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Jewel heard the roar of male voices and the loud trumpeting beyond the Castle M'Cee walls. She pushed her purple-black hair back from her eyes, pausing for a moment. "Who is it this time?"
The deep-throated yells reached a crescendo, echoing through the outer walls of the castle. Jewel swore the keep trembled just slightly from the noise.
"Karenna, I think," Tess answered. "She always makes a good display for them. They love looking at her when she is as naked as possible. I wish I could manage to look good with just nipple chains."
"Better her than me." Jewel went back to weeding the tiny herb garden, tuning out the cries. "Being thrown once to those jackals was more than enough."
"The display starts the time of favor. That makes babies," Tess said. "And it keeps the men from trying to tear the place down, stone by stone, to get at us."
Jewel shrugged, dismissing the argument. Other women might accept or even enjoy the time of favor. She didn't. Never would. Fortunately, she had other gifts to bring to the keep's sisterhood. The Castle M'Cee might not depend on her healing gifts yet, but everyone knew she was one of the keep's more promising apprentices. She would never have to go through the whole ritual of giving favor again.
At least that was one of the endless, dreary tasks of the castle she could skip. She'd been living all her twenty-four years in the keep and knew this was where she'd be for the rest of her days, following the same routine. There was no other life for a female. No other tolerable life, anyhow. She'd heard rumors of what happened to unprotected females captured by males.
"Don't you ever get tired of this?"Jewel asked Tess, suddenly.
Tess blinked. "Tired of what?"
"Everything. You know what day it is because it is washday or sewing day or whatever task it was the week before. There's never anything new here." Jewel gestured to the tidy little garden. "We even plant the same herbs every year in the same spot."
Tess stared at her as if she'd grown wings and fangs.
"What do you mean, Jewel?"
"Never mind." Jewel dug hard into the earth and pulled.
"Jewel, that's coneflower, not a weed!" Tess snatched the plant from her hand, distressed. "Maybe you should go downstairs. There should be tea soon."
"Of course there will be tea soon. It's almost four o'clock isn't it?" Jewel muttered. She glanced at Tess and her worried face. She'd just confused the poor woman. "Tea would probably be a good idea."
Tess' frown lines smoothed out as she relaxed, clearly relieved. "It's very soothing, especially if it's--well, you know. Your time."
Jewel took a long, deep breath before she stood up. She wasn't going to snap at her companion. She wasn't. Tess was only saying what any woman in M'Cee would say, of course. Jewel could predict the conversations by now.
What would Tess say if Jewel told her only one more predictable word would set Jewel screaming and she wasn't sure she could stop? "She'd probably just be convinced it was my time," Jewel muttered.
"Any problem, dear?" Tess smiled up at her.
"No. None at all."
"Jewel!" KarLa, their Eldress, stepped into the tiny garden. "Come with me, please. I must speak to you immediately."
"Before tea?" Jewel asked. This must be an emergency. It certainly was a break with the routine.
"Before anything." The Eldress impatiently beckoned to her.
Ara stood, hands at her hips, breasts jutting forward, once again in the same stance she'd held far too often over the past year or two at Castle Bloomingdell. Maryam stooped before her, carefully painting and enhancing the redness of her nipples.
"Done!" she announced. "No, hold still. Now for the nipple ornaments."
Ara sighed as the first one was fastened into place. Someone behind her began to brush her white hair while another painted glitter into the strands. Every part of her body was to be put on show during the display. Was it really her fault she'd been subjected to this so often? The initial excitement was gone. The terror left next. Now she was more bored than anything else. Bored and faintly repulsed. She was just plain tired of giving her favor.
"Girdle or not? What do you think?" Maryam asked over her shoulder of the other two women.
"The girdle makes it hard to breathe when you cinch it so tightly," Ara said. No one responded.
She didn't even have a say anymore in what she should use to entice the waiting men. Not that she cared.
"I wonder how the bigger castles make a display with their females," the Eldress wondered aloud thoughtfully, pinching at Ara's nipple so that Maryam could push the jeweled bar in easily. Ara's smaller, everyday ornaments were carelessly pushed aside. "Perhaps we are too old-fashioned. I could contact Castle M'Cee with an e to find out what they do."
Ara shifted uncomfortably. Having these nipple ornaments in, both pleased and tormented her. The slight pleasure/pain made her restless in ways she couldn't quite describe. Goddess knew that fulfilling her obligations during the time of favor didn't satisfy that restlessness. Once in awhile being alone with a special dildo came close--not that there would be any private time anytime soon. Ara tried to focus her mind on something else.
