I woke to a man pouring water into my mouth. It was rather disconcerting, but only for a moment. The shock had me coughing, but once one gives a real cough, subsequent coughs can be faked and believed very easily. Coughing gave me a moment to think and get my bearings.
Darkened alleyway. Pain everywhere. Stone wall, stone paving. A man offering me cold water from a waterskin. Heat everywhere. Bright light ahead - daylight peeked through. Pain everywhere. I felt so weak. Thirsty. Tired - so, so tired, and pain ... everywhere.
We were between two houses, shops, most likely, given the noise I could hear from a nearby street. There were two roofs above us, overlapping slightly, bathing us in blessed, lovely shade. Cool, dark shade, what a beautiful creation. Monsters in the dark - what an absurd notion. Monsters surely couldn't come from such a delightful thing as shade.
None of this was familiar. The man next to me was just as unfamiliar. When I looked at him a second time, I flinched at the sheer size of him.
He was crouched beside me, down on one knee and holding out a waterskin. He had black hair in an unkempt, windswept mane. His eyes were dark, but that may have just been from the lack of light in the alley. He was thickly muscled, which wouldn't have been such an issue for me, normally. Those in my position knew that the amount of muscle wasn't the thing to be afraid of. The thing to be afraid of was how they used the muscle, and with what tools.
I would not normally be afraid of muscle, but this man was massive. Even if he had been lanky and weak, he would be taller and wider than any man I had ever met. I had never seen his like before. Panic rose in me like viscous bile.
I didn't know who he was, and I didn't know where I was. All I knew for certain was that I wasn't where I was supposed to be.
"Please," I said, trying meekness on. It worked sometimes.
The huge man held out his waterskin again, his expression unreadable to me, but his actions seemed kind. This was odd. I rarely ever got it right on the first try.
"Please, sir, I need help," I said. It was the wrong thing to say. His jaw clenched, but that was the entirety of his expression. Still, he pressed the skin of water into my hand.
Next to him was a bucket, and he dipped two hands into it, returning them full of water. This he dumped unceremoniously onto the back of my neck.
Usually, I would have been rather affronted at this, and might even have had to bite my tongue and school my expression, but not today. Today I let out the most embarrassing little mewl I had ever heard myself make. The water down my back was excruciatingly painful and yet incredibly pleasant. It almost felt like sin.
"Please, sir, I have to go back," I said. I looked out of the alley toward that bright light and crowded street.
There was no way to not see the way his shoulders clenched at my words, even looking away as I was. It had been the wrong thing to say. Had it been the right tone, but the wrong words? Or was it the right words and wrong tone? Perhaps it had been the wrong everything.
I was too hoarse to reliably change my tone. The only thing to do now was to try different words. I lowered my voice, and let it sound as weak as I felt. "Please help me," I begged. It came out in the same tone as it had before, hoarse and croaky, but still meek.
"I am helping you," he said. "Drink that. I'll not let you move until you do."
The waterskin in my hand did seem rather enticing. I struggled to lift it to my lips, but when I managed, I drank as much as I could. It helped give me some clarity.
This mammoth of a man didn't seem to be too dangerous yet. I was alone with him in a dark alley, struggling hard to keep hold on a waterskin, and he was giving me water. He was wrong about his helping me, however. This blessed reprieve could only serve to harm me further.
"I have to go back," I said, trying on the begging again.
"You will stay put or I will make you," he said. I'd never been threatened in so neutral a tone before. It didn't make me feel particularly afraid.
He wet his hand in the water, then brought his cold, moist hand to my cheek. I released that meek little mewl again and found myself leaning into his touch.
Oh no. That would not do. I could not be seen having some sort of ... of tryst. That could only end poorly. The tears had already risen by the time it occurred to me that tears were exactly what I might need to get through to this giant. I forced myself away from his hand, letting tears out.
"If I don't go back to Master Krashnish, I will be punished," I said. "I'll be whipped near to death and I'll deserve it if I don't go back."
This seemed to get through to him - or maybe it was the tears.
"You'll not be punished," he said at length. He put his blessedly cold hand back on my cheek.
"Will you speak for me, sir?" I begged.
