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The Prize

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“That one’s more trouble than he’s worth, my Lord, I assure you.  We have far finer available.  Well-trained.  Docile.  From the finest pleasure houses in the East.  More suited to someone of your stature,” the loud voice of one of the overseers—Rumlow, his mind supplied with a surge of hate—snapped, punctuated by a light crack of the ever-present leather whip the man carried across Steve’s chest, more a warning than anything.   They wouldn’t mark him, not now, anyway.  Despite his words, Rumlow slithered over to stand next to the finely-robed man whose eyes were roaming up and down Steve’s body with a speculative gaze. 

“Unfortunate,” the buyer remarked, seemingly without interest, though Steve watched as the man’s head cocked to one side, eyes narrowing as he examined Steve.  The man had a smooth head, tan skin that wasn’t from working outdoors and spoke with a mealy-mouthed precision that sounded practiced.  The man moved behind him.  Steve kept his eyes straight ahead.  Every once in a while, someone would open the warehouse’s wooden door, and he could get a glimpse of sand and a small, bright strip of blue beyond it, where the sea lapped against the grey rocks along the shore and seabirds danced in and out of the waves, looking for fish and crabs caught on the boulders. 

No one opened the door.

His arms hurt. They would hurt more when they undid the chains stringing them up.   No ropes. Never ropes. He tried to shift, find some relief from even a slight change of position, but couldn't, just managed to make the chains clink together above his head with the motion. This was an aching soreness that rippled through him when he moved, even just to breath.  It would be worse later, though.  When they let him down.  He knew that much.  It wasn’t his first time being presented for a potential buyer, though he suspected he was fast approaching his last. 

If this one didn’t take him, Rumlow would put him in the hot box again, because he knew Steve hated it more than almost anything else.  It was tiny and cramped and so hot, he thought his skin would melt off his body from the heat.  The thirst, though. That was the worst of it.  Thirst was like nothing else in the world, he thought.  Hunger was gnawing and then numb and weak. Familiar enough from when he was young, but thirst was all-consuming, like a bright beacon inside his head that wouldn’t stop.

He tried to get as much of his weight on the balls of his feet as he could.  The shackles at his ankles kept his legs splayed and the way they wrapped the thick chain around the metal rung in the ceiling kept him just far enough off the ground so he couldn’t quite get flat-footed.  Couldn’t move, other than to barely sway, not that it did anything except make his muscles burn.  Couldn’t quite stand.  He could get his toes under him, sometimes, but he had learned that made it worse, when his calves buckled and he couldn’t hold it, pulling his arms taut while he swung.  He was naked, save for the thin metal collar that circled his throat and marked his status. Lines of sweat trailed down his neck and back. 

The warehouse, with its sturdy walls of stone and packed clay, was like an oven in the heat of the day, though it turned cold at night, when the sun left and the ground underneath him cooled.  He tried to think of that.  The way the stone wall felt against his forehead as he curled against it at night.  How the grains of sand that covered the floor chilled as the sun waned.  Back home, it snowed.  Drifts so deep they swallowed your leg when you stepped out into them.  It would be snowing now, he thought, though there was no one left there to curse the cold and pray for spring.  They were all gone.  But, Shmidt was dead.  Shmidt was dead, and that was worth Steve’s life.  That was worth even this.  He stopped thinking about that and looked toward the door.

“I’m not actually buying for myself, though I did see you had some lovely stock from the plains, if I’m not mistaken,” the man observed. 

“You have a good eye,” Rumlow replied, oily and smooth, watching Steve with a careful, considering look.  Rumlow loathed him, Steve knew.  The feeling was mutual.  He wanted to get rid of Steve, even if they had to take a loss on the deal, but their own, strange code required the slavers to divulge issues with their wares, lest they find themselves suddenly without buyers.  “We just had a ship in not two days ago. Fine lot.  Laborers, mostly, but I’m told there are a few who might be worth our efforts.”

“Hmm,” the man said.  “Perhaps some other time.  And this one?  How was he acquired?”  He took Steve’s cock in his hand.  Held it.  Stroked the underside, then lifted, looking for flaws.  Hefted Steve’s balls into his hands and rolled them, giving them a slight squeeze.  “He seems unusually fit for a plainsman.”

“I’m told he was a soldier.   In some war across the dark sea.  Guess he picked the wrong side.  If we’d known, we’d never have taken him, of course.  Those raider scum would tell you the sky was orange with a straight face if it got them a few more pieces of gold,” Rumlow told him with a grimace.  “He was practically savage when he first arrived.  Of course, there are ways of dealing with that, though, as you can see, there is little damage.  We’re very careful.”

“A soldier?  Interesting.  Different,” the man said, the word seeming to slide off his tongue. 

“Supposedly.  Wanted to fight in the pits when he first got here.  Too pretty for that though, aren’t you?” Rumlow demanded with a sneer, gripping Steve’s chin and forcing his head around. 

“Yes, definitely far better uses for him than fodder for the fighting rings,” the Lord said, running a hand over Steve’s back, between his shoulder blades, then down his spine.  Then lower, spreading him and holding him open for a long moment before continuing.  “Far better uses, I would say.”

The man wasn’t particularly rough.   Not like Rumlow, who knew how to make these examinations hurt and seemed to revel in that.  The man was perfunctory, more than anything.  Steve thought that might be worse somehow, though he wasn’t sure why that might be so.  His arms stung.  He concentrated on that.  No one opened the door.  It was better when it did.  It didn’t, but he stared at it anyway.  Counted the wooden slats, then counted them again.  Breathed out.  Tried not to move.  It would be over soon.  Still.  He wished he could see the sea.  That one, bright strip of it.  The burning pressure left him, then, and the man moved back around to stand next to Rumlow. 

“He’s tight.  Unused you say?” the man asked.  “I’ve no need for raider leftovers.”

“So they claim,” Rumlow replied.  “Though, that is one lie the raiders can’t get away with, I will say. I’ve seen their work more times than I care to.  It isn’t pretty.  Or easy to miss.”

“Hmmm. Well, be that the case, it so happens that the party for whom I’m buying is in need of something different.  Our…patron…is very…particular, I suppose you might say,” the man continued.  “Uninterested in the usual offerings, which is of concern to my buyer who rather relies on his continued patronage.  So, something different happens to be what I’m looking for.”

“We have a number of very deviants from all over, my Lord—halfings, those who are at once both male and female, deformities and grotesques for all manner of tastes, should you—“ Rumlow began.

“No, no, nothing like that.  Just…different.  And this one…this one, I believe just might catch our patron’s attention.  For a night,” the man snorted, lips curling into a sneer of distaste.  “Sadly, he rarely enjoys their company for longer than that, but, our situation requires that a good selection be maintained for his household and guests. Has this one had any formal training?”

“Some, my Lord, though he lacks the finesse and accomplishments we strive to provide our buyers,” Rumlow explained.  “Some buyers prefer that, though.  To train them themselves, to their own preferences, or,” Rumlow finished with a slight shrug, twitching the whip in the air. 

“Or to enjoy breaking them, when they can’t be trained,” the man said, exchanging a knowing look with Rumlow.  “Yes, well, I believe that could be accommodated as well, should it be necessary.”

“You might find that it is, with this one,” Rumlow stated, tossing out the whip far enough for its tails to ghost across Steve’s chest in a quick swipe.  

“If he proves too unmanageable, there are plenty of houses in the city that are always buying our leftovers.  And if he’s really that much of a problem, we’ll take him down to the low road where the dockside whorehouses line up like beetles on dung.  They’ll lay him out on the stocks and let the sailors fuck him raw for a copper.  There are always ways to recoup our losses,” the man said with a shrug.  “I’ll take him. Him and the other three we already discussed.  See that they are prepared and loaded in my wagon.”

Steve watched the man leave.  When he opened the door, Rumlow stepped into Steve’s line of vision, as if he knew.  Maybe he did. Steve thought he might never have hated anyone more in that moment.   Rumlow clapped his hands together, twice, and guards came in from one of the back rooms. 

“I know you will be sorry to see our favorite troublemaker leave us, but it seems he is to provide an evening of entertainment to a particularly…discerning…patron of one of our esteemed customers.  Be sure he is secured for the trip.   Have a care, though. Wouldn’t want their new purchase to show up with bruises.  At least, not ones they didn’t want there,” Rumlow informed the guards, who nodded and started the process of removing the chains that held Steve’s arms above his head.  “Don’t have too much of a care, though.  Some damage in transit is to be expected, after all.”

