To keep from having to look at Zola, Tony read through the requisition list one more time. These quarterly meetings with his harem master were a necessary evil, or so Pepper kept reminding him. Zola and his suppliers liked their independence, and Tony was only too happy not to have to deal with them most of the time. Some oversight was necessary, though, to keep Zola from bankrupting the kingdom on massage oil and perfumes. The inventory lists seemed to be in order - nothing too extreme, but enough fabrics, jewelry, and other luxuries for general use. Most of the higher level concubines had patrons to supply any further embellishments. His recent expenditures on Steve were another matter, of course, but those came from his private accounts, closely managed by Miss Potts herself, and none of Zola's business.
The smaller man waited expectantly, wearing an expression of oily obsequience so familiar that Tony always half-expected his face to freeze that way. He found himself disproportionately annoyed at the half-bowed head and half-raised eyebrows. His eyes were skimming over the scribe's neat lettering, but his mind kept churning over Steve - over the night his concubine had tested him and then accused Zola of . . . something.
He shook the thought away. Steve just didn't understand how things were done here. He hadn't believed Tony's reassurances, and, yes, that had hurt, but he would adjust in time if Tony could just keep him safe and looked after. It wasn't the accusation that was making his skin crawl. He just had never liked Zola. Pent up childhood stuff, probably. Some part of him would always blame the harem master for luring his father away from his mother's bed, even though that was just as ridiculous as Steve's fears. It was just the way things were. It was the way things had always been, and Zola was just fulfilling his post as faithfully as his predecessors. Tony was just out of practice in dealing with him now that the harem master no longer invaded his quarters. That was one of the intangible benefits to having Steve.
His eyes caught at last on a line item towards the bottom of the scroll. "'Six eunuchs for the Flower Guard,'" he read aloud, "That would bring us to . . ." He consulted a separate log, "Forty-two altogether. Can the Guard get by with so few?"
"This replaces our losses, Your Highness," Zola simpered, "We have always gotten by in the past."
Tony set the log down and gave the harem master a hard look. "Well, things are different now, aren't they?"
He watched the moment of struggle as Zola tried to read his mind. "Of course, Highness!" he exclaimed after a beat, "We do, of course, value the safety of all the king's cherished possessions, and what you treasure the most, we will do our utmost to protect."
Tony gave a noncommittal grunt. "Buy fourteen. Bring it to an even fifty. Get the best and make sure word gets out that you did it. I don't want any spy or assassin thinking they can get to me by taking a hostage."
"Of course, Sire, if you will but allocate the funds . . ."
"Weren't you saying last week that some of my father's old favorites were looking to buy their way out? Let them. A smaller stable is easier to protect."
"If my king so commands. I worry, though, that perhaps you underestimate the important work carried out by my charges? I would not wish to put them under undue strain."
Tony sighed. "You can have half the funds. Enough for seven eunuchs - which is more than you asked for in any case. Find the rest yourself. Sell some concubines, sell some diamonds, I don't care, but get it done."
"At once, Your Highness."
That was done, then. It was a simple, understandable precaution. He'd never had a favored concubine before. There would be those looking to take advantage, perhaps violently if they thought they could get away with it. It was about Steve's safety.
It certainly wasn't about making Steve see that escape attempts were futile. It was a precaution, nothing more.
He read the next line - a request for six new slaves, male and female, aged thirteen to fifteen. He frowned. "Do we really need so many attendants?"
"You know how the senior concubines are, Your Highness. They do their best work when they're a little spoiled."
"But, six new slaves just to help with bathing and so forth? Didn't we buy about twelve of these two years ago?"
"Three years ago, Your Highness. Those young people are coming of age now, and most are eager to enter service themselves. For a concubine, after all, youth is a flower not to be wasted."
Tony barely managed to keep his face from twisting in distaste, but he nodded shortly before reading the last line item. "All those new recruits, and we still need three new concubines?"
