Karra is broken.
Karra is defeated. The beast has won. She will comply with its wishes…
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Toss them in the incinerator.”
Karra peeked out of her room to see what Del so imperiously wanted thrown out. His housekeeper stood before him, holding a pair of thickweave trousers.
“They are not appropriate attire for my Lady. She is to take no more trips to the Outer Area.”
Karra clamped her jaw in anger, furious with the violation of privacy. Those trousers had been stored in the back of a drawer. She closed the door, carefully, quietly, changed into a breezy spring dress, and spent time fussing with her hair.
By the time she opened her door, both Del and the housekeeper had gone. With her long hair tucked under a floppy straw hat, and carrying a roomy straw bag, she nodded to the guards at the door as she left, to make sure they saw her in “appropriate” clothing.
Motz winked back at her, causing her to smile.
She could always buy thickweave.
A woman in a breezy spring dress and floppy straw hat entered a Second Level restaurant, and ordered tea and a salad. It was a busy place with far too many customers and too few waitresses. No one noticed her leave her table for a few moments to use the restaurant’s facility.
The woman who left wore her waist-length hair draped over the shoulders of a nondescript tan shirt and faded thickweave pants. Although she wore no hat, she did carry a roomy straw bag.
A salesman walking toward an airway closest to the Public Academy noticed one young woman obviously recently from the Area. He saw her nervously trying to hide a sheathed knife under her shirt. The salesman snorted in disgust.
“When will these Outer Area people realize no weapons are permitted in the Inner City?” he later complained to his wife. He continued for some time on the subject of the utter lack of respect Area residents had for Inner City rules, noticing only the knife, not the length of her hair or the bag she carried.
Karra shook her blonde-streaked hair away from her face. She relished the warmth of the sun against her face and the breeze on her cheeks.
A couple of Manroy’s friends passed her, returning her attention to her mission. A few steps behind them, the young man strolled aimlessly, more interested in an attractive young girl to his left. She, however, shook her head as he called to her.
“Not now,” she shrilled above the clamor of the many out-of-school voices. “I have to get to my job.”
“Tomorrow, then,” Manroy suggested.
“Got plans,” she said, offering no encouragement.
Manroy, with a helpless shake of his head, watched her leave. His friends had not waited for him.
Karra slipped out of the alley, lengthening her stride to catch up with him before he reached them.
“Manny,” she said, nearly at his ear. “Do you remember me?”
Startled, he spun around to face the owner of the unexpectedly sultry voice. The next instant he shoved her roughly into a space between a couple of buildings. “Karra. Is that really you?”
“It’s me.” She laughed playfully.
“Y’look so different.”
“You approve?” She turned around in the small space.
“Much better,” he breathed. One hand began to stroke the long, shiny hair, following the curve of her body from shoulder to hip. “You’re so real, out of uniform and all!”
She liked hearing the young man say it, the compliment she would never get from Del.
“We all thought you were dead until those papers got around last handspan. Did you know you’re about the hottest piece of wanted property around here?”
“I figured as much.”
One hand near her breast began playing with the closest button. “What’re you doing here, anyway?”
“Seeing you. Do you need to be someplace soon?”
He shook his head while his hand finished with the button and started on the next. “No one is home until after eighteen hundred.” Encouraged that she had not yet pulled away, he added, “And I don’t have a regular job. You free too?”
“Free?” She laughed. “Not hardly.”
“I heard you were barebackin’. But, then, I also heard you were dead until those papers came out. ‘We begin again,’” he quoted. “What kind of a message is that?”
“Maybe it means more of those papers are coming out, with more interesting messages.”
“Maybe. Maybe it also means there are a few of us who have some things to say that don’t come from official government bulletins. What do you think?”
“I think I’d like to find out how much you charge for barebackin’,” he told her straight out, going for the third button.
“More than you can afford, Manny.”
“Yeah?” He put his hand down and stepped back, studying her. “You probably erren’t barebackin’ these days anyway.”
“The Homelander Front a good guess?”
“Yeah. I could use some help printing more literature.”
“Yeah,” he said, disappointment obvious.
“You can buy a paygirl anywhere. But if you’re interested…”
“Yeah. Literature. Why me?”
“I watched you. You weren’t afraid to say what you thought. This would be a chance to do more than just disagree in class.”
His hazel eyes stared past hers into the dark space between the buildings. “So all you want to know is, do I want to print illegal papers, which could earn me lockaway if I was caught.”
“Well put. That is the danger, of course. Are you still interested?”
He did not answer immediately. Another aspect of his personality that pleased her, he refused to leap into a situation emotions-first.
He backed up another step, she watched the sun gleam on his oiled hair, cut to just below his ears like most boys his age. Personally, she preferred dry, clean hair, Inner City style. She did like the way his shirt pulled over his chest and his belt fit flat against his stomach. Del, to her satisfaction, had the body of a much younger man, and wished he would allow her a closer examination. But she hoped Manny had appreciated the feel. It was all he was going to get.
“I want to dig under their gray hide with my knife too,” he said at length. “But I doubt I’d get away with it. Truthfully, Karra, I’m worried about getting involved in this Homelander Front thing.”
“Printing leaflets. That’s all,” she said, rebuttoning her shirt.
“Sure.” He raised one eyebrow at her. “I got one question. Did you kill the Chief Administrator?”
“No.” Her smile vanished. “But whoever did planned it so that I would be blamed. You remember that story I wrote?”
“Who could forget?”