As soon as his arms were free, Steve’s knees buckled, his whole body screaming with pain as thousands of needles pricked his skin from the inside.  He hit the ground.  Hard.  Panting, he lay there for a moment before the guards untethered the chain that bound his feet from the ring in the floor and hooked their arms under his and heaved him to something resembling a stand.  His wrists were chained behind his back again, this time with a shorter length, pulling at the tendons in his shoulders.  One of the other slaves who materialized from some other part of the building darted forward and wrapped a loincloth around his hips, knotting it in front.  The guards half dragged him toward the door as he shuffled and stumbled forward, nearly tripping over the chain between the shackles on his ankles. 

The door opened.  He was outside, blinking into the haze of the sun.  They dropped him on a stone bench by the door.  One of them cuffed the back of Steve’s head with a fist, making his vision swim.  Rumlow followed them out.  Frowned at Steve, then nodded at the wagon that rolled up in front of them, pulled by two mules, slathered in sweat and dirt and objecting loudly to the demands of the driver who tapped their backs with his whip from his seat.  The wagon carried two long trunks of whatever goods Steve’s new owner might have picked up at the port, a barrel of mead and three other slaves in long tunics chained together by a long line of metal that threaded through their collars and attached to a post on the back of the wagon. 

“Up you go,” Rumlow ordered.  He flashed Steve a rictus of a smile that was all teeth and leaned down next to Steve’s ear.  His breath was warm and foul against Steve’s cheek, but Steve forced himself to keep still.  “Just so you know,” Rumlow began, low and rough, his mouth so close to Steve’s ear that he could feel the brush of lips.  “I hope you continue exactly as you have.  I long for the day you finally get what you deserve.  When no one cares about bringing the price down.  I want you to know, I’ll be there.  First in line.  Saved my copper.  Just for you.  It’ll be the best money I ever spent.”

Steve turned his head, fast and clearly unexpected.  Rumlow screamed, almost a gurgling sound, as Steve’s teeth found a hunk of flesh and tore.  Blood spurted into his mouth.  Coppery, he thought, somewhat dazedly, before someone yanked at his collar, jerking his neck back and taking the tip of Rumlow’s ear with him.  A blow to his lower back sent him flying off the bench and face forward onto the sand.  He spat out what was in his mouth and glanced up.  Rumlow was holding a hand to the side of his head, shouting and blubbering while rivulets of blood streaked down his neck.  Steve grinned, feeling a wild looseness flow through him, even as the guards wrenched him to his knees.

“He bit me!” Rumlow shouted.  “He fucking bit me!” Almost as if he had only remembered he had it, Rumlow raised the whip high into the air.  That’s no warning, Steve had time to think, but a hand caught Rumlow’s arm before he could bring it down.

“That’s quite enough of that, I think,” the Lord said, stepping gingerly around the dark chunks of blood and flesh that marred the sand.  “I’ll see to him, if you don’t mind?”  It wasn’t a question.  It wasn’t a reprieve, either, Steve realized, feeling the weight of the Lord’s gaze settle on him. 

“God-damn little cock-sucking whore fucking bit me!,” Rumlow insisted, his face scrunching up in pain.   “He is yours to deal with as you see fit.  My Lord,” Rumlow ground out through his teeth. “But, you had better make him pay for this.”

“Yes, hmmm,” the Lord said and made a sort of tsking sound, as if Steve were a naughty child.  “I see what our good overseer here meant.  Well.  We can’t have that, now can we?” the man asked while Steve glared up at him.  Maybe they would kill him.  He had stopped caring about making out of this alive a long time ago.  Now, he just wanted out. 

“See that girl up there in the wagon?  Thin little mousey thing?   She was to serve a young Lady in a fine house.  Have three meals a day.  A warm bed at night.  If she worked hard and served well, not a bad life, but as she is imminently replaceable and you are, sadly, not…” the Lord said, turning to Rumlow.  “I trust the girl is sufficient payment for your injury?”

“Wait, don’t—she doesn’t have anything to do with—“ Steve cut in.

“No, please m’Lord, I want to go, please!” the girl pleaded.  “Don’t leave me ‘ere with them no more, please sir!  I’ll be good.  I’m a good girl, I swear!”

 “Take her to your barracks.  Do with her as you will,” Rumlow told his guards, his eyes on Steve. 

“No!” Steve shouted, struggling against the guards’ grip, though he knew it was of no use.

“Please, no, please!” the girl shouted, though to no avail.  She was dragged off, her sobs trailing after her as Steve watched in horror.  There was nothing he could do, though he made himself look.  Made himself listen.  He had done this.  This was his fault.  Why couldn’t he just have let it go?  He was about to leave. There had been nothing to gain, except some small boon to what little pride he still had, and now, she would suffer for it.  He had no doubt that Rumlow would make sure of that.  He could at least not look away from it, Steve told himself as he stared.  His eyes stung.  Bile surged in his throat and his stomach roiled.  If there had been food there, he would have retched, but as it was, he only managed a choking, dry heave of blood-stained spittle that dripped down his chin and onto his chest.

Rumlow looked down at Steve, blood still pouring from his ear.  He walked up and slapped Steve hard enough to send him sideways into one of the guards holding him prone.  “I should’ve cut your cock off and shoved it down your throat the moment I saw you,” Rumlow spat out.  “When you’re done with him, send him back here and I will,” he promised, giving a quick look to the Lord, before turning and walking back toward the warehouse.

 “Well.  That was rather unfortunate, wasn’t it?” the Lord said, sounding almost bored by the whole thing.  “Though, hopefully, a good lesson for you.  I trust we won’t have a repeat of this sort of thing?  I’m usually a fair man.  Follow the rules, and you’ll be treated well.  Disobey, and you’ll find that I have years of experience in making people regret that choice.  So, you’ll either learn to abide, or you’ll find out what happens to those who don’t.  In the meantime, I believe a nice, brisk walk should rid you of some of that energy and help clear your head.”  He snapped his fingers and two other guards appeared in dress that matched the colors the Lord was wearing and far finer gear than the guards at the warehouse.  “See to it.” 

Steve wasn’t sure what that meant, until he found himself chained to the back of the wagon, forced to walk behind as it trundled away from the port, following in the wake of the Lord’s carriage, a smaller one for his servants, another wagon loaded with goods and a host of outriders flanking them.  At least they moved his arms in front of him, though they left the length of heavy chain between his ankles, making each step that much more difficult.  Move, he told himself, as the wagon jerked him forward.  There wasn’t really any other option.  His legs still hurt from being strung up for so long this morning and shook with the effort.  Even at that slow pace, he had to hurry to keep up.  Every motion of the wagon pulled at his already sore arms.  A few hours in, and he was desperate for something to drink.  His throat tasted of the sand and grit that spewed off the wheels of the wagon.  He wanted to stop, rest, anything, but if he did, he wasn’t sure if he could get up again.  So, he kept moving.  One foot in front of the other. 

Eventually, he stopped feeling the pain.  He thought that might be worse, in some ways.  His tongue had grown thick in his mouth.  He kept stumbling, finally going to a knee in the dirt and then jerked forward on his elbows in the mud as the wagon ground to a halt. 

“On your feet, whore,” one of the guards snapped impatiently as he rode up next to where Steve sat in the dirt.  “Not so uppity now, huh?  On your feet or that pretty face of yours’ll look like last week’s ground meat, you here?”  Steve spat out a wad of dirt and looked up at the guard.  “You think he won’t?  Huh.  Try it.  I don’t care how much you cost, you think he wants the likes of them,” the guard said, jerking his head towards the other slaves in the back of the wagon with their round, hollow eyes, “Getting ideas in their heads about hitting their masters?  Spreading rumors like that?”

“What’s the hold up back there?” the wagon driver called out.

“No hold up.  Get on with it,” the guard shouted back.  He looked down at Steve again, then pulled the reins of his horse and rode back to the front of the caravan.

When they did stop for the night, finally, Steve stood there, swaying.  His legs quivered and shook, like they were trying to rid themselves of the pain and couldn’t manage it.  If he looked behind him, he was fairly sure he would see a line of bloody footprints marking the rounded line of road between the wheel wells.  He sat where he was, in the middle of the road.  No one disturbed him.  It wasn’t as if he could run off.  Someone gave him a skin filled with water.  He drank it too quickly, choked and coughed some up, then forced himself to slow his swallows.  A hard hunk of bread landed near his foot.  He brushed the dirt off and ate it in small, careful bites. 

