The day was so much hotter than it should have been—it seemed that the climate grew more erratic every spring. Unless I was planning a campaign, I rarely listened to the ramblings of the Weather Weavers, but occasionally I would admit that they were right to complain about it. Today, the breast plate and leggings of my dress uniform were awkward on my body and my helmet was heavy. I could feel my long hair sticking to my scalp with sweat and the belt of my sword dragging painfully at my waist. But I’d worn all of this for many years—I, of all men, had no reason to complain.
Inside the Arena, the sanded floor had been brushed down and the stone steps prepared for today’s event—the Choosing for Aza City. It was a very public venue and well-used. I could see how tired its decoration looked. The structure always remained dirty, despite regular scrubbing by hordes of cleaners. There was always substantial building work going on throughout the City and it proved difficult to keep buildings at their best. But I saw plenty of evidence of the attempts to make the Arena look glamorous for this occasion. Banners and note-boards had been hung from the pillars at the side, the flags of the Households of the City were flying proudly along the top wall, and there were plenty of facilities to feed, clean, and relieve the large number of visitors that flocked in today. This event had occurred annually for hundreds of years; there were few excuses for it to be less than spectacular.
Most of the Households had already arrived, settling with blankets and folded chairs, erecting the sun shades for the Mistresses, preparing some refreshments in case the public supplies were inadequate. Each Mistress was attended by a few of her Ladies and most of them also had the company of soldiers from their Guard. This had often seemed ludicrous to me, for what military danger would there be during a Choosing? The attention of everyone was surely on very different things! But it was a matter of prestige, as well. I’d always accompanied my Mistress, ever since I qualified as a Silver Captain under Bernos, the serving Gold Warrior of the time. Now I stood as a Gold Warrior myself—the highest honor there could be for a soldier, let alone a man.
The Mistresses were excited to meet each other, all gathered together, and high-pitched female chatter choked the air around us. It would get fiercer once the bidding began. Many of them only saw each other at these events, and although some were glad for this, others regretted it and regularly made plans to travel more to visit. Whatever their pleasure at seeing friends, however, their eyes still strayed frequently into the center of the Arena, to the ring where this year’s candidates would soon appear. That was, after all, the main purpose of the day.
A couple of my Silver Captains stood at my Mistress’s side. I watched them closely, for I was currently displeased with their lack of attention to her. She may have found them interesting in bed, but I demanded far more of them than a pleasing body. It was an honor to have been chosen for today’s duty, and I expected them to have anticipated their Mistress’s discomfort, standing for long hours at the side of the ring with an inadequate sun shield and nothing but cooled water when the serving children came past. She’d worn a thin, pale blue shift today, in deference to the weather, and a cloak in light fabric. Her badge of office was worn as a pendant around her neck. Her head was uncovered, her long dark hair caught loosely at the back of her neck with a brooch. She was no longer young, of course, like many of her favorite Ladies, but her skin was smooth, her hair glossy with aromatic oil, and her brown eyes very bright. She was a devoted follower of the Devotions to Life. In return, they repaid her with good health and delayed aging. That’s how things were in the City; we all benefited in many ways from the Devotions.
Just about then, she caught my eye and raised her eyebrows. She was amused at my frustration with the men. I swear the woman should have been made Mistress of Magic, not of Exchequer! She had a wicked, sharp perception that many others underestimated.
“Leave them be, Maen,” she murmured, leaning toward me from her position on the steps so that others wouldn’t hear. “They are excited by this as well. It’s an upheaval for them, this time of year. When I ask for something, they will be speedier than the hare to fetch it, never fear.”
She’d used my personal name rather than my rank and that was often frowned on, socially, though I of course would not chastise her. It was a measure of the time that we had been together and the ease that we had between us personally—and also, perhaps, her sometimes worrying tendency to chafe at the more formal requirements of her position.
“Excitement is not part of their official duty, Mistress,” I replied rather dryly. But maybe they overheard me. The blond Justes straightened his shoulders guiltily and snagged another cup of water from a passing refreshment tray.
