Staged (A Belonging 'Verse Novel)
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Once the second-prize winner on My Slave’s Got Talent, Sky Blue has spent the past few years singing at a failing New York nightclub. While Sky has never had control over his fate, his life seems to take a turn for the worse when he’s torn from the familiar comfort of performing and sold to a rich and enigmatic man.
Morgan Wallace takes his newly purchased slave to San Francisco, his intentions unclear. On the one hand, he treats Sky with more kindness than Sky has ever known—treats him like a real person. On the other hand, he shares Sky at parties hosted by his sadistic new friends.
A confused slave is an endangered slave, and Sky isn’t even sure of his master’s real name. Is he Morgan Wallace, wealthy and cruel, or Mackenzie Webster, caring and compassionate? Caught between hope, fear, and an undeniably growing attachment, Sky struggles to untangle which parts are real and which are merely a performance. His future, his heart, and even his life may depend on it.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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As the clapping ended, Sky smiled at the meager audience and tried to ignore the stone-faced man at the table in front of the stage. “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. We’re going to take a quick break, and then we’ll be back with more.” Sky turned and ducked behind the curtains to join the members of the band, who were already sprawled in the ratty backstage chairs, scarfing leftovers from the kitchen.
“Here,” said his handler, putting a towel in one hand and a mug in the other.
Sky blotted his face—careful not to smear his makeup—and gave the towel back, then sniffed the steaming mug. “Thanks, Bill.” It was a special concoction Bill brewed just for him: hot tea with lemon, honey, and ginger. It wouldn’t heal the damage inflicted by too many hours of singing, but it would help soothe Sky’s sore vocal cords.
He took a careful sip, then turned to the guitar player, who was sitting close to him. “That was a good set,” Sky said.
The guitarist shrugged and stuffed half a dinner roll into his mouth.
Sky didn’t know the band well. The club manager had leased them only a week earlier in what Sky assumed was an attempt to save money. This group was less skilled than the last band, and smaller—just a guitar player, a keyboardist, and a drummer. But Sky preferred to get on their good side, because if they wanted to, a band could make the singer look really bad. These guys weren’t easily warming up to him, though.
“Is there anything you’d really like to play?” Sky asked. “Something different from what we did last night, maybe?”
The guitarist shook his head. “We’ll do whatever we’re supposed to.”
Sky wanted to say that their musicianship would never progress beyond mediocre if they didn’t find some passion in their work, but what was the point? They were slaves, just like him. They played whatever their owners told them to. This particular gig had benefits, though—decent food, a reasonably comfortable dorm, and a handler who was willing to learn his charges’ needs and cater to them as much as possible. Sky hoped those advantages would encourage this band to at least try to perform decently.
“Five more minutes,” Bill said. The band mumbled, “Thank you, five,” as Sky drained the mug. Bill took it from him, then ran a hand through his thinning hair and grimaced, looking as unhappy as he had all evening. “Ms. Avery wants you to report to her office after this set.”
Dread weighted Sky’s stomach, making him glad he’d eaten a light dinner. “I’m doing my best. If I could sing one fewer set each day—maybe for just a week—my voice would recover, and—”
“I don’t think she intends to punish you.”
That assurance should have calmed Sky, but Bill’s frown made him feel ill. “Then what does she want?”
Bill just shook his head before walking over to say something to the drummer.
Sky took a few deep breaths and tried another smile at the guitarist. “If you could do a couple long solos, I’d really appreciate it.” He tapped his throat. “Give me a little break?”
The guitarist seemed to consider this for a moment, then gave a curt nod.
For a few minutes, Sky leaned back against a thick support beam and closed his eyes. He tried not think of why Ms. Avery might be angry with him. He’d given good shows tonight, belting out the tunes even when his throat was raw, swiveling his hips and shaking his ass, flirting with the microphone as if it were a lover. Yeah, the place was half-empty tonight—as it had been for months—but that wasn’t his fault. Club Paradiso was passé. The menu was tired, the décor years out-of-date, and the entire concept out of vogue. People didn’t want live music with their dinners anymore; they wanted to get drunk and dance under flashing lights to music that was all rhythm and no melody.
“It’s time,” Bill said with a gentle nudge to Sky’s arm.
