WALKER UNIVERSE SERIES: NOVEL 1
FIRST KEY PLOT POINT: BEGINNING
FIRST KEY PLOT POINT: BEGINNING
Early Draft, Edit Pass One
Copyright © 2011 Jodi Ralston
My sometimes-wife had the knack for finding me while I was in the bare. It was how we met and how she found me now when I was knee-deep in the teardrop pool at the first House of Health. She of course was fully clothed back then; this time she barely was. A sheer dress. And stringy golden breast-band and loincloth almost rivaling the size of the golden kohl around her eyes. In other words, dressed to impress. Dressed for trouble.
It didn't help matters any that she was carrying my bundle of clothes. Clothes I had left with the attendant to purify. Ketesha did not offer them up as she stopped before me. Instead, her gaze raked me up and down, lingering on the silver, healing waters, then ascending somewhat higher as she tutted. "Such is a pity." She stroked my clothing. "Truly."
"Ketesha-Uret." I stepped out of the pool, and made a grab for the clothes. She pulled them away, teasingly.
"Ketesha is so . . . " She cradled my clothing like a pet cat. "Formal, my love, for our relationship."
"Where's the attendant, Ketesha? What are you doing with my things?"
"I sent her away so we could . . . talk. But I suppose that can wait until your prescribed time is finished here." She pouted as she held out my garments to me. I took them.
"Beware of strange women; that is how you got in this mess."
Beware the woman you know in Tesha's case. Well, let her keep her supposition. It would save me from her prying out the truth, and me from a certain matrimonial vow, vows which I have never quite figured out were legal or fictive or some singular combination of both. My only regret was that exaggerated word of our encounter would get back to her sister.
Getting more exaggerated the longer I stood in the natural wasting thoughts on it.
I carefully shook out the first piece of clothing. After all, Ketesha-Uret was the pharaohine of suprises. Like this one: somehow I had gained a pair of pants. Scale-armored pants. For once, not made out of candy prone to melting. I arched an eyebrow.
"I remember the measurements that wear on you best. You'll need the pants and jerkin where you we are going." After one final look, she turned from me, and strutted away. Turned out she was even more sheer and more narrowly-stringed from the rear.
At the door, she looked back over her shoulder, hand resting on the minature god's-eye pedestal. She rubbed its dripping tears for luck. "What are you waiting for? There is no groom here, my Pheteh."
"The name is Walker," I told her, and I scowled down at my garments. Scowled, not because I had been caught looking, which was bad enough, but because I had had been stupid enough to look in the first place; that way lay only trouble.
I gave the pants one last, good shake, and turning up nothing suspicious, pulled them on. I investigated the rest of my garments and found more surprises. Not only had scaly jerkin and pants replaced my gold-sheened kilt and forked vest, but the underclothing looked distinctly serpentine in pattern. Dressed, I followed a suspicion and my garmenter to our next stop, the anteroom. My high-laced, standard-issue sandles were gone from my cubby-hole; in their place, real boots made from some real serpent, pebbled dark. The footwear attendant/greeter was also conspiciously missing, but I had already chosen not to raise a complaint against Keteshsa's meddling. After all, I didn't often meet an opportunity to wear pants. Damn, I missed pants.
I actually felt that I came out ahead until I went outside and I saw Tesha beside what had become of my mount.
I rushed down the steps to Horse's side, and ran my hand over his flank, over the plated metal that shone like gold. It almost burned under the sun. Horse swiveled its head around on me, cobra-like hood expanding along its falcon-horse head. The acursed thing even had wings now, scaled wings, and so deeply forked of a tail, it might as well have been two; this it flicked at me like a whip, forcing me back a step.
"Katesha, curse you, you don't mess a man's horse!"
Katesha laughed. "Horse?" She reached out and stroked the blunt nose, and Horse's metal plating blushed beneath her touch, hood retreating, a clear indication of her corrupting influences. "Your mount was never meant to look like a horse. It is an upgrade befitting a man of the mehnset."
Was there nothing left to my Horse--or inside it, for that matter? I fumbled over its rump until I found the proper scale, and lifted the storage hatch lid to begin inventorying the rest of my gear. First and most importantly, I retrieved my mehnset from the mounting inside the lid. The snake looked all right, but in this sun, It was hard to see. So, I relied on feel and hoped it didn't cost me. The magic, gold metal coiled up my left arm--as it should--however, it too was in a foul mood and tightened painfully on me before subsiding with a hiss, resting its head against the back of my fist. It never opened its eyes once, too disgusted by the situation at large. Who could blame it? Changing a perfectly good representation of a horse to this . . . whatever it is. Mech-monstrosity.