He slept.  His dreams were of smoke and ash and a battlefield so deep in bodies, it was like stepping in snow and rivers of blood ran like veins across the white earth. 

A foot nudged his shoulder, waking him.  “Up,” a rough voice shouted.  Another kick.  Steve sat up and looked around, then down at his feet, which throbbed with a sudden jolt, now that he was awake.  He wasn’t going to be able to walk.  He knew it.  “You can ride today,” the man said.  Steve looked up in surprise and recognized the wagon’s driver.  “Get ‘im up there,” the driver said to two of the guards.  “Best we be getting on our way.”

They got him into the wagon, next to the other two slaves and ran the length of chain through his collar.  His arms and legs were still bound, but at least he was sitting.  He leaned his head back and stared up at the sky.  Puffy, white clouds that shifted in and out of shapes floated above.  He looked over at the other slaves, who eyed him warily and dropped their gazes.  Smart, he thought, swallowing back the surge of regret.  Better that way. 

The rest of the journey faded together into a long, slow haze.  He knew they passed through villages, past large swaths of fertile farms, then towns and even small cities that dotted the region along the river.  In the distance, he could sometimes see the larger keeps that formed the outer defenses, held by lesser Lords and vassals.  They got bigger as the days passed, looming large on the tops of mountains and along the river where massive stone towers spanned the breadth of it and churned water through giant wheels that whirred and rushed as they turned.  They were going to the capital, Steve knew.  The Lord mentioned the low road, and even Steve knew what that was, the long road that ducked and twisted along the shores of the capital, where the ships came in with their goods and the sailors came in looking for ways to spend their pay.  You could buy anything and anyone there, it was said.  To hear the other slaves talk, no depravity was unknown on the low road. 

He was probably going to end up there. His skin crawled at the thought, and he shook his head, trying to clear it.  If it came to that, so be it.  He should’ve been dead a long time ago. 

The city finally came into view a week into their journey.  Buildings of heights Steve had never seen before jutted into the sky like giant spears, all raised in homage to the castle, which sat at the top of the hill in the center of the city, looking down on everything around it from a central tower with a banner the length of at least four of the wagons Steve was currently riding in hanging down the side, bold and bright in its red and gold, even at this distance. 

The city was unlike anything Steve could have imagined.  Steve drank it all in from his place on the wagon.  The smells, the sights, the sounds…such a strange tapestry, unlike anything Steve had seen before.  So many people.  It was hard to comprehend.  He had thought the port where the slavers had their waystation was bustling, but this…he didn’t think he had ever seen this many people in one place before.  People with strangely tattooed faces, some with dark, slanted eyes, priests dressed in long robes and foreign-looking mummers dancing with undulating, twisting movements while a monkey dressed more carefully than Steve collected pennies from the delighted crowd.  For a while, Steve let himself forget why he was here.

The reprieve didn’t last, of course.  Their small caravan wound its way past the city gates and through the narrow, cobblestone streets until they reached the entrance to the castle.  After a few moments, the guards waved then through the open portcullis.  The wagon jolted as it crossed under the sharply pointed metal spikes that formed the base of the raised gate.  Then, they were through and it was long before they came to a halt in front of a long rectangle of a building draped in mosaics and festooned with heavily carved columns and arches.  Large, red doors adorned with huge bronze flowers of a kind Steve had never seen before swung open, and Steve caught a glimpse of a courtyard beyond where a fountain trickled from the mouth of a stone fish. 

A small, balding man with a squished, pallid face rushed out.  He wore flowing red robes held at the shoulder with a large gold pin in the shape of the same flower that graced the doors came out to greet the Lord as he stepped out of his carriage.

“Ah, Lord Sitwell, so good to see you have returned!  Tell me that your trip was more successful than the last,” the fat man said, bowing low. 

“Possibly,” Lord Sitwell replied.  “Bring him,” Sitwell said to the guards, who dismounted and made their way to the back of the wagon.  It took a moment to undo Steve’s chains from where they bound him to the wagon and get him out and on his feet, but he soon found himself standing in front of the smaller man. Sitwell eyed him impassively. 

“Are these really necessary?” Zola asked, fingering the chain that ran from Steve’s collar down to the ones that secured his hands.  “Has he tried to run?” Zola said, glancing down at the shackles around Steve’s ankles.

“Had a bit of an issue with him on the way here. I thought it prudent,” Sitwell replied.

“An issue?” the small man repeated with a raised eyebrow.

“I handled it.  Though, I would suggest leaving those on until he learns his place.  He still lacks proper discipline, though I’m sure that’s something you are more than able to provide.  I’m told he was a soldier, once.  Raiders fished him out of the sea or some such story,” Lord Sitwell remarked. 

“Raiders?” Zola replied.

“Don’t worry. They know where their money is.  Not even a good fuck is worth that much lost profit, or so I’m told,” Sitwell responded, pursing his lips with distaste.  “You! This is Master Zola, overseer of the Royal harem, and your new Master, should he decide to accept you.”

“Hmm. Yes, well, let’s see him, then, shall we?” Zola said with a wave of his hand.  Sitwell stepped in front of Steve long enough to give him a look of warning, then undid the loincloth at Steve’s waist and let it fall to the ground before stepping back.  Steve had long ago lost whatever shame he may once have had over his body, but he still hated the feeling of being inspected, the way one would look over a horse or cattle, though he supposed there was little difference to people like this.  “Nice,” Zola observed, tilting his head to one side in consideration as his eyes scanned over Steve’s body.  “Very nice.  Very nice, indeed, Lord Sitwell, well done,” Zola continued, circling around Steve and tracing a hand down his back and over his buttocks before signaling to one of the guards to pick up the loincloth. Zola retied it, peering up at Steve as he did.  Steve watched the door.  “He certainly seems to be of the type I’m looking for.”

“Lord Stone is a hard man replicate,” Sitwell said, though Steve had no idea what he was talking about.

“Stone was the only one he ever seemed to spend any time on, though we all know how that ended.  This one has something of the look, true, though…softer, I think. More elegant, somehow.  Oh, not now, don’t look at me like I’ve lost my mind!” Zola laughed, waving a hand at Sitwell.  “Give me time.  Though, God only knows whether it will even matter.  Lord Stane commands me to keep him happy and pleasantly occupied, as if doing such a thing is a simple task.  I send him the finest I have, but I think one must be a trebuchet or some such to hold his interest for very long,” Zola said with a frustrated grimace. 

“I would keep a careful eye on this one, fair warning.  He bit the ear off his last overseer.  Saw it myself,” Sitwell cautioned. 

“Really?  How devilishly bloodthirsty of him,” Zola remarked, eyes narrowing on Steve.  Steve stared at the door over Zola’s shoulder.  There was a strip of green beyond it, in the courtyard, and a wall covered in vines that were heavy with purple flowers.  “How…different.”

“My thought exactly,” Sitwell agreed. 

“You won’t be a problem here, now will you?” Zola asked, lifting his eyes up to Steve’s.  Steve returned the gaze as defiantly as he could.  To his surprise, Zola grinned, seeming pleased.  “Oh, yes.  Yes, good.  You are definitely interesting, aren’t you now?  How long was he at the port?”

“Three months.  Possibly the longest three months of their overseer’s life, to hear him tell it,” Sitwell said with a derisive snort of laughter. 

“Three months.  And look at him. I do believe he’d slit all our throats, if he could.  Interesting,” Zola said.  “Guards!” Zola called out.  Four splendidly dressed guards came out from somewhere beyond the red doors, their armor bearing the same flower as Zola’s pin and the bronze markers on the door.  “Take him inside and see that he is bathed, fed and prepared. Here,” he said, turning to Sitwell.  “A bit extra for your trouble.  A pleasure doing business with you, as always,” Zola said with a deferential nod.  A jingling pouch appeared from somewhere in Zola’s robes, and he handed it to Sitwell, who pocketed it inside his tunic. 

“I wish you luck, then, Master Zola.  I’m afraid you will need it with this one,” Sitwell commented with a slight sneer. 

“What is luck, except good planning meeting good timing?  There is a dinner tonight to honor the King for his generosity to the scholars at the university.  I’m told His Highness may actually attend, though I find that highly unlikely myself.  More likely, he will be occupied at the gaming tables Lord Stern runs,” Zola added with a slight smirk directed at Sitwell. “No matter, though.  An evening for the King means a busy evening for me and mine, and you…well, either you’ll prove useful or I’ll find some other way to get my money’s worth,” Zola finished with a shrug. 

“You’d send him without proper training?” Sitwell asked with a frown.

