“We’re here.” Her guide nodded at a small, dusty booth with a faded red awning. Behind the counter sat Blix. He was in his human form again with pale blond hair and eyebrows. When he looked up and saw Lauren, he smiled broadly.
“Well, well, my dear,” he said, rising and coming around the front of the booth to greet her. “So here you are. I had hoped you would take me up on my offer.”
“It seemed…reasonable.” Lauren nodded guardedly and crossed her arms over her chest. She wished she hadn’t let Vlanka rearrange the red scarf-like tok so that it exposed her breasts through the sheer light blue shirt.
Blix laughed. “Don’t worry about exposing your lovely breasts, my dear. It’s quite common here on O’ah. Especially with those in the trade.”
“The what?” Lauren frowned but he waved her question away.
“Unimportant. Did you bring me some cubes?”
“A few.” Lauren pulled the handful of food cubes out of the pocket of her skirt and held them out for him to examine. “Uh, fair warning though,” she said, feeling suddenly guilty. “Most of these feature live worms as their main entrée. So…” She shrugged. “I don’t know if you’re interested in that or not.”
“Worms?” Blix frowned and plucked several of the cubes out of her hand. “What kind of worms?”
“Well that’s just it—I don’t know. I mean—”
Both their heads turned and Lauren felt a surge of relief so great her knees almost buckled. Xairn was striding towards them.
“Xairn!” Lauren took a step toward him… and stopped. He didn’t look nearly as happy to see her as she was to see him. In fact, he looked positively furious. His broad shoulders were tensed and his big hands were curled into fists at his side. The look in his red-on-black eyes was terrifying and that was saying something considering that his eyes looked forbidding at the best of times.
The minute he reached Lauren, he grabbed her by the upper arm and pulled her close to his side. “What in the seven hells are you doing?” he demanded, looking her up and down. “And why are you dressed like that?”
“She is dressed like that because I gave her the clothes.” Blix came forward, his pale purple eyes glittering.
Xairn turned to her, his face so fierce it was frightening. “Is that true?” he demanded. “You accepted the clothes from him?”
“Well, yes,” Lauren admitted. She could tell she’d done something completely wrong but she didn’t know what it was. “I’m sorry, Xairn but I—”
“What?” Lauren stared at him, uncomprehending. Surely he didn’t mean—
“You heard me. Strip.” Xairn glared at her. “Take off every single piece of clothing the Spider gave you right now.”
“But…but I can’t just—”
“Undress now or I’ll undress you myself, Goddess damn it.” His eyes flashed and when Lauren was a little slow to obey him, he reached for her and started unknotting the long red tok himself.
“No!” Lauren tried to push his hands away. “We’re in public. I don’t want to be naked in front of all these…these people.” If walking trees and gnomes and talking insects could be considered people, anyway.
“You have a choice,” Xairn growled. “Get naked now in public or spend the rest of your very short life getting naked over and over in private.”
“What are you talking about?” Lauren protested as he unwound the tok and threw it at Blix’s blond head. He turned back and started immediately on the elaborate buttons running down the front of her pale blue blouse.
“There’s no time to explain. Here.” He stopped undressing her long enough to strip off his own shirt. “Take that off and put this on. Hurry.”
There seemed to be no point in arguing with him. Wondering what kind of alien custom she’d broken by accepting clothes from a stranger, Lauren stripped quickly out of the pale blue blouse and shrugged into Xairn’s shirt instead. It was much too large and drooped down to her knees. Which suited her fine, since the lovely cobalt skirt was the last thing to go. She was bare beneath the shirt but at least she was covered.
Xairn took each item of clothing as she handed it to him and tossed it back to Blix. The blond alien caught the blouse and skirt in turn but there was a strange little smile playing around his lips that Lauren didn’t like.
“You might as well have saved yourself the trouble, Scourge,” he said, passing the outfit to Vlanka who folded it neatly. “In return for the clothing, your little pet gave me these.” He held out the three food cubes he’d plucked from Lauren’s palm.
Xairn’s face was suddenly as impassive as stone but his deep voice sounded strangled when he talked. “That’s all? She gave you nothing more?”
“That’s all.” Blix was practically beaming by now. “Just three little food cubes, my friend. In exchange for clothing made from the finest Belarian silk and satin. Not to mention a tok made of one unbroken piece of skin from a rare crimson-hide gelk. Very expensive, I’m afraid, and all sales are final.”
A what? Lauren looked at the neatly folded tok in Vlanka’s orange hands. Was it really made out of some creature’s skin? It certainly hadn’t felt like any kind of leather. But from the look on Xairn’s face, she had worse things to worry about than what kind of weird alien skin she’d been wearing.
“Xairn?” she asked anxiously, tugging at his arm. “What’s wrong? What did I do?”
“You’ve sold yourself.” His voice was hoarse and his grip on her arm tightened until Lauren let out a squeak of pain. “Sold yourself into the skin trade.”