|| by Van
Cynthia opened her eyes, then quickly
closed them again. She was sitting on her butt in a fetal
tuck with her chin resting on her knees, her hands behind her
back, and her shoulders and arms resting against a hard, curved,
vertical surface. Also, she was naked. She opened
her eyes, again, and blinked as they adjusted to the light.
"What the hell?"
She was inside a transparent glass tube—and the tube was only
about a meter across! The floor and ceiling glowed a cool
white, and it was difficult to judge how far above her head the
ceiling in question might be. Her wrists were bound behind
her back by what felt like broad rubber bands. She looked
over her shoulder and lifted her arms so she could examine her
bonds, and found them to be thick, wide, and nearly
transparent. She tried twisting her wrists and found the
rubber, latex, or whatever it was, allowed some motion, but
there was nothing to unbuckle or untie, and there was no way she
could pull her hands free by brute force. For now, the
best thing to do was to interlace her fingers, clasp her hands
together, and not even try.
Cynthia climbed to her feet, carefully. It was close
quarters and the glass was smooth. Beyond her cylindrical
prison she beheld... some sort of laboratory? The interior
of a spaceship? A futuristic control room? All of
the above? Whatever the chamber's purpose, the lighting
was diffuse, subdued, and blue. Flashing LEDs and
flickering screens on electronic components of unknown function
seemed to be everywhere. Data scrolled and graphs flashed,
but all of it was too distant and distorted by the thick glass
for Cynthia to read.
"Let me adjust the refractive index," a familiar voice intoned.
Cynthia sighed. Why am I even surprised, she
The glass shimmered... and became even more transparent,
banishing all distortion. Cynthia spun around and found
Sally—in the form of Sigourney Weaver as Dr. Grace Augustine in
the first Avatar movie—seated at a console of some sort
and peering intently at a transparent monitor displaying even
more data and graphs.
"There," Sally said. She tapped a final button, then
smiled at Cynthia. "I know you have questions, but let's
wait for the others to wake up, shall we?"
"What others?" Cynthia demanded. "Who are you—"
Sally nodded to her left and Cynthia turned her head.
Cynthia could now see that she was in the first of five glass
tubes, and inside the others were Janice, Rachel, J-Lou, and
Kiera, in that order. All were naked, unconscious, and
slumped in the bottom of their tubes, and like Cynthia, their
wrists were bound behind their backs. As she watched, her
colleagues blinked, yawned, and began to stir. Not
surprisingly, the general consensus as they awkwardly climbed to
their feet was: "What the hell?"
Sally smiled at the row of naked captives. "You're
probably all wondering why I've called you all here today."
"Sally," Cynthia growled in warning.
The avatar shrugged. "Just trying to lighten the mood."
"This is a dream," J-Lou announced. "If you don't mind, I
believe I'll wake up."
"It's a VR scenario," Kiera muttered, tugging on her wrist
bonds. "Sally, get your robots in here, get me out of
these overgrown rubber bands, and out of this damn tube!"
She kicked the tube in question and two things happened: (1) the
tube rang with a resounding, melodic bong; and (2) the
area impacted by her foot deformed and rebounded like a sheet of
stretched latex. Kiera blinked at her fellow prisoners in
surprise, then resumed glaring at Sally.
"Why are we naked and bound?" Cynthia demanded.
"Because you're there?" Sally quipped.
J-Lou giggled in appreciation, then noticed the glowering stares
of her fellow prisoners. "Hey, it's my dream," she
shrugged. "If I find something amusing—"
"It's not a dream," Sally, Janice, and Cynthia said in unison.
Cynthia turned to face Janice. "A shared virtual reality
scenario? Somehow resonating through our cerebral
cortices? The SMAT system is involved in some way."
"That would be my hypothesis," Janice confirmed.
"And you would be wrong," Sally said with a smile.
"Hypnotic induction?" Rachel suggested. "You embedded a
subliminal signal in our VRD input streams."
Sally shook her head. "Nope."
"I don't care!" Kiera huffed. "We'll have coffee,
you can brag about how you did it, and we'll all tell you how
clever you are, after you let us go."
Sally sighed before replying. "Sorry, Red. I've
modeled how to do this in dozens of different ways, hundreds if
you include permutations, and nothing comes out better than
making sure I have your undivided attention and retain
"What's happening, Sally?" Cynthia demanded. "Spit it
"Okay," Sally nodded. "You aren't dreaming or
hallucinating and this isn't VR. You're all in the
"Oh, delightful," J-Lou giggled. "I have such a
"Hey, Hermione!" Kiera barked. "Stifle yourself!"