The crowd had further thinned during the break. But even through the glare of the stage lights, Sky saw that the man at the front center table remained. Middle-aged, dressed in a suit, expressionless. He was alone, which was odd enough, but he also hadn’t eaten anything. Instead he’d sipped his beer so slowly that, after nearly two hours, the glass still wasn’t empty. Throughout the previous sets, his gaze had never once left Sky.
As Sky reached for the mic, a realization turned his spine to ice. That’s why Ms. Avery wants me. The management didn’t rent him out often because too little rest made his performance suffer. But business had been so bad that maybe they needed the money more than a good show. Besides, tomorrow was Sunday and the club was closed.
Sky pasted on a fake smile and tried to keep his voice from shaking. “And we’re back, ladies and gentleman. I hope you’re still in the mood to rock!” He turned his head and nodded at the band, which began a familiar tune. Good. “Hotel California.” Everyone liked that one, plus it had a nice long guitar solo.
He closed his eyes. Pull yourself together! He wasn’t sure which was worse: anger that his one day to rest would now be ruined, or fear over what that man would do to him. People who rented him for the night weren’t supposed to damage him—most folks didn’t think it was worth the penalty fees—but they could still inflict a lot of temporary pain. The kind that didn’t leave marks. Sky had a feeling this man, with his cold stare, knew a lot of ways to do that.
His cue came, and Sky began to sing.
* * * * * * *
Usually Sky had to help the servers clean up after the club closed. He didn’t mind. Although he was always exhausted by then, at least that task didn’t require him to use his voice. And despite the servers being free men and women, they treated him as if he were one of them, joking and good-naturedly complaining with him.
Tonight, though, Bill collected him as soon as the front doors were locked. The band retired immediately to the crowded dorm, where they’d soon be joined by the two members of the kitchen staff who, aside from Sky, were the only slaves the club owned. They would shower, chat for a while, and maybe even sneak a few handjobs once the lights were out. But Sky had to report to Ms. Avery.
“Bill, that man—” Sky whispered as they trudged to the office. His throat felt as if it were lined with barbed wire.
“C’mon, Sky. You know it’s no use arguing.”
“I’m not arguing. I’m . . .” Sky swallowed. “I’m scared.”
Bill stopped and grasped Sky’s arm. He looked pale, the lines on his face deeper than usual. “I’m sorry about this. It wasn’t my idea; I need you to know that. I tried to talk them out of it.”
Sky just looked at him. Bill was a good guy, but Sky couldn’t feel pity for him. Not when Bill got to go home to his apartment and his girlfriend and his day off. Not when Bill had the power to say no when he didn’t want to do something.
Bill’s expression hardened. “The club’s failing. You know that. We need a total remodel, a whole new concept . . . and that costs money. Aside from the building itself, you’re the club’s only real asset. You may not like it, but you’re a slave.”
As if Sky needed to be reminded of that.
The door to Ms. Avery’s office was closed. Bill knocked once before opening it. He gestured Sky inside first, perhaps afraid that otherwise he would run. Jaw clenched, Sky entered.
Ms. Avery was sitting on the edge of her desk with her legs crossed. Maybe someone else in that pose would have looked casual and relaxed, but Ms. Avery never looked casual or relaxed. Sometimes Sky was surprised she could move without cracking.
The man in the suit was sitting on one of the plush chairs opposite Ms. Avery’s desk, holding a coffee cup. He’d turned to look as soon as Sky came in, and now he continued the same blank-faced stare he’d been giving Sky all evening.
Ms. Avery glanced at Bill and waved him back against the wall, leaving Sky alone in the center of the room. He smelled his own sweat, sour and acrid.
“Strip,” Ms. Avery said.
Sky’s hands shook as he undid the buttons of his paisley silk shirt. Nobody moved to take the shirt from him, and he knew Ms. Avery would be angry if he put it on one of her nice upholstered chairs, so he simply let it drop to the floor. He unzipped his tall black boots and pulled them off, grateful he didn’t lose his balance in the process, then peeled off his socks. Finally, he unfastened his fly and worked his way out of the skintight faux-leather pants. Once finished, he stood with his hands at his sides and his head bowed, wearing nothing but the shiny steel slave bracelets welded around his wrists.
For a long moment, nobody moved or spoke. Sky kept his gaze fixed on the wood floor. It needed refinishing. Finally he heard the quiet thud of a mug being placed on a hard surface, and the man stood and approached him. His shoes were well polished.