My Mistress smiled, unconcerned. When Justes handed her the water with the appropriate greeting, and the brief but formal salute of palm to his heart, she caught at his fingertips for a little longer than necessary. His eyes flashed with passion and pride; he would be the one she took tonight, in all probability. She liked his combination of strength and soft skin—he had the flexibility of a gymnast and the reflexes of a cat. Or so the word had it in the barracks.
Mistress Luana was always interested in such things.
“The Choosing of the Bronzemen… don’t you remember it yourself, Maen?” Her eyes met mine with an innocent expression that I knew to be false. I had been in her Household for all of my ten years of adult life; I thought that, by now, I should know her character well, both as a woman and as a Mistress. “Is that all too long ago, my grown-up Gold Warrior? Too long to remember yourself as a young, barely pubescent boy, desperate to impress, desperate to be Chosen by a good Mistress?”
“I remember,” I said, determined to say no more unless she insisted.
“Or perhaps the memories are clearer from when you were first a Silver Captain yourself. One of our youngest to qualify, I believe. One of our finest athletes and also our most excellent swordsman, which is, indeed, still the case. You stood here, like Justes and… the other one.” Her memory failed her, for she couldn’t always remember the names of all the men she Called unless they became particular Favorites. “You watched all the young boys, all the potential Bronzemen, full of your professional criticism, questioning whether they would be a good crop that year.”
“I wondered what Bernos would make of them,” I said. “Whether they would make good soldiers.”
She smiled. “Whether they would be good servants in many ways, Maen! Whatever Bernos—and those before him—may have recommended, I do not choose only on the basis of potential military skills. As I said, it’s a difficult time for the Silvers. There will be a new batch of these gorgeous young things in the Household. My attention will be drawn away from the Silvers themselves, along with the other Ladies. There will be a time of some insecurity and frustration, until the positions have been re-established in the Household—”
“And in the Guard itself,” I added. “For they will be soldiers, first and foremost.” I took a risk, interrupting her. But she’d let me know many times that she would allow me to challenge her, to banter with her. I enjoyed it and, I believed, so did she.
She laughed softly, and Justes turned his head sharply to see if she called him, but she waved him back. She looked up into my face—for I was a good head taller than she—and she smiled purely for my benefit. “Did you never worry that I would tire of you, that each year I would prefer the new, soft, young bodies to your fiercely toned soldier’s muscles? That you would languish in my indifference, with nothing but your barrack companions for physical relief? That my gifts would be given to others, now and for the foreseeable future?”
“I have never had any interest in gifts!” I said, a little too sharply. I felt Justes’s eyes on me now, but he would never challenge me, his Commander, in public.
Mistress Luana’s eyes softened. “I know, dear Gold Warrior. And that’s partly why you have been my most frequent companion, ever since you were a callow Bronze with legs that seemed too slender to hold up your finely developing torso, and that bright copper hair that would never lie still, but with a sparkle of certainty in your eye that made my choice a very easy one that day. And your loyalty and devotion has remained constant all through your years as a Silver, hasn’t it? As my most handsome and most decorated soldier, then as my most accomplished Gold, now in charge of those that followed you, and always, as a fine and enthusiastic visitor to my chambers.”
“Mistress,” I murmured, disconcerted. She shouldn’t be talking this way; I wished the Choosing would begin on time today and distract her. This was the stuff that she murmured in bed at night, that she said to make me blush and shift in awkwardness as she both embarrassed and stimulated me, the stuff that would then make her laugh, and me along with her, as she drew me in closer and used me as she wished. She was a generous Mistress, for she had no need to make my time so enjoyable; I was entirely at her Call, like any man, regardless of my own desires. But I believed that was her way. She would be as selfless with all lovers, not just me. In return, I knew that my role must never be taken as exclusive, and that her comments were for the softness of the pillow, not for the purposes of my own pride.