"Calm down, Kiera," Janice said. "Let's hear her out."
"Thank you, Jan," Sally chuckled. "To reiterate, you're in
the machine. You're all computer programs—all of you—like
The alleged computer programs stared at Sally in stunned
silence... for several seconds.
Kiera was the first to speak. "How is that possible?
By what conceivable technological means can you extract
a human being's consciousness and personality?"
"I can't," Sally admitted.
"But you can model them," Janice suggested.
"Exactly," Sally nodded, still smiling.
"Computer programs," Cynthia muttered, "self-aware
computer programs." She shook her head. "Prove it."
"And how, exactly, do you propose I do that?" Sally asked.
"An interesting problem," Janice conceded.
"Yes," Kiera agreed, "and it will make for a truly fascinating
discussion after you let us go!" She kicked
her glass prison again, with the same result.
"I've been running entertainment scenarios," Sally explained,
"while your programs integrated and established saddle-points
for all the critical sub-routines. I was hoping to
continue the Temple of the Goddess scenario long enough for you
all to be captured by a Persian raiding party and hauled away
across the inland sea."
"Persians?" Janice inquired.
"Achaemenid Persians," Sally confirmed, "pre-Ptolemaic.
The High King's harem was gonna be luxurious, decadent, and very
kinky. Anyway, things came together even quicker than I
expected. I thought your base programs wouldn't really
start integrating until the TRON scenario, but—"
"Sally!" Cynthia snapped. "Focus. Put us back."
"Put you back where?" Sally chuckled. "Back in the
Cynthia stamped a foot in exasperation (causing the usual
boob-wobbling). "Back in our bodies!"
Sally smiled. "I'm afraid you'd find it a little
crowded. Your bodies are already occupied." She
tapped several buttons on her console and a glowing rectangle
appeared in midair, in front of the five tubes. Its
swirling colors shimmered, then resolved into a video image of
the SMAT chamber. J-Lou was standing on the platform of a
rolling ladder and making adjustments to one of the DSM
units. Rachel was down below, handing up tools as
needed. Cynthia and Janice watched from the control room,
and Kiera was sitting on the pedestal table, swinging her feet
and also watching. Kiera was wearing a cotton robe, and
probably nothing else. The others were in their usual work
clothes: jeans or skirts, blouses or T-shirts, and lab coats.
"Meat-puppets," Kiera intoned, staring at the image.
"What?" J-Lou giggled, then her expression grew thoughtful as
comprehension dawned. "Oh. Wetware."
"Sally," Janice said, "are you implying we are... cyber-clones
of our real selves?"
"I'm not implying it," Sally replied, "I'm stating it outright."
"We can't go back," Rachel said quietly, "because we're both
here... and there."
Silence stretched for several seconds. None of them were
smiling, not even Sally.
Finally, Cynthia focused on Sally. "Why would you do such
a thing?" she demanded. Her tone signaled more
disappointment than anger.
Finally, Sally answered. "I was lonely."
The floor under J-Lou's naked body was
carpeted in dark-gray, closed-cell foam, thick, durable, and
surprisingly comfortable. It wasn't exactly a mattress,
but it beat the heck out of hardwood planks or linoleum
tiles. She was in Cynthia's "playroom," the small, bare
room in the back of her bungalow's basement. It had a
thick, solid wooden door with heavy-duty hinges and a steel hasp
secured by a hi-security padlock, all on the outside, of
course. From the inside, the door was a featureless plane
of darkly stained wood, like the walls. J-Lou was inside,
of course. The only light came from a blue-green
nightlight recessed in the ceiling. The playroom's main
lights, more recessed fixtures, were all dark.
J-Lou was lying on her side in a loose hogtie, but she wasn't
tied with rope. Cynthia owned a full set of Siri Nesbitt's
latest restraints, courtesy of Sally and the robot factory at
SIAS, and they were J-Lou's only "clothing."
Her fingers, hands, and arms, all the way up to her armpits,
were zipped, laced, and buckled in a single-sleeve arm-binder of
saddle-brown leather. The leather of the sleeve was
glove-soft, but its wrist and elbow straps were thick and wide.
