The back room of the slavers’ guildhall was rough-cut stone, its floor worn smooth in places by countless steps. The walls themselves were bare, and despite the warmth of the entryway, I shivered as soon as I stepped inside. A faint latrine stink permeated the air, mostly covered by sweat and the familiar smell of fear. Along one wall ran a row of squat, narrow cages, lined with straw; two of the cages further down the way held occupants: a male lynx and a female wolf, both as bare as Milos had been. Opposite them were a number of hooks hammered into the wall, from which hung an array of implements I couldn’t bring myself to study too closely. At the far end of the room was a second exit. A single witchlight, mounted on a pedestal with a heavy black drape crumpled beside it, filled the room in an eerie silvery glow, like a full moon on a cloudless night but bright as dawn.
The slaver ignored them both as she walked to the wall, sliding what looked like a pair of iron arcs down from one of the bars. “Come,” she said, beckoning towards me. “Stand here, facing away.”
I approached as directed, turning to face the cages. The lynx’s eyes caught mine, his own softening with sympathy as he watched. I started to open my muzzle to speak, but he gave a near-imperceptible shake of his head, and I closed it again silently. He lifted his muzzle, exposing the collar that encircled his neck, and reflexively I matched his gesture. As soon as I did so, though, I felt cool metal encircle my neck, then heard the clack of the collar’s catch snapping closed behind me, followed quickly by a final snap of a lock fixing it in place.
“Very good,” the slaver said behind me, her voice pleased. “It’s almost as if you were expecting it.”
“I wasn’t, actually,” I replied, “but—”
The lynx’s eyes widened, snapping away from mine to look over my shoulder. A moment later, a single clawtip touched the back of my neck, just above the collar that had already begun to itch. “That was your one free mistake,” the slaver said, her voice suddenly full of ice. “I warned you before you crossed that threshold: your life is no longer your own. At this point, it no longer matters what happens to you. If I were a harsh master, I’d have beaten you the instant you spoke. If I were a cruel one, I’d have beat you before I collared you and made you thank me for being owned. You won’t always be told the rules. They may change without warning. They may not exist. Regardless, you must do your best to obey. Eventually, you’ll fail, and even if you don’t, you’ll still suffer for it. I’ll try to teach you the basics of your new life, but I will not hesitate to reprimand you, even for rules you do not yet know. Do you understand?”
As she spoke, ice filled the pit of my stomach and chilled the blood inside me, but when she stopped, I nodded, lowering my head.
The claw left my neck. “That’s better. Lesson one learned: you speak when you’re told to speak. If you’re not addressed directly, you weren’t told to speak.” Something thunked behind me, and then she moved around into my field of vision, holding a thick wooden rod in one paw. “Now, strip.”
I swallowed heavily, then nodded, closing my eyes. I pulled my simple linen shirt over my head, then tossed it to the floor. My clawtips fumbled with my belt, heat flooding my muzzle as I kicked them aside. Wincing, I hooked my thumbs into my unders and slid them down my legs, adding them to the pile. Nude, I forced my fists to my side and nodded to the slaver, ignoring the blush spreading down my chest.
“And without reminding,” the raccoon said, crossing her arms. “You learn quickly. However.” she held out the staff, its tip touching my cheek. “You forgot one important thing.” She withdrew, and a sly smile split her muzzle. Then she rammed its end into my midsection, sending me to my knees to gasp for breath. “Never meet your owner’s gaze.” A stripe of pain of split my back, driving me to the floor. “You aren’t a person now. You have no voice. You have no say.” She put one hind on the small of my back. “You don’t even have a name any more. Tell me, what is your name, slave?”
I wheezed, trying to get my arms under me. “S—Stannis.” I glanced towards the lynx in the cage; he shook his head slowly, a sad smile on his muzzle.
The slaver’s hind rose, then slammed down into my back, driving me into the stone floor. Her rod met my side, wrenching a cry out of my muzzle. “Wrong twice. First, you always address your owner as ‘master.’ Second, your name is whatever your owner says it is. What is your name?”
My ears flattened against my head in bewilderment. “It’s Sta—” The rod pounded into my rump, just below my tail, right across both cheeks, making me whimper.
“What is your name, slave?” The staff fell against, this time against my shoulders, dropping me back to the floor again.
I struggled against the pain, trying to get wind back in my chest. “It’s—” The lynx shook his head again. “I… I don’t know!” My voice rose in a cry. “I don’t know!” The staff fell once more across the middle of my back. “Master!” I shouted the word, my voice cracking. Tears streamed down my face. “I don’t know, master!”
Instantly, I felt cool pads on my shoulder and side, helping me into a seated position. Then I felt her arms around me, cradling me to her chest. I clutched at her robe, shaking. “Shush, shush now,” she soothed, rocking me gently as I sobbed against her breast. “The first time is always the hardest.” Her fingers lightly stroked my ears. “You do learn quickly. Do you think you can stand?”
I shook, but nodded. “I… I think so, master.” My breathing was at least under control again, though my throat was raw.
The slaver smiled. “Good.” The raccoon rose, then helped me to rise. “Now, arms at your side, pads forward, fingers relaxed.” She showed me the position. “Like this. Hinds even with your shoulders, eyes open, head down. Yes, like that. Now, stay.” She slowly circled me, tapping here and there with her rod. I struggled not to flinch, but each time the staff came in contact, I tensed, paws clenching into fists. Her only response was a chuckle. “That’s one response that only time will correct,” she mused, tapping the back of one of my paws. “So, these patches, here and here.” She motioned to the black swatches of fur on my left shoulder and right hip. “Are they natural?”
I nodded. “Yes, master. I’ve had them since I was a kit.” I did my best to sound natural, but I couldn’t keep the waver out of my voice.
“Pity,” she replied, a frown in her voice. “Pure white would’ve gone for more at the auction. And here, too.” She tapped the back of my left leg. “Interesting. Something in your breeding. No matter, you’ll still fetch more than I paid for you.”
The words made me blush; a hundred ducats was more than I’d seen in one place in my life, and she’d offered that much for me, and selling me would fetch still more? If I can remember what I’m taught, I reminded myself. I bowed my head, ears bobbing back against my head. “Yes, master.”
The raccoon frowned and raised her staff. “Did I address you?”
My eyes went wide and my knees weakened. “No, master!” I said quickly, blurting out the words.
The slaver’s smile returned. “I didn’t think so. So, I have some paperwork to attend and dinner to fetch, and you’ve a busy week ahead of you. Into the cage with you.” With that, she backed me into one of the squat cages, forcing me to hunch, then sit awkwardly in the stale straw. The latrine smell was stronger within, but still not overpowering. “Get some rest and heal up. I’ll be back to check on you in a while.” She shut the door, then locked it with a heavy iron key that she took from another of the bars.
Once inside, I decided to risk a question. As the slaver reached the door to the front office, I called out to her. “Master?”
The raccoon stopped and turned, her eyes narrowing. “Did I address you?”
I hesitated, wondering if I should push my luck, but it seemed unlikely that she would come back, open the cage, pull me out to beat me, then lock me away again. Still, I folded my paws in my lap, bracing for the worst. “No, master, but… what is my name now, master?”
At that, that curiously tender smile that I had seen before returned. “It’s whatever I tell you it is. Now rest.” With that, she draped the heavy black cloth over the witchlight. When the door to the front office closed, the room descended into darkness, leaving me alone with the other slaves, and no option but to try to sleep.