Zola ticked them off on his fingers. "We lost Tiana to fever last month. Qasim was bought by his patron. Valeria has never quite recovered from childbirth and will have to be shifted to other duties. The young people, of course, will take time to train, and it would not do for your harem to . . . seem to shrink. It diminishes your stature in the eyes of our visitors, you understand."
"Right." He took up his pen and dipped it into the inkwell, ready to sign the damn thing and be done with it, but something stayed his hand. He hesitated, staring at that last line. Zola was waiting. He cleared his throat. "Where will you get them from?" he asked finally.
Zola's brow furrowed. "Sire?"
He gestured at the scroll, sending a few ink droplets flying. "The new Tiana. The new Valeria. The new Qasim. Where do we get them from?"
For a moment, Zola's expression seemed a little trapped, like a hunted animal. He smoothed that away so quickly Tony was almost sure he imagined it. "I wouldn't want to impose on Your Majesty's time with such . . . mundane details. I don't know all the specifics myself. Lord Sitwell has his brokers, and the quality of their product speaks for itself."
Tony kept his face absolutely still, the way he would during a royal appeal, when some subject pled with him for mercy or justice. He remembered what Rhodes had told him about that warehouse down by the docks - about what he'd found there and his speculation as to each item's purpose. He remembered Rhodey asking "What do you want us to do with him?"
He must not have controlled his expression as well as he'd thought, because Zola quickly backtracked. "Not that Lord Sitwell is infallible, of course. He can be taken in by . . . disreputable characters masquerading as legitimate businessmen. Even then, though, his judgment of a candidate's potential is extraordinary, wouldn't you say?"
He didn't respond. A bit of sweat beaded out on Zola's forehead. "If . . . if mistakes were made - and clearly they were - you are, of course, within your rights to seek amends from His Lordship . . ."
"Enough," Tony snapped at last, "I told you already, nobody's losing their heads over Brock Rumlow. I want your word on one thing, though."
"Your Majesty has only to ask it."
"No more virgins, okay? No 'untrained neophytes.' No more failed students, farmers' daughters, or exotic foreign soldiers. We have the attendants when they're old enough, and the pleasure houses are always happy to sell. That should be enough."
Tony could almost see the creaky wheels turning in Zola's pink, bald head. "The harem exists to suit your whim," he said carefully, "Consider, though: part of the quality that makes your concubines renowned is their variety. The recently enslaved have a certain allure to them. They have life experiences that those born and trained to this cannot hope to match. Did you not long complain that my selections for you were dull? And was it not for exactly that reason?"
"That's not the point."
Zola's face was very cautious. "Were . . . recent experiences not pleasing, Sire?"
And that was the crux of it, Tony realized with a pang. Could he really sit here and pretend he wasn't pleased? That Steve's obvious inexperience and naiveté hadn't made him come harder than he had in his life prior to that point? And could he convince himself, he wondered with a flash of guilt, that Steve's obvious fear hadn't added to the whole exhilarating cocktail? He thought of that night - of a blush spreading over golden skin just from Tony's eyes, of the way that stammering gave way to pleading and both sounded unfamiliar on the new slave's tongue, of that exquisite contrast between Steve subconsciously flinching from his touch at the start and unknowingly pressing into it not even an hour later. Would pleasure have looked half so beautiful on Steve if he'd had any idea that he could expect it?
He shook the thought away. He'd had Steve, and now he had him, safe and home and looked after, and they had their whole lives to explore the rest. He didn't want or need that experience with anyone else, nor did he owe it to any of the lords or ladies who used his harem. "Just see to it," he said flatly.
Zola really could smell weakness like an attack dog. Tony watched him sniff out the opportunity and gather his small scraps of courage. "Your Majesty . . . has the Raj'Inama not been . . . serving your needs?"
"What? Of course not, I mean, of course he has! Don't you listen to the gossip in the castle, Arnim? It's pretty juicy."
Zola was not distracted by the indelicate reference. Tony's defensiveness had been all the answer he needed. "A king's time and energies are too precious to waste on the undeserving. If you wished to move on, I would, of course, be happy to accommodate you."