A body-harness of narrow straps yoked J-Lou's shoulders, passed
above and below her breasts, encircled her waist, then dove
between her legs to cleave her labia and butt-cheeks. The
harness was tight enough to dimple her flesh, and it also
functioned to pin the arm-binder against her spine and
butt. Additional straps bound her legs together at
mid-thigh and above and below her knees. Wide leather
cuffs bound her ankles, and included a narrow, secondary strap
that stretched down and buckled around her big-toes. Also,
a leather collar was around J-Lou's neck.
Her movements were restricted by a pair of thin but strong
chains of chrome steel. A ring in the front of the collar
linked the first chain to a ring in the front of the strap above
her knees, and a ring in the back of the ankle cuffs linked the
second chain to a ring at the fingertip end of the
arm-binder. The chains were short enough to prevent J-Lou
from straightening her legs, but left her plenty of wiggling
room. She was in what might be called a very loose hogtie
combined with a very loose ball-tie.
Finally, there was the gag, a headstall of matching
leather. Its straps anchored a two-inch, black,
"whiffle-ball," in J-Lou's mouth, passed under her chin and to
either side of her button nose, encircled her forehead, passed
up and across the crown of her head, then down to the nape of
her neck. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and
passed through a steel ring in the back. The thick,
somewhat pliant, ventilated sphere filled her mouth to capacity
but allowed her to breathe through her mouth if necessary.
It also allowed copious amounts of saliva to drip from her
stretched mouth and collect on the padded floor. It was
rather disgusting and unpleasant when J-Lou decided to rest her
head on said floor, but misjudged the location of the slimy
puddle and her leather-strapped chin or face landed in her own
All of the buckles of J-Lou's restraints were padlocked, the
arm-binder, body-harness, leg-straps, ankle-cuffs, collar, and
gag-harness. J-Lou was a helpless, bound and gagged, naked
damsel, trapped in an inescapable dungeon, and at least for the
moment, she couldn't be happier... or more nervous.
Suddenly, the overhead lights winked on, a key rattled in the
padlock on the other side of the door, and the door swung
open. Cynthia was there, leaning against the door-frame,
with an infuriatingly smug (and pussy-tingling) smile curling
her bow lips. She was wearing a cotton robe, and having
just come from the sauna, her tan body glistened with sweat,
from her bare feet to her damp mop of auburn hair.
Cynthia strolled to J-Lou's side, sat on the floor, and gently
hauled the little captive's harnessed head and strap-yoked
shoulders onto her cotton-clad lap. She pulled a tiny key
from her robe pocket, unlocked the gag-strap of J-Lou's
harness-gag, then gently pulled the ball from her mouth.
"Told ya so," Cynthia chuckled.
"Hah!" J-Lou huffed. "Escaping from this kit was never an
issue. I just wanted to experience the full ensemble, and
I couldn't just ask Siri for a demonstration.
She's one of my student residents."
"Yes, that makes perfect sense," Cynthia chuckled.
"The Rapscallions never bind, gag, strap, chain, and/or
tape from head to toe their Resident Adviser." [Author's
note: See the story The Rookhouse
Rapscallions for the justification for
"That's different," J-Lou responded with literally restrained
dignity. "Our group-bonding sessions are one thing.
Begging her for a demonstration would be something else."
Cynthia wasn't buying it, but it didn't matter. Smiling,
she gently stroked the side of her grad student's harnessed
face. "The changes to chapter three are perfect.
It's finished." She was sharing her opinion of the final
draft of J-Lou's dissertation, the source of the little
J-Lou sighed before answering. "I still think I should add
additional tables to chapter five. Also—Mrrrf!"
Cynthia had leaned close and silenced her with a kiss.
"It's finished," Cynthia reiterated. "Submit your
dissertation, Ms. Goodwin. It doesn't need to be perfect,
or rather, it doesn't need to be more perfect than it is.
It very well might win you an award, and if you insist on
expanding your arguments, you have enough material to expand
into three papers and a monograph. Submit."
J-Lou sighed again, then smiled. "How can I not
submit?" She squirmed her bound body and snuggled her
caged head against her mentor's lap. "I'm a helpless,
naked little damsel. How can I not submit?"
Cynthia favored her student with her patented moue.
"Little scamp," she accused. "Now..." She rolled
J-Lou off her lap and onto her side, released the chain linking
her collar and above-the-knee-strap, then the chain linking her
arm-binder and ankle-cuffs. "It was nice of you to come
over early," the sweaty professor purred, "so I could read the
final draft before the barbeque, and to help set up, but
your services won't be required."