The man grasped Sky’s chin and lifted his head. This close, Sky smelled the beer and coffee on his breath, along with a woodsy tang of cologne or aftershave. The man was probably in his late forties and, although still muscular, had developed a paunch that his suit didn’t quite hide. He towered over Sky’s rather average height, and he would have been almost handsome if his brown eyes held any kindness or humanity. With one broad thumb, he lifted each of Sky’s eyelids in turn. Then he let go of Sky’s chin. “Open,” he barked.
Sky had to force himself to unlock his jaw, and then not to bite down when the man inspected the inside of his mouth.
After that, the man ran his palms down Sky’s arms, squeezing now and then to feel the muscles. He did the same across Sky’s chest and belly, grunting at the sparse blond hairs that grew there—Sky couldn’t tell whether the man approved or not. It came as no surprise when the man grabbed Sky’s dick and gave it a few hard tugs, then squeezed his balls almost hard enough to make him yelp. It took all of Sky’s willpower not to pull away, but he couldn’t stop his hands from balling into fists. When the man finally let go, a burst of air escaped Sky’s lungs.
“Turn around,” the man ordered.
Sky obeyed. That left him facing Bill while the man prodded Sky’s shoulders, back, and ass cheeks. Bill leaned against the wall with his arms crossed, the corners of his mouth turned down, and did not meet Sky’s gaze.
The men and women who rented Sky didn’t normally examine him like this, although some spent their time admiring him once they had him in private. They’d already seen enough of him on stage to decide he was worth fucking. But this man was thorough, poking his thighs and digging hard fingers into his hips.
“Bend over and spread.”
Sky’s face flushed with heat and his eyes prickled, but he spread his legs, folded at the waist, and pulled his ass cheeks apart. The man touched a finger to Sky’s clenched hole without, thank heavens, pushing inside, and then gave Sky’s flank a stinging slap. “All right.”
Sky assumed that meant he could stand upright again. He stared at a framed photo hanging to the left of Bill: a bunch of people in 1980s clothes, grinning during Club Paradiso’s grand opening. It would be easier, Sky thought, if what people said about the slave gene were true, if he really didn’t feel things like freemen did. He tried to imagine himself as an animated piece of furniture with nothing but emptiness where a man’s soul ought to be. It didn’t help.
“Well?” Ms. Avery asked, her voice especially tight.
“I know how much he’s worth, Gwendolyn.”
Gwendolyn? It had somehow never occurred to Sky that Ms. Avery had a first name. He was certain she’d never been a child, either, but had instead burst forth—fully grown and wearing heels that clacked on the hard floors—from Club Paradiso itself. It had also never occurred to him that someone could interrupt her, especially in that tone of voice, and survive the experience. Not even the free employees of the club would dare such a thing.
But behind him, Sky heard her sigh. “Fine. Here’s the paperwork.”
A pen scratched.
Then the man stepped close, settled a hand in the center of Sky’s back, and shoved him toward the door. “Let’s go.”
Sky stumbled a bit, then regained his balance. His heart hammered, and he felt light-headed. “Please,” he begged Bill.
Bill pursed his mouth and shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly before looking away.
The man grabbed Sky’s arm in an iron grip and jerked him. “I said, let’s go,” he growled.
“M-my clothes, sir.”
“Don’t need ’em.”
Sky tried to keep his dignity as he was dragged naked through the club and past the gawking servers, but it was a lost cause. Ms. Avery unlocked the door to let them out, and the chilly early-autumn air wasn’t the only reason Sky began to shiver. At least at this very early morning hour, nobody was on the sidewalk to see him. Nobody except the driver of the dark van idling at the curb. The man from the club opened the van’s rear doors and let go of Sky’s arm, only to swat the back of his head. “Get in.”
Sky scrambled inside. The back of the van was bare—no carpet or seats, no windows, nothing but a metal wall between the cargo area and the cab. After the man slammed the doors closed and locked them with a noisy clunk, Sky was left alone in complete darkness. The van smelled of bleach and, more faintly, urine and vomit.
The van accelerated abruptly, bouncing Sky against the rear doors. Disoriented, terrified, and cold, he curled into a ball on his side and pressed back into a corner.