"No," Tony snapped, "There's not going to be any 'moving on.' I also don't want 'a change of pace' or even 'something special on the side.' Those offers are getting old and boring, unlike the Raj'Inama."
Though he looked a little chastened, the eager light didn't quite leave Zola's eyes. "Perhaps you wish to . . . invest in lessons for him, then? I should think it in his interest and yours that he have all the tools he needs to serve you in his best capacity."
"I thought I'd made clear my opinions on other people touching him."
"And yet, you are clearly troubled at the thought of a man intended to bring you joy." Zola spread his hands, entreating now. "Will you not unburden yourself to me? I have dedicated my life to mentoring concubines in all stages of training. Do you not think I could shed some insight on whatever is causing you grief?"
Tony stared past him. The offer shouldn't have been so tempting. Zola was, without argument, a sycophantic snake, but it wasn't as though he could talk to anyone else about this. Obie would think he was being an idiot. Rhodey would quietly mock him for getting starry-eyed. Pepper would make sympathetic noises without ever meeting his gaze.
He started speaking without ever making the decision to. It just came out. "He is . . . discontent."
"No! God, no, nothing like that. I don't want you spreading rumors like that because it's not true. He does everything I ask and more. So much more."
"And yet . . . it never seems to be enough for him? You ply him with favors and gifts and none of it seems to have any effect? He does what you ask, but his . . . how do you say . . . his heart is not in it?"
Tony said nothing. His hands were flat on the tabletop, so he avoided the urge to curl them into fists. Some part of him wanted to scream at Zola for his presumption. Another part wanted to cry out yes, someone understands! Maybe he wasn't crazy. Maybe Steve wasn't crazy. Maybe this was some weird slave psychology thing that could be fixed and then everything would be as it should be.
But, reaching for that lifeline would mean trusting Zola, and despite all his assurances, Tony couldn't quite bring himself to do that. Especially when Steve had made it so clear that he didn't.
His long silence was apparently all the confirmation Zola needed. He was nodding, his face folded into an expression of empathy that seemed calculated. "Such behavior is not uncommon in untested concubines. That is one of the reasons I normally insist on supervising each one's training before they are sent to you. You must understand, Your Highness, that the man who is now the Raj'Inama was never intended to be a long-term companion for you. I hoped you would appreciate him, yes, and that he might give you some pleasure for a night, but I dared not hope that you would take an interest in him beyond that. His virginity was to be the harem's gift to you, and his formal training was to start afterwards. Training which, of course, never took place."
Tony had seen the effects of that training more times than he could count. In the years between Tib and Steve, he'd known nothing else. He'd never wanted to know the details before - had always considered them boring and extraneous, but . . . "What sort of training?" He could hear the slight tremble in his own voice, so he covered it with a smirk and let his tone slide towards the lewd. "Because, I've gotta tell you, Arnim, I've taught him quite a few tricks, but I fail to see what the proper use of nipple clamps or the sixty-four acts of kama have to do with anything. Besides the obvious, of course."
Zola didn't even blush. Harem masters were annoying that way. "Training is not only about the act of sexual service, although we do our best to ensure skill. It is also about mindset. Humility, to be specific. A concubine must come to understand that your pleasure reigns supreme and their only duty is to serve it. Your Raj'Inama knows this, of course, and he serves you as best he can, but there is a difference between knowing it and feeling it in one's bones. That is why I wish you would let me spend some time on him. He would thank you for it, in the end. Otherwise, I expect his 'discontent' will only grow."
It was such a tempting offer. Maybe it shouldn't have been - Tony still saw red at the thought of anyone but himself touching Steve, but . . . here was someone who understood, without being told, what the trouble was. Someone honor-bound to arrange everything for the king's pleasure, and the pleasure of anyone the king ordered him to look out for.
"I'm your slave. I'm supposed to . . . serve you. Please you. And if I don't . . ."
He shook the memory away. Disturbing as it was, there was something else digging at him, something he couldn't name or, at the moment, even identify. He ran Zola's words over in his head. "Raj'Inama was never intended to be a long-term companion for you . . ."