He shook his head. "You'll not be returning," he said. "You don't recall our earlier conversation, I gather."
I did not know we had had any other conversations. "I don't know how I got here, sir," I confessed, and regretted it the moment it was out of my lips. The man had set his jaw again. Was it in anger? Was it just tension? Disbelief? I didn't know. It didn't seem to matter. He did not act upon his feelings, whatever they were.
"I brought you here after you collapsed. You needed water."
"I'm grateful for the water, sir," I assured him. "It won't do me any good. I'll be lashed for fleeing. Please help me," I begged.
"You are being helped. You will not be lashed for fleeing, you have not fled," he said. As he did, he removed his hand from my cheek. I'd hoped he was going to put it back into the water, as my face had heated it up, but he didn't. Instead he rummaged in a purse on his belt and retrieved a wad of documents, which he showed me.
"You can read, yes?" he asked, and I nodded, but it didn't give me much more explanation. He was showing me a bill of sale, selling something called a Kath to something called a Throren Drextrer, but that was probably a person ... these people all had such strange names ...
Wait. If this bill was relevant, then Throren Drextrer was probably this giant I was with. And what was a Kath? Surely that wasn't me?
Further down the document, I finally saw Master Krashnish's name - funny, it was spelled differently than I expected. But if Krashnish was spelled differently than I expected, then perhaps Kath meant ...
I swallowed thickly, wrenching my gaze from the papers.
Now that I knew his name, Throren Drextrer was still just as much a giant as he had been before.
I looked back at the papers. I was fucked. This man was going to ruin me.
I knew what I was. I was a somewhat pretty, little Andonian with decent manners and an unplundered arse. I was unscarred and soft spoken. I was meek and terrified of all these Lestran people. Their entire race was bigger and stronger than mine. I was educated, but no one buys an exotic slave for their education. I was doomed to belong to a master who wanted to fuck me in the arse.
The giant was too big. Surely, he didn't think ... Surely no one would think that I could ...
The waterskin was suddenly in my face. "Drink, you're panting," he - my new Master - said. Fuck. This couldn't be happening.
I accepted the waterskin and drank. "Please," I said, and I wasn't sure I meant to. It came out very soft.
Throren put his hand in the water again and brought it back to my face. Even though I saw it coming, I still flinched.
His jaw clenched again, and I couldn't help but cry. "You're all right," he told me.
I fought back the urge to scream. "I'm sorry," I said instead. "Was that ... did you buy me?" I asked. Best make sure - maybe I was wrong. Maybe I was scared for nothing.
Throren shrugged his massive shoulders. "I did," he said.
I tried to keep my face neutral. I didn't want anyone to see the amount of terror I felt at that moment, least of all the man beside me. I failed miserably.
When it came, my outburst lasted several minutes. I tried so hard to keep it under wraps, but it didn't work. When finally, I was able to breathe three times in a row without sobbing, Throren - the Master - put the waterskin back under my nose. "Drink. You lost water with your tears."
I nodded and drank again. I needed to figure this out - needed to find a way to minimise this - I was only making things worse with tears. "I'm sorry for all this, Master," I said, and there it was - or rather, there it wasn't. No clenched jaw. Using the right title was the way to go.
"You are sun-touched," the Master said. He had very little tone to anything he said. "I will not be so cruel as to expect perfection. You're parched, you're burnt, you're terrified, and you seem to be suffering memory loss."
I took a deep breath and nodded. "Thank you, Master."
"You seem to be trying. That is good."
The Master's face showed no pleasure. I couldn't glean anything from the praise, and it left me hollow and frightened.
"We did not speak for long before I bought you. You seemed a tad delirious. You called me Akartha several times. I am not angry with you for your behaviour," the Master said.
"Akartha? I... Master, I don't know what that is," I said.
"I doubt I have done the pronunciation justice. Someone from your homeland, perhaps."
The only person from my homeland with a name anything like that would have been me - if you changed the pronunciation of every single letter, and then you squinted.
I held my tongue.
"Kath," the Master said. "It is Kath, isn't it?"
I hadn't managed to master the art of correcting a Master's pronunciation without being smacked. If this man smacked me across the face the way Krashnish did, he'd surely snap my neck. "It's ... I'd prefer Kath," I said. All I was thinking at the time was to not tell this man that my name was ae'Quartthtra. He'd never wrap his lips around it.
