Eric Flint: The tide of victory

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Eric Flint The tide of victory
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    The tide of victory
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    Альтернативная история / на английском языке
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    Английский
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The tide of victory: краткое содержание, описание и аннотация

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Eric Flint,David Drake


The tide of victory

Prologue





Knowing what to expect, the two sisters had already disrobed by the time their new owner returned to his tent. The older sister's infant was asleep on the pallet. The sisters were a bit concerned that the ensuing activities would awaken him-the pallet was small and thin, oddly so for such an obviously wealthy man-but not much. The baby was accustomed to the noise, after all, having spent the first year of his life in a brothel crib.

Unless, of course, their new owner was given to bizarre tastes and habits.

That was the real source of the sisters' anxiety. For all its foulness, the brothel had at least been fairly predictable. Now, for the first time since their enslavement, they faced an entirely new situation. New-and unsettling. Their new owner had said nothing to them, other than commanding them into his tent after his caravan stopped for the night.

But, as they waited, they took solace in the fact that they were still together. Against all odds, they had managed to keep from being separated during the long years of their captivity. Apparently, it tickled their new owner's fancy to have sisters for his concubines. They would see to it that he was satisfied with the result. In that manner, they might preserve the remaining fragment of their family.

So it was, when their new owner pushed back the flap and entered the tent, that he found the sisters reclining nude on the pallet. The fact that they were holding hands was the only indication that any uneasiness lurked beneath their sensual poses.

Standing still and straight a few feet from the pallet, he studied them for a moment. The sisters found the scrutiny unsettling. They could detect nothing of lust in that gaze. For all the natural warmth of the man's dark brown eyes, there seemed to be little if any warmth in the eyes themselves. And not a trace of animal heat.

That was odd. Odder, even, than the austerity of the pallet and the tent's furnishings. Their new owner was obviously as healthy as he was rich. He was not especially tall, but his broad shoulders and lean hips were those of a physically active man. And there was something almost feline about the way he moved. Very poised, very balanced, very quick.

"Stand up," he commanded abruptly.

The sisters obeyed instantly. They were accustomed to inspection by prospective customers. As soon as they were on their feet, both of them assumed familiar poses. Languid, sensual, inviting. But they were still holding hands.

"Not like that," he said softly. "Just stand straight. And turn around slowly." His thin lips curved into a smile. "I'm afraid you'll have to stop holding hands for a bit."

Flushing slightly, the sisters obeyed.

"Slower," he commanded. "And lift up your arms so I can see your entire bodies."

This was not customary. The uneasiness of the sisters mounted. The last characteristic that slave prostitutes wanted to see in a new customer was different. But, of course, they obeyed.

In the long minutes which followed, the sisters found it increasingly difficult to keep the worry out of their faces. Their new owner seemed to be subjecting every inch of their bodies to a detailed and exhaustive scrutiny. As if he were trying to commit them to memory.

"Which of these scars are from your childhood?" he asked. His voice was soft and low-pitched. But the sisters took no comfort in that mild tone. This was a man, clearly enough, who had no need to raise his voice for the simple reason that command came easily to him. He would not be denied, whatever he wanted. Which, again, was not a characteristic which slave prostitutes treasured in their customers. Especially new and unknown ones.

They were so startled by the unexpected question that they did not respond immediately. Instead, they exchanged a quick and half-frightened glance.

Seeing the glance, their new owner's face broke into another smile. But this one was not thin at all, and seemed to have some actual humor in it.

"Be at ease. I have no intention of adding any new scars to the collection. It is simply information which I must have."

The smile disappeared and the question was asked again. This time, with firm command. "Which scars?"

Hesitantly, the younger sister lifted her left leg and pointed to a scar on her knee. "I got this one falling out of a tree. My father was furious with me."

Their owner nodded. "He would know of it, then? Good. Are there any other such? Did he beat you afterward? And, if so, are there any marks?"

The sisters looked at each other. Then, back at their owner.

"He never beat us," whispered the older. "Not once."

"Our mother did," added the younger sister. She was beginning to relax a bit. Enough that she managed a little chuckle. "Very often. But not very hard. I can't remember even being bruised."

The man shook his head. "What kind of silly way is that to raise children? Especially girls?" But the question was obviously rhetorical. The smile was back on his face, and for the first time the sisters detected the whimsical humor which seemed to reside somewhere inside the soul of their new owner.

He stepped up to the older sister and touched her cheek with his forefinger. "That is the worst scar. It almost disfigures your face. How did you get it?"

"From the brothel-keeper."

The man's eyes widened slightly. "Stupid," he mused. "Bad for business."

"He was very angry with me. I-" She shuddered, remembering. "The new customer had-unusual demands. I refused-"

"Ah." With a light finger, he traced the scar from the ear to the corner of her mouth.

"I think he forgot he was wearing that huge ring when he slapped me."

"Ah. Yes, I remember the ring. Probably the same one he was wearing when we conducted our transaction. A large ruby, set in silver?"

She nodded.

"Excellent," he said. "Easy for you to remember, then."

He turned to the younger sister. Placing one hand on her shoulder, he rotated her partway around. With the forefinger of his other hand, he traced the faint lines across her back.

"These are your worst. How?"

She explained. It was a similar story, except the individual involved had been the chief pimp instead of the brothel-keeper, and the instrument had been a whip rather than a ring.

"Ah. Yes, I believe I met him also. Rather short, squat. The little finger of his left hand is missing?"

The two sisters nodded. He returned the nods with a curt one of his own. "Excellent, also."

He stepped back a pace or two. "Can either of you write?"

The sisters were now utterly confused. This man was the weirdest customer they had ever encountered. But-

So far, at least, he did not seem dangerous. The younger sister spoke first. "Not very well."

"Our father taught us a bit," added the older sister. "But it's been a long time. Several years."

Both of the sisters, for the first time, found it almost impossible to maintain their poise. Memories of their father were flooding back. Their eyes were moist.

The man averted his gaze, for a moment. The sisters took advantage of the opportunity to quickly pinch the tears away. It would not do to offend their new owner.

They heard him snort softly. "Taught his daughters! Scandalous, what it is." Another soft snort. Again, the sisters thought to detect that strange whimsical humor. "But what else would you expect from-"

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