He didn’t know how long the trip lasted. It seemed like forever, but maybe that was because nerves and the rough ride made him nauseated. He thought of his narrow cot in the dorm, the sounds of snoring slaves and the guard’s quiet radio, the promise of Sunday—the one day a week when he could relax. Small pleasures, but those were the only kind a slave could have.
Eventually the van stopped and the engine shut down. After a brief pause, the lock clunked and the doors squealed open. Sky carefully unwound himself and peered out, but all he could discern was the silhouette of the man who’d rented him. “Come on,” the man said, sounding weary and impatient.
Sky climbed out of the van and looked around. They were in a large parking lot, dimly lit with a few overhead lights and empty except for a half-dozen vans and a small assortment of cars and SUVs. At the opposite end of the lot, a large building hulked in the darkness, looking a lot like a warehouse.
“Wh-what?” The man wasn’t just bringing Sky to his apartment for a quick fuck; he clearly had something grander in mind.
The man grunted loudly and grabbed Sky’s arm. “Come on, slave.”
In his fear, Sky did the unthinkable: he disobeyed. Instead of docilely following along, he wrenched his arm free and pressed himself back against the van. “No, no, please . . .”
The man swore, pulled something from inside his suit jacket, and pressed it to Sky’s hip. Sky realized what it was, but not in enough time to jerk away. The electric shock ran through his body like a flame, making him yelp and fall sideways onto the concrete. The man swore again. Then he tucked the prod away and hauled Sky upright. “Next time it’s your balls. They might have indulged your spoiled diva shit at that lousy club, but that ends now.”
With the man’s grip on his arm hard enough to bruise, Sky staggered across the parking lot. Loose bits of gravel dug painfully into his feet, and he was having a difficult time breathing.
But true panic didn’t come until the man opened the warehouse door and shoved Sky hard enough to send him to his knees. When he looked up, he saw the chains hanging from the walls and ceiling, the rows of iron cages. That was when he understood that the man hadn’t just rented him for the night.
The man had bought him.
The doctor removed his gloved finger from Sky’s ass and nodded at Mr. Burgess. “Anal sphincter has good tone, and there are no problems with the prostate.”
Sky remained bent over the metal table. After three days in the warehouse, he had emphatically learned that slaves were to obey instantly and precisely, and that Mr. Burgess and employees did not approve of slaves who took action of their own accord. The metal was cold against Sky’s chest, but then, he hadn’t been truly warm since Mr. Burgess had dragged him out of Club Paradiso. He hadn’t left the main room of the warehouse, either, not even for this exam, which was taking place in a well-lit corner not far from the rows of cages.
Mr. Burgess looked grudgingly pleased. “So no problems, then.”
The doctor peeled off the glove and tossed it into a trash can. “He’s healthy. A little on the thin side, and I wouldn’t recommend him for strong physical labor. But most of your clients aren’t looking for that anyway.”
“No, I’m hoping he’ll go to a high bidder. He better, considering what I paid for him.”
As Sky watched, the doctor took a clipboard from Mr. Burgess, pulled a pen from his shirt pocket, and signed. “There,” the doctor said, handing the clipboard back. “You’ve got your health certificate. Now let me see the one with the limp.”
Mr. Burgess gestured to one of the hulking guards, who stomped forward, pulled Sky up by the hair, and shoved a wad of fabric against Sky’s chest. “Put it on.”
So they weren’t even going to allow him to wipe the sticky lube from his ass. Biting his lip to keep from complaining, Sky pulled on the tunic. It was all he’d been given to wear since he’d arrived, and it hung only to midthigh. He showed his ass every time he bent over, and he flashed his junk if he didn’t sit and lie with his legs together. The coarse fabric was scratchy and the color of mud, but it did insulate him a bit from the chill.
The guard didn’t need to tell Sky where to go—the man just settled one hand on the shock prod at his waist and gestured with his other toward the cages. Sky walked back to his little cell, entered obediently, and flinched when the guard slammed the heavy door closed.
As far as Sky could tell, all of the cells were identical: about eight feet square, with heavy iron bars on four sides and overhead, and a smooth concrete floor. A thin rubber mat served as a mattress, and there was no bedding. Each cage had a toilet with a sink built into the top. No privacy, and the fluorescent lights hanging from the high ceiling were never all turned off at once. Sounds echoed: the heavy tread of the guards’ boots, the tinny speakers of the television in the corner where the guards took their breaks, the muffled sobs of his fellow slaves. Sky had cried too, off and on for the first day, but now the tears were gone and he felt desiccated inside.