"I haven't seen any of the men losing interest," Maryam answered with a sniff. "I think I create a damn fine display with the talent I've been given."
"No offense meant. However, with but three women to display--" The Eldress began.
"--and with us being put on display every month--" Reina agreed.
"--the last thing we need is for the men to get restless or bored," the Eldress finished.
The last thing we need is for the men to get restless or bored? A pox on the men. What about her? Ara scowled.
"Don't ruin the makeup, girl," Maryam warned, absently. "It took near an hour to do properly."
"What difference does any of this make?" Ara said. "Ulrich will win me. He always wins all of us. I won't breed. No one will breed. Then we'll do this all over again next month. We have to change something. It's time to realize we have some big problems."
No one said anything.
"I hate to agree with such a peevish wench, but she has a point," Maryam said at last.
"Change what?" Reina asked, fearfully. "This is what we've always done."
"We need advice." The Eldress pulled at her chin. "Somewhere some of our sisters will know what is wrong and how to remedy our problems. I've already begun to e the larger keeps."
"But we have the problem right now," Ara pointed out. "How long can we wait?"
No one answered.
"The men will be at the gate, waiting for the champion to enter the keep." KarLa drummed her fingers against the computer. "If we want to get anyone out, that would be the time."
"Very well." Jewel swallowed the nervous excitement rising in her throat and tried to sound matter-of-fact. "That's as good a time as any."
"None of us have been outside Castle M'Cee for a generation, at least. We can't tell you what to expect. I'm only doing this because Bloomingdell has such an emergency. It's a terrible pity their only healer died." KarLa frowned. "Their Eldress is a good woman but--ah well, she does her best. It's our duty to help."
"Of course." Sisterhood was one of the only defenses against the rest of the world. Jewel had had that drummed into her since childhood. When there were but a handful of women in the world you had to help your fellow females.
"You may pass for a boy with your looks, but we can't count on that. Put a dagger in each boot. Don't forget to use them if you have to." The Eldress gripped Jewel's hands. "Be alert. Be careful."
"Yes?" KarLa asked.
"You're telling me very old news. Don't worry. I'll get to the Castle Bloomingdell. I don't know yet why their women haven't been able to get pregnant, but I've been trained to diagnose and heal such disorders. I'll e you from there in no time at all."
"See that you do, Jewel."
"Mama Zee?" Jewel looked into the tiny library.
"What is it, child?" Zee looked up from her book. "I was right in the middle of my studies. In fact, I was just reading the most fascinating--well, never mind that. Why aren't you at tea?"
Jewel bit her lip. Zee was a wonderful healer but her "studies" tended to include far more of the ancient romance novels than medical books. It didn't matter. No one in the keep dared point such a thing out to the woman who had ushered almost all of them into the world.
Why did Mama Zee bother, anyhow? That old romance world, one where men and women chose a mate for themselves, without needing to worry about pregnancy or kidnapping, was long past. Romance had blown up, along with history, generations back. It might as well be a fairy tale for all the good such stories did now.
Jewel sighed. She didn't have the luxury of pausing to wonder why Mama Zee did such things.
"I haven't much time." Jewel put her hands on the small woman's shoulders. "I have to fix an emergency. I can't explain much, but I thought if anyone could give me some advice, it would be you."
"I love to give advice." Zee smiled at her and put down her book. "What do you need to know?"
"Causes of female infertility."
Zee snorted. "That is something I never had to worry about. Eeee. I have eight boys and two girls and you ask me about infertility? If not for my medical work, I'd probably have had ten more, Goddess pity me."
"Zee, seriously. I need to know."
"Well, I'm not a writer, but I do have a little list of instructions on the subject. That was from back when darling P'Trice was having her troubles ... or was that Karenna? Ay, there are so many of you girls I sometimes can't remember who had what ailment." Zee began to fumble through the books scattered on the shelves. "Hmmm. Here. It's also on the puters, of course. You don't need my old-fashioned lists."
"I may not have access to a puter where I'm going," Jewel snatched the tiny book from Zee's hands. She knew Zee had done a fine job with her list. Otherwise the Eldress would never have allowed her to use any of their precious paper.
"Darling! Where are you going if there is no--"
"I can't explain now. When I get back!" Jewel blew her a kiss and hoped Mama Zee was as clever about infertility as she was about midwifery. Clutching her book, she began to make her way down to the kitchens and from there to the outside world. Was she truly prepared?
It didn't matter. She was as prepared as she could be, given that she had but a few more minutes to safely leave while the men were distracted.