“I’ve sent my best trained concubines in droves, Lord Sitwell, with little success.  Perhaps it’s time to try a…different..approach,” Zola said.  “You should avail yourself of our comforts, Lord Sitwell.  I know it has been a long and trying journey,” Zola offered.  “Go on, then, get him inside,” Zola added to the guards, jerking his head over his shoulder towards the building behind him. 

The guards gripped Steve’s arms and pushed him forward, almost propelling his shackled feet over the ground in their haste to obey, leaving Zola and Sitwell behind.  Through the red doors, the small courtyard was empty, though Steve could see cushioned benches with small, tufted pillows on the ground next to them.  He was led down a maze of halls, down a series of stairs, then through arched doors and past flower-crested guards, robed overseers and domestic slaves cleaning or carrying trays overflowing with food and pitchers of fragrant wines towards the rooms with lamps lit outside of them.  His stomach rumbled. 

It was apparently bath first, Steve quickly realized as they stopped in a large chamber filled with attendants washing various men and women while they stood in gleaming metal tubs.  The room smelled almost sickly sweet from the perfumed soap.  He was stripped again, then moved into one of the tubs.  Awkward, since they left the chains on his hands and feet. Two attendants leapt forward with brushes and sponges to clean him from toe to head.  The water was cold, but it wasn’t as if he could complain.  They fed him.  Not much, but enough to staunch the gnawing in his stomach. 

His teeth were scrubbed. The dirt under his nails was dug out.  Oils were rubbed into his skin until he gleamed.  Twin metal bands went around his upper arms.  A new collar, gold this time, replaced the one on his neck.  He was shaved. Everywhere.  For once, Steve was thankful for all the time he spent on missions being very, very still.  He lay on a stone slab while they worked and stared at the ceiling.  Someone had painted stars against a dark blue night sky on one side of the arch, as if in imitation of a window, though there were none of those down here that Steve could see.  Someone lifted his cock, stroked it a few times, then slid a gold ring around it and tucked his balls into a larger gold ring that hooked onto the one around his shaft.  He looked at the stars.  Closed his eyes when they started to burn.  Opened them again. 

“Is he ready?” Zola asked as he swept into the chamber. 

“Almost,” one of the overseer said.  “Up,” he ordered, motioning to Steve.  He got to his feet, flanked by two guards, and looked down at Zola with what he hoped was disdain. Zola smiled up at him. 

“Lovely.  You’ve done a fine job,” Zola praised. 

“What should we do about…those?” the overseer asked, pointing at the shackles that still held Steve’s hands and feet. 

“Ah, yes.  We can’t have that, can we? No, no, that won’t do at all,” Zola said with a tittering laugh.  He stepped forward, so close to Steve that Steve could see the wisps of fine hairs on the man’s upper lip.  “You see, the person you will be serving tonight is very…important.  Very important.  I can’t have you disappointing him or embarrassing me.  No, that…that we cannot have.  You will go.  You will do what he wants, whatever it is. Without question. Without hesitation. I don’t care what it is.  If he wants to fuck you in front of the entire Court.  Or put his fist inside you.  If he wants his guards to fuck you while he builds his little projects and drinks his way to oblivion.  I don’t care.  You will be…pleased.  To do these things for him.  You want nothing more than to make him happy.  Is that clear?”

Steve stared him. Swallowed.  Lifted his gaze to look somewhere over the smaller man’s head. 

“Nnuh-uh-uh, can’t have that kind of attitude, now.  I had a nice talk with Lord Sitwell about you, and I think…I think you and I, we’re going to need to come to an understanding about how things work around here.  This,” Zola said, swinging an arm wide.  “Is…I’m sorry, what’s your name, boy?”

“Cameron,” the boy whispered.  “But, they call me Cam.  Sir.  I mean, Master.”

“Cam.  Hmm…now, you see, Cam here, he’s new.  Like you.  You’ll share a room.  You’ll share your meals.  If you earn leisure time, you’ll share that, too.  Cam, how old are you?” Zola asked. 

Steve set his jaw. Felt his teeth grind.  He hadn’t thought he could hate anyone more than Rumlow.  He’d been wrong.  A bone-deep weariness settled over him.  There was nothing to be done.  He’d already failed the girl back at the port.  Bucky.  So many dead.  While he’d waited on the sidelines like a good soldier for men a world away to make a damn stand. 

“Twelve, Master,” Cam replied, blinking at Steve, then looking down at his feet again. 

“Twelve.  A wonderful age.  On the cusp of manhood, wouldn’t you say?  Some like them that way.  Can’t stay that way forever, though. Alas.  Now, I think perhaps you and I understand each other, but let me be clear.  Of course, should you display the kind of behavior towards one of our patrons that you did towards that poor overseer back at the port, you’ll lose more than just your head.  You’ll pray for death before I’m done with you.  But…if you misbehave, if you balk, if you protest or do anything that brings embarrassment onto me, you’ll be punished.  Quite severely, I assure you.  And whatever your fate is, Cam here will share it.  Tell me that you understand what I’m saying,” Zola whispered.  “I need to hear you say it.”

“I understand,” Steve said in a dull, flat voice. His eyes flicked to the boy’s wide, brown ones, then back down to Zola.  He sucked in a breath.  “I understand, Master.”

“Ah.  Good.  See?  He can be reasonable,” Zola announced, clapping his hands together with mock amusement.  “Those will not be necessary,” Zola said, nodding at the chains on Steve’s hands and legs.  “Now, it is almost time.  We want everything to be perfect.  See to it that he is properly prepared. Then, I have something for him that I think will be just the right touch for tonight,” Zola added, motioning an attendant carrying a large, flat wooden box forward.  Zola opened it and ran his finger over a waterfall of glittering metal inside. 

“Turn around,” one of the robed men said to Steve as soon as the shackles fell from his hands and legs. “Face the table.” Steve turned.   “Bend.” Steve bent forward until he felt the cold stone of the table against his chest.  “Good,” the man said, then spread Steve apart and thrust two oiled fingers inside.  Steve let out a sharp grunt, hips jerking.  He let out a hiss of breath and told himself not to move.  The man worked him open, stretching and pulling at his hole.  A third finger, and the burning pressure worsened.  Steve bit his lip.  Tasted blood.  “Give me the….yes, thank you,” the man said from behind him. 

The fingers left him. Steve had time to feel relief, and then something hard and rounded, far larger than the fingers, was pushing into him, breaching him.  He gave a stuttering gasp.  His fingers scabbered and dug fruitlessly into the stone table. He squeezed hi eyes shut until the thing slipped past the initial resistance and settled inside him.  He felt it slide out, then it was shoved back in again.  Then again.  Again.  He tried to relax. Let it happen.  Tell himself it wasn’t so bad.  Not the worst pain he’d felt, after all.  He could handle it.

The folds of a red robe came into view in front of Steve.  Steve didn’t look up. 

“Good,” Zola said, running a light hand through Steve’s hair.  “See?  I knew you could be biddable, with the right incentive.  That’s enough, Lucien.  We don’t want him too loose for tonight, just enough that he’s ready.  They don’t like to work at it much,” Zola added, feigning a frown down at Steve, like he was sharing some disappointing secret.  The other man grunted his assent and the thing slid out of Steve for the final time. 

Steve let out a shaky breath and got his hands underneath himself, pushing himself up off the table.  His legs trembled. His stomach felt watery.  What little food he’d eaten curdled, and he tasted bile in the back of his throat.  He swallowed it back and turned around to face them.  He wasn’t going to give them that kind of satisfaction, though he supposed there wasn’t really any victory to be had here anymore.  He glanced over at the boy.  Cam.  He was looking away from Steve, arms wrapped around his stomach.  He was rocking back and forth a little where he stood.  Steve shut his eyes for a moment, then opened them again and stared straight ahead. 

“Bring it over,” Zola ordered, coming around the table and holding out his hands.  The attendant brought the box forward and Zola lifted the strands of metal from the case.  They fell in cascades of finely-honed metal chains from a belt that Zola wrapped around Steve’s waist so that the chains formed a metal curtain that swung low in front and back, then arched up high over Steve’s hips.  It didn’t hide much of anything, but caught the light and glimmered when he moved, making small clinking sounds as the chains rubbed together. 

“There,” Zola pronounced with satisfaction, bringing his hands together in front of him.  “Beautiful.  You’ll do…very nicely, I think.  He’d have to be more of an eunuch than my guards not to do something with you, and we all know he isn’t that.  Now, follow me, then,” Zola ordered, sweeping out of the room. 