The constant fear was terrible, as was the raging uncertainty about his future. But the boredom and loneliness were bad too. At the club, he’d been able to talk to the band, the servers, even to Bill. Here, guards advanced with their shock sticks drawn if slaves so much as whispered to each other. Besides, the cages nearest Sky were empty; in fact, only about one-tenth of the many cages were occupied.
Sky sat on the mat with his knees drawn up and his back propped by the corner of the cage. He wished he knew how to pray. Everyone said God wouldn’t listen to slaves since they had no souls, but maybe he’d take pity on one nonetheless. The problem was that even if Sky had known the words, he didn’t know what to pray for. A kind master? Experience had taught him that no such thing existed. The best a slave could hope for was an owner who was consistent and . . . indifferent, like Ms. Avery and the rest of the club management. They had cared very little about Sky as long as he sang well, brought in paying customers, and didn’t cause problems. They’d never gone out of their way to harm him.
He missed music. During the second day in the warehouse, he’d tried humming one of his favorite songs, but a guard had thundered over and told him to shut the fuck up. Now Sky closed his eyes and wished himself gone.
An hour or two later—he’d dozed and wasn’t sure how much time had passed—he heard the clatter of a wheeled cart. His stomach growled, and he stood and paced impatiently. Unless you counted the doctor’s rectal exam and the guards demanding blowjobs, mealtime was the only interesting event in the warehouse.
It took a long time for the slave with the cart to get to him. She was a permanent worker there, Sky guessed, and not intended for sale, probably because she was too old to fetch a decent price. While most of the slaves in cages were white or at least very light-skinned blacks, this woman’s skin was a deep reddish-brown. As always, she wore loose gray sweats. She didn’t say anything when she unlocked a hatch on Sky’s cage, opened a little swinging door, and passed his tray through the opening. But she smiled warmly, which was nice. Sky smiled back.
The three daily meals were all the same: a bowl of lukewarm mush, a slab of something that looked like gray foam and tasted like wet wool, a pile of soggy unidentifiable vegetables, and a piece of fruit. At least the fruit varied slightly. Usually it was a small apple, but this time it was orange segments. Sky had little appetite, but the guards punished him if he didn’t eat. Besides, it gave him something to do. So he sat back on his mat and nibbled at the food.
After he finished, he stood and walked to the toilet-sink fixture, carrying the empty bowl from the mush. Although it was possible to drink directly from the sink faucet, he always managed to splash cold water down his neck and chest. So before the tray and bowl were taken away, he rinsed the last of the mush from the bowl, filled it with water, and drank.
The woman returned soon after and collected the items with another warm smile. He sat back on his mat and wondered whether she had ever had children, and if so, if they’d been allowed to stay with her for a time.
Sky had been eight when he’d been sold away from the brothel that owned his mother. A man had walked in one evening, and instead of inspecting the men and women he could rent by the hour, he’d called for Sky, who was carrying drinks to customers waiting in the lounge. Sky had been terrified. Not long before then, his mother, grim-faced, had explained to him that soon customers would want to use him the same way they used the brothel’s other slaves. She had described ways to please men and women and warned him that what the customers did to him would often hurt—but that he must submit anyway.
When Sky, fighting back tears, approached the man, he’d been surprised that the man only examined his face and then ordered him to sing. After listening to three songs, the man nodded and left to speak with the brothel owner. Twenty minutes later, Sky had a new master. He did not get to say good-bye to his mother, and he never saw her again. If he cried when he was supposed to be practicing, his new master beat him, so Sky soon forced himself to stop thinking about her.
Now, though, as he watched the woman slowly pushing her cart away, he wondered if his mother was still alive and where she might be. Did she ever think of him, or had she hardened her heart against loss, the way slaves had to do? Maybe she was a good slave, and losing Sky had the same effect on her as a stone tossed into a pond—a few small ripples, then nothing.
* * * * * * *
“—wait two more weeks, we’ll be holding an auction, and our stock won’t be nearly as bare. We’ll have the slaves cleaned up much better, and you’ll find the auction house much more comfortable than the warehouse.”