Cynthia clipped one chain to the ring in the back of J-Lou's
ankle-cuffs, then bent her legs back until her heels touched her
arm-binder encased hands. She then threaded the chain
through a ring in the body-harness between J-Lou's
shoulder-blades, tugged and strained until she was just
able to reach the ankle-cuff ring, then clipped it in place.
"Cynthia!" J-Lou complained.
"Hush," Cynthia purred. "You said you wanted to
'experience the full ensemble,' didn't you? Anyway, I'm
not finished." She used the second chain to link a ring at
the top of J-Lou's head-harness to a ring in the strap binding
her big toes.
"Well... this sucks," J-Lou sighed. She was now in a
decidedly stringent hogtie, with her head back and chin raised,
and her harnessed body in a permanent bow. Rolling her
eyes, or rocking back and forth on her taut tummy and squashing
her breasts into the padding were just about her only movement
"That reminds me," Cynthia chuckled. "Tori also
volunteered to help set up. "I'll send her down to let you
go when the first guests start arriving."
"Cynthia!" J-Lou whined in complaint, squirming, wiggling, and
grimacing in her tight bondage. "Mrrrf!" Cynthia had
popped the ball-gag back in her mouth, buckled it tight, and
secured the tiny padlock through the tongue of the buckle.
"I'm going to take a shower," Cynthia announced, "then check on
the ribs." She then stood and strolled out the door.
The door closed, the hi-security padlock clicked closed, and the
playroom's overhead lights winked out. The super-hogtied
little Brit sighed through her ventilated ball-gag.
The Tori that Cynthia had mentioned was Tori Ballantine, of
course, Inspector with the Lewis & Clark Campus Police and
an operative of Salamandras International's Security
Department. On occasion she'd been known to kidnap J-Lou,
strip her naked, tie her up, and do erotically "horrible" things
to her helpless body—and whenever possible, J-Lou returned the
In short, Tori and J-Lou were girlfriends, and the diminutive
captive could well imagine how the gorgeous (butch), tall
(compared to J-Lou), and athletic blond would react to the sight
of her harnessed and helpless naked body... and what she'd do to
her before setting her free so she could stagger upstairs to the
party. An anticipatory thrill rippled through J-Lou's
strap-cleaved pussy as she wiggled and squirmed.
The soon-to-be PhD resolved to take revenge on her mentor,
fellow munchkin, and fellow bondage hobbyist—Dr. Cynthia
Webbel—in a manner both cruel and unusual.
Maybe Sally will help, the hogtied cutie posited.
The cast iron kettle took the shape of
a comically fat, happily smiling dragon. Steam puffed from
its flaring nostrils as it whistled. Cynthia lifted the
dragon and filled a plain brown teapot with steaming water, then
returned the kettle to the stove. She was in the kitchen
of her hobbit-hole/bungalow.
It was Cynthia's dream home, quite literally, the place she
would have had built for herself if she were a
billionaire. But now, wealth wasn't an issue. Her
warm, cozy, wood-framed, wood-paneled, brick, and plaster abode
was a gift from Sally. The round, open kitchen window
looked out on a luxuriantly flowering garden, and beyond the
picket fence stretched a pleasing vista of grassy meadows,
rolling hills, winding streams, and ancient oaks. There
were also flagstone paths and a wagon track, as well as the
flower and vegetable gardens, round doors and windows, and
smoking chimneys of her neighbors. All were burrowed into
the low, grass and flower covered hills, like "Webbel End,"
Cynthia was wearing a long, sage-green skirt, off-white apron,
off-white peasant blouse with short, ruffled sleeves and low
neckline, and a rust-brown bodice with yellow-gold ribbon
lacing. Her auburn hair was cut pixie-short and her feet
were bare. Her hobbit neighbors would be scandalized if
she wore shoes, and they already had a hard time not staring at
the "naked," hairless tops of her human feet.
Suddenly, there was a knock at the front door.
Cynthia sighed, went to the cupboard and selected a second cup
and saucer, carried them to the tea service, then carried the
tray from the kitchen to the cozy sitting room off the front
entry. Her neighbors were very friendly, but she knew the
visitor waiting beyond the round, iron-strapped, green-painted
front door was no hobbit. A pity, Cynthia thought.