I cursed myself a moment later. "I'm sorry, Master," I said hurriedly. "I'd like you to call me what pleases you, whatever that may be."
It was a line, but thus far it had been the single best line I'd been taught. Everyone liked it, and it wasn't any trouble for me to remember different names. No one had called me by me real name in months. No one had been able to pronounce it.
The line didn't work on the Master. "Kath," he said simply, and looked at the waterskin pointedly. I drank some more. He nodded. I still couldn't read his face.
We sat in an awkward silence for some minutes. I could not gather the courage to speak, and he seemed to have nothing to say.
"When you can stand, we will begin the walk home," he said eventually, and I nodded. I'd assumed as much. "Naturally, I bought an ill slave on the one day I did not ride to market," he continued, though he looked away as he said it, as though it were not for my ears.
I tested my strength, trying to move my legs from under me. They refused at first, but eventually they bent and moved.
"You will not be rushed," the Master said. Unreadable as he was, he seemed kind enough. Too big for me, certainly, but kind enough.
"Thank you, Master," I said.
"You will walk when you are ready, or, I will carry you."
So much for seeming kind.
The silence between us was ugly and palpable, thick like unleavened bread. I began to get even more lightheaded and slumped further against the wall.
Eventually, he seemed to get fed up with my lack of progress. "Perhaps the sooner we get you indoors, the better," he said, and stood.
Even crouched by me as he had been, I had known that he was the tallest man I had ever seen. It did not prepare me for the height I was faced with when he stood.
This man was going to break me.
He offered me his hand, but it was too high up, so he had to lean down to get it near me. I took it, and he hauled me up. My vision went black and I stumbled. He held me steady against his chest.
The height wasn't the problem, of course. It was the way these people were built. They were thick. His shoulders were twice wider than my own. His hand dwarfed mine. Everything on him was out of proportion to what I was used to, thick and wide rather than slender and lithe. If the trend of the rest of him followed suit underneath his trousers, I was fucked.
I'd expected to be fucked. Of course, I would be fucked. But this couldn't be called fucking. This could only end in injury.
As my vision returned, I saw that the Master was looking at my hand in his. I couldn't tell what he was feeling, but he stared rather intently, then cleared his throat. "Come along," he said, then he dropped my hand and began walking.
I was unsteady following him, and even if I wasn't, there would never have been any way for me to keep pace. The Master had thought of this, though, and he checked every few paces to wait for me. He never voiced any displeasure. I was mostly glad that he hadn't grabbed me by the collar to haul me along with him. Only pain and disappointment could have come from that.
The evil sun glared down on us mercilessly, and I swiftly overheated again. Then I grew parched.
It did not take long before he made good on his threat to carry me. Wordlessly, he took a knee before me and tipped me over his shoulder. It was something of a relief.
By the time he put me down again, we were in front of a large ornate gate with solid walls beside it, stretching out for ages in either direction. A man stationed at the gate opened it on sight of the Master.
"Milord. Have a pleasant stroll?"
The Master remained unreadable. The gatekeeper, however, was an open book as he looked at me. What a pleasant stroll I must have made for.
"Indeed," was all the Master said. "Is Terbrer here?"
"Boy!" the gatekeeper called, and from the wall clambered a young boy of perhaps five or six.
The Mastered had to stoop down from his considerable height to even talk to the child. "Run and tell Quentin I would like him to attend me in my rooms," he said.
The boy gave him a sloppy military salute and charged off down the road from the gate.
The Master turned to the gatekeeper, then gestured to me. "This is Kath. I doubt you'll see him at the gate often," he said.
"Staying with us long?" the gatekeeper asked.
The Master shrugged. "For the foreseeable future. Come along, Kath," he said, and left down the path.
"Have a good afternoon," the gatekeeper called, locking the gate behind us.
Afternoon? I dared look at the sun - my current nemesis. Last I knew it had only just risen. How long had I been cooking out there before the Master bought me?