Steve glanced over at the boy.  Wide, watery eyes stared back at him.  He took a deep breath and followed Zola, while two guards took to his heels.  A jittery nervousness lapped at Steve’s spine and dug into his stomach.  It had been a long time since he felt fear.  After a while with Rumlow and his ilk, it had been too hard to sustain and devolved into something akin to numbness, a hollow victory when he stopped responding to their torments, but those kinds of victories were all he had.  Now, he had the boy’s life at stake, too, and the sudden weight of it was almost too much. 

He didn’t want this burden.  He didn’t want any of this.  He should’ve died when the Valkyrie sank with its hellacious cargo.  He had never planned on being found, on shouldering someone else’s life again.  He wanted to run, strike out, something—something that would end it, finally, even if it was a terrible end.  He could handle that.  The dying.  He was getting good at it, he supposed. But, if he did that, he doomed the boy to the same fate, and he couldn’t let someone else die for him.  Not again.

They made their way through some kind of network of stairs and tunnels and small doors that Zola opened with a key he produced from under his robes and Steve had to duck his head to avoid hitting his head on.  The final door opened to a long corridor, brightly lit with torches and candle-filled chandeliers and lined with huge tapestries, paintings and banners.  Suits of armor stood sentinel and rows of swords and shields, blunted by age, hung in spirals of metal.  Steve’s feet sank into a plush, red rug, so deep and soft, it was like walking on new grass.  He followed Zola towards the double doors at the end of the hall.  It was only when they stopped in front of them that Steve looked up and saw the crest above the doors. 

His head buzzed with disbelief.  This was the King’s residence.  Zola was taking him to the King.  He shook his head and blinked up at the royal crest carved in stone relief. 

The King.

Stark.

“You understand now, I take it, why I have to take such drastic measure to insure your cooperation?” Zola asked with a quick look at Steve and a small mincing step towards the doors. “The King’s proclivities are well known, of course, and as I am charged with seeing to his pleasure and that of his household and guests, I strive to provide…whatever might be required, you see.  But he is…difficult to predict.  And you, well, you are a bit of a gamble, aren’t you?  Sitwell was right about the risks.  But, I’m a man who has played this game for longer than you’ve been alive.  Please him, and you will be rewarded.  Fail to please him and…well.  I suggest for your sake—and the boy’s--you see that you do not find out.  Are we clear?”

“Yes, Master,” Steve replied, dropping his gaze down to Zola’s and holding it there until the other man looked away with a small humph of air.  

“Good,” Zola muttered, then rapped his knuckles on the door.  It opened after a pause and Zola said something in a low whisper to the guard, casting a quick look over his shoulder at Steve.  “This way,” Zola said after a moment.  “When we are inside, kneel. Keep your eyes down and your mouth shut.  Unless, of course, he requires you to open it,” Zola remarked with a small, amused smile. 

Steve followed Zola inside the chambers, down a small hallway and past two guards who stood silently in front of heavy, red curtains that were drawn back to reveal a large room with a fireplace surrounded by several chairs and low tables, a carved desk spilling over with stacks of parchment and yellow-paged books, and a massive bed against the far wall that drew Steve’s eyes for a long moment before he remembered to look down. 

Zola made his way to an antechamber, the likes of which Steve had never seen.  He forgot the admonition to keep his eyes down and stared in utter amazement at the seemingly random assortment.  He had no idea what he expected to find in the King’s chambers, but this…this was definitely not it.  The room was filled with all manner of contraptions.  Rolls of paper were haphazardly piled on the floor, what looked like a part of a ballista, two wheels of various sizes, and a long table that ran the length of one wall held everything from hammers and awls to finely wrought pincers, the kind goldsmiths used. Pots and jars labeled with words that barely made sense lined a tall cabinet.  Ropes and pulleys hung from the ceiling and walls and connected to the various contraptions that whirred and churned in the room, as if moving of their own accord.  It was almost too much to take in at once.

A small fire was banked in the hearth, next to which a large, flat stone held an anvil and round grinding stone suspended between two posts by its side.  A large, round table dominated the center of the room.  It was clearly meant to be a map table, with the miniature battlements and sculpted proxies for cavalry, infantry and other markers scattered across the table in between bits and pieces of coiled metal, small-toothed wheels and an array of other items that Steve could only guess at their use.

“Good evening, Your Highness,” Zola said with a lisping deference and went to one knee, bowing his head and clasping his hands over his knee.  Only then did Steve’s eyes catch on the man sitting at the large table, shoulders hunched over a sliding gear of some kind that moved back and forth along a long, smooth length of wood that ended in an axle while he made marks on a sheet of parchment in front of him. 

Steve had the impression of dark hair before he realized his lapse.  He quickly sank to his knees behind Zola and bowed his head, waiting.   Steve heard a small huff from across the room and saw Zola rise out of the corner of his eye, so he supposed that was what passed for acknowledgement from a King.  Mindful of Zola’s warning, he stayed where he was, keeping his eyes on the stone floor. There were flecks of wood dust in the grooves of stone, he noticed.  And dark metal shavings.  Ribbons of wood curled in corners and hid underneath the table. 

“I trust you had an enjoyable evening?  Such an honor, and so richly deserved, of course,” Zola tittered, shuffling a bit closer as he did. 

“They come and eat my food and drink my wine and give me some dust-catching statue in return.  Honor has nothing to do with it,” the King replied. There was a loud thump, followed by a clattering sound, and Steve watched as parts of whatever the King had been working on scattered and fell from the table.  “Ah, damn it all to hell!” the King shouted, and a sweeping sound sent the whole thing crashing across the table.  A long sigh followed. Then quiet.  “And what does my harem Master want this time?  Surely, Lord Hammer is in dire need of your services this evening, what with it being a day where the sun rises and sets,” the King said in a tight, rough voice that reeked of annoyance at the distraction. 

“Why, my purpose is the same as always, Your Highness, of course.  To see to your pleasure and comfort, as is my highest duty,” Zola said in a high, lilting voice that made Steve want to grind his teeth together.  “I thought, perhaps, you might be inclined to enjoy some company this evening?  To celebrate the occasion?  A virgin, untrained, but eager to please, I assure you, Your Highness.”

The King made a small sound that felt like disdain, the pushed his chair back and got up from the table, kicking one of the miniature knights that had fallen to the floor out of the way as he walked over to stand in front of where Steve knelt.  Fingers ghosted over Steve’s cheek, then settled under his chin and lifted with a firm, insistent pressure.  Steve looked up. 

The King was younger than he would have expected, had he given it much thought.  Dark eyes.  Soft, thick hair that seemed to want to curl.  A finely trimmed beard that sculpted around his jaw and chin. A fit, wiry frame wearing nothing fancier than a linen tunic stained with pitch and sweat that hung over brown breeches.  The King’s eyes moved over Steve’s face, then down, his head canting to the side as his gaze roamed up and down over Steve’s body.  Something flared in the King’s eyes, some kind of intensity that hadn’t been there before, and Steve felt heat dapple across his skin.  The King made a small sound, just a humph of air, but his eyes were on Steve’s again and there was more than idle interest there this time.

“Beautiful,” the King murmured, then seemed to catch himself. Steve’s stomach swooped and his breath caught as the King held his gaze. Suddenly, the King’s fingers were gone from Steve’s chin and he was turning towards Zola.  “But, unless he happens to maximize the height this counterweight can all without the whole damn thing completely coming apart with the recoil, then I have little use for him.  Take him to Stern or one of your other favorite customers. They’ll thank you handsomely for it, no doubt.  Go,” the King ordered, pointing a hand in the direction of the door.

“Your Highness, if you would but look—“ Zola started.

“You could attach it to the fortification’s wall to get the axle stabilized. That would maximize the vertical height for the counterweight to fall,” Steve said, the words seeming to come out of their own accord.  He hadn’t meant to say it.  Hadn’t meant to say anything.  Except, as soon as the King asked the question, he could see it, the way he and Bucky used to lower themselves down the sides of the old keep daring each other to drop low enough to skim their bare feet in the morass of what remained of the ancient moat.  Steve blinked sucked in a breath, and snapped his mouth shut.  The room went silent. 

“I’m so sorry, Your Highness, please forgive me. He is, as yet, untrained,” Zola rushed out.  “I assure you, I will personally see to it that such impertinence is corrected at once, with my deepest apologies for the affront to your esteemed—“

“Get out,” the King said.