But she made me smile in return. She made me hungry for her—many times—and so, in turn, I could satisfy her. It had been a very good ten years, since my own Choosing. I wondered how many other Gold Warriors could say the same.
“Mistress,” announced the other Silver Captain, Orven. I frowned. His voice was pitched too harshly to be acceptably polite, and his stance and behavior were still below standard. It was likely I’d have him whipped later. There were many other Households represented here today, many other Guards; I wouldn’t have any of my men disgrace the Mistress in any way. Those standards were why we were already respected throughout Aza City.
Orven coughed and amended his tone. “The Choosing is beginning. The Negotiators have entered the ring.”
There was movement all round the Arena, some of the groups moving forward for a better view. The refreshment servants moved out into the aisles. There was the metallic clatter of soldiers shifting their swords into defensive position and the conversation of the Ladies quieted. The steps were a jumble of bright clothing and polished armor, simple but brilliantly colored jewelry, and badges of office glinting in the reflected sunlight. Some young woman laughed particularly loudly.
The senior Negotiator marched into the central ring and waved to the applause. His voice was amplified around the Arena through a voice trumpet, but most of the men who aspire to that role have a fine speaking voice of their own, and often rely on the projection of that alone to carry around the Arena. They are Chosen by, and for, the House of Trade; they would have been through Bronzeman training themselves though few progressed as far as Silver Captain before being taken aside for specialist Training in their future role.
I confess I barely listened to the opening speeches, the announcement of the Houses represented, the declaration of the number of young men to be viewed today, the more amusing stories told to flatter the Ladies and Mistresses and to lighten the mood even further. I only needed to know where the credits would be recorded, so that I could settle up and sign for any of my Mistress’s procurements, and I’d make the arrangements for transport of the boys to her Household in the morning.
Of course, I stood at attention for the Confirmation of Life—to declare Good Wishes for the City and the Devotion to the Queen. Everyone did, whether or not the acolytes of the Household of Devotion were there to ensure we did. For those few communal moments there was a swell of mumbled voices around the Arena, soldiers with their palms at their hearts, Ladies with heads bowed slightly. It was a proud sight.
Then the proceedings started in earnest. Mistress Luana nodded her pleasure and gestured for us to move further to the front. She was a short, slight woman, and I knew of at least one year that she’d missed procuring a young boy who had caught her eye purely because the Mistress of Physic had stepped in front of her at the critical moment and made the successful bid. I also knew she’d taken her revenge a week later, when my intelligence had been able to tell her of a trip the Mistress of Physic was taking, leaving her Household unattended for three days. Mistress Luana created a spurious reason to visit the Physic Household and had availed herself of the young boy’s attentions for the whole of two long nights. She was gone back to her own Household shortly before the Mistress of Physic returned, only to find that one of her new recruits had already been initiated!
It was the normal way of things, and my Mistress gained a good deal of amusement from it, as well as sexual satisfaction. All the boys were available to any Mistress from the time of their procurement, and it would also have been unthinkable rudeness to refuse a visiting Mistress the hospitality of any of the Bronzemen in the Household. There was plenty of this one-upmanship going around: the Mistresses enjoyed the sport, as well as the pleasures of their own Households.
But today, my Mistress had a prime position at the ringside and the attentions of all three of us to ensure that her desires were communicated to the Negotiator. The first hour was always the most frenzied, when the best of the youngsters were brought out on view. Today, the Negotiator called for them with a grandiose sweep of his arm and his signature sound—a mixture between a song and the caterwauling of kitchen cats—which he’d developed as his own particular style to engage and amuse the crowds. I knew this man, slightly—he’d Trained under a soldier who had once been a Silver Captain alongside me, by the name of Varden. After Varden had displeased my Mistress somehow, she had passed him across to the Household of Trade, and he’d prospered there. I heard he was being considered for promotion to Gold Warrior around the time of my own achievement; I had contacts with Captains in other Households, and there was a busy, informal channel of news that passed between us all. Then the information had ceased and I never heard any more about him. Some said that Varden’s history at our Household had damned him, though I never really knew what his fault had been. Privately, I thought that he had deserved better luck in life: he was an excellent soldier and the closest I had to a friend. I hadn’t been pleased to lose his company, though no one sought my opinion on it. Friendships were never a priority for soldiers; we weren’t allowed the luxury of official Favorites, like the Ladies.