Sky awoke from a light doze to the strange sound of Mr. Burgess attempting to be ingratiating. But the man accompanying Mr. Burgess didn’t seem impressed. “I don’t want to wait two weeks. Either you have what I need, or I’ll go elsewhere. You’re not the only slave trader in New York.”
“No, no, Mr. Wallace. I’m sure we have something that will meet your needs.”
Mr. Wallace was the most interesting thing Sky had seen in days, a distraction from the daily drudgery but also a potential cause for concern. He was as tall as Mr. Burgess and equally broad in the shoulders, but unlike Sky’s master, Mr. Wallace’s muscular physique included a trim stomach. He was dressed casually in jeans, a formfitting black T-shirt, and a leather jacket, but Sky was willing to bet that those jeans cost more than a night with a pretty slave. Mr. Wallace was in his midthirties, had an expensive haircut and artful stubble, and was maybe just slightly too strong-featured to be truly handsome, with a nose that curved slightly to one side. He walked with the confidence of a man used to getting his way, but Sky couldn’t tell if cruelty accompanied that self-confidence.
Mr. Burgess led him to a cage in the same row as Sky’s, but closer to the front of the warehouse. The slave inside the cage—a boy in his late teens—stared at the freemen’s chins with wide eyes. “Stand up,” Mr. Burgess barked at the slave. “Let him see you.”
The boy stood, and even down the long row, Sky saw his legs shaking. But the boy gathered the hem of his tunic and lifted it to his neck, baring himself for inspection.
“See?” Mr. Burgess said, gesturing. “Very pretty. And still young enough that if you castrate him—”
The boy whimpered, and Mr. Wallace shook his head. “I don’t want a child, and I do not want a eunuch. I told you. I want a man.”
Frowning, Mr. Burgess waved at the boy, who lowered his tunic and collapsed into the corner of his cage with a sob. Ordinarily, the boy might have been beaten for crying, but Mr. Burgess was already walking away, piloting Mr. Wallace to a cage several rows over. Sky couldn’t see that slave, but he heard the disapproval of the slave’s delicacy. Mr. Wallace didn’t like the next one because that slave wasn’t handsome enough, and by the time he rejected a fourth slave—again too young—it sounded as if Mr. Burgess’s forced good humor was failing.
Sky indulged in a secret smile at his owner’s discomposure—until both men stopped in front of his cage. Although he was filled with dread, Sky stood without being told and rucked up his tunic. He supposed this master would be as good—or bad—as any, and at least knowing his fate was better than sitting in the warehouse with nothing to do but worry.
Mr. Wallace looked Sky up and down, and when he didn’t immediately object, Mr. Burgess appeared heartened. “He needs some scrubbing up for you to see his potential, but this one’s very attractive. And he’s certainly not a child. He’s thirty-two, but looks younger.”
“Is he trained as a companion?” Mr. Wallace’s voice was a little rougher than his carefully polished looks would suggest.
“No, none of the in-stock males are. But his previous owners rented him out, so he’s experienced enough.”
Sky kept his jaw firm, his raised hands steady, and his gaze fixed on Mr. Wallace’s chest. Mr. Burgess was right about him not looking his best. He hadn’t been allowed to bathe thoroughly since he’d arrived at the warehouse; the guards had hosed him down perfunctorily, so he was dirty, his shoulder-length hair falling in lank, greasy tangles.
“What is he trained in?” Mr. Wallace asked.
“Singing. He came in second on My Slave’s Got Talent.” Mr. Burgess didn’t mention that had been over ten years ago.
Mr. Wallace snorted. “I don’t watch that show.”
“He was also in a musical group that had a few hits. Uh, 2Nyte. One of those boy bands.”
“Never heard of them.” Mr. Wallace paused for a moment, then asked, “Were you any good?”
Surprised to be addressed directly, Sky glanced up at his face, then quickly down again. “We were okay, sir. We looked better than we sounded.”
For some reason, that answer made Mr. Wallace bark a laugh. “And what have you been doing since your boy-band days?”
“I sang at Club Paradiso, sir.” Actually, there had been another club before that—glitzier by far—as well as some chorus work in a few shows. But Sky didn’t think Mr. Wallace would care about that much detail.
For a minute or two, Mr. Wallace seemed to be considering. Then Mr. Burgess stepped closer to him. “If you’d like to inspect him more closely, we have a private room. I’ll have him cleaned better first.” He leered, making his meaning clear, and Sky tried not to shudder.