“Of course, Your Majesty. We’re leaving this instant.  Again, my most sincere apologies.  Allow me to make this up to you by sending several of my very best, most accomplished---“ Zola stammered, nearly tripping over his robe in his effort to bow and seem contrite instead of as blisteringly angry as the look he leveled at Steve indicated.  Zola was going to make him pay, which meant Zola was going to make Cam pay, and it was Steve’s fault, yet again.  He had to try.  Something.  Anything. 

“Your Highness, please, I—“ Steve began, lifting his eyes to the King’s again, a plea there that he couldn’t quite put into words. 

“I said get out,” the King repeated. 

“Of course. Right away,” Zola simpered.  “Up,” he snapped at Steve and slipped his hands under Steve’s collar, giving it a sharp pull, to emphasize the point.

“Not him.  Just you.  He stays,” the King interrupted.  Steve glanced over at him in shocked surprise.  Zola let go of Steve’s collar and looked back and forth between Steve and the King, before an insipid smile split his features. 

“As you wish, Your Highness.  I bid you a good evening then. Should you require anything further from me, you know you’ve only to ask,” Zola said smoothly, taking small, mincing steps as he backed out of the chamber with a bow. 

A few moments later, Steve somehow heard the thud of the large doors closing over the pounding of his heart.  He was alone with the King.  Having no idea what to do, Steve dropped his eyes and bowed his head, staring at the stone floor.  The King’s chair made a noise as he scooted it back to sit down at the table again.  Steve heard the clacks and clatter of the parts on the table being shuffled around.  After a while, the scratch of a quill on parchment filled his ears. 

“Ah, no, that’s not—damn it, you are being very—oh, wait…okay,” the King mumbled, as Steve cautiously looked up only to realize that the King wasn’t actually speaking to him, but rather talking aloud or to whatever part he was holding in his hands.  

Steve looked back down, hoping the King hadn’t noticed, though he seemed far too absorbed in whatever he was doing to pay attention to Steve.  It went on like that, though Steve wasn’t sure how long.  An occasional outburst.  Disconcerted mutterings.  Banging sounds. The grinding of metal on wood.  A whirring noise.  Heavy footfalls across the floor.  The rustle of the fire and sharp taps of the metal being shaped.  Steve’s knees ached where he knelt on the stone, which was probably good, since that might have been the only thing keeping him awake. 

Since he arrived in the city this morning, the whole day had been almost a blur of pain and humiliation, waiting for whatever new horror would be next, and now…it was warm here.  Quiet, in its own, strange way, with the sounds almost fading as his head hung to his chest.  He couldn’t sleep, not like this, of course, but he let his mind wander in a way he rarely did these days.  Green hills and leaves that turned to fire after the summer.  Watching the fish swim under his feet when the river turned to ice.  How his mother said the potatoes had eyes she had to cut out before they could eat them, and how it had both horrified and fascinated him until Bucky laughed and explained.

He jumped in startle when he felt a light touch under his chin and realized the King was standing in front of him.  The room was quiet, though Steve hadn’t noticed, so lost in his memories for however long he had been drifting.  The King made a vague noise in the back of his throat and tilted Steve’s chin up again, the way he had before.  His thumb traced the line of Steve’s jaw, and Steve saw something flicker in the King’s eyes as they seemed to darken. 

“Come,” the King commanded, turning on his heels and walking towards the other room with quick steps, leaving Steve no choice but to follow.  His legs protested when he stood, but he ignored it.  The King was pouring himself a cup of wine from a pitcher on one of the tables when Steve entered the room.  He glanced up, mouth flattening a bit when his gaze landed on Steve, before bringing the cup to his lips and swallowing deeply. 

Steve could feel the weight of the King’s gaze on him like it was a physical touch, gliding over his skin as he walked into the room.  He was suddenly very conscious of his near-nakedness. The chains that fell from his waist swayed across his thighs and rubbed at his cock when he walked, not enough to be uncomfortable, but enough to make him aware.  Steve stopped, halfway into the room, unsure what he should do. His first instinct was to cover himself with his hands, but he knew that wasn’t allowed, so he left his hands at his sides and waited while the King studied him with nearly the same expression Steve had seen on his face while he looked at the piece of gear and axle sitting on the table in the other room.  Like he was something the King was trying very hard to figure out.

“How does a concubine know anything about the mechanics of trebuchets?  Thought the only things that ever came out of concubine’s mouths were pretty lies,” the King asked, sounding only mildly curious, as if the answer didn’t matter, but there was an undercurrent in the King’s voice that Steve couldn’t name.  “Not that I’m complaining, mind you.  It was a good suggestion.  Inspired, actually.  I should’ve thought of it, tell you the truth.  Affix the damn things to the walls.  Why not?  Just because it’s never been done before, not that I’ve heard of, and I’ve heard of a lot.  It’s been…a while.  Since someone managed to surprise me.  So.  I ask you.  How does a concubine know anything about the mechanics of trebuchets?”

Steve had no idea how to answer.  He opened and closed his mouth, trying to find the right words or something in the King’s manner that would tell him what to say, but the King’s face was closed, carefully blank. 

“You know, despite what some would say, I don’t actually talk just to hear the sound of my own voice,” the King remarked lightly.  “I asked you a question.  I expect to be answered.”

“I—“ Steve began, tongue twisting in his mouth as he swallowed.  “I don’t,” he stammered.  “I—“

“If you lie to me again, I don’t think you’ll like how that will go for you,” the King interjected, taking a sip of his wine and leaning one hip on the table.  “Try again.”

“I was a soldier,” Steve said after a beat of heavy silence.  “Before…”

“A soldier.  I have lots of soldiers.  Most have seen trebuchets in action more than a few times.  They know how the things work.  Yet, none of them ever suggested such a thing,” the King replied, swilling the cup around in his hand before taking another drink.  “I’m fairly sure none of them ever thought such a thing.  They think about their armor and their swords and what rations they’ll be given and whether fucking the camp whores is worth the risk, and if I asked ten thousand of them and offered a chest of gold in return, I wouldn’t get “affix it to the wall’ as an answer. But, you did.  How?”

“I…” Steve started.  Stopped.  Shook his head and felt his jaw clench.  He was messing up, somehow.  Doing this wrong, and the King was going to send him away and Zola would be waiting. Waiting with the boy, and it had been so easy to slip beneath the waters, where it was dark and cold, and this was so much harder.  He drew in a shaky breath.  The King was watching him in silent expectation, his face hard and unreadable.  “I didn’t want you to send me away, Your Highness, and I…I just knew it would work.  When you asked.  I could see it, in my head, that it would work. I couldn’t build it, or tell you how, but…” he trailed off, shaking his head in apology.  He wasn’t saying it right, what he wanted to say, but he couldn’t explain it any better. 

“You just knew it would work,” the King repeated, sounding oddly satisfied with the stumbling explanation Steve had managed to offer.  The King pushed himself off the table and set the empty cup down, then walked over to stand in front of Steve.  “Zola chose you because you look a bit like Tib—an old friend,” the King said with a twist of his mouth.  Not a friend, then, Steve thought to himself.  “He thinks that would please me.” 

The King reached out a hand and ran a finger around the curve of Steve’s collar, then placed his hand at the center of Steve’s chest, splaying his fingers wide before trailing them down, across Steve’s stomach, making him draw in a quick, gasping breath.  The King’s hand stopped, just above the metal belt at Steve’s waist, and he looked up at Steve, holding his eyes. 

“You don’t want me to send you away,” the King said, repeating Steve’s words back to him.

“No,” Steve managed to husk out in a voice that didn’t quite sound like his own.  It was the truth, at least.  The King seemed to relax a bit at that, and the hand on Steve’s stomach flexed, the fingers dipping low enough to skim the metal chains that wound their way through the belt. 

“Did Zola tell you that I can be very generous to those who please me?” the King asked, a small, sardonic smile flickering across his lips. 

“I—yes,” Steve replied, though he honestly couldn’t remember if Zola had said any such thing.  It seemed the answer the King expected to hear though, because he let out a small huff of laughter.

“I’ll bet he did, the sycophantic little bastard,” the King said with a shake of his head.   Then he quieted, stilled and looked up at Steve.  His eyes were wide and dark as they held Steve’s gaze.  He wanted to look away, lower his gaze, but found he couldn’t quite tear his eyes from the King’s.  His chest tightened.  He remembered to breath, and felt the weight of King’s hand pressing on the flat of his stomach as he drew in a breath and let it out.  The King’s face tightened.  His mouth parted and his eyes grew hard, glittering in the firelight, as his hand sank lower until it found Steve’s cock through the chains and wrapped his fingers around the length.  Steve let out a harsh, guttural gasp at the sensation and his hips jerked into the King’s hand of their own volition.