I was distracted away from my inappropriate thoughts by the boys filing out from the tower structure at the north end of the Arena. There were holding rooms there, and cleaning facilities, and a few Trade offices. The youths would have been brought from the Central City School on the previous day, cleaned up, and instructed one more time in how to behave. For some of them, it wouldn’t be their first Choosing, but then that was all the more reason to be alert. There was a loud wave of noise and laughter and admiring cries from the spectators at their procession into the open Arena—a sign that the Choosing would be a rewarding one this year. The boys wore nothing but the cloths that folded around their narrow waists and between their legs. The Choosing is always held in the warm springtime, and the lack of restrictive, cumbersome clothing both kept the children calm and also allowed the best view of their bodies.
Then the formalities were carried out. The Negotiator passed down the line, calling out the lineage of each youth for the Mistresses to consider the worth and history of the boys’ Households. This had a significant effect on the bidding. Some Households were respected throughout the whole of Aza City—their children were well-bred and much prized. Every child was branded with their mother’s lineage at birth and carried that mark throughout their life. It included the Household mark, and only if they were passed to another Household would there be any further mark added to their birth brand. It wasn’t an enviable thing, to have a trail of Household marks added to your brand—it implied you were a troublesome possession. There were more practical benefits from the branding process, as well. At Choosing time, the brand helped the Mistress to avoid any of her own offspring, which she was strictly forbidden to procure. The Choosing was established to be a process of free trade; family ties were never to be taken into account.
We could all imagine the disaster if a Mistress procured her own birth son, and was then unable to take him as a lover! It would make a mockery of the whole process. Every Bronzeman had to be available for the Mistress sexually—and most would be initiated by her over the first few weeks of their time in her Household. Only then would they be available for the Ladies as well.
The bidding had begun, a chaotic process of cries from the crowd and House banners waving frantically to catch the attention of the Negotiator. The boys were drawn to the side, one by one, and turned slowly for the viewing. Most looked bemused, as if their instruction hadn’t prepared them for the reality of the Arena. It was a large structure, open to the air, with high pillared walls, and the numbers attending the event grew every year. The youths saw few soldiers when they were in the School, and they were protected from the numbers of adult citizens that thronged the City outside. This would be their first exposure to such a crowd. Some of them looked frightened at the sudden swell of noise, and the none-too-gentle handling of the Negotiator and his assistants. But, as always, some seemed to respond to the excitement, standing all the taller and almost basking in the glamour of it all.
As I did every year, I thought about the day that I might see one of my Mistress’s sons in the ring, one that may have sprung from my own loins, though there were still a few years to go before any would be old enough to come to a Choosing. Boys were rarely taken before sixteen. I’d never confessed this curiosity, and never would. It was a shameful, private pride of my own, and I’d never admit it to anyone. But that wasn’t to say I could repress it entirely. I looked around at the few Gold Warriors that had accompanied their Mistresses here today and wondered how many of them were thinking the same. It wasn’t for us to know if we’d sired a son—if it had been our seed that had been fruitful. The child was always the property of the mother and joined the City’s Central Nursery and School within days of its birth. The only connection a mother might have with her child, after its assisted birth, would be to see them procured by another Household within the City; hopefully it would be one that she admired. She would be thankful then that she had contributed a child that would be of service to Aza City overall.
Was I selfish in my thoughts? I’d always tried to be a devout citizen, all through my life, as taught by the School and then by my Trainer. And, of course, by my Mistress. Devotion to the City is everything—Service to the City is our Reward. That was one of the many phrases we learned over the years, one of the many Chants to express our loyalty to the City and to the Life.