The Master continued to walk down a rather pretty tree lined path. I followed him as quickly as I dared, while the sun did its worst to me through the tree's dappled shade. Eventually, we came upon the house he lived in. It stretched out on either side until it met the wall we'd just breached. I had no way of measuring how deep this place was. Nor did I know my Master's place in it.
The doors were open, and inside was a large empty hall. I assumed it was for receiving guests. No important guests seemed to be arriving, so the room was empty. The Master led me through the room and into a shaded courtyard beyond. I was gawked at by a redheaded serving girl, who looked at my master, then me, and then my master again in stunned disbelief. Then we went into a huge hall, where some people were eating what must have been their lunch. They too gaped at me. We walked directly through the hall and into a terrace where green ferns hung in baskets. A young man - barely a man - dressed in rich clothing was idling there. He turned as we approached and said hello to the Master, who said hello back. Then the young man spotted me and seemed to lose control of his faculties and his decorum. "What the fuck," he said eloquently as we passed.
The Master reached a door, put a key from his belt into the lock and we entered. Inside was a reasonably sized sitting room. There was a table with three chairs, a hearth, an armchair that looked well loved, and a settee that looked as if no one had ever sat on it. There were three doors, one to the left and two to the right by the hearth. "Sit," the Master commanded, and I didn't know where, so I knelt by the armchair. He placed the papers on the table, divested himself of his money-purse, and turned around.
He didn't look happy to see me by the chair. He didn't look unhappy either. He simply looked at the settee. "There," he said. He watched me as I rose from my knees and sat gingerly upon the edge of it.
He went to the armchair and collapsed into it. It strained under the weight of him. He stared into the empty hearth, then back at me. Did he want me to light it? Surely not with this heat.
"Lean back," he said. "Rest."
I did, and I was grateful. Within moments of my back hitting the seat, I gave up all hope of even keeping my head up, and let it fall backward on to the chair. I don't know if I fell asleep, or if time simply stopped mattering. As far as I knew, the Master stared into the empty hearth the entire time I sat there.
Eventually a man joined us. Quentin, I remembered. I was getting dizzy again. I liked Quentin immediately. After all this time with my new Master, I rejoiced in a man I could read.
"Throren," Quentin said with very clear, easily read apprehension. "I'm not sure this is a good fit."
Oh, thank fuck, I thought. Quentin was smart. Quentin was good. I wondered if I might be given away. If only Quentin could convince him ...
"I'm not evil," the Master said, and that was that and nothing more was said. As though he'd answered the question of how, how it could possibly ... fit.
Quentin had sat beside me on the settee. I suddenly remembered I ought to be kneeling. None of my limbs would move.
Quentin seemed to notice my dilemma. "Something happened, I assume," he said. He picked up my hand - my bright red, burnt hand and turned it over in his.
The Master made a noncommittal grunt. "To an extent," he offered. "I saw him and took a liking. I didn't purchase him because he was ... " he trailed off, staring at the hearth again.
Quentin had to press him for more. "He was?"
The Master shook his head. "Left in the middle of the market square, in an open topped cage. Sun on all sides. I know they didn't do it because they wanted to cook him. They did it because they wanted him on display and didn't think any more than that."
Quentin started inspecting my eyes, pulling gently at my eyelids and giving me a soft, pitying expression. "Neglect is its own special form of cruelty," he said.
The Master gave a most ungraceful derisive snort, and it was the most emotion I'd ever seen out of him. Disgust. Disgust at what? The comment? Me? Neglect itself? No answers were forthcoming.
Quentin patted the back of my hand. "You ought to give him to me," he said, and I felt like I might sing with relief.
The Master, however, was finally readable. Cold fury reached his eyes. The slight upturn of his top lip had anger in it. The intake of his breath was wrathful. What came out of his mouth, however, was this: "Surely it isn't so bad?"
Quentin seemed to have missed the Master's rage.
"It can only get worse," he said. "I'll take him in the infirmary. The pain in his skin will be bad enough, but he's been dehydrated too. That will take a toll. It already is, I suspect."
Oh. Just to take me to an infirmary - not to keep me. I imagined I'd be spending most of my days in the infirmary, once I started performing duties at night.
Master Throren was looking back at the empty hearth. "Is he in any danger?"
Quentin shrugged. "It isn't about the danger," he said.
