He had been shouting. Shouting his name, and his triumphs, and the curses he intended to lay upon every man who dared to tear him from his throne.
He had been shouting, until one of the auction house’s attendants had shoved a bit in his mouth, securing the metal with a modified horse bridle. A simple gag wasn’t enough; they insisted on adding to the humiliation. Nothing but muffled fury and drool made it past his wide-open lips now. Finally, passers-by could abuse him without fear of his fierce verbal retaliation.
The only rule was no permanent damage without payment and approval. There was lots of spitting. Lots of jeering. Plenty of hair-pulling and knocking about. One creative individual pissed in his mouth. Any other time and he would have been arrested for public indecency, but currently only cheers greeted the action. Anything goes, if it was to humiliate the fallen conqueror.
The bought-permission torments were worse. Some of his teeth were cracked. Some of his nails were torn away. A shoulder was dislocated, punched back into place, and dislocated again. Hot coals were held against his naked skin.
That last one almost made him laugh, considering how much of the treasury he had managed to torch before his palace was overtaken. What creative retaliation. If only he’d been left a little while longer, to burn in the flames of his defeat. If only the rebellion hadn’t pulled him from the furnace before his insides roasted.
If he were dead, he wouldn’t be chained hand and foot in a puddle of his own filth. He would have died a glorious death. A mad emperor’s death. As it was—
This was perhaps the largest crowd to ever be drawn to a slave auction. Maybe he could at least feel a final swell of pride for that. All eyes were on him.
That was all he’d ever wanted, right? All eyes on him.
It just had happened a little differently than in the fantasy.
It was the largest crowd in the slave quarter that Kouji had ever seen. That was saying something. He would have ignored it, as he usually did, but the mass of people was blocking his path. With a frustrated sigh, he made to push through, but his brother began tugging on his sleeve.
Kouichi pointed, past the crowd and at the small, raised platform that had everyone else’s attention. “Look.”
Following his brother’s gaze, Kouji failed to hide a grimace. There was a figure slumped on his knees, legs and arms chained back to the pole behind him. He was naked, gagged, and there was a line to go and molest him. Kouji knew awful things happened here, sure, but what on earth had this man done to deserve that?
Giving voice to that last part earned him a sharp look from a woman nearby. “Haven’t you been paying attention around town? That’s Ken Ichijouji.”
“Ex-emperor Ken Ichijouji?” A nod greeted him in response. “Jeez. And here I thought noble criminals received special treatment.”
The woman shook her head, leaning closer to Kouji’s ear. “That would be the case normally, but surely you know all he did while he was in power. And rumor has it he burned down the treasury on his way out the door.”
Quirking an eyebrow in response, he began recalling some news to that effect had arrived. The new lords in power had decided to parade him around before auctioning him off, apparently. Well, they needed to make up their inherited deficit somehow. What better way to start than by getting back some money on the guy who wrecked it all?
Still. His stomach turned a little as he watched the display.
“Let’s go,” he muttered to his brother, who seemed fascinated by the former conqueror’s ordeal.
“Can I play with one of his fingers?”
“Someone did that while you were talking. It looks fun.”
He knew Kouichi could be bloodthirsty and cruel sometimes, but this seemed a bit much even for him. “No. Now come on, Izumi expects us back quickly.” Ignoring his elder twin’s pout, Kouji shrugged through the crowd.
The smell of burning flesh reached his nostrils as they passed closer to the podium, and it was hard for Kouji not to retch. A hot coal had just been placed on the sensitive sole of the victim’s foot, but all Ken did was twitch and shudder and release a strained groan. His body might even fail before they had a chance for the auction, Kouji thought. That would probably be a mercy.
An hour later and all errands done, the brothers were making their way back the way they’d come. The crowd around the fallen despot had thinned; now only paying customers were allowed nearby. The auction was drawing close.
Kouji paused, taking a look at the man who had caused their feudal nation so much strife. Ken’s behavior had been disgusting, his actions horrifying. But did anyone deserve to be turned into the quivering pile the man was left as now?
Kouji pushed his way forward.
“I want to bid.”
He had stopped fighting back physically when they’d cut his hair. Someone had yanked his head back and sheared it away with a knife.
His long, silky and gorgeous status symbol. Gone. For the first time, he had been rendered speechless, no gag needed. The tears were silent as they fell.
That had been a week ago. Perhaps his captors had thought him broken enough to sell at that point.
He’d proven them wrong the second he was out in public, of course. That’s when the shouting and curses had started.
But it had been hours, he had been bridled, and he’d passed out from pain twice. Even if they removed the metal from his mouth, he no longer had the energy to speak. There was only one way left to show his contempt.
He glared. Glared with a fierce hatred. He would burn them with his eyes just as they dared to burn him with their coals.
He tried so hard to defy his circumstance. Each time a bidder raised, he glared. Several buyers backed down. As they should.
There was only a handful left in the game, now. He was tired. He was in pain. Neither of those things would be going away for the rest of his likely short life. When he tried to adjust the angle of his wrist and was met with a fierce blow across the face for his trouble, for just seconds, he let the fire fade. His eyes dimmed.
It was in those seconds that one of the bidders locked his gaze. Before he knew what was happening, before he could bring the glare back, the unknown man was stepping forward, declaring some obscene amount of money. The rest of the crowd hushed.
What was he thinking. Izumi was going to be so pissed. He’d just blown all his life’s earnings in one go, just to—what? Take a broken conqueror out behind their barn and slaughter him like an animal, put him out of his misery?
But there had been that look. That moment of utter brokenness. Perhaps nobody in the nation would agree with him, but Kouji thought that that was enough. Ken Ichijouji had suffered enough for his crimes.
So he bought him.
Suddenly there was a whirlwind of paperwork to sign. He was asked what he wanted on the collar. Kouji didn’t really think Ken needed one, as he’d been planning to just slit the defeated man’s throat and call it a day, but he couldn’t do that here. It would have to wait for home. So he got the simplest thing: name and crest, carved into the cheapest collar they’d let him get away with for the war criminal. Kouji would’ve just gone for one with a lock, but they insisted that Ken get the sort that was welded shut.
The man doing the job wasn’t careful. Kouji listened as it sizzled against Ken, watched the man’s skin on the back of his neck blister. Ugh. Ugly screams tore their way up the victim’s throat.
Finally it was done. Hours had gone by. Kouji was exhausted, Kouichi was fidgeting, Izumi was sure to be furious when they got back home. But it was done. Nothing more to be said.
“I recommend you keep that bit in his mouth. I’ll let ya keep the bridle for free.”
“Thanks,” Kouji said, resisting the urge to sigh. As soon as they were a few minutes out of town, he’d be tossing that thing. Ken’s mouth was all torn up and bloody.
Speaking of the devil incarnate, he was hobbled, arms behind him, leaving him unable to catch himself as he was shoved at his new master’s feet. It was clear he wouldn’t be walking unaided. Letting loose that sigh, Kouji had Kouichi go fetch their horses. He would wait outside with their new…property. Kouji glanced down.
Only to see the most seething hatred he’d ever witnessed in a man’s eyes before.
Taken aback by this shift, Kouji felt himself jerk away from Ken. He had unified the nation, however briefly. It wasn’t surprising his gaze could be this fierce. It was just so unexpected considering the last time they’d locked eyes.
He cleared his throat, keeping his eyes far from Ken’s searing gaze. It would be good to rid the world of him, Kouji thought.
Kouichi had brought the horses. They were off.