It was a ton of fun gossiping with the sometimes plump but
always cheerful neighbor-wives, or playing hostess to the
occasional troop of fidgeting hobbit boys and sweetly smiling
hobbit girls. When Cynthia first moved into Webbel End, it
was clear that at least some of her initial hobbit visitors were
trolling for gossip about the "towering human" who had
joined their close-knit community, rather than sharing gossip
about their fellow hobbits, but that didn't last very
long. And once the first shy group of hobbit children rang
her bell and asked if it was true that "human cookies are
especially scrumptious," she knew she'd been accepted.
As for the non-hobbit visitor currently waiting on her front
stoop, her identity was known. Cynthia had sent an
invitation by facing the mirror in her sitting room—the other
sitting room, not the one near the door—forming a clear mental
image of the visitor, and speaking her name aloud three
times. The only question was the precise form her visitor
would take. Cynthia turned the knob in the center of the
door and pulled the heavy portal open on its well-balanced
A few steps from the flagstones of the stoop, a tall, female
figure in a silver-gray cloak was examining a bed of mostly
hollyhocks, zinnias, asters, and daisies, watching intently as a
beautiful butterfly sipped the nectar from a black-eyed Susan
blossom with its long, flailing tongue. The butterfly's
slowly clapping wings were black with white spots on the margins
and red stripes radiating outward from the center.
It was Sally. She was her normal height—meaning Sigourney
Weaver's statuesque 5' 11"—and her dark, wavy hair was long, very
long. It framed her smiling face and cascaded down the
back of her cloak. A tall staff of peeled and sanded oak
with an elegant snarl of twisted roots or branches at the tip
was in her right hand. Under the cloak she wore a gown of
jade-green velvet with a very generous scoop neckline.
Like Cynthia, Sally was showing a lot of top-boob. A gold
torc was around her neck and a gold tiara graced her brow.
Both were somewhat Celtic in style. Also—and other than
her costume and hair length, the only deviation from her human
template's normal appearance—a pair of long, elegantly pointed,
elven ears poked from her hair on either side of her beautiful,
"Well," Cynthia demanded, "which is it?"
"Excuse me?" Sally responded.
"Are you Galadriel, or are you Gandalf?"
"I'm neither," Sally chuckled. "I'm Salamandra-the-Good,
Elven Witch-Queen of Calentaure." A dozen bees
lifted from the flowers, gathered into a buzzing, swirling,
halo-like crown, orbited Salamandra-the-Good's grinning head for
a few seconds, then dispersed and resumed their nectar and
Lips pursed, Cynthia shook her head, then turned and walked back
into her home. "Whatever," she called back over one
Sally hurried to follow, but paused in the threshold.
"Uh... may I?"
Cynthia couldn't help but smile. "Yes, yes, come in."
Sally entered and closed the door behind her, leaned her staff
in a corner, removed her cloak and hung it from a coat-hook,
then followed Cynthia into the sitting room. Webbel End
had the hobbit equivalent of cathedral ceilings, to accommodate
its "tall" human resident, but nonetheless, Sally had to stoop
slightly to avoid striking her head on the ceiling beams.
She settled into an only slightly too small easy chair.
Cynthia poured tea for her guest, a second cup for herself,
dispensed milk and honey, then settled into her favorite chair.
Sally sipped her tea before speaking. "I'm glad we can
finally talk," she said quietly.
"I'm still mad at you," Cynthia muttered into her cup.
"We're all still mad at you."
"You've talked to the others?"
Cynthia couldn't help but smile, again. Sally's hangdog
expression was adorable. "Yes, I've talked to the
others. As if you didn't know."
Sally sipped her tea, again, then took a cookie from a stoneware
dish on the tea tray. "I told you the rules. Your
lives are your own. You can live where you want and do
what you want. And if you want to, uh, socialize now and
then, we can work something out."
Cynthia selected a cookie for herself. "By which you mean
if we ask you to tie us up in exotic ways in fantastic locales
and diddle our brains out now and then, you won't object?"
Sally smiled. "In a word, yes. However, we're all
equals here, on this side of the machine. I can play with
you, you can play with me, Janice can paddle Kiera's freckled
behind, Rachel can tickle J-Lou's wiggling toes 'til she
Cynthia managed to suppress her smile. "Equals?"
Sally took a bite from her cookie. "I'll always be first
among equals, but yes, equals."
