Varus' body spun to the floor.
Devine offered his free hand to Cassia. "You want to die here, or do you want to live?"
She looked at his hand. She noticed the smell of smoke filling the hall. She glanced at Varus' corpse. She looked at Devine's face. It was mild, but stern. She accepted his hand, allowed him to help her stand, and let him remove her collar. They ran down the hall, away from the stairs. They stopped at a door at the far end, across from the open door of Varus' bedroom.
"You know?" she asked in a tiny voice.
"I'm a thorough man," he replied.
She stepped into what, to an outsider, appeared to be an empty closet. Two more steps, and she felt the old sensation of being carried through a windy tunnel. The sensation stopped, she took a few more steps, and emerged from another closet into a pleasant bedroom. Devine followed her an instant later.
"Clever way to keep a mistress close, yet hidden," he said as he closed the door. "Did Varus build this, or was another of his inheritances?"
"I don't know." She sat down on the bed. On a more pleasant night, she and Valoris had climbed into this bed to discover sex. Now, the bed was merely a slightly better place to rest. She still held onto the pillow, although she realized that she didn't need it to hide herself from Devine.
"Did you come back for me? Or am I just a reward for your night of blood and battle?"
Devine surprised her by sitting down next to her. "I don't take women as rewards. Not even stupid little slaver girls."
"I'm not stupid," she mumbled.
"No, you were just blind."
Cassia thought about disagreeing, but found that she couldn't. She knew what slaves were treated like. She knew what could happen to women slaves, especially young ones. No, she didn't know, not in the way that one knows what battle is really like. She knew now.
"What are you going to do with me?"
"Nothing?" She reached out to him, forced him to look her in the eyes. "You can't just leave me. The Guild might think I've betrayed them."
"Oh, I'm sure they'll believe you betrayed them."
"So you'll turn me in and collect the reward? You can't hate me that much! Haven't I suffered enough?"
She stared at the floor. "You turned me from a Guildsman into a camp whore. I've been 'practice' for a trio of snickering apprentices. Varus told me that I don't 'please' men enough, and he tried to make me 'pleasing.' I've hardly slept, my body hurts, and everything I had is gone."
She faced Devine again. "You have humiliated me, Tim Devine, more than I ever thought was possible. The least you can do is find me a safe place to hide."
"I could take you to Freeman's Point. But I have to ask myself, 'Will she try to betray me again?'"
She let out a laugh. "You wouldn't allow it to happen a second time."
"Maybe not, but you could still try. Or maybe you'll wait until you get to Freeman's Point, and try something there. Will they be able to trust you?"
Cassia exhaled a long breath. Damn him, but he was right. The people of Freeman's Point wouldn't trust her because of who she was. The Guild wouldn't trust her because of what they would assume she had done.
"You have punished me quite well, Tim Devine. I've been battered, my position has been destroyed, and I have no friends left." Cassia took her gaze off the floor. "Since you've not killed me, I presume you'll allow me to start a new life somewhere else."
"Of course. As long as you don't try to cross me again."
"I won't." She looked into his cool blue eyes. "I'll never stop hating you, no matter how much you think I deserved all this."
He rose up off the bed. "Oh, I think you will, eventually. One day, you may even thank me." He turned and left the bedroom.
She stood, pulled back the covers, and slipped under the sheets. "Damn you to Hell, Tim Devine," she whispered. "Damn you for always being right."
Bio: "I've had stories and articles appear in periodicals such as Model Railroader; Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine; Hadrosaur Tales; Of Unicorns & Space Stations; Pyramid; The Fifth Di…; Chronicle of the Old West; and the Wichita Eagle. I edit the e-mail newsletter for a local SF-F talk radio show called "The Warp Zone." I will have a fifth Kansas railroad book published next year by South Platte Press; I've had four other books published by South Platte Press. I wrote and published a series of local travel booklets from 1992-95; I also published a short story magazine called Story Rules from 1995-97."
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