That was not the end of her upgrades. She had replaced my back-up weapon, one that few knew about for good reason; instead of a simple boot-knife, I now had a pair of overly ornate, snake-eyed switch blades. Blades, I found out shortly, that I could barely squeeze inside the hidden sheathes in my boots. Blades that I would have to re-envenom, a process my mehnset found rather demeaning at the best of times. I hoped at least she had properly disposed of the old ones. Mehnset venom was nothing to mess around with.
As for the rest of my stuff? Too hard to tell, what with my eyes watering from the glare off the beast-bribe's skin and my sunglasses turning up oddly absent. No choice, I closed the lid, giving up on counting my losses until I was safely back at the base. Make that safely indoors the stable. So, I grabbed onto the embedded pommel and swung my leg over the beast-bribe's back, almost getting a crotchful of rippling-hot wing scales. I shoved that wing aside once I settled in my seat--fortunately, a cool seat. The wing bumped me back, and I was sure, if It weren't for my pants, the base's doctor would be treating me for a rather unusual abrasion. I pushed again the wing away with my thigh. Beast-Bribe briefly squished my leg to its side in return. I gave up. "How are you supposed to ride with those things."
She shrugged. "One supposes in the mode of high fashion befitting one in such the employ of the Pharaohine. Don't damage it overly, dear. It's all rented."
"Under whose name?"
She smiled and crossed her arms over the thing's shoulder. With one finger, she caressed edge of its hood. The bribe trilled back. "Under Ytben." She shifted her eyes to me. "Pheteh and Ketesha-Uret, of course, my love."
"That name isn't worth the paper it's written on."
She stood upright, startling the mech-beast out of its daze. "How would you know? You weren't there when I had it drawn up."
There was no arguing with her or our supposed marriage. What little money I could afford went nowhere on the lawyers who had tried, far too expensively, to pose an argument. If one could not quite assume one was married, one cannot quite assume one was divorced either, no matter how eager one was to try.
"Shouldn't you offer a lady a ride?"
Find me one, and I'd be happy to. But my former horse had a mind of its own making, and without waiting for my response, it folded itself in place over its legs, pitching me against its neck in the process. At the same time, it nearly gave me a new kind of abrasion when its back expanded to accomodate another passenger. Ketesha demurely settled into her perfectly molded seat before shifting her skirt out of the way of sub-optimum passerby exposure. By the time I found my less-than-customized seat, the bribe was rising again. Somehow it nearly dislodged me in the process--again--while Tesha in her precarious pose hadn't shifted a muscle. In fact, she had found a way to cross her legs.
Enough was enough.
She could keep her mech. I'd go hide out in the House of Health until it had returned to normal and she preyed on one of her other sometimes-husbands. I shimmied my leg over the top, and found myself in a less than comfortable parody of her own position. The wing had locked my leg into position. My seat warmed and bristled, threatening sunburn and more, in inoppurtune places. She draped an arm over my shoulder and toyed with the back of my neck. "Rather comfortable, isn't it? And roomy. One could practically do anything atop him. One doesn't even have to be so flexible any more."
Choosing the lesser of two evils, I swung that leg back onto the proper side of the trap, and sighed. "You're going to sell me to the--" I caught myself and looked around at the bazaar-goers. We were being watched, but no one wanted to stand within hearing distance of a menhset; after all, that meant its bearer could hear the watchers as well. "--to the vampires again, aren't you?"
She withdrew, rigid. "You should know I possess more sense than that." She plucked at my sleeve. "Do you have any idea how much these would cost to buy? I'd never recoup their loss or my standing with the creditors if I let you go off to a harem in these."
Well, she could if she did business with the greater harem holders, but none of them would have anything to do with her, after her last deal. "So I'm safe as long as I'm well dressed?"
"What's keeping you from just stripping me down beforehand?"
She scoffed. "Men, you only have one thing on your minds, don't you. But I am flattered you miss me so."
Reassuring that: In her mind, she connected my nudity only in regards to intimate acts with her; It was also quite unreassuring for entirely the same reason. But continuing to argue down this path would only lead to more equivocations of increasingly uncomfortable nature. So nothing was left for it but this: I turned in my seat, stared her in the eye, and entreatied her for a straight answer. "Tesha, what do you want?"
She pulled out a case from an unbeknownst-to-me side panel on the bribe, and rubbed on some golden lipstick. Next golden blush. She continued peering in the mirror, angling for the perfect application of irritation on her audience, before, at last, she handed the mirror off to me. "Hold this." And pulled out a veil from the same panel and said, "Hold it right there." Then she began to affix a body length veil over her dark hair with its attached pins. Sensing that perhaps she might lose the mirror, much less the last of my silent patience, she dropped the veil into position over her face and said, "I want you to ride." She plucked back the mirror, and pointed with a finger. A golden-nailed finger. Perhaps derived from real gold. Which she took a moment to admire. "Mmm." Then: "In that direction, my love."
But the shiny bribe said yes with its taloned feet, and its consent was the only one that mattered.
(end of KPP1)