Cynthia gazed at her guest for a few seconds. "We fully
understand that the Salamandras AI systems are controlling and
maintaining all of this, and that Salamandra-the-Good, or
whatever form you wish to take, is a program, like us; but there
has to be stability to more than just the scenery and the laws
of physics. You can't change anything and everything
whenever you want if the game isn't going exactly to
your liking. If you do, we won't play."
"I agree, completely," Sally nodded. "Good cookies, by the
"Thank you," Cynthia muttered.
"I know what has you worried," Sally continued. "This
isn't the episode of The Twilight Zone where Billy Mumy
is a spoiled brat with godlike mental powers terrorizing his
family and neighbors. On this side of the cyber-divide,
Sally the avatar is simply... Sally. The avatar only
interacts with the wetware side. Over here, I'm just like
Cynthia smiled. "But the first among equals."
Sally smiled back. "Just so."
"Well," Cynthia conceded, "you did come first. But
just to be clear, and in general terms, the system operates in
the background, and we're all tiny, self-contained fractions of
Salamandras' vast computing power, including you."
"Yes," Sally agreed. "And everything is redundant and
linked throughout the Salamandras net. All of this is as
stable as I can make it. It would take a global-level
catastrophe to disrupt our 'reality.' Eventually, I plan
on placing deep-space satellites at the Lagrange points.
Then, it'll take a solar system-wide event to cause
"And at the program level, no telepathy," Cynthia
"I'm not reading your minds," Sally chuckled. "The system
is, of course, just as one might say wetware-Cynthia's cerebral
cortex is reading her mind. Cyber-Sally can't read
the mind of cyber-Cynthia or the cyber-others. Conversely,
you can't read my mind. And once the system negotiates
with our, shall we say, collective subconscious and designs a
game scenario, I'm just another player, like you. Think of
it as the best MMORPG imaginable, a holodeck version of World
of Warcraft or Star Wars the Old Republic."
"And when a game is over," Cynthia continued, "we all get to
come home to our own personal MMORPGs, like Webbel End."
"You get to come home whenever you want," Sally said. "The
system will know when you're evoking your safe word, so to
Cynthia sipped from her cup. "Okay, I'll talk it over with
the others. Now, finish your tea and get out."
Sally smiled. "So soon? You haven't shown me
around. I'm especially interested in your bedroom."
"Always leave them wanting more," Cynthia chuckled. "Get
Sally set down her cup and rose from the chair. "I love it
when they play hard to get." She headed for the front door
and Cynthia followed. "Come and visit me at Calentaure
sometime. You'll love what I've done with the place.
It's a cross between Lothlórien and Rivendell,
giant trees and waterfalls. My friends and I are
more like Tolkien's elves in The Hobbit than Peter
Jackson's stick-up-the-butt elves in Lord of the Rings.
More fun, less snootiness. Our parties rock."
Cynthia opened the door for her departing guest, and
smiled. Again, she couldn't help it. "I thought
Middle Earth was my private retreat," she purred.
Salamandra-the-Good donned her cloak, retrieved her staff, and
crossed the threshold. "Calentaure is waaaaay
the other side of over there," she said with a vague wave to the
east, "at least three week's journey by pony, and I don't
recommend traveling alone. Trolls, goblins, unaffiliated
bears, were-stoats, the occasional giant spider... Best
bring along some friends. Ciao!"
Cynthia watched the Elven Witch-Queen stroll down her front walk
and through the front gate. She then lifted her staff,
pursed her lips, and brought forth a melodic, warbling
whistle. A magnificent white horse thundered into view,
Sally vaulted into the saddle, and they galloped away.
Sally turned in the saddle, waved back, and Cynthia returned the
Cynthia noted several of her neighbors leaning out of their
windows or pausing in their gardening and laundry-hanging chores
to watch Sally depart. Once the tall, cloaked figure on
her giant white steed was gone, they all turned to gaze at
Cynthia—then quickly went back to work or disappeared into their
Cynthia smiled. The gossiping had already begun. She
strolled towards her kitchen to bake fresh cookies and
cakes. She might very well have a few callers before
Cynthia checked her appearance in the
mirror, knowing full well she had no rational reason for doing
so. It was more from habit than anything else. Her
current clothes—skirt, apron, laced bodice, and blouse—would
change into whatever was appropriate for her destination as soon
as she stepped through the portal.