“Well, the Administrator of Education wanted to change the way I looked at the world and offered me, all expenses paid, entrance into one of the writing academies. All I needed to do was turn over those in the Homelander Front, even though at the time I didn’t know any of them. I couldn’t have complied, even if I had wanted to. When I refused, he told me to leave and never come back. So I did. By the time I got home, the place was crawling with Security, and I was wanted for murder.”
“So you joined the Homelander Front because you had no other options,” he said.
“I still could have refused, but my spons wanted the posted reward, so I couldn’t keep my job. Hiding takes both contacts and money. I didn’t have either.”
“Yeah? Suppose I’m in and I disagree with someone. How does that affect my health?”
“It’s not easy to get out once you’re in,” she admitted. “But there are those who’ll listen,” she hoped aloud.
“I need time to think a few things through. How will I tell you when I’ve made up my mind?”
“I’ll contact you again. Go ahead with any plans you may have, any legal plans, that is. We can’t have a prospective Front person picked up by Security, can we?”
“Murder isn’t legal.”
“Forget it then! My spons didn’t believe me either. But just suppose I were an Other killing Karra Willo?”
“All right. You’ve made your point. If you choose to see me again, I can give you a definite answer.”
“Fair enough.” She left him by continuing down the space between the buildings.
Manroy watched the shadows swallow her, wondering what he had stepped into. He did not trust Others and their Security, but some of the things the Homelander Front pulled were not much better. He certainly did not trust Karra Willo and the easy way she had passed off that murder. Maybe she didn’t do it.
But he did want to print leaflets.
By the time Del returned, the lights were on dim, soft music filled the room, and the air was delicately scented with flowers and the meal Von had helped Karra prepare. Seeing Del’s surprise delighted her as much as this afternoon’s escapade.
“Are we having company tonight?” He studied the formal table, complete with a runner of fresh flowers down its center.
“Not tonight. This is all for you.” She flashed her teeth at him, eyes twinkling. “The only thing that could ruin this evening would be another terrible dinner.”
“You cooked?” He frowned slightly.
“I did. But this time you should find the meal at least edible.” She dished him a heaping helping of the food and tried not to smile when she saw him cringe.
Del took the plate and sniffed at it first. Bolder, he took his first bite. Karra, watching from lowered lashes, pretended to be absorbed in dishing up her own plate.
“Laren,” he said in amazement. “This is delicious!”
She let the smile have its way. “Of course it is. Von taught me, and she’s an expert, isn’t she?”
“Yes. An award winner. You must learn quickly. This is good enough for guests!”
“Is it?” Its Nevian spices curled in unpalatable tendrils around her tongue. But she ate her portion in tiny bites, careful to pretend she liked it.
For several long minutes Del ate in silence, savoring every mouthful, unaware of her dainty nibbles. “This really is good enough for guests,” he said when his plate was half-empty. “Would you mind if I invited the Mu Aanames and the Ve Toohls over some evening?”
Karra looked up at him, her stomach twisting.
“Did I really ruin your evening so much you never accomplished anything?”
Yes,” the beast said. We should invite them.
Not good, little girl. Remember how completely I can punish those who disobey me. Who destroyed Laren?
Destroyed? The knowledge alarmed her. You destroyed Laren? How could you kill off half of me?
The beast chuckled. She was of no use to me. And you are of no value to me either unless you absolutely please me. Don’t you feel the emptiness inside?
She did. She had felt empty for some time now.
The good half of you is all gone, leaving only the ugly, corrupted, amazingly angry Karra Willo. Without me, you are completely empty. You feel it, don’t you?
She did. When the beast flooded her with rage, she felt it. When it suggested panic, she felt it. It was as if she owned nothing at all of herself except what the beast provided for her.
I have been your whole world for some time as well, haven’t I?
She tried to remember how it felt to not have the beast controlling her. She remembered having arguments with it…
But you no longer feel the emotion of rebelling, do you? You want me. You want me more than you ever wanted anything, because above all you fear me. You fear what I will do if you fail to please me. FEEL IT!
She felt the terror of failure. It had destroyed Laren. It could just as easily destroy her. And would, if she weren’t careful. Please! she begged. Please!
Try to remember the old Karra, the beast ordered.
With all her might she tried to remember who she used to be. But every image was of the beast controlling her life, even when she thought she acted on her own.
Nothing left. All of who used to be Karra… Her daughter. She still felt her daughter, but as if from far away, as if she remembered who her daughter was, but not the feeling of holding her.
Someday you will forget all about the former Karra Willo, the beast assured her. I will fill you with whatever I want from you. It won’t be long now. So be a good little vessel and tell A’nden that we should invite his people from the Anti-Certificate League. Say it! the beast insisted.
“Then you must invite them soon. I should apologize.”
He grunted. “They also have some apologies to make.”
No, the beast told her. Tell him it was entirely your fault.
“No. It was entirely my fault.”
Exactly, child of mine. Who owns you?
You do. It did. She knew it now.
Yes. Nothing else existed except the will of the beast, and the emotions it fed her.
You will do as I say.
Then I never want to hear you disagree with me again. Is that clear?
Excellent! You’re a perfect little tool, honed to my specifications. Or you’re dead. Do you understand?
Yes. She understood. Completely.
Frowning, Del said, “Laren, do not play games with me. I will need your cooperation if we invite them. You are my only available expert. We will need your opinion.”
Explain that you are not playing games, that you are actually looking forward to the evening to make amends.
“I’m not playing games,” she said obediently. “Really. I’m looking forward to it. A perfect dinner will make the perfect setting for making amends.”
Yes, the beast purred.
He rewarded her with a taste, just enough to remove all trace of emotion. All she could hear was the beast whispering in her ear. The evening with the Anti-Certificate League will go perfectly.
As smooth as ice, the beast promised.