"Why did you send Steve to me?" he asked suddenly. His voice sounded harsh, even to his own ears. "You care so very much about the performance of your . . . charges. Why send him to me like that, untrained and with no idea what to expect? You must have . . ." He stopped himself just in time. You must have known how frightened he was. Had that been the point? The cruelty of it hung suddenly and sharply in Tony's mind. "Hurt me . . . Sell me . . . I don't know . . ."
Zola's face was suddenly twice as cautious. "I endeavored to please you, Sire, and I had nearly despaired of working out how. He was beautiful. A blind man could see his potential. And I . . . thought he might appeal to you."
"Yes, yes, because he looked like Tiberius. It didn't take a genius to figure that out. But, you've sent me about a hundred blond, well-muscled concubines over the years, all of them eager to jump my bones, as the commoners are saying, and you'll recall I sent all of them back untouched. What made you think this one would be any different?"
Zola was watching him shrewdly. "I thought you might want . . . a more authentic experience."
"With a former soldier who, for all you knew, had been raised to hate me and my whole kingdom? Try being a little more convincing in your lies, Zola."
"Your Majesty . . ." He paused, looked down at his lap, then leaned forward to catch Tony's eyes. "Sire. I live only to see to your desires. Whatever those might be."
Tony was silent. Sometimes the silence of a king could be more intimidating than any words. Zola was starting to sweat again, but he wasn't ready to give up. He thought himself so close to gaining the advantage.
"When you were young, Your Highness? I was outraged - the whole kingdom was outraged - at the treachery of Lord Stone. You were nothing but noble and restrained in how you responded to that insult, but when you never took another? I noticed. I thought perhaps . . . there was some unfinished business with Tiberius that was weighing you down. Perhaps that was why you could never take true pleasure in the companions I sent you. I have no power to bring Lord Stone to justice, but I thought . . . perhaps . . . if I sent you a close facsimile who might remind you of him, then you might take the opportunity to lay those ghosts to rest."
It felt like a block of ice had dropped from Tony's throat all the way to the pit of his stomach. "That's not what Zola meant, Tony . . ." For a moment, Tony could see it in all its terrible clarity, and it was even worse than what Steve had assumed. It wasn't that Zola meant to hurt Steve. No. He'd meant for Tony to hurt Steve. Beat him, maybe. Terrorize him. Something terrible and dark that no one would do to the established concubines with their wagging tongues. Something he could only do to a new slave, who could be disposed of in the morning. Zola thought he would have done that to his prize.
No, he corrected himself suddenly. Not to Steve, the Raj'Inama. Zola had no idea who he was then - even Tony hadn't known yet. He was just a slave. One who looked like Tiberius Stone. Who Zola thought Tony would want to hurt. For looking like Tib.
As quickly as the terrible vision had appeared, it dissipated like a fever dream. He could hear his father telling him not to make mountains out of molehills, saying god, Tony, for a smart boy, you can be a real idiot sometimes. He looked across the table at Zola, the harem master who was no better or worse than the countless harem masters who'd gone before him. It was his job to make everything seem like some grand drama - supposedly it was sexier that way. He'd seen a slave who looked like Tib. He'd thought that might catch Tony's interest and thus elevate his status. There was no reason to infer some deep sadism into a simple act of self-aggrandizement. It was nothing. It meant nothing.
The ink had dried on his quill. He scraped the excess off on the edge of the table, dipped it in the pot again, and signed the requisition form in a few hasty strokes. He shoved it at Zola, but when the man reached out to take it, he tightened his grip. "Buy what you need. Run your little world. But, leave the Raj'Inama alone. He is mine and you are not to see him, not to speak to him without my express order. Am I understood, Master Zola?"
The man deflated a little, a sigh of familiar disappointment. "Completely, Your Highness."
Tony let him go, let him carry his answers with him, and never asked the one question that had been burning at him. Zola didn't have an answer. Maybe Tony didn't deserve an answer. Maybe he already knew it but it was just too terrible to acknowledge.
Why can't I make him happy?