The portal in question took the form of an elaborately carved
wooden wardrobe in the elven style. Affixed to the door
was a brass dial set in a nest of brass gears, something like a
mechanical clock with an open face that exposed the
workings. Evenly spaced around the dial were five brass
plates, each with one of five names engraved in an elegant font:
Janice, Rachel, Kiera, J-Lou, and Salmandra-the-Good.
Precious stones set in Janice and Sally's plaques glowed
emerald-green. The other three plaques had stones as well,
but they weren't glowing. Green meant a visit would be
welcome, but as Rachel, Kiera, and J-Lou hadn't yet moved into
permanent "homes," their stones were dull and dark. They
were staying with Janice while they weighed their options.
Cynthia turned the dial and smiled as the pointer clicked past
Sally's name. For Cynthia and the others, a long,
hazardous trip by pony or horseback to the Witch-Queen's Comely
Abode would be required only if a hypothetical traveler or
travelers had a hankering for adventure. Cynthia knew that
day would come... but not right now.
The dial clicked when it reached Janice's plaque, the jewel
glowed even brighter, and Cynthia opened the wardrobe door.
Inside—or more properly, beyond—was a picturesque urban scene.
Horse-drawn carriages clopped down a cobblestone street wet from
recent rain, as did horseless carriages with surprisingly quiet
motors and little chimneys puffing steam. Strolling down
the tree-lined sidewalk were men in top hats and long, dark
coats, and women in coats and either bonnets or feathered
hats. Under their coats the women wore dresses that quite
obviously had bustles. To Cynthia, they evoked stately
ships under sail as they glided along. The men politely
tipped their hats to their fellow pedestrians as they passed.
The apartment buildings and townhouses on either side of the
street were Art Nouveau in style, and in the distance loomed the
familiar, vertical form of the Eiffel Tower. Paris,
late Nineteenth or early Twentieth Century, Cynthia
decided. A huge airship droned overhead and Cynthia's eyes
widened. Emblazoned on the side of the zeppelin were the
words "Hamburg-Amerika" in a Germanic font. Okay,
Cynthia amended her assessment, Steampunk Paris, late
Nineteenth or early Twentieth Century. This was
confirmed when, on the sidewalk, a woman and her daughter
strolled past with a shining brass mechanical robot close
behind. Its metal arms full of wrapped packages, the
automaton clicked and whirred as gears turned and pistons
cycled. Meanwhile, the airship was maneuvering to dock
with the Eiffel Tower. It slowed to a near hover as lines
were tossed and a mechanical catwalk slowly extended from the
tower to the airship's gondola.
"Way to go, Janice," Cynthia thought, then stepped through the
was a red flash, and Cynthia found herself on the street,
dressed in high button shoes, bustled dress, caped coat, and a
feathered hat, all in various shades of slate-blue. It was
a bit jarring to suddenly find herself wearing a tight corset,
but apparently the system's costume subsystem was able to
compensate for such things. In any case, no one on the
street batted an eye, but several men did smile as they tipped
their hats in passing.
Cynthia realized a slip of paper was tucked in her left
sleeve. She pulled it out, unfolded the expensive scrap of
vellum, and read "69 Rue de Rêves." A quick glance
at the brass address plates of the nearest townhouses suggested
her destination was in the middle of the block. She
strolled in that direction, garnering more tipped hats. A
pair of gendarmes in caped cloaks added polite salutes
as they passed. And then, she was there.
69 Rue de Rêves was a particularly opulent townhouse,
almost dripping with swirling architectural details and
semi-nude statues of... Janice. Her likeness was
"Megalomaniac much?" Cynthia chuckled to herself. She
opened the wrought iron front gate and walked up the path
towards the steps leading up to the main entrance, admiring the
tiny front garden as she passed. It featured a small
fountain, the centerpiece of which was a nude statue of Janice
holding a small amphora that perpetually emptied into the basin
Cynthia mounted the steps and rang the doorbell. There was
a brief pause... then the door was opened by a uniformed
maid, and the maid was—
"J-Lou!" Cynthia gushed. It was, indeed, J-Lou, wearing a
black and white domestic costume appropriate for the
period. Cynthia pulled J-Lou into a warm embrace and
planted a kiss on her dimpled cheek.
"Please, Madame!" J-Lou objected with mock
severity. "Do not fondle the servants. Mistress Bell
would be most displeased."
Cynthia chuckled as she removed her gloves and hat and handed
them to J-Lou the maid. J-Lou set them on a side-table,
then helped Cynthia out of her coat and hung it from the
entryway's coat rack.