“Get in the bed.  On your knees,” the King said suddenly, withdrawing his hand and stepping back. 

Steve walked over to the huge bed and stood at the edge for a moment, trying to gather himself. It was fine. This was fine.  People did this all the time.  The King did not seem cruel.  Everything would be fine.  He crawled into the bed and felt the soft mattress dip underneath him, softer than anything he had ever felt.  The carved headboard in front of him bore the same royal crest as the one above the door, though far more heavily embellished with paints and flecks of gold leaf.  He realized his hands were fisted at his sides and forced himself to open them.  Fine.  It was all fine, he told himself. 

Behind Steve, the bed shifted with King’s weight, and Steve felt hands sliding up and down his arms, then down his sides, over the curve of his waist and lower, across his thighs, then back up again, making the chains shift and move over Steve’s skin.  The King’s hands were wet with warm oil, Steve realized, as he felt it drip down over his skin wherever the King touched.  Warm breath flowed against his neck, and then the King’s mouth was there, kissing and sucking a line just below the collar’s circle, then higher, working his way under Steve’s jaw, just below his ear.  Steve gasped when the King took the lobe in his mouth and nipped at it with his teeth, then sucked, almost soothingly, before letting it go and nuzzling at the curve of Steve’s neck.

The King wrapped his arms under Steve’s and let his hands fall down over Steve’s stomach and past his waist to grip the chains there.  He tugged at them, lifting them up and letting them fall, so they rubbed and grated across the sensitive skin of Steve’s cock.  Steve moaned, a rough, scraping sound that was pulled from somewhere deep inside.  His head was in some kind of daze, too full and confused to keep up with what was happening to his body.  The King let the chains fall and grasped Steve’s cock again, sending the metal links biting into the delicate flesh before he let go, making Steve’s whole body jerk with a rush of pleasure-pain that slammed deep inside him with a bright burst, then curled there, warm and throbbing while the King lifted the chains high, freeing Steve’s cock. 

“Hmmm,” the King breathed out, hot and heavy against Steve’s ear, still wet from his ministrations.  He stroked a hand up the length of Steve’s cock, leaving it slick and gleaming in the firelight, and wrapped his fingers around the gold ring of metal at the top of the shaft.  “You like trebuchet’s, huh?  Like noticing things about them.  A good soldier. Who pays attention.  Follows orders.  Is that right?” the King laughed.  “Somehow, I doubt it.”

“I—“ Steve rasped out, watching the King’s finger trace a path around the ring on Steve’s cock, then down the underside, leaving a trail of thick, warm oil heating the skin.

“Did you know that the addition of a hinge to a counterweight trebuchet greatly increases the amount of energy that can be delivered to the beam?” the King asked, stroking his hand along Steve’s length and flicking his wrist over the head of Steve’s cock.  Steve let out a burst of air and his head fell back on his shoulders as his hips stuttered against the King’s hand in a vain attempt to chase the friction.  “It’s true,” the King said, and Steve could hear a knowing kind of smile in the King’s voice.  “Some energy, of course, is lost, when the hinge is opened fully,” the King continued, rubbing his hand up and down Steve’s straining cock.  “The counterweights, they work as a sort of brake on the rotation, you see,” the King said, letting his other hand glide down to cup Steve’s balls and roll them around in his palm.  “This eases the strain on the beam.” Steve let out a sharp cry and shut his eyes as the King worked his hand up and down in a circular motion around Steve’s cock.   His hips were thrusting helplessly into the King’s hand.  “It’s all just math, of course,” the King added and there was definitely a smile in his voice now. 

“Please,” Steve gasped. 

“You’re beautiful,” the King whispered into the sweat-soaked skin at Steve’s neck.  “Look at you.  I could do this all night, and not get tired of looking at you.  Capacity.  Energy.  Length.  Thrust,” the King said, canting his hips forward so Steve felt the hard length of his erection against the opening of Steve’s ass and giving Steve’s cock a particularly hard tug with one hand while the other did the same to Steve’s balls. 

Steve groaned and let his chin fall to his chest.  He looked down at the King’s hand working his cock.  Humiliation burned through him, but God, he wanted release so badly, even if he wasn’t supposed to want it.  He didn’t know what that made him.  He wasn’t supposed to be this, but here he was, thrusting against the King’s hand for all he was worth, begging for it, the way Zola told him he should. 

“When the trigger is released,” the King went on, his strokes growing harder and more rapid.  Steve let out a pleading whine, and heard a low, pleased chuckle in his ear.  “When the trigger is released, the counterweight falls,” the King said again, and the hand that was playing with Steve’s balls slowly slipped them through the metal ring.  Steve cried out, sharp and keening, and slumped over at the waist, curling in on himself.  “The beam is pulled upward,” the King explained as he carefully slid the golden ring off Steve’s engorged cock.  “The sling slips free and fires.”  The orgasm hit Steve so hard it knocked the air out of his lungs with a harsh burst and sent sparks behind his eyelids as he squeezed his eyes shut while his hips pumped his cock in and out of the circle of the King’s hand while ribbons of white splattered across the bed. 

When he finally came back to his skin, felt his body coalesce around himself again, he realized he was slumped back against the King’s chest, panting, while the King ran a hand up and down his back.  He was too wrung out to think of anything other than trying to breath, at first, though the haze slowly left him and he was faced with a dawning horror at himself.  This couldn’t be right.  Whatever this was, it wasn’t what was supposed to happen, surely.  He’d come all over the King’s bed, without permission, and the King hadn’t—he hadn’t—this wasn’t right.  It had to be wrong.  Had to be.  Shame burned through him and settled like a hot stone in his stomach.

“You did good,” the King said into the top of Steve’s head.  He felt a light brush of lips in his hair.  “You were so good for me.  Beautiful.” The King’s voice shook, barely, though Steve could feel it against his skin, warming him somehow.  A few more soft strokes and murmured words, and then the King tugged the blanket spattered with Steve’s cum aside and tossed it to the ground.

“Kneel for me,” the King urged then, nudging Steve up and forward until he was kneeling on the bed again.  “There you go.  Good,” the King continued.  He was rubbing a hand up and down Steve’s back, placing light kisses along the line between Steve’s shoulders. 

The hazy lightness of the orgasm was leaving him, replaced by a hot tightness coiling in his belly and wrapping like bands around his chest.  He knew what the King wanted.  He tried to tell himself it was going to be fine, but everything had already been too much and he was still trying to grab onto anything about this that he could make sense of, but it was like trying to catch smoke.  Nothing made sense.  He didn’t make sense.  Everything about this should be wrong, but his body kept telling him how good it felt and that somehow made it worse. 

A firm pressure on the small of his back cut through the cacophony in Steve’s mind.  Everything went cold for a moment.  Like the way the water feels when you first break the surface, so cold, you forget how to move, Steve thought, then drew in a shuddering breath that burned his throat and lungs and followed the pressure forward, leaning down until his chest met the bed. 

Out of the corner of his eye, Steve saw the King reach over to a small pot on the bed that was warming over a low-burning flame and dip his hand into it.  Then, the King moved behind him again and lifted the metal strands up until they gathered at Steve’s waist.  His hands smoothed over the curve of Steve’s ass with soft strokes, before cupping the cheeks and spreading him apart.  Cool air hit his exposed flesh, making him shiver.  He felt a light touch to the rim of his hole and couldn’t help tensing.  He bit his lip and tried to force himself to relax to no avail. 

Warm drops of oil hit his hole and dribbled down.  He hissed, more in surprise than anything, then felt the King’s fingers gently tracing around the rim before one slowly slid inside.  Steve’s body jerked instinctively at the intrusion, though it didn’t hurt.  He was still loose from the preparation at Zola’s.  The King could just…get it over with, Steve thought, but he didn’t, just worked his finger in to the knuckle and kept it here, letting Steve get used to it.  He thrust slowly in deeper, then out again, pumping his hand at Steve’s hole. 

A buzzing sort of pressure was building behind Steve’s cock, not quite arousal, but a kind of needy want that made his stomach turn and his legs shake.  A second finger joined the first and the King thrust them in and out, harder now, tugging lightly on the rim of Steve’s hole as he worked them deep inside.  When he spread his fingers apart, Steve let out a choked gasp and the rhythm slowed, almost to a halt, before picking up speed again.  Finally, a third finger was added, and now, Steve could feel the burning stretch of it.  He wanted it to be a bad feeling.  To hurt, in that skin-crawling, sickening way that it had hurt with Zola’s man or when Sitwell examined him.  Instead, a steady pressure was growing, beyond the ache, making balls tighten and his cock jump in small, weak motions, while heat dug out a crater deep inside, filled him, but left him empty. He tensed, muscles clamping together and dug his hands into the coverlet as he let out a choked-off cry. 