I gazed back at the youths in the Arena. Any boy child who was not Chosen would be returned to the School. There were quite often a few that didn’t meet standards, despite having been put forward for Choosing. Perhaps it was unfair in some years, when the rest of the boys might be unusually fine. But they each had three chances to be procured, attendance at three Choosings. Then, if unclaimed, they became a Remainder for the rest of their life. Remainders worked for the City, of course, but only a small proportion of them would ever be seen in a Household, and they would likely never be seen again by their birth mother. It was by no means a shameful fate, for most of the population was designated as Remainders. They had their own pleasures and achievements, I believed. That’s what the Chants told us—Service to the City was the only way for us all, regardless of final career.
I knew it was quite likely that all the Mistress’s sons would attend a Choosing at some stage; they were bred from those who had been Chosen themselves, of course, though I avoided any personal vanity in my own case. But this arrangement had stood for the many generations that our society had been established, ever since the first Colonization here and the Establishment of the Cities by the Four Queens. The process of Choosing usually produced very splendid specimens. It was considered fair that everyone had the opportunity to Choose their Bronzemen from a central resource; it enabled the strengthening of some Houses, both in bloodline and in military prowess. It also calmed any inappropriate loyalties that might conflict with the Devotion to the City. Yes, the system had been carefully planned and promoted by the Queens since the day our race came to this planet, and we were not the people to question that at any time.
I looked carefully over the boys today, for my own purposes. My Mistress would listen to my advice, though the decision was always hers. I looked for a strong body and a confidence in bearing, an awareness of growing limbs, and good co-ordination. Some would be my soldiers, the rest would be allocated out to the Household’s other two Gold Warriors for Training. I was pleased that Mistress Luana often allowed me to make my own choice, after her procurement.
And she? Well, I knew that she looked for the same promise— and then she also looked for those with blond or copper-colored hair, for I had been one myself, ten years ago. I knew that she liked a tall youngster, one with slender hips and limbs, like a young colt. She sought a look in their eyes of intelligence and wit, for she could see through the nervousness and the fear to the real potential of these boys. She wasn’t only looking for a strong and loyal Guard, she was looking for the future breeding and prestige of her Household. The Household of the Exchequer already had a fine reputation and its boys commanded an excellent level of credit at the Choosings. She’d want to maintain that reputation.
When I looked across at her today and saw the shine in her eyes, I wanted to smile. For I knew she looked for fun, as well!
Mistress Luana had eaten the snacks that the Remainder servants had brought around and was relaxing on a folding chair. She’d drunk plenty of wine—which she loved—and settled her account with the Negotiator. Many of the Mistresses had already left; some could afford more staff in their Household than others, of course. Mistress Luana was a member of the Queen’s Central Council, so she had additional privileges and a wealthy supply of credit. She had already Chosen a fine selection of six. I was pleasantly surprised with the quality this year and was looking forward to the Training of the new Bronzemen.
“There’s a sparkle in your eyes, Maen, that reminds me of the boy you were ten years ago,” she called to me happily. Justes knelt at her side, passing the wine as she required it and reveling in the touch of her hand on his neck. I was more relaxed now; the honor of the Household didn’t seem so critical as the day was wearing down and the arrangements were coming to an end.
“You’ve Chosen well, Mistress.” I smiled. “As you always do. I will arrange the transport for them to the Household tomorrow.”
“Sir.” Orven moved hesitantly beside me. He looked very remorseful for his earlier inattention. For Life’s sake, perhaps I wouldn’t have him beaten. Perhaps I needed to make allowances for this being his first Choosing as a Silver; Mistress Luana told me occasionally that I was too harsh with my men. I was definitely guilty of that with Orven. Something about him had always sat uncomfortably with me and I found it difficult to trust his motives at all times. That was a dangerous weakness in a soldier of my Guard.
“Sir, there are still some boys in the ring.”