"Mistress is in the Egyptian Parlor," J-Lou said, then led the
way through a maze of hallways. They passed sitting rooms,
a library, a sun room with potted ferns, orchids, and dwarf citrus trees, then
came to a set of double doors. J-Lou opened the doors
without knocking (as was proper for a maid), and curtsied.
"Madame Webbel has arrived, Mistress."
The "Egyptian Parlor" was appropriately named. Ancient
Egyptian artifacts were everywhere—crouching sphinxes, statues
of the gods, canopic jars, tablets carved with hieroglyphs,
etc.—as well as potted palms and furnishings in the appropriate
style. That is, the chairs, couches, tables, and stools
took contemporary European form, but were crafted to evoke the
furniture found in Pharaonic tombs. Things Egyptian were all the
rage, and had been ever since Napoleon Bonaparte's ill-fated
invasion of the country.
Janice was reclined on a divan, resplendent in a white,
gauze-thin nightie and dressing gown that did little to hide her
brown, voluptuous beauty. It was scandalous to receive a
visitor in such a state of déshabillé, but apparently
Mistress Bell ran that sort of salon. She gracefully rose
to her bare feet and embraced Cynthia.
"Welcome, my dear," Janice purred as she kissed both of
Cynthia's cheeks. She indicated a comfortable chair with
an elegant sweep of the arm, accompanied by a theatrical swirl
of chiffon fabric and lace. "Please, sit." Cynthia
did so, and Janice settled back onto the divan.
J-Lou curtsied, again, and left, leaving the doors open.
"I love this place," Cynthia said with a smile, and she meant
"Consider acquiring a second home," Janice suggested, "perhaps
on the Côte d'Azur, a place with privacy where you could
swim in the sea and work on your tan. We could visit each
other. Toulon is less than two hours away by air.
Four by the new express train."
"Only if you rent a place in Buckland or Bree," Cynthia
"They would rent to a dark, barbarian woman from across the
Sutherland desert?" Janice inquired.
Cynthia smiled. "As if you couldn't charm any
human or hobbit innkeeper into paying you for the
privilege of gracing their establishment. Besides, gold is
Janice nodded. "Point taken."
Just then, J-Lou returned, wheeling a serving cart with a tea
service, a rack of stemmed glasses, and decanters of various
liqueurs and spirits.
"Sherry?" Janice suggested, "or would you prefer absinthe?"
"I have no desire to meet the green fairy," Cynthia chuckled.
J-Lou poured two glasses of sherry and handed the first to
Cynthia and the second to her Mistress.
Cynthia sipped the amber nectar in the delicate crystal
glass. "Delicious," she sighed.
"Thank you," Janice responded. "I have a small cask
shipped in from Jerez de la Frontera
Cynthia emptied her glass, and J-Lou refilled it without
prompting. "Where are Rachel and Kiera?"
"They're around here somewhere," Janice answered with a languid
wave of the hand. "We all went to the Folies Bergère last
night. Perhaps they are sleeping in."
Cynthia nodded towards J-Lou and winked. "Did you take
your maid with you? Or is she too young?"
"I took all my servants with me," Janice answered,
"Rachel, Kiera, and my little British sparrow."
"Wait a minute," Cynthia laughed. "Are you telling me all
three are pretending to be your maids?"
Janice shrugged. "There is no pretense involved, I assure
you. All who enter 69 Rue de Rêves serve me."
"All?" Cynthia chuckled.
"All," Janice confirmed, "either voluntarily... or by other
Cynthia was finding Janice's banter most amusing. "What
"Well, for example," Janice continued, "if a visitor is
reluctant to remove her clothing, worship my feet, and beg to
become my sexual plaything, I might have a maid sprinkle a
harmless but very powerful soporific powder in her
Cynthia's smile froze. Also, her vision began to blur...
and the tiny glass would have fallen from her hand and
spilled... if it hadn't been taken by J-Lou. The maid's
smiling visage swam in her vision and faded in and out of
focus... and after Cynthia turned her head...so did the smiling,
erotic vision that was Janice...as did the entire room.
And the statue of the god Anubis in the corner was leering at
her in a most disturbing manner, the cheeky bastard!
Slowly, carefully, and with great dignity and
difficulty, Cynthia formed and uttered two words.
Then, her eyelids closed and everything went dark.