But Mr. Wallace shook his head. “Not necessary. Let’s go talk terms.” He marched away with Mr. Burgess practically skipping beside him.
Sky took a few shaky breaths and let the hem of his tunic fall. Then he waited.
It wasn’t Mr. Burgess or Mr. Wallace who arrived next, but two of the guards. One of them unlocked Sky’s cage, and they led him silently to a dark area in the far corner of the warehouse. One of the guards flipped on a light, and Sky nearly balked when he saw what waited for him: a waist-high bench mounted with wooden stocks to immobilize his arms. But he didn’t put up a fight when one of the guards lifted the hinged top of the stocks, pushed Sky forward, and placed his arms in the openings before slamming the top closed. “Stay put,” the guard growled.
It wasn’t painful, actually. The guards slipped protective cuffs between Sky’s steel bracelets and his wrists, then used a whirring rotary blade to cut the bracelets off. Sky winced at the flying sparks. For a minute or two, he wore no bracelets, just like a freeman. It sent shivers up his spine, even though he knew he was still, and always, a slave. Even if he magically broke free that very moment and somehow managed to run away, he’d be tracked down quickly via the GPS chip embedded in his collarbone.
In any case, he didn’t remain without bracelets for long. His eyes widened when he saw the new ones—instead of steel, these were braided silver with gold accents. They looked more like nice jewelry than the marks of slavery. Sky watched as one of the guards welded them onto his wrists.
Once Sky was freed from the bench, the guards took him to the front door. They were both scowling as if they disapproved, maybe because his new bracelets would have cost them a week’s salary. One of them shoved Sky hard enough to make him fall. Both guards laughed as he scrambled to his feet.
They waited near the door for about five minutes before Mr. Wallace and Mr. Burgess emerged from the nearby office. Mr. Wallace looked at Sky and nodded when he saw the new bracelets.
“Want us to hose him down?” Mr. Burgess asked.
Mr. Wallace frowned. “No. I’ll give him a good scrub later. Where’s his stuff?”
Mr. Burgess looked amused. “He’s a slave. He doesn’t have any stuff.”
“Not even any— Never mind.” Mr. Wallace jerked his head toward the door. “C’mon.” He didn’t pause to shake Mr. Burgess’s hand or even to make sure Sky was following. Which of course Sky was.
Due to the constant artificial light and lack of windows in the warehouse, Sky hadn’t known what time of day it was. When he stepped outside, the sun proved it was close to noon. The vast parking lot was still nearly empty, but a sleek limo idled not far away; Sky was grateful he didn’t have to walk far in bare feet. The driver was a tall black slave who held the door open for Mr. Wallace but sent a slight scowl in Sky’s direction. Sky didn’t blame him—he was bound to get the car upholstery dirty.
In the back of the limo, Sky scrunched against the door, his hands knotted in his lap. It was nice and warm inside, but he wrinkled his nose at his own stink. Mr. Wallace waited for the limo to pull out of the lot, then leaned forward to open a drink cabinet. He poured himself a shot of whiskey, downed it quickly, then poured another. He closed the cabinet and sat back with a sigh. “What’s your name, anyway?”
“Sky, sir. Uh, Master.” He’d have to be careful about that—it had been a long time since he’d answered directly to his owner.
“What kind of name is that?”
“The one my owner gave me, Master. My stage name was Sky Blue.” It hadn’t been his original name, although sometimes he forgot that. The owner of the brothel—his first owner—had called him Thursday because that was the day he was born. It was his second owner who came up with Sky Blue.
“I guess we’ll just go with Sky, then,” said Mr. Wallace. “I’m not calling you Blue.”
The conversation died after that. Master took out his phone and appeared to be surfing the internet or reading his email. Sky looked out the window as they rolled through the city. No one could see him through the tinted windows, which was slightly comforting.
Sky didn’t know the city well, and it wasn’t until they passed through a tunnel that he realized the warehouse was in Queens. Now they were heading into Manhattan. Like a tourist, Sky gawked at the Empire State Building—he’d heard that several hundred slaves had died during construction—and then at the Chrysler Building, which he thought was more elegant. The limo stopped in front of Hotel 234, a tall and narrow building of decorative brick next to an ugly glass-and-steel skyscraper.