"What is it about, then?"
Quentin sighed. "He's not fit," he said. "Not for anything. He'll need aloe treatment several times a day. He'll be suffering for the dehydration tomorrow. That will not be any fun for anyone. He needs time."
"How much time?"
Quentin shrugged again. "Four days. But I'm only guessing. He's so pale. He's so little. He hasn't said a word. I can only guess at his constitution. Andonians aren't particularly common in these parts. They are particularly uncommon under our midday sun. I don't know what you are hoping for, Lord Drextrer, but whatever it is, it's completely unattainable for quite a while."
Throren continued to stare into the hearth.
Quentin reached behind the settee to a sack. Out of it he hauled creams and ointments. I hadn't even noticed he'd brought anything with him. Quentin smiled kindly at me. "Let's get started while your Master broods himself to an early grave, shall we?" he said kindly.
I wanted to beg for his help. Instead I stayed completely silent and fought back tears while he liberally smeared a whole half tub of something or other into my arm.
Eventually, my new Master spoke. "I'll not be sending him from my bed," he said, as though that was all there was to say on that matter.
A hard lump manifested in my throat.
"He'll be of absolutely no use to you in it," Quentin said, still being so kind.
The Master said nothing for several long minutes, and I thought the matter had been decided.
"I cannot dissuade you, then?" Quentin asked.
"I'll not be cruel," the Master said. "But I'll not cast him from my bed."
"He's not been in your bed," Quentin said. "It's not the same thing, is it? If he's not been in it yet, you can hardly cast him from it."
The Master didn't reply.
Quentin suddenly stilled his work on my arm. "Throren," he said, and his voice was low. I suddenly didn't want to cross him. "He hasn't been in your bed yet, has he?" He sounded almost furious, but not furious yet. He was patiently waiting to become furious.
If I had it in me to speak words without sobbing, I'd have spoken words of adoration. He was being so good to me. Why couldn't it have been him?
"I'm not evil," the Master said.
Quentin was not yet satisfied on my behalf. "You agree then, that it would be evil?" he asked.
The Master looked at Quentin, and I hazarded a guess that he might be glaring. I guessed his patience was wearing thin, but guesswork was all I had.
"I had no intention of bedding him without letting you see him first," he said. "I agree that would be evil."
"He isn't going to get better. Not soon. Not quickly," Quentin said.
"Four days. Perhaps more. You have my word. I'll not lay a hand on him."
"And if he misbehaves?"
"I can be lenient for four days."
Quentin did not believe this. He didn't say it aloud. He didn't have to. I could read him.
"Bed rest for four days," he said stiffly. "I'll need more balm. I'll be back. When I am back, I expect to see him abed, I expect him to stay there, and I expect you to spend the next four days terribly unfulfilled."
The Master stared at the hearth. Quentin hauled the sack over his shoulder and left.
The Master pointed to one of the three doors leading out of the room. "The bedroom is through there."
I managed to wrench a nod from myself, but it was hard.
"I ... don't think I can stand," I said to no one in particular. I didn't think I had the stomach to speak to my new Master.
The Master rose and walked to me, leaning over me and looking at me properly for the first time since I'd sat down.
"You faded very fast," he said. I wasn't sure what he meant. He was getting blurrier by the moment.
The next thing I knew, I was on a bed and Quentin was back.
"I tried to help him walk. I think he blacked out again," the Master was saying.
"He blacked out in the market. I took him to a well in the shade, gave him a drink. Splashed water on him. I thought it was the sun."
"It was - it still is. It doesn't just go away. Get me some water."
Eventually Quentin was levering water into my mouth and the Master now stood by a window, staring out with precisely the same expression as he'd stared at the hearth - none whatsoever.
This man was beginning to terrify me on more accounts than just his size.
"You'll keep him supplied with water," Quentin said. "And you might as well help me with the balm."
Hearing this must have made me black out again. The idea of the Master's hands on me filled me with terror. I had seen only two moods on this man: fury, and nothing at all, and I did not want his hands on me while he was in either of those moods.
I dreamed of fire and the clinking of metal. I dreamed of my father telling me he was proud. I dreamed of mercenaries. I dreamed of chains and collars.