I looked over at Mistress Luana, and she was looking back into the ring, too. It was as if they had forgotten a last batch of youngsters. The Negotiator’s assistants looked flustered and embarrassed—a Choosing wasn’t usually such a disjointed event. But they wouldn’t have wanted to miss the chance of having these last few Chosen, having to wait another year to put them forward. There were low, angry discussions, out of earshot of most of the crowd; there was the sound of a harsh slap on someone’s head. The dirt on the floor of the ring had been well and truly scuffed, the Negotiator’s voice was a little hoarse, the sun, although lower now, still beaded sweat on everyone’s brow. It had been a tiring day.
Then it seemed the decision had been made. The final boys were pushed forward and arranged for viewing. There were five of them on show, standing in a line, the matching sets of bare toes turned inward nervously, their hair glossy with their own sweat and the fresh washing. Two of them clenched their fists at their side, shaking a little; two others looked almost angry that they’d been left until last, when many of the best Households had already left the Arena. The fifth one stood a little way apart, a tall, white-blond boy with a broad shoulder span and pale skin. There was already the hint of good muscle definition on his chest and stomach. The cloth on his groin was a little greyer than the others, his hair a little less shining. But he stood steadily, his body well balanced, and he exuded an air of challenge that none of the others had, almost as if he were hostile to this whole event. I found that an unusual—and ungrateful—attitude.
But he was the only one who caught my eye.
“Maen,” came the Mistress’s voice at my ear. She sounded a little sly. “Maen, you seem almost shocked. You are entranced! Is it that blond child on the end?” I made some murmur of protest. I was merely interested in an uncommon specimen, I assured her. I listened to the lineage announcement and heard the ripple of scorn around the remaining audience. The fifth boy was a Remainder child, he had no Household lineage at all! It was a rare situation. The Remainder children were bred for the Utilities and other support functions within the City. It was a calculated program, controlled by the Mistresses and the Central Council, so as to protect their numbers and to match the available resources. All for the good of the City, of course. The male children could, theoretically, be considered at a Choosing, but the Remainders had largely withdrawn from the event in past years. They had not presumed to contribute specimens fine enough to be attractive. A Choosing wants only the best, only the strongest, only the most handsome.
This boy was all of those things! He had every right to be here at the Choosing—and a better right than any my Mistress had Chosen so far today. What was I thinking? That this boy was the best-looking candidate I had ever seen during the three years since I’d been promoted to Gold Warrior? That was exactly how I felt.
My pulse pounded in my head; my mouth was dry. He looked as bone-thin and immature and basically unformed as all the rest, but there was something about him that shouted to my senses, that alerted every intuition I had ever had. It was so strong that I almost imagined he could sense my stare, that he would look up and meet my eyes. But the Arena was wide and our position was still some way back. He continued to stare into the middle distance, his eyes a dark, fierce blue. He focused on none of us.
“Do you want him, Maen?” Mistress Luana asked. Her voice was steady now. She was serious.
“Yes, Mistress,” I said, before I realized I was speaking aloud. “You must Choose him. For the Household.”
She raised her eyebrows, probably at my insolence in presuming to tell her what to do. My past history with her didn’t allow a complete disregard for protocol. “The decision is already made, Gold Warrior. He is mine. I bid while your eyes boggled and your tongue tried to lick life back into your dry lips. You know what a fondness I have for blonds.” Her laugh was soft but somehow it didn’t sound as carefree as before. I looked at her and couldn’t read her expression. It was easy for people to see her slight, feminine beauty and forget her vibrantly sharp intelligence. I didn’t want to be accused of that, myself.
“Settle with the Negotiator,” she said, curtly. “Justes will see me back to my carriage.” I nodded, wondering why my throat was so tight. It was from the dust and the heat, surely that was why. Then my Mistress seemed to relent a little, and her hand touched my hip as she turned to leave the Arena. “Come to me later, Maen,” she murmured. “Come at midnight, I will have worn the Silver boy out by then.” She looked up at me, her questioning eyes belying her vulgar jokes.
“Come to me tonight, Maen. I need you.”