A uniformed man opened the door for Master and did a double-take when he caught sight of Sky. Of course, Master didn’t have to explain his slave to this man, whose own polished steel bracelets peeked out from beneath the cuffs of his fancy jacket. “Welcome back, sir,” the doorman said.
Master climbed out, then gestured for Sky to follow. They were in a small portico, but passersby gawked at Sky nonetheless. “Have housekeeping bring extra towels,” Master said to the doorman.
“Of course, sir. Right away.”
The small lobby gleamed with marble and polished wood. Master ignored the greeting from the woman behind the reception desk and marched straight to the bank of elevators. Their car arrived as soon as he pushed the button; inside, he swiped a card before pushing the button for the top floor. He texted as they quickly ascended.
Sky was somewhat surprised by Master’s room, which wasn’t as grand as some of the fancy suites he’d seen while rented out. It was a fairly spacious room with a king-sized bed, a tall bureau, a large desk with a wheeled chair, and a lounge area with a couch and comfy chairs. The big windows offered nice views, and the cream-colored carpet felt plush under his bare feet.
Master pointed at a closed door. “Take a shower or bath or whatever it’s going to take to get clean. I need to— Shit. What size do you wear?” He seemed to measure Sky with his eyes. “My stuff won’t fit you.” When Sky blinked at him in confusion, Master sighed. “I’ll just get you some sweats or something. Buy you something better when we hit the West Coast.”
Sky’s jaw dropped. The West Coast? But then Master frowned, and Sky hurried into the bathroom. He wasn’t sure what to do about the door—was he to leave it open or closed?—but Master answered that by slamming it shut.
Alone in the bathroom, Sky looked around. It wasn’t huge, but it was much nicer than what he’d shared in the dorm at Club Paradiso, and of course it was a far cry from the sink/toilet combination he’d endured at the warehouse. He winced when he caught sight of himself in the mirror. After a moment’s consideration, he decided that the best course of action would be a quick shower to wash away the surface grime, followed by a soak in the tub to get rid of the rest. Besides, he very rarely had access to a bathtub, and immersing himself in warm water sounded like a precious treat.
The shower felt wonderful—infinitely better than the lukewarm trickle from the tap at the club dorm. But as soon as he became accustomed to the hot spray, he faced a dilemma. Was he supposed to use the cake of soap and the little bottles of shampoo and conditioner that the hotel provided? There was nothing else to use, and he doubted water alone would do the trick. But they were Master’s. Sky weighed the likelihood of being punished for using them versus being punished for not getting completely clean, and decided to risk their use. Master could always ask housekeeping for more. Besides, if Master was in the mood to punish a slave, he was going to do so regardless of what Sky did.
Relieved at reaching a decision, Sky opened the shampoo.
Master didn’t come into the bathroom even after Sky had soaked long enough for his skin to wrinkle and the water to cool. The bath felt so decadently wonderful that he was tempted to refill it with hot water, but that might try Master’s patience. With a sigh, Sky used a soapy finger to clean around and slightly inside his anus. Then he rinsed, pulled the plug, and stepped out of the tub. The towels were thick and oversized, but he wasn’t brave enough to use one of the plush hotel robes.
Sky looked in the mirror again. He needed to shave and to brush his hair and teeth, but he was much improved over the pathetic creature Master had dragged from the warehouse.
After picking up his tunic, Sky timidly opened the bathroom door and discovered that the main room was empty. He couldn’t remember ever having been left alone like this.
Run! said a voice in his head. A very stupid voice, because where would he go, naked except for his new bracelets? He’d be caught at once, even without the chip.
But he didn’t know what to do with himself—Master hadn’t given him any orders—so he spent a long time standing near the bathroom doorway. Eventually he built up enough nerve to walk to a window and look out. Unwilling to cover his clean body in dirty fabric, he kept the tunic wadded in his hand.
He didn’t know how much time had passed before the door to the hallway clicked open, making him jump. Master entered with several shopping bags in hand. He frowned at Sky but didn’t chastise him for gazing outside. “Here,” Master said as he marched over. He thrust one of the bags at Sky. “Razor and stuff.”
“Thank you, Master.”
They both stood there until Master huffed. “Go use them. And throw that filthy rag away.”
“Yes, Master.” Sky hurried into the bathroom, nerves jangling as Master watched him brush his hair and teeth.