He took a deep breath before knocking. His body was thrumming like a plucked string, vibrating over and over from the rush of beating blood. He tried to tell himself that it was due to fear. He dared not let himself think that it was anything else – God, so much depended on him not thinking about the other thing it might be.
His hand rose of its own accord and he rapped on the door, more softly than he had planned. He heard the voice of permission, muffled by the wood, and then he was ducking his head to step through the doorway and had closed the door behind him.
The Supervisor did not look up immediately. He was sitting at his desk, frowning over something he read on his datapad. He made a note or two, and then glanced to the side at his communit, carefully shut it down. Only then did he look up at the new arrival.
At the rise of Halvar's familiar eyes – a chilly blue that seldom varied – Egon felt the thrumming in his body increase. Damn, Egon thought, desperation hardening in his throat. Damn, damn, damn. At this rate, his meeting with Halvar was not likely to last more than three minutes.
And indeed, the older man was already reaching for the short metal rod that lay on his desk. It was usually in his pocket; Egon guessed that it had been placed in view for his benefit. The sight of Halvar's hand closing round the rod did its work; Egon felt the thrumming of his heart settled down into a series of brief, painful thuds.
The Supervisor rose from behind the desk, circled round to the front and then settled against the desk, his backside pushing against the pile of plasts awaiting him. Egon kept his gaze focussed on the rod, which Halvar was stroking with his hand.
"So," said Halvar, "you have finished your work with your new fellow slave."
Halvar's statements were always exact; Egon knew it was no coincidence that the Supervisor had chosen to use the word "slave" so forcefully. Under such circumstances – with Halvar still stroking the rod in his hand – it was easy enough to turn aside the thought that Halvar too was a slave.
"Yes, sir," Egon replied, not lifting his gaze. "We seem to have succeeded in teaching him to place thoughts of his duties before all else, so we've fulfilled your instructions to . . . teach him his place here."
"Mm, yes." Halvar's hand paused upon the rod before resuming the slow stroking. "And did you enjoy raping him?"
Egon's gaze shot up to Halvar's face before he could stop himself. The Supervisor's eyes were as chill as ever; it was a moment before Egon could pull in enough breath to say, "No, sir."
"No?" Halvar sounded faintly surprised. "I would have thought you'd have enjoyed that, being pleasured for three months by a young man you once served."
Egon felt his back straighten; he raised his chin and said quietly, "I like to think you have taught me better than that, sir."
Halvar said nothing; there was no change in his eyes to indicate whether he was pleased or angry at this response. After a moment Egon added more hesitantly, "He's just a scared kid, sir. Not my type at all, even if I were looking for that. That's not the sort of man I'm drawn to."
He hoped this would make the right impression. Whether it did, he could not tell from Halvar's expression, but after a moment the Supervisor gave a slight gesture, and Egon came forward.
As soon as he was within Halvar's shadow, he knelt. He was a head taller than the Supervisor, a fact that became all too obvious when the two of them were standing next to one another. Not that he often stood in Halvar's presence. He lowered his gaze to the floor and waited, concentrating all his thoughts on the hard stone below his knees.
It was a long wait. He wished he knew what sort of sign Halvar wanted from him, so that he could offer it; it was often hard to tell what the Supervisor was seeking from him, and they had been three months apart. Egon had been angry about that at first – that the need for breaking the spoiled brat who had been tossed belowstairs to them would keep him separated from Halvar. He had taken out his anger on the young man—
He heard himself say, "I was too hard on Joran, sir. I was angry at him because you ordered me to devote all my efforts to breaking him. It wasn't his fault, but I made him suffer for it."
He was frozen in the next moment, his gaze returned to the rod in Halvar's hands. In the long run, he knew, he would receive the reward for his honesty. But in the short run—
Halvar's hand moved, and he set the rod onto the desk. "Yes," he said. "So I heard. Well, I ordered you to break Joran, and whatever your motivations may have been, you succeeded in the task I set for you. Thanks in part to you, he's likely to be ready for service when the Chairman calls for him, which will save all of us in this household from undergoing the wrath of the Chairman. Joran included, I might add. So it's likely that your undue harshness will save him from harder suffering in the future. You understand that?"
"Yes, sir," he said softly. He understood that very well indeed.
"Mm." Halvar was silent again for a while, and despite himself, Egon felt the plucking of his bloodstrings begin again. He drove his fingernails into his palms in an effort to drive back the music.
"And what did you have Joran do for you?"
Halvar's voice was quieter now; Egon closed his eyes and counted backwards from ten before saying in a steady voice, "I had him serve me with his mouth, sir. I thought that would be least painful for him."
"I suppose that, as evils go, that was the lesser evil for him." Halvar's voice was detached. "You're a big man, Egon."
"Yes, sir." He was able to inject a note of genuine regret into his voice. "Far too big for most, I know. It's fortunate that these days I—"
The thrumming strings went suddenly flat, as though a hand had been laid upon them; he felt coldness enter his body as he realized what he had said. He waited, his breath caught in his throat.
Halvar said, his voice mild, "Fortunate that you do what, Egon?"
"Nothing, sir," he said quickly. "Nothing unless my duty requires it of me."
For a moment all was still; he could hear only the faint sound of the other slaves working elsewhere belowstairs. Then a soft chuckle drifted down upon him, and he felt a hand slide down the back of his bare neck, sending shivers through his body. The strings sang.
"All right, Egon," said Halvar, his voice filled with amusement. "I've missed you as well – very much so. So why don't you show me what exactly it was that Joran did for you that you disliked so much?"
It was too much. He bit back the sound rising in his throat, and cursed himself with every curse he knew. He would not ruin this – not today of all days. He would not destroy this by thinking about himself – he would think only of Halvar. Only of Halvar and of the pleasure he could give him.
That thought he could not have thought seven years ago, before his training.