Then, the fingers were gone, and Steve couldn’t help but cant his hips backwards, seeking more of something he didn’t want to name, a low, stuttering moan being torn out of him.  A moment later, he felt the rounded head of the King’s cock press against his hole, hard and big, bigger than whatever they had used at Zola’s, and it did hurt, then, as his abused hole was stretched and forced opened.  For a moment, it was almost too much, then the King grunted and gave a small thrust, and he was inside, cock buried deep.  Steve’s body wrenched, tightened up, and then he felt the King pull out, almost all the way, before thrusting in again, hard this time.  Steve gave a surprised cry, body rocking with the motion, then moaned and buried his forehead into the bed as a burst of pleasure lit deep inside him. 

Hands gripped his hips, holding him steady, and the King began to thrust in earnest, long, deep strokes punctuated by shallow, quick ruts of his hips that kept Steve on the edge of something, not able to find purchase, his whole body thrumming as the King slammed his cock into him again and again.  The only sounds in the room were the slaps of wet skin, the occasional grunt as the King pounded his cock into Steve and Steve’s own gasping moans that slowly gave way to pleading, nonsensical cries.  A wave of pleasure built inside him, holding him at the top.  Steve reached for his own weeping cock, only to feel the hands holding his hips give a sharp, hard squeeze. 

“You come on my cock, or not at all,” the King panted, then pulled almost all the way out and drove in again, finding that spot deep inside Steve that made his whole body spasm and quake with pleasure.  Steve closed his eyes, felt his body relax, go limp, the muscles lax, and the wave inside finally crested, rolling over inside itself and bursting against the shore.  His cock pulsed as he came, and he shook with the force of it, muscles clamping down around the King’s cock.  He felt the King’s thrusts falter then, and his hips jerked.  He pushed down on Steve’s back and hooked an arm under his waist, lifting and spreading him as he slammed into Steve a few more times.  Then, Steve felt liquid warmth fill him in quick spurts, and the King thrust lazily, in and out, until he had spent all of his seed.  He collapsed on top of Steve, sending them both to the bed, each panting hard and soaked in sweat. 

The King ground his forehead against the dip of Steve’s back, then placed a quick kiss there as he slid out of Steve and rolled over to lay next to Steve on the bed, still breathing hard.  He scrubbed his hands over his face and through his hair, then looked over at Steve.  His eyes were soft, crinkled at the corners, and there was a small smile pulling at his lips.  He reached up and ran the backs of his fingers down the side of Steve’s face.  Steve could feel it tremble lightly as it traced its path down his cheek. 

“You,” the King huffed, then grinned and rolled back over, slinging an arm across Steve’s shoulders and leaning down to place a nipping kiss on the jut of bone there, before flopping back next to Steve and lifting his gaze, all levity draining away from his face.  “You,” the King said again, voice soft and husky and filled with something that sounded a bit like surprise. 

The King’s eyes left Steve’s and turned to stare up at the curtain that canopied the bed.  Steve wasn’t sure how long they stayed like that.  He thought he might have dozed.  When he did look over again, the King was breathing evenly and deeply, hair slicked back with sweat-slicked curls, mouth parted in sleep, looking far younger than he had earlier.

Steve had no idea what he was supposed to do now.  He pushed himself up and swung his legs off the edge of the bed, then stood, gingerly at first.  He winced at the sudden stab of pain, though it faded to a dull ache as he stood there.  He was sticky with sweat and…well.  Other things.  He could feel the King’s seed leaking out of him and down his thighs.  He looked down again at the King, then slowly walked towards the doors. He was almost there, when he turned around and looked toward the antechamber, where he had met the King earlier.  Curiosity drove him to walk over to the table and pick up the drawing that the King had been working on.  It showed a trebuchet attached to a wall, with a long throwing arm and lightweight beam, next to a toothed wheel that seemed to be designed to serve as a winch to load the catapult.  He studied it, committing it to memory.  It might be the last useful thing he did.  This…this was his life now, he thought, looking over his shoulder towards the bedroom, where he could just see the outline of a figure on the bed.  Tomorrow, he would serve someone else.  And the day after that, someone else.  Until no one wanted him anymore, and then, he would be used for something else. 

His eyes stung, so he closed them.  Took a deep, bracing breath and put the parchment back down on the table.  As he turned to go, his foot caught on one of the miniature figures that had been a casualty of the King’s frustration.  He bent down and picked it up, putting it back in its place on the map.  Then moved the other pieces back where they belonged.  When he was done, he gave the table one last, admiring look, then turned and walked to the door, past the silent guards who he had forgotten were there, who opened the door and let him out into the hallway. 

Two of Zola’s eunuchs stood waiting.  Steve cast a quick look over his shoulder as one gave him a small shove down the hall.  He turned around.  Faced forward.  There was a long, thin window at the end of the hall, where it sank into a winding staircase.  If he looked, he could just see the bottom of the moon, hanging low in the sky, where the tops of trees seemed to reach up to catch it.  He kept his eyes on that until he had to duck into the low tunnel that burrowed its way back to Zola’s compound. 

He was taken to a small room.  Two pallets lined the floor.  Two buckets, one empty, one with water, stood in a corner.  A single lamp burned behind a screen in a cubby cut into the wall.  Zola was waiting for him.  Of course. 

“Did he fuck you?” Zola asked as soon as the guards pushed Steve inside the room. 

“Yes,” Steve replied flatly. 

“Turn around,” Zola ordered.  Steve looked down at him, then over at the second pallet, where the boy’s dark head was barely peeking out of the thin blanket.  He turned.  Zola undid the metal skirt and pushed a finger between Steve’s cheeks, drawing a line up and over his hole.  “Hmmm,” Zola said, holding up his hand and rubbing his fingers together.  “Good. If you didn’t please him, I’ll hear of it, I can assure you,” Zola warned, lips curling as Steve just stood there impassively.  “Lord Hammer will want you tomorrow.  He always wants them when the King is done.  He’ll be good for you.  Take you down a few rungs.  Likes to fuck their mouths.  Likes to make sure you swallow it all,” Zola told him, tipping his head to the side and watching Steve with a predatory smile that looked a lot like hope.  “Now, clean yourself up.  You’re a mess.”

Steve watched them leave until he heard the lock grinding in the door.  He walked over to the bucket with water and drew out the small rag, cleaning himself as best he could.  He sank down onto the pallet and leaned his head back against the stone wall. 

“Thank you,” a small voice said.  “For not…you know.”

“You’re welcome,” Steve said after a long moment.  He closed his eyes.  He was so tired.  So very, very tired.  But, if he closed his eyes, it would be tomorrow, and he wasn’t sure if he could face that just yet. 

“Were you—were you really with—with the King?” Cam asked in a hesitant, halting voice.

“Yes,” Steve replied around a sigh.  It still didn’t seem real.  Like something out of a strange dream, where everything was wrong and then something happened that seemed to have nothing to do with the rest of it, but was right in the middle of everything.

“Was it…was it alright?” Cam asked softly. 

“Yes,” Steve said.  “It was alright.”

“Good.  Good, because I’m…I’m to go to a party tomorrow.  At Lord Stane’s.  A fancy party, Master Zola said,” Cam told him.  “I’ve always wanted to see a fancy party.”

Steve felt his stomach double over and his throat tighten.  He closed his eyes and tapped his head against the stone wall.  He couldn’t save anyone.  That had never even been a possibility.  Maybe this was his penance, to keep on failing, until there was nothing left to lose. 

He dreamed they were lowering themselves down to the old moat, him and Bucky, feet dangling just above the murky water.  He laughed and splashed a toe in it, to show he wasn’t afraid.  When he looked over at Bucky, the other boy grinned, but the smile turned into a scream as the rope snapped and he fell, down into the water with a loud splash. He reached for Steve.  Steve lunged for his hand, missed, tried again, but Bucky was gone, and the water was still and quiet as Steve shouted his name, and then a hand burst through the surface.  Steve grabbed for it, held on.  Pulled.  But, he wasn’t strong enough.  Bucky was too heavy, pulling Steve down, while he clung to the rope, and then he was falling, falling and the water burned, it was so cold.  Cold and dark, and then there was nothing.